Nerissa gently disassembled Steamy, as he had shown her to do many times for routine maintenance. The plumbing that kept his boiler supplied with water from the tank on his back was clogged with encrusted salt–as Steamy had always said, “Mistress, I must run on sweetwater only.”

The long days and nights on the outrigger, and Nerissa’s own all-consuming thirst had denied him anything but salt water, and she had seen the fruits of her selfishness in his erratic behavior and eventual shutting down. Had Steamy not also taught her to look for signs of a nearby island in the flights of gulls and the schooling of fish just below wavecrest, she never would have found the shoals.

Water roared and broke over the shallows behind Nerissa, which had nearly claimed the outrigger. It was now tied up on the calm end of a small island set amid the labyrinth of sandbars and coral. Someone had been there, long ago: they had dredged up coral and sand from the lagoon to build what must once have been an islet as small as the others into a large rectangle nearly a quarter of the size of the old atoll she and Steamy had once shared.

The buildings were crumbling and full of coconut crabs, but there was also a cistern filled with fresh water, protected from evaporation and designed to funnel rainwater.

Without the bucking and rolling of the Redflower as its outriggers cut into the waves, Nerissa could finally repair Steamy. She could finally rest easy, if only for a moment.

For there were still storm clouds on the horizon, and the island bore none of the red flowers that Steamy had once brought back.

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“Go forth then, and seek ye the Oracle,” said the Automaton, belching smoke and flame. “For only in what remains of the natural world may ye find an answer that be not of cogs and wheels, soot and steam.”

“Where might I find this Oracle?” asked the Supplicant. “For I know only of the great city and its environs, and naught of the natural world but what I have seen in manicured parks and picture books.”

“Go thee many leagues hence in the direction of the setting sun,” replied the Automaton. “Cut ye through the City of Foundries, the Great Crater where ores be strip-mined, and the Desperate Warrens where rats and man live in equal desperation and squalor. Climb ye the Great Wall which shuts off the world of man and his creations from aught which remains of the world of the Deist and his works.”

“And then?” pressed the Supplicant. “And then?”

“Find ye a golden bough which keepeth its hue in summer as in winter,” came the answer in hissing and whistling, clanging and rattling. “Atop that bough wilt thou find an owl of purest white hue, being of two heads. That is the form which the Oracle doth choose to appear to those who would seek it.”

“And then?” cried the Supplicant, almost mad with anticipation. “And then?”

“Ask thine question of it, bearing first the offering of a small creature as repast and a token of thine respect. But be warned: for one head of the Oracle doth always speak the prophetic truth, whilst the other doth always speak its opposite and seek to mislead and waylay, to confuse and corrupt.”

“How shall I know which is which?”

“That,” said the Automaton, “is the final test. They who be worthy of the Orcale’s gift will puzzle out the truth; they who be unworthy will be led astray. I can speak no more to thee, for this be aught that I know.”

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Nerissa would often ask Steamy if there was anything beyond the distant islets and the reef.

“Everything you want to know is in your books, my lady,” her teacher and servant would always reply, in his reedy voice that issued from pressure-fed bellows. “I cannot speak to the existence or nonexistence of that which is not in my program.”

The books, and Steamy’s daily lessons, did seem to indicate a wider world beyond the atoll. Nerissa has never seen many of the objects and creatures that stood for each letter in her worn alphabet book, and the books and novels in the tower library were ablaze with distant and exotic lands. But Steamy would not–could not–confirm which tales were true and which were false.

“My program allows me to administer the lesson and organize the library, my lady. I cannot speak to the truth or untruth of that which is not in my program.”

Certainly there was no reason to doubt the old automaton was sincere; he performed his daily tasks with aplomb. There were kelp greens to be harvested, traps and baits for fish and crustaceans to be emptied and reset, and of course meals to be prepared. The strong metal piles sunk deep into the rock at the center of the atoll to support the tower also needed regular maintenance; they were a bulwark against the storms and waves that sometimes lashed against the atoll.

Still, on those occasions when the barometers were low and Steamy allowed Nerissa to accompany him to the outlying islets on the outrigger, she would look out to the horizon, through the palms and across the barrier reefs, and wonder at what lay beyond. Perhaps her parents, who had vanished in the other outrigger many seasons ago, leaving Steamy and the books as her only companions.

And then something happened which confirmed her beliefs.

Steamy had gone beyond the reefs in the outrigger, through a passage only he knew, on his annual trip to the islet of Motanu (visible from the farthest islet) for rocks and birds to capture for egg-laying. He returned bearing an unusual crimson object that be wordlessly presented to Nerissa.

She’d never seen one before, but her alphabet book had it on page 6: F for Flower.

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