The inverted world, p.11
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       The Inverted World, p.11
 

          
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  Collings had tried to teach Helward to speak Spanish, but he had little ability with languages. He picked up a handful of phrases, but contributed very little to the often lengthy periods of negotiation.

  Terms had been agreed with the settlement they had just left. Twenty men could be raised to work on the city tracks, and another ten were promised from a smaller settlement some distance away. In addition, five women had either volunteered or been coerced—Helward was uncertain which, and he did not question Collings—to move into the city. He and Collings were now returning to the city to obtain the promised supplies, and prepare the various guilds for the new influx of temporary population. Collings had decided that all of the people should be medically examined, and this would place an additional burden on the medical administrators.

  Helward liked working to the north of the city. This would soon be his territory, for it was up here, beyond the optimum, that the Future guild did its work. He often saw future guildsmen riding north, away into the distant territory where one day the city would have to travel. Once or twice he had seen his father, and they had spoken briefly. Helward had hoped that with his experience as an apprentice, the unease which dogged their relationship would vanish, but his father was apparently as uncomfortable as ever in his company. Helward suspected that there was no deep and subtle reason for this, because Collings had once been talking about the Future guild, and had mentioned his father. “A difficult man to talk to,” Collings had said. “Pleasant when you get to know him, but he keeps to himself.”

  After half an hour Helward remounted the horse, and walked her back along their previous path. Some time later he came across Collings, who was resting in the shade of a large boulder. Helward joined him, and they shared some of the food. As a gesture of goodwill, the leader of the settlement had given them a large slab of fresh cheese, and they ate some of it, relishing the break from their more normal diet of processed, synthesized food.

  “If they eat this,” Helward said, “I can’t see that they would have much use for our slop.”

  “Don’t think they eat this all the time. This was the only one they had. It was probably stolen from somewhere else. I saw no cattle.”

  “So why did they give it to us?”

  “They need us.”

  Some time later they continued on their way towards the city. Both men walked, leading the horse. Helward was both looking forward to returning to the city, and regretting that this period of his apprenticeship had ended. Realizing that this was probably the last time he would have with Collings, he felt the stirrings of an old and long buried intention to talk to him about something that still caused him to fret from time to time, and of all the men he had met outside the city Collings was the only one with whom he could discuss it. Even so, he turned over the problem in his mind for some time before finally deciding to raise it.

  “You’re unnaturally quiet,” said Collings suddenly.

  “I know…sorry. I’m thinking about becoming a guildsman. I’m not sure I’m ready.”

  “Why?”

  “It’s not easy to say. It’s a vague doubt.”

  “Do you want to talk about it?”

  “Yes. That is…can I?”

  “I don’t see why not.”

  “Well…some of the guildsmen won’t,” said Helward. “I was very confused when I first came outside the city, and I learnt then not to ask too many questions.”

  “It depends what the questions are,” said Collings.

  Helward decided to abandon trying to justify himself.

  “It’s two things,” he said. “The optimum and the oath. I’m not sure about either of them.”

  “That’s not surprising. I’ve worked with dozens of apprentices over the miles, and they all worry about those.”

  “Can you tell me what I want to know?”

  Collings shook his head. “Not about the optimum. That’s for you to discover for yourself.”

  “But all I know about it is that it moves northwards. Is it an arbitrary thing?”

  “It’s not arbitrary…but I can’t talk about it. I promise you that you’ll find out what you want to know very soon. But what’s the problem with the oath?”

  Helward was silent for a moment.

  Then he said: “If you knew I’d broken it—if you knew at this moment—you’d kill me. Is that right?”

  “In theory, yes.”

  “And in practice?”

  “I’d worry about it for days, then probably talk to one of the other guildsmen and see what he advised. But you haven’t broken it, have you?”

  “I’m not sure.”

  “You’d better tell me about it.”

  “All right.”

  Helward started to talk about the questions Victoria had asked him at the very beginning, and tried to confine his account to vague generalities. As Collings stayed silent, Helward began to go into more and more detail. Soon he found himself recounting, almost word for word, everything he had told her.

  When he had finished, Collings said: “I don’t think you’ve anything to worry about.”

  Helward experienced a feeling of relief, but the nagging problem could not be dispelled as quickly as that.

  “Why not?”

  “No harm has come of your saying anything to your wife.”

  The city had come into view as they walked, and they could see the customary signs of activity around the tracks.

  “But it can’t be as simple as that,” said Helward. “The oath is very firm in the way it is worded, and the penalty is hardly a light one.”

  “True…but the guildsmen who are alive today inherited it. The oath was passed to us, and we pass it on. So will you in your turn. This isn’t to say the guilds agree with it, but no one has yet come up with an alternative.”

  “So the guilds would like to dispense with it if possible?” said Helward.

  Collings grinned at him. “That’s not what I said. The history of the city goes back a long way. The founder was a man named Francis Destaine, and it is generally believed that he introduced the oath. From what we can understand of the records of the time such a regimen of secrecy was probably desirable. But today…well, things are a little more lax.”

  “But the oath continues.”

  “Yes, and I think it still has a function. There are a large number of people in the city who may never know what goes on out here, and will never need to know. These are the people who are mainly concerned with the running of the city’s services. They come into contact with the people from outside the city—the transferred women, for example—and if they were to speak too freely, perhaps the true nature of the city would become common knowledge with the people outside. We already have trouble with the locals, the tooks as the militia calls them. You see, the city’s existence is a precarious one, and has to be guarded at all costs.”

  “Are we in danger?”

  “Not at the moment. But if there were any sabotage, the danger would be immediate and great. We’re unpopular as things stand…there’s no profit in allowing that unpopularity to be compounded with a local awareness of our vulnerability.”

  “So I can be more open with Victoria?”

  “Use your judgement. She’s Lerouex’s daughter, isn’t she? Sensible girl. So long as she keeps to herself whatever you tell her, I can’t see any harm. But don’t go talking to too many people.”

  “I won’t,” said Helward.

  “And don’t go talking about the optimum moving. It doesn’t.”

  Helward looked at him in surprise. “I was told it moved.”

  “You were misinformed. The optimum is stationary.”

  “Then why does the city never reach it?”

  “It does, from time to time,” said Collings. “But it can never stay there for long. The ground moves away southwards from it.”

  2

  The tracks extended about one mile to the north of the city. As Helward and Collings approached they saw one of the winch-cables being
hauled out towards the stay-emplacements. Within a day or two the city would move forward again.

  They led the horse over the tracks, and walked down towards the city. Here on the north side was the entrance to the dark tunnel that ran beneath the city, and which gave the only official access to the interior.

  Helward walked with Collings as far as the stables.

  “Goodbye, Helward.”

  Helward took the proffered hand, and they shook warmly.

  “You make that sound very final,” said Helward.

  Collings shrugged in an off-hand way. “I shan’t be seeing you for some time. Good luck, son.”

  “Where are you going?”

  “I’m not going anywhere. But you are. Just take care, and make of it what you can.”

  Before Helward could reply, the man had turned away and hurried into the stables. For a moment Helward was tempted to go after him, but an instinct told him that it would serve no purpose. Perhaps Collings had already told him more than he should.

  With mixed feelings, Helward continued down the tunnel to the elevator and waited for the car. When it arrived he went straight to the fourth level to look for Victoria. She was not in their room, so he went down to the synthetics plant to find her. She was now more than eighteen miles pregnant, but was planning to continue working for as long as possible.

  When she saw him she left her bench, and they returned to the room together. There were still two hours to spare before Helward was to see Future Clausewitz, and they passed the time with inconsequential conversation. Later, when the door was unlocked, they spent a few minutes together on the outside platform.

  At the appointed time Helward went up to the seventh level, and gained access to the guild block. He was now no stranger to this part of the city, but he visited it infrequently enough to feel still slightly in awe of the senior guildsmen and Navigators.

  Clausewitz was waiting in the Future guild room, and was alone. When Helward arrived he greeted him cordially, and offered him some wine.

  From the Futures’ room it was possible to see through a small window towards the north of the city. Ahead, Helward could see the rising ground he had been working in during the last few days.

  “You’ve settled in well, Apprentice Mann.”

  “Thank you, sir.”

  “Do you feel ready to become a Future?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Good…from the guild’s point of view there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. You’ve earned yourself some good reports.”

  “Except from the Militia,” Helward said.

  “You needn’t concern yourself with that. Military life doesn’t suit everyone.”

  Helward felt a small relief; his bad showing in the Militia had made him wonder if word of it had got back to his guild.

  “The purpose of this interview,” Clausewitz went on, “is to tell you what is to happen next. You still have a nominal three miles’ apprenticeship to serve with our guild, but as far as I am concerned that will be a mere technicality. Before that, though, you are to leave the city. It’s a part of your training. You will probably be away for some time.”

  “May I enquire for how long?” said Helward.

  “It’s difficult to say. Several miles, certainly. It might be as few as ten or fifteen, or it might be as long as a hundred miles of time.”

  “But Victoria—”

  “Yes, I understand she’s expecting a child. When is it due?”

  “In about nine miles,” said Helward.

  Clausewitz frowned. “I’m afraid you will have to be away at that time. There’s really no alternative.”

  “But couldn’t it be left until afterwards?”

  “I’m sorry, no. There’s something you have to do. You know by now that from time to time the city is obliged to barter for the use of women from the outside. We keep these women for as short a time as possible, but even so they are rarely here for less than thirty miles. It is part of the bargain we strike that they are given safe conduct back to their settlements…and there are now three women who wish to leave. It is the custom of the city to use the apprentices to conduct them back, particularly as we now see this as an important part of the training process.”

  Helward had been forced, by the very nature of his work, to become more sure of himself. “Sir, my wife is expecting her first baby. I must be with her.”

  “It’s out of the question.”

  “What if I refuse to go?”

  “You will be shown a copy of the oath you swore, and you will accept the punishment it prescribes.”

  Helward opened his mouth to reply, but hesitated. This was evidently not the time to debate the validity of the oath. Future Clausewitz was clearly restraining himself, for on Helward’s resistance to the instruction his face had turned a deep pink, and he had sat down, resting his hands palm down on the table-top. Instead of saying what was on his mind, Helward said: “Sir, can I appeal to your reason?”

  “You can appeal, but I cannot be reasonable. You swore in your oath to place the security of the city above all other matters. Your guild training is a matter of city security, and that’s the end of it.”

  “But surely it could be delayed? As soon as the child is born, I could leave.”

  “No.” Clausewitz turned round, and pulled forward a large sheet of paper, covered in part with a map, and in part with several lists of figures. “These women must be returned to their settlements. In the nine miles or so of time it will take for your wife to deliver her baby, the settlements will be dangerously distant. They are already more than forty miles to the south of us. The plain fact is that you are the next apprentice on this schedule, and it is you who must go.”

  “Is that your last word, sir?”

  “Yes.”

  Helward put down his untouched glass of wine, and walked towards the door.

  “Helward, wait.”

  He paused at the door. “If I am to leave, I would like to see my wife.”

  “You have a few more days yet. You leave in half a mile’s time.”

  Five days. It was almost no time.

  “Well?” said Helward, no longer feeling the need to display customary courtesies.

  “Sit down, please.” Reluctantly, Helward complied. “Don’t think I’m inhuman, but ironically this expedition will reveal to you why some of the city’s customs might seem to be inhuman. It is our way, and it is forced on us. I understand your concern for…Victoria, but you must go down past. There is no better way for you to understand the situation of the city. What lies there to the south of us is the reason for the oath, for the apparent barbarisms of our ways. You are an educated man, Helward…do you know of any civilized culture in history which has bartered for women for the simple, uncomplicated reason of wanting one gestation from them? And then, when that gestation is completed, to return them?”

  “No, sir.” Helward paused. “Except—”

  “Except primitive tribes of savages who raped and pillaged. Well, maybe we’re a little better than that, but the principle’s no less savage. Our barter is one-sided, for all that the contrary may seem to be. We propose the bargain, call our own terms, pay the price, and move on our way. What I am telling you must be done; that you abandon your wife at a time when she needs you most is one small inhumanity that stems from a way of life that is itself inhuman.”

  Helward said: “Neither one excuses the other.”

  “No…I’ll grant you that. But you are bound by your oath. That oath stems from the causes of the major inhumanities, and when you make your personal sacrifice you will understand better.”

  “Sir, the city should change its ways.”

  “But you will see that’s impossible.”

  “By travelling down past?”

  “Much will become clear. Not all.” Clausewitz stood up. “Helward, you’ve been a good apprentice so far. I can see that in the miles to come you will continue to work hard and well for the city. You have a good and beautiful wife,
a lot to live for. You aren’t under threat of death, I promise you that. The penalty of the oath has never been invoked as far as I know, but I ask that this task that the city calls upon you to do is done, and done now. I have done it in my time, so has your father…and so have all other guildsmen. Even now there are seven of your colleagues—all apprentices—down past. They have had to face similar personal hardships, and not all have faced them willingly.”

  Helward shook hands with Clausewitz, and went in search of Victoria.

  3

  Five days later, Helward was ready to leave. That he would go had never been in serious doubt, but it had not been easy to explain to Victoria. Although at first she had been horrified by the news, her attitude had changed abruptly.

  “You have to go, of course. Don’t use me as an excuse.”

  “But what about the child?”

  “I’ll be all right,” she said. “What could you do if you were here? Stand around and make everyone nervous? The doctors will look after me. This isn’t the first pregnancy they’ve had to deal with.”

  “But…don’t you want me to be there with you?” he said.

  She had reached out and taken his hand in hers.

  “Of course,” she said. “But remember what you said. The oath isn’t as rigid as you thought. I know you’re going, and when you get back there’ll be no mystery any more. I’ve got plenty to do here, and if what Barter Collings told you about the oath was true, you’ll be able to talk to me about what you see.”

  Helward had not been sure what she meant by this. For some time he had been in the habit of confiding in her much of what he saw and did outside the city, and Victoria listened with great interest. He no longer saw the harm in talking to her, though it worried him that she should continue to be so interested, particularly when so much of what he said was confined to what he considered to be routine details.

 
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