The inverted world, p.14
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       The Inverted World, p.14
 

          
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  He remembered that when the city had been crossing the bridge the rail-way itself had been at least sixty yards long. Now it seemed that at the point the bridge had been built the chasm was only about ten yards wide.

  Helward stood and stared at the opposite edge for a long time, not understanding how this apparent contradiction could occur. Then an idea came to him.

  The bridge had been built to quite exact engineering specifications; he had worked for many days on the building of the suspension towers, and he knew that the two towers on each side of the chasm had been built an exact distance apart to allow the city to pass between them.

  That distance was about one hundred and thirty feet, or forty paces.

  He went to the place where one of the northern towers had been built, and walked over towards its twin. He counted fifty-eight paces.

  He went back, trying again: this time it was sixty paces.

  He tried again, taking larger steps: fifty-five paces.

  Standing on the edge of the chasm he stared down at the stream below. He could remember with great clarity the depth of the creek when the bridge was being built. Standing here, the bottom of the chasm had seemed to be a terrifying depth below; now it was an easy climb down to where they had camped.

  Another thought struck him and he walked northwards to where the ramp had brought the city down into contact with the soil again. The traces of the four tracks still showed clearly, from this point running parallel northwards.

  If the two towers were now apparently further apart, what of the tracks themselves?

  From long hours working with Malchuskin, Helward knew intimately every detail of the tracks and their sleepers. The gauge of the tracks was three and a half feet, resting on sleepers five feet long. Looking now at the scars left in the ground by the sleepers, he saw that they were much bigger than this. He made a rough measurement, and estimated that they were now at least seven feet long, and shallower than they ought to be. But he knew that could not be so: the city used standard length sleepers, and the pits dug for them were always roughly the same size.

  To make sure he checked several more, and found they were all apparently two feet longer than they should be.

  And too close together. The sleepers were laid by the track-crews at four feet intervals…not about eighteen inches apart, as these were.

  Helward spent a few more minutes making similar measurements, then scrambled down the chasm, waded through the stream (which now seemed to him to be narrower and shallower than it had been before), and climbed up to the southern edge.

  Here too the measurements had made of the remains of the city’s passage were in stark conflict with what he knew should be so.

  Puzzled, and more than a little worried, he returned to the camp.

  The girls were all looking healthier, but the baby had been sick yet again. The girls told him that they had been eating the apples Caterina had found. He cut one in half, and inspected it closely. He could see no difference between it and any other apple he had ever eaten. Once again, he was tempted to eat it, but instead he passed it to Lucia.

  An idea had suddenly occurred to him.

  Clausewitz had warned him of eating local foods; presumably this was because he was of the city. Clausewitz had said it was all right to eat local foods when the city was near optimum, but here, some miles to the south, it was not so. If he ate the city food, he would not be ill.

  But the girls…they were not of the city. Perhaps it was his food which was making them ill. They could eat city food when they were near the optimum, but not now.

  It made a kind of sense, but for one thing: the baby. With the exception of the few tiny mouthfuls of apple, it had had nothing but its mother’s milk. Surely that could not harm it?

  He went with Rosario to see the baby. It lay in its cot, its face red and tear-stained. It was not crying now, but it fretted weakly. Helward felt sorry for the tiny creature, and wondered what he could do to help.

  Outside the tent, Lucia and Caterina were in good spirits. They spoke to Helward as he emerged, but he walked on past them and went to sit beside the stream. He was still thinking about his new idea.

  The only food had been its mother’s milk…Suppose the mother was different now, because they were away from the optimum? She was not of the city, but the baby was. Could that make a difference? It did not make much sense—for surely the baby was of the mother’s body?—but it was a possibility.

  He went back to the camp and made up some synthetic food and dried milk, being careful to use only water he had brought from the city. He gave it to Rosario, and told her to try feeding the baby with it.

  She resisted the idea at first, but then relented. The baby took the food, and two hours later it was sleeping peacefully once more.

  The day passed slowly. Down in the creek the air was still and warm, and Helward’s feeling of frustration returned. He saw now that if his supposition was correct he could no longer offer the girls any of the food. But with thirty or more miles to walk, they couldn’t survive on apples alone.

  Later, he told them what was on his mind, and suggested that for the moment they should eat very small amounts of his food, and supplement this with whatever they could find locally. They seemed puzzled, but agreed to this.

  The sweltering afternoon continued…and Helward’s restlessness was transmitted to the girls. They became light-hearted and frisky, and teased him about his bulky uniform. Caterina said she was going for another swim, and Lucia said she would go too. They stripped off their clothes in front of him, and then turned on him playfully and made him undress. They splashed about naked in the water for a long time, joined later by Rosario whose attitude towards him no longer seemed to be one of suspicion.

  For the rest of the day they lay on the ground beside the tent, sunbathing.

  That night, Lucia took Helward’s hand just as he was about to go inside the tent, and led him away from the camp-site. She made love to him passionately, holding him tight against her as if he were the only force of reality in her world.

  In the morning, Helward sensed a growing jealousy between Lucia and Caterina, and so he broke camp as early as possible.

  He led them across the stream and up to the higher land to the south. Following the left outer track they continued their journey. The surrounding countryside was now familiar to Helward, as this was the region through which the city had been passing when he first worked outside. Up ahead, some two miles to the south, he could see the ridge of high ground that the city had had to climb during the first winching he had witnessed.

  They stopped for a rest half-way through the morning, and then Helward remembered that only two miles to the west of where they were was a small local settlement. It occurred to him that if food could be obtained there, the problem of what the girls could eat would be solved. He suggested this to them.

  The problem arose of who was to go. He felt he should go himself because of his responsibility, but would need one of the girls because she could speak the language. He did not wish to leave just one of the girls alone with the baby, and he felt that if he went with either Caterina or Lucia, the one left behind would show more obviously what he had guessed was their shared jealousy over him. In the end, he suggested that Rosario should go with him, and by the reception with which this was greeted Helward felt it was the right choice.

  They set off in the approximate direction Helward remembered the village to be, and found it without difficulty. After a long conversation between Rosario and three of the men in the village, they were given some dried meat and some green, raw vegetables. Everything went remarkably smoothly—Helward wondered what kind of persuasions she had used—and soon they were returning to the others.

  Walking along a few yards behind Rosario, Helward noticed something about the girl he had not seen before.

  She was built rather more heavily than the other two girls, and her arms and face were round and well-fleshed. The girl did have a slight tendency t
o plumpness, but it suddenly seemed to Helward that this was much more noticeable than before. With casual interest at first, and greater attention later, he saw that the fabric of her shirt was stretched tightly across her back. But her clothes had not been as tight as that before…they had been given to her in the city, and had fitted her well. Then Helward noticed the trousers she was wearing: they were tight across the seat, but the legs scuffed against the ground as she walked. True, she was without shoes, but even so he did not remember them being as long as this before.

  He caught up with her, and walked at her side.

  The shirt was tight across her chest, compressing her breasts…and the sleeves were too long. Also, the girl seemed to be far shorter than he remembered her from even the day before…

  When they joined the others, Helward noticed that their clothes too were now fitting them badly. Caterina had her shirt knotted across her stomach as before, but Lucia’s was buttoned and the tightness of the fit caused the fabric to part between the buttons.

  He tried to put the phenomenon out of his mind, but as they continued southwards it seemed to become more and more obvious…and with comic results. Bending down to attend to the baby, Rosario split the seat of her trousers. One of Lucia’s buttons popped off as she raised the canteen of water to her lips, and Caterina tore the fabric of her shirt down both seams below her armpits.

  A mile or so further down the track, and Lucia lost two more buttons. Her shirt was now open down most of its front, and she knotted it as Caterina had done. All three girls had turned up the hems of their trousers, and it was clear they were uncomfortable.

  Helward called a halt in the lee of the ridge, and they set up camp. Once they had eaten, the girls took off their tattered clothes and went into the tent. They teased Helward about his own clothes: were they not going to be torn up too? He sat outside the tent on his own, not yet sleepy and not wishing to sit inside the tent with the girls.

  The baby started to cry, and Rosario came out of the tent to get it some food. Helward spoke to her, but she did not reply. He watched her as she added water to the dried milk, looked at her naked body in a wholly unsexual way. He had seen her naked only the day before, and he was certain she had not looked like this. She had been almost as tall as he was, yet now she seemed to be more squat, more plump.

  “Rosario, is Caterina still awake?”

  She nodded wordlessly, and went back into the tent. A few moments later Caterina came out, and Helward stood up.

  They faced each other in the light from the camp-fire. Caterina said nothing, and Helward did not know what to say. She too had changed…A moment later Lucia joined them, and she stood at Caterina’s side.

  Now he was certain. Some time during the day the girls’ physical appearance had changed.

  He looked at them both. Yesterday, naked beside the stream, their bodies had been long and lithe, their breasts round and full.

  Now their arms and legs were shorter, and more thickly built. Their shoulders and hips were broader, their breasts less round and more widely spaced. Their faces were rounder, their necks were shorter.

  They came across to him, and stood before him. Lucia took the clasp of his trousers in her hands. Her lips were moist. From the entrance to the tent, Rosario watched.

  7

  In the morning Helward saw that the girls had changed even further during the course of the night. He estimated now that none of them stood more than five feet high, they talked more quickly than before, and the pitch of their voices was higher.

  None of them could get into the clothes. Lucia tried, but could not get her legs into the trousers, and split the sleeves of her shirt. When they left the camp, the girls’ clothes were left too, and they continued on their way naked.

  Helward could not take his eyes off them. Every hour that passed seemed to reveal a more obvious change in them. Their legs were now so short that they could only take small steps, and he was forced to dawdle so that he would not leave them behind. In addition, he noticed that as they walked their posture was becoming more and more at an angle, so that they appeared to be leaning backwards.

  They too were watching him, and when they stopped for water there was an uncanny silence as the strange group passed the canteen from one to the other.

  Around them there were outward signs of an inexplicable change in the scenery. The remains of the left outer track, which they still followed, were now indistinct. The last clear impression Helward had seen of one of the sleeper-pits had been more than forty feet in length, and less than an inch in depth. The next set of tracks, the left inner, could not be seen; gradually the strip between the two had widened until it was over to the east by half a mile or more.

  The incidence of stay-emplacements had increased. Already that morning they had passed twelve, and by Helward’s calculations there were only nine more to go.

  But how would he recognize the girls’ settlement? The natural scenery of the area was flat and uniform. Where they were resting was like the hardened residue of a lava flow: there was no shade or shelter to be seen. He looked more closely at the ground. If he moved his fingers through it firmly he could still make shallow indentations in the soil, but although it was loose and sandy soil it felt thick and viscous to the touch.

  The girls were now no more than three feet tall, and their bodies had distorted even further. Their feet were flat and wide, their legs broad and short, their torsos round and compressed. In this perception of them they became grotesquely ugly, and he found that in spite of his fascination with the physical changes coming over them the sound of their twittering voices was irritating him.

  Only the baby had not changed. It was still, as far as Helward could see, much as it had always been. But in relation to its mother it was now disproportionately large, and the squat figure that was Rosario was regarding it with a kind of unspoken horror.

  The baby was of the city.

  Just as Helward himself had been born of a woman from outside, so was Rosario’s baby a child of the city. Whatever transformation was coming over the three girls and the countryside from which they came, neither he nor the baby were affected by it.

  Helward had no conception of what he should do, nor what he should make of what he saw.

  He felt a growing fright, for this was beyond any comprehension he had ever had of the natural order of things. The evidence was manifest; the rationale was without terms of reference.

  He looked towards the south, and saw that not too far away was a line of hills. From their shape and overall height he assumed they must be the foothills of some larger range…but then he noticed with a surge of alarm that the tops of the hills were white with snow. The sun was as hot as ever, and the air was warm; logic demanded that any snow that could exist in this climate must be on the tops of very high mountains. And yet they were near enough—no more than a mile or two, he thought—for him to judge that at most they were only above five hundred feet in elevation.

  He stood up, and suddenly fell.

  As he hit the ground he found he was rolling, as if on a steep slope, towards the south. He managed to stop himself and stood up unsteadily, bracing himself against a force that was pulling him towards the south. It was not a new force; he had been feeling its pressure all morning, but the fall had taken him by surprise and the force seemed now far stronger than before. Why had it not affected him until this moment? He thought back. That morning, with the other distractions, he realized he had indeed been aware of it, and he’d felt in the back of his mind that they’d been walking downhill. But that was clearly nonsensical: the land was level as far as the eye could see. He stood by the group of girls, sampling the sensation.

  It was not like the pressure of air, nor even like the pull of gravity on a slope. It was somewhere between the two: on level ground, without noticeable air movements, he felt as though he were being pushed or dragged towards the south.

  He took a few steps towards the north, and realized he was bracing his le
gs as if ascending a hill; he turned towards the south, and in conflict with the evidence of his eyes he felt as though he were on a steep slope.

  The girls were watching him curiously, and he went back to them.

  He saw that in those last few minutes their bodies had distorted still further.

  8

  Shortly before they moved on, Rosario tried to speak to him. He had difficulty understanding her. Her accent was strong in any case, and now her voice was pitched high and she spoke too quickly.

  After many attempts, he got the gist of what she was saying.

  She and the other girls were afraid to return to their village. They were of the city now, and would be rejected by their own kind.

  Helward said they must go on, as had been their choice, but Rosario said they would not move. She was married to a man in her village, and although at first she had wanted to return to him, she thought now he would kill her. Lucia too was married, and she shared the fear. The people of the villages hated the city, and for their involvement with it the girls would be punished.

  Helward gave up trying to answer her. He was having as much difficulty making her understand as he was in comprehending her. He thought she had left it too late for this; after all they had entered the city willingly in the first place as part of the barter. He tried to say this, but she could not understand.

  Even while they had been talking the process of change had continued. She was now a little more than twelve inches high, and her body—as the other girls’—was nearly five feet broad. It was impossible to recognize them as having once been human, even though he knew this to be so.

  He said: “Wait here!”

  He stood up, and fell again, rolling across the ground. The force on his body was now much greater, and he stopped himself with great difficulty. He crawled back against the force to his pack, and pulled it on. He found the rope, and slung it over his shoulder.

  Bracing himself against the pressure, he walked southwards. It was no longer possible to make out any natural features other than the line of rising ground ahead. The surface on which he walked was now an indistinct blur, and although he stopped to examine it from time to time he could distinguish nothing on it that might once have been grass, or rocks, or soil.

 
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