The inverted world, p.15
The Inverted World,
The natural features of the world were distorting: they were spreading laterally to east and west, diminishing in height and depth.
A boulder here might be a strip of dark gray, one hundredth of an inch wide and two hundred yards long. The low, snow-capped ridge ahead might be mountains; the long strip of green a tree.
That narrow strip of off-white, a naked woman.
He reached the higher ground more quickly than he had anticipated. The pull towards the south was intensifying, and when Helward was less than fifty yards from the nearest hill he stumbled…and was rolling with an ever-increasing speed towards it.
The northern face was almost vertical, like the leeward side of a wind-blown dune, and he collided with it hard. Almost at once the southwards pressure was pulling him up the face, defying the pull of gravity. In desperation, for he knew if he reached the top the pressure on him could never be resisted, he scrambled for a hold somewhere on the rock-hard face. It came in the form of an outjutting spur. Helward grabbed it with both hands, desperately holding himself back against the relentless pressure. His body swung round, so that he was lying vertically against the wall, feet above his head, knowing that if he slipped now he would be taken backwards up the slope and on down towards the south.
He reached behind into his pack, and found the grapple. He lodged it firmly under the spur, attached the rope to it, and wound the other end around his wrist.
The southwards pressure was now so great upon him that the normal downwards pull of gravity was virtually negated.
The substance of the mountain was changing beneath him. The hard, almost vertical wall was slowly widening to east and west, slowly flattening, so that behind him the summit of the ridge appeared to be creeping down towards him. He saw a cleft in the rock beside him which was slowly closing, so he removed the grapple from under the spur and thrust it into the cleft. Moments later, the grapple was securely held.
The summit of the ridge had now distended and was beneath his body. The southward pressure took him, and he was swept over the ridge. The rope held and he was suspended horizontally.
What had been the mountain became a hard protuberance beneath his chest, his stomach lay in what had been the valley beyond, his feet scrambled for a hold against the diminishing ridge of what had once been another mountain.
He was flat along the surface of the world, a giant recumbent across an erstwhile mountain region.
He raised his body, trying to ease his position. Lifting his head, he suddenly found he was short of breath. A hard, icy wind blew from the north, but it was thin and short of oxygen. He lowered his head again, resting his chin on the ground. At this level his nose could take air that would sustain him.
It was bitterly cold.
There were clouds, and borne on the wind they skimmed a few inches above the ground like a white unbroken sheet. They surged around his face, flowing around his nose like foam at the bow of a ship.
His mouth was below them, his eyes were above.
Helward looked ahead of him through the thin, rarefied atmosphere above the clouds. He looked towards the north.
He was at the edge of the world; its major bulk lay before him.
He could see the whole world.
North of him the ground was level; flat as the top of a table. But at the centre, due north of him, the ground rose from that flatness in a perfectly symmetrical, rising and curving concave spire. It narrowed and narrowed, reaching up, growing ever more slender, rising so high that it was impossible to see where it ended.
He saw it in a multitude of colours. There were broad areas of brown and yellow, patched with green. Further north, there was a blueness: a pure, sapphire blue, bright on the eyes. Over it all, the white of clouds in long, tenuous whorls, in brilliant swarms, in flaky patterns.
The sun was setting. Red to the north-east, it glowed against the impossible horizon.
The shape of it was the same. A broad flat disk that might be an equator; at its centre and to north and south, its poles existed as rising, concave spires.
Helward had seen the sun so often that he no longer questioned its appearance. But now he knew: the world too was that shape.
The sun set, and the world became dark.
The southwards pressure was now so great that his body hardly touched what had once been the mountains beneath him. He was hanging on the rope in the darkness, as if vertically against the wall of a cliff; reason told him that he was still horizontal, but reason was in conflict with sensation.
He could no longer trust the strength of the rope. Helward reached forward, curled his fingertips around two small extrusions (had they once been mountains?), and hauled himself forward.
The surface beyond was smoother, and Helward could hardly find a firm hold. With trouble he discovered he could dig his fingers into the ground sufficiently far to obtain a temporary purchase. He dragged himself forward again: a matter of inches…but in another sense a matter of miles. The southwards pressure did not perceptibly diminish.
He abandoned his rope and crawled forward by hand. Another few inches and his feet came into contact with the low ridge that had been the mountain. He pressed hard, moved forward again.
Gradually, the pressure on him began to decrease until it was no longer a matter of desperation to hold on. Helward relaxed for a moment, trying to catch his breath. Even as he did so he felt sure that the pressure was increasing again, so he moved forward. Soon, he had gone so far that he could rest on his hands and knees.
He had not looked south. What had been behind him?
He crawled a long way, then felt able to stand. He did so, leaning northwards to counteract the force. He walked forward, feeling the inexplicable drag steadily diminish. He soon felt he was sufficiently far from the worst zone of pressure to sit on the ground, and take a proper rest.
He looked towards the south. All was darkness. Overhead, the clouds which had broken around his face were now some height above him. They occluded the moon, which Helward, in his untutored way, had never questioned. It too was that strange shape; he had seen it many times, always accepted it.
He continued walking northwards, feeling the immense drag weakening still further. The landscape around him was dark and featureless, and he paid no attention to it. Only one thought dominated his mind: that he must move sufficiently far forward before he rested so that he would not be dragged back again to that zone of pressure. He knew now a basic truth of this world, that the ground was indeed moving as Collings had said. Up north, where the city existed, the ground moved with an almost imperceptible slowness: about one mile in a period of ten days. But further south it moved faster, and its acceleration was exponential. He had seen it in the way the bodies of the girls had changed: in the space of one night the ground had moved sufficiently far for their bodies to be affected by the lateral distortions to which they—and not he—were subjected.
The city could not rest. It was destined to move forever, because if it halted it would start the long slow movement down here—down past—where it would come eventually to the zone where mountains became ridges a few inches high, where an irresistible pressure would sweep it to its destruction.
At that moment, as Helward walked slowly northwards across the strange, dark terrain, he could give no rationale to what he had experienced. Everything conflicted with logic: ground was stable, it could not move. Mountains did not distort as one sprawled across their face. Human beings did not become twelve inches high; chasms did not narrow; babies did not choke on their mothers’ milk.
Though the night was well advanced, Helward felt no tiredness beyond the residue of the physical strain he had endured on the side of the mountain. It occurred to him that the day had passed quickly; faster than he could have credited.
He was well beyond the zone of maximum pressure now, but he was still too aware of it to halt. It was not a pleasant thought to sleep while the ground moved beneath him, bearing him ineluctably southwards.
He was a microcosm of the city: he could no more rest than it.
Tiredness came at last and he sprawled on the hard ground, and slept.
He was awakened by the sunrise, and his first thought was of the southwards pressure. Alarmed, he sprang to his feet and tested his balance: the pressure was there, but not measurably worse than it had been at his last recollection.
He looked towards the south.
There, incredibly, the mountains stood.
It could not be so. He had seen them, felt them reduce to a ridge of hard ground, no more than an inch of two in height. Yet they were clearly there: steep, irregularly shaped, capped with snow.
Helward found his pack, and checked its contents. He had lost the rope and grapple, and much of his equipment had been with the girls when he left them, but he still had one canteen of water, a sleeping-bag, and several packets of the dehydrated food. It would be enough to keep him going for a while.
He ate a little of the food, than strapped his pack in place.
He glanced up at the sun, determined this time to keep his bearings.
He walked south towards the mountains.
The pressure grew about him slowly, dragging him forward. As he watched the mountains they appeared to reduce in height. The substance of the soil on which he walked became thicker, and the terrain once more took on its appearance of fused lateral streaks.
Overhead, the sun moved faster than it had any right to do.
Fighting against the pressure, Helward stopped when he saw that the mountains were once again not much more than an undulating line of low hills.
He was not equipped to go further. He turned, and moved north. Night fell an hour later.
He walked on through the darkness until he felt the pressure was acceptably low, then rested.
When daylight came again, the mountains were clearly in view…and as mountains.
He made no attempt to move, but waited in his place. As the day advanced the pressure grew. He was being borne southwards by the motion of the ground towards the mountains…and as he watched and waited he saw them slowly spread laterally.
He moved camp, went northwards before night fell. He had seen enough; it was time to return to the city.
Unaccountably, the thought of this worried him. Would he have to make some kind of report on what had happened?
There was much he felt incapable of even absorbing into his own experience, let alone coalescing what he had seen and felt into a coherent order that he could describe to someone else.
At the centre of it all was the stupefying sight of the world spread before him. Had any man ever been privy to such an experience? How could the mind encompass a concept of which the eye had been incapable of seeing even the entire extent? To left and right—and, for all he knew, to the south of him—the surface of the world had extended seemingly without bound. Only in the north, due north, was there a definition of form: that curving, rising pinnacle of land which stretched to no visible end.
Likewise the sun, likewise the moon. And, for all he knew, likewise every body in the visible universe.
The three girls: how could he report on their safe conduct to their village when they had passed into a state in which he could not communicate with them, nor even see them? They had passed on into their own world, utterly alien to him.
The baby: what had happened to that? Manifestly of the city, for like him it had not been affected by the distortions that were otherwise all about them, presumably it had been abandoned by Rosario…and was now presumably dead. Even if it still lived, the motion of the ground would bear it southwards to that zone of pressure where it could not survive.
Lost in such thoughts, Helward walked on, taking little account of his surroundings. Only when he stopped to take a drink of water did he look about, and it was with a start of surprise that he realized that he recognized the terrain.
This was the rocky land to the north of the chasm where the bridge had been built.
He took a few mouthfuls of the water, then retraced his steps. If he was to find his way back to the city he must relocate the tracks, and the site of the bridge would be a better landmark than most.
He encountered a stream which, in his preoccupied state, he must have crossed without noticing. He followed its course, wondering if this could possibly be the same stream, for it appeared to be a tiny rivulet. In due time the banks of the stream became steeper and rougher, but there was no sign of the chasm.
Helward scrambled up the bank, and walked back against the direction of the water-flow. Though naggingly familiar, the appearance of the stream was distended and distorted, and it could be another stream entirely.
Then he noticed a long black oval near the edge of the water. He went down and examined it. There was a faint smell of burning…and on closer inspection he realized this was the scar of a fire. His camp-fire.
The stream next to it was more than a yard wide, and yet when he had been here with the girls it had been at least twelve feet across. He went back to the top of the bank. After a long search he found some marks on the ground which could have been the traces of one of the suspension towers.
From the top of one bank to the next, the distance could have been no more than five or six yards. The drop to the water was a matter of feet.
At this point the city had crossed.
He walked northwards, and in a short while found the trace of a sleeper. It was about seventeen feet long. The one next to it was three inches away.
By the following night the scale of the landscape had assumed proportions that were more familiar to him. Trees looked like trees, not sprawling bushes. Pebbles were round, grass grew in clumps, not spread like a smear of green. The tracks by which he walked were still too widely spread to have any resemblance to the gauge used by the city, but Helward thought that his journey should not be much longer.
He had lost track of the number of days that had passed, but the terrain was becoming increasingly familiar to him, and he knew that so far his time away from the city was still much less than that predicted by Clausewitz. Even taking into account the two or three days that had seemed to pass so quickly while he was in the zone of pressure, the city could not have moved more than a mile or two further to the north while he was away.
This thought encouraged him, for his supplies of food and water were dwindling.
He walked on, and the days passed. There was still no sign of the city, and the tracks by which he walked showed no signs of narrowing to their more normal gauge. By now he was so accustomed to the notion of the lateral distortion of this world in the south, that he took the evidence of it much in his stride.
One morning, he was disturbed by a new thought: for several days the gauge of the tracks had not appeared to change, and could it be that he had encountered a region where the motion of the ground was directly equal to the speed of his own walking? That is, that he was like a mouse on a treadmill, never making any forward progress?
For an hour or two he hastened his walk, but soon reason prevailed. He had, after all, successfully moved away from the zone of pressure where the southward motion was greater. But more days passed, and the city seemed to be no nearer. Soon he was down to his last two packets of food, and twice he had had to supplement his water-supplies from local sources.
The day he reached the end of his food, he was suddenly taken by a surge of excitement. Potential starvation was no longer a problem…he had recognized where he was! This was the region he had been riding through with Barter Collings: at that time, two or three miles north of optimum!
By his estimate of time he had been gone for three miles at the most…so the city should be in sight.
Up ahead, the line of track-scars continued until a low ridge…and no sign of the city. The sleeper-pits were still distorted, and the next row of scars—the left inner—was some distance away.
All it could mean, Helward reasoned, was that while he was away the city had somehow moved much faster. Perha
In which case the city could stop…the grand treadmill would end.
Helward passed a hungry night, and slept badly. In the morning he took a few mouthfuls of water and was soon on his way. The city must be in sight soon…
In the hottest part of the day, Helward was forced to rest. The countryside was barren and open, with little shade. He sat down beside the track.
Staring bleakly ahead, he saw something which gave him fresh hope: three people were walking slowly down the track towards him. They must be from the city, sent out to find him. He waited weakly for them to reach him.
As they approached he tried to stand, but stumbled. He lay still.
“Are you from the city?”
Helward opened his eyes and looked up at the speaker. It was a young man, dressed in a guild-apprentice uniform. He nodded, his jaw slack.
“You’re ill…what’s the matter?”
“I’m O.K. Have you any food?”
A canteen of water was offered, and Helward took a mouthful. The water tasted different: it was stale and flat, city water.
“Can you stand?”
With assistance, Helward got to his feet and they walked together away from the track to where a few scrawny bushes grew. Helward sat down on the ground, and the young man opened his pack. With a start of recognition, Helward realized the pack was identical to his own.
“Do I know you?” he said.
“Apprentice Kellen Li-Chen.”
Li-Chen! He remembered him from the crèche. “I’m Helward Mann.”