The inverted world, p.16
The Inverted World,
Kellen Li-Chen opened a packet of dehydrated food and insinuated some water. Soon a familiar portion of gray porridge was before him, and Helward began to eat it with as near a mood of enthusiasm as he could ever recall.
In the background, some yards away, two girls stood and waited.
“You’re going down past,” he said between mouthfuls.
“I’ve just been.”
Suddenly, Helward remembered meeting Torrold Pelham under almost identical circumstances.
“You’re down past now,” he said. “Can’t you feel it?”
Kellen shook his head.
“What do you mean?” he said.
Helward meant the southwards pressure, the subtle pull of which he could still feel as he walked. But he understood now that Kellen had probably not yet noticed it. Until it had been experienced in its extremeness, it would not be recognized as a discrete sensation.
“It’s impossible to talk about it,” Helward said. “Go down past and you’ll see for yourself.”
Helward glanced over at the girls. They were sitting on the ground, their backs turned quite deliberately on the men. He couldn’t help smiling to himself.
“Kellen…how far is the city from here?”
“A few miles back. About five.”
Five miles! Then by now it must have easily overtaken the optimum.
“Can you give me some food? Just a little…enough to get me back to the city.”
Kellen took four packets, and handed them over. Helward looked at them for a moment, then handed three of them back.
“One will be enough. You’ll need the rest.”
“I haven’t got far to go,” said Kellen.
“I know…but you’ll still need them.” He looked again at the other apprentice. “How long have you been out of the crèche, Kellen?”
“About fifteen miles.”
But Kellen was much younger than him. He remembered distinctly: Kellen had been two grades below him in the crèche. They must be recruiting apprentices much earlier now. But Kellen looked mature and well filled. His body was not that of an adolescent.
“How old are you?” he said.
“Six hundred and sixty-five.”
That couldn’t be so…he was at least fifty miles younger than Helward, who was by his own reckoning six hundred and seventy.
“Have you been working on the tracks?”
“Yes. Bloody hard work.”
“I know. How has the city been able to move so fast?”
“Fast? It’s been a bad period. We had a river to cross, and at the moment the city is held up by hilly country. We’ve lost a lot of ground. When I left, it was six miles behind optimum.”
“Six miles! Then the optimum’s moved faster?”
“Not as far as I know.” Kellen was looking over his shoulder at the girls. “I think I’d better be moving on now. Are you O.K.?”
“Yes. How are you getting on with them?”
“Not bad,” he said. “Language barriers, but I think I can find a bit of common vocabulary.”
Helward laughed, and again remembered Pelham.
“Make it soon,” he said. “It gets difficult later.”
Kellen Li-Chen stared at him for a moment, then stood up.
“The sooner the better, I think,” he said. He went back to the girls, who complained loudly when they realized their break had been only a short one. As they walked past him, Helward saw that one of the girls had unbuttoned her shirt all down the front, and had tied it with a knot.
With the food Kellen had given him, Helward felt certain of reaching the city without any further problems. After the distance he had travelled, another five miles was as nothing, and he anticipated reaching the city by nightfall. The countryside around him was now entirely new to him: in spite of what Kellen had said it certainly seemed that the city had made good progress during his absence.
Evening approached, and still there was no sign of the city.
The only hopeful indication was that now the scars left by the sleepers were of more normal dimensions; the next time Helward stopped for water he measured the nearest pit and estimated that it was about six feet long.
Ahead of him was rising ground, and he could see a ridge over which the track-remains ran. He felt sure the city must be lying in the hollow beyond and so he pressed on, hoping for a sight of it before nightfall.
The sun was touching the horizon as he reached the ridge, and looked down into the valley.
A broad river flowed across the floor of the valley. The tracks reached the southern bank…and continued on the further side. As far as he could see they continued up across the valley until lost to sight amongst some woodland. There was no sign of the city.
Angry and confused, Helward stared at the valley until darkness fell, then made his camp for the night.
In the morning he started out soon after daybreak, and within a few minutes was by the bank of the river. On this side there were many signs of human activity: the ground by the side of the water had been churned into a muddy waste, and there was a great deal of discarded timber and broken sleeper-foundations. In the water itself were several timber piles, presumably all that now remained of the bridge the city had had to build.
Helward waded down into the water, holding on to the nearest pile for support. As the water deepened he started to swim, but the current took him and he was swept a long way downstream before he could haul himself on to the northern bank.
Soaked through, he walked back upstream until he reached the track remains. His pack and clothes weighed heavily on him, so he undressed and laid his clothes in the sun, then spread the sleeping-bag and canvas pack. An hour later his clothes were dry, so he pulled them on again and prepared to move off. The sleeping-bag was still not completely dry, but he planned to air it at his next stop.
Just as he was strapping his pack into place, there was a rattling noise and something plucked at his shoulder. Helward turned his head in time to see a crossbow quarrel fall on the ground.
He dived for cover into one of the sleeper-foundations.
“Stay right there!”
He looked in the direction of the voice; he couldn’t see the speaker, but there was a clump of bushes some fifty yards away.
Helward examined his shoulder: the quarrel had torn away a section of his sleeve, but it had not drawn blood. He was defenceless, having lost his crossbow with the remainder of his possessions.
“I’m coming out…don’t move.”
A moment later, a man wearing the guild-apprentice uniform stepped out from behind the bush, levelling his crossbow at Helward.
Helward shouted: “Don’t shoot! I’m an apprentice from the city.”
The man said nothing, but continued to advance. He halted about five yards away.
Helward did so, seeking the recognition he anticipated.
“Who are you?”
“I’m from the city,” said Helward.
“What’s the last line of the oath?”
Helward shook his head in surprise. “Listen, what the—?”
“Come on…the oath.”
“‘All this is sworn in the full knowledge that a betrayal of any one—’”
The man lowered his bow.
“O.K.,” he said. “I had to be sure. What’s your name?”
The other looked at him closely. “God, I never recognized you! You’ve grown a beard!”
The two young men stared at each other for a few seconds more then greeted each other affably. Helward realized that they both must have changed out of recognition in the time since they had last met. Then they had both been beardless boys, agonizing about the frustrations of life inside the crè
“What was all that about, shooting at me?” said Helward.
“I thought you were a took.”
“But didn’t you see my uniform?”
“Doesn’t mean anything any more.”
“Listen, Helward, things are changing. How many apprentices have you seen down past?”
“Two. Three, including you.”
“Right. Did you know the city sends an apprentice down past every mile or so? There should be many more down here…and as we all take the same route we ought to be meeting each other almost every day. But the tooks are catching on. They’re killing the apprentices, and taking their uniforms. Were you attacked?”
“No,” said Helward.
“You could have tried to identify me before you shot at me.”
“I aimed to miss you.”
Helward indicated his torn sleeve. “Then you’re just a lousy shot.”
Jase moved away, and went over to where his quarrel had fallen. He picked it up, examined it for damage, then replaced it in its pouch.
“We ought to be trying to reach the city,” he said when he returned.
“Do you know where it is?”
Jase looked worried.
“I can’t work it out,” he said. “I’ve been walking for miles. Has the city suddenly accelerated?”
“Not as far as I know. I saw another apprentice yesterday. He said the city had actually been delayed.”
“Then where the hell is it?” said Jase.
“Somewhere up there.” Helward indicated the track-remains leading north.
“Then we go on.”
By the end of the day they still had not sighted the city—though the tracks were now apparently the normal dimensions—and they made a camp in a patch of woodland through which a stream of clean water flowed.
Jase was far better equipped than Helward. In addition to his crossbow, he had a spare sleeping-bag (Helward’s wet one had started to smell, and he’d thrown it away), a tent, and plenty of food.
“What do you make of it?” said Jase.
“I’m still trying to understand it,” said Helward. “What about you?”
“I don’t know. The same, I suppose. I can’t make logic of what I’ve seen and yet I know I’ve seen and experienced it, and so it must be so.”
“How can ground possibly move?”
“You noticed it too?” said Jase.
“I think so. That’s what happened, wasn’t it?”
Later, each told his own account of what had happened after he left the crèche. Jase’s experiences had been remarkably different from Helward’s.
He had left the crèche a few miles before Helward, and undergone many of the same experiences working outside the city. An essential difference, though, was that he had not married, and had been invited to meet some of the transferred women. As a result of this, he already knew the two women he was assigned to when he began the journey down past.
He had learned many of the stories told by the local inhabitants about the people of the city. How the city was populated by giants, how they plundered and killed, and raped the women.
As his journey southwards proceeded, Jase had realized that the girls were growing more frightened, and when he asked them why they said that they felt certain they would be killed by their own kind when they returned. They wanted to go back to the city. At this point Jase had been noticing the first effects of the lateral distortions, and was growing curious. He turned the girls back, and told them to make their own way back to the city. He intended to spend one more day on his own, then he too would return northwards.
He travelled south, but did not see much that interested him, then attempted to find the girls. He discovered them three days later. Their throats had been cut, and they were hanging upside down from a tree. Still recoiling from the shock, Jase himself was attacked by a crowd of local men, some of whom were wearing apprentices’ uniforms. He had managed to escape, but the men had given chase. There followed three days of nightmare. While making his escape he had fallen and badly twisted his foot, and in his lamed state could do little more than hide. During the chase, he had gone a long way from the tracks, and had moved south by several miles. The hunt had been called off, and Jase was alone. He stayed in hiding…but gradually felt a slow build-up of southwards pressure. He realized that he was in a region he could not recognize. He described to Helward the flat, featureless terrain, the tremendous pressure, the way in which physical distortions took place.
He had tried to move back in the direction of the tracks, but his weakened leg made progress difficult. Finally, he had been forced to anchor himself to the ground with the grapple and rope until he could walk again. The build-up of pressure had continued, and fearing the rope would hold no longer he had been forced to crawl northwards. After a long and difficult period he had managed to escape from the zone of worst pressure, and had headed back towards the city.
He had wandered for a long time without finding the tracks. As a consequence his knowledge of the terrain away from the immediate neighbourhood of the tracks was greater than Helward’s.
“Did you know there’s another city over there?” he said, indicating the land to the west of the tracks.
“Another city?” said Helward incredulously.
“Nothing like Earth. This one is built on the ground.”
“It’s immense. Ten times, twenty times as big as Earth. I didn’t recognize it for what it was at first…I thought it was just another settlement, but one much larger. Helward, listen, it’s a city like the cities we learnt about in the crèche…the ones on Earth planet. Hundreds, thousands of buildings…all built on the ground.”
“Are there any people there?”
“A few…not many. There was a lot of damage. I don’t know what happened there, but most off it seemed to be abandoned now. I didn’t stay long because I didn’t want to be seen. But it’s a beautiful sight…all those buildings.”
“Can we go there?”
“No…keep away. Too many tooks. There’s something going on out there, the situation is changing. They’re organizing themselves better, there are lines of communication. In the past, when the city went to a village we were often the first people from outside that the inhabitants had seen for a long time. But from things the girls said to me, I got the impression that that’s not likely to be the case any more. Word is spreading about the city…and the tooks don’t like us. They never have, but in small groups they were weak. Now I think they want to destroy the city.”
“And so they dress as apprentices,” said Helward, still not grasping the seriousness of Jase’s tone.
“That’s a small part of it. They take the clothes of the apprentices they kill to make further killings easier. But if they decide to attack the city, it’ll be when they’re well organized and determined.”
“I can’t believe that they could ever threaten us.”
“Maybe not…but you were lucky.”
In the morning they set out early, and travelled hard. They walked all day, not stopping for more than a few minutes at a time. By their side, the scars left by the tracks had returned to normal dimensions and both were spurred on by the thought that the city could not be more than a few hours’ walk ahead.
They stopped, stared down at it.
The city had changed.
Something about it made Helward run forward, hurrying down the side of the hill towards it.
From this elevation they could see the signs of normal activity about the city: behind it four track-crews tearing up the rails, ahead of it a larger team sinking piles into the river that presently barred the city’s way. But the shape of the city had changed. The rear section was misshapen, blackened…
The lines of Militia had been strengthened, and soon Jase and Helward were halted, and their identities checked. Both men fumed at the delay, for it was clear that a major disaster had struck the city. Waiting for clearance from inside the city, Jase learned from the militiamen in charge that there had been two attacks by the tooks. The second one had been more serious than the first. Twenty-three militiamen had been killed; they were still counting bodies inside the city.
The excitement of their return was instantly sobered by what they saw. When the clearance came through, Helward and Jase walked on in silence.
The crèche had been razed: it was the children who had died. Inside the city there was more that had changed. The impact of these changes was severe, but Helward had no time to register any reaction. He could only mark them, then try to push them aside until external pressures eased. There was no time to dwell on his thoughts.
He learnt that his father had died. Only a few hours after Helward had left the city, the angina had stopped his heart. It was Clausewitz who broke the news to him, and Clausewitz who told him that his apprenticeship was now over.
More: Victoria had given birth to a baby—a boy—but it had been one of those that had died in the attack.
More: Victoria had signed a form that pronounced the marriage over. She was living with another man, and was pregnant again.
And more, implicitly tied up with all of these events, yet no more conceivable: Helward learnt from the central calendar that while he had been away the city had moved a total of seventy-three miles, and was even so eight miles behind optimum. In his own subjective time-scale, Helward had been gone for less than three miles.