Authors: Christopher Priest
We came eventually to a spiral staircase, at the top of which was a heavy steel door. Future Denton took a flashlight from his pocket, and switched it on. There were two locks to the door, and as he opened it he indicated that I should step through before him.
I emerged into coldness and darkness, such extremes of both that they came as a physical shock. Denton closed the door behind him, and locked it again. As he shone his flashlight around I saw that we were standing on a small platform, enclosed by a handrail about three feet high. We walked over and stood at the rail. Denton switched off his light, and the darkness was complete.
“Where are we?” I said.
“Don’t talk. Wait … and keep watching.”
I could see absolutely nothing. My eyes, still adjusted to the comparative brightness of the corridors, tricked my senses into detecting coloured shapes moving about me, but in a moment these stilled. The darkness was not the major preoccupation; already the movement of the cold air across my body had chilled me and I was trembling. I could feel the steel of the rail in my hands like a spear of ice, and I moved my hands trying to minimize the discomfort. It was not possible to let go though. In that absolute dark the rail was my only hold on the familiar. I had never before been so isolated from what I knew, never before been confronted with such an impact of things unknown. My whole body was tense, as if bracing itself against some sudden detonation or physical shock, but none came. All about me was cold and dark and overwhelmingly silent bar the sound of the wind in my ears.
As the minutes passed, and my eyes became better able to adjust, I discovered I could make out vague shapes about me. I could see Future Denton beside me, a tall black figure in his cloak, outlined against the lesser darkness of what was above him. Beneath the platform on which we stood I could detect a huge, irregularly shaped structure, black and black on black.
Around all this was impenetrable darkness. I had no point of reference, nothing against which I could make distinctions of form or outline. It was frightening, but in a way which struck emotionally, not in such a way that I felt at all threatened physically. Sometimes I had dreamed of such a place, and then I had awakened still experiencing the after-images of an impression such as this. This was no dream; the bitter cold could not be imagined, nor could the startling clarity of the new sensations of space and dimension. I knew only that this was my first venture outside the city—for this was all it could be—and that it was nothing like I had ever anticipated.
Fully appreciating this, the effect of the cold and dark on my orientation became of subsidiary importance. I was outside …
was what I had been waiting for!
There was no further need for Denton’s admonition to silence; I could say nothing, and had I tried the words would have died in my throat or been lost on the wind. It was all I could do to look, and in looking I saw nothing but the deep, mysterious cape of a land under the clouded night.
A new sensation affected me: I could smell the soil! It was unlike anything I had ever smelled in the city, and my mind conjured a spurious image of many square miles of rich brown soil, moist in the night. I had no way of telling what it was I could actually smell—it was probably not soil at all—but this image of rich, fertile ground had been one that endured for me from one of the books I had read in the crèche. It was enough to imagine it and once more my excitement lifted, sensing the cleansing effect of the wild, unexplored land beyond the city. There was so much to see and do… and even yet, standing on the platform, it was still for those few precious moments the exclusive domain of the imagination. I needed to see nothing; the simple impact of this fundamental step beyond the city’s confines was enough to spark my underdeveloped imagination into realms which until that moment had been fed only by the writings of the authors I had read.
Slowly, the blackness became less dense, until the sky above me was a dark gray. In the far distance I could see where the clouds met the horizon, and even as I watched I saw a line of the faintest red begin to etch the shape of one small cloud. As if the impact of the light was propelling it, this cloud and all the others were moving slowly above us, borne on the wind away from the direction of the glow. The redness spread, touching the clouds for a few moments as they moved away, leaving behind a large area of clear sky which was itself coloured a deep orange. My whole attention was rivetted on this sight, for it was quite simply the most beautiful thing I had experienced in my whole life. Almost imperceptibly, the orange colour was spreading and lightening; still the clouds which moved away were singed with red, but at the very point at which the horizon met the sky there was an intensity of light which grew brighter by the minute.
The orange was dying. Far more quickly than I would ever have guessed, it thinned away as the source of light brightened. The sky now was a blue so pale and brilliant that it was almost white. In the centre of it, as if growing up from the horizon, was a spear of white light, leaning slightly to one side like a toppling church steeple. As it grew it thickened and brightened, becoming as the seconds passed so brilliant and incandescent that it was not possible to stare directly at it.
Future Denton suddenly gripped my arm.
“Look!” he said, pointing to the left of the centre of brilliance. A formation of birds, spread out in a delicate V, was flapping slowly from left to right across our vision. After a few moments, the birds crossed directly in front of the growing column of light, and for a few seconds they could not be seen.
“What are they?” I said, my voice sounding coarse and harsh.
They were visible again now, flying slowly on with the blue sky behind them. After a minute or so they became lost to sight beyond high ground some distance away.
I looked again at the rising sun. In the short time I had been looking at the birds it had been transformed. Now the bulk of its body had appeared above the horizon, and it hung in sight, a long, saucer-shape of light, spiked above and below with two perpendicular spires of incandescence. I could feel the touch of its warmth on my face. The wind was dropping.
I stood with Denton on that small platform, looking out across the land.
I saw the city, or what part of it was visible from the platform, and I saw the last of the clouds disappearing across the horizon furthest from the sun.
It shone down on us from a cloudless sky, and Denton removed his cloak.
He nodded to me, and showed me how we could climb down from the platform, by way of a series of metal ladders, to the land below. He went first. As I stepped down, and stood for the first time on natural ground, I heard the birds which had nested in the upper crannies of the city begin their morning song.
Future Denton walked with me once around the periphery of the city, then took me out across the ground towards a small cluster of temporary buildings which had been erected about five hundred yards from the city. Here he introduced me to Track Maichuskin, then returned to the city.
The Track was a short, hairy man, still half-asleep. He didn’t seem to resent the intrusion, and treated me with some politeness.
“Apprentice Future, are you?”
I nodded. “I’ve just come from the city.”
“First time out?”
“Had any breakfast?”
“No … the Future got me out of bed, and we’ve come more or less straight here.”
“Come inside … I’ll make some coffee.”
The interior of the hut was rough and untidy, in contrast to what I had seen within the city. There cleanliness and tidiness seemed to be of great importance, but Malchuskin’s hut was littered with dirty pieces of clothing, unwashed pots and pans, and half-eaten meals. In one corner was a large pile of metal tools and instruments, and against one wall was a bunk, the covers thrown back in a heap. There was a background smell of old food.
Malchuskin filled a pan with water, and placed it on a cooking-ring. He found two mugs somewhere, rinsed them in the butt, and shook them to remove the surplus water. He put a measure of synthetic coffee into a jug, and when the water boiled filled it up.
There was only one chair in the hut. Malchuskin removed some heavy steel tools from the table, and moved it over to the bunk. He sat down, and indicated that I should pull up the chair. We sat in silence for a while, sipping the coffee. It was made in exactly the same way as it was in the city, and yet it seemed to taste different.
“Haven’t had too many apprentices lately.”
“Why’s that?” I said.
“Can’t say. Not many of them coming up. Who are you?”
“Helward Mann. My father’s—”
“Yeah, I know. Good man. We were in the crèche together.”
I frowned to myself at that. Surely, he and my father were not of the same age? Malchuskin saw my expression.
“Don’t let it bother you,” he said. “You’ll understand one day. You’ll find out the hard way, just like everything else this goddamn guild system makes you learn. It’s a strange life in the Future guild. It wasn’t for me, but I guess you’ll make out.”
“Why didn’t you want to be a Future?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want it … I meant it wasn’t my lot. My own father was a Tracksman. The guild system again. But you want it hard, they’ve put you in the right hands. Done much manual work?”
He laughed out loud. “The apprentices never have. You’ll get used to it.” He stood up. “It’s time we started. It’s early, but now you’ve got me out of bed there’s no point being idle. They’re a lazy lot of bastards.”
He left the hut. I finished the rest of my coffee in a hurry, scalding my tongue, and went after him. He was walking towards the other two buildings.
I caught him up.
With a metal wrench he had taken from the hut he banged loudly on the door of each of the other two buildings, bawling at whoever was inside to get up. I saw from the marks on the doors that he probably always hit them with a piece of metal.
We heard movement inside.
Malchuskin went back to his hut and began sorting through some of the tools.
“Don’t have too much to do with these men,” he warned me. “They’re not from the city. There’s one of them, I’ve put him in charge. Rafael. He speaks a little English, and acts as interpreter. If you want anything, speak to him.
Better still, come to me. There’s not likely to be trouble, but if there is ...call me. O.K.?”
“What kind of trouble?”
“They don’t do what you or I tell them. They’re being paid, and they get paid to do what we want. It’s trouble if they don’t. But the only thing wrong with this lot is that they’re too lazy for their own good. That’s why we start early. It gets hot later on, and then we might as well not bother.”
It was already warm. The sun had risen high while I had been with Malchuskin, and my eyes were beginning to water. They weren’t accustomed to such bright light. I had tried to glance at the sun again, but it was impossible to look directly at it.
“Take these!” Malchuskin passed me a large armful of steel wrenches, and I staggered under the weight, dropping two or three. He watched in silence as I picked them up, ashamed at my ineptitude.
“Where to?” I said.
“The city, of course. Don’t they teach you anything in there?”
I headed away from the hut towards the city. Malchuskin watched from the door of his hut.
“South side!” he shouted after me. I stopped, and looked round helplessly. Malchuskin came over to me.
“There.” He pointed. “The tracks at the south of the city. O.K.?”
“O.K.” I walked in that direction, dropping only one more wrench on the way.
After an hour or two I began to see what Malchuskin had meant about the men who worked with us. They stopped at the slightest excuse, and only Malchuskin’s bawling or Rafael’s sullen instructions kept them at it.
“Who are they?” I asked Malchuskin when we stopped for a fifteen-minute break.
“Couldn’t we hire some more?”
“They’re all the same round here.”
I sympathized with them to a certain degree. Out in the open, with no shade at all, the work was vigorous and hard. Although I was determined not to slacken, the physical strain was more than I could bear. Certainly, it was more strenuous than anything I had ever experienced.
The tracks at the south of the city ran for about half a mile, ending in no particular place. There were four tracks, each consisting of two metal rails supported on timber sleepers which were in turn resting on sunken concrete foundations. Two of the tracks had already been considerably shortened by Malchuskin and his crew, and we were working on the longest one still extant, the one laid as right outer.
Malchuskin explained that if I assumed the city was to the front of us, the four tracks were identified by left and right, outer and inner in each case.
There was little thought involved. What had to be done was routine, but heavy.
In the first place the tie-bars connecting the rail to the sleepers had to be released for the whole length of the section of rail. This was then laid to one side, and the other rail similarly released. Next we tackled the sleepers. These were attached to the concrete foundations by two clamps, each of which had to be slackened and removed manually. When the sleeper came free it was stacked on a bogie which was waiting on the next section of track. The concrete foundation, which I discovered was prefabricated and re-usable, then had to be dug out of its soil emplacement and similarly placed on the bogie.
When all this was done, the two steel rails were placed on special racks along the side of the bogie.
Malchuskin or I would then drive the battery-powered bogie up to the next section of track, and the process would be repeated. When the bogie was fully loaded, the entire track-crew would ride on it up to the rear of the city. Here it would be parked, and the battery recharged from an electrical point fitted to the wall of the city for this purpose.
It took us most of the morning to load the bogie and take it up to the city. My arms felt as if they had been stretched from their sockets, my back was aching, I was filthy dirty and I was covered with sweat. Malchuskin, who had done no less work than any of the others—probably more than any of the hired labour—grinned at me.