Authors: Christopher Priest
“Now we unload and start again,” he said.
I looked over at the labourers. They looked like I felt, although I suspected I too had done more work than they, considering I was new to it and hadn’t yet learnt the art of using my muscles economically. Most of them were lying back in what little shadow was afforded by the bulk of the city.
“O.K.,” I said.
“No … I was joking. You think that lot’d do any more without a bellyful of food?”
“Right, then … we eat.”
He spoke to Rafael, then walked back across towards his hut. I went with him, and we shared some of the heated-up synthetic food that was all he could offer.
The afternoon started with the unloading. The sleepers, foundations, and rails were loaded on to another battery-powered vehicle which travelled on four large balloon tyres. When the transfer was completed, we took the bogie down to the end of the track and began again. The afternoon was hot, and the men worked slowly. Even Malchuskin had eased up, and after the bogie had been refilled with its next load he called a halt.
“Like to have got another load in today,” he said, and took a long draught from a bottle of water.
“I’m ready,” I said.
“Maybe. You want to do it on your own?”
“But I’m willing,” I said, not wanting to reveal the exhaustion I was feeling.
“As it is you’ll be useless tomorrow. No, we get this bogie unloaded, run it down to the track-end, and that’s it.”
That wasn’t quite it, as things turned out. When we returned the bogie to the track-end, Malchuskin started the men filling in the last section of the track with as much loose soil and dirt as we could find. This rubble was laid for twenty yards.
I asked Malchuskin its purpose.
He nodded over towards the nearest long track, the left inner. At its end was a massive concrete buttress, stayed firmly into the ground.
“You’d rather put up one of those instead?” he said.
“What is it?”
“A buffer. Suppose the cables all broke at once… the city’d run backwards off the rails. As it is the buffers wouldn’t put up much resistance, but it’s all we can do.”
“Has the city ever run back?”
Malchuskin offered me the choice of returning to my cabin in the city, or remaining with him in his hut. The way he put it didn’t leave me much choice. He obviously had low regard for the people inside the city and told me he rarely Went inside.
“It’s a cosy existence,” he said. “Half the people in the city don’t know what’s going on out here, and I don’t suppose they’d care if they did know.”
“Why should they have to know? After all, if we can keep working smoothly, it’s not their problem.”
“I know, I know. But I wouldn’t have to use these damned local men if more city people came out here.”
In the near-by dormitory huts the hired men were talking noisily; some were singing.
“Don’t you have anything at all to do with them?”
“I just use them. They’re the Barter people’s pigeon. If they get too lousy I lay them off and get the Barters to find me some more. Never difficult. Work’s in short supply round here.”
“Where is this?”
“Don’t ask me … that’s up to your father and his guild. I just dig up old tracks.”
I sensed that Malchuskin was less alienated from the city than he made out. I supposed his relatively isolated existence gave him some contempt for those within the city, but as far as I could see he didn’t have to stay out here in the hut. Lazy the workers might be, and just now noisy, but they seemed to act in an orderly manner. Maichuskin made no attempt to supervise them when there was no work to be done, so he could have stayed in the city if he chose.
“Your first day out, isn’t it?” he said suddenly.
“You want to watch the sunset?”
“No … why?”
“The apprentices usually do.”
Almost as if it were to please him I went out of the hut and looked past the bulk of the city towards the north-east. Malchuskin came up behind me.
The sun was near the horizon and already I could feel the wind cold on my back. The clouds of the previous night had not returned, and the sky was clear and blue. I watched the sun, able to look at it without hurting my eyes now that its rays were diffused by the thickness of the atmosphere. It had the shape of a broad orange disk, slightly tilted down towards us. Above and below, tall spires of light rose from the centre of the disk. As we watched it sank slowly beneath the horizon, the upper point of light being the last to vanish.
“You sleep in the city, you don’t get to see that,” Malchuskin said.
“It’s very beautiful,” I said.
“You see the sunrise this morning?”
Malchuskin nodded. “That’s what they do. Once a kid’s made it to a guild, they throw him in at the deep end. No explanation, right? Out in the dark, until up comes the sun.”
“Why do they do that?”
“Guild system. They believe it’s the quickest way to get an apprentice to understand that the sun isn’t the same as he’s been taught.”
“Isn’t it?” I said.
“What were you taught?”
“That the sun is spherical.”
“So they still teach that. Well, now you’ve seen that the sun isn’t.
Make anything of it?”
“Think about it. Let’s go and eat.”
We returned to the hut and Malchuskin directed me to start heating up some food while he bolted another bunk-frame on top of the vertical supports around his own. He found some bedding in a cupboard, and dumped it on the bunk.
“You sleep here,” he said, indicating the upper bunk. “You restless at night?”
“I don’t think so.”
“We’ll try it for one night. If you keep moving around, we’ll change over. I don’t like being disturbed.”
I thought there was little chance I would disturb him. I could have slept on the side of a cliff that night, I was so tired. We ate the tasteless food together, and afterwards Malchuskin talked about his work on the tracks.
I paid him scant attention, and a few minutes later I lay on my bunk, pretending to listen to him. I fell asleep almost at once.
I was woken the next morning by Maichuskin moving about the hut, clattering the dishes from the previous evening’s meal. I made to get out of the bunk as soon as I was fully conscious, but at once I was paralysed by a stab of pain in my back. I gasped.
Malchuskin looked up at me, grinning.
“Stiff?” he said.
I rolled over on to my side, and tried to draw my legs up. These too were stiff and painful, but with a considerable effort I managed to get myself into a sitting position. I sat still for a moment, hoping that the pain was cramp and that it would pass.
“Always the same with you kids from the city,” Malchuskin said, but without malice. “You come out here, keen I’ll grant you. A day’s work and you’re so stiff you become useless. Don’t you get any exercise in the city?”
“Only in the gymnasium.”
“O.K… . get down here and have some breakfast. After that, you’d better go back to the city. Have a hot bath, and see if you can find someone to give you a massage. Then report back here.”
I nodded gratefully and clambered down from the bunk. This was no easier and no less painful than anything else I’d attempted so far. I discovered that my arms, neck, and shoulders were as stiff as the rest of me.
I left the hut thirty minutes later, just as Malchuskin was bawling at the men to get started. I headed back towards the city, limping slowly.
It was the first time I had been left to my own devices away from the city. When in the company of others, one never sees as much as when alone. The city was five hundred yards from Malchuskin’s hut, and that was an adequate distance to be able to get some impression of its overall size and appearance.
Yet during the whole of the previous day I had been able to afford it only the barest of glances. It was simply a large, gray bulk, dominating the landscape.
Now, hobbling alone across the ground towards it I could inspect it in more detail.
From the limited experience I had had of the interior of the city, I had never given much thought to what it might look like from outside. I had always conceived of it as being large, but the reality was that the city was rather smaller than I had imagined. At its highest point, on the northern side, it was approximately two hundred feet high, but the rest of it was a jumble of rectangles and cubes, fitted into what seemed to be a patternless arrangement of varying elevations. It was a dull brown and gray colour, made as far as I could tell from many different kinds of timber. There seemed to be very little use of concrete or metals, and nothing was painted. This external appearance contrasted sharply with the interior—or at least, those few areas I had seen—which were clean and brightly decorated. As Malchuskin’s hut was directly to the west of the city, it was impossible for me to estimate the width as I walked towards it, though I estimated its length to be about one thousand five hundred feet. I was surprised how ugly it was, and how old it appeared to be. There was much activity about, particularly to the north.
As I came near to the city it occurred to me that I had no idea how I could enter it. Yesterday, Future Denton had taken me around the exterior of the city, but my mind had been so swamped with new impressions that I had absorbed very few of the details pointed out to me. It had looked so different then.
My only clear memory was that there was a door behind the platform from which we had observed the sunrise, and I determined to head for that. This was not as easy as I imagined.
I went to the south of the city, stepping over the tracks which I had been working on the previous day, and moved round to the east side, where I felt sure Denton and I had descended by way of a series of metal ladders.
After a long search I found such an access, and began to climb. I went wrong several times, and only after a long period of clambering painfully along catwalks and climbing gingerly up ladders did I locate the platform. I found that the door was still locked.
I had no alternative but to ask. I climbed down to the ground, and went once more to the south of the city where Malchuskin and the gang of men had started work again on dismantling the track.
With an air of aggrieved patience, Malchuskin left Rafael in charge, and showed me what to do. He led me up the narrow space between the two inner tracks, directly beneath the lip of the city’s edge. Underneath the city it was dark and cool.
We stopped by a metal staircase.
“At the top of that there’s an elevator,” he said. “You know what that is?”
“You’ve got a guild key?”
I fumbled in a pocket and produced an irregularly shaped piece of metal that Clausewitz had given me. It opened the lock on the crèche door. “Is this it?”
“Yes. There’s a lock on the elevator. Go to the fourth level, find an administrator, and ask if you can use the bathroom.”
Feeling very stupid I did as he directed. I heard Malchuskin laughing as he walked back towards the daylight. I found the elevator without difficulty, but the doors would not open when I turned the key. I waited. A few moments later the doors opened abruptly, and two guildsmen came out. They took no notice of me, and went down the steps to the ground.
Suddenly, the doors began to close of their own accord, and I hurried inside. Before I could find any way of controlling the elevator, it began to move upwards. I saw a row of keyed buttons placed on the wall near the door, numbered from one to seven. I jabbed my key into number four, hoping that this was the right one. The elevator-car seemed to be moving for a long time, but then it halted abruptly. The doors opened and I stepped forward. As I came out into the passageway, three more guildsmen stepped into the car.
I caught a glimpse of a painted sign on the wall opposite the car: SEVENTH LEVEL. I had come too far. Just as the doors were closing, I hurried inside again.
“Where are you going, apprentice?” one of the guildsmen said.
He used his own key on number four, and this time when the car stopped it was on the right level. I mumbled my thanks to the guildsman who had spoken to me, and stepped out of the elevator.
In my various preoccupations I had been able to overlook the discomforts in my body for the last few minutes, but now I felt tired and ill once more.
In this part of the city there seemed to be so much activity: many people moving about the corridors, conversations going on, doors opening and closing.
It was different from outside the city, for there was a timeless quality to the still countryside, and although people moved and worked out there the atmosphere was more leisurely. The labours of men like Malchuskin and his gang had an elemental purpose, but here, in the heart of the upper levels which had for so long been forbidden to me, all was mysterious and complicated.
I remembered Malchuskin’s instructions and, choosing a door at random, I opened it and went inside. There were two women inside; they were amused but helpful when I told them what I wanted.
A few minutes later I lowered my aching body into a bathful of hot water, and closed my eyes.
It had taken me so much time and effort to get my bath, that I had wondered whether I would benefit by it at all; the fact was that when I had towelled myself dry and dressed again the stiffness was not nearly as bad.
There were still traces of it when I stretched my muscles, but the tiredness had gone from my body.
My early return to the city had inevitably brought Victoria to mind. The glimpse I had had of her at the ceremony had heightened my curiosity. The thought of returning immediately to dig old sleepers out of the ground paled somewhat—although I felt I shouldn’t stay away from Malchuskin for too long—and I decided to see if I could find her.
I left the bathroom, and hurried back to the elevator. It was not in use, but I had to summon it to the floor I was on. When it arrived I was able to study its controls in rather more detail. I decided to experiment.