Authors: Christopher Priest
I travelled first to the seventh level, but from a brief excursion into its corridors I could see no immediately obvious difference from the level I had just left. The same was true for most of the other levels, though there was more apparent activity on the third, fourth, and fifth. The first level was the dark tunnel actually beneath the city itself.
I travelled up and down a couple of times, discovering that there was a surprisingly long distance between the first and second levels. All other distances were very short. I left the elevator at the second level, feeling intuitively that this would be where I would find the crèche, and that if I was wrong I would go in search of it on foot.
Opposite the elevator entrance on the second level was a flight of steps descending to a transverse corridor. I had a vague recollection of this from when Bruch had taken me up to the ceremony, and soon I came across the door leading in to the crèche.
Once inside, I locked the door with the guild key. It was all so familiar. I realized that until the moment I shut the door my movements had been guarded and cautious, but now I felt at home. I hurried down the steps, and walked along the short corridor of the area I knew so well. It looked different from the rest of the city, and it smelt different. I saw the familiar scratches on the walls, where generations of children before me had inscribed their names, saw the old brown paint, the worn coverings on the floors, the unlockable doors to the cabins. Out of long habit I headed straight for my cabin, and went inside. Everything here was untouched. The bed had been made up, and the cabin was tidier than it had ever been when I was using it regularly, but my few possessions were still in place. So too were Jase’s, though there was no sign of him.
I looked round once more, then returned to the corridor. The purpose of the visit to my cabin had been fulfilled: I had no purpose. I headed on down the corridor, towards the various rooms where we had been given lessons. Muted noises came through the closed doors. I peered through the circular glass peepholes, and saw the classes in progress. A few days earlier, I had been in there. In one room I saw my erstwhile contemporaries; some of them, like me, no doubt headed for an apprenticeship with one of the first-order guilds, most of them destined for administrative jobs in the city. I was tempted to go in and take their questions in my stride, maintaining a mysterious silence.
There was no segregation of the sexes in the crèche, and in each room I peered into I searched for a sight of Victoria; she did not appear to be there. When I had checked all the classrooms I went down to the general area: the dining-hall (here there was background noise of the midday meal being prepared), the gymnasium (empty), and the tiny open space, which gave access only to the blue sky above. I went to the commonroom, that one place in the whole extent of the crèche which could be used for general recreation. Here there were several boys, some of whom I had been working with only a few days before. They were talking idly—as was usual when left alone for the purposes of private study—but as soon as they noticed me I became the centre of attention. It was the situation I had just now resisted.
They wanted to know which guild I had joined, what I was doing, what I had seen. What happened when I came of age? What was outside the crèche?
Curiously, I wouldn’t have been able to answer many of their questions, even if I had been able to break the oath. Although I had done many things in the space of a couple of days, I was still a stranger to all that I was seeing.
I found myself resorting—as indeed Jase had done—to concealing what little I knew behind a barrier of crypticism and humour. It clearly disappointed the boys, and although their interest did not diminish the questions soon stopped.
I left the crèche as soon as I could, since Victoria was evidently no longer there.
Descending by way of the elevator, I returned to the dark area beneath the bulk of the city, and walked out between the tracks to the sunlight.
Malchuskin was exhorting his unwilling labourers to unload the bogie of its rails and sleepers, and he hardly noticed that I had returned.
The days passed slowly, and I made no more return visits to the city.
I had learned the error of my ways by throwing myself too enthusiastically into the physical side of the track-work. I decided to follow Malchuskin’s lead, and confined myself in the main to supervising the hired labourers. Only occasionally would he and I pitch in and help. Even so, the work was arduous and long, and I felt my body responding to the new labours. I soon felt fitter than I had ever done in my life before, my skin was reddening under the rays of the sun, and soon the physical work became less of a strain.
My only real complaint was with the unvarying diet of synthesized food and Malchuskin’s inability to talk interestingly about the contribution we were making to the city’s security. We would work late into the evenings, and after a rough meal we would sleep.
Our work on the tracks to the south of the city was nearly complete. Our task was to remove all the track and erect four buffers at a uniform distance from the city. The track we removed was carried round to the north of the city where it was being re-laid.
One evening, Malchuskin said to me: “How long have you been out here?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Oh … seven.”
I had been trying to estimate it in terms of miles.
“In three days’ time you get some leave. You have two days inside the city, then you come back here for another mile.”
I asked him how he reckoned the passage of time in terms of both days and distance.
“It takes the city about ten days to cover a mile,” he said. “And in a year it will cover about thirty-six and a half.”
“But the city isn’t moving.”
“Not at the moment. It will be soon. Anyway, we don’t take account of how much the city has actually moved, so much as how much it
have moved. It’s based on the position of the optimum.”
I shook my head. “What does that mean?”
“The optimum is the ideal position for the city to be. To maintain that it would have to move approximately a tenth of a mile every day. That’s obviously out of the question, so we move the city towards optimum whenever we can.”
“Has the city ever reached optimum?”
“Not as long as I can remember.”
“Where’s the optimum now?”
“About three miles ahead of us. That’s about average. My father was out here on the tracks before me, and he told me once that they were then about ten miles from optimum. That’s the most I’ve ever heard.”
“But what would happen if we ever reached optimum?”
Malchuskin grinned. “We’d go on digging up old tracks.”
“Because the optimum’s always moving. But we’re not likely to reach optimum, and it doesn’t matter that much. Anywhere within a few miles of it is O.K. Put it this way… if we could get ahead of optimum for a bit, we could all have a good long rest.”
“Is that possible?”
“I guess so. Look at it this way. Where we are at the moment the ground is fairly high. To get up here we had to go through a long stretch of rising country. That was when my father was out here. It’s harder work to climb, so it took longer, and we got behind optimum. If we ever come to some lower country, then we can coast down the slope.”
“What are the prospects of that?”
“You’d better ask your guild that. Not my concern.”
“But what’s the countryside like here?”
“I’ll show you tomorrow.”
Though I hadn’t followed much of what Malchuskin said, at least one thing had become clear, and that was how time was measured. I was six hundred and fifty miles old; that did not mean that the city had moved that distance during my lifetime, but that the optimum had.
Whatever the optimum was.
The next day Malchuskin kept his promise. While the hired labourers took one of their customary rests in the deep shadow of the city, Malchuskin walked with me to a low rise of land some distance to the east of the city. Standing there we could see almost the whole of the immediate environment of the city.
It was at present standing in the centre of a broad valley, bounded north and south by two relatively high ridges of ground. To the south I could see clearly the traces of the track which had been taken up, marked by four parallel rows of scars where the sleepers and their foundations had been laid.
To the north of the city, the tracks ran smoothly up the slope of the ridge. There was not much activity here, though I could see one of the battery-driven bogies rolling slowly up the slope with its load of rail and sleepers and its attendant crew. On the crest of the ridge itself there was a considerable degree of activity, although from this distance it was not possible to determine exactly what was going on.
“Good country this,” Malchuskin said, but then immediately qualified it.
“For a trackman, that is.”
“It’s smooth. We can take ridges and valleys in our stride. What gets me bothered is broken ground: rocks, rivers, or even forests. That’s one of the advantages of being high at the moment. This is all very old rock around here, and it’s been smoothed out by the elements. But don’t talk to me about rivers.
Then I get agitated.”
“What’s wrong with rivers?”
“I said don’t talk about them!” He slapped me goodhumouredly on the shoulders, and we started our walk back towards the city. “Rivers have to be crossed. That means a bridge has to be built unless there’s one already there, which there never is. We have to wait around while the bridge is made ready, and that causes a delay. Usually, it’s the Track guild that gets the blame for delays. But that’s life. The trouble with rivers is that everyone’s got mixed feelings about them. The one thing the city’s permanently short of is water, and if we come across a river that solves one problem for the time being. But we still have to build a bridge, and that gets everyone nervous.”
The hired labourers did not look exactly pleased to see us when we returned, but Rafael moved them and work soon recommenced. The last of the tracks had now been taken up, and all we had left to do was build the last buffer. This was a steel erection, mounted above and across the last section of track, and utilizing three of the concrete sleeper foundations. Each of the four tracks had a buffer, and these were placed in such a way that if the city were to roll backwards it would be supported. The buffers were not in a line, owing to the irregular shape of the southern side of the city, but Malchuskin assured me that they were an adequate safeguard.
“I shouldn’t like them to have to be used,” he said, “but if the city did roll these should stop it. I think.”
With the completion of the buffer our work was finished.
“What now?” I said.
Malchuskin glanced up at the sun. “We ought to move house. I’d like to get my hut up across the ridge, and there are the dormitories for the workers.
It’s getting late, though. I’m not sure that we could get it done before nightfall.”
“We could do it tomorrow.”
“That’s what I’m thinking. It’ll give the lazy bastards a few hours off.
They’d like that.”
He spoke to Rafael, who consulted the other men. There was little doubt about the decision. Almost before Rafael had finished speaking to them, some of the men had started back towards their huts.
“Where are they going?”
“Back to their village, I expect,” said Malchuskin. “It’s just over there.” He pointed towards the south-east, over beyond the southern ridge of high ground. “They’ll be back, though. They don’t like the work but there’ll be pressure in the village, because we give them what they want.”
“The benefits of civilization,” he said, grinning cynically. “To wit, the synthetic food you’re always griping about.”
“No more than you do. But it’s better than an empty belly, which is what most of them had before we happened along here.”
“I don’t think I’d do all that work for that gruel. It’s tasteless, it’s got no substance, and—”
“How many meals a day did you eat in the city?”
“And how many were synthetic?”
“Only two,” I said.
“Well, it’s people like those poor sods who work their skins off just so you can eat one genuine meal a day. And from what I hear, what they do for me is the least of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll find out.”
Later that evening, as we sat in his hut, Malchuskin spoke more on this subject. I discovered that he wasn’t as ill-informed as he tried to make out.
He blamed it all on the guild system, as ever. It had been a long established practice that the ways of the city were passed down from one generation to the next not by tuition, but on heuristic principles. An apprentice would value the traditions of the guilds far more by understanding at first hand the facts of existence on which they were based than by being trained in a theoretical manner. In practice, it meant that I would have to discover for myself how the men came to work on the tracks, what other tasks they performed, and in fact all other matters concerning the continued existence of the city.
“When I was an apprentice,” Malchuskin said, “I built bridges and I dug up tracks. I worked with the Traction guild, and rode with men like your father. I know myself how the city continues to exist, and through that I know the value of my own job. I dig up tracks and re-lay them, not because I enjoy the work but because I know why it has to be done. I’ve been out with the Barter guild and seen how they get the local people to work for us, and so I understand the pressures that are on the men who work under me now. It’s all cryptic and obscure … that’s the way you see it now. But you’ll find out that it’s all to do with survival, and just how precarious that survival is.”
“I don’t mind working with you,” I said.
“I didn’t mean that. You’ve worked O.K. with me. All I’m saying is that all the things you’ve probably wondered about— the oath, for instance—have a purpose, and by God it’s a sensible purpose!”