Authors: Christopher Priest
But surely this was no new problem in the city? Victoria and I were not the first to be married in this way. Before us there must have been others who had encountered the same rift. Had they simply taken the system as it appeared to them?
Victoria didn’t move as I left the room and went towards the crèche.
Away from her, away from the inescapable syndrome of reaction and counter-reaction by talking to her, the concerns she expressed faded and I became more worried about my own situation. If the oath were to be taken at all seriously I could be killed if word were to reach one of the guildsmen.
Could breaching the oath be that dreadful a thing to do?
Would Victoria tell anyone else what I had said? On thinking this my first impulse was to go back to see her, and plead for her silence … but that would have made both the breach and her own resentment more serious.
I wasted the rest of the day, lying on my bunk and fretting about the entire situation. Later late in one of the dining-rooms of the city, and was thankful not to see Victoria.
In the middle of the night, Victoria came to my cabin. My first awareness was of the sound of the door closing, and as I opened my eyes I saw her as a tall shape standing beside the bed.
“Ssh. It’s me.”
“What do you want?” I reached out to find the light-switch, but her hand came across and took my wrist.
“Don’t turn on the light.”
She sat down on the edge of the bed, and I sat up.
“I’m sorry, Helward. That’s all I’ve come to say.”
She laughed. “You’re still asleep, aren’t you?”
“Not sure. Might be.”
She leaned forward, and I felt her hands press lightly against my chest and then move up until they were behind my neck. She kissed me.
“Don’t say anything,” she said. “I’m just very sorry.”
We kissed again, and her hands moved until her arms were tight around me.
“You wear a night-shirt in bed.”
“Take it off.”
She stood up suddenly, and I heard her undoing the coat she was wearing.
When she sat down again, much closer, she was naked. I fumbled with my night-shirt, getting it caught as it came over my head. Victoria pulled back the covers, and squeezed in beside me.
“You came down here like that?” I said.
“There’s no one about.” Her face was very close to mine. We kissed again, and as I pulled away my head banged against the cabin wall. Victoria cuddled up close to me, pressing her body against mine. Suddenly she laughed loudly.
“Christ! Shut up!”
“What’s up?” she said.
“Someone will hear.”
“They’re all asleep.”
“They won’t be if you keep laughing.”
“I said don’t talk.” She kissed me again.
In spite of the fact that my body was already responding eagerly to her, I was stricken with alarm. We were making too much noise. The walls in the crèche were thin, and I knew from long experience that sounds transmitted readily. With her laughter and our voices, the fact that of necessity we were squeezed in the bunk against the wall, I was certain we’d awaken the whole crèche. I pushed her away and told her this.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said.
I flung back the bed-covers, and scrambled over her. I turned on the light. Victoria shielded her eyes against the glare, and I tossed her coat to her.
“Come on … we’ll go to your room.”
“Yes.” I was pulling on my uniform.
“Don’t put that on,” she said. “It smells.”
She sat up and as she did so I stared at her, admiring the neatness of her naked body. She pulled the coat around her shoulders, then got out of the bed.
“O.K.,” she said. “But let’s be quick.”
We left my cabin and let ourselves out of the crèche. We hurried along the corridors. As Victoria had said, this late at night there was no one about, and the corridor lights were dimmed. In a few minutes we had reached her room. I closed the door, and bolted it. Victoria sat down on the bed, holding her coat around her.
I took off my uniform and climbed into the bed.
“Come on, Victoria.”
“I don’t feel like it now.”
“Oh, Christ … why not?”
“We should have stayed where we were,” she said.
“Do you want to go back?”
“Of course not.”
“Get in with me,” I said. “Don’t sit there.”
She undid her coat and dropped it on the floor, then climbed in beside me. We put our arms around each other, and kissed for a moment, but I knew what she meant. The desire had left me as rapidly as it had come. After a while we just lay there in silence. The sensation of being in bed with her was pleasant, but although I was aware of the sensuality of it nothing happened.
Eventually, I said: “Why did you come to see me?”
“I told you.”
“Was that all … that you were sorry?”
“I think so.”
“I nearly came to see you,” I said. “I’ve done something I shouldn’t.
“What was it?”
“I told you … I told you I had been made to swear something. You were right, the guilds impose secrecy on their members. When I became an apprentice I had to take an oath, and part of it was that I had to swear I would not reveal the existence of the oath. I broke it by telling you.”
“Does it matter?”
“The penalty is death.”
“But why should they ever find out?”
Victoria said: “If I say anything, you mean. Why should I?”
“I’m not sure. But the way you were talking today, the resentment at not being allowed to lead your own life … I felt sure you would use it against me.”
“Until just now it meant nothing to me. I wouldn’t use it. Anyway, why should a wife betray her husband?”
“You still want to marry me?”
“Even though it was arranged for us?”
“It’s a good arrangement,” she said, and held me tighter for a few moments. “Don’t you feel the same?”
A few minutes later, Victoria said: “Will you tell me what goes on outside the city?”
“Because of the oath?”
“But you’re already in breach of it. What could matter now?”
“There’s nothing to tell anyway,” I said. “I’ve spent ten days doing a lot of physical work, and I’m not sure why.”
“What kind of physical work?”
“Victoria … don’t question me about it.”
“Well tell me about the sun. Why is no one in the city allowed to see it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there something wrong with it?”
“I don’t think so …”
Victoria was asking me questions I should have asked myself, but hadn’t.
In the welter of new experiences, there had been hardly time to register the meaning of anything I’d seen, let alone query it. Confronted with these questions—quite aside from whether or not I should answer them—I found myself demanding the answers. Was there indeed something wrong with the sun that could endanger the city? Should this be kept secret if so? But I had seen the sun, and …
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” I said. “But it doesn’t look the same shape as I’d thought.”
“It’s a sphere.”
“No it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t look like one.”
“I shouldn’t tell you, I’m sure.”
“You can’t leave it like that,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s important.”
“O.K.” I had already said too much, but what could I do? “You can’t see it properly during the day, because it’s so bright. But at sunrise or sunset you can see it for a few minutes. I think it’s disk-shaped. But it’s more than that, and I don’t know the words to describe it. In the centre of the disk, top and bottom, there’s a kind of shaft.”
“Part of the sun?”
“Yes. A bit like a spinning-top. But it’s difficult to see clearly because it’s so bright even at those times. The other night, I was outside and the sky was clear. There’s a moon, and that’s the same shape. But I couldn’t see that clearly either, because it was in phase.”
“Are you sure of this?”
“It’s what I’ve seen.”
“But it’s not what we we were taught.”
“I know,” I said. “But that’s how it is.”
I said no more. Victoria asked more questions but I pushed them aside, pleading that I did not know the answers. She tried to draw me further on the work I was doing, but somehow I managed to keep my silence. Instead, I asked her questions about herself and soon we had moved away from what was for me a dangerous subject. It could not be buried forever, but I needed time to think.
Some time later we made love, and shortly afterwards we fell asleep.
In the morning Victoria made some breakfast, then left me sitting naked in her room while she took my uniform to be laundered. While she was away I washed and shaved, then lay on the bed until she returned.
I put my uniform on again: it felt crisp and fresh, not at all like the rather stiff and odorous second skin it had become as a result of my labours outside.
We spent the rest of the day together, and Victoria took me to show me around the interior of the city. It was far more complex than I had ever realized. Most of what I had seen until then was the residential and administrative section, but there was more to it than this. At first I wondered how I should ever find my way around until Victoria pointed out that in several places plans of the lay-out had been attached to the walls.
I noted that the plans had been altered many times, and one in particular caught my attention. We were in one of the lower levels, and beside a recently drawn revised plan was a much older one, preserved behind a sheet of transparent plastic. I looked at this with great interest, noting that its directions were printed in several languages. Of these I could recognize only the French language in addition to English.
“What are these others?” I asked her.
“That’s German, and the others are Russian and Italian. And this—” she pointed to an ornate, ideographic script “—is Chinese.”
I looked more closely at the plan, comparing it with the recent one next to it. The similarity could be seen, but it was clear that much alteration work had been carried out inside the city between the compiling of the two plans.
“Why were there so many languages?”
“We’re descended from a group of mixed nationals. I believe English has been the standard language for many thousands of miles, but that’s not always been the case. My own family is descended from the French.”
“Oh yes,” I said.
On this same level, Victoria showed me the synthetics plant. It was here that the protein-substitutes and other organic surrogates were synthesized from timber and vegetable products. The smell in here was very strong, and I noticed that all the people who worked here had to wear masks over their faces. Victoria and I passed through quickly into the next area where research was carried out to improve texture and flavour. It was here, Victoria told me, she would soon be working.
Later, Victoria expressed more of her frustrations at her life, both present and future. More prepared for this than previously I was able to reassure her. I told her to look to her own mother for example, as she led a fulfilled and useful life. I promised her—under persuasion—that I would tell her more of my own life, and I said that I would do what I could, when I became a full guildsman, to make the system more open, more liberal. It seemed to quiet her a little, and together we passed a relaxed evening and night.
Victoria and I agreed that we should marry as soon as possible. She told me that during the next mile she would find out what formalities we had to undergo, and that if it were possible we would marry during my next period of leave, or during the one after. In the meantime, I had to return to my duties outside.
As soon as I came out from underneath the city it was obvious that much progress had been made. The immediate environment of the city had been cleared of most of the impedimenta of the work. There was none of the temporary buildings in sight, and no battery-operated vehicles stood against the recharging points, all, presumably, in use beyond the ridge. A more fundamental difference was that leading out from the northern edge of the city were five cables, which lay on the ground beside the tracks and disappeared from view over the hump of the ridge. On guard beside the track, pacing up and down, were several militiamen.
Suspecting that Malchuskin would be busy I walked quickly towards the ridge. When I reached the summit my suspicions were confirmed, for in the distance, where the tracks ended, there was a flurry of activity concentrated around the right inner track. Beyond this, more crews were working on some metal structures, but from this distance it was impossible to determine their function. I hurried on down.
The walk took me longer than I had anticipated as the longest section of track was now more than a mile and a half in length. Already the sun was high, and by the time I found Malchuskin and his crew I was hot from the walk.
Malchuskin barely acknowledged me, and I took off the jacket of my uniform and joined in with the work.
The crews were labouring to get this section of track extended to a length equal to the others, but the complication was that a patch of ground with a rock-hard subsoil had been encountered. Although this meant that the concrete foundations were not necessary, the pits for the sleepers could only be dug with the greatest difficulty.
I found a pickaxe on a near-by truck, and started work. Soon, the more sophisticated problems I had encountered inside the city seemed very remote indeed.
In the periods of rest I gathered from Malchuskin that apart from this section of track all was nearly ready for the winching operation. The cables had been extended, and the stays were dug. He took me out to the stay-emplacements and showed me how the steel girders were buried deep into the ground to provide a sufficiently strong anchor for the cables. Three of the stays were completed and the cables were connected. One more stay was in the process of completion, and the fifth was being erected now.