Atten-hut! Next half-chapter below! As you were…
Stephen put his empty glass down and studied me. It made me feel a little uneasy to be regarded like this for so long. Compared to Stephen I was nursing my whisky, but it was rather a lot for me. From the way he drank it – frequent sips, minimal pauses – he was clearly a bit of a drinker. Finally he broke his gaze and started analysing the pictures he had taken of my throat. “Strange. This is something I remember. I worked on this.” He broke away and went up to a shelf with a load of small black plastic briefcases. “Yes, this is it. It’s an LVC3. A Low Voltage Catalytic Carbon Converter. In your case, the one in your throat removes the carbon from the air. It absorbs carbon dioxide, catalyses it into oxygen, and retains the carbon, which your body then deals with. Clever. The original purpose was to build artificial trees for places where the atmosphere is becoming a problem… we were working on a version that would catalyse nitrogen by running an extremely low current through a protein structure, and… you’re not listening anymore, are you?”
Stephen was a little bit right. Though I had been paying some attention, I had started to think about our father, and how I got here. He must have recognised my expression. “Are you alright? Try to relax, you’ll give yourself a terrible headache, especially in your state. Maybe I shouldn’t have given you so much whisky. Should I take it away? You should probably lie down. Katie? Oh, and I made you tea! Where is it…”
He fussed around me, taking my glass with the equivalent of a double-measure of whisky still in it, putting it down somewhere nearby and searching for the tea.
My throat chimed again. “I think it wants a new battery.”
“No, it just needs to charge. It’s powered by light, which it probably gets enough of through the skin on your neck, here…” Stephen brought a small, rectangular cut mirror and a torch from a drawer and pointed them at my throat so she could see. A tiny lump, almost like a scar but slightly darker. “Just go out in the sun for a bit. Not now, of course. Just stay away from any dark underground places with a limited air supply until then.”
“How long does the battery last?” How long had I been down there?
“Without light? Not that long. Probably three days, if it was new and fully charged.” Not as long as I’d feared. Stephen had already started playing with the other LVC3. He had it under a microscope and examined the wiring, comparing it to photographs he had taken of the one in my throat. They were similar, but Stephen’s was a bigger, less advanced version. He began breathing heavily in his excitement and stood up, knocking over the stool he had perched on. He was once again clutching his chest.
“Twice in an hour,” he grunted. “It’s not usually this bad,” and he stumbled over to a series of horizontal metal bars that had been drilled into the wall.
“What’s wrong with you?” He jumped up to grab a high set of bars with both hands and started doing pull ups to them while he kept the lower half of his body curled up from some sort of chest pain. Whatever he was doing, it seemed to relieve him.
“I have a heart condition…” he explained between repetitions, “it’s fine normally… as long as I do exercise every day… but sometimes I get worked up… like today… sorry,” he dropped from the bar. “I don’t mean you caused it. But at least it means I stay fit. Not that I care about how I look… as you can tell.” He clearly kept a basic level of personal maintenance. He obviously valued a good shower. He had trimmed the hair on his face and at the sides of his head with electric clippers. Nothing about him was loud or ostentatious. His workshop was messy, but it was clean, and nothing had become dusty. It was like he had so many projects on the go to flit back and forth between; nothing ever got forgotten, but neither did anything progress. I remembered being the same. I always had so many interests. In the end, I gave up everything that wasn’t useful. And for me, that ended up being most things. So I learned a ton of languages, because I never wanted to miss what was happening around me. I learned how to take photos, to record the world, and make money. I learned how to charm people; how to make people trust you, then how to ask the right questions, because knowledge is power after all, and part of that is also knowing how – and when – to lie.
Stephen came a little closer, but stayed standing. I didn’t want to make the obvious observation that, perhaps if he cut down on the booze…
“Forget how you got here for a minute. Maybe the why is more important,” he said, looking at me again like he did before.
How much could I tell him? At least half of it. I hoped I could tell him the whole truth, but that depended. When I started my search, I forgot the changes people had gone through, the conclusions they had been led to. I quickly learned to temper my questions, getting to know people’s leanings before I revealed who he was to me. But he already knew, so it was my other truth I had to guard.
“As my half-brother, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“When was the last time you saw a wolf baying at the moon?”
“Weird question. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.”
Nor had I, but that wasn’t the right answer.
“Why?” he asked.
“Sorry,” I smiled. “That was… random thought. Not what I was going to ask you. So, we share a parent. Our father.”
“Right. Who art in heaven.” He knows the Bible. Has he even read the Book of Mars? Parts of it are in Mandarin, and I have a suspicion that his isn’t that good.
“I’ve been looking for my parents,” I explained.
His face paled. “You’re looking for dad?”
“And my mother, too. I have a photograph of them, here.”
I took out the photograph I had been clinging on to from my wallet. This was my most precious picture, and despite my best efforts, it was worn and faded, and each of their faces was smaller than the head of a screw.
“I know what he looks like. Your mother’s face… it’s… scratched out.”
We were silent for a while, looking at the photo. Both of us with quite different emotions, I imagined.
“If I can be honest,” Stephen said, “you’re better off not knowing him.”
“You’re not the first person to say that to me,” I replied, “but I’m curious to think why you think so. You must know him better than anyone I’ve spoken to so far.”
Stephen’s face went pale again. “He wasn’t the greatest of… dads,” he spat the last word like it tasted rotten. “Or, rather, he was, until he wasn’t. You know who he is, of course. You know what he can do. And you’ll have heard the maxim about power and corruption.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’ve never met him. You grew up with him. Maybe he’s different now?”
“You still speak with him?”
Stephen didn’t answer for a moment. “I don’t call him, he calls me. And… I’d prefer not to go into it. Look, you found me, and I can tell you more about him. It’s better that way.”
“You don’t get to decide that,” I said, trying to hide my frustration. “Only I do.”
“How will you go about it?”
“I have more photos… some of them on my camera, but I’ve lost it. I still have these…” I waved my photo wallet at him, then pocketed it again. “I just have to get to Aquatia.”
“He won’t see you.”
“You don’t know that.”
Stephen sighed and shook his head. “Yes, I do.”
I bit my tongue for a moment. “So you won’t help me,” I said.
“I didn’t say that.”
I smiled a little. He was open to it. He didn’t smile back. The thought of helping me with this task seemed to genuinely worry him. I changed tack.
“How do you power this place?”
“Hydroelectric. There’s an underground river that runs through here and directly to the City. The shower – the water comes from the river. Sorry. If you’re going to be staying long I can give you a tour. To be honest, I thought you’d be far less compus mentis. If you really do like fish, there’s tinned tuna in the cupboard behind you, and maybe even some anchovies, too. Otherwise, there’s tinned beans, and dried pulses, rice. Sorry I don’t have fresh, it’s a bit of a hassle to get.”
I waved my hand to indicate my peace. “Then to your left there’ll be some dried herbs, I think. It’s not much, but I haven’t been motivated to bake anything this week. If you like to, there’s flour, I have some butter in that chiller… and also sugar, I think…”
“Really, don’t worry,” I said. “So we can get to the city from here?”
“It’s possible to get to the city from here, but it’s a long way, and there are obstacles with that particular route. So no, you can’t get to the city from here. Not yet, anyway. You’re hurt.”
“You’re not going to stop me, are you?” I smiled sweetly, but felt a little tense. I remembered something. I’d hurt myself… some sort of accident, in a carriage… I remembered the sound of horses’ hooves on gravel. I allowed my eyes to close and pictured the horses that had been leading it – dappled greys – Jaycee’s horses – but Jaycee wasn’t in the carriage with me. I was going to meet someone. Lots of trees, a country road. Red, golden, brown leaves – autumn. Before the snow.