The conclusion to chapter 6.
It was my turn to produce – or rather, own – the silence.
“I see. How does he contact you?”
“Varies. Hardly ever in person. That one… it was the first time I’d seen him in seven years.”
“Fine. Let’s change the subject,” I said in a tone that hopefully conveyed it was a subject to which, at another time in a different place, we would surely be returning. “Tell me more about the obstacles. The underground river.”
“For one thing, many of the underground chambers are completely flooded, and your device only converts carbon.”
“But you said it’s possible. So you have some oxygen tanks or something?”
“Better. I’m an engineer, remember?”
Stephen opened a cupboard underneath the workstation and pulled out a small black metal box. Inside were what looked like six or seven pink balloons.
“Balloons? Not what I was expecting.”
“Hardly. These are state-of-the-art biotech. The balloon’s membrane works like the gills of a fish to pull out what oxygen there is in the water and convert it into a gas. I haven’t tested it at depth, but it works. Want to try it? We can just get a bowl of water and you can stick your head in it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on. It works, I’ve already tried it. Look, I can show you myself.”
I nodded an okay. I was keen to get to the Outpost, but I didn’t fancy drowning en route. If this worked, it would be very cool. Stephen walked to the shower and placed a small cylindrical tank under the stream, filling it with water. He took one from the box and put it in his mouth. Without flinching, he put his head underwater and bubbles appeared from his mouth. A few moments later, more bubbles. His chest appeared to be moving, too. He surfaced, pulling out the balloon. It made him gag a little as he did so.
“It’s not the most pleasant thing, but it works. Here. Put the bulbous end in your mouth and suck.”
Stephen flushed. “Have you ever been deep-sea diving?”
I shrugged. “Have you?”
We blinked at each other. “Well, you get what I mean. Worst that happens is you cough up a bit of water. Try it.”
I did as I was told. The balloon tasted more metallic than rubbery, though it did squash and stretch like a real balloon. It also had an almost chewy quality, which made it a little unpleasant in the mouth.
“Eurgh,” I garbled. The consistency could be likened to a kind of biological, fishy chewing gum. It slightly adhered to the insides of my mouth and tongue, too, which was as alarming as it was disgusting. I wished I had asked for a more thorough briefing to prepare me for the new sensations.
Wanting to get it over with now, I carefully lowered just enough of my head into the water, so that my mouth was under but my nose was free just in case. I tried to suck air through the balloon, but Stephen was shaking his head at me from above.
“You need to suck in air from here,” he said, pointing at his stomach with one hand while towel-drying his head with the other. “Pretend you’re really breathing, and it’s the only source of air. Try this.” He produced a nose clip. I scrunched my nose in rejection. “Or stick your whole head in. You need to get over the initial hurdle of it. Let me help. Ready?” I shook my head and lifted it slightly out of the water, but it was too late. Stephen had his hand on the top of my head. “One, two… three!”
Stephen pushed me underwater. I tried yelling out, but the balloon had stuck itself around my mouth, and all I could produce were noisy bubbles. I flailed around with my arms and tried to push against the tank, but Stephen was strong. In my fright, I managed to find one of the knuckledusters in my pocket and swung out wildly, but Stephen dodged my initial thrashes and grabbed my arm, holding it behind my back. It occurred to me that perhaps I was in some sort of reality horror show, and brother or not, the likelihood of Stephen being the psycho woman implanter increased exponentially as my mind went crazy with images of other women in similar predicaments.
“Stop it,” he shouted down at me. “Relax, and breathe. I’m not trying to kill you. Breathe.”
I heard him, but his words weren’t much comfort in the situation. I couldn’t hold my breath much longer. Bracing myself to get a lungful of water, I could do nothing but gasp in panic and desperation. Instead of coughing or drowning, I got air. It was thin and had a strange quality to it, but it also felt nutritious, if that’s something one can ask of air. I exhaled and breathed in again. Oxygen-rich? I relaxed and stopped trying to pull myself out. As soon as I did, Stephen let go of my head and arm and stepped back. I tried another breath. It was closer to normal breathing than I imagined, just harder. Like how it might be if someone heavy stood on your lungs, mixed with trying to suck air out of a vacuum cleaner.
The thoughts and images that had raced through my mind now in front of me, like a slideshow of terror. I pulled my head out of the tank, and kind of chew-squeezed out the water from the balloon in my mouth. When it was empty, the balloon became less sticky, and I was able to pull it out with my hand. It had partially adhered itself to the back of my throat, so the gagging reflex that I’d seen in Stephen quickly followed.
“Sorry. You think if I wanted to kill you, I’d have done it by now,” Stephen said.
All I could manage in my shock was, “fuck.” I pushed my tongue around my mouth to remove a residual powdery feeling that the balloon had left behind.
“My dad did that to me when I was younger. I couldn’t swim and I was scared of being in deep water, so he grabbed me without telling me and took me under the water into the deep end. I hadn’t taken a breath, so I kicked and hit him to get him away from me. He was trying to help, though. Made me realise he was more frightening than the water was, eventually.”
“So I should be afraid of you, then?” I retorted. Or was I supposed to feel sympathy? I could certainly empathise with the experience of being grabbed without preamble and taken under water.
“I was hoping you’d have me benchmarked as fairly non-threatening by now, sis,” he said. “And obviously I wasn’t trying to kill you. For one thing, I could easily have done it by now. Secondly, I already showed you the membrane works. It’s able to cause a gas exchange by using a similar catalyst to the one found in f-”
“Never do that again.”
“We were just talking about your random messages from our father. Things he makes you do. How the fuck did you reach the conclusion that what you just did was okay?”
“‘Sorry.’” I repeated. “You’re ‘sorry.’ Fuck.”
Sorry? How was I to know he hadn’t given me a faulty one? Maybe even on purpose? Bastard nearly gave me a heart attack and then tried to mansplain it. I bit my tongue if only to make sure he was still on side. I still needed his help, while my sympathy for his own situation was dwindling.
“Anything else we’ll need?” I asked curtly.
“It’s cold down there. It’s four miles to just outside the Outpost, and then another twenty to the City from there. We might survive four miles in frigid water. Doubtful we can survive twenty.”
“And how do we solve that?” I looked at him in expectation. Stephen frowned in response and shrugged.
“I have a wetsuit, but it’s a prototype. It could work, but it’s not been tested,” he said. “It’ll keep one of us warm, at least.” Stephen paused, watching my reaction. Someone would have to make that choice eventually. “The other problem will be navigating further up, while underground. I don’t have a map of the river tunnels, but we might be able to get one from the Outpost. The river has lots of sources near the City. If we go the wrong way we could end up somewhere we don’t want to be, like the Capital. Or we get to a dead end, then we’re spending more time down there than we’re able to survive. Miles swimming against a current…”
“You said this was possible, now you’re making it sound impossible.”
“Not much is impossible. But it doesn’t matter. You’re getting off at the first stop anyway. Only I need to worry about it for now. Except we’ll need a way of getting you to the City.”
I looked around for inspiration. It had not been long, only a few weeks since I had come out of the cold and found shelter here. I was still wearing the scars of the trek, each one bringing back a painful memory – a scratch, a bump, a struggle, an icy footstep. All this from fifteen minutes of clawing, scratching, crawling through wood and frozen dirt and walking a few hundred metres barefoot over the ice and snow. I wouldn’t fancy the frigid water on a good day. Today wasn’t a good day.
“I thought you’d have a fancy pod or something.”
“When you said it was possible to go upstream to the city. I thought you’d have a… an underwater shuttle made entirely of glass, or something.”
“If you’re okay to wait, I can maybe make another one. A suit, I mean. A shuttle wouldn’t work – some of the twists and bends are quite narrow, you have to be flexible.”
The journey was sounding better and better by the second.
“I have more of the materials, but it might work even less well than the prototype.”
“Great. How long?”
“What odds do you fancy?” Stephen said, in the tone of someone addressing a child who wouldn’t stop asking what time dinner was ready. “I could knock out something in a few hours, but chances are it won’t work.”
I wasn’t the gambling type, either. Actually, I was naturally a bit of a risk-taker – I suppose it made my apparent choice of work quite fitting – but only after some considerable risk assessment and taking reasonable countermeasures. Rather, I had become much more restrained ever since my mother lost a large amount of money on a chancy business investment.
“Wait. Jessie – the horse. Can’t we just go overground?” I ventured.
“That gets one of us to the Outpost. Doesn’t solve the problem.”
“We can’t ride to, say, four miles from the City and go underground then?”
“Well, for one thing, we don’t know where any of the other entrance points are, other than the Outpost, and the City – and the source, of course.”
“So I’ll ride her to Prophet’s Outpost, meet up with you there. Then we can ask around, get a map, whatever… and we ride most of the way to the City. I could wear a disguise, if… or can’t you mess with my implant? You said that was possible.”
“Yes. We can wipe it.”
“Will that help?”
“Maybe. If you’re stopped, or questioned for some reason, a wiped chip would be suspicious enough to warrant at least an arrest and an investigation.”
“Of course, then at least I’d find some answers. Probably.”
What if Stephen double-crossed me? What did I have on him? There were his sketches, of course, but that hasn’t been a crime for decades. His inventions? Were they legal? Wouldn’t someone want to know about all this stuff?
“Look, I’m just going to say it. I still don’t trust you,” I said flatly.
“Just the same here.”
“Right. But what if… I don’t know. You find out that you have to kill me.”
“No, I’m asking you. Hypothetically.”
Stephen narrowed his eyes slightly. “Fine. Hypothetically, then. What if you suddenly had to kill me?”
We both stared at each other for a moment.
“Look. Easy solution.” Stephen rubbed the side of his head like a genie might come out of his ear. “Can’t we just make a promise, right now, that neither one of us will try to kill the other one?”
“Who says we’ll keep it?”
“Just saying. I’m the one who’s wiping your ID.”
“On that topic, can you make me into someone else?” It would be incredibly useful to be able to pass off as someone totally different.
“If I could do that, we all would be doing it. No. The system is stored in three places: Atlantia, here, and in the test dome on Mars. They transmit to each other; Atlantia is the primary record, then there’s Mars, which is connected via a relay of secure satellites. And the ones here? Well, they’re part of the link between the two, and the data is encrypted; one in Beijing, the other somewhere in South America. Anyway, it’s all set up so that there’s one way in: birth, and one way out: death. Everyone gets a unique timestamp, an ID, a birthplace, and a record which can only be updated from one of the central HQs.”
This was obviously something he knew a lot about. I was, at least, talking to the right person.
“The only thing I can do is give you someone else’s ID, but it would be temporary, like an organ transplant from someone you don’t match with. The system would reject it within hours.”
“Huh. That’s interesting. You could make me into anyone, for a little while?”
“Yes, but the system’s pretty good – if you got found out, and central HQ realised someone had managed to fake an ID, the administrators would start tracking your III…that’s your International Implant Identity.”
“The point is, you’d have someone looking for your implant, rather than for you. I think it’d be a one-shot thing. For now, I can wipe your record from the implant, but you’ll still be on the system. It’d take a quick trip to a police station and ten minutes to sequence enough of your DNA to find it’s you.”
“Still want me to do it?”
It was fortunate that he hadn’t looked any deeper into my records than my heredity. Wiping the ID chip might even help with our trust issues, if only to guarantee he couldn’t find out anything about me that I didn’t want him to know. Maybe it would come out eventually anyway, but I was hoping that by that time, he’d know me as the heroine of a story that had yet to be written.
“I’m just using a strong magnetic field to reset the chip. It shouldn’t hurt much. Then I’ll upload the blank template, so we can put something in its place whenever we want to. Come over here.”
He took hold of my left wrist and led me to another workstation. Silver duct tape on the floor encircled the station.
“Just stand there a minute.” He pulled the cover off something made of polished aluminium, and plugged something in on the floor. He grabbed some kind of remote and came to join me.
“Hold up your forearm like this. Oh, I should’ve checked. You’re not wearing anything magnetic, are you? Actually, just to be safe, better take off any metals you’re wearing.”
“Just this earring. It’s gold.”
“Give it to me. Just in case it’s not pure. I don’t want to rip your ear off.”
I hesitated, then unthreaded it from my ear and handed to him in a closed fist. “Please don’t lose it.”
“You’ll have it back in less than a minute. Here we go.” He stepped back out of the circle and positioned himself behind the machine. I did as I was told, holding my arm in front of me, like I was frozen in the middle of a defensive martial arts move.
“Right, now come over here,” Stephen said, beckoning to the original station. “I’m just going to check it was successful, then I’ll ghost the new image… let’s see… yep, blank, okay, so formatting and… overwriting… done.”
“Did it work?”
“See for yourself.”
The monitor showed a blank profile; an androgenous humanoid shape, and a form-filled blank slate. No more was I Katie Joy Paloma. I was Firstname Middlename Lastname.
“Lovely to meet you, Firstname,” Stephen said, extending his hand to shake mine. I let out a brief bleat of excitement, and accepted the gesture. “What now?”
“I used to have some contacts in the City. No idea whether they’re still alive.”
“Right. So we’re both going in the same direction. I think the obvious choice is for you to swim and me to ride.”
“Erm, no, that’s not…”
“I know the horse.”
“Hardly. I think by now, I know her better than you do. You have tech to breathe underwater, and survive in the cold, and you know the underground river. I know the overground route, and I’ve ridden horses.”
Stephen sighed, resting the bridge of his nose on his thumb and forefinger. “Flip a fucking coin then,” I sighed.
Stephen fished around in his pocket and took out an old copper coin. “Here,” he said, flicking it at me.
“Tails. No one ever picks tails.”
I flipped the coin and fumbled the catch, knocking it to the floor where it proceeded to land on its side and roll to a stop at Stephen’s feet.
“See for yourself.” From his tone, I felt like I already knew the answer before I looked. Fuck it, I did not want to experience that cold right now. Wait… what?
Heads. Stephen smirked. “That means I get the horse. Why are you so happy about it?”
“I’ve always wanted to try out the gills.”
“I thought you said they were tested.”
“Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, first I tried it in a tank of water, then you did. Pretty conclusive, I thought.”
I just looked at him and blinked. “You’re bloody insane. I can start to guess why you hide away here.”
“Have to start somewhere. Sometimes the frontier needs a little push.”
Right then, somewhere between those words and the short space of time that I had known him, I had the unshakeable feeling that Stephen definitely must’ve done something even more world-shaking than making castles in the sky.