Chapter 7, part one!
Winter 2.19 HC, 2210 (Day 49 of the Year of Winter)
The bags were packed. I made sure to stick the bottle of 70-year-old whisky in the satchel Stephen had given me. I certainly didn’t tell him. It could come in useful in the Outpost, to celebrate with, or get someone drunk for information, or sell for supplies. We synchronised watches – again I had to borrow one – and we set our alarms to wake us up in the afternoon. Time of day didn’t matter so much down here, given all of the light was artificial, but it would definitely matter up there. Our journey times would be very different. I would arrive first – I’d get there in under an hour with no hurry. I’d never been to Prophet’s Outpost, so it turned out I was the better choice to go by horse anyway. No one would know my face, and I could quite easily get the lay of the land. Ask a few questions. I had no idea what I would say, though. I didn’t have a recent photo of my mother to show, and not even a name. My only chance was to find Jaycee in the City – at which point Stephen would know I’d been lying about my name and I’d have to explain my entire house of cards.
The aim was to get me there at around sunset going at a trot. My limited experience with horses meant it would be best not to rush.
Stephen let me keep the old phone so he could contact me when he arrived, presuming he survived the trip. He was much less certain of his arrival time, but guessed he’d be at least an hour behind me, maybe more.
I considered my options for when I arrived at the Outpost. It was a strange and lawless place, or so I had been told – you could get pretty much anything there for a price. They had morals, though – morals that changed in the wind. Morals that juxtaposed its citizens’ desire to be free with its need to be different. Once, in its history, it had famously outlawed clothes to go against the city’s conservative attitudes towards public affection and protecting children’s innocence.
I thought briefly about going it alone there, especially considering I had no idea how Stephen would act towards his former… whatever they were together. He clearly had some questions he needed answering, too. Better to stick together. Maybe I could give him the chance to ask those questions. Decision made, I finally allowed myself to sleep. I went to lie down in Stephen’s bed. He rarely slept there anymore, he confessed. He preferred to sleep on the couch up by all the books. Fine with me; our chambers would be as far apart as they could be in here.
I drifted off quickly. When the alarm sounded it took Stephen holding it next to my ear and vigorously shaking me to get a response.
“Fuck. That was like waking the dead.”
“I… hadn’t slept in a while, I guess.”
“Yeah, clearly you needed it. Are you sure you don’t want to wait another day?”
“No. We agreed, we packed, we prepared. Let’s get on with it. I need to get out of here.”
Stephen nodded and went behind the screen. When he reappeared, he was wearing a tight-fitting black wetsuit. It really didn’t leave much to the imagination.
“So you’re a grower, not a shower?”
“Fuck off. You wish you knew.”
“So mature, bro.”
“When I surface, I’ll call you. Both of these should still be connected to a working network, though it’s not exactly legal, so only call me if it’s an emergency and keep it short. Otherwise, wait for my call and I’ll tell you where to meet me.”
“Good. Off you go, then. See you there.” Stephen walked me through to the ladder leading back up to the entrance, and Jessie. The black jeans Stephen had provided me were a men’s cut – slightly bigger than I was used to, but still quite tight-fitting. As a bonus, there were pockets, and there were no rips or tears to catch on bits of old ladder. “Good luck. Oh, wait, I almost forgot.”
He disappeared back into the main room and I turned back in expectation. He had taken out the same old metal tray from when they met, fished out two new crackers from the opened packet and was opening a fresh little bottle of beer to pour into the thimbles.
“We don’t have to…”
“Yes, we do. We need to remind ourselves of how to act up there. Some people care more about this than we do. Drink.”
We raised our thimbles in the same way, observing the ritual dutifully.
Once the crackers were chewed and swallowed, I bowed my head in the customary style and waited. This part was frustrating, for you were supposed to wait until the other person had shut the door on you before raising your gaze, but in this situation, there wasn’t a door to close. It was silly anyway, so I looked up – but in those few seconds, Stephen had gone. From around the corner I heard something – a secret door, perhaps – slide shut.
I turned back to the ladder. It was a long way up. The first ladder had about thirty rungs on it, and it was old. Looking at it now, I was surprised it took my weight, never mind Stephen who, despite sharing my height, must have weighed significantly more with his muscle mass added on.
Curiosity got the better of me, so I put down my satchel and peered back into the main chamber, somehow darker than it was before. I had never seen it like this; never realised the lights could be dimmed. I wasn’t surprised by the possibility of it as much as the change in atmosphere. Then, I saw it – the lighting coming from the second, small offshoot – the one with the books and the sofa – was still bright, and it was the main source of light for the rest of Stephen’s lair. The bookcase in the small side-chamber had moved apart to reveal a third ladder leading upwards. It didn’t go far, and I climbed it with ease. At the top, I could hear the sound of water rushing and sloshing. Another small lantern waited by the edge of the pool.
It was very dark despite the lantern. I dipped a hand in the water. Stephen hadn’t exaggerated – it was freezing. He had gone into that – his inventions better be all they’re cracked up to be. Perhaps he was already dead from hypothermia. I stared at the water for a while, transfixed on its blackness, its lethality, its possible contents.
A part of me couldn’t believe he’d gone in there. I had to get to the Outpost, in part just to see that his invention worked, but I couldn’t help but care about his welfare. Assuming he was on side, after all. While he was still deciding, that was okay too. I had to know our dad, too. Maybe if he could help me understand his madness, I could be okay with it.
Then I saw it – a copy of The Book. Most people had a copy now; we even had a few in the resistance. Know your enemy, after all. And I wasn’t at all surprised that the son of Nathaniel Black, the Architect, had a copy either. I picked it up and opened the first page, expecting it to be an autographed copy. It was blank, if a little wet at the corner where it had sat too close to the mouth of the water.
I clapped the book shut, which allowed a small piece of silk to slide out and float to the ground.
Nothing will come between us, Stephen.
Not even her.