A little bit of spice in this week’s extract… cover your ears, children!
The water was freezing. I should’ve made something to go over my face, which was the only part of my body besides my feet that was feeling the full effects of the cold. Transparent, of course. Insulating. Warm. Thinking about warm things made it easier, maybe. At least my feet had flippers on.
I didn’t get the flippers out in front of Katie. Not that I care about impressing her, and certainly not for those reasons, clearly. Just that it was better to make a good impression on someone I might need. I mean, we needed each other anyway. Not like that, never like that. Fuck sake.
I knew she’d pick tails. She didn’t see me switch the coins. She was easy to bait, too. There was no way she’d want to come down here, and she needed to believe I wasn’t bothered, either. That sounds like I was being malicious. I wasn’t. Really.
The light from my torch revealed the watery path which descended at a gentle angle from my position. It was about to ascend again sharply, reaching a small area where, if I needed to, I could pop my head up for air. I used to take advantage of this when I used a kind of snorkel. It wasn’t perfect – just good enough to catch a few breaths and get some oxygen in. You couldn’t lift your head out of the water fully. Anyway, I’d been swimming only a few minutes and I knew the route. I didn’t stop here.
The membrane was working perfectly. I wish I could claim it as entirely my invention – it really was a clever piece of bio-engineering – but all I did was come up with a use for it. High density protein-like structures that pull the oxygen out of the water. I was also working on something that would reduce the water, creating oxygen, but the process was energetically unfavourable and… anyway, quite unnecessary, provided the water you’re in is sufficiently oxygenated.
There were a few fish down here with me; a few signs of life that darted out from my torch’s beam as soon as the light caught them, like they were allergic to it. I used to love a man like that. Pasty white. Wasn’t good to be like that. He was like a plant that had given up on the whole ‘green’ pretence. Gabriel. No, don’t think about him. I focused on the cavern walls. The river was straight here. I could see the next bend to the right obscuring the route ahead.
If anyone knew what was down here, it would’ve blown their fucking minds.
Of course, it was a long way from perfect. All of it – the dream, the plan, the reality, the ethics. But the very fact that it was possible: the tenacity of humans; that they could adapt to and survive in unusual environments.
Katie understood part of this, I could see it. We both struggled with identity. The identity that has been taken from us. The identity we never had. Has there ever been a period in history where everyone was welcome? Where no one had to hide? Where no one had to rely on the good whims of those in power to grant us our freedoms? Where no one lived in fear of them being taken away from us tomorrow?
I wanted to know about her ear. When we were both safely at the Outpost – a difficult ask, perhaps – I would have more questions. Assuming I didn’t get diverted. It was a distracting place.
I knew that I wouldn’t come up in the middle of the former city. A relief, given the number of eyes and weapons there. It was a wilder place, full of runaways and fugitives, everyone was there to run from, to, or at something. Desperate, but not without a rule of law. I guess we were running towards our fates.
I had been only a few times before in my most recent incarnation, by which I mean since the gap in my memory, henceforth known as the Gap. I went atop my best and only horse. I’d had Jessie since I woke up on that couch, in what has come to be my new home. I wasn’t sure I’d lived anywhere else. I mean, of course, I knew that I did. I knew that it had to be so – my parents – I must have lived with them at some point. I remembered their house, their big, bold dog that I used to take out my anger on when they punished me. That dog suffered at my hands, and I can’t even remember its name. Don’t panic. Think of warmth.
Jessie was a chance to pay back the animal world. I took care of her, at least, as best I could. It was harder at first without any connection to the outside world. I learned by making mistakes. I was kicked a few times, but at least she never bit me. Finally I got myself enough good quality cabling and equipment to tap into the Outpost’s connection. Another thing this tunnel was good for. I wired it all myself. The architect of my own little Aquatia. Like father like son.
The current was stronger here, and the small backpack I was carrying created unwanted drag, but at last, the corner. I itched with anticipation to reach it, to see what I knew lay beyond it.
My name for it, at least. Perhaps a little grandiose for what was an old, submerged clock tower, a greenhouse, and a handful of ruined, sunken dwellings. All preserved here, underground and underwater, albeit somewhat imperfectly. But it was all mine. No one else knew of it – if they did, they passed through like one does a museum or gallery. Without touching anything. Down here, in the frigid cold, I rebuilt some semblance of a life, and I was fucking proud of it. And I wasn’t about to let any fucker come down here and set their greedy eyes on it. It wasn’t for taking, or negotiating over, or sharing. Not like everything else I’d worked on.
I swam for the greenhouse. A beam of light shone out of the clock tower like a lighthouse on the ‘city’, illuminating the whole underwater cavern in a diffuse, pale glow. Rather brighter, however, was the greenhouse was just below it: a tall, quasi-hexagonal dome, and, thanks to my efforts, dry inside. A careful excavation into the underside worked like a charm: like an upturned glass in a washing-up bowl. I switched off my torch – it wasn’t needed here.
I pulled myself up and inside, removing my flippers, spitting out the membrane, and drip-drying a little onto a towel I had laid out for myself. I took in a deep, cleansing breath; grateful for the moment of warmth and bright light, taking in the smell of fresh, aromatic vegetation. A small speaker sat next to the entrance, which started playing some sort of music involving string instruments. Classical music was never my forte. Tell me the name of a composer, and I would have nodded blithely in gullible innocence.
The speaker also served an important function: it was a recharging station for my bees. Five months ago I had been able to buy ten mechanical bee units from the Outpost. Ten little employees that worked enthusiastically, and almost invisibly, at no cost to anyone or anything. It was just what I needed. So perfect in fact, I stole ten more.
It came at a cost. The ‘merchants’ and other ‘keepers of stuff’ in the Outpost loved a game of chance. Trading, such as it was, mostly occurred through a series of wins and losses at a cards table, or some other game. It was a sensible system actually. Currency, as it was when I was a child, always seemed strange. Detached and artificial. Giving someone a number, determined by complex market forces and not at all by the extrinsic value of the item… that is, the seller doesn’t want it, but I do, so it’s worth more to me. So we passed all of these IOUs about. IOUs which change in value because of what everyone else is doing. One day the IOU I gave became virtually worthless. Why did we do that? I worked to let people breathe underwater. You worked to make me a sandwich. Why were we charging each other? Was what I did more or less important than what you did with your time and effort?
Anyway, I lost, or traded, quite a bit to get my drones. And when I ran out of valuables to trade, I offered my body. The bees’ previous owner was not, in fact, their inventor. They had changed hands twice before, he told me. You’d need to find who invented them and get them serviced. He didn’t know he was talking to, or he would’ve known their value to me was much greater. But I had – still have – a good body. In putting myself forward like that, perhaps I undersold myself, but when it came down to it I wanted him as much as he wanted me. Playing cards, in my case poker, then became a kind of flirting. A foreplay. With every turn, every reveal, it was like seeing another part of each other. A psychological teasing. Jack of Diamonds, Queen of Diamonds. There, in the river, was the card I had been waiting for. The Ace that completed my royal flush. As I laid my winning hand on the table I wondered, that in offering myself as collateral, had he held on this long because he wanted me too? Surely he couldn’t think his hand stood a chance. Perhaps he had nothing. Maybe he thought I had nothing, too – but we both knew it was beyond that. We excused ourselves promptly from the table, stealing away into a comfortable, odd-smelling room that was usually used by men and women of the night and, despite my victory, it turned out that both of us got what we wanted. I still won; he was hot, too. Our song went into crescendo as we kissed, undressing each other one stingy item of clothing at a time, each of us making the other mad with frustration. We were like two caged lovers, touching each other through the bars, enough to excite, but never too much. Neither one of us wanting the moment to end. Finally, when it was done, it felt like days and only minutes. Our naked bodies were pressed together under a thin cover. We were to go our separate ways. I didn’t get his name straight away. In this way, I paid a greater price than I knew. He had a certain power over me; one I couldn’t resist – just as I seemed to have something over him, though in the coming weeks and months I would be the one to answer his calls. Perhaps it was because my limited encounters since, also obtained through ‘trading’, had all paled in damp comparison.
I stood in my underwater greenhouse with a fierce erection, which faded almost as soon as it had come on. My eyes wandered to a series of sketches I kept here, hidden in the vegetation like forbidden fruit. No erotica here, but ideas that I hadn’t quite discarded. Ideas that I couldn’t bring myself to destroy, even though they could never come to pass. I had so many of those ideas, and made the mistake of bringing a few too many of them into being when I was not much younger than I am now. Not much younger physically, but certainly the harshness of my reality had aged me so much that I hardly recognised the hand these sketches were drawn in.
I stood there, reliving my own anticipation and disappointment, the victim of my own irony.