Now for the conclusion to chapter 8.
Here, in this warm haven was where I grew my vegetables. These were not for guests – not that I usually had any. Unsurprisingly, down here they took a lot of encouragement. I had installed several high energy bulbs that mimicked perfectly the full spectrum of solar energies, powered by the constant flow of water through this place. A number of small aquadynamic wheels outside turned at varying speeds to show the force of the current that I had just been fighting. The light was so strong, that the last time I spent too long here I returned with severe sunburn. Half an hour was the limit when I came in the ‘day’, though I sometimes spent longer at night. There wasn’t much floor space here, but with a few garlands of ‘solar’ powered twinkly lights wrapped around a metal spiral staircase that extended to the very top of my oasis and interlacing my flora, this place became a secret wonder of my world, which I could selfishly enjoy for hours.
I didn’t need to have come in here today – in fact, spending much time at all here would make me late for my rendezvous with Katie, I was supposed to be setting up a meeting with the most dangerous man I knew – but I had been craving fruit. I climbed to the top of the staircase, where I was hoping to find a few raspberries in ‘season’. Of course, I could make it whatever day of the year I wanted in here, so why would I ever choose winter? I ascended the staircase, taking in the sights and smells of my little collection. The herbs smelt triumphant, fresh rosemary and mint at the bottom, flourishing where it was a little cooler; then higher up lively oregano and lemon verbena.
I scanned the plants for signs of fruiting – indeed, a few unripe whites and greens were starting to show. I would come back in a week or two to find them sweet, juicy prizes, rewards for my ingenuity. Yet now, there was just one, a raspberry – still not as full as it should be, not completely ready for picking – but I did it anyway. It felt a little naughty, like stealing into a neighbour’s garden when I was small and picking half of their blackberries, praying they wouldn’t notice before they saw me and told my parents off for having raised such a renegade child. At least, I think that was me. The familiar flutter in my heart wasn’t because of my peculiar physicality. I probably freaked her out when she saw me like that.
I studied the raspberry a moment, its angles, its shades. It was just a little firm – next week it would’ve been soft, easily squashed. I smelled it, then unable to resist its charms, I put it in my mouth and chewed it. In another place, in another time, I would’ve found the tartness too much to bear, but this was a joyous experience. Maybe I could find more in the city – the plump, ripe ones that I dreamed about – but they would come at a high price, probably imported from the southern hemisphere, where they would be in season.
What I really wanted, though, was bread. Not having bread was no bad thing for the figure. I had a good body, I knew that – in part thanks to my random and undiagnosed heart condition. A good figure’s nothing without people to admire it, apart from a healthy bit of self-love. The sensible part of me acknowledged how tired I already was; I wasn’t even half-way, and this rest stop wouldn’t be long enough. Instead, I thought about bread, which got an entirely different set of glands excited. I didn’t have the space here to grow wheat in sufficient quantities. I would have traded quite heftily for a loaf of really good bread. A sourdough, or something with lots of different seeds in it.
The sour raspberry and dark fantasies of baked goods left me drooling, unsatisfied. Back at the base of the staircase, a small apple tree bore a few small apples. Deciding it was unwise to leave in such a mood, I picked one and devoured it in three bites before putting my flippers back on in the manner of a child putting its shoes on for its first day back to school after the summer holidays.
I checked my watch just before I dived back into the water. Twenty minutes had somehow passed in here alone. I could only hope that Katie and Jessie were taking their time or, at least, were finding some decent hospitality in the Outpost. And asking the right questions, of course. We both needed answers.
‘Atlantis’ was about halfway to the Outpost, I reckoned. Hanging up the towel to dry and replacing it with a fresh one for next time, I put the membrane back into my mouth and dived under the water. I swam down and back up, doing one quick lap of the greenhouse and then between a couple of the old ruined houses, where I startled a pair of small, orange fish.
The journey continued to the north, where the current grew much stronger. Water squeezed into this wide space through a much narrower opening that had to be approached from the side if you didn’t want to be forced back into a building and smack your head on stone.
I swam to the side of the current and gripped the edge of the opening. I could feel the current in my fingers as I did so. In this manner, I climbed horizontally into this narrower section. The turbulence of the stream knocked me about like a strong wind would a mountain climber, and here I was without a pickaxe, or really any kind of safety equipment. Fortunately, the watery corridor quickly widened and, about ten metres along I was able to progress once more without holding on to the side.
This area was dark once more. My torch flickered, enough to encourage a flight of fear through my nerves, but I carried on. Going back was pointless now – I was closer to my destination than my home. Though, I would need the light to find the exit. It would be soon. My teeth were shaking; they would be chattering together if there weren’t a large rubbery balloon in my mouth. The wetsuit did a good job, but the water down here was close to freezing. Meaning we would need to assure ourselves of some sort of rest stop on the way, if we were to continue to the City along these ducts. That could mean poking our heads above ground and finding somewhere warm, and in unknown territory, within the jurisdiction of the City.
Anyway, one problem at a time. I focused the torch beam upwards, scanning for signs of an exit point. Nothing, nothing, nothing. The underground river twisted left, then meandered back to the right, climbing slightly. Then, there it was – impossible to miss. My salvation. An exit.