No half-chapters this time. It’s a shorty. Well. Comparatively. Stephen arrives at the outpost…
My heart jumped in relief when I saw it. I slowed and angled myself up to reach the large opening above me. A tube, half as wide as the river itself, extended up and away from the persistent current below. I could clearly see the surface of the water not two metres above it. Clearly the tube had been drilled into place; a steel ladder descending to just below the water’s surface gave the game away. I grabbed the lowest rung and used it to pull myself up and above the water, peeling the membrane away from my mouth and gasping, my entire body shaking from the cold and exhaustion.
Holding on to the rung with one hand, I struggled to remove my flippers so that they didn’t fall into the water, to be caught in the current and carried away to Atlantis. I was just about able to wedge both into my miniature rucksack, which was only just big enough for both of them and the small membrane.
My wetsuit clung to me so tightly I felt I had been vacuum-sealed into it. I dragged myself up the ladder, placing my bare feet on each rung. That was when I noticed that the ladder was heated.
At the top of the ladder, a wooden hatch with cast iron hinges barred my exit. The latch would be on the other side, if it had one. Gingerly, I tested it with one hand, softly at first, then finding only light resistance, I pushed harder. To my relief it swung upwards. I continued my climb, trying not to let it slam shut, or open out completely and slam on whatever was on the other side.
Peeking my head through the hatch I could see a warm grey flagstone floor. I was crawling out of what looked like a well in the centre of an otherwise empty room. There was no door and it was relatively dark; a single staircase led up to what I presumed was ground level. Of the 270 degrees I was able to survey, I saw no dangers, no traps or people to shoot me on sight, so I finished my ascent and emerged through the hatch, holding onto it and silently lowering it shut behind me.
What should have been a cold floor was also heated. This was a rich person’s residence. The walls, too, were warm, as though everything was being heated internally. I tiptoed up the wooden staircase, which remained obediently silent, and pressed myself against the door.
Still quiet. The only sound was my heavy breathing, and the water still dripping from my bag and very wetsuit. Perhaps it was safe beyond the door; but where was I? I had been expecting to surface in the open, outside. This was not an unwelcome surprise, but it was surprising nonetheless.
I tried the door handle: a gentle push, and it opened with a gentle click and a beep. I craned my neck around the door – a security device, preventing entry from the house to the basement, and of course access to the underground stream. The door opened into a kind of foyer lounge area, replete with more of the same flagstones, partly covered by rugs, large comfy-looking sofas, throws, and other soft furnishings. The most striking thing, however, was the graffiti that covered almost everything in the room.
A few spray cans littered the ground like unnecessary evidence of the vandalism. The walls carried violent messages of base hatred, referring to the owner’s mixed race and sexuality, as well as their undeserved status and resulting home comforts.
Beneath the graffiti, these comforts were self-evident. A recurring theme of owls and hares echoed throughout the room, on the cushions, as decorative ornaments on wooden beams that criss-crossed the room, as heavy bronze statuettes on coffee tables and chests of drawers. A French window revealed what once may have been a lush, green field, stretching away from the room and up a hill, its image now pocked and marred by ruined trenches. To the side, a gleaming pair of solar panels stood proud in the foreground of the scene, offering its summer hope despite the winter that surrounded it.
I hung my bag on the back of the door and walked through the sitting room like a man taking his first steps on the moon; though my presence was just one more disturbance in a place otherwise ruined by vicious words, here I was dripping water on their rabbit-embroidered throw pillows, the words NOT YOURS sprayed over the sofa. The woodland creatures reminded me of Gabriel. He had a collection of soft toys that he said were his refuge from the harshness of humanity. It was hard to trust people after what we’d been through. After the people that were supposed to love you no matter what decided that some unspoken conditions had not been met.
Three more doors led away from this haven of softness. The first, opposite the French window, looked heavier than the other two. It was clearly a front door, which would lead directly outside. The other two doors opposed each other to the east and west, relatively speaking.
Despite the warmth from the floor, I was still shivering in the sopping wetsuit. Whoever lived here, if anyone did still live here, wasn’t around now, and probably wasn’t coming back. It was just coming up to midday, and I had no time to stick around. For someone to be able to live in a place like this, in the middle of the Outpost and leave it, trusting that it would be as it was, meant a person of reasonable power. Either way, they were wrong. People had got in. This wasn’t a sky castle.
I first tried the door to my left. It led through to a kitchen. As if in answer to my prayers, a full loaf of fresh bread sat irresistibly on a wooden chopping board on the counter. The bread knife sat in a rack just behind. It wasn’t the sourdough of my dreams, but I could smell it from here. Perhaps whoever lived here was coming back. But when?
I helped myself to a quarter of the loaf, before discovering a jar of some sort of mushroom pate at the back of a fridge almost big enough to walk into. It was almost too good to be true. Here I was, absurdly standing in a damp wetsuit in someone else’s underfloor-heated kitchen, spreading someone else’s absurdly fancy vegetarian pate onto someone else’s absurdly fresh home-baked bread.
Having already disturbed the sitting room floor with an unfortunate blend of river water and sweat – if I managed to sweat at all in the arctic water tubes – I felt I had broken the seal. I carried my ad hoc open sandwich across the room to the other door and found behind it another staircase leading up to a small landing with another three doors, all open or ajar; two bedrooms and what had to be a bathroom.
A towel hung from the back of the door; a quick smell indicated that at least one of the inhabitants was male. I used it to soak up some of the moisture from the suit; I’d been this rude, may as well go whole hog.
Next, I tried the first bedroom. Clearly the master bedroom. A large crusader’s shield hung on the wall at the head of the bed, with a sword behind it and a helmet above. These items, too, had been sprayed with designs. An angry face, a crude set of genitals.
I jumped at the sound of the front door opening downstairs, and froze myself in place, while looking at myself in the mirror. I remember thinking I looked like something that was straight out of a comic book. Aqua Knight.
A voice. “What the… fuck…”
Another voice. “Someone’s here.”
The water on the floor. The bread.
A third voice. “You think he came back?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” replied the first.
Who do they think I am? The owner, perhaps? Who were they? Squatters, maybe, or the vandals. A click. Another click. Sounded like guns being cocked.
I needed to escape – except everything I needed to continue on from the Outpost was down in that room. I had to act fast. The armour hanging up was better than nothing. Whoever they were, they were still cautiously sweeping the downstairs, but that wouldn’t take them long.
The helmet was a snug fit, and though the visor made it difficult to see, they wouldn’t see my face and it offered a bit of protection and could help with the lie I was constructing to help me escape. I picked up a large shield, too, just in case it could stop any bullets. It was pretty heavy.
My eye caught another discarded spray can sat on the floor behind the bed and gave me an idea. I picked up the can, took a breath, and ran downstairs. The new arrivals had their weapons pointed at me as I descended.
“You’re not Gab-”
“Shut up, shut up. Don’t tell him anything. We don’t know who he is.”
Gabriel? Were they about to say ‘Gabriel’?
“Maybe you could put your weapons away?” I ventured.
“What are you doing with that spray can?” the first one asked.
“I saw the door was open and came in… thought I wanted a piece of the action myself,” I lied. Through the visor, I scanned the room for further evidence of who lived here.
“Well, it’s ours now.”
“And we’re not sharing,” piped up the third one.
If this was Gabriel’s house, that was a different story entirely. Perhaps I should have picked up the sword. But this was a problem for another time. For now, I had my life, a wetsuit, helmet and shield.
“I’ll be going, then. Mind if I take my bag?” I indicated my little bag, still hanging on the door.
“What’s in that, then?” the second one, clearly the saltiest member of their little gang, pointed at it with her gun.
“Nothing useful, look.” I sidled towards the bag and unzipped it. The flippers protruded out.
“You’re into some weird shit, man,” the third one shook his head and half smiled out of amusement.
“Take it and leave,” the first one gestured towards the door. None of them lowered their guns.
I’ll be back. But first, I had a meeting to organise.