Ten miles beyond the city the river loses its momentum, drooling into a brackish estuary that feeds the bay.The boats that made the eastward journey out of Versia entered a lower landscape and to the south there were huts and rotten little jetties, from where rural laborers fished sticklebacks and bass.
From the decks, you could see over the fringe of hedgerow and trees and bramble to a tract of fields. This was the stubby end of the Grain Spiral, the long curl of farmland that feeds the city. Barges puttered between fields, on canals hidden by banks of earth and vegetation. They sailed between the metropolis and the estates. They brought chemicals and fuel, stone, cement and luxuries to the country. They returned to the city past acres of cultivation studded with hamlets and great houses and mills with sack upon sack of grain and meat.
The north bank was wilder.
It was a long expanse of scrub and marsh. It stretched out for more than eighty miles and the foothills and the low mountains that creep at it from the west covered it. It was ringed by the river and the range mountains and the sea. The rocky scrubland was an empty place. If there were inhabitants they were not seen.
The fields she saw were cold mud. The half-bare trees dripped. Their silhouettes looked inked onto the clouds.
In the days that followed when she thought back to that time, she could recall the formation of a flock of geese that passed over the boat, barking and the stench of sap and earth and the slate shade of the skyand the falling of the snow. The last birds maybe. Jack had told her that birds migrated from place to place. She remembered searching the hedgerow with her eyes.
She had stood on the deck enveloped in her shawl and watched and listened for children's games or anglers but she heard only feral noise.
There were mutterings ahead in the captain’s cabin and she turned to the open window.
No. Back a bit.
A looming carcase?
She stared at little rock islands and when at last there came a sound from the speakers above, it made her start. It was the alarm for which she and the rest of the crew had been waiting. A crackling blare. Then from the intercom came the exclamation:
There she blows -
An instant frantic readiness.
The crew squinted into the frigid wind and swayed with the boat motion.
Way off where perspective made the line of old rails meet the soil seethed and rocks jostled. The ground rearranged and from beneath came a dust-muffled howl.
Amid strange landforms and stubs of antique plastic, black earth coned into a sudden hill and up something clawed. A great and dark beast.
Soaring from its burrow in a clod-cloud and explosion it came. A monster. It roared into the air. It hung a crazy moment at the apex of its leap. Drawing attention to its very size. It crashed at last back down through the topsoil and disappeared into the below.
Then came laughter from the cabin and the crew pushed each other and laughed. She stared past big slate teeth and closed her eyes a moment and then looked ahead at the rocks and deadhead branches coming from the silt beneath.
Jack had told her that in the older tunnels people had fled after the war and from that flight a whole society of man. He had climbed through these tunnels that first year when things were so uncertain and the Tower had just been finished. He had told her about a species of spindly and shadow skinned creatures that were more the remnants of humans than anything else.
It had not been a long journey, but she had felt tethered by time to the city behind her, so that the minutes stretched taut as she moved away, and slowed the farther she got, dragging out her little voyage.
Much later, when she was miles from everything she knew, she would wake on the veranda, astonished that it was not the city itself, her home that she dreamed of. It was that little stretch of river, that weather beaten corridor of country that had surrounded her for less than half a day.
In a quiet stretch of water a few hundred feet from the rocky shore, three decrepit ships were moored. Their anchors were rooted deep in silt and the chains that attached them were scabbed with years of barnacles.
They were smeared black with big wooden structures built at the stern and bow. Their masts were stumps and the chimneys were cold and crusted.
The ships were ringed with buoys strung together with barbed shackles, above and below the water. The three old vessels were enclosed in their own patch of sea, unmoved by any currents.
Behind the ships a pier and a tunnel leading into the cities labyrinthine collection of overflow sewers that would empty into the sea.
She entered the tunnel and marched dark miles to where the fetid-moist pall merged with forlorn fog.
Pretend you’re already dead, scrawled by an anonymous sanitation technician.
Piles of debris clogged this older sewer section. Slow moving molten flows of caked feces and grease, throw-away electronic components, dead animals, parts of human bodies; the accumulated refuse of humans living too close together for too long a time.
There was something in the middle of the junction. Sludge on either side drifted around a small island of hardened waste.Someone had put a man up on a pair of boards that criss-crossed the pipe. The man was perhaps a few days dead by the look of him. Roaches had eaten the flesh from his feet to the bone and were gnawing on the calf muscles.The girl thought that it sounded likefalling rain.
Carved into his chest were the words, KEP OUT.
Organ jackers - not likely, he still has his eyes.
She had half expected it to be narrow but it remained wide and sizeable. The tunnel opened up into a pumping chamber. She could feel the slow roar of the pumps before she heard them. She squinted as she entered the chamber and the chamber was lit with pale fluorescents. She blinked away the red shadows and vats of waste being reconditioned by bacteria, everything a dark green glow.
Over the edge it was not dark and the girl could see perhaps dogs through the sludge, unleashed and howling. They burst from the cover of the muck and their shadows swam across garbage and filth. The dogs faltered and broke apart, yearning. They were stiff-legged and ploughed the mire with their heavy snouts.
The girl scrambled through ditchwater and broken brick, desperate to erase her scent. For a moment she dared to stop running, to stand motionless, listening, holding her dark skirts out of the water. No wind through the tunnel, the rats stood motionless. No sound except the dripping of her skirts and far down in the pit, the dogs.
In the darkness she came to a long bridge that was again lit by the same fluorescents as the pit. Growing under the lights, a forest of mushrooms and through the grey tops and she heard an entity perhaps. Its laughter was a sepulchral echo, a mad tittering of a deranged trickster god. The laughter resounded at random throughout the caverns.
To the bridge’s side she found the source of the resonating laughter; a troupe of dancers, clowns and madmen moving in a current of fidgeting intensity. The clowns’ lips were sewn shut, each mouth stitched into a different expression and they wore torn jeweled masks that covered the top halves of their faces.
The group became louder when they saw the girl and they jumped with their hands held up and their heads staring into the ceiling of the cave. The girl saw that in the middle of their circle lay a man who was dying. Blood spurting from his dark clothes, made darker in the dim light. He was singing in a tongue that she did not recognize and it seemed that he was not one of them. The manwas set in a great pool of his blood. It had set into a sort of pudding crossed everywhere with the tracks of wolves or dogs and along the edges it had dried and cracked into a burgundy ceramic.
She saw the perverted congress and they were each tattooed in garish colours and cartwheeling through the waste. They looked at her and the wind cooled through the tunnels and drops of muck the size of grapeshot fell upon the carnival out of that wild darkness. She could smell wet stone and moved on.
Through the tunnel, long dark miles.