Chapter I: There Be Dragons.
The only blight on The Library’s otherwise-perfect north-facing windows is that they face North. All I see is Stone Curtain, the twenty-yard tall wall that zigzags the hundred miles from East to West, its intermittent guardtowers cresting the wall like whitecapped waves. (I’ve always lived inland, so I haven’t seen an actual wave, this is just how I envisage them. ‘Whitecapped waves’ seems more poetic than ‘bedposts’, but in case I’m completely wrong about the wave thing, the towers look like bedposts.) Stone Curtain lines our side of The Scar, and beyond that is North. I know of people who’ve been to East and West, but no Southerner has entered North in fifty years. Even the maps just read ‘HERE BE DRAGONS’ and leave it at that.
I eat my packed lunches up here every afternoon. It took weeks of trial and error, but I’ve identified the ideal 25-minute interval that doesn’t coincide with anyone else’s breaktime. (I bring my own food to avoid small talk with the canteen staff, plus they employ mayonnaise as if it’s the nucleus around which all other ingredients must revolve.) At five minutes to three, I consume the final portion of my mayo-free charcoal chicken sandwich and lurk beside the paternoster lift to avoid the occupied carriages. (The paternoster’s a doorless elevator that never stops – you just walk in when a car arrives, then walk back out when it passes your floor. I saw ours crush a guy’s arm once - timing is everything.) When the first empty cage appears, I step through the open doorway and begin my descent.
Underground, in the tube room, capsules have piled up in my absence. I redirect them as I sort. Inside each transparent canister is a paper slip from upstairs - I read the call numbers of the requested books through the glass. All my days are spent here, surrounded by over nine hundred pneumatic suction tubes which vacuum the capsules through the pipelines to the stacks. There, other librarians find the books and send them up to the reading room. It’s my job to transmit the capsules to the correct section - none of the tubes are marked, and I’m the only person who knows where each one goes. It’s like being a switchboard operator, but instead of voices, I connect people to the written word.
As always, the last capsules of the day arrive just before eight. These final requests won’t be filled until tomorrow, but I still send them on their way. When the clock ticks over to 8pm, my day’s work is done. Upstairs, librarians are encouraging stragglers out the front doors and locking up. I lean back in my chair and shut my eyes, listening to the footsteps. I like to stay in here until everyone else has left - I work alone and live alone - the challenge is avoiding people during the gaps between the two.
I hear the familiar blast of compressed air, and a capsule plunks into its receptacle. My eyes open, and don’t find the canister anywhere expected. Instead, it’s beneath the brass pipe under my desk. I’ve never received a capsule from that tube before - I didn’t think it was even connected. Curious, I approach the canister, and can see the call slip bears four letters instead of the usual numbers - a single word:
Chapter II: Southern Discomfiture.
I grab my fountain pen and instinctively write, WHERE ARE YOU? before kicking myself. Each tube only goes one way. I can’t send a response through the tube that blasted the capsule here, just through the vacuum headed back in that direction. And in this case, I don’t think there even is a return tube. There’s nothing I can do.
Before I can put my feet up, another canister drops from the tube. It’s still warm from its trip through the pipeline, slick with oil, and only slightly less opaque. (When I say ‘less opaque’, I’m using ambiguity to suggest that I could be referring to the oil. But I really mean the message is no clearer than the first one.) It’s four words this time:
I’m in my room.
This at least narrows them down to employees who have their own rooms. I glance around for this year’s staff list despite knowing I threw the thing out the morning I found it on my desk.
After unscrewing the capsules, I compare both notes. The handwriting’s feminine – cursive garlands through the middle zone; a round upper zone; curved descenders. It’s probably the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen.
WHO ARE YOU? I write for my own benefit. As I underline it out of frustration, a third capsule arrives:
My name is Paige.
I extract the third, completely unhelpful, message. I’ve gone out of my way to ensure I don’t know the names of my colleagues – that’s the first step to having to greet them in passing, which leads to small talk, and the next thing I know I’m being invited to some kid’s christening. Thankfully, everyone on the panel who employed me had moved up and out to the more glamorous jobs further south.
As I wait for the next canister, I rearrange the writing on my desk and notice a strange kind of order:
WHERE ARE YOU?
I’m in my room.
WHO ARE YOU?
My name is Paige.
I add PAIGE, HAVE YOU BEEN LOCKED IN? to the written dialogue. A new capsule falls.
My spine shivers and I scour the room. I’d think this is a practical joke if I knew anyone who’d bother joking with me. I ease open the canister and lay out the next communication:
I was locked in here by a dragon.
Chapter III: A Sign.
I laugh. I can’t control it - loud, hysterical laughter that’s picked up by the pipes and echoed back at me. “Okay, Paige you got me,” I yell. The acoustics in this room are amazing - I’m not used to hearing anyone’s voice in here, let alone my own. Paige doesn’t chime in. I scribble other questions, but no more tubes arrive. Maybe she’s run out of canisters. I watch the clock. There’s still half an hour before everyone’s gone and I can head out unimpeded.
I get out of my chair to drag the desk away from the tube. (Perhaps I should have described the furniture in more detail two chapters ago, but I thought I should get to the Inciting Incident as quickly as possible. If you’re the kind of person who likes that stuff, the chair once looked like it was designed by Guimard or Mucha or Gaudí - some Nouveau artist. It was decorative, sculptural, and totally unfeasible for my work. The vinelike whiplash-curved back and armrests got in the way, so I snapped them off. Its claw-and-ball feet were like anchors on the floorboards, so to help me quickly reach more tubes I bolted a castor wheel to each foot. The single thing one of those artistic types got right was ‘une maison est une machine-à-habiter.’ Beauty’s useless if it’s impractical. The desk’s a heavy antique thing with built-in drawers. Buried in the bottom right one’s a bronze plaque with the name ‘Sterling’ debossed in Garamond. Which is elegant, except that my name is Stirling (with two ‘i’s.) As far as I know, signwriters have one job (sorry if I’m wrong and they all moonlight as firefighters or social workers or night school teachers or whatever) - it just drives me mad how often they immortalise something and get it wrong.) The only door to my room is on the south wall – I keep it shut. Tubes cover the east and west walls, the wayward tube is to the north. I prise off one of the panels to see what’s behind the fourth wall. I can’t see a thing.
Southerners can’t help but rely on Far North and Deep South for coal. There were plans at one stage for some kind of water-powered electricity, but those were rendered moot since East cut off our water supply. Whenever we can’t or refuse to pay coal miners’ prices, our backup generators only run the essentials. The tubes still run, but my electric lighting doesn’t. I always keep the oil lamp full and ready for the next blackout. The wick lights easily - I carry the lamp over the threshold. Some of the tube network’s infrastructure is in here, but mostly it’s an empty passageway with stone walls. Paige’s pipe runs straight ahead along the floor of the tunnel, further than my lamplight travels. I follow it on foot - the other end (and Paige) can’t be too far away.
I take that back. I must have been walking in this underground hellhole for thirty minutes and this tube refuses to stop. I’m used to repetitiveness - there are only a limited number of permutations in my day job, but half an hour of this tunnel is doing my head in. I can’t work out if I should turn back now or just keep going. The lamp handle’s getting too hot to hold, so I put it down while I make up my mind. In the flickering incandescence, it looks like even one of the stones decided it needed a break from the monotony. Unlike its compatriots, this one looks like a perfect circle. Maybe it’s a sign. (I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean I’m pretty sure this thing is literally a sign.) I wipe off the dust with my handkerchief. It says:
This Southern camel just bore his final straw. (I’m going home.)
Chapter IV: Diplomacy.
“That’s a nice coat.”
I jump. The old bloke’s sitting against the wall ten yards further up the tunnel - I don’t know if he turned up while I was reading the sign or if I just didn’t notice him. The latter seems unlikely - his jacket is bright red. I know the Spartans wore red because blood was the bodily substance most likely to end up all over their cloaks. This guy should be wearing brown. Or maybe yellow. “Thanks,” I tell him. “I like your coat too. See you.” I lie on both counts, pick up my lamp’s handle with the handkerchief and turn back to South with no intention of seeing him again.
“I’ll trade you.”
My shoulders cringe - the last thing I want is to be wearing a jacket covered in human waste. But maybe it’s the last thing he wants to be wearing too. I remove my coat and head over to the vagrant. “You can just keep it,” I say. “I work underground - I know how cold it gets down here.”
He throws off the filthy jacket and the open newspaper that covered his legs, then puts on his new coat. It fits the vagrant’s frame well - the sleeves were always too long on me. “Thank you,” he says. “I’m no beggar, you know. I need to give you something in return.”
I sincerely doubt the man has anything to give me, but he pulls out a pen and starts scribbling on a sheet of his newspaper bedding. “I’ll write you a poem.”
I shrug. “Sure. I like poetry.” I do, but I’m particular about the poems I like, so I don’t hold out much hope for this one. But at least if he’s writing he’s not talking. I read over the plaque again while I wait.
“What do you think about that?” he says, still scrawling furiously, and apparently better at multitasking than me.
“It’s... a nice shade of blue?” I offer.
The vagrant chuckles, not looking up from his poetry. “You’re a diplomatic kid.”
“I’m really not.” My lamp illumines an eyehole hook under the plaque. There’s a matching one on the opposite wall - if there ever was a ribbon tied across here, it’s long since disintegrated or been removed. And then I notice the lamp’s three-quarters empty. The fire will be dark long before I can get back to the tube room. I point at Paige’s pipe. “Do you know if it’s far to the other end of this?”
“I thought you were heading south,” he says, with a smirk.
“Oil and fire wait for no man,” I reply. “My mind was made for me.”
The vagrant folds his newspaper poem and hands it to me. “Best of luck in your quest.”
“Enjoy the coat,” I say, and keep walking north.
Chapter V: Light at the End.
The further I go down this tunnel, the more it smells like a sewer. I wrap my arm around my face and start breathing through my sleeve. When the steel ladder glimmers in my lamplight it seems like the perfect reprieve. The ladder’s fixed to the wall and goes higher than my fading light will reach, but it’s the only chance to get out before I run out of oil. After failing to climb more than a couple of steps one-handed, I put the handkerchief and lamp handle in my mouth. I cope with the stench and dip my head to avoid burning my chin.
The capsules I lift all day aren’t too heavy, but after scaling hundreds of rungs I’m thankful that my work’s given me decent upper-body strength. Eventually I hit my head on what I assume is a manhole cover, but no matter how hard I push, the thing won’t budge. I haven’t cried since I was a kid, but right now I want to. This is what happens when I leave my comfort zone - I end up hanging from a ladder fifty yards above a cesspool. Groping at the ceiling, my spirits rise as I feel a latch and some kind of mechanism. I trigger it and the roof caves in. It wasn’t a manhole cover - it was a trap door.
I climb out, and have never more thankful to be standing on solid ground. I’m indoors, but can only squint - the lights are so much brighter than my dying lamp. I fumble around and feel... feathers. Lots of feathers. As my eyes adjust, I see my hand is on the chest of a seven-foot-tall bird.
My jaw drops. The lamp falls from my mouth, showering the bird with its final drops of blazing oil before smashing on the ground. The bird flaps and one whole wing explodes in flame.
“Stop and roll!” I shout instinctively.
The bird follows my instructions. I jump and use my weight to yank a velvet curtain off its tracks and smother the fire. I’m impressed by my ingenuity until I notice I’ve just ignited and extinguished a giant bird while trashing a stage in front of a gobsmacked crowd of onlookers.
In better news, at least the air up here smells like roast chicken.
Chapter VI: Trial by Fire.
The bird is back on its feet, glaring at me. It hasn’t blinked once, but maybe that’s a bird thing.
“Sorry?” I offer.
“You will be, boy,” says the bird.
I tell myself that nothing’s happening here that can’t be rationalised. Birds can be trained to talk: cockatoos; mynahs; mockingbirds. Maybe this giant heron is a well-trained pet and all this is still just an elaborate practical joke at my expense. I see if I recognise any faces in the crowd, and all rationality goes out the trap door. The patrons sitting in the closest booth are bald, their almond-shaped eyes are all pupil with no iris or sclera, they have nostrils but not what I’d call a nose, and their skin is green. I turn back to the bird. “Are those aliens?”
There are gasps from the booth. “We’re Approved Locally-Introduced Extraterrestrial Northern Settlers!”
“So you’re...” I mentally initialise the acronym. “ALIENS?”
“Exactly,” one of the ALIENS says. “Manners cost no more!”
“It’s all legal - we’re licensed.” The bird points at a plaque on the wall:
Yep, I’m definitely in North.
“Okay, thank you for having me. I’ll be on my way.”
The bird blocks me with his unburnt wing. “You’re on the Slam Stage, boy,” the bird tells me. “There are only two ways off the Slam Stage. Number one: you read a poem and we like it. Then you walk down those stairs and I buy you a drink.”
I try to remember poetry. Right now I can’t even remember the words to that song people sing before they blow out candles on a cake. “What’s the second option?”
“This is slam poetry. If we don’t like your poem, then...” He triggers the trap door.
My heart skips. “What if I just don’t read a poem?”
The crowd responds with an onomatopoeic shout of “SLAM!”
My heart overcompensates for the lost beat by adding a whole bunch of extra ones. Speaking to one person makes me uncomfortable. This is like throwing me in the deep end of the pool and expecting me to win a game of waterpolo. The trap door ratchets itself shut again.
“I’ll add you to the sign-up sheet.” The bird stands on one leg, picks up a clipboard with the other claw and a pen with his beak. The sheet clearly has no names on it. “What do they call you, boy?” he asks, out the side of his bill.
“Stirling. With two ‘i’s.”
The bird scribbles something, then spits out the pen. “You get two and a half minutes to finish your poem, Stirling With Two Eyes. Stand there.”
He pecks the trap door. At its centre is a cross with a triangle superimposed, like the artists couldn’t remember which shape they were supposed to paint, so they did both just to be safe. I stand there and my legs can’t help but tremble with the realisation that they’re above a fifty-yard drop. The trap door’s wider than my armspan - I envisage the plummet and try to work out the chances of grabbing the ladder in the dark in freefall without dislocating my shoulders. I calculate the odds at ‘not good’. There’s only one option. I hope the vagrant didn’t end up down there because they hate his poetry. I extract his newspaper poem from my pocket. “When does my time start?”
“Exactly...” The bird looks at his pocket watch. “Thirty seconds ago.”
I have two minutes to live, and I’m going to spend them reading poetry.
Chapter VII: Vagrant Poetry.