Inward: Book 1 of Perception
By Rob Turner
When Max and Trudie encounter each other in a ruined, half flooded city, each knows that something inescapable has drawn them together. As they struggle to come to terms with Trudie's demons, and the strange, haunting power which Max senses growing in her, he must ultimately decide whether there are limits to what one person can accept for the sake of another.
There. Some hundred yards to the south of his normal landing place, the stump of a drowned building rose out of the water, about thirty yards offshore in the moonlight, what remained of its walls rising to perhaps twice the height of his boat's mast. The place he had explored when he first came here in the stolen canoe, thinking that it had to be safe. Almost noiselessly, the boat approached the gap where the long collapsed offshore wall had been. Max lowered the jib, and the boat, hardly moving now, glided into the flooded space made by the remaining three walls. The noise it made as it grated gently on the masonry seemed disturbingly loud.
Feeling the wall in the gloom, he was able to find a metal object to make fast to. Working as quietly as he could, he stowed the sails, checked again that his bow was to hand, and settled down to try to sleep. It was a long time coming, his mind preoccupied by the day's events and the unfamiliar sounds of water against wall, boat gently rubbing against wall on a slight swell. But time passed, and at length he slept.
When he awoke it was dawn. The light was strengthening, but the sun had not yet risen. He stowed his tools and enough food for the day in his pack, untied the ropes, and pushed the boat out into the morning, onto the now mirror smooth water. The awe he always experienced when entering the Ruins stole over him once again, born of the place's vastness and age, and the ever present fear that he might be watched by something hidden. He rowed as swiftly and quietly as possible across to the street where he normally landed. Rather than beaching the boat at the street's end as he sometimes did, he let it glide in behind a fringing wall. Cheek and hands lightly pressed against the wall, he steadied the boat, listening intently. All he could hear was birdsong. The moss on the wall was wet, the brick smelt of damp and age.
He pushed the boat into the angle between two walls with an oar, made it fast to a pair of rusted iron brackets. Shouldering his pack, he pulled himself up till he sat astride the wall. He sat immobile for a long time, intently scanning the shoreline, the nearer ruins, the street running away under the trees. Nowhere did anything move. Satisfied, he walked along the wall, dropped lightly down into the street just above the tideline. Again, he paused to listen.
The small cart he had brought on his previous visit was standing untouched around the corner, exactly where he had left it. The sun was rising across the Sound, throwing every detail of the forested Ruins into relief, bathing the world in rosy light. He could feel it warm on his back. He took the cart's handles in his hand, and set off up the gently sloping street, away from the water's edge.
The street was made of a smooth, greyish material, quite unlike anything he had ever seen before he came to this place. Though plants had spread across its surface over many years, it was still exposed in places, and larger trees had found it hard to become established except where the surface was broken, or against the buildings. The streets were therefore quite free of undergrowth, and the going, even with the cart, was relatively easy. He paused often, body tensed, looking about intently. Once there was a movement down the street, and he froze, but it was only a wild cat, immobile as he, looking at him from a distance. After a moment the animal turned, vanished into the ruins. At one point he went silently into a building to his left, emerging after a few moments with another reel of the copper wire he had found on his first visit, the copper he used back at the village to bend and grind into fish hooks, or cast into arrow heads. He put it in the cart, and took up the handles once more.
It only took him some ten minutes' walking to find the place. A long, low white building made of the same smooth material as the street, its top two floors had collapsed onto each other, leaving the basement intact. Wide ramps ran down to openings that he supposed might once have been closed by large doors. These had long since vanished, leaving openings through which the sunlight streamed in, dimly lighting the cavernous interior. He paused at the foot of the ramp, suddenly feeling small. Most of the buildings in his home village could easily have been fitted inside.
He put down the cart silently just inside the doorway, crouched down beside it, watching, listening for many minutes. Only the silence came back, overlaid by distant birdsong from the streets outside. When he was satisfied that he was alone, he took an arrow from his quiver and nocked it on the bowstring, then began to move further into the building, moving silently, poised on the balls of his feet.
The vast interior was divided up into lanes like miniature streets, by racks and shelves made of metal. Some of these had rusted and collapsed, blocking the aisles in places, strewing an incredible diversity of complex articles across the floor. Despite his need for haste, as usual he was unable to prevent himself putting the bow down, picking some of them up and turning them over in his hands, shaking his head in wonder at what the function of each might be. Many metal items were corroded out of all recognition, but some revealed fresh, smooth surfaces under a thick film of dirt, while others were lighter, apparently made of a material similar to the building's floor, or the tubing he had come to get.
It grew darker as he moved further into the building, but, as his eyes adapted to the gloom, there was still enough light to see. At length he rounded a corner, came upon the stack of drums that he remembered. Again he paused for a long moment and listened, then took off his pack, sat down, and spent a few minutes silently eating some food.
Breakfast finished, he took his measure from his pack, measured the diameter of the nearest drum. As he had thought, it was about six feet across, and there was no way it was going to go in the boat. He thought that the boat might take two drums' worth of tubing, if he could get it off the drum. He hesitated for a moment. Nothing for it but to do what he had planned, despite the risk. It should be safer to do the work near the entrance, where there was light, escape would be easier, and where he could be less easily surprised. He shouldered the pack, replaced the arrow in the quiver, put the bow on his back. Then he took hold of the nearest drum, which was lying on its side, and strained to roll it upright. It was a little lighter than he had expected, and crashed over onto its rim, sending echoes rolling round the building. Max froze again, waiting immobile for several minutes, but could hear nothing as the echoes died away. He upended a second drum, pausing again. Then, with face set, eyes darting about, he began to roll the first towards the doorway, wincing at the noise it made. It probably took little over five minutes to roll the two drums into the open door of a small room close to where he had left the cart, but to Max it felt like hours. Once the second drum was back on its side on the floor, he sat down heavily beside it, perspiring, heart pounding, listening. As he waited, the silence came back. After a few moments he began to methodically unroll the tubing from the drum, pulling it into tighter coils which would fit in the boat, wiring it into place with twisted strands of the copper. When a coil got unmanageably large, he took out the small fine toothed saw which Oz had made for him over the winter, cut the tubing, and started another coil. He had just started rewinding the second drum when a sound outside made him freeze. Grabbing the bow and quiver, he was on his feet in an instant, looking out of the doorway, into the building. As he did, a small pig burst down the ramp and in at the main door, pursued by what seemed a shoal of cats. He heard a sound behind him and swivelled, as four more cats ran past him from one of the other doors. The pig hesitated momentarily, ran deeper into the building, pursed by the cats. Moments later an unpleasant noise went up from the gloom, followed immediately afterwards by silence. Max exhaled once, then froze again. The shadow of a human figure had appeared in the sunlight striking in through the main door. Soundlessly, he moved back into the small room, cursing the signs of recent activity which littered the floor, his heart pounding. He nocked an arrow, pressed his body back against the wall, drew the bow and waited, every muscle in his body tense. For a moment time seemed to stand still, then someone stepped into the room and stood motionless, regarding him. His mouth opened in disbelief, as his mind assimilated what he saw. At last he let the bow drop. For a moment there was silence, then he said: “Trudie.” “Max.” She flashed a hesitant glance at him. He had never seen her like this, wearing animal furs, long fair hair tied back, the skin of her legs stained from travelling. She carried a small pack, and her bow and quiver were on her back, as if she had known she wasn't in danger, or didn't care. Irrational anger flared in him, and he said: “I almost killed you.” “Yes.” “Why didn't you say it was you?” “I wasn't sure what you'd do.” “What are you doing here?” “I come here, sometimes.” Again, although it was the last thing he wanted in the world, anger burned within him, at the unexpectedness of her, at this secret place not being secret any more. “Don't be angry with me.” Again the quick glance at his face, barely meeting his eyes. “I didn't mean to shock you.” “How do you know about this place?” She hesitated. “I knew you come here.” He shook his head, frowning. “How could you know that?” For answer, she simply looked at him, the blue of her eyes like the deep waters of the Sound. “Don't worry,” she said at length. “I’ll never tell anyone.” “Why are you playing games with me?” he asked. “When one or both of us could have got hurt? When it's easy for you to run as fast as I can sail?” “I thought you’d worry. I knew you'd seen me on the way, even if you didn't recognise me.” Of course. The running figure in the forest clearing as he'd sailed south, he thought stupidly, the climber on the crag up the coast. How could he have failed to recognise her? He had been so sure it was a stranger, a traveller, a man. He ought to have known from the way she climbed, but she looked so strange, so wild, standing here, the marks of leaf mould on her arms and legs, her cheek. “I'm not playing games with you,” she said. “I told you, I come here sometimes. But this time you were here.” She looked away from him again, making patterns in the dust with the toe of her moccasin. “No one knows we come here. I wanted to talk.” “Why are you wearing furs? You look so different.” “They're better for travelling. Better in the rain. Warmer. Tougher. I keep them in a cave, and change clothes there. I couldn't wear these back in the village. I come into the forest for peace. It's better if no one notices.” He nodded slowly. “Right.” Silence fell between them. Out in the gloom of the building behind him, he saw movement. One by one, the cats were coming out of the aisles, and he raised his bow again, but she motioned to him to lower it. In wonder, he watched as they came up to her, came around her ankles like a sea. She reached down to stroke their backs, their tails, an abstracted expression on her face. “I didn't know you had cats.” “I don't. These live here. They help me when I come. It saves arrows.” “Wild cats don't come near people.” Again she met his eyes fleetingly, with a look that said she was used to being disbelieved. “They help me.” He frowned, unable to argue. “I don't hunt here. I'm never sure if the animals are safe to eat.” “It's easier for you to carry things in the boat. I have to hunt as I travel. I just have to hope it's all right and I'm not in a place that's poisoned. But I know what you mean. I've seen things, here.” “What things?” “Plants, animals, people, that don't look right.” “Like me, you mean?” “I didn't mean that.” He put his bow down on the floor, then he said: “You've seen people, here?” “Yes.” She gestured up the ramp behind her. “Miles away, over there.” “You must have gone further in than me.” She smiled a little, looking down at the ground again. “You know what you're like. You can't walk past anything that interests you. You must get a bit distracted, here.” He grinned despite himself. “That’s true.” After a pause, he went on: “Isn't it dangerous further in? If there are people?” She shrugged. “They never saw me. I know if someone's around.” He looked at her, trying to make sense of what she was saying. “I was so careful, but you knew I was here.” He hesitated, furrowing his brow. “Did you see me sail in, in the moonlight?” “No. I didn't come down from the forest till after dawn. I usually go to ruins up there, on the hills, for things I want.” She paused, then said, “Don't you remember, years ago, when my father whipped me? It was you found me then, up in the woods.” “Yes.” He frowned, falling silent, remembering. Being drawn towards the forest by something inexplicable, wandering for hours knowing only that something was lost, until he came on her under a tree, her face buried in soft moss. He had known instantly who it was, only to be shocked by the dark stain that soaked the back of her blouse, by how still she lay. Relief had burst through him when she shuddered and groaned, as he finally dared to touch her. She was so cold. He had covered her with his clothes, had watched her eyes flicker open, had seen that she knew him. Had finally turned, as he knew he must, to her back. He had fetched river water to soak the fabric before trying to lift it, but he saw the tendons stand out in her arms, the way her fingers clenched in the moss, at every tiny movement he made. She never made a sound. He remembered his involuntary gasp, the mixture of nausea and despair, as he finally uncovered raw flesh. He had built a shelter over her out of branches and leaves, had lit a fire, gone to fetch more water and gather the different healing plants which, frowning, her face a mask of pain, she had tried to remember and describe. He remembered how he had made a preparation with the plants, and had dressed her wounds. And, months earlier, her pinched, ashen face at her mother's burial, the dead look in her eyes, the way she had stood with her arm around her sister's thin shoulders. At last he said, “Why didn't you come in the boat with me, if you knew I come here?” She sighed, shifted awkwardly. “Lots of things. I told you, I go into the forest for peace.” She was looking down at the floor again, tracing in the dust again with her toe. “Sometimes I just can't be round people any more, not even Tammi. There's no one in the forest.” “It's dangerous alone.” “I know if something's following me.” There was a silence, then she went on: “I first found this place by accident, one time when I was just travelling around. Then I kept coming back because of the strangeness, because this place must be from before, and I was curious. And I found useful things.” She looked around at Max's work on the floor of the room. “Just like you.” “This place is amazing,” he said suddenly. “Just in here, there are thousands of things. It would take you years to understand what they were for.” “You're good at stuff like that. Those arrow heads you make are brilliant, really true. I don't lose nearly so many arrows now.” She squatted down by his rolls of tubing. “What do you want this for?” “I reckoned I could collect marsh gas from rotting waste, use it to heat things in the forge, instead of using charcoal.” He could hardly believe she was interested. “Maybe even cook with it. This is to keep it in, to get it indoors.” She shook her head. “I'd never have thought of that.” He watched her squatting there examining the tubing, her hair falling down her back, the cats about her feet. At last she said: “Max, what do you think will happen to our village?” “What do you mean?” “There must be poison somewhere.” She glanced up at him awkwardly. “So few children getting born. Problems when they do.” “I know,” he said, with sudden bitterness, conscious of his dwarfism, of his unbroken voice. He felt awkward, angry again, because he was too afraid to tell her how he felt. Afraid of how she would react if he told her. “Let me help you with this,” she said suddenly. He wanted to say that he needed no help, and he wanted her to help him. So he said nothing. “It's a lot to do on your own,” she said, “with the boat to load.” So they worked together for the next few minutes, saying little, he unrolling and cutting the tubing, she wiring it. Sometimes they came close as they worked, and he caught the scent of her, and sometimes their hands touched. Her skin was dry and cool, and he remembered how they had used to play together as children, how carefree they had seemed, before he became so conscious of his disability, before the world reached out and laid its hand on her. And he realised how little he had seen of her since then, since she had grown up, so that working with her now seemed wholly new. Looking back on that day, years later, he remembered his heartbeat, how his palms were moist, how hard he found it to believe that he could be so close to her, here on the edge of their world. He watched her strong, capable hands wiring the tubes, wondering that they belonged to the same hesitant, diffident girl who had come to the smithy that afternoon last autumn, to buy his arrow heads. Then it came to him that out here she could do and be what she pleased, that her survival in the forest was in no one's hands but her own, and suddenly he understood. He remembered seeing her running, on his way down the Sound, and he understood. Soon the rolls were finished, and they carried them outside. The sunlight was blinding after the gloom of the building, and they could hardly see when they went back inside. They stacked the first few rolls on the cart, and piled the others up beside it. Max packed up his tools, and Trudie came outside again with him. “Don't you need to go and get whatever you came for?” he asked. “Let's finish this. Then I'll go.” “You're kind. You don't need to.” “You push the cart,” she said. “I'll carry some of this.” She took a roll on each shoulder. He knew she did not mean to make him conscious of his limitations, perhaps had no idea that she did so. Then he realised that it was the contrast between the two of them that made him so aware of his shortcomings, that very beauty of her that drew him to her, and he smiled wryly to himself. They were both a little out of breath when they got to the shoreline. She laid down what she was carrying, they unloaded the cart, and went back into the Ruins for the rest. The remaining rolls went in the cart, and they took a handle each. “This is a good little cart,” she said. “I found it broken behind Oz's shed the winter before last, and mended it. It's served me well down here. Bringing that first boatload of iron back for Oz without it nearly killed me.” He left her by the water, and went and got the boat, bringing it round to where the street ran down into the Sound. She helped him pull it up a little from the water, and together they loaded the piping. The rolls were bulky but not particularly heavy, and all but two of them went in. He tucked the cart out of sight, where he always left it, with the last two rolls in it. He went back to where she was standing in the sunlight, one hand on the boat, looking out over the Sound. “Come back with me,” he said. She turned to face him. “I have to go up to the high ruins,” she said. “There's some things I need.” “Then I'll wait for you.” “Don’t wait. Don't tempt fate. Remember the people, the ones I told you about.” “Then you shouldn't go up there.” “I'll be all right. I'll know if it's dangerous.” “I want to wait for you.” She smiled, looking away. “You're kind to me, Max,” she said, “but I’ll be all right in the forest. I won't have very much to carry this time.” “Be careful, then.” He got into the boat, realising that it was pointless to argue. “I will. I'll see you soon, back at the village.” For a moment she stood holding the prow, her knuckles white as she gripped the wood. “Thank you,” he said. “I'm glad you found me here.” “I’m glad too.” She pushed the boat off. He waved once, then turned to hoist the sails. The boat heeled, turned, began to move out into the Sound in the morning sunshine. When he turned back she had gone with her cats, melted into the Ruins, but the look that had been in her eyes as she pushed him off would stay with him for hours. Two porpoises joined him as he rounded the point, breasting the swells beside him as he ran before a brisk southerly breeze, with the sunlight dancing on the water.
Books by Rob Turner
by Rob Turner
After the disastrous encounter at the end of Inward, Max and Trudie wake from unconsciousness, to a life of almost incomprehensible strangeness. As the days and weeks unfold, as Trudie's seeing is probed and studied, and they begin to come to terms with an advanced society which has survived from the past, they are caught in a power struggle between the state and the biotechnology company which ‘discovered’ them.