Apple sat at a metal table screwed into the bare rock wall. As near as she could tell, she was within a network of caves and tunnels, all made relatively habitable by the addition of furnishings and lights. There were supplies of food and water too, enough to withstand a siege, she felt. These people had either been here for a long time, or planned to be. They still regarded her with undisguised suspicion, but they’d given her food. It was simple fare: cured meat and some carb-meal, served on a battered tin tray with a tarnished fork, but such things bothered her little. Long years spent in the desert had taught her to take meals when she could get them, and not to be too fussy about what she ate and how. She fed herself mechanically, just refuelling, and tried to ignore the tons of rock that must be above her head. This particular chamber was obviously used as a dining room, to judge by the other tables attached to the walls or free-standing. Apple wondered how many people were down here. She was currently alone, but she knew guards stood by the exits. They wouldn’t stop her leaving, but they kept a weather eye on her. She didn’t begrudge them that. Frankly, she’d have been insulted if they didn’t.
She wrapped the last fragment of meat around her fork, then glanced up as a shadow appeared by one of the tunnel entrances and then resolved itself into the woman, Ellasa. She walked towards her and then pulled up a chair to sit opposite her at the table. Apple watched her for a moment as she chewed, then set her fork down. “I’m sorry.”
Ellasa lifted her eyebrows. “For what?”
“If I’d known he was your father, I wouldn’t have been so…”
She nodded. “I know what it’s like to lose someone close to you like that.”
“I’d sooner the ugly truth than a pretty lie, Apple. I’m glad I know what really happened.”
“I’m the same. Still. It’s hard.”
“It is,” Ellasa admitted, “especially now.”
“He was more than my father. He was our leader.”
Apple looked around the cavern. The light was provided by sconces crudely cut into the walls, filled with solid fuel lamps. The rock above them was stained black by the smoke. The air was thick and left her feeling a little nauseous. Ventilation must be a serious problem down here. “Your leader,” she said.
“You still want to know what this is all about, I suppose.”
She sighed. “No. I just want to get out of this city.”
“These tunnels lead out beyond the walls. We can sneak you out.”
She considered it. “I have a rotan stabled near the gates. I need to get it before I leave.”
“That…might be more difficult.”
“You don’t need to be involved. Just let me out somewhere in the city under cover of darkness. I can look after myself.”
“I’m not so sure of that.”
Apple straightened in her chair. “You’ve seen me fight. Even with a bullet wound in my leg I’m…”
Ellasa waved a hand. “I don’t doubt your survival skills, Apple. But you don’t know what you’re up against now. Reports will already have reached our enemies, and they’ll be searching for you.”
“Whoever they are, I’m not frightened.”
“You should be,” she said earnestly.
Apple looked at the other woman suspiciously. They were probably about the same age, though the city-woman had soft, pampered skin to her eyes. Undoubtedly she was determined though, given the risk she must have taken to lead that rescue mission to find her father. “All right. Consider my interest piqued. What’s happening? Who are you, and who was Carek?”
“My mother doesn’t think we should tell you anything,” Ellasa admitted.
“Do you lead here or does she?”
That brought a slight smile to the pale woman’s face. “That’s still to be determined.”
“You brought me out of that – what did you call it?”
“Stockade,” Ellasa supplied.
“Yes. Stockade. You brought me out because of what your father said to me, yes? For whatever reason, he thought I would be useful to your…to this…” she waved a hand around, encompassing the cave, Ellasa, the unseen guards, “and you put some stock in that.”
“I do.” She seemed guarded, measuring her guest, as if there could still be treachery afoot. “Dad is…was…” She paused for a moment, looking away to one side. “He was a…a sort of revolutionary.”
“I see.” He hadn’t looked much like a revolutionary, but then Apple wasn’t sure she’d ever really met one before. Maybe they were all shabbily-dressed, sun-crazed fools.
“And a philosopher. He had some…ideas…that certain people around here found…controversial.”
Apple sensed she was being careful. One person’s revolutionary was another’s terrorist. One person’s philosopher, another’s demagogue. She wondered who had wanted Carek dead. The list was probably fairly lengthy. “And what did he…philosophise…about?”
“About the world and its nature.”
“I see…” She didn’t, really. Her people had long ago abandoned attempts to reason such things. The world was as the world was, harsh and unforgiving, defined by violence and thirst. What good did it do to ponder such unknowables?
“You’re not interested,” Ellasa sighed. She made to get up.
“No. No, I am interested. It’s the only reason I’m alive. Tell me.” She gestured for her to sit back down.
“Dad believed that there were questions about our situation that were too dangerous to leave unanswered.”
Ellasa held up her hands. “Everyone’s. People’s. Human beings. However you want to put it.”
“You mean city-folk?”
“Not just us. Everyone. Icemen and subterrans and hunters and rockeaters and marau…your folk. Every tribe and nation in the world.”
“Okay.” She frowned. “But I don’t follow – what ‘situation’ do we share, exactly?”
“The world is dying, Apple. Water is harder and harder to find every year. Do you know how much the population has decreased in the last decade alone?”
She shrugged. “No idea.”
“No one does really. But dad did some estimates. He was good with numbers. By his calculations, our species will be extinct in less than a century. This world is used up. It can’t sustain us.”
Apple thought about that. Twenty years ago, when she was little more than a child, most of her people had been wiped out in two years of fire and blood. A war of vengeance for an atrocity that was itself an act of vengeance: a pointless cycle of death that had led to the corpses of rotan and nomad alike mouldering in the desert. She couldn’t speak for city-folk, subterrans and the rest, but certainly her people had lost many. Perhaps it was part of the same thing – reducing resources, everyone fighting over smaller and smaller slices of life. “Maybe he was right,” she allowed, “but I don’t see what anyone can do about that. The world has always resisted us. I was taught that it strengthened us. The weak and the sick are doomed to perish, to make the rest of the tribe stronger.”
“There’s something in that, yes, but this goes far beyond natural selection, Apple. We’re on the brink of catastrophe. And, in fact, dad believed there was something he could do about that.”
“One man can’t change the whole world, Ellasa.”
“No. But he can try to leave it.”
The silence stretched between them. Apple regarded her rescuer flatly. “Well, he got his wish,” she told the other woman tartly.
It was a cruel thing to say, and she saw how it wounded Ellasa. “You think I’m mocking you,” she said, voice cold and emotionless, as it had been during their escape when she’d told her about Carek’s death.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand what you’re saying. Leave the world? The only way I know to do that is by dying, but I don’t think you’re part of some suicide cult. I know that in the mountains they have…” she tried to mime it, “skiffs that ride the skies. So I’m told anyway. But they can only rise so high; eventually the air is too thin, to fly or to breathe.”
“That’s right. I’m not talking about contraptions with wings though, Apple. I’m talking about something much older and stranger than that.”
“I’m all ears.” She was genuinely curious as to where this story was going now, although it seemed obvious Ellasa was as crazy as her late father had been.
She didn’t say anything, just looked around, obviously deciding how to approach her bizarre topic. “All right,” she said finally, “do you know the old tale about the Tower of the Ancestors?”
Apple stared at her for a moment, trying to determine if this was all some strange joke. When she realised Ellasa was deadly serious, she couldn’t help but burst out laughing. The noise drew the attention of a guard, who poked his head into the chamber and frowned at them.
Ellasa’s face had clouded over. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.
“The Tower of the Ancestors? You mean the children’s story?” She laughed again.
“Yes. That one.” Her cheeks had turned a little pink. At least she had the decency to be embarrassed then.
“Your father gave his life for a story told to children when they aren’t even…”
Ellasa’s hand hit the metal table with a clang. “Listen to me, marauder! I’m trying to save your life!”
“I don’t need you to save my life, city-girl.”
“You did back in the stockade, or have you forgotten already? I’ve taken a big risk trusting you. A lot of people here think you killed Carek, did you know that? They’re all for turning you back over to the authorities, letting you take the fall for the slaughter of the guards. Seems like it would solve a few of our problems in one fell swoop.”
“Fine.” She folded her arms. “Go on.”
“As you say,” Ellasa continued carefully, “it’s a children’s story. We all know it.” She held out a hand.
Apple looked down at it. “What, did you want me to tell it?”
She felt suddenly self-conscious and glanced around the otherwise empty room. “Um…okay…well.” She cleared her throat. “Long ago, at the dawn of time, all the peoples of the world were united in purpose and language. To celebrate their power and unity, they built a great monument that stretched up to the heavens so they could challenge the might of the gods themselves. This was the Tower of the Ancestors, and by their labours they bridged the gap between earth and sky. But the gods became angry with humankind’s hubris and destroyed the Tower. The peoples were cast across the surface of the world, separated for all time, their forms changed and languages made unintelligible to one another.” Apple stopped. “Is that enough?”
Ellasa smiled. “Yes, it is. It’s the same story I was told, almost word for word.”
“The icemen tell it too, the subterrans, the mountain hunters, everyone. Dad did a lot of research, spoke to dozens of different tribes, separated by thousands of kilometres. The story was almost unchanged.”
Apple failed to see the significance. “And…?”
“He theorised that this meant the story was true, at least in part. Obviously it’s couched in metaphor, but there’s some core of truth, some ancient memory of long ago.”
“I…I suppose it could be…”
“You don’t believe me.”
“It’s…a lot to take in…”
“My father died for this. And we’re here because of it. Even if you think this is all nonsense, at least understand our commitment to it.”
“But commitment to what? A belief that an old fable has some truth to it?”
“Yes.” She leant closer and lowered her voice, as if imparting some great secret. Perhaps she was. “Not just that though. We also believe that the Tower of the Ancestors is still there.”
Apple blinked. Then she blinked again when it didn’t bring any further clarity. “I’m…not sure I understand…”
“Remember that map Jev mentioned?”
“It’s a relic of the Ancestors. A…device…that shows the true shape of the world.”
“True shape? What does that mean?”
“Again, you may not believe me, but the world is actually a sort of…” she motioned with her hands “…a sort of…ball…”
“A sphere. Yes. What about it?”
It was Ellasa’s turn to blink. “You know?”
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?”
“I didn’t,” she said in a quiet voice. “Until dad explained it to me.”
“The horizon curves away. It’s obvious. At least, it is to my people.” She shrugged apologetically.
“Well, anyway, the map can show the whole world, including what has come to be called the Tower of the Ancestors. It’s still there, built atop an enormous mountain somewhere in the southern hemisphere.”
“And you plan to go there,” Apple guessed.
“And someone…someone who perhaps killed Carek…wants to stop you?”
“That…will take a bit longer to explain…”
Apple pushed her tray to one side. “I’m not going anywhere, at least until your guards let me.”
“Let’s get a drink then.”