The cliffs were red, and high, higher than could easily be climbed without the rickety spiral staircase, built goddess-knows how many millenia ago. At the bottom of the cliff-face, shallow indentations, and caves, pockmarked the red wall. The ocean came right up to the rock, no beach sand. Spraying against the rock.
There in the surf, we stood, surveying our options. In our shoulder bags, an assortment of items we’d finally picked up at The Gift Shoppe: some cassette tapes, some indie zines, a few crafty, highly exotic objects – all gifts for our friends back out on the Surface World. No border crossing, no duty, no import-export fees to worry about either. This was, you could say, the Duty Free shop near the Lip. The Last Hotel, the forgotten point of transit. Whispered in legends, but never referenced in any tourist guide of the Surface.
We had been given the boot — an unceremonious exit if ever there was one. For partying too loud in the Master Suite on the roof. Banned from Hotel Amalfi, of all places!
Well, it coulda been worse. At least we were well fed. We had enough water to last a while, and … gifts for our friends back above…
At that point, a certain melancholy sank in. Were we really leaving now? Thankfully, we were expecting a Ride. A ride in high style.
Offshore, whales breached, and the mammoth herds roamed amid the steam vents further down the coastline. Their stench travelled well.
“Bandara. Do you think they’ll ever let us back?”
“Oooh, you know — why not, we belong here!”
“No, I mean the Hotel.”
“Amalfi?! Why do you even care? It’s a sleepy dump! Who stays here anyway? It’s been practically empty for years. So what if some famous polar explorer stayed here in 1889? The drugs aren’t even that good. And the service sucks.”
“Yeah, that’s SO you — ‘the drugs aren’t even that good.’ So, listen, are we going to stand here in the friggin’ surf all day, or are you going to call ’em in?”
Bandara, never at a loss for a Look, was pulling strands of seaweed out of the foamy surf and weaving a loose-knit vest. This was her way of pouting. At this point the water was starting to go over our ankles. She still hadn’t forgiven me for Crossing Over after her. Putting everything we’d made at risk. And putting our whole tribe at risk too.
The beeper started to flash — they were getting into range, just needed a more precise signal. I lifted the flare pistol, and the incendiary shot up into the ever-illumined sky, exploding a cloud of tentacular black smoke against the pearly orange luminescent fog.
A largish shadow encroached onto the beach and part of the cliff wall, drifting toward us. The light of Anulios was blotted out. Above, the airship slowed to a halt, motors purring in idle. Spiralling down a rope, Antaea
splashed down, naked but for her headset.
“WOOHOOOO!!” she grabbed Bandara and shoved me into the surf.
“OK, I know when I’m not wanted.” I grabbed the rope ladder, lifted out of the surf. “Don’t take too long girls! We got places to do, things to see. Next stop, Tehran.”
They weren’t listening.
Back on board, we decanted into our leather seedpods, curling up with biscuits and piping hot tea, served out of a large samovar. Eno’s “Before & After Science” was playing. Attenuating petals of irridescent lycra met in a circle overhead, forming the outlines of our collective living room.
Antaea, Ishkara and Bandara sat on the other side, poring over a large map, folded out, making notations, arguing in a language I didn’t recognize.
This visit had been tough. Things were OK now, chill. But it had been … stressful, to put it mildly. I had thought everything was supposed to be … easy… Inside. But that, I learned, was nothing but a cliche.
The truth, there were wars here as well. They just played out differently than back home.
And the reverberations travellled much further afield. Further than you can imagine.
I peered into the cup, following the streams of steam spiralling upward, replaying the drama that had recently unfolded in so many tangled chapters.