On our way back to the surface, she started to tell me parts of her story. I knew enough even then not to prompt her with questions on what seemed like little inconsistencies here and there. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the fact that it was pitch dark so much of the time I doubt she could ever have brought herself to tell it at all.
Her mother she didn’t know – had never known. She died in childbirth. Not down here, in the caverns, but aboveground, where her father worked as a cosmetic surgeon in one of the larger hospitals.
She grew up, then, under a kind of shadow. There’d been no other children to shield her from the sheer intensity of her father’s sense of loss, and the only human tenderness she’d experienced at all had come from the long succession of Nannies and babysitters who looked after her from time to time - none for very long.
They moved about a lot. First luxury apartments, then houses in the suburbs, then smaller apartments back in town as his career gradually began to suffer from the personal disintegration he was undergoing.
He drank, and took a variety of drugs too, she thought, but she seldom saw him intoxicated. Nor did he ever strike her or act abusively towards her. His fault was, in fact, more in the other direction – coldness, distance, a reluctance to reach out to any other human being for fear of being hurt once more.
When no more hospitals would employ him, he relied on his private practice, until that too began to shrink. By now (she thought) he must have had substantial debts from gambling, and she began to notice a rougher element hanging around the house.
Then, very abruptly one day, he came to her school and took her away with him to a small building on the fringes of the crater region (that region we were now traversing like a pair of sleepwalkers).
Her formal education stopped there, but of course there were online tutors still, and now her father seemed to be making a conscious effort to be more attentive. Worryingly so, in fact. He would hug her for hours at a stretch, was unable to let her out of his sight for more than the shortest periods, and generally showed an almost hysterical desire to be with her continuously.
There was one other girl she knew, still, from the old days – one girl who kept up with her through emails and texts – where all her other friends had dropped away. She was a shy, sullen girl, with few other friends, and Celeste must have bulked large in her personal pantheon.
At any rate, one day, when the loneliness was bad, she asked to be allowed to visit her friend.
The first response was a flat negative, then (when she persisted) a listing of the obstacles to such a plan – the difficulties of transport – the possible reluctance of her friend’s parents to allow such a visit on a weeknight – a whole series of half-hearted reasons.
She’d been trained already by life to expect little from it, so at this point she gave up pestering him. Her father must have thought about it later himself, though, because a few days later he gave her permission to ask for an invitation to visit.
And so it happened. One Saturday afternoon her father took up on the skyways to her friend’s stop, then arranged to come back and collect her in a few hours, retiring discreetly himself into the crowd when he saw her friend, Jeanette, and her two parents coming.
Her little friend seemed happy enough to receive a visit.
The two chattered away about the doings of mutual acquaintances, the music they were listening to, the entertainment feeds they were downloading. As time went by, though, the conversation began to dry up.
Her friend had fault to find with such a lot of things – her hair, her clothes, her appearance generally was falling behind the norms of pre-teen fashion (perhaps the most rigidly caste-governed age of all). Her tone grew peevish, quarrelsome.
Celeste was puzzled and hurt. She hardly knew what to make of this change of heart, though it was true that Jeanette had never really been at the centre of her circle before the move. Perhaps she’d felt overlooked then, was keen to exact revenge?
Celeste, a direct, simple-hearted girl, asked her if this was so, and apologised for any unconscious pain she’d caused.
“As if you could hurt me! With a father like yours …” the girl sneered.
A father like what? Celeste had no idea what her friend was talking about, but it was true (now she came to think of it) that her father no longer entertained at all - even the more dubious friends and acquaintances who used to come by the house had all dried up. He seemed more nervous in crowds, constantly glancing round. Was it possible he was afraid of being followed?
Jeanette would elaborate no further – possibly she knew no more than a few vague innuendoes handed onto her by her parents, but the so-long-anticipated visit broke up in disarray.
Waiting for her father at the skyways station, Celeste determined that she would find out what was wrong. She couldn’t bear the finger of blame to be pointed at him unjustly – and if he had done anything wrong, she’d rather know what than continue to live in this atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.
Her father had never evaded a direct question of hers. God knows she hadn’t asked him very many, but be that as it may, he’d always done his best to answer her fully and frankly.
Her first approaches were direct, accordingly. She asked him what he did.
“You know that, sweetie. I’m a surgeon.”
“But you don’t work at the hospital anymore.”
“No, I’m in private practice now.”
‘Why did we move? Why don’t you ever see any of your old friends anymore?”
“It’s more about their not wanting to see me, I’m afraid, darling. You’ll understand better when you’re older, but what I’m doing now is … not what I did before.”
“What is it?”
“I … can’t tell you that, sweetie. Maybe when you’re older. It’s just for a brief time. Just until I can get clear of … certain obligations. I just don’t want any of it to touch your life.”
She told him then what her friend had said, and he nodded and gave her a hug.
"I was afraid of that,” he said. “That's the reason I wasn’t keen on the whole idea of this meeting. For the moment it’s best that we keep to ourselves – just for a short time. Just till I’m over this hump …”
But he didn’t deny any of what Jeanette had said.
Celeste tried hard to live in a state of doubt, but it was beyond her power. The subject preyed on her mind continuously. She began to examine her father’s clothes, so immaculate formerly, now growing gradually ever more shabby and down-at–heels. Nothing. Nothing except for the shoes, which occasionally had a slightly red sheen, as if they’d been cursorily wiped clean of some liquid.
He was a surgeon, though, which might explain it. Perhaps the clinics he was working at now had less exacting standards of hygiene than the hospital – perhaps it was blood on his shoes. The moment she thought of this she became convinced that it was true. That was the big mystery solved, then: he was working as a black market surgeon for people outside the law – possibly performing abortions for the socially prominent. Such scandals were familiar to her from the feeds.
And yet, and yet … why the extravagant lengths to which he took concealment? A bit of black market work was surely nothing to hang one’s head in shame about? How could that be the whole secret of what he was doing?
One day she cracked. Ignorance, she told herself, was infinitely worse than knowledge of whatever kind. She would follow him and find out where he was going.
And so she did.
He wasn’t easy to track. She’d hardly gone beyond the confines of their building grounds for months, and the city’s underworld was dark and bewildering, Luckily her father ambled rather than strode – reluctant, almost, it seemed, to reach his destination.
It was a low door in the side of a dark wall.
Her father knocked and a pair of eyes appeared at a roughly-hewn slit in the thick iron. The door creaked open. She could hardly follow him in there.
She waited, indecisively, watching the people come and go around the door.
The ones who came were generally rich-looking and well-dressed. Couples in furs and Italian suits, packs of high rolling business-drones … was her father gambling again? This seemed the kind of illegal place where illicit bets were made.
But no-one came out. That was the point. There must be another exit somewhere, or else they were all gathering in there for some purpose.
Finally, she took her courage in her hands and went up to the door and knocked.
The eyes appeared.
“My friends have all gone in without me. Can you let me in?”
The eyes considered. A young girl, not too ill-dressed. But definitely underage …
“Nah,” he said, but at that moment another voice interposed.
“Oh, there you are – I told you she’d make it.”
“Yes, you told me, dear, but I still didn’t believe you.”
The speakers were a young couple, evidently somewhat the worse for wear, who’d presumably overheard her timid approach and wanted to help her out.
The conversation now turned into a series of rapid whispers between the young man and the owner of the eyes, which culminated in the exchange of a few credit-points on a keypad.
The young, blonde woman, sparkling and fizzy like the champagne-flute she was still holding in one hand, pressed Celeste to her, and said “Don’t worry, darling, Peter’s awfully good at this sort of thing. He’s awfully good at every sort of thing, if you want to know ...”
And so she got into the club.
It was so dark inside that it was difficult to make much out. The young couple ("Call us Honey and Peter ...") swept her along with them, though, so she saw only enough to give her the sense of a place where normal standards were offended – ghostly pictures and naked bodies looming up in the gloom. It seemed almost like a dream, a replica of the kinds of places she’d imagined her daddy gambling in when she was a little girl.
Finally they reached the room.
“You’ll love this, Honey – you too, girlie. What is your name, anyway? Selene? Celeste? Neither of you will sleep tonight, I’ll bet, but you’ll never forget this show. This guy’s the best.”
They were seated on a hard wooden bench at the side of a small auditorium – rather like an old-fashioned operating theatre, wooden benches banked up towards the ceiling, and a central metal-floored space with a table and some screens.
"What is this? Did you bring us here to watch an operation?” giggled Honey. “I mean … I can do that at home anytime on the medical channel.”
"Oh, it’s an operation, all right – but not the kind you’ve ever seen. Unnecessary surgery, that’s the idea.”
“Unnecessary?” faltered Celeste.
"Yeah, doll. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to plenty of those clubs where they have catpeople and rhinoceros men and all the rest – guys and girls who’ve gone to a surgeon and got him to turn them into freaks. There’s not even anything illegal about that. But this is different.”
But then whe was shushed,the lights went down, and the show began.
You’ll have to understand, Eva, that much of this story I pieced together long afterwards. Only part of it was told me at the time, as we were slowly climbing up through the darkness of that hidden kingdom. I could never gather just what the show had been.
One thing is certain, the participants weren’t human.
Not that they were aliens. Not that at all – they were your kind of people: androids. Clans, you call yourself. You know how some people are about breaching social taboos. Cosmetic surgery is pointless, for them, when it’s done according to someone’s own desire. I gather some very rich people had got together and formed a club whose main aim was to have bodies surgically altered in front of them into grotesque, misshapen, monstrous forms.
No-one human was involved, of course. They knew better than that. And all the spectators knew it, too. Or at any rate chose to believe it. But what difference does that make to a young girl who’s standing watching her father cut with a scalpel into living flesh, the flesh of bodies held down on a stainless-steel operating table without any anaesthetics – screaming and spouting blood till it drenches most of the audience with red?
It was as if she’d entered hell and he was the chief devil. The monsters he’d already created, some still in their crude bandages, some in animal hides, with wings and fur and extra eyes, were all around, holding down new victims, hanging upside-down from the rafters (not that she told me that - I gleaned those details from her persistent nightmares, later).
She screamed, of course. Screamed and could not stop screaming. And finally, as the commotion grew, he lifted his eyes and saw her – his own daughter in the middle of the world he’d created.
It was the last thing he saw. It was the act of a moment for him to reach up with his scalpel and neatly slice out his eyes. This she told me with a kind of deadpan emphasis, as if she in fact approved.
That was the end of it for him, in any case. What use was a blind surgeon to the people at the club? The two of them awoke (drugged, presumably, by one of the other doctors there when they wouldn't quiet down) to find themselves lying, scrubbed and clean beside a small stack of their possessions. They’d been evicted from their apartment, and the money he had would buy them only a few days in a hotel.
And that was when she'd led her father underground, to live wherever they could in the dark ragged fiefdoms under the earth, peddling his services as a wiseman and a healer – a position constantly undermined by the superstitious fear of blindness which had developed down below.
Now that she was of an age to sell, rather than simply use casually, their present tribe had been hawking her about for quite some time.
The chance to fob her off on a surface dweller must have appealed to them. They held her father in some awe -- the myth of the blind shaman, in close communication with the spirit world, dies hard -- and therefore would not go directly against his will. Since he’d approved the union, here she was.