Nine Dioptres

Lyle Hopwood

Illustration by Emma Howitt

The Pilgrim’s Eagle rocked in the wake of a fast Freeport cruiser. Aminah sat on the deck, narrowing her eyes to make out the flags in the cold dawn light. The speedboat’s signals marked it as an unarmed riverway maintenance vessel. She watched it navigate between the gaudy yellow and maroon sails of the Bargee sailboats moored close-in against the northern bank of the Thames. Soon, its soft outline dissolved in shadows.

The town to the north, Tilbury, had died in Aminah’s grandmother’s day, razed, ploughed and planted with Poppier. Her grandmother had told her of the souk on the north bank, where thousands of young women, hardly covered at all, haggled for fine leatherwork and embroidery. In those days, before the border was enforced, the young people crossed the bridges in cars and set up street stalls selling knock-off iPhones and MacBooks, outlawed today as instruments of Satan. Aminah’s mother, Jyutsna Begum, still lived with her grandmother on the water under Lizabeth Bridge. Their cutter’s engine had, of course, been sold for scrap many years before.

Aminah bent again over the clay oven on the foredeck and scraped the dead cinders into a pile on the steel cladding. The vapour rising from the autumn earth beyond the bridle path drifted toward the river and mingled with the smoke of the Bargees’ fires. Thieb called it ‘cooking mist’. He was six, and this was the second year he’d noticed the cooking mists blowing in over the Poppier fields, cool and heavy-laden with sour water.

The engineless boat, a twenty-metre gaff sloop, rocked again, and Thieb’s dog leaped up, straining at the cord tethering him to the rails. Aminah heard the familiar blustery shout and wondered about the thoughts of the other fifty-some women as they looked up from their fires, hidden in the mists. Aminah’s husband, back from his solitary travels. She stood up, knees protesting, to greet him, making sure her niqab hid her hair and her cover-dress was buttoned in place.

Khoo swung down his bags and held her close. She stiffened, hoping the mist was thick enough to hide them both from inquisitive eyes. ‘Where’s Thieb?’ he said then, holding her and looking into her eyes, as though their son might have taken refuge behind them.

‘He’s gone to the well…Khoo, don’t hold me in public. We’ll go below.’

‘Aminah, I bring such good news. I found someone who will help us. This time next year we will be living in London.’

For once she was grateful for the heavy cloth of the niqab. It hid all her disappointment and dismay. She struggled to regain her customary composure as they went below. Taking off her scarf, she rubbed the lines it left across her cheeks, and only then embraced him. ‘It’s so wonderful that you are in sight of your dream, Khoo,’ she said, choosing her words carefully to avoid perjuring herself. ‘The All-Merciful provides for all our needs, if we are truly His servant.’

She heard another, lighter step on deck. Water pails landed with a thud, and she heard Thieb’s shout: ‘Ammi, what are these bags? Is Abu home?’ And Khoo ran up the stair to greet his son.

By oh-seven hundred the belated fire was lit and water boiled in the pot. Her little family huddled on the foredeck waiting for breakfast. They watched the heavy traffic on the Lizabeth bridge disappear into the concrete bunkers of the Freeport Customs post. She heard the constant rumble, but she could not see the vehicles. Worse today, in the cooking mist, she thought. The bridge itself was a grey blur. The verses of the Koran that the children had painted on the piers shimmered and dissolved in the reflected sunlight. She contented herself, as a mother should, with domestic matters and bent forward to brew wheat tea, while Khoo played with his delighted son. How unalike they are, she thought. Thieb is more like my mother than his own father. He’s truly a Bargee, but Khoo will never belong. And she poured the tea as Thieb lisped a prayer for what they were about to receive.

Even before the little boy finished his rice Khoo said, impatiently, ‘Son, can you go and play with your friends? I want to talk to your mother.’

Too proud to show his disappointment, Thieb jumped down the boarding plank and walked to the bridle path, kicking the loose gravel, calling to the geese and hens pecking at the ground. Aminah sat still on the deck, hoping that Khoo wouldn’t ask her to be pleased with his news. She watched the blurred outlines of the compact, powerful community as it emerged from the cooking mist. With a childish feeling of rebellion, she revelled in familiar activities while keeping her face turned almost towards his, a deferential smile clamped hard under her niqab.

‘Aminah, you know that I retained my citizenship. If only I regenerated my credit report, I could live there again. London is only two hundred metres away!’

She did not turn to look at the far bank of the river, but continued to face the Poppier-fields while her husband gazed red-eyed at the city rising from the south. The river’s bank was patrolled and fortified and radar-swept. No Bargee remembered a swimmer reaching the south bank. Unable to sigh for fear she would sob, she stayed bolt upright on the prettily carved stool, holding her cup motionless in both hands. She resisted the temptation to swirl it around, to look down and read God’s will in the pattern of wheat grains.

‘When I contacted this woman, she said she was rich, and if only I’d help her across the border, she could transfer enough to bring my credit rating into the black. Enough for all three of us.’

Startled, Aminah looked into his eyes. As close as he was, her short-sightedness robbed her of the true lines of his face. But she knew it so well, and the firm line of his mouth – he wasn’t joking. All he has to do is smuggle someone across the border. But she smiled at him.

The next day the cooking mists were thicker as the weather and firewood grew damper. The fire was lit, and Thieb brought water. Khoo stayed below, poring over the Admiralty Charts for routes out of the Freeport. The mongrel sat huddled beside the heap of brown coal and looked sorry for himself until Thieb untied his makeshift leash and spooned food into his zinc bowl. When Aminah began steaming rice, Thieb, not interested in cooking, called to his dog and bounced off the barge. She soon lost sight of him but calculated his route by the startled squawks of the fowl along the river path. He had friends at the landfill, not Bargees, but good solid families. Not tinkers. Not cast-outs, she thought, as his father is. One little boy and his ruined parents. Thrown out of London for bankruptcy, left to fend for themselves! No wonder Khoo has only one ambition…and she found herself staring at the grey shadow that was the City, two hundred metres away.

She was still looking south when there came a sudden burst of gunfire across the river. She jumped up, startled. Khoo came to the starboard rail to see what the target could be. ‘Driftwood,’ he announced. ‘Direct hit.’

‘Is that all? I thought it might be a man.’ She wrung her hands, suddenly anxious.

Khoo stood at the rail, pulling his sparse whiskers in thought.

How will we sneak someone past those trigger-happy marines on the south shore?

She served a midday meal in the cabin. Sitting on the rich dowry-gift furniture, she tried to imagine a life separated from her family. They lived several kilometres away on the Alif, moored under the Lizabeth Bridge. Her father was a Hajji, a pilgrim who had been to Mecca, and he told a tale of his pilgrimage, how the airplane was struck by lightning over Italy and began to drop from the sky. A mighty Eagle swooped down, lifted the stricken plane onto its back, and carried it to a safe landing at Roma Airport. The pilgrims sank down onto the tarmac in fear and awe; many had returned home, and said that the Lord had warned them against proceeding in the flying machine. Her father had gone on to Mecca, by car at first and then by horse. Two full years it took him. When he ordered the building of his daughter’s engineless barge, he named it The Pilgrim’s Eagle – what else?

‘I asked you a question.’

She came out of the memory reluctantly. ‘I’m sorry, Khoo. Can you repeat it for me?’

‘Do you know this river as well as your mother claims?’

‘Of course.’

The barge rocked, and a stranger’s voice called out. Aminah slowly donned a headscarf. She went above with her husband to greet the Towny woman, his new patron. Aminah, who had expected to find her outlandish, was surprised. She wore knee-high boots with kitten heels, a dark divided skirt that reached to her knees, and an upper garment Aminah could not name. It was square, like a cushion cover, with a slash for the neck and smaller slashes for the arms. Though it was shapeless it revealed the lines of the visitor’s body, and so Aminah judged it a failure. The Towny carried a bag that might have been her top before the slashes were made, and her hair was a cascade of loose flame, her eyes dark and soft.

Khoo turned to his wife. ‘This is Nuada, our saviour. Nuada, my wife, Aminah.’

This close, Nuada seemed to her unfinished, perhaps because of her pale, unwrinkled skin. Nuada extended her hand. Unsure what to do with it, Aminah held it in hers and shook it tentatively. Aminah’s natural desire to entertain her guest properly conflicted with her dislike of Towny customs. Her complete ignorance of those customs exacerbated both tendencies. ‘Very welcome in my houseboat,’ she babbled, ‘Come on down into the cabin, Miss.’ She led the way downstairs.

The visitor seated herself in a guest chair, looking around at the embroidered brocades and heavy tapestries lining the cabin walls. When Aminah set down the silver service, she saw that the visitor was reading an elaborately worked text that served as a decoration, mouthing the letters to herself and piecing together unfamiliar words: ‘Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created man from clots of blood!’

‘It’s a verse from the Koran, Miss,’ Aminah said. ‘In Arabic. It’s not our first language, but it is the lingua franca of our scattered people.’

‘The words sound beautiful, and have been carefully written by calligraphers to look equally beautiful,’ Nuada said.

Grateful that Nuada had come up with small talk, Aminah nodded. ‘We are forbidden to practise the arts of portraiture. Our calligraphers and musicians are our accepted artists. That verse…’ and she pointed to a parchment decorated with gold-leaf blocked letters and scarlet capitals, lost to her sight in the dim distance but perfectly remembered, ‘…was written by my grandfather.’ And Nuada drew in her breath, an exclamation of delighted awe.

Khoo appeared and spread his charts on the thick rugs of the cabin. ‘Aminah, when Dagenham was still standing there were several tunnels under the river. When they ploughed the Poppier fields, did they also block up the entrances to the tunnels?’

Aminah said, ‘In the olden days the Bargee hulks had Sonar. It was not then a sin to use navigation equipment. My mother’s father lived on the first Alif moored above Dartford Tunnel, and he monitored the infill. He said they are all gone, even the Greenish foot-tunnel that led from the upriver bazaar.’

Undaunted, Khoo began to search his maps for other crossings.

‘What’s London like?’ Aminah almost turned around to see who had spoken before she recognised her own voice.

Khoo looked up, surprised; she had never asked him that question.

‘It’s wonderful,’ Nuada said. ‘There are machines that can do everything for you. Plenty of entertainment. Books, films, plays.’

‘All those things will doom my soul,’ said Aminah.

Khoo glared at her. ‘There are ten thousand Sunnis in London, and even some of your crazy Luddite sect. You must consult some eye-mam at the mosque. O, Aminah, it isn’t a sin to leave your little world…’

Aminah gathered her head-covering and went up on deck. In the late afternoon the sunlight slanted across the Poppier field, casting long shadows, giving no heat. Harvest in a week, she thought. After that, it’s the Feast of the Stubble-burners. I can get Nuada across then. The loophole that Khoo is looking for. But do I want him to succeed? She looked up then, hearing Thieb’s excited shouts in the distance.

‘Ammi, Ammi, look what I found on the Dump!’ As his stubby legs carried him up the gangplank, Khoo and Nuada came on deck. Both leaned on the rail as he waved his tatty prize. ‘It’s a talking doll,’ he gasped, out of breath. Out of the corner of her eye, Aminah saw Nuada jump in surprise.

‘It’s a Teddy Bear,’ said Khoo, picking up the balding, scraggly toy.

‘What does it say?’

‘I don’t know. It’s in Japanese.’ Thieb pointed to the katakana nameplate sewn into the back of the toy. ‘Listen to it, Abu,’ he said, and clapped to activate it.

‘Confiteor Deo omnipotenti et vobis, fratres,’ began the bear, in a reedy, unpleasant voice. It droned on. ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, Mea maxima culpa.’

‘That’s not Japanese,’ said Nuada. ‘It’s the Confession. It’s in Latin.’

‘What is it saying, Abu?’ Thieb asked.

Khoo shrugged.

Nuada looked at Khoo for permission and then translated, ‘I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers, that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and failed to do: I am to blame, I am to blame, through my great fault.’

Aminah regarded the blaspheming mechanical with disgust.

Aminah had prepared fish for her guest, anxious the whole time that Townies might have hidden food taboos. But Nuada ate with pleasure; she ate fish whenever she could, she said, meat being rare where she came from. Aminah made up a bed for Nuada in her old cabin, where women who had conceived no children traditionally slept in a barge. Preparing the bed, she paused, ruefully contemplating the possibility that she was making a new wife feel welcome on her own dowry-barge.

They sat below, the toy bear beside them on Thieb’s bed, and the boy was under strict orders not to make it confess again. He stared at Nuada, fascinated by the Towny guest. ‘Can you do colour bars, like Ira Harrington?’ Thieb asked.

For a moment Aminah was lost in her grandfather’s world; colour bars, sectarianism, stock market shocks and the expulsion of her people onto the river. Then she realised that the boy was talking to Nuada.

‘You mean, a video test card?’ said Nuada.

‘Yes. Like a satellite when it begins a broadcast. He touches a USB port with his finger.’

‘I can do that.’

‘Can you do anime?’

‘No, not very well. I can do still pictures, though, Thieb.’

‘Ira does good cartoons.’

‘Has Ira an optoelectronic unit? Implanted here?’ She touched her collarbone. ‘Or is he a “Little Brother”?’

Thieb shook his head, not knowing the term.

‘Like your bear, but manlike,’ she added, and would have continued, but it belatedly dawned on the rapt boy that his parents were with him, and he was no longer with his friends at the Dump. He glanced at his mother in horror and hid his head. ‘I draw no pictures, Ammi, Ira does the pictures,’ he said. ‘Ira is a Towny jinnee and he’s allowed to draw people.’

‘Thieb, don’t call people names,’ his father said.

In the morning, Aminah rose to do the chores. She cleared the cinders and thought about Thieb. Perhaps I’ve deluded myself that he’s a pure Bargee. He’ll be happy enough in London. It’s only me that’s afraid, and, in truth, I married Khoo knowing his craving to return to his home. It seemed exciting, then, and different. Now I shrink back, pretend I’m fully orthodox. Because I’m scared to face change. She looked around, at the road bridge, at the bright shape of the scarecrow in the Poppier fields, at the dog curled around his bowl. Somewhere in the mist the men exercised, like slow dancers, on their decks. When she looked more closely, they vanished. I only saw them because I knew they were there. In London I’ll be blind. She heard Nuada’s booted footsteps coming up the stair and steeled herself to say good morning.

‘My, look at all those crimson flowers,’ Nuada said. ‘What are they?’

‘Poppier,’ Aminah replied, putting her hand behind her back to ease the stiffness as she sat up. ‘It’s a gene-spliced poppy variant, a man-made narcotic. Now it’s ripe the flowering heads will be plucked and dried.’

‘Why grow it here, on the foundations of a lost town?’ Nuada said. ‘The soil must be poor, if not toxic.’

‘The farmers pay no VAT here in Freeport. On the other bank they pay full taxes. The English need hard currency.’ And reflecting she said, ‘When you said meat was scarce, that’s why. Even on the southern Isle of Grain, it’s more profitable to turn grazing land over to Poppier. But it depletes this thin soil. The farmer must burn the stalks in the field to pay the soil back for its labor. Everyone here works in the fields during the harvest, and we have an eid, a festival, when the stubble is burned.’ Seeing the chance to break her news, she added in a rush. ‘I can get you across the river then.’

Nuada stared at her.

‘Pray it doesn’t rain,’ Aminah finished.

Tea brewed, she invited Nuada from the rail.

‘What is your little dog called?’ Nuada asked, watching the chained puppy pace the foredeck.

‘Thieb calls him Captain Pangloss.’

‘After the puppeteer on the Saturday morning cartoons?’

‘You must ask Thieb,’ she said stiffly. She had not known that Thieb watched cartoons until the previous evening. To change the subject, she pointed out the clouds of pollen rising into the air from a harvest to the northwest. ‘Wear a headcovering on deck, if you can bear it. We should not advertise the presence of a stranger. The pollen affects people. Their moods change, Nuada. You don’t need to fear Khoo. He’s Malaysian – the pollen barely affects him.’

‘Will Pangloss bite me if I try to pet him?’ Nuada asked, losing interest and watching the guard dog again.

Khoo bounded up the ramp, full of energy. He brought two rabbits from the farm. ‘I’ve got my job. Keep up the pretence of normality, eh? I drive the rake. None of your timorous, tool-hating compatriots will touch the machine, so I get it by default. Harvest starts on Thursday, Mr. Tiplady says. If it doesn’t rain first. How do you cook rabbits?’

‘Not at all. They’re haram,’ said his wife.

‘Everyone eats rabbit if they can get it, in the City,’ Nuada said.

‘They’re not like us,’ Aminah reminded her.

‘I’ll eat ‘em. Will you eat them, Nuada?’

Nuada smiled a thin smile. ‘Yes, Khoo.’

The dry pollen dust blew over the ship. Khoo brooded silently. Aminah had gone to the Alif to arrange storage of her belongings. Nuada, taking her host’s advice, wore the long black cover-dress and sat hidden from the north shore by a filigree screen. Cut off from the bustle along the towpath, she was made to gaze at the silent shadowy buildings of the Ford Dagenham Deregulated District, Freeport’s westernmost town. Beyond it, skyscrapers loomed into the clouds above Lizabeth Bridge. They seemed to waver a little; whether this was an early narcotic effect of the pollen, or simply tiredness, she could not tell. As it grew darker Nuada felt she should lie on the riverbank and trail her hand through the weeds. Disgusted by this sign that she, too, was susceptible to the growing effect of the pollen, she went below and tried to sleep. Immediately, the Bargee village seemed to come awake and make a clangor.

On Thursday Khoo walked along the footpath to Tiplady’s fields. His harvest rake was a kind of tractor bearing a comb at waist height. The comb took off the flowering heads of the Poppier leaving the useless stalks standing. The Sabot-Muslim Bargees, refusing machinery, plucked each head singly and placed it in a basket; because he worked seven times as fast, Khoo got seven times the payment: a Towny kind of deal he had struck with the Towny farmer. And because of his genetic resistance to the narcotic he worked bareheaded; unlike the Bargee pluckers who wore wetted scarves over their mouths and noses. Children, badly affected by the dust, giggled as they gleaned fallen heads.

On Friday evening Aminah leapt to the rail of the Eagle as a great commotion rose from the field.

‘What have I done? Is he dead?’ she heard Khoo cry, the brakes grinding on the harvest rake. Unable to see the figure in the centre of the crowd Aminah called to Nuada.

‘It’s Pangloss,’ Nuada said. She stood still for a moment, peering at the field. ‘He must have slipped his chain and Khoo has run him down. He’s not breathing.’ Hearing this, Thieb jumped over the rail, landed heavily on the path and ran along the alleys beaten into the stands of man-tall Poppier.

‘How do you know he’s not breathing?’ said Aminah, beginning to fear her visitor.

‘Oh, it’s obvious,’ Nuada said.

When Khoo came out of the field his dusty cheeks were stained with tears. Thieb careered after him, tripping over the stalks and implements littering the ground. ‘It’s your fault, Abu, for loving your machines so much. Captain Pangloss is dead, My God.’ He climbed onto the deck as his father laid the limp body on the towpath. He grabbed the talking bear and threw it into the river. ‘“An eye for an eye.” I’ll kill you, machine.’

Nuada gasped and ran for the gangplank, walking along the exposed shore with the toy, waiting for it to come to the bank. When it came within reach she stretched out for it, and her impractical heels slipped on the mud. Only one leg went into the brown water but she backed away, groaning with fear. The doll was clutched in one hand, confessing.

‘You’re one, too, Towny,’ shouted Thieb. ‘You’re a mechanical.’

On the deck Aminah pulled off Nuada’s soaking boot, appalled at the rust-red streaks rising from the smooth, pink skin. But as she watched, the red wounds involuted, and the smooth skin was again unbroken. She shook her head: The Poppier must have distorted her senses. Nuada was not made of steel, whatever she may be.

‘It’s the Poppier,’ wheezed Nuada, breaking in on her thoughts. ‘It mimics a psychotic break.’ She began to dry her leg, feigning calm. ‘Imagine children thinking their toys oppress the world.’ She patted the dripping bear.

On the Tuesday morning Nuada and Aminah looked out onto the shaven fields of headless Poppier. The pollen hung as a fog in the dry, dusty atmosphere. Swaying slighty, Nuada watched brown-skinned girls with jewelled scarves over their heads driving their flock of geese along the path towards the A15. One girl, who was surely not above seven years old, walked barefoot along the path, her brass anklets jingling. On her head she balanced a pot almost as large as herself, though she cheated, since she had a cloth ring as a crown to take the balance. Around the rim of the pot was written some Arabic aphorism.

‘What does the inscription say?’ said Nuada.

‘I don’t know, I can’t see that far,’ said Aminah, and bit her lip. Why admit that to the stranger? Suddenly overcome with self-pity, tears came to her eyes. Nuada put her arm on her shoulder, and in the confusing clouds, Aminah broke down. Nuada waited until the black-robed figure was ready.

When Aminah spoke, it was with a sob: ‘I’m going blind, Nuada. Every day I see less and less!’

Nuada led her below. ‘Wait here. I can help you,’ she said, and got her bag. She took out her left eye and fitted a microeye into the socket. She peered into Aminah’s eyes, one after the other. Then she sat back, calculating something. ‘You aren’t going blind. It’s just myopia, which is easily corrected with lenses.’

‘I couldn’t wear a machine on my face,’ wailed Aminah.

Nuada bent over her again. Presently, she said, ‘I can treat it with a scalpel. Knives are allowed?’

Aminah nodded.

‘It won’t be as accurate, but currently you have minus nine dioptres in the right eye, less in the left. I can improve it to half a dioptre. You’ll see as well as most of your people.’

In the dim lantern light below decks Nuada’s sight was abject. Khoo’s books on their wooden shelves were soft-edged masses, one colour running into another.

‘You won’t take out my eyes and make me into a doll like yourself?’

‘I’m not a doll,’ the Towny said. ‘I’m as human as you are. Legally, at least. All I will do is make some tiny cuts on the outside of your eyeball. The eye-covering will bend into a new shape, and you will see better.’

‘The Nine Dioptres will come out through the cuts?’

‘Yes,’ Nuada agreed, for want of a better explanation.

‘Well, how can this be against Holy Law. Please cut my eyes, Nuada.’

Nuada turned her regular eye to her bag and took out a spraycan and a surgical hand. She fitted scalpels to the surgical hand, took off her right, and snapped it in place. ‘Nuada?’

‘What?’ She watched the bedcovering wavering and rippling, realising that the thick, chemical smell of the Poppier had crept down the stair and infiltrated the cabin.

‘Will they all be like you there?’

‘Everybody’s different, Aminah.’

‘You know what I mean.’ She felt old, worn, lied to. ‘I want to know the truth about Khoo. I’m crossing the bridge that marks the end of my world for him. I have to know whether he’s like me.’

‘He has never crossed his own bridge, Aminah, no.’

Aminah recognised an oblique answer. She shrugged.

‘Breathe in,’ Nuada said, and sprayed a cloud of anaesthetic. Aminah relaxed, and Nuada bent over her.

When she came round, she panicked because she could see nothing. ‘Ye have made me into one of your kind,’ she blurted.

‘Your eyes are bandaged. Stay with me, and I’ll make sure the cornea doesn’t get infected. The covering can come off in forty-eight hours.’

Half-devastated, half-elated, Aminah realised her mistake. ‘Can’t you smell the burning? Tonight, we had to leave for the Southern border.’

Khoo was nonplussed. ‘You have blinded my wife on the day she would have piloted us home.’

‘She was going mad with fear. She couldn’t even see the buildings on the south shore.’

He snorted. ‘That’s caused by a problem two inches behind her eyeballs.’

‘Khoo, don’t argue,’ said Aminah, folding her hands on her lap like her mother. ‘When this narcotic smoke is thick tonight, we cut the Eagle from its moorings. The sandbar marked on the maps as Swanscombe brings a tidal race two hours after the tide has turned in. The Eagle will hit the south shore in thirteen minutes at the old Thames Barrier. There is no need to hoist sail. And though the Marines’ radar be manned, who will watch it? Tonight all in this drugged fog are animals.’ She was proud of the plan; it would work. Perhaps this would not be the first time, for who would ever question the marines about the doings of the night of Fire-eid?

Aminah turned her bandaged face to her visitor. ‘Nuada, you are surely a Towny. Why do you need to sneak into London?’

‘I left England secretly to investigate something – a data breach. If I walk in through the customs post they will know I’ve been gone. I have no other choice but to creep back.’

Due deference had gone with her sight. Boldly she said, ‘What did you go to find that made you take such a risk? There’s nothing in your bag but…’ Hands and eyes. She couldn’t bring herself to say it. To herself she recited: ‘He created man from potter’s clay and the jinn from smokeless fire. Which of the Lord’s blessings would you both deny?’

‘It’s all with me. In Brussels I found everything I needed. There is a part of me that stores information. If I upload it, or broadcast it, it would be detected and I would be imprisoned. I must smuggle it in.’

Aminah’s blind face was a mute reproach.

‘Oh, Aminah,’ she cried, and the familiar words sounded hard in the newly rugless cabin, ‘If machines are wrong, then we were damned the day a caveman invented the lever. Technology is not a walled city, but a path, and some have followed it further.’

‘You are a jinn,’ Aminah said.

Nuada clicked her tongue, in the first sign of irritation that Aminah had heard from her. ‘Carry me to London and I will show you.’

‘You trust me to pilot the Eagle, blind as I am?’ the stupefying drug had her dizzy and nauseated.

‘Better blind,’ said Nuada. ‘The sighted are beset by monsters and dragons tonight. Like Odysseus strapped to the mast, you’ll be unable to chase an imaginary Siren. Do you remember the last Fire Festival?’

‘Who remembers the Fire Festival? It’s forgotten as soon as the smoke clears.’

‘Well, then. At least you won’t pilot us to Xanadu.’

‘Where’s Thieb?’ said Aminah, suddenly panicked.

‘I’m here, Ammi.’

Aminah led the sighted ones onto the deck. The blind pilot conferred with her navigator. Ignoring the rising sounds of the Festivities, they waited for the tide to turn. At twenty-two hundred, Thieb sawed away the mooring ropes. Khoo poled the Pilgrim’s Eagle into the river current, cursing, while Aminah took the tiller. At the sandbar, as forecast, the barge began to ease upstream through the billowing hallucinogen.

‘Look lively, woman, we’ll ram the guardhouse!’ shouted Khoo, sober and scared.

But the barge, with its cargo, ran smoothly upstream, heading for the Thames Barrier, and London. ∎

Lyle Hopwood, originally from the UK, now lives in the US, where she worked as a director of medical regulatory affairs. Her reading tastes have always run to speculative fiction and fantasy. Reading was not enough, so she joined the conversation herself. She has had short stories published in magazines including Interzone, Eldritch Science, Edge Detector, Back Brain Recluse, Aurealis and others. Another is coming up in BFS Horizons. Her short stories have also appeared in two German anthologies. Her non-fiction credits include pieces in Science Fiction Eye and a chapter in a clinical laboratory textbook. She lives in Southern California with a holographer, her herptiles and her collection of Kalanchoe. ‘Nine Dioptres’ is Lyle’s second story for IZ Digital; read her first, ‘Sunless’, here.

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