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A deep canyon with nearly vertical sides, formed of dark rock with a magenta cast.

Above (Part 2)


To Above (Part 1)

Dully compelled, he spoke, again, for the twentieth time. He tried to explain.

His wife's mood had been anger and desperation. Now, pure despite was added, and her pupils narrowed. Striving to be blind, striving to see her as human, he read her mind, as he could not help but do now. Not the surface part of her mind, but that other part below the surface, the part that evaluated power, status, alliance, survival, and sex by ruthless rules he read, as now it made her change posture, closing her arms and legs and turning her breasts away from the line between them in a message unmistakable to any man who had once known her body...while her mouth uttered some dull bitter platitude.

She spoke, but he scarcely heard what she said. The new vision waxed and waned. His son and daughter huddled together in the door behind her, whispering. Black lines seemed to radiate from them, mapping their doubt and reevaluation.

They all assumed he was mad or lying. And what did they know? That he had gone out days before, swearing love, promising to find some treasure, maybe to dream of finding the Path and fame: but really only doing as desperate men did, exploring the slopes far below the safe zones, looking for ore or metal or pure springs or new vegetation and finding only rock and crawling things. That he had come back alone and lacking nearly all his gear, starving, down to his last cartridge, scarred and battered and apparently out of his mind.

She would never believe he had any thing to do with the noise and the light that had broken the sky. Who would believe that? The dread of poverty that had been the motor of her life was now drawing to a crisis. She had almost decided, and now she would not listen to any thing he said, for after the unchanging habit of all men and women her intellect would be used to justify her decision not to critique it. Soon, therefore, she would leave him and embrace some other man, or indenture herself to a worksmaster and hope to live at least by that means. He would be left alone.

But she still bought him food, for the present.

She left. He huddled in the shabby bed. The black drapes were closed, though an uneasy wind stirred them. His skin had nearly stopped its painless weeping. In a little while he would have to rise, and face other human beings.

Rocks, thrown from outside, cracked against the shutters again. He flinched, yet something dragged him erect, forced him from the bed, to open the windows and look at the street.

There was no-one visible there. The words swelled and swelled within him till he had to let them out. He cried and screamed at the empty street, shouting out what he had seen in the sky. After a little time, laughter and more rocks answered him.

One day, the next day or the day after, there was a change in her demeanour. Something had changed: but she would not explain why, and he could only tell that some thing unknown was approaching, and that someone had contacted her and the plan of her being now incorporated the idea that he might be some use and worth once more, in some way. He tried to talk to her again, obsessed by the depths of strategy behind her every move, depths which he now realised ruled all people, iron puppetmasters with ignorant puppets, and as he tried to reach through many barriers to communicate with her there was a knock on the door, a knock he instantly realised she had foreknown.

She led them in: three tall men, their minds as bare as bone. And two armed guards with them.

She expected or hoped for some thing, but he knew no names. They were richly dressed, and the code of dress and ornament which he could now read as perfectly as all other codes told him only that they were of this or that clan and of this or that rank, but all far, far above him; that they had been lured here by his wild screams and shouts, relayed by such and such a whispering-gallery of reports, and then led on by words with her; and that this was a routine investigation to them, meaningless, sure to be fruitless.

He had no ideas, no plans.

They questioned him and rumbled words to each other. The meaning of their words reached him before the words themselves, as the red flash of a volcano miles away precedes by many seconds the thunder that is heard upon the terraces. He answered before they had finished speaking, sometimes before they had started speaking, and they did not understand. They thought he was an ill, dying, poor, mad, man, and nothing to do with the thing that had split the sky.

The interview wound down to an end in nothing. But one of them, the lowest in rank, wore dull white. That and the man's shaved head and slashed Sunwheel marked him as a minor Heliomancer, and something, nothing, made him reach toward this man with his hands at the end of the interview, and gasp some of the same words he had tried to reach his wife with. A guard started forward with whip raised, and the shaven man pulled back from physical contact in status-revulsion masked as pity; but deep inside the shaven man, deep inside, something real flared.

"They are Eating the Sun."

"And it seized you? It took you into the heavens?"

"Yes. I . ."

Days had passed, and more of them had come and gone and come again. They were all clustered round his bed now. One who had not been present on the first visit, a very old man, wild eyed, leant forward eagerly to speak. "And what was there? What did you see, in the sky?" He glanced sideways to check that he would not be prevented. Images radiated from the very old man's mind, great beasts devouring shining lamps, the fall of the universe, ruin, and yet within them was a thread of hope and rebirth. He wore purple, and a sign unlike the dark-slashed sunwheel of the Heliomancers, a disk of pure black flicked by one speck of emerald.

He spoke again, and real belief backed the words that issued from him.

"What promise did you receive? How goes the battle? Are we defeated yet?"

"Defeat?...Surely...Long since. . ." Tears leaked from him, he scarcely understood what he said, or why defeat should be a sign of hope. "There is nowhere, nowhere...Father, what are these things? Do you know?"

"I know. I will explain."

Some peace entered his heart. Spoken by another's mouth, the words would have been only another lie; but the old man, alone of all these people, believed what he said, and perhaps some fragment of knowledge dwelt far inside him.

"There is a part for you to play, my son."

The days passed. He was left in peace now. They bought fruit and food for his children, paid the debts, even sent some sullen slaves to help him dress and eat and recover. But he still did not dare leave the house. He could not look at the sky, for he knew what was in the sky: he was still crippled by that dread. He could not look at men, for now he saw too much in men: all men seemed as vicious as Eaters, like the things that dwelt in the sky. Though he was beginning to master the new vision it would never leave him entirely. He could never see the world with the blind eyes from which he had once looked.

The old man came again and again to talk to him. He was mad, of course, for he believed in things wider and greater than the scrabble for rank and sex that was the game of all other men. Mad, yet somehow the eternal battles bled off survivors like this, visionaries, prophets, losers, soft-headed, soft-hearted. Perhaps they represented the accidental concentration of some quality that was a competitive strength when it was diluted and spread abroad. Perhaps a glimpse at truth and reality, but no more than a glimpse, could make men better at struggling and fighting among the rocks, as once a glimpse of the Sun had given him hope and comfort when he had not known what dwelt at its core.

They spoke together. He tried to explain what he had seen, and the things the old man tried to teach him in return washed over him, meaningless ancient stories. He was unable to believe in lies or myths now. He could only see the truth, what men truly thought, saw, desired, intended. He could only speak the truth. He could only hear the truth.

He was crippled: but he tried, hopelessly, futilely, for a long long time, to transcend that knowledge: and then, when it nontheless came, he tried to turn aside what the very old man would ask him to do.

Near the end, his wife came to him again. They spoke. He had moved so far from her, now, that nothing she said could hurt him. She was thin, ugly, ill-proportioned, to his now clearseeing eyes. She spoke, and he replied, and it was almost amusing, what she said, until she faltered and began to behave in ways that made no sense, even to his new eyes that saw so very much: and he watched her as somehow she stopped and halted and crumpled in on herself. Astonishingly, for no reason, her face tensed and twisted and became wet: and her hands reached to him and touched him very gently. With that touch his soul was filled with a flood of reasonless grief. He tried to see into her with the new sight and saw nothing that made any sense: only grief, and something else, persisting and persisting despite all rational reason: pity and pity for him, an agony.

Had he, after all, been wrong? Had the wisdom of the deep skies been only folly?

What was wisdom, after all?

He held her, and for a short time she pressed her head to his breast, silent. But she had to leave him very soon.

They took him with a company of twenty guards, in a litter. There were singers, dancers, beautiful young women from the closed houses rarely let out, parading their naked faces and scattering rice and green leaves. A rough avenue of staring faces bounded their going. The porters sweated and swore. The shaven men blessed his passing, each one exuding smug relief and boredom behind reverent faces. His hands were bound, behind the curtains, and his mouth stopped, but he would not have struggled if he could.

They took him down the slope by paths other than he had explored, but to a destination he knew. The Path of the Road, the Heliomancers say, was set in ancient times: it only waits on us to find it. In like fashion his path had been set, before his birth, and nothing he could do, no plea, no struggle, no blind cowering away from knowledge, would turn it aside. He knew his doom. Down, back, down by sloping and slanting ways, stumbling and sweating over the rocks, to the place he had come from, the plateau far from the City, far below the City, and the ruined crippled metal thing there waiting: and they unbound him, they took him out of the palanquin and made him walk, and singing and blessing him, they forced his trembling hands back into contact with the control plates by the opening.

He was awake again.

This time he knew that damage was crippling. There had been no relief obtained, no succour, no aid. He had not been fed or repaired or helped as he had a right and joy to expect. His love had won no return in blood from those he had sought to protect: he lay in the dust, bleeding, his energies cut to a fraction of what they had been on his first awakening, his skin pierced in a score of places, his heart stuttering. He might fly again, but only once. He could never land, or if he did he would be utterly ruined and broken.

It was a time of endings. Yet there remained one thing to do, the thing he had been made for, his life, his meaning. Enough power yet remained to rise into the skies, once, and fight. He still had enough strength.

His perception of pain and damage changed appropriate to an entity that expected to endure only thirty minutes more. He took sitings, gathered himself. The tiny clutter of life withdrew from the ground near him.

He waited until a little time had passed, and once more he plunged Out into the void. Prepared, now, forewarned, he exchanged messages again with the ancient navigation beacons scattered around the mouth of the great scar on the Earth, took advice. Prepared, singing his death-song, he roared skyward.

The first Eater leapt down at him like a snake of black bloody dust. He scorched it to ribbons, tearing its delicate flesh apart not by sheer energy but by cunning, untwisting the sinews of its heart with delicate touches of just the right wavelengths.

The second tried to sweep him up with a black wing of night. An armoured electromagnetic egg, he punched through it, and it faded to scraps of mist and poison.

The third tried to penetrate his core with a beam of black light. He took the blow to his heart squarely, and heterodyned feedback vibrations into the beam that flooded the center of his enemy with light.

They were weak, weak, weak, the ones he had dreaded!

His pains were forgotten, for a little while. He rose high, higher than before. The inner radiation belts expanded before him, and he plunged fearlessly through them. The touch of each layer of night on his ghost-flesh was like the crack and smash of flimsy insect shells, as vile, as feeble. Guardian entities smote him and he smote back unafraid, realising that these enemies were all unpracticed in battle with such as he, that his fear had been gloriously needless.

He burst out into the middle realm. Creatures of greater power approached him, Ulterior beings, serpents of the high air: yet even they did not dare approach too close. They paced him on either side as he rode higher, and tried to block the currents of force that propelled him. They knew fear! He evaded them easily, and broke them one after the other with quick slights of fire. He roared in joy as he slew and slew and slew.

He rose beyond the magnetopause, into the Solar realm, where the radiations and fields of the system primary ruled. And now he was a creature of plasma and light more than metal. As the complex of forces around him expanded so the node at its center became less and less relevant. The core of life within him interacted directly, via its own native pneumadynamic fields, with the aether in which he swam, almost bypassing the metal shell that was now little more than a catalyst. Terrible pains racked him, yet he was living fully, he was spending his heart's blood joyfully, and in a flash of ecstasy he dreampt of plunging into the true Depths, beyond even the heliopause, extending his Wings to the size of planets and scooping up the thin interstellar plasmas, Out into the realm as far above this one as this was above the Inner Circle and that above the atmosphere which men had once been able to breath. He dreampt, he remembered - yet even now, with a touch of fear - of boosting to lightspeed, flying far from all stars, and fighting the Dragons there, the Fathers of the Eaters, as he had fought them in his youth.

Far above the planet he stopped. His strength was nearly all spent. A ring of enemies surrounded him like a wall of storm. Soon, he would fall again: this was his last defiant height.

In a thoughtless second, he glanced down.

He had searched the depths of space, probed the core of this system's sun, and yet only now did he study the planet below him carefully. Only now was he far enough above it to see it as a whole, estimate its size, trace the lines of the ancient continents, recognize what it was. And as he looked he saw some thing far worse than the Dragons, a woe greater than any nightmare from the black depths of space. For he was not lost. This was not some distant colony, some failure of terraforming or chance lodgement of mankind in the sky-strewn wastes. He was not far away, though he had slept far, far, longer than he had realised. He was not among the distant cold stars. He was at the center of things. He was Home.

Deep in the poison mists, once more.

Now only a little time remained. His last fight, his last fall, were past. And he had fallen further this time, down and down to the very bottom of the valley, tumbling out of control and lost. This was a level area at the bottom of the strange vast cut in the Earth. There was liquid water near him, hot dense air, life of some sort...but he could sense very little now, and was not any more concerned with the future. He wandered among scattered knowledge and memories.

He was Home. This was Urd, Eden, Manhome, now frozen to ice and scoured with the winds of time. The battles that had raged across all the arms of the home galaxy had ended: death and the forces of darkness had triumphed everywhere, there as beyond. The rebellion of life against the Powers of the Slayers had been put down, and mankind's brave course had been but a pebble in their way. He had not recognised the Sun because the Sun was dying, being Eaten. He had not recognised the stars of the galaxy because they too were dimming, unevenly, long before their right time, and the sky was filled with the shipwrecks of nebulae, the burnt fumes from twice-slain stars. He had not recognised his Home because his home was ruined, frozen, split, desiccated, with only a crack remaining in the ground wherein a remnant might creep to hide. A remnant that numbered thousands, not the hundreds of billions of humanity at its height of power: a remnant that could not possibly retain the knowledge and skills required to fuel and tend a machine like him.

He wondered, in a little dream, whence came this Valley? For only in a conformation like this could human life now survive, nestled deep within the protecting geopsychomagnetic field of what was yet disguised as just another slain world; warm enough in one place for a fragment of a biosphere to endure without betraying planetforming works to support it; and with its technology so depressed as to be invisible to the Slayers, because beneath noise level for them. No great star-spanning civilisation could hope to endure against the forces now cleaning the stars of life. So had they retreated here, to what seemed another broken field of defeat, and hidden in the mud.

Or was it mere chance? What had he done? He had raised his head to fight. Had he bought utter doom? He would die before knowing. His day was past, his last battle fought, and he could only hope his defiance had not bought the last shred of humanity to the attention of forces that would exterminate it quickly.

Yet he was awake still, and once more he had returned to ground with his rider. Whether he had done well or ill, once more he had a last duty before he died.

He had expected death. He still lived, within the machine.

Outside...he could see, with the same ghost-vision he had retained once before.

The ground was flat. Around him was a scatter of boulders, draining streams, a pebbly dry lake bottom with rounded stones telling of water, strange fleshy vegetation...and there was light, enough to see by, enough for the plants to live. There were marks and tracks of animals. Life could survive here. It would be hot and acrid, but he could not be many miles down from the lowest points explorers from the City had reached. The usual slope of the valley side was behind him: but he was not on any ledge or plateau that ended with another new drop, but on a plain that stretched hundreds of meters away to the east in his mechanically enhanced sight and then rose there in small irregular hills. This was not another groove on the edge of the Valley, bounded by another endless fall: this was its floor. The great descent his people had spent thirty generations making had ended, and here, only a few miles down below the curtain of mist, was the end of their journey, the end of the Path, the proper place for the last Pylon ever on the Road, unless it should continue along the level ground. In a little while, as the deep mists cleared, human life would be possible here, over a living space hundreds of times greater than any humanity had known for millennia. And he, he, had found it.

The ship around him was dying. He could sense, as if he was a ghost in a dying body, its energies failing and dispersing, its tough systems going offline one after the other. Yet it still cared for him, and now as the interior light faded once more and the threads pulled from his temples he saw it had one last gift for him: not only his flimsy clothing and boots but a weapon, a strange thing like an axe with a rotating diskoid blade; and a mask, a mask like the negative of a face, with a flask, a tube leading to the mouthparts: something obviously, obviously made to assist the breathing.

The memories of two lives filled his mind. One life of human birth, work, marriage, and hope within the City of the Road Makers: and one of manufacture and conflict far above the sky, among the distant stars, with only a loving memory of an ancient Earth given to him by what he thought of as his gods. Yet he understood - if he could only order his mind - how he had see and not seen the truth, how he had cut to the core of things in the confusion of metal and flesh and yet been as misled as any man who thinks a skull more real than the face that clasps it, as misled as the poor machine that had known only battle and death and had sought it until it was destroyed.

He was not afraid now. He was not afraid of men any more, for he had seen worse things than men, and he had fought and slain his enemies, though not in his proper body. He was not afraid of death: he had passed through death. A task remained for him, and a message to give, battles to fight and a journey to make. He had regained hope.

He might die, but his Path was set before his feet.

He took the weapon in hand. He clapped the mask to his face. It clung like a lover, and a gush of pure oxygen filled his lungs.

© 2005 by Andy Robinson.
Image altered from a photograph by Phil Armitage, who has generously placed it in the public domain.