I'm going off to Fyrst Lond for my mandatory tour of duty and I wanted to say a few things to you, in case I don't get back. You're too young to read anything yet, or even understand the words, so consider this a little time capsule. I wanted to tell you a few things from my point of view, a few things only your old man could tell you and get right.
Joe, your teachers will tell you there was no Third War. They'll tell you there was turmoil, and dissidence. But they won't mention the nukes, the pyros, the fanatics. It was a bad time for us all, and most folks would just as soon forget. But my boys won't be brought up in ignorance. Sally agrees with me only grudgingly, but that's because she's overprotective.
There are dissidents now, of a different, subtler type. They live outside of our great, proud cities. They prefer not to involve themselves in the greatest engineering achievements since the Great Pyramids. What pyramids, you say? Look it up. That's what my father used to say.
But the dissidents use passive resistance, like some blacks did in the mid-20th. They are non-violent. This makes them hard to fight, by definition.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I think they pose a danger. Their views remind me too much of the things I thought when I was young. I don't want you to go down their path. Your Uncle Jonas, the sociologist, tells me they have an unusually good chance of doing some harm. Your mother is already taking precautions and I want you to obey her when the time comes. I don't understand their powers, but I do have an old, apocryphal story I stumbled upon while clearing out my mother's belongings last July. It's stored on a sense wafer, very expensive. Your grandmother was always into those nomad tales. I suggest you read it and see what I can't.
Lt. Colonel Andrew Kilborne, Earth Corps.
Overgrazing, in the 20th, and ruined this land. Then the techies finally took their fat, lazy cattle to the moonscrapers.
Chieftain Joseph, for lack of a better title, resided in a canvas tent with a canopy. Their was a card table outside, and metal folding chairs.
"Caleb!" the chief greeted Caleb as the latter entered.
Caleb, like the rest of the group, wore robes not unlike that of the vanished Bedouin. He was Joseph's long-time attaché. Caleb took off his goggles and slung them around his neck.
"How is the sky today, Caleb? And the wind?"
"The sky is good, sahib. The wind blows mildly from the east."
"Stay vigilant over that breeze, my son. The eastern soil is not yet cleansed. It will not be until I am long buried in soil myself."
Joseph was not naturally tan. But years of tilling the soil and herding animals under the harsh sun had baked him to a golden hue. The skin around his eyes crinkled when he smiled; it was like leather. But he was not yet old; muscles still tensed like cords underneath his browned skin.
Signifying his rank was a woven, colorful strap he wore around his head like a sweatband. It doubled as such, on the worst days.
"We will need to move our people south, Sahib. To the caves, before the summer comes along."
"I agree. We have not yet the immunity against its harsh rays. Now, come along with me. I have to speak with our archivist—I have had troubling visions lately." He gripped Caleb's arm firmly. Caleb nodded.
They donned their goggles and hoods and strode outside.
Sparse trees randomly punctuated the otherwise basic, rolling hills. Tribesman gathered underneath their meager shade and slept through the harshest part of the day. They would resume their duties in the afternoon and hurry to get things done before nightfall and the ensuing chill. To the north, zebras grazed, watched over by lithe herdsman in full sun protection. In addition to hoods and goggles, they wore face masks and gloves. The square inches of skin left exposed were treated with home made sunblock, the pride and secret of this tribe and its prime export.
The archivist's library consisted of two covered wagons. People would pay a small amount in sunblock to sit inside for a few hours and pore over precious texts. This tribe was said to have the best collection in Center America. They might not have had the largest archive, but it was by far the most valuable. There might have been more books in the fire-blasted cities of Topeka and Omaha. But it was not worth it to risk life and limb against the mutant races. They owned those huge libraries, for better or worse.
And the tribe guessed that the moonscrapers possessed huge archives. It was said, however, that the words were not stored on paper. They were stored on something that could not be read with a human eye. Supposedly, the people of the Towers used arcane machines to squeeze information into little spaces. They used other, equally mysterious contraptions to read their hoarded pages.
The concepts involved were unwieldy for the tribe people, and better left alone. But the Chief thought of these machines occasionally, for reasons of his own.
Archivist Solomon greeted them with a smile. He was portly and pale, for a tribesman.
"Solomon," said Joseph, "I think you're working too hard. Take a break. Go get some water."
Solomon made a face of mock annoyance. "Sahib mocks me. What is your business today?"
"My business is images of the mind, borne of dreams and sent from the gods."
Solomon breathed but kept the same, somber expression. It was his eyes that changed. "You are a poet at heart, Sahib."
Joseph bowed humbly. "Nevertheless, the soul of a philosopher. I must pore through your texts, Solomon. A thought plagues me."
Solomon gestured towards the wagon. "They are yours for the pouring."
"Which reminds me, Solomon, I have heard rumors that you are procuring an inordinate amount of water. Perhaps you have an invention on the side that you have not notified me of?"
"No, no, Sahib." He smiled creakily and glanced at the nearby tents where the water was kept. "I knew eventually people would plot against me so they could get my job and be comfortable. In the shade all day." He wiped his perspiring brow.
"And your absence would grieve me terribly," laughed Joseph. The archivist flashed his teeth.
In the end, Joseph was not satisfied by what he found. He wanted history, but these books were written before the Fire War. He wanted to know what had caused the war and how the techies had created their new civilizations. Or had the sky cities come before the War?
He consulted the elders. He sat with them in the congregation tent, around a sacred fire, and they contemplated many things.
"I have seen their world," said one, "in my waking dreams. I am drawn to it by an unseen hand."
Another added, "It is like nothing I can describe. I see long, shining metal. I see creatures I could not before have imagined."
The first continued, "They, the creatures, could be from other stars. I remember it was a dream of our ancestors to achieve contact with intelligent races."
Said the second, "But our descendants in the sky are powerful, and they might create these animals with their machines."
The group made a holy gesture of protection. As they spoke, Joseph began to hear their wisdom as one source. After a while, it did not matter who was talking, only the message.
"Their world hurts something in me," continued the elder. "I see their food, I see their faces, I see their strange vehicles, but I see them languishing. They are all in the shallowest layer of themselves. They are not aware."
"They wallow in it, and are not aware of their wallowing. I see so many sheep, so many humans clawing, scraping, trying to live, trying to understand something that is not. I hear them say, 'Why me?' I hear them say, 'My hair,' or 'My skin, how rough it is. If could only be smooth like glass.'"
"Their hearts yearn for something more, but their minds do not listen. Their minds hear this cry and think it is the rumble of a stomach, or a stirring of the loins, or a heaviness in the bowels."
"And they are leaving this planet. They have forgotten the soil, the sky, the trees. They think only of riches, of opportunity in some other place that could not possibly fulfill their expectations."
"So they become unreachable. They become unteachable. Our descendants stray from the path of spirituality and oneness and drown in amenities and luxury. Food is delivered to their door, as are wages, daily news of things near and afar, sex, drugs..."
"Waste! Sloth! Malevolent weakness!"
Joseph spoke now. "But when there is a sick child, it is healed. When there is a mother in labor, it is painless. When there is hunger, there is food. When there is poverty, there is donation."
"Some of this is true," admitted an elder. "But when there is poverty, my child, there is only exile. And birth without pain begets more birth. Pain teaches. And what of this sick child, who shall only grow to become like the rest? Is it charity when they end up living in blindness, in waste? Surely you are not doing this child a favor by letting him into a world of sin."
"But I would not let him die," Joseph countered, "or kill him. Because in youth there is the chance for change. In youth, there is ignorance, but it can be sculpted into knowledge. Knowledge free from prejudice."
"The dullest of them is more knowledgeable than our brightest flame," agreed the elder. "But what is knowledge if it does not become understanding? In this we are superior, because we understand all that we know."
"I would qualify that statement," said Caleb. "We know the sky people but we do not understand them."
"Go on, child."
"We do not know why they live this way."
"But we can guess well enough," the elder countered. "We can say that they have forgotten the old ways, that they don't want to go back to the earth and do hard work. We can guess that they have grown used to their decadence."
Caleb sighed. "I'll admit, wise elder, that that would be a most likely conclusion, but we do not know for sure."
The elder nodded and shrugged with his eyebrows. "The question is, is their motivation important enough to us? Should we care how they think? What their fate is?"
"Wise elder," said Joseph, "the day might come when they are our enemy. The day will come when they see us as a pest, or hunt us like game. They might regain this land, but with tract developments, asphalt, motor cars. It would be like the old ways. We must know if this is to pass, and prepare against it."
"And how do you know this?" asked an elder, making the holy gesture.
Joseph tapped his forehead. "I have seen it. I am plagued by visions, every night. You will ask me, 'How do I know this is not my own imagination? How do I know this is not the past I am seeing, or an alternate path?' I will answer you: I do not know. But I prefer to find out sooner rather than later."
The elder nodded. "We have felt echoes of these scenes, but only in our deepest minds. These events touch you deeply. You are inextricably involved." She peered at him meaningfully through a puff of pipe smoke. "Would you know why?"
"I cannot say."
"I sense incompleteness in this answer."
"That is to say, I am not sure."
"Have you dealt with them before, Joseph?"
"Perhaps in my dreams. When I reach back I see vagueness. It slips away from me."
The elders exchanged glances. Joseph tried to ignore it.
One elder spoke up. "Joseph, we have no secrets between us, only among us. You were told this when you arrived many decades ago. Do you forget this law now?"
"I have no hurting secrets. Whatever involvement I have with the sky humans I pushed away when I came here. The memory is irrelevant."
The elder nodded. The elders had a way of nodding that could signify anything. "We must discover the portent of your visions, Joseph. I can only think of one solution."
Joseph squirmed while the elder took another, contemplative inhalation. Slowly, she blew it out and nodded inscrutably. "My peers, we must discuss this." She turned to Caleb and Joseph. "Humble visitors, light the ceremonial fire and do not return here until its smoke ceases. Joseph, one night of solitude to contemplate. Caleb, act in his stead for the duration."
Caleb nodded. "Yes, judicious elder."
Joseph was thoughtfully silent.
Caleb shook him from his reverie. They set the logs and a fire burned anew. Caleb said a prayer over the rising flames, bowed and left with Joseph.
In the tall, blowing grass, Joseph sat cross-legged, the backs of his hands set on his knees. A warm breeze stirred his tunic and he saw the stars above without opening his eyes.
A mile to the south he heard buffalo sleeping by the creek. He could see/feel the creek. He flew over the grass now, but no wind blew in his face or on his skin. He flew past a grove of trees. He had a moment to regard a sleeping doe curled up at the foot of an oak, a young one snuggled against it.
Something loomed ahead of him, its base beyond the horizon but its peak going beyond his vision, through the atmosphere and into space. At the sight of it, his emotions flared. Giddiness and dread mixed uncomfortably in his chest. He felt wind on his face.
Words bubbled up unbidden from his deeper, stronger mind. Simple words, but soaked with meaning.
Tower. Towers. Look at the horizon, the great pillar of life, of humanity in all its alloyed glory.
So many lights, blinking, flashing. Coordinated, red, warning.
Warning. Dangerous. Danger. Turn back!
To turn back is to live. To continue is to die die die die—
He said, "To live is to suffer. To die is to rejoice. To live is to hide. To die is to fight. I fight, I die. I am hero. I am Hero. To live is Coward. To live is to cower."
You pass the point of no return. You are gone now, gone from me, beyond, dead.
He said, stonily, "So be it. I have no choice now but to bring back..."
The other voice grew fainter, weaker. Something in him shrugged. He moved on, louder, stronger.
Miles up the pillar, clouds gathered. A stream of information bubbled under his immediate consciousness, about the clouds, why they were there. He could not control, let alone stem, the flood. His thoughts, his vision, managed to stay above it, but he caught bits of it like spray:
shadeforthehumans ...shadefor51,120,961humans ...shade gathered culled...bycondensationinducers...poweredbysolarbanks
He laughed, and remembered the solar arrays, the simple genius involved. Then he was shocked, and tried to push it away. He said, "That is not important." He said, "I cannot, must not recall. There is too much. Too much. No!"
He remembered his family.
He shouted, and lost focus.
A beautiful wife, two babies.
He fell through.
A wife sixty-one years old, body augmented and prevented from deterioration by designer estroroids and webular skin substitution.
Oh, how it glitters when she moves. I hate it, I hate it. Hate! I want to tear her precious, trophy skin off!
She was beautiful once, you know. She had inner beauty. And I had loved her wholly, foolishly. For a man cannot love completely. A man cannot let go of everything.
A new voice said, "But you did."
And he shouts back, "Damn you! Damn You!"
Something strikes him like lightning, shaking, quivering through his chest. He spasms. Everything in him is burning, chattering, vibrating. His scream chars the air. His memories shred and fall into tatters.
He falls. And, a while later, when his mind has sunk into sleeping blankness, beyond dreams, behind whirling facades—he lands with a dull thump; and the fibers of his body shatter like glass over an expanse a million miles in every direction. His mind shatters into a billion smaller minds, each to small to think.
He lies this way for an eternity. After another eternity, he gathers himself up through sheer willpower. Another eternity, and he is patched together. Then he rises up, back to the light. He finds it is not that long a journey. He feels like a man who has been thrashing, drowning, in a few feet of water.
But the light is warm, and good.
Dawn was a rising phoenix in the east, and heavy clouds. The sky was everywhere. On a good day, however, a man could sometimes see the mountains far to the west. No one here knew who or what lived there now. It could have regained the wilderness, or it could have been blasted by the fire. Whatever the case, Joseph hoped he didn't have to cross them.
"I suspect you know where to go," said the elder. They stood at the edge of the encampment, their legs caressed by long, yellow grass when the stronger breezes passed.
Joseph replied, "I have a notion." He looked as far as he could, past the rolling hills, to the barely imagined outline of the mountains. "To the West."
"You fear the mountains. I think they will be the least of your worries."
"My son, we lost contact with the western coast many years ago. The mountains, I suspect, have grown harsh. Or our fellows in West California have grown dead."
She squinted. "Perhaps from the same thing in your visions. Perhaps right now, armies of sky people are marching this way, striking a swath of wanton destruction." She shivered. "Thoughts like this come unbidden, and more often."
"Wise elder, I am sure that if they wanted to kill us they would come in flying machines, and long ago. They are too lazy otherwise."
"How would you know? Ah, but you cannot say."
Was that sarcasm? Joseph shifted uncomfortably.
She patted him on the back. "Someday you will tell me. Perhaps when you return, hm?"
He looked back to the hills and nodded faintly. "Things come to me too, great elder. Information. It bubbles up, but from inside me."
"I suspect it will bubble up more as you near the great constructions of our descendants. And when you come upon them, finally...I do not know. But your revelation will not be pleasant."
"How would you know?"
She shook her head. "I am old upon this earth, and can hear many things without knowing exactly what they are saying. I see shapes, spirits, passing by me sometimes. Such is the ability of an elder, my son. Or curse." She turned to him and spoke in a low voice. "Whatever you do, do not turn back. Whatever you see or hear, do not retreat. I sense desperate times ahead of us. In you I see the key. In you I see the balancer of all things."
"Something draws me, my elder, perhaps a call to duty. And if I am to know if it is a trap, there is only one way to find out."
"The thought had occurred to me. The high humans might be using a new, nefarious machine to draw out…draw out people like me." He looked away for a moment. "They might be attempting to cull the strongest then move in to destroy the helpless survivors."
"But what threat could you, or any like you, pose to such an advanced society?"
He looked at her and knew the answer. Did she see it in his eyes? He could not tell and looked away again.
Lightning flashed in the north, where the darkest clouds were clustered.
Joseph said, "Is this what they call a vision quest?"
She looked at him with raised, sparse eyebrows. "An old term. I'd thought it was all but forgotten. I'm not sure, Joseph, and I'm not afraid to admit it. Does it matter?"
Joseph chewed this thought. High above, a V of geese flew south, hooting and squawking. "It does to me."
"Well—from what I remember—a young warrior leaves his tribe, with little food and likely no weapons. He would walk. And walk. And he would not come back until he had Seen."
She shrugged and dug into the soil with a stick.
"After a fashion, yes. But this young man does not come back and convince his people that he is a messenger from God. Because what he sees, what he hears, will make only a basic sense to others. There are details specific to each person."
"What if the vision suggested the tribe was in trouble?"
"Then you return, to warn us. If you can."
The storm front drifted slowly across the sky, like the hour hand of an ancient clock.
"I must get going, elder, before the storm catches up."
She gave a meaningful nod. He waited for another moment, to make sure, and left on quickened feet.
Joseph's quest could have been chronicled as a separate story, but was not. Most likely because he was no chronicler. And whomever may have accompanied him would have brought no paper, scarce parchment, along with him. There was only room in Joseph's saddlebags for food and water, more precious in a wild land than gold or weapons. More precious in a land that was not quite healed, not quite clean from the stains of an old, cruel war.
Joseph had maps, however, old maps. Trade routes that sprouted up like weeds in the aftermath of Fire. Where there is civilization there is trade. The maps were as about as reliable as one could hope, and not a bit more. Joseph used them only as reference and crossed his fingers every step of the way.
Before his traveling with the nomads, he had been a plains drifter. Before that, he could not remember. He preferred not to think about Before. Tomorrow was important. Now was important. He had learned many essential skills while living alone. He had gotten so good at traveling alone that it was hard to shift back into group life. But he had to, or else let weeds grow in his brain. Folks in these days became skewed if left to themselves.
On his way West, he heard some of the wilder ones at night, sometimes, in the wee hours, hunting. Hopefully not for him. Wherever he could find a tree, he slept in it. He never saw them, however. No one did. That is to say, no one reported seeing the wilders. Some nights Joseph fell asleep cradling his buck knife to his chest. Sometimes he pulled it out and cradled it while fully asleep. One morning he climbed down from his atrium to find fresh scratches on the tree bark.
Another day he found a campsite that had everything but human occupants. The horses were stray and there were scuff marks in the dirt clearing around the fire, now ashes. It had been so for days before Joseph arrived. He traveled for many more hours after that and did not sleep much when nightfall came.
On that night he looked up and saw streaking stars across the sky. Shooting stars, perhaps, but not likely. He looked up at them and an invisible emotion slipped coldly through his heart, making him shudder. When he saw the lights, memories stirred but would not wake. They scraped, but drew no blood on his conscious mind. He fell asleep contemplating the lights and had dreams he understood but did not understand upon waking.
They came for him, as he barely suspected they would. He was surprised that he wasn't surprised. They came from the sky, in a metallic, glinting teardrop of a ship, almost silent. The sound was unlike anything he'd heard or imagined. It oscillated rapidly and hinted at multiple tones. Joseph was still contemplating this sound when he passed out.
Joseph awoke in a darkness and wondered if this was death. He tried to call out but had no voice. He felt no body.
A voice spoke to him clearly, clearler than any sound he'd ever heard before. The voice was beautiful. "Joseph Kilborne. It has been a long time since we saw you in Denver."
Something in Joseph shouted. Something inside him, at the sound of his last name, broke, and water leaked from a hole in the dike of his mind.
"We have many questions, Mr. Kilborne, but they'll have to wait until you're safely back home. Do you remember home?"
Joseph found his voice, clear but shaky. "P-please, call me Joseph. Call me Joseph!"
"That's what the last one said," it replied with some amusement.
"Where am I?"
"Where you are, Joseph, is irrelevant. It is where you are going that matters. It is where you have been that matters.
"You see, rarely do we lose track of a citizen so utterly. Your homer must have been defective. It works only on short-range, however, and we picked up your signal six hours ago. We're glad to have you back, though." Pause. "Mister…Joseph, why did you leave us?"
He said, slowly, sincerely, "I don't remember."
"I'm not surprised. You must have injured yourself early on and suffered amnesia. Or perhaps agoraphilia."
"No matter, Joseph."
"A clan that wanders near the moonscrapers took me in. There were many like me in that clan, but I could not stay."
"Because I had to go."
"I don't understand."
"I had to get away from the tower. I don't remember why."
"Ah." No tone of understanding, however.
Silence. Joseph could almost feel his interrogator mulling his answers, mulling the next question. Quietly, he could hear the speaker talking to another. Not meant for his ears.
"Joseph, what was it that you learned that allowed you to survive? We are curious."
"I learned of inner contemplation. I learned of balance, and oneness, and moderation."
The speaker made a noise. It sounded like a stifled snort. "What about hunting? Self-defense?"
"These came in time. But they were not important yet. I, like the ones I left, had strayed from the path that allowed us to see ourselves."
"I don't follow."
"I came to understand my place in the universe. I came to understand there are places beyond this world, places I never would have seen had I stayed in Den—in the place Before."
"But we have colonized many planets in the Solar System, and explore the galaxy daily with warp ships. Are you saying you found a better way?"
"I'm saying I met beings you will never know, or understand. I heard and saw things you will never experience. I achieved enlightenment, by giving my soul to the Universe."
That muffled sound again. "How do you get to this place, then?"
"This is not a place. It is everyplace. It is everything besides the physical dimension. And not all the technology, not all the drugs in the world will zap you into it. You might get a glimpse, in the corner of your eye, when you sleep. When your body is at rest and your mind is exploring your mystery. But you forget it when you wake. It washes away, clean as a slate, and you are none the wiser. But I, I slip through this crack, into Somewhere Else."
A queer note entered the Speakers voice. It was nothing like derision this time. "It sounds like a delusion to me. If so, caused by your stressful state."
"But I am not stressed."
"But you been in the Wastes for decades." Silence. "You will be fully evaluated when we return to Denver, Mr. Kilborne."
Joseph screamed, and was shut off into oblivion.
In his dream, the physical specifications, the blueprints, of New Denver assailed him. The bombardment of information was too much, yet he did not, could not, pass out.
A voice like a professor, stage left, questioning, authoritative. How did this technological marvel arise from the ruin of the Fire War?
"I don't know."
Was it there before? Hm?
"I think so."
Think, man, think!
"I cannot. I must not. I forsook. It was necessary in order to achieve balance. I purged."
You purged nothing! Information cannot be purged from the mind, except by tearing parts of your brain from your head! It is still in there, somewhere.
Joseph whimpered. He said, "Please stop. Please, leave me alone."
Whirling disorientation. He fell in one blind direction, then another. Things slowed and he did not know which direction he faced. There was direction, but he could not touch it.
He said, "I cannot."
They sent you. You must remember what you were. Even more, you must accept it.
"What I was, what I lived, I cannot. My live was sin. My life was sloth and shallowness."
You are not evil, Joseph. You never were, nor will be. Now remember the tower. You must know it.
The dike cracked, and water splashed through the small fissure. Pressure built. At first, the data had assailed him. Now it came from inside, and its eruption undid him. He rode this sudden wave as the dike finally broke. He fell into something deeper, the unconscious unconsciousness, something like death or catatonia.
Data flooded, and poured, then bubbled, then leaked, then trickled.
He knew now, but it was too much to process. He needed time. It didn't look like he had such luxury.
They say it is not possible, but what do they know? They've never been there. Joseph's mind became still. Joseph's mind rested. This was even closer to death: a coma of the spirit, of the soul.
"Let him rest a while. I daresay that total recall is the hangover of hangovers."
"Yessir. Hangover, sir?"
"Physical pain in the brain after ingesting intoxicants."
The underling stared at her blankly. She grimaced and gestured him away. "Learn some physiology!" She muttered darkly after him.
The underling scuttled away as if bitten.
"What kind of world is it," she lamented to the sleeping Joseph, "when only scholars know how to plant a tree but have never tried it themselves?"
She shook her head.
"Samual, how are his readings?"
The on-board computer said, "None. We have him is stasis, sir."
"Yes, of course. Give me a readout of his readings in the last sixty seconds before temporal freeze."
She savored the data as it was beamed directly to her lobe receptor. It was almost as good as sex.
"We elected to take you directly to Main," said a voice.
Joseph woke. Dream images gathered expectantly, then scattered, disappointed. "Where am I?"
The figure before him chuckled.
Joseph said, "I feel like I've been asleep forever. And I can finally see who I'm talking to."
"Such is the effect of stasis."
"I know. I know!"
"It will come to you in bits in pieces."
They were in a softly-lit, spacious suite. They sat in a sunken living room. A skylight provided most of the light. Between Joseph and his host was a coffee table. On the table was a silver platter, and on the platter were glasses filled with fruit-colored drinks. Water condensed on the drinks and Joseph was suddenly thirsty. Joseph reached out his hand.
His host raised his hand. "Not yet, Joseph. Let us speak first.
"I am Samual. No, do not shake. It is no longer custom. The people of New Denver eschew it in favor of...well, the concept would be rather foreign to you, let alone the execution. I'll set that aside. Suffice it to say that we have other ways of communication."
"I don't remember this."
"Things have changed since you left. We achieved the last stage in you absence. There is still time for you, however."
Joseph looked again at the drinks.
Samual smiled politely and folded his hands before him.
"Why did you bring me back?" said Joseph. "Why not let me be?"
"It is not our policy. We made a promise to protect our citizens. We've never lost a single one."
"No one has ever wanted to leave." It was not exactly a statement.
Samual smiled. "No one ever willingly goes into the badlands."
"It's not all that dangerous. Thousands live out there, and they are happy."
"For all practical purposes they are a myth. They are those who chose to stay in the wilds instead of immigrate to the great Towers. Supposedly they died out."
Clouds passed briefly over the sun, darkening the room.
Joseph rubbed his head. "I don't think my absence was an accident. But it's quite hazy."
"When you try to convince yourself of a lie, the mind stutter-steps in an attempt to support false logic. That haze you detect is the formulation of an alternate theory. You must not let this theory coagulate, or else the truth will be hard to program...convince you of."
Samual spread his hands. "Maybe you got mixed up on the roster for the Space Corps and got left behind during field training. Or you were the baby of a maddened, treasonous housewife."
"And what is it here that would madden anyone?" The suite looked peaceable enough to him.
"Nothing, really. But insanity is a statistical certainty."
"And how do you deal with it?"
There was a knock on the front door. Samual smiled. "Just a moment, Joseph."
Samual returned with an old man floating on an aerochair. He was bent and palsied. But his eyes were alive and he grinned toothlessly. Beside him was a young woman in hospital garb. A nurse. She smiled also.
Joseph stood up. His brow furrowed. His jaw dropped open a little. "Fah—Father?"
The old man cackled agreeably and shook his walking stick. Vice Admiral Andrew Kilborne opened his arms.
Mixed emotions dizzied Joseph's mind. Samual put a strong grip on his upper arm that was meant to be sympathetic, but it felt aggressive. Joseph shrugged it off with surprising vehemence.
"He is supposed to be dead!" Joseph said, confused. "His transport was attacked by pirates before he even embarked on his assignment."
"That was the official story," Samual said. "The truth is, he was involved in a top secret surveillance mission, still classified."
"No, no." Joseph put his hands in his hair. "I saw his body at the funeral. I remember."
Samual said, gently, "A convincing prop, Joseph."
Joseph looked at him through his hair. He turned around and walked to the balcony.
"Joseph, where are you going?"
"Outside, for a breath of fresh air. Things are coming back to me, Samual." He turned around and faced them. "My body, my brain was asleep on the way here. But I was not. I remember what the captain of that vessel said!"
"Joseph, come now, have a seat..."
"She said, 'What kind of world is it when only scholars know how to plant a tree but have never tried it themselves?'. What does she mean, Samual?" He jabbed a finger at the balcony. "When I look out that window, what will I see?"
Samual approached. Joseph turned around and walked toward the balcony. "Don't try to stop me. I know why I left! I know now!"
"Son," his father croaked. "Don't do this."
Distantly, alarms went off, klaxons.
"What kind of world, eh, Samual?" Joseph threw open the sliding glass door. "Eh, Dad?"
He looked out, and the blood drained from his face.
The elder looked up into the sky, and knew. She stared for an intense moment, at the stars, at the huge, midnight sky; she saw the stars and could count them all. She saw the surfaces of the planets of the solar systems—those that had surfaces—and she could hear/feel their alien winds on her face, their foreign scents.
In the second instant time stopped, and was no more. She clutched her chest reflexively, and her cane snapped brightly. She fell to the ground. People came from their tents. They heard the sound, and, in their deep hearts, felt an omen. They felt a dark blessing pass over their faces like lukewarm, thick water.
They gathered around the elder, and carried her dying body to the main tent. They quickly built a fire, and set her close to it.
She wheezed, barely heard above the crackling of the fire. "My son lives. He has seen the Tower."
The nomads breathed.
The spark in her eye died out. The fire reflected glassily on her eyes, and Caleb covered her with a sheet.
They sang many old songs that night, and told older stories. And they talked of everything. They slept all through the next day.
Joseph staggered back from the balcony. He grabbed the curtain and it tore while attempting to support his weight. He stumbled and fell to his knees.
"Lord That Protects," he whispered. "What is this new Hell?"
Samual froze in mid-stride before him, his face transfixed in a grimace of regret, hate, and frustration. The old man shook his head slowly and the nurse wept.
"We were going to tell you," his father said. "We had a plan, so that you would see it and understand, instead of recoil in horror.
"Can you forgive us?"
"Forgive?" asked Joseph. "I don't even know what that is that I see."
"Look again, my son, and try to understand."
Messengers rode between the tribes, communicating, sending the message along. The mayors, the women sages, heard the message and compared it to one they had memorized long ago. By the time all of them knew the first fact, that Joseph had Seen, the story had already unfolded.
They waited in there tents, some of them. Others sat around a communal fire, staring outward, weapons in hand. They did not pray now, nor dance or sing. They awaited their fate.
Joseph looked out, and Saw once more.
The cavern before him was miles wide, miles tall, miles long. Dull, ragged stalactites hung; multifaceted, glittering daggers housing entire nations, entire city-states. Stalagmites rose from the floor like saw-toothed mountain ridges, dwarfing any mountain on the face of the earth, dwarfing Olympus Mons.
Joseph shivered. There was more.
Swarms of drone-things blurred the far side of the cavern. They flew everywhere, patching, repairing, messaging, delivering. They buzzed right by his window.
A monstrous stalactite hung from the ceiling only fifty yards away. Joseph's room must have been on a sheer wall.
There were pods on the stalactite. Cocoons. Millions of them. Fragile, pale creatures lay in them, barely discernible through a layer of translucent, reddish biomass. Their hands curled, their eyes closed, their heads large and bodies gangly, they were grotesque.
And unmistakably human. Joseph suppressed a scream.
"What happened?" He whirled to stare at his visitors. "What have we become?"
Samual laughed nervously and coughed. "The Fire War had some...unique effects on our physiology, ones that set in during puberty. We learned later that the warheads had untested, highly advanced bio-agents along with the usual uranium load. How they got in there is a long, involved story. Some will tell you it was planted by ETs, others will claim it was the act of a mad, desperate government. Irrelevant.
"What matters is that our genetic makeup was altered sufficiently to survive radioactivity. And when we died we could convert our cocoons into building material. We had enough people to start with, and our generation turns over at a much faster rate. Without this mass we could not have built our towers into space. And without that, no massive space stations.
"Because of this cosmic plot twist we were able to skip ten generations in civilization development. Because of this leap frog we could defend ourselves against foreign invaders. And they did come. They had taken us for dead, I suppose.
"You remember when the flying saucers first started showing up, Joseph? Does it say in your books? We forget history easily, but I remember it as the mid-twentieth century. The same time we developed atomics. Light-years away, they used their highly sensitive instruments and recorded massive releases of atomic energy. They knew the portent of this, and came. And they did not come to investigate our technology. They were waiting for us to destroy ourselves so they could move in and claim a new planet for their teeming, grubby masses.
"But we one-upped them. We were waiting when they came with the big ships. So I defend our race. I defend what it has become."
Joseph shook his head. "I wasn't attacking it."
Samual made a gesture and the window disappeared. A painting took its place.
Joseph said, "So do you look like what I'm looking at? Or do you look like them?"
"The Tower supports a small population of Homo sapiens, but I am not one of them, nor is the nurse. Your father, however, is of your kind."
"And what is your kind, then?"
"Why, Homo sentiens, of course. I'm not really even here, by the way."
"You're in one of those cocoons, like the rest of them."
"Yes, but do not misunderstand. My body is static, but my mind is free to go wherever there is another of my kind. We communicate telepathically. What you're seeing now is a complex bio-frame I'm emulating like a marionette."
"We explore the galaxy through the mind of another. Some of us, a lucky few, aren't static. We have sapiens with sentien attachments pioneering space. They find a good planet, seed it, and move on."
"Seed it? To what end?" said Joseph, and it came out a little shrill. "You sound like a parasite to me. Do you create anything? Do you know, or care, of balance?"
"Joseph. There can be no balance for us. We must expand, grow, progress, if we are to survive. We cannot relax, else we stagnate, like your people have, unfortunately."
"I would prefer to stagnate rather than become what you have become."
"Most of your kind feel the same way. So we let them be. And when your species dies out we can archive you in the Encyclopaedia Terranea and move on."
Joseph could take no more. He tackled Samual, and Samual's fragile bio-frame did not last long under Joseph's fury.
Samual's physical pain rippled through the minds of his people. They felt his pain as theirs, felt his blows as their own. They had not defended themselves. They had not expected Joseph to attack. They had trained their sapiens to be docile, obedient.
In one of their many trillions, a spark lit. It was much like the spark in the elder's eye before she died. But this was a spark of birth. In one of their many trillions, one of them went mad, taken off-guard by Joseph's sudden, raw violence. A statistical inevitability. The madness was infectious, since the sentiens were such a psychologically knit group. The ripples did not die out. They multiplied geometrically, and became a tidal wave.
But they had protective measures. Many went mad and had to be cutoff. Many powerful nodes and backbones had to be destroyed to stem the flood of raw emotion, surprise, and shock, and sadness. This process took many Earth-hours, but the emotion of that woman's first spark still hung like the last note of a dirge.
Oh, my child. The truth, the change, is a harsh beast indeed. I can no longer live like this. My, child...my darling
Joseph sensed this communal response like a distant echo, and he cried. On the plains where they left him, he wept quietly. He wept for what humanity had become, and for what his people would have to do to survive.
The sharpest, the oldest of the wise people, heard this echo, through Joseph. They knew, and rejoiced, that Joseph had Seen and survived the truth.
"Send out a search party," said Caleb. "And inform all the nearby towns."
About the writer in his own words: "I hail from California, but I'm originally from Wisconsin. I s'pose what got me so interested in sci-fi was my dad's rather large library of novels. Now I've got one of my own. And some day soon I'll be up there in somebody else's shelves, too. I'm also nineteen years old."
Thomas can be e-mailed at: email@example.com
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