A Dream Within
by Danielle L. Parker
When one sets out into the unknown it is not possible to be certain that every preparation has been made. Still, when we set forth, we were all confident that we could have done no better. Each of us bore two weapons, a bone knife and a precious treasure of the past, a rod that emits a lightening bolt of force at its foes.
We each led another gem of the old days, a floating sled piled with food, gear, and such medicines as we could gather, so weighty that it would have crushed a strong man but for the miracle of its invisible support. Our clothing was spun of the silk of the large slow spiders that the Bellarus are praised for: light, strong, lustrous, and warm. We carried beamers of the old days as well as lanterns filled with the pleasant insect that illuminates the grasses in the evening with its faint flickering glow.
Sirius and I walked in the forefront, and Timothius and Helena in sturdy rear guard. I will not weary you, however, with the tale of the many days we tramped beneath the towers, which loomed over us until we squinted urgently for the sun! Or our nights, huddled against the wind that constantly bores down those long chasms in darkness more profound than a brave spirit can endure. We were all alone each day, with signs of neither life nor grass, and the great desolation bore down upon us until I saw even Timothius’ powerful shoulders hunched against it.
Yet day by day, night by night, we neared our goal. We turned aside for no other temptation. The street markers still stood strong, and the great streets themselves stretched before us until their lines converged in a distant point. I believe it was a city that had dreamed of encasing the world and come close to achieving that madness.
I must speak here, however, of the spirit of my companions. My heart is near splitting in me when I remember them now. (Pardon this blotch). Timothius was ever considerate, bearing Helena’s frailer form and burdens with the gallantry of a true gentleman; he took upon himself the greater brunt of the base chores without complaint.
Helena for her part never complained of a journey that must have taxed her weaker female form more than it did the men’s. Sirius’s humors I had distrusted, but his droll wit in the face of fear gave us all the courage to go forward cheerfully. He could laugh in the face of death, and make us do the same... It is something we never spoke of, but I think he alone of us suspected the truth before the rest of us knew.
It was also Sirius who spotted the first of the strange messages that bedeviled us in the thirteenth day of our journey. We were then, we estimated, two days from our goal and secretly feeling the elation of success already in our hearts. I was the expedition’s navigator, and I remember well that it was mid-day, a sunny day, and a shaft of precious sunlight fell upon us. Such moments were rare. I had called a stop to consult my map.
There I stood, struggling with my papers in the ever-capricious wind, while Helena, always the serious scientist, was examining the writing on a manhole cover nearby. Timothius sat resting upon his sled, and Sirius... Sirius wandered over to the street post and stopped.
“Athol,” he said, and we all looked up, for there was something in his voice. “The sign.”
I looked up. We had walked beside such signs for so many days that I scarcely noticed them except to check our route. They stand at intersections, and ours had said BROADWAY for four days now. This was a sign like any of the others: green with white lettering on it in the clear blocky script of the ancients. But it no longer read BROADWAY. What it actually said, in the same script, was GO BACK.
All of us were learned in the old tongue, so there was no need for me to translate for any of my companions. Yet we could scarce credit our understanding. I consulted my map again, in the vague hope that there was a new street bizarrely named the same; in vain. We walked around the sign. It looked and behaved like any other, swaying gently in the constant wind, as they all did, in spite of their sturdy posts. Helena dubiously suggested that it could be a message from the previous expedition. But none of us could credit such a notion.
After that we all felt our elation fade, and an unacknowledged fear attended us. The next sign said RETURN, and Sirius sardonically suggested that the next would read STOP. And so it did. We went on nevertheless, our hands never far from the rods hung on our belts.
But there remained nothing to defend against. It seemed reality itself was changing around us from that point on. A bird of doom, a raven of the old world, croaked warning in human speech upon the next marker. I doubted my own senses when it then vanished in the air like a mirage, but I could not doubt those of my companions.
That night, against the broken glass front of another tower, I called a conference.
“My friends,” I said, “we can find no explanation for this strange turn of events. We are all of us scientists and philosophers. By neither school of thought can I yet explain these mysteries. Our world is changing about us in ways we cannot explain.”
I must mention that here a hideous small animal humped itself out of the night, squeaked “Return” as it ran across my outstretched leg, and vanished into the darkness. “A rat,” Sirius murmured, as if such things occurred every day. “Go on, Athol.”
I continued. “It is in my mind that the previous expedition, perhaps both, encountered these signs and ignored them. Now we must face the same decision. Do we continue on to plumb this mystery or return and perhaps save our lives?”
There was a long silence broken only by a rise in the wind. I did not mention, perhaps, that it fell almost silent while I was speaking, and as I ceased it returned threateningly, and played the glass and broken metal that lay about us like a musician.
Timothius said at last, “What is in your heart, Athol?”
My heart then was so full of emotion I could scarcely master it to speak. I replied, and again the wind fell: “I have looked upon this mystery for fifty-six years, my friends. Nay, longer than that! Every Daedulus has looked out his windows upon this city, and wondered what became of the builders of it, and how so mighty fell. I would like to know the truth of it before I die. Yet I cannot endure that you, my beloved friends, should go on with me and perhaps perish. Therefore I beg you to return.”
Timothius smiled at me in his gentle way. Oh! That I could still see that smile! “I will go on with you,” was all he said, and I could see by his eyes I had no hope of dissuading him. Then Sirius laughed in his bitter way and said it was as good a company to die with as any. Helena I already knew was as fixed upon learning the fate of her ancestor as I was, and so no more was said.
We lay down that night close to each other, and I took Helena’s hand as she slept beside me, and listened to Timothius’ steady breathing on the other side. And strangely the wind died down again so it was as calm as it had ever been all night, and the breath of it came upon my cheek like a kiss.
It was as if something had indeed heeded us last night, for we saw no more signs of warning. The next day the sun lingered as it had never before, giving us a blessed warmth during the day; the wind seemed to play around us instead of tormenting. We were trembling; at least I knew that I was, for I felt that somehow the truth of the mystery lay close before us. And thus, at evening the next day, we came upon our destination.
I have not described the towers of that city in much detail. I am myself over-familiar with them. They are rampant upon the Earth, which seems as though it would be pierced to its core by their spears, and many of them do indeed go down to depths greater than their heights. Yet we understood from our first view of NIH (pronounced by us “Nigh”, in a feeble attempt at humor as we journeyed toward it), that it was a different place.
Here was a fortress that the ancients had felt the need to ward most stringently, whether to keep in, or keep out, we did not know. The buildings of it were surrounded by razor loops of wire so sharp one could be cut to death by it and scarce feel the fatal kiss. Helena stumbled against such a loop, and was saved from death only by Timothius’s quick action. Still, her arm was ribboned by its teeth. Its fences were higher than a man standing upon another’s shoulders could reach, and in certain places the deadliest barrier of the ancient world still functioned, that rainbow of force that it is death to brush against.
We turned aside then and besought a place to enter, walking the fences for many miles until we came to a place where rains of centuries had weakened the soil. The fence there lay over on its side, and with great care, and some hurt to our feet, even protected as they were in our sturdy boots, we entered the realm of NIH.
How many centuries had passed since any flesh stood upon those dry stones? We did not know where to begin. There were many structures: some small, and some so vast that the eye could scarcely reach to their ends. In some of those animal cages stood with dust on their floors or, sometimes, a delicate small skeleton that turned to powder at a breath. In others, the gray shining faces of the artificial servants of the old world stood in soulless duplication upon dusty desks.
The papers that had not yet rotted on those desks yielded little to me, for their symbols were near-impenetrable. Yet Sirius, whose family have long bred the spiders for the silk the Bellarus are famous for, could understand a little of them, and said they were a study of the very mystery of Man, at least of his flesh and blood.
I do not know why that frightened us so. I think we understood by the size and complexity and warding of the place that their search was urgent and frenzied, and we began to fear their answers.
On the second day, all of us silent with the pressing doom of our discoveries, we came to an unremarkable building that stood among the others. Here proved to be the remains of yet another experiment. Long cylinders, the size and shape of coffins, stood in dusty array along the wall. We had seen many bones, but these were human... dust, many of them. But when I came to the first one and looked within, my heart stuttered.
These bones were long, those of a tall man. It had yet a remnant of dark hair clinging to its skull; and could I not recognize that deep hollow of eye, that prominent brow, in the seventy-nine images of my predecessors and myself? If I had doubted, there was yet proof more, for it was my own name that stood upon the plaque.
I heard Helena shriek aloud, for as it was with me, so it was with all. We knew every name upon those cylinders. From Atticus to dainty Zephyra, all of my dear friends were represented, each of them marked by a dry skeleton and the frightening implements of the age of destruction.
It was more than our minds, reasoning philosophers and scientists as we deemed ourselves, could endure. With one accord we all fled that room. Yet outside there was no escape. I called my small troupe together, and standing in the wind we took each other’s trembling hands.
“Friends,” I said, “There is a mystery here, and it may be our minds cannot endure it. But I am not minded to flee it all the same. What say you of this puzzle we have just encountered?”
“It has the look of clones, a science of the old age,” said Sirius. “Yet it is manifest that none of us are clones. We are born, grow, live, and die. How can we be artificial?”
“Perhaps these are our progenitors,” Timothius suggested. “Yet they died in those boxes. I do not understand their purpose.”
“There is an intelligence at work here,” said Helena. “Do not forget the speaking rat and raven.”
“It seems to me,” I said, “that Helena Orcrytes has spoken most to the point: there remains an intelligence here, something of the age of the Builders. It is from that we must have our answers.”
There was a silence. It was strange, the wind had again fallen, and the air seemed bitter with ozone, as if a storm were near. I saw the faces of my companions reflect my own understanding: Helena nodded with determination, Sirius smiled, and Timothius looked about him uneasily.
I turned my face upwards — why, I do not know — and spoke aloud. “You have our answers,” I said. “Tell us the truth. We are owed that.”
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Copyright © 2012 by Danielle L. Parker