[A Short Sci-Fi story. A Big thanks to Don Webb from Bewildering Stories for his editorial assistance and suggestions for this story. It is still a work in progress, and (hopefully) the beginning of a longer story. Any comments would be greatly appreciated.]
“Through the Prism Played the Light”
By Tom Astley
Here follows my chronicle – the twelfth High Priest of the tribe of the Exiled; the Believers of the True Spirit – in the two hundredth year of following the Divine Path of the Facilitator. I submit to the chronicles of my predecessors my accounts of the fifth Holy Festival. May I emulate their knowledge, may I join them on the Divine Path.
It is customary to begin each chronicle with a personal account of the state in which each priest finds his flock at the time of the festival. My mentor, the last High Priest wrote reams; wry smiles and knowing winks. The lives, the loves, the everydays of the three tiers were expertly captured. The bustle and bluster of the top tier – the delegates. The in-fighting and one-upping of the middle tier. The relentless toil and guarded secrecy of the ‘floorers’ (though the term was more acceptable in his day, I wince at its use to describe those workers of the ravine floor now). Most of what he has written still holds today, and I encourage any future reader of this text to refer to his words. He was a great man, and I cannot hope to surpass his knowledge and understanding of the people. But I must try.
When our ancestors – the Original Exiles in the company of the Facilitator himself, the Voice of the True Spirit – first cast eyes upon the barren rock we now call home, as the scriptures themselves reveal, they thought it impossible to exist, let alone thrive here. But the True Spirit had spoken through the Facilitator. They had come so far from the Old World, left it as a mere pin prick of light, indistinguishable. There was no way back. This was their path. To seek solace on such an inhospitable world for a belief – a command directly from the True Spirit – that makes such an act a noble sacrifice. Such was the life of The Facilitator and it is he that I and my small community follow in our humble way.
But that first generation of Exiles were not just closer to the True Spirit that we are today, they were wiser in the ways of technology. To glide through the vacuum of space, to traverse the infinite ocean, was no obstacle. To carve and craft wondrous monuments was no trouble. And to cover our ravine with a delicate dome so as to protect us, to fill it with air and light for future generations to prosper was no endurance. All these tasks would be impossible for us now. They are scarcely comprehensible – near-mythological – and there is a growing concern among the delegates for the longevity of the system that supplies us with air. We know it to be at the end of a labyrinthine tunnel stretching out from the ravine to somewhere under the surface, but orthodox readings of the scripture forbid any member of our community from stepping foot outside the ravine.
But it is no prison cell that our forebears left us; it is our paradise, our garden, a single place of calm in a tormented sea. The screen covers and coats the entire ravine of our home; provides a roof above our head, tinted so as to shield us from the harmful rays of our wicked new sun. For one mile it stretches lengthways, tapering to a point at both ends; for half that length, at its widest point, widthways. It arcs, deep, crystalline blue above us; it is the womb in which we can find life; it is the very hand of the True Spirit. How the Original Followers constructed such a monumental structure is beyond any of the members of our community; surely they were assisted by the omnipotence of the True Spirit, and the Divine Mediator to humanity, the Facilitator.
Beneath the fragile magnificence of the tinted roof, so it is said, the climate our ancestors must have enjoyed on the Old World are replicated. We live humbly, the ten thousand strong community of believers. We are able to grow crops hydroponically along the floor of the ravine, leaving the slightly gradated walls of the ravine, cut into three distinct tiers, free for accommodation. Houses have been carved out of the sides of the ravine, and two resplendent bridges connect the two sides of our community.
At the very point of the ravine, on the upper tier, is the Temple. My Temple; my home. For these past six years (by the Old Calendar) I have served my community as ‘High Priest of The Blessed Order, and True Interpreter of the Path as Delineated by the True Spirit through The Prism’. The Temple is meagre in comparison to the palatial shrine to the True Spirit built by the first embolden band of True Followers, guided by the Facilitator himself, on the Old World. It houses a modest altar for the Precious Artefacts, the Enclave, where the Sacred Writings of the Order are preserved and my small bedroom. Behind the alter is the tunnel along which only the High Priest may walk, and only once every forty years, as part of the most holy festival: The Great Revelations of the Playing of the Light. In two days, I will walk that tunnel.
It’s strange. I was present for this last Great Revelation – I shall be the first of our collective’s history in Noble Exile to witness two such events – I was only a child; an apprentice. My mentor took me with him, through the imposing tunnel. I remember the dark. I remember how the air pressure around us changed, the perceptible drop in temperature, even though we wore the cumbersome protective suits of a fabric and metal long lost to our Order, save in these now ceremonial garments.
But I remember most of all the reassuring presence of my mentor, and the unassailable knowledge that we were the Path of the righteous; that ours was a mission of Revelation; that the sacred knowledge given unto us by the True Spirit would inform the practice and the everyday life of our order for the coming cycle. I remember the flashes and fragments of excitement that the old Priest – already ancient to my young eyes – allowed me to glimpse in our tutorials; the moments when his veil of serene omniscience would drop, and he would be child-like at the prospect of the Prism and the Light, of deciphering the message of the True Spirit, and of the possibility that this time – this, over the seven previous cycles – this time, the True Spirit would indicate to us that the fabled Reunification would begin; that our small cabal of True Followers would be able to return from our Divine Exodus to the Old World.
But of the Prism and the Playing of Rainbow Light, I remember only very little. That is to say, I remember the facts well enough, through the haze of recollection of events forty years gone. The Scripture, to which we had to adhere precisely, was very clear as to the procedure for the Observation (if a little more ambiguous as to the precise method for interpreting the visions offered by the Light itself). We were to enter the Outer Shrine – a bubble of transparent material (I know not what) protruding from the subterranean passageway – backwards, our eyes closed, lest they be instantly scorched. Even still, the light was unbearably bright, engulfing all my senses simultaneously in an angry white storm. The light is a constant, reassuring blue hue in the sanctity of the ravine, but here, with only this precarious film separating us from the unforgiving surface, it was almost unbearable. I was terrified of this burning white demon.
But through the communication device connecting our garments, my mentor spoke, and, though a quiver was rippling under the surface of his voice, his words were calming. We sat. I kept my eyes firmly closed, daring not to look out. They remained shut until stars of my own making pulsated and confused the depth of my vision. Gradually, I relaxed my terrified squint. From a sanguineous red, to radiating yellow, to brilliant white, my eyes opened; the stars still shimmering.
In front of me was the Surface Upon Which the Message is Given. Its outline, ragged and razor sharp against the backdrop, was exactly as I had seen it in the drawings of the Chronicles; its surface, smooth as parchment and bleached by the sun’s light: a roughly pyramidal cliff-face, transformed into the stone tablet for the word of the True Spirit.
The True Spirit began its Divine Manifestation upon the Surface ahead of us. Rainbow ribbons radiated and rippled across its stone surface. They were alive with colour and movement; shimmering and diving across the expanse of barren rock. No doubt it was a text; a living tome, but it was one that I could not read. I glanced, terrified of looking behind me, at My Mentor. He sat motionless beside me. The sound of his shortened breath, gulps and sniffs; his solemn, silent weeping, echoed through my own helmet, and I too wept, not only for the sheer visceral beauty to which I among the thousands of others in our humble colony had the honour to bear witness, but also for my own ineptitude, my inability to fathom the meaning behind these whispered words. On that day, I reavowed my dedication to learning the Scripture. I would become fluent in the Holy Writings of The Facilitator; I would study with renewed vigour the Chronicles of my forebears. I would glean every morsel of knowledge from the Holy texts it was my duty to absorb, so that when my turn came to read the majesty of the Rainbow Light, I would not fail.
I will discover in this coming week if I have been successful in my endeavour.
* * *
Today brought with it a most lavish ceremony, such that I cannot remember ever having taken place. Of course, I’m sure that the festival that preceded the last reading of the Divine Light was just as opulent, however, as a young scholar, I was unable to participate fully.
I began with the customary blessing of the houses on the upper and middle tiers. As I made my way down the path on the upper left hand side, the bustle of organisation, the murmur of excited voices, the expectation of something different was already palpably growing. These upper tier blessings were quickly and perfunctorily acted out. There is always a cool distance, I feel, between these upper tier residents and the Temple, despite their public affirmations.
In under an hour, I was crossing over the splendid, if slightly dizzying ‘Chrome Arc’ bridge that separates upper left and upper right at the far end of the ravine. The bridge, though crossing at a narrower part of the ravine is still perhaps some quarter of a mile from end to end. And as a single arc of brushed silver metal, supported only by the four tendril beams that dig into the rock above the middle band, it stands powerful and elegant; a testament to the ingenuity and vision of our forefathers – and The Facilitator himself. It was forged from the hull of the original vessel that carried the True Believers here, and thus it has a reverence to it. Standing at its apex, the midnight blue dome only ten metres or so above one’s head – agonisingly close – the cold glint of the metal gripped by hands – reassuringly solid – and the deep, dense green patchwork of crops a vertiginous drop below, there is a silence and a peace and a sense that the True Spirit is nearby.
This middle band of dwellings is perhaps where I feel most at home. I have vague recollections of running along the right-hand side of the middle band as a child, before I was selected for spiritual training. It is usual for the High Priest to select his apprentice based on the Reading of the Holy Light, but my mentor was struck by a vision from the True Spirit out of cycle and it was decided that I should begin my training early. I have no such apprentice as yet; it is one of the things I hope most to glean from the Reading of the Light this cycle. I’m sure that I am in no way as competent and enthusiastic a teacher as my mentor was, but I feel sure I have learnt from his challenging and inquisitive mode of discussion; I feel at least I could do a fairly convincing impression of such a world-wise tutor. I suppose I am beginning to miss the company of family.
My recollections from youth seems like a vision of a different life. They remain only a palette of vague senses and feelings on the tip of the tongue, but impossible to voice. I remember the feeling of warmth; my mother holding a young baby; a deep yellow fibre of my father’s jacket; its course grain against my cheek. But I feel no loss, no sadness at these gossamer memories, just a mild sense of frustration, like trying to remember the name of someone unimportant. My father and mother have long departed the mortal path of the True Spirit, and have followed the Divine Path through to the Other Realm; and the young baby which I remember – my sister – died in an accident, so I am told, as a girl. I do not mourn them, nor regret my loss of contact with them, for in selection to the Order of Priests, I was given a father figure in my mentor more sagely and compassionate than any other I have known; and the entire flock became my family.
Less than two hours later I was descending the rough hewn staircase to continue the blessings on the floor level of the ravine. Most of the field workers were already out in the fields as I skirted the edge of the deep green fronds towards the raised hill in the shadow of the Temple above, and with a shrill whistle from an unseen source, they dropped their tools and, with the occasional shout, and mounting mumble of conversation, they followed me to the barren land surrounding the hill. It had become convention that blessings on the floor level were given communally. Apparently the earlier High Priests would personally bless each dwelling separately, but the sheer numbers of field workers now makes such a task truly daunting now.
There are now more floor dwellings that top and middle tier dwellings combined; cut close in the sheer rock face, and extending back into the mantle of this barren world like a warren. Myths of huge caverns, literal dens of iniquity, even hidden caches of every imaginable resource abound on the upper two levels, though there can be no more than a handful of upper citizens that have actually come down to the ravine floor, and even fewer who can claim to have entered into the network of tunnels (such as they are). No High Priest would come to any harm in these dark tunnels – the denizens of the floor are more superstitious than religious, and old wives tales require more adherence than liturgy in these hidden passageways – but no High Priest, no person not born to this world, would be precisely welcomed; they are indeed a private people.
But on this high point in the spiritual calendar, there appeared to be a general excitement among the throng; a blessed hour away from work may have been all that was being celebrated here, but when I stood atop the hillock to cheers, it was hard not to hear a whisper of the True Spirit’s voice reverberating off the cliff faces. Very few of the ‘floorers’ (forgive my lay language) attend services at the Temple – very few have the time; the crops requiring almost constant tending – save for on Workers Day; a relatively recent addition to the calendar that takes an obscure passage from the first book of the Facilitator; part of his second vision during his incarceration as a central message: “And the workers shall be lords, and the world shall be turned upside down; and those on the floor shall be raised to the ceiling; and the glass shall be shattered, and the lowly shall be exalted, and shall take their place among the few.”
The clergy have interpreted this passage as pertaining specifically to conditions on the Old World, and not, in this instance, an indicator of the Facilitator’s powers of presage, or a portentous vision of our exile world, but the ‘floorers’ adamantly cling to this passage, and their Workers Day Celebration (celebration may be the wrong word for their solemn procession to the Temple in rows of three, and their silent vigil within the Temple itself) has become quite a spectacle.
The communal blessing I kept brief; I knew that the rest of the afternoon (and prolonged night time) were to be given over to festivities here on the floor, and I could sense a restlessness in the crowd even as I began my short speech. Another great cheer reverberated around the ravine as I made the sign of the True Spirit and descended from the hill. A few clusters of nervous looking women ambled around, hoping to garner a more individualised blessing – most concerning an ailment of a child – which I was happy to give out. As the crowd was dissolving, a burly field workers strode up to me in a bullish, defiant manner, as though I were causing him some discourtesy and presented as offering to the church a crudely rendered, yet strangely arresting, statuette depicting the Facilitator’s escape from incarceration (a favourite topic for relic-makers on the lower tier). I was careful to thank the man for the gesture, but he seemed to take it as a further discourtesy done unto him and, with nostrils flaring, he skulked away.
That night, the noise of celebration from the floor was still wafting up to the Temple. I went to sit on the grand steps of the Temple. In the distance I saw the silhouetted grace of the Chrome Arc and below came the noise of abandon; of unrestrained celebration: devotion to the True Spirit, or respite from toil, it hardly mattered. I wished I could join them.
The days of fasting and study passed without incident. Hardly surprising given that they constituted merely a more concentrated form of my everyday toil. I had hoped for a vision, a sign that I would understand the impending message to be delivered unto me for the sake of my entire flock. I had hoped that as I began this spiritual journey, I would know what I was expected to find: not the expectation of the True Spirit – to even try to comprehend such a thing would be at best hubris, and at worse sacrilegious – but the expectations of the populace. Yet as the most holy day in out calendar arrived, and I entered the tunnel dug into the back of the Temple, I was struck with the realisation that I know very little of the True Believers that it is my responsibility to watch over.
This thought compounded my feeling of isolation as I picked my way through the enveloping darkness. Who am I to the people living in the grey valley below my Temple? Who are they to me? Doubts over my ability to read the Divine Light melted into fears that my findings, when I returned to divulge them to the flock, would fall on deaf ears. What can I tell them of their lives? Who am I to tell them what they must do? But it is not my command written in rainbow light, it is the word of the True Spirit. Now more than ever I must place my trust in the True Spirit, feel the rocks of the Divine Path under my feet.
The tunnel was more claustrophobic than I remember from childhood. I sensed the roof skirting the top of my protective helmet; the walls constricting my arms to my sides; enveloped in rock; buried. Occasionally I would catch the sound of my own breathing echoing around the suit and each time I would be caught off guard. What I perceived physically as normal breathing sounded ragged and hoarse; the stolen gasps of a nervous man. And so I pushed on through the indeterminate distance; incalculable footstep after footstep over unchanging, unseen subterranean terrain, the thoughts of my community – the hopes of the True Believers – returning with the sound of ragged breath made conscious; the ghosts of High Priests before me, stalking my footfalls; the breath of the True Spirit pushing me onward to the inferno light at the end of this unending tunnel.
I was weak from fasting, exhausted by the turmoil in my mind, the stone wall frame of the bullish ‘floorer’, arm extended, rough hewn relic clasped in mighty hand, playing against eyelids every time they closed. I felt a fever, a sickness, a desperate desire to turn back, a resolution to push forward.
Then, cascading down the shallow incline of the tunnel, came the light. Piercing the darkness; bringing its own sense of foreboding.
I stood still, adjusting to the sight of this burnt white razor, the transparent cocoon it promised above; exposed to the wicked sun; the sacrifice for receiving the message of the True Spirit. I reached into my bag, making a mental inventory of the artefacts, scrolls and trinkets I had unnecessarily brought with me. A hard, heavy mass rolled inside. The statuette of the Facilitator given to me by the floorer. I hadn’t meant to carry this with me, I hadn’t thought it worthy of the journey. But in the half blinding light, half obfuscating dark, the statue looked more holy, more sacred, than all the other artefacts. More even than the Temple itself. The resolution in the chipped features, the defiance in the outstretched arm. It encapsulated the travails of the Facilitator perfectly. Clutching the statuette, I ascended the white slope to the Outer Shrine.
Nothing prepares one for the searing light of the Outer Shrine, not even a previous visit. The same black lights and blue coronas that had come to me in youth flashed heavy behind tightly squeezed eyelids. The small dome pulsated around me; a nausea unfelt before – radiating from every part of my spinning body – washed over me. The light bludgeoned me from all sides, though I knew the source must be waning; creeping to the far horizon which must never be looked upon. Soon it would perish, and the message of the True Spirit, in all its colour, would be revealed to me. I crawled towards the seat, carved from a protruding rock, and attempted to begin the Devotional Prayer that would call out to the True Spirit, but my words were reduced to incoherent whispers. Temples pounded; throat contracted; eyes screwed shut, unable to permit even the smallest chink of light in; heart fluttered ischemic beats; breath, ragged and wet, resounded through my protective suit; sweat poured; light poured; dizzying cacophony; incomprehensible symphony.
How long I remained conscious in this state, I will never know. Time meant nothing in that hermetic crucible. But it felt an eternity.
And it wasn’t long enough.
I awoke. But the term is not quite accurate. I returned to a state where I could tell the difference between being asleep and awake, and I recognised that I was the latter. The light had dimmed considerably, but it was still much brighter than within the ravine. My eyes still remained shut, but gradually I was able to convince them to open.
All I could see at first was a ragged line, a central triangle of brilliant white dividing two segments of blackness. The image gained clarity, and with it familiarity. The shape – the pyramidal structure, the rough-hewn lines – was one of childhood, of remembrance and divinity. It was the Surface Upon Which the Message is Given. I saw the chronicles, the diagrams, the drawings, the sketches, bathed with colour, made within this Shrine by my forebears. But as the image of this most holy of sites drew into focus, I saw no colour at all; no Divine rainbow, no message. Just bleached white rock, growing darker.
With more time, and wider eyes, I saw the last remnants of a fragile colour; wisps of the deepest purple, appear to evaporate. The rocks twinkled in the dying light, but it was clear to my unconscious mind, long before the thought gained voice in consciousness, that I had missed the Playing of the Light. Whether asleep or blinded or held in the thrall of heresy, I had missed the message of the True Spirit: the message that it was my responsibility – my holy duty – to interpret and pass on. The message that would guide our people along the Divine Path. I had missed it.
Again, the unconscious was quickest in interpreting the situation. A voice from within me softy suggested “who needs to know? The chronicle you write is the only testament to the Holy Light. You know enough of the previous chronicles to emulate them; the experience could be imagined.” The thought stayed with me longer than I care to admit. Indeed, the sole obstacle that this cynical shard of unconscious self stumbled upon was that I did not even have the beginnings of an idea as to what to say to appease the flock; to keep them content in their ravine for the next cycle.
I sat in the Holy Shrine until the last gasps of light had disappeared behind me, and I was left enveloped by an infinite ocean of black.
Then I saw the stars. The first of our tribe of True Believers to gaze upon this dusting of silver since the Original Followers glided over the barren surface of this planet, and The Facilitator saw the first Playing of the Light, and was commanded by the True Spirit to settle here. Maybe I found them awe inspiring. Maybe I found an echo of the True Spirit’s voice in their infinitesimal paradox – minute yet giant, peppering the sky in constellations, yet so far from one another. I resolved not to return to the shelter of the ravine. I resolved to remain within the Outer Shrine until the True Spirit either spoke to me, or took me.
Did I sleep in this vast night? How could I have told; strange thoughts rippled through my mind. Visions, a more zealous man might have called them, played out across my eyes; of the ravine, of its people, of disasters and triumphs. In the darkness outside the clear bubble of sanctity, I saw impossible movements; the rocks themselves liquefied in motion, made living creatures. I shut my eyes to their writhing, but the shapes still squirmed in front of me. At times, I was terrified, at others fascinated, at still others, a serenity came over me, at others an anger – directed squarely at the True Spirit, I am ashamed to admit – at having been made to miss the Divine Light by the wicked light engulfing me. I wept in this long night. I suffered. But I would have sat through one thousand more like it, rather than endure the following day.
Moments after the sun’s first beads of light began to burst over the horizon directly ahead of me, the light was already too bright for comfort. After a few minutes, it already stung my eyes to leave them open for more than a few seconds at a time. After an hour, with the sun now fully formed in the midnight sky, its effect was felt across my entire body; piercing the shell of the Shrine, then piercing my skin, my flesh, my blood and bones, to the core of me; to my soul, burning, reducing all in its wake to ash. I died in that intense white light, I am sure of it. I died and was reborn every moment that the rays of that inferno beat down upon me. Again I lost consciousness. Again and again. Unbearable light.
As the sun rose in front of me, I longed to duck down into the seclusion of the tunnel, but a fear of missing any further sign from the True Spirit gripped me, and held me in my seat.
As it reached its apex, and began to descend behind my head, I ached to turn around, to follow its progress, to gaze upon the forbidden landscape, but once more the fear of further trespass against the will of the True Spirit – and the commands of the Facilitator – kept me fixed in position, and as the sun crept behind me, though the amount of light did not diminish, its directness did, and I found myself able to take snatched glimpses at the Surface. I gained some reassurance from its familiar form. But I was no closer to a resolution. I just sat and watched the passing of a wicked sun across a barren ball of rock. I could tell nothing to my flock. I had failed.
And then the Rainbow Light began to play on the Surface.
It began. A sanguine, crimson – barely perceptible at first; a dream, an imagined distortion. “There is something wrong with my eyes”. Liquid it shimmered, but bolder, ever bolder. Deeper in colour. Rich. Scorching the Surface, making it blush with the introduction of Divine Light. Subtly, it shimmered, gaining vigour. Bright, unmistakable red. Vibrant, unnaturally pure.
It melded, it moulded. It warped itself through the spectrum. Orange. A lustrous, radiant orange. Warming, reassuring. “My mother held me in her arms.” I saw the light as kindness. Again, as liquid, but viscous, pouring intensity upon the rock, setting it alight, warming it as fire. The rock too turned viscous, malleable, edible, sweet and tactile.
It mellowed, it soothed. A modulation, so gradual as to pass unnoticed. Yellow. A radiating yellow. Massaging the rock, whispering secrets. “I would play and play; running along the middle corridor.” Giggling with musical lilt. Dancing in melody, vibrating in harmony with itself.
It took a hold of itself. Through a dizzying sickness, it returned and played out a deep Green to become lost in. Sombre and dignified. It commanded the Surface. It commanded the eye. Bold and brilliant. “I could have toiled in the crop fields. I would have been happy tending my patch”. It spoke of such knowledge; at once pragmatic and ethereal.
Through a sea I had never seen, I was pulled; sunlight dappled at the edges of the water. Assured azure. A pale blue that threatened to disappear under its own fragility, doubled back upon itself, resolved, and came back as ice. Then cold and royal, and an ocean of infinite depth. “I wanted to make him so proud. Every day I read the scripture. The calling of the Priesthood.”
It deepened and darkened. Purple. The deep bruise. The reminder of the failing of before. The last gasp glimpse of the vision I should have known. Thick and lugubrious, it crawled across the surface. “I wanted to watch. I wanted to receive the vision. But I don’t know my people. They are the mystery, not celestial visions and abstract paths.” It trickled away as before. It evaporated into the chasm above.
Then each colour returned, to interact as one, with legion interlopers. They darted and disappeared. They returned and rang out. The died and revived. They shone vivid and turned the Surface into a living embodiment of the True Spirit. “You are speaking to me, but the words I don’t understand.” They played. Ribbons of translucence in a desolate desert. They swayed and rippled.
And then they were gone. The True Spirit had spoken twice to me. The first I had missed. The second I had seen in all its glory.
I turned around. Unconsciously. It felt right. I didn’t mean to break with convention, nor to commit blasphemy. I turned around, and I saw a small hatchway leading to a short, narrow tube of the same transparent material as that of the Outer Shrine, at the end of which appeared to be another door leading out to the planet’s surface.
I opened the door, and crawled into the transparent coffin space. The door closed behind me. For a moment I was unable to move, staring blankly at the carved rock I was pressed flat against.
A second door, ahead of me opened. A gush of air pulled me out, and my protective suit gripped tightly to my skin. I looked back towards the Outer Shrine. How small it looked against the vast expanse of grey. I was in a wordless world. Even my conscience had ceased communicating, and I surveyed the world around me in absolute silence; the first of our flock since the Facilitator himself to walk upon the surface of the planet.
The stupor of those first moments out on barren land wore off, and I was able to collect my thoughts. The sun was partially hidden now, and the light, though still intense, was bearable, and I was able to survey the surroundings. Aside from the small bubble of the Outer Shrine and the incongruously familiar outline of the Surface, there was little else of note. I turned towards the setting sun, and saw the mountain.
Had its base been among the crop fields of the ravine, its peak would have barely brushed the top of the upper tier. But the space it took up was staggering. For half its height, it oozed out in all directions, gradually stacking up upon itself in smooth, dusty regularity. Occasional pock marks disrupted the surface, but for the most part it looked as though it would yield under foot, as soft as a pillow. In the centre of this round mound of spilt stone sat a craggy pinnacle; sheer cliffs and outcrops, ledges and spires. Nestled between two such spires, towards the very top – so perfectly placed as to have been unnatural – sat a roughly oval stone that would scarcely have fitted inside the Temple’s main hall. Even at this distance, and even in this dying light, it caught the eye. It drew me to it. I had no desire to climb this colossal two-tier mountain, other than to see this partially silhouetted stone; its centre as dark as the surrounding spires, but it’s edged gilded with a strange translucent halo.
The base of the mountain began its shallow ascent some half a mile from the Outer Shrine, but the walk passed unnoticed. So too, the first part of the climb, though the surface proved itself to be just as dense and unforgiving as its surroundings. The sharp rocks and steep surfaces of the second part of the mountain was much more of an endurance; much slower in accomplishment also, so I had no opportunity to survey the expanding horizon, nor measure my progress. All I saw was the inert rock in front of my eyes, and the glint of my protective suit, encasing my aching arms as they clutched for hand holds. Silence swallowed me. I was silent even to myself. No thoughts came to me. I had crossed so many boundaries now.
I reached the pinnacle of the mountain in a near stupor. Muscles burning, breath rasping, heart racing. I could not even turn to examine the stone that had led me here, though the narrow ledge – smoothed flat and solid – that formed an approach proved further evidence that this was no natural occurrence. I sat there, back to the stone, feet hanging over the ledge and surveyed the barren terrain. Immediately below I could see the tiny glistening pin prick of the Outer Shrine. Midway between this and the arc of the horizon, I caught sight of a thin sliver of blue – a jewel set in a bed of arid, darkening grey. It took me too long to realise it was the dome of the ravine, but with the realisation came an overpowering desire to return to the sanctity beneath that minute blue bubble.
I wept; for my trespasses, the truth I knew I would have to tell my flock, for their unending hardship on this barren world. I wept before I tuned to the dazzling translucence of the siren stone behind me. Up close, its obsidian centre enclosed a universe; promising light where an absence now stood. Towards its edges, a bright halo of opaque light. Still closer, far from being a single smooth surface, the stone had an intricate network of faces, each polished, each shining darkly. It was a thing of profound beauty.
But, as I stood on the carved mantle that housed it, it was reduced to nought more than a clumsy pebble.
The bright blue ball filled the infinite sky ahead of me. So large, so impossibly out of reach. I was transported back to the Chrome Arc of the upper tier; that inescapable, vertiginous reach for the dome above ones head; the sheer drop to the cold green of the crops below. The same sensation, amplified. I was too awe struck to act rationally, but I am sure I stretched out an arm to touch the surface of my too-near neighbour.
The sight was overpowering; incomprehensible in its might, unknowable in its magnitude, incommunicable in its beauty. But in the moment I saw it, I knew everything; tacitly and entirely, as though a veil had been lifted, a frost thawed, and it was instantly impossible to remember how I felt before it was removed – how I could ever have lived with the interference to this clarity of vision. I don’t remember if, or how, I voiced it to myself at the moment, but I knew that this was the Old World – the Old World left “nought but a twinkle among the multitude”, in the words of the scripture – looming large on our horizon.
So many lives. So much time. So near to our ancestors. So far removed. But all the worry, all the guilt, the High Blasphemes I had committed, the ignorance I had shown to the words of the True Spirit, all this washed away in the radiance of the world in front of me. I sat there until the sun ducked behind the new found planet, until once more I was engulfed in darkness. And I slept.
With morning came once more the brilliance of blinding illumination, and the panic of waking in unfamiliar surroundings. Immediately I looked to where the Old World had been, to find its radiating with even more magnificence than the night before. I was able to make out details on the surface; expanses of lustrous blue, hazed with streaks of white, that put me to shame for using the word ‘magnificent’ to describe our tawdry dome. I was filled suddenly with an anger; a desire to climb down from this mountain, stand atop the sliver of blue on this grey rock, and shatter it from above; to bring to life the floorer’s prophecy; to see them drift airless into the vacuum, to bellow at them, as they ascend into the nothingness, the false words of our false prophet: “and those on the floor shall be raised to the ceiling; and the glass shall be shattered, and the lowly shall be permitted, and shall take their place among the few”.
But I knew I would not.
I sat in the glory of this new light for most of the day, beginning the descent to the mellow hill only as the sun began to wane towards the Old World. By the time I reached the dual-door hatchway to the Outer Shrine, once more the light had all but faded. In the last shimmering rays, I saw the crude statuette of the Facilitator that the floorer had handed me before my journey began, arm aloft, defiantly making the sign of the True Spirit.
And in the dark of the tunnel, I knew I would tell them everything.