Resten Light woke up, pushed the fibre blanket away, and pulled apart the two wings that formed the doors of his nest. He took in the immense sky, its colour and its shapes. Clouds coalesced around the upper reaches of the Far Tower. No-one in his community had seen the top or knew what shape it took. Some said it was flat – truly horizontal – but few believed that myth. Horizontal was unobtainable. He drew in the blue air, sensed the sharp tang, and knew that there was a storm coming.
“Have you tasted it, Dad?”
Resten’s father, Suren, rubbed his beard and knelt at his son’s side. The nest rocked as he moved. They both held a nearby rope, each with hands thickly calloused by a lifetime of grip and slide.
“Yes. And look at the mist near the… the… that’s where the weather’s coming from.”
Resten, entering adolescence now, lived on the vertical face of Sheer, an immense tower of stone formed by the same elements that had chiselled, rubbed and flushed away the planet’s crust around the Far Tower. The people living on the sides of these towers knew no other terrain, and nor had the generations that preceded them. They did not worry about what might be found above the cloud; they would never go there.
And below? An ever-present mist that shrouded the base in a grey, almost welcoming blanket. People sometimes leapt off the side of Sheer into the mist, perhaps one per cycle. Many more fell accidentally. Life spent on the side a rock face without discernible vertical or lateral limits offered numerous opportunities for slips. Every moment of every day required concentration. Although the ropes, knots, tricks and fail-safes became second nature in infancy, it was necessary to reserve a portion of one’s conscious mind to check, check, and check again. Always be attached. Always. Never relax your grip. Never. Never take a chance. One error was all it took… for life to be cut short, to experience the long fall, the long tumble into the mist below. Resten knew this. He had lost his little sister that way. Feathereen, as light on her feet in life as her name suggested.
The rock was too hard to excavate caves. The only ledges were those that nature had allocated randomly, and historically these were occupied and owned by the ruling families, the communities over which they continued to hold power being ranged below. Resten’s family was middling; his father knew the nature of vine and fibre. Although sparse, there was enough organic material for him and others of his class to make rope. And on rope everything and everyone depended. The nests hung from rope that was wedged permanently and under great pressure into small cracks. The connectors, allowing people to make their way from the nests to the kitchens or meeting areas, were no more than triple-ropes, plaited, the grooves deep enough to offer some foot security.
Feathereen’s five year-old feet had fit those grooves perfectly. Whereas adults had to pivot on their toes, she had bounced along confidently. It got her into trouble, that confidence. Many was the time Suren or her mother, Wingen, had scolded her, or grabbed a hand and placed it firmly on the waist high line that ran in parallel to the foot-ways.
“Never let go! Never…” one of the adults would say. Feathereen would smile, wink at her older brother when he turned to see what the fuss was about, and obey. She always obeyed her parents in the end. It was not disobedience that killed her.
The most ambitious constructions, the temples, were elaborate prominences, pods with walls of woven fibre. In these pods were tiny seats, and only when the communities came together at every third Light did the adults relax and, literally, let go. Seats took their weight. They felt what it was like to find the horizontal. And after the service, during which thanks were given to the benignity of the cycle, to the absence of storms, and to the great bird migration that provided them with flocks to catapult, store, and eat, they stood up and found their way via various connectors back to the nests.
“And look at the mist near the… the… ”
Resten winced at his father’s stuttered sentence. He could not say it… the word… surface. The surface, of which there was no visible proof. The only people who could possibly have seen the surface, even assuming there was one, had been fractions of a second from an explosive death, plunging through the mist. Like Feathereen. That was why his father could not bring himself to speak of it.
“Shall we check the ropes, Dad?” Resten moved the exchange on. Suren regained his concentration.
“Better had, son. Your mother’s in the kitchens today, she’s been up since Blue Light. We’ll get it done by Ochre.” And by White Light they must be inside, in shadow. The current season saw the star pass close and low; the tower’s side was baked during White Light, the middle part of the day. An adult might survive twenty minutes out on the face, a child ten. It never happened. Any nest-holder seeing a man, woman or child on the rock would pull them inside; privacy counted for nothing in this situation.
Feathereen had always been the best at this. Her sunny disposition and innocent face could open the nests of complete strangers, even those of rival families, before she even asked to enter. Resten, following her as they ranged across the tower face seeking plants in flower or large insects, would watch in awe as grumpy men or busy women spotted her lithe form and beckoned the two of them in before White Light struck.
At other times, when they were alone in the shade, she told Resten about her dreams of walking along firm paths lined with vegetation, of fields that grew crops, shoulder-high sticks supporting edible seeds or grain through which she ran and ran until her heart raced. It was during one of these dreams that she walked, in sleep, out of the nest and into the free air. Suren had awoken at the sound of movement in the nest. He had glimpsed her trailing foot, taken in the bird-bone flute that he had carved for her, swinging from her waist, but he was not able react quickly enough. She walked through the winged doorway and was never seen again.
Suren stepped from the nest onto the nearest rope. He never doubted for an instant that it would take his weight. He had secured all the ropes in the neighbourhood himself. Resten watched him drop down a level and slide sideways to perform the first checks. Mothers and fathers were dispersing across the face to check their own nests and adjacent connectors. After this was done they would move as a group to the temple and the complex of nests owned by the Head Family.
Suren called out instructions as he progressed,
“Tidy the nest, Resten, and wax the walls. There was moisture inside this morning.”
But Resten did not respond. He had moved up a level. He was out of his father’s sight, hidden behind a water store, a man-sized bladder stitched from bird skins and hung from the rock like a giant, opaque teardrop. He heard the words and paused. Suren’s tone was soft, almost weary. His once-natural authority had been diminished since Feathereen’s death. The energy that had emanated from him, the fighting force that had protected his children from the elements on this exposed world, had started to fade the day she fell. So Resten, the younger part of him loyal to his parents and wanting nothing more than to hide away from the storm in their arms, had made a decision. He must find his sister and bring her home. He must see his family complete once more.
Resten progressed through the broad circle of outer nests, taking care not to approach those where his friends lived. One of his father’s roper-colleagues noticed him and waved, completely unaware of the boy’s intention. Resten nodded, then skipped on. His hands skipped too, one step at a time, with the briefest of overlaps, never a moment when one hand was not in contact with rope. He slowed down as he passed the temple. Inside was a small shrine to his sister. Resten, Suren, and Wingen had fashioned a figurine from bird-bones. Fragile, white sticks glued together with guano and dust; fibre for hair, a fibre skirt, even a tiny model of the bird-bone flute she loved, attached to one hand. It really did look like her. Now it rested in a small niche among other totems and memorials to those who had fallen.
And now the small-birds came fleeing before the storm that was bubbling up from the mist. Ochre Light darkened as the huge flock blocked the sun. The temperature dropped. On another day Resten would have twisted around to fire his catapult and cast his net for meat. But having looked carefully for larger, aggressive Driftbirds wheeling in the flock, he moved on, nose to the stone, and left the temple behind.
The quality of the light changed as Ochre gave way to White. He would have to find protection soon. The climb had left him between communities; there were no nearby nests. He had not gone this far up before. Yet the informal lessons given by elders on temple days described an endless series of communities up and down the face, so Resten continued. The temperature rose. He sipped rain water from the bird-gut flask that swung from his belt. A short while later, when his cheek touched the rock and the heat caused him to recoil, he had to accept that White had come. And there, twenty body lengths above him, a fuzzy black blob against the yellow-brown face, was a nest. He scrambled up and slipped between the two large wings.
In the nest sat an old woman, her wrinkled head obscured by shadow. Her forearms lay on a fibre rug, their climbing muscles and chunky veins still prominent. Exquisite bird-bone mobiles hung from the roof, twirling in response to the draft that Resten had caused in the previously still, silent space.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Sorry lady, it’s White Light,”
“It’s hot! You don’t mind?”
“Where’s your mother?”
Resten said nothing.
“Where’s your mother boy? You’re not from here. So where’s your mother?”
“I’m old enough to be out.”
“No. You’re after something. What you lost?”
Resten looked at her carefully. There were tiny gaps between some of the overlapping feathers that formed the walls of the nest, and slanting needles of White Light probed her black cloak. The old lady cracked a smile,
“So you have lost something.”
Resten, tired from his unbroken climb, opened up.
“My sister. She fell last year.”
The old lady nodded slowly.
“I remember. We heard here. First in two cycles. The Roper’s daughter, of all people. Poor you. Over it now though, I expect.”
“I’m looking for her.”
“Ah.” She held his gaze. “Ah.” She shook her head. “Did you see the Far Tower earlier? I thought there was a break in the cloud cap, I thought I saw the top. A lovely, flat top.”
Resten laughed, conditioned by a life lived on the vertical to dismiss such ravings. There had been no break in the cloud cap. There never was. The woman was mad.
“You scoff at me! Did I scoff at you? What you seek is as far-fetched as the firm ground I have spent a lifetime craving. But boys are rude, I know. So… why up? Why up? Your sister… she went down.”
Resten felt the same discomfort he had felt in his father’s company; she knew why he was going up. They all went up, all the dead. Borne on the backs of Driftbirds who collected corpses, flicking them up with their beaks, to be carried away and deposited on the top. All were taught this – the dead achieved what the living could never hope to – peace on the flat. In the temple they sang songs about a second life above the clouds, and acted out the process of reawakening on solid ground. Each cycle one maturing child would be chosen to do this, and it was a high privilege – to lie on the small flat area in the temple and pretend to stand on solid ground, to walk with barely a care.
“I know why, don’t worry, boy,” she allowed. “I used to think about going up myself, when I was your age. It’s natural, despite the teachings. I’m too old to be the one to put you off. Try. Try. And if you succeed, discover. There’s a reason we cling to this rock like weeds, hiding from the White Light, picking sustenance out of the sky and scraping lichen off the stone. Don’t be put off by any that you meet. Ignore the superstitious. If you find nothing and tire, then return, or build a new life higher up… nothing is lost.” She had begun to murmur indistinctly, becoming distracted by private thoughts and memories. Then she snapped back into focus. “So… you intend to spend the night?”
“No. Just the White Light. I want to make progress, beat the storm.”
“You do, and you should, if you wish to out-pace your father.”
“Do you know him?”
“Only the rumours that rose and fell after your sister’s accident. Only that. A good man, Suren Light. I feel sorry for him. But if they come, I will not tell them.”
Resten looked away.
The old lady bent over to one side and look carefully through a small hole in the floor of her nest. Then she shook her head to indicate that she saw no one in pursuit.
“Have you heard of the paths?” asked Resten. He sensed that of all people, she would not reject such a bold question.
“Ah. Yes, of course. We know of them.”
“Us. Your betters. There is a theory that our race memory has retained images of paths and fields and flows of rain, landscapes our ancestors explored on this world or another before we were blown like seeds into the sides of these great towers. But we have adapted, and we must learn to live where we find ourselves. Your poor sister suffered an intense re-living of memories that did not belong to her.”
“Do you believe that we can find our way back to those places?”
“Ah. Us. Yes! But the fields are gone, the surface of this world has been split and scoured, leaving only the towers. There may be plateaus that go on as far as you can imagine, but… I have studied the patterns, counted the storms and felt the heat of the White Light. Nothing can grow in these conditions. The tops cannot sustain life, any nutrients that remained must have been swept away by the wind sterilised the tops. You think we are battered here… but up there, near the cloud base, the wind rages. I have watched the cloud move around the top of the Far Tower, it is more violent than you can imagine.”
“And below? What do you know of the surface?”
“Nothing lives down there either, apart from the Driftbirds who climb on the forces that are emitted from the core, the turbulence that feeds the storms. The elders know this, Resten, it has been passed down. Our tribes explored once, hoping to find Sheer’s origin, where it joins the planet. There are stories of deep chasms with crystalline walls on which no human can gain purchase, of vicious heat rising, spitting liquid rock. We are trapped between fire and infinity… but we do not labour this with the young. If there is anything to be discovered, it is up. But do not imagine fields or streams. Those days have passed. They belong only in the memories that are embedded in our blood-lines.”
Resten flicked one of the door-wings. The white had faded to violet – Violet Light, the phase before night. Storen stared at him, but had no more to say. Resten said his farewells and left.
He survived the storm, climbed day after day through the remainder of the seasonal cycle, and continued for seven cycles more.
Resten Light woke, caressed the body next to him and pulled the feathered doors of his nest apart. He took in the sky, its colour and its shapes. His beard bothered him, as always. He wore it short, choosing to cut it regularly with shards of rock face, each one requiring a day of work in the Winter phase with a wet rope wedged into a pre-formed crack, followed by a frost to expand the water and spilt away a flake. But it was worth it, he felt. Given his standing, he should look different from the others. His father had done the same. A slight hand pulled on the hairs below his ear.
“Hey, Resten, there’s a storm coming.” His wife, Ochren-True.
“Do you know something? If it comes, this will be only the fifth full storm since I left home.”
“I know! You tell me that whenever the mist looks edgy. Well? Are you going to get out and check the ropes?”
“In time. They’re fine.”
“Resten, we have a family now. We don’t assume anything.”
He nodded. She was right.
He circled the nest complex before Blue Light had turned to Ochre, then moved to the Hall. It was the Hall that had attracted his notice as he wandered from community to community. Many, many days and nights after saying goodbye to the old lady, having made his way up through countless strata, he had looked up and saw a brown square in the distance. It was jutting out from the side of the face as if by some sort of magic. His pace on the ropes increased. As he grew closer, he could make out more details. The square was a platform; a flat structure. Resten’s engineering instinct drew him sideways, to examine the suspension technique. Ropes fanned out from the outer edge of the platform in an upward spray, the lengths attached to the face in an arc so that the weight was well distributed. Resten looked carefully at the junction between rope and rock – how had they secured them? These people must have found a new and safe method, for the platform was clearly used by many. There were seats and tables, all made of fibre and wood. He had seen small trees growing out of crevices on the way up. Perhaps there were enough in this area to sustain carpentry. And indeed, he came to learn over the days and weeks that followed, there were.
The storm matured. The Far Tower was completely obscured by barrelling, churning mist columns. Resten hurried to the platform, checked the fan of supporting ropes, then moved to the temple that he had been so involved in designing and building. He had brought to it an instinctive understanding of cantilevers and fulcrums, together with innovations in rope-weaving taught to him by his father. Resten was now chief engineer. His was a top family.
A vibration travelled through the rope on which he stood. It was not the storm. His head snapped to the right, towards the platform. Two ropes had sprung from the rock face, their free ends falling in a lazy but potentially lethal curl. The platform rocked. A man had landed on it. He screamed and rolled in pain near the outer edge. Resten could see that a leg was broken, and perhaps his back too. He leaped across, taking unusual risks. For several moments he broke the lifelong rule – and jumped free of attachment to rope or structure. This was a new situation. He had never seen a faller. Never.
Resten was first on the scene; others joined but gave their engineer space. He rolled the man over so that his bloodied face was upturned. The nameless face, a mass of abrasions, opened its mouth, but no sound came out, at first.
“Did you fall, or jump?” asked Resten sternly.
“Fell… I fell.”
“I am sorry.”
“I… I saw it.”
“The t… the top.”
Resten stared down. He noticed puncture marks in the sleeves of his fibre shirt, over the upper arms. The flesh beneath was bleeding. Both arms. Talon wounds. Other men and women were approaching. Ochren-True was not among them. The dying man spoke again,
“I saw them… all. They lie there.” His face fell to the side. Blood spilled from his mouth, flowing up from a ruptured organ within.
Resten closed the man’s eyes, stood up, and with authority stated, “He shall be given a niche in the temple. He had fallen.”
The wind was rising. All minds were focussed on the coming storm. They looked at Resten quizzically, asking for instruction. Those who died of age or disease were cast off the face into the receiving mist with ceremony… but this, what to do with this man? Resten decided, “We get through the storm. The casting off will be tomorrow. The storm is close now, it will hit during White Light. But the clouds will protect us from the heat, we have more time to prepare. Double check the ropes, secure your nests, count your children. All to be inside by Ochre’s end. Put him in the temple for now. Wrap him up.”
In truth, Resten cared little for the dead man’s fate. Only his words. Having tucked his own wife and son into the central nest of his luxurious complex, he stepped out onto the main ascending ropeway and left home for the second time.
The storm whipped the face of Sheer but Resten was in no danger of being torn away. Before each gust he twisted rope around his thick forearms, the same for his ankles. The White Light was moderated by the cloud and in fact the wind was warm and not unpleasant at times. Despite the pauses he made good progress, climbing well beyond the wide limits of his reputation in a few days.
The ropes became sparse, the nests more ovoid, the suspension methods different. The greatest change in the landscape was the relative abundance of trees. Their trunks were as thick as Resten’s muscular thighs, and grew out horizontally before angling up at forty-five degrees and sending shoots back into the face for greater strength. The trees were integrated into the ropeways and connectors. A few of the larger ones were trusted to support small houses, belonging always to the top families.
Nobody seemed to have heard of the fallen man. Resten described him to all he met, but saw no flicker of recognition. After a full cycle he stopped asking. His son’s third birthday was coming up. If Resten had not left his community he would have taken the infant up to the temple and received gifts from other families; bird-meat parcels, bone-toys, precious fruit carried from distant parts of Sheer. If he had stayed. He allowed himself to think of his wife’s pain, but not the boy’s. And before them… his father’s. How much did it hurt, to lose a second child?
Resten climbed. There were more crevices here, more ledges, greater variety. He grew used to sleeping on natural platforms that accommodated over half his width. With a rope around his legs and another around his chest he could relax into his dreams. It was no longer necessary to find nests and beg hospitality. And the White Light was less intense here, the rays more tangential. He must have moved around the tower, or the tower must have an imperceptible twist to it, facing away from the midday sun. He looked down. The rock ran straight and true into the mist. He looked up. There was still no visual clue that he was near the top. He had not passed a community for many, many days. The few ropes he found were weathered and unreliable; he climbed on trees and finger holds.
The tower’s face darkened. Violet turned to night, then back to Violet. A breeze on his cheek. Black shadow again, and again. Resten turned to see seven huge birds – Driftbirds – ascend. If they noticed him they gave no sign. He watched as they soared, shrinking to angled dashes against the colour of the sky. From one pair of talons hung a shape without definite form. It reminded Resten of one thing only – a body shrouded and ready to be cast away.
Later, while looking up and scanning the rock face for features, Resten spotted a prominent ledge. He climbed up and across so as to meet it. As he approached its underside, he realised that to access the top side he would have to take a great risk. If the ledge was slippery, or if he miscalculated, he would fall. But he could see no another way. He chose to tackle the ledge during early Ochre, and spent the preceding night fifteen body-lengths below, wrapped in his feathered cloak and wedged between a tree trunk and the face. Night gave way to Blue, which gave way to Ochre. He moved.
The ledge was as wide as two men. Resten climbed into its shadow, wedged two raw fingertips of his right hand into a gap and reached out. The angled fingers of his left hand felt the full thickness of the ledge. He touched its flat surface. Then he paused, paralysed by indecision which slowed time and threatened to drain the power from his limbs. The thought of failure came; plummeting, conscious still, past two homes, an infant unaware, along those glass sides, into the burning chasms described by Storen.
He jumped. His right hand joined his left at the edge of the ledge. All of his concentration was channelled into the muscles and tendons running from the bones of his forearms. They lifted him until his chin was level with the ledge and he could gaze across it. Five black-feathered Driftbirds stood looking out, previously unseen from below. He hauled himself up to safety but could not keep silent. The birds’ heads turned as one, alert, quick. The nearest approached. Resten lay on his side, totally exposed. The bird pecked at his shoulder and punctured his rough clothing, drawing blood. The bird’s eyes were silver-white. They betrayed no feeling.
Resten rolled past the bird, found his feet and zig-zagged around the others. He was confident he could outrun the birds on foot, and he knew that they would not choose to fly close to the face. The birds he knew, smaller birds, avoided proximity to the face for fear of being brought down by catapult or net. So he ran. The birds tried to run after him but were not built for it. One of them took wing, but as Resten had predicted, it could do no more than monitor him from a distance.
The ledge developed an upward gradient. Then it began to eat into the face, so that Resten had to duck to avoid grazing his head against a slight overhang. The outer part of the ledge developed a ridge. The gradient grew more marked. He was ascending Sheer by foot. The path turned in more sharply. The overhang and the ridge met, forming a tunnel. There was just enough light to see by. The light, White Light now, was coming in somewhere ahead. For light to be coming into the tunnel it must be coming down. For light to be coming come down, he must be near the…
The Driftbirds had found their voice. It was a cacophony. The light strengthened. Resten emerged onto a rocky plain. He stood with feet apart and arms free, uncomfortable without rope or tree touching his body somewhere. The atmosphere was milky, filtering the White Light. A constant wind crossed his face and flapped at his fibre clothes; the same wind, he reflected, that cleansed the top and ensured its sterility. There were no trees, no features. The old lady was right – nothing could grow here.
The White Light made everything glow. In the distance he could make out the untroubled backs of many more Driftbirds. They were busy, pecking at things on the ground. Resten approached cautiously and quickly saw what it was they were — human bodies. The fallen and the jumpers were clothed, while those who had been cast off after natural death were covered in brown shrouds, having benefitted from the ministrations of their peers.
Resten circled the feeding ground. Further on, he found bodies with most of the flesh pecked away. And further still, clean skeletons, bleached by numerous White Lights. The Driftbirds ignored him, even if he emerged from a particularly dense patch of cloud just inches from one of their hard, feathered backs. Their preference appeared to be for dead meat; the vicious peck he had received on the ledge no more than a sign that he was not welcome here. Whatever the reason, Resten grew more confident with each passing day.
As the cloud shifted and varied, offering glimpses of the sky beyond, Resten explored. At night he retreated to the edge of the plain and slept where the cloud was most dense. The Driftbirds came and went in groups. He watched a group of three return with a bundle. The shroud of soft fibre had begun to unravel, and the pale limbed body inside was limp. Resten wondered – how did the bodies keep their shape? He had always imagined them hitting the ground and… destruction. The answer came to him. The ever-vigilant Driftbirds caught them in mid-air. They swooped and took hold with those great talons. Like the fallen man who thudded onto the platform, his arms pierced and bleeding. Caught while alive, but in his case released, or fumbled, perhaps.
Resten began to search the bones.
Hunger drove him back to the tower’s edge every few days, and he sat with his legs hanging in space waiting for small birds to pass. Half way through the season they stopped coming, and Resten was forced to take a Driftbird. He feared that such an act would change the status-quo and turn them against him, but he had no choice. Their feeding ground became his feeding ground. With lengths of cloth taken from the bodies, he made loops and nooses to lay on the ground. When an outlying bird wandered into a trap it was pulled away from its group into the obscuring cloud. With a shard-knife Resten cut its neck before it cried out. As he carved the first slice of meat from its tendinous leg, Resten retched at the thought of what his prey had fed on that day. Then he turned his mind from that awful thought and planned the next stage of his search.
The skeletons were laid out in rows. Based on the degree of sun-bleaching, Resten concluded that they had been arranged in chronological order. There was method here. Moreover, although the meat was removed the humanoid form was preserved. The bones were not wrenched from their sockets or separated.
Resten crept along the lines, day after day. She would be shorter than the adults. There were babies, and infants, but few of Feathereen’s age.
He fashioned the hollowed out carcasses of several prey into the walls of a camp far from the feeding ground, but the first full storm blew it away. The only warning he had was a mass descent of Driftbirds onto the plateau during Ochre Light. As the light changed the storm rose and enveloped him. Resten survived the terrible wind by knotting the camp’s rope anchors around his waist. The walls, his store of food, his shard-knife, all were sucked away in the brief tempest. Then the air became clear and cloudless. Resten looked along the plateau from his exposed position on the ground and saw the many thousands of Driftbirds who had come down before the storm push away from the surface as one. The skeletons appeared undisturbed. Something had protected them from the gale. Something had covered them. The Driftbirds. The huge flock. They had come down to protect the bodies.
Resten turned and was awestruck by the unprecedented visibility. He saw ten, fifteen, twenty more towers beyond the Far Tower… and between some of them stone links, natural bridges. Some of the towers broadened into plateaus, shaped like the rare moulds that were a delicacy on Sheer. And on the plateaus that lay below Sheer, Resten saw rippling black carpets, glossy where the sun caught the backs of massed Driftbirds. They lifted off, as those on Sheer had done, revealing a variegated pattern of green, brown, and gold. In places – although the distance made Resten doubt himself – the surface seemed to soften and sway. He saw fields. Then the clouds returned, obscuring the vista.
Resten walked towards the deserted ground, eager to explore new sections. He felt the ground beneath his feet soften. With bones to his left and his right, partially shrouded in cloud as usual, he lifted a foot and examined the sole of his foot. Brown granules had stuck between his toes, clumps of which crumbled when he pressed them between his fingers. He held it under his nostrils, and smiled at the fresh, musty odour. He remembered finding something similar in a rare niche on the face where a plant had grown. His mother had told him it was a good thing – the result of vegetation decaying, a sign of permanence. “Dirt”, they had called it. Resten knelt down and pushed his hands into the thin layer of soil. Then he hurried on, following the pleasant smell. The depth of the humus carpet increased. He knelt again. This time his hands ran into vegetation; wisps of grass, moss more luxuriant than the thin, desiccated layers that clung to the face of the tower. The bones here were much older. They were crumbling into the soil. The nutrients held in the marrow and the matrices within were dissolving onto the sterile plateau. The bones were the soil.
Cloud traversed the space before him. Resten wished it would clear so that he could see what he wished and believed lay before him – fertile ground. Fields. A gap in the cloud came, and he peered forward. A curved rank of birds stood immobile before him. The gap enlarged, and Resten saw that the curve extended to his left, his right, and behind him. He was surrounded. One of them strutted forward with something in its beak. It held a skeleton by the lower spine, so that its legs dangled on one side and the chest, arms and head on the other. Like the others, its ligaments had been preserved. The bird stopped a few feet in front of Resten and dropped its offering.
Resten knelt over it. He held a weightless hand. He noticed a leather band around the pelvis, unaffected by decay. Attached to this was another bone – non-human. There were tiny holes along its length. The flute. It was her.
Resten rocked the curved cradle of her rib cage. Within the cavity lay a loose sheaf of brown sticks. The top of each stick expanded into a complex group of pods which crumbled when Resten touched them. Their smell assured him that they were edible. He looked, his mouth agape but full of questions that could not be asked.
The birds retreated as one into the thickening cloud; a black band on the hard surface.
Resten unfolded the plucked and scraped skin of a captured Driftbird that he had prepared for this eventual purpose. He wrapped up her bones as his family would have done had she died naturally. He noted how her skull, pelvis and vertebrae were undamaged. She had not hit the ground. Like the others, her ligaments were intact. The skeleton was whole. The Driftbirds had caught her. Probably, she had been unconscious when the talons clasped her thin torso or soft abdomen. Or perhaps not. Perhaps, turning in the air, coming out of a sleep coloured by images of her race’s more comfortable past, where water flowed and plants grew high from moist soil, she felt the air push at her clothes and her face, saw the mist rising to her, felt the heat of the planet’s ruptured crust, and sensed herself fall into the shadow of an approaching Driftbird.
Carrying his burden, Resten descended to the community of his maturity. He collected his stunned wife Ochren-True, his infant son, and carried on down to the community of his birth. He said little, but the evident power of his intention brooked no challenge.
Storen’s nest was now occupied by a young family; two children played on the ropes just outside. Resten passed it without hesitation.
Half a day’s travel from there he began to recognise structures. From above, the temple looked well-kept; the community was evidently healthy. There were new features, and some innovations in the rope-work. Resten paused and whispered to Ochren-True, but she encouraged him. She reassured him that his actions were correct… she, the wife whom he had abandoned.
Ochren-True hung back with the child while Resten approached the home-nest. The bi-wing doors were unchanged, they had kept their integrity through all the seasons and the daily White Light. Someone had waxed them well.
Inside, Resten found his father in the company of a carer. His mother Wingen had been cast off nine cycles ago, and Suren was no longer strong enough to leave his nest. Others looked after him. He was owed that by the community, for all he had done with his hands and his ingenious brain to improve their surroundings and keep them safe. A lifetime on Sheer had left the skin of his face baked like the rock. Yet he looked calm, comfortable in himself. He had accepted Resten’s choice long ago.
Resten lay his sister, Suren’s daughter, on the floor and peeled away the Driftbird covering. Suren noticed the flute immediately. His eyes shone as a layer of tears formed. He picked up the instrument, examined it, smiled. Then he reached for Resten, nodded in gratitude, and looked up at the roof of his nest, as though to thank a greater power.
“They delivered her to me, father. The Driftbirds. They tasted my blood and knew she belonged to me, to our family. The others, all the dead, are taken there to nourish the ground. They protect them. There are fields up there. Things grow. In the soil of our dead. Look.” He took out the sheaf, much degraded despite the care he had taken with it on the long journey down. Suren brushed the sticks and said,
“The second life.”
“No, father…” Resten could not articulate his frustration at his father’s reversion to tradition.
“You should have left her.”
Tears came to Resten.
“No father, it is no second life. They use us to bring life back to the towers, to the old surface… I was told, by an elder, when I left… there used to be life up there, fields and trees. The birds have used us to bring it back.”
“That old lady, Storen… we knew her… spoke of myth. We do not know how things used to be, Resten. We belong here, where we were thrown by fate. It is a good life.”
“But Father, our people can climb now. We can move to the flat. I have seen it. The tops are habitable. The Driftbirds have done it… for us. They gave Feathereen to me. They gave me these plants. It was an invitation. Us and the birds. A natural order, benefiting all.”
“No, Resten… Resten… you have no proof…”
“We can move back now father. Back to the surface, a living surface.”
Suren’s voice had grown weak. A hand moved to rest on the small bones of Feathereen’s slightly flexed palm. Despite his admonition of Resten, and for all his sense of sacrilege, he was pleased to see her again. To know she had not been shattered on the restless surface or abandoned on the top. His hand moved from Feathereen to his son, and by a slight pressure of his fingertips he thanked him.
Resten left the nest and stood in the fading light. He tasted the air and sensed activity in the mist below. All he saw, looking up, looking down, was skewed by discovery. On the top he had grown accustomed to looking along rather than straining his neck up or down; his feet had grown comfortable with the weight of his body spread evenly across the soles. The ability to step sideways, the knowledge, in sleep, that is was safe to roll… the memory of these simple if shallow freedoms seduced him. And beyond that something larger. The soil, the distant fields, the natural bridges. A higher world, and a vital future for his people. Smiling, confident in his vision, Resten ducked back into the nest and began to prepare his little sister for her casting off.