I was nine when the holynaut came up the valley to train. He trudged up the road with a short pack on his back, his hands and feet callused from training on the coast, with the implacable footsteps of the already dead. I was watching when he passed the warning stone and came into the village proper; I waited while he walked up to me, swung the pack down to his feet and nodded in greeting. "Hiyo."
I nodded back. "Sir."
Behind me, past the village square, the mountains waited. Klicks high, of rock and ice, they loomed behind us on guard. He leaned back to stretch his spine, and I saw his glance stray to the mountains. From his angle, he was searching for the peaks. I didn't look back. I knew he wouldn't find them. They spent their existence above the clouds, waiting to kill men like him - and boys like me, when we became men in turn.
Straightening, he dug in his robes and handed me a sealed letter. "For the headman."
"Yes sir. Will you be staying the night?"
"No. No, I don't think so." He reached down and hauled his pack back onto his back. "I need to be up another thousand meters before dark." The holynauts lived a strict life.
"I'll give it to him, sir."
"I know you will. Thanks to you." With that, he walked past me, out the slender trail that led out the rear of the village square, towards the killing hills.
I watched him walk away into the horizon until he was lost among the stones and snow. Then I ran into the house to hand off his letter to my father.
* * *
He came back through some eight days later. One arm was broken, all his fingers were mangled, and it looked like he'd broken several ribs from the way he was hunched over. His feet were as bloody as his hands. My mother sobbed and guided him into our house while the collected menfolk of the village stood silently, having watched him stagger the last klick or so into the village square. His pack was gone. Before she pushed him gently through the open doorway into the house, he turned to face us where we all stood looking solemnly at him, his one unblackened eye still bright and clear. Sweeping all of us with his gaze, he finished up looking at my father and nodding once, firmly.
Then he consented to let himself be chivvied into a bed for a week and nursed back far enough to make his walk down out of the valley, through the Lakes of Tears, and out onto the great peninsula to Anchor.
My father spent several nights in talking with him, a quilt drawn over the doorway and the both of them speaking in low tones. My mother went about her housekeeping with one sad eye on the doorway; carried on her usual management of the village's farming with that same eye still watching. When, at the end of the week, the holynaut came out of his room, he was standing straight once more and had a new (smaller) pack with him, gift of the village. We might not take much stock in the Church of the Risen, but we gave what we could to him, not his church, for his silent fight in our mountains.
Before he left, my father and he shared a silent moment, gazes locked. Then my father gestured with his head, down the road, and the holynaut turned and walked away without looking back.
I didn't think of him again until eight years later, just before I left the village to make my own way down the valley road towards the city, the Church, the Anchor itself, and my own chance at destiny.
My father, older now but still unbowed, pulled me aside before I left, after I'd said my goodbyes. He held my eye until I quieted and looked back, then said three words to me.
"Remember your brother."
* * *
Two days from the village is the last of the farmland - vast estates run by the prelates of the Church, lay workers providing the labor to keep the city of Anchor in foodstuffs. The road grows larger as it passes through the farmlands, other, smaller tracks joining it here and there. No roads split off from it to the east, towards the city, for all roads this close to it have but one destination. A few klicks past the last estate compound, there is a large round area where the road comes to an end. Past that, scrubland with a myriad of barely-marked trails takes over, and in the half-klick wide cleared area, the drovers camp while they wait for trade.
The estates will pay them a minimum but fair price to haul crops to the markets of the city beyond the Lakes of Tears. They can, and do, make that run with their carts and droverbeasts in four days of steady travel. How they get here, though - their routes through the Lakes - are their own secrets, passed down the generations. If you want to go with them, a passenger, it will cost you good coin and several more days of your time - for they will never take an outsider over the best routes. They will make you spend days at a time inside their wagons, blindfolded and under guard for your protection and theirs - and thus carrying passengers takes longer and demands additional compensation.
You can forge your own way through the Lakes of Tears. There is no fence to stop you. The drovers won't bother you unless they catch you trying to follow their wagons - and they will catch you if you try it. No one has ever managed it that anyone else knows of. The ground is flat and deserted, with scrub vegetation and no predators to speak of in between the frequent circular ponds and the rolling dunes and hills.
But of those who pass through on their own, only a fraction are ever seen again - and those who do make it through to the other side have always died strangely within hours or days of reaching their destination. The drovers won't say why, but none of them have ever arrived carrying maps or notes.
It's safer to pay coin.
I picked a drover's cart at random after seeing that he already had a traveller sitting on his pack by the cart awaiting the drover's pleasure to depart. We haggled over price for some minutes until I showed him the pass from the Church entitling me to one passage at their expense. He stopped bargaining, realizing that I had no coin other than the travel visa, grunted and stuffed it inside his robes. He motioned his other traveler and myself to climb into the wagon. The wagon was covered, and there were actually bales of goods stacked inside in a manner which allowed for relatively comfortable couches. The drover's son came in, threw us each a black kerchief, waggled his eyebrows expressively and swung out to help with the departure. The other traveler picked his up without hesitation and tied it around his eyes before lying back on a bale and falling asleep nearly instantly.
I tied mine over my own eyes and lay back slowly. The cries of the drovers and the droverbeasts rose outside, and we lurched off into the wasteland.
* * *
The drovers checked on us every once in a while, but mostly left us to our own devices other than when they set camp in the evenings. We were invited to share their fire, but warned not to leave the area of firelight if we wished to avoid the wasting. I don't know if I believed them that such was lurking just outside the firelight, but there was no benefit to testing their words. I shared their gruel and slept in the wagon, and some eight days later I was bade remove the blindfold as the stone walls of Anchor loomed on the horizon.
Anchor itself was a city of some fifty thousand or more, the largest city anyone had ever heard of. I walked into the main square, ignoring the drovers and their factors shouting over cargo, and moved some fifty steps up the grand staircase, my gaze rising above the horizon as my brother's had risen over our village. The sea was visible off to the northeast and southeast, but directly east of where I stood rose the mountain of stone that was the Anchor itself. A cliff-edged mesa, it sat at the very eastern end of the peninsula, with cliffs on three sides dropping down hundreds of meters to the tides. The fourth side, the western side, sloped gradually down in a series of tiers until it met the main square where I stood looking back upslope. The city of Anchor itself occupied all of those tiers save the top one, and spread out for some distance along the shoreline to the north and south of the peninsula's base. The tier just below the top of the Anchor was the exclusive province of the Church of the Risen, and their buildings were the only ones allowed there.
Fishing boats dotted the waves on both sides of the peninsula, and several towers of stone were taller than anything I'd seen in my life in the valley, but I only had eyes for the Anchor as I set off walking towards it.
The top of the Anchor was flat stone, mirror smooth. No one knew why it was so; the Church intimated that the Gods had made it thus and no one else had a better explanation. That vast surface was a square klick in size, almost exactly; as near as anyone could tell, at least. Nothing grew on it. No cracks broke its surface. In the precise center of the square was the Plinth, an oblong of the same stone that made up the surface of the Anchor. It was five meters long, two meters deep and stood a meter high. From the Plinth, patterns of deep and lambent color swirled out across the surface of the Anchor. They were dark, almost the same shades as the stone itself, but varying into the reds, the greens, even the blues from the base grey. They changed; the patterns moved, enormous rings and lines of color swiveling around the anchor, growing, shrinking, fading. The Church of the Risen had observers atop the Anchor at all times, sitting on the Plinth - facing each direction. They maintained stylii and pads, and kept ceaseless track of the changes of color beneath the surface (for so it seemed the hues were). They kept their records in a secret system only the Churchmen knew, and twice observers had been executed for divulging what little they knew of it to outsiders.
None of this was what made the Anchor important, however. From the center of the Plinth rose the awesome sight of Gods' Love. That's what the Church called it - proof positive that the Gods loved the people and kept us in their hearts. It was three meters across, perhaps a centimeter in thickness, and rose up from the Plinth in a sheer ribbon that cut into the sky, ascending straight into the heavens and out of sight. It was gray, with a fine network pattern to it; you could easily see through the holes. Sometimes it sang, notes of purity and pain, but only when the storms blew and the Gods made war or mourned. When I reached the Plinth, my travel pass from the Church pinned to my robes gaining me entrance, it merely was - an impossibility made real before me. It was God's Love because it held up our world in the cosmos, as a string held up a ball. Somewhere at the other end, the Gods held our survival in their hands, and so long as we were worthy, the world would swing happily from their Love.
The Church called it Gods' Love. Everyone else, including the holynauts, called it the Ladder.
I stepped up to the Plinth, put my foot atop it and stepped past the watcher there. He paid me no mind. Somewhere behind me, several people who had gathered to pay respects made sounds of protest, but I could hear one of the Church acolytes silencing them, allowing me the time.
I held my right hand open flat, a centimeter from the Ladder, and closed my eyes. I could feel, somewhere, a power and a purpose, just beyond my reach. I opened my eyes and laid my hand flat against the regular surface.
I heard sighs from the watchers behind me.
After a few moments, I turned and walked away, back towards the receiving hall one tier down where I had been bidden go when I arrived. Behind me, I felt the Ladder ignoring me, as it had ignored all of us for thousands of years.
* * *
"I understand you are the first of your family to seek ascension." The deacon was smiling, an empty smile that told me of his private purposes. We were sitting in a small chamber in the receiving hall into which I had been shown when I arrived. There was water, cheese and bread laid out on the surface between us. I'd eaten; he hadn't.
"No, sir. My brother was a holynaut."
"He was?" The deacon was surprised. "I hadn't known. When was this?"
"It would be some eight years ago now, sir. He left our village and came to try his Ascent. We never heard what happened to him, but assumed-" I broke off. The holynauts never came home. Some vanished entirely. Some fell early, their broken bodies crashing into the surface of the Anchor. Some fell from high enough that they were found out to sea, or inland, their clothing all that was recognizable.
But still, some were never seen again. Enough that there were always those willing to make the attempt. The Gods took favor on them, the Church said proudly.
I thought it strange none had ever come back to tell us of their good fortune, but kept my own counsel. My father had been hard taken the day he had been informed that his village must needs provide another for the holynaut sect. I had volunteered; my sister was married by then, and would provide him an heir. He had cried, but I had hushed him, smiled and said "I remember my brother."
"Eight years..." the deacon mused. He got up, went to a wall, and flipped through a bound book he found there. His face tightened, and he returned to his seat. "Your brother. Yes." He paused, then closed the book and sat back. "Your brother. I would advise you - purely as a member of the Church with your best interests in mind - to avoid mentioning him within these walls."
I looked up, shocked. "But why?"
He shook his head. "I suppose I must tell you, but I caution you not to repeat this to anyone." He looked at me meaningfully, and I nodded, dumb. "Your brother was one of the most promising candidates we'd seen in years. He came to us a child, and returned to your village to say his farewells and for final ascent training."
"Yes, sir. I was there."
The deacon appeared nettled that I had interrupted, but smoothed his face over. "Yes. As I say. He returned here after taking leave of you and your family, and was prepared for his Ascent two days after his arrival." He fidgeted. "He vanished. He never made his appearance at the rite of Ascension."
"Yes. We feared the worst; the guard searched the city. Several days later, however, a drover caravan returned to the coast with word that they had provided him passage through the Lakes of Tears, and he had vanished into Estate land." I understood; the Estates were vast and policed only at the centers where the workers lived, ate and slept. Although it was possible to live off the land, arable as it was, lack of game (eradicated to prevent crop damage) made this more difficult even than in the mountains near our home.
"He...he ran away?"
"Yes, my son." The deacon leaned forward and patted my arm. "If it is any consolation, we were certain that he would be granted Ascension. He was, as I said, a most promising candidate. However, he did not - and his story is not told, here. Do you understand?"
I thought for a moment. "Yes, Father, I do." I forced myself to sit up straighter. "But mine will be."
He smiled with the first real warmth I'd seen him display. "I'm sure it will, my son. I'm sure it will. Tomorrow, we'll see what sort of man your father has made of you."
* * *
The next day was brilliantly clear, with a light breeze and moderate temperatures. I was woken by a novice and given food and drink, then made my way out towards the Plinth. There was a crowd gathered, thousands strong, held back by the Church laity. I eeled through them and made it to the small pile of sacks on the western side of the Plinth. The deacon was waiting there, with three other elders. They all shook my hand and smiled. I smiled in turn, settled the various packs around my body - making sure I could reach into all of them where they rested - and stepped up onto the Plinth. The crowd fell silent as I leaned back and looked up at God's Love, and a sea of faces lightened as they all leaned back with me, our collective gazes lifting to the depths of the sky. I looked down, before them, and in the back of the crowd saw one face looking at me, not the sky. As I peered, my brother smiled at me and then ducked from sight.
I doffed my boots, wiggled my toes in their warmwrap, reached up over my head and pulled myself up onto the Ladder.
It took perhaps two hours before the crowd below began to disperse, apparently no longer able to make me out against the arrow-straight lines of the Ladder and the brightness of the sky. I spared them a look, then swung my arms around in a circle several times to loosen my joints and kept climbing.
I had been climbing since childhood on the crags and cliffs of the mountains that stood guard behind the village. I'd made it, in my sixteenth year, to the peaks that rested above the clouds. Coughing, panting in the cold thin air, I'd nevertheless reached the summit and stood, arms outstretched, for five minutes before beginning the careful trek down so that the evening's cold wouldn't kill me.
When I'd made that climb, my father had nodded and allowed me to leave, heading for the church. All that training, the same training my brother had done at the last, came back to me. He'd fallen, somewhere on his trial, but he'd made it back in two fewer days than I had. He was a stronger climber than I. But he hadn't made the climb, and I knew why. Father had convinced him to live, not die. To hide, if that was what it took, rather than throw his life away for the Church - for what had the Church ever done for us?
I had been shocked when my father had told me what they'd spoken about. But as I'd traveled, I'd thought about it - and when the fat deacon had told me that my brother had chosen life, I had been proud of him.
When I saw him on the Anchor, I knew I was going to climb anyway - and from his face, so did he.
I put him out of my mind and kept climbing.
As the night closed in, I ate a frugal meal from the supplies in my satchels; pulled out leather thongs and made myself fast to the Ladder, hanging there in sleep. I woke every hour or so, as I had trained myself, to move my limbs into new positions, avoid the death of the extremities.
When the sun rose, I could see that the ground below me was still in darkness. For a brief moment, the daystar was mine and mine alone, and the world below me a dark sleeping carpet. I laughed, then.
Then the magic faded, and the light touched the Anchor, some klicks below me now.
I breakfasted - again, lightly - relieved myself from the safety of my thong anchors, and then packed them away and resumed climbing. Birds flew past me now and again. Wisps of cloud, harbingers of the darker, thicker ones floating above me, trailed laughing fingers of white mist across my shivering body as they passed. I paused, pulled on another tunic from a satchel which, then empty, I dropped away. I watched it sail downwards, out of my sight, and tried to make out people in the small modelwork of the city beneath me, but could not. I was several klicks up now.
Once I passed a thong, still tied to the Ladder, its end frayed away. I shuddered, wondering if another holynaut had fallen away there or just left this anchor behind to save weight.
Breathing was becoming more difficult, but the long years spent in the mountains of home had strengthened my lungs. I breathed more deeply, forcing myself to breath more rapidly than I wanted, forcing thin air into my body, resting more frequently. I looked up less often, now, and by the second evening I had almost ceased looking up at all. I was into the realms of legend and mystery, and none of the holynauts that had returned from where I was had been able to tell their stories. I emptied another satchel with my evening's repast and jettisoned it, not bothering to watch as it fell away. Somewhere, beneath me, it might be found and taken to the Church, shown by its markings to have been mine and in what order I had emptied it. That would give them a rough idea of how high I had been when I'd tossed it.
They had tried sending writing materials with the holynauts. The notes had been brief, uninformative - and hanging here, I could see why - and had stopped with no more explanation than the dropped food bags offered.
I slept less well the second night, in the cold, wrapped up and hanging from my anchors.
The morning of the third day of my Ascent, I wearily stowed the anchors and began to once more move upwards along the Ladder. I could see the city of Anchor now below me only as a smear against the peninsula; inland of it the Lakes of Tears were bright mirrors, their waters flat with morning dew. Perfect circles, scattered away into the wastelands, they were concentrated in a half-circle centered roughly on the peninsula, perhaps twenty klicks away, but were scattered almost to the city walls.
Some time in the afternoon of the third day, I happened to look up and almost fell in my surprise. The ladder above me was different. The color changed some meters above me. I climbed cautiously toward it, wondering. When I reached the boundary, I found three leather anchor thongs tied just below it, of different lengths and color. Three holynauts had made it to here, then, and left a sign of their passing. I thought for a moment, then added one of my anchor thongs to the grouping, tugging on all four to ensure they were tight. One, perhaps the oldest, parted under my efforts. I tucked it inside the loop of my own, and pulled that one tight around it.
Then I lifted my eyes upwards, in curiousity again for the first time in over a day, and climbed onward.
As I reached the boundary, the Ladder became lighter. I was ginger with my hands, and thus survived - the Ladder had changed to something sharp and burning. I almost lost my grip before catching myself on the lower, darker Ladder. The surface had left welts on my fingers, but not from heat. I looked at it carefully, and spread my palm next to it as I had on the ground. A fearful cold drifted off of it. The material had changed from the familiar braided wall to a still-netlike but now metal iciness.
I thought for a time, then wrapped my hands and feet in more layers of warmwrap and continued upwards. I found that if I was careful with my rhythm, I could hold each limb in turn off the Ladder long enough to warm it again. Every ten cycles around my body I would hold one appendage away, warming it; another then cycle, then the next one, and so on.
I didn't let myself think about what would happen when I had to stop. I knew there was no going down; I had known that when I volunteered to my father. The Church waited below, and holynauts who came down off the Ladder were executed for heresy for their failure. It hadn't happened in the past hundred years or so, and although I'd wondered why I thought, now, that I knew. How much better it would be to simply let go rather than undergo the climb down. A few moments of joy and freedom before oblivion, rather than the torture of the Church chambers?
Then I wondered how many of the bodies that had been found had thought those exact thoughts, and I shivered, looked up and continued to climb.
* * *
My arms and legs ached constantly. They'd started protesting the change in rhythm an hour or so after I crossed the boundary. I knew, somewhere in my chilled brain, that I wasn't behaving rationally, but the thin air and cold kept me from caring. I had only enough consciousness left for one thought, and that thought was up. I wondered how far I'd make it, and if I'd stop before I fell. I thought back over my life, unsure now at the end how I'd ended up here. I'd volunteered to save the other boys in my village, because I was the strongest climber, but only now did I realize that that was meaningless against the Ladder. It stretched out away from me upwards, humming now slightly as it did in storms, and I blinked tears back from my eyes and squinted along it. I drank methodically, tossing the empty waterskin away behind me, and continued up. Arm, leg, arm, leg, arm, leg, arm, leg, wait and hold the left hand away from the cold. Arm, leg, arm leg.
Something had changed, and it took several minutes for me to realize what it was. The singing hadn't stopped. The Ladder was humming beneath my warmwrapped hands and there was no storm. I looked up, then down, and saw only a few puffy clouds. Nothing.
I kept climbing.
An hour - two hours? Three hours? I could only think in cycles, and couldn't count past the forty cycles needed to warm all four extremities. Hours later, the singing was still there, and it was stronger. I could feel the vibrations even if I couldn't see any motion in the Ladder, which was as solid as it always was. I laughed, perhaps cried, and kept climbing. It was becoming dark.
The only reason I survived was the light. As the night fell, I had turned to watch night sweep across the landscape beneath me, so far below. It wasn't a sharp change, but I could see faint twinkles as fires were lit far below. It was while I was looking down that I realized I could see my arms quite clearly.
I looked up, and the brilliance of the light almost caused my heart to stop.
It was descending the Ladder towards me. It was rushing down, a brilliant beacon, coming to meet me from the heavens above. I laughed, then, laughed and kept laughing, waiting for the God I had no faith in to reach down and take my hand. The light swept closer by the minute, and even as I tried to squint past the glare to see its shape, I realized in my exhaustion that it wasn't slowing.
It was enormous, the size of a small house.
As it swept towards me, I realized that even if it wanted to stop, I couldn't see it managing it, and rather than be crushed, I simply let go.
I floated away from the Ladder, air rushing past me.
The light continued downwards, faster than I, and as it drew level with me I could see that it was a strange sharp-edged shape with the brilliant light on the bottom face. It passed me, and some instinct made me roll over and reach for it.
I slid back towards the Ladder, a blur as I fell, and fell towards the shape. It stopped receding; grew in my vision. At the last moment before I hit it at speed, I saw a familiar shape on the top surface.
I grabbed with my last strength. The impact took my senses from me.
It hadn't taken my grip, though. I awoke sprawled across the top of the shape, choking for breath, my right fist still clutched around the strange metal handle with the reflex of a mountaineer. I rolled over, realizing I couldn't breathe easily. There was a howling noise around me, and I looked up. The Ladder was still there, and blurred; but now I knew I was rising. I felt the air becoming thinner. I moved towards the edge of the shape, but the swirling air threatened to lift me off the surface and I shrank back. Looking around I saw nothing but a strangely-featured surface of grey and white, with odd slashes of color - but one patch was shaped like my hand, and it was green.
It was just out of reach.
I considered for all of a second, then released the handle and swung myself towards the handprint and slapped my left hand over it. There was a moment of nothing as I continued to slide towards the edge, then with a massive CLICK the surface beneath me dropped away and I fell into darkness.
I passed out.
* * *
When I came to for the second time, I was inside a dark warm place. Strange lights flashed around me, and murmuring sounds filled the air. I was lying on a soft bench. Above me was a mirror of the handprint I had seen, on the ceiling, painted red. I shrank away from it and turned.
To my left was blackness and stars, and below me a blue-hazed arc which I knew was the world. I could see the Ladder just outside the window, blurred into a solid grey which meant it was moving very quickly (or I was moving very quickly). I could see the world dropping away slowly. There was no clear wall above me, just the red handprint on a square metal surface, so I sat weakly back down on the bench (cushioned) and watched my world fall away from me.
Some hours later, there was a sickening feeling and I felt my arms lift upwards of their own accord. This continued for some minutes, and I watched the Ladder change its hue, and guessed I was slowing. I lay down, uncertain, and waited while more strange sounds filled the air, lights flashed, and finally - with a bone-shaking impact, the small house I was in shuddered, the clear window changed to dark featureless gray, and then - BOOM - it stopped.
The wall opposite the window opened silently. I considered the darkness beyond and found myself standing, moving out of the little house into the uncertain cold space beyond. When I did, light appeared from nowhere to show me a small room with my little house at one end, another bench with a strange angled polished table at the other end. I moved to the bench, sat. There was a jeweled crown resting atop the strange angled table, which lit before me with lights akin to those on the Anchor but much brighter. A picture formed. A person shape appeared, a small crown before it. The person shape reached out and placed the crown on its head.
I didn't hesitate. I reached out, took the crown, and slid it atop my own skull.
there was a vast moment of nothing
and then, some ineffable time later, I took the scanner tiara back off and put it back atop the eduterminal. I had fouled myself, having sat there for some unknown time, but I didn't care. I looked around myself at the small maintenance chamber of the Head End Station and cried, cried for my world and my family and my people, and for the years of ignorance. I cried for the holynauts and their deaths. I cried for my father, hardened by years of labor in marginal agriculture when above us all...
Then I stood up and moved out to the main concourse of the Station, looking for an observation window, the better to see the world below.
* * *
Ten days later, the computer and I were well accustomed to each other. It could speak to me without the tiara, having cracked the degenerate dialect I spoke, and I could read the limitless information it contained about the universe. Stars, planets, worlds, ships, stations.
The Ladder was just that, a Ladder - but a ladder for machines, machines like the one I had managed to find my way inside. The maintenance car that kept the Ladder clear of obstructions, and swooped down as the first and last God the holynauts who had survived as far as I ever saw.
The computer had tried to dissuade me from returning to the surface. It reminded me that it had placed the ansible call as soon as I had put on the tiara; vast machineries were in motion out there across the distances, a year and more in duration, but inevitable. The war thousands of years ago had left my ancestors, religious warriors, pushed back to this their last colony; the other two factions had forced them down the Ladder, dropped atomics and driven mass from orbit to keep them away from the Ladder for at least a generation. In order to reach space, their birthright, they (we) would be forced, it was reasoned, to develop science, to climb the unexplainable but eternal Ladder. When they reached the top, the computer patiently waiting for them would send the ansible call, and the other two factions would come to investigate and determine if we were rational enough to claim our birthright back.
But I'd made it before that happened.
They hadn't figured on this. But the ansible call had gone out anyway. I knew, from what I'd learned, that the Church of the Risen was no improvement over what had gotten us banished here. I knew the smart course of action was to wait the year or more until the ambassadors arrived, explain the situation, and hope they took me with them.
But down there was my home.
I forced the computer to acquiesce. As I stood there, agrav belt around me and pressure suit sealed, I thought about what would happen to the next person to climb the Ladder.
I realized who it would be.
I took a stylus and left them a Sign.
Then I stepped into the small grapplock, cycled out into death pressure, and stepped off the top of the Ladder, falling back to the world of my birth.
* * *
When I was near the bottom of the superconducting strand, where I'd left the thongs so long before, I told the miniature mind in the belt to land me at the base of the Ladder and then to destroy itself. It affirmed, too small and stupid to care. I floated down through the clouds, and as I came within sight of the surface, I turned on the miniature floodlights mounted to the underside of my belt. I could see the laserlume spots wobbling about the Anchor; I could see the enormous patterns of color that were the Anchor displaying its stress patterns gliding beneath me. Then I saw people, running about; then more of them.
By the time I was a hundred meters up, a crowd larger than that for my departure had gathered. A small group of priests waited in a cleared area, and even from this high, they looked nervous. I smiled to myself and told the belt to drop me near them. It did so. I unhooked it and threw it into the air, not watching to see the hissing crack of molten metal and fiber as it dumped its charge units, slagging itself. I kicked off the pressure suit, walking away from it and hearing the hiss of its self destruct even over the screams of the crowd. I walked to the group of priests clad in the warmwrap I'd started my climb in.
The deacon who had spoken with me stepped forward. He was sweating. "Welcome home, my son."
I bowed my head. "Hello, Father."
"Shall we talk inside?"
"That would be fine." I let them lead me along a suddenly-clear path through the gathering silence to the same sitting room I'd met him in before.
As I entered the building, I stopped and looked back.
As I expected, my brother's face was grinning at me from the crowd. I looked back at him, nodded. He nodded back, confused.
Then I went inside to my death.
They tried for days to understand what I had to tell them. About the exile. About the ambassadors. Without the concepts I had learned from the computer, the most I could make them understand was that the Gods were coming to judge them, and that the Gods held little truck with the Church.
They weren't pleased.
As they staked me out in the chambers, preparing to put me to torture until I recanted my heresy, I smiled to myself. Even now, the Churchmen had said, they were preparing to meet their Gods; preparing to resist these strange lesser Gods if they descended and disapproved. I had no illusions what would happen; I could see, in my inner imagination, the ballistas and swords against C-beams and slugthrowers, the brass shields against power armor.
I lay back and laughed as they heated the irons. It unnerved them. But I knew what would happen. I knew that I'd saved them.
I saw, in that same inner eye, my brother climbing. I saw him meeting the maintenance capsule, which I had programmed to recognize him. And I saw him finding the sign I'd left in Maintenance 1.
REMEMBER YOUR BROTHER.