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Meet Me at the Top


Meet Me at the Top
by Rhonda Eikam

The woman screamed until her voice shattered, but it was useless. The guards clutched her husband's arms and led him to the base of the translation tower. Sentence once passed would be immediate, if only in the eyes of those who cowered watching. Rain fell on the condemned general, wetting his torn shirt as they ripped his makeshift medals away, and his wife Fee remembered rain on his rippled back, a park where they'd made love after the storm broke, and caressed each other with mud and laughed. She had no more screams. At the turn of the key that had been entrusted to the court-martial judge, the door to the translation tower swung open and the crowd gasped, jostled, vying to get a glimpse, some scrap of enlightenment from the dark interior.

"Bastards," her torn throat croaked. No one listened. "Hypocrites."

"Would you have him executed outright like the others?" The man who whispered at Fee's side was a lieutenant, she thought she remembered, one of the many revolutionary soldiers scattered throughout the crowd. The loyal disbanded ones, come to pay tribute. She'd commanded him for a time. His words were hoarse with emotion. They all loved their general. "With the tower at least he has a chance. Colonel, I –" Fee couldn't hear him. Doors were opening and slamming in her chest because Ren had turned, found her eyes. General Ren Malabor's military stance – unerring as his sentence had been spoken – softened as he stood before the translation tower door. The rain made his brown hair black. Fee remembered the child, lithe and tawny-haired, she'd always imagined having with him, long ago, in a child's naïve age, before the thought of war was born. A guard shoved Ren. He stumbled into the tower and the judge closed the door and locked it. A key turned in her chest.

"We need to start now, Colonel, if we're going to." The man's voice beside her still probed, too deferential; it made some part of Fee not scoured with grief, her military part, wonder how he'd ever risen to lieutenant. When she turned to look at the man (down, he was such a short thing), she saw the fierce loyalty in his eyes that was a skein of blue moisture and it woke the fierceness in her. The crowd was dispersing, vengeance done. In the grass beside him, the lieutenant had two backpacks. She was so unprepared, having lived on hope that General Ren Malabor's belovedness among the people would save him at his trial.

"You're…"

"Lieutenant Guinter, sir."

Fee Malabor studied the translation tower, her head going back and back, until the red claylike bricks vanished in white cloud. At its base the tower was so large that its curvature west and east across the smokegrass plain was indiscernible; for all purposes they stood before a wall. Never narrowing as it rose, she knew, a round tube forever leaping into the sky, a thumb that was its own country, a monstrosity.

She had her pistol, and her memory of Ren turning to look for her, speaking to her with a lift of his chin, before he was shoved in.

Of course she was ready. There was nothing here to need.

The key in her chest turned again, unlocking.

"Do you know where the stairs start?" she asked the lieutenant.

"About ten miles west of here, sir."

* * *

Near the end, the revolution in its frenzy, after a decade of devouring the enemy, had chewed off its own feet, its heroes recast as murderers, the burning of a village by moral right become a depravity. General Ren Malabor had given the orders; someone must pay, and yet they could not afford to kill him openly, martyr's bones left lying to feed a counter-revolution. Translation was the answer, ascent to heaven behind those closed doors where no one could see, the slow ghosting of the soul, spiraling ever upward on the translation tower's eternal internal staircase, with one last chance at the top to return to life.

Moral back doors.

"The outside staircase is younger than the tower itself." Lieutenant Guinter tore at the clumps of rush and beaked sedge that clogged the approach to the steel stairs hugging the tower wall. Fee's practiced gaze noted matted spots in the foliage where other people had passed, if not recently. She was not the only one who loved enough to follow the dead up.

"Not a stroll in the park," she said, trying one of the rivets that anchored the stairs in the wall. They all looked rusty. She glanced at the little lieutenant. "Not a forced march." A trek far worse, beyond war and fighting. "This – is for me to do. I can go on from here, Lieutenant."

He hoisted his backpack and shrugged. "I was born footsore." It was depth in his eyes, she thought, that was it.

Up they climbed, until the struts were no longer green with moss. She ran her hand along the cold tower, always to their left, always cold. The stars came out and winked at them, amused at their endeavor. Hills came into view beyond the plain, then bits of russet forest, a mangy fur over the land. Villages were yellow-thatch bruises in the fur, scattered across the karst landscape that sagged like tired muscle. Soon the view was only a blur of mottled brown. She thought of Ren's hair. Higher yet and they saw to the south a plain of gray sand, inconceivably flat, stretching forever, blinking green as the full moon rose. "Is that the sea?" Guinter murmured. They sat to rest, ate a tiny handful from the provisions he retrieved from the packs, the bhash that had been the revolutionary army's standard since the early years, tasteless as wood but filling.

Fee rested her ear against the wall. "Are they parallel?" she asked. "Do you know?"

Lieutenant Guinter looked taken aback, silent for a moment. "It's said they are. That the outer stair was built to mimic the one inside."

"Would he have started right away?" She could see Ren circling inside the dark tower, hesitant.

A longer silence. Fee closed her eyes, listening for a sound beyond the wall, boots on stairs. "They're – compelled," the lieutenant replied. "It's said. Once they're inside." In the absolute dark, feeling his way, his sharp mind guiding him. "A – sense that they can't ignore." Groping. "That says up." Stumbling, like the lieutenant's words.

She and the lieutenant had taken half a day to round the tower and reach the bottom of the outside stairs. If Ren had taken as long to circle around on the inside, in the dark, drawn to the stairs there…. He had legs like cannon oxen, never failing, and Fee imagined his steady pace, climbing alongside Guinter and her behind that wall, growing quicker perhaps, lighter than they, as life translated away from him.

"We'll climb through the first night," she told Guinter.

The lieutenant almost smiled. "A forced march after all. Should have known. Never trust my superiors."

Never trust anyone, she wanted to say. Those you fight to free, they'll betray you, as they did my husband. Anyone can be a betrayer. Only love climbs. She wondered for the hundredth time what Guinter's reason was. No one was that loyal. Told herself to be prepared, that betrayal when it came would not wait for her to find her gun.

Up and around and around, in rain that obscured the moon and left the stairs slippery. They rested, breathed (she breathed memories of Ren, his smile, so rare, peeking out at their first encounter only when he spoke of the new world coming, later more often, at the sight of a sparrow, or a slum child playing in mud, or when they lay panting beside each other after love). The night fled past in her aching legs. By dawn they could make out a flash of fabulous spires to the north: Carendoho, it had to be, the city beyond cities, with its silver buildings shaped like claws that moved throughout the day, tracking the sun. Built, according to legend, by the same dead race that had raised the translation tower. Fee had been there once with Ren, before the battles started. Lost soon in a fog as they climbed and new rain set in. We're in a cloud, she thought. One that tasted of metal when she tried to breathe, as though the steel stairs themselves were subliming away into the air, gaseous.

Evening came as a gray tinge to the cloud they climbed through.

"A revolution takes a day," Fee said as they huddled for night. Guinter looked puzzled, then understood. He handed her the canteen and a bit of bhash. "He'll rest for the night too, surely." The revolution itself had taken years, of course, successful in the end. In the eyes of some. Those who'd wrangled positions of power. Those still alive. Fee Norentio might have been the enemy if she'd stayed in the government military school, never met the brilliant leader of the revolutionary movement Ren Malabor. Her instructors in the school had spoken of the tower, she recalled all of a sudden. She tried to remember what they'd said without having to remember the staid idealistic girl she'd been, lover of rules, enamored of a uniform. That a certain number of soldiers would desert, they'd said, especially after a battle with much carnage, that they would seek the tower in order to ascend because their souls were broken. Find a way in even without keys. A commanding officer had to keep an eye out for this, carry out exemplary executions if necessary. Even then it had seemed contradictory to her. Death as punishment for seeking death.

"Did you know," she said to Guinter, "the translation tower wasn't always a prison, with death at the end? It was once only for those who wanted to take their own life."

The steel cloud of night had gone black. Guinter's voice came out of it. "Some say the folk who built it came here from inside the moon. A storyteller I once heard said the tower walked here from another country."

"The builders wanted to go back to the moon maybe."

"Sure. Walk all the way to it." A rustle. "What my master said in school is that the builders foresaw their own extinction. They knew the end was coming for them. They needed somewhere for people to go who didn't want to live through it. A way to die without having to do violence to their bodies."

"But the door at the top? That came later?"

"I think no one knows. Only that it can't be opened from the inside. Everyone's sure about that." Another rustle and his hand brushed hers; he was handing her the end of a rope. "Tie yourself to the stairs, sir, in case you move around a lot. In sleep." He coughed. "If there's enough left of the climber when they get near the top, if the person was a strong character in life…." His thought seemed to slip off, over the railing. "Maybe the builders wanted to give people a second chance. But only if someone the dead person left behind is willing to be there and open the door for them. Then they can enter life again." Fee thought of the joke her father had loved to repeat about their town physician, a renowned quack. When you're at death's door, he'll pull you through. "If not, if the door is closed, no one there for them, or if too much of them has been taken in translation, then the dead go on up, to where the tower is open to heaven. Fly away."

It seemed a premonition. She threaded the rope about her waist and through a steel rung. Pictures floated to her: the stairs she rested on finally ending in a landing, so high that the world below her was a ball at her heels. A door like the one at ground level, almost seamless in the tower's red substance, with a simple brass handle. And a lock. The thought startled her back awake. No, never that – a lock on the outside would dash every hope, wouldn't it, the purpose of a second chance, rescue by one who loved enough to climb with the dead.

"But we all know the end is coming for us," she murmured and sensed Guinter was asleep.

Then Ren cut a door in the tower wall and came out to her. She hadn't thought her heart could hold such joy, fluttering in her chest, wanting to fly away. The tent was awash in low golden light. He could have died, they both could have, the day's battle a fierce one, its carnage exemplary, blood lakes and flesh hills, and yet here they were in the night, while others outside mopped up. He threw a map across the tent, happy, but then: "I'm going to eat nothing but bhash until this whole territory's taken." No, he'd vowed that earlier, she felt certain, and stuck to it, stubborn; it was the reason for his haggard limbs, the need to pour more burning potato-liquor down his throat every day. He still had blood on him, though he'd washed. Her hair was silty from commanding cannon movements. "You're the only good and clean thing," he tried to explain to her as their bodies came together. "Bloodless. No, that's not what I mean." They almost laughed.

"I know what you mean, Ren. I always do."

He kissed her neck, but his voice close to her ear was frightened. "Cotargnon and Bremothe betrayed me today. Turned their troops away at the moment I needed them. I'm going to have to kill them." The field cot he drew her to was comfort first, uncertainty even after five years of marriage, deference to her, then it became a battlefield, the fighting fierce, walls penetrated inside her. He was a seal rampant, the sea sign of his coastal village he'd taken for his blazon, his cock salt-slick in her. She floated on air. Her own blood came afterward, the sign, again, of no children.

She woke shivering, in a fog, little Lieutenant Guinter packing his backpack beside her in the morning light of the stairs. Is it me you're here for, she thought, would love do that? Would you stop me from bringing him back?

* * *

Up and around and around. They discovered new countries of muscles in their legs, with countless by-ways of pain. The llamino cloaks the lieutenant had packed were no armor against the cold. On the fourth day (the third, surely the third) a bramble of sticks and cattails blocked their way, covering the breadth of the stairs. A nest, a bed. She'd crawl up and lie down in the feathers that coated its center, never wake up.

"Look out!" Guinter shoved her against the wall, his knife out. A screeching feather-and-steel bundle struck him, flying in from the fog, steel claws clambering at his face. The claws flashed, a tiny Carendoho, a bird city attacking them. Guinter's knife clattered to the stairs. Fee swept it up, moved in low, cutting at the gareagle as Guinter battled it with his fists. She stabbed past the machine shell, finding its organic softness in the chinks, the armored bird-giantess's savage heart. Its beautiful blood spewed over them both, a red shock in the colorless sky world. The gareagle flapped against the wall, croaked its death song and slipped over the rail, falling forever.

Only a mother protecting her children, Fee realized when she spied the eggs in the giant nest.

Guinter caught his breath, stopped trembling, wetted his cloak from the moisture on the wall and cleaned the deep scratches on his face.

They ate the eggs raw, glad for the protein. She forgot to watch where he stored the knife.

Up and around and around.

They ceased speaking for great stretches, too tired, but it suited her. This was the world, a life: this step, then the next. For a day a chant climbed into her head from her feet, rhythmic, bring him down bring him down, until it became cruelty, a death song, as though she meant to destroy Ren when she found him, and she forced her mind to stop chanting it.

Guinter's face whenever she looked had grown stony (Bru, he told her, in the gasp between one slippery step and the next, I'm Bru). Unlovely to start with, too much nose, too little chin. The rigors of the climb had chipped away at the humor that animated the little lieutenant's features, making him a stone idol, some animal she couldn't place. A snouty fox. In the moments between pain, her mind worked on the question of what they were doing, what he was doing, and came up with no answer.

The air grew thin. They saw it in each other's pinched faces, the tremors, every step a sword blade in the lungs. They pushed on and from one moment to the next the blades were gone. Fee paused and held her face near the tower wall, where the vestige of brick warmth they'd noticed a revolution back kept water trickling down from some higher point always just out of sight, unfrozen even though snow piled up at the stair's outer edge. The lieutenant joined her.

"Air," he whispered. An invisible sheath, extending an arm's length from the wall along with the warmth.

With her ear to the wall Fee heard a scuffle, a shambling scrape of hope there on the inside. "Ren?" she cried, part of her knowing how close to insanity it was. The sound moved away. She pounded on the wall. Are you with me, Ren? "What does he eat in there?" she croaked. "What does he drink?" What does he love?

Guinter was silent.

Up and around and around.

The bundle might have been another nest, a tiny one, filthy cloth bunched against the wall. When Fee approached it she saw it heave. An ah burst from her. This was life, a small life. Sparks that had shut down in Fee's frozen brain fired again. The girl looked to be about five. When they unwrapped her she screamed, a silent scream visible only in her eyes. Her cheeks formed hollows that were almost holes. They could see the starved shape of her skull. She had white-blond hair, shot with streaks of clayey red as though it had taken on the tower's exudations.

Guinter removed his cloak and wrapped her in it. "No bhash," he murmured. "Her stomach wouldn't take it." They gave her a sip of water from the canteen. Her eyes were crusty and Fee rinsed them, wondering at the unmoving pupils, wondering if she was blind. The girl's limbs felt hard as glass, but after a moment of being massaged she began to convulse, rattling the struts they sat on, then grew still.

"What's your name?" Fee asked her.

Deaf too, but then the girl's eyes turned up, showing the whites. Fee realized it was a way for her to look up toward the tower without raising her head. "I want my mommy."

It was too much. Fee leaned her cheek against the translation tower, the execution chamber, with its one chance of pardon.

"What did your mommy do?" No answer.

They rested, huddling close, giving her their warmth, and ate their bhash, leaving a handful. Tears rolled down Fee's cheeks. Unseemly. She was a colonel. She didn't care. They both started to speak at once. "We can't – "

"We can't leave her," Fee finished for him. "I'll go first." She found a way to wedge the girl under her wrap. The warmth spreading on her back, small hands scrabbling for a hold, was like a memory from a forgotten dream. They started up.

"She killed a soldier," the girl said, a ghost voice at Fee's shoulder. "He was hurting her, in our kitchen. They put her in the tower for it. Papa was gone on one of his trips. When he came back and heard, he said we would go and get her. He was shouting. He never shouts."

Worse than cold, then: abandonment. The girl was weight, jettisoned by someone too obsessed to care about her. Fee blinked away the ice stars exploding in her vision, kept her eyes open and ahead.

In a noon so blue it was night, they came upon the waterfall.

They'd noticed the trickles growing thicker, becoming rivulets during their last circuit, but it was still a shock. They couldn't see where the water came from above. Further down it would have dissipated into the air, blown to spray as it lunged away from the wall's warmth, so that they'd seen nothing of it on their earlier revolutions: it would have been the snow falling beyond the rail. The force of the beating water had loosened rivets and a section of stair hung away from the wall at a slant, as though a railway switch had been thrown, hurtling some downward-speeding vehicle off into the nothing below.

"Thorough," Guinter slurred. She realized he'd said, "The rope." He was setting the girl down, having taken his turn to carry, reaching in his pack with sluggish movements. The cold had chipped away more of Guinter, leaving not even a fox anymore, only a slug. Fee didn't want to think about what she'd become. He took a breath and plunged outside of their air shell, leaning out over the gap to swipe with one hand at the hanging end of broken stairway. The steel was frozen black. She saw him slip, then right himself. She was too tired to feel fear for him, her body light as a leaf, or a moth's torn wing, and yet she felt fear for him. With another swipe he latched onto the stair, lined the broken sections up and tied them together with a sturdy knot. The water thrummed onto it, shaking the whole structure.

They'd been rained on in the temperate climates below, thankful for the cloaks, but llamino fur couldn't keep out a waterfall. Soaked instantly as they plunged in, blinded, Fee couldn't see Guinter's back. Under her wet cloak the girl she carried was screaming in her ear. She wanted to scream too but knew she'd drown if she opened her mouth.

Then the weight of water was gone, the waterfall behind them.

Fee heard Guinter's shout at the same time she saw the shape hurtle onto him from the step above.

The force of the two men smashed Fee against the wall. The girl cried out. The ambusher had white-blond hair and a face made insane by hunger. Like a stoat he clawed at Guinter and the lieutenant tottered, jerking both men back under the water. There was a button, her shirt pocket, an object there, but her fingers were caught in a nightmare of ice. She fumbled at the button. The father had Guinter in a chokehold. With a move born of excellent training the little lieutenant dropped to the side, spun, elbowed. She heard the ambusher's nose break even over the sound of the waterfall, his face a sudden red poppy, but he was too far into animal country for pain to stop him. They grappled again, slipped.

Then the pistol was out of her pocket and in her hand, a prayer filling her that it wasn't water-damaged. She fired.

The back of the father's head exploded. For a second he appeared to turn and peruse the tower wall, searching for someone he envisioned there on the inside, though there were no eyes in his face, only pulp. Then he fell, rolled under the rail and out into the midnight-blue sky.

She collapsed against the wall. A man leaned beside her. He was covered in blood that had diluted to pink on his drenched clothes. "What a feast we'd have made for him," the man muttered. He was studying his own skinny hand, still shaking, where it rested next to hers on the stone. "Very spare ribs." The man was funny, she remembered. His body was a comfort. For a long time they stood with their heads close, drinking the wall's warmth, until something moved on her back, a head raised at her shoulder, and a child's voice sobbed, "What happened?"

"You didn't see anything?" the man asked.

The head shook no.

"That's good."


* * *

Up and around. Sometimes she remembered who she was and why. She had a lump on her back. The lump needed water and she would hold a rag to the wall now and then and feed the lump moisture over her shoulder. Beside her, behind the wall, close but invisible, a man walked. He had a pistol. He'd chosen a firing squad for the two traitors who had been his friends, but when the time came he shot them himself before the order could be given, rushing at them with a wordless yell, a boy who has seen his beloved pet crushed, a cry so keen she felt her bones shake, as he placed the pistol against the temple of first one friend then the other. No, not just two; a whole village, burning behind the troops, a line of loyalist villagers, men and women on their knees waiting to be shot; it was autumn, a harder time. The women cuddled children, sobbed. The general assembled his firing squad, then looked at the children and said, Run. When they did, not looking back at their parents, scattering into the woods, he screamed at them, screamed at their backs, at himself, until her hand on his arm quieted him. His arm was a red wall of brick, moist. So hard. She came to herself moaning Run, run.

And almost fell as her foot came down on a flat landing.

The stairs had ended. Guinter's gasp came behind her. The landing extended a few feet ahead, to where a dark rectangle was visible in the wall to the left. Outside the air-sheath a sheen of night bristling with stars hung about them. They had risen above weather.

"Door?" Guinter croaked, speech lost for too long. "Locked?"

Locked, barred, they would have no strength to open it. She'd break it down with her body. She suddenly wanted to have hurried more, Ren might have passed already, ascended behind a door no one was there to open for him. Ren, I'm coming for you. I have stars.

They crept along the landing and stared.

A stone archway led into the interior. Open. No door. Inside, in a red glow, the landing stretched away into a vast inner platform, the top of the tower open to the black sky. Where the interior stairway ended, a figure stood.

It leaned on the final rail, head down, as though it had come to a stop there only moments before to contemplate the depths, but the hands wrapped around the rail were bones. The white of them gleamed white-hot in Fee's brain. A No like vomit rose inside her.

The girl slid off Fee's back. "Mommy."

Fee gasped, understanding. "Don't," she whispered and tried to hold her back.

At the sound of her daughter's voice the figure turned. The woman's face was beautiful, the peace revealed inside the stone once the roughness of life has been sculpted away. Angelhood, the moment of ascension. Only her hands had betrayed her, holding her down, waiting for something.

"They can walk out," Guinter murmured, thumbing the open archway, wide-eyed, "but they don't." He gestured at the skeletons that lay scattered about the inner platform.

The girl still twisted in Fee's grasp, struggling to run to her mother. The girl turned and Fee saw in her eyes all the things she knew. Knew that her father had left her to starve on the stairs, because he loved a woman more than his child. The look said she'd watched the fight, seen the thing he'd become. It said, Nothing left for me, give me this.

Fee let go.

Scampering into the red light the girl became thinner, a wraith.

"She might bring her out."

"No."

As mother and daughter fused (the mother twisting to hug her child, bone fingers clattering from the rail) they lifted toward the sky. Mists that were their skin uncoiled. Edges ran; they elongated, waxed to a single shape. They were sparks of eagerness ascending, sparking out, fires frizzling to black rims of luminescence against the open sky, then stars far up above, then nothing.

In the empty silence a boot sounded on the inner stair from below. A shadow emerged.

She was nothing but want. She wanted moments with him, sun on their tongues. Wanted him to say the crazy things that turned her soul to silken laughter. She wanted her hands in his hair, again, forever. Ren was a ghost. He saw her. She could see the tower wall through him. His eyes were the only substantial part of him. They brimmed with knowledge, two brown bags squirming with the truths about himself he'd captured on the way up. He stopped in front of her, gazing, just inside the archway, and she began to scream then, because it wasn't Ren, because her husband was dead, his sentence carried out. Because he saw her and didn't see her.

"No!"

He blinked at the sound of her, backed away toward the platform.

"Ren, come back!" Strong arms pinned her from behind. "God please – come back! You always came back to me, after every battle – "

"This is the war." A strong voice behind her said it. She fought it. In the distance Ren had begun to lift from the floor, luminous, still watching her. "Not a battle, Fee. The war, and he lost it. Everyone knew it but you. He was too changed – too sad – ever to survive his new world."

She was trained too and she spun, punching. Guinter cried out, extended a hand to her as she escaped. She lunged inside the archway and twisted to face Guinter, ignoring his outstretched hand. "Why are you here?" she screamed. The red haze seethed on her skin. Her head churned with light, changing.

"I love you." The lieutenant's voice was broken suddenly, little fox sounds. The light in her head was an explosion. "I always have, Colonel. Fee. Watching you..." His hand in the air between them trembled. "I – I didn't know if you could bring him back, what it was like at the tower's top. I only knew you had to try and that I had to go with you. I know I'm nothing." The words flailed, a whisper. "No chance with you. Just – I hoped something might change…translate on the way up. The way it does for them. That you'd see he wasn't meant to come back."

Every step he'd taken, for her alone. As every step of hers had been for Ren. Ren who was almost cloud now, still seeing her or not, sin fallen from him, lifting. Just another step away. He looked happy. She could be a spark with her dead and deadened husband, rising from a burning village.

"There's a world, still. Please, Fee." Guinter's hand stretched toward her through the light. "Come out."

The tower was shaking. It was too fast, frightening. Her lungs filled with something that wasn't air, perception bleeding red. The sky was growing larger. She didn't know what to do. She was lifting, her feet already off the floor, and she reached for the little lieutenant's hand to ground herself.

* * *

Rhonda Eikamp grew up in Texas and now lives in Germany, where she works as a translator. Stories of hers have appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Lackington's, The Journal of Unlikely Cartography and in Lightspeed's Women Destroy Science Fiction. Find more stories, some available online, at her sadly neglected blog at writinginthestrangeloop.wordpress.com.

What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?

Don't start with something others have done and hope you can change it enough to make it new – the "Elves, etc. Syndrome." Start in a place you'd like to be that you've never read about anywhere. Add real people. (They can look like elves if you want. They should act like real people). Knit it up with detail. Make it real.


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