Ready, fire, aim
Apparent-crew members flit about and bark instructions at each other. Vendors ply the crowd with all manner of overpriced refreshments. I’m pretty sure that I saw someone hawking some kind of “commemorative engraving”.
The vooranders grow feisty. We’ve been marching them too long under Syrus's brutal rays. Their armored skin is hot to the touch. They clack their great beaks as a telltale signal of hunger. Or thirst. Or fatigue. (Or all of the above.) But Iyris was adamant about finishing the trek today. If we get to market by sundown, we can be back on the plains by tomorrow morning. So she’s particularly annoyed when we come to realize that the city gates are blocked.
An entirely unexpected crowd – a strangely festive crowd – bars the road and jostles for space in the modest clearing. I can see the gates just beyond the spectators. Behind those gates, the epic spire of the Children's Temple rises over the city walls. Its glistening surface scatters Syrus's glory across the landscape. But it’s apparent that the gates are not immediately accessible.
Positioned directly in front of them, there sits some kind of massive wooden machine, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. It’s all ropes. And wheels. And levers. And some sort of pulley-type mechanism. A gaggle of men labor furiously over its workings and the lever arm seems, ever-so-slowly, to be moving. I don’t know what to make of it, but the assembled townsfolk are equal parts joyous and awed, and a furtive buzz permeates the atmosphere. Normally, our vooranders draw plenty of attention from any cautious passersby who aren’t inclined to be trampled. But the present assembly barely seems to notice us at all.
I flash Iyris the “What now?” look. But it’s clear that she’s still sizing up the situation. We may have stood there for some time if she hadn’t noticed one of the regular gate guards milling amongst the crowd.
Iyris: You there – what’s the meaning of this?
The guard is somewhat stunned by the question and takes a moment to formulate a proper response.
Guard: What are you doing here? There’s no traffic today.
Iyris: Huh?? On what grounds? This is no holiday.
Guard: It’s better than a holiday. Today, we hail the Absents.
She looks at me as though I can offer any semblance of an answer. My knotted face makes it clear that I’m as confused as she is. She turns back to continue questioning the guard – but he’s gone. Consumed by the shifting crowd.
She spends a long moment surveying the rest of the attendees. I wonder if she'll make the call to simply turn back – although that would be a thoroughly unpleasant experience, what with two irritated vooranders and no easy access to food or water outside the city gates. I indulge in a daydream of just letting the beasts trample their way through the crowd, stomping those meaty roadblocks into a pulp. We’d be hung for it, but I’d be smirking all the way to the gallows. Before I can share my morbid fantasies with Iyris, she snaps me from my daze with a random interjection.
This catches the attention of a sweaty little urchin of a man, wrapped in too many robes, and scurrying through the attendees like a rodent collecting crumbs at a banquet. He halts and gazes at us for a moment. At first, his focus is arrested by the clacking, fidgeting vooranders looming over our shoulders. But when he finally lays eyes upon Iyris, his face opens in a wide grin that betrays an appalling lack of teeth.
Vardis: Iyris? Is that you?
Iyris: It is.
He moves forward as if to extend pleasantries, but she has no interest in formal greetings. She points out the lustrous spire shining from behind the city walls.
Iyris: Shouldn’t you be in that temple? Praying to your non-god, or something like that?
Her little jab affects him not. He just grins and nods.
Vardis: There are plenty of days to kneel before the Mother. But I’ve been on a bit of a... special project.
Iyris: This... event. That... machine. You have some part in this?
He smiles and nods until I fear that his bulbous little head will fly right off his shoulders.
Vardis: I built that!
She says nothing, but flashes him a look of stern skepticism. Her nonverbal admonishment immediately puts him on the defensive.
Vardis: Well... ok. I didn’t personally build it. I had a team. But they followed my plans.
Iyris: Plans for what? What is this madness?
She motions to the general mayhem and he follows her gesture across the crowd. When he turns back to respond, he sounds as though the answer is plain and obvious.
Vardis: We’re hailing Absentia. Of course.
From our perspective, there is no “of course” in the situation. But she’s not one to dawdle over botched explanations. Instead, she motions to his giant machine, stationed before the gates.
Iyris: Is that... a catapult??
This brings a new, broader smile to his face. It’s the same smile I receive from old women when I’m foolish enough to ask them about their grandkids.
Vardis: Oh no. No-no-no. It’s not a catapult. It’s something far better.
When he says “better”, a gleam arises in his eye. I imagine it's the same gleam that arose the first time someone realized there are recipes that combine sweet and savory into one glorious dish. Iyris squints at the machine for a moment under the brutal glare of Syrus.
Iyris: Well, it’s no normal catapult. I’ll give you that.
Her misunderstanding drives him to frenzied annoyance.
Vardis: No-no-no! That’s no weapon! That’s a communication device!
Iyris: Communication? With whom??
He says nothing but cheekily motions his sweaty noggin toward the sky. She looks up and gamely scans the heavens for nearly half a minute before abandoning the fruitless search.
Iyris: I give up. You’re communicating with... the birds? The clouds?
He stomps his feet in frustration. This is the first time I’ve ever witnessed such a gesture from anyone older than five.
She squints and scans the sky anew. At this point, I’m fairly certain that she’s purposely needling him.
Iyris: And where are these “Absents”? I don’t see them anywhere. Are they behind the clouds?
Vardis: Oh, c’mon! They’re, you know... up there.
Iyris: Hmm... I’ll have to take your word for it. But that machine of yours, it’s gonna talk to them??
Vardis: Yes! Well... no. I mean, it’s not like there will be any two-way communication.
Iyris: What will there be?
Vardis: We’re going to send them a message! We’re gonna shoot it straight up to Absentia!
Iyris: You mean, like on a catapult?
Vardis: No! It’s not a catapult! I call it...
He winds up. His pent-up excitement is tangible. This is going to be big.
Vardis: The... Ascension! Extension!
I think he expects us to clap. Or cheer. Or… something.
Iyris: Umm... ok.
Vardis: That little baby right there is gonna send our message right up to the Absents!
Iyris: And you decided to conduct this experiment here? Right in front of the city gates?
Her question yanks him back to humility.
Vardis: Well, you see... what happened was... we had to construct this in the Stonwold. And I didn’t realize when we were assembling it that it wouldn’t quite fit through the gates.
Iyris: Ahhh… I’m sure it was just a minor miscalculation.
Iyris: And when you shoot this thing–
Vardis: Communication! It’s a communication device!
Iyris: Whatever. When you launch your... communication, it will go clear up to... Absentia??
She resumes scanning the sky.
Iyris: And where exactly is Absentia?
Vardis: Huh? What do you mean? You know! It’s... up there.
He waves an arm over his head with an exaggerated flourish, as though the gesture completely answers her question.
Iyris: Yes, I gathered as much. But where do you plan to aim that “Ascension Extension” thing of yours?
Vardis: Toward Absentia, of course!
Iyris: Ohhh… kay. Care to elaborate? Are you gonna aim that payload along any particular azimuth? Is there a specific launch trajectory in mind?
Vardis: Look, you don’t realize the power we can harness with the Ascension Extension.
Iyris: Mmmhmm. And how far “up there” do you presume Absentia to be?
He’s flustered and more than a little annoyed with her questioning, but he still tries to satisfy her curiosity.
Vardis: I don’t know exactly. It’s, like, waaay up there.
She locks her gaze on the Sisters – shining, as always, from their static position in the northern sky.
Vardis: I... Well, I guess so... Sure.
Iyris: And how high do you think the Sisters are?
Vardis: Oh, gosh... I dunno. They’re at least a few kilometers up in the sky.
Iyris: And this “Absentia”, that you can't see. That no one has ever seen. You’re sure that it’s just a little higher than the Sisters? And you’re sure that the Sisters are just a few kilometers in the sky? And your Ascension thingy is capable of shooting–
Iyris: Whatever. It can shoot something that high into the atmosphere?
This pretty much ends Vardis’s patience. He’s sweating profusely and I realize that it’s not just the result of his prodigious robes in this oppressive heat. His dark skin betrays the scarlet undertones of rising exasperation.
Vardis: Look! I wouldn’t expect you to understand any of this! This is some complex engineering here! There’s a reason why I was chosen for the klyster and you’re still a bleedblade harvester. Don’t blame me if you can’t grasp the advanced maths that are involved here! It’s highly technical!
She flashes me a wry smile and places a hand on his shoulder – a gesture that makes him quite uncomfortable. Then she points to the “Ascension Extension” before continuing.
Iyris: You’ve built a wheeled, wooden platform, holding a pyramidal base that supports a fulcrum with a massive, offset lever. From the shorter end of that lever, you’ve connected a huge mass, and your men are in the process of winching it upward as we speak. At the longer end of the lever, you’ve attached a much smaller box that presumably contains your "messages". When you release the winch, the huge mass will swing downward, spinning the smaller box with extreme centrifugal force in the opposite direction, which will ultimately launch it, with great velocity, toward a chosen target.
Me: Sounds kinda like... a catapult.
Vardis has nothing to say. She allows her words to slowly seep into his doughy cranium before continuing.
Iyris: Did I miss anything?
Vardis: Well... no. I mean, yeah. We spent a great deal of time lacquering the whole thing.
Iyris: Ahh, of course. My uneducated eye can’t be expected to comprehend those kinds of critical details. And an engineer like yourself has no doubt invested great effort into testing and targeting said device?
This actually cheers him up to some degree.
Vardis: Of course! We have a complete scale rig where we tested all the principles beforehand!
He eagerly points to some table that’s set up on the other side of the crowd, nearer the gates. It’s hard to tell exactly from this distance, but it looks as though there’s a scale model – no more than a meter tall – sitting on a table.
Iyris: And every test of this “system” was done... with that model? The model that’s sitting on that table?
He nods vigorously in a way that conveys terrific pride and confidence in his process. Iyris raises her palms skyward and smiles broadly at me. It’s clear that she is struggling to avoid laughing.
Iyris: Well then... what could possibly go wrong?
The three of us fall into an entirely awkward silence. The environment around us is anything but quiet. Spectators are laughing and gossiping and they wait in anxious anticipation. Vardis shoots nervous glances toward the men preparing the “Ascension Extension”, but his feet are oddly glued to the ground. I think he's afraid to go near it. Apparent-crew members flit about and bark instructions at each other. Vendors ply the crowd with all manner of overpriced refreshments. I’m pretty sure that I saw someone hawking some kind of “commemorative engraving”.
For the first time, I also notice that there are people on the city walls. Dignitaries. Elders. Local celebrities - wearing expensive finery that is altogether impractical for the weather in which we are all waiting. It’s hard to tell from this distance, but I’m almost certain that there are also anxious spectators stationed beyond the walls, crowded onto the open balconies that circle the Children of Tallon's glorious spire.
Iyris: So… what do you think–
Mercifully, Iyris never gets the chance to finish her sentence. Something on the behemoth device loudly clicks into place. The audible signal is not lost on the crowd, and a new murmur starts to rise. Before Vardis can hear any more of Iyris’s inquiry, assistants excitedly call for him. I realize from his demeanor that his adrenaline has suddenly spiked.
Vardis: Listen, I, uhhh–
Iyris: Don’t worry about us. Go! You have Absents to talk to!
He is not fazed by her sarcasm and gratefully scurries away. Iyris’s unspoken tension hangs heavy between us and I know some kind of instruction is forthcoming.
Iyris: Move the vooranders back.
I look back to our restless beasts, but they are not my concern. The clearing is ringed by giant outcrops of impenetrable tassleroot. The road behind us has become clogged with additional celebrants, anxious to witness the proceedings. (Or with rubes like us who foolishly thought they could get through the city gates – the difference matters not.) The road forward is obviously barred by the congestion at the gates. We are hemmed in, and we’re shepherding creatures that dwarf the careless pedestrians in our vicinity. Iyris is not blind to my concerns, but her words are not comforting. They are firm and commanding.
Iyris: I don’t care how you have to maneuver them, but get them out of the direct line of that infernal engine.
Her tone leaves no room for debate and I begin the awkward task of repositioning the vooranders. As I do, it becomes apparent that Vardis has worked himself into a position onto the base of the huge contraption. This gives him a makeshift stage. A relative silence falls over the crowd and I can hear Vardis belting a grand, prepared speech as I continue trying to push, pull, shove, guide, trick, plot, and scheme the vooranders into a better position.
Vardis: Ladies! And gentlemen! (And Roddick.) We are here today to witness a grand occasion. The most momentous event in all of casterway history. Who amongst us hasn’t wondered: Why are we here? Why are we on this planet in the first place? Why have the Absents sentenced us to Excilior? And every time we’ve pondered that question, there is only… silence. But today, that silence will be broken! No longer must we endlessly ponder what the Absents might say to us, if only they could hear our cries. No longer must we remain estranged from our forefathers. For today, they will hear our voice! And once they realize that their children have not gone silent. Once they realize that we have established societies in their name. Well… they won’t have any choice but to embrace us again! For today, they will realize that their prodigal children have truly honored the tradition from whence they came! Today, they will see our dedication and they will welcome us back into the fold!!!
Vardis’s words have truly whipped the attendees into a furor of backslapping and nervous joy. I am ever-so-grateful that he can be a demonstrative blowhard when it suits him. His bloviating speech, punctuated with all of the expected pauses, cheers, murmurs, and applause, has indeed given me enough time to work the livestock into a slightly-more-advantageous position. From the look on Iyris’s face, I can see that she is satisfied as well, and I settle in between our beasts to bide our time and witness the rest of the proceedings.
A large mallet is produced and handed to Vardis. By large, I mean, it is Vardis-size. It’s ridiculously huge. I have no idea how he could even expect to swing it. But when he hoists it above his head, I realize that it must be far lighter than it looks. With gasps and cheers, he drives the hammer down upon an unseen element at the base of the platform – presumably, some kind of locking mechanism.
And… nothing happens. The thwack of the hammer clearly indicates that his strike was true. But… nothing happens. Many of the observers don’t know how to process this failure and even from this distance it is clear that Vardis is quite embarrassed. But he’s come too far now to turn back. So he hoists the instrument again and brings it down with all the force he can muster.
And… nothing happens. A smattering of chuckles wafts over the crowd. His body language is so awkward that I almost feel bad for him. His ruby glow is apparent to anyone watching. And everyone is watching. Sensing the gravity of the moment, he works himself into a berserker mentality and he starts wailing down – over and over and over again - upon the latch pin with all of his (pitiful) might.
For the next two minutes, the crowd watches with communal embarrassment as this little sweaty man desperately tries to release the machine’s energy. On two occasions, his lieutenants step onto the platform and attempt to take up the task – but he angrily shoos them away. It’s clear that, at this point, it’s become personal.
His growing exhaustion compromises the integrity of his knees. I start to wonder whether he will simply fall off the platform before achieving his task. But just when the crowd has lost all tension, and when dismissive gossip starts flowing through the festival, the incredible happens. His hammer falls. It strikes the target true and strong. And as the Sisters are my witness, he somehow manages to spring the device.
The resulting chain of events happens with frightening brevity. There is indeed some, sizable pin that he was trying to dislodge. When it finally comes free, it rockets into the crowd and strikes an old man square in the forehead. It’s difficult to make sense of the rapid-fire events of this moment, but I’m quite certain that the old man’s head explodes. Free of restrictions, the machine’s gargantuan counterweight swoops downward and actually slams into an astonished Vardis, who is promptly launched onto the spectators like some limp, fat, ungainly water fowl that has been thoroughly tenderized in a single blow. The longer lever arm rockets forward with an angular momentum that I could not possibly have predicted. The force is so thorough that a thick whoosh fills the atmosphere and a shock wave of compressed air rushes over everyone. When the lever arm completes its arc, the Absents' message is indeed launched, with frightening force, high into the air. But I don’t believe they will be reading the message any time soon.
Once the bulky box achieves flight, a collective whoa floats through the crowd. Everyone tries, in their own mind, to complete the eventual arc of the hopeful projectile. They stare high into the afternoon sky. Some gaze toward the Sisters. Others look expectantly at indeterminate points on the horizon. But no one’s sight is trained on the box’s true destination. This is evident by the momentary looks of confusion as most observers lose the flight path and try to determine where it ended up. But their confusion is soon relieved.
While most of them continue staring upward at the sky, a distant crash is heard as the heavy box of messages sails over the city walls and slams directly into the Children's pristine spire. Some spectators, still gazing at the sky, may have missed this fact were it not for the distant screams of those who had crowded onto the spire’s balconies. When most people finally realize what has happened, they look down just in time to see hefty chunks of the regal tower crumbling before their very eyes. Flailing bodies spiral from great heights. Dislodged sculptures crash into other statuary as they smash their way toward the ground. Before the kinetic catastrophe fully dissipates, at least a quarter of the spire lies in ruin at the base of the temple, interspersed with the shattered bodies of those who fell from the ruined balconies.
A sickly pall grips the crowd. The winds cease to blow. The vooranders stop clacking. No one makes a single sound. I hear my own heart thumping in my chest. I’m overcome by the sound of blood coursing through my ears. No one moves. Everyone is utterly frozen.
We may all have stood, motionless, in this state, for hours. But after the passage of several minutes, smoke starts rising from the center of the decimated spire. Less than a minute after that, open flames are seen, even from this distance, hungrily lapping up the sides of the remaining structure. A sickening chorus of screams and cries emanates from inside the city gates.
The next twenty minutes are pure bedlam. Once the spell is broken, the previously-jolly revelers give in to a full-blown, animalistic panic. Desperate cries from inside the city are met with the anxious screams of those who were assembled outside the gates. A human stampede ensues. The demon machine is swarmed, moved, and dismantled with reckless abandon. Several of Vardis’s assistants are viciously attacked. The gates are expeditiously cleared. The desperate crowd rushes into the city to save their landmarks and rescue their loved ones.
In a half hour, the entire clearing outside the gates is populated by no one other than Iyris, the vooranders, and me. I’m numb. Barely able to move. Entirely incapable of properly processing what I’ve just witnessed. Even the animals are strangely still. But Iyris strolls up to me with an oddly matter-of-fact expression.
Iyris: C’mon. Let’s go.
Me: But… where are we going?
Iyris nods toward the open gates.
Iyris: Where else would be go? I was afraid we wouldn’t make it to the marketplace before nightfall.
Me: And… and now??
She pauses to survey the detritus strewn around us. A half dozen unfortunate souls lay face down, lifeless, pounded deep into the soil. Random bits of the Ascension Extension are scattered about the clearing. Empty containers of vintage are spilled at uneven intervals. If I didn't know a tragedy had occurred, I'd almost believe we were witnessing the aftermath of a raucous celebration.
Iyris: And now I’m not worried about that anymore.