There is almost always wind 600 feet off the ground.
Yamoc liked the wind. It made working on the Wall bearable even in the heat of a summer afternoon. Yamoc sat in his sling, its hooks locked into place in the Wall's intricate carvings, and patiently daubed a mixture of glue and powdered red sandstone marble onto a place where a bit of carving had cracked off. Rain and wind had worked on the Wall for thousands of years. Breaks happened every night, so the Repairmen always had work.
Hentu, the Repairman from the next section, moved toward Yamoc from the right. Yamoc paused a moment, stretching his arms and legs, to watch. Hentu stood on carvings and unhooked the right-side hook, moved it left, hooked it on again. Then he moved the left-side hook. That was the prescribed method. Always have at least one hook attached.
Yamoc went back to work, but as he expected, Hentu hailed him a few minutes later. "Hey! Yamoc! How the hell are you?"
"Fine!" Yamoc said.
Hentu looked much like Yamoc--well-tanned, with shoulder-length brown hair sun-bleached almost blond. Both were bare save for loincloths. Hentu was older.
"Did you see over the Wall this morning?" Hentu asked.
Yamoc frowned. He looked around for an Overseer. None was in sight. "Yes. On the way to work."
"Green as far as I could see. Beautiful. Not red or tan like everything in the city."
"You'll see it up close after you die."
"How 'bout before I die?"
Yamoc looked around again. Still no Overseer in sight to overhear. "Nobody can get out of Erranvault. Not as long as the Wall's in place."
"We could, Yamoc! We Repairmen!"
Yamoc shook his head. "The Overseers would see you and they'd shoot you. I saw that happen once, when I was just an apprentice. One Overseer fired his crossbow, and that was that. I never want to fall that far."
"Why should we be trapped like this? Are we slaves?"
Yamoc sighed and went back to his daubing.
The Wall was carved out of red sandstone marble, in one solid piece--a hollow square 600 feet tall and three miles long on each side. The city of Erranvault didn't have red sandstone marble for its base. No quarry for red sandstone marble could be seen anywhere, even from the top of the Wall. That was all the proof Erranvault's inhabitants needed that the priests were right and the Wall had been put in place by the gods to keep Erranvault safe from invasion--and to keep in those ungrateful inhabitants of Erranvault who might want to leave.
Existence is pain, taught the priests. Even the gods are cursed with the pain of existence, and the only thing which can distract them is the worship, prayer and sacrifice of the faithful. We love and worship the gods because if we don't love and worship them, they will hurt us. Power is its own justification. The gods are more powerful than we are, so we do what they say.
"I have a plan!" Hentu said. "I'm going to try to leave tonight. I'll have to kill an Overseer. Come with me!"
"I'm not interested!"
"Is that because you're afraid, or because you really like it in Erranvault?"
That was too stupid to deserve an answer. Yamoc didn't give one.
At the day's end the sky turned purple. Yamoc stopped repairs and began to work his way back up the Wall. If he had been below its midpoint he would have gone down, but up here it made more sense to go back to the top and then take a stairway within the Wall. Hentu had long since left to work on his own section.
Good luck, you brazen lunatic, Yamoc thought.
As always, an Overseer stood by each staircase with a clipboard and pen. The clipboard had a small ink bottle built into one corner, and a sheet of parchment clipped to its top.
The Overseer wore a black robe long enough to cover his feet, and a black hood protected his head from the sun. "Your name?" the Overseer asked ritually, even though he knew Yamoc.
"How many sites have you worked at today, Yamoc?"
"Seven." Besides the cracked part, there had been other, minor sites where he had noticed irregularities and corrected them.
"At how many did you complete repairs?"
"Tomorrow you will complete the seventh. You may go."
"Praise the gods." Yamoc walked past the Overseer to the stairwell.
"Hey, Yamoc!" the Overseer said.
"Have you ever thought about escaping?"
Why is everybody asking me that today? "We all have crazy thoughts from time to time. I'm not stupid enough to try anything." The Overseer's odd question emboldened him, and he asked, "Have you?"
"Frequently! I love the gods, but only because I'd be insane not to. Erranvault I rather hate."
"So what would you do if you saw... someone... try to escape?"
"I'd kill him, of course."
"Even though you sympathized?"
"I'd sympathize, but not enough to put my own neck on the block. Suppose I tried to go with him? The other Overseers would only shoot me as well. Besides..."
Yamoc waited. After a while, he asked, "Besides?"
"Besides... why should someone else get away while I have to stay here? Oh, no. I'd rather kill someone than let him get away with something like that."
"Why are you telling me all this?"
"Do I have to have a reason?"
"Well, no, but it sounds funny coming from an Overseer."
The Overseer hesitated, apparently wondering whether to say more or not. Apparently he decided not to, because the next thing he said was, "Get on down the stairs. Work's over."
"Praise the gods," Yamoc said. He went down the stairs.
As always, he was exhausted by the time he reached the ground. He waved half-heartedly at the Overseer stationed outside the stairway entrance. He stumbled home through
Erranvault's narrow streets, the slate underfoot already painfully cold. He found his room and went right to his food box before closing the door behind him. Almost out of bread.
Thank the gods eight-day's coming up. He resolved, once again, to be more careful at the marketplace and not spend a lot of money on fruit or cakes.
I wish I had a wife.
He unrolled his pallet and draped the blanket over himself. He fell asleep in minutes.
Loud banging on his door. "Open up! Open up, damn it!"
Yamoc woke up. He had been dreaming of a bright, sunny valley, where he lived with his wife. He clutched at the dream, trying to remember what she had been saying to him before he woke--it was important...
"Open the gods-damn door before we break it down!"
"I'm coming, damn it! Will you just wait half a minute?" He clutched the blanket and crumpled it into a ball, then threw it aside and rolled to hands and knees. He stood up and opened the door. An Overseer stood there, like every morning, but behind him was a second Overseer. Instead of the dawn sky it was black and raining out. "What the hell is this all about?"
"All Repairmen are summoned to the East Square for an execution."
"All right. Lemme take a piss first."
"We're late as it is."
"If you don't want me pissing in the East Square, you'll let me do it now."
"All right, but hurry, will you?"
Since it was raining, Yamoc urinated into the public gutter. After a moment the flow stopped and he shook off.
"All right, that's enough! Come on!" They took his arms.
Yamoc wrenched free. "I'm coming, damn it!"
They hurried through the winding streets.
"Damn it, now I'm completely lost," said one of them.
"Left here, then straight," said the other.
Soon they reached the East Square, an open space a hundred feet across, with torch light from all sides. A stake rose up from the raised platform at the center. Yamoc was not completely surprised to see Hentu hung from its top by a chain around his wrists. The light was bad, but the dark spots all over his body had to be bruises.
A red-robed Grand Overseer also stood on the platform.
"About time you two showed up. Is that everybody?"
"Yes," said one of the Overseers with Yamoc.
"Good. Fine. Here we go." The Grand Overseer raised his clipboard, straining to see the writing on the parchment under the translucent rain-cover of horn. "Yes. This Repairman, Hentu by name, has abused his post and the freedom of all good citizens by the most foul, bloody and unnatural murder of a good and worthy Overseer, Crannul by name, and the attempted escape of the city of Erranvault, to the dishonor of its people and the displeasure of the gods, and so on and so on, all the legal language. So I'm sure you're all ready to show your loyalty. Hurt him. Praise the gods."
One by one, each Repairmen was escorted up to the platform to deliver a kick or a blow. Hentu was long past moaning or crying out, but his slow breathing showed he still lived. Every strike brought a low grunt.
"Your turn," an Overseer told Yamoc. "You're last."
Yamoc stood there for a minute, silent. Then: "No."
"No? What do you mean, no? It's your turn! Get up there!"
"I used to know him, all right? I'm not gonna do this."
The Grand Overseer beckoned, and an Overseer took Yamoc by the arm and forced him to walk up to the platform. "What's the problem here?"
"I refuse to hit Hentu--all right?"
"All right? What do you mean, all right? What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's just... I don't know. I don't want to do it, all right? Does it matter?"
"Oh, we've got a holy man here. How utterly decent of you, not to abuse the poor prisoner. Listen, stupid." The Grand Overseer took Yamoc by the shoulder and pulled him close. "Your friend over there took a knife and sliced Crannul's throat open. That doesn't strike me as a nice way to die, nor does it strike me as especially enlightened of you not to hit someone like that. He's not a little innocent lamb who just wanted to breathe free in the pretty woods. He's a fucking knife-murderer."
"I just don't want to add to the pain, all right?"
The Grand Overseer sighed. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then rubbed a hand over his face. "Look. It's just symbolic. The man's unconscious anyway. It's just to show loyalty. I am not--I am not some kind of villain who likes to torture people, and you're not being a big brave dissenter. You're just keeping us all out here in the rain a little longer. When we're done your friend there gets the sword and it'll be all over. All right? Is that quite all right with you?"
Yamoc sighed and walked up to Hentu. He raised a hand and clenched it into a fist. Then he lowered it again. "I... I can't--"
"Oh, fuck you!" the Grand Overseer said. He raised the clipboard, but didn't bother to read from it. "Loyalty having been shown, the execution is ordered, and so on and so on blah blah blah. Go home."
The Repairmen started to file out of the Square, and Yamoc stepped down from the platform.
The Grand Overseer put a hand on his shoulder. "Not you."
"You think you can just spit in the city's face like that and get away with it? Oh, no. I'd be perfectly within my rights to have you held and order ten lashes. But I'm tired, I'm cold, I'm wet, and I just want to go home. So I'll go home."
"Well, so will I."
"No no no. I will go home. You will go on night repair duty."
"Aw, for gods's sakes!" Yamoc wailed. "I'm exhausted as it is!"
"Then this'll give you something to think about next time you try to make a fool out of a Grand Overseer in front of his men."
600 foot-high steps to the top. Yamoc tried to pace himself, but he was out of breath at the top as usual.
The Overseer escorting him didn't sound out of breath at all. "Go ahead and knock," he told Yamoc.
Yamoc raised a fist over his head and banged hard on the wooden door overhead.
The rain spattered loudly on the door, dripping past every edge. On the side with the hinges, it ran more than dripped. It gurgled loudly, going down the rain gutters, and occasional drops spilled over the gutter edges. Which explained why the last few flights of steps had been wet.
Yamoc knocked again, harder.
It took six times before the door was finally flung open. "Come on! Hurry!" called the Night Overseer.
Yamoc took a deep breath and climbed the last few steps. It was almost completely dark, but flickering bits of fire came from under glass domes scattered over the top of the Wall. "Yamoc, Repairman, punishment night duty," said the Overseer with him.
The Night Overseer gestured. "I'm not gonna write anything down. It's raining too hard. Work on whatever you want."
Yamoc was completely soaked, his long wet hair plastered to his neck and back. "I can't even see what I'm doing--if I try going over the side in this I'll fall. They didn't order me executed!"
"Never been up here at night before, have you?"
The Night Overseer went to one of the glass domes. "You set one of these near where you go down, a little over the edge. It's enough light to work by if you don't go down too far. You'll get used to it."
"I'm going home," the escort said. He started back down the stairs.
"Good for you," the Night Overseer said. He went over and heaved the door off the ground, letting it slam back into place.
Yamoc stared at the intricate lamp. There appeared to be an upper part and a lower part, but they weren't simple shapes; they folded over and under each other in complicated curves. Holes in the side admitted enough air to keep the wick burning in its little pool of oil, but none of the rain got through. "This is great," he said.
"Yeah, someone invented it," the Night Overseer said. "Natural philosophy is wonderful... Look, go do something useful."
"I have no idea where to find my site."
The Night Overseer shrugged. "Just lower yourself and look like you're working. I'm not gonna check up on you."
Yamoc nodded. "Thanks."
He counted paces east from the door, trying to remember how far over his worksite was. He squatted down, then crawled forward on hands and knees, feeling with his right hand for his sling--or anybody's sling. He touched one. Then he went to the nearest lamp, brought it back to where the sling was, and cautiously backed down over the edge of the Wall. He tried doing the usual procedure for going down--one foot at a time. Make sure of your place, then lower one edge of the sling. It was easy to do in the daytime.
It was impossible at night.
"I'm not doing this," he said.
He sat where he was, the sling at maximum height, high enough that he could lean forward and put head and arms atop the Wall. He waited for the Overseer to come and tell him to get to work, but he didn't.
A decent sort, for once. Gods bless him.
He leaned forward against the Wall, head and forearms over the top against the rough stone, rough stone against his chest and knees. Rain poured over him and pooled atop the Wall under his face and arms. Gritty rain, bearing particles of red sandstone marble dissolved off the surface of the Wall.
Yamoc shivered and wished he had a robe like an Overseer.
Thunder went off like a bomb. Yamoc jerked awake. The wind screamed around him. As he blinked and tried to orient himself it picked him up, pulled him away from the Wall, then slammed him back into it. Yamoc shrieked and grabbed at the stone before him. He didn't bother with the sling, but swung one leg up, kicked the sling away where it tried to entangle his foot, and hauled himself bodily up onto the Wall, knocking the lamp over. It went out.
An Overseer shouted something far away, but Yamoc couldn't make it out. He crawled to the center of the Wall, then turned to head toward a door.
Another bomb blast of lightning went off. For an instant Yamoc could see for miles.
"I don't like this. No good can come of this. Overseer. Overseer!"
He heard a shout. Yamoc couldn't be sure, but he thought it might have been, "Every man for himself!"
That didn't sound good either.
He passed another lamp. This time he saw an Overseer close by, going down a stairwell. Yamoc got up to a kneeling position. As he watched, the door banged closed after the Overseer.
Standard procedure--always close the door. You don't want a river of rainwater running down the stairs.
Yamoc lunged from where he was and sprawled painfully
in the shallow pool of water already covering the door. He got up and out of the water, onto the rock surface beside the door, and tried to pull it open.
It was stuck.
He went around to the side with the handle, bent down with both hands on the handle, and heaved upward as far as he could.
It didn't budge. The rainwater made a seal. There were only a few inches between the height of the closed door and the top surface of the Wall, but as he watched those inches filled up with black water. "Oh, gods!"
He tried again, lifting from the knees, putting his back into it. He strained and heaved. The door wouldn't move.
"Aaah, fuck," he said. He straightened, trying to rub his aching back, and the wind caught him and nearly made him fall.
He lowered himself again, face down on the dissolving stone.
Another sound built up under the scream of the wind--a low, bass groan Yamoc had never heard before. He had a sudden thought and put his ear to the wet stone beneath him.
Louder. Whatever it was, it was inside the Wall itself.
"Oh, gods, not while I'm on top of it!"
An enormous bolt of lightning. Yamoc looked up, horrified, to see a huge section of the Wall in the distance suddenly melt into sludge and shower down on the city beneath.
"Oh, gods, this can't be happening."
A bulge in the Wall rippled toward him.
"I don't want to die! I don't want to die! I'm sorry I bought cakes last eight-day at the market! I'm sorry I talked back to the Overseer! I'm--"
The bulge went under him, rippling him into the air and back down onto the stone, scraping face, hands, chest, legs, feet. He felt the Wall move beneath him. It swayed to one side. He didn't know if it was into the city or outside, but he knew he was doomed.
"Your will be done," he whispered.
The Wall threw him into darkness.
He came to slowly, pain everywhere. Weirdly, the pain was sharp and burning, as if from cuts rather than impact.
It was light out. The rain had stopped. A jumble of brown and green blocked his vision.
He lay face-down on a knobby, uncomfortable brown pole. Sticks stuck out from it here and there, and the sticks had thin little things like scraps of green parchment attached to them. More sticks came from all directions.
He looked ahead, at his arms. They were covered with long, thin cuts and scratches.
He tried to raise himself up and nearly fell off the brown thing; clutched it desperately until he regained his balance.
"I know what this is! This is a tree! I'm inside a tree!"
Carefully, he worked his way to a sitting position atop the branch. Every part of his body hurt.
He tried to move to a lower branch. When he extended a foot, his back hurt. When he moved an arm, his shoulder hurt.
The ground was too far down to see. Yamoc kept moving. Once he missed his footing and nearly fell. He clutched the tree in terror, shutting his eyes.
After a while he tried to move again.
It took him over an hour to get to the ground. Partly it was because he was very high up. Partly it was because he moved so slowly.
Yamoc stood at the edge of a forest. Before him, downed trees were everywhere. Past the trees lay piles of bricks and heaps of loose red sandstone marble. He saw buildings beyond the debris. Erranvault, without the Wall. He started walking toward it.
A minute later, he said, "WHAT am I DOING?"
He reversed direction, heading back into the forest. He knew what fruits looked like, and he knew--theoretically--that you could find other things to eat in a forest.
"I wonder how they make bread?"
He walked for hours.
Yamoc came to a small valley, mostly clear of trees. A group of buildings stood at the center. They were small, unlike the massive architecture of Erranvault. They had windows. Yamoc saw candlelight.
He went down among the buildings. Music came from most of them, and warmth radiated from the windows. He shivered in the night air. Somehow day had turned into night without his noticing.
A young woman's face appeared at the window. "Hey, stranger! What are you waiting out there for? Come inside! The feast just started! There's still plenty!"
Yamoc walked through the door. The room was like nothing he'd ever seen before--spacious and filled with people. White walls, brown furniture, people everywhere, in strange, rich clothing.
"What happened to you?" asked the young woman.
"I, I..." He didn't know how to put it into words.
A middle-aged man robed in brown and green came up to him. "Arla, the man's been injured. Get a bucket and washcloth. Come on, friends. Someone get the man wine and some of that cake. Sit down here, friend." He steered Yamoc to a chair and pressed on his shoulders to make him sit. The young woman came back. She began washing his arms. The cool cloth felt good.
"My name is Yamoc," he said. "I'm a Repairman. I live in Erranvault. Lived in Erranvault."
The middle-aged man had come with a skin of wine, and he held it for Yamoc to drink from. "Erranvault! The walled city!"
"You know it?"
"Of course. We trade our food for their cloth. Didn't you know where your meals were coming from?"
"From the market."
Most of the people smiled, but nobody laughed.
"How did you get out?" asked a boy.
"The Wall collapsed. I was on top, but I landed in some trees."
"You've escaped, then," said the man.
"Yes, but..." He grasped the man's arm. Startled, the man tried to pull away, but then stopped.
"When I climbed down the tree. I... I tried to go back. My first thought was to go back. Back into Erranvault."
Yamoc burst into tears. "I'm sorry..."
"Nothing to be sorry for. We all try to go back to what's familiar."
"I hate Erranvault." It felt so good to be able to say it aloud. "I hate it!"
"You're out of it."
"But at the same time I, I... I love it. The Wall was beautiful. The carvings were beautiful. That was my job--to repair the carvings. Every day. How could I love it and hate it at the same time?"
The man sighed. "There's comfort in the familiar."
"I escaped. I thought I would die, but I escaped. And why? Why me? I'm not brave, or clever. Hentu tried to get me to escape with him, but I was too afraid. I'm nobody. Why did I live? Thousands must have died when the Wall collapsed. Why would a nobody like me live?"
"Luck," said the man. "Never underestimate the power of sheer, dumb-ass luck."
x x x
Right place, right time; that seems to be the key to success. Fellow Pittsburgher Barton Paul Levenson was certainly at the right place and right time with this story. If you think so, too, tell him so on our BBS. -GM