Escape from Bellerephon
The gods plan, Simon laughs.
—The Book of M
The desperate cry of a small voice woke Vilb from a terrible dream. In his dream Vilb stands on a vast, scorched plain at the heart of Little Earth while a fierce, contending wind blasts his body with sand and whips his srapi about his legs. In the distance he can make out the dark, jagged line of the foothills of Archer’s Slag. Even at this distance the wind carries the fulsome stench of the Slag to his nostrils and he chokes and gags. He tries to turn away but he can’t move.
A great roar of wind fills his ears. To the north and almost lost in the low light appears the silhouette of San Simon, the Citadel, the house of the gods of Little Earth. The dust and shadow shrouding the great dome of the Citadel clears for a moment to reveal the perfect line of the City’s great black wall and the structures rising beyond it, columned and crenellated and bathed in the cold emerald glow of the Arclight. From the dome’s peak the emerald beam of the Arclight illuminates the pressing clouds as if holding an attacker at bay. The wind intensifies, but undaunted the Arclight pierces the low- hanging darkness and shoots an emerald spire of light into the overhanging swirling storm. The storm threatens to devour everything into its vortex.
Suddenly the Arclight blazes furiously and winks out in a pall of dust and unexpected gloom. In the next moment the storm holds its breath and the earth shudders beneath his feet and all is silent. Vilb can feel that a great hammer is about to fall. The sky itself seems to press him into the earth. And then the dark gives way to light as a rending flash of violet dazes him and drops him to his knees. The air shimmers and crackles as though it were about to burst into flame.
Just then the storm exhales and a roar of wind and a great cyclone of dust and detritus spin around him and lift him to his feet. He stands at the center of the storm, his toes barely touching the ground. He’s quite calm in his dream, as if he’s seen all of this before, as if he knows how it all will end. He looks up into the sky. He watches as a tangle of violet lightning illuminates the clouds above and begins to weave itself into a thick, writhing band of purple fire. Vilb cannot move. He stands there subject to the storm all about him, powerless to move as the lightning stabs deep into the earth at the foot of Archer’s Slag. A second band of purple fire reaches down from the clouds and drills into the side of the mountain while great masses of earth explode at the contact and move out of the way as the line of fire moves towards San Simon. For just an instant the twin tangles of violet lightning wane and dim, but only for an instant. In the next, the tangles of fire pause to link up and become an even greater band of purple fire ripping a great gash in the mountainside, then moving slowly towards the City. It rends the Slag foothills with a steady, pulverizing rhythm and the fouled earth at the base of the mountain explodes where the fire burrows in. From the mountain a fulsome torrent bleeds down into the plain from the great black wound.
Then another writhing line of fire falls from the sky and pulverizes Archer’s Slag near the northern wastes and the sky is lit up and the wind whips fiercely. The earth shudders. Vilb shields his eyes from the dust and debris blowing all about him. A ball of violet fire gathers itself over the Citadel and lets fall yet another writhing cord of lightning, but this time directly down on the dome itself, and Vilb thinks surely San Simon will be destroyed to its foundation. But even as the violet lightning strikes against the dome, an emerald shield blazes forth and protects the Great City from the attack. And as if in answer, a dozen streaks of emerald rise from the Citadel, scream across the sky, and rend the storm clouds in their passing. The violet lightning winks out even as the storm drops Vilb to his feet.
The earth shudders beneath him.
From the smoking ruin of Archer’s Slag a colossal figure rises slowly to its feet and carries the mountain range up into its great, roiling body. The colossus turns towards Vilb and in the next moment two massive hands reach for him, but slowly, so slowly, as if time has slowed and threatens to stop altogether. Vilb can only watch, and he studies the figure’s hands as they reach for him, and in that instant he feels as if he has all the time in the world before the colossal hands reach him and… and what?
But before he can contemplate his fate the colossus stands above him and the hands reach down, and he can see the figure now. There is no skin, only the roiling surface like rushing rivers of rock and boulder, of earth and blackened sludge, all of it bound together as if commanded to form the colossus. The sky above is blocked by the figure looming over him. Vilb stares; he is mesmerized by the coursing currents that make up the figure’s body. Here and there the currents turn in on themselves as if bound in a great knot, but then they burst out again and flow from elbow to shoulder in an unbroken line, only to then split into competing tributaries flowing to the knots that make up the shoulder. The sound of the figure deafens Vilb as the churning, roiling body fills his field of vision. He knows that the rivers of sludge that make up the great figure all finally flow to a dark center of filth circulating slowly in the heart of its chest.
In his dream Vilb’s body becomes burnished bronze and his hands glow red-hot. He is no longer looking up at the looming figure, but now is face-to-face with the colossus and he watches himself as he reaches towards the dark figure and grips the neck of his enemy with two bronzed hands. The filth runs down his arms and onto his neck and chest, and everywhere it touches his body, it burns and raises boils and opens sores. His enemy struggles and tries to pull away but Vilb does not let go. He feels his enemy’s hands around his own throat. Together they stand there in murderous competition and Vilb feels as if his enemy will soon be vanquished, but even then Vilb gasps for air and begins to lose consciousness. He tries to twist away but he cannot escape. Before any outcome can be decided Vilb hears the desperate cry of a small voice from behind him, and with a burst of strength that surprises even him, he wrenches his head to look behind and see who called. But as he did all went dark.
Vilb blinked. He was not sure if he was still dreaming and so he waited to feel the crush of two great hands wrapped around his neck, but all he could feel was a desperate need to breathe, and even then he snorted with a desperate, guttural intake of breath that shook him so much, he knew he was awake. His heart was pounding and he could feel a cold sweat on his skin. He took in another desperate breath and let out a sob, for his waking hours were anguish. But there it was again, a sound, a voice, far off.
Had he heard it? Or was it a part of his dream? The thought of having heard someone calling sent a painful stab of hope through him. He quieted his breathing as best he could and tried to listen. In the silence of his waiting he heard it again: a small voice calling to him as if from the back of his own brain. The voice grew louder and as it did it grew more insistent, and the darkness around Vilb gave way to light and he knew then that this was no dream.
Vilb’s waking hours were silence and darkness, filled with waiting and the hopeless despair of knowing there was nothing to wait for. How long had he been thus imprisoned? For every moment when he could surely bear no more or else cease to exist, he did bear more, and he went on existing, hopelessly aware of his situation and powerless to change it.
But now, something had changed; had someone entered his prison?
And there it was again: a small, distant voice crying out to the hopeless fool at the bottom of a dark, dry well. “Wake up!” it called. “Wake up!” Louder now, the voice commanded him to wake up. But he was awake, wasn’t he?
I’m awake, he thought desperately. I’m awake!
But the voice went on crying out. “Wake up you fool!” it cried, closer now.
Just then he felt a stabbing pain between his shoulder blades that ran up into the base of his skull. He had forgotten the exquisite discomfort of physical pain, and he welcomed it even as he shuddered from the feeling. His eyes were closed, but still a light filled his brain, and he squeezed his face shut to no avail. He shook spasmodically for a few moments and felt himself gasping for breath, the intensity of his pain turning his stomach over. In the next moment his head began to throb and he wretched and moaned.
He remembered. Martha had taken him prisoner, and Azo had helped her, and together they had put him here. Wherever here was.
He heard the voice again, closer now, urging him on. Just sit up. Just start with that, he thought. Yes, and then he might open his mouth—even now—and call back to the voice, tell it to wait, that he’d been lying here for sometime and it might take a moment or two for him to get his strength back. Just hold on. Don’t leave me alone again. He tried to sit up but could hardly manage to lift his head. He groaned and the sound of his voice surprised him even as it thrilled him a little bit.
“Shh. Just try and open your eyes,” said the voice, closer now, and he could feel a small hand on his shoulder tapping him there steadily and a warmth flowed into him.
It took another long struggle before he could pull his rheumy eyelids apart. He had to blink hard against what seemed to be the high sun poised over-head, and he couldn’t see through the glare. It was an effort to raise one of his hands to shield his face from the intense light… surely not sunlight. It couldn’t be. He had a distinct memory of sundown and the long night falling… some time ago. But when was that?
He groaned trying to take a deep breath and felt his rib cage creak with the effort. Whatever he lay on was cold under him, and he felt a chill and began to shake uncontrollably, so much so that he feared he might shake himself apart.
“Good. Yes, that’s good,” said the voice and it sounded as if it was above him, full in his ears and strangely familiar. He felt two hands take his head on either side and lift it gently. Fingers searched the back of his skull and pressed the boney protuberances behind his ears sending a shock of pain through him. His eyes rolled sharply back in his head and he felt the floor pitch hard, as if trying to tip him into an unseen abyss. He felt sick to his stomach and could only curl up against the vertigo. He wretched several times and shivered and shook until he thought surely he would die, but finally the spasms subsided and his head began to clear. A gentle hand patted his cheek.
“I know. Don’t worry. When you can stand you will feel better!” He felt a hand now under his shoulder and another on the top of his head, and in the next moment a jolt shot between those two small hands and passed through him. It left his toes and fingers tingling. “There now, that might hurt a bit. There now. I am sorry.” The hands pushed again and sent another jolt through him. “Really I am sorry, but we have to hurry. We have to get you out of here now. Can you sit up?”
A hand lifted his head and helped him to sit up. He still had to squint against the light, but his eyes had adjusted enough so that he could just make out the silhouette of the figure standing before him. Vilb’s mouth was parched and his tongue was thick with thirst. He struggled to manage even a rasping voice.
“It’s you,” he said. He blinked hard now and squinted to be sure, but he knew beyond knowledge that it was her, it was Prav. She had come to rescue him.
“Drink this,” she said and she pushed a vial to his lips. A thick, warm liquid filled his mouth and he swallowed hard against the bitterness and gagged. “Now this,” and the familiar spigot of a water skin passed between his lips and cool water gushed into his mouth and washed the burning down his throat. His stomach lurched and he pushed her hand away but the girl persisted. “Drink. Drink. Drink. You must drink. You are very thirsty.”
“Enough, enough,” Vilb croaked. He pushed the spigot away weakly and stared at the girl. Was it really Prav? She released him and he lay back down. His head throbbed and he had to close his eyes again to steel himself against the storm suddenly afire in his head.
“Give it a moment. I know it is not altogether pleasant.” The girl patted him on the shoulder gently with one hand and he could feel her stroking his brow gently with the other. He felt a fire burning in his brain and Vilb gasped deeply for air. He arched his back as the warming fire coursed down his spine and through his body. From the corner of his eye he could see a hint of a smile turning up one side of the girl’s mouth. It was Prav, it had to be, yet he wasn’t sure. She patted him again. “Qir mixed the elixir for Martha—he used to send it to her when he needed a favor. It kept her going. She was grateful. At least she used to be.” Prav eyed him and he thought she looked worried. “You still look terrible though,” she said. She looked at the silver vial with doubt and sniffed the contents. “You feeling any better yet? We have a long trip.
And we have got to go…” she nodded uncertainly, “well… now.”
The spasms caused by the elixir passed and left Vilb limp and shaking, but he wanted to go, to get out of there. He rolled over and raised himself slowly to his hands and knees though the effort left him panting. He lifted his head and looked up into the girl’s full, round face.
“Prav,” he whispered.
His eyes watered in spite of everything. Seeing her again touched him and he felt a wave of love and a surge of shame come over him all at once. She represented his folly, his naiveté and his ignorance, yet Prav touched his innocence and his longing as well, and he felt shattered into a thousand parts, overwhelmed with a pitiful longing to love and protect this small creature. And yet at the same time, as broken and miserable as he felt, a part of him wanted nothing to do with this Prav, for was she not the harbinger of his doom? Had she not inaugurated the pilgrimage that would bring back to Vilb the terrible story of his life… his… lives? And to what end? What did knowing the truth about himself amount to, if he indeed knew the truth? And in the end, did it even matter?
This volume II is part of the 2050: A Future History series, which is a vision of the post-human world 2000 years from now, about 2050 “after Simon” as the locals say. Their history is our future. The overarching narrative is a meditation on knowing. It is also a projection about where things are headed from here, given our obsessions with AI, cloning, and life extension, infinite power, and so on.
Joseph Zornado is a professor of English and director of the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning at Rhode Island College in Providence, Rhode Island. His three-volume 2050: A Future History is made up of Gods of Little Earth, The Power at the Bottom of the World, and The Keys to the Kingdom. All three are published by Merry Blacksmith Press. Joseph Zornado is also the author of Inventing the Child (Garland 2000/Routledge 2006).