Story 7 is one of RULES STALIN’s favourites from the frist batch of #SFSwap stories. @iucounu has taken the huge setting potential offered by @SMDeeee and run with it like a dog with a mouth crammed with sausages. There’s so much more to be explored here, and the epistolary format is perfect for the tech level in the story. Why the hell are you still reading this intro paragraph when you could be reading the story below?
STORY NUMBER: 7
PROMPT PROVIDER: @SMDeeee
PROMPT: a universe where gravity effects mean that planets can orbit close enough to each other to bridge
TITLE: Expedition Twelve
Being a True Account of the Twelfth Expedition of the Society of Practical Theology
I write this hanging from the side of the Tower, suspended in an angel-mesh hammock, a smooth canopy of dark fabric forming a cocoon around me like that of a silk-worm. Looking down, it is as if I am peering beneath a bridge in darkness at the lights of the town beyond; the lights in this case being that of the Holy City, and dimmer campfires of the pilgrims spread around.
Looking up, through an identical semicircular aperture, I see two of my fellow Theologists, the topmen Hensen and Peasgrave, making fast the next pulley. Soon it will be time to ascend, and I must needs be brief.
We number six. Eight were chosen by the Society, but Brawnell and Evers were unable to reach base camp. Brawnell perished in the snow; Evers was betrayed by undertakers he had paid to smuggle him in to the City, and was mortified before the pilgrims.
Hensen and Peasgrave, the topmen, are sailors from Repentance: stocky, wiry men, cunning with knots and ropes. Mervell, the rigger, grew up in the Mills, and directs efforts from below, watching over the complex arrangement of pipes, ropes, netting, and fabric she designed. Beside her Vorm, the Master Theologist in charge of Expedition Twelve discusses progress. Beside me in the canopy, Roum the pearl-diver works at the six diving-skins incessantly
Soon though the pulley will be rigged and the canopy, platforms, supplies and all, must be drawn up, all of us pulling, and then the first day’s labour will be at an end.
The rig holds. We have ascended some 1500 feet. Mervell’s clamps – which attach by a clever method to the sunken rivets embedded in the Tower’s glassy black sides – do not always find purchase where the surface is particularly worn. The dark worm in which we shelter inches towards Heaven.
The topmen strive mightily and I do not, which pains me, and so I come to write, which in itself – as it is an unusual accomplishment, and the duty for which I was preferred – offers me some comfort. It is dark in here – the canopy black as pitch, to camouflage our ascent, and we stand shadow-side of the Tower, by our design. We must not be detected by angels of the Holy City below.
Peasgrave spoke to me as we broke fast of his parents, who completed sixty years’ Service, and who made pilgrimage to the City to claim their reward. They would be taken into the Tower, and the angels would make them anew, and they go to their reward in Heaven, and he would be able to look up at Heaven in the sky and see them.
I nodded assent to this creed, automatically, but I fear I looked askance, because the sailor placed a gnarled hand against my cheek and said “It’s what the angels teach, I know, mate. I’m a Theologist. I likes to see for myself.”
Mervell is calling the ascent and I must go to pull ropes.
Eight thousand feet. We have lost Hensen. A clamp broke and he fell.
Hensen struck the outer rib of the canopy and bounced down and away into the dark. We are all so cold. We huddle in the canopy mourning Hensen now. I am light-headed.
Sixteen thousand feet. We approach the rock. It bulges from the midpoint of the Tower, surrounded by the gauzy spiral halo we call the Gyre. The air is thin and useless.
We wear Roum’s skins and breathe the angel’s breath. Roum, diving in the dark, and the angels watching from the sea-cave, the bottled breath they carried, the storehouse that she found. Her oyster-knife, flashing in the depths.
I wear an angel mask and breathe bottled breath of angels and between me and this cold dark is the tanned hide of Leviathan. I see the faces of my fellow Theologists through a pane of warped bottle-glass salvaged from factory bins, caulked with tallow.
The higher we climb, the easier our burdens become, despite the air. Vorm says we begin to feel this lightness as we flee from the weight of Earthly sins.
The last entry.
We gained the base of the Rock. No Expedition has come this far, to my certain knowledge. I will set down merely what I witnessed.
Our link to the sinful Earth below is so attenuated that we float, leap from one handhold to the next.
We came around the lip of the rock and there we beheld closely the Gyre. It was formed of a myriad of floating objects, pressed between the sphere of Heaven above and the Earth below. Vorm says this opposition between the spheres keeps them in this flat disc, rotating gently around the spindle of the Tower, and I could see this is so.
Peasgrave and Mervell set the clamps for our bivouac, the canopy serving as much to keep us from floating into the Gyre as to conceal us, and we slept.
We were awoken by a rumbling in the Tower. “The worthy ascend to heaven!”, Roum said.
The five of us crawled out from our tent. Heaven and Earth above and below, and our Theologists at the exact mid-point. Two vast doors opened in the black metal surface of the Rock before us, and through this we beheld a great well leading down into Heaven. We could see something was approaching, a lighted object coming up this well from Heaven with great speed; and we could feel, at the same time, through the fabric of the Tower, something approaching from Earth, below us.
In the two doorways, shadows appeared, blocking the light; and then these shadows themselves split open, spilling light and great clouds of vapour into the dark; and behind them, tumbling out in the outrush to join the widening disc of the Gyre, the frozen and lifeless bodies of the Worthy of Heaven and Earth.