Rolling by Peter Jerrim

But there were no people.

In the weeks since Rodji's escape from the cave to the underground room, he had recovered from his ordeal with the Accusers but could make no sense of where he was or what was happening. He had explored the room thoroughly but with no understanding despite the confidence with which he had accepted the way it seemed to care for him. When he was hungry food appeared from nowhere. When he was tired the light dimmed and a bed rose from the floor. In the bathing place he learnt the waterless way to clean himself--sparkles and sweet smells.

He found other rooms, too, and made up names for them. The walls of the Echo Room were mountainous bosoms that rumbled and shrieked at his whispers. In the Vision Room he strode among lively scenes of war and struggle and domesticity and peace as though he were really there himself amid all the colour and clash. He wept in the Music Room where ghosts of musicians played glorious music.

Perhaps he had died in the fire after all, he thought, and was now the charmed prisoner in a solo paradise beneath the earth, lonely for the struggle of the ordinary human life above.

And Rodji sensed he was merely playing with things that had been made by people, or beings, who were much wiser than he. He was surfeited with riches and increasingly sought refuge in the only room he had found to be empty, cool and dark. He took to sleeping there although he had to lie on the floor. Once he woke face down to find the floor had changed.Although his face was pressed against it he could see, as if deep within the floor itself, a picture that had slid into place while he slept. It was a simple display of luminous points in a dark field which, at first, seemed very ordinary compared with the other wonders he had seen.

Once it appeared, the picture did not go away. Rodji returned to it frequently but every time he did so he found a different pattern in the lights. For hours he would stare at the tiny points. Although most were white or silver, some were touched by gold or blue or red or faintest green. Floating there in the dark they stirred indefinable memories within him. A strange excitement grew, keeping him awake when normally he would have tired and fallen asleep long before. He became lost in the picture that began to wake within him the deepest familiarity.

Once, after a long period of viewing, lying with his face pressed to the floor, he thought he saw a pattern which had been slowly moving across the display some hours before. He recognised the dots that he had joined by lines in his mind to make a picture of a bontu deer. Now, here was the deer creeping across the display again, exactly as before. He searched for other patterns he had seen. There was Zeb, barking at the wolf in the dream story; and there was Copper's hair spun out in many plaits by their mother on a long winter's evening. The whole configuration was repeating itself, gliding at snail's pace through the floor.

Rodji had not experienced an exhilaration of understanding like this since leaving the learning troupe a year ago after disagreeing with Min Hilary about the nature of the cylinder which was the world. Min held the traditional view that the universe was solid stone, the same all the way through and infinite in extent. Rodji sided with Fostos' father, Philma, who maintained that, if the universe was evenly distributed with the world in the middle, or if the world was anywhere in an infinite universe, then no one would be able to stay on the ground and everything that was not attached would float off. As you were pulled to the ground exactly the same way wherever you were then the universe of rock must be spinning, like a weight on the end of a turning string being thrown out evenly.

He liked the next bit of the argument. If the whole universe was spinning that fast--if you could think of it spinning only in relation to itself--then the farther out from the centre you went, the greater would be the force of the spinning...the universe would be torn apart. In other words: an infinite universe of rock could not exist. So, the rock beneath their feet must come to an end somewhere; and if it did, what would be there?

The memory of the flight into the cave and the drop down through the earth flashed into Rodji's mind. Was this the answer? Was he at the end of the world looking out? He knew then that he had been staring at the display with flat eyes until then. Now his perception jumped ecstatically from two dimensions into three. He was gazing into a void of infinite immensity. The silent blackness he had thought would be so soft to touch was the emptiness of the abyss. The lights out there would sink their shining into it forever and the light would never return.

And what were the tiny lights he had pondered so long and lovingly, thinking they were printed just beneath him on the floor? Could they be other worlds like his, floating incredibly far out in the depths? But he was on the outer edge of his world and he saw no shining from it coming through. He was looking through a kind of window! Were the lights out there strong lights like the Day Light in the hidden world above? From his deepest childhood came the magic words of the fabled times of dream tales when men and women looked above them to see shining there--the stars.

For a few days Rodji thought of little else but his discovery. Time and again he was drawn to the vista he could see through the floor of his rolling world. What a difference it made to everything now he realised that all he had previously known was a tiny part of an infinitely greater whole. His underground world seemed something like that too. Exploring up and down the shaft he realised that its honeycombed vastness, empty of the buzz of people, could absorb him for a lifetime and he would never have time to see it all. One hundred and thirty-two rooms on this small section of the bottom floor...another forty-seven levels above...It was unimaginable. He wanted to go home. He wanted to see his family and friends. He thought of Fostos who had helped him early in his banishment, of Mikos who had given his life. He wondered about his parents. By now they would be frantic with worry, for it must be past the time of banishment and they would have received no news from the Accusers. It was time to explore with a purpose--not to be beguiled by wonders, but to find a way out.



As well as shafts for vertical movement, Rodji discovered several curving floors down which he could slide to other parts of the hive. One day he found one that dropped more steeply than usual and, abandoning himself to it, was soon deposited at the edge of a hexagonal floor about a thousand paces across. Above the floor hung hundreds of transparent structures that looked like large bontu bells. They sounded like bells, too, resonating with soft chimes. Marks in the floor corresponded with the bases of the bells above them. He went to one of the circles and stood in it and a bell descended and enclosed him. A seat slid under him.

An image of his cylindrical world appeared before him, showing the detail of its outer edge but not the inner terrain. It rotated to reveal a map that expanded in scale and skimmed a spiral plan before him until a light glowed about a third of the way round the cylinder from where he thought he was. Nothing happened for a while so Rodji placed his finger on the light.

The bell rose from the floor and glided through the ceiling, coming to rest inside a dome which filled with liquid that rose into the base of the bell. The liquid felt as hard as stone when he placed his feet on it.

The bell began to spin and then tipped over on its side. The spinning held Rodji firmly in his seat. The bell shot off at speed through a tube that seemed also to be filled with liquid. The image floating before him in the bell traced the path he was taking with a green line. It indicated that the bell was accelerating all the time. When the trace showed halfway to the light the bell tumbled through half a revolution so that its base faced the direction in which it was moving. Then Rodji was pressed into his seat again as the bell decelerated before floating to a stop inside another dome. The liquid was evacuated and the bell sank to rest on a floor like the one he had recently left. Rodji realised with a shock that he had just travelled, in four or five minutes, the same distance as he had walked during his banishment, from the long house to the Morning Sea. When he stood the bell rose into the ceiling. Rodji walked to the only open side of the bell chamber.

The floor of the chamber jutted a lip into the half darkness. Rodji peered out into the gloom. Folds of transparent violet wove themselves high in the air, disappearing into the distance, following the curve around the bottom of the world. The floor was littered with an array of spherical and cylindrical objects that rose up a dozen or so floor-levels in height. Some of the objects were attached by lines to platforms that extended for hundreds of paces high above the floor. The immense curved ceiling was lit the grey of storm clouds in summer, with rainbow shadows playing in the air beneath it. The scene filled Rodji with the profound impression of vast and complex activity that had been unexpectedly interrupted. For the first time since entering the outer world Rodji felt afraid. He stood, transfixed by the size of the space before him. He was sure now that this world had once been peopled outside and in but now only the inside retained life. Yet his welcome in the outer room had been so appropriate, his journey here so easily accomplished. Maybe it was the magic of the past waiting for an intruder such as he, alien but acceptable in a dead land.Then he looked up to see a disc, bathed in golden light, floating in the gloom in the extreme upper right of his vision. He thought it strange that he had not noticed it sooner. To reach it would probably be a simple matter for one who knew how to travel in the outer world, but he decided he would walk to the light which suddenly and sweetly filled him with hope.

He climbed over the lip of the floor on which he had been standing and clambered down an easy jigsaw slope of metallic extrusions and dangling lines until he arrive on the main floor. The air was dense, still and sharply cold.

He wove his way across the floor between the cylinders and the spheres. In the darkness he stumbled into something recessed into the floor. Feeling around he found it was a seat raked back so that when he sat in it he could see what was above without craning his neck. The seat began to move and soon Rodji found himself transported through the bitter air in a course that ended at the base of a black tower rising like a cliff before him. Very high up he could make out a lacy bridge that floated out from the tower to where the light he was seeking shone from the golden disc suspended from the ceiling.

The base of the tower was scalloped with silver portals. He entered one and walked over a floor that looked like the surface of a frozen lake. On the far side he found a shaft like the one in which he had started his journey from the cave. He stepped in and was quickly lifted to the top of the tower. The air close to the ceiling was pleasantly warm.

The bridge measured about thirty paces by three hundred. The disc was as wide as the bridge was long. It was suspended by a tracery of lines that reached out many times its diameter to secure points in the ceiling. It had a circular base which glittered in honeycomb stories half as high as it was wide. The top of the honeycomb was rimmed and turreted in fantastic ornament and covered by a transparent dome. The entire structure shimmered with golden light that radiated evenly from its surface.

As Rodji walked over the bridge a door opened in the side of the disc. Inside, rugs were scattered on a wooden floor. Facing the entrance were three staircases. The walls were flanked with potted plants and decorated with paintings in rectangular frames. A black, three-legged object with a lid propped open on it stood in one corner.

Rodji went to the central staircase and climbed the stairs. On the first floor were two long passageways which intersected at the landing. They were lined with panelled doors like the central passage in the Tree People's long house. Climbing further, he came to a dining area large enough to seat several hundred people. The floor above featured a pool of water surrounded by grassy, tree-lined banks. One tall tree reached over the pool and a rope dangled from one of its branches to a platform built on its side. A raft floated in the centre of the pool. Fluffy clouds floated near the bright blue ceiling which emitted an even, warm light.

The next floor was empty but when Rodji came to the top floor he found a pure, white deck that swept uncluttered around a raised dais in its centre. The golden light from the dome above lit a complex white tower-like structure that rose next to the dais. A roof extended from it for several measures, placing a section of the dais in shade.

The little tower was like a small house, again with several floors, but each one only three measures high. Rodji climbed down the ladder to its second floor and walked through a doorway that opened onto the dais. Under the roof protruding from the tower was a series of cubicles lining the wall. They were padded with a blue material like cloth. Rodji walked past and was about to go out on the dais when he saw a fierce beast glaring at him from the cubicle. It opened its mouth to reveal yellow fangs and a deep red gullet--it was yawning. He trembled and laughed with shock. It was an illusion, like the pictures in the Vision Room. Although only a measure away on a bench in one of the cubicles, when the animal turned to stalk through the forest, it seemed much farther away. Rodji walked over to inspect the illusion more closely.

It was a kind of lumpy bag, about twice as long as it was wide, covered with a solid-looking picture of animals and birds. Fawns, possums, dogs, owls, gulls and animals he had never seen before merged in and out of a bizarre landscape that looked so real he had to touch the bag to convince himself that the little pool of wildlife was not really there.One end of the bag was sewn closed and the other end loosely open. He drew back. There was an image of the head of a girl looking just as alive and real as the animals and birds. The girl was about fourteen years old. She had exquisite, darkly tanned features. Her head, resting on its side, revealed the fine profile of her snubbed nose and broad brow. Her eyes were closed in sleep. Her lips were parted showing perfect teeth. She had a well-defined cleft chin. Her hair was brown and shiny. She looked so real that Rodji could not resist reaching down to touch her. Through her hair he could feel her head, warm and solid. She turned her face up to his. Her eyes opened, glistening and brown, with wide, dark pupils. She looked at Rodji and smiled.

'Hello,' she said.


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