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Rolling by Peter Jerrim
 
CHAPTER 17

Toward the end of the day, Sherri, who was leading, fell over. Fostos was behind her and caught her as she started to roll backwards.

'She's fainted!' he said.

'No, it's all right,' she said, opening her eyes. 'It's just so hard to breathe. The air feels thin.'

'Of course,' said Rodji. 'Why didn't I think of it? You know what your Dad thinks, Fostos-- that we're held to the ground in our inner world because it's rotating, like the water that stays at the bottom of a bucket when you spin it over your head. Well, as we get higher, the force gets weaker and the air will get thinner and thinner.'

'Which is why it's getting colder and colder,' interrupted Fostos.

'Yes, but not only that. Haven't you noticed something else?'

'Yes,' said Copper, 'but I'm not sure what it is. Something...different.'

'I feel lighter,' said Sherri.

'Yeah...so do I,' said Fostos.

'Don't you see?' said Rodji. 'The higher we get, the lighter and lighter we'll become...until...'

'...we don't weigh anything at all,' said Copper quietly. 'But we'll need air to breathe.'

'Yes, but not so much,' said Rodji. 'There's no weight to keep the air here any more but, because it's all spun around inside the world, there'll still be just enough for us to breathe. As long as we can keep warm. I think we should stay here now, eat as much as we can, have a good sleep--and tomorrow make a dash for the top as soon as the Day Light's not too strong.'

'Well, it's our only chance,' said Copper.

As they continued climbing the next day they did grow lighter but they were not prepared for the cold. They knew they could only last a few hours in it.

By midday they were so light they took turns piggybacking one another to gain enough weight for their feet to grip the track. Being close together helped them conserve their heat. They gasped in the sparse air and plugged on.

Then the path stopped. They were still several hundred measures from their destination.'What do we do now?' whispered Sherri, who was carrying the other three. They crawled down over one another and lay together on the edge of the path, against the wall.

'We're so light now we can climb,' said Rodji. His voice came out in a mousy squeak--the air was too thin. 'We only need fingerholds. I'll go first and haul you up behind; you're not very heavy, you know. He set off straight up the smooth wall. He knew how little time they had.

There were cracks and holes in the surface where it had been weathered by the daily temperature change. When Rodji reached the full length of the line above them he held on with one hand while his feet floated free. He tore at a hole with his knife until he had prised a gap into which he could wedge a spike. He tied on the line and squeaked down, 'Hold tight.' In a minute he had hauled the others up with his free hand. There they were like flies on a wall. 'Stage two,' he squeaked, and started climbing again.

Another two hauls and they were so close to the region along which the lights were propelled that their bodies prickled with the forces that rippled through them. The faint glow seemed to warm them again, but from the inside out. As they climbed closer, the heat increased but their sweat evaporated in the low air-pressure and they remained comfortable. The radiant heat had thawed the ice in their waterskins and they were able to drink for the first time that day.

When they had only about ten measures to go, Copper lost her grip and began floating free. In an attempt to correct her error she kicked her foot against the wall. This pushed her out into the air. Sherri grabbed her but she was carried off too, though at a slower speed. Fostos caught Sherri's ankle as it passed and he, too, was pulled away. They floated out from the wall, squeaking in terror. Rodji had just tied the line to the last spike. He grabbed the end of the line floating next to him and tied it round his waist. Then he pushed himself off the wall. He floated out the full length of the line and then rebounded slightly, but enough to send him back towards the wall. He tried again but the other three were just beyond his reach in a rotating mass of waving arms and legs.

'Listen!' he squealed at them, remembering his lessons in the overhouse. 'Throw your packs in the same direction as you're going! Now!' Copper, who was still the furthest part of the floating group, wriggled out of her pack and, with a desperate lunge, obeyed. They floated back toward Rodji while Copper's pack glided into the distance. Fostos got off his pack and threw it after Copper's. They sped up and, in a few moments, were back to Rodji who manoeuvred the reunited blob back to the wall. He tied them all together in a row on the line and mouthed at them to wait for him.Using only the grip of his fingers to guide him, Rodji floated to the hole from which the light beam issued. The last few measures of the wall were too hot to touch so he kicked himself out on the line and peered in. The hole was about a measure across, the same diameter as the beam. They would have to go through the beam to enter. He hoped they wouldn't be burnt.

He climbed round the hole to the other side and secured his spare line and then returned, drawing it through the beam. He tied it to the same spike as the line to which he was attached and drew it tight. The beam did not damage it so he squeaked to the others, 'I'll go first and then pull you through. Hold your breath before you enter the beam.' He checked all the knots for the last time and pulled himself up the second line and into the beam.

Upon entering it, a deep itching spread through him. He balanced himself on one side of the hole, drew his feet together on the tight line and jumped. He hurtled through the hole and shot toward the mass of glowing bubbles from which the beam shone. He drew his hands to his face just before he hit. The bubbles were hard and cold but elastic and he bounced off and backward toward the hole but out of the beam. A low wall was built around the hole and he was able to catch a hold on it. Then he tugged away at the line and pulled the others through.

'Not so difficult,' he said, when they were all with him, balanced on the wall. His voice had returned to normal.

'Thick air at last,' said Sherri. 'I wouldn't have lasted much longer out there.'

'Well, we did it,' said Fostos.

'Yes, we did,' said Rodji. 'But we've got a long way to go to get to Lakremae. How do we get out of here?'

'Over there, of course,' said Sherri. 'It's just like you told us.' She pointed to a travelling bell. 'And I know it goes only one way.'

They looked at each other in elation and said together, 'Down!'

As soon as they were seated in the bell, the cylindrical image appeared before them. The terrain of the inner world had been added to the details of the honeycombed skin.

'We're here,' Rodji said, pointing to the red light on one end of the cylinder, 'and we're going...there. It's the meeting place of the worlds.' He placed his finger on the funnel that indicated the cockpit. The cylinder moved sideways into a chamber. Then they were flying down inside the eastern end-wall. At the bottom the bell reoriented itself and they were pressed down into their seats as it shot off toward the cockpit. During the journey they sat without a word.

They tumbled out onto the floor of the cockpit and stared at the balconies and terraces stretching up into the distance.

'This...is a meeting place?' Copper whispered.

'Room for ten times the population that used to live in our outer world,' Rodji said. 'Enough for all those who lived on the spaceworlds when they were first launched.'

'It's...' Sherri could find no words to match its grandeur.

'And look below your feet,' said Rodji. 'You're walking on the stars.'

Then a panel on the other side of the floor opened and Lakremae stood there. She was wearing the white slip she had worn when Rodji first met her. She stood still, caught in the surprise of seeing them there. She ran to Rodji and held him tight for a long time.

Then Rodji held her at arm's length and said, 'I have some people for you to meet.' He drew away and turned to his companions who were kneeling on the floor, not daring to look at her.

'Get up, sillies,' Lakremae said. 'I should be kneeling to you. I don't know how you managed to get back here. But I'm glad Rodji didn't come alone.'

Rodji introduced them. 'This is Copper, my sister, and her friend, Sherri. And this is my friend, Fostos.'

'Rodji's told me about you,' Lakremae said. 'Welcome. You're just in time.' She hugged each one of them in turn. Fostos flushed with embarrassment and surprise. Then she turned to Rodji. 'I didn't think you were going to come back. I can't hold it together for much longer, although I feel I've had some help in the last few days. Perhaps it has been the prayer of your people.'

'Well, here we are,' said Rodji, 'ready to go. I think I could finish the compositions in three days--if you could give me that much time.'

'Three days...yes. After that we'll have a few hours left to board the ships. It's going to be close. I think we can hold on--if your sister and friends can help. Rodji will have to work hard during the next three days. He'll need your help, your health, maybe even your life, if he is to keep the strength he needs for it. Are you prepared for it, after all that you must have been through?'

'Anything,' said Copper. 'We will do it.'

'Then I'll start,' said Rodji and he strode to the panel through which Lakremae had come. 'Is the circumambient ready?'

'Everything is ready,' Lakremae called behind him. 'You come with me,' she said to the others. 'I'll show you around...and don't look so amazed. Perhaps we all need a drink.'

 


 

Music had been born inside Rodji the moment he returned to the inner world. Now, with the music fully grown, he sat at the circumambient preparing the ships which would return his people to the home of their ancestors. Rodji enfolded a silent dimension into the music to register the Earth's positions in space and time in the cloudy disc of the galaxy. Then the travellers and their equipment could be merged with their ships and spun invisibly into the musical matrix. They would experience no change themselves. They would seem to remain in the cockpit for the entire transmission. But the floor of stars would wrap around them while they stood there as one ship after another departed, wheeling away from the cylinder a thousand stellar distances before falling into an even deeper travel. Then each ship would wake, unplaying, on Earth.

Lakremae had found out who was still alive in the inner world. All the Copper People were dead. Most of the Tree Dwellers were dead. Some of the Accusers still lived and were, even now, riding to the long house from the Evening Sea. Did they seek revenge, escape, or were they answering the tiny cry of love in their hearts? All around them their world was dying--men, animals, even the trees were tinged with grey. Soon the ground itself would evaporate and the outer world be laid bare.

 


 

The circumambient and Rodji were one now. He sat at it with eyes closed, his fingers stilled, playing it with his mind.

Around him were his sister and his friends, joined to one another and the circumambient by a silken web. They seemed shrunken, still; but their faces were serene. Lakremae sat on the floor of the cockpit weeping. Her tears turned to stars as they fell.

A great trembling dark music filled the inner world.

Rodji rose from the circumambient. He and Lakremae travelled to the hall beneath the overhouse. She had turned off the power that held the land together at the end of the long house above them. The Accusers arrived and stared down into the immensity that opened before them. The people from the long house gathered too. They held no bitterness toward their foes who once were friends.Rodji and Lakremae stepped onto a platform that rose quickly and deposited them in front of the long house.

 


 

Summer was there, but not Bronze. The rest of his family and friends had come and about a hundred others, all who had not succumbed to the grey sickness.

'Pigsy's come back!' shouted Ducki. 'I knew he would!' Summer restrained him from running up to Rodji who had turned to face the Accusers. He shouted to them in a voice that was hoarse with exhaustion. Lakremae stood beside him.

'My people are here to travel with me to another world, another home. This world is dying. We have only a few hours left. I want each one of you to come, too. But there's no time to waste; you must decide now. If you want to come, get down from your horses and join us.' Rodji paused. Several of the younger men dismounted and walked over to the people of the long house. One of them was Rors. Then one or two of the older men joined them. Flint dismounted and gave his horse a sharp smack on the rump. It trotted off a little way and then stopped to browse in a vegetable plot between the trees.

'This is your last chance to join us,' called Rodji. 'We want you to come. I don't pretend you haven't done wrong. Your punishment will be to understand what it really is that you have done. But if you don't come with us now your sentence will be severe indeed.'

Finally Stereos spoke. 'We take it on ourselves, Hardi. You don't know what you're saying.' He turned to the crowd near the long house. 'You're mad if you follow that fool. Stay here if you've got any sense. He's only trying to drag you down into the underground where he belongs. Come on boys.' He signalled to his men and wheeled his horse around and galloped off into the forest. None of them followed. One by one, they dismounted and walked over the others.

Rodji went to his mother and embraced her.

'Come,' he said.

Lakremae motioned to the people and said, 'We will have to take you down in groups of twenty--that's all this platform will hold. When you reach the bottom, step off and wait on the floor until we've all arrived. Don't worry about the platform; it's quite safe.'

When they reached the cockpit, they stood around the edge of the floor. Rodji rolled the circumambient into the centre and sat to play.

The music was deep and clear with a biting edge to it. Within a few moments the crowd gasped as a huge orange flower like an iris appeared, floating in the centre of the floor. He continued playing as his voice joined the music so that all could hear.

'I will make twenty flowers like this. Each will take six or seven of us to our new home. If it goes well, we will all arrive at the same place at the same time on the round world we call Earth. The food and equipment we need will be provided in the ships. The journey will not be long.'

Deep swells of sound alternated with music so rapid and complex it stung the ears. Great flowers materialised in front of them-- orchids, hydrangeas, roses, bellflowers. Crying with delight, people ran to the flowers and entered them.

When no one but he and Lakremae was left, Rodji pulled a lever inside the circumambient. He rose and walked to her. The music continued playing, modulating and rising in increasing complexities of sound. The iris floated over the circumambient until it concealed it. The music played on.

'Now it's our turn,' he said, smiling at Lakremae.

'It's your turn, Rodji,' she said. 'I can't come.' Fear and distress were in her eyes.

'What?'

'You have to get a thousand stellar distances away before you can switch to deep travel, you know that. If I don't stay here to maintain the cylinder while you do that, the force of its disintegration will warp your course and everyone will die. No, Rodji, I have to stay.'

'Then I will stay and die with you,' he cried.'You can't. You must stay with the circumambient all the way to Earth or none of you will get there. You have no choice.' Lakremae touched the fine gold chain that fell from her neck and drew up on it from between her breasts a diamond cylinder. She gave it to him. 'Remember me,' she said. Then, 'Kiss me.'

'Now go,' she said. 'You have little time.'

Rodji ran to his ship and plunged through its folds until he found the circumambient. Fostos and Sherri and Copper were lying next to it, asleep. He sat at the console and pulled the music plug.

For a moment Rodji was caught by the unexpectedness of the transition. He was sitting at the circumambient in the centre of the cockpit floor again. All his people were around him, listening to the music. But the floor had folded up around them and they were standing among the stars. Some of the stars were slowly changing position. He put the music onto automatic and took the diamond cylinder in his hands. A light was flashing from it. Bands of colour swirled within. It was a tiny cylinder like the one he used to have. He watched her heart beat, shining and steady, already far away.

Then a bass drone came from the circumambient. He returned to it and played the prelude for deep travel which he had composed two days earlier. Once started he could leave it to play by itself until they emerged from deep travel near Earth. He lifted the cylinder to his eyes again while he waited for the dive into the deep. Her heart beat faster. She was undergoing great exertion--holding Spaceworld together by her own will for the few critical moments they required. Then Rodji saw that she knew they were free. Her heartbeat slowed. The music thundered through them as they entered the dive. They were in the dark now, inaccessible to starlight. Her heartbeat shone bright in the darkness and everyone turned to look at it. Then its light went out. Lakremae and their cylinder world were no more.

Rodji stumbled through the silent people to his instrument and waited. The sphere in which they were enclosed filled with light. It came from a circle of unbearable brilliance against the starry black. It was the sun.

Then they were in their flowers again.

 


 

When they stepped out, they were all together on a beach by the sea. An island stood offshore. Behind them rose sand dunes and then hills. Above them was the sky. They stared up into its blue reaches and lovely clouds. They smelled the salt breeze in their faces. They all looked so well, glowing with health and joy. Then the flowers melted away in the breeze. Men, women and children ran to pick up their gear and carry it over the dunes to set up camp. Laughter floated down onto the beach and soon the smell of cooking wafted over.

But Rodji remained alone. He sat on the sand and watched the waves and gazed at the sky and thought of Lakremae. The sky glowed pink with evening. Banks of clouds rolled out over the horizon and the sky became clear. It grew dark and the stars came out. The sand was cold and the breeze stirred into a wind and then died down again. Over the sea near the island a circle of white light rose over the horizon.

Night came and the moon's silver mantle rolled over the round world, and the sound of the waves splashed into Rodji's mind as though they were people, star-dressed, dancing towards him. And he saw, as each wave's water spilled and then returned to become a new wave, its back was barred with silver. The shimmering light proceeded down the widening aisle and across the dark sea until it flowed into a circle beneath the moon. Was this what it was like to be human, Rodji thought, to be a tiny part of one pool of light lost in the black and bewildering universe? Or was there something greater attracted to that pool of life of which he and his friends were the latest breaking wave? It was then that he saw that the light out to sea was shining back to the moon in silent adoration.

A cloud passed over the moon and the vision dulled. Someone called his name. Rodji rose and walked towards the dunes.

 

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