To this day I have no idea what actually happened after I sat down in the chair. I know what I saw; even here in Star’s Reach, sitting at this desk in a little pool of light and listening to Eleen’s breathing, I can close my eyes and remember every bit of it, but I’m pretty sure that some of it couldn’t have happened at all, and I have no idea whether any of the things that could have happened actually did.
At any rate, this is what I remember.
I sat there for a while before much of anything happened. The sun went down behind me, the stars came out ahead, and the wind along the beach blew cold. Then there was a flash of orange light out to sea, right along the horizon, and I stared at it for a long moment before I realized that the moon was rising. It was a couple of days past the full, big and golden and close enough to round that you had to look close to see the little sliver of shadow that had already come out of it. As it rose, the light shining from it seemed to make a path across the sea right up to where the waves were splashing a couple of meedas from my feet.
That’s when everything went silent. There was no more wind, and the waves weren’t moving any more. The moon stood there, right on the horizon, and as the path of light stretched across the ocean, the water it touched started flowing away, back from the beach. I know perfectly well that water doesn’t do that, but that’s what I saw: the water drawing back, forming a path just as wide as the light from the moon, while to either side the sea stood black like a wall.
I don’t remember thinking that anything out of the ordinary was happening. I don’t remember thinking anything at all. I got up from my chair and started walking across the bare wet sands ahead of me, following the path down into drowned Deesee.
It wasn’t anything like my dreams, though. In my dreams the water is like air and the sun is shining on the top of it, turning the surface of the water to silver, and the buildings are all just the way they were when Deesee was above water and the presden and her jennels ruled half the world from the big white buildings there. The path I walked across, though, was sand and stones and seaweed, with crabs scuttling here and there, and fish lying there gasping in pools of salt water. There wasn’t much left of the buildings close to the beach, just low masses of concrete that had been hammered to roundness by more than four hundred years of waves, but as I went further and the sand turned to mud, I started passing ruins covered with barnacles and mussels and sea anemones, with roofs fallen in and every bit of metal corroded by the salt water, but still recognizable as buildings. I passed the hulks of old cars that had been abandoned to the rising waters, stepped over poles that used to hold lights up so they could shine on the streets.
I have no idea how long I walked down between the black walls of water into the heart of Deesee, but finally I got in among the buildings from my dreams, the big white buildings with windows lined up like soldiers on parade, except that the buildings were half-fallen and stained with mud, and draped with great blades of kelp. Still, I knew what came next, and I wasn’t wrong. A little further down, I got past what was left of the buildings, and there was the big open space with the hill in the middle of it, and the Spire rising up above all. The top of it was above the water, glowing in the moonlight; all around it the sea rose up black and motionless, and there was nowhere else to go.
Up at the foot of the Spire, someone was waiting for me.
I saw him as soon as I got to the base of the hill. The light was dim and I couldn’t make out anything but a human shape at first, but I knew who it was. As I climbed the hill, the details came clear one by one: the stiff heavy clothing that soldiers used to wear in the old world; the funny broad hat, flat on the top, with a bill in front and a bit of flashy metal in front; more bits of metal here and there on the clothing, especially on the shoulders and right above where his heart was; the face, lean as a hawk’s, looking toward me with a look I couldn’t read, not yet. The face was only familiar from my dreams, but I knew the rest of him well enough, since I’d found his corpse sprawled on the table next to the letter about Star’s Reach, down there in the underplaces of the Shanuga ruins.
I was within a few steps of reaching him when I saw that he had the letter in one hand. He held it out to me so that I could see it, and read the words on it. I looked at it, at him, and that’s when I knew that he wanted me to understand it; he wanted me or somebody to find Star’s Reach; his face didn’t change at all, but I could see hope and desperate longing in his eyes. He showed me the letter, and then turned it over so that I could see the single word Curtis written in gray on the back.
Yes, I wanted to say, I know. That was you. That was your name back then. For some reason or other I couldn’t speak, but I think he must have heard me anyway, for he shook his head, a sudden brisk move, and pointed at the word again with one finger.
I didn’t see his lips move and I didn’t hear anything, but all at once I knew what he was trying to tell me. Not my name, he was saying, and not any other person’s name, either—the name of a place.
All at once I could see him, huddled in the shelter down under some government building in Shanuga when it was still called Chattanooga and the ruins weren’t ruins yet. He was listening to the radio we’d found, waiting for a message, and when it came he copied something down on a sheet of paper, looked something up in a book, and then copied down one word onto the back of the letter. They’d told him the name of the town where he was going to go once it was safe, once they could get him out of Chattanooga and send him to Star’s Reach, and he’d written down the name of the town on the back of the original message so he wouldn’t lose it. Then things went wrong, and it never got safe enough to get him out of there, and the food ran out and he died. I saw all of that in less time than it takes to blink.
Then we were standing there under the Spire again, facing each other, him in his stiff old world clothes and me in my dusty ruinman’s leathers, and suddenly the ground beneath my feet began to shake. He looked up at the Spire with fear in his face. I looked up too, and damn if the Spire wasn’t swaying back and forth above us, moving in wider and wider arcs.
All of a sudden I wasn’t in Deesee any more. I was sitting in the chair made of concrete slabs by the beach, in the place where every question has an answer, and it felt as though I was being shaken awake. I looked around, but there was nobody shaking me. The moon was high in the south, and it no longer made a path across the sea in front of me, but the ground shook again, and the sea began to draw away, just as it did earlier, except this time it was all drawing back, as far as I could see to either side.
I think I mentioned, back when I was writing about my first dream of Deesee, that there are stories about the Spire. When I was a child, people used to say that as long as it still rose out of the water, off beyond the breakers, the drowned city at its feet might someday rise up out of the waters, and the old world and all its treasures would come back again. Just for a moment, as I sat there and stared, I wondered if that was what was happening, if somehow learning what might be the key to Star’s Reach had made something even more wonderful come about.
Then the ground beneath my feet shook again, and I realized what I was seeing.
There’s a place called Greenlun, off to the east of Genda, between the Lannic and the North Ocean. It’s covered with trees now, but in the old world it was covered with a couple of kloms of ice, and when they messed up the weather in the last years of the old world, all the ice melted and the water flowed into the sea. That’s part of why Deesee is underwater now, but the priestesses say that when the ice melted, the land started to rise because all that weight was off it, and since then there have been big earthquakes all along the eastern coasts of Genda and Nuwinga and the coastal allegiancies, and namees. A namee’s a really big wave that’s stirred up by an earthquake, and you know one is coming because the sea draws back from the land.
The moon gave enough light that I could just about see the landscape around me. Back behind the dunes and inland maybe half a klom, there was a hill with trees on top of it—not much of a hill, and maybe not high enough, but it was the only high ground in sight. I knew there wasn’t a lot of time, so I got up and grabbed my bags and ran for the hill. It wasn’t an easy run, since there was driftwood back behind the dunes that I had to dodge, and once I got to the hill the brush clawed at me and scratched my face as I ran. I was panting and bleeding by the time I got well up the hill, and I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, and turned around and looked back toward the sea.
There before me was Deesee. I could see all of it, the Spire rising up above the half-fallen buildings caked with mud and seaweed, reaching north and south as far as I could see and east to a blackness that had to be the ocean. I stood there, forgetting everything else, and as I watched, the Spire began to lean toward me: slow at first, then faster and faster, until finally it crashed to ruin over the top of the buildings I’d seen so many times in my dreams.
Then the sea rose up and came rushing back into its place.
I turned and sprinted the rest of the way to the top of the hill, found the tallest and stoutest tree that I could, and scrambled up it. By the time I got up as high as I thought I could safely go, Deesee was drowned again. I read once about somebody who got through a namee alive by tying himself to the top of a tree, so I got some rope from my bag and used it to tie myself to a sturdy branch. By then I could hear the water boiling and surging, and I looked up to see it looming above me, black as the walls of the sea on either side of the path I’d followed to the Spire. I sucked in one last breath and put my arms and legs around the branch as tight as they’d go and prayed to Mam Gaia, the way you’re supposed to do when you’re about to get reborn.
The wave broke over me like a falling wall, and then suddenly I was above water again. The crest was past me, and the tree hadn’t given way. I clung to the branch for I don’t know how long, shivering and dripping, with salt water burning in the scratches I’d gotten from the brush further down. All around me, the only things I could see were the tops of trees on the hill, and black water all around. After a while, the water stopped moving inland and started moving back out to sea, until it was back where it belonged; a second wave came rushing in a little after that, but that one only got about halfway up the hill, and I think there was a third and a fourth wave, too, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure about much of what happened during the last part of that night.
The next thing I remember for certain is waking up a little after dawn, still up there in the tree, still tied to the branch, cold and wet and aching from head to foot, but more or less alive. I blinked and shook myself, tried to move, remembered the rope, tried to untie the waterlogged knot, gave up and cut it with my knife. Slowly, because my muscles didn’t want to move, I clambered down to the ground and stood there on the sand and seaweed the wave left behind, and tried to get my thoughts to do something but circle around and around the fact that I probably should have been fish food just then.
I don’t know how long it was before I finally walked over to the brow of the hill and looked east. The Lannic was blue and mostly calm, with long rolling breakers coming in from the far horizon to crash over masses of weathered concrete or rush landwards across the beach. I stood there looking at it for a long time, and finally realized what it was that was missing.
The Spire was gone. Either I watched it fall, or I dreamed a true dream. I still don’t know which.
I walked down to the beach then. The chair and the ring of concrete chunks around it were gone, or at least I didn’t see them, but then I’m not sure whether I got to the right place or not, because the beach wasn’t quite the same shape any more. If the place where every question has an answer is still there, someone’s going to have to haul some concrete slabs over and build a new chair, though the Lannic coast gets namees often enough that the same thing probably happened more than once before. I didn’t think about hauling the slabs myself, since I already had the answer I needed, and I also had a good long way to walk; so I stood there looking out to sea for a while, seeing the smooth line of the horizon where the Spire used to be, and thinking about what it meant that it was gone.
After a bit, I turned and walked south again, looking for the road back inland, up the Tomic valley. There was a big mass of weathered concrete right where I’d come down to the beach—not even a namee is powerful enough to wash those away—and I recognized it and turned, and headed back inland until I found the road, half buried in sand and mud and seaweed that the namee left behind. Still, it was the road I needed, the road back home to Meriga, and once I found it I went over to the river and washed the salt out of my leathers, then sat down and ate some of the food I’d brought from Pisba, and finally got up and started west toward the mountains and the burning land.
I didn’t see another human face until I was a day out of Pisba. I don’t know if the Jinya horsemen I met on the way to Deesee got caught in the namee and drowned, or felt the ground start shaking and rode like anything for high ground and escaped, or what, but I didn’t see them again. I don’t know how many days it took me, either, though I know I ran out of food halfway through the burning land and didn’t get another meal until I showed up at the ruinmen’s guild hall in Pisba and startled the stuffing out of the guild misters, who pretty clearly hadn’t expected me to make it back alive.
All the way along the road, as I followed the Tomic as far as I could and then climbed up into the hills and started across the burning land, I had nothing to do but think. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t think much about Star’s Reach, about whether or not I would be able to track down the place called Curtis once I got back to the archives in Sisnaddi or not. Mostly I thought about the Spire and the stories I mentioned, the ones that said that the old world might come back someday, so long as the Spire still rose out of the Lannic over drowned Deesee.
I’m not sure that any of us really knows what we believe until something comes along that makes it come true or makes it go away forever. All along the winding road that took me from Shanuga to Star’s Reach, I believed I was going to find it. If somebody had asked me whether I believed that in Melumi or Memfis or Sisnaddi, or anywhere else along the way, I probably would have said no, but when we got within sight of the antenna housings and Star’s Reach stopped being a dream and turned into the place where I’m sitting now, it didn’t feel like a surprise, it felt like something that was always going to happen and just finally got around to it.
Back before I left Sisnaddi to find the place where every question has an answer, if anyone had asked me whether I believed the old stories about Deesee rising back up out of the sea, I’d have laughed and said no. On the first part of the road back, though, my thoughts kept circling back around to the Spire toppling in the moonlight and landing on the ruined buildings, and the flat blue horizon I’d seen the next morning, standing there on the beach, and every time I thought of those what passed through my mind next was that now the old world was never coming back.
Later on, when I’d gotten past the shock and it wasn’t as much as I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other as my mind circled around what I saw, I thought about that, and it occurred to me that everything we do nowadays in Meriga has the old world sitting there in the background. We plant trees and have laws against fossil fuels because of what happened in the old world, and we have a presden and jennels and cunnels because they had those in the old world, and when a priestess wants to make sure people live the way they’re supposed to, the way that keeps Mam Gaia happy with us, she just has to remind them about how they did things in the old world and what happened because of that. It’s no wonder that people tell stories about Deesee rising back up above the water and bringing the old world with it, because the old world never really went away. It died, but it’s still here, sprawled over Meriga the way the man I found under the Shanuga ruins was sprawled over the table.
I think, though, that a lot of people wonder if someday we might be able to do the things they did in the old world, but without making the same mistakes and getting Mam Gaia mad at us again. It’s not the kind of thing you talk about, because everyone knows that it’s wicked even to want that to happen, but I’m guessing that that’s what kept the stories circling all these years. As I dodged sinkholes and smoke in the burning lands, I decided that that’s why the world felt different now that the Spire was gone: now we all had to face up to the fact that the old world wasn’t coming back, not then, not ever, and whatever things were going to look like in the future, it was going to be something different.