Monday, July 24, 2017

Reading the World

"What, tho' no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found;
In reasons ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice."
--Joseph Addison--

Tennyson tells the story of the Lady of Shallot, who was doomed to spend her life in a tower, working at a loom. She could never leave or turn to look through the window behind her. However, she did have a mirror through which she could see what passed in the world beyond her narrow tower. This was her only contact with the outside world. Though she never left her tower, the mirror allowed her to see many of the things that happened outside, giving her a sight of the world from which she herself was barred.

And the truth is that we are all like the Lady of Shallot. We too are cut off from the world and only able to experience it indirectly through the mirror of our senses and our intellect. Light bounces off objects and passes through our eyes to our brain--through this mirror we have “sight.” Objects come in contact with nerve endings on our skin which sends electrical impulses into our brain--through this mirror we have “feeling.” We never have direct experience with anything in the world (except, perhaps, God)--we see only the reflections of the world in the mirror of our mind. This is a fact we cannot escape.

This fact has led some into skepticism. Since all we see of the world is reflections in a mirror, how can we be sure that the world is even real? Our senses sometimes deceive us. Why should they be trusted at all? This is neither the time nor the place to enter into a refutation of such skepticism. It will be enough here to point out that it is only by the mirror that we know of the mirror. It is only by use of the sense that we know that we have senses. In fact, it is only because we trust our senses generally that we can know that they deceive us in some particular instance.

I do not, therefore, intend to preach skepticism here. Nor do I bring these things up merely for the philosophical fun of it. There are many who feel that such discussions are morbid and pointless. And to some extend they are right. What matters is the world we see in the mirror--knowing that we see it in a mirror is only a secondary matter. A knowledge of our own distance from the world should perhaps knock some of the conceit out of us, but it does not substantially change our life. We can still be happy and live out a productive life in our tower. Tennyson said of the Lady of Shallot that “In her web she still delights/To weave the mirror's magic sights.” Even if we see the world through a glass darkly, we can find pleasure and good work to do.

Indeed, we would probably be better off if we never gave a second thought to our senses--just as you will get the most out of reading a book when you lose consciousness of the fact that you are reading. But there are certain specialized circumstances when this is not true. The present moment of cultural history is one of those points.

But to understand what I mean, we will have to stop for a moment and consider more about this mirror in which we see the world.

Across the room from me as I'm writing there is a red couch. I can only see the top and one side of it over my computer screen, but I've seen it many times before and I'm summarily familiar with it. As I look at it, light is hitting it and being reflected into my eyes so that I see it. Or so I am told by the scientists. I am certainly conscious of no such transaction. As I see it, there is a sensation of something red, but it is separate from other red sensations, such as the red book on the shelf next to the couch. I am also conscious of a very unique and even awkward shape for (though I never thought on it before), a couch is one of the oddest shaped things imaginable. It is like some sort of mutant, side-show-freak chair twisted out of all proportions. The couch is composed of a vast number of molecules composed of a vast number of atoms composed of a vast number of other things which should probably not be called things at all. But I am not directly conscious of any of that. I only force myself to think of that because I am writing this article and even with the thought in my mind, I have difficulty in truly internalizing it. The couch is also composed of a great many pieces of wood stuck together by staples or nails of some kind, padded around with cushioning and covered over with various strips of cloth. But, again, I am not conscious of any of that until I force myself to think about it, as I'm doing now. In other words, when I look at it, I do not merely see redness combined with a couch-shape, nor do I see a certain combination of wood and cushioning or of electrons and neutrons--when I look at it, I merely see a red couch. In the same way, on the other side of the room, there is a blond kitchen chair sitting askance. I see it and think of it as a chair--it is only as I write this that I see it as sixteen distinct pieces of wood stuck together--even though I can see all sixteen pieces clearly from where I sit. But, as I said, when I look at it, I only see a chair unless I consciously force myself to think of its individual parts. Perhaps one could train their mind otherwise--perhaps a carpenter would, because of his experience, see the chair as separate pieces of wood first and only secondarily as a chair. And if the chair were badly constructed, it might take me a minute or two to realize that it was, in fact, a chair and not merely pieces of wood stuck together. But these exceptions do not change the general fact.

And that general fact is that we do not see the world as raw data. Our mirror does more than simply reflect the world. We see the world in individual pieces grouped together. Our mind sorts our sense data into categories. Another example--also across the room is a small keyboard sitting on a metal stand. I see these as two separate objects, because I know from previous experience that they are separate objects even though, from where I'm sitting at the moment, I cannot see any break between them and they could (from all I can tell right now) be really a single, unified object. Of course, it is remotely possible that someone snuck into my house today and welded them together in which case my perception of them as two separate objects would be wrong.  But despite that possibility (which I cannot at the moment disprove without getting out of this chair), my mind still perceives them as two separate objects. In other words, our mind sorts our sense data into categories, based on experience and other factors.

Of course, there are some who pounce on this and say that our minds may be playing tricks on us. But of such skepticism I have nothing here to say. Especially since, if these people are right, the words you are reading right now may have no meaning at all except one arbitrarily assigned by your mind--and so to use those words to argue the matter would be a little silly.

But that idea of reading may bring us most easily to the point I'm trying to make. When a man (a man well used to reading) looks at the words on a page, he does not necessarily see them as individual words--or, at least, is not primarily conscious of them as individual words and certainly not as individual letters. The words are only means of communicating something to his mind, something he grasps without paying much attention to the words themselves. That is why it takes careful thought (for most people) to catch all spelling errors in a written work--because the mind can “read” the information in a word, even if the word is slightly misspelled. If I see the word tree written on a page, I do not think: “There is an alignment of the letters T, R, E, and another E in an order which indicates the presence of the word tree.” And when I see a tree in the world, I do not think: “There is a combination of greenness of a particular leafy-shape combined in a certain pattern with rough cylindrical wood-like projections which leads me to believe I am looking at a tree.” In other words, we do not merely see the world, we “read” the world. The mirror through which we see the world is not merely our senses but our reason which interprets and sorts the data gathered by the senses.

There may be certain states of mind in which this does not happen. A person in or awaking from delirium is sometimes described as lacking such ability to categorize and distinguish the world. But such states--if they actually exist--are rare. It would have been worthy task for the late Jack Kirby to try to picture the life of a man who lacked this ability--who woke one morning with no memory even of the forms of the world and could see the world only as a formless mass of sense of impressions. But the story would probably have driven Kirby and his readers insane--as the experience would most certainly do to its victim. We do not and cannot see the world except through the mirror of our understanding, except through the categories of our mind.

Understanding the way we “read” the world should help us refute a very silly sort of skepticism which, silly or not, is becoming very fashionable today. I can explain the matter best by a personal example. I have a great fondness for rivers, especially for small rivers that flow in forests. There is something about a small watercourse rushing through the silence of a green wood which often awakes in my soul a sense of awe and wonder. Apparently, a vast majority of people in the world do not feel this. It may be that the feeling is merely a subjective, personal feeling like enjoying ham and peanut-butter (another taste that most of the world does not share)--I will not argue about that here. But I do know that there is no point in surrendering my feelings about a forest stream to one who says: “But a stream is merely a certain collection of water molecules flowing at a given rate through an assortment of woody-plants. You could get the same affect by turning on a spigot in a green house.” It is true in one sense--a river is a combination of water molecules just as the word river is a combination of letters--and this is true of every physical thing and every word. But you do not prove that there is nothing worth reading in a book by proving it is composed merely of letters (letters which, in some other combination, might be vile and degrading); and, in the same way, you cannot prove that there is nothing of wonder or value in a physical thing by breaking it apart and looking at its composite parts. My joy in a river may be a private, subjective thing like Mad Margaret's obsession with the word Basingstoke, but a river is as plain and concrete a thing as the city of Basingstoke, whether we like it or not.

This is a sidenote, but it worth inserting here. Most of this work in breaking this world apart has been the work of science--science which turned water into H20 and turned that into atoms and turned atoms into subatomic particles and will probably have turned those into something else by the time this article is finished. When I was much younger, I felt a certain antagonism for science in this regard and doted on those lines of Wordsorth: “Our meddling intellect/Misshapes the beauteous form of things--/We murder to dissect.” I do not feel that way now. Partly because, as I said above, knowing what a thing is made of does not destroy what the thing is--science cannot take the awe and poetry out of the world any more than grammar and spelling take the meaning out of literature. But there is another reason though, as I said, this is a sidenote--and that is that the more science breaks down the world, the more awe-some and wondrous the world becomes. It is as if you ripped apart a beautiful picture and found a still more beautiful one on the canvas behind it. Some ancient people believed a river was the home of a Naiad. Some modern people believe the river is the home of the atom. There can be some debate which of these views is right. But there is no debate that the Naiad is a dull, prosaic, and commonplace thing compared to the atom. I think an uneducated, unprejudiced foreign intelligence would find the atom the far more wonderful idea of the two. He would also probably, by-the-by, find it harder to believe. So far from sweeping wonder and awe from the world, science is continually opening new volumes, new rooms, filled with fresh wonder. And if we do not see it here, it is because we have lost the ability to “read” the world and would not find anything so very wonderful in any possible universe, even if it was designed and built by a poet--though, indeed, this world may have been designed and built by a Poet, which we might see if see we had the eyes to read it.

This matter of “reading” the world is not confined to emotional and poetical matters such as those above, however. Suppose you saw a man, maddened by unfounded suspicion and self-imagined injuries, take a gun and put a bullet through the the heart of his rival. Suppose you saw a man, driven to the breaking point by real insults and abuse, by the deliberate trampling on all things sacred to self, pull his gun and with a shot silence his persecutor. Suppose you saw a man who, out of love of his homeland's flag and safety, braved his life for her sake by shooting down one of her enemies. Suppose you saw a man, in the last desperation of danger, with the life of himself and his family on the line, purchase their safety by a bullet in the chest of their attacker. If you are one sort of Nihilist, you would thinks all these actions right. If you are another sort, you would think them all wrong. If you are the rest of the human race, you would think some of them right and some of them wrong. But whatever view you take on the ethical matter, you have to see that each situation I described is very different. If they were all right, they would be different kinds of right. They might all be wrong, but they would different kinds of wrong. Yet, if you did witness such scenes, the essential physical characteristics would be essentially the same. The crack of the report, the acrid scent of powder, the sensation and appearance of the wound (... but this article is rated E so no more about that...)--they would all be substantially the same whether the action was murder, war, or self-defense, just as the same letters may appear in many words and the same words may appear in many works and yet mean something different in each specific context. This is just another example of our “reading” the world--of how we turn the sense data into real information. Of course, we must note that if we did witness such a shooting, we might have difficulty in determining just what kind of action it really was--it might appear at first sight to have been self-defense when further examination would reveal it was simple murder. But the very fact that we can misread something indicates that there is something to read.

Or let us take another example--an ethical problem as brutally practical as murder and far more pressing at the present time. Nearly all civilized societies have recognized the importance of the family; the duty of parents to children, children to parents, and all members generally to one another has been seen as one of the most fundamental duties of humanity. “Honor thy father and thy mother” is not just a Biblical principal--it can practically be said to be common to all civilizations. But I remember hearing an acquaintance of mine make fun of this whole concept. “Why,” he asked, “would the mere fact of giving birth to someone make you worthy of respect?” And he had a point. The process which creates the family is merely a physical process of chemistry and biology like many other mundane, prosaic chemical and biological processes. How can the family be a moral matter when it is the result of simple, physical processes?--which is exactly like asking how family can be a meaningful word when it is simply an alignment of the letters F, A, M, I, L, and Y. Refusing to admit the moral claims and perils, the goodness and evils of the family because it is merely a result of physical processes is exactly like denying that anyone could ever sit comfortably on a couch because, after all, a couch is merely a combination of wood and nails and cloths. Just as an illiterate man would see only black marks on paper where a good reader would see soaring lyrics, so the cynic sees only physical processes where the rest of us see the family. The fact that some people cannot read does not prove that reading is a hoax, and the fact that some people do not see the family does not prove that the family does not exist. But there is a strange addition to this--the illiterate man sees only black marks where the reader sees words. But the reader also sees black marks. In other words, he sees what his unlearned friend sees but he sees something else as well. The moralist sees the family, but he also sees and knows the scientific processes which creates the family--he sees the whole, while the cynic can only see half.

To some, this all will seem dangerously subjective. To some, the claim that we can “read” the world means only that we “read into” the world our own ideas and thoughts. Usually these people will advise us to content ourselves with understanding the world with the more exact and dependable tools of science and give up the hope of finding meaning or value in the world. There is something to be said for this point of view, but there is a problem.

Take a few lines of poetry, like these from Tennyson's Princess. “The splendor falls on castle walls/And snowy summits old in story;/The long light shakes across the lakes,/And the wild cataract leaps in glory.” If we read these in the right spirit and heart, we will feel something of what the poet meant--the awe and wonder of twilight and the special beauty and terror it gives to ordinary things; the weight and glory of all things old and majestic; the joy and thrill in wild nature. But there is another way to read them, and that is analytically: “[The] splendor (main noun, metonym for sunlight) falls (intransitive verb, describes metaphorically the action of the main noun) on (preposition followed by complex prepositional phrase describing where the splendor fell) [1] castle walls and (conjunction, coordinating the complex prepositional phrase) [2] snowy (adjective) summits old in story (functions as an adjectival phrase, also describing summits).” And so forth. It is harder, less interesting, and takes a good deal more time to read, but it is more exact and it is, in certain situations, necessary. One could draw out a full-blown analogy between the poetical and analytical approach to literature and the philosophical and scientific approach the world. That is not my purpose here. I just want to point out one thing--neither one could be done by someone who could not read. Neither one could be done to a sheet of blank paper. If this world has no meaning, then the philosopher and the scientist are equally wasting their time. If the mirror through which we see the world lies, then we are all deceived and can know nothing of the real world.

Someday, we shall know as we are known--but till then, we see through a glass darkly. We cannot leave our mirror and see the world as it “truly” is. When the Lady of Shallot turned away from her mirror and tried to look out the window, “The mirror crack'd from side to side;/'The curse is come upon me,' cried/The Lady of Shalott.” If we try to escape from our senses and our reason which interprets them, we will be cursed with madness, trapped in the tower of our own ego without any ability to see the world outside. And that curse is coming slowly upon our world as we slowly reject the possibility of objective knowledge of the world outside us. Once you could (and with most people you could still) work some kind of theistic argument out of this--you could say that since we see the world accurately through our mirror, we must believe that God made the mirror. There is no reason to suppose on an a naturalistic worldview that we would have ever gained the ability to accurately understand the world. Only the WORD could teach us to read. But in this day, we must increasingly say it the other way around (though it sounds perilously presuppositional)--we must say that because there is a God, therefore we have the ability to understand and read the world. Because the WORD is in the beginning, there can be such a thing as reading. We can honestly and sanely read the world, only because the world was written to be read--and the world can only be such because it has an Author.

[Note: Though I have not directly referenced the work, much of the thought for this was drawn from The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis. The specific analogy of reading morality out of the raw data of a shooting is taken (though treated differently) from chapter 12 of The Best Things in Life by Peter Kreft.]

Monday, July 10, 2017

Stand Fast in Liberty


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

This is the key paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. In it, the founders clearly stated their reasons for breaking from the British Government. The British Government, they said, was destroying the rights and freedoms which are the inherent birthright of every human being. A right is a thing a person is entitled to, a thing a person 'ought' to have--not something they have automatically. Like most other possessions, they can be taken away. The government is supposed to protect these rights and when, instead, it begins to destroy them, it is ceasing to fulfill its role and must be replaced. Freedom, the founders thought, was something so fundamental that people have a right to fight for it when it is taken away.

And this truth is not confined to politics. In Galatians 5:1, St. Paul made a similar declaration: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” There were false teachers in the Galatian church who were trying to lead people away from the true doctrine, who were trying to take away the spiritual freedom which is the right of all Christians. And Paul's admonition was to stand fast in their liberty--in other words, not to give it up, not to let people trick them out of it, don't let it slip away. Just as bad governments sometimes take away people's political freedom, so bad theology can take away people's spiritual freedom. That is why we must stand fast in our liberty--in a sense, be willing to fight for it as a revolutionist fights for his political freedom.

But if we are to fight for our freedom, we have to know what freedom is--and that is not as simple as it sounds. What is liberty? What is freedom? Usually it is defined as the remove of restriction. What makes slavery or tyranny in a civil sense is too much restriction, too much containment. And this concept carries through from the political to the personal. People feel that they are bound in their own nature by the urge to do better ("superego") and the fear of their own faults and selfish nature ("id") Sady Doyle gives this quote, commenting on another quote by Joseph Campbell: "'Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster--the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id).' When the superego's judgment is no longer powerful enough to annihilate us... and the id is accepted by the ego without fear..., our wholeness is restored, our place in the cosmos is found, and we are free." A similar concept is echoed in the words of a song which was hugely popular a few years ago, one line of which runs: "No right, no wrong, no rules for me,/I'm free!" This is a very popular concept--that freedom comes by denying rules and authority. And it is easy to see how such a mistake might arise. But there is a problem with it.

Imagine a pentagon drawn on a blackboard. If you erase two of the lines and replace them with a single line you will create a quadrilateral. If you erase two more lines and again replace them with a single line, you will create a triangle. But if you erase all three lines of the triangle, you are left with nothing. A triangle, if it is to exist at all, must have three sides and a quadrilateral must have four and so on. To erase all those restrictions, is simply to erase the figure altogether. “You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump:  you may be freeing him from being a camel.  Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides.  If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end." (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 3) To exist means to have certain restrictions. To be free of all restrictions is a contradiction in terms--even God is not free in this sense, for He is bound by the lines of His own nature, for it is impossible for Him to deny Himself, for Him to lie, for Him to be other than what He is for He is the Lord and He changes not. Neither spiritual freedom nor political freedom mean an absence of all restrictions. Nor does it mean the absence of all law. In Galatians 5:13 Paul makes a qualification about liberty. He says that it is not to be used as an occasion for sin or, as Barnes paraphrases it, “You are called to liberty, but it is not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” Following this, Paul lists things which are and are not to be part of the Christians life--in other words, he gives laws. The New Testament is full of laws and commandments. Just as when the Americans threw off the power of Britain, they established a new government with its share of laws and regulations. Just as when the slaves were freed following the Civil War they were made full citizens of America and therefore under all its laws. Just so, someone who is free in Christ is still bound by the laws of Christ. In fact, there is a certain sense in which we have no choice between being free or being bound--rather, we our choice is only what we will be free of and what we will be bound to, for we are always bound to something and free of something else. (See Romans 6:17-22)

And there are many ways in which being being bound by the laws of a good nation are different than being bound by the laws of a despotism; there are a lot of ways in which the restrictions of a citizen are better than the restrictions of a slave; a lot of ways in which being a servant of God is better than being a servant of Sin. The Devil, like the despot, has no real right to rule us, whereas God has a right to demand our allegiance. Sin, like slavery, has no thought of the good of those in its power, where as God and a good government make laws for the good of the governed. Satan, like Pharaoh, demands that his slaves make bricks without straw, while God provides us with the power to follow His laws. And there is always some kind of degradation in slavery as there in sin, where as God gives us the honor and dignity of sons and citizens. Still, I think there is a deeper answer to this question and I'm not at all sure I know what it is. But I think I know at least part of the answer and Paul gives us that answer in Galatians.

It is very significant that in Galatians 5:13-15 he links liberty with love, as this is a point Paul makes several times in writings, especially in Romans and 1 Corinthians. In contradistinction to the false or libertine use of liberty he places love and, particularly, love in service: "By love serve one another." Love, he continues, is the fulfilling of the law, something he also says in Romans and which harks back to Jesus' words about the greatest commandment. In 5:15 he adds that if we do not have love, if we all live for our own interests, we will destroy one another, like a pack of biting, quarreling animals.

In other words, the liberty of which Paul is speaking here is not simply an abstract liberty, but a liberty for a purpose. The Christian is set free, not merely to be free, but in order to love. One might even say that a Christian is set free to serve. At first sight, this appears to be a meaningless evasion. If you told a slave that he was free--but only free to be a slave--he probably would not feel very much better about the situation. Nor would the Founding Fathers have been particularly impressed if Britain had answered their Declaration of Independence by pointing out that they were perfectly free to obey British law. But if we look more closely, we can begin to understand.

Frequently the kite used as an illustration of this point. If you're flying a kite and cut the string, it will not continue to fly. It is the limitation of the string which makes it possible to fly in the first place. However, there is a more fundamental point to notice here. If a kite cannot fly, it is useless. Other than as decoration, there is no real use for a flightless kite. A kite is created for the sole purpose of flying and if it loses this it is henceforth good for nothing except to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men. If you lock up a kite and prevent it from flying, this is tyranny. But the limitations of the string when the kite is flying is not tyranny because it allows the kite to fulfill its purpose.

And we as human beings were created for love--we were created to love God and to love one another. It was for this and for this alone that the world was made. Physical slavery is oppression because it treats a man as a physical possession, as something man was not created to be--and the slavery of sin is a far greater oppression, because it prevents man from loving God and loving His neighbor, the thing which in the very beginning he was created to do. In the same way, the heresy at Galatia was introducing a kind of slavery because it was forcing people in a dependence on the Jewish Law which God (who gave that law) had never intended. It was forcing men to become earners of their own salvation which, first of all, isn't possible, and second of all is a burden which God never placed on man. God never asked man to make the bricks of salvation without the straw of grace. This all is slavery and oppression, because it prevents people from being what God meant them to be and forces them to be something else. That is why it is only the Truth which can set men free, for it is only by the Truth that we know what freedom is, since a thing can never be free until it knows what it was meant to be.

Because this freedom is founded on truth and on the purposes of God, it is a freedom which allows for growth and development. A line from a Southern Gospel Song describes the "freedom" of a sinner with these words: "Free as a feather in a foolish wind, I'd go anywhere it blew." A feather blowing on the wind is free in the sense it is not restricted, but it also accomplishes nothing. A rolling stone gathers no moss. But the freedom which Christ gives is like the freedom of a tree planted by a river of water, free to put down its roots unopposed and to gain all the nutrients it needs. It is free to become something, to grow. Simply because one part of it is bound the rest of it can be free to do things it could never accomplish. The maple tree releases its seeds in a kind of helicopter pod which floats easily on the wind. But this seed does nothing so long as it is floating on the wind. It is only when it falls into the earth and is bound that it begin to grow, to produce its sweet sap, and to raises its green leaves to Heaven.

A Tale of Two Cities


I.
This was the tale that was told unto me
In my dreams back in the asylum,
A tale of two cities, both wondrous to see
Whether we despise or admire 'em.
Though I fear that world will not understand
Yet I'll try my best to make plain
My sight of the city that dreams mid the sand
And the city where they dance in the rain.

II.
An echo of silence on night-shadowed wings
Flies o'er my mind; and in a moment I stand
At the heart of the desert; my memory brings
Me back to the city that dreams mid the sand.

The sands here are twisted like dragons at rest,
Mountains and valleys that change by the day--
Deep in these mazes, hid in its nest
Are the walls of a city where never comes day.
The walls are of stone, burnished tan like the dust
Turreted strong for a war never fought,
The towering gates have been reddened by rust,
The beams and the timbers long eaten by rot.
And ever the sands beat around on the wall
Rising like smoke from a fire that's fanned
And ever this cloud hides the sun like a pall
From the face of the city that dreams mid the sand.

The lanes of the city are pockmarked by age,
And no steps are marked in the sands of the street,
The shadows and silence both linger like rage
And seldom are stirred by the movement of feet.
For this is a city of ghosts more than men,
Though the men of the city are far more than ghosts.
Seldom they walk on these roadways--and then
They pass from our ken like rash, unfounded boasts.
But the city is peopled by scores upon scores,
Countless the ranks of its politan band
And in each in his chamber, behind barréd doors
Sleeps in the city that dreams mid the sand.

For the sands of this desert have power bizarre
To grant to men slumber and dreams, clear and plain,
So each in their sleeping may follow their star
And live out a life in the world of their brain.
What need have they, then, for the city outside?
For the walls and the walkways all ruined and old?
Each man has within him a place to abide
Where all things are perfect and shining as gold.
Some dream of pleasure and some, aiming higher,
Dream of success, love, or glory so grand
And here alone all find the thing they desire
Here in the city that dreams mid the sand.

Sometimes one wakes and walks the blank streets
(As lone as a ghost when it haunts a machine)
With scorn and despite for all that he meets,
Compared with the wonders within he has seen.
Two sometimes meet in those dark, empty rows--
A son and his father met once in those scenes
And they parted with strife and contemptuous blows
(The father had had better sons in his dreams).
So I turn in the silence, with night--shadowed wings,
And stare at the walls and the streets as they stand,
A kingdom of visions and unspoken things--
In the sleep of the city that dreams mid the sand.

III.
Sometimes in my mind when long I ponder
On words too heavy and worlds too vain
At last, in my mind I come to wander
Back to the city where they dance in the rain.

At the edge of the desert it rises alone,
Between the gold waste and the green, meadowed field
A mountain of cold, damp, desolate stone
Turned towards the desert like a threatening shield.
A single swift torrent descends from its peak
Plunging itself in precipitous mirth 
And high on its course is the thing that we seek
The nest of a city, lodged high o'er the earth.
The city is carved out of rocks rough, undone,
Set in a cleft by the river's swift train,
Its walls damp and cold glisten gray in the sun--
This is the city where they dance in the rain.

This is a city of bustle and noise,
Where movement and labor meet each way the sight
Where men and their wives, where the girls and the boys
Work at their labor from the dawn to the night.
For the nest of the city's a desolate place
So barren you'd say that there nothing could live--
And so all in the city, with good will and grace,
They strive so that life to each other can give.
Here the master has need of no whip
And here the slave is bound by no chain
For they work joined by need and comradeship
Together in the city where they dance in the rain.

But when the dark thunder is heard on the crest
The laboring ceases with a shout and glad cry
And all of the city, each clothed in their best
Stand out in the roadways and gaze at the sky
Awaiting the rain, which comes swiftly and cold,
Filling their wells and renewing the stream
With water more precious to them than pure gold;
Without it life here could be only a dream.
And they dance together in tumultuous strife
In pleasure as pure and pungent as pain
With a hymn of fresh gladness; a hymn of new life;
The hymn of the city where they dance in the rain.

And I fear the world cannot understand
How they come to joy in this simple thing;
How the ran which falls upon every land
To them such a special blessing can bring.
But they worship a God whose sovereign might
Has given them life in this desolate place
And the things of this world grow strangely bright
In the glow of His great and glorious grace.
So often when I ponder our lack
Our words too heavy and worlds too vain
At last in my mind I wander back--
Back to the city where they dance in the rain.

IV.
This was the tale that was told unto me
In my dreams back in the asylum,
A tale of two cities, both wondrous to see
Whether we despise or admire 'em;
And I fear our judgment too hasty might run
For 'twould easily go with the grain
To put those who sleep and dream of the sun
Over those who wake in the rain.
We might rather be alone with our dreams
Then with our brothers in the damp and cold--
If it were not for the end--the end of all things--
And the end of the tale I was told.
For after ten centuries have passed in that land,
When the sky is scorched and red,
A shudder shall pass through the city of sand
And the sleepers shall rise like the dead.
Then a war shall be fought, the last war of mankind,
And the desert and mountain shall shake
As the seeing fight to the death with the blind,
And the sleepers with those who wake.
Then God from His Heaven a word will send down
To sunder the tares from the grain
And the sands and the dreams and the slumbering town
Will be washed away by the rain.

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 10


[White's Journal. Sixth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] We had been joined by Altayra's princess, Valencia, in our quest to reactivate the Guidance Beacon. But in the village of Hath'ellah, we were ambushed by Maxwell and the Nadirites. In order to protect the princess and the people of the village, Gold struck a deal--he, I, Green, and Black would fight the Nadirites in the wilderness outside the town, while the princess remained with Silver, Red, and Blue. However, we soon learned that Erybus had a trick up his sleeve--a trick capable of using the unique design of the Altayra System itself as a weapon to destroy the village and our companions.

For just a moment, Gold, White, and Black were all equally paralyzed by shock and horror. Even White, with her ability to process data, had trouble for a second processing what Erybus had said.

Then Gold lunged forward, moving so quickly that Erybus didn't have time to counter the attack. Gold struck him full in the chest, sending him sailing upwards in the air, with Gold close behind. But though he had actually caught the Nadirite captain by surprise, Erybus was far from overcome. He flickered and then vanished, reappearing right behind Gold.

“Look out!” White shouted. She was about to fly to his assistance, but at that moment, she was jumped from behind by two of the power suits.

“Well, um, yeah, so--this is, you know, fun,” remarked Maxwell, in his usual, awkward fashion, as fired his present weapon (a large laser of some kind) at Black, who just barely twisted out of the way.

“Gold--we can't fight them this way--” White shot out from under her attackers and circled around towards Erybus who seemed to sense her attack and teleported out of the way.

“Actually, we can't fight them at all.” She was a little shocked to hear Gold sound so collected. His voice was hard but controlled. “This may all be a trick. We can't trust anything Erybus says. We've got to go back to Hath'ellah.”

“Which may be just what he's trying to get us to do,” thought White. It was so hard to sort through the layers of deceit since they still had no idea what it was that Erybus was really after. Still, Gold was right. They had to find out what had happened to the others--and nothing could be gained by continuing this fight here and now. “So what's our plan?”

“We run away.” Gold sounded bitter. “It's easy enough. These powersuits can't match our speed--and I don't think Erybus and Maxwell will follow on their own. Take the lead, White. I'll cover the rear.”

“That makes me the middle of the sandwich, right?” observed Black. “Hmm, hmm. A Black Sandwich. I like the sound of that.”

Apparently, nothing could shake Black very much.

“Go--now!”

Maxwell and the powersuits didn't even have time to react as the three turned and shot off. Erybus levitated in the air with his arms folded, smiling. He seemed to have expected the move.

“They ran away,” he observed calmly.

Maxwell shook his hair out of his eyes and glanced over at him. “Um, so we, like, you know, just lost a chance to defeat them--and that makes you--happy?”

“Yes,” answered Erybus, slowly coming down to ground level. “That makes me very happy.”

“The comm channel is clear, but I can't raise any of the others--not even Green,” White commented as they shot towards Hath'ellah.

“You sure it's not being jammed?”

“If it is, it has to be near their end--there's no static here.”

“Do you have any idea where Green is? I mean, did you see him during the battle?”

“No.”

“I was kinda busy to be looking for invisible people,” added Black.

By this time they had reached the village.

Well, what was left of the village.

Erybus had been telling that much of the truth, anyway. The village (which less than an hour before had been bustling with life) was little more than scattered heaps of rubble. Most of the buildings had been made of stone, and now they could barely be distinguished from the black stone of the planet. (Though it was very dark now, the Corps' armor allowed them to see as well in darkness as in light.) There was no sound anywhere.

The threesome dropped to the ground in the middle of the wreckage. Gold and White both phased off their helmets and looked at each other.

White had always known that this was dangerous business. The very nature of the Corps meant that they were continually putting their lives in danger. She had been trained as a warrior and had known the loss of comrades-in-arms even before joining the Corps. But somehow she still wasn't prepared for this.

Black's voice, when she spoke, was subdued--for her, anyway. “They're not here, are they?”

White closed her eyes for just a moment. “For once, Erybus was telling the truth.”

Gold had turned away but now he looked back and met her gaze again. His eyes were cold and hard, but there was a strange note to his mouth, almost like a smile, though without humor. “Maybe. But I'm not so sure.”

*

Neither Red nor Silver had understood the danger that caused Blue and Valencia to move so quickly--but they weren't about to be left behind, either. The princess had a head start and the distance was short, so she had reached the base of the hill by the time the others had caught up with her.

The hill of the receiving station rose steep and abrupt from the ground behind the village, more like a wall than a hill. As they reached it, they realized there was a large, metal door set into a deep recess of the wall.

“We've got to get inside, quickly,” she said, turning to face them. “But--” She seemed a little helpless.

The others took it that there was going to be trouble with getting the doors open.

“The walls and door are too think for me to teleport through,” commented Red as they stopped in front of the door. (His armor allowed him to “sense” the thickness of things, specifically to enable his teleportation ability.)

“Let me break us a path,” said Silver quietly.

Blue shook her head. “We'll need the doors intact. Maybe I can--” She walked forward and touched the door. There was a slight noise and then the two heavy panels slid back into the wall. “Well, that was easy. But we don't have a second to lose. Everyone in.”

Neither Red nor Silver had ever seen Blue like this, and neither was going to argue with her when she spoke authoritatively. Within seconds, the three members of the Corps and the princess were inside. Blue slid the door shut behind her. “Phase on your helmet,” she ordered, glancing at Red--the only one of the three who didn't have his helmt on. “We should be safe in here, but there's no guarantee.”

“Safe from what?” Red had been rushed along by events up to this point, but now he was getting irked at not knowing what was going on. Still, he did phase on his helmet. “And what is this place?”

That was not an easy question to answer. They were standing in a round, low room--the ceiling was so low that Silver had to stoop slightly to avoid bumping it. It was hewn from the black rock of the planet, seeming as if a natural cavern had been expanded slightly by human work. In the exact center of the room was a huge column of rock, joining to the ceiling--which, unlike the rest of the room, was clearly of human origin and was as smooth as a mirror. There was absolutely nothing else in the room except for an old wooden chair overturned and half broken, and a thick layer of dust on the floor. It was almost pitch black except for a slight glow which came from the column of rock in the center of the room.

Princess Valencia cleared her throat. “I am not exactly sure what purpose it serves; I believe it is used by those who work on the energy system, but I don't exactly know in what capacity.”

Red nodded. He remembered now what the princess had said before about the energy system--though in the meantime it had slipped his mind. Because the Altayra System had no central star, the energy necessary to supply the planets with light and other things was produced in an underground reactor on another planet--and then “beamed” down to the other planets. Receiving stations like the one they had seen before--under which they were now hiding--channeled the energy down into subterranean veins which then carried it around the planet. All of which was interesting, but didn't explain one thing-- “But why are we hiding here?”

Blue seemed tense as if waiting for something. But she answered coolly enough. “Because the Altayra System is practically a natural weapon. Erybus let us stay safely in Hath'ellah for some reason--I'll eat Green's hat if he doesn't plan to use the energy system, somehow, to destroy the town--and us to. Hopefully, this is the one place we'll be safe. But keep your armor on just in case.”

Red glanced from Blue to the princess. “But what about Valencia? If we're not safe here--”

“If we're not safe here, there's nothing I can do.”

Red took a step towards the princess. “There's got to be some way to protect her.”

Valencia drew herself up, smoothing out her dress with one hand. Her eyes were clear and calm. “We are all going to die sooner or later. Death is always an unwelcome guest, but he is still a guest and must be honored as such. What does is matter if I die now or two months from now?” For just a moment, she faltered. “There are just so many things I wish I could have completed first...”

“Don't--” Red began.

And then it happened.

Only Blue was fully aware of it, because of the sensors in her armor. But all the others could hear--far, far away, seemingly--a rush and crackle and roar. And all of them could see the column in the center of the room glow blinding white for just an instant. Though the flash faded, the stone remained glowing brightly, fully illuminating the room.

Blue nodded. “We survived.”

Red glanced back at Valencia. “See? I told you there was nothing to worry about.”

She smiled. “I do not recall you saying that.”

“Well--I was about to. Anyway, everything's all right now.”

Blue was still standing in a slightly tensed attitude. “Not quite.”

“What do you mean?”

For the first time, Blue seemed uncertain. “Something doesn't seem right.” She walked to the door and touched one of the panels.

There was a crackle of energy and she was thrown back about three feet.

Valencia and Red both started. “What--” Red began.

“Was that--” began the princess, at almost the same moment.

“Red, fire one of your energy stars at the door--but be careful.”

“Just watch me.” Red raised his right arm. For just an instant, energy seemed to gather and crackle on the back of clenched hand--and then a spark shot out and hit the door. There was a crackle of energy and the spark shot back, ricocheting off the wall and very nearly hitting Silver--but the boy ducked at the right moment. It bounced off the door again, seeming to become bigger and faster. It was headed towards the pillar in the center of the chamber but Blue moved to intercept its path. Red's energy stars were not that powerful of a weapon and it could do nothing to hurt Blue's armor.

For just an instant there was silence, and then Blue gave vent to her feelings in a very short but expressive comment.

Red phased off his helmet and stared at her. He had never seen Blue like this. And it scared him just a little, though there was no way he was going to show it--especially not in front of Princess Valencia. “It's a good thing Gold isn't here to hear you use that kind of language,” he said carelessly.

Blue seemed preoccupied. “White isn't here so he wouldn't care. Even Gold's ideas of protocol aren't that idealistic. It's only because it bothers White that he would care.” She phased off her helmet also and glanced around. “But unfortunately we've landed ourselves in a neat little trap.”

“So the door is rigged?”

“No. If it was just that, we could break through one of the other walls. It isn't just the door--it's this entire place.”

“I do not understand.”

“I don't suppose there's any point in getting into advanced physics here and now, Princess. Apparently, as I suspected, the Nadirites used the energy from Altayra Conaurah to attack us. They intensified and magnified the energy beam, but its epicenter was still here at the receiving station--or close, anyway. That much raw energy striking around the receiving station, combined with certain qualities in the rock of your planet, has caused a somewhat rare occurrence--though by no means unheard of.”

“What do you mean?” Princess Valencia seemed more unnerved by Blue's calm tone than she would have been by any frantic rhapsodies of fear.

“That energy has created a natural force field around us.”

“Force field?” repeated Red.

“I would imagine you're familiar with the concept. If not, imagine it like a mirror. A mirror reflects photonic energy, so that you can see a reflection. A force field reflects all kinds of energy, nullifying any direct attack. Usually, it's an expensive matter to generate a force field--but we happen to be standing dead center in a natural one. There's no way for us to get out. I don't think Erybus planned this, but he couldn't have caught us any more neatly if he had planned it.”

“Can the others break us out?” asked Silver. He had phased off his armor and now sat cross legged on the ground, with his head bowed.”

“Probably. Dissolving a force field is relatively simple if you know what you're doing--White or Green would both know how. Maybe even Gold. But that's assuming that Erybus didn't finish them off already. And assuming they knew we were here. But they don't. If they come back to Hath'ellah and we aren't there, they'll just assume we were killed in the blast.” She turned away and paced a few steps. “And even if they did know we're here, they might not guess it's a force field--not without my sensors to guide them. They'll just think it's some kind of natural energy barrier and try to break through. If the kinetic energy of their armor is rammed into that field full force, I'm not sure what will happen, but probably nothing good--considering how much raw energy there is around here. And since that energy would also block our communicators--even if they were were working, which they weren't earlier--we don't have anyway of telling that where we are or what to do.”

“So what are we going to do now?” asked Red after a minute.

Blue paced a few steps further. “Sit down and wait to die of dehydration.”

“This is what you call--sarcasm?” asked Princess Valencia, speaking in a low voice to Red.

Red shook his head. “With her, I'm never sure.”

There was a moment of silence. It was very quiet in the room. There was a slight whine from somewhere, probably from the stored energy all around them, but this slight sound only seemed to intensify the silence.

Red seemed annoyed by the quiet. He walked across the floor, stomping his feet unnecessarily (though even his armored feet made little sound on the dust-covered floor). He picked up the broken chair and examined it. “I guess this thing is pretty much busted. I'm afraid I can't give you place to sit, Valencia.”

She smiled and then sat down gracefully on the ground. “There is still the ground.”

“You'll get all dirty.”

“I think that is the least of our concerns.”

Red suddenly dropped to one knee and picked something up from the dust. He wiped the dust from it on the sleeve of his jacket (he had phased off his armor by now) and then held it up. “Look at this! It's a Nadirite medallion.”

Blue had been standing with her back to them, but now she turned and took the object from him. They had all seen such objects before--a smooth, round black stone on a chain--inlaid with a silver figure eight on its side with a line struck through it. Most Nadirites--even the foot soldiers--wore one of these. “So they were here.”

“Do you think they set up this trap?”

“I don't see how that's possible.” Blue turned the medallion over in her hand and then stowed it in her pocket. (She had also phased off her armor.) “More likely, they used this as a hide out while setting things up on this planet. It is a perfect place to hide. Too perfect for us.”

“You don't have to remind me.”

There was another moment of silence and then suddenly Red began pacing nervously. “It's too quiet. It's as quiet as a--”

He faltered, but Valencia finished primly. “As a tomb? I believe that is the expression?”

“Do you have to put it that way?”

“Are you afraid?”

“Of course not.” Red spoke so quickly, he practically choked himself. “It'd take more than a spot like this to scare me. You don't know the kind thing the Corps does every day. If I were scared by this--”

“But you are, aren't you?” Valencia insisted.

Red clenched one fist involuntarily and his voice almost cracked as he answered. “I just don't like small, enclosed spaces, OK? Growing up on Kastoria, I had a whole planet to roam around on. And with this armor, even walls can't usually hold me. It just feels--so--weird to be here in one place and not be able to get out.”

Blue nodded. “Claustrophobia. I should have realized that--the way you reacted when Maxwell trapped you inside his robot this morning.”

“Let's not talk about that--” Red interrupted hastily.

Silver raised his head heavily. “The limitations of the body need never cause fear, so long as your mind is free.” He bowed his head again--and to Red's utter amazement, Silver began to sing. At least, it was more like singing than anything else, though it had less tune in it than singing usually does. It some ways it was more like chanting or even recitation, yet it still had a certain, distinctive note of song.

Red couldn't have told later the exact the words Silver sang or how he sang them. The only distinct impression he had was of a series of images which the song seemed to conjure in his head. He saw broad planes and meadows, where grass glowed green in the golden sun; he felt himself running along the side of rushing blue rivers with cool breezes blowing against his cheeks. He saw powerful cascades, singing and laughing over rocks and boulders, and above them towering gray mountains which seemed to reach towards the stars. Aged trees, hung with heavy vines, clustered in green forests while beyond them the broad blue sea foamed and crashed against steep black cliffs.

Red felt himself so caught up in the song that he barely knew it was a song, and for an instant or two after Silver stopped singing he didn't realize that he had stopped. It was just a little bit of a shock to glance around and realize that he was still in the dark stone chamber beneath the receiving station on the barren planet of Altayra Vorphintus.

“Most... interesting.” Valencia seemed unsure what to say but to feel that something was required.

“I-I never knew you could sing, Silver,” said Red, sitting down and staring at the older boy with admiration and puzzlement.

Silver still sat with his head bowed. “It is how I learned to live with the silence and isolation. Your body can sit alone in its tiny cell and still your mind may rove the world. My song allowed me to travel my whole world even while I waited in my small prison--and now I carry it with me across this universe.”

Besides the shock of hearing him sing, this was also the most Red had ever heard Silver speak at one time before. He was surprised--and also puzzled. “'Your small prison'?” He repeated the phrase. “You mean you were once imprisoned in your own world?”

Nobody was there to remind him that he had just broken Gold's rule about not asking each other about their past.

For a moment, Silver didn't answer. It wasn't so much that he seemed unwilling to answer as that he seemed so deep in thought that he didn't hear the question.

“Tell them, Silver,” said Blue quietly. “You told me your story once, and I think it is time the others heard it. More than hear it--see it. Once they have seen it, this place will seem as vast and spacious as her highness's palace.”

Red was momentarily distracted, trying to figure out whether Blue was being sarcastic and if so what her sarcasm meant, but his mind was not one that stayed on these kinds of questions very long. “Show us what?”

Silver raised his head to look at them. And then with slow, methodical movements, he raised one hand to his neck. Red was not the observant type, and so had never noticed the fine silver chain that was usually hidden under the collar of his jacket. (White had noticed it, but never thought much about it as such necklaces were far from uncommon.) But now Silver pulled on the chain, drawing from underneath his shirt something which hung on the end of the necklace like a pendant. Pressing a catch of some kind, he separated the object and held it up. It was a metallic sphere, hardly more than a centimeter in diameter, with no break in its surface except for the hook at the top. The outside was smooth and bright, glistening even in the dimness of the cave.

He held it for a moment in his hand before he spoke. “For many, many hours of my life, this was my prison--and my home.”

Both Valencia and Red started. “I-I don't understand.” There was something almost of fear in the princess's voice.

“Do you really mean that--that you could fit--inside that--that little thing?” Red was not quite so awed, but he was still confused and intrigued.

“Many years ago, the sages of Bellas--my home world--developed a way to allow a person to shrink in size and then return to normal size. Only one who has been conditioned from birth can do it--I was one of many who were so conditioned.”

“But why?” pressed Valencia.

“And why into that little sphere?” added Red.

“The sphere is the only known way of achieving the size change. Why the custom began at all, I do not know--that was countless years ago. But it has a very practical use for those who want to keep their slaves where they can find them--and transport them easily.”

For a moment there was silence. That one word--slave--had fallen heavily on the dim room. This time nobody asked Silver what he meant.

“You must understand,” began Silver again, after a long pause, “Bellas is a planet of great beauty, of great natural resources--a place where great art and science has been achieved. But before all, beyond all, above all--it is a planet that honors, that worships, that revels in combat. It was the warring of the gods that brought us into being--or so the legends say. It is in strife and fighting that the life of the world continues. And so on Bellas, the only thing of true interest and value is fighting. All our arts celebrate that--all our science promotes that--our rolling plains and ancient forests are only backdrops to that. Any honor or achievement that can be gained in other pursuits are nothing to the honor and achievement of victory in combat.”

Once again, he paused. In that pause, Red couldn't help thinking that though Silver was taciturn enough usually, once he started talking he did an awful lot of it--and did it well, too.

“There are the great championship fights, but fighting is not reserve to that. Affairs of honor and pride are settled by fighting. Many business contracts are settled by fighting. Even wars are often decided by fighting--by the combat of only a few individuals. On Bellas, you can seldom walk anywhere for more than two miles without at least one fight. But none of this fighting is done by free men, by the men concerned in whatever the object of the fight is--it is all done by their proxies, by the slaves they train to fight for them. I was born to that life.”

“So you were--basically--a gladiator?”

“That is not the term we used on Bellas. And if the myths speak truly of the gladiators of the homeworld, their sport was mere butchery. On Bellas, the goal was to win--not merely to kill. And with our science, there were few men so badly hurt that they could not be got back on their feet after the battle.” After pause, he added, “The medical machinery on The Crystallair is based on the healing techniques of Bellas--which were brought into common use in Ursa Prime after my world was annexed and all this I have spoken was undone, for then the slaves were set free and a strange peace fell on the green fields and forests of Bellas. It was after this that Prefect Alkyte found me and offered me the opportunity of joining the Corps.”

“So for your whole life before that, all you knew was slavery and fighting?”

Silver nodded. “There were several classes of warriors. Some wore heavy armor and carried dangerous weapons of one kind or another. But I was of a different class--one who fought only with their own body. Weaker and more vulnerable for that reason, but also swifter and more adaptable. My young master dreamed of winning the championship battle of Bellas, and so he gave me and my fellow slaves--the rest of his team--the best training he could. We spent much time in battle and much more in hard training. The rest of the time, I spent in here--waiting.” He tapped the small silver sphere.

Red understood now--understood why Silver was the fighter he was and why he had been chosen to bear the silver armor which augmented his already great natural skill. But one phrase caught his attention. “Your 'young master'?”

“He was only twelve when we were set free. Children were allowed--were expected--to train and battle their slaves as well as adults, for their own protection if nothing else. But since victory depended on the strength and skill of the fighter, a child had as good a chance as an adult if he knew how to train his slaves properly.” For a moment, a strange, sad look entered his face. “I am sometimes sorry that we never had the chance to fight in the championships. It was a great disappointment to him--he had lived for nothing else.”

Red's eyes flared. “Some little kid owned you, bossed you around, and kept you locked up in that teeny prison--and you feel sorry for him?”

Silver smiled, a slow, thoughtful smile. “You could never understand. I do not understand myself. The gods made this world a very strange place. My master was always kind. But--” his face became stern and set-- “he was still a master. And I was still a slave. And that is a thing which should never be.”

“I-I-I can't imagine that,” Red admitted. Slavery was something he knew about--it existed on many primitive worlds, even those officially within Ursa Prime's authority (even though Ursa Prime had outlawed slavery from the beginning); it was practically a way of life in Draxmore, people said; and it hadn't been that long ago (though not within Red's lifetime) that it had existed even on his home planet of Kastoria. But it was still not something he could imagine. In his life, he had known a lot of privileges and freedom--and he couldn't imagine having none of that, being completely at someone else's beck and call. And the fact that, in Silver's case, it had been some kid younger than him made it seem even worse.

While Red was thinking all that, Valencia was apparently doing her own thinking, for after a long pause, she commented: “You spoke from experience, then, when you spoke earlier--that no man is good enough to be the absolute master of other men. I have always believed that. And I am glad that my royal ancestors never allowed slavery to exist here in Altayra. But I cannot help but wonder--wonder if there is that much difference between the slave and the poor.” She glanced around, as if somehow her gaze could pierce the walls of their prison. “For instance, here on Altayra Vorphintus, many of the poorest people are shepherds, keeping their flocks in the areas outside the cities.”

“We saw one of those shepherds on our way to the village,” Red said. “Just a little kid.”

Blue nodded and asked abruptly. “By the way, what do the sheep eat? There's no grass on this planet.”

“They--they--that is hardly the point,” Valencia spluttered, seeming more confused and upset by this question than by anything else that had happened over the last several hours. Red couldn't help thinking that for all Valencia's poise and knowledge, she apparently did not know some of the basic facts about the everyday life of her people.

“The point,” she continued, “is that many of those who work as shepherds are born into their work and barely make enough at it to feed themselves and their families. They have no money to pay for training at any other and better kind of work and are doomed, for all purposes, to spend all their days as shepherds. And if they have no choice, are they really all that different from slaves? I know, of course, they cannot be subjected to the cruel treatment which slaves may receive--that they have the dignity and honor of being their own masters. But in the final analysis, is their quality of life any different?”

“What does a princess like you know or care about the problem of poor people like that?” asked Blue.

“Do you have a greater right to know and to care, then? Are you the daughter of shepherds?” There was no scorn in Valencia's words--but there was a hint of something like sarcasm.

“Actually,” Red answered, “she's from a rich family in Ursa Prime.”

“But knowing who my parents are and where my home is--doesn't tell you who I am,” said Blue. Her voice was quiet--and yet somehow fierce.

“And the same is true of me,” answered Valencia.

Blue didn't seem to have a response to that.

Seeing Blue silenced was almost as great a shock to Red as hearing Silver make long speeches.

But Valencia was talking again--her short interchange with Blue seemed to have no particular interest for her. “But perhaps you are right to speak slightingly of my feelings. I cannot understand the poverty of these people from the inside. And my pity will do nothing for them while I live--and certainly no more when I am dead. But I believe there is a better way. Every world has its poor, they say, but there has to be a some way to open the possibility, at least, of a better life to those who will take it, though I am not sure yet how that is to be made possible. I have Keisai doing extensive research on the life of people in Altayra, though, and I hope from that data to be able to create a plan.”

“Keisai?” repeated Blue, turning her head quickly towards the princess. “That servant we saw at the palace yesterday?”

“No--yes--does it matter?” Valencia seemed flustered again for a moment. And then she glanced back at Silver. “So as a slave, you spent much time in that tiny sphere?”

“Yes.” If Silver noticed how abruptly she had changed the subject, he didn't show it. “That is how my master would carry me--and, in other spheres, the other slaves--whenever he traveled. That way we were always at hand if he wanted to fight or to train.”

“What is it like inside?”

“Warm and silent and dark. Even when shrunk, there is very little room to move within the sphere. For the most part, we would only sit... and think.”

Red nodded. Now he understood why Silver tended to sit in that same, hunched attitude whenever they were on the ship.

“Wait.” Blue raised her hand and for a moment there was silence. Then she snapped her fingers. “Silver, you said only certain people conditioned from birth could be placed inside the sphere. You could do it once--can you still?”

“Yes. I still sometimes return inside--with Gold's assistance. To--to remember.”

“What do you need to do it besides the sphere itself?”

“Merely someone to hold the sphere, touch the spring at the top, and call me back to it. From inside, I can emerge at will, but I cannot enter it alone.”

Blue nodded very slowly. “Then we may have a way out of here.” She held out her hand. “What is your real name, Silver?”

Silver seemed to sense her idea, for he dropped the sphere into her hand. “I was born a slave. I suppose I have no real name. My official name in battle was FistBlight. But my master nicknamed me Eo--the name of one of Bellas's moons.”

Blue nodded and touched the small mechanism at the top of the sphere. “Eo--come!”

For an instant, nothing happened. Then there was a slight fuzziness in the air, as if a cloud of hot steam had risen over their eyes. And then Silver was gone, and the sphere in Blue's hand seemed to glow, just slightly.

“And that,” said Blue, calmly, “is our ticket out of here. Assuming that Gold actually uses his head for once. Though Green and White should be out there too, which helps our odds a little.”

*

“How could they have survived?” asked White, looking at Gold, after he announced his opinion. “This village is in ruins and there's no sign of them.”

“Exactly.” Gold's face was hard and slightly worried, but there was certainty in his posture. “Look around you. Look at this place. It was destroyed--but not annihilated. There are still mounds of rubble and ruins of houses.”

Suddenly White began to understand. “Of course. The force of that energy was great, but not great enough to destroy everything.”

“I don't know the exact force. It might have been enough to kill them. It might have been enough to crush their armor. But there's no way in the Cosmos that it was enough to destroy the armor without a trace--not when rock and stone could survive somewhat intact.”

“Unless somehow Erybus specially targeted the armor in someway,” White thought. She didn't say it aloud, and even as she thought it, she knew she had to stop thinking that way. The Nadirite commander definitely had a lot of tricks up his sleeve, but he wasn't all-powerful. She wondered if that were the real point of this game of his--to corrupt their thinking with fear. “But if they weren't killed, where are they? There's still not sign of static on the comm channel--except a little which is to be expected under the circumstances--so why haven't they contacted us? Why aren't they here?”

“Maybe they disappeared--just like the workers at the Guidance Beacon,” Black suggested in a tone that was slightly (but only slightly) more serious than usual.

“We left them with Valencia,” added Gold. “Maybe our little princess isn't as sweet and innocent as we thought.”

White hated to say it, but there was another thought hammering in her mind. “And maybe they weren't even in their armor when the attack came.”

“Why would they have taken it off--”

Black didn't even finish her question, before Gold cut her off with an impatient motion of his hand. “There's no point in speculation--not when we can confirm that with certainty.”

White nodded. She was surprised that she hadn't thought of that herself. “Just give me a few minutes.” She phased her helmet back on and then, after a moment of concentration, phased to +(1)d. For a moment or two, she was too nauseous to take any real observations of her surroundings. The vast, white, empty world of +(1)d surrounded her, as always when she phased this direction along the fourth dimensional axis. She wasn't sure if it were the barrenness of the place or some other weird quality, but she always felt as if distance were different here--or, at any rate, that she could see farther here than in =(0)d. And when she looked around, she easily saw something--the thing she had feared she would see--something which sent a cold feeling into her stomach. It was a suit of armor--Blue's armor.

And then she frowned and flew towards it. As she did, she knew her worst fears were unfounded. The armor was moving, which meant that Blue was still alive. But the armor was moving in a peculiar way--seeming to point to something. It wasn't until got close that she saw something else--something next to the armor at which it seemed to be pointing. A small sphere, hardly more than a centimeter across.

It was clear that Blue had put it there--whatever it was--and she seemed to be trying to indicate its location to her. Of course, it might mean something else, but she decided to act on it. She took the sphere and with it flew back to her original location--she could see Black and Gold's helmets, though they had the rest of their armor phased on.

Holding the strange object, she phased back to =(0)d.

Even though she couldn't say anything for a few moments, Gold seemed to understand everything. He took the sphere from her and looked at it carefully. And then he smiled. “This could be a message, but I'm guessing it's the messenger. He may not know where he is, so let's call him. Eo! Out!”

For a moment, nothing happened. And then there was a slight shimmer in the air. And then Silver was standing in front of them. He looked relieved to see them.

White and Black both took a step back in surprise.

“It's a long story,” said Gold, glancing at them. “Maybe we can go over it later. Silver, what's your status?”

“Everyone is alive, but the others are trapped.” He briefly explained everything that had happened since the groups parted.

Gold nodded, with a grim smile. “And Blue thought you would be the perfect messenger--a good way to tell us about your situation. And it never occurred to her that White could just phase back when she saw the armor and learn it all in person. Leave it to Blue to overthink things like that.”

White didn't quite like Gold's tone. He seemed almost pleased by Blue's miscalculation. Besides-- “I might not have thought to do that. And I think she's right that if we had tried an ordinary assault on that force field it would have led to trouble--it could have caused an explosion which would have injured the planet and the princess, even if it had not hurt us.”

“Regardless, we don't have the equipment to get them out here. We'll have to go back to the ship. Though I really would have thought Green could have found a way to get you out of an ordinary forcefield, even without the right equipment.”

“But Green is not with us.”

“What?”

“We assumed he was with you.”

“Then where is he?”

Silver, Gold, Black, and White looked at each for a moment.

“He could be anywhere,” commented White. “I didn't see his armor, so he may still have it on--but if he's still invisible--”

Gold shook his head. “Unless we can raise him on the comms--or unless he shows up--there's only one thing we can do. And that's get Blue out of there. With her armor, it should be simple to track him down. And to get them out, we'll need equipment from the ship. White, take Silver back to Blue. Silver, tell them to hold tight and we'll get them out of there eventually. Black--White and I will go back and get the ship. I want you to search the village and make sure there isn't anyone here. It doesn't look like it, but we'd better make sure. And also clear some of that rubble so we can get a clear shot at that forcefield once we get back.”

“Right-O, chief.”


In a few moments, White and Gold were flying away from the ruins of Hath'ellah, more or less retracing the path they had followed earlier. “I can't figure out where in the Cosmos Green would be,” Gold commented, as they skimmed low over the dark ground of the planet. “From what Silver said, it doesn't sound as if he ever came back to Hath'ellah--but it doesn't seem as if he was with us for very long, either.”

“He was invisible, so there's no way to know for sure.”

“I know.” Gold's voice was strangely hard. “He'd just better be all right.”

White didn't answer. She didn't want to be the one to say it--but she was beginning to feel that was very unlikely. It was possible that something had gone wrong with his communicator or that some electrical freak was interfering with the signal--but it was more likely that he wasn't communicating for a more serious reason.

Gold clenched his fist. “If the Nadirites have done something to him, they're going to regret it.” And in almost the same breath, he added, “I never should have let him go off on his own. Aside from his invisibility, he's the most vulnerable of us all--and with everything else Erybus and Maxwell have done, we can't dismiss the possibility that they've found some way to target Green even when he's invisible. I should have thought of that earlier.”

“You can't think of everything.”

“I'm the leader of the Corps. I have to think of everything. Or something like this will happen.”

“Gold--you have to face reality. Doing the kind of work we do, even if you do everything right, the odds are high that one of us going to get killed sooner or later. You just have to accept that.”

Gold was so surprised that he stopped dead in the air for a moment and glanced at her. “Really? I would have expected that from Black or Blue, but not from you. What kind of leader isn't concerned for the safety of his troops? Do you think I shouldn't care about them? Is that what you want?”

“No--of course not.” White paused. What did she mean? Obviously, Gold was right--no good leader would be apathetic about danger to his followers. But there was something--something about his attitude that worried her. Partly because she was afraid of how he would react if something did happen to one of them. But there was something else--somehow he just seemed to-- “You just seem to take it all so--so personally.”

“Isn't that part of being a leader?”

“I'm not sure.” White couldn't put her finger on it, but there was just something that bothered her in Gold's attitude. “Are you sure that there isn't more to it for you than just trying to be a good leader and being concerned with our safety?”

For a couple of seconds, White thought Gold wasn't going to answer her at all. And then, without warning, he spoke in a strange, quiet voice. “White, I told you that my parents fought in the war with the Legion.”

“Yes.” White remembered him saying that. Not that she was particularly surprised. Many people of their age had.

“But I didn't tell you on which side.”

“What!?” Now it was White's turn to stop in surprise. She could barely take in what Gold had said. “Do you mean that they--they--”

“They fought for the Legion--against Ursa Prime. They were traitors to their own people and to the human race itself. They very nearly helped to bring about the end of the world. Yeah, that's what I'm saying.”

“I--” For once, White was at a complete loss for words.

For a moment, there had been a flash of passion in Gold's voice, but now he spoke calmly and almost disinterestedly. “Of course, like most of the people who fought for the Legion, they didn't understand what was really at stake in the war--if that's any excuse. Dad was always a fighter by disposition. He was born to be a soldier--and I'm sure he would have fought just as willingly for Ursa Prime as for the Legion if they had gotten to him first. But his sister had bought into a lot of the Legion's propaganda and she was responsible for bringing him onto the Legion's side. Mom was sort of the same way, but she especially wanted training in science, and in the part of the Cosmos she was from, fighting for the Legion seemed to be the only way to get that training. It was in fighting for the Legion that they met, actually.” He paused, and added, “Before the war ended, they did realize just what was at stake--they realized that the victory of the Legion would mean the end of humanity; the end of the world. So they switched sides and actually helped to stop the Legion. And like most of the people who fought for the Legion, they ended up getting pardoned after the war--especially since, as I said, they did do a lot to stop the Legion once they switched sides. And that's how they ended up piloting MBUs for Ursa Prime.”

“I-I'm sorry, Gold. I didn't know any of that.” She should have thought of the possibility, of course. Everything he said made perfect sense, given what she knew. “But what does that have to do--”

“You don't understand.” Both Gold's fists were clenched now, and his voice was harsh and almost raspy. “He was there.”

White knew by the tone that he meant Gold's father--but she wasn't sure what Gold meant by there.

“You know the legend of the Corps--how in every generation, seven teenagers with aptitude are chosen to take control of the armor and of the Matrix--and so carry on the legacy of the Corps. Sometimes one incarnation of the Corps will pass the baton simply enough--they meet in a peace conference with their successors and pass on the armor. But that wasn't how it happened for us. When we gained control of the armor, there had been no Corps for several years. Do you know why? Do you know what happened to the last incarnation of the Corps?”

“No, not exactly.” Growing up among the Tremonsirs, her knowledge of affairs in Ursa Prime had necessarily been a little more spotty than Gold's.

He turned away (even though, with his helmet on, she couldn't see his face anyway.) “Well, you're better off not knowing exactly. But the bottom line is that they were killed--all seven of them, seven teenagers like us who had taken control of these suits of armor and who were trying to protect the universe--they were cut down without mercy. By the Legion.”

White forced herself not to make any sound or movement to show the shock she felt as she finally understood what Gold meant.

“And he was there,” Gold repeated, his voice so low and rough, that she barely recognized it. “He was didn't have a major role in that battle--he was still in training for the Legion then--but he was there. He had a part in it. And that's why I've always been determined to become the leader of the Corps and why I'm not going to let anything happen to us.”

A lot of things about Gold and his attitudes made sense now to White. But she was so shocked by his revelation, that she didn't know how to respond.

And then, the next instant, she was too busy being shocked by something else.

As they talked, they had still been moving--and coming suddenly over a slight rise of rock, they saw the gleaming hull of The Crystallair and, behind it, the form of the Guidance Beacon. That she had suspected. But there was something else which she hadn't expected. Directly in front of their ship lay a figure in a strange heap.

And the figure wore green armor.

To be continued...