The wind whistles up around Diego as the rope sways, the ground five-thousand feet below. The danger is all but forgotten though his swing has become truly dangerous. Diego doesn’t worry whether or not the rope can take it, or if it it might be cut on a bit of rough stone, let alone if one of his anchors might give. All he thinks is that he can almost reach it, almost put his fingers on it. A figure like a dog with a small silver orb in its mouth. The thing he’d spotted on the trail below, and for which he’d diverted his climb away from the peak.
His fingers are almost there, just another few inches and it’s his… He’s intent that he’s not even narrating to the camera on top of his head. To the millions waiting to adore and admire him. Grunting, Diego draws still nearer to the object and the world seems to shift.
Ancient carvings appear in the side of a mountain, almost subliminal, washed away by the wind, rain and the ages. Yet once seen, they stand out in high definition, jagged and sharp, geographies in the alien writing of an unknown civilization. Faint as they are, Diego sees them clearly as his fingers reaching toward the totem, and he can almost understand what they say. He’s never seen symbols like those and he’s seen everything. The totem can’t be old but nevertheless, Diego can sense the eternity hanging around it. He sways again and for the briefest moment his finger touches the silver orb.
The rope snaps.
When he falls, Diego sees a city in the past, long before there should have ever been a city. He sees three-sided tetrahedral pyramids, unlike any of the Aztec buildings that had ever been here. In a flash, he knows that there was a civilization here, long before there should have even been people. Long before there should have been a planet. In those final moments, before he hits a rock ledge, Diego knows he has glimpsed another world.
His landing is abrupt, too quick to feel.
In fact, the totem is the last thing he ever feels below the neck.
“You’re an inspiration.”
The words struck Diego like a blow.
“Your books always made me feel like I was with you on those summits! I felt like I lost a friend when I heard about the accident, but this is your best yet. I understand what you must be going through and I just wanted to say how much I admire your courage.” The woman wore a blue parka. The kind he’d worn on his hikes through the Himalayas. A blue the same color as her watery eyes. She stood, waiting for his response, oblivious to the line of people behind her, waiting to get their books signed.
The sympathizers were the worst. It was okay that no one looked at him like a person anymore. It was okay that no one knew how to communicate with him. Even he didn’t know how to talk to himself. Only when people pretended to know, like the woman in the blue parka, did the rage come crashing down like an avalanche.
“It’s just… It’s amazing is what it is. That you have this kind of will to live. I think if I were you, I might have killed myself,” she whispered.
Those first few days, when Diego realized what had happened to him, when the doctors came to his bedside and told him everything but the plain and simple truth that he would never move under his own power again let alone climb another mountain, he’d done little else but try and kill himself. For hours, he’d stared at his fingers, willing them to move one last time so he could rip out the cords to the life support machines. Silently willing his fingers into motion for one more moment to let him die as an adventurer.
Cruel biology had defeated his will. Diego’s fingers never moved.
Even the muscles in Diego’s face refused to snarl. Only the small group of muscles in his cheeks connected to his voice computer moved at all. Those few muscles in his cheeks were all that was left of a man who had conquered every summit on Earth.
“Thank you,” he voiced.
It was an electronic voice. A newer voice than the one used by a certain astrophysicist, but with the same cybernetic accent. Maia appeared over his shoulder and picked up Diego’s hand in her own. Using his hand she grasped a stamp. She pressed the stamp firmly into the woman’s waiting book. A version of Diego’s signature, as it had been when he could write, appeared in the woman’s book.
“Thank you for coming to the signing,” said Maia, all smiles.
“No,” said the woman, as if her words were a spell that could wipe away all wounds, “thank you.”
Diego wished he could show how bewildered he felt. Maia must have changed the settings on his voice computer while he was asleep. That “Thank you” should have been a “Fuck you.” Before Diego could rectify the error by twitching out his true feelings one letter at a time, the woman picked up her book and disappeared back into the crowd.
Another person came to the front of the line. Diego’s hand was moved again. His signature stamped. And again. And again. And again.
He wanted to scream, “I didn’t write this fucking book! Stop smiling! I’d still end it all if I could! So stop smiling at me and let me die!”
But he couldn’t say anything.
The man who could have said anything had died from a ninety foot fall onto an unforgiving ledge of stone. That man had flat-lined, seen no light but only a red and black world full of giants, and been pulled back from a glorious death.
The thing no one tells you about coming back to life, Diego mused, is that it hurts twice as much as dying. Living to dead is a one way trip. But living to dead to living again? Pain doesn’t care which way you go on that journey. Pain just wants to make sure you pay the price.
Diego had paid it twice.
“Good job, trepador, I think that was all of them! I’m so proud of you!” Maia exclaimed, putting her arm around Diego’s shoulder and kissing his cheek.
All he felt was the kiss, and only a corner of that.
She left him there as she gathered their things and thanked the staff of the bookstore. He watched all of it silently, from the corners of his eye. Diego watched as she danced around, enthusiastic to be out of the house, gathering their things. Diego watched her thank the last few stragglers from the signing. Diego watched her hug a man who was about her age, who could move every part of his body, and Diego watched as the hug lasted two seconds too long.
Diego watched the way the man flushed when Maia touched him.
“You ready to go, trepador?” Maia asked with a smile, as if fifteen minutes had not passed before she had finally returned to him. As if ten of those minutes had not been spent flirting with that man.
“Thank you,” Diego sent, and he liked to think that his eyes could smirk.
Maia frowned, rolled her eyes and shook her head. Then she got behind his wheelchair and pushed him forward.
“So angry, trepador, so angry. But I still love you,” she muttered.
Its hands were sore with want of killing. Its fingers hurt with murder. Its dry throat cracked from need of blood. It had been thus since the Reunion, though this was the first time it openly showed its needs.
Uncle Ricardo, for that was its name in this Place in this World, felt silver strands of moonlight break through dark storm clouds and touch its face like wisps of silk. There had been a different name for it in its own World, a name that meant “The Hate You Feel For Those Who Love You” but also “The Dark Balance” and “Hunter by the Moon.” But that name was not of the present tongue, the present people, or even the present universe. Moonbeams as gentle as a spring breeze found their through the storm gales and sparkled in the yellow of its eyes. Ricardo leaped out of a tree it had climbed, fur matted with raindrops, and stood on a shaft of the moonlight. Then, standing there on nothing but a silvery glow, when it felt gravity was appropriate, gravity reasserted itself. Uncle Ricardo fell to the ground.
Its sore hands bit the dampness of the earth. Its hurting fingers flexed and thrust it forward with animal speed, ignoring the branches that broke on its body. It seemed a wolf and a man, but was neither. It was simply the form its hunger and rage took here, and its shape was the shape best suited for the sort of frantic killing that thrilled it. A bear stood in its way, but it exploded into blood and bone as Ricardo ran through it and howled.
Each member of the Family took in their own way, built their own Monuments in their own fashion, and fed differently on the spaces between the light. Hated Silas, gave what was Wanted and took what was Needed. Stacy fed on those who had Erred and could not Forgive. Terra Joy feasted on the Joy of those who loved Terror.
Ricardo fed on those who hated the ones who loved them, but it liked to think that it granted wishes and played jokes. Very dark jokes. It laughed, a sound like flesh being torn from bones. It had sent out may totems of itself, but all it needed was one.
Running through the night, it fell down upon a pack of wolves, killing all but the cubs whom it left crippled and mewling. Let them struggle, let them try to live, and let them fall in on each other when no other food presented itself. That too would feed Ricardo.
There was a house further up the cliff-face, in an isolated community, there lived the man who had touched Ricardo’s totem. Who had called Ricardo to him, as surely as if he had sent a letter or picked up a telephone. And on that man Ricardo would play a very dark joke to make his Monument.