The Thousand-foot Step
The red-orange haze of the far horizon as it curved away north and south bled into the pink-and-white of the sky, the sun boiling red and angry hot in the sky above like a drop of shimmering crimson blood on the flesh of the air.
And near the edges of the sky, separated from each other by celestial arcs, hung three small objects: two were pale white and washed out in the brightness of the daytime sky, lumpy and irregular, their shadows the color of the sky. The third was little more than a metallic glimmer in the heavens, though its brightness would grow in intensity as dusk approached. These were the three moons.
Closer to the ground, nearer from the distant horizon, the dusty haze of the sky resolved into rocky hills and wide plains of oranges and reds, infinite miles of barren emptiness stretching out as far as vision could pierce through the brownish haze.
Nearer still and the dusty red ground was broken by a splash of color at the foot of a golden wall: squares of green speckled with pinks and whites here and there.
And directly below spread the city, appearing from this height as clusters of tiny, colorful doll-houses with the golden spire of super-ceramic known as the “Seat of the Emperor” piercing the center of the almost-ordered sprawl, like a spear through the city’s heart offering its life up unto its god in sacrifice.
And the god sat perched upon his throne, an immense seat of polished white marble set within a hollow beneath the uneven, unfinished tip of the spire, carven from the strange ceramic of the same, and cunningly etched with intricate mystical designs suited to the god’s taste.
All those involved in its construction and design had been hurled from the top when they had finished their carving, as sacrifices to their god, for nothing in their lives could have rivaled that moment of triumph-in-service and their achievement.
How little they knew.
Sz-Sithra-sienan grinned his widest grin, little more than a slight curving of the thin lips on his stoic, hatchet-face, and stared up at the third moon with eyes of utter black. He remembered a time when that moon was not so distant, when it shone in the sky with shape and form such that it would have brought awe to the eyes of his people for in truth it was unlike the other two moons.
His astrologers predicted the third moon would someday disappear completely, that it was even now vanishing imperceptibly over the centuries. But he had known that for generations…how foolish and blind were the mortals in his care.
Someday the moon would leave its silent orbit in the empty black velvet above the dusty orange face of the rocky land and sail dumbly into the night among the quiet stars on a journey of a million years, bound for strange and unseen realms even the gods could not imagine.
He had long ago ceased trying to find a way to reach it; too much of his energy was, by need and increasingly so, expended in ensuring basic survival. It had not been so once…not until it had become a choice between survival and certain death, and even then with only a slim chance of success for the former. He cut his losses.
It had been the last way home…to a home that could never be returned to. Somewhere out beyond the moons, across a frozen wilderness of diamond-studded-black and cold, lay the charred ruin of the world populated by bodiless ghosts formed from memories lost and forgotten for eons. A world eaten by the anger of the swollen red sun, whose corpse was a meaningless testament to futility.
Someday, that brilliant star — the third moon — would vanish from the sky altogether, and this parched and barren world would be left with two rocky moons. The people would soon forget there had ever been a third moon in the sky of their world, just as they had forgotten what that third moon truly was, and so much else.
He damned the Ancestors for sins forgotten by everyone but him, and looked down upon his city at the base of the spire, sprawling out around the base nearly invisible from this height and angle.
The feeling inspired by the precarious perch would have crushed a lesser being’s soul to quivering pulp, but he spent many days here, staring out across the wilderness. He noticed the thin, cool air had managed to stir up a brief caress, and it brushed the golden tan of his sun-aged face, to no outward effect.
Once, his people had erected the spire, the Seat of the Emperor, an unparalleled architectural achievement: the tallest man-made object on the face of this world. Its top was as tall as a mountain, its surface nearly indestructible, the view it commanded stretching out over hundreds of miles.
There was no stair leading up, no ladder down. He who sat upon the throne let his feet dangle over thousands of feet of emptiness, a speck perched upon a needle’s tip.
His people had all been gods once, and now they scratched in the dust and cowered in the dark night beneath two alien moons. The spire was the last great thing his people would ever do, cursed now to rut like beasts until time ended in airless darkness or searing fire.
The curving horizon spread out around him to the east and west. Wide roads of hard-packed sand and rock wound through the wilderness, discolored paths through the chaotic wilderness that ran into the distance. Out there he could make out the irregular blocks of other small cities of men huddled in the foothills of low mountains or hugging the barren ground of the once fertile valley of Airn-Es with its lone city supported now through rich (pathetic) mines.
Behind him, deliberately blocked from view by the tip of the broken spire that housed his throne, were the uncrossably vast, empty deserts where the giants lay dreaming, undisturbed amid the deadly sandstorms. Nothing would come from that direction ever again.
Sz-Sithra-sienan pushed himself forward slightly and slipped from the seat, plummeting thousands of feet downwards with the wind roaring in his ears, but his face never cracked in its stoic observation of the ground rushing mercilessly up towards him. The city grew larger in milliseconds, details resolving and growing like swiftly blooming flowers, until the bricks were individuals, rushing to embrace him.
Those who watched their god descend from the Seat above saw nothing more than a falling billow of black, wind-ravaged cloth come from above, the fabric cracking as it boiled and snapped ferociously in the air. And then the god’s feet touched the ground with barely a whisper, as though he had taken but a single step downwards from a throne, and not fallen a thousand-and-more feet.
And in that instant, a black demon of air and wind spiraled up around him and sped away into the distant white-orange sky, released from service for a little while, leaving the stern-faced, golden god to stand among his people, no taller than most of them. Age was written in his skin but unimaginable strength lurked in every slight movement of his frame.
Their god had come down to walk among them once again, and so the people fell to their bellies and writhed in the red dust in adoring devotion and supplication.
His black eyes looked through these now reverently prostrate dregs, past them, seeing universes they could not comprehend.