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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (9 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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Bridget sat next to him and rooted through her bag, pulling out a wad of jerky, ripping off a chunk with her teeth. She chewed thoughtfully, looking around, looking up at the sky. “No stars. Is this some
really
unlikely universe, then?”

“I think we are far underground,” Ismael said. “That is why the trees are so pale, perhaps. This is a vast cavern, with a ceiling and walls so far away we cannot see them.” In truth, he wasn’t sure this
was
a place in the conventional sense, even a very improbable one. Sometimes he thought this was a sort of boiler room for the universe, a place where incomprehensible but necessary mechanisms hummed and whirred to themselves.

“Wild,” Bridget said, and Ismael checked a sigh. She made him so angry sometimes, which was quite an accomplishment, considering how old he was. She claimed to thirst for transcendent experience, and he had taken her to places that only a handful of living humans—or things so near to human as to make no difference, like Ismael himself—had ever seen, and yet she still acted jaded, as if she’d seen it all before. Perhaps she was truly driven by the thirst for new experiences, and whether or not she
had
the new experiences was irrelevant; she was always overlooking the present miracle, trying to catch sight of the next.

“Be careful when we pass through the trees,” he said, standing up. “Don’t take fruit from the branches, if you see any, and don’t try to climb them.”

“I haven’t climbed a tree since I was a little girl,” she said, a hint of wistfulness in her voice.

“I’m not even sure these are trees, exactly.” He thought about telling her not to look up, but that would only ensure she
would
, so he’d have to hope the natural human tendency to ignore things above their heads would hold. He kept his own eyes resolutely on the well-worn path as he walked, winding circuitously between the strangely smooth trunks. Up close, the trees looked less like trees and more like oversized models of nerve endings, smooth and wildly branching. Harczos had believed this place was the brain of God, but Ismael was decidedly more secular. The universe was an exceedingly strange place, but if there was any intentionality behind its operations, Ismael had yet to see evidence of such a guiding hand. Harczos had never fully pulled himself out of the medieval mindset, where the world was full of signs of God’s plans and fury. Still, they’d been friends for a long time before their falling out, and passing through the grove always gave Ismael a little twinge of emotion, like the phantom ache in a long-ago amputated limb.

The path was not straight, in a visually-comprehensible linear sense at least, but he was loath to stray from it. The fact that there
was
a path that went all the way through the grove was testament that people had passed through successfully by that route, and if he strayed from the path, who knew where he might end up? Ismael’s peculiar nature protected him from physical harm—or from death, anyway—but there was no mechanism to keep him from getting lost, which was always a great danger in the briarpatch.

Ismael had gone barely fifty feet into the trees when he realized Bridget wasn’t behind him. He turned around, careful to keep his feet on the path, and saw Bridget partway up a tree, eyes fixed straight up, clambering through the branches.

Ismael raced toward her, though that necessitated leaving the path, and climbed up the tree after her, keeping his eyes on the soles of her boots and trying to ignore the kaleidoscopic swirl above her, the hypnotic distance into which the uppermost branches vanished. He grabbed her ankle with both hands and let himself drop off the tree, his weight enough to jerk her out of the branches. He hit the ground, the breath whooshing out of his lungs, and then Bridget fell on top of him. Since the impact wasn’t life-threatening, Ismael wasn’t transported away. Bridget’s boot hit his chest hard enough to make his heart stutter, and then she started kicking and twisting and trying to get away, making little inhuman grunts, and all the time turning her head to stare up, up, up. Ismael climbed up her body the way she’d climbed the tree, finally getting on top of her, rolling her over face down, and pressing her nose into the peculiar gray dirt. He held her for a while until she stopped struggling—not suffocated, but simply in control of her senses once again.

Ismael eased off, but didn’t let her up completely. “Are you all right?”

“It was so beautiful,” Bridget murmured. “Up above the trees. Is that the light you talked about?”

Ismael snorted. “No, Bridget. That’s just . . . well, you know pitcher plants, the carnivorous plants that catch flies? They have an odour that flies find irresistible, and when the flies try to get close to that good smell, they slide in and they’re trapped and they die. These trees are pitcher plants, sort of. Those pretty coloured lights are a trick.

Bridget tried to sit up, and Ismael let her. “How do you know?” she demanded. “Maybe if you’d let me climb all the way up, I would’ve reached that better world you’re always talking about!”

“No, Bridget,” he said gently. “You would have died, that’s all.”

“How do you know?”

Ismael sighed. “Because I’ve been here before. You think I never climbed these trees? You think I never went for the pretty colours like a monkey up a rope, just like you? Of course I did! And when I got to the top—because I didn’t have a friend to pull me down—the lights faded, and there was a horrible blackness with rustling all around, and then something uncoiled toward me. I can’t explain it better than that, really, I want to say it was like a frog’s tongue but frog’s tongues aren’t that big and they aren’t fractal, and it wasn’t really anything like a tentacle. It moved at angles, and . . . well. Before it reached me, my self-preservation mechanism kicked in, and I found myself sprawled on my back in the middle of the Utah salt flats, with the worst headache of my life. And I’ve had some bad headaches. If whatever’s up there wasn’t deadly, I wouldn’t have been transported away.”

Bridget sighed, scuffed at the ground with her heel, started to look up, thought better of it, and determinedly kept her eyes down. “How does your stupid magical teleporting life-support system know when you’re about to die, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” Ismael said, truthfully. “It plays the percentages, I think, examines the probabilities, and when things look too dire, it jerks me away. But I get hurt often enough—like your hiking boot in my solar plexus, I’m going to have such a bruise—that I know it isn’t exactly a hair-trigger. Only my imminent demise seems to activate it.” Something occurred to him. “Oh, and the other reason I know those colours up there aren’t the light from a world of perfect bliss? You can’t really remember what was so wonderful about the colours now, can you? The effect has faded, now that you aren’t staring at them, right?”

“Yeah,” she said cautiously.

“The light I’m taking you to see isn’t like that. Once you’ve seen it once, you remember it forever.” He stood, brushing dirt off his pants, and held out a hand to her. “Come on. I’m ready to get out of this place. Just don’t look up.”

“Wish you’d mentioned that earlier,” she said.

“I told you it was dangerous here. If I enumerated every danger we passed, we’d never get anywhere.” He thought about warning her about the bears, but they were too complicated to explain, and she would probably argue about them, since they were hard to believe until you
saw
them. He settled for saying “Just be careful. And always expect the worst.”

“I always do.” She followed him back to the path.

4

After a long trek over rocky terrain, beneath a neutral sky, Ismael and Bridget turned into a sudden narrow corridor of stone and then, there they were: in a ruined courtyard, dry fountains and columns choked with weeds, paving stones cracked and heaved underfoot, a whole broken city stretching out on all sides, and shining on it all from an oval hole in the sky above: the light of a better world.

They both sank to the ground, leaning against the broken lip of a fountain, and even the sharp edges of the stone were like a lover’s caress against Ismael’s back. Bridget’s hand crept out, and Ismael took it in his own, and the light seemed to flow through them, through their touch, into each other, and back out again. Bridget’s eyes were wide, her breathing shallow, and she’d never looked more beautiful; by definition nothing looked more beautiful than it did when it was touched by this light. Out in the ordinary world, there was nothing to compare with such illumination, though Ismael was often reminded of it by the sunlight slanting down on late afternoons in Oakland, when the leaves of the trees seemed limned with gold, when the hills appeared lit by some divine luminosity, when the waters of the lake shone like scattered diamonds. But even that light was nothing like this, really; it just
suggested
this light, the way a photograph of the Sistine Chapel ceiling acted as a sort of symbol of the real thing, but couldn’t replicate reality’s scale and scope and grandeur.

Tears ran down Ismael’s cheeks, and he felt utterly at peace, stoned on bliss, but underneath it all, deep down, there was an element of longing, and that element would only intensify when he finally, inevitably left the light.

After a long long time, he took Bridget’s hand, and drew her away, and she rose languidly, as if awakening from a sweet dream. She stared at him, reached out, and touched his cheek with her fingertips, and he knew what she was thinking: that he was beautiful. As she was beautiful. As everything, seen by this light, was beautiful.

He led her away, into what remained of a building, a half-collapsed dome roof over them, where they were shielded from the light enough to make concentration and conversation possible.

Bridget just swallowed, and stared at him, and didn’t speak, and so Ismael talked, responding to what he thought her questions might be, to what his own had been, long ago, when he first caught sight of that light from another place.

“We can’t stay in the light forever,” he said, and saw her face fall. “We still have our physical bodies, you see, and eventually they will die. When I first found this place, I stayed for days, and never intended to leave, but I must have been near to dying of thirst, because I was transported into a creek, water flowing right into my mouth, and I wept and wept that day, pounding the creek bottom, hating my body. If you stayed, you would simply waste away.” Or be killed by bears, or worse, become one; but that was a whole other story, and not particularly germane just now. “And you wouldn’t care, of course, because you’d be here, in the light . . . but when you died, you’d stop being able to experience the light. That’s why it’s not enough to come here, where the light is filtered, indirect, a pale reflection of a reflection. We have to find the source of the light, the world where it shines directly, and live there. It’s possible. I’ve known people who’ve gone, I’ve seen the moment of transition when they leave their bodies and ascend. It can be done.”

“What is it? Where is it? What kind of place? Is it . . . heaven?”

Ismael shrugged. “I don’t know. The briarpatch leads us to possible worlds, you know, and some of them are more possible than others. That light . . . I think it comes from what truly is the best of all possible worlds. You’ve seen how the light looks, how it transforms everything out there, if it shone on dogshit the
dogshit
would be beautiful.”

“Ismael, let’s follow it. Let’s go looking for the source of the light!” Her eyes were shining, and Ismael was gratified to see that she was finally impressed, her wall of cynicism finally breached.

“That’s like rainbow-chasing, Bridget. The light passes through places that people can’t go. There are spots like this, scenic overlooks, where the light can be glimpsed, but I’ve never found a path to it. And even this light, it’s thin and attenuated, there are places where it’s brighter—this is just reflected light, I think, the way moonlight is a reflection of sunshine. Can you imagine standing in the undiluted light?”

“You’d just . . . melt away.”

“Perhaps,” Ismael said. He sat down, looking up at the cracked dome, at the line of shadow against the sky of light. “You know all those stories about creation gods shitting out the universe, expelling stars and planets from their bowels? Did you ever wonder what sort of wonderful things those gods must have
eaten
, to shit
stars
? How wonderful the substance of that devoured world must have been? That’s the place we’re trying to go. The place where the gods live, or would live, if they lived anywhere.”

“I feel like shit right about now,” Bridget said.

“I know. That’s why I don’t come here often. After I leave, everything feels so useless and pointless and ugly. Transcendence withdrawal.”

“You know how people who are dying see light at the end of a tunnel?” Bridget said. “‘Go toward the light,’ all that sort of thing? Do you think . . . they’re seeing this light?”

“No,” Ismael said, disgusted by the notion. “That light is just the symptom of a dying brain—ugly misfires in the grey matter, the last pulse of electrical sparks. If anyone could get to the world of light, just by dying . . .” He shook his head. “That would be too easy. Getting there is hard. Besides, I’ve seen people die unprepared, and there is no flash, no portal opening—as far as I can tell they just
die
, their souls go to the same place the brightness goes when a lightbulb burns out—nowhere, into nothingness, back into oblivion. But people who let everything go, who prepare themselves, who loosen the moorings of their spirits . . . they can go into the light. I’ve seen it, blinding pinpricks in the fabric of the universe. You’ll learn to see it, too, once you’ve spent more time in the briarpatch.” He rubbed his eyes. “We should go. The longer we stay, the harder it will be to leave. Anyway, isn’t your best-beloved Darrin going to worry about you?”

“Okay,” Bridget said. “That light . . . it’s like everything else in the world is just set dressing in a play, fake things on a stage. Like the light is the only real thing, like it makes
me
real just by shining on me. I think . . . maybe it’s the meaning of life I’ve been looking for.”

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
11.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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