Aedan stood on the edge, the Valley behind him and the Mountain ahead. The sunset smoldered on the horizon in wavering streams of gold and purple, hinting at pinks and strange greens. He couldn’t remember green over the land, the carpets of bright grasses or the spiky green clinging to tall trees. His greens were insects, fish, water, and potted things. He tried to imagine it the way the older people described it. A mossy pond covering everything; the twilight stuck to the ground in prismatic variations of color. He laid this mental image over the landscape before him. In the dimming light, Aedan felt a longing for freedom that he had scarcely before allowed himself. He was going to see her, again.
“You ready, Aed?” Kirati bumped his elbow with hers. The resounding clink of their armor echoed across the expanse before them, and the shimmering vision of the never-known past vanished.
“Yes, I am ready,” Aedan answered with deeper significance than the moment needed.
They made their way from the well-worn path to the craggy, lumpy mess of a pass that wound along the side of the Mountain. Resilient moss and lichen clung and grew in the shady spots. They hiked for a few miles in silence, the three of them. Jetur, Kirati’s twin brother, led them along the ravine side, stopping now and then to pluck a mushroom or some lichen. Jetur's large frame belied his agile movement; the scowl on his implacable face revealed nothing of the kindness of which he was capable and readily gave. Kirati swung up beside her larger, quieter brother by the trunk of a long-ago petrified tree. She eyed Aedan. “Were these things really alive, Aed?”
“So it is told. The Librarians had books and books of photos, and most of them had the memories as well as the histories.”
“Did he really…you know…” Kirati interjected.
“Yes.” Aedan was not in the mood to describe what he had witnessed. It was raw.
“Are we really going to meet the Witch?” This was the most Jetur had spoken in days. Aedan could see that this was something that was going to be discussed whether he wanted it or not.
“Let’s just get to the Plateau, and I will explain everything. The Journalist and Surveyor live with her, you know," Aedan remarked flatly. The twin Climbers stared at one another, eyes as big as the dawning sun.
They finished the first leg of their hike in silence, excepting the few grunts of exertion when they climbed over the Pass.
The team finally dropped their packs on the ground. Aedan started a small fire with the lichens Jetur had collected, and Kirati stood guard while Jetur cleaned and skewered the mushrooms. He sniffed at them and smiled, “Mm-hmm.” Aedan wondered if Jetur smiled only at mealtimes. Jetur roasted the mushrooms over the fire and hummed an old tune.
Kirati’s eyes lit up when she recognized it. “Oh, that’s a classic. I love folk songs. Time, why do you punish me? Like a wave crashing into the shore, you wash away my dreams.” Aedan joined in lending harmony to the slow, melodic tune. They sang old songs together for half an hour or so, Jetur drumming a boulder with his knife. Aedan’s eyes shifted from his comrades to the core of the fire. He knew what was expected, and he dreaded it.
“Tell the tale, Aed,” Kirati said softly. “Songs sung and now comes the tale, right? It’s a part of history, now.”
“Right, history.” He sat quietly for a minute thinking of what to say. He told them the history of the Librarian’s time with the people of the Valley: his accomplishments and his demeanor. Then, he spoke of his death. “We met with the Journalist and the Surveyor just above the Pass. Henryk was tired, and the sun had peaked a few hours before…”
“Journ and Surve?? Really?” Kirati interrupted excitedly. “Who’s Henryk?”
“Yes. Journ and Surve. Henryk was the Librarian’s name, Kirati the Climber. Now, stop interrupting! His skin grew red, his face flushed. I thought it was the altitude. He was a Librarian, not a Climber after all.” The twins nodded in unison. A good story-teller knew how to win the audience’s favor with well-placed, subtle compliments. “But, it was the Sun. Too long in the heat and too old to be climbing about like a goat, his body gave way. I could see it in his eyes. He knew he would become a burden to us, especially to Vedika. His job would be forfeit, and he would use up resources. No, that was not his way. So, he leapt. He faced the Sun and leapt from the Mountain.”
Aedan stood and reached into his pack. He was done; that was as much as he planned to say about it. He wasn’t about to discuss Counsel business with them, especially when these seasoned Climbers were acting like children on a camping trip. He spun and unfurled his dome in one smooth motion. The twins looked up at him in amazement; they had never seen anyone but a fellow Climber set up the dome like that. Aedan ignored their gawking. “We’d better get some sleep. The sun is rising so don’t dally, unless of course you want your skin to burn off.”
The light was warm and delicate on her skin. She watched in amazement as her fingers glistened as if covered with chocolate diamond dust. “Vika? Oh, Vedika Jones, where are you?” sang a deep, lilting voice. “There you are, you babbling brook! Gotcha.” Thick arms lifted Vika and swung her to broad shoulders. “Let’s go see what Nama is up to, huh? Probably a bunch of nonsense, as usual,” he chuckled as he squeezed Vika’s chunky thigh, making her giggle.
Her grandmother’s voice echoed from the other side of a small, daisy-covered hill. “Today, we have another goal: to rebuild and renew our world, not to be people on the Earth but people of the Earth. We can live in the world as it is, now; we can live in a better world than we were left and leave it better than we found it.” The grisly, bearded man stroked her cheek with a rough hand and said, “up now; wake up now, Vedika.”
“Papa?” Vedika mumbled.
“No. It’s me, Vika. You have to wake up, now.”
“Aedan, what are you doing here?” She looked into his hazel eyes. The light from the fire flicked at the gold there and set them glowing like amber jewels.
“The Counsel wants to see you,” he answered. Vedika’s mouth hardened to a thin line. Of course they would send him, the bastards.
“Well, tell them to come on up.” She closed her eyes. Then, she sighed; it wasn’t his fault. None of it was his fault. “Sorry. I, uh, was dreaming about the Summit, again,” Vedika confessed.
“Do you remember it, truly?” Aedan’s voice sounded hopeful.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is memory and what is history.”
“You will make a wonderful Librarian.” Aedan spoke with a confidence that Vedika did not feel.
“There is nothing to suggest I will be the new Librarian, Aed. Maybe no one will be. I certainly don’t want the job—birthright or not.” She spoke to him as if they had seen each other yesterday. In fact, it had been almost eight years.
Aedan dipped the end of his torch in the smudge pot and watched as the flame slowly sputtered like fireflies springing from the tip and hissing against the mossy ceiling. He grabbed the poker and tended the fire pit; his faded orange pack was still strapped to his back. Vedika turned over and knelt beside him, gingerly reaching around his middle to unclasp it. She slid the straps over his shoulders and twisted on the balls of her feet to place the pack on the metal shelf that ran the length and height of the eastern wall. “There. That’s better,” she sighed. She unloaded his pack, making sure to place the samples in the correct cubbies. Soil samples on the upper left for 8,000ft and descending every thousand feet. The insect specimen and small rodent droppings had their own respective shelves according to elevation as well.
“Looks like a pretty good haul,” she whispered. He had remembered everything. Ten years on the Counsel had not softened his mountaineering skills. She stood as upright as she could in the small space and turned toward her room. “I guess I’d better get ready.” Before she could take the first step, Aedan’s hand rested on the back of her thigh.
“I…I didn’t mean to…didn’t want to,” he started in a whisper.
“Don’t!” Vedika snapped in a harsher tone than she had ever heard from herself. “Sorry,” she mumbled, “but if you say it I won’t be able to think. And we have work to do. Don’t we?” She touched Aedan’s shoulder, the one still made of living tissue. It felt the same as it had when he was a frequent visitor to the Mountain.
“I…I told them his tale. I hope you don’t mind.” Aedan searched her face for approval, for reassurance that he had done right.
She smiled. “Of course. It’s tradition. It is…history.”
Aedan followed her to her quarters. He looked around the small, cozy room. A painting in a light blue frame hung from the southern wall. It was a landscape of green hillside, a small cluster of buildings, and a woman tending a small garden by a winding road. He touched his fingertips to it and caressed the thick contours of the paint. “Was this a real place, Vika?”
Vedika turned to see what he was asking about. “Oh, yes.” Her voice took on a dreamy quality of admiration. “When this was painted in 1874, it was a small village called Pontoise. Camille Pissarro was the painter’s name. It reminds me of my grandmother’s paintings. She preferred watercolors and pastels, but when she used the oils it was like a fantasy, like something you only dream about. So much…emotion.”
“It is lush but a bit sad,” Aedan muttered. “It reminds me of you.”
Vedika giggled with incredulity. “How so? Her chunky brown arms or her facelessness?”
“The woman, she is solitary; she holds the future in that little basket.” He slipped his hand around her wrist and squeezed gently. “Such a small shield protecting the world.”
The trip down to the Valley would take several nights, and she wasn’t sure how long the meetings would take or how much of the coming preparations she would have to oversee. Vedika was making last minute calculations; the samples Aedan had collected the twilight before were still in the machine. While she waited for the crystals to form, she gently sifted the soil samples and swabbed for particulates. “C’mon, microbes,” she happily muttered. She had heard her father say it so often that it had become a mantra. She wasn’t even sure what microbes were, but she knew what to look for, what numbers were good and bad. And she couldn’t help thinking about his face. The scruffy beard, his fierce eyes. He looked like a lunatic, a stranded spaceman on an alien planet from the classic Sci-Fi novels he had read to her when she was a girl. The patchwork of computer parts chirped. “Gotcha. Let’s see how we are doing, huh?”
When the twins arrived, Vedika and Aedan were introspective and quiet. Kirati and Jetur were their normal boisterous selves, checking and double checking everyone’s packs. They made one last sweep of the cave compound for supplies and food storage that hadn’t been packed. They were Climbers, after all. Being prepared was their way. And they were doubly excited by the presence of Journ and Surve, who sat discussing the ‘ifs’ and ‘wherefores’ of every little thing in hushed voices.
“I don’t like them going through my things, Aed,” Vedika whispered. She shouldered the double pack, adjusting for the bulkiness and weight. This would be her first trek to the Valley in fifteen years. Her heart jumped at the thought of addressing the Counsel and being around so many… people.
“They don’t mean to rifle; it’s just how they are. You know…you are something of a legend. You and the other two, living up here all on your own, and…” When Aedan had introduced the twins to the Journalist, the Surveyor, and Vedika, they had gone pale and sweaty with awe and excitement. Honest to goodness Mountain people were something to behold in their estimation.
“And what?” she smiled.
“Well, still doing the work. To them it seems like magic, like fantastic nonsense. How can you learn anything by looking at poop, dirt, and mucky water?” he chuckled.
“Right,” Vedika said with a hint of playful sarcasm in her voice, though she didn’t feel it.
“Midday is nigh. Let’s get some sleep and start at twilight. Gives us more time on foot between camps.”
Journ quickly made their way to the next alcove where they and Surve normally slept, and Kirati followed. Jetur and Surve were still talking, but they snuggled into a mound of blankets by the fire and quieted. “What was your name before you were Surve?” Jetur whispered conspiratorially.
“You wouldn’t believe me, Climber,” she smiled, mimicking his hushed tone.
“Sunshine,” she said, and they laughed until their sides hurt. One look from Aedan made them simmer down, though they giggled intermittently for several minutes.
“There!” Jetur’s baritone holler barely made its way to the rest of the group above the winds raging through the jagged cliff they had just navigated.
“I see it!” Aedan replied, grabbing Vedika’s arm to help her maneuver among the crags. “Let’s take it nice and easy,” he whisper-yelled in her ear. Vedika stumbled and her hands were shaking. Aedan motioned for the others to hang back.
When they reached the bottom of the cliff, she saw it: “Oh, Papa! I’ve missed you.” Though her knees burned and her back ached, she squatted next to the collection of large rocks where they had made an alter the year before.
Aedan stood behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders lightly. In one hand Vedika held Aedan’s torch. In the other, she held Aedan’s hand. “Priyatnykh snov, Papa. Vechnaya pamyat.” His bones were clean, pale, and intact. The others joined them. Jetur hummed a low tune that sounded somewhat familiar to Vedika. Kirati and Surve harmonized. The wind tugged at their voices, sending them swirling with the fireflies from the torch.
Back at their campsite, Vedika, Surve, and Journ poured over her latest test results and the conclusions her father had drawn during his meeting with the Counsel. They were in agreement; it was time.
On the sixth evening the crew from the Mountain trudged the last leg of the journey with relief and sore feet. Over the crest of a small foothill, the Valley came into view. First just the southern rim and finally, it lay out before them in gleaming splendor. It was nestled between the rolling foothills to the North and a steep cliff to the East. The crescent of earth opened onto a large pond fed by a magnificent, misty waterfall. Large boulders, rounded by ages of erosion, peeked through the gushing, foamy white at erratic intervals. This stair-step leant an ethereal look to the view from where they stood.
The twins smiled at each other as only intractable children, returning home from a grand adventure, can smile. Journ and Surve seemed unimpressed as they chattered on about ‘hows’ and ‘whiches.’ Vedika simply gasped at the beauty of it. The community lay out as it had all those years ago, but her memory of it dimmed in comparison.
The full moon broke through a low cloud bank and backlit the haze from the waterfall. There they were, like rough-cut diamonds sparkling ever so slightly—jutting from the earth and dirty—but awesome to behold. Each geodesic dome, scattered over the Valley like pretty, multi-colored mushrooms, gave off a dim, flickering light. The culmination of decades of preparation and planning, these dim lights represented the remnant of a population once soaring in the hundreds of thousands. There were hundreds of other such communities at one time, but contact had been lost as years rolled into decades and technologies failed.
With a whoop and a whistle, the twins bolted down the incline. They jumped on the path, between two winding sections, over the small rodent-proof gate, and smack-dab into a group of their youthful friends who were sitting at a communal table having a late breakfast. Vedika couldn’t help laughing at the sight of them, so free and jubilant, so happy to be home. Nearly twenty years their senior, Vedika chose the path. About half-way down, the path wound its closest to the waterfall, the source of power and life for the Valley. That was where she found an outcropping of smallish boulders and sat. She was weary, however her work had not yet truly begun.
The Valley was abuzz with excitement. Fires were lit, food prepared, and music and song echoed a sweet cacophony of perpetual enjoyment. Though Vedika tried to steer clear of the jubilance, she was cornered more than once by well-wishers, folks with burning questions, and the occasional bump of the shoulder or hard glare. Counsel Kent had offered her her father’s dome which had stood empty since his death. She invited Journ and Surve to stay with her, and they had a few days. But, they were in high demand, as well, and went to what seemed to Vedika an endless stream of parties and impromptu conferences. She was to meet with the Counsel officially this evening to discuss her findings and her position. She hadn’t seen the twins since they had arrived, and she was starting to miss their entertaining company.
“May I come in?”
“Of course. I’m just here in my father’s study, Aed.” Vedika placed her book on the side table. A warm hand covered hers. She gazed at him, his young fit shape in the firelight. “You look well rested,” she smiled.
Aedan knelt in front of her chair and took her hand in his. “As do you. Your father’s garden is lovely. Better than the communal greenhouse, in my opinion.” His amber eyes met her gray ones, and there she found a depth she hadn’t before noticed: pain, sorrow, regret and hope, desire, compassion. Like deep pools reflecting the golden warmth of sunlight. And then his lips were against hers. She returned his soft, unassuming kiss. “I’ve wanted to do that for a really long time,” Aedan smiled against her mouth.
“Aedan. Are you mad?” Vedika teased as she pulled away from him.
“No. Not anymore,” he grinned. And then his face went dark. “I was crazy before now, when I was sent to bring you or your body back to the Valley.” He pleaded with his eyes.
“It’s okay. I had guessed the parameters of your mission…” she paused, squinting her eyes up at him. “And I knew that the latter would never happen.”
“How?” he blundered.
“Because people desperate to hold onto power, even a false sense of power, employ fear and cruelty. And nothing would be crueler than to ask you to betray me, your friend, former colleague, and confidant. You, who were my father’s favorite student and the only man he would have wanted to succeed him. What can I say, my father was a Librarian. I see patterns.” She smiled at him and stroked his bewildered face.
“Then, why did you come with us? Why?”
“Because it is time to tell the truth; because I care about my people. Now, walk me through the Valley. I have a meeting to attend,” she huffed.
“People of the Valley,” Counsel Kent began, “a year ago we lost our Librarian. He was a man we had come to rely upon for information, for the truth. His daughter stands here, now, ready to take up his mantle, to be a seer, a prophet of the Earth, to show us the way forward and remind us of our past. Vedika, Librarian, please come forth.”
She stood at the podium, hands shaking. This was how the Counsel wanted it. She heard Counsel Jayne’s voice in her mind: “Tell them we can stay here, and you are the new Librarian. We don’t have much need for crazy old scientists anymore. Your father learned that lesson well enough.” But now wasn’t the time for worry; it was the time for action. It needed to be said, and she was the last of her line, the only one who could say it. She opened her father’s notebook and began.
“My father wrote down everything. I think I never saw him without a pencil in his hand or tucked behind his ear, even in his sleep. In his last days, he spoke with our Counsel about change. He quoted a man named Roy Scranton who said that ‘humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.’”
The Counsel grumbled amongst themselves behind her. This was not what they had expected. Vedika found Aedan’s eyes in the front of the crowd; she thought of all they had exchanged, of all he had unintentionally taught her about herself and her place in the world.
“This has been our home for over a century. This small piece of fertile land; this haven. We have done all we can: used her wisely; made her whole. Now, it is time to move on. The Plateau is ready for us. Once a wasteland of cold and sterility, she has awakened and needs our help to become the fertile place she should be. This was always the plan, our mission to heal the planet. As a world leader once said: ‘the journey is long […]. And we don't have much time left to make it. It is a journey that will require each of us to persevere […]. So let us begin. For if we are flexible and pragmatic; if we can resolve to work tirelessly in common effort, then we will achieve our common purpose: a world that is [greater] than the one we found; and a future that is worthy of our children.’”
“Go back to your Mountain, Witch!” someone yelled. More shouts arouse in agreement. The people in the crowd began shoving one another, disagreeing, and debating.
As a large, glimmering tear rolled down her nose, a speck in Vedika’s vision grew, inexplicably. It was hoary and crude; it was earth, hurtling along an arc as if she were a seat of gravity. And she fell. Her vision blurred, crimson and gray, and she saw Aedan and Jetur erupt from the crowd. Time slowed; Vedika felt her heartbeat and the desire to hold Aedan’s hand once more as a web of meaning. Sensation, thought, and feeling were linked, somehow made of as solid a matter as the cool ground against her cheek. All was black and still.
Aedan sat on the rock under his dome. In the waning light he surveyed all they had done and thought about how they’d gotten here. The last few years had been tough, full of hard work and setbacks. The first thing Vedika had asked when she’d regained consciousness was, “how many? How many will come?” By all accounts one-third was better than they had expected and certainly enough to work the Plateau. Taking down the domes amid the protests of the Counsel and those who would remain had worked his nerves. But Vedika’s calm determination and easy manner never faltered. Though the twins had decided to stay behind, they worked tirelessly collecting seeds, hauling gear, or distracting bored, tired children with their antics.
The stone that had knocked Vedika unconscious now sat on her makeshift desk. She would carry the scar on her forehead the remainder of her years, a small rose star with pink flares. The light was warm and delicate on her skin. He watched in amazement; her fingers glistening like chocolate diamond dust. “Vika? Vedika…up now; wake up, now,” he beckoned.
“Am I dreaming, again?” she murmured.
“No, Librarian. You’re not dreaming; you are home.”
--Kit Menon (2023)