“Ascending” by F.J. Bergmann

If the good dreams were about soaring down the bright sky, borne on a warm breeze, the bad ones were the opposite: a cold, dark hole like a mouth gaping from above to devour him, just as he slipped into sleep. He’d had nightmares about the tunnel as long as he could remember. But the sun had been veiled in clouds for days, each morning the air was chillier, and now his house had collapsed again under the weight of cold rain. He crouched, shivering, just inside the tunnel’s vast, tubular length, watching leaf fragments swirl past in the gushing water. He had never dared to explore beyond the area visible from the entrance. If he could find the courage to go up, would the tunnel take him to the light above the clouds?

He packed carefully, knowing he might not come back. Luckily, hunting had been unusually good just before the rain started; he had a substantial assortment of nourishing meals already wrapped. He started up the tunnel, clinging to the wet surface arching over the ceaseless torrent. As he strode onward, carefully placing each footstep, the entrance slowly dwindled to a small patch of light reflecting in the waters beneath.

A series of corrugated ripples in the tunnel wall gave him a secure anchorage to pause for a rest and a brief snack, salty and rich with concentrated proteins under its brittle husk. He shifted his load of provisions and continued on. Beyond the ridges, the tunnel turned sharply straight up–and now he was in total darkness that smelled dankly of algae. He told himself, to no avail, that it was no different than the innumerable moonless nights he’d spent hiding from invisible enemies. He tried to encourage himself by humming lively tunes, but the sound echoed unpleasantly, its dying reverberations suggesting an infinite distance in the dark. Even his timid footsteps set off a mutter of pursuing whispers.

He did not know how much time had passed when he noticed a change in the stream coursing down the side of the tunnel. While outside, he had been vaguely aware that the volume of water pouring out increased as the rain became heavier, but he had not considered the hazard the vertical cascade would represent. He heard the muffled booming of thunder and the patter of raindrops, rapidly rising to a steady roar. He clung desperately to the wall, but a rush of water swept him down into a tumbling ocean.

* * *

He regained consciousness hours later, huddled in a sodden wad of sticks and dead vegetation. The sun had come out, although the air was crisp; the grasses arching over him were already nearly dry. He shivered, only partly with cold: suppose a larger hunter had come along while he lay there, mindless? Of course, there was no trace of his provisions. He sighed and set about acquiring more, as rapidly as possible.

* * *

It took him two days to prepare for the second attempt. He realized that he had been foolish to wait for rain to goad him to venture into the tunnel. He would start as soon as he could, and hope that the rain would hold off. He was getting hungry and careless; doubtless other predators would be taking bigger risks as well.

The ridges connecting the sloping entrance to the vertical, where he had rested on the previous voyage, loomed above him sooner than he expected; this time, the brighter glow outside penetrated further into the dark tube, lighting his way. He made his way up to the top of the last ledge; he thought to stop for sustenance again, and was just about to unwrap one of the smaller food bundles, when one of the ridges twitched. Horizontally striped, black against crepuscular blue, his eyes followed it halfway around the tunnel to where the stripes curved upward and widened, almost invisible in the darkening gloom of the vertical section. They marked the striated turquoise body of a gigantic lizard. Its deceptively vacant eyes were watching him intently.

Bristling with fear, he began to place each foot above the next with infinite slowness. There was no refuge between him and the tunnel entrance–and the lizard would be upon him with blinding speed the instant it decided to move. He crawled up, step by noiseless, hair-raising step. A patch of darkness above him seemed more palpably opaque–the lizard’s mate, or the shelter he was seeking? And then the lizard slid toward him in one fluid movement.

In a panic he leapt upward in an enormous bound. He felt a breath of outrushing air as its jaws snapped shut behind him. He jumped again; the dark object loomed invitingly close–not a lizard, but sticks and leafy debris wedged across the tunnel. Still too far. The pack, the stupid pack; why hadn’t he dropped it? Hastily he detached the pack; as he was about to rid himself of it, the lizard clamped down on a trailing leg. He flung the pack at the lizard, and made one last despairing leap, feeling his leg snap, excruciatingly, from its socket. The still-twitching leg clutched in its mouth, the lizard swung to pursue the falling pack containing all of his provisions, and skittered away down the tunnel, leaving him to drag himself onto the bridge of twigs, shaking with fear and pain.

He gave himself only a few minutes to rest; the lizard might return, and the loss of his food made it critical to waste no time on the journey. He knew that he now lacked the strength to begin anew–again. The only way out was up.

Hours, days: he had no idea of how long he kept on placing one foot just a bit further along, then heaving himself upward. He saw only utter blackness above. In measureless night he followed an unknown muse.

He was climbing mindlessly as an automaton when his head encountered an obstacle. The entire tunnel was blocked by a rigid grid whose interstices were firmly packed with organic matter and jagged stones. He found no opening, no exit. As he clung upside down, hopelessly awaiting a futile death, he thought he saw the stars coming out. Then he realized they were pinpoints of sunlight.

Dawn was breaking on the other side of the obstruction. He crept along its rim until he found a thin crevice. It took a desperate effort, but he finally dragged himself through the narrow slit, thanking the invisible stars that he had starved throughout most of the journey. He rose up and was standing in a cul-de-sac at the end of a gravel-strewn valley, pocked with hummocks of dead leaves and twigs, whose straight walls receded into an unguessable distance. There was still a short climb above him, and he could not see what lay beyond the lip overhanging the valley, but the warm sun shone on him and allowed him to see a few small creatures that he seized and ate quickly. With renewed vigor, he scrambled up the escarpment and over its protruding rim.

He crouched, panting, on a canted plain of overlapping boulder-strewn, regular, shallow mesas that stretched in all directions to the horizon. From atop one of the isolated promontories, he saw another being moving, with an enticingly familiar stride, toward the shade of a projecting tower.

He moved toward the same shadow. She–O, he was certain of her gender!–turned to face him. All his weariness and hunger and what he had not known was loneliness forgotten, he felt a surge of lust rise in a hot red gush. Quickly he extruded the ductile filaments necessary to weave a simple web anchored between the tower and the surrounding plain, with a triangle of tight strands near one edge. He thrust into it, rocking back and forth until the moment of his release, then dipped his pedipalps into the suspended droplet of sperm.

As he began to circle her and close in, she watched him obliquely, but made no move to assault him–or resist. Dizzy with pheromones, palps wet with freshly emitted semen, he climbed willingly into her embrace. Trembling, he crouched to fertilize her. As his palps entered her, she bowed her head. He finished his task with exquisite relief–and her mandibles closed. A spurt of circulatory fluids jetted out from his severed neck, splashing on the broken ground.

* * *

All winter a fibrous sac hung in the lee of the tower, tirelessly clinging in the teeth of the bitterest gusts, periodically buried in drifts of ice-crusted snow, patiently waiting through long nights fitfully lit by the endlessly circling stars. Discrete spheres seemed to move within its bulge. After the vernal equinox, as the sac grew tattered and the scent of honeysuckle wafted into the rarefied heights, the infant spiderlings emerged; tender, translucent buttons of need and desire. They flung their unreeling gossamer threads to catch the wind and were swept like little lost balloons over the edge into space, tiny souls falling into the unknown world.


Copyright © 2013 F.J. Bergmann

F.J. Bergmann writes poetry and speculative fiction, often simultaneously, appearing in Asimov’sEschatology, Shock Totem, Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, and a bunch of literary journals that should have known better. She is the winner of the 2012 Rannu Fund Speculative Literature Award for Poetry. Her most recent chapbook is Out of the Black Forest (Centennial Press, 2012). The editor of Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and poetry editor of Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, she frequents Wisconsin.( Website: http://fibitz.com )


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