The Cube - Chapter 12 - Stairway to the Sun

Mutt fell into the corner of the transport clutching Ivy’s satchel, unable to cope with the rupture of his family. If there was a single value he learned from his mother, it was the duty of a man to protect those he loved, to let no harm befall his wife, no tragedy come to his child. Yet here he sat helplessly having witnessed goons rip them away for horrors he could only imagine. They would meet again, he was certain, for Muglair had taken great pains to ensure the world of his commitment to keeping families intact, even Inta families, a subject of frequent eloquence in his speeches. The transport rumbled along dirt roads, every mile increasing the distance from his loved ones, every mile increasing his anxiety. What was this system that was consuming them? Would they be held in temporary shelters and returned to the Notches at the cessation of hostilities? Surely the conflict could not continue too long. This was a dispute over water. Arland was bombing Shamba that very moment and he had no doubt that when finished the great nations would negotiate a treaty.

He pondered the state of the Notches and its inhabitants then remembered with a shiver the murder of Volp. His boss’s fate was likely shared by dozens of people he knew. The sloplady, the father, their son, Glon squared, Orly, Esma and Muwild, Hope’s friends, Kippers, who among them had survived? The Notches lay in ruins and Mutt needed to purge his mind of fantasies of resurrecting the New Normal. He could not underestimate the evil of Muglair or take at face value his pronouncements of peace and good will. He could not rely on the auspices of a madman to rescue him, or his loved ones, from peril of the madman’s own creation. He would have to figure a way out of this trap on his own initiative. When the transport stopped a soldier boarded and yanked him out the rear. He fell from the bed onto the ground clinging to the half slope while soldiers carried Arlanders to a processing tent. An agent of Interior approached and seized the satchel. Mutt would not let go and the agent summoned a soldier to shoot him. He waxed indignant before the soldier could aim his muzzle.

“Kind sir, would you abuse a guest of the Party?”

“The Party has no guests in the Notches,” the agent replied.

The soldier trained his rifle on Mutt.

“Allow me, sir, to introduce myself. I am Tom Weathers, author of The Sphere.”

This meant nothing to the agent but another agent standing nearby overheard and turned to the prisoner.

“Tom Weathers, you say. And that fellow over there is Marshal Turlin. And I am the Great Man himself.”

“Sir, allow me,” Mutt pleaded, reaching into the satchel while the soldier’s finger caressed the trigger. “Here is the next installment. You can be the first to read of Posy’s latest dalliance.”

He had not actually read the installment, at least not as rewritten by Ivy, but was quite confident a dalliance of some sort was in it. The agent eagerly consumed the opening lines and addressed the soldier.

“At ease.”

The soldier lowered his weapon and returned to his duties guarding Arlanders crammed inside the tent on vertical sleds anchored in the ground.

The agent scanned the entire installment then announced to his colleague, “I believe we do have a friend of the Party in our midst.”

Mutt was led along the half slope to an officers’ lounge in a corner of an administrative tent and given a bendable chair that he could adjust to accommodate his Notches orientation. An agent rifled through the satchel pulling out drafts of various installments, clutching them greedily then passing them among his colleagues, who were dipping sachets of wormwood and spitting on the floor.

“You realize we will have to confiscate these as evidence,” the agent commented.

“Sir, it would be my honor to autograph the drafts as a token of your hospitality.”

The agent thought this a grand idea and handed the papers back to the young author.

“But you must allow me the liberty to make copies. These are my only drafts.”

This was a reasonable request and the agent tugged a field table within reach of the bendable chair. Mutt had no drafting paper and pulled pages from the hidden compartment of the satchel filled with numbers on one side and blank space on the other. Dutifully for hours he transcribed the seventeen installments of The Sphere he and Ivy had prewritten, in some cases sketchily, onto the blank sides with an air of great importance. When he finished he signed each of the originals with a flourish and handed them to the agent admonishing him to share. The agent now read the first installment more carefully and looked at the author disapprovingly.

“Your Posy is quite a strumpet.”

Mutt smiled. “When I close my eyes she is all I see.”

“I cannot believe the Party endorses this trash.” The agent grew agitated. “Do you know what the Party does to corrupters of youth?”

“Yes, I do,” Mutt replied deadpan. “They publish them.”

The agent hesitated, waiting for the reaction of his colleagues, then guffawed.

“Cognac for everyone!”

An attendant retrieved a crystal decanter from a field trunk and pulled the stopper. The agents passed the bottle around drinking directly from the lip, swishing the liquid in their mouths before swallowing. On Mutt’s turn he vowed to outdo them all and filled his cheeks to chipmunk capacity, sloshing the bulge back and forth for dramatic effect before gulping and releasing a satisfied sigh.

“You must leave some for the rest of us!” An agent slapped him on the back.

“Aye,” Mutt responded, already feeling the effect, “but an author must be properly lubricated for a reading.”

Now he really had their attention. These men did important work for the cause but it was brutal and demanding. Not often did they get the chance for entertainment and they quickly gathered around Mutt’s bendable chair, the author just as curious as his audience as to how scurrilous the unedited drafts might be. He had managed to transcribe all seventeen installments without reading a word of them. He organized the papers chronologically – Ivy had thoughtfully notated expected publication dates – and launched into a dramatic reading of Posy’s plan to kill Huston with a poison arrow shot from a dart gun connected to an electrical tripwire, a light sensor actually, all in response to her humiliation at catching Huston in the act with the toaster repair woman and being invited to join which she enthusiastically did along with her younger sister only to regret it later. Posy tearfully dipped the arrow tip in lizard saliva, a well-known love toxin on the Sphere, hoping that her beloved would die remembering her as his one true passion and not her awful sister Daphnia. Mutt continued reading, becoming genuinely shocked at the intimate details, unsparing descriptions of acrobatic lovemaking mixed with lofty paeans to passionate surrender, scenes Ivy customarily edited before submitting to Volp, who toned them down more, only to find the version in the Cause further sanitized, all presented here in their original unvarnished prose. The tone shifted from erotic to preachy as Posy, channeling her muse Ivy, waxed poetic about the evils of governmental intransigence in the face of looming catastrophe. The Sphere was already spinning and rather than take the threat seriously the leaders, growing dizzy from reduced weight and rotating stars, threw mead tasting parties. Mutt saw discomfort in his audience at implicit condemnation of the Flume – Posy suggested the creators of the windmills be slowly fed through them – and improvised a moving speech condemning the dominant power of the Sphere for its refusal to share nabana peels.

An agent commented how unfamiliar Mutt seemed with his own work, frequently mispronouncing words and gasping at outrageous scenes.

“Sir, I do not write these drafts,” he slurred, reeling from the cognac. “I sleep with a jug of absinthe and when I awake, they are there.”

Posy delivered a soliloquy over the body of the electrical lineman who installed the tripwire then forgot to ask for payment – she had assumed their tryst was sufficient – and returned to the vat room with a dunning letter inadvertently triggering his own installation. How had it come to this? Unable to find true love, filling the hole in her heart with a series of animal embraces invariably ending in someone’s gory demise, she cursed the heavens for her undying love of Huston. His infidelity, his privileging of lust over loyalty, was the root cause of her unhappiness, she was convinced. If she could start over, she knew what she wanted, a simple peasant boy like the one she rejected at the altar for Huston’s advances from the pew, a boy who would offer her his heart, who would be a father to her children, who would protect her from the predators of the world, with whom she could tame her errant impulses, with whom she could build a lasting relationship rooted in commitment and not cheap thrills. Above all, Posy declared, she wanted a boy whose momma raised him right. Mutt lifted his nose from the draft and grinned awkwardly. Was this how Ivy viewed him, as a compromise for her lust? But Posy was so far down a path of desperate indulgence there was no turning back. Once ruined, she was committed to a life of harlotry, and even if she found a boy like the one she jilted, as soon as he turned his back there would be another lineman, or undertaker, or professional tongue wrestler – she smiled remembering that one – or, heaven forfend, Huston himself. For her appetites were insatiable and what happened in dark rooms, or in well-lit rooms with her eyes closed, was beyond her control. Mutt was too drunk to fathom the mysteries of Ivy’s libido but for a moment he was less worried about her fate as a prisoner of war than the constancy of her love. He shook his head stammering, agents expecting him to throw up, and purged from his mind all doubts about his wife, for if there was any experience in his life that was real, and reliable, and rock solid, it was his marriage, and it was his sacred duty to preserve it, somehow, against the will of Skava.

“Who is the ring for?” an agent asked, looking at his hand.

“A ring,” he sputtered, “it’s for women.”

This made no sense.

“The women I consort with, in the spas, they like a ring,” he improvised. “It shows they are breaking someone’s heart. The sweetest kiss is stolen.”

The agents were too intoxicated to take offense at this affront to the Party’s ten points of morality. Mutt decided he had read enough of Posy’s musings and fabricated his own speech for Huston, delivered from a bar stool to fellow drunks nursing bladders of spirits in a tavern in the ring forest by the lapping waters of the rising ocean.

“Gentleman, we all like women. God made them to gratify our lust, and for that I am a believer. But what should be a simple pleasure has been complicated by vows. When we eat, we do not commit to the food. When we breathe, we do not commit to the air. When we drink, we do not commit to the beverage.” Mutt paused and took a swig of cognac. “Well, I commit.” He was getting into character. “So why then when we know a woman must we know her another day? For what purpose is a promise? What we call love has a natural course, long enough to produce a child, but not to raise one. Let us all accept that it is our duty as men to provide for women and children, but why one woman, why our own children? Does not the hard experience of heartbreak and, in its absence, boredom teach that love is best renewed in the arms of another? I may be a sullen wretch but my peaks are higher than your valleys, and I live to climb another day. Do not speak to me of marriage. Speak only of prison, a stale bed and barren walls, and bars through which to view missed opportunities. Surely I may deserve such a fate but let us not call it a reward, but punishment. For so long as I have liberty I will seek out the next conquest, and pray be the conquest of another. Why pay extra for a single course? That tingle you feel from the discovery of new flesh, you will not find in the embrace of familiar. That thrill you feel from piercing a new woman, is not the same a thousand pierces later. We were born to spread our essence. A single cup will overflow.”

Now would come Huston’s moment of truth.

“Gentlemen, I do have a love. She is named for flowers, a posy, and was made by God above to be plucked, but never cultivated. She’s a perennial, really more a monthly, if there is a word for that, and I have visited upon her more watering than a flower should bear. But now new thoughts are entering my head. Have I not plucked enough? Is my nose not gay? Should I not cultivate a flower? Could I find subtle variations in sameness to pique my interest? Or am I forever condemned to search out new beds, flowers that become weeds, and die in the isolation that comes from pressing petals?”

Mutt was reading Ivy’s passages about Posy while improvising Huston’s speech. He was speaking automatically in a drunken stupor, in the same manner he composed songs on request in the canteen, but was consciously absorbed in Posy’s further ruminations about marital compromise, wondering what Ivy really thought of him.

“Gentlemen,” Mutt addressed the agents lifting his eyes from the drafts, “now is your chance to make literary history. As an author I cannot decide on the future of Huston and Posy. So I place the matter in your hands. Do I write them toward marriage? Or toward dissolution? A show of hands for marriage!”

To Mutt’s surprise the vote for marriage was near unanimous, these servants of the cause being romantics at heart.

“Then it is settled,” he announced. “There will be a wedding.”

He passed out in his chair and did not recall a word of his reading when he awoke. His head was spinning, cognac still in his system, his eyes struck by brightness. The administrative tent was gone and agents lifted his chair, the last object in an open field pocked with fresh graves, and carried him to the exposed bed of a military truck on loan to Interior. No one spoke a word and he wondered if he had offended them with his reading. It occurred to him he had done nothing to negotiate the safety of his wife and child. What could he do? What could he say to Skavian goons that would save his loved ones rather than getting himself killed? His eyes rolled helplessly in his head so he closed them, oblivious to the lush vegetation on the road to Leri Deri, swaying fern forests and frond trees, mimosa puffs needled by hummingbirds, carnivorous orchids and poppies nibbling small newts, groves of grapefruit and apricot swollen to droop.

He removed his eyes from the crook of his elbow, able finally to tolerate sunlight, as the transport rolled into the outskirts of the capital. Shanties lined the dusty road extending outward as far as the eye could see, hovels with tin roofs painted white, open pit latrines, piles of burning garbage, skeletal children chasing trucks seeking alms. This was not how Mutt envisioned Leri Deri. Indeed he had never seen such concentrated misery even in Arland propaganda about Skava, which had not kept pace with Muglair’s utopia. These were peasants, Hutfamilies, uprooted by the disastrous policies of the Land Ministry, come to the capital for new livelihoods, now a breeding pool of cheap labor for munitions and manufacture, a ready supply of expendable soldiers, and a cesspool from which a job in Interior looked like the throne of God. The shanties gave way to outer boroughs filled with small boxy cottages built decades ago for the established working class, then to residences of increasing grandeur sporting colonnades, atriums, and palladium highlights, the former homes of Inta overlords now reserved for Party dignitaries, and finally to the boulevards, greens, monuments, capitol buildings, and concrete canyons of city center. Leri Deri was a world removed from the war currently unfolding in the salient with a massive Arland counteroffensive and along the Edge with bombing campaigns from fixed artillery positions from Arland into Skava and vice versa depending upon who controlled what stretches of the fold, with the portion due west of Leri Deri held by Skava as prime defensive terrain protecting the capital. Mutt glimpsed the Regency and People’s Hall on opposite ends of the great sandstone plaza, and the Stairway to the Sun pointing directly to molten glory like a saluting fist. From the open bed of the truck, wedged into a corner with his half-slope gravity, he saw the mossy spires and vine-covered arches of the Cathedral of the Angels of God, fibrously stretched like the innards of a berel gourd pulled slowly apart, before they disappeared from view as the vehicle descended a ramp into the bowels of an enormous rectanguloid edifice, the headquarters of Interior.

Agents lifted him wordlessly from the bed of the truck and carried him through a security foyer to elevator banks. On one side the shafts led down, a direction from which captives usually returned in biowaste containers, and on the other side up. He was taken to an upper floor and deposited in a round guest room built for gravity conversion with a view of city center. His escort left and he occupied himself reading back issues of The Cause wondering what would happen to him next. Eventually he was roused – he did not recall falling asleep – by a minder in a one-piece suit welcoming him as an honored guest of the Party. He would be expected to resume publication of The Sphere with special consideration for the political needs of the moment. Mutt did not fully appreciate until later that he was being asked to shade the story for Skavian war propaganda. The minder asked if there was anything the Party could do for him and he decided now was the time to ask.

“Sir, I was captured with a woman and child. I wish them to join me in Leri Deri.”

The minder looked at him curiously.

“That will not be a problem.”

Mutt was pleased with himself. He had achieved the status of welcome guest in Leri Deri and would rescue his family from harm. Skava was not such a bad place after all. But if Ivy Morven was a wanted criminal, would Interior so blithely grant her freedom? She had given her real name when captured in the salient and he did not believe his request could place her at further risk. If they wished to punish her for alleged crimes they could do so already. He might jeopardize his own safety by acknowledging their relationship but he had no concern for himself. It was his duty to reunite his family regardless of personal peril. Attendants frequently brought pitchers of water and tarpin bread to speed his conversion as he again suffered cabin fever in the curve of a rounder. With reams of blank paper supplied by the minder he began editing the next installment of the Sphere in which Ivy teased Posy’s great secret, whatever it was, the supposedly horrible truth about the cosmos Ivy refused to reveal in the Notches. He had great difficulty working with Ivy’s lyrical prose, his insertions standing out for their leaden quality. He could not submit her drafts unedited; they were too racy and implicitly critical of his host country. Yet he fell to writing in the same style with which he started the story in the hut loft, full of details without purpose, facts and figures without narrative. He remembered his improvisational lyrics in the canteen and sought to recreate that free association. He did not have access to alcohol and deemed drinking unwise in the headquarters of Interior, so he began practicing automatic writing on blank sheets, filling them with whatever thoughts came to mind for pages and pages, then transposing the unbridled style to editing The Sphere.

What he found most effective was pretending to be his wife. That was a challenge for a woman as mysterious and emotionally turbulent as Ivy, but he discovered that if he imagined her desiring him, he could achieve a romantic passion more publishable than Posy’s barnyard urges. He was confident he accurately captured his wife’s attraction to him, this woman who chose him to father her child, whose commitment to their marriage and home was absolute, and took autoerotic pleasure envisioning their physical union through her eyes and her body, as a woman coupling with himself, imagining it to be quite a treat. He could not make sense of his wife’s eschatology, Posy’s religious belief that the apocalypse would soon arrive bringing cosmic revelations, so he reworded earlier foreshadowings from back issues of The Cause to sustain the mystery of the end times in the current installment. He was happy with the final product and invited the minder to sit through a reading, which he did with bemused detachment.

Mutt asked about his family daily and was told that transfer of Skava’s visitors, as prisoners of war were called, required coordination among various Ministries with overlapping jurisdictions. This would take time but he should not worry because the woman and child were in good hands and would arrive soon. He asked to send a message to Ivy but was informed that would take just as long as fetching her to Leri Deri. He began to suspect the minder was not being honest and perhaps had not even requested a transfer. He told the minder this woman was a talented editor necessary for publication of The Sphere. The minder responded that it was his duty to submit publishable drafts to The Cause and if he failed the Party might reconsider his status. Mutt realized he was more visitor than guest and decided he best be careful. He thanked the minder for his efforts and promised to be patient, pretending not to notice the threat, then asked for a tour of the capital. Two weeks had passed, his conversion was progressing swiftly, and he could no longer sit still in the cramped guest room. He needed the stimulation of outside sights, sounds, and scents to collect himself and to figure out how he might extricate his family, and himself, from Skava’s clutches. He was still in good standing with the Party and was assigned a guide by the Commerce Ministry, which held jurisdiction over tourism and entertainment. The minder escorted him to an open motorized vehicle powered by electric battery waiting outside the security foyer with an adjustable rumble seat for guests of differing gravities. An official guide, along with the minder, accompanied him on a driving tour through center city, circling the capitol complex of the People’s Hall and Regency with the great sandstone plaza, the locus of revolutions and executions, stretching over a mile in between dotted with towering fern gardens, ponds stocked with iridescent looper fish, and playgrounds filled with toy stocks and gallows. In the center of the plaza a circular city green provided an oasis of shade trees from the middle of which emerged a multi-storied terraced birdbath fountain spoked with poles dangling feeders designed to attract hummingbirds and Skavian birds of paradise. Anchored on the People’s Hall side of the plaza, the Stairway to the Sun began its ascent along the angle of the sun’s rays, rising toward its fire and terminating in the martyrs’ shrine a mile above the Regency.

Still reeling from his predicament, Mutt feared he might be permanently displaced in Skava never again seeing familiar faces. The tour guide began driving back to headquarters and Mutt told him to stop. They were going to Lake Looda, he announced. The minder said the Lake was beyond their range but his guest insisted he make an exception. As a Hutman returning from exile he longed to visit the birthplace of Hutman civilization, founded according to legend along the shores of the ancient lake. But he could not reveal his true motivation. He was homesick and wanted to return to his hut on the mound in the Notches, surrounded by exploding steamboats and a shoreline filled with lotus trees and fanciful creatures gulping lake water, his wife relaxing in the bowl chair and daughter chasing midges, all beneath a sky of prayer flags and white netting.

The minder consulted the driver and concluded the near shore of the Lake would be within the approved radius. They drove east from the capital though muscadine vineyards and citrus estates of increasing opulence until a turquoise bay shone through cobblestone alleyways of a lakeside cottage resort. Mutt could not contain his excitement and pleaded to see the famous landing of the Looda steamboats. The landing was undoubtedly beyond the minder’s approved range but he decided to accommodate his enthusiastic guest. They drove along the rim of the basin, the waters mostly obscured by forest, before descending a short drive to the former landing, now graced with a single decommissioned steamboat that operated briefly as a restaurant before closing. The boat was boarded over and partially submerged, its gaily painted stacks faded in the sunlight and tilting in different directions. From the landing the lake stretched seventy miles to the far shore on a long winding axis cut by symmetrical cross-bays like a stitched wound. Flat-bottomed rowboats rested on the grass in a deserted park along the shore, a means of transit to small islands matted against the hazy horizon floating in the current. These islands were built by ancient Hutmen from bundled tube stalk as a defense against shoreline marauders and could be maneuvered by pole or paddle across the Lake. They had been abandoned for generations and now drifted aimlessly across the waters waiting for storms and saturation to drag them down.

Mutt was at a third slope in his conversion and leapt from the rumble seat, stumbling toward the boats on ground that felt to him steeply descending. The minder caught up intending to restrain his wayward charge but Mutt invoked the martyrs. He was here in the cradle of Hutman civilization to pay them homage and one could not meddle with sacred duty. The minder regretted the latitude he was showing his young guest but decided there was no risk of flight, only drowning. The guest was already in the boat paddling eastward, pulled forward by his partial Arland gravity and realizing how strenuous the paddle back would be. He beached on a sagging edge of the island and began exploring the terrain, grabbing roots and shrubs for balance. He figured at most three huts could have fit, their occupants living off fish and small vegetable plots, poling around the lake in search of freshwater springs, hunting grounds, and cranberry bogs along the shore. But today there were only a few dwarf lotus trees and a soggy clearing in the middle with lake water bubbling up under foot pressure. He reclined by the rowboat facing back toward the landing and was transported to his hut surrounded by Ivy’s murals. Here he was on a floating island in Lake Looda, a steamboat docked across the way, lotus trees and driftwood gracing the shoreline, wispy clouds trailing across the azure sky, pleasure boats visible in the distance to either side. He even saw a beaver relaxing on a mud bank on the shore completing the picture.

But nothing was right about this scene. The steamboat was decrepit and sinking, its glory days long past, the island was barren of life with no trace of a hut or human habitation, and the sky was coagulating into gray clouds. Upon further inspection the beaver was a discarded bladder of vegetable fat with a flap lolling open like a tail. Most depressing was the stark desolation of the island, with no life, no family to call it home, not even the buzz of insects. He was overcome with grief at his profound isolation. For over four years he had held his wife every sleeping hour and grown accustomed to her constant company, never spending more than a few hours apart, conversing with her even in his imagination. The child whose nurture had organized their lives since her conception in the angle, a precious and reliable source of energy who had given her parents common purpose, was nowhere to be found. He had so integrated his life with these loved ones that he felt his body was incomplete without them, that he was trying to walk and grasp and feel with limbs that had been removed.

The image of the fresh graves at the processing center, barely noticed at the time through hungover eyes, crossed his mind in a painful flash. Were Ivy and Hope resting in unmarked graves in a Skavian killing field, their fates never to be known, bodies never to be mourned? He had been in denial about the evil of Muglair’s regime, finding in his own humane treatment a cause for optimism while suppressing memories of the destruction of the Notches and abuses of prisoners of war. Yet he knew that the separation from his family could be permanent in this pitiless nation, a prospect that was only now resonating emotionally. He had sustained himself in Leri Deri on fantasies of reunion, on the belief that the war would soon end with displaced persons returned to their homelands to rejoin loved ones. But it was just as likely he would never see them again, that they were already dead from Skavian brutality or would be before the war ended. His brain could not handle these dark thoughts so he stripped naked and dived into the waters for a sensory immersion, opening his eyes beneath the surface in search of the mythical Looda serpent, which he hoped was not hungry today. He needed to bathe in the mystical lake, to feel purifying waters caress his body, to grow again in mother’s fluid, to experience the odd effects of gravity tugging him not down but off center. Floating on his back he stroked toward the landing then relaxed at his natural angle, head emerging from the water at sixty degrees, allowing his Arland matter to pull him like a current back to the island. The warm waters soothed like a womb and upon emerging he was reborn, a process of renewal for which the healing waters were renowned. Invigorated by the cleansing, he again felt confident he could reestablish his former life and triumph over all obstacles, although in the back of his mind he feared he was only renewing his denial. Muglair’s utopia was like an underwater labyrinth. There may be an exit but he would drown before finding it.

Back in the city he again asked for a detour. On the island, scarcely audible above the breeze, he had heard a woman’s voice beckoning him to the martyrs’ shrine. The minder was irritated by yet another request, the guide less so having been trained to accommodate fussy guests, but was impressed by Mr. Weathers’ dedication to the cause, the weeping he heard from the floating island in the sacred Lake, the desire to offer libations to the fallen martyrs at the summit of the sacred Stairway. His escorts led him across the pale crimson stone of the plaza to the massive anchors of the monument. With his mixed gravity the angle of the Stairway, normally fifty degrees for Skavians, was a near vertical eighty degrees. He could not complete the pilgrimage by foot and instead took a funicular to the summit, one of two on either side of the steps. Arrayed between the anchors of the Stairway and the great Hall were six flagpoles displaying Skavian banners, including the traditional plain burgundy pennant with golden tufts, a grass green flag with yellow arrow bent in a circle pointing tip to tail, an early symbol of the cause, and a saluting fist before a sea of stern faces, Muglair’s preferred symbol of the Party. Bouquets of flowers strewn around the base of each pole piled into fragrant heaps. Mutt learned only later that the flagpoles were the same spikes on which his parents, and Ivy’s parents, were murdered nineteen years earlier, lovingly recovered from storage after the revolution and displayed again on the plaza for all patriotic Hutmen to revere. Each day cups of blood from animal sacrifice were raised by pulley to the knob of the poles and poured down the nickel plating to remind the people of the martyrs’ sacrifice, their selfless contribution to history that felled the hated Inta regime and gave rise to the new Hutman savior, Muglair Putie.

The Stairway was originally built for sun worship in prehistory as a series of linked platforms constructed of siderock buoyed to pull taut on chains along the angle of the sun’s rays. Pilgrims would ascend the platforms on their trek to the temple a mile above an elaborate palisade where the Regency now stood. It remained the highest structure on the planet until the Stoika, initially designed to exceed it by a foot but reduced after Skava filed a formal protest, was built to equal height. Leri Deri had been the center of Skavian power from the earliest recorded history, with control shifting between Inta and Hutman every few decades amid occasional spells of joint rule invariably ending in bloodshed and oppression. Over the centuries the platforms and chains were periodically replaced and now consisted of reinforced sandstone steps a hundred feet wide linked by enormous iron chains, free to sway in the violent winds and thermals but always stretching with gravity toward the sun. If the anchors were severed the entire edifice would launch into space and cross the universe until vaporizing in solar flames. The prospect of a solar journey on the ancient Stairway was a recurring theme in Skavian prophecy and literature.

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