We move from darkness to light. . . .
The words came like a poetic refrain into Preston Kitteridge's mind as he carefully gazed down into the darkness that yawned nearly thirteen hundred feet below him. The ladder upon which he was making his Climb did not shake, for there were no winds this high above Duende Meadow, but the danger in the darkness was there.
However, it was as his brother, Jay, had once told him: Pierce the darkness and the light will shine forth.
But Jay Kitteridge was not risking his life making the Climb this year, nor was Jay interested in adding another section to the ladder's topmost limit of their world. Darkness or light notwithstanding, it was still frightening.
Preston Kitteridge, guided by the tiny crystal beacons at his shoulders, looked up at the ladder which stretched forbiddingly upward into the dark, drawing him on by its netherial challenge. Darkness. Sheer darkness. No stars. No moon. Nothing but the rungs attached by those daredevils in years past crazy enough to jeopardize their well-being by climbing the ladder in celebration of the Gathering.
Beneath him like a starry constellation glittered the Meadow of Ghosts. Duende Meadow. A small city of its own, it seemed to ignore him, but he knew that scores of other duendes such as himself were also, in their own peculiar manner, enjoying the Gathering Day. He was simply too far above them to see or hear any such activity.
Still, if the automated "runners" which trundled up along the outer rungs of the ladder ahead of Preston lost their mechanical grip and the nylon safety lines snapped, a fall from such a height would definitely make this one of the more memorable Gathering Day celebrations. And it would certainly be his last act upon the earth.
Or, more properly said, his last act within the earth.
For Preston Kitteridge was climbing inside solid rock, and this was a notion from which he could never escape. Each rung he mounted as he towed his scaffold tent beneath him, which also included another ten feet of attachable rungs for the ladder at the top, took him up through the lazy sediment of Kansas topsoil. Just how far above the present apex of the ladder Kansas lay, nobody down in the Meadow knew. Neither the main computer in Saxifrage Mall, the civilian side of the Meadow, nor the one in the Hive, which was the military adjunct to the Meadow, had any reliable estimates of just how far beneath the true surface of the earth the Meadow existed. All they knew was that most of the country above them was probably still trapped underneath the ice sheets left over from the devastating nuclear winter which had set in centuries ago after mankind's last war.
However, as all Gathering Day climbers secretly hoped, Preston Kitteridge yearned for that moment–that unique Climb–when some lucky hero would finally pierce the surface of the earth, even if it would only be to enter the Ice. Besides, he was getting too old for this sort of thing. He had made the Climb five times in the past and he was now thirty-three years old. In all likelihood, this was his last Climb.
Yet he couldn't help but anticipate the Ice. He knew that it would be there, the gray remnant of that terrible conflagration which followed the Last War when billions of tons of soot, ash, and dust blocked out the sun's vital light. Though the Meadow had escaped such destruction, the duendes all knew that a new Ice Age, with ice sheets a mile or more in depth, had settled in after a nuclear exchange in which a known sixty thousand warheads were traded between the Soviet Union and the United States.
But as Preston understood all too well, it would be much better to see the Ice than to see the destruction itself–even after six hundred years. That part of Kansas, from which the original Meadow had been derived, had sustained a great many air- and ground-bursts from Soviet missiles, given the number of Minuteman silos and MX trailers that had once roamed the Wichita—Topeka area.
Indeed, Preston Kitteridge could not ignore his heritage even as he climbed. It was literally an act of moving from darkness toward the light, for the "light" above–should he happen to reach it on the Climb–would reveal the truth to them all of what really happened six hundred years ago.
And if he should arrive to witness such a thing, he would arrive on the scene as a ghost, a duende.
He touched the wafer-mike at his collar. "How's the Field registering, Travis?" he called out in the spectral darkness.
A sturdy, almost grandfatherly voice came back to him instantly. Travis Wainwright, down in the Games Room of the military Hive, spoke out. "It's quite strong. Holding well. How are you doing, Preston? There was a tremor in the ghost-lights far to the east last night. Can you see anything?"
Preston paused momentarily on the ladder, letting the runners above him shinny up another three yards, drawing the safety lines taut. "I don't see anything from here. If they were active, I missed them. I was probably asleep in the scaffold tent by then."
Even though most of the Meadow's duendes were presently celebrating the Gathering, there were many others not inclined to indulge in their various intoxicants. These duendes were watching Preston's progress up the ladder. Dr. Travis Wainwright, the head Appleseed of Saxifrage Mall, was a longtime friend of the Kitteridge clan. The chief botanist of the Meadow had become something of a father to both Preston and his older brother, Jay, when their own parents vanished years ago. And it was good to hear his voice, as it was also good to know that the Field was maintaining itself with its free-flow aura of atmosphere at such a distance from the Meadow.
The Climb, and further construction of the ladder, was a ritual only twenty years old in the six-hundred-year history of the Meadow. That no one had thought of it before was a mystery to them, for there was not all that much to do in the compound. The Arks and the military Hives virtually maintained themselves, and the duendes were always looking for one excuse or another to make their ghostly lives more interesting than they were as they waited out the long healing of the earth far above them. And the idea of building a ladder, one rung at a time, seemed to be a good one, something a bit more special to do on Gathering Day.
However, there were dangers involved, and the fact that the one-hundred-and-sixty-plus inhabitants of the Meadow might be the only surviving humans left after World War Three made many of the Meadow elders–Travis Wainwright was not among them–fearful of an accident which might rob the gene pool of another precious representative.
Dr. Wainwright's voice chimed out. "We're reading you at one thousand, three hundred and twenty-two feet. Are you double-checking all of the rung-joints?"
Preston smiled to himself as he climbed. "Travis, I might be crazy, but I'm not stupid. Of course I'm checking them."
The modulated voice of the chief Appleseed came back to him through the wafer. "Well, I just don't trust that Sebastian Monaco. He might have sabotaged them when he was up there last year."
Preston continued to mount the rungs. He said, "Monaco wouldn't do anything like that. Besides, he'd have no way of knowing who'd make the Climb this year."
"Still," the chief Appleseed continued, "we wouldn't want Holly to become a widow, would we?" The botanist's voice resonated with a touch of humor. Travis knew that their marriage wasn't even scheduled for another year, but already the "married man" jokes and the expected ribbing were quick in coming from the older folks of Saxifrage. It was perhaps a father's role to say such things.
"I have no plans to make Holly a widow, but I do plan on breaking Monaco's record," he reported.
He felt embarrassed in speaking about Holly this way, but his enmity for Lieutenant Sebastian Monaco was well known. Marriages or other procreative arrangements were done through the Meadow computers in order to enhance the best possible genetic combinations for the duendes' survival. He had personally considered it a matter of luck, or divine intervention, that the computers had chosen Holly Ressler and himself for a coupling.
Sebastian Monaco had lost out in that winnowing process, at least as far as getting permission from the computer. But that didn't stop him from trying whenever he could to persuade Holly that it might be in her best interest to devote her affections elsewhere. In fact, as Preston continued to climb the ladder further, staring up into the pitch darkness overhead, he realized that Monaco was somewhere below him in the Meadow, perhaps at the Saxifrage Bacchanalia, with Holly.
And while the Ark computer's decisions were never carved in stone, it was true that women of the Meadow, regardless of their scientific station, had to start bearing children as young as possible. And Holly Ressler, all of seventeen, was a pretty hot ticket, as Travis Wainwright once put it rather evocatively. The fact that Holly was young enough to be their baby sister didn't appear to bother either suitor, particularly Preston, who had had a substantial crush on her even before he had been aware of it. He wasn't, however, too thrilled about having the six children the Ark computer wanted them to have. He didn't know if his condominium in the Salina Ark could contain all those little people. He was having a hard enough time, such as it was, containing his two cats, Ike and Tina.
But if six more Kitteridges improved the changes that Homo sapiens sapiens might recover from the Armageddon several centuries in their past, then six more Kitteridges it would be.
Besides that, with the Meadow's advanced techniques in reconstructive surgery, Holly Ressler-Kitteridge would always have the body of a seventeen-year-old girl, even as s...