Authors: Doris Piserchia
Ashlin had been climbing Mt. Timbrini for more than a decade. Scaling the huge, befogged escarpment he liked to gaze down upon the city of Emera glittering below like a thousand multi-colored moons.
But when horrifying visions of gaps in the fabric of sky above the mountain began to plague his nights, and the mysterious appearance of a woman on a section of the heights he knew to be unreachable baffled his daytime ascents, his motivation for climbing began to change.
He did not realize that his newly motivated enterprise would not bring him peace of mind, but a dire and dangerous battle for the peace of a world!
Reviewer comments on Doris Piserchia:
“DAW has brought a new author to deserved prominence.”—
“Piserchia is not one of the best-known names in the SF field—but she should be!”—
“Doris Piserchia cares.”—
The Twilight Zone
THE DEADLY SKY
“I stared up at two tall spires. Between them was a dark area with a crack of utter blackness running down the center, not yet open but plainly threatening. The portion around the crack didn’t look like normal sky but was wrinkled and bumpy as if something beyond was striking it in an attempt to get through to my side.
“Being there looking at the darkness had a strange effect on my mind. I felt as if something sinister was reaching out of the crack to prowl inside my head. It wasn’t a piece of ordinary sky stretched up there between the mountain peaks but a fabric of space that threatened to tear open. Something behind it tried to get in, and though it hadn’t succeeded, it had forced a small bit of black light into my world.”
has also written:
EARTH IN TWILIGHT
COPYRIGHT ©, 1983, by Doris Piserchia
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Frank Kelly Freas.
FIRST PRINTING, JANUARY 1983.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED
U.S. PAT. OFF. MARCA
REGISTRADA, HECHO EN U.S.A.
PRINTED IN U.S.A.
I climbed the mountain that day because it was something I had done at least once a week as far back as I could remember. The sun was shining and the perspiration came off me in steady streams as I dug my boots into the granite and felt for handholds above my head.
There was a hole in the wall into which I shoved a toe while at the same time my fingers went searching higher up. I had no ropes, hammers or spikes to assist me, nothing but a familiarity with the rock gained over a decade of assaulting it. Up and up I went toward the nearest cloud bank.
As always I was struck breathless when I arrived at the first broad plateau and looked down. The city of Emera glittered like a thousand moons, multi-colored, with her spires brazenly shooting up into the sky. My father was down there in one of those sparkling shards, seated in his office behind his desk, probably plotting my future. No doubt he plotted with such earnestness that his formidable brow was creased with a frown. He was that sort. Thorough and painstaking.
Above me the mountain waited as it had since the day I was born, and perhaps long before that, a huge and patient escarpment full of mystery. There was about it more than one enigma. Always I ascended it but, more significantly, sooner or later I always descended it.
Strange it was how distance managed to neutralize the most stunning spectacles. Seen from the second level of plateaus, Emera was a dull little toy nestled among fog banks.
The sun burst upon me as I gripped an outcropping of stone and hauled myself up and away from the nearly sheer wall. Only experience made it possible for me to have come this far. Years before, when my body had been small and light, I learned where all the niches were, and now that I was grown I could scale the heights without undue hesitation. That didn’t mean I wasn’t tired as I stood on a flat area to gaze upward. Nearly out of breath, I noted how the fog trailed in ghostly paths along the upper reaches of rock, saw how the sun splashed through high layers of mist.
Above the tenuous trails was a series of level but craggy places leading to an abyss. I couldn’t see the city when I looked down and indeed could scarcely see anything at all. The crevasse was some one hundred feet across, separating two spires of the same mountain, narrower where I stood than in some spots but not so narrow as it was farther south. I went that way, at the same time keeping watch behind me in case the birds came. I was too close to the edge to feel comfortable.
It didn’t take me long to reach the right spot but the girl wasn’t there. On the other side of the gulf I could see the mound of earth where she usually sat taking in the late morning sun.
Thinking she might still come, I sat on a rock to wait. Mist oozed from the crevice that must have been thousands of feet deep, crawled over the ground to play at my feet. Overhead the sun grew stronger and sparkled off the mountain walls rearing high above me. I had no idea where the spires ended and as a boy I used to imagine that they went all the way to the end of the solar system. No doubt they thrust up a few thousand feet more and terminated in dry peaks.
It didn’t seem to be a good day for meeting people. It was at least noon and still the girl hadn’t come. I strained my eyes to see across the distance, tried to peer through the gloom that prowled behind her favorite resting place. How she managed to get across the span I didn’t know.
Plainly she had her own private trail up and down the escarpment. Though I had been searching for upward pathways most of my life it seemed that I had overlooked a significant one. Never had I climbed and ended on the opposite side of the gorge stretching before me.
As if on signal, the birds appeared along with my sense of disgruntlement, flapping their wings and crying out with piercing voices, annoying me with the rude manner in which they shattered my peace. Higher up was a good stiff wind but here were only composure and tranquility. The birds interrupted by dipping down out of the sky like strafers, their wings spread to the full, beaks aggressive, eyes wide and alertly suspicious.
They were large, dark creatures with sleek bodies and claws that could break off tree limbs or chunks of mountain. A specimen grounded before me, exactly on the lip of the sheer drop, and I saw the deep indentation in its back below its head, almost saddle-like in shape, as if a rider belonged there. The fowl dived across the abyss with a single flap of its oars, touched the far side and flew back toward me. Its companions shrieked and sailed upwind, careened back and forth along the walls of the drop, bridged the distance and came back again.
Another grounded before me on the edge of the crevasse and some mad impulse caused me to spring to my feet. With no thought of the consequences I leaped onto the bird’s neck. No sooner did I do so than it took off in shaky flight, squawking to high heaven and beating its wings with short thrusts as if it hoped to knock me off.
There wasn’t much for me to hold onto other than a handful of spiny feathers, some silky fur, a bit of bumpy skin. The neck was barely thin enough for me to hook my feet around, and it was a good thing that I managed to do so since the pest turned upside down to fly along an inner wall of the abyss. Grayish-black rock flashed past me and it occurred to me that my father’s only son was about to fall a long way on his head.
I kicked a feathery side as I might have kicked a horse, but only for an instant because I couldn’t hang on with just my hands. The bird showed its dislike for the pressure by zooming out of the crevasse and up above the opposite bank. As we shot no more than a dozen feet off the ground I saw a figure standing there looking at me. It was a young man with a startled look on his face.
As the bird began righting itself, I hauled on its neck so that it turned, and as it started to pass the figure down there a second time I debarked in a hurry. One leg went up and over its back and then I let go, hoping that I hadn’t miscalculated my working space. The gorge wasn’t all that far away and I hated the thought of a long dive.
“I’ve never seen such bad riding,” said a voice, but I wasn’t too attentive at that point.
My shoulder struck a clod as I landed and the pain took up most of my thoughts. At least I hadn’t fallen into the canyon but lay sprawled on a grassy area. My feathered mount gave a raucous cry of victory or anger before soaring away. It came back presently to cavort above me with six or seven of its friends.
The voice I had heard earlier belonged to the youth. It came as somewhat of a shock to me to realize that he was at least my age. He was no more than five feet tall and in fact was a few inches’ short of that height. He was also extremely handsome.
Rubbing my shoulder, I sat up. “Considering that it was my maiden flight it can’t have been all that bad.”
His name was Hallistair and he sat on a rock and looked down his nose at me. He never did give me his last name. Perhaps he hadn’t one. Perhaps he wasn’t even real. He had that effect on me, as if he were an elf who had popped out of a magic puff of air just to give me a difficult time.
“My name is Ashlin,” I said, reaching out to shake his hand. He made no move toward me. Climbing to my feet, I crossed over to a path leading downward. I was able to see quite a distance but it was a fruitless scrutiny. There was no girl or anyone else in sight.
Hallistair remained on the rock and stared after me with a slightly scornful expression. “I take it this will be your last flight,” he said.
“That depends on whether I make it back to the other side. You’ll show me the way down and across, won’t you?”
He smiled. “You’re asking me if I have a hidden route of my own. If I showed it to you it wouldn’t be hidden anymore, would it?”
Walking to the edge of the drop, I looked down. Just barely I managed not to flinch. So much for people who took too much time growing up. Hallistair was obviously an emotional laggard. I ignored him and began’ making my way down the path.
All too soon I was brought up short. The path ended at another crevasse. I went south and then north but there was no way off the plateau. I was surrounded on all sides by unbridgeable gulfs.
“You’re a clever person,” I said, going back to him.
“I am, but what makes you say so?”
“You got up here when there’s no way up.” A worrisome thought entered my mind. “You didn’t ride a bird over here, did you?”
White teeth flashed in the sun. He really was a handsome boy. Man. His hair was crisp and black, not short but not too long, curly and wavy and all the things mine wasn’t. His black pants and shirt fit his little body to perfection. Two black eyes stared at me and I detected the same scornful and mocking derision in the turn of his mouth.
“How do you plan to get home?” he said, ignoring my question.
“How do you?”
He looked away, yawned and stretched. “Glorious sky. Just the right temperature. I don’t come here every day but I do visit the spot now and then.”
“Which means you must have seen the girl.”
I could have sworn he knew exactly what I was talking about. “Never mind,” I said.
“A friend of yours?”
“Of course. She sits over there and sunbathes.” I pointed at the mound of earth.
“Is that so?” Hallistair leaned back and blinked at the sky. “What do the two of you talk about?”
Feeling more annoyed than I had felt all day, I decided not to reply. Turning to the path once more, I walked to the edge and stared down into the drop. Like a ferret my mind gnawed at small bones. Hallistair had an odd manner of dress, for one thing. Black trousers and shirt would be considered too bland and flat for the people I knew. Possibly he came from one of the more obscure suburbs of Emera. How had he gotten up here to the plateau? One way or another I wanted to find out. The only way I could get home was to wait until he left and then follow him.
“Where do you live?” he said when I returned, and when I merely looked at him he added, “Which part of Emera?”
“How do you know I don’t live up here with the birds?”
“Because I live up here. You don’t belong.”
“Is that so? What do you eat? Wind? Fog?”
Glancing away, he said, “I was only joking. Certainly I don’t live up here. Like you, my home is in Emera.”
He hesitated. “Fourteen.”
There was no building fourteen in the western section. “It won’t do you any good to run away from home,” I said. “Not if your folks want you back. I tried it when I was twelve. My father bought a drell to track me down.”
Hallistair sat on the rock with his little knees tucked under his chin and his hands clasped around his legs. “I wonder why he bothered?”
“I think he was afraid I might shame or embarrass him if I remained on the loose. He has a reputation to maintain.”
“I’m not running away from home.”
“You don’t live in Fourteen West, either. They dismantled it six months ago. There’s a park and reservoir there now.”
“Do you think those clouds over to the north mean rain?”
I looked in the direction he pointed, watched a puffball drift higher than the others. It didn’t matter to me if he wished to change the subject. “I wonder what’s up there,” I said. “See how the mountain shows through the mist every once in a while?”
“That isn’t part of the mountain. It isn’t that high.”
“Sure it is. Those patches, see how they glisten. That’s solid rock. She goes way, way up.”
“There’s nothing up there. Forget it.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said.
“You needn’t sound condescending. I know more about this mountain than you ever will.”
“I’ve been climbing it since I was eight.”
Contempt curled Hallistair’s lip. “I haven’t climbed it at all.” He jumped off the rock, dusted his seat and walked to the edge of the drop.
“You’re sure you haven’t seen a girl up here?” I said to his back. “She’s blonde. Wears her hair in a bun right on top of her head. Her skin is so white you’d think she never saw the sun.”
He turned to look at me and I waited for him to answer but he didn’t. So blank was his expression and so riveting were his eyes that I went away and resumed my walking. It didn’t matter. There was no need for me to watch him. He wasn’t going anywhere. No climbing trails were to be seen anywhere in the walls surrounding us, I knew. A trail was something I was good at spotting and there simply weren’t any. No, Hallistair had come across the span by bird, the same as I. It meant we were both stuck here on the plateau. He was putting on a good front to show me be wasn’t afraid but any minute now he would begin to come apart. It was a surprising coincidence, we two fools bumping into one another on a sunny afternoon.
It turned out that I was the bigger fool. While I bad my back turned to my companion, brooding and wondering, he somehow managed to climb aboard a bird and away he went across the span to my left. I looked up just in time to see him disappearing into the fog.
“Hey, come back!” I yelled. I had to glance back at the rock to make certain he wasn’t still sitting there. Not by a long shot had he hung around to make further conversation with the country bumpkin and he had fooled me all the way. I hadn’t really believed he had ridden a bird over here. In my mind I had seen him pussyfooting up some camouflaged trail while he daintily swabbed his brow with a lace handkerchief. I ought to have known better. Just because I had ridden a bird for the first time didn’t mean someone else hadn’t done it more than once or even made a practice of it.
Hoping he would return, I scratched my head and watched the fog. He might explain to me why he had sailed away in the wrong direction. Emera lay back across the other gulf and downward several miles, but Hallistair hadn’t gone that way. He might not have been able to control his mount (and who could?), but the fact remained that none of the birds seemed to have any inclination for winging toward the fog but preferred crossing what I was beginning to consider my own private crevasse.
Finally I went over to the rock where he had sat. I found it hard and uncomfortable.
It was near dusk when I admitted to myself that he wasn’t coming back. Hadn’t I known it all along? There was the mountain, a handful of bottomless pits, a waning sun, a bunch of birds and myself. Down in Emera my father was buzzing my apartment door. He played with patterns of light while waiting for me to let him in and all the while he was giving Sargoth the third degree. Where was Ashlin? At exactly what hour had he gone out? Was he climbing that tedious mountain again? Eventually he would leave the drell alone and go downstairs to see If I was in the lab.