Urth of the New Sun
CHAPTER IThe MainmastHAVING CAST ONE MANUSCRIPT INTO THE SEAS OF TIME, I now begin again. Surely it is absurd; but I am not--I will not be--so absurd myself as to suppose that this will ever find a reader, even in me. Let me describe then, to no one and nothing, just who I am and what it is that I have done to Urth.My true name is Severian. By my friends, of whom there were never very many, I was called Severian the Lame. By my soldiers, of whom I once commanded a great many, though never enough, Severian the Great. By my foes, who bred like flies, and like flies were spawned from the corpses that strewed my battlefields, Severian the Torturer. I was the last Autarch of our Commonwealth, and as such the only legitimate ruler of this world when we called it Urth.But what a disease this writing business is! A few years ago (if time retains any meaning), I wrote in my cabin on the ship of Tzadkiel, re-creating from memory the book I had composed in a clerestory of the House Absolute. Sat driving my pen like any clerk, recopying a text I could without difficulty bring to mind, and feeling that I performed the final meaningful act--or rather, the final meaningless act--of my life.So I wrote and slept, and rose to write again, ink flying across my paper, relived at last the moment at which I entered poor Valeria's tower and heard it and all the rest speak to me, felt the proud burden of manhood dropped upon my shoulders, and knew I was a youth no more. Thatwas ten years past, I thought. Ten years had gone by when I wrote of it in the House Absolute. Now the time is perhaps a century or more. Who can say?I had brought aboard a narrow coffer of lead with a close-fitting lid. My manuscript filled it, as I knew it would. I closed the lid and locked it, adjusted my pistol to its lowest setting, and fused lid and coffer into a single mass with the beam.To go on deck, one passes through strange gangways, often filled by an echoing voice that, though it cannot be distinctly heard, can always be understood. When one reaches a hatch, one must put on a cloak of air, an invisible atmosphere of one's own held by what appears to be no more than a shining necklace of linked cylinders. There is a hood of air for the head, gloves of air for the hands (these grow thin, however, when one grasps something, and the cold seeps in), boots of air, and so forth.These ships that sail between the suns are not like the ships of Urth. In place of deck and hull, there is deck after deck, so that one goes over the railing of one and finds oneself walking on the next. The decks are of wood, which resists the deadly cold as metal will not; but metal and stone underlie them.Masts sprout from every deck, a hundred times taller than the Flag Keep of the Citadel. Every part appears straight, yet when one looks along their length, which is like looking down some weary road that runs beyond the horizon, one sees that it bends ever so slightly, bowing to the wind from the suns.There are masts beyond counting; every mast carries a thousand spars, and every spar spreads a sail of fuligin and silver. These fill the sky, so that if a man on deck desires to see the distant suns' blaze of citron, white, violet, and rose, he must labor to catch a glimpse of them between the sails, just as he might labor to glimpse them among the clouds of an autumn night.As I was told by the steward, it sometimes happens that a sailor aloft will lose his hold. When that occurs on Urth, the unfortunate man generally strikes the deck and dies.Here there is no such risk. Though the ship is so mighty, and filled with such treasures, and though we are so much nearer her center than those who walk upon Urth are to the center of Urth, yet her attraction is but slight. The careless sailor drifts among the shrouds and sails like thistledown, most injured by the derision of his workmates, whose voices, however, he cannot hear. (For the void hushes every voice except to the speaker himself, unless two come so near that their investitures of air become a single atmosphere.) And I have heard it said that if it were not thus, the roaring of the suns would deafen the universe.Of all this I knew little when I went on deck. I had been told that I would have to wear a necklace, and that the hatches were so constructed that the inner must be shut before the outer can be opened--but hardly more. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stepped out, the leaden coffer beneath my arm.Above me rose the black masts and their silver sails, tier upon tier, until it seemed they must push aside the very stars. The rigging might have been cobweb, were the spider as large as the ship--and the ship was larger than many an isle that boasts a hall and an armiger in it who thinks himself almost a monarch. The deck itself was extensive as a plain; merely to set foot on it required all my courage.When I sat writing in my cabin, I had scarcely been aware that my weight had been reduced by seven-eighths. Now I seemed to myself like a ghost, or rather a man of paper, a fit husband for the paper women I had colored and paraded as a child. The force of the wind from the suns is less than the lightest zephyr of Urth; yet slight though it was, I felt it and feared I might be blown away. I seemed almost to float above the deck rather than to walk on it; and I know that it is so, because the power of the necklace kept outsoles of air between the planks and the soles of my boots.I looked around for some sailor who might advise me of the best way to climb, thinking that the decks would hold many, as the decks of our ships did on Urth. There was no one; to keep their cloaks of air from growing foul, all handsremain below save when they are needed aloft, which is but seldom. Knowing no better, I called aloud. There was, of course, no answer.A mast stood a few chains off, but as soon as I saw it I knew I had no hope of climbing it; it was thicker through than any tree that ever graced our forests, and as smooth as metal. I began to walk, fearing a hundred things that would never harm me and utterly ignorant of the real risks I ran.The great decks are flat, so that a sailor on one part can signal to his mate some distance away; if they were curved, with surfaces everywhere equally distant from the hunger of the ship, separated hands would be concealed from each other's sight, as ships were hidden from one another under the horizons of Urth. But because they are flat, they seem always to slant, unless one stands at the center. Thus I felt, light though I was, that I climbed a ghostly hill.Climb it I did for the space of many breaths, perhaps for half a watch. The silence seemed to crush my spirit, a hush more palpable than the ship. I heard the faint taps of my own uneven footfalls on the planks and occasionally a stirring or humming from beneath my feet. Other than these faint sounds, there was nothing. Ever since I sat under Master Malrubius's instruction as a child, I have known that the space between the suns is far from empty; many hundreds and perhaps many thousands of voyages are made there. As I learned later, there are other things too--the undine I twice encountered had told me that she sometimes swam the void, and the winged being I had glimpsed in Father Inire's book flew there.Now I learned what I had never really known before: that all these ships and great beings are only a single handful of seed scattered over a desert, which remains when the sowing is done as empty as ever. I would have turned and limped back to my cabin, if I had not realized that when I reached it my pride would force me out again.At last I approached the faint descending gossamers of the rigging, cables that sometimes caught the starlight, sometimes vanished in the darkness or against the towering bank of silver that was the top-hamper of the deckbeyond. Small though they appeared, each cable was thicker than the great columns of our cathedral.I had worn a cloak of wool as well as my cloak of air; now I knotted the hem about my waist, making a sort of bag or pack into which I put the coffer. Gathering all my strength into my good leg, I leaped.Because I felt my whole being but a tissue of feathers, I had supposed I would rise slowly, floating upward as I had been told sailors floated in the rigging. It was not so. I leaped as swiftly and perhaps more swiftly than anyone here on Ushas, but I did not slow, as such a leaper begins to slow almost at once. The first speed of my leap endured unabated--up and up I shot, and the feeling was wonderful and terrifying.Soon the terror grew because I could not hold myself as I wished; my feet lifted of their own accord until I leaped half sidewise, and at last spun through the emptiness like a sword tossed aloft in the moment of victory.A shining cable flashed by, just outside my reach. I heard a strangled cry, and only afterward realized it had come from my own throat. A second cable shone ahead. Whether I willed it or not, I rushed at it as I might have rushed upon an enemy, caught it, and held it, though the effort nearly wrenched my arms out of their sockets, and the leaden coffer--which shot past my head--almost strangled me with my own cloak. Clamping my legs around the icy cable, I managed to catch my breath.Many alouattes roamed the gardens of the House Absolute, and because the lower servants (ditchers, porters, and the like) occasionally trapped them for the pot, they were wary of men. I often watched and envied them as they ran up some trunk without falling--and, indeed, seemingly without knowledge of the aching hunger of Urth at all. Now I had myself become such an animal. The faintest tug from the ship told me that downward lay toward the spreading deck, but it was less than the memory of a memory: once, perhaps, I had fallen, somehow. I recalled recollecting that fall.But the cable was a sort of pampas trail; to go up it wasas easy as to go down, and both were easy indeed. Its many strands provided me with a thousand holds, and I scrambled up like a long-haunched little beast, a hare bounding along a log.Soon the cable reached a spar, the yard holding the lower main topsail. I sprang from it to another, slimmer, cable; and from it to a third. When I mounted to the spar that held it, I found I was mounting no longer; the whisper of down was silent, and the grayish-brown hull of the ship simply drifted, somewhere near the limit of my vision.Beyond my head, bank after bank of silver sails rose still, apparently as endless as before I had mounted into the rigging. To right and left, the masts of other decks diverged like the tines of a birding arrow--or rather, like row upon row of such arrows, for there were still more masts behind those nearest me, masts separated by tens of leagues at least. Like the fingers of the Increate they pointed to the ends of the universe, their topmost starsails no more than flecks of gleaming tinsel lost among the glittering stars. From such a place I might have cast the coffer (as I had thought to do) into the waste, to be found, perhaps, by someone of another race, if the Increate willed it.Two things restrained me, the first less a thought than a memory, the memory of my first resolve, made when I wrote and all speculations about the ships of the Hierodules were new to me, to wait until our vessel had penetrated the fabric of time. I had already entrusted the initial manuscript of my account to Master Ultan's library, where it would endure no longer than our Urth herself.This copy I had (at first) intended for another creation; so that even if I failed the great trial that lay before me, I would have succeeded in sending a part of our world--no matter how trifling a part--beyond the pales of the universe.Now I looked at the stars, at suns so remote that their circling planets were invisible, though some might be larger than Serenus; and at whole swirls of stars so remote that their teeming billions appeared to be a single star. And I marveled to recall that all this had seemed too small formy ambition, and wondered whether it had grown (though the mystes declare it no longer grows) or I had.The second was not truly of thought either, perhaps; only instinct and an overmastering desire: I wanted to mount to the top. To defend my resolution, I might say that I knew no such opportunity might come again, that it scarcely accorded with my office to settle for less than common seamen achieved whenever their duties demanded it, and so on.All these would be rationalizations--the thing itself was glorious. For years I had known joy in nothing but victories, and now I felt myself a boy again. When I had wished to climb the Great Keep, it had never occurred to me that the Great Keep itself might wish to climb the sky; I knew better now. But this ship at least was climbing beyond the sky, and I wanted to climb with her.The higher I mounted, the easier and the more dangerous my climb became. No fraction of weight remained to me. Again and again I leaped, caught some sheet or halyard, scrambled until I had my feet on it, and leaped once more.After a dozen such ascents, it struck me that there was no reason to stop until I reached the highest point on the mast--that one jump would take me there, if only I did not prevent it. Then I rose like a Midsummer's Eve rocket; I could readily have imagined that I whistled as they did or trailed a plume of red and blue sparks.Sails and cables flew past in an infinite procession. Once I seemed to see, suspended (as it appeared) in the space between two sails, an indistinct golden shape veined with crimson; insofar as I considered it at all, I supposed it to be an instrument positioned where it might be near the stars--or possibly only an object carelessly left on deck until some minor change in course had permitted it to float away.And still I shot upward.The maintop came into view. I reached for a halyard. They were hardly thicker than my finger now, though every sail would have covered ten score of meadows.I had misjudged, and the halyard was just beyond my grasp. Another flashed by.And another--three cubits out of reach at least.I tried to twist like a swimmer but could do no more than lift my knee. The shining cables of the rigging had been widely separated even far below, where there were for this single mast more than a hundred. None now remained but the startop shroud. My fingers brushed it but could not grasp it.Copyright © 1987 by Gene Wolfe Gene Wolfe has been called "the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced" by The Washington Post. A former engineer, he has written numerous books and won a variety of awards for his SF writing.