Read Ascending Online

Authors: James Alan Gardner

Ascending

JAMES ALAN GARDNER
ASCENDING

This one is to all the gang
from Clarion West ’89:

I’m a lousy correspondent,
but I still remember.

CONTENTS

1

WHEREIN I AM NOT DEAD AFTER ALL

2

WHEREIN I BECOME AN IMPORTANT WITNESS

3

WHEREIN I AM SWALLOWED BY A LARGE CREATURE

4

WHEREIN I TERRIFY A GIANT

5

WHEREIN I BECOME A STAR PILOT

6

WHEREIN I DEFEAT THE ENTIRE HUMAN NAVY

7

WHEREIN I AM OFFERED A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL

8

WHEREIN I CANNOT FIND A GOOD PLACE TO BE

9

WHEREIN I LEARN ABOUT OUR ENEMIES

10

WHEREIN I EXPERIENCE GREAT FRUSTRATION

11

WHEREIN I MAKE FIRST CONTACT WITH THE HUMAN RACE

12

WHEREIN I GATHER CRUCIAL INFORMATION

13

WHEREIN I AM THOROUGHLY EXAMINED

14

WHEREIN I PREPARE FOR FAME

15

WHEREIN I TAKE CHARGE OF OPENING DOORS

16

WHEREIN I ACQUIRE NEW FAMILY

17

WHEREIN I AM SWALLOWED BY DARKNESS

18

WHEREIN I AM BRIEFLY UNCONSCIOUS

19

WHEREIN I ENCOUNTER MORE ALIENS…AND THEY ARE NOT NICE

20

WHEREIN I FEEL SORRY FOR FISH

21

WHEREIN I MAKE A VAIN ATTEMPT TO BECOME A RECORDING STAR

22

WHEREIN I BATTLE THE ENEMY WITH PRECIOUS METALS

23

WHEREIN I CONFRONT UNPLEASANT TRUTHS

24

WHEREIN I EXPLORE THE ENEMY’S LAIR

25

WHEREIN I FACE THE FOE

26

WHEREIN I FACE THE GREATEST RISK OF ALL

EPILOGUE:
BECAUSE I HAVE ALWAYS WISHED TO COMPOSE ONE

EOS SPOTLIGHT
     JAMES ALAN GARDNER

Oar, the narrator of this story, first appeared in the novel
Expendable
. At the end of that book, she was left for dead after she grabbed an enemy and plunged with him from a window on the eightieth floor of a building.

To human eyes, Oar is as clear and transparent as glass. Although she actually has bones, muscles, and an assortment of internal organs, these were bioengineered to be indiscernible when humans look through her skin.

Oar’s ancestors were humans themselves, born on Earth around 2000
b.c.
At that time, a collection of
Homo sapiens
were removed by aliens to the planet Melaquin, where the aliens gave these people a new home. The aliens didn’t explain why they did this, but they built the humans beautiful glass cities with self-repairing robotic systems designed to provide all the comforts of life.

The aliens gave these humans one additional gift: the people’s children were born as strong, intelligent glasslike humanoids who never grew old or sick, and who were tough enough to withstand damage that would kill normal flesh and blood. Only later did it become apparent that these glass offspring had a flaw: although their bodies could survive for millennia, their minds were not so long-lasting. Around the age of fifty, these people succumbed to so-called “Tired Brains”—they lost interest in all aspects of existence, often just lying down and never bothering to get up again. They could still stir themselves if something remarkable happened, but for the most part, they remained catatonic down through the centuries.

Glass parents continued to have glass children, but in decreasing numbers. The population declined in cities, towns, and villages all over Melaquin—gradual extinction from pure ennui. By the time of the events in
Expendable
(the Earth year 2452
A.D.
), almost the entire species had fallen into apathetic hibernation. Only a few were still young enough to have active brains.

In
Expendable,
Oar was forty-five…on the verge of her race’s customary “senility.”

Now she’s four years older.

1
WHEREIN I AM NOT DEAD AFTER ALL

My Story

This is my story, the Story of Oar. It is a wonderful story. I was in another story once, but it was not so wonderful, as I died in the end. That was very most sad indeed. But it turns out I am not such a one as stays dead forever, especially when I only fell eighty floors to the pavement. I am made of sterner stuff than that.

Actually, I am made of glass: clear, see-through glass. I am therefore extremely beautiful…more beautiful than you, but you should not feel bad about that, because you cannot help being opaque. People who are not beautiful—or strong and clever and wise, as I also am—should take comfort from being ugly and boring, because you will never be Called By Fate to undertake Difficult Adventures. Fate does not invite ugly boring people to save the world; and if you
do
try to save the world (without being beautiful, strong, clever, or wise), you will soon die pointlessly and how much adventure is there in that?

I do not die in this story. Those of you who have looked at the last page—which is only sensible, because you wish to make sure I do not make a long speech telling what lessons I have learned—those who have looked at the end will know that instead of dying, I win
everything
. I defeat the bad people, am adored by the good people, and get to say, “I told you so,” as freely as I wish.

That is the whole point of being in stories: to have a Happy Ending.

My Technique

When I decided to present my story to opaque persons, I endeavored to learn what chronicling techniques are popular with your kind. My research methods were most diligent…which is to say, I waited for my friend Festina to leave the room, then instructed her computer to show me any documents she had written of a narrative nature.

Therefore, I have discovered that the proper way to write for Earthlings is to divide one’s tale into modestly brief sections with titles at the top, such as
My Technique.
This is certainly an Effective Literary Device, especially when addressing persons with a short attention span. The technique also helps one skim ahead for sections whose titles seem more exciting than the passage one is supposed to read next. Thus one can jump forward to read
Facing A Hellish Maw
before coming back to
Conversing With A Little Man Whose Sole Amusing Quality Is That He Is Colored Orange.

Most importantly, putting many titles into a story makes it easier to find your place if you happen to use your book to smash an irksome buzzing fly, and you hit the fly so hard that pieces of metal and plastic go shooting out of the book mechanism, so then you are forced to put the story chip into a new reader and you cannot remember where you were.

That happens more often than you might expect.

My Resting Place After I Died

When I woke after my eighty-story plunge, I felt most horrible indeed. Many things inside me hurt worse than they had ever hurt before…which is not saying much, because this was the first time I had been seriously injured, but pain is more dreadful when one is unaccustomed to physical suffering. If I took a deep breath, sharp aches erupted all across my ribs, as if a dozen axes were chopping at me. And behold, I
did
have an ax pressed against my flesh: a beautiful silver one I have always carried as both weapon and wood-cutting tool. However, the ax was not attacking me in any way; it simply lay on my chest, as if someone had put it there after I fell.

To be honest, I was glad to have the ax with me—it provided a sense of protection. For a brief moment, I tried to cuddle the blade more snugly to me as if it were a pet or a toy…but the pain of moving my arms made my vision blur with tears. Every muscle felt bruised to a pulp; I wondered what bruised glass looked like, but knew if I lifted my head to see, the agony would be more than I could bear.

Therefore, I just lay where I was. It happened to be a hot pleasant place to lie, with an abundance of soothing light. I am such a one as absorbs many wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. Radio waves, X rays, and gamma particles are like vitamins to me, while infrared and ultraviolet are basic food groups. (I also eat real food, as produced by the synthesizing machines found in every community of my world. But when I am not having Adventures, I can survive quite well on nothing but sunshine, provided I get a little rain as well.)

Where I was lying, I felt a light spray of water from time to time. I opened my mouth and let the drops trickle down my throat. The water tasted slightly of minerals that were probably good for me.

The light and water and minerals indicated I was in a Home for Ancestors. There are many such Homes on my planet Melaquin, though I did not know this before I became a world traveler. These Homes are designed to contain persons with Tired Brains: persons who have lost interest in life and simply want to lie someplace warm. To keep them happy, every town has skyscraping towers where Ancestors can lie all day, getting plenty of light and squirts of enriched water. It is a boring way to spend the time, and I had promised myself I would never get so sad and lonely that I surrendered to languishing numbness…but when one is damaged from falling a long way, it is not so very cowardly to rest for a while in the bright quiet.

So that is what I did.

Clear-Cutting

Now and then, I told myself, “Oar, you must arise, you must find something to do.” But there
was
nothing to do. The Home took care of my physical needs, and beyond that, I could think of no goals I wished to accomplish.

There was a time when my world was full of great people doing great deeds. We had a Thriving Culture, creating lovely music and art and literature—the teaching machines in my home village had taught me all about the splendid achievements of our past. I would gladly recite some of our excellent poetry for you, but it does not translate so very well into Earthling languages and anyway, I confess there are gaps in my grasp of human vocabulary: I have worked hard to memorize your
best
words, but I cannot be bothered to learn the second-rate ones (which is to say, the ones with no counterparts in my native tongue).

Besides, I have no great ambition to be a poet…or an artist or even musician. In my whole life, I have only embraced one useful occupation—using my ax to cut down trees. I did this because a human Explorer told me that deforestation was how cultured persons tended their planets: clearing land in preparation for constructing farms and roads and cities. I did not know how to construct things, but I was excellent at chopping down timber, so that is what I did.

It turns out I destroyed so much woodland, the results were noticeable from space…which became a source of much pride once an Explorer informed me of my achievement.

That Explorer had been an opaque human named Festina Ramos. When I first met Festina, she was lost and frantic, marooned on my planet with no means of escape. I therefore embarked on my first great Adventure: to return Festina to her own people. I did not quite know how that Adventure had turned out, since I suffered my terrible fall before Festina went home; but my friend was not here now, so I assumed we had triumphed in all particulars. Through selfless heroism, I had helped Festina leave Melaquin…and I could congratulate myself on a Glowing Success.

But as I lay inside the Tower of Ancestors, drowsily reflecting on My Life So Far, I felt no thrill of achievement. Festina was gone, as if she had never been here at all—what did I have to show for my time with her? I had chopped down vast stands of trees, but to what end? No farms or roads would ever be built on the cleared land, for my people were almost extinct. To be sure, millions were still alive all around the globe; but they did nothing except breathe and soak up light. They had no goals or purpose…and what purpose could
I
find alone in a world of the dead?

Of course, there was always the chance a new group of Explorers would visit my planet. Earthling Explorers tended to be repugnantly opaque, not to mention uncouth and slow to understand the simplest things, but at least they could supply me with acclamatory feedback: “Oar, you cut down trees more prettily than anyone else in the universe!” (Except they would put this sentiment in their own words to achieve the effect of sincerity.) Then I would once more feel joy in changing the face of my planet, and would know that my life had Direction.

All I required was someone to assure me I was not wasting my existence on meaningless busywork.

I waited for someone like that to come along. And eventually, he did.

Being Roused By A Small Orange Alien

One day, I awoke to find an alien creature shouting into my face. “Are you Oar?” it yelled in the language of Explorers. “Come on, baby, wake up. Tell me if you’re Oar.”

“I am not a baby,” I answered. “I am forty-five years old.”

“If you’re Oar, you’re older than that. You should be forty-nine by now.
Are
you Oar?”

“Who wants to know?”

The creature leaning over me was neither glass nor human. However, it
was
approximately human-shaped, with two arms, two legs, and a head. The head did not have normal ears; instead, there were two bulgy balls on top of the skull, like puffy mushrooms growing from the scalp. For clothes, the alien wore a white short-sleeved shirt, gray short-legged pants, and tan sandals, all of them stained with spills of unknown origin. The creature’s scaly flesh was not transparent like mine, nor anywhere on the pink-to-brown-to-black spectrum of Earthlings. Instead, the skin was a shade of orange that grew darker as I watched: from tangerine to pumpkin to an extremely burnt ocher.

This struck me as thoroughly foolish—an alien who can change color should endeavor to become clear and beautiful, not more opaque and unattractive. But the universe is full of beings with Different Views Of Life. Often these views are stupid and wrong, but a wise-minded one (such as I) always practices tolerance in the company of irrational persons.

Conversing With A Little Man Whose Sole Amusing Quality Is That He Is Colored Orange

“The name’s Uclodda Unorr,” said the darkening orange creature, “but everybody calls me Uclod. As in, ‘Get off my foot, Uclod!’”

The alien grinned as if it had just told a joke. I decided this creature must be male; only a man could believe I might be charmed by such a feeble witticism. I also concluded he must be a
young
man—perhaps in his early twenties. An older person would not gaze at me quite so eagerly hoping for approval.

When the alien saw I merely stared at him without amusement, he harrumphed in his throat and went back to his former line of questioning. “So spill it, missy—are you Oar or not? I was told you’d be lying here starkers with an ax cuddled against your wallabies; but I was also told you’d be dead, so there’s obviously something out of whack.”

Clutching my ax, I sat up and glared at this Uclod person. Though I was seated on the floor, he was not so much taller than I. If I stood, his head would only come to the level of my wallabies. (You will notice how quickly I pick up words from foreign languages.) “I am Oar,” I told him frostily. “An oar is an implement used to propel boats.”
1

“That’s exactly the phrase I wanted to hear,” Uclod said. “And you’re an acquaintance of Festina Ramos?”

“I am Festina’s dearest friend. We went on a great Adventure recently; she is my Faithful Sidekick.”

“Your adventure wasn’t so recent, toots,” Uclod replied. “It was four Terran years ago. What’ve you been doing with yourself? Just letting your brain go to mush?”

“No,” I told him, “I have been resting to recuperate from grievous wounds.” But it was most disturbing to hear that four whole years had gone by. One less courageous than I might be scared she had let so much time pass in a daze. She might worry most acutely that her brain was getting Tired like the elderly persons around her.

Fortunately, I am not such a one as gets the shivers over a little thing like aging. My brain was not Tired. My brain was
just fine
.

Proving I Am Just Fine

“Are you all right?” Uclod asked.

“Yes. I am superb.”

To demonstrate, I rose to my feet with fluid grace…and if I chose to lean on my ax, I did not need a crutch, I was merely taking a Sensible Precaution. This was the first time I had roused myself to stand since my calamitous fall; perhaps I would be wobbly or infirm. But I felt no pain or stiffness—my ribs did not ache when I took a breath, and my battered bruised muscles had healed to their usual perfection.

Perhaps I really
had
been lying in a doze for four whole years—long enough to recover from all my injuries. But the time for dozing was over.

“There,” I said, feeling better now that I was taller than the little orange man with balls on his head. “You see how well I am.”

“Can’t argue with that,” he replied, staring up at my wallabies. “You got definite photogenic appeal. Pity you look so much like a computer-generated effect.”

I did not understand him, so I assumed he was talking nonsense. Many people do. “Why are you here?” I asked. “Did Festina Ramos send you?”

“Nope, a friend of hers. Well, not exactly a friend—a fellow admiral. Alexander York.”

Uclod leered as though he believed the name would shock me. It did not. “Who is this Alexander York person? And why should I care about him even a little bit?”

The small man’s grin faded. “Missy, you
have
been out of touch, haven’t you?”

“I have been right here. It is everyone else who has been out of touch.”

“You got me there.” Uclod wiped sweat from his forehead. “Can we talk about this outside? My skin blocks most of the radiation in here, but I’m still getting my gizzards cooked.”

“There is no radiation in this tower,” I told him, “there is simply an abundant supply of light. But I do not want your gizzards to cook, for then you might smell even worse than you do already. Let us go.”

Other books

Dangerous Liaisons by Archer, T. C.
The Dragon Heir by Chima, Cinda Williams
Desert by J. M. G. le Clézio
A Better World by Marcus Sakey
Designed for Death by Jean Harrington
Bitter Inheritance by Ann Cliff
Promises of Home by Jeff Abbott