8370 words, novelette
The Hunger Tower
They saw the tower just as the suns were beginning to set.
Pure white and rising to a sharp point, it seemed to soar higher than even the darkly shadowed mountains in the distance. In the west-slanting light of the three suns, the tower stood out as a long, thin line of light against the gloomy mountains that clustered around on four sides.
Gazing reverently at this line, it was if they were looking up at hope itself, and not a single one of them had the thought that they might die in this place. To get here they had walked for over two weeks without stopping to rest. Passing through the great desert, they had left behind a trail of those too weak to carry on, the sun-crazed. The beast had taken the choicest morsels, leaving those who remained at the point of exhaustion. Starving, they were little better than walking corpses.
Two weeks ago, their vessel had crashed deep in the desert, killing half of the passengers on impact. The pilot was fortunate enough to have been killed on the spot, smashed into a shapeless meaty pulp. Fortunate, because had he lived, he would have most likely been subjected to unspeakable cruelties by the indignant survivors of the crash during the hopeless days that followed.
After climbing free of the bloody carnage of the wreckage, it was a long while before they had set aside the shock and hysteria of falling some twenty thousand feet from the sky like a lead weight. After grieving for the dead, and praising God’s benevolence for sparing their lives, almost as one the survivors raised up their heads to take in the boundless expanse of desert that surrounded them. Stones of varying sizes lay on the ground as far as the eye could see, like skulls embedded in the glistening sand, reflecting back the brilliance of the three suns.
The survivors did not speak. Just because God had seen fit to send one half their number straight to His heavenly kingdom did not necessarily mean he planned to let the other half live. The majority of the vessel’s crew had been killed in the crash, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves. A certain captain from a special forces unit soon emerged as natural leader. After inspecting the wreckage, the captain informed them that the communicator was finished, so there was no way for them to call for help and also no way to know their exact position. At best, they could hope for a rescue mission to arrive in three months, not counting the time it would take the rescue team to search the barren wasteland of this singularly enormous planet.
“Please search the wreckage for things that may be of use to us and share them with the group. If we are to be rescued, then we must band together in this time calamity,” the captain said. It comforted them all a little to look up at his ruggedly unyielding gray eyes, his muscular neck, his sturdy and well-defined chest.
The survivors began to enthusiastically search the vessel, even exploring the severely damaged fore cabin from which not a single man had escaped alive. Coming across that room, which looked like nothing less than a strawberry slurry spattered blender, the searchers found themselves afflicted with constant nightmares, vomiting even while dreaming.
Finding water was not a problem, as the twisted, gurgling pipes of the vessel were still leaking coolant. Despite tasting of motor oil, it was not poisonous. They were also able to find a small amount of food—local delicacies bought by tourists on the various planets they had visited. Still, despite the profusion of flavors, and no matter how tasty these snacks were, it was apparent that it would be impossible to sustain sixty people for three months on these meager rations alone. This was especially true since many of the survivors were so fat that it was all but guaranteed that they were gluttonous gourmands.
Eventually they found a battered and ancient-looking map in the bag of a pilgrim who had been killed in the crash. The captain spent half a day studying the map with a compass and slide rule, together with three others: a surviving member of the boiler room crew, a chemistry professor who was on vacation, and the ship’s priest. They announced that they would be leading the group to a temporary shelter, the monastery of an infamous ascetic and a reclusive sect. This was the only sign of human life that was marked on the map.
It was not until after ten days of arduous walking that they finally caught sight of the monastery's lone spire. Far in the distance, it gleamed like gold in the light of the setting suns.
In the dying light they began to run, setting off a dust storm which stuck to their calves. From withered lungs emerged hot, sticky breath, but not a single person spoke, their bodies erect, their heads bent, casting aside unnecessary bags, empty canteens, kicking off boots that had already come unstitched, running barefoot in the scalding sand.
They knew that a ferocious beast was following close behind. Every day, once the sun had set, it had appeared like clockwork to choose its victim from this band of ragged and weary travelers. In less than two weeks they had lost fourteen of their number, finding themselves helpless before its onslaught.
Equally helpless to predict who among their number the beast would take next, the only obvious conclusion that they could come to was that the odds of being chosen were the greatest for those who straggled the furthest behind. Only steps away from salvation, none among them was willing to take that unfortunate role. Racing against one another as they fled, then ran silently, their heads down, each of them spurred on by the fear of their neighbor. Even the young priest was no exception, despite the deep feeling of shame he felt, thinking of Darwin’s cruel law of survival as he ran. Since the law had first appeared, it had caused man and religion alike to suffer the greatest of humiliations, he thought to himself. Now, though, we must run, because we must keep up if we are to survive.
When they had first set off, they had managed to stay organized. Some were responsible for wayfinding, others for taking care of the women, the children, the infirm, while still others took on the night watch. Despite finding themselves in dire peril, the entire party maintained an air of elegant refinement throughout, modestly deferring to one another, acting as if their arduous march was nothing more than a holiday hiking adventure with a bunch of backpack-wearing city slickers. This lasted until the beast appeared, and in the blink of an eye, the weak bonds of civilized society suddenly snapped, order broke down, and they reverted to their most basic of instincts.
That evening the young priest saw the boiler tender stomp two tents flat, and smack a fat woman to the ground; the chemistry professor, meanwhile, jumped into the fire, almost burning himself to a crisp; while somewhere in distance, the captain managed to fire two rounds at the beast, before it disappeared into the night; and the people hid all around, their holiday hike having been transformed into a disorderly and chaotic flight for their lives.
Truly, the beast was a terrible horror, a man-eating terror of a sorts rarely seen in this nebula. Devilishly fast, with hooked talons like glittering daggers, its trifurcated tail was like a mace or a flail, coming to three points. Even worse than its appearance, though, was the beast’s seemingly inborn hatred for mankind. Once it began an attack, there was no room for mercy—the beast would tear and chew until there was nothing left.
The only bright spot in all of this was that the beast knew well enough to choose the best portions. Taking first the most overweight of the group, who also happened to eat the most food and walk the slowest, the beast left behind the strongest and youngest of them, with sturdy bodies and steadfast wills. No longer requiring others to urge them on, the speed of the group increased greatly.
The captain ran in the middle of pack. Holding his laser gun tightly, his neck was ramrod straight, his breath slow, and his pace neither hurried nor leisurely—to separate from the group was dangerous. The captain was the first to notice a new sound emerging from the cacophony of footsteps, that of thickly padded feet drumming against the sand. An animal smell, warm and rank, like urine, filled the air. Turning, he saw the glistening fur of the beast, silhouetted against an alien moon, following their little group silently. The squashed face of the beast was covered in matted fur, which moved slightly in the wind, and a single eye, slating fiercely and nearly closed, silently assessed each member of the group in turn. Having arrived once again, the beast was methodically planning its attack, an attack they were helpless to resist. They felt as if they were its subjects and the beast their lord, looking down upon them with disgust, finding themselves shamed by its disregard for them. Fuck, the captain thought bitterly as he clutched his useless laser gun. Sooner or later he’s gonna get us.
Finally they arrived at the tower, which was located in a narrow valley running up into the mountains. In the thick woods which filled the valley, a cluster of low huts were built around a public square. In the middle of the square there was a fountain with a pagan goddess sitting on a lotus blossom throne. A mysterious smile of deep compassion and endless sorrow cut across her broad, moon-like face. Some of the men jumped into the fountain, while others fell to the ground and wept like children. Others were frozen in place, neither crying nor laughing.
Not a single hut was lit from the inside, and no smoke issued forth from their chimneys. No one emerged to welcome them, for the entire village was silent, without a soul around. They soon realized that this place was abandoned, and their hopes were dashed like a great soap bubble that had floated up too high in the sky. Sobbing, they spent the night huddled together in a confused mass.
When the dawn broke, three suns of differing colors rose into the sky, first the one the color of yellow-brown earth, filling the pass with brilliant golden light. Sometime later, the blue sun rose into the sky, the largest of the three, and finally, the cold carmine sun. They soon discovered that in the chaos of the previous night, another two of their number had disappeared: Seoni and Ami, a Lunarian couple. Thinking back on their freckled faces, the priest sighed to himself.
They drew water from the still flowing fountain. The short rest after their long trek had improved the spirits of the group, and they soon began to cautiously explore their surroundings. The forest was not large, nor was it especially dense, being made up entirely of trees indigenous to this planet: to their left, spiraling bracken fern trees formed an unbroken chain, their tops reaching up into the heavens. Needle-trees which split three ways from their roots swayed in the breeze, giving off a quiet shushing sound. In the face of this tranquil, garden-like scene, the remaining members of the group stood clumped in pairs, unwilling to explore the woods any further.
When it was almost noon, the captain gathered together the other three leaders of their group: the chemistry professor, the boiler tender, and the priest. He led them into a low basement made of rough sandstone blocks. Probably once a wine cellar, the room was filled with a large number of empty bottles that the former occupants had left behind. The once swarthy and robust captain sat squatting on the unstable floor of broken bottles, a blanket draped over his shoulders. His thickly stubbled face was cut with deep wrinkles, appearing withered and pale. He looked for all the world like a wilted vegetable that had been sucked dry of all its water. “We’ve already run out of food,” he said, revealing the terrible news to the others. “We don’t have one bit left. I searched the entire monastery this morning. Even though it’s obvious this place has been abandoned, just to make sure I went through each hut in the hope of finding some hidden food stores—but there’s nothing here. Nothing.”
The gathered leaders were all silent for a time. Their rescuers wouldn’t be here for another two and half months. The only choice, then, was to starve to death. In comparison to this threat, the beast was only a minor annoyance.
“If we could face the beast, then we would have faced the beast,” the captain said. “The laser guns are useless against it—I shot it right in the face, and it just shook its shoulders, as if I had attacked it with a water pistol.” As he was talking, he rubbed his nose in frustration. “But we can keep him out. I’ve surveyed the area. We are surrounded by high cliffs on all four sides. There is only one way in and one way out of valley—we could build a fence there. There are already plenty of tools in the village.”
“You’re right, our laser guns are useless,” the chemistry professor said wearily. Due to his slender build, his large, protruding ears were quite eye-catching. “I happened to read a short introduction for tourists who visit this planet. The planet is known for the astonishing number of crystals that have formed in the mica. Due to the principle of resonance, the planet is filled with ultrasonic noise. The creatures here have evolved an innate ability to make use of and control the vibration of other objects. You’ve seen the fur on the cat-beast’s head, right? It can use that fur to sense vibrations—and really, when you get right down to it, a laser is just a kind of vibration. Your attack probably made the beast uncomfortable, but there’s no way that it could have hurt it.”
“Vibrations? Are you saying that it really is impossible for us to beat it with guns? Well then, if it charges in here, and we can only fight the thing off with our fists,” the captain continued more fiercely now, “if that’s the case then, fine, so be it, let’s use our fists!”
“There’s a helluva lotta trees here,” the boiler tender said. “Maybe we can eat them?” Flat faced and stocky, a single canine emerging from his lips was the sole feature which broke the monotony of his dead fish mien. “Back in the village I’m from you’d hear stories of folks eating tree bark when they ran out of food.”
“No,” the professor said, dejectedly, as if announcing his own death sentence. “Like most space travelers, we face an intractable problem. The helix-type of the DNA of the alien plants is fundamentally different from the structure our own. Even if they aren’t poisonous, if we were to eat them then then our bodies would have no way of breaking them down into proteins.”
“Well, our meat seems to be just fine for their wild beasts,” the captain said darkly. Turning to the priest, he said, “How about this, priest, we’ll put you in charge of looking for food. From the looks of things, it seems like the monks only meant to be gone for a short while. It just isn’t possible to imagine that they didn’t leave behind at least some food.” He twisted his mouth, and repeated himself, “It just isn’t possible. Probably you religious types have a different way of looking at things, right? You all have faith in God, no?”
The priest protested that that was a different kind of faith.
In reply, the captain said, “I think that’s enough talking for now, priest.”
The reclusive sect belonged to an ancient religion that was on the verge of dying out. Their teachings claimed that if one set aside all desire, then one could become a Bodhisattva, flying up to heaven right on the spot. A monastic order from the Far East had founded the religion eons ago, and it is said that they were capable of performing any number of miracles. For some reason, though, their spread had been limited to a few remote planets in the nebula. According to the introduction included on the battered map, this was a holy place for the members of the reclusive sect.
Having accepted his assignment to find food, the priest followed the valley up to its mouth. As the captain had said, aside from the jagged gap where they had entered, the valley was surrounded on four sides by steep cliffs. Water poured forth from narrow ravines, revealing a red sedimentary layer deep in the rocks. Standing miniscule in the middle of the valley, the priest thought to himself that these enormous, coldly silent walls of stone were like the curtains of heaven, leaving only a neat circle of sky above, as if they found themselves in the bottom of a well.
Just when the priest was trying to decide which direction to head in search of food, he saw the boiler tender running out of the woods with a group of people who had been sent there to cut timber.
This was the first time they had seen the bubble fish. Round and bulging, they refracted the light into prisms of color, swishing their tails in the air to move up and down. Swimming into the wind, they looked like frail soap bubbles, or colorful balloons for children. Delicate and beautiful, and seemingly harmless, they were little more than attractive house pets. Something, however, soon startled them away.
The transparent stomachs of the bubble fish vibrated to invisible frequencies, using the vibrations to absorb the energy of the suns. They were constantly taking in lighter or heavier air to maintain their altitude. Unyieldingly self-composed, their enormous eyes looked down upon the mess of hurried and shameless people below, and with a flick of their tails, the bubble fish moved even higher up into the sky until they were out of sight.
The captain had also gone out to explore. Along with several other young men, he appeared in camp dragging Seoni’s corpse. While running away the previous night, the Lunarian had broken his neck after falling into a ravine. In addition to Seoni, they managed to find a dried out wagon track that meandered off to parts unknown. The traces of the road had almost disappeared, indicating that it had been a long time since anyone had come this way. It really did seem that this monastery had long since been abandoned.
After the priest said a prayer for the dead man, they buried him in the woods. The bracken ferns spiraled around and around, filling the sky above them. The captain and the boiler tender stood holding their shovels, stationed like two broken stone obelisks on either side of the loose pile of red-brown soil beside the enormous grave.
They spent the rest of the day felling trees and building a fence. After shaping the tops of the heavy timber into sharp points, they planted them deep into the ground; they used the needle-trees to fashion a barbed net to stuff between the gaps; and behind every possible weak point in the fence they piled heavy stones to make it fast. Ignoring their hunger, they put their shoulders into the work until finally the grand project was complete, giving them what would ultimately prove to be a misplaced sense of security.
Meanwhile, the priest searched the valley for foodstuffs with the utmost of care, but all that he managed to come up with were a few pieces of moldy bread and a handful of raisins, having found several rows of dried-up grapevines behind the wine cellar. Most likely, the monks had brewed their own wine. Finding neither paper, nor books, nor diaries, the priest thought back to what he had read of the reclusive sect. They were fond of manual labor and meditation, he recalled, but none of the books he had read mentioned what they ate.
Hunger had begun to gnaw at the priest, and his vision was already starting to blur. Making another circuit of the tower, the nagging question entered his mind a second time: what did they eat?
The tower itself was the only place in the valley that the priest had not yet searched. It was tall, at least a hundred meters high, with maybe six hundred steps. Given his weakened state it would be an exhausting job to climb all the way to the top.
Nevertheless, he began to climb. The stairs were on the inside of the tower, winding clockwise, one loop after another, forming an unbroken chain of stone steps seemingly without end. The tower seemed to grow ever higher as he climbed, as if made from the same stock as the bracken fern trees which grew quietly in the sunshine outside, seeking to attain heights ever higher. Despite his best efforts, the priest was forced to sit and rest from time to time. Sitting, he found himself fascinated with the mural painted on the white inner wall of the tower. Terrible scenes were depicted in the painting, most likely of their pagan hell; aside from these images were drawings of knights in armor: one holding a sword, another some sort of musical instrument, finally the last holding some species of large rodent. There were dancing fairy maidens, trees laden with fruit, water lilies, and graceful deer; and beneath them all was the image of sleeping man. Probably it was meant to indicate that the world in all of its splendor was nothing more than a dream in the mind of the Buddha. Did not the ancient peoples of India believe that the physical world was in fact made up of dreams?
Having spent a great deal of time to get there, when he reached the top of the tower the priest was surprised to discover an empty room. Large white stones surrounded a strange circular cavity which resembled a hothouse, or a womb. On the ground inside the stone womb the monks of the reclusive sect had left shallow depressions, accumulated from many years of sitting in this place. Three narrow openings were cut in the curved wall of the round room, serving as windows. Between the three windows hung six paintings, one of which immediately drew his attention: a group of emaciated men, with distended stomachs like drums, their eyes brilliant with hunger. Arms outstretched, they looked like spiders, taking, grabbing, begging.
The tower of hunger. The four words sprang unbidden to the priest’s mind, filling him with dread. In a panic, he fled from the room.
In the night the beast came again, breathing heavily outside the fence and spraying the air with that stench particular to carnivores, its eyes shining like two lanterns. The sound of the beast attacking the fence with terrible force echoed from the mouth of the valley throughout the night. So intense was the beast’s attack that the stones of the ramparts danced and the wooden posts wavered menacingly. The beast’s inability to break through the fence that night, however, let the hungry souls inside the valley finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Now, the only task left for them to work on with a common purpose was the maintenance of the fence. The rest of their time was spent dispersed throughout the valley, madly searching high and low, going through every hut and every patch of bare land for something, anything to eat. The grapevine was the first thing to be eaten, and then all of their leather goods: leather shoes, leather belts, leather canteens. It was fortunate that this accursed planet was without worms or rats, otherwise they too would have been wiped out.
The captain never told the priest if he should stop looking for food, and so he continued to drag his tired body up and down the valley. Once, in a dimly lit room, he came across the chemistry professor who was stuffing something wrapped in dried grass and sticks into the lining of his jacket. When he saw the priest his face turned red from embarrassment.
The professor was a pale man, tall and thin, with a high nose and big eyes like two bright blue blisters, making him look as if he was always afraid of something. He blinked his eyes and handed two tubers to the priest good naturedly, saying that in China people used them for medicine. “Should be . . . good for . . . my malaria,” he said haltingly.
After going through the featureless huts one by one, the priest became convinced that the secret of the reclusive sect lay inside the tower. Although he was even weaker than before, the priest resolved to climb the tower a second time to study the murals and the empty meditation room. He discovered that the materials used to build the tower were not the local sandstone, but instead that the tower had been constructed of white mica, quarried from some distance away. After careful inspection he concluded that it was different from the mica of Earth, with countless tiny grains of crystals flashing from within the rock, as numerous as grains of sand in the great Ganges River.
The three windows of the meditation room were extremely narrow, just large enough to allow a man to pass through. They led to a small viewing platform which encircled the tower, from which one could see the wide and empty expanse of the desert beyond the valley. In the desert, the priest could see the wind playing freely, kicking up a sandstorm. Boundless and as empty as ever, the desert was silent, under a sky of unknowable heights. The sky, too, was broad and empty, azure blue. The three suns slipped through the sky giving off prisms of light. This forgotten corner of the universe was where they were to spend the rest of their days. For all intents and purposes though, he thought, they were the ones who had been forgotten.
The captain also climbed the tower once to survey it, but he found nothing of interest in the empty meditation room. Now he was busy leading the others in the upkeep of the fence, where it seemed as if a sort of war had erupted between the men and the beast. At night it would attack and by day they would reinforce the structure. Eventually, a night crew was necessary to keep the wall maintained, as the beast’s attacks became ever more frenzied. Having bitten the weaker tree trunks in two and torn up the needle-tree net, it began to use its body to batter the fence, shaking the structure and causing those stationed on top to tremble with fear and forget the burning hunger in their stomachs.
The boiler tender was especially fond of this battle, having painted his face like an Indian brave and taking up a sharpened pole which he shoved through the chinks in the wall, stabbing wildly at the beast. Singing and dancing, his wild antics motivated the group. He really was quite brave. The others shouted along with him, weaving strong nets of pliable branches to fill the gaps, and backfilling the fence with heavy stones. Other gaps were filled using dirt, and the vines of an unknown alien plant were pressed into service to braid the wooden posts together, creating a firm and immovable barrier.
But they still hadn’t found any food. Others had begun to climb the tower to take a look for themselves, although they were not many. To ascend a hundred meter tower for a starving man robbed of his strength was, after all, a terrible challenge. The professor was one of the weak ones, half dead from hunger, having passed out sixteen times on the way to the monastery, and having been forced to treat himself twice for malaria. Upon arriving at the top of the tower, the professor squinted his eyes tightly, and knowingly scanned the empty stone room. He even explored the viewing platform outside, but was powerless to mask the expression of disappointment on his face. He explained to the priest that it wasn’t that he didn’t believe the priest’s account of the empty tower, but simply that he wanted to exorcise something of the gnawing sense of responsibility he bore for their plight.
After the professor descended from the tower, few others came to disturb the priest’s work. The priest was becoming more and more intrigued by the cavity in the middle of the chamber. He had read that the high priest of the reclusive sect had spent more than one thousand years on this very seat. Perhaps someone had become a Buddha and ascended to the heavens here. Out of boredom, he sat on the seat and attempted the famed meditation techniques of the reclusive sect. Due, most likely, to the perfect roundness of everything in the room, the priest felt immediately at ease and quickly slipped into a dream-like state, very nearly falling asleep. In his dream he heard the breathing of the beast, and saw his demonic yellow eyes, his claws coming within inches of the priest’s throat.
When he came to, the priest’s head was pounding and his mouth felt parched. It was probably due to his own imagination, but it seemed as if the mediation room was filled with the stench of the beast. Dizzy, he walked to the base of the tower where he was told that the previous evening the beast had finally broken in, killing three. Of them, they had managed to wrest the corpse of Ma Xiu from the beast’s grasp. Eighteen years old, Ma Xiu’s struggle to free himself from the maw of the beast had been as futile as a moth beating its wings. Fortunately though, the gap in the fence was small enough that the beast hadn’t had enough time to pull the corpse through to the other side before the captain could spring into action and take hold of Ma Xiu’s leg. Meanwhile, other members of the group fired on the beast from the top of the fence, stabbing it in the mouth and forehead with sharpened branches. Ma Xiu died not long thereafter--in the course of trying to pull him free they had accidentally broken his neck.
When the suns rose the next morning, the beast took what remained of his plunder back with him. According to the professor, the sun was an enormous ultrasonic amplifier which interfered with the beast’s sense organs.
Ma Xiu’s funeral was relatively simple. Lying on the ground, his ragged clothing revealed his emaciated hips and bony chest. One arm had been bitten off by the beast. Looking like a roughhewn tree stump, the mangled flesh emerged from the sharp wound, his broken skin and muscle lying exposed on the earth. Looking upon that pale, tender white flesh, the eyes of the assembled men seemed to shine with a green light. As the priest was saying a prayer, a dark and unspeakable current passed through his unconscious mind. The men began to whisper among each other, perhaps taking a secret vote, and in the end they decided not to bury him. The captain just nodded, and the priest simply shut his eyes, not saying a word.
That day, they built a fire, and set a large pot above it. The fragrant aroma wafted in all directions from the square. Using the axes and saws they divided up the boy’s body. With a steady hand, the captain cut the flesh straight and true. The boy’s chest was split open like a melon. Beneath his withered flesh was a thin layer of yellow fat, speckled with red. After cutting through the cartilage between the ribs, the boy’s viscera slid out onto the ground like a pile of twisting red snakes. His organs and head were then placed into the pot to make a stew, while his three limbs and muscles were dried over the fire to be rationed for later.
Lining up to be served, they brought vessels of all kinds: glass bottles with tops knocked off, hats, and plastic bags. Those who had eaten their leather shoes felt a certain amount of regret when the fragrant odors left their mouths filled with bitter bile.
Using a large ladle, the boiler tender stood with his pants held up by a grass cord, doing his best to carefully dole out an equal share to each man. This simple kind of equality was just about all his mind could handle at this point, and he ignored all other thoughts. One always ends up envying practical people like this, because they always seem to find a way to stay happy until the bitter end.
Some were so excited that they began to vomit bile, gripping their plastic bags tightly. Despite the lack of salt or garlic, this bland, albeit sumptuous lunch was unthinkably extravagant. Although it is impossible to say for sure, but perhaps some of them said a silent prayer to the Lord, the one that thanks Him for giving us food to eat.
That afternoon, they went to the fence with renewed enthusiasm. Given food, their energy was restored one-hundred fold, and they were filled with confidence.
The priest however, had not taken part. Hunger gnawed at his organs like spider chewing on a thread, but he did not take his share of the meat.
Truth be told, the captain was actually rather fond of the young priest. Handsome and charismatic, the priest had a sensitive face, white as sandstone and just as weak. The first time he had seen him, the captain had been convinced that he had seen the man somewhere before. In some distant place, obscured by the smoke and dust of time, he had already met a wan and slender young man just like the priest, who had been willing to sacrifice his own life to save others. He had met many young men like this, actually, while in the army, or in other places, and to the last he saw them swallowed up in the conflagrations of war.
“How could the Lord blame us for wanting to survive?” the captain pleaded.
“I understand, of course I understand,” said the priest, nodding his head. The captain had brought him some smoke-cured meat. The meat looked clean, and was cut into neat slices, thick with a dark aroma. They really had done an excellent job with the smoking.
“The way you’re acting, you’re making everybody uncomfortable, you know. They think that you’re judging them,” the captain urged him good naturedly, “Just take the meat, okay?”
“ . . . I understand,” the priest replied, after obvious hesitation. In the end, however, he refused to take his share, and the captain sat, helpless, staring at the priest for a long while.
The priest continued to climb his tower, the tower that filled men with boundless desire. Even now he didn’t know what he hoped to find there, but strangely, he didn’t feel hungry. In the darkness the white stones gave off a gentle glow, their tiny crystals vibrating weakly. Was it possible that meditation had helped the members of the reclusive sect engage in fasting? Sitting in one of the shallow depressions, he traced the characters on the wall with his finger. The ancient pictures were like hieroglyphics which one could only try to understand.
For a fleeting moment a strange and terrible feeling of prescience suddenly overtook him. Although he did his best to take hold of the impression it left on him, the better to predict what was yet to come, it quickly passed. The bubble fish floated in the sky, their skin stretched taut, a transparent membrane like a bubble, now vermillion, now orange, now the blue of a clear lake, now flashing gold.
Despite strict rationing, the food was quickly devoured by the hungry men. Something was different from before, however, about the emaciated stick-and-bones men who patrolled the valley. Their cheekbones seemed higher somehow, and the hollows of their faces deeper. Their eyes meanwhile swept the ground, unwilling to meet the gaze of the others, afraid of what they might find there.
They found themselves almost wishing for the beast to attack. But the fence held strong, and the beast could only pace outside, breathing heavily. Like them, it had gone without food for several days now, and hunger revealed the lines of its ribcage through its withered fur. Studying the men behind the fence with bloodshot eyes, it was powerless. Turning suddenly, it disappeared. Most likely it was retreating and abandoning these men who were no less hungry than it was. The men behind the fence felt an indescribable sense of disappointment.
Two days later, the food had once again reached a critical point. The stronger members of the group led by example, stealing the bones of the dead boy, and breaking them open to devour the marrow inside. Even so, it wasn’t nearly enough food to save them.
The next morning the captain led a group to rebury Seoni. The previous night, someone had dug up his grave, hoping to pillage the corpse. His body, however, had long since begun to decay in the fierce heat, leaving behind a pile of hard to swallow rotten flesh. By daybreak, the fetid smell of his exhumed corpse had filled the valley. Lying on the red dirt of the grave, his eyes bulged like two big blue blisters, and dark splotches of rot sprouted there. His teeth emerged in a grimace, and owing to the contraction of the skin it looked as if he was smiling, with his eyebrows raised high in delight. Few among them were willing to criticize the atrocious act. Instead they simply dug a deeper pit and buried him a second time. The worst thing about it to the men who watched was seeing so many calories, amino acids, and protein rot and go to waste.
The others were not idle, however, having decided to try and eat the bracken fern trees. They cut one down and removed the spines from the bark, cutting them into fine slivers which they boiled over the fire. The stench produced was even worse than that of Seoni’s rotten corpse. Others, ignoring the warnings of the chemistry professor, attacked the bubble fish. When two diamond miners from Arcturus managed to spear one, its transparent stomach exploded, spraying ammonia gas into their eyes, blinding them. Their faces ruined, they lay by the fountain, moaning throughout the night.
The seemingly endless stairs of the tower left the priest feeling as if he was climbing a gigantic structure that ascended to heaven itself. God is eternal, all powerful, all knowing, and his compassion is freely given to all beings in existence, the priest thought. How could it be that an all powerful being like God, with His boundless wisdom, could have become afraid when people of times past tried to build the tower of Babel? Where, after all, is heaven? Is it up? In this ever expanding universe of ours, is it still up? With every scientific advancement, at first it has always seemed as if religion was on the verge of being overthrown. Eventually, though, people always seem to find a way to compromise. Does this mean that science will never be truly able to save humanity?
Only now, none of these questions were as important as the question of where they might go next to find food.
The priest reflected back on his memories of receiving communion for the first time, during mass. The bread and wine symbolized the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. By eating and drinking Him, then we allowed Him to be one with us. His belt was old and tough, impossible to chew, but he managed to cut it into smaller pieces, which he swallowed one by one after soaking them in his saliva. Kronos ate his children, the cyclops roasted the companions of Odysseus, Zhang Xun cut up his concubine and fed her to his soldiers during the siege of Suiyang, and Count Ugolino ate his own flesh and blood in a high tower—in history, people have long since eaten one another, and even today they are still eating one another. Schools of bubble fish floated outside the tower watching him, as if the sky outside the narrow window was an enormous fish tank.
The stench lingered in the valley.
After the two miners died the would-be hunters became prey for the others. This was the banquet that the men of the valley had been waiting for. A great fire was lit, and the water in the pot was brought to a frothy boil. Drawing strength from the self-sacrificing spirit of the two minors, they managed to survive for another week, but rescue seemed to be just as distant as before. Miraculously, the priest managed to survive, finding the tubers that the professor had given him to have boundless applications, with a single slice providing him sufficient calories to last a great while. The professor himself had become thin and emaciated, his eyes bloodshot. A slight breeze was enough to bring him to the ground, but his spirits remained strong, and his complexion unusually ruddy. Drinking water non-stop, a row of blisters had sprouted on his cracked lips. This was most likely a side effect of the treatments he had given himself for malaria.
It had been a long time since anyone had worked on the fence. It was not until the call of the beast was heard within the valley that they became aware that it had dug a small hole in the barrier. This time though, instead of being afraid, they struck back at the beast under the leadership of the captain, the flames of victory leaving them feverish. Using shovels, sticks, knives, even their fingernails and teeth, they managed to snatch a corpse from the mouth of the beast, which had been made weak from hunger.
When the captain managed to use a knife to chop a leg free from mouth of the beast he felt like he was finally in control of the situation again. In the past he had had times of hesitation, he had had times of confusion, even fear. His training had taught him to feel ashamed of such emotions—but everything was better now. Now that he knew the path forward, he was no longer worried about anything, because he knew that he would survive to be rescued. Happiness clouded his brain, and as he watched the beast scurry through the hole in the fence, he held the hairy leg of the chemistry professor in one hand, laughing.
He soon realized that the priest was standing nearby, watching him, with his skull-like face twisted up in pain. The captain immediately straightened up and stopped laughing. Anger toward the priest bubbled up, unbidden. Fuck, what right does he have to look at me like that? When survival is on the line, what’s the point of having convictions? Believer or non-believer, when disaster strikes it doesn’t make a difference either way. The captain began to hack away at the professor’s leg, methodically chopping and slicing, wastefully letting bits of meat fall to the ground. Without checking with the others, he could already tell that they all found the priest’s behavior infuriating.
Even after rinsing the remains of the professor in the fountain, the smell of herbal medicine lingered on his corpse and after a long time they gave up trying. The smell had permeated all the way down into the muscle and bone, making him taste especially delicious. The slender, half-mauled corpse of the professor barely lasted them a single night before every last bit was eaten up. They’d barely had a chance to taste him, but now they were hungry again, and needed more food.
The priest sat cross-legged in the cavity. His awareness spread outwards, encompassing the shining white crystals which surrounded him, countless as grains of sand in the mighty Ganges. Vibrating, resonating, the sound was as vast as it was miniscule, like the sound of silkworms chewing mulberry, or rain falling on the broad leaves of the plantain. A stream of information as expansive as the universe flowed through the room, passing through the arch of the hothouse-like structure and directly into his brain. Images from his childhood flashed in his mind, and then more images, of the distant past, of things he had never experienced. What is the origin of desire? Vibrations, vibrations, like wing-beat of a butterfly. The world is an illusion, a white haired man said to him. I dreamed of a butterfly, but only the butterfly is real.
Upon opening his eyes, the priest was greeted with the sight of a butterfly, its wings patterned in black and red. The butterfly was of a sort found only on Earth. As it passed through one of the narrow windows, the early morning light caught the gold in its wings, sending arcs of light off into void.
Could it be that I’m hallucinating? In a flash, the realization of what had just happened coursed throughout his body and he became extremely frightened. Most likely this was a dream within a dream, an illusion within an illusion. He simply imagined that he was hallucinating. The fear, however, was fleeting. What did it matter if the world was an illusion? An illusion of an illusion was nothing more than an illusion. Looking up at the paintings on the wall, he realized he could suddenly read them as if they were text:
The Buddha said to his disciple Subhūti: All that has form is an illusion.
If this was true, then things with form could also emerge from illusion. Dear god, is it really possible? The priest closed his eyes. Could the world really like be like the ancient story of the “golden millet dream?” Are we all just poor innkeepers dreaming of becoming of becoming men of wealth and power? He began to imagine a freshly baked bun, yellow and piping hot. A piercing pain racked his brain as his mind resonated with the crystals around him. Upon opening his eyes, the priest discovered that a bun really had appeared, complete with toasted sesame seeds on top, and a curlicue of steam spiraling above it.
Tears sprang forth from his withered eye sockets, falling one at a time. The imagined bun was edible and filling. I found food! This is the secret of the reclusive sect. In the past I thought that forsaking desire was the path to eliminating desire. I was wrong, though. Is there anything that better demonstrates the suffering caused by desire better than having all of one's desire fulfilled?
He left the bun on the ground to let it cool. Feeling as if his head was full of buzzing stars, he wondered if this was a miracle or science, to have a planet filled with vibrations. As Plato once asked, what is thought and what is matter? I should have realized sooner that thought is a kind of vibration, the synaptic spark which passes between neurons. The unique structure and materials of this tower, even the planet itself, serve to amplify the power of thought. With only faith and imagination, we can create a whole new world for ourselves.
Ignoring an intense headache, the priest constructed a communicator in his mind. As the image became more clear, it emerged as if from the mist, and suddenly landed on the floor of the room with a sharp sound, a real, fresh sound, sending out a blue light which pierced his brain like a knife. With feverish hands he stroked the device before deciding to go down to find the others, who knew better than he how to use it. Even better, now they could use meditation and faith to get food. He stood up, staggering, and almost fell back down. His prolonged meditation had left him impossibly weak.
The communicator was too heavy. There was simply no way for him to carry the eighty-pound device down some six-hundred steps. He crawled to the steps and began to slowly make his way down the winding stairwell.
A soft breeze wafted through the air. The others stood around the pot in the square. The fire blazed and the water was already boiling hot, but they hadn’t even decided who was going to die yet. The priest rushed forward to tell the captain that he had completed his task. Food! I found food! All we need to have is faith, and we will have salvation. It was so simple, hallelujah!
They others formed a semi-circle around the priest, like a choir in church. They looked at him kindly. Far above them in the sky, He who had sacrificed himself observed the scene with compassion. The captain stood in middle of the group. From the corner of his eye, the priest saw the boiler tender drawing close, carrying an iron mace fashioned from a shovel. Standing stiffly erect, the priest became aware that he was on trial. Taking advantage of his last chance, he raised his hand and pointed upwards, beginning to say in a raw voice, “I’ve discovered . . . ”
The words were cut short by a heavy blow to the back of his head. His last conscious impressions were the sound of boiling water, the white teeth of the men, the fish swimming through the air, and the beast roaring in the distance, as if beckoning him with a bugle call.
Above it all, the high hunger tower pierced the sky.
Originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World, June 2003.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
Pan Haitian is a graduate of School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, National Class I Registered Architect, and a science fiction and fantasy writer. He has won five Galaxy Awards of Chinese SF. His story “The Legend of Yanshi” was adapted into the ballet drama “Yanshi” by the National Ballet of China. He is also the co-founder of Jiuzhou Novoland, a fantastic ancient Chinese setting crowd worldbuilding project. He worked as editor-in-chief of Odyssey of China Fantasy from 2005-2010, and now works mainly as a screen writer.