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For 500 years, we placed human bodies on a raised platform in the middle of the caldera. The findings were exceptionally robust: Each body, without exception, transitioned from life to death. Every time was the same. The skin cracks: Superheated fat beneath the skin surfaces now, a white cotton that soon burns itself away. Eventually, the soft tissues are consumed and a charred skeleton emerges, curling inward and held together by the wire bindings we use upon the living. At the end of the tests, we concluded that fire kills.
The Master proposed we investigate the opposite effect. For 500 more years, we brought corpses to the mountain, placed them carefully on the platform in the caldera, and watched for signs of life. For 500 years, this experiment confirmed the null hypothesis. No corpse showed signs of animation. At the end of these tests, the Master registered disappointment and hesitated to state the obvious conclusion (that fire, added to death, does not bring life).
For reasons unknown to me, the Master decided to test five more bodies. Of all the things that were later to transpire, this remains the most perplexing. The team felt that the addition of five more items next to the completed list compiled over 500 painstaking years would reflect poorly on the Master, so we devised an alternative approach to simply jettison five additional bodies from the rim directly into the mouth of the caldera. The first four bodies were consumed in the usual fashion. To further protect our Master, the team met together at the platform to observe more closely what we could of the cremains but made no additional records of these findings. The fifth corpse was duly brought forth and tossed into the caldera. (This particular subject had been killed when sentient observers had thrown him upon a platform in the middle of a caldera.)
I anointed this corpse personally. I was among the most experienced members of the team. I had observed all 500 years of the first round of tests, and all 500 years of the second round of tests. During this time, I had anointed approximately every seventh subject placed upon the platform and thus had repeated the behaviour something like 5,200,000 times. I have no reason to believe my actions differed substantially on this occasion from any of the previous occasions.
However, my inner thoughts were unique. On one hand, I recognized that I was anointing the final subject in our sequence of two grand experiments and was imbued with the momentous character of our achievement. On the other hand, I was unsettled by the Master’s strange decision to extend the second experiment to include these final five bodies. At any rate, I cradled the charred skull in my hand, gently anointed it, placed it at the tipping point on the edge of the rim, nudged it on its path, and then returned to my customary place.
The heat of the lava below seems to melt air. Things you look at like to move, even when they are standing still. We thought this when the fifth corpse first began to shudder to life. As the cotton fat wrapped about the bone, we thought we had caught the Master’s madness. When the corpse began to struggle to its feet, we knew that we had found countervailing evidence against all expectation.
I rushed down to the platform and extended the skimmer far out to the place where the fifth corpse was congealing. The corpse rolled itself onto the skimmer. I pulled it slowly to the platform, and lifted it up, and then gently sliced through the wire still binding the man in place. He was much reconstituted by this point. I walked with him back to the rim, where I encouraged him to sit.
“What is your name?” I asked him.
“Daniel. My name is Daniel Mark Welles,” he said after a time, his voice straining with the effort. I thought then that his vocal cords had only just reformed.
“Daniel. That was your name in death – ”
“Life. That was my name in life.”
“In this life, you are Fifth of the Caldera.”
Humans do not experience time as we experience it. Sequentiality predominates, but persistence reigns. The ending of life is the most devastating act. In truth, our treatment of humans is the cruellest thing we could do to them. That is perhaps why we do it: Certainly, to kill them is to send a signal of perfect fidelity. So I thought, until I met Daniel.
Daniel began to cramp up almost immediately upon reaching my place at the rim. I suggested he walk in place to exercise his muscles. He suggested, instead, that we walk around the rim. Amused, I agreed. We walked for a long time on a rough path that must have been made by the goats who often watched our efforts, all the time in silence – until finally he stopped and gestured across the caldera, struggling to peer through the sparks and the distorted air obscuring our view. “There!” he said suddenly, as he pointed to the spot where we had started our walk. I had not been so far in a thousand years, had never visited this side of the mountain. He held my hand as we walked. In many ways, he was no different than the children I would long ago guide to the platform. He looked at me with fear and confusion, it is true, but also with the inextinguishable hope that is human.
Once we returned to my customary spot, I found a message written in the Master’s hand recalling me to his castle, that great stone fortress that clings to the foot of the mountain. I dimly recalled the path from a thousand years before and chose to bring Daniel with me. When we reached the high gates, I found the drawbridge had been lowered, and a series of torches guided us within. We reached the keep and saw within thick candles placed intermittently on the paving tiles, lighting a way up the spiralling stair. Daniel, who had long along dropped my hand, held it again as we passed the threshold to the keep. We climbed the stairs in silence, and though my breath grew laboured, his never did.
I entered and prostrated myself fully upon the thick rugs of the Master’s personal rooms. Daniel stood still behind me, uncertain how to behave. He spotted a tortoise-shell cat in the corner and tried to coax it over, while I slowly inched toward the Master’s cobwebbed throne. The electric buzz of his control panels filled the silence; their glare lit his mighty face. At his boot, I dared to lift my head and gaze upon him directly, and found then that he gazed upon me as well. I hid my eyes until sometime later, when finally he said to me, “Rise, child.” I rose, though I kept my head respectfully bowed.
The cat broke the silence. Daniel was holding it by its tail, and it was struggling mightily to escape. Eventually it managed to sink its claws into Daniel’s arm, and he released it. He looked for a time at the blood trickling down his arm. Daniel suddenly spoke: “This one – the one who brought me – this one brought me back to life, or so I think.”
The Master said only, “Then you walked these halls before. Have you come to this room before?”
Daniel sounded surprised, but then answered, “Yes. I suppose I have been here before. I know…”
“You know what is behind the tapestry, don’t you?”
Daniel nodded, then said, “Yes. I know that there’s another castle, a path to another castle at least. A tiled hallway…It exits onto a geometric garden, and on the far side there is a grand entrance…Somehow I know that I once looked off the edge of the garden, from a sort of balcony fashioned there – and saw a curtain wall – a curtain wall running across the hills.”
The Master put his hands upon my shoulders and spoke to me in a voice that sounded as uncertain as Daniel’s. “Child, what are our findings?”
“We found that fire takes life away.”
“Yes – .”
“We found, at first, fire cannot return life to that which has died. But – the Fifth of the Caldera, he is alive – he was dead. And the fire – you were right to continue the tests, Master.”
“You say that because you doubted me. That’s correct, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Master.” Here I wept for a time, until I was reminded of Daniel’s presence. In fact, Daniel cleared his throat, eager, I suppose, to move the talk beyond my private discussion with the Master.
The Master said, “What then of your Fifth, who stands before me as though he were an equal?”
I could think of no reply.
The Master said, in a disappointed sounding voice, “Can you think of nothing?”
I stood breathing.
“We continue the tests. Child, return this one to the platform, so that we can begin again.”
Though in my terror I took Daniel by the hand and we fled together and though we lived for many months hand-to-mouth, following the cool streams that flowed from the mountain, we were eventually caught, as we knew we would be. (Once, early on, I bit off Daniel’s fingernails for him.) Daniel was bound in wire and led up the goat path to the caldera. I was brought to the great stone walls of the castle, where I came upon the Master pleaching a little shrub. He sprang forth and wrapped his arms around me. I asked him why he embraced me.
“A thousand times I have conducted this experiment, and only now the miracle appears.”
A good observer, I tried to correct him: “Master, a thousand years – many millions of tests – and then your five final attempts, right at the end. But now you consign our miracle to his death again. Why?”
The Master replied, “No, a thousand times I have run this single experiment. A thousand times we have met our Daniel. You are the subject, child. A thousand times a thousand years – such a long time to wait. But at last you made your little miracle: you brought him to me, and then you ran away.”
As I write this, I am reminded of those early days. I have changed, child, I have changed. I have parted the tapestry and walked its fiery path to the platform. I have learned to stand, kind of like a human. I have wrapped myself in the gowns of that curtain wall. I have said my goodbyes to a hundred thousand more just like Daniel.