Chapter ten of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
Henry Jacobs and Sophie von Embers, like all kids their age who spent a lot of their time around adults, felt the need to keep their own secrets. It was nothing conscious. There was no children’s summit at which it was decided that certain things would not be shared with their parents or their parents’ friends, but every night when they were supposed to be in bed, they’d Facetime each other. Neither of them had siblings, but they saw each other often enough that they had developed that brand of kinship over the years, and if the virtual world had done one thing for them, it allowed them to have whispered, conspiratorial meetings in the virtual hallway outside their parents’ bedrooms even as they were tucked into beds miles away from each other.
Only now they whispered about more than jerks at school and mean teachers and new video-game theories. Now they planned what they were going to do later, when they met in the forest. Because every night since the Star Event, they’d had dreams—distinctive dreams that were vivid and entertaining and, they’d discovered, exactly the same as each other’s. They both remembered the same conversations from the dreams, the same locations, the same landmarks, and the same overwhelming sense of dread and awe.
They were in a forest, in each successive dream a bit further along a path that had, at first, been on the surface of Mars—or what the kids assumed the surface of Mars would look like, thanks to images from the Mars rovers. The transition from planet to forest had been sudden, and was the moment from their dreams both had shared, allowing them to discover that their dreams were the same and most likely not dreams at all.
And now they were in a forest, surrounded by the sounds of wildlife, though none of the noises were recognizable. They talked about that a lot, both in and out of the dreams, about how everything seemed familiar but nothing seemed real. Most memorable for them both was that around them, in the humid mist, they could always see tiny lights, like sprinkles of diamond dust catching the sunlight. Sophie called them Tinkerbells, but Henry preferred to think of them simply as the Smart Creatures of the Wood—until he had more evidence as to the form of the lights, he was not ready to attribute a physical identity to them.
At first, in the dreams, they just walked, taking in the lush, tropical forest that glowed with a vibrancy they’d never witnessed before; like a rainforest at the peak of its potential. Then, slowly, over successive nights, they found the lights around them getting greater and greater in number, and the forest thinning as the path they walked widened.
“Who would need a path here, except us?” Henry asked Sophie once. Sophie shrugged but had not slowed her pace.
“I think we’re going to find a temple,” she said later, before they went to sleep one night.
“Why a temple?” Henry asked, wrinkling his nose. “Why not an apartment building?”
Sophie just smiled and said, “I don’t think whoever built the path wanted to live with the Tinkerbells. I think they went there to be with them. To… hang out with them.”
“Who knows?” Henry agreed dismissively. “So… do you think your mom’s going to take that job at Bransen Labs? How cool would that be?”
“She already took it,” Sophie replied distractedly, still trying to figure out the dream. “She’s just finishing up some other work or whatever. Is your mom coming, too?”
“I don’t know…” Henry replied quietly.
They both understood their parents’ professional relationship, as well as their friendship, and they didn’t need to give voice to the fact there seemed to be some strain. If Luci von Embers moved to the Bransen Labs payroll, what would happen to her personal assistant? The fact that his mom hadn’t talked about a new job worried Henry. He knew she couldn’t afford to lose income for even a month.
“I want to find the temple tonight,” Sophie said, changing the subject back to the dream. “Do you think we will?”
“Well, I’d say we’re close to something,” Henry agreed. “And there’s only one way to find out.”
If Ana-loop counted things such as years, she would have told Henry and Sophie that it had been thousands of them since any of the material beings from Earth had properly visited the Temple of Radiance. So long, in fact, that many of her kith and kin no longer believed that beings from Earth had ever been there, despite the evidence.
“They are far too interested in war and wealth,” the philosophers among her kind pointed out. “They have not yet returned to the point of meaningful contact.”
That was the key: Meaningful contact. Many had made contact over the centuries, but not on an equal, meaningful level. They were always in awe; thunderstruck; too quick to feel a sense of worship to create an opportunity for mutual education. Ana-loop could think of only one man currently who had established meaningful contact, but even with him, that contact was in Radiance only. The linchpin to the test of the material beings was that they stepped through the portal with their physical bodies… But contact was still contact, and it gave her hope that true communication was on the verge of happening.
As to who had built the Temple of Radiance—well, that was shrouded in a mystery as thick and elusive as the history of the dead planet the portal closest to it was on. No one, in either place, could remember what had happened to Mars, but Ana-loop respected the old ways of her kind enough to maintain the doorway’s physical location as a test for the material beings: If they came to the temple from any other doorway but the one on Mars, then they were just lucky, not wise—like a man stumbling through the desert, lost, finally finding civilization, instead of the wise man who traveled straight to it.
And now the small ones had come, too—they were in awe, though in a different way, like the other man. Their awe was joy. Their awe was possibility. They were ready to learn—and teach.
Henry and Sophie unconsciously held hands as they stepped into the open. The Martian sun hung in an endless, warm twilight—despite having left the red desert of the planet behind, they still thought of it as Mars—and the lush green trees glistened beneath a sky brushed with thin wisps of cloud.
Time is mushy here, Sophie thought to herself.
In front of them the temple glistened like snow—or like the Tinkerbells, Sophie thought. Henry recognized it as a step pyramid (he couldn’t remember the fancy word for it), the likes of which were dotted throughout South America and the world.
“Nine steps…” he whispered.
“What?” Sophie asked, tugging lightly on his hand and letting it go.
“Nine steps. Three times three—it’s math, right?”
Sophie wrinkled her brow and shook her head slowly, “I don’t think so. Three, five, seven, nine—that’s philosophy.”
Suddenly a very bright light—like a hundred Tinkerbells—appeared at the top of the pyramid. The children shielded their eyes and stepped back, but something in the white pinkness calmed them, and they didn’t run. The light floated slowly down and came over to them, hovering a distance away, across the clearing and near the temple. It was bright, and they tried not to look at it, but couldn’t help themselves. Sophie could see a face in it—a kind, feminine face, smiling at them. Henry saw numbers, floating and spiraling away in random order. Both smiled back at the light.
“Hello, little ones,” a voice seemed to say, from everywhere and nowhere. The children glanced at each other to make sure they’d both heard it, then looked back at the light.
“Who are you?” Sophie asked, at the same instant that Henry gasped, “What are you?”
The bright light blossomed into a sparkling dandelion head and moved toward them. Ana-loop was pleased with their questions. Instinctively, Henry reached out and grabbed Sophie’s arm, though for whose benefit he wasn’t sure.
“Sophie! Henry!” the voice called out. “You finally made it! But it’s not safe anymore!”
The hair on Sophie’s arms bristled. She stood motionless, eyes wide and mouth agape, as the light drifted quickly to them, then burst into a rally of twinkles that formed the figure of a young woman with white hair, dressed in a shimmering white robe. She smiled warmly but her concern was still palpable.
“Ana-loop?” Sophie whispered. Henry’s grasp slipped from Sophie’s arm. He glanced at her sidelong, then looked back at the woman before them.
“How do you know…?” he started, as confused by Sophie knowing her name as he was that the light had taken a human form.
“They’re after me,” Ana-loop said, her features writ with dismay, her light dimming and returning like the shadow of a cloud passing across the sun.
“Who is?” Sophie wondered.
“The Golgantry. Dajenour has been sent to bring me before Dala, to answer for my crimes.”
“What crimes?” Sophie demanded.
“I shouldn’t have sent them that diagram. Axlow told me not to.”
She said it with deep, conflicted regret, as if she still wasn’t sure it was the wrong decision. Her eyes flicked from Sophie to Henry.
“They didn’t understand. He shared it, and the others are not ready to use it correctly. It’s a crime to bring them materially if they don’t understand—”
There was a loud crashing in the woods behind Ana-loop. She nervously glanced back the way she had come.
“That’s Dajenour,” she breathed. “You have to help me. You have to come back with the others, using the machine I helped them build. You have to help me show them you’re ready, that the machine isn’t bad. That I wasn’t wrong. That it wasn’t a crime.”
“I don’t understand,” Sophie said emphatically, her face twisted with frustration. “How can it be a crime? How can anyone arrest you?”
“It wasn’t always a crime…” Ana-loop considered wistfully. The crashing sound echoed again, as if the Golgantry giving chase wanted her to know exactly how close it was.
“But now we have to keep them here to guard the woods,” Ana-loop continued in the same faraway tone of voice. The crashing seemed to be coming from all around them now. Ana-loop fidgeted nervously.
“They are our protectors. They do what’s right to keep us all safe. To protect Perendjo.”
“What?” Henry finally demanded. “What the heck are you guys talking about? Isn’t this Mars?”
Suddenly, the figure of Ana-loop popped out, like a light that’s blown its filament, and a single, intense pearl hovered in the air near them, bobbing slightly as if still fidgeting.
“Come with them,” Ana-loop’s voice begged from everywhere and nowhere. “Prove me right!”
Then she was gone, a single ray of light all that was left as she faded from their retinas.
“Wait!” Sophie called out as the crashing sounds came from directly above them. Sticks and dead branches tumbled to the ground and thudded onto the soft earth, slowly melting into the grass and disappearing as leaves spiraled after them to the forest floor. Henry grabbed Sophie’s hand again and took a step back.
“I think we better go,” he said evenly. “Soph, I think we better wake up.”
Bransen was in the woods again. It looked like the forest around Carlos’ cabin, but felt entirely different. The wind was high, whooshing forcefully between the trunks and combing through the fingers of the canopy. The trees bowed and creaked, and Bransen was terrified a large limb would snap off and fall on top of him. He whipped his head in all directions, seeing only massive, bending treetops, and felt completely helpless: He knew he had to run, but he had nowhere to go.
“Bransen!” a child’s voice called.
He looked in its direction and saw Sophie von Embers, her blond hair trailing behind her in the wind, standing hand-in-hand with Henry Jacobs.
“Over here, Bransen! We’ll be safest under the mushrooms!”
Then Carlos Resua stepped from behind a tree and took Sophie’s hand, urging her to follow him. He cast a glance at Bransen but maintained his dire expression. Bransen did not feel welcome, even though Sophie waved at him again, calling him over, as Carlos pulled her out of sight.
“We’re all here!” he heard her voice call out. “It’s safe in here, Bransen! Mushrooms hold light under their caps!”
Bransen awoke with a start, breathing heavily. He fumbled for the pad of paper and pen on his beside table and scrawled sleepily, “Mushrooms hold light under their caps.”
“The kids,” he breathed aloud, recalling his other dream about mushrooms, with Luci von Embers. “We need the kids to be on this trip. And I need to get Luci here now.”