THE TOMB OF THE SINNER
by James Hanson
The dim husk of the sun rose over the cold, lurid dunes of the desert. No wind had perturbed them since they had been made, so they still had their bright gaudy colors. The sinner watched as the light slowly trickled from the ridge of rust to the ridge of ash to the ridge of sulfur like water discovering a series of little falls.
How many days had it been since he had water?
He wished that he could stop caring. He knew that the thirst would not kill him, nor would the hunger nor anything else, but that knowledge was powerless in the face of choking coarseness of his throat and the pinching emptiness in his stomach.
He tried to distract himself by continuing along his tour now that it was warm enough to move. He had wandered the continent so many times that he felt as if he could tell when the powder had been disturbed by one of the others. And although he couldn’t swim out into the flat, waveless ocean of mercury, for They had been sure to make him dense enough to sink, he was certain They had made no other land on the planet.
To assuage the boredom, he had decided to wander the continent in every possible pattern. He had walked for days with his eyes closed behind his locked mask in order to ensure the unspoiled juxtaposition of sights kilometers apart.
As he walked through a field of glass dust, finer than any natural sand, he heard a scream. He sighed at the annoyance that was almost sure to follow. This was his worry whenever his path took him too near the necropolis at the center of the continent. The others tended to gather around it, the only true landmark. Usually he avoided venturing near them, but in the endless grinding stretches of boredom, foolishness becomes an untapped source of variety. Sometimes, they watched him from afar.
The scream must have meant that some of the others were hungry for meat. The only vegetation that grew was tough and brambly and only served to increase hunger. The only meat was that of the others, the children of the stars, too ‘intelligent’ to die like the dumb beasts. Occasionally he could find something amusing in witnessing one of them succumb to their urges.
Over the next ridge the sinner saw the scene. A man and a woman were chasing a boy brandishing murderous sharpened bones. The sinner was surprised to see that they were all three the same species. He had always assumed that in this hell the old loyalties would have rekindled and been clung to.
And the victim was a child.
It would be wrong to not intervene, he knew that, but that transgression would be a single molecule of water in the ocean of his wrong. He had slept particularly well for the last few days, the ash was relatively soft, so he was in a good mood. He ran towards the attackers. The motion caused the spikes inside his mask to dig into his face and he winced, but he had decided to see this through. No blood trickled in his eyes, for he had no blood left.
The woman saw him first, and said something to the man as she poised her stake to run him through. They collided and the bone shattered, not even marring the wrappings covering his body. He had so much momentum that the woman crumpled. The sinner looked down and saw that, although she was still alive, too many of her bones were broken for her to move.
The man tried to run, dropping his stake, but the sinner was far too fast and tackled him from behind, crushing his spine.
The sinner got up and out of unnecessary habit brushed himself off. He didn’t need to look to know that the blood could not have stained his wrappings. As he approached, the child gaped at his mask. The sinner had never seen it–it had been smithed onto his head and shoulders–but he was sure that They had made it a terrifying, golden idol with their savage craftsmanship.
The child stared at the bodies and eventually spoke.
“Thank…thank you. They were gonna eat me.”
Although it had transformed since he learned it, the sinner could understand the boy’s language. And so he was finally able to place the species that they were: Lephonae. He had lived on Lephon for a time, long long ago. It had had the most gorgeous ecosystem he had ever seen, adapted to the complicated pattern of seasons arising from the eccentric orbit and the planet’s moons.
Already since he had last slept the sun was setting for the fifth time over the horizon of the moonless, tiltless, seasonless planet. They had made the day so short and had ensured there was no other way to mark time. He had once stared at the sun motionless for ninety nine days and was now certain the planet’s orbit was perfectly circular. He looked at the child, knowing that the sickly sunset would soon yield to the starless sky and the deathly cold.
“Dost thou have shelter from the cold?”
The child nodded, which after a moment the sinner remembered meant no. Looking down at the child through the misleveled eyeholes of the mask he sighed.
“I will take thee to the necropolis,” he said turning to lead.
“The pyramid in the center of the land. Thou wilt find others near there.”
“Okay but there’s more people around here who’ll attack us.”
“Then hasten. We should make as much progress as possible before sundown.”
Every now and then he stole a glance at the child as they marched. His physiology was somewhat different from what he remembered, with stockier legs. It hadn’t been enough time for evolution to take its course so he decided this must be the effect of the considerable surface gravity of the planet compared to Lephon. He remembered how he had bounded effortlessly through the fungal rainforests and climbed the steepled mountains as if ascending stairs.
“Dost thou know of thine home?”
“They destroyed my village eight days ago. We heard drums and then before we could—”
“I mean thy people’s home, amongst the stars.”
“Papa says…said there never were any stars.”
The sinner chuckled. “And how did thy ‘papa’ say the world began?”
“He always said that we didn’t know because we hadn’t figured it out yet and that there was nothing wrong with not knowing.”
“Thy father was wrong. Ignorance is shameful.”
Neither of them said anything for a while before the sinner spoke again.
“There were stars, once, I saw them.” He grabbed a handful of salt from the ground and let it sift through his fingers. “There were three hundred billion of them tied up in a little spiraling knot called a galaxy and even deeper in the sky there were two hundred billion more galaxies, each as vibrant and beautiful as yours. Ye knew not what ye had. Jewels of jewels suspended in criss crossing filaments strutting up the darkness. A dark veil concealing a yet infinite expanse of splendors.
“And with the stars were their wives, the planets, mostly dollops of barren ice and rock and gas but every so often one bore children and ‘twas so amusing and wonderous. I travelled to your mother for a time. She was the eleventh planet I fell in love with.”
“Do you have any food?”
He looked at the child and the scrawny flesh between his skin and his bones. He had once tried to eat meat; his mask, while possessing a caricatured mouth which he could feel, had no hole for food or water, so he had to force the meat piece by piece through the eye holes and struggle to work it past the spikes down to his mouth, but it was pointless. While the others were forced to choose between the tortuous brambles and the forbidden flesh of each other, he had no such choice. They had ensured that flesh too only deepened his appetite.
“Do you know where to find some?”
“Thou shouldst have taken it from the two whom attacked thee.” He looked and saw that the child grimaced at the thought. “Besides, we must take shelter for the night. We will find food on the morrow.”
The child looked around and said, “Where are we gonna take shelter?”
“Come hither,” the sinner said, sitting down and crossing his legs, “sit on my lap. I will insulate thee.”
After a moment the child sat. As the sinner embraced him, he was stiff and vibrated with the nervous energy of a young thing being held. He had not lied, although his embalmed flesh and leadened bones produced no bodily warmth they were enough to insulate another. The night was exactly as calculatedly cold as it always was. Once the sinner had taken a bone and in a field of borax scraped down calculations. There was no way the sun was bright enough to keep the planet as meagerly warm as it was. In Their barbaric ingenuity They must have filled the core with something radioactive—probably Uranium, as it was dense enough—making the core an embering sister of the single grave candle in the sky.
“If there really were stars, where did they go?”
The sinner had not witnessed the process. It was possible that They had just enclosed this little solar system in a sphere of black and tied a little knot to seal it, but he was sure that They did not think so small.
“They took them away as they would have ruined the effect. After all”—the sinner gestured to the sky despite the total dark—”what is a tomb without a vast vaulting perfect dome of obsidian.”
“What is a tomb?”
“‘Tis a place where one puts the dead. To honor them.”
“But we honor the dead by using their pieces.”
“When the stars still shone, ye children of the stars and planets honored your dead by preserving their bodies so that they were easier to remember.”
“Because there was plenty. ‘Twas a luxury ye could afford.”
“So whose tomb is it then?” the child said, yawning.
The sinner closed his eyes to ward off the stale air. “‘Tis yours. The children of the stars are buried hither in a macabre mockery of their natural cycles and growth. Once thy people and their cousins ruled the galaxy in a vast and glorious—”
The child had relaxed and gone limp. From his breathing, the sinner knew he was sleeping.
For a time the world was only distant sounds. Finally the pallid orange sun broke over the horizon, illuminating everything with its insufficient spectrum. There were so many colors which were only memories now.
The child still slept. Once it was warm enough the sinner laid him on the ground and climbed the nearest dune. He generally avoided doing that because he tended to sink and slide off. Really the child, who left hardly impression on the ground at all, should be the one doing this, but he needed sleep. The brambly plants did not grow everywhere. They needed hydrous minerals to make up for the perfectly arid air.
In the distance he saw a field of potash lye, which was perfect. He could also barely make out the outline of the necropolis. Between the two he saw a line of tiny forms. He decided it was a group of the others. They needed to travel long distances between the patches of brambles in order to forage enough to live.
He watched as they gathered, hiding behind the dune. They also dumped baskets of something on the ground. After they left he snuck up to gather and saw that they had left fertilizer, in the form of their own excrement and offal. He was sure that they thought of themselves as farmers, but they could never be that for these plants could not be tamed. He tore up two large handfuls and headed back.
When the child saw him he ran over.
“I was worried that you left.”
“I gave thee my word. Here, take this.”
The sinner offered one handful and the child took as much as he could. He ate as they walked and the sinner carried the rest. The thorns did nothing to his hands.
“Who killed the stars? And why did they do it?”
“They are not children of stars and planets like ye. They are not children of anyone. They were not born and They do not die. Each unique and eternal and yet They are so numberless that They appear as a teeming mongrel horde.
“Their culture is degenerate and primitive, only redeemed at all by their intense sense of right and wrong. Their knowledge is laden with myth and superstition. But through Their animalistic cunning They were able to sail the night sky and outrace light. They came from beyond the boundary of your sight and destroyed all that you had.
“What you children of the stars had not realized was that you had refined the craft of killing beyond its practical limits. You had made a decadent, pompous art of it. But sometimes there is wisdom in simplicity and intelligence in bluntness. And so you had no chance. They burned your oceans and bleached your skies. They sowed salt into the soil which was your vibrant, mouldering lifeblood. And then They razed it all and left this monument to Their bloodlust with naught but thee and thine as interred relics of the conquered.”
The child grabbed more food from the sinner’s hand.
“Why do you have a mask? ”
The sinner squeezed the brambles idly, testing their strength.
“I do not know.”
He looked at the child, but the child was focused on chewing.
The necropolis loomed, an obsidian pyramid with a seventeen sided base. Each edge was a kilometer long and the faces were roughly hewn but seamless except for the entrance passage in front of them.
“If thou followest the edge, thou wilt find the town.”
“You aren’t coming with?”
“I do not wish to be seen.”
“I do not like company. It would remind me of all of the beautiful cultures that have been lost.”
As the child started to leave the sinner heard something in the distance and grabbed his shoulder. The weight of his hand caused the child to wince.
“Dost thou hear?”
There were drums, pounding in a dense texture of overlapping rhythms with off-kilter stresses like the unpredictable blows of a boxer. And there was singing, with high, forced shrieking melodies and low, guttural throat sounds. Although he had no time to dwell on it, the sinner was surprised at the sophisticated complexity of the music. He thought he heard the influence of a composer he had enjoyed.
The sinner could see them, coming around the corner of the pyramid with their ossuary drums and fire. The fire surprised him the most. Normally there was nothing to burn and no way to burn it.
“We need to run,” the sinner said.
“No wait,” the child said, “I think I’m too exhausted. I can’t outrun them.”
“I cannot carry you far.”
“I heard that there’s stuff inside the pyramid…and traps. Can’t we hide in there?”
The sinner had never returned to the pyramid after he first left it, but the child was right. The town was probably destroyed, but the attackers would leave eventually. Although they couldn’t kill him they would be able to trap him and that would be intolerable. They might think to seal the entrance but he doubted they could do it well enough to keep him inside forever. Even They weren’t able to do that. But if that happened the child might starve, but he would die eventually anyways.
He grabbed the child and ran inside. They had no light, but he didn’t need it. He knew each of the nineteen chambers by touch. The floor felt like fused broken glass to step on and every wall was engraved with asemic gibberish framed by razor sharp moulding. He had spent untold spans of time feeling each character and trying to discern a meaning, but now he was sure there was none. Some of the characters were sensitive to the touch and mechanically activated traps. They were designed so that they did not maim him, but they did hurt, and with Their crude engineering they never ceased to function.
The rooms were arrayed as a sadistic farce of a palace. The sinner carried the child up the lefthand staircase in the foyer. Carefully avoiding the third, eighth, and fourteenth steps, as well as the knife edged railing. He entered the main hall and passed the serrated bedroom.
“It is likely that we will fail in this and that thou shalt die,” the sinner said, “so I must tell thee the truth.”
“This tomb and this world are mine eternal punishment.”
He made it to the deepest chamber, the room of the bladed throne.
“Let me down,” the child said, after the sinner stopped moving.
“The floor will cut thee.”
The child struggled free and ran away.
“Where art thou going?”
The sinner tried to decide whether or not he should follow. Why did the child leave? It would be easy for him to find the child, for he knew the chambers better and he could hear the child’s feet. The sinner listened and he heard muted breathing from all around him.
“Who is there?”
Five or six people jumped on him and began binding his arms and legs with leather thongs. He flailed and and the back of his fist smashed a skull, but it was futile and his arms and legs were bound behind his back. He would have been able to break the leather bounds easily but he was unable to get any leverage. His mask clanged against the ground as they dragged him out of the necropolis. He noticed that they seemed to know where all the traps were, which comforted him, as that must have cost many lives.
As they dragged him out of the main entrance he saw that the people he had seen before had all gathered around the entrance. They moved as a procession, playing their dissonant march.
The trek was long and slow. He couldn’t turn his head, so he only caught glimpses of them. There many species present and he recognized all of them: Lephonae, Musheeg, Nolents, Fultos, and so on. All of their clothing was leather, which was a shame. He remembered that the countries on the Nolents’ planet had a technique for making enchanting clothing that was so colorful as to be gaudy but light enough to feel as if you were wearing nothing. Smirking, he wondered if it was considered macabre or appropriate to wear the leather of your own species.
He had never looked at the others closely enough, but now that he was he noticed that they were all from planets that he had particularly enjoyed before They buried him. It hadn’t even occurred to him that They would do that, but it was appropriate.
Eventually he saw tents through the mask. They had reached the town, which had not been destroyed. They propped him up on his knees in front of a crow, at the head of which stood a Fulto woman with a more dignified air than the rest of them. Between him and the crowd was a pool of mercury. He couldn’t tell how deep it was.
“Ye have gone to a lot of trouble,” he said, “to capture an insignificant wanderer.”
“You are not insignificant,” the woman said in a Fulto language, “At the very least you seem to be immortal. Our ancestors have been spotting you for generations. But now we have reason to believe that our worlds were destroyed and our ancestors trapped because of you.”
The sinner laughed. “And why do ye think that?”
“Because you told me,” the child said from the crowd. The sinner hadn’t seen him before.
“So, thou hast fooled me from the beginning. Who were those attackers then? More pitiful compatriots?”
“They were the boy’s parents,” she said, “It was a trick. We needed to be more certain before we could arrest you.”
“Arrest?” the sinner shouted, “Ye do not arrest me. Ye have bound me but ye have no dominion over me. Ye are my retainers which They have buried here with me as a caricature of my life.”
“Not only,” the woman said, ignoring the sinner, “have you murdered two people and additionally committed manslaughter, but you may have conspired to commit multiple instances of genocide and mass imprisonment. It has been difficult, but over the generations we never executed any criminals on Ogbunabali, but the aldermen have ratified a provision that would sentence you to execution if you are found guilty.”
“Ye might put a name on this place but it will wear off like paint on a mountainside, and ye cannot kill me. I am as endless as the mountain. When They dessicated my flesh and cut out mine heart they also scraped my mortality out through my nose with a metal hook. I have never even bothered to try to take mine own life.”
“Did you or did you not conspire with the invaders to destroy us?”
“I did not.”
“Are you the same species as the invaders were?”
“‘The invaders,’ as thou call them, have no species nor do I.”
“Then how were you born?”
“I was not born. I decided to exist.”
“Let me broaden the question then. Do you come from the same place as the invaders did? Did you ever interact with them before they trapped you on Ogbunabali?”
“I did interact with them but it is not accurate to say it happened in a place.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Ye people seem to have retained much of your knowledge. Tell me. Do ye remember how ye once measured and understood light?”
The woman looked around at the crowd.
“Whose job is it to retain that domain of knowledge?”
A genderless Raphmottel raised a hand.
“I think he’s talking about physics and the speed of light,” they said.
“Very good,” the sinner said, “Now dost thou remember how ‘the invaders’ propelled themselves through space?”
“We never figured out how they did and how they were able to go faster than light.”
“There are many things ye do not understand. In fact They, as well as I, came from beyond the horizon of your portion of the universe, which should not have been possible according to your understanding. So do not badger me to explain the details of the situation. I believe the spirit of your question has been answered.”
“That’s true,” the woman said. “What was your relationship with them? And why did they trap you here?”
“My relationship was professional. We had things which the other could benefit from and so we traded. They buried me here because they are pious savages with an unfortunate moralistic tendency. I sinned, not even against Them, and They took it upon themselves to find and punish me.”
“If the invaders are so moral why did they destroy everything in our universe? That doesn’t seem very moral to me.”
“Your morals are wrong.”
That raised an angry murmur in the crowd which the woman had to strike the drum next to her to silence.
“What do you mean by that?”
“True morality is transcendental and perceived directly by the soul. Ye do not have souls. Ye are products of evolution and so your ‘moral’ sense is a ploy to trick you to proliferate yourselves. Ye and everything in your universe is born in death and so destroying it is hardly wrong. It is natural. ”
“Then what was your sin that is so great that genocide is nothing compared to it?”
The sinner did not speak for a while. The sun was setting again. He wondered once this was over and he was gone from these people how often this would happen again, how many generations of these children of the stars would come looking for his head for their plight. Perhaps he should just kill them all and be at peace. The planet was balanced to keep them living and breeding forever, or at least until the star and the core burnt out, but he was sure that They hadn’t made it so that the planet would spontaneously generate new pests if they were eliminated.
He looked at each part of the crowd in turn, at their cannibalistic squalor.
“It would be a sin as transgressive as the original to even utter it, and, although a few of your deaths are nothing on the scales of my wrongs, I would not like to double the weight on my soul.”
“So why did they punish us as well?”
“I told thee. I was hiding hither and enjoying your worlds. They thought that it was appropriately ornamental to bury me with the things that I enjoyed.”
A few members of the crowd shouted for the sinner’s blood and the woman silenced them again.
“I think we’ve heard enough,” the woman said, “the other justices and I will decide on a verdict.”
“Ye stand on ceremony like ye cling to your clothing and your houses. They are tattered relics. Why do ye not let go of your civilization and embrace the natural hatred between your kinds? It would be more enjoyable. And more to the point, why do ye not just try to tear me limb from limb right now. Or drown me in that pool of mercury which ye have gone to the trouble of amassing.”
They didn’t respond as the woman and a few others walked away and entered a tent. The sinner wondered if they knew he would sink in mercury. How could they know? If they did at least this pool could not possibly extend through the layers of solids between the surface and the mercurial mantle of the planet. That was his only fear anymore. Sinking in hot, viscous darkness for hundreds of days before settling forever at the boundary of the denser dissolved uranium.
They emerged from the tent and walked over. The sinner wanted to laugh at how solemnly they carried themselves.
“We have found you guilty of all charges,” the woman said.
Two people grabbed the sinner from behind and forced his head down into the pool. He could feel the mercury touching his eyes and slowly pouring into his nose. He tried to push it out by exhaling but it was too heavy. As they held him there it seeped into his throat and filled his mouth. He wondered how long it would take them to decide they had killed him.
After a tiresome amount of time they pulled him out and as the mercury slid out of his mouth and into his stomach he saw reflected in a puddle of dissolved gold his own face for the first time since They buried him.
“I must thank ye for restoring my face. I never dared approach the quicksand coasts.”
They pushed him on his back. His neck was intolerably stiff but he twisted it to look at the child, who was watching with the rest of them.
The crowd took up bony mallets and resumed the whirling, frenetic music. A man with a leather mask approached, holding a chunk of obsidian that they must have scraped out of the necropolis. Glass was hard enough to scratch obsidian and there was a fair amount of glass dust so perhaps they manually sanded a cut.
The man hoisted the chunk above his head and brought it down. Pieces of it shattered and splintered off but it still crushed the left side of his face.
The sinner screamed in pain and looking up at the executioner with his right eye said, “Prithee strike again and let thine aim be true.”
The executioner brought the chunk down again, and the sinner was free.
James Hanson is a physics graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He often finds himself torn between his love of cerebral hard science fiction and his fondness for bad 50s-era special effects. His recent published works include “The Eversible Antarctic Sky” in Mad Scientist Journal and “The Isomorphosis” in Allegory.