Tall wooden walls, stark white and unadorned, mark out a simple quadrangle under an open-beam ceiling.
Late morning sun leaks into the space through narrow horizontal windows set high up in the eaves. Lower down, a couple panes of stained-glass cast prismatic hues across a carpet of coarse granite sand, smoothed from corner to corner with Zen garden-like impeccability. Large double doors centered upon the front of the structure are simply adorned, closed, and barred. A single door in a rear corner provides the only access in or out and the only key is in the right front pocket of a man slouched on a folding lawn chair near the center of this close.
He takes a long pull from a water bottle and screws it into the grit beside his chair. Stretching to relieve a nagging stiffness, he settles himself once more to wait as he has done for days past counting.
Was a time someone was obliged to sit this vigil sun to sun, a shared honor and sacred responsibility, but days stretched into years, decades, scores…and today there is only Martin. The solemn responsibility of his station has remained unchanged over time, but his methodology has undergone contemporary adaptation.
No one will come to relieve him. He doesn’t have to be here at all, technically. A simple device beneath the gravel will alert him if its position is altered a fraction in any direction. He made it himself five years ago. Yet every day, regardless what other responsibilities and distractions solicit his attention, he is here long after the obligatory chores and rituals have been observed, watching.
He is something of an anomaly among his people, he knows this. For a young, educated man with strong opinions, cognizant of the machinations that move the world beyond this enclave, to also be a man whose role within the community is one of deepest abiding consequence to all, is a development his predecessors could not have foreseen. Some elders are confounded by the dichotomy of his thoughts. He is intimate with the stories and ceremonies that have sustained the Sandias throughout their long and turbulent history, and he is unbending in his commitment to a higher obligation.
Even so, the cryptic narrative of enigmatic kachinas slumbering in the kiva beneath him is a powerful tale not for children. It is a revelation of awesome significance that challenges one’s beliefs. He can imagine the mummified remains that would likely be discovered below, should anyone be willing to break with an injunction passed down from his thrice-great grandfather, Ta’luli. The protocol set forth has been faithfully upheld by an unbroken line of Watchers down the years to this moment. No, if any would dare breach the several physical and mystical containments that shield those either dead or slumbering below—if indeed ANYONE is down there at all—it would not be Martin Montoya. His sacred oath and station, passed down through generations, must come before any such curiosity or abiding personal skepticism.
Not for the first time, he ponders the childlike credulity of his elders and their unshakable certitude in this wonderful fiction. What rankles is the persistent belief in a pantheon of fantastic, superhuman beings with power over the elements and natural phenomena. Other than those purportedly beneath his feet, he’s unable to identify any empirical evidence the kachinas are anything but the superstition they seem, fanciful legends of a simpler time, a simpler people. His people.
His people and their culture may be set apart from what some consider the mainstream of civilization, but he is neither blind to, nor ignorant of, what the world has become. Where are these mighty Powers? Are the kachinas not supposed to be the protectors of the Earth and of the People? Why do they not step forward with their vast knowledge and authority, their invincible might, and return balance to the world? Perhaps they are, if they exist at all, merely capricious, callous observers, disinterested in mortal tribulations. Or worse, perhaps, the cause of them.
Martin is content to keep such personal observations under his baseball cap.
His eyes rest on the bone-handled knife in his hands. The steel is of a type known as wootz. Middle Eastern swordmakers, centuries past, fashioned their fabled Damascus blades from it, weapons of legendary keenness and durability. Here, resting in his palms, is a superb example of that craft. The swirling mysteries in the metal are stories as provocative as they are complex.
His great grandfather, Poeyeh, by accounts not a particularly imaginative man, was given the knife as a symbol of trust by a sorcerer, a man he saw arrive in the company of the kachinas. It was an act of generosity that altered how Poeyeh, still a young man at the time, came to perceive himself and his role in a larger design.
Allegedly, the sorcerer slumbers below as well. And why not?
As always, that historical progression engenders another recollection, one far less easily discounted, and Martin wonders why it hadn’t occurred to him again until now. An inexplicable object, a globe of light created by the kachinas themselves, rests even now in a secure place, safe from inquisitive eyes. He held the sacred thing in his own hands when he was named Watcher. He remembers marveling at its wholesome radiance and warmth. It’s enough to give passing credence to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there could be beings not entirely of this world in the sealed chamber beneath his bare feet. The thought makes his balls shrivel ever so slightly. His innate skepticism remains unmoored and amounts to nothing in the context of his oath and hallowed responsibility.
A sunbeam through the high windows glints off metal and he thinks to sheath the blade resting in his hands. A sinuous pattern in the steel seem to reverse and coil on itself, spinning off reflected light like eddies in a stream. It is hard to look away.
He looks away.
His eyes blink twice, owl-like, and the folding chair clatters to the ground behind him. At the center of the enclosure, where the gravel has remained undisturbed far longer than he’s been alive, the doorway in the ground is open. Its heavy timber cover nowhere to be seen. Within that square aperture, a bottomless well of stars stares out. Martin has forgotten to breathe. He feels his feet carry him to the very brink of this inexplicable moment and, dumbfounded, he gazes into infinity.
He should have known better.
Flung headlong through a spiraling sea of stars, the moment has found him wholly unprepared to be an untethered, hurtling insignificance.
Reason flees. Ribbons of intolerable light and heat pass in a blur, tracing unrecognizable patterns across the vastness as he flashes untouched among them. He is a beam, crossing eons of cosmic expansion as his heart hammers in his throat.
He grapples with his panic and his impossible momentum. Since his youth, Martin has learned to navigate paths of altered awareness, taught himself to guide his lucid dreaming. How is it, he somehow finds the clarity to wonder, he could have been so perfectly oblivious? What is he to witness at this extremity?
As if in answer, he is plunged into the roil of a nebula so dense all light is snuffed, his sense of motion suspended. Did he succeed in halting his mad rush?
The last filmy vestiges of the interstellar dust cloud disperse to reveal the graceful sweep of a galactic whorl set against the backdrop of eternity. Tears freeze upon his face as he feels himself drawn toward the furnaces of Creation, washed in glory, his mind poised between terror and wonder.
At the edge of vision. There in the expanse, a gap in the fabric of it, unmistakable now—not a singularity, just a jagged line of darkness across the starfield. Relative to the boundless reach in which he is a mote, the rent is far too small to be consequential. Yet, from a personal perspective, approaching it at a mind-wrenching velocity, the tear is a yawning wrongness, raw and colossal. To his limited human grasp, it seems a fissure in the material of Reality.
Within that not-space is a shape, nearly filling it, geometric and complex. It is vibrant with life; he can sense it. He can sense, too, behind it all, an emptiness, limitless and insatiable. It challenges his comprehension and he knows, as he knows this is what he was meant to witness, if allowed to extend beyond a tenuous, mist-like boundary, that impersonal hunger will open itself to the stars. And consume them.
A soundless, inconsolable cry crosses light centuries as Martin follows his raveled thread of life force to himself. Hurled backward to the ground, heart thundering, his breath shudders in ragged gulps and gasps. The earth to his spine is a luxury. Some indeterminate amount of time passes before his rubbery legs can be forced to support him.
He retrieves the chair, opening it out again onto its usual spot with hands that might still be trembling. The wootz knife is lying at his feet. He stoops, scooping the sacred object up by its bone handle with a drizzle of grit and sheaths it without ceremony. He draws a focusing breath and turns a sidelong glance to the well of stars.
The kiva and the doorway in the ground are undisturbed, as they have been for the last century and a half. Except for the mess he’s made of the immediate surroundings, everything looks as it should. Martin allows himself a long, controlled exhalation, whether an abbreviated prayer or curtailed expletive, he himself is unsure. He crosses the quadrangle, lets himself out the door at the rear of the enclosure, and locks it behind him.