"Waveforms are lengthening. Is the field still stable?"
"There are slight fluctuations in the upper bands. I'm resynchronizing... Yes, they're stabilizing. All bands are well within acceptable limits."
"Rerun all checks. Green lights across the board? Good. Turn down the lights, please. This is our moment, people. Watch your instruments closely. Here we are... Engage."
Through thick plastic windows, the scientists gazed over a wide, domed chamber filled with blinking, flickering lights and endless coils and bundles of wire and conduit. In the middle of the chamber stood one tall, square archway. Sparks of electricity began to leap along its inner edges. Throughout the chamber lights blinked more rapidly, swirling across the instrumentation in sweeping patterns, frantic, frantic, frenzied, swelling into a crescendo of strobing green and blue and a surging electric thrum.
There was a blaze of light. The scientists hid their eyes, all but one: and that man was the first to witness the birth of the Access. It shimmered across the archway, a fuzzy, sparking wall of turquoise energy. It took his breath away.
In a quiet anteroom at the far end of the chamber, two men waited for a signal. Their hair was cut short, their faces were clean-shaven, and their expressions were solemn, subdued, almost grim. A green light above a door blinked on.
They met each other's eyes and shook hands. Then they placed their helmets on their heads, checked the seals on their suits and the gauges on their oxygen and nutrient tanks, and stepped forward into the chamber.
The communicators inside their helmets hissed with soft static as they climbed the ramp to the Access. They needed no more instructions. They knew what to do from here. Halting just in front of the Access they looked up to the observing roomful of scientists. Eager anticipation and boundless curiosity was painted across the face of every wide-eyed scientist.
With three determined steps, the two men passed through the Access into the unknown valley beyond.
Kolio perched atop his shabby stool and slowly shifted his weight from one side to the other while he listened to yet another impassioned plea for aid. She was a young girl, a pleasant, doe-eyed creature of perhaps 14 moons. Her mother, she said, was quite ill. The mendicants had attempted every cure they were aware of, and none were helping.
Naturally. The mendicants knew nothing of nurturing life. All of their practices began from a fear of and fascination with death. They thought that by teaching themselves how to understand and diagnose death they might be able to fight it, to prevent it, but the knowledge of death leads only to more death. Kolio knew this, as all wise men did, though precious few of those remained in Drimast.
The girl had sunk to her knees, begging, imploring, weeping tears of desperate need. Kolio was not moved. So far he had seen nothing to set this girl's request apart from the hundreds of elaborate productions that had been presented to him before. They never understood. Tears cannot pay the price of life. Words and wailing cannot pay it. Only action can pay that cost. Only sacrifice, yours or someone else's.
And Kolio had long been too old and, yes, too world-weary to take that burden solely on his own shoulders. He did not have many more sacrifices remaining in him. If only there was another...
The girl's fervent speech drew to an end and she subsided into slow, ragged breathing as she lay face down on the rich carpet at the foot of Kolio's stool.
"Rise, daughter," said Kolio. The girl lifted her head, hope in her eyes. Resignedly, Kolio delivered his usual speech. "I have heard your plea. Your mother may yet live, and she may yet die. The restorative powers of lifewater are great, but they do not interfere with the cycle of the moon and the passage of time. Sickness and pain may be washed away, but death is not an illness to be cured. Lifewater may restore your mother's vigor and sustain her days, or it may restore her soul and ease her passage."
"I am at peace with either restoration," said the girl, bowing her head.
By those words she had passed the first test, though the second would assess her sincerity. "In addition," said Kolio, "the gathering of lifewater requires a resolute heart and," he raised his bushy eyebrows to watch her response, "a strong back."
The girl's eyes grew briefly troubled, and she sat up on her knees. "Sir," she said, "I am still young, and small for my age, but I give you whatever strength there is in me. Tell me only what to do, and I will do it."
Kolio pursed his withered lips and allowed a faint smile to come into his eyes. "You have responded well," he said, "and yet the greatest challenge lies before you. What is your name, daughter?"
"Aiya," she replied.
"A name of understanding. Your mother christened you well. Please fetch me the bowl and the knife from beside the fire, Aiya." Kolio pointed out the items, and Aiya quickly gathered them for him. The bowl was wide, shallow, and made of wood. It was pale and white on the outside but heavily stained inside with deep red and brown. The knife was simple, small, and pointed, with a rough wooden handle. Its blade gleamed in the flickering light of the fire.
Kneeling again in front of Kolio's stool, Aiya asked, "What are these tools for, sir?"
"We must travel to the valley if we are to gather the lifewater your mother needs."
"Where is this valley?"
"In a world beyond our own."
Aiya frowned. "How can we get there?"
"Two things are needed. The first is fire." Kolio gestured with the knife to the roaring fire. "The second," he said, "is blood."
"Shall I take the knife and draw blood from one of our goats?" asked Aiya. "I have watched the mendicants do so in order to feed it to my mother in a soup."
"No, child," said Kolio. "The blood of a goat is not what we need. Opening the path to the valley requires the blood of the travellers. If you wish to aid your mother, the knife is yours." Kolio placed the knife in the bowl and offered both objects to the girl. "A thin stream drawn from your palm will suffice."
Aiya took the instruments and placed them on the carpet in front of her. She stared at them for a few quiet moments. Kolio shifted on his stool as he waited. This was the stage at which all of his supplicants, even the seemingly most determined, balked and turned away.
At last, Aiya lifted the bowl and held it out to Kolio.
He shook his head sadly as he took back the bowl. "I did not expect you to make this sacrifice. Few, indeed, remain willing to give of their own blood. It is my burden, and one which it is increasingly difficult for me, also, to bear."
"It is not that," said Aiya. "I only fear to draw the knife across my own hand." She held out her palm, trembling gently. "Would you make the cut, sir?"
Kolio's mouth gathered itself into a thin, wrinkled smile. Here was determination. Here was sacrifice. And from one so young and innocent... "Your bravery does you credit, daughter." He drew the girl's palm towards him, placed the bowl in his lap, and lifted the knife. In a smooth, practiced motion he slid the blade across her palm. He had her clench her fist over the bowl until a small pool of red blood had gathered in the bowl. Then he took a strip of clean cloth from a bag behind his stool and bound her wound.
After that, Kolio took the knife again and performed the same operation on himself. "Your hand!" cried Aiya, when she saw the scar-laced skin of his left palm. "Must you injure yourself for every journey?"
"I must," said Kolio. "And I have precious little blood left to give. But you would not wish to travel to the valley alone, would you?" So Kolio squeezed the thin blood from his own hand into the bowl. When he was finished, Aiya took a bandage from his bag and fastened it around his hand, tying it as she had seen him do, though somewhat more clumsily.
Kolio thanked her and lifted the gnarled stick that he used as a cane. With some creaking of bones, he stood and approached the fire. He took the bowl, dipped his finger into it, then cast the blood into the fire. The flames leapt up, and a wave of heat and light washed over the man and the girl. When the light had faded a luminescent red doorway, flickering like fire, stood before them.
"Before we enter," said Kolio, "there is one other thing."
"Yes?" whispered Aiya, her voice quiet with awe.
"At times it can be windy in the valley. Would you fetch my scarf from the hook by the doorway?"
Aiya smiled with relief. She fetched the old man's scarf, a thick, soft covering made of dyed sheep's wool, and draped it over his neck and shoulders.
"Thank you, daughter," said Kolio. "Now, hold the bowl, please, and take my hand." The girl tucked the wooden bowl under her arm and took hold of the man's bandaged hand. Together they stepped forward through the doorway into the valley.
Kolio and Aiya emerged atop a small mountain covered in thick, short, radiantly green grass. The sky was bright, but there were no sun or moon to be seen. The light seemed to come from all directions at once, and there were no shadows.
The air was clear all around them, and the mountain fell away in a smooth, gentle decline to a round valley below. Other mountains could be seen surrounding the valley, some towering into the sky and some little more than round green hills. All were covered only in the same green grass, with no shrubs or trees to be seen.
"Come," said Kolio, his back straightening a little as he breathed the crisp mountain air. "We must descend into the valley to gather the lifewater."
Aiya looked back over her shoulder at the shimmering red doorway. Looking down into the valley she shivered and clutched the wooden bowl tightly. "It seems such a long way," she said.
"It will not seem so long once we have begun," Kolio assured her. Supporting himself with his cane, he took a few steps down the mountainside. Before they had gone more than a dozen paces, though, Aiya saw movement further down the mountain, two figures approaching them. "Sir," she said, "who are they?"
Kolio leaned on his cane and watched them. The two men were bareheaded and barechested and were bounding up the mountainside like young goats. They wore strange, thin pants and heavy shoes, and the hair on their heads and chins was thick and curly. They were talking and laughing joyfully like young boys.
Kolio frowned. "I fear they are not from our world. If I am reading the signs correctly, they have drunk deeply of the lifewater, indeed too deeply. We will wait here and let them climb to us." The old man sat down on the hillside and laid his cane across his lap, watching the climbers intently. Aiya settled herself a few feet behind him.
The two men were nearly on top of Kolio, seemingly without noticing him, when he raised himself to his feet with the help of his cane. He said, "Tell me, sirs: who are you, and how have you come to this place?"
The men stopped and looked at Kolio in wonder. "So you're the ones who created this red Access?" they said. "We saw it from down below. We thought we were the only ones working on this technology. Where does your Access come out? China? India?"
"I know nothing of these places," said Kolio. "We have come from Drimast to gather lifewater for the restoration of the girl's mother."
"Drimast?" said one of the men. "What country is that in?"
"Drimast is neither a city or a country," said Kolio. "It is our world."
The two men looked at one another excitedly and began to chatter. "His 'world,' he said... Maybe their Access leads to a completely different planet, or a new galaxy! Can you imagine what that might mean?" They turned back to Kolio and Aiya. "We come from a world called 'Earth,' one of the planets in a small solar system that's part of the Milky Way. We came here to explore."
"If you have come from a world beyond our knowledge," said Kolio, "then you should return to the place you came from."
"What?" said the men. "Why should we?"
"The intermingling of worlds is a dangerous thing," said Kolio. "It can only result in chaos."
"But think of the potential gains," insisted the men. "Think of the exchange of knowledge, the prospects of trade, the enriching of both worlds."
"The valley does not exist to facilitate the pursuit of riches," said Kolio angrily. "I will not let you harm the balance of this place. I implore you to leave us and return to your own world."
"We can't do that," said the men, raising their voices now. "Not with this kind of opportunity right in front of us!"
Kolio pointed his cane accusingly at them. "You have already disturbed the valley by drinking the lifewater. I see the signs in your behaviour and your bodies. You have drunk and not been satisfied, because you drank without need. I have seen others do the same, when I was still young and did not understand well enough to prevent them. If you do not turn away now your desires will only continue to grow without check, and your ambitions will turn to evil. I will not let you harm our world." He stood in front of the red gateway that he and Aiya had come through and spread his arms defiantly.
Aiya stayed close to Kolio and stood with him near the gateway. She was unsure what was happening, but felt she would prefer to be near an escape route.
The two men were taken aback for a moment, then turned to one another and laughed. "We aren't here to plunder and pillage anyone's world," they said. "We're explorers in the name of science."
"You are no longer what you think you are," said Kolio. Look at yourselves. Look at your naked chests and the hair on your faces. Already you are becoming beasts. You should not have drunk the lifewater."
The men stepped forward in anger now. "We're getting sick of your babbling, old man," said one. "We don't need your permission to pass through. You can't stop us." He drew a metal object from his belt and pointed it at Kolio.
"Aiya, stand away!" said Kolio.
A gout of fire leapt from the object in the man's hand and Kolio collapsed with a cry. Aiya screamed as blood welled up from a hole in Kolio's chest. She began to cry.
At the sound of Aiya's voice, the man looked at the object in his hand with horror and dropped it to the grass. "What... What are we doing?" he said to his companion. "Why did I do that? What's come over us?"
Aiya knelt at Kolio's side. He struggled to lift his head. "Daughter," he said, "take me to the spring in the valley. Bathe my wound there." The girl lifted Kolio in her arms and tried to carry him, but could not go further than a few steps.
One of the barechested men came and took Kolio from Aiya's arms. "Where are you taking him?" he asked.
"To the valley," said Aiya.
Without a further word, the man turned and bounded away down towards the valley. The other man helped Aiya gather Kolio's cane and the wooden bowl, which she had dropped, then took the girl on his back and followed his companion.
Whether through some difference in gravity between that place and the world they had come from, or because of some effect from the lifewater the two men had drunk when they first came to the spring, they leapt like gazelles down the mountainside. Only a few minutes had passed before Kolio found himself laid on the grassy verge of a broad, placid spring of clear water. Strange objects made of metal, plastic, and glass were scattered among articles of dark clothing around the edges of the pool. Kolio struggled to breathe.
One of the men helped Aiya take off Kolio's scarf and pull his tunic over his head to reveal the gaping wound in his breast. "It may have pierced a lung," said the man. "I don't know if there's much we can do. I'm so sorry..."
Aiya took the wooden bowl and dipped it into the water. She began to pour water on the wound and wash away the blood. Kolio's breathing grew smoother and deeper, but when Aiya felt his heart she could tell it was slowing.
"What must I do?" Aiya asked Kolio. "Tell me, sir! How can I save you?"
Kolio reached up and touched her forehead. "There are two forms of restoration, daughter," he whispered. "Have them lay me in the spring."
Aiya looked to the two men. They had heard Kolio's request and carried it out, taking him under the arms and legs and carrying him into the pool.
"Let me down here," whispered Kolio.
The men lowered Kolio down into the pool, supporting his head to keep his mouth above the water. A peaceful smile came over his face and he closed his eyes and sighed.
One of the men looked up at Aiya hopefully. "I think it's working!" he said. "Maybe there really is something special about this water."
Then Kolio opened his eyes and looked to Aiya. "Return to your mother," he said, his voice stronger, now, and clearer than she had ever heard it before. "Fill the bowl with lifewater. Wash your mother's wound, and the wounds of many others. May they be restored in every way, just as I and these men are today being restored." With those words his eyes grew dim, and he surrendered himself to the water, sliding from the two men's hands. The men reached for him but could not grasp him. He was gone.
The men looked to Aiya and one another, their faces sad but bright. They sank to their knees in the water and hung their heads in remorse.
Aiya lowered her head and cupped the wooden bowl in her hands. Tears stained her cheeks and she wiped them away, soaking them up with the bandage that was still wrapped around her palm.
When she looked up she saw an incredible sight. Where Kolio and the two men had been, three tall, strong trees had now sprung up in the middle of the pool. Even as Aiya watched, their branches spread up and outwards and sprouted fresh green leaves.
All was quiet. For a long time Aiya sat and watched the trees, their branches slowly waving and whispering in the wind. Then she wiped the last few tears from her eyes, wrapped Kolio's scarf around her neck, lifted his cane over her shoulder, filled the wooden bowl with lifewater from the spring, and set off up the mountain towards the gateway to her new life.