Fiction: The Ring Walkers

by Caroline Misner

We didn’t cast them in the role of invaders when they first arrived. At the time, the concept of an invasion was foreign to us. They were our guests from the other ring, invited by the Elders, to exchange knowledge and culture and ideas. After all, they looked so much like us: same hair, same eyes, comparable features, same number of limbs. Their only distinguishing trait was the sheen and color of their skin—bluish green with a tinge of gold, unlike our golden yellow skin, like the ring on which we live. It was what set them apart when they toured the boroughs of the different sectors.

We had known of them long before they arrived. We could see the pinpoints of their lights sparkling on their ring in the sky. Some nights were so clear we could see the stars beyond meld with their lights until we couldn’t tell them apart. It was only when they flashed their greetings that we knew they were there, and they watching us, much the same way as we were observing them, and wondering who they were and if we would ever meet.

I still remember climbing the side of the mountains with my grandfather at night when all the clans gathered to watch the skies. High above us were the enigmatic rings with their shimmering lights; behind us was the Planet, a giant gaseous orb that dominated the northern sky and rolled and roiled as though watching us with its single eye. We roasted the wild mushrooms that grew along the rims of the rocky crags over the hot volcanic pits that pocked the hillside and feasted on them all through the night.

“That is where the gods live,” my grandfather explained, pointing toward the Planet, as he impaled the hood of another mushroom with his eating stick. “They are there to protect us and all the clans.”

“Even the clans of the fourth ring?” I asked.

“Yes,” Grandfather replied. “We are all children of the same gods, for all the rings belong to them and they belong to us.”

The Elders had long ago learned to communicate with the Others by covering the shimmering pits with large flat rocks and releasing the light at just the right time in a sort of code. Grandfather was among them and he taught me the language of the lights.

But that was a long time ago and I was a child then. Now, the lights have dimmed on both our rings and though I try to explain it to the young ones in our clan, they don’t seem to understand. They have grown up on a ring with a culture made different by the Others. It will never come back and that makes me very sad. Even the wild mushrooms have gone from the mountainside. The Others had declared them putrid and unfit to eat and had them all destroyed in favour of their own crops, which they brought from their own ring. 

The day the Others arrived was a day of great jubilation among all the clans. I went with my grandfather, who, being an Elder, was obliged to attend. We knew they were coming; they had sent messages by light code days earlier telling us to make ready for them. All the clans gathered in the Great Borough, the main hub of the ring. We brought flowers and food, especially the mushrooms we all so adorned, and heaped them on the altar of the Planet Gods. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. We weren’t certain what to expect, if they would materialize out of nothing or if the Planet Gods would carry them from their ring and drop them before the altar. For three days we waited. Some returned to their own sectors, discouraged or afraid; several made homes for themselves in the community square, which very quickly turned squalid and foul from the odors of all those bodies living together.

And then on the morning of the fourth day, one of the Elders spotted what appeared to be a stone dropping from the sky. It was quickly followed by another and then another and more and more until there were too many to count. We leapt to our feet and rushed the altar, which by then had grown fetid with rotting flowers and fruit. The stones stopped in midair and hovered over the altar. We could see they were not stones at all but oval capsules, pure white and gleaming so that they reflected the lights of the square and all our faces. The crowd hushed in awe. I have never descried such silence before or since. Not even the capsules made a sound as they slowly lowered into the boulevards where the crowd parted to make way. Some people screamed and ran for cover in their makeshift homes or in the temple. Others prostrated before the capsules as though the Planet Gods themselves had descended onto our ring. Most just stood and stared in wonder.

No one dared to approach the capsules. One brave child tried to run toward the largest capsule that had settled before the altar but was quickly whisked back by his parent. 

“Perhaps this is what the Others look like,” someone in the crowd suggested. 

“No, it cannot be,” one of the Elders said. “These are just vehicles …”

A soft hiss broke through his words. The capsules began rocking and spinning and splitting into two parts through a seam down its centre that no one had noticed before. They burst apart like breaking eggs and more people in the crowd screamed and fled. Grandfather clutched my hand tightly and pulled me forward to have a better look. I was so afraid. I didn’t want to see what would emerge from that strange foreign carrier. All my life I had been taught that the Others were our comrades, our kindred spirits made the same by the Planet Gods. But now I was unsure.

The Others emerged, one by one, from their broken capsules. Their gold-green skin shimmered like water flowing down the mountains. Each one carried a sceptre which he held aloft. An odd light emanated from the tips of each of the sceptres and clung like a bubble around it. The lights flashed in code. The crowd erupted into cheers.

And that is how what became known as the Great Completion began. At first, the Others were benevolent: they brought new and strange foods; they taught us new techniques on how to mine water from the caverns and how to purposefully grow our own plants and crystals so we would no longer be dependent on gathering whatever was to be found. As I grew, I was tutored by the Others on how to build new temples and structures. The Others, too, believed in the Planets Gods, but theirs were different from ours and we were mentored in the proper conduct of worship. As an engineer, I was taught in the methods of building statues in the likenesses of their gods, though I loathed worshipping them. It was a secret I kept to myself. If I had ever been suspected of atheism, I would have been rounded up and promptly sent to their other ring for re-education. Many of us never returned and were never heard from again.

Grandfather grew old, as the Elders are wont to do. I cared for him as best I could, but he was bedridden for the latter part of his life. Each evening I’d bring him news of what was happening on the ring that day and any messages the Others were sending to us and what they expected of us. I brought him the contraband mushrooms he so adored but were now illegal and could only be acquired through clandestine means.

“We must obey,” Grandfather implored me as he lay invalid in his bed. “They know what is right, what is best for us.”

I wasn’t so sure. But I obeyed, along with the rest of us. Besides, I didn’t want to dishearten Grandfather during the last days of his life. He’d always had so much faith in me and in the Others. To his final breath, he sincerely believed the Others had our best interests at heart.

One day, a great announcement was proclaimed. Our ring was wrong. It was turning in the opposite direction of the ring of the Others, and it was imperative that it be made right. At first I didn’t understand. Our ring had always turned in a clockwise direction. It was the way the Planet Gods had created it and all things under their creation were right and beneficent. Not so, according to the Others. Their ring revolved counter-clockwise and that was what the Planet Gods—their Planet Gods—had meant it to be. It was crucial that our ring was to rotate in the same direction lest it displease the Planet Gods.

I didn’t understand. Since the dawn of our creation, the ring had always rotated clockwise and there should be no reason for it to change. After all, if the Planet Gods had created it so, then it must be right. If it displeased them, then why would They create it in the first place?

Many of us denounced the proclamation. Anger grew among the populace and there was even talk of rebel groups banding together to overthrow the Others. Those who publicly voiced their dissent were sent to the Others’ ring and were never heard from again. I kept mum about it. Grandfather was in his last days and I wanted him to be at peace when he passed.

The Public Works of the Ring was an organization founded by the Others. It consisted of volunteers to drop into the depths of the caverns under the mountains and step onto the base of the ring. There they would walk along the ring in its opposite direction. If enough of us did so, it would stop the ring’s rotation and eventually reverse it. I was dubious of the whole plan and I wasn’t alone. We were too small and too few to achieve such a massive undertaking. Besides, the Others would never acquire enough volunteers. Even the most loyal of us, such as Grandfather, were reticent to participate in such a futile enterprise.

The Others solved the problem of the lack of volunteers by conscription. It was proclaimed that all able-bodied adults were to walk the ring in shifts. Hundreds, then thousands of us were rounded up and herded into the caverns. The lighted sceptres the Others carried were actually weapons that produced a nasty and powerful sting when the tips touched our skins. I learned so the hard way. Being a young adult with no mate or dependants, I was one of the first to be roused from my bed at night and rounded out into the square before being marched into the mountains. I resisted at first. I didn’t appreciate the Others tramping into my home and pulling me out of bed. Grandfather was sleeping so deeply, his laboured breath rattling from his proboscis, that he didn’t even stir or wake up; not even when I shouted and cursed the Others who dragged me from my home. It wasn’t the fact that I was forced to walk the ring against my will; I was afraid I would never return and see my grandfather again. Or be there with him when he passed. I know that if Grandfather had woken, he would have told me to go. To do my duty. To listen and obey the Others. After all, were they not righteous and noble with only our best interests at heart?

I was placed in a queue with thousands of others like me. We were herded through the caverns tunneling deeper and deeper underground. The walls were studded with crystals that produced their own glow and provided enough light for us to see our way down into The Drops, large holes above the ring. We were marched directly into them and plunged a short distance before landing onto the ring. From a distance it looked fragile and impotent, as though we would swoop right through it and descend into the depths of nothingness. I had never been so frightened in all my life. For a while, I actually believed that my elderly and feeble grandfather would outlive me. But the ring held strong and when my feet touched it, I was amazed at its texture and substance, very much like the ground above us but powdery and so light the little granules floated around my feet for a few seconds before settling down.

The ring was moving, turning in its customary clockwise direction. The Others pointed us in the opposite direction and ordered us to walk in unison, persuading the dawdlers with stings from those nasty sceptres. And so we walked, all of us together like one large machine, tramping the delicate surface of the ring with our footsoles. There wasn’t much to look at, just the backs of those in front of me and the bottomside of the mountains above us, their dazzling crystals providing us with just enough light to see by.

We were not permitted periods of rest. For hours we tramped until some of the weaker ones collapsed with exhaustion and their bodies were hauled away by the Others. They were quickly replaced by more and more until the ring grew so crowded there was scarcely any room to breathe or move our limbs. I don’t know for how long I walked. All sense of time seemed to have vanished. It may have been hours or days, perhaps more. My mind wandered to thoughts of the days before the Others came, and then, out of pure lassitude, my mind went blank and numb. For all the time I walked the rings, I existed in this state of being and not being at the same time. I’d forgotten about my youth and my past and my grandfather. My legs worked of their own accord. I became a cog in a large machine, grinding at the ring

It was only after a cheer arose from the Others that I was roused from my stupor. Those of us that had survived stopped and looked around to see what all the fuss was about. I glanced down and realized we had succeeded. The ring below my feet had stopped turning clockwise and reversed direction.

The sound of the Others cheering was soon replaced by a horrible din above. The underbellies of the mountains had begun to crack. Boulders and bits of loose rubble tumbled through the fissures and rained down upon us. Those of us who had remained behind were wailing in anguish. Our Planet Gods were displeased.

Caroline Misner’s work has appeared in numerous publications in the USA, Canada, India and
the UK. She has been nominated for the prestigious McClelland & Stewart Journey Anthology Prize for the short story “Strange Fruit”; in 2011 another short story and a poem were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in the beautiful Haliburton Highlands of Northern Ontario where she continues to draw inspiration for her work. She is the author of the Young Adult
fantasy series “The Daughters of Eldox”. Her latest novel, “The Spoon Asylum” was released in
May of 2018 by Thistledown Press and has been nominated for the Governor General Award.