Una Battaglia (A Battle) – Arnaldo Pomodoro
The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden – New Orleans Museum of Art
R’leigh and Sansom started their climb in the pitch black pre-dawn darkness. The lights mounted on their helmets cast yellow ovals that would dim after every few minutes. Then they had to pull them off and crank the little handles in the dark for a new charge. R’leigh would shiver as she felt the cool air off the vastness beyond the cliff blowing her hair and the tension in the unseen ropes holding her to the metal pins Sansom hammered into cracks in the rock while she worked at the generator built into her helmet light.
It seemed like forever, but they had moved about a third of the way on their way to the top when the sky began to glow salmon through the thick clouds. The rising sun itself was hidden but the faint glow of dawn was replaced by the slate-gray light of every day under the globe-girdling smoke cloud that had choked the earth from times before R’leigh was born. At least they could climb without the headlights and R’leigh rested against the rough granite while Sansom pulled their heavy equipment up from the base of the cliff far below. He then reeled in all the extra rope – now that they could be seen, they could not be reached.
The day settled in to a long, exhausting routine of Sansom pounding in pins above, then the two of them moving up in turns, each belaying the other in case one fell, then Sansom pulling up the equipment over the height they had gained.
While R’leigh braced herself safe and still and watched Sansom work she thought of a time three years ago, not long after they had started planning and training for this day. The two of them were on a school outing to a rare grove of trees preserved in a museum on the 598 level. The museum had done its best to duplicate at least a piece of a real forest, distributing the trees in a thick, random pattern over a rolling hill – artificial light streamed down from a ceiling painted an unreal blue.
The teachers had let the students wander around in the trees and told them to try and imagine a time when forests like this covered a large part of the earth – they went on for thousands of miles. R’leigh found that hard to believe and didn’t really understand what the big deal was – but Sansom pulled her into the center of the cluster of trees and then down a little gully away from the crest of the hill. There the grove was at its thickest.
He spent some time looking carefully up and around, until he had satisfied himself that they were hidden from the handful of cameras set up to keep an eye on the precious trees. He had already begun his secret training and was quickly becoming an expert on avoiding the surveillance. Looking straight at R’leigh, he slipped a hand into his jacket and pulled out a small, silver object which unfolded in the center.
“A pocketknife,” he said quietly. “The cell, we all made these out of scraps of cooling duct.”
He turned and moved the knife quickly and surely across the surface of the tree, slicing the bark in confident, sharp lines. R’leigh saw liquid welling up in the cut lines. She didn’t know that trees would bleed. Instead of red blood, though, the sap oozed out in a series of little clear globs, strings of sparkling jewels like a living necklace along the lines that Sansom was carving. The air quickly filled with a sharp smell – the life of the tree leaking into the air. She was so intrigued by the crystal-like sap she didn’t even notice what he was cutting out.
Before she realized what he was doing, he stopped, then stood back and, with a self-satisfied smirk, gestured as his work. He had carved the simple outline of a heart with the initials, SS + RL inscribed within.
“Look quick, hard and close, I want you to remember this. But we need to go before they find us and see what I’ve done.”
R’leigh felt her pulse quicken and she let out a gasp. The risk he was taking; they would scrub the both of them if they were caught damaging anything as precious at that tree. She allowed herself five seconds to memorize the heart, the letters, and the gleaming jewels of sap until it was burned in her mind forever. In the three years since, she had been tempted to return to the museum and the grove of trees and see if the design was still there but neither of them dared – they might be watching to see who comes back.
Her reverie ended when Sansom jerked on the rope and it was time to continue moving upwards. She allowed herself a second to look out over the landscape that was opening up beneath and around them. They were high enough now, almost to the top of the spire, that they could see a vast panorama of dead twisted gray rock reaching up from endless beds of sterile gravel. This was the world that they lived in.
Within another hour they reached the flat top of the rock spire. It had taken half a day of climbing. Their years of training in every spare hour had paid off – her arms were tired but she had enough energy to feel excitement at their accomplishment. Sansom disappeared over the edge above her, and then his head reappeared as he reached down to help her up and over. Then the two of them worked together to pull and wrestle the equipment bags over the edge and spread them out away from the sheer cliff edge that they had just climbed.
Only when the equipment was safe did they walk the few steps to the opposite side of the rock cap and look out at the city. It had been hidden from them by the bulk of the spire while they climbed the opposite side, as the rock had hidden them from the watchers on the high walls. R’leigh had, of course, never seen the city from this vantage point and she gasped at its size and beauty.
The city was made up of two parts. Down below, was the huge and squat old city – burned, torn, and rendered from the war. Enormous hunks had been blasted away from the sloped sides of the square bunker shaped edifice. Great cracks wandered over what was left behind, though they could see the ugly patches that had been applied to keep the remains from crumbling apart.
Above this wreck rose the high shining rectangular tower of the new city. Built after the war on the remains of the old, this gleaming monolith reached upwards beyond the height of even the tallest rock spire which they had climbed, still being built as floors were added to the unseen top.
R’leigh and Sansom set to work quickly, unloading the equipment bags and assembling the heavy tripod first. They had practiced this many times and R’leigh found herself stealing looks at the immense and distant city as they worked; her arms and hands moving with familiarity over the tubing and fasteners almost without her conscious knowledge.
She realized she loved the city. It had been her home her entire life and she could count on one hand how many times she had been outside that gleaming tower before today. Inside, a person could not understand or comprehend its size and simple beauty. It took her breath away to see it like this – she found herself staring at it every second, even taking her eyes off Sansom as he worked alongside her, something she rarely ever did.
Soon, the tripod was complete and using the ropes they had climbed with and a pair of long, strong poles assembled from sections in the equipment bags the two of them lifted and levered the heavy tube onto the tripod and fastened it firmly in place.
R’leigh stepped back while Sansom tightened up all the bolts and began final adjustments of the apparatus. There, in front of her were both Sansom, sweating with effort and concentration while he worked, and in the distance beyond, the lustrous metallic surface of the city. R’leaih’s heart began to race, both at the excitement of what they were about to do and with the sheer beauty of the scene.
She loved what she was looking at, but she thirsted for destruction, and after years of careful planning and preparation, she was about to drink. Sansom had finished and he came back to where she was standing, holding a small metal box trailing a fine wire that spooled out of the apparatus.
He placed his arm around R’leigh’s shoulders and looked like he was trying to think of what to say.
“There’s nothing to say,” said R’leigh, “we’re ready now, it’s time for the completion of all our work.”
“My love, here, push the button,” Sansom said as he handed her the box. It had only a small red circle on one face.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
And with that she pressed the red circle. Immediately the rocket ignited and with a flash and a roar loud enough to make them jump it moved out, surprisingly slowly at first, but gathering speed at a frightening pace. The small rocket soon disappeared in the distance but the mane of black smoke showed its progress as it arced up into the gray sky and unerringly flew into the city.
Within a few minutes it had jumped the long gap between their rock spire and the gleaming city and struck right where it was intended, about a third of the way up along the huge structure. Its initial strike was not much more than a pinprick but the missile was designed to penetrate the skin of the structure and explode within.
The small but efficiently powerful fusion device in the rockets nose cone exploded inside the city and the entire edifice began to shake. Huge cracks appeared in its carefully polished surface, glowing with orange fire as the reaction began wreaking its destruction. The city was now tearing itself apart from the inside, mortally injured by the power of the tiny missile which had started a chain reaction which doomed the gigantic edifice. It took several minutes for the sound to reach them, but the massive explosions would shake the very stone that they were standing on.
R’leigh and Sansom stood together, their arms wrapped around each other as they swayed slightly back and forth, watching the beauty of what they had done.