Darili Irid was the same as it had always been. Every time Grak went back, he found that strange. He could understand, in the abstract, that some people wanted things to be how they’d always been, and those sorts of people made up the bulk of those who populated the lower heavens, but the people of Darili Irid had been resurrected, returned to life by the Authority. Grak would have thought, naively, that this would cause them to have some kind of revelation about how terrible the old world had been, and given them some leeway to make changes. Instead, it was the same, a mausoleum where the dead walked around, doing what they’d always done.
“I thought about leaving,” said Naridalogor when he picked up Grak in the communal truck. It was all exactly as it had been when Grak had returned home from the athenaeum. “Everyone does.”
“But you didn’t,” said Grak as they made the drive.
“No,” said Nari. “It’s where my family and friends are.”
“You’re all stuck together,” said Grak.
“Yes,” replied Nari. “If we don’t like it we can leave. If we leave we only see our friends and family to visit.”
“So leave together,” said Grak.
“It isn’t bad,” said Nari. “Lower heavens are still heaven.”
“Mrm,” Grak murmured.
“Some have left,” said Nari. “Mostly the younger ones.”
“Some have come to see me,” said Grak. “I have helped them, where I could.”
“Which ones?” asked Nari.
“I would not betray their confidence,” said Grak.
“Malik?” asked Nari.
Grak stayed silent. It was this kind of nosiness that had once been a larger part of his own problems in life, not just in terms of gossip, but thinking about others, and what they were thinking, and worrying about how he was seen. It wasn’t entirely behind him, but he could see, in retrospect, that much of his misery had been because of the same rumination that Juniper was often prone to, only more centered around other people.
“People leave because of scandals,” said Nari. “It’s made the clan’s power weak.”
“The higher heavens must stay on the mind,” said Grak.
“Speak to your father,” said Nari with a shrug as he focused on the road. “He worries that the town will collapse.” The Groglir word was gali, a word of utter destruction, beyond salvaging.
“He still doesn’t want ‘spians,” said Grak.
“No,” nodded Nari. “No one does.”
Grak sighed, but said nothing. He had done his own experimentation with ‘spians in various ways, especially early on, taking them as friends and lovers of different varieties. It had taken him a week to shake the falseness of it, and a few months to shake the feeling that he didn’t deserve to be treated so well. Everyone was treated as well as they allowed themselves to be. He didn’t keep any ‘spians now, but that was because he lived in a large apartment building with communal spaces, one constructed by a matchmaker, and there were more than enough real people around.
There was still the same main lift to take them down, still the same fifteen minutes of waiting while the chains rumbled. It was his third time visiting Darili Irid since the resurrection of everyone who’d died there, but his mind still went back to when he’d visited before, when the halls had been lined with the dead and the air had been toxic to breathe. It was, in a way, a continual surprise to see it restored, the result of some miracle that would never be explained. Logically, Grak knew that the explanation was simple: he had petitioned the Authority, and after only a momentary pause, the Authority had granted the request.
There was no one waiting for them, not like there had been the first time. It was understood that this was not a homecoming, but rather, a visit, nothing more. Grak had no friends in Darili Irid, only people who had once been friends and were now so far removed from him and his experiences that there was no possible way to connect.
Nari went off his own way, and Grak followed the familiar path to his father’s home.
“You’re back,” Grak’s father said, by way of greeting. It was like looking in a mirror that led into the future, but Grak never planned on aging, and in fact had taken a few years off, up in the middle heavens. “Come on in.”
“I’ve been trying to make the visits regular,” said Grak.
“Once every half a year or so,” said his father, nodding. “It would be better if you came during the high holidays.”
Grak shrugged, then took a seat at the table. His father doddered over to the cabinet and pulled down two ceramic mugs, then picked up an urn beside the chiller and poured each of them a glass of nego, whose name translated into Anglish as simply ‘the ferment’ or ‘the drink’. It was made from fermented kear.
“How have you been?” his father asked. It was a bland, inoffensive question, which was better than Grak had gotten in the past.
“I am well,” said Grak. “My days are long. My life is rich and vibrant.” In ways you would not appreciate.
“It’s good that you come back,” said his father. “It’s good that you don the proper clothes for it.”
Grak looked down at what he was wearing. “I want you to know that I am well. I feel like the person I was always supposed to be.”
“I am happy for you,” said Grak’s father. He sighed. “I wish that people could be happy in the life that was planned for them. Not all can be.”
Grak’s lip trembled. This was the closest that his father had ever come to an apology, or to an understanding of why Grak had found life within the dwarfhold of Darili Irid so intolerable.
“Eighteen lost since your last visit,” said Grak’s father. He took a drink of his nego, heaving a sigh as he swallowed it down. “We cannot go on like this.”
Seven of those eighteen had come to speak with Grak in one capacity or another. Sometimes it was for a brief conversation, and other times it was on a more permanent basis. One of them, Orkalon, had stayed with Grak for nearly two months, experimenting with forms and taking tentative steps into the culture of the middle heavens.
There were many more though, from beyond Darili Irid. The full text of Worth the Candle had not been released, and the Authority was mostly quiet about what had happened and why, but word of what had happened had spread, somehow. How could it not? They had all been known quantities on Aerb, Amaryllis and Juniper especially, but to a lesser extent, everyone else as well. Grak had a modest level of fame, which he found he somewhat enjoyed the perks of. The downside of that fame, if you wanted to call it a downside, was that people looked up to him in various ways. To the extent that Juniper was the Chosen One, and to the extent that Grak was a Knight, the dwarven communities that dotted the lower heavens and kept in touch with him had made him into something of a folk hero.
There had been a newspaper article written about him in one of the large dwarven presses, which he’d learned about through his assistant, one which painted him as a traditionalist dwarf soldiering on through thick and thin, head down, nose to the grindstone. When he heard about that, and a few others like it, he accepted an interview, which had gotten him some level of notoriety, particularly because of the kralikadon cast to his answers. Someone had gotten in touch with him and asked him to come to the High Heavens to write a book, which he agreed to, and which was completed in the blink of an eye. Then, somehow, that book had made its way down to the lower heavens, quietly infiltrating through layers of protection against that kind of thing, in a way that the Authority only rarely allowed. Many found it emotionally affecting, a story of loss, rejection, grief, and finally, picking yourself back up from the ashes of your old life.
Dwarves, most of them young but a few of them old, would have turned up on his doorstep by the thousands if he’d let them. Not able to bear turning them away, he had consented to have the ‘spian play him and give over a blunted version of the memories when the visit was finished. Dwarves had the second-highest population on Aerb, and the book (tentatively, Grak’s book) had been a hit, especially among the disaffected, and especially in these times, when the only thing holding people back from living exactly how they wanted to live was their ties to families and friends. He was happy that he was able to be a part of people like himself figuring out who they were, but there was something slightly bittersweet about it, because it meant that the dwarven communities of the lower heavens were shrinking.
“I agree,” said Grak softly. “You cannot go on like this.”
Grak’s father shook his head. “All we wanted was to persist. There has always been assault from the outside.”
“You use electricity,” said Grak, gesturing to the lights. “Your clothes are imperial.”
“Perhaps we shouldn’t have allowed even that,” said Grak’s father said with a sigh.
“People do not see doing things the way they’ve always been done as good,” said Grak. “You still use something meant to mimic bulk teleportation.”
“Change,” said Grak’s father, not answering that point. He clucked his tongue. He looked up from his nego and looked at Grak. “How do I keep them from leaving?”
Grak thought about it, and the other question that seemed to be implied, ‘how could I have stopped you from leaving?’.
“There are things that I liked about Darili Irid,” said Grak. “I have fond memories of childhood. I enjoyed adding spices to the kear from the pouch we got by bulk.” This had been done only rarely, as a treat. “I liked testing myself against others my age in a game of Ranks and reading through the books.” He was being careful not to say that his fondest memories were of the outside world and the promise that it held. “The most difficult part of leaving to Barriers was losing the rhythm of the day. The most difficult part of leaving the second time, to go on my own,” Grak swallowed. “The most difficult part of leaving was knowing that I would be cut off from the familiar.”
Grak’s father nodded. “You think that we should save what is good and leave behind whatever you think is bad. This cannot be done. They are linked as one way of life.”
“The losses will get worse,” said Grak. “The young are leaving. If you do not accept change it will be forced on you.”
Grak’s father was silent, in a particular dwarven way that involved drinking more nego and looking in the distance while measuring words. “This is a battle to save the soul of Darili Irid. You are the enemy.”
Grak felt a pain in his chest at that. They had never had a strong relationship, not since Grak had gone to Barriers, and when Grak had fled, leaving the dwarfhold without a warder, he had simply assumed that it was irreparably damaged. Yet he still loved his father, in a way, and it was clear that his father still loved him back.
“I don’t want to be the enemy,” said Grak.
“That’s what makes you an effective enemy,” sighed Grak’s father. “Not an enemy to me, but to Darili Irid. We can see your kindness. We can see that you think there’s a soul of something worth saving. You have no thesis though.”
Grak nodded. “This is true. I could not articulate the changes I would make. I could not say what Darili Irid would be if it allowed more aspects of the higher heavens. I can only say that it would make people stay. I’ve been keeping my thumb on the pulse of the dwarfholds. There are different solutions people have tried.”
“I have been doing the same,” said Grak’s father. “Allowing them out, but welcoming them in. Neo-traditionalism. Reinvention. Revival. Thespians. Clones.” He shook his head. “All are destruction in their own way.” There was something ironic in Grak’s father telling Grak that clones were a step too far, given that they were genetically identical, but Grak let it pass.
“As is the unchanging place you have now,” said Grak. “They are allowed to leave. They will leave. The more that leave, the more will follow. You will be forced into a choice at some point. Better to choose now than when half the dwarves are gone.”
Speaking persuasively had never been Grak’s forte, and in the middle heavens, he would have used augmentation for that, at least up to baseline. Being here though, in the lower heavens, meant that you came as you were, translated into some older form.
“Did you come here for this?” asked Grak’s father. “To tell me that we are doomed?”
“No,” said Grak. “I came because you are my father.”
His father made a happy grumble at that.
Their conversation quickly moved on to other things, at first the gossip around Darili Irid, then some of the small, minor concessions to heaven that they’d made, like allowing some level of regeneration and rejuvenation. Grak’s father was trying to find some way to keep the deathwatchs going, though no one was dying anymore, and there were no hells. They spoke for a bit about the spirit of the thing, and what that might mean, why something like the deathwatch was a valued tradition, and how you might have that tradition still, even if the thing underpinning it was completely gone.
Grak spent some time going around Darili Irid, checking in on the elders and assuring them that he hadn’t been eaten by demons, or whatever else they thought might have happened to him up there. He endured more gossip about people he only had a mild connection to anymore. He accepted praise for his part in saving the world, ate kear, drank nego, and where possible, when it didn’t feel like overstepping, spoke about his life in the middle heavens. He could see hunger, sometimes, in the eyes of the people he spoke to, envy over his place and his position. They could have it too, if only they allowed themselves to and turned their backs on their home like he had. Except, of course, that he was there, in among them, proving that it was possible to return.
Grak spent the night, the same as he had the two times before, in a small house that wasn’t being used by anyone else. He stared up at the ceiling and listened to the relative paucity of sounds that you got in a place like Darili Irid, nearly a mile underground, where everyone was meant to sleep at the same time. It was nothing like his home in the middle heavens, where there was always noise of one kind or the other. You could turn it off, of course, but Grak kept it on. He found something comforting in it.
Late at night, after the city’s lights were turned down low, there was a knock on Grak’s door.
He rose from his bed to go open it, and saw another dwarf standing there, looking unsure. It took a moment to place the face: it was Kradohogon Kadok, the dwarf that Grak’s father had arranged for him to childbond with.
“Grak,” he nodded.
“Kradoh,” said Grak. “If my father sent you, —”
“He did not,” replied Kradoh, somewhat stiffly. “Do you have time to talk?”
“I do,” replied Grak. His heart was already beating faster, given the strangeness of the visit. He led Kradoh in, and gave them more light. The place was small, even by dwarven standards, but Grak would be leaving in the morning. He sat on the bed, and Kradoh took the single chair.
“Do you think about our childbond?” asked Kradoh.
“Rarely,” replied Grak. And when he did think about it, it was with a fair amount of distaste.
“I read your book,” said Kradoh.
“Ah,” said Grak. He had read his own book, naturally, and was asked about it with some frequency in the middle heavens. In truth, the book had gotten bigger than he had even thought that it would be.
“I am sorry for the pain I caused you,” said Kradoh. “I am sorry that I made you feel out of step with this place.”
“You were playing your part,” said Grak. “I do not condemn my father for wanting Darili Irid to continue. I do not condemn you for attempting to tie me here.”
“I think of you often,” said Kradoh.
Grak nodded. He had nothing to say in response. Kradoh rarely crossed his mind. Aside from these visits, which Grak had committed himself to do twice a year, he thought relatively little of Darili Irid, except when people brought up the book, or another person came to him, looking for advice or solace. The previous two times Grak had visited, Kradoh had been absent, but not conspicuously so.
“I’m leaving Darili Irid,” said Kradoh.
“You are?” asked Grak. The question of ‘why’ had so many answers that it was hard for Grak to see what could be gained from asking it. “When?”
“Soon,” said Kradoh. “I was waiting.”
“Waiting for what?” asked Grak.
“I don’t know,” said Kradoh. “I kept finding reasons to put it off. This time, I was waiting for you.”
“I can have a ‘spian of myself speak with you in the middle heavens,” said Grak.
Kradoh nodded. “Thank you,” he said. “How long — how long did it hurt?”
“The leaving?” asked Grak. Kradoh nodded. “It still hurts, in its own way. There is a part of me that longs for this place and the feeling of being here. It took many years for it to be as small a part as it is now.”
“But you can cut the feeling out, in the higher heavens,” said Kradoh.
“You can,” replied Grak. “Some prefer to dull it.”
“Then why do you keep it?” asked Kradoh. There was something pleading in his eyes, as though he somehow thought that Grak had the answers.
“I value the connection, even if it is a small source of pain,” Grak said.
Kradoh looked down at his hands, which were gripping his knees. He nodded slightly, not seeming to have liked that answer. “Thank you,” he said, standing. “You had no obligation to hear me out.”
“I did,” said Grak. “Because I thought that it might help you.”
Kradoh nodded and then left, seeming somewhat defeated, the light of decision he’d had when he’d knocked on the door now faded. It went that way with the dwarfholds sometimes. People would decide to leave, then decide to stay, making a decision and then backing out of it at the last moment. It had been like that for Grak, in more ways than one, though the circumstances had been so much different.
Grak stared at the ceiling in the dark, turning these thoughts over in his head and trying to remember how to sleep, until eventually it came to him.
He left early in the morning, as he often did, wanting to relieve the itch to be back home as quickly as possible. There was a long ride up the main shaft, then a drive by truck, which was again done by Nari, and then, finally, Grak was free from the limits of the lower heaven. If it had been truly intolerable, he was entirely capable of directly leaving, but it would cause ill will from his father, and perhaps others within the clan. He liked being able to come back, especially if he could make his arguments, and he wasn’t in his apartment for more than five minutes before he was making distant, far-off plans to go back.
‘Apartment’ was, perhaps, understating it, but it was a ‘building’ which he lived in with other people. When Juniper had talked about the kind of heaven he would build for Grak, he had talked about a communal place, and this was more or less what Grak had ended up in, one with perhaps a thousand people all told. There were enough that you didn’t know everyone, but not so much that you couldn’t link yourself to anyone else through friends of friends. There were fewer dwarves than Juniper had guessed Grak would prefer, though that might have been because Grak had a surplus of dwarven visitors from outside.
“Schedule,” said Grak to the air as the assistant stripped off his clothes and reverted his body to how it had been. There were many things that Grak had gotten rid of, but transitions were not one of them, and he rarely skipped them, except when he was in a hurry. He had tried having his clothes teleported off or his body instantly changed, but there was something he didn’t like about it, even with the smoothing and mediation that the assistants applied.
“There is a Ranks competition you might be interested in,” said his assistant. “That’s in an hour. There’s a restaurant that just started visiting the colony that I think you might enjoy, and I have a list of dinner dates for you, either individually or in groups. There are six letters that you’ve previously expressed interest in answering yourself, none personal. You currently have twelve books on your reading list, eight short-dives, two movies, and several articles, if none of that interests you.”
Grak thought about that. “Answer the letters as me,” he said. “One time only, integrate the process.” Almost at once, the memories of having written six letters was inserted into his head, and with some effort, he could recall the exact wording he’d used and why. He didn’t make the effort. This wasn’t the first time he’d done something like this ‘one time only’, and it was becoming a pattern. “Nothing pressing on the schedule?”
“No,” replied the assistant. “Would you like me to find you a date?”
“Something fast and tactile,” said Grak. “You can look into my mind, one time only. Find someone suitable.” It wasn’t normally what Grak liked to do, but he was feeling anxious and helpless, albeit at a low level. It was clear that things in Darili Irid could not stay as they were, and there was nowhere to go but up.
“I’ve found a match,” said the assistant. “They’re available now. Will you accept?”
“Will they take me as I am?” asked Grak, looking down at his dwarven body. He had put on some muscle, and lost a bit of fat, had straightened his teeth and given his eyes a bit of depth of color, fixed a few irregularities and enhanced the ones that gave him character — but he was still mostly Grak, most of the time.
“They will,” said the assistant.
“Then I accept,” said Grak.
The man that greeted Grak at the door ten seconds later was wearing a draconic body, big and bulky, muscular and smooth on his front, but bumpy with protrusions on his back. He was nude and already half-erect, with the kind of bespoke phallus that was currently in vogue.
It was, as he’d asked the assistant to provide, fast and tactile.
Afterward, they both laid on Grak’s bed, staring at the ceiling and enjoying the afterglow.
“Do you mind if I change?” asked the man.
“Not at all,” replied Grak. These were the first words they’d exchanged.
The transition was fairly slow, and Grak idly watched as the man went from draconic monster to something softer and more human. Once it was complete, Grak found himself next to a thickly built woman, Broshe by the look of her, though with ambiguous enough gender markers that it was possible that she was a gender blend, neither male nor female. Grak had been among the humans for so long that the bimodal genders had become his usual way of thinking. A quick mental ping of his assistant supplied a name, Lanik.
“I prefer male when I’m in the mood, and female right after,” Lanik said, by way of explanation. “Though I’ve never been too hung up on it.”
“What were you, originally?” asked Grak.
“Well that’s a very personal question,” Lanik said. “I’ll answer if you go first.”
“This is what I was,” said Grak. “Just a dwarf.”
“I imagined,” Lanik replied, running fingers through their hair. “There aren’t many who adopt a dwarven form. You’re quite fetching though.”
“That may be the orgasm talking,” said Grak. It wasn’t all that common that he spoke to his partners afterward. “If you don’t want to talk about your past life, I don’t mind.”
“I was a very rare quarto,” Lanik replied. “One fourth Broshe, one fourth Mezin, one fourth human, and one fourth vitric. Female, though I prefer male most of the time now.”
“How many were there like that, in all of Aerb?” asked Grak.
“Three,” Lanik replied. “My brother and sister were the other two. I checked with the assistants. Thankfully now it doesn’t matter.”
“It might matter to some,” said Grak.
“Fuck ‘em,” Lanik replied. They turned to look over at him. The masculine aspects of the gender blend had, with time, begun to heighten. “From the room, which I assume is yours, you agree? Fuck ‘em if they have a problem with who you choose to be?”
“Mmm,” said Grak. He lifted Lanik’s hand to his mouth and kissed it. “Fuck them. I wish them the best.”
“What did you ask for, that brought us together?” asked Lanik, who was now fully a man of some variety, though with no trace of draconic features.
“I let the assistant see what I needed,” said Grak. “I requested something fast and tactile. I didn’t think I would get someone interested in talking.”
“And the talking is going alright?” Lanik asked. He leaned forward and kissed Grak’s chest.
“It is,” replied Grak. “What did you ask for?”
“The same thing I always ask for,” the man replied. He moved himself to be over Grak, not quite straddling him. More of the draconic features had surfaced around the face, and the bumps and protrusions that Grak had seen before were surfacing. “I asked for someone whose life I could make better with a particular part of my anatomy.” He was breathing a bit harder, and kissed Grak again. The two of them were still naked, and draconic eyes roamed Grak’s body. “Are you one of those people who thinks that having sex all day is just wireheading with extra steps?”
“I limit myself,” said Grak. “No more than six hours a day.” He paused. “I could make an exception today though.”
After, Lanik transformed back into a womanly form, and curled up next to Grak.
“We have another five hours left,” said Lanik.
“Mmm,” said Grak. “When the five hours are up, we’ll have to focus more on talking.”
“I worry you’ll find me boring,” said Lanik.
“You’re a rare quatro,” said Grak. He thought for a moment. “I imagine that’s a lot to live up to.”
“It is,” nodded Lanik, their forehead against the side of Grak’s head. “I got so little of each species, each culture. A few months ago I went through some microdives to get insight into each of them, the ancestral processes. I felt like …I don’t know.”
“A tourist,” said Grak.
“Yes,” said Lanik. “Exactly.” They sat up slightly, looking into Grak’s eyes. “Do you think the assistants set us up? Like this was meant to be more?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Grak. “Whatever the assistants intended, we’re free to make our own path.”