It seems to be a natural law that wherever there are tall buildings people will jump off them. The true statistics of suicide in any modern city are horrifying and, therefore, carefully concealed from the general public; for every one that makes the morning paper, there might be ten or twenty that do not. Kids that think they can fly, old women fed up with life, businessmen with their backs against the wall — all are united by the eternal euphoria of weightlessness, and the mortal smack of flesh on sidewalk.
So, given this history of suicide, Marcus Gardening, a technician for the city roadworks authority, was not entirely surprised to look up from his work one dark morning before dawn to see a man clinging to a ledge, several stories up the side of a nearby office building.
The streets, dark and tomb-like, were unlit by street lights or cars. Under the thrall of an unexpected blackout, the city had become a realm of shadows and silence, shunned by commuters of all kinds. The only souls abroad in this cold wasteland of concrete and glass were technicians, making the most of the inactive circuits, repairing or simply maintaining equipment in preparation for peak-hour five hours away.
He never knew what made him raise his head from the electronic guts of the traffic light he was investigating. Perhaps it was the fact that, spreadeagled and rigid, the man on the building looked uncannily like a crippled black spider, glued to a wall. Marcus was an acute arachnophobe, could sense a spider in a room where none could be seen. Perhaps that was it.
Marcus immediately radioed the central office. The airwaves hissed and spat — unusually noisy for that time of night — as he reported the incident.
"We've got a jumper on Pine Street," he said, trying to sound casual but feeling sick inside. His partner, Sam Balkai, whose turn it was to stay inside the patrol van while Marcus did the work, looked up from his coffee.
"What?" asked Sam.
"Say again?" said the girl on the radio at central. "Pine Street — about number fourteen, I think —Abercrombie & Sons, the sign says. There's a guy standing on a ledge about eight floors up."
Even from that distance, Marcus could tell that 'standing' wasn't the right word. 'Clinging desperately' might have been more accurate.
Sam stepped out of the warmth of the van to check it out. "Jesus," he whispered, peering upwards. "I remember one guy — you know Fred Dansey? — he was parked in a lane next to the Sheppard Street carpark one morning, eating a pie, when a jumper came down ten stories right in front of the fucking van." Sam smacked one palm into another. "Whack!"
Marcus grimaced, imagining the resulting mess as the jumper alighted gracelessly onto the bitumen. All he said was:
"Pie with sauce, right?"
"Heard it before, huh?"
The man on the building shifted a leg slightly, and the resemblance to a spider increased. He seemed to be watching the two men below him. Marcus's spine shivered.
"Request backup — cops or something," said Marcus into the radio. "I'm going to see if I can help him."
"Why?" asked Sam, but Marcus was already on his way towards the building and didn't reply.
"I'll stay here and watch the van, then," said Sam, and went back to his coffee.
The main entrance to Abercrombie & Sons was plate glass, and Marcus smashed it with his shoe. Independently powered alarms wailed as detectors reacted to the sudden movement, but he hardly noticed them. Trying to keep his sense of direction, he ran to a door that said 'Stairs' and began to climb upwards.
At the eighth floor he stopped and left the stairwell. Feeling his way through the darkness, he tried to estimate his location in the building with respect to the man on the ledge. When he reached a door that seemed to open in the right area, he kicked it in. The sparsely-furnished office was lit by faint starlight, ethereal and insubstantial.
There was a window in which he caught a faint reflection of himself: pale and weak, not the sort of person used to committing heroic acts. He looked young, inexperienced, and lonely, which was almost entirely incorrect. He was older than he looked by nearly ten years; his job with the traffic authority was just the latest in a series of failed, unsatisfactory careers. Lonely, though, he undoubtedly was, and nothing within his power would change that.
He pressed his face against the pane and peered downwards, then to his left. His reckoning had proved accurate; the man clung to the stone facade of the building a metre or so from the office. One thing Marcus did have was a good sense of direction. Raising his shoe again, he smashed the window. Such was his urgency that he overestimated the force required, and the shoe slipped from his grasp, spinning away into the depths beyond. Cursing, he plucked the frame free of splintered glass, and craned his head out into the night air.
The man was larger than he had appeared from the ground — upright he would have topped six and a half feet — and was crowned with a thick mat of black hair; a total contrast to Marcus's five foot eleven and chalky blonde mop. The man appeared to be in his mid-thirties, had a thick moustache, and was amazingly strong — a detail made readily apparent by the fact that there was no ledge on that part of the building. Thick muscles stretched like ropes to hold the man onto the vertical facade, with nothing more than the gaps between stones for handholds.
"Er, hello?" called Marcus, uncertain what to say now that he was actually there. The distance between them was significantly greater than the reach of his arm, so the situation required a strength of persuasion greater than Marcus believed he possessed — but he had to try regardless.
The man looked up at him. "Good evening." His voice was deep and rich — despite the edge of strain — and strangely, but formally accented. Almost British, but not quite. "How nice of you to join me."
"Ah." Marcus looked down, then wished he hadn't. His shoe was a tiny dot on the street far, far below.
"It's a long way down," said the man, smiling sympathetically.
"Yes, it is." Marcus swallowed nervously. "What are you doing out here?"
The man shrugged as much as he was able to, given his awkward position. "Running."
"You can't see it, then?"
Marcus looked around. "See what?"
The man's eyes shifted briefly to the face of the building on the other side of the street. Marcus looked, but could see nothing but shadowy windows and sepulchral stonemasonry.
"I can't see anything."
"Didn't think you'd be up here if you could. What's your name?"
"Marcus Gardening. And yours?"
"Sion. Sion the Baltic."
"Oh." A strange name, Marcus noted, as peculiar as the man's clothing — which consisted of a thick leather coat covering a dark uniform of some kind. "Where am I?" asked the man.
"What town is this?"
Marcus couldn't see the relevance of the question — or indeed of the conversation thus far. "Adelaide."
"Doesn't ring a bell. What year?" "1992."
The man raised his eyebrows. "Anno Domini?"
"Look, Mr. Baltic —"
"Not 'Mister.' Just Sion. You wouldn't have a rope handy, by any chance?"
Marcus shook his head. "Sorry."
The man called Sion the Baltic sighed. "Shame. I don't know how much longer I can hang on. My leg is broken, you see." -
"Oh. How, um, I mean, how did you get here?"
Sion the Baltic laughed with far more cheer than perhaps his situation warranted, unless he was on drugs, which Marcus did not believe to be the case.
"That's a long story," he said.
"Did you fall?"
"In a sense, yes. Look, I hate to seem rude, but is help on the way?"
"Police." Marcus swallowed, floundering. "Fire brigade too, I would think."
"No, I shouldn't think so."
Sion the Baltic looked down, and then over his shoulder at the opposite building. Again, Marcus could see nothing.
"Time to move on," the man sighed, shifting position as though preparing to leap.
"Wait!" shouted Marcus in alarm. "Don't jump!" Sion the Baltic paused, looked up at him. "Pardon?"
"Maybe — maybe I can help?"
"How?" The raised eyebrow said it all.
"Tell me about it. There's no need to kill yourself, no matter how bad things might seem at the moment." He was filled with an overwhelming need to see this strange person to safety, far outweighing the portion of his mind that told him not to get involved.
Sion the Baltic laughed. "Oh, I see. You mean 'don't jump' in the falling-to-my-death sense, as opposed to ... yes. Well, no need to worry, my fellow, although I appreciate your concern. I do intend to jump — I may as well, considering my fingernails can only last so long — but not to my death." He frowned. "Not literally, anyway."
Marcus tried to comprehend, but failed. "I don't understand."
"Don't blame you. Just assume, if it'll make you feel any better, that I won't die when I let go of this building. Okay?"
"Not really." Sirens were sounding, drawing closer. Marcus spotted Sam far below; his partner waved encouragingly and gave a thumbs-up.
"Incidentally," said Sion the Baltic, "why did you try to stop me? From jumping, I mean."
"Well, I couldn't just let you kill yourself, could I?"
"I ... I don't know. Should I have let you jump?"
"No, but people don't do that sort of thing where I come from."
"And where's that?"
"I really don't think you'd believe me."
Four police cars screeched to a halt on the street below, closely followed by a fire engine and an ambulance. Sion the Baltic tried to look down past his stomach and lost the toehold of his one good leg. Marcus instinctively reached out to offer a hand —even though he couldn't reach — but the big man scrabbled for grip without looking for help. Grinding the knee of his broken leg into a crack, he forced the sole of his other boot into a line of mortar until it was sufficiently anchored to support his weight. In this new awkward position, he raised his eyes to Marcus, who noted beads of sweat pooling where previously there had been none.
The big man grunted. "Funny how the body fights to live, even in situations where the mind knows it cannot die."
"Help's on the way."
"Not the help I require, I'm afraid." He tried to look over his shoulder at the opposite building, but couldn't.
"Has it moved?" he asked.
Marcus studied the building. Even with the lights from the emergency vehicles below strobing the stone facade, he could see nothing remarkable. "No, I don't think so."
"Ah, yes — I forget. You can't see it."
"I don't know what to look for, I guess."
Sion the Baltic grimaced. "You'd see it if you could, believe me. It ate a world, you know. Not literally a whole planet, of course; just everything on it that mattered to me." For a moment, the big man looked terribly sad. "It ate my family," he added.
Marcus didn't know what to say. He didn't know that a madman — for such he now believed the big man to be — could evoke so strong a feeling of compassion within him, despite the apparent lunacy of his words.
"Tell me," he said, to gain time until the police were ready below.
"There's very little to say, in all honesty. It ate my family because I ran away from it. It ate everyone in its path because I kept running. It, in its primitive way, seems to desire my death — perhaps as a result of my careless summoning of it from whatever hellish place it calls home — and, until such a fate overwhelms me, I am in the unenviable position of knowing that my continued existence results in suffering for others. Others for whom my life holds no relevance whatsoever, except that I, by my carelessness, have killed them.
"It's ironic, really, that you should think of me as someone who might commit suicide, because that's what I adamantly refuse to do. If it kills me, it'll go away — most likely — but I will not die of my own hand. It's as simple as that."
Sion the Baltic shifted his left arm minutely.
"So they exiled me — those who'd once been proud to call me friend," he said, and then fell moodily silent.
Marcus waited for a minute or so, but the big man said no more. He seemed to fold in on himself, fueling his passions from within — and this was exactly what Marcus wanted to avoid.
"I had a sister who killed herself," he said, to breach the silence.
Sion the Baltic looked at him carefully, but said nothing.
"She was fifteen at the time, a bit of a rebel but nothing too outrageous, we thought. We didn't learn until after she died that she'd been into drugs for years, had even been a ... a prostitute, to pay for heroin."
"How did she die?" asked Sion the Baltic. "Did she jump off a building?"
"No. She shot herself in the head."
"My sympathies." Sion the Baltic was thoughtful for a moment, considering problems other than his own. "I understand now why you tried to help me," he said, "but I'm sorry to say that guilt is not so easily absolved."
"I'm not guilty," said Marcus.
"The fact of guilt does not matter in the slightest. Did you never feel that your parents blamed you for her death? You who still lived? You who they should have loved all the more for their loss?"
"No," replied Marcus, feeling a ball of long-forgotten grief flower anew deep in his throat. "They died in a car accident a year before my sister, ten years ago."
Sion the Baltic considered this. "Then you and I," he said, "are united by the loss of our families to forces beyond our control, and beyond our undoing. Perhaps — and I jest, tipping my hat to synchronicity — you should join me out here on my uncomfortable perch. I will understand if you decline the invitation."
Before Marcus could reply, there was movement in the office behind him: two police officers holding torches approached the window.
"Who is it?" asked Sion the Baltic.
The big man craned his neck to peer downwards. "Too many people. It's learned the thrill of the chase, perhaps — the joy of a single, long-anticipated death as opposed to mindless slaughter — but I'm not prepared to risk innocent lives on the off-chance." He chuckled self-deprecatingly. "See how my creature has evolved? My Frankenstein's monster?"
"No," said Marcus, ignoring the police who tried to move him aside, "I still can't see it."
"Of course you can't, my fellow. Be grateful for small mercies." Sion the Baltic shifted position yet again.
"One word of advice before I let go: don't, whatever else you might do, invent time travel."
"Think of it as a door. When you open it, it lets things slip in and, if you go through, there's no guarantee you'll like where you end up."
"I have enjoyed our little chat. Good-bye."
Sion the Baltic let go, and flung himself away from the building, into the night air.
Sam Balkai, the police officers, the firemen, and the paramedics watched as the man in black leapt from his perch on the side of Abercrombie & Sons. They watched as Marcus Gardening stretched an arm out of the window, clutched in vain for the rapidly accelerating man, and overbalanced. They watched as the man himself calmly reached underneath his billowing coat and twisted in the air like a parachutist, unaware that he was being unwillingly followed.
There was a blinding flash.
In the frozen instant of time that encapsulated the fall of Marcus Gardening and Sion the Ba!tic, David Stafford, one of the police officers in the building, had the best view — and perhaps the only view — of what happened next. Leaning out of the window as he was, his outstretched fist still grasping empty air, it seemed to him that the first of the falling men caught fire, growing brighter and brighter with each passing foot, partly occluded by the body of Marcus Gardening. The fiery descent lit the street, casting flickering shafts of yellow light across the spectators, the parked cars, and the face of the building opposite Abercrombie & Sons.
Perhaps it was a trick of the light, the wildly dancing shadows, or the fear of falling that had belatedly made itself known. Whatever the cause, David Stafford saw something move where previously there had been nothing:
Legs so long that they covered the face of the building in a hideous star, an obscenely swollen body twice as large as a patrol car, eyes like mine shafts with faint, sinister gleams in their uttermost depths — a shadowy spider large enough to eat a city crouched vertically, clinging to the side of the building opposite him as though preparing to leap.
The monster moved, seemed to look directly at him as his fellow officer tried to dreg him back through the window. Officer Stafford could sense the creature thinking, considering alternatives ponderously. Its numerous eyes glinted with ill-concealed malice, and it seemed for an instant about to reach across the street and pluck him from the building.
Then, moving its legs as though running, the monster began to fade. Through this dissipating nightmare, the observing policeman imagined he saw trees, waving distantly at the whim of an unseen storm, a landscape of rainswept hills. The instant before the apparition entirely evaporated, a twinkle of lights made itself known in the impossible depths of the illusion and, superimposed upon them, two dark figures fleeing through the rain, one supporting the other — vanishing, fading, turning to stone and glass as the building opposite Abercrombie & Sons reasserted its ineluctable solidity.
With a flash that was bright only in comparison to the darkness of the blacked-out city, the street lamps flared back into life. Glowing purple as the gases within them reluctantly heated, they cast a surreal light on the proceedings below as fourteen people stared at a patch of pavement that should have been the final resting place for the two fallen men, but wasn't.
This story originally appeared in Aurealis.