Endless Night

The windy nights were the hardest. The tower scaffolding creaked and moaned and broke the dignified peace of midnight silence. Cold drafts could find ways to penetrate even the newest and most freshly pressed uniform.

Uching could tolerate the cold. In fact, he relished the chance to sacrifice his comfort for the sake of the city. But the noise was distracting, and the need to succor the morale of the other shivering guards made windy nights difficult.

He let himself take a moment to look away from the still desert to check on his fellow guards. On the floor, where the tower walls protected them from the worst gusts, they had set up a card game. They noticed him noticing them, and gestured for him to join.

"Why won't you play with us?" one of them asked.

"Why do you play?" Uching said.

The card player paused. "Variety," he said. "Better than looking at empty darkness all night."

Uching considered this. Of course the darkness wasn't empty. Desert jackals chased desert rabbits. Nomads insinuated themselves across the sand. Stars and the moon shone on distant stone mountains and the voluptuous, ever shifting dunes. But even if the desert night had been only empty darkness, Uching would have loved it just the same. He didn't much care for variety anyway. Some part of him understood that monotony was a close cousin of infinitude.

He politely declined the offer to play cards, and looked back into the desert. The other guards talked as they continued to play. They complained about being assigned to the eastern guard tower, claiming that the western tower was an easier gig. They complained that their shift seemed to last forever. Uching stayed silent, looking steadily at the cold desert, doing his duty.


The night when the barbarians came was warm and starry. Uching was watching the pale fire of the dawn just beginning to crest over the eastern mountains. On the other side of the city, the guards at the western tower saw a pack of desert jackals rushing toward them. Somehow the guards knew that the jackals were running away from someone else rather than towards them. They fingered their weapons and squinted towards the shadowy West.

It only took a few minutes for them to see dark figures emerging from a mountain pass in the distance. It was a group much too large to be a merchant party, much too well equipped to be nomads, and much too early in the day and late in the year to be a pack of pilgrims. The guards knew immediately that it was a barbarian invasion. Despite their dissolute years of card playing and professional neglect, they remembered their training and leapt into action.

One of the western guards rang the alarm bell, and another jumped off the tower to report details of the invaders at the barracks. The third was preparing armor, ready to jump into the fray as soon as the barbarians reached the walls.

Uching heard the alarm bell faintly, and sat up in shock. He looked away from the rosy-fingered dawn and turned towards the darker West. He knew that his orders were to stay on the eastern wall even if the western side of the city was bombarded: the soldiers could defend the West while he continued dutifully at his post. Even so, he wished that he could have dashed westwards to fight with his comrades in arms.

The invasion was over within a few hours. The professional soldiers had had enough warning to meet the invaders quickly at the western wall. The walls held, the barbarian ladders were weak, their organization and morale were poor. Some arrows and even a few fiery catapulted boulders had made it over the wall and caused casualties, but in general the professionalism of the city triumphed over the savagery of the idle outsiders.

Uching even saw some action on his side of the city. A rogue crew tried to sneak up his eastern wall late in the battle. One city guard set fire to one of their ladders. Another threw rocks at them. A lanky invader managed to climb to the top of the wall and throw himself over. Uching ran towards him without hesitating. The invader tried to grab Uching's shoulders to immobilize him, but Uching swiped his left foot against the barbarian's left leg, knocking him to the ground where Uching succeeded pinning him and tying him up.

As the battle wound down and the last stragglers scattered back to their mountain fastnesses, Uching escorted the captive to his captain. They interrogated him for a few days, but finding that he knew nothing that their spies had not already reported, he was released to freedom in an act of magnanimity.


After the battle, there was important business for every citizen. Mourning the dead, recruiting new soldiers, building up defenses, sending more scouts and spies to barbarian territories all around. When that frenzy calmed, all that remained was an inchoate patriotism and general admiration for the soldiers and guards who had saved the city. The guards who had seen the attackers first were feted and honored. Uching, as a guard himself, got a few free meals at his favorite restaurants, and was greeted by a few random strangers who thanked him for helping the city.

This weak, reflected glory did not satisfy Uching. He had dedicated his life to protecting the city, but in its moment of need his part had been uninspiring - he had been assigned to the wrong tower. He wondered whether he should request an assignment at the western tower, and whether any other battles would come soon in which he could distinguish himself.

On a nondescript afternoon as Uching slept off the watchfulness of the previous night, he had a dream. He dreamed that a spirit spoke to him. At times, Uching thought the spirit was a falcon, like the falcon spirit that the priests said protected the city. But when Uching looked closely, the spirit looked like a man, if not something a little more than a man.

The spirit spoke in a language that Uching had never learned, and yet in the dream he understood. His ideas were strange, and most of them had never occurred to Uching. The spirit said that the guards were fungible - that all had volunteered to protect the city, and that their assignment to particular towers was arbitrary. The exact direction of approach of the barbarian hordes was unforeseeable and as good as random. The spirit claimed that this meant that all of the guards had been equally important. He added, apparently as an afterthought, that their willingness to serve was what made them heroic rather than their assignment to towers, and that all were equally heroic. Uching felt like a hero for the first time in his life.

The spirit continued, describing a story that he claimed was from the far future. Two scientists sought to cure a disease. Two chemicals seemed to be candidate cures, with nothing to recommend one over the other. Each scientist tried one chemical. The scientist lucky enough to try the right one was honored for a thousand generations as a hero, while the other was quickly forgotten. But both were honored equally and their names were eternal, the spirit claimed, in another world.

The spirit continued, with ideas even more foreign to Uching. He drew symbols related to what he called probability. He described notions he called utility theory and outcome bias and decision analysis and moral luck. Some part of Uching understood the gist of the spirit's lecture, but another part of him could not grasp the specifics of ideas he had never begun to grapple with: fungibility, randomness, chemistry, and the workings of a spirit world he had never known.

When he woke up, he felt a brightness inside himself, though he quickly forgot most of the details of what the spirit had told him. He approached his wife, who had started to prepare dinner, to tell her about his visitation.

"What spirit?" his wife said, earnestly trying to understand him as she put potatoes in the oven.

Uching tried to hold on to the fading memory of his dream. "A falcon spirit," he said. "Or maybe a man." He paused, trying to think of how to sum up the dream. "He told me that I'm a hero."

His wife was distracted with some vegetables. She paused for a moment and looked at him. "Of course, you're my hero," she said. Uching knew that she said this partially as a reflexive and perfunctory sop to his pride. But as he looked into her eyes he could see that on some level she meant it too - that despite his shortcomings, she depended on him and even admired him. He was as familiar with the lines in her face as he was the topography of the land he guarded. He felt in that moment that he would rather see her tender glance for a minute than be granted a kingdom spanning a continent.

In later years, Uching thought occasionally about his dream. He could remember that it had touched a deep and delicate part of his mind, but he could not remember any of the words or ideas of the spirit. He always longed for the feeling of heroism that it had given him for a moment.


The rest of his years passed in anonymous peace. There were no more barbarian invasions that century: a blessing for the city, but a frustration for guards who wished to have their names written in books.

During his watchful nights at the eastern tower, Uching found himself looking less at people and houses and land, and more at stars and the sky. When he looked upwards and into the deep night, money and history and even barbarian invasions seemed to matter less or not at all. Uching could feel in his bones that something else was more important than those things, though he was never able to put into words exactly what. Maybe it was the stars, or a soldier's duty, or maybe the order of nature, or maybe the way his wife looked at him, or maybe it was something beneath all of those things that tied them and him and everything together.

His knees and back started to give out, and he spent fewer nights on guard duty, and then none at all. He trained a successor in the guard protocols he had learned decades before, and the successor took his place in the eastern tower. The new guards wore different uniforms that bore symbols Uching didn't know. They had even changed their card games.

Uching died gently one day while his grandson held his hand. His family carried his body up a nearby mountain and laid him to rest on top of a cairn of rocks according to the custom of the city. For the next days and weeks, animals picked at his flesh and bones. From the eastern tower, his successor watched birds flying away from the mountain where he rested and into the starry darkness. He wondered whether the birds carried part of Uching with them. They flew so high and so far it seemed like they would go on forever.