Reticule: (1) In Proto-, Old, and Middle Orth, a small bag or basket, netlike in its construction. (2) In early Praxic Orth, a gridlike network of lines or fine wires on an optical device. (3) In later Praxic and New Orth, two or more syntactic devices that are able to communicate with one another.
Reticulum: (1) When not capitalized, a reticule formed by the interconnection of two or more smaller reticules. (2) When capitalized, the largest reticulum, joining together the preponderance of all reticules in the world. Sometimes abbreviated to
— THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000
There was no point trying to talk Cord out of going with me. We just climbed into her fetch and started as soon as the picnic was over. We had to backtrack thirty miles to find a north-going road that would not peter out before the mountains. At the first town on that road I used up my money card buying fuel, food, and warm clothes. Then I used up Fraa Jad’s.
While we were loading the stuff into the fetch, Ganelial Crade pulled up. Sitting next to him was Sammann. Both were grinning, which was a novelty. They didn’t have to announce that they were coming with us and we didn’t have to discuss it. They got busy buying the same sorts of things we’d just bought. Crade had an ammunition can full of coins and Sammann had information in his jeejah that worked in lieu of money; I got the sense that each of them had obtained funds from his respective community. I wasn’t happy to see Crade again. If it really was true that he was getting money for this journey from the people of Samble, it raised all sorts of questions as to what he was really up to.
Crade had reinstated the three-wheeler in the back of his fetch, so he didn’t have much room left over; most of the bulky stuff went into Cord’s fetch. We had no idea where we were going or what to plan for, but we all seemed to be carrying roughly the same picture in our heads, namely that Orolo had gone up into the mountains for some reason. It would be cold up there and we might have to camp, so we got things like winter bedrolls, tents, stoves, and fuel. Sammann had an idea that he might be able to track Orolo, and Crade was planning to make inquiries with some of his co-religionists along the way.
We all climbed back into our vehicles and headed north. It would be two hours’ drive to the foothills, where Crade knew of places to camp. He led the way. This was a thing he felt a compulsion to do, and I was tired of fighting it. Cord was content to follow. Crade sitting upright at the controls, and Sammann hunched over the glowing screen of his super-jeejah, gave us the feeling that the two of them must be seeing to all of the details. I wouldn’t have been comfortable following either of them alone, but together they’d never agree on anything, so I judged it was prudent.
I regretted parting from people like Arsibalt and Lio with whom I could talk about things. But once we turned north and started forging toward the mountains, the regret vanished and instead I felt relief. So much had been revealed to me over the course of the last twenty-four hours—not only about the Cousins’ ship but even more so about the world I had lived in for ten and a half years—that it was too much for me to make sense of in one go. Just to name one example, the thatched roofs on the nuclear waste cylinders, alone, if I’d learned of it in the concent, would have taken me a little getting used to. I was much more at ease sitting next to my sib, staring out the windscreen, my sole responsibility being to chase a wild fraa across the waste. The night before, at the Bazian monastery, I had accommodated certain new, odd facts in my mind just by sleeping. A similar trick might work for me now: by doing something completely different for a few days, I might chance upon a better understanding than I could get by kneeling in a cell and concentrating on it, or having a wordy discussion in a chalk hall.
And even if all of that was completely wrong, I didn’t care. I simply needed a break.
Cord spent a lot of time talking on the jeejah with Rosk. She’d kissed him goodbye on the Samble village green. He had to go back home and work. Now there were issues of some kind to be worked out. They didn’t have just one long conversation on the jeejah. Instead they made and broke contact ten or so times. It got on my nerves and I wished we’d get to some wild reach where her link wouldn’t work. But after a while I got used to it and started to wonder: if Rosk and Cord had to do so much communicating to rig for a few days’ separation, what did that imply for me and Ala? I couldn’t stop recalling the shocked look on Tulia’s face as we had pulled out yesterday afternoon. Part of which, I was sure, came from her thinking I was being beastly to Ala.
“Is there currently a mechanism in place for sending letters?” I asked Cord during a breather between micro-conversations with Rosk.
“From here it’ll take some doing, but the answer is yes,” she said. Then she got a big smile. “You want to write to a girl, Raz?”
Since I’d never mentioned Ala to her and had asked my question in such a colorless way, I was shocked and then quite irritated that she had figured this out with no effort. She was still deriving joy from the look on my face when her jeejah twittered and gave me a few minutes to get my composure back.
“Tell me about her,” Cord demanded, as soon as she disconnected.
“Ala. You met her. She’s the one—”
“I remember Ala. I liked her!”
“Really? That was not obvious to me.”
“That and so many other things,” Cord said, in such an airy, innocent voice that it almost slipped by me. Then I had to spend a minute being silent and dignified.
“She and I have hated each other pretty much our whole lives,” I said. “Especially recently. Then we started something. It was pretty sudden. Really wonderful though.”
Cord gave me a grateful smile and almost swerved off the road.
“The next day she was Evoked. This was before we knew it was going to become a Convox, so in effect she was dead to me after that. This was, I guess, pretty upsetting to me. I sort of put it out of my mind by working. Then when I got Evoked yesterday—which seems like ten years ago now—it opened up the possibility that I might see her again. But then a few hours later I decided to make this little detour—which just turned into a bigger detour. As a matter of fact, I am technically a Feral now and so I might never see her again because of the way I just let Fraa Jad push me around. So you might say things are complicated. Hard to say just how long I’d have to spend on a jeejah with her, sorting this one out.”
Cord took another call from Rosk then, and by the time she was finished, I was ready with more: “Mind you, I’m not just whining about my own situation here. Everything’s confused. This is the biggest upheaval since the Third Sack. So many weird things are going on—it almost makes a mockery of the Discipline.”
“But your way isn’t just that set of rules,” Cord said. “It’s who you are—you follow that way for bigger reasons. And as long as you stay true to that, the confusion you’re talking about will sort itself out eventually.”
I would have been fine with that except for one problem: it sounded like the mentality that Edharians were accused of having by people who believed in all of that Lineage stuff that Criscan had been telling us about. So an instinct told me to say nothing.
Then Cord sprang the trap on me: “And likewise you could drive yourself crazy trying to sort through all of these ins and outs in your relationship with Ala, but if you send her a letter—which is a great idea—you shouldn’t get into all of that. Just skip it.”
“Yeah. Just tell her how you feel.”
“I feel jerked around. That’s how I feel. You want me to say that?”
“No, no, no. Tell her how you feel
My gaze dropped to her jeejah, sitting on the seat between us, silent for once. “Are you sure you haven’t been taking calls from Tulia on that thing? Because I have the feeling you guys have your own private reticule. Like—”
“Like the Ita?” This would have been insulting if I’d said it, but she thought it was hilarious. We both looked up the road at the back of Sammann’s head silhouetted against his jeejah screen. “That’s right,” Cord said, “we’re the girl Ita and if you don’t do what we say, we’re going to Throw the Book at you!”
Cord had a notebook that she used as a maintenance log for her fetch, so I used a blank page to begin a letter to Ala. This went about as badly as it was possible for a written document to go. I tore it out and started again. I couldn’t get used to the way the disposable poly pen shat pasty ink onto the slick machine-made paper. I tore it out and started yet again.
I had to suspend work on the fourth draft because Ganelial Crade had led us off the paved road and onto a dirt track better suited for his fetch than for Cord’s. The lower, south-facing slopes of the mountains were covered with fuel tree plantations and crisscrossed with dirt roads such as this one, alive with rampaging log trucks, dusty and dangerous to us. We spent an unpleasant half-hour getting through that zone. Then we climbed to where the growing season was too short and the grades too steep for that industry, or indeed for any kind of economic activity save recreation.
He led us to a beautiful camping place at the edge of a tarn in the hills. People came here to hunt in the autumn, he said, but no one was here today. All of our equipment was new and we had to take it out of boxes and dispose of the wrappers and tags and instruction manuals before we could do anything with it. We started a bonfire with these and sustained it with fallen dead timber. As the sun went down, this settled to a bed of coals on which we cooked cheeseburgs. Cord bedded down in her fetch and the three men got ready to share a tent. I stayed up late and finished my letter to Ala by firelight. Which was a good way to do it; the seventh draft was short and simple. I just kept asking myself: if fate had it that we’d never see each other again, what would I need to say to her?
The next day started out refreshingly devoid of great events, new people, and astonishing revelations. We got up slowly in the cold, lighted the stove, heated up some rations, and got on the road. Crade was happy. It was not in his nature to be that way but he was happy here and now, strutting all over the place telling us the best way to pack our bedrolls and attending to every detail of the camp stove as if it were a nuclear reactor. But he was much easier to be around in such circumstances, where he actually had something to do with all of his energies. I decided that he was too intelligent for his circumstances and that he’d missed an opportunity to be an avout. If he’d been born among the slines he’d have ended up on a concent. Instead he’d landed among a sect that valued his brains too much to let him go. But his brains had no purpose there. Anyway, he was used to being the only smart person within a hundred miles and now that he’d been thrown together with other smart people he didn’t know how to behave.
Sammann was badly out of his element—he could hardly pick up anything on his jeejah—but he managed well, as if prolonged suffering were a standard part of the Ita tool kit. He had a shoulder bag that was for him what Cord’s vest was for her, and he kept pulling out useful tools and gadgets. Or so it seemed to me, as I was not used to owning things.
Cord was quiet unless I looked at her, whereupon she’d become grumpy. I was bored and impatient. When we finally got going again, I guessed it must be about midday. But according to the clock in Cord’s fetch, midday was not for another three hours.
We went up into the mountains. This was new to me.
Cord changed the music. The popular songs she’d been playing the previous days felt wrong here. Their beautiful parts did not stand comparison with what we could see out the windows, and their coarse parts jarred. She owned a recording of the music of the concent, which we sold in the market outside the Day Gate alongside our honey and our mead. She started playing random selections from it, beginning with a lament for the Third Sack. To Cord, this was just Selection Number 37. To me it was just about the most powerful piece of music we had. We sang it only once a year, at the end of a week spent fasting and reciting the names of the dead and the titles of the books burned. Somehow, the feeling was right: if the Cousins turned out to be hostile, they might Sack the world.
We came around a turn and were confronted by a wall of purple stone that went up until it disappeared in a cloud layer a mile above our heads. It must have stood there for a million years. Seeing it while I heard the lament, I felt what I can only describe as patriotism for my planet. Until this moment in history there had never been any call for such feelings because there’d never been anything beyond Arbre except for points of light in the sky. Now that had changed, and instead of thinking of myself as a member of the Provener team, or of the Decenarian math, or of the Edharian order, I felt like a citizen of the world and I was proud to be doing my little bit to protect it. I was comfortable being a Feral.
Casinos and speelies weren’t the only new experiences you had when you went extramuros. Even if you traveled solo and stuck to the wild places—even if you never saw a strip mall or heard a word of Fluccish—you were getting information, not about the S?cular world but about the world that had been there before it, the ground state that cultures and civilizations emerged from and collapsed back into. The wellsprings of the S?cular—but also of the mathic world. The origin where, seven thousand years ago, those worlds had diverged.
Sea of Seas: A relatively small but complex body of salt water, connected to Arbre’s great oceans in three places by straits, and generally viewed as the cradle of classical civilization.
— THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000
We crested the pass and descended into a small city, Norslof. This took me by surprise. I’d seen the cartabla. But in the fantasy map of the world that I carried in my head, the mountains went on much farther.
We had not found Orolo, but we had at least made one pass over the landscape. Along the way we had taken note of a few places where he might have gone. Most promising of these, to my mind, had been a small, tatterdemalion math constructed on a lookout tower originally put there to detect forest fires. It was a few miles off the road and a few thousand feet above it. We’d noticed it shortly after topping the pass. If it had been a full-sized concent they wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with someone like Orolo, but such an out-of-the-way math might have welcomed an Orth-speaking wanderer who could bring them some new ideas.
We stopped to eat and use toilets at a big drummon-refueling station several miles outside of Norslof’s commercial center. Here it was possible to rent rooms and it was permissible to sleep in one’s vehicle. I had an idea that we might use it as a base from which to double back into the mountains and search for Orolo. I changed my mind when we walked into the mess hall, steamy and redolent of cured meats, and all of the long-range drummon operators turned to stare at us. It was obvious that they didn’t get many customers such as us and that they preferred it that way. Part of it must have been that we were a group of four in a room full of singletons. But even if we’d come in one by one, we would have drawn stares. Sammann was dressed in normal-looking extramuros garb, but his long beard and hair were not the norm, and the bone structure of his face marked him ethnically. The men in this room would not be able to peg him as Ita—supposing they even knew what the Ita were—but they could tell he was not one of them. Cord did not dress or move like their women. Her repertoire of gestures and facial expressions was altogether disjoint from theirs. Ganelial, being an extra, ought to have blended—but somehow didn’t. He belonged to a religious community that went to great lengths to preserve its apartness from the cultural baseline and he proclaimed as much in the way he carried himself and the looks he gave people. And I: I had no idea how I looked. Since leaving the concent I’d spent most of my time among extras who knew that I was an avout on Peregrin. Here I was trying to pass for something I wasn’t, and it seemed best to assume I was doing a terrible job of it.
We might have drawn even more attention had it not been for the fact that there were speelies all over the place. They were mounted to the ceiling, angled down toward the tables. All of them ran the same feed in lockstep. At the moment we walked in the door, this showed a house burning down at night. It was surrounded by emergency workers. A close-up showed a woman leaning out of an upper-story window that was vomiting black smoke. She had a towel wrapped around her face. She dropped a baby. I kept watching to see what happened next, but instead the speely cycled back and showed the baby drop two more times in slow motion. Then that scene vanished and was replaced by images of a ball player making a clever play. But then it showed the same ball player breaking his leg later in the game. This too was repeated several times in slow motion so that you could see the leg bending at the site of the break. By the time we reached our table, the speelies were showing an extraordinarily beautiful man in expensive clothes being arrested by police. My companions glanced at the images from time to time, then looked away. It seemed that they had built up some kind of immunity. I couldn’t keep my eyes off them, so I tried to sit in a position where there wasn’t a speely directly in front of me. Still, every time the feed popped from one image to another, my eye jumped to it. I was like an ape in a tree, looking at whatever moved fastest in my environment.
We sat in the corner, ordered food, and talked quietly. The room, which had gone silent when we’d entered, slowly defrosted and was replenished by the normal low murmur of conversation. It occurred to me that we should not have chosen a corner table because this would make it impossible for us to get out quickly if there was some kind of trouble.
I missed Lio badly. He would have assessed the threats, if any, and thought about how to counter them. And he might have gotten it completely wrong, as he had with Estemard and his sidearm. But at least he would have taken care of these matters so that I could worry about other things.
Take Sammann as an example. When he’d joined us I’d been glad of his company, as he knew how to do so many things that I didn’t. Which was all fine when it was just four of us camped by a tarn. But now that we were deep in the S?cular world I recalled the ancient taboo against contact between avout and Ita, which we could not have been breaking any more flagrantly. Did these people know of that taboo? If so, did they understand why it had been instated? Were we, in other words, stirring memories and awakening fears of old? Would their police protect us from a mob—or join in with them?
Ganelial Crade started canvassing his local brethren on his jeejah. This grew obnoxious, and when he noticed that we were all glaring at him, he got up and moved to an empty table. I asked Sammann if he could pull up any information on the lookout-tower math and he began to view maps and satellite photos on his jeejah that were much better than the stored charts on the cartabla. I’d rarely seen anything like these pictures, which must have been very like what the Cousins could see of Arbre from their ship. This answered a question that had been rattling around in my head since yesterday morning. “Hey,” I said, “I think Orolo was looking at such pictures. He put a few up on the wall of his cell.”
“It’s too bad you didn’t tell me that before,” said Sammann curtly. Not for the first time I got the feeling that we avout were children and the Ita, far from being a subservient caste, were our minders. I was about to apologize. Then I got the feeling that once I started apologizing I’d never be able to stop. Somehow I managed to arrest my embarrassment before it reached the mud-on-the-head stage.
(on the speely: an old building being blown up; people celebrating)
“Okay, well, now that you mention it, Fraa Jad went out of his way to make sure I came away with them,” I said, and pulled from my shirt pocket the folded-up phototypes of the big hole in the ground. I spread them out on the table. Three heads converged and bent over them. Even Ganelial Crade—who had taken to pacing back and forth as he yammered on his jeejah—slowed down for a look-see. But no light of recognition came into his face. “That looks like a mine. Probably in the tundra,” he said, just to be saying something.
“The sun is shining almost straight down into it,” I pointed out.
“So it can’t be at a high latitude.”
Now it was Crade’s turn to be embarrassed. He turned away and pretended to be extremely involved in his jeejah conversation.
(on the speely: phototypes of a kidnapped child, blurry footage of the kid being led out of a casino by a man in a big hat)
“I was wondering,” I said to Sammann, “if you could, I don’t know, use your jeejah to start scanning the globe and look for such features. I know it would be like finding a needle in a haystack. But if we were systematic about it, and if we worked in shifts for long enough—”
Sammann responded to my idea in much the same spirit as I had to Crade’s suggestion that this thing was in the tundra. He held his jeejah up above the picture and took a phototype of the phototype. Then he spent a few seconds interacting with the machine. Then he showed me what had come up on its screen: a different picture of the same hole in the ground. Except now it was a live feed from the Reticulum.
“You found it,” I said, because I wanted to go slowly and make sure I understood what was going on.
“A syntactic program available on the Reticulum found it,” he corrected me. “It turns out to be a long way from here—on an island in the Sea of Seas.”
“Can you tell me the name of the island?”
“Is there a way to figure out what it is?” Cord asked.
Sammann zoomed in. But this was almost unnecessary. Now that I knew it was on Ecba, I was no longer inclined to see this hole as an open-pit mine. It was clearly an excavation—it was completely encircled by mounded-up earth that had been taken out of it. And a ramp spiraled around to its flat bottom. But it was too orderly, too prim for a mine. Its flat bottom was neatly gridded.
“It is an archaeological dig,” I said. “A huge one.”
“What’s there on Ecba to dig up?” Cord asked.
“I can search for that,” Sammann said, and got ready to do so.
“Wait! Zoom out. Again…and again,” I asked him.
We could now see the dig as a pale scar several miles south-southeast of a huge, solitary mountain that ramped up out of a wrinkled sea. The upper slopes of the mountain were patched with snow but its summit had a scoop taken out of it: a caldera.
“That is Orithena,” I said.
“The mountain?” Cord asked.
“No. The dig,” I said. “Someone has been digging up the Temple of Orithena! It was buried by an eruption in Negative 2621.”
“Who’d do that and why?” Cord asked.
Sammann zoomed back in. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see that the whole dig was surrounded by a wall. It was pierced in one place by a gate. Inside, several structures had been erected around a rectangular courtyard—a cloister. A tower sprouted from one of these.
“It’s a math,” I said. “Come to think of it, I once heard a story—probably from Arsibalt—that some order had gone to Ecba and started trying to dig their way down to the Temple of Orithena. I thought it was just a few eccentric fraas with shovels and wheelbarrows, though.”
“I don’t see any heavy equipment on the site,” Crade pointed out. “A few people with shovels could dig a hole that deep if they kept at it long enough.”
This left me a little irritated, since it ought to have been obvious to me; after all, our Mynster had been constructed in the same style. But Crade was right and there was nothing I could do but agree as vigorously as I could so that he wouldn’t explain this any further.
“This is all very interesting,” Sammann said, “but it’s probably a dead end for us.”
“I agree,” I said. Ecba was on another continent; or, to be precise, it was in the Sea of Seas which lay among four continents on the opposite side of the world.
“Orolo is not in the mountains,” Ganelial Crade announced, pocketing his jeejah. “He passed through here and kept right on going.”
(on the speely: two very beautiful people getting married)
“How do you know this?” Sammann asked. I was glad of it. Crade was so sure of himself that I found it draining to confront him with even simple questions. Sammann seemed to derive wicked pleasure from doing so.
Crade rose to it. “He got a ride as far as here from some Samble folk who were going this way, and stayed the night before last in the back of my cousin’s fetch, just a couple of miles from here.”
“The back of his fetch? Doesn’t your cousin have a spare bed?” Sammann asked.
“Yulassetar travels a lot,” Crade answered, “the back of his fetch is nicer than his house.”
“You say this happened the night before last?” I asked. “I had no idea we were so hot on his trail!”
“Getting colder every minute…Yulassetar helped him get outfitted yesterday morning, and then Orolo hitched a ride on a northbound drummon.”
“With warm clothes,” Crade said. “The
“Why would Orolo want to keep going north?” I asked. “There’s nothing there, am I right?”
Sammann pawed at my cartabla—which had a larger display than his jeejah—zoomed way out, and slewed it north and east. “Practically nothing but taiga, tundra, and ice between here and the North Pole. As far as economic activity is concerned, there are fuel tree plantations for the first couple of hundred miles. Beyond that, nothing but a few resource extraction camps.”
The view on the cartabla seemed to contradict him, as it was densely netted with roads that came together at named places, many of which were ringed by concentric beltways. But all of these were depicted in the faint brown color used to denote ruins.
(on the speely: a fiery rocket launch from an equatorial swamp)
“Orolo’s going to Ecba!” Cord proclaimed.
“What are you talking about?” Crade demanded.
“Ecba is not on this continent, you have to fly!” I said.
“He’s going over the pole,” she explained. “He’s headed for the sledge port at Eighty-three North.”
We were in the habit of referring to the S?cular Power as if it were one thing down through the ages. This seemed simple-minded or even insulting to some extras—though they did essentially the same thing when they spoke of the Powers That Be. Of course we knew it was an over-simplification. But for us it was a useful convenience. Whatever empire, republic, despotate, papacy, anarchy, or depopulated wasteland lay beyond our walls at a given moment, we could slap this name on it and predicate certain things of it.
What you are reading does not attempt to set forth details as to how the S?cular Power was constituted in my day. Such information can be had anywhere. It might even be interesting if you know nothing about the history of the world up to the Terrible Events; but if you have studied that, everything since will seem like repetition and all the particulars as to how the S?cular Power of my day was organized will remind you of more or less ancient forerunners, but with less majesty and clarity since the ancients were all doing it for the first time and believed they were on to something.
But at this point I had to attend to one of those details. The S?cular Power in my day was a federation. It broke down into political units that more or less agreed with Arbre’s continents. One could travel freely within most of those units, but to cross from one to another one had to have documents. The documents were not that difficult to obtain—unless one was avout.
Since the Reconstitution, we had existed wholly apart from the legal system of the S?cular Power. They had no records of us, no jurisdiction over us, no responsibility for us; they could not draft us into their armies, levy taxes on us, or even step through our gates except at Apert. Likewise they would not offer us assistance of any kind, except for protecting us from direct assault by mobs or armies if they felt like it. We didn’t get pensions or medical care from the S?cular Power—and we certainly didn’t get identity documents.
It has become obvious during the writing of this that it might one day be read by people from other worlds. So I’ll say that we considered ourselves to have ten continents but that the Cousins, or anyone else who came to us from beyond and looked at Arbre fresh, would have said we had only seven—and they would have been right. We counted ours as ten because the original tally had been made by explorers working outward from the Sea of Seas, who could only guess at what might lie more than a few days’ march from its convoluted shores. It happened more than once that they bestowed distinct names on lands that were sundered by straits and gulfs, but that on further—and much later—exploration proved to be lobes of the same great land mass reaching toward the Sea of Seas from different quarters. But by that time the places had made their way into the classical myths and histories under the ancient names, which we could no more dislodge from the culture than we could withdraw one of the colossal foundation-stones that supported the Mynster.
Likewise, during the Rebirth, land had been found on the other side of the world from the Sea of Seas and had been proclaimed and mapped as a new continent. But centuries later it had been determined that the far northern reaches of that continent wrapped over the North Pole and thence extended south all the way to the Sea of Seas. It was not a new continent at all but a limb of the oldest and best-known continent, and no one had ever had a clue about it because even the aboriginal peoples who knew how to live in ice houses could not venture much above eighty degrees of latitude. To prove that the “old” and “new” continents were one, it was necessary to go all the way up to ninety degrees north latitude—the North Pole—and then descend to eighty or less on the other side. This had not been accomplished until the last century before the Terrible Events and it had not changed people’s habit of referring to the place that Cord, Sammann, Ganelial Crade, and I were on now, and the land mass forming the northern boundary of the Sea of Seas, as two different continents. The ice cap separated the two even more absolutely than an ocean would have, and no normal person ever traveled between them that way. They flew in an aerocraft or did it in a ship.
But to do it by aerocraft or ship you’d have to pass through ports of entry and show documents. Orolo had none and no hope of getting any. So he was doing what was logical, which was to exploit the fact that the two continents were in fact one. Cord had been the first to put this whole picture together in her mind.
No. She’d been the
“The sledge trains! That’s like something out of a children’s storybook to me,” Sammann said. “Do they still operate?”
“They were shut down for a while, but they are running again now,” Crade confirmed. “The price of metals went up. People went back to stripping the Deep Ruins.”
“We used to make parts for the sledge locomotives in the machine hall where I worked,” Cord said. “We were the largest machine hall that was so far north, so they’d send the jobs to us. It’s been a source of business for that shop for over a thousand years. We had to make them of special alloys that wouldn’t shatter in the cold.” And she went on in this vein for a minute or two; she could talk about alloys the way some girls talked about shoes. Crade and Sammann, who’d been so fascinated to hear about the sledge train idea at first, got less and less so the more Cord said of it.
In my mind I was replaying the memory of Fraa Jad in Orolo’s cell yesterday. He couldn’t have spent more than half a minute gazing at these phototypes before he’d figured it all out. Even if you were the kind of person who attributed nearly supernatural powers to the Thousanders, this seemed a little weird. He must have had some prior knowledge about this.
“This excavation,” I said, tapping my finger on the phototype.
Everyone looked at me funny. I realized that I had just interrupted Cord’s disquisition about alloys.
(on the speely: victims of a roadside massacre; their hysterical wives rending their clothes and rolling on the ground)
I continued, “I’ll bet you my last energy bar that if you look it up, you’ll find that it is 690 years old.”
“You think they started digging this hole in 3000,” said Ganelial Crade. “Why? You like round numbers?”
This was an extremely rare attempt by Crade to make a joke, and so etiquette required me to smirk at it for a moment before I answered. “I’m pretty sure Fraa Jad knew that this was going on. He recognized this as soon as he saw it. So, I’m thinking that this dig must have been launched during the most recent Millennial Convox. The Thousander math at Saunt Edhar would have sent delegates to that Convox and so they would have heard about it, and brought the knowledge back home with them—which is how Fraa Jad knew.”
Sammann, as usual, was ready to play devil’s advocate: “I’m not disagreeing, but even if you’re right, it seems strange to me that Fraa Jad could take one look at this phototype and know that it was the Orithena dig. It could be any hole in the ground. There’s nothing to peg it to Ecba.”
Until now we had been attending mostly to the phototype that showed the entire dig on one sheet. The others were zoomed-in detail shots that hadn’t made much sense before. Scanning them now, I was able to perceive the outlines of ancient building foundations, the stubs of columns, and flat areas of tiled floor. One of these was marked thus:
I pointed to it. “That’s the analemma,” I said. “The Temple of Orithena was a big camera obscura. It had a small hole in the roof that projected an image of the sun on the floor. As the seasons changed, the sun-spot hit the floor in a different place each day during their midday ritual—what we celebrate now as Provener. Over the course of the year it would trace this pattern on the floor.”
“So, you think Fraa Jad noticed the analemma on this phototype and said to himself ‘Aha, this must be the Temple of Orithena?’ That seems like pretty quick thinking to me,” Cord said.
“Well, he’s a pretty smart guy,” I returned. This was not the most polite answer. Jesry would have planed me at this point. Cord was right to be skeptical about it. I wasn’t willing to dig any deeper on this point, though. The speed with which Fraa Jad had recognized this hole in the ground suggested that he, and presumably the other Millenarians, knew a lot about it. I was worried that if we pulled any harder on this loose thread, it would lead us back to crazy talk about the Lineage.
“Oh, how interesting,” Sammann said, gazing into his jeejah, “Erasmas wins his bet. This dig in the phototypes
“Great!” I muttered, wishing I could take Sammann’s jeejah and drop it down a toilet.
“It’s a spinoff of Saunt Edhar. But a lot of other Edharian maths around the world contributed fraas and suurs to get it started.”
“How many avout live there?” Cord asked. I could see her doing the calculation in her head:
“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” Sammann said, grimacing. “Most of the information on this topic is crap.”
“What do you mean by that?” Crade demanded. We all looked at him, because in an instant he had become markedly defensive.
Sammann raised his eyes from the screen of the jeejah and gazed interestedly at Crade. He let a few moments go by, then responded in a calm and matter-of-fact tone: “Anyone can post information on any topic. The vast majority of what’s on the Reticulum is, therefore, crap. It has to be filtered. The filtering systems are ancient. My people have been improving them, and their interfaces, since the time of the Reconstitution. They are to us what the Mynster is to Fraa Erasmas and his kind. When I look at a given topic I don’t just see information about that topic. I see meta-information that tells me what the filtering systems learned when they were conducting the search. If I look up
Sammann’s explanation had failed if its purpose had been to settle Crade down. “What’s an example of a person of high repute? Some fraa sitting in a concent?”
“Yes,” Sammann said.
“And what would a low-repute source be?”
“A conspiracy theorist. Or anyone who makes a lot of long rambling posts that are only read by like-minded sorts.”
“That depends,” Sammann said, “on what the Deolater is writing about.”
“What if he’s writing about Ecba? Orithena? The Teglon?” Crade asked, whacking his index finger into a phototype that depicted the ten-sided plaza in front of the ancient temple.
“The filters tell me that a lot has been posted in that vein,” Sammann said, “as you appear to know very well. Sorting it out is difficult. When I see such a pattern emerging in the filter interface, my gut tells me that most of it is probably crap. It’s a quick and superficial judgment. I could be wrong. I apologize if my choice of words offended you.”
“You’re forgiven,” Crade snapped.
“Well!” I exclaimed, after a few moments’ awkward silence had gone by. “This has been fascinating. It’s good that we figured this out before we wasted a lot of time searching the mountains! Obviously, the whole premise of my search for Orolo has changed. None of you imagined he would be going to the other side of the world. So you’ll all want to turn around and head back south at this point.”
Everyone just looked at me. None of their faces was readable.
“Or so I imagine,” I added.
“This changes nothing,” Sammann said.
“I’m not about to ditch my sib in this dump,” Cord said.
“You have to have two vehicles in case one breaks down in the cold,” said Ganelial Crade. I couldn’t argue with his logic. But I didn’t for one moment think that this was his real reason for wanting to tag along. Not after he had let the word
“From here to Eighty-three North is two thousand miles on a great circle route,” said Sammann, working his jeejah. “On the highway, it’s twenty-five hundred and some.”
“If you and Sammann learn to drive, Raz, so that we can switch off, we can make it in three or four days,” Crade said.
“The road’s bound to get worse as we go north,” Cord said. “I would plan on it taking a week.”
Crade was eager to dispute that with her but she added, “And we’ll have to modify the vehicles.”
So we encamped in the fueling station’s back lot and set to work. Once the proprietors understood that we were just passing through en route to the far north, they became more comfortable with us and things got easier. They assumed we were just another crew of vagabonds going up to mine the ruins, and better equipped and financed than most.
The next day we used Cord’s fetch to go out and buy new tires for Crade’s. Then we used his to get tires for hers. The new tires were deeply grooved and had hobnails sticking out of them. Cord and Gnel (as Ganelial Crade now insisted we call him) worked together on some sort of tool-intensive project to replace the vehicles’ coolants and lubricants with ones that would not freeze. Neither Sammann nor I knew much about working on vehicles, so we stood around and tried to be useful. Sammann used his jeejah to study the route north, reading logs posted by travelers who’d gone that way recently.
“Hey,” I said to him at one point, “my mind keeps going back to an image I saw on that speely feed yesterday.”
“The burning librarian?”
“The mudslide hitting the school?”
“The brain-damaged boy playing with the puppies?”
“Okay, I give up.”
“A rocket taking off.”
He looked at me. “And—what? Blowing up? Crashing into an orphanage?”
“No. That’s the thing. It just took off.”
“Did it have celebrities on board or—”
“Not that they showed. They’d show that, wouldn’t they?”
“I wonder why they bothered to show it then. Rockets take off all the time.”
“Well, I’m no judge of these things, but it looked like an especially big one.”
For the first time Sammann seemed to take my meaning. “I’ll see what I can find,” he said.
An elderly but bustling lady—one of Gnel’s co-religionists—came out with a cake that had been baked for us, then snared Gnel in a conversation that never seemed to end. While they were talking, a big, mud-splattered fetch with a wooden cabin on its back thundered into the fueling station, circled around us a couple of times, and claimed four parking spaces. The cake lady marched away, her face all pinched up. A big man with a beard shambled out of the cabin-fetch and came toward Gnel with his hands in his pockets, looking about curiously. When he got closer to Gnel he suddenly flashed a grin and extended his hand. Gnel extended his after a moment’s hesitation and let the other heave it up and down for a while. They spoke for no more than a few seconds, then the newcomer began to pace around our little encampment taking a mental inventory of what we had and reconstructing in his mind what we’d been doing there. After a few minutes of that, he unfolded a sort of deployable counter from the side of his cabin-on-wheels and fired up a stove and began to make hot beverages for us.
“That’s Yulassetar Crade. My cousin,” Gnel told me as we watched him erect a little kitchen, blowing dust out of teacups and polishing pots with a rag from his pocket.
“What happened?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?” Gnel asked, nonplussed.
“It’s obvious from the way that you and that lady react to him that there is some history. Some kind of trouble between you.”
“Yul is a here—” Gnel began, and stopped himself before he had got to the end of the word. “An apostate.”
I wanted to ask,
Yul made no effort to introduce himself, but when I approached him he turned to me with a smile and shook my hand before turning back to his chores. “Hold your arms out,” he said, and when I complied he put a tray on them and then placed cups of hot stuff on the tray. “For your friends,” he said.
I insisted that he come with me, though. So after giving Gnel a cup we went over to Sammann and I introduced the two of them. Then I talked Cord into sliding out from under her fetch. She stood up and dusted herself off and shook Yul’s hand. They gave each other a funny look, which made me speculate that they might have crossed paths before. But neither one of them said anything about it. She accepted her cup and then they turned away from each other as if something embarrassing had happened.
Yulassetar Crade gave me a lift into town so that I could run a couple of errands. First, I mailed my letter to Ala, care of the Concent of Saunt Tredegarh. The woman at the post office gave me a lot of trouble because it wasn’t properly addressed. Concents didn’t have addresses for the same reason that I didn’t have a passport. I knew I’d made a terrible mistake by not giving some sort of note to Arsibalt or Lio at the picnic in Samble. They could have smuggled it directly to Ala. Instead of which I had to mail this thing to the concent, where it would be intercepted by the hierarchs and—if they were sticking to the Discipline—kept out of Ala’s knowledge until her next Apert, more than nine years from now. I could only imagine what she’d think of me at that time, reading this yellowed document written by a boy not yet twenty years of age.
The next stop on the itinerary was a place where we could get suitsacks: huge orange coveralls whose legs could be zipped together to make them into sleeping bags. These were made for people who hunted or scavenged in the far north. Each had a catalytic power unit built into it; as long as you kept some fuel in its bladder it would supply a modest trickle of power that was routed down the suits’ arms and legs to warming-pads placed in the soles of the boots and the palms of the mittens. New ones could be pretty expensive, but Yul had helped Orolo get a cheap one the other day. He knew of places where you could get used ones that had been fixed up, and he knew tricks for making them more comfortable.
Once we’d taken care of that we set out in search of other gear and supplies we were going to need. Whenever I suggested going to an outdoorsy type of store, Yul winced and groaned, and then explained how better stuff could be had at one-tenth the price by using things you could buy at stores that sold housewares and groceries. He was always right, of course. He made his living as a wilderness guide, taking vacationers on trips to the mountains. Apparently he had no work at the moment, because he spent the whole day driving me around Norslof helping me improvise what we needed. When we were unable to get what we wanted at a store, he promised to supply us out of his own personal stock.
The driving consumed an unbelievable amount of time. The traffic was always bad, or so it seemed to me. But I wasn’t used to the vehicular life of a city. When the traffic slowed to a stop, people in the mobes around us would look out the windows at Yul’s ramshackle fetch. If they were grownups they would soon look the other way, but children loved to point and stare and laugh. And they were right to do so. Yul and I were an odd pair, compared to all of these people driving to school and to work.
At first Yul seemed to feel an obligation to be a good host—to provide entertainment during traffic jams. “Music?” he said distantly, as if music were something he had heard of once. Hearing no objection, he took to fiddling with the controls on his sound system as if they had broken off in his hands and were no longer attached to anything. Eventually he left it set on a random feed. Later, once he got to talking, I reached over and turned it off and he didn’t notice.
Part of his job, I guessed, was to make people he’d just met (his clients) feel comfortable, which he did by telling stories. He was good at it. I tried to get him to talk about Orolo but he didn’t have much to say. Orolo might be a lot of things to me but to Yul he was just another tenderfoot who needed advice on how to travel in the rough. This did, however, lead to the topic of getting around in the far north, which he knew a lot about.
Later I asked him if all of his travel had been in that direction and he scoffed and said that no, he’d spent years as a river guide in a region south of Samble that was gouged by deep sandstone canyons filled with spectacular rock formations. He told some good stories about such trips, but after a while became uncomfortable and stopped talking. Telling tales, it seemed, was a good way to loosen things up, a useful time-killer, but what he really wanted was a project into which he could pour his energies and his intelligence.
At some point during the day, he stopped referring to “you” as in “You’re going to need extra fuel in case you have to melt snow to make drinking water” and began speaking of “we” as in “We should plan on at least four flat tires.”
Yul’s house was really just a dumping ground for stuff he couldn’t fit into his fetch: camping equipment, vehicle parts, empty bottles, weapons, and books. The books were stacked in piles that came up to my hip. He didn’t seem to own any shelves. A lot of them were fiction but he also had several geology-piles. Nailed to the wall were big blown-up phototypes of colorful sedimentary rock formations, sculpted by water and wind. In his cellar, where we went to mine more equipment, he had stacks of tabular rocks-slabs of sandstone—with fossils in them.
After we’d got everything he thought we’d need, and begun driving through another traffic jam back to the fueling station, I said to him, “You figured out that the world was old, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” he said immediately. “I spent years on rafts going down those rivers. Years. The whole way, there’s rocks strewn along the banks. Rocks the size of houses that fell off the canyon walls, higher up. Just looking down one of those canyons, you can see it happens all the time.”
“You mean, rocks falling down.”
“Yeah. It’s like, if you’re driving down this highway and you see skid marks on the pavement, like those right there, any idiot knows that skidding happens. If you see
“But you never did.”
“Never. Not once.”
“So you realized that the time scale had to be enormous.”
“Yeah. I tried to figure it out once. I don’t have the theorics. But I kept an eye on that river for five years and not a single rock fell down while I was running it. If Arbre is only five thousand years old—if all the rocks in that canyon have fallen down in that short a time—I should have seen some rocks fall.”
“The people in your ark didn’t like what you had to say about that,” I guessed.
“There’s a reason I got out of Samble.”
That was the end of that conversation. It was the evening rush hour now and we drove in silence for a long time. I was fascinated by the little glimpses of other people’s lives that I got through the windows of their mobes. Then I was struck by how different Yul’s life seemed to be from theirs.
The way in which Yul had decided to join us on our journey north was strange to me. There had been no rational process: no marshaling of evidence, no weighing of options. But that was how Yul lived his whole life. He had not—I realized—been invited by Gnel to come out and pay us a visit at the fueling station. He had just shown up. He did a new thing with a new set of people every day of his life. And that made him just as different from the people in the traffic jam as I was.
So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes, and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn’t live without story had been driven into the concents or into jobs like Yul’s. All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why S?culars were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part? We avout had it ready-made because we were a part of this project of learning new things. Even if it didn’t always move fast enough for people like Jesry, it did move. You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story. Yul got all of this for free by living his stories from day to day, and the only drawback was that the world held his stories to be of small account. Perhaps that was why he felt such a compulsion to tell them, not just about his own exploits in the wilderness, but those of his mentors.
We at last reached the fueling station. Yul deployed his traveling kitchen and began to make supper. He made no formal announcement that he was coming with us, but this was obvious from the way he talked, and so after a while Gnel went into the station and struck a deal with the management for Cord to leave her fetch parked there for a couple of weeks. Cord began to move things from her fetch into Yul’s. As he cooked, Yul observed this procedure closely, and soon began to complain, in a joking way, about the enormous volume of unnecessary clutter that Cord was, according to him, stuffing into his home-on-wheels. Cord soon began to volley the abuse back at him. Within about sixty seconds they were saying amazingly rude things to each other. I couldn’t take part in their banter any more than I could get between two persons who were kissing or fighting, so I drifted over to Sammann.
“I found that rocket speely,” he told me. “You were right about its being big. That’s one of the largest rockets going nowadays.”
“The payload,” he said. “Its shape and size match those of a vehicle that is generally used to carry humans into space.”
“How many humans?”
“Up to eight.”
“Well, is there any information about who is on board, or why they’re going up there?”
Sammann shook his head. “Not unless you count the absence of information as information.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“According to the Powers That Be, the vehicle is unmanned. It’s a test of a new system. Under syndev control.”
I gave him a look. He grinned and held up his hands. “I know, I know! I’ve made inquiries on a few reticules known to me. In a few days maybe we’ll have something.”
“In a few days we’ll be at the North Pole.”
“In a few days,” he said, “that might be a wise place to be.”
The next morning, after a large breakfast prepared by Yul and Cord, we started the journey north. Cord’s fetch stayed behind. Our caravan consisted of the Crade vehicles, that of Yulassetar containing most of the gear, that of Ganelial carrying his three-wheeler in the back.
The first leg was north and downhill to the coastal plain, a turn to the right when we neared salt water, and then a long sweeping leftward curve as we skirted a gulf of the northern ocean. At the head of that gulf lay what had been the greatest port in the world for a couple of centuries back in the First Millennium A.R. when the water had stayed ice-free all year round. Because of its location it had later become the “shallowest” of all ruins—the easiest to mine. Most of its great works—its viaducts, seawalls, and bridges—had been hammered apart by scavengers who had extracted the reinforcing bars buried in the synthetic stone and shipped the metal to places where it was needed. The rubble-mounds were forested with immense trees. The only remaining structure from that age was a suspension bridge over the great river that emptied into the head of the gulf; it was high enough above sea level that the resurgent pack ice had not crushed it. At this time of year there was no ice to be seen, but it was easy to make out the scars it had left along the rubble-banks. This port-ruin now functioned as a fishing village and drummon stop. A few hundred people lived here, at least in the summer. Once we left it behind and struck inland, heading almost due north, we saw only scattered settlements, which thinned and failed as we climbed into forested hills. We then descended into an unmistakably different landscape: taiga, a country too dry and cold for trees to grow much higher than a person’s head. Almost all traffic had vanished from the highway. We drove for an hour without seeing any other vehicles. Finally we stopped in a rocky place near a river, pulled our vehicles round to where they couldn’t be seen from the road, and slept in our suitsacks.
The next morning, the brand-new stove we had bought after leaving Samble stopped working. If Yul hadn’t joined us, we’d have spent the rest of the trip eating cold energy bars. Yul, looking quietly triumphant, produced a thunderous breakfast on his battery of roaring industrial burners. Watching his cousin work, Gnel seemed proud, if exasperated. As if to say,
Since there was almost no traffic on the road, I took driving lessons from Yul while Cord dismantled the stove. She diagnosed the problem as a clogged orifice, attributable to gunk that had precipitated from the fuel during the cold night.
“You’re fuming,” she pointed out a while later. I realized that I had withdrawn from the conversation. She and Yul had been talking, but I hadn’t heard a word of their conversation. “What is the problem?”
“I just can’t believe that in this day and age we are having a problem with chemical fuel,” I said.
“Sorry. We should have bought the premium brand.”
“No, it’s not that. Nothing for you to be sorry about. I’m just pointing out that this stove is four-thousand-year-old praxis.”
Cord was nonplussed. “Same goes for this fetch and everything in it,” she said.
“Hey!” Yul cried, mock-wounded.
Cord scoffed, rolled her eyes, and turned her attention back to me. “Everything except for your sphere, that is. So?”
“I guess because I live in a place with almost zero praxis, it never occurs to me to think about such things,” I said. “But at times like this, the absurdity hits me between the eyes. There’s no reason to put up with junk like this. A stove with dangerous, unreliable chemical fuel. With orifices that clog. In four thousand years we could have made a better stove.”
“Would I be able to take that stove apart and fix it?”
“You wouldn’t have to, because it would never break.”
“But I want to know if I could understand such a stove.”
“You’re the kind of person who could probably understand just about anything if you set your mind to it.”
“Nice flattery, Raz, but you keep dodging the question.”
“All right, I take your point. You’re really asking if the average person could understand the workings of such a thing…”
“I don’t know what an average person is. But look at Yul here. He built his stove himself. Didn’t you, Yul?”
Yul was uneasy that Cord had suddenly made this conversation about him. But he deferred to her. He glanced away and nodded. “Yup. Got the burners from scavengers. Welded up the frame.”
“And it worked,” Cord said.
“I know,” I said, and patted my belly.
“No, I mean the system worked!” Cord insisted.
She was exasperated. “The…the…”
“The non-system,” Yul said. “The lack of a system.”
“Yul knew that stoves like this were unreliable!” Cord said, nodding at the broken one. “He’d learned that from experience.”
“Oh, bitter experience, my girl!” Yul proclaimed.
“He ran into some scavengers who’d found better burner heads in a ruin up north. Haggled with them. Figured out a way to hook them up. Probably has been tinkering with them ever since.”
“Took me two years to make it run right,” Yul admitted.
“And none of that would have been possible with some kind of technology that only an avout can understand,” Cord concluded.
“Okay, okay,” I said, and let it drop there. Letting the argument play out would have been a waste of breath. We, the theors, who had retreated (or, depending on how you liked your history, been herded) into the maths at the Reconstitution, had the power to change the physical world through praxis. Up to a point, ordinary people liked the changes we made. But the more clever the praxis became, the less people understood it and the more dependent they became on us—and they didn’t like that at all.
Cord spent a while telling Yul what she knew about the Cousins, and about all that had happened during the journey from Saunt Edhar to Samble to Norslof. Yul took it pretty calmly, which irked me. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him and make him see, somehow, that this was an event of cosmic significance: the most important thing that had ever happened. But he listened to Cord’s narration as if she were relating a story of how she had fixed a flat tire on her way to work. Perhaps it was a habit of wilderness guides to feign unnatural calm when people ran up to them with upsetting news.
Anyway, it gave me an opening to carry forward the stove argument in a way that wouldn’t make Cord so irritated. When the conversation lapsed, I tried: “I see why you guys—or anyone—would feel more comfortable with a stove you could take apart and understand. And I’m fine with that—normally. But these are not normal times. If the Cousins turn out to be hostile, how can we oppose them? Because it looks like they came from a world that didn’t have anything like the Reconstitution.”
“A dictatorship of the theors,” Yul said.
“It doesn’t have to be a dictatorship! If you could see how theors behave in private, you’d know they could never be that organized.”
But Cord was of one mind with Yul on this. “Once they get to the point where they’re building ships like that one,” she said, “it is a dictatorship in effect. You said yourself it would take the resources of a whole planet. How do you think they got their hands on those resources?”
In most cases Cord and I saw things the same way and the extra/avout split simply was not important to us, so when she talked this way it made me more upset than I cared to let on. I let it drop for a while. On these endless drives, it was nothing to let the conversation pause for an hour or two.
And there was something else going on, which was that everything had changed about Cord when Yul had showed up. These two simply knew what to do around each other. Whatever was going on between them, I wasn’t part of it, and I felt jealous.
We passed through another ruin-city, almost as “shallow” as yesterday’s and almost as thoroughly erased.
“The Cousins’ praxis is nothing to jump up and down about,” I said. “We haven’t seen anything on that ship that couldn’t have been built in our own Praxic Age. That makes me think that we could build a weapon that could disable their ship.”
Cord smiled and the tension was gone. “You sound like Fraa Jad the other day!” she exclaimed, with obvious affection—for me.
“Oh really? What did the old man say?” I could hear the hurt draining out of my own speech.
She adopted a pretty good imitation of his grumbling voice. “‘Their electrical systems could be disabled by a burst of whozamajigger fields.’ Then Lio said, ‘Begging your pardon, Fraa Jad, but we don’t know how to make those.’ ‘Why, it’s simple, just build a phrastic array of whatsit-field inducers.’ ‘Sorry, Fraa Jad, but no one knows those theorics any more and it takes thirty years’ study to get up to speed!’ and so on.”
I laughed. But then—tallying the days in my head—I realized something: “They’re probably reaching Tredegarh right now. Probably starting to talk about how to make those whatsit field inducers.”
“I would hope so!”
“The S?cular Power probably has tons of information about the Cousins that has been withheld from us until now. Maybe they’ve even been going up there and
“Hey!” Yul said in mock outrage and pretended to haul off and punch me in the shoulder.
“I guess that’s part of being a pawn,” I went on.
“Your vision of what the Convox is like sounds pretty romantic to me,” Cord said. “Way too optimistic. Remember the first day at the machine-hall when we were trying to get seventeen people into six vehicles?”
“This Convox thing is probably like that except a thousand times worse.”
“Unless there’s someone like me there,” Yul said. “You should see the way I can get seventeen tourists into four rafts.”
“Well, Yul’s not at Tredegarh,” Cord pointed out, “so you’re not missing a thing. Just relax and enjoy the drive.”
“Okay,” I said, and laughed a little. “Your understanding of human nature is better than mine.”
“What’s her problem with me then?” Yul demanded.
As the drive went on, most of us bounced back and forth between the two vehicles. The exception was Gnel who always remained in his fetch, though sometimes he’d let Sammann drive it.
The next day, when Cord and I were alone together for a couple of hours, she told me that she and Yul had become boyfriend and girlfriend.
“Huh,” I said, “I guess that explains why you two spend so much time out ‘gathering firewood.’” I wasn’t trying to be a smarty-pants, just trying to emulate the kind of banter that Cord and Yul exchanged so freely. But Cord became quite embarrassed and I realized that I had struck too close to home. I groped around for something else to say. “Well, now that you’ve told me, it seems like it was meant to be. I guess I just didn’t see it because I had this idea that you were going out with Rosk.”
Cord thought that was pretty silly. “Remember all those conversations I was having with him on my jeejah the other day?”
“Well, what we were really doing was breaking up.”
“Well, Cord, I hate to be a pedantic avout, but I couldn’t help overhearing your half of those conversations, and I don’t think I heard a single word that was even remotely about breaking up.”
She looked at me as if I were insane.
“All I’m saying,” I said, holding up my hands, “is that I had no idea that that was what was going on.”
“Neither did I,” Cord said.
“Do you think…” I began, and stopped. I’d been about to say
Cord and I had talked surprisingly little about our family—that is, the family I’d shared with her until I’d “gone to the clock.” But what little I’d heard had left me amazed by how clever people were at finding ways to make each other crazy and miserable, whether it was those they were related to or a crowd of strangers they’d been thrown together with in a concent. Cord sometimes seemed eighty years old in her knowledge and experience and cynicism about such things. I couldn’t help thinking she’d thrown up her hands at some point and decided to devote the rest of her life to mastering things, such as machines, that could be made sense of and fixed. No wonder she hated the idea of machines she couldn’t understand. And no wonder she didn’t waste a lot of time trying to understand things she couldn’t—like why she was now Yul’s girlfriend.
When the climate had been warmer, civilizations had sloshed back and forth across this glacier-planed landscape for a couple of thousand years like silt in a miner’s pan, forming drifts of built-up stuff that stayed long after the people had departed. At any given moment during those millennia, a billion might have lived on this territory that now supported a few tens of thousands. How many bodies were buried up here, how many people’s ashes scattered? Ten, twenty, fifty billion all told? Given that they all used electricity, how many miles of copper wire had been sewn through their buildings and under their pavements? How many man-years had been devoted to the one activity of pulling and stapling those wires into place? If one out of a thousand was an electrician, something like a billion man-years had been devoted to running wire from one point to another. After the weather had grown cold again and the civilizations had, over the course of a few centuries, shifted south—moving like glaciers—scavengers had begun coming up here to undo those billion man-years one tedious hour at a time, and retrieve those countless miles of wire yard by yard. Professional scavengers working on an industrial scale had gotten ninety percent of it quickly. I’d seen pictures of factories on tank treads that rolled across the north and engulfed whole city blocks at a time, treating the fabric of the ruins just as a mining robot would an ore-rich hill, grinding the buildings to rubble and sorting the shards according to density. The first ruins we had seen were the feces that those machines left along their paths.
Stripping ruins by hand was more expensive. When times were prosperous elsewhere, metals became precious enough that miners could make a life out of venturing to the deep ruins—far-flung cities of old, never reached by the factories-on-tank-treads—and extracting whatever was most valuable: copper wires, steel beams, plumbing, or what have you. The swag made its way toward the road we were driving in fitful stages, from one anarchic little tundra market-town to the next. Snowstorms and arctic pirate-bands might impede its progress but eventually it found the road and was piled on the backs of ramshackle drummons that seemed to consist of seventy-five percent rust by weight, held together only by rimes of ice and shaggy cloaks of dirty snow. These moved in caravans for protection, so it was hopeless to try to pass them, but they moved fast enough for our purposes and they afforded us the safety of the herd once they’d figured out we were pilgrims, not pirates. We stayed well back of them so that we’d have time to swerve whenever a rigid glyph of plumbing or a hairball of wire fell off onto the road. Our windscreen grew opaque with tire-flung mud-ice. We kept the side windows open so that we could reach out and wipe it off with rags on sticks. On the third day the rags froze; after that we kept the stove running with a pot of warm water on top of it, to thaw them out. Through our open windows we looked at ruins passing by. We learned to tell what age a place had been built by the character of its fortifications: missile silos, three-mile-long runways, curtain walls, stone ramparts, acres of curled razor barbs, belts of sequence-engineered thorn trees, all more or less torn down and deranged by scavengers.
As the days went on, all of this stuff was dusted, then frosted, then choked, flattened, crushed, drowned, obliterated by ice. After that, the only things we saw that had been put there by humans were wrecks of former sledge ports: fluctuations of climate or of markets had left them defenseless long enough to die. The landscape a mile from the road was clean and white, that along the road was the most disgusting thing I’d seen the whole trip. The snow-piles along the sides of the road grew higher and blacker until our way became a carbon-black slit trench twenty feet deep, crammed with drummons moving about as fast as a healthy person could walk. After that there was no escape. We could have shut off our vehicles’ engines and the drummon behind us would have shoved us all the way to the end of the road. They had snorkels to draw fresh air down into their cabs. We hadn’t thought to so equip ourselves, and spent the last day breathing oily blue exhaust. When this became too sickening to endure we would swap drivers and climb up out of the trench (there were occasional ramps in the snow-walls) and simply walk alongside for a while (we had bought snowshoes, improvised from scavenged building materials, in one of the tundra markets) or ride on Gnel’s three-wheeler.
It was on one of those trudges—the very last leg—that Yul finally asked me about the parking ramp dinosaur.
Ever since our day together in Norslof, it had been clear he’d wanted to get something off his chest. When he and Cord had suddenly become an item, he’d avoided being alone with me for a couple of days. But once it was clear that I was not going to go nonlinear, he’d begun a gentle search for opportunities to talk to me one-on-one. I’d assumed the topic was going to be him and Cord. But Yul was full of surprises.
“Some say it was a dinosaur, some say dragon,” I told him. “One of the first things we were taught about the incident is that nothing can be known of it for certain—”
“Since all evidence was wiped out by the Incanters?”
“That’s one story. The second thing we were taught, by the way, was that we should never discuss the incident with S?culars.”
He got a frustrated look.
“Sorry,” I said, “that’s just how it is. Most accounts agree that one group, let’s call them Group A, started it, and Group B finished it. In popular folkore, A equals the so-called Rhetors and B equals the so-called Incanters. It happened three months before the opening of the Third Sack.”
“But the dinosaur—or the dragon or whatever—really did appear in the parking ramp.”
Yul and I were walking side-by-side on compacted snow, a stone’s throw off to the right side of the drummon-jammed slit trench. Closer to it, conditions were dangerous because men, many of them intoxicated, were zipping back and forth on snow machines. The track that Yul and I were following appeared to have been laid down by such a machine a day or two earlier. We could tell where our fetches were in the trench because we’d learned to recognize the jury-rigged snorkels of the adjoining drummons. The traffic seemed to be accelerating slightly, so that we had to mush harder in order to keep pace. This was probably because we were only a couple of miles from the sledge port. We could see its antennas, its smoke, and its lights a couple of miles ahead. Even if the fetches outdistanced us, we’d be able to reach it on foot, so we weren’t overly concerned about keeping up.
“It was only a couple of thousand feet away from Muncoster,” I said. “There was a city there—as there is now. Overall level of affluence and praxic development, let’s say nine on a scale of ten.”
“Where are we today?” Yul asked.
“Let’s say eight. But the society around Muncoster had peaked, though they didn’t know it yet. Deolaters were gaining political influence.”
“I don’t know. One of those that is aggressive about garnering power. They had an iconography—”
“Well,” I said, “let’s just say that they felt threatened by certain things that avout tend to believe.”
“Such as that the world is old,” Yul said.
“Yeah. There had been trouble at a couple of Annual Aperts, and bigger trouble at the Decennial of 2780. The Tenners’ math got sacked a little on Tenth Night. But then things seemed to calm down. Apert was over. Things went back to normal. So, now, a parking ramp was then under construction within sight of the concent. It was part of a shopping center. The avout could see it going up, just by looking out the windows of their towers—Muncoster has a lot of towers. The ramp was finished a few months later. S?culars went in there every day and parked their cars. No problem. Six years passed. The shopping center expanded. The workers had to make some structural changes to the parking ramp so that they could attach a new wing. One of them was up on the fourth level, using a pneumatic hammer to demolish part of the floor, when he noticed something embedded in the synthetic stone. It looked like a claw. Investigating, they removed more and more stone. It was a major safety issue since the building isn’t structurally sound if there are such things as claws and bones in load-bearing members. They had to shore it up—the building was weakening, sagging, before their eyes. The more they uncovered, the worse it got. When all was said and done, they had uncovered a complete skeleton of a hundred-foot-long reptile embedded in synthetic stone that had only been poured four years earlier. The Deolaters didn’t know what to make of it. There started to be serious unrest and violence around the walls of the concent. Then one night, chanting was heard from the Thousanders’ tower. It went on all night. The next day, the parking ramp was back to normal. So the story goes.”
“Do you believe it?” Yul asked.
“You mean, like, phototypes of the skeleton?”
“I’m referring more to things like the memories in the witnesses’ minds. Piles of lumber used to shore up the structure. The paperwork at the lumberyard. A little bit of additional wear on the tires of the drummons that carried the lumber to the site.”
“Like ripples spreading out,” Yul said.
“Yeah. So if the skeleton suddenly vanishes, and there’s no physical evidence it was ever there, what do you have left?”
“Only the records,” Yul said, nodding vigorously, as if he understood it better than I. “The ripples, without the splash.”
“The tires of the lumber drummon didn’t suddenly get un-worn. The paperwork at the lumberyard didn’t vanish from the files. But now there is a conflict. The world isn’t coherent any more—there are logical contradictions.”
“Big piles of shoring lumber in front of a parking ramp that never needed to be shored up,” Yul said.
“Yeah. And it’s not that this is physically impossible. Obviously it is
We heard a braying engine behind us and turned around to see Ganelial Crade headed our way on the three-wheeler. Yul and I exchanged a look that meant
We reached the sledge port at Eighty-three North at two in the morning, which only meant that the sun was slightly lower in the sky than usual. The slit-road debouched into a plateau of pack ice a mile or two wide, and somewhat lower than the surrounding ice, so that it felt like being on the floor of a large meteorite crater. Here and there, housing modules rose on stilts that could be moved and adjusted when the ice flowed under them. The drummons tended to congregate around these. Each was the headquarters of a different scrap dealer, and the drivers would hustle from one to the next trying to get the best prices for their loads. Other structures served as hostels, eateries, or bordellos.
The place was dominated by the sledge train itself. The first time I saw this, with the low sun behind it, I mistook it for a factory. The locomotive looked like one of those city-eating scrap processors: a power plant and a village of housing modules built on a bridge that spanned the interval between two colossal tracks. In the train behind it were half a dozen sledges, each built on parallel runners that rode in the ruts of packed snow laid down by the locomotive’s treads. The first of these was built to carry shipping containers. They were stacked four high, and an ungainly crane on wheels was laboring to begin a fifth layer. Behind it were a few sledges that simply consisted of great open boxes. Another crane, equipped with pincers easily big enough to snatch both of our vehicles at the same time, was clawing tangles of scrap metal from a pile on the snow and dropping them into these with heart-stopping crashes. The last sledge in the train was a flatbed: a mobile parking lot about half full of loaded drummons.
We spent a while blundering around, but from having talked to drummon operators at roadside stops we had a general notion of how the place worked and some good suggestions on how
Getting about was a hazard because there were no established rights-of-way. Drummons and fetches just moved in straight lines toward whatever their jumped-up drivers wanted to reach. So we tended to use our vehicles even for short movements. We found the office-on-stilts that booked places on the flatbed, and arranged to have both of our vehicles loaded upon it. But we paid a little extra to get Gnel’s fetch situated at the edge, rather than in the middle; that way, by deploying planks as ramps, we were able to get the three-wheeler on and off at will. It then became our means of moving around the sledge port, though it could only take two at a time and so at any given moment three of us would be marooned. So we rented one of the housing modules on the locomotive and marooned ourselves there. It was cheap. The toilet was a hole in the floor covered, when not used, by a trapdoor weighed down with slugs of scrap iron so that arctic gales wouldn’t blow it open. A few trips up and down the sledge train in the three-wheeler sufficed to stock our little house with the rations and other goods we’d packed into the fetches, as well as a surprisingly comprehensive arsenal of projectile and edged weapons. Yulassetar and Ganelial Crade might disagree about religion, but in their relationship to arms they were the same mind in two different bodies. They even used the same types of cases to store their guns, and the same boxes for ammunition. Many at the sledge port carried weapons openly, and there was a place at the edge of “town” where people would go out and discharge weapons into the encircling ice-wall just to pass the time. On the whole, though, the place was more orderly and predictable than the territory we’d spent the last week driving though. As I was coming to understand, it had to be thus because it was a place of commerce.
Once we were settled in, Sammann and I took the three-wheeler and made the rounds of bars and brothels just to confirm that Orolo wasn’t in any of them. Cord clambered around on the locomotive, admiring its workings, and Yul followed her. He claimed to be as interested in such things as Cord, but to me it was obvious that he expected she’d be raped if she went out alone.
We killed time for several days. I tried to read some theorics books I’d brought, but couldn’t concentrate, and ended up sleeping for unreasonable amounts of time. Sammann had found a place near an office-module where he could get patchy connections to the Reticulum. He went there once a day, then came back to scan through the information he had acquired. Yul and Cord watched speelies on a tiny jeejah screen when they weren’t “gathering firewood.” Ganelial Crade read his scriptures in Old Bazian and began to signal interest in something that he had been polite enough to avoid and that I had been dreading: religion.
Sammann once saved me from a near brush with that by looking up suddenly from his jeejah, finding my face at the other end of the room, then dropping his gaze again to the screen. He’d recently come back from one of his data-foraging expeditions; there were still a few clots of ice dangling from his whiskers. I went over and squatted next to his chair.
“After we left Samble I began trying to obtain access to certain reticules,” Sammann explained. “Normally these would have been closed to me, but I thought I might be able to get in if I explained what I was doing. It took a little while for my request to be considered. The people who control these were probably searching the Reticulum to obtain corroboration for my story.”
“How would that work?” I asked.
Sammann was not happy that I’d inquired. Maybe he was tired of explaining such things to me; or maybe he still wished to preserve a little bit of respect for the Discipline that we had so flagrantly been violating. “Let’s suppose there’s a speelycaptor at the mess hall in that hellhole town where we bought snow tires.”
“Norslof,” I said.
“Whatever. This speelycaptor is there as a security measure. It sees us walking to the till to pay for our terrible food. That information goes on some reticule or other. Someone who studies the images can see that I was there on such-and-such a date with three other people. Then they can use other such techniques to figure out who those people are. One turns out to be Fraa Erasmas from Saunt Edhar. Thus the story I’m telling is corroborated.”
“Okay, but how—”
“Never mind.” Then, as if he’d grown weary of using that phrase, he caught himself short, closed his eyes for a moment, and tried again. “If you must know, they probably ran an asamocra on me.”
“Asynchronous, symmetrically anonymized, moderated open-cry repute auction. Don’t even bother trying to parse that. The acronym is pre-Reconstitution. There hasn’t been a true asamocra for 3600 years. Instead we do other things that serve the same purpose and we call them by the old name. In most cases, it takes a few days for a provably irreversible phase transition to occur in the reputon glass—never mind—and another day after that to make sure you aren’t just being spoofed by ephemeral stochastic nucleation. The point being, I was not granted the access I wanted until recently.” He smiled and a hunk of ice fell off his whiskers and landed on the control panel of his jeejah. “I was going to say ‘until today’ but this damned day never ends.”
“Fine. I don’t really understand anything you said but maybe we can save that for later.”
“That would be good. The point is that I was trying to get information about that rocket launch you glimpsed on the speely.”
“Ah. And have you succeeded?”
“I’d say yes. You might say no because you avout like your information tidily written down in a book and cross-checked by other avout. The information we trade in is noisy and ambiguous and suggestive. Often it’s images or acoustical signatures instead of words.”
“I accept your rebuke. What have you got?”
“Eight went up on that rocket.”
“So the official statement was a lie as we suspected.”
“Who were they?”
“I don’t know. That’s where things get noisy and ambiguous. This thing was very hush-hush. Military secrets and so forth. There is no passenger manifest that I can read to you. No stack of dossiers. All I have is ten seconds of really bad images from the collision-avoidance speelycaptor on the windscreen of some janitor’s fetch, taken while he was parallel-parking in a tight spot a quarter of a mile away. Motion artifacts have been removed, of course.”
Sammann caused the jeejah to begin playing back a snippet of—as advertised—terrible speely data. It showed a coach, with military markings, parked next to a large building. A door in the side of the building opened. Eight people in white coveralls came out and climbed into the coach. They were followed by others who looked like doctors and technicians. The interval between the building and the coach was about twenty feet, so we got to see them walk that far. Sammann made the thing run on infinite loop. The first couple of dozen times through, we focused all of our attention on the first four people in the white suits. Faces were impossible to make out, but it was surprising how much could be inferred from how people moved. Three of the white-suited people moved in an ever-shifting triangle around a fourth, who was bigger than all of them, with prepossessing hair. He carried himself erect and moved in a heedless line; the others scurried and weaved. His coverall was subtly different from the others’: it had a pattern of stripes or markings crisscrossed over it, almost as if he’d been draped in a few yards of—
“Rope,” I said, freezing the image and pointing to it. “I’ve seen something like that before—at Apert. There was an extra wearing something like that. He was a Warden of Heaven priest. That is their ceremonial garb.”
By this point Cord had come over to watch the speely with us. She was standing behind Sammann’s chair looking over his shoulder. “Those four who are bringing up the rear,” she said, “they are avout.”
Until now we’d only had eyes for the high priest and his three acolytes. The other half of the crew didn’t do much: just walked in single file from the building to the coach. “What makes you say that?” I asked. “That is, other than the fact that they show zero interest in the guy with the rope. There is nothing to mark them as avout.”
“Yes there is,” Cord said. “The way they walk.”
“What are you talking about!? We’re all bipeds! We all walk the same way!” I protested. But Sammann had twisted around in his chair to grin up at Cord. He nodded enthusiastically.
“You two are nuts,” I said.
“Cord is right,” Sammann insisted.
“It couldn’t have been more obvious at Apert,” Cord said. “Extras swagger and slouch. They walk like they own the place.” She got out from behind the chair and strode down the middle of the room in a rolling, easy gait. “Avout—and Ita—are more self-contained.” She drew herself up and walked back to us with quick steps, not moving any air.
As crazy as this sounded, I had to admit that during Apert I’d been able to tell extras apart from fraas and suurs at a distance, partly based on how they moved. I turned my attention back to the screen. “Okay, I’ll give you that one,” I said. “The more I look at them, the more familiar that gait seems to me. Especially the tall one bringing up the rear. He is a dead ringer for—”
I couldn’t get a word out for a few moments. Everyone looked at me to see if I was okay. I couldn’t take my eyes off that speely. I watched it four more times, and each time I grew more certain of what—of
“Jesry,” I said.
“Oh, my god!” Cord exclaimed.
“His blessings and mercy upon you,” hissed Ganelial Crade, as was his custom when anyone used that word in an oath.
“That is absolutely your friend,” Cord said.
“Fraa Jesry is in space with the Warden of Heaven!” I shouted, just to hear it.
“I’m sure they are having some fascinating discussions,” said Sammann.
A couple of hours later, after we’d covered the windows and tried to sleep, the place began to hum and rumble, and there came a jerk that made half of our stuff fall to the floor. Gnel and I unzipped the legs of our suitsacks and ran out to the catwalk and looked down to see rimes of ice exploding into sparkling clouds as they were crushed by imperceptible shifting of the tread segments. We scurried to the end of the catwalk where a stair led down to near snow level, jumped off, got the three-wheeler started, and buzzed back to the flatbed. Explosive bangs resonated up and down the train as the locomotive budged forward and began to draw up slack. A couple of the flatbed’s boarding-ramps were dragging on the ice so that last-minute loading could proceed—it would be half an hour before the train was really moving. We blasted up one of these, veered around a drummon that was back-and-forthing into a tight slot, and found our way to Gnel’s fetch. We ran the three-wheeler up the plank ramps and stowed the planks under the fetch. Then we spent a while draining the coolants from all three vehicles’ engines and storing it in poly jugs. By the time we were finished, the train was moving faster than we could walk in snowshoes, so we made our way forward along the system of catwalks that skirted the sledges and linked them together. Cord and Yul had pulled up the window-coverings to let the sun in, and were cooking a big celebratory breakfast. We were on our way to the North Pole. I was glad of that. But when I thought of Fraa Jesry in orbit I couldn’t have felt more in the wrong place.
“Bastard!” I said. “That bastard!”
Everyone looked at me. We had pushed back from what, in these circumstances, counted as a huge breakfast.
Yulassetar Crade looked at Cord as if to say,
“Who? What?” Cord asked.
“A few hours ago you were about to start weeping over Jesry. Now he’s a bastard?”
“This is so typical,” I said.
“He gets launched into space frequently?” Sammann asked.
“No. It’s hard to explain, but…of all of us,
“True. But the S?cular Power must have gone to the hierarchs at Tredegarh and said ‘give us four of your best’ and this is what they came up with.” I shook my head.
“You must be proud…a little bit,” Cord tried.
I put my hands over my face and sighed. “He gets to go meet aliens. I get to ride on a junk train.” Then I uncovered my face and looked at Gnel. “What do you know about the Warden of Heaven?”
Gnel blinked. He froze for a moment. I had been avoiding religion for so long, and now I’d asked him a direct question about it! His cousin exhaled sharply and looked away, as if he were about to witness a traffic accident.
“They are heretics,” he said mildly.
“Yes, but almost everyone is to you, aren’t they?” I said. “Can you be any more specific?”
“You don’t understand,” Gnel said. “They aren’t just any heretics. They are an offshoot of my faith.” He looked at Yul. “Of
“Really?” I asked. “An offshoot of the Samblites?” This was news to the rest of us.
“Our faith was founded by Saunt Bly,” Gnel claimed.
“Before or after you ate his—”
“That,” said Gnel, “is an ancient lie invented to make us seem like a bunch of savages!”
“It’s almost impossible to saute a human liver without bruising it,” Yul put in.
“Are you saying that Saunt Bly turned into a Deolater? Like Estemard?”
Gnel shook his head. “It’s a shame you didn’t have an opportunity to talk more with Estemard. He isn’t a Deolater as you would define it—or as I would. Neither was Saunt Bly. And that’s where we differ from the Warden of Heaven people.”
“They think Bly
“Yes. Sort of a prophet, according to them, who found a proof of the existence of God and was Thrown Back because of it.”
“That’s funny because if anyone actually did prove the existence of God we’d just tell him ‘nice proof, Fraa Bly’ and start believing in God,” I said.
Gnel gave me a cool stare, letting me know he didn’t believe a word of it. “Be that as it may,” he said levelly, “it’s not the version put out by the Warden of Heaven.”
My mind went back to Apert Eve and the discussion of iconographies with Grandsuur Tamura. “This is an instance of the Brumasian Iconography,” I said.
“The Warden of Heaven is putting out the story that there is a secret conspiracy in the mathic world.”
“Yes,” Gnel said.
“Something of great import—in this instance, the existence of God—has been discovered. Most of the avout are pure of heart and want to spread the news. But they are cruelly oppressed by this conspiracy which will stop at nothing to preserve the secret.”
Gnel was getting ready to say something cautious but Yul spoke first: “You nailed it.”
“That is disheartening,” I said, “because of all the iconographies, the ones based on conspiracy theories are the hardest to root out.”
“You don’t say,” Sammann said, looking me in the eye.
I got embarrassed and shut up for a bit. Cord broke the ice: “The Cousins’ ship is still being kept secret. So we don’t know what the Warden thinks about it. But we can guess. They’ll see it as—”
“A miracle,” Yul said.
“A visitation from another world, purer and better than ours,” I guessed.
“Where the evil conspiracy doesn’t exist,” Cord said. “Come to reveal the truth.”
“What about the laser light shining down on the Three Inviolates?” Sammann asked. “How would they interpret that?”
“Depends on whether they know that the Three Inviolates are nuclear waste dumps,” I said.
“Even if they do know that,” Cord said, “they’d probably give it a more spiritual interpretation.”
Gnel was still a little off balance, but he put in, “The Warden of Heaven sees the Thousanders as the good guys.”
“Of course,” I said. “They know the truth but they can’t get the word out because they’re bottled up by conniving Tenners and Hundreders, is that it?”
“Yes,” Gnel said. “So he would interpret the laser light as—”
“A blessing,” Cord said.
“A benediction,” I said.
“An invitation,” Yul said.
“Boy, are they in for a surprise!” Sammann said delightedly.
“Probably. Maybe. We don’t know. I just hope it isn’t a nasty surprise for Jesry,” I said.
“Jesry the bastard?” Cord said.
“Yeah,” I said, and chuckled. “Jesry the bastard.”
I was feeling good because it felt like we’d gotten through this without having to endure a sermon from Ganelial Crade; but my heart fell into my gut as Cord turned to him and asked, “Where did the Warden part company from your faith, Gnel?” The last part of this sentence was a little rushed and muffled because Yul had playfully reached around her shoulder to clap his hand over her mouth, and she was twisting his fingers backwards as she talked.
“We read the scriptures ourselves in the original Bazian,” Gnel said, “so you might imagine that we are primitive fundamentalists. Maybe we are in that sense. But we aren’t blind to what has happened in the mathic world—Old and New—in the last fifty centuries. The Word of God does not change. The Book does not suffer editing or translation. But what men know and understand outside of the Book changes all the time. That’s what you avout do: try to understand God’s creation without using the direct revelations given to us by God almost six thousand years ago. To us you’re like people who’ve put out your own eyes and are now trying to explore a new continent. You’re grievously handicapped—but for that reason you may have developed senses and faculties we lack.”
After a few moments’ silence, I said, “I’m just going to hold my tongue and not even get into all that is wrong in what you’ve just said. The gist of it seems to be that we aren’t evil or misguided. You think that in the end we’ll agree with the Book.”
“Of course,” said Gnel, “it has to be that way. But we don’t think there’s a secret conspiracy to hide the truth.”
“He believes your confusion is genuine!” Yul translated. Gnel nodded.
“That’s very considerate of you,” I said.
“We preserved the notebooks of Saunt Bly,” Gnel said. “I’ve read them myself. It’s obvious he was no Deolater.”
“Excuse me for saying so,” Sammann said—this was always how he opened when he was going to insult someone—“isn’t it a little nutty for a bunch of Deolaters to found a religion based on the writings of someone they know to have been an atheist?”
“We identify with his struggle,” Gnel said, not the least bit insulted. “His struggle to find the truth.”
“But don’t you already
“We know those truths that are in the Book. Truths not therein we feel but we don’t know.”
“That sounds like something—” I began, then bit my tongue.
“That an avout would say? Like Estemard? Or Orolo?”
“Let’s not bring him into this, please.”
“Fine.” Gnel shrugged. “Orolo kept to himself. Preserved the Discipline, as near as I could tell. I never talked to him.”
Here I had to draw back. Count to ten. Take out the Rake. These people cared about eternal truths. Believed that some—but not all—such truths were written down in a book. That their book was right and the others wrong. This much they had in common with most of the other people who had ever lived. Fine—as long as they left me alone. Now they had this new wrinkle: they drew inspiration from a Saunt of the avout. It was not important that I be able to make sense of this.
“You feel the truth but you don’t know it,” Cord repeated. “Your service the other day, in Samble—we could hear your singing. It was very emotional.”
Gnel nodded. “That’s why Estemard attends—though he doesn’t believe.”
“He’s not intellectually convinced of your arguments,” Cord translated, “but he feels some of what you feel.”
“That’s exactly it!” Ganelial Crade was delighted. A strange thing to relate. But he was. As if he’d found a new convert.
“Well, even for one who doesn’t believe, I can sort of understand the attraction,” Cord said.
I gave her a look. Yul clapped his hands over his face. Cord became defensive. “I’m not saying I’m likely to join this ark. Just that it was remarkable, after driving through the middle of nowhere for hours, to come upon this building where people were gathered together and to feel the emotional bond that they shared. To know that they’ve been doing it for centuries.”
“Our ark, our towns like Samble,” Gnel said, “they are all dying. That’s why those services are so emotionally intense.”
This was the first thing he’d ever said that didn’t bristle with confidence, so we were taken aback by it. Yul took his face out of his hands and blinked at his cousin.
“Dying because of the Warden of Heaven?” Sammann guessed.
“He preaches a simple, unsubtle creed. It spreads like a disease. Those who adopt it turn around and spurn us as if we were the heretics. It is wiping us out,” Gnel said, and aimed a none too friendly look at Yul.
This was all very interesting but I had other stuff to think about.
I recalled the conversation I’d had with Orolo just before the starhenge had been closed—the one about beauty. The one that had saved my life. In retrospect it could be seen as the moment when Orolo’s mind began to crack. As if he had started and I’d stopped being crazy at the same moment.
I shook it off. Orolo had been Thrown Back. He’d had only one place to seek refuge: Bly’s Butte. Once there, he’d observed the Discipline. No singing in the ark for him. And he had gotten out of the place as soon as he’d been able to.
Wait a minute.
Maybe in a few days I could just ask him.
Allswell: A naturally occurring chemical that, when present in sufficient concentrations in the brain, engenders the feeling that everything is fine. Isolated by theors in the First Century A.R. and made available as a pharmaceutical, it became ubiquitous when a common weed, subsequently known as blithe, was sequence-engineered to produce it as a byproduct of its metabolism. Blithe was subsequently made one of the Eleven.
— THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000
The journey lasted about two days—or, up here, two waking-and-sleeping cycles. I was all of a sudden ready to get back to work. The journey from Samble to the sledge port had been a welcome respite from reading and thinking, but seeing Jesry had shocked me awake. I might be sleeping twelve hours at a time and watching speelies, but my friends were working as hard as ever and going off on dangerous missions. It was difficult for me to act on this, though. The continuous vibration and occasional jarring shifts of the sledge train were about as far as you could get from the cloister. Reading and writing were difficult; even watching speelies was hardly worth it. Going outside was out of the question. I could understand why so many people up here were substance abusers.
Before we’d departed, Sammann had done research on how to sneak across the border without documents. Economic migrants did this all the time and some of them had logged their experiences, which gave me a rough idea of what and what not to do. The most important thing
These came in two categories. The older, more established smugglers had bigger, long-haul sledge trains that they would drive over the mountains to the icebound coast, a couple of hundred miles away. There was also a newer breed using small, nimble, short-range snow machines just to circumvent the sledge port itself. We were hoping to get me on one of those. But the little ones couldn’t operate in foul weather. Of course, all of this smuggling could have been stopped if the S?cular Power had been serious about doing so, but it seemed they were willing to look the other way as long as illegals showed them the courtesy of being a little bit sneaky.
Because of the Cousins’ jamming the nav satellites we could not know our latitude, but we could guess how far we’d come by dead reckoning. When we thought we were getting close, I put on all the warm stuff I had and topped off the fuel bladder in my suitsack. The backpack I’d been issued at Voco was too small, too new, and too nice-looking, but Yul said he had an old one in his fetch that was bigger, with a metal frame. So we bundled ourselves up and made our way back over the catwalks to the flatbed in the rear. Our backs were to the wind but we staggered and flailed as the sledges bucked over ridges in the ice. We had to shovel three feet of snow off his vehicle. More snow began to fall while we were doing this, and at times it seemed to come down faster than we could get rid of it. But eventually we got into the back of Yul’s fetch and found an old military backpack that wouldn’t be too conspicuous in the company I’d soon be keeping. I transferred the contents of my little rucksack into it. We filled the remaining volume with energy bars, spare clothes, and other odds and ends, and strapped a pair of snowshoes to the sides just in case.
Back at the head of the train, Gnel supplied me with coins: enough to pay for passage if I haggled, not enough to stain me as rich. Sammann printed out a map of the region around the sledge port. Cord gave me a hug and a smack on the cheek. I went out on the catwalk, pulled the fake-fur fringe of my hood out to shield my face from wind blast, and looked out the left side of the train. Like a litter of cubs following their mother, three much smaller sledge trains were now shadowing us on that side. They’d materialized out of the storm in the last quarter of an hour. Each consisted of a tracked snow-crawler drawing a few sledges behind it. Some of those sledges were open boxes or flatbeds. These were for smuggling goods, and indeed one was now being laden; it had pulled alongside the third sledge in our train, and men were throwing boxes and kicking gravid bags down into it. Others, though, were covered—tents had been pitched on their backs. I spied a couple of men in orange suitsacks vaulting down into one of those.
Sammann had given me one guideline and two rules. The guideline: get on a sledge with lots of other passengers. There’s safety in numbers. Rule 1: don’t let your feet touch the surface. You’ll be abandoned and you’ll die. Rule 2 I’ll get to presently.
Gnel and I paced the catwalks for a quarter of an hour, hoping to see something smaller than these three trains. Tiny as they might have seemed next to the giant sledge train, they were quite a bit bigger than most vehicles you’d see on a road down south. They were probably bound west over the mountains. We did not see any of the smaller, more agile vehicles that made short-range smuggling runs in the vicinity of the sledge port. None of them was out today—probably because of the foul weather.
One sharp-eyed sledgeman spied me. He gunned his engine, coughing out a roil of black exhaust, and pulled alongside. He had only one sledge behind his crawler. He slid his window open and stuck his ruddy, hairy face out and quoted a price. I walked back a few steps so that I could look into his sledge. Empty. He quoted a lower price before I said a word.
It didn’t feel right to jump into the first one that came along, so I shook my head, turned away, and headed back toward where a larger train was taking on passengers. This operation seemed more professional—if that word made any sense here—but I’d arrived late. The sledges were already crowded with what looked like organized bands of migrants whose stares suggested I wouldn’t be welcome. And the price was high. A third, smaller train of mixed cargo and passenger sledges looked more promising: there were enough passengers aboard that I didn’t fear being abandoned.
Seeing me and a couple of other singletons in negotiations with the driver of that train, the first sledgeman swooped in again. He pulled ahead so that I could look in through the flaps of the tent on his sledge and see that he’d taken on two passengers. The door of his crawler was hanging open, so I could see his control panel. A glowing screen was mounted above it, showing a jagged trace that scrolled horizontally as we moved: a sonic. Rule 2 was that I should never entrust myself to a sledge that lacked one. It used sound waves to probe the ice ahead for hidden crevasses. Most crevasses could be bridged by the tractor’s long treads, but some might swallow it and everything in train behind it.
I asked the driver where he was headed: “Kolya,” he answered. The longer, mixed passenger-cargo train was bound for another place called Imnash. The next icebreaker, we knew, was scheduled to leave from Kolya in thirty-one hours. So, having agreed on a price, I heaved my backpack down into the one-sledge train and became its third passenger. According to custom, I paid the driver half of the agreed-on fare up front and kept the other half in my pocket, payable on arrival. For another quarter of an hour he jockeyed for position along both flanks of the train, and managed to collect one more passenger on the right side. By that point, no one remained on the catwalks. All of the little sledge trains peeled away from the big one as if they’d received a common signal. I reckoned we must be drawing close to the outpost where the inspectors would board the train.
From fifty feet we could barely see the giant train; from a hundred it was invisible. A minute after that even the throbbing of its power plant had been muffled by the snow and drowned out by the higher-pitched note of our little train’s motor.
This was hardly the sort of thing I’d had in mind when I’d walked out of the chancel at the big Voco two weeks earlier! Even when I’d made the decision to follow Orolo over the pole, I hadn’t dreamed that the last leg of the journey was going to be like this. If someone had told me back at Samble that I was going to have to go on a ride like this one, I’d have come up with an excuse not to, and gone straight to Tredegarh. What wouldn’t have been clear to me, though, back in Samble, was just how routine this all was. People did it all the time. All I needed to do was kill twenty-four hours, which was how long it would take for this contraption to reach the sea.
We four passengers sat on a pair of sideways-facing benches that could have accommodated eight. We all looked about the same in our suitsacks. Mine was new compared to theirs even though I’d been living in it for a week. Despite the trouble we’d gone to to outfit me with desperate-looking baggage, mine still gleamed in comparison with the first two passengers’: poly shopping bags bound up with poly twine and reinforced with poly tape. The last passenger had an old suitcase bound up in a neat gridwork of yellow rope.
The first two called themselves Laro and Dag, the last was Brajj, all of these being reasonably common extramuros names. I said my name was Vit. Further conversation was difficult over the engine noise and in any case these guys didn’t seem very talkative. Laro and Dag huddled together under a blanket. I had the idea that they were brothers. Brajj, having entered last, sat closest to the flaps in the rear. Between his bulk (he was a little bigger than I) and his clumsy suitcase he claimed a lot of space. But it was space that we were glad to let him have because of the snow that swirled in from the sledge’s coiling wake.
I’d left all my books with Cord. No one had a speely. There was nothing to see outside but swirling snow. I set my catalytic heater to the lowest power level that would keep my digits alive, folded my arms, propped my legs up on my pack, slumped down on the wooden bench, and tried not to think about how slowly time was passing.
It seemed like years since I’d been in the comfortable surroundings of the concent. But here on this sledge I’d gone into a daydream where I could practically see my fraas and suurs in front of me and hear their voices. From Arsibalt, Lio, and Jesry, I moved on to the decidedly more enjoyable image of Ala. I was fancying her at Tredegarh, a place of which I knew little except that it was older and much bigger than Saunt Edhar, and that the climate was better, the gardens and groves lusher and more fragrant. I had to interpolate a fantasy wherein I survived this trip, found Orolo, got back to Tredegarh, and was allowed in the gate as opposed to being Thrown Back or spending the next five years with nothing except the Book to keep me company. Having got those formalities out of the way, I conjured up a half-waking dream of a fine supper in a rich old Tredegarh refectory at which fraas and suurs from all over the world raised glasses of really good-tasting stuff to me and Ala for having made those pinhole camera observations. Then the daydream took a more private turn involving a long walk in a secluded garden…this made me drowsy. It was not turning out as I’d expected. Whatever part of my mind was in charge of daydreams was shaping this one to comfort me and lull me, not to arouse passions.
A shift in the sledge’s attitude brought me just awake enough to know I’d been sleeping.
In going over the pole, we’d followed a stocky isthmus. Two tectonic plates had collided in the far north and pushed up a range of mountains that would have been tricky to pass over if they hadn’t been buried under two miles of ice. During the last day or so the continent had broadened beneath us, but we had stayed to the right or (now that we were southbound) western side of it. Not all the way to the edge, for the western coast was a steep subduction-zone mountain range. There was very little level ground between it and the frozen sea, and most of that was covered in treacherous crevasse-riddled glaciers flowing down from the mountains. So instead the sledge train stayed some miles inland of the coastal range, tracking across a plateau with stable ice. That’s where the sledge port stood. Roads ran south from there across ice, tundra, and taiga to connect up with the transportation network that ramified all the way to the Sea of Seas. But the first outpost going that way was hundreds of miles distant. Smugglers such as the man driving my sledge could not prosper carrying their passengers such a long way. Instead they veered to the right, or west, bypassing the sledge port and taking one of three passes that slashed through the coastal range to connect with ports on the shore of the ocean. These were reachable from the south via icebreakers.
Cord, Sammann, and the Crades would simply get into the fetches and drive south from the sledge port. If the weather had been better and the short-range smugglers had been operating today, I could have paid one of them to whisk me around the sledge port and drop me off on the road a few miles south where I could simply have climbed aboard Yul’s fetch. Instead, my four companions would drive south without me for a couple of days into a more temperate zone, then swing west and cross the mountains to a harbor called Mahsht—the home port of the icebreaker fleet. In the meantime I would buy passage on an icebreaker or one of the convoy ships that followed in its wake. This would bring me down to Mahsht. Once we’d rendezvoused there, it would be only a few days’ drive to the Sea of Seas. So what I was doing now was Plan B—Plan A being the short-range whisk-around—and frankly we hadn’t discussed it in very much detail because we hadn’t expected it to come out this way. I had a nagging feeling that I’d made the decision hastily and probably forgotten some important details, but during the first couple of hours on this little sledge train I’d had plenty of time to think it through and satisfy myself that it would turn out fine.
Anyway, when I sensed the sledge changing its attitude beneath me I took it as a sign that we were beginning the ascent to one of the three passes that connected the inland plateau to the coast. According to Sammann, one of these was considerably better than the other two, but was closed by avalanches from time to time. The sledge drivers never knew, from one day to the next, which one they would end up taking. They made up their minds on the spur of the moment based on what they heard from other smugglers on the wireless. Since our driver was in a separate vehicle, sealed up in a heated cab, there was no way for me to overhear his wireless traffic and get any sense of what was going on.
A few hours later, however, the sledge’s velocity dwindled and it shambled to a halt. We passengers spent a minute or so learning how to move again. I checked my watch and was astonished to learn that we had been underway for sixteen hours. I must have slept eight or ten of them—no wonder I was stiff. Brajj hurled a tent-flap aside to flood our sledge with grey light, bright but directionless. The storm had broken, the air was free of snow, but clouds still screened the sky. We had paused on the flank of a mountain, but the surface beneath us was reasonably level—some sort of sledge track, I guessed, that traversed the slope through whatever pass our driver had decided to take.
Brajj showed no interest in getting out. I got to my feet and made as if I were going to climb over his outstretched legs, but he held up a hand to stay me. A moment later we heard a series of thuds from the sledge tractor followed by a peeling and cracking noise as its door was pushed open through a coating of ice. Feet descended steel stairs and crunched on snow. Brajj lowered his hand and drew in his legs: I was free to go. Only then did I remember Sammann’s warning not to let my feet touch the surface, lest I be abandoned. Brajj, who seemed to have done this before, knew it wasn’t prudent to venture out until the driver had exited the tractor.
We’d invested in snow goggles at Eighty-three. I pulled them down over my eyes and climbed off the sledge to find an unfamiliar man standing on the snow up next to the tractor, urinating on the uphill slope. I reasoned that there must be a bunk in the tractor and that two drivers must spell each other. Sure enough, the first driver now stuck his sleepy-looking face out the door, pulled on his goggles, and climbed out to join the other. They kept the door open, apparently so that they could listen to wireless traffic. This came through in rare bursts, weirdly modulated. I could understand enough to gather that it was sledge operators exchanging information about conditions in the passes, and who was where. But very little seemed to be getting through. When a transmission did erupt from the speaker, the two drivers stopped talking, turned toward the open door, and strained to follow it.
Laro and Dag climbed out and went to the other side—the downhill side—of the sledge. I heard exclamations from both of them. They began talking excitedly. The drivers looked annoyed since this made it difficult to follow the bursts of distorted speech on the wireless.
I went around to the other side. From here we had a fine view down a snow-covered slope, interrupted from place to place by spires of black stone, to a U-shaped valley. We were on its north side. To our right, it broadened and flattened as it debouched into the coastal strip. To our left it grew steeper as it ascended into white mountains. So we had made it over the summit of the coastal range and were descending toward one of the icebound ports.
But that wasn’t what had drawn exclamations from Laro and Dag. They were looking at a black snake, ten miles long, wreathed in steam, slithering up the valley toward the mountains: a convoy of heavy vehicles, jammed nose to tail. All the same color.
“Military,” announced Brajj, climbing out of the sledge. He shook his head in amazement. “You’d think a war was starting.”
“An exercise?” suggested Laro.
“Big one,” said Brajj in a skeptical tone. “Wrong equipment.” He spoke with such a combination of authority and derision that I guessed he must be retired military—or a deserter. He shook his head. “There’s a mountain division on point,” he said, and pointed to the head of the column, which, I now noticed, consisted of several score white vehicles running on treads. “After that it’s all flatlanders.” He chopped air, aiming for the first of the dark drummons, then swept his hand down-valley, encompassing the remainder of the column, trailing toward the frozen sea, which could be seen from here as a white, jumbled plateau crazed with blue fractures. A smear of yellow and brown marked the port we were trying to reach. A lane of black water had been gouged by an icebreaker but was already fading as the ice crowded in behind it.
I was not a praxic and not an Ita but I’d seen enough speelies as a kid, and heard enough from Sammann, to have a general idea of how the wireless worked. There was only so much bandwidth to go around. In most circumstances it was plentiful. This was true even in big cities. But military used lots of it, and sometimes jammed what it didn’t use. The sledge operators up here in these mountains were accustomed to having a nearly infinite amount of bandwidth at their disposal, and had grown dependent on it—they were always swapping reports on the weather and on trail conditions. But at some point during today’s journey our drivers must have noticed something new to them: transmissions got through rarely, and were of poor quality. Perhaps they had thought their equipment was malfunctioning until they had crested the pass and discovered this: hundreds, maybe thousands of military vehicles, commandeering every scrap of bandwidth.
Everything about this was so remarkable that we might have stood there for hours looking at it if Brajj hadn’t turned to pay attention to our drivers. They were clambering over the tractor, knocking ice from various pieces of equipment, inspecting the treads, rattling the linkages between the tractor and our sledge, checking fluid levels in the engine. Brajj was a dour and calm man but he was extremely attentive, even skittish, to be standing on the snow at a time when both of the drivers had mounted the tractor. After a minute he simply became too uncomfortable and climbed back aboard. I was happy to follow his example. Only a few moments after I’d settled back into my place, we heard the door of the tractor thudding shut. We called out to Laro and Dag who were several paces behind the sledge, frozen in amazement at the sight of the convoy. We managed to get Dag’s attention. He turned to look at us but still didn’t seem to grasp what was happening until the engine of the tractor roared up, and a linkage clanked as it was put into gear. He smacked Laro on the shoulder, then took a couple of paces toward us, grabbing Laro by the collar as he went by and jerking him along in his wake. Brajj shifted closer to the back and thrust out an arm in case he had to pull them aboard. I got to my feet and moved closer to help. The tractor’s engine roared louder and we heard the distinctive clanking of its treads beginning to move. Laro and Dag reached us at about the same time; Brajj and I each grabbed one of their hands and hauled them aboard. Their momentum carried them forward into the front of the sledge. The tread clanks had already built to a steady rhythm.
We weren’t moving.
Brajj and I looked out at the snow. Then we looked at each other.
Both of us jumped out and ran around to the sides. The tractor was fifty feet away from us and picking up speed. The hitch that had linked it to our sledge was dragging on the snow behind it.
Brajj and I started running after it. The tracks supported our weight most of the time but every few steps we’d break through and sink to mid-thigh. In any event, I ran faster. I covered maybe a hundred feet before the side hatch swung open and the second driver emerged. He clambered out on to a sort of running board above the right tread, and let me see a long projectile weapon slung on his back.
“What are you doing!?” I shouted.
He reached into the cab, hauled out something bulky, and let it drop into the snow: a carton of energy bars. “We’re going to have to take a different pass now,” he called back. “It’s farther. Steeper. We don’t have enough fuel.”
“So you’re abandoning us!?”
He shook his head and dropped out another object: a can of suitsack fuel. “Going to see if we can beg some fuel from the military,” he shouted—getting farther away—“down there. Then we’ll come back up here and fetch you.” Then he ducked back into the cab and closed the door behind himself.
The logic was clear enough: they had been surprised by the convoy. They couldn’t get to safety without more fuel. If they took us with them on their begging expedition, it’d be obvious that they were smugglers and they would get in trouble. So they had to park us for a while. They knew we’d object. So they’d left us no choice.
Brajj had caught up with me. He had produced, from somewhere, a small weapon. But as he and I both understood, there was no point in taking potshots at the back side of the tractor. Only it, and the two men in it, could get us out of here.
When Brajj and I got back to the sledge dragging the fuel and the energy bars, we found Laro and Dag kneeling, face to face, holding each other’s hands and mumbling so rapidly that I couldn’t make out a single word. I had never seen any behavior quite like it and had to watch them for a few moments before I collected that they were praying. Then I felt embarrassed. I stepped back to get out of Brajj’s way in case he wanted to join them, but the look on his face as he regarded the Deolaters was contemptuous. He caught my eye and jerked his head back toward the flaps. I joined him outside. Both of us were hooded, goggled, and swathed against the cold. Frost grew with visible speed on our face-masks as we talked.
Brajj had been checking his watch every few minutes since we had been abandoned. “It’s been a quarter of an hour,” he said. “If those guys haven’t come back for us in two hours, we have to save ourselves.”
“You really think they’d leave us here to die?”
Brajj chose not to answer that question but he did offer: “They might get into a situation where they have no choice. Maybe they can’t get fuel. Maybe their tractor breaks down. Or the military commandeers it. Point being, we have to have our own plan.”
“I have a pair of snowshoes—”
“I know. We have to make three more. Load up your water pouch.”
The suitsacks had pouches on the front that could be stuffed with snow. Over time it would melt and become drinking water. That consumed energy, but it was sustainable as long as the body had food or the suitsack had fuel. We had both—for the time being. We packed ours as full of snow as we could. We replenished our fuel bladders from the cache that the drivers had left for us. Brajj interrupted the others’ prayers and insisted they also take on water and fuel. Then he had us each eat a couple of energy bars. Only then did we get working.
The tent was held up by flexible metal poles. We collapsed it and drew them out. This had the side effect of getting Laro and Dag’s attention. Our shelter was gone; they had no choice but to join in our plan. Brajj had a pocket tool with a little saw blade; he went to work cutting the tent poles into shorter segments. Once the others saw that there was work to be done, they joined in cheerfully. Dag, who was the sturdier of the two, took over the sawing of the tent poles. Brajj had Laro get to work scavenging every inch of rope and twine at our disposal. Then—perhaps leading by example—he undid the yellow rope that he had used to gird his suitcase. This turned out to be some thirty feet long. He undid the latches and dumped out the contents: hundreds of tiny vials, all packed in loose nodules of foam. I hadn’t seen such things before but I guessed that these were pharmaceuticals. “Child support,” Brajj explained, reading the look on my face.
The panels of the suitcase were a tough leathery material that we cut into slabs to make the platforms of the snowshoes. We bent the tent poles to make crude quadrangular frames and lashed the suitcase-panels to them using twine from Laro’s and Dag’s improvised baggage. This took a while because we had to do it with bare fingers, which went numb in a few seconds. The contents of Laro’s and Dag’s baggage were mostly old clothes, which they were willing to abandon, and keepsakes of their families, which they weren’t. I pulled one of the benches off the sledge, flipped it upside down, and kicked its flimsy legs off. It would serve as a toboggan. We loaded it with the supplies and wrapped them up in what remained of the tent. My pack had already been stripped of its metal frame and of anything that would serve as rope. I added my energy bars and my stove to the supplies, threw away my extra clothes, and put my bolt, my chord, and my sphere (pilled down as small as it would go) into the cargo pockets on the body of my suitsack. I considered adding my chord to our stock of rope, but we seemed to have plenty—Laro had found a fifty-foot coil stored under one of the sledge’s benches and we’d been able to make up another fifty by splicing together odds and ends from the tent’s rigging and so on. That plus Brajj’s thirty feet of yellow stuff gave us enough that we were able to rope ourselves together at intervals of thirty or forty feet, which Brajj explained would be useful if one of us lost his footing on a steep slope or fell into a crevasse.
These preparations consumed almost four hours, so we set out late according to Brajj’s timetable. The convoy down below seemed as though it had not moved an inch. Brajj estimated that it was two thousand feet below us. He said that if “everything goes to hell” we should just “pull the ripcord” and let ourselves slide down the ice to the valley floor where we could throw ourselves on the mercy of the military. They might arrest us but they probably wouldn’t let us die. It was a last resort, however, because if we tried it we stood a good chance of falling into a crevasse before we reached the bottom.
Brajj took the lead. He was armed with a length of tent-pole that he would use to probe the snow ahead of him for crevasses. At his hip he had his “sticker,” a long, heavy-bladed knife. He claimed that if one of us fell into a crevasse he would throw himself down and jam this into the ice, anchoring himself so as to arrest our fall. He had me go last and saw to it that I was armed with an L-shaped piece of metal scavenged from the frame of my pack, which I was to use in the same manner. He even had me practice throwing myself down face-first and jamming the short leg of the thing into the ice. Dag, then Laro, were roped up between us. The toboggan trailed behind me.
The first part of the trek was balky and frustrating as the snowshoes or the bindings that held them to the others’ feet seemed to give out every few steps. The whole expedition seemed to have failed before it had started. But then I noticed we’d been going for a whole hour without pause. I sipped from the tube that ran down to my water-pouch and munched slowly on an energy bar. I looked around me and actually enjoyed the view.
What would my fraas and suurs have said about the decisions I had been making recently? Nothing too polite. Just look at where those decisions had gotten me! And yet, even in the midst of this terrible situation, I’d been strolling around with nothing on my mind except for how pretty the view was!
I tried to force myself into a sterner frame of mind—tried to envision some bad outcomes so that I could lay plans. Brajj’s “sticker” might serve as an anchor in a crisis—but he might just as well use it to cut himself free if one of us fell in. What should I do in that event?
But it was no use. Brajj had made himself the leader, and had made reasonable decisions to this point. There was no limit to the amount of time and energy I could put into spinning such alarming fantasies in my head. Better to attend to the here and now.
Or was that the Allswell talking?
For the first few hours we followed the tamped-down tracks left by the tractor, but then they veered downhill, following a cirque—a crescent-shaped vale cut by a tributary glacier—down toward the valley floor. This would take us straight to the military convoy, and so here we broke away from the trail and ventured across trackless snow for the first time. The first bit was slow going as we had to work our way up out of the cirque. By the time the slope began to level, I was ready to “pull the ripcord” in Brajj’s phrase. If I threw myself on the mercy of some military drummon operator, what was the worst that could happen? I hadn’t broken any laws. It was only my three companions who had to go to such ridiculous lengths to avoid the authorities’ notice. But for better or worse I was roped up to them and couldn’t cut myself free without endangering their lives and mine; I had to wait for
Then we crested a subsidiary ridge and came in view of the coastline. I was startled at how close it was. We had to shed some altitude but the horizontal distance didn’t look that great. We could easily pick out individual buildings in the port and count the military transport ships moored at its piers. Military aerocraft were lined up at the edge of a dirty landing-strip wedged in between the coast and the foot of the mountains. We watched one take off and bank to the south.
One or two civilian ships were also in the harbor, and this gave us all the idea that if we could only get down there in one piece—which looked like less than a day’s travel—we could buy passage on one of them and get out of here behind the next icebreaker. So we took a rest up there in preparation for what we all knew would be a long and arduous final push. I forced myself to eat two more energy bars. The things were starting to make me sick but perhaps that was just me worrying about the Allswell. I washed them down with water and refilled my snow pouches and my fuel bladder. Our supplies were holding up well. The sledge drivers had given us plenty—perhaps thinking that they might not be returning for a while. I was glad we had taken action—moved out instead of huddling in that tent not knowing if we’d live or die.
After an hour’s rest we repacked the toboggan and got underway again. We descended into a round-bottomed cleft: another cirque that cut across our path and seemed to curve toward the port. Brajj decided to follow this one down. The risk was that it would become too steep for us to negotiate and that we’d have to backtrack. On a few occasions during the next couple of hours I became very worried about this, but then we would come around a bend, or crest a little rise, and get a view of the next mile or so and see that there was nothing we couldn’t handle. On steeper bits the toboggan would try to run ahead of me, and then I would have my hands full for a while—the only remedy was to slew it round ahead of me and let it pull me downhill as I leaned back against its weight. At such times the others, who didn’t have to contend with such a burden, would outdistance me. The rope joining me to Laro would draw taut and remind me of his impatience. I felt like reeling him in and smacking him. But Brajj kept our pace from running out of control. Even in stretches that looked smooth and safe he plodded along at the same rate, pausing every couple of steps to probe the snow ahead of him with his tent pole.
I had long since learned to distinguish Brajj’s snowshoe prints from those of the others, and from time to time I would notice, to my indescribable annoyance, that they had diverged: Brajj had zigged for whatever reason, and Dag had zagged, and Laro followed in his kinsman’s steps, obligating me to do the same, and hence pass over ground that Brajj had not probed.
We had probably shed three-quarters of the altitude needed to reach the port. It would be relatively easy going from here. Laro and Dag were laborers—they had plenty of energy left and yearned to push on past the plodding Brajj to a place where they could get a hot meal and peel off the accursed suitsacks.
It was on one of those steep bits where the toboggan had swung around in front of me and I was straining back against two ropes at once that I noticed myself being pulled out of balance. The tension on the rope that connected me to Laro was rapidly increasing. I planted my left snowshoe and pulled back, but the last hours’ descent had turned my leg muscles into quivering flab. I collapsed to my knee, the rope at my waist pulling me forward. Just before I planted my face in the snow I collected a glimpse of Brajj standing up facing me, a hundred feet away, sticker in hand. Laro was sliding and tumbling down the slope, pulling me with him. Dag—who was roped between Brajj and Laro—was nowhere to be seen.
That remembered image was all I had to go on during the next little while, because I was face-down, being pulled along by Laro and by the toboggan. And—I realized—by Dag. He must have fallen into a crevasse! Why hadn’t Brajj stopped his fall? The rope—the frayed yellow thirty-foot poly rope that had connected Brajj to Dag—must have snapped. Either that or Brajj had cut it with a swipe of his sticker. I was the only person who could stop this, and save Laro, Dag, and myself: I had to plunge that L-shaped piece of metal into the ice. I should have had it out and ready to use—should have been watching ahead for signs of trouble. But in order to free both hands to wrangle the toboggan I’d stuck it in one of the equipment loops on the outside of my suitsack. Was it still there? I kicked wildly with one leg and managed to roll over on my back. My head was plowing up a bow-wave of snow that buried my face. I snorted it out of my nose and stifled the urge to inhale. I groped around until I felt something hard, and pulled it out—or so I guessed. Through those mittens it was hard to tell what was going on. I got the pick pointed away from my body, flailed the legs again, and managed to roll over on my stomach. My head came up out of the snow and I heard Laro screaming something—he must have gone over the brink of the crevasse. I put all of my weight on top of that L-shaped hunk of metal and drove it down. It caught—sort of—and became a pivot; my body spun around it as the rope at my waist, now drawn by the combined weights of Laro and Dag, torqued me downhill. The pick tugged at my hands, but not all that hard. It didn’t seem to be holding.
Or rather it held, but it held in a raft of snow that had broken loose and was now sliding down the hill beneath me.
This was just plain bad luck; if we’d been traversing packed snow, the pick would have had something firm in which to get purchase, but yesterday’s storm had left the packed ice covered with powdery stuff that slid freely on top of it.
Another vicious jerk at my waist told me that the toboggan had just hurtled over the edge. I raised my face up out of this mini-avalanche and got the weird idea that I wasn’t actually moving—because, of course, the snow around me was moving at the same speed as I. Then there was nothing under my toes. Nothing under my ankles. Nothing under my knees. My hips. The rope jerked me straight down with the weight of three men. I guess I did a sort of back-flip into the crevasse. But I only got to experience the terror of free fall for a fraction of a second before something terrible happened to my back and I stopped. The rope’s force was pulling me down against something immobile and hard. Loose snow continued to pummel me for a while. I remembered a woolly story that Yul had told me about getting caught in an avalanche, the importance of swimming, of preserving air space in front of one’s face. I couldn’t swim, but I did get one arm up and crooked an elbow over my mouth and nose. The weight of snow on my body built steadily, the tension on the rope slackened. Most of the avalanche seemed to be parting around me—falling away to either side—as I remained stuck.
For some reason I heard Jesry’s voice in my head saying, “Oh, so you’re only being buried alive
Then it stopped. I could hear my own heart beating, and nothing else.
I pushed outwards with my elbow. The snow moved a little and gave me a void in front of my face—air for a moment. More importantly it kept me from panicking, and let me open my eyes. There was dim blue-grey light. I could hear Arsibalt saying “Just enough to read by!” and Lio answering “If only you’d thought to bring a book.”
For whatever reason, I was not falling any deeper into the crevasse. Yet. And I didn’t think I’d fallen too far into it. Something had stopped my fall. I guessed that the toboggan had gotten lodged sideways between the crevasse walls and I’d fallen on it. Hard. I took a moment to wiggle my toes and my ankles, just to verify that I hadn’t broken my spine. It would have been nice to explore with my hands but one was pinned at my side and the other—the one I’d crooked over my face—was hemmed in by snow. I was, however, able to move that one downwards over my body. I found the zipper pull for my front pocket and inched it open. Then I moved that hand up to my face and pulled my mitten off with my teeth. I reached my bare hand down into the open pocket and fished out my sphere.
Spheres don’t have controls as such. They recognize gestures. You talk to them with your hands. My hand was a little stiff but I was able to make the unscrewing gesture that caused the sphere to get bigger. After a while this became a little scary because the sphere was stealing my air supply, claiming the void in front of my face and pressing on my chest. But I had the idea that the snow over me wasn’t that deep. So I kept telling it to expand. And just when I thought my own sphere was going to squeeze the life out of me, I heard rushing noises—a small avalanche. I reversed the gesture. The sphere got small, the weight came off, and I found myself gazing up through clear air between walls of blue ice. The sky was visible. And so was Brajj, standing at the edge of the crevasse looking down at me. I’d fallen about twenty feet.
“You’re avout,” was the first thing he said to me.
“Got anything else in your bag of tricks? Because I have no rope. It all went down with those two Gheeths.” He patted the length of yellow rope tied around his waist. Only a foot or so dangled below the knot. It had been severed at exactly the point where the blade of his sticker would have intercepted it in a moment of panic—or of calculation.
“I thought maybe you cut it,” I said. I don’t know why. I guess it was that weird avout compulsion to state facts.
“Maybe I did.”
We looked at each other for a while. It occurred to me that Brajj was an exceptionally rational man—more so than some avout. He was another like the Crades or Cord or Artisan Quin who was smart enough to be an avout but who for whatever reason had ended up extramuros. In his case it seemed that being alone out here with no bond to anyone else like him had made him utterly calculating and ruthless.
“Let’s say you don’t care whether I live or die,” I said. “Let’s say that every decision you’ve made has been based on self-interest. You kept us alive, brought us with you, and roped yourself to us because you knew that if you fell in we’d try to help you. But the minute one of us fell in you cut the rope to save yourself. You looked down into this crack out of simple curiosity. Nothing more. Then you saw my sphere. You know I’m avout. What’s your decision?”
Brajj had found all of this faintly amusing. He rarely heard intelligent people state things clearly and he sort of enjoyed its novelty. He pondered my question for a minute or so, turning away at one point to look down the slope. Then he turned back to scrutinize me. “Move your legs,” he said.
I did. “Arms.” I did.
“Those Gheeths were more trouble than they were worth,” he said.
“Is that an ethnic slur for what Laro and Dag are?”
“Ethnic slur? Yeah, it’s an
For 3700 years, we had lived under a ban that prevented us from owning anything other than the bolt, the chord, and the sphere. Shelves of books had been written about the ingenious uses to which these objects had been put by avout who’d found themselves in trying circumstances. Many of the tricks had names: Saunt Ablavan’s Ratchet. Ramgad’s Contraption. The Lazy Fraa. I was no expert, but when we’d been younger, Jesry and I had leafed through some such books and practiced a few of those tricks, just for sport.
Chords and bolts were made of the same stuff: a fiber that could coil into a tight helix, becoming short and bulky and springy, or relax into a straight filament, becoming long, lean, and inelastic. In the winter we told the fibers in our bolts to coil up. They got much shorter but the bolt became thick and warm because of the pockets of air involved with those coils. In summer we straightened them and the bolts became long and sheer. Likewise the chord could be fat and yarn-like or long and thready.
I made my sphere about as big as my head, wrapped my bolt around it, and tied it together with my chord. Then I made the sphere get bigger and let the bolt expand with it. The sphere wedged itself between the walls. It could go up but it wouldn’t go down, because the crevasse was wider at the top and narrower below. I pushed it up a short distance and it found a new equilibrium, a little higher. Then I expanded and pushed, expanded and pushed, a few inches at a time. The walls were surprisingly irregular, so all of this was more complicated than I’m making it sound. But once I got the hang of it, it went fast.
“Got it!” Brajj called. The sphere moved away from me, scraping against the ice walls. A panic came over me until I found my chord with a flailing arm. Then I let it slide through my hand until Brajj had pulled the sphere all the way out of the crevasse. Brajj and I were now linked by the chord. He jammed his sticker into the ice up there and wrapped my chord around its handle—or so he claimed.
I didn’t want to lose our connection to the toboggan and to Laro and Dag, but I had to cut myself free of it to have any hope of bettering things. The end of my chord I joined to the loop of rope around my waist. Then I cut my way free from that loop. So I was free of the hundreds of pounds of stuff anchoring me to the bottom. The chord was now our only link to the toboggan and to Laro and Dag. I gave instructions to Brajj on how to make the sphere smaller. He threw it down to me. I wedged it between the crevasse walls again. This time—now that I had freedom to move—I was able to get astride it. For the first time since the accident I took my weight off whatever hard thing had stopped my fall and saved my life. Looking down at it, I verified that it was indeed the toboggan, wedged at an angle between the crevasse walls like a stick thrust between a monster’s jaws. When I took my weight off it, it shifted, and a moment later it fell, tumbling another ten feet before getting wedged again. Braj had anchored his loop of the chord to his sticker, jammed in the ice, so we didn’t lose it. I was able to extricate myself from the crevasse by expanding the sphere, which pushed me up as it inflated, while keeping the chord looped around one hand in case I fell off. Once I was out, we doubled the anchor by driving in my makeshift ice-axe, and secured the chord to that as well.
For a little while we were able to haul the rope up by causing the chord to get shorter (a simple implementation of Saunt Ablavan’s Ratchet) but after a few minutes it ran out of stored energy. If I left it out in the sun for a while it would recharge, but we didn’t have time. And it wasn’t able to store a lot of energy anyway. So, after that, Brajj and I hauled using muscle power. Once we had gotten the toboggan up on the surface, this became markedly easier. A few moments later, Laro’s corpse could be seen deep down in the valley of blue light, emerging from the snow that had piled up in the bottom. The rope that trailed below him was no more than ten feet long, and ended in a botched knot. It had held well enough to drag down Laro, me, and the toboggan, but must have given way under the jerk when the toboggan and I came to rest. After that Dag must have free-fallen to the very bottom of the crevasse and been buried under falling snow. I hoped his death had been quicker than the long agonizing slide and tumble that had preceded it.
Brajj kept throwing me dirty looks as if to say
As we were rolling him up onto the surface at last, he twitched, gasped, and called out the name of his deity.
Now I understood Brajj. He was smarter, more rational than I at the moment. He’d probably been wondering
I just lay there on the snow for a few minutes, half dead. All the injuries I’d suffered in the fall were now making themselves obvious.
There was nothing to do but go on. Brajj was furious to have been burdened with an injured man, and kept stamping around in circles and gazing hungrily down the slope, wondering whether he should chance it alone. After a few minutes he decided to stay with us—for now.
Laro had a broken thigh, and his skull had taken a beating during the fall, creating some bloody lacerations. Between that and being buried in snow for a while, he was groggy.
One of Laro’s snowshoes still dangled from his foot. I took it apart and used its pieces to splint his leg. Then I made my sphere big and flat on the snow.
The sphere is a porous membrane. Each pore is a little pump that can move air in or out. Like a self-inflating balloon. The spring constant—the stretchiness—of the membrane is controllable. If you turn the stretchiness way down (that is, make it stiff) and pump in lots of air, it becomes a hard little pill. What I did now was the opposite. I made it very stretchy and removed most of the air. I spread my bolt flat on the snow and dragged the flaccid sphere onto it. Then I got Brajj to help me roll Laro into the middle. He screamed and cried out to his mother and his deity as we were doing this. I took that as a good sign because he was seeming more alert. I rolled him in the sphere and then wrapped the bolt loosely around that, leaving his head exposed. The whole bundle I tied with my chord. Finally I inflated the sphere a little bit while telling the bolt not to stretch. The sphere expanded to form an air bed that coccooned Laro’s whole body. The bundle was between two and three feet in diameter, and slid over the snow reasonably well, since I’d made the bolt sheer and smooth. I could never have pulled it up a slope, but going downhill ought to work.
I towed Laro and Brajj towed the toboggan. We tied ourselves together with the length of good rope that had formerly connected me to Laro, and set out in the same style as before, with Brajj going first and using his tent pole to probe for crevasses.
I tried not to think about the possibility that Dag might still be alive in the bottom of the crevasse.
Then I tried not to wonder how many other migrants’ corpses would be found strewn all over this territory if all the ice and snow ever melted.
Then I tried not to wonder if Orolo’s might be among them.
For now I’d just have to settle for making sure
After a few hours I lost track of what was happening. Everything I had was channeled into keeping my feet moving. There’s not much point in trying to offer a description of the bleakness, the moral and physical misery. In those rare moments when I was lucid enough to think, I reminded myself that avout had been through far worse ordeals in the Third Sack and at other such times.
Since I was so groggy, I have no way of guessing when Brajj parted company with us. Laro’s voice brought me to awareness. He was screaming and fighting with the sphere, trying to get out. I told Brajj we had to stop. Hearing no answer, I looked around and discovered that he was gone. The rope that had connected us had fallen victim to his sticker. And no wonder: we were on the floor of a valley that led straight to the port, a couple of miles away, and the ground was black and burnished smooth by all of the tires and treads that had passed over it. We were on the path of the military convoy. No worries about crevasses here. So Brajj had taken off. I never saw him again.
Laro was frantic to get out. Perhaps he’d been that way for a long time. I was worried he’d hurt himself flailing around. I inflated the sphere until he couldn’t move at all, and then I knelt beside him and looked into his eyes and tried to talk some sense into him. This was monumentally difficult. I’d known some, such as Tulia, who could do it effortlessly—or at least she made it look that way. Yul simply would have bellowed into his face, used the force of his personality. But it was not a thing that came easily to me.
He wanted to know where Dag was. I told him Dag was dead, which did nothing to calm him down—but I couldn’t lie to him and I was too exhausted to devise a better plan.
The sound of engines cut through the still, frigid air. It came from up-valley. A small convoy of military fetches was headed our way—detached from the huge procession to go back and run some errand at the port.
By the time they approached within hailing distance, Laro had got a grip on himself, if hopeless, uncontrollable sobbing could be so described. I relaxed the sphere, undid the chord, and dragged him free of the bundle, then got everything stowed back in my pockets.
Those guys in the military trucks were real pros. They came right over and picked us up. They took us into town. They didn’t ask questions, at least none that I remember. Though I was not exactly in a mirthful frame of mind, I marked this down as being funny. With my simpleminded view of the S?cular world, I’d assumed that the soldiers, simply because they looked sort of like cops with their uniforms and weapons, would act like cops, and arrest us. But it turned out that they couldn’t have cared less about law enforcement, which made perfect sense once I thought about it for ten seconds. They took Laro to a charity clinic run by the local Kelx—a religion that was strong in these parts. Then they dropped me off at the edge of the water. I bought some decent food at a tavern and slept face-down on the table until I was ejected. Standing out there on the street I felt stretched thin, diluted, as if that pale arctic sunlight could shine right through me and give my heart a sunburn. But I could still walk and I had money—the sledge driver had never collected the second half of his fare. I bought passage to Mahsht on the next outbound transport, boarded it as soon as they’d let me, climbed into a bunk, and slept one more time in that horrible suitsack.
Kelx: (1) A religious faith created during the Sixteenth or Seventeenth Century A.R. The name is a contraction of the Orth Ganakelux meaning “Triangle Place,” so called because of the symbolic importance of triangles in the faith’s iconography. (2) An ark of the Kelx faith.
Kedev: A devotee of the Kelx or Triangle faith.
— THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000
About halfway into the four-day cruise I had recovered to the point where I was capable of introspection. I spent a lot of time sitting very still in the ship’s mess, eating. I had to sit still because I’d messed up my ribs and back in the fall, and it hurt to move—even to breathe. The food was good compared to energy bars. Perhaps I ate so much of it in hopes that it would bring up the level of Allswell in my blood and chase the dark thoughts from my head.
Getting me killed couldn’t have been part of Fraa Jad’s plan. Where then had it gone wrong? My foolish choices? The migrant traffic over the pole had been going on at least long enough for Jad to have heard about it—he’d known that a Feral like Orolo would take that route to Ecba. So it was an ancient and settled practice. We’d all underestimated its dangers precisely because it was so ancient. We’d assumed that nothing could go on for so long unless it was safe—the way avout would run things if we were in charge.
But we weren’t in charge and it wasn’t run that way.
Or maybe it was a safe and settled thing most of the time but the military convoy had thrown it into chaos.
Or maybe we’d just been unlucky.
“You look like you’ve been through a harrowing experience.”
I snapped out of it, and looked up by rotating my eyeballs—not my head, as I had a terrible crick in the neck. A man was standing there looking at me. Probably in his third decade. I’d noticed him eyeing me the day before. Now he’d come over and said this to me as a way of striking up a conversation.
I’m sorry to say I broke out laughing. It took me a minute to get it under control.
Harrowing was a thing that we did—literally—to our tangles during the spring. We went through the beds on hands and knees identifying the weeds and rooting them out with hand-hoes, throwing the weeds on a pile to be burned, leaving nothing except churned-up soil, pulverizing the clods in our hands to leave a loose bed for expansion of the tangle plants’ root systems. So when this stranger suggested I’d been through a harrowing experience, my mind went straight to that and I thought he was trying to say that I looked as if I’d been crawling through dirt. Which I did. Or perhaps that I looked like a heap of dead weeds. Which I also did. Finally I remembered that I was extramuros, where the old literal meaning of
None of this could be explained to the stranger, so all I could do was sit there and helplessly giggle—which made my ribs hurt—and hope he wouldn’t take umbrage and slug me. But he was patient. He even looked a little pained to behold someone in such a pathetic state. Which was fortunate since he was a big man and could have slugged me hard.
This gave me an idea that stopped the giggle. “Hey,” I said, “do you have any spare clothes? I’d buy them from you.”
“You do need clean clothes,” the stranger said. This brought me back to giggling. From time to time I’d get a whiff of myself. I knew it was bad. But I couldn’t very well don my bolt.
“I have more clothes than I need and will gladly part with them,” he said.
He had an odd way of talking. Quasi-literate S?culars went to stores and bought prefabricated letters, machine-printed on heavy stock with nice pictures, and sent them to each other as emotional gestures. They were written in a stilted language that no one ever spoke aloud—except for this guy who was standing in front of me letting fly with words like
He went on, “I don’t ask for anything in return. But I do hope you’ll join me for services—after you’ve changed.”
So that was it. This guy wanted to convert me to his ark. He’d been watching me and had picked me out as a wretch—a soul ripe for saving.
I had nothing better to do, and it had become all too obvious that I needed to grow a little wiser in the ways of the S?cular world. So I threw away my stinking clothes and my suitsack, bathed as best as I could while standing in front of a sink, and put on this guy’s funny-smelling clothes. Then I went to a hot crowded cabin where his ark was holding its services. There were a dozen and a half devotees and one magister—a leathery man named Sark who apparently spent his life banging around on ships like this, ministering to sailors and fishermen.
This was a Kelx—a Triangle ark. Its adherents were called Kedevs. It was a completely different faith from that of Ganelial Crade. It had been invented about two thousand years ago by some ingenious prophet who must have been unusually self-effacing, since little was known about him and he wasn’t worshipped as such. Like most faiths it was as fissured and fractured as the glaciers I’d been walking over lately. But all of its sects and schisms agreed that there was another world outside of and greater—in a sense, more real—than the one we lived in. That in this world there was a robber who had waylaid a family. He’d slain the father outright, raped and killed the mother, and taken their daughter with him as a hostage. Not long after, while trying to evade capture, he’d strangled the innocent girl. But he’d been caught anyway and locked up in a dungeon for a long time (“half of his life”) while waiting for his case to come before a Magistrate. At the trial he had admitted his guilt. The Magistrate had asked if there was any reason why he should not be put to death. The Condemned Man had responded that there was such a reason, one that had come to him during his years in the dungeon. As he had meditated over his hideous crimes, the one thing he’d never been able to chase from his mind was the murder of the girl—the Innocent—because in her there had been the potential to do so many things that could now never be realized. In any soul, the Condemned Man argued, was the ability to create a whole world, as big and variegated as the one that he and the Magistrate lived in. But if this was true of the Innocent, it was true of the Condemned Man as well, and so he should not—no one should ever—be put to death.
The Magistrate upon hearing this had voiced skepticism that the Condemned Man really had it in him to generate a whole world. Taking up the challenge, the Condemned Man had begun to tell the tale of a world he had thought up in his mind and to relate the stories of its gods, heroes, and kings. This had taken up the whole day, so the Magistrate had adjourned the court. But he had warned the Condemned Man that his fate was still in the balance because the world he had invented seemed to be just as full of wars, crimes, and cruelty as the one that they lived in. The Condemned Man’s stay of execution was only as good as the world he had invented. If the various troubles in that world could not be brought to a satisfactory conclusion in tomorrow’s session, he would be executed at sundown.
The next day the Condemned Man had attempted to satisfy the Magistrate, and made a little headway, but in so doing introduced new troubles and gave birth to new characters no less morally ambiguous than the first lot. The Magistrate could not find sufficient grounds to execute him and so had continued the case to the next day, and the next, and the next.
The world that I lived in with Jesry and Lio and Arsibalt, Orolo and Jad, Ala and Tulia and Cord and all the others, was the very world that was being created from day to day in the mind of the Condemned Man in that courtroom. Sooner or later it would all end in a final judgment by the Magistrate. If that—if our—world seemed, on balance, like a decent place to him, he would let the Condemned Man live and our world would go on existing in his mind. If the world, as a whole, only reflected the Condemned Man’s depravity, the Magistrate would have him executed and our world would cease to exist. We could help keep the Condemned Man alive and thus preserve the existence of ourselves and our world by striving at all times to make it a better place.
That’s why Alwash—the big stranger—had given me his clothes. He was trying to prevent the end of the world.
Kelx was a contraction of the Orth words meaning “Triangle Place.” Triangles figured in the faith’s iconography. In the story just told there were three key characters: the Condemned Man, the Magistrate, and the Innocent. The Condemned Man represented a creative but flawed principle. The Magistrate represented judgment and goodness. The Innocent was inspiration that had the power to redeem the Condemned Man. Taken individually these each lacked something but taken as a triad they had created us and our world. Debates as to the nature of this triad had triggered a hundred wars, but in any case they all believed in one interpretation or other of the basic story. At this point in history the Kelx was very much under the heel of other faiths and had become especially bitter and apocalyptic. The premise of the whole faith was that sooner or later the Magistrate would make up his mind, and so the magisters—as their clergy were called—could get their flocks emotionally whipped up, as needed, by claiming that the judgment was near at hand.
Today’s sermon was one of those. Kelxes didn’t have long complicated services like the Bazians. The service consisted of a harangue from Magister Sark, followed by interviews with the Kedevs, concluded by another harangue. He wanted to know what each man in the cabin (we were all men) had done lately to make the world a better place. We might all be flawed—as how could we not since we originated in the mind of a rapist and murderer—and yet because of the pure inspiration that had impregnated the Condemned Man’s soul from the Innocent at the moment of her death, we had the power to make the world better in a way that would please the all-seeing and -knowing Magistrate.
Crazy as this all was I found it sort of compelling in my weakened state, and tried the experiment of playing along with it for a while. This might sound very unlike an avout, but we were used to being presented with outlandish cosmographical hypotheses, and in our theorics we did this sort of thing all the time: that is, assume for the sake of argument that a hypothesis was true, and see where it led.
I’d known the tale of the Condemned Man for almost as long as I’d been alive, but sitting in this cabin I learned two things about the faith—or at least this sect—that I hadn’t known before. One, that the events of our world, which happened in parallel (each person doing something different at the same time), were teased apart and narrated serially by the Condemned Man to the Magistrate. There was no way to tell the stories of billions concurrently, so he broke them down into smaller, more manageable narratives and told them consecutively. So, for example, my trip down the glacier with Brajj and Laro and Dag had been related to the Magistrate as one self-contained tale, after which the Condemned Man had doubled back in time to tell the story of what, say, Ala had done that day. Or, if Ala hadn’t done anything unusual—if she hadn’t been presented, say, with any great choices—the Condemned Man might have said nothing of her and she might thus have avoided the Magistrate’s scrutiny for the time being.
The full attention of the Magistrate was focused on only one such story at a time. When your story was being told, you were under the pitiless inspection of the Magistrate, who saw everything you did and knew everything you thought—so at such times it was important to make the correct choices! If you attended Kelx services often enough, you’d develop a sixth sense for when your story was being told to the Magistrate and you’d get better at making the right choices.
Second, the Inspiration that had passed from the Innocent to the Condemned Man at the moment of her death was viral. It passed from him into each of us. Each of us had the same power to create whole worlds. The hope was that one day there would be a Chosen One who would create a world that was perfect. If that ever happened, not only he and his world but all of the other worlds and their creators, back to the Condemned Man, would be saved recursively.
When Sark turned his hot gaze upon me and asked me what I had done of late to save the world, I, in a spirit of trying to play along, began to tell an edited version of the story of the descent of the glacier. I left out any mention of bolt, chord, and sphere. And I intended to leave out the story of Dag’s death—or his being left for dead. But as I went on I found myself unable to tell the story without including that part of it. It just fell out of me, like an intestine that keeps uncoiling from the belly of a wounded animal. The whole thing had gone out of control. I’d intended to play along as a sort of intellectual parlor game but my emotions had taken over and dictated what I would say. Something about the whole setup of this ark, I realized (too late) was designed to play on such emotions. I wasn’t the first stranger to walk into one of these meetings and spill his guts. They expected it. They counted on it. It was why the Kelx had lasted two thousand years.
When I’d finished, I looked over at Alwash, expecting to see a triumphant look on his face. Yeah, he’d gotten me but good. But he didn’t look that way at all. Just serious, and a little sad. Like he’d known what would happen. He’d done it before. He’d had it done to him.
The silence that followed was long, but did not feel awkward. Then Magister Sark told me that it wasn’t clear I had done anything wrong at all given the circumstances. I understood this to mean that when the Magistrate had heard the story of Brajj, “Vit,” Laro, and Dag from the Condemned Man, he had not construed it to mean that the latter should be executed. At worst it was neutral testimony. I felt hugely relieved at this, and in the next moment hated myself for being emotionally manipulated by a witch doctor.
If I were still feeling bad about it, Sark concluded, I should try to put on a better showing the next time the Condemned Man saw fit to relate some part of my affairs in that celestial court.
Some of the others had even worse stories to tell to the magister. I could not believe some of what I heard. I wasn’t the only first-timer in this congregation; it had been clear from the smirks on others’ faces that they too had been dragooned into coming here. I suspected that some were embellishing their stories just to see if they could freak out the magister.
Apparently the rule for these services was that after all present had stated what they had to state, the magister would wind things up with a rip-roarer.
“It has been our way since of old to say that the day of the Magistrate’s final judgment is coming. It is forever
It was a tough question—was meant to be. Magister Sark had no intention of answering it. Instead he looked long and deep into each man’s eyes.
Except for mine. I was staring at a bulkhead. Trying to figure out what he’d meant. The Magistrate had been seen in the heavens? The Warden of Heaven had been cast out in wrath? Was I supposed to read those statements literally?
If something bad had happened to the Warden of Heaven, what did it mean for Jesry?
I was desperate to know. I didn’t dare ask.
When it was over, I was too drained to move. As the cabin emptied out I sat slumped against a steel bulkhead, letting the ship’s engines jiggle my brain around.
One of the other Kedevs had been talking to Alwash. When the cabin was nearly empty they approached me. I sat up and tried to muster strength to fight back another religious harangue.
This new guy’s name was Malter. “I was wondering,” Malter said, “are you one of the avout?”
I did not move or speak. I was trying to remember what the Kelx thought of us.
“The reason I ask,” Malter went on, “is that there were rumors going around town, before we shipped out, that an avout in disguise had come down the glacier in the last few days and got into trouble just like what you described.”
I was startled. Not for long. It was easy to imagine Laro raving, to anyone who would listen, about his bizarre and tragic adventure with the avout who called himself Vit. Maybe I raised an eyebrow or something.
“I’ve always wanted to meet an avout,” Malter said. “I think it would be an honor.”
“Well,” I said, “you just met one.”
Vout: An avout. Derogatory term used extramuros. Associated with S?culars who subscribe to iconographies that paint the avout in an extremely negative way.
— THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000
Mahsht was four times the size of the city around Saunt Edhar, and as such was the biggest city I’d yet been to in my peregrination—or my life, for that matter. To the great consternation of the regulars on this ship—the men who journeyed in transports like this one to and from the Arctic all the time—we were not given leave to enter the harbor and tie up at a pier as usual. Instead we had to stand off and keep station in the outer harbor. Word filtered down from the bridge that Mahsht had been thrown into disarray by the military convoys and that novel arrangements were being worked out from hour to hour.
I spent much of that day abovedecks, just looking at the place, and enjoying being in a part of the world where the weather wasn’t trying to kill me. Even though Mahsht was farther north than Edhar, at fifty-seven degrees of latitude, its climate was moderate because of a river of warm water in the ocean. Having said that, it wasn’t warm, just dependably chilly. You could be comfortable if you wore a jacket and stayed dry. Staying dry could be a bit of a project.
Mahsht was built around a fjord that forked into three arms. Each arm supported different kinds of facilities. One was military, and quite busy. One was commercial. It had been built around the end of the Praxic Age to handle cargo in steel boxes and hadn’t changed much since then. Normally our ship would have put in at a passenger terminal in that district. The third was the oldest. It had been built up out of stone and brick a thousand years before the Reconstitution, during the age when ships moved under power of wind and were unloaded by hand. Apparently there was still a demand for such facilities because smaller vessels went in and out of its stone docks all the time.
The old town and the port facilities were built on filled tide flats, incised with networks of canals, narrow and irregular in Old Mahsht, gridded lanes in the commercial and military sectors. Much of the land that separated the arms of the fjord was too steep to build on. The spires and ridges of stone supported ancient castles, luxury casinos, and radar stations. The territory outside of town was steeper yet: a misty green-black wall with unrecognizable constructs scraped out of it, hanging at crazy angles a mile in the sky. Alwash explained to me that these were places where people paid to slide downhill on packed snow. It didn’t appeal to me at the moment.
After a day, a tug came out and brought us to a wharf in Old Mahsht. According to the regulars, this had never happened before—they always went to the “new” commercial district. So, as much as I was absorbed in the workings of the tug and the shifting views of Old Mahsht’s warehouses, arks, cathedrals, and town center, I had now to give some thought to how I was going to find Cord, Sammann, Gnel, and Yul—or how I could help them find me. Should I walk to the commercial port on the assumption they’d be waiting for me there? Or would they have already heard about the disruptions in traffic and be looking for me in Old Mahsht?
As soon as I came down the gangplank it was clear that Old Mahsht was the right place. Since the military part of town could not tolerate disarray and the commercial part found it unprofitable, all of the chaos had been pushed into the old town, which had become the kingdom of broken plans and improvisations. All of the city’s proper lodgings had been claimed by contractors from the south who were involved in this project of moving the military north, so people were sleeping in mobes and fetches, or on the streets. Against them, all doors were locked and many were guarded, so they were channeled into such open places as could be found, such as the tops of the wharves, unbuilt stretches of tide flat, and lots where ancient warehouses had been demolished to make room for new projects that had never been realized. This is what the gangplank spewed me into. I shuffled down the ramp scanning the crowd for my friends. The longer I sought their faces, the lower I was pushed on the ramp and the less I could see. Then I was down in it and could see nothing. Having no plan, I let the currents of the multitude stir me around. When I sensed still pockets or eddies in the flow I sidled into them and stood and looked about. From what I’ve described so far you might think it was a scene of terrible poverty, but the more I observed the more it was plain to me that there was work to be had here, that people had come to find it, and that what I was seeing—what I had become
The generous climate had long attracted immigrants, who came from all over the world, singly or in waves, and climbed up into fjords or mountain valleys to live as they pleased. Over time they developed their own modes of dress and even distinct racial characteristics. I bought food from a cart—it was easily the best food I’d had since my last supper at Saunt Edhar—and stood there eating it and watching the pageant. Long-haired mountain men, always alone. A huge family, moving in a tight formation, males in broad-brimmed hats, females in face-veils. A multi-racial group, all wearing red T-shirts, every head—men’s and women’s alike—shaved clean. A race, if that was the right word, of tall people with bony noses and prematurely white hair, hawking fresh shellfish packed in poly crates full of seaweed.
After I’d been off the ship for an hour, it had become evident that meeting up with Cord, Sammann, and the Crades could easily take more than one day. I started considering where I might sleep that night—for I had at last reached a latitude where the sun went down for a few hours at this time of year. I knew that there were no great concents this far north. But in a city as old as this one there had to be at least one small math—perhaps even one dating to the Old Mathic Age. Wondering if I should try to seek one out and talk my way in, I walked up a broad street that ran from the waterfront up to the Bazian cathedral, scanning the fronts of old buildings for Mathic architecture or anything that looked like a cloister.
Clamped to a black iron lamp post I noticed a speelycaptor, and this put me in mind of Sammann and his ability to obtain data from such devices. Perhaps I’d been going about this in the wrong way. It could be that Sammann was tracking me on speelycaptors but that my friends hadn’t been able to catch up with me because I kept moving around. So I decided to remain still for a while in a conspicuous place and see if that helped. I had just bumped into Malter and Alwash, who had given me the address of a Kelx mission hostel where I might be able to sleep in a pinch, and as long as I had such a backup plan I thought it might be worth the gamble to sit and wait somewhere. I chose a spot in the open plaza before the cathedral, in direct view of a speelycaptor bracketed to the front of Old Mahsht’s town hall.
That’s where I got mugged.
Or at least I thought it was a mugging at first. My attention had been drawn to a street performer doing gymnastics about fifty feet away. “Hey, Vit!” someone said, behind me on the right. I turned my face straight into an onrushing fist.
While I was down, someone jerked my sweater up out of my trousers to bare my midsection. For some reason I thought of Lio, who’d been defeated at Apert when the slines had pulled his bolt over his head. So instead of protecting my face as I ought to have done I made a clumsy effort to push my sweater back down where it belonged. Someone’s hands were busy down there, jerking something out of the waistband of my trousers.
It was my bolt, chord, and sphere. I’d made them up into a neat package and stuffed them into my trousers for safekeeping and covered them with the sweater.
Ground level makes for a lousy vantage point. Especially when you’re on one side in a fetal position looking up out of the corner of one eye. But it seemed as though two men were playing tug-of-war with the package they’d stolen from me, trying to get it apart. The chord spiraled off and the bolt, which I’d pleated into a configuration called the Eight-fold Envelope, fell open. Out tumbled my pilled-up sphere. I caught it on the second bounce. A foot smashed down on my hand. “He’s trying to use it!” someone cried. A man dropped on me, one knee to either side. At this point a reflex took over. Lio had taught me that once I’d been mounted I’d never get up again, and so when I sensed what was happening I twisted sideways, getting my back up and my belly down, and drew my knees up under me, so that by the time this guy’s weight landed on me I was presenting my butt to him rather than my belly, and I had my legs under me where I could use them. My hand was still pinned to the ground by someone’s foot, but my sphere was trapped between my hand and the pavement. I made it bigger. The expanding sphere forced the man’s foot up, and when it became head-sized his foot rolled right off and my hand came free. I planted that hand under me and pushed as hard as I could with both arms and legs. The guy on top of me wrapped his arms around my trunk as I came up but I grabbed one of his pinkies in my fist and jerked it back. He screamed and let go. I surged forward without looking back. “He used a spell on me!” someone screamed. “The vout cast a spell on me!”
Part of me—not the wiser part—wanted to explain to that guy what an idiot he was being, but most of me just wanted to put distance between myself and these mysterious attackers. How had they known I had been using the name Vit? I turned back to look at them. My passage through the crowd had left an open space in my wake. Several men were charging into it, coming for me. I’d never seen them before. There was something familiar in their faces, though: they belonged to the same ethnic group as Laro and Dag. Gheeths, as Brajj had called them.
They were having trouble keeping up with me but I could not outrun their voices: “Stop him! Stop the vout!” This didn’t seem to have much effect. But then they got cleverer. “Murderer! Murderer! Stop him!” It turned out that this only made things easier for me since no one wanted to get in the way of a large, sprinting murderer. So then it became: “Thief! Thief! He stole an old lady’s money!” That was when the crowd closed in and people started sticking legs out to trip me.
I jumped over a few of those, but it was obvious I had to get out of this crowded square, so I dodged into the first street I could reach that led away from it, then into an alley off that street. This was so narrow I could touch both sides, but at least I didn’t have the feeling any more of being engulfed in a huge and hostile mob.
I heard the buzz of scooter engines. They were tracking me. Local scooter boys who knew the alley network were maneuvering to cut me off at the next intersection.
I tried a few doors but they were locked. Then I made the mistake of doing so in view of an armed guard who was standing in front of a money-changing house a few doors up. He unslung a weapon and muttered something into his collar. I backtracked, took the next side-alley that I could find, and ran down it for a hundred yards to a place where it bridged a narrow canal. A couple of scooter boys pulled up to block the bridge just as I reached it. Glancing down I saw some mucky canal-bottom exposed. The tide must be out. I jumped down without thinking, landed and rolled in the soft mud, felt pain but didn’t break anything as far as I could tell. To one direction the canal curved back toward the town square. The other direction led to open sky: the waterfront. I began running that way, thinking that if I could get to the beach I might steal or beg a ride on a small boat. Even swimming would be safer than being in the middle of that crowd.
But I couldn’t run very fast in the muck. And I was exhausted anyway. I’d forgotten to breathe. Bridges spanned the canal every couple of hundred feet, and I began to see people gathering on the bridges ahead of me, pointing at me excitedly.
I turned around to see a bigger crowd on the bridge behind. They had bottles and stones ready. Trying to run under those bridges would be suicide. The canal wall was vertical but the stonework was ancient and rough-cut; I tried to scale it. Scooter noise zeroed in on me and something hit me on the top of the head.
I woke up some time after landing in knee-deep water in the middle of the canal, and came up howling for air only to get hit by a dozen stones and bottles in as many seconds.
“Stop! Stop! The vout isn’t going anywhere! Keep him penned in,” said some kind of self-appointed leader: a stout Gheeth with shaggy hair. “Our witness is almost here!” he proclaimed.
So we all waited for the “witness.” The crowd sorted itself. Most of them had been random people who had been drawn to the bridges or the canal-brink by simple curiosity or out of the belief that they were helping to collar a purse-snatcher. But those sorts drifted away or were pushed aside by new arrivals: Gheeths with jeejahs. So by the time that the witness arrived on the back of a pedal-powered cab, a minute or so later, a hundred percent of those staring down at me were Gheeths. And none of them believed that I was a purse-snatcher. What
The witness was Laro. His leg was in a military-issue cast. “That is him! I’ll never forget his face. He used vout sorcery to save himself—but left our kinsman Dag for dead.”
I looked at him like
“The cops are coming!” someone warned. Actually, we’d been hearing such warnings the whole time I’d been at bay here. I wished those cops would hurry. But I wasn’t sure they’d treat me any better.
“Let’s get this done!” someone shouted, and looked to the leader, who stepped to the brink. Sidling along next to him was a big guy holding a huge chunk of pavement above his head in both hands and staring at me intently.
The leader pointed down at me. “He’s a vout. Laro testifies to it. These two found the evidence hidden under his clothes!”
Two young Gheeths—the pair who’d mugged me—were pushed to the front of the crowd so vigorously they almost fell in. They had my bolt, chord, and sphere. At the leader’s prompting they raised these up for all to see. The crowd oohed and aahed at the exhibits as if they were nuclear bomb cores.
“The vout has broken the ancient law that keeps his kind apart. He has come among us as a spy. We all know what he did to poor Dag. We can only imagine what fate he had in store for Laro—had Laro not bravely fought his way free of the vout’s snare. Are we going to stand for it?”
“No!” the crowd shouted.
“Are we going to get any justice from the cops?”
“But are we going to see justice done?”
The leader nodded at the big guy with the rock. He flung it down at me so ponderously that I was able to step out of its path with ease. But a score of smaller, faster projectiles came in its wake. Running back and forth just to make myself a moving target, I caught sight of a stone stairway in the canal about a hundred feet distant. If I could get to its top I’d at least be at street level again—not in this hopeless situation, down below the mob. I ran for it and took several more bottles and rocks in my back, but I had my arms folded behind my head to shield it.
I got to the top of those stairs all right, but they were waiting for me there. I’d scarcely ascended to street level before they’d tripped and shoved me down onto the street. One of them fell on me, or maybe it was a clumsy attempt to tackle me. I grabbed the lapel of his jacket and held him there, keeping him on top of me as a shield. People elbowed each other aside to get in and aim kicks at me, but most of them drew up short when they saw one of their own people in the way. Hands reached in to grab him and haul him to his feet. I ended up with his empty jacket clutched in my hand. I tried to get up but was pushed down. I went to a fetal position and clamped my arms over my head.
It was a few seconds later that I heard The Scream.
The Scream was definitely a human voice but it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. The only way I can convey just how disturbing it was, is to say that it fully expressed the way I was feeling. I even wondered, in my panicked and addled state, whether it might have escaped from my own throat. The Scream had the effect of making everyone stand still. They were no longer attacking me, no longer fighting to get within kicking distance. Instead, all stood around trying to figure out where The Scream had come from and what it portended.
I rolled over on my back. A space had opened up around me. Around me, that is, and a shaven-headed man in a red T-shirt.
He stepped toward me and drew something from his pocket that rapidly became large: a sphere. In a second he had expanded it to about five feet in diameter, leaving it somewhat flaccid. He doubled it over me. My head and feet stuck out to either end but the rest of me was shielded against further blows—at least as long as this man stood there holding the sphere in place. A gust of wind could dislodge it. But he took care of that by vaulting to its top and perching on it: a precarious pose even when you attempted it with both feet. He, however, was placing all of his weight on one foot, leaving the other drawn up beneath him. Sometimes, when we’d been younger, we’d tried to stand on our spheres as a kind of childish game. Some adults did it as an exercise to improve their balance and reflexes. This seemed an odd time and place for calisthenics, though.
It did have the useful side-effect of leaving the people around me even more nonplussed than they had been by The Scream. But after a few moments one young man spied my head—a tempting and obvious target—and stepped toward me, drawing back one leg to deliver a kick. I closed my eyes and braced myself. Above me I heard a sharp, percussive sound. I opened my eyes to see my attacker falling backwards. A second later, moisture sprayed into my face: a shower of blood. A few small pebbles or something rattled to the pavement nearby. Blinking the blood out of my eyes, I perceived that they weren’t pebbles but teeth.
Another scream emanated from the edge of the crowd. This one was altogether different. It came from a person who was experiencing an amount of pain that was incredible, in the literal sense; his scream sounded surprised, as in
I was unshielded. But it hardly mattered because the crowd had all moved in the direction of that horrible, astonished screaming. I pushed myself up on hands and knees and got to a kneeling position.
The source of the screaming was an adult male Gheeth who was being held in some sort of complicated wrestling grip by a shaven-headed woman in a red T-shirt. A similar-looking man of about eighteen was standing at her back, efficiently knocking down anyone who approached. By the time I came in view of all this, the mob had begun to hurl stones at these two. My protector abandoned me and slipped through the crowd to join the other two redshirts and help bat away projectiles. They began to retreat. Most of the mob went after them but some began to edge away; throwing stones at a lone avout might have been good sport for them but they wanted no part of whatever was going on now.
I turned, thinking I might just get out of here now, and found myself staring into the eyes of the Gheeth leader. He had a gun. It was aimed at me. “No,” he said, “we haven’t forgotten about you. Move!” He gestured with the gun in the direction that the crowd seemed to be moving. They were slowly pursuing the retreating redshirts down the edge of the canal toward a more open place a hundred feet away: a square where two streets met at canal’s edge. “Turn around and march,” he commanded.
I turned around and walked toward the square. Most of the mob had gone past us, so I was now in the outer fringes, the back lines, of a crowd of perhaps a hundred, all moving at a trot, then a run, after the three retreating redshirts, who by this point had dragged their hostage all the way into the square as they tried to get away from that overwhelmingly superior force of rock-throwing, knife-waving attackers.
My captor and I entered the square. The canal’s edge was to my left, the square spread away from it to my right. War-cries now sounded from that direction. I’m using the term war-cry here to mean the unearthly scream that the first redshirt had uttered when he’d come out of nowhere to protect me. Now we heard ten of them at once. The first one, as I described, had simply paralyzed everyone. But in a short time we had learned to associate the sound with face-smashing, limb-twisting Vale-lore experts. A battle-line of redshirts had materialized on our right flank; they’d been poised in the square, waiting for the first three to draw us into position. All heads turned toward, all bodies swerved away from them. Each of the redshirts had sent one or two members of the mob down to the pavement with bloody lacerations before we could even take in the image. The line of redshirts pivoted to link up with the first three, who now released the man they’d been torturing. Beginning to understand that they were outflanked on the right and that the square in general was enemy territory, unable to move left because of the canal-edge, the mob turned back, hoping to withdraw the way they’d come. But another salvo of war-cries came from the rear as several redshirts vaulted up out of the canal. They’d been hiding down there, clinging to the rugged canal wall like rock-climbers, and we had unwittingly gone right past them. They sealed off the retreat. The only way out now for the mob was to squirt forward between the canal-edge and the redshirts into the square, or jump down into the canal. As soon as a few had escaped via these routes, everyone wanted to do it, and it flashed into a panic. The redshirts let them go. In a few moments almost all of my attackers had simply disappeared. The two lines of redshirts joined up and contracted to form a sparse ring about twenty feet in diameter. They faced outwards. Their heads never stopped moving. In the middle of the ring were three people: the gun-toting Gheeth leader, I, and a single redshirt who always moved so that he was between me and the muzzle of the gun.
A redshirted woman on the perimeter called out “Fusil” which was a ridiculously archaic Orth word meaning a long-barreled firearm. The redshirts to either side instantly turned their backs on her to look in other directions. Everyone else, though, did what came naturally: followed the woman’s gaze to the top of a parked drummon on the edge of the square. A Gheeth had climbed up there with a long weapon and was training it in our direction. The woman who had called out “Fusil” skipped forward, raising her hands, and did a cartwheel that took her to the lid of a trash container. From there she sprang sideways, rolled, and came up near a drinking fountain on which she planted a foot to shove off and make a violent reversal of direction that took her toward a scraggly tree. She got a hand on that and swung round it, scampered to the top of a bench, disappeared into a little clot of pedestrians, reappeared a moment later sprinting directly toward the man with the gun but in a moment had changed course again to duck behind a kiosk. In this manner she made rapid progress toward the gunman atop the drummon. He was hard-pressed to aim his weapon at her with all these sudden changes in course. If I’d been in his shoes, I couldn’t have fired, even to save my own life, because her gymnastics were so fascinating to watch.
A shot sounded. Not from the man on the drummon and not from the leader in the ring behind me. It came from somewhere else: hard to pin down because it echoed from the fronts of buildings all around the square. My knees buckled.
Five feet away from me, something unpleasant happened to the Gheeth leader; a redshirt had used this distraction as an opportunity to take him down and disarm him.
The woman doing the gymnastics kept moving toward the gunman atop the drummon, who had frozen up and was looking all around trying to identify the source of the shot.
A second shot sounded. The gun spun loose from the would-be sniper’s hands and clattered to the pavement. He grabbed his hand and howled. The redshirt woman stopped with the gymnastics, dropped into a normal sprinting gait, and went straight to the fallen weapon.
“Fusil!” called one of the other redshirts. He pointed across the canal. Again the two flanking him spun about to look in other directions. It took the rest of us a moment to see what he’d seen.
Across the canal was a food cart, prudently abandoned by its owner. A three-wheeler had drawn up behind it, using it and its array of signs and fluttering banners to provide visual cover. One man was operating the three-wheeler’s controls: Ganelial Crade. Another was standing on its passenger platform: Yulassetar Crade. He was carrying a long weapon. He addressed himself to the sniper atop the drummon, bellowing across the canal. “The first shot was to make you freeze,” he explained. “The second was to make you helpless. The third you’re never going to know about. Show me your hands.
The Gheeth held up his hands—one of them bloody and misshapen.
“Run away!” Yul howled, and shouldered his rifle.
The Gheeth avalanched down over the front of the drummon, rolled around on the pavement for a few moments, then came up at a run.
“Raz, we gotta go!” Yul called. “The rest of you in the red shirts—whoever or whatever you are—you’re welcome to come with. Maybe you want to be getting out of town as bad as we do.”
There was a bridge over the canal at the square. Gnel zipped over it and came towards me. The circle of redshirts parted to let him in. He passed through the gap, eyeing them a little nervously, and pulled up alongside me. I wasn’t moving too well. Yul bent down over me, grabbed my belt in his fist, just behind the small of my back, and heaved me aboard the three-wheeler like an unconscious rafter being pulled out of a river. It was extremely crowded now on this tiny vehicle. Gnel made a careful, sweeping turn into the square and headed up a street. He was wearing earphones plugged into a jeejah. Sammann must be feeding him instructions.
The redshirts followed us, jogging beside and behind the three-wheeler. Apparently they saw good sense in Yul’s point that it was time to get out of town. Once it became clear which way we were going, they picked up the pace and threatened to outrun the three-wheeler, prompting Gnel to give it a little more throttle. Before long they were sprinting. We covered a mile in a few minutes, and came into a district of railway lines and warehouses that wasn’t as crowded as the center of Old Mahsht. It was possible for full-sized vehicles to move about normally on the streets here. A pair of them came out of nowhere and nearly ran us down: Yul’s and Gnel’s fetches, driven by Cord and by Sammann respectively.
As we later established, the redshirts numbered twenty-five. We somehow got all of them onto the two fetches and the three-wheeler. I’d never seen people packed so tight. We had redshirts on the roof of Yul’s fetch, elbows linked together to keep them from falling off.
Cord took all of this pretty calmly, considering that she couldn’t have known, until just before they piled into the fetch, that she was going to be transporting a dozen and a half vlor experts in red T-shirts. As she drove us out of there, she kept looking over at me aghast. “It’s okay,” I told her. “They are avout—they must have been Evoked. I don’t know what math they are from—obviously one that specializes in vlor—maybe an offshoot of Ringing Vale or some such—”
Behind me, an amused redshirt translated all of that into Orth and got a round of chuckles.
I got embarrassed. Horribly, mud-on-the-head embarrassed.
I tried to turn back to look at them but something impeded movement. Groping to explore, I discovered three hands, belonging to Valers behind or beside me, pressing wads of blood-soaked fabric against my face and scalp. Lacerations. I hadn’t been aware of them. It wasn’t the strangers crammed into her fetch that so disturbed Cord; it was my face.
During most of this I’d been having the wrong emotions. At the very beginning when the two Gheeths had mugged me, I’d been scared. Appropriately. That’s why I’d run away. Then I had convinced myself that I could handle this somehow. I could evade the mob in streets or canals. I could talk some sense into Laro, plead my case. They didn’t really mean to kill me; this couldn’t be happening. The cops would get here any minute. Next had come a sort of dazed acceptance of my fate. Then the fraas and suurs of the Ringing Vale had arrived. Everything after that had been fascinating and sort of exhilarating, and I had surfed through it on some sort of chemical high: my body’s reaction to injury and stress. A minute ago I’d greeted Cord with a big bloody hug as though nothing had happened.
A few minutes into the drive, though, I fell apart. All of my injuries began sending pain to my brain, like soldiers sounding off at roll call. Whatever convenient substances my glands had been squirting into my bloodstream were withdrawn, cold turkey. It was as if a trapdoor had opened beneath me. Just like that I became a shivering, weeping tangle of nerves, squirming and grunting in pain.
Twenty minutes’ drive, under Sammann’s direction, took us to a site on the left bank of a big river that flowed from the mountains down into the Old Mahsht fjord branch. It looked as though it might have been a broad sandbar in some earlier age, but had long ago been paved over and played host to a succession of industrial complexes, now in ruins. At one end of it was a recreational boat ramp and picnic ground with a couple of smelly latrines. We pulled in there and scared off some holiday-makers. I was carried out of Yul’s fetch and laid out flat on a picnic table that they’d covered with camping pads to make it soft, and tarps to protect the camping pads from whatever was leaking out of me. Yul opened his medical kit, which like all of his other gear was not store-bought but improvised from found objects. Into a big, heavy-gauge poly bag he dumped white powder from a poly tube: salt and germicide. Then he filled it up with a couple of gallons of tap water and shook it for a minute, producing a sterilized normal saline solution. He tucked the bag under his arm and squeezed it hard against his ribs, shooting out a jet of fluid that he aimed into my wounds to flush them out. Picking a wound, he would yank off the gauze and sluice it until I screamed, then give it another thirty seconds. Gnel followed in his wake, working with something smelly. As he was using it on my split eyebrow I realized it was a tube of glue—the same stuff you’d use to stick the handle back onto a broken teacup. Wounds too big to glue were bridged with glass-fiber packing tape. At one point a Ringing Vale suur dug into me with a sewing needle and a length of fishing line from Gnel’s tackle box. Once a wound had been hit with glue, tape, or fishing line, someone in a red T-shirt would slap petroleum jelly on it and cover it with something white. A Ringing Vale fraa, obviously a masseur, went over my whole body without so much as a by-your-leave, looking for broken bones and hemorrhages. If my spleen wasn’t ruptured when he got to it, it was by the time he moved on to my liver. His verdict: mild concussion, three cracked ribs, spiral fracture of one arm bone, two small broken bones in one hand, and I could expect to pee blood for a while.
Enough time had gone by for me to be ashamed of how I’d fallen apart during the drive, so I put a lot of effort into not screaming any more than was strictly necessary. For some reason I was thinking of Lio. He’d worshipped all things Vale since before he’d even been Collected. He’d tracked down every book at Saunt Edhar that came from there, or that had been written by people who claimed to have visited the Vale or been beaten up by Valers. He’d have died of shame to know that I’d been less than totally immune to pain in the presence of these people.
Conversations I was dying to be a part of were taking place just out of earshot. Once they finished gluing my head together, I could look about and see Sammann talking to a senior fraa from the Vale, and a suur consoling Cord, who broke out crying whenever she turned her face in my direction. After a while, when it was decided I was going to live and so might be worth talking to, Fraa Osa—the First Among Equals of the Valers—came over to talk to me. With the exception of the seamstress, who was making long tedious work of a rambling slash on my calf, the wound-fixers raked up all their litter and drifted away. Yul went over and bear-hugged Cord and practically carried her over to the edge of the river where she had a good long soaking cry.
“Yesterday we were Evoked,” said Fraa Osa. He was the first redshirt I had seen during the melee: the one who had covered me with his sphere and perched on it one-legged. He was probably in his fifth decade. “They said we should go to Tredegarh. We consulted a globe and determined that the most efficient route was via Mahsht.”
The Ringing Vale was a hundred or so miles outside of Mahsht. From there a great circle route across the ocean would take one almost to Tredegarh, so this made sense as far as it went.
“Local people gave us transportation to Mahsht. We found it as you found it. Those of us who speak Fluccish sought transport on a ship. We were approached by your magister.”
“My magister!?” I shouted. Then I saw the faintest trace of irony on Osa’s face. He was half joking.
But only half. “Sark,” he said. “He is well known to us. He comes to our Aperts, and speaks to us of his ideas.” Osa shrugged and made a gentle bobbling motion with his hands, which I thought was his way of telling me that they tried to weigh Sark’s preaching fairly. “In any case, he recognized us in the street. He told us that a lone avout was being pursued by a mob. We saw it as an emergence.”
For a moment I thought he was slipping into broken Fluccish, trying to pronounce
During the time of the Reconstitution, literally in the Year 0, when the sites of the first new maths were being surveyed so that the cornerstones of their Clocks and Mynsters could be laid down, a team of freshly sworn-in avout had journeyed to a remote place in the desert to begin such a project, only to find themselves under siege by mistrustful locals. For the place they’d been sent was covered with jumpweed plantations and they had stumbled upon a shack where the weed was being boiled down to make a concentrated, illegal drug. The avout were unarmed. They had been pulled together from all over the world and so had little in common with one another; most of them didn’t even speak Orth. But it so happened that several of them were students of an ancient school of martial arts, which back in those days had no connection with the mathic world, even if it had been developed in monastic settings. Anyway, they had never used their skills outside of a gym, but they now found themselves thrust into a position where they had to take action. Some of their number were killed. Some of the martial artists performed well, others froze up and did no better than those who’d had no training at all. That sort of situation became known as an emergence. A few of the survivors went on to found the Ringing Vale math. According to Lio, they spent almost as much time thinking about the concept of emergence as they did in physical training—the idea being that all the training in the world was of no use, maybe even worse than useless, if you did not know when to use it, and knowing when to use it was a lot harder than it sounded, because sometimes, if you waited too long to go into action, it was too late, and other times, if you did it too early, you only made matters worse.
“The most salient feature of the enemy was its thoughtless aggression,” Fraa Osa said. He reached into air and closed his hand as though grasping the wrist of an attacker who’d tried to punch him. It was an eloquent gesture, which was convenient for me, since Fraa Osa did not seem inclined to say more than that about the strategy they had used.
“You reckoned, as long as they are in such a mood, let’s really give them something to be aggressive about,” I said, trying to draw him out a little more. Fraa Osa smiled and nodded. “So you grabbed that one person and started, uh…”
Here for once I broke off instead of telling the truth, which was that they had been torturing that Gheeth. I didn’t want to seem critical towards these people who had just risked their lives saving mine. Fraa Osa just kept smiling and nodding. “It is a nerve pressure technique,” he said. “It seems to hurt a lot, but does no damage.”
This raised all sorts of interesting questions: was there really a difference between hurting, and
“Not long enough.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“There is no time in an emergence to think up plans. Much less to communicate them. Instead I told the others that we would emulate Lord Frode’s cavalry at Second Rushy Flats, when they drew out Prince Terazyn’s squadron. Except that the canal edge would substitute for the Tall Canes and that little square would take the place of Bloody Breaks. As you can see it does not take very much time to say these words.”
I nodded as if I had some idea what he was talking about—which I didn’t. I couldn’t even guess which war he was alluding to, in what millennium.
“What’s with the red T-shirts?” I asked, though I already had my suspicions. Fraa Osa grinned ruefully. “They were issued to us at Voco,” he said. “Donated by a local ark. I look forward to reaching Tredegarh so that I can go back to the bolt and chord.”
“Speaking of which—”
He shook his head. “Your bolt, chord, and sphere are lost. Perhaps we could have gotten them back—but we departed in some haste.”
“Of course!” I said. “Not a big deal.” And it wasn’t, in one sense. Fraas and suurs lost theirs from time to time. New ones were issued. But losing mine in this way made me feel pretty bad. They’d been with me for more than ten years and they had a lot of memories associated with them. They’d been my last physical link to the Mathic world. Now that they were gone, I could be any old S?cular. Which might be safer—no one could yank them out from concealment and wave them around and try to lynch me. But it made me feel lonely.
Sammann went over and had a few words with Yul who jumped up, fetched the rifle, grabbed it by the barrel, and after a few running steps gave it a mighty heave. Spinning end-over-end it flew about halfway across the river, then stabbed into the current and disappeared. About a minute later, two mobes full of Mahsht constables showed up and piled out of their wailing and flashing vehicles. Except for Fraa Osa and the suur who was sewing me together, all of the Ringing Vale avout sat on the ground, feet tucked under them, and looked serene. The constables mostly gaped at them. How many thousands of speelies had been produced about the fictional exploits of the Valers? The cops couldn’t begin to think of them as suspects. They saw them more as tourist attractions. Zoo animals. Movie stars. What’s more, the Valers knew as much, and knew how to exploit it. They showed us the meaning of posture, and pretended to meditate. The cops ate it up. The boss cop had a long and (at first) tense conversation with Yul and Fraa Osa. The suur with the needle kept running that string through my flesh and I gritted my teeth so hard I could hear them creaking. Finally she tied it off and walked away without a word—without even a look. I had an upsight: I might have warm feelings for these people because they had helped me and because I had seen way too many speelies about them before I’d been Collected. The Valers, however, had not been Evoked because they were nice guys.
Cord came over and stood with her hands in her pockets taking inventory of my bandages.
“See what a small percentage of my body they actually cover,” I pointed out.
She was having none of it.
“Our plan didn’t work out so well,” I offered.
She looked off to the side and sniffled—the last emotional aftershock of a long day. “Not your fault. How could we have known?”
“I’m sorry to have put you through this. I don’t understand how things could have gone so wrong.”
She looked at me acutely and saw nothing, I guess, except for a stupid look on my face. “You don’t have any idea what’s going on, do you?”
“I guess not. Just that the military has been moving toward the pole.” A memory popped into my head. “And a magister on the ship made some weird comment about the Warden of Heaven being cast out in wrath.”
Even as I was saying this, an old rattletrap coach was pulling in off the road. At its controls was Magister Sark. It was one of those freakish coincidences that made some people believe in spirits and psychic phenomena. I explained it away by supposing that my unconscious mind had seen the coach out of the corner of my eye a few moments before I’d consciously recognized him.
“You still with me?” Cord asked.
“Yeah. Hey—what about Jesry? Is he okay?”
“We think so. We’ll get you caught up.”
We looked over at Yul, who had somehow managed to get the police captain laughing. Something had been decided between them. The official part of the conversation was over.
The captain came over and made a few appreciative remarks about how banged up I was and what a tough guy I must be, then asked if I wanted to pursue it—to press charges. Absolutely lying through my teeth, I said no. By doing so, I apparently closed a deal. The particulars were never explained to me, but the gist of it was that all of us were free to go. The leaders of that mob would get off free except for injuries and insults already suffered. And these constables would dodge a mountain of paperwork: paperwork that would have been ten times as bad as what they were used to simply because many of those concerned were avout and hence of tricky legal status.
Magister Sark had not been idle during all of these other goings-on. The coach belonged to his Kelx in Mahsht; it was painted all over with Triangle iconography. It was large enough to transport all of the Valers. Some other member of his Kelx had volunteered to drive them south to a bigger city, less chaotic than Mahsht at the moment, whence they could arrange transport to Tredegarh. This driver, he explained, was on his way, but because of the difficult conditions in town, we might have to wait for a little while.
The magister glanced at me as he was explaining these things, and for some reason I felt a thrill of resentment. I did not like being indebted to him, and did not relish the prospect of having to sit gratefully through another sales pitch for his faith while we waited for the driver to show up. But it seemed he was more interested in checking my status than starting a conversation, and as soon as he stopped looking my way I felt ashamed of the way I’d reacted. Was there really that much of a difference between the Kelx notion of having one’s story related to the Magistrate, and the Valers’ concept of emergence? They seemed to produce very similar behavior; I owed my life to the fact that Sark and Osa had been of one mind, earlier today in Mahsht.
I was on my feet by now; I limped over to him, held out my hand, and thanked him. He shook my hand firmly and said nothing.
“The Condemned Man had a good yarn to spin for the Magistrate today,” I said. I guess I was trying to humor him.
His face darkened. “But he could not tell it without speaking too of the ones who behaved evilly. Yes, it is the case that—thanks to the spirit of the Innocent—some good was achieved. But I can scarcely believe that the Magistrate’s ultimate judgment of this world was much shifted, either way, by what he heard from the Condemned Man today.”
Not for the first time I was astonished by Magister Sark’s ability to be intelligent and wise while spouting prehistoric nonsense. “For your own part, anyway,” I pointed out, “it seems you chose in a way that reflects well on you and your world.”
“The Innocent moved me,” he insisted. “Give all credit to her.”
“I give you my personal thanks,” I said, “and ask you to relay it to the Innocent the next time you hear from her.”
He shook his head in exasperation, then finally chuckled; though such a grim fellow was he that his chuckle was something between a gag and a cough. “You don’t understand at all.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “I am in no shape for Dialog right now, but perhaps some other time I can try to explain to you how I see all of these matters.”
His reaction was noncommittal, but he understood that the conversation was over. He wandered away. I collected some blank paper from Yul’s fetch and began to scribble out notes to my friends at the Convox. Magister Sark got into a long conversation with Yul and Cord, interrupted from time to time by Ganelial Crade, who of course belonged to a completely different faith, and who paced back and forth at a distance, fuming, then darted in from time to time to dispute some fine point of deology.
A mobe swung through, dropped off the driver who would take the Valers south, and picked up Magister Sark. The Valers began to find seats aboard the coach. Fraa Osa was the last to board. I handed him a stack of notes. “For my friends at Tredegarh,” I explained, “if you would not mind bearing them.”
“You’ve already done me plenty of favors, so it is okay to say no,” I went on.
“You did us a favor,” he countered, “by creating an emergence nested within the larger emergence, and giving us an opportunity to train.”
I said nothing. I was wondering what he meant by “the larger emergence,” and reckoned he must be talking about the Cousins. He was sifting through the letters I’d given him. “You have many friends at the Convox!” he remarked, and looked up at me quizzically. This was probably an indirect way of asking
“Aah!” exclaimed Fraa Osa, holding one up. “You know the famous Jesry!”
I didn’t even want to think about what was implied by Jesry’s being famous, so I glided past it and directed his attention to the last letter in the stack. “Lio,” I said, “Fraa Lio is a student of Vale-lore.”
“Ah!” he exclaimed. As if Lio were unique; as if the world, for thousands of years, at any given moment, had not contained millions of vlor students.
“Mostly self-taught. But it is important to him. If this letter were handed to him by even the most junior member of the Ringing Vale math, it would be the greatest honor of his life. Uh, don’t tell him I said that.”
Fraa Osa bowed again. “I shall comply with all of your instructions.” He put his foot on the coach’s running board. “Here I say farewell—unless—?” And he looked between me and the coach.
I fell for it hard. I imagined the long ride on the coach full of authentic Ringing Vale avout, maybe a night or two in a room at a casino down south, a journey—safe and well-organized—to Tredegarh, reunion with my friends there. If these people could somehow get their hands on a plane, it could even happen in a day. I imagined all of that long and hard enough to savor it, to look forward to it.
But I knew it was all a daydream. That I had to pull back. That the longer I kept on this way the harder it was going to be.
“I want to climb on board that thing and go to Tredegarh with you like that water wants to find the ocean,” I said, gesturing to the river. “But to quit in the middle”—
This was the first thing that had happened all day that startled Fraa Osa. “A Thousander,” he repeated.
“Then you had best finish the task.”
“That’s kind of what I’m thinking.”
He bowed one more time—more deeply than before. Then he turned his back on me and climbed into the coach. I went to the latrine and peed blood and boarded Yul’s fetch. Sammann was in there too. We pulled on to the main road and turned south. I slept.
They said I only slept for half an hour but it felt much longer. When I woke up I crawled into the back of the fetch, where it was darker, and Sammann showed me a speely on his jeejah.
Sammann was the only member of the crew who didn’t make remarks or ask questions about my injuries and emotional state. This might make it sound like he was insensitive. Frankly, though, I could have done with a lot less sensitivity by that point in the day.
“There is not a lot of explanatory content connected to this data because of the way in which it was obtained,” he warned as he was queueing it up.
The image quality was, as usual, terrible. It took me a minute even to be sure that it had been shot in color. Everything was either solid black (space, and shadows) or blinding white (anything with sun shining on it). As I slowly came to realize, it had been made by aiming a hand-held speelycaptor out a dirty window. “Outgassing,” Sammann said, which meant little to me. He went on to explain that the materials used to build the space capsule had, in the vacuum of space, let go of vaporous byproducts that had congealed on the spacecraft windows. “You’d think they would have solved that problem,” I said. “They built it in a rush,” he answered.
A perfect circle, centered in a perfect equilateral triangle, dominated the view. “It’s the back end of the alien ship,” Sammann explained. “The pusher plate on the rear. They always kept it oriented toward the capsule—think about it.”
After a few moments I tried: “They—the Cousins—couldn’t be sure that our space capsule wasn’t carrying a nuclear warhead. So they kept the nuke-proof part of their ship aimed towards it.”
“That’s part of it,” Sammann said, and gave me a wicked grin—egging me on.
“They could spit one of their own nukes out the back of that thing and blow up the space capsule any time they felt like it.”
“You got it. Also: we can’t get a good look at their ship from this angle. No way to gather military intelligence.”
“Where’s the hole that the nukes come out of?” I asked.
“Don’t bother looking. You can’t see it. It’s tiny compared to the scale of the plate. It’s closed by a shutter when it’s not in use. You won’t be able to see it until it opens.”
“It’s going to open!?”
“Maybe it’s better if we just watch the speely.” Sammann reached in and turned up the volume a bit. The sound track was a roar of ambient noise: whooshes, hums, buzzes, and drones at many different pitches. There was the occasional human word or phrase, shouted over the roar, but people spoke rarely, and when they did it tended to be in terse military jargon.
“Bogey,” someone said, “two o’clock.”
The image veered and zoomed, the big triangle expanding until its edge had become a straight division separating white from black. In the black part a grey blob was discernible: just a mess of pixels a few shades brighter than black. But it got brighter and bigger. “Incoming,” someone confirmed.
The murk of noise took on new overtones. People were conversing. I thought I heard the cadences of an Orth sentence.
“Prepare for egress!” someone commanded, in a voice that meant business. For the first time, the speelycaptor turned away from the window and refocused to show the interior of the space capsule. This view was shockingly crisp, clear, and colorful after the endless dreary shot of the pusher plate. Several people were floating around in a confined space. Some were strapped into chairs before consoles. Some were gripping handles, the better to keep their faces pressed against windows. One of these was definitely Jesry. In the middle of the capsule was the big man with the hairdo. He didn’t look good. Weightlessness had made his hair go funny. His face was swollen and greenish; I could tell he was nauseated. He looked tired and uncaring—maybe from anti-nausea drugs? His impressive clothes were gone, revealing all sorts of things about his physique that no one except for his doctor really needed to know. A couple of people were striving to fit him into an outlandish garment consisting of a network of tubes in a matrix of stretchy fabric. It seemed that this project had been going on for a while, but just now they threw it into high gear and one of the others pushed himself away from a window and flew over to help jerk the thing on. The Warden of Heaven (I didn’t know for a fact that this was he, but it seemed unmistakable) woke up enough to become indignant. He glared at the camera and lifted a finger. One of his aides drifted into position to block the view, and said, “Please give His Serenity some—”
“Some serenity?” cracked Jesry, off-camera.
Testy words were exchanged. The authoritative voice commanded them to shut up. The argument was replaced by technical conversation pertaining to the suit that they were building around the Warden of Heaven’s body. One of the console-watchers called out updates on the approach of the bogey.
Jesry said, “You’re about to become the first person ever to converse with aliens. What is your plan?”
The Warden of Heaven made some brief and indistinct response. He was farther from the microphone, he wasn’t feeling well, and he’d seen enough of Jesry by this point to know that the conversation wasn’t going to end well.
The speelycaptor swung round to point at the Warden again. They’d finished putting the tube-garment around his body and were building a space suit over that, one limb at a time.
Off-camera, Jesry answered: “How do you know that the Geometers are even going to recognize that concept?”
Another muffled, noncommittal response from the Warden (who, to be fair, couldn’t talk well because they were mounting a headset on him).
“Geometers?” I asked.
“That’s what people at the Convox have been calling the aliens, apparently,” Sammann said.
“I would try to go in there with a mental checklist of basic observations I wanted to achieve,” Jesry went on. “For example, do they take any precautions against infection? It would be quite significant if they were afraid of our germs—or if they weren’t.”
The Warden of Heaven deflected Jesry’s suggestion with a humorous remark that his aides thought was funny.
“You ever look at bugs under a lens?” Jesry tried. “That’d be good preparation for this. They look so different from anything we normally experience that it’s easy to be kind of stunned and bewildered by their appearance at first. But if you can get past that emotional reaction, you can see how they work. How do they transmit their weight to the ground? Count the orifices. Look for symmetries. Observe periodicities. By which I mean, how often do they breathe? From that, we can make inferences about their metabolism.”
One of the aides cut Jesry short by telling him it was time to pray. The suit was all on now except for the helmet. The Warden’s head—unrecognizable under the earphones, the mike, the heads-up goggles—poked up out of a huge, rigid carapace. He held hands with his aides as best he could through the bulky gloves. They closed their eyes and said something in unison. A loud metallic pop/crunch interrupted them. “Contact,” someone called, “we have been grappled by a remote manipulator.”
The speelycaptor swung past a crew member checking his watch and aimed back out the dirty window to focus on the bogey. This was a skeletal craft, altogether mechanical, no pressurized compartments where a Cousin might ride along: just a frame with half a dozen robot arms of various sizes, and thruster nozzles, spotlights, and dish antennas pointed every which way. One of its arms had reached out and grabbed an antenna bracket on the outside of the capsule.
Things happened fast now. The helmet had already been clamped down over the Warden of Heaven’s head, and crew members had shooed away the aides and were manipulating the suit’s controls. Through the bubble the Warden’s eyes could be seen moving back and forth uncertainly, responding to inscrutable hisses and creaks from the suit as its systems came alive. His lips moved and he nodded and gave thumbs-up signs as communications were tested.
They pushed him through a pressure hatch at one end of the capsule, closed it behind him, and turned a wheel to dog it shut. He was in the airlock.
“Why’s he going alone?” I asked.
“Supposedly that’s how the Cousins—excuse me, the Geometers—wanted it,” Sammann said. “Send one, they said.”
“So we sent
Sammann shrugged. “But that’s part of the Geometers’ strategy, isn’t it? If we were allowed to send a whole delegation, we could hedge our bets. But if the whole planet is allowed to send only one representative, whom do we pick? That tells them a lot.”
“Yeah, but why—?”
Sammann cut me off with an even more exaggerated shrug. “You seriously expect me to be able to explain why the S?cular Power makes the decisions it makes?”
“Okay. Sorry. Never mind.”
Hisses and clanks and terse utterances from the crew signaled the opening of the airlock’s outer door. A small arm unfolded itself from the Geometers’ robot probe and reached toward the ship, out of view of this window. When it drew back, a few moments later, it brought the Warden of Heaven with it. The arm’s steely hand had gripped a metal bracket that projected from the suit’s round shoulder—a lifting point. The Geometers understood our engineering, and knew a bracket for a bracket.
The bogey disengaged from the capsule and fired a puff of gas to get itself drifting away, then, after a few seconds, ignited larger thrusters that accelerated it toward the icosahedron. The Warden of Heaven waved back to us. “Everything is okay,” he announced over the wireless. Then his voice was replaced by a harsh buzzing tone. A crew member turned it down. “They’re jamming us,” he announced. “His Serenity is on his own.”
“No,” said an aide, “God is with him.”
The speelycaptor zoomed in on the Warden, being drawn backwards toward the icosahedron. He was getting harder to see, even at maximum zoom, but it looked like he was gesticulating, tapping his helmet and throwing up his hands in confusion. “Okay, we get it!” Jesry said. “You can’t hear.”
“I’m worried about his pulse. Way too high for a man his age,” said a crew member.
“You’ve still got telemetry?” Jesry asked.
“Just barely. They jammed vox first. Now they are attacking the other channels…nope. Lost it. Bye-bye.”
“The Geometers are some kind of military hardasses,” Sammann said, perhaps unnecessarily.
The video went on with little further commentary until the robot probe and the Warden had shrunk to a tiny cluster of grey pixels. Then it cut out and went to black. Sammann paused it. “In the original, what follows is four hours of basically nothing,” he said. “They just sit there and wait. Your friend Jesry baits the Warden’s toadies into a philosophical debate and crushes them. After that, no one wants to talk. There is only one event of note, which is that after about one hour the jamming stops.”
“Really? So they can talk to the Warden again?”
“I didn’t say that. The jamming signals are turned off, but they can’t get any data from the Warden’s spacesuit. Most likely what it means is that the suit had been shut down.”
“Because something happened to the Warden of Heaven or…”
“Most people think he got out of the suit. Since it was no longer necessary, it was turned off to conserve power.”
“That the Hedron—as people are calling it—has an atmosphere we can breathe, yes,” Sammann said. “Or that the Warden was dead on arrival.”
“The Warden of Heaven’s dead?”
Sammann started the speely playing again. The time code in the corner had jumped forward a few hours.
“New signal from the Hedron,” announced a tired crew member. “Repetitive pulses. Microwaves. High power. I’d say they are illuminating us with radar.”
“Like they don’t already know where we are!” someone scoffed.
“Cut the chatter!” ordered the voice I’d come to think of as the captain’s. “Do you think they are acquiring us?”
“As in acquiring a target for a weapons launch,” Sammann translated.
“It’s definitely that kind of a narrow-beam signal,” said the other, “but steady—not homing in.”
“Activity on the base plate!” Jesry called. “Dead center.”
The image once again wheeled to the huge circle-in-triangle. Then it zoomed. A dark mote was visible in the center. As the zoom went on, this grew and resolved itself as a circular pore.
“Give us some distance!” the captain ordered.
“Brace for emergency acceleration…three, two, one, now,” said another voice, and then everything went out of whack for a minute. People and stuff flew around. Loud clunks and hisses sounded. Everything that was loose ended up plastered against the bulkhead closest to the icosahedron as the capsule accelerated away from it. The woman holding the speelycaptor did her share of gasping and cursing. But soon enough she got it pointed back out the window. “Something is coming out of that port!” Jesry announced, and once again we were treated to a long, veering zoom-in. But this time the hole wasn’t crisp-edged and black. It was pinkish, its boundaries ill-defined. The pink part was moving; it separated itself from the base of the icosahedron. It had been cast off. It was adrift in space. The hole irised shut behind it.
“That doesn’t look like a nuke,” someone said.
“Understatement of the year,” Sammann muttered.
“Move in on it.”
“Brace for acceleration…three two, one, now.” There was another messy scene as the capsule reversed its direction and began heading back toward the icosahedron. Yet again we had to wait as the indefatigable woman with the speelycaptor made her way back to that tiny, filthy window and re-acquired the shot.
So did I.
“What is it?” asked one of the voices. They couldn’t see what she—what I—could see because they weren’t peering at it through magnifying optics.
“It’s him,” said the woman holding the speelycaptor. “It’s the Warden of Heaven!” She refrained from mentioning one important detail, which was that he was stark naked. “They threw the Warden of Heaven out the airlock!”
Sammann stopped it. “That has become the hip catch phrase of the moment,” he told me. “Technically, though, it’s not an airlock. It’s the port where they spit out the little nukes.”
The Warden at this point was still small and poorly resolved, but he had been getting bigger, and I had been steeling myself for what he would look like close-up. “I can keep playing it if you want,” Sammann offered, none too enthusiastically, “or—”
“I’ve seen enough gore for one day, thanks,” I said. “Don’t you explode or something?”
“There was a little bit of that. By the time they got him back into the capsule—well, it was a mess.”
“So the Geometers just—executed him?”
“This is not known. He might have died of natural causes. They found a burst aneurysm on autopsy.”
“I imagine they found a
“Eew!” Cord said from up front.
“Exactly—so it’s hard to say whether it blew before or after he was thrown out.”
“Have the Geometers sent out any communications since this happened?”
“We’d have no way of knowing that. This speely was leaked. Other than that, the Powers That Be have managed to control information pretty effectively.”
“The Powers That Be have shut down most of the Reticulum in order to control propagation of this speely,” Sammann said. “So only a few people have seen it. Most people, if they’ve heard anything, have only heard rumors.”
“That’s almost worse than facts,” I said, and told him about Magister Sark. “When did this happen?” I asked.
“While we were going over the pole,” he said. “The capsule landed a day later. Everyone except the Warden was safe and sound. Meanwhile the military had begun moving toward the poles, as you found out.”
“Which makes no sense to me,” I mentioned.
“I’m told that the Hedron is in an orbit that confines its ground track to a belt around the Equator…”
“Yes, and so if you go to the far north or south you can get out from under it—”
“And maybe out of reach of its weapons?”
“Depends on what kind of weapons they are. But the part that doesn’t make sense to me is that the Geometers could change their orbit any time they wanted to. The first few months they were here, they were in a polar orbit, remember?”
“Yes, of course I remember,” Sammann said.
“Then they changed and…”
“And what?” Sammann asked after a while, since I’d gone silent.
“…and I saw—Ala and I saw—light from the nukes that they fired to make that change in their orbit. ‘Plane change maneuvers are expensive.’ For them to change
“You mean…out of nukes?”
“Yeah. Nuclear bombs are the fuel that makes the ship go. They can only store so many of them. When they run low, they have to…”
“To go get more,” Sammann said.
“Which means zeroing in on a technically advanced civilization and raiding them. Pillaging their stockpile of nuclear material. Which, in our case, means—”
“Edhar, Rambalf, and Tredegarh,” Sammann said.
“That was the message they were sending on the night that the lasers shone down,” I said, “the night I was Evoked.”
“The night Fraa Orolo walked down off Bly’s Butte,” Cord put in, “and headed for Ecba.”