The Restrictions of Persons in Abodes Act met with the mixed reception customary for proclamations from the Oligarchy. In the more privileged sectors of the city people nodded their heads and said, “How wise-what a good idea.” Nearer the do cks, they exclaimed, “So that’swhat the biwackers are up to now!”
Eedap Mun Odim gave no overt expression to his dismay when he returned to his crowded five-storey home. He knew that the police would call soon enough to inform him that he was contravening the new law.
That night, he patted his children, settled his modest anatomy beside the slumbrous bulk of his wife, and prepared his mind for pauk. He had said nothing to his spouse, knowing that her display of anguish, her tears, her undoubted rushing from one end of the room to the other, kissing her three children with huge hydropic kisses en route, would do nothing to resolve the problem. As her breath became as regular as a balmy breeze over the autumn valleys of Kuj-fuvec, Odim gathered together his inner resources and underwent that small death which forms the entrance gate to pauk.
For the poor, the troubled, the persecuted, there was always that refuge: the trance state of pauk. In pauk lay communication with those of the family whose life on earth was ended. Neither State nor Church had jurisdiction over the region of the dead. That vast dimension of death placed no restriction on persons; nor did God the Azoiaxic prevail there. Only gossies and the more remote fessups existed in orderly oblivion, sinking towards the unrisen sun of the Original Beholder, she who took to her bosom all who lived.
Like a feather, the tremulous soul of Eedap Mun Odim sank down, to hold what intercourse it might with the gossie of its father, recently departed the world above.
The father now resembled a kind of ill-made gilt cage. It was difficult to see it through the obsidian of nonexistence, but Odim’s soul made its obeisances, and the gossie twinkled a little in response. Odim poured out his troubles.
The gossie listened, expressing consolation in little dreadful gasps of bright dust. It in its turn communed with the guttering ranks of ancestors below it. Finally it uttered advice to Odim.
“Gentle and beloved son, your forebears honour you for your tender duty towards our family. Family must rely upon family, since governments do not comprehend families. Your good brother Odirin Nan lives distantly from you, but he, like you, shares an abiding fondness for our poor people. Go to him. Go to Odirin Nan.”
The voiceless voice sank away in an eddy. To which Odim faintly responded that he loved his brother Odirin Nan, but that brother lived in far Shivenink; might it not be better instead to cross the mountains and return to a remote branch of the family which still lived in the vales of Kuj-Juvec?
“These here with me who still can make voice advise no return to Kuj-Juvec. The way over the mountains becomes more hazardous every month, as new arrivals here report.” The tenuous framework guttered even as it spoke. “Also, the valleys are becoming stonier, and the cattle herds grow thin of flank. Sail westwards to your brother, beloved one, most dutiful of young men. Be advised.”
“Father, to hear the melody of your voice is to obey its music.”
With tender expressions on either side, the soul of Odim drifted upwards through obsidian, like an ember through a starry void. The ranks of past generations were lost to view. Then came the pain of finding a feeble human body lying inert on a mattress, and seeking entry to it.
Odim returned to his mortal body, weakened by the excursion but strengthened by the wisdom of his father. Beside him, his ample wife breathed on, undistressed in her sleep. He put an arm about her and snuggled into her warmth, like a child against its mother.
There were those-lovers of secrecy-who rose almo st at the time that Odim was settling to sleep.
There were those-lovers of night-who liked to be about before dawn, in order to get ahead of their fellow men. There were those-lovers of chill-whose co nstitutions were such that they found satisfaction in the small hours when human resistance is at its lowest.
At the chime of three in the morning, Major Gardeterark stood in his leather trousers, keeping a watchful eye on his reflection in the mirror while he shaved.
Major Gardeterark would have no nonsense with pauk. He regarded himself as a rationalist. Rationalism was his creed, and his family’s. He hadno belief in the Azoiaxic-Church Parade was a different matter- and less than a belief in pauk. It would never occur to the major that his thinking had confined him to an umwelt of living obsidian, through which no light shone.
At present, with each stroke of his cut-throat razor, he contemplated how to make miserable the lives of the inhabitants of Koriantura, as well as the existence of his under officer, Captain Harbin Fashnalgid.
Gardeterark believed he had rational family reasons for hating Fashnalgid, over and above the motive of the latter’s inefficiency. And he was a rational man.
A great king had once ruled in Sibornal, before the last Weyr-Winter. His name had come down as King Denniss. King Denniss’s court had been held inOld Askitosh, and his retreat had been in the mighty edifices now known as the Autumn Palaces. So legend had it.
To his court, King Dennis had summoned learned men from all quarters of the globe. The great king had fought for Sibornal’s survival through the grim centuries of Weyr-Winter, and had launched an invasion force across the seas to attack Pannoval.
The king’s scholars had compiled catalogues andencyclopaedias. Everything that lived had been named, listed, categorised. Only the slow-pulsed world of the dead had been excluded, in deference to the Church of the Formidable Peace.
A long period of confusion followed the death of King Denniss. The winter came. Then the great families of the seven Sibornalese nations had joined together to form an Oligarchy, in an attempt to rule the continent on rational and scientific lines, as proposed by King Denniss. They had sent learned men abroad to enlighten the natives of Cam-pannlat, even as far afield as the old cultural centre of Keevasien, in the southwest of Borlien.
The autumn of the present Great Year had witnessed one of the most enlightened of the Oligarchy’s decrees. The Oligarchy had altered the Sibornalese calendar. Previously, Sibornalese nations, with the exception of backwaters like Upper Hazziz, had adhered to a “so many years after the coronation of Denniss” formula. The Oligarchy abolished such prescriptions.
Henceforth, the small years were numbered as the astronomers directed, in precedence following the small year in which Helliconia and its feebler luminary, Batalix, were most distant from Freyr: in other words, the year of apastron.
There were 1825 small years, each of 480 days, in a Great Year. The present year, the year of Asperamanka’s incursion into Chalce, was 1308 After Apastron. Under this astronomical system, nobody could forget where they stood with regard to the seasons. It was a rational arrangement.
And Major Gardeterark rationally finished shaving, dried his face, and commenced in a rational way to brush his formidable teeth, allowing so many strokes for each tooth in front, so many for each behind.
The innovation of the calendar alarmed the peasantry. But the Oligarchy knew what it was doing. It became secretive; it amassed secrets. It deployed its agents everywhere. Throughout the autumn it developed a secret police force to watch over its interests. Its leader, the Oligarch, gradually became a secret person, a figment, a dark legend hovering over Askitosh, whereas-or so the stories said-King Denniss had been loved by his people and seen everywhere.
All the acts and edicts promulgated by the Oligarchy were backed by rational argument. Rationality was a cruel philosophy when practised by the likes of Gardeterark. Rationality gave him good reason for bullying people. He drank to rationality every evening in the mess, sinking his huge teeth deep over the rim of his glass as the liquor ran down his throat.
Now, having finished his toilet, he allowed his servant to help him into his boots and greatcoat. Rationally clad, he went out into the frosty predawn streets.
His under officer, Captain Harbin Fashnalgid, was not rational, but he drank.
Fashnalgid’s drinking had begun as an amiable social habit, indulged in with other young subalterns. As Fashnalgid’s hatred of the Oligarch grew, so did his need for drink. Sometimes, the habit got out of hand.
One night, back in the officers’ mess in Askitosh, Fashnalgid had been peaceably drinking and reading, ignoring his fellow men. A hearty captain by the name of Naipundeg halted by Fashnalgid’s chair and laid his hoxney-crop across the open page of the book.
“Always reading, Harbin, you unsociable dog! Filth, I suppose?”
Closing the volume, Fashnalgid said in his flat voice, “This is not a work you would have come across, Naipundeg. It’s a history of sacred architecture throughthe ages. I picked it up from a stall the other day. It was printed three hundred years ago, and it explains how there are secrets that we in these later days have forgotten. Secrets of contentment, for example. If you’re interested.”
“No, I’m not interested, to be frank. It sounds wretchedly dull.”
Fashnalgid stood up, tucking the little book into a pocket of his uniform. He raised his glass and drained it dry. “There are such blockheads in our regiment. I never meet anyone interesting here. You don’t mind me saying that? You’re proud of being a bl ockhead, aren’t you? You’d find any book not about filth dull, wouldn’t you?”
He staggered slightly. Naipundeg, himself far gone in drink, began to bellow with rage.
It was then that Fashnalgid blurted out his hatred of the Oligarchy, and of the Oligarch’s increasing power.
Naipundeg, throwing another tumbler of fiery liquor down his throat, challenged him to a duel. Seconds were summoned. Supporting their primaries, they jostled them into the grounds of the mess.
There a fresh quarrel broke out. The two officers drove off their seconds and blazed away at each other.
Most of the bullets flew wild.
All except one.
That bullet hit Naipundeg’s face, shattering the zygomatic bone, entering the head by way of the left eye, and leaving through the rear of the skull.
In that casual military society, Fashnalgid was able to pass off the duel as an affair of honour regarding a lady. The court-martial convened under Priest-Militant Asperamanka was easily satisfied; Naipundeg, an officer from Bribahr, had not been popular. Fashnalgid was exonerated of blame. Only Fashnalgid’s conscience remained unappeased; he had killed a fellow officer. The less his drinking companions blamed him, the more he judged himself guilty.
He applied for leave of absence and went to visit his father’s estates in the undulating countryside to the north of Askitosh. There he intended to reform, to become less prodigal with women and drink. Harbin’s parents were growing senile, although both still rode daily- as they had done for the past forty years or more-about their fields and stands of timber.
Harbin’s two younger brothers ran the estate between them, aided by their wives. The brothers were shrewd, sowing coarser crops when finer ones failed, selecting strains with more rapid growth periods, planting cold-resistant caspiarn saplings where gales blew down established trees, building stout fences to keep out the herds of flambreg which came marauding from the northern plains. Sullen phagors worked under the brothers’ direction.
The estate had seemed a paradise to Harbin in his childhood. Now it became a place of misery. He saw how much labour was required to maintain a status quo threatened by the ever worsening season, and wanted no part of it. Every morning, he endured his father’s repetitiveconversation rather than join his brothers outdoors. Later, he retired to the library, to leaf moodily through old books which had once en- chanted him and to allow himself the occasional little drink.
Harbin Fashnalgid had often grieved that he was ineffectual. He could not exert his will. He was too modest to realise how many people, women especially, liked him for this trait. In a more lenient age, he would have been a great success.
But he was observant. Within two days, he had noticed that his youngest brother had a quarrel with his wife. Perhaps the difference between them was merely temporary. But Fashnalgid began offering the woman sympathy. The more he talked to her, the weaker became his resolve to reform. He worked on her. He spun her exaggerated tales about the glamour of military life, at the same time touching her, smiling at her, and feigning a great sorrow which was only part feigned. So he won her confidence and became her lover. It was absurdly easy.
It was an irrational way to behave.
Even in that rambling two-storey parental house, it was impossible that the affair should remain secret. Intoxicated by love, or something like it, Fashnalgid became incapable of behaving with discretion. He lavished absurd gifts on his new partner-a wick er hammock; a two-headed goat; a doll dressed as a soldier; an ivory chest crammed with manuscript versions of Ponipotan legends; a pair of pecubeas in a gilt cage; a silver figurine of a hoxney with a woman’s face; a pack of playing cards in ivory inlaid with mother-of-pearl; polished stones; a clavichord; ribbons; poems; and a fossilized Madi skull with alabaster eyes.
He hired musicians from the village to serenade her.
The woman in her turn, driven to ecstasies by the first man in her life who knew nothing about the planting of potatoes and pellamoun-tain, danced for him on his verandah in the nude, wearing only the bracelets he gave her, and sang the wild zyganke.
It could not last. A lugubrious quality in the countryside could not tolerate such exuberance. One night, Fashnalgid’s two brothers rolled up their sleeves, rushed into the love nest, kicked over the clavichord, and bounced Fashnalgid out of the house.
“Abro Hakmo Astab!” roared Fashnalgid. Not even the labourers on the estate were allowed to employ that vile expression aloud.
He picked himself up and dusted himself down in the darkness. The two-headed goat chewed at his trousers.
Fashnalgid stationed himself under his old father’swindow, to shout insults and supplications. “You and Mother have had a happy life, damn you. You’re of the generation which regarded love as a matter of will. ‘Will marks us from the animal, and love from lovelessness,’ as sayeth the poet. You married equally for life, do you hear, you old fool? Well, things are different now. Will’s given way to weather . . .
“You have to grab love when you can now. . . . Didn’t you have a parental duty to make me happy? Eh? Reply, you biwacking old loon. If you’ve been sosherbing happy, why couldn’t you have given me a happy disposition? You’ve given me nothing else. Why should I always be so miserable?”
No answer came from the dark house. A doll dressed as a soldier sailed from one of the windows and struck him on the side of the head.
There was nothing for it but to return to his regiment in Askitosh. But news travelled fast among the landed families. Scandal followed Fashnalgid. As ill fortune would have it, Major Gardeterark was an uncle of the woman he had disgraced, of that very woman who had so recently danced naked on his verandah and sung the wild zyganke. From then on, Harbin Fashnalgid’s position in the regiment became one of increasing difficulty.
His money went on obscure books as well as women and drink. He was accumulating a case against the Oligarchy, discovering just how the authoritarian grip on the Northern Continent had increased over the sleepy centuries of autumn. Searching through the rubbish in an antiquarian’s attic, he came across a list of entitlements of Uskuti estates of over a certain annual income; the Fashnalgid estate was listed. These estates had “pledged assignments to the Oligarchy.” This phrase was not explained.
Fashnalgid fulfilled his military duties while brooding over that phrase. He became convinced that he was himself part of the property assigned.
Between bouts of drinking and wenching, he recalled some of his father’s boasts. Had not the old man once claimed to have seen the Oligarch himself? Nobody had seen the Oligarch. There was no portrait of the Oligarch. No vision of the Oligarch existed in Fashnalgid’s mind, except possibly a pair of great claws reaching over the lands of Sibornal.
After garrison duties one evening, Fashnalgid ordered his personal servant to saddle up his hoxney and rode furiously out to his father’s estate.
His brothers snarled at him like curs. Nor was he allowed as much as a glimpse of his light of love, except for a bare arm disappearing round a door as she was dragged away. He recognised the bracelets on the lovely wrist. How they had rattled when she danced!
His father lay on a day sofa, covered in blankets. The old man was scarcely able to answer his son’s questions. He rambled and procrastinated. Sadly, Fashnalgid recognised his own portrait in his father’s lies and pretences. The old man still claimed once to have seen Torkerkanzlag II, the Supreme Oligarch. But that had been over forty years ago, when his father was a youth.
“The titles are arbitrary,” the old man said. “They are intended to conceal real names. The Oligarchy is secret, and the names of the Members and the Oligarch are kept secret, so that no one knows them. Why, they don’t know each other . . . Just as well . . .”
“So you never met the Oligarch?”
“No one ever claimed to have met him. But it was a special occasion, and he was in the next room. The Oligarch himself. So it was said at the time. I know he was there, I’ve always said so. For all I know, he could be a gigantic lobster with pincers stretching to the sky, but he was certainly there that day-and had I opened the door, I would have seen him, pincers and all . . .”
“Father, what were you doing there, what was this special occasion?”
“Icen Hill, it’s called. Icen Hill, as you know. Everyone knows where it is, but even the Members of the Oligarchy don’t know each other. Secrecy is important. Remember that, Harbin. Honesty’s for boys, chastity’s for women, secrecy’s for men. . . . Y ou know the old saying my grandfather used to tell me, ‘There’s more than an arm up a Sibornalese sleeve.’ Some truth in that.”
“When were you at Icen Hill? Did you assign a tithe of this estate to the Oligarchy? I must know.”
“Duties, boy, there are duties. Not just buying women dolls and poems. The estate is entitled to protection if you assign it. Winter’s coming, you need to look ahead. I’m getting old. Security . . . There’s no need for you to be upset. It was agreed before you were born. I was someone then, more than you’ll ever-you should be a major by now, son, but from w hat I hear from the Gardeterarks. . . . That’s why I signed the agreement that my firstborn son should serve in the Oligarch’s army, in the defence of that state act, when I-“
“You sold me into the army before I was born?” Fashnalgid said.
“Harbin, Harbin, sons go into the army. That’s gallantry. And piety. It’s piety, Harbin. As taught in church.”
“You sold me into the army? What precisely did you get in return?”
“Peace of mind. A sense of duty. Security, as I said, only you weren’t listening. Your mother approved. You ask her. It was her idea.”
“Beholder . . .” Fashnalgid went and poured himself a drink. As he was throwing the liquid down his throat, his father sat up and said in a distinct voice, “I received a promise.”
“What sort of a promise?”
“The future. The safety of our estate. Harbin, I was for many years myself a Member. That’s why I signed you over to the army. It’s an honour-a good career, fine career. You should cultivate young Gardeterark more. . . .”
“You sold me. Father, you sold your son like a slave. . . .” He began to weep and rushed from the house. Without looking back, he galloped away from the place where he had been born.
A few months later, he was posted with his battalion to Koriantura, under his enemy, Major Gardeterark, and ordered to prepare a warm reception for Asperamanka’s returning army.
Throughout recorded time, Sibornal had existed more unitedly than had the rabble of nations which comprised Campannlat. The nations of the northern continent had their differences, but remained capable of uniting in the face of an external threat.
In milder centuries, Sibornal was a favoured continent. From early in spring of the Great Year, Freyr rose and never set, permitting the northern lands to develop early. Now that the Year was declining, the Oligarchy was busy tightening the reins of its power-bringing in its own kind of darkness.
Both Oligarchy and common people understood that winter, setting in steadily, could burst society apart like a frozen water pipe. The disruptions of cold, the failure of food supplies, could spell the collapse of civilisation. After Myrkwyr, only a few years away, darkness and ice would be upon the land for three and a half local centuries: that was the Weyr-Winter, when Sibornal became the domain of polar winds.
Campannlat would collapse under the weight of winter. Its nations could not collaborate. Whole peoples would revert to barbarism. Sibornal, under more severe conditions, would survive through rational planning.
Still seeking consolation, Harbin Fashnalgid consorted with priests and holy men. The Church was a reservoir of knowledge. There he discovered the answer to Sibornal’s survival. Obsessed as he was with his virtual exile from his father’s estates, from those fields and woods where his brothers laboured, the answer had the force of revelation. It was not to the land that Sibornal would turn in extremity.
The huge continent was so largely covered by polar ice that it might best be regarded as a narrow circle of land facing sea. In the seas lay Sibornal’s winter salvation. Cold seas held more oxygen than warm ones. Come winter, the seas would swarm with marine life. The durable food chains of the ocean would yield their plenty-even when ice covered thos e estates of his family from which he had been banished.
The awful working of history gnawed at Fashnalgid. He was used to thinking in periods of days or tenners, not in decades and centuries. He fought his disposition to drink and took to spending as much time with priests as with whores. A Priest-Servitant attached to the military chapel in the Askitosh barracks became his confidant. To this priest, Fashnalgid one day confessed his hatred of the Oligarchy.
“The Church also hates the Oligarchy,” said the priest mildly. “Yet we work together. Church and State must never be divided. You resent the Oligarchy because, through its pressures, you had to enter the army. But the flaws in your character under which you labour are yours- not the army’s, not the Oligarchy’s.
“Praise the Oligarchy for its positive aspects. Praise it for its continuity and benevolent power. It is said that the Oligarchy never sleeps. Rejoice that it watches over our continent.”
Fashnalgid kept silent. He took a while to understand why the priest’s answer alarmed him. It came to him that “benevolent power” was a contradiction in terms. He was an Uskuti, yet he had been virtually sold into the slavery of the army. As for the Oligarchy not sleeping: anyone who went without sleep was by definition inhuman, and therefore as opposed to humanity as the phagors.
It was a while later that he realised the priest had spoken of the Oligarchy in the same terms he might have used for God the Azoiaxic. The Azoiaxic also was praised for his continuity and his benevolent power. The Azoiaxic also watched over the continent. And was it not claimed that the Church never slept?
From that moment on, Fashnalgid ceased to attend church, and was more confirmed than ever in his opinion that the Oligarchy was monstrous.
The Oligarch’s First Guard had escaped being s ent with Aspera-manka’s punitive expedition to Northern Campannlat. Only a few weeks later, however, it received orders to move to Koriantura to man the frontier.
Fashnalgid had dared to question Major Gardeterark on the reasons for the move.
“The Fat Death is spreading,” said the major brusquely. “We don’t want anyrioting in the frontier towns, do we?” His dislike of his junior officer was such that he would look him not in the eyes but in the moustache.
On his last evening in Askitosh, Fashnalgid was with a woman he currently favoured, by name Rostadal. She lived in an attic only a few streets from the barracks.
Fashnalgid liked Rostadal and pitied her. She was a displaced person. She hcd come from a village in the north. She had nothing. No possessions. No political or religious beliefs. No relations. She still managed to be kind, and made her little rented room homely.
He sat up suddenly in bed and said, “I’ll have to go, Rostadal. Get me a drink, will you?”
“What’s the matter?”
“Just get me a drink. It’s the weight of misery. I can’t stay.”
Without complaint, she slipped out of bed and brought him a glass of wine. He threw it down his throat.
She looked down at him and said, “Tell me what’s worrying you.”
“I can’t. It’s too terrible. The world’s full of evil.” He began dressing. She slipped into her soiled heedrant, wordless now, wondering if he would pay her. There was only an oil lamp to light the scene.
After lacing up his boots, he collected the book he had set by the bedside and put down some sibs for her. His look was one of misery. He saw her fright but could do nothing to comfort her.
“Will you come back, Harbin?” she asked, clasping her hands together.
He looked up at the cracked ceiling and shook his head. Then he went out.
A spiteful rain fell over Askitosh, setting its gutters foaming. Fashnalgid took no notice. He walked briskly through the deserted streets, trying to wear out his thoughts.
On the previous night, a messenger on an exhausted yelk had ridden through these same streets. He rode to the army headquarters at the top of the hill. Although the incident had been hushed up, the officers’ mess soon heard about it. The messenger was an agent of the Oligarch. He brought a report concerning Asperamanka, announcing the victory of the latter’s forces against the combined armies of Campannlat, and the relief of Isturiacha. Asperamanka, said the report, was expecting a triumphal reception on his return to Sibornal.
The messenger bearing this letter dismounted in the square and fell flat on his face. He was suffering all the symptoms of the Fat Death. A senior officer shot the man as he lay.
Only an hour or two later, Fashnalgid’s mother came to him distraught in a dream, saying, “Brother shall slay brother.” He was himself dangling from a hook.
Two days passed and Fashnalgid was posted to Koriantura.
As he took his orders from Major Gardeterark, he saw clearly the plan the Oligarch had devised. There was one factor which would disrupt the scheme for carrying Sibornal through the Weyr-Winter. That factor was more divisive even than the cold: the Fat Death. In the madness the Fat Death carried with it, brother would devour brother.
The death of his midnight messenger warned the Oligarch that the return of Asperamanka’s army would bring the plague from the Savage Continent. So a rational decision had been arrived at: the army must not return. The First Guard, of which Fashnalgid was an officer, was in Koriantura for one reason only: to annihilate Asperamanka’s army as it approached the frontier. The antiplague regulations, the Restrictions of Persons in Abodes Act, imposed on the city and on Eedap Mun Odim, were moves to make the massacre when it came more acceptable to the population.
These terrible reflections ran through Harbin Fashnalgid’s head as he lay in his billet under Odim’s roof. Unlike Major Gardeterark, he was not an early riser. But he could not escape into sleep from the vision in his head. The Oligarchy he now saw as a spider, sitting somewhere in the darkness, sustaining itself through the ages at whatever cost to ordinary people.
That was the implication behind his father’s remark that he had bought the promise of the future. He had bought it with his son’s life. His father had ensured his own safety as an ex-Member of the Oligarchy, at no matter what expense to others.
“I’ll do something about it,” Fashnalgid said, as he fi nally dragged himself out of bed. Light was filtering through his small window. All round him, he could hear Odim’s vast family beginning to stir.
“I’ll do something about it,” he said as he dressed. And when, a few hours later, the girl Besi Besamitikahl entered his office, he read in the unconscious gestures of her body a willingness to do his will. In that moment, he saw how he might make use of her and Odim to disrupt the Oligarch’s plan and save Asperamanka’s army.
The escarpment to the east of Koriantura, which tumbled down to the Isthmus of Chalce, marked the point where the continents of Sibornal and Campannlat joined. The broken land south of the escarpment- through which any army must make its way if approaching Uskutoshk- was bounded to the west by marshes which led eventually to the sea, and was terminated after a few miles by the Ivory Cliffs, standing like sentries before the steppes of Chalce.
Harbin Fashnalgid and the three common soldiers under him reined their yelk at the foot of the Ivory Cliffs and dismounted. They discovered a cave from which to shelter from the stiff breeze, and Fashnalgid ordered one of the men to light a small fire. He himself took a pull from a pocket flask.
He had already made some use of Besi Besamitikahl. She had shown him a way through the back alleys of Koriantura which curved downhill. The route avoided the rest of the First Guard mustering along the ramparts of the escarpment. Fashnalgid was now technically a deserter.
He gave a little misleading information to his detail. They would wait here until Asperamanka’s army came from the south. They were in no danger. He had a special message from the Oligarch for Aspera- manka himself.
They tethered their yelk in lying positions so that they could crouch against the animals and derive benefit from their body warmth. There they waited for Asperamanka. Fashnalgid read a book of love poetry.
Several hours elapsed. The men began to complain to each other.
The fog cleared, the sky became a hazy blue. In the distance, they heard the sound of hoofs. Riders were approaching from the south.
The Ivory Cliffs were the bastions of the inhospitable spine of the highlands which curled about the Gulf of Chalce. They formed canyons through which all travellers must go.
Fashnalgid stuffed the poetry volume into his pocket and jumped up.
He felt-as so often in the past-the feebleness of his own will. The hours of waiting, not to mention the languorous tenor of the verse, had sapped his determination to act. Nevertheless, he gave crisp orders to his men to position themselves out of sight and stepped from concealment. He expected to see the vanguard of an army. Instead, two riders appeared.
The riders came on slowly. Both slumped wearily in the saddles of their yelk. They were in army uniform, the yelks were half-shaved, in the military fashion. Fashnalgid ordered them to halt.
One of the riders dismounted and came forward slowly. Although he was little more than a stripling, his face was grey with dust and fatigue. “Are you from Uskutoshk?” he called, in a hoarse voice.
“Yes, from Koriantura. Are you of Asperamanka’s army?”
“We’re a good three days ahead of the main body. Maybe more.”
Fashnalgid considered. If he let them through, the two riders would be stopped by Major Gardeterark’s lookouts, and might reveal his whereabouts. He did not consider himself capable of shooting them in cold blood-why, this young fellow was a lieut enant ensign. The only way to halt them was to tell them of the fate which hung over the army, and enlist their cooperation.
He stepped one pace nearer the lieutenant. The latter immediately produced a revolver and braced it against his crooked left arm to aim. As he squinted down the barrel, he said, “Come no nearer. You have other men with you.”
Fashnalgid spread wide his hands. “Look, don’t dohat. We mean you no harm. I want to talk. You look as if you might like a drink.”
“We’ll both stay where we are.” Without ceasing tosquint down his gun barrel, the lieutenant called to his companion, “Come and get this man’s gun.”
Licking his lips nervously, Fashnalgid hoped that his men would come to his rescue; on the other hand, he hoped they would not, since that might lead to his being shot. He watched the second rider dismount. Boots, trousers, cloak, fur hat. Face pale, fine-featured, beardless. Something in her movements told Fashnalgid, an expert in such matters, that this was a woman. She came hesitantly towards him.
As she got to him, Fashnalgid pounced, grasping her outstretched wrist, twisting her arm and swinging her violently about. Using her as a shield between him and the other man, he pulled his own gun from its holster.
“Throw your weapon down, or I’ll shoot you both.” When his order was obeyed, Fashnalgid called to his men. The soldiers emerged cautiously, looking unwarlike.
The rider, having dropped his gun, stood confronting Fashnalgid. Fashnalgid, still pointing his revolver, reached inside his captive’s coat with his left hand, and had a feel of her breasts.
“Who the sherb are you?” He burst out laughing, even as the woman began to weep. “You’re evidently a man who likes to ride with his creature comforts . . . and a well-developed creature it is.”
“My name is Luterin Shokerandit, Lieutenant. I am on an urgent mission for the Supreme Oligarch, so you’d better let me through.”
“Then you’re in trouble.” He ordered one of his men to collect Shokerandit’s pistol, turned the woman about, and removed her hat so that he could get a better look at her. Toress Lahl stood before him, her eyes heavy with anger. He patted her cheek, saying to Shokerandit, “We have no quarrel. Far from it. I have a warning for you. I’ll put my gun awayand we will shake hands like proper men.”
They shook hands warily, looking each other over. Shokerandit took Toress Lahl’s arm and drew her beside him, saying nothing. As for Fashnalgid, the feel of breasts had heartened him; he was beginning to congratulate himself on his handling of a difficult situation when one of his men, keeping lookout, called that riders were approaching from the north, from the direction of Koriantura.
A line of mounted men was nearing the Ivory Cliffs, a banner flying in its midst. Fashnalgid whipped a spyglass from his coat pocket and surveyed the advance.
He uttered a curse. Leading the advance was none other than his superior, Major Gardeterark. Fashnalgid’s first thought was that Besi had betrayed him. But it was more likely that one of the citizens of Koriantura had seen him leaving the city and reported the fact.
The figures were still some distance away.
He had no doubt what his fate would be if he was caught, but there was still time to act. His manner as much as his words persuaded Shokerandit and the woman that they would be safer joining him than trying to escape-particularly when Fashnalgid offered them two of his fresh yelk to ride. Shouting to his men to stand their ground and tell the major that there was a large body of armed men at the other end of the Cliffs, Fashnalgid flung himself onto his yelk and galloped off at full speed, Shokerandit and Toress Lahl following. He kicked one of the unmounted yelk before him.
Some way along the narrow defile of the Cliffs was a side passage. Fashnalgid drove the unmounted yelk straight forward, but led the other down the defile. He calculated that the sound of the escaping yelk would lead the enemy force to ride straight on.
The defile dwindled to a mere fissure. By setting their mounts determinedly forward, they could scramble up the crumbling slope onto higher ground. They emerged in a confusion of broken rock where small trees and bushes, arched over by the prevailing wind, pointed southwards. From somewhere below them came the thunder of the major’s troop galloping past.
Fashnalgid wiped the cold sweat from his brow and picked a course westward among the rocks. Both the suns lay close in the sky, Freyr low as ever in the southwest, Batalix sinking to the west.
The three riders urged their mounts through a series of eroded buttes and round a shattered boulder the size of a house, where there were signs of past human habitation. In the distance, beyond where the land fell away, was the glint of the sea. Fashnalgid halted and took a drink from his flask. He offered it to Shokerandit, but the latter shook his head.
“I’ve taken you on trust,” he said. “But now thatwe have eluded your friends, you had better tell me what is on your mind. My job is to get word to the Oligarch as soon as possible.”
“My job is to evade the Oligarch. Let me tell you that if you present yourself before him, you will probably be shot.” He told Shokerandit of the reception being arranged for Asperamanka. Shokerandit shook his head.
“The Oligarchy ordered us into Campannlat. If you believe that they would massacre us on our return, then you are plainly crazed.”
“If the Oligarch thinks so little of an individual, he will think no more of an army.”
“No sane man would wipe out one of his own armies.”
Fashnalgid started to gesticulate.
‘You are younger than I. You have less experience
. Sane men do the most damage. Do you believe that you live in a world where men behave with reason? What is rationality? Isn’t it merely an expectation that others will behave as we do? You can’t have been long in the army if you believe the mentalities of all men are alike. Frankly, I think my friends mad. Some were driven mad by the army, some were so mad they were attracted to that area of idiocy, some simply have a natural talent for madness. I once heard Priest-Militant Asperamanka preach. He spoke with such force that I believe him to be a good man. There are good men . . . But most officers are more like me, I can tell you- reprobates that only madmen would follow.”
There was silence after this outburst, before Shokerandit said coldly, “I certainly would not trust Asperamanka. He was prepared to let his own men die.”
“ ‘Wisdom to madness quickly turns, If suffering is all one learns,’ “ quoted Fashnalgid, adding, “An army carrying plague. The Oligarchy would be happy to be rid of it, now there’s little danger of an attack from Campannlat. Also, it suits Askitosh to get rid of the Bribahr contingent. . . .”
As if there was nothing more to be said, Fashnalgid turned his back on the other two and took a long swig from his flask. As Batalix descended towards the strip of distant sea, clouds drew across the sky.
“So what do you propose doing, if we are not to be trapped between armies?” Toress Lahl asked boldly.
Fashnalgid pointed into the distance. “A boat is waiting across the marshes, lady, with a friend of mine in it. That’s where I’m going. You are free to comeif you wish. If you believe my story, you’ll come.”
He swung himself up slowly into the saddle, strapped his collar under his chin, smoothed his moustache, and gave a nod of farewell. Then he kicked his beast into action. The yelk lowered its head and started to move down the rocky slope in the direction of the distant glimmering sea.
Luterin Shokerandit called after the disappearing figure, “And vvhere’s that boat of yours bound for?”
The wind stirring the low bushes almost drowned the answer that came back.
“Ultimately, Shivenink . . .”
The gaunt figure on its yelk moved down into a maze of marshes which fringed the sea; whereupon birds rose up under the shaggy hoofs of the animal as small amphibians disappeared underneath them. Things hopped in rain-pocked puddles. Everything that could move fled from the man’s path.
Captain Harbin Fashnalgid’s mood was too bleak for him even to question why mankind’s position should remain so isolated in the midst of all other life. Yet that very question-or rather a failure to perceive the correct answer to the problem it posed-had brought into existence a world which moved above the planet in a circumpolar orbit.
The world was an artificial one. Its designation was Earth Observation Station Avernus. Circling the planet 1500 kilometres above the surface, it could be seen from the ground as a bright star of swift passage, to which the inhabitants of the planet had given the name Kaidaw.
On the station, two families supervised the automatic recording of data from Helliconia as it passed below them. They also saw to it that that data-in all its richness, confusion, and overwhelming detail- was transmitted to the planet Earth, a thousand light-years distant. To this end, the EOS had been established. To this end, human beings from Earth had been born to populate it. The Avernus was at this time only a few Earth years short of its four thousandth birthday.
The Avernus was an embodiment, cast in the most advanced technology of its culture, of the failure to perceive the answer to that age-old problem of why mankind was divorced from its environment. It was the ultimate token in that long divorce. It represented nothing less than the peak of achievement of an age when man had tried to conquer space and to enslave nature while remaining himself a slave.
For this reason, the Avernus was dying.
Over the long centuries of its existence, the Avernus had gone through many crises. Its technology had not been at fault; far from it- the great hull of the station, which had a diameter of one thousand metres, was designed as a self-servicing entity, and small sen’omechanisms scuttled like parasites over its skin, replacing tiles and instruments as required. The servomechanisms moved swiftly, signalling to each other with asymmetrical arms, like crabs on an undiscovered germanium shore, communicating with each other in a language only the WORK computer which controlled them understood. In the course of forty cen- turies, the servomechanisms continued to serve. The crabs had proved untiring.
Squadrons of auxiliary satellites accompanied the Avernus through space, or dived off in all directions, like sparks from a fire. They crossed and recrossed in their orbits, some no bigger than an eyeball, others complex in shape and design, coming and going about their automatic business, the gathering of information. Their metaphorical throats were parched for an ever flowing stream of data. When one of them malfunctioned, or was silenced by a passing speck of cosmic debris, a replacement floated free from the service hatches of the Avernus and took its place. Like the crabs, the sparklike satellites had proved untiring.
And inside the Avernus. Behind its smooth plastic partitioning lay the equivalent of an endomorphic skeleton or, to use a more suitably dynamic comparison, a nervous system. This nervous system was infinitely more complex than that of any human. It possessed the inorganic equivalent of its own brains, its own kidneys, lungs, bowels. It was to a large extent independent of the body it served. It resolved all problems connected with overheating, overcooling, condensation, micro-weather, wastes, lighting, intercommunication, illusionism, and hundreds of other factors designed to make life tolerable physiologically for the human beings on the ship. Like the crabs and the satellites, the nervous system had proved untiring.
The human race had tired. Every member of the eight families-later reduced to six, and now reduced to two-was dedicated, through whatever speciality he or she pursued, to one sole aim: to beam as much information about the planet Helliconia as possible back to distant Earth.
The goal was too rarified, too abstract, too divorced from the bloodstream.
Gradually, the families had fallen victim to a sort of neurasthenia of the senses and had lost touch with reality. Earth, the living globe, had ceased to be. There was Earth the Obligation only, a weight on the consciousness, an anchor on the spirit.
Even the planet before their view, the glorious and changing balloon of Helliconia, burning in the light of its two suns and trailing its cone of darkness like a wind sock behind it, even Helliconia became an abstract. Helliconia could not be visited. To visit it meant death. Although the human beings on its surface, scrutinised so devotedly from above, appeared identical to Earthlings, they were protected from external contact by a complex virus mechanism as untiring as the mechanisms of the Avernus. That virus, the helico virus, was lethal to the inhabitants of the Avernus at all seasons. Some men and women had gone down to the planet’s surface. They had walked there for a few days, marveling at the experience. And then they had died.
On the Avernus, a defeated minimalism had long prevailed. The attenuation of the spirit had been embraced.
With the slow crawl of autumn across the planet below, as Freyr receded day by day and decade by decade from Helliconia and its sister planets- as the 236 astronomical units of periastron between Batalix and Freyr lengthened to the formidable 710 of apastron-the young on the Ob servation Station rose up in despair and overthrew their masters. What though their masters were themselves slaves? The era of asceticism was gone. The old were slain. Minimalism was slain. Eudaemonism ruled in its stead. Earth had turned its back on the Avernus. Very well, then Avernus would turn its back on Helliconia.
At first, blind indulgence in sensuality had been sufficient. Just to have broken the sterile bonds of duty was glory enough. But- and in that “but” lies possibly the fate of the human race-hedonism proved in- sufficient. Promiscuity proved as much of a dead end as abstention.
Cruel perversions grew from the sullied beds of the Avernus. Wound-ings, slashings, cannibalism, pederasty, paedophilia, intestinal rape, sadistic penetrations of infants and the ageing became commonplace. Flayings, public mass fornications, buggery, irrumation, mutilation- such was the daily diet. Libido waxed, intellect waned.
Everything depraved flourished. The laboratories were encouraged to bring forth more and more grotesque mutations. Dwarfs with enlarged sex organs were succeeded by hybrid sex organs imbued with life. These “pudendolls” moved with legs of their own; later models progressed by labile or preputial musculature. These reproductive leviathans publicly aroused and engulfed each other, or overwhelmed the humans thrown into their path. The organs became more elaborate, more aposematic. They proliferated, reared and tumbled, sucked, slimed, and reproduced. Both those forms resembling priapic fungi and those resembling labyrinthiform ooecia were ceaselessly active, their colours flaring and fading according to their flaccidity or engorgement. In their later stages of evolution, these autonomous genitalia grew enormous; a few became violent, battering like multicoloured slugs at the walls of the glass tanks wherein they spent their somewhat holobenthic existence.
Several generations of Avernians venerated these strange polymorphs almost as if they were the gods which had been banished from the station long ago. The next generation would not tolerate them.
A civil war, a war between generations, broke out. The station became a battleground. The mutated organs broke free; many were destroyed.
The fighting continued over several years and lifetimes. Many people died. The old structure of families, stable for so long, based on patterns of long endurance on Earth, broke down. The two sides became known as the Tans and the Pins, but the labels had little reference to what had once existed.
The Avernus, haven of technology, temple of all that was positive and enquiring in mankind’s intellect, was reduced to a tumbled arena, in which savages ran from ambush at intervals to break each other’s skulls.
A FEW MORE REGULATIONS