The sections of the station which had suffered greatest damage were those most intimately connected with human activity, such as the canteens and restaurants, and the protein-processing plants which sup- plied them. The crop fields dominating the inside of the spherical hull were now battlefields. Man hunted man for food. The great peram-bulant pudendolls, those genital montrosities created from a perverted genetic inheritance, were also tracked down and eaten.
The automated station continued to flash images on internal screens from the living world below- continued, indeed, to vary the interior weather, so that humanity was not bereft of that eternal stimulus.
The surviving tribes were no longer capable of making the old connections. The images they received of hunters, kings, scholars, traders, slaves, had become divorced from their contexts. They were received as visitants from another world, gods or devils. They brought only wonder into the hearts of those whose forebears had studied them with disdain.
The rebels of the Avernus- a mere dissident handful at the onset- had launched out for greater freedoms than they imagined they enjoyed. They had beached themselves on the shores of a melancholy existence. The rule of the head was taken over by the belly.
On the Avernus, fleet Kaidaw of Helliconian skies, the monotony of barbarism descended. Eedap Mun Odim was rightly proud of the craftsmanship embodied in the Kuj-Juvecian clock he presented to Jheserabhay; the very narrowness of societies such as Kuj-Juvec gives their art a concentrated vitality. But the barbarism prevailing on the Avernus produced nothing but smashed skulls, ambushes, tribal drumming, simian mirth.
The many generations which had served under Avernian civilisation had often expressed a longing to escape from the sense of futility, from a doctrine of minimalism, imposed by the concept of Obligation Earth. Some had preferred death on Helliconia to a continuation of Avernian order. They would have said, if asked, that they preferred barbarism to civilisation.
The boredom of barbarism was infinitely greater than the restraints of civilisation. The Pins and the Tans had no respite from fear and deprivation. Surrounded by a technology which was in many respects self-governing, they were little better off than many of the tribes of Campannlat, caught between marsh and forest and sea. Barbarism let loose their fears and curtailed their imaginations.
But the Avernus had a duty which took precedence over tending its inhabitants. Its first duty was to transmit a continuous signal back to the planet Earth, a thousand light-years away. Over the eventful cen- turies of the Observation Station s existence, that signal, with its freight of information, had never faltered.
The signal had formed an artery of data, fed back to Earth according to the original plan of a technocratic elite responsible for the grandiose schemes of interstellar exploration. The artery never ran dry, not even when the inhabitants of the Avernus reduced themselves to a state close to savagery.
The artery never ran dry, but somewhere a vein had been cut. Earth did not always respond.
Charon, a distant outpost of the solar system, housed a receiving complex built across the frigid methane surface of the satellite. At this station, on which the nearest approaches to intelligent life were the androids which maintained it, the Helliconia signals were analysed, classified, stored, transmitted to the inner solar system. The outward process was far less complex, consisting merely of a string of acknowl- edgements, or an order to the Avernus to increase coverage of such and such an area. The news bulletins which had once been sent outwards had long ago ceased, ever since someone pointed out the absurdity of feeding the Avernus with items of news one thousand years old. Avernus knew- and now cared- nothing regarding events on Earth.
As to those events: The crowded nations of Earth spent most of the twenty-first century locked in a series of uncomfortable confrontations: East threatened West, North threatened South, First World helped and cheated Third World. Growing populations, dwindling resources, continuous localised conflicts, slowly transferred the face of the globe into something approaching a pile of rubble. The concept of “terrorist nation” dominated the mid-century; it was at this time that the ancient city of Rome was taken out. Yet, contrary to gloomy expectations, that ultimate Valhalla, nuclear war, was never resorted to. This was in part because the superpowers masked their operations behind manipulated smaller nations, and in part because the exploration of neighbouring space acted as something of a safety valve for aggressive emotions.
Those who lived in the twenty-first century regarded their age as a melancholy one despite exponential developments in technological and electronics systems. They saw that every field and factory producing food was electronically protected or physically patrolled. They felt the increasing regimentation of their life. Yet the structure, the underlying system of civilisation, was maintained. Restrictive though it was, it could be transcended.
Many gifted individuals made the century a brilliant one, at least in retrospect. Men and women arose from nowhere, from the masses, and won enormous fame by their gifts. In their brilliance, their defiance of their underprivileged environment, they lightened the hearts of their audience. When Derek Eric Absalom died, it was said that half the globe wept. But his wonderful improvised songs remained as consolation.
At first, only two of Earth’s nations were in competition beyond the confines of the solar system. The number crept up to four and stopped at five. The cost of interstellar travel was too great. No more could play, even in an age -when technology had become a religion. Unlike religion, the hope of the poor, technology was a rich man’s strategy.
The excitements of interstellar exploration were relayed back to the multitudes of Earth. Many admired intellectually. Many cheered for their own teams. The projects were always presented with great solem- nity. Great expenditures, great distances, great prestige: these united to impress the taxpayers back home in their ugly cities.
Occasional automated starships were launched during the heyday of interstellar travel, from approximately 2090 to 3200. These ships carried computer-stored colonists, able to range vacuum continually until habitable worlds were discovered.
The extrasolar planet on which mankind first set foot was solemnly named New Earth. It was one of two moonless bodies orbiting Alpha Centauri C. “Arabia Deserta writ large,” said one commentator, but most settled for comfortable awe as the monotonous landscapes of New Earth unrolled.
The planet consisted mainly of sand and tumbled mountain ranges.
Its one ocean covered no more than a fiftieth of the total land area. No life was found on it, apart from some abnormally large worms and a kind of seaweed which grew in the fringes of the salt sea. The air, though breathable, had an extremely low water-vapour content; human throats became parched within a few minutes when breathing it. No rain ever fell on New Earth’s dazzling surface. It was a desert world, and had always been so. No viable biosphere could establish itself.
A base and rest centre were established on New Earth. The exploration ships moved farther out. Eventually, they covered a sphere of space with a diameter of almost two thousand light-years. This area, though immense in the experience of a species which had only fairly recently tamed the horse, was negligible as a proportion of the galaxy.
Many planets were discovered and explored. None yielded life. Additional mineral resources for Earth, but not life. Down in the gloomy miasmas of a gas giant, writhing things were discovered which came and went in a manner suggesting volition. They even surrounded the submersible which was lowered to investigate them. For sixty years, human explorers tried to communicate with the writhing things- with no success. At this period, the last whale in Earth’s polluted oceans became extinct.
On some newly discovered worlds, bases were established and mining carried out. There were accidents- unreported back home. The gigantic planet Wilkins was dismantled; fusion motors, roaring through its atmosphere, converted its hydrogen to iron and heavier metals, and the planet was then broken up. Energy was released as planned- but rather more rapidly than planned. Lethal shortwave radiation killed off all involved in the project. On Orogolak, war broke out between two rival bases, and a short nuclear war was fought which turned the planet into an ice desert.
There were successes, too. Even New Earth was a success. Successful enough, at least, for a resort to be set up on the edge of its chemical-laden sea. Small colonies were established on twenty-nine planets, some of which flourished for several generations.
Although some of these colonies developed interesting legends- which contributed to Earth’s rich store-none was large or complex enough to nourish cultural values which diverged from their parent system.
Space-going mankind fell victim to many strange new maladies and mental discomforts. It was a fact rarely acknowledged that every terrestrial population was a reservoir for disease; a considerable propor- tion of the people of all ethnic groups were unwell for a percentage of their days-for unidentifiable reasons. SUDS (Silent Untreated Disease Syndrome) now clamoured for identification. In gravity-free conditions, SUDS proliferated.
What had been untreated was long to prove incurable. Nervous systems failed, memories developed imaginary life histories, vision became hallucinatory, musculature seized up, stomachs overheated. Space dementia became an everyday event. Shadowy frights passed across the vacuum-going psyche.
Despite its discomforts and disillusions, infiltration of the galaxy continued. Where there is no vision, the people perish- and there was a vision. There was a vision that knowledge, for all its dangers, was to be desired; and the ultimate knowledge lay in an understanding of life and its relationship to the inorganic universe. Without understanding, knowledge was worthless.
A Chinese/American fleet was investigating the dust clouds of the Ophiuchus constellation, seven hundred light-years from Earth. This region contained giant molecular clusters, nonisotropic gravities, ac- creted planets, and other anomalies. New stars were being created among the palls of inchoate matter.
An astrophysics satellite attached to one of the computerborgoids of the fleet obtained spectrographic readings on an atypical binary system some three hundred light-years distant from the Ophiuchus clouds which revealed at least one attendant planet supporting Earth-like conditions.
The oddity of an ageing C^ yellow star moving about a common axis with a white supergiant no more than eleven million years old had already engaged the interest of the cosmologists attached to the Chinese/ American fleet. The spectroanalysis spurred them into active investigation.
The supposedly Earth-like planet of the distant binary system was filed under the appellation G^PBX/^82-^-^. Signals were despatched on their lengthy journey through the dust clouds to Earth.
Berthed inside the flagship of the fleet, then cruising the outer fringes of the Ophiuchus dust clouds, was an automated colonising ship. The ship was programmed and despatched to G^PBX/4582-4-3. The year was 3145.
The colonising ship entered the Freyr-Batalix system in 3600 A.D., to begin immediately the task for which it was programmed, the establishment of an Observation Station.
There was G4PBX/4582-4-3, like something dreamed! Real, but beyond belief, beyond even rejoicing.
As signals from the new station flashed back to Earth, it became more and more clear that the new planet’s resemblance to Earth was close. Not only wasit stocked with innumerable varieties of life in the prodigal terrestrial manner- and in heartening contrast to previously discovered planets-more, it supported an intriguing dine of semi- intelligent and intelligent species. Among the intelligent species were a humanlike being and a horned being something resembling a rough-coated minotaur.
The signals eventually reached Charon, on the margins of the solar system, where androids fed the data to Earth, only five light-hours distant.
By the middle of the fifth millennium, Earth’s Modern Ages were in slow decline. The Age of Apperception was a memory. For all but a few meritocrats in positions of power, galactic exploration had become an abstraction, another burden inflicted by bureaucracy. G^PBX/^82-4-3 changed all that. Ceasing to feature merely as a mysterious body among three sister planets, it took on colour and personality. It became Helliconia, the marvellous planet, the world beyond the veils of darkness where life was.
Helliconia”s suns took on symbolic significance. Mystics remarked on the way in which Freyr-Batalix seemed to represent those divisions of the human psyche celebrated in Asian legend long ago:
Two birds always together in the peach tree:
One eats the fruit, the other watches it.
One bird’s our individual Self, tasting all the world’s gifts: The other the universal Self, witnessing all and wondering.
How avidly the first prints of human and phagors, struggling out of a snowbound world, were studied! Inexplicable thankfulness filled human hearts. A link with other intelligent life had been forged at last.
By the time the Avernus was built and established in orbit about Helliconia, by the time it was stocked with the humans reared by surrogate mothers on the colonising ship, the sphere of terrestrial-directed space activity was contracting. The inhabited planets of the solar system were moving towards a centralised form of government, later to evolve into COSA, the Co-System Assemblage; their own byzantine affairs occupied them. Distant colonies were left to fend for themselves, marooned here and there on semihabitable worlds like so many Crusoes on desert islands.
Earth and its neighbouring planets were by this time storehouses of undigested information. While the materials brought back to Earth had been processed, the knowledge had not been absorbed. The enmities which had existed since tribal days, rivalries founded on fear and a lust for possession, remained dormant. The dwindling of space squeezed them into new prominence.
By the year 4901 A.D., all Earth was managed by the one company, COSA. Judicial systems had yielded to profit and loss accounts. Through one chain of command or another, COSA owned every building, every industry, every service, every plant, and the hide of every human on the planet-even those humans who opposed it. Capitalism had reached its glorious apogee. It made a small percentage on every lungful of oxygen breathed. And it paid out its stockholders in carbon dioxide.
On Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the moons of Jupiter, human beings were more free- free to found their own petty nations and ruin their own lives their own way. But they formed a sort of second-class citizenry of the solar system. Everything they acquired- and acquisition still played a major part in their lives-they paid for to COSA.
It was in 4901 that this burden became too great, and in 4901 that a statesman on Earth made the mistake of using the old derogatory term “immigrants” about the inhabitants of Mars. And so it was in 4901 that nuclear war broke out among the planets-the War over a Word, as it was called.
Although records of those pre-apocalypse times are scarce, we do know that populations then regarded themselves as too civilized to begin such a war. They had a dread that some lunatic might press a button. In fact the buttons were pressed by sane men, responding to a well-rehearsed chain of command. The fear of total destruction had always been there. Nuclear weapons, once invented, cannot be disinvented. And such are the laws of enantiodromia that the fear became the wish, and missiles sped to targets, and people burned like candles, and silos and cities erupted in an unexpungeable fire.
It was a war between the worlds, as had been predicted. Mars was silenced for ever. The other planets struck back with only a fraction of their total firepower (and so were destroyed). Earth was hit by no more than twelve io,ooo-megaton bombs. It was enough.
A great cloud rose above the capital of La Cosa. Dust which comprised fragments of soot, grains of buildings, flakes of bodies, vegetable and mineral, rose to the stratosphere. A hurricane of heat rolled across the continents. Forests, mountains, were consumed by its breath. When the initial fires died, when much of the radioactivity sank to the despoiled ground, the cloud remained.
The cloud was death. It covered all of the northern hemisphere. The sunlight was blotted from the ground. Photosynthesis, the basis of all life, could no longer take place. Everything froze. Plants died, trees died. Even the grass died. The survivors of the strike found themselves straggling through a landscape which came more and more to resemble Greenland. Land temperatures fell rapidly to minus thirty degrees. Nuclear winter had come.
The oceans did not freeze. But the cold, the dirt in the upper atmosphere, spread like discharge over a sheet, poisoning the southern hemisphere as well as the northern. Cold gripped even the favoured lands of the equator. Dark and chill reigned on Earth. It seemed that the cloud was to be mankind’s last creative act.
Helliconia was celebrated for its long winters. But those winters were of natural occurrence: not nature’s death, but its sleep, fromwhich the planet would reliably arouse itself. The nuclear winter held no promise of spring.
The filthy aftermath of the war merged indistinguishably with another kind of winter. Snow fell on hills which the so-called summer did not disperse; next winter, more snow fell on what remained. The drifts deepened. They became permanent. One permanent bed linked with another. One frozen lake generated
another. The ice reservoirs of the far north began to flow southward. The land took the colour of the sky. The Age of Ice returned.
Space travel was forgotten. For Earthmen, it had again become an adventure to travel a mile.
A spirit of adventure grew in the minds of those who sailed in the New Season. The brig left the harbour without incident, and soon was sailing westwards along the Sibornalese coast with a fresh northeasterly in her canvas. Captain Fashnalgid found that he was whistling a hornpipe.
Eedap Mun Odim coaxed his portly wife and three children on deck. They stood in a mute line, staring back at Koriantura. The weather had cleared. Freyr wreathed itself in fire low on the southern horizon, Batalix shone almost at zenith. The rigging made complex patterns of shadow on the deck and sails.
Odim excused himself politely, and went over to where Besi Besamit-ikahl stood alone in the stern. At first he thought she was seasick, until the movements of her head told him she was weeping. He put an arm around her.
“It hurts me to see my precious one waste her tears.”
She clung to him. “I feel so guilty, dear master. I brought this trouble on you. . . . Never shall I forget the sight of that man . . . burning. ... It was all my fault.”
He tried to calm her, but she burst out with her story. Now she put the blame on Harbin Fashnalgid. He had sent her out early in the day, when no ordinary people were about, to buy some books, and she had been seized in the street by Major Gardeterark.
“His biwacking books! And he said that that was the last of his money. Fancy wasting the last of your money on books!”
“And the major-what did he do?”
She wept again. “I told him nothing. But he recognised me as one of your possessions. He took me into a room where there were other soldiers. Officers. And he made me ... made me dance for them. Then he dragged me round to our offices . . . It’s me that’s to blame. I should never have been fool enough to go out for those books. . . .”
Odim wiped her eyes and made soothing noises. When Besi was calmer, he asked seriously, “Have you a real affection for this Captain Harbin?”
Again she clutched him. “Not any more.”
They stood in silence. Koriantura was sinking in the distance. The New Season was sailing past a cluster of broad-beamed herring-coaches. The herring-coaches had their curtain nets out, trawling for fish. Behind the fishermen were salters and coopers, who would gut and preserve the catch as soon as it was hauled aboard.
Amid sniffs, Besi said, “You’ll never forget what happened when you -when that man died on the kiln, will you, dear master?”
He stroked her hair. “Life in Koriantura is over. I have put everything that belonged to Koriantura behind me, and would advise you to do the same. Life will begin again when we reach my brother’s home in Shivenink.”
He kissed her and returned to his wife.
The next morning, Fashnalgid sought Odim out. His tall clumsy figure dominated Odim’s slender and tightly parcelled form.
“I’m grateful to you for your kindness in takingme aboard,” he said. “You’ll be paid in full when we get to Shivenink, I assure you.”
“Don’t worry,” Odim said, and said no more. He did not know how to deal with this officer, now a deserter, except by his usual method of dealing with people-through politeness. The ship was crowded with people who had begged to be allowed aboard to escape the oligarchic legislation; all had paid Odim.
His cabin was stacked with treasures of one sort of another.
“I mean what I say-you will be paid in full,” Fash nalgid repeated, looking heavily down at Odim.
“Good, good, yes, thank you,” said Odim, and backed away. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Toress Lahl coming on deck, and went over to her to escape from Fashnalgid’s attentions. Besi followed him. She had avoided Fashnalgid’s gaze.
“How is your patient?” Odim asked the Borldoranian woman. Toress Lahl leaned against the rail, closed her eyes, and took a few deep breaths. Her pale, clear features had taken on a translucent quality under strain. The skin below her eyes looked puckered and dirty. She said, without opening her eyes, “He’s young and determined. I believe he will live. Such cases generally do.”
“You shouldn’t have brought a plague case aboard.It endangers all our lives,” Besi said. She spoke with a new boldness; she would never have dared speak out previously in front of Odim: but on the voyage all relationships changed.
“ ‘Plague’ is not the scientifically exact term. T he plague and the Fat Death are different things, although we use the terms interchangeably. Obscene though the symptoms of the Fat Death are, the majority of young, healthy people who contract it recover.”
“It spreads like the plague, doesn’t it?”
Without turning her head to reply, Toress Lahl said, “I could not leave Shokerandit to die. I am a doctor.”
“If you’re a doctor, you should know the dangers involved.”
“I do, I do,” said Toress Lahl. Shaking her head, she rushed from them and hurried down the companionway below decks.
She paused outside the door of the closet in which she kept Shokerandit. As she rested her head on her arm, she was vouchsafed a glimpse of the turn her life had taken, the misery in which she now lived, and the uncertainty which surrounded all on the ship. What was the reason for this gift of consciousness, which even phagors did not have, this awareness that one was aware, when it was incapable of changing what one did?
She was nursing the man who had taken her husband’s lifeblood. And-oh, yes, she felt it-she was already infected with his disease. She knew it could easily leap to everyone else in the confines of this ship; the insanitary conditions on the New Season made it a haven for contagion. Why did life happen- and was it possible that, even now, some detached part of her was enjoying life?
She unlocked the door, set her shoulder against its resistance, and entered the closet. There she lived for the next two days, seeing no one, crawling only rarely onto the deck for fresh air.
Besi meanwhile had been given the task of supervising the many relations of Odim who had been stowed in the main hold. Her chief support came from the old grannie who made the delectable pastry savrilas. This aged woman still managed to cook on a small charcoal stove, filling the hold with benevolent aromas, while at the same time soothing the anxieties of the family.
The family lay about on boxes and ottomans and chests, indulging themselves in their customary way even while complaining about the rigours of life at sea. Theatrically, they declaimed to Besi and to anyone who would listen, and was not simultaneously declaiming, of the dangers of sea voyages. But Besi thought, And what of the dangers of plague! If it spreads to this hold, how many of you poor vulnerable bodies will survive? She determined to stay with them whatever happened, and secretly armed herself with a small dagger.
Toress Lahl remained isolated, speaking to no one, even when she crept up on deck.
On the third morning, she saw small icebergs dotting the water. On the third morning, with fever on her, she returned to her vigil as usual. The door was more reluctant than ever to budge.
Luterin Shokerandit was confined in a small irregular area in the bows of the New Season. A supporting pillar stood in the middle of the space, leaving enough room only for a bunk to one side of it and a bucket, a bale of hay, a stove, and four frightened fhlebihts, tethered beneath the small porthole. The porthole admitted light enough for Toress Lahl to see stains running across the floor and the gross figure tethered on the lower bunk. She locked the door behind her, rested against it, and then took a step closer to the prostrate figure.
He stirred. Under his left arm, which she had strapped by the wrist against the supports of the bunk, his head thrust a short way, tortoise-like, and one eye opened, to regard her through a spike of hair. His mouth opened, making a croaking noise.
She fetched a ladle of water from a casket standing behind the stove. He drank.
“More food,” he said.
She knew he would recover. These were the first words he had spoken since they had carried him to this place on the New Season. He was again capable of organized thought. Yet she dare not touch him, although his wrists and ankles were tied securely.
On the top of the stove lay the charred remains of the last fhlebiht she had killed. She had dismembered it into joints with a cleaver, cooking it as best she could over the charcoal. The corkscrew horns, the long white fleece of the animal, lay with other rubbish in the corner.
As she threw a joint over to him, Toress Lahl thought for the first time how good the grilled meat looked. Shokerandit wedged it under an elbow and commenced to gnaw at the meat. Ever and again he cast a glance up at her. There was no longer the anger of madness in his eye. The bulimia had passed.
The thought of his previous savage eating tormented her. She looked at his naked limbs, gleaming with the sweat of his earlier struggles, and imagined how it would be to sink her teeth into his flesh. She snatched the charred meat from the stove.
Chains and manacles lay ready. Toress Lahl fell to her knees and crawled to them, securing herself to the central post with them. She locked her wrists together and flung the key clumsily into one corner, out of reach. The halitus of the place came to her, the stench of the man’s body mingled with the smell of the confined animals and the odour of their droppings, all flavoured with the fumes from the charcoal. As she choked, a stiffness came on her. She began to stretch as far as the chains would allow, knees out before her in an ungainly position, head slowly rolling at the end of its neck. The animal carcass was cradled under one arm as if it were a child.
The man lay where he was, staring without movement. At last the woman’s name came to his lips and he called to her. Her gaze momentarily met his, but it was the stare of an idiot and her eyeballs continued to roll.
Jaw hanging open, Shokerandit wriggled to sit up. He was tightly bound to the bunk. The wildest struggles of his delirium, when the helico virus had raged in his hypothalamus, had not sufficed for him to break the leather thongs securing his wrists and ankles.
As he struggled, he found a pair of brass tongs with claws, such as were used for handling lumps of red-hot charcoal, against his side. The implement was useless for cutting his bonds. For a while he slept. Waking, he tried again to set himself free.
He called. Nobody would come. The fear of the Fat Death was too great. The woman lay almost immobile against her pillar. He could prod her with his foot. The animals bleated, turning restlessly on their straw. Their eyes glowed yellow in the half dark.
Shokerandit had been secured so that he lay face down. The stiffness was leaving his joints. He was able to twist his head and look about. He inspected the webbing of the bunk overhead. Halfway down the bed a wooden crossbar was inserted to strengthen the structure. Into the crossbar a long-bladed dagger had been driven.
Minutes passed as he gazed awkwardly up at the dagger. Its handle was not far above him, but he had no hope of grasping it, tied as he was. He was clear in his mind that Toress Lahl had set it there before she succumbed to the disease. But why?
He felt the brass tongs against his flesh. The connection came at once, and with it a revelation of her cleverness. Wriggling, he managed to work the tongs down the bunk until he could grasp them between his knees. Then came an agony of contortion as he rotated his clenched knees and brought them up under the dagger. He worked for an hour, two hours, sweating and groaning in his pain, until at last he had the handle of the dagger secure between the brass claws. Then it was only a matter of time until he worked the dagger free.
It fell against his thighs. Shokerandit rested until he had recovered strength enough to shuffle the blade up the bunk. At last he could take it in his teeth.
There was the painful labour of sawing through one of the leather thongs, but it was done eventually. Once he had one hand free, he was able to cut himself loose. He lay back, panting. At last he climbed from the foetid bunk.
He took a step or two and then collapsed weakly against the wooden pillar. Hands on knees, he contemplated the figure of Toress Lahl, with its slow distorted movements. Although his mind did not feel like his own, he understood her devotion and her thought for him when she felt herself falling to the plague. While under the madness of the fever, he would never have had the coordination to get the dagger and release himself. Without the dagger, he would have been unable to cut himself free when he recovered.
After a rest, he stood up and felt his filthy body. He was changed.
He had survived the Fat Death and was changed. The painful contortions to which he had been subject had served to compress his spine; he was now, he estimated, three or four inches shorter than he had been. His perverted appetite had caused him to put on flesh. In that phase, he would have devoured anything, the blanket on the bunk, his own faeces, rats, had Toress Lahl not fed him cooked meat. He had no knowledge of how many animals he had devoured. His limbs were thicker. He gazed down at his barrel chest in disbelief. He was now a smaller, rounder, more thickset person. His weight had undergone a radical redistribution.
But he lived!
He had come through the eye of the needle and lived!
No matter what was involved, anything was better than death and dissolution. There was a sort of marvellous sense to life, to the unconscious movements of breathing, to the need for nourishment and defecation, to the ease of gesture, to the casual thought-so often not tied to the present moment. It was a sense, a wisdom, that even degradation and discomfort could not deny. Even as he rejoiced in it, feelings of health pervaded him in the stinking closet.
As if a curtain were drawn back, he saw again scenes from his youth in the mountains of Kharnabhar, at the Great Wheel. He recalled his father and mother. He reviewed again his heroism on the field of battle near Isturiacha. It came back clear, washed, as if it had all happened to someone else.
He recalled again striking down Bandal Eith Lahl.
Gratitude filled him that the widow he had taken captive should not have left him to die. Was it because he had not raped and beaten her? Or was the goodness of her action quite independent of anything he had done?
He bent down to look at her, sad to see her so grey, so overcome. He put an arm about her, smelling her sharp, sick stink. Her lolling head came round as if to rest against him. Her dry lips peeled back from her teeth, and she bit his shoulder.
Shokerandit pulled himself away from her. He handed her the meat at her feet. She took a mouthful but could not chew. That would come later, as the full madness developed.
“I’ll look after you,” he told her. “I’m going up on deck to wash myself and breathe some fresh air.” His shoulder was bleeding.
How long had it been? He dragged the door open. The ship was full of creaks, the companion way of shifting shadows.
Rejoicing in the newfound ease of his limbs, he climbed the com-panionway and looked about. The decks were empty. There was no one at the wheel.
“Hello!” he called. No one answered, yet furtive movement could be heard.
Alarmed, he ran forward, still calling. A body lay half-naked by the mast. He stared down at it. All the flesh of the chest and upper arm had been crudely hacked away and-oh, yes, he could guess it-eaten. . . .