It was not that Icen Hill was impressive as such features go; indeed, compared with many of the hills in Sibornal, it was no more than a pimple. But it dominated its flat surroundings, the outer rings of Askitosh. Icen Hill Castle dominated and almost enveloped the hill.
When the wind from the north brought rain on its breath, the water collected on the roofs, fortifications, and spiteful spires of the castle and flung itself down in gouts upon the population of Askitosh, as if conveying personal greetings from the Oligarch.
One advantage of this exposed position-for the Olig arch and his Inner Chamber if for no one else- was that news could be got rapidly to the castle: not merely by the streams of messengers who laboured up the slippery cobbles of the hill road, but by the tidings flashed by heliograph from other distant eminences. A whole chain of signalling stations was established which girded Sibornal, the main artery of information adhering with fair precision to the line of latitude on which Askitosh lay. Thus was brought to the Oligarch-always assuming he existed- news of t he welcome accorded the victorious army returning through Chalce to Koriantura.
That army had halted below the escarpment where Chalce petered out before the brow of Sibornal. It waited there until its stragglers caught up. For two days it waited. Those who died of the plague were buried on the spot. Both men and mounts were more gaunt than when they had set out from Isturiacha, almost half a tenner earlier. But Asperamanka was still in command. Morale was high. The troops cleaned themselves and their equipment, ready for a triumphal entry into Uskutoshk. The military band polished its instruments and practised its marches. Regimental flags were unfurled.
All this was done under the concealed guns of the Oligarch’s First Guard.
As soon as Asperamanka’s men moved forward, as soon as they were within range, the Oligarch’s artillery fired upon them. The steam guns began to pound. Bullets rained down. Grenades exploded.
Down went the brave men. Down went their yelks. Blood in their mouths, faces in the dirt. Those who could scream, screamed. The scene was enveloped in smoke and flying earth. People ran hither and thither, at a loss to understand, rendered senseless by shock. The glittering instruments ceased to play. Asperamanka shouted to his bugler to sound retreat. Not a shot was fired back at their fellow countrymen.
Those who survived this evil surprise lurked like wild beasts in the wilderness. Many became speechless with shock.
“Abro Hakmo Astab!”-that at least they cried, the forbidden Sibish curse which even soldiery hesitated to utter. It was a shout of defiance to fate.
Some survivors climbed into the windswept recesses of the mountains. Some lost their way in the maze of marshland. Some banded together again, determined to recross the grass desert and join forces with those who remained in Isturiacha.
Asperamanka. Using his smooth tongue, he tried to persuade the broken groups to form up in units again. He was foul-mouthed in return. Officers and men alike had lost faith in authority. “Abro Hakmo Astab . . .” They uttered it to his stormy face.
Dire circumstances called forth the ancient curse. Its true meaning was lost in time, like its origins. A polite interpretation was that it recommended befouling both suns. In the northern continent, crouched beneath the chill breath of the Circumpolar Regions, men delivered the curse against the Azoiaxic-and against all other gods remembered or forgotten-as if to call down eternal darkness on the world.
“Abro Hakmo Astab!”-the defilem ent of the light. Those who hurled the words at Asperamanka then slunk away. Asperamanka made no further command. The thunder gathered below his brow, he tugged his cloak about him, he prepared to look to his own salvation. Yet, as a man of the Church, he felt the ancient curse lie heavy in his mind. He perceived his own defilement.
This much information was carried back by an informer to the Oligarch sitting in his stone hill in Askitosh. Thus the governor of men learned something of the effect of his villainous welcome to Koriantura on Asperamanka’s troops.
The Oligarch’s next step required little consideration. After the Inner Chamber had deliberated, a poster went out to the farthest corners of the land. It announced that a Plague-ridden Army, intent on spreading Disease and Death throughout the Continent, had been bravely repelled at the Frontier. Let all work harder by way of Celebration.
And the old fisherwomen of Koriantura stood with arms akimbo, reading what was written, and saying, “There you are, always ‘work harder’. . . . How arewe supposed to work harder than we do?” And they bunched closer and looked askance as units of the First Guard marched by, clattering westward in their noisy boots.
And the remains of that broken army in no-man’s-land; it had yet another battle to fight.
Ever since the death of the last C’Sarr of Campannlat, four hundred and seventy-nine years earlier, the phagors had been gathering strength. Even before death-dealing Freyr had expanded to its fullest power and waned again, the components had been growing in numbers. The human will to check them had died in part with the C’Sarr. The more timid ancipitals, who submitted to existence on the plains among the Sons of Freyr, had passed word to the warlike contingents of the High Nyktryhk. The first marauders were out and about earlier in this Helliconian winter.
A group of ancipitals, mounted on kaidaws, could sweep like wind over the grasslands which were so formidable to men. In part this was for a simple reason: stallun, gillot, and kaidaw alike could eat the grass and survive on that diet, where the fragile Sons of Freyr would perish.
Nevertheless, the components of the High Nyktryhk kept away from the grasslands leading to Sibornal unless some special objective lured them there. Sibornal was feared by the ancipitals. In their pale harneys remained a memory of a terrible fly.
That memory-more of a programme than a memory-t old them that the chill regions of Sibornal were the resort of flies, and of one fly in particular. That fly made almost intolerable the existence of the count- less head of flambreg which inhabited the plains below the Circumpolar Regions. The yellow-striped fly lived on the flambreg herds, the female sinking her ovipositor into the hide of the animals. There the larvae, when they hatched, entered into the bloodstream, eventually to form pockets of putrefaction under the skin until they were ready to burst forth into the world.
The grubs grew as big as the end of a man’s thumb.They finally chewed their way through their host’s hide, dropping to the ground to pupate.
It might seem that this yellow-striped terror fulfilled no role in life except to make miserable the lives of the flambreg. That was not so. No other animal would venture into the territory ruled by the yellow-striped fly; and so the domain of the flambreg did not become overgrazed in the normal course of events.
Yet the fly remained as a curse, a scourge to the flambreg-who frequently galloped along the most windswept ridges, careless of danger, in a vain attempt to escape their fate. The ancipitals, descended from the flambreg, retained in their eotemporal minds a record of that yellow-striped torment, and steered well clear of its empire.
But a broken human army wandering in the wilds of Chalce represented a special objective to the ancipitals. Travelling into the wind, like the wind, with a supply of spears and rifles in the quivers at their backs, they bore down on the Sons of Freyr.
All they encountered they killed. Even those phagors who served in Asperamanka’s army were mowed down with no compunction, and their eddre strewn across the lands.
Some groups of men maintained a semblance of military order. They formed up behind their supply wagons and fired at the enemy in a disciplined way. Many phagors fell.
Then the marauders stood off awhile, watching the men deteriorate from thirst and cold, before attacking again. They spared no one.
It was useless for the soldiers to surrender. They fought to the last, or blew their own brains out. Perhaps in them too was some kind of a racial memory: that summer was the time of human supremacy, when Freyr was bright; that when the long winter came, the ancipitals in their turn prevailed upon the globe, as once they had before mankind arrived upon the scene. So they defended themselves without hope, to die without help. The women who were with the men died too.
But sometimes the ammunition ran out and then the phagors, instead of killing everyone, took the humans into slavery.
Although the Oligarch did not know it, ancipitals proved his best ally. They eliminated what was left of Asperamanka’s once great army.
Such phagor components as there were in Sibornal manifested a less warlike spirit. They were largely composed of ancipital slaves who had escaped their masters, or lowland phagors accustomed to generations of hard work and servility. These creatures roamed the countryside in small bands, doing their best to avoid human settlements.
Of course anything vulnerable belonging to the Sons of Freyr became their target; their deep-seated antagonism never died. When one such group sighted the brig New Season close to the coast, it became the object of scrutiny. The group followed it as the ship drifted along the bleak Loraj coast to the west of Persecution Bay, where Uskuti territory ended.
Eight gillots, a fillock, three ageing stalluns, and a runt comprised the band. All but the runt were dehorned. They had with them as baggage animal a yelk which was loaded with their chief items of diet, pemmi-can and a thick porridge. They were armed.
Although a stiff offshore wind blew the brig from the land, the coastal current, running westwards, was slowly bringing it closer. The phagors paced it, mile by unweary mile, as the distance between them lessened. They knew in their eddre that the time would come when they could seize and destroy the vessel.
Visible activity on board was intermittent. Several shots were fired one night. At another time, a man was seen to run to the starboard rail, pursued by two screaming women. Knives flashed in the hands of the women. The man threw himself overboard, made some attempt to swim ashore, and drowned without a cry in the cold sea.
Small icebergs, sailing like swans, moved in a westward direction after spilling out of Persecution Bay. They occasionally banged against the sides of the New Season. Luterin Shokerandit heard them as he sat in the wretched closet where Toress Lahl lay.
He had locked the door, but sat clutching a small chopper. The bulimia engendered by the Fat Death made everyone on ship a potential enemy. He used the chopper occasionally to hack into the beams of the ship. The wood was needed to fuel the small fire on which he roasted joints cut from the last flehbiht. Shokerandit and Toress Lahl between them had all but devoured the four long-legged goats in what he estimated was eight or nine days at sea.
The Fat Death generally ran its course in about a week. By that time, the sufferer was dead or on his way to recovery, faculties unimpaired but physiologically altered. He watched as the woman struggled and thickened. In her fight to get free, Toress Lahl had torn the clothes from herself, often using her teeth. She had gnawed the upright to which she was secured. Her mouth was bruised and bleeding. He looked at her with love.
The time came when she was able to return his gaze. She smiled.
She slept for some hours and then was better, with that feeling of well-being which accompanies those who survive the Fat Death.
Shokerandit untied her limbs and bathed her with a cloth and salt water in a bowl. She kissed him as he tried to help her to her feet. She surveyed her naked form and wept.
“I’m like a barrel. I was so slim.”
“It’s natural. Look at me.”
She stared at him through her tears and then laughed.
They laughed together. He took in the marvellous architecture of her new body, still gleaming from its wash, the beauty of her shoulders, breasts, stomach, thighs.
“These are the proportions of a new world, Luterin,” Toress Lahl said; he heard her using his first name for the first time.
He threw up his arms, scraping his knuckles on the bulkhead. “I’m relieved that you survived.”
“Because you looked after your captive.”
It was natural to wrap his arms about her, natural to kiss her bruised mouth, and natural to sink with her to the deck on which they had recently wrestled with agony. There they wrestled with sexual rejoicing.
Later, he said to her, “You are no longer my captive, Toress Lahl. We are now captives of each other. You are the first woman I have loved. I will take you to Shivenink, and we will go into the mountains where my father lives. You shall see the wonders of the Great Wheel of Kharnabhar.”
She was already beginning to forget what had happened, and answered indifferently.
“Even in Oldorando we have heard of the Great Wheel. I will come with you if you say so. The ship is very silent. Shall we see how the others fare? They may all be sick with the plague-Odim and his vast brood, and the crew.”
“Wait here with me a little longer.” Lying with his arms about her, looking down into her dark eves, he was reluctant to break the spell.
At that time he was incapable of distinguishing between love and restored health.
She said briskly, “Back in Oldorando I was a doctor. It’s my duty to tend the sick.” She turned her face from Luterin.
“Where does the plague come from? From phagors?”
“From phagors, we believe.”
“So our brave captain spoke the truth. Our army was going to be prevented by force from returning to Sibornal, just in case we spread the plague; it was among us. So what the Oligarch decreed was wise rather than evil.”
Toress Lahl shook her head. She began to comb her hair with slow strokes, luxuriously, looking into a small mirror rather than at him as she spoke. “That’s too easy. What the Oligarch decreed is entirely wicked. To destroy life is always wicked. What he did may not only be evil; it may prove ineffective too. I do know something about the contagious nature of the Fat Death-although since the Fat Death is latent for most of the Great Year it is difficult to study. Knowledge hard-learnt one year is forgotten by the next.”
He expected her to continue but she fell silent, continuing to regard her face even when she had set down her comb, licking a finger to smooth her eyebrows.
“Be careful what you say about the Oligarch. He knows more than we.
Then she turned to look at him. Their regards met as she said with some emphasis, “I don’t have to respect your Oligarch. Unlike the Oligarchy, the Fat Death has elements of mercy in its functioning. It’s mainly the old and very young who die of it: a majority of fit adults survive-over half. They successfully metamorphose, as we do.” She prodded him with a still moist finger, not without humour. “We in our compact shapes represent the future, Luterin.”
“Yet half the population will die ... whole communities destroyed . . . The Oligarch wouldn’t allow that to happen in Sibornal. He’d take strong measures-“
She gestured dismissively. “Such die-back has its merciful side at a time when crops are failing and famine threatens. The healthy survivors benefit. Life goes on.”
He laughed. “In fits and starts . . .”
She shook her head as if suddenly impatient. “We must see who has survived on the ship. I don’t like the silence.”
“I hope to thank Eedap Mun Odim for his kindness.”
“I trust you will be able to.”
They stood close in the small stale room, gazing at each other through the stramineous light. Shokerandit kissed her, although at the last moment she moved her lips away. Then they ventured into the corridor.
The scene was to come back to him much later. He would see then, as not at the time, how much of herself Toress Lahl withheld from him. Physically, she was very desirable to him; but her attitude of inde- pendence was more attractive to him than he could then realise. Only when that independence was eroded by time could they come to any true understanding.
But Shokerandit’s proper appreciation of that factcould scarcely be arrived at while his whole outlook was based upon certain misunderstandings which left him, whichever way he turned, insecure, unable to develop emotionally. His innocence stood between him and maturity.
Shokerandit went first. Beyond the companionway, the corridor led to the main hold, where the relations of Odim had been settled. He went to listen at the door and heard stealthy movement within. From the cabins on either side of the corridor came silence. He tried the door of one, and knocked; it was locked, and no answer came.
As he emerged on deck, with Toress Lahl behind him, three naked men ran swiftly into hiding. They left a female corpse spread-eagled beneath the mizzenmast. It had been partially dismembered. Toress Lahl went over and looked at it.
“We’ll throw it overboard,” Shokerandit said.
“No. This woman is already dead. Leave her. Let the living be fed.”
They turned their attention to the situation of the New Season itself. The ship, as their senses had told them, was no longer in motion. The ocean currents had brought it slowly to fetch up against the shore. The New Season was trapped against a tongue of sand which curled out from the land.
Towards the stern, a small cluster of icebergs had accumulated. At the bows, it would be an easy matter to jump over the side and walk ashore without getting a foot wet. The guardians of this spit of sand were two large rocks, one taller than the masts of the ship, which stood on the shore, deflecting ocean tides. They had probably been thrown to their present position by some long-gone volcanic explosion, though nothing so dramatic as a volcano could be seen inland. The coast offered a vista only of low cliffs, so tumbled that they might have been an old wall part-demolished by cannon fire, and, beyond the cliffs, mustard-coloured moorland, off which a chill wind blew, bringing tears to the viewer’s eyes.
Blinking the water away, Shokerandit looked again at the larger rock. He was sure he had seen movement there. In a moment, two phagors appeared, walking with their curious glide away from the shore. It became apparent that they were going to meet a group of four of their kind who materialised over a rise, dragging with them the carcass of an animal of some kind. More phagors appeared from behind the rock to greet the hunters.
The original party of thirteen ancipitals had that morning met up with a second and larger party, a party also comprising escaped slaves, as well as four phagors who had served as transport animals in the Oligarch’s soldiery. There were nowthirty-six phagors in all. They had a fire burning in a cavity in the landward side of the rock, on which they intended to roast whole flambreg their hunting party had speared.
Toress Lahl looked at Shokerandit in dismay.
“Will they attack us?”
“They have a marked aversion to water, but they could easily get along that spit of sand and board us. We’d better see if we can find any fit members of the crew-and quickly.”
“We were the first to go down with the Fat Death, so we may be the first to recover.”
“We must see if there are any weapons to defend the ship with.”
Their search of the ship horrified them. It had become a slaughterhouse. There had been no escape from the plague. Those who had locked themselves into cabins alone had succumbed and, in some cases, died alone. Where two or three had shut themselves away, the first to show symptoms had perhaps been killed. Any animals aboard had been killed and devoured, their remains fought over. Cannibalism had prevailed in the large hold, where the Odim family was. Of twenty-three members of the family, eighteen were already dead, killed mainly by their relations. Of the five remaining alive, three were still suffering from the madness of the disease and fled when shouted at. Two young women were able to speak; they had undergone the full metamorphosis. Toress Lahl took them to the safety of the closet where she and Shokerandit had sheltered.
The hatches to the crew’s quarters were locked in place. From below came animal noises and a peculiar singsong, intoning endlessly
“He saw his fair maid’s incision O, that terminal vision . . .
O, that terminal vision . . .”
In a forward storage cupboard, they discovered the bodies of Besi Besamitikahl and the old grannie. Besi lay staring upwards, a puzzled expression frozen on her face. Both were dead.
In the forward hold, they came on some sturdy square boxes which had remained untouched throughout the disaster which had overwhelmed the ship.
“Praise be, cases of rifles,” Shokerandit exclaimed. He opened the nearest box and pulled away some sacking. There, each item wrapped in tissue paper, lay a complete dinner set in purest porcelain, decorated with pleasant domestic scenes. Other boxes contained more porcelain, the finest that Odim exported. These were Odim’s presents for his brother in Shivenink.
“This will not keep the phagors off,” Toress Lahl said, half laughing.
“Something has to.”
Time seemed to be suspended as they wandered the bloodied ship. Because it was small summer, the hours of Batalix’s daylight were long.
Freyr was rarely far above the horizon, rarely far below. The cold wind blew continually. Once a sound like thunder came with its breath.
After the thunder, silence. Only the dull pound of the sea, the occasional knock of a small ice floe against the wooden hull. Then the thunder again, this time clear and continuous. Shokerandit and Toress
Lahl looked at each other in puzzlement, unable to imagine what the noise was. The phagors understood it without thought. For them, the noise of a flambreg herd on the move was unmistakable.
The flambreg lived in their millions below the skirts of the polar ice cap. Their progeny filled the Circumpolar Regions. Loraj, of all the countries of Sibornal, offered a variety of territories most suited to flambreg, with extensive forests of the hardy eldawon tree, and a landscape of low rolling hills and lakes. The flambreg, unlike yelk, were mildly carnivorous, with a fondness for any rodents and birds they could catch. Their main diet was of lichen, fungi, and grass, supplemented with bark. The flambreg also ate the indigestible moss called flambreg moss by the primitive tribes of Loraj which hunted them. The moss contained a fatty acid which protected the animals’ cell membranes from the effects of cold, enabling the cells to continue efficient functioning at low temperatures.
A herd of over two million individuals was nearing the coast. Many of the Loraj packs were several times larger. This herd had emerged from an eldawon forest and was running almost parallel with the sea. The ground shook under its multitudinous hoofs.
On the shore, the phagors showed signs of unease. Their crude cooking operations were suspended. They marched back and forth, scanning the horizon, manifesting a humanlike uncertainty.
Two escape routes lay open to them. They could climb to the top of the house-sized boulder, or they could attack and take possession of the ship. Either alternative would save them from the approaching stampede.
There was a living forerunner of the herd. Above the heaving shoulders of the animals flew a cloud of midges, intent on drawing blood from the furry noses of the flambreg. The midges were the enemies also of a fly the size of a queen wasp. This fly now darted ahead into freer air. It appeared from nowhere and landed smartly between the eyes of one of the phagors. It was a yellow-striped fly.
The ancipital group broke into an uncharacteristic panic, rushing back and forth. The individual whose face the fly had alighted on turned and ran straight into the rock. He squashed the fly and laid himself out senseless.
The rest of the group gathered together to confer on a plan of action. Some of the newly arrived group carried with them a small and wizened emblem, an ancestor in tether. This shrunken symbol of themselves, this illustrious and moth-eaten great-grandstallun, though almost entirely transformed into keratin, was still a degree or two from nonbeing. In it, some faint spark still served to focus their attempts at ratiocination. Comprehension left their barneys. They communed. The currents of their pale barneys entered into tether.
From an area of total whiteness, a spirit emerged. It was no bigger than a rabbit. The phagor whose ancestor it was said inwardly, “O sacred forebear, now integrating with earth, here you see us in grave danger by the edge of the drowning world. The Beasts-we-were run upon us and will trample us down. Strengthen our arms, direct us from danger.”
Through their harneys the keratinous figure transmitted pictures the ancipitals knew well, pictures flowing fast, one to another. Pictures of the Circumpolar Regions with their ice, their bogs, their sombre enduring forests, and of the teeming life that ran there, even there, on the edge of the ice cap. The ice cap then much greater in extent, for Batalix ruled alone in the heavens. Pictures of hunted creatures hiding in caves, making an alliance with that mindless spirit called fire. Pic tures of the humble Others taken as pets. Terrifying pictures of Freyr roaming, coming mottled black down the air-octaves, a giant spider-form, eddre-chilling. The retreat of beautiful T’Sehn-Hrr, once silver in the tranquil skies. The Others proving themselves Sons of Freyr, running off carrying the mindless spirit fire on their shoulders. Many, many ancipitals dying, in flood, in heat, in battle with the monkey-browed Sons of Freyr.
“Go fast, remember enmities. Retreat to safety of the wooden thing afloat on the drowning world, kill all Sons of Freyr. Stay safe there against the running of the Beasts-we-were. Be valiant. Be large. Hold horns high!”
The tiny voice fled to lands beyond knowing. They thanked the great-grandstallun with a deep churring in their throats.
They would obey its word. For the voice was his and the voice was theirs and there was no difference. Time and opinion had no place in their pale barneys.
They advanced slowly on the beached ship.
It was an alien thing to them. The sea was their dread. Water swallowed and extinguished them. The ship was outlined against the smouldering orange of Freyr, snoring just below the horizon, ready to leap from its hiding place in that same hungry sea.
They clutched their spears and moved with reluctant step towards the New Season.
The sand crunched beneath their tread. All the while, their twitching ears picked up the thunder of the approaching flambreg.
To one side lay the icebergs, no taller than the runt which walked close to its gillot. Some icebergs clung to the sides of the vessel; some, as if possessed by a mysterious will, described slow intricate figures over the still sea, ghostly in the dim light, their reflections caught as if in tether in the water.
As the sand spit narrowed, so the ancipital group had to narrow its front. Finally, two stalluns led the rest. The ship loomed above them without movement.
Things clattered and broke beneath the feet of the stalluns. They tried to halt, but those behind pushed them forward. More breaking, more clattering. Looking down, they saw the thin white shards beneath their feet, and the whiteness stretching cracked all the wav to the ship’s hull.
“There is ice and it breaks,” they said to each other, using the continuous present tense of Native Ancipital. “Go back or we fall into the drowning world.”
“We must kill all Sons of Freyr, as it is said. Go forward.”
“That we cannot do with the drowning world protecting them.”
“Go back. Hold horns high.”
Crouching by the rail of the New Season, Luterin Shokerandit and
Toress Lahl watched their enemies shuffle back to the shore and seek for shelter by the rock.
“They may return. We have to get the ship afloat as soon as possible,” Shokerandit said. “Let’s see how many of the crew have survived.”
Toress Lahl said, “Before we leave the coast, we should kill some flambreg if they get within range. Otherwise everyone is going to starve.”
They looked uneasily at each other. The thought crossed their minds that they sailed with a cargo of the dead and the mad.
Standing with their backs to the mainmast, they set up a great shout, which rolled away across the wastes of water and land. After a pause, an answering cry came. They called again.
A man appeared from the forecastle, staggering. He had undergone the metamorphosis, and presented the typical barrel-figure of a survivor. His clothes were ill-fitting, his once boney face now broad and presenting a curiously stretched appearance. They hardly recognised him as Harbin Fashnalgid.
“I’m glad you’re alive,” Shokerandit said, going towards him.
The transformed Fashnalgid put out a warning hand and sat down heavily on the deck.
“Don’t come near me,” he said. He covered his face with his hands.
“If you are fit enough, we need help in getting the ship on course again,” Shokerandit said.
The other gave a laugh without looking up. Shokerandit saw that there was blood caked on his hands and clothes.
“Leave him to recover,” Toress Lahl said. At this Fashnalgid uttered a harsh cackle and started to shout at them, “ ‘Leave him to recover!’ How can a man recover? Why should he recover . . . I’ve been through the last few days eating raw arang-yes, and killing a man for the privilege of doing so ... Entrails-everything . . . And now I find Besi’s dead. Besi, the dearest, truest girl there ever was . . . Why do I want to recover? I want to be dead.”
“You’ll feel better soon,” said Toress Lahl. “You scarcely knew her.”
“I’m sorry about Besi,” Shokerandit said. “But we have to get the ship on course.”
Fashnalgid glared up at him. “That’s typical of y ou, you skerming conformist! No matter what happens, do what you’re supposed to do. Let the ship rot, for all I care.”
“You’re drunk, Harbin!” He felt morally superior to this abject figure.
“Besi’s dead. What else matters?” He sprawled on the deck.
Toress Lahl motioned to Shokerandit. They crept away.
They took fire hatchets to break into cabins and went below.
As Shokerandit reached the bottom of the companionway, a naked man threw himself on him. Shokerandit went down on one knee and was seized by the throat. His attacker-an Odim relation- snarled, more like a maddened animal than a human being. He clawed at Shokerandit without any coherent attempt to overcome him. Shokerandit stuck two knuckles in the man’s eyes, straightened his arm, and pushed hard. As the man fell away, he kicked him in the stomach, jumped on him, and pinned him to the deck.
“Now what do we do? Throw him to the phagors?”
“We’ll tie him up and leave him in a cabin.”
“I’m not taking any chances.” He picked up t he hatchet he had dropped and clouted the prone man across the temple with the handle. The man went limp.
They tackled the captain’s cabinin the stern. The lock broke under their assault, and they burst in. They found themselves in a comfortably appointed quarter galley with windows opening above the water.
They drew up short. A man with an old-fashioned bell-mouthed musket was sitting with his back to the windows, aiming the gun at them.
“Don’t shoot,” Shokerandit said. “We intend no harm.”
The man rose to his feet. He lowered the weapon.
“I would have blasted you if you were loonies.”
He was proportioned in the unaccustomed thickset way. He had passed through the Fat Death. They recognised him then as the captain. His officers lay about the cabin, their hands tied. Some were gagged.
“We’ve had a high old time here,” said the captain. “Fortunately, I was the first to recover, and we have lost only the first mate-for eating purposes, that was, excuse the expression. A few more hours and these officers will be back in action.”
“Then you can leave them and see to the rest of your ship,” said Shokerandit sharply. “We’re beached, and there’s a threat from phagors ashore.”
“How’s Master Eedap Mun Odim?” asked the captain,as he accompanied them from the cabin, his gun under his arm.
“We haven’t found Odim yet.”
They found him later. Odim had locked himself in his cabin with a supply of water, dried fish, and ship’s biscuits as he felt the first fever upon him. He had undergone the metamorphosis. He was now a few inches shorter, and of much more rounded bulk than before. His characteristic straight-backed stance had disappeared. He wore a floppy sailor’s garb, his ownclothes having become too tight for him. Blinking, he emerged on deck like a hibernatory bear from its cave.
He looked round quickly frowning, as they hailed him. Shokerandit approached slowly, well aware that it was he who had passed the Fat Death to all aboard. He humbly reminded Odim of his name.
Ignoring him, Odim went to the rail and gestured over the side of the ship. When he spoke, his voice choked with rage.
“Look at this barbarism! Some wretch has thrown my best plate overboard. It’s an atrocity, fust because there’s illness on the ship, it doesn’t excuse
. . . Who did it? I demand to know. The culprit is not going to sail with me.”
“Well . . .” said Toress Lahl.
“Er . . .” said Shokerandit. He took a grip on himself and said, “Sir, I have to confess that I did it. We were being attacked by phagors at the time.”
He pointed to where phagors could be seen by the rock.
“You shoot phagors, you do not throw precious plates at them, you imbecile,” Odim said. He reined in his temper. “You were mad-is that your excuse?”
“The ship has no weapons with which to defend itself. We saw that the phagors were going to attack- they will try again if they get desperate. I threw the plate over the side deliberately, to cover the sand spit. As I expected, the fuggies believed they were treading on thin ice, and retreated. I’m sorry about your porcelain, but it saved the ship.”
Odim said nothing. He stared down at the deck, up at the mast. Then he brought a little black notebook out of his pocket and perused it. “That service would have fetched a thousand sibs in Shivenink,” he said in low tones, darting swift glances at them.
“It has saved all the rest of the porcelain on the ship,” Toress Lahl said. “Your other crates are intact. How is the rest of your family?”
Muttering to himself, Odim made a pencilled note. “Perhaps more than a thousand . . . Thank you, thank you ... I wonder when such fine ware will again be manufactured? Probably not until the spring of next Great Year, many centuries in the future. Why should any of us care about that?”
He turned bemusedly, to shake hands with Shokerandit while looking elsewhere. “My gratitude for saving the ship.”
“Now we’ll get it afloat again,” said the captain.
The noise of the flambreg herd was louder now. They turned to see the animals pour by, not more than a mile inland. Odim disappeared unnoticed.
Only later did they discover the reason for his slightly eccentric behaviour. It was not his dear Besi’s death alone which had unsettled Odim. Of his three children, only the eldest boy, Kenigg, had survived the ravages of the Fat Death. His wife was also dead. Little was found of her bar skull, torso, and a pile of bones.
The flotation was not to come about for several hours. With the captain and a few crew on their feet again, some attempt was made to bring the ship back into order. Those still sick were settled as com- fortably as possible in the surgeon’s cabin. The injured were tended. The convalescent were brought to fresh air. The dead were wrapped in blankets and lined up in a row on the upper deck. The dead numbered’ twenty-eight. The survivors were twenty-one innumber, including the captain and eleven of his crew.
When everyone had been accounted for and order prevailed, the fit assembled for a service of thanksgiving for their survival to God the Azoiaxic, who ordered all things.
In their innocent hymns, they did not see that the complexity of their survival was beyond the capacity of any local deity.
Helliconia was at this period receding towards something like the original conditions which had existed before its parent sun Batalix became locked into the gravitational field of the A-type supergiant. The planet had then carried a remarkable number of phyla, ranging in size from viruses to whales, while being denied the energy levels or the complexity to support beings with that intensity of cellular organisation required as building blocks for higher mental functions-the thinki ng, deducing, perceiving functions associated with full consciousness. The ancipitals were Helliconia’s supreme effort in this respect.
The ancipitals were a part of the integrated living system of Helliconia’s biosphere
. One of the functions of that systemic gestalt-of whic h, needless to say, its component parts were entirely unaware- was to maintain optimum conditions for the survival of all. As the yellow-striped fly could not live without the flambreg, so ultimately, the flambreg could not live without the yellow-striped fly. All life was interdependent.
The capture of Batalix by the supergiant was only an event of the first magnitude and not a catastrophe for Helliconian life, although it was catastrophic for many phyla and many individuals. The impact of the capture was gradual enough for the biosphere to sustain it. The planet looked after its own. Its moon was lost; its vital processes continued, although through a disruption which brought storms and blizzards raging for hundreds of years.
The fierce output of high-energy radiation from the new sun caused more damage. More phyla were eradicated, while others survived only through genetic mutation. Among the new species were some which were, in evolutionary terms, hastily developed; they survived in the new environment only at some cost to themselves. The assatassi in the sea, which were born as maggots from the decaying bodies of their parents; the yelk and biyelk, necrogenes which resembled mammals but were without wombs; and human stock; these were among the new creatures which rose to abundance under the energy-rich conditions which came about eight million years before the present.
The new creatures were products of the biospheric striving for unity, and cobbled into it at the time of maximum change. Before its capture by Freyr, Helliconia’s atmosphere had contained a large amount of carbon dioxide, protecting its life with a greenhouse effect, and producing a mean temperature of -7° C.
After capture, the atmospheric carbon dioxide was much reduced, combining at periastron with water to form carbonate rocks. Oxygen levels increased to amounts suitable for the new creatures: humans could not live in the oxygen-scarce Nyktryhk, as phagors did. In the seas, greater concentrations of macromolecules led to stepped-up activity all along the food chain. All these new parameters for existence came within the regulatory functions of Helliconia’s biosphere.
The humans, as the most complex life form, were the most vulnerable. However they might rebel against the idea, their corporate lives were never more than part of the equipoise of the planet to which they belonged. In that, they were no different from the fish, the fungi, or the phagors.
In order that they might function at optimum efficiency in Helliconia’s extremes, evolutionary pressure had introduced a system for regulating the masses of the humans. The pleomorphic helico virus had as its vector a species of arthropoda, a tick, which transferred itself readily from phagor to human. The virus was endemic during two periods of the Helliconian year, in the Spring and in the late Autumn of the Great Year, with minor epicycles between these cycles. These two pandemics were known as bone fever and the Fat Death.
Sexual dimorphism between the sexes was negligible; but both sexes showed seasonal dimorphism. Male and female could be said to average approximately one hundred and twelve pounds over an entire Great Year. But spring and autumn brought dramatic variations in body weight.
Survivors of the spring scourge of bone fever weighed a lanky ninety-six pounds, and presented a skeletal appearance to those who were brought up to the old way of things. This decreased body weight was an inheritable factor. It persisted throughout the generations as a crucial survival trait during the increasing heat. But the effect slowly became less apparent, until populations achieved the median of one hundred and twelve pounds.
Towards winter, the virus returned, partly in obedience to glandular signals. Survivors of these attacks increased in bulk, rather than losing it, generally gaining an average of about fifty percent body weight. For a few generations, the population averaged one hundred and sixty-eight pounds. They had transformed from ectomorph at one extreme to endomorph at the other.
This pathological process performed a vital function in preserving the human stock, with a side effect which benefitted the entire biosphere. As the expanding energy quota of the spring planet demanded a much more variegated biomass for efficient systemic working, so the contracting energy quota of winter required a decrease in total biomass. The virus culled the human population to conform with the total food- chain organisation of the biosphere.
Human existence was not possible without the virus, just as the flambreg herds would have ceased ultimately to exist without the curse of the yellow-striped fly.
The virus destroyed. But it was a life-giving destruction.