Ad when that massed human spirit we have called empathy reached out across space and communicated with the gossies of Helliconia, what then? Did nothing important happen-or did something unprecedentedly magnificent, something quantally different, happen?
The answer to that question will perhaps remain forever clouded in conjecture; mankind has its umwelt, however bravely it strives to enlarge that confining universe of its perceptions. To become part of a greater umwelt may prove biologically impossible. Or perhaps not. It must be sufficient to admit that if something unprecedentedly magnificent, something quantally different, happened, it happened in a greater umwelt than mankind’s.
If it happened, then it was a cooperation, and perhaps a cooperation of various factors not unlike the cooperation forced on differing individuals on the trail to Kharnabhar.
If it happened, then it left an effect. That effect can be traced by looking at the contrasting fates of Earth, where Gaia resided, and New Earth, which was without a tutelary biospheric spirit. . . .
To start with the case of Earth, after which New Earth was named:
The intermission between the two postnuclear ice ages has been understood as the swing of a pendulum. Gaia was trying to regulate her clock. But it was less simple than that, just as the biosphere was less simple than the mechanism of a clock. The truth may be put more accurately. Gaia had been almost terminally ill. She was now convalescent, and subject to relapses.
Or, abandoning the dangers of personifying a complex process, it may be said that the carbon dioxide released by the deep oceans initiated a period during which the ice retreated. At the end of the period of greenhouse heating, there was an overshoot of the return to normal, as the whole biosphere and its ruined biosystems strove for adjustment. The ice returned.
This time, the cold was less severe, the spread of the ice caps less extensive, and the duration of the cold briefer. The period was marked by a series of oscillations, in the way that a clock’s pendulum gradually slows to a stationary median position. It was a time of discomfort for many generations of the thin-spread human race. In the remission in the 69005, for instance, there was a small war in what had once been India, followed by famine and pestilence.
Could that trivial war be likened to a convalescent’s tantrum?
The restlessness of the period awoke a corresponding restlessness in the human spirit. Fences were no longer going to be possible. The old world of fences had died, and was never going to be rebuilt.
“We belong to Gaia.” And with the declaration went the understanding that human beings were not exactly Gaia’s best allies. To see those best allies, a microscope was needed.
Throughout the ages-and long before the inventi on and development of nuclear weapons-there had been those who prophesied that the world would end because of man’s wickedness. Such prophecies were always believed, no matter how many times they had been proved wrong in the past. There was a wish for, as well as a fear of, punishment.
Once nuclear weapons were invented, the prophecies gained plausibility, although now they were couched in lay terms rather than religious ones.
Evidence, the more convincing because governments tried to suppress it, proved that the world could be ended at the touch of a button.
Eventually, the button was touched. The bombs came.
But human wickedness proved too feeble to end the world. Set against that wickedness were industrious microbes of which wickedness took little cognisance.
Large trees and plants disappeared. The carnivores, including man, disappeared from the scene for a while. They were superfluous to requirements. These large beings were merely the superstars in Earth’s drama. The dramatists themselves still lived. Under the soil, on the seabeds of the continental shelves, thick microbial life continued Gaia’sstory, undisturbed by radioactivity or increased ultraviolet. The eco- systems of unicellular life were rebuilding nature. They were Gaia’s pulse.
Gaia regenerated herself. Mankind was a function in that regeneration. The human spirit was triggered into a quantum leap in consciousness.
As nature had formed a diverse unity, so now did consciousness. It was no longer possible for a man or woman merely to feel or merely to think; there was only empathic thinkfeel. Head and heart were one.
One immediate effect was a mistrust of power.
There were people who understood what the greed for power in all its forms had done to the world.
That chill faded from the mind. Humanity began truly to be adult and to live and enjoy with adult com- prehension. Men and women looked about at the territory they happened to occupy and no longer asked, “What can we get out of this land?” Instead, they asked, “What best experience can we have on this land?”
With this new consciousness came less exploitive ties and more ties everywhere, an abundance of new relationships. The ancient structure of family faded into new superfamilies. All mankind became a loose-knit superorganism. It did not happen at once, nor did it happen to everyone. There were those who could not undergo the metamorphosis. But their genes were recessive and their strain would die away.
They were the insensible in a new world of new empathies. They were the only ones not smiling.
When more generations passed, the new race could feel itself to be the consciousness of Gaia. The ecosystems of unicellular life had been given a voice- had, in a sense, invented a voice for themselves.
Even as this was happening, the convalescence of the biosphere continued. While humanity evolved, an entirely new type of being was born to the Earth.
Many phyla had vanished for ever. The cummerbund of tropical forest with its various myriad lives had withered from the equator under the nuclear onslaught. Its fragile soils had been lost into the oceans and could not be recovered. Now a replacement of a startlingly different kind came forth.
The new thing was not born of the oceans. It came from the snows and frosts of the arctic. It fed on ultraviolet radiation and it began moving southward as the glaciers began a fresh retreat northwards.
The first men to meet the new thing fell back in astonishment.
White polyhedrons were slowly advancing. Some of the shapes were no larger than giant tortoises. Others reached as high as a man’s head.
Beyond their various planes, they had no features. No visible means of movement. No arms or tentacles. No mouths of any kind. No orifices. No eyes or ears. No appendages whatsoever. Just white polyhedrons. Some sides were perhaps less white than others.
The polyhedrons left no track. They sailed where they would. They moved slowly, but nothing could stop them, although brave men tried to. They were christened geonauts.
The geonauts multiplified and sailed the Earth.
The geonauts provided a new wonder. The old wonder remained. The great conchlike auditoria were still scattered across Earth, maintained by androids who had found no other function, having been pro- grammed to none.
On the holoscreens, the spring of the Great Year turned to summer just as the snows of Earth were dying. The history of the beautiful Myrdemlnggala, known as the Queen of Queens, was familiar to all. The new race found much to learn from that thousand-year-old story.
They attended. They gloried in the benevolent effect their empathy had on the gossies. But their own new world was calling urgently, with a fresh beauty that could not be resisted. A thousand years of spring was theirs.
But what of that unprecedentedly magnificent, quantally different something- that empathic Unking of two worlds? Were its traces visible to those capable of looking for signs?
So to the case of New Earth:
On the other planets also, some slight recovery had been made. There were no Mother Natures on the dead worlds of Mars and Venus. Their surface temperatures were generally intolerable, their atmospheres coffins full of carbon dioxide. Yet the unfortunate colonists who had settled there managed to survive, by wits and by technology.
These Outlanders had succumbed to a psychosis regarding Earth. Their generations were smothered by cosmic anomie. To Earth they would never return. They felt themselves dispossessed.
When advanced technology was again within their power-and they were quicker to solve technical problems than social ones- they built a starship and set off for the nearest planet which mankind had colonised earlier, so-called New Earth.
This was an all-male expedition. The men left their women at home, preferring to take with them on their journey svelte robotic partners, styled as abstract ideals of womanhood. They enjoyed coupling with these perfect metal images.
New Earth retained breatheable air. Its one small ocean remained surrounded by desert- desert and inhospitable mountain ranges. There was a spaceport on the equator, with a city nearby. The spaceport had not been in use for ages. Nor had the city grown; the roads from it led nowhere. People lived in the city knowing nothing of that great ocean of space above their roofs.
The New Earthers were like neutered animals. Something vital and rebellious had gone from their spirits. They had no aspirations, no feeling for the immensities of space, no love for the world that was their home, no tremulous intimations at dawn and sunset. The degenerate language they spoke had no conditional tense. Music had been entirely lost as an art.
Hardly surprising. Their world was without spirit.
These New Earthers occasionally visited the shores of their salt sea. The visits were not to refresh themselves but to collect cartloads of the kelp which grew in the sea. The kelp was one of the few living things on the planet. The people of New Earth spread it on their fields, growing cereals brought from Earth ages previously.
They did not dream because they existed on a world which had never nurtured a Gaia figure. But they had a myth. They believed that they lived in a giant egg, of which the desert was the yolk and the cloudless sky was the shell. One day, said the myth, the sky would crack and fall. Then they would be born. They would acquire yellow wings and white tails, and they would fly to a better place, where trees like giant seaweeds grew everywhere in pleasant vales and it always rained.
When the Outlanders arrived, they did not like New Earth much.
They flew to examine the neighbouring planet, like New Earth the size of a terrestrial planet.
Whereas New Earth was a world of sand, its sister was a world of ice.
An observation drone was sent out to take computer-corrected photographs of the surface and of what lay below the ice.
It was a forbidding world. Glaciers engulfed mountain ranges. Trackless snowfields filled the lowlands. Helliconia in the grip of apastron winter was never as dead as this rigid globe.
The reconnaissance photographs showed frozen oceans beneath the ice. More. They showed the ruins of great cities and the routes of as-tonishly wide roads.
The Outlanders descended to the surface. Below an icefield remains of a vast building could be glimpsed. Fragments of it lay about the surface; some fragments had been carried far from source by the glacier. By blasting, the men got down to a sector of the ruins.
One of the first artefacts they brought up was a head, carved in a durable artificial material. The head was of an inhuman creature. In a slender tapering skull four eyes were set, lidless. Small feathers lay under the eyes. A short beak counterbalanced the backward thrust of the skull.
One side of the head was blackened.
“It’s beautiful,” a robot partner said.
“Ugly, you mean.”
“It was once beautiful to someone.”
Dating was not difficult. The city had been destroyed 3.2 thousand years earlier, at a time when New Earth was being strenuously colonised.
The whole planet had been destroyed by nuclear bombardment, and the avian race had perished with it.
The Outlanders called this planet Armageddon. They remained on the frigid surface for some while, discussing what should be done, spellbound by melancholy.
One of the powerful leaders spoke. “I think we might agree that we have found here on Armageddon an answer to one of the questions which has plagued mankind for many generations.
“How was it that when man went into space, he found no other intelligent species? It was always assumed that the galaxy would be full of life. Not so. How was it that there were scarcely any other planets like Earth?
“Well, we do realise that Earth is a pretty unusual place, where a number of fine specifications are met. Take just one example- the amount of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere is close to twenty-one percent. If it was twenty-five percent or over, forest fires would be started by lightning- even damp vegetation would burn. On New Earth, the oxygen percentage is eighteen; there are no plants to lock away the carbon dioxide and release oxygen molecules. No wonder the poor boobies there live in a dream.
“Nevertheless, statistics suggest that there must be other planets like Earth. Maybe Armageddon was one. Suppose a race with a wide-ranging diet reaches supremacy and dominates the planet, as happened on Earth before the nuclear war. That race must use technology to do so- from the club and bow-and- arrow onwards. It masters the laws of nature.
“The time comes when technology is advanced enough for the race to choose alternatives. It can put out into space, or it can destroy its enemies with nuclear weapons.”
“Suppose there are no enemies on the planet?” someone called.
“Then the race invents them. The pressure of competition which technologies generate makes enemies necessary, as we know. And there’s my point. At that stage, poised for a whole new way of life, no longer to be confined to the planet of its birth, on the brink of major discoveries - right then that race is set the big examination question: Can I develop the international social skills required to bring my aggression under control? Can I excel myself and make a lasting truce with my enemies, so that we throw away these vile weapons for good and all?
“You see what I mean? If the race fails the exam, it destroys its planet and itself, and shows that it was unfit to cross that vital quarantine area space provides.
“Armageddon was unfit. Its people failed the exam. They destroyed themselves.”
“But you’re saying everyone everywhere was unfit. We never have found another space-going race.”
The leader laughed. “We’re still only on Earth’s doorstep, don’t forget. Nobody is going to come looking for us until they know we’re trustworthy.”
“And are we trustworthy?”
Amid general laughter, the leader said, “Let’s tackle Armageddon first. Maybe we can get the old place going again, if we press the right button.”
Further surveys showed what the world had once been. One notable feature was a considerable high- latitude sea which-before the nuclear disaster-had been only partially ice-covered. After the disaster, atmospheric contamination had cooled the umbrella of air, leaving the water of the high-latitude sea warmer than its overlying air. The air was in consequence heated from below, and moisture drawn upwards. Violent high-latitude storms had resulted, probably enough in themselves to finish off any survivors of the nuclear strike. Plentiful snow fell on middle-altitude ground, a plateau once covered by urbanisation. The major glaciation which set in became self-sustaining.
The Outlanders decided to drop what the leader had called vile weapons on the frozen high-altitude sea, in order to “get things started” again. But the ice wilderness remained an ice wilderness. Here, the local tutelary spirit, the biospheric gestalt, was dead.
They were now almost out of fuel. They decided to return to New Earth and conquer it. Their discoveries on Armageddon had provided them with a strategy. Their idea was that one-just one- thermonuclear device dropped over New Earth’s north pole would cause heavy rainfall, transforming the planet. The sea could be enlarged; the local zombies could make themselves useful by cutting canals. More kelp could be encouraged to grow, and eventually more oxygen released into the air. The calculations looked good. To the Outlanders, the decision to try just one more nuclear bomb was a sane one.
So they climbed into their ship, leaving Armageddon to its eons of frost.
For the people who lived on New Earth, one part at least of their only myth came true. The sky cracked and fell.
What were the vital differences here? Why could New Earth never recover, while Earth flourished and put forth new forms like the geo-nauts?
When the terrestrials developed their empathic link with the gossies of Helliconia, a new factor entered the universe. The terrestrials. whether or not they knew it, were acting as a focus of consciousness for the whole biosphere. The empathic link was not a weak thing. It was a psychic equivalent of magnetism or gravity; it bound the two planets.
A more startling way of putting it would be to say that Gaia communicated directly with her lusty sister, the Original Beholder.
Of course it is speculation. Mankind cannot see into the greater umwelts about him. But he can train his ample senses to look for evidence. All the evidence suggests that Gaia and the Original Beholder made contact through their progeny’s projecting the link. One can only guess at the ripples of shock that contact caused-unless the second ice age and its ripple s of remission provide evidence of that contact.
It is speculation that Gaia’s recovery was prompted by the refreshment of encountering a sister spirit in the void nearby.
There were the geonauts: serene, calm, apparently amiable, a new thing. They can be understood not as an evolutionary freak but as an inspiration born of a fresh and powerful friendship . . .
While on Helliconia, the august processes of the seasons were in undeniable stride.
In the northern hemisphere, small summer was nearly over. Frosty nights foretold colder nights ahead. In the winding passes of the Shive-nink Chain, frost already ruled, and the living creatures who ventured there were subject to that rule.
It was morning. A screaming windstorm, the frigid breath from the pole. The supplies were being stacked away. The phagor and Uuun-daamp were harnessing up their asokins. Seventeen days had elapsed since leaving Sharagatt. They had seen no sign that they were being pursued.
Of the three passengers Shokerandit had fared best. Toress Lahl had lapsed into speechlessness. She lay in the tent at night as if dead. Fashnalgid seldom spoke, except to curse. Their eyebrows and lashes were frosty white within a minute of leaving shelter, their cheekbones black with frostbite.
The last section of the trail ran above six thousand metres. To their right, in fuming cloud, was a solid mountain of ice. Visibility was down to a few feet.
Uuundaamp came to Shokerandit, eyes merry in his frosted face. “Today soft going,” he shouted. “Downhill through tunnel. You ‘member tunnel, chief?”
“Noonat Tunnel?” It was an effort to talk in the wind.
“Yaya, Noonat. Tonight we be there. Takit drink, bit meal, occhara, gumtaa.”
“Gumtaa. Toress tired.”
The Ondod shook his head. “She soon make meat together asokin.
No much biwack gumtaa no more, eh?” He laughed with closed mouth.
Shokerandit sensed the man had something more to say. Simultaneously they turned their backs on the others working at lashing up the sledge. Uuundaamp folded his arms.
“Your friend got tail grow along face.” One quick sly look from his profile.
“Your friend got tail along face. Team no like him. Team give plenty kakool. Make bad time. We lose that sherb in Noonat Tunnel, ishto?”
“Has he been molesting Moub?”
“Mole sting? No, he stick him prodo up Moub las’ night again. Biwack the bag, ishto? She no like. She full baby Uuundaamps.” He laughed. “So we lose in Tunnel, you see.”
“I’m sorry, Uuundaamp. Loobiss for telling me-but no smrtaa in Tunnel, please. I speak him friend in Noonat. No more biwack your Moub.”
“Chief, you better lose that friend. Else big kakool, I see.” He laughed and scowled, tapping his forehead, then turned abruptly on his heel.
The Ondod rarely showed anger. But they were treacherous-that Shokerandit knew. Uuundaamp remained friendly; without at least an appearance of friendship, the journey could never be made; but he had lost face by telling a human of his wife’s disgrace.
Shokerandit had been invited to copulate with Moub. Such was Ondod courtesy, and Shokerandit would have offended by declining the invitation. But Fashnalgid had done it uninvited, and had broken Ondod law. Ondod laws were simple and stark; transgression meant death, smrtaa. Fashnalgid would be killed without compunction. If Uuundaamp had decided to lose Fashnalgid in Noonat Tunnel, Shokerandit’s plea would count for nothing.
Both Toress Lahl and Fashnalgid shot him curious looks from their red-rimmed eyes. He gave them no word, though deeply troubled. Uuundaamp was always watching, and would see if Shokerandit passed Fashnalgid a warning. That would count as kakool.
The shaggy bulk of Bhryeer emerged from the murk, trudging down the length of the sledge. His eyes gleamed cerise as he swung his head momentarily to contemplate them. His morose gaze settled on Shokerandit. There was no interpreting the phagor’s expression.
He clicked his milt up one ice-encrusted nostril and then shouted above the wind, “Team ready go. Climb your plaze. Hoi’ tight.”
Harbin Fashnalgid pulled a flask from inside his skins, thrust the neck between his flaking lips, and swallowed. As he stowed the flask away, Shokerandit said, “Be advised, don’t drink. Hold tight, as he said.”
“Abro Hakmo Astab!” Fashnalgid growled. He belched and turned away.
Toress Lahl looked appealing!)’ at Shokerandit. He shook his head severely, mutely saying, Don’t give up, bite tightly on the silver fox tail. As they took their places on the sledge, they could just see the bundles that were Uuundaamp and Moub, the latter wrapped in her bright blanket. The dogs were invisible. Uuundaamp brought the long whip forward over his head. Ipsssssisiii. Then the first squeal of the steel runners as they chastised the snow. The place where they had spent the night, marked by yellow stains of human and asokin urine, was immediately lost.
Within an hour, they were moving downhill towards Noonat Tunnel. Shokerandit felt the sickness of fear in his throat. He would lose face himself by allowing an Ondod to kill a fellow human, whatever the justification. His anger turned against both Uuundaamp and Harbin Fashnalgid. The man was next to him, back hunched in misery. No communication passed between them.
Their speed increased. They were moving at perhaps five miles an hour. Shokerandit kept staring ahead, squeezing his eyes between cheeks and brow. Only the eternal grey to be seen, although somewhere above was a suspicion of light. Spectral white trees flitted by.
Beyond the customary noises, the sledge creaks, the whistle of whip, the dog farts, the crack of ice, the wind song, another noise grew, hollow, threatening. It was the sound of the wind keening in Noonat Tunnel. Moub answered it with blasts on a curled goat horn.
The Ondod were giving warning of their presence to other teams which might be coming in the other direction.
The suspicion of light overhead was abruptly cut off. They were in the tunnel. The phagor gave a hoarse cry and applied the rear crossbeam brake to slow their progress. Uuundaamp’s whip made a different note as he flicked it just before the nose of his lead dog who bore his name, to slow their pace.
A freezing wind struck them like a solid object. This tunnel through the mountainside was a shortcut to the Noonat station. The road, by which heavier traffic or marching men went, was some miles longer but less dangerous. In the tunnel, there was always the chance of two sledges meeting head on, the traces of the teams entangling hopelessly as the rival asokins fought to the death, a fatal knife fight taking place.
Since the tunnel had been cut to show an almost circular cross-section, it was theoretically possible for teams to pass by driving partway up opposite walls, but this chance was so remote that most drivers spurred onwards in terror, screaming warning as they went.
There were nine miles of tunnel. What with rockfalls and the force of the wind, the sledge swayed from one side to the other like a rudderless ship.
The attempt by Uuundaamp to slow down caused greater vibrations. Fashnalgid cursed. The driver and his woman slid to either side of the sledge’sfront and stuck heels into the snow to increase the braking effect.
Bhryeer leaned forward and shouted to Fashnalgid, “You bottle juzz now drop out.”
“My bottle? Where?”
As Fashnalgid leant forward over the side of the sledge, looking where the phagor indicated, the phagor struck him a blow across the small of his back. Fashnalgid fell with a cry, landing on hands and knees and rolling over in the snow.
Immediately, there was a shrill cry from Uuundaamp and he lashed on the asokins. The phagor pulled off the rear brake. They sizzled forward, aided by the slope.
Fashnalgid was already on his feet. Already he was fading into the dimness. He began to run. Shokerandit yelled to him to come on. The wind roared, the Ondod shrieked, the runners screamed. Fashnalgid was catching up. As he came level with the rear of the sledge, his face contorted with effort, the phagor lifted an arm to strike another blow.
To be alone in the long tunnel was to face certain death. Other sledges, thrusting through the gloom, would simply run a man over. This was Ondod smrtaa.
Shouting at the top of his voice, Shokerandit drew his revolver and ran back on his knees over the loaded sledge. He clamped the muzzle against the phagor’s long skull.
“I’ll blast your sherbing hameys out.” The s ilver fox tail fell from his mouth and was gone.
The phagor cowered back.
“Throw the brake on.”
Bhryeer did so, but the downhill impetus was such that it made little difference, beyond sending a spume of fine snow over the running man.
Still the whip whistled and the driver shrieked at his team. Fashnalgid was falling back, mouth open, blackened face distorted. His never-too-certain will was failing him.
“Don’t give up,” yelled Shokerandit, stretching out a hand to the captain.
Making a new effort, Fashnalgid increased speed. His boots drummed on the snow as he slowly drew level with the rear of the sledge. Bhryeer cowered out of harm’s way. The wind shrilled.
Clutching a cord securing the tent with one gloved hand, Shokerandit leant forward and extended his other hand. He shouted encouragement. Fashnalgid was tiring. The sledge was still gaining speed. The two men stared into each other’s wide eyes. Their gloved hands touched.
“Yes,” yelled Shokerandit. “Yes, leap aboard, man, fast!”
Their grips locked. Just as Shokerandit tugged, Uuundaamp gave a swerve to the left, flicking the runners of the sledge up the sloping side of the tunnel, and almost overturning his vehicle. Shokerandit was flung free. He clutched at and missed a runner as it sizzled past his face. Fashnalgid stumbled over him and they sprawled flat.
When they picked themselves up, the sledge was disappearing in the dimness.
“Lousy biwacking drivers,” Fashnalgid said, bending forward and trying to get his breath back. “Animals.”
“That was deliberate. That’s Ondod smrtaa-vengeance. Because of your ape tricks with the woman.” He had to turn his back to the wind flow to speak.
“That stinking tub of lard? He said himself that she was not good enough even for an asokin to enjoy.” He bent double, panting.
“That’s how they talk, you fool. Now listen, and take in what I say. This tunnel is death. Another sledge may come through at any moment, from one end or the other. There’s no way we could stop it, except with our bodies. We have about seven miles to go, I’d guess, and we’d better do it fast.”
“How about going back and taking the road?”
“That way’s about thirty miles. We’ve no provisions and we’d still be walking when dark fell. We would be dead. Now, are you going to run? Because I am.”
Fashnalgid straightened up, groaning. He said, “Thanks for trying to save me.”
“Astab you, you arrogant fool. Why couldn’t you have tried to obey the system?”
Luterin Shokerandit started to run. At least it was downhill. His knee hurt from his fall. He listened for the sound of another sledge but heard only the wind roaring in his ears.
The footsteps of Fashnalgid echoed behind him. He never looked back. All his faculties were concentrated on getting through the tunnel to Noonat.
When he thought he could run no further, he made himself keep on. Once there was a gleam of light to one side. In relief, he halted and went to look. Part of the rock of the outer wall had fallen away, revealing daylight. Nothing could be seen but cloud and, just beyond arm’s reach, a stalactite of ice. He threw a piece of rock into the void, listened, but never heard it fall.
Fashnalgid caught up with him, blowing hard.
“Let’s get out through this hole.”
“It’s a sheer mountainside.”
“Never mind. Bribahr somewhere down there. Civilisation. Not like this place.”
“You’ll kill yourself.”
As Fashnalgid was trying to lever his body through the hole in the rock, a distant horn announced an oncoming sledge-this one also arriving from the sout h. Shokerandit saw a light looming. He pressed into the natural alcove, forcing himself back against the jagged rock close to Fashnalgid.
Next moment, a long black sledge shot by, teamed by ten dogs. A bell dangling over the driver jangled madly. Several men sat aboard, twelve possibly, all crouching masked against the cold. It was by in a flash.
“Military,” Fashnalgid said. “Could they be after us?”
“After you, you mean. What does it matter? With them travelling ahead, clearing the way, this is our best chance to get out of the tunnel safely. Unless you like thousand-foot jumps, you’ll come too.”
He started off again. After a while, the running became automatic. He could feel the knock of his lungs against his ribs. Ice formed on his chin. The lids of his slitted eyes froze. He lost count of time.
When the brightness came, it assailed him. He could not prise open his eyes. He jogged on before realising that he had at last left the tunnel. Sobbing, he staggered to one side and clung to a boulder. There he lay, panting as if he would never stop. Two sledges passed nearby, horns blowing, but he did not look up.
A lump of falling snow forced him into action. He scrubbed his face with the snow and peered ahead. The light still seemed brilliant. The wind had dropped. There was a break in the cloud. Only a short distance away, people were strolling, smoking veronikanes, wearing blankets. A woman was buying something at a stall. An ancient bowed man was driving horned sheep down the street. A welcoming sign said PILGRIM LODGE: No Ondods. He had reached Noonat.
Noonat was the last stop before Kharnabhar. It was nothing more than a halt in the wilds, a place where teams could be changed. But it had something else to offer. The trail between Kharnabhar, Northern Sharagatt, and Rivenjk followed the contours of the chain, taking every advantage of the protection against the polar winds which the mountains provided. But at Noonat there was a junction, and a road led westward, over the great falls and valleys and plateaux of the western chain, to enter at last into the plains of Bribahr. Kharnabhar was now nearer than those plains. But the plains were nearer than Rivenjk, by a long measure.
The state of hostility which existed between Uskutosh and Bribahr might account for an increased number of military uniforms visible in
Noonat, and for the fact that an imposing new wooden building, which would face westwards, was being built.
Shokerandit was almost too exhausted to take much care for himself. But he had the presence of mind to stagger behind the boulder that had sheltered him and follow a footpath uphill until he came to a stone- built goat shed. He climbed in with the goats and fell asleep.
When he woke, he felt refreshed, and was angry with himself for wasting time. He could not greatly care what had happened to Fash-nalgid, so great was his need to find Toress Lahl and to get the sledge on to Kharnabhar. Once there, his problems would be over.
The straggle of Noonat lay below him. Its poor houses clung to the mountainside like burrs to an animal’s flank. Most of the housestook advantage of eldawon trees, a species with thin multiple trunks, and cowered against them or were actually built into them. Since most of the houses were constructed from the timber of the eldawon, it was difficult to distinguish habitation from vegetation.
Cottages crouched here and there, linked by trails followed by humans, animals, and fowls. They stood higgledy-piggledy, so that one man’s doorstep camelevel with the next man’s chimney. Fields were coterminous with roofs. Every homestead boasted a pile of chopped logs. Some piles leant against the houses, some houses against the piles. Woodmen could be heard, busy with axes, adding to either the number of piles or the number of homesteads.
For a short while, the air was free of cloud and possessed a brilliance unique to high mountain places. Batalix shone over a distant crag. Boys in the stoney fields, supposedly herding sheep and goats, flew kites instead.
A crowd of pilgrims had just arrived on foot from Kharnabhar. Their voices carried in the clear air. Most had shaven heads, some went barefoot, despite the hard snow on the ground. All ages were represented among them; there was even an old yellowed woman being carried in a wicker chair to which shafts had been attached. A few local traders were watching them attentively, but without great interest. This lot had already been fleeced on their way northwards.
Having travelled the trail before, Shokerandit knew that Uuundaamp would have to stop here. He and Moub would rest. All the asokins would be staked separately and fed, with extra meat for Uuundaamp, the leader. Sledge and harness would be thoroughly overhauled for the last lap of the journey if the Ondods intended to go on to Kharnabhar. And what would they do with Toress Lahl?
Not murder her. She was too valuable. As a slave, she could be sold; but few humans would buy a human slave from an Ondod. Ancipitals on the other hand ... He was frightened for her, and forgot Fashnalgid.
Although the ancipital kind were rare in Sibornal as a whole, those who escaped slavery often made their way to Shivenink, finding in the wilderness of the chain congenial habitation. Having experienced slavery themselves, they were the more inclined to use human slaves. Once she vanished into the hills with them, Toress Lahl would be lost to human knowledge.
Negotiating the paths at the rear of the houses, he covered the whole village. On its outskirts, he came to a palisade. Furious barking sounded on the other side as he approached. He peered over and saw trail asokins, staked out separately, or in cages. They launched themselves as far as chain and mesh would allow as he appeared.
This was unmistakably the staging post. He remembered it now. It had been snowing the last time he was through, when almost nothing could be seen in the blizzard. Something like fifty half-starved asokins were waiting in the pound.
Without provoking them further, he moved cautiously round by the side.
The staging post was the last building to the north of Noonat. A shout indicated that he had been sighted, although he saw no one. The Ondod were too cautious to be caught unawares.
Three of them appeared immediately, carrying whips. He knew how deadly they were with whips, halted, made the sign of peace on his forehead.
“I want my friend Uuundaamp, give him loobiss. Speak him loobiss, ishto?”
They were surly. They made no move.
“No see Uuundaamp. Uuundaamp no want loobiss together you. Uuundaamp fat lady plenty kakool.”
He said. “I know. I bring help. Moub give birth, yaya?”
Sullenly they let him through. He told himself it was a trap, and that he should be ready for anything.
At the entrance to a barnlike building, the Ondods clustered, pausing, giving each other sullen eye glances. Then they motioned him to go in. The interior was dark and unwelcoming. He smelt occhara.
They thrust him in from behind and slammed the door.
He ran forward and threw himself flat. The sharp tongue of a whip passed lightly across his shoulder. He rolled over and dived to a side wall.
With one swift glance he observed Moub naked except for the blanket he had given her, which was now wrapped round her breasts. She lay on a plank, legs spread wide. Toress Lahl crouched over her. Toress Lahl was tied by the upper arm, in such a way that she could use her hands. The other end of the rope was held by one of three dehorned phagors who stood motionless against the wall opposite the one against which Shokerandit crouched. Uuundaamp’s lead dog,
Uuundaamp, was staked in the middle of the barn, snapping savagely at the end of his leash in a futile attempt to eat the nearest portion of Shokerandit.
And Uuundaamp. He had heard or seen-for the barn had slit windows-Shokerandit’s approach. With the ability of his kind, he had jumped above the lintel of the door, and stood poised there, about to lash out with his whip again. He smiled as he did so, without mirth.
Shokerandit had his gun in his hand. He knew better than to point it at the Ondod-the gesture would have provoked both Uuundaamp and phagors. Nor would any threat to Moub halt Uuundaamp in his present state of mind.
Shokerandit pointed the gun at the dog.
“I kill you dog dead, finish, gumtaa, ishto? You fall down here smart, drop whip. You come here, boy, you Uuundaamp. Else your dog plenty kakool one second quick!”
As he spoke, Shokerandit rose up, pointing the gun with both hands down the throat of the raging dog.
The whip fell to the floor. Uuundaamp jumped down. He smiled. He bowed, touched his forehead.
“My friend, you tumble off sledge in tunnel. No gumtaa. I very worry.”
“You’ll have a dead lead dog if you give me that sherb. Untie Toress Lahl. Are you all right, Toress?”
In a shaky voice, she said, “I have delivered babies before, and here comes another. But I am greatly relieved to see you, Luterin.”
“What was the plan here?”
“The phagors were going to do something for Uuundaamp. I was the exchange gift. I’ve been terrified but I’m unharmed. And you?” Her voice trembled.
The phagors never moved. As he worked at the knots in the cord, Uuundaamp said, “This very nice lady, yaya. Shaggie he much enjoy . . . give him chance, yaya. No harm.” He laughed.
Shokerandit bit his lip; the creature had to be allowed to save face. Almost penniless, they were forced to rely on him to get them to Kharnabhar.
When she was free, Toress Lahl said to Uuundaamp, “You very kind. When your baby is born, I buy you and Moub pipes of occhara, ishto?”
Shokerandit marvelled at her coolness.
Uuundaamp smiled and whistled through his teeth. “You buy extra pipe for baby too? I smoke three pipe together.”
“Yaya, if you will kick out these shaggy brutes while I perform the delivery.” Her face was white as she confronted him, but her voice no longer shook.
Still Uuundaamp felt that honours had not yet been made equal.
“You give money now. Moub go buy three pipe occhara now. Better leave Noonat before is darkness.”
“Moub’s water broken, give birth directly.”
“Baby no come maybe twenty minutes. She go buy fast. Smoke, give birth.” He clapped his eight- fingered hands and laughed again.
“The baby is almost hanging out of her.”
“That woman lazy bag.” He grasped Moub by the arm. She sat up without protest. Toress Lahl and Shokerandit exchanged glances. When he nodded, she produced some sibs and gave them to the woman. Moub wrapped her entire body in the red and yellow blanket and waddled out of the barn without protest.
“Stay there,” Shokerandit said. Toress Lahl sat on the water-stained bench. The lead dog settled down on its haunches, its red tongue lolling. At a gesture from Uuundaamp, the phagors filed out of the far end of the barn, pushing through a broken door. Outside, by the dog cage, stood Uuundaamp’s sledge, unharmed.
“Where your friend grow tail on face?” Uuundaamp asked innocently.
“I lost him. Your plan did not work well.”
“Ha ha. My plan work fine. You still want go Kharber?”
“Are you going that way? You’ve been paid, Uuundaamp.”
Uuundaamp held his hand wide in a gesture of frankness, exposing his sixteen black-gleaming nails.
“If your friend tell police, no gumtaa. Hard for me. That bad man no understand Ondod like you. He want smrtaa. Better we go fast, ishto, once that bag throw her baby from her bottom-part.”
“Agreed.” No point in quarrelling now. He tucked his gun into his pocket. The apparent friendship of the trail could be resumed.
They remained watching each other, and the asokin waited at the end of its leash. Moub padded back, still swathed in the blanket. She gave two pipes to Uuundaamp and resumed her place on the plank by Toress Lahl, the third pipe in her mouth.
“Baby now come. Gumtaa,” she said. And a small Ondod male was born into the world without further ado. As Toress Lahl lifted it, Uuundaamp nodded and then turned away. He spat into a corner of the barn.
“Boy. Is good. Not like girl. Boy do much work, soon have biwack, maybe one year.”
Moub sat up and laughed. “You no make good biwack, you fool sherb. This boy belong Fashnalgid.”
They both burst into laughter. He went across and hugged her. They kissed each other over and over.
This scene so much took everyone’s attention that t hev did not heed whistles of warning from outside. Three police carrying rifles at the ready entered the barn from the road end.
The leader said coolly, “We have offence orders against you all. Uuundaamp, you and that woman have a number of murders to your name. Luterin Shokerandit, we have followed you from Rivenjk. You are an accomplice in blowing up an army lieutenant, and killing a soldier in the course of his duties. Also guilty of deserting from the army. In consequence of which, you, Toress Lahl, slave, are also guilty of escaping. We have a dispensation to execute you at once here in Noonat.”
“Who these humans people?” asked Uuundaamp, pointing indignantly at Shokerandit and Toress Lahl. “I no see them. They just come here one minute, cause plenty kakool.”
Ignoring him, the police leader said to Shokerandit, “I have orders to shoot you if you try to escape. Throw down any arms you have. Where is your recent companion? We want him too.”
“Who do you mean?”
“You know who. Harbin Fashnalgid, another deserter.”
“I’m here,” said an unexpected voice. “Drop yourrifles. I can shoot you and you can’t hit me, so don’t try. I’ll count three and then I shall shootone of you in the stomach. One. Two.”
The rifles dropped. By then they had seen the revolver poking through one of the slit windows.
“Grab the guns, then, Luterin, look alive.”
Shokerandit unfroze and did as he was told. Fashnalgid entered by the rear door, setting all the asokins barking.
“How did you come so providentially?” Toress Lahl asked.
He scowled. “I imagine the same way these dummies did. By following that unmistakable red-and- yellow striped blanket. Otherwise I had no idea where you were. As you see, I’m going in for disguise.”
They had noticed. Fashnalgid had had his immense moustache shaved off and his hair cut short. He kept his revolver levelled at the police in a professional manner as he spoke.
“Rifle get much money,” Uuundaamp suggested. “Cut these man throat first, ishto?”
“Never mind that, you little scab-devourer. If your shaggie was here, I’d drop him. Luckily he is not, because this place is swarming with police and soldiers.”
“We’d better leave fast,” Shokerandit said. “Excellent timing, Harbin. You’ll make an officer yet. Uuundaamp, if we keep these three police quiet, can you and Moub get the dogs harnessed up really quickly?”
The Ondod became very active. He got the two women to drag the sledge into the barn and grease the runners, which he insisted was necessary. The police were made to stand with their trousers round their ankles and their hands up the wall. Everyone stood back as lead dog Uuundaamp was unleashed and he and the other seven asokins were secured to the traces, each in its appropriate place. As he worked, Uuundaamp cursed each of them in different tones of affection.
“Please hurry,” said Toress Lahl once, betraying her nervousness.
The Ondod went and sat down on the plank where his wife had recently given birth.
“Jus” take small rest, ishto?”
They waited it out, no one moving, until his honour was satisfied. Snow came in through the rear door as he methodically checked over the harness.
From the direction of the street they could hear shouts and whistles. The three police had already been missed.
Uuundaamp picked up his whip.
“Gumtaa. Get on.”
The rifles were tucked hastily under the sledge straps as they jumped aboard. Uuundaamp called encouragingly to Uuundaamp, and the sledge started to move. The police at once began to shout at the top of their voices. Answering shouts came. The sledge bumped out of the rear door.
Outside, ravening asokins leaped furiously against the mesh of their cage. Uuundaamp raised himself, twirled his whip, sent its tip flying towards the cage door. The hasp of the cage was secured in position by a thick wooden wedge. The whip end flicked the wedge free as the sledge went by.
Under the weight of the dogs, the cage door crashed open, and the brutes hurled themselves to freedom in a torrent of fur and fangs. Into and through the barn they rushed. Ghastly cries came up from the police.
The sledge gathered speed, bumping across rough ground, swinging round. Uuundaamp shouted commands, plying his whip expertly, licking each dog with it in turn, arms tireless. The passengers hung on. The barking and sounds of pain from behind died as they went over the hillside and jarred down onto the northward road.
Shokerandit looked back. No one was following. Faintly through the snow, sounds of growling still reached his ears. Then the road turned. Toress Lahl clutched him. Under one arm, wrapped in a bundle of dirty rag, she sheltered the newborn babe. It looked up at her and grinned, showing sharp baby teeth.
A mile along the trail, Uuundaamp slowed and turned.
He pointed the handle of the whip at Fashnalgid.
“You, kakool man. You jump off. No want.”
Fashnalgid said nothing. He looked at Shokerandit, grimaced. Then he jumped.
Within a few yards, his figure was concealed in a whirl of snow. His last words reached them faintly- the terrible oath: “Abro Hakmo Astab!”
Uuundaamp turned to scan the trail ahead. “Kharber!” he cried.
Avoiding Noonat, Fashnalgid met up with a group of Bribahrese pilgrims, returning from Kharnabhar and Noonat and making their way home, down the winding trails to the western valleys. He had shaved off his moustache in order to avoid identification and had every intention of disappearing from human ken.
Hardly had he been with the pilgrims for twenty-five hours when the group met another party climbing up from Bribahr. The latter had such a tale of disaster to tell that Fashnalgid became convinced that he was heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps right directions did not exist anymore.
According to the refugees, the Oligarch’s Tenth Guard had descended on the Great Rift Valley of Bribahr, with orders to take possession of or destroy the two great cities of Braijth and Rattagon.
Most of the rift valley was filled by the cobalt blue waters of Lake Braijth. In the lake was an island on which stood an immense old fortress. This was the city of Rattagon. There was no way of attacking the fortress except by boat. Whenever an enemy attempted to cross, it was sunk by the batteries of the frowning castle walls.
Bribahr was the great grain-producing land of Sibornal. Its fertile plains reached down into the tropical zones. In the north, before the ice sheets began, there stretched the tundra barrier, skirted by mile upon mile of caspiarn trees, which could withstand even the onslaught of Weyr-Winter.
The inhabitants of Bribahr were mainly peasant farmers. But a warrior elite, based in the two cities of Braijth and Rattagon, had recklessly threatened Kharnabhar, the Holy City. Braijth would have liked a greater share of Sibornal’s prosperity. Bribahr farmers sent grain to Uskutoshk for little return; to put pressure on the Oligarchy, they had made a tentative move against Holy Kharnabhar, capable of being approached from their plains.
In return for their threats, Askitosh had sent an army. Braijth had already fallen.
Now the Tenth sat on the shores of Lake Braijth, looked towards Rattagon, and waited. And starved. And shivered.
The frosts of the brief autumn had come. The lake also began to freeze.
There would be a time, and the Rattagonese knew it, when the ice would be firm enough to permit an enemy force to cross, walking. But that time was not yet. So far, nothing heavier than a wolf could get across. It might take a tenner before the ice would bear a platoon of soldiers. By then, the enemy on the banks would have starved and crawled away home. The Rattagonese knew the habits of their lake.
They did not entirely starve behind their battlements. The ancient rift valley had numerous faults. There was a tunnel below the lake to the northwestern shore. It was a wet way to travel, the water in it always knee-deep. But food could pass by that route; the defenders of Rattagon could afford to wait, as they had done before in times of crisis.
One night, when Freyr was lost behind dense gales of snow blowing from the north, the Tenth put a desperate plan into action.
The ice was strong enough to bear wolves. It would also bear men with kites flying above them, supporting much of their weight, making them no heavier than wolves, and as ferocious.
The officers encouraged their men by telling them tales of the voluptuous women of Rattagon who stayed by their men in the fortress, keeping their beds warm.
The wind blew, strong and steady. The kites tugged and lifted the shoulders of the men. Bravely they ran onto the thin ice. Bravely they permitted themselves to be carried across the ice, right up to the grey walls of the fortress.
Inside the fortress walls, even the sentries slept, huddled in any warm nook to shelter from the storm. They died with hardly a cry.
The volunteers of the Tenth cut away their kite cords and ran to the central keep. They slew the commander of the garrison in mid-snore.
Next day, the flag of the Oligarchy flew over fallen Rattagon.
This dreadful story, related with great drama over camp fires, persuaded Harbin Fashnalgid that there was wisdom in returning to Noonat and seeking a way southwards.
It’s always painful to become involved in history, he told himself, and accepted a bottle that was making the rounds of the pilgrims.