originally published in After the Flames, edited by Elizabeth Mitchell (Baen, 1985)
It was just ten a.m. when Daniel Yates drove his four-year old Honda into the Larchmont Executive Pavilion’s parking lot, but he was already tired.
Yates’ day had begun five hours earlier, with a “from our affiliate in Baltimore” appearance on the Today show to debate a utility spokesman on the question of the restart of Three Mile Island Unit 2. When that three-minute free-for-all was over, he drove seventy miles to the Choptank River under a sky that was dawning grey and gloomy. There he climbed into a Boston Whaler to inspect the heavy-metal sampling buoys in the channel downstream from the new Noble Electroplating plant at Cambridge.
By the time he returned to the office plaza in Glen Burnie, the dark sheet of clouds had begun to deliver on their threat, and the only open parking spaces were at the farthest corner from the six-story structure’s entrance. As he dashed across the lot through the drizzle, dodging between cars and dancing around puddles, Yates wondered why he had rejected the perquisite of a reserved space for the director. I could have parked there, he thought as he left the blacktop for the sidewalk.
There was occupied at the moment by a blue sedan with U.S. Government plates and “Department of the Air Force” stenciled on the driver’s door. The sight of the Air Force car brought a reflexive scowl to Yates’ face. But since three other organizations shared the building with Yates’ Life Studies Foundation, he expended no energy wondering why the sedan was there.
Then he entered the LSF suite and saw a uniformed man standing in the waiting area, and the presence of the car in what was always the first spot to be filled each morning set warning bells ringing. Yates was no student of military insignia, but he knew at a glance that the visitor was high-ranking. Jeanne, the LSF receptionist, waved Yates toward her desk.
“Who the hell is that?”
“Major General Rutledge. He’s been here since eight, waiting to see you and Bernadette.”
“What does an Air Force general want here?”
“He hasn’t said.”
“Bernie’s not here?”
“She’s waiting in your office. The General refused to talk to her without you there,” she explained.
“I’ll bet that sat well with her.”
“She asked to see you for a minute before I show General Rutledge in.”
Yates glanced over his shoulder at the visitor and frowned. “Give us five.”
“You picked a great day to waltz in late,” Bernadette Stowe complained, coming to her feet as Yates entered the office.
“I went out to Choptank to check on the water monitors. One of them went off-line during the night, and I wanted to check for tampering,” Yates said defensively, dropping his six-foot frame into a chair.
Stowe swept her flowing black hair back off her shoulders with a flick of her hands, an idiosyncratic gesture that told Yates of her anxiety. “I know, I know. I just don’t like keeping generals cooling their heels.”
“He can stay out there a week as far as I’m concerned. What’s this about? Did we tread on any hobnailed feet? Who is he?”
Stowe clucked. “Didn’t Jeanne tell you? That’s Jack Rutledge — Major General Jacob Rutledge, number one in the Air Force’s Logistics Command.”
Yates lifted his hands. “Means nothing to me. Know anything else about him?”
“As it happens, I had some time to dig a little. Graduated the Academy in `67 and served two years with a C-130 wing in `Nam. Came back and taught at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls for six years. He applied to NASA as a Shuttle pilot candidate in `78 but was turned down, not enough hours in high-performance jets. Wing commander in the Central American campaign.”
A cold look passed over Yates’ face. “That’s enough for me.”
“He’s been at Logistics five years next month. Rep is that he’s smart and tough, not flashy, not overly ambitious, a good administrator.”
“I didn’t hear anything in that that would bring him to our doorstep.”
Stowe shook her head. “Me either. But I bet he’ll tell us if we give him the chance.”
Maj. Gen. Jacob “Jack” Rutledge walked into the conference room with the feline grace and carefully measured movements Yates associated with military automata. There was no wasted motion, no nuance that spelled personality. Here’s your dehuman syndrome, Montagu — the military bureaucrat, the ultimate example.
“I must apologize again for the delay, General,” Stowe said when all were seated.
You don’t have to do any such damn thing, Yates thought. Not to him.
“Your office gave us no notice you were coming, and it’s not uncommon for one or the both of us to be out at a field site,” she went on.
Rutledge acknowledged and dismissed the apology with a bare nod. “I have a project for you,” he said.
Yates whipped forward in his seat and rested his folded hands on the table. “Not interested.”
Stowe placed a restraining hand on Yates’ arm and dug her fingernails in for emphasis. “What Dr. Yates means is that in the past, we’ve found that the military’s needs and our expertise had a very low correlation. We’ll be happy to hear you out.”
You’ll be happy — not me. What the hell are you thinking? Yates demanded with a sidewise glance. When Stowe ignored him, he shook his arm free but said nothing.
“The project is very simple to define but may be rather complex to execute,” Rutledge said. “I want you to devise a way to assist the survivors of a nuclear war. I’ll provide you with the attack model — how many weapons, what yields, what targets, what coefficient of success. You figure out what conditions the survivors will be living under. You figure out what they’ll need most to guarantee their survival and how to get it to them.”
Yates twisted in his chair and dug in his pocket. “If you want to do something to guarantee survival, try this,” he said in a hard-edged voice, and slid a green plastic card across the table. Politely, Rutledge picked up the card and glanced at it. Yates followed his eyes as he read:
Daniel R. Yates, Ph. D.
Atlantic States District Supervisor
People’s Disarmanent Alliance
Rutledge slid the card back. “I’m aware of your leanings. I trust you are realist enough to treat seriously the possibility that disarmament will never take place.”
“And that nuclear war will?” Yates said challengingly.
“Yes,” Rutledge said quietly, meeting Yates’ eyes. “That’s what this project is about.”
“What do you mean, you know my leanings?”
“Just that. I wouldn’t have told you even as much as I have already without knowing a great deal about both of you, both the important and the insignificant.” A hint of what might have been amusement appeared played briefly on Rutledge’s lips. “For instance, though I have never been in either of your offices, I can tell you that Dr. Stowe has all four of her diplomas and most of her awards displayed on the walls, while Dr. Yates’ equally impressive credentials are packed away somewhere — I wouldn’t be surprised if even he didn’t know where they were.”
“Is that sort of trivia supposed to impress us?” Yates asked.
“It’s not trivia,” Rutledge corrected. “As for impressing you, I don’t care what you think of me. In point of fact, I have a fair idea of what Dr. Yates thinks of me. When I said I knew his leanings, I meant all of them.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Rutledge continued. “What matters is that you’re one of the very few organizations capable of pulling off this project under its very tight time constraints.”
“Meaning you need to spend your budget surplus before the end of the fiscal year?” Yates sniped.
Rutledge studied the younger man for a long moment before answering. “When you work for us, you adopt our calendar and our timetable,” he said finally, with a note of irritation in his voice.
“Meaning `yes,'” Yates said challengingly.
“These survivors –” Stowe interjected. “We’ll have to know where they’ll be at the time of attack.”
Rutledge’s gaze flicked from Yates’ unfriendly face to Stowe’s hopeful one. “You misunderstand me, Dr. Stowe. I’m not trying to assure that any particular person or group of people survives.”
“Not even your own family?” Yates asked cuttingly.
Rutledge answered without emotion. “Since we live midway between Bolling and Andrews, it’s unlikely my wife and I will survive a general nuclear war.”
“Then you’re talking about assisting the random survivors?” Stowe asked.
“That is a more interesting challenge.”
“Dammit, Bernie, don’t encourage him.” Yates turned to Rutledge. “General, let me put this to you in words of one syllable. If you’re serious about this, then I don’t want to help you. If you’re not, then I don’t want to waste my time.”
Rutledge raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“Let’s say you are serious,” Yates went on, “that for some unnatural reason you’re really concerned about the fact that this nuclear war you’ve been building for and planning for thirty years would fry and poison a billion or so people and leave any survivors wishing they weren’t. Let’s say we’re unspeakably clever and devise some way to do what you describe. I figure all we’ve done is make your kind a little more confident that nuclear war would be winnable and a little more willing to choose that option.”
He leaned forward in his chair and slapped the table for emphasis. “On the other hand, if you’re not serious, then all we’re doing is wasting tax money and fattening a file somewhere in the Pentagon when we could be working on something that matters.”
“I see,” Rutledge said, and began to rise.
Stowe stood up abruptly. “General, you’ve heard Dr. Yates’ opinion, but you haven’t heard the firm’s decision. If you could excuse us for a few minutes — ”
“Done. But I need your answer today. This whole project has to be finished within six months.” He glanced from Stowe to Yates and back again. “If you can pull it off on time, we won’t have any problems between us in any other area.”
Stowe sat on the edge of Yates’ desk and gestured at the bare wall. “So — do you know where your diplomas are?”
“No,” Yates said gruffly.
“Think it means anything?”
“Hell, I don’t know. That’s not what you whisked me out of there for.”
“No.” She hesitated. “Look, Daniel, I had a couple of hours this morning to think over the idea of working for the Pentagon, and I think we should take this project.”
Yates shook his head vigorously. “I don’t trust him. I don’t really believe he’s here for what he says.”
“What would he want?”
“I don’t know,” Yates said angrily. “To compromise us somehow.”
“We’ve done nothing to cross them.” She looked down, rubbing the back of one hand with her fingertips. “If the money’s real, he’s real.”
“I don’t want their money.”
Stowe sighed expressively. “That’s all well and good as an ideal—if that’s what it is.”
“What do you mean?”
“She has nothing to do with this.”
“I’ll take you at your word. Even so—I know we set out to dedicate ourselves to the nuclear freeze, environmental issues, hazardous waste. But you know, there’s a lot more money on the other side. I don’t think what he’s talking about would compromise us. In a way, it meshes with what we do.”
“Oh, Dan—I know you’ve got no love for the military. But can’t you see? War is the premise, not the point.”
“I know that,” Yates said, throwing up his hands in surrender.
“But there’s still something wrong about his being here. Why come to us? They’ve got their own thinktanks, their own internal study teams. We’re definitely off the beaten track.”
“Maybe he is, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well—I wonder how many generals go out to interview contractors and let contracts.”
“You think he’s freelancing? Wants to keep this quiet?”
Yates pursed his lips. “It’s not like the Air Force to start thinking about consequences. Or to have a conscience,” he agreed with venomous sarcasm.
“But one officer could. Even a major general.”
“I doubt it,” Yates said stiffly. “And taking Pentagon money is still wrong for us.”
“I don’t think so. Not when I have trouble meeting the payroll practically every other month.”
“I’ll bet his prying told him that, too.” There was a long silence in which he avoided her eyes. “We’ve always found a way to pay the bills, or to deal with not paying them. That’s the wrong reason for us to take this.”
She pounced on that. “What’s the right reason?”
Yates blew an exasperated sigh into one cupped hand. “Listen, Dan—I think he wants exactly what he says he wants. And it’s something we should want, too. You know the state of Civil Defense in this country. We like to build the weapons but we don’t like to think about the consequences of using them, at least not in human terms. This is a departure from form, and we ought to encourage it. Otherwise we’re in the position of refusing to allow the leopard to change its spots.”
“I don’t want any part of it.”
“You won’t have, except to sit in on a few meetings for appearances. I’ll handle the gruntwork.”
Yates studied the earnestness in her expression. “You really want this?”
“Yes. Like you wanted the Consumers Power audit. Because I’d feel badly about turning him away and it not being done, or being done by someone for whom the money is the right reason.”
Yates rested his chin on steepled fingers. “All right,” he said finally. “You can have your project.”
The contract arrived the next day by Air Force courier, who first obtained their signatures on a security warrant, then turned over a magshielded box and a check for $250,000.
“This isn’t like them, to move this quickly,” Yates said suspiciously when the courier left. “What happened to competitive bidding, supplier certification — the bureaucratic manna?”
“Hiring a consultant isn’t like buying B-2 bombers,” Stowe rejoined.
The box contained a DOD Standard Data Format diskette and a brief note from Rutledge: Disk password=Damocles. Do it right.
Yates shrugged. “Let’s take a look.”
“Let me get a notepad.”
They sat side by side at a single VDT and watched as Rutledge’s war model unrolled:
ACCESS RESTRICTED TO CLEARANCE LEVEL II AND ABOVE
DO NOT COPY
– SUMMARY OF SCENARIO –
INITIAL ATTACK: U.S.S.R., counterdefense.
Targets: Vandenberg, KSC, Unified Space Command, Space Operations Center, High Frontier Command, High Frontier tiers 1 + 2.
Mode: Ground targets 1 ea. SS-N-6 Sawfly submarine launched ballistic missles, total yield approximately 3 megatons (MT), orbital targets non-nuclear ASMs.
Warning time: <6 minutes
Coefficient of success: 1.0 ground, 1.0 orbital.
“The man has a nasty imagination,” Yates said with a shake of the head. “With the subs that close to the coast, that’s practically a sneak attack.”
“Which means we’ll have to launch on warning,” Stowe said. “They can’t get Presidential authorization in 6 minutes.”
Yates tapped a pencil rhythmically against the desk. “I’d bet we stand pat. Three SLBMs can’t threaten the ICBM force. We won’t know whether the Russians are just taking out the High Frontier defense or setting the stage for a real attack.”
RESPONSE 1: U.S., counterforce.
Targets: space launch centers at Baikonur, Volgograd, Northern Cosmodrome; submarines on station off East (4) and West Coast (2); Salyut 12.
Mode: Ground targets 1 ea Minuteman III ICBM 3 x 170 kiloton MIRV, submarines P-3C Orion/ASW, orbital target F-15 Eagle/ASM.
Time frame: within 45 minutes of confirmation of attack by IR satellite or equivalent intelligence. Coefficient of success: 0.85 land, 0.62 sea.
“Not on warning,” Yates said with a touch of childish pride.
“No,” Stowe said quietly through her folded hands. “They’re allowing just enough time to get the antisubmarine forces in place.”
“Still—the retaliation is less than I would have thought. We’re still under 20 megatons. And there’s no escalation. Each takes out the other’s spaceflight capacity. What’s the nuclear winter threshold?”
“A hundred megatons. I’ll bet it doesn’t stop there,” Stowe said gloomily.
“Don’t take it so damn seriously. It’s just a study model.”
RESPONSE 2: U.S.S.R, counterforce.
Targets: all SAC, ICBM, GLCM squadrons, airburst.
Mode: ~200 SS-N-6 Sawfly SLBM (1 MT), ~200 SS-18 ICBM (20 MT), ~200 SS-19 (66 x 570 KT).
Time frame: launch on confirmation of Minutemen III launch, impact 6-20 minutes. Coefficient of success: 0.8.
“Looks like they were ready to go the wall and we weren’t,” Yates observed.
“It’s too late to get the cruise launchers. They’ll be deployed at the first alert,” Stowe murmered. “And they’ve got no chance for the Tridents. Not that it matters. We might as well leave ours in the silos. They’ve already screwed up the planetary heat balance. No point to poisoning everybody as well.”
RESPONSE 3: U.S., counterpopulation.
Targets: all cities >50,000 population.
Mode: 240 +- 40 Trident C4 (8 x 100 KT), 190 +- 60 Poseidon C3 (10 x 50 KT), 440 +- 100 Cruise Missles (GLCM, ALCM), all groundburst (target list follows).
Time frame: >90 minutes <6 hours. Coefficient of success: 0.95
–TARGET LIST FOLLOWS–
–CASUALTY ESTIMATES AND DISTRIBUTION FOLLOW–
–DAMAGE ESTIMATES AND DISTRIBUTION FOLLOW–
“A revenge attack, that’s all that is. Good one, too—look at that coefficient. Empty the fuckin’ silos, boys, it’s the bottom of the ninth and we’re down a run,” Yates said with cold humor. “Isn’t that just like them?”
“Why the delay, I wonder?”
Yates shrugged. “The 90 minute minimum could be retargeting time. The six hours — maybe that’s how long he figures it’ll take us to work up to a useless gesture. Or be forced into it by our allies and our generals’ definition of manhood.”
“Or how long it’ll take the Cabinet to get out of Washington,” Stowe said, and they laughed hollowly together.
Yates pushed his chair back and stood up. “That’s enough to satisfy my curiosity. I’m not interested in looking at all the details.”
“I think maybe Keith and Barb would be the best ones to take this and draw out the survival parameters,” she offered.
“If you want. Let’s watch the hours, though. We’ve got other commitments to meet.”
“I know. But he wants to see something next week, and he’s already advanced us expenses.”
“You can use a database search for the problem definition report.”
Five copies of the two-inch thick, 500-plus page report NUCLEAR WAR SURVIVAL: Parameters and Options were stacked up by Rutledge’s seat at the conference table. The general settled in the chair, picked up the top copy, and regarded it dubiously.
“We’re prepared to summarize the key points of the study for you, and then of course you’ll need some time to digest it,” Stowe said helpfully.
Rutledge folded back the cover and thumbed past the first few pages. “Just sit there while I look it over. I don’t need someone to tell me what I can read myself,” he said curtly. For the next twenty minutes Rutledge paged through the report, skipping large sections, stopping occasionally to read a passage in its entirety.
While he did so, Yates sat watching him with hands folded in his lap, swiveling back and forth in his padded executive’s chair. You getting the message yet? You reading between the lines? You can’t save them. The only useful thing you can do is not fight the war.
At last Rutledge snapped the binder closed and dropped it back on top of the others. “What the hell is going on here?”
True to form, Yates thought smugly. I knew angry would be the first emotion we’d see from you.
“Pardon me?” Stowe asked, looking up in surprise from her notepad.
“I thought you people were supposed to be good. There’s nothing new here. This is a rehash of the same crap I could have gotten from FEMA or Army Civil Preparedness. Highway tunnels in Pennsylvania. Railway tunnels in the Rockies. Abandoned salt mines. Bomb shelters under the patio, for Chrissake.”
Stowe laid down his pen. “It’s necessary that we get a sense of direction from you as to where you want us to take this –“
“Goddammit, I told you last week what I wanted. And I told you that we were short on time. So you wasted a week on this idiocy.”
“General –” Stowe said tentatively. “I thought you understood that this would be an interim report, so you can steer us in the direction you want to go. These studies proceed cooperatively–“
“I don’t have the time to handhold. You’re supposed to be able to make judgements and decisions. That’s what you’re being paid for.”
Yates took over. “Not without knowing what kind of financial and administrative commitment you’re prepared to make. We want to keep this study in the real world, after all.”
Rutledge looked unconvinced, but the tone of his words moderated. “I told you about that. too. I want more than a paper study. That’s why I picked you people. You follow through. You get your hands dirty.”
“And we’ll follow through for you. But you’ve got to put some parameters on it,” Yates said. “What’s the ceiling? Who’s going to implement this thing?”
“Dammit, why don’t you listen? You’re going to implement it. If something needs to be built or bought or someone needs to be hired, you’ll see to it. So keep that in mind. This has to be doable,” he said, and paused to gnaw at his lower lip. “As for the ceiling, there is none. Not if what you decide on makes sense to me.”
“A million? Two million?” Yates asked carefully.
“Or five hundred million, or a billion — if that’s what it takes.”
“And the only one we have to sell is you?” Yates asked.
“That’s right. And so far I’m not buying. So tell me where you’re going with this now, and when I can expect some real results.”
Stowe looked at Yates for a cue but got none. “I’ve got one hangup about the model,” she said slowly. “I thought High Frontier was supposed to protect us from an ICBM attack. Why can’t it protect itself? You’ve got the coefficient of success at 1.00 for the first attack.”
“High Frontier has to be operational to have any impact,” Rutledge said.
“You mean you’re modeling on the present –” Stowe stopped in mid-sentence and stared. “You’re serious about this. Not five or ten years down the road. This model is for today.”
“And the time constraint — you’re talking about between now and next March, when High Frontier is finished.” Stowe’s face was pale.
Rutledge shook his head. “Not exactly. The announced operational date is next March, true. The actual operational date is this November, when the Command and Control center is ready. If the Russians are going to do anything about not letting us complete it, they’re going to do it in the next six months.”
“How likely do you think that is?”
“If I thought it unlikely, I wouldn’t be here. Let’s just say if I were the editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, I’d move the hands up to about thirty seconds to midnight.” Rutledge stood up and shoved the stack of reports across the table toward Yates. The one Rutledge had been reading toppled into Yates’ lap. “You see, I don’t want it soon because I’m impatient. I want it soon because we’re running out of time.”
When the door closed behind Rutledge, Yates chuckled under his breath, then gathered himself together and rose to leave the room.
“Do you have to go?” Stowe asked, catching him by the arm. “I’d like to have you for a few minutes to bounce around some ideas.”
Yates cocked his head questioningly at her pensive expression. “He hasn’t infected you with his paranoia, has he?”
“I thought the six-month deadline was because he wanted to spend the money before the end of the fiscal year,” she said, walking around the table and gathering up the reports. “I didn’t think it was anything like this.”
“Anything like what? That scenario is ludicrous. The Russians will have first strike capability with or without the High Frontier. It’s only going to be able to knock down fifty percent of the missiles at best. They don’t have to start a war over it.”
There was a series of hollow thuds as she unceremoniously dropped the binders into the waste container by the door. “How do they know it’s only going to be fifty percent effective? Because critics in Congress said so? Because a few pretty-boy science popularizers said so? Because the build-down alliance said so? If I were the Russians, I wouldn’t take that at face value.”
“They’re not dummies. They’ve got their own technical experts, and the basic technologies of the system are no secret. They can add up the numbers just like we can.”
“Then why does Rutledge obviously think otherwise?”
Yates frowned. “Hell, because that’s the way people like him are trained to think. What, you think he knows something?”
“There’s only ten major commands, and they trust him enough to give him one of them. He travels in the right circles to know.”
“And what he knows makes him think we need some survivor’s insurance?” Yates’ tone was skeptical.
“Maybe. Look, that’s not what I wanted to talk about, anyway,” Stowe said with a wave of her hand. “This thing breaks up nicely into two problems: how and what. How do we get a CARE package to the survivors, and what do we put in it. Since the what is entirely dependent on the how, I think I’d better go ahead and start working on that aspect.”
Yates shrugged. “Your decision. For the taxpayers’ sake alone, we’ll have to give him some value for his money. I just don’t want to see it interfere with the Lilly study.”
“I’ll meet my other deadlines,” Stowe promised. “But can I ask you to do some thinking about what should go in the caches? Not that I’m trying to draw you into this, but I would like to get your input.”
“Sure,” Yates said offhandly as he headed for the door. “But not today, huh? I’ve got work to do.”
The halls of the LSF suite were darkened and quiet by the time hunger drove Yates to clear off his desk and go home. He locked his desk and disk file, then, keys jangling in his hand, headed down the main corridor to the entrance. En route, he saw a line of light at the bottom of the door to Stowe’s office, and pushed it open. The associate director was seated sideways on the couch, shoes off and legs up, a notepad on her lap and an open can of Pepsi on the floor beside her.
“Ready to pack it in? I could stand a beer.”
Stowe looked up. “What time is it?”
Peeling back a cuff, Yates looked at his watch. “Almost seven.”
“Think I’ll stay on a bit,” Stowe said, stifling a yawn.
Yates glanced at the top sheet in the portfolio open in front of her. He read the her neat block-printed column headings upside down:
A long list of notes in Stowe’s symmetric handwriting filled the rest of the sheet.
Shrugging, Yates backed out of the room. “Suit yourself.”
When he reached the parking lot, he looked back up at the second floor. The window of Stowe’s office was the only one in the entire west face of the building bright with light. “Bernadette, my sweet, you still haven’t learned not to always volunteer for the front lines,” he said softly. “You’ve got to pick your fights, and that one’s not ours.”
Then, shaking his head as though faced with the incomprehensible, Yates climbed into his car and drove away.
Two mornings later, Yates arrived before eight a.m. to find a blue Air Force sedan was again parked in the walkway spot. On seeing it, Yates hurried inside and upstairs. He found Stowe and Rutledge just settling into chairs in the conference room.
“Daniel,” Stowe said with a nod. “Glad you could make it.”
“I thought you didn’t need to see us until Friday,” Yates said to Rutledge, taking a nearby seat.
“I asked the General to come in,” Stowe said quietly. “I may have a recommendation for packaging a survival cache.”
“May have?” Rutledge asked, a warning tone in his voice. “I didn’t come here for more doubletalk and indecision.”
Stowe tossed her head. “You won’t get any. I think I have an excellent solution to the problem you posed. But there’re certain requirements I’m not sure you’d be able to meet. I wanted to find out from you immediately, so that I didn’t spend any more time on it if it wasn’t.”
Rutledge nodded to himself and waved a hand. “Go ahead.”
“Whatever medium we use, the cache has to be both able to survive the war itself and able to be found easily afterwards. The problem is that those two factors cut against each other. There’s a lot of places you could put something and know it was going to get thorugh all right: buried in the middle of Indiana cornfields, hidden in salt mines. But it’d be just the wildest luck if they were ever found.”
“Hell, you just need some way to tell everyone where they are. You could even put some sort of transmitter on them,” Yates suggested.
“Yes — but then you’d have to assume that the survivors have working radios, and we’re better off making as few optimistic assumptions as necessary. And if you think it through, I don’t think you’ll want to publicize the existance or location of the caches until they’re needed.”
Fine. See if I open my mouth again.”So what, then?” Rutledge asked.
“I’m thinking along the lines of putting the caches in water. Some sort of neutral-buoyancy canister which you anchor below the surface like a mine. You could put them all along the continental shelf and in the major lakes and rivers. As soon as the first one’s found word’d spread pretty fast.”
Stowe’s rebuff had made Yates contentious. “Aren’t you writing off the Great Plains?”
“To some degree. Most of the population lives on the coasts or near a major river. With municipal water systems destroyed, the survivors will come to natural water supplies eventually.”
“Yes,” Rutledge said, interested.
“The problem is that the places you’d want to put the caches are also heavily used for recreation — swimming, fishing, boating. They’d raise a lot of questions you might not want to answer, not to mention the possibility of vandalism.”
Rutledge wagged a finger in the air. “I still like it. You could avoid some complications if you just deployed them at the last possible moment.”
“But that leads to all sorts of logistic problems in storage, production, the manpower and organization needed to deploy them,” she said.
Rutledge tapped his service insignia. “You forget who you’re working for. How big would these be?”
“They could be any size, but I’d recommend restricting them to a size one person could recover. Say a metre in diameter, fifty or sixty kilograms.”
“Then we could just drop them out of the back of C-119s. Make them float. Don’t anchor them at all,” Rutledge said, sitting back. “I presume you’d fill them with penicillin, high protein foods–”
“Medical supplies would probably be a low priority. If the nuclear winter hypothesis is correct, the greatest needs would be food for the present and seed stocks for the future. I do have one serious concern, though. I’d estimate a 40 percent wastage rate if the caches are floating free–”
“But they’d be simpler to make and more reliable,” Yates interjected. “So we’ll just deploy more of them.”
She glared at him for interrupting. “I was going to say that if they’re all the same, that’s acceptable. But if you’ve got something of special importance, that method won’t do at all.”
Rutledge sat forward. “What do you mean, something of special importance?”
“Well — why shouldn’t some art objects survive? What’s the most valuable thing the nation owns? The original Constitution? Maybe we want to send a medical database instead of a few syringes of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Dan’s looking at stocking the caches. He might have other ideas.”
Rutledge looked to Yates. “Well, Doctor? What about it? What would you send?”
Yeah, she asked me, but I haven’t given it a thought since. Thanks for putting me on the spot, Bernie. “How are you going to package the `special’ caches, Dr. Stowe?” he asked, ducking Rutledge’s question.
“In satellites,” she said. “Big dumb satellites launched into unstable polar ellipical orbits — orbiting the earth the way a comet might orbit the sun. Very bright reflective coating, so that every time one reaches perigee it draws attention in the night sky. A nice low perigee so the atmosphere eventually drags it down. An ablative coating contaminated with nodules of copper and strontium chloride so the fireball is green and scarlet, and it’s not mistaken for a meteor when it comes down. And just enough of a guidance system to see that it comes down on land.”
I guess that overtime paid off, Yates thought with honest appreciation. Very nice.
Rutledge waggled a finger at Stowe. “This is why you called me. You need to know if I could arrange for such a thing to be launched.”
She nodded. “We’d be extremely limited in our payload if we had to depend on Space Systems International or even Arianespace, so much so that I’m not sure it’d be worth doing. But one Shuttle can get us 40,000 pounds into polar orbit from Vandenberg. I think I could get two specials in for that.”
“You’d program them to come back here, I presume. If we can’t help everyone then we need to make certain we help our survivors, not theirs.”
Stowe nodded agreeably. “We should be able to target the North American continent as easily as any. The east coast, I would think, though we’ll want to look at targeting and the distribution of our floaters.”
Steepling his fingers, Rutledge stared into the tabletop for a long moment. “Time,” he said finally. “Do you have enough time to do both, the floaters and the specials? We’re looking at thirty, maybe forty-five days.”
Rutledge’s comment furrowed Yates’ brow. What happened to the six months? Yates wondered, suddenly attentive.
“The floaters will be ready. I’ve felt out two suppliers, and if I get them plans tomorrow they’ll start turning them out by the first of next week. The floaters are really pretty simple — a counterweight, a marker flag, a compartmented interior and a pictograph that shows you how to open it. If you’re ready to authorize an overtime contract –”
“Done.” Rutledge squinted at Yates. “Where are you, Doctor? You haven’t said much. In fact, I get the impression you aren’t really involved in this project.”
Yates rocked back and folded his hands in his lap. “I suppose that’s because I have trouble taking it seriously,” he answered honestly.
“Any particular reason?”
“Lots of them. For one, I can’t buy into your scenario. Everyone knows the High Frontier won’t work. I don’t believe for a minute the USSR would attack us because of it. That unravels the whole model, including what you want us to do.”
Rutledge traced small circles on the tabletop with a fingertip. “I had a teammate like you once, Yates. All week he’d have terrible practices—dropping balls, missing his routes, cutting up. Game time came, and he played like a champion. He just couldn’t take practice seriously. But when the pressure was on –” His gaze flicked up from the tabletop to Yates’ eyes. “You’ve been jerkin’ me around. We’re running out of time, and you’re jerkin’ me around. Dr. Stowe there knows this is the game, not the practice, but you’re looking the other way.”
“Do you want me to believe that scenario’s anything more than a paper exercise?”
“Yes.” Flint-grey eyes burned into sky-blue ones. “You don’t know anything about DOD security, or you’d realize that I have access to Class II materials but I can’t show them around or grant anyone else Class II clearance. And I told you last time that the USSR is afraid of High Frontier. Maybe I’d better tell you why.”
“Because they’re paranoid, just like you,” Yates said with a smirk and a shrug.
“No. Because some of the High Frontier satellites are carrying orbit-to-ground nuclear weapons. And the Russians know it.”
The smirk slowly faded as Yates’ eyes widened in shock. Then his lips curled in an expression of virulent hatred and he came up out of his seat. “You fuckin’ idiots!” he screeched, shaking both clenched fists in front of him. “You goddamn snakebrain sons of bitches put nukes in orbit? Sweet Jesus–” His voice trailing off to a whimper, he squeezed his eyes closed as if in pain and melted back down into his chair.
Though equally shaken, Stowe allowed herself no such display. She folded trembling hands together and brought them slowly to her mouth, and then went her body went rigid.
“I won’t defend the decision,” Rutledge continued in a soft voice. “It wasn’t mine to make, and I think it was the wrong one. But it was made at the very top.”
“The Chiefs of Staff?” Stowe asked in an unsteady voice.
“No. At the very top.”
“Why?” It was question, plaint and protest all in one.
“They believed they had to do something to counter the USSR’s advantage—2-1 in launchers and 3-1 advantage in throwweight, 5-1 in most conventional weapons. That plays on you after a while. And Congress kept knocking down almost every new system and giving away all the secrets on the few they approved. So we hid the funds for Damocles in the High Frontier project.”
“Damocles,” she echoed.
“You shouldn’t have told us,” Yates croaked at last. “I can’t keep quiet about this. I’ve got to get it out.”
“No, you don’t,” Rutledge said, standing. “Unless you want to be the cause of the war. Negotiations are underway at the highest level. You and I have to pray they succeed. But this can’t be fought out in public. Neither side would be able to be flexible. Once everyone knows the warheads are there, the President would lose the option of ordering them removed. He can’t back down to the Russians publicly. So hold your tongue, Dr. Yates—and get to work.”
When the door clicked shut, Yates and Stowe sat beside each other for an interminable minute, isolated by their inexpressible thoughts, frozen by an overwhelming helplessness. Then without warning Yates leaped to his feet, toppling his chair backwards onto the floor, and fled the room without a word.
“Daniel!” she called out after him.
But it was not enough to slow his flight, though she followed and repeated the call down the stairwell. He took the steps three and four at a time as though pursued by a demon, and when he drove away tires and engine cried out protests that might have been his own.
Yates sat on his heels before the white marble cross and fingered the carved grooves of the lettering on the crosspiece.
Around him, seventy thousand similar crosses stood in coldly precise lines and rows on the gently rolling land, acre after acre of mouldering bodies lying as regimented in death as in life.
Deanna R. Yates
Specialist 7th Airborne
May 13, 1990
Estanzueles, El Salvador
“Do you know how much I hate it here, Dee?” he said softly, withdrawing his hand. “Do you know what this place says to me? All the puffy-cheeked mothers and dutiful sons, the wet-eyed wives and fathers, all the lies they tell themselves and each other. Honorable death. Noble cause. I wouldn’t have let them leave you here, little sister. If it had been up to me–”
I always talk to you as though you were still alive. Why is That, Dee? There’s nothing here but the cloak your spirit wore. Why don’t I go to the last place I saw you alive and try to catch a memory there? But I come here, where all I can see is them folding the flag and handing it to Mom.
“If there was to be any point in what happened to you, it would be if they learned enough from the small wars not to fight the big one.” His voice broke and he bit at his lower lip, the corners of his eyes wet with incipient tears. “But it’s beginning to look like there wasn’t any point to any of it. Not to your dying, or my living, or any of what we’ve done.”
With a forlorn wail, Yates pitched forward and pounded his clenched fists against the unyielding ground. He fought the tears but they came nonetheless, his tortured sobs marking the struggle and leaving him weak and aching. It was a long several minutes before he sat upright again.
“Oh, God. Don’t they know?” he demanded of the dead in a voice thick with anguish and anger, spreading his arms wide to include the skeletal crosses from horizon to horizon. “Don’t they realize what they stand to lose? Don’t they understand how improbable we are?”
He held his own hands out before him and studied them as though seeing them for the first time, moving his thumb and each finger in turn. “A cosmic alchemer’s triumph, gifted with eyes that see beauty and minds that create it,” he said reverently. “Oh, Dee. It’s more than the body dying. You could tell them how little that means. But they’re going to kill the spirit of what we were — Of what we wanted to be. God, we’re never going to go to the stars–”
With a keening cry, he flung his arms around the cross, clutching it as he would have hugged Deanna, flattening his tear-slick cheek against its smooth cold surface. Great sobs tore through him, escaping as explosive gasps and whimpers.
A hand on his shoulder that was not his own, a soothing voice repeating his name, and at length Yates lifted his head. “Bernie,” he said, with an unhappy laugh.
She crounched beside him. “Here,” she said, opening her arms, and he gave up the grave marker’s embrace for hers. They cried quietly together for a while, neither saying anything. Presently Yates pulled away.
“You followed me?”
“I knew where you’d go.” She held his hands in hers. “It hasn’t happened yet. It might not.”
He flashed a maudlin smile. “You were always the realist in this partnership. Don’t try to change your spots now.”
Brushing his cheek with the back of one hand, she answered, “Even realists are allowed hope, Dan.”
He cast his eyes downward, and in the moment of silence that followed both heard the sound of birds in a nearby tree and traffic on a distant road. “You know, I figured out why you hang your diplomas and I don’t,” he said, grinning crookedly. “Maybe it’s some of the extra baggage that goes with being a damned good-looking woman — it was always important to you that people knew you came in the front door, that you were there on merit.”
“I’m just a gold-star girl at heart,” she said with a tender smile. “And you hide yours away because you don’t want to belong to any club that’d have you as a member. Come on, Dan. Let’s go. This isn’t helping you any.”
He used the cross as a crutch to pull himself to his feet, then helped her up as well. “Or anyone else, h’m? Can you meet me back at the office?”
“Thanks. I’m going to need some help getting caught up before I’ll be any use to you.”
For two months they heard nothing from Gen. Rutledge except acknowlegements through his staff: 100 water caches received at Andrews for the Chesapeake, 300 received at Grissom for the lower Great Lakes.
Stowe located two Hughes 570 modular satellite chassis about to be shipped to AT&T and flew to California to buy them away from their owner. She stayed to supervise their conversion into her special caches.
Yates remained in Maryland, but called her daily, both to keep track of each her progress and for reinforcement they both needed. Of his own progress, there was little to report. Deciding what was to go in the specials was a burden rather than a privilege, and the enormity of the responsibility led him to procrastinate. It was values and ethics class all over again: what do you take to a desert island, what do you rescue from a burning house? And do your choices describe a person you’re comfortable being —
Choosing not for himself but for Bernie and his parents and the women he was dating and even Gen. Rutledge (he would not allow himself to think in terms of choosing for Earth’s five billion strangers), Yates assembled an imposing list of possibilities and proceeded to raise ambivalence to a high art. He comforted himself with the thought that Stowe’s hardware was the pacing item; unless and until the satellites were ready, the question of their cargo remained academic.
Steady progress on the satellites did not make him any more decisive; the pacing item became the availability of a launcher. His calls on that subject found Rutledge “not available” and the general failed to return them. After a week of waiting, Yates pressed the issue in person.
Deep worry lines and dark circles under the eyes made Rutledge look older than when Yates had last seen him. “What are you here for?”
Taking a chair without being invited, Yates answered, “I could do with some good news.”
Rutledge shook his head solemnly. “There is none.”
“You said they were negotiating –“
“Talks are stalled. No, they’re worse than stalled, they’re frosty. And construction goes on.”
“Why? The least we could do is hold the status quo.”
“The official wisdom is that the Russians won’t act,” Rutledge said wearily. “The truth is that now that we’ve finally got the advantage, we’re not willing to give it up.”
“What are you telling me?”
He toyed with a pencil before answering. “That we’ve got two weeks, maybe three, before it all goes up. It’s out of control. And there isn’t anything that you or I or even the people’ll that’ll give the orders can do about it. The Joint Chiefs would rather use those warheads than give them up, and they’ve got the President convinced the Soviets are bluffing. Everyone will make what they think is the only right decision and it’ll all add up to one very wrong decision. And if there’s justice in this Universe they’ll have at least a few hours to regret their part in it.”
“We can get the specials launched. We can do that much.”
“There’s not enough time.”
“Damn you, don’t you quit on us! Do you think we took your six months as a promise? Bernie’s been working 20-hour days—“
“And she’s done a good job. We’ve got almost fifteen hundred water caches ready to deploy.”
“The water caches are band-aids. The specials are what really matter. What have you done about manifesting them on a DOD Shuttle?”
Yates came to his feet and slammed his hands palm-down on the desk in front of Rutledge. “Why the hell not? You sang us a song about following through and now you don’t.”
Rutledge cocked his head and looked up at Yates. The intensity of the younger man’s expression seemed to pain him. “You’re still angry. I envy you that. I’ve gone past angry to something much less fulfilling,” he said with uncharacteristic gentleness. “I did nothing because I had no reason to believe you could be ready. Now that I know differently, I’ll make some calls. Go ask Mary to get us both some coffee, yes?”
Yates returned in five minutes to find Rutledge standing behind his newly cleared desk, pulling on an overcoat. “You’ve got Explorer for a flight on the 16th. That’s eight days. Can you be ready?”
“We’ll be ready. Tell them to mount two 570-series cradles–”
Rutledge pressed a card torn from a Rolodex into Yates’ hand as he moved past toward the door. “Tell them yourself. I’ve told them to expect you. I have other responsibilities to deal with.
This is in your hands now.”
“I’ve been wondering if I was ever going to see you,” Stowe said, clutching Yates’ arm as she joined him in the otherwise empty observation stands three miles from the Vandenberg Shuttle pad.
“Did you get the payloads integrated?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t. But I had no chance to get inside them. What are we sending up?”
“Not enough,” Yates said in a faraway voice. “Not enough.” He glanced at the electronic clock. “Coming out of the hold.”
“Oh, hell. You can tell me later. I don’t want to think about Anything now except that we’re going to make it. We’re going to get them off,” she said with a happy sigh. “I’ve worked harder on those birds than I’ve ever worked on anything ever in my life. And I’ve never wanted more for something I did to be totally unnecessary. Did you talk to Rutledge before you left? Where do we stand?”
“Rutledge dropped out of sight — went somewhere with his family.”
“That’s not good.”
“I don’t know. He seemed — I don’t know.” Yates squinted in the direction of the pad. “There goes the oxygen vent arm.”
“Just a couple of minutes, then. I remember watching the first launches on TV as a kid,” she said wistfully. “I knew the countdown sequence by heart.”
They clung to each other in a fierce but asexual embrace as the last seconds ticked away.
“I’ve had a standing offer from Philip Cortieri for ten years to watch the grey whale migration off the Baja, but never took him up on it,” Yates said as the clock reached 0:10. “When we’re done here, how about going down there with me?”
She smiled wistfully. “Sure.”
“If you can handle scuba gear, we can watch them from underwater. I’d like to get close.”
“Maybe even hitch a ride?”
Steam like white cotton billowed from the south side of the pad as a flicker of yellow marked the ignition of the main engines. At 0:00, the Shuttle rose off the pad and hurtled southward atop a dense pillar-like cloud lit from within by a furious white fire.
“Fantastic. Go go go go go,” Yates murmered, and then the tsunami of sound washed over them and drowned out his urgings.
The echoes of the Shuttle’s departure were still rumbling when Stowe tugged at Yates’ sleeve and pointed at an arcing contrail high in the western sky. “What’s that?” she asked.
Yates shielded his eyes with a hand and studied the phenomenon with a sinking heart.
“There’s another one,” she said suddenly. “Daniel –“
They watched the incoming missles impassively, conscious of the futility of flight or protest. A halo of light more intense than a million Shuttle engines blinded them, and the radiation that accompanied it burned them where they stood, consciousness fleeing an endless instant after agony enveloped them.
But it was the death they would have chosen. For before long, the silo-studded plains were burning, and the cities which were home to pilots and sailors and soldiers were burning, and the Furnace-like columns of air the wildfires created thrust their burdens of smoke and ash into the highest regions of the atmosphere, where they merged into a spreading cloud that turned day to twilight and then to night.
And then winter came to the world.
Though the body of Garivan was beginning to smell strongly — having been dead a day even before being packed, cradled on Tola’s shoulders like a felled deer, crosscountry to the Lonega family’s homehill — the ceremony was held until twilight, the customary time.
In the intervening hours, Tola went to the stream to bathe, and Ledell, the keeper of stories, went with him to hear and commit to memory the deathtale. But there would be little glory in the retelling, for there was no glory in death by dark — the fickle scythe with a hundred different faces. This time, it had hardly marked Garivan’s skin, instead making black blood run endlessly from his bowels until he was a hollow shell of agony.
Garivan’s two surviving brothers meanwhile made a bier. As befit a provider and the first son of a Twelvenames, its frame was stout needlewood, laced and then crosscrossed with climbing vine.
The Twelvenames herself retired to her cupa alone, descending the notched log ladder into the domelike circular chamber without a word. Kenman, her husband prime, sat dutifully on the spider weed surrounding the cupa’s smoke hole in case she should call for him. He did not expect a call to come. Belinda Twelvenames had outlived five of her children, and always she had found what she
needed inside herself.
When twilight came on, the clacking of hollow rotwood sticks called the Lonega to the ring of sitting rocks which comprised the sky circle. The bier bearing the body of Garivan was hoisted high on the shoulders of his brothers and carried into the center of the circle, where four fist-thick waist-high stumps, each notched at the top, jutted up from the bare earth. Atop them the bearers placed their burden, then stepped away to where the rest of the
family stood waiting.
There was silence in the circle as Belinda Twelvenames came forward and gripped her son’s cold, stiff hand. In a voice younger than the forty years she wore with quiet diginity, she began to sing Garivan’s song.
Garivan’s song had no words, only the clear, unburdened notes that were the person who was gone — the soothing melodies that as an infant he had found pleasing, the happy sounds to which he had first given voice, the brief themes which evoked his gentle personality, and the never before heard cadence of his painful darkdeath.
When the song was ended, Belinda raised her head to the family. “A Lonega lies dead. I call on his family to remember him.”
Since Belinda herself was beyond the age of breeding, she passed the right of first claim to Alice-Tonda-Ken, gravid with her third child. Alice-Tonda-Ken sang the first phrases of the family’s song of remembrance, then placed one hand on Garivan’s lifeless torso and the other on her swollen belly.
“What was good in you lives on. I take your love of the chase for my child,” she said, and there was a murmur of approval.
Behind her came Kenman, who with his gravelly voice took up the remembrance song where Alice-Tonda-Ken had stopped.
“What was good in you lives on,” he said clearly and loudly. “I take the laughter that lightened long travels in your company.”
Nine others came forward in turn to make their claims for that which was well-thought of in Garivan. The claims were made solemnly, in full recognition of the responsibility of the claimant to make that which was Garivan part of themselves. It was one of the rituals that set the Lonega apart from the other Georgia families — the living remembrance, the preservation of the essence of the dead.
“He is well-honored and will be well-remembered, Belinda,” Kenman said at her side.
“Will you find his body a good resting place, husband, where it will be devoured undisturbed by men?” she asked, touching his cheek.
He lowered his eyes. “Gratefully.”
She raised her arms palm up. “I give his substance to the land that sustains us,” she cried out, her voice touched by the first tremulous hint of emotion. “He is and will be with us, always. Open the larder, uncork warm spirits. Tonight we celebrate life.”
Everyone in the Georgias knew that Belinda Twelvenames had the magic. She was the only Twelvenames within a month’s walking, in large part because of the gift of twinning. Eight times she had been roundbellied, bringing forth eleven healthy children and but a single cull.
The cull had been her first, and the beginning of her legend. In defiance of Eloai, the senior mother at the time, she had given the child a name. Though the frail, armless creature died within a month, Belinda placed the dried, blackened stub of its umbilicus in a pouch on her belt as though she had bred a healthy child, ignoring Eloai’s warnings that to do so was to invite barrenness.
Now there were a dozen proofs in the pouch, and Belinda Twelvenames was senior mother of the Lonega. Despite her age, she still kept four husbands, and could have had many more. Suitors young and old from other families still came calling on the Twelvenames offering gifts and making chivalrous entreaties.
The gifts took as many forms as the suitors, from a fresh hindquarter to a well-made blouse — though it had become known over the years that Belinda favored the works of the small muscles of a maker’s head and hands over those of the large muscles of a provider.
When a gift pleased her she would lay with he who had brought it, as was her perogative, But she asked none to stay. They went away grateful nonetheless, for all knew that the Twelvenames’ magic was contagious, and they would reap the benefit when they returned to their own homehill.
In the same vein, Belinda’s husbands were nearly as much in demand as Belinda herself, being asked to bring nothing more to the mating than a tiny bit of her gift. Custom gave Belinda a veto, and when the breeder was a Lonega the answer was always no. But from time to time, Belinda would unmarry Kern or Av or Denis, freeing them to go away a day or five and visit another family. Kenman alone she kept for herself.
But if the breeding magic was contagious, it was sympathetic as well. Alice-Tonda-Ken was with child again, and Kirsta, Belinda’s first daughter, was suckling the child which had made her a Sixnames. Of the family’s six breeders, only Tania had yet to bear a normal child, and she was still ten summers from
In every wise, the Lonega were rich in children, and the credit accrued to Belinda Twelvenames. But for Belinda itself, it was a mixed blessing. The deathfeast only evoked memories of other children who had died too soon, and before long she withdrew from the festivities and went walking, away from the sky circle and the family’s three cupas, down the west slope of the home-hill toward the stream. Denis, assuming the duties of first husband in
Kenman’s absence, followed at a respectful distance.
Though there was but a sliver of moon to light her steps, she moved sure-footedly across the shallow stream atop the slender log Av had placed there for her. On the other side of the stream was the meadow, her favorite watching place, and there she slowed and gestured to Denis.
“Let me make a pillow of you,” she said, and he came to her. They lay down in a bare patch together, and she rested her head on his belly as she looked up at the sky.
“The sun sets late, the Twins set early. Hot days are coming.”
“Andor counts six phases to north-sun day,” Denis said in an agreeing tone.
“How foolish the sun is, to give the summer all life and warmth and then punish us with the short-day cold,” she said with real anger. “How much harder to enjoy the gift of light when we know it will be taken from us.”
Denis understood the source of the anger. “Just as the breeder of many will see many deaths.”
“I would take a lesser gift that I could keep forever.”
Saying nothing, Denis stroked Belinda’s smooth, dry forehead. She reached up and caught his hand, then brought it to her mouth to kiss the palm.
“Does our family eat well?”
“Are our family’s songs strong ones?”
“Are our breeders fertile and fecund?”
“And is there nothing more to life than that?”
“Those are the highest blessings.”
“It seems to me that to have all the highest blessings should bring more happiness.”
“Are you unhappy, Belinda?”
“I am triply blessed,” she said wearily. “Am I allowed to be unhappy?”
“A Twelvenames is allowed anything.”
“So it is said,” she agreed.
It was then that the nightfire appeared. Both saw it nearly at once, brighter by far than the brightest star in the sky, brighter than the five planets together, as bright even as the crescent of moon: a brilliant flame arcing up from the hilly North horizon, piercing the bowl of the Great Cup, searing the back of the Serpent, and then vanishing beyond the plains to the South. The entire apparition took but a hundred breaths.
Belinda had seen the nightfire two dozen times throughout her life, but each time she felt the wonder. “Why does it come?” she asked in hoarse whisper when it was gone.
She felt his shrug. “Because it has always come.”
“That answer means nothing.” She sighed. “Perhaps it comes to light the fires in young hearts, and I am too old to feel the warmth and know.”
“Or perhaps it comes to honor the dead son of a Twelvenames,” he said gently.
“Do you think me so special that the sky now bows to me?” she demanded with some indignation.
“You have always been deserving.”
“You’re a foolish man, Denis, foolish and vain.” She sat up and began to loose her blouse. “Love me,” she said, and straddled his groin. Riding his hardness, surrounded by the living Earth and before the watchful eyes of heaven, she replaced her pain with pleasure for a time.
When Belinda awoke the next morning in the cupa, Kenman was sleeping soundly beside her, smelling strongly of sweat and the trail. Sitting up, she saw by the empty bedplaces around the cupa’s perimeter that Kern and Denis had already risen, as had Alix-Ellet and her breed-family. Only Alice-Tonda-Kip still slept,
a phenomenon becoming more common as she moved into the seventh month.
As Belinda stretched and yawned, Kenman stirred.
“Sleep, my husband,” she whispered, bending over to kiss his forehead. Then, gathering a cloak around her against the lingering night chill, she climbed the log ladder to another morning.
A breakfast fire was crackling in the sky circle, tended by Tola and two of the younger providers. Several of the youngest children were playing on the treeless east slope of the homehill, their high voices carrying to Belinda’s ears. Mejein, Kirsta’s oldest girl, walked shyly up to Belinda and offered to brush her hair, and Belinda settled crosslegged on the grass to allow it.
Shortly after, Kirsta herself came to them, touched cheeks with her mother and daughter, then gently chased the latter away.
“I would help –” she said uncertainly.
“I am not in need,” was the gentle reply.
“Does the wound heal so quickly?”
“You ask because you have not yet known the loss,” Belinda observed, touching hands. “But because you have not known it, I cannot answer you.”
“My eldest is ready to take a craft. Another summer, and Meijin will be ready to choose a husband –”
“From such events you will learn the art of letting go.”
“I do not want to learn it. I sometimes think, what if tomorrow Mejein did not awake –”
“It would not be beyond your coping. But you will do yourself a kindness to forgo such thoughts and live it only once, when it happens. Now — since you sent Mejein away, you may help by finishing her task.”
With a small grateful smile, Kirsta took up the brush.
Across the homehill, Denis sat with his back against a tree, pushing green-stained threads through the back of a roughweave shirt as he began a provider’s string painting. The sight reminded Belinda that she would have to choose a replacement for Garivan, either by accepting a petition from another family or by promoting one of the craftless children. The latter was more likely, and Kip
the probable choice, but she would ask Tola for his thoughts before acting.
By the time breakfast was ready, Kenman had roused himself and joined Belinda.
“What you asked is done,” he said as he settled beside her.
She squeezed his hand in acknowledgement, but gave no sign of wanting to hear more. “Did you see the nightfire?” she asked.
“Is it just that I grow old, or does the nightfire come more often these last years?”
“I cannot say. I am no watcher.”
“I am no watcher either, yet my memory tells me that when I was a child with the Unicoi the nightfire came but once or twice a year. When I was eleven it came three times, once in autumn and twice in spring. Our senior mother worried greatly over it. The next year it did not appear at all.”
“The nightfire owns its own spirit, and moves as it chooses.”
“So it is said,” she said resignedly.
Five days later, the family had just scattered from the high-sun meal when a shout went up from the north slope of the camp, drawing the attention of all within earshot.
“It’s Av!” someone called over the hooting and happy laughter.
Belinda stood and took a few tentative steps toward the commotion. It was indeed Av, her youngest husband and one of the family’s runners, in a group bearhug with Modris and several others. When he saw Belinda he disengaged himself and pushed through to where she stood. His right hand went up with her left; their fingers entwined, and he stepped close to lightly press his
cheek against hers.
“Welcome home, husband,” she said softly into his ear.
“They tell me Garivan died the darkdeath,” he said. “I am sorry I was not here.”
“He is well-remembered,” she said reassuringly, and stepped back, breaking the formal embrace. They went to the sky-circle hand-in-hand, and Bria, Belinda’s youngest, brought Av a bowl of the hot fruit mash. Those who were not needed elsewhere settled on the sitting stones nearby to hear Av’s news.
“No stories till all can hear, tonight,” Belinda said warningly at the group of eager young ones beginning to gather.
“I have something better than stories,” Av said, unhooking a small pouch from his belt. It was his seedbag, in which he carried and scattered along his route the germ of their homehill’s plants — a tradition Av had brought with him from the Chats. Usually the seedbag was empty at the end of a run. But from his, Av drew a dozen small, rounded streamstones. Hands cupped, he held them out
to Belinda and then, when she had chosen one, to the children.
“Water skippers,” one exclaimed.
“Look again,” Av instructed, and they obediently scrutinized the stones.
“Mine has a needletree!”
“I have a deer!”
“Look, a killkenny!”
Belinda peered at hers and found a picture scratched in its surface. The scratches were fine and deep, the execution — in her case, of a clawed beetle — skillful.
“This is fine making,” she said in a neutral tone.
“I got them from the Cantona, from the hand of a maker named Brian. He takes stones from the Allatoona and makes fertility amulets for his homefamily. A good stone is highly prized there — a breeder will give her stone to her favorite when she reaches blood-end, and men will fight to own a stone that has shown the
magic. We have no need of such, nor would he have allowed me them if we had. But he consented to turn his skills to other subjects.”
“Did you see the making? How is it done?” Belinda asked.
Av squirmed uncomfortably. “A maker has his secrets –”
Belinda thrust the stone before Av’s face. “These are made with cutters of shinestone.”
“Shinestone comes from the time of dark and carries the darkdeath. How can you bring these here as gifts and toys for children?” she demanded.
“These are streamstone, not shinestone,” Av protested. “They carry nothing but their maker’s mark.”
She looked to Kenman, then to Denis. Both wore looks that said you can forbid it, but you lose more than you gain. The look on Av’s face said something else, something cautionary, something conspiratory.
“Yes. This is fine making,” she repeated, slipping the stone into a pocket. “You were thoughtful to bring them for us. Thank Av, children. Then leave us.”
The adults retired to the fire circle of Belinda’s cupa for privacy. It was a full council — besides Av, there was Belinda, Kenman, Kirsta Sixnames and her senior husband, and all the firsts of the crafts: Andor, Tola, Ledell, Elul the maker, Modris the guardian. Because she was just rising, Alice-Tonda-Ken was there as well.
“I was surprised to hear that you had gone far enough south to visit the Cantona. The news is bad?” Belinda asked.
“The news is bad,” said Av.
“Begin at the beginning. You visited the Gaddis,” Belinda said. The Gaddis’ homehill lay just less than a day’s run to the north, in the wooded hills. “How did you find them?”
“It is as Adrian said,” Av replied, naming the family’s youngest runner. “Their songs are fading, Belinda. Their first maker is dead and his tools lie unused. The children are thin and rarely laugh. They have only three breeders, who cannot keep the family in milk.”
“Who is senior mother now?”
“A breeder of two is senior mother?” Kenman shook his head. “What became of Dione Sevennames?”
“Bitten by a clawed beetle last summer and died of the froths. Sylva was the her eldest.”
“But not the keeper of her remembrance, it would seem,” Belinda mused.
“No. She is flush with a senior’s privilege and does not see what has happened.”
“Bad news, indeed, Av. The Gaddis have a fine homehill and a good heart,” Kenman said.
“They are in danger of losing both.”
“Perhaps there is some way to help them,” Kenman said, with a brief sideways glance at Alice-Tonda-Ken, who was seated on the second tier. “We are strong enough to share some of our substance.”
“We will talk of it at another time,” Belinda said firmly. “Continue, Av.”
“You have heard the best of it already. I had hoped to continue on to the Blue Ridge. But the Gaddis warned me that there has been fighting among the lake families, and the black flag hangs along the runs.”
Belinda shook her head. “The lake land is as rich as any in the Georgias, yet they fight like killkennies over a dinner scrap.”
“They must have a poor excuse for a keeper, if he allows them to forget the lessons of the time of dark,” said Ledell, defending his craft. “There is more lost in fighting for food than gained in winning.”
“It’s not food they fight over,” Modris said. “If they were more hungry, perhaps they would not have the time to think of such foolishness.”
“There’s truth in that,” Av agreed. “Sylva says that the senior mothers have allowed their husbands too great a voice in the family’s life.”
“An eternal danger,” Belinda said, directing a smile and a sideways glance toward Kenman. “Where did you go, then, with the runs to the North closed to you?”
“To Ellijay,” he said, to their surprise.
A runner away from his homehill has much time for thinking, and as he covered the leg-numbing miles in the long shadow from the western hills, he thought about his destination: Ellijay.
Nearly all of what he knew came from Ledell’s stories. Ellijay was, literally, a daughter family of the Lonega, founded on the east shore of Carter Lake by Belinda’s breed-sister Maryn. The division had been amicable, and many of the Lonega had breed-relations there: Kenman had a brother, Kirsta Sixnames a son and daughter, Belinda two sons, Elul a sister.
For all that, contact between the families was infrequent. Maryn was several summers older than Belinda, and with three good pregnancies before she was twenty had had reason to think about being senior mother of the Lonega some day. But the three healthy boys were followed by an equal number of culls, just as
Belinda was beginning her string of twins. At the time of Eloai’s death, Maryn had but four children to Belinda’s eight, earning the younger the right of succession.
With the title came problems Eloai had left unsolved. The family’s two cupas were crowded and a third was needed. But the spring had come cold and dry, and those who might have built the new earth lodge were busy with the task of providing. The addition of Maryn’s resentment in that situation could well have been incendiary.
Belinda resolved all three problems with one wise decision that cemented her claim to be senior mother. The split relieved the crowding and the pressure on the Lonega’s foraging range, and took the proud Maryn out of her younger sister’s shadow.
Maryn had seen to it that the new family’s homehill was more than three days away on a difficult run, and made the distance seem greater by sending out her own runners but rarely. Belinda reciprocated, allowing Maryn the independence she craved. Av’s visit would be the first in four summers and only the third he
If he could find them, that was. Av was dependent on the reliability of Ledell’s directions and the sightings he took of the dayrise and dayset, since he had never made that run before. He had followed the valley southwest from Gaddis, detouring through hilly country and picking up the blackrock run the second day. He had only to find the great lake and then work his way along the shore to its northeastern end.
Or so the senior runner from the Gaddis had said — though by the look of him it was several summers and many meals since he had done any running.
“Stay to the blackrock runs,” he had said. “You’ll see the lake and the fires of the Ellijay clearly from it.”
Despite his misgivings, Av complied as well as he could. Twice he lost the blackrock, once for more than an hour, and twice he found branches he was not expecting, and had to guess at which to follow. Finally the run ended on the bank of a briskly moving stream which seemed large enough to feed a good-sized lake.
The light was fading as the sun’s disc neared the peaks of the next range of hills. But his view west into the valley was unobstructed, and he saw neither sun-sparkled water nor curling smoke plume. Certain he was lost, Av followed the stream west in the hope it would lead him to the lake.
He was still walking and hoping an hour later when he came upon an abandoned cupa.
Dug into the ground and then roofed over with needlewood planks and earth, a cupa gives little sign of its presence apart from the smoke hole. That is especially true of an older one, where the shallow dome of the roof is covered with a natural scattering of needles or growth of spidergrass. Summer cool and
winter warmth are the goals, but deception is often the effect. It is the presence of people and the activity aboveground that mark a homehill for what it is.
There was none of that as Av came upon his discovery. There was only a creak of warning and the shifting of the ground beneath his feet. Av tried to scramble clear, but there was nothing solid under him, and he dropped heavily into darkness along with a cascade of dry soil and splintered wood.
Immediately he bounced to his feet and drew his jasper knife from a belt pouch. He peered into the dimly lit recesses of the cupa, choking on the powdery dust kicked up by the fall. Humans were not the only form of life to find the cupa a congenial home. Among the frequent secondary tenants was the razor-toothed killkenny, which could negotiate a smoke hole ladder as agilely on
its four clawed pads as a human could on two skin-wrapped feet.
Nothing moved, and no eyes glinted back at him.
Still wary, he clambered out of the hole. When he was standing in the light again, he called the runner’s recognition call. No answer came.
He spotted a second cupa a few dozen strides further on, and crawled to the edge of its smokehole. There was no ladderlog, and the darkness inside was complete.
Av was confused. If this was Ellijay, where were the people? But it could not be Ellijay, for where was the lake? He would have to go into the cupa for answers, and for that he needed light.
Rather than wait for tomorrow’s mid-morning sun, he ran to the nearest west-facing slope and climbed a hundred steps, until he could see the disc of the sun between two peaks and feel its fading warmth. With his fireglass, he focused that warmth on a bed of needles, until they smoked and burst into flame. A stout stick with a long strip of bark wrapped around one end made a passable torch.
Returning, he thrust the torch through the smokehole of the intact cupa. Immediately, the rattle of chiton broke the silence of the chamber, and Av saw the furtive shapes of a hand of clawed beetles as they skittered away from the light. He also saw what had drawn them there: a formless scattering of skeletons on the dirt floor of the cupa.
There were large bones and small bones and the palm-sized empty backshells of a hundred or more dead beetles. But except for the ladder, lying across the fire pit where it had fallen, the chamber was bare of all human sign.
Abruptly, Av broke off his narrative. Belinda was not looking well. Bent forward, face flushed, she stared blankly at the floor, her palms pressed against the sides of her neck.
“Go on,” she said hoarsely. “It is no less the truth if I do not hear it. Go on.”
Hesitant at first, Av complied. “I counted six skulls, five adult and one child. There were two killkenny skulls as well.”
“The bodies would have drawn both the killkennies and the beetles,” Tola said authoritatively.
“Yes. The `kennies probably knocked down the ladder, the way they fight over a carcass. The ones that were trapped inside were eaten by the beetles. And then the beetles ate each other.”
Kenman broke in. “The Ellijay were twenty, at least. What about the others? Were they in the cupa that collapsed?”
“No,” Av said, still watching Belinda with concern. “It was a living place — bowls, roughweave, a woodpipe –”
All knew that the objects would carry the mark of their making. “Ellijay?”
“Perhaps a daughter family,” Belinda said hopefully. “Did you keep looking for the lake?”
“Yes — in vain. I was where the lake was. The lake is gone. The downstream wall is broken.”
Belinda’s demeanor brightened. “That must be why. The others must have left, moved to some better homehill.”
“I do not think so, Belinda. I think it is that no one troubled to find a resting place for the last few to die, that they were too weak to do more than drag them to the other cupa and push them in. I don’t know what killed them, they were so scattered by the `kennies and picked so clean by the beetles. But
I wanted to know before I returned here if it had touched me as well.”
“So you went on, as far as the Cantona.”
He nodded. “If I were dying I thought I should at least see new faces and new places before surrendering.”
“This is a new death, then, that saps a family’s traditions first,” Elul said, his tone a criticism.
“For every star, there is a way to die,” Ledell said. “This is not a new death but an old one. Do you not remember the silence? Even the Lonega have lost family to it. They crawl inside themselves, insensate to pain, oblivious to hunger, until their song ends. It is said they have asked the question `Why not die?’ and found no answer.”
Belinda stood, hugging herself, and faced Av. “No!” she said fiercely. “That is not what happened.” With the light, quick steps of a hunter’s quarry forewarned, she ascended the ladder and was gone.
“In the time of dark, the water spirit fed us,” Ledell said, and all turned to look at him. “I will say that it has taken the Ellijay in payment.”
There was a stunned silence. “You think the end of time is coming, Ledell?” Kenman said at last.
“Our mothers’ mothers’ mothers lived in darkness on the gifts of the water spheres. Then the sky-sphere brought a greater gift, sweeping away the darkness. We grew healthy in the light. But we forgot our debt to the water.” Then he shrugged, as though discounting his own words. “I am the keeper of the past, nothing more. Tomorrow is always a surprise.”
“Come to the meadow with me.”
Kenman looked at Belinda with surprise. “They are gathering to hear Av’s story –”
“They do not need us for that.”
“There are too many clouds for watching.”
She crossed her arms and cocked her head. “Why do you resist me?”
“Perhaps because I have no answers to your questions. For such things you are better served by Denis, or Av himself.”
“And what questions are those?”
“The ones that steal the smile from you.”
The smile appeared, tender. “And if I prefer you, despite your ignorance?”
Kenman bobbed his head submissively. “I will go and tell them not to wait on us.”
They walked with hands clasped to the stream and crossed to the meadow beyond, then settled in a familiar spot.
“Does it not seem as though our family is the only strong family left in the hills?” she asked.
“Burdens fall unequally.”
“Yet we all live better than our mothers did. There is more food, warmer days. Why should families fail in plenty when they thrived in scarcity?”
“Gifts also fall unequally.”
“What do we have that the Ellijay did not?”
“A Twelvenames called Belinda,” he said readily.
Annoyance crossed her face. “Is it not clear to you that I, too, will die? If not this winter, then the next, or the next. Where is the breeder who has seen forty summers?”
“You will. Surely life will grant that to a Twelvenames.”
“You have made too much of me,” she said, annoyance turning to anger.
“You have the magic.”
She pushed his solicitous touch away angrily. “Oh, yes. Belinda Twelvenames has the magic. Everyone believes it. But how much of the magic is in the believing and how much of it is in me?”
“I don’t understand why you doubt –”
She threw her hands up in a gesture of frustration. “What honor is there for a Twelvenames that has outlived half her brood? Perhaps I will be further honored, and see them all dead.”
“It pains me to see you unhappy –”
“It pains me that you do not understand,” she said curtly, grasping his hands tightly. “What is the purpose if death always follows life? Why sing the songs? Why keep the tales? If I am the meaning, then there is no meaning, for I know none. If I am the heart, then we are empty, for I am empty. If I am the reason we live, then why not die now, for I surely will.”
“I said I would have no answers,” he said helplessly.
“Which I forgive. But you fear the questions, which I do not,” she said with contempt.
Fat raindrops began to pelt them, kicking up tiny puffs of dust and striking the leaves with a slapping sound. A seamless rumble of thunder echoed among the hills. Unexpectedly, Belinda laughed.
“The sky rebukes me for my angst,” she said. “Go back home. I wish to bathe myself in the new water and absorb its spirit.” She undid the side ties of her blouse and lifted it over her head, then removed her hip cloak. “Go, good husband,” she said as she began the dance. “In the morning I will be well again.”
“Damn the light!” Andor exclaimed, peering at the faint marks cut in the flat surface of the split stick he held in his hand.
Rain had been falling every night for a week. The deluge had left the Lonega sodden and surly, prolonging and deepening the distressing sense of custom violated which came with learning the Ellijay had died unremembered.
Cut off from his own watching by the sheets of grey clouds, Andor absorbed himself in the records Av had brought back from the Gaddis and the Cantona. The Gaddis records were easily understood, since Polton, the Gaddis’ senior watcher, used the marking system common to all the hill families.
But Polton’s observations filled few of the gaps in Andor’s own, since it was rare for two families so close together not to suffer the same weather. Only those observations which Polton himself had gotten from families still further north were of any use.
Andor was much more interested in the Cantona records, since their homehill was more remote and he had no recent observations from that part of the world. But the marking system was unfamiliar and Av’s explanations confusing: /\ was the observer’s mark, / a wanderer. What, then, Andor demanded, did
/\ //^> //v/|||||
mean? Av did not know.
Patiently, with the help of his own records, Andor puzzled out the remainder. There were marks for the rising and setting of the moon, for night’s arrows, and, it seemed, for the nightfire itself — though the disagreements between their sightings and his own raised doubts in his mind about the skills of their watchers.
Veracity aside, the Cantona records were elegantly concise, and despite their brevity contained most of what Andor wanted to know. But by the time he recognized that, Andor was too aggrieved with the Cantona to admire their invention.
On the eighth day after Av’s return, the air changed and the low clouds broke apart to reveal a high, shimmering blue sky. Andor celebrated by setting off for the high observatory, which lay in a mountain gap a tiring two hour climb to the west. In truth, it was a trip better left to the younger watchers.
But the high observatory was special. A great circle of stick markers preserved the positions of dayrise and dayset, nightrise and nightset as seen from the circle’s center during earlier watchings. Some of the placements were made by Andor’s predecessor Nirel as long as a hundred summers ago. Though his legs always regretted his mind’s enthusiasm, it was by far his favorite place
for watching. From there the whole bowl of heaven and the whole disc of earth seemed on display for his inspection.
As the reddened face of the sun touched the far horizon, Andor held the sighting rod vertically and noted how its shadow fell across the circle. It was three phases to the north-sun day, the end of the sun’s summer march north along the horizon. Soon it would begin its retreat, foretelling the short-day cold to come.
Andor remained at the high observatory until distant clouds obscured the yellow wanderer, precluding his observing at what point it also slid down beyond the horizon. By that time the cool breezes that blew almost steadily across the observatory had brought the chill-ache to Andor’s bones, and he gathered up his
things to go. His last duty was to sing the song of the wanderers, which he did in a high, reedy voice. Then he headed back down the mountain to the homehill.
He was nearly there when his eye caught the glint of a brilliant light climbing the curve of the night from the north: the nightfire. His mind recorded the sighting automatically, registering mild surprise since it had been only fourteen days since the last apparition. Then he turned his face fully toward
it, and what he saw caused his muscles to fail him, dropping him to his knees, the sighting stick falling from his numb hand. He knelt, his hands clapped over his mouth, and beheld a wonder.
For racing toward the zenith were two nightfires.
Andor was frozen for a moment, then leaped to his feet and began to run, his way lit by the lights above. Branches whipped his face and arms, and deadwood strained to trip him. They must see or they will not believe, he thought, heart pounding, They must know, and raced on recklessly. But as he neared the homehill, a foot slipped sideways and he went down heavily, pain shooting
through his ankle. He lay there helpless, mortified by his failure, then forgave himself as he heard the cry of a Lonega guardian:
“By the mother of the light! By the light herself! Belinda! Kenman! Kirsta! Arise! Come quickly! The nightfire! By the Twelvenames, the nightfire has twinned!”
“Ask, ask, ask, so I can parade my ignorance,” Andor moaned, the blanket slipping off his shoulders as he threw his arms wide. The watcher was still agitated, though enough time had passed to herd back to bed the young ones awakened by the guardian’s cries, and to wrap Andor’s swelling ankle with dur-soaked roughweave.
“Calm yourself, Andor,” Belinda said. “I do not expect perfect knowledge from you.”
“But I am senior watcher. I should know the meaning–”
“Enough! Andor, what brings the nightfire?”
The watcher averted his eyes. “The nightfire owns its own spirit, and moves as it chooses.”
“Spare me well-worn sayings that are empty of meaning,” Belinda reproached. “What do you hold the nightfire to be? Is it kin to the sun, or to the wanderers, or to the moon?”
Taking a clay bowl in hand, Andor dragged himself across the dirt circle and crouched in front of an anthill. “They are as we are,” he said, pointing. “They live in the earth, in a homehill, and take their life from the earth.” Then Andor inverted the bowl and set it upside-down over the anthill. “This is as the sky is, a great, smooth bowl of blue rock over us. The spirits of the sky
crawl across its face and give us their light. They are all kin to each other.”
“You do not remember, then, the story of the founding?” Ledell asked indignantly. “How the nightfire carried the spark to the sun and ended the time of dark?”
Elul caught the note of alarm. “If this new nightfire should twin the sun, would we not burn?”
Ledell’s expression was grave. “We would.”
“I will not have this muddied by stories of times which no one here witnessed,” Belinda said sharply.
“You question my keeping?” Ledell was too astonished to be insulted.
“Your keeping is splendid,” she replied. “But you forget that I have heard the stories others tell of me, and know that what is kept is not always what is true.” She turned back to Andor. “You have not answered my question. What is the nightfire? Is it flame, spirit, substance?”
Andor grunted his unhappiness. “How am I to know these things?”
“Have you never considered such a question?”
“No. It is the nightfire. Why should it be anything else? How could I attempt to take its measure? Av — were you not with the Adako when the nightfire came last summer?”
“And how far is that?”
Av considered a moment. “A run of twelve days.”
“And did not the nightfire still rise beyond the farthest tree or mountain? Was it any larger, any brighter?”
Andor turned an apologetic look on Belinda. “Do you see? It is so far away that twelve days’ run brings it no closer. And yet if it is so far away it must own a terrible flame. The nightfire is not part of the land. It is over us, beyond us. It is not meant that we should know its substance, that it burns without being consumed. It is not meant that we should know what moves it, that
it chooses a path unique in the sky. It is not meant that we should know its purpose, that it alone comes without pattern or plan. There is a great space set between us, and we may not cross.”
“Is there truly no rhythm to its apparitions?”
Andor shook his head vigorously. “No watcher has found one, and many have searched. As recently as Nirel’s time, the nightfire went two years without appearing, yet this spring there were two apparitions in three nights.”
“How often has it come this year?”
“I do not know.”
That drew a quizzical look from Belinda, and Andor hastened to explain. “Our family has recorded five sightings before tonight. But there were many clouded nights this winter, and our knowledge could well be incomplete.”
“What about the records I brought you?” Av asked.
“The Gaddis saw as we did. The Cantona claim five more sightings, but I cannot believe it.”
Belinda’s eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
“There has never been such a number of apparitions.”
“What was the count last year?”
“Eight — the most ever recorded.”
“And the year before?”
Belinda stood and walked to the far side of the sky circle, craning her head to look up. The clawed beetle was overhead, the tiny skylights that outlined its carapace sharp against the inky night. “How can you say there is no pattern? Where when I was young it came once each year, now it comes once each month. What will happen when it comes once each night?”
Ledell followed her halfway across the circle. “The Seneca say that in times to come, the nightfire will awaken the cold light of the moon and drive away the last of the dark. That is what is coming. There will be no more death, and no more need of remembrance. We will all live forever in the light.” His voice
changed from a warning hiss to a patronizing sneer. “But forgive me — you do not believe the stories of an old keeper,” he said, and stalked off in high dudgeon toward his cupa before she could reply.
“Andor?” she called across the circle. “Is this your belief as well?”
Andor struggled to his feet with an assist from Kenman. “Mother Belinda, I would gladly give you the answer you desire,” he said unhappily. “But I am still as I was an hour ago. I do not have an answer, for you or for myself.”
Kirsta, who had stood hugging herself and listening at the periphery of the circle since Andor’s return, spoke for the first time. “I do not see why we could not travel to where the sky meets the earth and climb it, as the ants climb the inside of the clay bowl? Then we could behold the sky spirits as we behold each other, and know them.”
Andor shook his head, his expression wistful. “I asked the same question of Mirel when I was younger, who had asked it of his teacher in turn. The received wisdom is that no runner could go to where the sky meets the earth, because it lies a life’s journey away beyond a great lake.”
“To all points? The north, the south –”
“This is more than legend. I have not seen the lake-of-the-horizon, nor have any of our living runners. But Weneta did, and betimes we hear of it from other families. I am afraid we are forever in the lesser world and the skyfires forever in the greater.”
Belinda sighed and gathered her nightcloak about her. “If true, it is a great pity.” She glanced at each of her husbands in turn. “Come, Kern,” she said, deciding. “I grow chill.”
It was Belinda’s habit to go walking in late morning. The long walks gave her the exercise she desperately needed to fight off the sedentary, pampered life the family tried to force on her. Her sojourns likewise took the edge off her hunger before the high-sun meal, saving her from the round-bodied fullness that was common to seniors beyond blood-end.
Sometimes Kenman, one of the children, or, when killkennies were known to be about, a guardian accompanied her. More often she walked alone, and relished the privacy and the temporary sense of privatism it allowed. On her purposeless sojourns, she was just Belinda, not a Twelvenames, not senior of the Lonega, and beholden to no one.
But there were times when she could not free herself, could not shed her concerns as though they were clothes left behind in the dust of the skycircle. As the days before the north-sun day slipped away in the easy rhythms of a practiced life, Ledell was such a concern. Sleep had not improved the keeper’s disposition, nor had he forgotten the perceived affront.
In fact, he made an ongoing issue of it, telling his version of the Seneca endtime tale in his persuasive way to audiences of any size, always mentioning in a manner calculated to stir indignation that the senior had scoffed at the wisdom of the Seneca (and, by implication, of Ledell himself). All this came to
Belinda secondhand, for Ledell avoided Belinda and her husbands when he could and was surly to them when he could not.
There was no mystery in any of this. Like most keepers of any skill, Ledell was suffused with male ego. It was what made them good keepers: they thirsted for the high seat, the center circle, and the attention their tales could command. It was also the reason so few keepers were taken as husbands, for rare was the breeder that would stand for such nonsense once the tale was over
and the spell broken.
Belinda knew what Ledell wanted, what would end the backstabbing campaign. Ledell expected an apology, one at least as public as his humiliation. More than one earnest family member had taken it on themself to come to her, tell her of Ledell’s unhappiness, and gently suggest how she might end it.
But she balked at giving him what he wanted, as much because of the campaign he was waging as because she in fact thought the Seneca foolishness. It was not in harmony with the watchers’ knowledge of the sky, or with her own instinctive beliefs. Families knew beginnings and endtimes, but surely the world did not. She did not even quite believe there had been a time of dark, but if there had been, she was sure it had not been the beginning of anything but legends.
Her thoughts were interrupted when someone called her name. She stopped and turned, looking back through the trees the way she had come. It was Alice-Tonda-Ken, barefoot and breathless.
“Have you come all this way looking for me?”
Alice-Tonda-Ken nodded vigorously, not yet having caught her wind.
“You have walked enough, then, I think,” Belinda said. She led the pregnant girl to a newly fallen log (one not yet taken over by armored scavengers).
When Alice-Tonda-Ken had arranged herself on the log, Belinda crouched on the ground facing her. “Why did you follow?”
“You promised there would be talk and there hasn’t been. Or did I miss it, and the decision is made?”
“About what, child?”
“What are you going to do about the Gaddis?”
There is rebellion in that question, young breeder, Belinda thought. But you at least come to me alone with it. Shrugging, she said aloud: “What is there that can be done?”
“Kenman said it the day Av returned. We can send them some of our substance.”
Belinda made a gesture of demurral. “We would only weaken ourselves without strengthing the Gaddis. Then both families might go the way of the Ellijay. I plan no family gift.” She cocked her head and her eyes bored into the girl’s. “What is your concern with it? You have no broodkin among the Gaddis.”
Alice-Tonda-Ken looked suddenly uncomfortable, as if realizing her motives had been plumbed. She opted for directness. “There are those who would go if you gave them the chance.”
“Oh?” Belinda said as though it were a surprise.
“Perhaps some of us love the Gaddis more than you do.”
“I love none better than the Lonega. That is my flaw,” Belinda said, gently asserting herself by rising to her feet. “You are one who would be willing to go?”
“And your two husbands?”
“They would go with me.”
It is Maryn all over again. “Any good husband would,” Belinda said in a neutral tone. “Alice-Tonda-Ken, are you so unhappy with us?”
Alice-Tonda-Ken squirmed. “My song is not heard clearly here,” she said finally. “The family hears your song, and the song of Kirsta Sixnames, and –” She stopped. “You will take me wrong.”
“No, I understand quite well,” Belinda said. “With the Lonega, you stand third among our breeders. But among the Gaddis you would stand higher, and your song might be heard very clearly indeed. If your new child is healthy you could displace Sylva-Mark-Juniper as senior of the Gaddis.”
Alice-Tonda-Kip nodded eagerly, taking understanding for agreement. “Ledell said –” She stopped short, realizing her mistake, as Belinda’s features twisted into a chilly grimace.
“And does Ledell wish to go, too? Perhaps to see that the Gaddis hear the stories of the time of dark and become strong in the hearing.”
The young girl nodded sullenly.
I should let them go, Belinda realized. They could weaken us more by staying than by leaving, if they cannot accept their lot. But she could not bring herself to acquiesce to their demand.
“You are too unseasoned to be a senior,” she said coldly. “If you understood what it means to be senior you would know that there is something wrong in wanting it too much.”
“I will never become `seasoned’ here,” she said angrily. “I might still be a child for all that breeding has brought me.”
Belinda clucked disapprovingly. “Those are Ledell’s thoughts, which he has put into you for his own purposes. A senior must know not to listen too much to men. That is in Ledell’s tales, too, but he does not like to tell it,” she said, answering anger with patience. “You will grow here, if you will let yourself. The strength of a family comes not from numbers alone but when each member knows and accepts their role. When you understand that, then you will be ready to help the Gaddis.”
The fire of rebellion in Alice-Tonda-Ken’s eyes, flickering feebly by that time, died. “Yes, Belinda.”
Belinda held out her hands and helped the breeder to stand. “Let’s walk back to the homehill together,” she said, her tone deliberately light and friendly. But her heart was heavy, with a new concern to possess it. Ledell would no doubt try again, and Alice — self-centered, impatient Alice — would no doubt take courage from his blandishments and offer new challenge.
Fighting without and within, forgetting the songs and neglecting the crafts, even quietly giving up life — what is happening to the families of the Georgias?
By the time they reached the homehill, Belinda had decided to grant Ledell a concession after all. Not an apology, but a gesture that could be taken as one if Ledell was so inclined — and would be taken as one by the rest of the family. She called for a circlefire that night.
The response to her call was as always, though perhaps a degree more intense, a sign she had been neglecting the emotional life of the family. The children were openly excited, because a circlefire meant they would be allowed to be up and about after dayset. The adults went about their chores with a lighter step, remembering their favorite stories and songs and lobbying for them
to be a part of that night’s celebration.
Ledell himself grumbled that he could not be expected to be at his best on such short notice, and asked snidely if Belinda wanted to approve each story before he told it. But he did not refuse to take part. Just as Belinda had anticipated, the lure of the audience was strong enough to make him cast aside his disaffected posture.
When the dayset meal was finished, runners and providers pitched together to build the circlefire in the sky circle: a tinder bed and a great mound of dry treewood too small and fast-burning for cooking.
When the sky overhead had darkened to a velvet black, the call went up from Kenman, and the family came to the sky circle — all save Belinda. They filled all the sittingstones but one, the largest and northmost in the circle, and sat there in the darkness in silence, hands linked one to the next, child to mother, husband to breeder, guardian to maker to runner to watcher.
Then from the north they heard music, a woman’s clear voice giving life to the mournful song of dark. It was a song never heard except at a circlefire, and its melody evoked the loss of friends and children, a cold transcending that of winter’s short-day nights, the terror of living a life in dark at the mercy
of its unknowable powers.
They heard the singer but they did not see her, until Belinda pulled the shroud from the ceremonial torch she carried. She held it high, its feeble light marking her passage as she came to them, entered the circle by stepping across her own sittingstone, and touched the flame to the edge of the woodpile.
She stepped back as the needlewood spat and crackled, and began to sing the song of the sun. The family joined her, even the youngest, for it was the song mothers sang to children cradled in their arms. The circlefire blazed high and filled the clearing with dancing light. At a gesture from Belinda the family raised their joined hands high.
“We are the family Lonega, bound by blood and fire to each other and to life,” she cried. “Out of dark we have come and into dark we will go. But today we live well in the light, sharing the gifts of the earth with each other.” She moved to her place in the circle and grasped the upraised hands of those to either side of her, completing the circle. “The fire is with us. The magic is in
- May both remember the Lonega forever!”
She lowered her arms to her side with a sudden motion, and a happy cheer went up from the family. As she settled on her sittingstone, Ledell rose and came before her.
“Belinda Twelvenames, mother of Kirsta and Garivan, mother of Alix and Bria, mother of Erik and Erin, mother of Dette and Madee, mother of David and Ajit and Cherim, senior to the Lonega and beloved of the Georgias. The right of first request is yours.”
Belinda smiled inwardly. The formal address was Ledell’s apology, as the circlefire was hers. She met his eyes and saw the gesture as honest. “Keeper’s choice,” she said, with a little nod.
His eyebrows flicked upward in surprise. Then he rose from his crouch and turned toward the fire. “Belinda Twelvenames has granted me keeper’s choice. I thank her, and give the choice in turn to — ” He took a comical leaping step and came down in front of Belinda’s youngest daughter. “Bria.”
The child tittered. “Tell us how the killkenny lost its fur.”
Ledell bounced to his feet. “Why, it wasn’t just fur! It was a golden cloak, as yellow and soft as Alix’s hair. And long — as long as your hand, so it blew in the wind and the little killkennies could hide in it when danger came –”
Ledell recounted that and two other short, amusing etiologies. His seductive voice could be heard clearly over the crack of the exploding firegrass tinder and the crackle of the burning treewood fuel.
Then he stepped aside to let young Kip try his hand at an adventure. The keeper coaxed a song from sad-faced Tania and, with Cherim as the quarry, played out an amusing ill-starred hunt by a maledict provider. It was one of Ledell’s best performances, even before he turned serious and called for silence.
“I wish to tell of the founding of the Lonega,” he said solemnly, “of First Mother Christiana and her her flight across the ice at the time of the first dayrise.”
Ah, you could not resist, Belinda thought. But at least it is our darktime tale. The rest of the family settled in comfortably, for, unlike some of Ledell’s keepings, Christiana’s story called for rapt attention rather than participation.
“Before Eloai, before Chaldan, before Jennif, before Deborah, before grass grew on the homehill of the Lonega and game flourished in our forests, the world was without light,” Ledell began in his most somber voice. “The dark lasted a time without measure, and the world was cold. There was no sun to warm the day, no dayrise, no dayset. There was no moon to protect the night, no nightrise, no nightset. There were no stars to mark the seasons.
As he continued, Ledell began to walk around the circlefire with slow, deliberate steps. “The mountains, the lakes, the southlands lay cloaked in shadow and gloom. Over all spread a blanket of snow and ice. No tree bore leaves, no bush bore fruit, no flower bore blooms. The darkdeath was everywhere — no family was untouched by it.
He paused for effect. “And into this world was born a breeder named Christiana.
“Though the land was without life, under the ice the deep lakes harbored many kinds of fish: wily fish, bitter fish, bony fish, and dinner fish,” he recounted, taking a lighter tone. “The family of Christiana lived on the ice and took their meals from the lake through holes they cut in the ice. When they had eaten all the dinner fish one hole held, they would take down their homes and bundle their possessions and make another hole in another place. They were always cold, and they were always moving. But in a world full of death, they had found a way to life. And Christiana sucked strongly at her mother’s breast and grew.
“But the world was changing,” he said, his voice dropping to a whisper. “In the time Christiana reached first blood, warm winds would blow without warning, puddling the skin of the ice and making its body shift and rumble. The clouds overhead swirled about as though stirred from above.
“And in the time Christiana was to marry, the first spark of light entered the world: a tiny shimmering point of fire that appeared on the northern horizon and slowly rose into the sky. It gave no warmth, but the light was beautiful, and Christiana’s family wept with joy for the sight of it.
“The spark climbed higher, higher, higher,” he said with a slow, sweeping wave of one hand, “The black cloud that had hung over the land began to lift, growing smaller, smaller, smaller, until both met at the highest part of the sky.
“And when the nightfire touched the cloud, the cloud exploded into blinding light. The larger part became the sun, and the smaller part became the moon.
“And the light from them both healed the world.
“When the light touched the land, the snows began to melt, and the bowed limbs of trees to straighten and green. The light drove the darkdeath into the shadows, where it still hides, waiting for when the sun and moon are absent and the sky grows dark once more.
“Since they were closer to the sun, the mountains to the north were the first land so transformed. From them the nightfire had come, and to them it gave life. Christiana saw the life there and knew that it was time to leave the lake, that the hills would be a better home for her children and herself. And so she took the hand of the young fisher she had chosen for her husband, and together they walked off the ice and climbed into the hills.
“They had barely reached the first ridge when the earth shook, and the air was filled with a roaring sound. When Christiana looked back, she saw the surface of the lake in turmoil, the ice shattering, and the lake taking back the food it had given up –”
There were loud squeals from several young ones on the far side of the circle, and Ledell glared at them crossly for the interruption. Belinda added her chiding look, and with a nudge dispatched Alix-Ellet to quiet the noisemakers.
But before she could move, Elul, who was seated across the circle near the children, jumped up and pointed a trembling finger at the northern sky.
“Andor!” he cried. “Andor, explain!” The harsh circlefire light showed each line of his fear-contorted face.
Heads began to turn, and alarmed adults came to their feet in a wave that spread in both directions from Elul. The noises of the youngest children changed from gleeful cries to frightened crying as they sensed their parents’ alarm.
“Be silent!” Ledell raged, his back to the north, still taking the interruption personally.
But now even those on the north side of the circle could see what Elul still pointed at, could see that the upturned awestruck faces were lit not by the circlefire but from above. Now Belinda realized that not all the crackling came from the circlefire, not all the squealing from the children, but that both had been joined by a harrowing cry from above.
The apparition was larger than sun and moon combined, and burned with colors never seen in the sky: a ghostly blue, a harsh scarlet, a hot green. The colors streaked the flickering trail it left as it flashed through the sky.
Belinda found Andor at her elbow. “Could it be a night’s arrow?” she whispered.
“No, Belinda,” he answered in a strangled voice. “Mark its speed. Look at it grow larger. Listen to its roar. This is a great spirit, not a lesser one.”
“I feel its nearness,” she said with a shiver.
The apparition crossed the zenith, moving ever more slowly, the thunder-like rumble of its passing increasing. None took their eye from it as its multicolored trail grew thin and then vanished. The apparition itself underwent a metamorphosis, giving up its flaming halo for the cold glitter of broken fireglass.
“The uncrossable void is crossed,” breathed Belinda. “It is the nightfire. The nightfire falls to earth.”
“No, Belinda. It is an illusion,” Andor said, shaking his head vigorously.
Jewellike, the apparition hung in the sky for long seconds before vanishing over the trees like the moon at nightset.
“Illusion or no, mark its fall well, Andor,” Belinda said firmly. “For I will expect your help when I go to find it.”
The resistance began the moment Belinda and her husbands descended into the privacy of their cupa.
“Belinda, will you hear an appeal?” asked Kenman.
“I will not.”
“This journey cannot end well for the Lonega,” he said, presuming on his seniority by ignoring her reply. “We will be divided and weakened.”
“I need only Andor and whatever of my husbands choose to come with us.”
“I will go,” Av said quickly. “We know too little of the runs leading south.”
“I will go as well,” Kern quietly concurred.
“Spare me your echo, Denis,” Kenman said harshly, holding his hand up in a plea for surcease. “How can any of us refuse and still call himself Belinda’s husband?”
“I am a breeder and a Twelvenames. I go where I choose,” she said curtly.
“That right is yours,” Kenman said pleadingly. “But your wisdom has been to put the family first. That is what has made us strong.”
“All the more reason that I should now put myself first, if that were all that figured. But it is not. As you have told me yourself, you are no watcher. You do not understand the importance.”
“The family is of first importance, always.”
Belinda sighed. “If you did not think so, you would not be the fine guardian you are. But that is also why guardians should never rule the family. It is not in them to suffer change or weigh uncertainty.” .”
“If you won’t consider the family, then think of yourself. You will be at risk every moment you are gone.”
“A Twelvenames has friends everywhere,” Av protested. “Who would dare harm her, or even wish to?”
“Stop,” Belinda said sharply, preempting an angry response from Kenman. “I will not have my husbands arguing on this. Nor questioning me. Tomorrow I will leave with Andor in search of the resting place of the nightfire. Such of you as are willing to do so in good spirit may come with us. There is nothing more to be said.”
Then she retreated to her bedding in a manner that made clear none were welcome to follow.
Preparations for the expedition consumed much of the morning. There were seed pouches to fill, snare ropes to coil, guardsticks to sharpen, dur and burnweed leaves to gather. Dward directed his providers to dig up the winter store of dried meat from the floor of the greater cupa and remove half for the use of the travelers.
In the midst of the bustle, Kirsta Sixnames suddenly appeared at Belinda’s elbow. “Belinda –”
“Kirsta, I have been looking for you. In my absence, you must serve as senior –”
“Belinda, I wish to come with you.”
Belinda masked her surprise. “Then come. You have the right.”
“I prefer your approval and consent.”
“Then I require your reasons.”
Kirsta’s eyes misted and she looked away. “I barely know them myself.”
“You have never wished to head the family,” Belinda stated in a softer tone.
“It has been enough for you to see your children grow to take husbands and crafts.”
“Yes.” Tears began to stream from her eyes and she threw herself into Belinda’s embrace. “Belinda, I am drying up. I near the blood-end. Before Sonda I was six summers between children, and I know that when Sonda leaves my breast there will be no more to follow her.”
Belinda stroked her daughter’s hair comfortingly. “I know,” she whispered. “I know. It is the breeder’s curse. There are times I think that to live with the emptiness brings more pain than to die of the dark.”
“What Av said — about the Ellijay,” Kirsta sobbed into Belinda’s shoulder. “I find myself also asking, why not die? Mother, I do not want to end like the Ellijay. But I fear that if I do not do something, find some answer, the silence will take me as well.”
“I understand,” she said. “I understand all too well. You are welcome to join us. In fact, I will relish your presence, as it will relieve the endless empty babble of the men.”
“It will leave Alice-Tonda-Ken as senior in trust,” Kirsta said timidly, pulling away.
“I considered that before I spoke. It will be good for her. She will learn either to fly or to be happy on the ground. And the firsts of the crafts will be here to see that she does not fall too hard. Or will you bring Elul and Piter?”
“No. Not even Sonda. Alix-Ellet is in milk and will care for her. I would like to know what it is like to live without them.”
Belinda nodded. “Perhaps you will find that you were not so empty as it seemed. Go, then, and make yourself ready.”
By the highsun all preparations were complete, and the seven travelers gathered at the sky circle before departing. Only then did the family realize that Kirsta’s preparations were not for her mother but herself.
“Belinda!” Alice-Tonda-Ken cried anxiously. “Does Kirsta go with you?”
“I will have my child before you return. Who will attend me?”
“There is Alix-Ellet, and Kim-Averic, and Tania — ”
“Tania’s touch will make me barren,” Alice protested with careless cruelty. “I have a right to have the senior present for the birthing.”
“The senior will be present. You are to be senior-in-trust until we return –”
The news did not placate her. “You have always despised me because I am not your child,” she said angrily, her voice rising to a screech. “You do this to keep me here, away from the Gaddis. You would be happy if I bore a cull, to insure that I stay here where you can — ”
Ledell suddenly stepped between Alice and Belinda. His back was to the senior, so that she could not see his expression. Nor could she hear his words, though she caught the intensity with which they were delivered. When he stepped aside, Alice spoke again, this time with a chastened civility.
“You will remember that Kip’s birth taxed me, and the memory of it has made me afraid,” she said, ending the awkward moment. “I regret my words and ask that they be not-spoken.”
“They are not-spoken,” said Belinda, silently grateful she had mended relations with the keeper. “I leave the Lonega in your hands, Alice-Tonda-Kip. Do well by them.”
Alice answered with the traditional travelers blessing. “May you run forever downhill.”
“Aye to that,” Andor growled, to general laughter. “Has there been enough talk? My legs are getting no younger.”
“Then take the first step, old one, and we’ll be that much closer,” Av said playfully, and led the way as the party turned its back to the homehill and headed south.
They kept a runner’s day, dayrise to dayset, though in deference to Andor they did not try to keep a runner’s pace. On the morning of the fourth day, they skirted the great Christiana Lake, thought to be the setting of the founding tale Ledell never got to tell. Even near the lake, there were no runs to speak of, and they picked their way across fields of snarlgrass and needlewood copses guided only by the navigational instincts of Andor and Av.
By that night they were in unfamiliar and apparently uninhabited terrain, on the fringe of the scalded lands. Here the snarlgrass was thicker and more vigorous than they had ever seen it, and yet the land seemed brown and barren. With the new moon in the day sky, the party spent that dark night restless and uneasy. A short time before dayrise, Kern piked a killkenny which, out of uncharacteristic bravery or desperation, was drawn by the smell of food into the light of their fire. From that point on, there was no sleep had at all.
The land became flatter with each day, until it was the nearby flora rather than distant hills that limited how far one could see. That was no advantage, since Andor had taken his sighting of the nightfire’s fall on those hills. From that point, they would be dependent on dead reckoning and whatever could be learned from whoever they encountered.
About once a day, they encountered broad, white-rock runs unlike any in the northern hills — arrow-straight and elevated, with a central trough dividing them in two. The ridge runs, as Av dubbed them, were clear enough for good traveling, but none would take them south. On the afternoon of the fifth day, as they were crossing yet another of the ridge runs, they were halted by a ringing challenge from the trees ahead.
“Far enough, porci. You tresspass against the Forsyth.”
Kenman moved to the point, his guardstick in the low-ready position at his hip. At the same time Av pulled Belinda back across the run to a less exposed position.
“This is the party of Belinda Twelvenames, senior of the Lonega,” Kenman called ahead. “If you have a watcher we ask to speak with him. If you do not, then we ask safe conduct to the south.”
“What is a Twelvenames, porci, and why should we grant it passage?” The voice seemed to be coming from the right.
“What is a Forsyth, voice-that-cowers-in-trees, that it is so ignorant? The Twelvenames is our senior breeder, mother to eleven fine children, gifted with the magics of twinning and song.”
There was a rustling in a tree off to the left, and two bare legs appeared dangling beneath a limb. A moment later the rest of the body appeared as the young Forsyth guardian dropped lightly to the ground.
“I have never heard of a breeder birthing eleven young,” he said suspiciously.
“Then take us to your homehill and we will share the story,” Av replied readily.
The guardian hesitated, seemingly torn by conflicting impulses. “Come,” he said suddenly, and set off at a trot without looking back to see if they followed.
At the Forsyth’s camp — it could not be called a homehill, with lean-to homes and without a sky circle or any other mark of permanence — they were better welcomed. The family leader was a grey-bearded man named Duane, a novelty which discomfited Belinda and her husbands alike. For his part, Duane was slow to adjust to Belinda’s precedence over her husbands, and tended at first to address both his questions and answers to Kenman.
But beyond that Duane seemed earnest, wise-eyed, and curious, and he called in from his watch the guardian who had best seen the nightfire fall, so that Andor could talk with him. Then they shared food with the Forsyth in what was almost a meeting of equals, since there were only eleven of the family in camp.
The capacity of the lean-tos suggested that few if any providers were away, and Belinda wondered to herself if the family were in as much trouble as its small numbers suggested. I myself have bred as many children as there are Forsyth here tonight, she thought at one point.
That fact was not lost on Duane, who after the meal pressed Belinda to tell of her children, first in a way that betokened skepticism, then with growing credulity and respect. Av made up for all the bragging Belinda herself declined to do, with the result that as dayset approached, Duane excused himself to conference with another of his family, then returned with a proposition.
“We have a new breeder two moons past first blood. You would honor us if the husbands of the Twelvenames would lie with her. We much need the touch of your good magic. In the last five summers our family welcomed but one new child.”
“And how many culls?”
“Two hands and more.”
Belinda nodded gravely, then smiled a laughing smile at the hopeful look on Kern’s and Denis’ faces. “With my blessing, my husbands.”
The girl, Alinda by name, lay on her back in the spidergrass by the lean-tos and squirmed fetchingly. Before she rose again she had opened her thighs to all five of the Lonega men in turn, and the Forsyth had sung and clapped their way through their best songs of breeding.
Then Belinda herself brought the sweat-happy Alinda a cloak, and combed out the young breeder’s hair while singing her own song of breeding. The Forsyth watched and listened in a respectful hush, their hearts full of gratitude for such an unexpected blessing. For the Lonega men, the song was an anthem of fond memories, for all but Andor had had it sung soft-voiced to them in the confines of the Twelvenames’ bedding.
When she was done there was little talking, but it was a good silence, the silence of full hearts and reflective minds. And the mood and the memory of the song brought Lonega and Forsyth alike a peaceful night’s sleep under a watchful full-eye moon.
Declining Duane’s repeated invitations to stay and share another meal, another breeder, another night of communion, the Lonega left the Forsyth at dayrise, taking their first meal on the trail as was their pattern.
Av led them, followed by Denis and Kern, who were arguing the merits of the Forsyth breeder, as well as of their own performance with her. Trailing the party were Kenman and Kirsta. In between, Belinda walked with Andor, and asked what he had learned by questioning the youth who had seen the nightfire fall.
“He was eager for me to know he had not been frightened, so eager that I am sure his bowels were loosed by fear,” Andor said amusedly. “Beyond that — he seemed to think that the nightfire was overhead when the colors vanished and it regained its former aspect. I do not trust that very much, so it is not so bad that I do not know what it would mean.”
“Have they heard of others who saw it, or had any word from families still further south?”
“It seems they do not use runners, nor much welcome them, as we saw. The nightfire was not cause for exception.”
“I am amazed that they made so little of it.”
“I am afraid we are not yet very near to its resting place. We are sure to encounter those who know of it before we come on it ourselves–”
Without warning, Kirsta cried out, stumbled, and dropped to her knees. As she doubled over, the others could see the rough wooden shaft protruding from her back. Strangely, the shout of dismay that followed came not from the Lonega but from well back on the trail.
Belinda started to move to Kirsta’s side, but Av grabbed her and pressed her flat to the ground instead, shielding her body with his own. From there she watched as Kenman whirled and ran back down the trail, gripping his guardstick in the two-handed attack position. She saw a second arrow whip past him and bury itself in the brush. Kenman did not flinch or hestitate, and a moment later Belinda saw his target: the grey-bearded Duane, standing in the trail less than 100 strides away and reaching to notch yet another arrow.
Perhaps the Forsyth leader, accustomed to fighting with coward’s weapons, expected Kenman to halt his charge once the next arrow was ready. Perhaps Duane realized the charge was simply too fast, too furious for a mere arrow to halt. For whatever reason, he never gave the arrow flight. At the last moment, he turned the bow sideways as if to use it to fend off a thrust to the body.
But the thrust never came. Keeping his wide-spaced two handed grip, Kenman swung the point of his guardstick to one side and swept it back in a short, slashing arc that intersected Duane’s throat. Even a hundred strides away, Belinda saw the blood spurt, saw the ragged gash that meant a quick and quiet death.
Abruptly, crying “Andor!”, Av leaped to his feet and left her.
Only then did Belinda realize that the battle was all around her as well. Kern was standing over a fallen body. Denis was still wrestling with an ambusher, with Kenman hastening back to aid him. Andor was down, crawling and making pitiful sounds, his assailant stumbling after him with knife in hand — that was where Av was headed.
The Forsyth heard him coming and looked back over his shoulder, and Belinda saw that it was the young guardian who had stopped them the previous afternoon. He saw her as well, and for a moment their eyes met, her gaze accusatory, his unreadable. Then he fled, leaping over Andor’s supine form and disappearing through the brush, with Av and Denis pursuing closely.
Coming to her feet, Belinda brushed the dirt and detritus from her forearms and went to where Kirsta lay on her side. Her breaths were wet and raspy, and a bloody froth trailed from one corner of her mouth.
She held her daughter’s hand until the light died in her eyes, then walked back down the trail. Standing over the still form of Duane Forsyth, she met his open-mouthed death stare unflinchingly. His head rested in the puddle of blood that had flowed from his own wounds.
You could have taken us while we slept, for we posted no guardian of our own. A decision made late and unwisely, she thought sadly. Yet part of the blame is surely ours, for parading too proudly our riches before the poor —
Av joined her, made a shapeless noise deep in his throat, and raised his guardstick as though to strike at the still form in vengeance. Belinda’s hand shot out and grasped the stick, forfending the blow.
“No,” she said simply.
“Why do you protect him? He struck down Kirsta,” Av protested in hurt and anguish.
“The arrow was meant for Kenman.”
Av gaped at her, taking a moment to digest her meaning. “He would have taken you and Kirsta, to breed for him?”
“His family was dying. He could do nothing else.”
“You excuse him.”
She shook her head slowly. “No. I understand him. Come, let us see to Andor.”
The Forsyth’s shinestone knife had pierced the muscle of Andor’s right thigh twice, once deeply, once not. Kenman had stanched the bleeding, but there was nothing to be done for the watcher’s pain.
“He lives, but I am afraid we will have to carry him back to the homehill as well,” Kenman said as Belinda arrived.
“I could stay with him until the healing begins, while the rest return with Kirsta,” Denis offered.
“Have you both volunteered to make my decisions for me?” Belinda snapped. “This changes nothing. We will continue on.”
Kenman’s eyes narrowed. “Kirsta must be remembered by her family. She must be taken back –”
“Do not presume to tell me what my daughter needs,” Belinda snapped with sudden fury. She closed her eyes, caught her breath, and continued in a more controlled tone. “She came with us looking for something and she has not yet found it. She had a yearning to find place and purpose and found neither. I have right of first claim, and I take her search for my own.” She glowered at them as if daring them to argue. “Kirsta would not have turned back, and I will not.”
Kenman would not be headed. “You think no more of her than of those who killed her, and would leave both to litter the trail?”
“We will find her a good resting place,” Av said quietly.
“I do not understand you,” Kenman said, shaking his head in disgust.
Andor answered, his voice weak but his tone commanding. “We have paid for something which we do not yet have. If the price seems high, how much higher must it seem if we never receive what it has bought?”
Kenman threw his hands up and stalked away, and Belinda looked to Av. “When we have sung the song of remembrance, will you find her body a good resting place, where it will be be devoured undisturbed by men such as these?”
Av nodded deeply.
“Then let us begin, so that we can leave this place and the memory of this morning may begin to fade.”
In a hour they continued on, assured by Av that he would be able to follow their trail sign and catch them when his task with Kirsta’s body was completed. The main party, wounded in both body and spirit, made comparatively slow progress. Their speed was limited by Andor’s crippling, their outlook soured by Kirsta’s absence. Kenman brooded, saying little when addressed and nothing of his own volition. Andor used Denis and Kern as human crutches, yet still winced at each jolting step.
Absenting herself from the group, Belinda walked alone, alternately outdistancing the others and then stopping until they drew near again. She needed the time to weave an emotional shroud into which to place the kernel of pain she held inside. It was almost a tangible process, as she saw herself methodically walling off the emotion and moving it beyond reach. But unlike in the past, this time when she was done something remained outside: guilt.
I gave you life, Kirsta, but could not give that life meaning, she thought. I am responsible for your emptiness and for the hurt it brought you.
Near dayset they spotted a tendril of smoke rising into the sky from among the trees ahead. Kenman peremptorily dispatched Av to head toward the smoke, which Kenman led them in a wide arc to the west to avoid the community it might represent. Av was not long in rejoining them, since he had but a single question to ask:
“Where did the nightfire fall?”
The family called themselves the Doerun, and the answer was as vague as always: south, far south. A runner had gone five days in search of it and returned having found nothing. The Doerun runner did bring back a report that the ice star, as it was called in that region, had fallen at the edge of the great lake-of-the-horizon.
“That’s why he came back, it seems. They said we would find few people and fewer families the nearer we get to the lake, that it is a place of storms and sickness,” Av reported.
“How far to the lake?” Kenman wanted to know.
Hearing that seemed to bring Kenman out of his funk. They would not be journeying on forever; the lake-of-the-horizon would stop them, and soon.
For a time, Andor’s wounds grew better, and the fourth day after the attack he walked unaided for much of the morning. But the next day the deep slash was swollen and began to weep a cloudy fluid. Within a week the leg had begun to stink, and Andor to quietly admit of a loss of feeling in his foot and ankle. By then all knew that Andor had been touched by the darkdeath, and that at some point the journey would inevitably claim a second victim from among the travelers.
If all knew it, none gave voice to it. All took their example from Andor. The watcher could not hide the tight-lipped grimace he wore throughout the early days, but as the nerves died and the leg went numb he began to show the good humor he had claimed from Kirsta.
“There, take the upwind side,” he would invite Av or Denis as they helped him up. “Now if you could tell me how I could walk upwind of myself I’d be grateful.”
“Now that I can’t feel it, I walk more lightly, don’t you think?” he asked. “If my whole body went numb I believe I would float like fluffseed.”
In the dark when they had turned to bed, he would mumble aloud, “A blessing that the nose sleeps with the rest of me.”
Though his jokes were frequently as lame as he was, they relieved the tension by telling the others he had accepted his state, and inviting them not to make his problems theirs. He underlined that along the trail, never flagging or complaining, never asking the others to stop for a rest and always being the first to call for them to continue.
Nevertheless, when one of Av’s side trips brought him on a passable black-rock run which promised to take them due south, they gave up the open country for it out of consideration for Andor. On the run’s hard surface, the watcher could do for himself (at the price of some speed) with the aid of a pair of walking sticks.
“Couldn’t stand to take your turn with me again, eh?” Andor jibed, shaking a finger at Av. But that night he confided to Belinda that he was grateful for the change, saying “If you lean on too many shoulders you can forget how to stand by yourself.”
Near highsun the next day, they came on a small family living along the side of the run, a breeder with a single husband and two small children. But Belinda learned nothing from them, since they startled at Av’s recognition call and then fled at the Lonega’s approach.
At the end of the day, the dayset was spectacular, a broad band of bright red across the western horizon. Noting it, Andor warned the others, “We’ll lose the good sky tomorrow.”
True to Andor’s prediction, that night during Denis’ watch the air changed, becoming uncomfortably thick as the stars vanished behind a curtain of clouds. Shortly before Denis would have woken the others, there was a brief heavy rainshower that did the job for him. They stayed up to see the morning come without a dayrise, as a blanket of low, water-swollen clouds covered the sky from horizon to horizon.
Rain resumed falling before they had been on the run long enough to break sweat, and with the rain the wind from the east freshened. At first both rain and wind were constant but gentle. But with each step the Lonega took, the raindrops grew in size and the pitch of the wind rose, gusting, then ebbing, then gusting to a new peak. The caressing rain Belinda at first welcomed began to batter exposed skin, and the bursts of wind made them stagger and Andor fall. From heartbeat to heartbeat the sky grew darker, the changing canopy of clouds growing ever more turbulent, until it was hard to believe it was day at all.
Before long, the unrelenting assault drove them off the run and into the nearest copse. But there was little comfort and less shelter as the wind pelted them with leaves and small branches stripped from the trees. The six huddled together at the base of one stalwart needlewood, turning their backs to the sky, joining hands in a tight circle with Andor at the center. Almost unconsciously Belinda began to sing the song of the Lonega, and the others reflexively joined her, the familiar sound the only balm against the onslaught.
And still the fury of the winds rose, bending the treetops to astonishing angles, the percussion of snapping branches punctuating the gale. A great limb crashed to the ground near them, its central bole as thick as a man’s thigh.
Then, in rapid succession, the clouds broke, the rain ceased, the winds died to the faintest breeze. The transforamtion was as complete as it was sudden. Above them was the high blue sky of a peaceful summer day; around them was the wreckage of a war. Though the direct rays of the sun could not reach them where they huddled, the air around them was dramatically warmer.
Belinda was the first to rise, brushing absently and ineffectually at the bits of wood and leaf in her sodden hair as she gazed up at the sky. “Has there ever been such a storm?” she breathed. “What a wonder!”
There was a fit of coughing behind her, and she turned back to see Andor doubled up, with Av and Kenman each supporting him by an arm.
“Yes, a fine storm, a fine storm to drown in,” Andor croaked when the fit passed. “Especially breeders too foolish to keep their mouths closed when they look up.” He tipped his head back in an open-mouthed mockery of Belinda, then grinned crookedly to encourage them to laugh.
“Belinda, it is time to go home,” Kenman said, his voice half iron and half sugar. “This can only end in us dying unremembered in a strange land.”
From the apprehensive expression on Denis’ face, it seemed he agreed. Av scowled in disapproval, while Kern merely looked on with stoic curiosity.
“Nonsense,” Belinda said lightly. “We are wet and perhaps a bit shaken, but we are far from dead.”
Kenman took a step toward her. “By craft and marriage, I am obliged to protect you. How can I protect you from such as this?” he asked, speading his arms to take in the destruction. “How can I protect you when you take such risks?”
“If the challenge is too much for you I will gladly free you from your craft and your marriage,” she said with icy condescension. “But Kirsta and I are continuing on.”
Kenman’s jaw worked as he bit back the fury her response raised in him. The faces of the others, even Av’s, showed varying degrees of shock, for, though both expulsion and unmarriage were perogatives of the senior, the threatened punishment far exceeded the crime.
But the threat ended the discussion, and when Belinda turned her back and started off, they hesitated only briefly before falling in behind her. They picked their way back to the run to find the ditch beside it transformed into a thigh-deep swiftly-moving stream. Wading through the muddy torrent, they found the run itself littered with broken branches and a plaster of wet leaves. The run shimmered with moisture returning to the sky.
Turning south, they found the way was nearly blocked by a shattered tree which had fallen across the blackrock at an angle. Denis was the first to look beyond the tree, and his face turned ashen. A vertical wall of black, boiling cloud filled the southern sky, and it took only a moment’s observation to know it was bearing down on them.
The sight of the storm returning froze them for a hundred heartbeats. Then, with only by a whimpering sound deep in his throat as forewarning, Denis broke and ran, not into the woods but back up the road, toward home. Within a dozen steps, he slipped on the slick surface and went sprawling, but he scrambledto his feet and regained his stride. Kenman called after him, but Denis gave no sign he heard, never hesitated, and never looked back.
“Let him go,” Belinda shouted, and waded into the rushing water, heading for the trees. The others hastened to follow.
They were barely ensconced in their imperfect hideaway when the storm struck again in full fury, this time with the downpour driven by howling winds from the west. But this time Belinda knew what to expect, and was not afraid; in truth, she was excited in a frankly sexual way. She knew Kenman would have thought her mad if he knew her thoughts, but that did not change them: Beautiful! she reveled silently as the rain lashed her face and the trees around them danced at the whim of the wind. Your power is your splendor. And in your fury you are beautiful.
By the next dayrise, the rain had eased to a drizzle, and the
clouds, higher and lighter, gave the promise of breaking to open
sky before dayset.
By that time it was also clear that the ordeal of the storm
had drained much of Andor’s remaining strength. The cough that had
been shallow and intermittent had become deep and incessant, and
at turns Andor shivered and shook uncontrollably. Though he
insisted on trying, he could no longer walk on his own, as even
the uninjured leg buckled beneath him.
Watching him try, Kenman’s face became a mask of
determination. He pulled the roughweave wrap tight around the
dwindling stock of dried meat, then set it aside. Quietly
stripping off all but his genital pouch, he stood and announced,
“I am going to find Denis.”
“No,” Belinda said, whirling to face him. “If he is alive, he
is on his way home. If not, then he is already eaten.”
“He came out of love and duty and did as well as could be
expected of a maker,” Kenman said. “You owe him.”
“I owe him what I owe Kirsta — to see this through. If we are
ready to travel, then we will all go, and we will go south.”
Kenman pointed at Andor, again seated by the tree. “Is he
ready to travel? He will have to be carried, like a corpse or a
Tears of humiliation shone in Andor’s eyes. “I will have to be
carried whichever way we go,” he said. “I would rather the view be
of where we are going than where we have been.”
“You are on a fool’s quest, the both of you,” Kenman
upbraided. “What if you reach the lake-of-the-horizon and the
nightfire is nowhere to be found? Will you insist on traveling the
shore a hundred days in each direction to find it?”
“The Doerun said that it had fallen at the edge.”
“The Doerun heard a story already three times retold. Did you
not remind Ledell that what is kept is not always what is true?”
“But we saw it fall. And it has not been among the stars for
sixteen days now,” Andor protested.
“And is that so strange? Has it not been months, even tens of
months, between apparitions? You are like the boy who climbs the
highest tree to try to touch the sun. You do not understand your
“You insult us unfairly. The nightfire fell to earth,” Belinda
“It did not fall because it could not, no more than the sun or
moon could. It is a fire of heaven and presently it will appear
“That would prove nothing,” Andor argued. “We saw the
Kenman held his hand out before him with one finger upraised.
“I have been thinking of that as well. I may twin my finger by
looking at it so,” he said, squinting crosseyed. “But all the same
I have but one finger. What is seen and what is may differ.”
“A guardian risks straining himself when he wrestles with
reason,” Andor said cuttingly.
“Reason has left you, Andor. If the nightfire fell to earth,
would it not cause the ground to shake beyond imagining? Would it
not set the sprawlgrass and needlewood burning such that no storm,
not even such as we have come through, could quench it? But did
the ground tremble? Is the world aflame? If not, then the
nightfire did not fall. You search for nothing, for there is
nothing to find.”
“You are wrong,” said a new voice.
Heads whipped up to see a slender runner wearing a brilliant
red shawl and a glittering rope belt step from behind a tree and
walk toward them. “I heard your voices and thought to see if you
needed aid, so I listened. I did not understand everything that
was said. But if you have come looking for that which left the
trail of fire across the sky sixteen nights ago, it exists. I have
The runner’s name was Jacobee, and he was not truly a runner,
though he had the build of one. When a startled Kenman took his
weapon up, Jacobee quickly shed his shawl to show he was unarmed.
He was, he explained, a Floridian and a mystic. Neither term had
meaning for the Lonega, and that was not the end of the strange
“We saw the damikan fall, and I was sent to measure its
palan,” Jacobee explained. “It rests on a shoal in the bay of
shoals, west of the black marsh. From the ease with which I found
it, I thought its palan strong, but I was wrong. I watched it from
the shore for the prescribed period, and called the tenth-hour
spells each morning, but it took all and gave nothing back.”
“You could look on it without being blinded?” Andor demanded.
“Did not the scorched ground sear your feet?”
Jacobee looked puzzled. “Did you not hear me? It is in the bay
of shoals.” He shuddered. “The dead ground is well west, and only
a prime mystic would risk a kelota there. I have no wish to enter
the spirit world early.”
“But does the — damikan — not burn with a white flame?”
Belinda demanded. “Does it not boil the waters and consume trees
like fallen needles?
Jacobee shook his head slowly. “I thought from the fall that
it would have such a palan, but its heart is cold.”
“Then how does it appear?”
The mystic touched fingertips to fingertips, trying to make
the shape, then gave up the effort. “It stands twice the height of
a man, with a white face complexly marked. I have never seen the
like of it –”
While the interrogation was taking place, Kern had picked up
and examined the shawl Jacobee had shrugged off. “What splendid
making!” he exclaimed. “Belinda, look on this. The weave is so
fine, the color so deep — ”
“And rain rolls off as though off the face of a rock,” Jacobee
said, reclaiming it posessively. “It kept me well through the
“Who is the maker?”
“I do not know. I found it among the trees near the damikan.
This is but part of the whole. There was more, much more than I
could carry or use, plenty to cloak all of you.” He seemed
suddenly nervous, and glanced repeatedly at the well-muscled
Kenman, standing two steps away with his guardstick in hand.
“You must take us there,” Belinda said firmly.
“Do even strangers subscribe to the libel that a mystic can
never be trusted? I have not lied. I have told you the place.”
Av shouldered forward. “You know this land and we do not. We
require your aid, as we would give you if you came to the
“I would not have come even this far inland except for the
storm,” Jacobee protested. “I am barely headed home and you would
have me turn on my heel.”
“Why, how far is the bay of shoals?” Andor asked.
He pointed southwest through the trees. “A hard run of less
than half a day. You cannot fail to find it.”
Kenman stepped forward and brought the guardstick up to the
low ready position. “We have come a long way and paid with two
lives for our senior’s curiosity. You will take us to this place,
and then we will ask nothing more from you.”
Jacobee looked to the point of the guardstick and back to
Kenman’s determined face.
“Aye,” he said. “I believe I will.”
For the first time since leaving the homehill, the Lonega
broke into a runner’s pace.
Jacobee led, with Kenman at his heels. Swallowing the
humiliation of his helplessness, Andor accepted a punishing ride
on Kern’s back. The watcher’s slight frame proved little enough a
burden for the broad-shouldered provider that it was Belinda
herself who set the limit on their speed. But she pressed herself
to stay with the others, the anticipation which placed a glow in
her eyes making her steps light.
The land lay heavy with water, both the swollen swamps and
marshes which dominated the open land and the puddled leavings of
the storm which dotted the woods. They made many small detours
around water shallow enough to cross, which Kenman questioned
until Jacobee pointed out the sinuous form of a water snake in one
of the small ponds.
“One-bite-death,” he said, the reptile’s name explanation
As they neared the lake-of-the-horizon, the smell of the land
changed, the breeze bringing them the scent of salt and
putrefaction. Then suddenly, through a gap in the trees and across
an expanse of marsh, they could see the greenish-blue hue and
undulating surface of the bay. The last thousand strides were
taken at a breakneck pace, and when the party reached the small
shell-littered beach Belinda was in the lead.
“It truly is the lake of the horizon,” she exclaimed. She ran
to the waterline and squinting into the distance as small swells
broke in front of her. The water melded into the sky at the
horizon, a faraway haze masking any seam. “I can see nothing of
the other side.”
“Some say there is no other side,” said Andor as he was
lowered to the sand beside her.
“But where is the nightfire?” Kenman asked.
Shocked out of her awe by the question, Belinda’s gaze swept
both ways along the curving shoreline. The surface of the bay was
unbroken by shoal, or daniken, or nightfire.
“It is gone. I feared this. The storm –” Jacobee said
hoarsely as the first questioning gazes turned his way. “The
stormwave comes taller than a man. Perhaps without palan, the
danikan could not stand against it.”
“You have no doubt this is the place?” Kenman asked.
“I slept on this beach for ten days.”
“Could the stormwave change the beach so that you would not
know it?” asked Kenman, indicating the downed trees and debris
lying just inland.
Jacobee pointed east along the shoreline. “The beach is
changed. But there is the inlet that feeds the black marsh,” he
said, and swung his arm to point west. “And there is Decision
Point, which marks the edge of the dead land. This is where the
Av took a menacing step toward the mystic. “Or perhaps you
brought us to the wrong place. Perhaps your scare talk about the
dead land is meant only to hide the danikan’s true resting
“No!” Jacobee insisted, backing away and holding his hands up
defensively. “I swear by my father, it was here!”
“Liar,” snarled Av, and would have flung himself on the mystic
if Kenman had not intervened.
“Stop!” he said forcefully, and with a gesture invited the
runner to look behind himself.
There Belinda knelt, silently crying, fat tears falling from
her cheeks to pit the sand. Beside her Andor sat stunned, his face
slack, his eyes vacant. As Av watched, the tongue of a larger wave
crawled up the beach and swirled around them, and they seemed not
Av turned back to Kenman and the mystic. “I do not want to
think it ends this way.”
“But it does,” Kenman said firmly, and turned to Jacobee. “You
have done what we asked — now you can go. We have no further need
Jacobee nodded and began to retreat cautiously, backpedaling
with his eyes fixed on Kenman’s weapon. When he was beyond
throwing range, he turned and ran, his shawl flying out behind him
as he disappeared down the curving beach.
Kenman walked back to where Belinda still knelt and offered a
hand. She grasped it mechanically, allowing him to help her to her
“Now we go home, and make things as they were,” he said, and
this time there was no argument.
Andor died quietly that night, lying on a bed of soft grass on
the edge of the run. Though his passing surprised no one, it
nonetheless affected Belinda profoundly. From the first moment his
death was discovered the next morning, she sat crosslegged beside
his body and rocked back and forth, alternately crying and softly
singing in a voice made husky by grief.
She heard them talking about her in worried tones:
“Something has happened — ”
“She never cried over her own children –”
“I am afraid for her –”
“I am afraid for us –”
But the words were sounds without meaning in her ears. She
heard only an inner voice, a voice curiously calm, drained of
Even such as you, my teacher, becomes food for the `kennies.
And the sights you have seen and the things you have known will be
washed away as dust in the rain.
I would take you inside me and give you life again but I am
dry, barren. And you would be trapped there and die with me,
having lived a second life without meaning.
When Av came and touched her shoulder consolingly, she angrily
shook off the contact.
After that, they left her alone until their impatience to be
moving on was too great. Kenman approached her, crouching where
he could see her face, though she did not look up or seem to note
“Belinda Twelvenames — do you want to hold Andor’s
remembrance here or at the homehill?”
She ran her fingers slowly, tenderly, along Andor’s cheek,
then stood. “There is no point to either,” she said, and headed
off down the run.
“What of Andor’s body?” he called after her.
“Leave it,” she answered lightly. “It does not matter.” She
did not look back to see the horrified expressions that heresy
That day and those that followed, Belinda was tireless. As
long as the sun or the moon lit the way, she kept on, stopping
only as taboo demanded when both were absent from the sky.
Belinda stayed within herself throughout the journey. In the
beginning, when they spoke to her directly she would not answer,
but she at least acknowledged them with her eyes. Often, when they
stopped for meals, she would sit and listen alertly to their
conversations, though never taking part herself.
It’s as if we were travelers unable to understand each other,
but who have taken each others’ company for a time, Av thought as
he watched her.
But as they reached the rolling hills south of the known land,
even those small concessions to their presence were fading. By the
time they reached the first range of the Georgias, she was
treating them as though they were not there at all.
Not even the reappearance of the nightfire overhead could stir
her. When its passing brightened the sky as they rounded the end
of Christiana Lake, she stopped and raised her head to watch it
arc over them. But she said nothing, her face showed nothing, and
when the nightfire was gone she continued on as before.
By the time they reached the homehill, there was no longer any
doubt: Belinda was deep in the silence. Brushing off the embrace
of her daughter Bria, dead to the welcoming cries and joyful
faces, she headed directly for her cupa.
But as she neared it, Alice-Tonda-Ken appeared at the
smokehole, ascending the ladder and stepping off to block
“So you have come back,” she said challengingly, crossing her
arms over her chest.
Belinda stopped an armslength away and met her eyes, but gave
“Where is Andor?” Alice continued, looking past Belinda. “Has
he died yet?”
The question told the travelers that Denis had made it home.
“He has, Alice,” Kenman called.
It was Ledell who spoke next, appearing out of the darkness
off to the right. “You will use the name of respect when you speak
with the senior. She is Alice-Tonda-Ken-Marla-Zi, newly delivered
of a fertile daughter and a strong son. Like the seat of
leadership, the magic of twinning has passed to her.”
“I celebrate the births with you,” Kenman said. “But Belinda
Twelvenames is senior of the Lonega.”
“No,” Alice said sharply. “Twelvenames or not, she is no
longer senior. She gave that up when she placed herself above the
family. She gave that up when she took from us a fine breeder and
the first among our watchers. She gave that up when she held
lightly the lives of her husbands and took them on a foolish
journey into a place of death.” An unpleasant smile tugging at the
corner of her mouth, Alice looked expectantly at Belinda for her
The smile faded when she saw no reaction at all. “I have
decided to allow you to stay with us,” she continued with a degree
less confidence. “You can keep your place in the cupa, and
you will be called first breeder because of your songs and magic.”
She leaned closer. “But I will hear you acknowledge me, or I will
send you away, and you will have no place here.”
“No!” Av cried. His protest was echoed by some of the family
who looked on, hinting that conflict had ruled the homehill since
they had left. “This is Ledell’s doing. He has had a month to fill
her head with his ambitions. You are senior, Belinda! She has no
claim to it.”
Belinda raised her head slowly and met Alice’s gaze with a
chilling empty-eyed stare. “I am not a Twelvenames,” she said with
an effort. “I am just Belinda. And you are senior of the Lonega.”
Then she ducked her head again and stepped past Alice to enter the
Shaking a fist angrily in the direction of Ledell, Av quickly
followed her down the ladder.
“Belinda, what is wrong? Why allow this? The right is yours,
not hers. Why let her take advantage?”
She turned to him and for the first time in days there was
emotion on her face: the emotion was relief. To his surprise, she
reached for his hand. “It is all right, good husband.”
Her response encouraged him. “Belinda, we will fight this. The
Lonega will not prosper under her. Only ask, and you know we will
stand with you.”
“It is not a thing worth fighting over,” she said softly, and
woudl say no more. But inside, she was calling out to her
daughter, joining hands with her. Alice has freed me, she
exhulted. Now we are ready. We will slip into silence together,
the silence that none can disturb. You will not have to go alone,
sweet Kirsta. We go together.
With the next dayrise, the family began to learn that a
breeder deep in silence is a disturbing presence. Talk stopped at
Belinda’s approach, and the sight of her deathly face turned heads
away and banished smiles. As though paying her back for being cold
to them, some of the youngest took cruel pleasure in pinching her
arms and legs until purple bruises appeared.
But Belinda took no meals with them, spent long hours in the
cupa, and only rarely emerged to sit in the sky circle or walk the
homehill with leaden steps. That pattern minimized the
disturbance, and for several days Alice tolerated Belinda’s
Before long, however, driven by her own insecurities, Alice’s
attitude began to harden. Each sight of Belinda became a reminder,
then an accusation. She followed Belinda on her walks so that she
could taunt her at every step, reminding her of her barren loins
and dry breasts, inviting her to drown herself in the deep pool
downstream from the bridge. And to none of this did Belinda react,
not even to an open-palm blow that left a livid handprint on her
cheek for the rest of the day.
The next day she added Denis to her stable of husbands in a
sky-circle ceremony at which the joy was more forced than real.
But even that drew no reaction from Belinda, though Kenman had to
be restrained from taking after Denis for his disloyalty.
Av marked all this with sadness and wondered how long Alice
would allow it to continue. You make it impossible for her to
enjoy her victory, he thought as he sat beside Belinda’s sleeping
form in the cupa, because your serenity denies it.
Before that phase was over, Alice confronted Belinda publicly
as she sat at the edge of the sky-circle. “You are almost dead,
Belinda Twelvenames,” said Alice with all the cruelty she could
muster. “The dead do not sleep in cupas or walk the homehill. Go
and find yourself a resting place.”
When Belinda did not look up, Alice shoved her with her foot
and sent her sprawling. “Do you hear me?” she screamed. “Leave us!
Take your silence and your deathface away from here! I expel you!
You are no longer Lonega.”
Belinda gathered herself slowly and came to her feet. Fight
back! Av pleaded silently as he looked on. How can you let her
humiliate you this way? Belinda Twelvenames! Known to all the
Georgias! Oh, Belinda, find yourself!
But neither Alice’s excoriations nor Av’s exhortations
registered on Belinda, and she moved off toward the north with
head bowed. As she did, a victorious smirk spread across Alice’s
Av looked helplessly at Kenman. “It’s better this way,” the
guardian said, shaking his head, then turned his back to avoid
Av’s eyes. Av looked to Kern, who only shrugged impotently and
He ran after Alice and caught her roughly by the arm. “You are
sending away the good heart of the Lonega,” he said fiercely.
“This family will die with you as senior.”
Alice jerked her arm free and glared at him. “Then you should
be happy to leave now, too,” she hissed. “I expel you as well. I
have no need for those with your loyalties.”
Only a lifetime of conditioning that breeders were to be
valued beyond measure kept Av from striking her down at that
moment. But she saw the hate in his eyes, and he the momentary
fear in hers, before he turned away to follow Belinda away from
what had been their home.
She led him wordlessly to the high observatory, where she
curled up in the dust of the marking circle and closed her eyes.
He settled near her, and drew shapes in the dust with a fingertip
until it was too dark to see their outline. He expected her to die
that night, just as Andor had died when he lost whatever hope or
purpose the fallen nightfire had given him. When the nightfire
appeared over the north horizon just after nightset, Av regarded
it with undisguised antipathy.
I know you now, better than Ledell, better than Andor, he
thought. You are the bringer of death. You are the maker of
But Belinda surprised him. Though he failed in his effort to
watch her throughout the night, when he awoke at dayrise she was
still breathing. On rising, she brushed her hair when he offered
her his bristlestick, and washed herself when he brought her
water. But she would not eat, and she would not talk.
That did not stop Av from talking to her. Much of the time she
was awake, he would sit near her and quietly recount things he had
seen while running, or recollections of Belinda’s children. He
asked her no questions, and never raised his voice or showed
impatience. It was the vigil of one friend resigned to the death
Each day she slept later, and was more listless when she
arose. And yet she lingered, through a day of showers and a night
of fog, through two passings of the nightfire just three days
apart, through the remainder of the food Av had had in his pouch
when he left the homehill.
“Even if you will not, I must eat,” he said one morning,
standing over her. “I will be away no longer than is necessary.”
When he returned, he found her seated crosslegged on the edge
of the circle, turning an egg-sized stone over and over in her
“Look, Belinda — I found snapberries,” he said as a mother
might coax a contrary child. Loosing his pouch from his belt, he
placed it before her.
At that moment, a rumbling sound like a long, rolling peal of
thunder turned Av on his heel to stare into the cloudless
northern sky. There, trailing a lacy white plume and sparkling
like sun on the water, something was falling to earth.
“Belinda!” he shouted, afraid to take his eye from it. “Do you
see? The second nightfire is coming down!”
As he watched, the apparition underwent a puzzling
transformation. Its smooth ballistic arc was interrupted, and the
thing itself seemed to grow. When the transformation was complete,
the nightfire was not falling but floating, descending gracefully
under three inverted red and white bowls, and joined to them by
fine strands that glittered like a bedewed web.
“Look at it, Belinda, look at it!” he cried, locking his gaze
on the strange shape. When it at last disappeared over a ridge to
the northeast, he fixed in his memory the place it was last
Then he turned to Belinda, and his heart leaped. She had come
to her feet, and was staring at the northeast hills. Slowly, as
though it were an unpracticed movement, she looked to Av, and he
saw eyes that once again harbored life.
“I know where it fell,” he said tentatively, hopefully. “I
know we could find it — if you wanted to.”
With painful slowness, she brought her hands to her cheeks,
which were flushed with new color. “Yes,” she said, her voice a
croak. She held out a hand to him. “Yes, good husband. Take me
Av wanted to rock the mountain with his shout of joy, and
catch her up in his arms in a crushing embrace. But fear that he
would frighten her back to the place she had only just escaped
stayed him. Instead, his right hand went up, and she mirrored his
action. Theri fingers entwined, and he stepped close to lightly
press his cheek against hers.
“I have missed you, Belinda.”
She answered him with only a wistful smile and a nod. But he
understood that that was all he could expect for the moment, and
together they started off down the northeast slope of the high
observatory toward their goal.
Belinda’s stamina astonished Av as much as her convalesence
delighted him. After not having eaten for nearly two phases, she
downed a quantity of snapberries that would have knotted Av’s
stomach in the same circumstance. She held her head high and
pressed close enough to Av’s heels to step on them more than once.
But she was still not whole. It seemed to Av that she were
fighting to escape the silence, casting about for the
understandings that would tear down the walls she had been
building. Her self-explanations were the tools of that struggle,
tools she reached out to share with Av, as though by doing so she
ensured she would not have to fight alone.
Yet the first effort had to be hers. It was time for Belinda
to talk, and Av to listen. And though her utterances spanned half
a day, they were a single continuum of thought.
“I cannot see Kirsta any more. This was not enough for her,
any more than the first time. She came with us on hope alone.
“If I were a maker, I might have understood sooner — but if I
were a maker, I might never have thought on it. A maker’s works
outlive him. He leaves the family enriched by the exercise of his
craft, and that purpose never leaves him.
“Breeding is the most special kind of making, and brings the
fullest sense of purpose. But there is a price, a terrible price.
Where is the keeper struck dumb by time, or the maker with life in
his heart but not in his hands? But a breeder blessed with many
summers is condemned to outlive her craft. And a breeder past
blood-end is a breeder in name only. That which sustained her,
absorbed her, is gone.
“If the works of a maker are lost, he still has the craft in
his hands to replace them. If the quarry of a provider escapes, he
still has his weapon. If a young breeder loses a child, as I lost
Dette and Madee, she still has her husbands and the floor of the
cupa. But when I lost Erik, and Ajlt, and Garivan, and Kirsta, I
could do nothing.
“The loss of my craft and the death of my children emptied me.
“When I saw the first nightfire fall, I had purpose again. To
see it — to know its nature — to take its measure — that filled
the emptiness. But when I lost that purpose, I was more empty than
before. I lost more than my purpose on the shore of the
lake-of-the-horizon. I lost hope.
“That is when the silence takes you.
“I know why the families are struggling, why the Ellijay are
gone. If tomorrow is just to be an echo of today, then there is no
reason for tomorrow, and no purpose for today. Death is preferable
to a life that leads nowhere.
“The purpose of today is to shape tomorrow, not to repeat
Though heartened by the sound of her voice, what Av heard did
not banish his one fear. He waited until they were nearing their
destination, with Belinda’s reintegration largely complete, to
“Belinda — if what we find is not what you expect — or we
find nothing at all, like before — will I lose you again?”
“No, good husband,” she said with a reassuring smile and a
squeeze of his hand. “I already know that it will not be what I
expect. This time, it is not the finding but the searching that
recalled me. I needed a focus to bring me back from self-chosen
death. But when it is gone I will find another. I know how to fill
the emptiness now.”
From the top of the ridge beyond which the nightfire had
disappeared, they spotted the splash of red and white that marked
where it had fallen. With his keener sight, Av also thought he saw
movement, movement that would mean they were not the first to
“Perhaps the Gaddis saw it as well,” Av said as they began to
pick their way down into the valley. “They were closer than we.”
But by the time they reached the site, the others, whoever
they had been, were gone, taking with them two of the three red
and white smoothweave bowls. The third was entangled in the crown
of a tree, its glittering ropes dangling and dancing in the gentle
The nightfire itself did not glitter, or glow, or burn. It
rested at an angle at the edge of the glade, a teetering white
monument streaked with black. A broad, shallow gouge across the
ground and a litter of broken branches betrayed the path and force
of its landing.
It was too tall for even the long-limbed runner to reach up to
its top, where the ragged stubs of the glitter ropes were
attached, and far too large for even the two of them to join hands
around its girth. Av circled it cautiously, then came to where
Belinda stood studying the lines, ridges, and shapes arrayed on
“How could this be the nightfire?” he demanded. “How could
this light the sky so?”
Belinda reached out and touched its surface, and found it hot
where the sun shone on it, cool in the shadow, everywhere smooth
to the touch. She ran her fingers across one of the black streaks
and wrinkled her nose at the smell it left on her fingers. She
struck it with a rock, and saw it dent under the blow.
“It is a made thing,” Av realized belatedly.
Belinda nodded excitedly. “Yes — a made thing that once kept
company with the stars.”
“How can that be?” Av demanded, almost angrily.
She breathed heavily, and took a long time answering.
“Somewhere there are makers of such skill as we have never seen,
makers who work in smoothweave and shinestone and place lights
among the stars,” she said finally, running her fingers lightly
over a pattern of red markings on the side of the nightfire.
“Where?” Av demanded to know. “I have traveled more than any
Lonega, and I have never seen nor heard of such makers. And if it
is a made thing, what is its use? What does it do?”
Her eyes found and fingertip traced a drawing of the nightfire
and of a man — a guardian or provider, from the shape — standing
beside it. There was an outline of a hand, and she placed her own
against it. The engraved hand grasped a recessed catch and
squeezed it. Belinda’s hand did the same.
There was a hissing sound, and the nightfire shuddered. A
crack appeared across its face and up its side, widening to a
handsbreadth as the hissing ceased.
“Help me,” she said, and took hold of one edge of the door.
Tugging together, they swung it back until light streamed into the
The light lit a grid of a hundred small rectangles, each
barely a handsbreath wide, each colored one of a hundred different
pale hues and tints. From each of the rectangles dangled a small
loop of shinestone. A single rectangle, at the center of the grid,
was a brilliant scarlet red.
With barely a moment’s hesitation, Belinda grasped the loop of
the red rectangle and pulled. It moved — and more appeared behind
- She pulled again, and still more appeared. A third tug, and a
piece of the nightfire came off in her hands, swung downward, fell
open, and disgorged more than a hundred objects unlike anything
either had ever seen.
Belinda cast the container aside and picked up one of the
objects. It seemed to be some kind of smoothweave, though made
stiff somehow. One side was a white square marred by black
markings that reminded Belinda of Andor’s watching records.
The other side was a revelation — a magic hole through
which she saw the lake-of-the-horizon, and on it a long white
shape the nature of which she could not divine. But the waves of
the lake-of-the-horizon were frozen, without motion, and dry to
“They are too real to be drawings, but less real than the
world,” she exclaimed.
Av crouched with her and sifted through the pictures, noting
that each bore a small colored disc in one corner of the back.
There was one larger object in the pile, but it was nothing more
than a number of the smaller ones fastened together.
Suddenly Av grabbed a picture from the pile and thrust it
before Belinda’s face. “This is the downstream wall of the lake at
Hartwell,” he said in amazement. “I know where I would stand to
Belinda cocked her head to one side. “They are something like
memories, I think — as though you can hold one in your hand and
see what you saw when you were there –”
“But where would you stand to see these?” he asked, taking in
with a sweep of his hand a footprint in the dust of the Sea of
Tranquility, a turtle-backed bridge arching across the Lower Bay
of the Hudson, and a line of silver transmission towers bisecting
a field of young corn.
“I cannot imagine,” Belinda said.
Av picked out a memory of the Gossamer Condor in flight and
marked the pale blue circle of color on the back. Taking it to the
open door of the nightfire — the name seemed most inappropriate
by then, but he had no other — he compared it to the color of
each of the drawers in turn.
“Look — these are the same,” he said, pulling the drawer open
and dumping its contents, a hundred memories of the shapes of
flight, onto the ground. “And inside there are more. Every one of
these must be full of them. But can these be memories, or are they
Belinda did not answer. She had picked up the book of memories
and turned back its cover, where she found a loose white sheet
with more markings. The markings said:
From the desk of… DANIEL YATES
To the survivors —
If you are ill and hoped for medicine, or hungry
and hoped for food, there is nothing here for you.
Even in my time, millions needed both, and yet life
went on. Because, for a time at least, we had
something you may now need: hope.
Consciously or not, you already know the worst we
were capable of. I offer you here reminders of the
best. I have no way to teach you how to do what
these photographs show. It will have to be enough
that you know they can be done.
But to Belinda the markings were meaningless, and she cast
the paper aside. A minor gust of wind lifted it and blew it into
the brush, where it would remain until the next rainstorm would
destroy both its form and its content.
Belinda turned her attention to the book’s contents. The first
memory showed a tall breeder standing between two skeletal
shinestone shapes that reminded Belinda of the nightfire.
Successive memories showed more skeletons, and in each they more
closely resembled the object resting a few steps away from Belinda
and Av. In every memory there were men, but their builds were
covered by clothing and she could not otherwise decide their
Then she found a memory which showed the nightfire itself
much as it stood before her, save for the dangling cut ends of
the ropes and the fragrant streaks of black.
Still further into the book was a memory of a sad-faced young
runner holding in his arms a container like the ones she and Av
had pulled from the nightfire. In the next she saw vast numbers
of memories being neatly stacked by oddly-dressed breeders —
Belinda quickly turned back to the beginning and stared at
the face of the tall breeder. Then she flipped forward a few
pages, studying the skeletal nightfire that appeared on each —
then back to the beginning, and forward again even faster.
They are not different skeletons — they are the same! One
becomes the other —
Closing the book, she clutched it to her chest. “Av — I
understand now. Oh, Av! We were the makers!”
He only stared, uncomprehending.
“Don’t you see, in a time before the darkness — oh, here is
purpose enough for a hundred lifetimes, not only for one old
breeder but for all the Georgias!”
Still he stared, nose wrinkled in puzzlement.
“Dear Av,” she said, reaching out to touch his cheek. “Do not
wonder, and do not be afraid, of me or for me. I understand but a
piece of it myself, but we will understand everything in time.
Now, gather as many memories as you can carry! We are going back
to the Lonega — to my homehill, where I am senior.
“And when we have put things in order there we will share
these memories with the Gaddis, and the Cantona, and the mystics
on the shore of the lake-of-the-horizon,” she exulted, radiant.
“We will put thoughts in their heads that have never been there
And in the heat of that vision began the first thaw of
–August 9, 1984, Goshen, Indiana