labingi: (Ghanior)
[personal profile] labingi
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

Chapter 4

But there was no chance. The next day, we took Glin and Tanez to my ship, where the sum total of our expertise pronounced it irreparable in the absence of a synapse grower. Even Chi'anové couldn't deny it. Like rusty swimmers beached on an island, we reset our conception of time and space and firmed our minds for the long, long swim.

***

Our Journey: Day 1

The following day, we set out just after breakfast, a relief to us all except Leyvar. For him, Nyra's departure came like the cracking of an old, over-heavy tree limb: both expected and abrupt. Accustomed as he was to her wanderings, our stranding smacked of danger, and our destination was far away. Nyra understood his unease with an old familiarity and hugged him tightly in parting.

Though my shoulder ached under my pack, our steady pace comforted me. The morning cool was made for walking, the woods quiet: once we left the town, I sensed no people but our company. Blessed be progress without hurry. To go by foot is humanity's natural state, synced--so they guess--to our evolution: walking... Walking. That other Walking will always be alien to our bodies. Except Chi'anové's: his natural state, indeed, is Walking, so much so he bleeds Jana out of his cells. When I thought of the jae damage building in his body, our pace no longer pleased me.

The day warmed, not dramatically, a lifting of fog, sun dappling the turf. We were all lucky to have hardwearing clothes, though the seal-slick Leddie jumpsuits breathed better than our Ash'torian coats and breeches. Nyra, in light, loose pants and tunic fared best as temperature crept up.

As the sun ascended glacially, my legs grew leaden and my shoulder burned, numbed, tingled, burned by turns. When we stopped for lunch, I sank gratefully on a rock just off the path. There's a freedom in being able to stop anywhere: no hotel, no dining district, no transit station--just world.

While we ate, Tanez--he'd asked to be called that--found the courage to ask Nyra why her family, "clearly good folk," were distrusted.

The question damped her spirits but didn't offend. After some thought, she said, "I'd reckon it's important ye understand as you're wrecked up here on Náirila. It's the plague, see." A jolt of fear from all sides. "I don't think it's a danger now. It first struck when Leyvar and I were seven, away up north in our homeland; it went right through our city, killing most of our kin. That's how we came to be raised together, us and his brother. We were sick, all of us, but we lived." She shrugged. "Sufficient biodiversity will tend to spare some portion of the gene pool." This was a quotation; it had stamp of Onáda, the Kiri capital. "It went the way of such things. It would burn out in a city only to bloom out again elsewhere. A handful of travelers will always be left to carry such things."

"And that's why travelers are feared today?" asked Tanez.

"That's so. But for our household, there's a bit more to it. They know we come from the north by our talk, so they fear us most, as that's where the plague began."

"Why did you move there?" asked Glin.

"Because wandering's hard," said Nyra, speaking more for Leyvar than herself. The obvious next question, of course, was why not stay in the north. The obvious answer was too much memory of death--and this rang true to a point. She kept the rest of it deep; I didn't try to unearth it. "On the fair side, as we head north, we'll meet friendlier folk. Tainted's no taint to the tainted, they say."

"May I ask," I started, realizing belatedly that I'd phrased that like an Ash'torian, "are you rather sure the plague is not dangerous now?"

Again she shrugged, downplaying. "No cases I've heard of in five or so years. I'd reckon it's well burnt out now."

"Besides which," added Tanez, "our travel checks would probably protect us anyway."

True. Probably.

As we moved to go, Nyra noticed me favoring my shoulder. I protested it was nothing, but she--quite rightly--recognized it as problem to stem early. To my embarrassment, she spent some time reweighting my things and adjusting my straps, even shifting some heavy items into her own pack. When we finally set off, the ache had lessened and my faith in our guide grown deeper.

***

We made camp absurdly early in Nyra's estimation, but for us, the day had stretched long enough, and the ponderous descent of the late-summer sun made us wardens of its course, unable to break off watching it. That first night, when it finally came, was the most miserable I'd spent in many years: the damp, the chill, the hard ground, the insufficient blanket, and my shoulder--despite Nyra's ministrations--a cold fire.

***

Our Journey: Day 2

The morning brought me face-to-face with the softness of my upbringing: I, an Ash'torian, a woman of a hard people, or so we used to be. I'm ashamed of how it cowed me to have no toilet, no shower, just a cold stream and an inadequate powder of Nyra's for soap. Breakfast was nuts and jerky: characterless but filling.

It was six days since the Walkers had been slammed here (or a little more standard). Chi'anové had missed his first cap-bed treatment. He ate well and felt healthy enough, but his tension leaked through in the clench of his jaw.

My shoulder flamed almost as soon as I hefted my pack. Thanks to Nyra's efforts, though, it was light enough to swing over the other shoulder. Nyra warned me not to make a practice of that, but by shifting between one shoulder and two, I managed to spare them both, at least enough to begin to feel more hopeful.

***

By midday, the forest had thinned, growing warmer and drier as we inched north toward the equator. At one point, the trail broadened out into a low patch of dirt, dark with moisture though too firm to be called mud. Nyra stopped us there and faced uphill--or up the very slight angle of incline.

"Hello, Green," she said.

We followed her gaze. A tree, not particularly large, stood directly before her, three or four broad limbs fanning out from its base. Around it lay a scattering of moss-coated rocks and ferns. Higher, the sun gleamed through oval leaves.

It was green. Moss, ferns, leaves, all flashed out emerald against the black of rock and earth and tree trunk. I glanced left and right, the way we'd come, the way we were going: dry gray-greens, browns, and yellows.

Nyra, too, wore gray-green and brown, passerby through this living jewel. She paused no more than a few seconds, then led us on up the trail.

It had the feel of meeting an old acquaintance in a town one visits every few years: "God with you, Chaeq." "God with you, 'Eblia. It's been a long time." You exchange a few courtesies and move on.

This was Nyra, revisiting her path home, we the excuse for her homecoming.

***

Our Journey: Day 3

Strange how a hill can silence an ocean. We rounded a bend in the wooded trail, and there beneath us, fifty meters down, lay the sea crackling. In that instant, it sprang into existence. Yet it had existed before we saw it, as a Walker, who has lived a whole life, one day blinks into your presence and exists new in your eyes. The trail continued along the headlands, never out of sight that gray blanket spread below.

Chi'anové didn't trust it. Born to the desert city on A'dib, he felt a treacherous illusion in great waters. As for me, though my homeworld is desert too, I like the sea, especially our small, hot sea that travelers never bother with. But I've seldom stood beside it long.

"It will be good eating from here," said Nyra. "One never fears on the ocean." She rattled it off as a proverb.

The sea wind sharpened us.

***

On the headlands, the sea remained blue-gray into the evening. Nyra led us down a gentle slope, past soft dirt-sand and onto pebbles, in the lee of the wind, water-carved cliffs rising around us. I undid my hair and tried in vain to comb my fingers through it. I hadn't realized how the wind had scoured my eyes till its absence let me blink moisture back into them.

"We can pitch camp here," said Nyra, nodding at the dry sand. "The tide won't rise so high."

The pulse of the sea rolled up to us, too gentle to be called waves. In the twilight, Nyra gathered seaweed while Tanez lit a driftwood fire. The air smelled of salt, thick plants, and dead things, but the stillness nourished my spirit.

After gathering wood, I wandered off from the others, pausing two meters out of reach of the water. Beneath the darkening clouds, bright crescents melted around ink stains of rocks. In its steady rhythm, the black and white ocean measured the heartbeat of the world.

I am a stranger to the ocean's mind. I watched the tide unable to tell if it were coming in or going out. It seemed the answer, if only I could read it.

"Tide" has two meanings:

1) The rising and falling of a body of water under a gravitational force.
2) Any of the stable wormholes that connect the galaxies of the Continuation; the infrastructure of civilization.

Were the Tides going out? Would conventional space travel trickle away while Jana became the new highway of the stars? Would we all be Walkers someday, scintillating with shift like Chi'anové? Or was the blow to Walkers' power that had stranded my companions a sign of their era passing before it had begun? I felt suddenly that the Tides were old friends.

Nyra fried up mussels with pine nuts and seaweed. The seaweed embodied the wet, dead, sea smell; I choked it down, longing for the desert air that scoured the bones of my home sea.

"When I was a child," said Glin as we washed our bowls in the surf, "my family used to take us to the ocean once a year. We'd only stay a couple of days, but in that time, I'd spend so many hours playing in the tide, I'd learn just how it rose and fell, when to go to the beach, when to come back to our friends' house. I wonder if I'll learn it here?"

It pleased me that her thoughts of the tide echoed mine. In her mind, I caught faint glimpses of child Glin's feet in the water, child Glin playing lady of the ocean. And somewhere in an old memory of running with other children, I saw--no, I must be mistaken. I felt the memory again--no, I had seen it in truth--child Glin had been a boy.

***

Anger shadowed me that night, deforming the face now of Qer'yem, now of Glin. Qer'yem had been the friend in whose heart I'd made my home. She remained a friend, when all was said and done--in some freed and occasional way--but a month since her letter, my unhousing still smacked of a cyclone's wantonness. Qer'yem had not wished to hurt me; she simply couldn't stay. For her carelessness with me perhaps I owed her some anger, Glin manifestly none at all.

And yet Glin angered me. Among the Ash'torians, changing sex is frowned on as a denial of the path God has ordained, but that wasn't what bothered me. I was born half Ash'torian, half Leddie and have made it my life's practice not to lacquer myself in a rigid people's mores. Rather, her maleness made me feel deceived, not by Glin but by myself. When I pulled her up before my thoughts, I could see the traces clearly: the big bones of her face and hands, her wiry arms. I was angry at the thought that I'd been attracted to her maleness, angry at this theme throughout my life, to desire men though it never ended well for me. In general, I got on better with women. And yet even there, not well enough: Qer'yem had left me. Glin--man or woman--was committed elsewhere. And so I could trace it back through the decades. Part of me was angry at God, though I have never been a believer.

A light mist fell over my blanket, and the lapping of the sea, though soft, made me feel close to drowning. In the course of the night, the tide rose till it submerged our little beach beneath a deepening pool and trapped us against the sheer cliff face all around.
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