Friday, May 31, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty-Seven

            He nodded, and drew in the snow the track of a bear several times larger than any I had ever seen. “Ursus,” he said, taking off his helm. “Some always trail the column. We leave garbage, waste, our dead. Now these trail those that separated.”                  
            His hair was green, the bright shade that algae sometimes takes. “Even so high?” I asked, to cover my surprise. Other than the column, I had seen no other living thing in days.  
            “These are starving. Such creatures wander far, and many valleys feed them.”
            I said that he knew more about them than the Historians, who had thought even smilodons extinct.
            He laughed and smiled. “I was a teacher of small children. They are always interested in these kinds of animals.”
            I was amazed. “And what animals are they?” I asked, thinking of the Profusion.
            “Pleasure creatures,” he said. “Those designed for hunting and for sport. They’re often large and fierce, though mastodons were once peaceful.”
            “I’ve been asking questions of the wrong man.”
            He closed his eyes. “Perhaps you’ve been asking him the wrong questions.”
            But I would not let him go. “There are other valleys like the one we found? Like the valley of the first Faith, to house these beasts?”
            “And many you have not seen, I think. No animal lives alone, and seldom in one place. Even your own people, do they truly only live in cities? They leave these mountains unexplored?”

            “The cities of the Profusion protected us, perhaps from all these animals,” I laughed. “You’re the first Never-born to ask me any question about this time.”

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty-Six

            I answered with the first thing that came to mind. “Why was Julius running in the first place? They said he was coming up the column when he fell.”
            Marcus closed his eyes, and swore. He called others of the Never-born to him, and those with the role of messengers reported. They had run up the column behind me, and been waiting until the argument concluded. He asked them short, sharp questions I could not quite discern, then sent them away.
            He reported to Jerem Cozak, loudly enough that I could hear. “The morning count was short. Scouts went back. Two squads separated when we chose this ridge. They are being hunted.” He turned to me. “We will find them. You come with us.”
            Jerem Cozak did not correct him. “I will lead the column to some better place,” he said. “This ridge does not  go much further, but I will not slow for you.” He remounted, and all around who were riding followed suit. Marcus went trotting back the column.
            I found my mastodon to calm her, supposing that the fastest way to search would be to ride. I thanked her for letting a stranger ride her in the same fashion I did, and obeying his wishes. I noticed that even her great lungs labored to breathe in this thin air. There were very few smells, only rocks and snow. I knew then that none of us could survive this place without the Swarm.
            Mounted, I rode back the line, and passed other of the Never-born turning their beasts around. I caught up to Marcus at the head of the unmounted men, where the Never-born had brought Julius. Marcus was giving orders to sort out the squads of men and mastodons that would go with us. Julius sat on a bundle of grass someone had taken from one of the herd. His shoulders sloped in a way that I had not seen before.   

            “They said something hunts the squads,” I began, as I dismounted. I went over to him.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty-Five

            I stopped and did not know where to go. Surely there was nothing I could do for Julius that all the rest of the Never-born could not. Yet Marcus had gone to confront Jerem Cozak, where my purpose lies, if any. I turned again and ran after the leader of the Never-born. The mastodons trumpeted and tossed their tusks as I passed between them. During the day, we only stopped to fight or negotiate some obstacle. Mine was as anxious as all the rest.
            The matriarch, when I reached her, shifted restlessly in place. Jerem Cozak stood dismounted at her feet. Marcus stood no more than a hand’s width apart from him, arguing directly to his face. I heard them long before I came near. I doubt either of them noticed I was there.
            “You kill us!” Marcus was saying, his words in a rush. “Five to glaciers we crossed too fast. Six to avalanche, thirteen to exposure. That’s in the last three days! We barely breathe up here!”
            Jerem Cozak nodded. “The body bears its burdens.”
            Marcus shook his head. “The mastodons too. They are different herds. Two bulls gored last night. Three were too old to leave the valley. Five we ran to death. They die to frost, to starvation, to falls we could avoid.”
            Jerem Cozak stood still, his voice deep and calm. “We had one hundred days. In the beginning we had one hundred days to defeat from earth a fleet that travels between the stars. A quarter of that is gone. More than a quarter! And we have steel and elephants.”
            “Soon you will have nothing. Does the head not care for the body? Or do you use it until it is done?”
            “The body does what the head requires.” 
            He and Marcus stared at each other a little while, unspeaking, in that way that means men will think of harder things to say.

            Then Marcus turned toward me. “What did you want?”  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty-Four

On the thirty-fifth day,
            Julius collapsed. We followed the lee of a long razor-ridge of rock that shielded us from the wind, but let the snow drop deep behind it. The mastodons had no trouble, of course—the drifts barely came above their knees. But the Never-born and I struggled to keep the pace behind them, and followed a path whose white sides often rose to our shoulders. The snow here is finer than that of the valleys and plateaus we have come up from. In fact, Marcus says that it must be blown here by the winds, for we have climbed above the clouds.
            I do not know if that is true, but the snow is very fine indeed. And by the time the last of the Never-born had passed a section of the trail, it had already begun to fill in again, well behind the mastodons. That was where Julius marched, as the rearguard reported to him that day. I was placed as my new honor dictated I must be: at the head of those who marched, following the last of the line of beasts.
            To think I should have thought we mastered these creatures solely that we should ride them! That we do for only half a day, so that we can resume the pace when our time comes up again. For the rest of the time, we run along behind them. Jerem Cozak has said that we lingered too long gathering the five-hundred beasts we have. Now he means to make up for it. The mastodons carry all our gear so that we can maintain his hellish pace.
            Above the drifting snow the sky was clear, though the sun stood small in the sky and could not take away the cold. The other Never-born say Julius fell like a man struck by fever: he suddenly went limp, though he may have wavered for a bit before he fell. When he did collapse, he nearly disappeared. The shifting white would have swallowed him whole had not two of the scouts seen it happen. When I heard word of it, I turned to go back to him. But Marcus, red-faced, tromped past me toward the matriarch, where rode Jerem Cozak, though of course the whole column now was halting.      

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty-Three

             I did not laugh at that. My head throbbed, and I remembered that whenever machines battle in the body, the mind is never well. Still I could not help but stay awake: my mastodon still stood watch. Her uneasiness was my own. I left Jerem Cozak sitting there.
            Stumbling through the darkness, I found Marcus before his tent, and got from him my ration. He was boiling water from the lake. 
            “Are you ready to be a swordsman?” he asked.
            “I have already been told tomorrow’s task.”
            He shook his head. “First you learn to walk. Now you use your arms. That is not the end. But it should be.”
            I leaned forward. “You disagree with Jerem Cozak?”
            “He is his own head. But the Swarm does not understand the needs of men.”
            I admitted that sometimes men could agree on an ultimate goal, without agreeing on the ways or means by which it is accomplished.
            He nodded. “We will do what he asks. We are his body. You will be his sword. But not everyone should kill.”
            “You don’t think I should be risked,” I said, and he nodded. “But why, what do I do that makes me so valuable? And what will I be trained to do that is so dangerous?”
            “When you ask, he answers. But you will destroy the walls of the fortresses of this world. You will do it alone. So you will die.”

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty-Two

            I thought again. “Why will I ride second to you? It is surely an honor, and should go to one of the Never-born, if not Marcus or Julius then at least a captain of some kind.”
             “When the matriarch knelt,” asked Jerem Cozak, “and all were mastered, was it because I commanded the matriarch, and they followed her? Or was it because the others saw a thousand things they had never seen before, and feared being overcome by them instead?”
            I frowned, and smelt at last the sleep-scent of our herd, which was both sour and sweet. “I cannot say.”
            “Nor I, and even the mastodons do not know. Did they act without purpose? Were they led by instinct or machine or by me? You are also divided by desires, but are all parts of yourself.”
            “But who am I? What am I? Why am I even here? I failed the tests of the Temple of the History of the Profusion. I have no affinity. But I spoke to the Well of Faith’s Healing. And the machines of the mastodons certainly have an affinity for me. So what am I? And who are you so important? Many said you were a bad Faith, but I was never one of them”
            He frowned. “You are here because you came. The Faith is dead, and I will not defend him. For the rest of it: would you explain yourself to anyone who asked you?”
            I admitted I would not, and told him of the young man I’d met in Ariel. “But I do not know what I am,” I added, “or what I’m supposed to do. There was a prophecy about me, but I fulfilled it. I gave the White Swarm to you. I’ve done my part. It’s over. You say I’m with the Never-born, but I’m no soldier.”
            “Yet at dawn you will take up your sword,” he said. “And help us cut and bind a very large amount of grass.”

Friday, May 24, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty-One

             We walked through the Never-born as they made camp. He circulated always among them, with a kind word here and there. The scout-captains came up to him, bringing reports of other herds. The first flames of cooking fires lit the falling dark. When we had circled through all the camp, we sat. Julius brought the evening’s wine and left, going about the silent business of the Never-born.
            I thought for a moment. “Are the hearts of the Never-born linked, like the mastodons?”
            “Their heart stands beside itself. The Never-born have centers of consciousness and memory.”
            I thought of the men I knew most well. “Grim Marcus and laughing Julius,” I said.
            “Among others. But those are deep and true.”
            “If I asked them about the Profusion, they would remember it?”
            He rubbed his hands together. “You would think they did not remember enough.” Nearer the woods, the matriarch sighed sleepily. My own mastodon stood sentinel, wary as the first stars appeared.
            “The dream I had that was not dream, but memory,” I said. “That was the White Swarm speaking to me. Is that how they speak to you, through dreams?”
            He closed his eyes. “With me, the dreaming never ends,” he said.
            For a while I listened to the sounds of poles and canvas being raised. It reminded me of the day the blizzard fell, and Meno and Cratyus died.
            “You have said that the White Swarm overwrites the minds of other machines,” I said at last, “but the White Swarm healed my arm and ribs, the ones the smilodon shattered. In Ariel, the Well of Faith’s Healing said that it had healed the first Faith from injuries of that kind. Tell me, then: will the Swarm gain the abilities of the machines the mastodons carry, and attribute them to us?”
            He closed his eyes. “We will not succeed in any other way.”

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Page a Day: Thirty

            He laughed again. “I’ll only perplex you more,” he warned.
            Mastodons can see nearly all the way around them, because of the position of their eyes. Their world is colorless, marked by sharply varied tones of gray. The silver grasses swayed in the last of the evening breeze. The Never-born stood together like a frightened herd, their upright postures like deer stretching to reach a branch, but their tone a brighter gray, almost white, more light than anything that walked the valley. Behind them stretched the dark slate-like expanse of the lake, whose ripples were not distinct. On the other side of the water,  and all around to behind the herd and then off into the distance marched the timberline, its trees a black, blurred wall at this distance. Vision, though useful for surveying nearly all of a perimeter, is not a mastodon’s best sense.
            “You have a plan for this campaign,” I said at last. “You found the mastodons for a reason. We have the White Swarm for a reason. But you will not tell me what your plan is?”
            “Say that I have an agreement with the Swarm, and that the enemy might still reach you.”
            “Do the Never-born know of this accord?”
            “They know, and are not interested in its terms.”
            The shiver of alarm from the smilodon passed through the herd as quickly as it had come, and I learned that the hearts of the mastodons were linked, one to another. Each knew what the other felt. I supposed that such machines were passed by blood or common feeding, and all the mastodons of every herd in the valley would be linked in this fashion.  With the dark calm of evening fell the need to sleep, and with it the mastodons yawned, just as humans might. Jerem Cozak led the matriarch toward the edge of the forest. Mine followed with a great rolling gait. All were unhurried now, but I had no doubt that these could double the speed of a horse if they so chose. Jerem Cozak dismounted, and ordered all the Never-born to follow suit. When I stood again on the meadow, I followed him.