Maps in a mirror, p.88

Maps in a Mirror, page 88

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  The court first heard the testimony of the men from the ship. The people closed their eyes and saw men in a huge starship, pushing buttons and speaking rapidly into computers. Finally expressions of relief, and four men entering a skyship to go down.

  The people saw that it was not their world, for here there were no survivors. Instead there was just a castle, just a king and queen, and when they were dead, just fallow fields and the ruins of a village abandoned many years before.

  They saw the same scene again and again. Only Abbey Colony had any human beings left alive.

  Then they watched as bodies of kings and queens on other worlds were cut open. A chamber within the queen split wide, and there in a writhing mass of life lived a thousand tiny fetuses, many-armed and bleeding in the cold air outside the womb. Thirty years of gestation, and then two by two they would have continued to conquer and rape other worlds in an unstoppable epidemic across the galaxy.

  But in the womb, it was stopped, and the fetuses were sprayed with a chemical and soon they lay still and dried into shriveled balls of gray skin.

  The testimony of the men from the ship ended, and the court probed the memories of the colonists:

  A screaming from the sky, and a blast of light, and then the king and queen descending without machinery. But the devices follow quickly, and the people are beaten by invisible whips and forced into a pen that they watched grow from nothing into a dark, tiny room that they barely fit into, standing.

  Heavy air, impossible to breathe. A woman fainting, then a man, and the screams and cries deafening. Sweat until bodies are dry, heat until bodies are cold, and then a trembling through the room.

  A door, and then the king, huger than any had thought, his many arms revolting. Vomit on your back from the man behind, then your own vomit, and your bladder empties in fear. The arms reach, and screams are all around, screams in all throats, screams until all voices are silenced. Then one man plucked writhing from the crowd, the door closed again, darkness back, and the stench and heat and terror greater than before.

  Silence. And in the distance a drawn-out cry of agony.

  Silence. Hours. And then the open door again, the king again, the scream again.

  The third time the king is in the door and out of the crowd walks one who is not screaming, whose shirt is caked with stale vomit but who is not vomiting, whose eyes are calm and whose lips are at peace and whose eyes shine. The Shepherd, though known then by another name.

  He walks to the king and reaches out his hand, and he is not seized. He is led, and he walks out, and the door closes.

  Silence. Hours. And still no scream.

  And then the pen is gone, into the nothing it seemed to come from, and the air is clear and the sun is shining and the grass is green. There is only one change: the castle, rising high and delicately and madly in an upward tumble of spires and domes. A moat of acid around it. A slender bridge.

  And then back to the village, all of them. The houses are intact, and it is almost possible to forget.

  Until the Shepherd walks through the village streets. He is still called by the old name—what was the name? And the people speak to him, ask him, what is in the castle, what do the king and queen want, why were we imprisoned, why are we free.

  But the Shepherd only points to a baker. The man steps out, the Shepherd touches him on the temple with his crook, and the man smiles and walks toward the castle.

  Four strong men likewise sent on their way, and a boy, and another man, and then the people begin to murmur and shrink back from the Shepherd. His face is still beautiful, but they remember the scream they heard in the pen. They do not want to go to the castle. They do not trust the empty smiles of those who go.

  And then the Shepherd comes again, and again, and limbs are lost from living men and women. There are plans. There are attacks. But always the Shepherd’s crook or the Shepherd’s unseen whip stops them. Always they return crippled to their houses. And they wait. And they hate.

  And there are many who wish they had died in the first terrified moments of the attack. But never once does the Shepherd kill.

  The testimony of the people ended, and the court let them pause before the trial went on. They needed time to dry their eyes of the tears their memories shed. They needed time to clear their throats of the thickness of silent cries.

  And then they closed their eyes again and watched the testimony of the Shepherd. This time there were not many different views; they all watched through one pair of eyes:

  The pen again, crowds huddled in terror. The door opens, as before. Only this time all of them walk toward the king in the door, and all of them hold out a hand, and all of them feel a cold tentacle wrap around and lead them from the pen.

  The castle grows closer, and they feel the fear of it. But also there is a quietness, a peace that is pressed down on the terror, a peace that holds the face calm and the heart to its normal beat.

  The castle. A narrow bridge, and acid in a moat. A gate opens. The bridge is crossed with a moment of vertigo when the king seems about to push, about to throw his prey into the moat.

  And then the vast dining hall, and the queen at the console, shaping the world according to the pattern that will bring her children to life.

  You stand alone at the head of the table, and the king and queen sit on high stools and watch you. You look at the table and see enough to realize why the others screamed. You feel a scream rise in your throat, knowing that you, and then all the others, will be torn like that, will be half-devoured, will be left in a pile of gristle and bone until all are gone.

  And then you press down the fear, and you watch.

  The king and queen raise and lower their arms, undulating them in syncopated patterns. They seem to be conversing. Is there meaning in the movements?

  You will find out. You also extend an arm, and try to imitate the patterns that you see.

  They stop moving and watch you.

  You pause for a moment, unsure. Then you undulate your arms again.

  They move in a flurry of arms and soft sounds. You also imitate the soft sounds.

  And then they come for you. You steel yourself, vow that you will not scream, knowing that you will not be able to stop yourself.

  A cold arm touches you and you grow faint. And then you are led from the room, away from the table, and it grows dark.

  They keep you for weeks. Amusement. You are kept alive to entertain them when they grow weary of their work. But as you imitate them you begin to learn, and they begin to teach you, and soon a sort of stammering language emerges, they speaking slowly with their loose arms and soft voices, you with only two arms trying to imitate, then initiate words. The strain of it is killing, but at last you tell them what you want to tell them, what you must tell them before they become bored and look at you again as meat.

  You teach them how to keep a herd.

  And so they make you a shepherd, with only one duty: to give them meat in a never-ending supply. You have told them you can feed them and never run out of manflesh, and they are intrigued.

  They go to their surgical supplies and give you a crook so there will be no pain or struggle, and an ax for the butchery and healing, and on a piece of decaying flesh they show you how to use them. In your hand they implant the key that commands every hinge in the village. And then you go into the colony and proceed to murder your fellowmen bit by bit in order to keep them all alive.

  You do not speak. You hide from their hatred in silence. You long for death, but it does not come, because it cannot come. If you died, the colony would die, and so to save their lives you continue a life not worth living.

  And then the castle falls and you are finished and you hide the ax and crook in a certain place in the earth and wait for them all to kill you.

  The trial ended.

  The people pulled the plates from behind their ears, and blinked unbelieving at the afternoon sunlight. They looked at the beautiful face of the Shepherd and their faces wore
unreadable expressions.

  “The verdict of the court,” a man from the ship read as the others moved through the crowd collecting witness plates, “is that the man called Shepherd is guilty of gross atrocities. However, these atrocities were the sole means of keeping alive those very persons against whom the atrocities were perpetrated. Therefore, the man called Shepherd is cleared of all charges. He is not to be put to death, and instead shall be honored by the people of Abbey Colony at least once a year and helped to live as long as science and prudence can keep a man alive.”

  It was the verdict of the court, and despite their twenty-two years of isolation the people of Abbey Colony would never disobey Imperial law.

  Weeks later the work of the men from the ship was finished. They returned to the sky. The people governed themselves as they had before.

  Somewhere between stars three of the men in the ship gathered after supper. “A shepherd, of all things,” said one.

  “A bloody good one, though,” said another.

  The fourth man seemed to be asleep. He was not, however, and suddenly he sat up and cried out, “My God, what have we done!”

  Over the years Abbey Colony thrived, and a new generation grew up strong and uncrippled. They told their children’s children the story of their long enslavement, and freedom was treasured; freedom and strength and wholeness and life.

  And every year, as the court had commanded, they went to a certain house in the village carrying gifts of grain and milk and meat. They lined up outside the door, and one by one entered to do honor to the Shepherd.

  They walked by the table where he was propped so he could see them. Each came in and looked into the beautiful face with the gentle lips and the soft eyes. There were no large strong hands now, however. Only a head and a neck and a spine and ribs and a loose sac of flesh that pulsed with life. The people looked over his naked body and saw the scars. Here had been a leg and a hip, right? Yes, and here he had once had genitals, and here shoulders and arms.

  How does he live? asked the little ones, wondering.

  We keep him alive, the older ones answered. The verdict of the court, they said year after year. We’ll keep him as long as science and prudence can keep a man alive.

  Then they set down their gifts and left, and at the end of the day the Shepherd was moved back to his hammock, where year after year he looked out the window at the weathers of the sky. They would, perhaps, have cut out his tongue, but since he never spoke, they didn’t think of it. They would, perhaps, have cut out his eyes, but they wanted him to see them smile.

  HOLY

  “You have weapons that could stop them,” said Crofe, and suddenly the needle felt heavy on my belt.

  “I can’t use them,” I said. “Not even the needle. And definitely not the splinters.”

  Crofe did not seem surprised, but the others did, and I was angry that Crofe would put me in such a position. He knew the law. But now Stone was looking at me darkly, his bow on his lap, and Fole openly grumbled in his deep, giant’s voice. “We’re friends, right? Friends, they say.”

  “It’s the law,” I said. “I can’t use these weapons except in proper self-defense.”

  “Their arrows are coming as close to you as to us!” Stone said.

  “As long as I’m with you, the law assumes that they’re attacking you and not me. If I used my weapons, it would seem like I was taking sides. It would be putting the corporation on your side against their side. It would mean the end of the corporation’s involvement with you.”

  “Fine with me,” Fole murmured. “Fat lot of good it’s done us.”

  I didn’t mention that I would also be executed. The Ylymyny have little use for people who fear death.

  In the distance someone screamed. I looked around—none of them seemed worried. But in a moment Da came into the circle of stones, panting. “They found the slanting road,” he whispered. “Nothing we could do. Killed one, that’s all.”

  Crofe stood and uttered a high-pitched cry, a staccato burst of sound that echoed from the crags around us. Then he nodded to the others, and Fole reached over and seized my arm. “Come on,” he whispered. But I hung back, not wanting to be shuffled out without any idea of what was going on.

  “What’s happening?” I asked.

  Crofe grinned, his black teeth startling (after all these months) against his lightbrown skin. “We’re going to try to live through this. Lead them into a trap. Away off south there’s a narrow pass where a hundred of my men wait for us to bring them game.” As he spoke, four more men came into the circle of stones, and Crofe turned to them.

  “Gokoke?” he asked. The others shrugged.

  Crofe glowered. “We don’t leave Gokoke.” They nodded, and the four who had just come went back silently into the paths of the rock. Now Fole became more insistent, and Stone softly whined, “We must go, Crofe.”

  “Not without Gokoke.”

  There was a mournful wail that sounded as if it came from all around. Which was echo and which was original sound? Impossible to tell. Crofe bowed his head, squatted, covered his eyes ritually with his hands, and chanted softly. The others did likewise; Fole even released my arm so he could cover his face. It occurred to me that though their piety was impressive, covering one’s eyes during a battle might well be a counterevolutionary behavior. Every now and then the old anthropologist in me surfaces, and I get clinical.

  I wasn’t clinical, however, when a Golyny soldier leaped from the rocks into the circle. He was armed with two long knives, and he was already springing into action. I noticed that he headed directly for Crofe. I also noticed that none of the Ylymyny made the slightest move to defend him.

  What could I do? It was forbidden for me to kill; yet Crofe was the most influential of the warlords of the Ylymyny. I couldn’t let him die. His friendship was our best toehold in trading with the people of the islands. And besides, I don’t like watching a person being murdered while his eyes are covered in a religious rite, however asinine the rite might be. Which is why I certainly bent the law, if I didn’t break it: my toe found the Golyny’s groin just as the knife began its downward slash toward Crofe’s neck.

  The Golyny groaned; the knife forgotten, he clutched at himself, then reached out to attack me. To my surprise, the others continued their chanting, as if unaware that I was protecting them, at not inconsiderable risk to myself.

  I could have killed the Golyny in a moment, but I didn’t dare. Instead, for an endless three or four minutes I battled with him, disarming him quickly but unable to strike him a blow that would knock him unconscious without running the risk of accidentally killing him. I broke his arm; he ignored the pain, it seemed, and continued to attack—continued, in fact, to use the broken arm. What kind of people are these? I wondered as I blocked a vicious kick with an equally vicious blow from my heavy boot. Don’t they feel pain?

  And at last the chanting ended, and in a moment Fole had broken the Golyny soldier’s neck with one blow. “Jass!” he hissed, nursing his hand from the pain, “what a neck!”

  “Why the hell didn’t somebody help me before?” I demanded. I was ignored. Obviously an offworlder wouldn’t understand. Now the four that had gone off to bring back Gokoke returned, their hands red with already drying blood. They held out their hands; Crofe, Fole, Stone, and Da licked the blood just slightly, swallowing with expressions of grief on their faces. Then Crofe clicked twice in his throat, and again Fole was pulling me out of the circle of stones. This time, however, all were coming. Crofe was in the lead, tumbling madly along a path that a mountain goat would have rejected as being too dangerous. I tried to tell Fole that it would be easier for me if he’d let go of my arm; at the first sound, Stone whirled around ahead of us, slapped my face with all his force, and I silently swallowed my own blood as we continued down the path.

  Suddenly the path ended on the crown of a rocky outcrop that seemed to be at the end of the world. Far below the lip of the smooth rock, the vast plain of Ylymyn Isla
nd spread to every horizon. The blue at the edges hinted at ocean, but I knew the sea was too far away to be seen. Clouds drifted here and there between us and the plain; patches of jungle many kilometers across seemed like threads and blots on the farmland and dazzling white cities. And all of it gave us a view that reminded me too much of what I had seen looking from the spacecraft while we orbited this planet not that many months ago.

  We paused only a moment on the dome; immediately they scrambled over the edge, seeming to plunge from our vantage point into midair. I, too, leaped over the edge—I had no choice, with Fole’s unrelenting grip. As I slid down the ever-steeper slope of rock, I could see nothing below me to break my fall. I almost screamed; held the scream back because if by some faint chance we were not committing mass suicide, a scream would surely bring the Golyny.

  And then the rock dropped away under me and I did fall, for one endless meter until I stopped, trembling, on a ledge scarcely a meter wide. The others were already there—Fole had taken me more slowly, I supposed, because of my inexperience. Forcing myself to glance over the edge, I could see that this peak did not continue as a smooth, endless wall right down to the flat plain. There were other peaks that seemed like foothills to us, but I knew they were mountains in their own right. It was little comfort to know that if I fell it would be only a few hundred meters, and not five or six kilometers after all.

  Crofe started off at a run, and we followed. Soon the ledge that had seemed narrow at a meter in width narrowed to less than a third of that; yet they scarcely seemed to slow down as Fole dragged me crabwise along the front of the cliff.

  Abruptly we came to a large, level area, which gave way to a narrow saddle between our peak and another much lower one that stood scarcely forty meters away. The top of it was rocky and irregular—perhaps, once we crossed the saddle, we could hide there and elude pursuit.

  Crofe did not lead this time. Instead, Da ran lightly across the saddle, making it quickly to the other side. He immediately turned and scanned the rocks above us, then waved. Fole followed, dragging me. I would never have crossed the saddle alone. With Fole pulling me, I had scarcely the time to think about the drop off to either side of the slender path.

 
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