Maps in a mirror, p.90

Maps in a Mirror, page 90

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  I said as much to Da, who only smiled grimly and said, “Easier, at least, than reaching it alive.” And I remembered the Golyny, and the fact that somewhere ahead of us they would be waiting. The canyon we had climbed was easy enough—why hadn’t they harassed us on the way up?

  “If it rains tonight, you will see,” Stone answered.

  And it did rain that night, and I did see. Or rather I heard, since the night was dark. We camped in the lee of the hill, but the rain drenched us despite the rocky outcropping we huddled under. And then I realized that the rain was falling so heavily that respectable streams were flowing down the hill we camped against—and it was no more than forty meters from crown to base. The rain was heavier than I had ever seen before, and now I heard the distant roaring that told me why the Golyny had not bothered to harm us. The huge river was now flowing down the canyon, fed by a thousand streams like those flowing by our camp.

  “What if it had rained while we were climbing?” I asked.

  “The Sky would not hinder us on our errand,” Da answered, and I found little comfort in that. Who would have guessed that a simple three-day expedition into the mountains would leave me trapped with such superstition, depending on them for my survival even as they were depending on some unintelligible and certainly nonexistent god.

  In the morning I woke at first light to find that the others were already awake and armed to the teeth, ready for battle. I hurried to stretch my sore muscles and get ready for the trip. Then I realized what their armaments might mean.

  “Are they here?”

  But no one answered me, and as soon as it was clear I was ready, they moved forward, keeping to the shelter of the hills, spying out what lay ahead before rounding a bend. There were no trees here, only the quick-living grass that died in a day and was replaced by its seed in the morning. There was no shelter but the rock; and no shade, either, but at this elevation, shade was not necessary. It was not easy to breathe with the oxygen low, but at least at this elevation the day was not hot, despite the fact that Ylymyn Island was regularly one of the hottest places on this forsaken little planet.

  For two days we made our way toward the Sky, and seemed to make no progress—it was still distant, on the horizon. Worse, however, than the length of our journey was the fact that we had to be unrelentingly on the alert, though we saw no sign of the Golyny. I once asked (in a whisper) whether they might have given up pursuit. Stone only sneered, and Da shook his head. It was Pan who whispered to me that night that the Golyny hated nothing so much as the righteousness of the Ylymyny, knowing as they did that it was only the gods that had made the Ylymyny the greatest people on earth, and that only their piety had won the gods so thoroughly to their side. “There are some,” Pan said, “who, when righteousness defeats them, squat before the gods and properly offer their souls, and join us. But there are others who can only hate the good, and attack mindlessly against the righteous. The Golyny are that kind. All decent people would kill Golyny to preserve the peace of the righteous.

  And then he glanced pointedly at my splinters and at my needle. And I as pointedly glanced at the bag of excrement around Da’s neck. “What the law requires of good men, good men do,” I said, sounding platitudinous to myself, but apparently making the right impression on Pan. His eyes widened, and he nodded in respect. Perhaps I overdid it, but it gratified me to see that he understood that just as certain rites must be performed in his society, certain acts are taboo in mine, and among those acts is involvement in the small wars of nations on primitive planets. That his compulsions were based on mindless superstition while mine were based on long years of experience in xenocontact was a distinction I hardly expected him to grasp, and so I said nothing about it. The result was that he treated me with more respect; with awe, in fact. And, noticing that, Stone asked me quietly as we walked the next day, “What have you done to the young soldier?”

  “Put the fear of god into him.”

  I had meant to be funny. Odd, how a man can be careful in all his pronouncements, and then forget everything he knows as a joke comes to mind and he impulsively tells it. Stone was furious; it took Da’s strength and Pan’s, too, to keep him from attacking me, which would surely have been fatal to him—rope-climbing I didn’t know, but the ways of murder are not strange to me, though I don’t pursue them for pleasure. At last I was able to explain that I hadn’t understood the implications of my statement in their language, that I was transliterating and certain words had different meanings and so on and so on. We were still discussing this when a flight of arrows ended the conversation and drove all of us to cover except Pan, who had an arrow in him and died there in the open while we watched.

  It was difficult to avoid feeling that his death had been somehow my fault; and as Da and Stone discussed the matter and confessed that they had no choice this time but to leave the body, committing a sin to allow the greater good of fulfilling the vow to Crofe, I realized that omitting the rites of death for Pan grieved me almost as much as his death. I have no particular belief in immortality; the notion that the dead linger to watch what happens to their remains is silly to me. Nevertheless, there is, I believe, a difference between knowing that a person is dead and emotionally unconstructing the system of relationships that had included the person. Pan, obscure as the young man was, ugly and brutal as his face had been, was nevertheless the man I liked best of my surviving companions.

  And thinking of that, it occurred to me that of the ten that had set out only a week before, only three of us remained; I, who could not use a weapon while in the company of the others, and they, who had to travel more slowly and so risk their lives even more because of me.

  “Leave me behind,” I said. “Once I’m alone, I can defend myself as I will, and you can move faster.”

  Stone’s eyes leaped at the suggestion, but Da firmly shook his head. “Never. Crofe charged us all that we would keep you with us.”

  “He didn’t know the situation we’d be in.”

  “Crofe knew,” Da whispered. “A man dies in two days here without wisdom. And you have no wisdom.”

  If he meant knowledge of what might be edible in this particular environment, he was right enough; and when I saw that Da had no intention of leaving me, I decided to continue with them. Better to move on than do nothing. But before we left our temporary shelter (with Pan’s corpse slowly desiccating behind us) I taught Stone and Da how to use the splinters and the needle, in case I was killed. Then no law would be broken, as long as they returned the weapons to the corporation. For once Stone seemed to approve of something I had done.

  Now we moved even more slowly, more stealthily, and yet the Sky seemed to loom closer now, at last; we were in the foothills. Each hill we approached hid the Sky behind its crest sooner. And the sense of waiting death became overpowering.

  At night I took my turn watching, with Pan gone. Technically it was a violation—I was aiding them in their war effort. But it was also survival, since the Golyny had little use for offworlders—SCM Corporation had already made four attempts to get a foothold with them, and they would not hear of it. It was maddening to have the ability to save lives and for the sake of larger purposes have to refrain from using that ability.

  My watch ended, and I woke Da. But instead of letting me sleep, he silently woke Stone as well, and in the darkness we moved as silently as possible away from our camp. This time we were not heading for the mountain—instead, we were paralleling it, traveling by starlight (which is almost no light at all), and I guessed that Da intended us to pass by our would-be killers and perhaps ascend the mountain by another route.

  Whether we passed them or not, I didn’t know. At dawn, however, when there was light enough to see the ground, Da began running, and Stone and I followed. The walking had been bad, but I had gradually grown inured to it; the running brought out every latent protest in my muscles. It was not easy loping over even ground, either. It was a shattering run over rocks, down small ravines, darting ove
r hills and across streams. I was exhausted by noon, ready for our brief stop. But we took no stop. Da did spare a sentence for me: “We’re ahead of them and must stay ahead.”

  As we ran, however, an idea came to me, one that seemed pathetically obvious once I had thought of it. I was not allowed to summon any help to further a war effort—but surely getting to the top of the mountain was no war effort. Our lander would never descend into enemy fire, but now that we were in the open, the lander could come, could pick us up, could carry us to the top of the mountain before the enemy suspected we were there.

  I suggested that. Stone only spat on the ground (a vile thing, in this world, where for some obscure reason water is worshipped, though it is plentiful everywhere except the Great Desert far to the north of Ylymyn), while Da shook his head. “Spirits fly to the Sky; men climb to it,” he said, and once again religion had stymied me. Superstitions were going to kill us yet, meaningless rules that should surely change in the face of such dire need.

  But at nightfall we were at the foot of a difficult cliff. I saw at a glance that this was not the easy ascent that the mountain had seemed from the distance. Stone looked surprised, too, as he surveyed the cliff. “This ascent is not right,” he said softly. Da nodded. “I know it. This is the west face, which no one climbs.”

  “Is it impossible?” I asked.

  “Who knows?” Da answered. “The other ways are so much easier, no one has ever tried this one. So we go this way, where they don’t look for us, and somewhere we move to the north or south, to take an easier way when they don’t expect us.”

  Then Da began to climb. I protested, “The sun’s already set.”

  “Good,” he answered. “Then they won’t see us climbing.”

  And so began our climb to the Sky. It was difficult, and for once they did not press on ahead and then wait impatiently for me to come. They were hampered as I was by darkness and strangeness, and the night made us equals at last. It was an empty equality, however. Three times that night Da whispered that he had reached a place in the cliff impossible to scale, and I had to back up, trying to find the holds I had left a moment before. Descending a mountain is harder than ascending it. Climbing you have eyes, and it is your fingers that reach ahead of you. Descending only your toes can hunt, and I was wearing heavy boots. We had wakened early, long before dawn, and we climbed until dawn again began to light the sky. I was exhausted, and Stone and Da also seemed to droop with the effort. But as the light gathered, we came to a shoulder of the mountain, a place where for hundreds of meters the slope was no more than fifteen or twenty degrees, and we threw ourselves to the ground and slept.

  I woke because of the stinging of my hands, which in the noon sun I saw were caked with blood that still, here and there, oozed to the surface. Da and Stone still slept. Their hands were not so injured as mine; they were more used to heavy work with their hands. Even the weights I had lifted had been equipped with cushioned handles.

  I sat up and looked around. We were still alone on our shoulder of the mountain, and I gazed down the distance we had climbed. We had accomplished much in the darkness, and I marveled at the achievement of it; the hills we had run through the day before were small and far, and I guessed that we might be as much as a third of the way to the peak.

  Thinking that, I looked toward the mountain, and immediately kicked Da to waken him.

  Da, bleary-eyed, looked where I nodded, and saw the failure of our night’s work. Though none of the Golyny were near us, it was plain that from their crags and promontories they could see us. They were not ahead of us on the west slope, but rather they stood as if to guard every traverse that might take us to the safer, easier routes. And who knew—perhaps the Golyny had explored the west face and knew that no man could climb it.

  Da sighed, and Stone silently shook his head and broke out the last of the food, which we had been eating sparingly for days longer than it should have lasted.

  “What now?” I whispered (odd how the habits, once begun, cannot be broken), and Da answered, “Nothing now. Just ahead. Up the west face. Better unknown dangers than known ones.”

  I looked back down into the valleys and hills below us. Stone spat again. “Offworlder,” he said, “even if we could forsake our vow, they are waiting at the bottom of the cliff by now to kill us as we come down.”

  “Then let me call my lander. When the prohibition was made, no one knew of flying machines.”

  Da chuckled. “We have always known of flying machines. We simply had none. But we also knew that such machines could not carry a penitent or a suitor or a vowkeeper to the Sky.”

  I clutched at straws. “When we reach there, what then?”

  “Then we shall have died with the vow kept.”

  “Can’t I call the lander then, to take us off the mountain?”

  They looked at each other, and then Da nodded to me. I immediately hunted in the pockets of my coat for the radio; I could not hope to reach the city from here, but in less than an hour the orbiting starship would be overhead, and would relay my message. I tried calling the starship right then, in case it was already over the horizon. It was not, and so we headed again for the crags.

  Now the climb was worse, because of our weariness from the night before rather than from any greater difficulty in the rocks themselves. My fingers ached; the skin on my palms stung with each contact with the rock. Yet we pressed ahead, and the west face was not unclimbable; even at our slow pace, we soon left the shoulder of the rock far behind us. Indeed, there were many places where we scrambled on natural stairways of rock; other places where ledges let us rest; until we reached an overhang that blocked us completely.

  There was no tool in this metalless world that could have helped us to ignore gravity and climb spiderlike upside down to the lip of the overhang. We had no choice but to traverse, and now I realized how wise our enemies’ plan had been. We would have to move to left or right, to north or south, and they would be waiting.

  But, given no choice, we took the only alternative there was. We took the route under the overhang that slanted upward—toward the south. And now Stone took the lead, coldly explaining that Da bore Crofe’s soul, and they had vowed to Crofe to keep me alive; therefore he was most expendable. Da nodded gravely, and I did not protest. I like life, and around any turn or over any obstacle, an arrow might be waiting.

  Another surprise: here and there in the shelter of the rock the cold air had preserved a bit of snow. There was no snowcap visible from below, of course; but this was summer, and only this high an altitude could have preserved snow at all in such a climate.

  It was nearing nightfall, and I suggested we sleep for the night. Da agreed, and so we huddled against the wall of the mountain, the overhang above us, and two meters away a dropoff into nothing. I lay there looking at a single star that winked above my head, and it is a measure of how tired I was that it was not until morning that I realized the significance of that.

  Tomorrow, Da assured me, we would either reach the Sky or be killed trying—we were that close. And so as I talked to the starship on its third pass since I had asked for the lander in the early afternoon, I briefly explained when we would be there.

  This time, however, they had Tack, the manager of our corporation’s operations on this world, patched in from his radio in the city. And he began to berate me for my stupidity. “What the hell kind of way is this to fulfill your corporate responsibilities!” crackled his voice. “Running off to fulfill some stinking little superstition with a bunch of stone-age savages and trying to get killed in the process!” He went on like that for some time—almost five minutes—before I overrode him and informed the starship that under the terms of my contract with the corporation they were obliged to give me support as requested, up to and including an evacuation from the top of a mountain, and the manager could take his objections and—

  They heard, and they agreed to comply, and I lay there trying to cool my anger. Tack didn’t understand, couldn
’t understand. He hadn’t been this far with me, hadn’t seen Fole’s set face as he volunteered to die so the rest could descend the cliff; hadn’t watched the agony of indecision as Da and Stone decided to leave Pan; hadn’t any way of knowing why I was going to reach the top of the Sky for Crofe’s sake—

  Not for Crofe’s sake, dammit; for mine, for ours. Crofe was dead, and they couldn’t help him at all by smearing his excrement on a rock. And suddenly, remembering what would be done when we reached the top of the mountain—if we did—I laughed. All this, to rub a dead man’s shit on a stone.

  And Stone seized me by the throat and made as if to cast me off the mountain. Da and I struggled, and I looked in Stone’s eyes and saw my death there. “Your vow,” Da whispered sharply, and Stone at last relented, slid away from me.

  “What did you say in your deviltalk!” he demanded, and I realized that I had spoken Empire to the starship, then paused a moment and laughed. So I explained, more politely than Tack had, what Tack had said.

  Da glared Stone into silence when I was through, and then sat contemplatively for a long time before he spoke.

  “It’s true, I suppose,” he said, “that we’re superstitious.”

  I said nothing. Stone said nothing only by exercising his utmost self-control.

  “But true and false have nothing to do with love and hate. I love Crofe, and I will do what I vowed to do, what he would have done for another Ice; what, perhaps, he might have done for me even though I am not Ice.”

  And then, with the question settled that easily (and therefore not settled—indeed, not even understood at all), we slept, and I thought nothing of the star that winked directly overhead.

  Morning was dismal, with clouds below us rolling in from the south. It would be a storm; and Da warned me that there might be mist as the clouds rose and tumbled around the mountains. We had to hurry.

  We had not traveled far, however, when the ledge above us and the one we walked on broadened, separated, opened out into the gentle slope that everywhere but on the west face led to the peak of the Sky. And there, gathered below us, were three or four dozen Golyny, just waking. We had not been seen, but there was no conceivable way to walk ten steps out of the last shelter of the ledge without being noticed; and even though the slope was gentle, it was still four or five hundred meters up the slope to the peak, Da assured me.

 
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