Maps in a mirror, p.91

Maps in a Mirror, page 91

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  “What can we do?” I whispered. “They’ll kill us easily.”

  And indecision played on Da’s face, expressing much, even though he was silent.

  We watched as the Golyny opened their food and ate it; watched as some of them wrestled or pulled sticks. They looked like any other men, rowdy in the absence of women and when there was no serious work to do. Their laughter was like any other men’s laughter, and their games looked to be fun. I forgot myself, and found myself silently betting on one wrestler or another, silently picturing myself in the games, and knowing how I would go about winning. And so an hour passed, and we were no closer to the peak.

  Stone looked grim; Da looked desperate; and I have no idea how I looked, though I suspect that because of my involvement with the Golyny games I appeared disinterested to my companions. Perhaps that was why at last Stone took me roughly by the sleeve and spun me toward him.

  “A game, isn’t it! That’s all it is to you!”

  Shaken out of my contemplation, I did not understand what was happening.

  “Crofe was the greatest man in a hundred generations!” Stone hissed. “And you care nothing for bringing him to heaven!”

  “Stone,” Da hissed.

  “This scum acts as if Crofe were not his friend!”

  “I hardly knew him,” I said honestly but unwisely.

  “What does that have to do with friendship!” Stone said angrily. “He saved your life a dozen times, made us take you in and accept you as human beings, though you followed no law!”

  I follow a law, I would have said, except that in our exhaustion and Stone’s grief at the failure of our mission, we had raised our voices, and already the Golyny were arming, were rushing toward us, were silently nocking arrows to bows and coming for the kill.

  How is it possible that stupidity should end our lives when our enemies’ cleverest stratagems had not, I thought in despair; but at that moment the part of my mind that occasionally makes itself useful by putting intelligent thoughts where they can be used reminded me of the star I had seen as I lay under the overhang last night. A star—and I had seen it directly overhead where the overhang had to be. Which meant there was a hole in the overhang, perhaps a chimney that could be climbed.

  I quickly told Da and Stone, and now, the argument forgotten in our desperate situation, Stone wordlessly took his bow and all his and Da’s arrows and sat to wait for the enemy to come.

  “Go,” he said, “and climb to the peak if you can.”

  It hurt, for some reason, that the man who hated me should take it for granted that he would die in order to save my life. Not that I fooled myself that he valued my life, but still, I would live for a few moments more because he was about to die. And, inexplicably, I felt an emotion, briefly, that can only be described as love. And that love embraced also Da and Pan, and I realized that while Crofe was only a businessman that I had enjoyed dealing with, these others were, after all, friends. The realization that I felt emotion toward these barbarians (yes, that is a patronizing attitude, but I have never known even an anthropologist whose words or acts did not confess that he felt contempt for those he dealt with), that I loved them, was shocking yet somehow gratifying; the knowledge that they kept me alive only out of duty to a dead man and a superstition was expectable, but somehow reason for anguish.

  All this took less than a moment, however, there on the ledge, and then I turned with Da and raced back along the ledge toward where we had spent the night. It had seemed like only a short way; I kept slowing for fear we would miss the spot in our hurry. But when we reached it, I recognized it easily, and yes, there was indeed a chimney in the rock, a narrow one that was almost perfectly vertical, but one that could possibly lead us near the top of the Sky; a path to the peak that the enemy would not be looking for.

  We stripped off our extra gear: the rope, which had not been used since Fole died to let us descend it, the blankets, the weapons, the canvas. I kept only my splinters and needle—they must be on my body when I died (though I was momentarily conceiving that I might win through with Da and survive all this; already the lander would be hovering high above the peak)—to prove that I had not broken the law; otherwise my name would be stricken from the ELB records in dishonor, and all my comrades and fellow frontliners would know I had failed in one of the most basic trusts.

  A roar of triumph was carried along the rock, and we knew that Stone was dead, his position overrun, and we had at best ten minutes before they were upon us. Da began kicking our gear off the edge of the cliff, and I helped. A keen eye could still tell that here we had disturbed the ground more than elsewhere; but it was, we hoped, enough to confuse them for just a little longer.

  And then we began to climb the chimney. Da insisted that I climb first; he hoisted me into the crack, and I shimmied upward, bracing my back against one wall and my hands and feet against the other. Then I stopped, and using my leg as a handhold, he, too, clambered into the split in the rock.

  Then we climbed, and the chimney was longer than we had thought, the sky more distant. Our progress was slow, and every motion kicked down rocks that clattered onto the ledge. We had not counted on that—the Golyny would notice the falling rocks, would see where we were, and we were not yet high enough to be impossible for arrows to reach.

  And even as I realized that, it came true. We saw the flash of clothing passing under the chimney; though I could make out no detail, I could tell even in the silence that we had been found. We struggled upward. What else could we do?

  And the first arrow came up the shaft. Shooting vertically is not easy—much must be unlearned. But the archer was good. And the third arrow struck Da, angling upward into his calf.

  “Can you go on?” I asked.

  “Yes,” he answered, and I climbed higher, with him following, seeming to be unslowed by the wound.

  But the archer was not through, and the seventh rushing sound ended, not in a clatter, but in the dull sound of stone striking flesh. Involuntarily Da uttered a cry. Where I was I could see no wound, of course.

  “Are you hit?”

  “Yes,” he answered. “In the groin. An artery, I believe. I’m losing blood too quickly.”

  “Can you go on?”

  “No.”

  And using the last of his strength to hold himself in place with his legs alone (which must have been agony to his wounds), he took the bag of Crofe’s excrement from his neck and hung it carefully on my foot. In our cramped situation, nothing else was possible.

  “I charge you,” he said in pain, “to take it to the altar.”

  “It might fall,” I said honestly.

  “It will not if you vow to take it to the altar.”

  And because Da was dying from an arrow that might have struck me, and also because of Stone’s death and Pan’s and Fole’s and, yes, Crofe’s, I vowed that I would do it. And when I had said that, Da let go and plunged down the shaft.

  I climbed as quickly as I could, knowing that the arrows might easily come again, as in fact they did. But I was higher all the time, and even the best archer couldn’t reach me.

  I was only a dozen meters from the top, carefully balancing the bag of excrement from my foot as I climbed (every motion more painful than the last), when it occurred to me that Da was dead, and everyone else as well. What was to stop me now from dropping the bag, climbing to the top, signaling the lander to me, and climbing safely aboard? To preserve the contents of a man’s bowels and risk my life to perform a meaningless rite with it was absurd. No damage could be done by my failure to perform the task. No one would know, in fact, that I had vowed to do it. Indeed, completing the vow could easily be construed as unwarranted interference in planetary affairs.

  Why didn’t I drop the bag? There are those who claim that I was insane, believing the religion (these are they who claim that I believe it still); but that is not true. I knew rationally that dead men do not watch the acts of the living, that vows made to the dead are not binding, that my
first obligation was to myself and the corporation, and certainly not to Da or Crofe.

  But regardless of my rational process, even as I thought of dropping the bag I felt the utter wrongness of it. I could not do it and still remain myself. This is mystical, perhaps, but there was nowhere in my mind that I could fail to fulfill my oath and still live. I have broken my word frequently for convenience—I am, after all, a modern man. But in this case, at that time, despite my strong desire for survival, I could not tip my foot downward and let the bag drop.

  And after that moment of indecision, I did not waver.

  I reached the top utterly exhausted, but sat on the brink of the chimney and reached down to remove the bag from my foot. The leaning forward after so much exertion in an inexorably vertical position made me lightheaded; the bag almost slipped from my grasp, almost fell; I caught it at the end of my toe and pulled it, trembling, to my lap. It was light, surprisingly light. I set it on the ground and pulled myself out of the chimney, crawled wearily a meter or two away from the edge of the cliff, and then looked ahead of me. There was the peak, not a hundred meters away. On it I could easily see an altar hewn out of stone. The design was not familiar to me, but it could serve the purpose, and it was the only artifact in sight.

  But between me and the peak was a gentle downward slope before the upward slope began again, leading to the altar. The slopes were all gentle here, but I realized that a thin coat of ice covered all the rocks; indeed, covered the rock only a few meters on from me. I didn’t understand why at the time; afterward the men in the lander told me that for half an hour, while I was in the chimney on the west face, a mist had rolled over the top of the peak, and when it had left, only a few minutes before I surfaced, it had left the film of ice.

  But ice was part of my vow, part of the rite, and I scraped some up, broke some off with the handle of my needle, and put it in my mouth.

  It was dirty with the grit of the rock, but it was cold and it was water and I felt better for having tasted it. And I felt nothing but relief at having completed part of my vow—it did not seem incongruous at the time that I should be engaging in magic.

  Then I struggled to my feet and began to walk clumsily across the space between me and the peak, holding the bag in my hands and slipping frequently on the icy rocks.

  I heard shouting below me. I looked down and saw the Golyny on the south slope, hundreds of meters away. They would not be able to reach the peak before me. I took some comfort in that even as the arrows began to hunt for my range.

  They found it, and when I tried to move to the north to avoid their fire, I discovered that the Golyny on that side had been alerted by the noise, and they, too, were firing at me.

  I had thought I was traveling as fast as I could already; now I began to run toward the peak. Yet running made me slip more, and I scarcely made any faster progress than I had before. It occurs to me now that perhaps it was just that irregular pattern of running quickly and then falling, rising and running again, and falling again, that saved my life; surely it confused the archers.

  A shadow passed over me twice as I made the last run to the peak; perhaps I realized that it was the lander, perhaps not. I could have, even then, opted for a rescue. Instead, I fell again and dropped the bag, watched it slide a dozen meters down the south slope, where the Golyny were only a few dozen meters away and closing in (although they, too, were slowed by the ice).

  And so I descended into the arrows and retrieved the bag. I was struck in the thigh and in the side; they burned with pain, and I almost fainted then, from the sheer surprise of it. Somehow primitive weapons seem wrong; they shouldn’t be able to do damage to a modern man. The shock of the pain they bring is therefore all the greater. Yet I did not faint. I got up and struggled back up the slope, and now I was only a little way from the altar, it was just ahead, it was within a few steps, and at last I fell on it, my wounds throwing blood onto the ground and onto the altar itself. Vaguely I realized that another part of the rite had thus been completed, and as the lander came to rest behind me, I took the bag, opened it, scooped out the still-damp contents, and smeared them on the altar.

  Three corporation men reached me then, and, obeying the law, the first thing they did was check my belt for the needle and the splinters. Only when they were certain that they had not been fired did they turn to the Golyny and flip their own splinters downhill. They exploded in front of the enemy, and they screamed in terror and fell back, tumbling and running down the rocks. None had been killed, though I now treasure the wish that at least one of them might have slipped and broken his neck. It was enough, though, that they saw that demonstration of power; the corporation had never given the Golyny a taste of modern warfare until then.

  If my needle had been fired, or if a splinter had been missing, the corporation men would, of course, have killed me on the spot. Law is law. As it was, however, they lifted me and carried me from the altar toward the lander. But I did not forget. “Farewell, Crofe,” I said, and then, as delirium took over, they tell me I also bade good-bye to all the others, to every one of them, a hundred times over, as the lander took me from the peak back to the city, back to safety.

  In two weeks I was recovered enough to receive visitors, and my first visitor was Pru, the titular head of the assembly of Ylymyn. He was very kind. He quietly told me that after I had been back for three days, the corporation finally let slip what I had told them when I requested rescue; the Ylymyny had sent a very large (and therefore safe) party to discover more. They found the mutilated bodies of Fole and the soldier who had fallen just before him; discovered the dried and frozen corpse of Pan; found no trace of Da or Stone; but then reached the altar and saw the bloodstains upon it, and the fresh excrement stains, and that was why Pru had come to me to squat before me and ask me one question.

  “Ask,” I said.

  “Did you bid farewell to Crofe?”

  I did not wonder how they knew it was Crofe we had climbed the peak to honor—obviously, only Crofe was “Ice” and therefore worthy of the rite.

  “I did,” I said.

  Tears came into the old man’s eyes, and his jaw trembled, and he took my hand as he squatted by the bed, his tears falling upon my skin.

  “Did you,” he asked, and his voice broke, and then he began again, “did you grant him companions?”

  I did not have to ask what he meant; that was how well I understood them by then. “I also bade farewell to the others,” and I named them, and he wept louder and kissed my hand and then chanted with his eyes covered for quite some time. When he was done, he reached up and touched my eyes.

  “May your eyes always see behind the forest and the mountain,” he said, and then he touched my lips, and my ears, and my navel, and my groin, and he said other words. And then he left. And I slept again.

  In three weeks Tack came to visit me and found me awake and unable to make any more excuses not to see him. I had expected him to be stern at best. Instead, he beamed and held out a hand, which I took gratefully. I was not to be tried after all.

  “My man,” he said, “my good man, I couldn’t wait any longer. Whenever I’ve tried to see you, they’ve told me you were asleep or busy or whatnot, but dammit, man, there’s only so much waiting a man can take when he’s ready to bust with pride.”

  He was overdoing it, of course, as he overdid everything, but the message was clear and pleasant enough. I was to be honored, not disgraced; I was to receive a decoration, in fact, and a substantial raise in pay; I was to be made chief of liaison for the whole planet; I was, if he had the power, to be appointed god.

  In fact, he said, the natives had already done so.

  “Appointed me god?” I asked.

  “They’ve been holding festivals and prayer meetings and whatall for a week. I don’t know what you told old Pru, but you are golden property to them. If you told them all to march into the ocean, I swear they’d do it. Don’t you realize what an opportunity this is? You could have screwed it up
on the mountain, you know that. One false move and that would have been it. But you turned a potential disaster—and one not entirely of your making, I know that—you turned that disaster into the best damn contact point with a xenosociety I’ve ever seen. Do you realize what this means? You’ve got to get busy right away, as soon as you can, get the contracts signed and the work begun while there’s still this groundswell of affection for you. Shades of the White Messiah the Indians thought Cortes was—but that’s history, and you’ve made history this time, I promise.” And on he went until at least, unable to bear it anymore, I tried—indeed, I’m still trying—to explain to him that what had happened on the mountain was not for the corporation.

  “Nonsense,” he said. “Couldn’t have done anything better for the corporation if you’d stayed up a week trying to think of it.”

  I tried again. I told him about the men who had died, what I owed to them.

  “Sentiment. Sentiment’s good in a man. Nothing to risk your life over, but you were tired.”

  And I tried again, fool that I was, and explained about the vow, and about my feelings as I decided to carry the thing through to its conclusion. And at last Tack fell silent and thought about what I had said, and left the room.

  That was when the visits with the psychologists began, and while they found me, of course, perfectly competent mentally (trust Tack to overreact, and they knew it), when I requested that I be transferred from the planet, they found a loophole that let me go without breaking contract or losing pay.

  But the word was out throughout the corporation that I had gone native on Worthing, that I had actually performed an arcane rite involving blood, ice, a mountain peak, and a dead man’s half-digested dinner. I could bear the rumors of madness. It is the laughter that is unbearable, because those who cannot dream of the climb to the mountain, who did not know the men who died for me and for Crofe—how can they help but laugh?

 
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