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The sun hung two hand-spans above the horizon. Late morning, early evening: I could not judge. I stood on the crest of a low hill, between thick black trunks smooth as glass. Behind me, a dense enclosure of more black trunks. And ahead…detail rushed upon me; I sucked it in with frantic need.
Red and purple forest pushed over low boxy hills, fading to pink and lavender as the hills receded toward the horizon. Mist curled languidly between. Immense trees like the skeletons of cathedral towers punctuated the forest every few hundred meters, pink crowns perched atop four slender vaulting legs, rising high over the rest of the forest. Above the hills, sky beckoned crystal blue with mottled patches of more red and purple, as if reflecting the forest. In fact, the forest inhabited the sky: tethered gas-filled balloons ascended from the distant stands of black-trunked trees into thin shredded-ribbon clouds.
Everything glowed with serene yellow light and brilliant blood-hued life. Everything, related. For as far as the eye could seewhat Darrow Jan Fima had called Elizabeth's Zone, one creature, one thing.
From where I stood, at the top of a rise overlooking the broad, dark olive Terra Nova River, Lamarckia hardly seemed violated. Not a human in sight, not a curl of smoke or rise of structure. Somewhere below, hidden in the tangle of smooth black trunks, huge round leaves, and purple fans, the ferry landing was supposed to be…And inland a few hundred meters along a dirt and gravel path, both hidden in the dense pack, the village of Moonrise.
I touched my clothes self-consciously. How out-of-place would I look?
I realized I had been holding my breath. I inhaled deeply. It was a sweet and startling breath. The air smelled of fresh water, grapes, tea leaves, and a variety of odors I can only describe as skunky-sweet. Rich aromas wafted from nearby extrusions resembling broad purple flowers, with fleshy centers. They smelled like bananas, spicy as cinnamon. The extrusions opened and closed, twitching at the end of each cycle. Then they withdrew altogether with thin, high chirps.
I reached out my hand to stroke the smooth black curve of a trunk. At my touch, the bark parted to form a kind of stoma, red and pink pulp within. A drop of translucent white fluid oozed from the gash, which quickly closed when I lifted my hand.
"Not a tree," I murmured. The Dalgesh reportby the original surveyorshad called them "arborid scions." And this was not a forest, but a silva.
There were no plants or animals as such on Lamarckia. The first surveyors, in the single day they had spent on the planet, had determined that within certain zones, all apparently individual organisms, called scions, in fact belonged to a larger organism, which they had called an ecos. No scion could breed by itself; they did not act alone. An ecos was a single genetic organism, creating within itself all the diverse parts of an ecosystem, spread over large areasin some cases, dominating entire continents.
Each ecos was ruled, the surveyors had theorized, by what they called a seed mistress, or queen. Neither the surveyorsnor the immigrants, according to Jan Fimahad ever seen such a queen, however; understanding of Lamarckian biology and planetary science in general had still been primitive among the immigrants when the informer left.
Above, the black trunks spread great round parasol-leaves, broad as outstretched arms, powdery gray at their perimeters, rose and bloodred in their centers. The parasols rubbed edges in a canopy-clinging current of air, making a gentle shushing noise, like a mother calming an infant. Black granular dust fell in thin drifts on my head; not pollen, certainly not ash. I rubbed some between my fingers, smelled it, but did not taste.
The last light of the orange sun warmed my face. So this was not morning but evening; the day was ending. I savored the glow. It felt wonderfully, thrillingly familiar; but it was the first sunlight I had ever directly experienced. Until now, I had spent my whole life within Thistledown and the Way.
My terror passed into numb ecstasy. The sense of alien newness, of unfamiliar beauty, hit me like a drug; I was actually walking on a planet, a world like Earth, not within a hollowed-out rock.
Reluctantly, I turned from the sun's warmth and walked in shadow down an overgrown trail. If I had come out in the right place, this trail would lead to the Terra Nova River and the landing that served the village of Moonrise. Here, I had been told, I might catch a riverboat and travel to Calcutta, the largest town on the continent of Elizabeth's Land.
I wondered what sort of people I would meet. I imagined feral wretches, barely social, clustered in dark little towns, immersed in their own superstitions. Then I regretted the thought. Perhaps I had spent too much time among the Geshels, having so little respect for my own kind. But of course Lenk's people had gone beyond my own kind. Yanosh had characterized them as fanatic.
The moist air of the river valley sighed around me, like an invisible chilly flood. Picking my footsteps carefully, avoiding lines of finger-sized orange worms topped by feathery blue crests, I listened for any sounds, heard only the rubbed-silk hiss of air and the liquid mumble of the river.
The trail at least had once been traveled by humans. Dropped between the trunks, in a tangle of stone-hard "roots," I spotted a small scrap of crumpled plastic and knelt to pick it up. Spread open by my fingers, it was a blank page from an erasable notebook.
At least, I realized with considerably relief, I had not arrived before the human intruders. That would have meant I was truly trapped here, with no chance of returning until they arrived…Or someone came from the Hexamon to get me.
I pocketed the scrap. I still could not be sure how much time had passed since the arrival of Lenk and his followers.
Four thousand one hundred and fourteen illegal immigrants; as much as three decades between my arrival and theirs. What could they have done to Lamarckia in that time?
I pushed through a tangle of purple helixed blades. My feet sank into a grainy, boggy humus littered with pink shells and pebbles. No landing visible; no lights, no sign of river traffic. For a moment, I knelt and dug my fingers into the soil. It felt gritty and resilient at oncegrains of sand and spongy corklike cubes half a centimeter on a side, suspended in inky fluid that globbed immiscibly amid drops of clear water. It looked for all the world like gardener's potting soil mixed with viscous ink.
I picked up a pink shell. Spiral, flat, like an ancient Earth ammonite, four or five centimeters across. I sniffed it; clean and sweet, with a watery, dusty smell backed by a ghost of roses and bananas. I poked it with a finger; it crushed easily.
More black powder fell in thin curtains nearby. I glanced up and saw what looked like an immense reddish-brown snake, banded with deep midnight blue, dozens of meters long and as thick across as my own body, twisted around and draped across the trunks and leaves above. It wriggled slowly, peristaltically. I could see neither its head nor its tail. With a clamping sensation in my throat and chest, I trotted down the trail, trying to get out from under the serpent.
The trail became thicker, overgrown by smaller red and purple plantlike forms, phytids, filling in between the arborids. I lost my way and had to listen for the sound of the river to orient myself.
Several minutes passed before I realized I was smelling something out of place, rich and gassy. During my walk, I had not once smelled mold or methane, not once felt the squelch of dead vegetation. Plants, treesconvenient words onlygrew from soil that might have been prepared by diligent and cleanly gardeners. Only the pink shells, mired in the mud, gave a hint that anything here lived, then died, and in dying, left remains
And this fresh scent of decay.
I thrashed down to the bank again and stared over the deep brownish water to the black silhouette of the opposite shore. Faint, broad patches of blue glow sprang up between the trees across the river. They sputtered and went out again. I could not be sure I had seen them. Then, high above, the undersides of the broad parasols flashed blue. Somewhere, high-pitched tuneless whistling. A flutter beneath the parasols: dark winged things carrying fibrous scraps. Something small and red darted past my face with an audible sniff.
The wind died. The night air sank. Fog danced and twisted in the middle of the river. With the silence came another whiff of decay. Animal flesh, rotting. I was sure of that much.
I followed the scent Back up the bank, stepping gingerly over writhing purple creepers, guided by faint blue flashes through the undergrowth, I found the remains of the trail.
Something made a sound between a squeak and a sigh and scuttled on three legs out of the undergrowth: a pasty white creature the size of a small dog, triangular in shape. It stood by a black trunk and regarded me through patient, empty eye-spots mounted along a red central line. It pulsed and made tiny whistling sounds. Its skin crawled in what I took to be disgust at my presence. But apparently disgust was only disapprovalor something else entirelyfor it did not retreat. Instead, it slowly clasped and crawled its way up a trunk, opened a stoma with a tap of its pointed tail-foot, and began to suck milky fluid. I watched in fascination as its white body swelled. Then, half again as large as before, the creature dropped from the trunk, landed in the dirt with a rubbery plop, and crabbed away with a half circling gait on the down-bent points of its triangle.
Twilight was quickly obscuring everything. A double oxbow of stars pricked through the thin clouds. Ahead, a flickering orange light drew my attention: a torch or flame. I pushed toward the orange light and found the landing and the dirt road that pointed inland to Moonrise.
The landing began as a broad platform at the end of the road, then narrowed to a long pier. On the platform a figure squatted beside a lantern: human, small. Other dark shapes sprawled on their backs or stomachs on the landing and the pier.
In the broad smear of starlight and the lantern's dim glow, I saw that the dark shapes were also human, and still. Their stillness, and the careless way they sprawled on the dock platform, told me they were not alive. They had been dead for some time. Lying in blotches of dried blood, they had bloated in the sun and now strained at their clothes, as if having surrendered themselves to a feast of violence.
My eyes abruptly filled with a sheen of tears. I had expected anything but this.
The figure near the lamp wore a tattered mud-spattered brown shirt and long skirt. Its head was bowed and its breath came harsh and shallow.
My foot made a hollow thud on the platform. The figure turned quickly, with surprising grace, and raised a long-barreled black pistol. It was a woman, brown face muddy and pinched, eyes slitted. The lamp probably half-blinded her. She could only see my outline.
"Who are you?" she asked, voice quavering.
"I've come to take the ferry," I said. I put a strident note into my voice. "Star, fate and pneuma, what happened?"
The woman laughed softly, bitterly, and pointed the pistol squarely at my chest. "My husband," she said. "He went with Beys."
"Please," I said. "Tell me what happened."
"Do you know him? Janos Strik? My husband? Do you know Beys?"
"No," I said. Neither of those names had been on the list of immigrants, I was sure.
"You can't be anybody. Didn't know my husband. He was very important around here."
"I'm frightened," I said, trying for her sympathy. "I don't know what happened here."
"They'll kill us all." She stood slowly, pushing on her knee with one hand as if it pained her. The gun remained pointed at my chest. Her eyes were wild, light gray perhaps, yellow in the lantern-light. She seemed ancient, face cramped with pain, streaked with tears and mud and dried blood. "You must be one of them," she said sharply, and pulled back the hammer.
"One of who?" I asked plaintively, not having to work to sound frightened. It could all end here, before I was fairly started. It could all really end.
"I'll keep you here," the woman said with a note of weary decision. "Someone will come soon from the north. They took our radios."
The divaricates had not brought weapons with them, the informer had said, yet this gun was metal, heavy, smoothly machined to judge by the sound. Bullets probably charged with explosive powder. A primitive but very effective weapon. Her language was recognizably first-century Trade, common in Thistledown, but the accent sounded marginally different.
I kept my hands visible. The woman shifted from foot to foot, eyes straying to look into the darkness beyond the lantern's circle.
"Who killed them?" I asked.
"The Brionists," she said. "You dress like them."
"I'm not one of them," I said. "I've been in the forest studying Calder's Zone, south of here. Zone two. I didn't know about this."
The woman squinted, held the gun higher. "Don't be stupid," she said.
I tried to shrug congenially, an ignorant stranger, if it was possible to be congenial under the circumstances. The woman was more than suspicious; she had been through hell, and it took some strength of characteror some deep reluctance to add to the carnageto keep from pulling the trigger and killing me, if only to avoid having to think.
"I haven't heard of Calder's Zone in years," she said. "It gave in to Elizabeth's Zone. They sexed and fluxed when I was a child."
Years had passed, perhaps decades. My information was seriously out of date. "Are you a biologist?" I asked. She did not seem so tired or unskilled that her bullets would miss. And I had none of my medical machinery to save me if the gun did tear me open, not even a memory pack to store my thoughts and personality.
"I'm no biologist and neither are you," the woman said. "You don't even talk like anyone I know. Why do you call it a forest?" Her eyes glittered in the lamplight. The gun barrel dropped a few centimeters. "But I don't think you're a Brionist. You said you've been in the silvaout therea long time?"
"I hope to become one."
"You didn't fight when they came?"
"I didn't see it. I didn't know it was happening."
"The best ones fought. You're a coward. You stayed in the silva." She shook her head slowly. "That's my cousin, Gennadia." She pointed a shaky finger at the nearest of the corpses. "And that's Johann, her husband. That's Nkwanno, the village synthesist. Janos went to Calcutta and then crossed to Naderville to join the Brionists. He left me here." She rubbed her nose and inspected the back of her hand. "He told them we had magnesium and tin and copper and some iron. They came to see. Janos came back with them. He wouldn't even look at me. We told them they would have to consult with Able Lenk."
I thought perhaps Lenk had had a son, until I realized by her intonation that the first name was an honorific.
"They said we could not refuse them. They took our radios. They said Beys had his orders. The mayor told them to leave. They killed the mayor, and some of the men tried to fight. They killed…all except me. I hid in the silva. They'll come back soon and take over everything." She laughed with girlish glee. "I'm a coward, too. Not much left."
"Terrible," I said. Nkwannothat name had been on the list. I had once met the scholar named Nkwannoa devout Naderite student who had studied under my uncle.
She picked up the lantern and raised it above her head, stepping closer. She shined the fitful beam on my clothes. "You've only been in the silva a few hours. Elizabeth covers all visitors with her dust. But the boats left days ago. You're hardly black at all." Her eyes burned. "Are you real?"
"I bathed in the river," I said.
She issued a half whine, half laugh, raised the gun as if to fire into the air, and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell on an empty chamber. Then she released the gun, letting it dangle from one finger before it fell to the boards with a heavy thump. She dropped to her knees. "I don't care," she said. "I'd just as soon die. The whole world is a lie now. We've made it a lie."
With a shudder, she lay down, curling up her arms and legs into a fetal ball, and abruptly closed her eyes.
I stood for a while, heart thumping, mouth dry, uncertain where to begin. Finally, with a jerk, I walked over to the woman and knelt beside her. She seemed to be asleep. My breath came fast from having the gun held on me. This proof of my weaknessnearly dying within a few minutes of my arrivalmade me angry at myself, at everything.
Teeth clenched, I picked up the gun, slipped it into my waistband, and stepped around her to examine the bodies. Two men and a woman. I found the smell unfamiliar and offensive. I had never smelled dead bodies undergoing natural decay except in entertainments and training; conflict with the Jarts in the Way did not have such crudities.
I suspected the decay had progressed in unfamiliar ways; no external bacteria, I thought, only internal, and those carefully selected centuries ago for the populations of Thistledown. A peculiarly artificial and unnatural way to return to the soilif Lamarckia could be said to have soil.
With a shudder, I bent over to examine Nkwanno first. A tall, dark-skinned male, face almost unrecognizable; but in the discolored features I saw a resemblance to the young, vital student who had worked with my father's brother in Alexandria. But this man was much older than the Nkwanno I knew would have been…
The hastily opened gate had pushed me decades along Lamarckia's worldline.
For a long moment I could only stare, all my thoughts in confusion. Then I steeled myself and searched through the corpse's pockets. I found a few coins and a thin pouch containing paper money, a small, elegantly tooled slate, and a stale piece of bread wrapped in waxy paper. I examined the money, then returned it to the corpse.
Divaricates preferred twentieth-century modes of economic exchange. In my own pocket, I carried some money copied from samples provided by the informer. The money bore little resemblance to that which I found on Nkwanno. More than likely, it would be useless here.
I could not bring myself to steal money from corpses. The slate was another matter. I needed information desperately. I slipped it into my pants pocket.
I sat beside the sleeping woman, thinking. The breeze had died to nothing and the blunt, sweet stink of death hung in the air. I closed my eyes, pinched my nose against the smell.
Jan Fima had said he was part of a faction opposed to Lenk's policies. This faction regretted Lenk's decision to migrate illegally, with limited resources, and foresaw much trouble in the future. Apparently the trouble had begun. Perhaps it had been going on for some time. Jan Fima had supposed there would be an individual in Moonrise who would have supplies and information for a Nexus representative…But how patient an individual?
I cursed under my breath and rubbed my eyes. Two small moons rose within the hour, each a quarter of a degree wide, and chased each other slowly overhead. Their light threw mercurial roads across the river's smooth currents.
Large dark humps rose in the river, several dozen meters from the bank. Moonlight danced around them in ghostly sparkles. I did not know what the humps were. Your ignorance will kill you. And here…it could all really end.
The woman slept soundly, like a child, breath even and shallow, with occasional twitches and grumbles. I was reluctant to leave her, but there did not appear to be any more trouble in the offing. I could not let her stay on the dock, however. I lifted her and carried her away from the corpses, laying her gently on the soft dirt adjacent to the landing. I took off my coat and made a pillow for her. She grumbled faintly, twitched, and settled onto the cushion, gripping the folded coat with long, dirty fingers.
You had it all and it wasn't enough. Restless, searching, you threw it all away…You went to the Geshels, gravitated to their power. Begged for assignments. Glory of fighting the Jarts. Then they sent you here. A grand assignment, Yanosh told you. An entire world, and all the glory yours. But a kind of oubliette. A mere sideslip in one's career.
To shut up the whining voice, I pulled Nkwanno's slate from my pocket. It was an anachronisma late twentieth-century design favored by the divaricates, who shunned all later technology.
I sat. The illuminated screen cast a glow across my face remarkably similar to that from the moons above. Searching the memory, I found a number of Nkwanno's personal files, some of them extensive, but all locked. I searched through the library on the slate, and found a directory with files created on Lamarckia, dated by a calendar established after the immigration.
A scholar named Redhill had begun a fairly extensive local encyclopedia, and I was able to learn much about this part of Lamarckia in the space of an hour. Reading and scrolling and playing back videos, I lost myself in new knowledge, and my confidence began to return.
Thirty-seven Lamarckian years had passed since the arrival of the immigrants. The gate-keepers had been off more than they knew; it was possible I could never return to the Way, even if I located the other clavicle, and that no one in the Way could ever find Lamarckia through the stack again.
The humps in the river sank with soft gurgling sounds. The encyclopedia called them river vines and said they were intrusions from zone five, Petain's Zone, scions of another ecos; the river was only lightly utilized by zone one, Elizabeth's Zone, which apparently did not like riparian or pelagic environments.
So much to learn. I searched with an inward lick of thought for the elements that had once enhanced and accelerated my mind. The gaps left by their removal felt like missing limbs, still having a kind of phantom presence. I kept darting back and forth between exhilaration and fear amounting to despair that I would fail. In my dread lurked a strong sexual need. My erection seemed more than inappropriate in these surroundings. With the smell of decay, such a response struck me as obscene.
I frowned and quelled the impulse. Others had spoken of danger arousing such reactions; no reason, yet, to be ashamed.
With a few minutes to calm down, I felt my confidence return. I had been well-trained and well-educated for this mission. Using what the informer knew, I had created an inference map of talents necessary to survive and travel on Lamarckia: technologies, attitudes, language shifts.
But no one had expected slaughter, or wholesale war.
A fine mist crossed the river, out of place in these conditions; I realized after a moment that the mist was a scented aerosol, not just water vapor: something in the ecos conveying information to something else. I visualized all of zone one, all of Elizabeth, as an organic processor, a vast, sensate organizer not quite as primitive as a hive, not as swift and connected as a mind, but aware of all its tiny forms, sending them messages on chemical winds, a huge mother directing many billions of children.
Redhill brought me up to date on what progress had been made in Lamarckian studies in almost four decades. The encyclopedia postulated that life had first arisen on Lamarckia three hundred million years ago. The star was young, barely four billion years old; the planet still retained a great deal of primordial heat, which supplemented the star's relatively weak insolation.
On all of Lamarckia, only one hundred and nine genetically different organisms had been discovered, all ecoi, seven of them on Elizabeth's Land. Ecoi in the different zones rarely preyed on scions of other ecoi, but frequently observed and copied, or captured them for more detailed study. The ecoi sent swift samplers, sometimes called spies or thievesflying or running or swimming scionsto recover and return bites of tissue or whole scions. If the designs were found useful, the ecoi incorporated them, modifying some or all of their own scions or replacing them with new forms. Observed, stolen, and copied, as well as inherited, traits were passed on to subsequent generations.
Inheritance of acquired traits, a largely discredited theory of Earth's evolution, had been postulated almost nine hundred years ago by the French biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck…So the original surveyors had given his name to the planet.
When the immigrants had first arrived, Elizabeth's silva had been mostly orange and gray. The encyclopedia said that an ecos could "flux" or alter much of its character suddenly, in as little time as two days and without warning. During a flux, many if not all types of scions were absorbed and recycled into scions with new designs. This had last happened in zone two twenty-eight years before, as the woman had said; Calder's Zone, had "sexed"become receptive to a complete genetic merger. Elizabeth's Zone had accepted this proposal. The two had merged and all of the scions of both ecoi had been recalled. The new single ecos had then "fluxed," recreating itself.
This had been a time of extraordinary hardship for the immigrants.
Elizabeth's Zone had dominated, taken over Calder's Zone, and now occupied a stretch of Elizabeth's Land from the center to the northern coast, two thousand kilometers at its widest extent east to west. Where it met with other zonesthree, four, five, and now six, denuded "truce lines" formed stark, white barriers like lines on a map. Altogether, five zones now covered the continent of Elizabeth's Land.
In the south, I learned, a group of large islands filled a crowded sea bounded by Cape Magellan, and on these islands, zones three and four divided territories, with one island occupied by a much smaller zone, little explored and called simply zone seven.
Zone five, called Petain's Zone, lay east of Elizabeth's Zone and along the eastern coast. It was an adapted pelagican oceangoing zone that had adapted to land perhaps a million years before. Few zones occupied large areas of both land and water. It was zone five's huge vines that rose three times a day from the river that flowed past Moonrise.
I pinched the bridge of my nose and shut off the slate. I had used these primitive displays in training and had become proficient, but they still hurt my eyes.
After a few minutes, listening to the lapping of the river against the piles of the pier and the woman's steady breathing, I returned to the slate again. I found a citizens' list, two years old, and searched for the village of Moonrise, found the woman's picture, and connected it with a name: Larisa Cachemou, born to Sers Hakim Cachemou and Belinda Bichon-Cachemou thirty-two Lamarckian years ago. Married into the Strik triad. Janos Strik, husband. In divaricate society, and in most orthodox Naderite arrangements, triad families did not exchange matesmonogamy was the rulebut families shared finances and the raising of children.
Larisa Strik-Cachemou was in fact not much older than I. Stress and disaster had made her seem ancient.
I slipped the slate into my pants pocket and took the woman's lantern. Time to find out what had happened in Moonrise; time to begin this work, however unpleasant.
Copyright © 1995 by Greg Bear