© Alison Sinclair, 1995
White sunlight woke Lian. A ribbon of light straggled from the part open door to the forecabin. Lian heard movement and rolled slightly to see a smudge of white hair in the shadows besides the storage lockers.
“Ach.” The whisper, like the white hair, was Lors’. He was on daytime scanwatch. “I was looking for–Never mind.” He scuttled back to squat beside Lian’s bunk. “Go back to sleep. Sun’s not set.”
“Setting,” Lian whispered. He listened a moment, heard no stirring from any of the three other bunks. He made a decision. “I’ll–join you.”
He slipped into the forecabin, braking the door with a hand as it closed to mute the sound. He stopped, amazed. The ship’s plating had been opened, the projection screens retracted, leaving only a simple window. But that was not what surprised him. Even, to his dismay, shocked him a little. “You’ve–no camouflage.”
Lors glanced up from the scanners, “Have to conserve power,” he said.
Lian climbed down into the pilot’s bubble and looked up. He was still astonished by the hue of Burdania’s sky. No habitat, no holoillusion, had that depth of violet.
“Watch your eyes,” Lors said. “I’ve no filters on.” He said, rather wryly, “I’ve been trying to adapt.”
The voyage had alternated hope and despair. First the pure joy of the sight of Burdania’s blue sun, and the small, white planet. Then growing despair, as they travelled inwards through silence. Hope again at the suggestion of a healthy biosphere. Followed by the discovery of the planet’s scars. That had been the worst time. When their shuttle had undocked from the driveship outside Burdania’s system they had abandoned any swift escape. They passed beyond the point of no return, committed to confirm the life or death of their people. For the three last days of inward flight Thovalt and Alystra had remained at their stations, unsleeping; Andra had simply slept until shaken awake for course alterations; Lian and Lors preserved rituals of normality, eating, sleeping, making leaden conversation. Under computer guidance, oblivious to its passengers’ misery, the ship slid into high orbit. From that orbit they at last detected tiny settlements, flecks of cultivated land, signs of life.
And little else. In the days since they made first landfall, they had heard no murmur of telecommunication, nor detected a single electrical impulse. With one exception, which had brought them here, where they would not, otherwise, willingly have come. This had been Lltharran, a centre of knowledge, culture and government. Built on the tamed meanders of a dotard river, it was an old, refined city, renowned for its white buildings and for its gardens. It had also been home to an enclave of Explorers. Within that enclave they had built one of the three prototype stardrives for installation in one of their returned ships. Though they did it in secret, with hoarded wealth, they intended no evil. Nor did their opponents in the debating chambers which governed Burdania. Both wished the best for their people. So the Explorers built their drives in secret, and their opponents, learning of this, tried to impound them … and the ships took premature flight.
Theoretical physics was beyond Lian, intellectually. Chaos physics was alien to him, philosophically. He was, at essence, a naturalist, a believer in life. Which, he thought, was why he had never believed what the drives might have done until he looked out at Lltharran plain. The river remained, a tangled wire between the yellow foothills and violet sea. The land remained, just emerging from the long winter. Great stretches were patched and banded with black, grey and brown. In places the topsoil had fused to a black slate. In others the soil had been left impregnated with heavy metals. A few regions were dangerously radioactive. In between were stretches and islands of fertility, where fragments of normal vegetation survived: hardy grasses, durable shrubs, the occasional copse or even small forest. To Lian’s naturalist’s eye, the ecosystem was pathetically diminished. The old city was not at the centre of the devastation–which was further south–but the fair white city lay in ruin, its foundations reduced to a half-buried latticework along both sides of the river.
There was life in it still. Half a mile downstream the river kinked around a knoll, and below the knoll, on both sides of the river, rough grey and white buildings had been raised upon the white foundations. By their best accounting, well over a thousand people lived here. That in itself would not have brought them here, but on the knoll was a building, and that building was warm to their scans. It had been a space science centre, built with the technology which had constructed starships. The solar panels on roof and upper walls remained functional, and functioning; electrical fluxes moved within its walls and artificial lights shone from its windows. After wasteland and ruin it seemed a miracle, but … Why it alone?
Lian realized he was letting pass the chance of speaking to Lors uninterrupted. He climbed out of the bubble and settled on his heels beside Lors’ chair. Only four of the screens were alight. One, Lian recognized as medical data, the traces of the sleepers as they slept, and of himself and Lors.
Lors sighed, and leaned back. “We will have to move on. Even if we could support continuous holo and scan, there is the river. It’s going to flood. You’ve seen the scans of the upper floodplain. We’re too low here.”
They had landed the shuttle, by night, five days ago, on the edge of the ruins, hidden from the new settlement by a long ridge. The shuttle was small enough, and Thovalt skilled enough, to fit it inside one of the largest basements. By day they kept it under an holographic camouflage, in case anyone from the settlement downriver should happen by. In their nocturnal explorations, they had found excavation sites, ruins opened, pegged and covered with boards or canvas. But nobody had come; they were occupied by preparations against the river. From behind Lors’ station, Lian could see over the ruined walls to the river itself. The water was brown and ropy, thrusting at its banks. Outside their windows, the walls were striped with floodmarks.
Two days ago they had mounted cameras on the ridge, overlooking the dykes around the settlement. Small, drably clad figures laboured over them, building them up stone by stone, from dawn to dusk, and for the last two nights, by firelight. They had carts to drag the stones from ruin to dyke, but only their muscles, and primitive pulleys, to lift them.
“What about–the people?”
Lors said, “They have managed for sixty six years without us.”
“How long–will we hide?”
Lors did not answer.
Lian ran a hand through his hair, shaking a few black strands free. He said, “I thought–my hair–would get thicker.”
“That will take a while yet.”
“My skin–is brighter.” He held out a narrow hand, showing off its lustre, waxy secretions evolved as protection against the intense Burdanian sunlight. “Though I–haven’t been out–much in–daytime.”
“You have something on your mind,” Lors said, to the screens.
Lian said, “I am afraid for them. The people–in the settlement. We saw the flood upstream. There is nothing to–stop it coming. The people have no machinery. Mud and–gravel to stop the dykes. And afterwards–Bad–flooding could reach those–badlands. Wash poisons. Radiation. They drink from it. They water their plantings. They may not be able–to tell.”
“We do not know that, Li. That building on the knoll–it was a science centre, once. There is a great deal of knowledge, analytical and computing power stored up there, if they can use it.”
“We came–to help them. But we–hide from them. Land by night. Stay–away from them. Watch. Behind screens. This is wrong.”
“I agree with you, yes, but I also agree with the others.” Lian lifted his head, and blinked as sunlight spat into the corner of his eye. Catching that, Lors said, “You want me to talk for you, again, don’t you?”
Caught, Lian said nothing.
“You are quite capable of putting your own viewpoint–”
“Don’t–lecture me, Lors.”
“Then do not try and manipulate me into speaking for you.”
Rebuked, frustrated, Lian said nothing. Lors leaned back in his chair, watching the patterns on the screens. The shadow of the windowsill was moving slowly up his shoulder; only his face and head were illuminated, and Lian’s were in cool darkness.
Lian thought of individual faces Andra had isolated from the images. Young faces, in the main, exhausted, unwashed, grim. Some of them were nearly familiar: A dark, austere man who reminded him of his father. A small woman, shoulder high to most of her fellows, with an imposing manner and eyes the colour of a late afternoon sky; she seemed to be responsible for much of the organization and coordination. A woman and a young girl with the same bright orange hair. The woman seemed to be a medic or first-aider: Lors had blanched, watching her splint a man’s wrist.
Lian summoned his resolve. “I–know there may be–more ruins than there should be. All the buildings broken, but one. But when the ships launched–the Archives would have been–damaged. Knowledge lost. There is nothing–sinister in ignorance. We–cannot know how it was for them. To be patient is one–thing. To fear and–disdain, another.”
“You mustn’t think–” Lors started, and then he took in what Lian had been saying and turned to stare at him. For a moment Lian thought he had gone too far. Lors released a slow breath. “Sweet reason, Lian. ‘Fear and disdain’–Why?”
For the same reason, Lian thought, as you recognized it when I said it. He refused to believe that his intuition was as uncanny as some claimed. He was the better observer, that was all.
“‘Fear and disdain’,” Lors muttered, eyeing the scans with unusual moodiness. “Who?” Looked round at Lian with a defensive flash of eyes yellow in the light. “Me?”
Lying would be pointless. “A little.”
“But not you?” There was a sting to Lors voice.
Lian said quietly, specifying his own emotion without stating its object: “I am worried.”
“You should be. Five generations ago this world was launching starships.” There was a brief silence, then Lors abruptly conceded. “Very well, I admit to part of your charge. Fear, yes. These people are not as I hoped to find them. I do not know what has happened to them. They seem to have gone very far down: lost technology, electricity, machinery. That seems–impossible to me. And if it is because of the driveshock, as it may well be–I do not know how they will react to us. Remember, Lian, I am medically responsible for all of you. I have only the supplies, skills and resources I brought with me. I am not going to advocate any action that will put you at risk. But disdain, no, that I do deny. They are still alive, even under these terrible conditions. They live in community, seem cooperative. Does that sound condescending?” But whether his challenging tone was an anticipation of Lian’s reaction, or in response to his own doubts, Lian could not tell. “I do not disdain that,” Lors finished strongly.
There was a silence.
“I–cannot say there is nothing–to fear. But we–cannot know them this way. Observing. From a distance.”
“You don’t think I haven’t realized that our robotics could build and seal a better dyke than any they have. Never mind those shacks they live in. Never mind the state they will be in medically–though the ones I’ve seen look strong enough.” He winced, remembering that broken wrist. “I do not need to be reminded. Most of these ruins date from the time of leaving, sixty-six years ago,” Lors said. “Most of them have the scan signature from the driveshock–but some, Lian, do not. Some of them should have survived–the one we are in, for instance. This area survived the driveshock. It was destroyed afterwards.”
“But–years ago,” Lian said.
Lors suddenly leaned forwards, resting his head on his hands. “If I keep talking to you, I will talk myself right around to your position, if I am not there already. I agree with everything you have said and tried to get me to say. In principle. But in practice–” He lifted his head, and gave Lian a weary, squinting look. “In practice we must be cautious.”
“What–would you want–to know about them? Before you would go to them.”
“Lian, Lian.” He sighed, said reluctantly. “That they will do us no harm. That we will do them no … further harm.”
“How–will you know that?”
When Lors did not answer, Lian quietly excused himself, and went outside. He felt he had accomplished something; to have demanded more would have been cruel. And sunset fascinated him. On the planet of his birth he knew sunset as a red veil over all but the bare sun itself. Burdanian eyes were blue-acute, red-blind, evolved for this blue-white sun. This light offered him all the changing hues of light and landscape.
He climbed carefully onto the rubble beneath the southern wall, and looked out at the gilded, devastated land. The ruins before him sloped down towards the river, their walls a shining maze in the last of the sunlight. The spaces between them were dense with grass and shadow. The river roiled past, heavy with flood. Ripples and eddies flexed like muscles beneath a brown skin. He could see in the distance its downstream course, as, having looped the settlement, it meandered southwards into an indigo haze. On the plain, mauve gloom welled up from the dips and the valleys. In the sky, the first brilliant stars were already kindling.
To the right was the ridge which shielded them from the settlement. The rebuilding had taken in a crescent of three low hills on this northerly bank, and the knoll and rise within the river loop. The knoll and the three low hills might be secure against the river, but the rise was very slight; the dykebuilding was concentrated around it. This settlement was one of the largest they had scanned, and the only one to lie within a major area of devastation. It was an anomaly. It could not support itself. The weather was harsh, the river a menace. Yet here they stayed and prepared their defence.
Lian rested his chin into his folded hands. There was another high, well-preserved wall to his right. There was a mural on it, still recognizable as an undersea scene, now much cracked, faded and stained. He carried in his pocket a smooth stone with painted orange scales. He could not tell where it had come from. No orange remained on the standing mural.
The wind shifted, swirling amongst the ruins, and brought with it voices. Lian lifted his head, alert. An instant later an eddy sucked them back.
Lian thought: Lors would surely warn me if …
The wind died. In the stillness he heard the voices again, disembodied and unfamiliar. Something had changed beyond the wall. Dark bands rippled along the ridges, and for an instant he stared in horror until perspective reasserted itself, and he perceived shadows, cast by someone moving behind the wall.
Within his pocket his transceiver said, “Lian!”. He swung round so swiftly that vertigo turned the incomplete holo-illusion into hallucination.
“What was that?”
He had started down from the heap of rubble; at the strange voice he wrenched himself back, fingers digging into crumbling stone. The long bands of black behind the wall were still. He felt them listening.
The shuttle’s grey panels crumpled, its straight lines wavered into rubble, mulch and mud. He thought: … I had no idea the power was so low.
“I don’t know.” He heard stones crunch on the other side of the relict mural. They would surely hear him as he dashed for the shuttle door. They might see the shuttle itself if the illusion did not settle in time.
But he understood their words, their speech. He understood what they were saying.
Lian wedged a booted toe into a cleft and boosted himself up, hooking the other heel behind a jutting stone and folding himself over the wall gracelessly.
His transceiver squalked again. He hissed, “Hush!”
There was a wind-filled, pulse-metered interval. The last rays of sunshine lifted off the earth. He stood up, exposed in a clear, cold, afterlight.
A figure appeared through the doorway at the far end of the wall. Then a second. They came forward slowly, but with the bleached sky behind their heads he could not see their faces. He was breathing hard; the frigid air petrified his throat. He crossed to the mural and put a bracing hand on a web of painted seaweed. His transceiver had not made so much as a crackle; perhaps now the others understood what he had done. Perhaps they thought he had simply gone mad.
The strangers stopped before him, the woman standing squarely in his path, feet set very wide apart and turned outwards, the man half a step behind and at her shoulder, though he could have looked directly over her head with ease.
Both were younger than himself. The woman’s green-flecked eyes flicked him up and down, assessing him with the swiftness of the capable young. Her face was sharp-featured and alert beneath a cropped cap of hair. The man reminded him at once of Thovalt, in a way that he could not define, because in every particular they differed: His colouring was softer, dun and grey to Thovalt’s black and hazel; he stood as tall, but broader; his eyes were gentler, steadier.
His next impression was of colour. From a distance, the natives had seemed a drab people. He saw now the high colour and lustre of their hands and faces, the two-tone streaking in the woman’s hair, the shading of the thread of their heavy, coarse-woven outer garments, half jacket, half cloak. The woman’s was mossy green, the man’s dark grey with a purple tint. She was bareheaded, while he had adapted a length of the fabric as a hood. They were shod, but in what Lian could not tell, for their lower legs were wrapped in muddy rags, lashed on with chords, and sagging over their boots.
The woman said: “Lara D’Alna.”
The man: “Rathla Zharlinn.”
Names, Lian thought, with a joyous shock. They were giving him their names.
“Lian,” Lian said. “Lian D’Halldt.”
“Islander!” The woman said. From her inflection the word could have been, “Brother!” She nudged the man, Rathla Zharlinn, jarringly. “That’s an Islander name.” She swung back to Lian, bright-faced. “Where from? What ship? Have you just arrived? You must have barely made it, you realize? I haven’t seen you in Lltharran. Did you come with–”
Rathla Zharlinn interrupted. “Are you wanting answers, or not?”
She opened her mouth to retort, closed it. “Where are you from?” she said, primly.
Had either of them shown him the least distrust he would not have dared do as he did. Her tone was commonplace; she had asked a simple question of a stranger. Neither had reacted to his accent, his pallor, his clothing, or to any of the other marks of his otherworldly origin. He was not dressed as they were, but his jacket and trousers were heavy, dark and plain for warmth and night-work, and his boots, perhaps more revealing, were scraped and clarted with mud. Could they truly mistake him for one of themselves?
Lara said, “You are Islander, aren’t you?” Even then there was nothing in her manner but her youthful impatience.
He said, “I am from–” he committed himself, using the Archival name for the most remote of the southern islands, “the C’Rynn reach.”
“You don’t sound very convinced,” she said. For an instant he thought he heard ‘convincing’ and his breath froze in his throat. Then his wits caught up with him, and he said shakily. “Home seems–far away. Do you–live here?”
“At present. I’m from the Sor and Lara’s from Lesser D’Alna. We’re Restorer’s Guild.” He paused, anticipating a reaction. Lian had none to offer. Lara said, “You’ve never heard of us.”
Zharlinn panned with a hand, giving Lian the chance to glance over his shoulder and assure himself that the shuttle’s camouflage had coalesced. “We’re trying to restore the old technology. We dig bits and pieces out of these ruins, and people bring us relics from other parts of Burdania. We try to get them working again.”
“What–kind of bits and–pieces?”
“Anything we find. Lamps. Voice-projection apparatus, allows on to speak over long distances. Record-keepers which preserve voices and pictures, without handwriting.” His tone was tight, a little defensive.
“They used these things,” Lara said, more easily “Seventy, eighty years ago. The ruins are full of them. If we can get them working, understand how they work, we can learn how to make our own.”
“Get them accepted,” Rathla Zharlinn said.
“Are they–unacceptable?” Lian said.
“We have the isk’dar’s support.”
Lian did not understand how that answered his question. “The isk’dar?”
Zharlinn looked at him oddly. Lara laughed. “Aye, things have changed around Lltharran. She’s no Linn Travassa, I assure you.”
Lian drew a breath. His ribs twinged with tension. “I am–beginning to realize–how isolated we–have been,” he said, truthfully. “I know–nothing of the isk’dar.”
“She’ll be wanting to meet you. We thought your name had died out. She’ll be pleased it has not.”
“Why–should she want–to meet me?”
Lara glanced at Zharlinn. Zharlinn at Lara. “We should let her explain,” Lara said.
Zharlinn said, “Have you a place for the night, or will you come with us?”
Lian’s mind blanked. Zharlinn continued, marvelously oblivious: “We’re a small household. We’re always glad to have passers through, and hear the news. And since the light’s going, we should do likewise. These ruins can be dangerous in the dark. Unless you do have elsewhere to stay.”
“No, I–” Lian collected himself. “No, I accept. I do–accept.”
“Then bring your pack and–”
Pack! To have travelled any distance he would have needed supplies. “I–I left–my pack–” he said, in blind excuse. Then, hearing himself, inspiration came. He waved a hand vaguely westwards. “I wanted to–explore. I–was not paying attention to time. If I might–If I might borrow what I need, I will–return for it–later.”
“You’ll not be the first to come empty handed,” Lara said, with a sideways glance at Zharlinn.
Lian said, carefully, thinking of the shuttle, “I–had not seen anyone here–before. Why–are you here if the ruins–are dangerous.”
“Checking our diggings,” Zharlinn said. “The river’s about to break its banks. We had to seal those we could.”
Lara D’Alna laughed. “I can see nobody told you what Lltharran was like in the spring.”