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Maps and sketches from my Bright Islands files.

Bright Islands in a Dark Sea

PROLOGUE

Roke, a city on the Lannick Coast
Springtime, Year 3849, Common Reckoning

In a high corner tower of the second-largest cathedral in the known world, high-ranking churchmen watched in horror as the Son of God disintegrated before their very eyes. Now eight horrid creatures-clawed like crabs, black and glossy as crickets, big as sheepdogs and as hungry as winter's wolves-prowl the corridors of Roke Cathedral.

Within days of their appearance, the monstrous apparitions dragged down and consumed several Church Militant guards, a scribe, and a Hand of the Order of Pharos. Later recovered, the drained husks of their prey lay unseemly light in their coffins. Were the voracious entities a plague sent by the dying god? Were they the god's murderers or avatars? Stupid, vicious and deadly-should they be slain, endured, or worshipped?

Hernock Vann, the Senior of Roke, no longer having even the Son of a god to turn to for counsel, ordered his carriage readied and called for a platoon of horse-troops to escort him across the mountains and down to the Inland Sea. He ordered a ship to await him, to carry him to the city of Innis.

The Senior of Innis, Hernock's colleague, mentor and boyhood friend, would surely advise him. Meantime, the black creatures were still confined to the tower, and showed no interest in its heavy oak doors or iron-bound gates. Convicts and stray dogs would suffice to maintain them in sated complacency, he hoped, until he learned what he should do.


CHAPTER ONE

"History has meant many things to people living and dead-and considering the span of this poor Earth's recorded past, six, seven, even eight thousand years, there are more lovers of the written word who are dead than living.

"Dead ones' words survive, as do their unwritten agendas. 'Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it,' claimed one anonymous scrivener. 'History is written by winners,' claimed another. But if Earth long ago lost her own crucial battle, who wrote the histories we read, the tales we recount?"

Y. B. 3849 CE, the Duchy of Wain



Yan Bando put down his pen. He was not a historian, not exactly. He studied the Mother of Wisdom, but only as an adjunct to his own true calling, the recently revived field of archaeology. Archaeology, unlike history, did not lie. Though incomplete and unclear, it was written in the soil. Its words were shards, ruins and ancient spaceships, the bones of winners, losers and those who never played the game.

Unlike the historians he studied, Yan was apolitical, and absolutely honest in his work; that was his first problem.

His mentor, the Academician Lazko, was dead, his calcined bones mixed with the rubble of his house, the ashes of his books, and the slagged artifacts he had treasured, all now a vanishingly small paragraph in the book of the soil; that was Yan's second problem. There were others, of course, even before his current difficulties, but those were largely of a personal nature, and troubled no one but himself.

Yan rose and stretched, scratching his short beard. In the cramped fisherman's shed where he hid, he seemed large. He would have seemed it even in his father's great stone hall in the March of Musgone. Muscles put on in his early training with broadswords and war-axes had been augmented by years of shovel-wielding, wheelbarrow-pushing, stone-rolling research. Nobility, family, and war-axes were things of the past, traded first for a dun robe and a scholar's cubicle within the walls of the University at Nahbor, and lately for dusty boots and a fugitive's dank hideaway; but his muscles endured.


Only this morning, in the University Precinct of Nahbor, the two browncoat thugs who had slain Lazko had had good cause to regret Yan Bando's un-scholarly musculature. In the early hours he had bought a sausage-cake from a street-vendor and, anticipating the sunrise rush of drays, horses and oxcarts, had set out in darkness for Lazko's house. The iron gate to Wildrose Court made no protest as he entered. No lamps shone in the houses that walled the court, but a red glow lit Lazko's lower windows. Yan smelled smoke as he passed the long-dry fountain, and then saw wisps of it seeping from the roof-shakes of the house. The old man's fallen asleep at his reading-table, Yan thought, and his candle's caught something afire!

He rushed to the door, but some instinct drew him up short. The latch lifted at his touch, and the heavy oak panel swung aside to reveal a nightmare scene: Lazko was clearly dead, his head resting in a liverish puddle of thickening blood. Flames licked the far wall. Two men in brown priest's robes spun around as he entered. Their movement seemed leaden. The flames themselves danced unnaturally slowly, and the blood dripping from Lazko's writing-table fell with less than expected speed.

Yan's personal demon took command of him, a kind of madness. He saw his surroundings with unnatural clarity, and he reacted with inhuman speed, but to him, it was the world that had slowed. In the time it took to cross the room, his eyes and mind absorbed missing volumes of notes on his and Lazko's joint research, empty shelves where drawings had been stored, pens and fragments of an inkpot strewn about. He saw the crushed ruin that was Lazko's skull, and his staring left eye-its punctured companion now a flaccid sac. He saw the oil-pot in one brown-robed thug's hand, and the flaring pitch-pine splinter in his companion's.

Yan snatched the oil-pot, cradling it in a broad palm even as his other hand plunged toward one priest's eyes. Gore splashed his fingers and his homespun sleeve. Whirling without waiting to see his opponent fall, he rammed the second priest with a shoulder and caught the burning splinter, crushing its flame. The oil-pot sat unbroken, upright, though Yan had no memory of setting it down.

The second priest had no time to cherish memories when Yan's hands found his throat, his thick fingers nearly disappearing in overripe priestly flesh as he squeezed. Crushed, structure and function destroyed, the throat was only a limp, fleshy tube holding head to shoulders. Yan shook his hands to free them. Fifteen seconds had elapsed since the door had swung open on well-greased pintles-less time than an emotion takes to form and flower, no time at all to feel the inevitable revulsion and shame he would feel, when all was done.

Flames heated Yan's face. The notebooks! The thick, hide-bound tomes, their minuscule lettering cramped within narrow margins, were the essence of the old man's work and Yan's. They lay in an oil-soaked pile, licked by slow, lascivious flames. Most were already burnt, but Yan salvaged four. Heavy as they were, he swung them beneath a curled forearm, damping their charred edges in his robe. He then reached into a smoking cabinet to withdraw a paper-wrapped packet, brushing embers and char aside with bare fingers.

He recognized a long, twisted piece of metal, a souvenir of his excavations in Michan, a fragment of a wrecked ship of space. He saw blood on it, and Lazko's gray hairs. That corrosion-riddled shard had killed his mentor. It was the object that had started it all, the first discovery in a chain that led to this moment. He let it lie. Let the brownshirts sift the ashes for it.

The fire spread. Loft-planks glowed and burning straw insulation sifted down; clothing smoldered. Yan reached down to close his mentor's staring eye. At the door, he pinched out smolders in his own robe, feeling no pain though his fingers blackened.

Closing the door behind him, he walked swiftly but casually away. No alarm had been given. Minutes later, he stood in a shadowed alley, his chest heaving from exertion and emotion. His demon had departed unnoticed; now the world proceeded at a normal pace. Birds chirped beneath wood-shingled eaves and distant teamsters' cries awakened the city. Tears blurred his vision as he tore the blackened wrappings from the packet he'd taken, and distributed dozens of one-ounce chips of soft gold in the small pockets of his work-robe. He grimaced in disgust: he had fouled his undergarments-his demon's inevitable sign. He left them there in the alley with the torn, charred wrapping-paper.

When dawn first lightened his path, Lazko's ashes were cool and Yan was fifteen miles east of Nahbor. His black-smudged hands rested on a bag slung across his saddle. Their dark hair was burnt away, but the flames had not reddened his flesh. Ahead, the village of Wain nestled between rounded hills, and the waters of the Eastern Reach stretched beyond to the horizon. The sea was lead-gray in wan morning light, but as he rode down the easy slope, a sliver of sunlight broke through the clouds: a pale, pink reflection of the flames that still burned behind his eyes.


Stretching his muscles, Yan returned to his writing. It was not yet dark, and it would not do to wander about in Wain. He doubted that the Church's minions had picked up his trail in Nahbor, but a tall man on horseback was easily remembered, and the hierarchs would not assume their men had died in a fire of their own setting. He waited for darkness to obscure the waterfront, again picking up his pen and attempted to put the contradictions of "history" into perspective.

One version of history claimed that because humans were incapable of piloting ships that plied the stars, they were ready victims of alien races seeking serfs and laborers for their plantation-worlds. Because humans went mad and died in the pilot-seats of interstellar craft, because they were unable to cope with forces in the altered trans-light universe, the human race had been helpless when Earth was in turmoil. Melting icecaps and deforming continents had provided starfaring races with refugees, human cattle to fill their ships' holds. That was history as it was recorded in University archives.

Then there was history as the Church of Pharos told it: not of alien races, but of gods. The god Pharos lowered his golden ship to Earth not to save starving victims of climatic catastrophe, but Pharos' devout followers. He transported them not to barren planets as laborers or slaves, but to elysian worlds under distant suns, to Paradise.

Considering divergent realities, Yan thought it no wonder that Church and University had been at odds for a millennium. Both, of course, had been winners for a while, but vocal ignorance outmatched silent knowledge, and the Church had grown while universities remained static and isolated, selling gadgets and expertise, soliciting only the best and brightest minds while the Church of Pharos proselytized among farmers and sailors, tanners, traders and, most dangerously of all, kings.

A few years earlier, the large stone church in Wain had been only a log building where a handful of madmen howled and frothed and rolled their eyes, speaking in gibberish and calling out aloud to Pharos, their alien God. Townsmen had made demon-signs at them or spat at their feet. Now men spoke softly of the Pharos-Church, fearing to offend its members.

In truth, Yan reflected sadly, the Church had won its battle centuries earlier, and Lazko's death had occurred in a minor skirmish, a cleanup of resistance. Most universities had long since fallen, and brown-robed penitents howled "Pharos! Pharos!" in their halls. Nahbor, too, would fall. It was powerless to prevent the Church from inciting strikes and sabotage. Wild-eyed converts spit in the street when scholars passed, and most bright young men chose brown or crimson robes over the scholar's dun.


Tears blurred Yan's vision as he thought about Lazko. A much younger Yan Bando had found the metal shard that killed him and had carried it first home, then to University, where it was eventually noticed by Lazko the Antiquarian. The buried spaceship was excavated two short years later.

The hull, buried in six meters of silty peat, had been located with ancient instruments that marked the decay of elements. The discovery of a ship of space, any ship, in any condition, was momentous and controversial. The ship was of alien manufacture, and it had been wrecked on Earth. That alone was enough to provoke the Pharos-priests-Gods did not have shipwrecks.

Churchmen had lurked about the excavation site, using their influence with suppliers and hired laborers to create shortages and work stoppages but hesitating short of outright violence. When the excavators pumped out the mire that filled the hull and saw what was within, the priests became entirely hostile.

Though the ship's metal had been badly corroded, the same acidic muck that attacked metals preserved wood and flesh. Expecting to discover strange, unearthly life-forms, the diggers found rude wooden pilot-chairs with men in them-men as human as Yan, Lazko or the Pharos-priests themselves.

At that moment, archaeology collided with both versions of history. The evidence of the soil seemed clear: a ship of alien manufacture had been roughly modified for human use and, Yan was convinced, had been flown by them.

But what could he do about his discoveries now? Nothing. He had headed east to Wain because it was on the opposite coast from his father's estates, where he would surely be sought. Once he eluded any pursuers, he could head south, even to distant Burum. There were other universities, still. Lazko had corresponded with Burumese scholars. Who knew? They might even have use for a digger of ancient things.


Somewhere behind the dark, slim girl the light of the world pushed piercing fingers into the earth; but here, an hour's walk into the depth of the Unending Cave, there was no light but a single candle illuminating an old witch-woman's face. Seen by daylight, it would have been an ordinary face, wrinkled by sun and wind, gap-toothed as old mouths are and surmounted by thinning gray hair like any crone in the town. But here, in the earth's very gut, in the home of all secrets, it was a terrifying sight.

If I survive this, the girl reminded herself, I will be a witch, and I will fear her no more. She will be only an old woman. If I fail, it won't matter. I won't remember a thing.

"Outsiders call us witches, child," the crone murmured. "What are we?"

"We are children of a far star," the girl Illyssa recited in singsong. "Our minds entwine. Our thoughts reach out and speak with tongues of flame."

"High, green hills surround and hide us. What do we fear?"

"We fear black abominations, slavers and herders of men." Memorized words flowed. They were the easy part of her catechism; the real test would follow. "We fear the False Church, their tool," Illyssa continued, "Priests who are their eyes and ears on Earth, and soldier-priests who hunt us for the black masters."

"We are hunted," stated the hag. "Are we wild pigs, then, or hares? Are we playthings or food?"

"We are star-wolves and raveners," the girl replied, her voice tremulous with the frightening impact of her words. "We are far-wanderers, dark-space rovers marooned on this isle. The black ones would use us as dogs in their harnesses, leaping and running their errands from star to star."

"What holds us here, planet-fallen?"

"The One Man was lost, and with him the Merging and Melding, keys to the stars. The Seed and the Flower do not breed true. The Ship lies beneath waters and the slave-masters circle above."

The old woman lit a dark cheroot from her single candle. "Enough, child. I am sure you can recite all the Responses word for word. But do you understand? Do you believe? Or are you no more than any village girl, a child of these mountains?"

"I am a child, grandmother," the girl said in ritual singsong. "I am an unbeliever, unfit. Do with me what you will."

"Do you want to understand, to believe?" That was no ritual question.

Illyssa's eyes sparkled with anger. "I want to know what is real," she said. "I want to believe what is true. If the Tales and Responses are history, I want to know that. If they're only madness of old women, I want to know that, too."

The hag sighed. "I can't show you Ferosians, child. I cannot give you the True Flower to eat, either, and I can't take you through the corridors of the Ship. How will you know? What are you willing to risk for your assurances?"

The girl slipped back into singsong, unable or afraid to put her wishes into plain words. "I wish to eat the False Flower, and to speak with the minds of my ancestresses. Then I will believe. I have seen the simple-minded ones, now only wombs to birth and breasts to nurse, and I will risk becoming as they are."

The old woman responded with a sad, slow shake of her head. "Then risk it you shall. Have you said your farewells to your mother and father?"

"I have."

"Then we begin. When you emerge from this chamber, be you brood-mare or witch, your parents' child will be no more."




CHAPTER TWO

Washington--(IPS)--The House of Representatives narrowly passed the New White House's favored anti-emigration bill, which prohibits designated Nationally Valued Persons (NVP's) from boarding any non-government owned spacecraft. Citing the recent departure of the entire faculty and many students of the Midland Technical Institute, ferried from the rooftops of the flooded campus to a waiting Faroseen ship, President Tuthill stated that "we cannot continue to permit the heart and brains of this nation to be excised, and still expect its body to function."

April 12, 2260, International Weekly, Geneva. From a facsimile in Volume I of Eustis Lazko's compendium.



West Wind's mast bobbed wildly as the young man descended to her deck. He swung a blue canvas sack ahead of him. It hit the smooth, bleached deck with a thump.

The boat's owner regarded him with wary neutrality. At first glance, the old fisherman thought, the lean, large-boned fellow looked out of place in ordinary traveller's clothing. His ice-blue eyes and narrow, distinctly northern nose hinted at noble birth among foggy, heavily forested coastal bogs and islands. Omer mistrusted men of noble birth, especially those with thick wrists more suited to broadswords than teacups, with skin weathered to rich bronze, not pale. The times were unsettled. The only honest enemy was the sea. There were too many goings-on and intrigues, for a man to let his guard down.

"Don't you remember me, Om?" the younger man asked.

The fisherman took another look. His yellow-gray, bushy eyebrows rose in surprised recognition. "P'fesser!" he exclaimed. "I never saw you so-no scholar's robe, no dirt on yer face. An' tha' beard, it ages you." He stretched out a leathery hand.

"You've only seen me in summer," Yan said. "I shave then, because of Michan's burrowing-mites, but now that the digging's done, I'm like anyone else, I'm afraid." His faint smile faded. "At least I was."

"And what are you now?" the boatman asked. "You look to be well worn by the road."

Yan hesitated. How much did he dare tell? He'd picked the West Wind because Omer had worked for Lazko, ferrying supplies to the dig, and artifacts back to Nahbor. But what did he really know about him? Eyes can't peer into a man's soul. "I've left the University on ... on extended research," he equivocated. "I go to New Roster. Will you take me there?"

"New Roster? Aya, it's a long sail. Nearly to th' other end a' the Reach."

"Will this be enough?" Yan asked, holding out copper and silver coins, a generous offer. "I must leave immediately."

"Aya, I'll take you there," the fisherman agreed. "And for that sum, you get meals, too. Is that all your gear, p'fesser? No crates or boxes? How can you do re-search wi'out your tools?"

Omer's words were casual, but Yan sensed falseness. I'm paranoid, he thought. He's only curious. The old man stared past him as if bidding the quaint, silvery wood buildings of Wain goodbye. "Well then, cast off tha' line," he said gruffly. "Na-just toss it on th' dock. Now push us away." Yan pushed at a piling with a foot, unbalancing as the boat slipped sideways. He caught a tarred stay with one arm and a leg, then dangled over the water until he could get his other leg back on board. He barked his shin, and as he bent to rub it, he missed seeing what Omer had seen: a gaunt figure emerging between shanties, robed and hooded in cloth the color of wet ashes, squinting at them over the low-angling sunlight that glared off the West Wind's wake.

"Can I help with anything?" Yan asked.

"You paid your passage." The fisherman's words came from aft, over the cabin roof. "Help any more than that, and you'll be bruised all over." Yan grimaced at the hoarse laugh that followed. Shrugging, he climbed aft and settled against the mast to watch the shoreline recede.

The brown-robed priest scurried unhappily back to his waiting carriage. He would have to report that his quarry had escaped again. His driver, an acolyte and his current playmate, cringed and tightened his buttocks when he saw his superior's red, angry face. He would suffer the priest's rage. It already promised to be a most unpleasant day.


There was nothing productive for a landsman to do on a small boat rocking gently on anthracitic nighttime swells. Observing Yan's fidgety unrest, the fisherman chided him. "It's a long few days to New Roster, Yan Bando. The sea's no place for a man who's na' at home wi' his own thoughts."

Did he know something was wrong? Had he sensed Yan's unease? The scholar was no accomplished dissembler, and he knew it. "I'm comfortable enough with my thoughts," he replied, smiling to cover his anxiety, "but only when I have a pen in my hand and paper before me."

"Aya. Always the p'fessor, eh? Then let's make a light for this airy study a' yours." He went below, returning with a contraption of glass and prisms. "A chart-lamp. The glass magnifies the candle's light a bit."

Yan thanked him. What could he do now? He didn't want to bring out the notebooks. There were too many odd-looking pages of edge-punched paper spewed from the Library's machines, and photocopies with letters too small and regular to have been written by human hands.


With considerable dexterity, he fished new, creamy sheets from his bag and, using the hard book-covers within for a desk, he picked up his thoughts where he'd left them in Wain.

The metal fragment in Lazko's house had been the starting point of his trials, but the wreck itself was only one sad relic of a long trail of events that led further back in time. Philosophically, Yan suspected his troubles had begun when the first rudimentary cell divided in Earth's ancient seas; as an antiquarian, he was constrained to begin with the artifacts and events recorded in the books he'd saved from the fire.

By earthly standards of any age, the ship was enormous, thirty-by-two-hundred meters of gray, pitted metal, like seven lengths of sewer-pipe bolted together at the flanges. A conical trailing segment was tipped with a slender, pointed mast, and the leading end was a forty-meter sphere with a large depression in its forward surface. Four metal-mesh dragonfly-wings a hundred meters long stretched from just behind the bulbous "head."

Yan, a careful observer, had noticed different degrees of pitting on adjacent sections, worn corners on pentagonal bolt-heads, and scarred lips on connecting flanges. He had deduced that the ship was no more than a conjoining of interchangeable modules: control, cargo and drive. Hardly a "ship" of space, it was really a "train". Its odd pentagonal bolts and mixed four- and fivefold symmetries were clearly not of human design or manufacture.

Within, the leathery remains of a human crew were scattered on makeshift wooden couches in holds and hallways, shrivelled eyes still facing equally makeshift instrument panels. Colorful sheaths of corroded cable ran everywhere, secured to walls, floors and ceilings with roughly welded staples and twists of wire. They ran through ventilation ducts, down hallways, in and out of once-airtight doors. Most of them originated within rudely cut openings in the vessel's gray metal and terminated at improvised crew stations, where branched tangles of colored wires connected to rough, hand-fabricated controls. In the forward control room, a huge machinelike pilot's "seat" made to enclose an unimaginably alien pilot stood abandoned, disconnected from the cable nerve-net of the ship.

Imagine their surprise when those far-travelling men and women first gazed on the planet their ancestors had left long ago. No satellites had spun about them, no signals had greeted them. Below, no electric-bright city lights winked. Yan suspected the outlines of continents their slave-ancestors might have recognized were changed beyond recognition. No polar icecaps would have glared. Could they have guessed how seas had risen, continents twisted and plunged, in the half-millennium since their kind had left Earth as slaves of alien Ferosin? Earth must have seemed void of intelligent life to them. Could their instruments have seen towns linked only by muddy tracks where mules and donkeys, oxen and barefoot men shared the rutted ways?

How long did it take them to decide their course of action? Did they have fuel to return home, to some far world? Would they have been welcome there? Only desperation could have forced them to land: their great ship was never intended to breach the atmosphere of a world. They had surely expected to have been met in orbit, but no one had come. No one had answered their signals. They had been, for all they could have known, alone. It must have been a bitter dose, Yan thought, when they decided to take it. Once landed, they were trapped on a world so primitive that men had forgotten how to reach their own looming moon, had forgotten even that their ancestors had once stood on its surface. They could never again have seen the stars except as they winked from Earth's thick veil of air and cloud.

Perhaps they had hoped Earth's primitives could be taught the secrets they'd learned on some far world. Perhaps they'd intended it, but Yan knew it had not happened. The world would have been far different than the place of rude, dirty towns, of dusty roads and torchlit streets, that he knew.

There was a terrible inertia to ignorance. Without the scientific mindset that linked cause and effect, without understanding hypothesis, proof and disproof, Earth folk might have worshipped those ancient spacefarers or slain them as witches, but they would never have let them change the world.

Could anyone, ever? Archaeology gave Yan a perspective across a vast span of time. He seemed to stand on a hilltop watching the river of eternity pass by, its roiled waters broad, its current determined. Historians stood on lesser rises than he, studying the courses of lesser tributaries, minor spans of space and time. A simple historian might not see world-changing as such a daunting task.

But the courses of rivers, nations, and worlds could be changed. From Yan's high vantage individual cultures, eras, and histories seemed small and unimportant and, like the broadest river, the time-stream had vulnerable stretches-meander loops where a narrow ditch could be dug. Shallow and narrow at first, the pent-up impetus of current would scour and widen it; time and history would soon follow the new course. Differently, tiny forces of frost, water and wind, spalling flakes of granite from crucial stones, could cause a landslide and block the widest streambed, diverting time and events into a new channel, a new history.

Presently, Yan Bando could only study the course of events. Changing it might not take much effort, but he didn't know those critical weak points any better than the old spacemen had. There were two kinds of knowledge involved: vast and tiny. Cutting the ditch, turning a meander straight to leave an oxbow lake bypassed by time, took map-knowledge, vast in scope. One had to know where the stream's nature created vulnerability. Catastrophic historic change, the landslide, demanded intimate familiarity with small, unlikely vulnerabilities: a king's momentary drunken lapse, a spy's mistaken observation, a nail, a horseshoe... Knowledge, sweeping and detailed. Which drunken moment? What distraction? What horse, what horseshoe?

Yan Bando, fugitive, was in no position to change anything, but he would still be able to supplement his knowledge with bits and pieces, to collect data and record them. Perhaps some wiser fellow, reading his notes, would find the key to change, and would turn humanity back into the channel that had almost led to the stars. The long diversion into dust, disease and ignorance could yet end. Yan was determined to continue observing and scribbling, collecting a morsel here, a bit there, his small contribution to a future that might or might not be.

Wistfully, Yan toyed idly with the carved wooden object that hung from a thong about his neck.

"What's that?" The fisherman's harsh voice jarred him out of his gloomy reverie.

"Nothing much. A toy my father carved. A keepsake." He slipped its leather thong over his head, and tossed the object up on deck. Omer caught it with a casual sweep of his hand. He held it further from his eyes than Yan might have; his eyes were used to staring at distant horizons, not examining artifacts close at hand. Carved from a single piece of soft pine, a wooden ball was confined in a delicate cylindrical cage. Links of chain were carved from the same piece. Flecks of azure and cerulean clung to the ball. The links, once gilded, were dull ochre.

Omer tilted the cage from side to side, watching the faded ball roll from end to end. "I had one of these," he mused. "Na' so small, though. They sell them in the markets a' Burum."

"The chain was longer, once. There was something on the other end, too. I don't remember what it was."

"Funny, the things we keep. I had a wooden chicken. The legs were gone, and...." His voice dropped off abruptly.

"What happened to it? I mean, did you lose it?"

The fisherman hesitated long before answering. "Aya, I lost it," he admitted reluctantly. "I lost it in the fire that took my young son. I'd given it to him. I was at sea, at the time."

"I'm sorry," Yan murmured.

The old man tossed the trinket back. It rattled, twisting in the air. "It was a long time ago," he said, shutting his eyes against the sun high overhead. A long time? Yan thought. Some grief never fades. We just push it into untrammeled corners of our minds and step around it, most of the time. He slipped the thong back around his neck and tucked it beneath his robe.


The old woman bent over the small, limp form. She hesitated, afraid of what she might see. "Here, Illyssa," she said softly, "drink this. You'll feel better soon."

The girl stirred. The old one paled visibly, even in the light of one dim candle, at the blankness of the girl's gaze. As the False Flower's murk faded, those glazed eyes brightened, and Illyssa's silence became full of questions.

"Yes, you survived the testing," she heard. "You are neither child nor brood-beast now. What have you become?"

The girl's voice was faint, and rasping. Her words didn't match her youthful face. "I am you, Grandmother. I am sister, aunt, mother and mother's mother, to the beginning of our kind. I am Semal Gold-eye's lover, slave, and star-flier. I am of Earth, then of Ararat, then of Earth again. I am that, and I am nothing. I am a tool in your grasp, begging to be used."

"You're still fresh from the spell of the False Flower, young witch. Your words and feelings are as much the Others' as your own. I won't accept commitment from you now." The old one drew back, and sat on her wooden stool.

"I wish to give it," the girl stated flatly. "The Others have shown me much, but they fade. I speak for myself."

The crone shrugged, as if she'd heard such words before. How many young women had she heard them from? Illyssa wondered. "Then be used," she heard. "You may die. Do you fear that?"

"Everyone dies, yet we go on. I fear suffering, and my weakness to withstand it, but not death for good cause.

The old woman offered her a small cloth bag. "Then take this, and eat a pinch once each new moon. Then you may die when you wish it. The Others have shown you the way? You are ready?"

"I am ready," Illyssa said. "I am eager to be commanded and I await your direction."

"Then listen well. This is your task..."




CHAPTER THREE


We are faced with unpleasant facts. First, FTL navigation exceeds the capacity of the human brain. Second, synchronization precludes a team approach-words are not fast enough. Third, genetic, surgical and electro-mechanical augmentation have failed to circumvent facts one and two.

Faced with our failure to achieve human-controlled interstellar flight, the World Space Research Organization will shortly issue a final recommendation that affected member states accept Ferozian offers to transport populations of afflicted areas to habitable worlds within the Ferozian sphere of the galaxy.

From WSRO Chairman I. R. Devadutt's resignation speech, 12 January 2282. Nahbor University databank printout, Volume I of Eustis Lazko's compendium.



The light sailboat rode high in the water, dipping slightly behind each gentle swell. Omer tied off the tiller, adjusted the boom vang and slacked the gaff keeper to his satisfaction. The West Wind would sail herself, while the wind held. "I need sleep," he said. "Come dark, or if th' wind rises, pound on the hatch-cover afore the mast. Food's in the ice-chest aft." The companionway tambour snicked shut on his last words.

Yan stretched his legs. There were still a few hours until dusk, he observed, reaching for his bag. He took out one charred book, a record of events compiled from sources in the University library. Those events began seventeen hundred years earlier, with the first recorded landing of an alien vessel on Earth. Lazko's tight minuscule alternated with photocopies and printouts. Tabulating and sorting those articles, excerpts, anecdotes and statistics would have taken Yan years using edge-punched cards and beechwood dowels, but cultivating the interest of archivists with access to University's computer databases had taken only weeks of Lazko's time. The books, Yan reflected regretfully, were Lazko's only legacy.

Yan read of alien landings and unsuccessful human attempts to pilot ships duplicating the aliens' own. The pages that followed, to the end of the volume, were accounts of further landings, names of alien ships, even descriptions of passengers taken on. The early entries were copies of news reports. Some described beautiful, livable planets promised to refugees from fairy-tale places like New Orleans, Kiev, Paris and Tokyo. Later entries were terse: name of ship, date and place of arrival, candidates accepted, and departure; Cities named were less romantic: Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Baltimore. By Indianapolis, Lazko had written "Innis", and he had identified Baltimore as the Isle of Baltum. Of course, there were no current names for cities now beneath the Inland Sea.

The political and "theological" impact of that first volume had been apparent to Yan from the beginning. Having no use for simplistic gods or a church built on artifice, hyperbole and deception, he viewed the Pharos-cult's influence as a malign cancer that sapped the lifeblood of human society by draining its intellectual vigor into the Church's own sour pot. Religion and politics in this age, he reflected, are one and the same.

According to the Church, the Five Gods once divided the universe among themselves, with Earth on the periphery of the realm of Pharos, neither the strongest nor weakest god. "Pharos," Yan had heard priests claim, "is a busy God who travels constantly about His vast domain, and Earth is the least of His possessions, hardly worthy of His notice." But even if He forgot Earth, they insisted, the four rapacious Others would not; Proon, Rath, Inoo, and Dumeen awaited Pharos' least moment of forgetfulness, ready to sweep in and destroy, to deny Him a portion of His Power, and only the brownskirts' continual noisy prayer kept His attention on the insignificant planet Earth.

Like all effective religions, the Church used both carrot and stick. Deep within Pharos' realm, sermons said, were worlds where souls of devout (and vocal) Earthly worshippers found refuge. Saintly humans might be taken to them still occupying mortal bodies, and might be given unspoiled worlds to populate with their seed, for the glorification of the God.

The Five Gods' were mentioned in Lazko's compendium-but not as deities. Whatever they looked like, no matter how technologically advanced they were, and whether those names referred to their bearers' species, planet of origin, race, tribe, family or even trading company, to Lazko and to Yan after him the Idumeen, Tsrath, Inouwa and Ferosin were mortal beings, not gods.

How did that relate to Yan's problem? First, acidic soil covering the wrecked ship had preserved more detail than churchmen could tolerate. Even grains and seeds were preserved, and whether in storage sacks or crewmens' acid-tanned stomachs, the telltale seeds were not from earthly crops. The crewmen had not been on Earth long enough to eat local food, or to use up what they'd brought from the stars, though they didn't die in the wreckage of their ship upon landing. They had lived for hours or days until the ship's locks had been breached and the ship boarded.

The evidence of charred bodies and scarred walls was clear; crewmen had fought, with wrenches and kitchen-knives, against fiery weapons that burned at a touch. Crew bodies lay where they died. Pilots had burned in their makeshift wooden seats, probably while trying to get the ship aloft again, to no avail. Their murderers sunk the ship in the bog, at that time still an arm of the Inland Sea, using explosive charges at the hull's weakest points.

The unknown murderers left no traces. Either they removed their own dead, or the attack had been so successful that there had been none. Who were they? Yan wondered. Had they been early followers of Pharos, incisively re-writing history even in that remote time, or had they been alien ferosin, themselves, avenging the theft of their vessel?

The key lay in the stratification of the soils, the archaeological sequence. Yan gazed at a sketch he had drawn so long ago it seemed like a different life entirely. At the bottom he had drawn crosshatches, labelled bedrock. Above were limy lakebottom deposits and the wrecked ship. Higher still was a thin layer that contained human artifacts dated to 2600 CE. Clearly, the ship had been sunk before the human trash had been deposited, at a time when seas still rose, when continents subsided, and when the known world had been a place of tiny, shifting principalities. Even then, ferosin visits had been a fact of Earthly existence for four, even five centuries. Enough time had passed for early ferosin "passengers" to have colonized and tamed new homeworlds, to have changed and mutated under new suns, and to have returned.

2900 CE was the accepted end of the Age of the Ferosin, and the first reliable mention of the Church of Pharos occurred after 3100 CE, following the Oma-Cansi wars, concurrent with the rise of the nation-states of Yan's time.

"I am drawn to an uncomfortable, even sinister, conclusion," Yan had written on the same page as the sketch. "The murderers of the human crew were not early followers of the Pharos-cult, happening upon the ship. Whoever they were, they tracked it from afar and followed it to its resting place in remote Michan. I believe they did so not out of malice alone, but to protect some secret so important that it was worth extraordinary effort.

"Who were they?" he had written. "What was that secret?"

If there were answers to those questions, they would not be found in Wain or Nahbor, or in the ship that the churchmen had so laboriously re-buried, stripped of undesirable evidence that humans had once been the equals of their gods. At any rate, Yan mused, he was a marked man. Perhaps someday the Church would forget him, but in the meantime, he had gold, good boots and a deck under foot.

The more he pondered, the more he became convinced there was more behind the Church's overreaction than he could fathom. Strikes and sabotage at the dig were the Pharos-hounds' way, not fire and murder. What could it be? There were great libraries in the Church-held lands bordering the inland sea. Innis and Roke, with their cathedrals, cloisters and archives, for example. Once his anonymity was assured, perhaps there he could find answers, and new questions as well.


In the broad marketplace of Roke a wizened old woman sold bees, fertilized queens of a new variety. Their production of rich honey would, she guaranteed, surpass local hives populated by offspring of captured wild queens. "Taste my honey, goodman," she cackled, exposing a crenelated grin.

"Aya, sweet thing," her potential customer joked, "an' I kin stick my finger in yer honey-pot?"

"Buy my bees, y' randy fool, an' yer'll sell honey 'nuf t' buy the prettiest pot in Roke." The farmer, and scores of others before and after, bought oddly-striped queens from the crone. Their hives ran rich with thick honey, and they prospered.

The hag, too, prospered for a year, then two, but at last, late in the winter of 3848, an oddness caught the attention of an Indic of the Order of Pharos, inquestor-minor to the Junior of an outlying town. For a year, farmers of his district had bought queens, and never had the old woman left Roke to replenish her supply, nor did she keep hives of her own. Each morning she left her hovel behind the Geross chandlery with bees in her grass cage, and each evening she returned there.

The Indic planned to have her tortured to obtain first her explanation, then her confession of witchcraft, but as soon as he grasped her skinny arm, she smiled up at him, and died. In her shanty he found only bedding, a candlestick, a carved child's toy and a wooden box containing half a hundred dead queen bees. An urchin stole the candlestick and a fishwife claimed the bedding while the Indic lunched in a nearby tavern. Upon his return, he tossed box and bees in a renderer's fire. He kept the toy, a blue-painted ball in a four-barred wooden cage, to give to his sister's boy-in return for a smile, or even a kiss.


CHAPTER FOUR


THIRD SPACESHIP LOST!!!

Luna--(Reuters)--An experimental spaceship with a Ferozian-type "stardrive" destroyed itself moments after launch Thursday. The drive module was not at fault. "From drive engagement in lunar orbit to impact with a minor planet in the outer belt twenty-seven seconds later it performed flawlessly," said United Space Technology spokesman Marvin Ambler. "Course deviation in the last eight seconds of flight was pilot-instigated." Data from monitors along the flight path will confirm that human error caused the deviation that led to the fiery disaster, Ambler said.

Undated facsimile of a clipping in Nahbor University Archives.


The day was hot and clear, the breezes light and steady. The boat kept a steady course, constantly adjusted by a wind-vane attached to the tiller by cleverly rigged ropes and pulleys. There was nothing Yan needed to do, but the uneventful hours could not all be filled with reading. The sun was too bright, and the steady motion made him drowsy. Unbidden, stirred by his personal "demon's" recent, unwelcome appearance, his thoughts turned to his youth, to the first visit of his family's unique curse...

How many wan, rainy mornings had he spent huddled in a firelit corner of the old stone manse with cousins and sisters, passing little Enri from lap to lap while Gran'ma wove tales of adventure from the fibers of family history? The scariest stories were about Madness, and Gran'ma saved those for the gloomiest, stormiest days. They were so alike that he had suspected Gran'ma told the same one again and again, only changing people's names.

The Madness. Like a water moccasin in the reeds, it hid in the Bando clan's blood, only raising its deadly head in the heat of battle. Battle, where all the stories began. They all ended with one naked man standing, holding a blood-slick axe, the Madman's weapon of choice. As bloodied as his weapon, standing dead-eyed, exhausted, like a butcher among the day's slaughter-that was how Yan imagined the madman, amid stacked human carcasses, enemy meat. Madmen were not heroes, Gran'ma insisted, horror and disgust twisting her wrinkled face as if she'd stepped in something that reeked and steamed. Madness was madness, though the Bando clan sometimes reaped the benefit of it.

"The signs are always clear," she told the children. "A madman's wounds don't pain him, and his strength is like two men's. His eyes see everything at once, and he fouls himself not out of fear, but to lighten his burden, because he has lost his humanity and cares for naught but the next kill."

At the edge of the swamp, beyond the last plowed field, lay a pitiful cluster of untended graves, where his clan buried the remains of their afflicted. There were more tales in Gran'ma's repertoire than graves, so Yan assumed that those who survived their battle-wounds had run off, not wishing to live in shame on the periphery of the community, shunned and alone.

Men of fighting age were old enough to have sired children, though, children to carry the trait which would curse their distant descendants. Thus Gran'ma's cautions: every male child was at risk because the clan was small and inbred. Puberty was the time madness took hold, but it might not reveal itself then-or ever, if the madman's life was peaceful. Gran'ma would frown when she said that, as if peaceful times were less blessing than failure, for without the heat of battle, the curse lay dormant, poisoning the blood of generations yet unborn.

As a youth, Yan had accepted the tales with tolerant amusement. After all, no family was without taint of some kind. Every landowning clan on the river had moldering bones to hide, or so their children implied, in hushed voices. With the pragmatism of youth, he said of madmen: "They always won, didn't they?" Later, he learned differently.

At thirteen, Yan had known the difference between "work" and "fun." Work was anything grown-ups wanted him to do. If they had ordered him to take his little brother Enri into the delta marshes, beyond the overgrown graveyard, in search of succulent bullfrogs, it would have been work, but since no one had commanded it, he supplied the family with meal after meal of delicate white frog meat. That day, both boys had carried frog-spears, and Yan had slung a bolo from his belt, for squirrels and such.

They filled their mesh bags by noon. "Put them in the pond to keep cool," he ordered his little brother. "I'll be along soon." Yan settled himself on a dry hummock in the shade of a bent old black willow. He dozed, but Enri's terrified cry awakened him. "If the brat's found another skunk," Yan panted, sprinting down the faint trail, "I'll bury him to his neck in muck, and leave him for the crows!"

Enri had found something larger than a skunk. When Yan burst into the clearing, he glimpsed the boy's red shirt in a slim ironwood tree that bent with his weight. Enri bobbed like a cork on a fishpole. Beneath him, a dark shape moved undulantly. Yan saw Enri's little frog-gig, dangling loosely from the neck of ... a fat, black bear. Before Yan could make up his mind wh

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