Thursday, June 30, 2016

Drop Day

The verrie began, as usual, with a narrated introduction. "What you are about to participate in is a projection of life in the distant future, one million years from now," the teachtoon said. "Life on Earth, I should specify, because in this scenario…"—a slightly altered reverb in the toon's voice and a floating book icon signified that the narration would pause to define that word if Ben made the selection gesture—"mankind has colonized other star systems, starting some years after our own time with the launching of the Determination."

Ben allowed the narration to spool out. It was usual stuff: " possible extrapolation using advanced supercomputers, anthropology, and the known laws of physics." He would be able to explore, and to converse with toons in a limited way. The teachtoon would appear as needed to present specific goals. Please pay attention and limit conversation with your classmates' tars to working together on the stated objectives. Do not touch or pass through other tars, toons, or objects; it ruins the experience for everyone else.

One thing the intro wasn't telling him, Ben noticed, was what the point of this particular lesson was supposed to be. The school verries in previous years had all been fairly straightforward "history appreciation" experiences, tying in with recent classes and depicting life in other times and places: The Roman Empire, the Chinese Continuity, the Three Revolutions, and so forth. But their last history class had been on human origins and ancient pre-literate civilizations, and the next and final semester would be leaving history behind to cover civics and current events. Why this virtual visit to the distant future? He raised his hand to interrupt the program, and asked.

"I cannot answer that question now, Ben," the toon replied. "You may have some ideas of your own about it afterward, and you can repeat the question then if you wish." In other words, Ben thought, "nyah nyah not gonna tell." Still, while it was a strange answer for a verrie, it was a typical enough answer for a teacher, when the question was "why." He lowered his hand to resume the intro, and the teachtoon faded out, replaced a moment later by a hovering "Ready?" button. He gestured to proceed.

The walls of the bland entry-lobby faded around him, and the scenery resolved in. He and several of his classmates' tars were standing on a smooth platform under a dimly lit open sky. Diffuse light glowed on a distant horizon in one direction: it was dawn, or twilight. More students' tars were fading in moment by moment, as they completed their own intros at their own pace. Some of them were moving around—the platform was about ten meters across, many-sided, and bounded with a railing—while others waited passively. Their voices hadn't come on yet, and there was little ambient sound except for the hum of a light breeze and their own virtual footsteps, a syncopated pattern of identical soft taps. There was a distinct smell of electricity and metal; was that the verrie gear, or a deliberate part of the sim?

The other kids' tars looked strange. It was normal for tars and toons to have enlarged heads, making them look something like three-dimensional drawings of their younger selves. But this time the bodies and limbs were also altered in some other ways. He gestured for the self-cam view, and a moment later was invisibly hovering a half meter above the platform, facing his own tar. He looked enough like himself at first glance, if his curly black hair had been replaced with a molded plastic hair-shaped helmet. He was on the short side, with a lean build and good muscle definition, just like in real life. But his tar's arms were elongated, the hands extending all the way to the knees. And there was something strange about the stance, which he couldn't figure out until he watched some of the others, from the side, walking around. It was as though there were extra hinges in their spines, allowing them to partly bend over at the waist while keeping their shoulders upright.

Like the others, his tar was dressed in a gray short-sleeved shirt and darker gray slacks, tight enough to not require the verrie to render wrinkles or loose fabric, but not tight enough to show every anatomical detail. Likely, as in most of the history ferries, acquiring "period" clothing would be part of the exercise.

The light had brightened just enough to see the olive tones in his dark skin and the shockingly pale green in his tar's larger-than-life eyes. It was dawn, apparently.

Ben returned to his tar and took a closer look around. Most of the class, sixteen in all, had arrived, but a few were still missing. Jilan, temporarily in a wheelchair with a recent sports injury, was probably going through a tutorial for whatever special control scheme he would be using. And Rona, despite already knowing the most about whatever this verrie was about, would no doubt arrive last, after asking the teachtoon question after question until it kicked her out of the lobby.

Between the platform railing and the distant horizons, Ben could now see a vast, nearly flat but slightly irregular surface, tiled in smooth black squares about two meters across. The array was crisscrossed by lighter-colored lines of pavement running between some of the squares, parallel and perpendicular to one another, about a meter wide, one of which intersected the platform they were on.  In one direction, the path from the platform pointed toward a smudge of varied textures and colors near the horizon. Overhead, the sky was cloudless. The brighter stars were still faintly visible. The moon was there too, a gibbous shape opposite the impending sunrise. But it looked different. It was smaller, darker, and not fully round in any part. Its entire edge was irregular, and its face was mottled not with the familiar "seas" but with black blotches and streaked with spiky shadows.

A tone sounded, and the tar-to-tar audio came in. Ben looked around and saw that Jilan and Rona were now present with the others. He moved toward them across the platform, hearing bits of conversation from clusters of other students as he passed.

"…next to me on the way home, okay? I want to ask you something…"

"…got the constellations wrong." "No, stupid, it's the far future. The stars move." "No they…"

"…could afford to play the fun games in this thing, not this class trip educational…"

He moved up to Rona, who was saying to Jilan, "… obvious, the one thing the intro said about anything was the Determination. It's got to be something to do with that. Maybe it's their way of bringing us up to date on the progress."

"Hi, Rona. Cute tar," Ben said, trying to get the right mix of serious and kidding. Her tar looked as odd as the others, but looked like her. Her hair, both oddly straight and oddly lighter than her red-brown skin. Her dark violet eyes, small flat nose and full lips. Her developing figure—which, on a second look, he realized was altered in a strangely intriguing way by the extra nodes of flexion in her spine.

"Yours looks like they scanned in an upside down beetroot by mistake," she replied, grinning. A decent interval had passed since they'd exchanged eye tokens, and Ben expected to move on to hand tokens, as soon as he could summon up the nerve to ask.

Jilan, his broad muscular upper body and bulky hip cast stuffed into a surprisingly ordinary-looking wheelchair beside them, rolled his eyes and said, "Get a room."

A new and more emphatic chime sounded. A green floating arrow appeared, directing Ben's attention behind him, where a new toon had arrived on the platform and was addressing the class. It was gray-haired, ambiguously gendered in ways that just favored a reading of male. Its form and proportions were like their tars, but it was much more richly dressed, in robes of green and deep violet. Rays of direct sun fell on the character as he spoke:

"Welcome, visitors. You've come to our habitation on a very special day. This around you…" the toon gestured expansively, "… is part of a solar power installation hundreds of miles across. It collects and concentrates sunlight into a radio beam that's received by an interstellar ship in orbit above us. The ship uses the power, and particles from the solar wind, to run its nuclear fuel reprocessing system. It takes several hundred years to refuel a ship for its next voyage. The ship we've served for those many generations, which we call Essent, is nearly ready to depart.

"At the same time, a new ship, the Requis, has recently arrived and will be receiving our facility's power next. This is a very unusual juxtaposition, and in celebration, both ships have sent landers to the habitation. At noon today the landers will open, and there will be gifts exchanged, a market of sorts. You've each been granted a hundred work credits, the currency we earn for keeping the array operational, to spend during the festival."

A small display illuminated in Ben's lower visual field. "Credits: 100.0."

"Enjoy your visit, and don't hesitate to ask our friendly inhabitants any questions you have. Now, please come this way."

The figure strode down the long adjoining walkway, and the class followed, the legs of their tars moving by themselves as they signaled the verrie by leaning into the motion. Ben wondered again at the Jilan-tar's wheelchair. It was made of slim strands of a gray matte-surfaced material that would obviously have to be very strong if it were real, but other than that it looked completely ordinary. Wheels and a seat; no motor, no levitating magnets or rockets.

The settlement was a far distance, so no one was surprised that after a few meters, the sim sped up their trip. Railings and the tessellated ground blurred past, the barely visible variations in the landscape's elevation turning into a steady up and down wave-like motion as they passed. In a few seconds, the outskirts of the "habitation" had sidled up next to the class like a ship to a dock.

What had first appeared to be a collection of colorful tents and pavilions like a fairground, proved to be, from up closer, something rather similar, but much larger. Graceful soaring structures, the tallest forty or fifty meters tall, were comprised largely of thin rods and colorful fabric-like panels, all variously curved under tension. Closer to the bases of the structures, and closer to their interior portions, the tensile members became smaller, denser, and more complex, hiding interior portions from view. The ground was dry flat pavement, varied here and there by low walls, ramps, and stairways.

A number of toons were already moving among the pavilions. Most of them had bland simplified features, a time-saving detail of the verrie: "Don't bother talking to me. I'm just part of the scenery." The exceptions, the more interesting-looking toons, would be the ones to interact with. They'd be the characters needing help with a problem, the traders with valuables to offer, the shady anti-heroes looking for partners in adventurous mischief.

Then the entire scene flickered. The colors reversed themselves, and then went black entirely. A buzzer blared. The setting re-appeared as outlines on a blank white field, and filled back in, though the ambient light level continued to pulse and flicker.

The teachtoon from the lobby appeared suddenly, in a blocky flattened form, its movements reduced to jerks and stutters. It said, in both loud distorted speech and large floating text: "Attention. A malfunction has occurred. No exit from the sim is possible until full functionality has been restored. Due to a master control lock-out caused by a malicious hacker, recovery is only possible from within the verrie program. To escape, you must collect the necessary components and bring them to the necessary locations. The list has been distributed to each of you. Gesture 'I' to toggle the list. Good luck."

The students groaned, laughed, and hooted.

"Ugh. Not this again."

"Bet this verrie floated up from Disney World."

"Scavenger hunt!"

"Why not?" said Jilan more quietly to Ben and Rona. "There always has to be an excuse why we have to go searching everywhere, listening to lessons and answering questions to earn the next widget."

And so the sim went, as the class dispersed in small groups around the habitat and tackled the tasks needed to obtain the items on the list.

From one exchange while searching for a rumored alien artifact, Ben, Jilan, and Rona learned about Chun's Number, the most important parameter of the scenario. "Chun's Number is the expected number of successful colonies a world of intelligent beings can establish across interstellar space," the trader toon told them. "Before it exhausts the resources it needs to attempt colonies, and requiring that the colonized places offer comparable resources. So imagine if a species has an innate drive to spread and colonize, and Chun's Number is greater than one, and the early steps of colonization don't suffer misfortune. Then over time, the number of colonies would increase…" A pause-response symbol appeared before the toon.

"Slowly," said Jilan.

"Exponentially," said Rona.

"Yes, exponentially," the toon said. "And if that species were perhaps very fortunate in its early expansion and started a dozen or two colonies, but Chun's Number is less than one, over time the species' expansion would…"

"Decrease. Um, exponentially, too, I think…" said Ben.

"Close. We'd call that exponential decay. Each new successful colony would gain fewer resources than the investment needed to seed it. New colonies would become fewer and fewer until no resources were left to seed any further colonies."

"Why wouldn't Chun's Number be big, like when a tree drops seeds?" Ben asked. "In the hundreds or thousands, maybe more."

"Because of the scale of the resources required for an interstellar colony ship. It's difficult to imagine the energy required to move a spaceship from a star to a relatively nearby star, at the speed required for it to get there still working. Let's suppose the ship is completely automated, with any living passengers in hibernation. Even then, machines can only last so long, even if they can repair themselves or each other along the way. Hibernation also has time limits. Even if that's hundreds of years, the energy needed to build a colony ship and move it from one star to another within that critical period is still a huge amount. In fact, it's about a hundred times all the energy humanity ever used on earth, from ancient times until the Inundation. Now consider the damage converting even that much energy did."

"That's why we use renewable energy now," said Rona.

"Indeed. Like these solar panels around us," the toon said.

Preoccupied with the verrie's colorful setting within the habitat, Ben hadn't thought much about what they'd seen of the surroundings. But now he asked, "How big did they say those solar arrays are? There were no plants or animals. What else is here? Is that all there is?"

"What are plants? Oh, you mean crops?"

"Sure! But also trees. Wild plants."

"I don't know much about such things. Ask someone else." The formulaic reply told them they'd reached the limits of that toon's appointed subject matter.

"Well, the answer is to put the solar arrays out in space," said Rona. "Where they'd work better anyhow."

"But would they work for centuries? Who'd take care of them?" Jilan asked Rona.

"Robots. People living in space habitats. I don't know," said Rona. "This scenario is stupid."

Another character, in the role of a researcher of ancient history, made them recount what they'd learned in earlier grades about the Inundation and its aftermath. Even though it had happened centuries ago, it remained the story of their times, the historical turning point that put everything before it, from Ancient Egypt to the World Wars, in the same "before-times" bin.

They all knew the story. The Antarctic ice sheet melted and spilled into the sea. It melted quickly, unstoppably, disastrously, within one year. But before that one year, there had been thirty-one month's warning.

Thirty-one months to try to move billions of people, and all the tools and treasures of a great global civilization, out of the way of seas that would rise sixty meters in paroxysms of towering tsunamis.

What was lost was lost; what was saved was saved. With a few exceptions, the people of the world came together and put forth heroic efforts. And just when they'd done all that could be done, as the oceans were still feeling out their new coastlines, an opportunistic influenza strain came along and killed them all.

Not all. Three out of four, though.

Generations of hard times followed. But civilization and human knowledge endured. Technology was preserved, though not all of it was used or needed in the new times. Having learned its lesson, humanity rebuilt cleaner, wiser, smaller, and fewer.

And, having done that, began looking again toward the stars.

"Oh, how dramatic," the historian-toon enthused. "And that's when they began building the Determination, right? The first interstellar spaceship."

"Fifty years ago. Um, our time, I mean," said Rona. The great keel, a single crystal of metal alloy ten kilometers long grown in the vacuum of space, had been part of their sky. Weather permitting, it was visible almost daily in twilight or pre-dawn as a bright needle among the stars. It would take centuries to complete, the teachers said, but someday—what's centuries, compared with the promise of the vast galaxy?—it would fly to new suns.

"Ah, well that's where the history I know begins," said the toon. "Off she flew, she and two others many years apart, with their frozen crews. And no word came back."

"What?" Rona protested. "Then how…"

"That's what it seemed, for generations, because no word came back for much longer than anyone expected. The colonists were supposed to establish communication first thing, top priority. But things didn't go as planned. They had to adapt to their new home, starting over with much simpler tools, rebuilding a civilization. Two of the three succeeded eventually, but it took millennia. It's not easy to send a signal, any kind of signal, at those distances. By the time they started trying, no one on Earth was listening, most of the time.

"And then, they had to learn how to communicate with each other. Time had passed, so of course language had changed, just as much here as there. With a message round trip time of decades, it took time just to learn to talk to each other."

"Speaking of time…" said Jilan

"This verrie's is all about time," said Ben. "Centuries here, a few thousand years there, but it doesn't add up to a million years. Enough time for even human bodies to change. I think we have to find out more about what Earth is like now, and how it got that way."

"Okay," said Jilan, "But that's not what I meant. The lander is supposed to arrive soon."

"Two landers, right?" Ben said. "The two ships… um, the Whosit and the Whatsit."

"Essent and Requis," said Rona, who had no doubt looked it up.

Toons didn't require polite parting words, so the three hurried to the center of the plaza where most of their classmates were also waiting, easily found despite the simulated crowd. They had followed different branches of the sim, and were swapping information and tips.

"The light wands come from the panel cleaner guy, but you need the password from the Dreamer to talk to him."

"The Dreamer's depressing."

"They're both depressing, but if you need a light wand..."

"Are the landers going to fly in here?"

"No, a toon said they already landed days ago, because of the solar array and the habitat. Some pods are just going to roll up here."

"What kind of pods?"

"Dunno. Giant peas?"

"Shut up."

"Anybody seen any animals?"

"Too cheap to program any."

"No, there really aren't any, except in a few places. Talk to the cook under the yellow spire who gives out the thermal paks. They lost most of them in the seeding rush."

"The what?"

"Whole planet's dug up, basically."

"Is that why the moon looked like one of my dog's turds, when he's sick?"

Part of the toon crowd shifted as the pods arrived on the far side of the plaza. They were hexagonal boxes a few meters across and a few meters high, resting on one flat side, conveyed by simple wheeled undercarriages that seemed to move by themselves. Wheels again, thought Ben. One of them was larger, and a darker blue-gray, than the other.

The toon who had greeted their arrival at sunrise presided over a brief ceremony. He reminded the crowd that the cargo were mere ceremonial gifts marking the occasion. The real payment for generations of work collecting unimaginable amounts of power had been in the form of generous amounts of necessary elements sifted or synthesized from the solar wind over the same period of time, including lithium, potassium, and rare earths. Those had been delivered to the planning authorities and would guarantee continued prosperity.

The pods, wheeled carriages and all, unfolded elegantly into larger hexagonal kiosks, displaying colorful symbols and half-hidden objects on each side. Most were not immediately recognizable, but some were clearly jewelry, and some were blades and other simple tools. There were no aliens, or people. Each kiosk appeared to be automated.

"Good, a way to use those Credits without a lot of dialog," said Jilan.

The toon official had one more announcement: "We had hoped to honor the occasion with yet another event of great rarity. A passenger from a star three voyage legs out, who long ago decided to return to see his species' ancestral home with her own eyes. Alas, upon arriving here she could not be revived from hibernation. We have agreed to convey her remains to the sea."

There's still a sea, thought Ben. A million years isn't such a long time, for some things.

A rectangular block of gray machinery, larger than any ancient Pharaoh's sarcophagus, slid silently out of one side of the larger of kiosk. The top half meter of the block split open down the middle into two halves, which folded down to the sides.

Ben and Rona stepped up for a closer look. A dessicated corpse lay inside the opening.

"Watch out for a jump-scare," Ben said. Rona said nothing, but moved aside as toons surrounded the sarcophagus, covered the body with a shiny gold fabric, lifted it and carried it away.

"One of them, said a toon behind them. "Have I told you about them?"

The toon was robed in black, and had a silver patch over one eye. "Pardon me. They call me the dreamer."

"Can you tell me the password for the panel cleaner guy?" Ben asked hopefully.

"We sent ourselves out in spaceships. Us. But by the time we learned they succeeded, they were them. Do you understand?"

The toon didn't wait for an answer. It went on in a soft hypnotic voice.

"When we found out they were planning colony ships of their own, it wasn't us moving on to farther stars, it was them.

"Of course, no one could have that. We needed new ships, more materials, more power, to make sure we would have our fair share of the stars.

"It didn't end. Orbital towers were built, and fell. This part or that part was set aside, protected, for a while. But not for millennium after millennium. It wasn't possible. The moons. The asteroids. We used it all. Sent it all out there.

"But we never came back. Even they never came back. Hardly anything came back, except a hunger for more energy. A place to put panels, and people to repair the machines that keep them clean.

"It's still going on, out there somewhere. A bubble, an expanding surface, too far away even to know about. New ships, new worlds seeking newer worlds, them after them, star after star. But so little coming back.

"That's what space colonization is, in the real universe.

"Now, how can I help you fine people?"

They went to talk to the panel cleaner guy. They talked and collected and swapped, ticking items off the list. Rona was acting sullen, even though they made good progress. "Something's wrong," she kept saying. "There's some point to this we're missing."

A chime signaled time nearly up. One more scavenger hunt item remained on Ben's list, a "decision nexus," but they hadn't found it. None of their classmates had either, or so they said. Fatigue and eyestrain were setting in, and the class began to collect near the obvious exit, the pavilion closest to the walkway they'd arrived on.

Rona was looking at the sky. Always cloudless, they'd learned, near the solar arrays, which were most of the mid latitudes. There were still oceans, but they were diminished and all but sterilized.

"I want…" Rona said, and fell silent.

"Say what?" said Ben.

"I mean, I have an idea," she said. "How many Credits do you have left?"

"Fourteen," said Ben.

"Eight hundred twenty," said Jilan.

"What? No, seriously."

"I mean it. There was a swap loop between the waste processing center, the display globe lady, and the glow-cube kiosk. I ran it up."

"Give me all of it," said Rona. To their own surprise, they did, without argument. What good were verrie tokens when the verrie was over anyhow?

Rona ran off toward the central plaza. Moments later, a toon approached the group from along the walkway. It wasn't the official; it was the teachtoon from the lobby.

"The system is restored. You have all done well and, I trust, learned a lot," the toon said. "However, you probably still have some questions."

No one wanted to be the one to drag the verrie out for everyone by asking a question, but the teachtoon looked like she was ready to wait 'til the cows came home anyhow. And Rona was still away doing whatever she was doing. So Ben asked, "What was this about? What was it for?"

"As I said at the start, this is a realistic simulation of earth's distant future as the cradle of a great human expansion into interstellar space. It's based entirely on physical laws and limitations that we've known and tested for centuries. What did you think of it?"

No one wanted to risk giving an honest answer.

"That much? Don't worry, I'm not surprised," said the teachtoon. "But to give a real answer to Ben's question, this is about the Determination, and a tradition going back a long time.

"You've all been taught that the bright line you see in the sky is a starship that will take many years to build, that was begun a few decades ago. That's partly true, but the last part is false.

"It actually dates back to before the Inundation. It's the keel of a ship, but it's not a ship under construction. It's a ruin, centuries old, like the remains of the drowned cities.

"Originally, for reasons we know but can't easily explain, it was called Enterprise. In the darkest years after the Inundation, it became a symbol of hope and aspiration. Parents would show their children the bright bar in the sky and say, 'we'll go to the stars yet.' Many, not just children, needed that symbol.

"But childhood ends. And when it actually did become possible to actually consider resuming construction of the ship, a few generations ago, our great-great-grandparents decided… no.

"'Determination' means willful resolve. But it also means, a decision. And that's the decision they made. Today's verrie is about why they did it.

"Of course, the keel is still there. The decision, the determination, is never final. Some people still yearn for the stars, no matter the price. Someone, perhaps you, could decide to…"

Ben turned around and ran his toon back toward the plaza as fast as he could make it go. Some people. Rona. Someone could decide…

It's still just a verrie, he thought, but his guts felt twisted with a premonition of something very wrong. Rona.

The crowd toons had disappeared. The plaza was an empty stage set.

Rona was nowhere to be seen.

In front of him, the hibernation sarcophagus was sealed shut.

So what? It just means she found a way to quit the verrie. But he clawed at the block of gray machinery with his tar's virtual hands nonetheless. As always, his hands passed through. He rammed his toon's head into the block, causing his view to splinter into random triangles. She's gone!

"Rona!" he cried over and over. Then, "Somebody help!"

The verrie shut off.

He convulsively shoved and kicked away the already-retracting viewsceen and motion pads.


They took Ben into the medical room and gave him a calming tea. They explained how even though mankind had twice backed off the brink of interstellar space, once by calamity and once by choice, there were still uses for near space, and for special people, people who yearned and didn't fear, to venture there. People with the right talents, people destined or chosen or choosing to live different lives.

She would be able to write to him, someday.

The rest of the class hiked from the verritorium, along the cobbled streets to the canal side, where the long barge waited to take them on the slow trip home. They would sleep most of the way, under the stars, under the brilliant moon.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Heart of Winter

Carver had done what he could; now it was up to the priestess to live or die. It would be a near thing, but perhaps enough warmth had remained in her core, her chest and belly, to keep her in the world.  He had removed her sodden and frozen clothing—she would just have to accept that, if she lived—and wrapped her in the lom fur cloak he'd been wearing. The fire was built up as much as the limited draw of the fireplace would permit, turning the air in the shelter into a dense stew of the smells of wet stone, wet wool, and wood smoke. But warm. The layers of green and brown robes and limb wraps she'd been wearing—the ones she hadn't thrown to the wind in the final delirium of cold, anyhow—hung in the small center of the shelter, the only standing room, between them and the stacks of split firewood in the crawl space opposite. The garments were no longer stiff with frozen rain but would stay damp, in these conditions, for days.

The warming had to be slow, Too fast, and her blood could carry poisons from her chilled limbs into her heart all at once, shocking it into stillness. He had placed a skin of warmed water at the small of her back,. A potful of ice water hissed and steamed on a grate over the fire.

It would be better to wrap himself up in the fur cloak with her, and warm her with his own body heat. But that, he'd decided, would be going too far, asking too much of her tolerance and his… dignity, perhaps. Reluctance, anyway. It they'd had to huddle in the storm in the open, that would be wood of a different grain, but here in the shelter, the fire would serve.

He shifted the cloak to uncover her head, and reached in to checked her pulse at her neck. It was still there, weak but not faltering. Her hair was black and only shoulder length, perhaps abbreviated for the exigencies of travel. Her skin was darker than his—whose wasn't?—and more olive-brown than the Nuwingan red-brown or Gendan tan. That, and the cut of her tunic, made her most likely a Merigan priestess. They came sometimes, once in a great while, to the heart of Nuwinga, for a solstice vigil in view of the sacred Agocho. But this one had met instead a blinding storm of sleet and freezing rain and cold, whipped up to lethality by a merciless wind.

Her expression was serene, which was not a good sign, because her ears, nose, and fingertips would be quite painful when, if, she awoke. The whitened flesh there would feel like burns. Not like burns feel afterward, away from the heat, but burns that were still in the fire burning. He'd have to start attending those soon, to save them if he could, but it was still too soon. He reached under the cloak to her right wrist. No palpable pulse had reached there yet. But there would be time.

He reached past the hanging garments to grab two more splintery pieces of wood that he added to the fire.


Denna felt herself suffocating. She reached blindly to free her nose and mouth from some damp and heavy covering. Her hands and face were wet and numb and burning all at the same time. Frantically she pawed at the obstruction, some furry creature… no, just fur, and it shifted past her eyes and suddenly she was staring directly at a fire.

"Calm, there," a man's voice said. "You're safe. Lie still."

"Burner," she said to the fire, and was surprised that she'd spoken out loud.

"I brought you to a shelter. You were on the mountain."

She peered into the flickering gloom to find who had spoken. He was right there next to her, gray-haired and gray-bearded, dressed in a plain reddish-brown wool shirt and some sort of lined leather trousers. His skin was pale but his hands and face were streaked where sweat had run through smoke smudges. Those hands were the largest she'd ever seen, and the man's shoulders looked massive too. He looked like he had a pretty hefty belly to match, though it was hard to tell for sure, in the cramped space and shadowed firelight.

"Put your arms down," he said. "Your hands need to be in the warm water, and I only have one pot and one bowl to use."

She tried again to examine her hands but could only see them silhouetted against the firelight on the wall. "It hurts," she said, and at the same time realized that under the furs, she was all but naked. "Oh." Strangely that realization brought some clarity to her mind instead of alarm. The man was treating her. She remembered being in a storm, in a wind colder than she could ever have imagined. She'd been lost, nearly blind, battered by falls and near-falls, barely even to walk or even stand after the cold rain covered the exposed rock under her feet with a layer of ice.

She let the man guide her wrists back toward the containers her hands had been immersed in. The water felt boiling hot. She gasped with pain, but didn't resist.

"Your left hand got the worst of it," he said. "You must have taken that mitten off first."

"I took…?" She remembered warmth, a feeling of passing through an ordeal and arriving at a place of peace and comfort. "Yes, that's right. Mam Gaia came for me."

"You were dying of cold. That's what happens, sometimes. I've seen corpses half undressed, or all the way."

"I was supposed to be reborn. I was ready."

The man stood up, leaving Denna looking at his knees, the leathery trousers covering his legs.  His voice came disembodied from the gloom overhead. "Reborn," he said. "Tell me, do you really think that, or is it just something you say to be polite?"

She didn't know how to respond to the impertinent question. After nearly being reborn in the storm, was she still in danger here, from him?

"Where are we?" she asked.

"This is a shelter I set up, high on a shoulder of Whycah Mountain. We're two kloms from where I found you. This part—" he patted the sloping roof and one wall—"is a ruin. It's the foundation for a tower that, I'm told, was once part of a machine that carried people to the top on a cable."

"Ruins? Here?"

"Oh, yes. They're around. Even Agocho had a machine, a railroad, that carried people straight up to the top. It went up a ridge on the far side from here. There are still traces you can find."

Which probably means he's climbed there himself, thought Denna. Maybe nothing at all was sacred to him. That meant she definitely was in danger, alone with him.

Still, he must have carried her here, and hadn't taken advantage of her while she'd been helpless. Even amid her other bruises and scrapes, she would have known, if he had.

"Of course, everyone knows about the ruins on the top of Agocho," he was saying. "You can see them from here, from the ledges below us I mean, across the valley. At the dawn of the old world, they called that part of Agocho, the highest part, Washington, after the first Presden of Meriga.

"Here's a story I heard. They printed papers up there, like pages of an almanac but written a few pages each night, to tell what happened the day before, that they heard by radio. Every morning, boys would take that day's pages and slide down the railroad tracks on wooden boards from the top to the bottom, to sell them to the people living in the towns down there. The boys thought it was great fun, even though sometimes one of them would break his neck coming down."

Denna pulled her hands out of the pot and bowl. Her fingers still tingled but the worst of the burning sensation had passed. She said, "and you believe that story, but not in being reborn?"

"Ah, 'believe.' I believe in stories, which is different from believing they're all true." The man crouched back down on the ground and poked at the fire.

"You priestesses talk about being reborn," he went on, "but I don't remember any other lifetime, or being anyone or anything but myself. So if I get 'reborn' tomorrow, and come back as a baby or, I suppose as a lom, to live a different life without remembering this one, well that's no different from me just being ended and some different baby or lom being born."

"'Ended?'" she repeated. "You're not an old believer, then?" Old believers didn't get reborn, or didn't think they did, but they believed they went somewhere else when they died. Unless they were different in Nuwinga.

"Oh, the old believers have a fine deep story. A resurrected god who forgives, and saves us from the wickedness we're born into. I wish it were so. I could be an old believer, except for the 'believer' part."

"You don't seem to believe in much of anything. What are you?" He was retrieving more wood from the stockpile. "Lumberman?"

"Ha!" he said. "Burner, lumberman, ruinman. Tanner, brewer, hunter, trapper."

"Which guild, though?"

He guffawed derisively. "None. I don't belong to anyone."

A man with no guild was no one to be trusted. She could be in trouble, and might even get reborn after all. But she wouldn't cringe or beg, or mince words.

"In Meriga we'd call you a defiler," she said.

"In Nuwinga too. Just words. I do what I do."

"You cut and burn and hunt and trap without blessing, is what you do."

"'Easier to get forgiveness than permission.' That's the rule in Nuwinga, for dealing with Circle, and with you priestesses too. Been that way since before the old world. Even in the towns. Nuwinga's different from Meriga that way, though they don't admit it. And up here, well, do you see any red hats anywhere around?"

"I'm not talking about Circle. I meant, without Gaia's blessing."

"If by Gaia you mean the world, here it is." He made an all-encompassing gesture. "And here I am. That's all the blessing I need."

"Taking what you want. That's the thinking that brought the old world down," she said. And what, she thought but didn't say, did he want now?

"This wood, this fire, is what you needed to keep you born, or however you'd put it. When you let others take what you need, and then you shut them outside the walls for it, call them lumbermen or ruinmen, that's when you're re-making the old world. Thinking yourself different, trying to deny that if you have lumbermen then you are lumbermen."

That, Denna knew, had been a long-running sore point between Temple and Circle. But it seemed he had her on the wrong side of it. "We priestesses know that better than anyone!" she said. "We carry Gaia's blessing to everyone, whether they plant or burn. But we can't stop people from being people. And we can't all live in the wilderness."

"I suppose this place would get crowded," he said.

"And I suppose asking 'what are you' was the wrong question," she said. "Who are you?"

"Ha! Got me there. They call me Carver."


"Please hand me my clothes, Carver, " the priestess said. She was staring at the fire again. "That thin brown cotton wrap first." Despite the warmth inside the shelter, broken only occasionally by cool drafts as the wind swirled this way and that outside, she was shivering now. That was a good sign, as long as her muscles didn't exhaust themselves.

Carver watched as she passed the fabric carefully through her hands, and produced by some sleight of hand a small cloth packet. She dropped it into the half-full pot of water. "Put this back on the fire to boil," she said.

Without waiting for Carver's reply, she reached under the cloak and pulled out a small knife. Carver wondered where she had carried it. Wherever it had been, he hadn't seen it or felt it while carrying her down the steep icy trail or while stripping her wet outer clothing. She used the knife to slit the edge of the cloth, which she then tore into long narrow strips. The movements of her fingers were stiff and clumsy but she didn't complain of any pain.

She'd be afraid of what he might do, he thought. Or what he might have done, if he were a lot younger still, though she couldn't know that.

He thought about reassuring her, making promises, but that would only give her more cause to fear. Better to pretend that no such idea had ever crossed his mind.

She sorted through her other clothing. It was still damp and smelled of smoke, but most of it was good wool and Carver knew it would still provide protection from the chill outside, where they must soon go.

"If you're leaving, Priestess, I'd suggest waiting for dawn," he said.

"It's not still solstice night." She spoke with certainty, but there was still a question in it.

"The night after. You slept all day. The water in the skin is drinkable, and fresh water's not far. But I had to leave my tools and pack sledge up near the ridge to go after you. Which means I have no food here. We'll have to move on when it gets light."

Carver fussed with the fire while Denna rested quietly with her eyes closed. After a while, the pot had warmed and a spicy scent mixed with the stale air. She handed him the torn cloth strips and told him to immerse them in the heated mixture.

"Back in Meriga," she said as he put the cloth strips in the pot, "Gaea sent me dreams of Nuwinga. I saw the mountains, but they weren't worn and rounded like here, they were steep and sharp. And there was a cliff with a stone face in it, a bearded old man."

"I heard there are mountains like that all over the world, much bigger than these," he said. "There was a stone face a few days' walk from here, but it crumbled away with the old world. Maybe you saw pictures in an old book."

"I thought there would be something new here, something I'm sent to learn."

"So you didn't just come here to be reborn?"

"I don't know. Perhaps not."

"It seems to me if getting reborn was the idea, there's much easier ways to do it."

When the pot had cooled, Denna pulled out the soaked cloth strips. The two longest ones she wrapped carefully around her hands, finger by finger in a practiced pattern. When she was done the ends were folded inside somehow and each hand and finger was covered. She wrapped another strip  in tilted bands around her face above and below her eyes, covering her nose and ears. Then she sat up, pushing the fur aside, covering herself with her heaviest green cloak.

From somewhere in the folds of the garment she pulled out another little herb packet. "Put a little water in the pot, and make tea with this," she said. "For both of us. It will give us a little more strength."


Denna realized she was no longer shivering. Her limbs felt weak but capable. Fortunately her feet were uninjured, well protected from the cold as well as from the rough footing, by heavy leather over-boots lined with wool felt that she'd acquired a weeks' travel inland from Porta. She would be able to walk.

The loss of her mittens was a greater problem. Though Carver had assured her that the worst of the cold was already past, exposing her raw hands to the wind would be excruciating. Carver agreed to sacrifice part of the length of his cloak, and when the small kit of needles and thread from her under-tunic turned up missing, torn away by the wind no doubt, he'd set out using his own belt knife to cut and lace crude lom fur hand-pockets for her using strips of the shaved hide.

She had offered to pay him for these goods when they reached a bethel house. He grunted vague agreement but wouldn't discuss a price. Her own money was lost with her own food and supplies, but her sisters or the people would aid her.

Her misgivings, that there she was entering into some kind of Dell's Bargain with this strange man, had not entirely left her. But she had little choice. If she could get back south to a town or even a farm, she could try to end the bargain and make a new one with someone more trustworthy.

She'd tried to make further conversation.

"Are you alone out here, Carver? Do you have a companion?" she'd asked.

"None," he'd said. "I'm afraid my tastes in… companionship aren't sanctioned here. Or anywhere."

"Really? You don't mean children, I hope."


"Well then, I hear Nuwinga is like Meriga, very tolerant of variation. Men, women, tweens, as long as you're both willing."

"Well, there's the problem."

So, he wasn't willing. Asexual, loner, misanthrope maybe. Bad experiences with people. It happened. There would be time to probe more delicately. She was trained to advise in such matters.

Feeling more herself, she looked around the tiny shelter. The roof that had looked like stone was a slab of ancient pitted concrete, stained black with soot and steeply tilted toward the stone fire pit at the lowest end. The smoke from the fire ran along it toward its top edge. Here and there, deeper pits in the concrete exposed some of the metal rods embedded in the slab, from which Carver had hung the horizontal cords on which her clothing had… well, not dried, but gotten well-smoked, at least. The roof joined two side walls, which were more or less vertical. The whole structure had the shape of an open crate held sideways and then tilted up on one edge, but with the bottom partly filled with rubble to make the floor closer to level. The bed she'd lain on was a simple canvas cot stretched between smoothly carved wood poles. The open side of the shelter's concrete "crate" was closed with a roughly stacked wall of un-mortared stone, that stopped just short of the top edge to provide a vent for the smoke. A tunnel-like passage through the wall was closed off by pine boughs trapped behind a lattice of sticks.

Faint light was leaking through the vent, and peering behind the pine-bough door. It was dawn.

Denna began softly singing the observance for the sunrise, the parts she could do while laying down and uncertain of direction. Carver, still busy lacing the crude mittens, made no comment. She had worked most of her clothing back on, leaning close to the fire to bake as much of the moisture out of it as she could.

When she was finished, she declared the tea ready. The pot had cooled to a pleasant warmth and they both drank, she from the bowl and he from the pot. As the light from the openings had brightened, they had allowed the fire to burn low, and Denna watched with mixed feelings as Carver scattered the remains and stomped the embers and wet them into extinction, nearly emptying the water skin.

There wasn't much else to gather up. Denna unwrapped the bandages from her hands. They were still wet, and it would do her hands no good to chill them again. Instead she put on the fur mittens. They were loose, but folded inside so that she could keep them on by grasping them from within. Carver secured his knife, wrapped the cloak around himself, put a small bag of other items inside the pot, and slung the pot and the water skin over his back.

He shifted some stones at the lattice at the entrance and then lifted assembly lifted away, two lattices with fresh pine boughs squeezed between them. Beyond the opening, a passage sloped upward toward daylight.


The two emerged into gray brilliance and wind. They were on a shoulder high on the mountain, at the bottom edge of a finger of forest stretching from the shoulder to higher slopes. The trees of the forest were barely few meetas tall, but densely interconnected, impenetrable except along the trail.

In every other direction, the ground dropped away into a white void. The wind-whipped mist exaggerated the heights and depths of the mountainside. Carver knew that there were a few places in these mountains where one might fall a great distance through open air, but there were not many of them, and this was not one of them. What looked like an empty void beneath their feet actually sloped away rather mildly a dozen or so meetas down. Still, a fall that far onto the tumbled boulders below would as likely kill you as not.

From above ground, all that cold be seen of the of the shelter was the concrete ruin, a pedestal that had fallen from its footing when boulders below or above it had taken another step on their slow persistent march down the mountainside. There was no sign of the metal tower that had once risen from it, except some rust streaks on the downslope side. Unless one looked closely down the entrance tunnel between the stones, the shelter wall looked like any of hundreds of other piles of jumbled rocks across the mountainside.

"There's no clear path down from here. We have to go up first," he said to the priestess. He led her toward the forest.

In no more than a few dozen steps, they were in what seemed like an ordinary woodland path, except for the diminished height of the trees. The ground was wet from the mist but not frozen. The dense pines to either side blocked their view and cut the wind. The path soon began sloping upward, gently at first and then more steeply, and began switching back and forth across the width of the shoulder. For a few hundred meetas it seemed the land around them was rising more steeply than they were climbing, until what had been a ridge projecting from the main summit had transformed into the bottom of a forested ravine, with steeper slopes all around.

Carver turned around to Denna and pointed upward, toward the top of the ravine wall above them. There was another concrete foundation there, this one upright, as though it had been and would be there forever, still supporting a few upright metal struts.

The path turned along the ravine wall and worked its way up it, first to the left and then doubling back to the right. The slopes that had looked vertical from head-on turned out to be steep but manageable, retreating back the same distance they rose. Near the top, the tops of the trees were barely higher than their heads, and as they climbed past the last trees, the wind returned. The height of the ravine had taken them past a slight gradation of temperature, and the character of the mountainside changed again within a few steps.

Above them and to either side was an open slope of broken rock that seemed, not despite but because of the mist limiting their view, to stretch out without limit. The rocks were limned with ice that seemed to be growing from the stone, forming horizontal spikes of ice on every exposed edge. The spikes pointed directly into the wind that was carrying the mist up the slope from the shrouded valley below.

"This way," said Carver, proceeding to the right, sideways along a slight crease in the slope that made for slightly easier steps. "Easier going up ahead." Compared to the storm two nights previous, the conditions were not all that difficult, and except for grabbing his cloak for balance from time to time, she was keeping pace with little difficulty.

The daylight brightened on the slope to their left and suddenly, within a minute or two, the mist cleared away around them. They could see the valley below, and then the nearer slopes of Agocho, and then the whole central ridge. Agocho was covered in white. Even the ruins at the top, tiny at their distance, sparkled in the pale sunlight, brighter than the piles of gray and black cloud that still shrouded the surrounding hills. The storm had pelted Whycah with sleet, but the higher ridges of Agocho were covered with new snow.

"There she is, Priestess," Carver said. "Might that be what you came to see?"

"They call it the heart of Nuwinga," the priestess said.

"The heart of winter," said Carver. "Winter here comes earlier and deeper now than in my younger days. Old people I talked to then used to see snow once or twice in a few years in their younger days. Priestesses traipsing around on the solstice weren't risking their necks so much then."

"It's changed that much? Are you sure?"

"Here's a story I heard. WInter used to live way up in the very north of the world, on a big floating island of ice. It lived there all year round, sleeping through the summer, and in the fall it would stir and begin to prepare. Around the solstice, it would throw itself into the wind and fly around the world, bringing snow and ice and cold. But when the old world fell and the ice island melted, all the world saw any more was a weak shadow of what winter had been. The real winter, deep winter, took refuge right here in Agocho, waiting for the time it could return to its ice island. It's waiting still, but getting restless, like the start of a long long autumn. Give it a few more lifetimes, and it'll be back. The heart of Nuwinga is knowing it's there sleeping, knowing it'll be back."

As if to illustrate Carver's prediction, flows of cloud soon begun spilling over the shoulders of Agocho, veiling them again from view, filling the valley below, and creeping up the lower slopes toward them. They stamped the cold out of their feet and continued toward the path down.


"How long ago was it," Denna asked, "when winter came later than now? How old are you?"

"Now that's not a very polite question, young priestess."

"It's just, you know a lot of strange stories. I wondered."

"Strange stories are all I know. When I was a tot I learned to talk, and what are words but little stories? Ask what a word means and the answer you get will be a tiny story. Oh, sure, there are some words that you can point to and say, that's a tree, and that's a mountain, but even those things you don't know unless you know their stories."

"I know all about that."

"I have to come from somewhere, right? So if I didn't get reborn from somebody else, it seems I'm just made out of bits and pieces of old stories instead."

They talked about other stories. The time the old believers say a great flood covered the whole world. The chemist who brought a man made of dead body parts to life. Trey Sunna Gwen and his search for the seven treasures of the old world. The voyages of the living tree-ship Pelagaea that planted new forests all along the Nuwinga coasts after the old ones died with the old world. The priestess's own travels down the lower Ussen, up the Lannic coast to Ports, and overland to the mountains.

Their path climbed over a lip of piled rock and then descended into another finger of forest. Almost immediately, it began descending steeply, below the ice level. "We're heading for a camp of mine," said Carver. "Got some supplies there, some food, and a dry shelter."

"Is that where you live?"

"Up here? No, I have a comfortable lodge, up a different valley, where I can do my work."



"What do you carve?"

"Here's a story you won't believe. I carve toys."


"For children. Dolls and tops and burr puzzles and little loms with wheels for feet."

"Really? Why?"

"Because I can. Well, and because toys are always new. A kid gets a toy and to them it's something new in the world. It's a way to be part of their stories. That's the only way of getting reborn I can accept."

The path rolled on down the hill, one stone after another underfoot for klom after klom. The forest grew taller and denser. The air lost its chill and a few clear patches appeared in the sky, though the trees hid the sun and the surrounding mountains most of the time.

"I said back there that there are bigger mountains," said Carver. "But there aren't any older. Not in the whole world. We can't imagine how old they are, but stand in a place like this and they'll whisper it to you. 

"Here's a story I heard. There was a time these mountains were spires going seven kloms into the sky. When they were part of different continents before they split up and moved around to make the continents we have today. The world is old, Priestess. The difference between what we call the old world and today isn't even an eye blink to these mountains.

"Your Mam Gaia, you think of her as something like Circle, but bigger. Making rules, deciding punishments, listening in on your rites. Like she notices us at all. But who was she punishing when she ground these mountains down under two kloms of ice?"

The man's maundering was becoming irritating again. Denna said, "Carver, I don't think you really understand much about Mam Gaia."

"Maybe not. Just stories I heard."

Carver walked in silence for a while, and when he spoke again it was about mundane things. The hours of daylight left, the likely weather, the distances to farms and towns. In much less time than it had taken Denna to climb to the ridge on the solstice eve, the slope had again become gentle, and soon the path they were on joined a more well-beaten one that followed a rushing stream.

Over the sound of the water she heard faint voices, far away and out of sight. Carver heard them too, and took a few quick steps back, and looked around warily.

"People ahead," he whispered. "Don't tell them I helped you, or that you even saw me. You won't need these…" He took the improvised mittens from her hands. Denna didn't resist, but she felt him pull hard enough it wouldn't have mattered if she had.

"They've come looking for you, most likely, and found my camp. I'm sorry I didn't get to give you toys. If you get a chance, there's some in the camp, in a bag under the flat stone by the fire pit, but don't let them see you take them. Give them to children. Goodbye, Priestess."

He hurried away, faster and more furtively than she'd seen him move before. For all his size, he seemed to blend into the forest and disappear within moments.

She didn't try to question or follow. Instead, she walked on to where the voices sounded clearer.

Easier to get forgiveness than permission, he'd said.

Well, there's the problem, he'd said. After she'd said: "… as long as you're both willing."

I do what I do, he'd said.

A resurrected god who forgives, and saves us from the wickedness we're born into... I wish it were so.
he'd said.

What had he done, with what consequence? She could guess, but did she want to hear the story the name "Carver" would unlock?

She followed the voices to a hidden camp a hundred meetas off the path. Two men and a sister robed in green were there, searching.

She called out to them, wondering what she would tell them.