The Savior – Snippet 16
Six years later
476 Post Tercium
Abel chose a large female dont from the train to ride. The gunny sergeant in charge said her name was Nettle. Abel began his acquaintance, as he always did with a new dont, by feeding her tender, newly grown rushweeds he’d found near an irrigation ditch on his march to the rear. Normally, he would spend at least a halfwatch getting to know a new dont mount. Today, he had only a few moments, but he did his best to woo her with soft words and more rushweeds.
Then he put on the saddle the supply sergeant had issued him, and carefully girthed it on the dont’s inhale. He mounted up and headed back up the line he’d just marched down, setting Nettle to a brisk trot.
It was just past midday and the enormous, self-made dust cloud that engulfed an army on the march had billowed into being. The Guardians marched eight abreast, in four columns of two with a larger space down the middle of varying width — built-in room for give while maneuvering around objects. They stretched across the Road, and, when necessary, marched in the ditches and fields that lined it. Where the road narrowed severely, columns merged, moving through without missing a step or slowing down.
Like the flowing of the River, Abel thought. Or the slithering of a legless cliff viper.
Villagers gathered along the sides of the road to watch the procession, but stayed many paces back. There was awe on their faces, and a certain amount of worry. When a child reached up to wave, or jumped up and down in excitement, parents or relatives would pull the child away and place it behind them. As with a viper in a wicker cage, you did not want to tap too much and make the deadly beast notice you. It might find a way out.
But one could observe from an appropriate distance.
There had not been a march of the entire Corps such as this in over a hundred years. One hundred ten years, to be exact. Abel knew; he’d spent the last four years practically living and breathing military history scrolls. On that previous campaign, the Guardians had been sent to correct a problem in the Delta. The locals had taken to sailing out to blue water ocean. They’d developed a new kind of triangular sail, larger ships, and were even venturing out to harpoon the near-legendary grendels and collect their oil. Grendels were the largest beasts ever seen in the Braun Sea — the size, it was rumored, of over a hundred daks.
According to the scrolls, these sailing folk were of a different stock than the short, mostly dark-complexioned Deltamen who now lived in the area. They had been fair, freckled, and some were said to have flaming red hair.
Abel knew that complexion. He’d seen it before, in the Redlands. Red hair and freckles was the mark of a Flanagan. They inhabited the wastelands to the east of the River Delta and existed in a state of squalor. The Blaskoye looked upon them as subhuman and treated them as animals when they caught one, even occasionally hunting them. The Flanagan tribe subsisted mostly on clams and mussels they gathered along the seashore and cracked open with rocks.
As Abel read the old scroll, it dawned on him where the Flanagans had come from. The people of the Delta, First Family and commoner alike, had been rounded up by the Guardians in a surprise attack. The scrolls were remarkably frank on what happened next. Most had been killed outright, or imprisoned inside enclosures and hastily dug pits. They’d been left to starve to death. Others had been driven into the sea at the point of bayonets. Most of the children who remained had been sold as slaves to a Redlander barbarian tribe of the time.
The very few who escaped had fled east with their families — and these must have become the beach-grubbing, primitive Flanagans.
* * *
The day’s marching pace was relentless. The Guardian Corps had started out from Lindron four days previously and in that time had covered nearly fifty-five leagues on foot. Three brigades, each composed of four one-thousand-man battalions, plus mounted forces, specialist platoons, and a quartermaster’s corps. Sixteen thousand men.
A drop in the sea compared with armies of yore, Center had commented.
You work with the army you have, Raj replied.
Abel could hardly believe it was possible to move a force this large so far and so quickly, but the proof was before his eyes. And they did it all with rifles and three-stone packs on their backs.
The air was hot and sticky. They’d left Lindron, worked their way through the badlands known as the Giants, and arrived in Ingres just four days ago. Now they were headed out the flat flax and wheat fields of Ingres, nearing its border with Treville District. This brought the road close to the River, and the humidity rose with each watch spent marching. The dust cloud glowed a luminous, sun-drenched yellow around the marching men. Fine brown alluvial dust stuck to sweating skin. It got into men’s eyes and scratched its way down their craws so that every swallow was dry and every breath ragged.
Even on a dont, the heat of late ripening time in the land was relentless.
The sun seemed not to move for whole watches at a time, although Abel knew it was progressing west little by little. Center was able to tell him the precise time of day if he wanted, but Abel usually refrained from inquiring. To ask Center the time was to risk hearing a history of galactic timekeeping.
Abel knew enough about how the universe truly worked to feel a stranger in his own world. No one in the Land, nor any of the barbarians in the Redlands, had a notion of the central fact of their own existence: that they were all on a planet that was rotating around its own axis, and traveling around its local star, which was what they called the sun, once per year.
The planet’s name was Duisberg. It had three moons which revolved around it, as the planet itself did around the sun. Some of the stars, the steady-burning ones, were other planets of the Duisberg system. Most were not.
Most of the stars in the night sky were distant suns.
There were other worlds, other men, out there.
Humanity had come from those stars over three thousand years ago. They had arrived in ships descending from the sky and had built a great civilization in the Valley of the River, which was the only easily habitable portion of Duisberg. It was a civilization that, compared to Abel’s own, had been magical and godlike. It was a place where every man woman and child had powers as great as those of Zentrum.
But men were not gods. And that shining civilization had collapsed. The fall had been total and galaxy-wide, the transportation gates slammed shut. Not even Center knew the full cause of the Collapse.
Center had been but a military computer on a planet called Bellevue. The only computational devices that survived the Collapse were those that had been hardened against infiltration by programming viruses or nanotechnological attack on the hardware. Usually this meant a military artificial intelligence.
After the Collapse, star travel ceased. Humanity, scattered across the galaxy, was thrown into a new Dark Age. Generations were born and died in the ruins, and on many worlds there was only a dim memory of a past now translated into myth.
In some places, such as Duisberg, all knowledge of the origins of humanity had vanished.
There was no memory of the time when people had not been inhabitants of the Land. Zentrum had seen to that. The Land was all, and all belonged to the Land. The Land was where civilized people had always dwelled. And then there were the surrounding Redlands, hellish places inhabited by terrible nomads. Devils. Barbarians. Worshippers of the dust with a god named after dust itself, Taub in their tongue.
And down the middle of the Land, feeding the irrigation ditches, flooding the rice paddies, and watering the sugar cane, wheat, flax, and barley fields, was — the River. It was the only river humans on this planet had ever known.
The River was life. It was death. The River was the blood of the Land, and everything depended on it.
And that was the way it had been for three thousand years.
Unending cycles of harvest and planting, threshing and grinding, eating, then planting once again. There was Zentrum’s Law to enforce the Stasis, and Edict upon Edict to guide behavior. These Laws and Edicts were what every child studied in Thursday school.
Certain actions must be always and forever interdict. There were lists to memorize. Only technology which Zentrum approved of was allowed to flourish. A ceramic dish that, Abel knew, had once graced a sophisticated electronic transmission facility and gathered messages from the stars might be used as a cook pot over a simple fire in the hearth of a villager, or as a slop bucket for daks intended for slaughter. Metal of every kind was forbidden but for the great exception: weaponry.
The list of allowed metal objects included the steel action and barrel of a musket or pistol, the lead of a minié slug, and the iron of a bayonet or knife.
All else was forbidden, on pain of punishment and even death.
With minor exceptions, all else was nishterlaub. Even to possess it was prohibited to any except for a priest. Most Landsmen believed in the depths of their beings that to merely touch nishterlaub was poisonous and deadly.
It was into this world that Abel Dashian had been born. And he might have remained as ignorant and unaware as the rest of the population had his curiosity not taken him one day into a warehouse within a priestly compound in his home district of Treville.
He’d been six years old when he first encountered Raj and Center, arrived two hundred years before as programs written into a capsule that fell from space. Since that day in the nishterlaub warehouse, the computer and the general named Raj had been constant voices, constant presences, in his mind.
Whether he wanted them or not.
They had chosen him.
Their purpose in coming was to lift humanity from the doomed plans of Zentrum.
The three moons of Duisberg, two of them captured, near-miss asteroids, spoke of the danger. Abel now knew that the planet rotated in the opposite direction of the other five planets in the system. Something had reversed the planet’s spin. Something had raised the enormous lava plains that covered most of the surface.
That something was a system full of rocky debris.
This was the great flaw in Zentrum’s plan. A terrestrial computer, Zentrum thought in terrestrial terms. He must be sure that the dark age following the Collapse did not return. His purpose was to provide civil protection. Men may die in their thousands, but all was justified if dynamic equilibrium was maintained.
Nothing could ever, ever change. Any change would inevitably lead to another Collapse.
Yet those star travelers upon entering the system had immediately seen the flaw in Zentrum’s plan.
Disaster would return from the sky, like clockwork. The outer portion of the Duisberg system, its Oort cloud, was an asteroid-laden nightmare. Center had detected this on his approach, and barely made it through undamaged. Perturbations could send storms of asteroids inbound toward the sun. It had happened over and over again in increments of single digit thousands, sometimes only hundreds, of years. Much of the surface of Duisberg was a cratered ruin.
The asteroids would strike. All humanity would be wiped from the planet one day if they didn’t develop proper defenses — advanced defenses. It was only a matter of time and the roll of the universal dice.
The only hope was a return to science-based civilization.
The only hope for that came from the voices in Abel’s head.
Voices he still wasn’t sure were real. He’d spent years pondering the impossible dilemma of knowing for certain. Center and Raj seemed real. They could, if they wanted, control his body, even kill him.
That didn’t mean they weren’t his own mental creations.
What if it’s all me? What if they’re all me. What if I’m as benighted as any village beggar, babbling to some nonexistent phantom?
Who was to say that even his perceptions were his own? Maybe the voices let him see only what they wanted him to see. He could be quite insane and not know it.
He’d learned much about the history of the Land. It was unarguable that Zentrum’s plans had provided stability for many periods of relative peace. The price humanity paid was eruptions of barbarity and slaughter from the Redland tribes.
At those times, the tribes swept in and the old aristocrats were replaced with new overlords. These changes were called the Blood Winds.
Yet even after the Blood Winds blew, the system remained intact. The Land had a way of taming even those who arrived in conquest.
Even in his moments of greatest doubt, there was one fact that kept Abel from wholly dismissing Center and Raj as voices.
Her death when he was five.
The idiocy of her dying from a toothache. A cavity. Practically nothing. A tooth out, and then a week later, she was gone.
Center and Raj had told him — taught him — that there was a way for this sort of death to never happen again.
Whatever exasperation the familiar drone inside his mind might produce, however much he might wish to adopt the more sophisticated approach of the Academy, Center and Raj offered him one thing that the Academy never had: the chance to avenge his mother’s needless death. A chance to punish the being who had kept the means of her salvation out of the world as a matter of misguided principle.