When we set off this morning the red star was at its apogee and the sky was wine-red. The sky now is cobalt blue with the yellow sun overhead.
A woman called Vulture carries the front of the stretcher and Puma carries the rear; they are the eighth pair today. Thyal, the old shaman, and Simmon, the Earth-born and learner Grey Wolf, walk behind us.
“You’ve said nothing about the north-south Meridian yet, Grey Wolf,” Puma says.
I understand now why my uncle is taking a turn at carrying. He intends to question the learner Grey Wolf as if off-handedly, whilst carrying, and keeping his attention on the troop for any trouble that might be brewing. Probably he hopes that Grey Wolf has forgotten Lithe and Limber also available for the troop.
“Never in all my journeying had I a reading for it and now I walk along its path?” Simmon says. “I’m wondering what else you haven’t told me.”
Chief Puma laughs. “We’ve traveled it for years, pushing further north every visit.”
“Have you been to the Yellow City, Grey Wolf?” Vulture says.
I understand that the Yellow City is a topic introduced to distract the Earth-born. That Vulture is part of the group managing him.
“The mythical Yellow City?” he says.
“Mythical? Did you hear anyone wondering where we’re going?” Vulture says.
Simmon tries to placate her at the same time as he tries to increase his knowledge. “Are there any other fixed points along this Meridian?”
Does anyone else hear the hunger in his voice, I wonder.
“We’ve seen as far as the mountains,” Puma says.
Simmon snorts. I understand his frustration. Puma nearly always answers Simmon without giving any concrete information. If that’s what Simmon is here for, he’s getting a wafty picture.
Vulture laughs. “Mountains are hard to shift around, even by Lotor.”
Ahead of us all, a thing skims across the desert, right to left. I don’t have a hope seeing what it was, it went so fast. I start to exclaim but no one else even remarks.
No one else saw it. There was no sound.
I grab hard onto the stretcher. I’m blind and deaf when a vision takes me. My mouth suddenly dry, I stare into the direction I last saw the thing, for the after-image. Do not wonder how.
Its opposite-color shape, when it builds to its most detailed, reminds me of pictures of the ship-to-surface shuttles the settlers arrived on. A conviction grows in me that we are meant to travel to the Ark-Ship using that very vehicle.
Another image blooms in my moist pink mind, and overwrites the fleeing wrong-color vehicle. A shuttle’s titanium carapace lies in the path of one of the lava-like flows that are the planet’s waste extrusions. The lugubrious voice of the Shaman School’s geologist echoes in my mind. “Such wastes harden by contact with the air.”
There’s no difference between the two shuttles except that the second one, according to the vision, is a carapace. A shell. I’m nearly gibbering with fear and no one notices? Mongoose, I need you.
How will we escape without an engine? Without controls?
I must have asked. The shuttle rises from an explosion of rainbow-colored stars. Maybe it is the Universe that knows all the answers.
Sound resumes. Breathy conversations and jokes sound up and down the column while all their hard-walking feet shirr along the clay path. The stretcher creaks in the rhythm of the carriers.
When I open my eyes I see the desert and the sky. The people walking in front. Vulture’s dark hair, plaited in a queue that falls down her back. My hands. I release my hold on the stretcher.
I can’t stop the tremble in my voice. “The shuttle is over-rimed with stone.”
The least number of words with which to tell people about the shuttle, and about me having that vision right then.
“What did she say?” Simmon says.
“Don’t you worry, young Shaman,” Vulture says. “We carry our stone-working tools wherever we go.” She skips a little step, shaking me on the stretcher on her shoulders. The tools in her pack clink together. She understands me fine.
“I don’t believe how you indulge her!” the would-be Grey Wolf says. “Why am I still with this damned group? Walking with you to your end?” He makes it a frustrated question but I wonder right away whether that’s what he is doing.
Is he trying to steer us toward a hidden Field of Dreams, or a maw over the next slope?
When nobody says anything, he tries again. “I came along to help you. Point you in the right direction.”
There’s a silence again that’s finally broken by Thyal changing the subject. “It’s a solid rim we walk on, young Shaman. Once a division between two countries: Forest and Field.”
“Wasn’t that in the time that Lotor romanced the flying horses?” Vulture says lightly. “I have always wondered where in the Universe those poor creatures came from.”
“Don’t be taken in by these romantics, Jeb,” Simmon says. “Lotor’s captive Moerans bred the flying horses.”
Winged horses with impossible skin patterning, some with black spots on bands of white and rainbow lozenges, some with white spots on bands of black cut with a harlequin’s red-and-green diamonds prance through my mind. They fly from one domed peak to another in a jumble of stone domes and rounded heights.
“They live in the Bone Mountains now,” I say, mindful that if Lotor sent me this flash, it might be that Simmon, Earth-born, is helping the planet locate me.
“It is said that the Moerans never achieved the wings,” Puma says. “The Moerans came from a planet orbiting the red star, Shaman Jeb, and had to flee when their world became uninhabitable. Is that not so, Grey Wolf?”
“I am floored by your unexpected knowledge,” Grey Wolf says. He grinds his teeth.
Vulture chuckles. “That has always been an Earth-born resentment. That we of Old-Earth know as much as they. And why not in this case? Telescopes were invented hundreds of years before the Ark-Ship left Earth, early enough for any astronomer to see the star’s transformation.”
What is Vulture trying to elicit with her story about telescopes? Then I realize. Vulture is using the before the Ark-Ship left Earth phrase to find out something. What? Keep your ears flapping, girl.
Vulture adds my seeing into her story. “When Lotor set one of her diminishments into motion, the pegasee resisted and retreated, living now only in a few mountain fastnesses.”
“And scattered their genes to avenge their tribulations,” Simmon says. “Genes such as formed the feet of the fauns we met, Jeb. It’s a terrible thing to do to your descendants. Why the sympathy for the flying horses?”
Vulture hardens her voice. “The horse genes are remnants from a time when Lotor’s landscapes held many incompletely formed creatures. How well did you say you know Lotor?”
I want to know that too, how well Simmon knows Lotor. At the Shaman School, the teachers said that where Earth’s Nature evolved toward diversity, Lotor’s Nature went the opposite way. Lotor developed all her inventions toward similarity before forcing them to meld again with her. After a time she would start over elsewhere on her crust.
Lithe and Limber arrive for their turn at bearing the stretcher. The changeover is made with some muttering. Instructions? News? Questions to ask? Lithe puts his load onto the back end of the stretcher and changes with Puma, who takes up Lithe’s pack. Limber and Vulture do the same.
Instead of dropping back, or speeding up to join the front, Puma and Vulture keep their positions. Puma walks behind Lithe. Vulture walks in front of Limber behind the old Shaman, who walks behind the Wolf.
I understand from all that, that Uncle Puma intends pushing Simmon for any useful knowledge.
“The Earth-born idea that the settlers are against them has always bothered me,” Puma says.
“I’d rather be sitting down with a skin of wine making the rounds,” Simmon says. “You people are so stubborn about that. I call that prejudice on your part.”
“Prejudice?” I say, surprised.
Puma laughs. “Every single one of you Earth-born are Lotor’s children. Earth worked out a new way, we don’t know how or what, to send people to another planet. You arrived as patterns and Lotor reconstituted you.”
Simmon turns and walks backward looking at us all. “I still call it prejudice. The Ark-Ship may have sustained you through your journey, on recycled matter from Earth, but since your arrival two hundred years ago, you’ve been growing crops in the Lotor ground. Eating Lotor. How are we different?”
He looks at me, at the meat-eating sand alongside, at me again.
I see him calculating distances. He stops. Not realizing his strategy, Thyal steps around him. “Jeb, your mother was Earth-born, a scientist,” Simmon says.
Now there are only Vulture and Limber between him and me.
“I just don’t believe that you prefer to stay with these primitives,” he says. He eyes Vulture.
I see him deciding how he’ll set her out of his way. She will die if he touches her.
I swing down from the stretcher and gripping onto their clothes, I step by both Lithe and Puma.
Four between us.
He’s not able to force his leading foot to the ground. His expression of craft becomes consternation. He only now realizes the nature of his discomfort? I’m so so sorry for him for what is to come.
The rear half of the line stops higgledy-piggledy.
Limber drops the front of the stretcher, pulls Vulture back and steps by her.
“Jeb,” Simmon says. “I beg you. You’re my last hope. Save me from Lotor. Let me come home with you.”
I feel sick. Icy and hot in short order. I sway.
But if I give in to the nausea roiling at the bottom of my gullet, the meat-eating sand will jump up my vomitus and I too will be lost.
“You want that we all die too?” Thyal says, sharply for him.
I see he is talking to me. I’m shocked out of my fugue. If I fall, who will drive the shuttle, is what he means.