At length the gloomy greenness gave way to sunlight as the trees thinned. Claude held up his hand as a signal for them to stop. "Not a peep out of you," he breathed. "I was half expecting to meet something like this."
They gazed through a thin screen of young trees into an open meadow with scattered clumps of bushes. Cropping the shrubbery was a herd of six adult and three juvenile rhinos. The full-grown specimens were about four meters in length and might have weighed two or three tons. They had two horns, piggy little eyes, and quaintly tufted ears that waggled as flies buzzed around them.
"Dicerorhinus schliennacheri, I'd say," Claude whispered. "This is their trail we've been using."
Felice stepped forward, nocking a razor-sharp arrow. "It's a good thing the wind is with us. Let me feel around their minds for a while and see if I can move them."
Richard said, "Meanwhile, we can hope they don't get thirsty."
Leaving Felice to experiment with her coercive power, the others withdrew back along the trail into a sunny glen at one side, where they sat down to rest. Richard planted a straight stick about as long as his arm upright in a patch of soil, marking the position of the shadow's tip with a small stone.
"Making a sundial?" Amerie inquired.
The pirate grimaced. "If we stay here long enough, we can get a fix. The tip of the shadow moves as the sun seems to travel across the sky. You wait, mark the new position of the shadow tip with another stone. Connect the two stones with a line and you got an east-west bearing. If we want to reach those highlands by the shortest route, I think we've got to bear more to the left than we've been going on this trail. It was nearly an hour before Felice returned to tell them that it was safe to cross the meadow. They chose a new route according to Richard's aboriginal navigation; but without a convenient animal track to follow, they were forced to go cross-country through the tangled, thorn-choked forest under-storey. It was impossible to travel quietly and the wildlife was making a racket like feeding time at the zoo; so they threw caution to the winds and broke out the vitredur hatchets and Claude's big carpenter's axe and hacked a trail. After two exhausting hours of this, they came upon a sizable creek and were able to follow it upstream into a slightly more open section of forest.
"We're on the bench above the lake now," Claude said. "The trail to the fort must be near. Be very quiet and keep your ears open."
They crept onward, skulking in the shadows of giant conifers, cycads, and ferns. Anticlimactically, they blundered right into the trail when they had to alter course to avoid a spider-web the size of a banquet tablecloth. The bush-constricted track was deserted.
Felice bent over a pile of chaliko dung. "Cold. They must have passed here two hours ago. See the prints heading north?"
"They'll be coming back," Claude said. "And if they have amphicyons, they'll be able to track us. Let's blot out our own prints and get out of here. Once we get higher, there should be fewer trees and easier going. We'll have to follow another stream somewhere to kill our scent."
The trees did become more widely separated as they continued upslope, but the going was hardly easy. They followed a dry watercourse for most of an hour before the gentle grade above the bench steepened to a bluff studded with house-sized chunks of rock. The wind died and the heat of mid-afternoon smote them as they climbed.
At times when they rested, they could see out over the great lake. There were sails far to the south, apparently motionless on the water. It was impossible to tell whether they belonged to the gray-torc marines or to the escapees. They wondered out loud about the fate of Basil and his contingent, about Yosh, and about the Gypsies and their quixotic foray against the guard post; but the trail talk dwindled as they were forced to save their breath for more difficult climbing. Hope that they would be able to cross the first high ridge began to fade after one of Richard's plass-and-fabric running shoes was slashed by a rock and he had to put on the more awkward seaboots of his original costume. Then Amerie's saddle sore legs betrayed her on a treacherous slope and she lost her footing, dislodging several large stones that tumbled down upon Claude and bruised his arm and shoulder.
"Well never make it to the top today," Richard groused. "My left heel is one big blister and Amerie is ready to collapse." Felice said, "It's only a couple of hundred more meters. If you can't climb, I'll carry you up! I want to get a view of the terrain we're heading into tomorrow. With luck, we might be able to see the bonfires from the fort or even trail beacons below us once it gets dark."
Claude declared he could manage on his own. Felice gave one hand to Richard and the other to the nun and hauled them up after her by main strength. It was slow going, but they were finally able to reach the top shortly after the sun descended behind the hills on the other side of the lake.
When they had regained their wind, Claude said, "Why don't we hole up on the eastern side of these big boulders? There's a nice dry shelter in there and I don't think anyone below could spot a fire if we lit one after nightfall. I could gather some wood."
"Good idea," said Felice. "I'll scout around a bit." She went off among the crags and gnarled savin junipers while the others tended their wounds, inflated decamole cots and weighted the legs with earth, because there was no water to waste, and regretfully laid out a meal of biscuits, nutrient wafers, and cheesy-tasting algiprote. By the time Claude had assembled a pile of dry branches, Felice was back, her bow resting jauntily over her shoulder, swinging three fat marmot-like animals by their hind legs.
"Hail, Diana!" chortled the old man. "I'll even skin and clean 'em!"
They lit the fire after it was completely dark and roasted the meat, devouring every gamey morsel. Then Richard and Claude collapsed onto their cots and were asleep in minutes. Amerie, her brain buzzing with fatigue, still felt obliged to shake the grease and scraps off the dinnerware, sterilize them with the power source, then shrink and stow them away. There's my big, helpful girl!
"I can see the fort," came Felice's voice from the nearby darkness.
Amerie picked her way over the rocks to where the athlete was standing. The ridge fell steeply to the southwest. The young moon hung over the lake and an incredible profusion of Pliocene stars reflected upon the water, differentiating it from the black land. Far to the south on their side of the lake was a cluster of orange specks.
"How far away is it?" the nun asked.
"At least fifteen kloms. Maybe more. As the vulture flies." Felice laughed, and Amerie was suddenly wide-awake, experiencing the same feeling of fear and fascination she had known before. The woman beside her was an indistinct silhouette in the starlight, but Amerie knew that Felice was looking at her.
"They didn't thank me," the athlete said in a low voice. "I set them free but they didn't thank me. They were afraid of me still. And that fool of a Dougal! . . .None of them, not even you, sympathized or understood why I wanted to . . ."
"But you couldn't kill Dougal. For the love of God, Felice! I had to put you out."
"Killing him would have been a comfort," said the young girl, coming closer. "I was working on my plans. Plans I never told to the rest of you. The golden torc was the key. Not only to free us, but to rescue the others, Bryan, Elizabeth, Aiken, Stein. To free you of the human slaves! Don't you see? I really could have done it! With the golden torc I could have tamed this thing inside me and used it."
Amerie heard herself babbling. "We're all grateful to you. Felice. Believe me. We were simply too stunned by it all to say anything after the fight. And Dougal, he was just too fast for Basil and Yosh to stop, and too crazy to realize what he was doing when he threw the torc away. He probably believed he wouldn't be safe from Epone's power until the torc was separated from her body."
Felice said nothing. After a while the nun said, "Perhaps you could get another."
There was a sigh. "They know about me now, so it will be very dangerous. But I'll have to try. Maybe waylay another caravan, or even go to Finiah. It'll be hard and I'll need help."
Felice laughed softly.
"I'll help. I won't be retiring to any hermitage for quite some time yet."
"Ah. That's . . . good. I need your help, Amerie. I need you."
"Felice. Don't misunderstand."
"Oh, I know all about your little vow of renunciation. But that was made six million years ago in a different world. Now I think you need me as much as I need you."
"I need your protection. We all do."
"You need more than that."
Amerie backed away, tripped over a rock and fell, tearing open the scabbed cuts on her hands.
"Let me help you up," said Felice.
But the nun scrambled to her feet unaided and turned back toward the glowing remnants of the campfire where the others were sleeping. She stumbled and clenched her fingers into the lacerated palms so that her nails opened the cut even more, while behind her Felice laughed in the darkness.
"He's ready, Sukey. You must take the final discharge."
"But, can I? I could botch it again, Elizabeth."
"You won't. You'll be able to handle this aspect of his healing. He wouldn't let me, but you can do it. Don't be afraid."
"All right. Just let him come out of the torc's neural bath slowly. I'm ready."
. . . Illinois cornfields, flat as a table and stretching from horizon to horizon, with the toy farmhouse and outbuildings lonely amid the immensity. Sitting in one of the cornrows, a three-year-old boy and an Alsatian bitch. The boy, clever with his hands and mischievous, circumvents a childproof fastener and removes a beeper-trace from his jeans. He offers it to the bitch. She is pregnant and of capricious appetite, and so she swallows it. The boy rises from the ground and toddles off down the row toward an interesting noise in the far distance. The bitch, unsatisfied by her electronic snack, runs toward the farmhouse where lunch is being prepared . . .
"No! I can't go there again!"
"Hush. Easy. You're close, so close."
. . . A robot harvester, nearly as large as the farmhouse and bright orange, moves along, swallowing the corn plants in a thirty-row swath, grinding the stalks and leaves to useful pulp, shelling the ears, long as a man's forearm, and packing the rich golden kernels into containers for shipment to other farms all over the Galactic Milieu. This new maize hybrid will yield twenty cubic meters of grain to the hectare . . .
"I don't want to look. Don't make me look."
"Be calm. Be easy. Come with me. Only once more."
. . . The little boy wanders down the straight row where the black soil has baked to crumbly gray dust. Gigantic plants loom over him, tassels brown against the sky, swollen cobs jutting from the stalks ripe and ready for harvest. The boy walks on toward the noise but it is far away from him and so he must sit down and rest for a while. He leans against a cornstalk thick as the trunk of a young tree, and the broad green leaves shade him from the sun's heat. He closes his eyes. When he opens them again, the noise is very much louder and the air is full of dust . . .
"You must go there one last time. But I'm with you. It's the only way out for you."
. . . Wonderment becomes unease becomes fear as the little boy sees an orange monster chewing toward him, its robot brain conscientiously scanning the rows ahead for signals from a beeper-trace that would trigger instant emergency shut-off. But there is no signal. The machine moves on. The boy runs ahead of it, easily outdistancing the harvester's steady one-klom-per-hour pace . . .
"She knew! She looked for me on the scanner at lunchtime and only found the dog, sending two signals instead of one there in the yard. She knew I had to be out in the fields. She called Daddy to have him stop the harvester and look for me, but there was no answer. He was outside the farm contower trying to fix a stuck rotor on one of the antennas."
"Yes. Go on. You can see her looking for you in the egg."
. . . The little boy dashes on, too inexperienced to realize that he should move to the side, out of range of the machines, instead of continuing down the row immediately ahead of it. He runs faster and a stitch comes in his side. He begins to whimper and runs more slowly. He trips, falls, gets up and staggers on with tears blinding his bright-blue eyes. Up in the air an egg-flier hovers over him. He stops and waves his arms, screaming for his mother. The harvester moves along, cutting the stalks off at ground level, hauling them into its maw on a spiked conveyor, chopping, shredding, plucking the kernels from the cobs, reducing the rows of giant plants to neat packages of grain and finely ground cellulose pulp . . .
"No. Please, no more."
"You must. We must. Once more and then gone forever. Trust me."
. . . The egg lands and the child stands stock-still, waiting for his mother to save him, weeping and holding out his arms as she runs toward him, picks him up, with the noise louder and louder and the dust swirling about them in the hot sun. She holds him close to her as she pushes obliquely through the tough, impeding stalks while the great orange thing moves on, cutter beams and carrying spikes and whirling knives at work. But the fifteen meters she must traverse are too far. She gasps and lifts the boy high and throws him, so that the green com plants and the orange machine and the blue sky all spin very slowly around him. He falls to the earth and the harvester rumbles past with the busy clanking of its machinery drowning out another noise that did not last very long . . .
"Oh, Jesus, I can still hear please no the machine stops and he comes and screams at me you murdering little animal Gary Gary oh my God no Daddy Daddy Mommy fell help her oh my God Gary you did it to save him and he killed you and it's his fault the murdering little animal no no what am I saying God my own little boy Steinie I'm sorry I didn't mean it oh God Gary Steinie . . . Daddy please keep me."
"He did. Stein."
"I know now."
"You heard it all? All that he said?"
"Yes. Poor Daddy. He couldn't help saying it. I know now. Angry and frightened and helpless. I understand. He shot the dog, though . . . But I don't have to be afraid. He couldn't help it. Poor Daddy. I understand. Thank you. Thank you."
Stein opened his eyes.
An unfamiliar woman's face was very near to him, sun-reddened round cheeks, a turned-up nose, intent indigo eyes set a bit too closely together. She smiled.
He said, "And I don't have to be angry at either one of us."
"No," Sukey said. "You'll be able to remember and feel sad. But you'll be able to accept it. No guilt or fear or anger about this part of your life ever again."
Stein lay without speaking, and she let her mind merge with his in a touch that admitted a sharing of his ordeal, bespoke her care for him.
"You've been helping me," he said. "Healing me. And I don't even know your name."
"I'm Sue-Gwen Davies. My friends call me Sukey. It's a silly sort of name . . ."
"Oh, no." He got up onto one elbow and studied her with an innocent curiosity. "You went through the auberge training program, too. I saw you, the first and second days I was there. And then you were gone. You must have passed through the gate ahead of our Group Green."
"I was in Group Yellow. I remember you, too. That Viking costume isn't easy to miss."
He grinned and shook sweat-touseled eflocks out of his eyes. "It seemed like a good idea back then. Sort of reflection of my personality . . . What are you supposed to be?"
She gave a self-conscious little laugh and toyed with the embroidered belt of her long gown. "An ancient Welsh princess. My family came from there a long time ago and I thought it might be fun. A complete break with my old life."
"What were you, a redactor?"
"Oh, no! I was a policewoman. A juvenile officer on ON-15, the last Earth colonial satellite." She touched her silver torc. "I didn't become an operant redactor until I got here. I'll have to explain about that . . ."
But he broke in. "I tried metapsychic treatment before. It never helped. They said I was too strong, that it would take a special kind of practitioner, one with commitment, to ever get down inside of me and root my mess out. And you did it."
She protested, "Elizabeth did all the preliminary lancing. I was trying to do it", her eyes slipped away from his, "and I bungled the job badly. Elizabeth did a marvelous fix and drained out all the really dangerous stuff that I couldn't touch. You owe her a lot, Stein. So do I."
He looked dubious. "Back at the auberge, me and my pal Richard called her the Ice Queen. She was a very cryogenic and spooky lady. But wait! She told us that her metafunctions were lost!"
"They returned. The shock of passing through the time-portal did it. She's a marvelous redactor, Stein. She used to be one of the top teachers and counselors in her Sector. She was master class. I'll never be so good, except perhaps with you."
Very carefully, he folded her in his huge arms. Her hair was long and black and very straight, with a simple grassy perfume from the Tanu soap. She lay against his bare chest, hearing his heart beating slowly, afraid to look into his mind in case the thing that she hoped for would not be found. They were alone now in the tower room. Even Elizabeth had disappeared when it became clear that the healing would be a success.
Sukey said, "There are things you have to know." She touched the silver torc about her rather plump neck. "These silver collars, your friend Aiken got one, too, and so have some other people who've passed through the portal, they make latent metafunctions operant. That's how I became a redactor . . . And there's an exotic race living here in the Pliocene along with us. They're called Tanu and they came here a long time ago from some galaxy light-billenia away. They're latents, too, and they wear golden collars that make them almost as powerful as the metapsychics of our Milieu. They look quite human except for being very tall and having mostly blond hair and funny eyes. The Tanu rule this place almost like the barons of the Middle Ages ruled ancient Earth."
"I'm beginning to remember," Stein said slowly. "A fight in a kind of castle . . . Are we still locked up in that place?"
Sukey shook her head. "They took us, you and me and a few others, down the River Rhône. We're on our way to the Tanu capital. This is a place called Darask, almost at the Mediterranean shore. We've been here for two days. Elizabeth helped the mistress of the place, who was having a hard time in childbirth, so we got to stay and fix you up and rest as a kind of reward. The river trip down here was pretty nerve-racking."
"So Elizabeth is here, and Aiken. Who else?"
"Bryan, from your Group. And another man, named Raimo Hakkinen, who used to be a forester in British Columbia. I think he was in Group Orange. And there's a Tanu man in charge of bringing us to their capital city. His name is Creyn and he seems to be some kind of exotic physician when he's not acting as a prisoner-escort. He healed all of the wounds you got in the fight, by the way, and without using any regen-tank, either, just something like plass wrapping and mind-power. The rest of your friends and the other people who were being kept prisoner in the castle were sent to another place hundreds of kloms north of here."
"What are they planning to do with us?"
"Well, Elizabeth is special, obviously, because it seems she's the only human in all of Exile who is operant without a torc I suppose they plan to make her Queen of the World if she'll stand for it."
"Jesus H Christ!"
"And Bryan, he's another special case. No torc on him, either I haven't discovered why, but the Tanu appear to think that they need an anthropologist to explain what all of us humans have done to their Pliocene society. Coming through the time-gate, you see. It's very complicated, but . . . well, silver-torc wearers like Aiken and me and Raimo, the ones with latent metabilities made operant, we have a chance to join the aristocracy of the Tanu if we behave ourselves. Ordinary people who aren't latent don't seem to be enslaved or anything, the exotics have some kind of small ape to do the rough work. The ordinaries that we saw were working at various arts and crafts."
Stein raised his hands to touch his own torc, then tried to undo it by twisting and pulling. "Can't get the damn thing off. You say it'll turn on my latent metafunctions? "Sukey looked stricken. "Stein . . . your torc . . . it isn't silver. It's some gray metal. You're not a latent."
A dangerous gleam came into the bright-blue eyes. Then what's my torc for?"
Her lower lip caught between her teeth. She reached out one hand to the metal around his neck. In a voice that was scarcely more than a whisper, she said, "It controls you. It gives pleasure or pain. The Tanu can use it to communicate with you telepathically, or they can use it to locate you if you run away. They can put you to sleep, and soothe your anxieties, and program hypnotic suggestions and do other things, probably, that I don't know about yet."
She explained more about the operation of the torcs as she knew it. Stein sat, ominously quiet, on the edge of the bed. When she had finished he said, "So the ones who wear gray mostly do jobs that are essential or potentially vital to the exotics. Soldiers. Gate guardians. This boatman taking us down a dangerous river. And they do their jobs without rebelling, even though they're not turned into zombies by the damn torc."
"Most of the gray-wearers that we've met behaved normally and seemed happy enough. Our boat skipper said he loved his job. One of the palace people that I talked to here said that the Tanu are kind and generous unless you go against their orders. I . . .I expect that after a time, you simply do as they expect you to without any coercion at all. You're conditioned and loyal. It's really the same sort of socialization that takes place in any tight group, but the loyalty is guaranteed."
Very quietly, Stein said, "I won't be a goddam flunky for some exotic slave master. I came through the time-gate and gave up everything I owned to get away from all that. To be a natural man, free to do as I pleased. I can't live any other way. I won't! They'll have to burn out my brain first."
Eyes swimming, Sukey let her fingers stray to his cheek. Her mind slipped beneath his surface consciousness and saw that he was telling the simple truth. The obstinacy that had shut out every healer save the one who had loved him now stood unyielding before any notion of adaptation, totally rejecting the thought of making the best of a difficult situation. Stein would never bend to the Tanu. He would break. If they dominated him at all, they would dominate only his mindless shell.
Tears spilled, splashing onto the bed sheets and the wolfskin kilt that Stein still wore. He took both of her hands. She said, "It didn't turn out to be the world that any of us dreamed about, did it? I was going to find the tunnel leading to the hollow Earth paradise, to Agharta. Creyn said that the legends had to refer to the paradise his people founded here. But that can't be true, can it? Agharta was a land of perfect peace and happiness and justice. This can't be the same place. Not if it, makes you miserable."
He laughed. "I'm a hard case, Sukey. Thing'll be different for you. You'll get to join the high life. Be a Pliocene princess instead of just a Welsh one."
She pulled away from him. "I forgot one other important thing about this Exile world Human women . . . the Tanu undo our salpingzaptomy and restore our fertility. Their own women don't reproduce very well on Earth, and so . . . they use us, too. Some human women become Tanu wives, like the lady of this palace that we're in right now. But a lot are just used as . . . as . . ."