The Many-Coloured Land

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Stein, sitting in a seat beside Sukey, looked puzzled. "But we should be in the Rhône delta now. Bang on the Mediterranean shore. What kind of gradient can there be?"
"You're in for a surprise," Bryan told him. "I couldn't believe it myself when the skipper explained it to me. I used to sail the Med, too, you'll remember. What it adds up to, Stein, is a slight miscalculation on the part of the boffins who drew up our Pliocene maps."
The workman installing the transparent panels gave the last one a smack and said, "You're off, Cap'n!"
"Belt in, everyone," Highjohn ordered. "You come forward, Bryan. You're gonna love this one."
A light wind sprang up as they puttered away from the moorage, following in the wake of a thirty-meter barge loaded with metal ingots. The vapors that had obscured their view finally dissipated, and they looked to the south for a first glimpse of the sea.
They saw a cloud.
"What the hell is that?" Stein wondered. "Looks like a plass factory on fire or a big volcano vent. Friggerty cloud goes clear to the tropopause."
The mast of the riverboat folded and withdrew, and the auxiliary engine cut out. They began to pick up speed. The clumps of marsh grass were more widely spaced now, and the boat followed a marked channel that trended southeastward, close beneath a rounded headland on their left that jutted into the flats as an outlier of the alpine foothills. They were heading directly toward the towering white cloud, picking up speed every minute.
And then Elizabeth said, "Dear Lord. The Mediterranean is gone."
The barge that was traveling about half a kilometer ahead of them dropped out of sight. To the east and west along the horizon were low points of land, but between them was only a line of water meeting milky sky, having a shallow dip in the center. And there was a sound, a swelling rumble with a hissing component that grew to deafening proportions as they swept closer and closer to la Glissade Formidable, where the wide expanse of the Rhône ended at the continental brink.
Creyn's mental voice rang in the brains of all the torc-wearers. "Shall I program oblivion?" But they all replied, "No!" for their curiosity was greater than any terror of what lay ahead.
The boat raced over the edge and started down, borne on muddy waters cascading over a steep fan of sediment, plunging at eighty kilometers an hour into the depths of the Empty Sea.
They came to the end of the Glissade after four hours and floated in the pale waters of a great bitter lake. All around them were the many-colored rocks of the continental roots and glistening, fantastically eroded shapes of salt and anhydrite and gypsum. With its bubble panels stowed away, the boat spread its sail and raced along toward the southwest, for it was there that Creyn told them that the capital city of Muriah lay, at the tip of the Balearic Peninsula, which the Tanu called Aven, above the perfect flat of the White Silver Plain.
They traveled for one more day, overcome by the strangeness and the beauty and hardly able to talk about it except for endless exclamations in both the vocal and mental speech, to which Creyn responded, "Yes, it is wonderful. And more to come, more splendid than you can imagine."
In the late evening of the sixth day after they had departed from Castle Gateway they arrived. The high peninsula of Aven stretched away into the west, green and rolling, with a single peak near its tip and other eminences half-hidden in haze. A team of helladotheria in glowing trappings of rainbow fabric pulled the boat up a long rollered way while chaliko-riders dressed in gauzy robes and glass armor, bearing lights, animal-headed horns and banners, followed along the steep towpath. The welcoming Tanu sang all the way to the blazing city high above the salt. Their song had a haunting melody that seemed strangely familiar to Bryan; but those human beings who wore the torc were able to understand the alien words:
Li gan not po'kône niési,
Kône o lan ti pred néar,
U taynel compri la neyn,
Ni blepan algar dedône.
Shompri pône, a gabrinel,
Shal u car metan presi,
Nar metan u bor taynel o pogekône,
Car metan sed gône mori
There is a land that shines through life and time,
A comely land through the length of the world's age,
And many-colored blossoms fall on it,
From the old trees where the birds are singing.
Every color glows there, delight is commonplace,
Music abounds on the Silver Plain,
On the Gentle-Voiced Plain of the Many-Colored Land,
On the White Silver Plain to the south.
There is no weeping, no treachery, no grief,
There is no sickness, no weakness, no death.
There are riches, treasures of many colors,
Sweet music to hear, the best of wine to drink.
Golden chariots contend on the Plain of Sports
Many-colored steeds run in days of lasting weather.
Neither death nor the ebbing of the tide
Will come to those of the Many-Colored Land.
Part III

The Alliance

Chapter One

The giant sequoia had endured for 10,000 years. Standing amidst a grove of lesser specimens high in the Vosges, it was hollowed by ancient wildfire and rot. In millennia past lightning had sheared its top, so that the Tree was only about 100 meters in height; the trunk nearest the ground spanned fully a fourth of that distance, giving the sequoia the appearance of a huge truncated pylon. That it lived at all was evidenced only by sparse branches writhing at the broken crown, their small needles seemingly incapable of photosynthesizing enough sugar to nourish such a monument.

The sequoia was host to a family of fire-backed eagles and several million carpenter ants. Since early in the afternoon it had also harbored a band of freeliving humans who were accustomed to use the great hollow trunk as a safe-house in times of particular danger.
A thin rain fell. In another hour it would be dark. A woman in a water-stained doeskin cloak stood beside one buttress of the great bole, her eyes shut, her fingertips pressed to her throat. After five minutes had passed, she opened her eyes and wiped some of the moisture from her forehead. Stooping, she pulled aside the fronds of a large fern and entered an inconspicuous opening, a nearly healed fissure that led into the interior of the Tree.
Someone helped her out of the sodden cloak. She nodded her thanks. All around the inner perimeter of the trunk small fires burned on low stone platforms, their smoke plumes plaiting together with that of a larger central blaze and rising toward the natural chimney high above. The main fire was laid on a great X-shaped hearth. Its flames towered at the center and diminished to a comfortable cooking height at the ends of the arms. People were gathered around the central fire in great numbers; smaller groups huddled near the subsidiary fireplaces. The place smelt of steaming clothing spread before the flames, of baking ash-bread and pots of hot spiced wine, and of simmering meat stew.
Richard hovered over the stew kettle, snarling at the cooks and occasionally adding dried herbs from a collection of crocks at his feet. Claude and Felice sat together nearby, and Amerie was using her good arm to lay out medical supplies on a clean blanket. The nun's tiny wildcat watched with keen interest, having learned quickly that the drug doses, dressings, and instruments were not playthings or prey.
Angélique Guderian came to this side of the fire and extended her hands to the warmth. She said to Amerie, "It's a good thing, ma Soeur, that Fitharn and the other Firvulag were able to retrieve your pack. We are always short of medical supplies, and we will have great need of your secular skills as well as your spiritual ones. There are no professional healers among us, since all such persons are subjected to the bondage of the gray torc as soon as their expertise is discovered. We can only presume that your own torcless state is the result of a Tanu error."
"And there's no escape for the gray-torcs, once they're collared?"
"They may escape, certainly. But should a wearer of either the gray or silver torc come within the sphere of influence of a coercive Tanu, the human will be compelled to serve the exotic, even to giving up his life. This is why there can be no torc wearers among us."
"Except yourself," said Felice softly. "But those who wear gold are free, aren't they?"
Claude was whittling a new rosary for Amerie, his vitredur knife gleaming like sapphire in the firelight. He asked, "Can't the torcs be cut off?"
"Not while the person lives," Madame replied. "We have tried, of course. It is not that the metal is so durable, but rather that the torc somehow becomes bonded to the life-force of the wearer. This bonding is accomplished after the torc has been worn for an hour or so. Once a person has adapted, to unfasten or sunder the device brings death in convulsions. The mortal agony is similar to that inflicted by certain perverted redactors among the Tanu."
Felice leaned closer to the fire. She had finally taken off her armor after the thirty-six-hour forced march to the Tree, and the wet cloth of her green dress clung to her slight body. Her legs and upper arms, where they had not been protected by gauntlets and greaves, were a mass of scratches and deep bruises. News that the Tanu Hunt had invaded the Vosges sent Madame and her scouting party, together with the remnant of Group Green, fleeing toward the Tree refuge, where they had been met by other human renegades.
Felice tried hard to be casual. "So there is no way that you can remove your own torc, Madame?"
The old woman gazed at the girl athlete for a long moment. At last she said, "You must not allow yourself, to fall into temptation, my child. This golden torc remains a part of me until my death."
Felice gave a light laugh. "There's no need for you to be afraid of me. Just look into my mind and see."
"I cannot read your mind, Felice. You know that. I am no redactor, and your strong latencies shield you. But many years at the auberge gave me an insight into the personalities of others such as yourself. And limited though my own meta-functions may be, I am in the confidence of the Firvulag . . . and they read you like a child's primer."
"So that's it," Felice remarked obscurely. "I felt something."
"The Firvulag have watched you almost from the beginning," the old woman said. "They always follow the caravans, the Little People, hoping for some contretemps that will put the travelers into their power. So they beheld you on the shore of the Lac de Bresse in your bid for freedom. They even aided you, did you realize that?, by adding images of confusion to the minds of the chalikos and the soldiers, so that you and your friends were able to triumph. Ah, the Firvulag were impressed by you, Felice! They saw your potential. But they also feared you, and quite rightly. And so Fitharn, wisest among those who were following, caused a vivid illusion to seize the mind of one of your confreres . . ."
"Dougal!" Felice cried, springing to her feet.
"C'est-ça." Richard gave an ironic cackle. "Crafty spooks! I'll bet they could get that golden torc back out of the lake if they wanted to."
A chaotic mix of emotions played over the girl's face. She began to speak, but Madame held up her hand.
"The Firvulag bestow their gifts only as they choose, not as we demand. You will have to be patient."
Claude said, "So the Firvulag followed us all the way. Don't tell me that they clouded the minds of our pursuers as well?"
"Certainly," Madame Guderian replied. "Would not the boatful of gray-torc marines have seen some trace of your own wake? Would not the tracking soldiers have found you in the forest, in spite of your pathetic attempts to throw them off the scent? But of course the Firvulag helped! And Fitharn also notified us of your presence in our Vosges forest, and so we came for you. His people also warned us of the Hunt, which does not usually penetrate deeply into the mountains."
Richard tasted the stew again and grimaced. "Now that we're here in a safe place, what happens? I'll be damned if I'm going to spend the rest of my life hiding out."
"We do not enjoy it, either. You have caused us a good deal of trouble by escaping into the Vosges. Ordinarily, the Tanu are inclined to let us be, and our free people reside in small homesteads or in secret villages. I myself live in Hidden Springs, which is near the future site of Plombières-les-Bains. But now Lord Velteyn of Finiah is wild over the killing of Epone. You must understand that no Tanu has ever before been killed by a mere bareneck human. Velteyn's Flying Hunt will now search out even the most remote of our settlements, hoping to find Felice. There will be gray-torc patrols everywhere, at least until the Tanu become distracted by the preparations for the Grand Combat . . . As to what shall be done with you, we will discuss that when Peo and his warriors return. I have already perceived their approach."
Claude rolled one of the large rosary beads toward the little cat. The animal patted it toward Amerie, then arched its back in appreciation of its own cleverness. The nun picked up the cat and stroked it as it tried to nestle into her sling. "Do you have any news of the other escapees? The people in the boats? Our friend Yosh? The Gypsies?"
"Two of the Gypsies survived their encounter at the ravine bridge. They will be guided here. There has been no word at all about the Japanese. The Firvulag in the northern regions are savage and not inclined to respect the alliance that their High King has formed with us. Your friend's chance of survival is not good. As to those in the boats, most were recaptured by gray-torc marines from the lake forts. They are now imprisoned in Finiah. Six escapees who reached the Jura shore are presently in the care of friendly Firvulag and will be taken to a free-human refuge in the high mountains. Seven more," Madame shook her head, "were taken by les Criards, the malign Firvulag known as Howlers."
"What will happen to them?" Amerie asked.
Madame lifted her shoulders and the golden torc reflected the flames. "These exotics! Ah, ma Soeur, they are barbaric, even the best of them. And the worst! Who shall even speak of their enormities? Firvulag and Tanu are members of the same species. En vérité, they actually constitute a dimorphic race with a most peculiar genetic pattern. On their home planet, this led to an ancient antagonism between the two forms, the one tall and metapsychically latent, the other mostly short in stature and with limited operancy. You must understand that the exotics came to Earth in order to be free to pursue certain barbarous customs, holdovers from their archaic culture, that were justly proscribed by the civilized ones of their galactic confederation. Some of their cruel games are physical, the Hunt, the Grand Combat, of which you will learn more later. But others are jeux d'esprit, games of the mind. The Tanu, with their wide-ranging latent meta-functions, do not favor this subtle jousting so much. It is more commonly the province of the torcless Firvulag. The Little People possess some farsensing power, plus one highly developed operant metafunction, that of creativity. They are masters of illusion. But what illusions they make! They are capable of driving humans, even the weaker among the Tanu, insane with terror or anguish. Sensitive persons may even be killed outright from psychic shock. Firvulag can take the shape of monsters, devils, whirlwinds, conflagrations. They insinuate their delusions into more helpless minds and trigger suicide or self-mutilation. The latter is of great amusement to the worst of them, the so-called Howling Ones, since they are themselves deformed mutants. The weapons of the Firvulag are our own nightmares and fever-dreams, the fears and phantoms that assault one's imagination in dark places. They take a sadistic delight in destroying."
"But they haven't destroyed you " Felice said. "They gave you a golden torc. Why?"
"Because they hope to use me, of course. I am to be a tool, a weapon, c'est-a-dire, against their most deadly foe: the Tanu, their brothers."
Amerie said, "And now you hope to use us."
Madame's thin lips lifted in a small smile. "It is obvious, is it not, ma Soeur? You do not know how poor we are, what odds we have faced. The Tanu call us Lowlives . . . and we have assumed the name proudly. Over many years our people have managed to escape from captivity and were hardly thought to be worth pursuing. Most of us have no special talents that can be used against the exotics. But you in your Group are different. The Tanu would take revenge upon you, but we Lowlives see you as invaluable allies. You must join us! Felice, even without a torc, can control animals, even influence certain humans. She is physically strong and an experienced game-playing tactician. You, Amerie, are a doctor and a priest. My people have struggled for years without either. Richard is a navigator, a former commander of starships. For him there may be a key role in the liberation of humanity . . ."
"Now just a damn minute!" bellowed the pirate, waving his soup ladle.
Claude flipped bits of wood into the fire. "Don't forget me. As an old fossil hunter, I can tell you exactly what Pliocene beast will be cracking your bones for the marrow after the Tanu and Firvulag get finished with you."
"You are quick with a jest, Monsieur le Professeur," said Madame tartly. "Perhaps the old fossil hunter will tell us his age?"
"A hundred and thirty-three."
"Then you are two years my senior," she retorted, "and I will expect you to render good advice to our company as a result of your vast experience. As I lay before you my grand design, the plan for the liberation of humanity, give us your invaluable counsel. Correct any youthful impulsiveness that I may show."
"Gotcha, Claude," Richard said, snickering, "Say . . . if anybody cares, this vat of slumgulion is as ready as it will ever be."
"Then we will eat," said Madame, "and shortly Peo and the fighters will join us." She raised her voice. "Mes enfants! You will all come to supper!"
Slowly, all of the people from the smaller fires approached, carrying bowls and drinking vessels. The total number of Lowlives included perhaps two hundred, far more men than women, with a handful of children as quiet and alert as the adults. Most of the people were dressed in buckskin or homespun peasant garb. They did not seem to be outstanding physical specimens, nor were any of them decked out in the wildly eccentric fashion of certain timefarers in the Finiah caravan. The Lowlives did not look beaten or desperate or fanatical. In spite of the fact that they had just fled for their lives at Madame's mental alarm, they did not seem afraid. They saluted the old woman gravely or cheerfully, and many of them had a smile or even a joke for Richard and the other cooks dishing out the hastily prepared fare. If one word could be used to describe the guerrilla contingent, it might be "ordinary."
Amerie searched the faces of these free people, wondering what had inspired this relative handful to defy the exotics. Here were exiles whose dream had come alive again. Was it possible that this small nucleus could grow, even prevail?
"Good friends," Madame was saying, "we have among us newcomers whom all of you have seen but few as yet have met. It is on their account that we have had to gather here. But we may hope, with their help, to reach our precious goal that much sooner." She paused and looked about the company. There was no sound except the snap and sizzle of the firelogs. "As we eat, I will ask these new arrivals to tell us how they came from the prison of Castle Gateway to this free place." Turning to the remnant of Group Green, she asked, "Who will be your speaker?"
"Who else?" Richard said, pointing the ladle at Claude.
The old man rose to his feet. He spoke for nearly a quarter of an hour without interruption until his narrative reached the point where Felice was about to initiate the attack upon Epone. Then there was a loud hiss. Amerie's little cat sprang from her arms and struck a stiff pose, facing the door of the Tree like a miniature puma at bay.
"It is Peo," said Madame.
Ten people, all heavily armed with bows and blades, came stamping and dripping into the shelter. They were led by a gigantic middle-aged man nearly as massive as Stein who wore the shell ornaments and fringed deerskin clothing of a Native American. Claude held off continuing his tale until these people were served with food and given a place close to the big fire. Then the paleontologist resumed and told the story to the end. He sat down and Madame handed him a cup of hot wine.
Nobody spoke until the gray-haired Native American said, "And it was iron, iron that killed the Lady Epone?"
"Nothing but," Richard declared. "She was chewed to pieces and I let her have a couple of good ones with the bronze sword, but she still just about nailed me. Then something made me try Felice's little dagger."
The red man turned to the girl and demanded, "Give it to me."
"And who the hell do you think you are?" she said coolly.
He roared with laughter and the sound of it boomed in the hollow trunk of the Tree as in an empty cathedral "I'm Peopeo Moxmox Burke, last chief of the Wallawalla tribe and former justice of the Washington State Supreme Court. I'm also the one-time leader of this gang of paskudnyaks and its present Sergeant at Arms and Warlord in Chief. Now may I please examine your dagger?"
He smiled at Felice and held out a great hand. She smacked the golden scabbard into it smartly. Burke drew out the leaf-shaped little blade and held it up in the firelight.
"Stainless steel alloy with an eversharp edge," the girl said. "A common toy on Acadie, useful for picking teeth, cutting sandwiches, pricking out transponders from rustled cattle, and putting out the lights of casual assaulters."
"It seems quite ordinary except for the gold of the hilt," Burke said.
"Amerie has a theory about it," Claude said. "Tell him, child."
Burke listened thoughtfully as the nun set forth her hypothesis on the possible deadly effect of iron on torc-bearing exotics, then murmured, "It could be. The iron disrupting the life-force almost like a neural poison."
"I wonder . . ." Felice began, staring at Madame with an innocent expression.
The old woman went to Chief Burke and took the knife from him. As the assembled crowd gasped, she held it to her own throat below the golden neck-ring and pricked the skin. A pearl-sized drop of dark blood appeared. She handed the dagger back to Burke.
"It seems," Felice said gently, "that Madame is made of sterner stuff than the Tanu."
"Sans doute," was the old woman's dry reply.
Burke mused over the small blade. "It's incredible that we never thought to try iron against them. But vitredur and bronze weapons were so easily available. And we never tumbled to the reasons why they confiscated steel items back at the Castle . . . Khalid Khan!"
One of the crowd, a gaunt man with burning eyes, a scraggly beard, and an immaculate white turban, got to his feet. "I can smelt iron as readily as copper, Peo. All you have to do is furnish the ore. The religious prohibition that the Tanu put on ironwork among their human subjects simply led us to carry on with copper and bronze out of sheer inertia."
"Who knows where iron ore might be found?" Madame asked of the company. There was silence until Claude said, "I might help you there. We old fossil hunters know a little geology, too. About a hundred kloms northwest of here, down the Moselle River, should be an accessible deposit. Even primitive men worked it. It'll be near the site of the future city of Nancy."
Khalid Khan said, "We'd have to do the refining work up there. Arrowheads would be best to begin with. Some lance tips. A few smaller blades."

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