"Let's get out of here," Felice said abruptly. "It's dark enough now. We've got to be across the river before the moon shows over those mountains."
"Right," said Claude. "You and Richard help Martha down."
He held out his own hand to Angélique Guderian. Together they climbed from the tree and made their way to the water's edge.
The Black Forest of Elder Earth was a thoroughly tamed woodland. When seen from a distance its firs and pines did appear dark; but within the twenty-second-century forest itself all was green and pleasant, with manicured pathways that tempted even the laziest hikers to indulge wanderlust without the threat of inconvenience. Only in the southernmost part of the range, around the Fekiberg and its sister peaks, did the terrain rise above a thousand meters. In the twenty-second century the Schwarzwald was thickly peppered with quaint resorts, restored castles, Kurhauser, and mountain villages where out-world visitors were welcomed by costumed inhabitants and mouthwatering Kirschtorten.
The Pliocene Schwarzwald was something else altogether.
Before the erosive action of small Pleistocene glaciers wore the range down, it was higher and more sinister. Facing the rift valley of the Proto-Rhine was an escarpment that rose sheeriy for almost a kilometer and a half, broken only by occasional narrow gorges cut by torrents from the highlands. Foot-travelers approaching the Black Forest from the river had to climb up one of these clefts, following precipitate gametrails or scrabbling over great blocks of granite sheathed in rampant greenery, kept moist even during the dry season by mists rising from chains of cascades. Able-bodied Firvulag hikers were known to have ascended the escarpment in eight hours. It took Madame Guderian and her crippled party three days.
Above the rim of the eastern horizon the true Black Forest began. Nearest the river, where strong winds blew down the trough from the Alps, the spruces and firs grew contorted into fantastic shapes. Some of the trunks resembled dragon coils or writhing brown pythons, or even humanoid giants frozen for ever in agony, their upper limbs woven together into a roof twenty or thirty meters above the ground.
Farther east, this Twisted Forest calmed and straightened. The land of the southern Schwarzwald rose rapidly toward a culminating crest more than two thousand meters high, with three eminences. On the flanks of the western slope were conifers of climactic proportions, white firs and Norway spruces seventy meters tall growing in ranks so dense that when one tree died, it could hardly find room to fall, but instead leaned against supportive neighbors until it decayed and fell to bits. Only rarely was there a break in the forest canopy that allowed Richard to plot their course from the sun or the North Star. They could find no obvious trail, so the ex-spacer had to lay one out, moving from landmark to tedious landmark, never able to get a line of sight more than fifteen or twenty meters long because of the denseness of the trees.
The understorey of this evergreen expanse received very little sun. Its dreary bluish twilight supported almost no low-growing green plants, only saprophytes nourished by the detritus of the great trees. Some of the things that fattened on decomposition were degenerate flowering plants, pale stalks with nodding ghostly blooms of livid white, maroon, or speckled yellow; but paramount among the eaters of the dead were the myxomycetes and the fungi. To the five humans traveling through the Pliocene Black Forest it seemed that these, and not the towering conifers, were the dominant form of life.
There were quivering sheets of orange or white or dusty translucent jelly that crept slowly over the duff of needles and decaying wood like giant amebae. There were bracket fungi, from delicate pink ones resembling baby ears to stiff jumbos that jutted from the trunks like stair treads and were capable of bearing a man's weight. There were spongy masses of mottled black and white that enveloped several square meters of forest floor as though veiling some unspeakable atrocity. There were airy filaments, pale blue and ivory and scarlet, that hung from rotting limbs like tattered lacework. The forest harbored puffball globes two and a half meters in diameter, and others as small as pearls from a broken string. One variety of fungus cloaked decaying shapes in brittle husks resembling colored popcorn. There were obscene tilings resembling cancerous organs; graceful ranks of upright fans; counterfeit slabs of raw meat; handsome polished shapes like ebony stars; oozing diseased purple phalluses; faerie parasols blown inside out; furry sausages; and mushrooms and toadstools in varieties that seemed to be without number.
At night, they were phosphorescent.
It took the foot-travelers another eight days to traverse the Fungus Forest. During this time they saw no animal larger than an insect; but they would never cease to feel that invisible watchers lurked just outside their field of vision. Madame Guderian assured her companions again and again that the region was safe despite its ominous aspect. There was no source of food for predatory animals in the fungoid realm of life-in-death, much less support for Firvulag, who were notorious trencherfoik. The thickly matted upper branches made it impossible for the Flying Hunt to see anyone moving below. Other Lowlife scouting parties that had penetrated similar forests farther north in the range had reported them empty except for trees, the triumphant fungi, and their parasites.
But still there was the feeling—.
They suffered and grumbled all through the ghastly woods, wading through soft growths that concealed treacherous, ankle-trapping holes. Richard declared that the spores in the air were choking him. Martha drooped in anemic silence after pestering Madame one time too many with a report that something was prowling among the giant toadstools. Claude caught a fierce case of jock itch that crept all the way up to his armpits. Even Felice was ready to scream out loud at the endless trek; she was sure that something was growing in her ears.
When they finally broke free of the Fungus Forest, all of them, even Madame, shouted with relief. They came into a brilliantly sunny alpine meadow that stretched north and south along the slope of an undulating crest. One bald tor rose from a ridge on their left; to the right were two more barren gray domes. Ahead of them and farther east was the rounded height of the Feldberg.
"Blue sky!" cried Martha. "Green grass!" Heedless of her disability, she went bounding over the flower-dotted alp and scrambled to the top of the eastern ridge, leaving the others to follow more slowly. "There's a little lake down there, not half a klom away!" she called. "And lovely normal trees! I'm going to soak and scrub myself and lie in the sun until I'm cooked to a frazzle. And I never want to see another mushroom again for as long as I live."
"Say again, sweetie," Richard agreed. "Not even a truffle."
They descended to the beautiful little tarn, icy cold in its depths but sun-warmed in shallower little pools around its rocky perimeter, and gave themselves up to the luxury of becoming clean again. Their filthy buckskins were left to soak in a tiny brook that ran from the lake down into the eastern valley. Shrieking like children, they went splashing and diving and swimming and wallowing.
Never since he had entered the Pliocene had Richard been so happy. First he swam to the other side of the tarn and back again. (It was only about fifty meters across.) He found a shallow pothole with the water warmed to precisely the right temperature and floated with the sun glaring redly behind his shut eyelids. Dark sand, scintillating like mica, floored his little pool. He took handfuls of it and rubbed his entire body, even his scalp. Then one last dash across the lake and out onto a hot granite slab to dry.
"You should have tried out for the Polity Olympics," Martha said.
He crept up a little higher on his rock and peered over the far edge. She was below him, lying flat on her stomach in a sheltered hollow and looking at him with one eye. Bright pink flowers grew in the crevices around her.
"How you feeling now?" Richard inquired. And he thought: Hey! She looked so different clean, relaxed, smiling with one corner of her mouth tilted higher than the other. "I'm much better," she said. "Why don't you come down?"
On the opposite shore of the lake, Claude and Madame Guderian lay side by side on decamole cots among the gentians and asters and harebells, baking the miseries out of their old bones and munching bilberries from the low-growing bushes that grew everywhere on the alpine meadow. A stone's throw away. Felice's pale-skinned form was bending in rhythmic exertions. There was a regular slapping sound as she beat their soiled clothing against the rocks of the little brook.
"Oh, to be young and energetic again," said Madame, a lazy smile upon her lips, "She has such enthusiasm for this mad expedition of ours, that little one. And what strength and patience she has shown with poor Martha. It is hard for me to credit your ominous assessment of Felice's character, mon vieux."
Claude grunted. "Just a little angel of mercy . . . Angélique, I've been doing some calculating."
"This isn't funny. It's been fifteen days since we left Yeo-chee's court at High Vrazel. We took eleven of those days just to travel the thirty kloms from the Rhine to the crest of the Schwarzwald. I don't think we have a hope in hell of getting to the Ries inside of the four weeks'limit, even if we do contact Sugoll. There's probably another forty or fifty kloms of land travel ahead of us before we even reach the Danube. Then near two hundred kloms down the river to the Ries."
She sighed. "Probably you are right. But Martha is strong enough to keep up with the rest of us now, so we will press on nevertheless. If we are not back before the Truce begins, we will have to wait until another time to attack Finiah."
"We can't do it during the Truce?"
"Not if we hope for the assistance of the Firvulag. This Truce, which covers periods of a month prior to and following the Grand Combat week, is deeply sacred to both exotic races. Nothing will induce them to fight each other during Truce time. It is the time when an of their warriors and Great Ones go to and from the ritual battle, which is held on the WhiteSilver Plain near the Tanu capital. Of course, in olden tunes, when Firvulag sometimes triumphed in the yearly contest, the Little People might host the games on their own Field of Gold. It lies somewhere in the Paris Basin, near a large Firvulag city named Nionel. Since the Tanu expansion, the place has been virtually abandoned. It has not hosted the Combat in forty years."
"I should think it would be good tactics to go after the mine when the Tanu are out of town. Do we really need the Firvulag?"
"We do," she said starkly. "There are only a handful of us and the ruler of Finiah never leaves the mine completely undefended. There are always silvers and grays there, and some of the silvers can fly.
". . . But the real reason for the matter of timing has to do with my grand design. Strategy, not tactics, must guide us. We do not aim simply to destroy the mine, but rather the entire human-Tanu coalition. There are three steps in the master plan: first, the Finiah action; second, an infiltration of the capital, Muriah, in which the torc factory itself would be destroyed; and third, the closing of the time-portal at Castle Gateway. Originally we had thought to instigate guerilla warfare against the Tanu after the threefold plan was accomplished. Now, with the iron, we will be in a position to demand a genuine armistice and the emancipation of all humans who do not serve the Tanu willingly."
"When do you see the implementation of phases two and three? During the Truce?"
"Exactly. For these, we do not require Firvulag help. At Truce time the capital is filled with strangers, even Firvulag go there with impunity! A penetration of the torc factory would be greatly simplified then. As for the time-gate . . ."
Felice came running up as tightly as a mountain sprite. "I can see flashes ever to the east, on the flank of the Feldberg!"
The two old people sprang to their feet. Madame shaded her eyes and followed the girl's pointing finger. A series of short double flashes came from a high wooded slope.
"It is the interrogation signal, as Fitharn warned us. Somehow, Sugoll has become aware of us entering his domain. Quickly, Felice. The mirror! "The athlete ran back to the brook where the packs lay and returned in a few seconds with a square of thin Mylar mounted on a folding frame. Madame sighted through its central aperture and flashed the response Fitharn had taught them: seven long slow flashes, then six, then five, then four-three-two-one.
The reply came. One-two-three-four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
They relaxed. Claude said, "Well, they won't come gunning for us now, at any rate."
"No," Madame agreed. Her voice held a touch of sarcasm. "At least Sugoll will meet with us face to face before deciding whether or not to burn out our minds . . . Eh bien." She handed the mirror back to Felice. "How long do you think it will take us to reach the foot of the Feldberg? That valley we must cross, it is not too deep, but there are woodlands and meadows where les Criards may lurk, probably a river to cross, and the terrain will be rougher than that of the Fungus Forest."
"We'll count on Sugoll keeping his friends and relations under control," Claude said. "And good solid ground instead of that spongy muck will let us keep moving right along, even if it is a bit steep in places. Barring any unforeseen balls-up, we might make it to the mountain in a dozen hours."
"Our clothes are drying on the hot rocks," Felice said. "Give 'em an hour or so. Then we can march on until sundown."
Madame nodded in agreement.
"Meanwhile, I'll hunt lunch!" the girl declared brightly. Taking her bow, she went running naked toward a duster of nearby crags.
"Artemis!" exclaimed Madame in admiration.
"One of our old Group Green companions, an anthropologist, used to call her that, too. The Virgin Huntress, goddess of the bow and the crescent moon. Benevolent, if you kept her happy with the occasional human sacrifice."
"Aliens done! You have a one-track mind, Claude, seeing the child always as a menace. And yet see how perfect she is for this Pliocene wilderness! If only she could be content to live here as a natural woman."
"She'll never settle for that." The paleontologist's usually kindly face was as hard as the granite around him. "Not so long as there's one golden torc left in the Exile world."
* * * *
"Thank you, Richard," Martha said, smiling into his eyes, and with his vision still dimmed, she was beautiful enough and it had been very good between them.
"I wasn't sure you really meant it," he said. "I didn't want to hurt you."
Her gentle laugh was reassuring. "I'm not completely ruined, even though strong men have been known to blanch at the sight of my little white body. The fourth birth was a caesarian, and these donks never heard of a transverse. Just slice 'er open down the middle, grab the precious kid, and pass the catgut and darning needle. It didn't heal properly. A fifth pregnancy probably would have been the end of me."
"The filthy swine! No wonder you, uh, I'm sorry. You probably don't want to talk about it."
"I don't mind. Not any more. D'you know? You're the first man since them . Before this, I couldn't even bear the thought of it."
"But Steffi . . ." he began hesitantly.
"A dear gay friend. We loved each other, Richard, and he took care of me for months when I was really bad, just as though I were his little sister. I miss him dreadfully. But I'm so glad you're here. All the way through that horrid forest. . . . I watched you. You're a fine navigator, Richard. You're a good man. I hoped that you wouldn't be, revolted by me."
He pulled himself up into a sitting position, back resting against a great hot boulder. She lay again on her stomach, chin on clasped hands. With her scarred belly and pitifully shrunken breasts hidden, she looked almost normal; but her ribs and shoulder blades were prominent and her skin had a translucency that revealed too many of the blue blood vessels beneath. There were smudgy shadows around her eyes. Her lips were purplish rather than pink as they continued to smile at him. But she had loved him with marvelous passion, this wreck of a handsome woman, and when something within him said: She will die, he felt his heart contract with an amazing, unprecedented pain.
"Why are you here, Richard?" she asked. And without knowing why, he told her the whole story without sparing himself, the dumb sibling rivalry thing, the greedy maneuvering and betrayals that had made him master of his own starship, the ruthlessness resulting in wealth and prestige, the ultimate crime and its punishment.
"I might have guessed," she said. "We have a lot in common, you and I."
She had been a Deputy Supervising Engineer on Manapouri, one of the two "New Zealand" planets, where extensive marine mining made up an important part of the economy. A contract had been let for the sigma-field energy-dome of a new township to be built six kilometers beneath the planet's South Polar Sea. An Old World company sent its people to install the dome generator; approval of each phase of the work was subject to personal inspections by Martha and her staff. She had worked with the offworld technicians for nearly six months, and she and the project head had become lovers. Then, with the generator complex three-quarters completed, she discovered that the contractor had substituted certain structural components when a shipment from Earth went astray. The substitutions were rated at ninety-three percent of the capacity of those called for in the original specs. And everybody knew how ridiculously high those standards had been set, for Manapouri had originally been surveyed by the ultra picky Krondaku. Her lover had pleaded with her. To dismantle the thing and make replacements would lose them months of time, put the job into the red and probably get him the sack for authorizing the sneetch in the first place. Ninety-three percent! That dome generator would keep running in anything short of a Class Four tectonic incident. On this stable-crust world, the chances of that were one in twenty thousand.
And so she had given in to him.
The sigma-field generator complex was completed on time and within budget. A hemispheric bubble of force flowed out from it and pushed back the seawater for a radius of three kilometers. A mining village of fourteen hundred and fifty-three souls sprang up within its security, down beneath the frigid waters near Manapouri's South Pole. Eleven months later there was a Class Four . . . 4.18, to be exact. The dome generator failed, the waters reclaimed their hegemony, and two-thirds of the people were drowned.
"The worst thing about it," she added, "was that nobody ever blamed me. It was right on the knife-edge for the oi, Jtaalspecs, with that 4.18. I knew that the thing would have held if we hadn't sneetched, but nobody else thought to question it. It was a borderliner, a tossup, and the thing had crapped out. Tough. The generator complex was so smashed up by the quake and turbidity currents that they didn't bother with much of a fail-analysis. There was more important work to be done on Manapouri than dredge through half a klom of sediment looking for broken parts."
"What about him? "
"He had been killed a few months earlier at a job on Pelon-su-Kadafiron, a Poltroyan world. I thought of killing myself but I couldn't. Not then. I came here instead, looking for God knows what. Punishment, probably. My executive mind-set was all wiped out and I was completely switch-off. You know, take me, stomp me, use me, just don't make me have to think . . . The stud farm setup I landed in after the trip from Castle Gateway seemed like a mad dream. They only take the best of the women for breeding stock. Those under forty, natural or rejuvenated, those who aren't too ugly. The rejects are kept sterile and made available to the gray torcs and the bareneck males. But us keepers had fertility restored by Tanu physicians, and then we were sent to the Finiah pleasure dome. Would you believe there were lots of dopey broads like me who just lay there and took it? I mean, if a dame didn't mind the basic shabbiness of being used, it was a hotsheet paradise. I understand that the Tanu women are better than the men when it comes to incendiary sex, but the men left no chime un-rung as far as I was concerned. The first few weeks were a nympho's delight. And then I got pregnant.
"All the little expectant moms are treated like royalty by the Tanu. My first baby was blond and adorable. And I'd never had any, and they let me nurse him for eight months. I loved him so much I almost came up sane. But when they took him away, I went back on psycholine and wallowed around the pleasure dome with all the rest of the screwed-silly tarts. The next pregnancy was awful and the baby turned out Firvulag. The Tanu sire them one time in seven on humans and one time in three on their own women; but Firvulag parents never have Tanu children. At any rate, they didn't let me nurse the poor little spook, just took him out and left him in the traditional spot in the woods. I hadn't even recovered from him when they were trying to knock me up again. But by then, all the fun had gone out of it. I was sobering up, maybe. It's bad to be too sane in the pleasure dome . . . whether you're a human female or a human male. Too many of those Tanu blasts and you start hurting instead of skyrocketing. It happens sooner with some than with others, but if you're the average human, after a while Tanu sex starts killing you."
"Yeah," said Richard.
She looked at him quizzically. He gave a small humiliated nod. She said, "Welcome to the club . . . Well, I had another blond baby and then a fourth. The last was the caesarian, four and a half kilos of lovely fat girl-child, they said. But I was delirious for a week, so they farmed her out to a wet nurse and gave me six whole months of peace to pull my poor old bod back in shape. They even gave me a treatment with their Skin, which is a kind of poor man's regen-tank, but it didn't do much good. The practitioner said my mind-tone was wrong for it, just as it was wrong for a gray torc. But I knew that I just didn't want to get well and have more babies. I wanted to die. So one lovely night I slipped quietly into the river."
He could think of no words to comfort her. The uniquely feminine abasement was a horror beyond his understanding, although he pitied her and raged inwardly against the ones who had used her, planted a half-human parasite inside of her that fed on her, kicked against her internal organs and belly wall, then violated her again as it burst out into the open air. God! And she'd said that she loved the first baby! How was it possible? ( Hewould have strangled the little bastards before they drew their first breath.) But she'd loved one, and would have loved the others, likely as not, if they hadn't been taken away. She'd loved those pain givers, those unworthy children. Could a man ever make sense of the way of women?
And you'd think she'd never want to look at another male. But somehow she'd fathomed his own need and, yes!, needed him as well. She might even like him a little. Was she as generous as all that?
Almost as though she read his thoughts, she gave a sensuous little chuckle and beckoned him back to her. "We still have time. If you're the man I think you are."
"Not if it would hurt you," he found himself saying even as he came back to life. "Never if it would hurt you." But she only laughed again and pulled him down. Women were amazing.