Chapter 7

 

I have a deep sympathy with war, it so apes the gait and bearing of the soul.

– Journal, 1840

Spur had studied geography in school and knew how big Walden was, but for the first time in his life he felt it. From the ground, the rampant forests restricted what anyone could see of the world. Even the fields and the lakes were hemmed in by trees. Spur had never been to the Modilon Ocean but he’d stood on the shores of Great Kamit Lake. The sky over the lake was impressive, but there was no way to take the measure of its scale. Spur had hiked the Tarata Mountains, but they were forested to their summits and the only views were from ledges. There was a tower on Samson Kokoda that afforded a 360-degree view, but the summit was just 1,300 meters tall.

Now the hover was cruising through the clouds at an altitude of 5,700 meters, according to the tell on the bulkhead. Walden spread beneath him in all its breathtaking immensity. Maps, measured in inflexible kilometers and flat hec-tares, were a sham compared to this. Every citizen should see what he was seeing, and if it violated simplicity, he didn’t care.

Constant Ngonda, on the other hand, was not enjoying the view. He curled on a bench facing away from the hull, which Memsen had made transparent when she’d partitioned a private space for them. His neck muscles were rigid and he complained from time to time about trouble with his ears. Whenever the hover shivered as it contended with the wind, he took a huge gulping breath. In a raspy voice, the deputy asked Spur to stop commenting on the scenery. Spur was not surprised when Ngonda lurched to his feet and tore through the bubble-like bulkhead in search of a bathroom. The wall popped back into place, throwing a scatter of rainbows across its shivering surface.

Spur kept his face pressed to the hull. He’d expected the surface to be smooth and cold, like glass. Instead, it was warm and yielding, as if it were the flesh of some living creature. Below him the lakes and rivers gleamed in the afternoon sun like the shards of a broken mirror. The muddy Kalibobo River veered away to the west as the hover flew into the foothills of the Tarata Range. As the land rolled beneath him, Spur could spot areas where the bright-green hardwood forest was yielding ground to the blue-green of the conifers: hemlock and pine and spruce. There were only a few farms and isolated villages in the shadow of the mountains. They would have to fly over the Taratas to get to Littleton on the eastern slope.

At first Spur had difficulty identifying the familiar peaks. He was coming at them from the wrong direction and at altitude. But once he picked out the clenched fist of Woitape, he could count forward and back down the range: Taurika, Bootless Lowa and Boroko, curving to the northwest, Kaivuna and Samson Kokoda commanding the plain to the south. He murmured the names aloud, as long as the deputy wasn’t around to hear. He had always liked how round the pukpuk sounds were, how they rolled in his mouth. When he’d been trapped in the burn with Vic, he was certain that he would never say them again.

When Chairman Winter bought Morobe’s Pea from ComExplore IC, he had thought to rename everything on the planet and make a fresh start for his great experiment in preserving unenhanced humanity. But then a surprising number of ComExplore employees turned down his generous relocation offer; they wanted to stay on. Almost all of these pukpuks could trace their ancestry back to some ancient who had made planetfall on the first colonizing ships. More than a few claimed to be descended from Old Morobe herself. As a gesture of respect, the Chairman agreed to keep pukpuk names for some landforms. So there were still rivers, valleys, mountains and islands, which honored the legacy of the first settlers.

Chairman Winter had never made a secret of his plans for Walden. At staggering personal expense, he had intended to transform the exhausted lands of Morobe’s Pea. In their place he would make a paradise that re-created the heritage ecology of the home world. He would invite only true humans to come to Walden. All he asked was that his colonists forsake the technologies, which were spinning out of control on the Thousand Worlds. Those who agreed to live by the Covenant of Simplicity would be given land and citizenship. Eventually both the forest and the Transcendent State would overspread all of Walden.

But the pukpuks had other plans. They wouldn’t leave and they refused to give up their banned technologies. At first trade between the two cultures of Walden flourished. In fact, the pukpuk industrial and commercial base propped up the fledgling Transcendent State. Citizens needed pukpuk goods, even if bots manufactured them. As time passed however, the Cooperative recognized that pukpuks’ continued presence was undermining the very foundations of the Transcendent State. When the Cooperative attempted to close off the borders in order to encourage local industry, black markets sprang up in the cities. Many citizens came to question the tenets of simplicity. The weak were tempted by forbidden knowledge. For the first time since the founding, the emigration rate edged into the double digits. When it was clear that the only way to save the Transcendent State was to push the pukpuks off the planet, Chairman Winter had authorized the planting of genetically enhanced trees. But once the forest began to encroach on the pukpuk barrens, the burns began.

The pukpuks were the clear aggressors in the firefight; even their sympathizers among the citizenry agreed on that. What no one could agree on was how to accommodate them without compromising. In fact, many of the more belligerent citizens held that the ultimate responsibility for the troubles lay with the Chairman himself. They questioned his decision not to force all of the pukpuks to emigrate after the purchase of Morobe’s Pea. And some wondered why he could not order them to be rounded up and deported even now. It was, after all, his planet.

We’ve come up with a compromise,” said Ngonda as he pushed through the bulkhead into the compartment. He was still as pale as a root cellar mushroom, but he seemed steadier. He even glanced briefly down at the eastern slope of Bootless Lowa Mountain before cutting his eyes away. “I think we can let the High Gregory visit under your supervision.”

Memsen, the High Gregory, and a young girl followed him, which caused the bulkhead to burst altogether. Spur caught a glimpse of a knot of kids peering at him before the wall reformed itself two meters farther into the interior of the hover, creating the necessary extra space to fit them all. The High Gregory was carrying a tray of pastries, which he set on the table he caused to form out of the deck.

Hello, Spur,” he said. “How do you like flying? Your friend got sick but Memsen helped him. This is Penny.”

The Pendragon Chromlis Furcifer,” said Memsen.

She and Spur studied each other. A little taller but perhaps a little younger than the High Gregory, the girl was dressed hood to boot in clothes made of supple metallic-green scales. The scales of her gloves were as fine as snakeskin while those that formed her tunic looked more like cherry leaves, even to the serrated edges. A rigid hood protected the back of her head. A tangle of thick, black hair wreathed her face.

Penny,” said the High Gregory, “you’re supposed to shake his hand.”

I know,” she said, but then clasped both hands behind her back and stared at the deck.

Your right goes to his right.” The High Gregory held out his own hand to demonstrate. “She’s just a little shy,” he said.

Spur crouched and held out his hand. She took it solemnly. They shook. Spur let her go. The girl’s hand went behind her back again.

You have a pretty name, Pendragon,” said Spur.

That’s her title.” Memsen faced left and then right before she sat on the bench next to Ngonda. “It means war chief.”

Really. And have you been to war, Penny?”

She shook her head — more of a twitch of embarrassment than a shake.

This is her first,” said the High Gregory. “But she’s L’ung. She’s just here to watch.”

I’m sorry,” said Spur. “Who are the L’ung?”

Ngonda cleared his throat in an obvious warning. The High Gregory saw Memsen pinch the air and whatever he’d been about to say died on his lips. The silence stretched long enough for Penny to realize that there was some difficulty about answering Spur’s question.

What, is he stupid?” She scrutinized Spur with renewed interest. “Are you stupid, Spur?”

I don’t think so.” It was his turn to be embarrassed. “But maybe some people think that I am.”

This is complicated,” said Memsen, filling yet another awkward pause. “We understand that people here seek to avoid complication.” She considered. “Let’s just say that the L’ung are companions to the High Gregory. They like to watch him make luck, you might say. Think of them as students. They’ve been sent from many different worlds, for many different reasons. Complications again. There is a political aspect… ”

Ngonda wriggled in protest.

… which the deputy assures us you would only find confusing. So.” She patted the bench. “Sit, Pendragon.”

The Pendragon collected a macaroon from the pastry tray and obediently settled beside Memsen, then leaned to whisper in her ear.

Yes,” said Memsen, “we’ll ask about the war.”

Ngonda rose then, but caught himself against a bulkhead as if the change from sitting to standing had left him dizzy. “This isn’t fair,” he said. “The Cooperative has made a complete disclosure of the situation here, both to Kenning and to the Forum of the Thousand Worlds.”

What you sent was dull, dull, dull, friend Constant,” said the High Gregory. “I don’t think the people who made the report went anywhere near a burn. Someone told somebody else, and that somebody told them.” Just then the hover bucked and the deputy almost toppled onto Memsen’s lap. “You gave us a bunch of contracts and maps and pix of dead trees,” continued the High Gregory. “I can’t make luck out of charts. But Spur was there, he can tell us. He was almost burned up.”

Not about Motu River,” said Spur quickly. “Nothing about that.” Suddenly everyone was staring at him.

Maybe,” began Ngonda but the hover shuddered again and he slapped a hand hard against the bulkhead to steady himself. “Maybe we should tell him what we’ve agreed on.”

Spur sensed that Memsen was judging him, and that she was not impressed. “If you want to talk in general about fighting fires,” he said, “that’s different.”

Ngonda looked miserable. “Can’t we spare this brave man… ?”

Deputy Ngonda,” said Memsen.

What?” His voice was very small.

The High Gregory lifted the tray from the table and offered it to him. “Have a cookie.”

Ngonda shrank from the pastries as if they might bite him. “Go ahead then,” he said. “Scratch this foolish itch of yours. We can’t stop you. We’re just a bunch of throwbacks from a nothing world and you’re — ”

Deputy Ngonda!” Memsen’s voice was sharp.

He caught his breath. “You’re Memsen the Twenty-Second and he’s the High Gregory of Kenning and I’m not feeling very well.” Ngonda turned to Spur, muttering. “Remember, they don’t really care what happens to you. Or any of us.”

That’s not true,” said the High Gregory. “Not true at all.”

But Ngonda had already subsided onto his bench, queasy and unvoiced.

So.” Memsen clicked her rings together. “You fight fires.”

I’m just a smokechaser.” Ngonda’s outburst troubled Spur. He didn’t know anything about these upsiders, after all. Were they really any different than pukpuks? “I volunteered for the Corps about a year ago, finished training last winter, was assigned the Ninth Regiment, Gold Squad. We mostly build handlines along the edges of burns to contain them.” He leaned against the hull with his back to the view. “The idea is that we scrape off everything that can catch fire, dig to mineral soil. If we can fit a plow or tractor in, then we do, but in rough terrain we work by hand. That’s about it. Boring as those reports you read.”

I don’t understand.” The High Gregory sprawled on the deck, picking idly at his sneakers. “If you’re so busy digging, when do you put the fires out?”

Fire needs three things,” he said, “oxygen, fuel and temperature. They call it the triangle of combustion. Think of a burn as a chain of triangles. The sides of every triangle have to connect.” He formed a triangle by pressing his thumbs and forefingers together. “Hot enough connects to enough air connects to enough stuff to burn. Take away a side and you break the triangle… .” He separated his thumbs. “ … and weaken the chain. When a burn blows up, there’s no good way to cut off its oxygen or lower the core temperature, so you have to attack the fuel side of the triangle. If you do your job, eventually there’s nothing left to burn.”

Then you don’t actually put fires out?” The High Gregory sounded disappointed.

We do, but that’s just hotspotting. Once we establish a handline, we have to defend it. So we walk the lines, checking for fires that start from flying sparks or underground runners. Trees might fall across a line. If we find a hotspot, we dig it out with a jacksmith or spray it cold with retardant from our splash packs.” He noticed that the Pendragon was whispering again to Memsen. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Is there something?”

Memsen gave him a polite smile — at least he hoped it was polite. “She asks about the people who set fire to themselves. Have you ever seen one?”

A torch?” Spur frowned. “No.” The lie slipped out with practiced ease.

They must be very brave.” The High Gregory wriggled across the deck on hands and knees to Spur’s kit. “Hey, your bag got burnt here.” He held the kit up to the afternoon light pouring through the hull, examining it. “And here too. Do you hate them?”

No.”

But they tried to kill you.”

Not me. They’re trying to kill the forest, maybe the Transcendent State, but not me. They have no idea who I am.” He motioned for the kit and the High Gregory dragged it across the compartment to him. “And I don’t know any of them. We’re all strangers.” He opened the kit, rummaged inside and pulled out a pix of Gold Squad. “Here’s my squad. That’s full firefighting gear we’re wearing.” Dead friends grinned at him from the pix. Vic, kneeling in the front row of the picture, and Hardy, who was standing next to Spur. He flipped the pix over and passed it to the High Gregory.

Why are the torches doing this?” said Memsen. “You must have wondered about it. Help us understand.”

It’s complicated.” He waited for Ngonda to pipe up with the official line, but the deputy was gazing through the hull of the hover with eyes of glass. “They should have gone long ago,” said Spur. “They’re upsiders, really. They don’t belong here anymore.”

A thousand worlds for the new,” said Memsen, “one for the true. That’s what your chairman says, isn’t it?”

Your parents came here from other worlds,” said the High Gregory. “So that’s why you think the pukpuks should’ve been willing to pack up and go. But would you come back with us to Kenning if Jack Winter said you should?”

That’s not why I… .” Spur rubbed at his forehead. “I don’t know, maybe it is. Anyway, they were my grandparents, not my parents.”

The High Gregory slid across the deck and handed the pix of Gold Squad to Memsen. The Pendragon craned her neck to see.

You have to understand,” said Spur, “that the pukpuks hate the new forests because they spread so fast. The trees grow like weeds, not like the ones in my orchard.” He glanced over his shoulder at the hills beneath him. They were on the east side of the Taratas now and flying lower. Almost home. “When Walden was still the Pea, this continent was dry and mostly open. The Niah was prairie. There was supposedly this huge desert, the Nev, or the Neb, where Concord is now. The pukpuks hunted billigags and tamed the gosdog herds. Their bots dug huge pits to mine carbonatites and rare earths. Eventually they killed off the herds, plowed the prairies under and exhausted all the surface deposits. They created the barrens, raped this planet and then most of them just left. Morobe’s Pea was a dying world, that’s why the Chairman picked it. There was nothing for the pukpuks here, no reason to stay until we came.”

As the hover swooped low over the treetops, Spur could feel the tug of home as real as gravity. After all he had been through, Littleton was still drowsing at the base of Lamana Ridge, waiting for him. He imagined sleeping in his own bed that night.

Soon there won’t be any more barrens,” he said, “just forest. And that will be the end of it.”

The High Gregory stared at him with his unnerving yellow eyes. “They’re just trying to protect their way of life. And now you’re telling them that your way is better.”

No.” Spur bit his lip; the truth of what the High Gregory said had long since pricked his soul. “But their way of life is to destroy our way.”

Memsen flicked a finger against the pix of Gold Squad. “And so that’s why they started this war?”

Is this a war?” Spur took the pix from her and tucked it into his kit without looking at it again. “They set fires, we put them out. It’s dangerous work, either way.”

People die,” whispered the Pendragon.

Yes,” said Spur. “They do.”