All The Woes Of A World - Part 14
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Brielga noted how strange the house looked now. Stripped of all that had made it home, each room had come to look abandoned. But it wasn't this that touched Brielga; it was the absence of Dione. Through many days and nights she had entertained him with her eagerness to learn about him and about herself. When her father, the Winged Sariel, had returned from South of South, Brielga had been embarrassed to learn that little Dione was spending less time with her father than she was with him. However much he chided her still would she return to his side. But Sariel understood and had thanked Brielga for his patience. At least he was sure his daughter was safe, for there were uncertain times when she never left his side.
But such days had passed for Dione was safely installed with others of her age within Neptune. Lady Io however, had remained at hand. She had told them, perhaps too often, of her desire to remain until the last of the Journeyed had entered the Gate. Brielga wasn't sure of what held her to the land. Perhaps it was her unwillingness to surrender all she called hers. Whatever the reason, it became less apparent after Dione was escorted to the city, for then she became relaxed, even happy.
In this way she served the Winged their evening meal. With a murmured tune on her lips she fussed over them as if they were revered guests, but also in a manner that reminded Daldareth of the way one fussed over children. like Brielga, he had noticed the fourth place set at the table. Its significance was lost on him until Sariel entered quietly through the back door and greeted them.
Brielga immediately felt like an interloper, an intruder on what should have been quiet hours spent alone as husbands and wives do. Then he understood. While everyone he came into contact with, be they Winged or Groundling, made it plain that they regarded the coming morn to be their last, Sariel and his Lady Io regarded it as only an unwelcome transition from one scheme of things to another. They stood on the threshold of change and were prepared for it. Only when Angelis wrenched itself apart, only when survival was no longer possible, would they enter Neptune's portal and reject the past.
"Have you any thought of the future," Brielga asked of Sariel as they sipped the wine.
Sariel smiled wickedly. "You're assuming there is one?"
"That brings new meanings to the saying, '...in this world and the next'," muttered Daldareth dryly.
The Lady Io spluttered into her drink and set down her glass.
"There's always a future," said Brielga, seriously. "I'm assuming that one way or another it includes me."
"And bloody Gabriel goes around pontificating about preserving our past for some alien culture that might not have been born yet and who might or might not want to know about us." Again from Daldareth who seemed determined to sabotage the topic. "He was out at Charon's Grief tearing his hair out because that maniac Inos added a nuclear device. I don't understand that." This from Sariel.
"The hair-pulling or the device?" asked Brielga, sidetracked at last.
"I've yet to meet with any who would discuss futures," announced the Lady Io. "They're all too busy dragging anything that moves into Neptune. I'm just as guilty as the rest of them. But what I do know is that there are a lot of people out there who have not come to the Gate because they either don't or won't believe us or are willing to take their chances where they are."
Daldareth agreed. "I don't think chance has a lot to do with it. We live or we die." He reached for the bottle, refilled his glass and assumed that they were all here to get drunk. "Damn this! We shouldn't get miserable now. We should be celebrating!"
"What is there to celebrate?" asked the Lady Io, reaching for the same bottle. She was considering whether or not she should move her seat. Her back was facing the log fire blazing fiercely in the grate; an unnecessary feature of this informal meal for the nights had yet to become cold. "Must we drink to the death of a planet or just the dead of our race?"
"Races," corrected Brielga.
"Races! There are two races. Winged and Groundlings."
"Dung! That's the worst form of demi-socialism and I thought we had done with all that years ago."
"Oh good!" laughed Sariel. "We're going to have an argument."
"Oh yes!" said Brielga, overloud and with sarcasm. "The Charter of the Heights. 'We the Winged, do swear to uphold and protect those unable to escape on the wind from such things that might befall them, be they acts of nature or designs of men'. All rubbish designed to placate the jealous and the simple-minded from what they saw to be our efforts to establish ourselves as a superior breed.
"The truth is that for centuries Winged have always come to the aid of the distressed, Groundlings or otherwise. The laws of Sponsorship, even the amendments for Privateers and the Guild, were designed to give Groundlings control over Winged and therefore an insult. As was foretold, the higher castes were the only ones who could afford to support the Winged by sponsorship and this gave them first call on us. The poor could never influence things simply because they could not afford to purchase the services of a Winged.
"The only thing that has maintained the balance is the fact that thankfully, we live in times that permit Winged a certain discretion where needs are concerned. There is your demi-socialism and it is thanks to the Winged that an unofficial balance has been achieved. The prejudices were all yours and still are."
Daldareth grinned at Brielga's words. "I love it when he gets annoyed."
"Offal!" snapped Brielga.
"And hoof-prints to you too!" countered Daldareth. "Stop being so sanctimonious. We all know where we stand. We've always known. That's what has kept this civilisation going."
Brielga wasn't impressed. "You call this Civilisation? Civilisation is the name given to societies of sentient beings that have found themselves able and willing to help the sick, the old and the needy. That fool Starshinson and his friends gladly left the sick, the old and the needy, and the children, to fend for themselves. Those heaps of dung are indicative of what is not civilisation!"
The Lady Io rejected Brielga's argument. "But they are only a small part of the land. We are not all of their mind."
"If only one behaves as they it reflects on our right to call ourselves civilised!" argued Brielga vociferously.
"I have to admit that I think Brielga is right," agreed Sariel. "You need only to look to Neptune, Atlantis and Poseidon to see the differences between us. That was the creed of the Isolationist movement. 'Civilisation is not fit. We depart this civilisation'. And look at those who tried to stop them. You couldn't call them civilised! Lord Lucifer must have been laughing himself stupid.
"I mean, how long have they been submerged? Ninety, one hundred years? What could we have achieved in that time if their industry had remained on the land? Permaplex roads instead of rocks and stones. Permaplex houses, boats, tools? It goes on and on. Instead, they build huge spheres and disappear beneath the waves. The industry that should have given us progress and things to make life easier went with them."
The Lady Io saw the mistake in her husband's words. "Wait a moment! They took nothing of their industry with them. The workings that made the permaplex were left behind."
"They had no choice, My Lady," laughed Daldareth. "Two thousand Sowers and Reapers chased them into the sea. It's still a yearly celebration in the crop lands. They call it 'Swimmer's Night'. They make huge balls of hay, ten or more feet high, and roll them into the nearest stream. It's a game for them. The losing team has its balls set alight."
"There's a joke there somewhere!" said Sariel, causing much hilarity.
"Oh, shut up, Sariel!" groaned Daldareth wearily. "The point is that it was the Sowers and Reapers who burned down the workings after they'd chased the Isolationists off the land. It didn't take much to do it though. The Iso's were already on their way.
"The story's much the same for those who built Atlantis and Poseidon. Perhaps more died. I don't really know. After that you can't really blame them for keeping the industry to themselves."
Brielga added a touch of jealousy to the discussion. "You might think that after all this time they would have shared something with us. It wouldn't have hurt them much."
Daldareth took a moment to frame his reply. "I wouldn't expect them to feel very obliging to us even after all this time. I'm grateful that Neptune has seen fit to help us at all. But then I could put that down to us being all together. Even then, they might have felt that in the Deeps they could get along very nicely without us. We should be offering prayers of thanks rather than grumbling about what they might have done for us in the past."
"One hundred years dries one hundred tears," quoted the Lady Io, idly.
"...one hundred deaths and one hundred fears," continued Sariel, rather spoiling his Lady's point. "That is, one hundred years of attempting to justify the actions of fools instead of trying to right the wrongs."
"Didn't somebody say that Atlantis had surfaced and is helping?" asked Sariel's wife. Sariel wondered if she was trying to change the subject.
"Have you forgotten?" asked a surprised Daldareth. "It was I who took the messages to Atlantis from Neptune. They understood at once and set to work. Word came back days ago. It would seem that they are as prepared as we. Which reminds me, we should enquire after the Lady Sarah Callisto-Wingsdown. I have not heard of her whereabouts of late."
"And that reminds me!" said Brielga suddenly. "We should know of that fool Starshinson. He and his have been overlong..."
The door to the square crashed open and flooded the room with fresh air that at once fanned the fire in its grate and alerted their drink-retarded minds. Brielga took in the sight of the Winged in the frame as did the others, but he alone remembered his name.
"Evil deeds and evil done... Talk not of these lest evil come...! Michael! Would you believe we were just..."
"No time for this!" gasped Michael. "The Reapers are back, and you won't believe the caravan they've brought with them!"
Some had been employed to set the paths with receiver-lights, others to carry the children. They marshalled the head of the caravan but that was all they could do for in but a short space of time they had become completely overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The area around the transit terminal was simply chaotic. Too many beasts. Too many people.
The tower lights drew them to Neptune's Gate like moths to a flame, but the closer they got, the more frustrated they became. Gabriel moved slowly through them and began to restore something akin to order by directing Handlers to the weald North of the transit area where their beasts might be tethered and fed, and more importantly, kept out of harm's way.
At the rear of the column, still South of Charon, frustration was sliding slowly into hysteria. Now that journey's end was in sight many were of the belief that they had arrived too late, that the Gate was closed to them and Neptune had room no more. It was their shouts and cries that brought Sariel and Brielga to their need.
Variations on the theme of, 'It's alright', 'You're in time', and 'It's not too late', passed the lips of the Winged in soothing tones. Without exception the light of hope glowed softly once more as each were told the news, the state of affairs. Almost of its own volition, peace cloaked the Groundlings, covered their frightened bodies with warmth, soothed stalling hearts and stemmed the flow of adrenalin.
Their work done, Brielga and Sariel stood on opposite sides of the path as the caravan passed through Charon in an almost expectant silence. The beasts alone could be heard. Their weighty feet caused the ground to vibrate slightly, just enough to be felt through the Winged's skeletal feet, the beast's heavy tails swishing from side to side in time with others movements.
Brielga slipped quickly between two beasts in order to be at Sariel's side. There was nothing more to be done. The children, now only few in number, would make it to the Gate. Should a Winged attempt to carry them directly to the terminal they would only increase the chaos.
"We should talk to Michael. There are things we should know."
"Such as...?" queried Sariel, unsure as to where he might be better employed.
"Such as, how many are here in this caravan? What has gone before? Do we need to venture back again?"
A dozen Winged called from the Heights. Brielga waved them on, his eyes picking out the Carried in harness. The chaos at the Gate would increase after all. He took Sariel's elbow, drew him away from the path. "Stay if you want to. You're not seeing anything now that will be any different tomorrow. Come the dawn, we live in darkness."
Torn between options, Sariel beat his wings once, twice, in frustration. Brielga was already yards across Charon's square. Following his path was beginning to seem like a good idea. Or was it?
Something encroached upon his indecision, something that alerted his natural instincts as a Winged. A small voice called. He automatically analysed it and failed to understand. It wasn't a child's cry, rather the call of a Winged. He turned almost full circle, but in the dim broken only by the widely spaced receiver-lights, couldn't locate the source.
The call repeated and he latched onto it. Nearer now, and out of the gloom he saw the boy hobbling towards him. It was obvious to him that the child was in considerable pain. He noticed too the child's legs and clawed feet. Tears ran down the boy's face, each step causing him to grimace, a tortured face on a tortured body. Three steps brought Sariel within arm's reach of the boy who, on seeing him, bent almost double to rest on his hands and thus support himself on his upper-knees. Sariel crouched low, the better to speak with him.
"What hurts you, boy?" he asked gently. He'd seen this before, he was sure?
"It hurts! My back. My shoulders! Why does it hurt?"
Sariel detected the fear in his voice, the lack of comprehension.
"What years have you?" Again gently, left hand outstretched to comfort and support.
"What? Years?" He was in too much pain to argue. The Winged must be answered. The compulsion was great, but then so was the compulsion to collapse and hope to die. "Thirteen. Almost. Tomorrow." He gasped. A cold sheen soaked his forehead as he shivered in sudden spasms.
Realisation rippled through Sariel's mind, bringing with it recollections of his own youth, his own pain. In one fluid movement he swept the boy up and placed him over his shoulder, mindful that he should spread his wings in part. He walked swiftly and smoothly, tracing Brielga's steps across the square to the house he shared with his wife. He tried to work out how he would open the door, fold-back his wings and manoeuvre his charge all at the same time without causing either of them injury. He need not have worried.
The Lady Io looked up from the fireplace as Brielga opened the door. Too late he remembered his manners and found himself apologising for not knocking. But the Lady was no longer looking at him. She had seen something over his shoulder and through the doorway.
Sariel saw the open door at about the same moment his wife blundered past Brielga and out into the square.
"Go back! Send Brielga!" he shouted. "Warm the oil and send for Marcus!"
Lady Io heeded the urgency in Sariel's voice, obeyed his words. Brielga was almost at her heels and all but collided with her as she turned in a way that might once have seemed comical were it not for the apparent necessity. Brielga allowed Sariel to pass to him the boy and together they carried the youth the last yards to the house. With a freed hand Sariel swept the contents of the table to the floor. The boy was then laid face down upon it, strong hands of both Winged ripping the thin shirt from his back. He was sobbing now, face buried in his folded arms and beneath his shirt the reason plain. On either side of his spine two areas of distension followed parallel courses from just above his buttocks, up the raised musculature of his back and shoulders to just below the nape of his neck. The skin on these distended areas ranged in colour from fiery red around the broader bases, up to black, a putrid, crumbling black, at the peaks. Here was the source of the Fledgling's agony. The blackened skin was cracking, tearing, being forced apart by what was growing, moving, underneath.
As they watched, while the Lady Io left to fetch the Physician, the skin began to rupture in earnest and flake away with a kind of dead dryness usually associated with autumnal leaves. Sariel drew a cup of oil from the stone jar warming on the receiver-heater. After testing its temperature with a finger he began slowly to pour the viscous, odourless liquid onto the boy's back, giving it time to sink into the cracks appearing atop of the bulges. Immediately, the Fledgling ceased his moans and whimpering cries. The oil was meant to soothe and wash away the pain, to soften and give back to the skin some of its former elasticity so that it came near to dissolving instead of tearing.
The door swung open to admit Marcus Iltur and the Lady Io. The Physician nodded his approval at the treatment the boy was receiving. Sariel poured a quantity of oil into Iltur's hands and stood back as the Groundling began to gently massage the boy's swellings and ease away the useless skin. The boy remained silent during this for he knew now that he was in experienced hands and that soon the worst would be over.
Sariel continued to pour oil onto the boy's left back and side as the Physician worked with care on the right. His strong fingers manipulated the black skin away from the peaks, folding and forming until what lay beneath came into view. With firm movements he brought forth from the long wound the down-covered humerus, radius and ulna of the fledgling's rudimentary wing. Then and with the greatest of care, he unfolded the wing's digits from their nesting against the ulna.
The table and most of the boy's torso was covered with a mixture of sweat and oil. He began to drift in and out of consciousness such was his exhausted condition. Sariel and Iltur changed sides unnoticed, Sariel to dry the newborn wing, Iltur to release the other. Brielga refilled the oil container as the Lady Io brought towels and sought to aid the three men. Brielga pointed to a cloth and indicated that she cool the Fledgling's forehead, remembering his mother performing the same task at his own 'Down-shinning'.
Marcus Iltur completed his work and stood back to supervise Sariel's drying of the boy's down. The tension slipped away from him and allowed him the use of his tongue.
"Can you hear me, young man?" The boy nodded, careful not to move lest the pain returned. "What is your name? What name have you?"
"Ariel," he said softly and with hoarse voice. "My father is Jeramiel."
Sariel's wife caught Iltur's eye that he should say no more.
"I am the Lady Io Mars-Sariel and I have to announce you for that is my duty.
"I call you Ariel - Winged, for no more are you Fledgling. Rest now for on the dawn you shall have your birthday and become part of the world."
Ariel smiled for he knew the pain had left him. As he slipped from reality into the place of dreams his mind's eye led him soaring through the Heights unaware that if chance played an evil game he might never leave the ground.
The first vestiges of the false dawn crept up from the horizon and lent particles of themselves to be reflected off the gently rippling surface of Almasia Water. The terminator was effectively above the coastline, moving inexorably West over the land. It was still too soon for the rising mists or the arrival of the thin breezes that often marked the dawn in this part of the world. In places blurred edges obscured each with each awaiting the growth of the light to give form real meaning.
The permaplex of Neptune lay dead in the water picked out by the pre-dawn as a half-submerged coal-black orb against the pale grey sky. No light within the city had strength enough to be seen from the shore and in time artificial illumination would not be required.
And yet, within the city, the transit tube and the terminal gate, light existed as did the river of life that flowed through them like the fluids and nutrients that pass through the umbilical cord of the female form, on to feed the foetus of unborn life. The long night had seen no cessation of movement within these areas; if anything, the activities of the movers had increased. That is not to say that panic or any other kind of hysterical emotion had held sway. Indeed, if the waters lay becalmed then the people lay even more so. Each had come to accept that which was soon to occur. Each appeared numbed by what was to occur, but this was only an appearance. Beneath their skin each clung to the one thing that in the first place held them together and in the second place, stilled their frightened hearts. It was all-powerful. It permeated every part of them. It strengthened them and caused them not to tremble. In all things it showed them the way of salvation and life by removing any thoughts of death. And they gave this almost tangible thing a name, but named it not lest darkness take it from them and leave them bereft and betrayed. They called it 'Hope'.
The Winged, if asked, would have been the first to agree that it was cold. In Crossings of old it had been normal to refrain from flight until well after sunrise. This was especially true of night Crossings, although these had rarely been necessary. It was also a time of hunger for them. In past millennia the creatures that were to evolve into Winged would have had to wait for the sunrise to awaken their prey, for in the stillness of pre-dawn nothing stirred.
No one asked them. The chill was obvious enough to remain unstated. The Groundlings awaited their turn to enter Neptune's Gate merely drew their clothing tighter about their bodies and watched their breath condense before their faces. Every few minutes the untidy press of humanity shuffled forward toward, the Gate which in it's turn, ingested a few more of their kind.
Gabriel, Lord and Keeper of the Heights, looked down from Charon's Grief at the silently waiting crowd and sighed. He looked and longed for an elusive concept he had once called Normality. But he knew it had gone, vanished forever. The laws of chaos were beginning to take over his home: had taken over, not just his home, but his world and all that was in it.
The night of chaos was almost over. Gabriel knew he could have done without it, although in truth he doubted if sleep would have given him any succour. As he gazed he let his eyes sweep through one hundred and eighty degrees. This allowed him to take in the weald, the buildings and the terminus and then of course, the sea. The view before him vanished suddenly, to be replaced with the sights and sounds he had experienced twenty-nine days before, on a ledge, a step on Titan's Stairway, where he had seen the first tangible evidence of Helios' impending demise.
He was not alone. The scientists, Par Inos and the observers nearby were at the same time fearful and excited at the concept, and yet mindful of the consequences. Below the ledge, the plateau, he saw the coming Winged and heard the chorus of the dawn as life across the land of Almasia greeted itself with wishes for the new day.
Gradually, the scene before his eyes faded allowing reality to regain its grip on his mind. The view from Charon's Grief was clearer now, as if his reverie had cleaned his mind's eye. But it was only the coming morn that increased the definition of that which made up his world. His back felt curiously warm, as if part of him remained somewhere in a long-forgotten past. Behind him he could hear the crackling of burning wood...
And then he turned half-circle and took in the fire and its growing flames. Daldareth had lit the beacon and stood admiring his handiwork.
"Why fire? Why not a receiver-light?"
"It broke!" was the reply. "There has been no time to replace it. I think it was the only big one we had left."
"Do we need this now?" Gabriel seemed genuinely surprised.
Daldareth laughed short and with irony in his voice said, "In a while it will be all we have to guide us save the stars."
(Continued in Part 15)
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