All The Woes Of A World - Part 20
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The Lady Io, as always, expected injuries and was not disappointed. That is not to say that she wanted work to do, just that throughout her life, injuries and long Crossings had become almost inseparable. Sariel stood once more at her side as she counted as if to confirm his tally and the number of injuries that went with it.
Not knowing his name prevented them not from watching the Winged Raguel drift to the ground in a Stall and Alight almost with perfection until the moment came when he needed to use his strapped-up broken leg. He landed in a way that in other times might have appeared comical, but there was no humour in the way he fell heavily only to struggle to rise whilst attempting to fold back his wings.
Sariel leapt forward to go to the injured Winged's aid and found himself beaten by swifter feet than his. Nevertheless, he arrived in time to help Raguel upright. Others brushed the sand from his clothes and skin and tried to assess the damage. With his injured leg strapped to his sternum it could only have sustained more damage and by the expression on his face such damage had occurred.
"Let others tend him, Sariel," directed his Lady. To the others she said, "Get him to the transit tube. He'll be looked after in Neptune. This Winged Crosses no more." Once again she addressed her husband. "Go amongst them. The injured go straight to the city. There is no room here for any but Winged."
Sariel nodded in agreement. "I must speak with Daldareth. We must know if to expect others."
He was sure Daldareth had overheard which was ridiculous for he stood one hundred yards distant. The hub-bub of Alighting Winged and Carried made such an idea seem impossible, and yet, something drew them together. Daldareth's gait was filled with fatigue, like the dying rushes of a gale that had all but expended itself.
"We left many to walk home. We must retrace and collect them."
"Why did it take so long in getting here?"
"We had to rest now and then. We went South unladen but for our needs. We returned with Carried. Simple enough for you?"
"If you're going back for more I would join you," said Sariel, refusing to be intimidated by the tone of Daldareth's voice.
The huge Winged realised his mistake and apologised. "We must leave after we have rested and eaten. Those we left behind should now be no more than two day's Crossing South.
"You are right to think you will be needed. You saw the condition of Raguel. His was such a fruitless Crossing." He paused to work things out in his head. "There are four of us missing. I sent them to seek tidings in Ganymede..." he said, simplifying the truth of it.
Sariel interrupted, "Are they lost?"
"No, no," denied Daldareth. "I don't believe that to be the case. I feel confident of their return. They are all young. They can't be far behind us."
He looked around and past Sariel and took in the organised chaos. Three hundred Winged doing all they could to get the Carried away to the terminus. Three hundred or more Carried doing all they could to get to the terminus. The Winged had to be fed, rested, turned around and pointed in the direction from which they had come. It would be no small task, but what saved them much trouble was their willingness to congregate in small groups, each surrounding a receiver-heater by which they could at least prepare themselves a hot meal.
Rest was another problem entirely. The cold was beginning to bite more viciously than of late, penetrating deeper into flesh and down, muscle and bone. There was talk of worse to come, and of how no winter had started this early in the year. There was talk also of whether they could survive another Crossing.
And then it began to snow.
A once-Carried saw it first and with eyes that refused to believe. His simple statement, made before his heart plummeted into a kind of exhausted despair, drew from those around him an expectant hush. He saw the first crystalline flake drift toward the window of the terminus on an uncertain wind and he knew that if he had been waiting for a major disaster then this was not the way he had expected it to begin. In its own way the unexpected tempered his fears for Angelis and his fears for his own survival. The snowflake was to be the precursor of destruction when it should have been the volcano Hades or an enormous groundshake or a tidal-wave or an all-consuming atmospheric vortex, anything but a frozen crystal of water. So it was that, having seen the first flake and knowing instantly that it was not alone, he made his statement of despair and took all around him with him.
His words were spoken softly as words of despair often are, and as they were heard other Groundlings looked out through the windows instinctively as if they knew that another step towards the rending of Angelis had been taken. In silence they watched as more snow fell swirling, but ever downwards, and knew that it would not stop. As they saw it, the Snow-Line had at last moved South of the Ice Rim and in doing so had confirmed what had been foretold: Angelis was to freeze and contract and crack and lose stability and...kill them all. It was irreversible and brooked no response from them for it was out of control and out of their hands.
Winged cursed shortly and moved to occupy the few houses that had once been homes to the Fishers. Dotted about in a loose crescent further inland than the terminus, they gave small comfort to the more exhausted of them while the strongest either remained where they were or investigated the possibilities of finding shelter inside the terminal building.
"How many walked this way?"
Daldareth noted Sariel's words and knew what he was leading up to. No matter. He let himself be led. "You should have been with us," he said, quietly and without criticism. "It was bloody awful. Three hundred and one...no! Sorry! I let four go South. Two hundred and ninety-seven to carry nine hundred and fifteen. We managed to take all of the children as well as some adults, women mainly. We left five hundred and ninety-four to walk. They will make good time unencumbered."
"Are you planning to go back or not?" Sariel was keen to know; what he was to do next depended on it. "If not, I plan to enter Neptune and warm up. I can't suffer this cold for no reason."
"We have to go back," muttered Daldareth, Sariel's reminder of the chill emphasised by the arrival of thicker snow. "We must go back. I wouldn't sleep nights with that on my conscience."
Sariel grinned at a sudden thought. "I used to refuse Night Crossings, but I don't suppose that makes any difference now."
Daldareth agreed with him, saw the humour. "Two returns should do it. They will each be shorter than the last. The Walkers will keep walking. It will help us to help them."
"Always providing they are in a fit state to walk," continued Sariel, turning his head to observe the falling snow, craning his neck to watch the snow leaving the cloud-filled sky. He looked back to Daldareth, saw the flakes matting his hair, feeling the flakes dissolve on his own skin. "We must rest now. This might have stopped by morning."
Daldareth seemed bemused by this and posed a question as one might test a child. "So why don't we leave now? We could soon gain the Heights."
Sariel shook his head in denial. "Too cold. We'd freeze this night."
"My sentiments exactly."
Without another word or sign the huge Winged brushed the snow from his head and the leading edges of his wings and headed for the terminus. Sariel followed, unsure of what was on the Winged's mind.
The terminal building, Neptune's Gate, was no where near as crowded as they had expected. Neptune's Sentinels were working hard to keep the flow of Groundlings moving along the transit tube. Names, ages, homes, details. These and other things had to be recorded. Neptune had to keep control of the situation within the confines of its permaplex sphere if it was to be able to provide food and water for the refugees, if it was to provide a place of rest to each. No one noticed the Winged save for the Lady Io. Sariel assumed his wife had seen them approach the building, for from her redoubt near the inland-facing window she had come to greet them with cups of hot beverage.
"It never ceases to amaze me how quickly things get done once you show them the way. That Winged with the damaged leg is already on his way along the tube," she said, smiling.
"I wish I was on my way down the tube," said Daldareth, raising the cup to his lips. "We're pushing our luck now. I can feel it. It's too bloody quiet."
"The calm before the storm, Daldareth? Shame on you!" she mocked. "Have you no faith in the world?"
"HA! Faith?" he exclaimed, eyes bulging in surprise and disbelief. "I lost my faith when the sun went out." He looked to Sariel. "Hold onto your wife. I feel she is losing her mind."
Sariel took his cue. "How can this be true?" To his Lady he said, "What ails you, My Sweet?"
Daldareth answered for her, "Well, it isn't sunstroke, my friend. Lady or no, find her a Physician!"
As their laughter faded each observed the snow smothering slowly the glass panes. Each observed this and saw things differently.
Sariel was suddenly reminded of something of the past. "I read a book called 'Blood In The Snow'."
"The 'Blood' series," recalled Daldareth. "Blood In The Water', 'Blood On The Sand'. I had the entire collection once, but I don't remember who wrote them."
"Nor I," Sariel conceded, tracing a pattern on the breath misted glass. "It's not important. It's just that I remember something about the snow. The Gull had wandered too far North. It became covered with the stuff and it had frozen solid. The Watcher knew this to be true because the wings were still outstretched, as if it were still flying."
"And its eyes were still open," agreed Daldareth. "There is a point, perhaps?"
"A lesson? A fable? No, I don't think so. Perhaps a warning. Certainly no more than that."
"You fear a Crossing in the snow?"
"No, Daldareth. I fear dying in it."
"And the Walkers? Will they fear it less?"
Sariel smiled. "The snow, or the dying?"
"Either. It amounts to the same thing," replied Daldareth, firmly. "And that's the problem, isn't it? That's the irony. We are expected to rescue them. That is our heritage."
"You heard what Sere said. The Winged were being hunted and killed like wild beasts. Doesn't that tell you something?"
"Yes, my friend. It tells me we've seen better times."
"Sariel. When I was out there I made a bargain with Brielga. I said I would do something for him if he didn't make it back. I didn't feel like doing it so I made sure he returned. I'll make the same bargain with you."
"But, I don't want you to do anything for me," declared Sariel.
"Isn't life just awful?" grinned Daldareth.
"It isn't My Lady who needs the Physician," snorted Sariel. "You're a sick Winged, Daldareth!"
The commotion at Neptune's Gate, out on the snow-carpeted sand, was heard by all and with good reason. The Winged Deimos and Berion alighted heavily. As one they unclipped the harnesses securing their Carried and bent almost double in their efforts to regain something of their composure and fight off the breathlessness and frozen exhaustion that had almost overtaken them.
The Carried, the eldest of the Walkers, were hustled quickly into the terminus whilst others covered the Winged with blankets and, with words of encouragement, ushered them in the same direction.
Someone had awoken Daldareth. His head span as he tried to move from deep sleep to fully conscious too quickly. He blamed no one for his condition, however. The newly arrived were his charges and until he released them he was beholden to them. They passed through the door as he rose to his feet and as if by instinct knew of his location and headed straight for him. He wondered as he looked at them, of the condition of them, of what they were about to tell him, of the whereabouts of the Lady Io.
"Where are the Walkers now?" he asked without prior greeting.
Deimos answered for them both. "If they kept their pace, if the snow doesn't reach them, then they are as little as two days walk behind us, or as much as five days. It was bad enough for us. The weather doesn't help. It has to be worse for them"
"So near?" said Daldareth, astonished.
"We still believe in miracles," explained Berion, lightly, drawing a sudden smile from Deimos. "Will you be going back to fetch them?" he continued.
"It seems that everyone has asked me that. The answer is 'Yes'. I don't relish the task, but it has to be done." He glanced at the timepiece, the sole decoration on the South wall of the building and realised than morning was upon them. "We go now. As soon as possible and with all I can find to accompany me. It has been getting steadily colder in this region. Are you up to a greater chill?"
"Yes, we'd noticed," retorted Berion, without sarcasm. "And no! I'm not going anywhere this day."
"I understand. Go about your business," acknowledged Daldareth. "I release you." Then to Deimos, "Will you go with him?"
"I'd rather go with you, but you can see how we are. Perhaps after resting and eating..."
Daldareth wiped the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes. With clearer vision he said, "I'm no Taskmaster. Rest and eat. If you feel up to it, join us. If not, then I will have no call on you. Our time must be terribly short now. Remember then that when you have rested, I would appreciate your help."
As if to put a seal on his words a thin vibration caused the floor to tremble. The sound of breaking glass reached them and was mistaken for the shattering of a window. Somewhere outside and in the distance a heavy thunder rolled amongst the lower hills like the sound of moving boulders.
"Avalanche?" queried Berion. "Does it begin?" Fear shadowed his features.
Daldareth shook his head. With lidded eyes, as if in deep thought, he said, "The prelude, perhaps. An overture, maybe. Certainly no more. Listen now, as the sound fades." At his words the sound drifted away. "It was a sound just as this that destroyed Charon, but it's too far away to do us harm."
This of course was untrue: although it was some moments before the error of his words became apparent. The sound faded to be sure, but only to a level below the threshold of his hearing. Having visited the shoreline for a brief time the groundshake retreated. Once inland and beyond Daldareth's hearing, the epicentre affected to alter the direction of its thrusts so that they acted in the manner of several forks of lightning that proceeded to cause anguish to the land both North and South of Charon and Neptune's Gate.
Far to the North-West, Hades thundered mightily, its dull yellow-orange eruption turning to white as it hammered its way into the smoke-filled sky. Lava too, brightened in colour, the molten rock now almost brilliantly white as like water it poured over the crater's rim and down the slopes of the cinder cone.
They noticed the increase in sound, the distance-diluted roar, and vainly attempted to look through the window panes in its general direction. As one they cursed as they were reminded that only from Charon's Grief would the eruption though not the mountain be visible. All that could be seen from inside the terminus was snow-covered sand, snow-covered houses and snow-flecked air.
They felt fear, a sudden inexplicable fear, that had them almost break into a cold sweat, which caused them to look to each other for an answer. Their fear was intensified by the return of the groundshake. This time they were sure that the ground borne vibrations were building to devastating proportions. They were right.
The terminal building lurched left and then right, a combined distance of several feet. As the window panes shattered cracks spread in all directions across the dressed stone walls. Up on the roof, the receiver-dish that collected power for the structure collapsed, sending up fountains of sparks and arcing electricity up into the snow laden air and cut the supply to the lighting system within the terminus.
The enveloping darkness added to the disorientation being experienced by the Winged fighting to keep their balance on the wildly swaying floor. Unworldly screams emanated from beneath their feet, attesting to the torture of the land while rocks ground against each other and then separated, dislodging other sub-surface material which then filled the air with its own sounds.
And yet, while the surface and near-surface of Almasia-Nor cried out in agony, other parts suffered also. Unbeknown to any life form, Angelis as a whole, as a world, began to show sign of its developing terminal condition as so graphically foretold by the scientist Par Inos. The surface of the planet was being supported by two forces. The word 'supported' was taken to mean in the first instance, 'to rest upon', and in the second, 'aided' in its task of giving life survivability. The sun had added to the 'survivability' and struck a balance with the first force, that of the supporting molten core and mantle. But with the sun effectively removed from the equation, the once stable crust had already begun to contract. This contraction put pressure on the fluid mantle bringing about a rise in temperature. Such a rise meant an increase in pressure, and so the cycle continued, released only in part by the venting of the volcano Hades.
But Hades could not even begin to release enough pressure to affect in any way the outcome of the continual cycle. It was possible that a multitude of volcanoes would have been able to bring a stability of sorts to Angelis, but there was only one volcano and the building pressure had to go somewhere, a 'somewhere' that meant catastrophe for Angelis. The planet's tectonic plates were on the move, their edges grinding into each other as they strove to come to terms with the pressures they were trying to contain. As they moved they vibrated, shook, shuddered, trembled, and consequently destroyed huge section of land parallel to their edges.
The oceans too gave notice that beneath their angry surfaces, on the very floors that supported them, all was not as it should be. Tectonic movement agitated the waters and gave them a pseudo-life that endangered anything that came into contact with it.
Mimas, Elder of the town of Ganymede in the Southlands of Almasia led his people well. They would remember that he led them so, for since the leaving of the Winged back to their salvation in the North not one life had been lost, nor injury sustained. They would remember too that by his words they had walked with firm steps as they had for many days until, by the coming of the shake, The Shake, only a few days journey remained. He had learnt new habits on this journey, this pilgrimage. One such was his practise of standing still every hour or so to wait for his people to pass him by, to give encouragement to any that lagged behind. This of course allowed him the chance to rest. But rest had no meaning to him now, and besides, any rest he took and any succour he found was diminished in the extreme for he would then hastened back to take up his place at the head of the column until it was time to repeat the process.
And yet, they followed him without dissent and he saw the lifelessness in their eyes. It wasn't that they had given up: the trail of muddy footprints in the soft earth of the cliff-tops proved that beyond all doubt. No, not given up, rather switched off, the ability to feel exhaustion, emotion, pain. It had been a gradual thing this turning-off. If it hadn't been he was sure he would have been unable to put up with five hundred and ninety-three pairs of eyes staring at his back. He considered that he led a column of the Damned, an eerie army of the already-dead, doomed to march, for march they did, the coastal paths forever as some undeserved punishment.
At this thought he usually shook himself, chided himself. Thoughts like these meant that he was becoming like them. He could ill-afford this for they had not forever. Time was strictly limited and the joke was that they had no idea as to what that limit was.
Mimas allowed himself a smile, for he found that he could, if he wished, continue these chains of thought in any direction he cared to take. He thought that this was in fact the essence of their - his punishment, that they were so doomed and by that he meant that they must march forever in the belief that their time was limited. Being doomed meant that their suffering consisted of mental as well as physical anguish.
The arrival of the tremor pulled him away from his thoughts and away from the cliff's edge. The path they were taking was one of ease that took into account the variations of height and curvature of the land and the condition of the ground. Mimas had prudently led his people inland of what might have been considered a more impressive route; better for them to walk on virgin grasses than risk finding a fault in the land at the same time as a shake and be sent crashing into the sea or strewn like rag dolls on the rocky water's edge. Like Daldareth, Mimas believed that the shake was a minor disturbance, a trembling, a movement of no consequence of the sleeping giant beneath their feet. His followers showed no sign that they were concerned but stepped where he stepped, walked where he walked. His belief was well founded and to himself he gave yet another smile. This time, one of satisfaction. The tremor faded from his senses and his feet felt firmer ground. With confidence regained and purpose renewed, Mimas increased their pace, as if the shake had reminded him of what needed to be done, of where they needed to be, and paid the disturbance no further mind. Again, like Daldareth, they relaxed, and like Daldareth were caught wrong-footed and unprepared.
And yet they could have no knowledge of this for the epicentre of the shake was equidistant from their location and Charon's Grief. The main thrust had delayed its attack on them, moved instead beneath Neptune's Gate and out under the sea until it arrived at the tectonic fault line that lay along the ocean floor three hundred miles to the East of Almasia-Nor. The plate, already subjected to enormous pressure from beneath and in conflict with its grinding companion, found itself shaken by colossal undulations emanating from so far away. For whole minutes it withstood this unholy amalgamation. It countered the movement of its opposing plate, it resisted the upward thrust of the magma, it held firm against the shake, as if it had determined not to release its own energies and contribute to the destructive forces marching against Angelis.
However, there came a time when even living rock had no ability to stave off the inevitable. The power of resistance of one tectonic plate was as nothing when in conflict with an entire world. This resistance was finally overcome as the plate moved in the direction it had followed since the beginning of time. It moved anticlockwise or North against a neighbour moving anticlockwise or South. The shift in position was massive even by planetary standards and went on for a combined distance of half a mile.
Yet this was only a measurement of movement in one direction and other movements had to be taken into account. Apart from linear displacement there was also a measure of vertical displacement. In this case, the Almasia-Nor tectonic plate descended and was overridden by the Eastern Oceanic plate for a combined height of seven hundred feet. On the ocean's surface, along a front of several hundred miles, the water above the faultline found itself suddenly thrust almost seven hundred feet into the air on one side of the fault. Released from and then subjected to the forces of gravity, countless billions of tons of water raced to re-establish its level and in doing so created the biggest tidal wave ever witnessed by the planet. Unknown to life on the coast of Almasia-Nor the tidal wave began to move Westwards, gathering speed and power with each passing mile.
(Continued in Part 21)
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