This novelette (13,500 words) originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Analog.
We Will Wake Among the Gods, Among the Stars
by Caroline M. Yoachim & Tina Connolly
Nanne was not one to take anything on faith. She had doubted her cousin, Catherine, when she’d claimed that the Loresian Isthmus had been underwater in ancient times. But now, looking at the lake in the center of the jungle, she believed. The water was clouded with blue-purple algae, and along the muddy shoreline were thousands of strange amphibians — slimy creatures with ten legs and feeler-fronds on both sides of their bulbous heads. Their limbs were striped with the reds and yellows commonly displayed by toxic ocean creatures. Everything that came from the sea was inedible to humans, but bright markings in the warmer hues indicated levels of toxicity that were dangerous even to the indigenous life forms.
She sketched one of the creatures onto a blank page of her notebook. She labeled the drawing ‘amphibious cephalopod’ and scrawled her notes beneath it, cataloguing details of size and coloration. In the space below she could analyze the movement and behavior of the —
“Come on, Nanne. We’ve lingered here long enough. The men are restless.”
Nanne had been so engrossed in her observations that she hadn’t noticed Henri come up beside her. Her husband was dressed in full armor, despite the heat, to set an example for his men. The gold-plated leather looked heavy and uncomfortable.
“But Catherine was right,” Nanne said. “The isthmus was –”
She stopped suddenly, realizing that she could not share her evidence with Henri without giving away the true purpose of the journey. If she explained that the peninsula had been an island three thousand years ago, he could hardly help but conclude that they were searching for the fabled lost Seventh City, on the Southern Isle.
Henri interpreted her sudden silence as a different guilt. “You are right to stop yourself. Just think if my men had heard you expressing doubt in Queen Catherine. She may be your cousin, but she is the ruler of Deleon and the head of the church. To doubt her is both treason and heresy.”
Nanne remembered when Catherine was eight, and the two of them had fallen into the lake. Catherine had insisted that since she would one day become queen, the gods would hold her up so that she could walk on the surface of the water. Catherine was a grown woman now, and queen, but because of that childhood memory, Nanne could not take every word she spoke as truth. But she knew better than to say so to Henri.
“Could I stay behind, only for a little longer, while the soldiers clear the path?” Nanne asked. “These creatures are fascinating.”
“Those heathen beasts are a blight against the Seven Gods,” Henri said, holding out his hand to help her up. “If a creature isn’t mentioned in the Manual, we have no need to study it. Put your notebook away and come along.”
She took his hand and he deftly pulled her up. She leaned against his chest for a moment to steady herself and felt the warm metal of his armor. “You must be roasting.” She brushed her fingers against his neck where chafing from his leather collar had left his skin irritated and red. She didn’t expect an answer, and didn’t get one. Henri would never admit to such weakness.
“Come,” he said, turning.
Nanne slid the notebook into her pack, and with a reluctant glance backwards at the amphibious cephalopods she followed Henri to the edge of the trees, where the other soldiers hacked at the undergrowth with machetes. Henri was impossible to argue with these days. Ever since Jeffy died, everything was about the Seven Gods. The red plague that took their son was the divine will of the gods, part of some higher purpose. It comforted him to think that way. How could she argue with that?
She hung back and walked with the pack mules. The oppressive heat of the afternoon faded, and the bugs came out in full force. Clouds of mosquitoes filled the air. The soldiers were protected by thick armor, but the fabric of Nanne’s shirt was thin and light. She got a vial of oil from her pack and rubbed it over her skin. She had developed the concoction herself, derived from the leaves of the lyptus tree. The leaves were toxic to most bugs, and the oil kept them away. It also had an unpleasant smell, which kept the soldiers away.
She’d lost sight of the men, but she could hear the thwack of their machetes. Henri would be behind the front line, watching the men for signs of heat exhaustion and rotating fresh soldiers for the tired ones. He took good care of his men, and he was their sympathetic ear as they complained of foot rot and insects and humid heat. Henri hated the jungle more than any of them. He was a man of formalities and order. When they’d first married, she’d brought him into Catherine’s court. It should have been an excellent match for them both, a top general and the cousin of the queen.
Nanne, however, had never been comfortable with the tedious dance of precedence that governed life at court. She came from a family of academics, and they remained in Deleon only because it was the best place to study the history and ancient relics left behind by the gods. Not so for Henri. He understood immediately the rules, the maneuverings that governed life among those who curried favor with the queen. He could not understand why Nanne refused to play by those same rules.
For a moment, she closed her eyes and listened to the heartbeat of the jungle — chirping crickets, buzzing flies, the calls of various birds and frogs. None of them were the “blessed” creatures brought here by the Seven. The jungle was rich with fascinating heathen life. Nanne could have spent her whole life studying the first mile they’d crossed, but Henri would not slow the pace for her. He and his men thought they were looking for gold.
A small animal snuffled its way out into the path the soldiers had cleared. Porcine, judging from the snout, but smaller than the pigs that Nanne had seen in the farmlands surrounding Deleon. It snorted and scratched at the thin jungle soil with one hoof.
Nanne was digging through her pack for her notebook when the animal let out a loud squeal. It charged in her direction. There was an arrow embedded in its flank. She jumped aside as it ran past.
A soldier approached, smirking, amused that Nanne was startled. He trudged up to her, following the dying animal so he could collect it. At the sight of her open notebook he stopped and sneered. “We can’t eat pictures of animals for supper. If you won’t hunt, you could at least break camp.” She stiffened, backing up a step.
Henri suddenly appeared behind him. “Martin, we might be in the middle of the gods-forsaken jungle, but my wife is still a lady, and the cousin of the queen.”
“Sorry, sir,” Martin said stiffly. “Please except my apologies, ma’am.” He gave her an exaggerated bow and hurried after his prey.
“Thank you,” she said to Henri. His moral rectitude was hard to take sometimes, but it was also comforting. She could always count on him.
“I will not tolerate base behavior from my unit, and you are still a lady, even if you insist on traipsing through the jungle like a man.”
Nanne closed her notebook and ran her fingers over the smooth leather cover. Henri’s words stung, but she wasn’t in the mood to fight. Up ahead, several of the other men had cleared a camp and started a bonfire. The heat was unpleasant, but the smoke kept the insects and larger animals at bay.
One of the soldiers cleaned the pig and hacked the carcass into smaller pieces, which he threw into their cookpot to stew. The men were in good spirits — the fresh meat would be a welcome change from the dried rations they’d been eating. Even Nanne found her mouth watering at the smell of it, though she would have liked to study the animal first. She wondered how it had survived here in the jungle, where nearly all the plants were native to the planet. Pigs were blessed animals, brought by the original settlers. The pigs back home stayed alive only on a steady diet of farmed foods; they couldn’t forage on anything but cultivated land.
While they waited for the meat to cook, Henri got out his Manual and beckoned for everyone to gather around.
“On this night,” Henri said, “when the jungle keeps us isolated from civilization, I have taken our reading from the very beginning of the book of life, the story of creation. May the words of this prayer guide us on our Queen’s holy mission to recover the lost gold and offer it up to the gods. By following the will of the Seven, we may one day earn a place among them, as is promised in the sacred Manual.”
He turned his attention to the book before him and began to speak, slow and deliberate, as though he was translating the old language of the scripture into spoken words the soldiers could understand. Nanne knew the language from her scientific studies at the court, but as far as she knew he did not. Like many pious men, he had learned all the stories by rote from a preacher in Deleon, already translated into the modern tongue. “The seven cities of man descended from the sky, each surrounded by a sphere of cleansing flame. Six cities on the Great Continent, and one on the Southern Isle.”
Did Henri suspect the true goal of their mission? Was that why he chose this reading on this night?
“On the continent,” Henri continued, “the land was purified by the fire and made ready for the seeds of the gods. People spilled forth from the cities and labored in the fields until all the continent was vibrant and green. They raised all manner of animals, and because they bowed to the will of the gods, they were prosperous.”
Nanne looked at the chunks of pig meat, simmering in the stew pot. None of them had any doubt that the pig was edible, just as she had been certain the amphibious cephalopods were toxic. Any creature named as food in Henri’s Manual could be eaten, even if it looked different here in the jungle than it did on a farm. Henri would claim that as proof the gods existed, but Nanne thought it meant something more. She wasn’t sure quite what, but the overall familiarity of the pig, and yet its slight differences — it had to mean something. She took out her notebook and began to make notes, in the ancient written language of Henri’s Manual, for the spoken word was poorly suited to writing. Henri continued his reading, but she tuned out the words. She knew the story anyway — while the people of the continent labored to create the farmlands, the people of the Southern Isle turned their backs on the will of the gods.
Catherine believed that the Seventh City was here, that the end of this peninsula had once been the fabled Southern Isle. She was not the first to think such a thing — the tomes of history in the great library told of an exploring party sent forth five centuries ago, by King Loren, for whom the isthmus was named. Before they embarked, Nanne had read everything she could find about the previous expedition–fifty soldiers who had marched down the isthmus into the jungle, laden with gold, an offering to the seventh god, Lady Death. There was no mention of their return in any of the histories. A second expedition, several decades later, also vanished.
A rustle in the bushes drew her attention. She peered in that direction, hoping to see another of the unusual pigs, but she saw nothing. The day’s light was fading, and Nanne was far enough from the fire that her pages were hard to see. She unhooked the light-catcher from her pack. All through the day, the opalescent ovoid had absorbed the suns rays. Now, she pressed her palm against its flat base and it released enough light to illuminate the pages of her notebook. The device was an ancient, sacred object, a relic from the ancient silver tower at the heart of Deleon. Catherine had given it to Nanne as a wedding gift, and had given Henri an identical light.
The light flickered on her page like blue-tinged firelight. She had taken it apart to try to figure out how it worked, and though she had managed to put it back together, the light had never been as constant since. Henri had been furious. The light-catcher came from one of the seven cities of the gods that were described in his Manual. It made the device a sacred object, not something to be understood by mere humans.
The camp was quiet. Henri was no longer reading aloud. His attention had been drawn by her flickering light. He did not meet her eyes, but instead stared at her open notebook.
The men noticed the direction of Henri’s gaze and began to fidget and whisper amongst themselves. Henri approached her, his brow pulled into a harsh frown. Even under other circumstances he hated Nanne’s light catcher because its flickering was a reminder of her heretic ways. Now, in the middle of prayer and in front of his men, Nanne feared that he would take it from her, perhaps even destroy it.
“Nanne,” Henri said, softly. “I fear for you. Please, put the notebook away, and join us again for the reading and our prayer.”
His frown had faded, and his voice was so gentle. The muscles around his mouth softened.
If only Jeffy had lived, she thought. If Jeffy had not succumbed to the red plague, Henri would not have thrown himself so forcefully into his religion. What could their marriage have been? Henri had been such a breath of air when he arrived at the court — a man of honor in the middle of lies, trickery, machinations. She had fallen in love with him for his honor, for his fervent desire to do the right thing. She had not seen how that could harden into something so rigid, so . . . unthinking. Her father had warned her, but she hadn’t believed him.
Nanne closed her notebook and turned off her light-catcher. She could finish her notes after prayer.
Henri held out his hand, palm up.
Nanne looked at him.
“The light catcher,” he said.
“Was a wedding gift,” Nanne said, trying to keep her voice as soft as his, “from the queen to me.”
A flicker of anger crossed Henri’s face, but before he could answer, a whoop came from the periphery of the camp. The sentry had spotted something. The men rushed toward the sound, and Nanne followed. She heard the twang-whoosh of an arrow, followed by a human scream.
Henri shouted orders to his men, setting some to guard the camp before hurrying into the woods with several of the others. The clatter and stamp of their feet died away into the jungle. There was silence, and then Nanne heard something rustling through the dense undergrowth of the jungle. She knew better than to leave the camp, but she went to the periphery of their clearing, not far from where Gray stood watch. He was one of the quiet ones, an older man who’d kept to himself for much of the expedition. He kept his gaze fixed on the jungle before him, his hand on his bow.
Another rustle in the undergrowth, and Nanne caught a glimpse of two ghostly figures running through the trees off in the distance, carrying a third pale body between them. An arrow protruded from the chest of the one being carried. In the dim light, and at such a great distance, it was impossible for Nanne to tell whether the injured ghost was alive or dead.
Nanne called out to Gray, but by the time he came, the ghosts were gone. The remaining men lit torches and searched the area. By the time Henri and his men returned they were hot and tired, cross from uncertainty and fear. Weeks and weeks of seeing nothing bigger than a pig, and now –?
“Nothing,” Henri said.
“Oh, but we saw something . . .” Nanne trailed off.
Gray explained what Nanne had seen, and why he had ordered his own, fruitless search. Henri looked at Nanne in silence while the men shifted uncomfortably.
“Double the guards,” said Henri at last. “Everyone else to their tents.”
Nanne walked, alone, to their tent.
It was late when Henri came to bed. Nanne drew aside the insect netting and then repositioned it as he began to take off the plated leather pieces he wore. She supposed that, despite the heat, they were useful against the heathen beast and insect bites. He hung his vest and gauntlets to air out overnight, and handed her his boots so that she could oil them.
She let the silence hang between them until she could no longer bear it, then said, “Who fired the shot?”
“Jon.” Henri didn’t look at her as he spoke, but instead carefully inspected his feet for any sign of jungle rot. “He said he saw . . . a ghost. Lit. Illuminated by holy blue fire, he said.”
The “ghosts” she’d seen had been pale, not glowing, but she knew better than to interrupt.
“Jon rightly fired his arrow. But when it struck the ghost, he saw red blood. The ghost screamed. More ghosts came, glowing with the blue fire.” He applied a salve to an irritated red area along the edge of his left foot. “When we arrived with our torches, the ghosts were gone.”
“Do you truly think they were ghosts?” said Nanne.
“Men bleed,” Henri said. He stretched out on the cot and stared up at the top of the tent. “Still. Jon found their pale color strange.”
“Perhaps they are pale from living in darkness,” she said. “That happens with fish and grubs.”
“I try to be a good man,” said Henri. “I do not consider myself superstitious. I try to be righteous.” He closed his eyes. “Wife, you have the scholarly background.”
“Yes,” she said, so pleased that he would ask her opinion.
“Don’t you think it’s peculiar that these ghosts would turn up right in the middle of our prayer?”
“I . . . I don’t know,” she said. His question made her wonder — had the ghosts seen her light, and recognized it for what it was?
His eyes opened and he found hers. “I am responsible for many people, Nanne,” he said. “Not just for you, but for everyone here. For their bodies. For their honor. For their souls.”
She was tempted to tell him everything, to come clean about the true purpose of their visit. These ghosts had to be the people of the seventh city, making use of the ancient relics just as she made use of her lightcatcher. She put down his boot, aware that her fingers were shaking. “Henri –”
“Do not tempt the gods to punish us further,” he said quietly. He closed his eyes and laced his fingers on his chest. Even sleep conformed to Henri’s plans, and in a moment, he was snoring softly.
In the morning, Nanne woke to the bustle of men packing away bedrolls and tents. She was alone in the tent; Henri had already gone. It was earlier than the men usually broke camp, and still dark. Many of the men looked as though they hadn’t slept. Nanne packed away her things and ate one of the stale biscuits being passed around.
Henri was talking with several soldiers near the edge of camp, reconfirming their location on his maps and preparing for the day’s travel. Henri gave the signal to move as soon as the first light of dawn filtered down through the dense vegetation, and the men wielded their machetes with nervous energy, all of them watching for any sign of last night’s ghosts.
Nanne trailed behind, as always, but stayed closer than usual. Morning brought the usual cacophony of bird calls, shrieks and trills and warbles. There were so many unfamiliar birds here in the jungle that it was hard for Nanne to figure out which bird made which sound, though she tried to catalog them in her notebook. This morning, she heard a two-toned whistle that seemed to echo everywhere through the trees. It sounded like a bird, but not like any of the ones she’d catalogued. She was searching the lower levels of the canopy when she realized that everyone had stopped.
“Do not attack unless I give the word,” Henri said. Several of his soldiers raised their bows, but no one fired.
They were surrounded by pale-skinned figures, clearly the “ghosts” that Jon had seen last night, but in the light of day they were definitely human. Nanne studied the group carefully. Most of them had red hair and grey eyes, both rarities back home. Their clothing was simple and utilitarian, lighter than what the soldiers wore and devoid of adornment. The drab grey-green color reminded her of the jumpsuits that the priests wore back home, although these outfits were two separate pieces, shirts and pants in the identical color.
Strangest of all were the ghosts’ faces. Their mouths and noses were covered by masks that were transparent as glass and yet flexible enough to move in and out as they breathed. It made them look as though they were underwater, their breath leaving them in bubbles, except that the bubbles clung to their faces and did not float away.
One of the redheads stood slightly closer than the others, directly in the path that the soldiers were clearing. Their leader, Nanne decided.
He was looking directly at her.
Her heart pounded in her chest. He was looking at her, but it wasn’t a hungry expression, not like some of Henri’s men. Even with half his face covered, she felt sure of that. He had a young, open face. His eyes fell to the journal she carried. She stuffed the journal in her pack.
These ghosts had to be the people of the seventh city, the ones that Catherine had sent her to find. She raised her hands high and wide in the universal greeting of the church, and walked towards the ghost.
Henri stepped in front of her, blocking her. “I lead this expedition.”
“But I am the scientist. Who knows how these people might communicate?”
Calmly, so calmly, she said, “Besides. You are a soldier. He will not feel so threatened by a woman.”
Henri did not answer, but stepped aside. His lips were pressed tight. He had never fully gotten used to the freedoms of the royal family, to the idea that intellectual pursuits might take a woman into situations more risky than mending dresses. But it was more than that. The core of his nature was the urge to protect, and not just her. He did the same for his soldiers. If you understood someone, then you had to forgive them — didn’t you? She touched his arm gently, a wordless acknowledgement of his worry, and continued on.
She stopped a dozen feet away from the pale-skinned leader, about halfway between him and Henri. Far enough away that Henri and his men might be able to intervene if he rushed her. Perhaps.
“Nanne,” she said, tapping her forehead to indicate that the sound was her name.
“Name-of-calling mine is Paul,” the pale-skinned leader said, his voice slightly muffled by the strange mask he wore.
Nanne stared. The man had spoken so softly that probably, hopefully, she had been the only one to hear. This man, who called himself by one of the god-names, was speaking the written language.
“Paul.” The man said again, louder and more slowly.
Nanne glanced over her shoulder and was relieved to find Henri nodding as he heard that word. He noticed her attention and called out, “Go on. I am encouraged that even here they know the name of a god. Are these people descended from survivors of the lost expedition? I did not realize that they had taken women with them.”
Nanne doubted that either of the prior expeditions had taken even one woman, much less enough to maintain their population for several generations, but she did not say so to Henri. It made as good a cover as anything else. The only logical explanation for the presence of these strange ghostly people was the existence of the Seventh City.
Paul pulled off his shirt, revealing a small white scar. A woman standing to his right held up both halves of a broken arrow, and Paul said, “I forgive you for the violence you did to me, but please know that we will not tolerate any future attacks.”
It had to be a trick, another man with a wound in a similar place. Nanne glanced back at Henri’s men. “Jon, do you recognize him?”
“It was dark, and they all look about the same.”
Paul shrugged and put his shirt back on. He brushed his hand across his forearm, a gesture that Nanne did not recognize. Then he turned and began to walk away. He turned back and frowned.
“Follow?” His voice held a question, though she did not know whether he was asking for her compliance or uncertain of the word.
“He wants us to follow,” Nanne told Henri.
Nanne started after Paul, and Henri’s men followed her several paces back.
Paul’s companions closed their circle tighter and some of them got out shining silver sticks. Weapons? They didn’t look sharp, but they had an aura of threat about them nonetheless.
Paul beckoned to Nanne a second time, and this time she followed alone. This was the reason Catherine had sent her, to find the Seventh City and to gain whatever knowledge she could. Judging from the masks and the wands, the ancient relics of their tower had not been so badly damaged as the six great cities of the continent.
Catherine had suggested that the towers of the great cities could one day return to the stars, and seeing so much evidence of the ancient technologies, Nanne felt the tiniest flickering of hope that it might be true. She knew she should feel apprehensive, leaving the protection of her husband’s men, but instead she felt strangely liberated. Reckless. Free.
Henri would be furious.
Paul led Nanne along a trail that wound around trees and dense patches of vegetation. Two of his pale companions followed at a respectful distance, far enough back that Nanne occasionally lost sight of them, but never for long.
“To where are we going?” Nanne whispered the question to herself, practicing the sounds of the words. She glanced over her shoulder to make certain that Henri wasn’t within earshot. She wasn’t sure he’d be able to forgive her for the presumptuousness of speaking the written language. Stumbling over the words, she repeated her question loud enough for Paul to hear.
“Do you not seek gold?” Paul replied.
Their path climbed up the side of a rocky ledge, to a mesa that overlooked the jungle. A wave of heat hit them as they climbed up above the shade of the jungle trees. Nanne wiped away the sticky beads of sweat on her forehead. Paul seemed unaffected by both the sun and the exertion of climbing. The mask over his face bubbled in and out in the same slow and constant rhythm, and his pale skin did not glisten in the bright sun.
From the top of the mesa, Nanne could see how far away from home she really was — the isthmus stretched like a thin strand of spider silk, halfway to the horizon where it met the great continent. A great plumed bird she had never seen before swooped in front of her, settling on a branch in plain view. Automatically she reached for her notebook. But no, she was not here for that. Reluctantly she tucked it away again, turning to Paul.
“You were drawing last night?” he asked. “With a solar-powered lamp?”
“Writing,” she admitted. She wondered if he had been spying on her, and remembered the rustling noise she’d heard in the bushes.
He nodded in satisfaction. “You study,” he said. “They want gold, but you. . . .”
“I study, yes,” she said.
“My older sister was like you,” he said softly, and for the first time she thought how young he was to be their ambassador. “I studied the old words, but she studied the animals. She would have liked to see what you have seen.”
Nanne noticed the past tense, but did not know what to say.
“This we offer in trade to you,” he said, gesturing with a sweep of his arm at the ruins of a large building. “You may look, but do not touch.”
Nanne approached the ruins, huge slabs of stone that were too gray to have come from anywhere near the mesa. The near side of the building had collapsed, but as she circled around, she was able to see through an open archway. The entire structure was piled high with gold. “We have little to offer in exchange for such treasures.”
“We do not seek material goods. We seek knowledge,” Paul replied, studying her carefully. “We require only that you spend a few days in our company.”
“You want for us to stay with you, and in exchange we shall receive this gold?” Nanne asked.
“Us is many. Not the right word for what I am asking,” Paul said. “We do not want all. Only one.” He beamed at her behind the clear mask. “You.”
Her gut told her that Paul could be trusted, but her brain told her there was something decidedly wrong with the proposal. Was this the gold from the previous expeditions? And if so, what had happened to the soldiers that had brought it here?
Dark clouds blew inland from the sea, and Nanne welcomed the respite from the unrelenting sun. Every insect and bird in the entire jungle seemed to agree with her, chirping and buzzing in cacophonous anticipation of rain.
Nanne made her way back to her husband and his men. She retraced her path back to the camp alone; Paul had taken a different path, down the far side of the mesa. He had explained, patiently but firmly, that the soldiers must not, under any circumstances, go down that path.
She assumed the path led to the remains of the Seventh City, and tomorrow she would have the opportunity to go there. To Henri, the gold was the treasure, but the Seventh City — they might have technology there that had been lost to the continent for centuries. That was what Catherine had sent her for. If she could study their surviving relics, she might be able to restore some of the broken artifacts that Catherine kept on display in the museum at the base of the great silver towers of Deleon.
“I’m hopeful for the expedition, although I fear that sending you off with that straight-laced husband of yours will end poorly,” Catherine had said. They had been sitting in Catherine’s library — Nanne comparing her sketches of a lizard to images in an interdicted heathen journal, Catherine sifting through dispatches from the hospital.
“He gets caught up in his religion, but he’s a good man. Perhaps we should tell him the true nature of our expedition,” Nanne suggested. Like Nanne’s father, Catherine had never been that fond of Henri. Nanne thought she gave him too little credit.
“Reclaiming gold that rightfully belongs to the gods is a quest that is consistent with his beliefs,” Catherine said. “Reviving the ancient technology, well, if he sees you figuring out to how to work new relics, he’d likely burn them rather than bring them back. He can’t see beyond his faith.”
“Do you believe in the gods?” Nanne said.
Catherine sighed, ran her fingers through her falling-down hair, and held a sheet of the new rough paper over to Nanne. “Look at those deaths,” she said. “The plague is burning through the city. This isn’t the first time it has happened.”
Nanne nodded. “And if there are gods, why would they allow such suffering?” She had heard all the arguments growing up.
Catherine smiled wryly. “Perhaps the gods are telling us that they would like a hospital built in their honor,” she said. “You see how useful Henri’s gold will be.”
“Father always said the gods were a useful fiction for the country,” said Nanne. “That men wrote the Manual, once, to keep us safe.”
“I agree with him,” said Catherine. “Time has taught me that, and experience, and years of wading through these beastly documents. The Manual is clear and concise and it explains things that even someone with little learning can understand. A list of ‘blessed’ plants. A list of ‘heathen’ animals. You can memorize things and be safe. Until . . . .”
“Until the plague comes,” said Nanne bitterly. “Why doesn’t Henri’s precious Manual tell us how to deal with plague? Why doesn’t it give details on how to avoid it? It specifies everything else under the sun.”
“There may well be gods,” said Catherine. “But they didn’t write the Manual.” She looked at Nanne soberly. “Or if they did, they left too much out.”
At the base of the rocky path, Henri waited, his path to the mesa blocked by a row of ghostly soldiers, standing motionless except for the steady undulation of their translucent masks. They parted to let Nanne through, and Henri rushed forward to meet her.
Silently, the ghost-soldiers vanished into the jungle.
“Thank the gods,” Henri said, pulling her into a tight embrace. “You shouldn’t have left our sight. These damned ghosts wouldn’t let us follow, although if you’d been gone much longer –”
“They wish to trade,” Nanne said, not wanting to hear what Henri would have done if she had not returned. She was impressed, on reflection, that he had not taken action sooner — the hike up and down the mesa had taken several hours. “They have the gold that we are seeking. If you wish, we can go to the top of the mesa so that you and the men can inspect it.”
“I knew it,” Henri said. “They must be descendants of the lost expedition. And what is it they want in exchange?”
Nanne paused, making sure none of the other men were listening. “Me. For three days time.”
Henri scowled. “You? What do they want with you? I will not trade my wife away for gold. And you even consider this? Are you a whore, to sell your body for gold?”
Henri’s voice had grown loud, and a few of his men were close enough to hear. Nanne blushed bright red. “I’m a scientist. They want to trade knowledge. That you imply otherwise shows your low regard for my person and my honor.”
Without a word, Henri gathered up a team of men to inspect the ruins at the top of the mesa. She didn’t want him to leave her in anger, even just to the top of the mesa. Paul had invited them to inspect the gold, but what if it was some sort of trap? Warning Henri of danger would do no good, not when she had nothing but a bad feeling. There had to be a way to stall them until it was too dark, to make them wait until dawn. Before the men could leave, Nanne called out. “I would give a prayer, before you go.”
Henri had no choice but to turn and respond. “We will lose the light.”
“If you cannot stop for prayer,” Nanne said, “have you not already lost the light?”
She couldn’t help but feel satisfied at using his own tactics against him. If her plain and simple words made him angry, perhaps he could understand her through the words of his damned religion. “I would tell the story of the Hundred Years’ Drought.”
The prayer began as prayers often did, “The seven cities of man descended from the sky, each surrounded by a sphere of cleansing flame. Six cities on the Great Continent, and one on the Southern Isle.”
Henri’s men stopped what they were doing, amazed that a woman — a woman who had shown so little interest when Henri had led them in prayer — could recite from memory one of the blessed tales. Henri frowned, unsure of her motives. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The deep resonant sound gave Nanne the courage to continue. Even angry, Henri would not order his men to hike to the mesa in a thunderstorm.
“If an egg falls from a nest, high in the branches of a tree, it is often broken. So too when a city falls from the sky,” Nanne continued. “The seven cities of man were filled with wonders beyond our imagination, but when they fell to earth, much was broken.”
The soldiers nodded as she spoke, familiar with the story of the prayer. She described for them the wonders that were lost — machines that made water out of thin air, pods that healed wounds and restored health, communication devices so powerful that words spoken on the continent could be heard as far away as the Southern Isle.
“On the continent, the people shared the surviving relics amongst all the cities, and preserved the words of the seven gods. People traveled between the cities and intermingled until all the continent was a single People. The children of the gods. They shared all manner of knowledge, and because they bowed to the will of the seven, they were prosperous.”
Fat drops of rain began to fall, running down Nanne’s face. “The people of the Southern Isle turned their backs on the will of the gods. They did not share their knowledge, or their relics, and their people did not intermingle with the people of the continent. When the gods sent the hundred years’ drought, the people of the Southern Isle were lost, and the people of the continent were saved.”
“It was faith that saved the people of the continent,” Henri said.
“Faith led them to share their knowledge, and knowledge saved them,” Nanne countered. “The word of the seven is that we share our knowledge with all people. Strange though these ghosts may be, they are still our people. They have offered us a way to fulfill the will of the gods and obtain the gold Catherine sent us to seek — all without bloodshed.”
The rain came in full force now, and at a nod from Henri all the men not on guard duty sought shelter in their tents. For a moment, Nanne and Henri stood in the rain, their clothes turning dark and heavy as the warm water soaked in.
“You have cost us the light.” Henri said, unwilling to let go of his anger, even knowing that with the storm they were better off in camp than halfway up the rocky path to the mesa. If anything it probably made him angrier, knowing the mistake she’d saved him from.
“The gold will wait until morning,” Nanne said.
The heavy rains continued throughout the night, and in the morning Nanne’s boots squelched in the mud as she tramped off downwind of camp to relieve herself. Her rainslick kept her mostly dry, but water ran down from the hood and along the sides of her face. Like everything in the jungle, the rain was warm. Nanne missed the cooler weather of the continent.
Henri, having taken a double shift of watch during the night, was still in their tent when she returned, inside his sleeping skins, but awake. “The sticks the ghosts carry are one of the weapons described in the Manual,” he said, staring at the ceiling as though he were simply thinking aloud. “We do not have the men to fight against such things, not armed with swords and bows and knives. If we do not wish to return empty handed, we will have to trade.”
“I believe that is so,” Nanne said carefully.
“But it is strange for them to have those weapons,” he said, rolling the idea around and around. “Tell me, wife, do you know from your studies with Catherine if those weapons are lost treasures of our country? Would the previous expedition of five centuries ago have been armed with them?”
Nanne shook her head, unwilling to lie. “I don’t think so,” she said.
“Then they must have found them down here,” he said. “A gift from the gods. If that is so, then Catherine may well wish to organize a second expedition, to come back and retrieve them. They rightfully belong in her tower.”
“But how would you seize them, if you did return?” Nanne pointed out.
He nodded. “A curious puzzle. Perhaps we would have a scholar study the Manual for us, and discover if there are any hints from the gods as to how to reclaim them.”
“I could –”
“Not you. By all the seven gods, not you.” He swung his long legs to the floor and came to where she was packing. He took her gently by the shoulders, his eyes filled with sadness. “I fear for you.”
“They made no move to harm me yesterday,” Nanne said, careful to hide all emotion from her voice. She did not know which would be more dangerous for Henri to see — her excitement at the prospect of seeing the Seventh City, or her apprehensions about the ghost-people’s intentions.
“There are so many things we do not know,” said Henri with a sweep of the hand. “These are only my guesses, that these men are descendants from the last expedition. That they are honorable and truly wish to trade gold for knowledge. That they will be honorable toward you. What kind of man am I to let you take this risk?”
“A brave one,” she said softly. “One who knows this is the only way.”
He looked at her a long time before he gently kissed the top of her head, like a child. Then he left the tent to stand his shift on guard.
The soldiers broke camp, and with Henri in the lead the entire group made their way up the steep rocky path to the top of the mesa. The rocks were slick with rain and the sections that had been dry dirt yesterday were now slimy mud. The going was slow, and at Henri’s insistence, Nanne remained in the center of the group. Despite Henri’s admission that their weapons were not enough to fight against the blessed weapons of the ghosts, he did what he could to protect her.
Paul waited alone at the top of the mesa, not far from the partially collapsed ruins that housed the gold. He waved excitedly to Nanne. She wondered if he had been chosen as an ambassador, despite his youth, because of his skill with the old language. He was the only one who had spoken to her so far — perhaps he was the only one who could.
“I will inspect the gold first,” Henri announced. Without waiting for a response, he took two of his men and approached the ruins. They walked a slow circle around the building, then approached the side where the collapsed wall left an opening large enough to enter. Henri picked up several pieces of gold plating for armor, examined them, then carefully put them back into place. He pulled one coin from a large chest and tested it with his teeth. Satisfied, he nodded and replaced the coin as well.
“The coins are lionhead double-weights, the sort that were circulating when the last expedition left the continent, and the designs on the armor are consistent with that time period,” Henri proclaimed to his men. “This is indeed the gold lost by the previous expedition. This gold will build our Queen’s hospital, the hospital to the glory of the gods.” The men cheered. “All this, and the ghosts will let us take it freely, in exchange for. . . .”
Henri trailed off. Off in the back of the group, one of the soldiers made some snide comment, and a few of the others laughed. Henri strode over and the laughter immediately stopped. As the men parted to let Henri through, Nanne could see that it was Martin who had made the comment.
“What did you say?” Henri demanded.
“Nothing more than you yourself said yesterday,” Martin replied. “The ghosts are trading their gold for your wife.”
Henri drew his sword.
“Stop!” Nanne ran forward. Her husband would defend her honor to his last breath, and he was the stronger swordsman than Martin, but killing a soldier out here in an exposed position would put the entire expedition at risk. And what would the ghosts think of them, if they showed yet another example of violence? The ghosts had been nothing but peaceful, despite the fact that Jon had shot one of them with an arrow that first night.
The interruption was enough for Henri to recognize that this was not the time for duels. “Half rations for the next three days,” he said, “and no whiskey.”
Nanne looked over her shoulder. Paul had not moved, but he had observed the entire exchange. Did he understand their spoken language? His expression was impossible to read, obscured by the distance and the light rain and the strange masks that all the ghosts wore. Nanne wondered what the masks were for. They did not look like any of the ancient technologies that she had ever seen, and yet what else could they be?
“They will give us this gold to buy knowledge. Since the knowledge they seek is science, I will be the one to provide it.” Nanne stared at Martin as she spoke the words, daring him to speak out again and risk further punishment. The man scowled at her, but said nothing.
Nanne touched Henri gently on the cheek as she passed. For a moment, he looked as though he might kiss her, but instead he took her hand, gently, and bowed to press it to his forehead. It was the formal gesture of farewell they used in court, the same gesture he had given Catherine when the expedition departed. He gave his blessing for her to go, despite the risk.
She approached Paul, picking her steps carefully in the slick mud atop the mesa.
She was glad that the rain and the mask would obscure Paul’s broad smile from Henri.
The jungle growth was thick on the far side of the mesa, and though Nanne searched all the way down for some sign of the silver towers, she saw nothing but the broad green leaves of native plants. Paul led her deeper into the jungle than she would have expected. Their path ran alongside a small stream, and Nanne caught several glimpses of a native creature she’d never seen before — a flying creature with leathery green wings and a long narrow tusk directly between its two eyes. She soon realized they came to the stream to hunt the native fish, stalking through the water with their long thin legs before spearing their tusk into the water. The birdlike creatures came back to land to eat their catches, using their feet to pull the fish off of their tusk before swallowing them whole into gaping toothless mouths.
“The batherons are terrible pests. They ate our entire stock of fish.” Paul said, noting her interest. “Do you have them on the continent?”
Nanne shook her head. “We have tamed nearly the entire continent now. The Eastern Burn cleared the last of the native forest for farmland, and there are only a few wild patches in the mountains. And the isthmus, of course.”
Paul nodded. “That is as we expected, based reports from the last expedition.”
“The last expedition was centuries ago, and they never returned,” Nanne said, hoping that Paul would explain why.
“The journey back to the continent is long and difficult,” Paul replied.
Nanne thought about asking more directly about the fate of the last expedition, but several other ghosts joined them, appearing silently from the jungle to either side.
Paul produced a mask, identical to the one he wore. “I will put this on for you. You must not remove it for any reason. If you take it off –” He hesitated for a moment and glanced at one of the other ghosts. “It is a matter of life and death for us. My companions would be forced to kill you, rather than let you harm everyone in the city.”
“What function do the masks have, that makes them so important?” Nanne asked.
“Do you know germs?”
Nanne shook her head.
“Then I cannot explain.” Paul said. “You will have to take it on faith that this mask is necessary.” He pulled the mask over her face. It clung to her mouth and nose, and for a moment she panicked. It was suffocating her. She gasped for breath and grabbed at her face. Paul held her hands away from the mask.
“Breathe normally,” he said. “If you gasp like a fish you will take in too much air. Try not to think of the mask. Look.”
Paul pointed at a clump of vines hanging down from one of the largest trees Nanne had ever seen. The vines bloomed with large purple flowers, and tiny birds flew from blossom to blossom. “My sister studied these vines. They are a fascinating example of symbiosis. Do you know the term? Where plants and animals exist in a mutually beneficial way? The purple flowers attract flocks of birds. Bird excrement fertilizes the soil and feeds the tree. The tree, in turn, sustains the vines. All of the species benefit from the relationship.”
Nanne watched the birds flitting between the flowers. The distraction was enough to draw her attention away from the mask, and by the time she noticed it again, her breathing had returned to a normal rhythm. The mask bubbled out and came back in, and clung oddly to her face, but her panic had subsided. She could bear the mask, though it was unpleasant.
Paul was still holding her hands. She pulled them away, gently. “I will not remove the mask.”
“Good.” He led her further into the jungle, another hour’s walk, to the edge of a clearing. Here, finally, she saw what she was seeking — the huge expanse of silver that only existed in the seven original cities. Unlike the other towers, which were upright, this one had fallen onto its side, rendering it mostly hidden from view beneath the canopy of the jungle trees. A large section of the tower was missing, leaving raw jagged edges of metal that glinted in the sunlight. Nanne found herself deeply disappointed. Foolish though it might be, somewhere in her heart she had hoped that the Seventh City would have both the knowledge and the relics to send their tower back to the stars. It was clear, even to Nanne, that this tower had sustained more damage than any of the six cities on the continent.
At the edge of the clearing, Paul removed his mask, as did the other ghosts. One of the others pulled a native fruit from a pocket in his robes — one of the oblong orange fruits with a sweet floral odor — and began peeling it. Nanne wondered what he was doing. Like all the native plants, the oblong fruits were toxic.
“Remember, do not take the mask off for any reason.” Paul said. Nanne glanced back over her shoulder to see what the other ghost was doing with the fruit, but he and a few of the others had turned to go back into the jungle. One of the remaining two ghosts held her hand over her mouth in mimicry of the bubble mask and glared. Unlike Paul, who seemed friendly, this ghost looked like she’d be more than happy to kill Nanne over any infraction.
Nanne turned her attention back to Paul. “How will I eat?”
His friendly face crinkled again. She felt he was laughing with her, not at her. He seemed delighted that he would be able to teach her things. But when he answered, his words were ominous, incongruent with his smile. “You will not have need to eat while you are here.”
To Nanne’s disappointment, Paul did not take her into the sleek silver building that stretched across the jungle. She had seen inside of the towers of Deleon, and while many of the artifacts did not work, they were a wonder to behold. Her disappointment quickly faded when she stepped inside a mudwall hut with a roof of overlapping broadleaves.
In the center of the hut were a pair of sleek oval pods, each large enough to contain a person.
Nanne stopped on the threshold, her breath caught in her throat. “On the continent, there is an entire room filled with these,” she said. “They do not work. They have never worked. But these. . . .” The oval pods were lit up from the inside with a bluish light. Both were empty. “What do they do?”
Paul smiled at her excitement and gestured for her to take a look.
Nanne walked around the strange pods, noting that thick black cords ran from one end of the pods and across the floor of the mudwall hut, vanishing into the wall. She had seen such cords before, and presumably these stretched all the way back to the ship of the seventh city.
“This is how we will trade knowledge. You will enter the pod.” Paul pointed to one of the pods.
“And you will be in the other pod to receive the knowledge?” Nanne asked.
Paul shook his head. “The knowledge we seek cannot be transferred in this way. We will obtain your body’s knowledge of how to fight against germs that do not exist in our community. The pod will distill that knowledge into vaccinations, and we will inject the knowledge into ourselves.”
Vaccination was a word that Nanne had seen, somewhere in Henri’s Manual, but she could not recall the context. And germs — Paul had mentioned them before but she had no idea what they were. “I still do not understand.”
“There are places in your body that remember how to fight against every sickness you have ever had. This is why people do not get the same sickness twice.”
It was why Nanne could hold her son, even when he was covered in oozing red boils. She’d survived the first wave of red plague when she was young, she still had the small round scars that were left behind when the boils faded. No one ever got the red plague twice, and Nanne had given up her studies to help nurse the sick when the second wave of plague hit.
She stared at the pod. These pods were mentioned in Henri’s prayers–pods that could heal wounds and restore health. If there was a technology that could prevent another plague, she had to learn it. No child should die as Jeffy had, his poor little body shivering despite the swaddling blankets, his eyes so swollen he couldn’t even cry from the pain. She remembered standing with him at the window, his shivering body wrapped in the baby blanket she’d embroidered during the long months she was pregnant. She held him so long that when her arms ached and she was forced to set him in his cradle, the embroidery had impressed the pattern of vines and flowers into her arms. Her son was gone, and she hadn’t even been able to keep the blanket — everything he’d touched once he fell ill had been burned.
Paul paused, perhaps noticing that something about the pods had upset her. “It will take some time for the pod to work, and it will need to take samples of your blood. You won’t be harmed, but it might not be comfortable.”
“If I do this, will you teach me how it works?” Nanne asked.
His face fell. “It is forbidden for me to teach you.” He added quickly, “Besides, there will not be time. When we are finished, you must take your gold and go.”
“So you would turn your back upon the continent and let us die of plagues that could be prevented?” A blind fury shook her. “Henri was right. The Southern Isle has lost the way of the seven gods.”
“The gods?” Paul made a face, as though he wanted to say a million things, but couldn’t. “Your husband worships the captains of spaceships. Men and women, not gods. He believes with blind faith in what little knowledge your fools on the continent did not willfully destroy. Consider, he does not even have the number of gods right. If he does not want to count the Seventh City, he should not count our captain among his gods, correct?”
“And why not?” Another voice came from behind Nanne, speaking the written language. She turned to see an old woman sitting atop some kind of machine. Her face was wrinkled and distorted, and her legs were buried in the machine somewhere. She wheeled into the room and came uncomfortably close to Nanne. “Why should I not be a god?”
“Mother Meredith, please. Leave the poor girl alone.” Paul said.
“This is your mother?” Nanne asked, “and a god?” The name was one of the seven, although Henri often translated it as Lady Death instead of Meredith.
“Mother and Captain to all that live here,” Meredith said. “So he’s probably a descendant of mine somewhere down the line.” It was a phrase Nanne was unfamiliar with, a phrase that was not in the Manual.
“But the cities are three thousand years old,” Nanne protested. “Even with all of the relics in the towers, how could anyone survive that long?”
The old woman grinned. “I almost like you. You’re smarter than the arrogant jerk we brought back from the last expedition.” She looked over at Paul. “He’s taken a shine to you, too. I’m half tempted to let you stay. He had a husband, years ago, but perhaps now he’d like a wife?”
Paul blushed. Nanne only understood about half of what Meredith said. It was not so much the words as the odd way that she combined them. What was a jerk, if not a sudden motion? How was Paul shiny, and could someone really want both a husband and a wife?
Meredith stared at her. “It’s a damned shame you didn’t come on one of the earlier expeditions, I might have married you myself. Now get in the pod.”
Nanne refused to be intimidated by the strange woman, even if she was an ancient god. She drew herself up as straight as Henri. “I will not do this unless you share the cure.”
“We cannot. The Seventh City remains separate to preserve the knowledge and technology we brought with us to this hostile world. If we start sharing everything we know with you uneducated hordes, you’d like as not turn against us and destroy us.”
“If you are not willing to share the cure, I will take off my mask,” Nanne threatened, reaching up to her face. She wasn’t sure she knew how to get the mask off, but it was the only thing she could think of that might change their minds.
Meredith shouted an alarm as Paul’s face fell. “I thought you of all of them would be able to understand and cooperate,” he said.
Two ghosts carrying the silver wands came into the hut. One of them tapped her with a wand, and everything went black.
Nanne regained consciousness inside the pod. She was bathed in blue light, and her body was frozen, locked down by restraints she could not see or feel. Or perhaps the pod had turned her into stone. No, her chest still rose and fell with breath, and her eyes blinked. She was not stone. She simply could not move.
Above her she could see only the roof of the hut, but the occasional movement of shadows in the periphery of her view told her that there was at least one ghost in the room. Was it Paul?
She drifted in and out of wakefulness, kept warm and motionless by the pod that held her. She dreamed of the wild pig Henri’s men had killed. In the dream, the pig climbed a broadleaf tree and ate an oblong orange fruit. The next time she woke, she realized it made little sense: the orange fruits grew on a different sort of tree. A sense of wrongness lingered, and set her to wondering what the pig — the real pig that she herself had eaten without harm — could possibly have eaten to sustain itself here in the jungle. Had these ghosts found a way to make the native plants edible?
The ghosts would learn to fight all of her diseases, and in return all they would get was a pile of gold. Henri would be happy, at least. She wondered if she should tell him what the ghosts knew, if together they could somehow take some of the ghost technology, or at least learn enough to fix the broken relics at home.
It would be worth so much more than gold.
The pod opened with a soft hiss and a young ghost took her hand and helped her out. Her legs were stiff and shaky, and when she stood up she felt lightheaded. “How long was I in the pod?”
The ghost shook his head, unable or unwilling to answer her question.
He wasn’t wearing a clear mask. She brought her hands to her own mouth, but there was no mask there either. What had Paul said about the masks? She was not supposed to take hers off, but she hadn’t. Either they had taken it or it had come off in the pod. The masks did something for germs, and the germs were related to the plagues–
The ghost pulled out a mask from his robe, speaking calmly in the language that she didn’t understand. She reached for the mask, but he shook his head. He pointed to the pod, then to the mask. He looked up at her, and seeing her confusion he shrugged and put the mask away.
He went to the door, but when Nanne tried to follow he shook his head.
Alone in the room, Nanne studied the pods. Like all the other relics, they were complex beyond anything she could hope to truly understand. If her task had been to build a pod from scratch, she would have given up in despair, but the continent had pods. Hundreds of pods. She’d seen them inside the tower. If she could figure out how to repair them, and could link them with a power source. . . .
She needed to sketch the pods, especially the mazes of colored wires beneath the various panels. Her pack was sitting on the floor, open. Someone had rummaged through it, but the notebook was still there.
Nanne worked as quickly as she could, not knowing how long she had until someone came for her. The wiring was complicated, and she was only about halfway through her sketching when she heard someone approaching.
“Meredith said it is time for you to go,” Paul said, standing at the doorway to her hut. He looked down at his hands. “I think if you asked she would allow you to stay.”
Nanne looked up at his concerned face. All signs of his former cheerful inquisitive nature had vanished. “I cannot.” she said finally. “My home is on the continent.”
Paul took her notebook gently from her hands. To Nanne’s surprise, he put it into her pack and helped her sling the pack over her shoulders.
Nanne followed Paul along the path that led back to the mesa. Two other ghosts trailed behind her. Paul spoke briefly about the success of their trade, about the good she had done for the welfare of the people of the Seventh City, but she did not trust the rehearsed words that fell from his lips. If he wasn’t willing to share his technology with her people, he was no friend to her. She noticed that he put his mask back on when they neared the top of the mesa.
“The men may have germs that your body does not know how to fight,” Paul said, catching her glance. “I am safe from you, but from them? I dare not risk it.”
He stopped short of the top of the mesa. He opened his mouth to speak, then glanced over his shoulder at the other two ghosts that accompanied him. His normally cheerful expression darkened into a frown. “This is as far as I will go. Tell the men to gather whatever gold they wish to take and depart.”
Nanne crested the mesa and Henri scooped her up into his arms. Should she tell him of the working relics? She thought of the ghosts with their silver wands and their healing pods. No, swords and bows would be useless against the ghosts, and any attempt to steal the relics would only result in the death of Henri’s men. Better to let Henri believe that they were successful, that all they needed from this mission was a mountain of gold to build Catherine’s hospital.
“We’re done,” Nanne said, “We can take the gold and go.”
“Did they harm you?” Henri asked. He cupped her chin and guided her gaze up to his, searching her eyes. “You seem troubled.”
“I had hoped that they would trade knowledge for knowledge, but this wasn’t the arrangement. They bought my knowledge only with gold.”
Henri nodded. “That was the stated agreement.”
“Yes,” she said. “It was.”
She looked back over her shoulder at the path to the Seventh City. Down that path was the cure to all disease, and the Seven only knew what other technological wonders. So much more than just a hospital. . . . They were so close to everything that she and Catherine had dreamed about, and yet they would leave here with nothing more than a pile of gold.
Henri the order to break camp and prepare for the long march home. His men had built a travois — a platform attached to two long poles and fitted with a harness. The soldiers were loading the platform with gold, and the pack mules would drag the heavy treasure all the long way home.
It would take some time for the men to get everything loaded, so Nanne opened her pack, thinking that she would make some notes on the pod while it was still fresh in her mind. When she opened the pack, she saw a piece of paper filled with slanty handwriting that was not her own.
The gold is tainted with a deadly plague your people do not know. Leave it behind and go. – Paul
Under the notes were several pages of diagrams, printed on the same durable paper as Henri’s Manual, and beneath that a mask like the ones the ghosts wore. Nanne watched in horror as the men finished loading the travois. All of them, even Henri, had handled the gold. The words of warning died on her lips. It was too late to warn them, too late to leave the gold behind, even if she could have convinced them to do it.
Two days into their long march home, the first of the men fell sick. Henri stopped their march and set up camp. Nanne, wearing the mask she’d gotten from the ghosts, tended the poor soldier as best she could. It was Gray, the quiet, older man who’d watched the camp with her the first night they had seen the ghosts. She realized that she did not even know if Gray was his surname or a nickname based on his age.
She pulled out her own ration of water and offered it to him. “Drink this.”
Gray shook his head and mumbled: “Won’t take water from a ghost.”
Nanne put a damp cloth onto the man’s burning hot forehead. “Will you take it if your commander orders it?” she said calmly. She stared the older man down until he reluctantly sipped the water she held out. Then she went and found Henri. “We’re low on fresh water,” she said. “I need to tap more trees.”
“Conscript as many men as you need and take care of it.” Henri replied, not looking up from the inventory he was running. He was worried that they would run out of food. “And take off that mask. Bad for morale.”
“I think the mask will spare me from this plague, and someone must warn the continent of this treachery,” Nanne said softly.
“This isn’t the first of my soldiers to get sick in this godforsaken jungle,” Henri said. Three men had died of fever on the long march down the isthmus, but that had been the swamp sickness — carried by mosquitoes and other biting bugs, uncommon in the drier areas of the continent but not unheard of. What Gray had was different. A fever, yes, but with sores clustered around his eyes and inside his mouth, running down his throat. A disease that seemed to be eating away at him from the inside, and all the men had been exposed, were still exposed. All of them would die out here.
Henri would die.
There had to be a way to save them, but Nanne had none of the technology of the seventh city. She didn’t even have the few medical relics that were available on the continent. “We should turn back and demand a cure from the ghosts.”
“In exchange for what?” Henri asked, angry. “For the gold they do not seem to want? For swords they do not need?”
He lowered his voice. “Besides, we do not need to return. The ghosts have followed us here.”
“To take back the gold when we’ve all died.” Nanne realized.
Henri stared out into the trees, thoughtful. “I was deceived because their leader spoke one of the names of the gods. I thought that they were people of faith, people like me. I should not have trusted them. I should not have let you go. What knowledge did they seek?”
“Knowledge of our plagues,” Nanne admitted.
“So that they could use our plagues against us.” Henri concluded. “Your knowledge has betrayed you, and my faith has betrayed me. Everything that happens is the will of the gods, but if there is a plan in this, I cannot see it.”
Gray died the next day.
By then nearly all the other men had fallen ill, so they couldn’t break camp and continue marching. Henri walked alongside Nanne as she tended the feverish men, and she held to the hope that his body somehow knew how to fight this terrible disease. After the few men well enough to hold down food had eaten their morning meal, Henri called the men to prayer.
“The seven cities of man descended from the sky, each surrounded by a sphere of cleansing flame. Six cities on the Great Continent, and one on the Southern Isle,” Henri spoke the opening words of prayer solemnly. Nanne realized that for some of the men, this would be their final prayer. Henri was offering them what little comfort he could.
“The path of the faithful is not always easy, and the lives of the faithful are not always long. But we needn’t fear when we close our eyes upon this life, for we will wake among the gods, among the stars.”
Henri’s face was flushed with emotion. No, Nanne realized — he was flushed with fever.
He bowed to his men, unbalanced. He nearly fell to his knees, but managed to stand and walk to his tent. Nanne followed him. She ran her fingers along the side of his face, tears streaming from her eyes and rolling down the sides of the translucent film that covered her nose and mouth. It was Jeffy all over again, except this time it would be her husband who died while she stood by, helpless. He had never been the perfect husband for her, but he was a good man, a good leader, a good father.
He spread his bedroll on the ground and sat down on it. “I’m sorry I have failed you. I’m sorry I let you come on this gods-forsaken expedition, and I’m sorry that you’ll be here, alone in the jungle, when all the rest of us have died.”
“Maybe some of you will fight through the illness,” Nanne said, but she didn’t believe her own words. Gray had been old, but even the healthiest of Henri’s men were deteriorating quickly, and nothing Nanne did seemed to slow this terrible disease that devoured flesh from the inside out. Even Henri, newly feverish, had breath that reeked of rot.
Henri shook his head. “I am dying, Nanne. We all are. All but you.”
Throughout the day, Henri’s fever rose, and he repeated the words “I’m sorry” over and over, a mantra, his lips still forming the words even though his eyes were unfocussed and his mind was clearly lost in fever dreams.
Nanne tended the entire camp of men as best she could, tapping all the nearby greenhallow trees and holding cups of water to fevered lips. Seven men died that day, and when night fell she gave up on all the others, dividing the last of the whiskey among them to ease their pain.
She sat at Henri’s side, clasping his hands in hers, speaking softly to him of happier times — of dances in Catherine’s court, of his victories in battle, of the early days with Jeffy, before he fell to plague. Sometime before the dawn, Henri opened his eyes. He looked up at her and whispered words too quiet to hear.
Nanne waited, barely breathing, listening for him to speak.
Instead he closed his eyes, and by morning he was gone.
When all the men were dead, the ghosts came. Nanne didn’t see Paul among them, and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to recognize any of the other ghosts she’d seen. Without a word, they collected all the gold and piled it onto a silver platform that hovered above the ground.
When the gold was loaded, they began moving all the bodies, stacking them in a pile at the center of camp. They collected the tents, too, and all the men’s packs, and threw those onto the pile. They set the pile on fire, a funeral pyre for Henri and his men. Nanne tried to stop them when they took the food, but they drew their silver wands, and while she hesitated her only source of food went up in flames.
The ghosts made no move to harm her as long as she stayed out of the way, but she was no hunter, and the only edible food they’d seen on the entire trek down the isthmus was the pig they’d eaten — had it really only been a week ago? So close to the Seventh City, it had probably been their livestock, escaped from its pen.
But the pig had been healthy, Nanne remembered, not starving or poisoned by the toxins of the native wildlife. It must have had a food source somewhere. If the pig could survive in the jungle, surely she could too.
The ghosts stood around the fire and watched it burn. They made no move to stop Nanne when she left camp, heading north to the continent.
It didn’t take long for Nanne to realize she was being followed. Whoever it was didn’t make much of an effort to be quiet, and after the third or fourth loud crack of a breaking branch Nanne turned and called out, “If we are walking together, you might as well come out where I can see you.”
Paul emerged from the trees. He looked nervous.
She was not sure what she felt. Surprise? Anger? Mostly, nothing. “Thank you for the message and the mask. It saved my life,” she said. “But the warning came too late to save my husband and his men.”
“I did not know,” Paul said fervently. “Not until after you were in the pod. I thought we would make a fair trade, knowledge for gold. I wanted to tell you the warning sooner, but we were never alone.”
Paul scanned the trees behind him, then held out a lumpy bundle wrapped in the same gray-green cloth that the ghosts wore for clothing. Nanne unfolded the cloth and the spicy smell of peppered dried meat nearly made her sneeze. She carefully wrapped the food and put it in her pack. “But why? Why help me?”
His round face set in a firm line. “Because Meredith is wrong,” he said. “She believes that the Seventh City must remain separate to preserve the knowledge and technology we brought with us to this hostile world. But isolation and long life have made the seventh city stagnant, clinging to the past instead of embracing the future. We cannot continue killing your people when they come to our city. There has to be a better way.”
“Come with me, back to the continent,” Nanne said.
Paul shook his head. He knelt on the ground and plucked a leaf from a nearby plant. “This is poison to you.”
Nanne looked at the plant. It was a noxious native weed, one that constantly invaded their fields and stole much needed nutrients from their crops. The leaves were a deep green with a delicate line of purple along their edges, edible to the native wildlife, but deadly poison to humans.
Paul ate the leaf as she stared at him. “We have changed ourselves to suit our environment. Our digestive tracts detoxify the native plants so that we can live like natives on this planet. We are on different paths, you and I, and we must live in different worlds.”
“The livestock, too,” Nanne realized. “You changed the pigs so that they could forage in the jungle. If we hadn’t discarded the pig’s intestines –”
“You likely would have died. Meredith believed it was better to change ourselves than to burn everything to the ground. She is wrong about many things, but she is not all bad.” Paul reached into his pocket and pulled out a small machine, similar in size to her light-catcher. “When you get the pods working, put this into compartment 3B. It will generate the knowledge to fight off all the diseases the Seventh City knows, and you can inject it into your people.”
Paul looked back once more at the jungle behind him, searching for any sign of his fellow ghosts. “Now go. I do not think the others will follow you — they assume that you will starve to death, alone and without a source of food. It is not our way to kill. . . directly. Had I not seen what happened to the men, I would have said it was not our way to kill at all.”
Nanne took the ancient relic, and handled it with all the care that Henri would have, if he were still alive. “How do you know we will not use this cure, and then come back in full force to destroy you?”
“Meredith is three thousand years old,” Paul said, “and despite all our technology she is dying. I do not want to continue her mistakes. I want us to forge a peace with the continent. This is my offering of goodwill.”
Paul bowed to her, a formal bow but different than the gesture she saw so often in Catherine’s court. He turned and disappeared back into the jungle.
Nanne turned north, her pack heavy with food and her heart heavier from the loss of her husband. Yet despite the great weight she carried, she could not help but think of all the possibilities the future held. Nanne had never been one to take anything on faith, but she could hope. Hope that someday the towers would be restored to their former glory, and make the words of Henri’s dying prayer come true. Someday we will wake among the gods, among the stars.