I sat cross-legged on the narrow ledge below the clearing where I had made my bivouac, staring blindly over the ocean far below, seeing nothing except the flow of memories, tumbling blocks of images, which swirled within my mind. Through them, weaving a complex maze of shifting moods, now here, now there, perhaps subconsciously a part of the decision I must make, a piece of music by Y'Tan flowed, deeply inward, first acknowledging, then, after an eternity of struggle, finally accepting, even embracing, the pain of existence, the paradox of humanity. A piece of music I had not understood at the time I first heard it but was beginning to understand now.
Forming a minor counterpoint to my dilemma, adding yet another layer of pain, was the potential barrier, the vast abyss of awareness, that might form between me and my people now that I had regained my memories, understood the true nature of our world. The Donda were the central element in my life, and the life we led as outlaw warriors in the Central Desert -- women who, through one means or another, had escaped captivity and now lived free in spite of the best efforts of those from Port Da'Kal and Eos to recapture or kill us -- was one that perfectly suited my temperament. Or at least it had, before Morgan reintroduced me to various skills I was unaware I possessed; skills that in the distant past, prior to my Awakening, had been an important part of my life. Skills I would now need once again. Or, to be more precise, might need, depending on which way my decision went.
About nine kilometers south, camped by the edge of the beach at the mouth of the narrow valley where the stronghold was located, my three companions waited, allowing me the time of privacy I had requested. They had not asked any questions when I had emerged from the meeting, perhaps seeing from my eyes, my face, my bearing, that something serious had happened, that in some indefinable way I had been changed by what I learned, was now different than when we left our desert home, traveled to this cold, wet, and foggy arctic island. Had, in fact, become...strange. Strange like the messenger who had come to fetch me to the meeting.
How rapidly one's world can fall apart.
It began early one morning in the Central Desert when Ra'Kel, leader of a band that had been on patrol duty in the south, rode up to where my band was hunting bearing the news that an old man with the scent of strangeness was waiting for me at our home tents, one who claimed he had a message of extreme urgency that required my immediate attention. A stranger that made one feel edgy and uncomfortable.
"How did he find our camp?" I asked, looking up from the tonga I had shot just before dawn, dagger in hand, blood up to my wrists. Beside me Ly'is calmly lay, gazing off into the distance with that abstracted, sleepy look she got whenever someone not of my immediate band came within striking distance. If you didn't know her, you might think she wasn't paying attention, was dreaming whatever dreams diaks dreamed. If you did know her, you knew her look meant danger, that she was following my thoughts, in tune with my emotions, ready to attack if the signal were to come. Between her paws, apparently no longer of interest, were five or six kilos of raw meat, still warm from the hunt, the remains of her breakfast.
Within my mind, pervading the scene -- the desert brush, the towering buttes, the deep red of the soil, the members of my band moving about in the early-morning light of our home star dressing out their kills, Ra'Kel's two companions waiting politely a short distance away -- was the warmth, the feeling of belonging, of isness, that was such an integral part of an'tala. It gave a sense of being connected to our world, our lives, the desert, on many different levels, of being part of the infinite rhythms of life, of existence.
Ra'Kel, an old friend, skin dark and beautiful as the night, teeth flashing, hair wild about her shoulders, grinned at Ly'is, understanding well her nature, liking her, then shrugged, her diak shifting under her, coat slicked with sweat. "We found him five days out, on foot and unarmed, walking directly toward us. My band is now scouring the area he came from, seeking danger, but his tracks indicate he was alone." She shook her head, added, "It's a miracle he's still alive. And a question as to whether he should remain so." She spit downwind, the dust from her long ride heavy upon her, added, "I don't like this."
I nodded, and we returned with her, my band and I riding in past the milling crowd of warriors and diaks, the orderly rows of tents near the base of the towering butte, the cooking fires, the tree-lined natural desert spring, to my tent where I found the messenger waiting under its awning, and I too sensed the strangeness of which Ra'Kel spoke. It had nothing to do with his appearance, which was much like one of the villagers or peasants who lived along the Da'Kal River, but came from his stance, the look in his eyes, the depths of knowledge and awareness that seemed to lie behind them.
As I dismounted he nodded to me with a strange dignity, showing no fear in spite of his surroundings, the unfriendly crowd of warriors and diaks watching him, the palpable scent of tension in the air. Sensing that he would prefer to deliver his message in private, I invited him into my tent, holding the flap back in courtesy. He stepped in, and as he did I noticed an odd bracelet on his left wrist, one like those described from the dark mists of time, constructed from a material never encountered elsewhere and impossible to duplicate, a dull black substance that was not metal yet said to be far stronger than anything we had. And I knew it was not by accident I had been allowed to see this, that it was his way of introducing himself.
A sense of foreboding struck. At the same instant Ly'is growled. Then, rising from the spot under the awning where she had lain down, she moved into the tent and settled next to my sleeping area.
He was one of the ancient Sages, from a past so distant that no one alive had ever met one.
The legends yet lived, telling of how, long ago when the Sages still walked this land, there had been war. A war that, over time, spread throughout the entire land, ultimately driving them to bay where, in their extremity and anger, they had finally unleashed their terrible powers against their enemies and in the process created the vast crater that eventually filled with water and became Lake Da'Kal. As a result of this, for long thereafter the land had lain sterile and unpopulated all the way to the ocean.
"I see you're aware of my identity," the Sage said quietly, settling across the fire pit from me, ignoring Ly'is, her yellow eyes dreamily looking past his left shoulder, his shabby robe in marked contrast to his bearing, the strange depths within his eyes.
I nodded, said, without the usual ceremony, "I was informed you have a message for me."
He smiled then, faintly, at the directness of my response, his eyes drifting across me with calculation, taking in my shorts made of tonga hide, my belted tunic, the throwing daggers at my waist, the thong that kept my hair from my eyes, said, "Actually, it's an invitation from our Council. They want you to attend a meeting at our stronghold. Time is of the essence, and a doorway is available a short distance from here. I would like to leave as soon as possible."
I gazed at him; doorways were also a part of the legends. "What is the purpose of this meeting? What has it to do with the Donda?"
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I am not authorized to go into any further detail here. This is a Council matter to be discussed only in chambers." He paused, then added in the same quiet tone, "It is hoped you will understand."
Between us the threat hung suspended.
"So that's the way of it, eh?" I said mildly, holding Ly'is in place with my mind, my love for her.
"Let us just say," he said, "that there are certain things you need to be shown first. Until then all other discussion would be premature."
"You are, of course, aware of our relationship with our diaks?" I said. "The geographical restrictions this ordinarily places upon us?"
He nodded soberly. "Yes, we are aware of the symbiotic nature of an'tala, as well as the fact that it is both strongly telepathic and bidirectional. It is, after all, the advantage that has enabled your people to survive all these years, even though the price they had to pay was an unusually severe form of addiction. We are also aware of the personal risk involved in deliberately breaking this bond, but it is a risk we now recommend you take, if not for yourself, then for the Donda."
I looked at him, not much liking his threats, if threats they were. But beneath what appeared to be threats, I sensed something else, subtle, faint, guarded, an underlying urgency combined with...what? Concern? Fear? Something that curiously had nothing to do with me or with the fact that he was in a Donda encampment, surrounded by hostile warriors and telepathic diaks, war animals whose fierceness was as legendary as the Sages themselves. And in that moment I got one of those strange hunches that occasionally come to one in battle, the type of hunch it was wise not to ignore. A hunch that suggested it was better to risk da'ahta -- employ the emergency drug sy'ahta to block withdrawal, find out what they wanted -- than to refuse. So I simply nodded, said, "Very well. I will accept that."
He smiled, said politely, "Thank you."
Ly'is yawned, a not unimpressive sight, then looked directly at him for the first time.
He smiled again, with understanding. And, perhaps, a touch of relief.
* * *
We moved out shortly after dark, drifting across the desert under the light of the stars and moons, the Sage riding behind me, arms about my waist, my quiver-pack and bow upon his back, as Ly'is leaped the ancient gullies and climbed steep ravines with claws extended, my band of thirty spread out in the shifting patterns of the hunt, seeking danger. Resting only during the hottest part of each day, we continued the pace until late one night, after traveling nine days, we reached our goal only to find it a clearing much like any other, one we had all passed through now and again while hunting. Yet this time it was different, for the Sage removed from under his robe a small rectangle of the same unknown material as his bracelet and, having us stand back, touched the two together. In the clearing materialized an oval of cold light, causing our diaks to move nervously and my warriors to mutter; and not without considerable trepidation I and three members of my band -- our minds, like the minds of our diaks, protected from the painful break in an'tala by sy'ahta -- stepped into its glow with the Sage.
There was an odd flick of consciousness, a kind of shifting disorientation, then we found ourselves standing in the midmorning light of our home star in a narrow, mist-filled valley by a cave with an odd oval entrance that, like the doorway, had a cold glow to it. Through the numbing shock of the experience, adding to it as we automatically scanned the area for possible sources of hidden danger, came the realization that we were now far removed from the clearing where the rest of our band waited. From the alteration of the seasons, the cast of the vegetation, the light, I surmised that we had crossed what the scholars of Port Da'Kal and Eos called the equator and were at a high latitude. It gave much to think upon.
"If you would step inside," the Sage said, looking much more relaxed now, "you will find the Council. They are expecting us. And I must apologize, but they have requested that your companions wait outside."
I nodded, and as my warriors moved into positions of guard I accompanied the Sage -- who claimed the peculiar name of Jorgensen -- through the opening. Inside I found a large room with a flat black floor and smooth white walls and ceiling, lit from sources I could not determine. In front of me was a small carpet, then, shimmering, obviously a device of protection, a pale screen of light that blocked my way. Behind it, on a larger carpet, sat four men and two women in a row, all but one of them, the smaller of the two women, far older than Jorgensen. The only apparent entrance to the room was behind me, its exterior guarded by Donda warriors. I found the situation, although hardly comforting, acceptable.
I nodded to them with formal courtesy, then, Jorgensen at my side, sat down opposite them on the smaller carpet, setting my bow carefully in front of me, quiver-pack to my left. Then waited in silence, in the way of the warrior, the hunter, the outlaw. For I could sense deadly danger here, and the next move was theirs.
A long time passed as we studied each other through the screen, then the oldest Sage, thin, elegant, hair silver, wearing one of the fabled bracelets as they all did, body hidden like the others within a one-piece uniform made from some smooth, tailored material that was neither leather nor hemp, said, "You are Ryahda, clan leader of the Donda."
"One of the Transported Ones," he added.
"The drug is a myth," I pointed out, an inner tension coming over me at the direction he was taking. "Nothing else."
"How many years," said another of the Sages, this one the older female, tall, thin, with pale blue eyes and short gray hair, "have you remained as you are now, not aging?"
My gaze drifted across them, my hands from long habit craving the touch of my daggers, my bow. For these were dangerous questions to ask a Donda: our immortality often made others desire to capture and torture us in a futile attempt to obtain its secret, then kill us once it became all too clear we could not provide the desired answer. Immortality, in fact, was the main reason we were outlaws, were so hated by those around us who did not share its benefits, had to age and die, and the subject, when broached by those outside our clan, usually led to death on one side or the other. But I submerged my natural responses, aware the Sages, though physiologically old, also did not have to die, instead asked mildly, "Why are you asking these questions when you already know the answers?"
The oldest one smiled, faintly. "To bring up the subject of your memory. Transported Ones can remember neither their birth nor youth. Their personal history prior to Awakening is not accessible to them. But this memory can be retrieved through the use of a certain drug. We have access to this drug and are willing to provide it to you."
I felt a chill go through me, well remembering how I had woken so long ago on a beach, naked, without memory, fully grown, bound in chains, captive to a wandering troop of soldiers, ignorant even of language. Used, passed from one to another, tormented for sport. But I had learned, survived, escaped, killing four of them in the process. And eventually located an outlaw band, women like myself, to join. Over time, as our band grew, absorbed others, became a clan, so too did my position and responsibilities, until finally I found myself the leader. Yet the mystery remained: what was our past, how true were the myths, what did they mean?
"Why?" I asked.
"To enable you to perform a service for us in Eos," said the woman who had spoken earlier. "At the Circle-of-Being's Temple."
I felt another chill, hearing in her words my death sentence, said, "Why can you not do it yourself?" I gestured to the screen shimmering between us, observed, "Your powers are far greater than mine. Especially in regards to Eos."
Jorgensen turned slightly, said quietly, "We tried, but failed. Even its doorway is closed to us. In this matter we are helpless."
"And if I fail too?" I said softly, thinking of the Donda and what the Sages might do to them in retaliation if I turned them down. "You must be aware the Toh'a is somewhat less than pleased with me."
"You won't fail," he said flatly. "No matter what the cost. Once you know why it has to be done."
I stared at him, thinking about the risks he had taken to bring me their summons. The risk of entering the desert on foot and unarmed, and the even more serious risk of entering the home tents of the Donda even though he was male and many there had reason to kill males on sight. To this had to be added the risk he asked me to take by deliberately breaking an'tala and traveling to their stronghold. These were serious risks that no sane person would take without good cause, and so far Jorgensen had impressed me as being both sane and responsible. "This matter involves not only you, then, but all of us? Even the Donda?"
"Yes," he said. And, at a sign from the oldest Sage, he removed the small rectangle from his robe, touched it to his bracelet, and the screen of light collapsed. All the Sages present were now within reach of my weapons, their lives within my hands.
I nodded, once again accepting what he said. For the pattern of their actions proved they were not only deadly serious, but willing to take risks themselves.
* * *
Jorgensen held out the cup containing the memory drug, and I drained it, finding no taste but water, handed it back. Then sat quietly, waiting. Holding my fear within. Thankful that Ly'is was not with me, by my side, monitoring my thoughts, my emotions. Yet for a long time, what seemed like an eternity, nothing happened, nothing at all; then, just as I was beginning to think...beginning to...
A megalopolis, under alien skies. Reddish-brown air, a burning of my eyes, my nose. Noise of many machines, snatches of music. Buildings, gray, of concrete, of glass; a harsh glare to the night sky from many lights, hiding the stars. I was walking on a path through a park, wearing strange uncomfortable clothes, going to a class. The name of the megalopolis was Fairbanks. It was in NA Sector, part of what used to be Alaska prior to the Unification of 2609. How I knew all this I did not know.
The path wound through a small forest of stunted trees, skirted a pond of dirty water in an equally dirty clearing, entered the forest again. I followed it, deep within my thoughts, preparing for my exams, exams I must pass with high grades if I wanted a position at the Lunar Institute, wanted to remain off The Welfare, out of my village -- when suddenly there was the crack of a branch, moving shadows off to my side, an arm around my neck, a body hitting my legs...
In desperation I struggled to return to reality, to the room within the mountain, saw the misty outline of the Sages watching, the shimmer of the screen now back; tried to hold on to it, spinning deep down into the nightmare, the megalopolis, the park, where my skirt was up around my waist, my legs forced apart; saw there were four of them, nobrays, three holding me down, one with a knife at my throat. Then the fourth blotted out the sky and there was a sudden sharp pain...
I struggled in terror, knowing well what my fate was to be, how I would be left, how my body would be found, how I would end as just another name on a list in the morning news. One among many.
I heard a laugh, felt hands all over me, doing things. Then suddenly clarity settled over me, a cold emotionless detachment, much like it would when I had hunted as a child, searching through the mountains around my village for small game to help fill the pot and relieve our poverty. And I groaned...moved my hips slightly, as if involuntarily. Heard another laugh, felt a spasm. Then the one with the knife took the place of the first man, laying his weapon on the ground beside him, momentarily forgotten.
I moved for him, softly, raising my thighs as much as they would permit, trying to put my arms around him...then faster, drawing him with me, now slightly leading, nuzzling, kissing, moaning...heard another laugh, a comment about natives, the word klooch. Then one of my arms was released, the wrong one, and I wrapped it around the man's hips, caressing intimately, moaning louder, made a little cry. He said something, and my other arm was released; I shifted slightly and the knife was mine, was moving through a red haze of screams and yells as if I were gutting caribou and I had the first man down and then the second and was rising seeking the third as footsteps sounded and suddenly lights hit and a whistle was blowing and...
* * *
A large room, high ceiling, fluorescent lights, guards. Twelve brays in a box. One was reading from a screen. "Guilty as charged." I heard a cry of despair, realized where it came from. "Transportation," the voice added, and blackness closed around me...
* * *
I was strapped to a chair, wearing a prison dress, needles in my arms, fluids flowing in. Attached to my head was a machine with a heavy cable leading to other machines. Men and women in white jackets moved about quietly, efficiently, making adjustments, monitoring screens. In the background, through a thick window, others watched with curiosity, some making notes on their comps. The clock slowly moved toward midnight. Through the drug haze terror lurked, waiting. Then the clock reached midnight, passed it, and a red light changed to green with a soft chime. And as a technician got up from his desk and went to a central screen I knew the last appeal had failed. Then, looking at me emotionlessly, disinterestedly, he closed a switch and there was the beach, the soldiers, a hand reaching for me...
* * *
...but it was Jorgensen, helping me up, handing me a hot drink, saying, "...you're back, you're okay. Drink this, it will give you strength." And when I hesitated, he gently shook his head, said, "No, it is only soup."
So, sensing truth in his words, I drank it, feeling its heat, examining its taste, as the room steadied about me and I looked at the Sages through the shimmer of the screen. I could feel the floor under me, the texture of the carpet, the temperature of the air. Detect the smell of ozone from the screen, a scent whose nature I now understood. Then I set the cup down on the carpet and carefully reached out, picked up my bow. Felt it also, its string still taut; plucked it, listened to the familiar tone it made, unstrung it. Then I set it down, said quietly, "I am ready to listen."