Saturday, May 07, 2005

Slow Dawn

Day 1
Rachel the historian said I should record everything I see. Even if I never return to the colony, someone may come searching for the things I’ve taken; they may find this journal (among my scattered bones) and learn useful things from it. So far I have not seen anything new or interesting, but this is what I have seen:
The ice to the east of the colony is deeply pitted and gouged. The ice-floater herds have dug up and eaten every bit of the frozen green stuff they feed on. Even with the lights Rachel gave me, so much brighter than our oil lamps, I can’t find a trace of green anywhere. I saw no sign of floaters or of ice-runners. Of course, the runners won’t go where there are no floaters for them to feed on, and floaters won’t go where there’s no green to feed on.
Rachel, we knew all this. We’ve known for years that the herds were drifting farther and farther to the west. That’s why the colony is starving, why the Great Hunt happened, why Sten is dead. What did you send me out here to find?
I think I’m farther east now than I’ve ever been in my life. Even though I have to tack against the wind, this metal iceship goes much faster than the ones we make from ice-floater shells. She’s a good ship; I’ll have to think of a name for her. Now I must sleep.

Day 2
Nothing new to record.
It’s strange to be on the ice alone. We always hunt in pairs or small groups, so that someone can stay awake and watch for ice-runners. But this is dead country, there’s nothing to fear.

Day 3
Nothing new to record.
I wonder if I should name this iceship after all. She must have had a name before, but it’s not marked anywhere on her. Rachel says these were the first iceships; before we learned to hunt floaters, we scavenged the shattered hull of our original ship, the one that brought us to this place. The other ships were all lost on the ice or destroyed in accidents. This is the only one left, and the Elders have been keeping it hidden and secret in case of an emergency.
Well, this is an emergency, isn’t it? We’ll all starve if something isn’t done soon. Some hope that the floater herds will return, but I don’t believe it.

Day 4
Nothing new to record.

Day 5
Nothing new to record.

Day 6
Nothing new to record.

Day 7
I have no right to name this ship. I stole her from the colony. What was I thinking? I was broken.
The night the Great Hunt came home, I fled to Rachel’s arms. She gave me this task; but she warned me as well. “Soren, I believe this has to be done. But the Elders won’t listen to me. If you take this ship, you’ll be called a thief. You’ll be a criminal, an outcast.”
“I don’t care about that.” It was true. My little brother Sten had died in my arms, blaming me with his last breath. I was a criminal to myself already, outcast from my own heart. What could possibly be worse?
Now I know. Now I’m truly outcast. All the light and warmth in the world are back there in the colony, under the ice. Out here is only cold, wind and stars, the unchanging dark. Empty, pitted ice. No more, no more.

Day 9
Slept for a long time. Continuing eastward.

Day 10
There’s nothing worse than a thief.

Day 15(?)
I’m not really sure how long I’ve been travelling any more. Longer than I’ve ever been on the ice at one time, I think. I’m very far from the colony.
I can never go back. By now, they will have discovered all the things I’ve taken; besides the ship herself, the lights Rachel gave me, the little packets with the strange foods in them, all these metal tools. A treasure trove of metal. I’m only beginning to understand what I’ve done; these things can never be replaced, for we have no more metal, the old ship’s hull was used up long ago.
If only we’d had this ship to use as a hunting ship. She could have taken us far, far into the west, where the floater herds are still thick, and the floaters are fat with meat for our stomachs and oil for our lamps and fires.

Day 16
I’ve named the ship Easterling. I had no right, but it’s what I have to do.
She couldn’t have saved the colony by herself; I have to remember that. Eventually the herds would have moved even out of her range. And anyway she’s only one ship. Putting her into service would just have delayed the end a little.
I have to trust Rachel. She said there was something important in the east, something vital to our survival. Something our histories talk about. If I can find it, save the colony, I’ll be redeemed. I have to keep that hope alive.

Day 17
The Great Hunt wasn’t such a bad idea, but it was badly planned. They should have had the ships split up into small groups and hunt independently. But Sten was thrilled with his plan, and he wouldn’t listen to me. “You want us to do things the way you’ve always done them, Soren. That’s not good enough! We’re starving, we need new answers!”
“Listen to me. You’ve seen single ice-runners, but not runner packs; they don’t come this far east anymore. They’ll wipe out your fleet, they always come to large groups of ships…”
“We’ll take the risk. We have to.”
“I forbid it! We can’t afford to take that many losses.”
Sten gritted his teeth. “We voted last night. You’re not Hunt Leader any more; I am.”
“You? You called for a vote behind my back?”
“I didn’t call for the vote. There are plenty of hunters who aren’t happy with you, Soren. Besides, I may be younger than you but I’m a damn good hunter. Why shouldn’t they elect me?—And where were you, anyway?”
I’d been with Rachel. I’d forgotten the meeting.
“I didn’t know you were going to come up with this stupid idea!” He’d planned it all out in his own head, never sharing a word of it with me. Maybe he’d discussed it with his friends—his supporters—the ones who’d voted him Hunt Leader. “Fine, you’re in charge. I’ll have nothing to do with it, you hear me?”
“I don’t need your help, Soren.”

Sten got the backing of the Elders for his plan. He recruited almost all the hunters to his cause. They took every ship in the colony, except Easterling. Of course no-one knew about her; she's a secret the historians have kept for a long time.
I wasn’t with them. Sten didn’t ask me to go, and I didn’t offer.
The runners came out of the dark, silent and deadly. They shattered several ships on their first pass, spilling the hunters out onto the dark ice; and then circled back to feed. Even then, the intact ships might have escaped if they’d left the wounded hunters to die. Instead, Sten made them stand and fight.
More than half our ships never came home. They brought Sten on a stretcher and laid him at my feet. He was dying; saving his last breath for me. “Where were you, Soren? Where were you?
I couldn’t stay to hear the numbers of dead and wounded. It was my fault, for my anger, my wounded pride, most of all my carelessness. It never would have happened if I’d gone to the meeting.
The meeting I didn’t go to, because of Rachel.

Day 18
It was all because of Rachel.

Day 20
The ice is as bare as ever. I have no idea what Rachel expected me to find out here. But what I have found is truth: She has taken everything I had from me. If I hadn’t been with her, I would still be Hunt Leader, the Great Hunt would never have happened, Sten and so many others would still be alive.
Did she plan all this? She might have known about the meeting, but she couldn’t have known the Hunt would turn out to be such a disaster.
But what if the Hunt had succeeded? I’d have been a laughingstock. Timid Soren, afraid to make the hard decisions. Outshone by his own little brother—oh, I would have hated that. I can admit it now. That would have driven me to despair, as surely as Sten’s death did. She had me either way; all she had to do was seduce me. Keep me by her for one night. It wasn’t even very difficult, was it, Soren? You’ve been crazy for that woman since you were a boy.

Day 21
It comes down to this. Rachel manipulated me, manipulated the entire Hunt, to this end: that I would take Easterling and go, with no hope of redemption other than what she offered me.
Either Rachel wilfully destroyed me, sent me out here to die, wasting resources the colony can’t afford to lose… or she truly believes there is something here in the east that I must see, something so terrible or incomprehensible that she could not convince anyone else of it. If I believe the first, then I should turn around and go back to the colony, return what I stole and face the consequences. But if there’s a chance that the second is true—then I have to go on.

Day 22
Continuing east.

Day 28
A strange thing. Ahead of me, the stars seem fainter.

Day 29
It’s not the stars that are fainter; the sky is lighter to the east. I’ve never seen such a thing. The wind is growing stronger too; I’m making slower progress.

Day 30
Strange colors in the sky to the east. Red and yellow, like fire. Can the sky burn?

Day 31
It’s grown very bright. I’m using one of the tools Rachel insisted I should take, though I had no idea what it was for; it is made of some dark material, but I can see through it, and it covers my face like a mask. Otherwise I think I’d be blinded.
The wind is very strong here. Soon I may have to leave Easterling tied down and walk.

Day 32
I never thought it could be this warm above the ice. I’m barely wearing any more clothes than I would inside the colony. Where can the warmth be coming from? It really is as if the sky is burning. And when I can bear to look at the sky, I see enormous grey shapes that move and change slowly.
It’s like a different world. But one thing is the same: No green in the ice, and no floaters.

Day 33
The wind has lessened, but I’m still making very slow progress. The ice has changed. There are huge sharp-edged cracks in it, some big enough to swallow me and Easterling together. I’ve been hearing strange loud noises, booms and snaps; I can’t imagine what’s causing them.
The sky is almost all bright now; only far behind me, to the west, is there a faint shadow.

Day ? thirty-five, maybe
Must try to describe this so it’ll make sense. Yesterday (I think) I was sailing along, not going too fast because of the cracks. Suddenly the ice under me began to rise. I could not think what to do; I sailed on, passed over the top of the rise, and started down the other side. Then—I can hardly believe this though I saw it with my own eyes—behind me the top of the mound split open with a terrible boom! There was a tremendous shock. Easterling was thrown forward through the air, and I thought I’d be hurled from her cockpit, but I managed to hang on and luckily she landed upright.
I looked back and saw a new crack behind me. I’ve seen dozens like it in the last few days, but this one terrified me; I felt as though it were a live thing, a new kind of ice-runner that might suddenly expand, reach out across the ice and engulf us. I fled, sailing on into the east far faster than I should have. At last I was too tired to go on, and I threw out my ice anchors and collapsed to sleep. Woke up thinking that cracks had opened and swallowed down the anchors, and were snaking across the ice towards me.
Later: Continuing east, slowly.

I’ve completely lost track of time. There is no darkness anywhere now. Hard to sleep even with the mask; I’ve been lying down in Easterling’s shadow. It’s warmer than I can possibly believe, too.
Cracks growing more frequent and bigger. I’ve had a couple more close calls.
I’m a dead man, I’ll never make it back to the colony from here. At least that means I don’t have anything to be afraid of.
Strange thing: There’s water at the bottom of these cracks. I dropped a piece of ice in one to see how deep it was, and I heard a splash. What does it mean?

It’s the end of the world.
For some days now, I haven’t been able to see very far ahead. Partly it’s the brightness, it’s hard to look east at all. Sometimes the grey shapes in the sky block the light, and then it’s easier—but the ice is so humped-up and broken that I still can’t see what’s ahead. I’ve been making very slow progress.
Now I’m at the top of a cliff. It’s not so high, but it’s sheer. Even if I could get down—
I have to say what I see. There is ice down there, but it’s not like the ice I’m used to. It’s all broken into pieces that lie next to each other, or are stacked on top of each other with the edges sticking out, or there are big gaps between them that are filled with water. The further out from the cliff I look, the more water I see.
The worst is that it’s all moving. Up and down, mostly. There’s a terrible grinding noise all the time from ice pieces rubbing against each other and against the cliff below me. I saw a piece break in half and the snapping sound was deafening.
There’s water under all that ice.
There’s water under my feet.

I’ve been down the cliff. I found some metal tools I could use to cut chunks of ice from the cliff to make hand- and foot-holds. For a while I jumped around from one piece of ice to the next, and then I sat for a while and just watched everything happen. Then I looked up and saw that Easterling had moved to the north, or I had moved to the south, so I climbed back up.
The bigger a piece of ice is, the less it moves with the water. The ice I’m on now is so thick that it moves very little; when it does, it makes those cracks open and close. Back at the colony, the ice is so thick it never moves. But is there water under it?
The other thing I saw is this. There is green here. Not in the ice. Floating in the water.
We never thought to ask: How does there come to be green in the ice? Obviously it doesn’t grow there. Now I know green grows in water, unfrozen water. All the ice around the colony was water, once. How can that be?

I think I’ve been here at the cliff for several days.
This is what Rachel sent me here for: to see, and understand.
Ice moves. Green grows in water. Part of the world is warm.

Return Day 1
I’m starting my day count again. If I can get back past the cracks, into the dark, I’ll make much faster progress. The wind will be behind me all the way home.
I think this is what Rachel read in the histories, which means our ancestors must have known it. The world is round. One side of it is lighted and warm, and covered with water. The other side, where we live, is dark and cold and covered with ice. But ice moves, very slowly, from west to east. So green is trapped in the freezing water at the west edge, and carried east into the dark.
The floaters aren’t moving at all. They’re staying in the same place, waiting for the moving ice to bring more green to them. It’s the colony that’s moving, drifting east. Towards the brightness and warmth that will melt the ice and destroy our home. All the carefully tunnelled ice chambers we live in will disappear, dissolve into water, leaving no trace of humankind. But long before that happens, we’ll all have starved to death.
There’s only one answer. We have to be like the floaters. We have to go west (stay still) and build a new colony closer to the floater herds. And in time, we’ll have to do it again.
I don’t dare hope the Elders will listen to a disgrace like me, a thief and outcast. And Rachel—if they guessed she helped me steal Easterling, she’s likely dead by now. But if she is alive… together I think we can convince most of the younger people of the truth.
Rachel, you must have been desperate. You saw nothing ahead for the colony but death by starvation. And no one would have believed you—I would have thought you were crazy, if you’d tried to tell me. How could you bear such a terrible secret all alone?
Let it be that you’re still alive. Let it be that Sten’s death, and my exile, and your silent courage, have bought us hope. Let it be that we’ll survive.

It's a long strange trip and the rest of it is here

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