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Authors: Suzy McKee Charnas

Walk to the End of the World

BOOK: Walk to the End of the World
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To Stephen
The predicted cataclysm, the Wasting, has come and – it seems – gone: pollution, exhaustion and inevitable wars among swollen, impoverished populations have devastated the world, leaving it to the wild weeds. Who has survived?
A handful of high officials had access to shelters established against enemy attack. Some of them thought to bring women with them. Women had not been part of the desperate government of the rimes; they had resigned or had been pushed out as idealists or hysterics. As the world outside withered and blackened, the men thought they saw reproach in the whitened faces of the women they had saved and thought they heard accusation in the women’s voices. Many of these women had lost children in the holocaust.
The men did not notice their own shocked faces and raw voices. They had acted, they thought, responsibly, rightly — and had lost everything. They did not realize they had lost their sanity, too.
They forbade all women to attend meetings and told them to keep their eyes lowered and their mouths shut and to mind their own business, which was reproduction.
Among themselves, most of the women thought as women were taught to think: it would be proper and a relief to think of nothing but babies any more, and while the men were crazy with grief, guilt and helplessness it was support they needed, not antagonism. These women said to one another, let’s do what they say for now.
A few objected, saying, no, these men will enslave us if we let them; no one is left to be their slaves except us! They tried to convince the others.
The men heard, and they rejoiced to find an enemy they could conquer at last. One night, as planned, they pulled all the women from sleep, herded them together, and harangued them, saying, remember that you caused the Wasting. It was a Black female’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus that sparked the rebellion of the Blacks; female Gooks fought against our troops in the Eastern Wars; female terrorists made bombs side by side with our own rebel sons, whose mothers had brought them up to be half-men; female vermin of all kinds spewed out millions of young to steal our food-supplies and our living space! Females themselves brought on the Wasting of the world!
And the men, armed with staves and straps, reminded them and saw to it that these things were not forgotten again.
It is their male descendants who emerge from the Refuge to find the world scoured of animal life and beggared of resources. They continue the heroic, pioneering tradition of their kind: they kill the few wretched mutants who have persisted outside and clear the spiky brush from a strip of river-valley and seacoast where they establish a new civilization. They call their land the Holdfast, after the anchoring tendril by which seaweed clings to the rocks against the pull of the current.
Seaweed is an important source of nourishment to these new men; so is the hardy hemp plant, a noxious weed to the Ancients but now a staple crop that furnishes fiber, a vision-giving drug, and, because the new men are of necessity ingenious, food. Bricks are made from earth; machine graveyards are mined for metal; a vein of soft and greasy coal yields fuel; wood is brought from the low and thorny forests of the Wild beyond the Holdfast’s borders. Nothing is abundant, but men live. They have not completely forgotten technology or culture, and they adapt what they can.
What else do they remember? They remember the evil races whose red skins, brown skins, yellow skins, black skins, skins all the colors of fresh-turned earth marked them as mere treacherous imitations of men, who are white; youths who repudiated their fathers’ ways; animals that raided men’s crops and waylaid and killed men in the wild places of the world; and most of all the men’s own
cunning, greedy females. Those were the rebels who caused the downfall of men’s righteous rule: men call them ‘unmen’. Of all the unmen, only females and their young remain, still the enemies of men.
In an alley of the silent Pennelton compound in Lammintown, a man waited, his hands tucked into his sleeves against the night’s chill. He was a Rover Captain in full uniform under his disguise of blanks. He stood alone in the shadow of a doorway.
Most of the lamps fixed to the corners of the buildings had been smashed. By the light of one that still burned he could discern obscene and insulting figures scratched into the granite walls. The Pennelton Company was assigned away south this five-year, and young men of other Lammintown companies had turned the empty compound into a temporary skidro. He had followed a group of wild lads down here, seekers of illicit pleasures.
The one whose services they had hired tonight was the one he was after; d Layo the DarkDreamer, a young man too, but of no company, no order, and no legitimate use to his fellows.
Heavy-muscled, smooth-moving, a tawny-colored night-slinker, a prowling predator with a broad, blunt-nosed face and wide-curling mouth, d Layo padded before his mind’s eye. D Layo really did look like that, though it wasn’t manly for the captain to think of even such a corrupt man as an actual beast.
The Lammintown trumpets brayed, as they did every quarter-hour. The captain began silently reciting the Chant Protective, to drive away visions. The chant opened with a reckoning of the size and reach of the Holdfast and of all the fellowship of men.living in it; not a great or impressive tally, but it served to remind a man of his brothers and of what they expected from him.
The Holdfast was a strip of plain bisected by a river. A good runner could cross the plain north-to-south at its widest point in three days or run the length of the river from the coast to ‘Troi in seven. The river descended from ’Troi on the high inland plateau. Further east, the City overlooked the river’s fork: the southern branch reached down over the flats to Bayo; the northern branch emptied in Lammintown under the pale cliffs. These were the holdings of men – bastions of order, clear-thinking and will – to which the rest of the world one day would be added again.
But not, the captain thought morosely, if the Reconquest depended on men like himself. He let the chant drop. It wasn’t because he stood alone in the dark that he saw beast-ghosts, though darkness encouraged such lapses in the manliest of men. At night the earth could be felt stretching away on all sides, its vast stillness stirred only by the currents of wind and water. The mind, shrinking from such expanses of emptiness, tended by supply populations of spirits.
However, the captain’s personal vice was to envision other men – even decent, manly men – in beast shapes. Not many benefits derived from the Wasting that had turned the world into scrub-desert; the extinction of all creatures lower than man was one. To think of the beasts was like willfully calling up the ghosts of dead enemies.
He glanced up at the sky, hoping the DarkDreamer would come out before moonrise. The moon was the ally of brutes like d Layo. The captain, without his usual complement of Rovers, had no allies.
Trumpets blared; a pot shattered somewhere along the stone-paved streets. D Layo emerged from a narrow passage between two buildings. He was alone and seemed to be in a state of mild dreaming-shock, for he veered as he walked and ran one hand along the wall for guidance. Not many DarkDreamers would venture out still dream-dazed; but d Layo was reputed to be a rash young man.
The captain had the urge to clear his throat of the tightness that commonly afflicted him just before a clash. He waited until d Layo had meandered past. Then he sprang at him, clamping a forearm across the DarkDreamer’s throat and a leg around his legs to prevent him from kicking, and he threw himself and his captive backward seeking to brace his own shoulders against the wall.
The DarkDreamer plunged like the ocean; he seemed to have no fear at all. He flung himself and the captain headlong across the
alley so that both their heads smacked against the opposite wall. The captain grunted and tightened his grip. He scrabbled for a foothold on the cobbles and used his weight to hurl the DarkDreamer down with force. D Layo’s head glanced against stone; he made a muffled sound and went slack.
Kneeling on the DarkDreamer’s back, the captain glanced quickly around. There was no one. He thought longingly of the knife sheathed on his thigh. It would be gratifying to carry out his original assignment and simply kill this brute.
Instead, he took hold of d Layo’s thick hair and pulled his head up. ‘A Senior wants to talk with you,’ he said to the blank, handsome face.
D Layo groaned. The groan turned into hiccups. There was the sweet scent of manna, the dreaming-drug, on his breath.
In a harsh whisper, the captain repeated his message. Then he got up and stepped clear. He felt exhausted. This sort of work was better done in the bright, clean light of the sun, and by younger men.
D Layo sat up. He rubbed at his face and held up his hand to see if there was blood. A thick, compartmented bracelet of metal slid down his lifted arm, glinting. He said, unsteadily, ‘Are you the cunningcock that’s been sniffing me for the past two months? To give me that message?’
‘Until last week, my orders were different,’ the captain growled.
‘You’re Captain Helms, aren’t you?’
‘Rover Captain Kelmz, of Hemaway Company.’
‘Ah.’ D Layo got up, making ineffectual brushing-off motions with both hands. There was some blood; in the feeble lamplight, the captain could see the dark line weaving down around the socket of d Layo’s eye. ‘Tell your Senior to meet me on the beach, in the sheds. Only one is in operation; tell him to follow his nose.’
‘No. You’re to come with me to meet him.’
‘Hell-ums,’ d Layo crooned, putting an irritating softness into his speech, ‘be rational. You don’t need my cooperation to kill me, but you do need it to talk with me. So we’ll do this my way – unless you feel like another round?’
The captain did not feel like another round. He felt worn out and heavy in the hands.
‘It’s a let-down, I know,’ the DarkDreamer added, ‘after you’ve
tagged along behind me all this time hoping for a taste of my blood.Forget it, Hell-ums. You have managed to cause me a good deal of inconvenience recently; settle for that.’ The dreaming-shock was gone now. D Layo’s voice was as the captain had first overheard it months ago: light, lazy, and sweet with malice. ‘You may have another chance to kill me sometime, cheer up. By the way, which of my many good friends told you where to find me tonight?’
‘Go eat femshit.’
D Layo laughed.
 
Lammintown was a storm-battered, cold-gnawed place, ‘rock on rock’ its men said, boasting of their halls made of blocks hewn from the cliffs. They said that Lammintown men carried the Holdfast on their tough shoulders, because no one could survive without the harvests of long kelps, called lammins, from the bay.
There was an edginess in Lammintown these days. For several seasons and more noticeably this past summer the lammin-take had been alarmingly scant. The Lammintown Juniors who had charge of the offshore waters this five-year blamed the moon’s influence over the shifting currents of the sea. They claimed that unusually warm water had impeded the maturing of the young kelps. But the Seniors maintained that the young men had mistimed the placing of rocks on the bay floor during the previous autumn, so that the new lammin spores had found no footholds and had died or drifted elsewhere. This crop failure came on top of a long series of economic setbacks in the Holdfast.
Seniors had begun turning up on the work-turfs of the Juniors without warning, hoping to catch them in the act of stealing portions of the scarce harvest for themselves. These Seniors came with escorts of Rovers, often dispensing with the formality of bringing officers to command them. Rovers were powerful defenders of the Seniors and their interests, but they were hard to control, and most Seniors were not skilled in handling them personally.
There had been incidents, and rumors.
The young men of ’Ware Company, whose work-turf that five-year was the whole waterfront complex of lammin-works, had grown more and more restive. Between their resentment and the suspicion of the Seniors, a moonlit night was hardly the time for prudent men to venture into the sheds of Lammintown beach.
To keep the heat under the vats high without tending all night the wall-mats of the shed had been rolled down and secured. The waiting men were confined with the bitter stink of boiling lammin and the roaring of the furnaces under the two working vats.
A brace of Rovers, under Kelmz’ command, flanked the Senior whom they escorted. They were nervous in this strange atmosphere, but they would answer to Kelmz’ voice and hands. The Senior himself looked no different here than he looked when at ease in his home-compound in the City. He stood with his stumpy legs planted apart, his hands folded neatly on his belly. Despite the heat, he hadn’t even bothered to draw the starched folds of his mantle down from around his neck and shoulders. His round, balding head was tilted back.
High above them, a network of taut, heavy ropes webbed the mouths of the vats. Two young men ran barefoot over the lines, flickering like visions. Now and then one of them would pause for an instant to cast a wide and measuring glance over the heaving surface of the ‘soup’ they tended. The metal hooks they carried swung gleaming from each hand. Their skins were sweat-bright and smudged with smoke. They shaved themselves hairless to keep the soup clean, and they wore only shorts. The hooks, part of their balance, hung as naturally from their hands as fingers from the captain’s own. ‘Lose your footing and lose the soup,’ warned the workchants of the sheds.
It was unarguably the dirtiest work men had to do in the Holdfast. Periodically, proposals were made to turn it over to fems instead, but this phase of the processing of a staple of men’s diet was considered too important to be entrusted to fems. Besides, attachment to the sheds for a time was a handy punishment for insolent young men. Only one of the pair now running wore the ’Ware Company sign, sewn to the hip of his shorts. The other wore no emblem and was doing time.
Hooks smacked suddenly into the heavily wrapped handle of one of the vat-ladles. The runner’s body arced out in a leap from one line to another, by its weight and momentum turning the ladle in the soup. The captain looked hastily away. It made his stomach lurch to see one of those gleaming bodies suspended in the steaming air, like a beast that in Ancient times had leaped in the branches of tall trees …
The Rovers stirred uneasily: d Layo had entered the shed. He must have somehow bought himself the freedom of the ’Wares’ work-turf, for the runners never even bothered to look down. That was the worst of brutes like d Layo, they corrupted others.
‘Servan,’ said the Senior, projecting his voice above the roar of the furnaces without actually shouting, ‘where can we talk?’
‘Right here, Senior,’ the DarkDreamer replied. ‘It’s safe. The patrols keep the beach clear at night now, and the lads up there can’t hear us.’ He sat down on the lid of a fuel-box and patted the space beside him.
The Hemaway Senior stood where he was and took a deep, deliberate breath.
‘Now, Senior – Bajerman, is it?’ d Layo said, before his breath could be expelled in speech. ‘It’s been some time since our last meeting. Oh, please, let’s have no apologies over all that, the past is the past. In the interests of brotherly harmony, let’s comport ourselves like men newly met. You don’t mind the suggestion coming from a younger man, I hope.’ He beamed amiably. The Senior ignored his impudence, and d Layo went smoothly on, ‘Now, what can this humble young man do for so great a Senior? Nothing too strenuous, I hope? Your messenger found me at an awkward time; I’m all dreamed out for the moment.’
‘It’s not d Layo the DarkDreamer I’ve come to see,’ the Senior said calmly.
‘Servan the outlaw, then?’
The Senior said, ‘You romanticize yourself.’
‘Which laws do you want broken, Senior?’ d Layo smiled. ‘It must be very important for you Seniors to give up wanting my blood and start negotiating for my services.’
‘Some laws must be bent, so that they may spring back into firmer shape than before.’
‘I hope,’ d Layo said piously, ‘that the years will bring me wisdom as great as your own.’
Knowing things that were not his business had never brought the captain anything but trouble. He withdrew into his own thoughts, yet kept alert. An officer’s eyes were trained to be ceaselessly on the move. His success depended on his ability to notice and counteract any inadvertant cues that might set his Rovers off, especially in unfamiliar surroundings.
D Layo and the Senior could arouse the Rovers themselves with harsh tones or sharp gestures; but they weren’t arguing. Far from it. The DarkDreamer teased and mocked with both voice and gestures. The Senior sat back stiffly, resisting; again and again he spoke with the insistence of a man trying to restate the serious core of a wandering discussion. Both men knew this game well and played it with pleasure. They ignored even the rumbling of a ladle rolling in its socket overhead, intent as they were on the levels of their game.
The captain’s own game began in his head; he saw the Senior as a large, horn-headed beast. The red-and-black mantle became the burnished hide of a thick-shouldered creature, slow but strong, confident and patient, ready to outlast the subtle prowler opposite him, the tawny hunter d Layo. Come to my teeth and my claws, coaxed d Layo; come to my horns and my hooves, lowed the other. They smiled and played their strategies of menace and attraction.
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