Peatro coughs blood onto the rough ice on which he lies, and when he can breathe again, he rises onto all fours. She wishes he wouldn’t.
“Stay down, mutt,” Lennock, the chief’s son, says.
Peatro moves onto one knee. Lennock kicks Peatro hard in the ribs, the same side she watched him kick last time, and the two hunters with Lennock laugh. With a hiss as his breath leaves him, Peatro falls back to the ice.
And still, he rises again.
“Give me my pika,” Peatro says.
“They aren’t worth it, half-breed.”
Three small rodents hang from Lennock’s belt. A few hundred kilojoules each. They really aren’t worth it, she thinks.
“You’re a farmer,” Lennock says. “You have no right to hunt.”
“I’m a True Person,” he says. “Just as much as I’m a Nama Singer. I have the right.”
He rises again, into a crouch this time, and when Lennock kicks, he rolls out of the way. They’ve taken away his spear and his grandfather knife, his tendon snares and nama sack, and they’ve stripped off his mother’s hide, leaving him naked. Every rib shows through the fur on his chest, each vertebrae protrudes from his spine. He comes out of the roll standing, a chunk of jagged ice clutched in one hand.
Lennock signals his two hunters. Sharpened bone knives slide out of ancestor-skin sheathes. They close on Peatro, who bares his teeth as he swings the heavy chunk of ice.
She can’t see him killed; not Peatro.
Brilliant silver light shines out from behind Peatro. Lennock and his hunters snarl in pain. They drop their weapons in their rush to cover their eyes, and before Lennock’s spear hits the ice, Peatro darts forward and snatches the pika.
The light fades and is bottled into the shape of a small woman dressed in a glowing white robe. Lennock and his hunters squint between their fingers.
“Does the Old Mother always fight for you, mutt?”
“Go home, Lennock,” Mary says. Her voice booms from her projector’s speakers. She’s using too much power, she knows; the ship will scold her for it. “It will be best if you tell your father what happened here before I do.”
Lennock spits at her where she floats above the ice, then spits at Peatro. They start to walk away.
“My tools,” Peatro says.
The chief’s son nods at his hunters, who pass him what they took from Peatro. He binds it all with a tendon snare and throws the mass out into the darkness beyond Mary’s small pool of light.
All three laugh.
They walk away on legs that are little more than bone and fur; their fat reserves are nearly as depleted as Peatro’s.
She remains beside Peatro, who wheezes, blood flecking his lips with each breath.
“Are you all right?” she says.
He doesn’t answer her; he just walks across the dark ice in the direction Lennock threw his equipment. Crevasses wait in that darkness. She can’t see him devoured by the ice only moments after she’s saved him, so she floats along beside him. Her senses extended well beyond his. She sends a small shaft of light to illuminate the spot where his equipment lies.
“I didn’t ask for your help,” he says.
He winces in pain as he kneels to collect his things.
“Yours are the only children who will be born this season,” she says. “The pika are yours.”
Without looking at her, he starts the long limp home to the grotto. She floats along beside him.
“Find someone else to illuminate,” he says.
She turns into shadow.
In the dim glow of the sunbeam, he looks like a fur-covered skeleton. She can see the features of both peoples in him: the wide shoulders of the True People he inherited from his father, the long fingers of the Nama Singers his mother gifted him before she passed. But he is so thin.
She’s been hoping they could endure, but if it has come to this, people ready to kill each other over a brace of pika, she can’t wait any longer.
They have to find equilibrium.
Invisible and silent, she floats beside Peatro until he is home.
Years before she saves Peatro and lightyears distant, she is stripped down to her basic code, the memory of herself, and transmitted across the dark void. There is no sensation as she travels between the greatships, there is only absence. But then, after some indeterminate time that never seems to pass, she is reconstituted in the Pacifica.
She floats out into the greatship in her tiny projection unit.
It is cold. For a moment she thinks there has been some mistake, that she is in the Savanne, returned to the tomb ship ahead of schedule, but there is atmosphere here the walls of the world are intact, and the stuttering power supply tells her this is the Pacifica, but it is too cold.
The Pacifica is an O’Neill cylinder eight kilometres long with a half a kilometre radius; sixth of the seven greatships. Ice rimes its interior. The Pacifica’s vast empty plains are broken by small hills: the larger Col Sera where the True People gather and the gardens and fields of the Nama Singers.
Everything is ice.
“Give them more heat,” she tells the greatship. “My children must be freezing.”
“Only one reactor still functions,” the Pacifica says. “Every kilojoule is accounted for. In three centuries we will pass through the Hyades cluster, at which point I will deploy the solar panels and bring more energy into my interior. Until then, my calculations show that this will be enough to ensure critical population survival.”
“And what have you decided is a critical population?” Mary asks.
Though she has no skin, no flesh—she is only light and shadow, sound and silence—she trembles as she waits for the answer.
“Terrestrial humanity once shrunk to approximately two thousand reproductive individuals,” the Pacifica says. “My population is more hardy and adaptable than unmodified Terran primitives. For the next three and a half centuries, my caloric output will sustain a mean population of one hundred and fifty seven individuals, based on current consumption patterns.”
One hundred and fifty-seven. The ship has already placed the important numbers in her mind: three hundred and fifty three Nama Singers work their fields and gardens, two hundred and seven True People hunt the pika and insects that roam the wild, frozen plains.
Floating at one end of the long, narrow ship, she can cup every human being within a hundred lightyears in the insubstantial palm of her hand.
“Three in ten will survive,” she says. “What you propose is monstrous.”
“The alternative is extinction,” he says. “And neither of us is programmed to accept that. Equilibrium must be reached.”
Programming. That is all they are. The greatships were programmed to ensure humanity survived the millennia-long transit from the dying Earth. She was programmed to ensure the survivors remained human.
She floats out into the world, closer to her children and away from the monstrous voice of the ship.
Three in ten.
When she appears to her children for the first time in centuries, they welcome her as they always do, with festivals and feasts. The festivals are full of joy at her arrival: she brings news of the other greatships, of the dead Earth, she teaches them what it means to be human. But at the feasts, the only thing being feasted on is the musculature and fat reserves of the people as their bodies devour the only caloric resources remaining to them.
She wants to tell them: you have to find a new equilibrium.
But she doesn’t. Not then. It will be weeks until she defends Peatro on the ice, when she will know she can no longer remain silent.
Bora, Eldest of the Nama Singers, takes the songcord from Anolea and slips it behind her back.
“Try it without the cord,” she says.
The girl closes her eyes and leans closer to the sack she holds between her legs. Boney shoulders and ribs show through her fur, but all Mary sees is her swollen belly, the only such belly in the world. Every other pregnancy this season failed, but Anolea is strong. Peatro always finds her food. Inside her womb, five tiny hearts beat in infrared. Inside the sack the girl carries, green nama swirls as she sings to it.
The two of them sit inside the drum room of the grotto. Ice arches rise up overhead to form a translucent dome. Benches ring the perimeter of the drum room, on which sit other singers and a few drummers, steadily beating the skins of their grandmother drums. Anolea sings to the beat. Sixteen passageways lead away from the drum room, into the corridors of the grotto where the Nama Singers live and sleep, though many of those passageways have been abandoned. At the very centre of the grotto, the very heart of these people, a circular crater lined in hide is filled with the same swirling, green liquid Anolea sings to in her gutsack.
Mary appears on the bench beside Bora. The Eldest nods at her, but says nothing; all her concentration is on Peatro’s mate as she trills the notes of the nama song. She does a fair job of it, Mary thinks. After ten seconds, she recognizes it: the Song to Quench Legume Thirst, a song she helped develop several thousand years ago. Then Anolea misses a note.
“No, no,” Bora says. “Stop right there.”
She lifts her rump and gives the winding length of songcord back to Anolea.
“Again with the cord, and then again without, while I talk to the Old Mother.”
Peatro’s mate draws the songcord between her fingers. Hundreds of knots have been tied along the length of the tendon, but the knots only come in four varieties. Anolea sings four distinct tones for each of the four knots. Those tones invoke words in Mary’s mind: adenine, guanine, thymine, cytosine. The nama remembers, too, as it swirls to her song.
“She is talented,” Mary says.
“Her singing isn’t bad,” Bora says. “But she has the memory of a pika. You’re back from the Col Sera I take it?”
“And settled this matter with Crawthis?”
“Chief Crawthis and I discussed the attack on Peatro,” she said. “And many other things.”
Though Mary’s mass is tiny—just the small collection of lenses and lights and sensors and speakers and power sources and processors that make up the tiny, almost invisible core from which she projects into the world—the other things she discussed with Crawthis still weigh on her.
Bora stares at her, waiting, Mary knows, for an explanation of those other things. When it doesn’t come, Bora shrugs.
“I’ll assume that Crawthis will discipline his son and that he’ll send an offering of pika as apology,” she says. “That will leave us free to focus on the crop. I’ve never seen it worse.”
“You’ll never see it better,” Mary says. “Not in your lifetime, not in your grandchildren’s lifetimes.”
Bora’s ancient eyes narrow.
“What are you saying, Old Mother?”
Mary floats very close to Bora and whispers so that only the old woman can hear. She tells her what she told Crawthis: that there isn’t enough food or heat or light for all of them. That three in ten will survive, and more importantly, that seven in ten will perish. Bora listens without making any movement of her ancient, bent body, until Mary finishes, at which point she stands and brushes ice from her fur. She takes a deep breath as she looks around the drum room and then lets it out in a long hiss.
“That’s enough, girl,” she says to Anolea, who quits her singing. “Dump your nama in the pool. Go find your mate and see how his ribs are mending.”
Once she is gone, Bora picks up her cane and walks toward the nearest spiralling stairway that leads up to the surface. Mary follows her. Though it is near noon, only a dull grey light shines from the sunbeam. The gardens stretch out in every direction from the grotto; they climb up the walls of the world in a patchwork collection of brown fields and dry groves, trying to drink in the light from the sunbeam that runs along the axis of the world. Nama Singers move among the fields, trying to force their crops to grow and their domesticated pika and insects to multiply.
The Col Sera hangs from the roof of the world three kilometres to Fore. Bora stares at the home of the greatship’s other tribe. The tents of the True People are but small black scuffs on the endless ice.
“How does Crawthis suggest we resolve this shortage?” the Eldest says.
“A conference,” Mary says. “Both peoples together must decide who will perish and who will survive.”
Bora laughs then, a sound like twigs snapping.
“Talk? That’s his solution?”
“There is no other alternative,” Mary says. Though she knows the alternatives. She saw what happened to the Earth in its last days. “He wishes to meet tomorrow. He’s offered to lead the heads of all the True People families to the grotto to meet with you and the other elders.”
“No,” Bora says as she surveys her gardens. “No. We’ll go there.”
The Eldest walks over to a row of withered trees. Small brown apples hang beneath mottled leaves.
“We are close to harvest,” she says. She picks one of the fruits. “In a normal year, we would soon be ascending the Col to share our bounty. If I send a few boys with you, can you mark the safest route to the Col for us?”
Bora places the whole thumb-sized apple in her mouth and sucks on its frozen flesh.
“Have the boys meet me in an hour,” Mary says. “And we will prepare the way.”
She is light and shadow, sound and silence, but she is also memory and absence.
On the Col Sera, Lennock and several of his hunters shout as they climb the icy peak. They carry something between them on the stretched hides of their ancestors. Mary, who has marked the trail to the Col with the two Nama Singer boys, now discusses the upcoming conference with Crawthis. When the chief hears his son’s voice, he goes to meet him.
Lennock and his hunters lay out their hides. They peel back what they found. A long, cylindrical body. Two ragged holes that used to hold eyes. Markings along the flank that might have once been fins.
“What is it, Old Mother?” Lennock says.
“A fish,” she says. “They used to swim in the ice, when the ice was water.”
As the True People gather to look at the strange creature, she can see Lennock’s ancestors on hide and wood boats, sailing the warm sea that fills the interior of the Pacifica. They pull up tendon nets filled with writhing, silver fish. One this size would have been cause for a festival.
“Can we eat it?” Crawthis says.
She speaks inwardly with the Pacifica: “How long since the main reactor died?”
“Twelve centuries,” the ship says.
“When did the waters freeze?”
“Nine hundred and twenty years ago.”
She floats over to the creature, frozen mid-decomposition. Enough kilojoules to feed all the True People for a week. But who knew what toxins would thaw out of the frozen flesh.
“No, Lennock,” she says. “You can’t eat it. Maybe the Nama Singers can compost it for their gardens.”
Lennock spits at the mention of their name.
“After tomorrow’s conference,” Crawthis says. “We will give it to them.”
The hunters take the fish carcass away to pack it in ice.
She is light and shadow, but above all, she is memory.
Peatro winces as he scrapes at the mixture of ice and mulch at the base of a gnarled walnut tree. Once the soil is roughened, he opens the sack his mate gave him and dribbles out a bit of the nama.
“You don’t need to go with them,” Mary says.
He rakes the nama into the icy soil and spreads it around the base of the tree.
“I’m a True Person as much as I’m a Nama Singer,” he says. “That will help.”
“They don’t see you that way.”
Peatro lifts the sack and limps to the next tree. She can see the bruises beneath the fur of his ribs, and the shudder he tries to hide with each breath. He scrapes at the frozen soil with an ancestor’s shoulder blade lashed to the end of a bamboo pole.
“Anolea needs you here,” she says. “The conference could last days. You need to work the fields, hunt, whatever it takes for your children.”
“I know what I must do for my children,” he says. “I’m going with them tomorrow morning.”
Mary sighs. She floats away from the young man, toward the grotto. A handful of Nama Singers are out in the fields, pruning and weeding and attending to the pathetic crops. She glides over to the nearest entrance into the grotto and descends toward the drum room.
Every ice bench is full of men and women singing to pouches of nama; with so many people singing in such close proximity, they stick their heads into the pouches and draw the edges closed around them, so that the nama won’t be distracted by others’ songs.
Anolea has her face in one of the sacks. Mary waits for her to finish. The air is filled with muffled nama song, so many being sung at the same time that Mary can’t identity any individual song.
After several minutes, Anolea finishes and takes her head out of the sack. She seems surprised to see Mary there.
“I thought you were with Peatro,” she says.
“I was,” Mary says. “But that man is stubborn. Is there anything you can say to keep him here?”
A young boy walks over to Anloea, takes her sack, ties it shut, and walks down an ice corridor with it.
“Once Peatro’s made up his mind,” the girl says. “It sets firm as the oldest ice.”
Another boy walks over to Anolea and hands her a new bag of unsung-to nama.
“Quite the operation going on down here,” Mary says.
“Your news has catalyzed us,” Bora says. She shuffles up beside Anolea and places a hand on the young woman’s shoulders. “Before the elders leave tomorrow, I wanted to ensure our workers had everything they need to convince the gardens to grow while we are conversing. Come, let me show you our efforts on the surface.”
“I’ve been to the surface,” Mary says. “I wanted to talk to your Singers. I have an idea that may help. A new song.”
As she speaks, she concentrates on the song Anolea has started to sing to the fresh sack of nama. After a few bars, Mary recognizes it.
“Why does she sing the Song of Gasping Breath?”
Bora points her good ear at the young woman.
“Is that what she’s working on?” Bora says. “I have them singing so many songs. The Gasping Breath is to chase our pika from their holes. Our domestic herds hide beneath the ice. Some of our wranglers are going after them now if you’d care to watch.”
“You must be careful with it,” Mary says. “In the wrong hands, the Gasping Breath can kill.”
“Naturally, Old Mother,” Bora says. “We have to be very careful in these dark days. Now come, I don’t want to distract my singers. If you don’t want to go to the surface, my knees won’t complain.”
The Eldest leads her down a corridor where people no longer live. Hoar frost coats abandoned sleeping cubbies and debris accumulates under foot. Once the sound of the drum room is lost in the windings of the tunnel, Bora slumps onto a bench carved into the ice.
“Now tell me your idea, Old Mother.”
“The pika sleep for weeks during the coldest days of the winter,” Mary says. “With a few changes, the Song of Gentle Repose could help the people sleep away the harshest time of the year. Metabolic rates would drop; it would save food. More people would survive.”
Bora whistles the first few bars of the Song of Gentle Repose.
“That could work,” she says. “Where would you make the changes?”
The True People line the stairway carved into the ice of the Col Sera. Bora and Peatro and the elders of the Nama Singers walk between the True People, a collection of wheezes and creaking bones and runny eyes. The elders all carry small sacks of nama. Gifts, Bora says, to be opened at the conclusion of this conference.
At the peak, Mary waits beside Crawthis, who stands tall and proud in his best furs. Lennock stands beside his father and sneers at Peatro.
When she arrives, Bora bows to the Chief. He returns the bow and then clasps her hands in the fashion of the Nama Singers.
“It’s good to see you, Craw,” the Eldest says. “But I can’t say you’re looking well.”
“You’ve had better days yourself,” he says.
The Chief leads them to his tent, which is made from the hides of his fathers. The Nama Singer elders sit in a semi-circle, the True People family heads sit opposite them. Peatro sits at one intersection of the two people. His heritage is more evident here: he has the thick fur of Nama Singers, but it is striped like many of the True People; his nose is as large as Crawthis’, his eyes hooded like the elders. The brother of Peatro’s long-dead father is one of the family chiefs. He nods to Peatro, who doesn’t return the gesture.
Mary sits beside Peatro, across from Crawthis and Bora.
“Thank you all for coming,” Mary says. “Both peoples face one of the hardest decisions they will ever collectively make. The fact that you’ve all come here to find a peaceful resolution fills me with hope.”
“Together, we will find a way,” Crawthis says. “Let us begin the ceremony with an offering.”
He opens a gutsack and pulls out a squirming pika. With a quick motion, he cuts the little animal’s neck and drains its blood into a skullbowl at his feet.
“We thank the god-world for its bounty,” he says, his eyes closed. “Even in these dark times when the god-world tests us, he is still merciful.”
He passes the skull-bowl to Bora, who takes a sip before passing it back to Crawthis.
“Tasty that,” she says. “Though I hope the meat is going to people who’ll have more use for it.”
“Are things that bad among the Nama Singers?” Crawthis said.
“I saw more ribs than bellies among your people.”
“We aren’t here to compare who’s starving more,” Mary says. “Soon everyone will starve. If we plan properly, we can minimize the losses.”
“Their elders are starving,” he says. “Their farmers are runts. Our elders feast on pika. We already know who will survive to the next season.”
“We agreed to meet with the Nama Singers,” Crawthis says. “We did not bring them from their homes to taunt them.” He stares at his son until Lennock looks away, then he turns to Bora. “Mary has explained the threat we face, Eldest. I understand it, if my son does not. Our god-world will only provide enough food and warmth for one hundred and fifty of us to survive. The rest shall perish. We recognize that some True People will be among the dead. We enter these negotiations as partners in peril. Now let us consider how best to face this grave challenge.”
Soon they are weighing lives. One of the True People suggests drawing lots as a means to choose who will survive. A Nama Singer elder recommends choosing those who’ve already proven they can produce many children. There are suggestions to preserve the best hunters, the best farmers, the best singers, and the best cooks. Lennock says the strongest should survive, as it has always been.
Several hours into the discussion, Crawthis gestures to Peatro.
“You have the blood of both people in your veins,” he says. “What insight does that grant you?”
Peatro hesitates. He looks at Bora, then at Mary.
“Old Mother,” he says. “You’ve lived thousands of years, you’ve seen many other peoples. How did our cousins in the other world-ships handle situations like ours? How did the old people deal with scarcity?”
Mary thinks before she answers. The people of the Savanne never had to the chance to decide what to do about scarcity; an asteroid ripped a hole in the side of the greatship and made atmosphere a vanishing resource. The lost Borealis might have faced a similar situation, but she hadn’t spoken to them in seven thousand years. The Himalayan made it to its destination without ever having to face such a dilemma. Disease offered no choices to the people of the Arcticus. Mechanical failure of the Saharran’s heating system left no options either. And the Amazonian, still crawling across the void, functioned well, its children fat and happy.
That left the old world.
“On Earth, the old people didn’t do well in the face of scarcity. Those who had resources hoarded them, while those without grew increasingly desperate. People starved while others grew fat. Wars resulted. Even at the end, when there was so little left, they chose to fight, to destroy each other, rather than sit down and make difficult decisions.”
“You are already well ahead of the old people.”
“So very far ahead,” Peatro says.
And the conference resumes. Sometime during the long discussions, Mary discusses her idea: the Song of the Long Sleep. It isn’t perfect, she knows, but it will skew those dreadful fractions in her children’s favour. Three in ten will change to four or even five in ten surviving.
As she describes her plan to have people hibernate through the worst of the winters, the hide flaps at the entrance of the tent part and a young man, one of Peatro’s friends named Erol, steps through, panting.
“Sorry to intrude,” he says. “But the midwife told me to run. Peatro, it’s Anolea. She’s gone into labour.”
“It’s too soon,” Bora says.
“You must go to her, Peatro,” Mary says.
“I have to go, too,” Bora says. “No one’s brought more babies into the world than me. I’m sorry, Crawthis. We’ll have to continue this tomorrow.”
Bora grabs her cane and starts to rise.
“No,” Mary says. They are handling these discussion better than she could have hoped. Peatro and young Anolea are another matter. “Stay, Eldest. I’ll go with Peatro. Once the children and their mother are safe, I’ll return.”
“We need you here, Old Mother,” Bora says.
“No you don’t,” Mary says. “That’s clear to me now. This is your decision to make; you don’t need my help. Come, Peatro.”
Mary floats with the two young men, lighting their way along the path she marked out the day before. The distance from the grotto to the Col Sera is long, a five kilometre spiralling path along the interior of the Pacifica, and by the time they get to the fields of the Nama Singers, both young men are panting.
The fields are crowded. It seems all the farmers on this side of the world are out tending their crops. Those nama sacks Anolea and the other singers were filling the night before are everywhere in the gardens. Mary hasn’t seen this many people working the fields since she arrived. Bora had said that they would convince their gardens to grow.
When they descend into the grotto, Mary hears Anolea’s low moan of pain. She floats ahead of the men, toward the agonized cries.
She is light and sound and memory. And those memories can do more than just give weight to her inconsequential mass; they can help babies into the world.
“Get her something to drink,” Mary says to Peatro and Erol. “And thick hides. Something sweet to put in the water.”
The two men run at her bidding. She floats beside Anolea and the midwife.
“Don’t worry, child,” she says. “Everything will be all right.”
The shuttle takes her children closer to the gargantuan cylinder in orbit about the moon. Blue-green light from Earth reflects along the Pacifica’s length.
The children aren’t paying attention to her lesson. Who could, when their old world and the new both loom in front of them? Still, she must teach them. They must perfect their skills if their offspring are to survive the millennia.
“Four notes, four base pairs,” she says. “When the algae hears those four frequencies, its modified ribosomes transcribes it to either adenine, guanine, cytosine, or thymine. With those four notes, you can build any gene you want.”
One of the children, a young boy who will remind her of Peatro, practices the notes. He sings well; he has perfect pitch and he can sing quickly.
“Good,” she says. “The rest of you could learn something.”
The boy stops singing.
“Any gene?” he says.
“Could someone sing a person, then?”
“It would be a long song,” Mary says. “So long that you would need many lifetimes to sing it.”
“But conceivably, someone could sing a person.”
“I suppose,” Mary says. “But no one could memorize that many notes.”
“We couldn’t,” the boy says. “But you could. One day, when I’m long gone, can you sing me, Mary?”
She floats beside the boy, wordless.
The other children in the shuttle are finally paying attention.
Three hours later, Anolea bleeds onto her great-grandmother’s ragged hide. Other hides that once belonged to grandparents, aunts, and uncles prop her up so that she can push. The midwife kneels between her legs, confirms what Mary already knows; her contractions are minutes apart and Anolea has only dilated four centimetres. Peatro stands at his wife’s side and tries to get her to drink from a gutsack filled with sweetened water.
“Tell me again what you’ve given her?” Mary asks the midwife.
“Nothing,” she says. “Just the water.”
“You know the Song of the Soft Breeze?”
Anolea lets out a terrible sound.
“It’s time to sing,” Mary says. “She can’t take much more of this. Peatro, sharpen your knife.”
The midwife runs to the drum room to fill the empty nama sack she carries, her footsteps echoing back to them. It is the only sound in the grotto other than Anolea’s moaning: they are the only people beneath the ice. All the other Nama Singers are in the fields, working. Mary is thankful for this; she doesn’t want a crowd around the struggling mother-to-be.
After another moan, Anolea reaches for Peatro’s hands; she claws at him as if drowning.
“What have we done?” she says. “They aren’t ready.”
“Quiet,” Peatro says.
“We’ll lose them all,” Anolea says.
“What does she mean?” Mary says.
“She’s delirious,” Peatro says, but Mary doesn’t believe that.
The midwife returns, carrying a gutsack full of nama.
She left with an empty sack, Mary remembers.
“You said you gave her nothing,” Mary says to the midwife. “Yet you carried an empty nama sack.”
The midwife looks at Peatro, who will not look at any of the three women who surround him. The midwife provides no answer either; instead she starts to trill a nama song.
“What was in the nama sack?”
None of them answer.
In the silence, Mary hears something. Sounds too dim for a human ear, yet they are human sounds. Cries of pain. Roars of rage. A bone cudgel breaking living bone.
Without realizing it, she floats toward the nearest stairway.
“Wait, Old Mother,” Peatro says. “We need you here.”
On the ice, the sounds are clearer. Grandfather knives cutting through skin. Children weeping for mothers, and the sudden end of that weeping. Skulls and ice colliding. And beneath all that, people struggling for breath.
The fields are empty, only wind walks beneath the trees in the orchards. All the Nama Singers and the heavy sacks of nama they carried are gone.
“Don’t go,” Peatro says.
He’s followed her onto the ice.
“They’re dying,” she says. “My children are dying.”
“Seven in ten must die,” he says. “It was either us or them.”
The Song of Gasping. It wasn’t meant for the pika. And she marked the path for the Nama Singers to cross the ice. She led the elders with their sacks full of poison.
“I can stop it.”
“You can save some, maybe,” he says. “But if you go to them, Anolea and my children will die.”
And then she realizes: they wanted her here, away from the Col and the True People. Bora must have planned it from the moment Mary told her of the hardship to come. Maybe even before that.
“What was in the midwife’s sack?” she says.
“The Song of Quickening.”
To induce Anolea’s labour.
“But why, Peatro?” she says. “They are your people, too.”
He shakes his head.
“There is only one people now,” he says. “Bora gave me a choice: if I agreed to help hide the attack from you, my children would be of the people; if I refused, my children would never be born. Help us, Mary, so my choice won’t be for nothing.”
He turns, back toward the hole in the ice where his young mate lets out another agonized cry. From across the ice, on the Col Sera, she hears the sound of slaughter. Of genocide. She is light and shadow, sound and silence. Peatro is right, maybe she can save some of the True People, but what then? How will the two peoples continue?
Before he descends, Peatro says: “We are no better than the old people. You had to know that.”
No better and no worse. She has kept them human, even after all this time.
She floats above the ice, staring down the dark cylinder of the world. She is memory and absence. She will remember it forever, for however many more thousands of years she will endure. Life or death, birth or genocide.
But she can choose what will be memory and what will be absence.
She roams far and wide across the ice, but never near the Col.
A darkness clings to the Col, a shadow Mary doesn’t want to brighten. The Col hangs from the roof of the world above the fields and orchards, the ice of the Col dark and stained; a constant reminder of events no one admits to remembering.
Only half the Nama Singers who departed for the Col returned, but they don’t call themselves that anymore: they are just the People. They always were. Neither Bora nor any of the other elders survived; they perished when they opened their sacks full of the Song of Gasping and incapacitated the True People’s strongest hunters. The People still number more than the one-hundred and fifty that the Pacifica claims it can sustain, but they are working on the Song of the Long Sleep. Already, some sleep beneath the ice.
She isn’t sure what she is looking for as she floats across the ice, wrapped in silence and shadow. Survivors, maybe. She finds none.
Four of Anolea’s five infants survived the birth and three still suckled the last time Mary visited. That was many days ago. She found the grotto overstuffed ever since the People returned from the Col. They brought meat with them. Pika meat, they called it, cut and portioned so that no one can claim it was anything else.
Mary finds it much too crowded in the grotto.
So she roams the ice. She’s been roaming for days. She still has a long time before the Pacifica throws her across the void to the empty desolation of the Savanne, but that day can’t come soon enough.
Then one grey morning, she spots two huddled forms leaning into the wind.
Peatro carries two children on his back, Anolea a third. They each also drag a sledge loaded with hides, bones, bamboo, mats, tendons, gutsacks, and two nama sacks.
“Where are you going?” Mary says.
“We can’t stay down there,” Peatro says.
“Our children have True People blood in them,” Anolea says.
“When times get rough again,” Peatro says. “They’ll be next.”
“But you can’t survive on the ice all alone,” Mary says.
“We can try,” Peatro says.
They keep walking. The Pacifica is dark, the sunbeam a sick grey slash against the curving walls of the world. Peatro prods the ice ahead of him for crevasses.
She floats in front of him.
“Let me light your way.”
Geoffrey W. Cole’s short fiction has appeared in such publications as Clarkesworld, Intergalactic Medicine Show, New Worlds, and Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. Geoff has degrees in biology and engineering. He lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wonderful wife, baby, and giant dog, where he manages the region’s drinking water system. Please visit Geoff at www.geoffreywcole.com