Lost Colony Ch. 11-4

It had been Captain Jance that had told him that the Portal lay along the southern continent, and Sparr remembered his words now. Visitors were allowed at the site, but not within the Portal itself. Sparr didn’t know if only the cave would be off limits, or the compound as a whole. It would be safest to approach from the front.

Sparr flew the air car closer to the shore, located a sheltered defile, and landed. It was late morning. The balance of the day should be enough time to approach the compound, learn what he could, then be back to his car by nightfall. With Bogg in tow, he got underway.

After a twenty minute scramble into the glacial valley, Sparr met the road that led from the dock. He followed it, first encountering a wide platform with a shuttered shop, then continuing, to reach the edge of the main compound. A low but heavy gate barred the way. Just as Sparr began to consider stepping over, a man wearing a heavy, grey robe noticed him.

“There isn’t a ship, is there?” the man said, looking past Sparr toward the dock. “We weren’t expecting anyone today. Usually the captain or mate comes up, too.” He sported a ragged beard not unlike those Sparr remembered from the Santi house of the Precipice.

Sparr shook his head, trying to appear harmless. “I’m traveling solo,” he said, smiling blandly.

“Right,” the priest said, still looking hopefully toward the dock. “I’m afraid there’s no one to give a lesson.” Behind him, Sparr could see groups of people among the paths and squares of the compound. A priestess, walking backward, led a line of shaven-head children from one building to another. Nearby, a group of priests pressed close together in a circle as if wary of being overheard.

“Would it be okay if I just walked around a bit? I’ve come so far, and the faith is important to me. I won’t speak to any of the translators.”

The priest’s eyes opened wide. “No, oh, no. I’m sorry. You can watch from the observation deck if you wish.” He pointed toward the platform that Sparr had crossed earlier.

Once again frustration welled up within Sparr. He had gleaned a few pieces of information about the Precipice. Over the months he had become increasingly convinced they knew the truth of what had befallen the colonists, or at least as complete a truth as he was likely to find. Their illustrations pointed to some sort of traumatic event, possibly related to mining or exploration, while their spoken teachings urged living at one with the environment. But every time Sparr thought he was close to learning more the way was closed. Still, there was nothing to do about it. He had his own mission.

“Okay, thanks,” he said with a sigh. Sparr turned away.

“Alain? Alain Sparr?”

Sparr turned to see that another priest, this one familiar, had joined the first. He returned to the gate. “Chi?”

“Yes,” the man said, a cautious smile lighting his face. “What are you doing here?”

Chi was one of two Precipice priests who Sparr had encountered aboard the Shai, during his journey from Caibo to Santi months earlier. The man had been initially hostile, but with his colleague Ota had come to accept Sparr after he agreed to help them with a problem on Horn Island.

“I’m traveling to Seille,” Sparr said. “Thought I would stop in at the Portal.”

“And what do you think?” Chi asked.

Sparr gazed up to where the cave dominated the view inland. “Impressive,” he said. “Inspiring, in fact, but,” he pulled his eyes back to Chi, “I was hoping to learn more.”

“Mmm,” Chi replied, with careful ambiguity. He eyed the other priest before addressing Sparr once more. “We’re about to have lunch.” He opened the gate.

While the other priest hopped away, clucking with disapproval, Chi led Sparr toward one of the larger buildings in the nearest square. It was the one that had been the source of the smoke he had observed from the ridge. As if to confirm his hopes, a billow of air rich with the scent of a carefully prepared meal poured out the door. Sparr noticed a table laid out not just with stew, but recently-caught fish as well. Another table held fresh vegetables and herbs that Sparr hadn’t so much as dreamed of for weeks. Priests, and the children known as translators, had already found places and were digging in.

“We weren’t generous with our teachings the last time we met.” Chi led him to the opposite side of the room where a series of illustrated panels had been affixed to the wall. “Before the beginning,” he started, “there was balance.” He indicated a panel depicting a serene landscape. “And when at first they arrived, the balance was preserved.”

Sparr realized that Chi was preparing to summarize the same teachings that he had already been shown. “Chi,” he said, trying to remain appreciative, “Ota shared these same teachings in Santi. It was enlightening, but…”

“I see,” Chi said, somewhat stiffly. “You must have visited the house after I departed.”

“Yes, yes,” Sparr added. He decided to stretch the truth a bit. “Ota thought I might find a deeper understanding among those allowed to visit this most sacred place.”

The touch of flattery seemed to work. Chi invited him to lunch, where Sparr filled him in on select news from Santi. But it was obvious from a few stray comments that the priest was considering what else he might share with his visitor. After they finished, Chi guided him outside.

“Sometimes the cave itself opens the mind. I can escort you to the rim.”

Chi took him through the compound. Among the buildings were storerooms dug into the tundra, long bunkhouses, and a few cabins which Sparr assumed were reserved for the senior priests. They passed a circular structure which appeared to be partially dug into the soil. Chi hesitated for a moment, then stopped.

“Ota showed you the book?”

“He did.” In the Santi house of the Precipice the priest Ota had shown him a book of illustrations which matched those he had just seen in the common room.

Nodding, Chi continued. “Each translator learns to draw them. But lately, they have brought us a new scene. I can show you, but you understand that you cannot speak while in their presence.”

Sparr remembered. The Precipice priests were highly protective of the translators. No outsiders were allowed to engage them in conversation. “I understand.”

Chi took Sparr to the door and ushered him within. The light was dim compared to the outside, requiring fully half a minute before he could make out the scene within. A semi-circle of translators sat on benches, their ages ranging from youths nearing puberty to restless children of four or five years. At the front, a young woman of no more than twenty stood at a large canvas on an easel. She was pretty, dressed in the grey robes of the priesthood, and holding a brush. Unlike the translators, all of whom had shaved heads, she wore medium length blonde hair.

A child spoke in the same sibilant tongue that Sparr had heard from the translator he met aboard the Shai. To his ears the sounds had more in common with grasses blowing in the wind, or water trickling through a creek, than any human language. Each subtly different sound blended into the next with no clear separation between words or even sentences. When two or more children spoke at once the overlapping sounds merged into a hum.

The woman at the front listened to the boy, her face a mask of concentration. She replied back in the same language, at which the boy, showing a touch of frustration, seemed to repeat himself. Only then, the woman turned to the canvas. She made a sweeping stroke with her brush, producing a thin, arcing line. The boy nodded, but just as quickly a slightly older girl began to speak. The artist dabbed her brush at the line, making one portion thicker.

To the side Sparr noticed a discarded canvas propped against the wall, seemingly the predecessor of the one on the easel. It gave the look of having been abandoned just over halfway through, with numerous strong lines and shapes, but little in the way of detail. It reminded Sparr of the darkest of the Precipice scenes, with black lines boring from the surface into Kaybe’s depths.

Sparr and Chi watched for several minutes before the priest led him back into the light. As they resumed their journey to the cave, Chi shook his head sadly. “I learned to draw these scenes when I was a translator. This is the first time any of us can remember them bringing us a new scene.”

Sparr struggled to digest everything he had just learned. The contents of the new scene weren’t particularly surprising. Chi and Ota had spoken in vague terms when they had alerted him of the disruption on Horn Island, but it was clear that they, or someone in the Precipice, had more than a superstitious understanding of what might be happening.

More interesting was Chi’s comment about ‘them’ bringing a new scene. Who did ‘them’ refer to? The translators? It certainly looked that way. It was clear they had been describing the scene for the young woman to paint. But why would children be the source of such a rare and portentous piece of religious lore?

Finally, there was the acknowledgment that Chi himself once had been a translator. Increasingly it was evident that everyone in the Precipice was brought in as a child. But if that was the case why did the young woman have difficulty understanding the younger children? Hadn’t she mastered their secret language herself as a child? Always on Kaybe answers led to more questions.

At the far side of the compound a wooden walkway led up toward the cave. The way wasn’t steep, but like the ground below, moisture emerging from the cave had settled onto the planks, freezing in some spots. He walked side by side now with Chi as the two cautiously approached the cave.

“Did you know that we aren’t really a religion?”

The question surprised Sparr. “I guess I thought you were. The Precipice and the Origin, sort of competing for followers.”

Chi snorted contemptuously. “The Origin? They aren’t a religion any more than we are. They claim to worship their imagined deity, but seek only to profit and control. They might as well worship tokens.”

Sparr wasn’t interested in pursuing the divide between the two sects. “So, if the Precipice isn’t a religion…”

“We’re more like historians,” Chi explained. “The few devotees we do have like to think we’re teaching them some divine message but we’re really just passing on truths learned over the centuries. We don’t worship anything.”

The explanation, to Sparr, seemed incomplete. The Precipice had no deity at the center of their creed, but they must have a greater source of truth or information. At least some of their teachings seemed to cover a time prior to the arrival of the original colonists. They had either discovered something, or were making it up.

At the rim, with the mouth of the cave gaping above them, the pair came to a stop. The walkway continued down into the cave. Sparr had to fight back vertigo, a sense of not knowing his scale in the world. Seen from below, the cave was particularly overwhelming. The starship Odysseus could safely have flown through with room to spare. And though the cave dipped gently from the rim into darkness, there was no sign it narrowed. The waft of humid air was noticeable.

“Did you wonder where the vegetables came from?” Chi gestured with obvious pride at an unexpected sight, terrace upon terrace of garden plots overflowing with leafy greens, peppers, herbs, squash, and beans. Facing north, the plots would get excellent light most of the year, while being protected from the worst of the wind by the rim of the cave and the glacial valley. The moist air from the cave could only help.

“You’re making the most of a harsh environment,” Sparr mused.

“We have to. Our tokens are few, and trade, even with the Klee, is more often than not an indulgence.”

“The Klee?”

Chi gave a confused stare. “I just assumed… I mean, your cloak.”

Sparr had forgotten he was still wearing the bearskin cloak that Miah had gifted him. “The hunters?”

“They don’t sell those,” Chi said, confirming Sparr’s guess. “You must have earned their favor somehow.”

Sparr had given it some thought. The bear kill had provided the clan with a windfall of meat to eat, preserve, and sell. But more than that, he suspected, besting the arrogant hunter Lachi had done the clan leader Miah a favor. Lachi would be much less likely to challenge her any time soon.

“A favor of a sort, I suppose.” Sparr wasn’t eager to dwell on the encounter. “You took me here for a reason, I believe?”

“I told you the cave itself opens the mind,” Chi said. “Stand with me in silence. You may see.”

The two stood, the portal compound behind them, the gardens to either side, and the massive cave in front, above, and below. Sparr closed his eyes. At first he was simply blind, but after a moment his other senses worked to close the gap. The air carried the scent of rich soil, humidity, and flowering plant life. His skin tingled, alternately warmed and cooled by the breeze. And there was something else. Whether a sound or a feeling, it was impossible to tell. From somewhere, from nowhere, came a sensation just at the limit of his ability to perceive it. It was the language spoken by the youngest of the translators. It was a sound no human could make. For several minutes he let the feeling swirl around and inside of him.

When Chi touched him, Sparr jumped. “Something is happening, Alain.” The priest guided him away from the rim of the cave. “You helped us quiet Horn Island, but I suspect our paths will cross again. There are things I cannot share with you, and things which I suspect you choose not to tell us.” For several minutes the two descended the icy walkway, once again in silence.

A touch of guilt hit Sparr. He had yet to figure out what Calista and Kevin were up to, but whatever it was, he was as much a part of it as anyone else on the Odysseus. They had come to a planet which, though troubled, had achieved its own sort of balance. Now they were creating enough of a disturbance that an entire religion was cataloging it.

The visit to the Portal held one more surprise. As Sparr and Chi were descending from the rim they passed another group going up. A priest and priestess were leading a group of translators toward the cave, seemingly prepared to do more than just peer over the rim. Adults and children alike carried bundles of spare clothing, bedrolls, and food. The children chattered happily among themselves in the incomprehensible tongue while the adults mostly kept quiet, except to exchange a greeting with Chi. On Earth the group would have most resembled several families taking their children on a camping trip. Sparr had yet to figure out the significance on Kaybe.

***

Long before Sparr’s departure from Santi, Captain Jance had shown him a chart of the southern ice. On it, the Portal had been depicted as being well to the east, more than halfway along the crossing. After just two more days of travel, Sparr learned that it had been accurate. At sunset he and Bogg stretched, set up camp, and gazed northeast across what would hopefully be the final open water crossing. The next morning, after the air car had charged, they flew to the eastern continent, Yurr.

Travel became, by necessity, more cautious. On the southern continent there had been little risk of being spotted, and little fallout if they had been. The Klee might have had a tale to tell of a flying machine, but it wouldn’t reach anyone along Sparr’s path. Back on a more populated continent the risks were magnified. Calista and Kevin probably weren’t expecting him to arrive by air car, but if word spread they would certainly figure it out. Visibility changed as well. On the tundra a hunting party could be spotted many kilometers away. As the topography changed gradually from tundra, to scrub, and denser woods, Sparr could possibly find himself over a settlement with little warning. He took to flying slower, away from anything which resembled a road, and took wide circles around any sign of a settlement or agriculture. When he reached Seille he landed well outside the town and entered on the opposite side from the docks.

That it was a port town was unmistakable. Many of the shops had nautical illustrations on their signs. A fish draped in colorful cloth beckoned shoppers into a fabric store, while next door a crab held an amphora of wine in one claw and a goblet in the other. Sparr also spotted warehouses and a caravan, loaded up and prepared for an inland journey. Like Santi, Seille was a center of trade.

But mostly it was the smell. Mixed in with the smells of any town, manure, smoke, and the press of too many bodies in too small a space, there was a welcome sea breeze. The scene triggered a memory for Sparr, laying in bed with Aine, spent from an afternoon of wild sex. The wind had been lively that day, twisting the curtains, cooling the lovers, and bringing with it a hint of the sea. Sparr shook off a pang of melancholy. He had business here.

After checking in to a nondescript inn, Sparr went for a bath and a shave at the temple of the Origin. He had been introduced to the indulgent ritual at the temple in Vonde, and had it reinforced in Santi. A soak gave him time to think.

From what he had learned from the assassin that had hunted him in Santi, the Odysseus mission had set up camp near a town called Neeva. If, however, they were watching arriving ships at the port of Seille for Sparr, he might be able to learn something of their plans. He intended to find a discreet location from which to do his own spying. After that there would be little to do beyond traveling to Neeva, finding the camp, and confronting Calista and Kevin. The air car would make the journey swift, provided he could stay alive.

Two maidens entered the bathhouse, smiling mischievously as they seated themselves either side of Sparr. One began trimming his hair while the other lathered him up for a shave. As with every temple maiden he had seen, both were young, pretty, and flirtatious.

“Ooooh, are you all alone?” the first cooed. Her fingers were a near blur with the comb and razor. “Such a handsome man?”

“I knew the beauty that would await me,” he said. “Why bring a distraction?”

“Handsome, and charming, too,” the second one giggled. With slower, but equally skilled, hands, she began to scrape away the beard Sparr had grown in the weeks since his last shave. “You’re new here,” she said.

“I just flew in from Santi,” Sparr boasted, “full of news of the west.” Suddenly his heart jumped, but if either of the maidens were confused by his use of the word ‘flew’ they didn’t react.

“Oh, you must tell us. We rarely leave the temple, and get sooooo little news,” the first maiden said, drawing out the sound into a pout. Her hand took a break from the comb to stroke Sparr’s chest.

“Well, I don’t want to frighten two such delicate creatures,” Sparr teased, before relenting. “But it seems that there might still be a few demon machines out there. I’ve heard them myself!”

The revelation didn’t draw quite the reaction that Sparr had expected. The maidens nodded somberly, but didn’t seem alarmed. “It is the same here,” the first maiden said. “Stories like that from plenty of travelers.” She finished trimming his hair.

“And here I thought I’d be the hero bearing exciting news!”

“You can still be our hero,” the second maiden said. Like her friend, she had finished her work with the razor. “That is, if you’re,” her hand slipped beneath the water, “as big down there as you are… oh!” The maidens guided Sparr to sit on the edge of the tub, revealing his rapidly swelling organ. “Yes, you definitely fall into the ‘hero’ category.” Her tongue flicked out.

The rest of the afternoon melted away into bliss.

***

Sparr’s spy mission to the docks wasn’t nearly as enjoyable. He watched the next morning from a cramped space between a stack of barrels and the side of a decrepit warehouse as a ship from Santi arrived. First a few deckhands debarked, followed by passengers taking their first shaky steps on solid land after weeks at sea. But he could spot no one there waiting for them, no one like him lounging with a view of the new arrivals. Everyone seemed to have a purpose, bustling forward to help unload the ship, offer accommodations to the passengers, or sell them wine, fried dough, or sausages. Nor did he hear the whine of a drone. Sparr waited until the commotion eased before slinking away.

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