The biovin Charis heard the rumors about the messenger long before he arrived at her laboratory. The watergirls whispered that he had come from the Calomlands, further east than their maps could show with any accuracy. He bore an important text for the yurchief, said one of the boiler technicians, though nobody had heard even a hint of the contents. One of the guard faithful let slip that the messenger had personally angered the yurchief and had been restrained almost immediately upon his arrival.
All took care to mention that he appeared to be on his last legs, having collapsed just on their borders, and that his hideous body bore the bloat of illness.
The yurchief’s orders came to Charis through the precise, bored imperiousness of one of the younger faithful, his voice struggling to hold up the import of the words without cracking beneath the strain. “The biovin Charis is to extract from the messenger the content of the message. There will be no tolerance for fault, no allowance for failure.”
Charis accepted the order with a calm nod, reserving her questions for the voice inside her. Why was she, a biovin, being tasked with this? Charis had none of the skills of the cryptonos, and she knew her political acumen was inadequate for the delicate job of interrogation. It had, in fact, been the cause of her effective banishment to this lab in the canyons, deep in Sound territory and far from the yurchief’s gatherings.
She hadn’t minded the isolation, and instead considered it something of a blessing. A place had been found for her where she could contribute the bread of her skills to the feast of her people. For the last few years, she had been reviewing the pharmaceutical work of her predecessor in the role, improving some compounds and helping to fabricate tabs for the yurchief and those in his pull. Most of the changes were incremental, glacial things that nevertheless gave her a continuing satisfaction that each small, stable adjustment maintained the whole.
Rarely did she see the results of her efforts, but she knew they were successful, if for no other reason than because the yurchief permitted her to continue her work undisturbed and untroubled. For the most part. She liked her work, and her work accepted her in silence. Days could pass between opportunities for her to speak with another living creature. She liked that just fine.
“What am I to do with this foreign messenger?” She only asked it aloud after the young guard faithful had left to deliver her note of obedience back to the yurchief. She kept asking it, mostly to the quiet spaces in her head, until she got her first look at the messenger himself the next day.
Two more of the guard faithful escorted him into her lab. The rumors had been inadequate. He was repulsive to behold, his body a battlefield of open sores, wild lumps of tumors, and ulcerous cavities. He hunched beneath rags that scraped over uneven shoulders, blood and pus staining the stinking fabric. His face could hardly bear an expression, given how the flesh had mottled and bulged with disease. Growths settling from his brow and rising up from his cheeks trapped his eyes in a deep valley, but within all that they shone a clear blue and his gaze was direct. He seemed to study Charis with at least as much intensity as she did him.
He wore shackles on his wrists which, though loose, had nevertheless left deep red welts where they touched his skin.
“Am I to cure him?” asked Charis, taken aback.
“You are to extract from the messenger the content of his message.” It was the same instruction, repeated. Though it came from a different pair of lips, the tone was the same as the first time she had heard it: a committed, tremulous tenor.
“By means of…?” Charis prompted.
“There will be no tolerance for fault—”
“I understand,” interrupted Charis, who could not abide time wasted on repetition.
“I may be able to illuminate somewhat,” said the messenger. “If I may?” His voice was pitched low and each word carried a polite deference. There was a gentle if unpleasant rumble beneath them. Charis recognized the sound as betraying the presence of some fluid or phlegm in the lungs.
“I would appreciate that,” she said.
“Of course.” The messenger glanced to either side before continuing. Neither of the faithful made a move to stop him. “You see, I carry the message inside my cells.” He raised limp hands to indicate the deformities about his body. The obvious effort of doing so was not solely due to the weight of the shackles, Charis guessed.
“Spun into the helices?” she asked, after running the messenger’s words through the sieve of her mind.
The messenger’s lips twisted into what may have been a smile or a grimace. “Essentially, yes,” he said. “The text of the message is encoded among the information there, intended to be read only be those able to retrieve it. Do you think you can?”
Charis nodded faintly, the motion diminishing like the vibration of a loose cord. “Doing so will not relieve you of the cancer, you understand.”
“I defer to your expertise,” replied the messenger. His lungs convulsed and a wet coughing fit overcame him.
Charis frowned sharply at the faithful. “You may leave him with me. Tell the yurchief I will begin work immediately.” With gratitude they were unable to conceal, the two young men backed away, then turned and left the laboratory. The messenger, unable to convey much with expression, cleared his throat and raised his arms a second time, this time in supplication. The chains on the shackles clanked heavily.
“May these be removed, my friend?”
Charis gave him a long look, calculating, and then shook her head. “I would be uncomfortable doing so at this time, though I do have some gauze I will insert as a buffer.”
“I would appreciate that, thank you,” said the messenger, echoing her tone from earlier. The mimicry didn’t escape Charis’ notice, but she was unsure of what to do with the information and set it aside for the time being.
“Please have a seat,” she said, indicating the only chair in the room. It had five metal spokes at its base, each ending in a black caster. It rolled slightly as the messenger sank onto it.
“Thank you,” he repeated.
Charis turned away to retrieve the roll of gauze from her supplies. The laboratory was a single, large space, lit in part by fluorescent tubes that hung low over a repurposed dining table, the sort one might expect to find in a chieftain’s meeting hall. The table bore the wreckage of old electronics and automators, salvaged and scavenged and in various states of repair. A workstation idled at the center of one side, three wide monitors standing as bulwark against the junk. A dozen fans hummed away.
Beyond the sharp radius of the artificial lights, gray filtered sun sifted down from two high windows, one set to the north and the other to the south. Tree branches tapped against panes which had never been cleaned.
The walls were lined with mismatched shelves. The only thing each shared in common was how deeply they bowed under the weight of the materials Charis and her predecessors had collected. As much as was possible, the shelves had been kept tidy. Boxes and containers were arranged with clear separations and angles, as if snapped to an invisible grid.
Charis returned with the gauze. She cut two lengths and taped them around the messenger’s wrists. She stood back as he adjusted the fall of the metal bracelets. He nodded once to her.
“Thank you again, my friend,” he said.
“My name is Charis.” She forestalled the smile that appeared to be growing on his lips with one raised finger. “I’m telling you this so you can call me something other than your friend.”
“I understand,” said the messenger.
“May I examine you?”
“Of course, Charis. I am an open book. Would you like me to move over toward the light?”
“Yes, if you would.”
The messenger rolled the chair over toward the pool of fluorescent light with a series of kicks. He almost looked as if he were having fun. The joints of the chair squeaked with each movement.
Charis sat on a bench next to him and held him steady, spinning the chair slowly like a potter with a fresh lump of clay. “Which is the original tumor?” she asked, letting her eyes travel up and down his body.
“Ah, an interesting question. You’re worried the message may not have been copied faithfully during metastasis, yes?”
Charis’ first answer was a distracted half-nod. The messenger’s back was to her now and she noted the dampness of blood across his shoulders. “Yes,” she said, upon realizing she had turned him so that he could no longer see her.
“The message was originally encoded in my liver cells,” the messenger said. “The tumors came after, I’m afraid.”
“Hmm. I think I might biopsy some of these ones that are more easily accessible first.”
“Whatever you think best, Charis, my friend.”
It took some hours for Charis to prepare her equipment and to sterilize her tools using the little coal-stoked autoclave. During all that time, the messenger sat patiently. Only the occasional rattle of his chains as he adjusted his position called attention to him. Other than that, he remained silent except to answer Charis’ minimal questions.
As Charis staged her surgical tray, though, he spoke up. “Did you build that yourself?” He nodded at the autoclave.
“I designed it,” said Charis. “I’m untrained in smithing, though. The yurchief had it built to my specifications.”
“He must trust you very much.”
Charis searched the messenger’s eyes for any sign of sarcasm. “No, that wouldn’t be accurate to say,” she corrected him with a shake of her head. “I already consume twice my energy allotment just running the refrigeration for the compounds and samples. He was unwilling to grant me more for the superheating. ‘Fire or ice, biovin,’ he said. One or the other. But he did eventually appreciate my ingenuity more than he did my complaints, I believe.”
The messenger nodded. “A true leader.”
Charis smiled in spite of herself, then clamped down on it as quick as a breath. She sat again on the bench beside the messenger and positioned her tray close to hand. “I could begin with one of the tumors on your neck, but I think I would prefer to examine your lymphs, if you’ll permit it.”
“I’ll have to remove your shirt.”
“If you’ll do me the favor of being gentle, I have no objection.”
It was hardly a shirt, more of a rough sack with holes for head and arms. “I’ll have to cut it away,” she said.
“Good. Let’s be rid of the foul thing,” said the messenger. “Burn it, for all I care.”
Charis reached for her shears and turned the messenger in his chair so she could begin to work on the fabric across his shoulders. It took some effort to lift the garment away from his skin, stuck as it was with the gum of drying blood. The messenger inhaled sharply through his teeth.
“I apologize,” said Charis. “I have some sugar cane, but I hoped to save that for the surgical sites.”
“It’s all right,” said the messenger through gritted teeth. “Just talk to me. What is sugar cane?”
Charis paused for a moment, then continued at her task, cutting straight down from the middle of the neckline, following the path of the spine. “It’s a compound my predecessor taught me. It deadens pain where injected.”
“An anesthetic,” said the messenger, nodding. “It’s all right. We can save that for when it’s really needed.”
“May I ask—” Charis began, but silenced herself with a shake of her head.
“You may. I insist,” said the messenger after a pause.
“What sort of message is worth the toll on your body?” Charis finished her cut and spread the shirt apart, lifting it with care from the messenger’s shoulders. She nearly gasped at what she saw.
His back bore a few growths, rising close to his backbone, but worse than them were the dozens of whip strikes layered over his skin. Few of them had healed fully; none had healed well. Some were still oozing. The worst of them lay across his shoulder blades.
“I don’t believe it was intended to take a toll at all,” said the messenger. He shifted his toes on the floor, turning himself slowly until he could look at Charis in the eyes. “The ‘biovins’ back home did warn that there were risks, but perhaps this cancer has been fated in me since long before I was given the message, or came upon me after. It would have been nice to arrive here sooner, of course. I’m afraid I was delayed.”
Charis’ words were cut off by the sound of her laboratory doors slamming open. The yurchief stamped into the room. He stood taller than six feet, broad in his shoulders but narrow in his face. Sealskins draped around his shoulders. Though he was proud of the skins, and of his own prowess in the hunting and killing of the beasts, Charis had often thought that they made him look as if he were forever carting around a pile of filthy laundry. His long hair had been stained red with choke cherries, several days ago by the smell of it.
He crossed the floor to Charis and the messenger before his two guard faithful attendants had even taken station beside the door. “Well?” he demanded, breathing in and holding it. “What is the message?”
“I have only just begun, yurchief,” said Charis, lowering her gaze to the floor. “It will take time to extract the samples and then to put them in sequence. I have not practiced this, nor exercised the tech since my predecessor first instructed me in its use. And then I do not know how long it will take to decode the message into plain words, if we are able to retrieve it fully.” She met the messenger’s own downcast eyes and they held the moment shared between them. Charis got the impression that the messenger had told all of this to the yurchief already.
“I’m deaf to your excuses, biovin,” said the yurchief. He curled one finger, rank with the smell of hide and sweat, beneath her chin and lifted her face. “Where is my message?”
“It’s coming, your ’ness,” she said.
“Good. You have one week. I depart this afternoon to visit the borders. Upon my return, I expect to hear my message.”
The yurchief’s hand shifted and his fingernails suddenly bit into the soft flesh of her neck. “One week. If you are worried about fatigue, I grant you the boon of my speed. But not too much, understand?”
“Good.” He slackened his grip but left the tips of her fingers brushing the skin where bruises would soon form. Then he whirled, washing them in the stink of rancid oils. He snapped at his guard faithful, and the three of them swept out into the night. The laboratory door hung open behind them. A roar of laughter drifted in along with a cool breeze.
Charis went to the door, softness in her every step and motion, and closed it quietly.
“He is a storm among men,” said the messenger.
She gave only half of a nod and then returned to his side. “He is not of this place,” she said. “He came to us when I was young, and none among us can match him in prowess.”
“I’ve known a few like him,” said the messenger. “They do not allow for patience in the movement of things. They thrive in the center of the current, not in the eddies and back-drafts of life. Usually, I wish them well, since they will be long gone before I come to rest.” He cleared his throat, which seemed to take more effort than he expected. He ended up spitting a wad of phlegm into the rags that had been his shirt. “He is one of many.”
Charis withheld her hands from his skin until his shaking had subsided. Then she began to probe the sores on his back.
“What is the boon of his speed, may I ask?” said the messenger.
“It’s a compound my predecessor held the recipe for. I’ve made some improvements. It keeps the mind alert and blots out weariness from the body.”
“Ah. The good stuff,” said the messenger. He gasped as Charis’ thumb brushed one of the long welts.
“I apologize,” she said.
“Please, don’t pay me any mind. We have a job to do.”
Charis nodded and continued. The signs of infection had spread beneath and around many of the welts, but the discharge was white-becoming-yellow. Treatable. “You said you were delayed reaching us. What happened?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Oh. You don’t have to—”
“May I have some water before I begin?”
“Of course.” On the way back from fetching a mug and filling it, Charis retrieved some more strips of clean gauze and a clay pot of salve. The messenger accepted the water gratefully and drank it down in one long gulp, suppressing a rising cough midway through without removing his lips from the mug.
“You shouldn’t waste your time,” he said, wiping his lips with the back of his hand and nodding at the salve and bandages.
“It may ease your discomfort,” said Charis.
The messenger shrugged his agreement. “You’re the doctor. Excuse me, the ‘biovin’.”
Charis moved around him and began carefully applying the salve to the worst infections.
The messenger took a deep breath and began his story. “Between here and the Calomlands, there are three great changes in the land. First, coming from my home, there is a wide plain where sharp ravines scar the flat grasses like claw marks left by enormous beasts. On the other side of those plains, there is a mountain range, peaks taller than any you have around here, but colored gray and white only. Stone and ice. Beyond them is the dwindling forest, plenty green but sparse and thinning. Then comes the mist and the deepness of the bay here—my apologies, the ‘Sound’.
“I left my home at the end of winter, hoping to reach and cross the mountain range before the next winter’s snow could fall. And I very nearly did.
“My path through the mountains brought me past another tribe. They were not the intended recipients of my message, and I thought it better not to announce my presence to them, so I skirted their holdings and attempted an uncharted route down to the foothills. I was… unsuccessful.
“This tribe—they referred to themselves as the Mallers—caught up with me before I could get far. They set upon me at night, while I was groggy with the cold, and bound me hand and foot. They took me to the edge of a deep canyon between two plateaus and tossed me into a hole a ways back from the precipice, three times as deep as I am tall. There were a dozen others in that hole, all of them ragged and filthy and scared. Our dialects weren’t in complete agreement, but before the night was out we were communicating and I learned that I had been pressed into the service of a mighty feat of engineering. The Mallers were building a bridge between the two plateaus. It was a massive thing, indeed.”
There was a brief silence while the messenger cleared his throat and gathered his thoughts. While he did, Charis refilled his mug of water. He accepted it and sipped it less greedily than before.
“How long did they keep you there?” Charis asked.
“Three winters,” said the messenger, nodding as he heard Charis’ involuntary gasp. “And this illness did not rest idle during that time. By the end of it, everyone looked upon me with revulsion.”
“They gave you no rest, despite your condition?”
“During my time there, I saw others forced to work until their hearts stopped. My condition, as it worsened, did nothing but earn me a few lashes for my deficiencies.”
“‘A few’,” Charis scoffed.
“Is it so different here?” asked the messenger. “I noted gibbets along the roads. And my guards may have muttered a threat or two that seemed downright believable, not to mention the indignities the yurchief impresses on his prisoners.”
There was silence while Charis’ face fell. “No,” she admitted. “It’s not so different here.” She took a breath and made a decision before letting the air escape. She crossed to her work table and trailed her fingers over the tools there until she found what she was looking for. Returning to the messenger, she sat and spun him to face her, pulling his shackles forward so she could bend over them with a pick and tension wrench at the ready.
“How did you escape?” she asked while she worked.
“Through no effort of my own.” The messenger chuckled. “One night, as we were returning to our pits, an electrical storm lit up the horizon. I’ve never seen anything like it. It takes much longer to describe than it did to witness. The flashes of lightning clawed through the sunset, but the air healed behind them in an instant. The thunder cracked from one end of the mountains to the other, but the echoes lived on—it seemed like forever. The colors and the intensity were so new, I felt curiously blessed.
“My pit-fellows and captors were likewise stunned. I don’t believe anything like that has been seen before. But we only watched for a few moments before the Mallers returned to the task at hand and dumped us for the night. The storm continued, though we couldn’t see it.”
“Was the pit covered?” asked Charis.
“Most nights, no, but in times of inclement weather the Mallers were kind enough to lay sheets of scrap metal over us to keep out the worst of the rains or snows.”
Charis glanced up into a sardonic curl of the messenger’s lip and answered it with a nod of understanding. The lock clicked on one of the shackles and she moved to the other.
“So, we were covered that night, listening to the howl of wind and catching odd geometries of brilliant light through the cracks as the storm drew closer. At the height of its fury, it sounded as if we were directly under a waterfall, as if a million gallons of whitewater were bludgeoning the stone around us. We could feel it down to our bones.
“There were screams, but maybe only in my imagination. I don’t know how I could have heard them over the racket. To be so small and so vulnerable dead center in the gaze of an unstoppable enemy… I was terrified. The air shook with so much chaos it became difficult to breathe. I buried my head in my hands. But then the clamor only seemed to grow louder. I looked up—I think, despairing, I was determined to stare into the eye of the storm and force it to blink, or some fool thing. Instead what I saw was that the cover of our pit was… disintegrating.
“The jailers had pinned it into the stone with metal hooks, so it hadn’t blown away in the winds, but now there were holes appearing all over it. Not just holes, but slashes, rips, patches going threadbare as if the steel were no more than silk. Right before my eyes, it vanished. There was only darkness above, but I could hear a long hush, like swift water, uninterrupted, but somehow more brittle.
“While I sat there, dumbfounded, trying to understand what I was seeing, I heard a scream rise above the lessening wind and that susurrus. A moment later, a body tumbled into the pit. It was one of our captors. I, alone, edged closer to inspect the remains. I couldn’t say where he had been trying to run to, or why, but he did not make it. His armor was gone, and the clothes beneath it too, blasted away. His skin and muscles had been flayed, laying open his back to the bones.”
Charis felt the lock release on the other manacle and lifted the shackles away from the messenger. He rested his hands on his knees and flexed his fingers.
“What could do such a thing?” Charis asked. “I’ve heard reports of swarms of insects, but none have mentioned the devouring of flesh. Vegetation, only. A human enemy, perhaps, using the storm as concealment?”
The messenger shook his head. His eyes glittered; clearly, some part of him enjoyed having the information that Charis was after. “I appreciate your theories, Charis, but I’ll tell you the truth of it from my observations. You see, that unusual, godlike lightning must have been strong enough and hot enough to melt the gravels and stones into glass, while the winds tumbled that glass until it was atomized, razor sharp particles flying at well more than speeds I can measure. A storm of glass, scouring the mountainsides clean…”
Charis could see it in her mind, a glittering, glowing billow of inarguable power. “Amazing,” she whispered.
“It truly was. And the next morning, after everything settled, we were able to cooperate to pull ourselves out of the pit. None of the Mallers had survived the night. Their huts had been swept away or ground down to nothing. Sharp edges of the cliffside had been smoothed. Only those of us in the pits had survived.
“Us and the bridge. Mostly. All the wooden braces had vanished. The stone structure remained, though its pillars seemed thinner and—in my eyes—not equal to the task of supporting a cart. I wasn’t planning on risking my own body on it. So I wished a farewell to my fellow freed men and women and headed south, toward the distance where the canyon seemed to draw its banks together.
“I have to admit, though, that I regret never seeing that bridge completed. It would have been a fine work.” He retreated into reverie for a moment, then shook his head and returned to his tale. “By this time, I was very weak, so it took me several days to trace the canyon to a place where it grew shallower, then to cross it and return to my path through the forest. All that time, the world had fallen silent.
“Almost. A wind was blowing out of the north the day I crossed into the forest, cold but slow. It curled down and lifted wisps of the fine glass back into the trees. The further I went to the west, beyond the path the storm had taken, the more the trees still held their shapes, their branches, their dead autumn leaves. The sparkling breeze brushed across those leaves, a hushing much like the one from the previous night, but quieter, an unending hiss.
“It occurred to me then that it does something warm to my heart to witness things that take much less time to observe than they do to describe. Do you know what I mean?”
Charis nodded, her senses stuck on facing the external, unwilling to wrench them around and examine things inside herself. She set aside the shackles with a dull clank and rested her palms on her knees.
“No message could be worth all of this,” she said. “None that couldn’t be written on paper or hide or magnetic tapes.”
The messenger shrugged. “Long, long ago we sent messengers into the skies, beyond the sphere of our knowledge, with very little hope of their messages even being read. I’ve already achieved more than they ever did, having met you, biovin Charis.”
“Still… It seems cruel to send you into the unknown, containing the unknown.”
Charis studied the messenger’s face, trying to imagine how he might have looked before the corruption of his flesh.
“We should probably continue, per the yurchief’s request,” said the messenger softly, trying not to startle her.
Charis blinked and nodded. “Yes. Can you raise your arms?”
“That will do. The left side, please. I’ll be quick.”
“Take the time you need. I’m just dying to know what I carry.”
Five days passed while Charis worked, recalling her predecessor’s instructions and reconditioning the necessary equipment. The messenger spent most of them lying on a cot near her workstation. Charis had sent a watergirl to retrieve the simple bed from her home. The girl had stared goggle-eyed at the messenger until he had given her a little wave, then had darted away. On her return, she had stayed well away from the messenger, unfolding the cot and rushing back toward the door before the messenger could shamble over to it.
“Don’t worry,” he had said to the girl. “I’ve not made anyone else sick.” The words hadn’t sunk in.
Since then, Charis had isolated the helices from the sample from the messenger’s lymph tumors and taken two more samples for comparison: one simply from a swab of his cheek, the other from one of the tumors visible near his spine. For the latter, she had been as careful as possible, and used the last of her sugar cane to deaden his nerves, but still his body had nearly twisted itself off the cot trying to escape the coring needle.
Now, he slept while Charis worked to amplify the fragments of the samples and render them as codes that might contain the message. In her mind, she considered the work backbreaking, because of her habit of bending close to her keyboards and displays and how infrequently she remembered to stretch and relax.
At one point, while waiting for a chemical reaction to complete, Charis felt her eyes drifting closed, and briefly considered taking the speed the yurchief had offered. But she knew what it did to the body, peripheral to the borrowed energy and wakefulness. It was fine for the guard faithful, for the warriors of the vanguard, and for the yurchief himself, but Charis intended to live much longer, much more slowly than any of them.
Gray pre-dawn light was lightening the high windows when the final strand of data resolved on her screens. The software laid the three samples side by side, eliminating the lines of identical data and presenting the differences. She tapped and clicked, reviewing each cut. In every example, the cheek swab showed differences from the two core biopsies where she presumed the message could lie.
But as she laid the data from the tumors side by side, her heart sank.
“Are you making progress?” the messenger asked. He stood a few feet away from her and spoke quietly so as not to startle her.
She bent forward and propped her head in her hands. “Yes and no. The samples from your spine and lymph nodes are significantly different. If there was a message there, it may have been corrupted by one, or by both. Most likely both, since neither is the original. Metastasis may have altered whatever was injected in your liver cells.”
The messenger took this in stride, approaching so that he could see the screen over Charis’ shoulder. “You have done great work already, my friend,” he said. “Do you need my liver?” He said it in the pitch of a joke, but Charis shook her head, answering seriously.
“Even if we take the sample, I’m still confronted by the task of decoding the message it might contain. The yurchief will be back in two or three days. These conditions are not… ideal.”
The messenger smiled and patted her shoulder and then retreated again to his cot, breathing heavily. The mild exertion of crossing the room seemed to have weakened him.
“Before I volunteered,” he began as his lungs caught up to the demand. “Do you know what I was?” Charis shook her head. “I was a poet. I wrote verses on nature and community, real sentimental stuff. Poets are perhaps not necessary to the smooth function of society, but I do believe we are nature’s codecs. Do you know that word? We decode the messages of complex systems; we encode the simplicity of life so that it will stick lengthwise in the mind. All messages, to the poet, are in all things.”
“That is not a representative view of the world,” said Charis.
“It is precisely representative. Just not very accurate,” said the messenger with a warm chuckle. “I believe in you, Charis. Your successful work does not depend on knowledge you do not possess, nor on effort you are unprepared to undertake. Your only obstacle, I think, is time.”
“For us both,” said Charis.
The messenger nodded at that and lay back on the cot. “I’m at your disposal,” he said.
Charis was silent for a moment. The messenger’s breaths began to slow. There was one more piece of information she wanted from him, though. “Why did you volunteer?”
He blew a puff of air out of his nose and rolled to face her, his eyes half-lidded. “I believed there was more to life than poetry. Can you imagine that? Don’t answer.” The laugh that escaped him was strangely high pitched.
“I don’t know much about poetry,” said Charis.
“It’s all right. I’ve proven to myself that I don’t know much about anything else. It’s a truth I’ve long avoided accepting. When the council asked for volunteers to carry messages to all the scattered tribes, I convinced myself that a humble poet would be the best for this job. All my life, I studied and practiced to draw connections between distant rhetorical points, almost like a soothsayer impressing shapes upon a scattering of stars or a clothier assembling their textures in a beautiful garment. Who better to bear a special missive to strangers than someone trained to draw together the folds of a broad idea and stitch it over a form easy to recognize?”
“Your pride compelled you?”
“My hubris, I would say. It was fueled by decades of feeling underappreciated, I don’t mind saying. A poet has one eye forever locked on immortality, but nothing I composed ever would ensure my own. I suppose I felt that, in this effort, I could make a difference. One that might last.”
“That was a great risk,” said Charis. The messenger didn’t offer a disagreement. She went on: “What did you hope you would find at your journey’s end?”
The messenger gave the question its due consideration in silence, then, with some effort, shifted onto his back to stare up at the distant, shadowed ceiling. “What I hoped for back then is unimportant. What I hope for now is that I won’t die lonely. And that, whatever this message in me turns out to be, it brings people closer together.”
Charis looked at her hands. She wondered how many years of life she had preserved among her people, how she might quantify the difference she had made so far. “Perhaps you are the message,” she said.
The messenger spluttered a laugh and moved a hand to press against his side. “Oh! Please, my friend. One more puff of conceit into this skull and I fear my head will float away. No, no. There is an end to my life and it has been written in me.”
Before Charis’ smile had faded, he was asleep.
On the morning of the sixth day since her task had begun, Charis sat and listened to the messenger groaning in his sleep. There was no place and no time where he could escape the pain of his disease. At least he seemed to recover some energy after his naps, despite the apparent discomfort.
Charis left him to his rest and stepped out of the laboratory. The mists of early morning dampened her face and clothes. The air tasted of algae, thick and green. She saw threads of smoke rising above the treetops and could smell cooking meat. A watergirl laced between the nearby trunks, two buckets balanced on a yoke, headed for the laboratory’s cistern. Charis caught her eye and nodded to her. In response, the watergirl shook her head and flicked her eyes toward the deeper forest.
Now Charis could hear it: the stamp of heavy feet. An infrequent chime of metal-on-metal suggested the guard faithful. Sure enough, two of them came around a thick fir from the direction of the water. Between them strode the yurchief, back from his hunt ahead of schedule. He had a brace of otters slung over his shoulder and was using his fishing pike as a walking stick, dull end downward.
He nodded when he saw Charis, as if pleased that she had anticipated his coming. “What’s the message?” he barked as she drew nearer.
“My apologies, your ’ness,” said Charis, bowing her head. “I have not yet retrieved the message.”
The yurchief shifted the weight of his kill and sighed. “Look at me.”
Charis did as instructed.
“You look exhausted. Did you sleep last night?”
“Not well, your ’ness.”
“Did you take my speed?”
“I did not.”
The yurchief nodded. He gave a mild gesture with the fingers curled around the pike and both guard faithful relaxed. Charis hadn’t even noticed them tensing.
“You still have until tomorrow, upon my original order. I shall leave you to it. But pay attention, biovin. If you fail to deliver the message to me before tomorrow noon, I will consider you a thief: a thief of my time and of what is rightfully mine. You will receive a thief’s punishment.”
“But, your ’ness,” Charis protested. “Without my hands, I would be unable to compound—”
The long pike slammed into the ground hard enough to make the world seem hollow; Charis felt the beat of it rise up in her bones. “You!” The yurchief’s voice hit her ears with the same force. “Your value is not in your hands! Your knowledge can be preserved through… much.”
“I understand, your ’ness.”
“You are burning daylight, biovin.”
Charis bowed her head again and left it downturned until the footsteps had gone and the cloying scent of the dead beasts had dissipated. Then she raised her head and let the furious dampness in her eyes intermix with the air’s heavy humidity.
When her heart had slowed, she re-entered the laboratory, opening and closing the door as quietly as she could.
She needn’t have bothered. The messenger was sitting up on the cot, half-propped against the wall.
“You need more rest,” said Charis.
“I don’t,” said the messenger. “It takes hours to process a sample, yes? We had better get started.”
“I’m out of sugar cane.”
“It won’t matter, Charis.” He levered himself off the cot and approached her. “He would really take your hands?”
“It’s the punishment for thieves.”
“Some would rather choose exile, I imagine.”
“There is no exile. Nothing is beyond the yurchief.”
“Come now,” said the messenger. His expression shuddered for a moment and then went still, as if he lacked the energy to shift it to any purpose. His voice settled into a warm valley, though. “There is much beyond the yurchief.”
Charis let her gaze fall to the biopsy needle. It hadn’t gone through the autoclave since its last use. She feared there wouldn’t now be enough time. “I might kill you,” she said.
The messenger sighed and sat down on the creaking office chair. “I don’t believe you’ll have the chance, my friend. You could, of course, wait until after I am gone, but would you deny me at least the chance to see the unknown inside me? Come now. It’ll be over quicker than I could write it down.”
Charis looked at her hands, gray in the thin light, and flexed her fingers. They held steady. She nodded. “But give me a moment.” She touched his shoulder, noting the quiver in his body that he seemed unable to still. Then she went and retrieved a portion of the yurchief’s speed. She dug through the ingredients in her refrigerator and added careful measures of several to the drug, then diluted the mixture in water. She brought a beakerful to the messenger’s lips. “Drink.”
He obeyed, licking his lips afterward. “If I see eternity, I intend to keep far away,” he said, rumbling a laugh that devolved into a coughing fit. Charis helped him from the chair onto one of the benches, laying him out beneath the strongest light. His eyes closed as the high took hold and he made barely a whimper when the needle punctured his abdomen.
The sun had been rising for hours before its light found Charis through the high lab windows, head bent, muscles giving up any hope of relief. By mid-morning, the cut segments of the liver sample were rendering on her display. She began to compare them to the other three, noting strings of differences, eliminating common patterns. On and on.
The symbols assigned to each piece of data began to blur together. Charis rubbed her eyes and looked up at the high windows. The branches of the trees were still, as if making an effort not to disturb her. The only sound in the room came from the hum of fans and the labored breathing of the messenger.
I could live in exile, thought Charis. If there are lands beyond the yurchief, beyond the Mallers. I could go to the Calomlands. She had never been beyond the Sound, had never even had to spend a night beneath the stars. Would I have volunteered? She had no answer for herself. Absently, she cracked her knuckles and regretted it at once as the messenger stirred.
He opened one eye and fixed it on her. The color had left his skin, his tumors ashen gray and the porous skin in the clefts between them fully white.
“How is it going?” he asked.
Charis left her work and came to kneel at his side. “Not well,” she said. She calmed her voice by speaking like a biovin. “The sequences were well-extracted, but I still cannot locate the message, and even if I were to locate it now, I don’t believe I could decrypt it in time. I’ve been giving it some thought, and since the cipher must be more complex than simple substitution, compressing our alphabet into the limited set of—” She stopped herself abruptly, the absence of the words permitting a lump to rise in her throat.
Her hands sought out his and together they held some warmth in stasis.
“I don’t think I can do it,” she said.
“Charis, Charis,” said the messenger. “What a gift it has been to find someone who might read the messages in me—” His eyes fluttered. “Oh, eternity,” he whispered, unable to focus on anything close at hand. Charis squeezed his fingers and he returned for a moment. “We are drawn together across a great distance. Do you see it?” He forced a smile onto lips unwilling to cooperate.
His heartbeat slackened, then, and stopped.
Charis tightened her grip on his hands, relaxed, then tightened again, repeating the motion over and over, as if she could urge his pulse to return. It took some time for the absurdity to penetrate her conscious mind.
Finally she stood and left him alone. She trailed her fingers over the equipment on her table, let them brush over the keyboards and controls. Who knew what accidental changes her careless touch might have made to her work? She snapped off the power. In the silence that followed, a clicking came from the high windows. Pine needles tapped against the glass.
Charis went outside, leaving the laboratory door open behind her. A breeze was beginning to stir in the forest.
One of the watergirls, headed past on her way to the cistern, noticed her standing there and approached hesitantly.
“Miss, are you alright?”
It took Charis a great effort to fix her attention on the girl, as if the thickness of the air resisted the motion of her eyes. No, Charis corrected herself, ever searching for precision, because it wasn’t the world beyond her flesh that slowed her; it was the atmosphere within, the swirl of her intentions anchored at some midpoint she couldn’t visualize. Words wouldn’t come out.
“Did you find the message, biovin?” The watergirl’s voice carried a lilt of excitement.
Charis turned her attention again to the trees. That riot of thoughts within her spun on and on and she realized that, though they all were tied to the eye at the center, that eye was in motion. Charis recalled the messenger’s cold skin.
“Biovin?” The watergirl now seemed to be getting worried, leaning in closer.
Charis let her lips fall apart and pulled in rushing air between them. “Would you,” she began, pausing as the words went out and did not return. “Would you like to learn the work of a biovin? I could teach you everything I know.”
“And maybe I will be a poet.”
The branches around them gently scraped the air, hissing. It was an inconstant sound, inward and outward, as if driven by breaths drawn and exhaled.
No, Charis chided herself. A slackening moment like this should take much less time to describe than to observe.
The wind moved in the trees.
The yurchief received Charis in his audience hall, a stone-and-thatch longhouse with three fires spaced equidistant down the length. Each fire was stoked fiercely hot, but directed mainly upward, so that as she crossed the distance from the entrance to the wooden throne her skin alternately blazed feverish and chilled beneath her damp sweat. Her mind echoed the pattern as she rehearsed what she might say, in turns raging with anger and then withdrawing to cold darkness.
As she bowed, she felt the stresses of the differentials might crack her down the middle, but in fact only her voice did as she made her decision and said, “Your ’ness, I have your message.”
The yurchief looked down at her. He leaned back in his throne, the wooden joints creaking. The thick air made it hard to see his expression. Charis blinked and wiped at her face, feeling for an irrational moment that her eyes had been darkened like smoked glass.
She sensed he was waiting for her to go on. She took a deep breath. The words came to her mind barely before they left her tongue, and they quavered as they went.
“The message is a simple text of friendship, your ’ness, extended by the councilors of the Calomlands. They wish prosperity upon you and your people and invite us to reply by any means.” The lie mingled easily with the grime suspended in the air between them. Charis bowed again, willing her shaking knees to calm. “They indicated landmarks for navigation to their homelands,” she added, hoping that the messenger’s story would supply enough detail if pressed.
“Friendship,” said the yurchief, the word curling out of his mouth like smoke.
Charis nodded, fixing her attention on a whorl in the pattern of the stone floor, an image like the eye of a storm.
“Worthless. Leave us,” the yurchief barked to those at his side. “You stay, biovin.” A shuffling of footsteps around them told Charis that the various guard faithful and soothsayers were filing to the exit. Her flesh ignited and then froze.
“You are telling me the truth,” the yurchief muttered, leaden tone absorbing all inflection if it had been a question.
“Yes, your ’ness,” said Charis. All messages are in all things. She repeated the messenger’s words to herself. It did little to bring about an equilibrium.
“Look at me,” the yurchief said. Charis obeyed. “The tribe is glad for your skills,” he went on. “They are a tribute to us all. Well done.” A pressure wave of relief built up inside her. “Tell me, exactly: how did they address me?”
“The message was addressed to whomever leads the people,” said Charis.
The yurchief snorted a laugh and rose. He clasped his hands behind his back, ambling past Charis to just within the corona of the nearest fire. He stretched out his hands to warm them and then nodded for her to join him.
“It would only be proper to compose a reply, don’t you think?”
“Yes, your ’ness.” She stopped herself before asking if he intended her to carry the response. The relief had faltered and dissipated.
“Entertain me, biovin. What would you say to such a message?”
“I would respond in kind. Offer our friendship. Perhaps, in the future, we might have an exchange of knowledge and equipment.”
“It would not be swift enough, I’m afraid, biovin. While you have been stuck to your workbench, the world beyond you has been changing. There have been storms along our borders, brutal ones which leave nothing behind. They’re coming closer. Soon, they will scour the Sound to its barren bones. We must be away from here before that happens.”
“Storms of glass?” asked Charis. The yurchief nodded, turning a curious gaze on her until she explained: “The messenger witnessed such a thing near the end of his journey.”
The yurchief shrugged. “Then perhaps the Calomlands are safe from them, as yet.” He let his eyes drift over the flames. “They were my home, once,” he said, far away. “Plains of green grass. Lakes full of fish and forests full of game. But I’m afraid my mind was not so narrow as they would have liked.”
Shocked, Charis made a sound like an apology, inconsequential. The yurchief crossed his thick arms and closed himself down, eyes and all.
“Where is your gratitude to me, I wonder?” he said. “With my own strength, I have ensured our survival. I put those lands behind me, with their conceited council and the preening philosophers in their alabaster domes. This gray lump in my skull was a pitiful thing, in their consideration, and my destiny was set as a sludge-man, an offal-bearer.
“You would be accepted, of course, in no time at all, biovin Charis. Their sole pride was in the supremacy of their minds. They do not and would not have the strength to survive, to thrive as we have here in the Sound.”
Silence expanded in time and space, filling the seconds and the rafters.
“Friendship, you swear?” The yurchief’s throat rasped with phlegm. He spat into the fire. “There’s no ambiguity in the message?”
Charis quailed, but any deviation from the message would surely bring the whole thing to an end. “There is no ambiguity.”
The yurchief chuckled. “Then I know what I shall say. And I will etch my words in stone, where they might be read by anyone. And the host of us will follow just behind the messenger. We will cross the lands, ahead of the storms. They expect friendship, but they did not know who would read their message. I will return at the prow of war. You are dismissed, biovin.”
He turned to face the fire and spat again. As he lowered his head, his hair fell away from his neck. Charis blinked and stared. A cyst had been exposed there, small, pale, but casting a large and dancing shadow. She opened her mouth and found no words for a long moment.
“Yes, your ’ness,” she said finally.
Charis returned to the laboratory in silence and worry. Once inside, with the door closed, she disrobed. The cool of the evening and the threat of rain drew gooseflesh all over her skin. She examined her body in a mirror but found no lesions, no evidence of illness. Afterward, satisfied for the time being, she wrapped herself in layers and sat in front of the messenger’s body for a long while.
There was so much she didn’t know. She realized how desperately she wanted to confess just that to the messenger, to hear him offer his interpretation of her words and her world. If I were smarter, or faster, or had better tools, she thought, but silenced the voice inside before reaching a conclusion.
Being there, in the unknowing, was not unusual for her. It was part of the job of the biovin to learn, to build small answers upon each other until they reached a larger one. But for the first time in her work, she felt tormented by the blank void of unanswered questions, questions which could not be answered. At least, not there in the laboratory nestled in the Sound.
If the yurchief truly intended to lead his people to the Calomlands, it would take time for him to assemble them all. There would be bustle and confusion and little for Charis to contribute unless he ran out of his speed, now that he believed he had his message and his purpose.
If there are answers for me, she thought, they are beyond his reach. Now and maybe forever. She could slip away in the night and be ahead of the vanguard by days, turning to weeks if his condition followed the course of the messenger’s. She could reach the Calomlands, a little storm of her own, full of swirling questions and fears and warnings.
Or perhaps the glass storms will sweep through and scour the lands clean of all our complexities, our imperfections.
The decision rose in her like a sudden gust. She filled a satchel with medicines that would travel well, and retrieved a stash of dried meat and nuts. Almost as an afterthought, she crammed the hard copies of the data extracted from the messenger alongside the provisions. When she stepped out into the evening, the damp wind hit what little skin she had left exposed like a bloody lash. She turned her back against it and set out for the Eastern path. Her path would take her through the drying forest, over the mountains, over the plains, to the Calomlands, bearing with her the unknown and the unknowable, and the hope of crossing bridges to meet those who might help her find the soul of the message inside her.