In this absorbing and unique novel, Kathryn Lance asks how far the folly of mankind can go, how much science can be substituted for nature before the imbalance proves disastrous. In a world of the future, great machines lie rusting as their fuel has finally run out and humanity faces the possibility of extinction as altered strands of DNA run rampant through the gene pool. Several forces emerge, each hoping to be humanity's saving grace, but which one will ultimately save the world? The Principal: a brilliant leader fighting to keep a tide of savagery from decimating social structures. The religious cultists: operating on an anti-science platform, promising to rebuild society according to an older, pure model free of the technology that proved to be mankind's downfall. The Garden: a group of female scientists who live cloistered lives, searching for genetic solutions to the world's problems. Two young lovers are caught in a situation they cannot control, desperate to find a way to be together forever.
He knew they had been expecting him. When Zach rode into the dusty yard, scattering the fowl, a face almost immediately appeared in the small window at the front of the cabin, and another peeked from behind a corner. Slowly, he climbed down and tethered his mount to the wooden rail which ran along one side of the house, then stretched to get the stiffness out of his limbs. It had been a very long ride, and he was not young.
The door opened and a small man stepped out, dressed in leather trousers and a worn cotton tunic. He was followed by a woman, also wearing trousers in the northern fashion. A dirty boy-child clung to her, sucking his thumb.
"Yes, stranger?" said the man.
"Marson and Eugenia?" The little man grunted assent. "I am Zach, delegate of the Principal. You were told to expect me." He showed his seal ring.
"The arrangements have all been made?" The little man looked at once nervous and greedy.
"Yes." The man relaxed and stole a glance at his wife. She looked away. Zach spoke again: "The girl is ready?" The man nodded. The three stood for a moment, not looking directly at one another, then the woman turned to her husband.
"He must be tired and hungry," she said.
The little man grimaced slightly, not hiding his distaste at sharing hospitality with Zach. Clearly this was not a question of thrift-it was obvious the family had barely enough for themselves, but like District people everywhere they would be honor-bound to share with a visitor. This was not the first time Zach had been hated while in service to the Principal, and it would not be the last.
"Come inside." Marson abruptly turned and followed his wife through the door. Zach had to duck his head and, once inside, found he could not stand up quite straight except to one side of the long room. It was large and bare, with fresh rushes spread over the packed-dirt floor. Most of the space was overhung with a loft which dropped perhaps twenty inches from the roof. This appeared to be used by the family for sleeping. Although his head cleared the bottom edge of the loft, Zach could not see anything beyond darkness and heaped bedding. A long table flanked by benches, two rickety stools, a loom, and a straight-backed rocking chair completed the furnishings. At the far end of the room was a large fireplace, with a heavy metal cooking pot set on a rack.
"Sit," said Marson, offering Zach the chair.
"Thank you," said Zach. He settled gingerly onto the wooden seat, which was barely large enough to hold him, while Marson and his wife sat side by side on one of the benches. Now he noticed small pairs of eyes staring at him in curiosity and fear. He counted five children; with the girl, that made six, and from the look of the woman a seventh was on the way. For her sake, he hoped it was not a girl. The silence was surprising: the children seemed spiritless, perhaps from malnutrition.
"If I may impose on your hospitality, I prefer to begin the trip back in the morning," said Zach. "There are at most two hours of light left."
"Yes, of course," said Marson.
"That means we have her one more night," said the woman.
"Be quiet!" said Marson.
The woman looked at him angrily, seemed about to speak, then turned to Zach. "We have no bed to offer you," she said.
"I'm happy to have a roof over my head," said Zach.
"How long a journey is it to the Capital?" asked the oldest boy. He had been working at the loom and looked to be about ten years old.
"Not far if you could get there directly," said Zach. "But the going is slow through bat country. After that, it's best to follow the river south and east. By foot, it would take a very long time. By mount it took me just under ten days, riding hard, to get here."
"How did you find us?"
"The Principal's tax men are preparing maps of the entire District. They have marked every town and cabin in this sector."
"That way they don't miss squeezing anyone," said Marson. "No matter how poor."
"Marson!" hissed the woman.
Zach pretended he had not heard the exchange. He didn't blame the little man; taxes were necessary for building the District and securing it, but the burden seemed to fall most heavily on the very poor.
To cover his embarrassment, Zach opened his leather pouch. "Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked.
"Please," said the woman.
As Zach tamped new-smoke into his pipe, the older boy came closer. His dark blue eyes were enormous as he studied Zach and his trappings. "What's that?" he asked, pointing at the delicate feathers which poked up from Zach's pouch.
"Don't bother him, Daiv," said Marson.
"I don't mind," said Zach. He opened his pouch and pulled out a narrow instrument made of thin, polished pieces of dark red wood. Between the two end pieces were stretched six double strings, their splendidly feathered ends fastened with bone pegs. "This is a feathered lyre," he told the boy. "The strings are made from the tail feathers of a new bird that lives in the south and can't fly. The ends of the feathers are very strong and stretchable, like hair. When I pull on a string, like this, it makes a tone." He demonstrated, and the cabin was suddenly filled with the haunting moan of the feathered lyre. No one spoke as the sound slowly faded.
Zach put the instrument away, then lit his pipe with a glowing piece of kindling from the fire and sat puffing, wishing that he weren't here, wishing that the Principal had not asked this of him. But, of course, Zach was the only man he could trust on this mission. It was strange how two men who were so close could be so different, in the most important ways. Of course, the Principal had always maintained that they were more alike than Zach ever cared to admit. Zach's mind drifted with the new-smoke and was gradually pulled back to the long room by the aroma of cooking food, and by the bustling of the woman as she set the table with bread, drinking gourds, and wooden bowls.
"Will you have brew with dinner?" asked Marson.
Zach hesitated. Clearly brew was something precious to the man, and just as clearly he did not really want to share it; but to refuse would be an insult, and besides, after the long, grueling ride Zach craved the bitter taste and relaxing warmth.
"Yes, please," he said. Marson bowed his head slightly and disappeared outside.
The boys squirmed themselves onto a long bench which barely seated all of them. The oldest, Daiv, was the only one who seemed able to look at Zach for more than a few seconds at a time. Marson returned with a large stoppered crock and two pottery tankards, and poured.
"To your health," said Zach, raising his tankard. Marson lifted his but didn't speak. The brew was surprisingly good, as fresh as any he had tasted in the Capital. "Did you make this yourself?"
Marson nodded. "My father was a brewer. I was to follow in his footsteps, but outlaws took the town and we were burned out. There's not much market for the stuff here, or much time for brewing."
"You have the touch," said Zach. "Perhaps someday you'll be able to put it to use."
"Not likely, living as we do," said Marson. "Good ingredients are too rare, and too expensive. For this batch I used real corn--we traded last fair day for some beets we'd grown."
"It's excellent," Zach repeated. He now tasted the stew, which was thin and mealy and seemed to consist largely of beets and unidentifiable greens, and what might once have been fowl. "The stew is good too," he said. "Thank you, mistress."
"We're happy to share," the woman said. Then, leaning across the table, she whispered to the oldest boy. "Daiv, take a bowl up to your sister. She's hardly eaten for two days."
Zach watched as the boy disappeared up the rough ladder to the loft.
"I've heard the Principal plans to expand trade," said Marson.
"That's true," said Zach. "The first step is building better roads. Once they've come into this region, it's possible that you could set up a brewery and inn. Such places exist now closer to the Capital."
Marson grunted. "You put all your work into something, try to build it up, and outlaws take over. No, thank you."
"That is what the Principal is trying to prevent," said Zach. "The risk of outlaws goes down as more people move into an area. The Principal hopes to extend civilization to all corners of the District and beyond."
"Civilization," muttered Marson. "That's what got us into the mess we have now."
Zach had no answer. Marson was about to speak again when there was a sudden, piercing, feminine cry of "No!" and a thumping noise, followed by "Deenas take you, Evvy!" There was another thump, and then Daiv descended the ladder, holding the bowl, its contents soaking the front of his tunic.
"She doesn't want to eat," he said and took his place again.
His mother started to say something, then stopped, looking up at the loft. When she returned to her own meal, she kept her face lowered. For a moment nobody spoke, then Marson said gruffly, "Pass over the serving bowl, Daiv."
Zach felt he could not swallow one more bite of this family's food.
"I'm quite full now," he said, pushing himself from the table. "Thank you."
"Welcome," said Marson. Unceremoniously he took Zach's half-empty bowl and poured its contents back into the serving pot.
"I believe I'll take a walk," said Zach. "If you'll excuse me?"
The man and woman didn't bother to hide their relief. "We close the house when the sun goes down," said Marson. "You won't want to be out then, anyway."
Hanging his smoking pouch on his belt, Zach stepped outside, then went to his mount, which had been lapping water from a trough in the side yard. He took his short sword from the saddle, then walked toward the woods. He was too tired to do much walking but wanted to give the brewer's family more time to sort out their troubles. He half expected that when he returned they would announce that they had changed their minds. Of course he could not allow that-the Principal had become obsessed with the project. Zach sat on a boulder and, using his flint and steel, lit his pipe, then he gazed beyond the roof of Marson's wretched hut. The smoke escaping through the chimney-hole seemed to blend with that from Zach's pipe; only by focusing could he keep them separate, just as he was able to separate himself from the general misery of humankind by keeping his own wants and expectations so low that he was seldom disappointed.
Whether it was his reluctance to return to the hut or the reverie inspired by new-smoke, sunset crept up on him. It happened so gradually that there was no one minute when he could say, "This is dusk." Rather, the air changed imperceptibly, becoming more moist and cool; the color of the sky went from blue to bluer, then indigo. The trees began to vibrate with the sounds of insects, and it was only after he had been startled by the bite of a shiny green fly that Zach realized how late it was. He must get back to the cabin.
His mount had already assumed the immobile position of sleep by the time Zach reached the yard. He started toward her, to retrieve his blanket, when he heard the swishing of wings above him. He threw himself to the ground barely in time to avoid the poison-dripping talons of the bat which had found him out at night, unprotected. He rolled over twice to avoid another attack, then rose to a crouch, his sword out defensively. He began to back up slowly, listening for the flapping wings which were invisible in the near-total darkness. He had nearly reached the door when the eerie swishing sound again approached, and he threw himself against the door, fell into the room, and kicked the door shut. A second later he heard the sound of talons scraping wood, a high-pitched squeal of frustration, and then silence. Zach took a deep breath, then slowly stood. His legs were trembling and he felt foolish as the brewer's family looked at him, the children wide-eyed, Marson and his wife impassive.
"It gets dark quickly here," said Marson.
"Sit down," said the woman. Zach sank into the chair and gratefully accepted the tankard of brew she poured for him.
"You had no trouble with bats on the way here?" she asked.
I saw none, though I heard one once," said Zach.
I heard a bat can kill you in ten seconds," said Daiv. "Is that true?"
"Quite likely," said Zach. "The poison is very powerful and fast-working."
I saw a bat take a sheep down in half a minute," said Marson. "It was years ago, before poison-bats were as common as they are now."
"Enough talk of bats," said the woman. "It will give us all bad dreams." Then she flushed, perhaps remembering that there was already reason for bad dreams. "Daiv, go on up to bed," she said. "Make sure the little ones are settled and see if Evvy wants anything."
With a show of reluctance, Daiv mounted the ladder. Hushed whispers drifted down and Zach hoped there wouldn't be another outburst.
"Does the boy know what has been arranged?" asked Zach in a low voice.
"Only that Evvy's going away to the Capital," said Marson. He snorted. "He wanted to know why he can't go too." The little man looked down at his feet while his wife suddenly busied herself with some mending.
Zach sensed that they would prefer to settle the business tonight, but were hesitant to bring it up. He too would prefer to get it over with, but the Principal had been explicit: he mustn't turn over any metal until he had the girl secure. But what was the harm? They would leave at daybreak, and she couldn't go anywhere before then, not with bats hunting. On the other hand, he hadn't seen her, only heard muffied whispers and some scraping noises. Perhaps it was all a trick. But then Zach remembered the high-pitched "No!" and the hurt and puzzled look on Daiv's face. Those could not have been faked, nor could the pain and embarrassment of the brewer and his wife.
"We'll be getting a very early start tomorrow," Zach said casually. "Perhaps we should settle our business tonight."
"That might be best," Marson agreed.
Zach reached into his pouch and brought out a small cloth bag, heavy with metal. Marson's eyes followed the bag as Zach held it in his hand.
"You both understand that once you take this you cannot change your minds. That you will never see the girl again."
"I understand," muttered Marson.
"And you madame?"
There was a long silence, then she nodded.
"Her other fathers?"
"Her first-father is dead."
"Very well. The Principal wants his citizens to know that he himself observes his laws scrupulously. A few years ago, his men could simply have taken her, whether you agreed or not."
"That's so," said Marson.
"This way, it's a fair exchange. Value for value. I give you this metal and you give your daughter to the Principal, in my care, forever."
"We agree," said Marson.
"Yes," said his wife. "Only, can you tell us what is going to happen to her?"
"She's the Principal's to do with as he wishes," said Marson. "And he's an honest man. He obeys his own laws."
Zach reached for his brew without comment. Yes, the Principal was an honest man, and in most ways a good and kind one. In this one area only he showed a dark side so strong that all of his good intentions and works seemed powerless against it.
"I'll take good care of her on the journey," Zach found himself telling the couple. "I'll care for her as if she were my own daughter. In the Capital, she will be well fed and well clothed." For the time that she remains with the Principal, at least, he thought privately.
The man and woman seemed overwhelmed, and Zach sensed that they were once again on the point of changing their minds. He spoke: "Why don't we all have a bit of brew, to seal the bargain?"
"Yes," agreed Marson. He hopped up and refilled Zach's tankard, then his own and a drinking gourd for his wife. As she took it, Zach could see that her hands were trembling.
"To our bargain," said Zach. They drank. He rose and handed the moneybag to Marson, who opened it onto the floor in front of him. He and his wife counted through the shiny round coins, twice.
"It's so much," the woman said.
"Value for value," said Zach. "I advise you to hide it in a very safe place. Even in this remote area, it's possible I have been seen and recognized."
"I already know the place," said Marson. "I'll attend to it as soon as you've left in the morning."
"I wish you luck," said Zach.
Marson looked at him, then: "Thank you." He sounded exhausted. He gathered up the metal and replaced it in the bag, then stood and took his wife's hand. "Come on, then," he said. "Let's go to bed."
After they had climbed to the loft, Zach finished his brew, looking at the fire. He thought of his blanket still outside on the mount, then spread his cloak and stretched his long frame out on it, resting his head on his hands. He was so tired that he ached, but it was a long time before he fell asleep; when he did, he dreamed that he was lost in a snowbank, hands and feet turning blue, while needles of ice fell from the sky around him.
Copyright © 1961 by Kathryn Lance