Death and destruction.
Progeny’s heart is broken.
Long before they arrived at Gateway, it was obvious that word of their approach had preceded them. The walls of Gateway were surrounded by shacks and encampments, and people came out to the road's edge to watch them pass. Children ran alongside the rover's great wheels; voices shouted in English and French, Chinese and Spanglish, Arabic and Farsi; traders stopped their haggling to stare after them. The city sprawled on the banks of a great river, choked with boat-traffic of a dozen different kinds; much of the ruins had been rebuilt, and even the gateway arch was being repaired by crews risking their lives on shaky wooden towers.
The rover was forced to stop well outside the gates and the people pressed in about it. Progeny climbed out onto the road and a crowd surrounded him, seeming to want nothing more than to touch him. It was hard for Karil to believe that his reputation had preceded him across the desert, but Terry did not seem surprised. Nor did she seem overly concerned for his safety in the crowd, but Shagrug was extremely uneasy.
Suddenly the crowd parted with a great commotion and a rider pushed through. Individuals were thrust aside by the horse's strength, and the animal itself was nervous--wild-eyed, prancing uneasily. Karil was very concerned now, for he realized the creature was about to panic and could cause injury to a lot of people, including Progeny. But the Martian leader stepped forward, moving through the crowd swiftly, yet without haste, and placed his hand on the horse's muzzle. Instantly, it calmed down. The rider--some sort of mounted policeman, judging by his uniform--bristled at the sight of someone touching his steed, and he reached for his weapon. Progeny's penetrating glance fell upon him, and he froze. From his position in the rover, Karil could not see Progeny's face, but the rider's expression revealed the intensity of his gaze. Karil marvelled that a man could intimidate an armed policeman with a glance and calm a frightened horse with a touch at the same time. The crowd fell silent, as astonished as Karil by the tableau.
Another rider approached. The crowd fell back and a bearded, curly-haired figure in military camouflage rode toward them. "I'll take over now, Sergeant. You're dismissed."
The first rider snapped out of his reverie, saluted, and rode off. The second reigned in before Progeny, slid out of the saddle, and stood, hands on hips, grinning broadly.
"Aaron!" said Progeny. He and the stranger embraced like brothers. They could almost have been related, Karil thought, with their dark hair and piercing eyes. The one called Aaron looked up to see Terry climbing out of the rover. He caught her up in his arms and swung her about like a child--easily done with his powerful physique. Karil noticed the largest automatic weapon he had ever seen, slung low on Aaron’s hip.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Progeny wanted to know.
"I'm running Gateway's security forces. The riders from the desert have been here for days talking about your exploits. We don't let them into the city, but the people outside the walls trade with them, and the Sharif sent me to invite you to his tent."
"Come aboard, then. This is Shagrug and Karil, our drivers. Atalanta, say hello to Aaron Ben David."
“Shalom, Aaron," she said. "I've heard about your role in the Martian Rebellion. When you vanished, many people assumed you had been captured or killed by the Quasi."
"No, Proj spirited me off the planet. Allowed me to break my contract, too. If I'd hung around, they would have gotten me for sure. I got a gig helping the Sultan of Chicago with the reconstruction, and when Sharif al-Iskandar came down to try to organize Gateway, I signed on."
"Muslim leaders prefer to hire Israeli mercenaries, if they can," Proj explained to his companions. "Fiercest fighters on the planet. And they never get involved in palace politics. What's more, everybody knows they're picky about who they work for. If you've got an Israeli heading your security team, it tells the world you're not a tyrant."
Aaron shrugged. "We don't work for our enemies, that's all. I think the main reason Proj's group hired me was that I'd just refused a Quasi offer. I'm still not sure how they knew, but they approached me as I was leaving the interview. Going into hiding with them probably saved my life, because Captain Solla was really pissed off about my refusal. He must have been livid when he found out I'd signed on with the MLF. And my first job with them was to bust Progeny out of prison under Solla's nose. Come on. Let me give you a tour on the way to the Sharif's tent."
The city gates opened before them and the rover entered, Aaron's mount tied to the rear of the vehicle. People gathered about them, peered down from balconies, whispered among themselves. Aaron held onto a stanchion and rode in the open hatch as the rover made its way through the teeming streets, jammed with tents and markets, redolent of frying food and unwashed bodies, deafening with the calls of vendors and the cries of children. Huge big-top tents had been hung across the streets, suspended from ruined and reconstructed buildings, to protect the people from the deadly sun. They flapped in the breeze off the river, and in their shade it was cool.
Aaron half-shouted to make himself heard over the city’s din: "After the collapse of the government and the flight of the wealthy and educated into orbit, the cities here found themselves in even worse economic trouble than before. Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago got together and formed the Great Lakes Alliance. After all, they had the same kind of populace: a rich variety of cultures, languages, and religions, mostly without high-tech skills but with an extensive background in trade. And what's more, they were on the edge of a huge inland waterway that extended right into the centre of the continent.
"They built a civilization, largely organized by Black Muslims at first, but based on tolerance, trade, and compromise, while the rest of the continent was opting for separatism and ethnic homogeneity. There were a few serious skirmishes. New Orleans felt threatened by Spanglish-speaking states on both sides trying to create an empire from California to Florida, so they offered to join the alliance in exchange for military aid. Since both Quebec and Montreal were blockading the Saint Lawrence River in their war with each other, an ally at the mouth of the Mississippi was ideal. There was a battle over Memphis, which was allied with Little Rock and Nashville, and now there's a civil war going on in Cincinnati, because some people there want to bring the Ohio River into the system as well." He grinned. "This is an interesting place for a soldier of fortune, no doubt about that."
The tent of Sharif al-Iskandar, located in the centre of town, was a vast expanse of white cloth, but from every tent-pole flew a different flag, indicating the number of city-states in the alliance. It had been stretched over a park and there were trees inside; flaps in the tent-fabric were pulled back to give them sun without allowing too much ultra-violet or heat to penetrate. The Sharif greeted them as they stepped into its cool, magical interior; he was a tall black man in flowing white robes.
"Welcome to Gateway," he said in a mellow baritone. "You don't know what a joy it is for me to meet visitors from another world, particularly one I have heard so much about, plus a beautiful lady and two most interesting adventurers besides. I hope I will hear your stories, and perhaps, Progeny, you and I can argue politics."
"Perhaps you can," Shagrug muttered, and Terry kicked him.
"But you wish to be refreshed and to relax after your journey. Then we will dine."
Servants appeared and they were led into the cool, rustling depths of the tent. Karil found himself in a chamber filled with pillows and flung himself down with a sigh. There was a bird singing in a cage and a bowl of fruit nearby. He kicked off his boots and stretched out, feeling quite at home.
The curtain was pulled aside, and a young girl entered--an Asian girl with flawless skin and almond eyes, but with decidedly Slavic cheekbones. She was holding a stack of towels.
"Would the Sharif's guest like to bathe?" she asked.
"After crossing the desert in a tin can with Shagrug and two horses, I would say so."
The girl laughed, though she probably did not understand what he was talking about. He pushed aside the flap and entered the next chamber to find another girl pouring hot water into a huge wooden tub; she was red-headed and covered with freckles. The first girl tested the water with the heel of her hand. "The bath is ready, Sir."
The second girl approached him, and they began to unzip his ship-suit. He wriggled out of it, climbed into the tub, and sank gratefully into the perfectly warm water. To his astonishment, the girls untied a bow at their shoulders and let their robes slide down their bodies to their feet, then stepped out of their garments and climbed into the tub with him. They stood, water lapping against their thighs, looking down at him expectantly. "If the Sharif's guest will stand?"
Karil stood. They poured a liquid soap over his shoulders, and it ran down his body. They began to soap him, rubbing with gentle hands. Soon he and they were covered with sweet-smelling suds. The touch of their hands on his body, the occasional brushing of small, soap-slathered breasts against him, had its effect, and the girls giggled charmingly.
"Beats hell out of an ion-shower, doesn't it?" Shagrug said. He was standing at the tent-flap, grinning in a particularly offensive manner. "Shall I leave you three alone?"
Karil began to stammer and cursed himself silently. "I don't take advantage of servants that way," he said, and blinked at the sound of his own pomposity.
"Oh? Doesn't look that way from here. The spirit is unwilling, but the flesh is strong."
Karil sat down suddenly in the water, and the girls, unperturbed, ladled water over him.
"Well," Shagrug said, "if you won't take advantage of the situation, I will." He began to strip off his ship-suit.
"I was just leaving," Karil said, climbing out of the tub and snatching up a towel. Shagrug vaulted over the edge of the tub and landed with a great splash, drenching the girls. Their gasps of shock gave way to peals of laughter.
Karil dressed and left with their laughter ringing in his ears. He was not paying attention to his surroundings, and soon found himself lost in the maze of tent-corridors. Trying to find his way back to his quarters, he rounded a turn and suddenly came upon a sight that made him gasp.
The silhouette visible through the tent-fabric was unmistakeably Terry's. She stretched, arching her back, and ran her fingers through her hair, then down her breast to her stomach, making her nipples harden beneath her fingers. The silhouette of Progeny rose from beneath her and they kissed passionately. She was astride him.
Karil retired in confusion, a torrent of contradictory emotions flooding through him, ending in the painful realization that he wasn't cut out to be a Martian. In that instant, despite his admiration for Progeny, a fierce hatred had thrust through his heart like a knife, and an absurd desire to rush in there, kill Progeny, and take Terry from him had washed over him, leaving him trembling and breathless and thoroughly disgusted with himself.
Later, at dinner, he could hardly look at Terry, though she was more beautiful than he had ever seen her; she gazed upon Progeny with an affection he had never seen before either, and Karil’s heart was heavy with self-loathing. Brooding on his dark thoughts, he lost track of the conversation several times and had to force himself to listen.
"The common assumption," Progeny was saying, "is that patriotism is necessary to preserve the nation, but I think the reverse is true: the nation is necessary to preserve patriotism. In my opinion, the nation-state is a political fiction created to serve as a focus for that emotion."
Al-Iskandar laughed. "There's a typically provocative statement! You are living up to your reputation."
"Perhaps, but a nation is just an extent of territory someone has taken by force or threat of force from someone else, who in turn have more than likely stolen it in the first place. Since the present rulers occupy the land by force of arms or force of habit rather than by any natural right, they need a certain patriotic fervour in their citizens to legitimize their claim. The more they can brainwash the public, especially the young, into believing they live in a great and special country and are therefore a great and special people, the more crimes will be forgiven in their struggle to retain control of the territory."
"But, surely," al-Iskandar replied, "the nation is more than just a collection of myths--a people with goals and ideals in common, or at least a shared language and an inter-dependent economy."
"And what of those who do not share in those ideals, or speak the language, or benefit from the economy?" Progeny asked. "Are they part of the nation too, or do they belong to some other nation? Shall the nation re-define itself to include them, or persecute and expel them?
“As far as I'm concerned, patriotism and nationalism are only bigotry by another name: we're the same, you and me; we look the same and speak the same language and have the same culture. Those people over there look funny and talk funny; they're stupid and corrupt; they've been keeping us down for too long and we'd better put up a fence and keep them out. And then we can sneak in, steal their cattle and rape their women, and if they fight back, it's all right to kill them because God doesn't like people like them; He likes people like us.
“Frankly, except for size and scale, I don't see much difference between a nation and a street-gang. For me, the nation is a fantasy created to engender loyalty to the state, and the state is a machine for making war. Its fuel is the bodies of healthy young men, and patriotism is the oil that keeps it running smoothly."
Aaron chuckled in his wine. He turned to Shagrug, beside him. "Proj used to talk pacifism to me while we were planning military assaults. It made my head spin."
Al-Iskandar poured some more wine in Progeny's glass, though abstaining himself. He was obviously enjoying the Martian's discourse, and sought to encourage him, but he was no longer smiling and seemed to be troubled.
"I will honour you with my candid opinion," said the Sharif.
"I find your views cynical in the extreme. I’ve grown used to Aaron’s cynicism--as a mercenary, perhaps he has to be something of a cynic, and as an Israeli, he may have the right to be--but what you say troubles me deeply. I know that greedy men have used patriotism to further their ends, but that doesn't make such feelings evil of themselves."
Progeny shrugged. "David Hume once declared chastity a vice rather than a virtue because it does no good to anyone and causes harm to many; to my mind, patriotism, because it brings so much pain to so many and benefits so few, certainly deserves no less."
He gestured toward the map on the wall, detailing al-Iskandar’s area of influence throughout the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley, and the other nations that surrounded him: French-speaking states to the northeast, Spanish-speaking states to the southwest, the United Christian States on the south-eastern coast that still referred to themselves as America, and the Nueva York Protectorate, occupied by the High Companies' military.
"Take a look at this map, or any political map of this planet, in any century you choose--so many strange shapes in contrasting colours, surrounded by black lines as if that made them real. They're like amoebas, dividing and merging, sending out pseudopods toward deep-water ports and natural resources, devouring and being devoured in turn. Those borders are a political construct and do not exist in any real sense; the people may have moved and traded back and forth at will for centuries before the fences went up and stopped them. And after the fences went up, the people still moved back and forth, but they did so as cheap labour, without the rights of citizenship. A border is just a line that people will shoot you for crossing."
Karil excused himself, but he was hardly noticed. He wandered out into the streets, still teeming in the darkness, and continued to walk until he found himself at the city gates. They were open, though armed guards stood by, and the tents and fires of desert tribes could be seen scattered outside. He turned to retrace his steps and heard someone call his name.
Baby Snakes was there, astride a motorcycle. Unchallenged, Karil passed out through the gate and walked up to her.
"Alone?" she asked.
"Me too. My tent is over there." She jerked her tattooed head over her shoulder. Karil threw a leg over the machine and rode off with her. She stopped outside her tent, ignored by her carousing companions, shut off the machine, and lifted the flap.
In the flickering light through the tent-fabric, Karil studied Snakes’ body as she peeled off her brief leathers. The serpents seemed to writhe like living creatures; they peered at him with glowing eyes as if trying to decide whether to let him enter the body they guarded. She undressed him hungrily and rode him like a motorcycle, like Terry riding Progeny. As the image flashed in his mind, his anger toward Progeny, and Terry, and himself, rose to the surface and he threw Baby Snakes to the ground roughly and rode her like a galloping horse.
It was hours before he returned to al-Iskandar’s encampment, and as he crept past the dining-tent, he could hear Progeny and al-Iskandar, still in the throes of discussion.
Shagrug shook Karil awake in the morning, as the daylight was just beginning to filter into the tent.
"Get dressed; we’re being kicked out."
Karil sat up on his rug and rubbed his eyes. "What?"
"The plan was for Proj to be seen and heard in the streets; everyone wants to see the man who sent the Angel of Death packing in the desert. But I think al-Iskandar has decided it’s too dangerous. He’s loaning us Ben David and a military escort to get us past the Christian territories, and we’re getting lots of presents, but we’re still being kicked out." He stomped off. "Damn Proj and his big mouth. I would have enjoyed hanging around here for a few more days."
Karil dressed and gathered with the others at the door of the tent. The Sharif embraced them publicly and showered them with gifts: a beautifully carved shotgun for Progeny, an antique Luger with a leather holster for Shagrug, a crossbow with a saddle-holster for Karil, and a wicked little stiletto in a baby-soft suede sheath for Terry. Karil guessed it could be worn on her thigh, but he didn’t want to think about it. Even Atalanta had been washed and lubricated. With Aaron and his troops leading the way in a hummer, the procession drove through the streets amid the waves and shouts of the populace.
"If they’re disappointed that Proj hasn’t talked to them," Karil said, "they’re not showing it."
"The Sharif’s men have already explained," Atty said. "Proj is tired after his long journey in Earth’s gravity and must be on his way. He stayed up most of the night giving al-Iskandar the benefit of his wisdom; that’s enough to ask."
"I see." The procession moved out into country much more pleasant than the wastelands of Kansas and Nebraska. There were wooded hills and tributary rivers and small farms and towns, but as they got farther from Gateway, the landscape became more and more scarred by war. Farms lay in ashes and buildings stood empty and pocked with shell-holes, towering forlornly over the trees. There were ghost-towns in which human bones lay scattered in the streets where the wild dogs had left them. Aaron’s vehicle scanned the road ahead constantly, looking for mines, and his soldiers watched the forests nearby and the skies overhead, weapons at the ready.
"Could no one do anything about this?" Karil demanded.
"Europe and Africa clucked their tongues disapprovingly," Proj said, "but they didn’t want to get involved. Civil war in Illinois and Indiana seemed irrelevant to their daily lives. There were a few leaky embargoes and a lot of brave talk, but in the end, nothing happened." He gazed out at the landscape-- human destruction in the midst of natural beauty. "I’m worried about New Planitia; they’re well armed, but this is more terrible than I expected."
Aaron raised his arm and the rover stopped behind him on the crest of a hill. He slid out of the hummer, cocked his rifle, and crept slowly down the road. His lieutenant, Vasquez, followed, walking backwards with his eyes on the hills above, two others climbed out of the hummer and walked to the rear of the rover, where they stood, arms ready, and the machine-gunner remained in the lead vehicle, his weapon poised.
There was something in the way Aaron's distant figure relaxed that galvanized Progeny into action. He popped the hatch, swung out onto the road, and pelted down the hill. Terry started after him, but Shagrug grabbed her and held her back. Her green eyes blazed and suddenly there was a stiletto at his throat. He put up his palms and she ran after Progeny.
"It's death," said Atty. "I can smell it from here."
They saw Aaron turn and make a gesture as if to hold Progeny and Terry back, but it was obvious that he knew it would do no good. They pushed past him. He gestured to his men and the vehicles slipped into gear and rolled forward.
Shag and Karil climbed out to find the Martians standing in the midst of devastation, Terry's head buried in Progeny's chest, his arm around her. Tears welled up in Karil's eyes at the sight of them, and at the destruction which surrounded them. The house and barn were blackened ruins, long since cooled, and smelling of recent rain on ashes and charred wood. There were bodies hacked to pieces in the farmyard, including women who had thrown themselves in vain over the corpses of children. A man hung from a tree--the creaking of the rope the only sound in the clearing, except for the buzzing of the flies.
Karil vomited uncontrollably, his body wracked and shaken. Shagrug and Aaron looked at each other, needing no words to share their thoughts. Aaron pointed to the remains of the barn, where some kind of graffiti or hex symbol had been scrawled, perhaps in blood: an upside-down cross and a series of horizontal lines.
"What is it?" Karil asked, when he had finished retching and could speak again.
"Millenarians," said Aaron. "A sect of Christian fundamentalists. They believe the apocalypse is in progress, and they are being judged, not only by their own actions, but by those of others. They fear that the righteous may be swept into Hell if they are tainted by the morally unfit, that their role in the rapture is to rid the Earth of unbelievers, and that Jesus the Warrior will punish them for allowing the sinful to live. The upside-down cross represents Christianity in peril. But it's also the sword of vengeance, and the red stripes represent the blood of martyrs, as on their flag. There was a blue star-field of peace once, but it was dropped decades ago. The symbol’s presence here means that these people have been found morally unfit to live and exterminated as a threat to the righteous." He spat on the ground, made some strange gesture with the fingers of one hand, and turned on his heel.
There were several small mounds on a hillside. No markers were placed, in the Martian tradition, but Terry bent and planted wildflower seeds on the graves. Progeny stood over them in silence, his head lowered, and his shoulders slumped, as if he carried a great weight. Everyone waited as the silence lengthened, then one by one they looked to him. He lifted his head to the forest about, the trees rustling in the breeze, and squared his shoulders.
"I don’t know what to say."
He turned and walked away, and the others watched him go. Karil's heart went out to him; he wept for him, and for Terry, and for all the innocent victims, and for his own selfishness.
"He looks like Earth's gravity has caught up with him," said Shagrug.
Aaron began an ancient funeral chant. Terry stepped into Karil's arms; he put his arm around her and walked her back to the rover. Behind them, Aaron's chanting became a song, heart-rending with an ancient despair and an even sadder ancient acceptance. From somewhere in her memory, Atalanta answered it and took up the next refrain; her exquisite voice made everyone's flesh crawl. Aaron looked up in astonishment and smiled sadly as her voice boomed over the wilderness. Hundreds of startled birds spiralled into the sky.
The sound was broken by Terry's scream, as she broke away from Karil and ran to Progeny. The others followed and found him lying unconscious on the ground.