The Hidden Worlds

Chapter 1

 

At dawn, at the slack of the ebb tide, they all went out again to search the beach outside the harbor mouth. Forty people—women and old men—formed a straggling line from the water to the cliff face, walking slowly along the desolate sand. No one spoke. Huddled under her old shawl in the center of the line, Linnea knew why: to name the disaster they were all sure of by now, to give it shape in words, would make it real. And it must not, it must not be real. Linnea hunched her shoulders against the stiff dawn wind, against the weight of dread.

Santandru’s distant sun rose before them, small and cold, its white glare veiled by thin clouds. Linnea’s boots gritted in the coarse, damp sand as she walked, head down, eyes down, searching. Three days now since it happened. Not much chance anything large would have washed in yet. But any clump of seaweed might conceal what they were searching for. The unequivocal proof, the truth. Death.

Because what else could it mean, what old Kiril had seen three nights ago? That flash out at sea, low on the horizon, and then the heavy thump that rattled every window, brought every sleeper out into the village street and up to the crest of the ridge to watch the pink glow fade from the clouds. Linnea was sure that her sister Marra had known what it meant. She’d said nothing then, not in front of the children, but Linnea knew that silence. Wives and mothers held to it during bad storms and after, until the Hope of Moraine limped into harbor and the losses could be known.

But the Hope, due back two days ago, had not come. Linnea poked at a stinking clump of greenthread with her stick. Sandticks popped off it. Nothing underneath. No, that flash meant something bad, worse than any storm. Kiril had gotten on the comm to Middlehaven first thing, asked for an overflight or at least some satellite time for a visual scan. But the flyer was down because of wind, the satellite’s scanning systems were out again, and why was Kiril asking this? Surely the comm in the Hope of Moraine was working? After all, the law said it had to work or the boat couldn’t go out.

Linnea kicked at a clump of dried ribbonweed. Those soft city people didn’t know how it was out here in the villages, with no spare parts left for anything, no techs coming through. Kiril tried to tell them, and Father Haveloe too, but they didn’t listen. They didn’t care.

Something bucked loose from the sand almost under her feet, spattering her with cold slime. A mucksucker. She’d stepped on its mantle. She peered down at it. The big creature looked lumpy. It was half-closed around something—something bigger than a sandclaw or a squirt. She gritted her teeth and flipped the mucksucker over, exposing the rubbery gray flaps that normally squeezed wet sand into the mouth in the center of its belly. Sometimes they used the flaps to grab things, anything big and good and full of food. She tugged the flaps loose. Then went still. Her heart struck hard and slow, like a bell.

A boot. A fisherman’s boot, slick and sodden. Scorched along one side. Linnea pried it out of the mucksucker’s grasp and toed the creature right-side up again as she shouted for the others.

They all waited for Kiril to labor up the beach from his position near the water. He took the boot in his old, steady hands, the right one thumbless since his accident with the weed nets in the estuary. He hefted the boot a little. “Something in that.” He slid two fingers into the top and his face changed—drained pale, the lines carved deep. He was old, she saw how old he was. And his last surviving son had been on the Hope. . . .

Kiril drew his fingers out again and wiped them carefully on his threadbare coat. “It’s remains,” he said, in a dry husk of a voice. His grip on the boot tightened. “God help us all.” His eyes were bright, wet. Behind Linnea a woman sobbed.

Linnea pressed her hands together, squeezing until the bones hurt. It was true, then. It was real: The Hope, the village’s only support, was gone. Most of the men in the village were dead. And Marra, her sister Marra, was a widow.

Kiril’s faded eyes turned to Linnea. “Linny. You’ll fetch the priest, won’t you?”

She nodded and turned away, though she felt the others’ eyes on her. They all had husbands or sons on the Hope. Not her, not Linnea the odd one. Well, let them stay there, then, gathered around the remains, with the truth coming slowly.

As it was coming to her. She started up the trail to the ridgetop. Her chest felt hollow, strange. She’d known every one of the lost men well. She’d lived all her life—nineteen standard years—in this village with them. One or two of the younger ones had offered for her, before she made it clear she was set against marrying at all. . . .

And Rowdy, Marra’s husband. She slowed, steadying her breath. Rowdy was dead. He’d been good to Linnea, letting her stay on in his house even after she reached fifteen and took her place on the women’s side of the church. Though she was only his wife’s sister, and an orphan, he’d never pushed her to find a man of her own and be gone.

He’d been good to Marra as well. Sometimes at night she’d heard them laughing together in their bedroom. Hard as life was, Rowdy could always laugh—and he could always make everyone else see the joke.

She’d come to the ridgetop. She stopped there and looked down the other side at the village: two streets, a huddle of weathered stone and plastic houses, the power station, the sagging greenhouses, the church that also served as school and village hall. All had weathered centuries of storms—all were off level, propped up, battered and dull and tough. Wind ruffled the surface of the little harbor, except in the shelter of the long slip where the Hope would never tie up again. On the glass-green water there, a film of oil floated. Across the bay and above the village, barren gravel slopes rose sharply from the water toward the empty mountains, toward the deep silver sky layered with clouds. Up there, in the rocky canyons, she wouldn’t be able to see the village, or the little potato fields in their lattice of high stone walls, or the few stunted Earth trees that still survived. Up there, she could walk in the silence of a world still waiting for life to emerge from the sea. She would go there later today, when Marra didn’t need her any more. She could think, up there.

Father Haveloe opened his door at her call. “Linnea!” In spite of his obvious worry, his big face flushed with pleasure at the sight of her. She folded her arms tightly and looked away, and when she looked back his half-smile had faded. “There’s news?”

“We found part of a body,” she said flatly. “They want you to come and say the words.” Avoiding his eyes—avoiding the sympathy, the interest she knew would be there—she looked past him into his sitting room. It was a jumbled mess, as it had been ever since his daughter married down to Middlehaven. He should have remarried a long time ago, brought a woman home to see to him. Marra was always saying it.

The priest hesitated a moment, maybe thinking Linnea might need his comfort. But then he turned from the door and gathered up his coat and his little case with the vial of holy water, and the precious packet of Terran soil. Earth to earth. “Will you come with me?” he asked her as he pulled the door shut.

She took a deep breath and straightened her hunched shoulders. “I have to tell Marra.”

“Ah.” One sad syllable. “Tell her I’ll come see her when I can.” His wide, ruddy face looked puzzled, as if inside himself he were listening for God to explain why this had happened. Linnea nodded briefly, then turned away and started toward home.

The old house stood apart, beyond the end of the upper street. Linnea’s grandmother had wanted it built there, for the gardening space it gave her. Now her treasured lilacs were long dead—sawn-off stumps in the barren ground. Damp laundry, forgotten overnight, snapped on the line in the yard.

Linnea dumped her boots in the mudroom and went on into the house. Marra stood by the battered sink in the kitchen corner, slowly drying the breakfast plates. She looked straight at Linnea. The new pregnancy was past the rough part and Marra’s bloom had been coming back, but all that was gone now. The clear, cool light from the window showed Linnea the blue shadows under Marra’s eyes, her black hair lank and half-combed, her light-brown skin gone sallow.

Linnea took off her jacket slowly. She wanted to make it right for Marra, to say the right words. But she didn’t know them. Father Haveloe usually had this job, when it was one man washed overboard from the Hope, or one boy crushed in the weed press, or a child swept off the beach by a rogue wave. But there were too many new widows in the village today. . . . Linnea turned back to her sister. And Marra said it, drying her hands on the faded towel. “They’re gone, then.” Her voice sounded empty.

“It looks that way.” Linnea’s throat felt stuffy and tight. “We found something on the beach. Part of—part of a man.”

Marra flinched. Then she turned away and opened the stores cupboard.

Linnea saw how little was left of the bricks of compacted algae protein and slabs of dried fish that had been Rowdy’s share from last season. It had all been harvested and processed by the Hope of Moraine and the men who served in her. But there would be nothing more this year, not even a widow’s share. The Hope was gone.

“The boat’s brain must have gone bad,” Marra said, too calmly, her back rigid under her worn gray sweater. “Rowdy said the systems were going. Not just comm. The scanners, too. But he said the engines were the one thing that still worked.”

“Marra. . . .” Linnea touched her shoulder.

Marra spun and faced her, hot-eyed. “You’re glad now, aren’t you? You’re glad Rowdy let you hide in our house, scared to take a husband to your bed. This is why!”

Linnea gripped her sister’s arms. “Marra, don’t! Don’t, you don’t mean it—”

You don’t need to weep today,” Marra said, her mouth twisted with grief. “Maybe you knew the way of it after all. Sneak down to the beach with them, yes, but don’t marry them. Don’t put your life in their hands. Don’t give—anything—” She broke off. Linnea stood stiffly, aching, afraid to try to touch her. Marra’s words hurt. They hurt all the worse because they were true.

Then she saw Marra and Rowdy’s two small boys, wide-eyed in the corner of the kitchen, silent, aghast. She went to them and took their cold, grubby hands in hers. Nothing would ever be the same again, and as young as they were, they both seemed to know it. Beyond them their baby sister sat playing with a set of carved fishes.

Donie, the younger boy, looked up at Linnea. “Da’s drowned,” he said in a small voice. “But it’s all right. Orry and I can go into the boat instead.”

“Not if there’s no boat,” Orry said, and his face tightened. “That’s what they’re saying, isn’t it, Linny?”

“Shhhh,” Linnea told him. She was dry-eyed and strong, strong enough for this or anything. She went to her sister and gathered her close, and in her arms Marra began, at last, to weep.

 


 

Linnea didn’t get up the mountain that day, or that week. Marra’s strength had held through those three days of hopeless waiting, but now it was gone. She lay in the bed she had shared with Rowdy, crying hard sometimes, other times staring at the pale sunlight that glimmered through the cracked blinds. At night she prowled the house restlessly, looking in on the children, opening the front door and staring down toward the empty harbor. After the first night Linnea called in Eddo, the medtech, who measured out a dose of sedative for Marra and watched her until she slept.

In the ordinary way of things, a new widow’s house would be full of helpers and advice-givers, with plenty of food brought in and plenty of people to watch the children. But as things were, all that was Linnea’s job alone. She worked hard at it, scrubbing and straightening, keeping everything as Marra liked it. The work kept Linnea calm: each job familiar, each in its turn. This task, then the next, then the next. . . . No end to it. No time to let fear in.

Over those few days the search parties found more fragments on the beach—some human, some parts of the Hope. There were funerals. Linnea kept working. Sometimes when she looked at Orry and saw how he was getting to have Rowdy’s dark, deep-set eyes, or when she picked up some toy that Rowdy had carved, she would close herself into her tiny room and wait to cry—but she never did. All that was dammed up somewhere. Or maybe she had used it all up years ago, in those long months when Ma was dying.

Well, Linnea was grateful to have a clear head. There was thinking to do, and just now she was the only one to do it.

The village was dying fast. Kiril had spent hours on the comm, but there were no more boats like the Hope of Moraine to be had—boats whose brains had come from offworld. All the money in the village wouldn’t pay a tenth of what it would cost to import another brain. And without a brain, without its warning systems and control systems, a boat had no chance against the thick atmosphere, the powerful weather, the steep, slow chop of the low-gravity ocean. Even master fishermen needed those systems to sense changes in the water, read the sky, figure the currents—to be sure they’d find the weedbeds and the shoals of eely fish that the Hope had harvested.

Though no one yet dared to speak the truth out loud, Linnea knew it as surely as she knew her name: after two hundred years, the battle was over, and Moraine had lost. The land alone couldn’t keep a village alive, not on Santandru with its bitter winters, its chill, wet summers, its bare unliving soil that had to be fed and fed and fed to keep anything growing. Only the sea was alive—the sea, the source of life. Moraine could no longer harvest the sea. So Moraine was doomed.

She knew they had only one choice now: evacuation. Flatloaders were coming from Middlehaven, bringing a few emergency supplies, and the Governing Committee had offered a free ride back to any takers. Free housing until they found work. Food, too, for widows and orphans at least.

After she heard, Linnea stayed up late, alone in the shabby kitchen, and thought some more. It would tear Marra’s heart to leave this house. But Linnea couldn’t think of any way around the truth. Best walk forward into what was coming, rather than backing into it, because either way it was coming. She, and her sister, and the children would leave Moraine, with everything they could carry. There wasn’t much chance for them in Middlehaven, big and busy as it was. But there was no chance here.

She explained it all to Marra the next day, after the last of the funerals. And Marra just nodded. Her wide-boned face looked bleak and bare with all her hair knotted out of sight under the black mourning shawl. She’d lost the baby on the eighth day after the accident, bleeding all night in silence. Afterwards she wandered around the house as if she was looking for something, or someone. The children kept out of her way, clinging instead to Linnea. It was Linnea who fed them all, kept them clean, held them when they cried. It was Linnea who gathered their lives into a few battered boxes, all they’d be allowed to take on the flatloader.

When the day came, Marra and the children were ready. Grimly, fiercely, Linnea herded them all out the door, and then walked around the outside of the house closing the shutters and barring them tight. In five winters, or ten, the house would be gone. But let it stand as long as it could.

 


 

Linnea hated Middlehaven. She’d been there once, six years before, when Ma was dying and the medtechs had wanted to try some special treatment. Fifty thousand people lived there—people everywhere she looked. And she could not escape into wilderness. The town and its bay sheltered behind a rock ridge, and north across the bay was a hundred kilometers of river delta and estuary, an eerie wasteland of stinking red-brown slime algae and the eye-piercing green of carpet moss. On this side, close to the water, the bayside was lined with fish- and algae-processing plants, and the smell rose to the highest street whenever the wind turned northerly.

Linnea thought Middlehaven looked even worse now, dirtier, more crowded. It was full of refugees like her—desperate to find work, to find themselves a new place, to get out of there. Everywhere she went she saw them. Threadbare, hungry-looking, eyes empty of hope. The people Linnea knew from Moraine disappeared among them. She often went all day without seeing a familiar face, until she went back to the indigent barracks for the one hot meal: weed soup and biscuit, with fish on Sundays and Wednesdays. Then it was time to bed down beside Marra and the children, on a hard, damp bunk in a room full of other women and children from Moraine, and get what sleep she could. The surviving men and older boys from the village were out on work crews, road repair mostly, gone for days at a time. They earned a little money against the time when the charity would run out.

Linnea tried to get onto a work crew, but the social service agency turned her down. She was a woman; she might be pregnant; the work was too hard, too dangerous. She found Father Haveloe at his daughter’s house and had him certify that she’d never been married. Then the agency wouldn’t take her because an unmarried woman her age might not be stable. Linnea went into an office and wrote down answers to a long list of questions, so many that her hand ached from the writing. The agency looked over her answers, and then they sent her a letter that said she couldn’t be on a work crew because she was the only stable adult in her family, with her sister and three children emotionally dependent on her.

Linnea kept the letter to herself. It had been her last real hope of getting steady work—any work at all—and the refusal sounded final. No choice left but to go on Perpetual Charity. Living in barracks, on the edge of hunger. Rowdy’s boys growing up on the street. Rosa begging—

No. Let them tell her their decision was final; she was going to appeal it anyway. She made an appointment with the man who had sent the letter. Asper Cogorth, he’d signed it. Social Services, Middlehaven.

It was a sodden spring day, but she walked all the way downtown to save tram fare. Social Services turned out to be a metal shed next to a patch of mud where a rusted set of swings and a couple of benches stood unused. A faded sign called it East Middlehaven Public Park.

She climbed the shed’s narrow steps, pushed the door open, and went inside. In the small, dim anteroom, a colorless young man sat at a table scanning tattered documents into storage crystals. As Linnea hung her rain jacket on a peg to drip, the man glanced at her and jerked his chin toward an inner door. She opened it and went in.

Asper Cogorth was waiting for her. When she came in, he stood up and took her offered hand politely, then gestured her into a chair. The two chairs and a worktable barely fit, jammed in between piles of document boxes. The room had the faint, salty smell of mildew. “We’ve just gotten our storage system up and running again,” Asper said. “Soon I’ll have some space in here.” He had long gray hair and a kind expression, and Linnea found herself wanting to like him, in spite of his soft hands. “Now. How can I help you?”

Linnea took the letter out of her pocket and handed it to him. “I’m trying to find work. My sister’s husband died, and we’ve no other family to keep us. She has her three children to tend. But I can work. I’m as strong as a lot of men, and I know a little about some of the trades. Building and masonry. And I kept some of the old machines running at our house in Moraine, a long time after everyone else had junked theirs.”

“School?”

She remembered Da’s words. When you’re not sure of yourself, Linny, look them straight in the eye and tell the truth. “Just priest-school until I was thirteen. But our priest went on lending me books after that. I’ve read most of what he has, maybe forty books.”

He made a note. “How old are you? Standard years.”

“Nineteen.”

“A village girl ought to be long married by your age.”

Linnea sighed inwardly. “I thought of it once. He drowned.” She had never felt that much for Teor, even after he died. But it made a decent excuse.

“And since then?”

“I don’t see that it’s your business.”

“I’m judging your fitness for work,” he said mildly.

“I—” She thought. “I never met anyone that—was worth the risk.”

“The risk?”

“When they die.” She met his startled look. “They always do die. I’ve seen what it did to my Ma. And now my sister. Nothing’s worth that.”

Asper made another note. Linnea tried not to look down at the paper. “I need work,” she said. “The children can’t grow up in those barracks, that’s not a home. And my sister—she needs a home, too, a place where she can feel safe. I don’t think she’ll be well again until she has that.” Linnea shifted uncomfortably in her chair. The room felt too warm for the clothes she had. “You say I’m supposed to take care of them, but do you see, work is the only way I can do that. Get them what they need. Then my sister will be all right and they won’t depend on me so much.” She looked nervously away at the one window. It was fogged over, but she could hear rain slashing down outside. She wished she were out in it, in the cold, fresh wind.

Asper settled back in his chair. “Miss Kiaho, there are many people in your situation now. Your persistence impresses me, and if I did find something appropriate, I would of course think of you.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry to say that it’s unlikely.”

So it was no. Bitterness burned in her eyes, in her throat. And the question in her heart— She took a breath and asked it. “Why is this is happening? Why is everything going bad?”

He glanced down at her letter. “You mean, why did your village’s boat explode?”

“I guess.” She sighed. “Father Haveloe—that’s our priest—he says some questions have no answers.”

“That one has an answer.” Asper folded his hands on the table. “You saw the skyport on the way into town. Any jumpships?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. But I don’t come here much.”

“Neither do the jumpships,” Asper said. “Only two or three a year now. We can never be certain when the next one will come. If it will come. It isn’t up to us. It’s up to the Pilot Masters, the great men of the Line, in their palaces on Nexus.”

“Do the ships make that much difference?” Linnea looked at him. “A little mail, a little news—”

“—A few spare parts,” Asper said. “Technical bulletins. New software for the brains. Diagnostic tools. Sometimes even a technician on long rounds. We couldn’t afford much, but it was available when we had to buy it. But now it can be a year between asking and getting.”

“So in the meantime, things go bad, bit by bit.”

Asper nodded vigorously. “It’s worse in the outlying villages like Moraine. But it’s bad everywhere. Your village’s boat wasn’t the first major loss, and there will be more. And then when we’re cut off entirely—” He shrugged.

“Then everything goes,” Linnea said. She felt the slow anger building. “And we die.”

“A few of us might survive along the south coast,” Asper said. “Gathering squirts and box clams. Living no better than humans did before civilization began, back on Earth. But I doubt it. The land is too empty. The climate is too harsh.”

Linnea thought. “Can’t you appeal this to anyone? When it’s life and death?”

“There’s no appeal,” Asper said. “The Pilot Masters, the men of the Line—they decide, and the decision is final. They control all the communications, all the cargo, all the passengers that come in and out of every world. No one else can do what they do, run their damned ships—excuse me. That gives them total power.”

She stared at him, her thoughts racing. “But—the Line, they saved us all from the Cold Minds, they brought us from Earth to the Hidden Worlds. Why would they change their minds now? Why would they decide to leave us to die?”

“If we knew that,” Asper said, “we might have more of a chance.” He was staring out at the rain, but Linnea couldn’t guess what he was seeing. Then he seemed to come back to himself. “So, Miss Kiaho. A word of advice.”

Linnea nodded permission.

“If a likely man does offer you marriage, take him. Raise a family. Have a good life while you can. It’s all ending. You should have your share of it.”

Linnea sat straight. “Is that all that’s being done?” Her hands were fists in her lap. “Is that all you’re doing, you and the others? Are we supposed to lie down and die?”

“No, of course not,” he said, his face reddening. “But you must understand, in this situation we have no power at all. The Pilot Masters won’t listen to us.”

“That’s no excuse.” Anger shook her. “Out there in the villages, we trust you people. We think when things are hard, well, those people in Middlehaven—they’ll know what to do. You’re educated. You aren’t helpless. Not like we were, when we lost the Hope.” She stood up. “And now I find out you’re not fighting for us. You’re burrowing into the sand, like a mucksucker in a storm. And you’re telling me to burrow, too. Well, I won’t. My family is not going to starve because someone like you tells me there’s no choice. I will by God find a choice. Or make one.”

Asper was standing now, too, by the window, resting one hand against the glass. His eyes were on her. “You’ve said enough, I think.” His voice was strangely mild.

“Enough to make you ashamed, then,” she said. She had to get out of here or she was going to cry in front of him. “I want you to be ashamed. You’re not a man. My Da was a man. He drowned off the Hope of Moraine, trying to carry a line out to a man swept overboard. He knew there wasn’t much chance. But he did it. I would’ve done it, too. But you, you’d be below, wouldn’t you, puking in a bucket from the nasty waves.”

She made it out of his room, out of the building, into the street before she cried. No hope, no hope. She walked all the way back to the barracks in the rain.




Image by David Landon—see more at his deviantART site.