The Endangered Camp
by Ann Leckie
First appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 2
After the terrible push to be free of the Earth was past, we could stand again. In a while, the engineers had said, everything would float, but for now we were still accelerating. We were eight in the small, round room, though there were others on the sky-boat–engineers, and nest-guardians examining the eggs we had brought to see how many had been lost in the crushing, upward flight. But we eight stood watching the world recede.
The floor and walls of the room were of smooth, gold metal. Around the low ceiling was a pattern of cycad fronds and under this scenes from the histories. There was the first mother, ancestor of us all, who broke the shell of the original egg. The picture showed the egg, a single claw of the mother piercing that boundary between Inside and Outside. With her was the tiny figure of her mate. If you are from the mountains, you know that he ventured forth and fed on the carcass of the world-beast, slain by the mother, and in due time found the mother and mated with her. If you are a lowlander, he waited in the shell until she brought the liver to him, giving him the strength to come out into the open. Neither was pictured–the building of the sky-boat had taken the resources of both mountains and lowlands.
On another panel was Strong Claw, her sharp-toothed snout open in a triumphant call. She stood tall on powerful legs, each foot with its arced killing claw, sharp and deadly. Her arms stretched out before her, claws spread, and her long, stiff tail stretched behind. The artists had worked with such skill that every feather could be distinguished. Behind her was the great tree that had carried her across the sea, and in the water were pictured its inhabitants: coiled ammonites, hungry sharks, and a giant mososaur, huge-mouthed enough to swallow a person down at a gulp. Before Strong Claw was forested land, full of food for the hunting, new territory for her and her daughters yet unhatched.
A third panel showed the first sky-boat departing for the moon that had turned out to be farther away than our ancestors ever imagined. That voyage had been a triumph–the sky-boat (designed, all were ceaselessly told, by lowlander engineers) had achieved a seemingly impossible goal. But it had also been a disaster–as the mountain engineers had predicted, and the lowlanders refused to believe until the last, irrefutable moment, there had been no air on the moon. But as we had now set our sights on Mars, the artist had left off the end of the tale, to avoid ill-omen.
The engineers had used mirrors to cast an image of the Earth on the last, blank panel of the curved wall. It was this that held our attention.
As we watched, disaster struck. A sudden, brilliant flash whited out the image for an instant, and after that an expanding ring began to spread across the face of the world, as though a pebble had been dropped into a pond. Almost instantly a ball of fire rose up from the center of the ripple and expanded outward, obscuring it. I blinked, slowly, deliberately, sure that my vision was at fault. Still the fire grew until finally it dissipated, leaving a slowly-expanding veil of smoke.
There was silence in the sky-boat for some time.
Out of the speaking tube came the quiet voice of an engineer in the chamber below us. “A great stone from the void.” There are many such, it seems, but no song speaks of them, no history tells us what happens when one strikes the Earth. This would not hinder the engineers, who are full of predictions and calculations.
“I was not informed,” said White Ring into the tube. She was facing the image, her back to us. “Why?”
“We did not know,” came the faint voice of the engineer.
“Do we not watch the skies?”
“The skies are vast. The stones are dark. We might have seen it if we looked in precisely the right place, at the right time. Or perhaps not.”
Around me, not a feather stirred. “The cloud will continue to expand. The impact will leave a crater.” Here the voice hesitated. “My colleague thinks perhaps twenty-five to thirty-five leagues wide, though I believe she has miscalculated the object’s size. Perhaps forty-five to sixty leagues.” White Ring’s killing claw clicked on the floor. “I have not calculated how long it will take the cloud to disperse,” the engineer continued. “I fear it will grow to cover the whole world. There may be fires as rocks fall back down to the ground. It hit water, so–”
“Silence!” ordered White Ring. “How far will the damage reach?”
A moment of silence from the tube. “It depends,” came the voice, slowly, carefully. “On how thick the cloud is, and how long it stands between the Earth and the Sun. And if there are fires. And other things we haven’t calculated yet.”
For just a moment White Ring’s feathers ruffled as though a breeze had stirred them. Nearly every other face was turned towards the view of Earth, but I looked at her, sidelong, without moving my snout. I felt the muscles in my back and my legs tense, and I forced them to relax lest the click of my largest claw on the deck betray my thoughts.
“We must go back,” White Ring said. Snouts turned towards her in surprise. She turned her head to look behind her, and then turned fully, her daughter ducking low to avoid her tail. Others in the ring ducked and turned so that all who had faced forward could face the center of the circle. “We can stay above until the cloud disperses, and then land.”
“Can we go back?” One of the younger females.
“We must,” said White Ring, her tone admitting no dispute. “This venture was risk enough with the world safe behind us. If we are the only ones left alive….”
White Ring’s daughter called through the speaking tube, and an answer came back. “We might be able to, if we act soon enough. We will have to make some calculations. But…”
“Make them,” said White Ring. Her daughter eyed the rest of us, watching.
They had told us that leaving the Earth would be difficult. Three of our number had died in the punishing climb. But all of us standing here had survived it. Could those so silent and still around me be willing to throw that away, to throw away everything we had worked for? It seemed so.
The engineer had said If we act soon enough. A question of fuel, no doubt. If I did not speak up now, the time would be gone.
But here was my difficulty: every other person in the room was a lowlander. The superiority of mountain optics had ensured that some of the engineers aboard were highlanders, but I was one of only two surviving who was not either an engineer or an egg tender. If I spoke now, no one else would speak in support of me, unless they were completely convinced of my argument. Or unless I killed White Ring, in which case they would likely follow me out of fear if nothing else. But as things stood, I would not be allowed even to strike.
But I am no coward. “We must not go back,” I said.
My neighbors sidled away, as far as they could in the cramped space, claws clicking on the metal floor. I stood face to face with White Ring.
“I hear nothing,” said White Ring. Her killing claw tapped once, twice.
“This ship won’t be built again,” I said, “not in our lifetimes. Look!” I gestured at the picture with one clawed finger, at the still-spreading smoke. “Will we reach Mars, or will we die having made all this effort and accomplished nothing?”
White Ring looked around the circle, watching the faces and the demeanor of the others. I did not dare take my eyes off her to make the same survey. “I hear nothing,” she said again.
“Coward! You disgrace our ancestors!”
Instantly White Ring’s neck snaked forward and she snapped her teeth together a breath from my neck. I stood still as stone.
“Will you challenge me?” White Ring hissed. “At this time? Is your ambition so great?”
I would not allow my feathers to lift, or flutter. I would not allow a single twitch that I did not intend. “Did Strong Claw turn back?” I asked. I would have pointed to the picture, but I did not wish to move.
“She knew all was well behind her,” said White Ring. “If none survive on Earth, and we die attempting Mars, what then?”
“We don’t know there’s air to breathe where we’re going,” said the daughter beside White Ring, when I didn’t answer. “There was none on the moon.”
“What a wonder this is! You lowlanders disbelieved when the engineers from the mountains said there was no air on the moon. Now you disbelieve when you are told that Mars certainly has an atmosphere.”
“Bent light,” White Ring began, her voice scornful.
“There is more than just the bending of light to prove it. There are plants, the astronomers have said so. We see them wax and wane with the seasons. There is no reason to think that Mars will not be much like Earth.”
“The astronomers are not all agreed. Not even those from the mountains.”
“But you have staked your life on it,” I pointed out.
“While other lives were sure to continue,” said White Ring. “What if everyone else is dead?”
“Then they are dead because Earth is now unlivable,” I said. “And in that case, why turn back?”
“I know your ambition of old,” said White Ring. “I had not thought you would exercise it at a time like this.”
My feathers twitched then, I couldn’t avoid it. I allowed them to tremble and rise. White Ring and her daughter watched me with malice, the other five with fear, or perhaps something else.
The moment stretched out. Time–time might be an enemy or an ally. Prolong the contention, and the moment to turn back would have passed. Allow the return to begin, and there would be only a short space, if any at all, in which it would be possible to correct our course.
“You call me ambitious,” I said, “and I am. I would reach Mars! Did any of us embark without a similar ambition? But now you abandon what we have all worked so hard to attain! And when I point this out, I am threatened. Why is this? If one of you,” and here I pointed around the circle, “had spoken, would this have been the response?” Had I seen movement among the others? Someone about to speak, some thoughtful twitch of feathers? “You may kill me if you like, as I am clearly outnumbered. But it will not change the truth.”
One of those who had been silent spoke. “There is something in what she says.”
White Ring was silent a moment. “It would be best not to fight,” she said. “I would not lose more of us. Bring out the histories.”
“Bring out the histories,” I agreed.
She scratched at the unyielding metal ground with her foot, never taking her eyes off me. Then she barked a short order to her daughter, who repeated White Ring’s word into the speaking tube.
The ladder well was behind me. I did not look as I heard the singer climbing into the room, or move as he squeezed past into the center of the circle in front of White Ring. I never moved my eyes from her, and let the others shift to let him by.
He was shorter even than most males, and his feathers were a dull brown, specked with black. He was an unprepossessing thing until he opened his mouth, as I well knew. He was my son.
He lowered his head in front of White Ring. “You choose first,” she said to me. I should have been daunted–if I chose first, hers would be the last word. But I was not.
“I choose Strong Claw’s Voyage,” I said.
We are all susceptible to the power of song. The songs you’ve known since hatching, in the mouth of a great singer, will quicken your pulse and stop your breath. As my son called out the opening lines to the history I had chosen, all in the room were compelled by his voice to listen. Feathers ruffled and then settled, and all were still and there was no sound but his song.
There is no need to give the details here. The story is told, in its essentials, in the picture on the wall of the sky-boat, and in any event I might have chosen anything from the histories I wished, so long as White Ring would feel safe making the obvious choice when her turn came.
No, the song, and its argument, is already clear to you. Instead, I will tell you about my son.
When I was younger, and looking for a mate, I had resolved to have only the strongest, wiliest male I could find. I wanted large, strong daughters. I wanted children who would distinguish themselves on a hunt. I turned down suitors who were stupid, or weak, or too short. Some I killed. I would have killed the little brown-feathered thing that approached me last, but he opened his mouth and sang.
His voice! I lost all reason.
When the first clutch of eggs hatched, I had five daughters and six sons. Three of the daughters seemed strong enough. Three of the males were small and weak, and I thought they might die. But one of those, as I bent near to it, tiny, naked-looking thing, let out one barely audible peep.
I ate the four weaklings and fed them to him. His health was all my care in the coming months, and he grew strong.
He was undersized, but he was clever. I taught him what I could, and when the day came, that comes for all male children, the day to leave his mother and sisters behind forever, I instructed him to seek out the singers guild.
For most mothers, when that day comes it is as though they never had male children. The boys go off to other territories, and if they’re seen again the sight raises no sentiment in the breast of the formerly doting mother. Your daughters are yours for life; your sons cease to exist when they leave the nest. But I took what steps I could to ensure that my son would be mine, no less than my daughters, even after he had gone to the singers guild.
I didn’t know then that I would be on the sky-boat, or that a giant rock would hurtle out of the heavens and destroy the Earth. And even had I known, I could not have predicted that the lowlander singer would die during the launch, leaving my boy the only historian on the ship. But I knew that a singer’s voice has a power entirely different from claws and teeth. White Ring had said she knew my ambition of old, but she did not realize its true extent.
The song ended. Strong Claw, victorious through all dangers, never turning back though she knew not what the end of her voyage would be, stood at last on the shore of the land she had discovered. Every listener sighed to hear it. It is an old song, and a pleasing one, with a clear lesson–the strong and resolute prevail.
It was no more than I had already said. And as I had hoped–expected!–White Ring answered with The Endangered Camp.
It is a story older even than Strong Claw’s. It begins when a party of hunters goes out looking for iguanadon. (I myself have never seen an iguanadon, but they thunder through the oldest stories in vast herds.) They leave behind them in the woods their camp, a nursery. “Mounds of earth and leaves,” the singer sang, “the infants waiting their time to come forth, and the guardians of the nests watchful.”
An idyllic scene! But while the hunters are gone, the camp is attacked. The beast’s tearing claws and rending teeth kill one guardian, and the others circle the nests as well as they can, and cry out together, Let the hunting party return!
Close around me, the listeners were rapt and their eyes wide, and they barely breathed, such was the power of the singer’s voice.
The hunting party did return, of course. They heard the cries of the guardians, and ran with desperate speed back to the camp. Three guardians were killed, and four hunters, but they drove off the beast, saved the eggs, saved the pack. So the history tells us.
Now, this is the strange thing about history. When we are in doubt as to what course to take, or there is some debate, we examine the histories, we say, “So our ancestors did then, and so we should do now.” And we think of the past as a solid, unbreakable rock that will always have the same form. But by accident or design, the rock is shaped. A singer drops a line here, a verse there, knowing or unknowing. And if you change the past, you change the future.
Stop with the beast defeated, and the eggs safe, and the salutary moral is clear. The lowlander singers I had heard had always stopped there. But it’s not the end of the story. The four dead hunters had been among the most experienced, many of the others were injured, and food was scarce that year anyway. The seven dead from the attack fed the pack for a while, but after that they plundered the nests to survive, and no children were born that year.
I did not think White Ring would expect the singer to continue, even if she knew of the ending. The ill-omen of it would be too strong. Any singer would know what she meant by requesting it, and know, if he knew the end, to leave it off. But oh, my clever boy! He sang the rest of the song.
For a moment, as he continued where she had expected him to stop, she stood paralyzed. The others blinked in surprise, but his voice transfixed them and they were silent. White Ring drew her head back, and I saw her killing claws twitch. Even so she waited until he had finished.
“You made that up,” accused White Ring’s daughter when he fell silent. White Ring still held her threatening pose, ready to strike. But she dared not touch the singer; there was no other on board.
“You’re very young,” I said, my leg muscles tense with the desire to jump. “It’s fashionable these days to leave that verse off, but anyone of any experience and education knows that’s how the story ends.” I swiveled my snout towards White Ring, and bared my teeth. “Isn’t that so?”
“I have never heard it,” said White Ring, still poised to strike. Her gaze was fixed on the boy, a small, brown-specked shape in the middle of the circle. “You have violated your obligation as a singer. Why? There can have been no collusion. Can you have done such a terrible thing merely from a hatred of lowlanders?”
Even if I had told her he was mine she would not have been able to imagine why such a thing would matter. And besides, he had sung truly. I might have laughed, but I did not; this was a dangerous moment.
“I have heard it,” said a quiet voice. The others turned their heads but I never took my eyes off White Ring. She never took her eyes off my son.
“My great-aunt’s mate was a singer,” the voice continued. I placed it–a sturdy, handsome male, gray and black feathered, still young. He had kept quiet before now, as was proper. “He died when I was still a chick, but I remember he sang it in just that way.” Silence. And then, even more timidly than before, “I was surprised to hear it requested. I wondered if you would signal the singer to leave the ending off. But then I thought, he won’t sing the ending, no one ever has except my uncle.”
White Ring and her daughter would have no qualms about killing the black and gray male. They drew their heads back, hissing.
In that instant, a voice came from the speaking tube. “We have completed our calculations.”
The low ceiling made it impossible to jump. Instead I drew my head back and then struck forward with all the force I could muster, hoping the boy would be quick enough to move out of the way.
The room erupted in screams and shouts. My teeth snapped together where White Ring’s neck had been an instant before. I grabbed her shoulder and as she raked me with her claws I brought my foot up with its deadly killing claw. White Ring grabbed me and sank her teeth into my shoulder, but she was too late. My foot came up, and I drove my claw into her belly, and pulled my leg convulsively back.
Her jaws opened in a scream, and I let go of her and stepped back. The black and gray male was locked with the daughter. No one else was in the room–they must have fled down the ladder well.
“You are dead, White Ring,” I said. Pink entrails sagged out of the bleeding slash in her belly. “I need only keep out of reach for a while.”
“Return to Earth,” she said. “What if we’re all that’s left?”
I wanted to take a step back and lean against the wall, but I wasn’t sure if she still had strength for a last charge, and I didn’t want to show any weakness.
“You have doomed us,” she said, and fell to her knees, and then onto her side, guts squirting out with the force of her fall. Still I did not approach. Until she was reliably dead she was a danger.
Instead I looked over at the black and gray male, who stood now over the daughter’s corpse. His feathers drooped, and he was covered in blood, whose it was impossible to tell. “Are you hurt?” I asked. I hoped he wasn’t. He was handsome, and obviously strong.
“Yes,” he said.
“Go down to the doctor. On your way, inform the engineers of the change in command.” He bowed his head low and limped to the ladder well. My son had climbed up, and made way for him.
I stepped over to the daughter and pushed her with my foot. She was dead. Carefully, tentatively, I did the same for her mother.
“Well, my chick,” I said. “There will be new songs, and they will be yours.” I turned to see him standing at the well. He bobbed his head. We had always understood each other.
My shoulder hurt, and my neck, where I had been clawed. I would have to see the doctor soon enough myself, but not this very moment. I turned around to see the image of the smoking, burning Earth. “Earth is dead, or if not it may as well be. Mars will be ours.” If anyone still lived on the Earth, perhaps one day they would venture away from the world and find, on Mars, the evidence of our triumph.
Let cowards retreat. We go forward. We live!