From the author: This story, The Sky Chief's Tale, was written in 2008, part of a collection edited by Dirk Flinthart, called Canterbury 2100, where the writers took part in a futuristic take on the Canterbury tales. Passengers on a broken down nuclear-powered train are on pilgrimage to Canterbury, the new capital, to attend celebrations in honour of King Charles V. They tell one another their stories to pass the time while they wait for rescue.
Davin, the son of the chief, stood in the Hall’s inner entrance, watching the hunters bring the half frozen man inside. It wasn’t only exposure which made the stranger the colour of snow. Though the man’s face was relatively young, his hair was white. His voice had an odd accent but he was speaking English. “Help them,” he pleaded, half rousing as the hunters wrapped dry blankets around him. “They’re all alone up there. Please help them!”
“Dav,” called one of the hunters, seeing him standing by the outside-gear racks. “Where’s your mother?”
“I think she’s in council.” Always have some sort of an answer, Camilla had told him. Don’t lie but try not to sound like an idiot.
“Can you call her or send someone? We don’t have authorisation to pass this fellow any further and he needs to see a medic. A good soak in the hot water wouldn’t hurt him any either.”
Davin looked at the man, tempted to tell them to take him to the Great Baths anyway, but a moment’s reflection told him that was stupid. If he was carrying something, infecting the entire lot of them was rather worse than being embarrassed. There was no one else here but him and this group and he was only here because he didn’t want his mother to make him stay for council. “I’ll go,” he said as the frozen man began to call out again.
One of the medics came to the hall; Rosanna, the young one not long out of her apprenticeship. She examined the man while the hunters guarded the far doors to make sure no one else wandered in. “He seems healthy,” she said at last, “but we’ll stick him in the isolation room as usual until I’m sure. He’s lucky you found him when you did.”
Davin, still lurking in the doorway, squawked as an unexpected hand tapped his shoulder. His mother grinned when he turned quickly around. Always good to show the younger generation you hadn’t completely lost everything. Camilla Winterton, who liked to call herself London’s last debutante, was as pale and fair-haired as her son, looking ghostly in the lantern shadowed passage. She wore only her light wolf-hide jacket and trousers since she had not intended to go outside today.
“Is he healthy?” she asked, pitching her voice to carry to those in the large hall. Its wall decorations had been left but all the furnishings removed years ago for use further inside the complex. Voices echoed here and the small group of humans in their animal-furred garments looked very like a wolf pack crouched over prey in the centre of the hall.
“I think so, Chief,” Rosanna called back. “I want to keep him isolated for a few days just to be sure. These guys say they found him about an hour ago and it’s so bloody cold – begging your pardon – that I don’t think any bug would survive out there. Even so, I want them isolated too.” This brought a general groan and complaint from the hunters.
“As you say, Medic,” Camilla answered. “Close the hall doors. Somebody will bring the supplies up and knock so you know when to retrieve them. I’ll see you all in three days.”
Three days later, Rosanna knocked on the heavy bolted inner door and called through to the guard there that all was well. Not long after, the message reached Camilla who headed along to speak to the stranger. The chief of the community still wasn’t sure admitting the man was a good idea. She’d tried to keep his arrival quiet but of course everyone knew the Hall was quarantined. There was only one reason for that. She’d meant to come alone but Davin’s instincts were too good and he’d caught up with her shortly after she received the news.
Camilla gave Davin a half-irritated, half-affectionate glance as he walked along the passage beside her. In some ways he was younger than his fifteen years, certainly younger in spirit than the teen she’d been when she came here with her parents. She had known a far wider world. Her father had taught at a great centre of learning and her mother had travelled the world as the chief of great sky craft. Then when Camilla was about Davin’s age, the great sicknesses began.
At first her people believed themselves safe, living in a civilised nation with advanced medical knowledge. Camilla’s father was in advance of his peers in his understanding. He gathered together a select group of people and supplies and took them out of London to what had been the tourist town of Bath. Even then, people travelled for the sake of it, to look at strange things and tell about them when they returned home.
Then the spreading plagues finally began to frighten people and they stopped travelling. They huddled into their homes, into tunnels and caves, anywhere they could to get away from the growing disarray. Places which had been owned by the government, the chosen rulers, had no visitors and were offered for sale. Camilla’s father and his group had been waiting for this. They offered money for the half-buried buildings where the only hot springs in Britain bubbled to the surface.
They enclosed them and moved in with all that they had; their families and the supplies they had managed to collect and the precious knowledge of their world. Camilla, who had hoped to go to that same centre of learning and study to become a doctor, instead grew up as her father’s apprentice in a lair of caves and inheritor to a struggling little community of less than one hundred souls. Too few for ultimate survival. Her father, the first chief, had known this but he had refused to accept anyone but those he and his council chose. Too many, he said, and we won’t pass a single generation.
Now there was Davin and a small generation of young people like him, living most of their lives underground except when they ventured out to hunt and scavenge. Most would grow up to be hunters while others would tend plants grown with arts the modern world had since lost. There was much of Camilla’s world which was only fantastic stories to hers on, limited to his home and to the distance a young boy was allowed to travel. In other ways, of course, he was far more self-reliant and tougher than his mother and her peers.
“We’ll go back,” Camilla’s father had said in those early days. “We’ll have to go back to the ways things used to be done. One of those things that’ll have to go is those very long, indulged childhoods we enjoyed. Our kids won’t have time for that.”
For a while now Camilla had discussed with the council what role Davin would begin to undertake when he turned sixteen. He was very, very bright and she wanted him to begin studying the old knowledge, the scientific books the community had managed to save from the self-destruction of the old world. Their tiny core of scientists had been working on various projects and experiments for years, with uncertain success, but she thought that with Davin, they might well achieve something of real worth.
She and Davin emerged in the Baths’ reception hall, still in its renovated Roman trappings which had once drawn the tourists. Camilla glanced at the bolted outer door, automatically reassuring herself that all was secure. They had stopped posting guards since the last of the sick, starving refugees had reached them, back in her father’s time. The chief led her son onwards, through another passage and out through the welcome warmth of the Great Baths chamber to the isolation chamber. A few people were in the greenish, yard and a half deep steaming water, or sitting at the far side talking but that was usual. This was the only place her people had to relax.
The changes wrought by Camilla’s people were not for the better, aesthetically speaking. Some buried part of her mind still cringed when she saw things like the portcullis and the ugly gray concrete roof which now covered the Baths and kept their precious heat within. Without it, the ancient structures would have suffered the same storm-destruction as the great Abbey beside them, now a snow-swept hull. Davin, of course, never even noticed. This was how things had always been for him.
The isolation room had probably been once a sort of meeting room, somewhere for bathers to sit and talk, have drinks and relax. Now, as the largest such chamber, its purpose was far less social. Camilla ordered Rosanna outside to wait until she was finished, relieving her of her extra lantern first. She put it on the table by the patient’s bed and looked curiously at him. Davin had said, but it was a shock to see his strange paleness of skin and hair for herself. Perhaps, she thought, they were a shock to him. He blinked and stared as though he had never seen a woman in a wolf-hide coat before.
“My name is Camilla Winterton and this is my son Davin,” she said. “You’re our first visitor in a very long time. The people who found you told me you said you’d come from Bristol; is that so?”
“Yes, I am from Bristol.” His voice was strange too and she could not place the accent.
“Who are you?”
“I am Dr Vladislav Woislaw of Warsaw University, later assigned to the cosmonaut program in Baikonur – Star City – Kazakhstan.” He said this very carefully and then waited, as though knowing she would need time to absorb it.
“I see,” Camilla said slowly. A host of questions arose in her mind, all struggling to be first. She rubbed her eyes, thinking of her council’s reaction, of the cell of scientists who would be clamouring for access once they knew. Davin, though, didn’t wait for his mother to think things through and blurted out the one question, as she immediately knew, which had to be asked.
“Why did you come here?”
Vlad Woislaw smiled, still carefully, as though he was afraid of both of them. Of course, there would be no comeback if she did choose to kill him, saying she had found he was a danger to their survival. Her people would believe that.
“I am here because the people on the moon want to come home.”
Camilla’s confused mind tried to make sense of his words. He might as well have said he’d seen a tribe of people dancing naked in the snow. In his fever dreams, more likely. “You – believe there are people on the moon?”
“I know it,” he said softly. “Women and men on the moon; the population is tilted more towards females. We have spoken to them at last, after years of trying to re-establish contact. They say they must land near here, that it is now not possible to land the craft in the ocean as they would once have done. They do not dare risk their original landing site.”
Camilla nodded. At last he’d said something she could understand from her own experience. She had been to Bristol when she was twenty and her father was still chief here. She didn’t think the storms had been so bad then as now, or perhaps that was always the case when you were young. Whatever the reason, no one from their community had made the twelve-mile trek to the coast since before Davin was born.
The sea had risen, her father said, and now no one lived in the houses which had once looked on to the water. The worsening storms made it very dangerous to go out in fishing boats, though people still did it. But a community of people on the moon? She remembered reading and hearing about space programs, the Chinese especially, since they had been the ones to reach Mars – but not that anyone was still on the moon.
“Davin,” she said sharply, “here’s a chance for you to prove you really did pay attention in school. Is he raving or did you hear something about this?”
There were only five scientists now among the ninety or so people who called her chief and lived in the cavelike rooms around the hot springs. There wasn’t much for them to do except serve as repositories of knowledge and to teach what they could to the few children. The two under sixty made what few journeys were possible outside to study conditions and collect samples of vegetation. Mostly, though, they minded the children.
“There was a group who went to the Moon, “ Davin said slowly. “The Americans put them there and then the Chinese sent people. And the Russians. The Americans went there in 2017 but then stuff happened to them here and they couldn’t look after it. One of the other bases, I forget which one, had an accident and I forget what happened to the other one but they had to move in together. Then later China and Russia had biowars so they couldn’t look after it either.”
“’Stuff happened?’ Camilla asked pointedly. “The plague wars are reduced to ‘stuff happened?’ “ Davin returned a helpless look; what one of Camilla’s own long ago instructors had once termed a “deer in headlights” expression. “Never mind. So there was no return? None of those nations brought their people home?”
“No,” said Vlad Woislaw, propping himself up on his side. “Information is very confused at that time, many records lost when Internet failed. There was no way to talk to the Moon and none of the nations involved retained the ability to launch a rescue ship.”
“But they must have died,” the Sulis chief persisted. “That was so long ago and if they didn’t have food and medical supplies sent, how could they survive?”
“They did,” Vlad Woislaw said softly. “We managed to reinstate contact shortly before I made the journey south.”
“And back to now,” Camilla said. “Why do they want to come back? I can’t even imagine how it will be done but I know – I remember that people are very light on the Moon, aren’t they? Wouldn’t it hurt to come back here?”
“More than any of us can imagine,” Woislaw said.
A good end line, Camilla thought, turning to check briefly on her son. He was fascinated with what the stranger was saying. None of their storytellers had come up with anything this bizarre in years. A pity for Woislaw that she didn’t intend to let him be the star of his own particular tale here. “Speaking of coming and going to places, you said you came from Bristol. That was a lie, was it?” She kept her voice casual but saw Davin stiffen. Her son knew, if Woislaw did not, that to lie to the chief was cause to be thrown out of the community.
“No,” said Woislaw. He spoke slowly, his eyes seeing something, some time other than this cave-room and two primitives. “I was in Bristol for a conference when my country closed its borders. It was supposed to be London but we were told that was unwise because of sickness there.”
“Poland or Russia?”
“I am a citizen of Russia.”
Russia, as its last ambassador had said, answered no more questions. Camilla stood silently, wishing her father, the old chief, were here. He had lived at a time when people truly understood these matters. London had suffered badly from floods in recent years and she doubted anyone would willingly go there for any reason now. Bristol wasn’t much better off, having experienced floods both from the rising ocean and the Avon bursting its banks. It wasn’t a place where specialised experts were allowed to pursue their near-useless occupations. “What are you a doctor of?”
“Computer science…and psychiatry.”
“Those who could, needed to have more than one skill,” he said. “At one time I was aiming to join the cosmonaut program, before that became impractical. I did work within it, though, counselling those who went to space. That’s why I was chosen to be the one who spoke to the Moon base when we restored contact. We had a very short time to speak to them.”
“How short? Damn it, just tell me, don’t make me keep asking.”
“Four minutes,” Woislaw answered hurriedly.
“What could they say in four minutes?” Davin asked, still happy and excited.
“Not a great deal,” Woislaw admitted. “I had spoken with them before, years ago, and they remembered me when I identified myself. They said their community was in trouble with no support form outside but that they were holding. Then the said they had to return to Earth and would we meet them? They were very frightened.”
“What enemies do they have there?” Camilla demanded.
“It is more fear of what greets them here. There is very little gravity on the moon, as you said. That means, yes, they feel very light so their bones are brittle – like a bird’s. They have lived always in a controlled climate so they have no tolerance for cold as we know it now. They have lived in a tiny group, far smaller than this one, with no diseases. They know to come back may kill them – in a few months, a few years – even if the fall does not.”
“We need more people, that’s sure,” Camilla agreed, “but why do they want to come here?”
“They said they did not want to but that they had to.”
“All right, why do they have to? I warned you about making me ask.”
“I am sorry,” Woislaw said, rubbing his eyes. “I am having trouble keeping my thoughts clear. Our link with the Moonbase broke while I was still speaking. The person I spoke to had time only to give me the coordinates of their landing and the date, which is three days from now.”
“Here?” Davin burst out, too excited to wait for him to finish. “They’re going to come down here so we can take them in!”
“I could see that coming,” his mother admitted. She looked at the scientist, now the only true scientist of her people, then at her son. She felt almost too tired to think herself. It wasn’t that she had been awake for so terribly long but that the thoughts themselves, forcing themselves through unused pathways in her brain, were exhausting her. They needed new blood, strangers with whom to breed and learn, even if it meant harder work for them all to live.
She couldn’t refuse to take them in, any more than she could have refused to help Woislaw himself. She could hear her mother saying it and that was strange, for her mother had died while she was still a child. It just isn’t done, darling. Civilised people don’t do that kind of thing. Now, though, she turned to her son again. If he isn’t ready, she thought, it’s too bad. I’ve been chief for twenty-odd years and I’m getting tired. He has to take this over.
“Davin, you and Dr Woislaw will be in charge of meeting these people from the moon. He will tell you what is needed and you will arrange it with as many folk as you need for the work. Agreed?”
“Yes, Chief,” her son said correctly, but he grinned. She swiped at his head.
“Dr Woislaw,” she said quietly. “I have one final question for you, however.” He waited and she made herself say, “You have said “we,” that you met with others in Bristol. Where are they?”
“They began the journey with me, Chief.”
“I see. We’ll do whatever we can for these moon folk, Dr Woislaw, I promise you that.”
“Thank you, Chief,” he answered, bowing his head.
The sky-craft was barely visible, a black speck in the gray, overcast morning sky. It should have landed in water, Camilla remembered Woislaw saying. If the moon-folk had been able to bring it down where it was supposed to be, water would have cushioned the fall but no rescue ship could have gone to their aid in the seas as they now were. They had to hope that the huge cushioning drifts of snow would be enough. Davin had thought of trying to build up the snow but Vlad Woislaw told him there was no way of knowing with any precision where impact would be. Nature would be enough, or not.
Davin had called almost every one of their people outside, from young children to the elders, the scientist cell. They wore every warm item of clothes in Aqua Sulis, Camilla thought. Blankets, pieces of canvas and sacking, half-cured hides. There weren’t enough for the wolf and deer-hide clothes the hunters wore, even if they hunted every surviving creature in the countryside.
Vlad – they were using his first name by request now – pushed his way over to her, his white hair blown crazily about by the wind. “They have to move back,” he called, pointing to where five children, the last born of their group, were pushing forward and staring up at the sky.
“Everyone, with me!” Camilla shouted, but she saw Davin already going forward, calling to the children and urging them back with him. Good, she thought, he’s thinking ahead. Davin helped her and Vlad to herd the people further back yet, until they were close to the buildings. Their retreat was barely in time. The speck became a rock and then a huge parachute. People were still backing off when the craft fell the final distance with a great rushing thump.
Vlad Woislaw scrambled forward. “They need to be helped quickly,” he said. “They will not be able to walk or even stand, though they said they were trying to maintain bone density. They have no tolerance to these temperatures and we must get them inside quickly, down to the hot springs.”
“Yes, you told us. We won’t forget,” Camilla assured him. She was normally a bit sharp with those who questioned her memory or abilities, but the scientist’s face was tense with worry. He reached the capsule moments before she did and was first to reach out a hand when the heavy metal door, steaming with heat, fell down into the snow. A pale face, close to the floor as the capsule was now oriented, appeared and hands weakly pulled at the rim. Davin and another boy rushed forward and the other knelt to give Davin a hands-clasp foothold upwards.
“We will get you down,” Vlad called. “I am Dr Woislaw. I spoke to you on the link. Be patient, we will get you all inside.”
Camilla waved the rest of her people forward. It was numbers they needed now. Another youth climbed up to join Davin. Hand to hand, the women and men from the moon were passed like helpless babies through the snow and the rising chill of the wind, into the Aqua Sulis lair and down to the last hot water in the world. So it might be. Night was closing, brought faster by overcast sky and Camilla was intensely relieved when the last of her folk was safe inside and the barrier closed.
Hours later, Camilla went down to the main pool to find out how the Moon-tribe was faring. Some were still in the water, supported by several of her people, to bake the chill and relieve the terrible weight of gravity for a time. Others were in beds around the pool, lying as flat as though they were actually crushed to the ground. Camilla gazed at them and located Rosanna, who didn’t look immediately intent on anyone. “What can you tell me about them?” she asked. “Will they live?”
“I believe they will. There are some broken bones. By Lady Minerva, their bones break like matchsticks!” The young doctor lowered her voice. “There are thirty two of them. Dr Woislaw was correct about the gender balance. There are twenty one women and eleven men, all between the ages of fourteen and somewhere in the fifties – early sixties? I’m guessing. We haven’t had a chance to interview them yet. They can barely talk.”
“Didn’t they have any children?” Camilla said, puzzled. “Or old people?”
Vlad – Dr Woislaw seemed to have gone by the by – appeared, hurrying to her side as best he could through the mass of beds and carers. “Chief,” he said, “come here. She wants to talk to you.”
“The – well, I suppose you might call her the chief of the Moon-tribe. She’s over here.” Vlad led the way around two of the pillars which stood about the huge pool to one of the pallets. The woman lying there might have had more colour in her face than the snow outside, but it was a near thing. She was broad faced, her eyes had hints of epicanthic folds and her hair, though very short, was rough and black. Camilla guessed her as among the elders of the group, befitting a chief. “This is Dr Irina Zhdanova,” Vlad said quietly. “She is the chief administrator of the Moonbase and also a doctor of physics. I do not know how I should introduce you.”
“I’m Camilla, chief of Aqua Sulis, which is this community you’re in,” the chief said, feeling unusually shy as Irina’s dark eyes examined her. “We don’t use much ceremony. I was going to leave it awhile until you feel better before we do much talking. Winter’s coming on and talking is about all you can do then…”
“Who are you?” At first Camilla thought the Moon-woman’s wits were wandering, then realised that Davin had come up alongside her and that the woman’s gaze was fixed on his face. “Who is this?”
“My son, Davin. He’s fifteen,” Camilla said, a little puzzled by the intensity of Irina’s voice. Irina blinked several times and Camilla realised she was trying to get rid of tears. The Moon-woman tried to lift a hand but could not raise her arm enough to wipe her eyes. “Just rest,” the chief said, alarmed. I’ll call one of the healers.”
“Nikita,” Irina whispered. With a visible effort, she turned her mind from tears. Camilla could see the effort of will. “Nikita was my son, Chief of the caves. He was born on the Moon. We always tried to make the children exercise in the heavy-wheel, to keep the strength in their bones. They never wanted to. Why should they put themselves through that pain when they could fly? They couldn’t see why we wished it and it hurt them. Only a few of the young ones could come, those whose bones showed sufficient density. Nikita and the rest had to stay behind with the elders. They can never come to Earth.”
Camilla, stricken, bowed her head as though to her own chief. New blood for her clan, she thought. The possibility of enough babies for them to continue, even to grow. New knowledge, with all the skills the Moon-tribe brought with them. Even an opening of the borders, she thought, if knowledge could bring them protection against the bio-plagues and permit exploration once more. All these things, dropped in her lap by chance and a half-frozen stranger finding his way to them. It could be nothing like that from the point of view of this Irina and her people, who were more imprisoned than they could ever have been on the airless Moon. There was nothing she could think of, no comfort she could offer this woman.
Camilla had dropped to her knees without thinking of it, so that she could grip Irina’s weak hand. The Moon-chief’s eyes met hers and they were clear once more. “No,” she said. “We would have died there. There were too many for the food processors and the life support was struggling. We had to come back. We don’t know what it’s like here, not really. We have not been able to learn very much but we have been able to watch and we have seen the cold and the storms. You will need us. On the Moon, you know there were once three bases of three nations?”
“Yes,” Camilla said. “Vlad has told me.”
“Now there are no more nations and all of us are one tribe,” Irina said. “That is what we will be with you, so that we all survive. Do you understand?” Though she could barely move, her voice had in it the snap of command so that Camilla, managing to smile back at her, wondered which of them would be Chief here when the woman from the moon was on her feet once again. It didn’t matter, she knew. She would pass the Chieftainship on to Davin or not, but with the coming of these folk and the sacrifice they had made, the survival chance of her people was greater by far.
Davin had listened carefully to his mother and to the Moon-Chief speaking about their two peoples and the need to become one. That was obvious, he thought. Both of them had forgotten about the other thing. So he left the room and found, one by one, all the young people of the community, all those who had grown up buried in the earth in a world of storms. They went to the outer chamber and put on their heavy clothing and then returned to the meadow of snow, where the gray metal craft had fallen from the forever dark.
It was too heavy for them to move with only their bodies and with ropes. Davin ordered the others to help him cover the craft with branches, with rocks and snow, to create a disguising hill over it, to conceal and protect it from human scavengers and even the elders of his own community who would see only a great deal of useful metal.
Davin didn’t know himself why he wanted to protect the ship form the sky so much or what he could ultimately make of it but he and the others successfully buried the thing, working not only that day but many others.
When his mother found out what he and the others were doing, she was startled at first and thought to retrieve the craft and have it dragged into the Baths to be broken up.
“You want me to be the chief here some day,” her son answered. “I want to have the sky-ship when I am chief.”
“It won’t ever fly again, you know,” Camilla told him.
“No,” said Davin. “I don’t.”
So Camilla let him hide the sky-craft and keep it. She was the first one to begin calling my father the Sky Chief, as a joke, but others joined in and the joke was forgotten. When Davin was older, he married one of the girls from the Moon. They had three children and in time, when one of them became chief of the council, she too took the title of Sky Chief. This, of course, is how I introduced myself to you and you can possible guess now, what is the gift which Aqua Sulis has for the King.
This story originally appeared in Canterbury 2100.