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A. Thomas Heald
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6440 words

 

The Endless Trek: Unasked Questions
by
Tom Heald

 

"Look: Nemesis is rising!" cried little Isa from the head of the column. "Tell us, Tribal Father, tell us the story of how Nemesis came to our world," she pleaded as she ran to the older man leading the band of 26. The tribe trotted in loose files beside a stream of pure, ice-cold water as it ran across a broad plain covered with low-lying vines stretching out to the western horizon.

Ah yes, smiled Jon. She always uses Grandfather's formal name to sway his heart. Though she has made only eight circuits, she knows just how to hold her head so the wind catches her red hair as she runs beside him looking up with those big green eyes. And good eyes they are to see such a small sliver of Nemesis as it rises just below Sol on the eastern horizon.

"So, little one," said Ien, the leader of the tribe, smiling down at her. "I would think by now you could tell me the story of how Nemesis came and fought with our Father Sol -- but not now. We must travel yet another two degrees and make camp before Nemesis meets Sol." As he picked up the pace, his ankle rose higher increasing the length of his stride.

Over the generations his people had evolved an elongated foot, their ankle becoming part of their lower leg, so only their toes contacted the ground. This along with larger lungs and hearts gave them the strength and stamina to run great distances at speeds that would have astounded their ancestors.

As his tribe picked up their pace, Jon's thoughts drifted to the ancient tale he knew so well -- how countless circuits ago his people dwelt in one place while Sol trekked across the sky. Then one day, Nemesis attacked without warning from behind their Father Sol. The ground shook, and there were great floods and raging fires as the two fought. In the end Sol was victorious as Nemesis retreated, but there was a price to pay for the victory. Now Sol trekked slower across the sky and burned hotter. Generation after generation Nemesis returned to battle Sol, each time appearing a little sooner. Though ever victorious, each battle weakened Sol, so that he trekked across the sky even more slowly until finally he could no longer drive Nemesis away.

Now it is Nemesis who treks across the sky as Sol once did, while Sol slowly rises in the eastern sky burning hot with anger. Every trek the tribe travels until Sol is just five degrees above the horizon, then camp until he rises to twenty degrees and the manna ripens on the vine. Manna is Mother Eva's gift to the tribe, its fruit sustaining them while its vines provide fibers for weaving baskets and making cord.

Shaking the waking-dream from his head, Jon looked out over the broad plain with its lengthening shadows as Sol slipped further behind them. Throwing his head back and grinning to himself, Jon sprinted to the head of the column. "I'll scout ahead for antelope, Grandfather," he said, veering off onto the plain.

"Don't stray too far," warned the older man. "I want you back in camp before Nemesis overtakes Sol."

With a wave of his hand, the young man raced out onto the open plain leaping over rows of vines spreading toward the west, his long, chestnut hair bouncing over the slightly darker hair on his back and shoulders. His body was firm and muscular, devoid of any other hair except for a small patch that had recently appeared on his chest. The boy's only clothing was a loin cloth, a chamois really, made from soft antelope-hide scraped clean of all hair. Across his back, from his left shoulder to his right hip, hung a pack containing all his worldly possessions.

In his seventeenth circuit, Jon was reaching full manhood, and would take a mate at the next tribal gathering in four treks. But neither antelope nor Vena, his betrothed from the Northern Tribe, concerned him now.

Jon knew the chances of spotting any antelope were slim. Only a female heavy with calf would travel this far ahead of Sol. Hunting was only his excuse, not his reason for this foray onto the plain. Jon needed to run as far and as fast as he could to clear his head of all the unanswerable questions he had conjured up: How could the ancient ones live in one place while Sol trekked across the sky? Why do we see Nemesis always rise beneath Sol, but we never see him return? Why do the tops of the mountains appear long before one can see the great salt flat at their base? All these questions and many more Jon discussed endlessly with his grandfather, but not with his father, who simply dismissed them saying, "It is the way of things! How else could it be?"

Jon's senses heightened with his speed. With his chin held high, he breathed sweet, cool air through his mouth as well as his nose. Each smell, every change in the wind, the way the light reflected off the surface of the ground ahead, all fed his senses. With his heart pounding steadily and his reflexes attuned to the surroundings, the ground seemed to slip beneath him in slow motion. Suddenly a gully appeared; his dark brown eyes instinctively picked the spot his right toes would bare on to spring across, and fate, he knew, would bring a solid landing on the other side. For Jon knew, he is young, the fastest runner in the tribe, and, above all, he is invincible.

For more then a degree, Jon raced out onto the plain in a wide ark. With his heart pounding and his muscles taut, he banished all extraneous thoughts from his mind. Inhaling the cool, damp air deep into his lungs, he felt in total control, free of any insecurities or responsibilities. He was his own master. Free to run to the edge-of-the-light and beyond if he wished, but he knew his place was with his tribe, and that knowledge gave him a warm feeling. With barely a sliver of light separating Nemesis from Sol, Jon approached the camp.

"It's time," cried Ien, so all could hear. He nodded approvingly to Jon, as his grandson trotted into camp. "See any antelope?" he asked, through a not-quite-concealed grin.

"No, the ground still holds frost in some places and is clear of all sign, except for the vines," Jon reported, oblivious to his grandfather's subtle sarcasm.

"Well then, as you have no fresh meat, add your dried vines to the others, and we will begin the ceremony."

"Ton," Ien commanded to his second, Jon's father. "Light the fire, for Nemesis has returned." As Nemesis set about its eclipse of Sol the chanting began. The tribes-people gathered close together as the sky darkened -- not so much for the warmth as for comfort in the pending darkness -- for this was the only darkness they knew. The impenetrable darkness of a total eclipse of Sol by Nemesis, a rogue planetoid whose orbital gravity had almost canceled their own planet's spin.

What are they? Jon thought to himself as the sky darkened and the air chilled. Are those countless bright lights in the sky minions of Nemesis, or are they his rivals? With far more questions than answers, Jon moved closer to the group listening to the ancient chant that told the story of his people. The chant continued in total darkness until Sol peeked out from beneath Nemesis. Freed from darkness, the tribe worked in the cool breeze from the west until 10 degrees, then all but the watch slept in the warming rays of Sol for eight more degrees.

"Ton," Ien commanded at 20 degrees, "you take the young men to where the vines wilt and gather fuel for tonight's fires. All save Jon -- who will accompany me on the hunt today."

"Me?" Jon's face lit up, and his chest swelled with the honor of being selected.

"After yesterday's romp," said Ien through a stern but caring face, "I thought you might like to actually see some antelope today."

Jon blushed as some of the women snickered, but not for long as the honor was his, and he would certainly prove his value as a hunter to all.

Ien led the way, trotting to the southeast where earlier scouting had shown the track of a small herd moving west with the ripening manna. Jon followed, scanning the countryside for any sign while remaining alert to his grandfather's movements. Reaching the track, Ien stopped and signaled Jon to crouch low. Blowing gently into one of the more distinct tracks, Ien gauged how much dust had blown into it; then, tilting his head back he inhaled deeply through his nostrils. Ien turned to Jon, signaling with his index finger crossed over his thumb. Half a degree away, Jon noted as he nodded in acknowledgment.

Both men readied their slings as they started forward into Nemesis' breath, the never-ending wind from the west. Jon spotted their prey first, but took no action as he was not leading the hunt. A moment later Ien spotted the herd of three bucks and two doe grazing on manna behind a hedgerow of vines. With a few quick hand movements, he signaled Jon to flank them on the right, wait for him to take position, then approach the herd from their right. Both hunters slowly, silently crept into position.

Stealthily Jon approached the antelope in a crouched position with his best stone firmly anchored in his sling. The lead buck raised his head for a quick survey. Jon froze, continuing only when the buck resumed grazing on the manna. They broke! Jon was after them in a flash, selecting a young doe at the rear of the herd. Ien rose from cover and loosed his stone at the third buck. It was a powerful shot, but it hit the base of the buck's horn instead of its temple. The buck stumbled but kept running.

Jon knew he should stop to let the herd settle down, but he kept running, hoping for a shot. Spotting a ravine ahead, he veered slightly to the left, hoping to drive the herd toward it. Ien saw what he was trying to do and sprinted off covering the herd's right flank. The herd sprang over the ravine as one, and all save the female at the rear made a clean landing. With a whoop, Jon cleared the ravine and let loose his sling just as the doe scrambled up over the lip of the ravine. It was a magnificent shot to the temple, bursting the artery below and rendering the doe unconscious. With his eyes shining and his heart pounding Jon knelt beside the antelope and deftly opened the artery in its neck. Rising, Jon threw his arms skyward and let loose a victory-whoop, then danced around his prize chanting a Warrior's Cry of Victory.

Grinning broadly, Jon turned to Ien. He was not to be seen. Trotting to the edge of the cliff, Jon peered over the side into the ravine below.

"Grandfather," he cried, "are you all right?" It was a hopeful question, for the Tribal Father lay at the bottom of the ravine, unmoving, a pile of rubble covering his left leg. Jon climbed down the rock face, then used his elongated foot sideways to traverse the rubble pile of dirt and sand at the base of the cliff. Jumping a small stream, he ran to Ien. "Grandfather," he cried softly, "what happened?" Jon felt for a pulse. Good, he was alive but unconscious. Jon removed the rubble from Ien's leg, inspected the injury, and set about preparing for what he knew he must do.

After everything was readied, Jon sat cradling the older man's head in his lap, wiping it with a wet chamois until Ien finally came to.

"Well," Ien said with a slight grimace, "I see you survived the leap." Then looking down at his leg, he frowned. "I'll never cross the mountains on that. Here, help me sit with my back against the cliff." Jon helped him get as comfortable as he could.

The old warrior knew from long experience that he could never make it back to his tribe on a broken leg, even with the help of his grandson. It was just too late. Sol was too high in the sky, and only the swift could outrun its blistering heat. If there were many warriors available to take turns helping him, and if they didn't have to cross the mountains in a few treks -- well maybe . . .

Knowing what he must do, Ien let out a long sigh. Looking deep into Jon's eyes he said, "It's time for me to return to our Mother Eva."

"No!" Jon cried with shock and disbelief. "No, I can fix it. I have rawhide soaking in the stream for the cast, and I can carry you until it dries."

"You have done all you can, Jon," he said, lifting his hand to the boy's face. "I love you dearly, and I know you would travel to the edge-of-the-light for me, but it is my time. I must open my veins and sing the Death Chant to Father Sol and Mother Eva so they will take me into their care as they have taken my father and my mother before me."

"NO! I can do this!" Jon said, jumping to his feet. "We will return to the tribe together or not at all." He had never defied his Grandfather before, it was unthinkable, but this he could not do. Jon would not let his grandfather die for his own mistake. He should have let the antelope go. The herd would have stopped in a degree or so, and they would have had another chance for a kill. Walking to the stream, Jon retrieved the rawhide and thongs he had soaking.

"Brace yourself, Grandfather. I will set the leg now, and we will be off."

"Jon, Jon. Look at the shadow; it is almost 29 degrees. At 30 degrees, your back will burn and soon after, your toes will start to blister. At 40 degrees, when Sol is directly overhead, your body will start to burn, but you won't know it because you will have died of heatstroke long before. No man has ever returned from 35 degrees, and few have seen 30 and lived to tell of it."

"See where I lie?" asked the old man.

Jon knelt beside the man he most admired in life. He felt his Grandfather's hands on his face, pulling his head closer until the two stared into each other's soles.

"I lie in the shadow of an overhanging cliff, the one that broke under my weight and left me here. When Sol appears at 40 degrees, I do not want to watch my body as it is consumed by our Father Sol. By our law, I must perform our death ritual now, and you must return to our tribe. If you do not do this, there will be nobody to tell my tale and sing a chant of our last hunt together. Go, Jon. Do this for me. Don't let me die unremembered."

Jon rose, tears welling up in his eyes.

His Grandfather smiled up at him and said, "Jon, you must never stop asking your questions. You must search for answers here and with the other tribes. You may never answer all your questions, but you will find answers to questions not yet asked, and these answers will save our people. For all our people, you must do this." Looking up at Jon with clear eyes and a steady voice that carried the authority of ages past, he made a last request of his grandson. "Promise me Jon. Promise your Tribal Father that you will take up this quest."

Jon nodded his head; he could not speak, for his throat was thick with grief. He watched as his grandfather opened a vein in his right wrist, then another in his left. With arms outstretched, the Tribal Father rested his hands on the ground, his fingers pumping. He began the Death Chant.

Oh, Mother Eva, take forth my blood to nourish the manna from your womb. Oh, Father Sol, return my body to the soil from which it sprang to nourish the manna that gives us life. Do this so all my children may live in peace and plenty. . . .

Jon bent low and kissed his grandfather's forehead, then turned for the far wall of the ravine. Stumbling through the stream, he crawled over the rubble pile, and clawed his way up the cliff face. At the top, he turned to face Sol. Extending his left hand toward Sol with his fingers turned to the right and the base of his hand parallel to the horizon, Jon counted hand over hand: 5, 10, 15, . . . , 30 degrees!

No time to waste! Jon thought as he turned to the Antelope. Quickly skinning his prize, he placed its hide over his head and shoulders to help protect him from Sol's heat. Next he cut the rawhide he had soaked in the stream in two pieces, punched holes along the edges while forming each one around his toes, and laced them with cords. Taking only part of a hind quarter, Jon made a small offering of salt to the spirit of the Antelope, asking forgiveness for leaving so much of it behind.

Jon turned toward the ravine, listening for a moment to his Grandfather's chant. With a desperate heart, he turned his back to Sol and slowly walked away. He wanted desperately to return to the older man, but that was unthinkable. Once the Death Chant was begun, it was a great dishonor to intrude. Jon slowly walked away, as the chanting faded on the wind. Only when the last whisper of his grandfather's chant was no more did he increase his pace to a slow trot, being careful to breathe only through his nose so as not to burn his lungs. He had never felt Nemesis' breath so hot before.

Leaves scattered by the wind crunched beneath his toes. The vine stocks stood devoid of any moisture, for nature in its wisdom carried the sap forward into the living vine. His eyes fixed on the far horizon shimmering in the distance. In a semi-trance he kept a steady pace, his mind wandering through an endless corridor of memories. On and on he trekked as Sol slowly slipped behind him. At 25 degrees, Jon saw that the vines retained their leaves, though they were now a dull brown. Then all slowly faded into an ever-smaller tunnel of memories.

The ground raced up at him as he tripped over a vine that had veered from its westerly course to follow a small stream. With the salty taste of blood warm in his mouth, Jon crawled to the rushing stream and drank slowly of its cool, clear water. As his eyes regained their focus, he stood and walked into the stream, fell, and slipped clumsily under the water. Panicking, he thrashed to the surface and struggled to his feet. He had seen others of his tribe swept away by the current; he knew its power and feared it.

With his full foot on the stream's bed, Jon stood waist-deep and removed the antelope's hide, now dried stiff, from his head and shoulders. Back at the bank, he weighted down the hide to soak and washed the grime from his body. One of his rawhide boots was missing, so Jon removed and discarded the other. Both his big and little toes had open blisters on their sides but his toe pads were neither cut nor cracked though they were badly bruised.

Resting, Jon fed hungrily on the manna beside the stream until his stomach rejected everything. Acting on a warrior's instinct for survival, he cut the antelope's rump into thin strips, laying the pieces on a rock to dry in Sol's rays. Then he gathered more manna for his trek.

After a short rest Jon retrieved the hide, and quickly scraped it with a broad flint edge. He rolled the hide loosely, then tied each end tight with a long, flat thong to prevent it from drying too fast. Next he gathered dried vines to use for a fire, and tied the bundle tight in several places before securing it to his shoulder bag. He ate one of the ripe manna he had gathered earlier, this time retaining it. Rising, he looked to Sol: 21 degrees.

Slowly Jon limped forward on tired bones and tender toes. He ate another manna and increased his pace slightly, working through the pain. Another manna, a bit more speed. His joints were more limber now, and his toes had numbed to a dull ache. It had been a double-trek since he last slept, and he had a full trek ahead of him before he dared sleep again. At 20 degrees he slowed to a walk as he gathered more manna, then slowly, painfully he resumed a normal trot. When he stopped for a long drink, the numbing cold water refreshed his toes, but starting again his pain resumed twofold. As he slowly reached a trot, his whole body throbbed with pain, each toe-fall reverberating through his head as though he had been struck by a stone.

Through hazy eyes Jon spied distant peeks on the horizon -- Guardians of the mountain pass -- where tribes were gathering, waiting for the snow in the pass to melt. Suddenly he turned; 10 degrees! He was late.

As Sol cleared the pass of snow, it also melted the ice cliffs far to the north. Soon -- very soon -- a great flood would reach the growing salt lake at the base of the mountains, and it would become an impassable sea. He must be halfway up to the pass before the flood, or it will certainly wash him away, and carry him to join his grandfather.

Breathing deeply with his head held high, Jon fought through the pain to a full run. His mind ignored the throbbing pang and concentrated all its function on his instincts. A toe-fall here to leap a chasm, a side-spring over several vines that formed a hedge. On he pushed, now floating over the ground, his every instinct tuned to the land, ignoring everything else. He would reach his goal, or his heart would burst; nothing would stop him now.

On and on he pushed, oblivious to pain. The great salt lake at the foot of the mountains was now in full view; the flood had not reached it yet, but it was filling fast from the rushing mountain streams. Jon veered west-northwest to round the expanding lake. Degree after degree he ran. He had never held a full run this far before, but his body felt good. At seven degrees, he rounded the northern extent of the lake and felt the valley floor beginning to rise. He was now on the mountain's slope and would soon reach the tribes -- all his people -- at the gathering.

The sound of thunder rose in the distance -- a low-pitched, rolling thunder of a thousand boulders bouncing off cannon walls as they were swept downstream by a 20-foot high head of water. Danger was still some ways off, but not for long. Jon reached deep inside himself for more speed, but there was nothing left to give. On he raced.

Suddenly the ground shook! The headwater churned toward him with the deafening roar of raging thunder. The boulder-strewn slope was rising fast now as a shadow loomed over Jon. A cold, swirling mist filled the air around him as a boulder beside Jon took the brunt of the force. The water parted around him, then came crashing down from all sides. Jon clawed desperately for the surface, but found only rocks and ledge. Bouncing off a cliff face, he was carried by an eddy to the surface. Choking, exhausted, and simply too tired to panic, Jon continued to run and claw the surface with both hands.

Something rose from the dark depths below! Jon felt it slither along his legs, then nudge him several times along his back. Dazed, Jon turned to face the intruder. It was his wayward antelope skin. Tied tightly at both ends, it floated beside him on the air trapped inside. Exhausted, he threw his tired arms over the hide, and to his amazement it held him safely on the surface of the salty water.

The current carried him along the coast and out into the vast, open sea. Jon soon found he could change his direction somewhat by moving his arms and legs, but he could not overcome the powerful current. For two degrees, he was swept helplessly along the coast of the great sea, toward a distant ridge line that ran out of the mountains, forming a large bay in the sea. As the peninsula loomed nearer, the current slowed and shifted, carrying Jon along its coast. Instinctively he reached for the shore, desperately "crawling" through the water until he finally reached land.

For half a degree he lay on his back, exhausted, allowing Sol's warm rays to soothe and refresh his cold, tired, battered body. Resting as long as he dared, Jon removed three manna and two strips of dried antelope from his pack and ate ravenously. It wasn't enough, but it was all of his meager supplies he dared devour.

Standing on the shore, Jon looked out over the vast ocean covering the great salt flats from which the tribes replenished their supply of salt every circuit. Sol was now at 10 degrees, and Jon was far from the pass, but he knew of no alternative. He must make it back to the meeting place if he was to cross the mountains. He trotted along the peninsula, and had just turned north when he was met by a vine.

A single vine traveling south along the coast passed by Jon, and much to his surprise, at the top of the ridge it turned toward the west. The vine headed up the ridge line toward the impenetrable mountains as though it had a sense of purpose. Up it climbed steadily, bringing forth nourishment from a stock that was many degrees in length. New roots dug into the rich, ash-laden soil, drawing fresh water from the many streams flowing to the sea.

Up the ridge traveled the tip of the vine while its trunk, beside Jon, filled with leaves and started to bud. In about ten degrees, Jon knew, there would be ripe manna here. He continued north at a trot then stopped to look back at the vine climbing the mountain.

The vine was a gift from Mother Eva to the people. The people always followed the vine, for the vine was the Life of the people. Was this vine sent by Mother Eva for another purpose? Was it sent to show me a new way over the mountains? More unanswerable questions thought Jon, but a primordial fear wrenched his gut. His instincts told him to return to the pass his people had used for countless circuits; but deep inside, his fear told him there was too little time to make it back to the pass. Jon made his decision.

Turning south, he started toward the ridge line. Just as he reached the crest, Nemesis' breath returned, a cool breeze traveling down the ridge. For three-quarters of a degree, he followed the ridge higher and higher up a constant slope straight toward a distant cliff that seemed to run forever across his path. Did I do the right thing? he wondered. Follow the vine, his instincts told him. Will I die against a cliff like Grandfather? he asked himself. Follow the vine! came a voice from deep within him. He remembered his grandfather's words: "You will find answers to questions not yet asked." Follow the vine to find the answers, his inner-voice told him.

Jon reached the vine's tip just as it approached the cliff. Without hesitation, the tentacle weaved its way into a pile of rubble at the cliff's base. Jon followed tentatively. Suddenly, before him stood a strange, unnatural-looking cave with straight walls and a rounded top. From it flowed a cold breeze that sent a chill down his spine. Nemesis' mouth, thought Jon, and the thought frightened him.

His people never went into caves. Caves were dark places, and the only darkness they knew was the darkness that engulfed them when Nemesis fought Sol. Jon mustered his courage and followed the vine. Inside the cave, he found it was even darker than when Nemesis came. Jon retreated. He needed light to see.

From his shoulder bag, he removed a pouch fashioned from the bladder of an antelope. Unsealing the pouch he removed a pinch of dry tender and two fire stones. The bundle of vines he had carried lashed to his shoulder bag was dry on the ends that rode above the water, but still damp below. No matter; he lit the dry end, but its light barely penetrated into the oppressive blackness of the cave. Tentatively he entered the cave, his torch providing a shield of light around him. After a few hesitant steps, Jon's eyes adjusted to the blackness, and the knot in his stomach loosened just a bit. Remnants of old vines lay on the floor of the cave. One was a strange vine, larger than the rest, but lacking evidence of limbs or leaves. Like the cave itself, it was unnaturally symmetrical, as though not of his world.

Was this the entrance to the underworld? Stopping short, Jon looked back; the mouth of the cave lay far behind, a faint light in the distance. To return meant certain death. Jon knew he had no option. He must move on. Perhaps this was one of those unasked questions Grandfather spoke of. He only hoped he could live with the answer.

"OK, Grandfather," he said aloud. "I put myself in your hands. Show me your answers." He trotted on with new-found courage, bolstered by the memory of that wise old man.

Suddenly Jon smiled, relieved to see a faint light appear ahead. There was an end to the cave after all. He trotted a little faster, but slowed again as his torch sputtered and flickered low with the increased air flow. The torch was well below the halfway mark, so he stopped for a moment, gathering some old vines and bundling them. The second torch was almost half gone when he emerged from the end of the cave.

Ahead of Jon, and far below, lay a valley floor cut by a small river being fed by many streams, and surrounded by barren walls. The cave floor continued to the right along a path cut into the side of the cliff. Below, vines grew outward from shoots off the main trunk spreading across the floor of the valley wherever there was soil to hold their roots. Ahead, the primary vine followed the path which was still climbing, though at a slighter grade. Jon could not see Sol, but judging from the shadows, it was about 15 degrees.

The wide path was broken by landslides in several places, forcing Jon to detour down to the slide's rubble, and then struggle up again. The vine simply continued straight ahead, clinging snugly to the rock face. After passing through two smaller caves, the path traversed a barren, granite dome and started its long descent. Rounding a cliff face, Jon saw before him the vast Western Plain stretching on for 56 treks, he knew from experience. With a whoop followed by his Tribal Call, he started to trot along the bolder-strewn path, his echo reverberating behind him. Defiantly he turned, rose his arms, and into the canyon thundered his Warrior's Cry of Victory. Savoring his triumph, he stood, arms outstretched with his face to the sky, letting the echo of his victory cry roll back over him and out onto the valley floor beyond.

For two degrees he followed the descending path until it disappeared into the plain. The vine continued west, but Jon knew he must turn north along the foothills to seek the trail of his tribe. He paused for a moment, watching the vine's tip disappear into the shimmering heat of the plain. It was as if Jon was watching an old friend leave on a quest. He turned, and trotted north.

Sol had risen three more degrees before Jon found his people's trail at the foot of the pass. The vine-clippings the women of each tribe had carried across the mountains and planted by the stream had sent forth new growth and now held ripening fruit. Jon hungrily ate a few of the riper manner along with the last of his dried antelope. After washing in the ice-cold stream, he followed the main trail with renewed vigor. Each tribe had a preferred path, and the Northern Tribe of Thor -- who trekked near the great ice wall -- was the first to veer off.

Next came the River Tribe of the twins, who lead their tribe as one. Twins were a rarity in a society where the children had to be carried for their first five circuits. Much tribal law dealt with the arrangement of marriages and the bearing of children. To keep the tribe strong and the children healthy, it is the people's custom never to marry first or second cousins, which inevitably led to marriages between tribes. Because the tribes only met briefly once each circuit, marriages were arranged long before the betrothed reached full adulthood.

As was the custom, the bride almost always joined the man's tribe. Early marriages and unsanctioned children were forbidden by tribal law, as both parents must be healthy and strong to carry the child until it can run on its own. When twins were born, the weaker or last born was only allowed to live if an uncle or friend committed to carry the second child for five circuits.

This circuit, Jon was to wed Vena -- daughter of Thor, Father of the Northern Tribe -- but he knew she might have wed another, as both Grandfather and he were certainly presumed dead. No matter, marriage would come in time, but now he had to find his tribe.

As each tribe branched, Jon studied the tracks looking for signs of his own tribe, the Tribe of the Great Plain. It was easy to distinguish male from female by the width of their toe-pads; children were smaller and lighter with short strides. He looked for the tracks of his uncle Bob, who had lost the little toe from his left foot as a youngster. But even without that distinction, Jon would easily recognize the track of each person in his tribe.

Three dust columns now rose on the western horizon as more tribes dispersed. It was now 10 degrees, and he would surely reach his tribe before their trek ended. At seven degrees, the tracks showed them splitting from Rof's Tribe of the Lower Plain, and Jon quickened his pace. Though he had not slept in many treks, he felt strangely invigorated. Apart from the dust in the air, he now recognized the faint scent of his people. He could see his tribe's main dust cloud now, flanked by two out-trekkers sent to scout for a rich supply of manna buds near water. It was fast approaching 6 degrees, and the tribe would soon make camp. Jon pushed on, his whole being focused on the dust cloud ahead.

"Who is this lone trekker, who stalks the tribe ahead?" came a startling voice from behind. "Be you an outcast or a friend?"

Jumping half out of his skin, Jon spun around to face his adversary. Deftly anchoring a stone in his sling, he crouched low in a defensive posture. Suddenly he recognized the form before him. "Father!" he cried, rushing forward into his father's open arms, the forgotten stone lying in the dust behind him.

"I had lost all hope," said Ton, tears streaking down his cheeks. "I waited at the pass, but . . ." His voice trailed off. "My son. My son has returned from beyond Sol's horizon," he said softly, hugging Jon tightly with both arms.

Stepping back, Ton brushed the tears from his eyes. "But you still haven't learned to watch your backtrack," he scolded, in a voice as stern as he could muster through the broad grin etched into his face.

The two men trotted side by side toward their tribe, each holding in his heart the joy of the moment. Neither was willing to mention the absent elder, for his fate was obvious. There would be time for remembrances later.

"Look, it's Jon," cried little Isa from the middle of the column. "It's Jon! It's Jon," she cried again, jumping up and down with the full exuberance of youth. "Uncle Ton found Jon!" she yelled, racing back to meet them.

Soon surrounded by his tribe, Jon felt great joy, relief, and the full measure of his exhaustion. Tears streamed from his face as he fell to his knees, hugging little Isa.

"You are the best lookout in the tribe," he said, holding her in his arms, laughing through tears of joy.

"I knew you'd come back," she said giggling, her arms wrapped around Jon's neck. "I just knew it." Suddenly her joy evaporated. Pulling back, the child looked around, confused. "But, but what of great-grandfather?" she asked, her voice cracking.

"Grandfather treks with our ancestors now," Jon said, reaching out for her, "and soon I will sing of our deeds and how his wise words brought me safely home," Taking her into his arms, Jon gently rested her head on his shoulder. "But for now we must find camp, so father and I can rest. For grandfather has foretold of an even greater journey before me: a quest to save our people through answers to questions as yet unasked."


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