“Jubilee” is a new story by Karl Schroeder. His new novel, Lockstep, will be published in March 2014.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Marco Palmieri.
Three muttering men stood on the path, not five meters below where Lauren and her companion crouched. It would do no good to tell Malak that she’d been to the wedding of the eldest of the three, or that she had brought candles to the houses of another the week he was born. Their rifles were unslung, their voices low. She knew why they were here.
Malak wasn’t watching them, but instead gazed longingly at the near end of a rope bridge that started about fifty meters ahead. The newly cleared path to it wound up the side of a hundred-meter-tall bedrock tower. Thick rain forest coated most of the karst spires in this region; their bases were lost in mist, which transformed them into a crowd of green-hooded giants standing on cloud. The fat domed pillar at the far end of the bridge had sheer vertical sides, making this the only approach. All these men had to do was camp out at the bridge’s near end to make it impossible for Lauren and Malak to complete their mission.
Lauren eased back behind the bushes, pulling Malak down gently beside her. “Patience,” she murmured. “If they can’t catch us alone, they’ll have to let us get through when other travelers arrive. If this letter doesn’t get delivered, it’s as much a disaster for them as for us.” She tapped the waterproof courier’s pouch slung at her waist.
“It’s huge,” said Malak, and Lauren realized he hadn’t been looking at the bridge at all, but at the lockstep fortress it led to. He was only seventeen, he’d only ever seen sleepers’ fortresses in picture books. This one’s outlines were veiled by the clouds that drifted among the pillar-landscape. It took up nearly the entire top of the miniature plateau it rested on.
She decided not to point out the even bigger fortress that was just visible seven kilometers to the south. He really should be thinking about those men.
But she heard singing, and presently a group of laborers appeared around the curve of the path. At their left was a sheer vertical rock face, to their right an equally sheer drop-off, but half of them were horsing around while the other half sang. They were carrying planks and other supplies, their powered exoskeletons squeaking and protesting against the weight.
Lauren checked out the three men. They were gone—stepped off the path, or hiding in the bushes, it made no difference. “Time to go,” she hissed at Malak, and without waiting for him she began climbing down.
One of the newcomers arched an eyebrow when she plunked onto the road in front of him. “You’re an unlikely bandit,” he said. “What were you doing up there?”
Lauren adjusted her waistband with dignity. “Would you rather I did it in the road?”
He laughed. “Never mind!” She heard Malak hit the path and, as she turned, made out three sullen bearded faces watching her from the underbrush. Lauren resisted an urge to stick her tongue out at them. Better not push it.
“You’re headed for the fortress?” she asked the laborer, who had a hundred or so kilos of plank laid across his machine-augmented shoulders.
“Where else would we be going?”
“Can we walk with you?”
“If you don’t mind foul language, bad manners, body odor and the occasional fistfight,” he said with a grin.
“It’s okay.” She sent Malak a sidelong look. “I’m used to boys.”
She could feel the eyes of their three purusers on her back as she set out across the swinging bridge, and that prickle warred with the vertiginous fear of crossing a seemingly bottomless chasm with nothing but knotted ropes under her feet. By the time she’d reached the other side the bridge had won, and she collapsed panting for a moment while Malak skipped off the end and the laborers approached deliberately and deadpan. Clearly they did this every day.
Lauren straightened and dusted herself off, staring them down. Then she took Malak’s shoulder and turned to confront the fortress.
“You’ve been here before,” said Malak. She nodded.
“Thirty-one years ago for me, one night for the people sleeping in there. I was a little older than you. I practically danced across the bridge that time. And it all went smoothly that time.”
“What’re they like?”
“Seriously?” She barked a laugh as they started walking. “How many times have we talked about this?”
“Yes, but . . .” He rolled his shoulders and splayed out his hands which, like his feet, were too big for him at his age. “None of this has been like anybody said it would be. I mean . . . look at that.”
Work gangs had been clearing its flanks for months, but the fortress was still half-choked by vines. The traditional plaza in front of the giant building was brush-free, and they’d redone the paths that led around its sides. These, she remembered, led to the landing pads and other spaces the sleepers would need when they awoke in two days. There was even a little village, built on exactly the same plan, and even painted the same colors as the one she’d visited three decades ago. Yet the fortress towered over it all, black, windowless and bleak, as if immune to any cosmetics they might dress it up with. Its stone corners were rounded with erosion, to the point where any given surface looked like natural stone. It was only when you took in the whole that you realized it was a building, and even then, an eerie battle was thenceforth waged between the parts of the mind that recognized objects as being artificial and those that identified them as natural. The fortress trembled between those categories, indecisively alien.
“Just you wait,” she said, remembering last time. “In three days this’ll be the liveliest part of the country.”
“There!” Malak pointed, and only then did Lauren see who was waiting for them. Society master Tamlaine appeared to be alone. The Society was marshaling its resources, she’d heard, another way of saying it had hit hard times. On her first delivery, the master had been waiting with three decoy couriers, two official scribes and three hired guards.
It didn’t matter; Tamlaine was grinning his relief. “That’s them, right, Master Lauren?” asked Malak.
“Yes,” she said. “Go.” He ran—or rather staggered—forward, and his knees actually began to buckle just steps from Tamlaine. He’d been far more scared, Lauren suddenly realized, than he’d let on.
Her own steps were steady as she reached the master and shook his hand. “Sir.”
“You look good, courier,” said Tamlaine, and Lauren smiled. She was just as ready to collapse as Malak, but they weren’t home free yet. She wasn’t about to let her guard down until the gates to the fortress opened in two days’ time, and her letter was finally delivered.
“It was Niles and Powen,” she affirmed that evening as they sat by the fire. “They’re pure Westerfenn on their father’s side. Of course they’d think they have a claim. The other man I didn’t know, but it’s a big family.”
“But why do they even bother?” With two mulled ciders in him, Malak was half-asleep in a big wing chair. “The Westerfenns haven’t been couriers for two hundred years.”
“Yes, but son,” said Tamlaine, “they were the couriers for six hundred before that. Do you wonder that they feel they have a claim?”
“As far as some people are concerned, courier means Westerfenn,” agreed Lauren. “We’re the upstarts. Interlopers.”
“But who cares what we think?” Malak was still puzzled. “All that matters is that the Authors decided to switch to us.”
Tamlaine sent Malak a slightly pitying smile. “Do you really think the Authors care who delivers their letters? Do you think they even know?”
Malak sat up, offended. “They see us once a month!”
“But that’s thirty years for the courier. Sometimes it’s been the same person twice, and they didn’t notice until it was pointed out to them. For his part, I know that Chinen de Conestoga doesn’t care as long as his letters get through.”
“How can you say that!”
“Well, for one thing, he’s barely a year older than you are. Malak, tell me this: Do you know the name of the girl who sells you bread in the mornings?”
He opened his mouth, closed it, and sank sullenly into his chair.
Malak didn’t succeed in falling asleep, though; moments later, he sat up, blinking. “What’s that?”
It had been so faint Lauren hadn’t noticed the faint rumbling until now. Remembering it was something of a shock. Of course it would come, she should have expected it. Yet with so much else going on . . . She stood, still not hearing Malak’s increasingly worried questions, and moved as if in a trance to the doorway.
She’d been sixteen, carrying the message bag herself on the way across the bridge. The Westerfenns of that generation hadn’t made any fuss. Of course, her uncle Despolino would be the one to actually deliver the letter; still, she’d felt a huge sense of importance and responsibility. They’d set up camp in the evening, with the fortress a vast black silhouette against a silver sky. After, they’d entered the village and as she reluctantly prepared to hand the pouch to her uncle, this same vibration had filled the sky. Amazing that she could have forgotten!
Makeshift stages had been set up along the road to the fortress’s main gates. These would be taken down before the doors opened. For the next day, various groups would perform stories and allegories from the histories of the locksteps. The first time she’d been here she’d begged to watch them, but Uncle had been all business. Malak didn’t seem to care.
She walked to the end of the row of stages and, when Malak appeared at her side, pointed upward. “Look. It’s landing.”
The orbital transport was all glittery surfaces, chrome and glass and plastic like an insect. The roar came from its engines as it delicately hovered above the fortress. Its long landing legs rose and fell and angled fussily, as if groping for a solid surface. As they watched, the thunder rolling over them in waves, it settled behind the fortress. Moments later the sound cut out—and Malak started running.
“Travelers!” he shouted happily. Lauren set off after him at a jog. Laughing and shaking his head, Tamlaine followed them both at a more dignified saunter.
By the time they reached the landing field, the transport had opened its hatches and a gang of bots was unloading blocky shipping containers from its belly. If Malak had expected live humans at this point he was disappointed; if there were passengers on this flight they were frozen as solid as the rest of the cargo. The bots bounced the crates onto rolling pallets and took them through a heavily guarded set of metal gates into the fortress.
Malak watched it all avidly. “Yesterday—their yesterday—they fell asleep on another world. They’ll wake on this one,” he said. “I wonder where they’ve been?”
Lauren shrugged. “Join the lockstep, and find out.” She knew he’d never do that; in order to stay inside when they sealed the doors again, you only had to ask—but doing that meant giving up everyone you knew here. Parents, children, friends, family, profession: all would be left behind. Lauren had never once considered doing that, and she knew Malak wouldn’t either. It was too drastic a step.
They watched the unloading until it was full night and the crickets were chorusing. When Tamlaine began to walk back, Lauren turned to follow and saw that the little stages along the road were lit. “Malak! Look at this.”
He was reluctant until he saw the players, then he raced ahead. Lauren and Tamlaine laughed together, remembering their youths as they followed.
The biggest stage was lavishly decorated and lit. Devotees of the Lord of Time were staging a highly stylized, half ritual performance of the Revelation of Tobias. The actor playing Tobias McGonigal was masked and so heavily swaddled in costume that you couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. The three couriers watched for a while as McGonigal tried to convince his mother (in mime) that the galaxy would be theirs if they accepted the gift of cold sleep. When she rejected him, a quick set change put Tobias on his legendary ship, and then he began an interminable oratorio about his first and final entry into cold sleep. After it had dragged on for fifteen minutes, Lauren took Malak’s shoulder and steered him onward.
There were plays about the founding of the locksteps on this world, plays about distant and legendary Earth. There were stories of kings who took refuge in the locksteps and after thirty years returned, a day older, as beggars to behold the ruin of their kingdoms. There were romances. There were murder mysteries. And there was—
“Hey!” Malak stopped dead, and Lauren almost tripped over him. “That’s Powen, isn’t it?”
It was indeed, and Niles was beside him. They were standing on a modest stage near the end of the row, along with a girl and a boy dressed in lockstep fashions. Right now the girl was writing furiously at a little desk, and Niles hovered behind her, speaking to the audience.
“One month together! One jubilee, and the two locksteps will not meet again for nine centuries! Three hundred sixty months for her lockstep, three hundred seventy-two for his, their times will diverge and converge over a millennium. To those whose lives follow the rhythm of the fortresses, a mere two and a half years will pass before their rhythms synchronize again. But a boy and a girl who have met and fallen in love—well, they will feel the centuries as much as we!”
“They’re telling the story!” Malak hissed. “The story of the Authors!”
Lauren shrugged, though she was uncomfortable. “They have a perfect right to do it.”
It wasn’t one of the great tales, but it was well-enough known. Of the several locksteps on this planet, there were two so mutually hostile that they hibernated on different frequencies. The frequency of the first was 360 months asleep to one month awake. The other’s was 372 to one. As out of phase as they were, they still couldn’t completely avoid each other. Every 960 years they came into phase and both were open during the same month. The last time this Jubilee had happened, a girl from the first lockstep had met a boy from the second, and they had fallen in love.
There were popular books on the subject, and Malak had seen the secret ones, too, the Commentaries, that filled the Society’s library. He shouldn’t be surprised.
The girl onstage was now holding a golden letter up to the one thin spotlight. “Oh, to whom can I entrust my words of love?” she quavered. “For when it leaves my hands, thirty-one years shall pass before my lover’s touch shall it awake. Who might dedicate themselves to its preservation, and to bear the fragile wings of my ardor to my heart’s desire?”
Tamlaine leaned close. “Not one of the better ones. They could at least have done Gisbon’s version. It’s in rhyming couplets.”
Now Niles was kneeling before her, hand outstretched. “And who are you, sir knight?” sighed the girl.
“I am Atamandius Westerfenn, and I dedicate my life to the transmission of your message.”
Despite the crass propaganda of it all, Lauren felt her fingers curl protectively around the pouch hanging at her waist. Malak was muttering about self-serving Westerfenns, and Tamlaine simply stood there watching with his arms crossed. Disgusted, Lauren was about to leave when there was a discreet cough behind her. She turned.
“Lauren Arthen, I believe?” It was the third of the men who’d been following them. Lauren glanced around—two onstage, one here; were there more?
He seemed to sense her anxiety, and bowed slightly, shaking his head. “There’s just me. And I would never hurt you.”
Malak and Tamlaine were busy watching the clumsy play. Lauren took a step back into the shadows with the man. “I am armed,” she lied. “You were waiting with those two to ambush us this morning.”
“And they would have, too,” he agreed, “if I hadn’t intervened. Which I would have.”
“And why would you do that?”
Now he grimaced, shrugged. There was a suggestion of Westerfenn to his face, which was long and high browed. He seemed more a scholar than a courier. “I was hoping you’d remember me,” he said, very quietly.
She looked at him more closely. Where would she have remembered a Westerfenn from? He was about her age, which would mean, if he was a courier . . . “Kiel?”
Now he grinned. “You do remember! We spent a few days together, after the Authoress gave you . . . that.” He nodded at the pouch at her side.
“A lunch or two. A walk, if I remember,” she said. That was all it could reasonably have been. Their families, their societies and histories would all have been against it. Both had known at the time, and hadn’t spoken of it. They’d never even touched, but Lauren had sometimes thought about the might-have-beens in the ensuing years. Remembering, she looked down.
Kiel Westerfenn sent an impatient look at the stage. “Forget about those two congenital thugs, they’re just looking to regain lost glories because they have no ideas of their own. Even this play . . . they’re trying to win over the crowd because they still have a half-baked plan to take the letter from you. When I heard they were going to try to intercept your delivery I . . . well, I invited myself along. I’m sorry if they scared you this morning. But I won’t let them stand in your way.”
“Well . . . thank you!”
He bowed fully this time. “I respect your mission, even if they do not.” With that, he stepped into further shadow, and vanished among the crowd.
Lauren turned back to watch the insipid play, but she didn’t hear anything that the actors said, and despite the darkness of the night, she felt herself blinking as though a bright light had just shone in her eyes.
Two days later, at dawn, the massive gates grated open, and Lockstep 372/1 came into Jubilee with realtime. On seventy thousand planets and on countless comets, asteroids, and colony cylinders, morning came to trillions of people.
When Lauren was little she’d imagined it as a revelation: numberless eyes opening in rapture after thirty years in the underworld. Yet for those in the locksteps, she had learned, it was just another morning. Last night—or so it seemed to them—they’d gone to sleep under their blankets as on any evening. The hibernation technologies that wound them down into nearly perfect stasis were unobtrusive—hidden, usually, in the bases of their beds. They slept, they woke, and many of them simply didn’t care that thirty years had passed in the outer world.
Here they came now, the ones who did care. The new population of the refurbished village surrounding the fortress was waiting as the first yawning traders from the lockstep emerged. They seemed relaxed, casual even; they did this once a month, after all. Lauren watched the waiting craftsmen and journalists try to temper their own excitement to match. Act normal—the locksteppers expected it.
Lauren stood back a bit with Malak and Tamlaine. She was conscious of the presence of others, mostly people who knew the story of the Authors and had come to watch the delivery.
The Westerfenns were here too, but Lauren was no longer worried about them. Yesterday, Kiel had found her as she walked in the marketplace, and handed her a small cloth-wrapped object.
“A first step, maybe,” he’d said. “I heard the Society library was missing a few volumes.” She unfolded the cloth and found she was holding a very old leather-bound book. She looked at the spine. “Commentaries, volume seventy-four? You’re right! We don’t have this. But how—”
Kiel had shrugged. “A little larceny on my part. It’s not like we need it. We’re not the couriers anymore.”
Each letter the Authors exchanged had been carefully opened and read, and scholars and philosophers had debated its contents for decades, sometimes centuries. All except Authoress Letter 13, of course, which the couriers at the time had for some reason failed to open. In the Society’s library, an entire bookshelf was devoted to speculations about what that letter had said.
Bots, heavily laden vehicles and people were now crowding through the open gates. Behind them, the long rectangular tunnel leading into the fortress was lit with the sorts of electric utility lights Lauren had seen in photos and ancient movies. At the same time, distant rumblings signaled the opening of the fortress’s rooftop doors. The fortress unfolded almost like a flower, and as it did, antennae rose and dozens of flying machines big and small shot up and away. The fortress would be connecting with its fellows across the planet, forming for one month a complete, dynamic, and overwhelmingly potent civilization. During Jubilee, 372/1 owned the world; it was the world.
“Where is he?” Malak was shifting from foot to foot.
“He’ll be here. Chinen isn’t going to miss a delivery from his love.”
They had met in Jubilee, Chinen de Conestoga of 372 and Margaret Pierce of 360. They were the same age—roughly 6,000 years, or sixteen by their own reckoning. After jubilee they had promised to write. The first courier had set out from Margaret’s home thirty years later, and it was easy: just one year later, her letter was delivered. Chinen’s reply had waited 29 years. As the pattern of exchanges settled in, their couriers learned to wait according to the shifting frequencies of the locksteps: one year then 29, two years then 28, three then 27. Eventually the phase shifted and now, as jubilee approached again, it was Margaret’s letter that had waited 28 years. Chinen’s newest would be delivered in just two. Sixty-two years from now, they would finally meet again.
“There he is,” said Tamlaine. He sounded more excited than she’d expected, and it seemed to unlock a thrill of anticipation in her as well . . . After decades of imagining what this moment would be like, of course it was nothing like she’d pictured. Chinen de Conestoga was no radiant god emerging from Heaven; he was just a boy being jostled by the crowd as he looked around. His face seemed pinched, anxious even. And someone else was with him, an older man with his hand on Chinen’s shoulder.
Lauren saw this, but she didn’t register it. Years of mental rehearsal made her step forward, wave, and say, “Chinen de Conestoga! Over here!”
He looked, his eyes widened, and for just a second she saw him making a frantic gesture, as though warding her off. Then his face fell as the man whose hand lay so heavily on his shoulder swept by.
The man stalked up to Lauren, and suddenly she recognized him. His portraits were not prominent in the Society headquarters, because he was considered a minor actor in the millennial drama of the lovers. He was Chinen’s father.
“You!” He stabbed an accusing finger at Lauren. “Are you a part of this fiasco?”
She found herself blinking, unable to speak. Chinen stepped between them. “It’s not their fault,” he said. “Please, Father—”
The elder de Conestoga held out his hand to Lauren, snapping his fingers impatiently. “You, are you hiding something from some sort of three sixty trash? Speak up!”
Lauren still couldn’t speak. It wasn’t just the rudeness; most locksteppers treated realtimers with great respect, if with condescension now and then. But—360 trash? The Authoress?
“I’m so sorry,” Chinen was saying to her, and Tamlaine was here now, too, gabbling something indignantly at the Author’s father, who ignored the Society elder and continued to glare at Lauren.
Numbly, she raised the courier’s bag and fumbled it open. She began to bring out the letter, but he reached in impatiently and snatched it from her hand. Lauren gasped.
“You told me it was just a Jubilee thing, and now I hear you’ve been exchanging letters with her?” Brandishing the letter, he rounded on his son. “There will be no more of this nonsense!” he cried. “It stops now!” And as he said now he tore the letter in half. He kept tearing until he had a handful of shreds that he flung to the ground.
As the object of 28 years of devoted care fluttered into the mud, blackness rushed at Lauren from all quarters. The mud came up and smacked her in the face.
Lauren sat in her bed at the inn, a mug of mulled wine in her hands, and watched Malak pace and swear. Tamlaine sat in the room’s one chair. Neither he nor Lauren had said a word since she awoke from her faint. Malak was making up for it.
“No letter! How can there be no letter? It’s nearly Jubilee! They exchange two more and then meet again. And I’ll be there to see it—the end. How can a story go for a thousand years and have no end? It has to end, and the Society has to be there!”
Tamlaine shook his head. “It could have ended at any time,” he murmured. Malak stopped and stared at him in obvious disbelief. Tamlaine sighed.
“They’re just young lovers, Malak. They haven’t seen each other in almost two years. Any one of their letters could have been the last one. They could have tired of it at any time.”
“But, but that’s—” Malak made a flinging gesture as he turned away. “They’re the Authors! And we’re helping them tell the Story!”
Lauren took a pensive sip of the wine. Tamlaine was right, of course. Nearly every volume in the Society library contained a chapter or two of doubts, based on tone, a casual word, or even just the handwriting in the most recent letter. “Why do you think we’ve been letting the Authoress read the Commentaries? She was doubting his sincerity, and Chinen’s a little clumsy with his wording sometimes. Your great-grandmother told her about the Commentaries, the clarifications and interpretations of his letters, and all the wisdom and advice people had been writing to her for centuries, which she’d never seen. She’s read it. She knows he’s sincere. But that doesn’t mean anything. She could have met somebody new at any time. She could have lost interest . . .”
“No. It can’t end like this. What are we going to do? What am I going to do? A courier without a letter? Nobody’ll take that seriously. Nobody’s going to support us. Just think of that. Where’s the Society’s money going to come from if there’s no letters?”
Tamlaine shrugged. “There will be no Society . . . if it’s true that there are no more letters.” He sighed heavily. “I’ll have to draft a letter home. Of course, now that the fortress is open we could just use their wireless and I could speak to them instantly. But I don’t like doing things that way. We take our time for a reason. We’re not locksteppers.”
“Wait, wait.” Malak was frantic. “It’s not too late, what are you saying? The Author’s father’s forbidden it, but what does that mean? We’ll just have to contact Chinen in secret. He wants to know what Margaret said! And Lauren, you’ve got her letter memorized, don’t you? We all do.”
Tamlaine looked uncomfortable. “Margaret doesn’t mind that we open the letters. But Chinen does. He made that clear early on. If he finds out that we’ve been reading Margaret’s words—”
Lauren laughed bitterly. “What’s he going to do about it now? Stop using us?”
Her words hung there. The three couriers looked at one another, until finally Tamlaine nodded.
“I’ll hold off telling the Society for now,” he said. “We’ll find an opportunity. Chinen’s bound to come outside at some point. His father can’t follow him everywhere. We’ll approach him then. If Chinen can’t read Margaret’s words, then we’ll recite them to him.”
It was a sound plan, but it was three weeks before the opening came. By that time Tamlaine had drafted and redrafted his letter to the Society about ten times, and Malak was beside himself with anxiety and anger. He kept threatening to just march up to Chinen’s home and demand to see him. In week two he got into a fight with Niles, and it was clear afterward that the Westerfenns suspected something.
Lauren did domestic work, the sorts of things she’d done every day her whole life. She cooked, cleaned her clothes, mended, shopped in the market. All the while, though, she felt a faint sense of difference, of disconnection from it all. For the first time in many years, she felt the absence of someone else’s hands in the washtub with hers; the lack of a second opinion when she hefted the potatoes at the vegetable stall. It wasn’t that somebody else should be there with her; it was more that she’d suddenly remembered that someone could have been. Disquiet filled her.
Finally one morning Chinen came to the fortress gates and stared about for a while, then went back inside. Lauren followed and found him in one of the brightly lit arcades deep within. The open roof of the fortress let sunlight down through layers of crisscrossing buildings, all piled together like a child’s building blocks and festooned with greenery and flowers. The arcade where Chinen loitered was a balconied space overhung with freshly transplanted willow trees. Chinen stood under one, pensively examining it.
“Not the same tree,” he said as Lauren approached. “If you look closely. This is where we met, courier. Her family was visiting. Can you believe that? They were mostly shunned, but here they were. I told her I thought it was awful how we were treating them.”
“I memorized the letter,” Lauren blurted.
Chinen hissed in anger, started to say something—and then his shoulders slumped. “I suppose keeping our privacy was too much to ask. You’ve read them all?”
Reluctantly, she nodded.
“Then I guess you know us better than we know ourselves.”
“You’re just a boy and a girl who’re in love,” she said. That was simple to say—and yet the Society had revolved around them for centuries. Libraries had been written about them and their love. They had become, unexpectedly, something far bigger than they knew.
She couldn’t tell him that. “Shall I recite her words?” He nodded.
It was the strangest moment of her life. The words she spoke now were simple, but she’d lived with them for 28 years, and with this recitation, they were done. Delivered, and gone from her. She wouldn’t have been surprised if she woke tomorrow and couldn’t remember them at all.
Chinen faced out over the treetops and slanting shafts of sunlight, framed by glass and near and distant vistas of lockstep life. When she was finished he stood there silently for a long time, then murmured, “They’re better than we are.”
“I’m no ‘sir.’ I’m just a kid, remember?” She ducked her head, knowing it but still unable to react to him that way. Chinen laughed bitterly. “They’d have me. They’d have me as their son. Yet my father forbids me to contact them at all. He told me he’s setting buzz-cams after me during the Jubilee. He’s going to record everything I do, everywhere I go. Margaret and I . . . he’ll never let us meet.”
“I . . . I’m sorry.” There was another long, awkward silence. Finally Lauren knew she would have to ask right now, or she’d lose her courage forever: “Will you write a reply?”
He shook his head. “No. No, what’s the point?”
Later, arguments would crowd Lauren’s mind, all the things she should have said, of course. For now her mind was a blank, her mouth dry with shock.
Chinen turned to her, at last looking her in the eye. “Thanks for delivering the letter. You know I can’t pay you . . .”
That threw her. “We’ve never asked for money!”
He winced. “I know, I know . . . It’s just . . . It all ended so uselessly, didn’t it?” He sighed, then bowed. “Thanks. Goodbye.”
He left her standing there. Lauren felt like an abandoned tool, unnoticed by the people walking by. Then she blinked at a sudden feeling of pressure . . . intensity. She turned, and in the jumble of faces on the plaza behind her, saw Niles’s face for just an instant. Then he was gone.
Tamlaine and Malak reacted just as she’d imagined they would. The older man, having seen much in his life, sat with his head down for a while, then raised it to the sunlight and laughed. “Well,” he said. “That shows up all our pretensions, doesn’t it?”
They were sitting on a bench in front of the inn, and being in public was the only thing that seemed to be keeping Malak from screaming. He shifted from foot to foot, pulling at his hair and sputtering. “They can’t! They just can’t!”
“It was Chinen’s decision to make,” said Tamlaine. “Never ours. All we ever committed to was delivery of the letters. Anything more than that . . . well, we made up.”
“I didn’t make up the honors! The privilege of being a courier! It’s . . . it’s all I ever wanted! And now he’s taken it? What am I going to do?”
Tamlaine sent him a reproachful look. “Delivery takes only a few minutes of a courier’s life, Malak. You’ll do exactly what you would have done otherwise. Work, get married, be a good citizen . . .”
“But without the stipend! You had it,” he accused Lauren. “You’ve had no worries for thirty years. But what about me?”
Lauren opened her mouth to tell him that this wasn’t about him at all, but she couldn’t say that. It was; and yet, it wasn’t Chinen’s fault, because he didn’t even know the Society existed.
Swearing and kicking at the dirt, Malak stalked away. “Niles saw,” Lauren said to Tamlaine after he was out of earshot. “I suppose it’ll be all over the place in no time.”
“Still.” He frowned, thinking. “The Society has existed for centuries. We’d always expected it would disband when the lovers finally met again. There’re plans for that, a whole schedule, I think. People have considered how to retire the last courier. It’s not going to be arbitrary.”
“But . . . Malak never had a chance to become a courier.” I’m the last. What a terrible thought!
“He would have been.” Tamlaine stood up and stretched. “Ah, we’ll think of something. But I should go. If the news is going to spread, I need to be the one the Society hears it from. I’m going to pack. I’ll leave in the morning.”
She saw little more of Tamlaine that day, and nothing of Malak, who was sulking somewhere in the fortress. Lauren visited the market, took a nap in her room at the inn, and, in the end, found herself wandering along the crumbled foundations of the fortress. Lockstep bots were replacing some of the cyclopean stones with new granite, and she was watching this process when she heard a tentative cough from behind her.
It was Kiel. He stood near the edge of the plateau, framed by crooked trees and a vista of forested peaks. He might have been watching her for a few minutes, and if so, had he had that slightly worried look on his face the whole time?
“Hello,” she said dully.
“Is it true?” he asked. “There will be no letter?”
She shrugged. “Doesn’t mean Margaret won’t want to send one. We’ve two years to wait for that.”
“Will you be there?”
Lauren gnawed at her calloused thumb, staring out over the forested landscape. The Society’s backers were likely to pull their funds if they thought that the millennial epic of Margaret and Chinen had ended in silence. Tamlaine’s optimism aside, the Society had not been expecting this turn of events. She might not be able to afford to visit Margaret’s fortress when it woke in two years. “I suppose a Westerfenn will be there,” she said bitterly. “Your cousins must be delighted at the prospect.”
“Actually, they’re furious. They think it’s all over.”
“They’re probably right.”
He was staring at her in a way she couldn’t interpret. “It really has never occurred to you that this might be a good thing?”
“What?! Why? I— I suppose for you it is. No more humiliation at seeing us make the deliveries!”
“No, that’s not what I—”
“Is that what you came here to do? Gloat? Well, go ahead, there’s nothing I can do about it. Bring Niles and Powen next time, we’ll set up the stage and you can parade me around for the whole town to see!”
“Wait, Lauren, I didn’t mean—” But she’d had enough of him, and ran, ignoring his plaintive words.
Tamlaine was gone in the morning, and Malak was making himself scarce, which was just as well. Lauren didn’t want to talk to anybody. She had money enough to stay until the lockstep’s doors closed again, and to get home. Theoretically her stipend would transform into a pension now that Malak was officially the courier. Whether that was really what would happen was anybody’s guess; she trusted Tamlaine to argue vigorously on her behalf. After all, this wasn’t her fault.
The day before the lockstep was to close, however, she woke to banging on her door. She opened it a crack and saw policemen in the hall. “What’s going on?”
“Ma’am, are you an associate of a Tamlaine de Lotness? We’re told you were seen in his company.”
She flung the door wide. “What’s happened to Tamlaine?”
They showed her.
It was up to her to make a final identification of the body. He’d been found at the bottom of the spire on the other side of the rope bridge, having fallen from the roadway. The body was quite battered, but what upset Lauren was the pinched look on his face. He looked disappointed, and it was that, and not the terrible battering the rocks had done to him, that she knew would haunt her.
It wasn’t impossible for the death to have been accidental. Tamlaine was getting on in years, and the path was treacherous in places. Lauren didn’t believe that for a second, and the first thing she said when she saw the body was “Westerfenn!”
Kiel and his cousins were nowhere to be found, but that by itself wasn’t suspicious; things were winding down in the temporary village, with people leaving in small and large parties every few hours. The Westerfenns had no reason to be here now, any more than Lauren herself did. It wasn’t impossible that they’d simply left, and maybe they had, and maybe they’d run into Tamlaine on the road purely by chance. Malak, when she finally found him and told him, shook his head.
“They must have followed him,” he said. “They were waiting for us at the bridge, remember? If they were willing to kill us and take the letter, they’d hardly hesitate to throw one old man over a cliff.”
The authorities promised to hunt for the cousins, but Lauren just wanted to move on. “We’ll wait for the lockstep to close,” she told Malak. “What’s an extra day at this point. And then we’ll go to the Society headquarters ourselves, and tell them the whole story.”
They cremated Tamlaine. People who knew the story of the couriers came to the funeral, but realtimers and locksteppers generally kept their affairs separate. There was talk about whether Chinen should be invited, but in the end the consensus was not to further disturb the Author’s family. No one tried to approach him, either to tell him about the death or to invite him to the funeral.
Lauren understood; still, as the orange flames from the pyre rose in the night, she found herself staring resentfully at the lockstep fortress that bulked behind it. The place was all lit up, with visitors still coming and going. Somewhere inside, Chinen de Conestoga was eating, or reading, or perhaps chasing some new girl. He would never know who Tamlaine had been; that he was dead; that he had dedicated his entire life to the delivery of Chinen’s letters.
Malak was offended, and told her so as they browsed the market for travel provisions on the last day. “We gave everything to those two! And for what? In the end, we didn’t even get a nod out of them.”
Lauren could picture herself, at Malak’s age, posturing and pouting exactly the same way. “It was never really about them,” she said, “the couriers, the Society, none of it.”
He stared at her. “Then why? Why help them, if not for the glory of it?”
Lauren laughed. “What glory. They’re two young people who might be in love. There was never any glory. That was the point.”
Still he stared. With a sigh, Lauren tried one last time: “The Society existed to celebrate that very insignificance. Chinen and Margaret, they’re nobody—but so are we all. In elevating them to epic status, the Society elevated every ordinary person. We celebrated all love, no matter how ordinary or fleeting, by celebrating theirs.”
Malak shook his head. “There’s yams over there.” He stalked away. Lauren watched him go, hands on her hips.
She turned. Chinen de Conestoga stood a few feet away—or was it him? Yes—it was just that he was dressed in local garb, tough traveling clothes like hers and Malak’s. He had a pack slung over his shoulder. “Great, you’re still here!” He strode up and shook her hand—or really, in his enthusiasm, her whole arm.
“What are you doing here?” She looked around; nobody was watching. “The fortress will be shutting up in a few hours. And we’re leaving. The market’s closing—”
“I’m going with you!”
And he just stood there, grinning widely, while she tried to catch up. “Wait, you—” He was dressed like a realtimer. “You’re coming with . . . You’re running away from home?”
“If I stay, I won’t come of age before next Jubilee. If I leave, I’ll be an adult before Father can catch up to me.” He grinned again. “And I’ll be of age by the time Margaret’s lockstep wakes.”
Two years . . . it was true. Lauren looked him over, her mind a blank; then suddenly she laughed. “You’ll make a rather outsized letter.”
Serious now, he said, “I’ll do whatever work you need. I don’t intend to be a burden.”
But you’re the Author! Yet he wasn’t, not anymore. Oh, how is the Society going to take this one? The shock was going to kill the old men in the library, but then, Tamlaine’s message would have been enough to do that. The investors—those few romantic and wealthy souls whose support of the Society was a kind of sacrifice to love—might rebel and pull all their funding. Or they might take Chinen’s decision as the ultimate romantic gesture, and double their support. Who could tell? Lauren found herself almost dizzy with the possibilities.
“Come on then,” she heard herself say. “Before your father finds out.”
They were on the bridge when the fortress doors closed. It was late evening, and sunset burnished the side of the vast building. Lauren fancied she could hear the solid thud of the iron shields falling; the rooftop panels were already shut. There was no hurry now; people would take whatever time they needed to wrap up their business in the temporary town before heading home with the goods and wealth they’d acquired during this brief trading season.
Several stars were out. As Lauren stepped onto solid ground at the far end of the bridge, she glanced up, not at the stars but at the blank silver-blue between them. It was within that invisible space that most of the lockstep worlds could be found–tens of thousands of frozen, nomad planets for every star in the galaxy. Someone embarking from this fortress tonight might take decades to reach another of those distant worlds, yet only a single night would pass for them, since they were hibernating. Meanwhile, their destinations were in hibernation too; all the worlds in a lockstep coordinated their wake and sleep cycles. A traveler to such a world could spend a month there and then return, to find that only a month—in lockstep time—had passed here. In this way, the locksteps maintained an illusion of proximity for a far-flung culture of thousands of worlds.
The price of living in a lockstep was that you gave up on realtime. Chinen’s father would go to sleep tonight and not awake for thirty-one years. Lauren would probably be dead by the time he awoke; she would never hear the end of this story. If Chinen wasn’t accepted into Margaret’s lockstep during its Jubilee in two years, he would grow old and die while his father slept.
He didn’t seem particularly worried; on the contrary, there was a spring in his step and he was looking about alertly as they descended the spiral path to the misty rain forest. “What’s two years, if we can be together?” was all he’d said when Malak had confronted him about his decision. Malak had shut up after that, and now plodded along in uncharacteristic silence, his eyes searching the horizon as if looking for some reassurance there.
They slept that night under the stars—or at least, Lauren and Malak slept. She awoke at one point to the total silence of a windless forest; when she turned her head she saw, illuminated by thin starlight, Chinen lying on his back, as perfectly still as the forest boughs, and staring at the sky.
In the morning they ate a quiet breakfast, then descended from the cloud forest through tunnels of green carved through the forest floor. The far descendants of Earth’s cicadas roared and hummed in the mazelike depths; above, the sunlit green was so bright it was nearly yellow.
About midmorning Chinen suddenly laughed and stopped. “Where are we going, anyway?” he asked.
Lauren had to smile, though Malak shot her a look that said he didn’t know either. “Not home,” she said. “Not my home, or Malak’s yet. Since our master died we have to check in at the headquarters of our Society. You might as well come along.”
He shrugged. “Sure. Maybe I could get a job there.”
Malak sputtered in confusion, but Lauren was getting used to this kind of shock. She thought about all that Chinen didn’t know about his place in her world; it was going to be a long, hard conversation.
“Sorry about your friend, by the way. We all heard the news. What’s your Society do? Are you craftsmen?”
Well, here it was. Lauren thought for a while. “Chinen,” she said eventually, “do you believe in love?”
He laughed and spread his arms wide. “Look at me! I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Well, then, do you believe that people need to believe in love? Even when they don’t have it?”
“Then, would you support a society that used symbols—a great tale, let’s say—to inspire people to believe in love?”
Chinen grinned and nodded; cicadas sang a descant from the trees around him.
“All right,” said Lauren. “Then let me tell you about a great love story, and about the Society that was formed to shelter and nurture it . . .”
They were exhausted that night, and not just because none of them had walked like this for a while. Malak had found a little dell near a spring, and Lauren could hear it quietly talking to itself as she lay down to sleep. It had been an emotional day for Chinen, who’d swung between outrage, awe, bemusement and a dozen other states as they talked. Malak had simply plodded, a gray shamble apparently immune to the cut-and-thrust of Lauren’s history.
Now Chinen knew it all. He knew that Lauren had sacrificed having a normal life to spend her days preparing for one simple journey, as Courier. He knew that entire lives had been lived for the sake of his and Margaret’s love; that duels had been fought; that great feuds had festered, operas been written and myriad books printed. Now, with all that filling his head, he lay down and fell instantly asleep.
Lauren wasn’t far behind him, and the distracted murmurs of the spring were the perfect lullaby; she drifted off with a curious sense of fulfillment.
A hand clamped over her mouth.
Lauren bucked against the unforgiving ground as her eyes flew open and she reached past the hand to scrabble at shoulders, a face—
“Don’t move!” someone hissed. Off to her left, some kind of struggle was flattening the grass. Two silhouettes rolled together and she saw the flash of a blade under starlight. Then she realized whose hand was over her mouth. It was Kiel Westerfenn’s.
Ignoring her scratches and attempts to knee him, he dragged her under the shadows of an ancient tree whose many roots made their own convoluted landscape. She tried to bite him, and he hissed, “Look, he’ll find us if you don’t stop it! And I’m not young enough or strong enough anymore to say I could take him in a fight.”
Him? She saw one of the black figures force the other down, and the knife rose. Lauren elbowed Kiel in the face and sprawled forward across a root. “Malak! No!”
He turned, snarling. “Shit! Where’d you go?” Chinen wasn’t moving, so Malak got to his feet and held the knife up against the stars. “Don’t move! Don’t you dare move, or I’ll spit your precious Author like a spring hare! Come out of there. Now!”
Kiel let go of her. Lauren rose to her feet and stumbled out into the meager starlight. “What are you doing, Malak?”
“Taking back my future.” His chest was heaving with the effort of the fight. He took a few deep breaths, then kicked Chinen’s prone shape. “There’s going to be a letter. He’s going to write it, and I’m going to deliver it to Margaret. Then I’ll be the courier for the next twenty-eight years! With the privileges, the pension, and I’ll be somebody. All I wanted was to hold my head up the way you hold up yours. Then kids’ll look up to me the way I used to look up to you.”
Lauren’s trembling fingers pressed against her nose, which was bleeding from the pressure of Kiel’s hand. The stickiness bewildered her, but as she stared at the black pooling in her palm, the meaning of what Malak had just said overcame her. “You killed Tamlaine.”
“Of course. He was going to tell the Society! Then it would have all been over for me.”
“Don’t you sound so disappointed! Just—just don’t! You got to be courier! You’ve had it all. What was I going to—”
Kiel tackled him from the side.
Lauren screamed, watching them roll across the stony, root-thrust ground. She almost tripped over Chinen and suddenly realized what she should be doing. She knelt and felt his throat. There was a pulse.
“Chinen, Chinen you have to get up. We have to go.” He moaned and tried to sit up. “Have to go, have to go now—”
Kiel cried out and she turned to see him staggering into the darkness. “Ha!” Malak turned; she saw the dark sockets of his eyes, saw him dismiss her as a threat and move on to Chinen, who was getting to his feet.
Malak stepped up to Chinen, blade raised, and it was no trick at all for Lauren to raise the rock she’d grabbed and bring it down on the back of the head. He fell instantly and silently.
Lauren looked at the rock in her hand, puzzled at the simplicity of it. Then Chinen shook his head and put a hand on her shoulder to steady himself. “Nicely done,” he said.
“Kiel!” She dropped the rock and went to look for him. He was near the spring, doubled up and coughing. “Oh no! Kiel, it’ll be all right! Just lie down, don’t move around so much, we’ll get help—”
“I’m all right. Oooh, forget that. But I’ll be all right, he didn’t hit any mainlines.” Kiel sat down, rather suddenly, next to the mindless bubbling water, and guided her hand to a wet patch on his flank. “See? Hurts like Hell, but it’s not deep. At least I don’t think so . . .” He went on talking, making inferences, judging how far the blade had gone in and how much blood he’d lost. When Chinen arrived he and Lauren made some bandages and tied them tightly around Kiel, and then Chinen put pressure on the wound.
Eventually Kiel said, “Malak?”
“Tied him up,” said the Author. “Not that he’s going anywhere. Lauren hit him pretty hard.” There was an admiring tone in his voice, but Lauren felt sick. She sat with her head down for a while, and nobody spoke. Then she looked up at Kiel.
“What are you doing here?”
“You’re welcome,” he said with weak laugh. “I was following you. —Me, not us. I ditched my cousins yesterday. They’d have done you harm if they’d found you.”
“But why? I mean why follow us?”
He tried to shrug. “I was suspicious. Tamlaine’s death . . . I knew we didn’t do it. So who did that leave? I couldn’t be sure, and I knew you’d never trust me. So I decided to just watch over you for a couple days, until you got to heavier trafficked roads. Glad I did.” Exhausted now, he lay back; he was starting to shiver.
Chinen grunted. “I’ll get the fire going.” He got up and began rummaging around for kindling.
Lauren sat bent over while Chinen clattered and cursed in the underbrush. Eventually she said, “You wanted to make sure the Author was safe.”
“Not the Author.” Kiel coughed. “The message.”
There was another long silence. Then Lauren said, “It was just dinner, you know. Once or twice, I can’t even remember.”
“You’ve read the letters. Do you think he and Margaret did any more?”
She looked over at Chinen, who was jamming sticks into the coals with a determined look on his bruised face.
“I suppose not,” she said.
Then she lay down next to Kiel, whom she had not seen in many long years, and they talked.
“Jubilee” copyright © 2014 by Karl Schroeder
Art copyright © 2014 by Victor Mosquera