In Words of Light and Flame
Copyright April 2011
Disclaimer: The Book of Eli is the property of Albert and Allen Hughes, Gary Whitta, Alcon Entertainment, and Warner Brothers. This story is intended solely for entertainment and as tribute.
Dedication: to my daughter, for whom this was written as a surprise gift
There were many things Solara didn't know. For much of her life, she hadn't really been aware of her ignorance, and even after she recognized the fact, it didn't much trouble her. Her knowledge, limited as it might be, was yet less narrow than her circumstances, and what she did know, she knew very well indeed.
She had learned that from her mother: endurance, patience, survival counted for far more than power or dominance. She had followed Claudia's example, watching and cataloguing the innumerable aspects of the world around her (which principally meant the people around her, their behaviors and motivations, the triggers to be avoided and the subtle pressure points that could nudge them, without their realizing it, in an advantageous direction) and settling this awareness into herself without ever voicing it. This had led many to underestimate her, which was exactly her aim and desire. Redridge hadn't been the first to not recognize quite what he was dealing with, only the first (well, second) to die from that mistake.
Her life, and her adjustments to that life, had made her into an open and eager template for learning. The arrival of the man named Eli had activated this template, begun a process that would not soon end, awakened a thirst that could not be slaked.
Solara knew nothing about atmospheric thermocline, about ozone depletion, about convection currents or the once-normal cycle of evaporation and condensation and precipitation. She knew only that she had never seen rain before the age of sixteen, had barely understood the very word for such a thing … but it rained almost every day in the area around Alcatraz, the island and the coast across from it, usually in the cool just after dawn or just before sunset. For her entire life, clouds had been no more than odd, moving blurs in the sky, meaningless and unexplained, but not particularly mystifying; they were just there, doing nothing, constantly overhead but essentially irrelevant, and not worth study because the hard experience of others had established that too much staring into the sky — even with whatever protection was available — would dim one's vision even ahead of the natural decline that seemed to afflict everyone in time. During her trek with Eli, wispy clouds had layered the brazen sky above them, impotent and unimportant as they had always been, and attracting (deserving) as little attention as they always had.
After her time on Alcatraz, she knew that there was more to clouds, at least potentially, than she had been taught by her life's experience. Knew, and knew also, vaguely, that this tied in somehow to a new, diffuse awareness of the dissonance between the way things had always been and the way they perhaps should have been. It was not a conclusion but a beginning, with no clear indication as to where this new path might lead.
Back in Carnegie's town, and in all the territory between it and the coast, lives were reckoned more by access to water than by any other single factor. At Alcatraz, because of what so readily and regularly fell from the sky, the calculus was different. This … meant something.
Solara left Alcatraz with two full canteens, some dehydrated food rations, and the blade and shotgun Eli had carried. Nothing else, not even a mission. Eli had been guided by a mission, a destiny, but he had been Eli and she wasn't. She had no destiny, no pretensions to one and no misguided notion that she rated anything so grand. She didn't compare to him. No one did. She just had to know what had happened to her mother, so she went to find out.
Five days after she left, she was back under that same sterile sky, back in the existence she had known. It took longer than the trip in, of course, because she had neither a vehicle to carry her nor the urgency to complete Eli's quest before his life ran out. She fell easily into the old, timeless rhythm: walk until you reached your destination or died short of it. There was more to the world than that, she now knew, but some equations simply didn't change.
She knew nothing about botany, or what botanists would have called xerophytes (had any botanists still existed), but she had substantial working knowledge of which plants could be chewed for moisture, and which could provide some measure of caloric sustenance; additionally, her metabolism had been geared to privation, so that even the stunning surfeit and variety of the meals provided at Alcatraz hadn't robbed her of the ability to survive and move on a diet that would have starved those from more pampered eras. As a result, she still had a few ounces of rations, and a few swallows of water remaining in one of the canteens, when after a month she reached the destroyed house where the macabre old couple had died, and Eli had taken the wound that ultimately killed him.
Solara didn't know anything about how a pump mechanism worked, but she knew what it was for, and remembered having seen a pump during her last time here. Her memory was true; she found it, confirmed that it was connected to a small artesian well, and replenished her canteens after drinking her fill. That done, she unhurriedly searched the rest of the property to determine what else was there to be found. There was no trace of the former owners, which meant scavengers must have rooted out the bodies and dragged them away … but the house hadn't been looted, so none of the scavengers had been human. She slept untroubled under the wrecked roof and spent her days working through the rooms, sorting through the old couple's accumulation of possessions, packing some for use or barter, discarding others, setting yet others aside for potential subsequent utility. The latter included the collection of firearms, for Carnegie had been fixated solely on the book he sought from Eli, uninterested in anything else and too feared by his men for them to dare deviate from his commands; they had left the weapons where they fell, and those still constituted a formidable store.
Solara knew about guns.
She dug a new grave in the weathered cemetery behind the house, and there she buried everything she assessed as having value but didn't plan to carry with her. Most of the weapons went there. In the brief battle that had taken place here, she had learned to respect the deadliness of automatic firearms … but she remembered the way Eli had fought, and that just seemed like the right way to fight, and that way couldn't be reconciled with full-auto fire. Solara left the house with new water, a few more items of dried food, and two pistols, one of which she thought might be the one Eli had carried, with ample ammunition for both.
She left the shotgun; there were only a few shells remaining, and those were a bit too battered and corroded for her to trust them. Now that she had other armament, it wasn't worth the extra weight. She had, however, found — and now carried — Eli's bow, with five arrows of a machining that could never be duplicated in this more diminished world.
She set her feet on the road down which she had come a lifetime ago, and resumed walking under the remote, barren scattering of clouds.
~ – ~ – ~
The town where she had spent her entire life before Eli … no longer existed.
No, it hadn't simply disappeared; some of the buildings had been burned, others stripped, but it was still there. What Carnegie had built, wasn't. He had been a hard, cruel man, even evil perhaps, but he had poured all the force of his harsh determination into a dream now vanished. The few people there now were strangers, squatting on abandoned property and eking out a precarious livelihood from the underground spring that Carnegie had so skillfully parlayed into ever-growing power and influence.
There was no sign of him, or of her mother or anyone she had known, and none had any word of where they might have gone.
In weeks of solitary, monotonous travel on the empty road, Solara had resolutely turned all her thoughts away from what she might find here. The unexpected blankness of arriving and still not knowing, left her curiously relieved. It had never been her place to protect her mother; blind or not, Claudia had always taken the lead there, attaching herself to whatever man provided the best prospects and then keeping him satisfied to continue doing so. Solara had worried that Carnegie might exact reprisal against Claudia for her daughter's rebellion … but if he wasn't here, he was dead or out of power, and Claudia had either died likewise or found another protector. In either case, it was out of Solara's hands. She was free to follow her own wishes now, with no idea as to what such wishes might be.
After trading some her looted treasures to again replenish her water and rations, Solara returned to the road, walking the way from which Eli had come so long ago.
~ – ~ – ~
She had no knowledge of martial arts, or of the philosophical concepts underpinning their development in the peoples of Asia: chi (personal force, Chinese) and zanshin (relaxed total awareness or "no-mind", Japanese) were equally unknown and foreign to her. She had seen Eli fight, however, and watched and remembered with an illiterate's ferocious concentration. He had been a big man: not huge, but larger than those who had grown up under a more circumscribed nutritional regimen. Still, she had seen clearly that the way he wielded the keen-edged blade had not relied on muscle strength. Used strength to good effect, perhaps, but in the lethal flow of motion in that first confrontation in the saloon, she had recognized that here was something that sprang from an entirely different source of power.
She didn't know that the blade Eli had carried had once been known as a bolo, the Philippine version of machete adapted for combat, but she knew — oh, yes, she knew — just how effective it could be. In her hands the blade was superbly balanced, easily responding to her guidance, but it was, yes, too heavy for her to move it with the quickness she knew she would need. Solara practiced alone every evening, in the space between stopping for the night and settling down for sleep. Practiced with either hand, to build the strength in her wrists, and also experimented with two-hand work. In that, she unknowingly duplicated and incorporated into her self-taught repertoire many of the techniques that samurai had once used to control the movements of a sword. Mostly, though, she worked on nurturing within herself the same flow she had seen in Eli: no distinct motions, every shift and turn and stroke an organic element of what had come before and what would come next.
She didn't have Eli's magic. A blind man who had nonetheless been aware of everything about him, who had responded to things he should have had no way of perceiving … she didn't have that, couldn't do that. That was what she had seen, though, and that was the way that seemed right, so she schooled herself in emulation of what she knew she could never achieve.
A few times, Claudia had danced for her, showing her daughter some of the things her own mother had taught her of a world now crumbled away. That easy, innate grace was the only thing Solara had seen that even approached Eli's lethal virtuosity. Two blind people, and sometimes Solara practiced with a cloth over her eyes, in hopes of finding, or at least glimpsing some understanding of, that underlying current of force. Moving in the unrelieved darkness, letting her senses relax and absorb what they could detect of the world around them. Sound, direct or faintly echoing or broken by the interposition of some other object. Scent, of desert plants and the dust of the fading day and her own perspiration. The feel of the earth (or sand, or gravel, or rock) under her feet, how a particular surface might facilitate her own movements or impede those of an adversary. Something else she couldn't describe, the fine hairs on her face responding to microscopic differences in air pressure whenever she neared an obstacle or something moved in her vicinity. Most of all, herself: where she was, what she was, the reality within her.
This was no way to fight, and she didn't intend ever to do so if she had a choice, but she wanted to know. And so she practiced and studied and worked it all into her awareness at night, and during the day she walked.
~ – ~ – ~
One thing she didn't learn from Eli, because it had been bonded into the marrow of her being before she ever heard his name: women and men faced different perils.
In her previous life, this had necessitated constant watchfulness: even the threat of Carnegie's reflexive and terrible wrath, spurred by every form of blandishment and motivation Claudia's versatile imagination might produce, couldn't guarantee complete safety. That protection, and Solara's own wariness, had kept her untouched over the years, but the possibility of rape had always been there.
Now, it cut both ways. She was more likely than a man to be attacked, on the road or in one of the scattered settlements, but far less likely to be killed immediately. A woman wouldn't be shot from ambush, because any assailant would want to get better use out of her first.
The first time it happened, there were five of them. They had picked their location well; by the time she realized they were there — but still before they revealed themselves — she would have put herself at an even greater disadvantage by trying to retreat. Instead, then, she stopped and took off her sunglasses. Right here, right now, immediate clear vision was far more important than avoiding the minute, incremental retinal damage that would only manifest IF she survived. She laid her backpack aside, set the sunglasses atop it, and stood waiting. When the leader stepped into the open, his cohorts spreading out to flank her on either side, her awareness narrowed and sharpened and relaxed. The world had just become very simple.
She didn't respond to the leader's words, didn't even bother to hear them. She was watching him, with a tiny extra segment noticing the positions and stances of those beside her and in her peripheral vision. She couldn't beat five men, it was just that straightforward: she was about to die, after a long bad time, and there was no escaping it so she didn't need to concern herself with any question of survival. The leader: when he moved within reach, she would kill him. If she failed, that was the end, but if he fell she'd kill that one, he'd definitely be the next to come at her. After that, play it as it played out. She might get as many as three, and if she was lucky and good, the others might be just rattled enough to kill her in their haste.
She gave no attention to the words. She was watching the faces, noting tone of voice, shifts in position, uncertainty of footing or tenseness of hand on weapon, the mosaic of impressions from the five men semicircled around her. Waiting, for the moment when time would explode into shouting and steel and blood.
She could not, of course, see her own face, her own eyes, but she could see the effect, in the faces of the others, of the expressionless imperturbable readiness before them. The effect, perhaps, of meeting the eyes of a jungle cat, unmoving and empty and pitiless and alien. The leader's words slowed, and stopped; came back, sharp and short and uneasy; still she didn't respond, and there was a long silence, and now her awareness encompassed all of them instead of centering on him alone. Maybe they felt that, or maybe their chief's obvious growing uncertainty was itself sufficient to nibble away at their confidence, for the uneasiness increased in them all. More words, and they began to move backward, never looking away from her (as if she were the thing to be feared), and then she was alone.
She continued to stand, watching, for a time she didn't bother to measure. At last she put the sunglasses back on, picked up the pack, retraced her steps for a mile, and proceeded by a different route.
Only later did it occur to her that she had never even considered the pistols she carried, that she had focused without thinking on the best use to be made of Eli's blade. That she might not have fared much better with guns — not against five men, not when thirty-year-old ammunition could never be fully trusted — was a side issue. She had cultivated a substantial blank spot in her own tactical awareness, and such a thing could not be allowed to continue.
Solara continued her customary practice, but now began working with the pistols, and the bow as well.
~ – ~ – ~
She found that she had a natural aptitude for firearms, found also that she didn't like them. A gun was dead, somehow. The bow, much more difficult, was nonetheless an extension of her energy, her senses, her self; the arrow's eventual impact was as much a part of her as the draw and aim and loose. (It was a heavy bow, and she used gloves so the steel cable of the string wouldn't bite into her fingers.) It wasn't the same with a bullet. She was just as accurate, but a gun seemed to swallow the energy she gave it, to take in without ever giving back. It was still a valued tool, and not to be neglected, but used without any degree of satisfaction.
Another factor was that bullets couldn't be re-used. She had to go through a certain amount of ammunition, simply to acquire and maintain anything in the way of proficiency, and that ate into even the generous store she had brought along with her. Lacking any peremptory destination, she reversed her trek, to return to the still-empty house where she had buried the weapons. By that time she had decided that a semiautomatic's mechanism was too delicate, the aging ammunition too unreliable. She replaced the two pistols with a pair of revolvers; lower ammunition capacity, but if you hit a dud cartridge in a wheelgun, you just pulled the trigger again to bring the next chamber under the hammer.
She kept the pistol that looked like Eli's, though, as much for back-up as from sentiment. Tucked it into her belt at the small of her back, just in case, with two spare magazines in a cargo pocket. Then, following some not-yet-fully-formed impulse rather than any conscious decision, she began the long walk back to Alcatraz.
~ – ~ – ~
"Eli brought the Book here to you," Solara told Lombardi, curator of Alcatraz' growing store of preserved culture. "He spent his whole life doing that. Now I want to take it back out. Out to the world, to them."
He regarded her with piercing, steady eyes, then sighed and shook his head. His hair couldn't go any more white than before, but it was thinner, his face more seamed and a barely perceptible quaver in his voice. All the same, he still held a focus and force only barely less than she had seen in Eli. "What you propose, however appealing on an emotional basis, is hardly practical," he told her. "It required immense resources to produce even the few copies we have here. To duplicate that effort and expense, simply for the small number of such volumes you could carry — more, to set aside other projects in order to do so — would offer severely inadequate reward."
Solara knew nothing about economics, but she understood value and trade. "Then don't give me the big fancy books," she said. "Make smaller ones, thinner covers, so I can carry more. Make … it …" She stumbled to a halt, knowing what she wanted to say but not the words. "The … the big Book had other books inside it," she went on. "Book of Jensis, book of Ruth and Daniel and Kings and Axe and Revolution. Make a bunch of those little books. I'll trade them for things, I'll tell people they can bring things here to trade for … for whatever you have. I'll tell them the books go together, so they'll want to get together to build the bigger Book."
Lombardi's gaze seemed to lock onto her, while at the same time going very far away. "Well," he murmured at last. "Quite the would-be social engineer, aren't you?"
"I don't know anything about engines," Solara said. "But Eli brought you the Book. It isn't supposed to just sit there, it's supposed to be for something."
Many arguments and adjustments and compromises followed, but she took part in very few of them. She tended Eli's grave, stood out under the daily rains that swept in from the sea, answered what questions she could regarding people and conditions of the inland territories, ate and slept and waited. Eventually Lombardi came back to her with a pack far more grand than the one Eli had carried: padded shoulder straps, outer pouches for extra items, a kind of brace at the small of her back to make it sit straight and somehow spread the load. He called it a 'ruck', which didn't mean anything to Solara, and added, smiling, "We have larger, but I doubt you could carry more than this; close-packed paper can weigh almost as much as an equal volume of wood, and even this isn't filled, as we didn't want you to collapse in the first mile. How does it feel?"
It felt like it would work out. The whole thing weighed nearly half as much as she did, but more weight just meant you took shorter steps, placed your feet more steadily, set your pace with more care. Some of the contents were — of course — further dried rations, but most consisted of small paper booklets in separate resealable transparent packets. Mindful of her inability to read, the preparers had marked the packets with combinations of basic, easily recognizable symbols: square, triangle, circle, star, crescent, and so on. It was a system designed, not for identification, but simply so she could distinguish one type of booklet from another.
Eli's blade fit securely in a space between the pack and the frame, and after drawing it she could drop the pack with a quick tug at the right strap. The whole assembly looked too fine (she would carefully dirty it, once she was away from here, to reduce the avaricious attention it would inevitably draw), but otherwise it was as close to perfect as she was ever likely to get.
As Solara waited at the docking area for the boat that would carry her to the shoreline, Lombardi said to her, "You are a puzzling young woman … and, I will acknowledge it, not especially restful company. Yet I find myself wishing we had a dozen more like you."
"You had one who was worth a hundred of me," Solara said without looking around. "He died here."
"Eli had his own mission," Lombardi responded. "He fulfilled it. We have different needs now." He studied Solara with those keen eyes. "You are not he … but then, he was not you."
Even the faintest suggestion of a criticism of Eli lit a slow anger inside her. Biting out the words, she said, "He couldn't have done what he did if he'd been me."
"Quite correct." Lombardi turned, his final words reaching her as he began to walk away. "I hope you can recognize that the converse might be equally so."
On the far shore she promptly implemented her plan of staining and scuffing the pack into relative obscurity. Then, grudgingly satisfied (only true wear and weeks of sweat would achieve adequate authenticity), she set the straps onto her shoulders and began a journey that had no clear destination.
~ – ~ – ~
Before she reached the first town, Solara was ambushed again. Again there were five of them, though not the same group. This time, they were bolder or less perceptive; this time, she killed two with Eli's blade — and another took a belly wound that would bring death just as surely, but over far more time and suffering — and shot a fourth man who got close enough to try and grapple with her. The last man hastily dropped his weapon, a length of pipe with jagged chunks of angle iron bound to the head by strips of leather, as she turned the revolver toward him, his grimy face contorting with babbled pleas. Knowing the intent of those who had waylaid her, Solara was not inclined to mercy … but after a long minute she stepped back and holstered the pistol. "I carry the Book," she said to him. "Tell everybody: you attack someone carrying the Book, you die."
With studied contempt she turned away from him, and took up the pack she had dropped simultaneous with drawing the bolo. He couldn't have moved without her hearing the rasp of his shoes on the grit of the battered roadway surface, and she fixed his position by ear with the total focus of her attention without letting any of that show. She didn't know anything about theater, but she knew how to use body language to set an impression, and this was where she began to put that into practice. Behind her, the last man cleared his throat twice before he could speak loud enough to be heard over the whimpers of his stricken companion: "What … what's the Book?"
Solara looked back so that he could see the curl to her lips as she spoke. "It's not for trash like you. But ask your betters; they'll know." She turned away again, adding, "And if they don't, they will."
Eli had taught her the value of the Book by the price he had been willing to pay to keep it secret until he had delivered it to its fated destination. Solara couldn't do that, so she had to communicate its importance by some other means. Mystery and exclusivity, she felt instinctively, might accomplish that.
The road was long under that empty fleeced sky, and haste would make no significant difference, but neither was there reason for dawdling. Bearing a burden placed upon her — without his knowledge or desire — by a man now dead, she set her eyes to the horizon and began to walk again.
~ – ~ – ~
That post-combat impulse became the foundation for all that came after. In each scattered community she sought out its leader, insisting that only he (or occasionally she) was of a stature to be entrusted with what she carried. Always, she determined whether or not that leader could read; if not, she made certain that he had a trusted subordinate who could. She explained about the Book, and the man who had borne it unheralded out of the ruins of the world before; she told of the new beginning being systematically assembled in the compound at Alcatraz, and of how those who received and spread the words in the Book would have greater influence in the world now emerging. She presented one of the smaller booklets from the sealed packets, and encouraged that it be copied and spread to other settlements, and that they pool their resources toward the assembly of the larger Book. (She lied without conscience here, claiming she carried only the one segment, that she was only one of several such committed couriers delivering the various parts of the entire work.) She told all of that, and stressed the advantages of establishing trade with the Alcatraz enclave, and how disseminating and preserving and properly respecting the Book was central to the whole endeavor …
… and, just before returning to the road, she would find someone else, one of the ordinary people, and tell the same story again, but secretly, and secretly pass over a duplicate booklet, explaining that the favor of the rulers might be necessary but it was also important to entrust the same knowledge and the same duty to someone else, so that those in power couldn't exercise a monopoly. She had known enough to understand that Carnegie had intended to use the Book to expand his strength and reach, and she had no desire to create more with the same vision.
Solara worked her way east, because that was the direction the big road ran. When she finally emptied the pack (the "ruck"), and retraced her journey, she gradually began to hear of others carrying similar burdens and delivering the same message.
Somehow, though, she was the one about whom the stories were told.
~ – ~ – ~
Perhaps it was because she focused all her devotion to the delivery of the word, to the importance of the word, then left it to others to recite the word and argue about its meaning. Perhaps it was because she never spoke of herself but always of Eli, and the light he had brought out of darkness, and the new beginning unfurling at Alcatraz due to his efforts. Perhaps it was because she moved as Eli had moved (avoiding conflict but never backing down), fought as Eli had fought (a smooth, balanced, almost effortless dance of death), sublimated every aspect of herself to the memory of the man who had introduced her to a larger reality. Perhaps it was because, whenever her help was entreated, she demanded that people look to one another and help themselves: pointing always toward hope, but refusing to allow that hope to be invested in her.
Whatever the reason, her fame spread, and the more it spread, the more furiously she insisted that all fame should belong to Eli; and the longer she insisted, the more her legend grew along with his.
She hated it. But she couldn't stop it.
Eventually — and she resisted for as long as she could, but eventually — she simply stopped trying.
~ – ~ – ~
On her second return to Alcatraz, she found Lombardi bedridden, and most of his duties apparently delegated to a harried young woman whose hair was so brushy and unruly that it might have been made of wire. Nonetheless, he received Solara directly. "Word has spread of your exploits," he told her, "so I knew you were still out there, still pursuing our common goals. I had begun to wonder, however, if I would have the opportunity to see you again, before …" He trailed off, peering at Solara; his eyes were still as clear, but no longer as bright. "You've been away for more than a year and a half."
She shrugged; time didn't have much meaning to her. "How many now?" she asked.
Somehow he divined her meaning. "Like you? I'm not quite sure. Some are traders — your idea, I believe, and it's working extremely well — who are willing to carry Bibles along with their other goods. Of those who seem inspired to follow your example …" He glanced toward his assistant. "Marita?"
The assistant — Marita — thumbed through pages in an overloaded clipboard and reported, "Twenty-seven have signed up as dedicated carriers. Of those, four are overdue for resupply, so they may have died or lost their … their fervor." The look she gave Solara was not entirely friendly or approving. "Additionally, eleven traders have agreed to make the KJV part of their standard cargo and say they'll be back for more if those provide enough —" She sniffed. "— profit."
"Ah-ah, Marita," Lombardi reproved, twinkling. "Self interest, the profit motive, can move mountains if properly applied." To Solara he added, "Marita is a true believer, like you, and like you she distrusts anyone who does not share her passionate idealism. If the two of you can get past your disagreement as to means, I think you'll find much in common on the matter of ends."
Marita sniffed again, her manner clearly saying I doubt it. Solara herself couldn't bother to care what the other woman thought. "About two dozen, then," she said. "As for the traders —" The thought of the Book being carted about for barter just didn't feel right, even if the original notion had come from her, but there didn't seem to be much she could do about it. "The … the dedicated carriers, are they all going to the same places? or are they, uh, spreading out over more territory?"
She didn't know anything about maps, not then, but she was quickly educated. Then more plans, and more arguments and counter-suggestions and compromises, and at the end of it Solara started out again with a replenished pack and the same unswerving purpose.
~ – ~ – ~
The maps provided to her showed where other, lesser roads led, so Solara was able to confidently follow routes she otherwise would have declined through ignorance of where they would take her. She was going to new places now … but news of the Book, of its meaning and of those who bore it, had already penetrated to these places, and she found herself being eagerly welcomed wherever she went.
In one such locale, the remnant of a much larger world-before community called Fresno, Solara — unintentionally and unwillingly — acquired a follower.
She was almost nineteen now. The boy was barely past fourteen and already taller than she was, albeit scarecrow-thin. (She had never seen a scarecrow, but she knew it meant something skinny.) When Solara made her presentation to the mayor, this boy — she heard him called Dan — was brought in to do the reading. He squinted at the pages, but his rendering carried the rhythms and buried thunder that she remembered from Eli. When the mayor at last cut him off and took back the booklet (the Book of Daniel, as it happened), the boy stared at the paper, and at Solara, as if seeing a treasure whose existence he had never before suspected.
When she left, the next morning, he was behind her.
At first, she pretended not to notice. People did that sometimes, followed her: usually men, who might have to be forcibly discouraged, or children, who turned back when they had gone as far as they were willing and she kept going. Dan didn't seem to offer any threat, but neither did he turn back.
Solara stopped, swung to face him. "No," she said. "Go home."
He didn't reply, even to argue, the acne-pitted face settled in something that wasn't stubbornness or even determination, but simply willingness (and intention) to follow out the course he had chosen. Solara found she didn't know what to do. Though she could have bested him easily in any kind of serious combat, she didn't see any way to subdue and bind him unless she was willing to injure him badly in the process, and she wasn't. She turned her face back to the road and resumed walking. So did he.
Two hours later, she stopped again, wheeled again to face him. "I won't feed you," she said. "I won't protect you. If you get too close, I'll shoot you in the leg and leave you. Go home."
He didn't. She hadn't expected he would. She discovered a new appreciation for the trials Eli had faced when she attached herself to him.
She continued on. Dan continued to follow. But not too close.
~ – ~ – ~
She kept her word, didn't feed him. He was adept at setting snares for small animals, however, whenever they stopped for the night, and after awhile she grudgingly allowed him to use her fire to cook his catches. Occasionally, he would leave one for her once he withdrew a safe distance to sleep. Occasionally, when she had shot a buzzard or prairie dog, she would leave some of it for him once she judged she had eaten enough. (Not generosity, not going soft. Just fair payback.) She didn't share her water, but in the next town she traded for a canteen so he could carry his own.
In that town, he did the reading, and delivered most of her practiced message about the importance of the Book and what it represented, apparently from memory. Solara sat back, silent and stone-faced to hide her surprise and consternation. Dan compounded the latter when he sought out one of the "ordinary" folk afterward, and reproduced that presentation as well. (She had not been aware of being observed during that part … and by now, she generally knew when someone was watching her.)
He also negotiated a night's lodging and a meal for her, as befitted a Bearer of the Word. It had never occurred to Solara even to desire such a thing, let alone request it; since taking to the road, she had relied on none but herself. She stood back, refusing to participate, and yet her very remoteness seemed to show her too important to bother with such petty things. Nobody seemed to suspect that her icy silence denoted embarrassment rather than a vague disdain, and her determination to show no emotion served only to emphasize the effect.
She would have knocked him in the head with a rock and left him unconscious, had she not recognized that his obvious awe for the words of the Book, and for she who bore it, was reinforcing her stature and the respect with which the message was being received. In the next town, then, she allowed him again to be her spokesman, and again it was clear that the result was better than she had been achieving alone.
By the third town, she understood: he was possessed by the words of the Book, yearned for them, wanted to drink them in in their entirety. He was willing to indenture himself to her in perpetuity — had done so — just for the privilege of reading a new book of the Book every week or so, rather than remain where he was and wait for the day when the slow process she had initiated might eventually bring the complete Book into being where he could reach it.
Realizing this, she began allowing him to read new segments, by light of their campfire, every few days as they bedded down between towns. Later, she began teaching him to fight. They still didn't really talk, however.
She had her mission. He had his. What was there to talk about?
~ – ~ – ~
There were more settlements up and down the coast than in the sun-baked interior, and the spreading of the word was moving more swiftly now, known and anticipated and eagerly received. Too, the maps she had been given allowed Solara to make a return circle this time, dispensing the prized booklets (and the lore that went with them) on her way back to Alcatraz, rather than emptying the pack and then going back along her original route. The result was that she was back this time in less than six months.
Lombardi had died in her absence. She was neither surprised nor stricken by the loss; he had clearly been failing for some time, and despite the odd respect he had shown her, they had not been close. All the same, it carried an impact. Like Eli, he had been from the world before, and labored to bring part of that back into the world of now; like Eli, he had realized the largest part of his goal, but died with too much left undone. Most of all, he had been one of the very few who remembered Eli, and his death made one less.
Solara had been told the news by the men who ferried her to the island; there was a sister community on the shore of the mainland now, both dependent on and support for the sealed enclave in the bay. At the Alcatraz dock, it was Marita who met her, hair wilder than ever and with new stress lines bracketing her mouth. The woman studied Solara, and then Dan, and observed acidly, "So, now the Immaculate Virgin has herself an acolyte."
Solara didn't understand most of the words (only "virgin" was familiar to her and, while accurate, hardly seemed relevant), nor was she much concerned about Marita's approval. What was important lay elsewhere. "I heard about Lombardi," she said. "Are you in charge now?"
Marita's mouth twisted, with pain rather than hostility. "Nobody is in charge," she replied bitterly. "There was … was just too much of him, there are half a dozen committees trying to juggle all the different projects he had going." She looked to Solara, and her next words were heavy with grief. "He taught us all he could, but he was the last one of us who … who remembered that world. How can we ever replace him?"
"You can't," Solara answered, with the instant assurance of one to whom the truth is clear and iron-solid. "Some men can never be replaced. We just have to pick up what they left and keep going. So that all they did doesn't go to waste."
Marita absorbed that, and something passed without words between them, understanding and even kinship. "I did the most work with him in publications, so I'm over all that now, including his Bible distribution project. There's been a lot of argument as to whether we should keep on with that one, or shut it down and devote those resources to something more immediately practical."
Practical? Solara knew of nothing more practical than daily survival needs: water, food, shelter, protection from predators. She had grown up in a world spiraling down into barbarism as it devoted itself to those practical necessities, and seen that world begin to light up again as it was once again exposed to a message as old as it was new. She felt passion and protest well up inside her; but she didn't have the words for what she wanted to express, so instead she said, "You can't. We need this."
In Marita's face Solara could see sympathy but no conviction, so she forged on. "Eli believed in the Book, followed it till he died. Lombardi believed. I believe, because of them. Now people everywhere are starting to believe. As soon as they hear, they know this is something worth believing." She looked to Marita, frustrated at her inability to voice what she knew. "They were great men. How can we say they were wrong? How can we let their dream die out? This is all we have left of them. How can we let that go?"
Marita stared at Solara, and Solara stared back, fighting tears. Then Marita said, "We can't," and as simply as that, it was decided.
There was intense discussion as to whether Dan, too, should be given a pack, to double their range and supply. It was ultimately decided that this would undercut the operating mystique of the dedicated carriers, lone bearers bringing and spreading the message of the Book. Then it was argued that Dan should himself be made a carrier, and sent off independently; when he refused — he had already chosen his role, and was unwilling to relinquish it — it was pointedly suggested that the cited mystique shouldn't allow him to accompany her at all. Solara took part in none of the latter arguments, leaving Dan to present his own case. All but mute when it was only the two of them together, he could show startling eloquence (even loquacity) when propagating the words and importance of the Book, or arguing for his right and determination to do so.
Solara herself was concerned only with two things. First, that the spread of Eli's book should continue, for which position Marita provided all the needed fire and passion in the committee meetings. Second, she wanted to return to her original territory, penetrating to new areas but operating in the same essential range. This was where she had come from, where Eli had found her, and now that there were others to help carry his message to distant territories, this was where she wanted to see what the results would be.
Once having made her desires as clear as it was necessary to make them, she did as she had always done during her brief sojourns at Alcatraz. She ate, enough to build up fat reserves that would be drawn upon once she had left, but not so much that she became accustomed to more than she would have back out in the barrens. She practiced, with bolo and bow and even with her pistols; there were those in the compound willing to provide her with ammunition and shooting space and even minor corrective instruction, though she needed little of the last and disregarded most of it. She tended Eli's grave. And she waited until it would be time to leave again.
Marita saw her to the dock when the time came. "I don't know how much longer we can keep doing this," she told Solara. "So many things are changing … and I think perhaps a lot of them came about because of what you've been doing, but those changes are opening out possibilities that the members of the other committees believe are more deserving of our attention and resources." She looked to Solara with grave eyes. "They may be right. Even if they aren't, they'll probably win out in the end. But I'll keep Lombardi's …" She checked, went on. "… Eli's, program going for as long as I can."
"Thank you," Solara said to the woman. Past that, there was nothing to add.
The trip back to the mainland was different this time. Lombardi was gone, and the eyes of those who had followed him were turning elsewhere. The mission she had undertaken for Eli (he had carried the seed; to honor him, she was determined to bring about the harvest) was well along, but might be drawing to a close. The world, which for so long had changed only to grow gradually worse, was changing in a different way now, and she wasn't entirely sure all the changes were desirable.
And Dan was with her now. Stolid, solemn, utterly committed, nearly wordless until they next had an audience. His presence was an irritant, bearable but unending. She found herself missing the days of single-minded, solitary focus … and even more keenly the days, so brief, when she had walked beside Eli, an unwanted burden like the one now seemingly attached to her.
Two days into their trek east, they were ambushed, the first time since he had joined her. Solara killed five of them, while Dan covered her back and occupied two more. Three fled, including one of the two who had been pressing Dan; the other died choking from a crushed larynx, where Dan's staff had caught him in the throat.
Solara took Dan to the wrecked house, and from the weapons grave she gave him a short automatic carbine. Then they returned to the road.
~ – ~ – ~
The towns were growing, beginning to show more life as trade with each other — and occasional caravans toward the coast — became more common. Solara began to encounter other Carriers … but they regarded her with such awe that after a while she couldn't bear even to speak with them. The people in the settlements welcomed her and Dan as honored guests, as celebrities, and increasingly as legends.
She hated it. She stopped speaking at all in the towns, so oppressive to her was the unearned adulation of the ignorant; but more and more she urged Dan, as they approached the next town, "Tell them about Eli. Don't stop talking about the Book, but make sure they know he was the one who brought it." This of course meant that she had to provide detail, description, interpretation. How to explain how a single man, in such a short time, could have such an enormous impact? The gawkers would only care about the fights, one man against a dozen; those with somewhat more imagination might consider the thirty-year quest to carry the word to the place where it might put down root and grow. None of them seemed to see what it had meant to him, however, a sacred task not only more important to him than his life but coming finally to BE his life, his reason and purpose and everything he was.
She couldn't communicate it. Even Dan, giving her his most careful attention and retelling it all with the most dedicated verve and sincerity, couldn't seem to produce the words that would explain what it had all meant.
A huge dissatisfaction grew inside her, eluding her attempts even to fully identify it.
~ – ~ – ~
There were many things Solara didn't know. She knew she had been named for the sun, but didn't know (for her mother had grown past it, and hidden it from the growing child) the bitterness that had gone into the naming, from memories of when the sun began to slowly scorch the life out of the earth. She knew that people needed more than the basics of survival in order to survive, that there were deeper needs that if unsatisfied would starve a population more slowly — over generations, perhaps — but starve it nonetheless … but, for all her belief and all her labor, she had only a hazy, tenuous sense of what those needs might be or how they might be met.
She walked the roads with her unwanted but increasingly indispensible follower, not because she knew her path, but because she knew no other.
~ – ~ – ~
Seven months after their most recent departure from Alcatraz, tracing a winding route that took in dozens of scattered towns, scores of recitations of the Word and entrustings of the precious partial segments of the Book, Solara found herself walking through a landscape growing hot and oppressive. Heat was nothing new, but this was different, there was a heavy thickness to the air that made it seem difficult to breathe. The sky grew dark hours before it should have done so, until at last she and Dan ceased their trek and made an early bedtime.
Solara was awakened by an enormous, monstrous crash of sound, something like the noise the grenade had made under the second of Carnegie's trucks, but magnified by a thousand. She was on her feet in the first instant of that awful detonation, Dan was beside her and only instinctive recognition stopped a wilder instinct from opening him up with the bolo. The world leaped again with that titanic impact, and then the sky lit up.
She didn't know what thunder was, or lightning, so she shouldn't have known what she was seeing, but the words of the Book came back to her, and she watched blue-white fire blaze across the sky, searing it from horizon to horizon, with an understanding beyond her knowledge, while peals of thunder shook the earth like blasts from the cannons which she likewise had never seen or heard. It was the end of the world, it was too big, nothing could withstand this —
And then the next blow fell.
One second, she was reeling from the sound, dazzled by the light … the next, something struck them with a force that drove them to the ground, smashing them flat before they knew to brace for resistance. It was so unexpected, so unlike anything she had ever experienced before, that it took interminable stunned seconds to realize that they were being pounded by water! Not like the rains at Alcatraz, sometimes misty-soft and sometimes pelting and chilly; no, this was as if the seas of the bay there had been dropped on them, entire, in a single unannounced moment.
She pushed back to her feet, the deluge had slackened slightly but it was still coming down hard and fast, and she realized the water was warm. Body temperature, maybe more, as if it were sweeping the heat from the sky and bearing it down to the firmament. This was yet another entirely unprecedented experience, and without conscious volition Solara was tearing off her clothes, in the continuous explosions of lightning she could see Dan doing the same, and then they were standing in the sheeting blood-warm rain, enraptured, letting themselves be lost in the full-bodied embrace of that living liquid immersion.
For a quarter of an hour the downpour went on unabated; then, bit by bit, it slacked off, though the rain continued to fall with a steady meaningfulness very different from the fleeting showers at Alcatraz and the coast. Moonlight began to show through the darkness, through breaks in the clouds, and even under the weight of night it seemed to Solara that the clouds themselves were somehow different. She looked over to Dan, who seemed to be looking carefully past her, and she realized that he had turned his body slightly to hide the visible sign of arousal.
Solara knew about men, knew that women's bodies called to them even when they feared to answer. That Dan might hear the same call, so obvious once realized, simply hadn't occurred to her before, and would call for some careful consideration. Here, now, it didn't concern her. She hunted, by moonlight and by flashes of the lightning that still flared occasionally, until she had found most of her clothes, and dressed again in the drenched garments while Dan did the same.
They found a place to sit, flat rock so they wouldn't be sitting in mud, and there they waited while the warm rain continued to fall. Not speaking, nor needing to do so. Waited while the clouds cleared yet a bit more, and those that remained floated under the moonlight, fat and pregnant with the promise of more rain to come. Waited until the morning sun broke the horizon, and still the rain fell, soft and sweet and murmuring, and the very air seemed to have another flavor now.
And Solara turned to Dan, a tremulousness inside her that she hadn't felt since she first heard Eli reciting from the Book … and, shaky with an uncertainty long unfamiliar to her, she asked almost shyly: "… Will you teach me to read?"
He looked back to her, his face inscrutable and his eyes searching — this was, she realized suddenly, the first time he had met her gaze since joining her on the road — and then he said, "Sure."
They had been watching the rain for hours. They sat and watched it for a long while more. Out there, Solara knew, there would be people remembering the first book in the Book, remembering the forty days and forty nights of deluge that led to a great flood, and wondering if once again the wickedness of men had brought down the wrath of an exasperated God upon an unrighteous earth.
There were many things Solara didn't know, but she knew this was no beginning of the end, that this was no curse but the lifting of one.
The world had ended during the night, ended and been reborn, a proclamation written across the sky in words of light and flame. A new earth turned under a new sky; and when at last she rose to walk again, a new road would lie beneath her feet.
Though it took me some time to remember where I'd seen it, and longer to find it, this story owes at least some small debt of inspiration to "Mythology", by inlovewithnight, at Archive of Our Own.