UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
I wrote this story for the Heroes in Training anthology edited by Jim Hines, which came out from DAW Books in September 2007. The hero-in-training in this story becomes one of the narrators in The Wannoshay Cycle, but that comes many, many years later. Grab something warm to drink and travel to a distant, frozen, dying planet…
‘Drinker’ by Michael Jasper provides a model for enveloping readers in a nonhuman, alien culture… In the Drinker’s case, he struggles against the suspicious conservatism of his fellow creatures as he finds a way to preserve his environment and his species. Mournful in tone, but ending with a bit of hope, Jasper’s understated prose provides food for thought about our own adaptation [or lack thereof] to planetary changes. — The Fix
The path itself remained the same, a trampled indentation of ice and snow wending its way first through black rocks and stubborn tufts of purpling vegetation, then over featureless blue ice until it reached the melted edge of the ocean. Its span, however, was always lengthening over time, like a hair-tentacle attached to the head of an always-eating foundling. At one end, our encampment of huts ringed with caves remained static, while the vital salt water at the other end of our march grew more distant with each frozen cycle.
Before we went belowground countless cycles ago, I, Iyannoloway, walked that long, frozen corridor with my brethren. I journeyed to the edge of the iced-over ocean, at first light-footed and brisk, returning trudging and achingly full. That was my role, the lowest of all, determined for me by my unique, humiliating physiology: wide shoulders, thick legs, strong finger-toes. And an expansive belly. I was born to be a Drinker for my People.
(But, I remind myself now, as we cut through space and time, that role only existed back on our dying world. A world my People and I have just departed, forever. The ball of white, blue, and black slips farther from us with each shallow breath I exhale here on this resurrected ship of our Ancestors. I limp on old feet and bent finger-toes, passing cask after cask of my People, none of whom I can smell any longer. Many cycles have passed since I was a Drinker, but as degrading and demanding as that role was, it was fitting training for the role I have now.)
On my icy marches, I would lessen the drudgery and agony by singing songs of Uolloaway. I relived the songs inside my closed third eye, stories about how Uolloaway the young built the machines that allowed him to fly to distant lands and become the first to meet the other races on our world. How he braved the unknown to share his knowledge. How he came back a changed man — an Elder.
I sang Uolloaway’s songs in silence as I walked. I sang them as I pulled deeply on the salty water of the ocean, my stomach and skin stretching, becoming taut with the lifeblood of my People. I sang as I drank and drank, as my throat burned with salt and my vision blurred from the growing pressure the water placed on my blood and in my gut. I drank until I was full, then I drank more for those waiting for us back home.
I could smell the courage and determination of my fellow Drinkers. It was a bittersweet odor.
Soon, the ocean ice would creak under the newfound weight of my fellow Drinkers and myself, but I was oblivious to the low bass sounds. Toward the end, I often would rise up to my full height, unsteady, responding to the tingling sensation in my stunted hair-tentacles. I was listening for the high-pitched cries of razorbeasts carrying over the stinging wind, afraid I would see the pale, three-legged creatures coming at us across the white-blue nothingness of the tundra.
(How my heart aches when I remember the aboveground, in all its harshness. I can still see it inside my third eye, even as we rush away from our world: the black-treed forests, the viney caves, the huts of the encampments, the forgotten towers, the tumbled bridges. I can sense our lost world as if I were right there, plodding back home first on two feet, then on all four feet as exhaustion set in, my belly scraping the slick ice and sharp-crusted snow. You may not believe me, but I miss it.)
Moving almost as slow as water freezing, bellies near bursting, we were near exhaustion as we marched uphill, close enough to our encampment to smell the rest of our People. The sun was a sliver of faded blue, far above us, and it shed weak light on a stormy purple sky. Inside the blackened trees of the forest next to us were the bleached white bones of deformed creatures that made my spine ripple and crack with fear.
I imagined Uolloaway coasting on the air high above us, looking down at our bent gray backs, twitching hair-tentacles, and bulging bellies, and turning his air-skimmer away from us. Uolloaway’s time was far in the past, and we had been denied his flying machines, now broken beyond fixing and hidden under layers of snow. Even the red towers of the old cities of the Ancestors were crumbling onto courtyards abandoned and hollow.
I did not look at my fellow laborers waddling next to me, giving off their odors of salt and excrement and determination. I did not want to know if their eyes were closed or open, if their finger-toes bled onto the snow and ice like mine did, or if they passed their time with their own quiet songs of the Ancestors, or other Elders or even Drinkers.
So I sang of Uolloaway strapped into his skimmer high in the air and wished idly for a fleet of his winged machines to swoop down and shorten the long, mindless walk that cursed my fellow Drinkers and me. But a rescue from this unrelenting cold and the encroaching creatures made bold by hunger and desperation was never our destiny.
Unless we resolved to rescue ourselves.
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Check out my SF novel The Wannoshay Cycle, in hardcover, trade paperback, or ebook for more of the “Wantas” and the humans who come to meet them after this story takes place…