The wild lands had encroached perilously around the homestead in the ten seasons since he had gone away from Ochiltree. The nearness of the sky shocked him. He started the turboflier again from where he had paused along the ridge and dived towards the house in a sweeping curve that crossed matted beds of weeds and slides of glutinous mud where there had been trim rows of tended juicy bivalves the day he waved goodbye.
His long hair swirled in the turbulence of his passage and the homecoming ache in him filled his throat with a longing both sweet and poignant. No man with wisdom in his skull stayed away too long. Too long: the very syllables echoed the deflated depression that had sprung so unexpectedly and disconsolately upon him. Everything changed, himself included, and before he could relax in the old familiar ways he would have to meet the family as a stranger.
Although the nearness of the sky depressed and alarmed him, so that he fingered his trident in the fighting man's instinctive search for reassurance from his weapons, there was in him none of the rife and mind-destroying fear of superstition that riddle the outer keeps. There was even a strange joy to be taken from the colors and the iridescence about him.
A figure rose from the balcony as he approached. It finned up toward him. So close to the shimmering sky her white clothing was tinted into a luminous blue and the jewels in her hair shot back sparkles of fire. Her lithe rounded body cleft the aquasphere with impatient, joyous ease. Amazement took him.
She curved in toward him and caught the guard rail of the shell-shaped turboflier, clinging, gasping and laughing, holding her head high with hair streaming in the wake.
"Miramee! Little sister Miramee!"
She turned herself, eel-like, so that her laughing and excited face hovered inches from his own. Her eyes snatched vagrant gleams from the glistening sky.
"Little sister indeed! Why, you sere-skinned oldster, Keston!"
They laughed together, and the barrier of ten seasons collapsed like weeds before the slicing blade.
Looking at her as the flier sank toward the garage, Keston, leaning against the main hall, saw the gaiety as a mask, a superficial excitement fleetingly generated because her big brother had returned home after so long. There was a shadow in her eyes and a pain in her face that might have set him wondering had he not been oppressively aware of the glittering sky, dancing so closely above their heads and reflecting menacing ripples from the coral walls of the house.
Dismounting from the turboflier he prudently left his weapons aboard, remembering Aunt Ranee.
Miramee saw the action and the smile left her face. She shook her head. "Aunt Ranee is dead. Over five seasons ago, big brother. We no longer have need to argue peace or war."
He shook his head in turn so that his long hair coiled and floated in the aquasphere. The sky was so close that his hair showed a streaked yellow. But he left the weapons there, all the same.
Miramee caught his hand. Laughing again, she kicked off, pulling him towards the vaulted doorway where the bronze gates hung askew from hinges that had not been used for over a hundred seasons. He was not wearing his fins--they formed merely an unnecessary impediment aboard a turboflier--and so he calmly allowed her to tow him along.
Inside the courtyard everything was the same, and yet disturbingly different. He pivoted, idly finning with his naked feet, making small balancing movements with his hands, looking as his eyes would and drinking in the old scene and the old memories.
"Come on!" Miramee was impatient. "Father knew you were coming."
"Of course. Since you have gone and the sky has crept closer we maintain a most efficient intelligence service. The Marhalls audioed that a turboflier--a fighting turboflier--had ghosted past their keep without stopping for the welcome that awaited within."
"I--I was thinking about the reason for my visit. I had no wish to argue with neighbors until I knew what was in the aquasphere."
She pouted her lips at him, wending across the courtyard to enter the main doorway. "You were always the cautious one, Keston."
He smiled, a fleeting, grim smile compounded of memories that would bring no joy to many men's mothers.
"I have had to be cautious, little sister. And cunning. And sometimes ruthless. But I am alive."
She shivered. "Has it been so bad?"
He rallied her, obscurely annoyed that this homecoming should be so colored with echoes of decay and disaster.
"Away with you! Where are father and mother?"
On the instant he felt his heart leap. Miramee had said nothing. Aunt Ranee was dead. Perhaps, too...?
Thankfully, Miramee pirouetted on one slender fin and pointed behind his back. A voice, a well-remembered, well-loved voice, said: "So you have come back, Keston."
She was caught up in his arms, pressed close to his brown and sinewy chest, long before his eyes had time to tell his brain of the wrinkles on her face, of the tiredness in her eyes and the thin, listless droop of her figure.
"Mother mine," he said, after a long time. "Yes, I have come back." Then, because it would be best to deliver the wounding thrust quickly, so that there would be all the time at his disposal left for it to heal, he said, "But not for long. There is a thing I must do--"
"Don't say any more, Keston. Don't say anything. I know that men's lives are spent out in the deeps and that a woman must wait in the keep--and wait and wait." She put her arm around his waist and smiled up at him. Like Keston, she was not wearing fins, and he remembered the times he had been scolded for wandering about without strapping on his own.
"Now you can take me to your father. And kick straight with your legs and hold your head high so that your hair waves. Remember, you are a fighting man now. A fighting man..." Abruptly she turned her head down and Keston felt the spasmodic thrust of her chin against his chest.
Together, they flew past the empty shark pens, with the harness neatly hanging above, through the doorway and so came into the great hall of Ochiltree.
It was as he remembered it. Smaller, perhaps; but he was filled out from the turmoil of battle and bulked large. The groined roof was more thickly covered with growth, mute testimony to the creeping dissolution that choked this place and showed its strength in its power to undermine his mother's house-proud efficiency. The tattered banners still floated from their crosstrees, high against the walls. Each Ochiltree male placed his own banner there on the day he saw his twenty-first season. Keston's eyes swept instinctively to find his own. It was there. A flicker of reassurance warmed his heart.
"And do you gawp still, lost in self-love, lad?" The great voice boomed at him, washing currents of sound in the vaulted hall. Despite his tally of kills, despite his scars and the searing memories of desperate encounters against overwhelming odds, despite his own esteem of himself, despite all the outward symbols of the fighting man shown in dress and impeccable weapons, despite all the flummery that made of Keston a sudden and dangerous fighting man-despite all this, he started. He snapped his back straighter automatically as his father spoke.
Only then, when he was floating with evenly finning feet and the occasional unconscious gesture of one hand to bring him balancing, when he was once again in command of himself, did he raise his head and stare directly at the great chair of the Ochiltrees, where his father sat, waiting.
He knew the slow, sure fire of purpose in himself should have prepared him for the abnormal sameness in his father. Where all about him had changed--Miramee a grown woman, his mother aging and worn down with care, his elder brother Kaley so indifferent to his return as not to be present, the whole homestead, Ochiltree itself, decaying and wasting away--in all this change his father, Kevin Ochiltree, was as he remembered him, to the same clothes the same lines in his stern and uncompromising face, the same jut of chin and twist of head that he saw in his own mirror.
"I was but remembering my youth, father."
"So you have returned. Well, the time is opportune."
Keston, obscurely and for no easily touchable reason, did not interrupt his father. He waited patiently until the big man, sitting in the carved chair of solid stone with the pelts flung in careless profusion upon it, had finished.
Then he said, "I cannot stay long. I came back to say goodbye."
His mother's hand was on his shoulder. Asserting himself as he had known he would have to do, with the strength of an Ochiltree set against an Ochiltree, he felt guilt. Kevin Ochiltree glared at him and Keston recognized and was torn by that glare. Here sat a man consumed with anger because he was growing old, with the sky pressing in on him nearer and nearer with each passing season. And when he turned for comfort and help from his sons, they--sons. Kaley?
Keston said, "Where is Kaley?"
Miramee said impulsively, "Lissa is--"
His mother shushed her. "Kaley was married two seasons ago to Lissa, a girl from the Marhall keep. Kaley is with her now. Her time is. due."
"And that is where you women belong," his father said in that chest-thrusting voice. "Keston and I have much to discuss."
"I think--" Keston paused. He had been about to say: "I think not, father." But he chopped it off. Not before the women.
When they were alone his father gestured imperiously. "Sit down, lad."
Keston sat. He sat on the footstool his father pushed out with one white leg. He repressed his involuntary shock at sight of that thin, gnarled and shrunken leg. His father's fins, resting on their hooks conveniently at his back, would swamp both feet with one fin. The crossed tridents on the wall at his father's back, the sharkskin shield with its memory evoking tang of shark oil, the ancient bronze sword and the modern, beryl-alloy blade--all would tax his father's strength merely to wield. No, his father remained true to Ochiltree and in the general decay could not, after all, remain aloof and unchanged.
"You look well, son." There was a pause. Then: "Times are hard. You recall the Lawson Homestead? Harrap Lawson and his family?" He shook his head. "They are living with us, temporarily. They have discreetly kept out of sight whilst you return home. They are here and they are not the first."
Keston did not have to ask why the Lawson homestead was no longer tenable. Or, to be precise, of the two reasons why a keep or a homestead would be abandoned. But the only one that fitted here was self-evident in that the Lawsons were still alive.
"How long?" he asked.
Kevin Ochiltree moved one hand at random on the carved arm of the great chair.
"I am no scientist like you, lad. I am a plain farmer, five-stock man." His mind caught the errant thought. "You saw the pens?"
Keston nodded somberly. "I did. Nearly empty. And not a mount in the courtyard. And the weeds and the mud. Ochiltree must--" Again he paused; it was delicate work telling your own father that the family home was on the starvation danger level.
Kevin Ochiltree closed his eyes wearily. "How long? Marhall says three seasons at the minimum. Lawson, who saw the sky descend and engulf his home, says two. I do not know. All I know is that the sky is falling upon us and that when Ochiltree is swallowed up I shall not have the heart to leave. I shall sit here with my fins and my weapons strapped to me and wait for what may be, beyond the silver sky."
Softly, so that he barely stirred the aquasphere, Keston said, "And the Zammu?"
Softly as he had spoken, the name rang in the great hall.
Kevin Ochiltree's granite face set hard, stubbornly, like a grouper refusing to emerge from a hole with the trident piercing his body. He bunched up, hard and ugly.
"As well talk to me about them as about the Hopeless Ones." His shrunken legs stirred so that the aquasphere eddied. "The Zammu have not been seen in this quadrant. I hear only secondhand rumors of them. You have news?"
"A little. They raid. They kill. They steal. That is common knowledge."
His father rolled a contemptuous eye upon him. "And you have been away ten seasons! Studying, so you said, at the University of Golden Nablus. You are a watchshark with the Emperor. An echelon-leader! The last audio told great stories of your prowess. And this is all you can tell your own father of the Zammu?"
"All the details I could tell you resolve into this one thing. Man is everywhere drawing in, retreating in face of the descending sky. And the Zammu, who came out of that sky within the stored archival recordings' time-span, press us, harry us, kill and steal and soon there will be but one keep and one man and when the Zammu have made an end to him--"
"Man will never have an ending!"
Kevin Ochiltree's voice was harsh and resonant. A flicker of gold from the pet's cage showed where his favorite rainbow-fins swirled in unaccustomed alarm. Long weeds trailing from the groined vaulting undulated beckoningly.
"And when the sky meets the ground?"
Keston had not meant to sound so fierce, so fatalistic, so crushed. His father sat back, scowling, rubbing one thin hand across his face. "When that day comes--"
"When it does," Keston said, amazed at this bludgeoning of his father, "you will long since have gone beyond the silver sky."
"Don't taunt me, boy. At least, we are men still. We at least have not fallen into the fatal flaw of the Hopeless Ones."
"The Zammu kill the Hopeless Ones, too, father."
"Good. They have ceased to be men. The Zammu never were men, though they ape our ways and our inventions and steal our secrets. Enough. I famish." He pressed the worn bell-push set in the arm of the chair. "Let us eat."
"A noble thought, father. I, too, famish after my journey."
"Remiss of me, lad. Should have offered hospitality before... Let us have more light, so that I may see what University and the Emperor have done to my son!"
Kevin Ochiltree had bellowed himself into a good humor; Keston knew that a man's mind cannot face the final dissolution and so shies away and seeks outlets in exuberance. He rallied at his father's mood. The outer keeps were no place for a fine academic discussion on Man's destiny upon Earth.