The forest somehow seemed to get darker the closer the two men got to their destination. Agrippa kept reminding himself that the solstice had been three days prior, and the sun simply chose to fall sooner than in earlier months. But the feeling of menace these woods held for him never passed. Agrippa didn't like the woods. Most of his people, at least the other Class II's, usually didn't. Ari, his companion, liked it less than Agrippa did.
Ari never slowed down, though. Agrippa couldn't tell what he was thinking, as per usual. Ari was always the headstrong type, even back in the creches. It was a small act of the gods that he was never thrown out and stuck in some Class III pod to spend the rest of his life drooling and building roads. Maybe if the creche had had a different headmistress, he would have been, but Professor Allgrass wasn't about to let Ari get the best of her. For all that Ari was unspeakably stupid, he was undeniably brilliant. He matriculated at the bottom of the legion (Agrippa didn't come out much higher), but he made it. Two centurions, born and bred to Advance the Greater Reason. Agrippa chuckled and spat.
"What's so funny now?" Ari asked.
"You, coming out of the best plutoborn creche in all of Sylvanos, and can't help getting lost in the woods."
"We're not lost. We're looking for someone who generally mislikes being found."
"If the Integrators get to him first, you know what happens to us, right?" Agrippa asked. "You know what happens to the movement if we lose the Woodsman?"
"The Woodsman's not the primary goal, though," Ari said.
"Yes, you've been hinting at that," Agrippa said. "He has some kind of weapon, right? Something from the other world?"
"Well, there's no way of knowing," Ari said, "but that's what we're told, and Milephanes himself wouldn't have asked us out here without good cause." Both Ari and Agrippa preened a bit at that; Milephanes was starting to be something of a folk hero, even among those outside the Movement, and they were his chosen instrument for this mission.
"Of course not. Whatever it is, the NatPhi kids at Alexylva want it, so it has to be valuable," Agrippa said. "But what I'm saying is, do you know what happens if the Integrators find us before we find it?"
"You mean, we'll get a medal?"
"Ari, we'll get the black bile scraped out of our brains, be thrown in front of a target, and be used for practice by our old classmates. The ones you used to love to humiliate, remember?"
"They humiliated themselves. I just pointed it out more than they liked."
Agrippa wasn't in the mood to banter. He heard a sound just over the next hill. He stopped Ari and signaled to him that they should take cover. The two men split up and took positions behind trees, ten yards apart, and became completely silent. They watched the hillside, and waited.
Integrators. Four soldiers, surgically augmented to be more machine than human. Forget the Braincaps; Agrippa has seen the schematics for all the technology stuck inside these men. Not even men, anymore; sexual organs removed, gender identity (along with every other mission-irrelevant thought) wiped. They moved with the speed of insects attacking an enemy anthill. Two of them were even walking on all fours, catlike. Agrippa had heard rumors that they could see in infrared, that they could hear human blood from inside the body, that they could smell souls. But you can never believe the propaganda those University kids throw out, he thought. The Integrators passed by without looking.
Even Ari's implacable smile was gone for a minute. "We have to hurry."
"Yeah. Which way?"
The Red Woodsman's hut (hovel's more like it, Agrippa thought) lay some ways away from where the Integrators had been heading, the only factor that gave the two any comfort under the circumstances. Ari snuck up to the door and rapped out a pre-arranged code while Agrippa stood watch. When the door creaked open, Ari waved Agrippa forward, then ducked inside. Agrippa hurried over and closed the door behind him.
The smell was even worse than Agrippa had imagined. Whatever food the Woodsman had been living on for so long, he was apparently a little less demanding about its freshness. The stench of rotten meat filled the single room, and Agrippa was glad that the only window was blocked off. Not that the candlelight was helping much.
The Woodsman was old, very old. Much older than Agrippa had imagined, judging from the ancient gaze in his pupilless eyes. Ari acted nonplussed, but it was clear he was surprised. They had hoped to find the legendary hermit, hoped he would be able to lead them in their uprising. They had talked to some of the other Guardians in their legion, even a couple of Class I University students. They all agreed that there was only one person who might have the knowledge on how to bring down their government, and certainly one such as the Woodsman would have motive enough. The Woodsman was the last of his people. Now it was clear that he wasn't going to last much longer either.
"Welcome, white devils," the Woodsman said. "I trust your trip was…uneventful?" He turned and stumbled towards a small mound that was clearly his principal furniture in the shack, waving a thin branch on the ground to feel his way through the room.
"Yes, sir, very peaceful, sir," Ari said. Odd how he never spoke that way to his own commanders.
The Woodsman's cracked face smiled slightly. "Who's the other? You said someone was here, and he's breathing loud enough I'm afraid he'll die before I do."
Ari chuckled nervously. Agrippa said in a shaky voice, "The name's Agrippa Widewater, sir. Friend of Aristotle's. He's spoken of you."
"Yes, this devil mentioned you to me as well." The Woodsman's blank eyes seemed to fix on Agrippa's as he smiled.
Agrippa cleared his throat. "Um…devil?"
The Woodsman registered no surprise. "Yes, devil. White devil. I work with Aristotle here because he is less stupid than his countrymen, and with you because of his word that I should. But your people disgust me." He leaned forward as he spoke. "I may well be the last of my people. Do you know of my people?"
Agrippa shook his head, then realized his mistake and said, "No, no, I'm afraid not. The forest people?"
The Woodsman snorted. "Gods, no. Do you know nothing of your history?"
"Yes, certainly. We came to this land many hundreds of years ago and found your kind here. We tried to bring you into our Empire, but our diseases wiped most of you out—"
"Let me stop you before you embarrass yourself further," the Woodsman said, no longer smiling. "The white barbarians that spawned you came to this land, and found my people's red barbarian neighbors. The desert dwellers in the south, the snow people of the north, the grasseaters of the east. Many of us died of your sicknesses, yes, but our towns lived on. We allied with your people as you killed our enemies, then ran as you slaughtered us for our land. You stole our words, our medicines—I likely enough had kin named Widewater, back when I had kin—and then shoved us around the continent like marbles.
"My people were the people of the cave country, the Tsalagi. Our homes were east of here; you ground us out like burning embers. I am Adahy, and I may be the last of my people, and I may not; I have no way of knowing. My eyes are gone, and I shall die soon, but I have one gift to pass on, and the only ones—" The Woodsman paused at this last part "—the only ones I have to pass that gift to are two white devils. I will give you this gift from the world beyond this one, but let an old man have his regrets."
Agrippa had no response to any of this. Ari, smart little beast that he was, rose to his feet and fell to one knee before the blind hermit. "And let me pledge, sir, the enduring thanks of the better world your gift will bring about."
The Woodsman seemed sated. "Better for someone, anyway. Very well, I suppose you should be getting on, then. The box is on that little shelf there, beside the door." He pointed at a small brown box, oddly out of place in some imperceptible way; Agrippa had noticed it immediately upon entering. Something about the box's construction reeked of the unnatural. He walked across the room and picked it up.
"You may leave as soon as is prudent, travelers," Adahy said, and retreated to a small alcove.
Ari and Agrippa had run for what seemed like hours before they reached the end of the woodline and approached their barracks. They snuck into the building, nodding at the guard they had already bribed into silence. Of course, he likely thought they were just out fondling some pórnoi in the pleasure district; the question wasn't asked, so long as the gold was forthcoming. The package was hidden until Ari pulled it out from under his tunic. They looked at the artifact, awe-filled in spite of its obvious cheap construction. Of course, the Phitransimun Combine wasn't known for its craftsmanship for most of its postal service; only high-grade objects were treated with real care. And this was clearly a postal container of some sort; the label was recognizable, the alphabet somewhat decipherable, even if neither Ari nor Agrippa knew where anyplace was called "Omaha."
Agrippa tried to gingerly pry open the wood-pulp container, but the adherent holding the flaps in place caused part of it to rip. Ari took the box from his hands and pulled the rest of the pulp apart. "The covering isn't important; it's what's inside that counts."
Working his way through the pulp coverings and the endless layers of clear, elastic paper air pockets used for padding (what amazing skills these outworlders have, Agrippa thought, as he gathered up the scraps falling from Ari's hands), Ari uncovered a small booklet.
"Wait, where's the weapon?" Agrippa said.
Ari flipped through the pages. "I have no idea. But maybe Milephanes will."
The booklet that was brought to Milephanes was never translated into the language of their people, but Milephanes had learned how to read the offworlders' speech well enough by this point. He knew that the phrase "UNITED STATES" was important immediately; that was an important empire in the other-realm, and powerful. And while it took some research to learn what "CONSTITUTION" meant in this sense, he immediately took great interest in the concept of a "DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE."
FROM AGENT ███████ ("PROFESSOR ALPHA" , MTF P-1)
TO RESEARCHER ESKOBAR
HEAD OF RESEARCH
FWD: TO SENIOR RESEARCHER ███████
SITE 38 DIRECTOR
FWD: TO OVERWATCH COMMAND
PRIORITY TWO ALERT
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
ANOMALOUS OBJECT ACQUIRED AT ██° ██.█████' N ██° ██.████ W AT 0330 THIS DAY. OBJECT: TYPE THREE CLASSIFICATION (DELIVERY ARTIFACT, UNREMARKABLE MAKE). CONTENTS: TWO HUNDRED FIFTY (250) COPIES OF IDENTICAL SHEET OF PAPER. FULL CONTENTS INCLUDED IN APPENDIX OF REPORT. NOTABLE EXCERPTS, TRANSLATED APPROXIMATELY INTO STANDARD ENGLISH:
"We hold these [facts?] to be [clear?]: that all mans is to be treated as the same as one another, that the sands of time and nature's winds have left those that survive to be worthy of certain rights, including life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Governments are instituted among men with power given to be from the will of those men, and when any ruler seeks to defy that will, it is to those men to see that ruler's blood spilled from sea to sea, and to choose new ruler to make men safe and [pleased?]"
"The history of current Regent of Novomundus tells to us that he is such ruler and cannot be suffered for further living. Let the truth be known [followed by a long series of political complaints, including "Making for that womenfolk can steal the glory and pride of man, rightful ruler of woman and beast," "Releasing among our people the great scourge, the [integrators?], the half-machines, that our children may find themselves prey in our homes," and "Making of many childrens idiots and slaves against all laws of natural order."]"
"We, therefore, the Representatives of the united People of Novomundus, take arms against the injustices listed above and swear our lives that these cruelties be not endured any longer. The Gods of our ancestors, they that support us, may do so; but let it be known that whosoever stands in our way is to be annihilated. We shall destroy everyone who opposes, and let their carcasses pile up to realm of heavens. If all the gods in heaven and the demons, and the good and bad people all oppose us, we shall not relent. We shall not yield.
—Milephanes of Sylvanos"