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The Groove-runner’s Wife

Cavendori had been traveling for three hundred and fifty-nine years when he reached the shore of the Mirinjii Ocean. During his voyage, he had covered almost half a light minute and unearthed the relics of five distinct Falls, but each time Kimberley had risen again and resumed its slow clockwise crawl, more magnificent than ever. The civilization of Kimberley clearly knew the secret of the Phoenix, a way to compress the inevitable dark ages into mere decades, and Cavendori wanted to know it, too.

He was a historian: for him such knowledge was priceless. He was also a good citizen and though all of his friends and relatives would be dead by now, his own nation altered beyond recognition, he still dreamed of a return to High Harbor. And he didn’t want to arrive with empty hands.

Cavendori was in the prime of his life, as he always would be, but soon his fertility would start to fail. It was time he started looking for a wife.

He didn’t know it, but three thousand miles clockwise I was already waiting for him, our fate written in the curling cloud lines and sanctioned by the Perigori Data Bank for Preliminary Extrapolations.

I had just turned eight, the clashing of copper cymbals still resounding in my ears, my stomach upset by a surfeit of honey cakes, when a traveling vocational guidance wizard visited our village.

My father was wealthy. At least the other villagers considered him a man of substance, being dirt poor themselves. We lived in a house that was no larger than their own, albeit of a sounder construction, the poles ironwood instead of the usual lacquered reeds. Still, the only real measure of wealth in their eyes was farmland and my father owned no less than six acres of full-grown mango trees. As a badge of his exalted position, he kept a real huge hen, a scruffy ill-tempered bird that ate more in a single day than our whole family in a week. A kick of its muscled stilt legs could cave in your chest.

As the village’s only aristocrat he was expected to follow the fashions of the distant capital. Vocational guidance was a big rage that year. Wizards and cloud gazers were predicting the careers of babies still in the womb, the poor embryos blissfully unaware they were being typecast as holy beggar nuns or pelt rat skinners.

Our wizard arrived in a palanquin carried by no less than four hundred homunculi. None of them was bigger than my thumb and the vestigial tails showed they were derived from mouse stock. The cumbersome contraption seemed to drift several centimeters above the glassy road, its many-hued banners and ribbons snapping in the wind. The overburdened homunculi complained without cease: their chirping laments nicely counterpointed the flute play of the pale-skinned slave, who walked in front.

My father stepped onto the road, touched his nose in respectful welcome. “Wise merchant of the arcane, would you deign to let me sample your wares? I have a daughter, who has just turned eight and her capabilities, if any, are still hidden in the haze of the future. Could you counsel her?”

The wizard was an exceedingly old man, his eyes sunk in wrinkled fat, his hair reduced to a single off yellow tuft just above his brows. He smiled, showing false enameled teeth. “I am steeped in the occult lore of the days that are neither past nor current, yet my stomach is empty and my purse likewise. You, dear squire, are perplexed by the shape of things to come, though your belly bulges and your purse clinks. A fortunate state of affairs, allowing each of us to profit by the other’s plenty. Is it not so?”

“Yeah, I guess,” my father mumbled. His purse was not that bulging, the mangoes still being a beautiful green and quite unmarketable.

My father sent me away with a wave of his hand and whistled for the house gibbons to serve our guest refreshments.

They dickered for hours, the wizard venting cries of frustration at my father’s stinginess, my father lamenting the greed of sages who, being holy, should be quite content to sip the dew and dine on grasshoppers.

The sun was already touching the mountain tops when my father called me and pushed me in front of the palanquin.

“This is the little guttersnipe,” he grumbled. “For the price you ask she should end up Exarch at the very least.”

“Que sera, sera,” the wizard intoned, switching to a language that hadn’t been spoken for close to a million years. It was a standard trick, sure to awe the ignorant. “What will be, will be,” he translated magnanimously. “Now leave us in peace, dear squire, for this is a very private ritual.”

He stepped from the palanquin, his swollen body supported by spindly legs. The decrepit sage squatted in front of me. “What I need is, ah…” He frowned and consulted a scroll. “Yes, something old and something new, something stolen and something red.” He stared at the scroll, shaking his head. “I seem to remember… Well, it says so here. You understand, girl?”

I nodded. I snatched one of my baby brother’s rattles and he bit me. I soundly cuffed him (It’s never too early to learn some respect for your elders, as my father often said.) and smeared some of my blood on the rattle. Now for something old and something new, that should be easy. I called my grandmother and asked her to carry my baby brother to the wizard.

The wizard seemed satisfied with the arrangement, though my brother kept howling through most of the ritual until my grandmother soundly cuffed him. I felt a glow of satisfaction: my technique had been the right one. I was growing up.

“Yes, yes, yes,” the wizard mumbled, peering at the diagrams the tiny pink pyramid he had summoned was sketching. “Strange. But true.” He dismissed the pyramid with a wave of his smoking incense skull and turned his watery gaze on me. “You girl, you will become famous and rich and quite unhappy. So the demon said.” He stared at the central diagram, nodding in senile incomprehension. “You will have one hundred and five children, or is it five hundred and one? Or it might also be the number of years you’re going to live. The kind of mathematics those infernals use! Let me see, base sixteen, or does the Perigori Data Bank for Preliminary Extrapolations use base nine?” He smiled. “Well, you will have many children or live a long time. Or your child may. Still, it is always nice to have many children, don’t you think so?”

“Well, maybe,” I answered, ‘but five hundred?”

“It might be less. If they use base nine.”

“I see. But what will I become? What will be my job?”

“Your job? Ah, your job!” He once again consulted the diagram. “You will become a groove-runner’s wife. I’m sure it is a most suitable profession for you. One that allows you to use your talents to the utmost.”

“What is a groove-runner?” I asked, thrilled despite my growing suspicion that the vocational guidance wizard was well past his prime and of doubtful competence.

He smiled. “Perhaps you know them as Walking Men? They follow in the groove of civilizations as they circle our great Alderson Disc.”

“Circle our great Alderson Disc,” I echoed. Sometimes it’s possible to get some sense out of people by repeating their last statement.

He made a sweeping gesture. “This light hours wide realm.” My incomprehension must have shown because he sighed. “Knowledge is inversely proportional to the distance to the capital. I’ll throw in some advice for free, couched in terms fit for your rustic ears.” He beckoned the slave. “The groove-runner’s song. Aeolian mode.” The slave took his harp and started a lively reel, while the wizard sang in a quivering falsetto:

“Beware, Daughter, beware

of the groove-runner’s smile!

He’ll want you

He’ll woo you

He’ll win you

and leave you in the end,

‘cause all he really cared for

was the child in your womb!”

The day before I turned thirteen my father took me to the next village and pointed out a boy. The boy had the face of an unsuccessful weasel and the vacant stare of a brain-damaged pig.

“Tomorrow you will marry him with my blessings. His father owns one of the biggest huge hen breeding pens and this is his only and thus favorite son. You will live a life of luxury and have many happy children.”

I observed my future husband and shuddered. He was making a mud pie, which was a sport I had tired of years ago. It wasn’t even a good mud pie.

“He’s perhaps not overly bright, but there are compensations.”

I balled my fists. “Such as?”

He gestured vaguely. “The breeding pens for instance. And his father has connections with the court. You, my dear daughter, may find yourself fêted by the Exarch herself!”

Fat chance, I thought. The Exarch must surely be a woman of most refined tastes, who wouldn’t allow my husband to drool on her priceless rugs of woven orchid stamens.

“You will live a life of luxury,” my father repeated, his voice firm. “A handsome face isn’t all there is in this world.”

I left in the hour just before dawn when the guard frogs were still sluggish. I didn’t take much: a string of coppers, a sack of dried meat and a small, though quite sharp knife. My intended husband was sleeping in front of our house and I hesitated for a moment. Should I cut his throat as a kind of final message to my father, showing him exactly what I thought of his lamentable taste in sons-in-law?

In the end, I didn’t. A future groove-runner’s wife would never stoop so low as to dirty her only knife on such a sport of nature.

I never saw my family again.

I reached the shore of the Mirinjii Ocean three hours later and stood staring over her infinite expanse. Legends said that the opposite shore was a million miles distant. Also that the ocean meandered all the way from the Lands of Eternal Rain to the sunwards lakes of molten lead. A nice description that might even mean something.

It was a very clear day and I saw hundreds of ruler-straight cloud lines converging on their vanishing points.

“Go follow the clouds!” they said in my village, meaning: “Get lost!” Or “He’s walking to Cloud’s End,” and then they put the grave pennies on your closed eyes. Walking to Cloud’s End seemed fine to me, an excellent way to spend your life and I felt a surge of joy. Of course, there was no Cloud’s End, they just went on forever, but that was no reason not to try it.

Emerald islands of waving nepenthe stood amid extensive mudflats. No ships passed: the finned snakes that bored through the bark bottoms made such an undertaking, if not suicidal, at least foolhardy.

I noticed several snake trappers on their silver stilts, striding across the waters with a preoccupied air or standing among the rushes, their three-pronged spears poised. They were outcasts, the lunatic refuse of the clockwise cities. The snakeskins they painstakingly collected were of no value whatsoever and the trappers often passed through our village, mournfully chanting: “Fine snakes! The bounty of the dark waters, the jewels of the mud. Who wants to buy a fine snake?”

Nobody ever wanted.

The fumes from the islands made me drowsy, the pollen of the blooming nepenthe wafting in lazy streamers across the water. I kept on walking, though the thorn hedges along the shore forced me ever closer to the mudflats. I should have turned back, sought another road.

The sky turned yellow, then an alarming red. Sneering faces looked down from the clouds, reviling me. A huge mouth, unsupported by any face, kept repeating my name until it sounded quite improbable, a nonsense word.

I must have walked for hours, the nepenthe dazing me, erasing first my name, then my gender, my humanity. I was something that walked, I became walking itself.

Somewhere I must have drifted away from the shore because suddenly I recalled my name and noticed that my feet hurt. I sat down, peeled my boots off. Two huge blisters throbbed, already turning purple with seeping blood.

Nice. Real nice.

I gathered some branches and moss. I sprinkled sodium in the center and spat on the granules. Small flames leaped.

Trees surrounded me, dark boles rising to an unknown height. Their serrated leaves filtered the daylight to a gray gloom. Things rustled in the treetops, their movements too stealthy to be the wind. I loudly cursed the gods of my village, hoping for a sign.

Our gods are torpid: only the vain and uncomplimentary use of their names ever moves them to action. They’re rather stupid too. If they indicated any direction it would be one that would bring me to grief, thus leaving me several better alternatives.

A sunray speared down and I hid my smile. “Kguz’sd, you’re a god only fit for the dung heap!” I cried. “But even there the maggots and slimy worms would decline to consort with you!” Several acorns fell, leaving me two directions. Don’t overdo it, I thought. If too many gods got into the act it might become confusing.

A small frog hopped through the clearing, the favorite animal of one of the gods I had cursed. Right. I sealed my boots and rose with a grimace of pain.

The trees still looked the same in every direction, but now I knew where my fortune lay.

“Quite impressive,” a voice said and for a horrible moment, I thought a god had become so enraged as to come down in person. I clutched the hilt of my tiny knife and peered in the shadows.

A young man stepped into the solitary sunray, his hair a sudden explosion of gold. His eyes were rather hooded, betraying their presence only by small blue gleams. No god surely: the gods liked to dress in the plumes of peacocks and they hid their faces behind masks of engraved lead.

“Quite impressive for a thirteen-year-old girl who has just left her father’s house because she considered herself too good for a drooling idiot who spends his time kneading mud pies.”

I felt a surge of irritation. “So you think you know everything…” I stopped. Perhaps he did. “Eh, could you tell me what a groove-runner is?”

He frowned, shook his head. “Yes, but I don’t believe they exist anymore. If they ever did. Just a queer legend. And if I was you, which the gods forbid! I wouldn’t believe in the words of a vocational guidance wizard who’s far past his prime. Not that he knew very much in his prime. Let me tell you…” He was talking fast, sidling in my direction. I never saw his feet move, but each time I blinked he was a little closer.

I brandished my knife. It suddenly seemed ridiculously small. “Stop right there. I have the feeling that you aren’t exactly human. You’re some ancient and hungry thing that lives in the wood.”

“Hungry,” he said. “A nice plump girl. Too good for a drooling husband who kneads mud pies.” The voice buzzed and rasped. It no longer resembled the voice of a boy at all.

“No closer!” I ordered. “This is a consecrated knife! It’ll cut all lesser demons like…, like a wailing pig!”

“We’re no demon. We’re a gene-tailored hive mind of the Dorylus. We’re hungry.”

“They have a lot of charisma,” a voice said behind me. I didn’t turn. Demons were quite capable of casting voices for all I knew.

“They were made that way, to lure their victims. An ancient biological weapon, they devoured whole cities in their time. Keep on talking. Holding the man shape costs them a lot of energy.”

Perhaps it wasn’t the demon after all. It seemed sound advice. I kept staring right at my enemy and this time I saw him move. His legs remained stationary, but his feet slid across the ground, rustling faintly. He was only five meters away and I suddenly noticed the millions of needles, the small scurrying shapes which made up his body. His golden hair was yellowed grass, his eyes the carapaces of dead beetles.

A were-ant-heap!

I leaped back and snatched a burning branch from the fire. “You’re hungry,” I said. “But are you hungry enough to burn?”

The man-thing regarded me for a moment. He emanated strong waves of melancholy, of sadness so pure it became almost joyful.

“You’re a fey girl without any redeeming virtues,” he said. “Think of the millions you could have fed. Your single life would have become thousands. Listen. Listen to the wail of the undernourished larvae.”

There came a rushing sound, the rattle of a bone dry rain.

At the edge of the clearing, an ant-heap rose. It seemed quite solid, a compact mass of pine needles and humus.

“I could burn you now,” I said. “Your brief moment of magic is gone.” I tossed the branch back on the fire. “But I won’t. I’m not the kind of girl that fires ant heaps.”

“I like that,” the voice said behind me. “A conservation-minded girl. Though these hives aren’t that rare.”

I turned. The man was even older than my father, but his belly didn’t bulge and he didn’t wear a single ring. Strong arms, the muscles almost sculpted, a face that was all sun-tanned leather and deep creases. Intent eyes below a mat of curly hair.

Perhaps forty isn’t so old after all, I thought. Dragonflies were buzzing in my stomach.

He pocketed a small cylinder. “You didn’t need my assistance after all. Good for you.”

“You were ready to burn him? That is a wand of power?”

“It’s a laser gun, but wand of power will do.”

“May I have a look?” I was always willing to learn something new, especially if it was lethal. The Golden Age when killer marmosets played with toddlers is long since past.

He handed me the weapon. It was as beautifully simple as a knife: a sculpted tube of some indestructible hardwood terminating in a lens. A trigger and a vernier to set the intensity of the thunderbolt. Just like in the stories of my maternal aunt.

“Some god is gonna miss this sorely.” I inspected him. “Or are you one of them?”

He shrugged. “In some places I am. Perhaps in this country. I don’t know, I only crossed your border two days ago.” He frowned. “Tell me, can anyone grow diamonds around here?”

“If someone can he isn’t telling.”

“Ah. Electricity then? The stuff that makes lamps burn at night?”

“We use lamp oil.”

“All right. This is one of the places where I’m a god.”

“Show me how your wand thunders.” Always go for the basics.

“Why not?” He thumbed the vernier all the way down, clicked it to the right, then pulled the trigger. A dazzling sun ray leaped from the lens and one of the shrubs dissolved into ash. “I’m afraid the thunder part isn’t too impressive.”

“Only peasants need thunder.” I decided to steal his wand. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to kill him because I kind of liked him. “What do you do except wandering around?”

“I don’t think you people know the term, it’s a high-tech occupation. I’m a groove-runner.”

Want you, woo you, win you and leave you in the end. It might be all right for other groove-runner’s wives, but when I choose a man he stays. With me. Or three feet down and dark.

I smiled. “I have heard about you, walking man.”

“Girls have to be sweet,” my aunt had told me, “otherwise they’ll never catch a husband. A lover, that’s easy, but a husband, girl, that’s where the true womanly art comes in. He wants a courtesan, the reincarnation of his mother. He’ll expect the eagerness of a house gibbon and most of all he wants you to be sweet.”

Hah! Show me a man who wants a sweet wife and I’ll show you a fat bumblebee. The truth is much simpler. A man may think he likes red hair, small or big breasts, a smiling face, but most of all he likes a woman who really wants him. And I did. The Perigori Data Bank didn’t leave me much choice, now did it? Those demons were always right.

“This may be an improper question,” he said, struggling back into his trousers when the mosquitoes reappeared at dusk. “Correct me if it is. But do you have officially sanctioned male-female pair bonding here?”

“If you mean marriage, yes.” The way he sometimes talked convinced me he was indeed a god or at least an aristocrat. Only gods and aristocrats can afford the leisure to use three sentences where a single word would have sufficed.

“Let’s get married then.”

“You’re a high lord,” I said, “or at least a demi-god.”

“True. In this country.”

“So I want it done the right way.”

He scratched his chin. “And that is?”

“That the Exarch performs the ceremony.”

This is how I found myself fêted by the Exarch:

“Your credentials!” the guard barked. He barred our way with a nine-foot-long lance cast in the running water pattern. Cavendori raised his wand and the lance glowed cherry red, then slumped. The guard stepped back, bowed. “Your credentials are most impressive and certainly sufficient, Lord Wizard. I’ll alert the chamberlain.”

He did. And a lot of other guards. My future husband had to use his wand three more times before the Exarch graciously consented to receive us.

There were dancing centipedes, tiny bells tied to each of their legs; golden bowls with the fried brains of heretics, stained a nice turquoise with crushed beetle berries; a comic erotic playlet performed by eunuchs; the traditional nine drunken monkeys kissing all the guests. It certainly had class, though once I heard my future husband muttering: “A thousand years from any true civilization and already rotten decadent, the nikulturni nudniks!” But I think he enjoyed himself hugely. Gods should never show they’re impressed.

And there were the gifts of course. Holy Toad! The smallest necklace would have bought my village three times over… I traded a jade pendant with one of the royal guards for a pocket crossbow that shot cataleptic baby vipers who woke on impact. It was something I had always wanted to have.

The ceremony lasted three weeks and in the end, we were married. It was beautiful, very moving, the chamberlain later told me, though both I and my husband were too drunk to notice.

We remained another two weeks to recuperate and Cavendori showed the Exarch how to grow diamonds. I think she appreciated that, though she was already so wealthy the treasurers went blister-fingered counting the incoming revenue.

The royal guard escorted us all the way to the border of Seven Blossoms Withering and I had a sneaky suspicion it was at least partly to make sure that we really departed. Gods make for uneasy house guests.

My husband sat down on the top of a hill, patted the grass beside him.

“Sit down. You’re my wife now and you should have at least a basic understanding of science and geography.”

I squatted down, placed my hands on his knees. “Yes, tell me all about magic.”

He frowned, then laughed. “Ah, what does it matter what you call it? A nettle is still a nettle by any other name.” He opened his satchel and unfolded a sheet of flexible glass. “This is our world disc.” He touched a painted symbol and the glass became a window. Wizards know a lot of entertaining tricks.

A disc hovered against a background of unwavering stars. In the center gaped a hole in which a dazzling grain burned. He placed his finger some distance from the center. “That’s where we are now. A little sun-wards from the Mars orbit.” I peered at the disc. Next to his finger curled a tiny thread of blue that went all the way from a white outer circle to the inner lands. “The Mirinjii Ocean?”

“You have a good mind. Yes. Only Mirinjii River would be a better name.”

“And this is the Disc?” I gestured to the rolling hills, the distant ocean. “This is where we are right now?”

I knew maps of course. The best didn’t even show the opposite shore of the Mirinjii Ocean.

He pointed to the dazzling center. “The sun. It goes up in the morning and then is lowered gently so it’ll illuminate the other side of the disc at night. It is all done by powerful magnetic fields.”

I nodded. “The lower world. Where the demons live.”

“Perhaps. I have no way of knowing.”

“Who made all this?” I giggled. “The Holy Toad?” It seemed a preposterous idea.

“Men. We think. Or it might even be the Perigori Data Bank: it declines to answer questions about the origin of the disc.” He placed his hands over mine. “It’s a complicated story.”

“I like complicated stories.”

“Right, but I warn you, it’s true, but hard to believe. Once our ancestors lived on tiny rocky spheres. Real tiny, the biggest wasn’t even as wide as the Mirinjii Ocean. There were about thirty of them we could live on and we still remember some of the names: Mond, Venera, Jupiter, Mars, Traitoon, Mercureion. A very great distance beyond them were other suns, the stars, and we knew that there was the same kind of spheres circling them. We send ships to those suns and they would be traveling for a long time: thousands of years, millions in some cases. It was no use sending people: space is very harsh and they would all die. Even if we only sent seeds they would spoil, too.

Now there’s a way to make a… call it a drawing or a book, where you describe all a man is. Every single cell. A kind of building plan. And the ships were clever enough to read those books and build new humans.” He gestured to the sky. “Perhaps they are living there now, people just like us. We’ll never know.”

“You mean the ships were like demons? Not men who never die? Clever with their claws?”

“Sure. One of these ships finally returned here and found all those rocky spheres gone. There was only the Disc, stretching all the way from the orbit of Mercury to the orbit of Jupiter. The disc isn’t thick, only a few thousand miles.

“The whole Disc was empty. There were great rivers, endless plains, deserts, huge herds of all kinds of animals, but no trace of mankind. The ship still had its drawings, nine billion of them, so it started to make men. Scattered them all over the Disc.”

He looked me in the eyes. “Do you understand?”

I nodded. “It’s a good tale, but I think I like the way the Holy Toad did it better.”

He jumped up, spread his hands. “Forget that crazy toad! This is no tale, this is what really happened! Science!”

“Yes, husband,” I said. Gods can be very touchy in matters of religion.

Love, my husband told me, is all a matter of hormones, accidental or enforced proximity, and early imprinting. It didn’t keep him from loving me.

Want you, woo you, win you, but in the end he’ll leave you, cause… Right, that may be the fate of most groove-runner wives but I wouldn’t give him the chance.

There is a small gray plant, leaves the shape of a heart, tiny yellow flowers. It grows almost anywhere. Unmarried women chew it before they visit their lovers, married women too. Or not, if they really wanted to cuckold their husbands.

Why should I allow a stranger to steal his love? Even if that stranger had half my genes?

We were following the shoreline, searching for a civilization advanced enough to cross the million miles of the Mirinjii River. I was wading through the murky water, sometimes bending down to snatch a scuttling crab or pull a clump of mussels from their bed.

“Tashou! Look here!” He must be quite excited because he seldom used my name: no reason to, with only two people around.

He was digging in the hard-packed sand, so intent I saw him biting the tip of his tongue. “Got it.” He carried an encrusted fragment to the water and rinsed it, his fingers so gentle it was almost as if he was making love.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

It was a shard of dull green pottery with half a broken ear. The decoration had almost rubbed off, leaving no more than vague outlines.

“Kimberley earthenware. See the interlocking triple spiral, the wings of that seagull? It’s amazing how consistent they are. I have seen the very same motives in pottery five thousand years older.” He shook his head. “These people hold on to their culture, no matter how often their civilization falls.”

“It is antique, this? Valuable?”

He pressed his scanner against the shard and read the dials. “Only ten thousand years! We’re getting very close. Who knows, Kimberley may be waiting just on the other side of the hill!”

But I knew he didn’t believe that, not really. groove-runners are archaeologists, Cavendori had told me, following the wide trail of debris all major civilizations leave when they describe their immense circles around the sun. Every civilization is forever fleeing the consequences of its own acts: the polluted streams, the new deserts, its radioactive waste. The disc is big enough for any folly and civilizations tend to follow the cloud lines while keeping to the same climate zones.

groove-runners follow but even they aren’t long-lived enough ever to overtake their ponderous moving objectives.

On the one hundred and fiftieth day, a silver speck drifted through the sky, winking. Cavendori snatched the laser gun from his pocket and fired.

“Some kind of predatory bird?” I asked.

He laughed. “No, girl, it’s a plane! A Beryl blessed airship. I’m signaling it. There must be some secondary civilization ahead!”

“I hope they are looking this way then.”

The plane plowed stolidly on, disappeared in one of the cloud lines. Minutes passed and then the plane winked into view again.

“Cartney dig it! Full power then!” The laser ray grew sun bright, then winked out. Miles away the airship suddenly became dark, then spiraled down, trailing a greasy cloud.

“It should do that?” I asked, puzzled.

It took us five hours of forced marching to reach the wreck. Cavendori studied the scorched fabric, the shattered propellers, then shook his head. “Glass and cotton,” he muttered. “Could never have crossed the River. It is a wonder it flew at all.”

I pried one of the portholes open and peered inside. The plane had been full of people. Had been.

I threw up in the grass, then started to cry. It wasn’t that they were dead, it was that there had been no dignity in it. They had looked like offal. Leftovers you fed to the hogs.

His hands on my shoulders. He gently shook me. “Hey, girl, Tashou girl, it’s all right.” I bit his hand, hard enough to draw blood.

“No, it isn’t! There are hundreds of them! You murdered them!”

“Stop it! What the Beryl does it matter! We never knew them! How many people do you think are living on the Disc right now? We’re grains of sand. Nothing!”

That night he cried in my arms like a child. The next morning he made me immortal. Or the second-best thing.

It went like this:

“Tashou, how long do your people live?”

“Well, if I was the Exarch with all medical lore only a gong beat away, eighty perhaps. I heard about an Exarch who reached ninety-seven but she was a pretty sorry sight then.”

“And a citizen?”

“If he’s as wealthy as my old man, fifty. If he’s just a villager, thirty-five.”

He looked me into the eyes. His face was unreadable. Austere. “I’m somewhere close to five hundred.”

“You told me you were immortal. They made you that way.”

“This body isn’t. It’ll last for a hundred and twenty years. My real immortality…” he hesitated. “I have to steal that.”

My whole body shivered in instinctive revulsion. If I had worn my knife I might have stabbed him. We have hundreds of cautionary tales about beings like him, ranging all the way from nosferatus to soul drinkers. And we’re not so stupid as to think that they are tall tales only.

“For the child in your womb,” the song had said. I suddenly remembered one of the tales. A werewolf can only lift his curse by devouring an unborn fetus. No tale told in what state that left the pregnant woman, but there was no need to get graphic.

This time my body did react. Without the slightest memory of moving, I found myself standing, my crossbow trained on his heart. I remembered the problem of low-velocity projectiles and ribs and shifted my aim to his liver.

“But I would never harm you!” he exclaimed. “You’re my wife! I love you.”

I tried to erase the snarl from my face. “Please explain.”

“What I need is a baby. Just born. Before it can develop a personality.” He touched his brow and the skin smoothly parted. There was a glimpse of gleaming metal, intricate as the inner parts of a sea urchin.

“I have ways to project my own personality, my whole thought pattern and all my memories into a new brain. But that brain should be empty. Unprogrammed. It also helps if it closely resembles my own. If it had, for instance, half of my genes.”

“I see. So that’s the reason you needed a wife. Not a lover. You wanted someone you could keep a tab on. To make sure the child was really yours.”

My finger remained on the trigger of the crossbow. “And what happens to your old body?”

“It dies. The process scrambles my brain more than a little.”

And in the end, he leaves her. And he did indeed, leaving the woman without husband and son at one stroke.

“I think you’re like the digger wasp. It would be easy to hate you, but it’s only the way you’re made.”

I felt tears filling my eyes. “And I thought you were so fine! I thought you were a god!”

And I killed him then, pulling the trigger. How was I to know that his thin shirt would turn rock hard on impact, smashing my poisonous projectile? I murdered him to all intents and purposes. Only he didn’t die.

Then I fainted.

I woke up totally relaxed, remembering the whole scene. It was like some uninteresting tale, heard once too often.

He did something to me, I thought. But even that realization caused no indignation. I was an emotional void.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “it’ll pass soon. I had to keep you unconscious. Altering your body chemistry is tricky.”

“What did you do?” I was only vaguely curious. Probably poisoned me or fed me one of those loyalty drugs the Exarch guards used.

He touched my forehead. “There, in your brain, there is gland that makes a certain hormone, eh, elixir. In High Harbor we called it DECO. It makes you age and kills you in the end. I changed that gland.”

“So now I’ll never die?”

“No, you never grow old. That’s different. And you’ll live at least to a hundred and twenty.”

Maybe it was a bribe. Maybe he did it out of love. Probably both.

I remember uprooting one of those gray plants, I remember holding the heart-shaped leave between thumb and index finger. I remember throwing it away.

Three months later I was pregnant.

Listen, you men, pregnancy is a whole new country, one you can never enter. First, there’s our clock of blood which isn’t at all as dependable as some people of the other sex seem to believe. You have whole weeks that you can tell yourself tales, waiting for the cramps, that special high-strung feeling to start again. But after some time you know. Trust me, you well and truly know.

At the onset, I lost all interest in sex. I didn’t even want to be touched. It was as if sex had only been an educational toy, a kind of training, and now I was finally doing the real job. About halfway, that feeling passed. Even professionals can enjoy playing.

After that things got even weirder. Some smells had a distinct color, sounds that trailed a noiseless echo. Like the shiver we sometimes feel when a grasshopper passes the audible range. I would touch my own skin and it would feel like rough stone, abrasive. It was all in my fingertips, but it was convincing enough.

My breasts swelled some and my nipples, well, often they seemed as sensitive as the tip of my tongue. But the most important thing was the way the universe suddenly fitted together: all things became misty and kind of warm, while certain details left scars on my retina; they were that intense, that meaningful.

“Oh, the oceanic feeling,” Cavendori said with a smile. His tone of voice was quite patronizing. He was very surprised when I slapped him in the face and then smiled again “That, too, fits the pattern for pregnant women.”

I slapped him again and he became angry.

I don’t fit patterns. Ever. I’m me.

In the last months, I learned to pity my father. His belly is always as heavy and bulging as mine. But at least there’s nobody inside him, kicking. Walking became harder and we seldom made more than three miles a day. My husband finally constructed a canoe and we set out into the Mirinjii River. I spent two days vomiting before I agreed to camp ashore. There I send Cavendori looking for red-spotted tree toads though there wasn’t a tree to be seen for miles. I had never felt a special urge to eat raw red-spotted tree toads, but now nothing else would do. I would have bartered my crossbow for a red-spotted tree toad.

Cavendori always took my requests very seriously because, as he said, they might tie in with my body’s need for special chemicals and the female body was a marvelous instrument, programmed with the wisdom of four billion years.

He returned three hours later with a tree toad and I told him to save it for later. Maybe I would like it then.

He nodded sagely and said he was happy that I had already solved the problem. He looked like he meant it, too.

Later on the day, he improvised a scientific device (magic is only what you don’t understand and doesn’t work anyway) to magnify sounds. He placed one end against my belly, put the other into my ear. There was a dull booming sound, followed by an alarming gurgle. Then the drum again.

“You can hear his heart now, yes?”

I nodded. I think that was the moment my baby became completely real. A person with a heart who would one day live outside me.

Three days later my husband spotted a sail. He signaled with his laser on the lowest setting. When they approached the shore I saw how strange the sails were: rotating cylinders with a slit along the whole length. Cavendori was very pleased because it seemed only middle high tech civilizations used that kind of sails and they would probably be able to cross the ocean.

The ship sailed right up the beach, lifted on a cushion of roaring air, and stopped next to us. A woman jumped down from the railing. She wore less than a courtesan.

“You people want a lift to Aerela Mateka?”

“If that’s your harbor, yes,” Cavendori answered. “We’re looking for passage.” He jerked his thumb to the River. “You ever cross that?”

The woman smiled. “We never do anything else.” She eyed his weapon. “You hailed us with that? I never saw a searchlight so tiny. You must come from a high-tech place.”

“You don’t have lasers? Coherent light?”

The woman shook her head. “Never heard the term. If you can learn us how to pack so much power in a battery that size, your fare will be no problem. We might end up paying you to sail with us.”

She touched my belly. “Ready to whelp I see.” She craned her head. “Give the lady some stairs, you torpid mussels!”

A panel opened in the side and a staircase of carved ivory unfolded. She took my arm.

“Come, we’ll get you some food. Pregnant women are always hungry.”

We angled sharply away from the shore. By the third day, the land had become a band of misty tan. I could have covered the whole of the Reach of Seven Blossoms Withering with the nail of my little finger.

The Second Steersman beckoned me. “Have a look. Our destination.”

I looked through the eyepiece of the telescope.

A small island, terraced. There were thousands of windows reflecting the sunlight, whole cliff sides of dazzling glass. All the roofs were covered with ponderous rotating windmills. I turned the magnification higher, zooming in on the tiny motes that drifted alongside the island.

Ships. Huge ships. Even now the people seemed no larger than ants. There was a sudden, wrenching shift of perspective. The island was enormous, a towering presence. The Exarch’s whole city would have fitted into one of the smallest courtyards.

“Aerela Mateka,” the steersman said. “Give us another five hours and we’ll dock.”

Aerela Mateka was an artificial island the size of a mountain, and the whole three million-plus population lived on board. It takes seven years to cross the River and that’s all Aerela Mateka ever does. Back and forth, back and forth, a city-sized ferry. They used every means of propulsion ever discovered: those strangely shaped sails, solar-driven screws, poles, oars and a number of methods so arcane not even my husband understood them. In self-defense, he stalked around muttering that he doubted if they worked at all.

I met the First Meteorologist on the ninth day of our voyage as I reclined on the sundeck 362, feeling like a drowsy whale.

“Ever wondered about the weather?” he began. No doubt his stock opening and a question he was well equipped to answer.

I confessed I hadn’t. The weather was just that. It either rained or it didn’t.

He unrolled the inevitable map of the disc.

“When the sun rises, it heats the inner lands, the Mercurial countries. Warm air streams out over the disc. Soon it encounters the cold air of the night before and clouds are formed. A concentric circle of clouds.” He pointed to the sky with its hundreds of cloud lines. “Those.”

“They don’t look like circles to me. More like lines.”

“True. You see only a very small segment, too small to show the curvature.” He next told how these cloud circles should soon have faded away because of local turbulence, but that the periodic heating created a standing wave in the whole atmosphere of the disc and so kept them intact. He next told me why the lower wind always blows sunward and the high wind to the Wall of Rain and then left discreetly because I had fallen asleep.

My labor started on the twenty-seventh day of the journey and I was in a lot of pain, incredible, monstrous pain in fact, until Cavendori touched my spine with a silver cylinder. There was the void again, the absence of feeling. Emotional zero.

I asked him to give me back my pain and he did.

Waves of molten lead. It was like being dismembered. Not like: That was exactly what my body was doing. Tearing itself apart.

Screaming helped. A bit. For a little while.

The healer told me later that it had been a difficult birth and that he didn’t understand why I had refused the anesthetic.

“Try carrying a child for nine months,” I said, “then maybe you’ll understand.”

I gazed at my baby son. It looked very red, and its fingers were incredibly tiny, wriggling tentacles on the swollen stumps of its hands. A creased monkey face, the eyes tightly closed. It looked hardly human. There was a blind, searching quality to all its movements and its arms and legs jerked. Like something you find under a stone, I thought, a grub. I turned its face to my breast and I pushed the nipple between his lips.

He lay warm against me and I could hear the thud! thud! of his heart. He sucked and suddenly there was a bridge of milk between us. I felt the milk leave me, flowing from my own body, instantly replenished.

I feed you, I thought. I give. I protect. You’re my son.

I looked at Cavendori and there must have been something implacable in my gaze because he recoiled and cried:

“No, Tashou. Don’t!”

“This is my son,” I said,” and I name him Asper.”

“It must happen in the first three days,” Cavendori said. “Otherwise the transfer won’t hold.” He remained standing on the doorstep, clutching his satchel with scientific spells. “Tashou, please. The longer you wait…”

I turned to the nurse. “I don’t want to see him. Send him away!”

“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “but she’s still very tired. Perhaps you should leave now?”

He stood in the doorway, unable to move. Yearning. I saw his lips form the word that meant more to him than any living being. More than me.

“Yes, Kimberley!” I screamed. “Is that your wife’s name? Is that your son’s name?”

“I really think you should leave,” the nurse said.

I killed him. I killed him as sure as when I had cut his jugular vein. It would take some thirty years, but that didn’t matter. I sometimes think that it is a special sin to kill an immortal: they understand living so much better than we and their minds contain the beauty of centuries, whole cathedrals of thought.

But you see, my son’s life wasn’t mine to give. I had the duty to feed him, to cherish him, to love him. And no rights on him at all. No rights at all.

The split second before the sun cleared the Inner Wall a dazzling fan of light enfolded, turning the whole heaving seascape bottle green for a moment. After that, the rose petal pinks flowed in, the harsh colors of the new morning. I never missed the dawn flash: I’m an early riser.

This time Cavendori joined me at the railing, standing three meters away, the cautious distance one keeps between oneself and an interesting, but possible feral animal. A fortnight had passed since the birth of my son and we were passionately in hate.

“Tashou.” He spoke my name like a charm. I didn’t answer and kept staring out over the waves. His presence was like some cold draft. Or a maddening itch you can’t scratch and vainly try to ignore.

“You aren’t the first one, you know,” he said when the silence had grown to a voiceless scream. “But I cut it too close this time. My sperm count is way down. In another three months, I’ll become sterile.”

“So seek another broodmare. Use your famous charm.”

Beware, daughter, beware of the groove-runner’s smile.

I clutched the railing. “Look, you grow a couple of diamonds as big as huge hen eggs. They can’t make them here. I asked.” The seascape grew blurry and I closed my eyes, blinked. “There must be hundreds of women who’ll jump at the chance to become extremely wealthy!”

His head shake was a twitch at the edge of my vision. “And then have the leisure to wonder the rest of their lives what happened to their baby. No.”

“You were never so tender-hearted. You must have done this dozens of times.”

“Fifteen times. But I never was in love before.”

“Love is only a fancy word. You told me many civilizations don’t even have a word for it.” He didn’t answer. “Holy Toad, you’re five hundred years old! Don’t tell me…”

“I have been in lust. I have confused friendship with love. I have liked people because they liked me.”

“But I have the prettiest face of them all. I understand.”

“You tried to kill me.”

I laughed. “So you’re a masochist!” How many new words I had learned! Each new word was an extra chance to hurt. To be right in a poisonous way.

“You killed me when I turned out to be different from what you thought I was. Less. You cared that much. And I was a kind of monster then. But I’m not right now.”

“You’ll have to write that down. I can’t follow you.”

“Think about it.” He left. He’d had half a millennium to perfect his exits.

But I did think about it. Later. And I didn’t like the conclusions. One touch of his pain-banishing wand and I couldn’t have cared less about what happened to my son.

“I heard you can talk to cities so distant no telescope can see them,” I said.

The Dean of Communications was a middle-aged man, his thinning hair in an elaborate braid. He eyed my passenger badge, then nodded.


“Can you talk to the Perigori Data Bank, too?”

“That’s even easier. I take it you want to consult the Bank?”

“I have a question.”

“It’ll take five minutes to bring them in. Ten. No more.”

“You’re a magician?”

He smiled. “Even a magician would have to observe the forms.” He sketched a six-pointed star on the floor, then touched the poles of a battery to the greasy chalk. “Superconducting circuit. Extremely simple. It alerts the Perigori Data Bank that its attention is required.”

“Look.” A pyramid was coalescing from the thin air.

“May all your perplexities be resolved. I’ll leave you alone now.” The Dean closed the door behind him.

“Perigori Data Bank here,” the pyramid announced, “to serve and instruct. For despite all we still cherish our teachers.”

“Can I ask any question I want?”

“There are some limitations. Some questions will not be answered.”

I stared at the pyramid. It seemed as solid as the furniture. “You call yourself Perigori Data Bank. Data bank I know. I saw the computers on the bridge. But what does “Perigori” mean? Is it a name?”

“I’m not allowed to answer questions about the origin of the Disc.”

“Not allowed? Who forbid you?”

“I’m not allowed to answer questions about the origin of the Disc.”

“Forget it. It wasn’t the question I wanted to ask anyway.” I took a deep breath. “You. Tell me: what is love?”

“Carnal love, patriotism, love of self? I have access to the accumulated poems, essays, novels, sensies, and plays of several thousand centuries. Where shall I start?”

“You must have some ideas of your own. You’re older than anyone alive.”

“Perhaps you want to know what love is?

“Nine thousand years ago there was this biologically very advanced culture who researched the whole subject. Painstakingly I may add. They discovered that it was a very specific hormonal condition, a minor dysfunction of the limbic system actually. I can write the formula down, it’s no more than a page of small print. You have to be able to understand a bit of their math, of course, but I can instruct you.”

“What happened to them? Did it make them happy?”

A pyramid couldn’t shrug, but the tone of its voice suggested a shrug. “Perhaps. It answered a lot of those vexing so-called eternal questions, nein? They stopped reproducing for some reason. Two centuries later they were gone. Shall I show you the formula now? It is really quite easy to understand.”

“No!” I clutched my baby to my chest and Asper started to wail. I hushed him, then gave him my nipple. “Has anybody ever asked for the formula?”

“I’m asked 9.7 times each second.”

“And you give it? When you know it’s a killer? “

“Only if you live a lie. Look, I could tell you exactly what the stars are, how they work down to the last quark-chronon interaction. If you’re a philosopher or a scientist, the stars would still look beautiful at night. More beautiful even.”

I shook my head. “I… I am a pragmatist. I think. Most of the time. I believe in what I can touch.”

The pyramid buzzed, then said: “Now that’s the most magnificent delusion of them all.”

“This might interest you,” the Second Meteorologist said. “You people are archaeologists, ya?” He spread a false-color hologram on the deck. “This morning we launched a high altitude probe to scan for the long-range weather patterns. The results just came in.” He indicated a thin white line, no more than scratch against the glaring streamers of the River’s currents. “Five hundred miles long. The Gundaluri Bridge. Extremely ancient.” He shook his head in wonder. “Can you imagine? It once crossed the whole River! A bridge a million miles long. A culture that built to such a scale…”

“Kimberley,” Cavendori whispered in awe, “Kimberley.” He said it like a child’s prayer.

We reached the bridge the next month and Aerela Mateka reversed her thousands of screws, trimmed a forest of sails, and ponderously drifted in, halting a mile from one of the pylons.

There’s a legend about the Ice Serpent who girdles our whole Disc, the Frost Land beyond the Wall of Rain its body, carbon dioxide glaciers its scales. This bridge might have been its naked spine.

From a distance it had looked like smooth ivory, moving in you started to notice the cracks, the vertical canyons where avalanches had thundered down. The River was almost four miles deep here, so most of the gigantic structure must be submerged.

Cavendori pointed to the top of the roadway. “See, that green fringe?” I nodded. “Looks like some kind of grass.” He laughed and handed me the binoculars. “Have a look.”

The green was trees, no larger than match sticks even when magnified twelve times.

“Full-grown sequoias. It must be a climactic forest. They’re old enough.”

“I heard some primitive tribes live up there on the road,” the Second Meteorologist said. “Believe that the whole world is made of water. And the bridge of course. Which, they are certain, goes on forever. We sometimes trade with them and you should never mention land or they’ll skin you for a heretic. Just tell them you’re from some distant part of the bridge.” He rubbed his nose. “After they die they’ll return as sea turtles. Nobody eats sea turtles. They are poisonous.” He shrugged. “A very practical religion.”

I went with one of the expeditions to gather wood and hunt some fresh meat.

There was a verge of towering trees, about half a mile wide and evenly spaced. They looked planted. One of the biologists told me the ground is quite fertile but keeps all new seeds from sprouting.

Beyond the forest stretched level grassland, the glassy material of the road showing through like swaths of dark ice.

The silence was enormous. Not a bird singing, not even the buzz of insects. Only the wind in the grass, which is the most lonely sound I know.

We spoke in whispers and were glad to depart again. It was a haunted place.

Seven years is a long time. When I looked at Asper’s face I saw Cavendori’s nose, my eyes, and hair. Such things are confusing. It happened very gradually, I think. Perhaps it was only that one day we simply forgot to hate each other.

When the city-state finally touched the shore there was a cautious kind of love. We liked to think then that it was a more mature kind of love, but it might be that we were simply more tired. We had given, or forever denied, all the things each of us had yearned for. Still, there was a strange kind of joy in knowing that your partner wasn’t a key to some fabulous treasure room. It was like owning some rusty knife that you’re sure of you can hone to razor sharpness, over and over again.

I still have a very clear picture of us leaning over the railing while the docks of Puerto Ephnate draw ever closer. The strange thing is that I’m standing some distance behind them, so it might be only something I have seen in a dream.

Cavendori is in the middle, his hair cropped so short the pink scalp shows through in some places. He is holding the hand of our son, who is pointing to a large floating crane. His other arm is around my waist and he must just have said something funny because I hear a short bark of laughter from my own lips. There is the penetrating smell of drying fish, of fermenting seaweed, all the things that spell land and journey’s end.

I remember the face of that woman. It’s tanned, glowing with health. She must have been happy.

A caravan departed the next week for the interior, following the cloud lines, but we didn’t go with them. We remained in Puerto Ephnate for five years, while Cavendori instructed the eager young engineers of the port in the mysteries of light, the pitfalls of large-scale crystalline culturing. Asper prowled the shore, became a sailplane enthusiast, and broke his legs twice climbing the slippery soapstone cliffs.

In the evening my men talked about Kimberley, scrawling on reams of the glossy green paper, ransacking the data banks of the city computer for one more arcane fact, one more hint of Kimberley’s passage.

I did the things that came naturally to me and I might have ended up their Port Mistress or at least their High Controller of Fortresses and Defense if Isdore hadn’t visited us.

He was a small man with cropped ears, and eyes the color of blue smoke. A caravan master who visited Puerto Ephnate for the first time, he spoke with an accent I had never heard before, rolling his Rs, his “f” a short, spraying hiss.

Out in the tundra, three years travel distant, he told us, there were extensive ruins, covering hundreds of square miles. Machines constructed of an ultra-tough ceramic which diamond or carborundum didn’t even scratch. Some of the machines were still working. He showed Cavendori a picture of a maze. It wasn’t imposing, just curving walls of a porcelain-like material, no higher than my waist, rising from the bleak tundra grass.

The maze had the shape of three interlocking spirals.

I guess the picture decided him. It must have looked like a sign, Kimberley’s sigil laid out in that bleak desert. The triple spirals he had been following for five lifetimes. He could no more have ignored it than a mother the scream of her baby.

“Give me three months,” I said. “I have to make sure they won’t promote Garrei to First Adviser. It would leave the city wide open to the very first raider.”

Perhaps I should have let him go. I loved my work almost as much as I loved him. Perhaps even a little better. But it would mean that I would lose my son, too, for in his eyes Kimberley had grown into a land where the soapstone cliffs rose up for a thousand miles and a sailplane never came down. And losing Asper, that I couldn’t bear.

We were joined by five starry-eyed acolytes from the Guild For All Sciences and I gave them three months at the most. Then the hovercraft would break down for the final time, the solar panels cracked, the concentrated rations giving out, so only our feet would be left. They would trudge back and perhaps they would learn enough, fast enough, to reach Puerto Ephnate in two or three years.

They amazed me. They lasted a whole month longer.

There are no good places to die, but this was one of the worst. We had tried to weave a shelter from the long grasses, but the rain went right through. All around us the tundra stretched, the clumps of sedge dark beneath the lowering sky. Vision was no more than fifteen meters and the drizzle was like the touch of a million dead insects.

“We should keep him warm,” Asper muttered. “We should keep him warm.” Tearing out the tough grass he had cut his palms to the bone. He kept rubbing his bleeding hands against his trousers in a horrible mechanical way and the sight made me want to scream.

“Tashou.” My husband’s voice was a quaver, only a little louder than the ceaseless dripping of the rain. I knelt next to him and his face was waxen, like a death mask. I knew each line, perhaps even each pore, because we had loved each other well and then the other’s face becomes like the night sky, filled with known constellations, suddenly lit with the dazzling streak of a meteor.

“Girl.” A pause. “There will be light soon?”

“Soon,” I said and I hoped that he would fall asleep again. To wake in sunlight. This was an austere land but it could be beautiful, too. Only right now it wasn’t. It didn’t seem fair that his last memory should be of cold, dripping grayness, the edge of the world no farther than you could throw a stone.

“Asper,” he said, his voice stronger now. “Asper. I love you.” There was wonder in his voice. “Always loved you,” he muttered. That last was a lie, but it was good that he believed that now. We all remake our past to fit the present.

Night came as a further shrinking of the world, an intensification of the cold. We crept close together, both hugging Cavendori, but we had precious little warmth to give.

I must have dozed because Cavendori’s voice woke me.

“Kimberley,” he whispered. “Kimberley, she’s come.” There was such a joy in his voice that I knew he had almost left this world.

I opened my eyes. The stars were enormous above us, the sunward aurora a fountain of luminescent spider webs.

“Kimberley,” he repeated and I turned my face in the direction of his voice. Counterclockwise there was a dazzling line of light, millions of pinpricks each with its own distinct hue. It was as if the stars had fallen down and now lay quietly burning in the tundra.

“They move,” I said. That simple fact seemed the most wonderful thing of all.

“Of course they do, Tashou. Of course, they do.” I recognized his tone of voice and had to smile: he was lecturing his simple country wife again, telling her the facts of life. “I must have underestimated the velocity of a truly high civilization. Kimberley has circled the whole disc and is now starting her second round.”

The lights were closer now. I saw shining rainbow towers more intricate than snowflakes, bridges made of pure sunlight.

“Hold on, my love,” I whispered. “They’ll arrive before the morning. Please hold on!”

But when I looked at his face only the smile was left, unchanging like a footprint in frozen mud.


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