“Walking The Valley”
by Jeremy Minton
Trev stepped out of the reality sluices into the press of the crowd. People swirled and jostled past him: angry, confused, bristling with panic. A wild-eyed woman stepped into his path, refused to get out of the way.
“Have you heard the news?” He could feel her hands against his chest: big, white, ring-encrusted hands that felt like sweaty claws. “The EGC’s pronounced its verdict. They’re going to destroy the Node.”
She said it like it was the end of the world.
“I heard,” said Trev, keeping his voice neutral. He’d done a lot more than just hear; he had been complicit in making the decision. It didn’t seem like a good time to mention this, not with all these people about. According to the specs, the Node could protect him against any act of violence, but Trev know that specs were nothing more than a statement of what was meant to happen and had never believed in putting any more faith in them than he absolutely had to.
“What are we going to do?”
“Be somewhere else when it happens.”
He pushed his way past her, tightening his grip on the hold-all. It was ridiculously hard to move: the Node’s entire population seemed to be jammed into the entrance lobby, milling and jostling and talking at each other. We need to create a distraction, Simon had said, a cover for your arrival. They’d managed that all right. And then some.
Part of the problem, he reflected, was the way that the Earth Governing Council kept thinking of this place as a Transition Node: just a link between Earth and the myriad virtual habitats of the World Tree. It might have been that fifty years ago when Trev had helped construct it, but time and the steady flow of travelers had turned the bridge into a world in its own right with a population and culture of its own.
It took Trev more than an hour to reach the doors that opened into the Museum of Mankind, and by the time he did, security were already there. Detector arcs had been mounted on the walls and orange–coated security guards were running hand scanners over people’s bags and coats. It was unusual for Tree Security to be so quick off the mark. Had somebody tipped them off?
It hardly mattered now, Trev thought. His mission was over before it had even begun. What if they have detectors? he had demanded of Simon, and Simon had just smiled the smug, self–confident smile of a man who knows that however things turned out he wouldn’t be there to see it. “It’ll be all right,” Simon had said, but Trev had not believed him, and now it looked as he was about to be proved right.
He handed his bag over, wondering whether he ought to be faking a smile or not. Probably better not to. Under the circumstances a nervous expression was not going to seem out of place. The girl with the scanner asked him his reason for visiting. Professional inquiry or just natural human nosiness?
“I’ve never been here before, not even ridden the sluices.” He wondered if she had picked up on the lie. There was no sign that she had, no sign she recognized him. It was hardly surprising, he supposed; she wouldn’t have been more than a kid in the days when he had been on TV night after night, pleading for the destruction of the universe he had helped to create. Still, he couldn’t help feeling a little touch of pique. Surely he should not have been so completely forgotten? “The way things sound it may be my last chance.”
That earned him a glare. “It isn’t going to happen. They’re not going to let it happen.”
“If you say so.”
“It’s not just me who says so. Everybody says so. Everybody says that the EGC are just a bunch of reactionary crackpots. They can spout and bluster as much as they like but in the end they just don’t have the ability to separate the Earth from the Tree. It simply can’t be done.”
She thrust the bag back at him, scowling defiantly as if daring him to contradict her. Trev just nodded politely. He had hardly even heard what she said. It was all he could do to keep the astonished relief from showing on his face. They hadn’t found it! They hadn’t found the bomb.
If he hadn’t been so grateful, Trev might actually have felt angry. How could the people who were charged with defending the Tree be so stupid, so complacent? The EGC had specifically announced what they intended to do. The authorities had had more than enough time to get their act together and still he was going to be let through. Not for the first time, Trev wondered if a species so consistently stupid really deserved to survive.
“Enjoy your visit,” the woman called after him. He was fairly sure he heard her add, “Hope it’s the first of many.”
It took four days to reach the centre of the Node, walking in bursts of eight hours at a time. On the first day he encountered a reasonable number of people, but it seemed that few of the population shared the security girl’s confidence. They were abandoning the Node, staying out of harm’s way until the situation was resolved one way or another. On the morning of the third day he met a pair of students who seemed to be lost both geographically and mentally, and after that no one at all.
The stillness was all–pervasive. Even the echoes of his footsteps seemed to get lost amidst the vast, white rooms. From time to time, the defensive systems concealed in his body would flare up in alarm and then sink back into slumber. There was nothing for them to do.
The museum was quietly depressing. When he had first conceived of it, Trev had imagined a showpiece for the finest works of man: a reminder to those who had opted for virtual existence of the wonders that the real world could produce. Now, it felt like an attic in a house where someone had died. Trev walked past the garnered beauty of the Earth and found that it was no more vital than wallpaper. He slaked his thirst with drinking–fountain water, and fed on corner–curled sandwiches from abandoned cafeterias. He slept on leather–topped benches with the strap of the hold–all fastened to his ankles, under the eyes of Goya priestesses and Modigliani women. He woke to dry silence and the falling winter light.
He half–allowed himself to believe that this was all going to be easy; that the self–appointed guardians of the World Tree were going to give in and admit that the EGC had the right to do what it wanted. It was a comforting delusion, but Trev had never allowed himself to be seduced by comfort. He was not surprised when he finally reached his destination and found a woman waiting for him.
She was small and pale and slender. Winter sunlight angling down from the skylight emphasized the autumn of her hair. Her dress, low–necked, high–thighed, was loud as a shout in this realm of quiet stone. She seemed lost in contemplation of one of the exhibits and did not look up as he approached, but when he had got to within a couple of feet of her she quietly spoke his name.
“Hello, Anna,” he said. “I thought if they sent someone, it would probably be you.”
“Nobody sent me. That isn’t how we work. We all perceived a need. It was agreed that I was the one who would be most likely to meet it.”
“And what need would that be?”
“Preventing the EGC from committing an act of unprecedented cultural vandalism.”
“Oh,” he answered. “That.”
He swung the hold-all off his shoulders and tugged at the zipper. It opened with a long, slow sigh.
“I thought for a moment you were going to pretend you didn’t recognize me.”
“I very nearly didn’t,” he said. “It’s only your eyes that still seem half-familiar. I remember them from photos. As for the rest, if I hadn’t expected to see you I really wouldn’t have known. You look-”
He stopped, not knowing how to go on. The truth of it was, the way she looked tore at his heart. He hated it. He hated it so much.
“The word I think you’re looking for is young.”
“Actually,” he said. “The word I was trying to avoid is ridiculous.”
She winced, but then lifted a hand and ran it through her hair. He remembered the gesture from their television days, when she and he had warred over the fate and future of mankind. Columnists said that that one gesture and what it did to her breasts had cost Trev half his arguments before they’d even opened their mouths. He flushed, and she grinned triumphantly.
“Look at me, Trev. What’s ridiculous about this?”
“It’s ridiculous when you’re eighty–four years old.”
“Meaning I ought to be old and sick, with white hair and bent bones? Exactly how do you think that would be better? This way I combine a lifetime of experience with a body in its prime. Whereas you-”
She bit the end off the sentence, and he realized that he had managed to goad her into saying more than she intended. It gave him a sour pleasure: it was a rare thing for him to get one over on his mother.
She didn’t reply; just stared into his face. How long had it been, he wondered, since anyone had looked at him like that? Had it ever happened? Had anyone in his life ever regarded him with such a mix of love and hunger?
“Actually, you’re looking okay. Considering.”
“Considering I’m not lying about how old I really am?”
“Why do you still have to see it in terms of truth or falsehood? It really isn’t either. My decision not to be sick is no more a lie than your surrendering yourself to aging is the truth.”
“‘They’re simply different choices‘,” he said. “Yes I know, we’ve been through this before. Surely you didn’t come all this way just to rehash old arguments?”
He turned and found himself looking at her statue. He scowled. It was just the kind of thing she would admire. A woman on her knees, hands bound tight behind her and an infant on the floor below her, reaching upwards. The woman was naked. She was arching her back, trying to bring one of her breasts down to the baby but the gap between mother and infant was impossible to bridge.
Trev knelt down and took the bomb out of the bag. It opened up, regaining its right shape (a tetrahedron) and size (not quite two feet tall). Its corners were defined by thumb–thick copper wires and its surfaces were planes of shifting light. Down in its depths assorted components traced eccentric orbits. A quintet of brass cogs twirled around each other, intersecting the glinting arcs of metal constellations. Small spheres with thorny arms, like magnified silver snowflakes, drifted lazily. Between the corners, small steel beasts like ill–tempered nutcrackers scurried back and forth. Towards the centre, where the density of moving parts was greatest, swarms of thumbscrews snapped their jaws and cobweb strands of razor wire danced and twisted. At the very heart of the pyramid, guarded by moving metal, was an egg. It was two and a half inches across and glowed as if lit from within. Patterns of darkness swirled across it like moving daubs of ink.
Trev flexed his fingers and, with the tips of two of them, opened a hole in one of the sides of the bomb. He thrust his hand through and snagged a piece of copper tube the size of a girl’s eyelash. The hole snapped shut as his hand withdrew. An angry buzz, a tiny tang of ozone.
Anna said, “I wouldn’t need to rehash them if your people had been prepared to listen, if you hadn’t issued this God-damned ultimatum.”
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t use words like that.” He extracted a pair of small brass screws, a fragment of razor which seemed to be nothing but edge, and a single, shining cogwheel. As he let go of each piece, it drifted slowly up towards the ceiling.
“Words like God damn?” she said. “Or like listen?”
Trev flushed. He reached for one of the snowflakes but didn’t time it right. It ended up in embedded in his thumb.
“We’ve spent a lifetime listening,” he said as he plucked the piece out of his flesh. “Listening, compromising, selling our own souls. No more.”
“No more,” she agreed. “Now you’re just going to blow the place to bits and to hell with everybody else.” She rose to her feet, as fluid as a fountain, and took a step towards him. “Is this the bomb? It’s not what I expected.”
And what had she expected, he wondered. A block of plastic explosive? A stick of cartoon dynamite? The Node was not real, it was a construct of mathematics and engineered sensations. How were you meant to destroy a thing that did not even exist?
The humming which had filled the air since he’d opened the bag deepened into the growl of a troubled beehive.
“I wouldn’t come any closer,” he said. “The trigger is sensitive to strangers. Best not aggravate it or something nasty might happen.”
“Nastier than destroying the world?”
“More uncomfortable. Seriously, if you don’t step back you’re likely to get hurt. I wouldn’t want that.” He slid both hands under the pyramid and raised it smoothly upwards. Augmented eyesight told him when the egg was precisely at the center of the Node. From here, waves of dissolution would radiate outwards, converting every pattern into static. “That’s nothing personal, you understand,” he added. “I just have a preference for people not getting hurt.”
“Oh I see,” she said. “You’re ethical world killers.”
“We like to think so.”
“If you really mean that, you ought to start thinking through the consequences of your actions. If you set that thing off you’re going to spread fear, misery and bloodshed from one end of the Tree to the other.”
“You’re being melodramatic. The bomb will induce an instability loop into the Node sub–shell; the same thing can happen each time a new Node is created. The only consequence is that the trip–traps detect the failure and blow the Node off the system.”
“Don’t try and pretend you’re that naïve: half the Nodes on the Tree are homes to people whose parents lived through genocide. They coexist with their former enemies because each is convinced the other is no threat. Once they understand that it’s possible to remove an entire Node all that’s going to change. You’re sowing the seeds of a million bloody wars.”
Trev climbed back off the floor and brushed some dust off his hands. “I’m just about done here. The instability will develop slowly at first. If you leave now you should still have time to get out. If you stay much longer I’m afraid you’re going to die.”
“You’re really going to do this, aren’t you?”
“You know I am. It’s a matter of necessity.”
“And so is this,” said Anna.
He heard the change in her voice and felt no surprise when he saw the gun. It was small and copper-coloured with a black grip and a bulbous muzzle. He’d no idea where she’d hidden it or how it had got into her hand. Didn’t seem to matter all that much.
“It’s always the same, isn’t it?” he said. “You people are always so happy to be reasonable and rational. You always want to discuss things, to talk the matter through. Right up to the point when you find the argument hasn’t gone your way. Then you’re as ready to use force as any other tyrant.”
“We can talk about ethics later. Right now I want you to step away from the pyramid. Do what I say, Trev. I’m not going to tell you again.”
He did not move. “I always knew I’d die when the bomb went off. That makes death a fairly feeble threat.”
“I’m not making threats. I’m offering a choice. You can give this up and live. Or you can try to carry on and I’ll blow your brains away.”
“You’d really do it? Murder your own son?”
“For a good enough cause I would. Believe me.”
“Oh I do,” he said. And stretched his hands towards her.
There was no flash of light, no special effects. Just a popping sound as the air rushed into the space where Anna had been. Trev lowered his hands and waited.
“What have you done to me?”
Her voice was muffled and faint. But not so faint that Trev could not discern her fury. Or her fear.
“I’ve embedded you in that statue you seemed so keen on.” He ran his fingers sensuously across the straining back. “The Captive Mother. Quite apposite, I thought. I hope you’re not too uncomfortable, but I’m afraid your well–being wasn’t my first consideration when you pulled that gun on me.”
“You can’t do this!”
“Of course I can. I designed this place. I know all the trapdoors, the exceptions. There’s nothing that happens here that I can’t change if I want to.”
He lowered his hands, turned back towards the pyramid. The planes of light were now as clear as glass. The thumbscrew creatures swirled in a nimbus round the egg.
“Trev, don’t do this. I’m scared to die like this.”
“You should have thought of that earlier and just been happy with victory, not tried to grind our noses in defeat.”
“You’re going to sever the link between the Earth and the Tree,” she said. “Friends will be separated, lovers divided, children made into orphans. You believe we have forced you into this. How could I see that as victory?”
He turned away, not wanting her stone eyes to see the anguish in his own. “Because you’re here, aren’t you? Here in the Tree, along with half the population of my planet.”
“It’s more like nine-tenths.” Even in the face of imminent dissolution she couldn’t give up on scoring points.
“The figure hardly matters. The point is that you’ve crippled us. Once we cut the Earth off from the Tree it’s going to be monstrously hard for us now that so many of our brightest minds have traded life for virtuality.”
“Don’t do it, then,” said Anna. “Nobody’s forcing you. Honestly, Trev, you can’t hack off your own hands then demand sympathy because it’s hard to hold things.”
“You don’t understand. As long as the door from the real world to these artificial ones remains open, our population will continue to hemorrhage through it.”
“If people want to leave, they have a right to go.”
“Not if their leaving will destroy the ones they leave behind. We need these people; we can’t just give them up. You can’t expect our society to commit suicide in the name of the selfishness that you prefer to call freedom.”
Reaching for the pyramid, his hands felt hot. The thumbscrew wasps were gliding round his fingers as he reached towards the egg.
He heard her shout.
“You stupid, stupid fool!”
A microsecond later, Trev’s protective systems all started screaming as the air was filled with projectiles. The statue had exploded. A precisely choreographed detonation, every fragment aimed directly at him. The blast shattered windows, tore chunks from the walls. It would have ripped Trev to pieces if his subcutaneous defenses had not sprung into action. The critical decisions took place so fast that it was only months afterwards (in machine terms) that the human part of his mind caught up enough to understood the trap.
The time the stones were airborne was more than enough to track and annihilate them; they were never really the problem. They were nothing but a feint. When he looked down, his hand was covered with wasps. The bomb had detected the energy surge and the wasps had leaped to its defense. They covered his hand like a living steel glove. They belched out ozone, emitted a savage hum.
He tried to pull back and a small, hard, heartless hand pushed against his shoulders. He heard his mother’s voice.
“Did you think we were such fools that we would live in your world and not discover its secrets? We found your trapdoors centuries ago. There’s nothing you can do to us we can’t defend against.”
“Apart from the bomb,” he said.
Anna shrugged, as if admitting a minor technicality.
“Apart from the bomb,” she agreed. “It talks directly to the Node sub-shell; there was no way we were going to risk tampering with such fundamental code. We agreed that if we were going to stop you, we would need to take more intelligent measures.”
“You haven’t stopped us,” Trev said. “You’ve managed to delay us, that’s all. It isn’t going to make any difference. You can’t prevent the Council from doing what it’s promised. The Node will not survive.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I honestly don’t think so. This time you had the benefit of surprise and you still managed to blow it. Tree Security is going to be ready for you now; they’re not going to let you get this close again. And even if you do get another crack at it, at least this time, I’ve stopped you. You can’t set off the bomb without touching the egg and if you try the wasps will tear you to pieces.”
“I could touch it anyway, just for the hell of it.”
“You could but you won’t. You’ll not throw your life away for a futile, spiteful gesture.”
“I hate that,” he said. “I hate the way you’re always so sure you know me. If you knew me half as well as you think, you’d know you’d broken my heart.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” she snapped back. “Haven’t you spent your lifetime breaking mine?”
He was genuinely surprised by that.
“I know I’ve said some hurtful things about you,” he told her. “But surely nothing worse than what you’ve said about me?”
“I don’t give a damn what you said. What I couldn’t bear the things that you believed. I couldn’t stand the way you abandoned rationality for lies.”
“You taught me to think for myself,” said Trev. “To look at the evidence and reach my own conclusions. That’s what I did. I’ve looked at the world and at my own heart and I am convinced that life is not just meaningless. There is a reason we’re here. There is a purpose to my life. You ought to be pleased for me.”
“How can I be pleased that my son — my beautiful, brilliant son — has chosen to embrace death? And not just for himself; no, you have to do it for an entire planet!”
“We don’t embrace death. We just know that it’s a part of life; the price of life eternal.”
“Trev, if you want eternal life you can have it. It’s here for the asking. All the things we’d ever want are here.”
“The things we want, but not the things we need. In the end, it’s just the postponement of death. No life, no truth, just numbers, patterns of nothing.”
Her hand left his shoulder, moved into his hair.
“You can feel this. You can feel my breath on your neck. What could be realer? If you still won’t believe, come with me and see. Take your hand out of the pyramid. The wasps will drop off once they’re out of the energy field. Please. There are so many things that I want you to see. Wonders and marvels, things you never dreamed of.”
False marvels, he thought. Miracles from the miracle factory. And then another thought. His mother knew too much. She understood the bomb and the defenses built around it. She knew things she could not have known, unless she had been told them. Somebody had blabbed. He has suspected it when he had seen how quickly the lobby security had acted. His mission had been betrayed from the start. He couldn’t bear to believe it, and yet it explained so much. It explained how his mother had known where to wait, and when and how to act. It explained how such a careful plan could unravel so completely.
Someone had betrayed them. And with one act of his own he could make that betrayal complete. All he had to do was pull his hand away. So simple, so inevitable. The game was lost so why not just give up?
Give up his beliefs.
He felt a rush of misery and loathing: loathing of his mother for always being stronger than him; loathing of himself for the failure of his life. The blackness rose inside him, the disgust and self-hate. And as it did, he realized that he had needed to experience this. Anna had been right; he did need to embrace death. It was only by embracing it, acknowledging it, welcoming it that he could find his path through into the place he needed to be.
“I’m not going to do it,” he said. “You’re not going to make me do it.”
He let the despair and the wish for his own ending rise within him. He let it fill his soul.
And the white light came.
He woke to the smell of flowers. Tears on his face, a taste of blood in his mouth. He toyed with the idea that he had died, but then dismissed it. Trev had generally avoided speculating on the nature of the next world but he was ready to bet that blood and tears were not a part of the mix.
There was a weight on his chest. He opened his eyes and saw that the weight was his mother. That made it definite, then. Not paradise.
They were surrounded by flower petals and bits of broken masonry. There was no sign of the pyramid. He tried to shift his mother’s weight. She raised her face towards him and her eyes were like two broken bits of glass.
“I’m so sorry, Trev. I couldn’t let you do it. Not again.”
He didn’t understand. It felt as if the light had scoured his head, replaced memories with cobweb.
“I thought I’d worked it out,” he said. “I thought it was in my head. The bomb was in my head.”
“Of course,” she said. “Where else would it have been?”
Where else could it have been? How else could he have brought it here? The bomb had not been found when security scanned his bag because the bomb had never been inside the bag. Right until the end there hadn’t been a bomb, just approximations of it scattered round his skull. When he’d thought he was arming the device by doing that stuff to the pyramid, what he’d really been doing was building it, assembling its shape in his head. The trigger had not been the act of touching the egg. The trigger had been the wish to make the contact. He’d understood in the end. Found the switch and tripped it.
And still he had failed.
“It was that woman, wasn’t it?” he said. “The woman by the gate.” With her big, white hands so thoroughly touching his chest. “You got to me through her.”
Was it those rings which had sneaked the virus in behind his guard? Or the perspiration in those clammy paws? There must have been a virus, Trev was certain. Some subtle info-stealer that had sneaked into his head and broken the bomb he had not even known was there.
“Woman?” said his mother. “I don’t know any woman.”
“Oh, Trev,” she said. “Do you still not understand?”
He looked at her, and didn’t understand.
And then he did.
“This isn’t real is it?” he said.
That almost made her smile.
“We’ve had that discussion before, I think.”
“I’m sure we have. The question: is how many times?”
Something happened then that had never happened before, not in the very worst of their arguments: she turned away and would not meet his eyes.
“How many times, mother? How many times have we gone through this same farce? Ten? Twenty? Thirty?” Still she wouldn’t look at him. “Fifty times?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I honestly don’t know. After the two hundredth I gave up counting. I made myself forget. How could any mother bear to remember just how many times her own son had rejected her?”
He hardly even heard. It felt like she had shocked him into deafness. Two hundred times? She had made him go through this at least two hundred times?
“I thought I was going to die!” He wanted to scream, but was so full of outrage there was no room for breath in his lungs. “I thought the fate of the world was on my shoulders. You made me feel these things over and over and over again, and it wasn’t even real!”
With a touch of her old spirit she replied, “If it wasn’t real, you wouldn’t have much to complain about, would you? I think you’re mad because it did feel real. It felt as real as anything you’ve ever done.”
“Is that why you did it? Is that why you tortured me, robbed me of my soul? To prove your point?”
“No, of course it wasn’t.”
When her answer would not come he let the silence drag. He felt that he could let it drag for ever.
“Because you’re my son. You’re my son, and I love you, and I can’t bear for you to be dead and me to be alive and for me to never see you any more.”
“You think this is seeing me? Arguing with a ghost, a simulation? Replaying the same scene over and over again?”
“It’s better than nothing. It’s better than giving up and letting you be dead. At least when we’re arguing it feels like there’s a chance you’ll change your mind.”
“Even though I haven’t after more than two hundred attempts?” In spite of his horror, he felt a certain degree of pride at the strength of his own convictions. And then a thought struck him.
“I don’t see why it has to be this difficult. You’re always trying to impress me with the infinite possibilities of the Tree. If I’m too obstinate, why don’t you get the programmers to create a me that’s a little more amenable?”
“You think I haven’t tried? It’s not that easy. They could give me someone who’d cave in, do whatever I wanted. But that somebody wouldn’t be you; not the you I love. This is my only option. I have to fight, and try, and hurt, until I find the words to make you stop hating me.”
“I don’t hate you.” As he spoke the words he was surprised to discover that they were true. “I don’t think your decisions have made you particularly happy, but that’s your business not mine. But, mother, you can’t keep doing this. It’s wrong.”
“I’m trying to save your life! How can that be wrong? I want to give you chances, choices. I want to show you wonders.”
Hardly aware that he was doing so, he reached out and took her hand. “And how many wonders have you seen? How much of your eternity have you spent in living and how much of it has been frittered away in Hell?”
“I don’t believe in Hell.”
“Really? Look around you. You’ve all these chances for happiness and you’ve chosen to torture yourself by wanting the one thing that you can’t ever have. You’re lonely surrounded by friends, starving surrounded by food. Where else could you possibly be?”
There was silence for a long time. At last she said, “So what are you if this is Hell? A demon made for my torment or an angel sent to pluck me from the flames?”
“You’d know better than me. You had them code me up.”
Just saying it felt strange. Trev could feel the weight of his own body pushing against the floor. He could feel the touch of flowers on his neck. Their scent was in his nostrils. The lure of his false senses was insistent. He knew that ‘he’ was just a program in the nexus of the World Tree. He knew, but it was so hard to make himself believe.
Anna said, “Oh come on, you’re not going to tell me you’ve suddenly stopped having opinions. That I could never believe. You must have some idea what I should do.”
“I have my ideas, yes. But that’s all they are: my ideas. I can’t decide for you. It’s not as if I need to. In your heart you know what you have to do.”
Another endless silence.
“I have to give you up.” She seemed to straighten as she said it, as if something that had been weighing her down so long she’d not even been aware of it had just slipped off her shoulders. “I have to give you up and go away and find something else to give meaning to my life.”
He sighed and sat up. He suddenly felt tired.
“If that’s what you think is right.”
“What do you think?”
“I think we’ve chosen to walk on different roads. I walk through the valley of the shadow of death and you walk the hills of eternity. We both think that the other’s road is harder, but either way we cannot walk it together.”
“You’re sure of that?” she said.
“I’m sure. All of this – it’s a lie. It’s a beautiful lie and I can understand why you love it, but it’s still a lie. It’s not for me.”
She nodded, got to her feet. Petals broke under her soles. The floor from one end of the statue garden to the other was covered with flowers. Wild flowers and tame; exotic, neurotic, commonplace. Luscious hothouse blooms and tiny, tear-sized alpines. They were all of them torn, shredded, ripped into ragged pieces. Pieces of rose and tangled lengths of bindweed tumbled from the front of his shirt. He turned, and lengths of stem and broken bits of stamen crumbled under his heels.
“What is all this stuff?” he said.
Now she did smile, and he felt for the first time in years that he really knew who she was. He remembered her smiling that way from when he was very young. When they both had been so young.
“Don’t you know?”
He bent and plucked from out of the floral mêlée a perfect and unbroken dandelion clock. He rolled it between his thumb and forefinger, and a melodious humming swelled into the air.
“It’s part of the bomb, isn’t it? It’s what came out of my head when I tried to blow up the Node.”
“Conservation of information,” she said. “Once the capacity for destruction is introduced it can’t be taken out. The best you can do is change it to something else.”
He studied the clock. Patterns of darkness shimmered in the gaps between the seed heads. He raised it to his lips. “Is this the way it always ends?” he said.
“Not always. Well, actually, not ever. This is probably the best ending the two of us have had.”
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s good.”
“I love you, Trev.”
“I love you too. It’s time to say goodbye.”
They kissed for the last time, then turned their heads towards the clock and blew. Their mingled breath crumbled the bifurcated branches and sent seeds tumbling into the air. They fell like midnight snowflakes and where they touched the earth darkness and dissolution spread. Holes appeared in the flowers on the floor and then in the floor itself. At first they were no bigger than the splotches left by raindrops, but they grew inexorably. If you tried to look through one of those holes, you couldn’t. There was nothing to be seen, not even darkness. Just a space in the stuff of the world, the emptiness that remains when numbers stop adding up.
“You’d better go,” he said. “Now the process has started I don’t suppose it’ll take that long to finish.”
“No,” she said. “It won’t.”
Next thing he knew, she had reached the edge of the flowers. He heard her echoed footsteps. The bright flame of her dress dwindled to a point amongst the rapidly encroaching shadows. It flickered and was gone, and not long afterwards the echoes vanished too.
The shadows grew, the thin light swiftly faded. He heard the wind blowing, the rattle of rain on glass. He sat in the dark and put his hands together. His skin was very warm. He thought of love, and life, and breath; of all the things it was so hard to leave behind.
Jeremy Minton was born in the late sixties and lives and works in southern England. When not writing fiction he programs computers and feeds cats (at least one of these counts as a full time job). His previous writing credits include sales to Fantasy & Science Fiction, Aeon, and The Third Alternative.
Story © 2007 Jeremy Minton. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish