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The Sky Road

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The Sky Road

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Author: Ken MacLeod
Publisher: Orbit, 2000
Tor, 2000
Series: The Fall Revolution: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Space Exploration
Artificial Intelligence
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(58 reads / 20 ratings)


Centuries after the catastrophic Deliverance, humanity is again reaching into space. And Clovis, a young scholar working in the spaceship-construction yard, could make the difference between success and failure. For his mysterious new lover, Merrial, has seduced him into the idea of extrapolating the ship's future from the dark archives of the past.

A past in which, centuries before, Myra Godwin faced the end of a different space age--her rockets redundant, her people rebellious, and her borders defenseless against the Sino-Soviet Union. As Myra appealed to the crumbling West for help, she found history turning on her own strange past--and on the terrible decisions she faces now.

The Sky Road is a fireworks display, a bravura performance, and the most amazing novel yet by one of the powerful new voices in science fiction.



The Light and the Fair
So it came that Menial found him
in the square at Canon Town

She walked through the fair in the light of a northern summer evening, looking for me. Of the hundreds of people around her, the thousands in the town and the thousands on the project, only I would serve her purpose. My voice and visage, mind and body were her target acquisition parameters.

I sat on the plinth of the statue of the Deliverer, drained a bottle of beer and put it carefully down and looked around, screwing up my eyes against the westering sun. The music faded for a moment, then another band struck up, something rollicking and loud that echoed off the tall buildings around three sides of the square and boomed out from the open side across the shore and over the water. The still sealoch was miles of gold, the distant hills and islands stacks of black. The air was warm and shaking with the music and heavy with scent and sweat, alcohol-breath and weed-smoke. People were already dancing, swinging and swirling among the remaining stalls of the day's market. I caught glimpses and greetings from various of my workmates, Jondo and Druin and Machard and the rest, as they whirled past in the throng with somebody who might be their partner for the hour, or for the night, or for longer.

For a moment, I felt intensely alone, and was about to jump up and plunge in and seek out someone, anyone, who would take me even for one dance. It was not normally this way; usually at such occasions through the summer I had got lucky. Like most of my fellow-workers, I was young and - of necessity - strong, and my vanity needed no flattery, and we were most of us open-handed strangers, and therefore welcome. But I was in a serious and abstracted mood, the coming autumn's study already casting its long shadow back, and in all that evening's gaiety I had not once made a woman laugh, and my luck had fled.

She walked through that dense crowd as if it wasn't there. I saw her before she saw me. Her long black hair was caught around the temples by two narrow braids; the tumbling waves of the rest showed traces of auburn in the late sun. That golden light and ruddy shadow defined her tanned and flushed face: the large bright eyes, the high cheekbones, the curve of her cheek and jaw, the red lips. She wore a gown of plain green velvet that seemed, and probably was, made to show off her strong and well-endowed figure. Her gaze met mine, and locked. Her eyes were large and a little slanted, and they caught my glance like a trap.

There is, no doubt, some bodily basis for the crude cartoon of such moments - the arrow through the heart. A sudden demand on the sugar reserves of the cells, perhaps. It's more like a thorn than an arrow, and passes in less than a second, but it's there, that sharp, sweet stab.

A moment later she stood in front of me, looking down at me quizzically, curiously, then she came to some decision and sat down beside me on the cold black marble. The hooves of the Deliverer's horse reared above us. We stared at each other for a moment. My heart was hammering. She appeared younger, more hesitant, than she'd seemed with her first bold gaze. Her irises were golden-brown, ringed with green-blue. I could see a faint spatter of freckles beneath her tan. A fine gold chain around her neck suspended a rough mesh of gold wire containing a seer-stone the size of a pigeon's egg. It hung between her breasts, its small world flickering randomly in that gentle friction. An even thinner silver chain implied some other ornament, but it hung below where I could see. The dagger and derringer and purse on her narrow waist-belt were each so elegant and delicate as to be almost nominal. There was some powerful undertone to her scent, whether natural or artificial I didn't know.

'Well, here you are," she said, as though we'd arranged to meet at this very place. For a couple of heartbeats I entertained the thought that this might be true, that she was someone I really did know and had unaccountably, unforgivably forgotten - but no, I had no memory of ever having met her before. At the same time I couldn't get rid of a conviction that I already knew her, and always had.

'Hello,' I said, for want of anything less banal. 'What's your name?'

'menial,' she said. 'And you are...'

'"Clovis,' I said 'Clovis colha Gree.'

She nodded to herself, as though some datum had been confirmed, and smiled at me.

'so, colha Gree, are you going to ask me for a dance?'

I jumped to my feet, amazed. 'Yes, of course. Would you do me the honour?'

'thank you,' she said. She took my hand in a warm, dry grasp and rose gracefully, merging that movement with her first step. It was a fast dance to a traditional air, 'The Tactical Boys'. Talking was impossible, but we communicated a great deal none the less. Another measure followed, and then a slower dance.

We finished it a long way from where we'd started - fetched up close to the outside tables of the biggest pub on the square, The Carronade. Some of the lads from work were already at one of the tables, with their local girls. My mates gave me odd looks, compounded of envy and secret amusement; their female partners were looking lasers at Merrial, for no reason I could fathom. She was attractive all right, and looking more beautiful to my eyes with every passing second, but the other girls were not obviously less blessed; and she wasn't a harlot, unless she was foolish (harlotry being a respected but regulated trade in that town, its plying not permitted in the square).

Introductions were awkwardly made.

'What will you be having, Merrial?' I asked.

She smiled up at me. She was, in truth, almost as tall as I, but my boots had high heels.

'A beer, please.'

'Fine. Will you wait here?'

I gestured to a vacant place on the nearest bench, beside Jondo and his current lass.

'I will that,' Merrial said.

Jondo shot me another odd look, a smile with one corner of his mouth turned down, and his eyebrows raised. I shrugged and went through to the bar, returning a few minutes later with a three litre jug and a couple of tall glasses. Menial was sitting where she'd been, ignoring the fact that she was being ignored. I put this unaccustomed rudeness down to some petty pretty local quarrel, of which Carron Town - and the yard and, indeed, the project - had plenty. If one of Menial's ancestors had offended one of Jondo's (or whoever's) that was no business of mine, as yet.

The table was too wide for any intimate conversation to be carried on across it, so I sat down beside her, setting off a Newtonian collision of hips all the way along the bench as my friends and their girlfriends shuffled their bums away from us. I filled our glasses and raised mine.

'Slainte,' I said.

'Slainte, mo chridhe,' she said, quietly but firmly, her gaze level across the tilted rim.

And cheers, my dear, to you, I thought. Again her whole manner was neither shy nor brazen, but as though we had been together for months or years. I didn't know what to say, so I said that.

'I feel we know each odier already,' I said. 'But we don't.' I laughed. 'Unless when we were both children?'

Merrial shook her head. 'I was not here as a child,' she said, in a vague tone. 'Maybe you've seen me at the project.'

'I think I would remember,' I said. She smiled, acknowledging the compliment, as I added, 'You work at the project?' I sounded more surprised than I should have been - there were plenty of women working on it, after all, in catering and administration.

'Aye,' she said, 'I do.' She fondled the pendant, warming a fire widiin it, and not only there. 'On the guidance system.'

'Oh,' I said, suddenly understanding.'You're a -an engineer.'

'I am a tinker,' she said in a level tone, using the word I'd so clumsily avoided. She spoke it widi a pride as obvious, and loud enough to be heard. A snigger and a giggle passed around die table. I glared past Merrial's shoulder at Jondo and Machard. They shook their heads slightly, doubtfully, then returned to their conversations.

Justice judge them. As a city man I felt myself above such rural idiocies - though realising her occupation had given even me somediing of a jolt. Whatever passed between us, it would be less or more serious than any fling with a local lass. I leaned inward, so that Merrial's shoulders and mine defined a social circle of our own.

'Sounds like interesting work,' I said.

She nodded. 'A lot of mathematics, a lot of' - and this time she did lower her voice - 'programming.'

'Ah,' I said, trying to think of some response that wouldn't reveal me to be as prejudiced as my workmates. 'Isn't it very dangerous?' I resisted die impulse to look over my shoulder, but I was suddenly, acutely aware of die massive presence of die hills around the town, their forested slopes like die bristling backs of great beasts in die greater Wood of Caledon.

'White logic,' Merrial explained. 'The right-hand path, you know? The path of light.' She did not sound as though die distinction mattered a lot to her.

'Reason guide you,' I responded, with reflex piety. 'But - it must be tempting. The short cuts, yeah?'

'The path of power is always a temptation,' she said, with casual familiarity. 'Especially when you're working on a guidance system!' She laughed; I confess I shuddered. She fingered her talisman. 'Enough about that. I know what I'm doing, so it isn't dangerous. At least, not as dangerous as it looks from outside.'

'Well.' Despite the electric frisson her words aroused, I was as keen as she was to change the subject. 'ou could say the same about what I do.'

'And what do you do?' She asked it out of politeness; she already knew. I was sure of that, without quite knowing why.

'I work in the yard,' I said.

'On the ship?'

'Oh, not on the ship!' A self-deprecating laugh, not very sincere. 'On the platform. For the summer, I'm a welder.'

She slugged back some beer. 'And the rest of the time?'

'I'm a scholar,' I said. 'Of history. At Glaschu.'

This was a slight exaggeration. I had just attained the degree of Master of Arts, and my summer job was a frantic, frugal effort to earn enough to support myself for an attempt at a doctorate. Scholarship was my ambition, not my occupation. But I refused to call myself a student Menial looked at me with the sort of effortful empathy with which I'd favoured her self-disclosure. 'That sounds...interesting,' she said. 'What part of history?'

I gestured across the square, to the statue's black silhouette. Behind it, from the east, the first visible stars of the evening pricked the sky.

'The life of the Deliverer,' I said.

'And what have you learned?' She leaned closer, transparendy more interested; her black brows raised a fraction, her bright dark eyes widening. Without thinking, I lit a cigarette; remembered my manners, and offered her one. She took it, grinning, and helped herself to the jug of beer, then filled my glass too. 'You wouldn't think there'd be much new to learn,' she added, looking up through her eyelashes.

I rose to the bait. 'Ah, but there is!' I told her. 'The Deliverer lived in Glasgow, you know. For a while.'

'A lot of places will tell you she lived there - for a while!' Merrial laughed.

'Aye, but we have evidence,' I said. 'I've seen papers written with her own hand, and signed. There is no controversy diat it was her who wrote them. What they mean, now, that's another matter. And a great deal of odier writing, printed articles that is, and material that is still in the - you know.'

'Dark storage?'

'Yeah,' I said. 'Dark storage. I wish--' Even here, even now, it was impossible to say just what I wished. But Merrial understood.

'There you go, colha Gree,' she said. 'The path of power is always a temptation!'

'Aye, it is that,' I admitted gloomily. 'You can look at them, labelled in her own hand, and you wonder what's in them, and - well.'

'Probably corrupt,' she said briskly. 'Not worth bothering with.'

'Of course corrupt--'

She shook her head, with a brief, small frown. 'In the technical sense,' she explained. 'Garbage data, unreadable.'

Garbage data? What did that mean?

'I see,' I said, seeing only that she'd just tried to explicate part of the argot of her profession; another unseasonable intimacy.

'All the same,' she went on, 'it must be strange work, history. I don't know how you can bear it, digging about in the dead past.'

I had heard variations of this sentiment from so many people, starting with my mother, that exasperation welled within me and I'm sure showed on my face. She smiled as though to assure me that she didn't hold it against me personally, and added, 'The Possessors don't work only through the black logic, you know. They can get to your mind through their words on paper, too.'

'You speak very freely,' I said. For a woman, I didn't add.

She took it as a compliment, and thus paid me one by not recognising the stiff-kneed priggishness that my remark represented.

'It's the tinker way,' she said, giving me another small shock. 'We talk as we please.'

I couldn't come back on that, so I ploughed on.

'We have to understand the Possession,' I explained self-righteously, 'to understand the Deliverance.'

'But do we understand the Deliverance?' she asked, teasing me relentlessly. 'Do you, Clovis colha Gree?'

'I can't say,' I said - which was true enough, though ecological with the truth.

'Good,' Menial said. 'We would not claim to understand it, and we knew the Deliverer better than most.' A sly smile. 'As you know.'

I nodded, slowly. I knew all right. Despised and feared though they sometimes are, it is not for nothing that the tinkers are known as the Deliverer's children. They worked her will long ago, in the troubled times, and the benison of that work has protected them down the generations; that and - on a more cynical view - their obscure and irreplaceable knowledge.

I had heard rumours - always disparaged by the University historians - of a firmer continuity, a darker arcana, that linked today's tinkers and the Deliverer, and that reached back to times yet more remote, when even the Possession was but a sapling, its shadow not yet covering the Earth.

Her hand covered mine, briefly.

'don't talk about it,' she said.

So we talked about other things: her work, my work, her childhood and mine. The glasses were twice refilled. She stood up, hefting the now empty jug. 'same again?'

I rose too, saying, 'I'll get them--'

'I insist,' she said, and was gone. I watched the sway of her hips, the way it carried over to swing her heavy skirt and ripple the torrent of hair down her back, as she passed through the crowd and disappeared through the wide door of The Carronade. My friends observed this attention with sardonic smiles.

'You're in for an interesting time, Clovis,' Jondo remarked. He stroked his long red pony-tail suggestively, making his girlfriend laugh again. 'Looks like the glamour's got you.'

Machard smirked. 'seriously, man,' he told me, 'take care. You don't know tinks like we do. They're faithless, godless, clannish and they don't settle down. At best she'll break your heart, at worst--'

'What is the matter with you?' I hissed, leaning sideways to keep the girls out of the path of my wrath 'Come on, guys, give the lady a chance.'

My two friends' expressions took on looks of insolent innocence.

'Ease off, Clovis,' said Machard. 'Just advice. Ignore it if you like, it's your business.'

'Too damn right it is,' I said. 'So mind your own.' I spoke the harsh words lightly--not fighting words, but firm. The two lads shrugged and went back to chatting up their lassies. I was ignored, as Merrial had been.

The late train from Inverness glided down the glen, sparks from the overhead wire flaring in the twilight, and vanished behind the first houses. A minute later I could hear the brief commotion as it stopped at the station, a few streets away. The clouds and the tops of the hills glowed pink, the same light reflecting off a solitary airship, heading west. Few lights were on in the town--half past ten in the evening was far too early for that--but the houses that spread up the side of the glen and along the shore were beginning to seem as dark as the pine forest that began where the dwellings ended.

Farther up the great glen the side-lights and tail-lights of vehicles traced out the road's meander, and the dark green of the wooded hillsides met the bright green of the lower slopes, field joined to field, pasture to pasture all the way to where the haunches of the hills hid the view, and the land was dark. Somewhere far away, but sounding uncannily close, a wolf howled, its protracted, sinister note clearly audible above die sounds of the town and the revelry of the fair.

The square was becoming more packed and noisy by the minute. The drinking and dancing would go on for hours. Jugglers and tumblers, fire-eaters and musicians competed for attention and spare cash, with each other and with the hawkers. The markets on summer Thursdays were locally called 'the fair', but only once a month did they amount to much, with a more impressive contingent of performers than were here now, as well as travelling players, whirling mechanical rides and, of course, tinkers; the last pursuing their legitimate trade of engineering and their less reputable, but often more lucrative, craft of fortune-telling.

The train pulled away, trailing its sparks along the Carron's estuarial plain and around the Carron sea-loch's southern shore.

Merrial returned with a full jug, a bottle of whisky and a tray of small glasses. Without a word she placed the tray and the bottle in the middle of the table and sat down, this time opposite me. She filled our tall glasses, put down the jug and gestured to the whisky bottle. 'Help yourselves,' she said.

My friends became more friendly towards her after that. We all found ourselves talking together, talking shop, the inevitable gossip and grumbles of the project, about this scandal and that foreman and the other balls-up; ironically, the girls seemed to feel excluded, and fell to talking between themselves. Menial, showing tact enough for both of us, noticed this and gradually, now that the ice was broken, returned her conversation to me. Jondo and Machard took up again their neglected tasks of seduction or flirtation. When, a couple of hours later, she asked me to see her home, their ribaldry was relatively restrained.

* * *

The square was noisier than ever; the only people heading for home, or for bed, were like ourselves workers on the project who, unlike the locals, had to work on the following day, a Friday. We walked through the dark street to the north of the square and across die bridge over the Carron River towards the suburb of New Kelso. Merrial stopped in the middle of the bridge. One arm was tight around my waist. With the other, she waved around.

'Look,' she said. 'What do you see?'

On our right die town's atomic power-station's automation hummed blackly in the dark; to our left the fish-farms, warmed by the reactor's run-off, spread down to the shore. I looked to left and right, and then behind to die main town, ahead to New Kelso, across die loch to die other small towns.

She smiled at my baffled silence.

'Look up.'

Overhead die Milky Way blazed, die aurora bo-realis flickered, a communications aerostat glowed pink in a sun long since set for us. The Plough hung above die hills to the north. A meteor flared briefly, my indrawn breath a sound effect for its silent passage. To die west die sky still had light in it: the sun would be up in four hours.

'I can see die stars,' I said.

'That's it,' she said, sounding pleased at my per-ceptiveness. 'You can. We're in the very middle of a town of ten thousand people, and you can see the Milky Way. Not as well as you could see it from die top of Glas Bhein, sure enough, but you can see it. Why?'

I shrugged, looking again back and fordi. I'd never given die matter diought.

'No clouds?' I suggested brighdy.

She laughed and caught my hand and tugged me forward. 'And you a scholar of history!'

'What's tiiat got to do widi it?'

She pointed to die street-lamp at die end of die bridge's parapet. Its post was about diree metres high; its conical cowl's reflective inner surface sharply cut off all but the smallest upward illumination. 'Did you ever see lamps like that in pictures of the olden times?' she asked.

'Now that I come to think of it,' I said, 'no.'

'A town this size would have had lamps everywhere, blazing light into the sky. From street-lamps and windows and shop-fronts. The very air itself would glow with it. You could see just a handful of stars on the clearest night.'

I thought about the ancient pictures I'd peered at under glass. 'You know, you're right,' I said. 'That's what it looked like.'

'Some people,' Menial went on, in a sudden gust of anger, 'lived their whole lives without once seeing the Milky Way!'

'Very sad,' I said. In fact the thought gave me a tight feeling in my chest, as if I were struggling to breathe. 'How did they stand it?'

'Aye, well, that's a question you could well ask.' She glanced up at me. 'I thought you might know.'

'I never noticed, to be honest.'

'And why don't we do it?' She gestured again at the electric twilight of the surrounding town.

'Because it would be wasteful,' I said. As soon as the words were out I realised I'd said them without thinking, and that it wasn't the answer.

Menial laughed. 'We have power to spare!'

It was my turn to stop suddenly. We'd taken a right and were going down a path past the power-station. I knew for a fact that it could, when called upon in a rare emergency - such as when extra heating was required to clear snow from a blizzard -produce enough electricity to light up Carron Town several times over.

'You're right,' I said. 'So why don't we do it? I've seen pictures of die great cities of antiquity, and you're right, diey shone. They looked...magnificent. Perhaps it was so bright diey didn't need to see die stars - they had die city lights instead! They made dieir own stars!'

Menial was slowly shaking her head.

'Maybe diat was fine for them,' she said. 'But it wouldn't be for us. We all get - uneasy when we can't see the night sky. Don't you, just thinking about it?'

I took a deep breath, and let it out widi a sigh. 'Aye, you're right at that!'

We walked on, her strides pacing my slower steps.

'You're a strange woman,' I said.

She smiled and held my waist more firmly and leaned her head against my shoulder. I found myself looking down at her hair, and down at the scoop neckline of her dress and die glowing stone between her breasts.

'Sure I am,' she said. 'But so are we all, that's what I'm saying. We're different from the people who came before us, or before die Deliverer's time, and nobody wonders how or why. The feeling we have about die sky is just part of it. We live longer and we breed less, we sicken little, sometimes I think even our eyes are sharper! these changes are hardwired into our radiation-hardened genes--'

'Our what?'

I felt die shrug of her shoulder.

'Just tinker cant, colha Gree. Don't worry. You'll pick it up.'

'Oh, I will, will I?'

'Aye. If you stay with me.'

There was only one answer to that. I turned her around and kissed her. She clasped her lips to mine and slid her hands under my open waistcoat and sent them roving around my sides and back. I could feel them through my silk shirt like hot little animals. The kiss went on for some time and ended with our tongues flickering together like fish at the bottom of a deep pool; then she leaned away and gripped my shoulders and looked at me and said, 'I reckon that means you're staying, colha Gree.'

Suddenly we were both laughing. She caught my hand and swung it and we started walking again, talking about I don't know what. Out on the edge of town we turned a corner into a little estate of dozens of single-storey wooden houses with chimneys. Some of the houses were separate, each with its own patch of garden; others, smaller, were lined up in not quite orderly rows. Even in the summer, even with electricity cables strung everywhere, a smell of woodsmoke hung in the air. Yellow light glowed from behind straw-mat blinds. A dog barked and was silenced by an irritable yell.

'Hey, come on,' Menial said with an impish smile.

I hadn't realised how my feet had hesitated as the path had changed from cobbles to trampled gravel.

'Never been in a tinker camp before,' I apologised.

'We don't bite.' Another cheeky grin. 'Well, that is to say...'

'You really are a terrible woman.'

'Oh, I am that, indeed. Ferocious - so I'm told.'

'I'll hold you to that'

'I'll hold you to more.'

She held me as she stopped in front of one of the small houses in the middle of the row, and fingered out a tiny key five centimetres long on a thong attached to her belt but hidden in a slit in the side of her skirt. The lock too seemed absurdly small, a brass circular patch on the white-painted door at eye level.

'So are you coming in, or what?'

Lust and reason warred with fear and superstition, and won. I followed her over the polished wooden threshold as she switched on the electric light. I stood for a moment, blinking in the sudden 40-watt flood. The main room was about four metres by six. Against the far wall was a wood-burning stove, banked low; above it was a broad mantelpiece on which a large clock ticked loudly. The time was half past midnight. On either side of the stove were rows of shelves with hundreds of books. In the left-hand corner a workbench jutted from the wall, with a microscope and an unholy clutter of soldering gear and bits of wire and tools. Rough, unpolished seer-stones of various sizes lay among them. The main table of the house was a huge oaken piece about a metre and a half square, with carved and castered legs. A crocheted cotton throw covered it, weighted at the centre by a seer-stone hemisphere at least thirty centimetres in diameter, so finely finished that it looked like a dome of glass. Within it, hills and clouds drifted by.

Menial stood by the table for a moment, reached up behind her head and removed a clasp from her hair, so that the two narrow braids fell forward and framed her face. Then she lifted the chain with the talisman, and the other, finer silver chain, from around her neck and deposited them on the table.

The place smelt of woodsmoke and pot-pourri and the bunches of flowering plants stuffed into carelessly chosen containers in every available corner. The wooden walls were varnished, and hung with an incongruous variety of old prints and paintings - landscapes, ladies, foxes, cats, that sort of thing - and tacked-up picture-posters related to the project. An open door led to a tiny scullery; a curtained alcove beside it took up the rest of that end of the room. I presumed it contained the bed.

But it was to a big old leather couch in front of the stove that she drew me first. She half-leaned, half-sat on the back of it, and began unbuttoning my shirt, then explored my chest with her lips and tongue - and teeth - as I applied myself to undoing the fastenings down the back of her dress, and working my boots off. As I kicked away the right boot the sgean dhu clattered to the floor. By this time she had unbuckled my belt, and with a shrug and a step we both shed our outer clothes, which fell to the floor in a promiscuous coupling of their own. Merrial stood for a moment in nothing but her long silk underskirt. I clasped her in my arms, her nipples hard, her breasts warm and soft against my chest; and we kissed again.

We moved, we danced, Merrial leading, towards die curtained alcove. She pulled away die curtain to reveal a large and reassuringly solid-looking bed. I knelt in front of her and pulled down her slip and knickers, and kissed her between the legs until she pulled me gently to my feet. I managed to leave my own briefs on the floor.

We faced each other naked, like the Man and the Woman in the Garden in the story. Merrial half-turned, threw back the bedcovers and picked up from die bed a long white cotton nightgown, which she shook out and held at arm's length for a moment.

'I won't be needing that tonight,' she grinned, and cast it to the floor, and me to the bed.

* * *

I woke in daylight, and lay for a minute or so basking in the warm afterglow, and hot after-images, of love and sex. Rolling over and reaching out my arm, I found that I was alone in the bed. It was still warm where Menial had slept. The air was filled with the aroma of coffee and the steady ticking of the clock -

The time! I sat up in a hurry and leaned forward to see the big timepiece, and discovered with relief that it was only five o'clock. Thank Providence, we'd only slept an hour and a half. With the same movement I discovered a host of minor pains: bites on my shoulder and neck, scratches on my back and buttocks, aching muscles, raw skin...

The animal whose attacks had caused all this damage padded out of the scullery.

'Good morning,' she said.

I made some sort of croaking noise. Menial smiled and handed me one of the two steaming mugs she'd carried in. She sat down on the foot of the bed, drawing her knees up to her chin to huddle inside her sark, its high neck and long sleeves and intricate whitework giving her an incongruous appearance of modesty.

I sipped the coffee gratefully, unable to take my eyes off her. She looked calmly back at me, with the smile of a contented cat.

'Good morning,' I said, finding my voice at last. 'And thank you.'

'Not just for the coffee, I hope,' said Menial.

I was grinning so much that my cheeks, too, were aching.

'No, not just for the coffee. God, Menial, I've never...'

I didn't know how to put it.

'Done it before?' she inquired innocently.

Coffee went up the back of my nose as I spluttered a laugh.

'Compared with last night, I might as well not have,' I ruefully admitted. 'You are - you're amazing!'

Her level gaze held me. She showed not the slightest embarrassment. 'Oh, you're not so bad yourself, colha Gree,' she said in a judicious tone. 'But you have a lot to learn.'

'I hope you'll teach me.'

'I'm sure I will,' she said. 'If you want to stay with me, that is.' She waved a hand, as if this were a matter yet to be decided.

'Stay with you? Oh, Merrial!' I couldn't speak.


'Nothing could make me leave you. Ever.'

I was almost appalled at what I was saying. I had not expected to hear myself speak such words, not for a long time to come.

'How sweet of you to say that,' she said, very seriously, but smiling. 'But--'

'But nothing!' I reached sideways and put the mug on the floor and shifted myself down the bed towards her. Without looking away from me, she put her mug down too, on a trunk at the end of the bed, and rocked forward to her knees to meet me. We knelt with our arms around each other.

'I love you,' I said. I must have said it before, said it a lot of times through the night, but now there was all die weight in the world behind the words.

'I love you too,' she said. She clung to me with a sudden fierceness, and laid her face on my shoulder. A wet, salt tear stung a love-bite there. She sniffed and raised her head, blinking her now even brighter eyes.

'What's wrong?' I asked.

'I'm happy,' she said.

'so am I.'

She regarded me solemnly. 'I have to say this,' she said, with another unladylike sniffle. 'Loving me will not always make you happy.'

I could not imagine what she meant, and I didn't want to. 'Why are you saying this?'

'Because I must,' she said. Her voice was strained. 'Because I have to be fair with you.'

'Aye, sure,' I said. 'Well, now you've warned me, can I get on with loving you?'

She brightened instandy, as though some arduous responsibility had been lifted from her shoulders.

'Oh yes!' she said, hugging me closer again. 'Love me as much as you like, love me for ever!' She pulled back a little, looked down, then raised her gaze again to mine.

'But not right now,' she added regretfully. 'You have to go.'

'Now?!' We had fallen out of our mutual dream into the workaday world, where we were two people who didn't, really, know each other all that well.

'Yes,' she insisted. 'You have to get back across town, get...washed, and ready for work and catch the bus at half past six.'

'I can catch it from here.'

'The hell you can. People will talk.'

'They'll talk anyway.'

'People around here, I mean.'

I climbed reluctantly off the bed. Merrial slipped lithely under the covers and pulled diem up to her chin.

'What about you?' I asked, as I searched out and sorted my clothes.

'I'm an intellectual worker,' she said smugly as she snuggled down. 'We start at nine.'

She watched me dress with a sort of affectionate curiosity. 'What have you got on your belt?'

I patted the hard leather pouches and fastened the buckle. 'The tools of a tradesman,' I told her, 'and the weapons of a gentleman.'

'I see,' she said approvingly.

'So when will I see you again?' I asked, as I recovered the sgean dhu and stuck it back down the side of my boot.

'Tonight, eight o'clock, at the statue? Go for something to eat?'

I pretended to give this idea thoughtful consideration, then we both laughed, and she sat up again and reached out to me. We hugged and kissed goodbye. As I backed away to the door, grudging even a moment without her in my sight, a flickering from the big seer-stone caught my eye. I stopped beside the table and stooped to examine it. As I did so I noticed Menial's two pendants: the talisman -the small seer-stone - now showing a vaguely organic tracery of green, and on the silver chain a silver piece about a centimetre in diameter which appeared to be a monogram made up of the letters 'G' and 'T' and the numeral '4'.

The table's centre-piece was all black within, except for an arrangement of points of light which might have been torches, or cities, or stars. They flashed on and off, on and off, and the bright dots spelled out one word: HELP.

I glanced over at Menial. 'It's reached the end of its run,' I remarked.

'Reset it then,' she said sleepily from the pillow.

I brushed the stone's chill surface with my sleeve, restoring it to chaos, and with a final smile at Merrail opened the door and stepped out into the cock-crowing sunlight.

and she threw her arms around him
that same night she drew him down.

Copyright © 2000 by Ken MacLeod


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