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an extract from the novella
by Ian R MacLeod

TThe Light Ages by Ian R MacLeodhe first week after Marion and the kids left I kept busy around the base, clearing tunnels, tidying up their chambers, storing things away, taking in great gulps of memory. But even then I felt restless. I spent a long afternoon digging their graves by hand; trying to lose myself in working up a sweat, whacking the hot blade of the shovel through grey-tufted tundra into the course peat below. Then I went to seal up their bodies for the last time. They looked so beautiful lying inside their half-open sleepsuits with the stillfield showing through their veins in tiny threads of gold. I kissed Marion's mouth and her cool white breasts. I touched the bruise that still showed on Robbie's forehead from when he fell chasing the silver-backed pseudocrabs on the day we landed. I drew my fingers through Sarah's pale yellow hair. There was a faint but palpable sense that, even though it was so slow as to be undetectable, they were still breathing. And despite all I knew and everything that we'd agreed, I felt that something of my family remained with me here. It was hard to believe that the decay of their bodies in Korai's acidic soil wouldn't destroy a lingering fragment. Not that I wanted to change things or go back, not that I regretted the decision we'd jointly made, but I knew that I couldn't bury them.

Next day as I walked out across the tundra to prepare the last quester for its journey across the mountains to explore Korai's far southern peninsular, I nearly stumbled into one of the long holes I'd cut. I spent that afternoon refilling all three, shovelling and then patting down and re-compacting the ground until all that was left a faint disturbance of the sod that the growth of the slow-gathering summer would obliterate.

That evening, as always, I lay out new slabs of meat along the fissured table of rock at the east end of the canyon, steaming hot from the processor so they'd show up well on infra red. I'd genuinely expected Marion, Robbie and Sarah to return here the first few nights after they'd left. But with a week gone I'd decided that their staying away was really a positive sign; it showed they were managing to hunt and feed. By now I was just laying out the meat from habit. This deep and narrow rift between the mountains made a poor feeding ground, and Marion had always said that it made sense for them to start as they meant to go on, to get as far away as they could from their human bodies.

I sat on a rock with my powerpack set high to keep warm as the wind from the vast eastern range poured down around me in the blue gathering dark, waiting without much hope for Marion and Sarah and Robbie and thinking of the way things had been, enjoying the luxury of an undefined and unjustified melancholy. After all, it wasn't as though I was really losing them any more than I was losing myself. But there was Marion tossing Sarah in the clear spray of a forest rockpool back on Earth, her belly shining taut with Robbie who was yet to be born. And there was the night that we decided to make him, and the feel of snow and cold marvellous starlight pouring down through the trees. Yes, even then, Marion had loved the mountains.

Korai's sun Deres, long set from my sight, had painted the tips of the furthest mountains red when I sensed the grey beat of wings. I stood up quickly, feeling reality tingle around me once more, the sharpness of the wind breaking through the mingled taste of love and snow on Marion's skin. Those days were gone now. I was here on this planet and my ears and eyes were telling me that three shapes were drifting down from the grainy white cliffs that dropped from a desolate plateau. They seemed to shift and dance at the very edge of sight, drifting half-shadows or mere flakes of soot swirling on the sparse thermals. Scale is nothing here. As I caught the beat of pinions and the near-ultrasonic keening -- part sonar, part language -- there came, hazy and unbidden, the image of Sarah on a white beach by the blue ocean, her hair falling in salt tangles as she stooped along the shore to collect fishbones and shells. I pushed it away, an unwanted comparison, and concentrated on those shapes in the blackening sky, clearer to me now against the red-edged mountains, and real. One large, and two smaller. Although I still knew little enough about species identifiers, it had to be Marion, Robbie, Sarah. They were the only ones.

I ran across the turf, trying to pull everything in, every sound and every sense, greedy to hold this moment -- knowing that it would be soon gone. They swept over me once. Marion's larger shape darkened the already dark sky, then she slowed, circled, chittering to her offspring to keep aloft until she was sure that all was safe. There had to be an instinct for self-preservation, I supposed, and Marion was still Marion despite everything that had changed. She was always the one who had that extra sense of danger for our kids. That was why we'd decided she should go first.

I watched her finally settle on the table of rock. I saw her head pivot my way. I caught the faceted glint of her eyes. Then, with a lilting, hopping motion, she moved towards the meat. I could understand more easily now the point of that ugly metallic-sheened fur, her looped and whorled skin, that greyish-black colouring; she was almost a part of the twilight. And her movements were so quick; the way her jointed arms shot out, and how she kept her balance, her wings still outstretched, pushing against the wind, ready to lift and flee at any moment. A bright hot flash of fluid as her claws broke open the meat. Then, when she was finally sure that all was safe, she signalled to the children -- KAK KARR KIK KARR -- and they fluttered down with almost equal grace to join her. The wind beat and howled. They stooped and folded their wings. The glacier-strewn mountains shone in the distance.

It was over quickly, this moment that I'd almost given up hoping for. The fact was all -- that they were here and surviving -- and the mere sight of them feeding was nothing that I hadn't witnessed a thousand times before in the simulations we'd run back on Earth. KI KIK KARR; a sound like stones knocking, then beating wings again, and the brief feral scent of fur and flesh. Marion the first to rise, to test -- protective as ever -- the return to their chosen element. Then Robbie and Sarah lifting as one, drawn by the wind. A mere process, it seemed to me, of letting go, a skyward falling. I tried to follow them with my eyes but the sky between the mountains had brimmed with night, showing only a last hint in the east. Three specks, laughing, chattering, singing. Swooping.

I walked back down towards the base, calling on the lights as I did so, watching the string of tunnels and canopies blossom and fan like so many paper lanterns. Too big for me, this place, now that I was on my own. And I was sure that whatever remote chance there had been that the integration of the creatures that my family had become might fail was already long-gone. Ducking the first of the air barriers, feeling the wind lessen, I sensed the smug emanations of the thought machines. They were already far into the next century, sniffing the wind, testing the air, communing with the questers, pushing things on and through, asking endless what-ifs, checking for implausible or non-existent ecological anomalies. But Marion and Robbie and Sarah would fit in. For us, Korai was perfect. There was a niche for a sky-borne predator that the indigenous species would never fill.

The nights on Korai are as long as the days. The planet sits upright in its axis to Deres and the seasonal shifts come from the passage and re-passage of the dust belts that haze the space between. Somehow the local wildlife manage to keep track of the complex cycles of long and short winters, cold or savage summers, indeterminate half-autumns, endless springs. It caused, I remembered, one of the longest and most frustrating delays in configuring the new species. And the constant length of the periods of darkness was also a surprising barrier, even though the days are near as doesn't matter to Earth-standard. Night and day specialisations don't seem to work here; you need to be able to see and function in either. The pseudocrabs that scuttle across the tundra each morning possess smaller versions of the eyes that Marion flashed at me before she started to feed. Polyhedral, with each facet wired independently to the brain, alternately set with focusing and filtering layers of polarised cones. When a good design works, you carry on using it.

Marion came to me that night, as I'd half-expected she would. But it was hard to tell how much of it really was her, how much had been simply pushed through my sleepsuit by the thought machines, how much was my own pure imagination.

"I couldn't bury you," I said. "You're still here -- your bodies, I mean. It seems gruesome, really, stupid. I know it was part of the deal we made."

"Did we?" she said, looking at me with her face smiling, forgetful. "Yes, I suppose we did. When you're in a body, it matters to you. But when you're not..."

"You don't mind?"

"Of course I don't mind. You'll know what to do when the time comes."

"It can't be long now," I said. "The projections I've seen are as good as anything we hoped for."

"I could tell," she said. "Right away. That first day as soon as I took flight. When I saw the mountains and felt the roaring air. I wonder now whether I was ever properly human. Perhaps I was an eagle or something in some other life. Not that I believe in mumbo jumbo..."

"No." I stared at her. Her face hovering there in the darkness. Mumbo jumbo. Would it be better if I willed the dream to gain more substance? Would it be worse? What did I want anyway? Marion sitting beside me at that cafe by the Spanish Steps? Marion swimming deep through the coral, drawing me to her from the flickering shoals, our silver bubbles joining? Or Marion now. Marion perched on a mountaintop with all this world and the sky beneath her?

"What's it like?"

"I knew you'd ask that," she said. "I can't tell you really. But it's far more than the simulations. It's life. You'll just have to come and see."

"I mean -- "

" -- of course," she continued, wild dream-light in her eyes, "it feels scary. It was everything Robbie and Sarah ever wanted, and for me it was just the plain unknown. But it's harder still for you. Bound to be -- that was why I hesitated to leave you. You've seen it now. Both sides. Don't you remember they said that it's always most difficult for the one who stays behind...?"

"How are they? I mean Robbie, Sarah."

"They're fine. We're all fine."

"I still love you."

She smiled. I watched the way her lips moved, the sharp clarity in her wide-set eyes. It all suddenly seemed like amusement at my quaint human ways. But she said it anyway, the way she always had -- I love you -- and at that point the dream faded and the sleepsuit softened and refolded itself around me and the thought machines withdrew. I was drifting in deep fathomless dark, alone.


© Ian R MacLeod 1996, 2004.
"Verglas" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Oct/Nov 1996, and is republished in the collection Breathmoss And Other Exhalations.

Breathmoss And Other Exhalations by Ian R MacLeod

Ian R MacLeod's collection, Breathmoss And Other Exhalations, is published by Golden Gryphon (June 2004, ISBN: 1930846266)

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