an extract from the novella
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.
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
"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
"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.
Ian R MacLeod's collection, Breathmoss And Other
Exhalations, is published by Golden Gryphon (June 2004, ISBN:
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