EXCERPTED FROM THE NOVEL
The heart of this story was the road.
Like this: Two landing ships founded the colony on Norn, renamed Destiny. Sometime later, one left the colony. Riding on its fusion drive and a ground-effect skirt, a few meters off the ground, the ship left a trail of melted rock behind it, first in a spiral, then off into the unknown.
Hundreds of years later, a boy sets off down the road from Spiral Town to find out what happened to the ship. We follow the boy.
Irresistible, isn’t it? I can’t guess how many years that sat in my head before I did something about it.
But I had never told a man’s life story from childhood to middle age. Most of Robert Heinlein’s early novels fit that description, but I wasn’t sure I could do it. I flinched.
I turned the novel in to Tor four years late.
When Michael Whelan wrote his wonderful cover painting, he did it from my outline; but he thought the book was near finished. The plant he painted in foreground became the “fool cage” in the book.
Michael, and Tom, and Bob, thank you for your patience. The book came out precisely as I had hoped.
* * *
A.D. 2722 SPIRAL TOWN
Junior at fourteen had grown tall enough to reach the highest cupboard. She stretched up on tiptoe, found the speckles shaker by feel, and brought it down. Then she saw what was happening to the bacon. She shouted, “Jemjemjemmy!”
Jemmy’s eleven-year-old mind was all in the world beyond the window.
Junior snatched up a pot holder and moved the pan off the burner. The bacon wasn’t burned, not yet, not quite.
“Sorry,” Jemmy said without turning. “Junior, there’s a caravan coming.”
“You never saw a caravan.” Junior looked through the long window, northeastward. “Dust. Maybe it’s the caravan. Here, turn this.”
Jemmy finished cooking the bacon. Junior shook salt and speckles on the eggs, sparingly, and returned the shaker to the cupboard. Brenda, who should have been stirring the eggs, and Thonny and Greegry and Ronny were all crowded along the long window—the Bloocher family’s major treasure, one sheet of glass, a meter tall, three meters from side to side—to watch what was, after all, only a dust plume.
* * *
They ate bread and scrambled hens’ eggs and orange juice. Brenda, who was ten, fed Jane, who was four months old. Mom and Dad had been up for hours doing farmwork. Mom was eating poached platyfish eggs. Platyfish were Destiny life; their bodies didn’t make fat. Mom was trying to lose weight.
Jemmy wolfed his breakfast, for all the good that did. The rest of the children were finished too. The younger kids squirmed like their chairs were on fire; but you couldn’t ask Mom and Dad to hurry. They weren’t exactly dawdling, but the kids’ urgency amused them.
The long window was behind Jemmy. If he turned his back on the rest of the family, Dad would snap at him.
Junior emptied her coffee mug with no sign of haste, very adult, and set it down. “Mom, can you handle Jane and Ronny?”
Seven-year-old Ronny gaped in shock. Before he could scream, Mom said, “I’ll take care of the baby, dear, but you take Ronny with you. He has to do his schoolwork.”
Ronny relaxed, though his eyes remained wary. Junior stood. Her voice became a drill sergeant‘s. “We set?”
Brenda, Thonny, Greegry, Ronny, and Jemmy surged toward the door. There was a pileup in the lock while they sorted out their coats and caps, and then they cycled through in two clusters, out of the house, streaming toward the Road. Junior followed. The younger three were half-running, but Junior with her long legs kept up with them. She wasn’t trying to catch Jemmy, who at eleven had no dignity to protect.
The sun wasn’t above the mountains yet, but Quicksilver was, a bright spark dim in daylight.
The line of elms was as old as Bloocher House. They were twenty-five meters from the front of the house, the last barrier between Bloocher Farm and the Road. To Jemmy they seemed to partition earth and sky. He ran between two elms and was first to reach the Road.
To the right the Road curved gradually toward Spiral Town. Left, northwest, it ran straight into the unknown. That way lay Warkan Farm, where four mid-teens stood in pairs to watch the dust plume come near.
The Warkan children had been schooled at Bloocher House, as had their parents before them. Then, when Jemmy was six, the Bloocher household computer died. For the next week or two Dad was silent and dangerous. Jemmy came to understand that a major social disaster had taken place.
For five years now, Jemmy and his siblings and all of the Warkan children had trooped three houses around the Road’s curve to use the Hann computer.
The dust plume no longer hid what was coming toward Spiral Town. There were big carts pulled by what must be chugs. Jemmy saw more than one cart, hard to tell how many. Children from farther up the Road were running alongside. Their voices carried a long way, but it was too far to make out words.
His siblings had filtered between the trees. They lined the Road, waiting. Jemmy looked toward the Warkan kids; looked back at Junior; saw her shake her head. He said. “Aw, Junior. What about class?”
“Wait.” Junior said.
Of course there had been no serious thought of rushing to class. Not with a caravan coming! They’d make up missed classes afterward. Computer programs would wait, and a human teacher was rarely needed.
Children began to separate at Junior’s age. Boys spoke only to boys, girls to girls. Jemmy knew that much. Maybe he’d understand why, when he was older. Now he only knew that Junior would speak to him only to give orders. He missed his big sister, and Junior hadn’t even gone anywhere.
If Junior went to join the Warkan girls, the Warkan boys would stare at her and rack their brains thinking of some excuse to talk to her. So Jemmy almost understood why the whole family simply waited by the elms while the wagons came near.
The wagons had flat roofs twice as high as a grown man’s head. They moved at walking speed. You could hear the children who ran alongside carrying on shouted conversations with the merchants. There were deeper voices too: adults were negotiating with merchants in the wagons.
When the caravan reached the Warkan farm, the Warkans joined them, boys and girls together, it didn’t matter. A few minutes later the troop had reached the Bloocher children.
It was Jemmy’s first close view of a chug.
The beasts were small and compact. They forged ahead at a steady walking pace, twenty to a cart. They stood as high as Jemmy’s short ribs. Their shells were the ocher of beach sand. Their wrinkled leather bellies were pale. Their beaks looked like wire cutters, dangerous, and each head was crowned by a flat cap of ocher shell. They showed no awareness of the world around them.
The wagons stood on tall wheels. Their sides dropped open to form shelves, and merchants grinned down from inside.
Jemmy let the first two wagons pass him by. Junior had already forgotten him; the rest of the children went with her, though Thonny looked back once. No eyes were on him when he reached out to stroke one of the chugs. The act seemed headily dangerous. The shell was paper-smooth.
The chug swiveled one eye to see him.
It was hard to tell who was what among the merchants, because of their odd manner of dress. As far as Jemmy could tell, there were about two men for every woman. They enjoyed talking to children. A man and woman driving the third cart smiled down at him, and Jemmy walked alongside. He asked, “Can’t you make them go faster?”
“Don’t want to,” the man said. “We buy and sell all along the Road. Why make the customers chase us?”
A golden-haired woman with a trace of a limp, Mom’s age but dumpier, passed money up to a dark-skinned merchant on the twelfth and last cart. That was Ilyria Warkan. The merchant reached way down to hand her a speckles pouch.
It was transparent, big as a head of lettuce, with a child’s handful of bright yellow dust in the corner. You never saw these pouches unless a merchant was selling speckles.
Jemmy ran his hand down a chug’s flank. The skin was dry and papery. Belatedly he asked, “Do they bite?”
“No. They’ve got good noses, the chugs. They can smell you’re Earthlife, and they won’t eat that. Might bite you if you were a fisher.”
The merchants seemed to like children, but nobody ever saw a child with the caravan. Did they keep their children hidden? Nobody knew.
The Road was beginning to curve. More children joined the caravan: Rachel Harness and her mother, Jael; and Gwillam Doakes, a burly boy Jemmy’s age; and the very clannish Holmes girls. No more adults came, unless you counted Jael Harness, who hadn’t got enough speckles as a child and was therefore a little simple. Jemmy could see people walking away, far down the straight arm of the Road.
The merchant woman caught him looking, and laughed. “Too many people now.” Her words were just a bit skewed, with music in her voice. “Serious customers, they see the dust, they come to meet us. Give them more time to deal. Now we get no more till the hub. How far to the hub?”
“Twenty minutes…no, wait, you can’t take cross streets. They’re too narrow.” The caravan would just have to go round and round, following the curve as the Road spiraled toward Civic Hall. “More like an hour and a half. You could get there faster without the wagons.”
“No point,” the merchant woman said. “I would miss the cemetery too, wouldn’t I?”
“Don’t go in there,” Jemmy said reflexively.
“Oh, but I must! I’ve heard about the Spiral Town cemetery all my life. We follow the Road around by almost a turn? It’s all Earthlife, they say.”
“That’s right,” Jemmy said. “Spooky. Destiny life won’t grow where the dead lie.”
The merchant said, “I’ve never seen a place that was nothing but Earthlife.”
She was strange and wonderful, swathed in layers of bright colors. It was a game, getting her to keep talking. Jemmy asked, “Have you seen City Hall? There’s painted walls, really bright. Acrylic, Dad says.”
She smiled indulgently. He knew: She’d been there.
He asked, “Where do speckles come from?”
“Don’t know. Hundreds of klicks up the Road when we buy ’em.”
Hundreds of klicks…kilometers. “Where did they come from before the Road was here?”
She frowned down at him. “Before the Road…?”
“Sure. We learn about it in school, how James and Daryl Twerdahl and the rest took off in Cavorite and left the Road behind them. But that was eight years after Landing Day. So…”
The man was listening too. The woman said, “News to me, boy. The Road’s always been here.”
Jemmy would have accepted that, accepted her ignorance, if he hadn’t seen the man’s lips twitch in a smile. In his mind, for that instant, it was as if the world had betrayed him.
Then seven-year-old Ronny was beside him, saying, “I’m tired, Jemmy.”
“Okay, kid. Junjunjunior—”
One wagon ahead, Junior stopped walking. So did Thonny and Brenda, and the Warkan girls that Junior had been talking to, and the Warkan boys, all without consulting each other. Sandy Warkan said, “Twerdahl Street’s just ahead. We can stop for a squeeze of juice at Guilda’s and wait for the caravan to come round again.”
“School,” Junior reminded them.
* * *
The Road itself was magical.
Bloocher Farm was soft soil and living things and entropy. Plants grew from little to big, grew dry and withered, changed and died. Animals acted strangely, and presently gave birth to children like themselves. Tools rusted or broke down or rotted or ceased working for reasons of their own.
Closer to the hub, you saw less of life and more of entropy. The houses were old, losing their hard edges. New buildings were conspicuous, jarring. At night there were lines of city lights with gaps in them. Things that didn’t work were as prevalent here as among the farms, but you noticed them more: they were closer together.
But the Road was hard and flat and not like anything else in the world. The Road was eternal.
The Road was a fantastic toy. Things rolled easily on its flat surface. Here, just short of Twerdahl Street and half a klick southeast of Bloocher Farm, was a favored dip used by the highschool kids. Sandy and Hal Warkan had showed Jemmy how to sweep the Road to get a really flat surface, so that balls or wheels could be rolled back and forth over the dip. They’d go forever.
No time for that today. They turned off at Twerdahl Street, and some of the merchants waved good-bye.
Rachel Harness chattered to Junior, pulling her mother along. Rachel’s mother Jael seemed to listen, but answered rarely, and when she spoke her words had nothing to do with what she’d heard. Jemmy liked Jael Harness, but Junior and Brenda found her a little queer.
Children who didn’t get enough speckles grew up like that.
But Rachel was a bright, active girl, Junior’s age, who treated her mother like a younger sister. Neighbors had helped to raise her, but speckles were expensive. Rachel must have had a steady source of speckles since her birth.
One wondered. Who was Rachel’s father?
The Harness farm was to the right, and that was where Rachel was pointing, Junior looking and nodding. Jemmy couldn’t hear them, but he looked. A silver bulge in the weeds…it was Killer!
The Council had sicced Varmint Killer on the Harness farm!
The old machine wasn’t doing anything. Just sitting. Weeds and vegetation that had been crops ran riot here. It wasn’t all Earthlife. Odd colors, odd shapes grew in wedge patterns, wider toward the southwest, toward the sea.
More than two hundred years ago, the great fusion-powered landers had hovered above Crab Island and burned the land sterile. This land was to serve Earthlife only. But the life of Destiny continued to try to retake the Crab.
Weeds tended to cluster, reaching tentatively from an occupied base, as if they did not like the fertilizer that made Earthlife grow. Black touched with bronze and yellow-green; branches that divided, divided, divided, until every tip was a thousand needles too fine to see. One could rip up an encroachment of Destiny weeds with a few passes of a tractor. One day the Harnesses’ neighbors would do that.
But Destiny’s animals were another matter. They lived among Destiny’s encroaching plants, and some were dangerous. These were Killer’s prey.
Killer squatted in the wild corn, a silver bulge the size and shape of a chug pulled in on itself. The children watched and waited. Older children bullied the youngers onto Warkan Farm’s long porch, where Destiny creatures weren’t likely to be hiding.
One would not want a child to come between Varmint Killer and its prey. They waited, waited…
Even looking, you might not see it. Jemmy just caught it: the line flicking out like a slender tongue, snapping back; a drop of blood drooling down beneath the little hatch cover.
Junior’s hand was on his arm. He obeyed, remained seated, but looked. Something thrashed in the weeds. Killer’s tongue lashed out again.
The caravan and the crowd were trickling away slowly but steadily, off down Twerdahl Street. The Bloocher family gathered itself. Junior called, “Sanity check. If we skip Guilda’s now, we can get through school time and still beat the caravan to Guilda’s. Vote!”
Reality sometimes called for hard choices. They looked at each other.…
Copyright © 2003 by Larry Niven