It was Mary Vaughan’s final evening in Sudbury, and she was experiencing decidedly mixed feelings.
She had no doubt that getting out of Toronto had done her good. After what had happened down there—My God, she thought, had it really only been two weeks ago?—leaving town, getting away from all the things that would have reminded her of that horrible night, was surely the right course. And although it had ended on a melancholy note, she wouldn’t have traded her time here with Ponter Boddit for anything.
There was an unreal quality to her recollections; it all seemed so fantastic. And yet there were countless photographs and videos and even some X rays to prove that it had really happened. A modern Neanderthal from a parallel version of Earth had somehow slipped into this universe. Now that he was gone, Mary hardly believed it herself.
But it had happened. Ponter had really been here, and she had indeed…
Was she overstating it? Magnifying it in her mind?
No. No, it was indeed what had occurred.
She had come to love Ponter, maybe even to be in love with him.
If only she’d been whole, complete, unviolated, untraumatized, perhaps things would have been different. Oh, she’d still have fallen for the big guy—of that she was sure—but when he’d reached out and touched her hand that night while they were looking up at the stars, she wouldn’t have frozen.
It had been too soon, she’d told him the next day. Too soon after…
She hated the word; hated to think it, to say it.
Too soon after the rape.
And tomorrow she had to go back home, back to where that rape had occurred, back to the campus of Toronto’s York University, and her old life of teaching genetics.
Her old life of being alone.
She’d miss many things about Sudbury. She’d miss the lack of traffic congestion. She’d miss the friends she’d made here, including Reuben Montego and, yes, even Louise Benoît. She’d miss the relaxed atmosphere of tiny Laurentian University, where she’d done her mitochondrial DNA studies that had proven Ponter Boddit was indeed a Neanderthal.
But, most of all, she realized, as she stood at the side of the country road looking up at the clear night sky, she’d miss this. She’d miss seeing stars in a profusion beyond counting. She’d miss seeing the Andromeda galaxy, which Ponter had identified for her. She’d miss seeing the Milky Way, arching overhead.
She’d especially miss this: the aurora borealis, flickering and weaving across the northern sky, pale green sheets of light, ghostly curtains.
Mary had indeed hoped to catch another glimpse of the aurora tonight. She’d been on her way back from Reuben Montego’s place out in Lively (hah!), where she’d had a final barbecue dinner with him and Louise, and she’d pulled over at the side of the road specifically to look up at the night sky.
The heavens were cooperating. The aurora was breathtaking.
She’d forever associate the northern lights with Ponter. The only other time she’d seen them had been with him. She felt an odd sensation in her chest, the expanding feeling that went with awe battling the contracting sensation that accompanied sadness.
The lights were beautiful.
He was gone.
A cool green glow bathed the landscape as the aurora continued to flicker and dance, aspens and birches silhouetted in front of the spectacle, their branches waving slightly in the gentle August breeze.
Ponter had said he often saw the aurora. Partly that was because his cold-adapted people preferred more northerly latitudes than did the humans of this world.
Partly, too, it was because the phenomenal Neanderthal sense of smell and their ever-vigilant Companion implants made it safe to be out even in the dark; Ponter’s hometown of Saldak, located at the same place in his world as Sudbury was in this world, didn’t illuminate its streets at night.
And partly it was because the Neanderthals used clean solar power for most of their energy needs, rendering their skies far less polluted than the ones here.
Mary had made it to her current age of thirty-eight before seeing the aurora, and she didn’t anticipate any reason to come back to Northern Ontario, so tonight, she knew, might well be the last time she’d ever see the undulating northern lights.
She drank in the view.
Some things were the same on both versions of Earth, Ponter had said: the gross details of the geography, most of the animal and plant species (although the Neanderthals, never having indulged in overkilling, still had mammoths and moas in their world), the broad strokes of the climate. But Mary was a scientist: she understood all about chaos theory, about how the beating of a butterfly’s wing was enough to affect weather systems half a world away. Surely just because there was a clear sky here on this Earth didn’t mean the same was true on Ponter’s world.
But if the weather did happen to coincide, perhaps Ponter was also looking up at the night sky now.
And perhaps he was thinking of Mary.
Ponter would, of course, be seeing precisely the same constellations, even if he gave them different names—nothing terrestrial could possibly have disturbed the distant stars. But would the auroras be the same? Did butterflies or people have any effect on the choreography of the northern lights? Perhaps she and Ponter were looking at the exact same spectacle—a curtain of illumination waving back and forth, the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper (or, as he would call it, the Head of the Mammoth) stretching out above.
Why, he might even right now be seeing the same shimmying to the right, the same shimmying to the left, the same—
Mary felt her jaw drop.
The auroral curtain was splitting down the middle, like aquamarine tissue paper being torn by an invisible hand. The fissure grew longer, wider, starting at the top and moving toward the horizon. Mary had seen nothing like that on the first night she’d looked up at the northern lights.
The sheet finally separated into two halves, parting like the Red Sea before Moses. A few—they looked like sparks, but could they really be that?—arced between the halves, briefly bridging the gap. And then the half on the right seemed to roll up from the bottom, like a window blind being wound onto its dowel, and, as it did so, it changed colors, now green, now blue, now violet, now orange, now turquoise.
And then in a flash—a spectral burst of light—that part of the aurora disappeared.
The remaining sheet of light was swirling now, as if it were being sucked down a drain in the firmament. As it spun more and more rapidly, it flung off gouts of cool green fire, a pin-wheel against the night.
Mary watched, transfixed. Even if this was only her second night actually observing the aurora, she’d seen countless pictures of the northern lights over the years in books and magazines. She’d known those still images hadn’t done justice to the spectacle; she’d read how the aurora rippled and fluttered.
But nothing had prepared her for this.
The vortex continued to contract, growing brighter as it did so, until finally, with—did she really hear it?—with what sounded like a pop, it vanished.
Mary staggered backward, bumping up against the cold metal of her rented Dodge Neon. She was suddenly aware that the forest sounds around her—insects and frogs, owls and bats—had fallen silent, as if every living thing was looking up in wonder.
Mary’s heart was pounding, and one thought kept echoing through her head as she climbed into the safety of her car.
I wonder if it’s supposed to do that…
Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer