Soma the Painter was waiting for the suns to dip a little lower in the sky. The thing she was waiting for was called Twofire, an optical effect caused by the light from two suns passing under the horizon and reflecting on scattered clouds above. It was beautiful, and she was trying to capture it in real time, spraying smart-pigments onto a glass surface from her color-sensing jetbrush.
From her position on the hill above Wharftown, she had a perfect view of the azure expanse of sea, with distant whitecaps beyond the reef now picking up motes of pink. She ignored the bucolic bustle of the town below and concentrated.
She had moved here for these moments; silence, unsterilized air, sounds of nature, the minuscule dangers of a real place--stinging plants and quarrelsome insects. Like the inhabitants of the town below, Soma had given up her armor in order to experience life more intimately. No more lenses, no more n-barriers, no more omniscient guides. She had come here seeking a primitivelifestyle, one demonstrated perfectly in her sagging skin, her telling wrinkles. She'd come here to love life, but also to age and to die.
At 417 years of age, Soma was young to be taking this path, but hardly unique. Wharftown was filled with her peers, and more besides, scattered thinly, perhaps a million souls planted here on the massive planet Seaward, unromantically called G617 g1 by outsiders adrift on endless ocean, just as the world itself was adrift in endless space, hanging on a lonely binary system at the galaxy's trailing edge. This was the last stop before intergalactic space and lifeless void. A fitting waiting room for death's cool arms.
And the citizens of Seaward were all, as their society measured it, wealthy. The world itself was a secret, publicly and officially a lifeless ball of dirt, a place truly worth ignoring. Those who could afford it had found a private, expensive sanctuary from society, and great power and influence had been poured into purchasing anonymity for this beautiful, verdant world.
Wharftown sat on a rocky shard of volcanic surge, a thousand miles from the equator. There was little there but dwellings, parks, and one of the few significant stretches of arable land, most of it terraced in pretty defiance of the towering hummocks and fangs of basalt.
Here on Seaward, contact with society proper was limited. Communications were almost nonexistent. Supplies sometimes came silently by transorbital balloon, jettisoned by unseen starships, inflating at the bottom edge of the stratosphere, then drifting gracefully to land their cargoes. They seldom came with messages or instructionsor scolding. Instead they simply brought gifts, food, technology, and repairs. Seaward was tolerated, encouraged even, by distant, benevolent friends who asked for nothing in return but the trades of energy and art that financed its existence.
Soma's hand hovered above the glass, the delicate steely wand of the jetbrush held confidently between stained fingers. Her creased, sun-worn brow wrinkled further, its bluish fur furrowing as as she stared dutifully at the horizon and squinted to keep the brightness out of her rheumy eyes. The jetbrush winked its ready state, absorbing light, tiny whirling motors ready for painting.
As the two suns moved lower, their proximity to each other increased, and momentarily, both seemed to shine more fiercely. And, as if acting on some unheard order, the clouds responded, their pink gossamer suddenly finding vermillion flame, then green, then blue. A flitting rainbow of hot color, then just as quickly fading back to pink.
Soma blinked tears back, resisted the photic urge to sneeze, wiped her eyes with a small silk handkerchief, and looked at the glass in front of her. Sure enough. Some of the colors were there, strewn not quite accurately on the skyscape she'd prepared.
Wonderful, she thought to herself. She examined the pattern and then frowned. The jetbrush had also laid down a flaw with its capture of that momentary light. A dark gray streak. A dirty charcoal imperfection drawn through the center of the other hues in a floundering arc, trailing a sickly yellow smoke behind it.
Disturbed, she glanced back at the sky itself. Theimperfection from her painting hung there in the pink sky. Real. Baleful. Moving steadily and purposefully to the horizon. Something was coming. Something was wrong.
Soma the Painter folded her glass easel, hurriedly packed her things, and began the long climb down to Wharftown.