Ian McDonald



Though this book shares the same setting, background and many of the same characters and situations as my 1990 novelette Towards Kilimanjaro, it is not a direct sequel to that story, but rather an expansion and refinement of its ideas. Readers of both may notice a number of seeming inconsistencies; these are deliberate; Towards Kilimanjaro should be read as a working prototype for this book.

Thanks to CEM Computers, who saved a sizeable portion of this book from cybernetic nirvana (always back up. Always back up). Thanks also to Trisha for her inestimable help in the early stages of this work, and in all things.

A Tapestry of Stars

The light was almost gone now. Late summer purples lay across the Point’s heathlands and salt marshes. An edge of cumulus outlined the hills across the lough. The aircraft warning beacons on the television mast were blinking.

The dogs went bounding out into the setting dark. Freed spirits. Primeval forces. Rabbits scattered for their sandy bolt-holes among the gorse roots. Horace was too old and arthritic to kill. He ran for the joy of running: while he still could run. The vet had diagnosed CMDR. The process was irreversible. The myelin sheaths of the lower spinal nerves would deteriorate until his hindquarters were paralysed. He would not be able to walk. He would piss himself. He would shit himself. Then, the one way ticket to the rubber-topped table. The girl hoped she would not have to be there for that.

Until then, let them run. Let them hunt. Let them catch what they can, if they can.

‘Go Horace! Go Paddy!’ Gaby McAslan shouted. The dogs flew from her like twin thunderbolts, the big white and tan, the smaller black. Crossing a scent, they plunged into the dense gorse thickets, crashed about in the dry brown rustling spines of last summer’s growth.

The hills of Antrim rose black against the indigo sky: Knockagh with its cenotaph; Carnmoney; Cave Hill that was said to have a profile like Napoleon’s, though Gaby had never been able to see it; Divis; Black Mountain. Belfast was a hemisphere of amber airglow at the head of the lough; grubby, phototoxic. Beneath the black hills a chain of yellow and white lights clung to the shore line. Fort William. Greenisland. Carrickfergus with its great Norman keep. Kilroot, Whitehead, ending with the pulse and flash of the lighthouse that marked the open sea. Its counterparts on Lighthouse Island at Donaghadee responded. There is a moment, one moment, her father had said, when all the beams flash as one. She had been watching the lights all her life and she never yet seen that moment of synchronicity.

The sky seemed vast and high tonight, pierced by the first few stars. The summer triangle: Altair, Deneb, Vega. Arcturus descending, the guide star of the ancient Arab navigators. Sinbad’s star. Corona Borealis, the crown of summer. One of those soft jewels was a cluster of four hundred galaxies. Their light had travelled for a billion years to fall on Gaby McAslan. They receded from her skin at fifty thousand miles per second.

Knowing their names and natures could take nothing from them. They were stars, remote, subject to laws and processes larger than human lifetimes. By their high and ancient light you saw the nature of your self. You were not the pinnacle of creation beneath a protecting veil of sky. You were a fierce, bright atom of selfhood, encircled by fire.

The dogs came plunging from the gorse, panting, smiling, empty-jawed. She whistled them to her. The path turned along a ruinous dry stone wall past the marshy ground. Yellow flag and tattered bullrushes. Diamond-back tracks of mountain bikes in the dirt, but also the heavier tread of scramblers. Her father would not be pleased. Let people enjoy the Point by their own power, foot or pedal: that was the spirit he had tried to build for this place. The gobble of motorbike engines, the shriek of gear trains, shouted it down.

Marky had never caught the thing about this place. He could not understand what a day smells like, or what it is to know you are tiny but brilliant beneath the appallingly distant stars. He left scrambler tracks on the world, or car tyres; not bicycle tread or bare footprints.

She climbed the low, lichen-covered rocks and stood at the edge of the land. The dogs splashed and frolicked in a gravelly inlet, pretending to swim. Paddy, the small black one, ran in circles with a kelp stalk in his mouth, inviting Gaby to play. Later. She breathed in the air. Sea-salt, dead things desiccating on the shore, the sweet land-smells of gorse and bog iris, the scent of earth that has soaked in the heat and light of the day and, in the twilight, gently exhales.

Down at the edge of the sea she built a ring of stones and set a small fire in it. It was a cardinal sin on the Point, but the warden’s daughter should be permitted some licence. She sat on a rock and fed driftwood to the flames. Bleached branches, slabs of old fishboxes tarry and studded with nails, pieces of forklift pallet and old cork fishing floats. The wood popped and crackled. Sparks showered up into the scented night.

‘No, I’d rather not, not tonight, Marky,’ she had told him on the phone. The video-compression chip amplified his facial movements. Gaby always thought of silent movie actors. Heavy, heavy make-up; big, big expressions. Love. Hate. Fear. Rejection. Marky’s emotions matched his videophone face; that was the problem. ‘I have to think. I need some time for me; just for me. No one else. I have to get distant from everything and maybe then I can look back and see what I want to do. Do you understand?’

She knew that all he understood was that saying no to him on a Sunday night was saying no to him forever. He already had her going up the steps to the aeroplane.

The dogs came to stand by her. Water dripped from stalactites of belly hair. They were panting. They wanted her to give them a task to do.

‘Sorry lads. In a minute, right? Go off and kill something yourselves.’

Out to sea black guillemots skimmed the water, calling to each other in fluting, querulous voices.

They had refused to let her sleep late the day the results came out. First her father, back from his dawn survey of his little kingdom, with tea that she let go cold. Then the dogs, cold noses under warm duvet, heavy paws on ribs. Then the cats, fighting for a place between her breasts. Last of all, Reb pulling the corner of the quilt, shouting come on come on, you have to go and see.

The old school is strange when you are no longer a part of it. Its rooms and corridors are suddenly smaller than you remember. The staff you meet are subtly changed; no longer authority figures, but fellow survivors. She had not wanted to open the slim brown envelope in front of her friends. In the privacy of her father’s wreck of a Saab she had unfolded the single sheet of paper. The grades were good. More than good enough for the Network Journalism course. And that was perhaps worse than them not being good enough because now she would have to decide between going to London and staying.

Rebecca and Hannah had respectively hugged and shrugged. Her father had popped a bottle of real champagne he had bought on faith. His long-term girlfriend, Sonya, who was too wise to move into a house so full of women, came to the celebration meal. Marky too. Everyone had been certain she would go to England, except Marky, and herself.

Her fire was burned down to red coals crusted with powdery white ash.

Marky. He had a job in a bank. He had a Ford. He had money when everyone else was broke. He had good, expensive clothes, he had just-past-fashionable music and machinery far too impressive for it to play on. In winter he played hockey, in summer he wind-surfed. In either season he expected his girlfriends to stand back and

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