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 Twerdahi 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.

'Can wait.'

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 high-school 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.

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