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In 2003, a team of Germans hang-gliding from Mount Kilimanjaro report a large meteor strike, then manage to get one cryptic message back to their ...
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In 2003, a team of Germans hang-gliding from Mount Kilimanjaro report a large meteor strike, then manage to get one cryptic message back to their base camp--"It's growing." When the searchers arrive, what they find will ultimately lead to the transformation of the human race by something beyond its imagination. Ads in Locus. TP: Bantam.
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 paralyzed. 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 shoreline. Fort William. Greenisland. Carrickfergus with its great Norman keep. Kilroot, Whitehead, ending with the pulse andflash of the lighthouse that marked the open sea. Its counterparts on Lighthouse Island and at Donaghadee responded. There is a moment, one moment, her father lad said, when all the beams flash as one. She had been watching the lights all her life and she had 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 traveled 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 drystone call past the marshy ground. Yellow flag and tattered bull rushes. Diamondback 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 his 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 tires; not bicycle treads 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 gravely 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 license. She sat on a rock and fed driftwood to the flames. Leached branches, slabs of old fish boxes 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 makeup; 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 airplane.
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 hate 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 to play it on. In winter he played hockey, in summer he windsurfed. In either season he expected his girlfriends to stand back and admire him. Someday he would have a beautiful house and a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a life as dead as that empty crab husk lying claws-up on the gravel beach.
Gaby flicked the dead crab into the fire. Its chitinous shell squeaked and hissed, its legs curled up and withered in flame.
Marky imagined that thrice-weekly fumbles with her bra strap and a condom dropped out of the car window could hold her back from London and Network Journalism. He was a fool. It had never been a man that would keep her here. She had made him an excuse. It was this place, this Point she had known all her life, in all its seasons and climates. It was the thick walls of the Watchhouse on its promontory, watching over land and sea and the lives those walls contained. It was the golden light of rare autumn days; it was the silver frost on the dead brown bracken on January mornings; it was the shudder of the little headland beneath the storm waves when the wind seemed to push at the house like a pair of huge hands and got inside through crannies and vents to blow the carpet up like a heavy green sea. It was the little beaches on the seaward sides of the low islets known only to those who have paddled through the shallow tidal lagoons. It was being rooted in the land. It was the fear that her strength came from the physical presence of place and house and people, and separated from them she would become pale and transparent. An unperson.
"There are two, and only two ultimate fears," her father had told her one September storm night with the wind bowing in the window glass. "The annihilation of solitude or the annihilation of the crowd. We lose our identities if we are alone with no one to reflect us back on ourselves and tell us we exist, we are worth something, or we lose our identities if we are in a mass of others; anonymous, corporate, overwhelmed by the babble."
Gaby was old enough to understand that hers was the fear of the annihilation of the crowd. In solitude, in this place among the elements, she existed. To go would be to join the mass. That was the nature of her dilemma.
"Give me a sign," she said. Insects whirred. She flicked them away from her face and long, straight mahogany hair. So many stars. The dark-adapted eye can see four thousand stars on a clear night. A constellation crossed heaven; an aircraft, following the line of the coast into the City Airport.
It was not a sign.
A cluster of lights moved against the far side of the lough. A night ferry, decks aglow.
It was not a sign either.
Saturn and its moons were still under the horizon, beyond the hills of Scotland. That was the thing that most exemplified Marky. Mysteries that would inspire anyone with a functioning sense of wonder were happening out there. To Marky, they were too far away, too small to be seen with the naked eye; irrelevant. How many times had she told him he had no soul? The biggest question occupying him was whether Gaby would let him get his hand down the front of her jeans. She felt pity for people who were never touched by things greater than themselves.
"Come on, dogs." They appeared out of the darkness, eager for something to be happening at last. "We're going back."
She poured yellow sand over the embers of her fire and walked back to the house beneath the brilliant stars. The dogs went streaking out before her, catching the scent of home.
Posted June 22, 2009
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