Read the first part of Keep On Walking (a selection from On to the Beginning, Back to the End)
Keep On Walking
Ceal never expected life to end this way, exiled from exile. Not that life had ever been so great in the first place, on this colony world. Hell. Might as well get everything over with now.
Go on. Jump.
Ceal teetered at the edge of the cliff. She swallowed hard. Curled her toes. The heat of the badlands rose up from far below—so goddamned far down there—and waves of heat from the acid plains rolled across her face.
Can’t do it, can you? You can’t even end it.
“Shut up,” she said, even though she wasn’t talking to anyone. No one else had dared to cross the vine fields with her, to come out here to Lookout Point. Of course not. No one else could share her exile.
Because you’re a screw-up, Ceal Qu Rimrrer 46.
“Who said that?” Whoever it was, he or she knew her name, breeding, origin, and flaw!
Ceal glanced over her shoulder, but no one else had slipped up behind her. Vines popped and crackled from the fields back there, lifting a smell of rust to the air as the creepers filled in the path. They were coming for her. She should just let them wrap around her until she could breathe no more.
Losing all those babies…it was too much to bear.
You screwed up, 46, but don’t worry. You can’t change anything, even if you want to.
“That’s not true!” Ceal was born and bred to be a fixer-helper. She’d never let anyone down before in her whole life, not until now. “And don’t call me by my flaw. My name is Ceal.”
Face it, 46. Who you are is what you are. Forty-sixes always screw up.
Well, it was true she had a 46 in her make-up, but she always meant well, even if 46’s did tend to mess up from time to time. “Why are you bothering me like this?” she cried. “And where in hell are you?” She carried a stick, and she used it now to stab the air around her.
Look, 46, quit feeling sorry for yourself and help me get the hell out of here.
Help…! She’d never been able to resist helping—interference, some would call it. That’s what Qu designated. Its second position in her string of identification labels indicated her helper-fixer dominance over her flaw of screwing up.
Like this time. She hadn’t meant to lose the babies. Not all twelve of them, at any rate.
“Where are you?”
“Down where?” She looked down, but all she saw was the crooked stick in her hand. She’d traded nitrobacteria for the walking stick off a one-legged peddler woman because she’d felt sorry for her and had wanted to help her situation. The old woman claimed the stick had come from a branch of an appleberry tree on a planet Ceal had never heard of, a place called Guanabi, which was nothing like this place. Here, there were no trees. Only knee-high vines.
Look farther down, the disembodied voice said.
The stick slipped from her fingers, and she studied the ground. The ground was talking to her.
“What?” The dirt of this doomed planet was laughing at her. Sure, why not? She deserved to be laughed at, being exiled from a place where no one would willingly choose to live. So where was there for her to go from here, except down? She couldn’t go back, not through that field of strangling vines that had since closed in on the path she’d taken here to Lookout Point. Those vines grew that damn fast. It was as if the vines were pushing her to jump. Maybe the vines were talking to her, tormenting her like this. Or maybe it was the stick…
You got a stick, the voice said. Use it. Get me the hell out of here.
Hell. That’s what this place was, anyway. She picked up the appleberry and got to work, using the stick as a claw to scrape away powdery topsoil.
Soon, she’d traced a figure eight pattern around two tips of exposed rocks. Patterns helped her think.
She dug around the rocks. First on one side, then around to the other. Round, and round. The soil slid back, refilling her excavation, and powdered iron rose up from the soil in a cloud, tickling her nose, making her sneeze. This stuff wasn’t really soil, not without a full range of nutrients, how could it be?
Yet, there was something powerful and strange and not quite understood about the infertile soil of this planet. Was it post-dead or pre-alive? Was there a difference? Didn’t both phases actually amount to the same thing, stuck in the loop of life cycles?
This world made an unlikely place for a colony, where the only thing that lived—besides the exiles—were the vines. So. Did the vines indicate this world was at the end of its life cycle or at the beginning?
She didn’t see how there could be much of a past here—or much of a future, either, for that matter—since this planet orbited a star that orbited another star. When the stars’ perennial dance swept them close together…well, then, poof for their colony!
But wasn’t that the idea? Exile here meant a death sentence.
Even under a death watch, the colonists fought to survive, just as Ceal fought the lure of that cliff. The colony couldn’t sustain itself without periodic supply ships that brought them what they needed for their agrifarms, processing plants, and better tools for fitting out the underground shelter. The colony planned to survive that final, fiery encounter, despite the odds.
The problem was, they’d found no resources here to trade except for the iron, but who wanted that? You could mine iron just about anywhere in the galaxy. So the colony had had to grow builder babies for export.
Quit feeling sorry for yourself, 46, and dig the hell faster.
She dug faster. It wasn’t two rocks but two ends of a single rock. It emerged as damn big for a dug-out rock, as big as one of the storage drawers for the fetuses back at the colony.
Round and smooth and perfectly matched on either end, this rock wasn’t random. It had been sculpted!
Falling back on her haunches, she studied the thing that was surely no rock, and as she stared, it jumped in the ground. Or was it the ground that had moved? She looked at her hands, but they hadn’t touched the non-rock. She blinked, but no film had distorted her vision. The semi-buried thing wiggled back and forth, up and down, dislodging itself the rest of the way from sandy soil.
“Wh…what…? What are you?”
“Come on, don’t give up on me now,” it said in a loud, clear voice, a woman’s voice, Ceal thought, with echoes of grandmothers she’d once known.
Rising up from the hole she’d just dug, the non-rock was…somehow…alive. Granules skittered, rolling off its curved sides with a swooshing whisper. The thing shot out of the hole, flipped in the air, and landed on the ground beside Ceal. It looked like a boot. A boot made of rock.
She didn’t know what to say, so she said, “Are you a boot?”
“You’re really rather sharp for a 46, aren’t you?” said the rock-boot.
“Okay, smarty. Boots come in pairs. Where is your other one? Isn’t there another one like you?”
“Hahahaha! I am one of a kind. Built by a Guanabian gentlewoman and commissioned for duty approximately 596.3 of your years into your future.”
“Are you hard of hearing? She can fix that, too.”
“So, that means there is a future, and if that’s true, then I need to help get the shelter built.”
“We won’t have a future if we stand around here like this, wasting time, 46. Come on, you’ve got to put me on if we’re going to reunite. Soon, we’ll be at periastron, and when that happens, if we haven’t jumped out of here by then…”
The reminder of the two stars’ imminent approach, dragging this world along with them, brought an image of fried flesh to Ceal’s mind. “No, I’ve changed my mind. I can’t jump, not because I can’t, but because I have to go back and help the colony build our shelter. We’ve got to finish it in time, and I’ve got to help!”
“You can’t change anything, 46,” the boot said in a softer tone of voice. “Besides, they don’t want you. You’re a screw-up, remember? But I can help you fix that, see? First, you’ve got to put me on. Then, we just have to keep on walking.”
“You? You’re only a boot.”
“Not so. That may be what you think, but that’s not exactly right. I’m designed with toe and heel drives of approximately quadrillion endobytes that neuro-link to ganglia… Oh, never mind. To put it simply, you might call me a smart shoe. Or just smart for short. Hahahaha!”
“Which one will it be, 46? Rightie or leftie? C’mon, pick the winning foot, and let’s hit the road. I’ll show you the way out of here.”
It was a long shot, but she was short on options. She reached for the boot, and it squeezed beneath her fingers—not rock-like at all. But it looked like rock. It giggled as she picked it up—it weighed next to nothing. When she pushed her left foot (she was left-leg dominant) against the top, she felt a gentle but unbreakable suction pulling her foot into the boot’s downy interior.
“That tickles,” it said. “Stop it.”
Her left leg kicked and bucked, once the boot settled around her foot and ankle. “What are you doing?” she cried, her heart fluttering. The kicking boot dragged her closer to the edge of the cliff.
“What has to be done,” it said. “Don’t fight me, 46. You’re going down there.”
So. This was the end after all, she thought. It was what she’d wanted, wasn’t it? She couldn’t live with herself after losing the babies. To lose one or two was one thing, but losing the entire lab of growing fetuses was quite another.
All because she’d thought she was helping the machine guy by not calling him in for emergency service when the warning signal first exhibited. She thought she could fix it herself, a routine change of filters. She’d seen him do it. How hard could it be?
Instead, she’d wiped out the colony’s entire batch of exports with one wrong switch. Her clumsy fingers hadn’t obeyed her brain’s instructions, just as her feet were doing right now, moving on their own. If she was lucky, she’d poof into non-existence the same way the babies had disappeared from their drawers when she threw that switch.
She wasn’t lucky.
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