by Anne Elizabeth Zeek & Pat Nussman



And how am I to face the odds,
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
– A. E. Housman,
“Eight O’Clock”

He ignored the water lapping about his feet, ignored it as he had ignored the steady drizzle of rainfall and the chill that was more than bone-deep.  His weapon, unpowered now, still lay fifty paces back where he had dropped it.  His hands, his murderer’s hands, rested in his lap, lightly clasped.  His thoughts circled wearily, mechanically.


The water crept past his insteps, soaking the lower part of his trouser legs.  The boulder he was sitting on was fast becoming an island.  Not even sure why – his life, his hope for happiness, lay at the edge of the strand, killed by his hand – he pushed himself up.  He inhaled deeply.  The taste of the sea was no saltier on his lips than his tears had been.


Finally he turned, and trudged back along the gently sloping beach to the edge of the shoreline.  Stooping, he retrieved his weapon.  The gun glowed back to life the moment he hefted it in his hands.  Strong hands, deft hands.  Murderer’s hands.


He walked back to the small, slight shape that scarcely made an impression in the sand.  He looked down at her.  His latest – his last? – victim.  Memories, bittersweet, sweetly bitter, flooded back.


They had escaped the city, and the future beckoned to them brightly.  Even here, this far north of the Los Angeles/San Francisco complex, pollution smeared the landscape; the vegetation was malformed, stunted.  Yet in contrast to the ever-present rain and the yellow smog of the city, the countryside had seemed — to their wondering eyes, at least — a verdant paradise.


Their plans were nebulous, unformed.  They would go where whim, or the prevailing winds, would take them.  There were other cities.  There were also rumors — unfounded, scoffed at by almost everyone in authority — of people who had returned to the earth, people who had left the sprawling hellholes that were Earth’s megalopolises and had gone, not to the robot-run farming combines, but to the wilds.


There were also the spaceports.  If a shuttle could be hijacked to Earth, why couldn’t they take one and go — Up There?


The important thing was, that afternoon so long, so short a time ago, they had had options.  They had had choices that could be made.


And then she had made the choice he never expected, the choice that left him standing here, looking down at her, his tears lost in rain and sea spray.  She opted for death.


* * *


Threatening clouds loomed from the west, but the rain had not yet reached this lonely stretch of beach at the end of the scrub forest.  Hand in hand, like children released from school, they explored the wonders of both worlds, forest and shore.  City-born and -bred, they had — neither of them — any memories of such places.


She plucked a handful of leaves, held them in front of her as though they were an old-fashioned bride’s bouquet.  The leaves were brown and ragged from disease, not at all the golden and red glories legend said they had been during autumns past, but her smile above them made them more beautiful in his eyes than even the telling of now-gone roses or dahlias or lilies.


As though she knew what he was thinking, her smile grew into laughter, and she whirled about that he might see her.  She had shed her synthafur coat, had tossed aside her stiffly severe suit jacket.  Silk blouse and skirt, pearly opalescent in the slanting afternoon rays of the so-seldom seen sun, clung to her well-remembered body, and her hair, still unconfined, floated about her head.


She was a faerie child, wild and free.


Her laughter died, and she halted her dance.  Somber now, she buried her face in the mock-bouquet in her hands.

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