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City at the End of Timeby Greg Bear
The city was young. Unbelievably young.
The moon rose sharp and silver-blue over a deck of soft gray clouds, and if you looked east, above the hills, where the sun would soon rise, you saw a brightness as yellow and real as natural butter.
The city faced the coming day with dew cold and wet on new green grass, streaming down windows, beaded on railings, chill against swiping fingers.
Waking up in the city, no one could know how young it was and fresh; all had activities to plan, living worries to blind them, and what would it take to finally smell the blessed, cool newness, but a whiff of something other?
Everyone went about their business.
The day passed into dusk.
Hardly anyone noticed there was a difference.
A hint of loss.
With a shock that nearly made her cry out, Ginny thought she saw the old gray Mercedes in the wide side mirror of the Metro bus-stopped the next lane over, two car lengths behind, blocking traffic. The smoked rear windows, the crack in its mottled windshield-clearly visible.
It's them-the man with the silver dollar, the woman with flames in her palms.
The bus's front door opened, but Ginny stepped back into the aisle. All thoughts of getting out a stop early, of walking the next few blocks to stretch her legs and think, had vanished.
The Metro driver-a plump black woman with ivory sclera and pale brown eyes, dark red lipstick, and diamonds on her incisors, still, after a day's hard work, lightly perfumed with My Sin-stared up at Ginny. "Someone following you, honey? I can call the cops." She tapped the bus's emergency button with a long pearly fingernail.
Ginny shook her head. "Won't help. It's nothing."
The driver sighed and closed the door, and the bus drove on. Ginny took her seat and rested her backpack in her lap-she missed the weight of her box, but for the moment, it was someplace safe. She glanced over her shoulder through the bus's rear window.
The Mercedes dropped back and turned onto a side street.
With her good hand, she felt in the pack's zippered side pocket for a piece of paper. While unwrapping the filthy bandage from her hand, the doctor at the clinic had spent half an hour gently redressing her burns, injecting a big dose of antibiotics, and asking too many questions.
Ginny turned to the front of the bus and closed her eyes. Felt the passengers brush by, heard the front door and the middle door open and close with rubbery shushes, the air brakes chuffing and sighing.
The doctor had told her about an eccentric but kind old man who lived alone in a warehouse filled with books. The old man needed an assistant. Could be long-term. Room and board, a safe place; all legit. The doctor had not asked Ginny to trust her. That would have been too much.
Then, she had printed out a map.
Because Ginny had no other place to go, she was following the doctor's directions. She unfolded the paper. Just a few more stops. First Avenue South-south of the two huge stadiums. It was getting dark-almost eight o'clock.
Before boarding the bus-before seeing or imagining the gray Mercedes- Ginny had found an open pawnshop a block from the clinic. There, like Queequeg selling his shrunken head, she had hocked her box and the library stone within.
It was Ginny's mother who had called it the library stone. Her father had called it a "sum-runner." Neither of the names had ever come with much of an explanation. The stone-a hooked, burned-looking, come-and- go thing in a lead-lined box about two inches on a side-was supposed to be the only valuable possession left to their nomadic family. Her mother and father hadn't told her where they had taken possession of it, or when. They probably didn't know or couldn't remember.
The box always seemed to weigh the same, but when they slid open the grooved lid-a lid that only opened if you rotated the box in a certain way, then back again-her mother would usually smile and say, "Runner's turned widdershins!" and with great theater they would reveal to their doubting daughter the empty interior.
The next time, the stone might stick up from the padded recess as solid and real and unexplained as anything else in their life.
As a child, Ginny had thought that their whole existence was some sort of magic trick, like the stone in its box.
When the pawnbroker, with her help, had opened the box, the stone was actually visible-her first real luck in weeks. The pawnbroker pulled out the stone and tried to look at it from all directions. The stone- as always-refused to rotate, no matter how hard he twisted and tugged. "Strong sucker. What is it, a gyroscope?" he asked. "Kind of ugly-but clever."
He had written her a ticket and paid her ten dollars.
This was what she carried: a map on a piece of paper, a bus route, and ten dollars she was afraid to spend, because then she might never retrieve her sum-runner, all she had to remember her family by. A special family that had chased fortune in a special way, yet never stayed long in one place-never more than a few months, as if they were being pursued.
The bus pulled to the curb and the doors sighed open. The driver flicked her a sad glance as she stepped down to the curb.
The door closed and the bus hummed on.
In a few minutes the driver would forget the slender, brown-haired girl-the skittish, frightened girl, always looking over her shoulder.
Ginny stood on the curb under the lowering dusk. Airplanes far to the south scraped golden contrails on the deep blue sky. She listened to the city. Buildings breathed, streets grumbled. Traffic noise buzzed from east and west, filtered and muted between the long industrial warehouses. Somewhere, a car alarm went off and was silenced with a disappointed chirp.
Down the block, a single Thai restaurant spilled a warm glow from its windows and open door.
She took a hungry half breath and looked up and down the wide street, deserted except for the bus's dwindling taillights. Shouldering her pack, she crossed and paused in a puddle of sour orange glow cast by a streetlight. Stared up at the green slab wall of the warehouse. She could hide here. Nobody would find her. Nobody would know anything about her.
It felt right.
She knew how to erase trails and blank memories. If the old man turned out to be a greasy pervert-she could handle that. She had dealt with worse-much worse.
On the north end of the warehouse, an enclosure of chain-link fence surrounded a concrete ramp and a small, empty parking lot. At the low end of the ramp, a locked gate barred access from the sidewalk. Ginny looked for security cameras, but none were visible. An old ivory- colored plastic button mounted in green brass was the only way to attract attention. She double-checked the address on the map. Looked up at the high corner of the warehouse. Squeezed her finger through the chain link.
Pushed the button.
A few moments later, as she was about to leave, the gate buzzed open. No voice, no welcome.
Her shoulders slumped in relief-so tired.
But after all she had been through, no hope could go unchallenged. Quickly, she probed with all her strength and talent for a better way through the confused tangles of outcome and effect. None appeared. This was the only good path. Every other led her back to the spinning, blue-white storm in the woods.
For months now she had felt her remaining options pinch down. She had never pictured this warehouse, never known she would end up in Seattle, never clearly foreseen the free clinic and the helpful doctor.
Ginny pulled the gate open and walked up the ramp. The gate swung back with a rasping squeak and locked behind her.
Today was her eighteenth birthday.
Copyright © 2008 by Greg Bear
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