by Bill Rogers
Welcome to Hilltown, last stop before the endless Sea. Here, a thousand years after the starship Carpathia crashed, descendants of the castaways have built themselves a trim little village that would be comfortable—if only something else didn't wander the streets at night.
Welcome to the realm of Dean Lansen, the flannel-shirted Thirty-Third Lord Protector. Welcome to a town populated by seekers, wanderers, and misfits, drawn by the dreams they don't understand.
Welcome to life in the ashes of a world that has already been destroyed once…
March 1, 1089 AC – New Year’s Day, Carpathia’s World Reformed Calendar
The door of his cottage opened, but Dean Lansen didn't even turn to look. “Another year has passed already,” he said, more to himself than to his visitor.
“You know it has, Brother. It’s the equinox. You knew I was coming.”
Dean slumped deeper into his soft leather armchair, staring at the fire inside his woodstove. “I don’t want to go.”
“You never do. Yet you must.”
“Why? What would happen if I didn’t?” Dean turned to look at her.
Val stood with the dawn-lit sky behind her, one hand on her hip, wearing jeans, hiking boots, and a gray-green, short-sleeved sweatshirt. A worn russet-colored leather utility case next to her right hip, hung by a strap over her left shoulder. She grinned at him. “You always have all the questions.”
“And you never have any answers.”
“Answers are not my nature, only endings. Perhaps you seek an ending now, but you won’t find it. You’ll go. You can’t refuse.”
“Because going there is my nature?”
She smiled, and for a moment, it dazzled him. “One answer at least you have, Brother. Shall we go?”
He sighed and tossed the blanket aside. Together, they walked into the chilly spring air and out to her car. It was in perfect condition, that car even though it was so old that the average citizen wouldn’t be able to tell what make it was, unless they could recognize it by its color. Fords traditionally used paint colors that were somehow just a little wrong, just a little unnatural. Val’s car was painted a metallic blue that was not quite turquoise.
His cottage, the door still open, hunched casually beneath the dark firs. His dock and boat lay ahead. Most mornings he’d board his boat and motor the hundred feet across the mouth of Sackport to where he kept his truck in a shed on the other side. The boat was automated. It could navigate back and forth without him. However, he’d kept the boat on his side last night, so Val had been forced to drive around Sackport on the truck trail. Along more than a mile of a rocky trace that was a road in name only and passable only in so far as he cut down most of the larger trees that grew up to block it. It would have been polite to have sent the boat across to the other side so Val could have used it, but he didn’t feel like making things easy for her.
They got into her car and headed off. They jounced down the two-track lane, running counter-clockwise around the eighty-acre lake, or bay, or whatever it was. Sackport’s mouth was very narrow and enough creek water entered it to remove most of the taint that seawater carried. One of the favorite arguments in the barbershop, for as long as there had been a barbershop, had been over just what kind of body of water it was. Everyone agreed that it made a heck of a small boat harbor, though.
“It wasn’t like you to rebel once,” Val commented, steering around a boulder in the path and scraping the driver’s side against a tree branch. “You’ve been living with them for too long.”
“Or not long enough. I should have rebelled long ago, but that’s not important. I’m doing what you demand of me. Don’t lecture me about it.”
They bumped on ahead. The trail met Sackport Road, with the Sea and the distant curving shoreline vanishing away to the west. Val turned right and headed toward Hilltown. You couldn’t see much of the town from there, because of the trees, except for the Hillcrest Manor apartment house, which, despite its name, was only a bit more than halfway up the Hill. Or Odin’s Peak, as it was called on the old maps. Not much of a peak, a weathered, rocky hill less than two hundred feet high, but it marked the end of the narrow peninsula of Land’s End, which was as good as the end of the world to most people. Folks tended to notice it.
“I don’t know why you like them, Dean. They’re silly.”
He smiled, looking at the sun where it showed behind the black pines of the Isle of Olgraffa, across the passage from Hilltown. As they drew closer to the town he could see everything—the crescent of white wood and red brick buildings huddled around the base of the Hill—facing Hilltown’s harbor and points east.
In the cove, three fine new ships floated at anchor. Most people favored the square-riggers for long voyages across the sea, but he liked the looks of the schooner better. Dawn Treader, the schooner’s name, was a ship’s name from one of the old books. She wouldn’t be fast, but she was built tough. Her rig would let her be managed by a small crew and, with few mouths to feed, meant her supplies could last a long time. Her small size and her rig would also let her turn quickly if something unexpected should appear dead ahead.
“They’re gallant,” he told Val.
She took a hand from the steering wheel and waved at the ships in the harbor. “They’re silly. They keep building those things. That proves my point.”
Val snorted, and turned to the right just past the drug store, heading for the ferry. The lighted clock in the pharmacy window glowed. Its hands pointed at 6:04.
Val stopped the car near the ferryboat. “Doesn’t look like he’s awake.”
“He will be,” Dean growled, getting out. He walked over to a shack’s door and kicked it. “Come on, you lazy old...”
The man who came to the door was gray-haired, one-eyed, and had a vaguely disturbing complexion. The scent of mildew swirled around him.
“What the hell do you want?”
Dean waved his hand toward the Isle of Olgraffa, across the black water of the Passage. “What do you think I want?”
“Oh, aye, keep your pants on. Come on. Why do you want to go across so early on a Sunday?”
“Personal business. My personal business.” He pulled a silver coin out of his pocket and gave it to the ferryman, holding the coin between his uttermost fingertips, as if the touch of it burned him. “This, on the other hand, is yours.”
“Aye. ’Tis all I ask. Get your car on.” But Val had already driven the ancient Ford onto the ferry.
The ferryman switched on the motors and maneuvered away from the dock. Val and Dean stood at the bow, watching Olgraffa get closer, each silent and alone in private thought and memory. The road up from the shore was broad and smooth, but saw so little traffic that the grass had grown across all but its center.
“Why don’t they live here?” Val said. “It’s the best agricultural land within a hundred miles.”
“A few do. Only a few though, and you know why.”
“But those old woes don’t have anything to do with today’s people. What’s past is past.”
Dean laughed bitterly. “If only that were true! No, the past is now. The past is what makes the present. And the past ... marks things. Yes. Some places are marked forever by what happened there.”
Dean shrugged. Val believed things ended. That was her nature.
An even more overgrown road branched off, heading north. Val followed it for five miles, until it vanished beneath the underbrush of a dark forest. “We walk from here.”
“You think I don’t know that?” He got out and continued heading north. The smooth strip, which had once been a road, continued beneath the bushes. Once they were through, under the shadows of the tall trees, they were in a vast gloomy cavern of pinewoods. He saw that the ancient road went on, a mighty pine growing through it here and there. As they walked ahead other level traces came in from the sides at right angles, at regular intervals, marking out a grid work. Between the lines of the grid, the earth rose up in irregular mounds, and bits of stone or brick protruded.
Three miles further a flat-topped stone, perfectly circular and a foot high, rose from the forest floor. “This is the place,” Val said.
“You have a profound grasp of the obvious. Let’s get this over with.”
Val nodded. Dean knelt in the center of the stone, facing the sun, which rested on the horizon to the east. She walked to him then, blocking the sunlight, opened her utility case and pulled out a silver dagger with a ruby set in its hilt. She presented it to him with both hands. He bowed his head and took it. She stepped aside.
Staring into the face of the sun, Dean took the dagger and slit his left wrist. He held his hands toward the sun, left wrist pouring his blood upon the stone, right hand offering the dagger.
Tears rose in his eyes, but not tears of pain. They dropped on the stone with his blood, then vanished into the stone without a trace.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the sun. “I’m so sorry.”
* * * *
Val drove the Ford back through Hilltown. The clock in the pharmacy window glowed. Its hands pointed at 6:04.
“Let me out here,” he asked Val, where Sackport Road met the truck trail to his cottage.
She looked at him, concerned. “You’ll be all right?”
He smiled and glanced at the bandage on his wrist. “Am I not always?”
“I guess.” She smiled and suddenly leaned across the car to hug him. “We should see each other more often, Brother. Not just on these ... formal occasions.”
Dean smiled. “I will, Sister. I’ll come see you. I promise.”
He got out of the Ford and stood by the road, watching her depart. Soon she’d be down the highway to the west, to the great cities, to her own life, and her own purpose.
Smiling a little to himself, he walked the two tenths of a mile to the end of Sackport Road, past the shed where his truck slept, and down to the public dock on this side. He reached into his pocket for the remote and pushed the button to summon his boat across.
Not long after, he stepped into his cottage, closed the door he’d left ajar what seemed like hours before, and sat down in his chair again. He picked up the blanket, wrapped it around his shoulders, and sat there for a long time, listening to his clock ticking in the quiet room.
The sun rose over the horizon to the east. A stray beam reached all the way from the Passage side of the point, through the firs, and shone into one of his windows. He sat in his chair and looked into his stove, watching empires rise to glory and crumble away again in its flames.