The second sun sat low in the sky, its pale red light smeared through a blanket of grey clouds. The winter had been a long one; five years, and the rivenbuds were a rare splash of colour in the world.
Caitlin fed the plants, her hands wet and dirty. The winding stems twisted above her, green and bright. The flowers of the rivenbuds were blue, red and white, and a score of colours in between. They smelled fresh, like cool winds on radiant days. Caitlin tucked her hair behind her ear. Her hair was grey as the clouds now. Once it had been thick and brown and someone had placed a rivenbud behind her ear and held her in his arms in this glade.
She rose to her feet, snipped a broken leaf away and sprayed another with water. She took a rivenbud between her fingers and closed her eyes, breathed in its smell and remembered a world that was young and bright and full of promise. So long ago, it seemed. She sighed and gathered her things into her basket. Ben would be needing her. Work to do on the farm. The long winter had been hard on Caitlin and her husband, the farm dry and dying all around them.
But spring was coming, she only had to look at the rivenbuds to see that. There was colour in the world once more.
She tended to another plant, freed it to wind upwards searching the sun. Four fresh buds on this one. A splash of colour in the green.
Perhaps if she hadn’t tended this last plant, she wouldn’t have seen him. A small figure on a distant hill, his backpack slung over his shoulder, his travellers’ clothes green and brown.
Caitlin hid in the glade, leaves held to one side with a finger. It was rare for strangers to come out here. But this was no stranger, she already knew, even at this distance. She recognized the sure stride and the straight back, the fair hair that shone in the sunlight.
Recognized or remembered? Because as he approached the glade, she saw that he hadn’t aged a day in the past twenty years.
“No,” she whispered, letting the leaves fall back, a strange ache in her heart. Steen had said he’d return to this glade one day, but she hadn’t believed him as she’d beat him and cursed him for leaving her.
Caitlin but her lip, and blinked away the tears. He hadn’t aged at all, still so strong and sure in his movements. What would he think when he saw her?
She gathered her basket and fled the fragrant glade as though death itself was at her heel.
It had been a long day on the farm. Long gone were the days when Caitlin and Ben could afford farmhands. Once there had been twelve of them helping around the place. Now only Jek and Hal remained, asking to stay even when Ben had said they couldn’t afford to pay them anymore.
They ate their dinner in silence at a chipped wooden table.
Caitlin finished her dinner first and washed her bowl. “I’m going to head out for a bit,” she said, putting the bowl on the side. All she’d been able to think of was Steen. Had it been fear that made her flee, or shame? Shame at the years etched in her face, in the dryness of her hair?
“Sure, we’ll finish up outside,” Ben said, scraping his spoon around his bowl, his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows.
Caitlin stayed where she was a moment, the lie she had prepared dying on her lips. Somehow it only made her feel all the more guilty.
Would Steen still be there, waiting at the rivenbuds? And even if he was, he would think her old and ugly. He would think this place he’d once called home sorry and wasted. He would think … what would he think? He would be glad he had left this place.
Glad he had left her.
She shouldn’t go to see him. Her life was here. Making the farm work with Ben and Jek and Hal.
She washed her hands and dried them on the towel at her waist.
“See you later,” she said. Ben nodded without looking up.
It was a long walk to the rivenbuds. The sky was a parched red, the light thin as the sun was beginning to fall. The first moon, pale and white, was already rising in the distance. It looked cold and cratered, battered by the forces of nature. Even this giant thing could be wounded by the passing years.
Caitlin hurried on, and memories she had long suppressed came back to her with each step, almost as though she were walking through time itself, winding the past back like yarn around her hand.
Over there, beyond the rolling hills in the distance, dark under the waning light, was where she had first seen him, she with her friends and he with his. She’d thought him stupid, and he’d mocked the accent she still carried from Klistne’s World.
And there, where the stream ran from the same hills, through fields that had once been yellow and green, that was where he’d taught her to fish. She’d already thought him quick and clever by then. Over there beyond the ritne trees that were now bare and sparse, and beyond the lake, that was where they’d stolen into some abandoned farmhouse and made love for the first time.
She found him sitting next to a gently licking fire in the glade of rivenbuds. The flowers surrounded him, blue, white, or green, their petals soft and bowing from the branches, mourning the loss of time, the loss of hope. He hadn’t changed from the moment he’d left her all those years ago. The same strong back, the same fair skin unmarred by dust or hard work.
Caitlin had to stop, her heart cold in her chest, the years suffocating her under their weight. It was then that Steen turned and saw her, looked at her from those blue eyes that had haunted her dreams for the past twenty standard years. He got to his feet, still tall and strong and young and hurried over to her.
“Caitlin,” he whispered. “Caitlin.”
And before Caitlin could turn away, hide the years from her face, flee from his youth and beauty, he took her in his arms again.
Despite herself, Caitlin let him hold her, and she closed her eyes and smelled the rivenbuds as she felt his hard chest against her cheek.
“I still love you,” Steen said. He threw another branch onto the flames and they sparked and spat, before simmering once more.
Caitlin sat next to him, her shawl tight about herself. “You can’t, Steen,” she said. Was her voice different, too? Had that aged the same as her face? “You’ve been gone so long.”
Steen turned now, to look at her. He smiled a smile Caitlin thought she’d long forgotten, so youthful and clever. “It hasn’t been long to me,” he said. He looked up at the sky slowly turning to darkness, the stars appearing one by one, blinking into life here and there. “See the stars up there? Imagine the worlds, worlds like this one,” he smiled, sad and regretful. “Worlds not like this one. They’re a long way, Caitlin. They call it the long sleep for a reason.” He threw another branch onto the fire. The rivenbuds nodded in the flickering light.
Had Steen really not changed at all? Caitlin looked at him, the shadows shifting on his handsome face. Was there an extra line around the eyes? An extra crease around his mouth? A more pensive nature in his speech?
“When we woke on Haritna, I still remembered our parting the day before. I’d put a rivenbud in your hair, and we’d kissed. Made love here. I said I would always remember you, our last moments together, as I faced the grunts in the field.” He smiled, still looking at the stars above. “It was a strange thing to stand on some faraway world, looking at the stars above and remember that we were together in each others arms only the day before.”
“But it wasn’t the day before. It was years.” Caitlin had wept and mourned that her love was going to die a distant world. Ben had been there for her, spoken words of comfort. She bit her lip at the memory. What must she look like in this light? Old beyond recognition, wizened and tired? She wanted to hide, but instead she sat there, her shawl tight around her thin shoulders.
Steen shrugged and smiled. “A Day. Years. What’s the difference, really? Three years I was up there, fighting in the war, and every one of those days I thought of you. With all the killing, murder and bloodshed, all I thought of was you and our days together here. The shooting would fall quiet on a night, our advances would slow, and I would look up into the night and see the stars, thinking of you here and wondering if you were thinking of me.”
Caitlin knew Steen wanted something from her then, some comfort, wanted her to tell him she had thought of him all these years. The rivenbuds watched them quietly, nodding in the breeze, their colours shadowed in the dancing light of the fire. “I’m an old woman now, Steen,” she said. “I’m married. I married Ben and we work together on his farm.” She shrugged and the breeze felt cold as the night approached. “You, you still have your youth, you’ve seen the stars and fought in wars on new worlds. You still have your life ahead of you. My life is done.”
“I remember when I first saw you, Cat,” Steen said, smiling in the shadows. “Out in those fields. I was stupid around you, I wanted you so much. I knew even then that without you my life was done.”
Catelin threw another stick on the fire as the rivenbuds watched from above, their colours muted in the shimmering light of the flames.
Caitlin’s arms ached from working the fields, and her back throbbed. When she ran a hand through her hair, dust fell from it onto the cold stone floor. She held a mirror on the table and turned her face this way and that.
“What are you doing?” Ben said, kicking off his boots in the kitchen.
“Do I look old?” Caitlin put the mirror down and watched Ben wash his hands.
“Hmmm?” Steam rose from the sink and Ben took a towel. “You’re beautiful. You always will be.”
“Yeah, right.” Caitlin pulled a face and picked up the mirror. The years had been sneaky and quiet, coming unnoticed as she worked on the farm. They had stolen the lustre from her hair until it now looked dry and greyed, they had stolen the freshness from her cheeks until they looked dull and hollowed beneath eyes that were now a faded blue. How had the years gone so quickly? She thought of Steen and his golden hair and strong shoulders. She dropped the mirror to the table, her breath lost to her for a moment. Where had the years gone?
Ben came to her, wrapping his arms around her neck and kissed her cheek. He smelled of soil and leaves. “None of us are as young as we used to be. You’re still beautiful, though. There’s beauty in strength, Caitlin, remember that. Beauty in age. Look at those trees over there beyond the fields, how their branches are golden and their leaves green, how those branches spiral and spread and reach for the sun. Isn’t there beauty there? Or in this house; my ancestors built it all those years ago, and every time I come home to it I still see how it stands proud in this valley, the roof red under the sun. Isn’t there beauty in that?” He breathed in her ear. It was warm.
Caitlin touched his arm, felt the strength there. Strength spawned from years of working the fields. She felt trapped, constricted, unable to breathe with his arm around her neck and this talk of passing years.
The knock at the door made them both start. Ben went to answer it, the last waning light of the day spilling into the room as three uniformed officers stood in the doorway, two of them holding plasma rifles across their chests. The uniforms were a burgundy red. Caitlin remembered when Steen had left in his own burgundy uniform, so proud. She turned away.
The unarmed officer smiled a smile that never reached his eyes. He had a datapad in the crook of his arm. “Mr. Renage? I’m sorry to bother you, but we’re here looking for a deserter. He goes by the name of Steen Polit. I think you know him?” Dark eyes looked over Ben’s shoulder and found Caitlin sitting at the table. Another smile. “Perhaps you’ve seen him? He deserted two standard weeks ago. We believe he might have come this way, coming from these parts as he does.”
There was a tension in the set of Ben’s back that only Caitlin would recognise. He still held his hand to the door, barring entry into the house. “Steen? Yes, I knew him more than twenty years ago. Haven’t seen him since. I heard he made it into the Jagers, went off world to fight the grunts.”
“That he did, sir, that he did,” the officer said. He glanced at his datapad, back to Ben. “A fine soldier he is too, as all the Jagers have to be facing the grunts. It seems though,” was that another glance to Caitlin? She felt awkward still sitting there at the table, but it would betray her guilt if she left. “It seems he’s been on planet leave at Gatestown but has been missing for the past two weeks. All Jagers are under strict guard because of the nature of the war.”
Ben still hadn’t moved from the doorway. “Well, like I say, I haven’t seen Steen for twenty years or more.”
The officer nodded, paused a long moment. “And you, Mrs. Renage? You haven’t seen Steen either?”
The tension in Ben’s back intensified visibly. “I’m sure my wife would have told you if she had.” He moved to block the doorway more. He must have been more than twenty years older than the officer.
“Good, good,” the officer said. “But if you,” another glance to Caitlin. “Either of you, see Steen, I would appreciate it if you would call us? It’s very important we find him. Security. You understand.”
Ben closed the door and Caitlin looked at the table, traced a finger along the grain of the wood.
“You’ve seen him,” Ben said. It wasn’t a question.
“I should go,” Caitlin said. “Warn him they’re looking for him.”
Ben went to the window, looked out. “Wait a bit. I think they’ll hang around waiting for you.”
Caitlin nodded. “Thank you,” she said.
“We can’t erase our pasts,” Ben said, turning from the window. The sunlight shone in his greying hair. He looked tired. He smiled, but there was only an air of defeat in it. “However much I might wish it.”
Caitlin went to him and held him, her arms around his waist as she watched the trees on the hillside shiver under the breath of a cold wind.
Two days passed before Caitlin felt safe enough to go to the rivenbuds. Even then she watched all around her as she walked to the glade.
The long winter was reluctant to release its hold on the world, and here and there dry grass was beginning to turn to green and yellow, and spiked trees were beginning to bud pinks and whites.
The world was beginning to bloom once more.
Caitlin knew Steen would be long gone. With the Jagers looking for him, he couldn’t stay in one place too long. She remembered how she had wept when he’d told her he was joining the Jagers. He had been proud in his uniform, holding her as they looked up at the stars together. ‘I’m doing this for you, for all of us,’ he’d said. ‘There are things out there. Creatures. We have to defend mankind against these monsters.’
She’d wept and beat at him with her fists.
‘I’m doing this for you!’ he’d shouted, holding her once more, holding her tight so she couldn’t strike him. There had been tears in his own eyes then.
The rivenbud glade was a riot of colour in a grey world. It was settled in the lee of a hill, the flowers of the rivenbuds blue and white and pink and red, and the plant was twisting and winding, wrapping around itself, thick as her wrist and bright and green.
All around the glade, the world was struggling to recover from the long winter, but the rivenbuds had flourished, springing back to life as though the very presence of Steen had given them strength and sustenance.
He wouldn’t be there.
He had to still be there, otherwise the rivenbuds would wither and perish.
She saw him in the distance, over the incline where the trees bent in the breeze and the grass was long. He carried a backpack, and when he saw her, he ran towards her, his strides long and sure over the uneven ground.
“Caitlin,” he said. He touched her hair and stroked her cheek. He kissed her, his lips hard on hers. His body felt hard pressed against her own.
“We can’t,” Caitlin pulled away, her breath light in her throat. “I’m married, Steen.” She looked into his eyes. “I’m old.” How could he want her still, looking as she did? She almost felt as though he was mocking her with the desire she saw in his eyes.
“Cat,” Steen said, his pale cheeks flushed. “Three years I’ve been without you, and every day I’ve thought only of you. Of coming back to you. Of being with you again.” He kissed her again, long and slow, and Caitlin could close her eyes and smell the rivenbuds and remember a time so many years ago.
She pushed him away again. “But to desert, Steen. To desert just to find me after all this time…”
Steen smiled, his arms loose around her waist. “For you, Cat? I suppose it was for you. He looked up at the sky, white clouds smeared across the red. “You don’t know what it’s like out there. You don’t know what it’s like falling asleep and waking years later among the stars. You think about it, about how far you are away from the ones you love, from everything you know, and it’s like a vice around your heart, around your lungs.” His arms were tight around her waist now, the muscles taut under his shirt. “I went to see my parents,” he said, his arms loosening around her waist. “I stood on the hill overlooking their farm. It looked dry and old. The windows were dark.”
Could he know? Should he know? But how could she be the one to tell him? “We all missed you,” she said. “Me, your parents. Everybody. We all begged you to stay, but you knew you were doing what was right. Stopping the expansion of the grunts.” She remembered begging him, screaming at him. Saying she would hate Steen forever for leaving.
Steen shook his head. “You should see them Cat, the grunts. They’re like nothing you could ever imagine. We call them grunts to make us hate them and fear them, but they’re beautiful.” He looked down at her, and his eyes were bright. “They have wings of gold and silver that shimmer under the light of two suns. You should see their eyes, Cat. And when they fly, I never knew there could be such beauty in the world,” he smiled. “In any world.”
Steen released her now, and turned away. “They have no concept of death or fear, or warfare. Sometimes I wonder if even time itself has any hold on them. I’ve seen them shiver their wings,” he took a rivenbud in his hand. It was yellow. “And somehow they seem brighter, younger, more vibrant.” He held the fragrant flower to his nose. “They come in their thousands, singing their songs that tear at my heart even now, and we’re ordered to shoot them from the sky, slaughter them in their thousands.” He let the rivenbud fall to the ground. “It’s a war of extermination, Cat. How could I give up you, everything I’ve ever known, for such a thing?”
“But all they’d said to you, about defending mankind from the grunts…”
“Klain,” Steen said. “He was the one who recruited me, lied to me. He told me the grunts would be here soon enough if we lost the war, that you’d be dead, we’d all be dead under the heel of the grunts if we did nothing.” Steen shrugged and smiled, something lost in his eyes. “They do move from world to world, but there’s something about them, something we could never hope to understand. They have no weapons or money, all they do is fly and sing to one another. They communicate by tilting their great wings to the light, or some other way I’m too stupid to understand.” He fell silent a moment, lost in his thoughts.
Caitlin was silent also, listening to the birds rustling in the leaves about them. “They’ll find you if you stay here,” she finally said. “They’ll be watching me. They knew our history.”
“History, is that what it is?” There was a challenge in Steen’s eyes as he looked deep into her own. He turned away after a moment, a wrench in Caitlin’s heart as he did. “I suppose it is now, isn’t it? History?” He shook his head. He looked young and strong and handsome in the sunlight filtering through the leaves. “They stole my life, stole you from me, Cat, with their lies.”
What could she say? For a moment she wondered what her own life would have been like if Steen hadn’t left. Where would she be now? What would she have seen on this world or others? But this was selfish, she knew. Ben had done all he could on the farm and the long winter had been hard on him too. Wouldn’t he have wanted more from this life? She plucked a rivenbud and breathed in its scent, closed her eyes and breathed deeply. A cool, cleansing smell that made her think of cold breezes rolling down fragrant hills. She remembered lying here on idle summer days in Steen’s arms, talking about the plans they had for their lives. She opened her eyes, touched him on the back. “How could you have left me?” she whispered.
He turned and touched her cheek with the back of his hand, looked into her eyes.
After, as they lay in each other’s arms, watching the rivenbuds nod in the breeze above them, Steen turned to look at her. Caitlin fought the urge to turn away now the passion had ebbed. How could he still look at her with such love, when all the years had been so cruelly etched into her face, into her body?
“I need you to do something for me,” he said. “I have to try and stop them.”
She could feel Ben watching from the window as she drove the trak away. He had been quiet the past few days, something shadowed in his dark eyes. When Caitlin had told him she needed to take the trak, he had only nodded and turned away.
The trak’s wheels bounced along the rutted roads, and its aged engine grumbled on the way to Gern’s cafe. Steen waited for her off the road, emerging from the shadows as she pulled up. He flung his backpack into the back before climbing in next to her, his every movement smooth and sure. Had Caitlin ever been so young and lithe? She found it hard to remember such a time.
Steen touched her hand as she slipped the trak into drive.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Caitlin said. “You could move on. You have your whole life ahead of you still. You could go somewhere they would never find you.”
“Is it, Cat? Is my life ahead of me? Every time I look at you, I remember what they stole from me. Every time I close my eyes I see the grunts and their brilliant wings.”
The roads were better as they drove towards town, the trak rumbling every now and again as they hit the occasional hole or pile of rubble. Either side of the road were stores with neon lights bright as dusk fell, the moon above them huge and white and pitted with craters. The trak’s lights bit into the gathering gloom before them, showing hunched figures hurrying from store to store, and further into town towers rose with laundry hanging on balconies.
“You know the way?” Steen said, his face hard in the shadows.
Caitlin smiled. “You think I would forget coming here with you?” And she hadn’t forgotten. Steen looked no different now, but coming this way to the Jager Recruitment Centre, and remembering his enthusiasm then, his determination to do what was right, she realized that perhaps he had changed almost as much as she had.
Steen reached into the back and grabbed his bag, set it on his knee. “Pull up around the corner,” he said, pointing to a store where the windows were grimy and scattered with words in garish colours.
The trak rumbled to a stop at the corner and Caitlin looked at Steen. The town was darker now, the neon lights brighter, and the lights of passing traks spread this way and that. “You aren’t going to do anything stupid, are you?” she said, looking first into his eyes and then at the bag.
“Stupid?” Steen grinned and pulled a plasma gun from the backpack. The metal was dull and grey in the darkness of the trak. A pale light flitted across his face and then moved on into the town. He held up a black chip, showing it to her. “This will help me get into their systems. There’ll be something there to show everybody what is happening up there. Show the worlds what men are doing to the grunts.” He slipped the chip into the pocket of his jacket. He smiled, something regretful in his eyes. “I won’t be long.” He slipped out of the trak.
Caitlin watched him run across the road, a dark figure slipping past a flash of trak lights. The RC was a tall building with big windows. Further along the street was a holo ad that lit the encroaching night in a riot of pale blues and garish yellows.
Steen stopped, pulled something from his pocket, and worked on the door a moment before slipping into the RC. Caitlin watched the building across the road, traks flitting past, dark and hulking under the street lights. Had Steen always been like this, so sure of himself? Could she imagine him breaking into a building so easily before he’d left?
Her breath caught in her throat. A trak in the colours of the Jagers pulled up outside the RC and three men got out. The three who’d been at the farm. Klain, was it? And his two henchmen. Had they been watching her? Caitlin sunk down into her seat, her heart beating hard. Klain seemed to look straight at her, his lips peeling back over his teeth in what might have been a smile.
The three men pulled guns from holsters and entered the RC.
“No,” Caitlin whispered. “No.” Her heart was loud in her ears and her breath came in sharp gasps. “No,” she said again, louder this time. She watched the RC. All seemed to be in darkness, the only lights those of the holo ad from further down the street, and the lights of the passing traks skimming the windows before moving on. “Shit,” Caitlin whispered.
The backpack. She grabbed it from the back seat and opened it. Steen had come prepared. The backpack was full of tools. And two more plasma guns, both sleek and grey with black handles. She took one. It was heavier than it looked, and the grip moulded into her palm.
What could she do? Nothing. Her place was on the farm with Ben. She looked back to the RC. A blaze of light lit one of the upper windows from the inside. “Steen!” She jumped out of the trak, running across the road, her heart hammering in her chest. A trak blared its horn at her, and she stopped, and then ran again once it had passed.
The inside of the RC was lit with pale lights and shifting shadows. Tables and chairs were stacked and posters lined the walls showing brave men with big guns on strange worlds. All was quiet other than Caitlin’s heart beating in her ears. The gun felt limp in her hand as she stepped through the room. Shouldn’t there be gunfire? Shouting?
She moved on into the building. Computers hummed and watched her darkly from empty screens. She climbed winding stairs, her steps unnaturally loud.
An officer was there, at the top of the stairs, a steaming hole in his shoulder. Caitlin remembered him from the farm. One of Klain’s men. Steen had killed a man. Did she even know him at all? She remembered his gentle touches and his shy smiles. The officer’s eyes stared emptily at the ceiling.
Another shot, more a breath of air. The sound of falling furniture and a gasp of pain. Caitlin’s breath caught in her throat and she moved on, gripping the gun.
She found them in a meeting room. A flash, and the other officer was falling back, hitting the wall hard. He slumped to the floor, face down.
Steen and Klain grappled for a gun, barging into the wall, and tables scraped as they fell away. Steen was injured now, Caitlin saw, his side bleeding, the blood dark.
Klain let go of the gun, hit him once, twice in the wound and Steen gasped and doubled over, collapsing to the floor as Klain elbowed him on the back of his neck. A kick in the ribs, and Steen spat blood onto the floor.
“Stop!” Caitlin shouted, her voice shaking as she aimed the gun.
“Mrs. Renage,” Klain said, looking up and smiling. There was blood on his teeth. “Good. You can help me take him in.” He spat on the floor and kicked Steen again.
“Let him go,” Caitlin said. The gun in her hand shook, her vision tunnelling. Outside she could hear the rumble of the traks and music from the holo ad.
Klain looked at her and shook his head. “You’ve seen what he’s done. You’re my witness. He’s broken in here and killed two of my men. He’s a deserter. The Jagers are dangerous, why do you think we keep such tight control of them? Because they’re dangerous!” He took a clip from his belt to fasten Steen’s wrists.
“I said let him go,” Caitlin said. Steen was losing colour fast. “He’s bleeding out. Let him go.”
“You think he’s the same man you knew? You think you can go out there and not be changed by it? I’ve done four trips. Four! It changes a man, seeing the worlds out there, fighting for humanity. Fighting for people like you and your husband.” Klain’s face was streaked with sweat.
Caitlin still held the gun. “He’s told me about the grunts, about what they’re like, their wings and their songs. He’s told me the lies you tell!” She held the gun tighter, strength coming with her anger.
“He’s told you that, has he?” Klain looked down at Steen, still gasping for breath. Steen stirred on the floor, dark blood staining his chest. “And just because these things have pretty wings and pretty songs, does that mean they’re not dangerous? Only dark, ugly things can be a threat to us all and our way of life? Did you know they can’t die? Did know they live forever and will overrun us all unless we stop them? Did he tell you that?!”
Steen wrapped an arm around Klain’s leg, pushed with his shoulder and drove Klain into a table and down to the floor. He punched the officer, once, twice, and looked up at Caitlin, his face pale. “Run!” he said, his voice weak. “Run! Get the trak.”
Caitlin ran, her breath loud in her ears. She knocked a table and books scattered. She ran on, stumbled down the stairs, cracking her ankle. She shouldered the door open and burst onto the street, the holo ad still flashing madly, traks trundling down the street.
Her heart pounded as she reached her own trak, throwing the gun onto the back seat, the engine coming to life with a roar. She swung the trak around, stopping outside the RC with a screech. The engine rumbled enough for Caitlin to feel it in her stomach.
The door of the RC opened again. Steen stumbled out, his hair drenched with sweat and his arm clutched to his side. He looked both ways down the street before coming to Caitlin, climbing into the trak with an effort that made his face pale. “Drive!” he gasped. “Drive!”
Caitlin pulled out, a trak with white lights blaring behind her. She sped away, the neon lights of the town streaming either side of them.
Soon they were at the edge of town, less traffic here, and she stole a glance at Steen. His handsome face looked blue in the light, and his fair hair dark as it clung to his forehead.
“Steen?” she said, her throat tight. “Steen?”
“They’re so different from us, Cat,” he said, his voice barely a whisper over the rumbling of the trak. “They shimmer their wings and become young and bright again. We get no second chances, do we? How could I stay away when I knew all the time we’d already lost together? Time we can never get back.”
“You’ll be fine Steen, you’ll be fine.” Caitlin spun the trak around a sharp corner, clipping a wall and speeding on.
“They’re beautiful, you know? I was separated from the Jagers once, in a field of purple flowers where the sky was green and the winds warm, and the grunts found me.” He looked at her, slumped in his seat, and Caitlin could see dark dampness spreading between the fingers clasped to his side. “They found me, one of their enemies who had been slaughtering them, and they hovered above me and around me in this great spiral dance, their wings flashed colours you can’t imagine, and they sang this song that made my heart soar. They were trying to communicate with me, Cat. Communicate through dance, or light, or song, something that I was too stupid to understand. They danced so close to me, shivering their wings, becoming brighter and brighter until it hurt to look at them, then they spiralled away, soaring to the suns, so young and free.”
Caitlin spun the wheel and forced the trak on faster, checking the mirror to see what followed. All she saw was a dark road with shadowy traks and their streaking lights. She accelerated some more, glancing again at Steen. He was losing colour by the moment. “We need to get you to the hospital,” she said, trying to keep the desperation from her voice.
Steen looked at her, hunched in his seat. “Thanks for not telling me about them, Cat. My parents. I did go into the farm and it was dark and quiet and cold. I think that’s why we’re so afraid of them, the grunts. They don’t give in to the dark and the cold, they shiver their wings and turn away from the darkness, they’re born again, young and free and bright.”
A trak, travelling slowly before them, its lights red and muted, was blocking the road and Caitlin struck the wheel with her fist. “Come on!” she shouted, and veered the trak to the left and accelerated hard, speeding past. “Not far now,” she said. “Not far now.”
“That’s what I went to the RC for,” Steen said. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a small black chip, no larger than his thumb nail. “It’s the recording from my vid-cam from that day. I knew I had to share it with you. How could I see something like that and not share it with you, Cat?” He smiled and his eyes looked faraway. “I never knew there could be such wonder in all the worlds, Cat, but all I could think of was you and how I wanted you to see it.”
Caitlin could see the hospital now. A giant building with a thousand windows blinking like stars in the night. “We’re there!” she cried. “We’re there!”
Rivenbuds never flowered for long. The first brief flush of spring and the flowers would bloom in extravagant abandon, colours of every description, fragrant and rich, and then all too soon, the flowers would wither and fade before spring was even properly begun.
Caitlin stood alone in the glade, stooping to pick a fallen rivenbud from the ground. She held it in the palm of her hand, the vibrant colour long faded, the petals dry and delicate. She brought it to her nose; even the scent was long gone.
“I thought I would find you here.” Ben stood at the entrance to the glade, reluctant to enter.
Caitlin smiled. “You really do know me, don’t you?” She stopped and looked around. The colours were gone, the smells were gone and all that remained were memories and regrets.
Ben shrugged, smiled. The stubble on his chin was turning to grey. “We’ve been together a long time.”
“I know. I saw the trak leaving. So what happens now?”
“I don’t know.” Caitlin looked up at the darkening night through the canopy of leaves above. Stars were blinking into life, one by one. “I suppose people will see the vid and come to their own conclusions. Maybe some will start to study how the grunts communicate.”
“And then what will be will be,” Ben smiled.
“Yeah, something like that.” Caitlin gently stroked the rivenbud with her thumb. “Aren’t you coming in?” she said.
Ben shrugged. “This is your place. I think we should keep it that way, don’t you? Somewhere for you to come on your own.”
Caitlin took a breath. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Come on, let’s get you home. Lots of work to do and all that. Spring’s finally here, you know.”
Caitlin took one last look around before bringing the rivenbud to her lips and letting it loose. It caught on a warm breeze and the white petals scattered and fell quietly onto a carpet of green.