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by Jeffrey A. Miller

Violet tendrils of toxin danced skyward along the horizon, radiant in the light of the setting sun. Houd, every part of his body cold except for his right hand, watched from the hilltop, the collar of his cloak pulling against his neck as the wind howled up from the valley.

“I can’t tell if it is closer,” he said.

“Of course it’s closer,” Ena said, squeezing his hand. “It’s always moving.”

Houd lingered a moment, as if the ever-shifting cloud might yet speak to him, until Ena pulled him gently down the hill and toward the line of trees. People were clustered here and there, some on their knees, others standing in circles, heads bowed, some seated leisurely as if waiting for a show to begin.

Only a few stood alone. Most of those who had no family or friends had made new ones just for the occasion. One man, wringing his hands, walked an endless loop around the base of a large gnarled tree, curtains of gray, greasy hair shielding his face.

“There really aren’t that many left,” Ena noted.

“No,” Houd replied, speaking softly. This place had the feel of a church, a sacred place where voices ought to remain hushed and reverent. And, indeed, it was sacred, for soon it would be a cemetery. “I suppose most of them have already made their choice.”

They passed a circle of people, men and women, a young child, bodies huddled close, arms intertwined. All of them weeping. Houd felt sick to his stomach and might have turned back then, but Ena kept him moving.

The crazy man with the greasy hair paused in his endless loop as they passed by. He looked up, eyes like great yellow stones beneath a heavy brow.

“More, more,” he said, clapping. “And what fate will these two embrace? Great mystery of mysteries!” He shook his head and resumed his course.

Ena and Houd traded a look but said nothing. Of course the crazy people would be here, as well. Here, all got to choose.

The trees proved to be a very thin band of forestation surrounding a dead space of dust and stones around the sinkhole. Many more were gathered here, clumps of miserable people edging toward the drop. A faint white light flickered in a neat spiraling pattern along the rim, and a low electrical hum filled the air. Ena’s hold on Houd’s hand tightened, and this time it was she who drew to a stop.

“That’s it,” she said.

“Yes,” he replied in a breath.

Some here wept or prayed aloud, but most of the three or four dozen people gathered around the sinkhole were silent. It took a few moments before they saw their first jumper. An old man unfastened his cloak, dropped it to the ground, gave a quick wave, almost a salute, to a younger man behind him, then stepped up to the edge and fell head first. He passed out of sight, the light dancing along the rim surged, and the young man left behind crumpled to the ground, covering his face with his hands.

“We have time,” Houd said.

“Yes,” Ena replied, squeezing his hand again. “Can we find a place?”

He nodded, and they walked back into the line of trees, wandering beneath heavy boughs, giving a wide berth to the endlessly circling lunatic, until they found a secluded place in the lee of a stony outcropping. Ena spent a moment clearing the space of fallen leaves and debris, then she beckoned him to sit. He did, never letting go of her hand, then pulled her down beside him.

“What do you remember most?” she asked.

He considered the question. In truth, he had spent little time remembering anything. Too busy worrying about what was to come. “The house,” he said, at last. “The courtyard, all the hours you spent laying the flagstones, all the hours I spent on the tiled walls. It was the first thing we built together.”

“And it will survive,” she replied.

Did she sound a bit annoyed? He thought so. She had not liked his answer.

“It will survive, yes,” he replied. “The whole damned neighborhood will survive, but nobody will ever see it again, no matter what they choose.”

To this, she merely sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder.

“What about you?” he asked.

“Dinners on the veranda at Coleridge,” she said. “The way the mist lay in the valley, the sound of the waterfall behind us, and our voices, low, beneath it all. Do you remember?”

“Of course,” he replied. “That was years ago. I wonder what ever happened to that place?”

“I guess it doesn’t matter,” Ena said and wept quietly, her tears soaking through the thin fabric of his traveling robe.

He heard footsteps then, and a shadow, drawn absurdly long in the setting sun, crept between two trees and drew a line in front of them. Houd looked up into the unsettled face of the lunatic. He had mud on his face and hands, mud smeared across one eyebrow.

“The Archmage Zeeth did us no favors,” he said, looking from Houd to Ena to his own hands. “What do you think?”

Houd did not want to speak to this crazy person, but they were trapped against the rock with no easy escape. Not without some confrontation. Ena’s gaze was fixed on Houd, clearly preferring that he respond.

“I think he did what he could,” Houd said. Did he mean it? He wasn’t sure. “At least he gave us a choice.”

“Oh, yes,” the lunatic said with a laugh and a clap. “Die or, if you prefer, die.”

“That’s not the choice, and you know it,” Ena said, startling Houd with her vehemence.

“It might as well be,” the lunatic said, running his hands down his cheeks and smearing more mud onto his face in the process. “A random trip to one of over two hundred worlds, not all of them habitable, and no guarantees. It’s like a scenario dreamt up by the devil, isn’t it? Wait for the toxin to dissolve your skin or leap into the Void.” He cackled with laughter and lifted his hands to the sky.

“You don’t know that for sure,” Houd said. “Nobody does.”

The lunatic’s laughter died, and he gave Houd a pitying look. “Come, now. The Archmage said himself there are no guarantees right before he took his inaugural leap into the hole. His last cruel joke.”

“Well, he did his best,” Houd said. Why did his own words make him nauseous? “He did the best he could with limited resources to create a portal off this world, for those who choose to take it.”

“Archmage Zeeth was just and honorable,” Ena said, jabbing at finger at the lunatic. “I’ll trust him before I trust the ramblings of a crazy person.”

“A crazy person?” The lunatic patted his chest. “About that you are correct, my dear. Choices have driven me crazy.”

“What do you want?” Houd asked. Ena’s grip on his hand had become almost excruciating.

“A favor,” the lunatic said with a bow. “A favor which all others passing this way have declined.”

“What is it?”

“I would ask that you accompany me to the sinkhole,” he said, “and pretend to care as I take my leap.”

Houd glanced at Ena, who shrugged and muttered, “At least he’s jumping.”

“All right, we’ll do it,” Houd said, rising to his feet and pulling Ena up after him.

They followed the lunatic back into the clearing. There were fewer people around the sinkhole now, fewer by half. The lunatic walked right up to the edge, spread his arms wide as if to embrace the shining portal, then turned to face Houd and Ena.

“I have a vision,” he said, grinning. “That I shall pass through the void and find myself alone on a world of lifeless rock with no atmosphere, and I shall make no sound as I gasp for a breath that will never come. Thank thee, Archmage Zeeth, for thy good will unto men.”

A few gathered nearby gave the lunatic angry looks, but he did not notice. Houd and Ena remained near the tree line, unwilling to approach the rim.

“What do you want from us?” Houd asked.

“Weep and wail, cry out, ‘Oh, our dear brother, farewell forever.’”

Ena groaned. “ I don’t want to do this,” she said quietly. “This is perverse.”

“We are not going to weep and wail,” Houd said.

The lunatic sighed and came toward them, lowering his arms. “Yes, I suppose that is asking too much of reasonable people,” he said. He stood beside Houd, resting a muddy forearm on his shoulder. Houd wanted to shake it off but refrained. “Look at them,” the lunatic said, pointing.

On the far side of the hole, a woman clutched a very small child to her chest. The child seemed calm or at least too disturbed to cry, but the woman wept loudly. As they watched, she pressed the child’s face to her shoulder, kissed him just behind the ear, and leapt into the portal.

“They think if they hold each other, they will port to the same place,” the lunatic said, shaking his head. “But they’re wrong. Every soul goes somewhere different, all random, no guarantees. The child to one world, the woman to another.”

Houd became very aware of the feel of Ena’s hand in his, small and sweaty and trembling.

“If you’re going to jump, please do so,” Houd said.

“Yes, quite right,” the lunatic replied, but did not move. “He should’ve known, of course.” He said this, then fell silent.

He wanted to say more, that was clear, but Houd refused to prompt him. He did not care to hear any more from the lunatic. The things he was saying were too terrible to consider.

It was Ena who finally spoke up, and she seemed to be struggling to maintain an even tone. “You think the Archmage made the portal this way on purpose, don’t you? He randomized it to make the choice crueler. That’s what you think?”

“Well, no, not really,” the lunatic said. He attempted a laugh, but it sounded half-hearted. “I think you are correct when you say he did what he could, but, honestly, I don’t think the portal was made for any of us. He was in a hurry to get himself off-world, and that’s all he had in mind. No need to take the time to attune the portal to any one particular location if your only real purpose is to hide your embarrassment by fleeing. And, as an added bonus, it makes it harder for anyone to follow him.”

“Well... I don’t... I don’t know about any of that,” Ena replied, the words crumbling in her mouth.

“The spore pods were growing right beneath the surface of the ocean, already growing, on the day he laid the first foundation stone,” the lunatic said. “Toxin clouds pour out of the seas and sweep over the surface of this planet every two or three centuries. We know that now. Should’ve known that then. I can understand the old boy’s embarrassment.”

“That’s enough, please,” Houd said, and now he did shake the lunatic’s forearm off his shoulder.

“Quite right,” the lunatic replied. “My choice is upon me.” He staggered up to the edge of the sinkhole, glanced over his shoulder at Houd and smiled. “Give me at least a hearty wave goodbye, if you’re willing.”

Houd and Ena both raised their hands and waved.

“Goodbye, dear brother,” Houd said. “Farewell forever.”

The lunatic laughed at this, then tipped forward and fell into the hole and into the light of the portal.

Houd and Ena waited a moment — it seemed the proper thing to do — then wandered back to their cleared space beside the rock. As night fell, the cold deepened, and they clutched each other for warmth.

“He was lying, wasn’t he?” Ena asked.

“Probably,” Houd replied. “About some of it, at least.”

They made love then, but it was sad and brief, hampered by the cold. Then they lay together in the darkness, and eventually both of them fell into a light and troubled sleep.

Houd awoke in the harsh toxin-tinted light of morning, but it was not the light that woke him. It was the sound. The crackling sound. He slipped out of the nest of Ena’s arms and legs and rose, working the stiffness out of his limbs. The sound, echoing a thousand times, was like the sound of very thin ice cracking beneath heavy boots.

“What is it?” Ena asked as she eased up beside him.

“Vegetation dissolving,” he said.

He found her hand and led her back into the clearing. They were alone now. Houd turned back to the tree line and saw the cloud of toxin rising up into the sky like a vast purplish wall stretching beyond the clouds. The limbs of the trees swayed in the breeze of the approaching end.

Houd turned back to the sinkhole. He could see the track of people all around the edges, footsteps leading to and from, grooves dug by knees or bodies. Many people had come here, hundreds, some to leap, some to turn back. He walked, each step an awkward lurch, to the rim, and Ena came with him but reluctantly, her full weight dragging against his hand.

The portal sat in the bottom of the sinkhole, five feet down, silver-white, rippling like incandescent water. Houd and Ena stared at it for a long time and said nothing, while the world behind them died.

“What are you thinking?” Ena asked.

Houd had a vision then of tumbling through the portal and landing with a jarring thud on cold rocky ground, of seeing gray all around him, and finding no air to breath. Alone, gasping soundlessly, flopping like a dying fish. And he almost turned back, almost released his grip on her hand and went running toward the trees, toward the cloud, crying out, “Dissolve me!” But he said none of this.

“I am thinking about dinners on the veranda at Coleridge,” Houd said. “The way the mist lay in the valley, the sound of the waterfall behind us, and our voices, low, beneath it all.” He sighed.

“That’s not what I mean,” Ena replied.

“I know.” He looked at her, looked into the deep well of her brown eyes, traced the contours of her face, so familiar yet suddenly all new. Her hair, cropped short, curled down around her temples, framing her cheekbones, those high cheekbones. She attempted a smile but it faltered. “We have to leap,” he said, at last. “If there is a chance at life, we have to take it. Otherwise, we’ve squandered it all, haven’t we?”

She glanced away then back. “Okay, we leap,” she said.

They embraced, a hug that became the crush of two bodies wanting to be one, then drew back as the sound of the toxin cloud eating every living thing drew near to the trees. Houd grabbed her hand and turned back to the sinkhole.

The light shimmered before and behind. The portal hummed, and the cloud crackled.

And they leapt.

Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey Aaron Miller

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