It was his first deep trek across the Mojave tundra with Dedimus, hours spent listening to the snowreaver’s hover jets pulverize powder and ice, his tiny nostrils filled with the tonic ozone smell of its ionized plasma engines and he could barely move in the half-dozen layers of insulation Mida added to his parka., and somewhere under all of that Dedimus preaching, always preaching, about Joshua’s bond to the ever-growing winter, his future, his responsibility. By the time they reached the Santa Monica coastline, Joshua’s ears were ringing and he was hungry, and despite the arctic chill he found he was sweating.
They stood on the shore and looked west. At first there was just the ocean, slow moving and rough-hewn gray, like unfinished sheets of steel. The frost shifted in heavy curtains above them. Then morning broke and the tide changed. Twenty miles off the coast, the white city blazed as pure and broad as the horizon itself. There were walls rising higher than any structure Joshua had ever seen. There were parapets. There were stalactite spires that stabbed the frosty fog billows.
Joshua never saw anything like it, not in pictures or among the small holographic images Mida used to teach him.
“Who lives there?” he’d asked Dedimus.
“No one,” the old man told Joshua. “That is the fata morgana, an illusion created by the cold. Like any worthy opponent, winter tricks your eyes, draws you into falsehoods.”
Paul Toland liked it best as high up as he could squirrel himself beneath the bridge, right up there at the nexus, where with superstructure of the bridge itself sliced in to connect with the finished concrete of the street. Here, with his bag of belongings, his bottle, and his razor, he felt safe and content. A small voice from his earlier life told him that this was only a primitive retreat to the womb fantasies that everyone had somewhere in their subconscious; he told the small voice to shut the hell up.
Paul was younger than most of the residents under the bridge and in somewhat better condition (though certainly no poster boy for Health & Fitness Magazine), so he had little to fear from the rest of them. In fact, he was sort of like their king. As long as those damned spike-haired, body-pierced punkers stayed on their own turf, anyway.
Tonight was a sweet one. Late May, nighttime temperature hovering around seventy, almost too warm, but with a frisky and teasing wind to alleviate any discomfort, bringing with it the salty taste of the Bay. It was moonless and quiet, too. By four a.m., Paul was in a deep sleep that was unbroken by even the dreams that tended to haunt his nights.
“I saw the kids this morning,” he said suddenly, as if he knew it was on her
mind. “They’re growing like weeds.”
“Yeah,” she nodded vaguely, dumping out the last of the birdseed, “William
is just like you. He fell in the canal this morning.”
He laughed at this, and then started walking away toward the barn.
“You wanna come for dinner?” she called out after him, already knowing the
“Cain’t,” he yelled back.
She stood there as he disappeared, then turned back to the doves. Some were
coming out now, eyeing her warily as they pecked at her offering. Suddenly
she heard squawks from the salt cedar brush, and saw a crow taking off,
eggshell and a bloody squab hanging from its beak.
It was truly a wretched sight. They walked, little more than
shambling, for it was the last thing that they possessed the will to
do. Eyes grim, fixed and hollow, almost lifeless, they still kept on.
Johnny Jones watched them go by, fetching up a silent prayer that
Bryn was inside, resting, and wouldn’t have to bear the sight of them.
His child was within her, so big these past few weeks, and he knew
seeing this might drive her into some kind of fit.
The mules tripped to a sullen halt and the cart behind them stopped.
At this, the slow procession came to life. One woman, thin hair tied
back with a strip of burlap, and one little boy missing three fingers
from his left hand, burst into tears. Weariness and exhaustion still
bleeding from their eyes, the other women clustered around her like
mother hens. The children only stood mutely by while the boy bawled
angrily at the sky. Johnny ran forward. He was strong, he should