Prologue:

 

“CAN ANYONE hear me?”

Gordon Mattson perched atop the tallest building in New York, once the pride of the city, and looked up at the stars.

Below, the streets belonged to the sea. Schools of tuna swam up Fifth Avenue, and sharks patrolled the dark waters where new reefs were taking root.

“Is anyone out there?”

There had to be more to life than this. The endless loops had been bad enough. He remembered when he’d first realized he was living the same life over. When Jacky had come….

But now the fires….

The flames burned endlessly on the horizon, sending up acrid smoke. Sometimes it would drift over the city, and those it touched would simply disappear.

The world was ending. He knew it in his bones. Even so, life in the drowned city went on, as dead as the old dame herself.

Above, the stars sparkled.

Up there, there was something more. Something greater than this sad little bit of Old Earth.

There had to be.

Halfway across the Old City, the roof of one of the superscrapers glowed with an eldritch green glow.

It grew in intensity until it burst with a great white light, bathing the whole city with the brightness of midday sunlight for an instant.

Then it was gone.

As his eyes adjusted once again to the darkness, something ascended toward the stars.

It meant something. He was sure of it. If he could only figure out what.

He knew one thing for sure. One day he, Gordon Hawk, would find his way off this desolate dirtball. He’d find a way to go up there.

He clambered down the side of the building, using the assortment of ropes and hand- and footholds added over the years by the city’s remaining denizens.

He’d marked in his mind where the glow had come from. He knew this city like the back of his hand.

He would get there before the next night and find out what it meant. Maybe it would offer him a way out.

A bigger destiny awaited him. He was sure of it.

 

 

ANDY SOARED above her world on the wings of an albatross, riding the slipstream beneath the glowing light of the spindle.

Below, the curve of the world stretched up and around her, wrapping over the spindle to touch again somewhere above her head.

It was midafternoon, and the plants of Forever far below were aglow too—the golden light of the open plains and the greenish glow of copses of trees and orchards. She flew past the new sea being formed near the North Pole, purified water extracted from a snagged comet in the Kuiper Belt slowly filling it up. One day it would be both a resource and a formidable barrier to the human inhabitants of Forever, a small ocean that wrapped all the way around the world.

Barriers were a necessary part of any human society and ecosystem.

Past the lowlands, she flew over Thyre—formerly the Eyre—a small but bustling community that sat at the end of the highlands where the Rhyl dropped down a high black cliff to the lowlands and then out to sea.

She wondered for the thousandth time if Lanya had been right to limit access to the world mind. Somewhere far below, at the Eyre Estate, the human Andy knelt beside a red berry vine, laying in fertilizer to encourage the plant to keep producing the Estate’s prized berries.

Andy thought about reaching out to her doppelgänger, about having that conversation for the umpteenth time. But she decided to leave it alone.

Instead, she let the beautiful bird go on its way.

The albatross had been created with an affinity for her and her kind. Once called the Immortals, Andy and Shandra had instead taken to calling themselves the Caretakers. Events had proven how unimmortal their kind was, though in theory they could long outlive their human kin.

She’d had an uneasy feeling for weeks. A sense that something was off. Wrong.

She had tried to seek it out, in the world mind and in the world at large, but nothing had presented itself.

She returned to her own virtual garden, where the sun was always in the sky, the rain came every hour, and her red berry vines were the picture of perfection. The privileges of a virtual life.

“Thought I’d find you here.” Shandra sounded uncertain, as if she wasn’t welcome in Andy’s garden.

“Yeah, I was just thinking about Andy.”

You’re Andy.”

“You know what I mean.” Andy reached out to touch one of the velvety red leaves of the closest red berry vine. She and Shandra had avoided the trap of becoming too close—of literally becoming the same entity—as Ana and Lex had eventually done. Maybe it was because they had already spent so much time together in their previous lives and had developed a fine balance.

Sometimes, though, that balance felt more like a yawning chasm between them.

“You okay?”

“I’m scared.” Andy looked down at her hands. They were every bit as real as they had been—as they still were—for real Andy. But sometimes she felt counterfeit and lost.

Shandra put a hand on her shoulder. “Whatever it is—if it’s anything at all—we’ll face it together.”

It was the first time Shandra had reached out to her in months, literally or figuratively.

Andy turned to her and held out her arms, and they merged.

They mingled their essences, sharing an intimacy that had never been possible for their Forever-bound counterparts, and their thoughts mingled too.

I’m scared don’t be I’m here what if things are never easy but we can handle them together sometimes I just need you I know.

They separated, and Andy took Shandra’s face in her hands and kissed her gently. “I still need you.”

“I need you too.”

Andy reached down to take Shandra’s hand. “Walk with me for a few minutes?”

“I’d like that.”

Andy sighed and let go of her anxious fear.

Together, they wandered through the vines, tasting the ripening berries.

For now, this was enough.