Footsteps (Rest of the Story)

This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning

She didn’t know how many days she had seen.  A lot she was sure.  But the farther back the days the dimmer her recollection.  Not just dimmer though, the farther back she cast her mind the more effort it seemed to take.  Far easier to just explore the current day, wander the beach or head back into the forest.

Today she felt like walking the beach.  Turning so the forest was to her left and the sea lapped her feet from the right she set off at a slow walk.  She knew from experience that if she walked most of the day she’d be back where she started, finding her footprints in the sand.  On a few days she had headed inland, climbing through the forest and up the mountain till she could see large swathes of the island.  She’d never reached the top, the final climb was too steep and treacherous.

She encountered footsteps long before she expected, the sun had only climbed partway to its peak.  They weren’t her footprints either – they were huge.  So large she took a few moments to realise they were footprints at all.  She followed them, curious as to their owner.  The footprints faded out at the edge of the beach but the trail of flattened plants was as good a guide.  After several minutes she stepped into a large clearing, and come face to face with the monster that had left the footprints.

It was a huge reptile, four times her height at least, standing on its rear legs.  its front limbs consisted of leathery wings ending in razor sharp claws suggesting it had reached the island by flying.  Its mouth was full of viciously sharp teeth.  She only had a moment to take in these details before the creature lunged at her blisteringly fast, snapping its jaws closed around her head with massive force.

The jaws didn’t reach her skin.  With a blinding flash she was surrounded by a web of dancing lightning which first stopped the monsters crushing bite and then earthed through the massive creature with such intensity that only a swirl of black ash marked its passing.

She stood for several minutes, not scared by her experience but sad that her actions had led to the creature’s death.  Then, still subdued, she traced the path back to the beach and continued walking.

* * *

More days passed for her. Some days she found the familiar forest mantled land she was familiar with.  Twice she found the land mostly smothered in cold, dark lava.  She was grateful the lava wasn’t flowing and she could still explore.  Desolate as the land seemed on those days she started to see a stark beauty to it.

Then came a day like none she could remember.  Instead of sand she stepped onto a beach covered in snow, as deep as her knees in places.  The forest behind was bowed below the weight of snow and ice.  She was aware that the air was bitterly cold, yet despite wearing only her usual thin white dress and having bare feet the cold didn’t affect her.  She’d encountered snow before, on the slopes of the mountain on a few days, but never anything like this.  She explored a world of frozen snow and ice, a world that entranced her with its beauty at every turn yet felt lonely with all sounds muted.

The next day was the same, except the forest was gone.  Buried beneath thick layers of snow nothing now grew.  And the next day too.  For the first time she started to wonder about her future.  Would this be all she saw, day after day trapped on this unchanging island of ice and snow?

The next day was different, but in an unexpected way.  The snow and ice remained but the air was even colder.  And the sea… it was so beautiful she couldn’t catch her breath for several heartbeats.  The water had frozen out as far the horizon.  Frozen into the gentle hump of waves.  Smiling and without a moments hesitation she set out over the solid sea, for the first time she could remember leaving the bounds of the island.

She found three small islands that day, one so small she could cross it while holding her breath and the other two still far smaller than her island.  She still walked the ocean as night fell.  When the tiredness struck she curled up on the ice and fell asleep wondering if she would wake somewhere different the next day.

* * *

She didn’t.  Next morning she found herself walking down the familiar beach.  The snow was gone, which pleased her.  The sea was back to its unruly self and she felt a pang of longing for the beautiful frozen land of ice she’d walked across the day before.

Reaching the water’s edge she turned to survey the island.  The forest was back, looking as if it had never been gone.  In the long gap between her yesterday and today the forest had grown and matured many times over.  Today she felt the urge to push into the forest, to feel its life surrounding her.  As she made her way through the shadowy growth sensing the hidden life of the forest around her she realised how lonely she’d been when the land had been crushed by ice. 

Several hours later she was still wandering though the depths of the forest when she started to hear the sound of a river.  Turning toward the sound she pushed through the undergrowth.  The land was hilly and the river loud, drowning out all other noises as she got closer.  She pushed through a final screen of undergrowth into bright sunlight and found herself by the river’s edge.  And, for the first time, she was not alone.  Standing on rocks in the river were four people holding fishing spears, all staring back at her in astonishment.

She’d never spoken aloud before, never had any awareness of language, but she called to the men fluently in their own tongue.  Soon they were gathered around her, fascinated by this new person on an island where they thought they knew everyone.  They led her back to their village where the questions started again.  She told them what she could of her life, little though she knew, and they listened raptly.  They prepared a feast in her honour and for the first time in her life she truly ate.  Not to taste something but to consume it. 

Fires were lit as night fell and by the flickering light she learnt many of their legends.  Then, as always, the wave of tiredness swept over her.  She fought it, not wanting to leave these fascinating people, but in vain.  She had told the people how many, many days passed for her each time she slept.  Knowing that in some way she might be about to leave them the eldest and most respected of the people made her decision.  All day they had been considering a suitable name for their strange visitor.  Just before sleep claimed her the elder approached, moved her arms in a series of passes and said “I name you Alshar, after the Sacred Dreamer.”

With the elder’s words ringing in her ears she passed into sleep, and passed into the peoples’ legends.

* * *

When next she woke the words of the elder still rang in her ears.  Alshar.  It felt right that she have a name, and the name Alshar seemed to fit.  She was keen to see people again and set off down the beach towards where the settlement had been, not even bothering with her usual walk to the waves or glance back at the forest.

She knew from speaking to the people that they did not live the way she did.  Their lives were as short as those of the trees in the forest, and she sensed that in the time she had slept many generations would have lived and died. Yet she was hopeful the settlement would remain.  The inner certainty that many days had passed while she slept remained yet was different, she instinctively knew that this time she had slept for a much shorter time.  Still thousands upon thousands of days, but a fraction of the time she normally slept.

The settlement remained where she remembered, a spot near the river and the sea yet sheltered from the tropical storms that blew through from time to time.  The construction of the huts was similar, though the layout had changed.  Soon after she sighted the village a cry went up and people streamed out to meet her.  Though she recognised none of them there was still a feeling of familiarity.  The language seemed to have changed a little, but again she spoke fluently.

The explanation of her appearance took much less time than before, once she had given her name and started to explain the men and women around her gasped in wonder.  Alshar, the Sacred Dreamer who once came to visit, was alive and well in their myths.  While she had to deny the many stories of magic that had grown up around her the people still made her welcome.

As the sun rose to its highest point a meal was prepared at the edge of the beach, in the shade of the trees.  Once the food had been eaten the adults sat in the shade quizzing Alshar and telling her stories, some she knew from her visit before and others that were completely new.  Some of the children stayed to listen but many were playing on the beach or in the surf.

Sunset found her still on the beach, now seated beside a roaring fire listening contentedly as the men of the tribe attempted to outdo each other with tales of how far they had sailed, how deep they had dived, how vicious the creatures they’d fought on other islands were.  One of the younger children had curled up against her, his head in her lap, now fast asleep.  Absently she stroked his head as her eyes grew heavy and closed.  Without noticing she fell into a deep sleep.

* * *

She stepped from the trees into another bright dawn, the sun already strong enough to warm her skin.  She walked quickly across the sand towards the sea, wading in till it reached her knees.  Savouring the cool water and warm sun.  After a few minutes she returned to the damp sand just beyond the waves reach and started to walk towards the village.  She found herself smiling gently, looking forward to meeting the people of the village once again.

She’d been walking for maybe ten minutes when she heard shouting from the jungle.  Turning towards the sound she stopped.  Seconds later a small shape burst from the cover of the trees, saw her and charged towards her. 

The figure was a young girl, maybe seven or eight.  The child crashed into Alshar who picked her up.  The girl wrapped her arms around Alshar in a death grip, sobbing against her.  Uncertainly Alshar patted her back.  While Alshar had seen children cry during her visits to the village, over a trip or clash of heads, this was far beyond her experience.

More yelling came from the forest, then three men ran onto the beach.  Seeing Alshar and the child they headed towards them at a run, yelling as they came.  When they arrived they stood close, within touching distance.  The child’s sobbing faded into mute terror.  Still not understanding the situation Alshar stared at the three men.

“Give us the creature!” ordered the middle man in a guttural voice.  Alshar just stared at him in confusion.  She hadn’t seen any creatures.

“Give us the creature!” he demanded again, gesturing at the child with a sharp bladed knife. 

Alshar was still confused.  “She has a creature with her?” she asked, puzzled.

The man to the left answered this time.  He had a puckered scar running from above his right eye to his hairline.  Subconsciously she tagged him as Scar, the first man as Leader.

“The… child… give it to us,” Scar said.

“Why?” she asked, still totally baffled.

“She escaped,” snapped Leader.  “The rule is clear, any slave that escapes must die.”

Alshar stood absorbing this.  Slave was a new word to her, though she understood it immediately.  It was a word that tasted like ashes and made her stomach queasy.  It took her several seconds to move past the charnel house taste of the word Slave and take in the rest of the sentence.  They wanted to kill the child?  Kill the young girl clinging to her in fear?

“No!” she spat, with such vehemence that the three men stepped back a pace.  “No.  Never.  Leave her alone.  Go!”

Leader recovered first, a cruel smile replacing the shock on his face.  He lifted the axe he carried in front of her face, moving it back and forth.

“The punishment for protecting an escaped slave is also death,” he said with relish.  Then he barked “Kill them both.  Slowly.”

Scar stepped in, swinging his axe low towards her left leg, blunt side first.  Aiming to break something without delivering a fatal wound.  The three had done enough running after the slave girl as it was.

The blow didn’t land.  Once again the net of writhing lightning surrounded Alshar, the same reaction as when the giant reptile had tried to bite her head off.  There were differences this time though.  Everything around her seemed to slow, the waves creeping in to shore, a bird gliding towards the trees and the swinging axe.  And this time she could feel the lightning, feel its power and where it was flowing.  No, more than that.  She could control it.  Subconsciously she had spread its protection across the child.  The men couldn’t harm her or the child, of that she was sure.

It wasn’t enough.  She was angry, incredibly angry, at these men for wishing to kill the girl.  And while she could protect the girl now, for the whole day if necessary, soon she would be gone.  Sleeping away for many generations.  Feeling sick inside she made her decision, forcing the flickering shield to lash out at the three men.

The result was the same as before, the three targets blasted into nothing but a cloud of soot.  She let the shield fall away and time returned to normal.  She felt… she didn’t know how she felt.  Pleased the men were gone yet sick at having destroyed them.  A sense that what she had done was right, while at the same time knowing she had brought an early end to their lives.  She felt both elation and a yawning pit of despair.  Tears ran down her face and she couldn’t tell which of the many emotions running through her were responsible.

The young girl drew Alshar from her emotional whirlwind.  Clinging to Alshar the girl hadn’t noticed the destruction of the men.  Now she was looking around in disbelief.

“Where did they go?” she asked.

“They’ve gone.  For good.  You won’t ever need to worry about those men again,” Alshar assured her.  “Are there more like them?”

The child nodded.

“At the village?”

Another nod.

“Then I think we need to pay them a visit.”

The girl looked terrified now.  She kept shaking her head mutely.

“It’s all right.  No one can hurt you while I’m with you.  I dealt with those three men, I’ll deal with the others if I have to.  Come on.”

She lowered the girl to the ground and took her hand.  They started walking down the beach towards the settlement.  Anger boiling within her she could feel the power she had unleashed stirring.  Waiting for her to call it forth.

By the time they reached the settlement she was almost dragging the young girl onwards.  Her first glimpse stopped her dead.  Gone were the huts, the open layout, the relaxed atmosphere.  A wall made of vertical tree trunks surrounded the village now, at least half again as tall as she was.  A narrow entrance allowed her to glimpse the buildings within, blocky buildings set out in a uniform pattern.  Heart aching at the changes Alshar set off again.

Two guards stood at the entrance.  They grinned as Alshar and the girl approached.

“You captured the slave?  Well done.  Though the three who went looking for her won’t be pleased to have missed out.”

The other was more observant.  Staring at Alshar in puzzlement.

“Who are you?” he asked. 

“I have the child.  I want to see your leader.  Now!”  Alshar demanded.

“Come with me,” he answered, taken aback by her tone.  “Stay here!” he ordered the other guard.

As he led Alshar through the village people noticed her, and the child, and soon a crowd was following.  Many were clearly slaves.  Poorly fed, tired, broken looking.  The rest were like the guards.  Well fed, all men and carrying a variety of weapons.

Alshar was led to an older man, her eyes drawn to the hundreds of coloured feathers wound into his hair.  She stopped in front of him, studying him as he studied her.  Fighting to contain the anger, the hate within.  The leader spoke first.

“You brought back the runaway.  Well done.  I don’t know who you are but for this you will be given the best jobs.  Light work and better food than the other slaves.  We will make you an example of what good behaviour brings.”

“No,” Alshar replied.  She stared at the leader, not saying any more.

“No?”  He looked puzzled.  “You turn down my offer?  You wish to live like the other slaves?  To eat what they eat?”

“No,” she replied again.  “I am here to tell you that this stops.  Now.  No more slaves.  No more treating people like animals.  No more forcing them to work whilst hardly feeding them.  It.  Stops.  Now!”

The leader stared at her for a few moments, then burst out laughing uncontrollably.  The anger within overwhelmed Alshar, how dare he react like this.  How dare he allow this to have happened.  She lost control.  Reaching within she started to pull forth the power, willing it to lash out at the foul man before her.  But it resisted.  She wasn’t in immediate danger, wasn’t acting in self defence.  The power within twisted away from her control, seeming to slip through her fingers. 

Focusing on the laughing man in front of her, on the surrounding slaves and on what he would surely do to the girl her anger intensified.  With a wrench she managed to grab the power, force it to her will and lash out with it.

The power was less focused this time, still fighting her control.  Instead of being obliterated immediately the leader screamed in agony as the power burnt through his body.  For twenty long heartbeats he writhed on the floor, everyone else stood rooted to the spot watching the lightning crawling across his body.  Then, finally, he was still.  The power wrenched itself free from her control and dissipated.  Leaving a smoking corpse in its wake.

Alshar suddenly felt exhausted.  Felt tiredness washing over her.  Realised that on this day she wouldn’t make it to the evening.  Her time on the island that day was finished.  Realising she had only moments left she turned to face the watching crowd.

“You have seen my anger!” she shouted.  “You have seen my response to slavery.  It is wrong.  It will stop now.  If not, I will return.  Return and destroy everyone involved.  You too will end up like that…” she swept her hand towards the charred remains of the leader.

Looking around she could see the fear in the eyes of the slavers.  More importantly she could see the change in the slaves.  The look in their eyes, the change in their posture.  A goddess had appeared in their midst and cast down the hated leader.  Had declared that slavery must end.  It might be enough.  She had to hope it would be enough.  Her eyes were forcing themselves closed.  She had only moments.

She pointed, sweeping her arm in an arc that took in all those watching.  Then she spoke.  With absolute certainty she said…

“I will be back!”

Her eyes flickered closed, and she fell into the darkness.

* * *

She walked from the forest reluctantly.  The fire, the hatred had drained from her.  All that remained was a gnawing worry that nothing would have changed.  That she would find a world of slaves and masters once again.

A shout from her right made her turn.  Seeing a young child racing along the beach her stomach clenched and tears filled her eyes.  Then she took in the sight before her and anguish turned to joy.  The child running down the beach was being pursued.  But by two slightly older children, and all three were laughing and shouting.  The sight lifted her heart.  Whatever the state of the people on the island at least there was space for these children to be happy.

The children’s shouting changed from happiness to surprise.  They’d seen her and now charged across the sand to meet her.  Once again Alshar felt the appropriate language within her mind, though it felt quite different from that she’d used before.  As the children drew closer she tried to frame the question she feared to ask.  Are people kept as slaves?

But she couldn’t.  There was no word for slaves.  There seemed to be no such concept in the language.  As the children rushed up she smiled at them all, and instead asked them their names.

She soon found herself in a village, though in a different location than that occupied before.  She learnt that the old site was considered holy.  The location where a mighty goddess threw down the demons that had been hunting and killing the people.  She smiled to learn her efforts hadn’t been wasted, but made no attempt to tell the true story.

In many ways she found the people to be like those she had met before, but in others they differed greatly.  The fact she was a stranger held no wonder.  They told her of vast boats that passed by the island from time to time, sometimes stopping to let people of many different colours and languages spend time amongst the islanders.

The day passed pleasantly, as did the evening, and when night came she found herself feeling sleepy once again.  She’d told the people of her strange existence but many clearly didn’t believe her.  Despite, or perhaps because of, that disbelief she had plenty of company as her eyes started to droop and she slipped once more into the black velvety embrace of sleep.

* * *

From that point the time she spent asleep became much shorter, while the changes she found each time she woke were much larger.  As day after day passed for her the world transformed itself even on her sleepy island.  Fast and reliable travel allowed the island to boom as a tourist destination as first cruise ships then aircraft and finally sub-orbital jets brought those in search of an island paradise.

Hotels and villas peppered the island, though the numbers were limited.  Many other places offered beach holidays for the masses, cramming tens of thousands of people into towns and onto beaches.  The island remained more exclusive.  Not the preserve of the super rich, who had whole island chains to themselves, but somewhere to save for.  A once in a lifetime holiday for many people.

As the days passed for Alshar, and the centuries passed on the island, she met people from all walks in life, from all over the world.  Every one she was able to speak to in their native language.  And every one she pumped for information about themselves, their culture, the world in general.  Always fascinated, though frequently appalled, by what she learnt.

She tried all that the world had to offer.  Exotic foods, drinks both alcoholic and not and even drugs.  Though she found it easy to shrug off the effects of any drink or drug she wasn’t enjoying. 

While the world went through many changes the island weathered most of the storms.  Technology changed it in many ways – from being always connected to the world via the internet to the creation of fabulous hotel rooms under the waves.  But compared with the outside world it was relatively untouched, both by the march of progress and by the occasional wars which often set back progress by decades.

She explored many places, making use of modern transport to visit different parts of the world, though in the main she still preferred to stay around the island itself.  Two trips in particular stuck with her.  One, to a glacier, was far too strong a reminder of the lifeless state of the island when it was locked under snow and ice.  The other, a flight over a volcano dribbling lava across the nearby countryside, left her in floods of tears and the young man who had taken her on the flight at a total loss.  There was no way she could explain to him the horror that the island had been that one day, the terrible feeling of being trapped on a narrow spit of beach between two flowing channels of lava.

Whatever she did, wherever she went, the pattern of her life continued.  Roughly sixteen hours after awaking she would fall asleep again, regardless of what the time of day actually was wherever she was in the world.  Her rhythms were still tied to the day and night cycle of the island.

* * *

She took several steps out of the forest onto the sand, looking at the horizon where the sun was just starting to lift from the sea.  So intent was she on the view that she didn’t see the shadowed figure stood partly in her way until she had almost walked into him.  The shock of realising she wasn’t alone made her cry out.  The figure jumped, also startled, and turned to her.  It was a man.  Young, early twenties maybe, with short dark hair and pale skin.  At one time that would have marked him out as a visitor to the island, but those times were far in the past.  She knew that people of every hue had been calling the island home for centuries.

“I’m sorry,” she said, flustered.  “I was… I was looking at the sunrise… I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.  I didn’t see you… and then… well, it gave me such a fright.”

He smiled, and his face seemed to light up.

“You gave me quite a fright too.  But I can understand why you missed me.  The dawn is amazing, I’ve been here five mornings and haven’t missed it once.  Speaking of which… let’s watch it.  We can talk after.”

Taking her hand in his he turned back to the sight of the dawn.  Standing together watching the beautiful start to the morning Alshar was very aware of the young man’s hand holding hers.  She’d seen many dawns now, all from near this spot.  Dawns clouded in fog, dawns blazing through clouds, even dawns shining through the rising smoke from an ongoing naval battle on one occasion.  Somehow this one was better than any of the others.  Having someone standing beside her, witnessing the same sights, added a magic she couldn’t explain.

As always dawn on the island was quickly over, the sun almost seeming to spring into the sky.  She had visited places where the dawn took far longer, the sun creeping slowly into view.  Modern travel allowing her to skip time zones with ease.

The man sighed, and turned to her.  Still holding her hand.

“Amazing,” he said, smiling.  “And somehow… more amazing today… with you.”

Surprised at his words mirroring her own feelings she just nodded, grinning.

“I’m starving.  Would you like to get some breakfast?” he asked.

She found that yes, she would.  She would love to get breakfast with this man.  She told him so and they set off.

* * *

They had breakfast in a shabby restaurant whose major draw was its permanence.  It proudly carried a sign stating it would be one hundred and sixty years old the following summer.  Alshar found this both amusing and quite poignant.  The previous day, for her, she had drank the afternoon away at the same restaurant’s debut opening.  They sat at a sheltered table facing out over the beach as they talked and ate.

The man’s name was Phil and he turned out to be fascinating.  He was on the island taking some time off from a high flying university education, though he shrugged it off with a grin along with the likelihood of him being snapped up by a major firm in the future.  He was interested in everything, from science to nature to history to art.  Alshar was fascinated by his insights, and his knowledge, and in turn he was fascinated by hers.  On many points she could fill in gaps in his knowledge, either from her own extensive discussions with people in the past or by first hand experience. 

Breakfast turned into morning tea turned into lunch.  They spent the afternoon walking the beach, and exploring the patches of forest protected from development.  An early tea found them sitting in a restaurant on the other side of the island, enjoying the late afternoon sun.

It had been a wonderful day.  Alshar had enjoyed herself enormously, and without realising it had become very fond of Phil.  With a single sentence he brought it all crashing down.

“I’d love to watch the Sun come up with you again tomorrow,” he said.

Alshar felt her insides turn to ice as reality struck.  There would be no tomorrow for them, no sunrise to share.  This one wonderful day was all they had.  Her face crumpled and she burst into tears, unable to bear the thought of losing this wonderful man who made her laugh and think so much.

Phil was shocked by her reaction to his words.  Over several minutes he managed to get her to start talking, and once she started she couldn’t stop.  She poured out her story.  The huge gaps in time she had to live with.  The things she’d seen.  Even how much the thought of never seeing him again tore her apart inside.

Once she had finished her tale she sat staring at him, trying to tell what he was thinking.  Finally she spoke.

“Do you believe me?”

“I… well… I’m not sure.  It’s a fantastic tale.  I definitely believe you believe it.  And it would explain many of the things you knew.  I… I just don’t know.  I think I do believe you, but then it’s so much to take in.”

She reached out, took his hand in hers and squeezed.  Smiled at him.  The two of them sat a little longer, gazing at each other.  Suddenly he released her hands, stood up and reached a hand out to her.

“Come to my room,” he said.  “If you’re right then we have so little time left.  Let’s make the best possible use of it.”

It could have been a pickup line.  ‘The world is ending, let’s sleep together before it does!’  His face showed it wasn’t.  A mixture of excitement and nerves, uncertainty and resolve.  She took his hand and stood, a smile on her face.  There was nothing in the world she wanted more.

* * *

She’d slept with a few people as she skipped through the years.  Mostly men, a couple of women.  Always for the same reasons… to feel she was touching someone’s life, making a difference, and to be able to cling to another person.  To forget, just for a short while, that in a few hours everyone she had met would be gone.  She would be starting again.  Alone.

With Phil it was different.  The connection between them had been undeniable for most of the day.  Now it elevated sex far beyond a mere physical act, into a sharing of their souls.  Laying on the tangled sheets after, holding him close, she felt the familiar stirrings of tiredness, knew that their time together was rapidly running out.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly.  “It’s happening.  I can’t hold it off for long.”

He raised himself on an elbow, looking down at her intently.

“Can’t we delay it?  Coffee?  Caffeine?  There are drugs that hold off sleep for hours or days!”

She shook her head sadly.  “They don’t work on me.  This isn’t sleep as such, it’s something else.  I’m sorry.  We have almost no time left.  It’s so strong I can’t fight it for long.”

He leant down and kissed her tenderly.  Pulling back he looked intently into her drooping eyes.

“Whatever it takes I will follow you.  I will be there in your future.  Whatever the cost.”

Her heart swelled and her eyes filled with tears at hearing this.

“You can’t,” she said softly.  “But thank you.  Now live a good life.  I’ll be checking up on you!”

With that they grabbed each other in a fierce embrace, tears falling from both their eyes.  As the darkness washed over her again she desperately tried to focus on the feel of his arms around her, his body against hers, his mind and hers so closely joined.  Darkness washed over her once more.

* * *

She stepped out onto the beach as the dawn sun once again started to lift over the horizon.  A quick look around confirmed no one else was on the beach.  With a sinking heart she did something she rarely did so early in the day, reaching out with her mind for the networked world that enveloped the entire planet.  Checked the date.  And collapsed to the sand sobbing.  Almost two hundred years had passed.  Phil would be dead.  The wonderful man that she now realised she had fallen in love with must have been dead for at least a hundred years.

Once the initial shock had worn off she felt an overwhelming desire to be away from the island.  Far away.  Linking again she ordered a private flitter to collect her.  As always the systems obeyed her, accepted her requests without any question of payment.  Within five minutes she was airborne and heading far from the island.

* * *

She followed the same pattern for the next three of her days.  One day even heading out into space, to a vast orbiting leisure world.  It didn’t help.  The pain, the empty space within, remained.  She met many people, some very interesting, but none of them took her mind off Phil for long.  For the first time in her life she truly realised how alone she would always be, that no matter what she would never have any long term friends.  Human life spans were still gradually creeping up but even if she met someone for a second time she would just be someone they had met for a single day more than a hundred years ago, while to her they would be the friend she made the day before.

* * *

Once again she walked from the forest onto the beach.  Once again she scanned the beach for Phil without even realising she was doing so.  Once again the crushing loneliness came to rest in her heart.  She considered calling a flitter, but decided against it.  It wouldn’t help.  So instead she walked slowly along the beach, playing the memories of her day with Phil in her mind.

When she reached the village she was amazed to see the same restaurant still standing.  It must have been repaired many times yet it looked as aged as it had on her last visit.  The sign on the wall announced it was now eight hundred and thirty seven years old.

In a daze she walked through the restaurant, then outside and found the table she and Phil had shared for both breakfast and lunch was still there.  Or more likely a replacement that looked the same was.  She sank into the same chair she had occupied those hundreds of years before and stared out over the beach.

A waiter brought her a cup of tea unbidden, and disappeared without a word.  She hardly noticed.  Lost in her thoughts she wasn’t aware of anything, until someone spoke from behind her.

“I believe you’re sitting at my table.”

She whipped round, startled.  Opened her mouth to apologise and froze, mouth hanging open, as she took in the impossible sight.  It was Phil.  No.  It couldn’t be.  Yet it looked so much like him.

“Hello Alshar,” he said softly.  “I must say you look beautiful this morning, even doing that wonderful impression of a startled halibut.”

With a yell she threw herself out of her chair and into his arms.  Somehow, impossibly, it was him.  It really was Phil.  She clung to him fiercely, tears streaming down her face, and felt him holding her just as strongly.  Felt his tears where his face was buried against her neck.

She couldn’t say how long they stood like that, holding each other close.  When they finally managed to pull back a little and look at each other she noticed the changes.  He was older, maybe late thirties, but still the same man she remembered.  The grin on his face in particular made her heart skip and told her that this really was him.

“But… how?” she stammered out.

“Oh my dear, you didn’t keep your promise did you?” he answered.  “Sit down, please, and I’ll explain.  You didn’t check if I’d led a good life.  That night… when you vanished from in front of me… I knew your story was true.  I knew you’d believed it, but there might have been other explanations.  But you just… well… faded away.  I knew right then and there that I loved you.  That I had to see you again.  And for that I was going to need money.

I finished my courses with even higher marks than had been predicted, and was snapped up by an ambitious financial company.  As well as making the shareholders rich I became rather wealthy myself.  Then I started my own companies, some to fund the research and others to help with my quest.  Monitoring and surveillance companies, so I could detect you when you appeared.  Transport companies, so I could catch up with you if you didn’t appear on the island or left before I could reach you.  Pure science research institutes to try and solve the puzzle of your disappearance and your unusual time line.  And, of course, cryogenics.  To allow me to skip through time after you.

Some parts were ready before the others.  We detected you on your last visit, before you headed off around the world, but the technology to unfreeze me still took several days.  You would have been gone long before I could reach you.  But now the technology is so much better.  I’ve been woken once every fifty years to spend a week or so catching up on the latest developments.  And finally, just thirty or so years ago, they developed a cryogenic technique that allows almost instant awakening.

The rest was easy.  Our sensors detected you and I was woken.  Of course it made it much easier that you came here instead of flying off again.  Do you like it by the way?  I bought the place and have insisted on keeping it exactly as it was.  To give you somewhere familiar to return to.”

Sudden worry clouded his face, making him seem much younger.

“Did I do the right thing?  Was I right to try and follow you?”

“Yes!  Oh Yes!  I… I can’t… it’s… it’s just so… wonderful.  Thank you.  Thank you so much.”

He grinned, clearly relieved.

“This is just the beginning.  My researchers have ideas to follow up, theories of what may be happening to you.  Ways of reducing how long you skip, if not preventing it completely.”

He stood and held out his hands.  Standing she took them in her own.  They stared into each others faces intently once more.

“But all that is for another day,” he said.  “Today is ours.  Our second day together.  The second of so many.”

She pulled him into a fierce hug again, then they turned and walked onto the beach towards the waves.  Once they reached the sea she looked over her shoulder and saw the trail of her footprints, with the trail of his beside.  It felt so right and she knew that it would be that way forever.  Never again would she leave a lone trail in the sand.

The End

More Speculative Stories…

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