Greg Egan: The Clockwork Rocket

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  • Название:
    The Clockwork Rocket
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    Английский
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The Clockwork Rocket: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Vito addressed his father. “What do you think?”

“This will do.” Dario turned to Yalda. “No arborines here, I promise.”

“They don’t frighten me,” she said.

When Dario had climbed down, Yalda began resorbing the top halves of her long front legs. She was too tired to think carefully about her shape, but all it really took to regain her old posture was a forceful renunciation of the wariness she’d cultivated during the trip, when relaxing back to normality would have sent her grandfather sprawling onto the road.

Vito emptied his pouches onto the ground and made himself bipedal too, then he and Yalda worked together to dig spaces for the three of them to sleep. The roots of the plants ran deep, and Yalda’s fingers had to bifurcate three or four times to slip into the soil alongside them and prise the whole mass loose; still, with her father helping the whole task was not too daunting. The worms whose homes she was wrecking were fatter and feistier than those she was used to, and after realizing that they weren’t simply going to flee from her touch she started flinging them away across the clearing.

By the time the three indentations were ready, Yalda was almost asleep on her feet. As Dario waddled toward his bed on two short legs—the only limbs he was now sporting—he turned to Yalda. “Thanks for bringing me here, Vita. You did a good job.”

Yalda didn’t correct him; whatever was going through his mind, he’d managed to make the compliment sound sincere. Vito shared a glance with her that she took to express amused concurrence with Dario’s sentiment, then he bid her goodnight.

Yalda was exhausted, but she stood for a while beside her grandfather, gazing down at his sleeping form. Giusto had claimed that he’d seen Dario glowing yellow at night. If they wanted to judge the efficacy of Doctor Livia’s cure, shouldn’t they check for this symptom, both now and when they returned? Yalda had noticed that she cast a multitude of shadows, so she’d hoped to see how Dario appeared from within them—but alas, none was deep enough to reveal what light, if any, was emerging from his skin. Wherever she stood, she couldn’t shield him from every flower at once and observe the luminosity of his body alone.

It was frustrating, but as she gave up and crawled into bed, Yalda thought of the bright side. If any light emerging from Dario’s skin was so faint that it was hidden by the forest’s glare, surely that meant that whatever hue he’d been losing back on the farm was now being replenished faster than it was leaking away.

She wriggled deeper into the cool soil, squashing a few worms who’d escaped her earlier evictions, and gazed up into the violet backlight. She thought about the arborine—skulking along the branches somewhere, angrier than the worms—but if he came for her in the night she’d been forewarned. And if he snatched the men, smaller morsels that they were, she’d forego Amata’s tortuous history of guilt and redemption and just cut them free first thing in the morning.


To Yalda’s delight, the forest by day did show some fidelity to Dario’s story: many of the smaller flowers in the undergrowth, shielded from sunlight by the canopy of branches, really did retain their radiance.

Most of the clearing, though, was not entirely sheltered from the sky. With the violet flowers curled up into crumpled sacs, sunlight spilled through the net of vines that had supported their outstretched petals, mottling the ground with brightness.

After breakfast, Yalda dug storage holes for the loaves they’d brought, and Vito used some of the groundflower petals in which they’d been wrapped as lining. Yalda didn’t trust the worms here to obey the usual rules, but her father assured her that the pungent scent of the petals would keep any vermin away.

Once that job was finished, Yalda had nothing left to do but gaze into the forest. It was a strange situation; if she’d been moping around on the farm Vito would have quickly found her a task, and if there’d been no work at all her cousins and siblings would have dragged her into some game or other with their usual boisterous energy.

At noon, Vito brought out three more loaves. Dario remained half-buried as he ate, emitting unselfconscious chirps of pleasure. Yalda stood watching the slight movements of the branches around her, trying to unravel their causes. Over the course of the morning, she had learned to tell the difference between the swaying motion brought on by the wind, which was shared by many branches at once, and the trembling of a single branch when a small lizard ran along it. Sometimes she could even spot the successive rebounds when a lizard launched itself from one branch and landed on another.

“What do lizards eat?” Yalda asked Vito.

“Insects, maybe,” he replied. “I’m not sure.”

Yalda contemplated the second part of his reply. How could he not be sure? Were there things about the world that adults didn’t know? Dario offered no verdict on the lizards’ diet, and though he might just have been too preoccupied to bother, Yalda was beginning to wonder if she’d misunderstood something important. She’d thought that every adult’s role was to instruct their children and answer their questions, until the children knew all there was to know—by which time they were adults too. But if some answers weren’t passed down from generation to generation, where did they come from?

Judging that it would be impolite to probe the extent of Dario’s knowledge in his hearing, Yalda waited until he had dozed off again.

“Who taught you about the stars?” she asked Vito. “All those things you were telling me last night?” She had never heard Dario speak about the origin of the color trails.

Vito said, “I learned that from your mother.”

“Oh!” Yalda was astonished; how could you learn anything from someone your own age? “But who taught it to her?”

“She had a friend, a girl named Clara.” Vito spoke slowly, as if the subject required some special effort to address. “Clara went to school. She’d tell your mother about the things she’d learned, and then your mother would explain them to me.”

Yalda knew there was a school in the village, but she’d always thought its purpose was to train people for unfamiliar jobs, not to answer their questions about the stars.

“I wish I could have met her,” she said.

“Clara?”

“My mother.”

Vito said wryly, “That’s like wishing you could fly.”

Yalda had heard the phrase before, but now it struck her as an odd choice for the epitome of unattainability. “What if we stretched our arms wide, like a mite’s wings—”

“People have tried that,” Vito assured her. “We’re too heavy, and too weak; it just doesn’t work.”

“Oh.” Yalda returned to the subject of her mother. “What else did she teach you?”

Vito had to think about that. “A little bit of writing. But I’m not sure I remember much.”

“Show me! Please!” Yalda wasn’t sure what the point of writing was, but the prospect of seeing her own father perform the elaborate trick was irresistible.

Vito did resist, but not for long. “I’ll try,” he said. “But you’ll need to be patient with me.”

He stood for a while, silent and motionless. Then the skin of his chest began to tremble, as if he were shooing off insects, and Yalda noticed some strange, curved ridges starting to appear. They weren’t holding still, though; they were slipping away across his body. Yalda could see him struggling to keep them in place, but he wasn’t succeeding.

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