Johanna Chen rides her precious bicycle down the Spine of Edge, this early Hally-morning. Soon the Blessèd sun will rise, but the inner world is already giving enough light to steer by and she does not want to be late. She is on her way to Stilt Town, pedalling briskly against the sea-breeze with her head down and her long hair flying behind her like a black banner.
She is wearing kelp-fibre trousers and a short woollen jacket, both in a neutral shade of ecru. It is a popular colour this year among the young people of Edge, who have never gone in for ostentation in their mode of dress. One item only stands out in the orange-yellow Hally-light - Johanna has tied a brilliant red rayon scarf around her neck; the fabric flutters and tangles in her hair, making of it something almost heraldic.
Of course she does not actually live in Stilt Town. One only has to look at her to see that, although she fondly imagines that she has dressed appropriately for her expedition. Johanna's family comes from the city of Maybe, twenty miles upslope from the tide line and to all intents and purposes the capital of Edge. They are important people there.
The road is wet under her tyres. It has rained heavily overnight and she must take care not to skid on a damp patch of paving and come off her bicycle. She might hurt herself or - worse - damage her machine. The light is improving by the minute, however, and the likelihood of Johanna having an accident steadily recedes. She can enjoy the ride and the view. And what a view it is!
To her right the ground rises twenty feet or so to the top of the Spine. The ridge is gently undulating, with an occasional outcrop of bare rock poking through the ferns and lichen. Unseen on the far side is the narrow-gauge railway which carries material from Stilt Town or, to give it its full Board designation, Resource Extraction Point Three (Edge), to the industrial centre of Shore. The wagons are not designed for the use of passengers; they must either travel with the taciturn brakeman at the rear of the train or, if they are lucky, share the footplate with the driver and fireman. A well-appointed passenger car is kept in the depot at Shore for the use of important travellers such as Monitors, Governors and, of course, representatives of the Board. Johanna would spurn this carriage even if it were offered to her. She has her bicycle.
The Spine falls away steeply to the left of the road as it descend to an infinity of sand and above it, as the Blessèd sun rises over the Spine, is displayed the superlative blue and white sky of Glory. If Johanna were to pay more attention to the view than the needs of safety dictate she would be able to see the black dots of aeroforms silhouetted against the wide expanse of the morning sky, side-lit in gold by the reflected light of Hally and, if she looked downwards to the sands, small groups of scavenging humans, already hard at work digging for treasure.
But Johanna has more important things to look out for. The main part of the Spine is nearing its end. The railway and the road converge at this point and take a two thousand foot leap across the void to the first and greatest of the Stilts; those slowly crumbling pinnacles of rock which continue the track of the Spine into the endless sea, like the dots and dashes of Morse code.
The bridge, built of concrete and reinforced with monomolecular fibre, springs across the gap between solid land and ephemeral spire in a single shallow arch. It is one of the wonders of Glory. As Johanna and her bicycle begin their crossing the observing eye ignores the structure of the bridge beneath her wheels and grants her the benison of flight.
- 0 -
Flight... If the winds are favourable it is a five-day journey from Edge to Horn and Johanna had anticipated the trip with a mixture of joy and trepidation. To soar weightless above the endless seas of Glory on a top-line Board vessel... What a rare delight! What a privilege! Or so her mother had told her, as she hugged her goodbye at the departure gate. Her father had stood stiffly by his wife's side, afraid to reveal his overwhelming pride in his daughter's achievements by shedding public tears over their farewell. A brisk handshake and he had vanished, back to his official car and his official business, while Johanna's mother bombarded her with advice, most of which turned out to be comically uninformed. After all, what could she be expected to know about the life of a female undergraduate at the School on Horn?
Johanna hadn't minded her mother's fussing. She knew love when she saw it and although she hated to leave her family behind she was so looking forward to her new life she could have put up with much, much more and not lost her smile.
And now... Six years of hard work and study had passed, crowned with success, and Johanna was forty-four years old, flying home to an uncertain future. She had, she suspected, irritated the passengers and crew of the LAV Midland Counties almost beyond endurance by her constant pacing up and down the ship's catwalks. Some days she walked, some days she kept to her cabin and some days she, in complete defiance of Board regulations, donned an airsuit and safety line and climbed the ladders to the airship's upper hull, to follow the walkway all the way to the prow where she lay on her front and gazed forward for hours on end, thinking, thinking. She so wanted to be home, she told a young lieutenant one evening, sharing a late cocktail in the ship's tiny bar.
'And what will you do when you get home, Miss Chen?' he asked.
She had her answer ready. 'Oh, my father wants me to take a position with the Board,' she said. 'He's a Monitor, you know.'
Lieutenant Corbishley, who knew perfectly well that Johanna was the daughter and only child of Monitor Chen of the city of Maybe on the land of Edge, nodded and moved the conversation onto less weighty matters. He was a socially adroit young man and, like Johanna, of good family.
'Beautiful, intelligent, and rich!' his cabin-mate said later as they changed watches. 'You're in luck there!' George Corbishley merely smiled.
- 0 -
Telegraph poles punctuate the bridge across which Johanna now flies. Beyond its landing point crouch the railway terminus and its associated depots, service points, warehouses and workers' huts. The road runs straight past these buildings and heads out back to sea. This first Stilt is by far the largest, at nearly half a mile in width, and it is the place where the raw materials which have been recovered from the beach are packaged up for processing on the land. It is not, however, Johanna's destination today. She lets the line of poles guide her to the bridge which leads to the next Stilt. This does not need to carry the railway and so it is much lighter; a spider's web of tracery carrying a suspended roadway made of cartilage and bone.
- 0 -
'And what will you do now you are home, Johanna?'
This was the question she had been waiting for. That nice young lieutenant who'd wangled her a suit and a line; he must have thought her so homesick she was desperate for a first sight of the Precipice of Edge which, at five miles in height, can be seen more than a day before a ship makes landfall. If only he had known how much she feared it! Well, not feared, exactly but...
Johanna looked around the table. In recognition of her triumphant return she had been given the place of honour at its head. Her grandfather sat at the far end, with her father on his right and her mother on his left. Aunt Lian and her sister Aunt Mai faced each other on Johanna's end of the table. Two servants stood discreetly by the door, ready to take away the plates when Johanna's mother gave them the signal. The walls of the dining room were covered in wood panelling - the table was also made of wood - and softly hissing gas lamps provided a gentle illumination. In the middle of the table was a large metal dish, on which rested the remains of a joint of beef. Johanna let her eyes roam over this assemblage of extraordinary comfort and wealth. All these riches were hers to enjoy, would be hers to own one day. With her degree in law - from the School on Horn, no less - she had earned her entrée into the ruling class of Edge. And not just of Edge, but the whole of Glory, if she wished it. All this by her own efforts, by her innate qualities of diligence and intelligence. But more than this; her family had wealth and influence. A quiet word in the right ear from her grandfather, and no door would be closed to her. A junior stewardship this year, a regional sub-governor's post in ten, promotion to the Board to follow in due course. Her father had made Monitor before his ninetieth birthday; Johanna could easily surpass his achievement through simple hard work and dedication. The path to success stretched from her feet into a happy and fulfilled future. All she had to do was take her father's advice regarding her first steps on that path. All she had to do was ask.
Johanna looked straight into her father's eyes and told him what she would do now she was home.