Illustrations by Wm Michael Mott

Once, Gentian built a planet. Gentian was tall, thin, gangling and awkward, well-muscled in the fashion of one who swims and climbs rather than one who lifts things. His red hair was not long but it defied control so unpredictably that he wore a band across his forehead to hold it back from his eyes. His lean face looked gaunt, the nose prominently ridged. His eyes – they were blue, but the sort of blue that runs so pale it seems almost a shade of gray – flashed in a nearly perpetual smile.

When he walked his arms swung like awkward afterthoughts added to his body without planning. But the strides of his preposterously long legs were something yet again. Gentian was no leader in the usual sense but a man people liked to follow; and follow him they did.

Because when Gentian walked the Way it wasn’t like the Waywalking of anyone else.

Now, every human can walk the Way – with the possible exception of those poor souls who remain on Earth, those tragic figures so wrapped up in time they can walk nothing but old and well-worn paths. But when Gentian walked the Way it was as if the very structure of the universe took notice.

You know how it is. You see the colors when you walk the Way. Swirls, perhaps. Or things that throb and pulsate as if the color of whatever the universe is made of is being thrown against blackness. Some people are exceptions, of course. The worldwitchers see stars and planets.

But there among the starcries and worldsongs, whatever most of us see is abstract, only strangely related to reality if at all. We see rushing, uncontrolled skeins of colored light like glowing threads all wildly tangled, yet at the same time pulled coherently along a loom.

But walk a while with Gentian and you see much more than that.

Gentian could make the colors seem to take on solid form. Keep you eyes on him all you like and you still won’t see how he does it, but all of a sudden, there in the Way, there’ll be something stretching out in front of you: a path to walk on, usually. It might seem like grass, or flagstones, or plastic ribbon walkways such as are found in the cities of some of the non-human worlds. The grass was what he was most fond of. Grass growing on a path stretching among stars and planets, trees growing up here and there on either side. Palm trees. Have you ever walked the Way among tall stately palms that swayed to an unfelt wind? Palms rich with clustered cocoanuts, broad sweeping fronds so heavy that their own weight seems almost to bring them to the ground – only there is no ground? Just emptiness, filled with swirling colors. Or, if Gentian willed it, an illusion of planets and stars and nebulas and comets. Ever heard the old Earth story about the Pied Piper?

That was Gentian. Or it could have been.

Not entirely, of course. The Pied Piper must have taken himself much more seriously than Gentian. Gentian was nobody’s fool. Better to walk along a rainbow arcing across the Way between two worlds, better to lead children to something rather than away from something. Besides, the Earthlings who walk the Way are extraordinary children, children who have fulfilled their evolution. In some ways the greatest of all those children was Gentian.

When Heather walked the Way, she barely saw even the skeins of color, so busy was she with listening to the worldsongs. And who can blame her for that? No one who hears the richness and variety of those songs as she did, that’s for sure. She was a small girl, the top of her head barely coming to Gentian’s shoulder, slender and rather supple – if you can believe there’s such a thing as suppleness that’s half awkwardness. She met Gentian and his friends on a small silver-blue planet at the edge of the Core.

She’d been wandering among those close-packed stars where the planetary systems are so numerous that the worldsongs and starcries mingle into a chorus like something from some crazed genius’s opera-to-end-all operas.

She’d listened to those worldsongs, picked out the most intriguing and visited those worlds to watch sunrise from their surfaces. She’d seen daybirth on a hundred or so planets, saw the sky play with thousands of shades and colors, so that no combination of startype and atmosphere gave the same effect as any other. There were times when she wanted to laugh and other times the sight made the tears come. Usually, she found, a day gives rise to both reactions, to every feeling a person can gouge out of the substance of the human soul – if you understand how a day gets born. And Heather did. She understood that the way she understood worldsongs.

So she wandered the Core as if hypnotized, but she had all of her senses whenever she needed them.

So Heather met Gentian there at the edge of the Core, that part of the galaxy where – moving outward – you might first encounter emptiness and could go as much as a lightyear without encountering a star or a planet. Gentian liked room when he walked and seldom ventured closer to the center of the galaxy than this, because he liked a big canvas, letting his mind flit among colors, a sentient brush frantic with its palette. Heather, on the other hand, intended to go back into the Core, back to that riot of worldsongs and the colors of those sunrises which she loved more than the colors of the Way. Only she met Gentian.

“I wonder,” Agnete said. “I wonder can you do a thing like that, Gentian?”

They were watching the setting of the suns. This small planet claimed a pair of them. It orbited well out from both and they, in turn, orbited one another. The sky was edged in pink, run through with yellow and deep violet. Low on the horizon, the scattered clouds were brown and various reddish tones. Tall, snaky trees reached up against the sky’s background, black erratic bars across the sunset.

Heather, who was seated on the ground nearby, watched the scene with a not-wholly satisfied eye. Agnete glanced at her and smiled. “Our sunrise woman,” she called her.

“Our sunrise woman,” Gentian agreed softly, wonderingly.

He took a deep breath of the planet’s air, not knowing what the mixture was – nor, having walked the Way, needing to care about such things.

Heather was more used to being alone than she was to interpreting the shadings of another person’s meaning; and as Gentian spoke, she looked away from him. Something in the movement of her shoulders told Gentian she didn’t understand his tone at all; perhaps she thought he was mocking her. How could Gentian mock anyone, most of all Heather? He wasn’t sure what to do about it.

“How many sunrises have you seen, anyway,” Agnete asked.

Heather shrugged. “I never counted. When the stars are close enough, you can see as many as twenty in the length of an old-fashioned day. Sometimes I follow the sun around a planet, watching it rise again and again at different locations until I’ve wrung all the colors out of it.”

“Yeah,” said Shroud. “But just look at that. Look at those colors.” He was the artist. He carried charcoal and colored chalk in a canvas bag, as well as paper and boards, on which he made sketches of the things Gentian created. Shroud shook his head and stared in wonder at the sunset. The light was failing, the colors starting to merge with night. He lost interest in them and turned to Gentian and let the smile on his face become an expression of interrogation in echo of the one on Agnete’s. Agnete laughed and said, “Well, Gentian?”

“Well, what?”

“What do you plan next?”

“Yeah,” said Shroud.

They all looked at Gentian: Agnete and Shroud, Bethmer and Cray; even Heather. But only Heather looked at him as if she really wondered.

Gentian stood up, unfolding his lank arms and legs, a rag doll come to life. Shroud’s grin was almost a laugh. “You think you can do just about anything don’t you?”

“Isn’t that why you stay around?” Agnete said. “To draw it when he does it?”

Shroud laughed then. Everyone did, enjoying a joke that rose mostly from their fondness for each other. Except for Heather, partly because she was still too much the outsider to fully appreciate the group emotion. And partly because she was distracted. She was watching the sky gather night around it and there was something in those large, staring eyes of hers like the look of a troubled person. Only what could possibly trouble her?

This was a pleasant land, this part of the silver-blue world. There was a big-enough moon to notice and it sailed in the leisurely fashion of moons of its sort, across a sky that was flecked with only a few clouds. The stars blazed brightly. There were night birds with restful songs. The humans stretched out on the hillside to sleep.

After a time Gentian woke. He saw that Heather was awake and seated on the ground close by. He sat up. “What is it?”

“It’s nothing, Gentian. Go back to sleep.” And a moment later she added, quietly, “It’s almost dawn.”

He lay back, propping himself on his elbows. “You’ve been here a few days. Haven’t you seen a sunrise yet?”

“This will be the fourth.”

“Then you’ve seen it before.”

“How could I have?” she said quietly. “It’s a new sunrise.”

He nodded, understanding.

He eased back as if he were ready to go to sleep, slipping his hands behind his neck and staring at the dark, still sky.

Heather said, “Do you know what’s sad about the night?”

“The darkness?”

“No, not that. Sunsets.”

“You don’t like sunsets, do you?”

“I don’t dislike them. They’re sad, that’s all. A world can have countless days, but each one has to die before a new one can be born.”

“Have you thought that maybe it’s reincarnation?” Gentian said. “Maybe there aren’t any new days, just the same one, over and over.”

“Don’t make fun of me,” she said. “It may not be really so, but it’s what I feel.”

“I’m not making fun of you,” he said. “But the day and the night roll around the planet and if we moved with them, wouldn’t we see that?”

“A sort of seamless constant change, you mean?”

In the moment of silence that followed, the sky lightened a small bit.

Heather said, “Gentian, will you show me the things you make with your mind?”

“You’ve seen them.”

“Small things, yes. Small trees and animals. The little people who sit on the edge of your hand. Those are nice and I like them, but I want to see things like Shroud’s drawings show, the things you make in the Way. Those things.”

She wasn’t look at Gentian, but the sky where the sunrise would appear. But his eyes were closed and he didn’t notice. He said. “That won’t be any problem. We’ll see about it tomorrow.”

She turned her head toward him and smiled. “Great.” Then she turned back to wait for the sun.

After a moment she thought of something else to ask him. But when she looked she saw that he was asleep. She put away the question and went back to watch the sky.

Gentian woke not long after sunrise.

He left the others, asking them to wait for him to return. When he came back, stepping out of the Way and onto the silver-blue world, materializing like a genie in front of them, it was early afternoon. Gentian was excited. The others had never seen him excited like that before.

He waved his arms. “Come on,” he said. “Come on. Now.” He turned, reaching out to part the fabric of between reality and the Way while the others stared at him, dumbfounded. He waited for them. “Come on,” he insisted. They followed.

A grassy path wound through the Way, and trees grew on either side.

Heather stared around, impressed by the trees, Earthly palms which she had never seen in reality, and impressed as well by the feeling of grass under her feet.

The worldsongs were soft and distant, a trick of the Way, not of Gentian, as if the worlds making them were a chorus gathered behind gauze curtains. Heather was astonished. She had seen this path before, not in experience but in one of Shroud’s drawings.

And all the while above the soft, hushed worldsongs, Gentian’s voice: “Come on, come on –”

So they followed him.

How far is distance in the Way?

Not far, not far at all. Distance in the Way is only a convenience, two parts relative, one part actual, seven parts subjective. They followed Gentian through the Way, along that grassy bridge, a bridge so high it felt to them that souls might be expected to topple from it into some mythological chasm, had not Gentian provided the barrier of the trees. Abruptly ahead of them, however, the grassy bridge ended in the middle of nothing.

They stopped.

They stopped, all but Gentian who turned and with an impatient tone said, “I thought you were going to follow me. Don’t st—”

He stepped through the fabric of space and they with him.

“—op now.”

There should not have been anything there.

They should have been drifting in cold, empty space between star systems but they weren’t.

Oh, they were in space. They were away from planets: real ones, that is. What they were standing on couldn’t be real.

It was night. There were stars and moons – they saw nine of them, varying in size from a barely visible pinpoint to one globe so large you could make out the spiderweb tracery of craters on its surface. The humans were standing on a low, rounded hillock. The grass under their feet had small round leaves. Small white buds grew among these leaves, seemingly at random. A forest was clustered at the foot of a hill. Even in the moonlight you could tell the odd conical configuration of the trees. Those trees were marked with growths that probably, in daylight, would be revealed as the buds of large flowers.

Close by was a river. There was an oxygen-rich atmosphere, heavy with exotic, flowery fragrances. Heather treated herself to a deep lungful.

Gentian asked, “Well?”

Shroud gave his head a slow shake. “This is something. This really is something.”

“It certainly is,” Agnete said. But she was frowning a little. “Only I don’t – I mean, I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.”

Anyone but Gentian might have looked hurt; but he didn’t, not quite. He said, “It’s a world.”

“I know that,” Agnete said. She looked around again and folded her arms across her body in an action that almost resembled a shrug. “I know that and it’s really very nice. It’s very nice.”

“It’s just like the things I make in the Way,” Gentian said. “Except that I made it so it can last for a bit longer. Until I decide to tear it down, in fact.”

Agnete was still looking around. “It’s a very nice world, Gentian.”

“Complex,” Shroud supplied.

“That’s the word I was trying to think of,” Bethmer said.

Cray nodded. “It’s a fine world, nice.”

Gentian looked not at them but at the world he had created. After a moment he said, “Is that it? That’s what you feel?”

“What does it mean?” Agnete asked. “Didn’t we say we liked it?”

“That’s what it sounded like you said.”

“I’m not sure what you want us to say,” Agnete said. “We like it. It’s just that we like some of the other things you do better.”

“That’s all,” said Marion. “This is very nice. It’s fun. But it isn’t real. Just listen to it.”

“I don’t hear anything,” said Gentian.

“That’s what I mean. It spoils it. The whole effect is spoiled. Your world would be really nice if you could figure out how to give it a worldsong. Only I don’t see any practical method …”

“Besides,” Shroud said. “That forest down there. It’s like the one on Capella Laisaire. And those moons. You took them from Rosshald.”

“Well, sort of,” Agnete added, frowning at the sky. “Don’t the moons of Rosshald move in more of a formation than that? Like they not only orbit the planet, but each other? These –” She waved her hands as if she couldn’t think of the word she wanted. “These just move across the sky.”

Cray told Gentian, “Now don’t misunderstand us. This is nice enough. We all like it.”

“Sure,” Shroud said. “There’s not a thing really wrong with it.”

With a saddened look, Agnete touched Gentian’s face. “Poor Gentian. We haven’t seen it the way you hoped we would, have we?”

It was Gentian’s turn to shrug. He looked away from Agnete. His gaze swept over the world he made.

And he told himself they were right. The forest was copied from the one on Capella Lassaire, and those moons were straight out of the sky of Rosshald – only not too well duplicated. Even the smell and taste of the air was borrowed.

Gentian sighed.

Agnete hugged him, gently. “Don’t Gentian. Don’t feel bad. It’s wonderful what you did. You tried something new. And now you know. So you can go back to doing the things you do best, can’t you? The things in the Way, where a tree from Earth or Paralta can be in a setting that can give it new meaning.”

“But isn’t this a new setting?” Gentian asked. “Sure, details are borrowed, but the things I do in the Way are borrowed. The things here are put together differently.”

“But who wants one planet’s moons over another one’s forest? What difference does that make?” Agnete asked. “And the atmosphere. It’s just wrong for this sort of world. Those flowers on the trees down there should have a more pungent, affecting kind of fragrance, dear.”

“Now don’t get the feeling we aren’t impressed,” Shroud said. “This thing must have been a lot of work. We’re certainly impressed.”

“Maybe it’s that you worked too fast,” Bethmer said. “If you took a bit more time with it, maybe reworked some parts of it …”

“Yeah,” Shroud said. “A bit here, a bit there. Fix it up. Make it all fit together better.”

“It might help some,” Agnete said. “But really. Who wants to stand on a world that doesn’t have a worldsong?”

“Yeah,” said Shroud. “That really weakens the effect.

“In the Way the music does a lot for your stuff.”

“But don’t give up. A little work and this place could be something, even without the song.”

“That’s right.”

“But a song would really help,” said Agnete.

Gentian said nothing.

Agnete gave him another sad look. “Poor Gentian. Look, we’re being far too rough. After all, it isn’t really finished, is it? That’s the only problem. We’ll leave. You can work on the place to your heart’s content, and when you have it done the way you want it, you come and tell us and we’ll take another look. I’m sure we’ll like it then. We’re anxious to see what you can do. Isn’t that so?”

The others chorused that it was so.

Agnete went on. “It’s not so bad an idea, this world. I’m sure you can make it into something really creative, really in keeping with your talent.”

“So just be sure and let us know when it’s done,” Shroud said.

When they were gone, Gentian stood there and thought about what they had said. He looked around again, trying to see his world in the light of what they had told him. The only trouble was that he liked the world just the way it was. He didn’t want to make any changes in it.

Of course he could always forget about it. Let it return to the nothingness it had been before. Go back to the others and never mention this again. Never –

He saw Heather at the top of the hill. She was sitting against a tree he had made and staring at the sky. He could see her face plainly because the sky was starting to glow with morning light. It touched her face softly, lovingly. In the eastern sky there were colors that were already more vivid and moving than Gentian had thought possible. Rose and purple and soft shades of blue. He had chosen as carefully the kind of sun he wanted this world to circle as he had chosen everything else.

He went up the hill slowly, trying not to disturb Heather. But she knew he was there and she said, “Just look at it.”

But Gentian looked at her face instead.

“No,” she said. “Look at the sky. Really look at it.”

So Gentian looked at the sky, the sunrise. He sat down there beside her and for a long time he looked at the sky.

Finally the sunrise gave way to the day and Heather squeezed his hand. “Thank you,” she said.

He saw the intensity of her feelings in her eyes. It was like an echo of what they both had seen.

He started to tell her that she was welcome but he hesitated, not sure whether he should say that or thank her for finding this thing for him.

And that’s how Gentian once built a planet.

Gentian and the others moved on and found new things to experience in the Way but Gentian never made another planet. Not like that.

But if you travel close to the Core, near a certain silver-blue planet, you might take the time to give the region a careful search. Gentian’s world is still where he left it.


Illustrations copyrighted Wm Michael Mott