The Great Gulf Race
Why the Authorities Sentenced Deirdre Keller
To Muck Stables for a Month

By Dolores J. Nurss

I know, from many dreams, the geography of the Great Gulf Road and the Coral Gulf. I cannot recall now how much of this story came from dreams and from imagination, but other dreams sometimes refer back to this moment in the lives of Deirdre, Merrill, and Don. At this point, in 2699, Merrill and Don were both legal adults and acting as "adult supervision" for Deirdre, for all the good it did her. Deirdre tells the tale.

It started innocently enough. I got into a discussion with Don about hobbies, that's all. He likes boating, I prefer to hike, okay? I'd call mine the logical preference; you can do it anywhere in the world, in any kind of terrain. While, and this is all I said, no reason for him to blow a gasket over it, if you've seen one stretch of ocean you've seen it all.
He differed. Emphatically. Sweet, mild-mannered Don went berserk, red-faced, bulging neck-veins, the whole bit. His voice raised in pitch and volume like a motor whirring clear up the scale and out of control as he waved his arms like a lunatic. He raved about the Sea in All Her Moods like some furious knight ready to joust for his Lady in Domnei.
I saw Merrill smirk on the sidelines; I thought for sure he'd bring his friend to his senses. But when I called on him to do so he just heated things up further. I'm certain he did it deliberately, too, now that I look back on it. Now he'd take my side, now Don's--all in the name of fairness, he claimed, before we could strangle him for fickleness. The rotter finished on Don's side by the end of it. Trickster. He'll make an Agent, all right, if his lack of scruples doesn't bar him from the Field.
Somehow in comparing the merits of each he goaded us into putting it to the test. Don said something about how everybody prefers to cross the Coral Gulf by boat if they could at all avoid hiking the Great Gulf Road.
"Ah, but only with somebody else to pilot it," I countered, "around all those deadly reefs."
"Nonsense!" he retorted. "I do it all the time, myself."
"Yes, but at night?" I asked him.
He had the nerve to doubt that I'd taken the Gulf Road by night and I said yes, twice, so there!
That should've ended it right there, with me, of course, victorious. It would've, without Merrill there. He challenged me to a race--Don and himself by boat, me on the road, to see who'd cross the Gulf first. By night, yet. We'll meet in Sandurste at the Ghost-Horse Inn, presuming we all survive to meet--the Road's nearly as treacherous in the dark as the Gulf.
So that's how I find myself out here, coaxing a stolen racehorse along the trail to the Great Gulf Road. Merrill made me sign a statement that I'd complete the journey on foot, and even confiscated my flit! But he didn't specify whose feet. Of course I haven't heard of anyone taking the Gulf Road on horseback before, but that doesn't make it impossible.
Starshadow's a marathoner thoroughbred beauty, a great black beast with white mane, tail and blazings that turn silver in the moonlight. Her muscles ripple like poetry, her eyes gaze wiser than men. She loves me for my humanity; she has devoted herself to my kind. We'll get along.
Troll Staircase makes a hard climb for a horse. The stone-cracked ground almost does make a staircase up the mountain to the road--if you've got legs a couple meters long. But even my two short limbs handle it better than Starshadow's four. One more built-in trial to make passage from the Institute to the support-communities and back as difficult as it is necessary--our founders planned it that way to toughen us.
A spring rain earlier has muddied the ground tonight. We both slip and slither, Starshadow and I. I coax her on by foot, guarding her precious legs, soothing her nerves, praising her beauty. Mud cakes my boots to the knees and I've slid to sitting so often that my bottom has grown clammy from it. Yet she looks hardly soiled at all, noble one, for all her skitters and rolling eyes.
Now, now, we make it up at last. Ah yes, good child of the wind, you're so fine you are, stand here and calm yourself. Take a good look at the way before us. We'll make it across, you and I.
The Great Gulf Road--a splendor worthy of you, Starshadow! Carved two-thirds of the way up in cliffs of rippling red stone at least a mile high, crowned by impassible jungle that censes down its resinous perfume, it seems to dance upon unquiet waves that toss up silver flourishes of spume, almost to the road at times, only to fall back in moonlit diamonds to the ever-churning swirl below. And look, Starshadow! Your namesakes crowd the sky, imperious jewels to flicker on the careless velvet of the night. Starshadow, God made this evening for you and me.
I push back the hood of my poncho because I want to feel the wind in my hair, I want to taste the wildness of this night like something I could bite, could spill the juice of it into my throat, over my chin. I left all regrets on the steps of Troll Staircase--if I die tonight, let me savor my last minutes!
Off, now! Feel this, Starshadow: running--what you know, what you were born to, bred to. And I, born for adventure, bred to it from the cradle, I know what I do! Oh, God has filled the wind with joy! And I, a sinner and a thief, exult in it greedily, for it blows on the just and unjust alike. Run, sweet lady, run! Ah, it feels so good! Go only where I tug the reins, sweet lady of the wind--for where you falter here, you die. See there, reared against the stars? That's Three Angels, the rocks that signal the road's end to travelers from the other side. And there, you can see it far ahead at the apex of the arch: Weary Hiker's Reef, to flog the lazy on with the sight of its foam-licked teeth. Run on, but run as I direct you!
I catch my breath in my throat with my heart. Starshadow, you can see all the curve of the cliff from here! All the black and silver miles of it.
Now leap! And land sure, land straight, other side of the crevice. The gravel falls seaward but not us, no, not this time. Easy, pace yourself, it'll take awhile till the next one. They go privily back into the cliffs; you can hear the ocean growl in them, you can hear it echo deep.
And on we go, the surging of your flesh in harmony with the sea below, my silence and excitement kindled up clear to the stars. We share. We fulfill each other by giving purposes.
Easy now, easy. I won't run you the whole way. Canter down, now walk, ease your muscles, slow. We should not rush past such sights altogether.
In the distance I see lights across the water; they sway no further than you and I, they thread the mazes of the coral. I laugh and my laughter thrills me inside like the wind thrills my skin.
Slower now, then stop. Here we find a spring that trickles from the rock; it makes a slippery space. We'll back up in a moment, give you room to leap it. We'll need to keep the momentum soon, again, for another crevice lies a little further on. But not yet. Wait for me, Starshadow. Refresh yourself.
I ford the spring and make my way to the crevice. I slip within by the little footledges on either side, one foot on both as it narrows. I hear the sea far below me as I use the walls to brace me.
Why should I seek privacy with none but a horse to see me? Because I'm human and a fool. I put the crevice to its common use. "Nature's privies", we call them. It seems mundane enough by day, but at night, in the darkness of the rock with just a few stars visible way above while the sea growls low in an oracle-voice to send up echoes from the blackness beneath, I feel for a moment that I desecrate a shrine. No, I don't either, not really. All nature has its place here.
I return to Starshadow, patient by the spring, satisfied with droplets shining on her mouth. Far beyond the old Earth breeds, she won't drink herself sick unsupervised. We have just enough room, moving carefully, to turn her around here. Further back I'd picked out another spot to reverse her again to forward.
Now for it! See, the boat has puzzled out her path and gains. More than that, they race ahead!
Over the spring! Land running, no break in the melody of your motion. And here, again leap, clatter hooves back down to safety, a-rumble on the ribbon of the road. And look, there below, Wary Hiker's Reef--we've passed the halfway point.
On, faster, faster! We challenge Earth against Sea, remember? More rides upon this than you or I. Starshadow, your strength intoxicates me! Keep on, stay brave, keep up the rhythm that pounds counterpoint to my pulse.
No, I'd better slow you for awhile while we cross this stretch without crevices. Ease down. We'll make no stop, but I don't want to kill you. I'm no goddess to sacrifice you to my pride. If I dared thus reward your loyalty, where but hell could hide me?
No, I may be a thief on a joyride, but I'd surpass all crime not to respect you. Starshadow, may humankind not fail in the friendship of your kind! May you never find ill-use in all your days.
The boat has sailed too far ahead to catch up with, but I'll have to gallop you anyway; crevices and springs lie ahead. Trust me. You can do it. There, you catch your pace again. That's it. There, there! Now we have it!
Thank you. Thank you for this gift you give. Thank you for making me feel so alive.
I lose track of the racings and slowings. Sometimes the boat looks near enough to lure me into hope, sometimes so far ahead I'd as likely live forever as catch up with it. Once they wound nearly an hour in some nigh-impossible labyrinth, but I forgot Don's Gift: he can sense the reefs, he doesn't have to see them. In a way I'm glad; I don't have to worry about them getting killed out there.
I can't believe it when we near the end. I find it simpler to take her down off the cliff than on--the East Trail follows a gentler slope than the West and needs no "stairs". Still, I slip off her back for it. I walk her till the last mile before Sandurste, then on to the final sprint, glad that I stole a trained marathoner.
We ride on towards the Ghost Horse Inn and I feel like I ride the Ghost Horse. Now that we keep no danger always to our left, unspeakably beautiful danger, I feel a level of reality wash away. A phantom rider on a phantom mare, we descend into a valley that curls with fog. I hope the boys reached shore before this grew on them. I pull my hood up. My hair takes on mist till dank locks curl on my cheeks and brow.
The inn's warm light diffuses in the fog before me. I didn't realize how tired I'd grown till I got here. Then poor Starshadow! But here's a groom to take her to stable, towel her off and pamper her.
"Is there a Merrill Ambrey or Don Khmi in the inn tonight?" I ask him, while Starshadow snuffs at the fodder-scent upon the air.
"Sure," he says. "They checked in this very hour." Aha--not so far ahead of me after all.
"Where's your crediter, lad?" He pulls it off his belt and hands it to me as I dismount.
"Where's her reins?" he asks.
"Hasn't none." I punch in my card and my estimate of the worth of his services. His eyes bug at the tip I gave him--there goes half my savings right there; the rest must buy drinks for the boys, as per our bets.
"So much?" the kid asks.
"Earn it. Let me introduce you to Starshadow. She crossed the Great Gulf Road all in a night. Give her the best stable and treat her like the queen she is."
He marvels at her. "Will do."
I enter the inn, stiff in my legs. I see Don and Merrill immediately, wrapped in blankets and grinning at me behind steaming mugs.
"There she is, alive after all!" Merrill raises his cocoa to me. "What took you so long?"
"I happen to know," I retort, "That you barely squeaked past me."
"Not quite 'squeaked'," Don says with a smile. He sips at buttered rum, worse luck--far more expensive than cocoa! I call for mulled wine and join them.
"You're both soaked to the skin," I comment as I sit painfully down. "One of the many inconveniences of sea-travel, I suppose." Their clothes drape the stones of the fireplace nearby.
"We're alive," Don responds. He turns to his best friend. "Merrill, if I ever let you talk me into anything so foolish again, lop my stupid head off for me, for it does me no good."
"That would spoil the whole point of persuading you to do anything," he says cheerfully.
"At least I'd go faster than dying of fear! I swear you'll kill me before my first grey hair."
"Not really." Merrill sips cocoa and smiles like fear were candy to him. "I'll give you plenty of grey hair before then, I promise you."

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