Never Despair by Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the post-apocalyptic gem Eternity Road, with which this story shares its milieu. His short fiction has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF, and in numerous anthologies. He has been nominated for the Nebula Award 13 times, and won for the first time in 2006 for his novel Seeker. Other awards include the Locus Award for his first novel, The Hercules Text, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel Omega.

“Never Despair” tells the story of Chaka Milana, a woman who leaves her hometown in search of a storied place that holds the secrets of the Roadmakers, the almost-mythical builders of the concrete strips that cover the land, and the ruined cities with towers so high that a person could not ascend one in a day. In the course of her journey, Chaka encounters a encounters a historical avatar of a man she doesn’t recognize, but whom the reader most certainly will.

This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.


Never Despair
by Jack McDevitt

The rain began to fall as they threw the last few spadefuls of earth onto the grave.

Quait bowed his head and murmured the traditional farewell. Chaka looked at the wooden marker, which bore Flojian’s name, his dates, and the legend FAR FROM HOME.

She hadn’t cared all that much for Flojian. He was self-centered and he complained a lot and he always knew better ways to do things. But you could count on him to pull his weight, and now there were only two of them.

Quait finished, looked up, and nodded. Her turn. She was glad it was over. The poor son of a bitch had fallen on his head out of the upper level of a ruin, and during four excruciating days, they’d been able to do little for him. Pointless, silly way to die. “Flojian,” she said, “we’ll miss you.” She let it go at that because she meant it, and the rain was coming harder.

They retreated to their horses. Quait packed his spade behind his saddle and mounted in that awkward way that always left her wondering whether Lightfoot would chuck him off on the other side.

She stood looking up at him.

“What’s wrong?” He wiped the back of his hand against his cheek. His hat was jammed down on his head. Water spilled out of it onto his shoulders.

“It’s time to give it up,” Chaka said. “Go home. If we can.” Thunder rumbled. It was getting very dark.

“Not the best time to discuss this.” Quait waited for her to get on her horse. The rain pounded the soft earth, fell into the trees.

She looked back toward the grave. Flojian lay with the ruins now, buried like them beneath the rolling hills and the broad forest. It was the sort of grave he would have preferred, she supposed. He liked stuff that had been dead a long time. She pulled her jacket tight and climbed into the saddle. Quait moved off at a brisk trot.

They’d buried him at the top of the highest ridge in the area. Now they rode slowly along the crest, picking their way among broken concrete casts and petrified timbers and corroded metal, the detritus of the old world, sinking slowly into the ground. The debris had been softened by time: earth and grass had rounded the rubble, spilled over it, absorbed its sharp edges. Eventually, she supposed, nothing would be left, and visitors would stand on the ruins and not know they were even here.

Quait bent against the rain, his hat pulled low over his eyes, his right hand pressed against Lightfoot’s flank. He looked worn and tired and discouraged, and Chaka realized for the first time that he too had given up. That he was only waiting for someone else to take responsibility for admitting failure.

They dropped down off the ridge, and rode through a narrow defile bordered by blocks and slabs.

“You okay?” he asked.

Chaka was fine. Scared. Exhausted. Wondering what they would say to the widows and mothers when they got home. There had been six when they started. “Yes,” she said. “I’m okay.”

The grotto lay ahead, a square black mouth rimmed by chalkstone and half-hidden by a bracken. They’d left a fire burning, and it looked warm and good. They dismounted, and led their horses inside.

Quait threw a couple of logs onto the blaze. “Cold out there,” he said.

Lightning flashed in the entrance.

They put the teapot onto its boiling rock, fed and watered the animals, changed into dry clothes, and sank down in front of the fire. They didn’t talk much for a long time. Chaka sat, wrapped in a blanket, enjoying being warm and away from the rain.

Quait made some notes in the journal, trying to establish the site of Flojian’s grave, so that future travelers, if there were any, could find it. After a while he sighed and looked up, not at her, but over her shoulder, into the middle distance. “You really think we should turn around?”

“Yeah. I think we’ve had enough. Time to go home.”

He nodded. “I hate to go back like this.”

“Me too. But it’s time.” It was hard to guess what the grotto had been. It was not a cave. The walls were artificial. Whatever color they might once have possessed had been washed away. Now they were gray and stained, and they curved into a high ceiling. A pattern of slanted lines, probably intended for decorative effect, cut through them. The grotto was wide, wider than the council hall, which could accommodate a hundred people; and it went far back under the hill. Miles, maybe.

As a general principle, she avoided the ruins when she could. It wasn’t easy because they were everywhere. But all sorts of critters made their homes among them. And the structures were dangerous, as Flojian had found out. Prone to cave-ins, collapsing floors, you name it. The real reason, though, was that she had heard too many stories about spectres and demons among the crumbling walls. She was not superstitious, and would never have admitted her discomfort to Quait. Still, you never knew.

They had found the grotto a few hours after Flojian got hurt, and moved in, grateful for the shelter. But she was anxious to be gone now.

Thunder shook the walls, and they could hear the steady rhythm of rainwater pouring off the ridge. It was still late afternoon, but all the light had drained out of the day.

“Tea should be ready,” said Chaka.

Quait shook his head. “I hate to give it up. We’ll always wonder if it might have been over the next hill.”

She had just picked up the pot and begun to pour when a bolt exploded directly overhead. “Close,” she said, grateful for the protection of the grotto.

Quait smiled, took his tea, and lifted it in a mock toast to whatever powers lived in the area. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe we should take the hint.”