Paul McAuley

Barbara Allen and Sweet Billie



A short story first published in Life After Wartime

When Barbara Allen stopped at Ceres to sell a load of janky machinery ripped from a derelict biome, she was visited by an eidolon of her first lover, Sweet Billie, who told her that he was dying. And she decided, what the hell, to pay him a visit. She’d grown up with him in the domes of New Old London, Pallas, they’d run away together to become junk peddlers, and she still had unresolved issues about the way he’d treated her while they’d been celebrating their first real coup on Tannhauser Gate, twenty years ago. When they’d been very young and everything had been new and intense, and love had so easily turned to hate, and they’d broken their partnership and each had sworn never to see the other again. And that was the first thing she told him, when she reached his dying bed on a terrace overlooking the cold blue waters of the Piazzi Sea.

‘The way you looked at other women when you were with me, it broke my heart,’ she said. ‘The way you looked at them, and praised their beauty. And the way you danced with them.’

‘I remember how cruel and foolish I was,’ he said, ‘and that’s why I invited you here. I lost you, and I’ve bitterly regretted it every day, and now I’m dying I want to beg you to forgive me.’

He was gaunt and naked, and the right side of his body had been transformed into coralline stone by mites he’d caught while fossicking in some old ruin in the outer belt.

‘You’re right about one thing,’ Barbara said. ‘You’re dying. But you will have to die without my forgiveness.’

And she turned and left him and caught a rail car that travelled halfway around the little world, back to the elevator head in Stumptown. But she hadn’t gone more than a hundred kilometres when Sweet Billie’s eidolon appeared, and told her that he was dead. And she felt something cold and dark break apart inside her, and started crying.

Some said that by the time she reached Stumptown, her right arm was paralysed and her skin was cold and growing hard and scaly. Either Sweet Billie had infected her in revenge for her heartlessness, or she had broken quarantine protocol and deliberately infected herself out of remorse. Within two weeks she died, calling for her dead lover, and was buried next to him in the great old graveyard on the cold stone plain beyond the domes of New Old London. And on her grave they planted a sunflower vacuum organism, and on Sweet William’s grave a vacuum organism that somewhat resembled a red briar. And in the long cold years the two vacuum organisms grew slowly and surely together, and twined in a true lovers’ knot, the sunflower and the red briar.

But others said that was no more than an old song from the long ago, and that Barbara Allen did not fall ill after she left her old lover’s death bed, but went up and out to search for salvage amongst the thousand thousand ruins of the Belt, and either died in some accident, alone and unmarked, or made her fortune and bought an exoship and set out for one of the far colonies around a distant star, and is travelling still, dreamlessly asleep in a glass coffin.


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This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

If you liked this story, you might also like my novel The Quiet War.

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