Barbara Allen And Sweet Billie
‘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 for your forgiveness.’
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. By the time she reached Sumptown, her right arm was paralysed and her skin was cold and growing hard and scaly. Within two months, she died of the same mite sickness.
Some said that Sweet Billie had infected her, either in revenge for her heartlessness, or out of foolish and selfish love, so that they would finally be together. Others said that Barbara had broken quarantine protocol and deliberately infected herself, out of remorse. She died, they said, 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 Billie’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.