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The Battle of Songhu

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Hawks over China by Roy Grinnell from http://www.acesofww2.com/china/China.htm
August 13th, 1937
Banquet Hall near Chuyung Airfield, Nanking

"In the long run, we don't have a chance in hell," Captain Buffalo Yang said in English.

"Either way, it won't come to that," replied Captain Lee Hark in the same language, tracing the edge of his wine cup with the light touch of a single finger.

There were several hundred military men and another hundred civilians at the hall, determined to enjoy themselves at a banquet that would have been a miserable failure in peacetime. There weren't enough servers. Several courses were missing. Guests either didn't drink enough, staring into full cups, or else drained them too quickly, rising with irritation to hunt down more. The proprietor of the hall, a white-haired man in a European suit with an oxblood cravat, glided birdlike and unperturbed between the rows, tipping his head toward those of highest rank, the smile on his lips only faintly apologetic. The high-roofed hall echoed with talk from the tables. Surely, it was all of the fall of the north and the Japanese advance.

"They're churning out more Mitsubishis every day in Tokyo. Our planes are so old they blow up on takeoff. And when they're gone, there won't be any more." There was no desperation in Buffalo Yang's voice. The sweat on his broad, pockmarked forehead appeared to be a natural consequence of the soggy heat. He wiped his face with his uniform sleeve, hawked and spat to the side, drained his cup and gathered up his cigarettes, readying himself for a normally inexcusable early departure.

"At least we won't be flying Fiats." Lee Hark's smile was sincere but remote, as if he were watching a movie -- an amusing one, just not particularly thrilling -- based on his own life.

"That was beautiful... the day the Commander finally lost his temper with Sergio and the rest of the Italians."

"Do him again."

Buffalo Yang furrowed his eyebrows and banged out his note-perfect imitation of the Commander's ear-drilling Cantonese bark. "Your Fiats are the pigs and whores of the sky! Now leave my base before I shoot your ass off!"

They both laughed. A matron in stiff gold lace at the next table flashed them a withering glare.

"Seriously," said Lee Hark, leaning forward, his voice charged with sudden immediacy, "the Hawks are old, but they can hold their own. So can my men."

"Not disagreeing. Mine are still going to bag the most kills," bragged Buffalo Yang.

"I'll make you a dollar bet."

"Dollars? I'm not going back to the States. They'll never even let us be pilots in the US Air Force, much less officers. Damn it, I'm going to marry a local girl and settle down. If I make it out alive. I'll miss baseball and hot dogs. That's about it."

"Your Mrs. Yang in Anaheim won't be too happy with that plan." Lee Hark's tone went back to slightly amused, and carried neither judgment nor approval.

"It's complicated. She won't miss me. What about you? Getting anywhere with that nurse?"

"It's complicated." He reached for the cigarettes in his chest pocket.

"Then find something more simple! Shouldn't be hard for you, Handsome Lee Hark. What I wouldn't give to be Handsome Yang. But when they give you one of those goddamn nicknames, you know how it sticks."

"It'd help if you didn't have a neck like a buffalo," Lee Hark said as he spun the lighter wheel and sparked the flame.

Yang shot him a leer. "It wasn't for my neck."

A deep drag and a sardonic smile. "Oh yeah? In that case, we'd all be calling you Fieldmouse Yang."

"You slay me, Jack. I guess I should curse you in Canto but I don't have the time. I gotta run some inspections." Buffalo Yang pushed away his cup and stood to go.

"Need an extra set of eyes?"

"No. Stay a few more hours and have fun at the banquet. Encourage your men. I know you already do it every chance you get, but god, do they need it. And maybe your nurse will show up."

"See you tomorrow, Henry."

"Seeya, Jack."

Yang pushed away and weaved towards the exit, past the tables, past the dark corners of the hall (there was a flash of light and a soft shattering noise behind him, as if a lightbulb had popped) hurrying his pace as he walked through the gate towards the humid night and the line of waiting cars.

August 13th, 1937
Nightclub in International Settlement, Shanghai

"Your money's no good, Captain Lee," said the nightclub owner, his long, sharp-boned face lit up with patriotic gratitude. "But don't drink too deeply; you need to hammer the Japanese tomorrow."

"Thanks, and don't worry. One more baijiu and I'll be back to base." He raised his cup and smiled. The nightclub owner widened his eyes and took a half-step backward. Slipped. Got to stop showing my teeth when I smile. Too straight, and way too white.

"Your... accent. Where are you from?" asked the owner. His own Mandarin had a heavy Shanghainese pitch.

"Born and raised in Los Angeles, but my parents came from Guangdong province." That should cover it.

"So tall for a southerner!" said the owner with a touch of envy.

"I eat my wheaties. It's an American saying."

"You're a true hero, coming back to fight for China. America's the best of them. Do you think they'll join the war? You must have some idea. The British -- those bloodsucking bastards, they're cringing from the Japanese. But the Americans --"

"The word is, the better we fight, the more chance they'll step in. And we'll fight like crazy. The Japanese have better planes, but they don't have our spirit."

I'm sick of feeding them lines, he thought. The volcano's exploding and there's no way to hold it back. I can't spare any sympathy. Really. Just wish they didn't have to keep looking at me like that. Not much longer, though. A Time Agent's gonna drop into 1937 any minute.

"Hammer them into the sea!" exhorted the owner.

"You bet we will. Say, who's that lady over there?" He raised an eyebrow. "The one with the cute mean look on her face?"

"An actress. I think her name is Lan Ping." The owner ruined his discretion by waving in her direction.

"Famous?"

"She's famous for tearing up men like a typhoon. An ex-husband tried to kill himself over her."

"Interesting. Marriage is the last thing on my mind. Can your bartender get her a drink?"

"Sure. I'll excuse myself. Good luck, Captain. Tonight and tomorrow." The owner left. A minute later, the crackling, skirling warble of Peking opera changed to a cleaner recording of a Count Basie tune.

Lan Ping was a tall woman in a tight apricot cheongsam, striking rather than pretty, guarded and gathered into herself. Eyes darting all around, but they kept coming back to him. Hard to read. Once she had her drink, he moved next to her.

She didn't even let him introduce himself. "I don't step out with Kuomintang men."

She could go off like a pistol. Which way, he wasn't sure yet. He smiled, not holding anything back. Full teeth. "So you're a Communist. I don't mind. You know, it's only a matter of time before we come together to form a united front. And we could make it happen early. Tonight, even."

"You're very forward!"

"Tell me more about dialectical materialism, sweetheart, and don't leave me behind in the dustbin of history."

"Reactionary. Meet me by the streetlight in ten minutes. Bring a bottle of champagne."

He left half the bills in his wallet in payment for the Dom Pérignon, hiding them under a napkin so the bartender wouldn't refuse. Outside, the street was crowded with Chinese dressed in everything from refugee rags to silk changshans and three-piece suits, mixed lightly with the international cream and scum of the Old World, come to Shanghai on a mission or a layover or to make their fortune. A breeze from the ocean stirred the air, thick and wet as soup steam, rich with all the smells of Shanghai's summer: spice and fish and smoke and sewage and fresh jasmine. In a few days, it would smell like blood and gunpowder, too.

All of this, and there's a typhoon about to hit. A literal typhoon. I could have pulled this con in London 1941. The timing would've been easier. I just didn't want the temporary nanosculpt for the right cover identity. Let's face it -- ha! -- I'm too vain. The poster boy for Bo Shan? You don't mess with this level of perfection. And the food in wartime London? Save me. The mood in Shanghai is grim as hell, but the restaurants are a little slice of heaven. And the sing-song girls and sailors are always ready for a good time. After the dust settles, maybe I'll skip to Shanghai 2337 for some R&R. All the nightlife, none of the cholera, and hardly any bombing. Love that saying these people have: one joy scatters a hundred griefs. I could live by those words.

A curvy black car pulled to a stop in front of him. Lieutenant Bao from Intelligence was in the back.

"Captain Lee! We've got a briefing in half an hour on the Zhabei district defenses. They want you for the CAF liaison."

Too bad, Lan Ping. You lost your chance to pump me for information. Don't think I'll ever see you again. This champagne is too good to waste, though. I'll keep it on ice back at the spaceship.

He stepped into the car.

Morning, August 14th, 1937
Qiantang Gulf, 75 miles south of Shanghai

They were going to kill every Japanese before they dropped a single bomb on Shanghai. Buffalo Yang felt like his chest was about to burst with pride. Liu had taken down the second-to-last plane in a classic stalking maneuver, coming out of the sun, guns pounding the Japanese bomber into a fireball that plunged downwards to quench itself in the river.

The roiling typhoon-whipped weather had worked to their favor earlier, but now it helped the enemy. The last bomber dipped down into the heavy cloud bank that covered the gulf. Yang and Liu widened their pattern, waiting for it to run out of cover. Yang spared a few seconds of focus to wonder what the hell had happened last night at the banquet. He'd heard garbled reports -- a Cee-Am officer he'd never heard of, a lady Japanese scientist spy, an indoor mirage, malicious spirits -- but none of it made any sense. He'd have to get the full skinny from Jack later on.

Liu radioed him. "Captain! Should I --"

"Don't go down. Keep your speed."

Liu's eager streak needed watching, but otherwise he was damn good. Some of the others were hopeless. The Italian instructors had graduated any cadet from a landowner family, even the ones too dumb to fly a paper kite. The rich boys had problems taking orders from an officer who talked funny, an officer whose dad was probably a shopkeeper or a launderer in a foreign country, who thought that knowing how to fly was more important than saving face. Feudalist dopes. The Communists were dead right about all of that. But he'd managed to wash out the worst and keep the best, and Liu was one of them.

Yang focused fully on the frothing surface of the bank, kept Liu's stubby Hawk II biplane in his peripheral vision to the left, flicked his eyes to the right -- caught a spear of light where there shouldn't be one.

"Liu! Enemy at five o'clock. Right turn!"

They turned hard to the right. He counted four Mitsubishi monoplane fighters closing fast. Way too fast.

"When we're facing downriver, dive into the cloud bank. Then do a 180 on my signal. Follow me upriver. We'll use the same cover as the bomber."

They fell into the white blindness and whipped around. Yang felt strangely at peace. The rush of heat that had been pumping through his blood was fading. It was a dangerous feeling, that cool enveloping safety, so he shook his head, shook it off, and glanced over all his instruments at once. The cover wouldn't last. Just about --

They burst into sunlight. Liu's plane was so close, he could see that his teeth were bared. Two of the Mitsubishis had overshot them. They were in perfect position. Yang howled a long aiiee as he fired. One of his targets veered to the left and dived. The other one's wing fell off. It was white and painted with the red rising sun and it seemed to float in the air for a second before it spun away, and then the rest of the broken plane hurled itself after the wing, spinning away, and down, and down.

"Climb!" he shouted to Liu.

"There's something wrong with my controls, Captain."

The other two Mitsubishis came at them from behind. Yang heard their bullets pinging off his engine block. He pulled higher and circled hard. He had to distract them from Liu, had to --

Liu's voice came over the radio, high and clear. "My wrath bristles through my helmet, the rain stops as I stand by the rail; I look up towards the sky and let loose a passionate roar."

Yang screamed at him to bail.

"At age thirty my deeds are nothing but dust, my journey has taken me over eight thousand li. So do not sit by idly, for young men -- young men --"

Radio silence.

The third time Yang looped, the leading Mitsubishi overshot him on the incline. You're fast, you bastard, but you're not as good as me. He pulled the trigger. A stuttering vibration, then a sickening nothing. The gun was jammed. He howled again, his throat already hoarse. And now he was leaking fuel like a sieve. The second plane came right at him and down onto him, flashing fire.

Last words... finish Liu's poem? It was a good one. No, he'd just screw it up. He'd never paid enough attention to that stuff in Chinese school. Long live the motherland? Go LA Angels?

Just aim my plane straight for the goddamn rising sun
. He locked the stick, threw himself out of the cockpit, slid across the lower wing and tumbled into air.

Much to his amazement, the parachute actually opened. There was an explosion above him, but he couldn't tell whose plane it was or how many. He drifted down towards the Qiantang river shore. Praise Buddha. Maybe he'd live to kill more Japanese.

Afternoon, August 14th, 1937
One Mile above Shanghai

Destroy the Izumo at all costs. Lam the gunner stared down into the sea of clouds, tracing the curves of the stately grey ripples, eyes full of tears for lack of blinking. The Izumo was under total cover somewhere below. The Japanese ruled the sea and now their flagship the Izumo ruled the Huangpu river and it was too much to be borne, that claim on Shanghai's lifeblood.

Lam considered himself a practical, scientific man, but recent circumstances had thrown him back into the ghost-haunted realm of his childhood, and a fantasy of melting holes in the clouds with mystic beams of light slipped into his mind. He'd follow the beams with fire. His right hand tightened around the lever of the bomb bay. The little Northrop bomber clutched the CAF's most powerful weapons: two 550-pound bombs marked for the Izumo.

For some reason, he thought of his mother, dead of typhoid five years ago. She was buried on a hill an hour's walk from their ancestral home in Nanchang. Nanchang was three days journey to Shanghai. So far away... the hill to the river to the sea to the river again.

What the hell was he doing, reminiscing in the middle of a bombing run? Lam took a deep breath, blinked, and returned to scrutinizing the cloud pattern.

Lieutenant Kwok shouted at him over the whining roar of the overladen engine. "I'll wait another five minutes for an update from Central. Then I'm going down for another run. Be prepared for heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Izumo."

"Yes, sir."

They'd be flying down the strip of riverside -- Wai Tan -- that the Europeans called The Bund, the commercial heart of Shanghai they'd seized for their trading houses. There, the Huangpu was lined by a wide promenade, and on the other side of the promenade was a fairyland dockside slum built on a scale of palaces instead of hovels, each soaring or squatting building in a different exotic European style, crowding and jostling its neighbor and forming a gloriously inharmonious whole.

The Izumo wouldn't fire into Wai Tan, for fear of bringing the colonial powers into the fight. Or would it? It seemed like the Japanese could get away with anything. They were strong. China was weak. But today would prove otherwise, Lam thought with pride. The CAF had destroyed or turned back every single Japanese bomber. Except for the unexploded mystery bomb last week, and that didn't count. It must have come from a Japanese plane, but their secret weapon had failed.

Lam had been called in to investigate the bomb site in Zhabei, but all he'd been able to report was that the giant metal cylinder was like no bomb he'd ever seen. He'd spent hours of the furnace-like afternoon poring over the ground in a wide radius, walking behind warehouses, looking for fragments. He'd found nothing. There was the boy in the alley, but -- that hadn't happened. It was heatstroke. A war refugee, a little barefoot boy in rags, eyes covered in a blindfold of blood-stained cotton gauze but still standing straight and looking right at Lam; mouth and lower face wrapped in blood-stained cotton gauze but still piping, "Are you my mama? Where's my mama?"

Lam had hesitated. There were so many refugees crowding the streets, the orphans had almost no hope of survival anyway, and he was on an important investigation. But he stepped forward. At least he could take the child to a hospital. Then, the heatstroke. The gauze around the boy's right arm did not unwind in a thin strip and flutter through the air towards him, did not brush his eyes and mouth and leave a taste like bitter medicine, did not flutter-retreat to nestle around the boy's arm again. Lam woke up on his hands and knees at the mouth of the alley, eyes full of tears, begging passers-by for water. It was heatstroke.

Kwok dived down into the clouds. Lam's hand had grown loose on the lever. He tightened it again. Time to focus. Destroy the Izumo at all costs. His mother used to read him ghost stories. His mother was on the hill near Nanchang, under the hill near Nanchang. The hill. Where was his mother? The hill, the river, the sea. Mama? Where's my mama? Mama? Are you my mama?

"Lam! Pull yourself together! Shit!" Kwok was shouting at him but there was no way to answer back. Lam's eyes were full of tears, itching and burning; a horde of spiny worms were squirming their way up his throat and into his mouth. They spat white gauze and it erupted forth and covered his face. Bloodstains blossomed across the gauze and glued his eyelids open. His nerveless arm pulled the lever, then fell to his side. Then the pain went away and so did everything that was Lam, and the remnant lay completely still. Kwok screamed what have you done over and over again, as if the empty man could hear.

The two bombs fell directly on The Bund.

Afternoon, August 14th, 1937
Across the River from The Bund

Captain Jack Hark Lee had set his binoculars to display a color-patterned overlay of historical bombing records. He scanned Shanghai from his lookout on the high balcony, skipping over the light pink areas that marked bombings set to happen weeks in the future.

There. The Palace Hotel on the busy intersection of Nanking Road and The Bund. It was washed in dark red. The bombs had already fallen. Hundreds had died, incinerated instantly, and a thousand more were broken and wounded. Jack hoped he didn't know any of them. But statistically speaking, it was likely. The nightclub owner? Blocks away. Probably safe. Lan Ping? He had no idea. Everyone died, sooner or later. Time travel just made it more obvious.

There was a bright green flash against the dark red overlay. He clicked off the color overlay and zoomed in on the flash. A residual temporal anomaly field. This must be the Time Agent: a blond in a Union Jack T-shirt hanging out a window on the top floor of the ruined Palace Hotel. She looked like she was in a world of trouble. It was probably a lure, of course, designed to reel him in. He'd play it straight anyway, be the gallant rescuer, turn up the charm, stay on guard.

Lieutenant Bao came onto the balcony and cleared his throat mildly. He had delicate manners and wrote Kafka-influenced short stories in his spare time. Jack would miss him.

"There's no banquet that lasts forever, and this one only lasted the morning," said Bao. "Are you going to the airfield?"

Jack gave him a noncommittal look, adjusted the binoculars and zoomed back in on Madame Hot Time Agent.

"Excellent bottom!"

Bao cleared his throat again, less mildly. "There's a time and a place."

That would be after yesterday's briefing, in the crowded supply closet. Bao, who kept up a demanding morning calisthenics routine, had proved to be quite flexible.

"No, they sent for me at another briefing," said Jack. "I'd love to check supply inventory with you later, war against Japanese aggression permitting, of course."

He gave Bao a wink and a grope on his way in from the balcony and didn't pause to see the inevitable blush. He strolled through the map room and the telephone room and out into the hallway and behind a stairwell, then punched the commands on his wrist strap that would initiate a teleport onto his Chula spaceship. The heroic captain with a chilled bottle of Dom Pérignon at the ready, oh yes, that was him.

Evening, August 14th, 1937
Chula Spaceship, The Bund

Rose danced with the Captain under a forcefield on top of an invisible spaceship, veiled in rain, suspended between earth and heaven. The forbidding imperial spire of the Customs House loomed behind them. One joy, he'd said, pouring the champagne.

Evening, August 14th, 1937
Chunghua Hospital

Strips of gauze writhed in restless circles around infected bodies. The bandages dug deep inside their hosts, mining for mother love but finding only bloodstains and blankness. They turned outwards instead.

"Have you got a blaster?" asked the Doctor.

Evening, August 14th, 1937
Chula Spaceship, The Bund

The Doctor pulled down the auxiliary display and began patching into the datafiles. The con man took half a step towards him, but something came over his face and he thought better of it and turned back to Rose. Didn't want to lose any time chatting her up, no doubt. The Doctor hissed in irritation as he finished pulling up the files. Time was short. Time was wrong. The future surged like a wave and broke against him; below its surface was the undertow of what never would be, and the churning fractal swirl of it would suck and claw at the edges of his mind until he figured it out.

There. A list of the names of the dead. All CAF volunteers.

Captain Lee Hark AKA Jack Hark Lee D. 1937 SHANGHAI
Lieutenant Wong Hui-Shin AKA Eddie Wong D. 1937 SHANGHAI
Captain Yang Ming-Tao AKA Henry Yang (USAF Major) D. 1989 ANAHEIM CALIFORNIA

One of the dates blurred in front of his eyes as its status in history vibrated between never and was. But no, this wasn't quite the right list, just a marker on the trail. It led him to another record: casualty figures for Shanghai bombings in the first days of the attack. And there it was, screaming wrongness, the estimates of dead in a bombing that never should have happened, most of them lost in history and never recorded, but every single name still adding another arc of tension between the timelines. And whatever they did tonight to save the human race, those ones wouldn't be coming back. The con man --

"Your friend over there doesn't trust me," said Jack to Rose. "And for all I know... he's right not to."

A beeping noise. The nav-com and teleport were back online.

Evening, August 14th, 1937
Restricted Zone Outside Chunghua Hospital

"Do you think there's anything left I wouldn't believe?" asked Lin, letting go of the rain-slicked barbed wire and clutching her fists by her side.

This girl -- this woman -- had been through things Rose couldn't even imagine. Having your little brother turn into a monster and try to kill you -- even the things she could imagine would give her nightmares for a long time. Those bomb victims at the Palace Hotel. Their wounds washed and laid clear by the rain. Lin deserved the truth.

"We're time travellers from the future," said Rose.

"You're mad."

"No, it's true, we have a time travel machine. I'm really from 2005."

"Do you have a good life there in Britain?" Lin asked.

"I suppose so. Could complain but -- really, it's all right. We won the war, you know." If there was anything Rose could say to make Lin feel better, she'd say it.

"What war?"

"World War II. It's us and the Americans and you lot and a bunch of other countries against the Germans and the Japanese and the Italians. Don't tell anyone else I told you this, but we win." Rose looked deep in Lin's eyes and gave her an encouraging smile. She wanted to be the sun for her, shine for her, give her hope.

"Shanghai won't fall?" Lin's hunger-pinched face turned soft, and her lips twitched into the trace of an answering smile.

Rose thought back to her history lessons. "I don't think -- I'm not --"

The Doctor and Captain Jack had come up next to them as they were talking. Maybe they'd found what they needed in that cylinder-transporter thing. She turned to the Doctor, ready to ask -- wait, that look --

"Shanghai falls," he said in a flat voice. "It takes three months, not three days like the Japanese thought, but it falls. Don't give her a pretty answer." He turned and stalked back to the transporter.

Rose was stunned. Times before he'd lost his temper at the stupid humans and snapped at her, it'd never hurt like this. She couldn't give Lin what she needed. She just couldn't.

Jack reached out and touched her shoulder. His touch was light, tentative, not at all like he was in his spaceship, all confidence and fire and folding her in. There was something haunted in the deep darkness of his eyes.

"Rose, I -- don't take it badly. What you don't know is nothing compared to what I -- he's angry. He told me, the bombing I have in my records, it wasn't supposed to happen today. It never would've happened before I dropped the Chula transporter for the self-cleaning con. The timelines are starting to snap. He can see them."

"I know," said Rose.

Lin looked back and forth between them, confused. Then the steel in her finally came out in anger. "If you know, then tell me. Captain, you're one of us, aren't you?"

Captain Jack tensed and seemed about to shake his head, but instead he reached into his flight jacket, pulled out a wallet and tossed it to Lin.

"This is for if we make it out alive tonight. Spend the money as soon as you can. Spend it on rice. Cache the rice." He swept his hands to sketch a map of the city in the air. "Stay away from large buildings and most of the riverside, but the Japanese won't bomb Wai Tan. Shanghai falls in three months, like the Doctor said. If you keep your eyes open and move fast, you might make it through all right. The occupation won't last forever. Just eight years. Then you've got four years of civil war and then... well, it gets complicated. But this is the most important part. Whatever happens in the next three months, whatever you do, don't join the evacuation to Nanking. Got it?"

Lin tucked away the wallet and silently nodded.

Jack looked to Rose. "Hey, I can't screw up the timelines more than I already have. Shall we join the Doctor?" He reached out his arm again and smiled. He had very white teeth.

They'd finished mending the barbed-wire fence. Maybe it would hold off the gauze-mask people. Or at least hold them off long enough for the Doctor to untangle the mystery and stop them from infecting the whole world.

Coda: The TARDIS

As he walked down the hallway, he trailed his fingers to the side, willing himself a conduit for the faint harmonics of the timeship. That background hum, the sense of music just beyond all hearing... it kept the voices of the dead at bay. It was the sound of second chances.

All I had to look forward to was a bad martini, a quick death and a slow ride to hell. Then the Doctor and Rose came back and saved me. They haven't taken me dancing yet. Still crossing my fingers. I thought Rose was a lot less than she seemed, but now I think she's a lot more, if that makes any sense. And the Doctor. I can't even look in his eyes. Some day soon, more than anything, I want him to look in my eyes and tell me I did the right thing. If he just lets me stick around long enough...

I'm not a spaceship captain anymore, but they forgot to stop calling me that. And I'll keep the name Jack Hark Lee. Never met the man, I just know he died a hero. The name isn't a cover now. It's a reminder of what I did and what I could be. Don't know if I'll go back to 1937, though. I'd like to keep moving.

He remembered Shanghai. Remembered an old poem. "Man's years fall short of a hundred; a thousand years of worry crowd his heart. If the day is short and you hate the long night, why not take the torch and go wandering?" I could live by those words, he thought, and walked on.