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A Difficult Habit

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Dying was a difficult habit to kick.

Picture a garden. It is no surburban patch of daffodils and straggly lawn-grass. It is of a type with the marvellous planned gardens which for a time were only preserved by charities at places named 'stately homes'. It is well-endowed with colourful and agile wildlife of all descriptions, and the glorious sunlight brings out the vivid hues of flora and fauna alike. There are meticulously trimmed areas of lawn, and the pathways are rich, soft carpets of moss which cushion the bare feet of the inhabitants.

This is not just any garden, although there are many like it all over the face of the planet, according to their climates. In a mossy clearing, overlooked by exquisitely scented flower beds and glittering butterflies blowing carefree in the warm breeze, lies a man who is dying.

Hob merely happens to be in the area. Death does not hold as much fascination for him as for most the ghoulish onlookers, whose generation have no need to die apart from that they feel in their minds. It would be deeply impolite to refuse an invitation such as this, however, and so he has trooped into the garden, donned the flowing white robes that appear to be de rigour for the occasion, and stands there awkwardly, looking scruffy and out of place. He has changed his appearence, of course - the kind of women who would fall for his original looks are the kind who have an unhealthy fascination with the things he is glad to have left well behind, with all the disease and filth and misery of history that mankind has firmly conquered, except for when (in their perversity) people desire such things for their entertainment. But a lifetime's habits - a very long lifetime indeed - remain with him, a certain series of errors in posture and gait, not enough to especially mark him out amongst the huge diversity of forms and styles that prevail across the reaches of mankind's dominion, but enough to keep him from fitting in to such a homogenous crowd as this appeared to be.

He could have had that fixed too, of course. In fact, they had offered him a temporary fix at the time he had checked out the robes. But Hob figured there was only so much that one could change before you would become a different person, a fate that he had been tenaciously avoiding for longer than even these long-lived people could recall. Of course, he'd changed along the way, but he liked to think it wasn't so much as those who abandoned themselves completely.

Maybe he was becoming old-fashioned.

He smiled awkwardly at people as they milled around, some being called to the dying man's side, some conversing over trivialities. There wasn't much but trivialities to converse over, these days. Eventually he was called to the dying man's side.

"Robin! How delightful to see you," whispered the man, who Hob dimly recalled as 'Galadin b'Terra f'Norvosck l'Yantha'. His body had been artificially allowed to 'age', although with none of the pain and misery that would have been expected in years gone by, just a gentle greying and weakening, a thinning and shrivelling, designed to make him look appropriately distinguished to pass on. "I didn't think these parties were your kind of thing, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to see you once more before I went."

"Well, you know," says Hob, "I doubt I'll ever understand you, but I wish you well, wherever you end up."

"Another thousand years, young man," said Galadin, blissfully unaware of Hob's true age, "and you'll be feeling it too. The mind just fills up, you know? The things a man can experience aren't infinite, unless you want to turn yourself into something Other. And I figure if I was going to do that, I might just as well die and leave more resources for the rest of you."

"I suppose so," replied Hob in a noncommittal manner. "It's your choice, after all."

"Just think," said Galadin, "just a handful of millenia ago, we didn't have these choices, you and I. Death would have taken us whenever it wanted, with no concern for parties or feelings, far before our time."

"Death seems like a capricious lady at times," replies Hob, "but I think you'll like her just fine."

And he left through the crowd before Galadin could ask him what he meant by that, away down a mossy path and through an invisible curtain. The slightest of tinglings marked his passing through the barrier, but immediately on the other side he could hear no trace of the party, nor see anything of it.

"Yantha," he called, fairly quiet, "when does the booked transit to Terra leave again?"

"Thirty-five minutes," replied a squirrel, which had just darted out of a flowerbed onto the path in front of him. "Your standard baggage is already packed - did you want to review any items?"

"No, that'll do me fine, thanks," replied Hob. "Thinking grove, please." And he walked forwards a few more steps into a sudden woodland, the dappled light falling cooly though the canopy onto an inviting wooden bench.

"Did you hear that they're limiting the new extra-galactic colony to one member per family? Someone's going to start another shipping project if they monopolise the lane like that."

"No accountability on the spacers now, not when they've got the only thing people think's worth working for already, not after the United Planets became such a toothless absurdity."

"There's a presence out there, they say. Maybe it's some kind of creature that doesn't live in space, in the physical world, but in some other layer of reality. That's why the Magellanic Clouds stopped responding, not the dust storm that they've been covering it up with. It's just digesting them, and then it'll come for this galaxy. Maybe that Andromeda project will save a few of us, but it'll go there next, mark my words..."

"And then they just blew the atmosphere off, straight into space! Of course, everyone was teleported off, but that's not the point - the wanton destruction of real estate can't just be ignored like that! What are they going to do next?"

"We're not animals, Deren, we'll find some other way to make children if nobody wants to do it the old-fashioned way with their own genetic material, it isn't Darwin's clockmaker telling us that our time's run out."

"Turned out that all three of them were joined at the hips! Now that was a confusing night out..."

"No art, no passion, no creativity... they just sit around all day in their blissed-out bubbles, not contributing to the world at all! It isn't right, is all I'm saying."

"Less insects than last time I was here," noted Dream as he took a seat at the table. He was not the same as he had been when he had first befriended Hob, that was certain, but a deal was a deal.

"They dealt with the Ixilians, what, twenty years ago now?" replied Hob. "The teleporter came out of that military research, you know."