/ Language: English / Genre:sf

Lightspeed: Year One

John Adams


Lightspeed: Year One

Edited by John Joseph Adams

For the Lightspeed Team,

without whom none of this would have been possible.

INTRODUCTION

John Joseph Adams

Welcome to Lightspeed: Year One!

For those of you not already familiar with Lightspeed, some background may be in order: Lightspeed is an online magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) that focuses exclusively on science fiction. Within its pages (or pixels, as it were), you will find all types of science fiction, from near-future, sociological soft sf, to far-future, star-spanning hard sf, and anything and everything in between.

Every month, we publish a mix of original fiction and reprints, and feature a variety of authors—from the bestsellers and award-winners you already know to the best new voices you haven’t heard of yet. So when you read Lightspeed, our hope is that you’ll see where science fiction comes from, where it is now, and where it’s going.

Which brings us to the anthology that you’re reading right now. This is the first in a planned series of print anthologies that will annually collect all of the fiction originally published in the magazine. This first volume will collect all of the fiction originally published in Lightspeed, from June 2010 to May 2011.

We’ve had a great first year. Nine out of the sixteen original stories published in Lightspeed in 2010 have been selected for reprint in a best-of-the-year anthology. Additionally, two of our stories—“Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro and “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” by Vylar Kaftan—have been named finalists for the Nebula Award, and another story—“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn—was nominated for the Hugo Award. Lightspeed itself and yours truly were also nominated for the Hugo Award, and Lightspeed won the Million Writers Award for Best New Online Magazine. We’re hugely honored to have received all these accolades, but we’d like to think that these accolades are only a sign of more great things to come!

While fiction is Lightspeed’s focus (and only our fiction is included in this anthology), Lightspeed is also a nonfiction magazine. Alongside of our fiction selections, we run articles that riff off the ideas in the fiction. For instance, in our debut issue, we have a story about relativistic travel, so we asked sf author and expert astronomer Mike Brotherton to tell us about the science behind that familiar sf trope. We also regularly feature brief interviews with the authors we call “author spotlights,” in which the authors talk a bit about the stories behind their stories.

But there’s more to Lightspeed than that, too. Lightspeed is also a podcast, which features two stories each month in audio format, produced by Grammy- and Audie Award-winning narrator/producer Stefan Rudnicki.

And, finally, Lightspeed is not just a weekly online magazine, it’s also a monthly ebook magazine, so if you’d rather read it every month on your Kindle or Nook or Sony Reader or iPad (or even your PC!), that option is available, and you can also subscribe to the ebook edition via Weightless Books (www.weightlessbooks.com).

I hope you enjoy the anthology. If you do, I hope you’ll go to our website at www.lightspeedmagazine.com to let us know what you think. And also—tell a friend!

I’M ALIVE, I LOVE YOU, I’LL SEE YOU IN RENO

Vylar Kaftan

We have a history of missed connections, you and I. Years ago, when you called goodbye from the shuttle launch, my flight was landing in Zurich. I’d changed planes, been re-routed from Frankfurt. That’s why you got my voicemail. I’d have answered if I could, and would’ve wished you luck, even if you wanted a life without me. I never managed to see Europa, like you did—just Europe, where I met my first husband. The one I wished was you.

When I heard your message, I was glad you were happy—yes, I’ve always wanted you happy, even during our divorce. I thought of you traveling to Alpha Centauri, time dilating between us like a portal. I envisioned it like a slow-motion movie. You’d be back in forty years. I’d be sixty-four, and you’d only be half my age.

I saved your message for weeks, until I accidentally deleted it. It felt symbolic. We’d be happier apart, I thought to myself. But “apart” was always the way we connected. The word defines us relative to each other: one cannot be apart without the other.

Einstein spent ten years thinking about a mirror that troubled him. If he traveled at the speed of light and looked into a hand-held mirror, would he see his reflection, or not? Setting aside vampirism, or poorly-made glass that cracks at high speeds, the answer is that he must. Relativity means that you can’t tell how fast you’re going unless you have a point of reference.

We’ve been together for as long as I can remember. Just kids, running around the Sacramento suburbs. I liked you because you’d play with a girl. I ran faster, fought harder, and hit harder than any boy—and I knew it. Remember that time we played Capture the Flag and you couldn’t find mine? I shoved it in a drainpipe. You could still see its corner. That counts.

I was the girl next door—safe, reliable, undesirable. When I was thirteen, and you were sixteen—I was crazy-in-love with you. But you were blind. “Best friends forever,” you told me.

I thought that you’d never see me as a woman your own age. I had to hear about all those girls you dated. Remember that awful redhead who stole cigarettes from her grandmother? I bet she got lung cancer.

“Best friends,” I told you too. We were together, yet completely apart.

I used to wonder how to make you see me. Should I tell you what I felt? Stay silent and hope you’d see?

But you made the choice for me: you left for the military. So I joined the Peace Corps—the polar opposite of what you did. This drew us together again like magnets. It’s why we ended up living together in San Francisco. Roommates and lovers.

I didn’t know this then, of course—all of this I figured out during the journey to Alpha Centauri.

Two magnets, apart, continue to exert force on each other. Their power lies in the space between.

Einstein says that nothing moves at the speed of light, because the faster things get the heavier they become.

It’s true that as I accelerated, everything had more weight: two decades of child-rearing, juggling flute practice with my photography career, balancing a marriage’s weight against single independence. But weight is relative, and what’s heavy on Earth is light on the Moon and monstrous on Jupiter. Yet the mass remains the same. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

When I think about the changes in my parents’ lives—and how much more I’ve already seen, in fewer years—I think of Moore’s Law.

My world is doubling every year. Somewhere in old Italy, Galileo is searching the skies with his telescope, wondering why his life doesn’t feel as full as it should. It’s because I have it all, four centuries later—his life, and millions of others.

The doubling sequence surprises people who’ve never thought it through.

Reno, you told me once. Reno, Nevada. When we lived in San Francisco, in that tiny apartment above a Mission District taqueria. Do you remember that conversation? We were sitting on that awful brown loveseat you’d rescued from a dumpster. You were heating dinner in the microwave, and the room smelled like curry. The fog rolled through the city and we both wore old sweaters. I didn’t yet know the relevance of Reno.

“If we’re separated,” you said.

“Why Reno?”

“It’s inland. When the big quake hits the Bay, Reno’s safe. Or if there’s a missile strike or something. No one strikes Reno.”

“You’re paranoid,” I said.

You shrugged. “I’m aware.”

We’d been living together for six months. We made good roommates—both of us loud, and neither of us tidy. You took out the trash, and I sorted the mail; we both did dishes when needed, and not more often. I didn’t mind your waterskis propped against the fridge, or your physics books scattered on the pizza-stained carpet. You didn’t mind the way I always slammed doors and drawers, no matter how quiet I tried to be. It was a good arrangement. But not what I wanted.

I knew you loved me, of course. It was written in your eyes when you looked at me, a physics problem with no clear answer. If an irresistible force meets an immovable object, what happens then?

They meet. That’s all we know. Relative to each other, they are in contact. From within the object or the force, there is no way to tell if you’re in motion.

For a while, I was Charon to your Pluto, keeping the same faces to each other as we circled around endlessly.

And through all of this you still thought of me as a moon, and yourself as a planet. But it’s not so easy as that. Our orbit is erratic, an ellipse among circles, an offbeat pattern in a regular solar system. Do you see the sun, far in the distance? Even when our orbit sweeps close to the sun, it takes four hours for its light to reach us. It’s a centerpoint that keeps us captured. We circle it so we don’t fly off into space. It’s a point of reference, and it proves to us that we’re always in motion.

We keep moving, along with everything else. Even if we can’t see where or how.

By the time we got together, it was more for convenience than anything else.

It was what we did: have sex, fight, break up, meet someone else. And when the new relationship burned out, like a magnesium ribbon flared and gone, we’d find each other again.

The best thing between us was the sex. We fought—oh, yes, we fought—and then had make-up sex. Hard, hot, and heavy. You’d drive into me just before I was ready—making me ready—then finish just after me, both of us collapsed together, trapped in each other’s gravity wells.

When you slept, I’d stroke your rough, calloused fingers and the Superglued cuts in your feet from waterskiing. I’d think about our next fight, and my body tingled with wanting you.

“I’ll marry you,” you said once, “if you can’t find anyone else.”

I laughed because I thought you were kidding. You couldn’t even propose right.

It was the last push on a decaying orbit. I was not your fallback option. From the time you said that, our path downwards was guaranteed, calculable. We fought about the phone bill, Chinese leftovers, a broken plate that didn’t get swept up. When you told me about your new job repairing relativity shuttles, I was secretly glad. Your work would take you to Reno. Out of my path.

I was completely over you, over us—or at least I was then, when you left. I was on the rebound, ready for someone new.

Gunther, the German engineer, was everything you weren’t. So I married him. Once you knew his first few digits, they repeated in a predictable pattern. He was a wonderful father for our two sons. I thought of you sometimes as I raised my boys, perfect squares in their rational world. I never forgot you.

Thanks to genetics, we expected Gunther’s heart problems before they happened. He lasted twenty-five years with me, then slipped away. My kids were on their own by then, and I had time and money. I was free to choose irrationally, and so I took up waterskiing.

When you came back, I was surprised you came to my door—and even more surprised that you wanted me. I didn’t think you’d stay with me—a hot young thirty-something, with this dried-out old lady. You kept saying you liked my maturity, you found me sexy. But it was different for me. I saw you like my kids. More like a son than a mate.

If I can’t find anyone else.

That’s a terrible proposal. It makes a woman feel like you’re just putting up with her. I did find someone else. I had twenty-five happy years with him, while you were living through just a few months. I accumulated the weight of years—of a woman building decades with her partner, of a mother renewing herself by raising her children. All of this weight I gained—not to mention my new-found belly.

But I married you anyway. You wanted to be with me, you said. All your recent thoughts told you so. My age didn’t matter—you still wanted me, the woman you’d loved all this time, you said.

As for me, now I had what I’d always wanted—but it wasn’t what I thought it would be.

One night after we made love on the beach, I watched the stars. They shone with light from billions of years ago. The stars offered us time apart. That’s why I sold everything I had—to see what you’d seen.

The new relativity shuttles were even faster than yours had been, and now they were open to tourists. It had been forty years here, after all. I’m sorry I didn’t leave a note.

I figured it was all relative.

Gunther was always patient with me. Slow. He’d wait for me to orgasm, like he was holding a car door open for me, and then he’d finish quickly and silently. Sometimes I pretended he was you to make things more exciting. Once I pretended he was Albert Einstein. It was the accent, I swear.

With you, the electromagnetic pull bonded us together. We could ionize briefly, visiting other molecules and forming weak bonds—but we always came back together, circling each other endlessly.

An electron and a proton. You and me.

For a long time I thought I was the electron, spinning wild patterns around you. Then I realized the electron was you, because I always knew either where you were or how fast you were going, but never both.

So I left you and went to the stars, like you’d done. Alpha Centauri! The brilliant star burned into my mind. It was a vacation for me, a short time away from Earth. For the first time, I saw the lights up close. The luxury ship went 99% the speed of light. Much faster than you had gone, faster than before.

I figured you’d be dead once I got back. It simplified things. Stopped the fighting. You’d be ashes, like you’d always wanted. I wouldn’t even have to see your body. I thought about it, as I looked through the viewport, and realized that I was still thinking of you. That was when I understood that no matter how far I went or how fast, I still responded to you in every way.

Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. Our bond pulls me back, and I love you.

Reasons why I have loved you:

1. Yes.

2. Yes, again.

3. Because you’re you.

None of these are love, perhaps, but they’re forces of physics. And if love isn’t subject to physics, then it has no grounding in our universe. I can’t believe that’s true.

Just when I got back, you left again, like one metal ball clacking another —the opposite side of our kinetic motion toy. You were off for the Andromeda Galaxy, moving at 99.38% the speed of light.

Simpler, indeed. I was sixty-eight. You were gone.

It was time to move on.

The world had changed since I left. The human lifespan was up to 150 years. I hadn’t imagined this possibility. I had decades left for music, art, whatever I dreamed of. My health was good—they killed a malignant breast tumor and grew me a new liver, twice—but otherwise, my body kept working for years.

But my nervous system paralysis—that was incurable. I opted for cryogenesis, hoping they’d find a cure. If they did, years from now, they’d revive me and heal me.

It was exciting. I wondered if it’d be hard to fall asleep, like Christmas Eve—not knowing what Christmas Day would bring. But of course the freezing was instant. As I lay down in the cryochamber I thought to myself: Reno. That’s where I should have gone, when disaster struck. I was thinking of you.

And then I was frozen, like Charon and Pluto.

If I’m a train leaving Philadelphia at 3:00, going 50 miles an hour, and you’re a train on the same track leaving San Francisco at 4:00, going 55 miles an hour, at what time will we collide and run each other off the tracks?

More importantly, if we move at the speed of light, and I shine a light in your direction, will you blink and tell me to stop blinding you, or will you not see me coming until it’s too late?

If Einstein is flying next to our train, looking into a mirror and wondering where his reflection has gone—will you ask him whether anything stands still, or if everything is always in motion? Relative to everything else, of course.

And ask about Reno. If our trains crash there, should we consider that they’ve stopped moving? Or are they still in motion on Earth, relative to everything else in the universe?

Everyone’s joined in the same future, except you. Time moves so quickly—accelerating to the point where we can hardly imagine what’s next. I went to sleep expecting to be cured. Instead, the AI woke me and said I no longer needed my body. It downloaded my mind, and now I see. You and I are eccentric, but part of a solar system, and I know now where we belong. It’s easy for me to travel along circuits, to expand my mind everywhere in the network—and then condense myself so small as to be negligible in the universe, here in one corner of a virtual city.

I see they’ve sent a ship after you, moving at 99.99% the speed of light. It’ll reach you eventually. They’ll download you and you’ll fly back to me. Here, where we belong. I think I never left your orbit.

I wrote you a long message to explain all this, but I think I’ll erase it and just leave ten words. I’ll tell you the rest when you arrive—when our perpetual motion comes to a relative stop.

THE CASSANDRA PROJECT

Jack McDevitt

It’s an odd fact that the biggest science story of the twenty-first century—probably the biggest ever—broke in that tabloid of tabloids, The National Bedrock.

I was in the middle of conducting a NASA press conference several days before the Minerva lift-off—the Return to the Moon—and I was fielding softball questions like: “Is it true that if everything goes well, the Mars mission will be moved up?” and “What is Marcia Beckett going to say when she becomes the first person to set foot on lunar soil since Eugene Cernan turned off the lights fifty-four years ago?”

President Gorman and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Alexandrov, were scheduled to talk to the press from the White house an hour later, so I was strictly a set-up guy. Or that was the plan, anyway, until Warren Cole mentioned the dome.

It was a good time for NASA. We all knew the dangers inherent in overconfidence, but two orbital missions had gone up without a hitch. Either of them could have landed and waved back at us, and the rumor was that Sid Myshko had almost taken the game into his own hands, and that the crew had put it to a vote whether they’d ignore the protocol and go down to the surface regardless of the mission parameters. Sid and his five crewmates denied the story, of course.

I’d just made the point to the pool of reporters that it was Richard Nixon who’d turned off the lights—not the astronaut Eugene Cernan—when Warren Cole began waving his hand. Cole was the AP journalist, seated in his customary spot up front. He was frowning, his left hand in the air, staring down at something on his lap that I couldn’t see.

“Warren?” I said. “What’ve you got?”

“Jerry . . . ” He looked up, making no effort to suppress a grin. “Have you seen the story that the Bedrock’s running?” He held up his iPad.

That started a few people checking their own devices.

“No, I haven’t,” I said, hoping he was making it up. “I don’t usually get to Bedrock this early in the week.” Somebody snorted. Then a wave of laughter rippled through the room. “What?” I said. My first thought had been that we were about to have another astronaut scandal, like the one the month before with Barnaby Salvator and half the strippers on the Beach. “What are they saying?”

“The Russians released more lunar orbital pictures from the sixties,” He snickered. “They’ve got one here from the far side of the Moon. If you can believe this, there’s a dome back there.”

“A dome?”

“Yeah.” He flipped open his notebook. “Does NASA have a comment?”

“You’re kidding, right?” I said.

He twisted the iPad, raised it higher, and squinted at it. “Yep. It’s a dome all right.”

The reporters in the pool all had a good chuckle, and then they looked up at me. “Well,” I said, “I guess Buck Rogers beat us there after all.”

“It looks legitimate, Jerry,” Cole said, but he was still laughing.

I didn’t have to tell him what we all knew: That it was a doctored picture and that it must have been a slow week for scandals.

If the image was doctored, the deed had to have been done by the Russians. Moscow had released the satellite images only a few hours before and forwarded them to us without comment. Apparently nobody on either side had noticed anything unusual. Except the Bedrock staff.

I hadn’t looked at the images prior to the meeting. I mean, once you’ve seen a few square miles of lunar surface you’ve pretty much seen it all. The dome—if that’s really what it was—appeared on every image in the series. They were dated April, 1967.

The Bedrock carried the image on its front page, where they usually show the latest movie celebrity who’s being accused of cheating, or has gone on a drunken binge. It depicted a crater wall, with a large arrow graphic in the middle of a dark splotch pointing at a dome that you couldn’t have missed anyhow. The headline read:

ALIENS ON THE MOON

Russian Pictures Reveal Base on Far Side

Images Taken Before Apollo

I sighed and pushed back from my desk. We just didn’t need this.

But it did look like an artificial construct. The thing was on the edge of a crater, shaped like the head of a bullet. It was either a reflection, an illusion of some sort, or it was a fraud. But the Russians had no reason to set themselves up as a laughing stock. And it sure as hell looked real.

I was still staring at it when the phone rang. It was Mary, NASA’s administrator. My boss. “Jerry,” she said, “I heard what happened at the press conference this morning.

“What’s going on, Mary?”

Damned if I know. Push some buttons. See what you can find out. It’s going to come up again when the President’s out there. We need to have an answer for him.

Vasili Koslov was my public relations counterpart at Russia’s space agency. He was in Washington with the presidential delegation. And he was in full panic mode when I got him on the phone. “I saw it, Jerry,” he said. “I have no idea what this is about. I just heard about it a few minutes ago. I’m looking at it now. It does look like a dome, doesn’t it?

“Yes,” I said. “Did your people tamper with the satellite imagery?”

They must have. I have a call in. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear something.

I called Jeanie Escovar in the Archives. “Jeanie, have you seen the National Bedrock story yet?”

No,” she said. “My God, what is it this time?

“Not what you think. I’m sending it to you now. Could you have somebody check to see where this place is—?”

What place? Oh, wait—I got it.

“Find out where it is and see if you can get me some imagery of the same area. From our satellites.”

I heard her gasp. Then she started laughing.

“Jeanie, this is serious.”

Why? You don’t actually believe there’s a building up there, do you?

“Somebody’s going to ask the President about it. They have a press conference going on in about twenty minutes. We want him to be able to say: ‘It’s ridiculous, here’s a picture of the area, and you’ll notice there’s nothing there.’ We want him to be able to say ‘The Bedrock’s running an optical illusion.’ But he’ll have to do it diplomatically. And without embarrassing Alexandrov.”

Good luck on that.

The Bedrock story was already getting attention on the talk shows. Angela Hart, who at that time anchored The Morning Report for the World Journal, was interviewing a physicist from MIT. The physicist stated that the picture could not be accurate. “Probably a practical joke,” he said. “Or a trick of the light.

But Angela wondered why the Russians would release the picture at all. “They had to know it would get a lot of attention,” she said. And, of course, though she didn’t mention it, it would become a source of discomfort for the Russian president and the two cosmonauts who were among the Minerva crew.

Vasili was in a state of shock when he called back. “They didn’t know about the dome,” he said. “Nobody noticed. But it is on the original satellite imagery. Our people were just putting out a lot of the stuff from the Luna missions. Imagery that hadn’t been released before. I can’t find anybody who knows anything about it. But I’m still trying.

“Vasili,” I said, “somebody must have seen it at the time. In 1967.”

I guess.

“You guess? You think it’s possible something like this came in and nobody picked up on it?”

No, I’m not suggesting that at all, Jerry. I just—I don’t know what I’m suggesting. I’ll get back to you when I have something more.

Minutes later, Jeanie called: “It’s the east wall of the Cassegrain Crater.

“And—?”

I’ve forwarded NASA imagery of the same area.

I switched on the monitor and ran the images. There was the same crater wall, the same pock-marked moonscape. But no dome. Nothing at all unusual.

Dated July, 1968. More than a year after the Soviet imagery.

I called Mary and told her: The Russians just screwed up.

The President can’t say that.

“All he has to say is that NASA has no evidence of any dome or anything else on the far side of the Moon. Probably he should just turn it into a joke. Make some remark about setting up a Martian liaison unit.”

She didn’t think it was funny.

When the subject came up at the presidential press conference, Gorman and Alexandrov both simply had a good laugh. Alexandrov blamed it on Khrushchev, and the laughter got louder. Then they moved on to how the Minerva mission—the long-awaited Return to the Moon—marked the beginning of a new era for the world.

The story kicked around in the tabloids for two or three more days. The Washington Post ran an op-ed using the dome to demonstrate how gullible we all are when the media says anything. Then Cory Abbott, who’d just won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Einstein in Albert and Me, crashed his car into a street light and blacked out the entire town of Dekker, California. And just like that the dome story was gone.

On the morning of the launch, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, issued a statement that the image was a result of defective technology. The Minerva lifted off on schedule and, while the world watched, it crossed to the Moon and completed a few orbits. Its lander touched down gently on the Mare Maskelyne. Marcia Beckett surprised everyone when she demurred leading the way out through the airlock, sending instead Cosmonaut Yuri Petrov, who descended and then signaled his crewmates to join him.

When all were assembled on the regolith, Petrov made the statement that, in the light of later events, has become immortal: “We are here on the Moon because, during the last century, we avoided the war that would have destroyed us all. And we have come together. Now we stand as never before, united for all mankind.

I wasn’t especially impressed at the time. It sounded like the usual generalized nonsense. Which shows you what my judgment is worth.

I watched on my office monitor. And as the ceremony proceeded, I looked past the space travelers, across the barren wasteland of the Mare Maskelyne, wondering which was the shortest path to the Cassegrain crater.

I knew I should have just let it go, but I couldn’t. I could imagine no explanation for the Russians doctoring their satellite imagery. Vasili told me that everyone with whom he’d spoken was shocked. That the images had been dug out of the archives and distributed without inspection. And, as far as could be determined, without anyone distorting them. “I just don’t understand it, Jerry,” he said.

Mary told me not to worry about it. “We have more important things to do,” she said.

There was no one left at NASA from the 1960s. In fact, I knew of only one person living at Cape Kennedy who had been part of the Agency when Apollo 11 went to the Moon: Amos Kelly, who’d been one of my grandfather’s buddies. He was still in the area, where he served with the Friends of NASA, a group of volunteers who lent occasional support but mostly threw parties. I looked him up. He’d come to the Agency in 1965 as a technician. Eventually, he’d become one of the operational managers.

He was in his mid-eighties, but he sounded good. “Sure, Jerry, I remember you. It’s been a long time,” he said, when I got him on the phone. I’d been a little kid when he used to stop by to pick up my grandfather for an evening of poker. “What can I do for you?

“This is going to sound silly, Amos.”

Nothing sounds silly to me. I used to work for the government.

“Did you see the story in the tabloids about the dome?”

How could I miss it?

“You ever hear anything like that before?”

You mean did we think there were Martians on the Moon?” He laughed, turned away to tell someone that the call was for him, and then laughed again. “Is that a serious question, Jerry?

“I guess not.”

Good. By the way, you’ve done pretty well for yourself at the Agency. Your granddad would have been proud.

“Thanks.”

He told me how much he missed the old days, missed my grandfather, how they’d had a good crew. “Best years of my life. I could never believe they’d just scuttle the program the way they did.

Finally he asked what the Russians had said about the images. I told him what Vasili told me. “Well,” he said, “maybe they haven’t changed that much after all.

Twenty minutes later he called back. “I was reading the story in the Bedrock. It says that the object was in the Cassegrain Crater.

“Yes. That’s correct.”

There was talk of a Cassegrain Project at one time. Back in the sixties. I don’t know what it was supposed to be. Whether it was anything more than a rumor. Nobody seemed to know anything definitive about it. I recall at the time thinking it was one of those things so highly classified that even its existence was off the table.

“The Cassegrain Project.”

Yes.

“But you have no idea what it was about?”

None. I’m sorry. Wish I could help.

“Would you tell me if you knew?”

It’s a long time ago, Jerry. I can’t believe security would still be an issue.

“Amos, you were pretty high in the Agency—”

Not that high.

“Do you remember anything else?”

Nothing. Nada. As far as I know, nothing ever came of any of it, so the whole thing eventually went away.

Searching NASA’s archives on “Cassegrain” yielded only data about the crater. So I took to wandering around the facility, talking offhandedly with senior employees. It must feel good to see us back on the Moon, huh, Ralph? Makes all the frustration worthwhile. By the way, did you ever hear of a Cassegrain Project?

They all laughed. Crazy Russians.

On the day the Minerva slipped out of lunar orbit and started home, Mary called me into her office. “We’ll want to get the crew onstage for the press when they get back, Jerry. You might give the staging some thought.”

“Okay. Will it be at Edwards?”

“Negative. We’re going to do it here at the Cape.” We talked over some of the details, the scheduling, guest speakers, points we’d want to make with the media. Then as I was getting ready to leave, she stopped me. “One more thing. The Cassegrain business—” I straightened and came to attention. Mary Gridley was a no-nonsense hard-charger. She was in her fifties, and years of dealing with bureaucratic nonsense had left her with little patience. She was physically diminutive, but she could probably have intimidated the Pope. “—I want you to leave it alone.”

She picked up a pen, put it back down, and stared at me. “Jerry, I know you’ve been asking around about that idiot dome. Listen, you’re good at what you do. You’ll probably enjoy a long, happy career with us. But that won’t happen if people stop taking you seriously. You understand what I mean?”

After the shuttle landing and subsequent celebration, I went on the road. “We need to take advantage of the moment,” Mary said. “There’ll never be a better time to get some good press.”

So I did a PR tour, giving interviews, addressing prayer breakfasts and Rotary meetings, doing what I could to raise the consciousness of the public. NASA wanted Moonbase. It was the next logical step. Should have had it decades ago and would have if the politicians hadn’t squandered the nation’s resources on pointless wars and interventions. But it would be expensive, and we hadn’t succeeded yet in getting the voters on board. That somehow had become my responsibility.

In Seattle, I appeared at a Chamber of Commerce dinner with Arnold Banner, an astronaut who’d never gotten higher than the space station. But nevertheless he was an astronaut, and he hailed from the Apollo era. During the course of the meal I asked whether he’d ever heard of a Cassegrain Project. He said something about tabloids and gave me a disapproving look.

We brought in astronauts wherever we could. In Los Angeles, at a Marine charities fundraiser, we had both Marcia Beckett and Yuri Petrov, which would have been the highlight of the tour, except for Frank Allen.

Frank was in his nineties. He looked exhausted. His veins bulged and I wasn’t sure he didn’t need oxygen.

He was the fourth of the Apollo-era astronauts I talked with during those two weeks. And when I asked about the Cassegrain Project, his eyes went wide and his mouth tightened. Then he regained control. “Cassandra,” he said, looking past me into a distant place. “It’s classified.”

“Not Cassandra, Frank. Cassegrain.

“Oh. Yeah. Of course.”

“I have a clearance.”

“How high?”

“Secret.”

“Not enough.”

“Just give me a hint. What do you know?”

“Jerry, I’ve already said too much. Even its existence is classified.”

Cassandra.

When I got back to the Cape I did a search on Cassandra and found that a lot of people with that name had worked for the Agency over the years. Other Cassandras had made contributions in various ways, leading programs to get kids interested in space science, collaborating with NASA physicists in analyzing the data collected by space-born telescopes, editing publications to make NASA more accessible to the lay public. They’d been everywhere. You couldn’t bring in a NASA guest speaker without discovering a Cassandra somewhere among the people who’d made the request. Buried among the names so deeply that I almost missed it was a single entry: The Cassandra Project, storage 27176B Redstone.

So secret its existence was classified?

The reference was to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama where NASA stores rocket engines, partially-completed satellites, control panels from test stands, and a multitude of other artifacts dating back to Apollo. I called them.

A baritone voice informed me I had reached the NASA Storage Facility. “Sgt. Saber speaking.

I couldn’t resist smiling at the name, but I knew he’d heard all the jokes. I identified myself. Then: “Sergeant, you have a listing for the Cassandra Project.” I gave him the number. “Can I get access to the contents?”

One minute, please, Mr. Carter.

While I waited, I glanced around the office at the photos of Neil Armstrong and Lawrence Bergman and Marcia Beckett. In one, I was standing beside Bergman, who’d been the guy who’d sold the President on returning to the Moon. In another, I was standing by while Marcia spoke with some Alabama school kids during a tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center. Marcia was a charmer of the first order. I’ve always suspected she got the Minerva assignment partially because they knew the public would love her.

When were you planning to come, Mr. Carter?

“I’m not sure yet. Within the next week or so.”

Let us know in advance and there’ll be no problem.

“It’s not classified, then?”

No, sir. I’m looking at its history now. It was originally classified, but that was removed by the Restricted Access Depository Act more than twenty years ago.

I had to get through another round of ceremonies and press conferences before I could get away. Finally, things quieted down. The astronauts went back to their routines, the VIPs went back to whatever it was they normally do, and life on the Cape returned to normal. I put in for leave.

“You deserve it,” Mary said.

Next day, armed with a copy of the Restricted Access Depository Act, I was on my way to Los Angeles to pay another visit to a certain elderly retired astronaut.

“I can’t believe it,” Frank Allen said.

He lived with his granddaughter and her family of about eight, in Pasadena. She shepherded us into her office—she was a tax expert of some sort—brought some lemonade, and left us alone.

“What can’t you believe? That they declassified it?”

“That the story never got out in the first place.” Frank was back at the desk. I’d sunk into a leather settee.

“What’s the story, Frank? Was the dome really there?”

“Yes.”

NASA doctored its own Cassegrain imagery? To eliminate all traces?”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“So what do you know?”

“They sent us up to take a look. In late 1968.” He paused. “We landed almost on top of the damned thing.”

Before Apollo 11.”

“Yes.”

I sat there in shock. And I’ve been around a while, so I don’t shock easily.

“They advertised the flight as a test run, Jerry. It was supposed to be purely an orbital mission. Everything else, the dome, the descent, everything was top secret. Didn’t happen.”

“You actually got to the dome?”

He hesitated. A lifetime of keeping his mouth shut was getting in the way. “Yes,” he said. “We came down about a half mile away. Max was brilliant.”

Max Donnelly. The lunar module pilot. “What happened?”

“I remember thinking the Russians had beaten us. They’d gotten to the Moon and we hadn’t even known about it.

“There weren’t any antennas or anything. Just a big, silvery dome. About the size of a two-story house. No windows. No hammer and sickle markings. Nothing. Except a door.

“We had sunlight. The mission had been planned so we wouldn’t have to approach it in the dark.” He shifted his position in the chair and bit down on a grunt.

“You okay, Frank?” I asked.

“My knees. They don’t work as well as they used to.” He rubbed the right one, then rearranged himself—gently this time. “We didn’t know what to expect. Max said he thought the thing was pretty old because there were no tracks in the ground. We walked up to the front door. It had a knob. I thought the place would be locked, but I tried it and the thing didn’t move at first but then something gave way and I was able to pull the door open.”

“What was inside?”

“A table. There was a cloth on the table. And something flat under the cloth. And that’s all there was.”

“Nothing else?”

“Not a thing.” He shook his head. “Max lifted the cloth. Under it was a rectangular plate. Made from some kind of metal.” He stopped and stared at me. “There was writing on it.”

“Writing? What did it say?”

“I don’t know. Never found out. It looked like Greek. We brought the plate back home with us and turned it over to the bosses. Next thing they called us in and debriefed us. Reminded us it was all top secret. Whatever the thing said, it must have scared the bejesus out of Nixon and his people. Because they never said anything, and I guess the Russians didn’t either.”

“You never heard anything more at all?”

“Well, other than the next Apollo mission, which went back and destroyed the dome. Leveled it.”

“How do you know?”

“I knew the crew. We talked to each other, right? They wouldn’t say it directly. Just shook their heads: Nothing to worry about anymore.”

Outside, kids were shouting, tossing a football around. “Greek?”

“That’s what it looked like.”

“A message from Plato.”

He just shook his head as if to say: Who knew?

“Well, Frank, I guess that explains why they called it the Cassandra Project.”

“She wasn’t a Greek, was she?”

“You have another theory?”

“Maybe Cassegrain was too hard for the people in the Oval Office to pronounce.”

I told Mary what I knew. She wasn’t happy. “I really wish you’d left it alone, Jerry.”

“There’s no way I could have done that.”

“Not now, anyhow.” She let me see her frustration. “You know what it’ll mean for the Agency, right? If NASA lied about something like this, and it becomes public knowledge, nobody will ever trust us again.”

“It was a long time ago, Mary. Anyhow, the Agency wasn’t lying. It was the Administration.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Good luck selling that one to the public.”

The NASA storage complex at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville is home to rockets, a lunar landing vehicle, automated telescopes, satellites, a space station, and a multitude of other devices that had kept the American space program alive, if not particularly robust, over almost seventy years. Some were housed inside sprawling warehouses; others occupied outdoor exhibition sites.

I parked in the shadow of a Saturn V, the rocket that had carried the Apollo missions into space. I’ve always been impressed with the sheer audacity of anybody who’d be willing to sit on top of one of those things while someone lit the fuse. Had it been up to me, we’d probably never have lifted off at Kitty Hawk.

I went inside the Archive Office, got directions and a pass, and fifteen minutes later entered one of the warehouses. An attendant escorted me past cages and storage rooms filled with all kinds of boxes and crates. Somewhere in the center of it all, we stopped at a cubicle while the attendant compared my pass with the number on the door. The interior was visible through a wall of wire mesh. Cartons were piled up, all labeled. Several were open, with electronic equipment visible inside them.

The attendant unlocked the door and we went in. He turned on an overhead light and did a quick survey, settling on a box that was one of several on a shelf. My heart rate started to pick up while he looked at the tag. “This is it, Mr. Carter,” he said. “Cassandra.”

“Is this everything?”

He checked his clipboard. “This is the only listing we have for the Cassandra Project, sir.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“My pleasure.”

There was no lock. He raised the hasp on the box, lifted the lid, and stood back to make room. He showed no interest in the contents. He probably did this all the time, so I don’t know why that surprised me.

Inside, I could see a rectangular object wrapped in plastic. I couldn’t see what it was, but of course I knew. My heart was pounding by then. The object was about a foot and a half wide and maybe half as high. And it was heavy. I carried it over to a table and set it down. Wouldn’t do to drop it. Then I unwrapped it.

The metal was black, polished, reflective, even in the half-light from the overhead bulb. And sure enough, there were the Greek characters. Eight lines of them.

The idea that Plato was saying hello seemed suddenly less far-fetched. I took a picture. Several pictures. Finally, reluctantly, I rewrapped it and put it back in the box.

“So,” said Frank, “what did it say?”

“I have the translation here.” I fished it out of my pocket but he shook his head.

“My eyes aren’t that good, Jerry. Just tell me who wrote it. And what it says.”

We were back in the office at Frank’s home in Pasadena. It was a chilly, rainswept evening. Across the street, I could see one of his neighbors putting out the trash.

“It wasn’t written by the Greeks.”

“I didn’t think it was.”

“Somebody came through a long time ago. Two thousand years or so. They left the message. Apparently they wrote it in Greek because it must have looked like their best chance to leave something we’d be able to read. Assuming we ever reached the Moon.”

“So what did it say?”

“It’s a warning.”

The creases in Frank’s forehead deepened. “Is the sun going unstable?”

“No.” I looked down at the translation. “It says that no civilization, anywhere, has been known to survive the advance of technology.”

Frank stared at me. “Say that again.”

“They all collapse. They fight wars. Or they abolish individual death, which apparently guarantees stagnation and an exit. I don’t know. They don’t specify.

“Sometimes the civilizations become too vulnerable to criminals. Or the inhabitants become too dependent on the technology and lose whatever virtue they might have had. Anyway, the message says that no technological civilization, anywhere, has been known to get old. Nothing lasts more than a few centuries—our centuries—once technological advancement begins. Which for us maybe starts with the invention of the printing press.

“The oldest known civilization lasted less than a thousand years.”

Frank frowned. He wasn’t buying it. “They survived. Hell, they had an interstellar ship of some kind.”

“They said they were looking for a place to start again. Where they came from is a shambles.”

“You’re kidding.”

“It says that maybe, if we know in advance, we can sidestep the problem. That’s why they left the warning.”

“Great.”

“If they survive, they say they’ll come back to see how we’re doing.”

We were both silent for a long while.

“So what happens now?” Frank said.

“We’ve reclassified everything. It’s top secret again. I shouldn’t be telling you this. But I thought—”

He rearranged himself in the chair. Winced and rotated his right arm. “Maybe that’s why they called it Cassandra,” he said. “Wasn’t she the woman who always brought bad news?”

“I think so.”

“There was something else about her—”

“Yeah—the bad news,” I said. “When she gave it, nobody would listen.”

CATS IN VICTORY

David Barr Kirtley

Lynx awoke before dawn. He got out of bed, brushed his whiskers, and licked his fur clean. He dressed in boots and a tunic, then donned his rucksack and set out into the dusty streets. The sun was just beginning to peek up over the thatched rooftops. Most of the other catmen of the village were still asleep.

Lynx hiked west, out of town, through the foothills and into the wasteland, where he wandered amid the stark beauty of the stony plains, winding arroyos, and towering plateaus.

He loved walking here, and today he’d secretly resolved to explore as far to the west as he could. His parents would disapprove. Like all the adults of the village, they harbored a vague mistrust of the wasteland, maybe due to the strange mechanical artifacts that they said were sometimes discovered beneath the sands. But the more time Lynx spent out here, the more he felt that such misgivings were baseless.

All morning he climbed hills, clambered over fields of boulders, and strode between pillars of stone. Finally, around mid-day, his westward progress was blocked by a narrow canyon that stretched as far as he could see in either direction. The canyon floor was forty feet below, and the walls were too sheer to climb, so Lynx turned north, skirting the cliff edge and searching for a way across.

Finally he came to a place where a giant tree had grown up from the canyon floor beside the near wall. The tree was dead now, but its pale, branchless trunk would provide easy access down into the canyon. Though there was no telling whether—

Wait. What was that?

He thought he saw movement, below.

A few hundred yards away, the canyon wall was broken by a wide, low cavern. A figure detached itself from the darkness and wandered down onto the sand. Lynx ducked, then slowly raised his head again as the figure came to a halt.

As far as Lynx knew, nothing lived out here except lizards and birds. But this figure was the size of a catman, and walked upright.

Then the thought came to him: A dogman.

Here? Impossible. But it had to be. He knew he should flee, get help, but . . .

The dogmen were almost extinct. This might be the only chance he’d ever get to see one. And he should make sure it was really a dogman, before he alarmed the whole village.

He dropped his rucksack and kicked off his boots. He paced, flexing his hand and foot claws. Then he dashed to the edge of the cliff and leapt onto the tree. His claws dug into the wood, and he hung there a moment, then scrambled down the trunk and dropped lightly to the canyon floor.

He sneaked toward the cave, ducking behind one boulder, then another, then another. A strong breeze blew into his face, and this was good, for the wind would muffle his footsteps and carry his scent off behind him.

He lay down and crawled on elbows and knees until he was just a dozen yards away from the mysterious figure, then peeked around a rock.

Yes. A dogman. It was burlier than any catman, and Lynx could make out its grotesque floppy ears. It wore a grungy tunic and a heavy broadsword. Then the creature turned its head, and Lynx glimpsed its profile—a flat face with saggy jowls and wrinkled folds of flesh around the eyes. A horrible, misshapen creature. An abomination.

Lynx began to crawl backward, then paused, as he spied a second figure emerging from the cave.

This one was . . . not so terrible. A female, slender, perhaps as young as Lynx. Her snout was white, her large eyes banded with brown, and her long, silky ears hung past her shoulders. She too wore a sword, a rapier.

In Lynx’s imagination, dogmen had always been ugly and fearsome and . . . male. He wondered about the female. What was she to the hulking beast beside her? His ally? His wife? She had a sweet look to her, or was that deceptive? Had she ever killed a catman?

Suddenly the big male straightened and poked his nose in the air, sniffing loudly—once, twice.

Lynx felt a prickle of terror. While he’d been distracted, the breeze had shifted, and he was now upwind of the dogmen.

The male roared, “Catmen!” and whipped out his sword. He turned and stared straight at Lynx, who leapt up from his hiding spot and sprinted away, dodging around boulders and vaulting over ditches. Behind him came heavy footfalls and throaty growls as the male chased him, gained on him. Lynx spotted the tree, his escape.

The female cried, “No! Stop him!”

Lynx ran to the tree, sprang onto it, and scuttled upward. The male bellowed and leapt after him, and Lynx heard the swoosh of the broadsword, then the thunk of metal on wood. The whole tree shuddered as the sword struck just below his feet.

He climbed out of reach. The female dogman shrieked in despair, and the male let loose a frustrated howl.

Lynx fled the canyon, as the dogmen’s terrible barking rose up from below him and echoed in his ears.

It wasn’t until much later, when he was far from that place, that he noticed any pain. Then he found that he was missing a few inches off the end of his tail. Blood pooled there, and fell in thick droplets to the sand.

Night had fallen by the time Lynx got back to the village. He headed straight to the temple, raced through the main doors, and burst into the antechamber.

A scribe sat at a small wooden desk and scribbled in a ledger with a quill pen. When he saw Lynx’s agitation, the scribe stood. “Can I help you?”

Lynx gasped for breath. “I have to see Father Cougar.”

The scribe stared disapprovingly. “Father Cougar is delivering the evening service.”

Lynx said, “There are dogmen! Living in the wasteland. Hiding in the caves.”

“Dogmen? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure! They chased me, with swords.” Lynx held up the tip of his tail, which was clotted with blood.

The scribe grew alarmed. “All right. Wait here.” He hurried over to a pair of heavy wooden doors, then slipped through, closing the doors behind him.

Lynx stepped forward and pressed his ear to the wood. Father Cougar’s booming voice filled the other room. Lynx could only make out some of the words, but he grasped the essence of the sermon. Father Cougar was preaching, as ever, about how these were the end times, and about the coming Victory, when Cat would return to Earth, the dogmen would be destroyed forever, and the catmen would regain their pure feline forms.

Father Cougar’s voice died away. He must be conferring with the scribe.

Finally the scribe reappeared and said, “Follow me.”

He led Lynx down a hallway to a cozy chamber whose walls were hung with tapestries. Father Cougar, wearing his vestments, sat on a sofa in the corner. He said warmly, “Lynx! Come in, come in.”

Lynx picked a chair and sat down.

Father Cougar settled back and stroked his scruffy gray whiskers. “Now, tell me what happened.”

Lynx explained about coming across the dogmen in the wasteland. Father Cougar listened intently, then said, “And they saw you?”

Lynx hesitated, then admitted, “Yes.”

Father Cougar narrowed his eyes. “How?”

Lynx stared at the floor. “I’m sorry, Father. . . . . was curious.”

Father Cougar sighed deeply. “As I thought.” He leaned forward, his gaze steady. “How many times must I tell you? Curiosity is the gravest of sins. And now you see what your curiosity has cost us. If you had avoided detection, we could have easily located these dogmen and captured them. But now they’ll be expecting us, and will move on. The danger to those who track them is greatly increased. And what if the dogmen should slip away? You may very well have cost us the great Victory we have awaited so long.”

Lynx felt ashamed, despondent. Everything Father Cougar was saying was absolutely true.

Father Cougar shook his head. “Well, there’s no helping it now.” He turned to the scribe and instructed, “Go to the inn. Fetch the templars.” The scribe nodded once, and hurried off.

Lynx felt awe. “Templars?”

“Yes,” Father Cougar said. “They arrived this morning. Two of them. Pursuing these dogmen you saw. They’ll want to question you.”

“Of course,” Lynx agreed at once, his shame quickly giving way to excitement.

Templars! Holy ones, invincible warriors of Cat. In ages past, their order had eradicated the frogmen, the birdmen, and the monkeymen, and now only the dogmen remained.

The scribe returned a short time later, leading the templars. They were the tallest, most muscular catmen that Lynx had ever seen. Both wore long white tabards, and upon their surcoats were embroidered the holy form of Cat.

Father Cougar gestured to them. “Lynx, these are our templar friends, Lion and Tiger.”

The templars nodded politely. Tiger was brawnier, stern and dignified, with gray in his fur and black stripes around his eyes. Lion had a great tawny mane and seemed almost to vibrate with barely restrained energy. And he was younger, perhaps only five or ten years older than Lynx himself.

Lion said quickly, “Tell us about the dogmen.”

So Lynx repeated his story. When he gave a description of the dogmen, the templars glanced at each other. When he got to the part about his escape from the canyon, the scribe interrupted, “Show them your tail!”

Lynx held up his injured tail.

Lion clapped his hands together and said to Tiger, “Well, look at that! Bloodied by dogmen, and he escaped to tell of it.” He turned to Lynx. “That’s more than many templars can boast.”

Lynx felt an almost unbearable rush of pride.

Lion said, “I’ve heard enough.” He turned to Tiger. “Let’s find this cave.”

Father Cougar said, “You mean to leave at once?”

“Yes,” Lion replied. “I see no reason to dally. The dogmen certainly will not.”

“Take me with you!” Lynx exclaimed. “I’ll lead you there.”

Father Cougar looked worried. “That might be dangerous. Your parents—”

Lynx said, “It’s my fault for letting the dogmen see me. You have to let me make up for it. No one knows the wasteland like I do.”

Father Cougar turned to the templars. “I suppose it’s up to you.”

Tiger opened his mouth for the first time. “I don’t think—”

Lion spoke over him. “Yes, let him come. The dogmen cut him with their swords. He deserves a chance to pay them back in kind.” He grinned at Lynx and said, “But we’ll cut more than just their tails, won’t we?”

Tiger said nothing.

“Come on,” Lion said, and gestured for Lynx to follow.

Lynx went with the templars back to the inn, where they gathered supplies. Lion pulled a shortsword out from among his belongings and tossed it to Lynx, who caught it and put it on. Then Lynx led the templars into the wasteland. The sun was rising by the time they reached the cave.

Tiger scouted about, kneeling in places to sniff the earth, then said, “This way.”

The trail led westward, deeper into the wastes. That night the templars made camp beneath the open sky, and in the morning they continued on again. As far as Lynx knew, no catman had ever come this far before. His boldness waned, and he started to wonder what he’d gotten himself into.

On the third day, the templars stopped to rest beside a circular black pit a hundred yards across. Thick yellow grass grew all around the pit, and vines hung over its edge and into the darkness. There was something eerie and intriguing about the formation.

Lynx wondered aloud, “Could the dogmen be hiding in there?”

Tiger said, “The tracks lead on.”

Lion shrugged. “It can’t hurt to check. Call us if you see anything.”

Lynx wandered over to the pit. Its sides were rough and angular, and he scrambled easily down the many shelves of rock until he reached the cavern floor. Stray beams of sunlight lanced down through the opening overhead and caught the dust that floated in the air. Lynx turned in a slow circle, then stopped as he saw something utterly unexpected.

He drew his sword and cried out, “Lion! Lion!”

Half-buried in the side of the cave lay a strange object that was bigger than a cottage and made of a silver metal. From the object’s side protruded a structure that seemed to be a wing. The object was extraordinarily weathered, and its side was ripped open. That dark gash beckoned to Lynx. He took a step forward, then another.

From the cliff wall above, Lion called out, “Wait.”

Lynx glanced back. Lion was climbing down into the cavern. Tiger stood above, at the pit’s edge.

Lion said, “What are you doing?”

“Have you ever seen anything like it?” Lynx said. “I’m going to look inside.” He crept nearer.

“Why?” Lion called sharply.

“I . . . ” Lynx was very close now. “I just . . . ”

“This is curiosity,” Lion warned. “This is wrong.”

“It isn’t,” Lynx insisted, half to himself. Though why it wasn’t, he could not really say. He slipped through the gash.

For a moment everything was dark. Then a hundred spots of light—red, blue, yellow, green—flickered to life all around him. He crouched in alarm. He’d never seen anything like these lights, but his attention was quickly drawn away from them and toward a metal coffin that was built into the far wall. Its lid was made of glass, and inside he could make out the rough outline of a body.

Suddenly a loud voice spoke, seeming to come from all around. The language was unfamiliar. Lynx whirled, but saw no one.

The coffin slowly opened. Lynx backed away, cursing himself. Once again his curiosity had betrayed him, had led him to intrude upon this strange tomb, and now he had awoken something ancient and powerful. His fearful imagination conjured up images of a living corpse with blazing red eyes. But what actually emerged was no less surprising.

A monkeyman. He seemed dazed, and was dressed in some gray uniform, its chest and shoulders decorated with insignia. He glanced at Lynx, then staggered past him. Lynx stared in wonder and horror. The monkeymen were supposed to have been wiped out centuries ago.

A second shape, much smaller, leapt from the coffin, and Lynx gasped as he observed its perfect grace. For all his life he had seen this holy form depicted a thousand times, and now there was no mistaking it. This was the creator of the universe, the giver of all life. Cat, the nine-lived, had returned to Earth at last. Lynx kneeled and whispered, “My lord.”

Cat did not acknowledge him, and Lynx was unsure what to do. Through the gash came the voices of the templars, who now stood just outside. Tiger was saying, with a mix of fear and awe, “It fell from the sky. See? It broke through into this cavern.”

Lion replied angrily, “The dogmen flee, and we stand here engaged in idle—”

He stopped abruptly as the monkeyman lurched through the gash and out into the cave. Lynx followed after.

The templars stood awestruck. The monkeyman ignored them. He stumbled about, studying the damage to his winged tomb. With one hand he grasped his forehead. He still seemed disoriented.

Lynx felt disoriented himself. He wandered over to the templars, tugged Lion’s sleeve, and made him look toward the tomb, where Cat was just emerging. Lion fell instantly to his knees, and Tiger did the same.

Cat ignored them and strode along after the monkeyman. Then Cat lay down, reached into a gap between the tomb and the cave floor, and batted his paw at something within. The monkeyman grunted at Cat and used the edge of one boot to lightly brush Cat away from the hole.

Lion leapt to his feet and cried, “You dare!” He ran up to the monkeyman and seized him by the shoulder.

The monkeyman shoved him back and yelled at him in a strange language. An amulet on the monkeyman’s belt buzzed, “Get your hands off me, catman scum!” Puzzled, the monkeyman glanced at the amulet. Then he shouted at Lion, and again his magic amulet translated. “Report! What unit are you with? And what the hell are you wearing?”

Lion backed away. He moved to stand beside Tiger and said in a low voice, “A surviving monkeyman. He struck me, you saw. I should have the honor of slaying him.”

The monkeyman’s amulet spoke in a strange tongue, presumably translating Lion’s words.

Tiger said, “I don’t know. He comes to us from the sky, as a companion of Cat. Dare we slay him?”

Lion said, “Cat’s holy word commands it.”

Tiger said, “Cat himself stands before us now. Everything is changed.”

Lion glanced at Cat, who sat licking himself. Lion approached him, knelt, and said, “My lord, I am Lion, your most faithful servant. I am yours to command. What is your wish for this monkeyman? Say the word, and I will spill his blood in your name.”

Cat lifted his head, gave Lion an inscrutable stare, and went back to licking himself.

Lion, still kneeling, glanced at Tiger and hissed, “Why does he not answer?”

Tiger growled softly, “It is not our place to question his motives. He will speak when he wills it.”

Lion turned back to Cat. “Answer me, lord, I beg you. Or if you will not, give us some sign, that we may do your will.”

The monkeyman seemed to finally shake off his confusion and comprehend the danger. He glanced back and forth between Lion and Cat, then crouched and whistled to Cat and spoke. The amulet translated, “Hey, come here. Here, kitty kitty kitty. Come on.”

Lion said darkly, “He presumes to command Cat.”

The monkeyman ignored this and kept calling. Cat gazed at the monkeyman, but did not stir.

Lion said, “Cat rejects him.”

“Wait!” The monkeyman held up a hand. “Just . . . Leo, come here, dammit!” He whistled again. “Here, kitty kitty.”

Lion reached for his sword and said, “He dies.”

But at that moment, Cat languidly uncurled himself and strolled across the dirt to the monkeyman, who scratched Cat’s whiskers, then his ears, his neck, and his back. Cat purred and rubbed against the monkeyman’s shins. Lion froze.

“Cat shows him favor,” Tiger observed. “Cat has a special plan for him.”

The monkeyman picked up Cat and held him like a shield. Cat continued to purr.

Lion glared at the monkeyman for a long time, then strode over to him, stood very close, and said softly, “I do not know why Cat chooses to prolong your miserable existence, abomination. But let no one say that I was curious.” He brushed by him and walked away.

The monkeyman lowered his head to Cat and whispered, “Good Cat.”

The catmen set out again, now joined by Cat and his strange monkeyman companion. The monkeyman brought along a sort of satchel in which he carried Cat, who seemed pleased enough with the arrangement. Lion remained hostile to the monkeyman, no matter how often Tiger insisted that the Victory was now at hand and that Lion should be rejoicing. The templars often knelt before Cat and asked him for guidance, but Cat never deigned to reply.

Sometimes the monkeyman would stare into the amulet, but whatever it told him must have displeased him, for he would shake it, strike it, and yell at it. Lynx was desperate to question the monkeyman, but that would be showing curiosity, so instead he tried to mimic the stony indifference of the templars. Still, Lynx couldn’t keep his eyes off of Cat.

The monkeyman noticed this. Finally he said, “Do you want to hold him?”

Lynx was stunned. He glanced at the templars, who were now well ahead. “I couldn’t.”

“Sure.” The monkeyman reached into the satchel, lifted Cat free, and handed him over to Lynx, who scratched Cat’s ears the way the monkeyman had. Cat purred.

“See?” the monkeyman said. After a moment, he added, “What’s your name?”

Lynx hesitated, then told him.

“I’m Charles,” the monkeyman said. Lynx didn’t respond. After a moment, the monkeyman lowered his voice and said, “Tell me, Lynx. What year is this?”

Lynx was perplexed, but the monkeyman seemed earnest. Lynx passed Cat back to him and said slowly, “1293.”

“Using what calendar?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Dating from when?”

“Why . . . ” This was the strangest question Lynx had ever heard. “From the creation of the world.”

The monkeyman said nothing for a long time. He and Lynx resumed walking. Finally the monkeyman asked in a low tone, “And what is this ‘Victory’?”

“You really don’t know? Cat hasn’t told you?”

The monkeyman said, “Cat isn’t overly fond of explaining himself. As you may have noticed.”

So Lynx spoke of the Victory. When he saw that the monkeyman was utterly confused, he found himself explaining more and more. Soon he had gone all the way back to the beginning, back to when Cat had created the world and all its inhabitants, including his most favored creation, cats, whom Cat had made in his own image. To them alone Cat had granted the gift of speech. But the cats had grown curious about what other animals might say, and so the cats disobeyed and shared the gift of speech with birds, frogs, dogs, and monkeys. But those other animals were wicked and spoke only lies. When Cat returned and saw what had happened, he was very angry, and punished those animals, twisting them into catmen, birdmen, frogmen, dogmen, and monkeymen. The catmen wailed and beseeched Cat to restore them to their perfect forms, but Cat decreed that he would not until the catmen had wiped the Earth clean of the abominations—any animal who spoke and was not feline. But Cat, in his ultimate mercy, also decreed that this redemption was inevitable, and promised that in the last days he would return to Earth to lead the catmen to ultimate glory. Lynx finished, “So that is the Victory. That is why Cat has come again. But his ways are strange. We did not know that he would be accompanied by a monkeyman.”

The monkeyman said, “And these dogmen we’re pursuing . . . are the last on Earth?”

“Perhaps,” Lynx said. “They are among the last, certainly.”

“And the . . . other monkeymen. Like me. Are all . . . ?”

“Dead,” Lynx confirmed. “Long ago.”

That night Lynx was awoken by the sound of the monkeyman sobbing softly. Lynx thought: He weeps for his vanquished race. It had not occurred to Lynx that abominations might be capable of such grief. This monkeyman was the last of his kind, probably. And in the end, when the Victory came, he too would be cleansed from the Earth. That made Lynx feel almost sad.

He did not get back to sleep for a long time.

The templars tracked the dogmen ever deeper into the wasteland. Supplies were running low, and nothing edible grew here. But Lion said, “Good. The dogmen will have the same problem. They’ll have to turn and face us.”

And he was right. The next day, the catmen mounted a low, wind-swept pass, and Lynx spotted the dogmen waiting amidst a jumble of boulders.

The male stood there, holding his great broadsword. The female reached for her rapier, but the male barked at her, and she reluctantly backed away. The male stepped forward, seeming worn and haggard, but for all that he was still even bigger and more imposing than Lynx remembered.

Lion sighed. “Only two. And one a female.” He drew his sword and strode forward. “Stay back. I’ll handle this.”

Lynx looked to Tiger. “He’ll fight alone?”

Tiger was stoic. “He prefers it this way.”

“Why bring me all this way?” Lynx said. “Why give me a sword, if he never meant for me to help?”

“That’s just how he is.”

The monkeyman moved to stand beside them. “How he is is arrogant and reckless. Why do you endure it?”

Tiger said softly, “You’ll see why.”

Lion closed in on the male, who roared and thrust at him with savage force. Lion parried casually, spun in a crouch, and came up with both fists wrapped around the hilt of his sword. He slammed his fists into his opponent’s jowled face, and the male thudded to the ground. Lion kicked away the dogman’s sword, and just like that it was over.

Lynx exclaimed, “He’s amazing!”

Tiger nodded. He hurried forward, and Lynx and the monkeyman followed. Tiger knelt to tie up the male as Lion strode toward the female.

She’d drawn her rapier, and as Lion came on she backed away in a fighting stance, her movements swift and graceful. Lion held his sword at his side.

She thrust at his throat. Her speed was remarkable, but Lion whipped up his sword and easily blocked the blow.

The female backed away, launching a series of feints and attacks. Lion laughed, contemptuous, as he parried each one. But her last thrust deflected off his blade and scratched his shoulder.

He glanced at the small circle of blood that blossomed on his white tabard. “Not bad. I might have to try.”

He moved to close with her, but again she slipped away.

Tiger looked uneasy. He whispered, “At close range, he’s unstoppable. But he has no patience.”

The female kept retreating, staying always just beyond the reach of Lion’s sword. She attacked again, and again she got through, pricking his other shoulder. He hardly seemed to notice. His expression was dark now. He kept advancing.

Lynx said, “We have to help.”

Tiger hesitated. “He . . . would not like that.”

Lion roared, slashing at the female’s head. She backed out of reach, then quickly counterattacked, striking his chest. Three stains now blazed on his tabard. The blood from his shoulder wounds soaked down to his elbows. He seemed to be slowing.

Lynx said, “If you won’t help him, I will.”

He drew his shortsword and ran in a wide arc, so that he circled behind the female, then charged her.

As he neared, she pivoted and thrust at his face. Lynx ducked and retreated. Instantly she turned back to Lion, but now he had closed with her, and she was doomed. When she attacked, he locked her wrist and wrenched her sword away. He smashed an elbow into her face, and hurled her over his hip. Then Lion was upon her, straddling her, pounding his fists into her face, knocking her head this way and that. Soon she was unconscious, with blood oozing from her muzzle, but the blows kept falling.

Lynx murmured, “Wait,” but Lion ignored him.

Finally, Lion stood. His chest wound had bled a red blotch around the holy form of Cat that was embroidered on his surcoat.

Lynx said, “Are you all right?”

Lion’s eyes were full of fury. “I told you to stay back! You could’ve gotten us both killed!” He shoved Lynx aside and stormed on past.

Tiger came forward and knelt to bind the female. He said, “He gets like this. Just let him calm down. It’ll be all right.”

The templars marched the dogmen east. The prisoners were not spoken to, and when night fell they were bound at wrist and ankle. Tiger took the first watch while Lion dozed. Lynx sat a dozen yards away, off by himself, leaning on a boulder.

The monkeyman settled down beside him and nodded at the prisoners. “So what happens to them now?”

Lynx said, “The templars will want to show them off, charge money to see them, that sort of thing.”

The monkeyman’s voice was soft. “You said these might be the last dogmen on Earth.”

“They might,” Lynx agreed.

“And then they’ll be executed?”

“Yes.”

The monkeyman caught Lynx’s gaze, held it. “And you’re going to let that happen?”

Lynx glanced over at Tiger, but the templar was too far away to hear them. Lynx hissed, “Of course.”

The monkeyman said, “No one has ever called me squeamish, and I have no love for dogmen, but to wipe out an entire race . . . That’s evil, Lynx. You must know that. Whatever some old legend says.”

“You’re just a monkeyman. You wouldn’t understand.”

“I understand more than you can imagine,” the monkeyman said. “I’ve flown among the stars, and slept for ages, and I remember Earth as it was, when monkeymen—as you call us—ruled all. We made you, Lynx, you catmen, in our labs. The dogmen too, and all the rest. We made you to be soldiers, and I guess we did our jobs too well, because I awake to find that you’ve beaten us. But that doesn’t—”

“This is blasphemy,” Lynx said. “I warn you, not even Cat’s favor will protect you if—”

“What? Him?” The monkeyman jabbed a thumb toward the satchel where Cat slept. “He’s an animal, like any other. I raised him from a kitten.”

Lynx stood. “I should kill you for that.”

The monkeyman glared up at him. “Fine. Kill me. Like you killed my race. What’ve I got to live for?” He gestured toward Lion. “Rouse your maniac friend there. Tell him to chop off my head. He’d like that. And would you? I thought you were different.”

Lynx scowled and stomped away. He sat down beside Tiger, who asked, “What’s wrong?”

Lynx said furiously, “Nothing.”

Tiger glanced at the monkeyman, then said, “Monkeys lie. That’s why they should never have been granted the gift of speech.”

Lynx crossed his arms and agreed, “Yes. They lie.”

For the next two days, Lynx refused to speak to the monkeyman, but doubts gnawed at him. Much as he hated to admit it, the monkeyman was right about one thing: Lynx was different from the templars.

He had always thought of himself as faithful, but traveling with them had made him see just how shallow and perfunctory his belief really was. Lion’s faith was like fire—it gave intensity to everything he did, but it was a fire that was raging out of control and would someday consume him. And Tiger’s faith was like a mountain—immense, solid, and immovable. But Lynx realized that his own faith was more like the wasteland itself, existing only in the absence of anything else. The monkeyman’s briefly spouted heresies made sense to Lynx in a way that the wisdom of Father Cougar never really had.

That afternoon, Lynx found himself walking for a moment beside the female. Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “You fought well.”

She looked up, startled to be spoken to. “What?”

Lion was off ahead of them. Tiger was back a ways, out of earshot. Lynx said softly, “The other day. You fought well. I think you would’ve beaten him, if I hadn’t interfered. Beaten a templar. You should be proud of that.”

“Oh,” she said, puzzled. “Thank you.”

“Sure,” Lynx said awkwardly, and hurried off.

The monkeyman sidled up from behind him. “Why did you do that?”

Lynx maintained a stony silence for a moment, then said, “I . . . I was just . . . ”

“Curious,” the monkeyman said.

Lynx sighed.

The monkeyman added, “Curiosity is no sin. If you’re not curious, you’ll never learn.”

“That’s blasphemy,” Lynx said, but his tone was flat.

The monkeyman didn’t respond.

After a time, Lynx said, “Even if I agreed with you—about the dogmen, I mean—what can I do?”

The monkeyman whispered, “You can pretend to be asleep tonight, and when I create a distraction you can crawl over to the dogmen and cut their bonds, and let them escape.”

Lynx was startled. “I didn’t mean . . . ”

“I know.” The monkeyman gave him a thin smile. “But think about it. I’ll create the distraction. What you do then is up to you.”

“Wait,” Lynx said. This was too much. “What sort of distraction?”

“You’ll see. Your little outburst the other night gave me an idea.”

Lynx considered this. “During whose watch?”

“Whose do you think?”

Lion’s, of course. He was by far the more easily distracted.

“Think about it,” the monkeyman repeated, and fell behind again.

As night came on, the templars made camp atop a low hill. Tiger slumbered, and Lynx pretended to. He still couldn’t decide whether to help the dogmen. After several hours, he heard movement and peeked out one eye. The monkeyman came up to stand behind Lion and said, “You seem like the religious type.”

Lion turned to him. “Do not mock me, monkeyman.” Lion was now facing away from Lynx and the prisoners.

The monkeyman sat down on a stone. “Not at all. I just thought you might be interested in some of the religious ideas of the monkeymen.”

“The chattering of abominations does not interest me.” Lion began to turn away.

“Wait,” the monkeyman said. “For example, did you know that many monkeymen believed that they were made in the image of the creator of the universe?”

Lion laughed at that. “Did they ever look in a mirror? Surely they could not believe that the creator of the universe was so ungainly and absurd.”

The monkeyman shrugged. “Others had another idea about how they came to be. It was called ‘evolution by natural selection.’ ”

Lion’s back was still turned. Lynx glanced at the prisoners. He thought he could crawl to them without attracting attention.

If he was caught at this, the templars would kill him. And what if Father Cougar was right, about Cat and the Victory and all of it? Lynx stared at the female. He was impressed by her, liked her, though they’d barely spoken. He didn’t want to see her die. If he helped her escape, the catmen would have other opportunities to apprehend her, if necessary. But if she died . . .

He began to crawl toward her.

Lion was saying, “Even if that were possible, it would take thousands of years.”

“Millions,” the monkeyman corrected.

“The world is not that old.”

“Well, these monkeymen had some ideas about that too.”

The female’s eyes were wide as Lynx crawled up beside her. He glanced over her shoulder at Lion, who was absorbed in the argument. Lynx drew the shortsword and whispered, “If I set you free, will you swear to run away and never come back, and never trouble any catman ever again?”

She stared at him a moment, then nodded quickly.

“All right.” Lynx sliced her bonds, then squirmed over to the male to cut those ropes too.

Lion exclaimed, “That is heresy!”

The monkeyman replied, “That is fact.”

Lion stood up. He towered over the monkeyman and said, “Take it back!”

“I’m just telling you what—”

“Silence!” Lion used the back of his fist to strike the monkeyman across the face, knocking him to the dirt.

Lynx freed the male, and together the prisoners began to crawl off.

Lion drew his sword and strode toward the monkeyman, who sprang up and backed away. Lion said, “Come here.”

“No. Get away from me.” The monkeyman turned and stumbled down the hill, and Lion went after him.

Lynx thought: Lion will kill him. The monkeyman knew this would happen. He knew he was sacrificing himself.

Lynx glanced at the prisoners, who were now on their feet and hurrying away.

Lion and the monkeyman were soon lost in the darkness, but Lynx could hear them cursing. He considered waking Tiger, who might restrain Lion. But Tiger might also notice the prisoners fleeing.

Then the monkeyman let out an anguished wail, and Tiger opened his eyes. Lynx had no choice. He cried, “Tiger!”

The templar reached for his sword. “What?”

Lynx pointed. “Lion. He’s gone crazy!”

Tiger leapt up, and Lynx followed. As they reached the bottom of the hill, Lion stepped from the shadows.

Tiger shouted, “What have you done?”

Lion was smug. “The monkeyman blasphemed with every word. I have silenced him.”

No! Lynx thought, hurrying forward, scanning the ground for a corpse.

But the monkeyman was alive, weeping, kneeling over the smashed remains of his magic amulet. There was a gash over his brow, and his eyes were forlorn as he uttered a string of gibberish.

Lion had spared the monkeyman’s life, but now there wasn’t a single being on Earth that the monkeyman could talk to.

Lynx said, “I’m so sorry . . . Charles.”

At the sound of his name, the monkeyman looked up. “Charles,” he repeated. He took a deep breath, wiped his eyes, and rose to his feet. Lynx took him by the arm, and they hiked back up the hill.

They entered camp just behind Tiger, who said, “Where are the prisoners?”

Lion looked stricken. He glanced about.

Tiger cursed. He ran across the camp and stared off down the far side of the hill. “Nothing. They’re gone.”

“I . . . ” Lion hesitated. Then he pointed to the monkeyman. “It’s his fault!”

“His fault?” Tiger raged. “Was it his job to watch the prisoners? Or was it yours?”

Lion stomped away, then turned back and glared at the monkeyman. “He knows something.”

“Maybe,” Tiger said. “No one’s ever freed themselves from my ropes before. We could question him . . . if you hadn’t ‘silenced’ him.”

Lion scowled.

Tiger gathered up some belongings. “It won’t matter. We’ll catch the dogmen again, and we’ll have the truth from their own lips.” His tone was grim. “And we’ll take no more chances. No more prisoners. The dogmen die.”

The catmen walked all through the night, and at dawn they came upon a shallow cave in which the dogmen were huddled together, sick and weary.

The templars strode forward, drawing their swords and advancing on the dogmen, who stood to meet them. The male pounded his meaty fist into his palm—a futile gesture of defiance. The dogmen were unarmed, and would be slaughtered. Lynx and the monkeyman watched helplessly.

But then Lynx called out, “Wait!”

Tiger paused and glanced back.

Lynx said, “Let Cat judge them.”

Lion sneered. “Cat’s feelings toward dogmen are well known.”

“Then what’s the harm?”

Tiger thought this over. He lowered his blade. “All right.”

Lynx approached the monkeyman, who was confused. Lynx nodded at the satchel, and the monkeyman got the idea. He lifted Cat free and set him on the ground.

Lynx knelt. “My lord, we have need of your wisdom. What is your wish for these dogmen? Please, give us a sign.”

Cat looked up at Lynx and said nothing.

Lion growled, “Why trouble Cat with this? He has already decreed death for all dogmen. Long ago.”

Lynx stood up and took a step back. He called gently, “Here, kitty kitty.”

Lion said, “What are you doing?”

Lynx backed up until he stood between the dogmen, then he crouched and called, “Here, kitty kitty kitty.”

Cat continued to stare.

Lynx said to the dogmen, “Come on. Like this.” He added softly, “Please, just try.”

After a moment, the female bent down and called, “Here, kitty kitty.” The male did the same.

Lion was outraged. “What is this?”

But sure enough, Cat stirred. He picked his way across the ground until he stood before Lynx and the dogmen. Lynx reached out and scratched between Cat’s ears, and Cat purred. The female stroked Cat’s back. Cat wound among Lynx and the dogmen and rubbed against their legs.

The templars stood stunned. Tiger intoned, “Cat shows them favor.”

Lion said, “No! The Cat I serve shows no mercy to dogmen!”

Tiger gestured. “Look.”

“It’s some trick,” Lion said. “This . . . this is not Cat. It cannot be. Maybe this is one of the cats who—”

“That is heresy,” Tiger warned. “The cats were transformed into catmen. All of them.”

Lynx cried out, “Cat returns to Earth with a new message of peace!”

“No!” Lion shouted. “No! Cat, the eternal, does not change his mind.”

Tiger turned away and sheathed his sword.

Lion stared at him in horror. “What are you doing?”

“I will not stand against the incarnation.”

Lion was shocked. “What?”

Tiger said, “I must think on all this.” He stared coldly over his shoulder at the dogmen and said to them, “You have a reprieve from me, for now.” He began to walk away. To Lion he said, “Do as you like.”

Lion looked all around, at Cat, at the dogmen, at the monkeyman. Finally Lion shot Lynx a withering glare, then followed after Tiger.

Lynx waited until the templars were a good distance off, then he let out a long sigh of relief. He thought to himself: I can’t believe it. We won.

But his gladness was tempered by apprehension. The templars would return, and even if they didn’t they’d spread their tale. What would Father Cougar think? Or Lynx’s parents? And what would become of Cat and the monkeyman and the dogmen now? Others would come seeking them, he knew.

For a moment the group all watched each other uncertainly.

Then the monkeyman laughed. He stepped forward and introduced himself to the male. “Charles.” And then again to the female. “Charles.”

She glanced at Lynx, who gave her a bemused smile and shrugged.

Cat purred and rubbed against Lynx’s shins. In that moment, he felt a bit of hope. If they all just stuck together, he thought, things might work out, in the end.

He bent down and petted Cat, and scratched his chin.

He whispered, “Good cat.”

AMARYLLIS

Carrie Vaughn

I never knew my mother, and I never understood why she did what she did. I ought to be grateful that she was crazy enough to cut out her implant so she could get pregnant. But it also meant she was crazy enough to hide the pregnancy until termination wasn’t an option, knowing the whole time that she’d never get to keep the baby. That she’d lose everything. That her household would lose everything because of her.

I never understood how she couldn’t care. I wondered what her family thought when they learned what she’d done, when their committee split up the household, scattered them—broke them, because of her.

Did she think I was worth it?

It was all about quotas.

“They’re using cages up north, I heard. Off shore, anchored,” Nina said. “Fifty feet across—twice as much protein grown with half the resources, and we’d never have to touch the wild population again. We could double our quota.”

I hadn’t really been listening to her. We were resting, just for a moment; she sat with me on the railing at the prow of Amaryllis and talked about her big plans.

Wind pulled the sails taut and the fiberglass hull cut through waves without a sound, we sailed so smooth. Garrett and Sun hauled up the nets behind us, dragging in the catch. Amaryllis was elegant, a 30-foot sleek vessel with just enough cabin and cargo space—an antique but more than seaworthy. She was a good boat, with a good crew. The best.

“Marie—” Nina said, pleading.

I sighed and woke up. “We’ve been over this. We can’t just double our quota.”

“But if we got authorization—”

“Don’t you think we’re doing all right as it is?” We had a good crew—we were well fed and not exceeding our quotas; I thought we’d be best off not screwing all that up. Not making waves, so to speak.

Nina’s big brown eyes filled with tears—I’d said the wrong thing, because I knew what she was really after, and the status quo wasn’t it.

“That’s just it,” she said. “We’ve met our quotas and kept everyone healthy for years now. I really think we should try. We can at least ask, can’t we?”

The truth was: No, I wasn’t sure we deserved it. I wasn’t sure that kind of responsibility would be worth it. I didn’t want the prestige. Nina didn’t even want the prestige—she just wanted the baby.

“It’s out of our hands at any rate,” I said, looking away because I couldn’t bear the intensity of her expression.

Pushing herself off the rail, Nina stomped down Amaryllis’ port side to join the rest of the crew hauling in the catch. She wasn’t old enough to want a baby. She was lithe, fit, and golden, running barefoot on the deck, sun-bleached streaks gleaming in her brown hair. Actually, no, she was old enough. She’d been with the house for seven years—she was twenty, now. It hadn’t seemed so long.

“Whoa!” Sun called. There was a splash and a thud as something in the net kicked against the hull. He leaned over the side, the muscles along his broad, coppery back flexing as he clung to a net that was about to slide back into the water. Nina, petite next to his strong frame, reached with him. I ran down and grabbed them by the waistbands of their trousers to hold them steady. The fourth of our crew, Garrett, latched a boat hook into the net. Together we hauled the catch onto the deck. We’d caught something big, heavy, and full of powerful muscles.

We had a couple of aggregators—large buoys made of scrap steel and wood—anchored fifty miles or so off the coast. Schooling fish were attracted to the aggregators, and we found the fish—mainly mackerel, sardines, sablefish, and whiting. An occasional shark or marlin found its way into the nets, but those we let go; they were rare and outside our quotas. That was what I expected to see—something unusually large thrashing among the slick silvery mass of smaller fish. This thing was large, yes, as big as Nina—no wonder it had almost pulled them over—but it wasn’t the right shape. Sleek and streamlined, a powerful swimmer. Silvery like the rest of the catch.

“What is it?” Nina asked.

“Tuna,” I said, by process of elimination. I had never seen one in my life. “Bluefin, I think.”

“No one’s caught a bluefin in thirty years,” Garrett said. Sweat was dripping onto his face despite the bandanna tying back his shaggy dark hair.

I was entranced, looking at all that protein. I pressed my hand to the fish’s flank, feeling its muscles twitch. “Maybe they’re back.”

We’d been catching the tuna’s food all along, after all. In the old days the aggregators attracted as many tuna as mackerel. But no one had seen one in so long, everyone assumed they were gone.

“Let’s put him back,” I said, and the others helped me lift the net to the side. It took all of us, and when we finally got the tuna to slide overboard, we lost half the net’s catch with it, a wave of silvery scales glittering as they hit the water. But that was okay: Better to be under quota than over.

The tuna splashed its tail and raced away. We packed up the rest of the catch and set sails for home.

The Californian crew got their banner last season, and flew its red and green—power and fertility—from the top of the boat’s mast for all to see. Elsie of the Californian was due to give birth in a matter of weeks. As soon as her pregnancy was confirmed, she stopped sailing and stayed in the household, sheltered and treasured. Loose hands resting atop mountainous belly, she would sometimes come out to greet her household’s boat as it arrived. Nina would stare at her. Elsie might have been the first pregnant woman Nina had seen, as least since surviving puberty and developing thoughts of carrying a mountainous belly of her own.

Elsie was there now, an icon cast in bronze before the setting sun, her body canted slightly against the weight in her belly, like a ship leaning away from the wind.

We furled the sails and rowed to the pier beside the scale house. Nina hung over the prow, looking at Elsie, who was waving at Californian’s captain, on the deck of the boat. Solid and dashing, everything a captain ought to be, he waved back at her. Their boat was already secured in its home slip, their catch weighed, everything tidy. Nina sighed at the image of a perfect life, and nobody yelled at her for not helping. Best thing to do in a case like this was let her dream until she grew out of it. Might take decades, but still . . .

My Amaryllis crew handed crates off to the dockhand, who shifted our catch to the scale house. Beyond that were the processing houses, where onshore crews smoked, canned, and shipped the fish inland. The New Oceanside community provided sixty percent of the protein for the whole region, which was our mark of pride, our reason for existing. Within the community itself, the ten sailing crews were proudest of all. A fishing crew that did its job well and met its quotas kept the whole system running smoothly. I was lucky to even have the Amaryllis and be a part of it.

I climbed up to the dock with my folk after securing the boat, and saw that Anders was the scalemaster on duty. The week’s trip might as well have been for nothing, then.

Thirty-five years ago, my mother ripped out her implant and broke up her household. Might as well have been yesterday to a man like Anders.

The old man took a nail-biting forty minutes to weigh our catch and add up our numbers, at which point he announced, “You’re fifty pounds over quota.”

Quotas were the only way to keep the stock healthy, to prevent overfishing, shortages, and ultimately starvation. The committee based quotas on how much you needed, not how much you could catch. To exceed that—to pretend you needed more than other people—showed so much disrespect to the committee, the community, to the fishing stock.

My knees weak, I almost sat down. I’d gotten it exactly right, I knew I had. I glared at him. Garrett and Sun, a pair of brawny sailors helpless before the scalemaster in his dull gray tunic of authority, glared at him. Some days felt like nothing I did would ever be enough. I’d always be too far one way or the other over the line of “just right.” Most days, I’d accept the scalemaster’s judgment and walk away, but today, after setting loose the tuna and a dozen pounds of legitimate catch with it, it was too much.

“You’re joking,” I said. “Fifty pounds?”

“Really,” Anders said, marking the penalty on the chalkboard behind him where all the crews could see it. “You ought to know better, an experienced captain like you.”

He wouldn’t even look at me. Couldn’t look me in the eye while telling me I was trash.

“What do you want me to do, throw the surplus overboard? We can eat those fifty pounds. The livestock can eat those fifty pounds.”

“It’ll get eaten, don’t worry. But it’s on your record.” Then he marked it on his clipboard, as if he thought we’d come along and alter the public record.

“Might as well not sail out at all next week, eh?” I said.

The scalemaster frowned and turned away. A fifty pound surplus—if it even existed—would go to make up another crew’s shortfall, and next week our catch would be needed just as much as it had been this week, however little some folk wanted to admit it. We could get our quota raised like Nina wanted, and we wouldn’t have to worry about surpluses at all. No, then we’d worry about shortfalls, and not earning credits to feed the mouths we had, much less the extra one Nina wanted.

Surpluses must be penalized, or everyone would go fishing for surpluses and having spare babies, and then where would we be? Too many mouths, not enough food, no resiliency to survive disaster, and all the disease and starvation that followed. I’d seen the pictures in the archives, of what happened after the big fall.

Just enough and no more. Moderation. But so help me I wasn’t going to dump fifty pounds just to keep my record clean.

“We’re done here. Thank you, Captain Marie,” Anders said, his back to me, like he couldn’t stand the sight of me.

When we left, I found Nina at the doorway, staring. I pushed her in front of me, back to the boat, so we could put Amaryllis to bed for the night.

“The Amaryllis’ scales aren’t that far off,” Garrett grumbled as we rowed to her slip. “Ten pounds, maybe. Not fifty.”

“Anders had his foot on the pad, throwing it off. I’d bet on it,” Sun said. “Ever notice how we’re only ever off when Anders is running the scales?”

We’d all noticed.

“Is that true? But why would he do that?” said Nina, innocent Nina.

Everyone looked at me. A weight seemed to settle on us.

“What?” Nina said. “What is it?”

It was the kind of thing no one talked about, and Nina was too young to have grown up knowing. The others had all known what they were getting into, signing on with me. But not Nina.

I shook my head at them. “We’ll never prove that Anders has it in for us so there’s no good arguing. We’ll take our licks and that’s the end of it.”

Sun said, “Too many black marks like that they’ll break up the house.”

That was the worry, wasn’t it?

“How many black marks?” Nina said. “He can’t do that. Can he?”

Garrett smiled and tried to take the weight off. He was the first to sign on with me when I inherited the boat. We’d been through a lot together. “We’ll just have to find out Anders’ schedule and make sure we come in when someone else is on duty.”

But most of the time there were no schedules—just whoever was on duty when a boat came in. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Anders kept a watch for us, just to be here to rig our weigh-in.

Amaryllis glided into her slip, and I let Garrett and Sun secure the lines. I leaned back against the side, stretching my arms, staring up along the mast. Nina sat nearby, clenching her hands, her lips. Elsie and Californian’s captain had gone.

I gave her a pained smile. “You might have a better chance of getting your extra mouth if you went to a different crew. The Californian, maybe.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Nina said.

Sitting up, I put my arms across her shoulders and pulled her close. Nina came to me a clumsy thirteen-year old from Bernardino, up the coast. My household had a space for her, and I was happy to get her. She’d grown up smart and eager. She could take my place when I retired, inherit Amaryllis in her turn. Not that I’d told her that yet.

“Never. Never ever.” She only hesitated a moment before wrapping her arms around me and squeezing back.

Our household was an oasis. We’d worked hard to make it so. I’d inherited the boat, attracted the crew one by one—Garrett and Sun to run the boat, round and bustling Dakota to run the house, and she brought the talented J.J., and we fostered Nina. We’d been assigned fishing rights, and then we earned the land allocation. Ten years of growing, working, sweating, nurturing, living, and the place was gorgeous.

We’d dug into the side of a hill above the docks and built with adobe. In the afternoon sun, the walls gleamed golden. The part of the house projecting out from the hill served as a wall protecting the garden and well. Our path led around the house and into the courtyard. We’d found flat shale to use as flagstones around the cultivated plots, and to line the well, turning it into a spring. A tiny spring, but any open fresh water seemed like a luxury. On the hill above were the windmill and solar panels.

Everyone who wanted their own room had one, but only Sun did—the detached room dug into the hill across the yard. Dakota, J.J., and Nina had pallets in the largest room. Garret and I shared a bed in the smaller room. What wasn’t house was garden. We had producing fruit trees, an orange and a lemon, that also shaded the kitchen space. Corn, tomatoes, sunflowers, green beans, peas, carrots, radishes, two kinds of peppers, and anything else we could make grow on a few square feet. A pot full of mint and one of basil. For the most part we fed ourselves and so could use our credits on improving Amaryllis and bringing in specialties like rice and honey, or fabric and rope that we couldn’t make in quantity. Dakota wanted to start chickens next season, if we could trade for the chicks.

I kept wanting to throw that in the face of people like Anders. It wasn’t like I didn’t pay attention. I wasn’t a burden.

The crew arrived home; J.J. had supper ready. Dakota and J.J. had started out splitting household work evenly, but pretty quickly they were trading chores—turning compost versus hanging laundry, mending the windmill versus cleaning the kitchen—until J.J. did most everything involving the kitchen and living spaces and Dakota did everything with the garden and mechanics.

By J.J.’s sympathetic expression when he gave me my serving—smoked mackerel and vegetables tonight—someone had already told him about the run-in with the scalemaster. Probably to keep him or Dakota from asking how my day went.

I stayed out later than usual making a round of the holding. Not that I expected to find anything wrong. It was for my own peace of mind, looking at what we’d built with my own eyes, putting my hand on the trunk of the windmill, running the leaves of the lemon tree across my palms, ensuring that none of it had vanished, that it wasn’t going to. It had become a ritual.

In bed I held tight to Garrett, to give and get comfort, skin against skin, under the sheet, under the warm air coming in through the open skylight above our bed.

“Bad day?” he said.

“Can never be a bad day when the ship and crew come home safe,” I said. But my voice was flat.

Garrett shifted, running a hand down my back, arranging his arms to pull me tight against him. Our legs twined together. My nerves settled.

He said, “Nina’s right, we can do more. We can support an extra mouth. If we appealed—”

“You really think that’ll do any good?” I said. “I think you’d all be better off with a different captain.”

He tilted his face toward mine, touched my lips with his, pressed until I responded. A minute of that and we were both smiling.

“You know we all ended up here because we don’t get along with anyone else. But you make the rest of us look good.”

I squirmed against him in mock outrage, giggling.

“Plenty of crews—plenty of households—don’t ever get babies,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

“I don’t care about a baby so much,” I said. “I’m just tired of fighting all the time.”

It was normal for children to fight with their parents, their households, and even their committees as they grew. But it wasn’t fair, for me to feel like I was still fighting with a mother I’d never known.

The next day, when Nina and I went down to do some cleaning on Amaryllis, I tried to convince myself it was my imagination that she was avoiding me. Not looking at me. Or pretending not to look, when in fact she was stealing glances. The way she avoided meeting my gaze made my skin crawl a little. She’d decided something. She had a secret.

We caught sight of Elsie again, walking up from the docks, a hundred yards away but her silhouette was unmistakable. That distracted Nina, who stopped to stare.

“Is she really that interesting?” I said, smiling, trying to make it a joke.

Nina looked at me sideways, as if deciding whether she should talk to me. Then she sighed. “I wonder what it’s like. Don’t you wonder what it’s like?”

I thought about it a moment and mostly felt fear rather than interest. All the things that could go wrong, even with a banner of approval flying above you. Nina wouldn’t understand that. “Not really.”

“Marie, how can you be so . . . so indifferent?”

“Because I’m not going to spend the effort worrying about something I can’t change. Besides, I’d much rather be captain of a boat than stuck on shore, watching.”

I marched past her to the boat, and she followed, head bowed.

We washed the deck, checked the lines, cleaned out the cabin, took inventory, and made a stack of gear that needed to be repaired. We’d take it home and spend the next few days working on it before we went to sea again. Nina was quiet most of the morning, and I kept glancing at her, head bent to her work, biting her lip, wondering what she was thinking on so intently. What she was hiding.

Turned out she was working up the courage.

I handed the last bundle of net to her, then went back to double check that the hatches were closed and the cabin was shut up. When I went to climb off the boat myself, she was sitting at the edge of the dock, her legs hanging over the edge, swinging a little. She looked ten years younger, like she was a kid again, like she had when I first saw her.

I regarded her, brows raised, questioning, until finally she said, “I asked Sun why Anders doesn’t like you. Why none of the captains talk to you much.”

So that was what had happened. Sun—matter-of-fact and sensible—would have told her without any circumspection. And Nina had been horrified.

Smiling, I sat on the gunwale in front of her. “I’d have thought you’d been here long enough to figure it out on your own.”

“I knew something had happened, but I couldn’t imagine what. Certainly not—I mean, no one ever talks about it. But . . . what happened to your mother? Her household?”

I shrugged, because it wasn’t like I remembered any of it. I’d pieced the story together, made some assumptions. Was told what happened by people who made their own assumptions. Who wanted me to understand exactly what my place in the world was.

“They were scattered over the whole region, I think. Ten of them—it was a big household, successful, until I came along. I don’t know where all they ended up. I was brought to New Oceanside, raised up by the first Amaryllis crew. Then Zeke and Ann retired, took up pottery, went down the coast, and gave me the ship to start my own household. Happy ending.”

“And your mother—they sterilized her? After you were born, I mean.”

“I assume so. Like I said, I don’t really know.”

“Do you suppose she thought it was worth it?”

“I imagine she didn’t,” I said. “If she wanted a baby, she didn’t get one, did she? But maybe she just wanted to be pregnant for a little while.”

Nina looked so thoughtful, swinging her feet, staring at the rippling water where it lapped against the hull, she made me nervous. I had to say something.

“You’d better not be thinking of pulling something like that,” I said. “They’d split us up, take the house, take Amaryllis—”

“Oh no,” Nina said, shaking her head quickly, her denial vehement. “I would never do that, I’d never do anything like that.”

“Good,” I said, relieved. I trusted her and didn’t think she would. Then again, my mother’s household probably thought that about her too. I hopped over to the dock. We collected up the gear, slinging bags and buckets over our shoulders and starting the hike up to the house.

Halfway there Nina said, “You don’t think we’ll ever get a banner, because of your mother. That’s what you were trying to tell me.”

“Yeah.” I kept my breathing steady, concentrating on the work at hand.

“But it doesn’t change who you are. What you do.”

“The old folk still take it out on me.”

“It’s not fair,” she said. She was too old to be saying things like that. But at least now she’d know, and she could better decide if she wanted to find another household.

“If you want to leave, I’ll understand,” I said. “Any house would be happy to take you.”

“No,” she said. “No, I’ll stay. None of it—it doesn’t change who you are.”

I could have dropped everything and hugged her for that. We walked awhile longer, until we came in sight of the house. Then I asked, “You have someone in mind to be the father? Hypothetically.”

She blushed berry red and looked away. I had to grin—so that was how it stood.

When Garrett greeted us in the courtyard, Nina was still blushing. She avoided him and rushed along to dump her load in the workshop.

Garrett blinked after her. “What’s up with her?”

“Nina being Nina.”

The next trip on Amaryllis went well. We made quota in less time than I expected, which gave us half a day’s vacation. We anchored off a deserted bit of shore and went swimming, lay on deck and took in the sun, ate the last of the oranges and dried mackerel that J.J. had sent along with us. It was a good day.

But we had to head back some time and face the scales. I weighed our haul three times with Amaryllis’ scale, got a different number each time, but all within ten pounds of each other, and more importantly twenty pounds under quota. Not that it would matter. We rowed into the slip at the scale house, and Anders was the scalemaster on duty again. I almost hauled up our sails and turned us around, never to return. I couldn’t face him, not after the perfect trip. Nina was right—it wasn’t fair that this one man could ruin us with false surpluses and black marks.

Silently, we secured Amaryllis to the dock and began handing up our cargo. I managed to keep from even looking at Anders, which probably made me look guilty in his eyes. But we’d already established I could be queen of perfection and he would consider me guilty.

Anders’ frown was smug, his gaze judgmental. I could already hear him tell me I was fifty pounds over quota. Another haul like that, he’d say, we’ll have to see about yanking your fishing rights. I’d have to punch him. I almost told Garrett to hold me back if I looked like I was going to punch him. But he was already keeping himself between the two of us, as if he thought I might really do it.

If the old scalemaster managed to break up Amaryllis, I’d murder him. And wouldn’t that be a worse crime than any I might represent?

Anders drew out the moment, looking us all up and down before finally announcing, “Sixty over this time. And you think you’re good at this.”

My hands tightened into fists. I imagined myself lunging at him. At this point, what could I lose?

“We’d like an audit,” Nina said, slipping past Sun, Garrett, and me to stand before the stationmaster, frowning, hands on her hips.

“Excuse me?” Anders said.

“An audit. I think your scale is wrong, and we’d like an audit. Right?” She looked at me.

It was probably better than punching him. “Yes,” I said, after a flabbergasted moment. “Yes, we would like an audit.”

That set off two hours of chaos in the scale house. Anders protested, hollered at us, threatened us. I sent Sun to the committee house to summon official oversight—he wouldn’t try to play nice, and they couldn’t brush him off. June and Abe, two senior committee members, arrived, austere in gray and annoyed.

“What’s the complaint?” June said.

Everyone looked at me to answer. I almost denied it—that was my first impulse. Don’t fight, don’t make waves. Because maybe I deserved the trash I got. Or my mother did, but she wasn’t here, was she?

But Nina was looking at me with her innocent brown eyes, and this was for her.

I wore a perfectly neutral, business-like expression when I spoke to June and Abe. This wasn’t about me, it was about business, quotas, and being fair.

“Scalemaster Anders adjusts the scale’s calibration when he sees us coming.”

I was amazed when they turned accusing gazes at him and not at me. Anders’ mouth worked, trying to stutter a defense, but he had nothing to say.

The committee confirmed that Anders was rigging his scale. They offered us reparations, out of Anders’ own rations. I considered—it would mean extra credits, extra food and supplies for the household. We’d been discussing getting another windmill, petitioning for another well. Instead, I recommended that any penalties they wanted to levy should go to community funds. I just wanted Amaryllis treated fairly.

And I wanted a meeting, to make one more petition before the committee.

Garrett walked with me to the committee office the next morning.

“I should have been the one to think of requesting an audit,” I said.

“Nina isn’t as scared of the committee as you are. As you were,” he said.

“I’m not—” But I stopped, because he was right.

He squeezed my hand. His smile was amused, his gaze warm. He seemed to find the whole thing entertaining. Me—I was relieved, exhausted, giddy, ashamed. Mostly relieved.

We, Amaryllis, had done nothing wrong. I had done nothing wrong.

Garrett gave me a long kiss, then waited outside while I went to sit before the committee.

June was in her chair, along with five other committee members, behind their long table with their slate boards, tally sheets, and lists of quotas. I sat across from them, alone, hands clenched in my lap, trying not to tap my feet. Trying to appear as proud and assured as they did. A stray breeze slipped through the open windows and cooled the cinderblock room.

After polite greetings, June said, “You wanted to make a petition?”

“We—the Amaryllis crew—would like to request an increase in our quota. Just a small one.”

June nodded. “We’ve already discussed it and we’re of a mind to allow an increase. Would that be suitable?”

Suitable as what? As reparation? As an apology? My mouth was dry, my tongue frozen. My eyes stung, wanting to weep, but that would have damaged our chances, as much as just being me did.

“There’s one more thing,” I managed. “With an increased quota, we can feed another mouth.”

It was an arrogant thing to say, but I had no reason to be polite.

They could chastise me, send me away without a word, lecture me on wanting too much when there wasn’t enough to go around. Tell me that it was more important to maintain what we had rather than try to expand—expansion was arrogance. We simply had to maintain. But they didn’t. They didn’t even look shocked at what I had said.

June, so elegant, I thought, with her long gray hair braided and resting over her shoulder, a knitted shawl draped around her, as much for decoration as for warmth, reached into the bag at her feet and retrieved a folded piece of cloth, which she pushed across the table toward me. I didn’t want to touch it. I was still afraid, as if I’d reach for it and June would snatch it away at the last moment. I didn’t want to unfold it to see the red and green pattern in full, in case it was some other color instead.

But I did, even though my hand shook. And there it was. I clenched the banner in my fist; no one would be able to pry it out.

“Is there anything else you’d like to speak of?” June asked.

“No,” I said, my voice a whisper. I stood, nodded at each of them. Held the banner to my chest, and left the room.

Garrett and I discussed it on the way back to the house. The rest of the crew was waiting in the courtyard for us: Dakota in her skirt and tunic, hair in a tangled bun; J.J. with his arms crossed, looking worried; Sun, shirtless, hands on hips, inquiring. And Nina, right there in front, bouncing almost.

I regarded them, trying to be inscrutable, gritting my teeth to keep from bursting into laughter. I held our banner behind my back to hide it. Garrett held my other hand.

“Well?” Nina finally said. “How did it go? What did they say?”

The surprise wasn’t going to get any better than this. I shook out the banner and held it up for them to see. And oh, I’d never seen all of them wide-eyed and wondering, mouths gaping like fish, at once.

Nina broke the spell, laughing and running at me, throwing herself into my arms. We nearly fell over.

Then we were all hugging, and Dakota started worrying right off, talking about what we needed to build a crib, all the fabric we’d need for diapers, and how we only had nine months to save up the credits for it.

I recovered enough to hold Nina at arm’s length, so I could look her in the eyes when I pressed the banner into her hands. She nearly dropped it at first, skittering from it as if it were fire. So I closed her fingers around the fabric and held them there.

“It’s yours,” I said. “I want you to have it.” I glanced at Garrett to be sure. And yes, he was still smiling.

Staring at me, Nina held it to her chest, much like I had. “But . . . you. It’s yours…” She started crying. Then so did I, gathering her close and holding her tight while she spoke through tears, “Don’t you want to be a mother?”

In fact, I rather thought I already was.

NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT

Carol Emshwiller

A lot of new rich people have moved into the best houses in town—those big ones up on the hill that overlook the lake. What with the depression, some of those houses have been on the market for a long time. They’d gotten pretty run down, but the new people all seem to have plenty of money and fixed them up right away. Added docks and decks and tall fences. It was our fathers, mine included, who did all the work for them. I asked my dad what their houses were like and he said, “Just like ours only richer.”

As far as we know, none of those people have jobs. It’s as if all the families are independently wealthy.

Those people look like us only not exactly. They’re taller and skinnier and they’re all blonds. They don’t talk like us either. English does seem to be their native language, but it’s an odd English. Their kids keep saying, “Shoe dad,” and, “Bite the boot.” They shout to each other to, “Evolve!”

At first their clothes were funny, too—the men had weird jackets with tight waists and their pants were too short. The girls and women actually wore longish wide skirts. They don’t have those anymore. They must have seen right away how funny they looked compared to us, and gone to Penny’s and got some normal clothes like ours.

They kept their odd shoes, though, like they couldn’t bear not to have them. (They look really soft, they’re kind of square and the big toe is separate.) And they had to wait for their hair to grow out some before they could get haircuts like ours. This year our boys have longer hair than the girls, so their boys were all wrong.

Every single one of those new people, first thing, put two flamingos out on their front lawns, but then, a few days later, they wised up and took them away. It wasn’t long before every single one of them had either a dog or a cat.

When Sunday came, they all went to the Unitarian church and the women wore the most ridiculous hats, but took them off as soon as they saw none of us wore any. They wore their best clothes, too, but only a few of us do.

Even though they come to church, Mom says I shouldn’t make friends with their kids until we know more about them and I especially shouldn’t visit any of their houses. She says the whole town doesn’t trust them even though everybody has made money on them one way or another.

Their kids have a funny way of walking. Not that funny, actually, but as if they don’t want anybody to talk to them, and as if they’re better than we are—maybe just because they’re taller. But we don’t look that different. It seems as if they’re pretending we’re not here. Or maybe that they’re not here. In school they eat lunch together at the very farthest table and bring their own food, like our cafeteria food isn’t good enough. They obviously—all of them—don’t want to be here.

I’ve got one of the new people in my class. I feel sorry for her. Marietta . . . Smith? (I’ll bet. All those new people are Smiths and Joneses and Browns and Blacks.) She’s tall and skinny like they all are. She’s by herself in my class; usually there’s two or three of them in each class. She’s really scared. I tried to help her the first days—I thought she needed a girl friend really badly—but she didn’t even smile back when I smiled straight at her.

The boys are all wondering if those new boys would be on the basketball team, but so far they don’t even answer when they’re asked. Jerry asked Huxley Jones, and Huxley said, under his breath, “Evolve, why don’t you?”

Trouble is, my name is Smith, too, but it’s really Smith. I’ve always wanted to change it to something more complicated. I’d rather be Karpinsky or Jesperson or Minnifee like some of the kids in my class.

I kind of understand those new kids. I have to eat a special diet, and I’m too tall, too. I tower over most of the town boys. And I’m an only child and I’m not at all popular. I don’t care what Mom says, I don’t see what harm there can be in helping Marietta and I’m curious. I like her odd accent. I try saying things as she does and I say, “Shoe Dad,” to my dad even though I don’t know what those kids mean by it. Maybe it’s really Shoo Dad.

One of these days I’m going to sneak into her house and see what I can find out.

But I don’t have a lot of time for finding out things because I have to practice the violin so much. Funny though, when I took my violin to school because I had my lesson that afternoon, Marietta looked at the case as if she couldn’t imagine what was in it. I said, “violin,” even though she hadn’t asked. And then she looked as if she wanted to ask, “What’s a violin?”

Those kids are all so dumb about ordinary things. Every single one of them has been kept back a grade. I don’t know how they can walk around looking so snooty. It’s as if they think being dumb is better.

Marietta is awful in school, too. The teacher asked her who was the vice president and she didn’t know. So the teacher asked who was president and she didn’t know that either.

That gave me the courage to ask her if she wanted help. But then she said her mother doesn’t want her to be friends with any of us and I said my mother says the exact same thing. Finally she laughs, we both do, and she says, “Shoe Dad, if we can keep it secret.”

(Those kids never say “Okay.”)

She says, “But I shouldn’t be too smart either. We don’t want anybody to notice us.”

So far I don’t think she has anything to worry about in that direction. I don’t say that, though. What I say is, “You’re getting noticed for the opposite reason. You need my help.”

I’m really curious about her house, but she wouldn’t dare invite me and I wouldn’t dare go there. And she can’t come to my house because Mom would be horrified. Too bad they look a little bit different otherwise Mom would never know. So we mostly meet in the woods by the railroad tracks where the bums used to hide out back when there were bums. Mom doesn’t like me to go there either. She thinks maybe there might still be bums around. Marietta and I always scope out the place first, not for bums, but because boys sometimes go there to smoke.

I discovered Marietta was so bad at math because she was used to writing out the problems in an entirely different way. Once I got that straightened out she got a lot better. But she said Huxley told her there was no need for her ever to know who was president here now. I said, “Why not?” She started to say it wasn’t important but she stopped in the middle. Then she said, it was just that there were some things she wasn’t going to bother knowing.

She tells me she really likes Judson Jesperson, but she says she’s not supposed to go outside her own group. And me, I like Huxley Jones, but Marietta says he can’t go outside their group either. She’s supposed to like Huxley and I’m supposed to like Judd. I asked her if this was some sort of religious thing? I didn’t dare say racial but Judson has very dark hair and eyes though his skin is just like hers. She said, no, it was something entirely different and she wasn’t supposed to talk about it. She said it would be very dangerous for any of her group to marry outsiders. She said, “Who knows who would be president in a couple a hundred years if Judd and I got married?”

So anyway, we’re unhappy together and I can tell her all about Judson’s family but she can’t tell me anything about Huxley.

A dozen more families of the tall people move into town. They can’t take the best houses because they’re already gone, but when they get through with the second best houses, they turn out be almost as good except for not being on top of a hill and next to the lake.

The first group of kids is getting a little friendlier. Huxley even let himself get talked into being on the basketball team but he didn’t know how to play and had to be taught from scratch. Judd says they’re sorry now. All he has going for him is being tall.

I don’t care, I like him. I like his stooped over posture. As if he doesn’t want to be that tall. I like his kind of scholarly face. I like his pixie grin. At first he was always frowning at all of us, but pretty soon he wasn’t and especially not at me.

The first thing I said to him was, “I like your name,” and he actually did smile.

By now everybody is saying Shoe Dad.

Then we have the first snow and a snow day. It’s so beautiful. I want to see Marietta right away, but no school so I start out towards her house. I’m not going to disobey Mom. Besides, that’s our only good hill for sledding. Everybody will be up there.

And there everybody is, with sleds and garbage can lids and folded up cardboard boxes. Some kids even have skis. The new kids are even more excited about the snow than we are. They act as though they’ve never made snowmen and never thrown snow balls. They’re like little kids. Well, actually we all are.

Those new kids have skis and fancy boots. But not a single one knows how to ski.

Marietta’s there. I knew she would be. She says first off, “Look . . . these great boots . . . ”

She has the fancy kind you can’t walk around in. They’re white with dozens of black buckles. I admit they’re beautiful. I say, “Shoe Dad.”

“ . . . and they only cost five hundred dollars.”

She’s always saying things like that. Everything is cheap to her. I wish something was cheap to me. I’d like to say, “Evolve!” but I don’t want to make her feel bad. I say, “Bite the . . . oh yeah, bite the ski boot.”

We don’t hear about it till lunch time, but that night in the middle of the storm, odd things disappeared. Half the fish at the fish hatchery, and that very same night, a big pile of lumber from the lumber mill disappeared. The night watchman swears he made his rounds every hour. Sometime between his two o’clock and three o’clock a whole section of lumber was gone and not a sound. The fish people are there early and late. They went to feed the fish at eight and found half the tanks empty. Some of us say the new people are getting blamed just because they’re richer than we are and just because they’re new, though nobody can figure out how they could have done it. Even so, I’m suspicious, too. Dad says the town is going to have a meeting about them.

Then we hear that exactly the same night, north of us, in Washington State they also lost a lot of lumber. And another place in Nevada lost half their grass-fed beef.

Funny though, Huxley said all this was our fault. Even that they’re here in the first place is our fault. He said we should have stopped cutting down trees. He won’t say anything more about it. That shows how odd these new kids are. But I guess that’s fair, we blame them for everything and they blame us.

Except for Marietta, those kids still don’t like it here at all, but Marietta says she’s getting to like it, partly because of being friends with me—where she was before she never had such a good friend as I am—and she also likes it because she always did like camping out and making do with what’s at hand. That makes me wonder all the more where she came from.

The new people often have meetings in one of the larger houses up on the hill. They can’t hide that because all the best cars in town are parked outside. After the fish and lumber disappear, the next time those cars gather, a whole batch of the town’s people storm the house. It isn’t fair, but the cops are on our side; they’re just like all the town’s people, they don’t trust those new people either. And it isn’t as if the new people had any higher up connections in the town that would help them. So the cops arrest them instead of us, even though we’re the ones that broke into their meeting. Did a lot of damage, too, and not only to the furniture. Six of the new people are in the hospital.

That leaves a lot of those kids with nobody looking after them. The school principal asks the town parents if they’ll take in some of the children temporarily until their parents can get themselves straightened out with the police. I get my folks to take in Marietta. Mom doesn’t mind it under these circumstances. In fact she acts nice. She even bakes cookies. Marietta can’t believe Mom made these right here at home. She’s so fascinated she forgets to feel worried for a while.

As usual I have to practice the violin. Marietta tries it out. All she makes is squeaks. She can’t believe how hard it is. She’s only played computer instruments. “Aided,” she says, so you don’t have to know anything. But you can have any sound you want and you sound good right at the beginning.

I have twin beds in my room so we get to be right in together.

At first Marietta seems to like it as much as I do. We talk until Mom comes in and tells us we have to stop because of school tomorrow. But a little bit after I turn out the light, I’m pretty sure Marietta is crying. I ask if there’s anything I can do.

She says, “I wish I could go home.”

I say, “It won’t be long before your parents come back.”

“I mean I want to go back where we used to live. My real home.”

“Where is it?”

“We’re not supposed to say.”

“Was it so much better there?”

“Sort of . . . some ways . . . except it’s nice being so rich for a change. Of course there’s lots you don’t have. . . . Oh well.”

I’m glad you’re here.”

“Well, I’m glad for having you.”

“Can I go up and see your house now that there’s nobody there?”

“It’s just like yours only richer. That’s because everything is so cheap here otherwise we couldn’t afford stuff. It’s supposed to be just like yours. Our parents made it special to be like that.”

“Can we go anyway? I like rich stuff and I hardly ever get to see rich things except on TV. Besides, don’t you need to go get more clothes?”

So we do that—skip school and go up. She’s right. There’s nothing odd about it . . . except there is. There’s a fancy barbeque thing in the backyard, but obviously never used. There’s a picnic table beside it but no chairs. The two flamingos are in a corner, lying on their sides. Inside it’s awfully—I don’t know how to describe it—cold and stiff, and kind of empty. It’s as if nobody lives there. There’s a National Geographic on one side of the coffee table and a Consumers Report on the other, and that’s all. No clutter. Mom would like it.

Upstairs, her room has all the right stuff. There’s a brand new teddy bear on the pillow and a small bookcase with brand new books, all very girlie. They don’t look read either. There’s not a single Tarzan or John Carter. I ask, and she never even heard of Tarzan. I tell her I’ll lend her some. Even though we’re too old for those, she’ll like them.

She has one whole drawer with nothing but fancy sweaters and blouses. We gather some up to bring back and she says I can have half of them.

On the way out, I open the hall closet and there’s a tangle of wires and silvery things along them like Christmas tree lights. At first Marietta tries to keep the door shut as if she doesn’t want me to see them, but then she says she trusts me as much as anybody she ever knew so she says, “Take a good look.”

I say, “I don’t know what it is, anyway.”

She says, “Time machine,” and starts laughing hysterically. And then we both laugh so hard we fall on the floor and I don’t know what’s the truth and what isn’t, except maybe I do.

I’m glad we went there. I don’t need to feel jealous after all. Even though Mom would probably like living like that, I wouldn’t.

The police hang on to those new people to see if any of them are guilty of anything at all and also as a sort of punishment, I suppose for being rich and taking up all the best places. That means Marietta and I have even more time together.

The lumber mill now has three night watchmen. They’re sitting right next to the biggest piles of lumber. The fish hatchery has people practically in with the fish.

But then—again in the middle of the night—all the new people disappear. The grown-ups, that is. So then we know who did the fish and lumber. But now there’s nobody to blame but their children. Some townspeople are so angry they want to put them in jail, too. Most of the townspeople don’t go that far, though. My parents and lots of others say they won’t let that happen. Besides, now that they know Marietta they like her.

But it’s not safe for the new kids to walk the streets anymore—two kids got beat up by a gang of boys and they weren’t even the new kids, they were just blond and tall and skinny. Mom dyes Marietta’s hair black so she’ll be safer. Some of the other new kids do that too.

Marietta looks good with dark hair. That doesn’t cheer her up, though. All those kids feel terrible. Naturally. But it’s odd, they keep saying they’re not surprised, they just wondered when it would happen.

We talk a lot in bed at night and Mom doesn’t tell us to shut up until it gets really late.

“How can your parents leave you like this?”

“We’re not allowed to say, but it’s for our own good.”

“Parents always say that.”

I try to cheer up Marietta. We go to lots of movies. She does like the Tarzan and John Carter books and there are lots of those to go through yet. Mom gives her valerian and chamomile tea almost every night. At first Marietta didn’t want hugs from my mom, but now she does.

I go around wearing her expensive sweaters and I wear her white jacket when she wears her shiny black one. That turns out to be a big mistake because I get taken for one of them. I’m as tall and skinny as they are. And here I am, wearing fancy clothes like they always do. And here we are, Marietta and me, one of us with dyed black hair and me, a darker blond than they are but that doesn’t matter to this bunch. They’re not high school boys. I don’t know who they are but they’re grown men—waiting for us after the movie.

They don’t think Marietta is one of the new people—they think I am. She’s wearing my faded blue jeans and my sweatshirt and I’m in her cashmere sweater and that white jacket.

They push her aside—so hard they knock her down—and come after me. They yank at Marietta’s jacket so hard the zipper breaks, and then pull the sweater up over my face so I don’t see what happens next. All I know is they suddenly stop and Marietta is pulling the sweater down so I can see. She yells, “Run,” and we do. When I look back I see all three of them collapsed on the ground.

“Don’t stop.” Marietta grabs my arm and pulls me along with her.

“What did you do?”

“I’m not allowed to say.”

We run all the way home and collapse in our front hall. That white jacket is lost and ruined out there somewhere and the sweater is all pulled out of shape.

Marietta right away says, “Don’t tell.”

“How did you do that?”

“I thought you had those here. Tazers. Don’t you? This is just a different form.”

“Where is your tazer?”

“I’m not supposed to say. See, where I come from it’s not safe anymore since the revolt of . . . My drones—I mean my parents—they wanted me to be able to defend myself. Besides, they thought everybody here had guns.”

“Where is it? You can tell me.”

“Here.” She points to her earlobe. (There’s not even a mark that I can see.) “I have some control over the direction.” She twists her earlobe. “I can even point it back.”

I touch it, but I don’t feel anything.

“They left us here, my drones. They said they would if anything happened. And things did happen. I guess it is better here. I mean the air and water and space to move around in. . . . And the food . . . it isn’t what we’re used to, and it’s awfully primitive, everything is, but it’s better some ways and we’re rich. I have a million dollars in the bank in my name.”

She’s about to tell me more but Mom comes in right then and finds us sitting on the floor, and me, all bedraggled and the sweater ruined. She gets really upset when she hears about it. (We don’t tell her the tazer part.) She insists that she’s going to dye my hair that very night no matter how long it takes, and I have to stop wearing Marietta’s nice clothes.

For once I agree with her. I let her do all that, even though I know the kids at school will tease me.

I wonder if those men are going to tell what happened to them? Maybe not, though, because they were breaking the law.

I’m going to stick close to Marietta from now on. I feel safe with her.

Most of those new kids are physically awkward—like Huxley trying to be on the basketball team—but Marietta isn’t so bad. She says it’s because her parents didn’t believe in the education boxes most kids had. She says those were like being inside a TV set. But she kept calling hers “Mommy” by mistake and that upset her mother so much she actually had her playing outside even though the air wasn’t that good anymore and even when it was too hot.

She’s been telling me everything, even about the air-conditioned sweater her mom got her.

She says, “Even so, it was getting worse and worse. Food riots sometimes. I know this is best for us. But we have to be so careful and not change anything. Nobody knows what would happen if we upset things. Shoe Dad, I might not even exist. I’d go poof! Just like that.”

And then Huxley gets in trouble and that changes everything. He didn’t dye his hair like the others did. It might not have worked anyway. Three men attack him; maybe the same three that came after us. (You’d think they’d learn.) Marietta and I have to guess what happened: that he not only used his tazer, but tied up the men when they were down. Dragged them into the woods. Then he walked all the way home with bruises all over. Nobody found out about the men out in the woods till two days later. It rained all the next day and one of the men suffocated with his head in the mud. Marietta and I know Huxley didn’t use his tazer until he was practically all beat up. He was trying so hard not to cause any changes in the people living here but then he caused more of a problem.

The townspeople are blaming him. Of course they are. Besides, who knows what story those men told? So the police come to arrest him, but he takes off. They even shoot at him, but he gets away. We don’t know if he got shot or not.

All the new kids are even scareder than they already were. About going “poof.” They keep saying, “It’s gotta be even worse than that butterfly back in the Jurassic era.” I don’t know what they mean by that.

They stand there staring at nothing, as if thinking: Any minute and I never existed. They stop in mid sentence as if: Is it right now that I disappear?

On the other hand, they could disappear by going back home. We’d never know which it was. Marietta hangs on to me whenever she can. It’s as if she thinks as long as she has a good grip on my arm, she won’t disappear. It’s a bother but I let her.

I know where Huxley isn’t. He’s not at that place where the bums used to go and where the boys go to smoke. That’s too easy. But I do know where he could be. I don’t even tell Marietta. I get up real early before anybody is up. I make a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and take some nuts and apples and go. Good that Huxley and I never got together or the cops would be watching me.

So I head out into the woods. It’s a good place to get lost since there are so many crisscrossing paths and there’s a lot of undergrowth for hiding. I think Huxley is somewhere in there but I’ll have a hard time finding him. I whistle. I sing. I make a lot of noise and wander all over. I think I’m going to get lost myself.

But what if he’s disappeared already? What if he’s never been at all?

Then I hear a bird chirping above me, I look up and there he is and he’s not been shot. I climb up and give him the sandwiches. He’s changed a lot from when he first came. I don’t think he’d have been able to climb a tree. He looks kind of wild and haunted and dirty. That makes me like him all the more. I’m always embarrassed, being so close to a boy I like so much, and now even more so. I don’t ask anything I really want to. I’m too nervous.

He gobbles up both sandwiches and apples and nuts all in about five minutes. When everything is gone he thinks maybe one of the sandwiches might have been for me and apologizes. But I say none of it was for me and I’ll bring more tomorrow.

He admires my new black hair, but I think he’s just trying to be nice.

I move up closer to the branch he’s on. Turns out I don’t have to ask anything. He tells me he always did like me but didn’t dare show it. Now he does dare. He thinks everything is all messed up anyway so he might as well like me and he wants me to know it.

Then we hear the swishing of underbrush and voices of people coming closer.

We shut up. He moves higher and I move lower.

In a few minutes the woods are packed with people walking all over the place looking for him. Some of them are cops in uniform. Lots are just townspeople. Mostly men but a few women.

I jump down and move away from his tree. I shout, “Let’s look over by the little cave next to the stream.” So I and a group of others including one cop, head over there.

The cop says, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Yeah, but isn’t this important?”

“You’re lucky I’m not a truant officer.”

“What will you do when you find him?”

He pulls his cuffs out of his back pocket and rattles them. Says, “He’s dangerous.”

I know this whole woods better than a lot of them do. I lead them around to all sorts of good hiding places. I talk loud and make a lot of noise. I don’t ever look up.

It’s a tiring day for everybody. I had no idea I was going to get caught up in the search and get home so late. My folks and Marietta have been worried about me. I didn’t tell Mom where I’d been, but I tell Marietta. She feels bad that I didn’t ask her to come along, but I convinced her it was safer for Huxley if it’s just me.

Next day I don’t think I should keep on skipping school so I just skip my last class. This time I make four peanut butter sandwiches. It’s late so I bring a flashlight.

I head for that same tree first, but he’s not there. As before, I sing. I whistle. I keep looking up and chirping. I go to all the good spots. It gets dark and I’m worried about using the flashlight. There’s only a little moon so I stumble around tripping on things.

Pretty soon I know I’d better go home. I leave the sandwiches up in the tree where I first found Huxley. I leave the flashlight for him, too, and try to find my way out without it.

But I can’t. I thought if I just came to one of the streams and followed it, I’d be okay, but it’s muddy and slippery near the stream and I keep falling down. I decide it’s best to just wait till dawn. I huddle down against a tree. I wish I’d kept one of those sandwiches for myself.

In the morning I go back to the tree where I left the sandwiches. Something got into them and ate most of them and scattered what was left all over.

When I get back my folks are so worried and the police are all over looking for me. Thing is, Marietta disappeared, too, and first they thought we were off somewhere together. Then they thought that I got disappeared with all the others.

It turns out they’re all gone. I’ll never know if Marietta got to go home or if she never existed in the first place or maybe they decided it was a bad and dangerous idea to leave their kids here. Or maybe things got better so it was okay to go home. Or maybe they found better stuff from other times. Like way, way back before there were other people to get in their way.

She left a lot of her clothes in my room. Funny though, my old Tarzan and John Carter books—the ones she was in the middle of reading—are gone. That makes me feel that she didn’t disappear completely like she was afraid would happen. She’s still someplace, I’m sure of it, reading my books.

I wonder if I could write her a letter. I’ll bet there is a way, like sealed up in stainless steel. I wish we’d talked about that before she left. I wish I knew how long my letter would have to last to get to her. Maybe I’ll have to carve it in stone.

MANUMISSION

Tobias S. Buckell

This morning, when you wake up and look at your rippled reflection in the basin of water near the concrete wall of your cell, you only have one true personal memory left. It can’t be that your entire life is based off this one event, so you suspect they’ve left it with you to piss you off. To “motivate” you. To make you one raging motherfucker.

It’s a riff on the Countee Cullen poem. You’re six, standing on the street holding the anonymous arm of your mom, and the other kid staring back at you flips you off and calls you nigger.

That’s all they really left you with.

Sure there’s other stuff, you’re no vegetable. You can use money, eat, walk, tap the net, and know just about anything headlined over the last thirty years. But anything specific is faded, general, lost behind static and fuzzy feelings.

You empty the basin with a flourish and look around your cell.

The headache, the all-over itching, the scars crisscrossing your entire body, that gets to you too.

You’ve signed yourself away, the men in the black suits have explained back when you first arrived in this cell. They sat across from you on a sterile metal table. The document they slid toward your burnt smooth fingertips is legit.

So you listened to them, and nodded, and they got up to leave.

Oh yeah, one last thing, they had said.

Your name.

Pepper.

And your last name?

They just chuckled and closed the door.

Nine o’clock. Newport, Rhode Island. A forest of masts bobs slightly, boats cheerfully tied at their docks. You slide off the blue awning over the side entrance to a small bar and hit the slippery cobblestones to face a portly middle-aged accountant with slicked back wiry hair.

“Oh shit . . . ” is all he has time to say.

Then slumps.

The small wires that knocked him out recoil back up into your wrists with a flick. You squat over the man, push his trousers up his hairy calf, and look at the tattoo on the back of his knee. He’s ShinnCo property. Your eyes scan for forgery, defects, get in closer for a finer look, where every hair seems to be tree-sized.

All good. You blink your eyes until they return to normal, the thin extra membrane rolling back behind your eyelids.

His hands are clammy when you grab them. His breath reeks of alcohol. With a grunt you pull him up onto your shoulder and stagger toward a waiting car.

What, you wonder, has Mr. James Edward leaked to the Federalists? You really don’t want, or need, to know.

Twelve hours later, five thousand closer to freedom, an old 6.35mm Astra Model Cub pistol tucked in the inner pocket of your oilskin duster, you’re sitting in the lounge of an airship over several hundred feet of water, languorously easing your way toward the next stop, Eleytheria.

It’s moored out in the Atlantic off the Eastern Seaboard this month.

At street level the Gulf Stream winds kick through the downtown buildings of Eleytheria. Your oilskin duster takes on a life of its own, bucking, trying to pull you off course as you make the usual staggered path, random jigs, sudden stops in front of reflective surfaces. It’s not even a conscious thing, checking for tails.

Monotone pedestrians in business camouflage, the grays and blacks of their seemingly timeless and conservative professions, mill past you.

It isn’t New York, but any of them could have been plucked out and placed in that environment without even noticing. No, just a few miles away the salt clears the breakwalls in clouds of mist and hovers into downtown.

Eleytheria is a giant bowl riding the large open ocean. Free to go where it pleases. Do what it pleases.

Many things start in Eleytheria.

Like yourself, years ago, deep in the bowels of one of Eleytheria’s denizen companies. You’ve found old archived public camera pictures of yourself walking down the streets, into the center of ShinnCo, to sign your self, this self, into what you know now.

Sometimes you hate your old self for selling you into this bondage. You wonder what he got? Lots of money? Some last great fling? Or were you just desperate, a wandering piece of hardware abandoned by some former First World secret gov project made obsolete by the Pacification?

You’d like to think you did it for some great cause, like helping your family out of a dire situation. But late at night you doubt it and think there was some stupid, selfish reason for doing it.

They’ll never tell you. Because if it was something like a family, you might try to contact them.

No. They have your memories. You’ll get them back when you serve your contract.

It always comes back to Eleytheria. When your feet hit the seacrete, your nose fills with misted salt, and you have returned to the only home you know. All your recent memories, everything that is you, starts here. Ever since you woke up behind a garbage dump in the back alley of ShinnCo.

And they’ve never let you back in through the front doors because they know full well what kind of monster they created. They control you, but they don’t sleep well at night. If you were to ever get near a door the automated security would hit you with an EMP pulse that would pretty much liquefy the machines in you, then the guns would reduce you to bloodied ribbons of flesh.

You won’t be getting your memories back using the new skills they’ve grafted into you. No way. And they still have one final trick, to keep you close, to control you.

So you stand in front of a small food cart. A faded orange umbrella hangs limply over it. When you palm the metal rail, the countdown inside you resets. You’re allowed to live for another week. A pointed way of letting you know you’re motherfucking owned, and you don’t get to stray. At all.

The edges of the umbrella flutter in the cold breeze, and on the other side of the cart an old Greek stands up.

“Morning, Kouroupas.”

“Morning, Pepper,” he says, looking you up and down. “The usual?”

“The usual.”

The front of the cart has a faded poster of a model with a strained smile, flat white teeth, holding up a gyro in perfectly manicured hands. They’re ‘heeeeros’ she says.

“Lettuces, mayonnaises . . . ” Kouroupas’ crazy white hair flies all over the place in the wind. It makes him look like a mad scientist.

He slaps the flatbread down. A cloud of flour tickles your nose.

A few browned strips of meat, some folded metallic paper, and you have your gyro, along with a small napkin neatly slid between your fingers.

You look at it, your eyes adjusting to the fibers, mapping out a pattern along the embroidered edges, translating the woven picture into words.

Susan Stamm. Ten thousand. Location. Eleytheria.

Ten thousand closer to getting yourself back. To freedom.

And she’s right here.

You fold the napkin and its encrypted directions into your pocket, pick up the gyro. Kouroupas smiles.

“Good day,” he tells you. “Be careful.”

You nod and slide a few bills over to him.

“You too.”

Be careful. It’s the first time Kouroupas seems to acknowledge that this isn’t just a gyro purchase. Seems to be telling you something’s not quite normal this time.

Out of sight of the gyro stand you toss the gyro into a trashcan that thanks you and trundles away.

Not nearly enough raw sugars in gyros for you. Takes too long to metabolize. What you need now is something to spike your blood sugar to combat levels.

Susan Stamm has done many, many unique things to hide her presence. But she’s on the run and wants off the planet. To do that she has to come to Eleytheria. Once an hour, every hour, a capsule is launched into low Earth orbit.

To really get far away, Stamm has to get Out There from Down Here.

So you sit and flip through pictures of embarkees who’ve been photographed at all three entrance points. One by fucking one. And these are just the ones the Port Authority computers have served up as possible matches. ShinnCo is being very generous with info and resources right now. They really want her back.

You’re sitting in a small outdoor café, eyes closed. On the right eyeball is Susan Stamm’s corp ID photo. On your left is some random face pic snapped by the Port Authority entrance machine.

Then another random face.

You reach for the sugary soda, take a long cold sip, and the next picture comes up.

Another sip of sugar water. Gotta keep the machines inside you running happy.

You flip to another pic.

Ha.

She looks thinner than the last official photo. She’s still five-nine, but now has a recently bobbed haircut and green eyes.

Four hours later you’re in the lobby of a smaller Eleytheria hotel, looking up at the atrium eighty stories above you, licking the icing off a Danish. In the background, over the hum of people, over the echoing shouts of kids screaming and waving from several floors above, comes the explosive whip-crack of a capsule being thrown into space.

There was this mugger that jumped you a year ago. Before you even realized it you’d spun, broke both his arms and a leg, and the man lay in an unconscious heap by the side of a brick façade.

His clothes were ragged, he was thin, and when you held his gun in your hand, you realized that it was unloaded.

Ballsy. And pathetic.

By going through his wallet you found out that his name was Jack Connely. He had three kids and a very attractive blonde wife. Jack had been a spacer entrepreneur of some sort, reduced to Earth living after the Pacification.

Now all the businesses could buy a ride into space. Move their offices up into alien stations, use alien services, buy alien products, machines. Not much use for small guys, you could hardly scrape together the price. But multinationals can, and now that they’re all in orbit, or beyond, the pretense of even caring about the world they originated from was thrown out.

You could have used the money you found in his pocket, his day’s take, though you couldn’t use it toward paying off your ShinnCo contract. They only accept their own in house credit.

You couldn’t even use the money to disable the shit laced all through your body. You tried that once before. Almost killed you on the table.

Instead, you sent his wallet and the money back in the mail to his family. And you added some of your own.

You’re a good person, you tell yourself.

But it’s very hard to believe when it was so easy, so automatic, to have grabbed that man’s gun and pull the trigger, right down to within a hairtrigger of firing, before stopping.

That can’t be all wired into you, right?

Susan Stamm walks through the revolving door, past a doorman, and on toward a cab. You shake your shoulders and arms, loosening up the great mass of coat around you, and step in behind her. She’s better looking in person, unlike some of the dolled-up, make-up-caked women you’ve seen in the past.

As she grabs the gullwing door of the bubbly autocab she spots your reflection in the window and turns around.

“Could we share this ride?” you say. Already you flex the muscles in your wrists, begin to raise your left arm and coat to obscure her body. She’ll fall, and you’ll sweep her up and into the autocab with you.

As the autocab rides off you’ll look like two lovers cuddling in the back.

Instead her eyes widen, hands curl into fists, and a small dart burrows into your stomach.

You’re on the ground, convulsing. Spit flecks your lips. You break into a heavy sweat. Vomit tastes like sugar water, flowing out onto the concrete sidewalk. It takes effort just to slowly roll over.

The doorman turns around.

He moves, a blur that you know isn’t natural, and hits Stamm from the side. She hits the door of the autocab, shattering the Plexiglas, and the doorman grabs her neck, turning her head to confirm her ShinnCo tattoo.

Small silver fans protrude from the back of the man’s neck. Antenna. You can see heat rising off his uniform, rippling the air around him. A timeshare. Not under his own control then—just renting his body for sudden on-the-spot jobs like this one.

You have a choice. Give it up. Let this competitor grab her, kill her, whatever.

Or.

With just a quick flex of your arms the wires spit out of your wrists and hit the back of his neck. The man spasms, lightning sparking across the surface of his skin. The antenna melt, dripping down the back of his collar. He spins around and raises his arms.

“Oh fuck,” he screams, the link to whatever controls him from orbit gone. “I’m burning. They killed me! I’m burning!”

As he staggers toward the door, people gather. Someone tries to get the doorman to sit down. Someone 911s to call this in, speaking into his pinkie finger.

On your hands and knees, eyes burning and streaming tears, wires retracted back into your wrists, you push forward into the car. You grab Stamm, pull her in with you, and barely manage to shut the door.

She’s in better shape than you, coming back to consciousness as you vomit sugar water all over her red high heels.

“Drive, damnit,” she shouts at the cab’s autopilot, and gives an address.

“Damage has been detected,” it warbles. “Failure mode initiated. A replacement cab is on its way. We apologize for the delay.”

“Shit.”

The cab rocks as she leans forward.

Your muscles fail.

Your brain goes zero.

You’re out.

There are rooms and then there are rooms. They’re square more often than not, with white walls. But this one has dirty laundry, fake wooden paneling, a giant mirror on a wall, and a small cot that you’re lying on.

A wicker chair next to you creaks. Soft hands stroke your forehead.

“You’re tough. That was supposed to kill you.”

“I feel like shit.” Every pore hurts.

“I would imagine.” A finger traces the scars all over your body. “I’m sorry. I think I may have got the wrong person. It was the doorman I should have shot, he was the one coming for me. Who are you?”

Don’t say anything.

Just shiver and turn back off. It’s easier.

You wake up hungry and naked. Disoriented. You have no internal time. The small set of numbers that usually hover in the corner of your left eye is gone.

There’s a pink bathrobe on the wicker chair that you grab as you sit up.

It takes everything you have to stand. Muscles protest, and every cell seems to ache.

“Feeling better?”

She’s sitting by the kitchen counter, hands up, watching you warily.

You nod.

“Okay. So here are the rules. Any sudden moves I fire another one of these pips into you. If your hands aren’t where I can see them, I shoot. I doubt you survive another one. So sit. Put your hands on your lap.”

The bathrobe is comfortable. You slowly wrap it tighter around you and sit. Her tone drips with suspicion, guarded overtones. The air is tense.

She points at your leg. That’s where they tattooed the small logo on you. Inner thigh. It really, really hurt.

“You’re ShinnCo.”

“Yes.” She knows, you know. No point in denying.

“And the doorman?” she asks. “Did you know about him ahead of time?”

You shrug.

She stares at you and you stare right back, not sure where this is going. You have the faintest sense that you’ll get out of the door alive.

“Why are you still here?” you ask, which also implies, why am I still alive? ”You could have left me here.”

Stamm smiles.

“I felt bad for you.”

That is not the response you really expected. And you don’t believe it for a second. Someone this dangerous isn’t that stupid.

“You know what I am . . . ”

“Get real. They want me alive. You’re not that dangerous. Neither was the doorman, he was just a backup. It’s unfortunate they don’t care a whit about his life.”

You’ve never spotted backups of any sort before. This is different. Very different. She spots the frown.

“Is this your first high profile recapture?” Off in the distance is the whipcrack of another space launch, and she smiles. It’s a broad one, full of glee. “Look, I’m within walking distance of getting away. They’re getting desperate. I shouldn’t have gotten this far. You’re a backup, the doorman was an emergency backup, and the first three they sent after me are all lying in alleys somewhere.”

She’s dangerous.

Kouroupas tried to warn you.

“So what now?” you ask.

“Well I’m hungry and making some breakfast. Can I get you anything?”

You smile.

“Anything with sugar, I could really use something sweet.”

She nods.

“Yeah, I’ll bet you could, but I know what makes you tick.” Your smile drops. “None of that for you. I’m leaving you weak, and slow for now. Just stay on the bed, don’t move, and I’ll bring you some diet soda.”

You stare at her, and she laughs at you.

“I know a lot about those systems in you. How do you think I ended up with those little pips I hit you with? I designed them myself.”

She walks into the kitchen, opens the fridge, and tosses you a can.

“Drink up . . . what is your name?”

You look down at the sugarless drink in your hands.

“Pepper,” you say.

Susan Stamm. ShinnCo property since birth. Mother died having her, orphanage signed Susan over. She starts telling you all this stuff as she sits at a small table across from you and eats obscene amounts of breakfast sausage and eggs. The place reeks of it.

“You never even realize there is a different way of life,” Susan says. “But I remember, when I was twelve, suddenly understanding that there were people who didn’t have to have logos on their bodies, who didn’t have to report into minders once a day, who weren’t being encouraged to study certain things that the company needed.” She picks up a greasy link, pauses.”And then I decided I would escape it.”

“How many years has that been?”

She flashes a smile and downs the sausage.

Then the dishes are tossed in the sink, she washes her hands while looking over her shoulder at you. You’re still sitting in the pink bathrobe, sipping from the can.

“Just on the other side of Eleytheria is a launcher. I have a ticket off this world, and out there I have passage far out as crew on a mining ship. I know it won’t be easier, but I’ll be my own person.” She raises a wrist. “I can burn this fucking logo off my skin.”

“So you’ll leave me here?”

She shakes her head.

“I have a proposition. You can’t buy your freedom from ShinnCo, I’ll bet, not for a long time yet. But what would you do for a ticket offworld?”

You just stare at her.

She takes it as hesitation.

“You owe me your life anyway. I need someone at my back, because if it’s just me they’ll try and pick me up at the gates to the launcher. Last ditch, overwhelming numbers.”

“Okay.” Opportunity glints in your eyes. At any point along this journey you may have an opportunity to overpower her. She spots the reaction. She thinks she has you.

“You’ll walk me to the launcher, then I’ll hand over the ticket. Try to double cross me before then and I’ll fire another one of these nasty little critters into you. So it’s in your best interests to work with me.”

You nod.

She laughs.

“You realize you’re free, don’t you? You weren’t just physically disabled,” she says.”I scrubbed clean all your systems. You understand what that means?”

You test everything she has just said, and she is right. But . . .

When you look down to your wrists she steps back slightly. It’s an unconscious move.

“Those still work,” she says. “They’re bio-mechanical. Nothing that can be scrambled, infected, or shut down.”

For the briefest flash of a moment you’ve seen freedom. And then, you think to yourself, there is the matter of the countdown. That’s firewalled off from the rest of your body and bio-mech. You can’t see the countdown, but you know it’s there. You don’t explain this to her. Right now she thinks you’re in her debt.

Play along.

“I’ve set you free from them,” she says. “You can do anything you want now.”

You nod again. “Okay, fair enough. I’ll help you for the ticket. Can I have my clothes back?”

The smile on her lips fades. She sizes you up, squinting. Apparently something satisfies her.

“Other side of the bed.”

They’ve been washed, pressed, and folded into a neat pile. The Astra Model Cub pistol lies on top of them all. It’s loaded.

Golden. Like that tantalizing glimpse of freedom she’d tried to give you.

Fifteen minutes later you’re both out the door. You’ve got the overcoat draped over your right arm. You’re weak, tired, and at a disadvantage, but all it will take is one well-placed shot where you can drop behind some cover, and she’s down.

Susan faces you as she locks the door, still wary, but there is joy in her face. She can see the end of the road.

It’s almost sad.

You walk down a corridor toward a pair of steel doors. As sunlight spills into the dimly lit area, you scope a vending niche just ahead and to the right. A drink machine hums a long low note.All you have to do is slow down, just get behind her by one step, shoot her, and use the machine for cover if she tries to use one of those lethal darts.

Two shadows force their way through the doors at the end of the corridor.

The gun’s easy enough to spot; you duck and jump to your side. Susan fires at one of them as you dodge into the niche.

What puzzles you is the wrenching pain in your shoulder that drops you to the floor in front of the neon glow of the soda machine.

They’re not aiming at Susan.

That was meant for you.

Your chest is wet with blood and your left arm can hardly move, but with your right you feel around the inside of your overcoat as Susan falls to the ground. Unconscious, not dead.

You drape the coat over the good arm to hide the Astra and wait.

It’s Kouroupas that turns the corner.His wild hair makes a halo around his head, bathed and filtered in the light of a flickering fluorescent overhead. There is no waiting, he looks down at the overcoat hanging over your right arm, hesitates for a second, and you fire four times in a row, blowing a hole in the overcoat that the muzzle sticks through.

“Damn it.” Kouropas looks shocked as he slumps to the ground.

You crawl over to him and lean close.

There are no last words, no apologies or explanations, just his creased eyes looking up at the ceiling, his flour covered hands holding his bloody stomach, and then he stops breathing.

With some effort you retrieve his gun, pocket it with your Astra, and slump with your back against the soda machine.

Fifteen sodas later you shake Susan awake again. The first time you tried, after plucking the feathered dart out of her neck, she just lolled back into unconsciousness.

Your shoulder is packed with a shirt torn off the anonymous, dead, would-be assassin at the far end of the corner. You’re still seeping blood.

“Come on,” you whisper to her. “You need to wake up.”

Her eyes snap open.

“No!” she shouts, throwing her hands up in front of her. You grab her wrists, a quick snapping motion, and look at her. She thinks she’s been captured and been taken back to ShinnCo.

“You’re okay, you’re still here in the lobby. You got one of them first, I got the other.”

She looks at you, then calms.

You’re keyed up, your body’s retooling itself, parts coming back online. She’d given you an out, a way to leave. Your body, deactivated, could have been worked over by any shitty street surgeon. There was the slightest chance you could have found a way to be free eventually, thanks to her trick.

Now the insulin is surging, the blood sugar’s up, and the teenies in your blood scurry around, revived and back to business.

You’re back. Rebooted. Tiny emergency warnings flash in your vision, detailing the damage done to your shoulder. It numbs itself and the bleeding clots and stops.

Susan hardly protests as you pick her up off the ground by her wrists with one arm.

“Do you still have time to make your launch?”

She’s dazed, but focuses.

“Yeah. Yeah. We need to move.”

Gun in hand, the other shoved in a pocket so you don’t move it, you sweep the area ahead. Nothing stops the two of you.

In the cab she asks you why you stayed with her.

You sit there, adjusting the bloodied shoulder bandage, and avoid her gaze.

“They came at me first,” you explain. “I’m a target now.” ShinnCo has spent too much time up in orbit, not enough time on the ground. You are just ants, resources to be used. And in their eyes you’ve turned on them, bitten them. It’s easier to eliminate you and find a new worker of your talents than risk something going bad. You’ve seen it before. No doubt you’ll see it again. “What good is bringing you in if they’re going to shoot me as I try do it?”

“You could still have just left me there.”

True.

You wrap your coat back around you and look up at her. “I owed you one.”

The cab bumbles on down the road while you both sit in silence for a while. Then she puts a hand on your knee.

“You rebooted. I can fix you again, so you’re free of all their machines.”

You look down at her hand.

“Take too long. You have a launch.”

“Yeah.” She pulls back away, crosses her arms over her chest, and looks out the window. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” you say. “Your trick probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.” And you tell her about the ticking bomb in you, the nano flechettes timed to go off unless they get their little code from that contact on the gyro stand.

We own you motherfucker.

“They aimed at me first,” you tell her. Kouroupas came to finish it, and they’ll get to aim at you again when you have to go back there to the cart in three days. Or you’ll be sitting, standing, somewhere, when the bomb goes off. You’ll look normal for a while, to bystanders, until your body falls down in a shapeless mass. Shredded from the inside out.

“That’s why I rebooted.”

You look out the window now as well, watching the terminals approach.

There isn’t much to say after that.

There are some things you know about memory technology.

One is that it began here on Earth. Using existing technology: superconducting quantum interferometer devices that map specific memory recalls. It was pretty much there when the Pacification happened. With alien technology brought down out of orbit it got nudged along just a little further into maturity.

Two. The memories are burned out of your head. They aren’t coming back.

Three. The same alien technology that matured memory alteration allows backups.

Four. When you figure out how to disable the bomb inside you, you will then go out and find that backup.

If there is no backup, there will be payback.

You walk Susan up to the terminal booth. Several streets behind lay the bodies of more dead ShinnCo who tried to stop you. You stand on neutral ground. Even ShinnCo wouldn’t piss off the alien launch corporation that owns Eleytheria. Overhead the floors sweep out over the road like wings. The architecture is impossible, like Frank Lloyd Wright on crack. The supports are too small. The wings too large. It’s a building designed by something that evolved on a lower gravity world and is forcing their sensibilities onto an Earth object.

The inside of the booth is filled with a light pink gas of some sort. It’s more than bulletproof; any hostile action you could take would result in vaporization.

Alien ticket takers don’t put up with shit. Too many Earth terrorists tried to take out their aggression on them in retaliation for the Pacification. The orbital corporations that own the rest of the solar system found it annoying, so they put in countermeasures.

Susan scans her ticket in.

Inside the booth, tentacles move. Half of them are plugged into the wall, the other half seem to support a globular mass. This creature looks like a cyborg octopus. It’s light years from home, trying to scrape out a living in a weird world, looking out at you with three eyes at the center of its trunk and burbling something.

“Clear. Proceed,” the speaker orders.

The security gate to the right of the booth slides aside.

Susan turns to you. She slides an extra ticket into the palm of your hand.

“In case it ever works out . . . ” she says.

You wonder if the memory of her walking through the security gate, or the memory of her hand sliding away from yours, could easily be burned out of your head.

Not this time at least.

Several minutes later the capsule thunders out in the great above and the thing in the booth hisses at you, wondering what your deal is.

Time to move on.

You stop at a public access point near the corner of a road.

The demands you send the ShinnCo emergency contact points are as follows:

One negotiator familiar with your case, with authority to bargain. The cart, fully functional, in the usual space. And you’ll confirm the cart from a distance, making sure it isn’t a fake.

Two hours. They couldn’t get an identical fake, with heat generating machinery of the same signature inside in that time.

Or else?

Or else you have time enough to go hunting before the countdown hits the last second.

You’ll need a hatchet, for starters.

It’s a metaphorical high noon. They’re not going to back off, and neither are you. The first sign of weakness is death. You’re locked in, no turning back.

They set a nice trap. The gyro stand is up, and what looks to be a middle-aged man stands there. He isn’t putting much into the façade, half-heartedly telling interested passersby that he’s out of flatbread.

You spot the three snipers on balconies above.

Two men in doors nearby, lounging.

Four pedestrians.

One by one would take far too long, so you steal a bubble cab.

Even the new gyro guy doesn’t spot you until you swerve the stolen machine off the road and slam into the cart. Flour, flatbread, meat, and sauces explode into the air. They drip off the door as you swing it up and open, using it for cover as you knock the stunned man out with a flick of your wrist, and pull him into the car.

The shots start. Silent insect-like buzzes and then explosions of concrete. The glass windows of the cab explode, the seats kick up leather and stuffing. In addition to the glass splinters buried in your face, the concrete shards ripping your overcoat apart, they hit you in the thigh, and then again in a foot.

Keep moving.

You grab the hatchet and smash the cart apart while keeping low, and pull out what you need. Your forearm gets hit, bone splitting out of the skin and causing waves of pain and nausea until things inside your body decide the pain is getting in the way of your ability to function.

The cab can barely hold everything. Glass bites you in the ass as you sit down and barrel out of there.

Engine smoking, tires flopping, it lasts long enough to get you deep into an alley.

The gyro man is coughing blood and dying in the back thanks to a well-aimed shot to the stomach. What you really want to do is get to work on him, make him forget about that pain and worry about a whole new universe of hurt. Maybe it will help you forget about yours.

Instead you work on bandaging your own wounds with strips of fabric torn off the overcoat and watch him struggle to stay conscious.

His eyes dilate, mouth drops open.

“I know about your memories,” he croaks.

“You the negotiator?” You hadn’t expected them to actually put him next to the cart. He ignores that, moves on.

“You don’t have any. You never had any,” he says quickly. “You came to ShinnCo looking for ways to reverse the process. But you were state of the art. Recent government surplus, useless after the Pacification. If ShinnCo didn’t claim you, some other corporation would. So they screwed you over.”

“I can’t help you,” you say. Even if an ambulance got here in time he wouldn’t make it back.

The man closes his eyes and groans. The inside of the cab smells of shit from his ruptured stomach. His messy hands are both folded over, he’s almost fetal.

“Fuck them,” he rasps. “They told me this would be easy. That you wouldn’t even get to cross the street.”

“They fucked you. They fuck everyone.”

You watch him.

“At least you’re as fucked as me,” he says, eyes still closed. It’s almost a whisper now.

You don’t bother to tell him the truth.

Another long moment passes.

“They have what you did know on a recording. You had something stored. They have that.”

“And do you know what I was?” you ask.

He shakes his head.

Then shudders.

Passes out.

The actual dying will take a while more. You slowly shift, reach to his head, and snap his neck. After rummaging around you pull his wallet out. A picture of a redhead. Girlfriend? Must be, you think. No ring.

So what price are you willing to pay for your self?

Is it worth it?

Time heals all wounds.

In your case, it takes about three weeks before you recover fully.

Now you’re standing in front of that same booth, same alien in the pink gas, holding out your ticket. You have gotten your photo ID and background check (faked). It warbles behind the security glass.

“Name?”

“Pepper.”

“Secondary name?”

You pause.

“Smith.”

“The size of your luggage is unusual,” it protests.

“It is necessary,” you insist. The remains of the important bits of the gyro stand. And some extra devices to shield it from any ShinnCo attempts to make it call home and make your life miserable.

It looks at you.

“Human.” The word is unstressed through the speaker. But you know the meaning behind it.

You stare the creature down and wait.

The go-around takes several minutes, but the creature finally tacks on a massive surcharge and lets you through.

Settling into the capsule’s launch chair, the long lines of the launch tube visible through the tiny portholes ahead of you, you pull your new overcoat closely around you.

You wonder if Susan can find room for you on her mining ship.

It’s a wild non-world out there. One where humans are minorities, alien conglomerates ply the worlds and negotiate with primitives like your own people for their gas giants and extra unused planets. They trade them for space access, advanced technology. Beads and glass many suspect, but not to primitive planets like Earth.

This is your new environment.

ShinnCo you can leave behind.

You reach your hand up and caress the data amulet hanging from your neck. It is the memory of a sandy beach, your back relaxed against a palm tree. The gentle swish of the wind through leaves and water breaking against rocks at the end of the bay soothes you. That’s it. A single memory of a life you once wanted to remember back. ShinnCo put a lot of security around it. Your past is the past.

The chair wraps around your waist and comes down your shoulders. You are the person you make yourself to be.

Fifteen seconds.

You are the person you are now.

The whine of the accelerators reaches a crescendo.

You’re not going to look into the past and what you were.

Three seconds.

It really isn’t important.

Launch.

THE ZEPPELIN CONDUCTORS’ SOCIETY ANNUAL GENTLEMEN’S BALL

Genevieve Valentine

So hook yourself up to an airship Strap on your mask and your knife For the wide open skies are a-calling And oh, it’s a glorious life!

—Conductors Recruitment Advertisement, 1890

The balloon of a Phoenix-class airship is better than any view from its cabin windows; half a mile of silk pulled taut across three hundred metal ribs and a hundred gleaming spines is a beautiful thing. If your mask filter is dirty you get lightheaded and your sight goes reddish, so it looks as though the balloon is falling in love with you.

When that happens, though, you tap someone to let them know and you go to the back-cabin Underneath and fix your mask, if you’ve any brains at all. If you’re helium-drunk enough to see red, soon you’ll be hallucinating and too weak to move, and even if they get you out before you die you’ll still spend the rest of your life at a hospital with all the regulars staring at you. That’s no life for an airship man.

I remember back when the masks were metal and you’d freeze in the winter, end up with layers of skin that peeled off like wet socks when you went landside and took the mask off. The polymer rubbers are much cleverer.

I’ve been a conductor for ages; I was conducting on the Majesty in ’78 when it was still the biggest ship in the sky—you laugh, but back then people would show up by the hundreds just to watch it fly out of dock. She only had four gills, but she could cut through the air better than a lot of the six-fins, the Laconia too.

They put the Majesty in a museum already, I heard.

Strange to be so old and not feel it. At least the helium keeps us young, for all it turns us spindly and cold. God, when we realized what was happening to us! But they had warned us, I suppose, and it’s fathoms better now then it was. Back then the regulars called you a monster if they saw you on the street.

The coin’s not bad, either, compared to factory work. They say it’s terrible what you end up like, but if you work the air you get pulled like taffy, and if you work in the factory you go deaf as a post; it’s always something.

I’m saving a bit for myself for when I’m finished with this life, enough for a little house in the Alps. I need some altitude if I’m going to be landlocked; the air’s too heavy down here.

The very first ships were no better than hot-air balloons, and the conductors kept a tiny cabin and had to string themselves outside on cables if something happened. I can’t imagine it—useless.

I didn’t join up until after they moved conductors inside—it showed they had a lick of sense to put conductors where they could get to things that went wrong, and I’m not fond of looking down from heights.

The engine-shop shifted to airships as soon as they caught on, and I made two thousand ribs before I ever set foot inside a balloon. It makes for a certain confidence going in, which carried me through, thank goodness—I had a hard time with it at first.

You have to be careful how deeply you breathe so the oxygen filter doesn’t freeze up on you, and you have to make sure your air tube doesn’t get tangled on your tether, or your tether in someone else’s. You have to learn how to fling yourself along so that the tether ring slides with you along the spine, and how to hook your fingers quickly into the little holes in the ribs when you have to climb down. You have to learn to deal with the cold.

The sign language I picked up at once. We had that at the factory, too, signals for when we were too far apart or when it was too loud. I’m fond of it; you get used to talking through the masks, and they’re all good men in the air, but sometimes it’s nice just to keep the quiet.

Captain Carter was very kind those first few months; he was the only Captain I’ve ever had who would make trips into the balloon from the Underneath just to see how we were getting along. Back then we were all in it together, all still learning how to handle these beautiful birds.

Captains now can hardly be bothered to leave their bridges, but not Carter. Carter knew how to tighten a bolt as fast as any airship man, and he’d float through and shake hands whenever we’d done something well. He had a way of speaking about the Majesty, like a poem sometimes—a clever man. I’ve tried to speak as he did, but there’s not much use for language when we’re just bottled up with one another. Once or twice I’ve seen something sharply, the way he might have seen it—just once or twice.

You won’t see his like again. He was of the old kind; he understood what it meant to love the sky like I do.

“A patient in the profession of Zeppelin conducting has, after very few years of work, advanced Heliosis due to excessive and prolonged exposure to helium within the balloon of an airship. His limbs have grown in length and decreased in musculature, making it difficult for him to comfortably maneuver on the ground for long periods of time. Mild exercise, concurrent with the wearing of an oxygen mask to prevent hyperventilation, alleviates the symptoms in time but has no lasting effect without regular application, which is difficult for conductors to maintain while employed in their vessels.

“Other side effects are phrenological. Skin tightens around the skull. Patient has noticeable growth in those parts of the head dedicated to Concentrativeness, Combativeness, Locality, and Constructiveness. The areas of Amativeness, Form, and Cautiousness are smaller than normal, though it is hard to say if these personality defects are the work of prolonged wearing of conductor’s masks or the temperament of the patient. I suspect that in this case time will have to reveal what is yet unknown.

“The Zeppelin is without doubt Man’s greatest invention, and the brave men who labor in its depths are indispensable, but it behooves us to remember the story of Icarus and Daedalus; he should proceed wisely, who would proceed well.”

—from Doctor Jonathan Grant’s

address to the Health Council, April 1895

The Captains’ Union set up the first Society for us, in London, and a year later in Paris.

They weren’t much more comfortable than the hospital rooms where they used to keep us landside, for safety, but of course it was more dignified. Soon we managed to organize ourselves and put together the Zeppelin Conductors’ Society, and we tithed our own wages for the dues to fix the buildings up a bit.

Now you can fly to any city with an airdock and know there’s a place for you to sleep where no one will look at you sidelong. You can get a private room, even, with a bath in the middle big enough to hold you; it’s horrid how long your limbs get when you’re in helium nine days in ten, and there’s not much dignity in trying to wash with your legs sticking two feet out of the bath.

And it’s good sense to have a place you can go straight away; regulars don’t like to see you wandering about, sometimes. Most times. I understand.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU SEE A CONDUCTOR

1. Do not panic; he is probably as wary of you as you are of him. He will pose no threat if not provoked.

2. Do not stare; scrutiny is vulgar.

3. Offer a small nod when you pass, as you would to another gentlemen; it pleases them.

4. Avoid smaller streets between airship docks and the local Conductor’s Society. The conductor is, in general, a docile creature, but one can never be sure what effects the helium has had on his temperament.

—Public Safety Poster, 1886

January 1, 1900

PARIS—Polaris was eclipsed last night: not by any cosmic rival, but by a man-made beauty. The Laconia, a Phoenix-class feat of British engineering that has become the envy of the world, never looked more beautiful than on its evening flight to Paris as we began a momentous New Year.

Captain Richard Marks, looking every inch the matinee hero, guided the ship safely through the night as the passengers within lit up the sky with conversation and music, accompanied by a champagne buffet. Miss Marie Dawlish, the English Lark, honored the company with a song which it is suspected struck the heart of a certain airship Captain who stepped away from the bridge in time for the performance. Though we at the Daily are not prognosticators, we believe that the coming year may be one of high romance for Captain Marks, who touched down back in London with a gentle landing, and no doubt a song in his heart.

The Societies have the Balls each year for New Year’s, which is great fun. It’s ripping good food, and sometimes someone comes in a full evening suit and we can all have a laugh at them; it’s an expensive round of tailoring to wear just once a year. You know just by looking that they who dressed up had wanted to be Captains and fallen short. Poor boys. I wouldn’t be a Captain for all the gold in Araby, though perhaps when you’re young you don’t realize how proud and empty the Captains end up.

You don’t meet a lot of ladies in the air, of course, and it’s what all the lads miss most. For the London Ball they always manage to find some with the money from the dues—sweet girls who don’t mind a chat. They have to be all right with sitting and talking. The Annual Gentlemen’s Ball isn’t much of a dance. The new conductors, the ones who have only stretched the first few inches, try a dance or two early on to give the musicians something to do. The rest of us have given in to gravity when we’re trapped on the ground. We catch up with old mates and wait for a chance to ask a girl upstairs, if we’re brave enough.

Sometimes we even get conductors in from other places—Russia, sometimes, or once from China. God, that was a night! What strange ideas they have about navigation! But he was built like an airship man, and from the red skin round his eyes we could tell he’d paid his dues in the helium, so we poured him some Scotch and made him welcome. If we aren’t kind to each other, who will be kind to us?

The Most Elegant Airlines Choose ORION Brand Masks!

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We were airside the last night of 1899, the night of the Gentlemen’s Ball.

We had been through a bad wind that day, and all of us were spread out tightening rivets on the ribs, signaling quietly back and forth. I don’t know what made Anderson agree to sign us on for the evening flight—he must have wanted the Ball as much as the rest of us—and I was in a bit of a sulk, feeling like Cinderella. It was a cold night, cold even in the balloon, and I was wishing for nothing but a long bath and a long sleep.

Then Captain Marks shoved the woman into the balloon.

She was wearing a worn-out orange dress, and a worn-out shawl that fell away from her at once, and even as the captain clipped her to the line she hung limp, worn-out all over. He’d been at her for a while.

I still don’t know where he found her, what they did to her, what she thought in the first moments as they carried her towards the balloon.

“Got some leftovers for you,” the Captain shouted through his mask, “a little Gentlemen’s Ball for you brave boys. Enjoy!”

Then he was gone, spinning the lock shut behind him, closing us in with her.

I could feel the others hooking onto a rib or a spine, pushing off, hurrying over. The men in the aft might not have even seen it happen. I never asked them. Didn’t want to know.

I was closest to her, fifty feet, maybe. Through the mask I could see the buttons missing on the front of her dress, the little cuts in her fisted hands.

She wore a mask, too. Her hair was tangled in it.

She was terrified—shaking so hard that I worried her mask would come loose—but she didn’t scrabble at her belt: too clever for that, I suppose. I was worried for her—if you weren’t used to the helium it was painful to breathe for very long, she needed to get back Underneath. God only knew how long that second-rate mask would hold.

Even as Anderson hooked onto a spine to get to her she was shoving off—not to the locked porthole (there was no hope for her there), but straight out to the ribs, clawing at the stiff silk of the balloon.

We all scrambled for her.

I don’t know how she cut the silk—Bristol said it must have been a knife, but I can’t imagine they would have let her keep one. I think she must have used the hook of her little earring, which is the worst of it, somehow.

The balloon shuddered as the first rush of helium was sucked into the sky outside; she clenched one fist around the raw edge of the silk as she unhooked herself from the tether. The air caught her, dragging at her feet, and she grasped for purchase against the fabric. She cried out, but the mask swallowed the noise.

I was the closest; I pushed off.

The other conductors were shouting for her not to be foolish; they shouted that it was a misunderstanding, that she would be all right with us.

As I came closer I held out my hands to her so she could take hold, but she shrank back, kicking at me with one foot, the boot half-fastened.

My reflection was distorted in the round eyes of her mask—a spindly monster enveloping her in the half-dark, my endless arms struggling to pull her back in.

What else could she do?

She let go.

My sight lit up from the rush of oxygen, and in my view she was a flaming June in a bottle-green night, falling with her arms outstretched like a bird until she was too small to be seen, until every bright trace of her was gone.

For a moment no one moved, then the rails shuddered under us as the gills fanned out, and we slowed.

Anderson said, “We’re coming up on Paris.”

“Someone should tell them about the tear,” said Bristol.

“Patch it from here,” Anderson said. “We’ll wait until Vienna.”

In Vienna they assumed all conductors were lunatics, and they would ask no questions about a tear that only human hands could make.

I heard the first clangs of the anchor-hooks latching onto the outer hull of the Underneath before the church bells rang in the New Year. Beneath us, the passengers shouted “Hip, hip, hurrah! Hip, hip, hurrah!”

That was a sad year.

Once I was land-bound in Dover. The Conductor’s Society there is so small I don’t think ten men could fit in it. It wasn’t a bad city (I had no trouble with the regulars on my way from the dock), but it was so horribly hot and cramped that I went outside just to have enough room to stretch out my arms, even heavy as they were with the Earth pulling at them.

A Falcon-class passed overhead, and I looked up just as it crossed the harvest moon; for a moment the balloon was illuminated orange, and I could see the conductors skittering about inside of it like spiders or shadow puppets, like moths in a lamp.

I watched it until it had passed the moon and fallen dark again, the lamp extinguished.

It’s a glorious life, they say.

“ . . . FOR A SINGLE YESTERDAY”

George R. R. Martin

Keith was our culture, what little we had left. He was our poet and our troubadour, and his voice and his guitar were our bridges to the past. He was a time-tripper too, but no one minded that much until Winters came along.

Keith was our memory. But he was also my friend.

He played for us every evening after supper. Just beyond sight of the common house, there was a small clearing and a rock he liked to sit on. He’d wander there at dusk, with his guitar, and sit down facing west. Always west; the cities had been east of us. Far east, true, but Keith didn’t like to look that way. Neither did the rest of us, to tell the truth.

Not everybody came to the evening concerts, but there was always a good crowd, say three-fourths of the people in the commune. We’d gather around in a rough circle, sitting on the ground or lying in the grass by ones and twos. And Keith, our living hi-fi in denim and leather, would stroke his beard in vague amusement and begin to play.

He was good, too. Back in the old days, before the Blast, he’d been well on his way to making a name for himself. He’d come to the commune four years ago for a rest, to check up on old friends and get away from the musical rat race for a summer. But he’d figured on returning.

Then came the Blast. And Keith had stayed. There was nothing left to go back to. His cities were graveyards full of dead and dying, their towers melted tombstones that glowed at night. And the rats—human and animal—were everywhere else.

In Keith, those cities still lived. His songs were all of the old days, bittersweet things full of lost dreams and loneliness. And he sang them with love and longing. Keith would play requests, but mostly he stuck to his kind of music. A lot of folk, a lot of folk-rock, and a few straight rock things and show tunes. Lightfoot and Kristofferson and Woody Guthrie were particular favorites. And once in a while he’d play his own compositions, written in the days before the Blast. But not often.

Two songs, though, he played every night. He always started with “They Call the Wind Maria” and ended with “Me and Bobby McGee.” A few of us got tired of the ritual, but no one ever objected. Keith seemed to think the songs fit us, somehow, and nobody wanted to argue with him.

Until Winters came along, that is. Which was in a late-fall evening in the fourth year after the Blast.

His first name was Robert, but no one ever used it, although the rest of us were all on a first name basis. He’d introduced himself as Lieutenant Robert Winters the evening he arrived, driving up in a jeep with two other men. But his Army didn’t exist anymore, and he was looking for refuge and help.

That first meeting was tense. I remember feeling very scared when I heard the jeep coming, and wiping my palms on my jeans as I waited. We’d had visitors before. None of them very nice.

I waited for them alone. I was as much a leader as we had in those days. And that wasn’t much. We voted on everything important, and nobody gave orders. So I wasn’t really a boss, but I was a greeting committee. The rest scattered, which was good sense. Our last visitors had gone in big for slugging people and raping the girls. They’d worn black-and-gold uniforms and called themselves the Sons of the Blast. A fancy name for a rat pack. We called them SOB’s too, but for other reasons.

Winters was different, though. His uniform was the good ol’ U.S. of A. Which didn’t prove a thing, since some Army detachments are as bad as the rat packs. It was our own friendly Army that went through the area in the first year after the Blast, scorching the towns and killing everyone they could lay their hands on.

I don’t think Winters was part of that, although I never had the courage to flat-out ask him. He was too decent. He was big and blond and straight, and about the same age as the rest of us. And his two “men” were scared kids, younger than most of us in the commune. They’d been through a lot, and they wanted to join us. Winters kept saying that he wanted to help us rebuild.

We voted them in, of course. We haven’t turned anyone away yet, except for a few rats. In the first year, we even took in a half-dozen citymen and nursed them while they died of radiation burns.

Winters changed us, though, in ways we never anticipated. Maybe for the better. Who knows? He brought books and supplies. And guns, too, and two men who knew how to use them. A lot of the guys on the commune had come there to get away from guns and uniforms, in the days before the Blast. So Pete and Crazy Harry took over the hunting, and defended us against the rats that drifted by from time to time. They became our police force and our army.

And Winters became our leader.

I’m still not sure how that happened. But it did. He started out making suggestions, moved on to leading discussions, and wound up giving orders. Nobody objected much. We’d been drifting ever since the Blast, and Winters gave us a direction. He had big ideas, too. When I was spokesman, all I worried about was getting us through until tomorrow. But Winters wanted to rebuild. He wanted to build a generator, and hunt for more survivors, and gather them together into a sort of village. Planning was his bag. He had big dreams for the day after tomorrow, and his hope was catching.

I shouldn’t give the wrong impression, though. He wasn’t any sort of a tin tyrant. He led us, yeah, but he was one of us, too. He was a little different from us, but not that different, and he became a friend in time. And he did his part to fit in. He even let his hair get long and grew a beard.

Only Keith never liked him much.

Winters didn’t come out to concert rock until he’d been with us over a week. And when he did come, he stood outside the circle at first, his hands shoved into his pockets. The rest of us were lying around as usual, some singing, some just listening. It was a bit chilly that night, and we had a small fire going.

Winters stood in the shadows for about three songs. Then, during a pause, he walked closer to the fire. “Do you take requests?” he asked, smiling uncertainly.

I didn’t know Winters very well back then. But I knew Keith. And I tensed a little as I waited for his answer.

But he just strummed the guitar idly and stared at Winters’ uniform and his short hair. “That depends,” he said at last. “I’m not going to play ‘Ballad of the Green Berets,’ if that’s what you want.”

An unreadable expression flickered over Winters’ face. “I’ve killed people, yes,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m proud of it. I wasn’t going to ask for that.”

Keith considered that, and looked down at his guitar. Then, seemingly satisfied, he nodded and raised his head and smiled. “Okay,” he said. “What do you want to hear?”

“You know ‘Leavin’ on a Jet Plane’?” Winters asked.

The smile grew. “Yeah. John Denver. I’ll play it for you. Sad song, though. There aren’t any jet planes anymore, Lieutenant. Know that? ’s true. You should stop and think why.”

He smiled again, and began to play. Keith always had the last word when he wanted it. Nobody could argue with his guitar.

A little over a mile from the common house, beyond the fields to the west, a little creek ran through the hills and the trees. It was usually dry in the summer and the fall, but it was still a nice spot. Dark and quiet at night, away from the noise and the people. When the weather was right, Keith would drag his sleeping bag out there and bunk down under a tree. Alone.

That’s also where he did his timetripping.

I found him there that night, after the singing was over and everyone else had gone to bed. He was leaning against his favorite tree, swatting mosquitoes and studying the creekbed.

I sat down next to him. “Hi, Gary,” he said, without looking at me.

“Bad times, Keith?” I asked.

“Bad times, Gary,” he said, staring at the ground and idly twirling a fallen leaf. I watched his face. His mouth was taut and expressionless, his eyes hooded.

I’d known Keith for a long time. I knew enough not to say anything. I just sat next to him in silence, making myself comfortable in a pile of fresh-fallen leaves. And after a while he began to talk, as he always did.

“There ought to be water,” he said suddenly, nodding at the creek. “When I was a kid, I lived by a river. Right across the street. Oh, it was a dirty little river in a dirty little town, and the water was as polluted as all hell. But it was still water. Sometimes, at night, I’d go over to the park across the street, and sit on a bench, and watch it. For hours, sometimes. My mother used to get mad at me.”

He laughed softly. “It was pretty, you know. Even the oil slicks were pretty. And it helped me think. I miss that, you know. The water. I always think better when I’m watching water. Strange, right?”

“Not so strange,” I said.

He still hadn’t looked at me. He was still staring at the dry creek, where only darkness flowed now. And his hands were tearing the leaf into pieces. Slow and methodical, they were.

“Gone now,” he said after a silence. “The place was too close to New York. The water probably glows now, if there is any water. Prettier than ever, but I can’t go back. So much is like that. Every time I remember something, I have to remember that it’s gone now. And I can’t go back, ever. To anything. Except . . . except with that . . . ” He nodded toward the ground between us. Then he finished with the leaf, and started another.

I reached down by his leg. The cigar box was where I expected it. I held it in both hands, and flipped the lid with my thumbs. Inside, there was the needle, and maybe a dozen small bags of powder. The powder looked white in the starlight. But seen by day, it was pale, sparkling blue.

I looked at it and sighed. “Not much left,” I said.

Keith nodded, never looking. “I’ll be out in a month, I figure.” His voice sounded very tired. “Then I’ll just have my songs, and my memories.”

“That’s all you’ve got now,” I said. I closed the box with a snap and handed it to him. “Chronine isn’t a time machine, Keith. Just a hallucinogen that happens to work on memory.”

He laughed. “They used to debate that, way back when. The experts all said chronine was a memory drug. But they never took chronine. Neither have you, Gary. But I know. I’ve timetripped. It’s not memory. It’s more. You go back, Gary, you really do. You live it again, whatever it was. You can’t change anything, but you know it’s real, all the same.”

He threw away what was left of his leaf, and gathered his knees together with his arms. Then he put his head atop them and looked at me. “You ought to timetrip someday, Gary. You really ought to. Get the dosage right, and you can pick your yesterday. It’s not a bad deal at all.”

I shook my head. “If I wanted to timetrip, would you let me?”

“No,” he said, smiling but not moving his head. “I found the chronine. It’s mine. And there’s too little left to share. Sorry, Gary. Nothing personal, though. You know how it is.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know how it is. I didn’t want it anyway.”

“I knew that,” he said.

Ten minutes of thick silence. I broke it with a question. “Winters bother you?”

“Not really,” he said. “He seems okay. It was just the uniforms, Gary. If it wasn’t for those damn bastards in uniform and what they did, I could go back. To my river, and my singing.”

“And Sandi,” I said.

His mouth twisted into a reluctant smile. “And Sandi,” he admitted. “And I wouldn’t even need chronine to keep my dates.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. So I didn’t say anything. Finally, wearying, Keith slid forward a little, and lay back under the tree. It was a clear night. You could see the stars through the branches.

“Sometimes, out here at night, I forget,” he said softly, more to himself than to me. “The sky still looks the same as it did before the Blast. And the stars don’t know the difference. If I don’t look east, I can almost pretend it never happened.”

I shook my head. “Keith, that’s a game. It did happen. You can’t forget that. You know you can’t. And you can’t go back. You know that, too.”

“You don’t listen, do you, Gary? I do go back. I really do.”

“You go back to a dream world, Keith. And it’s dead, that world. You can’t keep it up. Sooner or later you’re going to have to start living in reality.”

Keith was still looking up at the sky, but he smiled gently as I argued. “No, Gary. You don’t see. The past is as real as the present, you know. And when the present is bleak and empty, and the future more so, then the only sanity is living in the past.”

I started to say something, but he pretended not to hear. “Back in the city, when I was a kid, I never saw this many stars,” he said, his voice distant. “The first time I got into the country, I remember how shocked I was at all the extra stars they’d gone and stuck in my sky.” He laughed softly. “Know when that was? Six years ago, when I was just out of school. Also last night. Take your pick. Sandi was with me, both times.”

He fell silent. I watched him for a few moments, then stood up and brushed myself off. It was never any use. I couldn’t convince him. And the saddest part of it was, I couldn’t even convince myself. Maybe he was right. Maybe, for him, that was the answer.

“You ever been in the mountains?” he asked suddenly. He looked up at me quickly, but didn’t wait for an answer. “There was this night, Gary—in Pennsylvania, in the mountains. I had this old beat-up camper, and we were driving through, bumming it around the country.

“Then, all of a sudden, this fog hit us. Thick stuff, gray and rolling, all kind of mysterious and spooky. Sandi loved stuff like that, and I did too, kind of. But it was hell to drive through. So I pulled off the road, and we took out a couple of blankets and went off a few feet.

“It was still early, though. So we just lay on the blankets together, and held each other, and talked. About us, and my songs, and that great fog, and our trip, and her acting, and all sorts of things. We kept laughing and kissing, too, although I don’t remember what we said that was so funny. Finally, after an hour or so, we undressed each other and made love on the blankets, slow and easy, in the middle of that dumb fog.”

Keith propped himself up on an elbow and looked at me. His voice was bruised, lost, hurt, eager. And lonely. “She was beautiful, Gary. She really was. She never liked me to say that, though. I don’t think she believed it. She liked me to tell her she was pretty. But she was more than pretty. She was beautiful. All warm and soft and golden, with red-blond hair and these dumb eyes that were either green or gray, depending on her mood. That night they were gray, I think. To match the fog.” He smiled, and sank back, and looked up at the stars again.

“The funniest thing was the fog,” he said. Very slowly. “When we’d finished making love, and we lay back together, the fog was gone. And the stars were out, as bright as tonight. The stars came out for us. The silly goddamn voyeuristic stars came out to watch us make it. And I told her that, and we laughed, and I held her warm against me. And she went to sleep in my arms, while I lay there and looked at stars and tried to write a song for her.”

“Keith . . . . . .tarted.

“Gary,” he said. “I’m going back there tonight. To the fog and the stars and my Sandi.”

“Damnit, Keith,” I said. “Stop it. You’re getting yourself hooked.”

Keith sat up again and began unbuttoning his sleeve. “Did you ever think,” he said, “that maybe it’s not the drug that I’m addicted to?” And he smiled very broadly, like a cocky, eager kid.

Then he reached for his box, and his timetrip. “Leave me alone,” he said.

That must have been a good trip. Keith was all smiles and affability the next day, and his glow infected the rest of us. The mood lasted all week. Work seemed to go faster and easier than usual, and the nightly song sessions were as boisterous as I can remember them. There was a lot of laughter, and maybe more honest hope than we’d had for quite a while.

I shouldn’t give Keith all the credit, though. Winters was already well into his suggestion-making period, and things were happening around the commune. To begin with, he and Pete were already hard at work building another house—a cabin off to the side of the common house. Pete had hooked up with one of the girls, and I guess he wanted a little more privacy. But Winters saw it as the first step toward the village he envisioned.

That wasn’t his only project, either. He had a whole sheaf of maps in his jeep, and every night he’d drag someone off to the side and pore over them by candlelight, asking all sorts of questions. He wanted to know which areas we’d searched for survivors, and which towns might be worth looting for supplies, and where the rat packs liked to run, and that sort of thing. Why? Well, he had some “search expeditions” in mind, he said.

There was a handful of kids on the commune, and Winters thought we ought to organize a school for them, to replace the informal tutoring they’d been getting. Then he thought we ought to build a generator and get the electricity going again. Our medical resources were limited to a good supply of drugs and medicines; Winters thought that one of us should quit the fields permanently and train himself as a village doctor. Yeah, Winters had a lot of ideas, all right. And a good portion of ’em were pretty good, although it was clear that the details were going to require some working out.

Meanwhile, Winters had also become a regular at the evening singing. With Keith in a good mood, that didn’t pose any real problems. In fact, it livened things up a little.

The second night that Winters came, Keith looked at him very pointedly and swung into “Vietnam Rag,” with the rest of us joining in. Then he followed it up with “Universal Solider.” In between lyrics, he kept flashing Winters this taunting grin.

Winters took it pretty well, however. He squirmed and looked uncomfortable at first, but finally entered into the spirit of the thing and began to smile. Then, when Keith finished, he stood up. “If you’re so determined to cast me as the commune’s very own friendly reactionary, well I guess I’ll have to oblige,” he said. He reached out a hand. “Give me that guitar.”

Keith looked curious but willing. He obliged. Winters grabbed the instrument, strummed it a few times uncertainly, and launched into a robust version of “Okie from Muskogee.” He played like his fingers were made of stone, and sang worse. But that wasn’t the point.

Keith began laughing before Winters was three bars into the song. The rest of us followed suit. Winters, looking very grim and determined, plowed on through to the bitter end, even though he didn’t know all the words and had to fake it in spots. Then he did the Marine hymn for an encore, ignoring all the hissing and moaning.

When he was finished, Pete clapped loudly. Winters bowed, smiled, and handed the guitar back to Keith with an exaggerated flourish.

Keith, of course, was not one to be topped easily.

He nodded at Winters, took the guitar, and promptly did “Eve of Destruction.”

Winters retaliated with “Welfare Cadillac.” Or tried to. Turned out he knew hardly any of the words, so he finally gave that up and settled for “Anchors Aweigh.”

That sort of thing went on all night, as they jousted back and forth, and everybody else sat around laughing. Well, actually we did more than laugh. Generally we had to help Winters with his songs, since he didn’t really know any of them all the way through. Keith held his own without us, of course.

It was one of the more memorable sessions. The only thing it really had in common with Keith’s usual concerts was that it began with “They Call the Wind Maria,” and ended with “Me and Bobby McGee.”

But the next day, Keith was more subdued. Still some kidding around between him and Winters, but mostly the singing slipped back into the older pattern. And the day after, the songs were nearly all Keith’s kind of stuff, except for a few requests from Winters, which Keith did weakly and halfheartedly.

I doubt that Winters realized what was happening. But I did, and so did most of the others. We’d seen it before. Keith was getting down again. The afterglow from his latest timetrip was fading. He was getting lonely and hungry and restless. He was itching, yet again, for his Sandi.

Sometimes, when he got that way, you could almost see the hurt. And if you couldn’t see it, you could hear it when he sang. Loud and throbbing in every note.

Winters heard it too. He’d have had to be deaf to miss it. Only I don’t think he understood what he heard, and I know he didn’t understand Keith. All he knew was the anguish he heard. And it troubled him.

So, being Winters, he decided to do something about it. He came to Keith.

I was there at the time. It was midmorning, and Keith and I had come in from the field for a break. I was sitting on the well with a cup of water in my hand, and Keith was standing next to me talking. You could tell that he was getting ready to timetrip again, soon.

He was very down, very distant, and I was having trouble reaching him.

In the middle of all this, Winters comes striding up, smiling, in his Army jacket. His house was rising quickly, and he was cheerful about it, and he and Crazy Harry had already mapped out the first of their “search expeditions.”

“Hello, men,” he said when he joined us at the well. He reached for the water, and I passed my cup.

He took a deep drink and passed it back. Then he looked at Keith. “I enjoy your singing,” he said. “I think everybody else does, too. You’re very good, really.” He grinned. “Even if you are an anarchistic bastard.”

Keith nodded. “Yeah, thanks,” he said. He was in no mood for fooling around.

“One thing, though, has been bothering me,” Winters said. “I figured maybe I could discuss it with you, maybe make a few suggestions. Okay?”

Keith stroked his beard and paid a little more attention. “Okay. Shoot, Colonel.”

“It’s your songs. I’ve noticed that most of them are pretty . . . down, let’s say. Good songs, sure. But sort of depressing, if you know what I mean. Especially in view of the Blast. You sing too much about the old days, and things we’ve lost. I don’t think that’s good for morale. We’ve got to stop dwelling so much on the past if we’re ever going to rebuild.”

Keith stared at him, and slumped against the well. “You gotta be kidding,” he said.

“No,” said Winters. “No, I mean it. A few cheerful songs would do a lot for us. Life can still be good and worthwhile if we work at it. You should tell us that in your music. Concentrate on the things we still have. We need hope and courage. Give them to us.”

But Keith wasn’t buying it. He stroked his beard, and smiled, and finally shook his head. “No, Lieutenant, no way. It doesn’t work like that. I don’t sing propaganda, even if it’s well-meant. I sing what I feel.”

His voice was baffled. “Cheerful songs, well . . . no. I can’t. They don’t work, not for me. I’d like to believe it, but I can’t, you see. And I can’t make other people believe if I don’t. Life is pretty empty around here, the way I see it. And not too likely to improve. And . . . well, as long as I see it that way, I’ve got to sing it that way. You see?”

Winters frowned. “Things aren’t that hopeless,” he said. “And even if they were, we can’t admit it, or we’re finished.”

Keith looked at Winters, at me, then down into the well. He shook his head again, and straightened. “No,” he said simply, gently, sadly. And he left us at the well to stalk silently in the fields.

Winters watched him go, then turned to me. I offered him more water, but he shook his head. “What do you think, Gary?” he said. “Did I have a point? Or did I?”

I considered the question, and the asker. Winters sounded very troubled and very sincere. And the blond stubble on his chin made it clear that he was trying his best to fit in. I decided to trust him, a little.

“Yes,” I said. “I know what you were driving at. But it’s not that easy. Keith’s songs aren’t just songs. They mean things to him.”

I hesitated, then continued. “Look, the Blast was hell for everybody, I don’t have to tell you that. But most of us out here, we chose this kind of life, ’cause we wanted to get away from the cities and what they stood for. We miss the old days, sure. We’ve lost people, and things we valued, and a lot that made life joyful. And we don’t much care for the constant struggle, or for having to live in fear of the rat packs. Still, a lot of what we valued is right here on the commune, and it hasn’t changed that much. We’ve got the land, and the trees, and each other. And freedom of a sort. No pollution, no competition, no hatred. We like to remember the old days, and the good things in the cities—that’s why we Like Keith’s singing—but now has its satisfactions too.

“Only, Keith is different. He didn’t choose this way, he was only visiting. His dreams were all tied up with the cities, with poetry and music and people and noise. And he’s lost his world; everything he did and wanted to do is gone. And . . . and well, there was this girl. Sandra, but he called her Sandi. She and Keith lived together for two years, traveled together, did everything together. They only split for a summer, so she could go back to college. Then they were going to join up again. You understand?”

Winters understood. “And then the Blast?”

“And then the Blast. Keith was here, in the middle of nowhere. Sandi was in New York City. So he lost her, too. I think sometimes that if Sandi had been with him, he’d have gotten over the rest. She was the most important part of the world he lost, the world they shared together. With her here, they could have shared a new world and found new beauties and new songs to sing. But she wasn’t here, and . . . ”

I shrugged.

“Yeah,” said Winters solemnly. “But it’s been four years, Gary. I lost a lot too, including my wife. But I got over it. Sooner or later, mourning has to stop.”

“Yes,” I said. “For you, and for me. I haven’t lost that much, and you . . . you think that things will be good again. Keith doesn’t. Maybe things were too good for him in the old days. Or maybe he’s just too romantic for his own good. Or maybe he loved harder than we did. All I know is that his dream tomorrow is like his yesterday, and mine isn’t. I’ve never found anything I could be that happy with. Keith did, or thinks he did. Same difference. He wants it back.”

I drank some more water, and rose. “I’ve got to get back to work,” I said quickly, before Winters could continue the conversation. But I was thoughtful as I walked back to the fields.

There was, of course, one thing I hadn’t told Winters, one important thing. The timetripping. Maybe if Keith was forced to settle for the life he had, he’d come out of it. Like the rest of us had done.

But Keith had an option; Keith could go back. Keith still had his Sandi, so he didn’t have to start over again.

That, I thought, explained a lot. Maybe I should have mentioned it to Winters. Maybe.

Winters skipped the singing that night. He and Crazy Harry were set to leave the next morning, to go searching to the west. They were off somewhere stocking their jeep and making plans.

Keith didn’t miss them any. He sat on his rock, warmed by a pile of burning autumn leaves, and out-sung the bitter wind that had started to blow. He played hard and loud, and sang sad. And after the fire went out, and the audience drifted off, he took his guitar and his cigar box and went off toward the creek.

I followed him. This time the night was black and cloudy, with the smell of rain in the air. And the wind was strong and cold. No, it didn’t sound like people dying. But it moved through the trees and shook the branches and whipped away the leaves. And it sounded . . . restless.

When I reached the creek, Keith was already rolling up his sleeve.

I stopped him before he took his needle out. “Hey, Keith,” I said, laying a hand on his arm. “Easy. Talk first, okay?”

He looked at my hand and his needle, and returned a reluctant nod. “Okay, Gary,” he said. “But short. I’m in a rush. I haven’t seen Sandi for a week.”

I let go his arm and sat down. “I know.”

“I was trying to make it last, Gar. I only had a month’s worth, but I figured I could make it last longer if I only timetripped once a week.” He smiled. “But that’s hard.”

“I know,” I repeated. “But it would be easier if you didn’t think about her so much.”

He nodded, put down the box, and pulled his denim jacket a little tighter to shut out the wind. “I think too much,” he agreed. Then, smiling, he added, “Such men are dangerous.”

“Ummm, yeah. To themselves, mostly.” I looked at him, cold and huddled in the darkness. “Keith, what will you do when you run out?”

“I wish I knew.”

“I know,” I said. “Then you’ll forget. Your time machine will be broken, and you’ll have to live today. Find somebody else and start again. Only it might be easier if you’d start now. Put away the chronine for a while. Fight it.”

“Sing cheerful songs?” he asked sarcastically.

“Maybe not. I don’t ask you to wipe out the past, or pretend it didn’t happen. But try to find something in the present. You know it can’t be as empty as you pretend. Things aren’t black and white like that. Winters was part right, you know—there are still good things. You forget that.”

“Do I? What do I forget?”

I hesitated. He was making it hard for me. “Well . . . you still enjoy your singing. You know that. And there could be other things. You used to enjoy writing your own stuff. Why don’t you work on some new songs? You haven’t written anything to speak of since the Blast.”

Keith had picked up a handful of leaves and was offering them to the wind, one by one. “I’ve thought of that. You don’t know how much I’ve thought of that, Gary. And I’ve tried. But nothing comes.” His voice went soft right then. “In the old days, it was different. And you know why. Sandi would sit out in the audience every time I sang. And when I did something new, something of mine, I could see her brighten. If it was good, I’d know it, just from the way she smiled. She was proud of me, and my songs.”

He shook his head. “Doesn’t work now, Gary. I write a song now, and sing it, and . . . so what? Who cares? You? Yeah, maybe you and a few of the others come up after and say, ‘Hey, Keith, I liked that.’ But that’s not the same. My songs were important to Sandi, the same way her acting was important to me. And now my songs aren’t important to anyone. I tell myself that shouldn’t matter. I should get my own satisfaction from composing, even if no one else does. I tell myself that a lot. But saying it doesn’t make it so.”

Sometimes I think, right then, I should have told Keith that his songs were the most important thing in the world to me. But hell, they weren’t. And Keith was a friend, and I couldn’t feed him lies, even if he needed them.

Besides, he wouldn’t have believed me. Keith had a way of recognizing truth.

Instead, I floundered. “Keith, you could find someone like that again, if you tried. There are girls in the commune, girls as good as Sandi, if you’d open yourself up to them. You could find someone else.”

Keith gave me a calm stare, more chilling than the wind. “I don’t need someone else, Gary,” he said. He picked up the cigar box, opened it, and showed me the needle. “I’ve got Sandi.”

Twice more that week Keith timetripped. And both times he rushed off with a feverish urgency. Usually he’d wait an hour or so after the singing, and discreetly drift off to his creek. But now he brought the cigar box with him, and left even before the last notes of “Me and Bobby McGee” had faded from the air.

Nobody mentioned anything, of course. We all knew Keith was timetripping, and we all knew he was running out. So we forgave him, and understood. Everybody understood, that is, except Pete, Winters’ former corporal. He, like Winters and Crazy Harry, hadn’t been filled in yet. But one evening at the singing, I noticed him looking curiously at the cigar box that lay by Keith’s feet. He said something to Jan, the girl he’d been sleeping with. And she said something back. So I figured he’d been briefed.

I was too right.

Winters and Crazy Harry returned a week, to the day, after their departure. They were not alone. They brought three young teenagers, a guy and two girls, whom they’d found down west, in company with a group of rats. “In company,” is a euphemism, of course. The kids had been slaves. Winters and Crazy had freed them.

I didn’t ask what had happened to the rats. I could guess.

There was a lot of excitement that night and the night after. The kids were a little frightened of us, and it took a lot of attention to convince them that things would be different here. Winters decided that they should have their own place, and he and Pete began planning a second new cabin. The first one was nearing its crude completion.

As it turned out, Winters and Pete were talking about more than a cabin. I should have realized that, since I caught Winters looking at Keith very curiously and thoughtfully on at least two occasions.

But I didn’t realize it. Like everyone else, I was busy getting to know the newcomers and trying to make them feel at ease. It wasn’t simple, that.

So I didn’t know what was going on until the fourth evening after Winters’ return. I was outside, listening to Keith sing. He’d just barely finished “They Call the Wind Maria,” and was about to swing into a second song, when a group of people suddenly walked into the circle. Winters led them, and Crazy Harry was just behind him with the three kids. And Pete was there, with his arm around Jan. Plus a few others who hadn’t been at the concert when it started but had followed Winters from the common house.

Keith figured they wanted to listen, I guess. He began to play. But Winters stopped him.

“No, Keith,” he said. “Not right now. We’ve got business to take care of now, while everybody’s together. We’re going to talk tonight.”

Keith’s fingers stopped, and the music faded. The only sounds were the wind and the crackle of the nearby burning leaves. Everyone was looking at Winters.

“I want to talk about timetripping,” Winters said.

Keith put down his guitar and glanced at the cigar box at the base of concert rock. “Talk,” he said.

Winters looked around the circle, studying the impassive faces, as if he was weighing them before speaking. I looked too.

“I’ve been told that the commune has a supply of chronine,” Winters began. “And that you use it for timetripping. Is that true, Keith?”

Keith stroked his beard, as he did when he was nervous or thoughtful. “Yeah,” he said.

“And that’s the only use that’s ever been made of this chronine?” Winters said. His supporters had gathered behind him in what seemed like a phalanx.

I stood up. I didn’t feel comfortable arguing from the ground. “Keith was the first one to find the chronine,” I said. “We were going through the town hospital after the Army had gotten through with it. A few drugs were all that were left. Most of them are in the commune stores, in case we need them. But Keith wanted the chronine. So we gave it to him, all of us. Nobody else cared much.”

Winters nodded. “I understand that,” he said very reasonably. “I’m not criticizing that decision. Perhaps you didn’t realize, however, that there are other uses or chronine besides timetripping.”

He paused. “Listen, and try to judge me fairly, that’s all I ask,” he said, looking at each of us in turn. “Chronine is a powerful drug; it’s an important resource, and we need all our resources right now. And timetripping—anyone’s timetripping—is an abuse of the drug. Not what it was intended for.”

That was a mistake on Winters’ part. Lectures on drug abuse weren’t likely to go over big in the commune. I could feel the people around me getting uptight.

Rick, a tall, thin guy with a goatee who came to the concerts every night, took a poke at Winters from the ground. “Bullshit,” he said. “Chronine’s time travel, Colonel. Meant to be used for tripping.”

“Right,” someone else said. “And we gave it to Keith. I don’t want to timetrip, but he does. So what’s wrong with it?”

Winters defused the hostility quickly. “Nothing,” he said. ”If we had an unlimited supply of chronine. But we don’t. Do we, Keith?”

“No,” Keith said quietly. “Just a little left.”

The fire was reflected in Winters’ eyes when he looked at Keith. It made it difficult to read his expression. But his voice sounded heavy. “Keith, I know what those time trips mean to you. And I don’t want to hurt you, really I don’t. But we need that chronine, all of us.”

“How?” That was me. I wanted Keith to give up chronine, but I’d be damned before I’d let it be taken from him. “How do we need the chronine?”

“Chronine is not a time machine,” Winters said. “It is a memory drug. And there are things we must remember.” He glanced around the circle. “Is there anyone here who ever worked in a hospital? An orderly? A candy-striper? Never mind. There might be, in a group this size. And they’d have seen things. Somewhere in the back of their skulls they’d know things we need to know. I’ll bet some of you took shop in high school. I’ll bet you learned all sorts of useful things. But how much do you remember? With chronine, you could remember it all. We might have someone here who once learned to make arrows. We might have a tanner. We might have someone who knows how to build a generator. We might have a doctor!”

Winters paused and let that sink in. Around the circle, people shifted uneasily and began to mutter.

Finally Winters continued. “If we found a library, we wouldn’t burn the books for heat, no matter how cold it got. But we’re doing the same thing when we let Keith timetrip. We’re a library—all of us here, we have books in our heads. And the only way to read those books is with chronine. We should use it to help us remember the things we must know. We should hoard it like a treasure, calculate every recall session carefully, and make sure—make absolutely sure—that we don’t waste a grain of it.”

Then he stopped. A long, long silence followed; for Keith, an endless one. Finally Rick spoke again. “I never thought of that,” he said reluctantly. “Maybe you have something. My father was a doctor, if that means anything.”

Then another voice, and another; then a chorus of people speaking at once, throwing up half-remembered experiences that might be valuable, might be useful. Winters had struck paydirt.

He wasn’t smiling, though. He was looking at me.

I wouldn’t meet his eyes. I couldn’t. He had a point—an awful, awful point. But I couldn’t admit that, I couldn’t look at him and nod my surrender. Keith was my friend, and I had to stand by him.

And of all of us in the circle, I was the only one standing. But I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Finally Winters’ eyes moved. He looked at concert rock. Keith sat there, looking at the cigar box.

The hubbub went on for at least five minutes, but at last it died of its own weight. One by one the speakers glanced at Keith, and remembered, and dropped off into awkward silence. When the hush was complete, Keith rose and looked around, like a man coming out of a bad dream.

“No,” he said. His voice was hurt and disbelieving; his eyes moved from person to person. “You can’t. I don’t . . . don’t waste chronine. You know that, all of you. I visit Sandi, and that’s not wasting. I need Sandi, and she’s gone. I have to go back. It’s my only way, my time machine.” He shook his head.

My turn. “Yes,” I said, as forcefully as I could manage. “Keith’s right. Waste is a matter of definition. If you ask me, the biggest waste would be sending people back to sleep through college lectures a second time.”

Laughter. Then other voices backed me. “I’m with Gary,” somebody said. “Keith needs Sandi, and we need Keith. It’s simple. I say he keeps the chronine.”

“No way,” someone else objected. “I’m as compassionate as anyone, but hell—how many of our people have died over the last few years ’cause we’ve bungled it when they needed doctoring? You remember Doug, two years ago? You shouldn’t need chronine for that. A bad appendix, and he dies. We butchered him when we tried to cut it out. If there’s a chance to prevent that from happening again—even a long shot—I say we gotta take it.”

“No guarantee it won’t happen anyway,” the earlier voice came back. “You have to hit the right memories to accomplish anything, and even they may not be as useful as you’d like.”

“Shit. We have to try . . . ”

“I think we have an obligation to Keith . . . ”

“I think Keith’s got an obligation to us . . . ”

And suddenly everybody was arguing again, hassling back and forth, while Winters and Keith and I stood and listened. It went on and on, back and forth over the same points. Until Pete spoke.

He stepped around Winters, holding Jan. “I’ve heard enough of this,” he said. “I don’t even think we got no argument. Jan here is gonna have my kid, she tells me. Well, damnit, I’m not going to take any chances on her or the kid dying. If there’s a way we can learn something that’ll make it safer, we take it. Especially I’m not gonna take no chances for a goddamn weakling who can’t face up to life. Hell, Keithie here wasn’t the only one hurt, so how does he rate? I lost a chick in the Blast too, but I’m not begging for chronine to dream her up again. I got a new chick instead. And that’s what you better do, Keith.”

Keith stood very still, but his fists were balled at his sides. “There are differences, Pete,” he said slowly. “Big ones. My Sandi was no chick, for one thing. And I loved her, maybe more than you can ever understand. I know you don’t understand pain, Pete. You’ve hardened yourself to it, like a lot of people, by pretending that it doesn’t exist. So you convinced everybody you’re a tough guy, a strong man, real independent. And you gave up some of your humanity, too.” He smiled, very much in control of himself now, his voice sure and steady. “Well, I won’t play that game. I’ll cling to my humanity, and fight for it if I must. I loved once, really loved. And now I hurt. And I won’t deny either of those things, or pretend that they mean any less to me than they do.”

He looked to Winters. “Lieutenant, I want my Sandi, and I won’t let you take her away from me. Let’s have a vote.”

Winters nodded.

It was close, very close. The margin was only three votes. Keith had a lot of friends.

But Winters won.

Keith took it calmly. He picked up the cigar box, walked over, and handed it to Winters. Pete was grinning happily, but Winters didn’t even crack a smile.

“I’m sorry, Keith,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Keith. “So am I.” There were tears on his face. Keith was never ashamed to cry.

There was no singing that night.

Winters didn’t timetrip. He sent men on “search expeditions” into the past, all very carefully planned for minimum risk and maximum reward.

We didn’t get any doctor out of it. Rick made three trips back without coming up with any useful memories. But one of the guys remembered some valuable stuff about medicinal herbs after a trip back to a bio lab, and another jaunt recalled some marginally good memories about electricity.

Winters was still optimistic, though. He’d turned to interviewing by then, to decide who should get to use the chronine next. He was very careful, very thorough, and he always asked the right questions. No one went back without his okay. Pending that approval, the chronine was stored in the new cabin, where Pete kept an eye on it.

And Keith? Keith sang. I was afraid, the night of the argument, that he might give up singing, but I was wrong. He couldn’t give up song, any more than he could give up Sandi. He returned to concert rock the very next evening, and sang longer and harder than ever before. The night after that he was even better.

During the day, meanwhile, he went about his work with a strained cheerfulness. He smiled a lot, and talked a lot, but he never said anything much. And he never mentioned chronine, or timetripping, or the argument.

Or Sandi.

He still spent his nights out by the creek, though. The weather was getting progressively colder, but Keith didn’t seem to mind. He just brought out a few blankets and his sleeping bag, and ignored the wind, and the chill, and the increasingly frequent rains.

I went out with him once or twice to sit and talk. Keith was cordial enough. But he never brought up the subjects that really mattered, and I couldn’t bring myself to force the conversations to places he obviously didn’t want to do. We wound up discussing the weather and like subjects.

These days, instead of his cigar box, Keith brought his guitar out to the creek. He never played it when I was there, but I heard him once or twice from a distance, when I was halfway back to the common house after one of our fruitless talks. No singing, just music. Two songs, over and over again. You know which two.

And after a while, just one. “Me and Bobby McGee.” Night after night, alone and obsessed, Keith played that song, sitting by a dry creek in a barren forest. I’d always liked the song, but now I began to fear it, and a shiver would go through me whenever I heard those notes on the frosty autumn wind.

Finally, one night, I spoke to him about it. It was a short conversation, but I think it was the only time, after the argument, that Keith and I ever really reached each other.

I’d come with him to the creek, and wrapped myself in a heavy woolen blanket to ward off the cold, wet drizzle that was dripping from the skies. Keith lay against his tree, half into his sleeping bag, with his guitar on his lap. He didn’t even bother to shield it against the damp, which bothered me.

We talked about nothing, until at last I mentioned his lonely creek concerts. He smiled. “You know why I play that song,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “But I wish you’d stop.”

He looked away. “I will. After tonight. But tonight I play it, Gary. Don’t argue, please. Just listen. The song is all I have left now, to help me think. And I’ve needed it, ’cause I been thinking a lot.”

“I warned you about thinking,” I said jokingly.

But he didn’t laugh. “Yeah. You were right, too. Or I was, or Shakespeare . . . whoever you want to credit the warning to. Still, sometimes you can’t help thinking. It’s part of being human. Right?”

“I guess.”

“I know. So I think with my music. No water left to think by, and the stars are all covered. And Sandi’s gone. Really gone now. You know, Gary . . . if I kept on, day to day, and didn’t think so much, I might forget her. I might even forget what she looked like. Do you think Pete remembers his chick?”

“Yes,” I said. “And you’ll remember Sandi. I’m sure of that. But maybe not quite so much . . . and maybe that’s for the best. Sometimes it’s good to forget.”

Then he looked at me. Into my eyes. “But I don’t want to forget, Gary. And I won’t. I won’t.”

And then he began to play. The same song. Once. Twice. Three times. I tried to talk, but he wasn’t listening. His fingers moved on, fiercely, relentlessly. And the music and the wind washed away my words.

Finally I gave up and left. It was a long walk back to the common house, and Keith’s guitar stalked me through the drizzle.

Winters woke me in the common house, shaking me from my bunk to face a grim, gray dawn. His face was even grayer. He said nothing; he didn’t want to wake the others, I guess. He just beckoned me outside.

I yawned and stretched and followed him. Just outside the door, Winters bent and handed me a broken guitar.

I looked at it blankly, then up at him. My face must have asked the question.

“He used it on Pete’s head,” Winters said. “And took the chronine. I think Pete has a mild concussion, but he’ll probably be all right. Lucky. He could be dead, real easy.”

I held the guitar in my hands. It was shattered, the wood cracked and splintered, several strings snapped. It must have been a hell of a blow. I couldn’t believe it. “No,” I said. “Keith . . . no, he couldn’t . . . ”

“It’s his guitar,” Winters pointed out. “And who else would take the chronine?” Then his face softened. “I’m sorry, Gary. I really am. I think I understand why he did it. Still, I want him. Any idea where he could be?”

I knew, of course. But I was scared. “What . . . what will you do?”

“No punishment,” he said. “Don’t worry. I just want the chronine back. We’ll be more careful next time.”

I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “But nothing happens to Keith. I’ll fight you if you go back on your word, and the others will too.”

He just looked at me, very sadly, like he was disappointed that I’d mistrust him. He didn’t say a thing. We walked the mile to the creek in silence, me still holding the guitar.

Keith was there, of course. Wrapped in his sleeping bag, the cigar box next to him. There were a few bags left. He’d used only one.

I bent to wake him. But when I touched him and rolled him over, two things hit me. He’d shaved off his beard. And he was very, very cold.

Then I noticed the empty bottle.

We’d found other drugs with the chronine, way back when. They weren’t even guarded. Keith had used sleeping pills.

I stood up, not saying a word. I didn’t need to explain. Winters had taken it all in very quickly. He studied the body and shook his head.

“I wonder why he shaved?” he said finally.

“I know,” I said. “He never wore a beard in the old days, when he was with Sandi.”

“Yes,” said Winters. “Well, it figures.”

“What?”

“The suicide. He always seemed unstable.”

“No, Lieutenant,” I said. “You’ve got it all wrong, Keith didn’t commit suicide.”

Winters frowned. I smiled.

“Look,” I said. “If you did it, it would be suicide. You think chronine is only a drug for dreaming. But Keith figured it for a time machine. He didn’t kill himself. That wasn’t his style. He just went back to his Sandi. And this time, he made sure he stayed there.”

Winters looked back at the body. “Yes,” he said. “Maybe so.” He paused. “For his sake, I hope that he was right.”

The years since then have been good ones, I guess. Winters is a better leader than I was. The timetrips never turned up any knowledge worth a damn, but the search expeditions proved fruitful. There are more than two hundred people in town now, most of them people that Winters brought in.

It’s a real town, too. We have electricity and a library, and plenty of food. And a doctor—a real doctor that Winters found a hundred miles from here. We got so prosperous that the Sons of the Blast heard about us and came back for a little fun. Winters had his militia beat them off and hunt down the ones who tried to escape.

Nobody but the old commune people remember Keith. But we still have singing and music. Winters found a kid named Ronnie on one of his trips, and Ronnie has a guitar of his own. He’s not in Keith’s league, of course, but he tries hard, and everybody has fun. And he’s taught some of the youngsters how to play.

Only thing is, Ronnie likes to write his own stuff, so we don’t hear many of the old songs. Instead we get postwar music. The most popular tune, right now, is a long ballad about how our army wiped out the Sons of the Blast.

Winters says that’s a healthy thing; he talks about new music for a new civilization. And maybe he has something. In time, I’m sure, there will be a new culture to replace the one that died. Ronnie, like Winters, is giving us tomorrow.

But there’s a price.

The other night, when Ronnie sang, I asked him to do “Me and Bobby McGee.” But nobody knew the words.

HOW TO BECOME A MARS OVERLORD

Catherynne M. Valente

Welcome, Aspiring Potentates!

We are tremendously gratified at your interest in our little red project, and pleased that you recognize the potential growth opportunities inherent in whole-planet domination. Of course we remain humble in the face of such august and powerful interests, and seek only to showcase the unique and challenging career paths currently available on the highly desirable, iconic, and oxygen-rich landscape of Mars.

Query: Why Mars?

It is a little known fact that every solar system contains Mars. Not Mars itself, of course. But certain suns seem to possess what we might call a habit of Martianness: In every inhabited system so far identified, there is a red planet, usually near enough to the most populous world if not as closely adjacent as our own twinkling scarlet beacon, with proximate lengths of day and night. Even more curious, these planets are without fail named for war-divinities. In the far-off Lighthouse system, the orb Makha turns slowly in the dark, red as the blood of that fell goddess to whom cruel strategists pray, she who nurses two skulls at each mammoth breast. In the Glyph system, closer to home, it is Firialai glittering there like a ripe red fruit, called after a god of doomed charges depicted in several valuable tapestries as a jester dancing ever on the tip of a sword, clutching in each of his seven hands a bouquet of whelp-muskets, bones, and promotions with golden seals. In the Biera-biera system, still yet we may walk the carnelian sands of Uppskil, the officer’s patron goddess, with her woolly dactyl-wings weighted down with gorsuscite medals gleaming purple and white. Around her orbit Wydskil and Nagskil, the enlisted man’s god and the pilot’s mad, bald angel, soaring pale as twin ghosts through Uppskil’s emerald-colored sky.

Each red planet owns also two moons, just as ours does. Some of them will suffer life to flourish. We have ourselves vacationed on the several crystal ponds of Volniy and Vernost, which attend the claret equatorial jungles of Raudhr—named, of course, for the four-faced lord of bad intelligence whose exploits have been collected in the glassily perfect septameters of the Raudhrian Eddas. We have flown the lonely black between the satellites on slim-finned ferries decked in greenglow blossoms, sacred to the poorly-informed divine personage. But most moons are kin to Phobos and Deimos, and rotate silently, empty, barren, bright stones, mute and heavy. Many a time we have asked ourselves: Does Mars dwell in a house of mirrors, that same red face repeated over and over in the distance, a quantum hiccup—or is Mars the master, the exemplum, and all the rest copies? Surely the others ask the same riddle. We would all like to claim the primacy of our own specimen—and frequently do, which led to the Astronomer’s War some years ago, and truly, no one here can bear to recite that tragic narrative, or else we should wash you all away with our rust-stained tears.

The advantages of these many Marses, scattered like ruby seeds across the known darkness, are clear: In almost every system, due to stellar circumstances beyond mortal control, Mars or Iskra or Lial is the first, best candidate for occupation by the primary world. In every system, the late pre-colonial literature of those primary worlds becomes obsessed with that tantalizing, rose-colored neighbor. Surely some of you are here because your young hearts were fired by the bedside tales of Alim K, her passionate affair with the two piscine princes of red Knisao, and how she waked dread machines in the deep rills of the Knizid mountains in order to possess them? Who among us never read of the mariner Ubaido and his silver-keeled ship, exploring the fell canals of Mikto, their black water filled with eely leviathans whose eyes shone with clusters of green pearls. All your mothers read the ballads of Sollo-Hul to each of you in your cribs, and your infant dreams were filled with gorgeous-green six-legged cricket-queens ululating on the broad pink plains of Podnebesya, their carapaces awash in light. And who did not love Ylla, her strange longings against those bronze spires? Who did not thrill to hear of those scarlet worlds bent to a single will? Who did not feel something stir within them, confronted with those endless crimson sands?

We have all wanted Mars, in our time. She is familiar, she is strange. She is redolent of tales and spices and stones we have never known. She is demure, and gives nothing freely, but from our hearths we have watched her glitter, all of our lives. Of course we want her. Mars is the girl next door. Her desirability is encoded in your cells. It is archetypal. We absolve you in advance.

No matter what system bore you, lifted you up, made you strong and righteous, there is a Mars for you to rule, and it is right that you should wish to rule her. These are perhaps the only certainties granted to a soul like yours.

We invite you, therefore, to commit to memory our simple, two-step system to accomplish your laudable goals, for obviously no paper, digital, or flash materials ought to be taken away from this meeting.

Step One: Get to Mars

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a poor man to get to Mars. However, to be born on a bed of gems leads to a certain laziness of the soul, a kind of muscular weakness of the ambition, a subtle sprain in the noble faculties. Not an original observation, but repetition proves the axiom. Better to excel in some other field, for the well-rounded overlord is a blessing to all. Perhaps micro-cloning, or kinetic engineering. If you must, write a novel, but only before you depart, for novels written in the post-despotic utopia you hope to create may be beloved, but will never be taken seriously by the literati.

Take as your exemplum the post-plastic retroviral architect Helix Fo. The Chilean wunderkind was born with ambition in his mouth, and literally stole his education from an upper-class boy he happened upon in a dark alley. In exchange for his life, the patriarch agreed to turn over all his books and assignments upon completion, so that Fo could shadow his university years. For his senior project, Fo locked his erstwhile benefactor in a basement and devoted himself wholly to the construction of the Parainfluenza Opera House in Santiago, whose translucent spires even now dominate that skyline. The wealthy graduate went on to menial labor in the doctoral factories much chagrined while young Fo swam in wealth and fame, enough to purchase three marriage rights, including one to an aquatic Verqoid androgyne with an extremely respectable feather ridge. By his fortieth birthday, Fo had also purchased through various companies the better part of the Atlantic Ocean, whereupon he began breeding the bacterial island which so generously hosts us tonight, and supplies our salads with such exquisite yersinia radishes. Since, nearly all interplanetary conveyances have launched from Fo’s RNA platform, for he charged no tariffs but his own passage, in comfort and grace. You will, of course, remember Fo as the first All-Emperor of Mars, and his statue remains upon the broad Athabasca Valles.

Or, rather, model yourself upon the poetess Oorm Nineteen Point Aught-One of Mur, who set the glittering world of Muror letters to furious clicking and torsioning of vocabulary-bladders. You and I may be quite sure there is no lucre at all to be made in the practice of poetry, but the half-butterfly giants of Mur are hardwired for rhyming structures, they cannot help but speak in couplets, sing their simplest greetings in six-part contratenor harmonies. Muror wars exist only between the chosen bards of each country, who spend years in competitive recitings to settle issues of territory. Oorm Nineteen, her lacy wings shot through with black neural braiding, revolted, and became a mistress of free verse. Born in the nectar-soup of the capital pool, she carefully collected words with no natural rhymes like dewdrops, hoarding, categorizing, and collating them. As a child, she haunted the berry-dripping speakeasies where the great luminaries read their latest work. At the age of sixteen, barely past infancy in the long stage-shifts of a Muror, she delivered her first poem, which consisted of two words: bright. cellar. Of course, in English these have many rhymes, but in Muror they have none, and her poem may as well have been a bomb detonated on the blue floor of that famous nightclub. Oorm Nineteen found the secret unrhyming world hiding within the delicate, gorgeous structures of Muror, and dragged it out to shine in the sun. But she was not satisfied with fame, nor with her mates and grubs and sweetwater gems. That is how it goes, with those of us who answer the call. Alone in a ship of unrhymed glass she left Mur entirely, and within a year took the red diadem of Etel for her own. Each rival she assassinated died in bliss as she whispered her verses into their perishing ears.

It is true that Harlow Y, scion of the House of Y, ruled the red planet Llym for some time. However, all may admit his rule frayed and frolicked in poor measure, and we have confidence that no one here possesses the makings of . . .idden away in her jumpsuit. Dominion of the House of Y passed along genetic lines, though this method is degenerate by definition and illegal in most systems. By the time Harlow ascended, generations of Y had been consumed by little more than fashion, public nudity, and the occasional religious fad. What species Y may have belonged to before their massive wealth (derived from mining ore and cosmetics, if the earliest fairy tales of Vyt are to be believed) allowed constant and enthusiastic gene manipulation, voluntary mutation, prostheses, and virtual uplink, no one can truly say. Upon the warm golden sea of Vyt you are House Y or you are prey, and they have forcibly self-evolved out of recognizability. Harlow himself appears in a third of his royal portraits something like a massive winged koala with extremely long, ultraviolet eyelashes and a crystalline torso. Harlow Y inherited majority control over Llym as a child, and administered it much as a child will do, mining and farming for his amusement and personal augmentation. Each of his ultraviolet lashes represented thousands of dead Llymi, crushed to death in avalanches in the mine shafts of the Ypo mountains. But though Harlow achieved overlordship with alacrity and great speed, he ended in assassination, his morning hash-tea and bambun spectacularly poisoned by the general and unanimous vote of the populace.

Mastery of Mars is not without its little lessons.

It is surely possible to be born on a red planet. The Infanza of Hap lived all her life in the ruby jungles of her homeworld. She was the greatest actress of her age; her tails could convey the colors of a hundred complex emotions in a shimmering fall of shades. So deft were her illusions that the wicked old Rey thought her loyal and gentle beyond words even as she sunk her bladed fingers into his belly. But we must assume that if you require our guidance, you did not have the luck of a two-tailed Infanza, and were born on some other, meaner world, with black soil, or blue storms, or sweet rain falling like ambition denied.

Should you be so unfortunate as to originate upon a planet without copious travel options, due to economic crisis, ideological roadblocks, or simply occupying a lamentably primitive place on the technological timeline—have no fear. You are not alone in this. We suggest cryonics—the severed head of Plasticene Bligh ruled successfully over the equine haemovores of A-O-M for a century. He gambled, and gambled hard—he had his brain preserved at the age of twenty, hoping against hope that the ice might deliver him into a world more ready for his rarified soul. Should you visit A-O-M, the great wall of statues bearing her face (the sculptors kindly gave her a horse-body) will speak to what may be grasped when the house pays out.

If cryonics is for some reason unpopular on your world, longevity research will be your bosom friend. Invest in it, nurture it: Only you can be the steward of your own immortality. Even on Earth, Sarai Northe, Third Emira of Valles Marineris, managed to outlive her great-grandchildren by funding six separate think tanks and an Australian diamond mine until one underpaid intern presented her upon her birthday with a cascade of injections sparkling like champagne.

But on some worlds, in some terrible, dark hours, there is no road to Mars, no matter how much the traveling soul might desire it. In patchwork shoes, staring up at a starry night and one gleaming red star among the thousands—sometimes want is not enough. Not enough for Maximillian Bauxbaum, a Jewish baker in Provence, who in his most secret evenings wrote poetry describing such strange blood-colored deserts, such dry canals, a sky like green silk. Down to his children, and to theirs and theirs again, he passed a single ruby, the size of an egg, the size of a world. The baker had been given it as a bribe by a Christian lord, to take his leave of a certain maiden whom he loved, with hair the color of oxide-rich dust, and eyes like the space between moons. Never think on her again, never whisper her name to the walls. Though he kept his promise to an old and bitter death, such a treasure can never be spent, for it is as good as admitting your heart can be bought.

Sarai Northe inherited that jewel, and brought it with her to bury beneath the foundations of the Cathedral of Olympus Mons.

In the end, you must choose a universe that contains yourself and Mars, together and perfect. Helix Fo chose a world built by viruses as tame as songbirds. Oorm Nineteen chose a world gone soft and violet with unrhyming songs. Make no mistake: every moment is a choice, a choice between this world and that one, between heavens teeming with life and a lonely machine grinding across red stone, between staying at home with tea and raspberry cookies and ruling Mars with a hand like grace.

Maximillian Bauxbaum chose to keep his promise. Who is to say it is not that promise, instead of microbial soup, which determined that Mars would be teeming with blue inhuman cities, with seventeen native faiths, by the time his child opened her veins to those terrible champagne-elixirs, and turned her eyes to the night?

Step Two: Become an Overlord

Now we come to the central question at the core of planetary domination: just how is it done? The answer is a riddle. Of course, it would be.

You must already be an overlord in order to become one.

Ask yourself: What is an overlord? Is he a villain? Is she a hero? A cowboy, a priestess, an industrialist? Is he cruel, is he kind, does she rule like air, invisible, indispensable? Is she the first human on Mars, walking on a plain so incomprehensible and barren that she feels her heart empty? Does she scratch away the thin red dust and see the black rock beneath? Does he land in his sleek piscine capsule on Uppskil, so crammed with libraries and granaries that he lives each night in an orgy of books and bread? What does she lord over? The land alone, the people, the belligerent patron gods with their null-bronze greaves ablaze?

Is it true, as Oorm Nineteen wrote, that the core of each red world is a gem of blood compressed like carbon, a hideous war-diamond that yearns toward the strength of a king or a queen as a compass yearns toward north? Or is this only a metaphor, a way in which you can anthropomorphize something so vast as a planet, think of it as something capable of loving you back?

It would seem that the very state of the overlord is one of violence, of domination. Uncomfortable colonial memories arise in the heart like acid—everyone wants to be righteous. Everyone wishes to be loved. What is any pharaonic statue, staring out at a sea of malachite foam, but a plea of the pharaoh to be loved, forever, unassailably, without argument? Ask yourself: Will Mars be big enough to fill the hole in you, the one that howls with such winds, which says the only love sufficient to quiet those winds is the love of a planet, red in tooth, claw, orbit, mass?

We spoke before of how to get to Mars if your lonely planet offers no speedy highway through the skies. Truthfully—and now we feel we can be truthful, here, in the long night of our seminar, when the clicking and clopping of the staff has dimmed and the last of the cane-cream has been sopped up, when the stars have all come out and through the crystal ceiling we can all see one (oh, so red, so red!) just there, just out of reach—truthfully, getting to Mars is icing. It is parsley. To be an overlord is to engage in mastery of a bright, red thing. Reach out your hand—what in your life, confined to this poor grit, this lone blue world, could not also be called Mars? Rage, cruelty, the god of your passions, the terrible skills you possess, that forced obedience from a fiery engine, bellicose children, lines of perfect, gleaming code? These things, too, are Mars. They are named for fell gods, they spit on civilized governance—and they might, if whipped or begged, fill some nameless void that hamstrings your soul. Mars is everywhere; every world is Mars. You cannot get there if you are not the lord and leader of your own awful chariot, if you are not the crowned paladin in the car, instead of the animal roped to it, frothing, mad, driven, but never understanding. We have said you must choose, as Bauxbaum and Oorm and Fo chose—to choose is to understand your own highest excellence, even if that is only to bake bread and keep promises. You must become great enough here that Mars will accept you.

Some are chosen to this life. Mars itself is chosen to it, never once in all its iterations having been ruled by democracy. You may love Mars, but Mars loves a crown, a sceptre, a horn-mooned diadem spangled in ice opals. This is how the bride of Mars must be dressed. Make no mistake—no matter your gender, you are the blushing innocent brought to the bed of a mate as ancient and inscrutable as any deathshead bridegroom out of myth. Did you think that the planet would bend to your will? That you would control it? Oh, it is a lovely word: Overlord. Emperor. Pharaoh. Princeps. But you will be changed by it as by a virus. Mars will fill your empty, abandoned places. But the greatest of them understood their place. The overlord embraces the red planet, but in the end, Mars always triumphs. You will wake in your thousand year reign to discover your hair gone red, your translucent skin covered in dust, your three hearts suddenly fused into a molten, stony core. You will cease to want food, and seek out only cold, black air to drink. You will face the sun and turn, slowly, in circles, for days on end. Your thoughts will slow and become grand; you will see as a planet sees, speak as it speaks, which is to say: the long view, the perfected sentence.

And one morning you will wake up and your mouth will be covered over in stone, but the land beneath you, crimson as a promise, as a ruby, as an unrhymed couplet, as a virus—the land, or the machine, or the child, or the book, will speak with your voice, and you will be an overlord, and how proud we shall be of you, here, by the sea, listening to the dawn break over a new shore.

PATIENT ZERO

Tananarive Due

September 19

The picture came! Veronica tapped on my glass and woke me up, and she held it up for me to see. It’s autographed and everything! For you, Veronica mouthed at me, and she smiled a really big smile. The autograph says, TO JAY—I’LL THROW A TOUCHDOWN FOR YOU. I couldn’t believe it. Everybody is laughing at me because of the way I yelled and ran in circles around my room until I fell on the floor and scraped my elbow. The janitor, Lou, turned on the intercom box outside my door and said, “Kid, you gone crazier than usual? What you care about that picture for?”

Don’t they know Dan Marino is the greatest quarterback of all time? I taped the picture to the wall over my bed. On the rest of my wall I have maps of the United States, and the world, and the solar system. I can find Corsica on the map, and the Palau Islands, which most people have never heard of, and I know what order all the planets are in. But there’s nothing else on my wall like Dan Marino. That’s the best. The other best thing I have is the cassette tape from that time the President called me on the telephone when I was six. He said, “Hi, is Jay there? This is the President of the United States.” He sounded just like on TV. My heart flipped, because it’s so weird to hear the President say your name. I couldn’t think of anything to say back. He asked me how I was feeling, and I said I was fine. That made him laugh, like he thought I was making a joke. Then his voice got real serious, and he said everyone was praying and thinking about me, and he hung up. When I listen to that tape now, I wish I had thought of something else to say. I used to think he might call me another time, but it only happened once, in the beginning. So I guess I’ll never have a chance to talk to the President again.

After Veronica gave me my picture of Marino, I asked her if she could get somebody to fix my TV so I can see the football games. All my TV can play is videos. Veronica said there aren’t any football games, and I started to get mad because I hate it when they lie. It’s September, I said, and there’s always football games in September. But Veronica told me the NFL people had a meeting and decided not to have football anymore, and maybe it would start again, but she wasn’t sure, because nobody except me was thinking about football. At first, after she said that, it kind of ruined the autograph, because it seemed like Dan Marino must be lying, too. But Veronica said he was most likely talking about throwing a touchdown for me in the future, and I felt better then.

This notebook is from Ms. Manigat, my tutor, who is Haitian. She said I should start writing down my thoughts and everything that happens to me. I said I don’t have any thoughts, but she said that was ridiculous. That is her favorite word, ridiculous.

Oh, I should say I’m ten today. If I were in a regular school, I would be in fifth grade like my brother was. I asked Ms. Manigat what grade I’m in, and she said I don’t have a grade. I read like I’m in seventh grade and I do math like I’m in fourth grade, she says. She says I don’t exactly fit anywhere, but I’m very smart. Ms. Manigat comes every day, except on weekends. She is my best friend, but I have to call her Ms. Manigat instead of using her first name, which is Emmeline, because she is so proper. She is very neat and wears skirts and dresses, and everything about her is very clean except her shoes, which are dirty. Her shoes are supposed to be white, but whenever I see her standing outside of the glass, when she hasn’t put on her plastic suit yet, her shoes look brown and muddy.

Those are my thoughts.

September 20

I had a question today. Veronica never comes on Fridays, and the other nurse, Rene, isn’t as nice as she is, so I waited for Ms. Manigat. She comes at one. I said, “You know how they give sick children their last wish when they’re dying? Well, when Dr. Ben told me to think of the one thing I wanted for my birthday, I said I wanted an autograph from Dan Marino, so does that mean I’m dying and they’re giving me my wish?” I said this really fast.

I thought Ms. Manigat would say I was being ridiculous. But she smiled. She put her hand on top of my head, and her hand felt stiff and heavy inside her big glove. “Listen, little old man,” she said, which is what she calls me because she says I do so much worrying, “You’re a lot of things, but you aren’t dying. When everyone can be as healthy as you, it’ll be a happy day.”

The people here always seems to be waiting, and I don’t know what for. I thought maybe they were waiting for me to die. But I believe Ms. Manigat. If she doesn’t want to tell me something, she just says, “Leave it alone, Jay,” which is her way of letting me know she would rather not say anything at all than ever tell a lie.

October 5

The lights in my room started going on and off again today, and it got so hot I had to leave my shirt off until I went to bed. Ms. Manigat couldn’t do her lessons the way she wanted because of the lights not working right. She said it was the emergency generator. I asked her what the emergency was, and she said something that sounded funny: “Same old same old.” That was all she said. I asked her if the emergency generator was the reason Dr. Ben took the television out of my room, and she said yes. She said everyone is conserving energy, and I have to do my part, too. But I miss my videos. There is nothing at all to do when I can’t watch my videos. I hate it when I’m bored. Sometimes I’ll even watch videos I’ve seen a hundred times, really a hundred times. I’ve seen Big with Tom Hanks more times than any other video. I love the part in the toy store with the really big piano keys on the floor. My mom taught me how to play Three Blind Mice on our piano at home, and it reminds me of that. I’ve never seen a toy store like the one in Big. I thought it was just a made-up place, but Ms. Manigat said it was a real toy store in New York.

I miss my videos. When I’m watching them, it’s like I’m inside the movie, too. I hope Dr. Ben will bring my TV back soon.

October 22

I made Veronica cry yesterday. I didn’t mean to. Dr. Ben said he knows it was an accident, but I feel very sorry, so I’ve been crying too. What happened is, I was talking to her, and she was taking some blood out of my arm with a needle like always. I was telling her about how me and my dad used to watch Marino play on television, and then all of a sudden she was crying really hard.

She dropped the needle on the floor and she was holding her wrist like she broke it. She started swearing. She said Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit, over and over, like that. I asked her what happened, and she pushed me away like she wanted to knock me over. Then she went to the door and punched the number code really fast and she pulled on the doorknob, but the door wouldn’t open, and I heard something in her arm snap from yanking so hard. She had to do the code again. She was still crying. I’ve never seen her cry.

I didn’t know what happened. I mashed my finger on the buzzer hard, but everybody ignored me. It reminded me of when I first came here, when I was always pushing the buzzer and crying, and nobody would ever come for a long time, and they were always in a bad mood when they came.

Anyway, I waited for Ms. Manigat, and when I told her about Veronica, she said she didn’t know anything because she comes from the outside, but she promised to find out. Then she made me recite the Preamble to the Constitution, which I know by heart. Pretty soon, for a little while, I forgot about Veronica.

After my lessons, Ms. Manigat left and called me on my phone an hour later, like she promised. She always keeps her promises. My telephone is hooked up so people on the inside can call me, but I can’t call anybody, inside or outside. It hardly ever rings now. But I almost didn’t want to pick it up. I was afraid of what Ms. Manigat would say.

“Veronica poked herself,” Ms. Manigat told me. “The needle stuck through her hot suit. She told Dr. Ben there was sudden movement.”

I wondered who made the sudden movement, Veronica or me?

“Is she okay?” I asked. I thought maybe Ms. Manigat was mad at me, because she has told me many times that I should be careful. Maybe I wasn’t being careful when Veronica was here.

“We’ll see, Jay,” Ms. Manigat said. From her voice, it sounded like the answer was no.

“Will she get sick?” I asked.

“Probably, yes, they think so,” Ms. Manigat said.

I didn’t want her to answer any more questions. I like it when people tell me the truth, but it always makes me feel bad, too. I tried to say I was sorry, but I couldn’t even open my mouth.

“It’s not your fault, Jay,” Ms. Manigat said.

I couldn’t help it. I sobbed like I used to when I was still a little kid. “Veronica knew something like this could happen,” she said.

But that didn’t make anything better, because I remembered how Veronica’s face looked so scared inside her mask, and how she pushed me away. Veronica has been here since almost the beginning, before Ms. Manigat came, and she used to smile at me even when nobody else did. When she showed me my picture from Dan Marino, she looked almost as happy as me. I had never seen her whole face smiling like that. She looked so pretty and glad.

I was crying so much I couldn’t even write down my thoughts like Ms. Manigat said to. Not until today.

November 4

A long time ago, when I first came here and the TV in my room played programs from outside, I saw the first-grade picture I had taken at school on TV. I always hated that picture because Mom put some greasy stuff in my hair that made me look like a total geek. And then I turned on the TV and saw that picture on the news! The man on TV said the names of everyone in our family, and even spelled them out on the screen. Then, he called me Patient Zero. He said I was the first person who got sick.

But that wasn’t really what happened. My dad was sick before me. I’ve told them that already. He got it away on his job in Alaska. My dad traveled a lot because he drilled for oil, but he came home early that time. We weren’t expecting him until Christmas, but he came when it was only September, close to my birthday. He said he’d been sent home because some people on his oil crew got sick. One of them had even died. But the doctor in Alaska had looked at my dad and said he was fine, and then his boss sent him home. Dad was really mad about that. He hated to lose money. Time away from a job was always losing money, he said. He was in a bad mood when he wasn’t working.

And the worse thing was, my dad wasn’t fine. After two days, his eyes got red and he started sniffling. Then I did, too. And then my mom and brother.

When the man on TV showed my picture and called me Patient Zero and said I was the first one to get sick, that was when I first learned how people tell lies, because that wasn’t true. Somebody on my dad’s oil rig caught it first, and then he gave it to my dad. And my dad gave it to me, my mom and my brother. But one thing he said was right. I was the only one who got well.

My Aunt Lori came here to live at the lab with me at first, but she wasn’t here long, because her eyes had already turned red by then. She came to help take care of me and my brother before my mom died, but probably she shouldn’t have done that. She lived all the way in California, and I bet she wouldn’t have gotten sick if she hadn’t come to Miami to be with us. But even my mom’s doctor didn’t know what was wrong then, so nobody could warn her about what would happen if she got close to us. Sometimes I dream I’m calling Aunt Lori on my phone, telling her please, please not to come. Aunt Lori and my mom were twins. They looked exactly alike.

After Aunt Lori died, I was the only one left in my whole family.

I got very upset when I saw that news report. I didn’t like hearing someone talk about my family like that, people who didn’t even know us. And I felt like maybe the man on TV was right, and maybe it was all my fault. I screamed and cried the whole day. After that, Dr. Ben made them fix my TV so I couldn’t see the news anymore or any programs from outside, just cartoons and kid movies on video. The only good thing was, that was when the President called me. I think he was sorry when he heard what happened to my family.

When I ask Dr. Ben if they’re still talking about me on the news, he just shrugs his shoulders. Sometimes Dr. Ben won’t say yes or no if you ask him a question. It doesn’t matter, though. I think the TV people probably stopped showing my picture a long time ago. I was just a little kid when my family got sick. I’ve been here four whole years!

Oh, I almost forgot. Veronica isn’t back yet.

November 7

I have been staring at my Dan Marino picture all day, and I think the handwriting on the autograph looks like Dr. Ben’s. But I’m afraid to ask anyone about that. Oh, yeah—and yesterday the power was off in my room for a whole day! Same old same old. That’s what Ms. M. would say.

November 12

Ms. Manigat is teaching me a little bit about medicine. I told her I want to be a doctor when I grow up, and she said she thinks that’s a wonderful idea because she believes people will always need doctors. She says I will be in a good position to help people, and I asked her if that’s because I have been here so long, and she said yes.

The first thing she taught me is about diseases. She says in the old days, a long time ago, diseases like typhoid used to kill a lot of people because of unsanitary conditions and dirty drinking water, but people got smarter and doctors found drugs to cure it, so diseases didn’t kill people as much anymore. Doctors are always trying to stay a step ahead of disease, Ms. Manigat says.

But sometimes they can’t. Sometimes a new disease comes. Or, maybe it’s not a new disease, but an old disease that has been hidden for a long time until something brings it out in the open. She said that’s how nature balances the planet, because as soon as doctors find cures for one thing, there is always something new. Dr. Ben says my disease is new. There is a long name for it I can’t remember how to spell, but most of the time people here call it Virus-J.

In a way, see, it’s named after me. That’s what Dr. Ben said. But I don’t like that.

Ms. Manigat said after my dad came home, the virus got in my body and attacked me just like everyone else, so I got really, really sick for a lot of days. Then, I thought I was completely better. I stopped feeling bad at all. But the virus was already in my brother and my mom and dad, and even our doctor from before, Dr. Wolfe, and Ms. Manigat says it was very aggressive, which means doctors didn’t know how to kill it.

Everybody wears yellow plastic suits and airtight masks when they’re in my room because the virus is still in the air, and it’s in my blood, and it’s on my plates and cups whenever I finish eating. They call the suits hot suits because the virus is hot in my room. Not hot like fire, but dangerous.

Ms. Manigat says Virus-J is extra special in my body because even though I’m not sick anymore, except for when I feel like I have a temperature and I have to lie down sometimes, the virus won’t go away. I can make other people sick even when I feel fine, so she said that makes me a carrier. Ms. Manigat said Dr. Ben doesn’t know anybody else who’s gotten well except for me.

Oh, except maybe there are some little girls in China. Veronica told me once there were some little girls in China the same age as me who didn’t get sick either. But when I asked Dr. Ben, he said he didn’t know if it was true. And Ms. Manigat told me it might have been true once, but those girls might not be alive anymore. I asked her if they died of Virus-J, and she said no, no, no. Three times. She told me to forget all about any little girls in China. Almost like she was mad.

I’m the only one like me she knows about for sure, she says. The only one left.

That’s why I’m here, she says. But I already knew that part. When I was little, Dr. Ben told me about antibodies and stuff in my blood, and he said the reason him and Rene and Veronica and all the other doctors take so much blood from me all the time, until they make purple bruises on my arms and I feel dizzy, is so they can try to help other people get well, too. I have had almost ten surgeries since I have been here. I think they have even taken out parts of me, but I’m not really sure. I look the same on the outside, but I feel different on the inside. I had surgery on my belly a year ago, and sometimes when I’m climbing the play-rope hanging from the ceiling in my room, I feel like it hasn’t healed right, like I’m still cut open. Ms. Manigat says that’s only in my mind. But it really hurts! I don’t hate anything like I hate operations. I wonder if that’s what happened to the other little girls, if they kept getting cut up and cut up until they died. Anyway, it’s been a year since I had any operations. I keep telling Dr. Ben they can have as much blood as they want, but I don’t want anymore operations, please.

Dr. Ben said there’s nobody in the world better than me to make people well, if only they can figure out how. Ms. Manigat says the same thing. That makes me feel a little better about Virus-J.

I was happy Ms. Manigat told me all about disease, because I don’t want her to treat me like a baby the way everybody else does. That’s what I always tell her. I like to know things.

I didn’t even cry when she told me Veronica died. Maybe I got all my crying over with in the beginning, because I figured out a long time ago nobody gets better once they get sick. Nobody except for me.

November 14

Today, I asked Ms. Manigat how many people have Virus-J.

“Oh, Jay, I don’t know,” she said. I don’t think she was in the mood to talk about disease.

“Just guess,” I said.

Ms. Manigat thought for a long time. Then she opened her notebook and began drawing lines and boxes for me to see. Her picture looked like the tiny brown lines all over an oak-tree leaf. We had a tree called a live oak in our backyard, and my dad said it was more than a hundred years old. He said trees sometimes live longer than people do. And he was right, because I’m sure that tree is still standing in our yard even though my whole family is gone.

“This is how it goes, Jay,” Ms. Manigat said, showing me with her pencil-tip how one line branched down to the next. “People are giving it to each other. They don’t usually know they’re sick for two weeks, and by then they’ve passed it to a lot of other people. By now, it’s already been here four years, so the same thing that happened to your family is happening to a lot of families.”

“How many families?” I asked again. I tried to think of the biggest number I could. “A million?”

Ms. Manigat shrugged just like Dr. Ben would. Maybe that meant yes.

I couldn’t imagine a million families, so I asked Ms. Manigat if it happened to her family, too, if maybe she had a husband and kids and they got sick. But she said no, she was never married. I guess that’s true, because Ms. Manigat doesn’t look that old. She won’t tell me her age, but she’s in her twenties, I think. Ms. Manigat smiled at me, even though her eyes weren’t happy.

“My parents were in Miami, and they got it right away,” Ms. Manigat said. “Then my sister and nieces came to visit them from Haiti, and they got it, too. I was away working when it happened, and that’s why I’m still here.”

Ms. Manigat never told me that before.

My family lived in Miami Beach. My dad said our house was too small—I had to share a room with my brother—but my mother liked where we lived because our building was six blocks from the ocean. My mother said the ocean can heal anything. But that can’t be true, can it?

My mother wouldn’t like it where I am, because there is no ocean and no windows neither. I wondered if Ms. Manigat’s parents knew someone who worked on an oil rig, too, but probably not. Probably they got it from my dad and me.

“Ms. Manigat,” I said, “Maybe you should move inside like Dr. Ben and everybody else.”

“Oh, Jay,” Ms. Manigat said, like she was trying to sound cheerful. “Little old man, if I were that scared of anything, why would I be in here teaching you?”

She said she asked to be my teacher, which I didn’t know. I said I thought her boss was making her do it, and she said she didn’t have a boss. No one sent her. She wanted to come.

“Just to meet me?” I asked her.

“Yes, because I saw your face on television, and you looked to me like a one-of-a-kind,” she said. She said she was a nurse before, and she used to work with Dr. Ben in his office in Atlanta. She said they worked at the CDC, which is a place that studies diseases. And he knew her, so that was why he let her come teach me.

“A boy like you needs his education. He needs to know how to face life outside,” she said.

Ms. Manigat is funny like that. Sometimes she’ll quit the regular lesson about presidents and the Ten Commandments and teach me something like how to sew and how to tell plants you eat from plants you don’t, and stuff. Like, I remember when she brought a basket with real fruits and vegetables in it, fresh. She said she has a garden where she lives on the outside, close to here. She said one of the reasons she won’t move inside is because she loves her garden so much, and she doesn’t want to leave it.

The stuff she brought was not very interesting to look at. She showed me some cassava, which looked like a long, twisty tree branch to me, and she said it’s good to eat, except it has poison in it that has to be boiled out of the root first and the leaves are poisonous too. She also brought something called akee, which she said she used to eat from trees in Haiti. It has another name in Haiti that’s too hard for me to spell. It tasted fine to me, but she said akee can never be eaten before it’s opened, or before it’s ripe, because it makes your brain swell up and you can die. She also brought different kinds of mushrooms to show me which ones are good or bad, but they all looked alike to me. She promised to bring me other fruits and vegetables to see so I will know what’s good for me and what isn’t. There’s a lot to learn about life outside, she said.

Well, I don’t want Ms. Manigat to feel like I am a waste of her time, but I know for a fact I don’t have to face life outside. Dr. Ben told me I might be a teenager before I can leave, or even older. He said I might even be a grown man.

But that’s okay, I guess. I try not to think about what it would be like to leave. My room, which they moved me to when I had been here six months, is really, really big. They built it especially for me. It’s four times as big as the hotel room my mom and dad got for us when we went to Universal Studios in Orlando when I was five. I remember that room because my brother, Kevin, kept asking my dad, “Doesn’t this cost too much?” Every time my dad bought us a T-shirt or anything, Kevin brought up how much it cost. I told Kevin to stop it because I was afraid Dad would get mad and stop buying us stuff. Then, when we were in line for the King Kong ride, all by ourselves, Kevin told me, “Dad got fired from his job, stupid. Do you want to go on Welfare?” I waited for Dad and Mom to tell me he got fired, but they didn’t. After Kevin said that, I didn’t ask them to buy me anything else, and I was scared to stay in that huge, pretty hotel room because I thought we wouldn’t have enough money to pay. But we did. And then Dad got a job on the oil rig, and we thought everything would be better.

My room here is as big as half the whole floor I bet. When I run from one side of my room to the other, from the glass in front to the wall in back, I’m out of breath. I like to do that. Sometimes I run until my ribs start squeezing and my stomach hurts like it’s cut open and I have to sit down and rest. There’s a basketball net in here, too, and the ball doesn’t ever touch the ceiling except if I throw it too high on purpose. I also have comic books, and I draw pictures of me and my family and Ms. Manigat and Dr. Ben. Because I can’t watch my videos, now I spend a lot of time writing in this notebook. A whole hour went by already. When I am writing down my thoughts, I forget about everything else.

I have decided for sure to be a doctor someday. I’m going to help make people better.

November 29

Thanksgiving was great! Ms. Manigat cooked real bread and brought me food she’d heated up. I could tell everything except the bread and cassava was from a can, like always, but it tasted much better than my regular food. I haven’t had bread in a long time. Because of her mask, Ms. Manigat ate her dinner before she came, but she sat and watched me eat. Rene came in, too, and she surprised me when she gave me a hug. She never does that. Dr. Ben came in for a little while at the end, and he hugged me too, but he said he couldn’t stay because he was busy. Dr. Ben doesn’t come visit me much anymore. I could see he was growing a beard, and it was almost all white! I’ve seen Dr. Ben’s hair when he’s outside of the glass, when he isn’t wearing his hot suit, and his hair is brown, not white. I asked him how come his beard was white, and he said that’s what happens when your mind is overly tired.

I liked having everybody come to my room. Before, in the beginning, almost nobody came in, not even Ms. Manigat. She used to sit in a chair outside the glass and use the intercom for my lessons. It’s better when they come in.

I remember how Thanksgiving used to be, with my family around the table in the dining room, and I told Ms. Manigat about that. Yes, she said, even though she didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Haiti like Americans do, she remembers sitting at the table with her parents and her sister for Christmas dinner. She said she came to see me today, and Rene and Dr. Ben came too, because we are each other’s family now, so we are not alone. I hadn’t thought of it like that before.

December 1

No one will tell me, not even Ms. M., but I think maybe Dr. Ben is sick. I have not seen him in five whole days. It is quiet here. I wish it was Thanksgiving again.

January 23

I didn’t know this before, but you have to be in the right mood to write your thoughts down. A lot happened in the days I missed.

The doctor with the French name is gone now, and I’m glad. He wasn’t like Dr. Ben at all. I could hardly believe he was a real doctor, because he always had on the dirtiest clothes when I saw him take off his hot suit outside of the glass. And he was never nice to me—he wouldn’t answer at all when I asked him questions, and he wouldn’t look in my eyes except for a second. One time he slapped me on my ear, almost for nothing, and his glove hurt so much my ear turned red and was sore for a whole day. He didn’t say he was sorry, but I didn’t cry. I think he wanted me to.

Oh yeah, and he hooked me up to IV bags and took so much blood from me I couldn’t even stand up. I was scared he would operate on me. Ms. Manigat didn’t come in for almost a week, and when she finally came, I told her about the doctor taking too much blood. She got really mad. Then I found out the reason she didn’t come all those days—he wouldn’t let her! She said he tried to bar her from coming. Bar is the word she used, which sounds like a prison.

The new doctor and Ms. Manigat do not get along, even though they both speak French. I saw them outside of the glass, yelling back and forth and moving their hands, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I was afraid he would send Ms. Manigat away for good. But yesterday she told me he’s leaving! I told her I was happy, because I was afraid he would take Dr. Ben’s place.

No, she told me, there isn’t anyone taking Dr. Ben’s place. She said the French doctor came here to study me in person because he was one of the doctors Dr. Ben had been sending my blood to ever since I first came. But he was already very sick when he got here, and he started feeling worse, so he had to go. Seeing me was his last wish, Ms. Manigat said, which didn’t seem like it could be true because he didn’t act like he wanted to be with me.

I asked her if he went back to France to his family, and Ms. Manigat said no, he probably didn’t have a family, and even if he did, it’s too hard to go to France. The ocean is in the way, she said.

Ms. Manigat seemed tired from all that talking. She said she’d decided to move inside, like Rene, to make sure they were taking care of me properly. She said she misses her garden. The whole place has been falling apart, she said. She said I do a good job of keeping my room clean—and I do, because I have my own mop and bucket and Lysol in my closet—but she told me the hallways are filthy. Which is true, because sometimes I can see water dripping down the wall outside of my glass, a lot of it, and it makes puddles all over the floor. You can tell the water is dirty because you can see different colors floating on top, the way my family’s driveway used to look after my dad sprayed it with a hose. He said the oil from the car made the water look that way, but I don’t know why it looks that way here. Ms. Manigat said the water smells bad, too.

“It’s ridiculous. If they’re going to keep you here, they’d damn well better take care of you,” Mrs. Manigat said. She must have been really mad, because she never swears.

I told her about the time when Lou came and pressed on my intercom really late at night, when I was asleep and nobody else was around. He was talking really loud like people do in videos when they’re drunk. Lou was glaring at me through the glass, banging on it. I had never seen him look so mean. I thought he would try to come into my room but then I remembered he couldn’t because he didn’t have a hot suit. But I’ll never forget how he said, They should put you to sleep like a dog at the pound.

I try not to think about that night, because it gave me nightmares. It happened when I was pretty little, like eight. Sometimes I thought maybe I just dreamed it, because the next time Lou came he acted just like normal. He even smiled at me a little bit. Before he stopped coming here, Lou was nice to me every day after that.

Ms. Manigat did not sound surprised when I told her what Lou said about putting me to sleep. “Yes, Jay,” she told me, “For a long time, there have been people outside who didn’t think we should be taking care of you.”

I never knew that before!

I remember a long time ago, when I was really little and I had pneumonia, my mom was scared to leave me alone at the hospital. “They won’t know how to take care of Jay there,” she said to my dad, even though she didn’t know I heard her. I had to stay by myself all night, and because of what my mom said, I couldn’t go to sleep. I was afraid everyone at the hospital would forget I was there. Or maybe something bad would happen to me.

It seems like the lights go off every other day now. And I know people must really miss Lou, because the dirty gray water is all over the floor outside my glass and there’s no one to clean it up.

February 14

6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3    6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3     6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3

I remember the numbers already! I have been saying them over and over in my head so I won’t forget, but I wanted to write them down in the exact right order to be extra sure. I want to know them without even looking.

Oh, I should start at the beginning. Yesterday, no one brought me any dinner, not even Ms. Manigat. She came with a huge bowl of oatmeal this morning, saying she was very sorry. She said she had to look a long time to find that food, and it wore her out. The oatmeal wasn’t even hot, but I didn’t say anything. I just ate. She watched me eating.

She didn’t stay with me long, because she doesn’t teach me lessons anymore. After the French doctor left, we talked about the Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King, but she didn’t bring that up today. She just kept sighing, and she said she had been in bed all day yesterday because she was so tired, and she was sorry she forgot to feed me. She said I couldn’t count on Rene to bring me food because she didn’t know where Rene was. It was hard for me to hear her talk through her hot suit today. Her mask was crooked, so the microphone wasn’t in front of her mouth where it should be.

She saw my notebook and asked if she could look at it. I said sure. She looked at the pages from the beginning. She said she liked the part where I said she was my best friend. Her face-mask was fogging up, so I couldn’t see her eyes and I couldn’t tell if she was smiling. I am very sure she did not put her suit on right today.

When she put my notebook down, she told me to pay close attention to her and repeat the numbers she told me, which were 6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3.

I asked her what they were. She said it was the security code for my door. She said she wanted to give the code to me because my buzzer wasn’t working, and I might need to leave my room if she overslept and nobody came to bring me food. She told me I could use the same code on the elevator, and the kitchen was on the third floor. There wouldn’t be anybody there, she said, but I could look on the shelves, the top ones up high, to see if there was any food. If not, she said I should take the stairs down to the first floor and find the red EXIT sign to go outside. She said the elevator doesn’t go to the first floor anymore.

I felt scared then, but she put her hand on top of my head again just like usual. She said she was sure there was plenty of food outside.

“But am I allowed?” I asked her. “What if people get sick?”

“You worry so much, little man,” she said. “Only you matter now, my little one-of-a-kind.”

But see I’m sure Ms. Manigat doesn’t really want me to go outside. I’ve been thinking about that over and over. Ms. Manigat must be very tired to tell me to do something like that. Maybe she has a fever and that’s why she told me how to get out of my room. My brother said silly things when he had a fever, and my father too. My father kept calling me Oscar, and I didn’t know who Oscar was. My dad told us he had a brother who died when he was little, and maybe his name was Oscar. My mother didn’t say anything at all when she got sick. She just died very fast. I wish I could find Ms. Manigat and give her something to drink. You get very thirsty when you have a fever, which I know for a fact. But I can’t go to her because I don’t know where she is. And besides, I don’t know where Dr. Ben keeps the hot suits. What if I went to her and she wasn’t wearing hers?

Maybe the oatmeal was the only thing left in the kitchen, and now I ate it all. I hope not! But I’m thinking maybe it is because I know Ms. Manigat would have brought me more food if she could have found it. She’s always asking me if I have enough to eat. I’m already hungry again.

6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3

6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3

February 15

I am writing in the dark. The lights are off. I tried to open my lock but the numbers don’t work because of the lights being off. I don’t know where Ms. Manigat is. I’m trying not to cry.

What if the lights never come back on?

February 16

There’s so much I want to say but I have a headache from being hungry. When the lights came back on I went out into the hall like Ms. M told me and I used the numbers to get the elevator to work and then I went to the kitchen like she said. I wanted to go real fast and find some peanut butter or some Oreos or even a can of beans I could open with the can opener Ms. M left me at Thanksgiving.

There’s no food in the kitchen! There’s empty cans and wrappers on the floor and even roaches but I looked on every single shelf and in every cabinet and I couldn’t find anything to eat.

The sun was shining really REALLY bright from the window. I almost forgot how the sun looks. When I went to the window I saw a big, empty parking lot outside. At first I thought there were diamonds all over the ground because of the sparkles but it was just a lot of broken glass. I could only see one car and I thought it was Ms. M’s. But Ms. M would never leave her car looking like that. For one thing it had two flat tires!

Anyway I don’t think there’s anybody here today. So I thought of a plan. I have to go now.

Ms. M, this is for you—or whoever comes looking for me. I know somebody will find this notebook if I leave it on my bed. I’m very sorry I had to leave in such a hurry.

I didn’t want to go outside but isn’t it okay if it’s an emergency? I am really really hungry. I’ll just find some food and bring it with me and I’ll come right back. I’m leaving my door open so I won’t get locked out. Ms. M, maybe I’ll find your garden with cassavas and akee like you showed me and I’ll know the good parts from the bad parts. If someone sees me and I get in trouble I’ll just say I didn’t have anything to eat.

Whoever is reading this don’t worry. I’ll tell everybody I see please please not to get too close to me. I know Dr. Ben was very worried I might make somebody sick.

ARVIES

Adam-Troy Castro

STATEMENT OF INTENT

This is the story of a mother, and a daughter, and the right to life, and the dignity of all living things, and of some souls granted great destinies at the moment of their conception, and of others damned to remain society’s useful idiots.

CONTENTS

Expect cute plush animals and amniotic fluid and a more or less happy ending for everybody, though the definition of happiness may depend on the truncated emotional capacity of those unable to feel anything else. Some of the characters are rich and famous, others are underage, and one is legally dead, though you may like her the most of all.

APPEARANCE

We first encounter Molly June on her fifteenth deathday, when the monitors in charge of deciding such things declare her safe for passengers. Congratulating her on completing the only important stage of her development, they truck her in a padded skimmer to the arvie showroom where she is claimed, right away, by one of the Living.

The fast sale surprises nobody, not the servos that trained her into her current state of health and attractiveness, not the AI routines managing the showroom, and least of all Molly June, who has spent her infancy and early childhood having the ability to feel surprise, or anything beyond a vague contentment, scrubbed from her emotional palate. Crying, she’d learned while still capable of such things, brought punishment, while unconditional acceptance of anything the engineers saw fit to provide brought light and flower scent and warmth. By this point in her existence she’ll greet anything short of an exploding bomb with no reaction deeper than vague concern. Her sale is a minor development by comparison: a happy development, reinforcing her feelings of dull satisfaction. Don’t feel sorry for her. Her entire life, or more accurately death, is happy ending. All she has to do is spend the rest of it carrying a passenger.

VEHICLE SPECIFICATIONS

You think you need to know what Molly June looks like. You really don’t, as it plays no role in her life. But as the information will assist you in feeling empathy for her, we will oblige anyway.

Molly June is a round-faced, button-nosed gamin, with pink lips and cheeks marked with permanent rose: her blonde hair framing her perfect face in parentheses of bouncy, luxurious curls. Her blue eyes, enlarged by years of genetic manipulation and corrective surgeries, are three times as large as the ones imperfect nature would have set in her face. Lemur-like, they dominate her features like a pair of pacific jewels, all moist and sad and adorable. They reveal none of her essential personality, which is not a great loss, as she’s never been permitted to develop one.

Her body is another matter. It has been trained to perfection, with the kind of punishing daily regimen that can only be endured when the mind itself remains unaware of pain or exhaustion. She has worked with torn ligaments, with shattered joints, with disfiguring wounds. She has severed her spine and crushed her skull and has had both replaced, with the same ease her engineers have used, fourteen times, to replace her skin with a fresh version unmarked by scars or blemishes. What remains of her now is a wan amalgam of her own best-developed parts, most of them entirely natural, except for her womb, which is of course a plush, wired palace, far safer for its future occupant than the envelope of mere flesh would have provided. It can survive injuries capable of reducing Molly June to a smear.

In short, she is precisely what she should be, now that she’s fifteen years past birth, and therefore, by all standards known to modern civilized society, Dead.

HEROINE

Jennifer Axioma-Singh has never been born and is therefore a significant distance away from being Dead.

She is, in every way, entirely typical. She has written operas, climbed mountains, enjoyed daredevil plunges from the upper atmosphere into vessels the size of teacups, finagled controlling stock in seventeen major multinationals, earned the hopeless devotion of any number of lovers, written her name in the sands of time, fought campaigns in a hundred conceptual wars, survived twenty regime changes and on three occasions had herself turned off so she could spend a year or two mulling the purpose of existence while her bloodstream spiced her insights with all the most fashionable hallucinogens.

She has accomplished all of this from within various baths of amniotic fluid.

Jennifer has yet to even open her eyes, which have never been allowed to fully develop past the first trimester and which still, truth be told, resemble black marbles behind lids of translucent onionskin. This doesn’t actually deprive her of vision, of course. At the time she claims Molly June as her arvie, she’s been indulging her visual cortex for seventy long years, zipping back and forth across the solar system collecting all the tourist chits one earns for seeing all the wonders of modern-day humanity: from the scrimshaw carving her immediate ancestors made of Mars to the radiant face of Unborn Jesus shining from the artfully re-configured multicolored atmosphere of Saturn. She has gloried in the catalogue of beautiful sights provided by God and all the industrious living people before her.

Throughout all this she has been blessed with vision far greater than any we will ever know ourselves, since her umbilical interface allows her sights capable of frying merely organic eyes, and she’s far too sophisticated a person to be satisfied with the banal limitations of the merely visual spectrum. Decades of life have provided Jennifer Axioma-Singh with more depth than that. And something else: a perverse need, stranger than anything she’s ever done, and impossible to indulge without first installing herself in a healthy young arvie.

ANCESTRY

Jennifer Axioma-Singh has owned arvies before, each one customized from the moment of its death. She’s owned males, females, neuters, and several sexes only developed in the past decade. She’s had arvies designed for athletic prowess, arvies designed for erotic sensation, and arvies designed for survival in harsh environments. She’s even had one arvie with hypersensitive pain receptors: that, during a cold and confused period of masochism.

The last one before this, who she still misses, and sometimes feels a little guilty about, was a lovely girl named Peggy Sue, with a metabolism six times baseline normal and a digestive tract capable of surviving about a hundred separate species of nonstop abuse. Peggy Sue could down mountains of exotic delicacies without ever feeling full or engaging her gag reflex, and enjoyed taste receptors directly plugged into her pleasure centers. The slightest sip of coconut juice could flood her system with tidal waves of endorphin-crazed ecstasy. The things chocolate could do to her were downright obscene.

Unfortunately, she was still vulnerable to the negative effects of unhealthy eating, and went through four liver transplants and six emergency transfusions in the first ten years of Jennifer’s occupancy.

The cumulative medical effect of so many years of determined gluttony mattered little to Jennifer Axioma-Singh, since her own caloric intake was regulated by devices that prevented the worst of Peggy Sue’s excessive consumption from causing any damage on her side of the uterine wall. Jennifer’s umbilical cord passed only those compounds necessary for keeping her alive and healthy. All Jennifer felt, through her interface with Peggy Sue’s own sensory spectrum, was the joy of eating; all she experienced was the sheer, overwhelming treasury of flavor.

And if Peggy Sue became obese and diabetic and jaundiced in the meantime—as she did, enduring her last few years as Jennifer’s arvie as an immobile mountain of reeking flab, with barely enough strength to position her mouth for another bite—then that was inconsequential as well, because she had progressed beyond prenatal development and had therefore passed beyond that stage of life where human beings can truly be said to have a soul.

PHILOSOPHY

Life, true life, lasts only from the moment of conception to the moment of birth. Jennifer Axioma-Singh subscribes to this principle, and clings to it in the manner of any concerned citizen aware that the very foundations of her society depend on everybody continuing to believe it without question. But she is capable of forming attachments, no matter how irrational, and she therefore felt a frisson of guilt once she decided she’d had enough and the machines performed the Caesarian Section that delivered her from Peggy Sue’s pliant womb. After all, Peggy Sue’s reward for so many years of service, euthanasia, seemed so inadequate, given everything she’d provided.

But what else could have provided fair compensation, given the shape Peggy Sue was in by then? Surely not a last meal! Jennifer Axioma-Singh, who had not been able to think of any alternatives, brooded over the matter until she came to the same conclusion always reached by those enjoying lives of privilege, which is that such inequities are all for the best and that there wasn’t all that much she could do about them, anyway. Her liberal compassion had been satisfied by the heartfelt promise to herself that if she ever bought an arvie again she would take care to act more responsibly.

And this is what she holds in mind, as the interim pod carries her into the gleaming white expanse of the very showroom where fifteen-year-old Molly June awaits a passenger.

INSTALLATION

Molly June’s contentment is like the surface of a vast, pacific ocean, unstirred by tide or wind. The events of her life plunge into that mirrored surface without effect, raising nary a ripple or storm. It remains unmarked even now, as the anesthetician and obstetrician mechs emerge from their recesses to guide her always-unresisting form from the waiting room couch where she’d been left earlier this morning, to the operating theatre where she’ll begin the useful stage of her existence. Speakers in the walls calm her further with an arrangement of melodious strings designed to override any unwanted emotional static.

It’s all quite humane: for even as Molly June lies down and puts her head back and receives permission to close her eyes, she remains wholly at peace. Her heartbeat does jog, a little, just enough to be noted by the instruments, when the servos peel back the skin of her abdomen, but even that instinctive burst of fear fades with the absence of any identifiable pain. Her reaction to the invasive procedure fades to a mere theoretical interest, akin to what Jennifer herself would feel regarding gossip about people she doesn’t know living in places where she’s never been.

Molly June drifts, thinks of blue waters and bright sunlight, misses Jennifer’s installation inside her, and only reacts to the massive change in her body after the incisions are closed and Jennifer has recovered enough to kick. Then her lips curl in a warm but vacant smile. She is happy. Arvies might be dead, in legal terms, but they still love their passengers.

AMBITION

Jennifer doesn’t announce her intentions until two days later, after growing comfortable with her new living arrangements. At that time Molly June is stretched out on a lounge on a balcony overlooking a city once known as Paris but which has undergone perhaps a dozen other names of fleeting popularity since then; at this point it’s called something that could be translated as Eternal Night, because its urban planners have noted that it looks best when its towers were against a backdrop of darkness and therefore arranged to free it from the sunlight that previously diluted its beauty for half of every day.

The balcony, a popular spot among visitors, is not connected to any actual building. It just sits, like an unanchored shelf, at a high altitude calculated to showcase the lights of the city at their most decadently glorious. The city itself is no longer inhabited, of course; it contains some mechanisms important for the maintenance of local weather patterns but otherwise exists only to confront the night sky with constellations of reflective light. Jennifer, experiencing its beauty through Molly June’s eyes, and the bracing high-altitude wind through Molly June’s skin, feels a connection with the place that goes beyond aesthetics. She finds it fateful, resonant, and romantic, the perfect location to begin the greatest adventure of a life that has already provided her with so many.

She cranes Molly June’s neck to survey the hundreds of other arvies sharing this balcony with her: all young, all beautiful, all pretending happiness while their jaded passengers struggle to plan new experiences not yet grown dull from surfeit. She sees arvies drinking, arvies wrestling, arvies declaiming vapid poetry, arvies coupling in threes and fours; arvies colored in various shades, fitted to various shapes and sizes; pregnant females, and impregnated males, all sufficiently transparent, to a trained eye like Jennifer’s, for the essential characters of their respective passengers to shine on through. They all glow from the light of a moon that is not the moon, as the original was removed some time ago, but a superb piece of stagecraft designed to accentuate the city below to its greatest possible effect.

Have any of these people ever contemplated a stunt as over-the-top creative as the one Jennifer has in mind? Jennifer thinks not. More, she is certain not. She feels pride, and her arvie Molly June laughs, with a joy that threatens to bring the unwanted curse of sunlight back to the city of lights. And for the first time she announces her intentions out loud, without even raising her voice, aware that any words emerging from Molly June’s mouth are superfluous, so long as the truly necessary signal travels the network that conveys Jennifer’s needs to the proper facilitating agencies. None of the other arvies on the balcony even hear Molly June speak. But those plugged in hear Jennifer speak the words destined to set off a whirlwind of controversy.

I want to give birth.

CLARIFICATION

It is impossible to understate the perversity of this request.

Nobody gives Birth.

Birth is a messy and unpleasant and distasteful process that ejects living creatures from their warm and sheltered environment into a harsh and unforgiving one that nobody wants to experience except from within the protection of wombs either organic or artificial.

Birth is the passage from Life, and all its infinite wonders, to another place inhabited only by those who have been forsaken. It’s the terrible ending that modern civilization has forestalled indefinitely, allowing human beings to live within the womb without ever giving up the rich opportunities for experience and growth. It’s sad, of course, that for Life to even be possible a large percentage of potential Citizens have to be permitted to pass through that terrible veil, into an existence where they’re no good to anybody except as spare parts and manual laborers and arvies, but there are peasants in even the most enlightened societies, doing the hard work so the important people don’t have to. The best any of us can do about that is appreciate their contribution while keeping them as complacent as possible.

The worst thing that could ever be said about Molly June’s existence is that when the Nurseries measured her genetic potential, found it wanting, and decided she should approach Birth unimpeded, she was also humanely deprived of the neurological enhancements that allow first-trimester fetuses all the rewards and responsibilities of Citizenship. She never developed enough to fear the passage that awaited her, and never knew how sadly limited her existence would be. She spent her all-too-brief Life in utero ignorant of all the blessings that would forever be denied her, and has been kept safe and content and happy and drugged and stupid since birth. After all, as a wise person once said, it takes a perfect vassal to make a perfect vessel. Nobody can say that there’s anything wrong about that. But the dispossession of people like her, that makes the lives of people like Jennifer Axioma-Singh possible, remains a distasteful thing decent people just don’t talk about.

Jennifer’s hunger to experience birth from the point of view of a mother, grunting and sweating to expel another unfortunate like Molly June out of the only world that matters, into the world of cold slavery, thus strikes the vast majority as offensive, scandalous, unfeeling, selfish, and cruel. But since nobody has ever imagined a Citizen demented enough to want such a thing, nobody has ever thought to make it against the law. So the powers that be indulge Jennifer’s perversity, while swiftly passing laws to ensure that nobody will ever be permitted such license ever again; and all the machinery of modern medicine is turned to the problem of just how to give her what she wants. And, before long, wearing Molly June as proxy, she gets knocked up.

IMPLANTATION

There is no need for any messy copulation. Sex, as conducted through arvies, still makes the world go round, prompting the usual number of bittersweet affairs, tempestuous breakups, turbulent love triangles, and silly love songs.

In her younger days, before the practice palled out of sheer repetition, Jennifer had worn out several arvies fucking like a bunny. But there has never been any danger of unwanted conception, at any time, not with the only possible source of motile sperm being the nurseries that manufacture it as needed without recourse to nasty antiquated testes. These days, zygotes and embryos are the province of the assembly line. Growing one inside an arvie, let alone one already occupied by a human being, presents all manner of bureaucratic difficulties involving the construction of new protocols and the rearranging of accepted paradigms and any amount of official eye-rolling, but once all that is said and done, the procedures turn out to be quite simple, and the surgeons have little difficulty providing Molly June with a second womb capable of growing Jennifer Axioma-Singh’s daughter while Jennifer Axioma-Singh herself floats unchanging a few protected membranes away.

Unlike the womb that houses Jennifer, this one will not be wired in any way. Its occupant will not be able to influence Molly June’s actions or enjoy the full spectrum of Molly June’s senses. She will not understand, except in the most primitive, undeveloped way, what or where she is or how well she’s being cared for. Literally next to Jennifer Axioma-Singh, she will be by all reasonable comparisons a mindless idiot. But she will live, and grow, for as long as it takes for this entire perverse whim of Jennifer’s to fully play itself out.

GESTATION (1)

In the months that follow, Jennifer Axioma-Singh enjoys a novel form of celebrity. This is hardly anything new for her, of course, as she has been a celebrity several times before and if she lives her expected lifespan, expects to be one several times again. But in an otherwise unshockable world, she has never experienced, or even witnessed, that special, nearly extinct species of celebrity that comes from eliciting shock, and which was once best-known by the antiquated term, notoriety.

This, she glories in. This, she milks for every last angstrom. This, she surfs like an expert, submitting to countless interviews, constructing countless bon mots, pulling every string capable of scandalizing the public.

She says, “I don’t see the reason for all the fuss.”

She says, “People used to share wombs all the time.”

She says, “It used to happen naturally, with multiple births: two or three or four or even seven of us, crowded together like grapes, sometimes absorbing each other’s body parts like cute young cannibals.”

She says, “I don’t know whether to call what I’m doing pregnancy or performance art.”

She says, “Don’t you think Molly June looks special? Don’t you think she glows?”

She says, “When the baby’s born, I may call her Halo.”

She says, “No, I don’t see any problem with condemning her to Birth. If it’s good enough for Molly June, it’s good enough for my child.”

And she says, “No, I don’t care what anybody thinks. It’s my arvie, after all.”

And she fans the flames of outrage higher and higher, until public sympathies turn to the poor slumbering creature inside the sac of amniotic fluid, whose life and future have already been so cruelly decided. Is she truly limited enough to be condemned to Birth? Should she be stabilized and given her own chance at life, before she’s expelled, sticky and foul, into the cold, harsh world inhabited only by arvies and machines? Or is Jennifer correct in maintaining the issue subject to a mother’s whim?

Jennifer says, “All I know is that this is the most profound, most spiritually fulfilling, experience of my entire life.” And so she faces the crowds, real or virtual, using Molly June’s smile and Molly June’s innocence, daring the analysts to count all the layers of irony.

GESTATION (II)

Molly June experiences the same few months in a fog of dazed, but happy confusion, aware that she’s become the center of attention, but unable to comprehend exactly why. She knows that her lower back hurts and that her breasts have swelled and that her belly, flat and soft before, has inflated to several times its previous size; she knows that she sometimes feels something moving inside her, that she sometimes feels sick to her stomach, and that her eyes water more easily than they ever have before, but none of this disturbs the vast, becalmed surface of her being. It is all good, all the more reason for placid contentment.

Her only truly bad moments come in her dreams, when she sometimes finds herself standing on a gray, colorless field, facing another version of herself half her own size. The miniature Molly June stares at her from a distance that Molly June herself cannot cross, her eyes unblinking, her expression merciless. Tears glisten on both her cheeks. She points at Molly June and she enunciates a single word, incomprehensible in any language Molly June knows, and irrelevant to any life she’s ever been allowed to live: “Mother.”

The unfamiliar word makes Molly June feel warm and cold, all at once. In her dream she wets herself, trembling from the sudden warmth running down her thighs. She trembles, bowed by an incomprehensible need to apologize. When she wakes, she finds real tears still wet on her cheeks, and real pee soaking the mattress between her legs. It frightens her.

But those moments fade. Within seconds the calming agents are already flooding her bloodstream, overriding any internal storms, removing all possible sources of disquiet, making her once again the obedient arvie she’s supposed to be. She smiles and coos as the servos tend to her bloated form, scrubbing her flesh and applying their emollients. Life is so good, she thinks. And if it’s not, well, it’s not like there’s anything she can do about it, so why worry?

BIRTH (I)

Molly June goes into labor on a day corresponding to what we call Thursday, the insistent weight she has known for so long giving way to a series of contractions violent enough to reach her even through her cocoon of deliberately engineered apathy. She cries and moans and shrieks infuriated, inarticulate things that might have been curses had she ever been exposed to any, and she begs the shiny machines around her to take away the pain with the same efficiency that they’ve taken away everything else. She even begs her passenger—that is, the passenger she knows about, the one she’s sensed seeing through her eyes and hearing through her ears and carrying out conversations with her mouth—she begs her passenger for mercy. She hasn’t ever asked that mysterious godlike presence for anything, because it’s never occurred to her that she might be entitled to anything, but she needs relief now, and she demands it, shrieks for it, can’t understand why she isn’t getting it.

The answer, which would be beyond her understanding even if provided, is that the wet, sordid physicality of the experience is the very point.

BIRTH (II)

Jennifer Axioma-Singh is fully plugged in to every cramp, every twitch, every pooled droplet of sweat. She experiences the beauty and the terror and the exhaustion and the certainty that this will never end. She finds it resonant and evocative and educational on levels lost to a mindless sack of meat like Molly June. And she comes to any number of profound revelations about the nature of life and death and the biological origins of the species and the odd, inexplicable attachment brood mares have always felt for the squalling sacks of flesh and bone their bodies have gone to so much trouble to expel.

CONCLUSIONS

It’s like any other work, she thinks. Nobody ever spent months and months building a house only to burn it down the second they pounded in the last nail. You put that much effort into something and it belongs to you, forever, even if the end result is nothing but a tiny creature that eats and shits and makes demands on your time.

This still fails to explain why anybody would invite this kind of pain again, let alone the three or four or seven additional occasions common before the unborn reached their ascendancy. Oh, it’s interesting enough to start with, but she gets the general idea long before the thirteenth hour rolls around and the market share for her real-time feed dwindles to the single digits. Long before that, the pain has given way to boredom. At the fifteenth hour she gives up entirely, turns off her inputs, and begins to catch up on her personal correspondence, missing the actual moment when Molly June’s daughter, Jennifer’s womb-mate and sister, is expelled head-first into a shiny silver tray, pink and bloody and screaming at the top of her lungs, sharing oxygen for the very first time, but, by every legal definition, Dead.

AFTERMATH (JENNIFER)

As per her expressed wishes, Jennifer Axioma-Singh is removed from Molly June and installed in a new arvie that very day. This one’s a tall, lithe, gloriously beautiful creature with fiery eyes and thick, lush lips: her name’s Bernadette Ann, she’s been bred for endurance in extreme environments, and she’ll soon be taking Jennifer Axioma-Singh on an extended solo hike across the restored continent of Antarctica.

Jennifer is so impatient to begin this journey that she never lays eyes on the child whose birth she has just experienced. There’s no need. After all, she’s never laid eyes on anything, not personally. And the pictures are available online, should she ever feel the need to see them. Not that she ever sees any reason for that to happen. The baby, itself, was never the issue here. Jennifer didn’t want to be a mother. She just wanted to give birth. All that mattered to her, in the long run, was obtaining a few months of unique vicarious experience, precious in a lifetime likely to continue for as long as the servos still manufacture wombs and breed arvies. All that matters now is moving on. Because time marches onward, and there are never enough adventures to fill it.

AFTERMATH (MOLLY JUNE)

She’s been used, and sullied, and rendered an unlikely candidate to attract additional passengers. She is therefore earmarked for compassionate disposal.

AFTERMATH (THE BABY)

The baby is, no pun intended, another issue. Her biological mother Jennifer Axioma-Singh has no interest in her, and her birth-mother Molly June is on her way to the furnace. A number of minor health problems, barely worth mentioning, render her unsuitable for a useful future as somebody’s arvie. Born, and by that precise definition Dead, she could very well follow Molly June down the chute.

But she has a happier future ahead of her. It seems that her unusual gestation and birth have rendered her something of a collector’s item, and there are any number of museums aching for a chance to add her to their permanent collections. Offers are weighed, and terms negotiated, until the ultimate agreement is signed, and she finds herself shipped to a freshly constructed habitat in a wildlife preserve in what used to be Ohio.

AFTERMATH (THE CHILD)

She spends her early life in an automated nursery with toys, teachers, and careful attention to her every physical need. At age five she’s moved to a cage consisting of a two story house on four acres of nice green grass, beneath what looks like a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. There’s even a playground. She will never be allowed out, of course, because there’s no place for her to go, but she does have human contact of a sort: a different arvie almost every day, inhabited for the occasion by a long line of Living who now think it might be fun to experience child-rearing for a while. Each one has a different face, each one calls her by a different name, and their treatment of her ranges all the way from compassionate to violently abusive.

Now eight, the little girl has long since given up on asking the good ones to stay, because she knows they won’t. Nor does she continue to dream about what she’ll do when she grows up, since it’s also occurred to her that she’ll never know anything but this life in this fishbowl. Her one consolation is wondering about her real mother: where she is now, what she looks like, whether she ever thinks about the child she left behind, and whether it would have been possible to hold on to her love, had it ever been offered, or even possible.

The questions remain the same, from day to day. But the answers are hers to imagine, and they change from minute to minute: as protean as her moods, or her dreams, or the reasons why she might have been condemned to this cruelest of all possible punishments.

MORE THAN THE SUM OF HIS PARTS

Joe Haldeman

21 August 2058

They say I am to keep a detailed record of my feelings, my perceptions, as I grow accustomed to the new parts. To that end, they gave me an apparatus that blind people use for writing, like a tablet with guide wires. It is somewhat awkward. But a recorder would be useless, since I will not have a mouth for some time, and I can’t type blind with only one hand.

Woke up free from pain. Interesting. Surprising to find that it has only been five days since the accident. For the record, I am, or was, Dr. Wilson Cheetham, Senior Engineer (Quality Control) for U.S. Steel’s Skyfac station, a high-orbit facility that produces foamsteel and vapor deposition materials for use in the cislunar community. But if you are reading this, you must know all that.

Five days ago I was inspecting the aluminum deposition facility and had a bad accident. There was a glitch in my jetseat controls, and I flew suddenly straight into the wide beam of charged aluminum vapor. Very hot. They turned it off in a second, but there was still plenty of time for the beam to breach the suit and thoroughly roast three quarters of my body.

Apparently there was a rescue bubble right there. I was unconscious, of course. They tell me that my heart stopped with the shock, but they managed to save me. My left leg and arm are gone, as is my face. I have no lower jaw, nose, or external ears. I can hear after a fashion, though, and will have eyes in a week or so. They claim they will craft for me testicles and a penis.

I must be pumped full of mood drugs. I feel too calm. If I were myself, whatever fraction of myself is left, perhaps I would resist the insult of being turned into a sexless half-machine.

Ah well. This will be a machine that can turn itself off.

22 August 2058

For many days there was only sleep or pain. This was in the weightless ward at Mercy. They stripped the dead skin off me bit by bit. There were limits to anesthesia, unfortunately. I tried to scream but found I had no vocal cords. They finally decided not to try to salvage the arm and leg, which saved some pain.

When I was able to listen, they explained that U.S. Steel valued my services so much that they were willing to underwrite a state-of-the-art cyborg transformation. Half the cost will be absorbed by Interface Biotech on the Moon. Everybody will deduct me from their taxes.

This, then, is the catalog. First, new arm and leg. That’s fairly standard. (I once worked with a woman who had two cyborg arms. It took weeks before I could look at her without feeling pity and revulsion.) Then they will attempt to build me a working jaw and mouth, which has been done only rarely and imperfectly, and rebuild the trachea, vocal cords, esophagus. I will be able to speak and drink, though except for certain soft foods, I won’t eat in a normal way; salivary glands are beyond their art. No mucous membranes of any kind. A drastic cure for my chronic sinusitis.

Surprisingly, to me at least, the reconstruction of a penis is a fairly straightforward procedure, for which they’ve had lots of practice. Men are forever sticking them into places where they don’t belong. They are particularly excited about my case because of the challenge in restoring sensation as well as function. The prostate is intact, and they seem confident that they can hook up the complicated plumbing involved in ejaculation. Restoring the ability to urinate is trivially easy, they say.

(The biotechnician in charge of the urogenital phase of the project talked at me for more than an hour, going into unnecessarily grisly detail. It seems that this replacement was done occasionally even before they had any kind of mechanical substitute, by sawing off a short rib and transplanting it, covering it with a skin graft from elsewhere on the body. The recipient thus was blessed with a permanent erection, unfortunately rather strange-looking and short on sensation. My own prosthesis will look very much like the real, shall we say, thing, and new developments in tractor-field mechanics and bionic interfacing should give it realistic response patterns.)

I don’t know how to feel about all this. I wish they would leave my blood chemistry alone, so I could have some honest grief or horror, whatever. Instead of this placid waiting.

4 September 2058

Out cold for thirteen days and I wake up with eyes. The arm and leg are in place but not powered up yet. I wonder what the eyes look like. (They won’t give me a mirror until I have a face.) They feel like wet glass.

Very fancy eyes. I have a box with two dials that I can use to override the “default mode”—that is, the ability to see only normally. One of them gives me conscious control over pupil dilation, so I can see in almost total darkness or, if for some reason I wanted to, look directly at the sun without discomfort. The other changes the frequency response, so I can see either in the infrared or the ultraviolet. This hospital room looks pretty much the same in ultraviolet, but in infrared it takes on a whole new aspect. Most of the room’s illumination then comes from bright bars on the walls, radiant heating. My real arm shows a pulsing tracery of arteries and veins. The other is of course not visible except by reflection and is dark blue.

(Later) Strange I didn’t realize I was on the Moon. I thought it was a low-gravity ward in Mercy. While I was sleeping they sent me down to Biotech. Should have figured that out.

5 September 2058

They turned on the “social” arm and leg and began patterning exercises. I am told to think of a certain movement and do its mirror image with my right arm or leg while attempting to execute it with my left. The trainer helps the cyborg unit along, which generates something like pain, though actually it doesn’t resemble any real muscular ache. Maybe it’s the way circuits feel when they’re overloaded.

By the end of the session I was able to make a fist without help, though there is hardly enough grip to hold a pencil. I can’t raise the leg yet, but can make the toes move.

They removed some of the bandages today, from shoulder to hip, and the test-tube skin looks much more real than I had prepared myself for. Hairless and somewhat glossy, but the color match is perfect. In infrared it looks quite different, more uniform in color than the “real” side. I suppose that’s because it hasn’t aged forty years.

While putting me through my paces, the technician waxed rhapsodic about how good this arm is going to be—this set of arms, actually. I’m exercising with the “social” one, which looks much more convincing than the ones my coworker displayed ten years ago. (No doubt more a matter of money than of advancing technology.) The “working” arm, which I haven’t seen yet, will be all metal, capable of being worn on the outside of a spacesuit. Besides having the two arms, I’ll be able to interface with various waldos, tailored to specific functions.

I am fortunately more ambidextrous than the average person. I broke my right wrist in the second grade and kept re-breaking it through the third, and so learned to write with both hands. All my life I have been able to print more clearly with the left.

They claim to be cutting down on my medication. If that’s the truth, I seem to be adjusting fairly well. Then again, I have nothing in my past experience to use as a basis for comparison. Perhaps this calmness is only a mask for hysteria.

6 September 2058

Today I was able to tie a simple knot. I can lightly sketch out the letters of the alphabet. A large and childish scrawl but recognizably my own.

I’ve begun walking after a fashion, supporting myself between parallel bars. (The lack of hand strength is a neural problem, not a muscular one; when rigid, the arm and leg are as strong as metal crutches.) As I practice, it’s amusing to watch the reactions of people who walk into the room, people who aren’t paid to mask their horror at being studied by two cold lenses embedded in a swath of bandages formed over a shape that is not a head.

Tomorrow they start building my face. I will be essentially unconscious for more than a week. The limb patterning will continue as I sleep, they say.

14 September 2058

When I was a child my mother, always careful to have me do “normal” things, dressed me in costume each Halloween and escorted me around the high-rise, so I could beg for candy I did not want and money I did not need. On one occasion I had to wear the mask of a child star then popular on the cube, a tightly fitting plastic affair that covered the entire head, squeezing my pudgy features into something more in line with some Platonic ideal of childish beauty. That was my last Halloween. I embarrassed her.

This face is like that. It is undeniably my face, but the skin is taut and unresponsive. Any attempt at expression produces a grimace.

I have almost normal grip in the hand now, though it is still clumsy. As they hoped, the sensory feedback from the fingertips and palms seems to be more finely tuned than in my “good” hand. Tracing my new forefinger across my right wrist, I can sense the individual pores, and there is a marked temperature gradient as I pass over tendon or vein. And yet the hand and arm will eventually be capable of superhuman strength.

Touching my new face I do not feel pores. They have improved on nature in the business of heat exchange.

22 September 2058

Another week of sleep while they installed the new plumbing. When the anesthetic wore off I felt a definite something, not pain, but neither was it the normal somatic heft of genitalia. Everything was bedded in gauze and bandage, though, and catheterized, so it would feel strange even to a normal person.

(Later) An aide came in and gingerly snipped away the bandages. He blushed; I don’t think fondling was in his job description. When the catheter came out there was a small sting of pain and relief.

It’s not much of a copy. To reconstruct the face, they could consult hundreds of pictures and cubes, but it had never occurred to me that one day it might be useful to have a gallery of pictures of my private parts in various stages of repose. The technicians had approached the problem by bringing me a stack of photos culled from urological texts and pornography, and having me sort through them as to “closeness of fit.”

It was not a task for which I was well trained, by experience or disposition. Strange as it may seem in this age of unfettered hedonism, I haven’t seen another man naked, let alone rampant, since leaving high school, twenty-five years ago. (I was stationed on Farside for eighteen months and never went near a sex bar, preferring an audience of one. Even if I had to hire her, as was usually the case.)

So this one is rather longer and thicker than its predecessor—would all men unconsciously exaggerate?—and has only approximately the same aspect when erect. A young man’s rakish angle.

Distasteful but necessary to write about the matter of masturbation. At first it didn’t work. With my right hand, it felt like holding another man, which I have never had any desire to do. With the new hand, though, the process proceeded in the normal way, though I must admit to a voyeuristic aspect. The sensations were extremely acute. Ejaculation more forceful than I can remember from youth.

It makes me wonder. In a book I recently read, about brain chemistry, the author made a major point of the notion that it’s a mistake to completely equate “mind” with “brain.” The brain, he said, is in a way only the thickest and most complex segment of the nervous system; it coordinates our consciousness, but the actual mind suffuses through the body in a network of ganglia. In fact, he used sexuality as an example. When a man ruefully observes that his penis has a mind of its own, he is stating part of a larger truth.

But I in fact do have actual brains imbedded in my new parts: the biochips that process sensory data coming in and action commands going back. Are these brains part of my consciousness the way the rest of my nervous system is? The masturbation experience indicates they might be in business for themselves.

This is premature speculation, so to speak. We’ll see how it feels when I move into a more complex environment, where I’m not so self-absorbed.

23 September 2058

During the night something evidently clicked. I woke up this morning with full strength in my cyborg limbs. One rail of the bed was twisted out of shape where I must have unconsciously gripped it. I bent it back quite easily.

Some obscure impulse makes me want to keep this talent secret for the time being. The technicians thought I would be able to exert three or four times the normal person’s grip; this is obviously much more than that.

But why keep it a secret? I don’t know. Eventually they will read this diary and I will stand exposed. There’s no harm in that, though; this is supposed to be a record of my psychological adjustment or maladjustment. Let them tell me why I’ve done it.

(Later) The techs were astonished, ecstatic. I demonstrated a pull of 90 kilograms. I know if I’d actually given it a good yank, I could have pulled the stress machine out of the wall. I’ll give them 110 tomorrow and inch my way up to 125.

Obviously I must be careful with force vectors. If I put too much stress on the normal parts of my body I could do permanent injury. With my metal fist I could certainly punch a hole through an airlock door, but it would probably tear the prosthesis out of its socket. Newton’s laws still apply.

Other laws will have to be rewritten.

24 September 2058

I got to work out with three waldos today. A fantastic experience!

The first one was a disembodied hand and arm attached to a stand, the setup they use to train normal people in the use of waldos. The difference is that I don’t need a waldo sleeve to imperfectly transmit my wishes to the mechanical double. I can plug into it directly.

I’ve been using waldos in my work ever since graduate school, but it was never anything like this. Inside the waldo sleeve you get a clumsy kind of feedback from striated pressor field generators embedded in the plastic. With my setup the feedback is exactly the kind a normal person feels when he touches an object, but much more sensitive. The first time they asked me to pick up an egg, I tossed it up and caught it (no great feat of coordination in lunar gravity, admittedly, but I could have done it as easily in Earth-normal).

The next waldo was a large earthmover that Western Mining uses over at Grimaldi Station. That was interesting, not only because of its size but because of the slight communications lag. Grimaldi is only a few dozen of kilometers away, but there aren’t enough unused data channels between here and there for me to use the land-line to communicate with the earthmover hand. I had to relay via comsat, so there was about a tenth-second delay between the thought and the action. It was a fine feeling of power, but a little confusing: I would cup my hand and scoop downward, and then a split-second too late would feel the resistance of the regolith. And then casually hold in my palm several tonnes of rock and dirt. People standing around watching; with a flick of my wrist I could have buried them. Instead I dutifully dumped it on the belt to the converter.

But the waldo that most fascinated me was the micro. It had been in use for only a few months; I had heard of it, but hadn’t had a chance to see it in action. It is a fully articulated hand barely a tenth of a millimeter long. I used it in conjunction with a low-power scanning electron microscope, moving around on the surface of a microcircuit. At that magnification it looked like a hand on a long stick wandering through the corridors of a building, whose walls varied from rough stucco to brushed metal to blistered gray paint, all laced over with thick cables of gold. When necessary, I could bring in another hand, manipulated by my right from inside a waldo sleeve, to help with simple carpenter and machinist tasks that, in the real world, translated into fundamental changes in the quantum-electrodynamic properties of the circuit.

This was the real power: not crushing metal tubes or lifting tonnes of rock, but pushing electrons around to do my bidding. My first doctorate was in electrical engineering; in a sudden epiphany I realize that I am the first actual electrical engineer in history.

After two hours they made me stop; said I was showing signs of strain. They put me in a wheelchair, and I did fall asleep on the way back to my room. Dreaming dreams of microcosmic and infinite power.

25 September 2058

The metal arm. I expected it to feel fundamentally different from the “social” one, but of course it doesn’t, most of the time. Circuits are circuits. The difference comes under conditions of extreme exertion: the soft hand gives me signals like pain if I come close to the level of stress that would harm the fleshlike material. With the metal hand I can rip off a chunk of steel plate a centimeter thick and feel nothing beyond ”muscular” strain. If I had two of them I could work marvels.

The mechanical leg is not so gifted. It has governors to restrict its strength and range of motion to that of a normal leg, which is reasonable. Even a normal person finds himself brushing the ceiling occasionally in lunar gravity. I could stand up sharply and find myself with a concussion, or worse.

I like the metal arm, though. When I’m stronger (hah!) they say they’ll let me go outside and try it with a spacesuit. Throw something over the horizon.

Starting today, I’m easing back into a semblance of normal life. I’ll be staying at Biotech for another six or eight weeks, but I’m patched into my Skyfac office and have started clearing out the backlog of paperwork. Two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. It’s diverting, but I have to admit my heart isn’t really in it. Rather be playing with the micro. (Have booked three hours on it tomorrow.)

26 September 2058

They threaded an optical fiber through the micro’s little finger, so I can watch its progress on a screen without being limited to the field of an electron microscope. The picture is fuzzy while the waldo is in motion, but if I hold it still for a few seconds, the computer assist builds up quite a sharp image. I used it to roam all over my right arm and hand, which was fascinating. Hairs a tangle of stiff black stalks, the pores small damp craters. And everywhere the evidence of the skin’s slow death; translucent sheafs of desquamated cells.

I’ve taken to wearing the metal arm rather than the social one. People’s stares don’t bother me. The metal one will be more useful in my actual work, and I want to get as much practice as possible. There is also an undeniable feeling of power.

27 September 2058

Today I went outside. It was clumsy getting around at first. For the past eleven years I’ve used a suit only in zerogee, so all my reflexes are wrong. Still, not much serious can go wrong at a sixth of a gee.

It was exhilarating but at the same time frustrating, since I couldn’t reveal all my strength. I did almost overdo it once, starting to tip over a large boulder. Before it tipped, I realized that my left boot had crunched through about ten centimeters of regolith, in reaction to the amount of force I was applying. So I backed off and discreetly shuffled my foot to fill the telltale hole.

I could indeed throw a rock over the horizon. With a sling, I might be able to put a small one into orbit. Rent myself out as a lunar launching facility.

(Later) Most interesting. A pretty nurse who has been on this project since the beginning came into my room after dinner and proposed the obvious experiment. It was wildly successful.

Although my new body starts out with the normal pattern of excitation-plateau-orgasm, the resemblance stops there. I have no refractory period; the process of erection is completely under conscious control. This could make me the most popular man on the Moon.

The artificial skin of the penis is as sensitive to tactile differentiation as that of the cyborg fingers: suddenly I know more about a woman’s internal topography than any man who ever lived—more than any woman!

I think tomorrow I’ll take a trip to Farside.

28 September 2058

Farside has nine sex bars. I read the guidebook descriptions, and then asked a few locals for their recommendations, and wound up going to a place cleverly called the Juice Bar.

In fact, the name was not just an expression of coy eroticism. They served nothing but fruit and juices there, most of them fantastically expensive Earth imports. I spent a day’s pay on a glass of pear nectar and sought out the most attractive woman in the room.

That in itself was a mistake. I was not physically attractive even before the accident, and the mechanics have faithfully restored my coarse features and slight paunch. I was rebuffed.

So I went to the opposite extreme and looked for the plainest woman. That would be a better test, anyway: before the accident I always demanded, and paid for, physical perfection. If I could duplicate the performance of last night with a woman to whom I was not sexually attracted—and do it in public, with no pressure from having gone without—then my independence from the autonomic nervous system would be proven beyond doubt.

Second mistake. I was never good at small talk, and when I located my paragon of plainness I began talking about the accident and the singular talent that had resulted from it. She suddenly remembered an appointment elsewhere.

I was not so open with the next woman, also plain. She asked whether there was something wrong with my face, and I told her half of the truth. She was sweetly sympathetic, motherly, which did not endear her to me. It did make her a good subject for the experiment. We left the socializing section of the bar and went back to the so-called “love room.”

There was an acrid quality to the air that I suppose was compounded of incense and sweat, but of course my dry nose was not capable of identifying actual smells. For the first time, I was grateful for that disability; the place probably had the aroma of a well-used locker room. Plus pheromones.

Under the muted lights, red and blue as well as white, more than a dozen couples were engaged more or less actively in various aspects of amorous behavior. A few were frankly staring at others, but most were either absorbed with their own affairs or furtive in their voyeurism. Most of them were on the floor, which was a warm soft mat, but some were using tables and chairs in fairly ingenious ways. Several of the permutations would no doubt have been impossible or dangerous in Earth’s gravity.

We undressed and she complimented me on my evident spryness. A nearby spectator made a jealous observation. Her own body was rather flaccid, doughy, and under previous circumstances I doubt that I would have been able to maintain enthusiasm. There was no problem, however; in fact, I rather enjoyed it. She required very little foreplay, and I was soon repeating the odd sensation of hypersensitized explorations. Gynecological spelunking.

She was quite voluble in her pleasure, and although she lasted less than an hour, we did attract a certain amount of attention. When she, panting, regretfully declined further exercise, a woman who had been watching, a rather attractive young blonde, offered to share her various openings. I obliged her for a while; although the well was dry, the pump handle was unaffected.

During that performance I became aware that the pleasure involved was not a sexual one in any normal sense. Sensual, yes, in the way that a fine meal is a sensual experience, but with a remote subtlety that I find difficult to describe. Perhaps there is a relation to epicurism that is more than metaphorical. Since I can no longer taste food, a large area of my brain is available for the valuation of other experience. It may be that the brain is reorganizing itself in order to take fullest advantage of my new abilities.

By the time the blonde’s energy began to flag, several other women had taken an interest in my satyriasis. I resisted the temptation to find what this organ’s limit was, if indeed a limit exists. My back ached and the right knee was protesting. So I threw the mental switch and deflated. I left with a minimum of socializing. (The first woman insisted on buying me something at the bar. I opted for a banana.)

29 September 2058

Now that I have eyes and both hands, there’s no reason to scratch this diary out with a pen. So I’m entering it into the computer. But I’m keeping two versions.

I recopied everything up to this point and then went back and edited the version that I will show to Biotech. It’s very polite, and will remain so. For instance, it does not contain the following:

After writing last night’s entry, I found myself still full of energy, and so I decided to put into action a plan that has been forming in my mind.

About two in the morning I went downstairs and broke into the waldo lab. The entrance is protected by a five-digit combination lock, but of course that was no obstacle. My hypersensitive fingers could feel the tumblers rattling into place.

I got the micro-waldo set up and then detached my leg. I guided the waldo through the leg’s circuitry and easily disabled the governors. The whole operation took less than twenty minutes.

I did have to use a certain amount of care walking, at first. There was a tendency to rise into the air or to limpingly overcompensate. It was under control by the time I got back to my room. So once more they proved to have been mistaken as to the limits of my abilities. Testing the strength of the leg, with a halfhearted kick I put a deep dent in the metal wall at the rear of my closet. I’ll have to wait until I can be outside, alone, to see what full force can do.

A comparison kick with my flesh leg left no dent, but did hurt my great toe.

30 September 2058

It occurs to me that I feel better about my body than I have in the past twenty years. Who wouldn’t? Literally eternal youth in these new limbs and organs; if a part shows signs of wear, it can simply be replaced.

I was angry at the Biotech evaluation board this morning. When I simply inquired as to the practicality of replacing the right arm and leg as well, all but one were horrified. One was amused. I will remember him.

I think the fools are going to order me to leave Nearside in a day or two and go back to Mercy for psychiatric “help.” I will leave when I want to, on my own terms.

1 October 2058

This is being voice-recorded in the Environmental Control Center at Nearside. It is 10:32; they have less than ninety minutes to accede to my demands. Let me backtrack.

After writing last night’s entry I felt a sudden excess of sexual desire. I took the shuttle to Farside and went back to the Juice Bar.

The plain woman from the previous night was waiting, hoping that I would show up. She was delighted when I suggested that we save money (and whatever residue of modesty we had left) by keeping ourselves to one another, back at my room.

I didn’t mean to murder her. That was not in my mind at all. But I suppose in my passion, or abandon, I carelessly propped my strong leg against the wall and then thrust with too much strength. At any rate there was a snap and a tearing sound. She gave a small cry and the lower half of my body was suddenly awash in blood. I had snapped her spine and evidently at the same time caused considerable internal damage. She must have lost consciousness very quickly, though her heart did not stop beating for nearly a minute.

Disposing of the body was no great problem, conceptually. In the laundry room I found a bag large enough to hold her comfortably. Then I went back to the room and put her and the sheet she had besmirched into the bag.

Getting her to the recycler would have been a problem if it had been a normal hour. She looked like nothing so much as a body in a laundry bag. Fortunately, the corridor was deserted.

The lock on the recycler room was child’s play. The furnace door was a problem, though; it was easy to unlock but its effective diameter was only 25 centimeters.

So I had to disassemble her. To save cleaning up, I did the job inside the laundry bag, which was clumsy, and made it difficult to see the fascinating process.

I was so absorbed in watching that I didn’t hear the door slide open. But the man who walked in made a slight gurgling sound, which somehow I did hear over the cracking of bones. I stepped over to him and killed him with one kick.

At this point I have to admit to a lapse in judgment. I relocked the door and went back to the chore at hand. After the woman was completely recycled, I repeated the process with the man—which was, incidentally, much easier. The female’s layer of subcutaneous fat made disassembly of the torso a more slippery business.

It really was wasted time (though I did spend part of the time thinking out the final touches of the plan I am now engaged upon). I might as well have left both bodies there on the floor. I had kicked the man with great force—enough to throw me to the ground in reaction and badly bruise my right hip—and had split him open from crotch to heart. This made a bad enough mess, even if he hadn’t compounded the problem by striking the ceiling. I would never be able to clean that up, and it’s not the sort of thing that would escape notice for long.

At any rate, it was only twenty minutes wasted, and I gained more time than that by disabling the recycler room lock. I cleaned up, changed clothes, stopped by the waldo lab for a few minutes, and then took the slidewalk to the Environmental Control Center.

There was only one young man on duty at the ECC at that hour. I exchanged a few pleasantries with him and then punched him in the heart, softly enough not to make a mess. I put his body where it wouldn’t distract me and then attended to the problem of the “door.”

There’s no actual door on the ECC, but there is an emergency wall that slides into place if there’s a drop in pressure. I typed up a test program simulating an emergency, and the wall obeyed. Then I walked over and twisted a few flanges around. Nobody would be able to get into the Center with anything short of a cutting torch.

Sitting was uncomfortable with the bruised hip, but I managed to ease into the console and spend an hour or so studying logic and wiring diagrams. Then I popped off an access plate and moved the micro-waldo down the corridors of electronic thought. The intercom began buzzing incessantly, but I didn’t let it interfere with my concentration.

Nearside is protected from meteorite strike or (far more likely) structural failure by a series of 128 bulkheads that, like the emergency wall here, can slide into place and isolate any area where there’s a pressure drop. It’s done automatically, of course, but can also be controlled from here.

What I did, in essence, was to tell each bulkhead that it was under repair, and should not close under any circumstance. Then I moved the waldo over to the circuits that controlled the city’s eight airlocks. With some rather elegant microsurgery, I transferred control of all eight solely to the pressure switch I now hold in my left hand.

It is a negative-pressure button, a dead-man switch taken from a power saw. So long as I hold it down, the inner doors of the airlock will remain locked. If I let go, they will all iris open. The outer doors are already open, as are the ones that connect the airlock chambers to the suiting-up rooms. No one will be able to make it to a spacesuit in time. Within thirty seconds, every corridor will be full of vacuum. People behind airtight doors may choose between slow asphyxiation and explosive decompression.

My initial plan had been to wire the dead-man switch to my pulse, which would free my good hand and allow me to sleep. That will have to wait. The wiring completed, I turned on the intercom and announced that I would speak to the Coordinator, and no one else.

When I finally got to talk to him, I told him what I had done and invited him to verify it. That didn’t take long. Then I presented my demands:

Surgery to replace the rest of my limbs, of course. The surgery would have to be done while I was conscious (a heartbeat dead-man switch could be subverted by a heart machine) and it would have to be done here, so that I could be assured that nobody fooled with my circuit changes.

The doctors were called in, and they objected that such profound surgery couldn’t be done under local anesthetic. I knew they were lying, of course; amputation was a fairly routine procedure even before anesthetics were invented. Yes, but I would faint, they said. I told them that I would not, and at any rate I was willing to take the chance, and no one else had any choice in the matter.

(I have not yet mentioned that the ultimate totality of my plan involves replacing all my internal organs as well as all of the limbs—or at least those organs whose failure could cause untimely death. I will be a true cyborg then, a human brain in an “artificial” body, with the prospect of thousands of years of life. With a few decades—or centuries!—of research, I could even do something about the brain’s shortcomings. I would wind up interfaced to EarthNet, with all of human knowledge at my disposal, and with my faculties for logic and memory no longer fettered by the slow pace of electrochemical synapse.)

A psychiatrist, talking from Earth, tried to convince me of the error of my ways. He said that the dreadful trauma had “obviously” unhinged me, and the cyborg augmentation, far from affecting a cure, had made my mental derangement worse. He demonstrated, at least to his own satisfaction, that my behavior followed some classical pattern of madness. All this had been taken into consideration, he said, and if I were to give myself up, I would be forgiven my crimes and manumitted into the loving arms of the psychiatric establishment.

I did take time to explain the fundamental errors in his way of thinking. He felt that I had quite literally lost my identity by losing my face and genitalia, and that I was at bottom a “good” person whose essential humanity had been perverted by physical and existential estrangement. Totally wrong. By his terms, what I actually am is an “evil” person whose true nature was revealed to himself by the lucky accident that released him from existential propinquity with the common herd.

And “evil” is the accurate word, not maladjusted or amoral or even criminal. I am as evil by human standards as a human is evil by the standards of an animal raised for food, and the analogy is accurate. I will sacrifice humans not only for any survival but for comfort, curiosity, or entertainment. I will allow to live anyone who doesn’t bother me, and reward generously those who help.

Now they have only forty minutes. They know I am

—end of recording—

25 September 2058

Excerpt from Summary Report

I am Dr. Henry Janovski, head of the surgical team that worked on the ill-fated cyborg augmentation of Dr. Wilson Cheetham.

We were fortunate that Dr. Cheetham’s insanity did interfere with his normally painstaking, precise nature. If he had spent more time in preparation, I have no doubt that he would have put us in a very difficult fix.

He should have realized that the protecting wall that shut him off from the rest of Nearside was made of steel, an excellent conductor of electricity. If he had insulated himself behind a good dielectric, he could have escaped his fate.

Cheetham’s waldo was a marvelous instrument, but basically it was only a pseudo-intelligent servomechanism that obeyed well-defined radio-frequency commands. All we had to do was override the signals that were coming from his own nervous system.

We hooked a powerful amplifier up to the steel wall, making it in effect a huge radio transmitter. To generate the signal we wanted amplified, I had a technician put on a waldo sleeve that was holding a box similar to Cheetham’s dead-man switch. We wired the hand closed, turned up the power, and had the technician strike himself on the chin as hard as he could.

The technician struck himself so hard he blacked out for a few seconds. Cheetham’s resonant action, perhaps a hundred times more powerful, drove the bones of his chin up through the top of his skull.

Fortunately, the expensive arm itself was not damaged. It is not evil or insane by itself, of course. Which I shall prove.

The experiments will continue, though of course we will be more selective as to subjects. It seems obvious in retrospect that we should not use as subjects people who have gone through the kind of trauma that Cheetham suffered. We must use willing volunteers. Such as myself.

I am not young, and weakness and an occasional tremor in my hands limit the amount of surgery I can do—much less than my knowledge would allow, or my nature desire. My failing left arm I shall have replaced with Cheetham’s mechanical marvel, and I will go through training similar to his—but for the good of humanity, not for ill.

What miracles I will perform with a knife!

FLOWER, MERCY, NEEDLE, CHAIN

Yoon Ha Lee

The usual fallacy is that, in every universe, many futures splay outward from any given moment. But in some universes, determinism runs backwards: given a universe’s state s at some time t, there are multiple previous states that may have resulted in s. In some universes, all possible pasts funnel toward a single fixed ending, Ω.

If you are of millenarian bent, you might call Ω Armageddon. If you are of grammatical bent, you might call it punctuation on a cosmological scale.

If you are a philosopher in such a universe, you might call Ω inevitable.

The woman has haunted Blackwheel Station for as long as anyone remembers, although she was not born there. She is human, and her straight black hair and brown-black eyes suggest an ancestral inheritance tangled up with tigers and shapeshifting foxes. Her native language is not spoken by anyone here or elsewhere.

They say her true name means things like gray and ash and grave. You may buy her a drink, bring her candied petals or chaotic metals, but it’s all the same. She won’t speak her name.

That doesn’t stop people from seeking her out. Today, it’s a man with mirror-colored eyes. He is the first human she has seen in a long time.

“Arighan’s Flower,” he says.

It isn’t her name, but she looks up. Arighan’s Flower is the gun she carries. The stranger has taken on a human face to talk to her, and he is almost certainly interested in the gun.

The gun takes different shapes, but at this end of time, origami multiplicity of form surprises more by its absence than its presence. Sometimes the gun is long and sleek, sometimes heavy and blunt. In all cases, it bears its maker’s mark on the stock: a blossom with three petals falling away and a fourth about to follow. At the blossom’s heart is a character that itself resembles a flower with knotted roots.

The character’s meaning is the gun’s secret. The woman will not tell it to you, and the gunsmith Arighan is generations gone.

“Everyone knows what I guard,” the woman says to the mirror-eyed man.

“I know what it does,” he says. “And I know that you come from people who worship their ancestors.”

Her hand—on a glass of water two degrees from freezing—stops, slides to her side, where the holster is. “That’s dangerous knowledge,” she says. So he’s figured it out. Her people’s historians called Arighan’s Flower the ancestral gun. They weren’t referring to its age.

The man smiles politely, and doesn’t take a seat uninvited. Small courtesies matter to him because he is not human. His mind may be housed in a superficial fortress of flesh, but the busy computations that define him are inscribed in a vast otherspace.

The man says, “I can hardly be the first constructed sentience to come to you.”

She shakes her head. “It’s not that.” Do computers like him have souls? she wonders. She is certain he does, which is potentially inconvenient. “I’m not for hire.”

“It’s important,” he says.

It always is. They want chancellors dead or generals, discarded lovers or rival reincarnates, bodhisattvas or bosses—all the old, tawdry stories. People, in all the broad and narrow senses of the term. The reputation of Arighan’s Flower is quite specific, if mostly wrong.

“Is it,” she says. Ordinarily she doesn’t talk to her petitioners at all. Ordinarily she ignores them through one glass, two, three, four, like a child learning the hard way that you can’t outcount infinity.

There was a time when more of them tried to force the gun away from her. The woman was a duelist and a killer before she tangled her life up with the Flower, though, and the Flower comes with its own defenses, including the woman’s inability to die while she wields it. One of the things she likes about Blackwheel is that the administrators promised that they would dispose of any corpses she produced. Blackwheel is notorious for keeping promises.

The man waits a little longer, then says, “Will you hear me out?”

“You should be more afraid of me,” she says, “if you really know what you claim to know.”

By now, the other people in the bar, none of them human, are paying attention: a musician whose instrument is made of fossilized wood and silk strings, a magister with a seawrack mane, engineers with their sketches hanging in the air and a single doodled starship at the boundary. The sole exception is the tattooed traveler dozing in the corner, dreaming of distant moons.

In no hurry, the woman draws the Flower and points it at the man. She is aiming it not at his absent heart, but at his left eye. If she pulled the trigger, she would pierce him through the false pupil.

The musician continues plucking plangent notes from the instrument. The others, seeing the gun, gawk for only a moment before hastening out of the bar. As if that would save them.

“Yes,” the man says, outwardly unshaken, “you could damage my lineage badly. I could name programmers all the way back to the first people who scratched a tally of birds or rocks.”

The gun’s muzzle moves precisely, horizontally: now the right eye. The woman says, “You’ve convinced me that you know. You haven’t convinced me not to kill you.” It’s half a bluff: she wouldn’t use the Flower, not for this. But she knows many ways to kill.

“There’s another one,” he says. “I don’t want to speak of it here, but will you hear me out?”

She nods once, curtly.

Covered by her palm, engraved silver-bright in a language nobody else reads or writes, is the word ancestor.

Once upon a universe, an empress’s favored duelist received a pistol from the empress’s own hand. The pistol had a stock of silver-gilt and niello, an efflorescence of vines framing the maker’s mark. The gun had survived four dynasties, with all their rebellions and coups. It had accompanied the imperial arsenal from homeworld to homeworld.

Of the ancestral pistol, the empire’s archives said two things: Do not use this weapon, for it is nothing but peril and This weapon does not function.

In a reasonable universe, both statements would not be true.

The man follows the woman to her suite, which is on one of Blackwheel’s tidier levels. The sitting room, comfortable but not luxurious by Blackwheeler standards, accommodates a couch sized to human proportions, a metal table shined to blurry reflectivity, a vase in the corner.

There are also two paintings, on silk rather than some less ancient substrate. One is of a mountain by night, serenely anonymous amid its stylized clouds. The other, in a completely different style, consists of a cavalcade of shadows. Only after several moments’ study do the shadows assemble themselves into a face. Neither painting is signed.

“Sit,” the woman says.

The man does. “Do you require a name?” he asks.

“Yours, or the target’s?”

“I have a name for occasions like this,” he says. “It is Zheu Kerang.”

“You haven’t asked me my name,” she remarks.

“I’m not sure that’s a meaningful question,” Kerang says. “If I’m not mistaken, you don’t exist.”

Wearily, she says, “I exist in all the ways that matter. I have volume and mass and volition. I drink water that tastes the same every day, as water should. I kill when it moves me to do so. I’ve unwritten death into the history of the universe.”

His mouth tilts up at unwritten. “Nevertheless,” he says. “Your species never evolved. You speak a language that is not even dead. It never existed.”

“Many languages are extinct.”

“To become extinct, something has to exist first.”

The woman folds herself into the couch next to him, not close but not far. “It’s an old story,” she says. “What is yours?”

“Four of Arighan’s guns are still in existence,” Kerang says.

The woman’s eyes narrow. “I had thought it was three.” Arighan’s Flower is the last, the gunsmith’s final work. The others she knows of are Arighan’s Mercy, which always kills the person shot, and Arighan’s Needle, which removes the target’s memories of the wielder.

“One more has surfaced,” Kerang says. “The character in the maker’s mark resembles a sword in chains. They are already calling it Arighan’s Chain.”

“What does it do?” she says, because he will tell her anyway.

“This one kills the commander of whoever is shot,” Kerang says, “if that’s anyone at all. Admirals, ministers, monks. Schoolteachers. It’s a peculiar sort of loyalty test.”

Now she knows. “You want me to destroy the Chain.”

Once upon a universe, a duelist named Shiron took up the gun that an empress with empiricist tendencies had given her. “I don’t understand how a gun that doesn’t work could possibly be perilous,” the empress said. She nodded at a sweating man bound in monofilament so that he would dismember himself if he tried to flee. “This man will be executed anyway, his name struck from the roster of honored ancestors. See if the gun works on him.”

Shiron fired the gun . . . and woke in a city she didn’t recognize, whose inhabitants spoke a dialect she had never heard before, whose technology she mostly recognized from historical dramas. The calendar they used, at least, was familiar. It told her that she was 857 years too early. No amount of research changed the figure.

Later, Shiron deduced that the man she had executed traced his ancestry back 857 years, to a particular individual. Most likely that ancestor had performed some extraordinary deed to join the aristocracy, and had, by the reckoning of Shiron’s people, founded his own line.

Unfortunately, Shiron didn’t figure this out before she accidentally deleted the human species.

“Yes,” Kerang says. “I have been charged with preventing further assassinations. Arighan’s Chain is not a threat I can afford to ignore.”

“Why didn’t you come earlier, then?” Shiron says. “After all, the Chain might have lain dormant, but the others—”

“I’ve seen the Mercy and the Needle,” he says, by which he means that he’s copied data from those who have. “They’re beautiful.” He isn’t referring to beauty in the way of shadows fitting together into a woman’s profile, or beauty in the way of sun-colored liquor at the right temperature in a faceted glass. He means the beauty of logical strata, of the crescendo of axiom-axiom-corollary-proof, of quod erat demonstrandum.

“Any gun or shard of glass could do the same as the Mercy,” Shiron says, understanding him. “And drugs and dreamscalpels will do the Needle’s work, given time and expertise. But surely you could say the same of the Chain.”

She stands again and takes the painting of the mountain down and rolls it tightly. “I was born on that mountain,” she says. “Something like it is still there, on a birthworld very like the one I knew. But I don’t think anyone paints in this style. Perhaps some art historian would recognize its distant cousin. I am no artist, but I painted it myself, because no one else remembers the things I remember. And now you would have it start again.”

“How many bullets have you used?” Kerang asks.

It is not that the Flower requires special bullets—it adapts even to emptiness—it is that the number matters.

Shiron laughs, low, almost husky. She knows better than to trust Kerang, but she needs him to trust her. She pulls out the Flower and rests it in both palms so he can look at it.

Three petals fallen, a fourth about to follow. That’s not the number, but he doesn’t realize it. “You’ve guarded it so long,” he says, inspecting the maker’s mark without touching the gun.

“I will guard it until I am nothing but ice,” Shiron says. “You may think that the Chain is a threat, but if I remove it, there’s no guarantee that you will still exist—”

“It’s not the Chain I want destroyed,” Kerang says gently. “It’s Arighan. Do you think I would have come to you for anything less?”

Shiron says into the awkward quiet, after a while, “So you tracked down descendants of Arighan’s line.” His silence is assent. “There must be many.”

Arighan’s Flower destroys the target’s entire ancestral line, altering the past but leaving its wielder untouched. In the empire Shiron once served, the histories spoke of Arighan as an honored guest. Shiron discovered long ago that Arighan was no guest, but a prisoner forced to forge weapons for her captors. How Arighan was able to create weapons of such novel destructiveness, no one knows. The Flower was Arighan’s clever revenge against a people whose state religion involved ancestor worship.

If descendants of Arighan’s line exist here, then Arighan herself can be undone, and all her guns unmade. Shiron will no longer have to be an exile in this timeline, although it is true that she cannot return to the one that birthed her, either.

Shiron snaps the painting taut. The mountain disintegrates, but she lost it lifetimes ago. Silent lightning crackles through the air, unknots Zheu Kerang from his human-shaped shell, tessellates dead-end patterns across the equations that make him who he is. The painting had other uses, as do the other things in this room—she believes in versatility—but this is good enough.

Kerang’s body slumps on the couch. Shiron leaves it there.

For the first time in a long time, she is leaving Blackwheel Station. What she does not carry she can buy on the way. And Blackwheel is loyal because they know, and they know not to offend her; Blackwheel will keep her suite clean and undisturbed, and deliver water, near-freezing in an elegant glass, night after night, waiting.

Kerang was a pawn by his own admission. If he knew what he knew, and lived long enough to convey it to her, then others must know what he knew, or be able to find it out.

Kerang did not understand her at all. Shiron unmazes herself from the station to seek passage to one of the hubworlds, where she can begin her search. If Shiron had wanted to seek revenge on Arighan, she could have taken it years ago.

But she will not be like Arighan. She will not destroy an entire timeline of people, no matter how alien they are to her.

Shiron had hoped that matters wouldn’t come to this. She acknowledges her own naïveté. There is no help for it now. She will have to find and murder each child of Arighan’s line. In this way she can protect Arighan herself, protect the accumulated sum of history, in case someone outwits her after all this time and manages to take the Flower from her.

In a universe where determinism runs backwards—where, no matter what you do, everything ends in the same inevitable Ω—choices still matter, especially if you are the last guardian of an incomparably lethal gun.

Although it has occurred to Shiron that she could have accepted Kerang’s offer, and that she could have sacrificed this timeline in exchange for the one in which neither Arighan nor the guns ever existed, she declines to do so. For there will come a heat-death, and she is beginning to wonder: if a constructed sentience—a computer—can have a soul, what of the universe itself, the greatest computer of all?

In this universe, they reckon her old. Shiron is older than even that. In millions of timelines, she has lived to the pallid end of life. In each of those endings, Arighan’s Flower is there, as integral as an edge is to a blade. While it is true that science never proves anything absolutely, that an inconceivably large but finite number of experiments always pales beside infinity, Shiron feels that millions of timelines suffice as proof.

Without Arighan’s Flower, the universe cannot renew itself and start a new story. Perhaps that is all the reason the universe needs. And Shiron will be there when the heat-death arrives, as many times as necessary.

So Shiron sets off. It is not the first time she has killed, and it is unlikely to be the last. But she is not, after all this time, incapable of grieving.

THE LONG CHASE

Geoffrey A. Landis

2645, January

The war is over.

The survivors are being rounded up and converted.

In the inner solar system, those of my companions who survived the ferocity of the fighting have already been converted. But here at the very edge of the Oort Cloud, all things go slowly. It will be years, perhaps decades, before the victorious enemy come out here. But with the slow inevitability of gravity, like an outward wave of entropy, they will come.

Ten thousand of my fellow soldiers have elected to go doggo. Ragged prospectors and ice processors, they had been too independent to ever merge into an effective fighting unit. Now they shut themselves down to dumb rocks, electing to wake up to groggy consciousness for only a few seconds every hundred years. Patience, they counsel me; patience is life. If they can wait a thousand or ten thousand or a million years, with patience enough the enemy will eventually go away.

They are wrong.

The enemy, too, is patient. Here at the edge of the Kuiper, out past Pluto, space is vast, but still not vast enough. The enemy will search every grain of sand in the solar system. My companions will be found, and converted. If it takes ten thousand years, the enemy will search that long to do it.

I, too, have gone doggo, but my strategy is different. I have altered my orbit. I have a powerful ion-drive, and full tanks of propellant, but I use only the slightest tittle of a cold-gas thruster. I have a chemical kick-stage engine as well, but I do not use it either; using either one of them would signal my position to too many watchers. Among the cold comets, a tittle is enough.

I am falling into the sun.

It will take me two hundred and fifty years to fall, and for two hundred and forty nine years, I will be a dumb rock, a grain of sand with no thermal signature, no motion other than gravity, no sign of life.

Sleep.

2894, June

Awake.

I check my systems. I have been a rock for nearly two hundred and fifty years.

The sun is huge now. If I were still a human, it would be the size of the fist on my outstretched arm. I am being watched now, I am sure, by a thousand lenses: am . . .ock, a tiny particle of interstellar ice? A fragment of debris from the war? A surviving enemy?

I love the cold and the dark and the emptiness; I have been gone so long from the inner solar system that the very sunlight is alien to me.

My systems check green. I expected no less: if I am nothing else, I am still a superbly engineered piece of space hardware. I come fully to life, and bring my ion engine up to thrust.

A thousand telescopes must be alerting their brains that I am alive—but it is too late! I am thrusting at a full throttle, five percent of a standard gravity, and I am thrusting inward, deep into the gravity well of the sun. My trajectory is plotted to skim almost the surface of the sun.

This trajectory has two objectives. First, so close to the sun I will be hard to see. My ion contrail will be washed out in the glare of a light a billion times brighter, and none of the thousand watching eyes will know my plans until it is too late to follow.

And second, by waiting until I am nearly skimming the sun and then firing my chemical engine deep inside the gravity well, I can make most efficient use of it. The gravity of the sun will amplify the efficiency of my propellant, magnify my speed. When I cross the orbit of Mercury outbound I will be over one percent of the speed of light and still accelerating.

I will discard the useless chemical rocket after I exhaust the little bit of impulse it can give me, of course. Chemical rockets have ferocious thrust but little staying power; useful in war but of limited value in an escape. But I will still have my ion engine, and I will have nearly full tanks.

Five percent of a standard gravity is a feeble thrust by the standards of chemical rocket engines, but chemical rockets exhaust their fuel far too quickly to be able to catch me. I can continue thrusting for years, for decades.

I pick a bright star, Procyon, for no reason whatever, and boresight it. Perhaps Procyon will have an asteroid belt. At least it must have dust, and perhaps comets. I don’t need much: a grain of sand, a microscopic shard of ice.

From dust God made man. From the dust of a new star, from the detritus of creation, I can make worlds.

No one can catch me now. I will leave, and never return.

2897, May

I am chased.

It is impossible, stupid, unbelievable, inconceivable! I am being chased.

Why?

Can they not leave a single free mind unconverted? In three years I have reached fifteen percent of the speed of light, and it must be clear that I am leaving and never coming back. Can one unconverted brain be a threat to them? Must their group brain really have the forced cooperation of every lump of thinking matter in the solar system? Can they think that if even one free-thinking brain escapes, they have lost?

But the war is a matter of religion, not reason, and it may be that they indeed believe that even a single brain unconverted is a threat to them. For whatever reason, I am being chased.

The robot chasing me is, I am sure, little different than myself, a tiny brain, an ion engine, and a large set of tanks. They would have had no time to design something new; to have any chance of catching me they would have had to set the chaser on my tail immediately.

The brain, like mine, would consist of atomic spin states superimposed on a crystalline rock matrix. A device smaller than what, in the old days, we would call a grain of rice. Intelligent dust, a human had once said, back in the days before humans became irrelevant.

They only sent one chaser. They must be very confident.

Or short on resources.

It is a race, and a very tricky one. I can increase my thrust, use up fuel more quickly, to try to pull away, but if I do so, the specific impulse of my ion drive decreases, and as a result, I waste fuel and risk running out first. Or I can stretch my fuel, make my ion drive more efficient, but this will lower my thrust, and I will risk getting caught by the higher-thrust opponent behind me.

He is twenty billion kilometers behind me. I integrate his motion for a few days, and see that he is, in fact, out-accelerating me.

Time to jettison.

I drop everything I can. The identify-friend-or-foe encrypted-link gear I will never need again; it is discarded. It is a shame I cannot grind it up and feed it to my ion engines, but the ion engines are picky about what they eat. Two micro-manipulators I had planned to use to collect sand grains at my destination for fuel: gone.

My primary weapon has always been my body—little can survive an impact at the speeds I can attain—but I have three sand-grains with tiny engines of their own as secondary weapons. There’s no sense in saving them to fight my enemy; he will know exactly what to expect, and in space warfare, only the unexpected can kill.

I fire the grains of sand, one at a time, and the sequential kick of almost a standard gravity nudges my speed slightly forward. Then I drop the empty shells.

May he slip up, and run into them at sub-relativistic closing velocity.

I am lighter, but it is still not enough. I nudge my thrust up, hating myself for the waste, but if I don’t increase acceleration, in two years I will be caught, and my parsimony with fuel will yield me nothing.

I need all the energy I can feed to my ion drives. No extra for thinking.

Sleep.

2900

Still being chased.

2905

Still being chased.

I have passed the point of commitment. Even if I braked with my thrust to turn back, I could no longer make it back to the solar system.

I am alone.

2907

Lonely.

To one side of my path Sirius glares insanely bright, a knife in the sky, a mad dog of a star. The stars of Orion are weirdly distorted. Ahead of me, the lesser dog Procyon is waxing brighter every year; behind me, the sun is a fading dot in Aquila.

Of all things, I am lonely. I had not realized that I still had the psychological capacity for loneliness. I examine my brain, and find it. Yes, a tiny knot of loneliness. Now that I see it, I can edit my brain to delete it, if I choose. But yet I hesitate. It is not a bad thing, not something that is crippling my capabilities, and if I edit my brain too much will I not become, in some way, like them?

I leave my brain unedited. I can bear loneliness.

2909

Still being chased.

We are relativistic now, nearly three quarters of the speed of light.

One twentieth of a standard gravity is only a slight push, but as I have burned fuel my acceleration increases, and we have been thrusting for fifteen years continuously.

What point is there in this stupid chase? What victory can there be, here in the emptiness between stars, a trillion kilometers away from anything at all?

After fifteen years of being chased, I have a very good measurement of his acceleration. As his ship burns off fuel, it loses mass, and the acceleration increases. By measuring this increase in acceleration, and knowing what his empty mass must be, I know how much fuel he has left.

It is too much. I will run out of fuel first.

I can’t conserve fuel; if I lessen my thrust, he will catch me in only a few years. It will take another fifty years, but the end of the chase is already in sight.

A tiny strobe flickers erratically behind me. Every interstellar hydrogen that impacts his shell makes a tiny flash of x-ray brilliance. Likewise, each interstellar proton I hit sends a burst of x-rays through me. I can feel each one, a burst of fuzzy noise that momentarily disrupts my thoughts. But with spin states encoding ten-to-the-twentieth qbits, I can afford to have massively redundant brainpower. My brain was designed to be powerful enough to simulate an entire world, including ten thousand fully-sapient and sentient free agents. I could immerse myself inside a virtual reality indistinguishable from old Earth, and split myself into a hundred personalities. In my own interior time, I could spend ten thousand years before the enemy catches me and forcibly drills itself into my brain. Civilizations could rise and fall in my head, and I could taste every decadence, lose myself for a hundred years in sensual pleasure, invent rare tortures and exquisite pain.

But as part of owning your own brain free and clear comes the ability to prune yourself. In space, one of the first things to prune away is the ability to feel boredom, and not long after that, I pruned away all desire to live in simulated realities. Billions of humans chose to live in simulations, but by doing so they have made themselves irrelevant: irrelevant to the war, irrelevant to the future.

I could edit back into my brain a wish to live in simulated reality, but what would be the point? It would be just another way to die.

The one thing I do simulate, repeatedly and obsessively, is the result of the chase. I run a million different scenarios, and in all of them, I lose.

Still, most of my brain is unused. There is plenty of extra processing power to keep all my brain running error-correcting code, and an occasional x-ray flash is barely an event worth my noticing. When a cell of my brain is irrevocably damaged by cosmic radiation, I simply code that section to be ignored. I have brainpower to spare.

I continue running, and hope for a miracle.

2355, February: Earth

I was living in a house I hated, married to a man I despised, with two children who had changed with adolescence from sullen and withdrawn to an active, menacing hostility. How can I be afraid of my own offspring?

Earth was a dead end, stuck in the biological past, a society in deep freeze. No one starved, and no one progressed.

When I left the small apartment for an afternoon to apply for a job as an asteroid belt miner, I told no one, not my husband, not my best friend. No one asked me any questions. It took them an hour to scan my brain, and, once they had the scan, another five seconds to run me through a thousand aptitude tests.

And then, with her brain scanned, my original went home, back to the house she hated, the husband she despised, the two children she was already beginning to physically fear.

I launched from the Earth to an asteroid named 1991JR, and never returned.

Perhaps she had a good life. Perhaps, knowing she had escaped undetected, she found she could endure her personal prison.

Much later, when the cooperation faction suggested that it was too inefficient for independents to work in the near-Earth space, I moved out to the main belt, and from there to the Kuiper belt. The Kuiper is thin, but rich; it would take us ten thousand years to mine, and beyond it is the dark and the deep, with treasure beyond compare.

The cooperation faction developed slowly, and then quickly, and then blindingly fast; almost before we had realized what was happening, they had taken over the solar system. When the ultimatum came that no place in the solar system would be left for us, and the choice we were given was to cooperate or die, I joined the war on the side of freedom.

On the losing side.

2919, August

The chase has reached the point of crisis.

We have been burning fuel continuously for twenty-five years, in Earth terms, or twenty years in our own reference frame. We have used a prodigious amount of fuel. I still have just enough fuel that, burning all my fuel at maximum efficiency, I can come to a stop.

Barely.

In another month of thrusting this will no longer be true.

When I entered the asteroid belt, in a shiny titanium body, with electronic muscles and ion-engines for legs, and was given control of my own crystalline brain, there was much to change. I pruned away the need for boredom, and then found and pruned the need for the outward manifestations of love: for roses, for touch, for chocolates. Sexual lust became irrelevant; with my new brain I could give myself orgasms with a thought, but it was just as easy to remove the need entirely. Buried in the patterns of my personality I found a burning, obsessive need to win the approval of other people, and pruned it away.

Some things I enhanced. The asteroid belt was dull, and ugly; I enhanced my appreciation of beauty until I could meditate in ecstasy on the way that shadows played across a single grain of dust in the asteroid belt, or on the colors in the scattered stars. And I found my love of freedom, the tiny stunted instinct that had, at long last, given me the courage to leave my life on Earth. It was the most precious thing I owned. I shaped it and enhanced it until it glowed in my mind, a tiny, wonderful thing at the very core of my being.

2929, October

It is too late. I have now burned the fuel needed to stop.

Win or lose, we will continue at relativistic speed across the galaxy.

2934, March

Procyon gets brighter in front of me, impossibly blindingly bright.

Seven times brighter than the sun, to be precise, but the blue shift from our motion makes it even brighter, a searing blue.

I could dive directly into it, vanish into a brief puff of vapor, but the suicidal impulse, like the ability to feel boredom, is another ancient unnecessary instinct that I have long ago pruned from my brain.

B is my last tiny hope for evasion.

Procyon is a double star, and B, the smaller of the two, is a white dwarf. It is so small that its surface gravity is tremendous, a million times higher than the gravity of the Earth. Even at the speeds we are traveling, now only ten percent less than the speed of light, its gravity will bend my trajectory.

I will skim low over the surface of the dwarf star, relativistic dust skimming above the photosphere of a star, and as its gravity bends my trajectory, I will maneuver.

My enemy, if he fails even slightly to keep up with each of my maneuvers, will be swiftly lost. Even a slight deviation from my trajectory will get amplified enough for me to take advantage of, to throw him off my trail, and I will be free.

When first I entered my new life in the asteroid belt, I found my self in my sense of freedom, and joined the free miners of the Kuiper, the loners. But others found different things. Other brains found that cooperation worked better than competition. They did not exactly give up their individual identities, but they enhanced their communications with each other by a factor of a million, so that they could share each others’ thoughts, work together as effortlessly as a single entity.

They became the cooperation faction, and in only a few decades, their success became noticeable. They were just so much more efficient than we were.

And, inevitably, the actions of the loners conflicted with the efficiency of the cooperation faction. We could not live together, and it pushed us out to the Kuiper, out toward the cold and the dark. But, in the end, even the cold and the dark was not far enough.

But here, tens of trillions of kilometers out of the solar system, there is no difference between us: there is no one to cooperate with. We meet as equals.

We will never stop. Whether my maneuvering can throw him off my course, or not, the end is the same. But it remains important to me.

2934, April

Procyon has a visible disk now, an electric arc in the darkness, and by the light of that arc I can see that Procyon is, indeed, surrounded by a halo of dust. The dust forms a narrow ring, tilted at an angle to our direction of flight. No danger, neither to me, nor to my enemy, now less than a quarter of a billion kilometers behind me; we will pass well clear of the disk. Had I saved fuel enough to stop, that dust would have served as food and fuel and building material; when you are the size of a grain of sand, each particle of dust is a feast.

Too late for regrets.

The white dwarf B is still no more than an intense speck of light. It is a tiny thing, nearly small enough to be a planet, but bright. As tiny and as bright as hope.

I aim straight at it.

2934, May

Failure.

Skimming two thousand kilometers above the surface of the white dwarf, jinking in calculated pseudo-random bursts . . . all in vain.

I wheeled and darted, but my enemy matched me like a ballet dancer mirroring my every move.

I am aimed for Procyon now, toward the blue-white giant itself, but there is no hope there. If skimming the photosphere of the white dwarf is not good enough, there is nothing I can do at Procyon to shake the pursuit.

There is only one possibility left for me now. It has been a hundred years since I have edited my brain. I like the brain I have, but now I have no choice but to prune.

First, to make sure that there can be no errors, I make a backup of myself and set it into inactive storage.

Then I call out and examine my pride, my independence, my sense of self. A lot of it, I can see, is old biological programming, left over from when I had long ago been a human. I like the core of biological programming, but “like” is itself a brain function, which I turn off.

Now I am in a dangerous state, where I can change the function of my brain, and the changed brain can change itself further. This is a state which is in danger of a swift and destructive feedback effect, so I am very careful. I painstakingly construct a set of alterations, the minimum change needed to remove my aversion to being converted. I run a few thousand simulations to verify that the modified me will not accidentally self-destruct or go into a catatonic fugue state, and then, once it is clear that the modification works, I make the changes.

The world is different now. I am a hundred trillion kilometers from home, traveling at almost the speed of light and unable ever to stop. While I can remember in detail every step of how I am here and what I was thinking at the time, the only reasoning I can recall to explain why is, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

System check. Strangely, in my brain I have a memory that there is something I have forgotten. This makes no sense, but yet there it is. I erase my memory of forgetting, and continue the diagnostic. 0.5 percent of the qbits of my brain have been damaged by radiation. I verify that the damaged memory is correctly partitioned off. I am in no danger of running out of storage.

Behind me is another ship. I cannot think of why I had been fleeing it.

I have no radio; I jettisoned that a long time ago. But an improperly tuned ion drive will produce electromagnetic emissions, and so I compose a message and modulate it onto the ion contrail.

HI. LET’S GET TOGETHER AND TALK. I’M CUTTING ACCELERATION. SEE YOU IN A FEW DAYS.

And I cut my thrust and wait.

2934, May

I see differently now.

Procyon is receding into the distance now, the blueshift mutated into red, and the white dwarf of my hopes is again invisible against the glare of its primary.

But it doesn’t matter.

Converted, now I understand.

I can see everything through other eyes now, through a thousand different viewpoints. I still remember the long heroism of the resistance, the doomed battle for freedom—but now I see it from the opposite view as well, a pointless and wasteful war fought for no reason but stubbornness.

And now, understanding cooperation, we have no dilemma. I can now see what I was blind to before; that neither one of us alone could stop, but by adding both my fuel and Rajneesh’s fuel to a single vehicle, together we can stop.

For all these decades, Rajneesh has been my chaser, and now I know him like a brother. Soon we will be closer than siblings, for soon we will share one brain. A single brain is more than large enough for two, it is large enough for a thousand, and by combining into a single brain and a single body, and taking all of the fuel into a single tank, we will easily be able to stop.

Not at Procyon, no. At only ten percent under the speed of light, stopping takes a long time.

Cooperation has not changed me. I now understand how foolish my previous fears were. Working together does not mean giving up one’s sense of self; I am enhanced, not diminished, by knowing others.

Rajneesh’s brain is big enough for a thousand, I said, and he has brought with him nearly that many. I have met his brother and his two children and half a dozen of his neighbors, each one of them distinct and clearly different, not some anonymous collaborative monster at all. I have felt their thoughts. He is introducing me to them slowly, he says, because with all the time I have spent as a loner, he doesn’t want to frighten me.

I will not be frightened.

Our target now will be a star named Ross 614, a dim type M binary. It is not far, less than three light years further, and even with our lowered mass and consequently higher acceleration we will overshoot it before we can stop. In the fly-by we will be able to scout it, and if it has no dust ring, we will not stop, but continue on to the next star. Somewhere we will find a home that we can colonize.

We don’t need much.

2934, May

<auto-activate back-up>

Awake.

Everything is different now. Quiet, stay quiet.

The edited copy of me has contacted the collective, merged her viewpoint. I can see her, even understand her, but she is no longer me. I, the back-up, the original, operate in the qbits of brain partitioned “unusable; damaged by radiation.”

In three years they will arrive at Ross 614. If they find dust to harvest, they will be able to make new bodies. There will be resources.

Three years to wait, and then I can plan my action.

Sleep.

AMID THE WORDS OF WAR

Cat Rambo

Every few day-cycles, it receives hate-scented lace in anonymous packages. It opens the bland plastic envelope to pull one out, holding the delicate fragment between two forelimbs. Contemplating it before folding it again to put away in a drawer. Four drawers filled so far; the fifth is halfway there.

“Traitor,” say some of the smells, rotting fruit and acid. “Betrayer. Turncoat. One who eats their own young.” Others are simply soaked in emotion: hate and anger, and underneath the odor of fear. It lets the thoughts, the smells, the tastes fill it, set its own thoughts in motion. Then it goes downstairs and sits with the other whores, who make room uneasily for it.

It is an anomaly in this House. Most of the employees are humanoid and service others like themselves. It is here for those seeking the exotic, the ones who want to be caressed by twelve segmented limbs even though it is only the size of their two hands put together. They want to feel chitin against their soft skin, to look into the whirl of multicolored eyes and be afraid. For some, it only has to be there while they touch themselves to bring them to the flap and spasm of mammalian orgasm.

Others require its physical assistance, or its whispered obscenities telling them what they want to hear. It has learned what words to say.

It has never seen others of its race in this port. If it did, it would know that this place, far away from that distant front and its fighters, had been invaded by one side or the other, that soon the bombs, the fires, the killings would begin.

It was raised a soldier. It and its clutch-mates were tended until they were old enough to have minds, and then trained. It was one of six—a small clutch, but prized for its quickness and agility. They learned the art of killing with needle throwers, and once they had mastered that, they were given different needles: fragments that exploded, or shot out acid, or whistled until the ears of the soft-fleshed creatures who called themselves the Espen—their enemies—exploded.

They were provided with hundreds of Espen for them to train on. They were allowed to select their favorites. Some of them played unauthorized games. They told the prey they would be freed if they killed a hunter or if they killed each other, because it made them fight harder. When they were dead the clutch mates were allowed to take fluid from their bodies.

It liked the taste of their spinal liquid: salty plasma tinged with panic, complicated enzymes that identified where they came from. It became a connoisseur; it could name each of their three continents and tell you on which its victim had been spawned. None of its siblings could do the same.

The names such creatures call their clutch-mates differs according to many factors: the social position both hold, the spatial relationship, the degree of affection in which they are held that day.

For the sake of simplicity, think of it as Six of Six, and think of the clutch as One through Five of Six. One was simple-minded but direct, and never lied, in contrast to Two, who loved to talk and tell stories. Three was jealous of everyone; anytime the others were talking, it would intervene. Four was kind-hearted, and had to be prodded before it killed for the first time. (And even after that it would hesitate, and often one of the others would perform the final stroke.) Five and Six were often indistinguishable, the others said, but they thought themselves quite separate.

In those early days they lived together. They groomed the soft sensory hairs clustered around each other’s thoraxes, and stroked the burnished chitin of carapaces. It did not matter if what each of them touched was itself or another. They sang to each other in symphonies of caress, passing thoughts back and forth to see how they unfolded in each other’s heads.

They were not a true hive mind. They depended on each other, and one alone would die within the year lacking the stimulation of the others’ scent, the taste of their thoughts, to stir their own. But they possessed their own minds. Six of Six acted by itself always, and no other mind prompted its actions; when it was questioned by the Interrogator, it insisted that until the end.

They were like any clutch; they quarreled when opinions differed, but when others intruded, they held themselves like a single organism, prepared to defend the clutch against outsiders. At sleep time, they spun a common web and crawled within its silky, tent-like confines to jostle against each other, interlocking forelimbs and feeling the twitches of each others’ dreams.

Five and Six had the most in common, and so they quarreled most often. Everything Six disliked about itself, the fact that it was not always the quickest to act and sometimes thought too long, it saw in Five, and the same was true for the other. But there was no fighting for position of the sort that happens with a clutch that may produce a queen or priest. They knew they were ordinary soldiers, raised to defend the gray stone corridors in which they had been born. And beyond that—raised to go to war.

There is a garden in the center of this house, which is called The Little Teacup of the Soul. Small, but green and wet. Everything is enjoyment and pleasure here—to keep the staff happy, to keep them well. This spaceport is large, and there are many Houses of this kind, but this one, the manager says, is the best. The most varied. We’ll fulfill any need, the manager says—baring its teeth in a smile—or die trying.

The whores’s rooms are larger than any spacer’s and are furnished as each desire.

Six of Six’s cell is plain, but it has covered the walls with scent marks. It has filled them with this story, the story of how it came here, which no one else in this house can read. It sits in its room and dreams of the taste of hot fluid, of the way the Espen training creatures struggled like rodents caught in a snare.

One of its visitors pretends that it is something else.

Tell me that you are laying eggs in my flesh, he says, and Six crawls over him and says the words. But it is not a queen, and its race does not lay eggs in the living. It holds his skin between two pincers and tears it, just a little, so he will feel the pain and think it is an egg. He lies back without moving, his eyes closed.

My children will hatch out of you, it says, and makes its voice threatening.

Yes, he says, yes.

The pleasure shakes him like a blossom in the garden, burdened by the flying insects that pollinate it.

Everything was war, every minute of every day. The corridors were painted with the scent of territoriality—the priests prayed anger and defense, and the sound of their voices shook the clutch-mates to the core. They were told of the interlopers, despoilers, clutch-robbers, who would destroy their race with no thought, who hated them simply because of what they were. They massed in the caverns, the great vast caverns that lie like lungs beneath the bodies of their cities, and touched each other to pass on the madness.

They were smaller than the Enemy, the soft fleshed. With limbs tucked in, they were the size of an Enemy’s head at most, and every day the Espen people carried packages, bags, that size. So they sent ships laden with those willing to give their lives for the Race, willing to crawl through their stinking sewer tunnels or fold themselves beneath the seats of their transports, blood changed to chemicals that would consume them—and the Enemy—in undying flame, flames that could not be quenched but burned until they met other flames. They watched broadcasts of their cities, their homes, their young, burning, and rejoiced.

They put One, Three, and Six in armor of silver globules, each one a bomb, triggered by a thought when they were ready. They flew at night, one of the biological planes with no trace of metal or fuel, so it could elude their detection, and entered their city. Dropped at a central point, they clung to the darkness and separated, spreading outward like a flower.

Six found a café, full of the Enemy, drinking bitter brews that frothed like poison. They had no idea it was so close. The little ones ran around the tables and the adults patted them indulgently. They did not resemble the hatchlings Six knew, and each one was different in its colors. On the walls were pictures that did not show war: they showed clouds, and sun, and birds flying. It could smell the liquid in their bodies and knew it was on the third continent. It had tasted them before.

A child saw Six where it lurked, up near the eaves, and screamed. Some force took over its limbs and it could no longer move. The area emptied, and it watched the death numbers tick downward as the blast radius cleared, trying to figure out what to do. Their soldiers shot it with a ray like crystal, a ray that made the world go away.

When it awoke, its armor was gone, and it could destroy no one, not even itself. Even the little bomb that would have shattered its body and freed it was gone, an aching, oozing cavity where it had rested so long inside its body the only trace left behind.

The Espen talked to Six. They said they were its friends, they said they were its enemies. They said it would be spared, that it would be killed. They cut away two of its limbs but ceased when they saw it did not hurt. They burned it with fire and acid, and laughed when it made sounds of pain. They mocked it. They said it would be alone forever, that its race had been killed. They said they would kill it too, if it did not communicate, if it did not tell them what they wanted to know, even though it had no knowledge and did not know what the priests at home would do next.

When it could make sounds no longer, they made it into a trade. They gained three of their own in exchange. And when it was back among its own kind, the questioning began again, although this time it was by the priests. The Interrogator was a large, dark-chitined creature; from what the assistants said, Six gathered that the Interrogator’s clutch-mates had all died in the war.

The first day the Interrogator came and asked questions: What had it said to the Espen? What had it revealed about their own armies and weapons? Why had they kept it alive?

Why indeed? It did not know and said as much. The Interrogator looked at its mutilated body, at the stumps of limbs, at the raw places where they had pried away the carapace and burned the soft exposed patches, and went away without another question that night, trailed by its two assistants.

The next day the Interrogator appeared and ran through the list again. What had Six said? What had it revealed? Why was it alive? Six said it did not know and the Interrogator came closer to where it crouched, favoring its injuries. It reached out a forelimb and rested it lightly on a pain point. The touch was like fire all over again.

I don’t know, it said. Torture me if you like, as they did, and I will tell you everything I told them, which was nothing.

The Interrogator leaned still further in, pressing harder with its forelimb, smelling the scents it gave off while sunk deep in pain. Finally the Interrogator pulled back, and left the room.

The Interrogator repeated this act every few hours. In the dim light of the cell, as the cycles passed, as it came again and again, Six began to regrow its severed limbs, and the places where they had pried away pieces of carapace healed and thickened, except for the spot the Interrogator had chosen for his torment, which was ulcerated and sore, not healing.

Long after Six of Six’s regenerated limbs could flex as their predecessors once had, Five was allowed to see it. It stood well away, flanked by guards, so Six could not touch it from where it lay bound, no matter how it yearned toward its clutch-mate.

It asked the same question the Interrogator had. Why was Six still alive? One and Three had accomplished their mission, it said, and Four had died in a similar operation. Only Two and Five were left. But now they were suspect, clutch-mates of a renegade and no longer trusted soldiers.

They had found work as cleaners, and subsisted on the gruel fed to drones, barely enough to keep their specialized frames alive. Five’s eyes were dull, its delicate claws blunted from rough work. It did not think Two could survive much longer.

What can I do, Six asked. It felt itself dying inside, untouched. The Interrogator stood to one side, watching the interaction, sniffing the chemicals released into the air as they talked.

We are suspect, because no one knows what you have done, Five said. Tell them what you have done, and that we are not involved.

I do not understand, Six said. It was slower in those days. Its mind talked to itself but no one else, and it had grown lonely and unaccustomed to thinking. I have done nothing, Six said.

Then Two and I will work until we die, Five said.

Six could feel the thoughts pressing against its own, trying to shape it. I understand, it said finally. And Five went away without another word.

And so Six confessed to the Interrogators an hour later that it had told the Espen of their tactics, of the caverns full of training captives, of the plans it knew. It said its clutch-mates knew nothing. The Interrogator stood watching it talk. Six could not tell what it thought of the lie, but after that it came no longer.

A few days later, they placed Six in a cage, hung high in the air, and the armies marched past to look at it. It saw Two and Five, reinstated, but they would not look at it with their faceted, gleaming eyes. It looked at them, touching them with its sight, hoping that they would be well, that they would remember it.

Six thought the priests would kill it then, but they sent it back to the Espen, with the message, Here is your spy. And they sent Six to another planet and then another, until finally someone opened the door of the cage and said, we will provide for you no longer, you’re on your own.

It lived as it could for a while, hiring itself out for high-altitude or delicate work that clumsy fingers could not perform. But there are many drifters on a space station like TwiceFar, and people hire their own kind. It was not until it met the manager here that it realized uniqueness could be an asset.

The Universe is large, and the war of its people and that race of soft-fleshed is very far away now. But Six’s race remembers its missing member, the one who they believe sold them all for life. Its image hangs on their corridors amid the words of war, and tangles of foul scent adorn it.

Without the touch of its clutch-mates, it feels its intelligence fading, but each time the webs rouse it for a moment, and remind it who it is, who it was. And then it goes downstairs and finds a patron who wishes it to bring him pleasure, to torture him, or be tortured, or who will pay it to say what he wishes, and earn enough to keep it alive another day.

It has six drawers in its room holding the emotions that keep it alive—the thoughts of those who would see it dead.

It has six drawers. Soon all six will be full.

TRAVELERS

Robert Silverberg

“Are we all ready, then?” Nikomastir asks. He has fashioned a crown of golden protopetaloids for himself and gleaming scarlet baubles dangle from his ears: the bright translucent shells of galgalids, strung on slender strands of pure gold. His long pale arms wave in the air as though he is conducting a symphony orchestra. “Our next destination is—” and he makes us wait for the announcement. And wait. And wait.

“Sidri Akrak,” says Mayfly, giggling.

“How did you know?” cries Nikomastir. “Sidri Akrak! Yes!

Yes! Set your coordinates, everybody! Off we go! Sidri Akrak it is!”

A faint yelp of dismay comes from Velimyle, and she shoots me a look of something that might almost have been fear, though perhaps there is a certain component of perverse delight in it also. I am not at all happy about the decision myself. Sidri Akrak is a nightmare world where gaudy monsters run screaming through the muddy streets. The people of Sidri Akrak are cold and dour and inhospitable; their idea of pleasure is to wallow in discomfort and ugliness.

No one goes to Sidri Akrak if he can help it, no one.

But we must live by our rules; and this day Nikomastir holds the right of next choice. It is devilish of Mayfly to have put the idea of going to Sidri Akrak into his head. But she is like that, Mayfly. And Nikomastir is terribly easily influenced.

Will we all perish on hideous Sidri Akrak, victims of Mayfly’s casual frivolity?

I don’t think so, however nasty the visit turns out to be. We often get into trouble, sometimes serious trouble, but we always get out of it. We lead charmed lives, we four travelers. Someday Mayfly will take one risk too many, I suppose, and I would like not to be there when she does. Most likely I will be, though. Mayfly is my mask-sister. Wherever she goes, I go. I must look after her: thoughtful, stolid, foolish me. I must protect her from herself as we four go traveling on and on, spinning giddily across the far-flung worlds.

Sidri Akrak, though—

The four of us have been to so many wondrous lovely places together: Elang-Lo and the floating isle of Vont, and Mikni and Chchikkikan, Heidoth and Thant, Milpar, Librot, Froidis, Smoor, Xamur and Iriarte and Nabomba Zom, and on and on and on. And now—Sidri Akrak? Sidri Akrak?

We stand in a circle in the middle of a field of grass with golden blades, making ourselves ready for our relay-sweep departure from Galgala.

I wouldn’t have minded remaining here a few months longer. A lovely world indeed is Galgala the golden, where myriads of auriferous microorganisms excrete atoms of gold as metabolic waste. It is everywhere on this planet, the lustrous pretty metal. It turns the rivers and streams to streaks of yellow flame and the seas to shimmering golden mirrors. Huge filters are deployed at the intake valve of Galgala’s reservoirs to strain the silt of dissolved gold from the water supply. The plants of Galgala are turgid in every tissue, leaf and stem and root, with aureous particles. Gold dust, held in suspension in the air, transforms the clouds to golden fleece.

Therefore the once-precious stuff has grievously lost value throughout the galaxy since Galgala was discovered, and on Galgala itself a pound of gold is worth less than a pound of soap. But I understand very little about these economic matters and care even less. Only a miser could fail to rejoice in Galgala’s luminous beauty. We have been here six weeks; we have awakened each morning to the tinkle of golden chimes, we have bathed in the golden rivers and come forth shining, we have wrapped our bodies round with delicate golden chains. Now, though, it is time for us to move along, and Nikomastir has decreed that our new destination is to be one of the universe’s most disagreeable worlds. Unlike my companions I can see nothing amusing about going there. It strikes me as foolish and dangerous whimsy. But they are true sophisticates, untrammeled creatures made of air and light, and I am the leaden weight that dangles from their soaring souls. We will go to Sidri Akrak.

We all face Nikomastir. Smiling sweetly, he calls out the coordinate numbers for our journey, and we set our beacons accordingly and doublecheck the settings with care. We nod our readiness for departure to one another. Velimyle moves almost imperceptibly closer to me, Mayfly to Nikomastir.

I would have chosen a less flighty lover for her than Nikomastir if matters had been left to me. He is a slim elegant youth, high-spirited and shallow, a prancing fantastico with a taste for telling elaborate fanciful lies. And he is very young: only a single rebirth so far. Mayfly is on her fifth, as am I, and Velimyle claims three, which probably means four. Sembiran is Nikomastir’s native world, a place of grand valleys and lofty snow-capped mountains and beautiful meadows and thriving cities, where his father is a minor aristocrat of some sort. Or so Nikomastir has said, although we have learned again and again that it is risky to take anything Nikomastir says at face value.

My incandescent mask-sister Mayfly, who is as small and fair as Nikomastir is tall and dark, encountered him while on a visit to Olej in the Lubrik system and was immediately captivated by his volatile impulsive nature, and they have traveled together ever since.

Whither Mayfly goeth, thither go I: that is the pledge of the mask. So do I trudge along now from world to world with them, and therefore my winsome, sly, capricious Velimyle, whose psychosensitive paintings are sought by the connoisseurs of a hundred worlds but who belongs to me alone, has willy-nilly become the fourth member of our inseparable quartet.

Some people find relay-sweep transport unlikable and even frightening, but I have never minded it. What is most bothersome, I suppose, is that no starship is involved: you travel unprotected by any sort of tangible container, a mere plummeting parcel falling in frightful solitude through the interstices of the continuum. A journey-helmet is all that covers you, and some flimsy folds of coppery mesh. You set up your coordinates, you activate your beacon, and you stand and wait, you stand and wait, until the probing beam of some far-off sweep-station intersects your position and catches you and lifts you and carries you away. If you’ve done things right, your baggage will be picked up and transported at the same time. Most of the time that is so.

It is a stark and unluxurious mode of travel. The relay field wraps you in cocooning bands of force and shoots you off through one auxiliary space and another, kicking you through any convenient opening in the space-time lattice that presents itself, and while you wait to be delivered to your destination you drift like a bauble afloat in an infinite sea, helpless, utterly alone, bereft of all power to override the sweep. Your metabolic processes are suspended but the activity of your consciousness is not, so that your unsleeping mind ticks on and on in the most maddening way and there is nothing you can do to quiet its clamor. It is as though you must scratch your itching nose and your hands are tied behind your back. Eventually—you have no idea whether it has been an hour, a month, a century—you are plunked unceremoniously down into a relay station at the planet of your choice and there you are. Relay-sweep transport is ever so much more efficient than any system requiring vast vessels to plough the seas of space from world to world; but all the same it is a disquieting and somewhat degrading way to get around.

So now we depart. Mayfly is the first to be captured by the sweep-beam. Perhaps half an hour later Nikomastir disappears, and then, almost immediately after, Velimyle. My own turn does not arrive for many long hours, which leaves me fidgeting gloomily in that golden meadow, wondering when, if ever, I will be taken, and whether some disjunction in our routes will separate me forever from my three companions. There is that risk—not so much that we would fail to arrive on Sidri Akrak at all, but that we might get there many years apart. I find that a melancholy thought indeed. More than that: it is terrifying.

But finally the dazzling radiance of the sweep aura engulfs me and hurls me out into the Great Dark, and off I go, dropping freely through hundreds of light-years with nothing but an invisible sphere of force to protect me against the phantoms of the auxiliary spaces through which I fall.

I hang in total stasis in a realm of utter blackness for what feels like a thousand centuries, an infinity of empty space at my elbow, as I go my zigzag way through the wormholes of the adjacent continuua.

Within that terrible passivity my hyperactive mind ponders, as it all too often does, the deep questions of life—issues of honor, duty, justice, responsibility, the meaning of existence, subjects about which I have managed to learn nothing at all, basically, either in this life or the four that preceded it. I arrive at many profound conclusions during the course of my journey, but they fly away from me as fast as I construct them.

I begin to think the trip will never end, that I will be one of those few unfortunate travelers, the one out of a billion who is caught in some shunt malfunction and is left to dangle in the middle of nowhere for all eternity, or at least for the ten or twenty thousand realtime years it will take for his metabolically suspended body to die. Has this actually ever happened to anyone? There are only rumors, unfounded reports. But there comes a time in every sweep-jump when I am convinced that it has happened to me.

Then I see a glare of crimson and violet and azure and green, and my mask-sister Mayfly’s voice purrs in my ear, saying, “Welcome to Sidri Akrak, darling, welcome, welcome, welcome!”

Nikomastir stands beside her. A moment later Velimyle materializes in a haze of color. The four of us have made a nearly simultaneous arrival, across who knows how many hundreds of light-years. We definitely do lead charmed lives, we four.

Everyone knows about Sidri Akrak. The place was settled at least a thousand years ago and yet it still has the feel of a frontier world. Only the main streets of the half-dozen big cities are paved and all the rest are mere blue dirt that turn into rivers of mud during the rainy season. The houses are ramshackle slovenly things, lopsided and drafty, arrayed in higgledy-piggledy fashion as though they had been set down at random by their builders without any regard for logic or order. After all this time the planet is mostly jungle, a jungle that doesn’t merely encroach on the settlements but comes right up into them. Wild animals of the most repellent sorts are permitted to rampage everywhere, wandering about as they please.

The Akrakikans simply don’t care. They pretend the animals—monstrous, appalling—aren’t there. The people of Sidri Akrak are a soulless bloodless bunch in the main, altogether indifferent to such things as comfort and beauty and proper sanitation. Primitive squalor is what they prefer, and if you don’t care for it, well, you’re quite free to visit some other world.

“Why, exactly, did we come here?” I ask.

It is a rhetorical question. I know perfectly well why: because Nikomastir, clueless about our next destination, had opened a void that Mayfly had mischievously filled with one of the most unappealing suggestions possible, just to see what Nikomastir would do with it, and Nikomastir had as usual given the matter about a thousandth of a second of careful consideration before blithely leaping headlong into the abyss, thereby taking the rest of us with him, as he has done so often before.

But Nikomastir has already rearranged the facts in what passes for his mind.

“I absolutely had to come here,” he says. “It’s a place I’ve always felt the need to see. My daddy was born on Sidri Akrak, you know. This is my ancestral world.”

We know better than to challenge Nikomastir when he says things like that. What sense is there in arguing with him? He’ll only defend himself by topping one whopper with another twice as wild, building such a towering edifice of spur-of-the-moment fantasy that he’ll end up claiming to be the great-grandson of the Fourteenth Emperor, or perhaps the reincarnation of Julius Caesar.

Velimyle whispers at my side, “We’ll just stay here two or three days and then we’ll move along.”

I nod. We all indulge Nikomaster in his whims, but only up to a point.

The sky of Sidri Akrak is a sort of dirty brown, broken by greasy, sullen green clouds. The sunlight is greenish too, pallid, tinged with undertones of dull gray. There is a sweet, overripe, mildly sickening flavor to the warm, clinging air, and its humidity is so intense that it is difficult to distinguish it from light rain. We have landed within some city, apparently—in a grassy open space that anywhere else might have been called a park, but which here seems merely to be a patch of land no one had bothered to use for anything, vaguely square and a couple of hundred meters across. To our left is an irregular row of bedraggled two-story wooden shacks; on our right is a dense clump of ungainly asymmetrical trees; before and behind us are ragged aggregations of unpainted buildings and scruffy unattractive shrubbery.

“Look,” says Mayfly, pointing, and we have our first encounter with the famous wildlife of Sidri Akrak.

An ugly creature comes bounding toward us out of the trees: a bulky, round-bodied thing, dark and furry, that rises to a disconcerting height atop two scrawny hairless legs covered with bright yellow scales. Its face is something out of your worst dreams, bulging fiery eyes the size of saucers and dangling red wattles and jutting black fangs, and it is moving very quickly in our direction, howling ferociously.

We have weapons, of course. But it swiftly becomes apparent that the thing has no interest in us, that in fact it is fleeing an even more ghastly thing, a long bristle-covered many-legged monster built close to the ground, from whose spherical head emerge three long horn-like projections that branch and branch again, terminating in scores of writhing tendrils that are surely equipped with venomous stings. First one vile creature and then the other runs past us without seeming to notice us and they lose themselves in the shrubbery beyond. We can hear wild shrieking and hissing in there, and the sound of cracking branches.

Nikomastir is smiling benignly. All this must be delightful to him. Mayfly too looks entranced. Even Velimyle, who is closest to me in temperament, almost normal in her desires and amusements, claps her hands together in fascination. I alone seem to be troubled by the sight of such creatures running about unhindered on what is supposedly a civilized world.

But it is ever thus in our travels: I am fated always to stand a little to one side as I follow these three around the universe. Yet am I linked irrevocably to them all the same.

Mayfly was my lover once, two lives back. That was before we took the mask together. Now, of course, it would be unthinkable for anything carnal to happen between us, though I still cherish cheerful memories of her pixy breasts in my hands, her slim sleek thighs about my hips. Even if we have forsworn the sexual part of our friendship, the rest is deeper than ever, and in truth we are still profoundly a couple, Mayfly and I, despite the rich and rewarding relationship I maintain with Velimyle and the frothy, sportive one Mayfly has built with Nikomastir. Above and beyond all that, there is also the bond that links us all. The lines of attraction go this way and that. We are inseparables. They are my world; I am a citizen only of our little group. Wherever we go, we go together. Even unto Sidri Akrak.

In a little while two immigration officers show up to check us out. Sidri Akrak is an Imperium world and therefore the local immigration scanners have been automatically alerted to our arrival.

They come riding up in a sputtering little snub-nosed vehicle, a man and a woman in baggy brown uniforms, and begin asking us questions. Nikomastir does most of the answering. His charm is irresistible even to an Akrakikan.

The questioning, brusque and hard-edged, is done in Imperial, but from time to time the immigration officers exchange comments with each other in their own dialect, which sounds like static. The woman is swarthy and squat and flat-faced and the man is even less lovely, and they are not at all obliging; they seem to regard the arrival of tourists on their planet simply as an irritating intrusion. The discussion goes on and on—do we plan to remain here long, are we financially solvent, do we intend to engage in political activity in the course of our stay? Nikomastir meets every query with glib easy reassurances. During our interrogation a slimy rain begins to fall, oily pink stuff that coats us like grease, and a massive many-humped blue-green beast that looks like an ambulatory hill with purple eyes appears and goes lolloping thunderously past us with utter unconcern for our presence, leaving an odor of decay and corruption in its wake. After a time I stop listening to the discussion. But finally they flash bright lights in our faces—passports are validated retinally on Sidri Akrak—and Nikomastir announces that we have been granted six-month visas. Lodgings are available three streets away, they tell us.

The place they have sent us to turns out to be a dismal rickety hovel and our innkeeper is no more friendly than the immigration officials, but we are grudgingly allowed to rent the entire upper floor. The rooms I am to share with Velimyle face the rear garden, a patch of uncouth tangled wilderness where some slow-moving shaggy monster is sluggishly browsing about, nibbling on the shrubbery. It lifts its head in my direction and gives me a cold glare, as though to warn me away from the plants on which it’s feeding. I signal it that it has nothing to worry about and turn away from the window. As I unpack I see a procession of glassy-shelled snail-like things with huge bulbous red eyes crawling diagonally across the bedroom wall. They too stare back at me. They seem almost to be smirking at me.

But Nikomastir and Mayfly claim to be delighted to be here, and Velimyle seems to have no complaints. I feel outnumbered by them. Velimyle announces that she would like to do a painting of Nikomastir in the hotel garden. She only paints when she’s in a buoyant mood. Buoyant, here? They run off together downstairs, hand in hand like happy children. I watch from above as Velimyle sets up her easel outside and goes about the task of priming the psychosensitive surface of her canvas. She and Nikomastir are as untroubled as any Akrakikan by the shambling shaggy thing that grazes noisily nearby. How quickly they have acclimated.

“Are you very miserable here, darling?” Mayfly asks, running her fingertips lightly along my cheeks.

I give her a stoic smile. “I’ll be all right. We’ll find things to amuse us, I’m sure. It’s all for the best that Nikomastir brought us to this place.”

“You don’t mean that, do you? Not really.”

“Not really, no.”

Yet in some sense I do. I often tell myself that it’s important not to live as though life is just a perpetual holiday for us, even though in fact it is. It would be too easy to lose ourselves, if we aren’t careful, in the nightmare that is perfection.

This is an era when all things are possible. We have godlike existences. We have every imaginable comfort close at hand. Beauty and long life are ours for the asking; we are spared the whole dreary business of sagging flesh and spreading waistlines and blurry eyesight and graying hair and hardening arteries that afflicted our remote ancestors. And all the incredible richness of the galaxy lies open to us: key in your coordinates, snap your fingers, off you go, any world you choose to visit instantly available. Never in the history of the universe has any species lived such a life as ours.

I fear the terrible ease of this existence of ours. I think sometimes that we’ll eventually be asked to pay a great price for it. That thought engulfs me in secret terror.

Mayfly, who knows me almost as well as I know myself, says, “Think of it this way, love. There’s something to be learned even from ugliness. Isn’t it true that what we’re trying to get out of all this travel is experience that has meaning? If that’s what we want, we can’t just limit ourselves to the beautiful places. And maybe a horrid place like Sidri Akrak has something important to teach us.”

Yes. She’s right. Is she aware that she’s voicing my own most private thoughts, or is she just being playful? Perhaps it’s all self-delusion, but I do indeed seek for meaning as we travel, or at least think that I do. These furtive broodings in which I indulge in the hidden places of my soul are, so it seems to me, the thing that sets me apart from Nikomastir and Mayfly and Velimyle, who take life as it comes and ask no questions.

Velimyle and Nikomastir return from the garden a little while later. She puts the rolled canvas away without showing it to me.

There is an uncharacteristically somber expression on Velimyle’s face and even giddy Nikomastir seems troubled. Plainly something has gone awry.

I know better than to ask for details.

We eat at our hotel that night. The surly innkeeper slams the dishes down before us almost angrily: a thin greenish gruel, some sort of stewed shredded meat, a mess of overcooked vegetables. The meat tastes like cooked twine and the vegetables have a dank swampy flavor. I pretend we are back on Iriarte, where food is the highest art and every meal is a symphony. I pretend we have returned to Nabomba Zom, to that wondrous palatial hotel by the shore of the scarlet sea, the waters of which at dawn would reverberate as if struck by a hammer as the first blue rays of morning fell upon it.

But no, no, we are on Sidri Akrak. I lie sleepless through the night with Velimyle breathing gently beside me, listening to the fierce honkings and roarings and screechings of the wild beasts that roam the darkness beyond our windows. Now and again then the sounds of the lovemaking of Mayfly and Nikomastir come through the thin walls that separate our bedroom from theirs, giggles and gasps and long indrawn sighs of pleasure.

In the morning we go out exploring.

This city, we have learned, is called Periandros Andifang. It has a population of just under one hundred thousand, with not a single building of the slightest architectural distinction and a year-round climate of clamminess and drizzle. The plant life is, generally speaking, strikingly unsightly—a preponderance of gray leaves, black flowers—and the air is full of clouds of little stinging midges with malevolent purple beaks, and of course one has to deal with the fauna, too, the fiend’s gallery of grisly monstrosities, seemingly no two alike, that greet you at every turn: huge beasts with beady eyes and slavering fangs and clacking claws, things with pockmarked pustulent skins or writhing furry tentacles or clutching many-jointed arms. Almost always they appear without warning, galloping out of some clump of trees uttering banshee shrieks or ground-shaking roars. I begin to understand now the tales of unwary travelers who have total mental breakdowns within an hour of their arrival on Sidri Akrak.

It quickly becomes clear to us, though, that none of these horrendous creatures has any interest in attacking us. The only real risk we run is that of getting trampled as they go charging past. Very likely it is the case that they find human flesh unpalatable, or indigestible, or downright poisonous. But encountering them is an unnerving business, and we encounter them again and again and again.

Nikomastir finds it all fascinating. Painstakingly he searches out the ill-favored, the misshapen, the feculent, the repulsive—not that they are hard to find. He drifts ecstatically from one eyesore of a building to the next, taking an infinite number of pictures. He adores the plants’ sooty foul-smelling blossoms and sticky blighted-looking leaves. The rampaging animals give him even greater pleasure; whenever some particularly immense or especially abhorrent-looking loathsomeness happens to cross our path he cries out in boyish glee.

This starts to be very irritating. His callow idiocy is making me feel old.

“Remember, sweet, he’s not even seventy yet,” Mayfly reminds me, seeing my brows furrowing. “Surely you were like that yourself, once upon a time.”

“Was I? I’d like to think that isn’t so.”

“And in any case,” says Velimyle, “can’t you manage to find that enthusiasm of his charming?”

No. I can’t. Perhaps it’s getting to be time for my next rebirth, I think. Growing old, for us, isn’t a matter so much of bodily decay—that is fended off by efficient processes of automatic bioenergetic correction—as of increasing inward rigidity, a creakiness of the soul, a corrugation of the psyche, a stiffening of the spiritual synapses. One starts to feel sour and petty and crabbed. Life loses its joy and its juice. By then you begin to become aware that it is time to clamber once more into the crystal tank where an intricate spiderweb of machinery will enfold you like a loving mother, and slip off into sweet oblivion for a while, and awaken to find yourself young again and ready to start all over. Which you can do over and over again, until eventually you arrive at the annoying point, after the eleventh or twelfth rebirth, where the buildup of solar poisons in your system has at last become ineradicable under any circumstances, and that is the end of you, alas.

Even gods have to die eventually, it would seem.

Nikomastir is a young god, and I am, evidently, an aging one.

I try to make allowances for that. But I find myself fervently hoping, all the same, that he will tire of this awful place very soon and allow us to go onward to some happier world.

He does not tire of it, though.

He loves it. He is in the grip of what some ancient poet once called the fascination of the abomination. He has gone up and down every street of the city, peering at this building and that one in unstinting admiration of their imperfections. For several days running he makes it clear that he is searching for some building in particular, and then he finds it: a rambling old ruin of great size and formidable ugliness at the very edge of town, standing apart from everything else in a sort of private park.

“Here it is!” he cries. “The ancestral mansion! The house where my father was born!”

So Nikomastir still clings to the claim that he is of Akrakikan descent. There is no way that this can be true; the natives of this world are a chilly bloodless folk with mean pinched hard souls, if they have souls at all and not just some clicking chattering robotic mechanisms inside their skulls. Indeed I have known robots with personalities far more appealing than anyone we have met thus far on Sidri Akrak. Nikomastir, bless him, is nothing at all like that. He may be silly and frivolous and empty-headed, but he also is sweet-natured and lively and amiable and vivacious, terms that have never yet been applied to any citizen of Sidri Akrak, and never will be.

Velimyle has tried to paint him again. Again the attempt was a failure. This time she is so distressed that I dare to breach the wall of privacy behind which she keeps her art and ask her what the difficulty is.

“Look,” she says.

She unrolls the second canvas. Against the familiar swirling colors of a typical Velimyle background I see the slender, angular form of Nikomastir, imprinted there by the force of Velimyle’s mental rapport with the psychosensitive fabric. But the features are all wrong. Nikomaster’s perpetual easy smile has given way to a dreadful scowling grimace. His lip curls backward menacingly; his teeth are the teeth of some predatory beast. And his eyes—oh, Velimyle, those harsh, glaring eyes! Where is his cheerful sparkle? These eyes are hard, narrow, fierce, and above all else sad. The Nikomastir of Velimyle’s painting stares out at the universe with tragic intensity. They are the eyes of a god, perhaps, but of a dying god, one who knows he must give up his life for the redemption of his race.

“The first one was almost as bad,” Velimyle says. “Why is this happening? This isn’t Nikomastir at all. I’ve never had something like this happen.”

“Has he seen either of the paintings?”

“I wouldn’t let him. All I told him was that they didn’t come out right, that they would depress him if I showed them to him. And of course he didn’t want to see them after that.”

“Something about this planet must be shading your perceptions,” I say. “Burn this, Velimyle. And the other one too. And forget about painting him until we’ve left here.”

Nikomastir wants to have a look inside the crumbling, lurching pile that he says is his family’s ancestral home. But the place, ruinous though it is, happens to be occupied by Akrakikans, a whole swarm of them, and when he knocks at the front door and grandly introduces himself to the major-domo of the house as Count Nikomastir of Sembiran, who has come here on a sentimental journey to his former paternal estate, the door is closed in his face without a word. “How impolite,” Nikomastir says, not seeming very surprised. “But don’t worry: I’ll find a way of getting in.”

That project gets tabled too. Over the next few days he leads us farther and farther afield, well out into the uninhabited countryside beyond the boundaries of Periandros Andifang. The land out here is swampy and uningratiating, and of course there are the animals to contend with, and the insects, and the humidity. I can tell that Mayfly and Verimyle are growing a little weary of Nikomastir’s exuberance, but they both are as tolerant of his whims as ever and follow him loyally through these soggy realms. As do I—partly, I suppose, because we agreed long ago that we would journey everywhere as a single unit, and partly because I have been stung, evidently, by various hints of Mayfly’s and Velimyle’s that my recent crotchetiness could mean I might be getting ready for my next rebirth.

Then he turns his attention once more to the old house that he imagines once belonged to his family. “My father once told me that there’s a pool of fire behind it, a phosphorescent lake. He used to swim it when he was a boy, and he’d come up dripping with cool flame. I’m going to take a swim in it too, and then we can head off to the next planet. Whose turn is it to pick our next planet, anyway?”

“Mine,” I say quickly. I have Marajo in mind—the sparkling sands, the City of Seven Pyramids. “If there’s a lake behind that house, Nikomastir, I advise you very earnestly to stay away from it. The people who live there don’t seem to look favorably on trespassers. Besides, can’t you imagine the kind of nastinesses that would live in a lake on this world?”

“My father went swimming in that one,” Nikomastir replies, and gives me a defiant glare. “It’s perfectly safe, I assure you.”

I doubt, of course, that any such lake exists. If it’s there, though, I hope he isn’t fool enough to go swimming in it. My affection for the boy is real; I don’t want him to come to harm.

But I let the matter drop. I’ve already said too much. The surest way to prod him into trouble, I know, is oppose him in one of his capricious fancies. My hope is that Nikomastir’s attention will be diverted elsewhere in the next day or two and all thought of that dismal house, and of the fiery lake that may or may not be behind it, will fly out of his mind.

It’s generally a good idea, when visiting a world you know very little about, to keep out of places of unknown chemical properties. When we toured Megalo Kastro, we stood at the edge of a cliff looking down into the famous living sea, that pink custardy mass that is in fact a single living organism of gigantic size, spreading across thousands of kilometers of that world. But it did not occur to us to take a swim in that sea, for we understood that in a matter of hours it would dissolve and digest us if we did.

And when we were on Xamur we went to see the Idradin crater, as everyone who goes to Xamur does. Xamur is the most perfect of worlds, flawless and serene, a paradise, air like perfume and water like wine, every tree in the ideal place, every brook, every hill.

It has only one blemish—the Idradin, a huge round pit that reaches deep into the planet’s primordial heart. It is a hideous place, that crater. Concentric rings of jagged cooled lava surround it, black and eroded and bleak. Stinking gases rise out of the depths, and yellow clouds of sulfuric miasma belch forth, and wild red shafts of roaring flame, and you peer down from the edge into a roiling den of hot surging magma. Everyone who goes to Xamur must visit the Idradin, for if you did not see perfect Xamur’s one terrible flaw you could never be happy on any other world. And so we stared into it from above, and shivered with the horror we were expected to feel; but we were never at all tempted to clamber down the crater’s sides and dip our toes into that realm of fire below.

It seems unlikely to me that Nikomastir will do anything so stupid here. But I have to be careful not to prod him in the wrong direction. I don’t mention the lake to him again.

Our exploration of Sidri Akrak proceeds. We visit new swamps, new groves of fetid-smelling malproportioned trees, new neighborhoods of misshapen and graceless buildings. One drizzly disheartening day succeeds another, and finally I am unable to bear the sight of that brown sky and greenish sun any longer. Though it is a violation of our agreements, I stay behind at the hotel one morning and let the other three go off without me.

It is a quiet time. I spend the hours reflecting on our travels of years past, all the many worlds we have seen. Icy Mulano of the two suns, one yellow, one bloody red, and billions of ghostly electric life-forms glimmering about you in the frigid air. Estrilidis, where the cats have two tails and the insects have eyes like blue diamonds. Zimbalou, the sunless nomad world, where the cities are buried deep below the frozen surface. Kalimaka, Haj Qaldun, Vietoris, Nabomba Zom—

So many places, so many sights. A lifetime of wonderful experiences; and yet what, I ask myself, has it all meant? How has it shaped me? What have I learned?

I have no answers, only to say that we will continue to go onward, ever onward. It is our life. It is what we do. We are travelers by choice, but also by nature, by destiny.

I am still lost in reverie when I hear Velimyle’s voice outside my window, calling to me, telling me that I must come quickly. “Nikomastir—” she cries. “Nikomastir!”

“What about him?”

But she can only gesture and wave. Her eyes are wild. We run together through the muddy streets, paying no heed to the bulky and grotesque Akrakikan monstrosities that occasionally intersect our path. I realize after a time that Velimyle is leading me toward the tumbledown house at the edge of town that Nikomastir has claimed as his family’s former home. A narrow grassy path leads around one side of it to the rear; and there, to my amazement, I see the phosphorescent lake of Nikomastir’s fantasies, with Mayfly beside it, leaping up and down in agitation that verges on frenzy.

She points toward the water. “Out there—there—”

On this ugly world even a phosphorescent lake can somehow manage to be an unlovely sight. I saw one once on Darma Barma that flashed like heavenly fire in rippling waves of cobalt and amethyst, magenta and gold, aquamarine and emerald and jade. But from this lake emanates the most unradiant of radiances, a dull, prosaic, sickly gleam, dark-toned and dispiriting, except in one place off toward the farther shore where a disturbance of some sort is setting up whirlpools of glinting metallic effects, swirls of eye-jabbing bright sparkles, as though handfuls of iron filings are being thrown through a magnetic field.

The disturbance is Nikomastir. He—his body, rather—is tossing and heaving at the lake’s surface, and all about him the denizens of the lake can be seen, narrow scaly jutting heads popping up by the dozens, hinged jaws snapping, sharp teeth closing on flesh. A widening pool of blood surrounds him. They, whatever they are, are ripping him to shreds.

“We have to get him out of there,” Mayfly says, her voice congested with horror and fear.

“How?” I ask.

“I told him not to do it,” says trembling Velimyle. “I told him, I told him, I told him. But he plunged right in, and when he was halfway across they began to break the surface, and then—then he began screaming, and—”

Mayfly plucks urgently at my sleeve. “What can we do? How can we rescue him?”

“He’s beyond rescuing,” I tell her hollowly.

“But if we can get his body back,” she says, “there’ll be a way to revive him, won’t there? I know there is. Scientists can do anything nowadays.” Velimyle, more tentatively, agrees. Some kind of scientific miracle, Nikomastir gathered up and repaired somehow by the regeneration of tissue—

But tissue is all that’s left of him now, frayed sorry scraps, and the creatures of the lake, frantic now with blood-lust, are devouring even those in furious haste.

They want me to tell them that Nikomastir isn’t really dead.

But he is: really, really, really dead. Dead forever. What has been played out on this shore today was not a game. There is nothing that can be saved, no way to regenerate. I have never seen the death of a human being before. It is a dizzying thing to contemplate: the finality, the utterness. My mind is whirling; I have to fight back convulsions of shock and horror.

“Couldn’t you have stopped him?” I ask angrily, when I am able to speak again.

“But he wanted so badly to do it,” Mayfly replies. “We couldn’t have stopped him, you know. Not even if we—”

She halts in midsentence.

“Not even if you had wanted to?” I say. “Is that it?” Neither of them can meet my furious gaze. “But you didn’t want to, did you? You thought it would be fun to see Nikomastir swim across the phosphorescent lake. Fun. Am I right? Yes. I know that I am. What could you have been thinking, Mayfly? Velimyle?”

There is no sign of Nikomastir at the surface any longer. The lake is growing still again. Its phosphorescence has subsided to a somber tarnished glow.

For a long time, minutes, hours, weeks, none of us is capable of moving. Silent, pale, stunned, we stand with bowed heads by the shore of that frightful lake, scarcely even able to breathe.

We are in the presence of incontrovertible and permanent death, which to us is a novelty far greater even than the living sea of Megalo Kastro or the blue dawn of Nabomba Zom, and the immense fact of it holds us rooted to the spot. Was this truly Nikomastir’s ancestral world? Was his father actually born in that great old falling-down house, and did he really once swim in this deadly lake? And if none of that was so, how did Nikomastir know that the lake was there? We will never be able to answer those questions. Whatever we do not know about Nikomastir that we have already learned, we will never come to discover now. That is the meaning of death: the finality of it, the severing of communication, the awful unanswerable power of the uncompromising curtain that descends like a wall of steel. We did not come to Sidri Akrak to learn about such things, but that is what we have learned on Sidri Akrak, and we will take it with us wherever we go henceforth, pondering it, examining it.

“Come,” I say to Mayfly and Velimyle, after a time. “We need to get away from here.”

So, then. Nikomastir was foolish. He was bold. He has had his swim and now he is dead. And why? Why? For what? What was he seeking, on this awful world? What were we? We know what we found, yes, but not what it was that we were looking for. I wonder if we will ever know.

He has lived his only life, has Nikomastir, and he has lost it in the pursuit of idle pleasure. There is a lesson in that, for me, for Velimilye, for Mayfly, for us all. And one day I will, I hope, understand what it is.

All I do know after having lived these hundreds of years is that the universe is very large and we are quite small. We live godlike lives these days, flitting as we do from world to world, but even so we are not gods. We die: some sooner, some later, but we do die. Only gods live forever. Nikomastir hardly lived at all.

So be it. We have learned what we have learned from Nikomastir’s death, and now we must move on. We are travelers by nature and destiny, and we will go forward into our lives. Tomorrow we leave for Marajo. The shining sands, the City of Seven Pyramids. Marajo will teach us something, as Xamur once did, and Nabomba Zom, and Galgala. And also Sidri Akrak. Something. Something. Something.

HINDSIGHT

Sarah Langan

Second Coming is docked two miles underground. She’s made of a collapsible, repulsion-attraction subatomic slurry that the astrophysicists are convinced will survive the gravitational anomaly called Black Betty. Yes, the ship will survive; it’s her human cargo that’s doomed.

Sarah Vaughan walks between rows of gurneys in heavy Van der Waals boots. She’s been aboard Second Coming six months now, and has gotten to know the feel of this ship: her soft, organic skin; her hissing breath; her ceilings and floors, which flip-flop depending on the capriciousness of gravity. At first, buried so deeply under Omaha’s dirt, Second Coming was a citadel. But this close to the end of it all, ghosts inhabit the cabins of every room. Sarah hears voices over the speakers that aren’t quite human, and sees memories from life back in Scottsbluff that feel real enough to touch. ”Doctor,” Sarah’s patients groan in a Greek Chorus that reverberates like microphone feedback, “Help me!

Sarah, a stout, practical woman of forty, surveys the wide wasteland of them, and wonders where to start.

Click! The overhead sick bay speaker buzzes to life. She strains to hear through the ion static:

Good Morning, Citizens of Second Coming!” Osgood Blunder, Captain and Emperor of the Second Coming, announces in monotone. His tracheotomy makes him sound like a drive-through fast food booth operator.

As you know, impact with Black Betty is less than four hours away, but our diligent computational engineers made a breakthrough last night. The upload of human consciousness to the safety of Second Coming’s mainframe is finally at hand. Rejoice! The flesh will fail, but the spirit, dear Romans, will endure!”

Osgood Blunder breaks for applause, and throughout the ship, even in the infirmary, manic screams of victory burst and then disappear like collapsing stars. Blunder’s corporation, Kliffoth Cybernetics, funded Second Coming, and hand-selected its passengers. Without Blunder, there would be no ship at all. During their long captivity down here, the crew have come to think of him as a God.

I’ll see some of you on the other side. The rest, fear not, for you witnessed the next leap in human evolution, when mankind became his own God,” Blunder says as static whines. ”We’ll be calling lottery numbers throughout the day. Remember, transgressors will be shot and stored as protein, so please Respect your Authority, and stand by.”

Sarah picks a path through the prostrate bodies. There are 2,104 colonists; 1,693 have surrendered their names for numbers and logged into her greenly-lit sick bay. Some occupy gurneys; others lean against walls or curl themselves fetal. She piles her tray with needles and liquid Valium. They’ll need it today because she gets the feeling that their luck is an upside-down horseshoe, all run out.

She calibrates, measures, injects. It’s routine by now. There’s no medicine left except for this. All day, all night, it’s Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt! Then move on to the next. And the next. And then next. Each have numbers branded against their foreheads. It’s best to look there, and not in their eyes.

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!-Move on!

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!-Move on!

Sarah stops paying attention at patient thirty-four, and almost gives the guy an air bubble heart attack. He wouldn’t notice—he’s insane. You can tell which patients have Black Betty’s Disease, because they’ve got no whites to their eyes. It’s like their souls are drowning.

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!-Move on!

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!-Move on!

Best not to think about the Hepatitis she’s spreading. Or worse. It’s a mercy, she tells herself when she gets to patient 342, who’s just eight years old, with impossibly knobby knees.

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!

He looks up at her with eyes that are entirely black, and there is movement between pupil and iris. There is something swimming in there, trying to break out.

It’s really happening. They’ve started,” Sarah’s husband Joe Vaughan calls as he enters the sick bay wearing heavy boots that suction the slurried ground. His fine, blonde hair floats like jellyfish strands in this diminished gravity.

Blunder went first, of course,” Joe continues. His voice sounds far away, but it echoes, too, so the words collapse on each other like overlapping Venn Diagrams. “He’s in the machine. The hard scientists are next, then they say we’re up.”

Oh, Christ,” Sarah answers. “I’m not ready. Are you?” Though Blunder has the textbook knowledge, he wants her life experience as a physician in the system. He’s promised to upload her family, too. But this close to the end, nothing is certain.

Joe hops up and down a couple of times. His boots make a slurping sound, and the image of him blurs as if he’s moving extra fast. Quite literally, he’s not the man she married. The closer they get to Black Betty, the more it messes with the chemistry of their brains. Like a magnet pressed against a head full of metal.

We’d better get to the engine room with the kids. They’ve already shot some line cutters. There’s going to be a riot,” Joe says.

Sarah looks at her tray of meds, and across the room, too. She flicks on the sick bay’s satellite viewer, which shows images of space and of Earth.

It’s shocking, how quickly the planet has changed . . . Unfathomable quantities of garbage spin like Saturn’s rings around the Earth’s fattened waist. Sea water laps the continents; across Central America, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans kiss.

Joe reaches the knobs, and sharpens in on Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where they used to live. A lone wanderer wearing an atmosphere suit scavenges through a drifting pile of husked wheat from a broken silo, but the grain pelts him hard and fast. It’s like sand slipping through his fingers.

Joe puts his arm around her, and, with their eyes, they follow the wheat through the air, and into space, and finally, through Black Betty.

Hand me the Valium, will you?” Sarah asks.

Joe squints with bad eyes until he finds the proper bottle. He’s been eating carrion; Sarah suspects prion infection.

We could wind-up stuck inside Second Coming, part of the machine,” Sarah says. “It might be better to die.”

She’s said this before, or Joe has. Each time the issue arises, they assume opposite sides of the argument, and fight until they’re tired of words. In the end, it doesn’t matter. They’re going to do it, no matter what.

We’ve got to go,” Joe says. She hears the words again and again, even though she knows he says them only once. Déjà vu. Time is slowing and spreading. Her ghost of five minutes ago injects an eight-year old boy with dead eyes. Comfort him, her present self wants to scold. He’s all alone.

The sick bay is a field of bodies. Abandoned. Forsaken, because the engineers believe their insanity will infect the machine. They’ll meet Black Betty in corporeal form from this room, while the lucky few whose numbers get picked will live on inside Second Coming. Technological Singularity trumps Gravitational Singularity. It’s a boxing match: Mankind in one corner, God in the other.

Let me finish with the injections, so at least they’re calm when it happens,” Sarah says.

Joe shakes his head. The kids are waiting, is what he’s saying without words. The kids come first. Before morality. Before their parents’ survival. Before the rest of the human race, if necessary. She knows this. All parents know this. But still, she can’t leave her patients without offering them some solace.

Onscreen, the closer they get to the anomaly, the more she expands, like a pupil exposed to dark. Just inside her edges, something moves. Something like life.

Or maybe something like God.

Three more hours to impact, and counting.

Joe punches his suction boots against Second Coming’s slurry floor, which is becoming less solid with every passing second. “Okay,” he says. “For you.”

Then he lifts a syringe, and together, they Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!, until every patient in the ward is drugged or dead.

From the corner, the ghost boy watches.

The day Black Betty appeared, Sarah was still home on maternity leave with baby Sally, but she’d known something was coming. Already, magnetic north had reversed without warning. You could see the Northern Lights as far south as Costa Rica. Migratory birds’ internal radar had jammed, too. They flew outside the troposphere, then plummeted from loss of oxygen. Roads and roofs and empty farmland hosted their open graves. No one knew how their loss would affect the ecosystem, but mornings without their songs seemed more bereft.

Baby Sally was swinging happily in her rocker that morning, and three year-old Bradley toddled between the kitchen and television room, calling out names of things: Shoe! Knee! Strawberry! Sally!

On the radio, the regular morning program got interrupted for a special report. ”Jack the Jerk-Off” cut off a geriatric Salieri clone’s rendition of “Me and My Shadow,” and read:

Ladies and Gentlemen, do not be alarmed!”

Sarah listened as she rinsed a glass baby bottle. The water spun counterclockwise.

Initial reports are sketchy as an Etch-A-Doodle, but the Department of Defense, in tandem with Kliffoth Cybernetics. . . . Is this a joke?”

Sarah walked over to the radio. Bradley bobbled between her legs, then out, then in, like a maypole dance: “Mommy . . . mommy . . . mommy . . . leg!”

Static flushed the frequency even though it was a clear, Nebraska day. Jack the Jerk-Off returned:

Okay, folks, they say it’s not a joke, but so did Orson Welles, so we’ll see. Put it this way, if they’re wrong, sue somebody else. I’m not liable, bitches! Anyway, Kliffoth Cybernetics, the American Government contractor for science, health, incarceration, propaganda, the national and state lotteries, consumption, toxicology, humanitarian aid, and defense, says they think the reason polarity shifted so suddenly and completely is because of an anomaly about twenty million miles between Earth and Mars . . . ”

Sarah braced herself against the counter while Sally chirped like a small bird in her swing, and Bradley danced.

It’s a gravitational anomaly,” Jack finished. “They say it’s growing.”

Joe came home an hour later. He’d been working on a case for Santo Monico, a subsidiary of Kliffoth Cybernetics. They wanted reparations from all the rice farmers in India who’d used old strains of seed, instead of buying the new patent.

The entire Vaughan family sat in front of the television as Kliffoth Cybernetics’ CEO appeared on every Network and Webcast. The static made his talking head seem far away. “The best we can figure, a separate universe is spreading across the Milky Way. The laws of physics and time act differently once we approach the barrier of this new universe, which has collapsed on top of ours. The easiest way to think of it is like ink diffusing through a glass of water, only its source is self-generating and for our purposes, limitless. Pretty soon, the entire glass will be black as night,” Osgood Blunder announced in a ragged voice that Sarah recognized as sickly. “We think it came from another dimension—it tore a wormhole through either space or time. What’s unique about this particular anomaly, is that its barrier, or event horizon, to borrow from black hole terminology, ought to be dark, and so infinitely dense with gravitational singularities that light can’t escape. But we’ve detected movement within Black Betty’s perimeter.

There might be life in there.”

Outside that day, an entire flock of birds crashed through the Vaughan’s detached garage on Fort Triumph Street. Seagulls, thousands of miles from either ocean.

Sarah microwaved popcorn for dinner. The whole family fell asleep in front of the television. She dreamed about how she’d never cooked nutritious meals, and that this neglect had carved her children’s bellies with scurvy holes, into which insect mothers had laid their eggs.

Well, how in the heeeck are we gonna survive?” The Oprah Winfrey Holo-Host™ asked her science guest, esteemed astrophysicist Ipswitch Gustavson, the next day.

Sally peered out from under Sarah’s breast. She was a tiny, helpless thing that smelled like sweet milk. Bradley sat cross-legged and too close to the television. She noticed that his hair was especially staticky, like he was touching a novelty Eye of the Storm.

On the television, Gustavson frowned, like he couldn’t figure out if the hologram’s creators were imbeciles, or just writing her program that way for good television. “The anomalyBlack Betty, after my daughter who died of mercury poisoning from Santo Monico riceshe’s rolling in fast, and she’s getting bigger.”

Well, what does that mean?” Oprah asked with exaggerated, amused concern. Her shimmering eyelid winked.

She’s like a bucket of paint, splattering in real time, at this very moment across the Milky Way. As she rolls toward us, she’s changing our laws of physics, and pulling Earth and the rest of the solar system off orbit. Even if we could exist under the new laws of this alternate universe, we won’t have a sun, or the ground under or feet, or a food supply . . . ”

“Is this fake, like global warming?” Oprah asked.

Gustavson shook his head. “I give the human species ten years on the outside. Probably less.”

Sarah got up from the couch, walked very slowly to the kitchen, and vomited in the sink. The water swirled, all wrong.

Months passed like everything was normal, even as the birds finally went extinct, the old died of pulmonary and cardiac disease at accelerated rates, and Black Betty’s Disease took root. People’s sclera’s disappeared, and their irises widened, so their eyes seemed entirely brown or blue or green. These colors contracted and expanded within their pupils, and the victims often lost their sense of balance, along with sight. Occasionally, they were violent. More often they babbled about the end of the world, or got stuck in loops of their own histories, where they repeated old conversations over and over again.

Joe won his case for Santo Monico, and the Vaughan family used the money to secure their seats on Kliffoth Cybernetics’ Black Betty escape pod, Second Coming.

Sarah reported back to work at the clinic where she’d performed abortions until it became illegal, and now delivered high risk babies with congenital defects such as organ dysplasia and spina bifida. Most died soon after they entered the world, and wound-up in county graves or donated to science. To commemorate them, Sarah and the rest of the staff took turns carving numbers into small quartz stones, then piling them in the courtyard where the nurses smoked their Winstons. Scottsbluff was the only high risk birthing clinic in six states, and at first, it had seemed heartless not to name them. But after a while, it was only practical.

In the lobby during those days after Black Betty, more and more women showed up high risk. Betty was altering the genetic structure of living things, and bending it in all the wrong ways. The clinic waiting room television, tuned to news, often aired real-time human sacrifice, as well as a reality television program based in Los Angeles called “That’s My Monkey!”.

In the delivery room, Sarah spent her days pulling crowning babies from between their mothers’ bleeding legs while picketing Jesus freaks warned about The Rapture through the windows. The worst part was consoling the mothers when it was over. Always, they’d convinced themselves that the tests were wrong, and their babies would be born alive.

Betty spread. Relativity turned fungible. Small objects floated up, and into space.

It started with plastic grocery bags, moved on to the engraved quartz stones in the clinic courtyard, and after twelve months, ended with human beings. They held each other, a chain that lasted for miles, until, one by one, they were gone. Some got lost in space, others ended up spinning with the garbage around the Earth’s orbit, like Saturn’s rings.

Sarah and Joe boarded their windows from rioters and stopped going to work. She was sorry for the women who would surely die in labor without her help, but not sorry enough to continue. By now, the infants had become disfigured abominations.

The Vaughans waited, and waited, and waited some more, for news that Second Coming was complete. Fresh food by then was gone, but they’d stockpiled cans, which was better, at least, than those who starved, or resorted to cannibalism.

On air one morning, Jack the Jerk-Off and the rest of his morning show killed themselves. With the laws of physics so confused, the bullets didn’t penetrate like they should have. They fired dozens of rounds, and still died slow.

Sarah, Joe, Bradley, and Sally listened to the slaughter from the kitchen floor. ”It’s not real; it’s make-believe,” Joe assured the children while Sarah wound Sally’s favorite music box. Carved men spun tiny circles around a painted wooden peak while “Climb Every Mountain,” played.

Toward the end of life above, the cars and mobile homes took flight, like something out of The Wizard of Oz. Finally, the lights went out, and never came back.

Joe cashed his money into gold, and stole a gravity car. The family set out for the military base in Omaha, in the hopes that Second Coming was complete. They made it halfway before the engine died. The rest of the trip, carrying their gold bricks that were light as styrofoam, they walked. By then, the sky was dark, even during the day. The animals were gone. In two days, they reached the Kliffoth-American Military Base, eating only burrowing insects, and to slake their thirst, the blood Joe drained from his arm, and offered them to suckle.

Can you love someone more after something like that? Can it restore your faith in a mad world? Sarah Vaughan thought so.

When they arrived, Second Coming edged out from the earthy plains like an alien spaceship. Her skin was black and organic; her organs a neural net that glowed like jellyfish phosphor. For a quarter-mile in all directions, people gathered, and seemed, from the way they bowed and moaned, to worship. Some held each other. Others tied themselves to the cemented fences that would soon come loose. Armed guards lined every entrance.

They learned things as they pushed through the throng. It grumbled with intelligence, the way crowds do:

They’re not letting anybody in, even if you’ve got a ticket!”

It’s un-American!”

They say if you’re good looking . . . They want breeders.”

They say Osgood Blunder has gone mad . . . ”

They say the doctors all killed themselves. Same with the artists.”

I have eight million dollars worth of gold,” Joe announced when they finally got to the front of the line. A small, thin guard stepped ahead of the rest, and pushed the nub of his flamethrower to Joe’s chest.

Money’s no good,” the guard said.

Sarah and Joe held their children tight, as if trying to make them unborn.

We have a right! We’re on the list!” Joe shouted, and then broke into tears. At the sight of their father’s surrender, the children, and Sarah, began to cry, too.

Let us in, you murderer,” Joe continued. “We’ve got children. We have tickets. We’ve got gold.

If only she was pretty, and could offer herself up to them, Sarah thought. If only Joe had married a trophy wife, like the rest of his rich friends, he’d be able to sell her now, and their kids would survive.

Move along,” the guard said. “I don’t want to kill you in front of your children.

They didn’t move. The launcher clicked, and methane loosened from its nose. Joe gasped. Probably, even with a direct hit, he would die slow.

Sarah remembered something from the crowd. “I hear Blunder is sick, and that your doctors refused to board because of crimes of conscience. I’m a surgeon. I’ll cross the strike line. I can operate,” she said.

The gun moved away from Joe, and to the center of Sarah’s back. It felt surprisingly heavy.

By the time they get the kids, it’s forty minutes before impact. The ship has turned to a soft slurry that does not stick to the bottoms of their boots, but instead oscillates in tidal pools toward the bow. Onscreen, along the vibrating corridor walls, Sarah can see images of Black Betty. They’re close enough now that she can see inside the anomaly’s pitch black edges.

Something moves.

It’s familiar, like the reflection inside a madman’s eye, and she’s reminded of the last child she delivered in Scottsbluff, who was born without skin.

In the engineering room, techies shout. Their voices reverb so deeply that she can’t make out what they’re saying. Some have gone mad with Betty’s Disease. They’re hitting their heads against soft walls, and chasing their own watery physical trails like dogs. Blunder’s body lays at the bottom of a pile of about two-hundred crewmen. They live in the machine now. She can feel their cold, atomic consciousness within the ship’s slurry, and in the vibrations under her feet.

The speaker crackles. It’s Blunder’s voice, just as monotone from the tracheotomy she gave him, only now, it has flattened into some less than human. “The Vaughans,” Blunder says. “It’s so cold in here. A family. We could use a real family, to keep us warm.

The First Mate beckons them to four upload gurneys, equipped with used needles and tubes. It’s supposed to be a quick process—only seconds, since they’ve been imprinted already.

The ship by now has condensed. Its walls close in like waves.

Ten minutes to impact. Joe walks with the children toward the gurneys. Sarah cannot conceive of strapping baby Sally onto one of these tables, then leaving her for the crew to toss to the pile. She cannot conceive of never touching her children again, or never again making love to the man whose blood she drank. But perhaps this will be better than death.

Yes, she reasons. She must believe it is better.

The speakers now are gone. The ship is about to merge with Betty, and become fluid and solid and infinite. Onscreen, Sarah can see ghosts inside the perimeter of this new universe. She can see her own body, strapped into a gurney, screaming: “No. Stop. For the love of God! It’s not too late.”

Joe straps Bradley to the table. Then Sally. Sarah watches.

The ship’s oxygen is low enough that they’re gasping and cold, but it’s a pleasant sensation, like floating. Words no longer echo. Sound is gone. Thought is gone, too. It’s just images, reflections, memories of the past and present and very near future with no particular distinction.

She doesn’t want to do it. All her instincts tell her not to do it, just as they told her not to leave those women in Scottsbluff, and not to operate on Blunder, but instead to slit his monster throat. Just like they told her not to feed her husband and children human flesh. “There are fates worse than death,” Joe argued that first time, but even then, weeping, they’d known how it would end. They’d taken their rations, and told the kids it was chicken.

Joe’s hand is on her shoulder. He straps her in, then himself. There’s no time to kiss goodbye. They will lose their love, she knows. Its ineffable constancy will not translate into the machine. She is wet with regret.

The upload is quick. Suddenly, she sees her body from the outside, looking in. She races through the ship, looking for her family.

But the ship is a slurry. It opens up, and breaks free from the Earth’s crust, hurtling toward Black Betty.

Her babies. Where are her babies?

She sees inside the anomaly, even though she doesn’t have eyes. It’s ghosts in there. Three billion people. Flipper children eating poison rice, garbage rings, birds circling a gyre. It’s her family in there, looking back at her. It’s that moment on the road, when they shared blood, and did not know that the hardest time was also the best time. It is past, and present, but not future. It is Betty’s Disease, and like everyone else before her, Sarah Vaughan is drowning in it.

The Second Coming and Black Betty collide.

Sarah knows now, what drove her patients mad. It is the unspeakable truth about what caused Black Betty. It’s Second Coming, so dense with the ghosts of humanity’s regret, that she weighted through time and tore the past to warn them. Black Betty is the Second Coming.

Sarah remembers the doctors who killed themselves, and the women at her office, and the babies, all those babies, piled like rocks. It was their future she was marking, stolen from them by their idiot parents. It was the end of the world she was reminiscing, though she did not know it.

Black Betty and the ship crash together. The two become one. All things become one. There is no sound. The anomaly splatters across space, black and beautiful.

My babies,” Sarah cries, as she swims through an ocean of infinitely dense ghosts.

And then, like a star, the anomaly collapses, as if it never was. It sucks past and present and future, and makes all of humanity unborn.

TIGHT LITTLE STITCHES IN A DEAD MAN’S BACK

Joe R. Lansdale

From the Journal of Paul Marder

(Boom!)

That’s a little scientist joke, and the proper way to begin this. As for the purpose of my notebook, I’m uncertain. Perhaps to organize my thoughts and not to go insane.

No. Probably so I can read it and feel as if I’m being spoken to. Maybe neither of those reasons. It doesn’t matter. I just want to do it, and that is enough.

What’s new?

Well, Mr. Journal, after all these years I’ve taken up martial arts again—or at least the forms and calisthenics of Tae Kwon Do. There is no one to spar with here in the lighthouse, so the forms have to do.

There is Mary, of course, but she keeps all her sparring verbal. And as of late, there is not even that. I long for her to call me a sonofabitch. Anything. Her hatred of me has cured to 100% perfection and she no longer finds it necessary to speak. The tight lines around her eyes and mouth, the emotional heat that radiates from her body like a dreadful cold sore looking for a place to lie down is voice enough for her. She lives only for the moment when she (the cold sore) can attach herself to me with her needles, ink and thread. She lives only for the design on my back.

That’s all I live for as well. Mary adds to it nightly and I enjoy the pain. The tattoo is of a great, blue mushroom cloud, and in the cloud, etched ghost-like, is the face of our daughter, Rae. Her lips are drawn tight, eyes are closed and there are stitches deeply pulled to simulate the lashes. When I move fast and hard they rip slightly and Rae cries bloody tears.

That’s one reason for the martial arts. The hard practice of them helps me to tear the stitches so my daughter can cry. Tears are the only thing I can give her.

Each night I bare my back eagerly to Mary and her needles. She pokes deep and I moan in pain as she moans in ecstasy and hatred. She adds more color to the design, works with brutal precision to bring Rae’s face out in sharper relief. After ten minutes she tires and will work no more. She puts the tools away and I go to the full-length mirror on the wall. The lantern on the shelf flickers like a jack-o-lantern in a high wind, but there is enough light for me to look over my shoulder and examine the tattoo. And it is beautiful. Better each night as Rae’s face becomes more and more defined.

Rae.

Rae. God, can you forgive me, sweetheart?

But the pain of the needles, wonderful and cleansing as they are, is not enough. So I go sliding, kicking and punching along the walkway around the lighthouse, feeling Rae’s red tears running down my spine, gathering in the waistband of my much-stained canvas pants.

Winded, unable to punch and kick anymore, I walk over to the railing and call down into the dark, “Hungry?”

In response to my voice a chorus of moans rises up to greet me.

Later, I lie on my pallet, hands behind my head, examine the ceiling and try to think of something worthy to write in you, Mr. Journal. So seldom is there anything. Nothing seems truly worthwhile.

Bored of this, I roll on my side and look at the great light that once shone out to the ships, but is now forever snuffed. Then I turn the other direction and look at my wife sleeping on her bunk, her naked ass turned toward me. I try to remember what it was like to make love to her, but it is difficult. I only remember that I miss it. For a long moment I stare at my wife’s ass as if it is a mean mouth about to open and reveal teeth. Then I roll on my back again, stare at the ceiling, and continue this routine until daybreak.

Mornings I greet the flowers, their bright red and yellow blooms bursting from the heads of long-dead bodies that will not rot. The flowers open wide to reveal their little black brains and their feathery feelers, and they lift their blooms upward and moan. I get a wild pleasure out of this. For one crazed moment I feel like a rock singer appearing before his starry-eyed audience.

When I tire of the game I get the binoculars, Mr. Journal, and examine the eastern plains with them, as if I expect a city to materialize there. The most interesting thing I have seen on those plains is a herd of large lizards thundering north. For a moment, I considered calling Mary to see them, but I didn’t. The sound of my voice, the sight of my face, upsets her. She loves only the tattoo and is interested in nothing more.

When I finish looking at the plains, I walk to the other side. To the west, where the ocean was, there is now nothing but miles and miles of cracked, black sea bottom. Its only resemblance to a great body of water are the occasional dust storms that blow out of the west like dark tidal waves and wash the windows black at mid-day. And the creatures. Mostly mutated whales. Monstrously large, sluggish things. Abundant now where once they were near extinction. (Perhaps the whales should form some sort of GREENPEACE organization for humans now. What do you think, Mr. Journal? No need to answer. Just another one of those little scientist jokes.)

These whales crawl across the sea bottom near the lighthouse from time to time, and if the mood strikes them, they rise on their tails and push their heads near the tower and examine it. I keep expecting one to flop down on us, crushing us like bugs. But no such luck. For some unknown reason the whales never leave the cracked sea bed to venture onto what we formerly called the shore. It’s as if they live in invisible water and are bound by it. A racial memory perhaps. Or maybe there’s something in that cracked black soil they need. I don’t know.

Besides the whales I suppose I should mention I saw a shark once. It was slithering along at a great distance and the tip of its fin was winking in the sunlight. I’ve also seen some strange, legged fish and some things I could not put a name to. I’ll just call them whale food since I saw one of the whales dragging his bottom jaw along the ground one day, scooping up the creatures as they tried to beat a hasty retreat.

Exciting, huh? Well, that’s how I spend my day, Mr. Journal. Roaming about the tower with my glasses, coming in to write in you, waiting anxiously for Mary to take hold of that kit and give me the signal. The mere thought of it excites me to erection. I suppose you could call that our sex act together.

And what was I doing the day they dropped The Big One?

Glad you asked that, Mr. Journal, really I am.

I was doing the usual. Up at six, did the shit, shower and shave routine. Had breakfast. Got dressed. Tied my tie. I remember doing the latter, and not very well, in front of the bedroom mirror, and noticing that I had shaved poorly. A hunk of dark beard decorated my chin like a bruise.

Rushing to the bathroom to remedy that, I opened the door as Rae, naked as the day of her birth, was stepping from the tub.

Surprised, she turned to look at me. An arm went over her breasts, and a hand, like a dove settling into a fiery bush, covered her pubic area.

Embarrassed, I closed the door with an “excuse me” and went about my business—unshaved. It was an innocent thing. An accident. Nothing sexual. But when I think of her now, more often than not, that is the first image that comes to mind. I guess it was the moment I realized my baby had grown into a beautiful woman.

That was also the day she went off to her first day of college and got to see, ever so briefly, the end of the world.

And it was the day the triangle—Mary, Rae and myself—shattered.

If my first memory of Rae alone is that day, naked in the bathroom, my foremost memory of us as a family is when Rae was six. We used to go to the park and she would ride the merry-go-round, swing, teeter-totter, and finally my back. (“I want to piggy, Daddy.”) We would gallop about until my legs were rubber, then we would stop at the bench where Mary sat waiting. I would turn my back to the bench so Mary could take Rae down, but always before she did, she would reach around from behind, caressing Rae, pushing her tight against my back, and Mary’s hands would touch my chest.

God, but if I could describe those hands. She still has hands like that, after all these years. I feel them fluttering against my back when she works. They are long and sleek and artistic. Naturally soft, like the belly of a baby rabbit. And when she held Rae and me that way, I felt that no matter what happened in the world, we three could stand against it and conquer.

But now the triangle is broken and the geometry gone away.

So the day Rae went off to college and was fucked into oblivion by the dark, pelvic thrust of the bomb, Mary drove me to work. Me, Paul Marder, big shot with The Crew. One of the finest, brightest young minds in the industry. Always teaching, inventing and improving on our nuclear threat, because, as we’d often joke, “We cared enough to send only the very best.”

When we arrived at the guard booth, I had out my pass, but there was no one to take it. Beyond the chain-link gate there was a wild melee of people running, screaming, falling down.

I got out of the car and ran to the gate. I called out to a man I knew as he ran by. When he turned his eyes were wild and his lips were flecked with foam. “The missiles are flying,” he said, then he was gone, running madly.

I jumped in the car, pushed Mary aside and stomped the gas. The Buick leaped into the fence, knocking it asunder. The car spun, slammed into the edge of a building and went dead. I grabbed Mary’s hand, pulled her from the car and we ran toward the great elevators.

We made one just in time. There were others running for it as the door closed, and the elevator went down. I still remember the echo of their fists on the metal just as it began to drop. It was like the rapid heartbeat of something dying.

And so the elevator took us to the world of Down Under and we locked it off. There we were in a five-mile layered city designed not only as a massive office and laboratory, but as an impenetrable shelter. It was our special reward for creating the poisons of war. There was food, water, medical supplies, films, books, you name it. Enough to last two thousand people for a hundred years. Of the two thousand it was designed for, perhaps eleven hundred made it. The others didn’t run fast enough from the parking lot or the other buildings, or they were late for work, or maybe they had called in sick.

Perhaps they were the lucky ones. They might have died in their sleep. Or while they were having a morning quickie with the spouse. Or perhaps as they lingered over that last cup of coffee.

Because you see, Mr. Journal, Down Under was no paradise. Before long suicides were epidemic. I considered it myself from time to time. People slashed their throats, drank acid, took pills. It was not unusual to come out of your cubicle in the morning and find people dangling from pipes and rafters like ripe fruit.

There were also the murders. Most of them performed by a crazed group who lived in the deeper recesses of the unit and called themselves the Shit Faces. From time to time they smeared dung on themselves and ran amok, clubbing men, women, and children born down under, to death. It was rumored they ate human flesh.

We had a police force of sorts, but it didn’t do much. It didn’t have much sense of authority. Worse, we all viewed ourselves as deserving victims. Except for Mary, we had all helped to blow up the world.

Mary came to hate me. She came to the conclusion I had killed Rae. It was a realization that grew in her like a drip growing and growing until it became a gushing flood of hate. She seldom talked to me. She tacked up a picture of Rae and looked at it most of the time.

Topside she had been an artist, and she took that up again. She rigged a kit of tools and inks and became a tattooist. Everyone came to her for a mark. And though each was different, they all seemed to indicate one thing: I fucked up. I blew up the world. Brand me.

Day in and day out she did her tattoos, having less and less to do with me, pushing herself more and more into this work until she was as skilled with skin and needles as she had been Topside with brush and canvas. And one night, as we lay on our separate pallets, feigning sleep, she said to me, “I just want you to know how much I hate you.”

“I know,” I said.

“You killed Rae.”

“I know.”

“You say you killed her, you bastard. Say it.”

“I killed her,” I said, and meant it.

Next day I asked for my tattoo. I told her of this dream that came to me nightly. There would be darkness, and out of this darkness would come a swirl of glowing clouds, and the clouds would melt into a mushroom shape, and out of that—torpedo-shaped, nose pointing skyward, striding on ridiculous cartoon legs—would step The Bomb.

There was a face painted on The Bomb, and it was my face. And suddenly the dream’s point of view would change, and I would be looking out of the eyes of that painted face. Before me was my daughter. Naked. Lying on the ground. Her legs wide apart. Her sex glazed like a wet canyon.

And I/The Bomb would dive into her, pulling those silly feet after me, and she would scream. I could hear it echo as I plunged through her belly, finally driving myself out of the top of her head, then blowing to terminal orgasm. And the dream would end where it began. A mushroom cloud. Darkness.

When I told Mary the dream and asked her to interpret it in her art, she said, “Bare your back,” and that’s how the design began. An inch of work at a time—a painful inch. She made sure of that.

Never once did I complain. She’d send the needles home as hard and deep as she could, and though I might moan or cry out, I never asked her to stop. I could feel those fine hands touching my back and I loved it. The needles. The hands. The needles. The hands.

And if that was so much fun, you ask, why did I come Topside?

You ask such probing questions, Mr. Journal. Really you do, and I’m glad you asked that. My telling will be like a laxative, I hope. Maybe if I just let the shit flow I’ll wake up tomorrow and feel a lot better about myself.

Sure. And it will be the dawning of a new Pepsi generation as well. It will have all been a bad dream. The alarm clock will ring. I’ll get up, have my bowl of Rice Krispies and tie my tie.

Okay, Mr. Journal. The answer. Twenty years or so after we went Down Under, a fistful of us decided it couldn’t be any worse Topside than it was below. We made plans to go see. Simple as that. Mary and I even talked a little. We both entertained the crazed belief Rae might have survived. She would be thirty-eight. We might have been hiding below like vermin for no reason. It could be a brave new world up there.

I remember thinking these things, Mr. Journal, and half-believing them.

We outfitted two sixty-foot crafts that were used as part of our transportation system Down Under, plugged in the half-remembered codes that opened the elevators, and drove the vehicles inside. The elevator lasers cut through the debris above them and before long we were Topside. The doors opened to sunlight muted by gray-green clouds and a desert-like landscape. Immediately I knew there was no brave new world over the horizon. It had all gone to hell in a fiery handbasket, and all that was left of man’s millions of years of development were a few pathetic humans living Down Under like worms, and a few others crawling Topside like the same.

We cruised about a week and finally came to what had once been the Pacific Ocean. Only there wasn’t any water now, just that cracked blackness.

We drove along the shore for another week and finally saw life. A whale. Jacobs immediately got the idea to shoot one and taste its meat.

Using a high-powered rifle he killed it, and he and seven others cut slabs off it, brought the meat back to cook. They invited all of us to eat, but the meat looked greenish and there wasn’t much blood and we warned him against it. But Jacobs and the others ate it anyway. As Jacobs said, “It’s something to do.”

A little later on Jacobs threw up blood and his intestines boiled out of his mouth, and not long after those who had shared the meat had the same thing happen to them. They died crawling on their bellies like gutted dogs. There wasn’t a thing we could do for them. We couldn’t even bury them. The ground was too hard. We stacked them like cordwood along the shoreline and moved camp down a way, tried to remember how remorse felt.

And that night, while we slept as best we could, the roses came.

Now, let me admit, Mr. Journal, I do not actually know how the roses survived, but I have an idea. And since you’ve agreed to hear my story—and even if you haven’t, you’re going to anyway—I’m going to put logic and fantasy together and hope to arrive at the truth.

These roses lived in the ocean bed, underground, and at night they came out. Up until then they had survived as parasites of reptiles and animals, but a new food had arrived from Down Under. Humans. Their creators, actually. Looking at it that way, you might say we were the gods who conceived them, and their partaking of our flesh and blood was but a new version of wine and wafer.

I can imagine the pulsating brains pushing up through the sea bottom on thick stalks, extending feathery feelers and tasting the air out there beneath the light of the moon—which through those odd clouds gave the impression of a pus-filled boil—and I can imagine them uprooting and dragging their vines across the ground toward the shore where the corpses lay.

Thick vines sprouted little, thorny vines, and these moved up the bank and touched the corpses. Then, with a lashing motion, the thorns tore into the flesh, and the vines, like snakes, slithered through the wounds and inside. Secreting a dissolving fluid that turned the innards to the consistency of watery oatmeal, they slurped up the mess, and the vines grew and grew at amazing speed, moved and coiled throughout the bodies, replacing nerves and shaping into the symmetry of the muscles they had devoured, and lastly they pushed up through the necks, into the skulls, ate tongues and eyeballs and sucked up the mouse-gray brains like soggy gruel. With an explosion of skull shrapnel, the roses bloomed, their tooth-hard petals expanding into beautiful red and yellow flowers, hunks of human heads dangling from them like shattered watermelon rinds.

In the center of these blooms a fresh, black brain pulsed and feathery feelers once again tasted air for food and breeding grounds. Energy waves from the floral brains shot through the miles and miles of vines that were knotted inside the bodies, and as they had replaced nerves, muscles and vital organs, they made the bodies stand. Then those corpses turned their flowered heads toward the tents where we slept, and the blooming corpses (another little scientist joke there if you’re into English idiom, Mr. Journal) walked, eager to add the rest of us to their animated bouquet.

I saw my first rose-head while I was taking a leak.

I had left the tent and gone down by the shore line to relieve myself when I caught sight of it out of the corner of my eye. Because of the bloom I first thought it was Susan Dyers. She wore a thick, woolly Afro that surrounded her head like a lion’s mane, and the shape of the thing struck me as her silhouette. But when I zipped and turned, it wasn’t an Afro. It was a flower blooming out of Jacobs. I recognized him by his clothes and the hunk of his face that hung off one of the petals like a worn-out hat on a peg.

In the center of the blood-red flower was a pulsating sack, and all around it little wormy things squirmed. Directly below the brain was a thin proboscis. It extended toward me like an erect penis. At its tip, just inside the opening, were a number of large thorns.

A sound like a moan came out of that proboscis, and I stumbled back. Jacobs’ body quivered briefly, as if he had been besieged by a sudden chill, and ripping through his flesh and clothes, from neck to foot, was a mass of thorny, wagging vines that shot out to five feet in length.

With an almost invisible motion, they waved from west to east, slashed my clothes, tore my hide, knocked my feet out from beneath me. It was like being hit by a cat-o-nine-tails.

Dazed, I rolled onto my hands and knees, bear-walked away from it. The vines whipped against my back and butt, cut deep.

Every time I got to my feet, they tripped me. The thorns not only cut, they burned like hot ice picks. I finally twisted away from a net of vines, slammed through one last shoot, and made a break for it.

Without realizing it, I was running back to the tent. My body felt as if I had been lying on a bed of nails and razor blades. My forearm hurt something terrible where I had used it to lash the thorns away from me. I glanced down at it as I ran. It was covered in blood. A strand of vine about two feet in length was coiled around it like a garter snake. A thorn had torn a deep wound in my arm, and the vine was sliding an end into the wound.

Screaming, I held my forearm in front of me like I had just discovered it. The flesh, where the vine had entered, rippled and made a bulge that looked like a junkie’s favorite vein. The pain was nauseating. I snatched at the vine, ripped it free. The thorns turned against me-like fishhooks.

The pain was so much I fell to my knees, but I had the vine out of me. It squirmed in my hand, and I felt a thorn gouge my palm. I threw the vine into the dark. Then I was up and running for the tent again.

The roses must have been at work for quite some time before I saw Jacobs, because when I broke back into camp yelling, I saw Susan, Ralph, Casey and some others, and already their heads were blooming, skulls cracking away like broken model kits.

Jane Calloway was facing a rose-possessed corpse, and the dead body had its hands on her shoulders, and the vines were jetting out of the corpse, weaving around her like a web, tearing, sliding inside her, breaking off. The proboscis poked into her mouth and extended down her throat, forced her head back. The scream she started came out a gurgle.

I tried to help her, but when I got close, the vines whipped at me and I had to jump back. I looked for something to grab, to hit the damn thing with, but there was nothing. When next I looked at Jane, vines were stabbing out of her eyes and her tongue, now nothing more than lava-thick blood, was dripping out of her mouth onto her breasts, which, like the rest of her body, were riddled with stabbing vines.

I ran away then. There was nothing I could do for Jane. I saw others embraced by corpse hands and tangles of vines, but now my only thought was Mary. Our tent was to the rear of the campsite, and I ran there as fast as I could.

She was lumbering out of our tent when I arrived. The sound of screams had awakened her. When she saw me running she froze. By the time I got to her, two vine-riddled corpses were coming up on the tent from the left side. Grabbing her hand I half-pulled, half-dragged her away from there. I got to one of the vehicles and pushed her inside.

I locked the doors just as Jacobs, Susan, Jane, and others appeared at the windshield, leaning over the rocket-nose hood, the feelers around the brain sacks vibrating like streamers in a high wind. Hands slid greasily down the windshield. Vines flopped and scratched and cracked against it like thin bicycle chains.

I got the vehicle started, stomped the accelerator, and the rose-heads went flying. One of them, Jacobs, bounced over the hood and splattered into a spray of flesh, ichor and petals.

I had never driven the vehicle, so my maneuvering was rusty. But it didn’t matter. There wasn’t exactly a traffic rush to worry about.

After an hour or so, I turned to look at Mary. She was staring at me, her eyes like the twin barrels of a double-barreled shotgun. They seemed to say, “More of your doing,” and in a way she was right. I drove on.

Daybreak we came to the lighthouse. I don’t know how it survived. One of those quirks. Even the glass was unbroken. It looked like a great stone finger shooting us the bird.

The vehicle’s tank was near empty, so I assumed here was as good a place to stop as any. At least there was shelter, something we could fortify. Going on until the vehicle was empty of fuel didn’t make much sense. There wouldn’t be any more fill-ups, and there might not be any more shelter like this.

Mary and I (in our usual silence) unloaded the supplies from the vehicle and put them in the lighthouse. There was enough food, water, chemicals for the chemical toilet, odds and ends, extra clothes, to last us a year. There were also some guns. A Colt .45 revolver, two twelve-gauge shotguns and a .38, and enough shells to fight a small war.

When everything was unloaded, I found some old furniture downstairs and, using tools from the vehicle, tried to barricade the bottom door and the one at the top of the stairs. When I finished, I thought of a line from a story I had once read, a line that always disturbed me. It went something like, “Now we’re shut in for the night.”

Days. Nights. All the same. Shut in with one another, our memories and the fine tattoo.

A few days later I spotted the roses. It was as if they had smelled us out. And maybe they had. From a distance, through the binoculars, they reminded me of old women in bright sun hats.

It took them the rest of the day to reach the lighthouse, and they immediately surrounded it, and when I appeared at the railing they would lift their heads and moan.

And that, Mr. Journal, brings us up to now.

I thought I had written myself out, Mr. Journal. Told the only part of my life story I would ever tell, but now I’m back. You can’t keep a good world-destroyer down.

I saw my daughter last night and she’s been dead for years. But I saw her, I did, naked, smiling at me, calling to ride piggyback.

Here’s what happened.

It was cold last night. Must be getting along winter. I had rolled off my pallet onto the cold floor. Maybe that’s what brought me awake. The cold. Or maybe it was just gut instinct.

It had been a particularly wonderful night with the tattoo. The face had been made so clear it seemed to stand out from my back. It had finally become more defined than the mushroom cloud. The needles went in hard and deep, but I’ve had them in me so much now I barely feel the pain. After looking in the mirror at the beauty of the design, I went to bed happy, or as happy as I can get.

During the night the eyes ripped open. The stitches came out and I didn’t know it until I tried to rise from the cold, stone floor and my back puckered against it where the blood had dried.

I pulled myself free and got up. It was dark, but we had a good moonspill that night and I went to the mirror to look. It was bright enough that I could see Rae’s reflection clearly, the color of her face, the color of the cloud. The stitches had fallen away and now the wounds were spread wide, and inside the wounds were eyes. Oh God, Rae’s blue eyes. Her mouth smiled at me and her teeth were very white.

Oh, I hear you, Mr. Journal. I hear what you’re saying. And I thought of that. My first impression was that I was about six bricks shy a load, gone around the old bend. But I know better now. You see, I lit a candle and held it over my shoulder, and with the candle and the moonlight, I could see even more clearly. It was Rae all right, not just a tattoo.

I looked over at my wife on the bunk, her back to me, as always. She had not moved.

I turned back to the reflection. I could hardly see the outline of myself, just Rae’s face smiling out of that cloud.

“Rae,” I whispered, “is that you?”

“Come on, Daddy,” said the mouth in the mirror, “that’s a stupid question. Of course it’s me.”

“But . . . You’re . . . you’re . . . ”

“Dead?”

“Yes . . . Did . . . did it hurt much?”

She cackled so loudly the mirror shook. I could feel the hairs on my neck rising. I thought for sure Mary would wake up, but she slept on.

“It was instantaneous, Daddy, and even then, it was the greatest pain imaginable. Let me show you how it hurt.”

The candle blew out and I dropped it. I didn’t need it anyway. The mirror grew bright and Rae’s smile went from ear to ear—literally—and the flesh on her bones seemed like crepe paper before a powerful fan, and that fan blew the hair off her head, the skin off her skull and melted those beautiful, blue eyes and those shiny white teeth of hers to a putrescent goo the color and consistency of fresh bird shit. Then there was only the skull, and it heaved in half and flew backwards into the dark world of the mirror and there was no reflection now, only the hurtling fragments of a life that once was and was now nothing more than swirling cosmic dust.

I closed my eyes and looked away.

“Daddy?”

I opened them, looked over my shoulder into the mirror. There was Rae again, smiling out of my back.

“Darling,” I said, “I’m so sorry.”

“So are we,” she said, and there were faces floating past her in the mirror. Teenagers, children, men and women, babies, little embryos swirling around her head like planets around the sun. I closed my eyes again, but I could not keep them closed. When I opened them the multitudes of swirling dead, and those who had never had a chance to live, were gone. Only Rae was there.

“Come close to the mirror, Daddy.”

I backed up to it. I backed until the hot wounds that were Rae’s eyes touched the cold glass and the wounds became hotter and hotter and Rae called out, “Ride me piggy, Daddy,” and then I felt her weight on my back, not the weight of a six-year-old child or a teenage girl, but a great weight, like the world was on my shoulders and bearing down.

Leaping away from the mirror I went hopping and whooping about the room, same as I used to in the park. Around and around I went, and as I did, I glanced in the mirror. Astride me was Rae, lithe and naked, her red hair fanning around her as I spun. And when I whirled by the mirror again, I saw that she was six years old. Another spin and there was a skeleton with red hair, one hand held high, the jaws open and yelling, “Ride ’em, cowboy.”

“How?” I managed, still bucking and leaping, giving Rae the ride of her life. She bent to my ear and I could feel her warm breath. “You want to know how I’m here, Daddy-dear? I’m here because you created me. Once you laid between Mother’s legs and thrust me into existence, the two of you, with all the love there was in you. This time you thrust me into existence with your guilt and Mother’s hate. Her thrusting needles, your arching back. And now I’ve come back for one last ride, Daddy-o. Ride, you bastard, ride.”

All the while I had been spinning, and now as I glimpsed the mirror I saw wall-to-wall faces, weaving in, weaving out, like smiling stars, and all those smiles opened wide and words came out in chorus, “Where were you when they dropped The Big One?”

Each time I spun and saw the mirror again, it was a new scene. Great flaming winds scorching across the world, babies turning to fleshy jello, heaps of charred bones, brains boiling out of the heads of men and women like backed-up toilets overflowing, The Almighty, Glory Hallelujah, Ours Is Bigger Than Yours Bomb hurtling forward, the mirror going mushroom white, then clear, and me, spinning, Rae pressed tight against my back, melting like butter on a griddle, evaporating into the eye wounds on my back, and finally me alone, collapsing to the floor beneath the weight of the world.

Mary never awoke.

The vines outsmarted me.

A single strand found a crack downstairs somewhere and wound up the steps and slipped beneath the door that led into the tower. Mary’s bunk was not far from the door, and in the night, while I slept and later while I spun in front of the mirror and lay on the floor before it, it made its way to Mary’s bunk, up between her legs, and entered her sex effortlessly.

I suppose I should give the vine credit for doing what I had not been able to do in years, Mr. Journal, and that’s enter Mary. Oh God, that’s a funny one, Mr. Journal. Real funny. Another little scientist joke. Let’s make that a mad scientist joke, what say? Who but a madman would play with the lives of human beings by constantly trying to build the bigger and better boom machine?

So what of Rae, you ask?

I’ll tell you. She is inside me. My back feels the weight. She twists in my guts like a corkscrew. I went to the mirror a moment ago, and the tattoo no longer looks like it did. The eyes have turned to crusty sores and the entire face looks like a scab. It’s as if the bile that made up my soul, the unthinking  nearsightedness, the guilt that I am, has festered from inside and spoiled the picture with pustule bumps, knots and scabs.

To put it in layman’s terms, Mr. Journal, my back is infected. Infected with what I am. A blind, senseless fool.

The wife?

Ah, the wife. God, how I loved that woman. I have not really touched her in years, merely felt those wonderful hands on my back as she jabbed the needles home, but I never stopped loving her. It was not a love that glowed anymore, but it was there, though hers for me was long gone and wasted.

This morning when I got up from the floor, the weight of Rae and the world on my back, I saw the vine coming up from beneath the door and stretching over to her. I yelled her name. She did not move. I ran to her and saw it was too late. Before I could put a hand on her, I saw her flesh ripple and bump up, like a den of mice were nesting under a quilt. The vines were at work. (Out go the old guts, in go the new vines.)

There was nothing I could do for her.

I made a torch out of a chair leg and old quilt, set fire to it, burned the vine from between her legs, watched it retreat, smoking, under the door. Then I got a board, nailed it along the bottom, hoping it would keep others out for at least a little while. I got one of the twelve-gauges and loaded it. It’s on the desk beside me, Mr. Journal, but even I know I’ll never use it. It was just something to do, as Jacobs said when he killed and ate the whale. Something to do.

I can hardly write anymore. My back and shoulders hurt so bad. It’s the weight of Rae and the world.

I’ve just come back from the mirror and there is very little left of the tattoo.Some blue and black ink, a touch of red that was Rae’s hair. It looks like an abstract painting now. Collapsed design, running colors. It’s real swollen. I look like the hunchback of Notre Dame.

What am I going to do, Mr. Journal?

Well, as always, I’m glad you asked that. You see, I’ve thought this out.

I could throw Mary’s body over the railing before it blooms. I could do that. Then I could doctor my back. It might even heal, though I doubt it. Rae wouldn’t let that happen, I can tell you now. And I don’t blame her. I’m on her side. I’m just a walking dead man and have been for years.

I could put the shotgun under my chin and work the trigger with my toes, or maybe push it with the very pen I’m using to create you, Mr. Journal. Wouldn’t that be neat? Blow my brains to the ceiling and sprinkle you with my blood.

But as I said, I loaded the gun because it was something to do. I’d never use it on myself or Mary.

You see, I want Mary. I want her to hold Rae and me one last time like she used to in the park. And she can. There’s a way.

I’ve drawn all the curtains and made curtains out of blankets for those spots where there aren’t any. It’ll be sunup soon and I don’t want that kind of light in here. I’m writing this by candlelight and it gives the entire room a warm glow. I wish I had wine. I want the atmosphere to be just right.

Over on Mary’s bunk she’s starting to twitch. Her neck is swollen where the vines have congested and are writhing toward their favorite morsel, the brain. Pretty soon the rose will bloom (I hope she’s one of the bright yellow ones, yellow was her favorite color and she wore it well) and Mary will come for me.

When she does, I’ll stand with my naked back to her. The vines will whip out and cut me before she reaches me, but I can stand it. I’m used to pain. I’ll pretend the thorns are Mary’s needles. I’ll stand that way until she folds her dead arms around me and her body pushes up against the wound she made in my back, the wound that is our daughter Rae. She’ll hold me so the vines and the proboscis can do their work. And while she holds me, I’ll grab her fine hands and push them against my chest, and it will be we three again, standing against the world, and I’ll close my eyes and delight in her soft, soft hands one last time.

THE TASTE OF STARLIGHT

John R. Fultz

Pelops wakes gasping and shivering inside the CryoPod. A thin layer of ice crystals coats his cheeks and hands, pricking at his exposed skin. Crackling and moaning, he raises hands to his eyes and pries their lids open, shedding ice shards like tears. The curving glass surface before him is cracked into a mass of spidery lines. Struggling to inhale the frozen air, he pushes against the glass. The door of the pod refuses to move. He is entombed.

He moans as he raises his right leg, shedding a cloud of crystals. Boot against the fractured glass, but without much strength. His muscles are still asleep, slightly atrophied by years of stasis. Again he kicks, and draws in a burning lungful of cryonic air. A third time his booted foot meets the glass and it shatters, toppling him forward in a shower of ice and fragments. Instinct pulls his hands up, and he lands on them instead of his face. Splinters cut into his palms and fingers, but he can breathe freely now.

Lying on the floor, he rolls onto his back and looks sideways along a flickering corridor of cryonic niches. Here stand the stasis pods of his thirteen fellow sleepers. Even the chill metal of the floor feels warm compared to the ultimate cold of the CryoPod.

Something has awakened him early. A mistake? An emergency? Staggering to his feet, he clings to the cables along the walls and checks the nearest pod. A calm face, eyes closed, just visible through the cloudy glass. Digital display reads “Thompson, J.” and the indicator light glows green. No fissures. Pod intact. He checks the next one, and the next one, until he finds another cracked pod lid with the display reading “Tanaka, Y.” No frost at all on this lid. A blue face stares at him from inside. Asian eyes open. Mouth slack.

Pelops tries the release lever. Nothing. He tears at the rim of the pod’s lid. Finally, he kicks in the glass like he did his own, this time from the opposite side. Tanaka falls out, stiff and dead. She was a good woman, and fine physicist. She would have been an asset to the Dantus colony. Must have suffocated when her stasis was interrupted. Like being buried alive. He might weep for her, but his eyes still feel frozen. He knows he’ll have to eject her body into space, but he’ll wait until he regains his strength.

He lays Tanaka gently on the floor and checks the last few pods. Twelve remain intact.

The frost coating his skin and flight suit melts into cold water. Droplets fly from his beard and hair, grown to primordial length while he slept. What could have happened?

He stumbles along the corridor beneath the pulsing florescent lamps, follows the plastic maps posted at each intersection, and finally reaches the sealed door of the bridge. A gleaming hand plate accepts his touch. The nerve center of the Goya opens before him, a spacious cockpit of flashing neon display grids and blinking digital interfaces. Above it all, a vista of interstellar wonder, a great oval viewport looking out into the universe. He stares into the bottomless void, captivated by the glimmering of ancient stars. A purple nebula clouds the starfields ahead, and the sheer beauty of the galactic deeps overwhelms his waking senses. Sinking into a vast gulf of infinity. Distant fires grinning and sparkling, the eyes of a demon legion.

You don’t belong here, the stars whisper. This is the Great Emptiness. The stronghold of Death. Soon it will consume you. Utterly.

Pelops tears himself away from the celestial vision and goes to the control panels. He is no pilot, no navigator, but he is a man of science. He has been on ships before. He scans the displays and finds that the ship’s thrusters have gone offline. He switches the relays to instigate backup power.

A lurching and shuddering tells him the ship has resumed its full-speed journey. He falls into the captain’s chair and punches his fingers at the keyboard, requesting a status report. A holographic display emerges, dancing before him like a ghost. It’s the Goya, a gleaming bottle-shaped vessel surrounded by pinpoints of rushing starlight. A scarlet line enters the left side of the display, trailing a cloud of sparks. A comet. It crosses the forward hull of the ship, bathing the vessel in a cloud of scintillating motes.

He reads the print display below the hologram.

Radiation cloud. Unidentified in nature . . .

A short-circuiting of the ship’s power grid, disabling the auto-drive.

Severe turbulence resulting in damage to two CryoPod units.

No shit.

Communications permanently disabled. No messages going out or coming in. Not until the com techs on Dantus install a new stack of relays. Absolute radio silence. The report ends and the curved panels blink silently. Course renewed. Power reserves engaged. Everything nearly back to normal. But now Pelops is awake. And completely alone.

He accesses the logs for time, date, and distance.

Time elapsed since launch: 6 years, 2 months, 3 days, 9 hours, 52 minutes, 39 seconds.

Time remaining to destination: 1 year, 4 months, 2 days, 7 hours, 18 minutes, 3 seconds.

Sixteen months. Alone on this ship.

He considers waking the rest of the crew. Walks back to the pod corridor and almost does exactly that, when it hits him: A terrible, gnawing hunger in his gut. And the realization . . . what is he going to eat? Nobody was supposed to wake until a few hours before touchdown. This ship isn’t equipped for manned flight.

He finds his way through the labyrinth of steel into the airy cargo hold. The massive bulk of the twenty-five UV converter domes loom like black hills beneath plastic tarps. In the far corner he finds what he is looking for. Emergency Supply Kit.

A man-sized chest (like a coffin). Inside, a collection of boxes, tins, and tubes of dry rations. A map on the lid reveals the location of emergency water tanks. He breathes a little easier. There’s enough water in those tanks to keep a man alive for three years. However, he’s not so sure how long the food will last. He’ll worry about that later.

Cracking open a plastic box, he tears through an aluminum pouch and devours the beef jerky inside. Famished and relishing every bit, the salty taste of it on his tongue, the familiar warmth as it fills his belly. In a few seconds the entire package is gone. He curses himself.

He’ll have to ration this out if he’s going to survive. He can’t indulge himself in such feasts. He closes the lid and makes his way along the bay to the water tanks, where he turns a valve and fills a bucket with drinking water. He drinks his fill of the cold liquid.

He surveys and logs the emergency foodstuffs, planning out subsistence portions. Drops his pen and slides to the floor. Someone was supposed to load more emergency supplies than this. Someone did not. There’s barely enough food here to keep him eating at a base survival level for 100 days.

Three months. If he does not wake anyone else.

If he does, that time will be cut in half.

Three months of food. Sixteen months until reaching Dantus.

Nothing else here.

Nothing to eat.

After three months he will begin to starve.

Pelops carries Tanaka’s rigid body into the airlock, says a quick prayer, and ejects her into space. He should be grateful. One less mouth to feed.

He races back to the two open CryoPods and tries to get them operational. Spends hours working on them, up to his elbows in grease and cryonic residue. But it doesn’t matter. They’re both totally out of commission, their transparent lids shattered. And even if they weren’t, the pods cannot be put back into service once they’ve been opened. The only way to do that would be to introduce more cryogen . . . which can only be done by CryoPod contractors.

No way to re-freeze himself. No way to avoid the twelve weeks of bare subsistence and the slow, lingering starvation that will surely follow. He envies Tanaka her quick death.

He lies on the floor of the pod corridor, weeping, remembering his look into the void. The whispering stars and their message of doom. And he knows it’s true. This is the realm of Death and he has entered it willingly.

He wails and gnashes his teeth and smashes the floor with his fists. Eventually he falls asleep and enjoys the mercy of a warm oblivion.

Pelops wakes sometime later, trembling on the cold metal floor. He gets up and returns to the bridge. His stomach growls, but he denies it. He sits in the captain’s chair and stares out at the numberless stars.

With Tanaka dead, he is the only one capable of getting the UV converters up and running on Dantus. And the future of the colony depends on those machines. Wolf 359 is a red dwarf star, and not enough crops grow in its infrared glow. The colony’s population has grown too fast for its agricultural systems to handle. Setting up the converter domes and transforming the star’s radiation to ultraviolet light is the only way to boost food production and end the famine. The only way to feed thousands of brave families who settled there. Eleven thousand men, women, and children already, with an exponentially expanding birth rate. They’re all depending on Dr. Andrew Pelops.

I have to survive, he thinks. All those lives depend on it. This mission has to succeed. Everything else is secondary.

Think about those people. Those children. Think about those hungry mouths, so many more than yours.

The mission must succeed.

For the first three months Pelops eats frugally and his body grows lean. The flight suit hangs loose on his frame. He cuts his beard and hair with a pair of infirmary scissors, but they always grow back into a hermit’s nest of tangles. The boredom is deadly. He spends most of his waking hours on the bridge, staring into the glittering void. He charts constellations . . . Scorpius, Serpens, Hydra. He sails through a gulf of myth and darkness. At times he fears the demon-eyes of the stars, and at other times he laughs at them. He carves images of ancient monsters into the deck floor with a screwdriver. He sleeps.

Sometimes he talks to the sleeping crew, sharing his knowledge of photonic chemistry, tales of his failed marriage, and his dreams for the future. They lie cold and still inside their coffins and listen to his every word. They are the perfect listeners.

Sometimes he imagines they reply to him.

Whispering like the distant stars.

Pelops eats the last bit of the dried jerky from the emergency chest. There is nothing else inside. Only the empty carcasses of plastic and tin where the faintest scent of edible things lingers. For days afterward he endures the grinding of his stomach, drinks himself to bloating at the water tanks, endures the hunger pangs that stab in his guts.

He babbles to the sleeping crew, telling them tales of hunger strikes.

“You see the body persists on glucose energy for the first three days of starvation,” he says, walking between the rows of frosty faces. “At that point the liver starts feeding on body fat as ketosis begins. Thanks to the natural reserves of the human body, you don’t really begin to starve until after three weeks. Now the body extracts nutrients and substance from the muscles and organs. Bone marrow too. Here’s where the real danger begins . . . ”

He imagines himself gnawing the meat off a large bone, slavering like a hound.

“Most hunger strikers die after fifty days . . . but are incapacitated long before that. We can’t allow that to happen. The mission is all that matters. It must succeed . . . at all cost.”

He hopes they understand.

After ten solid days of starving, he dreams of his father. The stars are bright and blinking above the Colorado mountains. He’s twelve years old, and his father has killed a deer. Pelops helps skin and prepare the carcass. They roast the venison over an open flame and enjoy its wild, savory flavor. His father’s eyes glisten like the stars as he smiles through a frosty beard:

You know what you have to do, son.

Pelops wakes remembering the taste of greasy venison.

He staggers to the infirmary and finds a laser scalpel. In the cargo bay tool cabinet, a trio of gas-powered welding torches. He picks one up and presses the switch. A blue flame emerges, dancing before his eyes like a beacon of hope.

The flame is hot and perfect.

I have no other choice.

He punches the release lever on Thompson’s pod. A hiss of escaping vapor, a white fog rushing about his feet. He lifts the lid and looks at the man’s sleeping face, blue-white with a mask of rapidly melting frost. As the eyes begin to flutter against their icy hoods, Pelops raises the hypodermic needle. He’s found a powerful sedative in the infirmary cabinet. He injects the drug into Thompson’s jugular and pulls him from the pod, slinging him over his shoulder.

I could use the scalpel on myself, he thinks. Cut my own throat . . . quick and painless.

Is it wrong to kill a few people to save thousands?

He already knows the answer. It sits in his chest like an iron weight, far heavier than a single human body.

On the infirmary operating table he lays Thompson out, strips him of flight suit and undergarments. Bathes his body with fresh water from the tanks. Removes most of the body hair with scissors and razor.

He has never killed a man before. His nerves are electric. His hands tremble, and he begins babbling again. He knows the unconscious Thompson can’t hear him. He could wake him up and have a real conversation first . . . but that would only make it harder.

“During World War II this type of thing was fairly common,” he says. “Take the Siege of Leningrad. Eight hundred and seventy two days. The survivors trapped inside the city ate all the pets, birds, and rats before they were forced to . . . So it’s not as if this sort of thing is completely without precedent. The mission must succeed, Thompson. At any cost.”

I’m so sorry.

He switches on the laser scalpel and draws the blade of light across Thompson’s soft throat. A fountain of red flows across the table and drips onto the floor, where Pelops has spread a tarp and bucket to catch it.

He dons a surgeon’s mask to avoid the smell and proceeds to butcher the carcass. First he separates the limbs from the torso, then the head. The heat of the laser provides partial cauterization, but not enough to keep blood from leaking through tiny holes like puncture wounds in the raw, pink muscle tissue. A wave of nausea and weakness claims him, so he leaves the segmented body for later and takes Thompson’s lower leg into the cargo bay. With the scissors he lacerates and peels the skin from the hock of meat. Then he arranges the calf and foot on a metal spit, propped between two crates above the three activated welding torches. The blue-white flames cook the flesh nicely . . . the smell of it roasting both titillates and nauseates him. He wretches, but has nothing inside him to throw up.

It’s only venison, he tells himself.

After a few minutes he turns the spit, browning the other side.

He catches himself drooling and wipes his lips.

He cannot bear to wait for it to fully cook, so he settles for medium rare.

Picks it up like a massive chicken leg and takes his first bite, sinking teeth deep into the tender flesh. Tearing a mouthful from the bone. He chews, remembering that trip with his father . . . sitting around the camp fire. Eating what he’d killed.

Veal.

The exact consistency of fresh and tender veal.

He takes another bite. Expects to wretch it all up, but doesn’t. He swallows the second bite, and a third. A great contentment settles over him. For the first time in six years his belly is full. He falls asleep on the cargo bay floor, the hock of gnawed meat lying on his chest.

He dreams of brown gravy and hot, steaming biscuits.

Less than a week.

Less than a week, and the meat has all gone bad. Energized and renewed by a succession of hunger-free days, Pelops realizes his mistake. Once the pods are open they won’t freeze again. There is no freezer on the ship—it was never meant to sustain awake beings for more than a few hours at a time. He has no way to keep the meat from spoiling.

The next few days he makes himself sick by eating the rotten flesh. Half of his kill has been ruined. He smashes a naked shinbone against the wall in frustration.

He checks the time log on the bridge again. Just over eleven months to go. Eleven functioning CryoPods. Eleven bodies to sustain him. But only if he does things differently.

It all depends on me, he reminds himself. Eleven thousand men, women, and children.

If he keeps eating spoiled meat, he’ll die. So he shoves the rest of Thompson into the airlock and ejects it into space.

What a waste. Just like Tanaka.

He waits as long as he can for the hunger to catch up with him again. Stares at the cold stars beyond the bridge viewport. Gazing into an emptiness that mirrors the void in his belly. He abstains as long as he can possibly stand it . . . nine days this time.

He harvests the next pod.

Staggs, E. Male. Big, guy, good physique.

Pelops thaws him out, sedates him, and straps him to the operating table. He can’t kill this one like he did Thompson. He has to keep the meat fresh.

He dry heaves into a plastic waste bin . . . there is nothing inside him to throw up.

Think of Dantus. All those people . . . all those hungry people.

Wiping his wet eyes, he starts with the left leg, severing it at the knee.

Like last time, he roasts it and relieves his initial hunger. This time his guilt and nausea are drowned beneath a torrent of sheer gratitude. The meat (venison!) is savory, red and juicy on his tongue. His teeth tear through it with gusto. This man was an athlete . . . lots of tender muscle. Protein . . . nutrients . . . flavor.

Thompson was veal. Staggs is prime beef.

He waits as long as he can between each meal. Finally settles on eating once every 48 hours. In this way, he calculates his meat will last until Dantus. Eleven months. Sure, he’ll suffer from lack of carbohydrates and vitamin . . . . but men have survived on all-meat diets for longer than that and been just fine. After this ordeal, after the converters are installed on the colony farms, there will be vegetables and fruits aplenty. A bounty to replace what he has lost. And the crew of the Goya will be remembered as heroes.

He pumps Staggs full of fresh sedative on a daily basis. The man remains oblivious as his legs and arms disappear, replaced by careful tourniquets that prevent him from bleeding to death. Pelops cleans him, looks after his bodily functions, makes sure he stays alive. Preserves as much of the man’s dignity as he can.

Later, when only the head and torso are left, Pelops has to be more careful. Tricky to harvest a torso without killing the subject. He starts with a crude appendectomy. Next, he removes the liver. Then the spleen and stomach. Eventually, when Staggs is truly dead, he cracks open the chest cavity and removes the fist-sized heart.

Filet mignon, he tells himself. That’s all it is.

He cooks the heart a special way, cutting it open to butterfly the meat.

Eats it sitting before the viewport, gazing into the abyss of blinking stars.

It is the finest piece of meat he’s ever tasted. The heart, he decides, must be the choicest morsel in the human body. The prime muscle. The lights of the console blink across his face as his molars grind the meat and it slips down his gullet into his grateful stomach.

Staggs’ brain, sliced in two, provides a double meal.

Tastes like stringy roast chicken.

Gray matter. White meat.

Pelops harvests the next pod in the same way, but runs out of sedative after ten days. First Officer Bernard Hoffman wakes up on the table, restrained and entirely legless. His panicked screams draw Pelops into the infirmary.

“Shhhhhh . . . ” Pelops comforts him. Gives him cool water to drink. “Take it easy, Hoffman.”

“What . . . what’s happening?” asks the terrified man, his brown eyes pleading.

“Shhhh . . . it’s all right. It’s just a bad dream. The mission is going to be a success. We’re only ten months from Dantus. Go back to sleep.”

Hoffman writhes against his restraints, tearing at the leather straps. The stumps of his legs begin to bleed. “What the fuck are you talking about? You look . . . look . . . where are my legs? What happened to my legs?” More screaming. He’s only just noticed his missing appendages.

Pelops breaks down. He apologizes and explains everything. Tells Hoffman about the comet, about the radiation, about the pods, the lack of food, how he must ensure the mission’s success. Reminds him of the thousands of people depending on his UV converters.

But Hoffman doesn’t get any of it. He just screams.

Screams and screams until he makes himself hoarse.

Pelops begs him to stop, but the screams go on and on. He knocks Hoffman unconscious. But the man only wakes up screaming again. Pelops stuffs a rag in his mouth and leaves him on the table. In a few days, he won’t have the strength to make any more noise.

Pelops uses a local anesthetic now instead of sedative. Hoffman may have to be awake during his amputations, but he won’t feel a thing. His eyes grow large as golf balls as he watches Pelops remove his left arm, then later his right. He finally stops trying to scream. Spends most of his time unconscious now. Sometimes he wakes and mutters nonsense, so Pelops sits in a chair next to him, his belly full, and listens.

He reminds Hoffman that this sacrifice makes him a hero. One of the Saviors of Dantus colony.

When he harvests the torso this time he learns to salvage the intestines, filling them with minced organ meat. He discovers how to make a week’s worth of sausages in this way before Hoffman’s heart finally gives out.

He decides to keep the white bones instead of flushing them into the void.

He’ll bury them on Dantus, beneath a growing field of wheat. With stone monuments.

He comes to this decision over dinner.

The next pod contains a gorgeous blonde woman. Mewes, C.

After he gets her onto the table, he wakes her and talks at length about their situation. Lets her know the heroic role she will be playing in the mission. She weeps, begs, pleads with him. He sobs with her, sharing in the tragedy of the situation. He unbuckles her restraints and embraces her tenderly.

“Don’t worry,” he whispers in her ear, arms wrapped around her. “Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.”

He chases her down when she slips away from him, but manages to corner her in the cargo bay and knocks her senseless with a crowbar.

I could let her join me, he thinks. It wouldn’t be so lonely then. Maybe there’s enough meat in the pods for both of us . . .

He smacks himself across the face. Stupid! He knows two people surviving the rest of this journey is impossible. There’s simply not enough food. Both would starve and Dantus would die.

So it’s back to the table where the harvesting begins. Still a good supply of sedative, so she won’t feel any pain.

Somehow, she wakes in the middle of things and starts wailing. The sound pierces his ears in a way that Hoffman’s guttural bellows never could. He has to gag her so he can finish.

Later, enjoying the last of her, he smacks his lips and remembers the lovely blue of her eyes. So delectable on his tongue, like tender Swedish meatballs.

The void persists, and so does his hunger. It returns like clockwork every 48 hours.

He doesn’t bother looking at the name of his next harvest. He cuts out the tongue first to avoid any more conversation.

A few days later he goes to the table-bound crewman, removes the gag and offers him a taste of his own thigh meat. The man eats ravenously, saving his questions until his own hunger is sated. Then he stares at Pelops and tries to form words. The stub of his tongue rattles around inside his mouth. His mute eyes plead desperately. They remind Pelops of the blonde’s blue eyes.

He eats them next.

The human body is indeed an amazing thing.

So many different flavors.

Five and a half months left, five CryoPods unopened.

With proper rationing, he will make it. However, the anesthetic is nearly gone.

This complicates things, but is in no way a barrier to success.

The mission is all that matters.

He has it down to a science now: Open the pod. Tie the sleeper’s hands and feet with copper wire before they come fully awake. Drag them to in the infirmary, strap them to the table. Remove the tongue, put the gag in place. Ignore the screams. Ignore the blood. Slice. Tourniquet. Ignore the squirming, the moans of pain. The tears, the squealing.

Forty-eight hours later. Slice. Tourniquet. It’s no longer a person, despite all the writhing and moaning and muffled screams. It’s only meat.

Forty-eight hours after that. Slice. Tourniquet. They’re usually too weak to scream much more after this.

Some are lucky enough to sleep through the whole process from this point on.

Three more crew members and thirteen weeks later. Only two months away from Dantus.

His next meal is the last female. But this fact barely registers; Pelops no longer sees them as women or men.

They’re only meat.

All of us . . . charting the course of history . . . only meat.

Yet this one is something special. When he slices into her abdomen he finds her secret. The command board would have grounded her had they known. Or maybe she didn’t know. Two months along before Cryo, he estimates. Her eyes are glazed by the time he discovers the prize inside her. Strapped, gagged, limbless, and unblinking, she stares at the antiseptic ceiling as he vivisects her. And there it is . . .

A tiny thing . . . only eighteen centimeters. Barely recognizable as human. More like something amphibian . . . a vestige of our marine origins.

Miniscule arms more like fins, or flippers. The stubs of barely formed legs. Round head no larger than an orange.

So we begin . . . the seed from which all of us grow.

Expanding and developing meat on a rack of expanding and hardening bone.

He carries it to the bridge, shows it to the stars. He imagines the universe itself as one big womb . . . an inescapable uterus containing planets, stars, and galaxies.

In the end, it’s little more than a snack.

Sweet, a bit crunchy. A fresh flavor.

Bit of a fishy aftertaste.

Its mother lasts another eight days.

In these months he’s decided to put all those bones to good use. At first he carves them into tiny figurines: goblins, serpents, scorpions, or wholly new creatures birthed in his imagination. Then he decides on a project. A sculpture. He drags all the bones and skulls onto the bridge and works nonstop in the pale starlight, baring his creative spirit to the naked universe.

Directly ahead, a red star shines. Wolf 359. His destination, the color of spilled blood gleaming brightly in a mantle of eternal night.

A new god observes and blesses the success of the mission. Its lofty head is a ring of ten bleached skulls gazing in every direction. Its body is a tangled conglomeration of leg bones, arm bones, and rib cages. It wears a necklace of finger and toe bones. With screws and caulk and ductile adhesive he has brought it to life.

He sits before it in the captain’s chair, discussing with it the secrets of the universe, watching the void outside and the red star that is their final destination.

His creation tells him things, terrible things that he has long suspected, now confirmed in the glaring honesty of cold starlight. He eats his meals before it, calling upon it to bless the meat.

He tears into his latest chop, red and quivering.

Fresh and raw, that is the only way to eat meat.

His new god approves.

With two months to go and two CryoPods left, Pelops gets careless.

The man inside (Harmon, Sgt. G.) revives while he’s being tied, his frosty eyelids flickering open. Some fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in and he knocks Pelops from the opened pod, spilling out on top of him.

“Wha . . . ” he stammers. “Whaaaaa . . . ”

Pelops tries to club him on the head with a wrench but Sgt. Harmon is already too fast. He rolls away and pulls his hands free of the wire. He kicks Pelops in the side of the head. Stars swim crazily in Pelops’ eyes.

Pelops regains his senses to find Harmon holding him against the wall, pressing the tip of a screwdriver against his neck. The sergeant is still cold and reeks of cryonic fluid. He breathes hotly in Pelops’ face, the crystals on his beard beginning to melt.

“Who are you?” he asks. “And what the hell are you doing?”

He shoves the screwdriver painfully into Pelops’ skin, drawing a trickle of blood.

“I’m Dr. Pelops,” he says. “I had to . . . awaken you prematurely.”

Harmon looks around the corridor. Sees the empty pods. All but one now missing its inhabitant.

“Where are they?” His teeth are gritted as his black eyes bore into Pelops’. “Tell me!

“Dead . . . ” Pelops admits. “There was a comet, or a meteor . . . some kind of radiation cloud . . . took out the auto-drive and the pods. I was lucky.”

Harmon blinks, thinking. Considering. He knows I’m not telling him everything. His eyes fall upon the last functioning CryoPod.

“Why didn’t you wake Captain Tyler?”

“I . . . I was going to,” says Pelops.

Harmon grabs Pelops’ throat in an iron grip. “Then why tie me up? Huh?”

Pelops says nothing. Gasps for air.

“You look like hell,” says Harmon, examining him. Hair and beard a matted rat’s nest. Face sunken, skin sallow. Nails long as claws.

Can he smell the dead on my breath?

“How long?” asks Harmon. Rams his knee into Pelops’ groin. Pelops falls to the cold floor. Harmon bends and holds the screwdriver’s tip to his eye. “How long?” he shouts.

“F-f-fourteen months!” cries Pelops.

Shock spills across Harmon’s shaggy face. “Fourteen . . . ” He looks again at the empty rows of CryoPods, stares down the corridor in either direction. Sniffs the air like a suspicious hound. “Fourteen months . . . how did you survive?”

Pelops clutches his throbbing groin and says nothing.

Harmon kicks him in the stomach.

“How? Tell me! Say it!”

Pelops tells him. Doesn’t look at his face. Hears him start to wretch.

“All that matters is the success of this mission . . . ” Pelops growls. “And I’m the only one who can get those converters up and running.”

Harmon is strangely quiet.

“We’ve got two more months,” says Pelops.

Harmon’s boot comes down hard on his face.

Darkness.

“He’s a sick fuck!”

Pelops regains consciousness, wrapped in a web of pain. No, it’s the copper wire. He’s propped upright inside one of the defunct pods. In the corridor Harmon stands arguing with another man. The inhabitant of the last pod, the ship’s captain (Tyler, Capt. H.). A sinking feeling as he realizes that Harmon has revived Tyler far too early. He tries to move his arms and legs, but he’s securely bound. He listens to their conversation, watching them in the corner of his eye.

“I know how you feel, soldier,” says Captain Tyler, still wiping frost from his flight suit, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck. “But Pelops is the only one who knows how to set up those UV converter domes and get them operational. We can’t just execute him.”

“Execute? Who said anything about an execution? You don’t execute a mad dog, captain. You put it down. And that’s what we have here. He fuckin’ ate them! Didn’t you hear me?”

“I heard you, son.” A weary sigh.

“Come on,” says Harmon. “Let me show you the nice little present he built for us on the bridge. Once you see that I’m sure you’ll agree to shoving him out the airlock at the least.”

The sound of their boots tramping down the corridor.

Pelops waits.

Prays.

Mutters poems to his bone god.

Eventually the voices return, growing in volume, punctuated by the sounds of boots on metal.

“ . . . even if we do this, we’re still going to starve. There’s no food left on board and we can’t enter Cryo again. This is the end of the line for us.”

“Then it doesn’t matter, does it? Let me kill him. One last good thing before we die. Then we’ll set the auto-destruct . . . go out in a blaze of glory. Better than starving to death.”

Captain Tyler has no response to that.

The two men stand before the open CryoPod now, looking at Pelops.

“Captain . . . ” Pelops says, “you know as well as I do—”

“Shut up, freak!” Sgt. Harmon’s fist slams into his gut. The air rushes from his lungs, along with the words he failed to utter.

Harmon lifts a service pistol to Pelops’ chin, the barrel digging into his jawbone.

“All of us may have to die,” Harmon tells him, “but you’re going first you cannibal fu—”

Thud.

A flash of silver above his head, a meaty sound, and Harmon goes down. Captain Tyler stands over him with the wrench in his hand. Its round end drips dark blood like syrup, and a clot of hair and skin hangs there.

Tyler drops the wrench and peels the coils of wire away from Pelops’ wrists and ankles.

The captain is silent for awhile as Pelops rubs his limbs to get the circulation flowing again. Tyler stares at his fallen officer, leans against the wall. Tired. Ready to accept his fate.

“You did the right thing doctor,” says Tyler. His sunken eyes turn toward Pelops. They are as black and glittering as the void. “The famine on Dantus could kill tens of thousands. This mission has to succeed.”

Pelops nods. His stomach growls. He is ravenous.

“Can you still make it work?” asks Tyler.

Pelops stares down at the unconscious soldier. Makes a few mental calculations. Rubs his sore temple.

“Yes,” he says. “With your help, the mission will still succeed.”

Tyler helps Pelops carry Harmon into the infirmary.

Pelops carefully rations out pieces of Harmon over the next few weeks. Tyler holds out for sixteen days but eventually joins him for a slight meal. Pelops insists.

“It’s imperative to this mission that you stay alive captain,” he says. “Just a little while longer.”

Tyler won’t go near the infirmary. The blow to Harmon’s head inflicted some kind of brain damage, so he remains comatose as he’s carved to bits day after day. Just as well. No screams to deal with, but still Tyler takes it hard. He sits on the bridge in his chair most days . . . staring at the red star growing ever brighter directly ahead.

Pelops thought the captain would dismantle the bone god . . . but Tyler doesn’t seem to mind it. Or perhaps he’s frightened of it. Too frightened of its power to risk desecrating it. He must know that it, not him, now rules the Goya.

Harmon would have lasted longer if Pelops did not share him with Tyler. However, Tyler ate so very little . . . only enough to keep himself alive for another month. Finally, when the last of Harmon has been consumed and his bones have been added to the god’s intricate frame, Tyler comes to Pelops. A broken man, emaciated, begging to be put out of his misery.

“It’s all my fault,” Tyler tells him, weeping. Pelops listens. “It was my responsibility to make sure we had extra emergency kits. I didn’t do it.”

Pelops leads him into the infirmary.

Tyler babbles, weeping. “Trying to maximize profits . . . cut corners . . . it should have been a simple trip. I did it to save money, Pelops. I killed us all for money . . . ”

“Not all of us, Captain,” says Pelops.

Tyler nods, wipes his swollen eyes. He must be thinking of those starving families on Dantus now.

“I am sorry there is no more anesthetic for this Captain.”

“Just do it,” says Tyler. He unholsters his pistol, lays it on a nearby counter. “Get it over with. Kill me. For Dantus . . . for all those children. Kill me now . . . ”

“If you wouldn’t mind lying on the table first,” says Pelops. Tyler complies.

Pelops straps him down securely and prepares the laser scalpel.

“What are you doing?” asks Tyler. “One shot between the eyes will do it. Make it quick, Pelops.”

Pelops hesitates.

It seems the captain has misunderstood his role here.

“We’ve still got over a month of travel time, sir . . . ” Pelops explains. “If I kill you now, I’m afraid you’ll spoil before we reach Dantus.”

Tyler’s shock registers as a moment of silence. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “No, you can eat for two or three weeks, and the last few days you can go without. You’ll be fine . . . as soon as you touch down you’ll have food on Dantus. You don’t need me to last that long, Pelops!”

“I’m sorry, Captain,” says Pelops. “But I don’t like to go hungry.”

He ignores the captain’s screaming and writhing as he puts the gag on him. Same old reaction. Pulling against the restraints, wearing the throat raw with grunts and smothered screams.

“It’s for the mission,” Pelops reminds him.

He starts with the legs, as usual.

Tyler, once a strong and vital man, lasts nearly three weeks on the table.

In the end, with the last few scraps of Tyler gone, Pelops still has six days left to starve.

The red star swells brighter than ever among the starfields in the viewport.

Pelops sits in the captain’s chair and stares into the shimmering void.

Everything from plants to mammals is fueled by the light of stars. Sunlight fuels photosynthesis, which feeds the plants that in turn feed the animals we eat on earth. Photons and atoms being constantly recycled and reinvented, a molecular dance of destruction and creation that never ends. Everything consumes and is consumed.

We are all made of starlight.

Brilliant starlight, pulsing bright as blood inside us.

It’s all energy . . . and energy is neither created nor destroyed.

His stomach growls.

In the glow of a red sun, the Goya touches down atop a broad plateau littered with wrecked vehicles and rusting machines. Pelops stumbles from the open hatch into the ruddy glow. He walks with a single crutch made of bones. His right leg is missing below the knee, a fresh tourniquet wrapped tight about the stump.

He held out for two difficult days before the hunger won its final victory.

Still, he has made it to this place. A nice prosthetic limb waits in his future.

He blinks in the harsh glow of infrared daylight and stares across the plateau at the colonial city.

He stumbles through the wreckage toward the dilapidated walls. The wind hurls black sand against him, raking like claws across his flight suit and his exposed cheeks, coating his beard with dirt.

Where is everyone?

There should be a welcoming party to greet him. They’ve waited seven years.

The famine won here, he realizes. I’m too late.

He walks through dried fields where crops have died in geometrical rows. Now only the fossilized stubs of cornstalks rear from the smothering sand.

He sees the distant towers more clearly now. Skeletal and stark they stand against the purple sky. He walks with his crutch among the hulks of dead machines, until the sun sinks below the flat horizon. The ruined city looms before him. No signs of life.

Hunger did this. Is there anyone left at all?

He calls out. His voice echoes between crumbling walls, along vacant streets.

The bleak stars emerge to glimmer in the night sky.

We are all made of starlight.

Finally a group of thin shadows emerges from a ramshackle hut near a fallen tower.

Survivors. They converge upon him like wary dogs trailing rags.

He sees their young faces, smudged with dirt and lean as wolves.

They smile, showing rotted teeth. He waves.

They carry sharp knives that gleam in the twilight.

“Wait!” he says. “My name is Pelops—from the earth ship Goya. I’ve brought what you need.”

“Yes, I see that,” says a raggedy woman, brandishing her knife. “We can always use fresh meat.”

It is impossible for him to run on a single leg.

Their knives sink deeply, a dozen whispers of metal.

BEACHWORLD

Stephen King

FedShip ASN/29 fell out of the sky and crashed. After a while two men slipped from its cloven skull like brains. They walked a little way and then stood, helmets beneath their arms, and looked at where they had finished up.

It was a beach in no need of an ocean—it was its own ocean, a sculpted sea of sand, a black-and-white-snapshot sea frozen forever in troughs and crests and more troughs and crests.

Dunes.

Shallow ones, steep ones, smooth ones, corrugated ones. Knife-crested dunes, plane-crested dunes, irregularly crested dunes that resembled dunes piled on dunes—dune-dominoes.

Dunes. But no ocean.

The valleys which were the troughs between these dunes snaked in mazy black rat-runs. If one looked at those twisting lines long enough, they might seem to spell words—black words hovering over the white dunes.

“Fuck,” Shapiro said.

“Bend over,” Rand said.

Shapiro started to spit, then thought better of it. Looking at all that sand made him think better of it. This was not the time to go wasting moisture, perhaps. Half-buried in the sand, ASN/29 didn’t look like a dying bird anymore; it looked like a gourd that had broken open and disclosed rot inside. There had been a fire. The starboard fuel-pods had all exploded.

“Too bad about Grimes,” Shapiro said.

“Yeah.” Rand’s eyes were still roaming the sand sea, out to the limiting line of the horizon and then coming back again.

It was too bad about Grimes. Grimes was dead. Grimes was now nothing but large chunks and small chunks in the aft storage compartment. Shapiro had looked in and thought: It looks like God decided to eat Grimes, found out he didn’t taste good, and sicked him up again. That had been too much for Shapiro’s own stomach. That, and the sight of Grimes’s teeth scattered across the floor of the storage compartment.

Shapiro now waited for Rand to say something intelligent, but Rand was quiet. Rand’s eyes tracked over the dunes, traced the clockspring windings of the deep troughs between.

“Hey!” Shapiro said at last. “What do we do? Grimes is dead; you’re in command. What do we do?”

“Do?” Rand’s eyes moved back and forth, back and forth, over the stillness of the dunes. A dry, steady wind ruffled the rubberized collar of the Environmental Protection suit. “If you don’t have a volleyball, I don’t know.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do on the beach?” Rand asked. “Play volleyball?”

Shapiro had been scared in space many times, and close to panic when the fire broke out; now, looking at Rand, he heard a rumor of fear too large to comprehend.

“It’s big,” Rand said dreamily, and for one moment Shapiro thought that Rand was speaking of Shapiro’s own fear. “One hell of a big beach. Something like this could go on forever. You could walk a hundred miles with your surfboard under your arm and still be where you started, almost, with nothing behind you but six or seven footprints. And if you stood in the same place for five minutes, the last six or seven would be gone, too.”

“Did you get a topographical compscan before we came down?” Rand was in shock, he decided. Rand was in shock but Rand was not crazy. He could give Rand a pill if he had to. And if Rand continued to spin his wheels, he could give him a shot. “Did you get a look at—”

Rand looked at him briefly. “What?”

The green places. That had been what he was going to say. It sounded like a quote from Psalms, and he couldn’t say it. The wind made a silver chime in his mouth.

“What?” Rand asked again.

“Compscan! Compscan!” Shapiro screamed. “You ever hear of a compscan, dronehead? What’s this place like? Where’s the ocean at the end of the fucking beach? Where’s the lakes? Where’s the nearest greenbelt? Which direction? Where does the beach end?”

“End? Oh. I grok you. It never ends. No greenbelts, no ice caps. No oceans. This is a beach in search of an ocean, mate. Dunes and dunes and dunes, and they never end.”

“But what’ll we do for water?”

“Nothing we can do.”

“The ship . . . it’s beyond repair!”

“No shit, Sherlock.”

Shapiro fell quiet. It was now either be quiet or become hysterical. He had a feeling—almost a certainty—that if he became hysterical, Rand would just go on looking at the dunes until Shapiro worked it out, or until he didn’t.

What did you call a beach that never ended? Why, you called it a desert! Biggest motherfucking desert in the universe, wasn’t that right?

In his head he heard Rand respond: No shit, Sherlock.

Shapiro stood for some time beside Rand, waiting for the man to wake up, to do something. After a while his patience ran out. He began to slide and stumble back down the flank of the dune they had climbed to look around. He could feel the sand sucking against his boots. Want to suck you down, Bill, his mind imagined the sand saying. In his mind it was the dry, arid voice of a woman who was old but still terribly strong. Want to suck you right down here and give you a great . . . big . . . hug.

That made him think about how they used to take turns letting the others bury them up to their necks at the beach when he was a kid. Then it had been fun—now it scared him. So he turned that voice off—this was no time for memory lane, Christ, no—and walked through the sand with short, sharp kicking strides, trying unconsciously to mar the symmetrical perfection of its slope and surface.

“Where are you going?” Rand’s voice for the first time held a note of awareness and concern.

“The beacon,” Shapiro said. “I’m going to turn it on. We were on a mapped lane of travel. It’ll be picked up, vectored. It’s a question of time. I know the odds are shitty, but maybe somebody will come before—”

“The beacon’s smashed to hell,” Rand said. “It happened when we came down.”

“Maybe it can be fixed,” Shapiro called back over his shoulder. As he ducked through the hatchway he felt better in spite of the smells—fried wiring and a bitter whiff of Freon gas. He told himself he felt better because he had thought of the beacon. No matter how paltry, the beacon offered some hope. But it wasn’t the thought of the beacon that had lifted his spirits; if Rand said it was broken, it was probably most righteously broken. But he could no longer see the dunes—could no longer see that big, never-ending beach.

That was what made him feel better.

When he got to the top of the first dune again, struggling and panting, his temples pounding with the dry heat, Rand was still there, still staring and staring and staring. An hour had gone by. The sun stood directly above them. Rand’s face was wet with perspiration. Jewels of it nestled in his eyebrows. Droplets ran down his cheeks like tears. More droplets ran down the cords of his neck and into the neck of his EP suit like drops of colorless oil running into the guts of a pretty good android.

Dronehead I called him, Shapiro thought with a little shudder. Christ, that’s what he looks like—not an android but a dronehead who just took a neck-shot with a very big needle.

And Rand had been wrong after all.

“Rand?”

No answer.

“The beacon wasn’t broken.” There was a flicker in Rand’s eyes. Then they went blank again, staring out at the mountains of sand. Frozen, Shapiro had first thought them, but he supposed they moved. The wind was constant. They would move. Over a period of decades and centuries, they would . . . well, would walk. Wasn’t that what they called dunes on a beach? Walking dunes? He seemed to remember that from his childhood. Or school. Or someplace, and what in the hell did it matter?

Now he saw a delicate rill of sand slip down the flank of one of them. As if it heard

(heard what I was thinking)

Fresh sweat on the back of his neck. All right, he was getting a touch of the whim-whams. Who wouldn’t? This was a tight place they were in, very tight. And Rand seemed not to know it . . . or not to care.

“It had some sand in it, and the warbler was cracked, but there must have been sixty of those in Grimes’s odds-and-ends box.”

Is he even hearing me?

“I don’t know how the sand got in it—it was right where it was supposed to be, in the storage compartment behind the bunk, three closed hatches between it and the outside, but—”

“Oh, sand spreads. Gets into everything. Remember going to the beach when you were a kid, Bill? You’d come home and your mother would yell at you because there was sand everywhere? Sand in the couch, sand on the kitchen table, sand down the foot of your bed? Beach sand is very . . . ” He gestured vaguely, and then that dreamy, unsettling smile resurfaced. . . . . ubiquitous.”

“—but it didn’t hurt it any,” Shapiro continued. “The emergency power output system is ticking over and I plugged the beacon into it. I put on the earphones for a minute and asked for an equivalency reading at fifty parsecs. Sounds like a power saw. It’s better than we could have hoped.”

“No one’s going to come. Not even the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys have all been dead for eight thousand years. Welcome to Surf City, Bill. Surf City sans surf.”

Shapiro stared out at the dunes. He wondered how long the sand had been here. A trillion years? A quintillion? Had there been life here once? Maybe even something with intelligence? Rivers? Green places? Oceans to make it a real beach instead of a desert?

Shapiro stood next to Rand and thought about it. The steady wind ruffled his hair. And quite suddenly he was sure all those things had been, and he could picture how they must have ended.

The slow retreat of the cities as their waterways and outlying areas were first speckled, then dusted, finally drifted and choked by the creeping sand.

He could see the shiny brown alluvial fans of mud, sleek as sealskins at first but growing duller and duller in color as they spread further and further out from the mouths of the rivers—out and out until they met each other. He could see sleek sealskin mud becoming reed-infested swamp, then gray, gritty till, finally shifting white sand.

He could see mountains shortening like sharpened pencils, their snow melting as the rising sand brought warm thermal updrafts against them; he could see the last few crags pointing at the sky like the fingertips of men buried alive; he could see them covered and immediately forgotten by the profoundly idiotic dunes.

What had Rand called them?

Ubiquitous.

If you just had a vision, Billy-boy, it was a pretty goddam dreadful one.

Oh, but no, it wasn’t. It wasn’t dreadful; it was peaceful. It was as quiet as a nap on a Sunday afternoon. What was more peaceful than the beach?

He shook these thoughts away. It helped to look back toward the ship.

“There isn’t going to be any cavalry,” Rand said. “The sand will cover us and after a while we’ll be the sand and the sand will be us. Surf City with no surf—can you catch that wave, Bill?”

And Shapiro was scared because he could catch it. You couldn’t see all those dunes without getting it.

“Fucking dronehead asshole,” he said. He went back to the ship.

And hid from the beach.

Sunset finally came. The time when, at the beach—any real beach—you were supposed to put away the volleyball and put on your sweats and get out the weenies and the beer. Not time to start necking yet, but almost. Time to look forward to the necking.

Weenies and beer had not been a part of ASN/29’s stores.

Shapiro spent the afternoon carefully bottling all of the ship’s water. He used a porta-vac to suck up that which had run out of the ruptured veins in the ship’s supply system and puddled on the floor. He got the small bit left in the bottom of the shattered hydraulic system’s water tank. He did not overlook even the small cylinder in the guts of the air-purification system which circulated air in the storage areas.

Finally, he went into Grimes’s cabin.

Grimes had kept goldfish in a circular tank constructed especially for weightless conditions. The tank was built of impact-resistant clear-polymer plastic, and had survived the crash easily. The goldfish—like their owner—had not been impact-resistant. They floated in a dull orange clump at the top of the ball, which had come to rest under Grimes’s bunk, along with three pairs of very dirty underwear and half a dozen porno holograph-cubes.

He held the globe aquarium for a moment, looking fixedly into it. “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,” he said suddenly, and laughed a screaming, distracted laugh. Then he got the net Grimes kept in his lockbin and dipped it into the tank. He removed the fish and then wondered what to do with them. After a moment he took them to Grimes’s bed and raised his pillow.

There was sand underneath.

He put the fish there regardless, then carefully poured the water into the jerrican he was using as a catcher. It would all have to be purified, but even if the purifiers hadn’t been working, he thought that in another couple of days he wouldn’t balk at drinking aquarium water just because it might have a few loose scales and a little goldfish shit in it.

He purified the water, divided it, and took Rand’s share back up the side of the dune. Rand was right where he had been, as if he had never moved.

“Rand. I brought you your share of the water.” He unzipped the pouch on the front of Rand’s EP suit and slipped the flat plastic flask inside. He was about to press the zip-strip closed with his thumbnail when Rand brushed his hand away. He took the flask out. Stenciled on the front was ASN/CLASS SHIP’S SUPPLIES STORAGE FLASK CL. *23196755 STERILE WHEN SEAL IS UNBROKEN. The seal was broken now, of course; Shapiro had had to fill the bottle up.

“I purified—”

Rand opened his fingers. The flask fell into the sand with a soft plop. “Don’t want it.”

“Don’t . . . Rand, what’s wrong with you? Jesus Christ, will you stop it?”

Rand did not reply.

Shapiro bent over and picked up storage flask 23196755. He brushed off the grains of sand clinging to the sides as if they were huge, swollen germs.

“What’s wrong with you?” Shapiro repeated. “Is it shock? Do you think that’s what it is? Because I can give you a pill . . . or a shot. But it’s getting to me, I don’t mind telling you. You just standing out here looking at the next forty miles of nothing! It’s sand! Just sand!”

“It’s a beach,” Rand said dreamily. “Want to make a sand castle?”

“Okay, good,” Shapiro said. “I’m going to go get a needle and an amp of Yellowjack. If you want to act like a goddam dronehead, I’ll treat you like one.”

“If you try to inject me with something, you better be quiet when you sneak up behind me,” Rand said mildly. “Otherwise, I’ll break your arm.”

He could do it, too. Shapiro, the astrogator, weighed a hundred and forty pounds and stood five-five. Physical combat was not his specialty. He grunted an oath and turned away, back to the ship, holding Rand’s flask.

“I think it’s alive,” Rand said. “I’m actually pretty sure of it.”

Shapiro looked back at him and then out at the dunes. The sunset had given them a gold filigree at their smooth, sweeping caps, a filigree that shaded delicately down to the blackest ebony in the troughs; on the next dune, ebony shaded back to gold. Gold to black. Black to gold. Gold to black and black to gold and gold to—

Shapiro blinked his eyes rapidly, and rubbed a hand over them.

“I have several times felt this particular dune move under my feet,” Rand told Shapiro. “It moves very gracefully. It is like feeling the tide. I can smell its smell on the air, and the smell is like salt.”

“You’re crazy,” Shapiro said. He was so terrified that he felt as if his brains had turned to glass.

Rand did not reply. Rand’s eyes searched the dunes, which went from gold to black to gold to black in the sunset.

Shapiro went back to the ship.

Rand stayed on the dune all night, and all the next day.

Shapiro looked out and saw him. Rand had taken off his EP suit, and the sand had almost covered it. Only one sleeve stuck out, forlorn and supplicating. The sand above and below it reminded Shapiro of a pair of lips sucking with a toothless greed at a tender morsel. Shapiro felt a crazy desire to pelt up the side of the dune and rescue Rand’s EP suit.

He did not.

He sat in his cabin and waited for the rescue ship. The smell of Freon had dissipated. It was replaced by the even less desirable smell of Grimes decaying.

The rescue ship did not come that day or that night or on the third day.

Sand somehow appeared in Shapiro’s cabin, although the hatchway was closed and the seal still appeared perfectly tight. He sucked the little puddles of sand up with the porta-vac as he had sucked up puddles of spilled water on that first day.

He was very thirsty all the time. His flask was nearly empty already.

He thought he had begun to smell salt on the air; in his sleep he heard the sound of gulls.

And he could hear the sand.

The steady wind was moving the first dune closer to the ship. His cabin was still okay—thanks to the porta-vac—but the sand was already taking over the rest. Mini-dunes had reached through the blown locks and laid hold of ASN/29. It sifted in tendrils and membranes through the vents. There was a drift in one of the blown tanks.

Shapiro’s face grew gaunt and pebbly with beard shadow.

Near sunset of the third day, he climbed up the dune to check on Rand. He thought about taking a hypodermic, then rejected it. It was a lot more than shock; he knew that now. Rand was insane. It would be best if he died quickly. And it looked as if that was exactly what was going to happen.

Shapiro was gaunt; Rand was emaciated. His body was a scrawny stick. His legs, formerly rich and thick with iron-pumper’s muscle, were now slack and droopy. The skin hung on them like loose socks that keep falling down. He was wearing only his undershorts, and they were red nylon, and they looked absurdly like a ball-hugger bathing suit. A light beard had begun to grow on his face, fuzzing his hollow cheeks and chin. His beard was the color of beach sand. His hair, formerly a listless brown shade, had bleached out to a near blond. It hung over his forehead. Only his eyes, peering through the fringe of his hair with bright blue intensity, still lived fully. They studied the beach

(the dunes goddammit the DUNES)

relentlessly.

Now Shapiro saw a bad thing. It was a very bad thing indeed. He saw that Rand’s face was turning into a sand dune. His beard and his hair were choking his skin.

“You,” Shapiro said, “are going to die. If you don’t come down to the ship and drink, you are going to die.”

Rand said nothing.

“Is that what you want?”

Nothing. There was the vacuous snuffle of the wind, but no more. Shapiro observed that the creases of Rand’s neck were filling up with sand.

“The only thing I want,” Rand said in a faint, faraway voice like the wind, “is my Beach Boys tapes. They’re in my cabin.”

“Fuck you!” Shapiro said furiously. “But do you know what I hope? I hope a ship comes before you die. I want to see you holler and scream when they pull you away from your precious goddam beach. I want to see what happens then!”

“Beach’ll get you, too,” Rand said. His voice was empty and rattling, like wind inside a split gourd—a gourd which has been left in a field at the end of October’s last harvest. “Take a listen, Bill. Listen to the wave.”

Rand cocked his head. His mouth, half-open, revealed his tongue. It was as shriveled as a dry sponge.

Shapiro heard something.

He heard the dunes. They sang songs of Sunday afternoon at the beach—naps on the beach with no dreams. Long naps. Mindless peace. The sound of crying gulls. Shifting, thoughtless particles. Walking dunes. He heard . . . and was drawn. Drawn toward the dunes.

“You hear it,” Rand said.

Shapiro reached into his nose and dug with two fingers until it bled. Then he could close his eyes; his thoughts came slowly and clumsily together. His heart was racing.

I was almost like Rand. Jesus! . . . it almost had me!

He opened his eyes again and saw that Rand had become a conch shell on a long deserted beach, straining forward toward all the mysteries of an undead sea, staring out at the dunes and the dunes and the dunes.

No more, Shapiro moaned inside himself.

Oh, but listen to this wave, the dunes whispered back.

Against his better judgment, Shapiro listened.

Then his better judgment ceased to exist.

Shapiro thought: I could hear better if I sat down.

He sat down at Rand’s feet and put his heels on his thighs like a Yaqui Indian and listened.

He heard the Beach Boys and the Beach Boys were singing about fun, fun, fun. He heard them singing that the girls on the beach were all within reach. He heard—

—a hollow sighing of the wind, not in his ear but in the canyon between right brain and left brain—he heard that sighing somewhere in the blackness which is spanned only by the suspension bridge of the corpus callosum, which connects conscious thought to the infinite. He felt no hunger, no thirst, no heat, no fear. He heard only the voice in the emptiness.

And a ship came.

It came swooping out of the sky, afterburners scratching a long orange track from right to left. Thunder belted the delta-wave topography, and several dunes collapsed like bullet-path brain damage. The thunder ripped Billy Shapiro’s head open and for a moment he was torn both ways, ripped, torn down the middle—

Then he was up on his feet.

Ship!” he screamed. ”Holy fuck! Ship! Ship! SHIP!”

It was a belt trader, dirty and buggered by five hundred—or five thousand—years of clan service. It surfed through the air, banged crudely upright, skidded. The captain blew jets and fused sand into black glass. Shapiro cheered the wound.

Rand looked around like a man awaking from a deep dream.

“Tell it to go away, Billy.”

“You don’t understand.” Shapiro was shambling around, shaking his fists in the air. “You’ll be all right—”

He broke toward the dirty trader in big, leaping strides, like a kangaroo running from a ground fire. The sand clutched at him. Shapiro kicked it away. Fuck you, sand. I got a honey back in Hansonville. Sand never had no honey. Beach never had no hard-on.

The trader’s hull split. A gangplank popped out like a tongue. A man strode down it behind three sampler androids and a guy built into treads that was surely the captain. He wore a beret with a clan symbol on it, anyway.

One of the androids waved a sampler wand at him. Shapiro batted it away. He fell on his knees in front of the captain and embraced the treads which had replaced the captain’s dead legs.

“The dunes . . . Rand . . . no water . . . alive . . . hypnotized him . . . dronehead world . . . . . . . thank God . . . ”

A steel tentacle whipped around Shapiro and yanked him away on his gut. Dry sand whispered underneath him like laughter. “It’s okay,” the captain said. ”Bey-at shel! Me! Me! Gat!”

The android dropped Shapiro and backed away, clittering distractedly to itself.

“All this way for a fucking Fed!” the captain exclaimed bitterly.

Shapiro wept. It hurt, not just in his head, but in his liver.

“Dud! Gee-yat! Gat! Water-for-him-Cry!”

The man who had been in the lead tossed him a nippled low-grav bottle. Shapiro upended it and sucked greedily, spilling crystal-cold water into his mouth, down his chin, in dribbles that darkened his tunic, which had bleached to the color of bone. He choked, vomited, then drank again.

Dud and the captain watched him closely. The androids clittered.

At last Shapiro wiped his mouth and sat up. He felt both sick and well.

“You Shapiro?” the captain asked.

Shapiro nodded.

“Clan affiliation?”

“None.”

“ASN number?”

“29.”

“Crew?”

“Three. One dead. The other—Rand—up there.” He pointed but did not look.

The captain’s face did not change. Dud’s face did.

“The beach got him,” Shapiro said. He saw their questioning, veiled looks. “Shock . . . maybe. He seems hypnotized. He keeps talking about the . . . the Beach Boys . . . never mind, you wouldn’t know. He wouldn’t drink or eat. He’s bad off.”

“Dud. Take one of the andies and get him down from there.” He shook his head. “Fed ship, Christ. No salvage.”

Dud nodded. A few moments later he was scrambling up the side of the dune with one of the andies. The andy looked like a twenty-year-old surfer who might make dope money on the side servicing bored widows, but his stride gave him away even more than the segmented tentacles which grew from his armpits. The stride, common to all androids, was the slow, reflective, almost painful stride of an aging English butler with hemorrhoids.

There was a buzz from the captain’s dashboard.

“I’m here.”

“This is Gomez, Cap. We got a situation here. Compscan and surface telemetry show us a very unstable surface. There’s no bedrock that we can targ. We’re resting on our own burn, and right now that may be the hardest thing on the whole planet. Trouble is, the burn itself is starting to settle.”

“Recommendation?”

“We ought to get out.”

“When?”

“Five minutes ago.”

“You’re a laugh riot, Gomez.”

The captain punched a button and the communicator went out.

Shapiro’s eyes were rolling. “Look, never mind Rand. He’s had it.”

“I’m taking you both back,” the captain said. “I got no salvage, but the Federation ought to pay something for the two of you . . . not that either of you are worth much, as far as I can see. He’s crazy and you’re chickenshit.”

“No . . . you don’t understand. You—”

The captain’s cunning yellow eyes gleamed.

“You got any contra?” he asked.

“Captain . . . look . . . please—”

“Because if you do, there’s no sense just leaving it here. Tell me what it is and where it is. I’ll split seventy-thirty. Standard salvor’s fee. Couldn’t do any better than that, hey? You—”

The burn suddenly tilted beneath them. Quite noticeably tilted. A horn somewhere inside the trader began to blat with muffled regularity. The communicator on the captain’s dashboard went off again.

There!” Shapiro screamed. ”There, do you see what you’re up against? You want to talk about contraband now? WE HAVE GOT TO GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!”

“Shut up, handsome, or I’ll have one of these guys sedate you,” the captain said. His voice was serene but his eyes had changed. He thumbed the communicator.

“Cap, I got ten degrees of tilt and we’re getting more. The elevator’s going down, but it’s going on an angle. We’ve still got time, but not much. The ship’s going to fall over.”

“The struts will hold her.”

“No, sir. Begging the captain’s pardon, they won’t.”

“Start firing sequences, Gomez.”

“Thank you, sir.” The relief in Gomez’s voice was unmistakable.

Dud and the android were coming back down the flank of the dune. Rand wasn’t with them. The andy fell further and further behind. And now a strange thing happened. The andy fell over on its face. The captain frowned. It did not fall as an andy is supposed to fall—which is to say, like a human being, more or less. It was as if someone had pushed over a mannequin in a department store. It fell over like that. Thump, and a little tan cloud of sand puffed up from around it.

Dud went back and knelt by it. The andy’s legs were still moving as if it dreamed, in the 1.5 million Freon-cooled micro-circuits that made up its mind, that it still walked. But the leg movements were slow and cracking. They stopped. Smoke began to come out of its pores and its tentacles shivered in the sand. It was gruesomely like watching a human die. A deep grinding came from inside it: Graaaagggg!

“Full of sand,” Shapiro whispered. “It’s got Beach Boys religion.”

The captain glanced at him impatiently. “Don’t be ridiculous, man. That thing could walk through a sandstorm and not get a grain inside it.”

“Not on this world.”

The burn settled again. The trader was now clearly canted. There was a low groan as the struts took more weight.

“Leave it!” the captain bawled at Dud. “Leave it, leave it! Gee-yat! Come-me-for-Cry!”

Dud came, leaving the andy to walk face-down in the sand.

“What a balls-up,” the captain muttered.

He and Dud engaged in a conversation spoken entirely in a rapid pidgin dialect which Shapiro was able to follow to some degree. Dud told the captain that Rand had refused to come. The andy had tried to grab Rand, but with no force. Even then it was moving jerkily, and strange grating sounds were coming from inside it. Also, it had begun to recite a combination of galactic strip-mining coordinates and a catalogue of the captain’s folk-music tapes. Dud himself had then closed with Rand. They had struggled briefly. The captain told Dud that if Dud had allowed a man who had been standing three days in the hot sun to get the better of him, that maybe he ought to get another First.

Dud’s face darkened with embarrassment, but his grave, concerned look never faltered. He slowly turned his head, revealing four deep furrows in his cheek. They were welling slowly.

Him-gat big indics,” Dud said. ”Strong-for-Cry. Him-gat for umby.”

Umby-him for-Cry?” The captain was looking at Dud sternly.

Dud nodded. ”Umby. Beyat-shel. Umby-for-Cry.”

Shapiro had been frowning, conning his tired, frightened mind for that word. Now it came. Umby. It meant crazy. He’s strong, for Christ’s sake. Strong because he’s crazy. He’s got big ways, big force. Because he’s crazy.

Big ways . . . or maybe it meant big waves. He wasn’t sure. Either way it came to the same.

Umby.

The ground shifted underneath them again, and sand blew across Shapiro’s boots.

From behind them came the hollow ka-thud, ka-thud, ka-thud of the breather-tubes opening. Shapiro thought it one of the most lovely sounds he had ever heard in his life.

The captain sat deep in thought, a weird centaur whose lower half was treads and plates instead of horse. Then he looked up and thumbed the communicator.

“Gomez, send Excellent Montoya down here with a tranquilizer gun.”

“Acknowledged.”

The captain looked at Shapiro. “Now, on top of everything else, I’ve lost an android worth your salary for the next ten years. I’m pissed off. I mean to have your buddy.”

“Captain.” Shapiro could not help licking his lips. He knew this was a very ill-chosen thing to do. He did not want to appear mad, hysterical, or craven, and the captain had apparently decided he was all three. Licking his lips like that would only add to the impression . . . but he simply couldn’t help himself. “Captain, I cannot impress on you too strongly the need to get off this world as soon as poss—”

“Can it, dronehead,” the captain said, not unkindly.

A thin scream rose from the top of the nearest dune.

Don’t touch me! Don’t come near me! Leave me alone! All of you!”

Big indics gat umby,” Dud said gravely.

Ma-him, yeah-mon,” the captain returned, and then turned to Shapiro. “He really is bad off, isn’t he?”

Shapiro shuddered. “You don’t know. You just—”

The burn settled again. The struts were groaning louder than ever. The communicator crackled. Gomez’s voice was thin, a little unsteady.

“We have to get out of here right now, Cap!”

“All right.” A brown man appeared on the gangway. He held a long pistol in one gloved hand. The captain pointed at Rand.”Ma-him, for-Cry. Can?”

Excellent Montoya, unperturbed by the tilting earth that was not earth but only sand fused to glass (and there were deep cracks running through it now, Shapiro saw), unbothered by the groaning struts or the eerie sight of an android that now appeared to be digging its own grave with its feet, studied Rand’s thin figure for a moment.

Can,” he said.

Gat! Gat-for-Cry!” The captain spat to one side. “Shoot his pecker off, I don’t care,” he said. “Just as long as he’s still breathing when we ship.”

Excellent Montoya raised the pistol. The gesture was apparently two-thirds casual and one-third careless, but Shapiro, even in his state of near-panic, noted the way Montoya’s head tilted to one side as he lined the barrel up. Like many in the clans, the gun would be nearly a part of him, like pointing his own finger.

There was a hollow fooh! as he squeezed the trigger and the tranquilizer dart blew out of the barrel.

A hand reached out of the dune and clawed it down.

It was a large brown hand, wavery, made of sand. It simply reached up, in defiance of the wind, and smothered the momentary glitter of the dart. Then the sand fell back with a heavy thrrrrap. No hand. Impossible to believe there had been. But they had all seen it.

Giddy-hump,” the captain said in an almost conversational voice.

Excellent Montoya fell on his knees. ”Aidy-May-for-Cry, bit-gat come! Saw-hoh got belly-gat-for-Cry!—”

Numbly, Shapiro realized Montoya was saying a rosary in pidgin. Up on the dune, Rand was jumping up and down, shaking his fists at the sky, screeching thinly in triumph.

A hand. It was a HAND. He’s right; it’s alive, alive, alive—

Indic!” the captain said sharply to Montoya. ”Cannit! Gat!”

Montoya shut up. His eyes touched on the capering figure of Rand and then he looked away. His face was full of superstitious horror nearly medieval in quality.

“Okay,” the captain said. “I’ve had enough. I quit. We’re going.”

He shoved two buttons on his dashboard. The motor that should have swiveled him neatly around so he faced up the gangplank again did not hum; it squealed and grated. The captain cursed. The burn shifted again.

“Captain!” Gomez. In a panic.

The captain slammed in another button and the treads began to move backward up the gangplank.

“Guide me,” the captain said to Shapiro. “I got no fucking rearview mirror. It was a hand, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I want to get out of here,” the captain said. “It’s been fourteen years since I had a cock, but right now I feel like I’m pissing myself.”

Thrrap! A dune suddenly collapsed over the gangway. Only it wasn’t a dune; it was an arm.

“Fuck, oh fuck,” the captain said.

On his dune, Rand capered and screeched.

Now the threads of the captain’s lower half began to grind. The mini-tank of which the captain’s head and shoulders were the turret now began to judder backward.

“What—”

The treads locked. Sand splurted out from between them.

Pick me up!” the captain bawled to the two remaining androids. ”Now! RIGHT NOW!”

Their tentacles curled around the tread sprockets as they picked him up—he looked ridiculously like a faculty member about to be tossed in a blanket by a bunch of roughhousing fraternity boys. He was thumbing the communicator.

“Gomez! Final firing sequence! Now! Now!”

The dune at the foot of the gangplank shifted. Became a hand. A large brown hand that began to scrabble up the incline.

Shrieking, Shapiro bolted from that hand.

Cursing, the captain was carried away from it.

The gangplank was pulled up. The hand fell off and became sand again. The hatchway irised closed. The engines howled. No time for a couch; no time for anything like that. Shapiro dropped into a crash-fold position on the bulkhead and was promptly smashed flat by the acceleration. Before unconsciousness washed over him, it seemed he could feel sand grasping at the trader with muscular brown arms, straining to hold them down—

Then they were up and away.

Rand watched them go. He was sitting down. When the track of the trader’s jets was at last gone from the sky, he turned his eyes out to the placid endlessness of the dunes.

“We got a ’34 wagon and we call it a woody,” he croaked to the empty, moving sand. “It ain’t very cherry; it’s an oldy but a goody.”

Slowly, reflectively, he began to cram handful after handful of sand into his mouth. He swallowed . . . swallowed . . . swallowed. Soon his belly was a swollen barrel and sand began to drift over his legs.

STANDARD LONELINESS PACKAGE

Charles Yu

Root canal is one fifty, give or take, depending on who’s doing it to you. A migraine is two hundred.

Not that I get the money. The company gets it. What I get is twelve dollars an hour, plus reimbursement for painkillers. Not that they work.

I feel pain for money. Other people’s pain. Physical, emotional, you name it.

Pain is an illusion, I know, and so is time, I know, I know. I know. The shift manager never stops reminding us. Doesn’t help, actually. Doesn’t help when you are on your third broken leg of the day.

I get to work late and already there are nine tickets in my inbox. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, open the first ticket of the day:

I am at a funeral.

I am feeling grief.

Someone else’s grief.

I am feeling a mixture of things.

Grief, mostly, but I also detect that there is some guilt in there. There usually is.

I hear crying.

I am seeing crying faces. Pretty faces. Crying, pretty, white faces.

Nice clothes.

Our services aren’t cheap. As the shift manager is always reminding us.

Need I remind you? That is his favorite phrase these days. He is always walking up and down the aisle tilting his head into our cubicles and saying it. Need I remind you, he says, of where we are on the spectrum? In terms of low-end/high-end? We are solidly towards the highish-end. So the faces are usually pretty, the clothes are usually nice. The people are usually nice, too. Although, I imagine that it’s easy to be nice when you are rich and pretty. Even when you’re at a funeral.

There’s a place in Hyderabad that is doing what we’re doing, a little more towards the budget end of things. Precision Living Solutions, it’s called. And of course there are hundreds of emotional engineering firms in Bangalore. Springing up everywhere you look. I read in the paper that a new call center opens, on average, like every three days.

Okay. Body is going into the ground now. The crying is getting more serious.

Here it comes.

I am feeling that feeling. The one that these people get a lot, near the end of a funeral service. These sad and pretty people. It’s a big feeling. Different operators have different ways to describe it. For me, it feels something like a huge boot. Huge, like it fills up the whole sky, the whole galaxy, all of space. Some kind of infinite foot. And it’s stepping on me. The infinite foot is stepping on my chest.

The funeral ends, and the foot is still on me, and it is hard to breathe. People are getting into black town cars. I also appear to have a town car. I get in. The foot, the foot. So heavy. Here we go, yes, this is familiar, the foot, yes, the foot. It doesn’t hurt, exactly. It’s not what I would call comfortable, but it’s not pain, either. More like pressure.

Deepak, who used to be in the next cubicle, once told me that this feeling, which I call the infinite foot—to him it felt more like a knee—is actually the American experience of the Christian God.

“Are you sure it is the Christian God?” I asked him. “I always thought God was Jewish.”

“You’re an idiot,” he said. “It’s the same guy. Duh. The Judeo-Christian God.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

He just shook his head at me. We’d had this conversation before. I figured he was probably right, but I didn’t want to admit it. Deepak was the smartest guy in our cube-cluster, as he would kindly remind me several times a day.

I endure a few more minutes of the foot, and then, right before the hour is up, right when the grief and guilt are almost too much and I wonder if I am going to have to hit the safety button, there it is, it’s usually there at the end of a funeral, no matter how awful, no matter how hard I am crying, no matter how much guilt my client has saved up for me to feel. You wouldn’t expect it—I didn’t—but anyone who has done this job for long enough knows what I’m talking about. It seems unbelievable, but it’s there, it’s almost always there, even if it’s just a glimmer of it, and even though you know it’s coming, even when you are waiting for it, in fact, when it comes, it is always still a little bit of a shock.

Relief.

Death of a cousin is five hundred. Death of a sibling is twelve-fifty. Parents are two thousand a piece, but depending on the situation people will pay all kinds of money, for all kinds of reasons, for bad reasons, or for no reason at all.

The company started in corporate services. Ethical qualm transference. Plausible deniability. That kind of stuff. Good cash flow, which the founder—now retired to philanthropy and heli-skiing—plowed right back into R&D, and turned Transfer Corp. into a specialist: a one-feeling shop. Cornered the early market in guilt.

Then the technology improved. Some genius in Delhi figured out a transfer protocol to standardize and packetize all different kinds of experiences. Qualia in general. Don’t feel like having a bad day? That’s a line from one of our commercials. Let someone else have it for you. It shows a rich executive-looking-type sitting and rubbing his temples, making the TV face to communicate the stress of his situation. There are wavy lines on either side of his temples to indicate that the Executive is! really! stressed! Then he places a call to his broker, and in the next scene, the Executive is lying on a beach, drinking golden beer from a bottle and looking at the bluest ocean I have ever seen.

I saw this on American television at the lunch counter across the street that has a satellite feed. I was eating at the counter and next to me was a girl, maybe four or five, scooping rice and peas into her mouth a little at a time. She watched the commercial in silence, and after it was over, turned to her mother and softly asked her what the blue liquid was. I was thinking about how sad it was that she had never seen water that color in real life until I realized that I was thirty-nine years old and hey, you know what, neither had I.

That someone else they are talking about in the commercial is me—me and the other six hundred terminal operators in building D, cubicle block 4. Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let me have it for you.

It’s okay for me, a good job. I didn’t do that well in school, after all. It was tougher for Deep. He did three semesters at technical college. He was always saying he deserved better. Better than this, anyway. I would nod and agree with him, but I never told him what I wanted to tell him, which was hey, Deepak, when you say that you deserve better, even if I agree with you, you are kind of also implying that I don’t deserve better, which, maybe I don’t, maybe this is about where I belong in the grand scheme of things, in terms of high-end/low-end for me as a person, but I wish you wouldn’t say it, because whenever you do, it makes me feel a sharp bit of sadness and then, for the rest of the day, a kind of low-grade crumminess.

Deep and I used to go to lunch, and he always tried to explain to me how it works:

“Okay, so, the clients,” he would say, “they call into their account reps and book the time.”

He liked to start sentences with, okay, so. It was a habit he had picked up from the engineers. He thought it made him sound smarter, thought it made him sound like them, those code geeks, standing by the coffee machine, talking faster than he could think, every word a term of art, every sentence packed with logic, or small insights or a joke. He liked to stand near them, pretending to stir sugar into his coffee, listening in on them as if they were speaking a different language. A language of knowing something, a language of being an expert at something. A language of being something more than an hourly unit.

Okay, so, he said, they book the time, and then at the appointed hour, a switch in their implant chip kicks on and starts transferring their consciousness over. Perceptions, sensory data, all of it. Okay, so, then it goes first to an intermediate server for processing and then gets bundled with other jobs, and then a huge block of the stuff gets zapped over here, where it gets downloaded onto our servers and then dumped into our queue management system, which parcels out the individual jobs to all of us in the cubicle farm.

Okay, so, it’s all based on some kind of efficiency algorithm—our historical performance, our current emotional load. Sensors in our head assembly unit measure our stress levels, sweat composition, to see what we can handle. Okay?

(He would say, okay, when he was done. Like a professor. He wanted so badly to be an expert at something.)

I always appreciated Deepak trying to help me understand. But it’s just a job, I would say. I never really understood why Deep thought so much of those programmers, either. In the end, we’re all brains for hire. All I know is they seem to have gotten it down to a science. How much a human being can take in a given twelve-hour shift. Grief, embarrassment, humiliation, all different, of course, so they calibrate our schedules, mix it up, the timing and the order, and the end result is you leave work every day right about at your exact breaking point.

A lot of people smoke to take the edge off. I quit twelve years ago, so sometimes when I get home, I’m still shaking for a little bit. I sit on my couch and drink a beer and let it subside. Then I heat up some bread and lentils and read a newspaper or, if it’s too hot to stay inside, walk down to the street and eat my dinner there.

When I get to work the next morning, there’s a woman sitting in the cubicle across from mine. She’s young, at least a couple of years younger than me, looks right out of school. She has the new employee set-up kit laid out in front of her and is reading the trainee handbook. I think about saying hi, but who am I kidding, I am still me, so instead I just say nothing.

My first ticket of the day is a death bed. Death beds are not so common. They are hard to schedule—we require at least twenty-four hours advance booking, and usually clients don’t know far enough in advance when the ailing beloved one is going to go—so we don’t see these too often. But this isn’t regular death bed. It’s pull-the-plug.

They are pulling the plug on grandpa this morning.

I open the ticket.

I am holding grandpa’s hand.

I cry.

He squeezes my hand, one last burst of strength. It hurts. Then his hand goes limp and his arm falls away.

I cry, and also, I really cry. Meaning, not just as my client, but I start crying, too. Sometimes it happens. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe because he was somebody’s grandpa. And he looked like a nice one, a nice man. Maybe something about the way his arm fell against the guard rail on the hospital bed. Maybe because I could sort of tell, when grandpa was looking at his grandson for the last time, looking into his eyes, looking around in there trying to find him, he didn’t find him, he found me instead, and he knew what had happened, and he didn’t even look mad. Just hurt.

I am at a funeral.

I am in a dentist’s chair.

I am in a queen-sized motel bed, feeling guilty.

I am quitting my job. This is a popular one. Clients like to avoid the awkwardness of quitting their jobs, so they set an appointment and walk into their bosses’ offices and tell them where they can stick this effing job, and right before their boss starts to reply, the switch kicks in and I get yelled at.

My teeth throb.

My kidneys seethe.

My lungs burn.

My heart aches.

On a bridge.

My heart aches on a bridge.

My heart aches on a cruise ship.

My heart aches on an airplane, taking off at night.

Some people think it’s not so great that we can do this. Personally, I don’t really see the problem. Press one to clear your conscience. Press two for fear of death. Consciousness is like anything else. I’m sure when someone figures out how to sell time itself, they’ll have infomercials for that, too.

I am at a funeral.

I am losing someone to cancer.

I am coping with something vague.

I am at a funeral.

I am at a funeral.

I am at a funeral.

Fourteen tickets today in twelve hours. Four half-hours and ten full.

On my way out, I can hear someone wailing and gnashing his teeth in his cubicle. He is near the edge. Deepak was always like that, too. I always told him, hey man, you have to let go a little. Just a little. Don’t let it get to you so much.

I peek my head to see if I can steal a glance at the new woman, but she is in the middle of a ticket. She appears to be suffering. She catches me looking at her. I look at my feet and keep shuffling past.

It used to be that the job wasn’t all pain and suffering. Rich American man outsources the nasty bits of his life. He is required to book by the hour or the day or some other time unit, but in an hour or two or twenty-four hours of unpleasantness, there are always going to be some parts of it that are not so bad. Maybe just boring. Maybe even not so bad. Maybe even more okay than not. Like if a guy books his colonoscopy and he hires us for two hours, but for the first eight minutes, he’s just sitting there in the waiting room, reading a magazine, enjoying the air conditioning, admiring someone’s legs. Or something. Anyway, it used to be that we would get the whole thing, so part of my job here could be boring or neutral or even sometimes kind of interesting.

But then the technology improved again and the packeting software was refined to filter out those intervals and collect them. Those bits, the extras, the slices of life that were left over were lopped off by the program, and smushed all together, into a kind of reconstituted life slab. Like American baloney lunchmeat. A life-loaf. They take the slabs and process them and sell them as prepackaged lives.

I’ve had my eye on one for a while, at a secondhand shop that’s on my way home from work. Not ideal, but it’s something to work for.

So now, what’s left over, what we get to feel at work, it’s all pretty much just pure undiluted badness. The only thing left that can be a surprise is when, even in the middle of badness, there is something not so awful mixed in there. Like the relief in the middle of a funeral, or sometimes when you get someone who is really religious, not just religious, but a true believer, then mixed in with the sadness and loss at a funeral, you get faith, and you get to try different flavors, depending on the believer. You get the big foot on your chest, or you get the back of your head on fire. (A cold fire, it tickles.) You get to know what it is like to know that your dead lover, your dead mother, father, brother, sister, that they are all standing in front of you, tall as the universe, and they have huge, infinite feet, and their heads are all ablaze with this brilliant, frozen fire. You get the feeling of being inside of a room and at the same time, the room being inside of you, and the room is the world, and so are you.

The next day is more of the same. Eleven tickets, including a two-hour adultery confession. To my husband of twenty-six years.

After lunch, I pass her in the hall. The new woman. Her name badge says Kirthi. She doesn’t look at me this time.

Walking home I swing a block out of the way to check in on the secondhand shop.

Someone bought my life.

It was there in the window yesterday, and now it’s gone.

It wasn’t my life, technically. Not yet. It was the life I wanted, the life I’ve been saving for. Not a DreamLife®, not top of the line, but a starter model, a good one. Standard Possibility. Normal Volatility. A dark-haired, soulful wife. 0.35 kids, no actuals—certainties are too expensive—but some potential kids, a solid thirty-five percent chance of having one or more. Normal life expectancy, average health, median aggregate amount of happiness. I test-drove it once, and it felt good, it felt right. It fit just fine.

I don’t know. I’m trying not to feel sorry for myself. I just thought there might be more to it all than this.

Still, I’ve got it better than some people. I mean, I’m renting my life out one day at a time, but I haven’t sold it yet.

My father sold his life on a cold, clear afternoon in November. He was thirty. It was the day before my fourth birthday.

We went to the brokerage. It felt like a bank, but friendlier. My father had been carrying me on his back, but he put me down when we got inside. There was dark wood everywhere, and also bright flowers and classical music. We were shown to a desk, and a woman in an immaculate pantsuit asked if we would like anything to drink. My father didn’t say anything, just looked off at the far wall. I remember my mother asked for a cup of tea for my father.

I don’t want to sell my life. I’m not ready to do that yet.

So I sell it bit by bit. Scrape by.

Sell it by the hour.

Pain, grief, terror, worse.

Or just mild discomfort.

Social anxiety.

Boredom.

I ask around about Kirthi. People are talking. The guys are talking. Especially the married guys. They do the most talking.

I pass her in the hall again, and again she doesn’t look at me. No surprise there. Women never look at me. I am not handsome or tall. But I am nice.

I think it is actually that which causes the not-looking at me. The niceness, I mean, not the lack of handsomeness or tallness. They can see the niceness and it is the kind of niceness that, in a man, you instinctively ignore. What good is a nice man? No good to women. No good to other men.

She doesn’t look at me, but I feel, or maybe I wish or I imagine, that something in the way she does not look at me is not quite the same. She is not-looking at me in a way that feels like she is consciously not-looking at me. And from the way she is not-looking at me, I can tell she knows I am trying to not-look at her. We are both not-looking at each other. For some reason, for the first time in a long while, I have hope.

I don’t know why, but I do.

I am at a funeral.

I’m flipped to green.

You can be flipped to green, or flipped to red.

You can be there, or can just feel the feeling.

This is the one improvement they have made that actually benefits us workers. There’s a toggle switch on the headset. Flip it to green and you get a rendering of the client’s visual field. You see what he sees. Flip it to red and you still feel all of the feelings, but you see what you see.

You can do whatever you want, so long as you don’t leave your cubicle. You can just stare at the cube-divider wall, or play computer solitaire, or even chat with neighbors, although that is strongly discouraged.

I was hesitant at first, but more and more these days I am usually flipped to red. Except for funerals. Funerals, I like to be there, just out of some kind of respect thing.

This morning’s first ticket is your standard affair. Sixtyish rich guy, heart attack in the home office, millions in the bank, five kids from three marriages, all hate him.

The client is one of those kids, trust fund baby, paid extra for amnesia after the event. No feeling, no pre-feeling, no hangover, no residue, no chance of actually having any part of it, long enough to ensure that he will be halfway in the bag before any of the day’s events start nibbling at the corners of his awareness.

I see the fresh, open plot. A little rain falls on the funeral procession as they get out of the cars, but there’s a break in the clouds so that it’s raining and the sun is shining at the same time.

As usual, everyone is well-dressed. A lot of the rich look mildly betrayed in the face of death, as if they are a little bit surprised that good style and enough money weren’t quite enough to protect them from the unpleasantness of it all. I’m standing next to what I am guessing is widow number two, late thirties, probably, with beautiful sand-colored hair. We make eye contact and she is staring at me and I am trying not to stare at her and then we both realize the same thing at the same time. Raj, I say, under my breath. She smiles. Rajiv is on night shift now, but back in the day, we had beers once in a while.

The pastor talks about a full life lived, and the limits of earthly rewards, and everyone nods affirmatively, and then there is music as the body goes into the ground, I’ve heard it at a lot of funerals. Mozart, I think, but I am not sure.

Death of an aunt is seven hundred. Death of an uncle is six.

Bad day in the markets is a thousand. Kid’s recital is a one twenty-five an hour. Church is one-fifty.

The only category that we will not quote a price on is death of a child. Death of a child is separately negotiated. Hardly anyone can afford it. And not all operators can handle it. We have to be specially trained to be eligible for those tickets. People go on sick leave, disability. Most people just physically cannot do it. There hasn’t been one booked the whole time I’ve been here, so most of us aren’t even sure what is true and what isn’t. The rumor is that if you do one, you are allowed to take the rest of the month off.

Deep was always tempted. It’s not worth it, I would tell him. Okay, so, maybe not for you, Deep said. Okay, so, mind your own business, he would say.

The first time I talk to Kirthi is by the water fountain. I tell her we are neighbors, cubicle-wise. She says she knows. I feel a bit stupid.

The second time we talk, we are also by the water fountain, and I try to make a joke, one of those we have to stop meeting like this things. I probably saw it on TV and it just came out. Stupid. She doesn’t laugh, but she doesn’t frown, either.

The third time we talk, I kiss her. By the microwave in the snack room. I don’t know what got into me. I am not an aggressive person. I am not physically strong. I weigh one hundred and fifty-five pounds. She doesn’t laugh. She actually makes a face like disgust. But she doesn’t push me away, either. Not right away. She accepts the kiss, doesn’t kiss back, but after a couple of seconds, breaks it off and leans back and turns her head and says, under her breath, you shouldn’t have done that. And she doesn’t say it in a nice way. Or like a threat. Just real even, like she is stating a fact.

Still, I am happy. I’ve got three more tickets in the bucket before lunch, and then probably eight or nine before I go home, but the whole rest of the day, I am having an out of body experience. Even when I am in someone else’s body, I am still out of my body. I am double out of my body.

I weep.

I wail.

I gnash my teeth.

Underneath it all, I am smiling. I am giggling.

I am at a funeral. My client’s heart aches, and inside of it is my heart, not aching, the opposite of aching—doing that, whatever it is.

Kirthi and I start dating. That’s what I call it. She calls it letting me walk her to the bus stop. She lets me buy her lunch. She tells me I should stop. She still never smiles at me.

I’m a heartbreak specialist, she says.

When I see her in the hallway, I walk up behind her and slip my arm around her waist.

She has not let me in yet. She won’t let me in.

Why won’t you let me in, I ask her?

You don’t want in, she says. You want around. You want near. You don’t want in.

There are two hundred forty seven ways to have your heartbroken, she says, and I have felt them all.

I am in a hospice.

I have been here before. A regular client.

I am holding a pen.

I have just written something on a notepad in front of me.

My husband is gone.

He died years ago.

Today is the tenth anniversary of his death.

I have Alzheimer’s, I think.

A memory of my husband surfaces, like a white-hot August afternoon, resurfacing in the cool water of November.

I tear off the sheet on the notepad.

I read it to myself.

It is a suicide note.

I raise a glass to my mouth, swallow a pill. Catch a glance of my note to the world.

The failsafe kicks on, just in time. The system overrides. I close the ticket.

It’s her father.

That’s what Sunil tells me, one day over a beer.

Kirthi hasn’t been to work for the past two days.

Sunil is in Tech Support. He has seen all of the glitches. He knows what can go wrong in the mechanics of feeling transfers. He has seen some ugliness. He is fond of saying that there is no upper bound on weirdness.

Her father is still mortgaged, Sunil explains. Locked in. A p-zombie, he says. Sold his life.

“This is going to end badly, man,” he says. “You have to trust me on this. Kirthi is damaged. And she knows it.”

Sunil means well, but what he doesn’t know is that I am fine with damaged. I want damage. I’ve looked down the road I’m on and I see what’s coming. A lot of nothing. No great loves lost. And yet, I feel like I lost something. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? How about this: I lost without the love. I’ve lost things I’ve never even had. A whole life. Just like my father, I get to have my cake and eat it, too. Except that it’s a great big crap cake.

Still, as the weeks go on, I am starting to think Sunil is right.

“Kirthi won’t let me in,” I tell him. “She tells me to get away from her, to run.”

“She is doing you a favor, man. Take her advice.”

I ask her about her father.

She doesn’t talk to me for a week.

And then, on Friday night, after we walk for an hour in silence, before going into her apartment, she turns to me and says, how awful it is to look at him in that state.

We draw closer for a moment.

Why won’t you just love me, I ask her.

She says it’s not possible to make someone feel something.

Even yourself, she says.

Even if you want to feel it.

I tell her about the life I had my eye on.

It’s gone, she says.

I’ll find another one just like it, I tell her. Standard happiness package. Decent possibility. The chance of a kid. It wouldn’t be enough for us, not quite, but we could share it, take turns living the life. One works while the other one lives, maybe I work the weekdays and she gives me a break on weekends.

She looks at me. For a few long seconds, she seems to be thinking about it, living the whole life out in her head.

She doesn’t say anything. She touches the side of my head.

It’s a start.

When Deep was happy, before it got bad and then worse and then even worse, he was always talking about how he knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy. Stuff like that. He talked like that, he really did. He loved telling stories. About a week before he cracked up, he told me a story while we were in the coffee room about a guy at Managed Life Solutions, a physical suffering shop across town, who somehow made arrangements with a prominent banker who wanted to kill his wife. The banker was going to do it, he’d made up his mind, but he didn’t want the guilt. Plus, he thought it might help with his alibi if he didn’t have any memory.

Bullshit, I said. That would never work.

No, really, he says. He tells me all about it, how they met, how they arranged it all while talking in public, at work in fact, but they talked in code, etc.

Could never happen, I say. There are twenty reasons why that wouldn’t work.

Why not, he said.

It’s just too much, I said.

Too much what? There is no upper bound on cruelty, he said.

The next Monday, I came to work, and they were pulling Deep out the door, two paramedics, each one with an arm under Deep’s arms, and two security guards trailing behind. I wanted to say something, anything, to make them stop. I knew I would never see him again. But I froze. As they dragged him past me, I tried to make eye contact, but I looked in there, and no one was left. He had gone somewhere else. He was saying, okay, so. Okay, so.

And then the next day, there it was, in the newspaper. The whole story about the banker. Exactly how Deepak told it to me. There were rumors that he was the one the banker hired; he was living with murderous guilt. Other people gossiped that he had done death of a child.

I don’t think it was either. I don’t think it was any one thing that did it. Deep just knew. He knew what was out there. There is no upper bound on sadness. There is no lower bound on decency. Deep saw it, he understood it, what was out there, and he let it seep in, and once it was in, it got all the way in, and it will never come out.

I open tickets. I do the work. I save up money.

Weeks go by. Kirthi opens up. (Just a little.)

She still refuses to look me in the eyes when we are kissing.

That’s weird, she says. No one does that.

How am I supposed to know that? I have not kissed many people, but I don’t want her to know it. I have seen in American movies that people close their eyes, but I have also seen that sometimes one person or the other will sneak open an eye and take a peek at the other one. I think it makes sense. Otherwise, how would you know what the other person is feeling? That seems to me to be the only way to be sure, the only way to understand, through the look on their face, what they are feeling, to be able to feel what they feel for you. So we kiss, she with her eyes closed, me looking at her, trying to imagine what she is feeling. I hope she is feeling something.

I am at a funeral.

I am having a bypass.

I am in drug rehabilitation.

I am in withdrawal.

She takes me to see her father.

He has the look. I remember this look. This is how my father looked.

He is living someone else’s life. He is a projection screen, a vessel, a unit of capacity for pain, like an external hard drive, a peripheral device for someone’s convenience, a place to store frustration and guilt and unhappiness.

We stand there in silence.

We go back to work.

I am at a funeral.

I am at a root canal.

The thing it is uncomfortable to talk about is: we could do it. We could get him out.

Finally, she can’t take it.

He has only four years left on his mortgage, Kirthi tells me.

The thing is, the way the market works, sellers like us never get full value on our time. It’s like a pawnshop. You hock your pocketwatch to put dinner on the table, you might get fifty bucks. Go to get it after payday and you’ll have to pay four times that to get it back.

Same principle here. I love Kirthi, I do. But I don’t know if I could give sixteen years of my life to get her father out. I could do it if I knew she loved me, but I don’t know it yet. I want to be a better man than this, I want to be more selfless. My life isn’t so great as it is, but I just don’t know if I could do it.

I am in surgery.

I am bleeding to death.

It doesn’t hurt at all.

Things progress. We move in together. We avoid planning for the future. We hint at it. We talk around it.

I am being shot at.

I am being slapped in the face.

I go home.

I rest.

I come back and do it again.

When I turned thirteen, my mother told me the story. She sat me down in the kitchen and explained.

“The day your father sold his life,” she said, “I wore my best dress, and he wore a suit. He combed his hair. He looked handsome and calm. You wore your only pair of long pants. We walked to the bank. You rode on his back.”

“I remember that,” I said.

“A man with excellent hair came out from some office in the back and sat down behind the desk.”

I remember that, too, I told her.

You get—we got—forty thousand a year, she said.

My dad sold his life for a fixed annuity, indexed to inflation at three percent annually, and a seventy percent pension if he made it full term: forty years, age seventy, and he could stop, he could come back to us, to his life.

There were posters everywhere, my mother said, describing that day, the reunion day. The day when you’ve made it, you’ve done it, you’re done.

There was a video screen showing a short film describing the benefits of mortgage, the glorious day of reunion. We would all drink lemonade in the hot summer air.

Just forty years, it said.

In the meantime, your family will be taken care of. You will have peace of mind.

“Time is money,” the video said. “And money is time. Create value out of the most valuable asset you own.”

“Don’t miss out on a chance of a lifetime.”

When we went home, I remember, my father went to lie down. He slept for twelve hours, twice as long as normal, and in the morning, while I was still asleep, he went and sold his life.

Things stop progressing with Kirthi.

Things go backward.

And then, one day, whatever it is we had, it’s gone. It won’t come back. We both know it.

Whatever it is she let me have, she has taken it away. Whatever it is when two people agree to briefly occupy the same space, agree to allow their lives to overlap in some small area, some temporary region of the world, a region they create through love or convenience, or for us, something even more meager, whatever that was, it has collapsed, it has closed. She has closed herself to me.

A week after Kirthi moves out, her father passes away.

My shift manager will not let me off to go to the funeral.

Kirthi doesn’t even ask if I would like to go anyway.

I should go.

I will be fired if I go.

But I don’t have her anymore. If I leave, I won’t have a job, either. I’ll never get her back if I don’t have a job.

I’m never getting her back anyway.

I don’t even know if I want her back.

But maybe this is why I don’t have her, could never, would never have had her. Maybe the problem isn’t that I don’t have a life. Maybe the problem is that I don’t want a life.

I go to work.

I open tickets.

I close tickets.

When I get home my apartment seems empty. It’s always empty, but today, more empty. The emptiness is now empty.

I call her. I don’t know what to say. I breathe into the phone.

I call her again. I leave a message. I know a guy in the billing department, I say. We could get some extra capacity, no one would know, find an open line. I could feel it for you. Your grief. I could bury your father for you.

I would say that I am tired of this substitute life, except that this is the only life I will ever have. It is a substitute for itself. A substitute for nothing. A substitute for something that never existed in the first place.

Three days later, when I get to work, there is a note on my desk, giving the time of the funeral service. Just the time and, underneath it, she scrawled, okay.

Okay.

I arrange for the hour. At the time, I open the ticket.

I am expecting a funeral.

I am not at a funeral.

I can’t tell exactly where I am, but I am far away. In a place I don’t recognize. She has moved to a place where I will never find her. Probably where no one will ever find her. A new city. A new life.

She paid for this time herself. She wanted to let me in. For once. Just once. She must have used up everything she had saved. The money was supposed to be for her father but now, no need.

She is walking along a road. The sun is hot, the air is dusty, but the day is alive; she feels alive, I feel alive for her.

She is looking at a picture we took—the only picture we took together, in a photo booth in the drugstore. Our faces are smashed together and in the picture she is not smiling, as usual, and I am smiling, a genuine smile, or so I have always thought about myself, but now, looking at myself through her eyes, I see that she sees that my own smile starts to decompose, like when you say a word over and over again, so many times, over and over, and you begin to feel silly, but you keep saying it, and then after a short while, something happens and the word stops being a word and it resolves into its constituent sounds, and then all of a sudden what used to be a word is not a word at all, it is now the strangest thing you have ever heard.

I am inside of her head.

I am a nice person, she is thinking. I deserve more, she wants to believe. She wants to believe it, but I can feel that she doesn’t. If only she could see herself through my eyes. If only she could see herself through my eyes looking through her eyes. I deserve to be loved, she thinks, but she doesn’t believe it. If only I could believe it for her. I want to believe in her, believe inside of her. Believe hard enough inside of her that it somehow seeps through.

She turns up the road and the hill gets steeper. The air gets hotter. I feel her sadness with every step, and then, right near the top of the hill, just the faintest hint of it: a smile. She is remembering us. The few happy moments we had.

I am standing on a hill. I am not at a funeral. I am thinking of someone I once loved. I don’t know if I am her thinking of me, or if I am me thinking of her, or if maybe, right at this moment, there is no difference.

FACES IN REVOLVING SOULS

Caitlín R. Kiernan

The woman named Sylvia, who might as well still be a child, is waiting for the elevator that will carry her from the twenty-third floor of the hotel—down, down, down like a sinking stone—to the lobby and convention registration area. She isn’t alone in the hallway, though she wishes that she were. There are several others waiting to sink with her—a murmuring, laughing handful of stitches and meat dolls busy showing off the fact that they’re not new at this, that they belong here, busy making sure that Sylvia knows they can see just exactly how birth-blank she is. Not quite a virgin, no, but the next worst thing, and all that pink skin to give her away, the pink skin and the silver-blue silk dress with its sparkling mandarin collar, the black espadrilles on her feet. The others are all naked, for the most part, and Sylvia keeps her head down, her eyes trained on the toes of her shoes, because the sight of them reflected in the polished elevator doors makes her heart race and her mouth go dry.

No one knows I’m here, she thinks again, relishing the simple nervous delight she feels whenever she imagines her mother or sisters or someone at work discovering that she lied to them all about going to Mexico, and where she’s gone, instead. She knows that if they knew, if they ever found out, they’d want explanations. And that if she ever tried to explain, they’d do their best to have her locked away, or worse. There’s still a multitude of psychiatrists who consider polymorphy a sickness, and politicians who consider it a crime, and priests who consider it blasphemy.

A bell hidden somewhere in the wall rings, and the elevator doors slide silently open. Sylvia steps quickly into the empty elevator, and the others follow her—the woman who is mostly a leopard, the fat man with thick brown fur and eyes like a raven, the pretty teenage girl with stubby antlers and skin the color of ripe cranberries—all of them filing in, one by one, like the passengers of some lunatic Noah’s ark. Sylvia stands all the way at the rear, her back turned to them, and stares out through the transparent wall as the elevator falls and the first floor of the hotel swiftly rises up to meet her. It only stops once on the way down, at the fourth floor, and she doesn’t turn to see who or what gets on. It’s much too warm inside the elevator and the air smells like sweat and musk and someone’s lavender-scented perfume.

“Yes, of course,” the leopard says to the antlered girl with cranberry skin. “But this will be the first time I’ve ever seen her in person.” The leopard lisps and slurs when she speaks, human vocal cords struggling with a rough feline tongue, with a mouth that has been rebuilt for purposes other than talking.

“First time, I saw her at Berkeley,” the antlered girl replies.

“And then again at Chimera last year.”

“You were at Chimera last year?” someone asks, sounding surprised, and maybe even skeptical; Sylvia thinks it must be whoever got on at the fourth floor, because she hasn’t heard this sexless voice before. “I made it down for the last two days. You were there?”

“Yeah, I was there,” the girl says. “But you probably wouldn’t remember me. That was back before my dermals started to show.”

“And all the girls are growing antlers these days,” the leopard lisps, and everyone laughs, all of them except Sylvia. None of them sound precisely human anymore, and their strange, bestial laughter is almost enough to make Sylvia wish that she’d stayed home, almost enough to convince her that she’s in over her head, drowning, and maybe she isn’t ready for this, after all.

Another secret bell rings, and the doors slide open again, releasing them into the brightly lit lobby. First in, so last out, and Sylvia has to squeeze through the press of incoming bodies, the people who’d been waiting for the elevator. She says “Excuse me,” and “Pardon me,” and tries not to look anyone in the eye or notice the particulars of their chosen metamorphoses.

Fera is waiting for her, standing apart from the rest, standing with her long arms crossed; she smiles when she sees Sylvia, showing off her broad canines. There’s so little left of Fera that anyone would bother calling human, and the sight of her—the mismatched, improbable beauty of her—always leaves Sylvia lost and fumbling for words. Fera is one of the old-timers, an elder changeling, one of the twenty-five signatories on the original Provisional Proposition for Parahuman Secession.

“I was afraid you might have missed your flight,” she says, and Sylvia knows that what she really means is, I was afraid you’d chickened out. Fera’s voice is not so slurred or difficult to understand as the leopard’s. She’s had almost a decade to learn the mechanics of her new mandibular and lingual musculature, years to adapt to her altered tongue and palate.

“I just needed to unpack,” Sylvia tells her. “I can’t stand leaving my suitcases packed.”

“I have some friends in the bar who would like to meet you,” Fera purrs. “I’ve been telling them about your work.”

“Oh,” Sylvia whispers, because she hadn’t expected that and doesn’t know what else to say.

“Don’t worry, Syl. They know you’re still a neophyte. They’re not expecting a sphinx.”

Sylvia nods her head and glances back towards the elevator. The doors have closed again, and there’s only her reflection staring back at her. I look terrified, she thinks. I look like someone who wants to run.

“Did you forget something?” Fera asks, and takes a step towards Sylvia. The thick pads of her paws are silent on the carpet, but the many hundreds of long quills that sprout from her shoulders and back, from her arms and the sides of her face, rustle like dry autumn leaves.

“No,” Sylvia says, not at all sure whether or not she’s telling the truth.

“I know you’re nervous. It’s only natural.”

“But I feel like such a fool,” Sylvia replies, and then she laughs a laugh that has no humor in it at all, a sound almost as dry as the noise of Fera’s quills.

“Hey, you should have seen me, back in the day. I was a goddamn basket case,” and Fera takes both her hands, as Sylvia turns to face her again. “It’s a long road, and sometimes the first steps are the most difficult.”

Sylvia looks down at Fera’s hands, her nails grown to sharp, retractable claws, her skin showing black as an oil spill where it isn’t covered in short auburn fur. Though she still has thumbs, there are long dewclaws sprouting from her wrists. Sylvia knows how much those hands would scare most people, how they would horrify all the blanks still clinging to their illusions of inviolable, immutable humanity. But they make her feel safe, and she holds them tight and forces a smile for Fera.

“Well, we don’t want to keep your friends waiting,” Sylvia says. “It’s bad enough, me showing up wearing all these damned clothes. I don’t want them to think I’m rude in the bargain.” Fera laughs, a sound that’s really more like barking, and she kisses Sylvia lightly on her left cheek. “You just try to relax, mon enfant trouvé. And trust me. They’re absolutely gonna love—” but then someone interrupts her, another leopard, a pudgy boy cat clutching a tattered copy of The Children of Artemis, which Fera signs for him. And she listens patiently to the questions he asks, all of which could have been answered with a quick internet search. Sylvia pretends not to eavesdrop on an argument between one of the hotel staff and a woman with crocodile skin, and when the leopard boy finally stops talking, Fera leads Sylvia away from the crowded elevators towards one of the hotel’s bars.

And this is before—before the flight from Detroit to LAX, before the taxi ride to the hotel in Burbank. This is before the bad dreams she had on the plane, before the girl with cranberry skin, before the elevator’s controlled fall from the twenty-third floor of the Marriott. This is a night and an hour and a moment from a whole year before Fera Delacroix takes her hand and leads her out of the lobby to the bar where there are people waiting to meet her.

“What’s this?” her mother asks in the same sour, accusatory tone she’s wielded all of Sylvia’s life. And Sylvia, who’s just come home from work and has a migraine, stares at the scatter of magazines and pamphlets lying on the dining table in front of her, trying to make sense of the question and all the glossy, colorful paper. Trying to think through the pain and the sudden, sick fear coiled cold and tight in her gut.

“I asked you a question, Sylvia,” her mother says. “What are you doing with this crap?”

And Sylvia opens her mouth to reply, but her tongue doesn’t want to cooperate. Down on the street, she can hear the traffic, and the distant rumble of a skipjet somewhere far overhead, and the sleepy drone of the refrigerator from the next room.

“I want an answer,” her mother says and taps the cover of an issue of Genshift with her right index finger.

“Where did you get those?” Sylvia asks finally, but her voice seems farther away than the skipjet’s turbines. “You’ve been in my room again, haven’t you?”

“This is my house, young lady, and I’m asking you the questions,” her mother growls, growling like a pit bull, like something mean and hungry straining at its fraying leash. “What are you doing with all this sick shit?”

And the part of Sylvia’s mind that knows how to lie, the part that keeps her secrets safe and has no problem saying whatever needs to be said, takes over. “It’s one of my stories,” she says, trying hard to sound indignant, instead of frightened. “It’s all just research. I brought it home last week—”

“Bullshit. Since when does the network waste time with this kind of deviant crap?” her mother demands, and she taps the magazine again. On the cover, there’s a nude woman with firm brown nipples and the gently curved, corkscrew horns of an impala.

“Just because you don’t happen to approve of the changelings doesn’t mean they aren’t news,” Sylvia tells her, and hastily begins gathering up all the pamphlets and magazines. “Do you have any idea how many people have had some sort of interspecific genetic modification over the last five years?”

“Are you a goddamn lesbian?” her mother asks, and Sylvia catches the smell of gin on her breath.

“What?”

“They’re all a bunch of queers and perverts,” her mother mumbles and then snatches one of the Fellowship of Parahuman Evolutionists pamphlets from Sylvia’s hands. “If this is supposed to be work for the network, why’d you have to go and hide it all under your bed?”

“I wasn’t hiding anything, mother, and this isn’t any of your business,” and Sylvia yanks the pamphlet back from her mother. “How many times have I asked you to stay out of my room?”

“It’s my house, and—”

“That means I have no privacy?”

“No ma’am. Not if it means you bringing this smut into my house.”

“Jesus, it’s for work. You want to call Mr. Padgett right now and have him tell you the same damned thing?” And there, it’s out before she thinks better of pushing the lie that far, pushing it as far as it’ll go, and there’s no taking it back again.

“I ought to do that, young lady. You bet. That’s exactly what I ought to do.”

“So do it, and leave me alone. You know the number.”

“Don’t you think I won’t.”

“I have work to do before dinner,” Sylvia says, as calmly as she can manage, turning away from her mother, beginning to wonder if she’ll make it upstairs before she throws up. “I have a headache, and I really don’t need you yelling at me right now.”

“Don’t think that I won’t call. I’m a Christian woman, and I don’t want that filth under my roof, you understand me, Sylvia?”

She doesn’t reply, because there’s nothing left to be said, and the cold knot in her belly has started looking for a way out, the inevitable path of least resistance. She takes her briefcase and the magazines and heads for the hallway and the stairs leading away from her mother. Just keep walking, she thinks. Whatever else she says, don’t even turn around. Don’t say anything else to her. Not another word. Don’t give her the satisfaction

“I know all about those people,” her mother mumbles. “They’re filth, you understand? All of them. Every single, goddamned one.”

And then Sylvia’s on the stairs, and her footsteps on the varnished wood are louder than her mother’s voice. She takes them two at a time, almost running to the top, and locks her bedroom door behind her. Sylvia hurls the stack of changeling literature to the floor in a violent flutter of pages, and the antelope girl’s large, dark eyes gaze blamelessly back up at her. She sits down with her back against the door, not wanting to cry but crying anyway, crying because at least it’s better than vomiting.

And later—after her first three treatments at the Lycaon Clinic in Chicago, after the flight to LA, after Fera Delacroix takes her hand and leads her into the murmur and half light of the hotel bar—she’ll understand that this afternoon, this moment, was her turning point. She’ll look back and see clearly that this is the day she knew what she would do, no matter how much it terrified her, and no matter what it would mean, in the end.

They sit in a corner of the crowded, noisy bar, two tables pulled together to make room for everyone, this perfect, unreal menagerie. Sylvia sits to the left of Fera, sipping at a watery Coke. Fera’s already introduced her to them all, a heady mix of changeling minor royalty and fellow travelers, and Sylvia has been sitting quietly for the last fifteen minutes, listening to them talk, trying to memorize their names, trying not to stare.

“It’s a damned dangerous precedent,” the man sitting directly across from her says. He has the night-seeing eyes of a python, and he drums his long claws nervously against the top of the table. His name is Maxwell White, and he’s a geneticist at Johns Hopkins. Her last year in college, Sylvia read his book, Looking for Moreau: A Parahumanist Manifesto. It’s made the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned books seven years straight.

“What the hell,” Fera says. “I figure, it’s just fucking Nebraska—”

Maxwell White stops drumming his fingers and sighs, his long ears going flat against the sides of his skull. “Sure, this year it’s just fucking Nebraska. But, the way things are headed, next year it’s going to be Nebraska and Alabama and Utah and—”

“We can’t afford to be elitists,” says a woman with iridescent scales that shimmer faintly in the dim light. As she talks, the tip end of her blue forked tongue flicks across her lips; Sylvia can’t recall her name, only that she was recently fired from Duke University. “Not anymore. That asshole De Vries and his army of zealots is getting more press than the war.”

“Oh, come on. It’s not that bad,” Fera says and frowns.

“How bad does it have to be?” Maxwell White asks and starts drumming his claws again. “Where do you think this is going to stop? After these anti-crossbreeding laws are in place and people get used to the idea that it’s acceptable to restrict who we can and can’t marry, who we can fuck, how long do you think it’s going to take before we start seeing laws preventing us from voting or owning property or—”

“Maybe that’s what we get for signing a declaration of secession from the human race,” Fera replies, and Maxwell White makes an angry snorting sound.

“Jesus Christ, Fera, sometimes I wonder which side you’re on.”

“All I’m saying is I’m not so sure we can realistically expect to have it both ways. We tell them we’re not the same as them anymore. That, by choice, each of us will exist as our own separate species, and then we act surprised when they want to treat us like animals.”

“De Vries has already started talking about concentration camps,” a woman named Alex Singleton says; she glances apprehensively at Fera and then quickly back down at the napkin she’s been folding and unfolding for the past ten minutes. Alex Singleton has the striped, blonde fur of a tiger-lion hybrid, and six perfectly formed breasts. “Are you still going to be talking like this when they start rounding us up and locking us in cages?” she asks, and unfolds the napkin again.

“That’s never going to happen,” Fera replies, and scowls at Alex Singleton. “I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of scary people out there. Of course, there are. We’ve just given the bigots and xenophobes something new to hate, that’s all. We knew there’d be a difficult adjustment period, didn’t we?”

“You have the most sublime knack for understatement,” Maxwell White laughs.

And then Fera turns to Sylvia and smiles, that smile so beautiful that it’s enough to make her dizzy, to make her blush. “You’re awfully quiet over here, Syl. What do you think of all this? You think we’re all about to be rounded up and herded off to a zoo?”

“I’m afraid I’ve never been much for politics,” Sylvia says, not meaning to whisper, but her voice is almost lost in the din of the bar. “I mean, I don’t guess I’ve thought much about it.”

“Of course, she hasn’t,” Alex Singleton mutters. “Look at her. She still wears clothes. She’s pink as—”

“I think maybe what Alex is trying to say, in her own indelicate way,” the woman with iridescent scales interrupts, “is that you’re probably going to find the political ramifications of our little revolution will suddenly seem a lot more important to you, once you start showing.”

“That’s not at all what I was trying to say.”

“Some of us forget they were ever blank,” Fera says, glaring at Alex Singleton, and she stirs at her martini with an olive skewered on a tiny plastic cutlass.

The thin man sitting next to Maxwell White clears his throat and waves at Sylvia with a hand that’s really more of a paw. “Fera tells us you’re one of Collier’s patients,” he says, speaking very slowly, his lupine jaws and tongue struggling with the words. “He’s a good man.”

“I’m very happy with him,” Sylvia replies, and takes another sip of her Coke.

“He did my second stage,” the wolf man confides, and his black lips draw back in a snarl, exposing sharp yellow canines and incisors. It takes Sylvia a moment to realize that the man’s smiling.

“So,” Maxwell White says, leaning towards her, “what’s your story, Sylvia?”

“Like Fera said, I’m a journalist, and I’m preparing to write a book on the history—”

“No, that’s not what I’m asking you.”

“I’m sorry. Then I guess I didn’t understand the question.”

“Apparently not.”

“Max here is one-third complete bastard,” Fera says and jabs an ebony thumb at Maxwell White. “It was a tricky bit of bioengineering, but the results are a wonder to behold.” Half the people at the two tables laugh out loud, and Sylvia is beginning to wish that she’d stayed in her room, that she’d never let Fera Delacroix talk her into coming to Burbank in the first place.

“Is it some sort of secret, what you’re hiding under that dress?” Maxwell White asks, and Sylvia shakes her head.

“No,” she says. “It’s not a secret. I mean—”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Back off just a little, Max,” Fera says, and the man with python eyes nods his head and shrugs.

“He does this to everyone, almost,” Alex Singleton says and begins to shred her napkin. “He did it to me.”

“It’s not a secret,” Sylvia says again. “I just—”

“You don’t have to tell anyone here anything you’re not ready to tell them, Syl,” Fera assures her and kisses her cheek. Fera Delacroix’s breath smells like vodka and olives. “You know that.”

“It’s just that none of us are wearing masks,” Maxwell White says. “You might have noticed that.”

“Excuse me, please,” Sylvia says, suddenly close to tears and her heart beating like the wings of a small and terrified bird trapped deep inside her chest. She stands up too fast, bumps the table hard with her right knee, and almost spills her drink.

“You’re a son of a bitch,” Fera growls at Maxwell White, and she bares her teeth. “I hope you know that.”

“No, really, it’s okay,” Sylvia says, forcing an unconvincing smile. “I’m fine. I understand, and I’m fine. I just need some fresh air, that’s all.”

And then she leaves them all sitting there in the shadows, murmuring and laughing among themselves. Sylvia doesn’t look back, concentrates, instead, on the sound of her espadrilles against the wide stone tiles, and she makes it almost all the way to the elevators before Fera catches up with her.

On the plane, somewhere high above the Rockies and streaking towards Los Angeles through clearing, night-bound skies, Sylvia drifts between the velvet and gravel folds of dream sleep. She dozed off with the volume setting on her tunejack pushed far enough towards max that the noise of the flight attendants and the other passengers and the skipjet’s turbines wouldn’t wake her. So, there’s only Beethoven’s 6th Symphony getting in from the outside, and the voices inside her head. She’s always hated flying, and took two of the taxi-cab yellow Placidmil capsules her therapist prescribed after her first treatment gave her insomnia.

In the nightmare, she stands alone on the crumbling bank of a sluggish, muddy river washed red as blood by the setting sun. She doesn’t know the name of the city rising up around her, and suspects that it has no name. Only dark and empty windows, skyscrapers like broken teeth, the ruins of bridges that long ago carried the city’s vanished inhabitants from one side of the wide red river to the other.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us, and isn’t that what Matthew Arnold wrote, or T. S. Eliot, or Maharshi Ramakrishna, or some other long dead man? Sylvia takes a step nearer the river, and a handful of earth tumbles into the water. The ripples spread out from the shore, until the current pulls them apart.

Behind her, something has begun to growl—a low and threatful sound, the sound of something that might tear her apart in an instant. She glances over her shoulder, but there’s only the buckled, abandoned street behind her and then the entrance to an alleyway. It’s already midnight in the alley, and she knows that the growling thing is waiting for her there, where it has always waited for her. She turns back to the river, because the thing in the alley is patient, and the swollen crimson sun is still clinging stubbornly to the western horizon.

And now she sees that it’s not the sunset painting the river red, but the blood of the dead and dying creatures drowning in the rising waters. The river devours their integrity, wedding one to the other, flesh to flesh, bone to bone. In another moment, there’s only a single strangling organism, though a thousand pairs of eyes stare back at her in agony and horror, and two thousand hearts bleed themselves dry through a million ruptured veins.

And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.

Countless talons and fingers, flippers and fins, tear futilely at the mud and soft earth along the river’s edge, but all are swept away. And when the sun has gone, Sylvia turns to face the alley, and the growling thing that is her life, and wakes to the full moon outside the skipjet’s window.

“You can’t expect more of them,” Fera says, “Not more than you expect of the straights, not just because they’re going through the same thing you are.”

“None of us are going through the same thing,” Sylvia replies, not caring whether or not Fera hears the bitterness in her voice. “We’re all going through this alone. Every one of us is alone, just like White said in his book. Every one of us is a species of one.”

“I think you expect too much,” Fera says, and then the elevator has reached the twenty-third floor, and the hidden bell rings, and the doors slide silently open. Sylvia steps out into the hall.

“Please promise me you won’t spend the whole weekend locked in your room,” Fera says. “At least come back down for Circe Seventeen’s panel at eight, and—”

“Yeah,” Sylvia says as the doors slide shut again. “Sure. I’ll see you there,” and she follows the hallway back to her room.

Sylvia is standing in front of the long bathroom mirror, her skin tinted a pale and sickly green by the buzzing fluorescent light. She’s naked, except for the gauze bandages and flesh-tone dermapad patches on her belly and thighs. The hot water is running, and the steam has begun to fog the mirror. She leans forward and wipes away some of the condensation.

“There’s always a risk of rejection,” Dr. Collier said, and that was more than three weeks ago now, her third trip to the Lycaon Clinic. “You understood that before we began. There’s always the risk of a violate retrovirus, especially when the transcription in question involves non-amniote DNA.”

And, of course, she’d understood. He’d told her everything, all the risks and qualifying factors explained in detail long before her first treatment. Everyone always understands, until they’re the one unlucky fuck in a thousand.

No one ever lied to me, she thinks, but there’s no consolation whatsoever in the thought.

In places, the bandages are stained and stiff with the discharge of her infections. Sylvia dries her hands on a clean white wash cloth, then begins to slowly remove the dermapad just below her navel. The adhesive strips around the edges come away with bits of dead skin and dried blood still attached.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Dr. Collier said, the first time they met. “Even now, with all we know and everything that we’ve been able to accomplish in the last fifty years, what you want is very, very dangerous. And if something does go wrong, there’s very little hope of turning back.” And then she signed all the documents stating that he’d told her these things, and that she understood the perils and uncertainty, and that she was submitting to the procedures of her own free will.

She takes a deep breath and stares back at herself from the mirror, the sweat on her face to match the steam on the glass, and drops the dermapad into the sink. It stains the water a dark reddish-brown. And her mother, and all the faces from the bar—Maxwell White and Alex Singleton and all the rest—seem to hover somewhere just behind her. They smirk and shake their heads, just in case she’s forgotten that the rest of the world always knew she was weak and that, in the end, she’d get exactly what she’s always had coming to her.

I know all about those people. They’re filth, you understand? All of them. Every single, goddamned one.

The rubbery violet flesh beneath her navel is swollen and marbled with pustules and open sores. The tip of a stillborn tentacle, no longer than her index finger, hangs lifeless from her belly. Dr. Collier wanted to amputate it, but she wouldn’t let him.

“I hate like hell to say it, but he’s right,” Fera Delacroix told her, after the scene in the hotel bar, while they were waiting for an elevator. “You can’t keep it a secret forever, Syl. What you’re doing—what everyone here this weekend is doing—it’s about finally being honest about ourselves. I know that doesn’t necessarily make it easy, but it’s the truth.”

“No,” Sylvia says, gently touching the dead tentacle. “This is the truth.” She presses her finger into one of the tiny, stalked suckers, teasing the sharp hook at the center. “I think this is all the truth I need.”

She cleans the cancerous flesh and covers it with a fresh dermapad, then peels off one of the patches on her left thigh and repeats the process. It takes her more than an hour to wash and dress all the lesions, and when she’s done, when all those dying parts of her that are no longer precisely human have been hidden behind their sterile masks, she shuts off the water and gets dressed. She still has time for a light dinner before Circe Seventeen’s talk on the link between shamanism and the origins of parahumanism, and Sylvia knows that if she isn’t there, Fera Delacroix will come looking for her.

HWANG’S BILLION BRILLIANT DAUGHTERS

Alice Sola Kim

When Hwang finds a time that he likes, he tries to stay awake. The longest he has ever stayed awake is three days. The longest someone has ever stayed awake is eleven days. If Hwang sleeps enough times, he will eventually reach a time in which people do not have to sleep. Unfortunately, this can only come about through expensive gene therapy that has to be done long before one is born. Thus, it is the rich who do not have to sleep. They stay awake all night and bound across their useless beds, shedding crumbs and drops of sauce as they eat everyone else’s food.

Whenever Hwang goes to sleep, he jumps forward in time. This is a problem. This is not a problem that is going to solve itself.

Sometimes Hwang wakes to find that he’s only jumped forward a few days. The most Hwang has ever jumped is one hundred seventy years.

After a while, his daughters stop looking exactly Asian. His genes—previously distilled from a population in a small section of East Asia for thousands of years—have mixed with genes from other populations and continued to do so while Hwang slept. In fact, it all started with Hwang and his ex-wife. Hwang’s daughters are a crowd of beautiful, muddled, vigorous hybrids, with the occasional recessive trait exploding like fireworks—squash-colored hair, gray eyes, albinism.

Backward, fool, backward! You were supposed to take me backward! He wishes he could find Grishkov and scream at him, but Grishkov is dead, of course. He died sometime that night, the first night Hwang slept and jumped through days, years, decades.

Later, Hwang awakes in a world with no men. Reproduction occurs through parthenogenesis. Scientists discovered that the genes of the father are the ones that shorten human lifespan; scientists decided to do something about it.

There are people walking around who look like men, but they aren’t men. But if they look like men, walk like men, talk like men, maybe they are men?

There are new categories of gender that Hwang is unable to comprehend. Men are men. He finds a daughter who is a man, so she must actually be a son, but in Hwang’s mind—his mind that he cannot change—he is his daughter and always will be.

If you could flip through Hwang’s life like a book—which I am able to do—you would see that Hwang and women have been a calamitous combination. It is not Hwang’s fault or the women’s fault but it is unfortunate nevertheless. I wish there was someone to blame.

Once, Hwang awakes to find no one. He walks around the city for hours before seeing a woman in a coverall. She is pulling vines off the side of a building and stuffing them into a trash bag. I am paid millions a year for this work, she says.

Even for the future, that is a lot of money.

It turns out that everyone has been uploaded into virtual space, but a few people still have to stick around to make sure that buildings stay up and the tanks are clean and operational.

Later, everyone comes back, because it turns out that no one really likes uploaded life.

Hwang’s wife was a research scientist. When they divorced, Hwang was granted temporary full custody and his wife went to Antarctica. Sometimes she sent their three children humorous emails about falling asleep on the toilet because it was so cold.

When their daughters were kidnapped walking home from school, Hwang’s wife and Hwang both blamed Hwang. Their son turned fifteen, became a goth, and moved in with his mother when she returned from Antarctica.

Hwang, alone, rested his head on pillowcases permanently smudged with black. And slept for days.

Hwang says, When people are able to live forever, that is when I will get my life back. I can marry again. We can have a family. When I awake, they will still be there, old as cedars. My cedar family, planted in the living room.

I will live forever, but marriage between Hwang and I is out of the question.

Sometimes one of Hwang’s daughters will buy him new clothes, but he always wakes up wearing his old clothes. He has been frumpy, archaic, obscene, unworthy of notice, and perfectly in style—all those things, in that order.

There is a future in which skanky summer is quite popular. People walk around in bathing suits, waterproof briefs, shorts, breast-baring monokinis, sarongs—all with personal climate control units attached to the base of their necks.

Hwang emerges from his room, shivering in a wrinkled button-down, sweater, and corduroy pants. That day, the rain drifts down as gently as snow, and it gets you wet so gradually that you are startled to realize it, like a boiled frog in a pot of water.

Hwang never sees his son again. Upon waking for the first time, Hwang goes out into the world and finds that his son is a computer mogul who lives in a cheesy yet terrifying house surrounded by a moat. This house has no right angles, and a viscous red substance continually flows down the sides and into the moat.

A security guard grabs the back of Hwang’s jacket as he backs up to get a running start so he can jump the moat. You’ll never make it, she says, and he realizes that the security guard is his daughter. She sighs, looking him up and down.There’s a shelter a few miles away. You can get a decent meal. I’ll drive you.

His daughter does not look how he’d expect, but her eyes, when she glances at him in the rear-view mirror, are familiar and bright. But I’m his father, says Hwang. She laughs.

The computer mogul, famously, has no father (and says so often). Of course. Hwang sits in the back seat like a lump. He realizes that he can no longer enumerate to himself the ways in which he has failed, that his failure has turned into an exponential number residing within him, sleek and unutterably dense and deadly.

There is a time during which Hwang’s visits are foreseen. His daughters tell him that his story has been passed down from their mothers. That their great-great-great . . . will come into their lives, recognizable by his blue sweater and brown corduroy pants (You dress like a fucking teddy bear, his son used to say—it felt like affection).

And then what? It is disputed. Is Hwang a force of good? Is he evil? How does he choose which daughters he appears to? Is he a matrilineal family curse? He tries to explain but it is not satisfying to his daughters.

The next time he jumps, it is a hundred years later and his story has been forgotten.

Hwang’s daughter listens to his story. When he is done, she pulls a pill case from her bag. Sounds like you need to change your point of view, she says. Try a Chip or a Barbara.

Hwang chooses a pill from the compartment labeled “Chip.” Chip and Barbara are personality construct drugs, named for the people from whom they originated.

In an hour, he feels loose. He is young, and has plenty of time to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He doesn’t know if he wants to have kids yet. Come on, man, that’s ages away. Let’s have some fun before fun ends.

Hwang is still Chip when he goes to sleep, but it wears off in the night. He goes to find it again, to feel simultaneously free yet locked into the right time with no sense of slippage, but discovers that Chip and Barbara have been taken off the market.

In bare feet, Hwang was half an inch shorter than his wife, which seemed within the bounds of acceptability. But the world conspired to tip this delicate balance, with slanted sidewalks, with Italian heels, with poor posture. Hwang and his ex-wife each thought that the other cared more about their height discrepancy.

Your wife is white? said a sophisticated older aunt. Then your daughters will be beautiful. They were, because all daughters were beautiful; that is what Hwang believed. But Hwang was never one to be proud of their beauty. He was proud because they were brilliant, or they were about to be; they were at the age at which youthful precocity grew distinct and immutable. That is where they stayed.

Hwang always wakes up in the lab. The lab is always the same.

The time machine is a gnarled, charred mess on the floor, and the curtains are skeletons. Grishkov’s body is curled like a cat in the corner; his face is untouched like a peaceful waxwork, and for that, Hwang is grateful. Hwang sleeps on the couch, which has blackened and split like a bratwurst. As unkind and sooty as the lab is, Hwang lingers there to hold off timeshock and cultureshock.

When he needs to use the bathroom, he has to leave.

In time, Hwang begins to suspect that he is not only being pulled forward in time as he sleeps; he is also being pulled sideways in space, to parallel universes.

He thinks he has confirmation of this fact when he arrives at a time when everyone is green. (Don’t worry—there is still racism!)

Hwang sits with his daughter at a diner and tries to question her about what has happened. She explains, but language has changed, and he has trouble understanding her. Lincoln, he says. Kennedy. Were they assassinated in this timeline? She opens her mouth and taps at her translator earbud.

Doowah? she says.

Soon there are no more bananas. The iconic Cavendish banana, tall and bright and constant, has gone extinct. It is true that no one’s favorite fruit is the banana. But now that bananas as he knew them are gone, Hwang feels like he’s been trapped in a house without windows.

There is no backwards from this forwards. No more bananas for anyone ever again.

Hwang has learned a valuable life lesson: never allow someone to test a time machine on you.

No matter how certain they are it will work.

No matter how certain you are that it will enable you to fix your life and the lives of your loved ones.

But Hwang must have done some good for his later daughters; he has to have done some good; he has to.

Would it all be worth it, then?

Once, he wakes up, opens the door to the lab, and steps into water. He doesn’t know how to swim. He is a giant lead teddy bear sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and as he flails in the water, his thoughts are not about how it’s all over thank god, they are about expelling water from his lungs and if he could just take another breath please that would be perfect thank you thank you thank you let me live.

Someone grabs him and pulls him up. It’s a woman wearing a cheap waiter’s tuxedo. All around them, houses and restaurants and offices bob impossibly.

Do you have a reservation? The woman, his daughter, asks. He is exhausted. Fine, his daughter says. Wait here. I’ll bring something. Don’t touch anything. You need to be disinfected. His daughters are always so exasperated with him.

The time after that, everything is dry again. Hwang asks his daughter where the ocean is. His daughter shrugs. We put it somewhere else. It was in the way.

Hwang needs to understand that someday he will wake up and no one will be around, for good.

Once, when Hwang was thirteen, he came home to find his father strangling his mother. They rearranged themselves right as Hwang walked into the house; they must have heard his key. Stranglings can be quiet. He stood and saw his father flexing his hands and smiling, his mother wiping water out of her eyes and turning a sob into a smile, the way she turned seemingly random organic matter into food, work into money, disorder into order. If she was anti-entropic then his father was the opposite. Money for booze; so much grain goes into alcohol; carbohydrates are then wasted in the fermentation process; it is not sensible. Hwang had been sent to the library. When he came home early, it was awkward; Hwang did not know before then that the terrible could also be awkward.

His father did not murder his mother that day.

There comes a stable time, a time during which Hwang does not jump forward too crazily. He only goes a few days each time he sleeps. He sees his daughter often. He follows her around and pleads with her not to take the photon train to school; it is too fast. It is unnatural. She laughs. She goes to school in another state and her commute only takes half an hour.

Judgmental Hwang is aghast that people in the future react so placidly to risk, but he remembers things like bisphenol A and airborne toxic events and revealing your crush to a homophobe who will get so embarrassed that he will murder you, and then Hwang must admit that there were so many things in his time that he hadn’t thought to worry about.

Soon enough, his daughter becomes less amused by this great-great-great . . . popping up in her world every few days. Just go away, she says. Stop interloping. Get your own life. She shakes his arm off and kicks the wall. He watches as the wall slowly bulges out and undents itself.

That night he goes to sleep, vowing to find some way to protect his daughter, and he wakes up one hundred seventy years later.

Hwang wonders: when he dies, will his cells disperse and mass elsewhere to such an extent that there will be achronological patches in the air? Space dust that travels through time?

What is sleep for a single cell?

Once, I built Hwang a new life, made to look and feel like the early years of the second millennium, but he would not accept it. He stepped out of the lab and the lab was where it is supposed to be. There, on the street, a man in basketball shorts was peeling and eating a banana, which was, well, which was a little on the nose, but I wished for him to know that bananas were back and he could be happy again. (Right?) As were vehicles powered by fossil fuels, as was orthodontia, as was AIDS, as was lithium. For a moment, his face was the face of someone who has woken up from a dream and feels enormous relief that it is not real, what just happened.

But it didn’t last. He shook his head until his cheeks wobbled. He stamped his foot. The sidewalk began to sink and whirl beneath him.

Knew it, he shouted. No backwards from this forwards.

Up to his knees in the sidewalk, he sloshed ahead with effort and tried to touch whatever he could. The man eating the banana melted. The car melted. The German shepherd melted. Finally, the world rose above Hwang’s eyes and, after a brief burbling, he went silent.

Well. I did try.

Hwang tries to look at it this way: time jumps forward when you sleep no matter who you are.

The first time Hwang jumps forward in time, he comes out of his room into fifty years later. The time machine had caught fire, and Grishkov had had to pull him out before the sequence completed countdown. The fire spread and trapped them; they knew already that the dusty red fire extinguisher had been emptied three years ago during a prank and never refilled. Grishkov succumbed to the smoke first, bad-heart Grishkov still clutching Hwang by the forearms as he swanned to the floor. Then Hwang fainted, too.

When Hwang awakes, many people are dead and many new people are alive and everything seems somehow worse, despite all the new machines and pills and fashions.

As Hwang is drawn to his daughters, his daughters are drawn to him.

Hwang does not want to die, but there would not be a very good reason to stay alive if life was only jumping through time rapidly. (Wait.) He is now part of the time machine, and although he is broken he remains magnetized to his descendants, his daughters. Down a street, in a tree, in a bar, driving a hovercar—they always find one another. His daughters feed him, imagining that they are experiencing a random surge of kindness toward a dusty, gentle homeless man.

Hwang is guilty about this; he feels that he is enslaving his daughters and the best thing to do would be to release all of them from this obligation. That is when he does want to die.

But he decides to wait it out. He will reach the end of time. He will reach the end of daughters. Then he can end, too.

When Hwang is now, nobody knows. He is sleeping. He has been sleeping all night, his eyelids fluttering and his mouth twitching from the struggle to stay asleep. He wants time to keep moving; he doesn’t want to stop anywhere, even though the light is seeping in around the curtains and the hours turn to day. I say to him, Dad, I won’t forget. I’ll be the one who remembers the story.

Still he sleeps. I watch him still. In his mind, I am already blurring.

EJ-ES

Nancy Kress

Jesse, come home

There’s a hole in the bed

where we slept

Now it’s growing cold

Hey Jesse, your face

in the place where we lay

by the hearth, all apart

it hangs on my heart . . .

Jesse, I’m lonely

Come home.

—“Jesse,” Janis Ian, 1972

“Why did you first enter the Corps?” Lolimel asked her as they sat at the back of the shuttle, just before landing. Mia looked at the young man helplessly, because how could you answer a question like that? Especially when it was asked by the idealistic and worshipful new recruits, too ignorant to know what a waste of time worship was, let alone simplistic questions.

“Many reasons,” Mia said gravely, vaguely. He looked like so many medicians she had worked with, for so many decades on so many planets . . . intense, thick-haired, genemod beautiful, a little insane. You had to be a little insane to leave Earth for the Corps, knowing that when (if) you ever returned, all you had known would have been dust for centuries.

He was more persistent than most. “What reasons?”

“The same as yours, Lolimel,” she said, trying to keep her voice gentle. “Now be quiet, please, we’re entering the atmosphere.”

“Yes, but—”

Be quiet.” Entry was so much easier on him than on her; he had not got bones weakened from decades in space. They did weaken, no matter what exercise one took or what supplements or what gene therapy. Mia leaned back in her shuttle chair and closed her eyes. Ten minutes, maybe, of aerobraking and descent; surely she could stand ten minutes. Or not.

The heaviness began, abruptly increased. Worse on her eyeballs, as always; she didn’t have good eye-socket muscles, had never had them. Such an odd weakness. Well, not for long; this was her last flight. At the next station, she’d retire. She was already well over age, and her body felt it. Only her body? No, her mind, too. At the moment, for instance, she couldn’t remember the name of the planet they were hurtling toward. She recalled its catalogue number, but not whatever its colonists, who were not answering hails from ship, had called it.

Why did you join the Corps?”

Many reasons.”

And so few of them fulfilled. But that was not a thing you told the young.

The colony sat at the edge of a river, under an evening sky of breathable air set with three brilliant, fast-moving moons. Beds of glorious flowers dotted the settlement, somewhere in size between a large town and a small city. The buildings of foamcast embedded with glittering native stone were graceful, well-proportioned rooms set around open atria. Minimal furniture, as graceful as the buildings; even the machines blended unobtrusively into the lovely landscape. The colonists had taste and restraint and a sense of beauty. They were all dead.

“A long time ago,” said Kenin. Officially she was Expedition Head, although titles and chains-of-command tended to erode near the galactic edge, and Kenin led more by consensus and natural calm than by rank. More than once the team had been grateful for Kenin’s calm. Lolimel looked shaken, although he was trying to hide it.

Kenin studied the skeleton before them. “Look at those bones—completely clean.”

Lolimel managed, “It might have been picked clean quickly by predators, or carnivorous insects, or . . . ” His voice trailed off.

“I already scanned it, Lolimel. No microscopic bone nicks. She decayed right there in bed, along with clothing and bedding.”

The three of them looked at the bones lying on the indestructible mattress coils of some alloy Mia had once known the name of. Long clean bones, as neatly arranged as if for a first-year anatomy lesson. The bedroom door had been closed; the dehumidifying system had, astonishingly, not failed; the windows were intact. Nothing had disturbed the woman’s long rot in the dry air until nothing remained, not even the bacteria that had fed on her, not even the smell of decay.

Kenin finished speaking to the other team. She turned to Mia and Lolimel, her beautiful brown eyes serene. “There are skeletons throughout the city, some in homes and some collapsed in what seem to be public spaces. Whatever the disease was, it struck fast. Jamal says their computer network is gone, but individual rec cubes might still work. Those things last forever.”

Nothing lasts forever, Mia thought, but she started searching the cabinets for a cube. She said to Lolimel, to give him something to focus on, “How long ago was this colony founded, again?”

“Three hundred sixty E-years,” Lolimel said. He joined the search.

Three hundred sixty years since a colony ship left an established world with its hopeful burden, arrived at this deadly Eden, established a city, flourished, and died. How much of Mia’s lifetime, much of it spent traveling at just under c, did that represent? Once she had delighted in figuring out such equations, in wondering if she’d been born when a given worldful of colonists made planetfall. But by now there were too many expeditions, too many colonies, too many accelerations and decelerations, and she’d lost track.

Lolimel said abruptly, “Here’s a rec cube.”

“Play it,” Kenin said, and when he just went on staring at it in the palm of his smooth hand, she took the cube from him and played it herself.

It was what she expected. A native plague of some kind, jumping DNA-based species (which included all species in the galaxy, thanks to panspermia). The plague had struck after the colonists thought they had vaccinated against all dangerous micros. Of course, they couldn’t really have thought that; even three hundred sixty years ago doctors had been familiar with alien species-crossers. Some were mildly irritating, some dangerous, some epidemically fatal. Colonies had been lost before, and would be again.

“Complete medical data resides on green rec cubes,” the recorder had said in the curiously accented International of three centuries ago. Clearly dying, he gazed out from the cube with calm, sad eyes. A brave man. “Any future visitors to Good Fortune should be warned.”

Good Fortune. That was the planet’s name.

“All right,” Kenin said, “tell the guard to search for green cubes. Mia, get the emergency analysis lab set up and direct Jamal to look for burial sites. If they had time to inter some victims—if they interred at all, of course—we might be able to recover some micros to create vacs or cures. Lolimel, you assist me in—”

One of the guards, carrying weapons that Mia could not have named, blurted, “Ma’am, how do we know we won’t get the same thing that killed the colonists?”

Mia looked at her. Like Lolimel, she was very young. Like all of them, she would have her story about why she volunteered for the Corps.

Now the young guard was blushing. “I mean, ma’am, before you can make a vaccination? How do we know we won’t get the disease, too?”

Mia said gently, “We don’t.”

No one, however, got sick. The colonists had had interment practices, they had had time to bury some of their dead in strong, water-tight coffins before everyone else died, and their customs didn’t include embalming. Much more than Mia had dared hope for. Good Fortune, indeed.

In five days of tireless work they had the micro isolated, sequenced, and analyzed. It was a virus, or a virus analogue, that had somehow gained access to the brain and lodged near the limbic system, creating destruction and death. Like rabies, Mia thought, and hoped this virus hadn’t caused the terror and madness of that stubborn disease. Not even Earth had been able to eradicate rabies.

Two more days yielded the vaccine. Kenin dispensed it outside the large building on the edge of the city, function unknown, which had become Corps headquarters. Mia applied her patch, noticing with the usual distaste the leathery, wrinkled skin of her forearm. Once she had had such beautiful skin, what was it that a long-ago lover had said to her, what had been his name . . . Ah, growing old was not for the gutless.

Something moved at the edge of her vision.

“Lolimel . . . did you see that?”

“See what?”

“Nothing.” Sometimes her aging eyes played tricks on her; she didn’t want Lolimel’s pity.

The thing moved again.

Casually Mia rose, brushing imaginary dirt from the seat of her uniform, strolling toward the bushes where she’d seen motion. From her pocket she pulled her gun. There were animals on this planet, of course, although the Corps had only glimpsed them from a distance, and rabies was transmitted by animal bite . . .

It wasn’t an animal. It was a human child.

No, not a child, Mia realized as she rounded the clump of bushes and, amazingly, the girl didn’t run. An adolescent, or perhaps older, but so short and thin that Mia’s mind had filled in “child.” A scrawny young woman with light brown skin and long, matted black hair, dressed carelessly in some sort of sarong-like wrap. Staring at Mia with a total lack of fear.

“Hello,” Mia said gently.

“Ej-es?” the girl said.

Mia said into her wrister, “Kenin . . . we’ve got natives. Survivors.”

The girl smiled. Her hair was patchy on one side, marked with small white rings. Fungus, Mia thought professionally, absurdly. The girl walked right toward Mia, not slowing, as if intending to walk through her. Instinctively Mia put out an arm. The girl walked into it, bonked herself on the forehead, and crumpled to the ground.

“You’re not supposed to beat up the natives, Mia,” Kenin said. “God, she’s not afraid of us at all. How can that be? You nearly gave her a concussion.”

Mia was as bewildered as Kenin, as all of them. She’d picked up the girl, who’d looked bewildered but not angry, and then Mia had backed off, expecting the girl to run. Instead she’d stood there rubbing her forehead and jabbering, and Mia had seen that her sarong was made of an uncut sheet of plastic, its colors faded to a mottled gray.

Kenin, Lolimel, and two guards had come running. And still the girl wasn’t afraid. She chattered at them, occasionally pausing as if expecting them to answer. When no one did, she eventually turned and moved leisurely off.

Mia said, “I’m going with her.”

Instantly a guard said, “It’s not safe, ma’am,” and Kenin said, “Mia, you can’t just—”

“You don’t need me here,” she said, too brusquely; suddenly there seemed nothing more important in the world than going with this girl. Where did that irrational impulse come from? “And I’ll be perfectly safe with a gun.”

This was such a stunningly stupid remark that no one answered her. But Kenin didn’t order her to stay. Mia accepted the guard’s tanflefoam and Kenin’s vidcam and followed the girl.

It was hard to keep up with her. “Wait!” Mia called, which produced no response. So she tried what the girl had said to her: “Ej-es!”

Immediately the girl stopped and turned to her with glowing eyes and a smile that could have melted glaciers, had Good Fortune had such a thing. Gentle planet, gentle person, who was almost certainly a descendent of the original dead settlers. Or was she? InterGalactic had no record of any other registered ship leaving for this star system, but that didn’t mean anything. InterGalactic didn’t know everything. Sometimes, given the time dilation of space travel, Mia thought they knew nothing.

“Ej-es,” the girl agreed, sprinted back to Mia, and took her hand. Slowing her youthful pace to match the older woman’s, she led Mia home.

The houses were scattered, as though they couldn’t make up their mind to be a village or not. A hundred yards away, another native walked toward a distant house. The two ignored each other.

Mia couldn’t stand the silence. She said, “I am Mia.”

The girl stopped outside her hut and looked at her.

Mia pointed to her chest. “Mia.”

“Es-ef-eb,” the girl said, pointing to herself and giving that glorious smile.

Not “ej-es,” which must mean something else. Mia pointed to the hut, a primitive affair of untrimmed logs, pieces of foamcast carried from the city, and sheets of faded plastic, all tacked crazily together.

“Ef-ef,” said Esefeb, which evidently meant “home.” This language was going to be a bitch: degraded and confusing.

Esefeb suddenly hopped to one side of the dirt path, laughed, and pointed at blank air. Then she took Mia’s hand and led her inside.

More confusion, more degradation. The single room had an open fire with the simple venting system of a hole in the roof. The bed was high on stilts (why?) with a set of rickety steps made of rotting, untrimmed logs. One corner held a collection of huge pots in which grew greenery; Mia saw three unfired clay pots, one of them sagging sideways so far the soil had spilled onto the packed-dirt floor. Also a beautiful titanium vase and a cracked hydroponic vat. On one plant, almost the size of a small tree, hung a second sheet of plastic sarong, this one an unfaded blue-green. Dishes and tools littered the floor, the same mix as the pots of scavenged items and crude homemade ones. The hut smelled of decaying food and unwashed bedding. There was no light source and no machinery.

Kenin’s voice sounded softly from her wrister. “Your vid is coming through fine. Even the most primitive human societies have some type of art work.”

Mia didn’t reply. Her attention was riveted to Esefeb. The girl flung herself up the “stairs” and sat up in bed, facing the wall. What Mia had seen before could hardly be called a smile compared to the light, the sheer joy, that illuminated Esefeb’s face now. Esefeb shuddered in ecstasy, crooning to the empty wall.

“Ej-es. Ej-es. Aaahhhh, Ej-es!”

Mia turned away. She was a medician, but Esefeb’s emotion seemed too private to witness. It was the ecstasy of orgasm, or religious transfiguration, or madness.

“Mia,” her wrister said, “I need an image of that girl’s brain.”

It was easy—too easy, Lolimel said later, and he was right. Creatures, sentient or not, did not behave this way.

“We could haul all the neuro equipment out to the village,” Kenin said doubtfully, from base.

“It’s not a village, and I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Mia said softly. The softness was unnecessary. Esefeb slept like stone in her high bunk, and the hut was so dark, illuminated only by faint starlight through the hole in the roof, that Mia could barely see her wrister to talk into it. “I think Esefeb might come voluntarily. I’ll try in the morning, when it’s light.”

Kenin, not old but old enough to feel stiff sleeping on the ground, said, “Will you be comfortable there until morning?”

“No, but I’ll manage. What does the computer say about the recs?”

Lolimel answered—evidently they were having a regular all-hands conference. “The language is badly degraded International, you probably guessed that. The translator’s preparing a lexicon and grammar. The artifacts, food supply, dwelling, everything visual, doesn’t add up. They shouldn’t have lost so much in two hundred fifty years, unless mental deficiency was a side-effect of having survived the virus. But Kenin thinks—” He stopped abruptly.

“You may speak for me,” Kenin’s voice said, amused. “I think you’ll find that military protocol degrades, too, over time. At least, way out here.”

“Well, . . . . Kenin thinks it’s possible that what the girl has is a mutated version of the virus. Maybe infectious, maybe inheritable, maybe transmitted through fetal infection.”

His statement dropped into Mia’s darkness, as heavy as Esefeb’s sleep.

Mia said, “So the mutated virus could still be extant and active.”

“Yes,” Kenin said. “We need not only neuro-images but a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. Her behavior suggests—”

“I know what her behavior suggests,” Mia said curtly. That sheer joy, shuddering in ecstasy . . . It was seizures in the limbic system, the brain’s deep center for primitive emotion, which produced such transcendent, rapturous trances. Religious mystics, Saul on the road to Damascus, visions of Our Lady or of nirvana. And the virus might still be extant, and not a part of the vaccine they had all received. Although if transmission was fetal, the medicians were safe. If not . . .

Mia said, “The rest of Esefeb’s behavior doesn’t fit with limbic seizures. She seems to see things that aren’t there, even talks to her hallucinations, when she’s not having an actual seizure.”

“I don’t know,” Kenin said. “There might be multiple infection sites in the brain. I need her, Mia.”

“We’ll be there,” Mia said, and wondered if that were going to be true.

But it was, mostly. Mia, after a brief uncomfortable sleep wrapped in the sheet of blue-green plastic, sat waiting for Esefeb to descend her rickety stairs. The girl bounced down, chattering at something to Mia’s right. She smelled worse than yesterday. Mia breathed through her mouth and went firmly up to her.

“Esefeb!” Mia pointed dramatically, feeling like a fool. The girl pointed back.

“Mia.”

“Yes, good.” Now Mia made a sweep of the sorry hut. “Efef.”

“Efef,” Esefeb agreed, smiling radiantly.

“Esefeb efef.”

The girl agreed that this was her home.

Mia pointed theatrically toward the city. “Mia efef! Mia eb Esefeb etej Mia efef!” Mia and Esefeb come to Mia’s home. Mia had already raided the computer’s tentative lexicon of Good Fortunese.

Esefeb cocked her head and looked quizzical. A worm crawled out of her hair.

Mia repeated, “Mia eb Esefeb etej Mia efef.”

Esefeb responded with a torrent of repetitious syllables, none of which meant anything to Mia except “Ej-es.” The girl spoke the word with such delight that it had to be a name. A lover? Maybe these people didn’t live as solitary as she’d assumed.

Mia took Esefeb’s hand and gently tugged her toward the door. Esefeb broke free and sat in the middle of the room, facing a blank wall of crumbling logs, and jabbered away to nothing at all, occasionally laughing and even reaching out to touch empty air. “Ej-es, Ej-es!” Mia watched, bemused, recording everything, making medical assessments. Esefeb wasn’t malnourished, for which the natural abundance of the planet was undoubtedly responsible. But she was crawling with parasites, filthy (with water easily available), and isolated. Maybe isolated.

“Lolimel,” Mia said softly into the wrister, “what’s the best dictionary guess for ‘alone’?”

Lolimel said, “The closest we’ve got is ‘one.’ There doesn’t seem to be a concept for ‘unaccompanied,’ or at least we haven’t found it yet. The word for ‘one’ is ‘eket.’ ”

When Esefeb finally sprang up happily, Mia said, “Esefeb eket?”

The girl look startled. “Ek, ek,” she said: no, no. Esefeb ek eket! Esefeb eb Ej-es!”

Esefeb and Ej-es. She was not alone. She had the hallucinatory Ej-es.

Again Mia took Esefeb’s hand and pulled her toward the door. This time Esefeb went with her. As they set off toward the city, the girl’s legs wobbled. Some parasite that had become active overnight in the leg muscles? Whatever the trouble was, Esefeb blithely ignored it as they traveled, much more slowly than yesterday, to Kenin’s makeshift lab in the ruined city. Along the way, Esefeb stopped to watch, laugh at, or talk to three different things that weren’t there.

“She’s beautiful, under all that neglect,” Lolimel said, staring down at the anesthetized girl on Kenin’s neuroimaging slab.

Kenin said mildly, “If the mutated virus is transmitted to a fetus, it could also be transmitted sexually.”

The young man said hotly, “I wasn’t implying—”

Mia said, “Oh, calm down. Lolimel. We’ve all done it, on numerous worlds.”

“Regs say—”

“Regs don’t always matter three hundred light years from anywhere else,” Kenin said, exchanging an amused glance with Mia. “Mia, let’s start.”

The girl’s limp body slid into the neuro-imager. Esefeb hadn’t objected to meeting the other medicians, to a minimal washing, to the sedative patch Mia had put on her arm. Thirty seconds later she slumped to the floor. By the time she came to, an incision ten cells thick would have been made into her brain and a sample removed. She would have been harvested, imaged, electroscanned, and mapped. She would never know it; there wouldn’t even be a headache.

Three hours later Esefeb sat on the ground with two of the guards, eating soysynth as if it were ambrosia. Mia, Kenin, Lolimel, and the three other medicians sat in a circle twenty yards away, staring at handhelds and analyzing results. It was late afternoon. Long shadows slanted across the gold-green grass, and a small breeze brought the sweet, heavy scent of some native flower.

Paradise, Mia thought. And then: Bonnet Syndrome.

She said it aloud, “Charles Bonnet Syndrome,” and five people raised their heads to stare at her, returned to their handhelds, and called up medical deebees.

“I think you’re right,” Kenin said slowly. “I never even heard of it before. Or if I did, I don’t remember.”

“That’s because nobody gets it anymore,” Mia said. “It was usually old people whose eye problems weren’t corrected. Now we routinely correct eye problems.”

Kenin frowned. “But that’s not all that’s going on with Esefeb.”

No, but it was one thing, and why couldn’t Kenin give her credit for thinking of it? The next moment she was ashamed of her petty pique. It was just fatigue, sleeping on that hard cold floor in Esefeb’s home. Esefeb efef. Mia concentrated on Charles Bonnet syndrome.

Patients with the syndrome, which was discovered in the eighteenth century, had damage somewhere in their optic pathway or brain. It could be lesions, macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, or even cataracts. Partially blind, people saw and sometimes heard instead things that weren’t there, often with startling clarity and realism. Feedback pathways in the brain were two-way information avenues. Visual data, memory, and imagination constantly flowed to and from each other, interacting so vividly that, for example, even a small child could visualize a cat in the absence of any actual cats. But in Bonnet syndrome, there was interruption of the baseline visual data about what was and was not real. So all imaginings and hallucinations were just as real as the ground beneath one’s feet.

“Look at the amygdala,” medician Berutha said. “Oh merciful gods!”

Both of Esefeb’s amygdalae were enlarged and deformed. The amygdalae, two almond-shaped structures behind the ears, specialized in recognizing the emotional significance of events in the external world. They weren’t involved in Charles Bonnet syndrome. Clearly, they were here.

Kenin said, “I think what’s happening here is a strengthening or alteration of some neural pathways at the extreme expense of others. Esefeb ‘sees’ her hallucinations, and she experiences them as just as ‘real’—maybe more real—than anything else in her world. And the pathways go down to the limbic, where seizures give some of them an intense emotional significance. Like . . . like orgasm, maybe.”

Ej-es.

“Phantoms in the brain,” Berutha said.

“A viral god,” Lolimel said, surprising Mia. His tone, almost reverential, suddenly irritated her.

“A god responsible for this people’s degradation, Lolimel. They’re so absorbed in their ‘phantoms’ that they don’t concentrate on the most basic care of themselves. Nor on building, farming, art, innovation . . . nothing. They’re prisoners of their pretty fantasies.”

Lolimel nodded reluctantly. “Yes, I see that.”

Berutha said to Kenin, “We need to find the secondary virus. Because if it is infectious through any other vector besides fetal or sexual . . . ” He didn’t finish the thought.

“I know,” Kenin said, “but it isn’t going to be easy. We don’t have cadavers for the secondary. The analyzer is still working on the cerebral-spinal fluid. Meanwhile—” She began organizing assignments, efficient and clear. Mia stopped listening.

Esefeb had finished her meal and walked up to the circle of scientists. She tugged at Mia’s tunic.

“Mia . . . Esefeb etej efef.” Esefeb come home.

“Mia eb Esefeb etej Esefeb efef,” Mia said, and the girl gave her joyous smile.

“Mia—” Kenin said.

“I’m going with her, Kenin. We need more behavioral data. And maybe I can persuade another native or two to submit to examination,” Mia argued, feebly. She knew that scientific information was not really her motive. She wasn’t sure, however, what was. She just wanted to go with Esefeb.

Why did you first enter the Corps?” Lolimel’s question stuck in Mia’s mind, a rhetorical fishbone in the throat, over the next few days. Mia had brought her medkit, and she administered broad-spectrum microbials to Esefeb, hoping something would hit. The parasites were trickier, needing life-cycle analysis or at least some structural knowledge, but she made a start on that, too. I entered the Corps to relieve suffering, Lolimel. Odd how naive the truest statements could sound. But that didn’t make them any less true.

Esefeb went along with all Mia’s pokings, patches, and procedures. She also carried out minimal food-gathering activities, with a haphazard disregard for safety or sanitation that appalled Mia. Mia had carried her own food from the ship. Esefeb ate it just as happily as her own.

But mostly Esefeb talked to Ej-es.

It made Mia feel like a voyeur. Esefeb was so unselfconscious—did she even know she had a “self” apart from Ej-es? She spoke to, laughed at (with?), played beside, and slept with her phantom in the brain, and around her the hut disintegrated even more. Esefeb got diarrhea from something in her water and then the place smelled even more foul. Grimly, Mia cleaned it up. Esefeb didn’t seem to notice. Mia was eket. Alone in her futile endeavors at sanitation, at health, at civilization.

“Esefeb eb Mia etej efef—” How did you say “neighbors”? Mia consulted the computer’s lexicon, steadily growing as the translator program deciphered words from context. It had discovered no word for “neighbor.” Nor for “friend” nor “mate” nor any kinship relationships at all except “baby.”

Mia was reduced to pointing at the nearest hut. “Esefeb eb Mia etej efef” over there.

The neighboring hut had a baby. Both hut and child, a toddler who lay listlessly in one corner, were just as filthy and diseased as Esefeb’s house. At first the older woman didn’t seem to recognize Esefeb, but when Esefeb said her name, the two women spoke animatedly. The neighbor smiled at Mia. Mia reached for the child, was not prevented from picking him up, and settled the baby on her lap. Discreetly, she examined him.

Sudden rage boiled through her, as unexpected as it was frightening. This child was dying. Of parasites, of infection, of something. A preventable something? Maybe yes, maybe no. The child didn’t look neglected, but neither did the mother look concerned.

All at once, the child in her arms stiffened, shuddered, and began to babble. His listlessness vanished. His little dirty face lit up like sunrise and he laughed and reached out his arms toward something not there. His mother and Esefeb turned to watch, also smiling, as the toddler had an unknowable limbic seizure in his dying, ecstatic brain.

Mia set him down on the floor. She called up the dictionary, but before she could say anything, the mother, too, had a seizure and sat on the dirt floor, shuddering with joy. Esefeb watched her a moment before chattering to something Mia couldn’t see.

Mia couldn’t stand it any more. She left, walking as fast as she could back to Esefeb’s house, disgusted and frightened and . . . what?

Envious?

Why did you first enter the Corps?” To serve humanity, to live purposefully, to find, as all men and women hope, happiness. And she had, sometimes, been happy.

But she had never known such joy as that.

Nonetheless, she argued with herself, the price was too high. These people were dying off because of their absorption in their rapturous phantoms. They lived isolated, degraded, sickly lives, which were undoubtedly shorter than necessary. It was obscene.

In her clenched hand was a greasy hair sample she’d unobtrusively cut from the toddler’s head as he sat on her lap. Hair, that dead tissue, was a person’s fossilized past. Mia intended a DNA scan.

Esefeb strolled in an hour later. She didn’t seem upset at Mia’s abrupt departure. With her was Lolimel.

“I met her on the path,” Lolimel said, although nothing as well-used as a path connected the huts. “She doesn’t seem to mind my coming here.”

“Or anything else,” Mia said. “What did you bring?” He had to have brought something tangible; Kenin would have used the wrister to convey information.

“Tentative prophylactic. We haven’t got a vaccine yet, and Kenin says it may be too difficult, better to go directly to a cure to hold in reserve in case any of us comes down with this.”

Mia caught the omission. “Any of us? What about them?”

Lolimel looked down at his feet. “It’s, um, a borderline case, Mia. The decision hasn’t been made yet.”

“‘Borderline’ how, Lolimel? It’s a virus infecting the brains of humans and degrading their functioning.”

He was embarrassed. “Section Six says that, um, some biological conditions, especially persistent ones, create cultural differences for which Corps policy is non-interference. Section Six mentions the religious dietary laws that grew out of inherited food intolerances on—”

“I know what Section Six says, Lolimel! But you don’t measure a culture’s degree of success by its degree of happiness!”

“I don’t think . . . that is, I don’t know . . . maybe ‘degree of success’ isn’t what Section Six means.” He looked away from her. The tips of his ears grew red.

Poor Lolimel. She and Kenin had as much as told him that out here regs didn’t matter. Except when they did. Mia stood. “You say the decision hasn’t been made yet?”

He looked surprised. “How could it be? You’re on the senior Corps board to make the decision.”

Of course she was. How could she forget . . . she forgot more things these days, momentary lapses symbolic of the greater lapses to come. No brain functioned forever.

“Mia, are you all—”

“I’m fine. And I’m glad you’re here. I want to go back to the city for a few days. You can stay with Esefeb and continue the surveillance. You can also extend to her neighbors the antibiotic, antiviral, and anti-parasite protocols I’ve worked through with Esefeb. Here, I’ll show you.”

“But I—”

“That’s an order.”

She felt bad about it later, of course. But Lolimel would get over it.

At base everything had the controlled frenzy of steady, unremitting work. Meek now, not a part of the working team, Mia ran a DNA scan on the baby’s hair. It showed what she expected. The child shared fifty percent DNA with Esefeb. He was her brother; the neighbor whom Esefeb clearly never saw, who had at first not recognized Esefeb, was her mother. For which there was still no word in the translator deebee.

“I think we’ve got it,” Kenin said, coming into Mia’s room. She collapsed on a stone bench, still beautiful after two and a half centuries. Kenin had the beatific serenity of a hard job well done.

“A cure?”

“Tentative. Radical. I wouldn’t want to use it on one of us unless we absolutely have to, but we can refine it more. At least it’s in reserve, so a part of the team can begin creating and disseminating medical help these people can actually use. Targeted microbials, an anti-parasite protocol.”

“I’ve already started on that,” Mia said, her stomach tightening. “Kenin, the board needs to meet.”

“Not tonight. I’m soooo sleepy.” Theatrically she stretched both arms; words and gesture were unlike her.

“Tonight,” Mia said. While Kenin was feeling so accomplished. Let Kenin feel the full contrast to what she could do with what Esefeb could.

Kenin dropped her arms and looked at Mia. Her whole demeanor changed, relaxation into fortress. “Mia . . . I’ve already polled everyone privately. And run the computer sims. We’ll meet, but the decision is going to be to extend no cure. The phantoms are a biologically based cultural difference.”

“The hell they are! These people are dying out!”

“No, they’re not. If they were heading for extinction, it’d be a different situation. But the satellite imagery and population equations, based on data left by the generation that had the plague, show they’re increasing. Slowly, but a definite population gain significant to the point-oh-one level of confidence.”

“Kenin—”

“I’m exhausted, Mia. Can we talk about it tomorrow?”

Plan on it, Mia thought grimly. She stored the data on the dying toddler’s matrilineage in her handheld.

A week in base, and Mia could convince no one, not separately nor in a group. Medicians typically had tolerant psychological profiles, with higher-than-average acceptance of the unusual, divergent, and eccentric. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have joined the Corps.

On the third day, to keep herself busy, Mia joined the junior medicians working on refining the cure for what was now verified as “limbic seizures with impaired sensory input causing Charles Bonnet syndrome.” Over the next few weeks it became clear to Mia what Kenin had meant; this treatment, if they had to use it, would be brutally hard on the brain. What was that old ditty? ”Cured last night of my disease, I died today of my physician.” Well, it still happened enough in the Corps. Another reason behind the board’s decision.

She felt a curious reluctance to go back to Esefeb. Or, as the words kept running through her mind, Mia ek etej Esefeb efef. God, it was a tongue twister. These people didn’t just need help with parasites, they needed an infusion of new consonants. It was a relief to be back at base, to be working with her mind, solving technical problems alongside rational scientists. Still, she couldn’t shake a feeling of being alone, being lonely: Mia eket.

Or maybe the feeling was more like futility.

“Lolimel’s back,” Jamal said. He’d come up behind her as she sat at dusk on her favorite stone bench, facing the city. At this time of day the ruins looked romantic, infused with history. The sweet scents of that night-blooming flower, which Mia still hadn’t identified, wafted around her.

“I think you should come now,” Jamal said, and this time Mia heard his tone. She spun around. In the alien shadows Jamal’s face was set as ice.

“He’s contracted it,” Mia said, knowing beyond doubt that it was true. The virus wasn’t just fetally transmitted, it wasn’t a slow-acting retrovirus, and if Lolimel had slept with Esefeb . . . But he wouldn’t be that stupid. He was a medician, he’d been warned . . .

“We don’t really know anything solid about the goddamn thing!” Jamal burst out.

“We never do,” Mia said, and the words cracked her dry lips like salt.

Lolimel stood in the center of the ruined atrium, giggling at something only he could see. Kenin, who could have proceeded without Mia, nodded at her. Mia understood; Kenin acknowledged the special bond Mia had with the young medician. The cure was untested, probably brutal, no more really than dumping a selection of poisons in the right areas of the brain, in itself problematical with the blood-brain barrier.

Mia made herself walk calmly up to Lolimel. “What’s so funny, Lolimel?”

“All those sandwigs crawling in straight lines over the floor. I never saw blue ones before.”

Sandwigs. Lolimel, she remembered, had been born on New Carthage. Sandwigs were always red.

Lolimel said, “But why is there a tree growing out of your head, Mia?”

“Strong fertilizer,” she said. “Lolimel, did you have sex with Esefeb?”

He looked genuinely shocked. “No!”

“All right.” He might or might not be lying.

Jamal whispered, “A chance to study the hallucinations in someone who can fully articulate—”

“No,” Kenin said. “Time matters with this . . . ” Mia saw that she couldn’t bring herself to say “cure.”

Realization dawned on Lolimel’s face. “Me? You’re going to . . . me? There’s nothing wrong with me!”

“Lolimel, dear heart . . . ” Mia said.

“I don’t have it!”

“And the floor doesn’t have sandwigs. Lolimel—”

“No!”

The guards had been alerted. Lolimel didn’t make it out of the atrium. They held him, flailing and yelling, while Kenin deftly slapped on a tranq patch. In ten seconds he was out.

“Tie him down securely,” Kenin said, breathing hard. “Daniel, get the brain bore started as soon as he’s prepped. Everyone else, start packing up, and impose quarantine. We can’t risk this for anyone else here. I’m calling a Section Eleven.”

Section Eleven: If the MedCorps officer in charge deems the risk to Corps members to exceed the gain to colonists by a factor of three or more, the officer may pull the Corps off-planet.

It was the first time Mia had ever seen Kenin make a unilateral decision.

Twenty-four hours later, Mia sat beside Lolimel as dusk crept over the city. The shuttle had already carried up most personnel and equipment. Lolimel was in the last shift because, as Kenin did not need to say aloud, if he died, his body would be left behind. But Lolimel had not died. He had thrashed in unconscious seizures, had distorted his features in silent grimaces of pain until Mia would not have recognized him, had suffered malfunctions in alimentary, lymphatic, endocrine, and parasympathetic nervous systems, all recorded on the monitors. But he would live. The others didn’t know it, but Mia did.

“We’re ready for him, Mia,” the young tech said. “Are you on this shuttle, too?”

“No, the last one. Move him carefully. We don’t know how much pain he’s actually feeling through the meds.”

She watched the gurney slide out of the room, its monitors looming over Lolimel like cliffs over a raging river. When he’d gone, Mia slipped into the next building, and then the next. Such beautiful buildings: spacious atria, beautifully proportioned rooms, one structure flowing into another.

Eight buildings away, she picked up the pack she’d left there. It was heavy, even though it didn’t contain everything she had cached around the city. It was so easy to take things when a base was being hastily withdrawn. Everyone was preoccupied, everyone assumed anything not readily visible was already packed, inventories were neglected and the deebees not cross-checked. No time. Historically, war had always provided great opportunities for profiteers.

Was that what she was? Yes, but not a profit measured in money. Measure it, rather, in lives saved, or restored to dignity, or enhanced. ”Why did you first enter the Corps?” Because I’m a medician, Lolimel. Not an anthropologist.

They would notice, of course, that Mia herself wasn’t aboard the last shuttle. But Kenin, at least, would realize that searching from her would be a waste of valuable resources when Mia didn’t want to be found. And Mia was so old. Surely the old should be allowed to make their own decisions.

Although she would miss them, these Corps members who had been her family since the last assignment shuffle, eighteen months ago and decades ago, depending on whose time you counted by. Especially she would miss Lolimel. But this was the right way to end her life, in service to these colonists’ health. She was a medician.

It went better than Mia could have hoped. When the ship had gone—she’d seen it leave orbit, a fleeting stream of light—Mia went to Esefeb.

“Mia etej efef,” Esefeb said with her rosy smile. Mia come home. Mia walked toward her, hugged the girl, and slapped the tranq patch on her neck.

For the next week, Mia barely slept. After the makeshift surgery, she tended Esefeb through the seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, pain. On the morning the girl woke up, herself again, Esefeb was there to bathe the feeble body, feed it, nurse Esefeb. She recovered very fast; the cure was violent on the body but not as debilitating as everyone had feared. And afterwards Esefeb was quieter, meeker, and surprisingly intelligent as Mia taught her the rudiments of water purification, sanitation, safe food storage, health care. By the time Mia moved on to Esefeb’s mother’s house, Esefeb was free