/ Language: English / Genre:sf

Other Worlds Than These

John Adams

What if you could not only travel any location in the world, but to any possible world? We can all imagine such “other worlds”—be they worlds just slightly different than our own or worlds full of magic and wonder—but it is only in fiction that we can travel to them. From The Wizard of Oz to The Dark Tower, from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass to C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a rich tradition of this kind of fiction, but never before have the best parallel world stories and portal fantasies been collected in a single volume—until now. Review “Anthologist Adams presents readers with a wide variety of alternate Earths, some only slightly askew and others completely unfamiliar. […] Adams’s selections are mirrors reflecting one other with the best images of alternate realities. Readers will greatly enjoy this exploration of our world's foremost and ascendant speculative authors.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) “Reminds longtime readers of fantasy and sci-fi what we love about the genre, while also and aptly demonstrating to newcomers that these stories are about so much more than dragons and multitentacled monsters. It comes highly recommended to both and all.” —Bookgasm

OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE

Stories of Parallel Worlds

edited by John Joseph Adams

“Go then, there are other worlds than these.”

–Jake Chambers, to Roland Deschain of Gilead [from The Gunslinger by Stephen King]

FOREWORD

LEV GROSSMAN

When I read The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, it didn’t so much introduce me to the idea that there was another world as confirm my already grave suspicions on the subject. Even at the tender age of eight I was—as I suspect you were, and are, if you’re reading this book—one of reality’s natural critics. Oh, I knew that the real world had its good points. One must be charitable after all. Candy, for example, and cats, and hot baths. But by and large the material was just a bit thin. The jokes weren’t funny, the catering was uneven, and the less said about one’s fellow players the better. I had a powerful urge to see what was on in the next theater over.

Until I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Chronicles of Amber—I thought I was the only one who felt that way. Of course this can’t be all there is: this ludicrous excuse for a universe can only be a rough draft, a temporary substitute, the amateur opening act before the main event, which will be more magical, more exciting, more meaningful, more ecologically sound and otherwise superior in every way.

This wasn’t actually the point of any of those books, of course. That fact was lost on me then, but it isn’t now. Now I understand that the children in the Narnia books went to another world in order to imbibe crucial life lessons at the paws of the lion-god Aslan. Then when they were deported back to England at the end of the book they could experience reality, such as it was, with a renewed appreciation, and they could spread the Word of Jesuslan to the unenlightened.

That would have been the “correct” lesson to draw from The Chronicles of Narnia, but if any child has ever read those books correctly I will eat my hat. When he wrote them Lewis unwittingly let loose a monster of an idea, one even more powerful than the idea he was actually trying to put across. The lesson you receive from The Chronicles of Narnia is that reality is not where it’s at, my friend, so get out by any point of egress you can find and get into somewhere better.

Of course, Lewis didn’t invent that idea. It’s an old fantasy, far older than Narnia—far older, I suspect, than Christianity. The idea that you can enter another world, generally heaven or some heaven-analog, without having to die first exists in any number of religions; it is technically known as ascension, or assumption, or (my personal favorite) translation. The Virgin Mary managed it, as did Elijah, and for that matter Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. It was given new life in the twentieth century, and a new spin, pun intended, by the so-called many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, which posits the idea that all possible universes are in fact real, and the multiple possible outcomes of every event spawn multiple universes in which each of those outcomes is realized. Schrödinger’s cat is dead in one, and alive and purring in another. This theory is actually taken seriously by quite a few non-insane physicists.

Far more compelling would be a very-many-worlds hypothesis, in which all universes exist, both the possible and the impossible, but unfortunately no one sane believes that, not even an old traveler in the realms of gold like me. Fortunately there is a device, entirely real, which can take you into those other realities. Not permanently, but for short, ecstatic flights that are very much worth taking. You’re lucky enough to be holding one such device in your hands right now. As Aslan would say: further up and further in.

INTRODUCTION

JOHN JOSEPH ADAMS

What if you could not only travel any location in the world, but to any possible world? That is the central conceit of this anthology. Or, to be more precise, it aims to collect the best stories that fall into one of two categories: parallel worlds stories or portal fantasies.

A portal fantasy is a story in which a person from one world (usually the “real” world) is transported to some Other World (via some magical or unexplained means), usually one full of impossibilities and generally much stranger than the one they come from.

A parallel worlds story is one in which a person from one world (usually the “real” world) is transported to some Other World (via some scientific/technological means), usually a parallel universe/alternate reality either just slightly different than the one they left, or else vastly different, with different physical laws, but strictly scientifically plausible.

As you can see from the parallels in those two descriptions, the portal fantasy and the parallel worlds story are essentially two sides of the same coin; heads, you get fantasy, tails you get science fiction, but in each the characters’ journey is essentially the same: to explore and wonder at these strange Other Worlds…or to do their damnedest to get back home.

When I first set out to assemble this anthology, I had been thinking primarily of parallel worlds fiction, until the above realization occurred to me. Once it did, I knew that if I were to consider one side of the coin I had to also consider the other, and at that point the entire anthology clicked into place.

(Accordingly, it felt to me like the two types of story should be in dialogue with each other in the context of the anthology, so I did not separate them in the table of contents; instead, both types of story are mixed together throughout the book. It should also be noted that I shied away from including any stories that are primarily based on time travel—as time travel stories are their own genre, though of course time travel does, in essence, create parallel worlds.)

The tropes of Other Worlds fiction have fired the imaginations of millions of readers over the years. The portal fantasy has the earliest roots, with prominent early examples including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Chronicles of Narnia. The tradition has continued, with modern day writers picking up the torch, such as Stephen King (The Dark Tower), Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), and Lev Grossman (The Magicians).

Although one might assume that parallel worlds stories are of a more recent vintage, the hypothetical idea of multiple universes has actually been around since the late nineteenth century, and, indeed, some early examples of parallel worlds fiction can be found in the works of science fiction’s most prominent early practitioner, H. G. Wells. (However, it is fair to say that the majority of this type of story has been written after the many-worlds interpretation theory of quantum mechanics was first postulated and popularized in the late ’50s.) For parallel worlds stories, there are fewer obvious classics to reference, but there are The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov, The Female Man by Joanna Russ, and The Big Time by Fritz Leiber, with recent examples including The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer, The Mirage by Matt Ruff, and Alastair Reynolds’s Absolution Gap.

(For more Other Worlds novel-length works, see the “For Further Reading” appendix located at the end of this anthology.)

So let’s take a trip through the looking glass… or into the universe next door. Thirty different Other Worlds await you; to visit the first, simply turn the page…

MOON SIX

STEPHEN BAXTER

Stephen Baxter was born in Liverpool, England. With a background in math and engineering, he is the author of over fifty novels and over a hundred published short stories. He has collaborated with Sir Arthur C. Clarke and is working on a new collaboration with Sir Terry Pratchett. Among his awards are BSFA Awards, the Philip K. Dick Award, and Locus, Asimov, and Analog awards. His latest novel is Stone Spring, first of a new series.

Bado was alone on the primeval beach of Cape Canaveral, in his white lunar-surface pressure suit, holding his box of Moon rocks and sampling tools in his gloved hand.

He lifted up his gold sun-visor and looked around. The sand was hard and flat. A little way inland, there was a row of scrub pines, maybe ten feet tall.

There were no ICBM launch complexes here.

There was no Kennedy Space Center, in fact: no space programme, evidently, save for him. He was stranded on this empty, desolate beach.

As the light leaked out of the sky, an unfamiliar Moon was brightening.

Bado glared at it. “Moon Six,” he said. “Oh, shit.”

He took off his helmet and gloves. He picked up his box of tools and began to walk inland. His blue overshoes, still stained dark grey from lunar dust, left crisp Moonwalk footprints in the damp sand of the beach.

Bado drops down the last three feet of the ladder and lands on the foil-covered footpad. A little grey dust splashes up around his feet.

Slade is waiting with his camera. “Okay, turn around and give me a big smile. Atta boy. You look great. Welcome to the Moon.” Bado can’t see Slade’s face, behind his reflective golden sun-visor.

Bado holds onto the ladder with his right hand and places his left boot on the Moon. Then he steps off with his right foot, and lets go of the LM. And there he is, standing on the Moon.

The suit around him is a warm, comforting bubble. He hears the hum of pumps and fans in the PLSS—his backpack, the Portable Life Support System—and feels the soft breeze of oxygen across his face.

He takes a halting step forward. The dust seems to crunch beneath his feet, like a covering of snow: there is a firm footing beneath a soft, resilient layer a few inches thick. His footprints are miraculously sharp, as if he’s placed his ridged overshoes in fine, damp sand. He takes a photograph of one particularly well-defined print; it will persist here for millions of years, he realises, like the fossilised footprint of a dinosaur, to be eroded away only by the slow rain of micrometeorites, that echo of the titanic bombardments of the deep past.

He looks around.

The LM is standing in a broad, shallow crater. Low hills shoulder above the close horizon. There are craters everywhere, ranging from several yards to a thumbnail width, the low sunlight deepening their shadows.

They call the landing site Taylor Crater, after that district of El Lago—close to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston—where he and Fay have made their home. This pond of frozen lava is a relatively smooth, flat surface in a valley once flooded by molten rock. Their main objective for the flight is another crater a few hundred yards to the west that they’ve named after Slade’s home district of Wildwood. Surveyor 7, an unmanned robot probe, set down in Wildwood a few years before; the astronauts are here to sample it.

This landing site is close to Tycho, the fresh, bright crater in the Moon’s southern highlands. As a kid Bado had sharp vision. He was able to see Tycho with his naked eyes, a bright pinprick on that ash-white surface, with rays that spread right across the face of the full Moon.

Now he is here.

Bado turns and bounces back towards the LM.

After a few miles he got to a small town.

He hid his lunar pressure suit in a ditch, and, dressed in his tube-covered cooling garment, snuck into someone’s back yard. He stole a pair of jeans and a shirt he found hanging on the line there.

He hated having to steal; he didn’t plan on having to do it again.

He found a small bar. He walked straight in and asked after a job. He knew he couldn’t afford to hesitate, to hang around figuring what kind of world he’d finished up in. He had no money at all, but right now he was clean-shaven and presentable. A few days of sleeping rough would leave him too dirty and stinking to be employable.

He got a job washing glasses and cleaning out the john. That first night he slept on a park bench, but bought himself breakfast and cleaned himself up in a gas station john.

After a week, he had a little money saved. He loaded his lunar gear into an old trunk, and hitched to Daytona Beach, a few miles up the coast.

They climb easily out of Taylor.

Their first Moonwalk is a misshapen circle which will take them around several craters. The craters are like drill holes, the geologists say, excavations into lunar history.

The first stop is the north rim of a hundred-yard-wide crater they call Huckleberry Finn. It is about three hundred yards west of the LM.

Bado puts down the tool carrier. This is a hand-held tray, with an assortment of gear: rock hammers, sample bags, core tubes. He leans over, and digs into the lunar surface with a shovel. When he scrapes away the grey upper soil he finds a lighter grey, just under the surface.

“Hey, Slade. Come look at this.”

Slade comes floating over. “How about that. I think we found some ray material.” Ray material here will be debris from the impact which formed Tycho.

Lunar geology has been shaped by the big meteorite impacts which pounded its surface in prehistory. A main purpose of sending this mission so far south is to keep them away from the massive impact which created the Mare Imbrium, in the northern hemisphere. Ray material unpolluted by Imbrium debris will let them date the more recent Tycho impact.

And here they have it, right at the start of their first Moonwalk.

Slade flips up his gold visor so Bado can see his face, and grins at him. “How about that. We is looking at a full-up mission here, boy.”

They finish up quickly, and set off at a run to the next stop. Slade looks like a human-shaped beach ball, his suit brilliant white, bouncing over the beach-like surface of the Moon. He is whistling.

They are approaching the walls of Wildwood Crater. Bado is going slightly uphill, and he can feel it. The carrier, loaded up with rocks, is getting harder to carry too. He has to hold it up to his chest, to keep the rocks from bouncing out when he runs, and so he is constantly fighting the stiffness of his pressure suit.

“Hey, Bado,” Slade says. He comes loping down the slope. He points. “Take a look.”

Bado has, he realises, reached the rim of Wildwood Crater. He is standing on top of its dune-like, eroded wall. And there, planted in the crater’s centre, is the Surveyor. It is less than a hundred yards from him. It is a squat, three-legged frame, like a broken-off piece of a LM.

Slade grins. “Does that look neat? We got it made, Bado.” Bado claps his commander’s shoulder. “Outstanding, man.” He knows that for Slade, getting to the Surveyor, bringing home a few pieces of it, is the finish line for the mission.

Bado looks back east, the way they have come. He can see the big, shallow dip in the land that is Taylor, with the LM resting at its centre like a toy in the palm of some huge hand. It is a glistening, filmy construct of gold leaf and aluminium, bristling with antennae, docking targets, and reaction control thruster assemblies.

Two sets of footsteps come climbing up out of Taylor towards them, like footsteps on a beach after a tide.

Bado tips back on his heels and looks at the sky.

The sky is black, empty of stars; his pupils are closed up by the dazzle of the sun, and the reflection of the pale brown lunar surface. But he can see the Earth, a fat crescent, four times the size of a full moon. And there, crossing the zenith, is a single, brilliant, unwinking star: the orbiting Apollo CSM, with Al Pond, their Command Module pilot, waiting to take them home.

There is a kind of shimmer, like a heat haze. And the star goes out.

Just like that: it vanishes from the sky, directly over Bado’s head. He blinks, and moves his head, stiffly, thinking he might have just lost the Apollo in the glare.

But it is gone.

What, then? Can it have moved into the shadow of the Moon? But a little thought knocks out that one: the geometry, of sun and Moon and spacecraft, is all wrong.

And anyhow, what was that heat haze shimmer? You don’t get heat haze where there’s no air.

He lowers his head. “Hey, Slade. You see that?”

But Slade isn’t anywhere to be seen, either; the slope where he’s been standing is smooth, empty.

Bado feels his heart hammer.

He lets go of the tool carrier—it drifts down to the dust, spilling rocks—and he lopes forward. “Come on, Slade. Where the hell are you?”

Slade is famous for gotchas; he is planning a few that Bado knows about, and probably some he doesn’t, for later in the mission. But it is hard to see how he’s pulled this one off. There is nowhere to hide, damn it.

He gets to where he thinks Slade was last standing. There is no sign of Slade. And there aren’t even any footsteps, he realises now. The only marks under his feet are those made by his own boots, leading off a few yards away, to the north.

And they start out of nothing, it seems, like Man Friday steps in the crisp virgin Moon-snow. As if he’s stepped out of nowhere onto the regolith.

When he looks back to the east, he can’t see the LM either.

“Slade, this isn’t funny, damn it.” He starts to bound, hastily, back in the direction of the LM. His clumsy steps send up parabolic sprays of dust over unmarked regolith.

He feels his breath getting shallow. It isn’t a good idea to panic. He tells himself that maybe the LM is hidden behind some low ridge. Distances are deceptive here, in this airless sharpness.

“Houston, Bado. I got some kind of situation here.” There isn’t a reply immediately; he imagines his radio signal crawling across the light-seconds’ gulf to Earth. “I’m out of contact with Slade. Maybe he’s fallen somewhere, out of sight. And I don’t seem to be able to see the LM. And—”

And someone’s wiped over our footsteps, while I wasn’t looking.

Nobody is replying, he realises.

That stops him short. Dust falls over his feet. On the surface of the Moon, nothing is moving.

He looks up at the crescent Earth. “Ah, Houston, this is Bado. Houston. John, come in, capcom.”

Just silence, static in his headset.

He starts moving to the east again, breathing hard, the sweat pooling at his neck.

He rented an apartment.

He got himself a better job in a radio store. In the Air Force, before joining NASA, he’d specialised in electronics. He’d been apprehensive that he might not be able to find his way around the gear here, but he found it simple—almost crude, compared to what he’d been used to. They had transistors here, but they still used big chunky valves and paper capacitors. It was like being back in the early60s. Radios were popular, but there were few TVs: small black and white gadgets, the reception lousy.

He began watching the TV news and reading the newspapers, trying to figure out what kind of world he’d been dropped in.

The weather forecasts were lousy.

And foreign news reports, even on the TV, were sent by wire, like they’d been when he was a kid, and were often a day or two out of date.

The Vietnam War was unfolding. But there’d been none of the protests against the war, here, that he’d seen back at home. There were no live TV pictures, no colour satellite images of soldiers in the mud and the rain, napalming civilians. Nobody knew what was happening out there. The reaction to the war was more like what he remembered of World War Two.

There really was no space programme. Not just the manned stuff had gone: there were no weather satellites, communication satellites. Sputnik, Explorer and all the rest just hadn’t happened. The Moon was just a light in the sky that nobody cared about, like when he was a kid. It was brighter, though, because of that big patch of highland where Imbrium should have been.

On the other hand, there were no ICBMS, as far as he could tell.

His mouth is bone-dry from the pure oxygen. He is breathing hard; he hears the hiss of water through the suit’s cooling system, the pipes that curl around his limbs and chest.

There is a rational explanation for this. There has to be. Like, if he’s got out of line of sight with the LM, somehow, he’s invisible to the LM’s radio relay, the Lunar Communications Relay Unit. He is linked to that by VHF, and then by S-band to the Earth.

Yeah, that has to be it. As soon as he gets back in line of sight of the LM, he can get in touch with home. And maybe with Slade.

But he can’t figure how he could have gotten out of the LM’s line of sight in the first place. And what about the vanished footsteps?

He tries not to think about it. He just concentrates on loping forward, back to the LM.

In a few minutes, he is back in Taylor Crater.

There is no LM. The regolith here is undisturbed.

Bado bounces across the virgin surface, scuffing it up.

Can he be in the wrong place? The lunar surface does have a tendency to look the same everywhere…Hell, no. He can see he is right in the middle of Taylor; he recognises the shapes of the hills. There can’t be any doubt.

What, then? Can Slade have somehow gotten back to the LM, taken off without him?

But how can Bado not have seen him, seen the boxy LM ascent stage lift up into the sky? And besides, the regolith would be marked by the ascent stage’s blast.

And, he realises dimly, there would, of course, be an abandoned descent platform here, and bits of kit. And their footsteps. His thoughts are sluggish, his realisation coming slowly. Symptoms of shock, maybe.

The fact is that save for his own footfalls, the regolith is as unmarked as if he’s been dropped out of the sky.

And meanwhile, nobody in Houston is talking to him.

He is ashamed to find he is crying, mumbling, tears rolling down his face inside his helmet.

He starts to walk back west again. Following his own footsteps—the single line he made coming back to find the LM—he works his way out of Taylor, and back to the rim of Wildwood.

Hell, he doesn’t have any other place to go.

As he walks he keeps calling, for Slade, for Houston, but there is only static. He knows his signal can’t reach Earth anyway, not without the LM’s big S-band booster.

At Wildwood’s rim there is nothing but the footfalls he left earlier. He looks down into Wildwood, and there sits the Surveyor, glistening like some aluminium toy, unperturbed.

He finds his dropped carrier, with the spilled tools and bagged rocks. He bends sideways and scoops up the stuff, loading it back into the carrier.

Bado walks down into Wildwood, spraying lunar dust ahead of him.

He examines the Surveyor. Its solar cell array is stuck out on a boom above him, maybe ten feet over the regolith. The craft bristles with fuel tanks, batteries, antennae and sensors. He can see the craft’s mechanical claw where it has scraped into the lunar regolith. And he can see how the craft’s white paint has turned tan, maybe from exposure to the sunlight. There are splashes of dust under the vernier rocket nozzles; the Surveyor is designed to land hard, and the three pads have left a firm imprint in the surface.

He gets hold of a landing leg and shakes the Surveyor. “Okay,” he calls up. “I’m jiggling it. It’s planted here.” There was a fear that the Surveyor might tip over onto the astronauts when they try to work with it. That evidently isn’t going to happen. Bado takes a pair of cutting shears from his carrier, gets hold of the Surveyor’s TV camera, and starts to chop through the camera’s support struts and cables. “Just a couple more tubes,” he says. “Then that baby’s mine.”

He’ll finish up his Moonwalk, he figures, according to the timeline in the spiral-bound checklist on his cuff. He’ll keep on reporting his observations, in case anyone is listening. And then—

And then, when he gets to the end of the walk, he’ll figure out what to do next. Later there will be another boundary, when his PLSS’s consumables expire. He’ll deal with those things when they come. For now, he is going to work.

The camera comes loose, and he grips it in his gloves. “Got it! It’s ours!”

He drops the camera in his carrier, breathing hard. His mouth is dry as sand; he’d give an awful lot for an ice-cool glass of water, right here and now.

There is a shimmer, like heat haze, crossing between him and the Surveyor. Just like before.

He tilts back and looks up. There is old Earth, the fat crescent. And a star, bright and unwavering, is crossing the black sky, directly over his head.

It has to be the Apollo CSM.

He drops the carrier to the dirt and starts jumping up and down, in great big lunar hops, and he waves, as if he is trying to attract a passing aircraft. “Hey, Al! Al Pond! Can you hear me?” Even without the LM, Pond, in the CSM, might be able to pick him up.

His mood changes to something resembling elation. He doesn’t know where the hell Apollo has been, but if it is back, maybe soon so will be the LM, and Slade, and everything. That will suit Bado, right down to the lunar ground he is standing on. He’ll be content to have it all back the way it had been, the way it is supposed to be, and figure out what has happened to him later.

“Al! It’s me, Bado! Can you hear me? Can you…”

There is something wrong.

That light isn’t staying steady. It is getting brighter, and it is drifting off its straight line, coming down over his head.

It isn’t the CSM, in orbit. It is some kind of boxy craft, much smaller than a LM, descending towards him, gleaming in the sunlight.

He picks up his carrier and holds it close to his chest, and he stays close to the Surveyor. As the craft approaches he feels an unreasoning fear.

His kidneys send him a stab of distress. He stands still and lets go, into the urine collection condom. He feels shamed; it is like wetting his pants.

The craft is just a box, on four spindly landing legs. It is coming down vertically, standing on a central rocket. He can see no light from the rocket, of course, but he can see how the downward blast is starting to kick up some dust. It is going to land maybe fifty yards from the Surveyor, right in the middle of Wildwood Crater. The whole thing is made of some silvery metal, maybe aluminium. It has a little control panel, set at the front, and there is someone at the controls. It looks like a man—an astronaut, in fact—his face hidden behind a gold-tinted visor.

Bado can see the blue of a NASA logo, and a dust-coated Stars and Stripes, painted on the side of the craft.

Maybe fifty feet above the ground the rocket cuts out, and the craft begins to drop. The sprays of dust settle back neatly to the lunar soil. Now little vernier rockets, stuck to the side of the open compartment, cut in to slow the fall, kicking up their own little sprays.

It is all happening in complete silence.

The craft hits the ground with a solid thump. Bado can see the pilot, the astronaut, flick a few switches, and then he turns and jumps the couple of feet down off the little platform to the ground.

The astronaut comes giraffe-loping across the sunlit surface towards Bado.

He stops, a few feet from Bado, and stands there, slightly stooped forward, balancing the weight of his PLSS.

His suit looks pretty much a standard EMU, an Apollo Extravehicular Mobility Unit. There is the usual gleaming white oversuit—the thermal micrometeorite garment—with the lower legs and overshoes scuffed and stained with Tycho dust. Bado can see the PLSS oxygen and water inlets on the chest cover, and penlight and utility pockets on arms and legs. And there is Old Glory stitched to the left arm.

But Bado doesn’t recognise the name stitched over the breast. WILLIAMS. There is no astronaut of that name in the corps, back in Houston.

Bado’s headset crackles to life, startling him.

“I heard you, when the LFU came over the horizon. As soon as I got in line of sight. I could hear you talking, describing what you were doing. And when I looked down, there you are.”

Bado is astonished. It is a woman’s voice. This Williams is a goddamn woman.

Bado can’t think of a thing to say.

He didn’t find it hard to find himself a place in the community here, to gather a fake ID around himself. Computers were pretty primitive, and there was little cross-checking of records.

Maybe, back home, the development of computers had been forced by the Apollo project, he speculated.

He couldn’t see any way he was going to get home. He was stuck here. But he sure as hell didn’t want to spend his life tuning crummy 1960s-design radios.

He tinkered with the Surveyor camera he’d retrieved from the Moon. It was a much more lightweight design than anything available here, as far as he could tell. But the manufacturing techniques required weren’t much beyond what was available here.

He started to take camera components to electronic engineering companies.

He took apart his lunar suit. In all this world there was nothing like the suit’s miniaturised telemetry system. He was able to adapt it to be used to transmit EKG data from ambulances to hospital emergency rooms. He sent samples of the Beta-cloth outer coverall to a fibreglass company, and showed them how the stuff could be used for fire hoses. Other samples went to military suppliers to help them put together better insulated blankets. The scratch-proof lens of the Surveyor camera went to an optical company, to manufacture better safety goggles and other gear. The miniature, high-performance motors driving the pumps and fans of his PLSS found a dozen applications.

He was careful to patent everything he “developed” from his lunar equipment.

Pretty soon, the money started rolling in.

“Maybe I’m dreaming this,” Williams says. “Dehydration, or something… Uh, I guess I’m pleased to meet you.”

She has a Tennessee accent, he thinks.

Bado shakes the hand. He can feel it through his own stiff pressure glove. “I guess you’re too solid for a ghost.”

“Ditto,” she says. “Besides, I’ve never met a ghost yet who uses VHF frequencies.”

He releases her hand.

“I don’t know how the hell you got here,” she says. “And I guess you don’t understand this any better than I do.”

“That’s for sure.”

She dips her visored head. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

He holds up the carrier. “Sampling the Surveyor. I took off its TV camera.”

“Oh. You couldn’t get it, though.”

“Sure. Here it is.”

She turns to the Surveyor. “Look over there.”

The Surveyor is whole again, its TV camera firmly mounted to its struts.

But when he looks down at his carrier, there is the TV camera he’s cut away, lying there, decapitated.

“Where’s your LM?” she asks.

“Taylor Crater.”

“Where?”

He describes the crater’s location.

“Oh. Okay. We’re calling that one San Jacinto. Ah, no, your LM isn’t there.”

“I know. I walked back. The crater’s empty.”

“No, it isn’t,” she says, but there is a trace of alarm in her voice. “That’s where my LM is. With my partner, and the Payload Module.”

Payload Module?

“The hell with it,” she says. “Let’s go see.”

She turns and starts to lope back to her flying craft, rocking from side to side. He stands there and watches her go.

After a few steps she stops and turns around. “You want a lift?”

“Can you take two?”

“Sure. Come on. What choice do you have, if you’re stuck here without a LM?”

Her voice carries a streak of common sense that somehow comforts him.

Side by side, they bound over the Moon.

They reach Williams’s flying machine. It is just an aluminium box sitting squat on its four legs, with vernier rocket nozzles stuck to the walls like clusters of berries. The pilot has to climb in at the back and stand over the cover of the main rocket engine, which is about the size of a car engine, Bado supposes. Big spherical propellant and oxidiser tanks are fixed to the floor. There is an S-band antenna and a VHF aerial. There is some gear on the floor, hammers and shovels and sample bags and cameras; Williams dumps this stuff out, briskly, onto the regolith. Williams hops up onto the platform and begins throwing switches. Her control panel contains a few instruments, a CRT, a couple of handsets.

Bado lugs his heavy tool carrier up onto the platform, then he gets hold of a rail with both hands and jumps up. “What did you call this thing? An LFU?”

“Yeah. Lunar Flying Unit.”

“I’ve got vague memories,” says Bado. “Of a design like this. It was never developed, when the extended Apollo missions were cancelled.”

“Cancelled? When did that happen?”

“When we were cut back to stop when we get to Apollo 17.”

“Uh huh,” she says dubiously. She eyes the tool carrier. “You want to bring that thing?”

“Sure. It’s not too heavy, is it?”

“No. But what do you want it for?”

Bado looks at the battered, dusty carrier, with its meaningless load of rocks. “It’s all I’ve got.”

“Okay. Let’s get out of here,” she says briskly.

Williams kicks in the main rocket. Dust billows silently up off the ground, into Bado’s face. He can see frozen vapour puff out of the attitude nozzles, in streams of shimmering crystals, as if this is some unlikely steam engine, a Victorian engineer’s fantasy of lunar flight.

The basin of Wildwood Crater falls away. The lift is a brief, comforting surge.

Williams whoops. “Whee-hoo! What a ride, huh, pal?” She takes the LFU up to maybe sixty feet, and slows the ascent. She pitches the craft over and they begin sailing out of Wildwood.

The principles of the strange craft are obvious enough to Bado. You stand on your rocket’s tail. You keep yourself stable with the four peroxide reaction clusters, the little vernier rockets spaced around the frame, squirting them here and there. When the thrust of the single big downwards rocket is at an angle to the vertical, the LFU goes shooting forwards, or sideways, or backwards across the pitted surface. Williams shows him the hand controls. They are just like the LM’s. The attitude control moves in clicks; every time Williams turns the control the reaction rockets will bang and the LFU will tip over, by a degree at a time. The thrust control is a toggle switch; when Williams closes it the lift rockets roar, to give her a delta-vee of a foot per second.

“These are neat little craft,” Williams says. “They fly on residual descent stage propellants. They’ve a range of a few miles, and you can do three sorties in each of them.”

“Each?”

“We bring two. Rescue capability.”

Bado thinks he is starting to see a pattern to what has happened to him.

In a way, the presence of the camera in his carrier is reassuring. It means he isn’t crazy. There really have been two copies of the Surveyor: one of which he’s sampled, and one he hasn’t.

Maybe there is more than one goddamn Moon.

Moon One is the good old lantern in the sky that he and Slade touched down on yesterday. Maybe Slade is still back there, with the LM. But Bado sure isn’t. Somehow he stumbled onto Moon Two, the place with the Surveyor, but no LM. And then this Williams showed up, and evidently by that time he was on another Moon, Moon Three, with its own copy of the Surveyor. And a different set of astronauts exploring, with subtly different equipment.

As if travelling to one Moon isn’t enough.

He thinks about that strange, heat-haze shimmer. Maybe that has something to do with these weird transfers.

He can’t discuss any of this with Williams, because she hasn’t seen any of the changes. Not yet, anyhow.

Bado clings to the sides of the LFU and watches the surface of the Moon scroll underneath him. There are craters everywhere, overlaid circles of all sizes, some barely visible in a surface gardened by billions of years of micrometeorite impact. The surface looks ghostly, rendered in black and white, too stark, unmoving, to be real.

He knew he was taking a risk, but he took his lunar rocks to a couple of universities.

He got laughed out of court. Especially when he wouldn’t explain how these charcoal-dark rocks might have got from the Moon to the Earth.

“Maybe they got blasted off by a meteorite strike,” he said to an “expert” at Cornell. “Maybe they drifted in space until they landed here. I’ve read about that.”

The guy pushed his reading glasses further up his thin nose. “Well, that’s possible.” He smiled. “No doubt you’ve been reading the same lurid speculation I have, in the popular science press. What if rocks get knocked back and forth between the planets? Perhaps there are indeed bits of the Moon, even Mars, to be turned up, here on Earth. And, since we know living things can survive in the interiors of rocks—and since we know that some plants and bacteria can survive long periods of dormancy—perhaps it is even possible for life to propagate itself, across the trackless void, in such a manner.”

He picked up Bado’s Moon rock, dubiously. “But in that case I’d expect to see some evidence of the entry of this rock into the atmosphere. Melting, some glass. And besides, this rock is not volcanic. Mr Bado, everyone knows the Moon’s major features were formed exclusively by vulcanism. This can’t possibly be a rock from the Moon.”

Bado snatched back his rock. “That’s Colonel Bado,” he said. He marched out.

He gave up, and went back to Daytona Beach.

The LFU slides over the rim of Taylor Crater. Or San Jacinto. Bado can see scuffed-up soil below him, and the big Huckleberry Finn Crater to his left, where he and Slade made their first stop.

At the centre of Taylor stands a LM. It glitters like some piece of giant jewellery, the most colourful object on the lunar surface. An astronaut bounces around in front of it, like a white balloon. He—or she—is working at what looks like a surface experiment package, white-painted boxes and cylinders and masts laid out in a star formation, and connected to a central nuclear generator by orange cables. It looks like an ALSEP, but it is evidently heavier, more advanced.

But the LM isn’t alone. A second LM stands beside it, squat and spidery. Bado can see that the ascent stage has been heavily reworked; the pressurised cabin looks to be missing, replaced by cargo pallets.

“That’s your Payload Module, right?”

“Yeah,” Williams says. “The Lunar Payload Module Laboratory. It got here on automatics before we left the Cape. This is a dual Saturn launch mission, Bado. We’ve got a stay time of four weeks.”

Again he has vague memories of proposals for such things: dual launches, well-equipped long-stay jaunts on the surface. But the funding squeezes since ’66 have long since put paid to all of that. Evidently, wherever Williams comes from, the money is flowing a little more freely.

The LFU tips itself back, to slow its forward velocity. Williams throttles back the main motor and the LFU starts to drop down. Bado glances at the numbers; the CRT display evolves smoothly through height and velocity readings. Bado guesses the LFU must have some simple radar-based altimeter.

Now the LM and its misshapen partner are obscured by the dust Williams’s rocket is kicking up.

At fifty feet Williams cuts the main engine. Bado feels the drop in the pit of his stomach, and he watches the ground explode towards him, resolving into unwelcome detail, sharp boulders and zap pits and footprints, highlighted by the low morning sun.

Then vernier dust clouds billow up around the LFU. Bado feels a comforting surge of deceleration.

The LFU lands with a jar that Bado feels in his knees.

For a couple of seconds the dust of their landing cloaks the LFU, and then it begins to settle out around them, coating the LFU’s surfaces, his suit.

There is a heat-haze shimmer. “Oh, shit.”

Williams is busily shutting down the LFU. She turns to face him, anonymous behind her visor.

There wasn’t much astronomy going on at all, in fact, he found out when he looked it up in the libraries. Just a handful of big telescopes, scattered around the world, with a few crusty old guys following their obscure, decades-long projects. And all the projects were to do with deep space: the stars, and beyond. Nobody was interested in the Solar System. Certainly in nothing as mundane as the Moon.

He looked up at Moon Six, uneasily, with its bright, unscarred northwest quadrant. If that Imbrium meteorite hadn’t hit three billion years ago—or in 1970—where the hell was it now?

Maybe that big mother was on its way, right now.

Quietly, he pumped some of his money into funding a little research at the universities into Earth-neighbourhood asteroids.

He also siphoned money into trying to figure out what had happened to him. How he had got here.

As the last dust settles, Bado looks towards the centre of Taylor Crater, to where the twin LMs stood.

He can make out a blocky shape there.

He feels a sharp surge of relief. Thank God. Maybe this transition hasn’t been as severe as some of the others. Or maybe there hasn’t been a transition at all…

But Williams’s LM has gone, with its cargo-carrying partner. And so has the astronaut, with his surface package. But the crater isn’t empty. The vehicle that stands in its place has the same basic geometry as a LM, Bado thinks, with a boxy descent stage standing on four legs, and a fat ascent stage cabin on top. But it is just fifteen feet tall—compared to a LM’s twenty feet—and the cabin looks a lot smaller.

“My God,” Williams says. She is just standing, stock still, staring at the little lander.

“Welcome to Moon Four,” Bado whispers.

“My God.” She repeats that over and over.

He faces her, and flips up his gold visor so she can see his face. “Listen to me. You’re not going crazy. We’ve been through some kind of—transition. I can’t explain it.” He grins. It makes him feel stronger to think there is someone else more scared, more shocked, than he is.

He takes her through his tentative theory of the multiple Moons.

She turns to face the squat lander again. “I figured it had to be something like that.”

He gapes at her. “You figured?”

“How the hell else could you have got here? Well, what are we supposed to do now?” She checks the time on her big Rolex watch. “Bado. How long will your PLSS hold out?”

He feels embarrassed. Shocked or not, she’s cut to the chase a lot more smartly than he’s been able to. He glances at his own watch, on the cuff next to his useless checklist. “A couple of hours. What about you?”

“Less, probably. Come on.” She glides down from the platform of the LFU, her blue boots kicking up a spray of dust.

“Where are we going?”

“Over to that little LM, of course. Where else? It’s the only source of consumables I can see anywhere around here.” She begins loping towards the lander.

After a moment, he picks up his carrier, and follows her.

As they approach he gets a better look at the lander. The ascent stage is a bulbous, misshapen ball, capped by a fat, wide disk that looks like a docking device. Two dinner-plate-sized omnidirectional antennae are stuck out on extensible arms from the descent stage. The whole clumsy-looking assemblage is swathed in some kind of green blanket, maybe for thermal insulation.

A ladder leads from a round hatch in the front of the craft, and down to the surface via a landing leg. The ground there is scuffed with footprints.

“It’s a hell of a small cabin,” she says. “Has to be one man.”

“You think it’s American?”

“Not from any America I know. That ascent stage looks familiar. It looks like an adapted Soyuz orbital module. You know, the Russian craft, their Apollo equivalent.”

“Russian?”

“Can you see any kind of docking tunnel on top of that thing?”

He looks. “Nope. Just that flat assemblage at the top.”

“The crew must have to spacewalk to cross from the command module. What a design.”

An astronaut comes loping around the side of the lander, swaying from side to side, kicking up dust. When he catches sight of Bado and Williams, he stops dead.

The stranger is carrying a flag, on a pole. The flag is stiffened with wire, and it is clearly bright red, with a gold hammer-and-sickle embroidered into it.

“How about that,” Williams whispers. “I guess we don’t always get to win, huh.”

The stranger—the cosmonaut, Bado labels him—takes a couple of steps towards them. He starts gesticulating, waving his arms about, making the flag flutter. He wears a kind of hoop around his waist, held away from his body with stiff wire.

“I think he’s trying to talk to us,” Williams says.

“It’ll be a miracle if we are on the same frequency. Maybe he’s S-band only, to talk to Earth. No VHF. Look how stiff his movements are.”

“Yeah. I think his suit is semi-rigid. Must be hell to move around in.”

“What’s with the hula hoop?” Bado asks.

“It will stop him falling over, in case he trips. Don’t you get it? He’s on his own here. That’s a one-man lander. There’s nobody around to help him, if he gets into trouble.”

The cosmonaut is getting agitated. Now he hoists up the flag and throws it at them, javelin-style; it falls well short of Bado’s feet. Then the cosmonaut turns and lopes towards his lander, evidently looking for more tools, or improvised weapons.

“Look at that,” Bado says. “There are big funky hinges, down the side of his backpack. That must be the way into the suit.”

Williams lifts up her visor. “Show him your face. We’ve got to find some way to get through to this guy.”

Bado feels like laughing. “What for?”

The light changes.

Bado stands stock still. “Shit, not again.”

Williams says, “What?”

“Another transition.” He looks around for the tell-tale heat-haze flicker.

“I don’t think so,” Williams says softly. “Not this time.”

A shadow, slim and jet-black, hundreds of feet long, sweeps over the surface of Taylor Crater.

Bado leans back and tips up his face.

The ship is like a huge artillery shell, gleaming silver, standing on its tail. It glides over the lunar surface, maybe fifty feet up, and where its invisible rocket exhaust passes, dust is churned up and sent gusting away in great flat sheets. The ship moves gracefully, if ponderously. Four heavy landing legs, with big spring-load shock absorbers, stick out from the base. A circle of portals glows bright yellow around the nose. A huge bull’s-eye of red, white and blue is painted on the side, along with a registration number.

“Shit,” Bado says. “That thing must be a hundred feet tall.” Four or five times as tall as his lost LM. “What do you think it weighs? Two, three hundred tons?”

“Direct ascent,” she says.

“Huh?”

“Look at it. It’s streamlined. It’s built for landing on the Moon in one piece, ascending again, and returning to Earth.”

“But that was designed out years ago, by von Braun and the boys. A ship like that’s too heavy for chemical rockets.”

“So who said anything about chemical? It has to be atomic. Some kind of fission pile in there, superheating its propellant. One hell of a specific impulse. Anyhow, it’s that or antigravity—”

The great silver fish hovers for a moment, and then comes swooping down at the surface. It flies without a quiver. Bado wonders how it is keeping its stability; he can’t see any verniers. Big internal flywheels maybe.

As the ship nears the surface dust comes rushing across the plain, away from the big tail, like a huge circular sandstorm. There is a rattle, almost like rain, as heavy particles impact Bado’s visor. He holds his gloved hands up before his face, and leans a little into the rocket wind.

The delicate little Russian lander just topples over in the breeze, and the bulbous ascent stage breaks off and rolls away.

In the mirror of his bedroom he studied his greying hair and spreading paunch.

Oddly, it had taken a while for him to miss his wife, Fay.

Maybe because everything was so different. Not that he was sorry, in a sense; his job, he figured, was to survive here—to earn a living, to keep himself sane—and moping after the unattainable wouldn’t help.

He was glad they’d had no kids, though.

There was no point searching for Fay in Houston, of course. Houston without the space programme was just an oil town, with a big cattle pasture north of Clear Lake where the Manned Spacecraft Center should have been. El Lago, the Taylor housing development, had never been built.

He even drove out to Atlantic City, where he’d first met Fay, a couple of decades ago. He couldn’t find her in the phone book. She was probably living under some married name, he figured.

He gave up.

He tried, a few times, to strike up relationships with other women here. He found it hard to get close to anyone, though. He always felt he needed to guard what he was saying. This wasn’t his home, after all.

So he lived pretty much alone. It was bearable. It even got easier, as he got older.

Oddly, he missed walking on the Moon more than anything else, more than anything about the world he’d lost. He kept reliving those brief hours. He remembered Slade, how he looked bouncing across the lunar sand, a brilliant white balloon. How happy he’d seemed.

The silver ship touches down with a thump, and those big legs flex, the springs working like muscles.

A hatch opens in the ship’s nose, maybe eighty feet from the ground, and yellow light spills out. A spacesuited figure appears, and begins rolling a rope ladder down to the surface. The figure waves to Bado and Williams, calling them to the ship.

“What do you think?” Bado asks.

“I think it’s British. Look at that bull’s-eye logo. I remember war movies about the Battle of Britain…Wherever the hell that’s come from, it’s some place very different from the worlds you and I grew up in.”

“You figure we should go over there?” he asks.

She spreads her hands. “What choice do we have? We don’t have a LM. And we can’t last out here much longer. At least these guys look as if they know what they’re doing. Let’s go see what Boris thinks.”

The cosmonaut lets Williams walk up to him. He is hauling at his ascent stage. But Bado can see the hull is cracked open, like an aluminium egg, and the cosmonaut’s actions are despairing.

Williams points towards the silver ship, where the figure in the airlock is still waving at them.

Listlessly, the cosmonaut lets himself be led to the ship.

Close to, the silver craft looks even bigger than before, so tall that when Bado stands at its base he can’t see the nose.

Williams goes up the ladder first, using just her arms, pulling her mass easily in the Moon’s shallow gravity well. The cosmonaut takes off his hoop, dumps it on the ground, and follows her.

Bado comes last. He moves more slowly than the others, because he has his tool carrier clutched against his chest, and it is awkward to juggle while climbing the rope ladder.

It takes forever to climb past the shining metal of the ship’s lower hull. The metal here looks like lead, actually. Shielding, around an atomic pile? He thinks of the energy it must take to haul this huge mass of metal around. He can’t help comparing it with his own LM, which, to save weight, was shaved down to little more than a bubble of aluminium foil.

The hull shivers before his face. Heat haze.

He looks down. The wreckage of the little Russian lander, and Williams’s LFU, has gone. The surface under the tail of this big ship looks unmarked, lacking even the raying of the landing. And the topography of the area is quite different; now he is looking down over some kind of lumpy, sundrenched mountain range, and a wide, fat rille snakes through the crust.

“How about that,” Williams says drily, from above him. Her voice signal is degraded; the amplifier on the LFU is no longer available to boost their VHF link.

“We’re on Moon Five,” he says.

“Moon Five?”

“It seems important to keep count.”

“Yeah. Whatever. Bado, this time the geology’s changed. Maybe one of the big primordial impacts didn’t happen, leaving the whole lunar surface a different shape.”

They reach the hatch. Bado lets the astronaut take his tool carrier, and clambers in on his knees.

The astronaut closes the hatch and dogs it shut by turning a big heavy wheel. He wears a British Union Flag on his sleeve, and there is a name stitched to his breast: TAINE.

The four of them stand around in the airlock, in their competing pressure suit designs. Air hisses, briefly.

An inner door opens, and Taine ushers them through with impatient gestures. Bado enters a long corridor, with nozzles set in the ceiling. The four of them stand under the nozzles.

Water comes gushing down, and runs over their suits.

Williams opens up her gold sun-visor and faces Williams. “Showers,” she says.

“What for?”

“To wash off radioactive crap, from the exhaust.” She begins to brush water over her suit arms and legs.

Bado has never seen anything like such a volume of water in lunar conditions before. It falls slowly from the nozzles, gathering into big shimmering drops in the air. Grey-black lunar dust swirls towards the plug holes beneath his feet. But the dirt is ingrained into the fabric of his suit legs; they will be stained grey forever.

When the water dies they are ushered through into a third, larger chamber. The walls here are curved, and inset with round, tough-looking portholes; it looks as if this chamber reaches most of the way around the cylindrical craft.

There are people here, dozens of them, adults and children and old people, dressed in simple cotton coveralls. They sit in rows of crude metal-framed couches, facing outwards towards the portholes. They stare fearfully at the newcomers.

The astronaut, Taine, has opened up his faceplate; it hinges outward like a little door.

Bado pushes back his hood and reaches up to his fishbowl helmet. He undogs it at the neck, and his ears pop as the higher pressure of the cabin pushes air into his helmet.

He can smell the sharp, woodsmoke tang of lunar dust. And, overlaid on that, there is a smell of milky vomit: baby sick.

The Russian, his own helmet removed, makes a sound of disgust. “Eta oozhasna!”

Williams pulls off her Snoopy flight helmet. She is maybe forty, Bado guesses—around Bado’s own age—with a tough, competent face, and close-cropped blond hair.

Taine shoos the three of them along. “Welcome to Prometheus,” he says. “Come. There are some free seats further around here.” His accent is flat, sounding vaguely Bostonian. Definitely British, Bado thinks, probably from the south of England. “You’re the last, we think. We must get away. The impact is no more than twelve hours hence.”

Bado, lugging his tool carrier, walks beside him. “What impact?”

“The meteorite, of course.” Taine sounds impatient. “That’s why we’re having to evacuate the colonies. And you alternates. The Massolite got most of them off, of course, but—”

Williams says, “Massolite?”

Taine waves a hand. “A mass transporter. Of course it was a rushed job. And it had some flaws. But we knew we couldn’t lift everybody home in time, not all those thousands in the big colonies, not before the strike; the Massolite was the best we can do, you see.” They come to three empty couches. “These should do, I think. If you’ll sit down I’ll show you how to fit the seat belts, and instruct you in the safety precautions—”

“But,” Williams says, “what has this Massolite got to do with—” She dries up, and looks at Bado.

He asks, “With moving between alternate worlds?”

Taine answers with irritation. “Why, nothing, of course. That’s just a design flaw. We’re working on it. Nonlinear quantum mechanical leakage, you see. I do wish you’d sit down; we have to depart…”

Bado shucks off his PLSS backpack, and he tucks his helmet and his carrier under his seat.

Taine helps them adjust their seat restraints until they fit around their pressure suits. It is more difficult for the Russian; his suit is so stiff it is more like armour. The Russian looks young, no more than thirty. His hair sticks up in the air, damp with sweat, and he looks at them forlornly from his shell of a suit. “Gdye tooalyet?”

The portholes before them give them a good view of the lunar surface. It is still Moon Five, Bado sees, with its mountains and that sinuous black rille.

He looks around at their fellow passengers. The adults are unremarkable; some of them have run to fat, but they have incongruously skinny legs and arms. Long-term adaptation to lunar gravity, Bado thinks.

But there are also some children here, ranging from babies in their mothers’ arms up to young teenagers. The children are extraordinary: spindly, attenuated. Children who look facially as young as seven or eight tower over their parents.

The passengers clutch at their seatbelts, staring back at him.

Bado hears a clang of hatches, and a siren wails, echoing from the metal walls.

The ship shudders, smoothly, and there is a gentle surge.

“Mnye nada idtee k vrachoo,” groans the Russian, and he clutches his belly.

As the years wore on he followed the news, trying to figure out how things might be different, back home.

The Cold War went on, year after year. There were no ICBMs here, but they had squadrons of bombers and nuke submarines and massive standing armies in Europe. And there were no spy satellites; nobody had a damn clue what the Russians—or the Chinese—were up to. A lot of shit came down that Bado figured might have been avoided, with satellite surveillance. It slowly leaked out into the paper press, usually months or years too late. Like the Chinese nuking of Tibet, for instance. And what the Soviets did to Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union remained a monolith, blank, threatening, impenetrable. Everyone in the US seemed paranoid to Bado, generations of them, with their bomb shelters and their iodine pills. It was like being stuck in the late 1950s.

And that damn war in Indochina just dragged on, almost forgotten back home, sucking up lives and money like a bloody sponge.

Around 1986, he felt a sharp tug of wistfulness. Right now, he figured, on the other side of that heat haze barrier, someone would be taking the first steps on Mars. Maybe it would be his old buddy, Slade, or someone like John Young. Bado might have made it himself.

Bado missed the live sports on TV.

In free fall, Taine gives them spare cotton coveralls to wear, which are comfortable but don’t quite fit; the name stitched to Bado’s is LEDUC, and on Williams’s, HASSELL.

Bado, with relief, peels off the three layers of his pressure suit: the outer micrometeorite garment, the pressure assembly and the inner cooling garment. The other passengers look on curiously at Bado’s cooling garment, with its network of tubes. Bado tucks his discarded suit layers into a big net bag and sticks it behind his couch.

They are served food: stodgy stew, lukewarm and glued to the plate with gravy, and then some kind of dessert, like bread with currants stuck inside it. Spotted dick, Taine calls it.

There is a persistent whine of fans and pumps, a subdued murmur of conversation, and the noise of children crying. Once a five-year-old, all of six feet tall, comes bouncing around the curving cabin in a spidery tangle of attenuated arms and legs, pursued by a fat, panting, queasy-looking parent.

Taine comes floating down to them, smiling. “Captain Richards would like to speak to you. He’s intrigued to have you on board. We’ve picked up quite a few alternate-colonists, but not many alternate-pioneers, like you. Would you come forward to the cockpit? Perhaps you’d like to watch the show from there.”

Williams and Bado exchange glances. “What show?”

“The impact, of course. Come. Your German friend is welcome too, of course,” Taine adds dubiously.

The cosmonaut has his head stuck inside a sick bag.

“I think he’s better off where he is,” Bado says.

“You go,” Williams says. “I want to try to sleep.” Her face looks worn to Bado, her expression brittle, as if she is struggling to keep control. Maybe the shock of the transitions is getting to her at last, he thinks.

The cockpit is cone-shaped, wadded right in the nose of the craft. Taine leads Bado in through a big oval door. Charts and mathematical tables have been stuck to the walls, alongside pictures and photographs. Some of these show powerful-looking aircraft, of designs unfamiliar to Bado, but others show what must be family members. Pet dogs. Tools and personal articles are secured to the walls with elastic straps.

Three spacesuits, flaccid and empty, are fixed to the wall with loose ties. They are of the type Taine wore in the airlock: thick and flexible, with inlaid metal hoops, and hinged helmets at the top.

Three seats are positioned before instrument consoles. Right now the seats face forward, towards the nose of the craft, but Bado can see they are hinged so they will tip up when the craft is landing vertically. Bado spots a big, chunky periscope sticking out from the nose, evidently there to provide a view out during a landing.

There are big picture windows set in the walls. The windows frame slabs of jet-black, star-sprinkled sky.

A man is sitting in the central pilot’s chair. He is wearing a leather flight jacket, a peaked cap, and—Bado can’t believe it—he is smoking a pipe, for God’s sake. The guy sticks out a hand. “Mr Bado. I’m glad to meet you. Jim Richards, RAF.”

“That’s Colonel Bado.” Bado shakes the hand. “US Air Force. Lately of NASA.”

“NASA?”

“National Aeronautics and Space Administration…”

Richards nods. “American. Interesting. Not many of the alternates are American. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to see more of your ship. Looked a little cramped for the three of you.”

“It wasn’t our ship. It was a Russian, a one-man lander.”

“Really,” Richards murmurs, not very interested. “Take a seat.” He waves Bado at one of the two seats beside him; Taine takes the other, sipping tea through a straw. Richards asks, “Have you ever seen a ship like this before, Colonel Bado?”

Bado glances around. The main controls are a conventional stick-and-rudder design, adapted for spaceflight; the supplementary controls are big, clunky switches, wheels, and levers. The fascia of the control panel is made of wood. And in one place, where a maintenance panel has been removed, Bado sees the soft glow of vacuum tubes.

“No,” he says. “Not outside the comic books.”

Richards and Taine laugh.

“It must take a hell of a launch system.”

“Oh,” says Richards, “we have good old Beta to help us with that.”

“Beta?”

“This lunar ship is called Alpha,” Taine says. “Beta gives us a piggyback out of Earth’s gravity. We launch from Woomera, in South Australia. Beta is a hypersonic athodyd—”

Richards winks at Bado. “These double-domes, eh? He means Beta is an atomic ramjet.”

Bado boggles. “You launch an atomic rocket from the middle of Australia? How do you manage containment of the exhaust?”

Taine looks puzzled. “What containment?”

“You must tell me all about your spacecraft,” Richards says.

Bado, haltingly, starts to describe the Apollo system.

Richards listens politely enough, but after a while Bado can see his eyes drifting to his instruments, and he begins to fiddle with his pipe, knocking out the dottle into a big enclosed ashtray.

Richards becomes aware of Bado watching him. “Oh, you must forgive me, Colonel Bado. It’s just that one encounters so many alternates.”

“You do, huh.”

“The Massolite, you know. That damn quantum-mechanical leakage. Plessey just can’t get the thing tuned correctly. Such a pity. Anyhow, don’t you worry; the boffins on the ground will put you to rights, I’m sure.”

Bado is deciding he doesn’t like these British. They are smug, patronising, icy. He can’t tell what they are thinking.

Taine leans forward. “Almost time, Jim.”

“Aha!” Richards gets hold of his joystick. “The main event.” He twists the stick, and Bado hears what sounds like the whir of flywheels, deep in the guts of the ship. Stars slide past the windows. “A bit of showmanship, Colonel Bado. I want to line us up to give the passengers the best possible view. And us, of course. After all, this is a grandstand seat, for the most dramatic astronomical event of the century—what?”

The Moon, fat and grey and more than half-full, slides into the frame of the windows.

The Moon—Moon Five, Bado assumes it to be—looks like a ball of glass, its surface cracked and complex, as if starred by buckshot. Tinged pale white, the Moon’s centre looms out at Bado, given three-dimensional substance by the Earthlight’s shading.

The Moon looks different. He tries to figure out why.

There, close to the central meridian, are the bright pinpricks of Tycho, to the south, and Copernicus, in the north. He makes out the familiar pattern of the seas of the eastern hemisphere: Serenitatis, Crisium, Tranquillitatis—grey lakes of frozen lava framed by brighter, older lunar uplands.

He supposes there must be no Apollo 11 LM descent stage, standing on this version of the Sea of Tranquillity.

The Moon is mostly full, but he can see lights in the remaining crescent of darkness. They are the abandoned colonies of Moon Five.

Something is still wrong, though. The western hemisphere doesn’t look right. He takes his anchor from Copernicus. There is Mare Procellarum, to the western limb, and to the north of that—

Nothing but bright highlands.

“Hey,” he says. “Where the hell’s Mare Imbrium?”

Richards looks at him, puzzled, faintly disapproving.

Bado points. “Up there. In the northwest. A big impact crater—the biggest—flooded with lava. Eight hundred miles across.”

Richards frowns, and Taine touches Bado’s arm. “All the alternate Moons are different to some degree,” he says, placating. “Differences of detail—”

“Mare Imbrium is not a goddamn detail.” Bado feels patronised again. “You’re talking about my Moon, damn it.” But if the Imbrium impact has never happened, no wonder the surface of Moon Five looks different.

Richards checks his wrist watch. “Any second now,” he says. “If the big-brains have got it right—”

There is a burst of light, in the Moon’s northwest quadrant. The surface in the region of the burst seems to shatter, the bright old highland material melting and subsiding into a red-glowing pool, a fiery lake that covers perhaps an eighth of the Moon’s face. Bado watches huge waves, concentric, wash out across that crimson, circular wound.

Even from this distance Bado can see huge debris clouds streaking across the lunar surface, obscuring and burying older features, and laying down bright rays that plaster across the Moon’s face.

The lights of the night-side colonies wink out, one by one.

Richards takes his pipe out of his mouth. “Good God almighty,” he says. “Thank heavens we got all our people off.”

“Only just in time, sir,” Taine says.

Bado nods. “Oh, I get it. Here, this was the Imbrium impact. Three billion years late.”

Richards and Taine look at him curiously.

It turned out that to build a teleport device—a “Star Trek” beaming machine—you needed to know about quantum mechanics. Particularly the Uncertainty Principle.

According to one interpretation, the Uncertainty Principle was fundamentally caused by there being an infinite number of parallel universes, all lying close to each other—as Bado pictured it—like the pages of a book. The universes blurred together at the instant of an event, and split off afterwards.

The Uncertainty Principle said you could never measure the position and velocity of any particle with absolute precision. But to teleport that was exactly what you needed to do: to make a record of an object, transmit it, and re-create the payload at the other end.

But there was a way to get around the Uncertainty Principle. At least in theory.

The quantum properties of particles could become entangled: fundamentally linked in their information content. What those British must have done is take sets of entangled particles, left one half on their Moon as a transmitter, and planted the other half on the Earth.

There was a lot of technical stuff about the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen theorem which Bado skipped over; what it boiled down to was that if you used a description of your teleport passenger to jiggle the transmitter particles, you could reconstruct the passenger at the other end, exactly, from the corresponding jiggles in the receiver set.

But there were problems.

If there were small nonlinearities in the quantum-mechanical operators—and there couldn’t be more than a billion-billion-billionth part, according to Bado’s researchers—those parallel worlds, underlying the Uncertainty Principle, could short-circuit.

The Moon Five Brits had tried to build a cheap-and-dirty teleport machine. Because of the huge distances involved, that billion-billion-billionth nonlinearity had become significant, and the damn thing had leaked. And so they had built a parallel-world gateway, by accident.

This might be the right explanation, Bado thought. It fit with Captain Richards’s vague hints about “nonlinear quantum mechanics.”

This new understanding didn’t make any difference to his position, though. He was still stranded here. The teleport devices his researchers had outlined—even if they’d got the theory right, from the fragments he’d given them—were decades beyond the capabilities of the mundane world Bado found himself in.

Reentry is easy. Bado estimates the peak acceleration is no more than a couple of Gs, no worse than a mild roller-coaster. Even so, many of the passengers looks distressed, and those spindly lunar-born children cry weakly, pinned to their seats like insects.

After the landing, Alpha’s big doors are flung open to reveal a flat, barren desert. Bado and Williams are among the first down the rope ladders, lugging their pressure suits, and Bado’s tool carrier, in big net bags.

Bado can see a small town, laid out with the air of a military barracks.

Staff are coming out of the town on little trucks to meet them. They are processed efficiently; the crew of the Prometheus gives details of where each passenger has been picked up, and they are all assigned little labels and forms, standing there in the baking sunlight of the desert.

The spindly lunar children are lowered to the ground and taken off in wheelchairs. Bado wonders what will happen to them, stranded at the bottom of Earth’s deep gravity well.

Williams points. “Look at that. Another Prometheus.”

There is a launch rail, like a pencil line ruled across the sand, diminishing to infinity at the horizon. A silver dart clings to the rail, with a slim bullet shape fixed to its back. Another Beta and Alpha. Bado can see protective rope barriers slung around the rail.

Taine comes to greet Bado and Williams. “I’m afraid this is goodbye,” he says. He sticks out a hand. “We want to get you people back as quickly as we can. You alternates, I mean. What a frightful mess this is. But the sooner you’re out of it the better.”

“Back where?” Bado asks.

“Florida.” Taine looks at them. “That’s where you say you started from, isn’t it?”

Williams shrugs. “Sure.”

“And then back to your own world.” He mimes stirring a pot of some noxious substance. “We don’t want to muddy the time lines, you see. We don’t know much about this alternating business; we don’t know what damage we might do. Of course the return procedure’s still experimental but hopefully we’ll get it right.

“Well, the best of luck. Look, just make your way to the plane over there.” He points.

The plane is a ramjet, Bado sees immediately.

Taine moves on, to another bewildered-looking knot of passengers.

The Russian cosmonaut is standing at Williams’s side. He is hauling his stiff pressure suit along the ground; it scrapes on the sand like an insect’s discarded carapace. Out of the suit the Russian looks thin, young, baffled, quite ill. He shakes Bado’s hand. “Do svidanya.”

“Yeah. So long to you too, kid. Hope you get home safely. A hell of a ride, huh.”

“Mnye nada k zoobnomoo vrachoo.” He clutches his jaw and grins ruefully. “Schastleevava pootee. Zhilayoo oospyekhaf.”

“Yeah. Whatever.”

A British airman comes over and leads the Russian away.

“Goddamn,” Williams says. “We never found out his name.”

He got a report in from his meteorite studies group.

Yes, it turned out, there was a large object on its way. It would be here in a few years time. Bado figured this had to be this universe’s edition of that big old Imbrium rock, arriving a little later than in the Moon Five world.

But this rock was heading for Earth, not the Moon. Its path would take it right into the middle of the Atlantic, if the calculations were right. But the margins of error were huge, and, and

Bado tried to raise public awareness. His money and fame got him onto TV, even, such as it was. But nobody here took what was going on in the sky very seriously anyhow, and they soon started to think he was a little weird.

So he shut up. He pushed his money into bases at the poles, and at the bottom of the oceans, places that mightn’t be so badly affected. Somebody might survive. Meanwhile he paid for a little more research into that big rock in space, and where and when, exactly, it was going to hit.

The ramjet takes ten hours to get to Florida. It is a military ship, more advanced than anything flying in Bado’s world. It has the bull’s-eye logo of the RAF painted to its flank, just behind the gaping mouth of its inlet.

As the ramjet rises, Bado glimpses huge atomic aircraft, immense ocean-going ships, networks of monorails. This is a gleaming world, an engineer’s dream.

Bado has had enough wonders for the time being, though, and, before the shining coast of Australia has receded from sight, he’s fallen asleep.

They land at a small airstrip, Bado figures somewhere north of Orlando. A thin young Englishman in spectacles is there to greet them. He is wearing Royal Air Force blue coveralls. “You’re the alternates?”

“I guess so,” Williams snaps. “And you’re here to send us home. Right?”

“Sorry for any inconvenience you’ve been put through,” he says smoothly. “If you’ll just follow me into the van…”

The van turns out to be a battered diesel-engined truck that looks as if it is World War Two vintage. Williams and Bado with their bulky gear have to crowd in the back with a mess of electronic equipment.

The truck, windowless, bumps along badly finished roads.

Bado studies the equipment. “Look at this stuff,” he says to Williams. “More vacuum tubes.”

Williams shrugs. “They’ve got further than we have. Or you. Here, they’ve built stuff we’ve only talked about.”

“Yeah.” Oddly, he’s forgotten that he and Williams have come from different worlds.

The roads off the peninsula to Merritt Island are just farmers’ tracks, and the last few miles are the most uncomfortable.

They arrive at Merritt Island in the late afternoon.

There is no Kennedy Space Center.

Bado gets out of the van. He is on a long, flat beach; he figures he is a way south of where, in his world, the lunar ship launch pads will be built. Right here there will be the line of launch complexes called ICBM Row.

But he can’t see any structures at all. Marsh land, coated with scrub vegetation, stretches down towards the strip of beach at the coast. Further inland, towards the higher ground, he can see stands of cabbage palm, slash pine and oak.

The place is just scrub land, undeveloped. The tracks of the British truck are dug crisply into the sand; there is no sign even of a road near here.

And out to the east, over the Atlantic, he can see a big full Moon rising. Its upper left quadrant, the fresh Imbrium scar, still glows a dull crimson. Bado feels vaguely reassured. That is still Moon Five; things seem to have achieved a certain stability.

In the back of the truck, the British technician powers up his equipment. “Ready when you are,” he calls. “Oh, we think it’s best if you go back in your own clothes. Where possible.” He grins behind his spectacles. “Don’t want you—”

“Muddying up the time lines,” Williams says. “We know.”

Bado and Williams shuck off their coveralls and pull on their pressure suits. They help each other with the heavy layers, and finish up facing each other, their helmets under their arms, Bado holding his battered tool carrier with its Baggies full of Moon rocks.

“You know,” Bado says, “when I get back I’m going to have one hell of a lot of explaining to do.”

“Yeah. Me too.” She looks at him. “I guess we’re not going to see each other again.”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

Bado puts down his carrier and helmet. He embraces Williams, clumsily.

Then, on impulse, Bado lifts up his helmet and fits it over his head. He pulls his gloves over his hands and snaps them onto his wrists, completing his suit.

Williams does the same. Bado picks up his tool carrier.

The Brit waves, reaches into his van, and throws a switch.

There is a shimmer of heat haze.

Williams has gone. The truck has vanished.

Bado looks around quickly.

There are no ICBM launch complexes. He is still standing on an empty, desolate beach.

The Moon is brightening, as the light leaks out of the sky. There is no ancient Imbrium basin up there. No recent impact scar, either.

“Moon Six,” Bado says to himself. “Oh, shit.”

Evidently those British haven’t ironed out all the wrinkles in their “experimental procedures” after all.

He takes off his helmet, breathes in the ozone-laden ocean air, and begins to walk inland, towards the rows of scrub pine.

On the day, he drove out to Merritt Island.

It was morning, and the sun was low and bright over the ocean, off to the east, and the sky was clear and blue, blameless.

He pulled his old Moon suit out of the car, and hauled it on: first the cooling garment, then the pressure layer, and finally the white micrometeorite protector and his blue lunar overshoes. It didn’t fit so well any more, especially around the waist—well, it had been fitted for him all of a quarter-century ago—and it felt as heavy as hell, even without the backpack. And it had a lot of parts missing, where he’d dug out components and samples over the years. But it was still stained grey below the knees with lunar dust, and it still had the NASA logo, his mission patch, and his own name stitched to the outer garment.

He walked down to the beach. The tide was receding, and the hard-packed sand was damp; his ridged soles left crisp, sharp prints, just like in the lunar crust.

He locked his helmet into place at his neck.

To stand here, as close as he could get to ground zero, wasn’t such a dumb thing to do, actually. He’d always remembered what that old professor at Cornell had told him, about the rocks bearing life being blasted from planet to planet by meteorite impacts. Maybe that would happen here, somehow.

Today might be the last day for this Earth. But maybe, somehow, some piece of him, fused to the glass of his visor maybe, would finish up on the Moon—Moon Six—or Mars, or in the clouds of Jupiter, and start the whole thing over again.

He felt a sudden, sharp stab of nostalgia, for his own lost world. He’d had a good life here, all things considered. But this was a damn dull place. And he’d been here for twenty-five years, already. He was sure that back home that old Vietnam War wouldn’t have dragged on until now, like it had here, and funds would have got freed up for space, at last. Enough to do it properly, by God. By now, he was sure, NASA would have bases on the Moon, hundreds of people in Earth orbit, a couple of outposts on Mars, plans to go on to the asteroids or Jupiter.

Hell, he wished he could just look through the nonlinear curtains separating him from home. Just once.

He tipped up his face. The sun was bright in his eyes, so he pulled down his gold visor. It was still scuffed, from the dust kicked up by that British nuclear rocket. He waited.

After a time, a new light, brighter even than rocket light, came crawling down across the sky, and touched the ocean.

A BRIEF GUIDE TO OTHER HISTORIES

PAUL McAULEY

Before becoming a full-time writer, Paul McAuley worked as a research biologist in various universities, including Oxford and UCLA, and for six years was a lecturer in botany at St. Andrews University. His novels have won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke, John W. Campbell and Sidewise awards. His latest titles are Cowboy Angels (Pyr) and In the Mouth of the Whale (Gollancz). He lives in North London.

My platoon had been in the American Bund sheaf for two weeks before it suffered its first major incident. It was gruesome and it robbed us of our innocence, but it was only the beginning of something stranger and deeper.

We’d come through the Turing gate at Brookhaven with the rest of the Third Brigade, First Armor Division, second battalion, as part of the ongoing operation to bring peace and reconciliation to that particular version of America’s history. Seventeen PFCs and Spec 4s, and me, their commanding officer. We were all kids. I was the oldest, and I’d just turned twenty-four. Most of us hadn’t been through the mirror before, and it put the zap on our heads. This was America, but it wasn’t our version of America. New York, but not our version of New York. There were buildings I recognised from my visits to the city back in the Real. The Chrysler Building. The Empire State. St Patrick’s Cathedral. Yellow taxis jostled on the streets, manholes vented plumes of steam, and Central Park was right where it should have been, although it had been stripped of trees by people desperate for firewood in the last days of the war, and there was a refugee camp sprawled across Sheep Meadow. But although the Statue of Liberty stood out in the Hudson, she was holding up a sword instead of a torch. The sword was a hundred feet long, and forged out of stainless steel that shone like cold flame. The skyline was different, too. Lower. Instead of glass and steel skyscrapers, brutal chunks of marble and white stone hunched like giant toads: monumental railroad stations, government buildings, and palaces. Some were burnt out or shattered by bombs. The rest were holed by artillery shells and pockmarked by small-arms fire.

We’d been given orientation lectures and issued with copies of a pamphlet that explained that the different versions of history accessed by the Turing gates were every bit as real and valid as our own history. That their people were real people, American citizens just like us. Even so, driving around a city where familiar buildings mixed with alien intruders, half the traffic was military, and pedestrians were dressed in drab antique styles, was like inhabiting a dream. Or like taking the lead role in a movie when you had no idea of the script or plot.

The American Bund sheaf shared most of our history, but it had taken a different turn in the 1930s, when a bunch of generals and tycoons who didn’t like where their country seemed to be heading under the New Deal had assassinated Franklin D. Roosevelt and installed a military government. One of the generals turned out to be more ruthless than the rest. After the coup, he’d seized power by a ruthless programme of murder and arrest, made himself President-for-Life, and established a tyranny that had lasted for more than thirty years. Towards the end of his rule, he’d become insane. He’d styled himself the Dear Leader, ordered the construction of hundreds of grandiose monuments to himself, put millions in prison or in work camps, massacred millions more. He’d been about to go to war against Europe when, in 1972, scientists in our version of history had opened a Turing gate onto his version of history. The Central Intelligence Group had sent through agents who’d made contact with rebels and supplied them with weapons and intel. As soon as civil war kicked off, two divisions drove through the mirror, quickly took control of the Eastern seaboard, captured the Dear Leader as he tried to flee to Argentina, and pushed over what turned out to be a regime hollowed by corruption and self-interest.

When my platoon and the rest of the Third Brigade came through the mirror a year later, deadenders who refused to accept that the war was over were waging a guerrilla campaign up and down the country. They used car bombs and land mines, improvised explosive devices from fertiliser, fuel oil, and scrap metal, and detonated them when convoys drove past. They fired mortars into our bases. They shot at us with sniper rifles or rocket-propelled grenades from vantage points in buildings, or took potshots at us and melted into panicked crowds. As in any insurrection, it was almost impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and that was why one of my men ended up killing three innocent civilians.

We had been ordered to set up a traffic control point on the West Side, ten blocks south of the green zone. Two APCs backed by a Martindale light tank, razor-wire coiled across the street, the men waving vehicles forward one by one, doing stop and checks. The traffic was bunched up and jumpy, simmering in hundred-degree heat so humid you could have wrung water out of the air. And we were all jumpy, too. At any moment, someone could pop a trunk and find weapons or a primed car bomb, or some screwed-up munchkin could decide to take a shot at us just for the hell of it. So when a taxi lurched forward after it was directed to an inspection point, accelerating crazily, scattering men, Bobby Sturges, behind the .50 caliber machine gun on top of one of the APCs, made a split-second decision and put two hundred rounds into the taxi in less than a minute. Punching holes in the hood, exploding the tyres, shattering the windshield, shredding the driver and his two passengers, a man and his seventy-year-old mother. Sudden silence as the taxi rolled to a stop, engine dead, blood leaking from its door sills, blood and human meat spattered all over the interior.

That evening, Tommy McAfee said, “If these fucking munchkins learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen.”

Munchkins—that’s what we called the locals. New York City—the American Bund sheaf’s version of New York City—was Oz. The green zone in Oz, built up around a palace that before the revolution had been owned by one of the Dear Leader’s sons, was the Emerald City.

Like many of the men, Tommy McAfee had trouble accepting that the people on this side of the mirror were as real as the people back home, couldn’t believe that Americans could have brought themselves so low. He treated them with rough contempt, made endless jokes about them. He had a quick, sharp wit, knew how to time a punch line and cap someone else’s joke with a zinger of his own, was gaining a solid reputation as the platoon’s joker. So when he made his quip, he was surprised and upset when Ernie Wright told him to can it, and the rest of the men either made murmurs of agreement or looked away.

They were all lounging around by the side of the entrance that curved down to the underground garage where the Dear Leader’s eldest son had once stored his limousines, sports cars and motorcycles, where we now parked our APCs and Jeeps. We ate and slept in what had been servants’ quarters nearby, and had set up a barbeque pit outside. Folding chairs. A basketball hoop. A table-tennis set liberated from somewhere in the palace. Tommy McAfee was sitting on a case of oil cans, a rangy kid with rusty hair cropped short, a tattoo of a boxing leprechaun on his right bicep, looking at Ernie Wright and saying, “Jesus. You’d think I was the one shot that fucking taxi to death.”

Ernie Wright was the biggest man in the platoon, but he could move quickly. He stepped up to Tommy McAfee and grabbed the front of his fatigues and pulled him to his feet in a single fluid motion, and asked him, their faces inches apart, “Any more smart remarks about what went down?”

“I can’t think of any.”

Wright set McAfee down and patted him on the shoulder, but that wasn’t the end of it. Later on that evening they got into a fistfight. It was supposedly over who should have the last steak, but it was really about McAfee trying to regain some face after Wright had shamed him. McAfee could box, but Wright was stronger and heavier, and after some sparring he knocked McAfee on his ass with a solid punch. McAfee got up and came back at Wright and was knocked down again, and this time he stayed down. Sprawled flat on his back on floodlit concrete under the basketball hoop, breathing hard, his nose and mouth bloody, one eye swelling shut. After a while he got up and went to the ice-chest and washed his face with a handful of ice chips.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. We’d all been on edge after the shooting, and the fistfight seemed to have dissipated much of the tension. And besides, I was more concerned about Bobby Sturges. He was a gentle kid, barely eighteen, sick to his soul over what he’d done. When I’d told him that he wouldn’t get any blame when I wrote up the incident, that I accepted full responsibility because it had happened under my command, he’d given me a haunted look and said, “Doesn’t make it right, Lieutenant. They’re Americans, like us. Americans shouldn’t be killing Americans.”

“I agree. But some of them are trying to kill us, which is why you did the right thing.”

“Maybe it was the right thing to do,” Bobby Sturges said, “but that doesn’t make it right.”

I put in a request to pull him off the line for a few days R&R, but it was kicked back immediately. There was sand in the gears of the mission. We couldn’t spare any men. I took him off the .50 cal, but he had to ride out with us on patrol the next day, and the day after that.

We manned checkpoints. We escorted convoys of supplies to hospitals and aid stations. We escorted a convoy of construction material to a power station that had been badly damaged during the war—jackhammers were pounding all over the city, cranes were swinging to and fro, and scaffolding was springing up like kudzu as the munchkins patched and repaired and rebuilt, as if tearing down one movie set and erecting another in its place. I noticed that Ernie Wright did his best to keep behind Tommy McAfee during foot patrols, and guessed what he was thinking. Tommy McAfee might want to even things out after his beating, we were all carrying guns, and it wasn’t unknown for a soldier with a beef to put a round or two into their rival’s back in the middle of a firefight. But Tommy McAfee seemed to have forgotten the incident, and although the deadenders were staging hit-and-run raids in Texas and parts of the Midwest, and Washington, D.C. was paralysed by a spate of car bombings, New York was pretty quiet. It was August, hot and sunny. I remember one day we were parked up near a playground, and Dave Brahma and Leroy Moss started handing out candy bars and cans of soft drink to the kids. Two men in flak jackets and helmets, M-16s slung over their shoulders, up to their waists in a crowd of happy children. Another time, Todd Cooper was checking IDs at a control point and a man started shaking his hand and wouldn’t let go. This old man in a dusty suit and battered fedora, pumping Todd Cooper’s hand and thanking him for being there, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Then a supply convoy running the expressway from Brookhaven into New York City was hit by a massive improvised explosive device buried at the side of the highway. Five died instantly, six were badly wounded. That night, my platoon took part in a raid on an apartment building in Brooklyn. According to an informer, the deadenders who had planted the IED were storing weapons and explosives there.

It kicked off at two in the morning. A psy-ops vehicle blasted out a message telling everyone to leave their doors open and wait with their hands on their heads for questioning. Two Cherokee helicopters beat above the building’s flat roof, lighting up the front with searchlights. A squad of explosives specialists hit the basement first, and then everyone else went in.

My platoon had been assigned the top two floors. I was determined to do things by the book. I told the men to knock first and break down doors only if they had to, to keep their fingers off their triggers and treat everyone with respect. Even so, it was a pretty brutal business. We’d storm in, grab the man of the house and throw him down, pacify the rest of the family, and interrogate the man in front of them, ask him if he owned a weapon or had any insurgent propaganda, if he was involved in insurgent activity in any way. Then we’d rip up the place, pulling out drawers and tossing the contents, ripping through closets, looking for anything that could be used as a weapon. The people were mostly passive, but we’d been told to expect trouble and we had no idea what we might find or if the situation might suddenly turn ugly. Despite my orders, there was quite a bit of roughhousing and horseplay to relieve the tension, shouts and screams, the smash of glass and crockery. A frat house party with half the participants armed to the teeth, and the possibility of sudden death hanging in the air.

I was going from apartment to apartment, trying to curb excesses, when Dave Brahma came up and told me that something weird was going down. Smiling his gentle stoned smile, saying, “You have to see this, Lieutenant. It’ll blow your mind. Truly.”

I followed him downstairs to a single-room apartment with bookshelves along one wall, posters above the couch, books in piles on the floor. It was very hot. A standard lamp had been knocked over and threw huge shadows everywhere. Searchlights pried through blinds at the window. The whippy flutter of the helicopters matched my racing heartbeat. Todd Cooper and Tommy McAfee stood behind a man kneeling on the bare boards with his wrists plasticuffed. Ernie Wright stood in front of him, studying an ID card.

“Tell me what you think, Lieutenant,” Tommy McAfee said, and jerked up the prisoner’s head by his hair.

“Is he on the list?”

“Take a real good look,” Tommy McAfee said. Both he and Todd Cooper were lit up, grinning. “His eyes, the colour of his hair… You don’t see it?”

“Show the lieutenant that ID,” Todd Cooper said.

Ernie Wright handed the card to me. He had a baffled, dazed expression, as if he’d run full-tilt into an invisible wall.

“You see it?” Tommy McAfee said, as I studied it. “You see it now?”

The name under the black and white photo card was Ernest C. Wright.

Tommy McAfee’s grin widened when he saw my reaction, “I reckon we found ourselves Ernie’s double.”

“Bullshit,” Ernie Wright said. “He’s nothing like me. He doesn’t even have the same date of birth.”

“Oh yeah? Then how come he just told us he was born in the same dipshit town as you? His parents have the same names as your parents, he has your name, and he has your eyes, too,” Tommy McAfee said, jerking the prisoner’s head up again.

It was true, the prisoner’s eyes were the same sharp blue as Ernie Wright’s, and his hair was the same dirty blond. But otherwise he didn’t look much like Ernie Wright at all. He was shy about fifty pounds, his face was leaner and paler, and he had a mustache.

“He’s your doppelgänger, dude,” Dave Brahma said. “Your dark half.”

I asked if they’d found any explosives or weapons.

“There isn’t anything to find,” Ernie Wright said.

“Ain’t this sweet,” McAfee said. “Ernie is in love. In love with his own self.”

Brahma asked the prisoner why he had all these books.

“I’m a teaching assistant at Brooklyn University,” the man said.

His voice was lighter than Ernie Wright’s.

“Yeah? What do you teach?” McAfee said.

“American literature.”

Ernie Wright shook his head.

“If you’re a teacher, I guess you’re a party member,” McAfee said, grinning at me. “This guy is guilty of something, Lieutenant. I can smell it.”

“There were fifty million party members,” the man said. “Including everyone who worked in every university and high school. It was the law.”

“All these books,” McAfee said. “I bet we could find something subversive. What do you say, Lieutenant? Shall we take him in?”

I thought that this was more about the beef Tommy McAfee had with Ernie Wright than about uncovering a potential suspect. I pulled my knife, cut the plasticuffs that bound the man’s wrists, and looked straight into McAfee’s grin and asked him if he had a problem.

No one said anything. The man knelt on the floor, rubbing his wrists, carefully not making eye contact with anyone.

“Move on,” I said. “Everyone, right now.”

Ernie Wright was staring at the man. Then he shuddered, all over, like a man waking in the middle of a dream, and marched straight out. The fallen lamp wheeled his shadow over the bookcase and ceiling. As McAfee, Cooper and Brahma trooped after him, I remembered that I was still holding the man’s ID card.

“Sorry,” I said, and dropped the card in front of him and bolted from the apartment, thoroughly spooked by the situation.

The men ragged Ernie Wright about his alleged double or doppelgänger on the ride back to Emerald City. Most of it was good-natured, but he turtled up, hunched in the back of the APC in a glowering silence that he broke only once, when Tommy McAfee told him that something must have gone badly wrong with his life, seeing as he’d ended up in the shit, while his doppelgänger had a good job, an education…

“That’s the point,” Ernie Wright said. “That guy, he isn’t anything like me. So can your shit, McAfee. It ain’t right. It isn’t even funny.”

After a silence, Dave Brahma said in his doper’s drawl, “Know what they say about your doppelgänger? That it’s just like you in every way, but it doesn’t have a soul. And it knows that, and it wants one real bad. So if you ever meet it, it’s like meeting a vampire hungry for, like, your exact blood type. One look, it can suck the soul right out of you. Turn you into what it was, make itself into you.”

“There’s something to that,” Leroy Moss said. He was at the wheel of the APC, inclining his head so that the men in the back could hear him over the roar of the engine. “Everyone agrees that there can be no miraculous multiplication of souls. If there are two people the same, one in the Real, one in some other history, there can be but the one soul. And you can’t divide a soul, either, so only one person can be in possession of it.”

“You ask me, all the munchkins lack souls,” Todd Cooper said. “They’re all ghosts.”

It was a common belief. The munchkins were spooks. Unreal. And because they were unreal, it didn’t matter what you did to them.

“That’s what doppelgänger means,” Dave Brahma said. “It’s German for ghost double.”

“They say it’s okay to fuck your doppelgänger,” Todd Cooper said. “Really. It’s like jacking off. Only, you know, double the fun.”

“Yeah, but the only problem is, you have to waste him right afterward,” Tommy McAfee said. “Otherwise, he’ll waste you.”

Most of the men laughed. Dave Brahma said, “It must have been pretty intense, Ernie, meeting your own ghost back there.”

Ernie Wright didn’t reply. I turned around and told the men to knock it off, but Tommy McAfee had to have the last word.

“The big question is, which is the ghost and which is the man? You think about that, Ernie.”

A couple of days later, I saw Ernie Wright sitting on one of the plastic chairs in the R&R area, barechested in shorts and sandals, reading the pamphlet we’d all been given before coming through the mirror, A Brief Guide to Other Histories. I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was doing fine.

“Pretty interesting reading you have there.”

He shrugged.

“You read it carefully, it’ll explain why that guy isn’t really your double.”

“I know it,” Ernie Wright said. “I knew it when I saw he was three years younger than me.”

“As I understand it, if he was born after the history of this sheaf split from the history of the Real, he has to be a completely different person,” I said. “Because all of his experiences are different from yours.”

I’d been reading A Brief Guide to Other Histories too, after that night.

“That’s pretty much what it says here,” Ernie Wright said. He was holding the pamphlet in one hand, his forefinger marking his place. “You are what you do, and what’s done to you. The sum of all your experiences. Him and me, we’ve had such different lives we aren’t even like brothers.”

“That’s how I understand it,” I said.

“Still,” he said, “I guess we had the same mother and father.”

I didn’t understand the significance of that remark then. It was hardly my fault. I had trouble remembering the names of all my men in my platoon, let alone the details of their lives before they’d joined up or been drafted. But even though I could hardly have been expected to remember that Ernie Wright’s mother had died in childbirth when he was just two years old, that he’d been brought up by a father who was a bitter and violent drunk, I still feel guilty about what happened. I still have the irrational idea that I should have known about Ernie Wright’s unhappy childhood, that I should have done something to prevent what happened next, instead of making some inane remark about being pleased to see that he was putting the encounter in perspective.

“It was weird,” he said, “but weird shit happens through the mirror. We just have to deal with it.”

“Glad to hear it.”

And after that, Ernie Wright did seem to be dealing with it. I overheard him having an earnest conversation with Leroy Moss, who carried a copy of the Bible in the breast pocket of his flak jacket, about the nature of souls and their indivisibility. He shrugged off Tommy McAfee’s jibes. And then, two weeks later, the platoon was given a day of R&R, and he disappeared.

I didn’t find out what had happened until the next day, when the military police took charge of Ernest Wright, the man Tommy McAfee had claimed to be Ernie Wright’s doppelgänger.

It seemed that Ernie had changed into civilian clothes, hitched a ride out of Emerald City in a contractor’s truck, and turned up at Ernest’s apartment later that evening. Drunk but lucid, saying he wanted a quiet word, offering cigarettes and a bottle of Four Roses. A gift, he said, for the trouble a couple of weeks back. Ernest had deep misgivings, but he also felt sorry for Ernie, who seemed sad and bewildered and lost. And he was curious, too. So he invited Ernie in and made coffee, and they got to talking. They shared the same parents, but Ernie’s had met several years before Ernest’s had, Ernie’s mother had died giving birth to a still-born baby when he was two, his father had become a serious drunk, and Ernie had joined the Army to get away from the son of a bitch, who had died three years ago, when his liver had finally given out on him.

“I don’t miss him,” Ernie said. “Not one bit.”

Ernest’s father—the American Bund’s version of Ernie’s father—had died in a traffic accident when Ernest was less than a year old. A couple of years later, his mother had remarried, to another teacher in the high school where she worked.

“That’s how you got to be a college professor, uh?”

“There were always books in the house.”

They talked about the town where they had been born, the little house where Ernie had lived with his father until he joined the Army. Ernest and his mother had moved out when he was three, he didn’t remember much about it.

“I think there was a cherry tree in the front yard,” he said.

Ernie smiled. “It was still there, last time I looked. Same tree, different lives.”

“Two different trees, really,” Ernest said. He told Ernie how he’d won a scholarship and come to New York to teach and study literature; Ernie told him a little bit about his so-called career in the army, fighting in a sheaf wrecked by nuclear war, and now policing the streets of New York.

“I never really knew my mom,” he said. “And my dad was a mean drunk who beat me ’til I got big enough to beat him. But you had a real family. You have a college degree, all those books…”

“If you knew what it was like, growing up here, under the thumb of the Dear Leader and his psychopathic sons and his secret police, you might not think it was so great,” Ernest said. He’d been tense and nervous all through their conversation, growing more and more resentful about the intrusion. “Look, it was nice to talk to you. Strange, but nice. But I have to go to work tomorrow.”

“Me too. Out on the streets. Hey, I was just wondering,” Ernie said with ponderous casualness, “about your mother. Is she still alive?”

That was why he’d come there, of course. It wasn’t anything to do with Ernest, who was at best a brother he’d never known. No, Ernie Wright was chasing the ghost of his long-dead mother.

He looked for a long time at a snapshot Ernest reluctantly gave him, asked if she was still living in their home town. Maybe he could look her up some time, he said, and grew agitated after Ernest said that he didn’t think that this was a good idea. Ernie blustered, said that he barely remembered his mother, all he wanted was to see how she had turned out, what was the harm? Sharp words were exchanged. Ernie started to paw through papers on the table Ernest used as a desk, drew his pistol when Ernest asked him to stop. Ernest panicked, threw coffee in Ernie’s face, and the pistol went off. The shot barely missed Ernest. There was a struggle, another shot. That one hit Ernie in the thigh, nicking his femoral artery. There was a lot of blood. Ernest went to the apartment next door, which had a phone, and called an ambulance, but it took two hours to arrive because there were road blocks everywhere. Despite the best efforts of Ernest and his neighbours Ernie Wright bled to death on Ernest Wright’s old Persian carpet.

Ernest Wright told me all this in a bleak interrogation room in Camp X-Ray, the holding facility for suspects in bombings or shootings, people caught trafficking weapons and explosives, curfew violators, and anyone else who had gotten into some kind of trouble with the occupying army. He’d been arrested on suspicion of murder by the local police, but they’d handed him over to us after they had discovered that the dead man in his apartment was a soldier. My commanding officer had advised me not to visit him, but it had happened on my watch and I felt responsible. I wanted to know what had happened so that I could figure out what I had done wrong. Also, I had read the transcript of Ernest Wright’s interrogations, I had talked to the local police who had handled the case, and I was convinced that he was innocent.

When I told him this, he thanked me for my concern, and for my offer to give supporting testimony should his case come to trial. He told me the story while smoking several of the cigarettes I had brought, and at the end lit a fresh one and said, “There’s a writer who described time as a garden of forking paths. Whenever someone makes a decision, it doesn’t matter how small, it splits time into two. So there’s this time, here and now, and another time where you decided not to help me.”

I told him that I was familiar with the concept. By this time, I had read A Brief Guide to Other Histories several times from cover to cover, trying to find something that would help me understand what had happened.

“An infinite series of paths, some divergent, some convergent, some running in parallel,” Ernest Wright said. “Until a year ago, I thought it was just a story. A philosophical conceit. But then your people made themselves known when the revolution started. You sent troops through their Turing gates and helped defeat the Dear Leader. You told us that their agents had been visiting our history secretly before that, helping set up the revolution. You told us that you wanted to help us build a better America. But what you’re really doing is shaping us in your image.”

“We really do want to help you.”

“Your path is only one of an infinite number of paths. And no one path can claim to be better or more privileged than any other. All are equal.”

“Except we have the Turing gates,” I said.

“Which gives your history the ability to interfere with other histories, other Americas. But it doesn’t give your history moral superiority. You brought us freedom. Democracy. Fine. We’re grateful for it, but we’re not beholden. We have the right to make from that freedom what we will, whether you approve of it or not. If we’re forced to become nothing more than a pale imitation of your version of America, what kind of freedom is that?”

I told him that he sounded a little like the deadenders, and he shook his head. He was thinner than I remembered, but because his head had been shaved and he had lost his mustache it seemed to me that he looked a lot more like Ernie Wright now. Or my memory of Ernie.

“The deadenders believe that they can restore the Bund if they can push you back through the mirror. We want to restore democracy, but on our own terms. It’s like your friend. He didn’t really understand that we were two completely different people. Strangers. My mother was not his mother,” Ernest Wright said. “And this is not your history.”

That was in 1974. I was twenty-four, back then. So innocent, so foolishly hopeful. Now, just turned thirty, I’m a published writer with five short stories and a novel under my belt. I’ve already used parts of this story in the novel, although in my version Ernie Wright doesn’t end up bleeding out on the floor of Ernest Wright’s apartment, shot by his own pistol. Instead, he finds out where Ernest Wright’s parents are living and goes AWOL and hitches back to the American Bund’s version of his home town. He spends a day watching Ernest Wright’s mother, trying and failing to get up the courage to talk to her, finally realising that he has nothing to say to her because she isn’t in any way like his mother, that nothing in Ernest Wright’s life could explain what had gone wrong in his own. Although this version worked well enough within the frame of the novel, although it was true to Ernie Wright’s need to understand and reach a reconciliation with his own history, although it clarified real events and gave them a neat ending, it was a contrivance. I was never satisfied with it, and felt guilty too, at the way I’d trivialised Ernest Wright, used him as a bit player, a ghostly reflection whose only function was to give Ernie Wright the information he needed to make his pilgrimage. This is as close to the truth as I can make it, and there’s no neat ending, no bittersweet resolution.

Ernest Wright was released back to the local authorities after two months in Camp X-Ray. He didn’t make bail, and was stabbed to death in a prison riot before his case came to trial. Todd Cooper was killed in a fire-fight a couple of months later, and Dave Brahma was badly wounded. The same day, Bobby Sturges injected his foot with a Syrette of morphine and shot off his big toe, a million-dollar wound that was his ticket back to the Real. I wrote it up as an accident; the kid had never gotten over shooting up that car. Then Leroy Moss was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his APC. I was sitting next to him and spent two months in hospital while doctors worked to save my leg and shrapnel, some of it bone fragments from Leroy Moss, surfaced in different parts of my body. Some of it is still in there.

Tommy McAfee reupped, served another year, and survived without a scratch. After my novel was published, he phoned me late one night. He was drunk, and wanted to talk about old times. He told me that he had a bunch of stories I could help him make into a book as good as mine. I listened to him ramble on for a while, letting him vent whatever it was my novel had stirred up, making the right kind of noises, and when he finally hung up I realised that he’d hit on something useful, and started making notes for this story.

We are what we do, and what’s done to us: if A Brief Guide to Other Histories was right about one thing it’s this. And because what happens to us in war is more intense than ordinary life, it marks us more deeply, changes us more profoundly. Every soldier who comes back from war is haunted by the ghosts of the comrades who didn’t make it, the people he killed or saw killed. By the things he did, and the things he should have done. And most of all by the innocent kid he once was, before the contingencies and experiences of war took that innocence away. I have summoned up my ghosts here, and tried to lay them to rest. But it seems to me now that all of us who passed through the mirror into different histories have become like ghosts, lost in the infinite possibilities of our stories, ceaselessly searching for an ideal we can never reach.

CRYSTAL HALLOWAY AND THE FORGOTTEN PASSAGE

SEANAN McGUIRE

Seanan McGuire was born and raised in Northern California, resulting in a love of rattlesnakes and an absolute terror of weather. She shares a crumbling old farmhouse with a variety of cats, far too many books, and enough horror movies to be considered a problem. Seanan publishes about three books a year, and is widely rumored not to actually sleep. When bored, Seanan tends to wander into swamps and cornfields, which has not yet managed to get her killed (although not for lack of trying). She also writes as Mira Grant, and talks about horrible diseases at the dinner table.

“That’s the last of them,” Crystal said. “We should be safe, for now.”

The dire bat’s headless body lay on the floor of the cave like an accusation, blackish blood still seeping from its neck. Crystal looked at it and shuddered, disgusted, before giving it a sharp kick. It rolled over the edge of the chasm and fell into darkness, vanishing without a trace. They’d have to find the head eventually. But that could wait.

“Are you sure?” Chester asked. Her companion peered anxiously down into the dark, his nose twitching. Crystal knew that his ears—which would have been better suited to a jackrabbit than a boy, as she’d teased him so many times over the years—would have been doing the same, if they hadn’t been tucked up under his hat. He’d done that to protect them from the shrieking of the dire bats. She briefly considered snatching the hat from his head, but set the thought aside. Nervous as he still was, he wouldn’t take the prank as innocently as it was meant.

“I’m sure.” She slid her dagger back into its sheath before wiping the sweat-matted hair away from her forehead. “Listen. You can hear the wind again.”

Not just the wind: there was also the gentle tapping of inhuman legs making contact with stone. The pair turned to see a great black spider easily the size of a small car come walking down the cavern wall. It reached the floor and continued walking toward them on its bristle-haired legs, stopping just a few short feet away. With an air of deep solemnity, the spider bowed.

“The land of Otherways is in your debt once again, young Crystal,” said the spider, in a deep voice that was softer than its appearance suggested. “We thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, Naamen. It was my pleasure. It’s always my pleasure.” Crystal leaned forward to rest a hand on the spider’s back, digging her fingers into the coarse black hair that grew there. “This is my home just as much as it’s yours.”

“Even so. Your service here is all the more heroic because it is freely offered. You could return to your world of origin at any time, leaving us to our fate, and yet you choose time and again to stay and fight for our survival.” The spider straightened until the largest of its eyes were on a level with Crystal’s own. “You are not the first to come from your world to Otherways, but you are far and away the bravest.”

“Yeah. Brave me,” said Crystal softly, and pulled her hand away. Talk of others coming to Otherways before her always made her uncomfortable, although she could never put her finger on exactly why that was. Maybe it was the fact that her friends in Otherways, who were otherwise forthright in all ways, would never describe the others as anything more than “the ones who came before you.” They had no names; they had no faces; they had no stories to explain what could possibly have caused them to abandon a world as wonderful and magical as Otherways. They were just gone.

“Oh, bush and bother, Crystal, look!” Chester—who could always be counted on to panic over nothing, and to show surprising bravery in the face of actual danger—pointed toward the sky.

Not already. Not so soon. A sick knot of dread formed in her stomach as she followed the direction of his finger. There was nothing there but darkness. She relaxed a little, saying, “I don’t understand. What are we looking at?”

“The Passage Star is shining again.” Chester let his hand fall, looking at her sorrowfully. He was always the first to see the Passage Star’s light, even as Crystal herself was always the last. “You can go home now.”

The dread returned, clenched tighter than ever. “Oh.”

“You can go if you wish,” said Naamen, almost as if he could see what she was feeling. “The choice to stay or go is always yours. You know you would be welcome if you chose to remain.”

“The Passage Star will only burn for three hours,” said Crystal slowly, arguing a side she wasn’t sure that she believed in. “After that…”

“After that, it will go out, but it will light again once a fortnight until a year has gone without someone passing from our world to yours. You would still have the opportunity to change your mind.”

Crystal took a shaky breath, forcing her first answer aside. Naamen always asked if she would stay, and every time, it got a little bit harder to tell him no. How was she supposed to focus on school and chores and picking the right colleges to apply to when she was the champion of Otherways, the hero of the Endless Fields, and the savior of the Caverns of Time? The world she’d been born in seemed more like a dream every time she came to the Otherways, and this world—this strange, beautiful, terrible world, with its talking spiders and its deadly, scheming roses—seemed more like the reality.

Naamen and Chester looked at her hopefully. They’d been her best friends and sworn companions since she was just a little girl. Chester was barely more than a bunny when they first met. Now she was almost a woman, and Chester was… Chester. Naamen had been slightly smaller in those days, but no less ancient, and no less wise. Just the thought of leaving them made her heart break a little.

Hearts can heal, she thought, remembering something Naamen once told her, after they saved the Princess of Thorns from her mother, the wicked Rose Queen. Crystal took another, steadier breath, and gave the answer she’d been giving since her twelfth birthday, when the great spider first asked if she would stay: “Not yet. My parents would miss me too much. Let me turn eighteen. That’s when they expect to lose me to college anyway. They can lose me to Otherways instead.”

Naamen shifted his pedipalps in the gesture she had come to recognize as his equivalent of a nod. “If that is your wish, Crystal Halloway, it will be honored. We will count the hours until you return to us.”

“Don’t stay gone too long, okay, Crystal?” asked Chester.

“I never do, do I?” Crystal leaned over and hugged him hard. He was her best friend and her first love; he’d been her first kiss, the year she turned fourteen and saved the Meadows of Mourning from the machinations of the Timeless Child. “I miss you too much when I’m gone.”

“Please, then. Take this, to remember us by.” Naamen reached out one long black leg. A dreamcatcher dangled from his foot, the strands woven from silk so fine that it seemed almost like light held captive in a circle of willow wood and twine. “Hang it above your bed, and only good dreams will come to visit you.”

Crystal knew the dreamcatcher would do nothing against her nightmares; Naamen had been giving her the same tokens since the first time he asked her to stay, and they hadn’t stopped a single bad dream. Still, making the dreamcatchers seemed to soothe him in some way she couldn’t quite understand, and so she reached out and took it, feeling the weight of it settle in her palm, simultaneously feather-light and heavy as a stone. Naamen returned his foot to the cavern floor.

“Thank you, my friend,” she said, as she tucked the dreamcatcher into her pocket. “I’ll hang it in a place of honor.”

“See that you do.” Naamen waved his pedipalps again, this time in the motion that denoted concern. “I wish you would reconsider, Crystal. I wish that you would stay.”

Crystal paused, frowning. Naamen always asked her not to go. He’d never tried to change her mind before. “Naamen? What’s wrong?”

“It’s just that you are growing up, Crystal, and I worry for your safety.” The great spider stilled, looking at her gravely. “The choice, as always, is yours.”

“Oh, my friend.” Crystal moved almost without thinking, stepping forward and wrapping her arms around the body of the spider, just behind the smallest of his eyes. Naamen leaned into her embrace, but only enough to show that he welcomed it; not enough for his greater size to knock her off her feet, as had happened so often in her younger days. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll always make it back to you. Always.”

Naamen stroked her back with the tip of one foreleg, faceted eyes focused on the endless black in front of him, and said nothing. There was nothing left that he could say.

Crystal approached the Welcome Stone slowly, alone, as she always did. The dread was still there in the pit of her stomach, tangled with warring desires. She wanted to go home, to sleep in her own bed and hug her parents in the morning. She wanted to stay—always—to sleep in the cobweb-decked bedroom Naamen had spun for her in the brambles that ringed the Endless Fields. She wanted to graduate from high school. She wanted to kiss Chester again and again, forever. Most of all, she wanted to be there when the next child stumbled into the light of the Passage Star. She never wanted to be one of the children Naamen refused to name.

She wanted to stay.

But she couldn’t.

The passage back to her own world only took a few seconds. She stepped into the light of the Passage Star—which always shone in a perfect circle, right at the center of the Welcome Stone—blinked, and was back in the world in which she’d been born, standing in the tiny room housing the magic telescope that let her travel into Otherways. She closed the telescope lens quickly, before something unpleasant could find a way to follow her, and turned to head down the narrow stone passageway that connected to the secret door at the back of her closet.

She’d found the secret door and the room beyond by accident when she was six, playing at seeking Narnia. Now she couldn’t imagine a world where she didn’t have the route to Otherways etched deep into her heart, like an ache that never quite went away.

The passage was tighter than it used to be. She had to stoop a little to keep her head from knocking against the ceiling, and there were places where she had to turn and scoot along sideways in order to avoid getting stuck. One more growth spurt and she’d wind up staying in Otherways because she couldn’t make it back to her bedroom… or she’d wind up trapped in the world where she was born without ever once choosing to stay.

She couldn’t keep going back and forth forever. She knew that; she’d known for a long time. Somehow, the feel of the walls pressing against her back and chest as she inched through the tighter spaces just made that fact more real. Soon, she would have to decide.

The passage widened as it came to an end, letting her into an antechamber almost as large as the telescope room. She walked the last few steps to the door with her head high, and placed her hand upon the doorknob. “My name is Crystal Halloway,” she said, “and I am coming back from the most incredible adventure…”

The doorknob turned under her hand of its own accord, and the door of her closet swung open. Crystal pushed her way through the hanging coats—which were more window-dressing than anything else; she would never dream of using her closet to store clothing when she might need to rush to Otherways at a moment’s notice—and she was back in the familiar bedroom that had been hers practically since she was born.

Moving more on autopilot than anything else, she walked to the bed, where she removed her dagger and shoved it under her pillow. It was unlikely to be seen by prying parental eyes while it was there, and she slept better knowing it was close at hand. She yawned vastly, suddenly aware of how tired she was, and how hungry she was, and how much her battle with the dire bats had left her in need of a shower.

The dreamcatcher stayed in the pocket of her jeans as she shucked off her clothes and put on her nightshirt, which was so old and faded that she was probably the only one in the world who still saw Mickey Mouse in the shapeless blurs on the front; the dreamcatcher stayed in the pocket of her jeans as she kicked them to one side and went to take her shower, shampooing her hair three times to get the smell of dire bat blood out; the dreamcatcher stayed in the pocket of her jeans as she went to the kitchen for a midnight snack, as she checked the locks, as she came back into the room and climbed into her bed.

The stuffed tarantula she slept with every night—bought for her when she was eight, two years after she first entered Otherways—was waiting for her on her nightstand. She picked it up and hugged it tightly. “Good night, Little Naamen,” she said, with the gravity of a teenage girl who knows she’s doing something silly, but does it anyway, because it’s what she’s always done. “Spin me good dreams tonight, okay?”

On some other night, maybe that silly ritual phrase would have reminded her of the dreamcatcher; maybe she would have pulled it out of her pocket, dusted the lint from its strands, and hung it above her bed where it belonged. It had happened before. But she was tired and sore from fighting the dire bats, and sick at heart from the knowledge that soon, she would have to choose one world over the other, and all she wanted was to stop thinking for a little while. The dreamcatcher stayed in the pocket of her jeans as she reached over to her bedside table, and turned off the light.

Crystal Halloway, savior of the Otherways, closed her eyes, and slept.

There was no one single thing that woke her. One moment, Crystal was asleep, and the next, she was awake, staring into the darkness and trying to figure out why every nerve was screaming. Something was wrong. As always, when something she couldn’t name was wrong, Crystal’s thoughts leapt to Otherways. The Passage Star was shining—it had to be shining—and something was stopping her from seeing its light properly. But the Star never rose this soon after a visit.

Filled with an unnamed dread, Crystal tried to jump out of the bed and run for the closet. The sheets that had been snarled so carelessly around her while she slept drew instantly tight, becoming a net as effective as one of Naamen’s webs. Crystal’s dread suddenly solidified into concrete fear. She struggled harder, and the sheets drew even tighter, tying her down. Opening her mouth, she prepared to scream…

…and stopped herself before the sound could escape. Sheets didn’t move on their own, not in this world; whatever was happening, it was tied to the Otherways. If she screamed, her parents would come, and whatever was attacking her would take them, too. She was trapped, alone in the dark, and there was no one who could save her.

Crystal’s mind raced, trying to figure out which of her many enemies from Otherways could be behind this invasion. The Rose Queen? The Old Man of the Frozen North? Even the Timeless Child? All of them were somewhere in Otherways, and all of them hated her, but none of them had ever demonstrated that they had the ability to travel through the light of the Passage Star before—

“Oh, good. You’re awake. It’s easier when they’re awake.” The voice was sweet, female, and unfamiliar. Crystal turned toward it, squinting to make out anything through the gloom. “Don’t try to move. You’ll only hurt yourself.”

The idea that she could hurt herself caused Crystal to strain even harder against the sheets. Hurting herself implied movement, and movement could imply breaking loose. The woman sighed.

“You’re going to be a troublesome one, aren’t you? Ah, well, it can’t be helped. You should never have been left so long. Whatever they were using to hide you worked very, very well. I knew there was one of you little runaways still in this town, but I couldn’t seem to find you before tonight.” The sweet-voiced woman flew languidly out of the shadows and hovered above Crystal, smiling serenely down at her. “Whatever you did wrong, my dear, thank you. I appreciate it.”

The dreamcatcher, thought Crystal wildly, thinking of it for the first time since returning to her room. She took a short, sharp breath and stopped struggling. All her guesses as to her attacker’s identity had been wrong. This wasn’t one of the enemies she knew.

This was a stranger.

The woman in the air above her was round-faced and ruddy-cheeked, with soft brown curls and twinkling blue eyes. She looked like she would have been perfectly at home baking cookies or reading stories in a pre-school—except for her rapidly fluttering mayfly wings. Those, and the large knife in her hand, established her as clearly supernatural, and just as clearly hostile.

“Who are you?” Crystal hissed, barely raising her voice above a whisper.

“Oh, there’s no need to whisper. You can scream yourself hoarse and no one will hear you. But I recommend against it. Laryngitis is no fun for anyone.” The woman continued to smile. “Still, if it will make you feel better, go right ahead.”

“Get out of my room,” snarled Crystal. The sheets were still tangled tight around her, but that gave her an idea. Naamen’s webs worked by turning each captive’s strength against them, letting the strong batter themselves into weakness. The sheets had tightened every time she struggled. Glaring at the woman, she forced herself to go limp.

“Now, now, dear, has no one taught you how to greet a guest? Your manners are sorely lacking.”

The sheets were no looser than they had been, but they were getting no tighter. “I don’t think manners apply to the uninvited.”

“Manners apply to the uninvited most of all.” The woman dipped lower in the air, reaching down to tap the fingers of her right hand against Crystal’s cheek. “Remember that, if you can.”

Crystal took a breath—and then she moved, calling on everything she’d learned from her games of catch-and-keep with Chester, who was faster than anyone else she’d ever known. The sheets reacted to the motion, but they were too slow, if only by a fraction of a second, missing her wrists as she yanked them free. Then her dagger was in her hand, and she was slashing wildly at the sheets still holding her down, preparing to lunge for the woman who had dared to invade her home, who had dared—

The binding spell crashed down on her with enough force to slam her against the mattress, knocking the air out of her lungs. Her dagger fell to the floor, slipping out of her nerveless fingers as she stared, unmoving, into the dark above her bed.

“Oh, you naughty thing. I see why they worked so hard to hide you. You were quite the catch for them, weren’t you? I’m sorry to have to bind you, but you left me no choice. Try to breathe. This will all be over soon, and this silliness will fade away.” The woman fluttered out of Crystal’s view. The mattress creaked as a weight settled on it. Then a gentle hand grasped Crystal’s chin, turning her head until she was facing the little woman who sat beside her.

Crystal glared with all the force that she could find. The woman smiled.

“You’re sixteen, aren’t you? Don’t try to answer, I already know. Don’t you think it’s past time you stopped running off to some childish fantasy land, leaving this world—this good world, that you were born a part of—wanting? It’s time to grow up, my dear.” She tapped Crystal’s cheek again. This time, she bore down enough that the sharp tips of her nails bit into Crystal’s skin. “I’m here to help you. I’m the Truth Fairy, you see, and that means I can do what you haven’t been able to do on your own.”

Crystal tried to struggle.

Crystal failed.

“Haven’t you ever noticed how fairies only come when there are things to be taken away? Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Birthday Pig, they come to leave things behind them. Presents and chocolates and things like that. But the Tooth Fairy comes when you lose a tooth, and she takes that tooth away, and you never see it again. What she leaves is a hole. Something that your new tooth can fill. Do you understand yet, my dear?”

Crystal’s eyes screamed hate at her—hate, and terror, because something of what the Truth Fairy was saying made perfect, terrible sense. All the children she’d known in elementary school, the ones who had traveled to worlds of their own, worlds like her own Otherways, but different… they’d all forgotten their adventures, hadn’t they? She’d wondered why, with increasing confusion, as friend after friend suddenly swore their quests and their trials had been nothing but fantasies. She’d been to some of their worlds, traveling through mechanisms as strange and wondrous as her own Passage Star. And then one day, those children just forgot.

And there had been other children in Otherways before her.

“You can’t be part of two worlds forever. The heart doesn’t work like that. There isn’t room, any more than there’s room in a mouth for two sets of teeth. Baby teeth fall out. Childhoods end. That’s how adult teeth, and adult lives, find the space to grow.” The Truth Fairy leaned close, voice almost a whisper as she said, “Haven’t you ever noticed how so many people seem to walk around empty inside, like there’s a hole cut out of the middle of them, a space where something used to be, and isn’t anymore? Someone has to dig the holes, Crystal. When your baby teeth don’t fall out, someone has to pull them.”

Hearts can heal, that was what Naamen had told her. But there’d been more to it, hadn’t there? Hearts can heal, as long as they remember the way home.

Hearts could forget the way home.

The Truth Fairy rose on buzzing wings. Crystal’s eyes widened, the reality of the moment sinking into her bones. There was no rescue. There was no salvation. Her name was going to be added to the quiet ranks of the forgotten, and never spoken again, not now, not tomorrow, not to the next child to stumble through the light of the Passage Star.

She was never going home again.

The knife went up. The knife came down. And somewhere deep inside her, in the place that the Truth Fairy’s knife sought with such unerring skill, Crystal Halloway screamed.

Morning dawned, as mornings always do. Paul and Maryanne Halloway were in the kitchen when their daughter came down the stairs, still yawning and wiping the sleep from her eyes. “Morning, Mom and Dad,” she said, voice muffled by the hand she pressed against her mouth. “Breakfast?”

“Scrambled eggs and toast,” said Maryanne. “How did you sleep?”

“Really well.” Crystal smiled a little blearily, as she dropped herself into a seat at the kitchen table. “I had the weirdest dreams.”

Her father looked up from his laptop, leaving his half-composed email unsent. “What about?”

“You know, I don’t remember now?” Crystal’s smile became a puzzled frown. “Something about a rabbit, I think. I don’t know.” For a moment, her frown deepened, taking on an almost panicked edge. “It seemed so important…”

“Don’t worry yourself, dear.” Maryanne put a plate of eggs and toast down in front of her daughter. “Eat up. You don’t want to be late for school.”

“Yeah.” The frown faded, replaced by calm. “We’re talking about college applications today. I should probably be on time for that.”

Crystal ate quickly and mechanically, and after she left, her parents marveled at how focused and collected she’d seemed, like she was finally ready to face the challenges of growing up.

Neither of them saw the empty space behind her eyes, in the place where a lifetime of adventures used to be. Neither of them saw the hole cut through her heart, waiting to be filled by a world that would never satisfy her, although she would never, until she died, be able to articulate why.

Neither of them really saw her at all, and it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. Done was done, and a heart, once truly broken, could never remember the way home. Crystal’s father had grown up in that same house; had known adventures and excitement in a world whose name he no longer knew. He would love his daughter all the more for having lost the same things he had lost. And her mother… she didn’t remember the talking horses or the magical wars or the young prince with webs between his fingers, not consciously, even if sometimes in the night she cried. Both of them knew that empty space more intimately than they could understand.

And none of them, not Crystal, not her parents, could hear the distant, thready sound of a giant spider—the Guardian of the Passage to the Beyond, the one who had guided and guarded a hundred generations of human children, nurtured them, loved them, and lost them all—weeping.

AN EMPTY HOUSE WITH MANY DOORS

MICHAEL SWANWICK

Michael Swanwick is the author of the novels Bones of the Earth, Griffin’s Egg, In the Drift, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Jack Faust, Stations of the Tide, Vacuum Flowers, and The Dragons of Babel. His latest is a Darger and Surplus adventure titled Dancing with Bears. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and in numerous anthologies, and has been collected in Cigar-Box Faust, A Geography of Unknown Lands, Gravity’s Angels, Moon Dogs, Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary, Tales of Old Earth, and The Dog Said Bow-Wow. He is the winner of numerous awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Locus, and World Fantasy awards.

The television set is upside down. I need its company while I clean, but not its distraction. Sipping gingerly at a glass of wine, I vacuum the oriental rugs one-handed, with great care. Ah, Katherine, you’d be amazed the job I’ve done. The house has never been so clean.

I put the vacuum cleaner back in the closet. Cleanup takes next to no time at all since I eliminated all the unneeded furniture.

Rugs done, I’m about to get out the floor polish when it occurs to me that trash pickup is tomorrow. Humming, I roll up the carpets one by one, tie them with string, carry all three out to the curb. Then, since it’s no longer needed, I set the vacuum cleaner beside them.

Back in the house, the living room is all but empty, the dried and bleached bones of our life picked clean of meat and memories. One surviving chair, the television, and a collapsible tray I’ve used since discarding the dining room table. The oven timer goes off; the pot pies are ready. I get out the plate, knife and fork, slide out the pies, and throw away the foil roasting tray. I wipe the stove door with a damp rag, rinse the rag, wring it out and put it away. Pour myself another glass of wine.

The television gibbers and shouts at me as I eat. People hang upside down, like bats. They scuttle across the ceiling, smiling insanely. The news bimbo is chatting up the latest disaster, mouth an inverted crescent. Somebody in a woodpecker suit is bashing his head into the bed of a pickup truck, over and over again. Is all this supposed to mean something? Was it ever?

The wine in my glass is half-gone already. Making good time tonight. All of a sudden the bad feelings well up, like a gusher of misery. I squeeze my eyes shut, screwing my face tight, but somehow the tears seep through, and I’m sobbing. Crying uncontrollably, because while I’m still thinking about you, while I never do and never can stop thinking about you, it’s getting harder and harder to remember what you looked like. It’s going away from me. Oh Katherine, I’m losing your face!

No self pity. I won’t give in to it. I get out the mop and fill a bucket with warm water and ammonia detergent. Swabbing as hard as I can, I start to clean the floors. Until finally, it’s under control. I top off my glass, take a sip, feel the wine burning in my belly. Drinking like this will kill a man, sooner or later. Which is why I work at it so hard.

I’m teaching myself how to die.

If I don’t get some fresh air, I’ll pass out. If I pass out, I’ll drink less. Timing is all. I get my coat, walk out the door. Wibbledy-wobbledy, down the hill I go. Past the row houses and corner hoagie shops, the chocolate factory and the gas station, under the railroad bridge and along the canal, all the way down into Manayunk. The wine is buzzing in my head, but still the traitor brain dwells on you, a droning monologue on pain and loss and yearning. If only I’d kept you home that day. If only I’d only fucking only. Even I’m sick of hearing it. I lift up and above it, until conscious thought is just a drear mumble underfoot and I soar up godlike in the early evening air.

How you loved Manayunk, its old mill buildings, tumbledown collieries, and blue-collar residences. The yuppies have gentrified Main Street, but three blocks uphill from it the people haven’t changed a bit; still hard-headed, suspicious, good neighbors. I float through the narrow streets, to the strip of trendy little restaurants on Main. My head swells and balloons and my feet barely touch the ground. I pass through the happy evening crowd, attached to the earth by the most tenuous of tethers. I’d sever it if I could, and simply float away.

Then I see the man strangling in midair.

Nobody else can see him. They stride purposefully by, some even walking through the patch of congealed air that, darkly sparkling, contains his struggling figure.

He is twisting in slow agony on a frame of chrome bars, like a fly dying on a spider’s web. The outlines of his distorted body are prismatic at the edges, like a badly tuned video. He is drowning in dirty rainbows. His body is a cubist nightmare, torso shattered into overlapping planes, limbs scattered through nine dimensions. The head swings around, eyes multiplying and being swallowed up by flesh, and then there is a flash of desperate hope as he realizes I can see him. He reaches toward me, outflung arm spreading through a fan of possibilities. Caught in jellied air, dark and sparkling, his body shattered into strangely fractured planes.

Mouth opens in a silent scream, and through some form of sympathetic magic the faintest distant echoes of his pain sound a whispering screech of fingernails across the back of my skull.

I know a man who is drowning when I see one. People are scurrying about, some right through the man. They glance at me oddly, standing there, frozen on the sidewalk. I reach up and take his hand.

It hurts. It hurts like a sonofabitch. I feel like I’ve been hit with a two-by-four. One side of my body goes completely numb. I am slammed sideways, thought whiting out under sheets of hard white pain, and it is a blessing because for the first time since you died, oh most beloved, I stop thinking about you.

When I come to, I draw myself together, stand up. I haven’t moved, but the street is empty and dark. Must be late at night. Which is crazy, because people wouldn’t just leave me lying there. It’s not that kind of neighborhood. So why did they? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I stand up, and there, beside me, is the man’s corpse.

He’s dressed in a kind of white jumpsuit, with little high-tech crap scattered all over it. A badge on his chest with a fan of arrows branching out, diverging from a single point. I look at him. Dead, poor bastard, and nothing I can do about it.

I need another drink.

Home again, home again, trudge trudge trudge. As I approach the house, something is wrong, though. There are curtains in the windows, and orange light spills out. If I were a normal man, I’d be apprehensive, afraid, fearful of housebreakers and psychopaths. There’s nothing I’d be less likely to do than go inside.

I go inside.

Someone is rattling pans in the kitchen. Humming. “Is that you, love?”

I stand there, inside the living room, trembling with something more abject than fear. It’s the kind of curdling terror you might feel just before God walks into the room. No, I say to myself, don’t even think it.

You walk into the room.

“That didn’t take long,” you say, amused. “Was the store closed?” Then, seeing me clear, alarm touches your face, and you say “Johnny?”

I’m trembling. You reach out a hand and touch me, and it’s like a world of ice breaking up inside, and I start to cry. “Love, what’s wrong?”

Which is when I walk into the room.

Again.

The two of me stare at each other. At first, to be honest, I don’t make the connection. I just think: There’s something odd about this man. Strangest damn guy I ever did see, and I can’t figure out why. All those movies and television shows where somebody is suddenly confronted by his exact double and goes slack-jawed with shock? Lies, the batch of them. He doesn’t look a bit like the way I picture myself.

“Johnny?” Katherine says in a strangled little voice. But she’s not looking at me but at the other guy and he’s staring at me in a bemused kind of way, as if there’s something strange and baffling about me, and then all of a sudden the dime drops.

He’s me.

He’s me and he’s not getting it anymore than I was. “Katherine?” he says. “Who is this?”

A very long evening later, I find myself lying on the couch under a blanket with pillows beneath my head. Upstairs, Katherine and the other me are arguing. His voice is low and angry. Hers is calm and reasonable, but he doesn’t like what it says. It was my wallet that convinced her: the driver’s license identical to his in every way, the credit and library and insurance cards, all the incidental pieces of identification one picks up along the way, and every single one of them exactly the same as his.

Save for the fact that his belong to a man whose wife is still alive.

I don’t know exactly what you’re saying up there, but I can guess at the emotional heart of it. You love me. This is, in a sense, my house. I have nowhere else to go. You are not about to turn me out.

Meanwhile, I—the me upstairs, I mean—am angry and unhappy about my being here at all. He knows me better than you do, and he doesn’t like me one-tenth as much. Knowing that there’s no way you could tell us apart, he is filled with paranoid fantasies. He’s afraid I’m going to try to take his place.

Which, if I could, I most certainly would. But that would probably require my killing him and I’m not sure I could actually kill a man. Even if that man was myself. And how could I possibly hope to square it with Katherine? I’m in uncharted territory here. I have no idea what might or might not happen.

For now, though, it’s enough to simply hear your voice. I ignore the rest and close my eyes and smile.

A car rumbles down the road outside and then abruptly stops. As do the voices above. All other noises cease as sharply as if somebody has thrown a switch.

Puzzled, I get up from the couch.

Out of nowhere, strong hands seize my arms. There’s a man standing to the right of me and another to the left. They both wear white jumpsuits, which I understand now to be a kind of uniform. They wear the same badge—a fan of arrows radiant from a common locus—as the man I saw strangling in the air.

“We’re sorry, sir,” says one. “We saw you trying to help our comrade, and we appreciate that. But you’re in the wrong place and we have to put you back.”

“You’re time travelers or something, aren’t you?” I ask.

“Or something,” the second one says. He’s holding onto my right arm. With his free hand he opens a kind of pod floating in the air beside him. An equipment bag, I think. It’s filled with devices which seem to be only half there. A gleaming tube wraps itself around my chest, another around my forehead. “But don’t worry. We’ll have everything set right in just a jiff.”

Then I twig to what’s going on.

“No,” I say. “She’s here, don’t you understand that? I’ll keep my mouth shut, I won’t say anything to anyone ever, I swear. Only let me stay. I’ll move to another city, I won’t bother anybody. The two upstairs will think they had some kind of shared hallucination. Only please, for God’s sake, let me exist in a world where Katherine’s not dead.”

There is a terrible look of compassion in the man’s eyes. “Sir. If it were possible, we would let you stay.”

“Done,” says the other. The world goes away.

So I return to my empty house. I pour myself a glass of wine and stare at it for a long, long time. Then I get up and pour it into the sink.

A year passes.

It’s night and I’m standing in our tiny urban backyard, Katherine, looking up at the stars and a narrow sliver of moon. Talking to you. I know you can’t hear me. But I’ve been thinking about that strange night ever since it happened, and it seems to me that in an infinite universe, all possibilities are manifest in an eternal present. Somewhere you’re happy, and that makes me glad. In countless other places, you’re a widow and heartbroken. Surely one of you at least is standing out in the back yard, like I am now, staring up at the moon and imagining that I’m saying these words. Which is why I’m here. So it will be true.

I don’t really have much to say, I’m afraid. I just want you to know I still love you and that I’m doing fine. I wasn’t, for a while there. But just knowing you’re alive somehow, however impossibly far away, is enough to keep me going.

You’re never really dead, I know that now.

And if it makes you feel any better, neither am I.

TWENTY-TWO CENTIMETERS

GREGORY BENFORD

Gregory Benford has published more than thirty books, mostly novels, of which nearly all remain in print, some after a quarter of a century. His fiction has won many awards, including the Nebula Award for his novel Timescape. A winner of the United Nations Medal for Literature, he is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, was Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, and in 1995 received the Lord Prize for contributions to science. A fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences, he continues his research in both astrophysics and plasma physics.

The Counter-Universe was dim. The Counter-Earth below them had a gray grandeur—lightly banded in pale pewter and salmon red, save where the shrunken Moon cast its huge gloomy shadow. Here the Moon clung close to the Counter-Earth, in a universe chilling toward absolute zero.

Julie peered out at a universe cooling into extinction. Below their orbit hung the curve of Counter-Earth, its night side lit by the pale Counter-Moon. Both these were lesser echoes of the “real” Earth-Moon system, a universe away—or twenty-two centimeters, whichever came first.

Massive ice sheets spread like pearly blankets from both poles. Ridges ribbed the frozen methane ranges. The equatorial land was a flinty, scarred ribbon of ribbed black rock, hemmed in by the oppressive ice. The planet turned almost imperceptibly, a major ridgeline just coming into view at the dawn line.

Julie sighed and brought their craft lower. Al sat silent beside her. Yet they both knew that all of Earthside—the real Earth, she still thought—listened and watched through their minicams.

“The focal point is coming into sunlight ’bout now,” Al reported.

“Let’s go get it,” she whispered. This gloomy universe felt somber, awesome.

They curved toward the dawn line. Data hummed in their board displays, spatters of light reporting on the gravitational pulses that twisted space here.

They had already found the four orbiting gravitational wave radiators, just as predicted by the science guys. Now for the nexus of those four, down on the surface. The focal point, the coordinator of the grav wave transmissions that had summoned them here.

And just maybe, to find whatever made the focal point. Somewhere near the dawn line.

They came arcing over the Counter-night. A darkness deeper than she had ever seen crept across Counter. Night here, without the shrunken Moon’s glow, had no planets dotting the sky, only the distant sharp stars. At the terminator shadows stretched, jagged black profiles of the ridgelines torn by pressure from the ice. The warming had somehow shoved fresh peaks into the gathering atmosphere, ragged and sharp. Since there was atmosphere thicker and denser than anybody had expected the stars were not unwinking points; they flickered and glittered as on crisp nights at high altitudes on Earth. Near the magnetic poles, she watched swirling blue auroral glows cloak the plains where fogs rose even at night.

A cold dark world a universe away from sunny Earth, through a higher dimension…

She did not really follow the theory; she was an astronaut. It was hard enough to comprehend the mathematical guys when they spoke English. For them, the whole universe was a sheet of space-time, called “brane” for membrane. And there were other branes, spaced out along an unseen dimension. Only gravity penetrated between these sheets. All other fields, which meant all mass and light, was stuck to the branes.

Okay, but what of it? had been her first response.

Just mathematics, until the physics guys—it was nearly always guys—found that another brane was only twenty-two centimeters away. Not in any direction you could see, but along a new dimension. The other brane had been there all along, with its own mass and light, but in a dimension nobody could see. Okay, maybe the mystics, but that was it.

And between the two branes only gravity acted. So the Counter-Earth followed Earth exactly, and the Counter-Moon likewise. They clumped together, hugging each other with gravity in their unending waltz. Only the Counter-brane had less matter in it, so gravity was weaker there.

Julie had only a cartoon-level understanding of how another universe could live on a brane only twenty-two centimeters away from the universe humans knew. The trick was that those twenty-two centimeters lay along a dimension termed the Q-coordinate. Ordinary forces couldn’t leave the brane humans called the universe, or this brane. But gravity could. So when the first big gravitational wave detectors picked up coherent signals from “nearby”—twenty-two centimeters away!—it was just too tempting to the physics guys.

And once they opened the portal into the looking-glass-like Counter-system—she had no idea how, except that it involved lots of magnets—somebody had to go and look. Julie and Al.

It had been a split-second trip, just a few hours ago. In quick flash-images she had seen: purple-green limbs and folds, oozing into glassy struts—elongating, then splitting into red smoke. Leathery oblongs and polyhedrons folded over each other. Twinkling, jarring slices of hard actinic light poked through them. And it all moved as though blurred by slices of time into a jostling hurry—

Enough. Concentrate on your descent trajectory.

“Stuff moving down there,” Al said.

“Right where the focal point is?” At the dawn’s ruby glow.

“Looks like.” He close-upped the scene.

Below, a long ice ridge rose out of the sea like a great gray reef. Following its Earthly analogy, it teemed with life. Quilted patches of vivid blue-green and carrot-orange spattered its natural pallor. Out of those patches spindly trunks stretched toward the midmorning sun. At their tips crackled bright blue St. Elmo’s fire. Violet-tinged flying wings swooped lazily in and out among them to feed. Some, already filled, alighted at the shoreline and folded themselves, waiting with their flat heads cocked at angles.

The sky, even at Counter’s midmorning, remained a dark backdrop for gauzy auroral curtains that bristled with energy. This world had an atmospheric blanket not dense enough to scatter the wan sunlight. For on this brane, the sun itself had less mass, too.

She peered down. She was pilot, but a biologist as well. And they knew there was something waiting…

“Going in,” she said.

Into this slow world they came with a high roar. Wings flapped away from the noise. A giant filled the sky.

Julie dropped the lander closer. Her legs were cramped from the small pilot chair and she bounced with the rattling boom of atmospheric braking.

She blinked, suddenly alarmed. Beside her in his acceleration couch Al peered forward at the swiftly looming landscape. “How’s that spot?” He jabbed a finger tensely at the approaching horizon.

“Near the sea? Sure. Plenty of life forms there. Kind of like an African watering hole.” Analogies were all she had to go on here but there was a resemblance. Their reconn scans had showed a ferment all along the shoreline.

Al brought them down steady above a rocky plateau. Their drive ran red-hot.

Now here was a problem nobody on the mission team, for all their contingency planning, had foreseen. Their deceleration plume was bound to incinerate many of the life forms in this utterly cold ecosystem. Even after hours, the lander might be too hot for any life to approach, not to mention scalding them when nearby ices suddenly boiled away.

Well, nothing to do about it now.

“Fifty meters and holding.” Al glanced at her. “Ok?”

“Touchdown,” she said, and they settled onto the rock.

To land on ice would have sunk them hip-deep in fluid, only to then be refrozen rigidly into place. They eagerly watched the plain. Something hurried away at the horizon, which did not look more than a kilometer away.

“Look at those lichen,” she said eagerly. “In so skimpy an energy environment, how can there be so many of them?”

“We’re going to be hot for an hour, easy,” Al said, his calm, careful gaze sweeping the view systematically. The ship’s computers were taking digital photographs automatically, getting a good map. “I say we take a walk.”

She tapped a key, giving herself a voice channel, reciting her ID opening without thinking. “Okay, now the good stuff. As we agreed, I am adding my own verbal comments to the data I just sent you.”

They had not agreed, not at all. Many of the Counter Mission Control engineers, wedded to their mathematical slang and NASA’s jawbone acronyms, felt that commentary was subjective and useless. Let the expert teams back home interpret the data. But the PR people liked anything they could use.

“Counter is a much livelier place than we ever imagined. There’s weather, for one thing—a product of the planet’s six-day rotation and the mysterious heating. Turns out the melting and freezing point of methane is crucial. With the heating-up, the mean temperature is well high enough that nitrogen and argon stay gaseous, giving Counter its thin atmosphere. Of course, the ammonia and carbon dioxide are solid as rock—Counter’s warmer, but still incredibly cold, by our standards. Methane, though, can go either way. It thaws, every morning. Even better, the methane doesn’t just sublime—nope, it melts. Then it freezes at night.”

Now the dawn line was creeping at its achingly slow pace over a ridgeline, casting long shadows that pointed like arrows across a great rock plain. There was something there she could scarcely believe, hard to make out even from their thousand-kilometer-high orbit under the best magnification. Something they weren’t going to believe back Earthside. So keep up the patter and lead them to it. Just do it.

“Meanwhile on the dark side there’s a great ‘heat sink,’ like the one over Antarctica on Earth. It moves slowly across the planet as it turns, radiating heat into space and pressing down a column of cold air—I mean, of even colder air. From its lowest, coldest point, winds flow out toward the day side. At the sunset line they meet sun-warmed air—and it snows. Snow! Maybe I should take up skiing, huh?”

At least Al laughed. It was hard, talking to a mute audience. And she was getting jittery. She took a hit of the thick, jolting Columbian coffee in her mug. Onward—

“On the sunrise side they meet sunlight and melting methane ice, and it rains. Gloomy dawn. Permanent, moving around the planet like a veil.”

She close-upped the dawn line and there it was, a great gray curtain descending, marching ever-westward at about the speed of a fast car.

“So we’ve got a perpetual storm front moving at the edge of the night side, and another that travels with the sunrise.”

As she warmed to her subject, all pretense at impersonal scientific discourse faded from Julie’s voice; she could not filter out her excitement that verged on a kind of love. She paused, watching the swirling alabaster blizzards at twilight’s sharp edge and, on the dawn side, the great solemn racks of cloud. Although admittedly no Jupiter, this planet—her planet, for the moment—could put on quite a show.

“The result is a shallow sea of methane that moves slowly around the world, following the sun. Who’d a thought, eh, you astro guys? Since methane doesn’t expand as it freezes, the way water does”—okay, the astro guys know that, she thought, but the public needs reminders, and this damn well was going out to the whole wide bloomin’ world, right?—“I’m sure it’s all slush a short way below the surface, and solid ice from there down. But so what? The sea isn’t stagnant, because of what the smaller Counter-Moon is doing. It’s close to the planet so it makes a permanent tidal bulge directly underneath it. And the two worlds are trapped, like two dancers forever in each other’s arms. So that bulge travels around from daylight to darkness, too. So sea currents form, and flow, and freeze. On the night side, the tidal pull puts stress on the various ices, and they hump up and buckle into pressure ridges. Like the ones in Antarctica, but much bigger.”

Miles high, in fact, in Counter’s weak gravity. Massive peaks, worthy of the best climbers…

But her enthusiasm drained away and she bit her lip. Now for the hard part.

She’d rehearsed this a dozen times, and still the words stuck in her throat. After all, she hadn’t come here to do close-up planetology. An unmanned orbital mission could have done that nicely. Julie had come in search of life—of the beings who had sent the gravitational wave signals. And now she and Al were about to walk the walk.

The cold here was unimaginable, hundreds of degrees below human experience. The suit heaters could cope—the atmosphere was too thin to steal heat quickly—but only if their boots alone actually touched the frigid ground. Sophisticated insulation could only do so much.

Julie did not like to think about this part. Her feet could freeze in her boots, then the rest of her. Even for the lander’s heavily insulated shock-absorber legs, they had told her, it would be touch-and-go beyond a stay of a few hours. Their onboard nuclear thermal generator was already laboring hard to counter the cold she could see creeping in, from their external thermometers. Their craft already creaked and popped from thermal stresses.

And the thermal armor, from the viewpoint of the natives, must seem a hot, untouchable furnace. Yet already they could see things scurrying on the plain. Some seemed to be coming closer. Maybe curiosity was indeed a universal trait of living things.

Al pointed silently. She picked out a patch of dark blue-gray down by the shore of the methane sea. On their console she brought up the visual magnification. In detail it looked like rough beach shingle. Tidal currents during the twenty-two hours since dawn had dropped some kind of gritty detritus—not just ices, apparently—at the sea’s edge. Nothing seemed to grow on the flat and—swiveling point of view—up on the ridge’s knife-edge also seemed bare, relatively free of life. “It’ll have to do,” she said.

“Maybe a walk down to the beach?” Al said. “Turn over a few rocks?”

They were both tiptoeing around the coming moment. With minimal talk they got into their suits.

Skillfully, gingerly—and by prior coin-flip—Julie clumped down the ladder. She almost envied those pioneer astronauts who had first touched the ground on Luna, backed up by a constant stream of advice, or at least comment, from Houston. The Mars landing crew had taken a mutual, four-person single step. Taking a breath, she let go the ladder and thumped down on Counter. Startlingly, sparks spat between her feet and the ground, jolting her.

“There must be a lot of electricity running around out here,” she said, fervently thanking the designers for all that redundant insulation.

Al followed. She watched big blue sparks zap up from the ground to his boots. He jumped and twitched.

“Ow! That smarts,” Al said.

Only then did she realize that she had already had her shot at historical pronouncements, and had squandered it in her surprise. “Wow—what a profound thought,” huh? she asked herself ruefully.

Al said solemnly, “We stand at the ramparts of the solar system.”

Well, she thought, fair enough. He had actually remembered his prepared line. He grinned at her and shrugged as well as he could in the bulky suit. Now on to business.

Against the gray ice and rock their lander stood like an H. G. Wells Martian walking-machine, splay-footed and ominous.

“Rocks, anyone?” They began gathering some, using long tweezers. Soil samples rattled into the storage bin.

“Let’s take a stroll,” Al said.

“Hey, close-up that.” She pointed out toward sea.

Things were swimming toward them. Just barely visible above the smooth surface, they made steady progress toward shore. Each had a small wake behind it.

“Looks like something’s up,” Al said.

As they carefully walked down toward the beach she tried her link to the lander’s wide-band receiver. Happily, she found that the frequencies first logged by her lost, devoured probe were full of traffic. Confusing, though. Each of the beasts—for she was sure it was them—seemed to be broadcasting on all waves at once. Most of the signals were weak, swamped in background noise that sounded like an old AM radio picking up a nearby high-tension line. One, however, came roaring in like a pop-music station. She made the lander’s inductance tuner scan carefully.

That pattern—yes! It had to be. Quickly she compared it with the probelog she’d had the wit to bring down with her. These were the odd cadences and sputters of the very beast whose breakfast snack had been her first evidence of life.

“Listen to this,” she said. Al looked startled through his face plate.

The signal boomed louder, and she turned back the gain. She decided to try the radio direction-finder. Al did, too, for cross-check. As they stepped apart, moving from some filmy ice onto a brooding brown rock, she felt sparks snapping at her feet. Little jolts managed to get through even the thermal vacuum-layer insulation, prickling her feet.

The vector reading, combined with Al’s, startled her. “Why, the thing’s practically on top of us!”

If Counter’s lords of creation were all swimming in toward this island ridge for lunch, this one might get here first. Fired up by all those vitamins from the lost probe? she wondered.

Suddenly excited, Julie peered out to sea—and there it was. Only a roiling, frothing ripple, like a ship’s bow wave, but arrowing for shore. And others, farther out.

Then it bucked up into view and she saw its great, segmented tube of a body, with a sheen somewhere between mother-of-pearl and burnished brass. Why, it was huge. For the first time it hit her that when they all converged on this spot, it was going to be like sitting smack-dab in a middling-sized dinosaur convention.

Too late to back out now. She powered up the small lander transmitter and tuned it to the signal she was receiving from seaward.

With her equipment she could not duplicate the creature’s creative chaos of wavelengths. For its personal identification sign the beast seemed to use a simple continuous pulse pattern, like Morse code. Easy enough to simulate. After a couple of dry-run hand exercises to get with the rhythm of it, Julie sent the creature a roughly approximate duplicate of its own ID.

She had expected a call-back, maybe a more complex message. The result was astonishing. Its internal rocket engine fired a bright orange plume against the sky’s blackness. It shot straight up in the air, paused, and plunged back. Its splash sent waves rolling up the beach. The farthest tongue of sluggish fluid broke against the lander’s most seaward leg. The beast thrashed toward shore, rode a wave in—and stopped. The living cylinder lay there, half in, half out, as if exhausted.

Had she terrified it? Made it panic?

Cautiously, Julie tried the signal again, thinking furiously. It would give you quite a turn, she realized, if you’d just gotten as far in your philosophizing as I think, therefore I am, and then heard a thin, toneless duplicate of your own voice give back an echo.

She braced herself—and her second signal prompted a long, suspenseful silence. Then, hesitantly—shyly?—the being repeated the call after her.

Julie let out her breath in a long, shuddering sigh.

She hadn’t realized she was holding it. Then she instructed DIS, the primary computer aboard Venture, to run the one powerful program Counter Mission Control had never expected her to have to use: the translator, Wiseguy. The creation of that program climaxed an argument that had raged for a century, ever since Whitehead and Russell had scrapped the old syllogistic logic of Aristotle in favor of a far more powerful method—sufficient, they believed, to subsume the whole of science, perhaps the whole of human cognition. All to talk to Counter’s gravitational signals.

She waited for the program to come up and kept her eyes on the creature. It washed gently in and out with the lapping waves but seemed to pay her no attention. Al was busily snapping digitals. He pointed offshore. “Looks like we put a stop to the rest of them.”

Heads bobbed in the sea. Waiting? For what?

In a few moments they might have an answer to questions that had been tossed around endlessly. Could all language be translated into logically rigorous sentences, relating to one another in a linear configuration, structures, a system? If so, one could easily program a computer loaded with one language to search for another language’s equivalent structures. Or, as many linguists and anthropologists insisted, does a truly unknown language forever resist such transformations?

This was such a strange place, after all. Forbidding, weird chemistry. Alien tongues could be strange not merely in vocabulary and grammatical rules, but in their semantic swamps and mute cultural or even biological premises. What would life forms get out of this place? Could even the most inspired programmers, just by symbol manipulation and number-crunching, have cracked ancient Egyptian with no Rosetta Stone?

With the Counter Project already far over budget, the decision to send along Wiseguy—which took many terabytes of computational space—had been hotly contested. The deciding vote was cast by an eccentric but politically astute old skeptic, who hoped to disprove the “bug-eyed monster Rosetta Stone theory,” should life unaccountably turn up on Counter. Julie had heard through the gossip tree that the geezer was gambling that his support would bring along the rest of the DIS package. That program he passionately believed in.

Wiseguy had learned Japanese in five hours; Hopi in seven; what smatterings they knew of Dolphin in two days. It also mastered some of the fiendishly complex, multi-logic artificial grammars generated from an Earthbased mainframe.

The unexpected outcome of six billion dollars and a generation of cyberfolk was simply put: a good translator had all the qualities of a true artificial intelligence. Wiseguy was a guy, of sorts. It—or she, or he; nobody had known quite how to ask—had to have cultural savvy and blinding mathematical skills. Julie had long since given up hope of beating Wiseguy at chess, even with one of its twin processors tied off.

She signaled again and waved, hoping to get the creature’s attention. Al leaped high in the one-tenth-of-a-g gravity and churned both arms and legs in the ten seconds it took him to fall back down. Excited, the flying wings swooped silently over them. The scene was eerie in its silence; shouldn’t birds make some sort of sound? The auroras danced, in Julie’s feed from Venture she heard Wiseguy stumblingly, muttering…and beginning to talk.

She noted from the digital readout on her helmet interior display that Wiseguy had been eavesdropping on the radio crosstalk already. Now it was galloping along. In contrast to the simple radio signals she had first heard, the spoken, acoustic language turned out to be far more sophisticated. Wiseguy, however, dealt not in grammars and vocabularies but in underlying concepts. And it was fast.

Julie took a step toward the swarthy cylinder that heaved and rippled. Then another. Ropy muscles surged in it beneath layers of crusted fat. The cluster of knobs and holes at its front moved. It lifted its “head”—the snubbed-off, blunt forward section of the tube—and a bright, fast chatter of microwaves chimed through her ears. Followed immediately by Wiseguy’s whispery voice. Discourse.

Another step. More chimes. Wiseguy kept this up at increasing speed. She was now clearly out of the loop. Data sped by in her ears, as Wiseguy had neatly inserted itself into the conversation, assuming Julie’s persona, using some electromagnetic dodge. The creature apparently still thought it was speaking to her; its head swiveled to follow her.

The streaming conversation verged now from locked harmonies into brooding, meandering strings of chords. Julie had played classical guitar as a teenager, imagining herself performing before concert audiences instead of bawling into a mike and hitting two chords in a rock band. So she automatically thought in terms of the musical moves of the data flow. Major keys gave way to dusky harmonies in a minor triad. To her mind this had an effect like a cloud passing across the sun.

Wiseguy reported to her and Al in its whisper. It and Awk had only briefly had to go through the me-Tarzan-you-Jane stage. For a life form that had no clearly definable brain she could detect, it proved a quick study.

She got its proper name first, as distinguished from its identifying signal; its name, definitely, for the translator established early in the game that these organisms had no gender.

The Quand they called themselves. And this one—call it Awk, because that was all Wiseguy could make of the noise that came before—Ark-Quand. Maybe, Wiseguy whispered for Julie and Al alone, Awk was just a place-note to show that this thing was the “presently here” of the Quand. It seemed that the name was generic, for all of them.

“Like Earth tribes,” Al said, “who name themselves the People. Individual distinctions get tacked on when necessary?”

Al was like that—surprising erudition popping out when useful, otherwise a straight supernerd techtype. His idea might be an alternative to Earth’s tiresome clash of selfish individualisms and stifling collectivisms, Julie thought; the political theorists back home would go wild.

Julie took another step toward the dark beach where the creature lolled, its head following her progress. It was no-kidding cold, she realized. Her boots were melting the ground under her, just enough to make it squishy. And she could hear the sucking as she lifted her boot, too. So she wasn’t missing these creatures’ calls—they didn’t use the medium.

One more step. Chimes in her ears, and Wiseguy sent them a puzzled, “It seems a lot smarter than it should be.”

“Look, they need to talk to each other over distance, out of sight of each other,” Julie said. “Those waxy all-one-wing birds should flock and probably need calls for mating, right? So do we.” Not that she really thought that was a deep explanation.

“How do we frame an expectation about intelligence?” Al put in.

“Yeah, I’m reasoning from Earthly analogies,” Julie admitted. “Birds and walruses that use microwaves—who woulda thought?”

“I see,” Wiseguy said, and went back to speaking to Awk in its ringing microwave tones.

Julie listened to the ringing interchange speed up into a blur of blips and jots. Wiseguy could run very fast, of course, but this huge tubular thing seemed able to keep up with it. Microwaves’ higher frequencies had far greater carrying capacity than sound waves and this Awk seemed able to use that. Well, evolution would prefer such a fast-talk capability, she supposed—but why hadn’t it on Earth? Because sound was so easy to use, evolving out of breathing. Even here—Wiseguy told her in a sub-channel aside—individual notes didn’t mean anything. Their sequence did, along with rhythm and intonation, just like sound speech. Nearly all human languages used either subject-object-verb order or else subject-verb-object, and the Quands did, too. But to Wiseguy’s confusion, they used both, apparently not caring.

Basic values became clear, in the quick scattershot conversation. Something called “rendezvous” kept coming up, modified by comments about territory. “Self-merge,” the ultimate, freely chosen—apparently with all the Quands working communally afterward to care for the young, should there luckily occur a birthing. Respect for age, because the elders had experienced so much more.

Al stirred restlessly, watching the sea for signs that others might come ashore. “Hey, they’re moving in,” Al said apprehensively.

Julie would scarcely have noticed the splashing and grinding on the beach as other Quands began to arrive—apparently for Rendezvous, their mating, and Wiseguy stressed that it deserved the capital letter—save that Awk stopped to count and greet the new arrivals. Her earlier worry about being crunched under a press of huge Quand bodies faded. They were social animals and this barren patch of rock was now Awk’s turf. Arrivals lumbering up onto the dark beach kept a respectful distance, spacing themselves. Like walruses, yes.

Julie felt a sharp cold ache in her lower back. Standing motionless for so long, the chill crept in. She was astounded to realize that nearly four hours had passed. She made herself pace, stretch, eat, and drink from suit supplies.

Al did the same, saying, “We’re eighty percent depleted on air.”

“Damn it, I don’t want to quit now!”

“How ’bout you get extra from the Lander?”

Al grimaced. He didn’t want to leave either. They had all dedicated their lives to getting here, to this moment in this place. “Okay, Cap’n sir,” he said sardonically as he trudged away.

She felt a kind of silent bliss here, just watching. Life, strange and wonderful, went on all around her. Her running digital coverage would be a huge hit Earthside. Unlike Axelrod’s empire, the Counter Project gave their footage away.

As if answering a signal, the Quand hunched up the slope a short way to feed on some brown lichen-like growth that sprawled across the warming stones. She stepped aside. Awk came past her and another Quand slid up alongside. It rubbed against Awk, edged away, rubbed again. A courtship preliminary? Julie guessed.

They stopped and slid flat tongues over the lichen stuff, vacuuming it up with a slurp she could hear through her suit. Tentatively, the newcomer laid its body next to Awk. Julie could hear the pace of microwave discourse Awk was broadcasting, and it took, a lurch with the contact, slowing, slowing… And Awk abruptly—even curtly? it seemed to Julie—rolled away. The signal resumed its speed.

She laughed aloud. How many people had she known who would pass up a chance at sex to get on with their language lessons?

Or was Wiseguy into philosophy already? It seemed to be digging at how the Quand saw their place in this weird world.

Julie walked carefully, feeling the crunch of hard ice as she melted what would have been gases on Earth—nitrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen itself. She had to keep up and the low-g walking was an art. With so little weight, rocks and ices that looked rough were still slick enough to make her slip. She caught herself more than once from a full, face-down splat—but only because she had so much time to recover, in a slow fall. As the Quand worked their way across the stony field of lichen, they approached the lander. Al wormed his way around them, careful to not get too close.

“Wiseguy! Interrupt.” Julie explained what she wanted. It quickly got the idea, and spoke in short bursts to Awk—who re-sent a chord-rich message to the Quand.

They all stopped short. “I don’t want them burned on the lander,” Julie said to Al, who made the switch on her suit oxy bottles without a hitch.

“Burnt? I don’t want them eating it,” Al said.

Then the Quand began asking her questions, and the first one surprised her: Do you come from Light-giver? As heralds?

In the next few minutes Julie and Al realized from their questions alone that in addition to a society, the Quand had a rough-and-ready view of the world, an epic oral literature (though recited in microwaves), and something that resembled a religion. Even Wiseguy was shaken; it paused in its replies, something she had never heard it do before, not even in speed trials.

Agnostic though she was, the discovery moved her profoundly. Light-giver. After all, she thought with a rush of compassion and nostalgia, we started out as sun-worshippers too.

There were dark patches on the Quands upper sides, and as the sun rose these pulled back to reveal thick lenses. They looked like quartz—tough crystals for a rugged world. Their banquet of lichen done—she took a few samples for analysis, provoking a snort from a nearby Quand—they lolled lazily in their long day. She and Al walked gingerly through them, peering into the quartz “eyes.” Their retinas were a brilliant blue with red wirelike filaments curling through and under. Convergent evolution seemed to have found yet another solution to the eye problem.

“So what’s our answer? Are we from Light-giver?”

“Well… you’re the cap’n, remember.” He grinned. “And the biologist.”

She quickly sent No. We are from a world like this, from near, uh, Life-giver.

Do not sad, it sent through Wiseguy. Light-giver gives and Light-giver takes; but it gives more than any; it is the source of all life, here and from the Dark; bless Light-giver.

Quands did not use verb forms underlining existence itself—no words for are, is, be— so sad became a verb. She wondered what deeper philosophical chasm that linguistic detail revealed. Still, the phrasing was startlingly familiar, the same damned, comfortless comfort she had heard preached at her grandmother’s rain-swept funeral.

Remembering that moment of loss with a deep inward hurt, she forced it away. What could she say…?

After an awkward silence, Awk said something renderable as, I need leave you for now.

Another Quand was peeling out Awk’s personal identification signal, with a slight tag-end modification. Traffic between the two Quands became intense. Wiseguy did its best to interpret, humming with the effort in her ears.

Then she saw it. A pearly fog had lifted from the shoreline and there stood a distant spire. Old, worn rocks peaked in a scooped-out dish.

“Al, there’s the focal point!”

He stopped halfway between her and the lander. “Damn! Yes!”

“The Quand built it!”

“But…where’s their civilization?”

“Gone. They lost it while this brane-universe cooled.” The idea had been percolating in her, and now she was sure of it.

Al said, awed, “Once these creatures put those grav wave emitters in orbit? And built this focal point—all to signal to us, on our brane?”

“We know this universe is dying—and so do they.”

The Counter-Brane had less mass in it, and somewhat different cosmology. Here space-time was much further along in its acceleration, heading for the Big Rip when the expansion of the Counter-universe would tear first galaxies, then stars and planets apart, pulverizing them down into atoms.

Julie turned the translator off. First things first, and even on Counter there was such a thing as privacy.

“They’ve been sending signals a long time, then,” Al said.

“Waiting for us to catch up to the science they once had—and now have lost.” She wondered at the abyss of time this implied. “As if we could help them…”

Al, ever the diplomat, began, “Y’know, it’s been hours…” Even on this tenth-g world she was getting tired. The Quand lolled, Life-giver stroking their skins—which now flushed with an induced chemical radiance, harvesting the light. She took more digitals, thinking about how to guess the reaction—

“Y’know…”

“Yeah, right, let’s go.”

Outside they prepped the lander for lift-off. Monotonously, as they had done Earthside a few thousand times, they went through the checklist. Tested the external cables. Rapped the valves to get them to open. Tried the mechanicals for freeze-up—and found two legs that would not retract. They took all of Al’s powerful heft to unjam them.

Julie lingered at the hatch and looked back, across the idyllic plain, the beach, the sea like a pink lake. She hoped the heat of launching, carried through this frigid air, would add to the suns thin rays and… and what? Maybe to help these brave beings who had sent their grav-wave plea for help?

Too bad she could not transmit Wagner’s grand Liebestod to them, something to lift spirits—but even Wiseguy could only do so much.

She lingered, gazing at the chilly wealth here, held both by scientific curiosity and by a newfound affection. Then another miracle occurred, the way they do, matter-of-factly. Sections of carbon exoskeleton popped forth from the shiny skin of two nearby Quands. Jerkily, these carbon-black leaves articulated together, joined, swelled, puffed with visible effort into one great sphere.

Inside, she knew but could not say why, the two Quands were flowing together, coupling as one being. Self-merge.

For some reason, she blinked back tears. Then she made herself follow Al inside the lander. Back to…what? Checked and rechecked, they waited for the orbital resonance time with Venture to roll around. Each lay silent, immersed in thought. The lander went ping and pop with thermal stress.

Al punched the firing keys. The lander rose up on its roaring tail of fire. Her eyes were dry now, and their next move was clear: Back through the portal, to Earth. Tell them of this vision, a place that tells us what is to come, eventually, in our own universe.

“Goin’ home!” Al shouted.

“Yes!” she answered. And with us and the Quand together, maybe we can find a way to save us both. To rescue life and meaning from a universe that, in the long run, will destroy itself. Cosmological suicide.

She had come to explore, and now they were going back with a task that could shape the future of two species, two branes, two universes that dwelled a hand’s thickness from each other. Quite enough, for a mere one trip through the portal, through the looking-glass. Back to a reality that could never be the same.

ANA’S TAG

WILLIAM ALEXANDER

William Alexander studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College and English at the University of Vermont. His short stories have been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and published in various strange and wonderful places, including Weird Tales, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Interfictions 2, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008. His first novel, Goblin Secrets, debuted in 2012. Kirkus described the book as “evocative in its oddities.”

Ana and Rico walked on the very edge of the road where the pavement slumped and crumbled. They were on their way to buy sodas, and there were no sidewalks. They made it as far as the spot where the old meat-packing factory had burned down when Deputy Chad drove up and coasted his car alongside at a walking pace.

Ana was just tall enough to see the deputy through his car window and the empty space of the passenger seat. Her brother Rico was taller, but he wasn’t trying to look through the car window. Rico was staring straight ahead of him.

“Hi kids,” said Deputy Chad.

“Hi,” said Ana.

“I need to ask you both about the incident at the school,” the deputy said.

“Okay,” said Ana when Rico didn’t say anything.

“It’s very important,” the deputy said. “This is the first sign of gang activity. Everyone knows that. Gang activity.” He tried to arch one eyebrow, but it didn’t really work and his forehead scrunched.

Other cars slowed to line up behind the squad car, coasting along.

“What’s the second sign?” Ana asked.

“The second sign,” said Deputy Chad, taking a deep breath, “happens at night, on the highway. It involves headlights. Do you know that keeping your high-beams on at night can blind oncoming traffic?”

Ana didn’t. She nodded anyway.

“Usually a driver has just forgotten to turn them off, and the way to let them know is to flash your own high-beams, just briefly. But they drive around with the high-beams on deliberately. If you flash at one of their cars, they pull a quick and violent U-turn and follow you, very close. Sometimes they just do it to see where you live. Sometimes they run you off the road. Bam!” He smacked the top of his steering wheel.

Ana jumped. He grinned at her, and she grinned back.

“What’s the third sign?” Rico asked, without grinning.

“I can’t tell you that,” said Deputy Chad. “Ask your parents. It is the last ceremony of initiation, and it involves blonde ten-year-olds.”

“I’m ten,” said Ana.

“You’re not blonde, so you’re probably safe. Probably.”

“Oh,” said Ana. “Good.”

The line behind Deputy Chad was now seven cars long, coasting slowly. None of them dared to pass a cop.

“So,” said the deputy. “You can see why we need to put a stop to this kind of thing right away, before it escalates. Do you know anything about the incident at school?”

“No,” said Rico.

“What’s the graffiti of?” asked Ana.

“It is deliberately illegible,” said the deputy. “It’s in code. Probably a street-name. A tag. Graffiti is often somebody’s tag, delineating whose turf is whose. It looks like it could be in Spanish.”

Ana and Rico’s parents spoke Spanish. They used it as their secret language, and slipped into Spanish whisperings whenever they didn’t want Ana or Rico to understand them. Sometimes, in public, Ana and Rico liked to pretend they could speak it too. They would toss together random words and gibberish and use an accent because both of them could fake a pretty good one. They hadn’t played that game for a while.

Rico bent forward a little so he could look through the passenger window. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything about it,” he said.

“Good boy,” said the deputy, and smiled a satisfied smile. “Be safe, now.”

He drove off. Cars followed him like ducklings.

Perro muerto,” said Ana. It meant dead dog, or maybe dead hair. It was one of their nonsense curses. “He thinks you did it.”

“Yeah,” said Rico.

“Did you?” Ana asked.

“Yeah,” said Rico.

“Oh. What does it say?”

“Not telling.”

“Oh,” said Ana. Rico pushed Ana to his right side so he could walk between her and the moving cars, and then he made a sign with his left hand. He tried not to let Ana see him do it. She saw anyway, but she didn’t ask. She cared more about the graffiti. “I’ll do all the dishes if you tell me what it says.”

“No.”

“Okay.” Ana thought about how long it would take to get to the East Wells high school, try to read the painted wall, write down all of her guesses and walk home. She decided she could make it before dinner. Maybe Rico would tell her if she guessed right.

They were almost to the gas station, which had a much better selection of soda to pick from than the corner store. The last part of the walk was uphill, and Ana had to work harder to keep up with her brother.

“Do you think there really are gangs?” she asked.

Rico shrugged, and smiled a little. “Gangs of what?”

“I don’t know. Gangs.”

“I doubt it,” he said. “East Wells isn’t big enough to put together a gang of anything bigger than two people. Deputy Chad is just really, really bored.” He reached up and twisted his new earring stud. He’d pierced it himself with a sewing needle. Ana had held the swabs and rubbing alcohol while he did it. She’d felt obliged to help, because she already had pierced ears so she could offer him the benefit of her knowledge.

“Don’t forget to clean that when we get home,” she said.

“I won’t,” he said. He sounded annoyed. Ana decided to change the subject to something casual and harmless.

“Why isn’t there a West Wells?” she asked.

Rico stopped walking. They were in the gas station parking lot, only a few steps away from soda and air conditioning. Ana turned around. Her brother was staring at her.

“What did you say?”

“West Wells,” she said again, trying to be extra casual and harmless. “We live in East Wells, but it isn’t actually east of anything. There’s just, you know, the woods by the school and then endless fields of grain on all sides. There’s no West Wells.”

Rico exhaled, loudly. “That’s right,” he said. “There is nothing to the west of this dinky little town. You are absolutely right.” He walked by her and went inside. Ana followed. She had questions, endless questions bubbling up somewhere near her stomach and she had to swallow to keep them there because Rico was definitely not in an answering kind of mood.

She shivered in the air conditioning, even though she’d been looking forward to it. Rico knew which soda he wanted, but Ana took a long time to choose.

Ana got her cat backpack from her bedroom closet. It was brown and furry and had two triangular ears sewn onto the top. She pulled a stack of library books out of it and replaced them with a flashlight, rope, chocolate-chip granola bars, band-aids, a notebook and magic markers. She filled up the small, square canteen that had been Tio Frankie’s with water and packed that, too. Then she took out the flashlight, because it was summer and it didn’t get dark outside until long after dinnertime, and she needed to be back by dinner anyway.

“Did you clean your ear?” she asked Rico’s bedroom door.

“No,” he said from behind it.

“Don’t forget. You don’t want it to get infected.”

“I won’t forget,” he said.

She walked to the East Wells high school, taking a shortcut through two cornfields to keep off the highway. It wasn’t a long walk, but during the school year almost everybody took the bus anyway because of the highway and the lack of sidewalks. Rico liked walking, even in wintertime. Ana saw him sometimes through the bus window on her way to East Wells Elementary.

She walked between cornrows and underneath three billboards. Two of them said something about the bible. One was an ad for a bat cave ten miles further down the road. Ana had never seen the bat cave. Rico said it wasn’t much to see, but she still wanted to go.

Ana crossed the empty parking lot in front of the high school, and skirted around the athletic field to the back of the gym. She knew where to find the gym because it doubled as a theater, and last summer a troupe of traveling actors had put on The Pirates of Penzance. After the show Ana had decided to become a traveling actor. Then she decided that what she really wanted to be was a pirate king.

A little strip of mowed lawn separated the gym from the western woods.

Three of Rico’s friends were there, standing in front of the graffiti. Ana could see green paint behind them. They were smoking, of course. Julia and Nick smoked cloves, sweet-smelling. Garth wore a Marlboro-Man kind of hat, so he was probably smoking that kind of cigarette. His weren’t sweet-smelling.

“Hey,” Ana said.

“Hey,” said Julia. Ana liked Julia.

“Hey,” said Nick. Nick was Julia’s boyfriend. Ana was pretty sure that her brother was jealous of this. Nick and Julia were both in Rico’s band, and both of them were really, really tall. They were taller than Rico, and much taller than Garth.

Garth didn’t say anything. He chose that moment to take a long drag on his cigarette, probably to demonstrate that he wasn’t saying anything. Garth was short and stocky and scruffy. He wasn’t in the band. He had a kind of beard, but only in some places. He also had a new piercing in his eyebrow. It was shaped like the tusk from a very small elephant. The skin around it was red and swollen and painful-looking.

Ana thought eyebrow rings were stupid. She liked earrings, and she could understand nose rings, belly-button rings and even pierced tongues, but metal sticking out of random facial places like eyebrows just looked to her like shrapnel from a booby-trapped jewelry box. She didn’t like it. The fact that Garth’s eyebrow was obviously infected proved that she was right, and that the universe didn’t like it either.

“You should use silver for a new piercing,” Ana told him. “And you need to keep it clean.”

“This is silver,” said Garth. He didn’t look at her as he said it. He looked at the tops of trees.

“Don’t worry about him,” said Nick. “He likes pain. He gets confused and grumpy if something doesn’t hurt.”

“Oh,” said Ana. She edged around them, trying to get a better look at the wall and the paint.

Garth threw down his cigarette, stepped on it, and reached out to knock the cloves from Nick and Julia’s hands. “Bertha’s coming,” he said.

Bertha walked around the corner. She was the groundskeeper. Rico used to help her mow the school lawn as a summer job, but this year he hadn’t bothered. Her name wasn’t really Bertha, and Ana didn’t want to ever call her that, but she didn’t know what Bertha’s name really was.

Bertha sniffed, and smiled. Her hair was a big, feathered mullet.

“One of you isn’t smoking cloves,” she said. “One of you is smoking real cigarettes, and I am going to bet it isn’t the one with the kitten backpack. One of you is gonna buy my silence. ‘Why no, officer, I sure didn’t see any young hooligans smoking near your site of vandalism.’”

Ana, Nick and Julia all looked at Garth. Garth grunted, handed over his pack of cigarettes and walked away. He walked away into the woods.

“Bye, Ana,” Julia said. “Say hi to Rico. Tell him we need to rehearse.” She took Nick’s arm and the two of them followed Garth.

Ana could see the graffiti, now. It was red and green and it wasn’t anything Ana knew how to decipher. Parts of it were swoofy, and other parts had sharp, edgy bits. It looked like it was made up of letters, but she wasn’t sure which letters they were.

Bertha lit one of Garth’s cigarettes. “Gonna have to rent a sandblaster,” she said. “Won’t come off without a sandblaster, and it’s brick so I can’t just paint over it.”

“Deputy Chad thinks it was gangs that did it,” Ana said.

Bertha snorted. “Town isn’t big enough for gangs,” she said. “Doesn’t matter anyway. This is just somebody marking their territory. This is colored piss with artistic pretensions.”

Ana took out her notebook, but she didn’t have any guesses to write down yet. “How’s the novel?” she asked Bertha. This was the usual thing to ask. Bertha had always been writing a novel.

“Terrible,” Bertha said.

“Sorry,” said Ana. She wondered if it was better to be a novelist or a traveling actor, and decided it would still be better to be a pirate king.

“What’s with the notebook?” Bertha asked. She flicked her cigarette butt at the graffiti, and it hit the bricks above the paint with a shower of orange sparks.

“I’m going to draw it,” Ana said, “I’ll take it home and figure out what it says, and then… then maybe I’ll know who did it. I’ll solve the mystery.”

“Have fun,” Bertha said. She opened a door in the gym wall with one of the many jingling keys at her belt and went in. The door shut behind her with a loud metal scrape.

Ana drew the graffiti tag. Luckily she had the right colors of magic marker. It took her seven tries to get it right.

The screen door squeaked when Ana opened it. The kitchen lights were on. One cold plateful of food sat on an otherwise bare table. Ana’s mother sat at the other end, face down on her folded arms. She was snoring. Ana hid her backpack under the table, and put the plate of food on a chair and out of sight.

“Wake up, Mama,” she said.

Her mother woke up. “Where have you been, child?” she asked, annoyed but mostly groggy.

“Here,” Ana said. “I’ve been here for hours. Sorry I missed dinner.”

“You should be,” said her mother. “Where—”

Ana pretended to yawn. Her mother couldn’t help yawning, then, and this made Ana yawn for real. “Bedtime,” she said, once she was able to say anything. Her mother nodded, and both of them went upstairs.

Ana snuck back downstairs to throw away her dinner and fetch her backpack. She ate the chocolate granola bars while sitting on the floor of her bedroom and studying the graffiti in her notebook. She thought it might say roozles, rutterkin or rumbustical, but there were always extra letters, or at least extra swoofs and pointy edges to the letters, and the longer she stared at it the less each word fit.

Ana slept. She dreamed that her kitten-backpack climbed snuffling onto the foot of her bed. She woke up when it stepped on her toes, and once she was awake she could see its pointy-eared outline. A car drove by outside and made strange window-shade shadows sweep across the wall and ceiling. Maybe the car had its highbeams on.

Her bag moved. She kicked it and it fell off the edge, landing with more of a soft smacking sound than it should have. Ana wanted to turn on the light, but the light switch was across the room. She would have to touch the floor to get there. She decided that now would be a really excellent time to develop telekinetic powers, and spent the next several minutes concentrating on the light switch.

Another car went by.

She got up, tiptoed across the floor and turned on the light. She turned around.

The backpack was right at her feet. She didn’t scream. She swallowed an almost-scream.

The furry, pointy-eared bag wasn’t moving. She pulled on the edges of the zipper and peeked inside. Her expedition supplies were still there. She poked through them with the capped tip of a magic marker, just in case there was also something else in there. The notebook lay open to the seventh graffiti-covered page. She tried to nudge it aside, but the tip of the marker went through the colored surface. She dropped the pen. It passed through the graffiti and vanished. The page rippled like a pond.

She took another magic marker and used it to close the notebook cover. Then she looked out in the hallway to see if Rico’s bedroom light was on. It was. She took the notebook, tiptoed by her parents’ room, and sped up to pass the stairway. The air felt different at the top of the stairs. It felt like the stairway was holding its breath. It felt like the open space might breathe her in and down and swallow her.

She knocked on Rico’s door. No answer. She knocked again, because she knew it would be locked from the inside so there wasn’t any point in trying to open it herself. He still didn’t answer. She tried the doorknob and it turned.

He wasn’t there. She tread carefully on the few clear and visible parts of the floor, and took a better look around from the middle of the room. He wasn’t standing behind his dresser or lurking behind the armrest of the ratty old couch. He wasn’t hiding in his closet, because it was filled with too much junk already and nothing more would fit. She looked under the bed and he wasn’t there either. She looked at the empty bed and found a rolled up piece of parchment. You play tomorrow night, musician, it said. Be ready.

The parchment crumbled into several brown leaves and drifted to the floor, settling among the socks and books and torn pieces of sheet music.

“He must be rehearsing,” she said to herself. “I’ll try to find him tomorrow.”

She went back to her room, and hung the backpack up on the knob handle of one of her dresser drawers to keep it from wandering, and went to bed. She left the light on. She didn’t see anything move for the rest of the night, including her backpack. She heard things move instead.

Rico wasn’t at breakfast. This wasn’t unusual, because he almost always slept until lunchtime, so their parents didn’t seem worried as they bustled and joked and made coffee and went away to work after kissing Ana on each cheek. Ana went back upstairs as soon as they were gone. Rico wasn’t in his room. Bits of brown leaves crunched and crumbled in the carpet under her feet.

Ana got dressed, and took her backpack down from the knob she’d hung it on.

“Don’t go walking anywhere without me,” she said. She took more granola bars from the kitchen, and refilled her little square canteen, and locked up the house.

It started to rain when she reached the first highway billboard, and Ana’s clothes and backpack were soggy by the time she got to the gym. The bag’s sopping ears lay flat against the zipper.

She stood in front of the graffiti, took a deep breath and wondered if she was supposed to say something out loud. Maybe she was supposed to say whatever the graffiti said, and she still couldn’t read it.

Something snarled in the trees behind her. Ana turned around, took a step backwards and tried to press herself against the wall. It didn’t work. She pressed and passed through it.

“Hello,” said a voice that scraped against the insides of her ears.

Ana faced another painted wall, stone instead of brick. She took a breath. The air was still and it smelled like thick layers of dust. She turned around. An old man, thin and spindly, sat on a stool and polished a carved flute. He had a wispy beard. He tested two notes on the flute and set to polishing again. Behind him were several shelves of similar instruments. Some were plain and a pale yellow-grey. Some were carved with delicate patterns, and others inlaid with metals and lacquered over.

“Hello,” Ana said.

“The Grey Lady brings deliveries every second Tuesday, and today is neither thing. Are you delivered here? Has she changed schedules?”

“I don’t know any grey ladies,” Ana said. “Except math teachers. Do you mean Mrs. Huddle?”

“No huddling things,” the old man said. He set down the flute on a carved wooden stand, picked up a bone from his workbench and took a rasp to the knobby joints. “Tell me your purposes then, if no Lady brought you. Are you here to buy a flute?”

“No,” Ana said. “I’m looking for my brother.”

“Unfortunate that you should look for him here. How old?”

“He’s sixteen.”

“So old? Good, good. I won’t have pieces of him, then.”

Ana looked around for pieces of people. There was a straw cot in the corner beside a green metal stove. There were baskets and tin lanterns hanging by chains from a high ceiling. There were no windows. A staircase against one wall led up to the only doorway. There was a workbench, and shelves full of flutes, and a mural of moonlight and trees where she had stepped through the wall.

“He’s a musician,” Ana said. “A singer. He’s in a band, I think. Last week they were The Paraplegic Weasels, but I don’t know if that’s still their name. It keeps changing.”

“Very prudent,” said the old man, rasping bone.

“He’s supposed to play for someone tonight. I don’t know who.”

“Tonight there are many festivities, or so I’ve heard rumor.” He swapped the rasp for a finer file, and began to scrape the bone more delicately.

Ana took a step closer. “The invitation turned into leaves after I read it.”

“Then he’ll likely play his music in the Glen,” the old man said. “You should be on the forest paths, and not here in the City.”

“City?”

“Oh yes. Underneath it, a few layers down.” He wiped away loose bone-dust, and set both bone and file down on the workbench. “The stone floor you’re standing on used to be a road, but the City is always growing up over itself.”

“Oh,” Ana said. She looked down at the floor. The old man reached down, scooped her up by the armpits and set her on the edge of the workbench. She swallowed an almost-scream when he pinched each leg, squeezing down to the thighbones, and then she kicked him in the stomach.

Ana jumped down, ran to the mural and smacked the surface of it with the palms of both hands. The surface held. Behind her the old man wheezed and coughed and laughed a little.

“No matter,” he said. “Both bones broken, and all the music leaked out from the fractures. Can’t make any kind of flute from either leg. How did you break them both?”

Ana turned around to watch him. He sat back on his stool, wheezing, and he seemed to want to stay there. “I jumped off the roof.”

“And what flying thing were you fleeing from?” he asked.

“Nothing. Rico dared me to jump, so I did. I didn’t tell on him, either. He still owes me for that.”

“Well,” the old man said, “I hope you can collect what he owes when you find him. Such a shame that your bones were broken. There are a great many children, and there isn’t enough music. There isn’t nearly enough.”

“So how do I get out?” She hated admitting that she didn’t already know.

The old man smiled, and widened up his eyes. “Boo,” he said, puffing out his thin beard.

Ana took a step backwards, and passed through the stone.

Her face was inches away from her brother’s graffiti. It was dark, and she could barely see the colors by moonlight. She looked around. She was alone. Her backpack was gone.

“I told it not to wander off,” she said.

There was only one forest path she could find. Ana took a walking stick from a pile of broken branches near the edge of the woods, and took a deep breath, and set out. She wished she had her flashlight. She wished she had her backpack. In her head she promised to give it a scratch behind the ears if it would come back, and to never again hang it up on a dresser drawer knob. It had looked uncomfortable there. The air smelled like wet leaves, heavy and rich. She followed the path uphill and downhill and around sudden corners cut into the sides of hills. She passed trees that looked like tall, twisted people until she looked at them directly. Ana hoped she was following the right trail. She saw a wispy orange light between the tree trunks and decided to follow that instead.

The orange light brightened as Garth inhaled cigarette smoke. He was leaning on a boulder. He looked up and blew smoke at the moon.

Half of his face was swollen.

“Hey,” said Ana. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Waiting for little girls, maybe.”

“Your infection’s worse.”

“True,” he said. “But this bit of silver is keeping me from gnawing on your bones.”

“Oh,” said Ana. “Good. Everybody should stay away from my bones.”

He took another drag, brightening up the wispy orange light, and tugged his hat down to cover more of the swollen half of his face. Ana held on to her stick.

“Do you know where Rico is?” she asked.

“Maybe. He plays tonight.”

“Can you take me to him?”

“Maybe.” Garth dropped the cigarette and stepped on it, crushing the little orange flame. He walked off, away from the path. Ana waited for some signal from him that she should follow. She didn’t get one. She followed.

Garth took long strides, and his boots hit the ground like he was trying to punish it for something. Ana tried to keep up, and she tried to keep a little bit behind him at the same time. She didn’t want to be too close. He hunched, staring at the ground, and she thought he was moping more than usual until he dove, snarling. He came up holding a lanky thing covered in short, spiky fur.

“Where does the Guard keep watch tonight?” he asked.

The lanky thing shrugged and grinned many teeth.

“Where does the Guard watch the Glen?” He shook the thing in his hand.

It snickered.

“Please?” Ana asked, very sweetly.

The lanky thing blew her a kiss. “Tonight there is no waking Guard,” it said. “Tonight he is sleeping and dreaming that he guards, and he crosses no one unless they cross into his dreaming while he sleeps at his post, which is easy to do and see to it that you don’t. Everything within a pebble’s toss of him in all directions is only the substance of his dream, and inside it the Guard is a much better guard than he ever was awake. He guards the Western Arch.”

“How many arches are there?” Garth asked.

“Tonight there is only the Western Arch. All others are overgrown. It rained today.”

“Thank you,” Ana said.

The lanky thing bowed, which was difficult to do while Garth held it up by the scruff of its neck. Then it bit him hard on the wrist and dropped to the ground. Garth howled. The lanky thing snickered from somewhere nearby.

“Let me see your wrist,” Ana said. She had band-aids in her backpack. Then she remembered that she didn’t have her backpack.

Garth looked at her. Garth never made eye contact, but he did so now, and he held it, and he also made a little rumbling noise in the back of his throat.

“No,” he said.

“Okay,” she said.

“You should know that I’m not interested in dying for your brother. He’s alright. I like him. But I’m not interested in death on his behalf. I’m not interested in any of the things so close to death that the distinction makes no difference. This is something you should know before we go any further.”

“Okay,” she said again.

He walked away. She followed. She wondered where her backpack was.

They found an enormous figure in full plate armor, asleep. The Guard was dreaming a desert the size of a pebble’s throw. All around it was sunlight and sand and nowhere to hide.

“That’s the Western Gate,” Garth said

“Where?” Ana whispered.

“Behind the desert. Cut into the wall of thorns, there.” He pointed. Ana stood at the very edge of the desert and squinted. She could only see sand and sun in front of them.

Garth dropped another finished cigarette, driving it further into the dirt than he really needed to. “Good luck,” he said.

“Wait,” Ana told him. “Don’t go yet. I’m going to try something.”

She picked up a pebble, took aim, and threw it at the precise moment that she stepped forward into desert sand. For just a instant she knew what it was like to be an unimportant part of someone else’s dream. Then the pebble struck the Guard’s gold helmet, clanging loudly and waking it up.

The desert vanished. Ana ducked behind a tree that hadn’t been there before and leaned against the trunk. She could hear the metal movements of plate armor on the other side. She didn’t know where Garth was.

“I am a pirate king,” Ana whispered to herself. “It’s a glorious thing to be a pirate king.”

She ran, and switched directions twice, and tried to circle back towards the Western Gate. She almost stumbled in the dark, but she didn’t. The Guard almost caught her anyway. She felt gauntleted fingers snatch at her shoulder. Then she heard it clang and crash against the ground. She stopped, panting, and turned around to look.

Garth stood over the Guard, who was much shorter and less impressive than it had dreamed itself earlier. Garth looked at Ana, snarled and jerked his chin towards the Gate. Then he spit on the Guard’s golden armor.

Ana backed further away. She watched the Guard pull itself up off the ground. It plucked out Garth’s silver piercing with a little spray of blood.

Garth howled, and his face began to change.

Ana turned away and slipped inside.

The Glen was at least as big as a cornfield, and covered over with a dome of branches high overhead. Inside the branches were orange wisps of light, glowing and fading again.

It was full of dancers. Ana looked at them, and closed her eyes, and looked again. She could hear Rico singing over the noise of the crowd.

“I’m still a pirate king,” she whispered to herself, weaving her way in between dancers and trying to find the stage. She dodged the dancing things, and bumped into some, and passed through the shimmering substance of others. She saw colors and antlers and sharp teeth in strange places.

She found the stage. She found her brother. He sang, and the language sounded a little bit like Spanish but not very much. Nick played a red guitar, acoustic and covered in gold ivy. Julia played a yellow-grey flute. Both of them were even taller than they usually were.

Rico saw her, and Ana saw a lot of white around the edges of his eyes when he did. He nudged Julia, and she started a flute solo, and he got down off the stage and pulled Ana behind it. She opened her mouth and he shushed her.

“Okay, don’t eat or drink. Whatever else you do, don’t eat anything and don’t drink anything. Now tell me what you think you’re doing.”

“Looking for you,” Ana said.

“I’m impressed,” he said, biting on his lower lip. “I really am. But this is very, very bad and I’m not sure how to fix it.”

“What’s the problem?” Ana asked, folding her arms and looking at him as though she were the older one.

“Okay,” Rico said, taking deep breaths. “Do you see those guys over there? The ones with the tattoos?”

“They’re the gang?” Ana asked.

“Yeah. Sure. Kind of. And this is supposed to be my last task for them, and then after the concert I’ll learn how to sing up every chrome piece of a motorcycle and ride it from town to town, stopping only to hum the fuel tank full again. I’ll learn how to sing hurricanes and how to send them away. I’ll learn how to sing something people can dance to for a full year and never notice the time passing.”

“Sounds like fun,” Ana said.

“Sure. The catch is that this crowd has to be happy and dancing until the dawn light comes. If they stop before then, I fail and I have to serve the guys with the tattoos for at least a hundred years. So you should either go, right now, however you came here, or else hide somewhere and don’t eat or drink or talk to anyone until dawn. And don’t do anything distracting, because the crowd might stop dancing and that would be very bad. They like children, here, but they care about music a lot more than they care about kids.”

Ana looked up at Julia and her yellow-grey flute.

“I have go back onstage now,” Rico said.

“Okay,” Ana said.

“Hide,” he said.

“Okay.”

He went back onstage. Julia finished her solo, and Rico sang. He was good.

Ana thought she saw her backpack scamper between someone’s hooves. She followed. Then she saw Garth, or at least she assumed it was Garth. He had started to eat people near the Western Arch.

“Crap,” Ana said. He was distracting the crowd. Some of them weren’t dancing anymore.

She ran back to the arch and slipped through. She looked everywhere, kicking up leaves. She found her walking stick and used it to poke through the leaves that were dark and wet and sticky. Then she found one golden gauntlet. Blood pooled underneath it. A small, silver tusk sat in its palm.

She picked up the silver. It was very sharp. She ran back through the arch and followed the screaming.

Garth was gnawing on a severed antler with his long wolf-muzzle. Some things in the crowd were shouting, and more were laughing, and most were still dancing but not all of them were.

“Hey, perro muerto,” Ana said. She threw her walking stick at him. It got his attention. He dropped the antler, bounded forward and knocked her to the ground, slavering.

Ana grabbed one of his furry ears with her left hand and shoved the tusk through it with her right. The skin of his ear resisted, stretching a little before the silver broke through.

Garth rolled over and howled. Ana got to her feet and looked around her. The crowd danced. Even those who were bleeding from the fight with Garth were dancing again. She took a deep breath, and she didn’t get a chance to let it out all the way before someone’s hand took her by the elbow and pulled her towards the stage.

She looked up at the arm attached to the hand. It had green and red letters tattooed all up and down its length.

Rico, Julia and Nick bowed to the sound of applause and unearthly cries. The sky began to lighten above the branches, grey and rose-colored and pale.

The owner of the green and red arm pushed Ana forward in front of Rico. “What’s this?” Rico asked.

“Your last initiation,” said a very deep voice behind Ana. She didn’t want to turn around. She looked straight ahead at her brother. “Sing her to sleep. Let her sleep for a thousand years, or at least until another glacier passes this way.”

“I’ve already finished my initiation,” Rico said. “They all danced until dawn.”

“Yes,” said the voice. “You held them, most of them, and they were deer in headlights highbeamed by your song. Those you lost you gained again as they danced bleeding. It was good. But it was not your last task. The last requires a ten-year-old.”

“Crap,” said Ana.

Rico took her hand, pulled her closer, and tossed red and green colors into the air between them and the crowd. Colors settled into the shape of his tag. Ana still couldn’t read it.

“Home,” Rico said. “I’ll follow when I can.”

“You have to tell me what it says,” Ana told him, but he just smiled and pushed her through.

Their parents were as frantic as one might expect. Ana managed to slip into her brother’s room and find green and red spray-paint hidden behind the couch before her mother and father and Deputy Chad came in to look for clues to Rico’s whereabouts. Ana kept the spray-paint hidden under her own bed.

It took a long time for Ana to get back to the high school, because her parents kept closer tabs on her after Rico disappeared. Bertha had already sandblasted the graffiti, and Ana couldn’t find the forest path, and she didn’t know where Garth was. She hoped he wasn’t dead, or something very close to dead. She walked home, and listened to three nervous phone messages from her mother on the answering machine. Ana called her back and told her she was home, and that everything was fine even though it wasn’t really.

She went up to her room, and found her backpack sitting on her bed. She gave it a hug. It purred when she scratched behind its ears.

“I’m really, really angry at you for leaving,” she said. It kept purring.

Inside she found three pages torn from her notebook. They were folded in half together, with “Ana” written on the front.

The first page was in Rico’s handwriting. I’ll see you as soon as I find a way out of a hundred years of servitude, it said. Don’t worry, I’ll manage. DO NOT COME LOOKING FOR ME. Keep a pinch of salt in your pocket at all times, and stay out of the woods, and DO NOT keep following me around. I’m serious.

Ana snorted, and turned the page. It was her seventh drawing, with a note written underneath: This is my name, dumbass.

She turned to the last page.

This is yours.

Ana looked at it, and saw that it was.

She took out her magic markers and practiced marking her territory on the back wall of her closet.

NOTHING PERSONAL

PAT CADIGAN

Pat Cadigan sold her first professional science fiction story in 1980. She is the author of fifteen books, including two nonfiction books on the making of Lost in Space and The Mummy, a young adult novel, and the two Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novels Synners and Fools. Pat lives in gritty, urban North London with the Original Chris Fowler, her musician son Robert Fenner, and Miss Kitty Calgary, Queen of the Cats. She can be found on Facebook and Google+, and she tweets as @cadigan.

Detective Ruby Tsung could not say when the Dread had first come over her. It had been a gradual development, taking place over a period of weeks, possibly months, with all the subtlety of any of the more mundane life processes—weight-gain, greying hair, ageing itself. Time marched on and one day you woke up to find you were a somewhat dumpy, greying, middle-aged homicide detective with twenty-five years on the job and a hefty lump of bad feeling in the pit of your stomach: the Dread.

It was a familiar enough feeling, the Dread. Ruby had known it well in the past. Waiting for the verdict in an officer-involved shooting; looking up from her backlog of paperwork to find a stone-faced IAD officer standing over her; the doctor clearing his throat and telling her to sit down before giving her the results of the mammogram; answering an unknown trouble call and discovering it was a cop’s address. Then there were the ever popular rumours, rumours, rumours: of budget cuts, of forced retirement for everyone with more than fifteen years in, of mandatory transfers, demotions, promotions, stings, grand jury subpoenas, not to mention famine, war, pestilence, disease, and death—business as usual.

After a while she had become inured to a lot of it. You had to or you’d make yourself sick, give yourself an ulcer or go crazy. As she had grown more experienced, she had learned what to worry about and what she could consign to denial even just temporarily. Otherwise, she would have spent all day with the Dread eating away at her insides and all night with it sitting on her chest crushing the breath out of her.

The last ten years of her twenty-five had been in Homicide and in that time, she had had little reason to feel Dread. There was no point. This was Homicide—something bad was going to happen so there was no reason to dread it. Someone was going to turn up dead today, tomorrow it would be someone else, the next day still someone else, and so forth. Nothing personal, just Homicide.

Nothing personal. She had been coping with the job on this basis for a long time now and it worked just fine. Whatever each murder might have been about, she could be absolutely certain that it wasn’t about her. Whatever had gone so seriously wrong as to result in loss of life, it was not meant to serve as an omen, a warning, or any other kind of signifier in her life. Just the facts, ma’am or sir. Then punch out and go home.

Nothing personal. She was perfectly clear on that. It didn’t help. She still felt as if she had swallowed something roughly the size and density of a hockey puck.

There was no specific reason that she could think of. She wasn’t under investigation—not as far as she knew, anyway, and she made a point of not dreading what she didn’t know. She hadn’t done anything (lately) that would have called for any serious disciplinary action; there were no questionable medical tests to worry about, no threats of any kind. Her son Jake and his wife Lita were nested comfortably in the suburbs outside Boston, making an indecent amount of money in computer software and raising her grandkids in a big old Victorian house that looked like something out of a storybook. The kids emailed her regularly, mostly jokes and scans of their crayon drawings. Whether they were all really as happy as they appeared to be was another matter but she was fairly certain they weren’t suffering. But even if she had been inclined to worry unduly about them, it wouldn’t have felt like the Dread.

Almost as puzzling to her as when the Dread had first taken up residence was how she had managed not to notice it coming on. Eventually she understood that she hadn’t—she had simply pushed it to the back of her mind and then, being continuously busy, had kept on pushing it all the way into the Worry About Later file, where it had finally grown too intense to ignore.

Which brought her back to the initial question: When the hell had it started? Had it been there when her partner Rita Castillo had retired? She didn’t remember feeling anything as unpleasant as the Dread when Rita had made the announcement or, later on, at her leaving party. Held in a cop bar, the festivities had gone on till two in the morning and the only unusual thing about it for Ruby had been that she had gone home relatively sober. Not by design and not for any specific reason. Not even on purpose—she had had a couple of drinks that had given her a nice mellow buzz, after which she had switched to diet cola. Some kind of new stuff—someone had given her a taste and she’d liked it. Who? Right, Tommy DiCenzo; Tommy had fifteen years of sobriety, which was some kind of precinct record.

But the Dread hadn’t started that night; it had already been with her then. Not the current full-blown knot of Dread, but in retrospect, she knew that she had felt something and simply refused to think about the bit of disquiet that had sunk its barbed hook into a soft place.

But she hadn’t been so much in denial that she had gotten drunk. You left yourself open to all sorts of unpleasantness when you tied one on at a cop’s retirement party: bad thoughts, bad memories, bad dreams, and real bad mornings-after. Of course, knowing that hadn’t always stopped her in the past. It was too easy to let yourself be caught up in the moment, in all the moments, and suddenly you were completely shitfaced and wondering how that could have happened. Whereas she couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard of anyone staying sober by accident.

Could have been the nine-year-old that had brought the Dread on. That had been pretty bad even for an old hand like herself. Rita had been on vacation and she had been working alone when the boy’s body had turned up in the dumpster on the south side—or south town, which was what everyone seemed to be calling it now. The sudden name-change baffled her; she had joked to Louie Levant at the desk across from hers about not getting the memo on renaming the ’hoods. Louie had looked back at her with a mixture of mild surprise and amusement on his pale features. “South town was what we always called it when I was growing up there,” he informed her, a bit loftily. “Guess the rest of you finally caught on.” Louie was about twenty years younger than she was, Ruby reminded herself, which meant that she had two decades more history to forget; she let the matter drop.

Either way, south side or south town, the area wasn’t a crime hotspot. It wasn’t as upscale as the parklike west side or as stolidly middle/working class as the northland grid but it wasn’t east midtown, either. Murder in south town was news; the fact that it was a nine-year-old boy was worse news and, worst of all, it had been a sex crime.

Somehow she had known that it would be a sex crime even before she had seen the body, lying small, naked, and broken amid the trash in the bottom of the dumpster. Just what she hadn’t wanted to catch—kiddie sex murder. Kiddie sex murder had something for everyone: nightmares for parents, hysterical ammunition for religious fanatics, and lurid headlines for all. And a very special kind of hell for the family of the victim, who would be forever overshadowed by the circumstances of his death.

During his short life, the boy had been an average student with a talent for things mechanical—he had liked to build engines for model trains and cars. He had told his parents he thought he’d like to be a pilot when he grew up. Had he died in some kind of accident, a car wreck, a fall, or something equally unremarkable, he would have been remembered as the little boy who never got a chance to fly—tragic, what a shame, light a candle. Instead, he would now and forever be defined by the sensational nature of his death. The public memory would link him not with little-kid stuff like model trains and cars but with the pervert who had killed him.

She hadn’t known anything about him, none of those specific details about models and flying when she had first stood gazing down at him; at that point, she hadn’t even known his name. But she had known the rest of it as she had climbed into the dumpster, trying not to gag from the stench of garbage and worse and hoping that the plastic overalls and booties she had on didn’t tear.

That had been a bad day. Bad enough that it could have been the day the Dread had taken up residence in her gut.

Except it wasn’t.

Thinking about it, remembering the sight, the smell, the awful way it felt when she had accidentally stepped on the dead boy’s ankle, she knew the Dread had already been with her. Not so cumbersome at the time, still small enough to snub in favour of more immediate problems, but definitely there.

Had it been Ricky Carstairs, then? About a month before the nine-year-old, she had been on her way out of the precinct house when she had passed two uniformed officers bringing him in and recognized him immediately. She had no idea how she had managed that mental feat—he had been skinny, dirty, and obviously strung out, and she hadn’t seen him since he and Jake had been in the seventh grade together but she had known him at once and it hadn’t been a good moment.

“It’s just plain wrong,” she had said when Rita asked her why she looked as if she had just found half a worm in the middle of an apple. “Your kid’s old school friends are supposed go away and live lives with no distinguishing characteristics. Become office workers in someplace like Columbus or Chicago or Duluth.”

“And that’s just plain weird,” Rita replied, her plump face wearing a slightly alarmed expression. “Or maybe not weird enough—I don’t know. You been watching a lot of TV lately? Like the Hallmark Channel or something?”

“Never mind,” she said, making a short dismissive wave with one hand. “It made more sense before I said it out loud.”

Rita had burst into hearty laughter and that had been that; they’d gone with the rest of the day, whatever that had involved. Probably a dead body.

The dismaying sight of one of Jake’s old school friends sweating in handcuffs had lodged in her mind more as a curiosity than anything else. Uncomfortable but hardly critical—not the fabled moment of clarity, not a short sharp shock or a reality check or a wake-up call from Planet Earth. Just a moment when she hoped that poor old Ricky hadn’t recognized her, too.

So had the Dread already been lodged in her gut then?

She tried but she honestly couldn’t remember one way or the other—the incident was just too far in the past and it had lasted only a minute, if that—but she thought it was very possible that it had.

It was unlikely, she realized, that she would ever pinpoint the exact moment when something had shifted or slipped or cracked—gone faulty, anyway—and let a sense of something wrong get in and take root. And for all she knew, it might not even matter. Not if she were in the first stage of one of those on-the-job crack-ups that a lot of cops fell victim to. Just what she needed—a slow-motion train-wreck. Christ, what the hell was the point of having a breakdown in slow-motion unless you could actually do something about it, actually prevent it from happening? Too bad it didn’t work that way—every cop she knew who had come out the other side of a crash described it as unstoppable. If it had to happen, why couldn’t it be fast? Crack up quick and have an equally rapid recovery, get it over with. She pictured herself going to the department shrink for help: Overclock me, Doc—I got cases to solve and they’re gaining on me.

Ha-ha, good one; the shrink might even get a chuckle out of it. Unless she had to explain what overclocking was. Would a shrink know enough about computers to get it? Hell, she wouldn’t have known herself if she hadn’t picked things up from Jake, who had blossomed into a tech head practically in his playpen.

Her mind snagged on the idea of talking to the shrink and wouldn’t let go. Why not? She had done it before. Granted, it had been mandatory, then—all cops involved in a shooting had to see the shrink—but she’d had no problem with that. And what the hell, it had done her more good than she’d expected it to. She had known at the time that she’d needed help and if she were honest with herself, she had to admit that she needed help now. Going around with the lead weight of the Dread dragging on her wasn’t even on the extreme ass-end of acceptably screwed-up that was in the range of normal for a homicide detective.

The more she thought about it, the more imperative it seemed that she talk to the department shrink, because she sure hadn’t talked to anyone else about it. Not her lieutenant, not Tommy DiCenzo, not even Rita.

Well, she wouldn’t have talked to Lieutenant Ostertag—that was a nobrainer. Throughout her career, she had always had the good sense never to believe any my-door-is-always-open bullshit from a superior officer. Ostertag hadn’t even bothered with the pretense.

Tommy DiCenzo, on the other hand, she could have talked to and counted on his complete confidence. They’d gone through the academy together and she’d listened to plenty from him, both before and after he’d dried out. Tommy might even have understood enough to tell her whether she was about to derail big time or just experiencing another side-effect of being middle-aged, overworked, and underpaid. But every time she thought about giving him a call or asking him to go for coffee, something stopped her.

Maddeningly, she couldn’t think of a single good reason why. Hell, she couldn’t even think of a crappy reason. There was no reason. She simply could not bring herself to talk to him about the Dread and that was all there was to it.

And Rita—well, there had been plenty of reasons not to talk to her. They were busy, far too busy to devote any time to anything that didn’t have a direct bearing on the cases piling up on their respective desks. Not that Rita wouldn’t have listened. But whenever she considered bringing it up, saying, You know, Rita, lately I’ve had the damnedest feeling, a sense of being in the middle of something real bad that’s about to get a whole lot worse, the image of the nine-year-old boy in the dumpster would bloom in her brain and she would clench her teeth together.

Of course, she could go to Rita now. She could trot on over to her neat little fourth-floor condo, sit out on the balcony with her amid the jungle of plants with a few beers and tell her all about it. Only she knew what Rita would probably say, because Rita had already said it. That had been the night before she had put in her retirement papers; she had taken Ruby out to dinner and broken the news to her privately.

“I always planned to put in my twenty and get out while I was still young enough to enjoy it,” she said, cheerfully sawing away at a slab of bloody steak. “You could have done that five years ago. Do it now and you’ll be in good shape all the way around. Maybe you want to get in thirty but is putting in another five years really worth it?”

“Five years—” Ruby had shrugged. “What’s five years? Blink of an eye, practically.”

“All the more reason to get out,” Rita had insisted. “Before it’s too late to get a life.”

Bristling inwardly, Ruby had looked down at her own steak. Why she had ordered that much food was beyond her. The Dread didn’t leave anywhere nearly enough room for it. “I have a life.”

“The job is not a life,” Rita said, chewing vigourously and then dragging her napkin across her lips. “The job is the job. What do you do when you’re not on the job?”

“Talk to the grandkids on email. Shop. Rent DVDs—”

“You ever go out to a movie? Or out to dinner—with anyone other than me?” Rita added quickly before she could answer. “Hell, girlfriend, when was the last time you got laid?”

Ruby blinked at her, startled, unsure whether it was by the question itself or by the fact that she didn’t know the answer.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard—” Rita leaned over the table and lowered her voice confidentially. “But there are more alternatives for people our age than the cone or the rabbit.”

“Yeah, but my idea of sex doesn’t involve typing.” Ruby looked at her sidelong.

“Keeps the fingers nimble.” Rita laughed. “No, I wasn’t referring to chat room sex. I’m talking about going out and meeting people.”

“Dating sites?” Ruby made a pained face.

Please.” Rita mirrored her expression. “Social groups. Meet-ups for people with similar interests. Hobbies, film festivals, shit like that. You know I’ve got a boyfriend?” Pause. “And a girlfriend.”

“Sounds exciting,” Ruby told her. “But I don’t know if that’s really for me.”

“I didn’t know either,” Rita said. “I sure didn’t go looking for it. It just happened. That’s how it is when you have a life—things happen. You ought to try it.”

“Yeah? Well, what I really want to know is how come I haven’t gotten to meet these people you’ve been seeing.” Ruby folded her arms and pretended to be stern.

“Well, for one thing—and I’ve got to be perfectly honest here—” Rita put down her knife and fork. “I wasn’t sure how you’d react.”

Ruby’s eyebrows went up. “What? All this time we’ve worked together and you don’t know I’m not a homophobe?”

“I was referring to the guy,” Rita said, deadpan.

“Damn. And I thought I hid it so well,” said Ruby, equally deadpan.

Rita gave a laugh and picked up her knife and fork again. “So pull the pin with me. You won’t have to hide anything you don’t want to.”

“I’ll give it some thought,” Ruby lied.

“I’m asking you again—what’re you waiting for?” Rita paused, regarding her expectantly. When she didn’t answer, she went on: “They’re not gonna promote you, you know. You do know that, don’t you?”

Ruby dipped her head noncommittally.

“I sure knew they weren’t gonna promote me. I knew that for a goddam fact.” Rita took a healthy swig of wine and dragged her napkin across her mouth again.

“So is that why you decided to retire?”

Rita wagged her head emphatically. “I told you, it was my plan all along—get in my twenty and get the hell out. They’d have had to come up with a pretty hefty promotion to make me want to stay.”

“Yeah? Like what—chief? Commissioner?”

“Supreme dictator for life. And I’m not so sure I would have said yes.” Rita sighed. “What are you holding out for—lieutenant?”

“I passed the exam.”

“So did I. So did umpty-hundred other cops ahead of us both and they ain’t moving up, either.” Rita’s expression abruptly turned sad. “I never figured you for a lifer.”

“Or maybe you hoped I wasn’t?” Ruby said. “Personally, I never thought about it. I just get up and go to work every day.”

“Think about it now,” Rita said urgently. “Think about it like you’ve never thought about anything else. Get serious—you’re topped out. Whatever you’re waiting for, it isn’t coming. All you can do is mark time.”

“I work on solving murders and putting away the guilty parties,” Ruby said, an edge creeping into her voice. “I wouldn’t call that marking time.”

“For you personally, it is,” Rita insisted, unapologetic. “And in case you forgot, you count for something.”

“I’m a good cop. That counts for a lot.”

“That’s not all you are, though. Do you even know that any more?”

Ruby shifted in her seat, more than a little irritated. “Retiring young isn’t for everybody, even if you think it is. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

“Oh, for chrissakes, already—” Rita blew out a short breath. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.

They sat looking at each other for some unmeasured time and Ruby realized that her soon-to-be-ex-partner was just as irritated with her, possibly more. She tried to come up with something to say to defuse the situation before a serious quarrel developed but the Dread sitting large and uncomfortable in the middle of her body was eating her brain. The Dread was actually all she ever thought about now, like a pain that never went away, she realized, and there was barely room for anything else any more.

Then Rita had sat back in her chair, dismay in her plump, round face. “Shit, what the hell am I doing? I’m sorry, Rube.”

Ruby stared at her, baffled.

“I’m telling you you don’t have a life and I’m browbeating you like I’m trying to get a confession.” She shook her head as if trying to clear it. “I think I’m getting out just in time.”

“Well, I was gonna lawyer up,” Ruby said, laughing a little. “Forget it. It’s a touchy thing when a partner leaves, we both know that. Things can get a little weird, blown out of proportion.”

They had finished their dinner—or rather, Rita had finished hers while Ruby got a doggy-bag—and called it a night early, smiles all round, although the smiles were slightly sad.

That was how things still stood between them: smoothed over but not actually resolved. If she went to Rita now and told her about the Dread, growing a little bit bulkier, a little heavier, and a little more uncomfortable every day with no end in sight, Rita would only take that as further proof that she was right about retirement.

And she really did not want to have that conversation with Rita because she had no intention of retiring. Because she knew, deep in her core and in her bones that even if she did take Rita’s advice to pack it all in, even if she took it a step further, sold everything she owned and went off to a luxury beach condo in the Caribbean to laze around in the sun all day, indulge in fancy food and drink, and get thoroughly, perfectly laid every night by a series of gorgeous men and women, separately and together—despite all of that and a billion dollars besides, she knew with no uncertainty at all that she would still wake up every morning with the Dread that much larger and heavier and unrelenting than it had been the day before.

If she went to Rita, she would have to tell her that and she didn’t want to because she really didn’t think Rita would understand. And if she didn’t tell her, then Rita would only start harping again on the question of what she was waiting for. Probably accuse her of waiting for the Dread to go away.

Then she would have to confess: No. I’m waiting to find out. I’m waiting for whatever it is I’ve been Dreading to show up. Which was something she hadn’t quite admitted to herself yet.

“Coffee?”

The voice cut through the combination of Ruby’s usual morning haze and the constant overriding pressure of the Dread, startling her and making her jump a little. She looked up from the open folder she had been staring at unseeingly to find a young guy standing next to her desk, holding out a large cup that definitely had not come from any of the precinct machines.

“I didn’t know you guys delivered,” she said, smiling as she took the cup from him.

“Don’t let it get around,” the guy said, “or I’ll have to do it for everybody.” He was about thirty, just a little too dark to be called olive-skinned, with a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of his nose and a head full of honey-coloured dreadlocks that had the potential to become unruly. He was only a couple of inches taller than Ruby herself—five-eight, five-nine at the most—and slightly husky.

“It’ll be our secret,” she assured him, taking the lid off the cup. A dark roast aroma wafted up with the steam; not her favourite but she wasn’t inclined to find fault. “Am I supposed to know you?”

“When the lieutenant comes in, he’ll introduce me as your new partner.”

“I see.” Ruby studied him. “Transfer from vice?”

He shook his head.

“Narcotics?”

“Ah.” He smiled with half his mouth. “Must be the dreads.”

Ruby barely managed not to flinch at the word; it took a quarter of a second before she realized what he was referring to. “Well, it was some kind of undercover work, though. Right?”

“Fraud and cybercrime. Rafe Pasco.” He held out his hand and Ruby took it. It was strong and square but as smooth and soft as a woman’s.

“Portuguese?” she guessed.

“Filipino, actually. On my father’s side.” He grinned and half-sat on the edge of her desk. “Though as you can see, that’s only part of the story. Even on my father’s side.” His grin widened a bit. “Like you, maybe.”

Ruby shrugged. “Everybody had a story in my family and none of them could ever keep them straight. My father claimed they almost named me Kim Toy O’Toole. And I didn’t even have freckles.”

“Then you grew up deprived.” He tilted his head to look at the file on her desk. “What are you working on?”

She had to glance down to remind herself. “Ah. Suspicious drowning. Wife reported her husband missing, three days later he turns up on the rocks under the Soldiers Road bridge. Coroner says he’s pretty sure the guy didn’t just happen to wash up there, that someone must have pulled him out and then just left him.”

“Anonymous call tipping you off where to find him?”

Ruby shook her head. “Couple of kids found him and told their parents. Can’t figure why someone would pull a corpse out of the river and then just leave him.”

“The killer?”

“Then why pull him out at all?”

“Well, the wife couldn’t collect on any insurance without a body. For instance.”

“Could be.” Ruby made a face. “But I don’t think she killed him. I think he’s a suicide and she’s trying to make it seem like a murder so she doesn’t lose the insurance. The pay-out isn’t much—$25,000. Not enough to inspire murder but not a sum you’d want to have to give up, either.”

Pasco nodded, looking thoughtful. “Is she a hardship case?”

“Why?” Ruby asked, frowning.

“Maybe she really needs it.”

She gave a short laugh. “Hey, man, who doesn’t need $25,000? Especially if it’s on the verge of dropping right into your lap.”

“Yeah, but if she’s got kids or she’s gonna get evicted or something, it’d be too bad to take it away from her.”

Ruby leaned back in her chair and gave him a searching look. “Are you kidding?”

“I’m just saying.”

“That’s a whole lot of just saying about a case I only just now told you about. You always get so deeply invested on such short notice?”

He looked slightly embarrassed. “I’m not invested. This is just something we do in fraud—think about all the angles. Try to get into the mindset of the people we’re investigating, try to figure out where they’re coming from—are they desperate or do they feel entitled for some reason. Stuff like that.”

Ruby had to bite her tongue to keep from making an acid remark concerning the mass media image of criminal profiling and other extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. It wouldn’t do any good. Pasco would only get defensive and then expend a lot of effort trying to prove she was wrong instead of just working the cases. In the end, he’d flounder, trying to adapt the job to his methods rather than the other way around.

Abruptly she realized that she had been staring at him in silence for more than just a moment or two. Before she could think of some neutral comment, Lieutenant Ostertag came in and waved them into his office.

“I know, I know—he’s a geek,” Ostertag said to Ruby after he had waved Pasco out of his office again. “He’s got, I dunno, two, three degrees, maybe four. He’s been in fraud and cybercrime since he joined the department about five years ago.”

Ruby nodded. “And somebody thinks he’d make a good homicide detective.”

“Apparently he already is. In the course of his last two cases he cleared up two murders, one of which nobody even knew about at the time.”

“Good for him,” said Ruby. “Has anyone told him that he left all the criminal masterminds back in cybercrime?”

“He’s working another case right now. I’ll let him tell you about it.” He got up and opened the door for her by way of declaring the meeting over, then caught her arm before she could leave. “You OK?”

Ruby drew back slightly, giving him a surprised look. “Sure I’m OK. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Ostertag’s mouth twitched. “You OK with getting this guy as a partner so soon after Rita leaving?”

She laughed a little. “Rita retired, she didn’t die. I’m not in mourning.”

The lieutenant nodded a bit impatiently. “This guy’s pretty different than what you’re used to.”

Ruby tilted her head and frowned. “Are you asking me if I’d rather work with someone else?”

Ostertag’s face turned expressionless. “No.”

“What I thought,” Ruby said goodnaturedly and went back to her desk.

She decided to give Pasco a little while to organize his desk, maybe meet a few of the other detectives and then go over to ask him about his case. Instead of taking over Rita’s old spot, he had opted for the vacant desk by the blocky pillar that served as an unofficial bulletin board for less-than-official notices and items, usually cartoons (which were usually obscene). It was a strange choice; Ruby had never seen anyone actually opt for that particular desk if there was anything else available and there were two others empty at the moment. It was badly positioned—you had to sit either facing the pillar or with your back to it. Turn the desk sideways and it would obstruct the aisle. The previous lieutenant had tried switching the desk with a set of filing cabinets but that had been no solution at all and they’d switched things back before the day was up. Moving the desk out altogether would have made more sense but there were no city employees anywhere who would have been so foolish as to voluntarily give up anything. Someone at City Hall could get the wrong idea, start thinking that if there was no room for a desk in your area, there were probably other things you could do without as well.

Rafe Pasco obviously had no idea he had picked the lousiest spot in the room, Ruby thought. Maybe he’d had a similar spot in cybercrime, wherever that was headquartered. Spending all his time on a computer, he might not have noticed or cared where he sat.

“So you get the new guy.” Tommy DiCenzo sat down in the chair beside her desk, a bottle of Coke Zero in one big paw. He tilted it toward her, offering her a sip.

She waved it away. “Rafe Pasco. From cybercrime.”

“I heard.” Tommy glanced over his shoulder. “What’d you do, tell him to keep his distance?”

“Didn’t get a chance to,” she said. “He picked it out himself.” From where she was sitting, she could actually see him quite well. She watched as he took a shiny black laptop out of a bag and set it on the desk. “I see he brought his own hardware. Maybe he figures he’ll have more privacy over there. No one’ll be able to see when he’s playing solitaire.”

Tommy followed her gaze. “Guy’s a geek. No offence,” he added quickly. “How is Jake, anyway?”

Ruby laughed. “Fine. And he’d take offence if you didn’t call him a geek. As would he, I imagine.” She jerked her chin in Pasco’s general direction.

“It’s a different world,” Tommy said, affecting a heavy sigh. Then his face grew suddenly serious. “You OK?”

“Damn.” Ruby gave a short laugh. “You know you’re the second person to ask me that today?”

Tommy’s steely-grey eyebrows arched. “Oh? Must be something going around.” His gazed at her thoughtfully. “So, are you OK? Anything bothering you?”

The Dread seemed to reawaken then; it shifted inside of her by way of reasserting itself, reminding her that it was there and it was in charge. “Like what?” she said, hoping the casually offhand tone in her voice didn’t sound as forced as it felt.

“Well, like Rita pulling the pin.”

She let out a long breath. “It’ll take some getting used to. I keep looking around for her. Which is only normal, I guess.”

“You weren’t prepared for her leaving, were you.” It wasn’t really a question.

“No,” she admitted. “But I’m OK with it.”

“I’m sure you are.” Tommy’s smile was knowing. “But it still took you by surprise. You never thought about her retiring.”

“I was busy,” she said and then winced inwardly. Had she ever said anything lamer? “But you know, things, uh, change.” Now she had.

“They do that.” Tommy pushed himself to his feet. “It’s not a steady-state universe.”

“No, I guess not.” Ruby stared after him as he ambled over to introduce himself to Rafe Pasco, wondering why his words seemed to hang in the air and echo in her brain. Maybe it was just having him and Ostertag ask her if she were OK within a few minutes of each other that had put a whole new level of odd over the day.

The call came in about twenty minutes before Ruby had tentatively planned to go to lunch. Which figured, she thought as she and Pasco drove to the east midtown address; it had been a quiet morning. Any time you had a quiet morning, you could just about count on having to skip lunch. Of course, since the Dread had moved in on her, it hadn’t left much room in her stomach. Not a whole lot of room in her mind, either—she missed the turn onto the right street and, thanks to the alternating one-ways, had to drive around in a three-block circle. If Pasco noticed, he didn’t say anything. Maybe she would let him drive back to the station.

She was a bit surprised to see that patrol cars had almost half the street blocked off, even though there were very few curious onlookers and not much in the way of traffic. The address in question was a six-storey tenement that Ruby had visited with Rita a few times in the past.

“Is this an actual residence or a squat?” Pasco asked her as they went up the chipped concrete steps to the front door.

“Both,” Ruby told him. She wasn’t actually sure any more herself.

The uniform standing at the entrance was a young guy named Fraley; Ruby thought he looked about twelve years old, despite the thick moustache he was sporting. He opened the door for them as if that were really what he did for a living.

The smell of urine in the vestibule was practically a physical blow; she heard a sharp intake of breath from Pasco behind her.

“Straight from the perfume counter in hell,” she said wryly. “Ever wonder why it’s always the front of the building, why they don’t take a few extra seconds to run to the back?”

“Marking their territory?” Pasco suggested.

“Good answer.” Ruby glanced over her shoulder at him, impressed.

There was another uniformed officer in the hallway by the stairs, a tall black woman named Desjean whom Ruby recognized as a friend of Rita’s. “Sorry to tell you this,” she told them, “but your crime scene’s on the roof and there’s no elevator.”

Ruby nodded, resigned. “Do we know who it is?”

Desjean’s dark features turned sad. “Girl about twelve or thirteen. No ID.”

Ruby winced, feeling acid bubbling up in her chest. “Great. Sex crime.”

“Don’t know yet,” the uniform replied. “But, well, up on the roof?”

“Local kid?” Ruby asked.

Desjean shook her head. “Definitely not.”

Ruby looked at the stairs and then at Pasco. “You can go first if you think you might go faster.”

Pasco blew out a short breath. “I’m a geek, not a track star.” He frowned. “Ostertag did tell you that, didn’t he?”

“Uh, yeah,” Ruby said, unsure as to whether he was kidding around or not. “Before we go up, one thing.”

“Don’t talk to you on the way?” He nodded. “The feeling’s mutual.”

She felt a brief moment of warmth toward him. Then the Dread overwhelmed it, crushing it out of existence, and she started up the stairs.

A uniformed sergeant named Papoojian met them just outside the door on the roof. “Kid with a telescope spotted the body and called it in,” she told them as they stood catching their breath. “I sent a couple of officers over to get a preliminary statement from him and his very freaked-out parents.”

“Kid with a telescope.” Ruby sighed. “I don’t know if that’s an argument for closed-circuit TV surveillance or against it.”

The sergeant looked up at the sky worriedly. “I wish the lab guys would hurry up and get here with a tent or we’re gonna have regular TV surveillance to deal with. I’m surprised the news helicopters aren’t buzzing us already.”

As if on cue, there was the faint sound of a chopper in the distance. Immediately, one of the other three uniformed cops on the roof produced a blanket and threw it over the body, then turned to look a question at Papoojian. Papoojian nodded an OK at him and turned back to Ruby. “If the lab has a problem with that, tell them to get in my face about it.”

Ruby waved a hand. “You got nothing to worry about. No ID on the body?”

The sergeant shook her curly head. “Except for a charm on her bracelet with the name Betty engraved on it.” She spelled it for them.

“There’s a name you don’t hear much these days.” Ruby looked over at the blanket-covered form. She was no longer panting from the long climb, but for some reason, she couldn’t make herself walk the twenty feet over to where the body lay on the dusty gravel.

“Hey, you caught that other case with the kid,” Papoojian said suddenly. “The dumpster boy.”

Ruby winced inwardly at the term. “Yeah.”

“They dumping all the murdered kid cases on you now?”

She shrugged, taking an uncomfortable breath against the Dread, which now seemed to be all but vibrating in her midsection.

Was this what she had been dreading, she wondered suddenly—murdered children?

It almost felt as if she were tearing each foot loose from slow-hardening cement as she urged herself to go over and look at the victim, Pasco at her elbow with an attitude that seemed oddly dutiful.

“Ever see a dead kid?” she asked him in a low voice.

“Not like this,” Pasco replied, his tone neutral.

“Well, it’s gruesome even when it’s not gruesome,” she said. “So brace yourself.” She crouched down next to the body and lifted the blanket.

The girl was lying face up, her eyes half-closed and her lips slightly parted, giving her a sort of preoccupied expression. She might have been in the middle of a daydream, except for the pallor.

“Well, I see why Desjean was so sure the girl wasn’t local,” Ruby said.

“Because she’s Japanese?” he guessed.

“Well, there are a few Japanese in east midtown, not many, but I was referring to her clothes.” Ruby shifted position, trying to relieve the pressure from the way the Dread was pushing on her diaphragm. It crossed her mind briefly that perhaps what she thought of as the Dread might actually be a physical problem. “That’s quality stuff she’s got on. Not designer but definitely boutique. You get it in the more upscale suburban malls. I have grandchildren,” she added in response to Pasco’s mildly curious expression.

She let the blanket drop and pushed herself upright, her knees cracking and popping in protest. Pasco gazed down at the covered body, his smooth, deep-gold face troubled.

“You OK?” Ruby asked him.

He took a deep breath and let it out.

“Like I said, kids are gruesome even when they’re not—”

“I think this is related to this case I’ve been working on.”

“Really.” She hid her surprise. “We’ll have to compare notes, then. Soon.”

He didn’t answer right away, looking from the blanket to her with a strange expression she wasn’t sure how to read. There was something defensive about it, with more than a little suspicion as well. “Sure,” he said finally, with all the enthusiasm of someone agreeing to a root canal.

Ruby felt a mix of irritation and curiosity, which was quickly overridden by the Dread. She couldn’t decide whether to say something reassuring or simply assert her authority and reassure him later, after she knew she had his cooperation.

Then the crime lab arrived, saving her from having to think about anything from the immediate situation. And the Dread.

At the end of the day, Pasco managed to get away without talking about his case. It was possible of course that he had not been purposely trying to elude her. After spending most of the day talking to, or trying to talk to, the people in the building, checking on the results of the door-to-door in the neighbourhood, looking over the coroner’s shoulder, and through it all pushing the Dread ahead of her like a giant boulder uphill, she was too tired to care.

She made a note about Pasco in her memo book and then dragged herself home to her apartment where she glanced at an unopened can of vegetable soup before stripping off and falling into bed, leaving her clothes in a heap on the floor.

3:11.

The numbers, glowing danger-red, swam out of the darkness and into focus. It was a moment or two before she realized that she was staring at the clock-radio on the nightstand.

Odd. She never woke in the middle of the night; even with the Dread pressing relentlessly harder on her every day, she slept too heavily to wake easily or quickly. Therefore, something must have happened, something big or close, or both. She held very still, not even breathing, listening for the sound of an intruder in the apartment, in the bedroom.

A minute passed, then another; nothing. Maybe something had happened in the apartment next door or upstairs, she thought, still listening, barely breathing.

Nothing. Nothing and more nothing. And perhaps that was all it was, a whole lot of nothing. It could have been a car alarm out on the street, an ambulance passing close with its siren on, or someone’s bassed-out thump-mobile with the volume set on stun. Just because she didn’t usually wake up didn’t mean that she couldn’t. She took a long deep breath and let it out, rolling onto her back.

There was something strange about the feel of the mattress under her and she realized that she wasn’t alone in the bed.

Automatically she rolled onto her right side. Rafe Pasco’s head was resting on the other pillow. He was gazing at her with an expression of deep regret.

Shock hit her like an electric jolt. She jumped back, started to scream.

In the next moment she was staring at the empty place next to her in the bed, her own strangled cry dying in her ears as daylight streamed in through the window.

She jumped again and scrambled out of bed, looking around. There was no one in the room except her, no sign that anyone else had been lying in bed with her. She looked at the clock. 7:59.

Still feeling shaky, she knelt on the bed and reached over to touch the pillow Pasco’s head had been resting on. She could still see him vividly in her mind’s eye, that regretful expression. Or maybe apologetic was more like it. Sorry that he had showed up in her bed uninvited? Hope you’ll forgive the intrusion—it was too late to call and there wasn’t time to get a warrant.

The pillow was cool to her touch. Of course. Because she had been dreaming.

She sat down on the edge of the bed, one hand unconsciously pressed to her chest. That had been some crazy dream; her heart was only now starting to slow down from double-time.

She stole a glance over her shoulder at the other side of the bed. Nope, still nobody there, not nobody, not no how and most especially not Rafe Pasco. What the hell had that been all about, anyway, seeing her new partner in bed with her? Why him, of all the goddam people? Just because he was new? Not to mention young and good-looking. She hadn’t thought she’d been attracted to him but apparently there was a dirty old woman in her subconscious who begged to differ.

Which, now that she thought about it, was kind of pathetic.

“God or whoever, please, save me from that,” Ruby muttered and stood up to stretch. Immediately, a fresh wave of the Dread washed over her, almost knocking her off balance. She clenched her teeth, afraid for a moment that she was going to throw up. Then she steadied herself and stumped off to the bathroom to stand under the shower.

Pasco was already at his desk when Ruby dragged herself in. She found it hard to look at him and she was glad to see that he was apparently too wrapped up in something on something on his notebook to pay attention to anything else. Probably the mysterious case he was working on and didn’t seem to want to tell her about. Shouldn’t have slipped and told me you thought it might be related to the one we caught yesterday, she admonished him silently, still not looking at him. Now I’ll have to pry it out of you.

Later. She busied herself with phone calls, setting up some witness interviews, putting in a call to the medical examiner about getting a preliminary report on the Japanese girl, and requesting information from Missing Persons on anyone fitting the girl’s description. It wasn’t until nearly noon that it occurred to her that he was working just as hard to avoid catching her eye as vice versa.

She drew in an uneasy breath and the Dread seemed to breathe with her. Maybe he had the same dream you did, suggested a tiny voice in her mind.

As if he had sensed something, he looked up from his notebook at her. She gave him a nod, intending to turn away and find something else that had to be done before she could talk to him. Instead, she surprised herself by grabbing her memo book and walking over to his desk.

“So tell me about this case of yours,” she said, pulling over an empty chair and plumping down in it. “And why you think it might have something to do with the dead girl from yesterday.

“Do we know who she is yet?” he asked.

Ruby shook her head. “I’m still waiting to hear from Missing Persons. I’ve also put a call into the company that makes the charm bracelet, to find out who sells it in this area.”

Pasco frowned. “She could have bought it on the internet.”

“Thanks for that,” she said sourly. “You can start with the auction sites if I come up empty.”

He nodded a bit absently and then turned his notebook around to show her the screen. The dead girl smiled out from what seemed to be a formal school photo; her eyes twinkled in the bright studio lights and her lips were parted just enough to show the thin gold line of a retainer wire around her front teeth.

“Where’d you get that?” Ruby demanded, incredulous.

“It’s not the same girl,” he told her.

“Then who is it—her twin?”

“Can’t say at this point.” He smiled a little. “This girl is Alice Nakamura. I was investigating a case of identity theft involving her parents.”

“Perps or victims?”

“To be honest, I’m still not clear on that. They could be either, or even both.”

Ruby shook her head slightly. “I don’t get it.”

“Identity theft is a complex thing and it’s getting more complex all the time.”

“If that’s supposed to be an explanation, it sucks.”

Pasco dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment. “That’s putting it mildly. The Nakamuras first showed up entering the country from the Cayman Islands. Actually, you might say that’s where they popped into existence as I couldn’t find any record of them prior to that.”

“Maybe they came from Japan via the Caymans?” Ruby suggested.

“The parents have—had—U.S. passports.”

Ruby gave a short laugh. “If they’ve got passports, then they’ve got Social Security cards and birth certificates.”

“And we looked those up—”

“We?’”

“This task force I was on,” he said, a bit sheepishly. “It was a state-level operation with a federal gateway.”

Here comes the jargon, Ruby thought, willing her eyes not to film over.

“Anyway, we looked up the numbers. They were issued in New York, as were their birth certificates. There was no activity of any kind on the numbers—no salary, no withholding, no income, no benefits. According to the records, these people have never worked and never paid taxes.”

“Call the IRS, tell them you’ve got a lead on some people who’ve never paid taxes. That’ll take care of it.”

“Tried that,” Pasco said, his half-smile faint. “The IRS records show that everything is in order for the Nakamuras. Unfortunately, they can’t seem to find any copies of their tax returns.”

“That doesn’t sound like the IRS I know,” Ruby said sceptically.

Pasco shrugged. “They’re looking. At least, that’s what they tell me whenever I call. I have a feeling that it’s not a priority for them.”

“But what about the rest of it? The birth certificates? You said they were issued in New York?”

“They’re not actually the original birth certificates,” Pasco said. “They’re notarised copies, replacing documents which have been lost. Some of the information is missing—like, where exactly each of them was born, the hospital, the attending physician, and, except for Alice, the parents’ names.”

Ruby glanced heavenward for a moment. “What are they, in witness protection?”

“I’ll let you know if I ever get a straight answer one way or another on that one,” Pasco said, chuckling a little, “but I’d bet money that they aren’t.”

“Yeah, me, too.” Ruby sat for a few moments, trying to get her mind around everything he had told her. None of it sounded right. Incomplete birth certificates? Even if she bought the stuff about the IRS, she found that completely implausible. “But I still don’t understand. Everything’s computerized these days which means everything’s recorded. Nobody just pops into existence, let alone a whole family.”

“It’s not against the law to live off the grid,” Pasco said. “Some people do. You’d be surprised at how many.”

“What—you mean living off the land, generating your own electricity, shit like that?” Ruby gave a short, harsh laugh. “Look at that photo. That’s not a picture of a girl whose family has been living off the grid. She’s got an orthodontist, for chrissakes.”

“I’m not so sure,” Pasco said. “We had the Nakamuras on our radar, so to speak, when they entered the state. However they had been covering themselves before they left the Caymans, whatever they’d been doing to stay invisible, they weren’t doing it any more. They left an easy trail to follow. I found them in a northland hotel near the airport. They were there for a week. At the same time, the task force was investigating some fraudulent activity elsewhere in the same area. It seemed that the Nakamura case was going to converge with it.”

“What was it, this other activity?” Ruby asked.

Pasco made a face. “More identity theft. I can run you through the long version later if you want but the short version is, be careful what you do with your utility bills after you pay them, and if you insist on paying them over the phone, don’t use a cordless phone or a mobile.” He paused; when she nodded, he went on. “Anyway, we had enough evidence for a warrant. But when the police got there, the house was abandoned. The only thing they found was the body of Alice Nakamura in one of the bedrooms. Her birth certificate, school photo, library card, and passport were lying next to her on the floor.”

“How did she die?”

“Natural causes. Heart failure. I forget what the condition’s called but the coroner said that a lot of kids on the transplant lists have it. Alice Nakamura wasn’t on any of those. There are no medical records for her anywhere, in fact. And it turned out that her passport was a forgery.”

Ruby blinked. “So much for homeland security.”

“It was an excellent forgery, but a forgery nonetheless, as there was no record of her ever applying for a passport, let alone receiving one. Unlike her parents.”

“If this is some kind of conspiracy, it’s the most random and disorganized one I’ve ever heard of,” Ruby said, frowning. “Not to mention that it doesn’t make any sense. Unless you’ve actually been speaking a language that only sounds like English but all the words mean something entirely different and I haven’t really understood a single thing you’ve said.”

Her words hung in the air between them for a long moment. Pasco’s face was deeply thoughtful (not deeply regretful; she stamped down on the memory again), practically contemplative, as if she had set out a significant issue that had to be addressed with care. Inside her, the Dread pushed sharply into the area just under her breastbone.

“I’m sure that’s how everything probably looks when you see it from the outside,” he said finally. “If you don’t know a system, if you don’t understand how things work or what the rules are, it won’t make any sense. The way a foreign language will sound like gibberish.”

Ruby grimaced at him. “But nothing’s that strange. If you listen to a foreign language for even just a minute, you start picking up some sense of the patterns in it. You recognize it’s a system even if it’s one you’re not familiar with—”

“Oh?” Pasco’s half-smile was back. “Ever listened to Hungarian?”

She waved a hand at him. “No, but I’ve listened to Cantonese and Mandarin, simultaneously at full volume when my grandparents argued. You know what I mean. For a system—or anything—to be completely incomprehensible, it would have to be something totally—” She floundered, groping for a word. “It would have to be something totally alien. Outside human experience altogether.”

Her words replayed themselves in her mind. “Christ,” she said, massaging her forehead. “What the hell are we talking about and why?”

Pasco pressed his lips together briefly. “You were saying that there are a lot of things about my case that don’t make any sense.”

“You got that right, my man,” she said feelingly and then let out a long sigh. “I suppose that’s the human element at work.”

“Pardon?” Now he looked bewildered.

“People are infinitely screwy,” she said. “Human beings can make a mess out of chaos.”

He surprised her by bursting into loud, hearty laughter. She twisted around in her seat to see that the whole room was staring at them curiously. “Thanks, I’ll be here all week,” she said a bit self-consciously and turned back to Pasco, trying to will him to wind down fast. Her gaze fell on the notebook screen again.

“Hey, what about her retainer?” she asked, talking over his guffaws.

“Her what?” Pasco said, slightly breathless and still chuckling a little.

“On her teeth.” Ruby tapped the screen with her little finger. It felt spongy. “Were you able to trace it to a particular orthodontist?”

“She wasn’t wearing a retainer and they didn’t find one in the house,” Pasco said, sobering.

“And what about her parents?”

“The Nakamuras have dropped out of sight again.”

Popped out of existence?”

“I thought so at first,” he said, either oblivious to or ignoring her tone of voice. “But then that girl turned up on the roof yesterday, which leads me to believe they were still around. Up to that point, anyway. They might be gone by now, though.”

“Why? You think they had something to do with the girl’s death?”

“Not intentionally.”

Ruby shook her head. “Intentionally, unintentionally—either way, why? Who is she to them—the long-lost twin of the girl who died of heart failure?” Abruptly the Dread gave her stomach a half-twist; she swallowed hard and kept talking. “How long ago was that anyway, when you found Alice Nakamura?”

Pasco hesitated, his face suddenly very serious. “I didn’t find her. I mean, I only pinpointed the address. I wasn’t there when the police entered the house. The Geek Squad never goes along on things like that. I think the other cops are afraid of geeks with guns.”

“But you’re cops, too.”

“Exactly. Anyway—” He swivelled the notebook around and tapped the keyboard a few times. “That was about five and a half weeks ago, almost six.” He looked up again. “Does that suggest anything special to you?”

Ruby shook her head. “You?”

“Just that the Nakamuras have managed to lay pretty low for quite a while. I wonder how. And where.”

Ruby wanted to ask him something about that but couldn’t quite figure out how to word the question. “And you’re absolutely sure that girl—Alice Nakamura, I mean—died of natural causes?”

“None whatsoever. Also, she wasn’t abused or neglected in any way before she died, either. She was well taken care of. She just happened to be very sick.”

“Uh-huh.” Ruby nodded absently. “Then why would they just go off and leave her?”

“If they didn’t want to be found—and judging from their behaviour, they didn’t—then they couldn’t carry her dead body along with them.”

“All right, that makes sense,” Ruby said. “But it still leaves the question of why they don’t want to be found. Because they’re in on this identity theft thing, conspiracy, whatever it is?”

“Or because they’re victims of identity theft who have had to steal a new identity themselves.”

Ruby closed her eyes briefly. “OK, now we’re back to not making sense again.”

“No, it’s been known to happen,” Pasco insisted. “For some people, when their identity gets stolen, the thief does so much damage that they find it’s virtually impossible to clear their name. They have to start over.”

“But why steal someone else’s identity to do that?” Ruby asked. “Why not just create an entirely new identity?”

“Because the created identity would eventually trace back to the old one. Better to get one with completely different connections.”

Ruby shook her head obstinately. “You could still do that with a brand new identity.”

Pasco was shaking his own head just as obstinately. “The idea isn’t just to steal someone’s identity—it’s to steal their past, too. If I create a new identity, I really do have to start over in every way. That’s pretty hard. It’s easier if I can, say, build on your already-excellent credit rating.”

“Obviously you’ve never tried to steal my identity,” Ruby said with a short, humourless laugh. “Or you’d know better than to say something like that.”

“I was just giving an example.”

Ruby let out a long breath. “I think I’ll pay the coroner a visit, see if there’s anything he can tell me about how Alice Nakamura’s twin died. Maybe it’ll tell us something about—oh, I don’t know, anything. In a way that will make sense.” She stood up to go back to her desk.

“Hey—” Pasco caught her wrist; the contact startled her and he let go immediately. “What if she died of natural causes?”

“Jesus, you really can dream things up, can’t you.” Ruby planted her fists on her hips and gave him a hard look. “That would be entirely too much of a coincidence.”

“Natural causes,” said the coroner’s assistant, reading from a clipboard. Her ID gave her name as Sheila St. Pierre; there was a tiny Hello, Kitty sticker under the St. She was a plump woman in her mid-twenties with short, spiky blonde hair and bright red cat’s-eye glasses and, while she wasn’t chewing gum, Ruby kept expecting to hear it pop every time she opened her mouth. “Aneurysm. Tragic in one so young, you know?”

“You’re sure you have the right chart?” Ruby asked tensely.

“Unidentified Oriental adolescent female, brought in yesterday from a roof-top in east midtown, right?” Sheila St. Pierre offered Ruby the clipboard. “See for yourself.”

Ruby scanned the form quickly several times before she was able to force herself to slow down and check each detail. “How can a thirteen-year-old girl have a fucking aneurysm?” she said finally, handing the clipboard back to the other woman. “The coroner must have screwed up. Where is he? I want to make him do it again.”

“There’s no do-overs in post-mortems,” Sheila St. Pierre said, making a face. “What do you think we’re working with here, Legos?” She shifted her weight to her right side and folded her arms, hugging the clipboard to her front. “How about a second opinion?”

“Great,” Ruby said. “Where can I get one?”

“Right here. I assisted Dr. Levitt on this one and I saw it myself firsthand. It was an aneurysm. Case closed. You know, an aneurysm is one of those things anybody can have without even knowing it. You could have one, or I could. We just go along living our lives day in, day out, everything’s swell, and suddenly—boom. Your head blows up and you’re history. Or I am. Or we both are. Most people have no idea how thin that membrane between life and death can be. But then, isn’t it really better that way? Better living though denial. Who’d want to go around in a constant state of dread?”

Ruby glared at her but she was turning away to put the clipboard down on a metal table nearby. “At least it isn’t all bad news,” she said, holding up a small plastic bag between two fingers. There was a retainer in it. “We did manage to identify the girl from her dental records.”

“I didn’t see that on that report!” Ruby snapped. “Why wasn’t it on there? Who is she? When were you going to fucking tell me?”

Sheila St. Pierre tossed the bag with the retainer in it back on the table. “Which question would like me to fucking answer first?”

Ruby hesitated and then looked at the retainer. “Where did that come from, anyway? I didn’t see one at the scene.”

“Well, it was there. Nobody looked close enough till we got her on the table. Her name is Betty Mura—”

“What’s her address?” Ruby demanded. “And why didn’t you call me?”

“I did call you,” Sheila St. Pierre said with exaggerated patience. “You weren’t at your desk so I left a message.”

Ruby had to force herself not to lunge forward and shake the woman. “When was that?”

“As near as I can tell, it was while you were on your way over here.”

“Give me that information now!” Ruby ordered her but she was already picking up the clipboard. She slid a piece of paper out from under the form on top and handed it over.

“Thank you,” she prompted politely as Ruby snatched it from her.

“You’re welcome,” Ruby growled over her shoulder, already out of the room.

There was a ticket on her windshield; another skirmish in the struggle to keep the area in front of the municipal complex a strict no-parking zone, this means you, no exceptions, especially cops. Ruby crumpled it up and tossed it in the backseat as she slid behind the wheel. She clipped Betty Mura’s home address to her visor. A West Side address, no surprise there considering the girl’s clothes. But what had she been doing on a roof in east midtown? What had she been doing anywhere in east midtown, and how had she gotten there? She might have died of natural causes but there had definitely been something unusual going on in the last hours of her life.

She went to start the car and then paused. First she should call Rafe Pasco, tell him she had the girl’s name and address and she would pick him up.

The image of his head resting on the pillow beside her flashed in her mind; irritation surged and was immediately overwhelmed by the Dread in a renewed assault. She had a sudden strong urge to close her eyes and let her head fall forward on the steering wheel and stay that way until the next Ice Age or the heat death of the universe, which ever came second.

She took a steadying breath, popped her cell phone into the cradle on the dashboard, put it on speaker and dialled the squad room. Tommy DiCenzo answered; she asked him to put her through to Pasco.

“Can’t, Ruby. He’s not here, he left.”

“Where’d he go?” she asked, but as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she knew the answer.

“Coroner’s office called—they identified your rooftop girl from her dental records. He took the name and address and left.”

“Did he say anything about coming to get me first?” Knowing that he hadn’t.

Tommy hesitated. “Not to me. But I got the impression he thought you already knew, since you were on your way over to the coroner’s anyway.”

Shit,” she muttered and started the car. “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know Pasco’s cell phone number, would you? I don’t have it with me.”

“Hang on—”

“Tommy—” But he had already put the phone down. She could hear the tanky background noise of the squad room: footsteps, a phone ringing, and Tommy’s voice, distant and indistinct, asking a question. A few seconds later he picked up the phone again.

“OK, ready?”

“Wait—” she found a pen, looked around hurriedly and then held the point over the back of her other hand. “Go.”

He dictated the number to her carefully, saying it twice.

“Thanks, Tommy,” she said, disconnecting before he could say anything else. She dialled the number he’d given her, then pulled away from the curb as it began to ring.

To her immense frustration, it kept on ringing for what seemed like a hundred times before she finally heard the click of someone picking up.

“Rafe Pasco speaking—”

“Goddamit, Rafe, why didn’t you call me before—”

“I’m in the Bahamas for two weeks,” his voice went on cheerfully, cutting into her tirade, “and as you can see, I didn’t pack my cell phone. Sorry about that. But you can phone my house-sitter and talk to her if you want. It’s your call.” There was another click followed by a mechanical female voice inviting her to leave a message after the beep.

Ruby stabbed the disconnect button and redialled. The same thing happened and she disconnected again, furious. Was Pasco playing some kind of mind-game or had he really just forgotten to change his voicemail message after his last vacation? Either way, she was going to have a hard time not punching him. Weaving in and out of the traffic, she headed for the freeway.

She was merging into traffic from the entrance ramp when all at once she found herself wondering what she was so frantic about. Pasco had been inconsiderate, even rude, but he must have figured she’d get the same information from the coroner. Possibly he had assumed she would head over to the Mura house directly from the coroner. He was her partner, after all—why should she be concerned about him going to the girl’s house without her?

The Dread clutched her stomach like a fist and she swerved halfway into the breakdown lane. Behind her, a horn blared long and hard. She slowed down, pulling all the way into the breakdown lane to let the car pass; it whizzed by a fraction of a second later. The Dread maintained its grip on her, flooding her system and leaving no room for even a flash of fear at her close call. She slowed down intending to stop, but the Dread wouldn’t let her step on the brake.

“What the fuck,” she whispered as the car rumbled along. The Dread seemed to have come to life in her with an intensity beyond anything she had felt in the past. The maddening, horrible thing about it, however, was that it had not tipped over into terror or panic, which she realized finally was what she had been waiting for it to do. She had been expecting that as a logical progression—apprehension turned to dread, dread became fear. But it hadn’t. She had never suspected it was possible to feel so much dread—Dread—without end. It shouldn’t have been. Because it wasn’t a steady-state universe.

So what kind of universe was it, then?

This was it, she thought suddenly; this was the crack-up and it was happening in fast-motion just like she had wanted. The thing to do now was stop the car, call Tommy DiCenzo, and tell him she needed help.

Then she pressed the accelerator, put on her turn signal and checked the rear-view mirror as she moved back into the travel lane.

The well-groomed West Side houses slid through the frame of the car windows as Ruby navigated the wide, clean streets. She didn’t know the West Side quite as well as the rest of the city and the layout was looser than the strict, organized northland grid or the logical progressions of midtown and the south side. Developers and contractors had staked out patches of the former meadowlands and put up subdivisions with names like Saddle Hills and Wildflower Dale and filled them with split-level ranches for the young middle-class and cookie-cutter mansions for the newly affluent. Ruby had taken small notice of any of it during the years Jake had been growing up. There was no appeal to the idea of moving to the West Side from downtown—it would have meant two hours of sheer commuting every day, time she preferred to spend with her son. The downtown school district had not been cutting edge but it hadn’t been anywhere near disastrous, either—

She gave her head a quick shake to clear it. Get a grip, she ordered herself and tightened her hands on the steering wheel as if that would help. She checked the address clipped to her visor again, then paused at the end of the street, craning her neck to read the road sign. It would solve a lot of problems she thought if the cheap-ass city would just put GPS navigation in all the goddam cars. She turned right onto the cross street and then wondered if she had made a mistake. Had she already driven along this street? The houses looked familiar.

Well, of course they looked familiar, she realized, irritated—they were all alike. She kept going, watching the street signs carefully. Christ, it wasn’t only the houses themselves that were all alike—it was also the cars in the driveways, the front lawns, even the toys scattered on the grass. The same but not the same. Like Alice Nakamura and Betty Mura.

She came to another intersection and paused again, almost driving on before she realized that the street on her left was the one she wanted. The Dread renewed its intensity as she made the turn, barely noticing the woman pushing a double stroller with two toddlers in it. Both the woman and her children watched her pass with alert curiosity on their unremarkable faces. They were the only people Ruby had seen out walking but the Dread left no room for her to register as much.

The Mura house was not a cookie-cutter mansion—more like a cookie-cutter update of the kind of big old Victorian Jake and Lita lived in with the kids. Ruby pulled up at the curb instead of parking in the driveway where a shiny black SUV was blocked in by a not-so-shiny car that she knew had to belong to Rafe Pasco.

Ruby sat, staring at the front of the house. It felt as if the Dread were writhing inside her now. The last thing she wanted to do was go inside. Or rather, it should have been the last thing she wanted to do. The Dread, alive everywhere in her all the way to her fingertips, to the soles of her feet, threatened to become even worse if she didn’t.

Moving slowly and carefully, she got out of the car and walked up the driveway, pausing at Pasco’s car to look in the open driver’s side window. The interior was impossibly clean for a cop or a geek—no papers, no old sandwich wrappers or empty drink cups. Hell, even the floormats were clean, as if they had just been vacuumed. Nothing in the backseat, either, except more clean.

She glanced over at the glove box; then her gaze fell on the trunk release. If she popped it, what would she find in there, she wondered—a portable car-cleaning kit with a hand vac? A carton of secret geek files? Or just more clean nothing?

There would be nothing in the trunk. All the secret geek files would be on Pasco’s notebook and he probably had that with him. She considered popping the trunk anyway and then moved away from the car, stopping again to look inside the SUV. The windows were open and the doors were unlocked—apparently the Muras trusted their neighbours and the people who came to visit them. Even the alarm was off.

There was a hard-shell CD case sitting on the passenger seat and a thin crescent of disk protruding from the slot of the player in the dash. A small string of tiny pink and yellow beads dangled from the rear-view mirror along with a miniature pair of fuzzy, hot-pink dice. Ruby wondered if Betty Mura had put them there.

She turned toward the front door and then thought better of it. Instead, she made her way around the side of the garage and into the unfenced back yard.

Again she stopped. The yard was empty except for a swing-set and a brightly painted jungle gym. Behind the swings was a cement patio with a couple of loungers; under one of them was an empty plastic glass lying on its side, forgotten and probably considered lost.

The sliding glass patio doors were open, Ruby realized suddenly, although the screen door was closed and the curtains were drawn. She edged her way along the rear of the garage and sidled up next to the open door.

“…less pleading your case with me,” she heard Pasco saying. “Both girls are dead. It ends here.”

“But the other girls—” a man started.

“There are no other girls,” Pasco told him firmly. “Not for you. They aren’t your daughters.”

Ruby frowned. Daughters? So the girls really had been twins?

“But they are—” protested a woman.

“You can’t think that way,” Pasco said. “Once there’s been a divergence, those lives—your own, your children’s, everyone’s—are lost to you. To act as if it were otherwise is the same as if you went next door to your neighbour’s house and took over everything they owned. Including their children.”

“I told you, we didn’t come here to kidnap Betty,” the man said patiently. “I saw her records—the man showed me. He told us about her aneurysm. He said it was almost a sure thing that it would kill her before Alice’s heart gave out. Then we could get her heart for transplant knowing that it would be a perfect match for Alice—”

“You heartless bastard,” said a second male voice identical to the one that had been speaking. How many people were in that room, Ruby wondered.

“She was going to die anyway,” said the first man. “There was nothing anyone could do about it—”

“The hell there wasn’t. If we had known, we could have taken her to a hospital for emergency surgery,” a woman said angrily. “They can fix those things now, you know. Or aren’t they as advanced where you come from?”

“It doesn’t matter any more,” Pasco said, raising his voice to talk over them. “Because Alice died first after all.”

“Yes,” said the woman bitterly, speaking through tears. It sounded like the same woman who had been talking so angrily a few moments before but Ruby had a feeling it wasn’t.

“And do you know why that is?” Pasco asked in a stern, almost paternal tone of voice.

“The man was wrong,” said the tearful woman.

“Or he lied,” said the angry one.

“No, it was because you came here and you brought Alice with you,” Pasco said. “Once you did that, all bets as they say here were off. The moment you came in, it threw everything out of kilter because you don’t belong here. You’re extra—surplus. One too many times three. It interrupted the normal flow of progress; things scattered with such force that there were even natural-law anomalies. This morning, a very interesting woman said to me, ‘Human beings can make a mess out of chaos.’ I couldn’t tell her how extraordinarily right she was, of course, so I couldn’t stop laughing. She must have thought I was crazy.”

Ruby pressed her lips together, thinking that he couldn’t be any crazier than she was herself right now; it was just that she was a lot more confused.

Abruptly, she heard the sound of the front door opening, followed by new voices as a few more people entered the house. This was turning into quite a party; too bad Pasco had left her off the guest list.

“Finally,” she heard him saying. “I was about to call you again, find out what happened to you.”

“These West Side streets are confusing,” a woman answered. This was a completely new voice but Ruby found it strangely familiar. “It’s not a nice, neat grid like northland, you know.”

“Complain all you want later,” Pasco said. “I want to wrap this up as soon as possible.”

“I don’t know about that,” said another man. “Have you looked out front?”

Pasco groaned. “What now?”

“There’s a car parked at the curb, right in front of the house,” the man said. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

“Oh, hell,” Pasco said. She heard his footsteps thumping hurriedly away from the patio door—probably going to look out the window at the car—and then coming back again. She straightened her shoulders and, refusing to give herself time to think about it, she yanked open the screen door and stepped into the house, flinging aside the curtain.

“I’m right h—” Her voice died in her throat and she could only stand, frozen in place, one hand still clutching the edge of the curtain while she stared at Rafe Pasco. And a man who seemed to be his older, much taller brother. And two identical Japanese couples sitting side by side on a long sofa with their hands cuffed in front of them.

And, standing behind the couch, her newly retired ex-partner Rita Castillo.

“Now, don’t panic,” Pasco said after what might have been ten minutes or ten months.

“I’m not panicking,” Ruby managed in a hoarse voice. She drew a long, shaky breath. Inside her, the Dread was no longer vibrating or writing or swelling; it had finally reached full power. This was what she had been dreading all this time, day after day. Except now that she was finally face to face with it, she had no idea what it actually was.

“I can assure you that you’re not in any danger,” Pasco added.

“I know,” she said faintly.

“No, you don’t.”

“OK,” Ruby said. Obviously he was in charge so she would defer willingly, without protest.

“The sensation you’re feeling right now has nothing to do with your actual safety,” Pasco went on, speaking carefully and distinctly, as if he were trying to talk her down from a high ledge. Or maybe a bad acid trip was more like it, she thought, glancing at the Japanese couples. The Muras and the Nakamuras, apparently. She wondered which was which. “What it actually is is a kind of allergic reaction.”

“Oh?” She looked around the room. Everyone else seemed to understand what he was talking about, including the Japanese couples. “What am I allergic to?”

“It’s something in the nature of a disturbance.”

Oh, God, no, she thought, now he’s going to say something about “the force.” I’ll find out they’re all actually a lunatic cult and Pasco’s the leader. And I’m trapped in a house with them. Her gaze drifted over to Rita. No, Rita would never have let herself get sucked into anything like that. Would she?

Rita shifted, becoming slightly uncomfortable under Ruby’s gaze. “Do I know you?” she asked finally.

Ruby’s jaw dropped. She felt as if Rita had slapped her.

“No, you don’t,” Pasco said over his shoulder. “She knows someone like you. Where you come from, the two of you never met. Here, you were partners.”

“Wow,” Rita said, shaking her head. “It never ceases to amaze me, all that what-might-have-been stuff.” She smiled at Ruby, giving an apologetic shrug.

“And where does she come from?” Ruby wanted to know. Her voice was a little stronger now.

“That doesn’t matter,” Pasco told her. “Besides, the less you know, the better you’ll feel.”

“Really?” She made a sceptical face.

“No,” he said, resigned. “Actually, you’ll feel not quite so bad. Not quite so much Dread. It may not be much but any relief is welcome. Isn’t it?” He took a small step toward her. “And you’ve been feeling very bad for a while now, haven’t you? Though it wasn’t quite so awful in the beginning.”

Ruby didn’t say anything.

“Only you’re not sure exactly when it started,” Pasco continued, moving a little closer. Ruby wondered why he was being so cautious with her. Was he afraid of what she might do? “I can tell you. It started when the Nakamuras arrived here. Ostensibly from the Cayman Islands. When they stepped out of their own world and into this one. Into yours.”

Ruby took a deep breath and let it out, willing herself to be less tense. She looked around, spotted an easy chair opposite the couch and leaned on the back of it. “All right,” she said to Pasco, “who are you and what the hell are you talking about?”

Pasco hesitated. “I’m a cop.”

“No,” Ruby said with exaggerated patience, “I’m a cop. Try again.”

“It’s the truth,” Pasco insisted. “I really am a cop. Of sorts.”

“What sort?” Ruby asked. “Geek squad? Not homicide.”

He hesitated again. “Crimes against persons and property. This includes identity theft which is not a geek squad job in my line of law enforcement.”

Ruby wanted to sit down more than anything in the world now but she forced herself to stay on her feet. To make Pasco look at her on the same level, as an equal. “Go on.”

“It’s my job to make sure that people who regret what might’ve been don’t get so carried away that they try to do something unlawful to try to rectify it. Even if that means preventing a young girl from getting the heart transplant that will save her life.”

Ruby looked over at the people sitting handcuffed on the sofa. They all looked miserable and angry.

“An unscrupulous provider of illegal goods and services convinced a couple of vulnerable parents that they could save their daughter’s life if they went to a place where two other parents very similar to themselves were living a life in which things had gone a bit differently. Where their daughter, who was named Betty instead of Alice, had an undetected aneurysm instead of a heart condition.”

Light began to dawn for Ruby. Her mind returned to the idea of being trapped in a house with a bunch of lunatic cultists. Then she looked at Rita. Where you come from, the two of you never met.

“Many of my cases are much simpler,” Pasco went on. “People who want to win instead of lose—a hand of cards, a race, the lottery. Who think they’d have been better off if they’d turned left instead of right, said yes instead of no.” He spread his hands. “But we can’t let them do that, of course. We can’t let them take something from its rightful owner.”

“And by ‘we’ you mean…?” Ruby waited; he didn’t answer. “All right, then let’s try this: you can’t possibly be the same kind of cop I am. I’m local, equally subject to the laws that I enforce. But you’re not. Are you.”

“I wouldn’t say that, exactly,” Pasco replied. “I have to obey those laws but in order to enforce them, I have to live outside the system they apply to.”

She looked at Rita again. Or rather, the woman she had thought was Rita. “And what’s your story? He said you’re from a place where we never met. Does your being here with him mean you don’t live there any more?”

Not-Rita nodded. “Someone stole my identity and I couldn’t get it back. Things didn’t end well.”

“And all you could do was become a sort of a cop?” Ruby asked.

“We have to go,” said Pasco’s taller brother before the woman could answer. He could have been an alternative version of Pasco, Ruby thought, from a place where she hadn’t met him, either. Would that be the same place that Not-Rita came from? She decided she didn’t want to know and hoped none of them would feel compelled to tell her.

“We’ve still got time,” Pasco said, looking at his watch, which seemed to be a very complicated device. “But there’s no good in pushing things right down to the wire. Take them out through the garage and put them in the SUV—”

“Where are you taking them?” Ruby asked as taller Pasco and Not-Rita got the Japanese couples on their feet.

Pasco looked surprised by the question; it was a moment or two before he could answer. “To court. A kind of court.”

“Ah,” Ruby said. “Would that be for an arraignment? A sort of arraignment?”

He nodded and Ruby knew he was lying. She had no idea how she knew but she did, just as she knew it was the first time he had ever lied to her. She let it go, watching as the other two herded the Japanese couples toward the kitchen.

“Wait,” she said suddenly. Everyone stopped, turning to look at her. “Which ones are the Nakamuras?”

Judging from the group reaction, she had definitely asked the wrong question. Even the couples looked dismayed, as if she had threatened them in some fashion.

“Does it matter?” Pasco said after a long moment.

“No, I guess not.”

And it didn’t, not to her or anyone else, she realized; not now, not ever again. When you got caught in this kind of identity theft, you probably had to give identity up completely. Exactly what that meant she had no idea but she knew it couldn’t have been very pleasant.

Pasco nodded and the other two escorted the couples out of the room. A few moments later, Ruby heard the kitchen door leading to the garage open and close.

“How did you know the Nakamuras would come here?” Ruby asked Pasco.

“I didn’t. Just dumb luck—they were here when I arrived so I took them all into custody.”

“And they didn’t resist or try to get away?”

“There’s nowhere for them to go. The Nakamuras can’t survive indefinitely here unless they could somehow replace the Muras.”

“Then why did you arrest the Muras?”

“They were going to let the Nakamuras supplant them while they moved on to a place where their daughter hadn’t died.”

The permutations began to pile up in Ruby’s brain; she squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, cutting off the train of thought before it made her dizzy.

“All right,” she said. “But what about this master criminal who convinced the Nakamuras to do all this in the first place? How could he-she-whatever know about Betty Mura’s aneurysm?”

Pasco’s face became thoughtful again and she could practically see his mind working at choosing the right words. “Outside the system, there is access to certain kinds of information about the elements within it. Features are visible outside that can’t be discerned inside.

“Unfortunately, making that information available inside never goes well. It’s like poison. Things begin to malfunction.”

“Is that really why Alice Nakamura died before the other girl?” Ruby asked.

“It was an extra contributing factor but it also had to do with the Nakamuras being in a world where they didn’t belong. As I said.” Pasco crossed the room to close the patio door and lock it. “What I was referring to were certain anomalies of time and space.”

Ruby shook her head, not understanding.

“It’s how Betty Mura ended up on a rooftop in midtown,” he clarified. “She just went there, from wherever she had been at the time. Undoubtedly the shock blew out the weakness in her brain and killed her.”

“Jesus,” Ruby muttered under her breath. “Don’t think I’ll be including that in my report—” Abruptly, the memory of Rafe Pasco lying in bed with her, his head resting on the pillow and looking at her with profound regret lit up in her mind. So sorry to have dropped in from nowhere without calling first. Not a dream? He might tell her if she asked him but she wasn’t sure that was an answer she really wanted.

“That’s all right,” Pasco said. “I will. Slightly different case, of course, and the report will go elsewhere.”

“Of course.” Ruby’s knees were aching. She finally gave up and sat down on the edge of the chair. “Should I assume that all the information you showed me about the Nakamuras—passports, the IRS, all that—was fabricated?”

“I adapted it from their existing records. Alice’s passport worried me, though. It’s not exactly a forgery—they brought it with them and I have no idea why they left it or any other identifying materials behind.”

“You don’t have kids, do you,” Ruby said, amused in spite of everything.

“No, I don’t,” he said, mildly surprised.

“If you did, you’d know why they couldn’t just leave her to go nameless into an unmarked grave.”

Pasco nodded. “The human factor.” Outside, a horn honked. “It’s time to go. Or do you want to stay here?”

Ruby stood up, looking around. “What’s going to happen to this place? And all the other things in the Muras’ lives?”

“We have ways of papering over the cracks and stains, so to speak,” he told her. “Their daughter was just found dead. If they don’t come back here for a while and then decide not to come back at all, I don’t think anyone will find that terribly strange.”

“But their families—”

“There’s a lot to take care of,” Pasco said, talking over her. “Even if I had the time to cover every detail for you, I would not. It comes dangerously close to providing information that doesn’t belong here. I could harm the system. I’m sure I’ve told you too much as it is.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked. “Take me to ‘court,’ too?”

“Only if you do something you shouldn’t.” He ushered her through the house to the front door.

“OK, but just tell me this, then.” She put her hand on the doorknob before he could. “What are you going to do when the real Rafe Pasco comes back from the Bahamas?”

He stared at her in utter bewilderment. “What?”

“That is what you did, isn’t it? Waited for him to go on vacation and then borrowed his identity so you could work on this case?” When he still looked blank, she told him about listening to the message on his cell phone.

“Ah, that,” he said, laughing a little. “No, I am the real Rafe Pasco. I forgot to change my voicemail message after I came back from vacation. Then I decided to leave it that way. Just as a joke. It confuses the nuisance callers.”

It figured, Ruby thought. She opened the door and stepped outside, Pasco following. Behind his car was a small white van; the print on the side claimed that it belonged to Five-Star Electrical Services, Re-Wiring Specialists, which Ruby thought also figured. Not-Rita was sitting in the driver’s seat, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. The tall guy was sitting in the SUV.

“So that’s it?” Ruby said, watching Pasco lock the front door. “You close down your case and I just go home now, knowing everything that I know and that’s all right with you?”

“Shouldn’t I trust you?” he asked her.

“Should I trust you?” she countered. “How do I know I’m not going to get a service call from an electrician and end up with all new wiring, too?”

“I told you,” he said patiently, “only if you use any of what you know to engage in something illegal. And you won’t.”

“What makes you so goddam sure about that?” she demanded.

Forehead creasing with concern, Pasco looked into her face. She was about to say something else when something happened.

All at once, her mind opened up and she found that she was looking at an enormous panorama—all the lost possibilities, the missed opportunities, the bad calls; a lifetime of uncorrected mistakes, missteps, and fumbles. All those things were a single big picture—perhaps the proverbial big picture, the proverbial forest you sometimes couldn’t see for the proverbial trees. But she was seeing it now and seeing it all at once.

It was too much. She would never be able to recall it as an image, to look at it again in the future. Concentrating, she struggled to focus on portions of it instead:

Jake’s father, going back to his wife, unaware that she was pregnant—she had always been sure that had been no mistake but now she knew there was a world where he had known and stayed with her, and one where he had known and left anyway—

Jake, growing up interested in music not computers; getting mixed up with drugs with Ricky Carstairs; helping Ricky Carstairs straighten out; coming out to her at sixteen and introducing his boyfriend; marrying his college sweetheart instead of Lita; adopting children with his husband Dennis; getting the Rhodes Scholarship instead of someone else; moving to California instead of Boston—

The mammogram and the biopsy results; the tests left too late—

Wounding the suspect in the Martinez case instead of killing him; missing her shot and taking a bullet instead while someone else killed him; having the decision by the shooting board go against her; retiring after twenty years instead of staying on; getting fed up and quitting after ten; going to night school to finish her degree—

Jury verdicts, convictions instead of acquittals and vice versa; catching Darren Hightower after the first victim instead of after the seventh—

Or going into a different line of work altogether—

Or finding out about all of this before now, long before now when she was still young and full of energy, looking for an edge and glad to find it. Convincing herself that she was using it not for her own personal gain but as a force for good. Something that would save lives, literally and figuratively, expose the corrupt and reward the good and the worthy. One person could make a difference—wasn’t that what everyone always said? The possibilities could stretch so far beyond herself:

Government with a conscience instead of agendas; schools and hospitals instead of wars; no riots, no assassinations, no terror, no Lee Harvey Oswald, no James Earl Ray, no Sirhan Sirhan, no 9/11—

And maybe even no nine-year-old boy found naked and dead in a dumpster—

Abruptly she found herself leaning heavily against the side of the Mura house, straining to keep from falling down while the Dread tried to turn her inside out.

Rafe Pasco cleared his throat. “How do you feel?”

She looked at him, miserable.

“That’s what makes me so certain,” he went on. “Your, uh, allergic reaction. If there’s any sort of disruption here, no matter how large or small, you’ll feel it. And it won’t feel good. And if you tried to do something yourself—” He made a small gesture at her. “Well, you see what happened when you only thought about it.”

“Great,” she said shakily. “What do I do now, spend the rest of my life trying not to think impure thoughts?”

Pasco’s expression turned sheepish. “That’s not what I meant. You feel this way because of the current circumstances. Once the alien elements have been removed from your world—” he glanced at the SUV “—you’ll start to feel better. The bad feeling will fade away.”

“And how long is that going to take?” she asked him.

“You’ll be all right.”

“That’s no answer.”

“I think I’ve given you enough answers already.” He started for his car and she caught his arm.

“Just one more thing,” she said. “Really. Just one.”

Pasco looked as if he were deciding whether to shake her off or not. “What,” he said finally.

“This so-called allergic reaction of mine. Is there any reason for it or is it just one of those things? Like hayfever or some kind of weakness.”

“Some kind of weakness.” Pasco chuckled without humour. “Sometimes when there’s been a divergence in one’s own line, there’s a certain…sensitivity.”

Ruby nodded with resignation. “Is that another way of saying that you’ve given me enough answers already?”

Pasco hesitated. “All those could-have-beens, those might-have-dones and if-I-knew-thens you were thinking.”

The words were out of her mouth before she even knew what she was going to say. “They all happened.”

“I know you won’t do anything,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning toward her slightly, “because you have. And the conscience that bothers you still bothers you, even at long distance. Even in the hypothetical.”

Ruby made a face. “My guilty conscience? Is that really what it is?”

“I don’t know how else to put it.”

“Well.” She took a breath, feeling a little bit steadier. “I guess that’ll teach me to screw around with the way things should be.”

Pasco frowned impatiently. “It’s not should or shouldn’t. It’s just what is.

“With no second chances.”

“With second chances, third chances, hundredth chances, millionth chances,” Pasco corrected her. “All the chances you want. But not a second chance to have a first chance.”

Ruby didn’t say anything.

“This is what poisons the system and makes everything go wrong. You live within the system, within the mechanism. It’s not meant to be used or manipulated by an individual. To be taken personally. It’s a system, a process. It’s nothing personal.”

“Hey, I thought it was time to go,” the man in the SUV called impatiently.

Pasco waved at him and then turned to Ruby again. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You will?” she said, surprised. But he was already getting into his car and she had no idea whether he had heard her or not. And he had given her enough answers already anyway, she thought, watching all three vehicles drive away. He had given her enough answers already and he would see her tomorrow.

And how would that go, she wondered, now that she knew what she knew? How would it be working with him? Would the Dread really fade away if she saw him every day, knowing and remembering?

Would she be living the rest of her life or was she just stuck with it?

Pasco had given her enough answers already and there was no one else to ask.

Ruby walked across the Mura’s front lawn to her car, thinking that it felt as if the Dread had already begun to lift a little. That was something, at least. Her guilty conscience; she gave a small, humourless laugh. Now that was something she had never suspected would creep up on her. Time marched on and one day you woke up to find you were a somewhat dumpy, greying, middle-aged homicide detective with twenty-five years on the job and a hefty lump of guilty conscience and regret. And if you wanted to know why, to understand, well, that was just too bad because you had already been given too many answers already. Nothing personal.

She started the car and drove away from the empty house, through the meandering streets, and did no better finding her way out of the West Side than she had finding her way in.

THE ROSE WALL

JOYCE CAROL OATES

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of a number of works of fiction including, most recently, the novel Mudwoman (Ecco/HarperCollins) and the story collection The Corn Maiden and Other Stories (Grove Atlantic). She is a 2011 recipient of the President’s Medal for the Humanities and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Throughout the protracted summers of my childhood and well into autumn, frequently as late as November, the wall at the base of our garden bloomed with climber roses. The bushes were luxuriant—they were carefully tended—and grew to a height of nine or ten feet. There were clusters of red roses bright as drops of blood; there were small, rather anemic pink roses that grew across the archway over the garden gate; there were rich yellow roses—my favorite—that glowed with light on even overcast or mist-shrouded days.

The rose wall, I called it—that section of the wall. The rose wall, which was so beautiful.

The wall itself, the real wall, was made of granite. It surrounded our house and grounds on all sides—an enormous rectangle—sturdy and functional and rather ugly except at the base of the garden where the roses bloomed. Most days I never noticed the wall. None of the children noticed the wall. You couldn’t see it because it was always there, there was nothing to see or think about, everything was in its place and never changed. At the foot of the long gravel drive there was an enormous gate made of oak and iron which was kept bolted most of the time, so that the gate too was part of the wall, and invisible.

One day I asked our nursemaid why there were “sharp things”—spikes—growing out of the top of the wall. Without troubling to look toward the wall she told me that they had always been there. Yes, but why?—I asked. She did not reply. Why? I asked. Annoyed with her—our female servants were usually sullen and slow, and not very bright—I pulled at her arm and made her look at the wall, at the spikes: Why are they there? I asked. But her gaze was stubbornly averted; her reply was so low I could not hear. Ask them yourself, I seemed to have heard. Ask someone else, she must have said.

When my mother came to kiss me goodnight that night, after my bath, I asked her about the sharp things and she looked startled. Sharp things, she said, what sharp things? What do you mean?

In all our city, my father said, only a half-dozen houses were so grand as ours; and all were in our hilly district, behind high walls of stone or brick or granite. From our playroom on the third floor we could see the city sloping away below—chimneys, orange-tiled roofs, church spires, the tower and cross of the great cathedral, and the blue-glittering surface of the Aussenalster. How lovely! On exceptionally clear days, when the mist burned off by mid-morning, we could even see the highest towers of the old castle many miles to the north. Sometimes it looked like an ordinary stone building, faint and near-colorless with distance; at other times it looked glowering and iridescent, like a reflection quivering in water.

How lovely, visitors to the playroom would exclaim, leaning on the windowsill and breathing deeply the fragrant air that arose from the garden below. Oh yes, my mother or grandmother or one of my aunts would say, laughing, oh yes certainly—from here.

In my childhood there were many servants. No one could keep their names straight. It didn’t matter—they came and went, speaking their strange dialects, nursemaids and cooks and handymen and gardeners and drivers and maids and washerwomen. Some lived inside the wall with us, in the servants’ wing; others came by way of a rear gate, and entered the house by way of the kitchen. What a gabble we children heard if we eavesdropped! Most of the servants were peasants, difficult to train—and difficult to trust. They lied, they stole, they sabotaged things; they disappeared and my father was forced to send the police after them, to have them arrested. Where do they come from, we children asked, and the reply was always the same: From out there. One of the adults would make a careless gesture of the hand, indicating the city, or the countryside in the distance—the world beyond the wall. Where do they come from? Oh, from out there, where else?—out there.

Why are they so stupid, we asked, why do they talk funny?

They can’t help it, it’s the way they are, we were told. Out there it’s the way people are.

Tutors came as well, more refined men and women. A piano instructor who played the piano so beautifully that tears flooded my eyes; a riding master with long curly moustaches. Though we were driven to mass at the cathedral two or three times a week, the priest frequently came to visit us; and the archbishop, who had been a friend of my grandfather’s. And messengers and special deliverymen, bringing pastries and great baskets of fruit and wonderful chocolates of all kinds from my parents’ favorite shops in town….

You must never forget how fortunate you are, everyone said. You must never forget how God has blessed you.

Kneeling at prayer, in the drafty cathedral or at the side of my bed. Dear God thank you for the blessings you have bestowed upon me…. Dear God thank you…. Thank you…. But my mind slipped away, grew bored and slipped away. Tiresome old God! He was another of the adults, older than Grandmother, spying at us from doorways.

God loves you, God has blessed you, an old servant-woman told me one day, with a queer peevish smile. She was looking directly at me as if she were seeing me—which was not the way anyone in our house looked at us children. I made an impatient gesture, or murmured something in embarrassment. I would have slipped away but she showed me a heart-shaped locket she wore around her scrawny neck which contained the photograph of a young girl with dark braided hair, thick straight dark eyebrows, and a defiant upper lip. God has blessed you, the old woman said.

What did I care about an ugly girl in a locket around an old woman’s neck? I held my breath when servants stood too close.

Another time one of the laundresses, a large soft woman with carrot-red hair and teeth missing in her lower jaw, began to talk with me in a queer harsh dialect. I was prowling the house, I had wandered into the kitchen hallway in order to eavesdrop; but I did not want to talk with anyone. They have hurt little girls like you, the woman said, little girls prettier than you, she said, giving off a yeasty beery odor, actually touching my arm to detain me. Your people, soldiers, young soldiers from this town….

I should have pushed rudely away and escaped, but for some reason I stood there, unable to move. The woman’s cheeks and forehead were flushed as if windburnt, there were two teeth missing in her lower jaw, and the rest of her teeth were badly stained. Her hands too were reddened—the skin stretched across the oversized knuckles was scraped raw. Sniffing, half-sobbing, she told me an angry incoherent story of an eleven-year-old girl… her family lying dead amid rubble… soldiers marching by on a road, in the mud…. Her dialect was so throaty and harsh, I could not understand most of the words. Stop, I don’t want to hear, I hate you, you stink, I wanted to say, but I stood paralyzed while she continued: repeating herself, mumbling, wiping her nose on the back of her clumsy hand. Soldiers discovered the girl, soldiers were laughing and excited, they “did things to her” and afterward pushed her back down in the rubble, in what had been the cellar. She was bleeding, some of her teeth had been knocked out….

I wasn’t afraid, but I started to cry. I hated the woman and didn’t believe her, and couldn’t understand most of her words, but I started to cry.

So she was frightened, and let me go. And I ran and ran and hid in my mother’s bedroom.

(And I never saw that woman again—she must have been dismissed. A tall soft-bodied woman with red hair, a watery gaze, a mouth that looked as if it were lewdly smiling….)

My father was a very tall broad-shouldered man with sandy whiskers and clear pale eyes. My mother was a pretty, nervous woman who wore her hair—but what color was her hair?—in heavy coils around her head. My father wore dark colors, and dazzling white shirts; my mother wore dresses of all colors and all materials. (The dressmaker was always at our house. Often she and her two assistants stayed for a week at a time.) My father seemed vaguely embarrassed and impatient in my mother’s presence, but then they were not together often. Though of course they shared the same bedroom. But during the day, in daytime, they were not often together.

It was my father who told me that I was forbidden to go outside the wall. Except of course when I was in the company of others, driven in one of our cars. The entire family went out to church, naturally; and we often went visiting, in the homes of families nearby; but there was no need for any of us children to leave the grounds because we had everything we wanted there—ponies, pets, a beautiful dark pond in which carp lived, a pretty wooden swing freshly painted white.

My mother said nothing about the wall, my mother did not see it. And anyway the garden gate—the gate at the rear of the garden—was always kept locked.

Except—not always.

Whenever I played in the garden, whenever I could slip away from the others, I would try the doorknob of the gate. Because the climber roses grew so profusely here I had to be careful of thorns. (Sometimes thin tendrils brushed against my face as if caressing me.) The gate was locked, the gate was always locked, except one afternoon when I turned the handle hard—so hard my fingers hurt—the gate came open!

I could not believe it. But it was true. The gate had not been locked after all, or perhaps the lock had broken under the strain…. The iron fixtures on the gate were rusted and moss grew so thickly underfoot, I had to wrench the gate open with all my strength. But it did come open, it did stand open. And I slipped through.

And was no one watching? Neither of my sisters, or my grandmother, or the freckled silent girl from the country who was supposed to watch closely over me…?

I did not worry that my mother would see: she had better things to do than spy on her children.

So I slipped through the gate. And found myself on a cobblestone street. Of course it was familiar—it was the street that bordered our property on one side—I had been driven along it hundreds of times—but for some reason it looked unfamiliar. The slanted lighting, perhaps (it was late afternoon); the startling noise of the traffic; new odors I could not define. It looked unfamiliar, but I wasn’t in the least afraid.

Did I hear a voice behind me?—scolding and alarmed?

I pulled the gate shut, giggling, and ran out into the street.

And ran and ran….

I had never been on foot before, outside our wall. But I wasn’t in the least afraid.

The traffic was heavy: automobiles, delivery vans, even several horse-drawn carriages: what a rumble of wheels, what a commotion! I tasted grit, my eyes smarted. Beside me the wall was high and blank, nothing grew on it, on this side. Or was it our wall, now?—I had been running downhill—I might have left our wall behind—but it didn’t matter because I would have no difficulty making my way back.

Though—to be truthful—I did not really think about it, then, in those first elated minutes, making my way back.

I ran, breathless and giggling, glancing back over my shoulder to see if they were following, and it seemed to me that I had never really run before in my life, with such gaiety, with such surprising strength in my legs and feet: no one could catch me!—not even my father, or one of my brothers! I was running downhill, the cobblestone street on my right, the high rough featureless wall on my left, and my beating heart, and even the noisy turbulence of the street and its odors, delighted me. To run and run and run—what a prank, what an adventure!

Several times I heard voices behind me, shouts, pleas, but I never stopped running, and when I paused, out of breath, panting, at a busy intersection where five streets ran together—where the wall at last had disappeared—there was no one behind me. I wiped my sweaty face, and peered up the hill, which was a very steep hill, and saw no one. My heart leapt with mischievous delight!—I had slipped through the rose wall and escaped my pursuers and now I would explore the city on foot: I would do exactly as I wanted for the rest of the day.

No one followed. No one appeared suddenly beside me to seize my arm, and give me a good scolding, and take me immediately back home.

For some time I walked wherever my fancy led me, still in high spirits. If passersby noticed me and remarked upon me—for I was very small to be unaccompanied—I ignored them, and hurried past. I began to tire, but the elation of my escape stayed with me. How large and noisy the city was, and how fascinating!—what a clamor! Beefy-faced men and women of a kind I had never seen before, speaking in a strange guttural accent; shabby carriages and vans, driven recklessly by men not in uniform; a narrow makeshift bridge over a canal where I stood leaning against the railing for a half-hour, resting and watching the boats—mainly barges—that passed beneath, rocking on the oily waves.

The afternoon began to darken. I glanced around, thinking that someone from the house might be approaching. But I saw only traffic, which passed by in a continual stream, and strangers who gave me no notice.

I headed in the direction of our house, but found myself in a park I had never seen before. At the edge of a refuse-littered lagoon a few people stood tossing chunks of bread at a lazy group of geese and swans. The birds’ feathers, particularly their breast feathers, were soiled with what looked like grease, but they were large handsome birds; I stood staring at them for a while. My eyelids grew heavy. A pair of geese paddled my way, curiously, then saw that I had nothing for them and turned indifferently aside.

My mouth watered at the sight of bread in the water. Bobbing on the surface, dipping and rising. A black swan snaked its head down to jab at a piece of bread with his salmon-pink bill, and I felt an absurd pang of hunger.

I left the park and began to climb the long cobblestone hill, which was much steeper than I remembered. My mouth was dry with dust, my eyes stung. It was nearly sundown. Lurid orange clouds like torn fabric lay across the sun and gave an eerie dreamlike cast to the cobblestones and the facades of buildings. I had never seen this district before, but an instinct led me dully on.

A bad girl, a naughty girl, very bad, very wicked, you will have to be punished all day tomorrow—you will have to stay in your room.

No—no tea-cakes, no chocolates. No. You will have to stay in your room.

My pale teary-eyed mother, stammering at me; my tall unsmiling father, not condescending even to touch me. But perhaps Grandmother would relent, and take me in her arms? In the doorway the freckled girl in her white uniform, her eyes smudged with tears. (For surely she would be dismissed.—She pushed me out of the garden and shut the gate on me, I would cry, she did it, it was her fault!)

The wind rose from the Aussenalster as it often did at dusk, and tiny goosebumps prickled on my bare arms and legs. The cobblestone hill had no end. Carriages rattled past, horses’ hooves rang on the street, now and then a face in a window peered at me, but without recognition or interest. I was walking alongside a wall now but I could not determine if it was our wall. It might have been ten or fifteen feet high—I could not judge—and it was so rough-textured, so blank—no roses showed—not even a stray branch or tendril overhead.

Where is our wall, where is our house?—where is the gate that leads into the garden?

I began to sob with weariness and fear, running my hand along the wall. Was the wall made of granite?—or another kind of stone? I could not see a gate or a door of any kind. Not even the enormous gate at the end of the driveway.

I was very hungry. My pulses throbbed with fear.

You are a very, very naughty girl: we’ve been watching you. Your punishment will be to go without supper…to spend the night alone, outside the wall.

I climbed the hill, sobbing, running my fingers along the wall until they began to bleed. Where were they hiding, why didn’t they call out my name! Just at dusk I came upon an entranceway of some kind—a door made of solid wood painted black, and now slightly peeling, set into the wall as if into a hill. It did not look familiar but I began to knock at it, and then to pound, fist over fist, sobbing, Let me in, let me in, I hate you, I won’t be bad again, let me in—!

I pounded at the door until my fists were numb with pain. I kicked at it, sobbing and screaming.

But of course no one answered—no one heard.

Let me in, I want my supper, I want to go to bed, I hate you, I hate you, I hope you die, let me in, let me in—! So I screamed and screamed until I was exhausted, and sank down on the pavement.

And must have fallen asleep. Because when I came to my senses again it was dark, and quite chilly.

I got to my feet shakily. Nothing had changed: the high black door was before me, the wall on either side, blank and featureless and faint with light, reflected light from the sky. I saw now that this door—it was a garage or stable door—did not belong to my family, and in any case it was pointless for me to hammer on it.

It was pointless for me to stay here, I would have to go somewhere else, I would have to explain that I was lost and ask someone to take me home.

All this came to me with a peculiar chilling clarity. And I did not cry, because I had exhausted my tears.

Many years have passed since that night. I might almost say—many lifetimes.

I have cried a great deal, though never with anger or passion: for such emotion (one soon learns, outside the rose wall) is quite pointless.

My childhood is now distant. And cannot hurt. I see that child, that wretched little girl, as if through a distorting glass or the wrong end of a telescope. Please can you help me, please can you take me home, she begs of passersby, please, I’m lost, I can’t find my house….

They draw away, annoyed.

There are so many beggars in the square, in the streets near the cathedral and the great hotels. Even children, very small children. Unaccompanied by adults.

Please can you help me, can you take me home?

Sometimes a man or a woman, or a strolling couple, would stop to listen: but for some reason they could not understand me. They stooped to hear, they peered frowning into my face, but they could not understand what I was saying.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry for being bad, I cried, I won’t do it again, I want my supper and my bath, I want my Momma, I won’t do it again….

They queried me, they shook their heads impatiently, what on earth was I saying? Their own dialects were strange: harsh and guttural, or high, sharp, and sibilant. I could recognize only a few words, tumbling over one another like pebbles in a stream.

In the end they shook their heads impatiently or pityingly. Sometimes with an amused smile, glancing behind me to see if—in a doorway or around a corner—an older beggar was hiding.

I walked on, jostled by the crowd. I had lost track of all time. Hours might have passed; or an entire day; or several days. I ate by snatching bread away from the mourning doves and pigeons (who were fed quite generously in the cathedral square)… I drank from the magnificent Roman fountain in the Royal Park… ladies took pity on me and tossed tinsel-wrapped chocolates in my direction, soldiers in uniform, some of them hardly older than my brother, tossed pennies at me and chuckled as I scrambled after them across the cobblestones. What a quick, frisky little thing! Is it a little girl? Eh? A little girl, so bold?

I wandered along the canals at the heart of the city. Where the costly shops are located beneath stone arcades, to protect shoppers from the rain. Clothing shops, gold shops, shops selling jewelry, antiques, china, linen, stationery, ladies’ hats, ladies’ shoes, the very best pastries and chocolates and fruit. The season must have changed overnight for now everyone wore coats and carried umbrellas against the chill slanting rain.

A gentleman resembling my father was walking some distance ahead of me, carrying his ebony-topped cane. He was with one of my uncles, a white-haired uncle with a sly teasing wink whom all the children loved. Both strode along the damp pavement and did not hesitate for a moment when I called after them.

Pappa! Pappa! Wait, Pappa—

I ran close behind them but they did not slacken their pace.

I was certain they heard me: but they gave no sign.

Pappa, please wait—Pappa—I’m sorry—

My tall broad-shouldered impatient father in a dark topcoat, soft gray gloves, gleaming leather boots. His imperial profile, his sandy full moustache and beard. My uncle who adored whipped cream in his coffee, and teased us in the playroom by poking his head through the doorway and clapping his hands loudly….

Pappa! Uncle! Wait—

At last my father turned toward me and I saw that it was indeed my father: but he showed no recognition. His eyebrows arched quizzically, his thin-lipped mouth stretched in a grimace. Yes? What? Who is it—?

I pulled at the sleeve of his topcoat, tried to take hold of his cane.

I want to go home now, Pappa, I said, whining, I’m sorry for what I did, it wasn’t my fault, the gate locked behind me—I want Momma—

My father drew back, staring. His nostrils were pinched as if he were in the presence of an abominable odor. Pappa please! I screamed, clutching at his knees.

He pushed me aside, stepped adroitly away, and with a brisk gesture tossed a coin in my direction. It struck my chest lightly and rolled across the cobblestones. Instinctively I scrambled after it. If the coin should drop into a drain, or be snatched up by another beggar—!

But I got it. My fingers closed greedily over it. And when I looked up my father and uncle were just getting into a horse-drawn cab.

Pappa, I cried angrily, on my hands and knees, Pappa, I screamed, don’t you know who I am?—don’t you love me anymore? Wait—

But they did not hear. They climbed into the cab, closed the door behind themselves, and the cab rolled smartly away.

Don’t you love me anymore?—don’t you love me?

But I got the coin, the gold coin: for it was a gold coin and not a mere penny. And with it I went into the closest chocolate shop, and sat at one of the pretty little wrought-iron tables, and ordered a plate of small cherry-topped cakes and a cup of hot chocolate, in a voice nearly as composed as that of my mother or grandmother.

I was faint with hunger, saliva flooded my mouth. My heart still beat painfully with the anger of my father’s betrayal. But when the waitress brought my order I was not even ashamed of my filthy trembling hands; nor did I blush when she stared in unsmiling astonishment at me.

Isn’t it a sight, that poor little thing!—ladies at a nearby table whispered. A child my own age in a pink woolen coat stared rudely at me. Isn’t it shameful! the ladies whispered.

I ignored them. I ate greedily, for I was hungry. I was very hungry. But then I have never lacked appetite.

THE THIRTEEN TEXTS OF ARTHYRIA

JOHN R. FULTZ

John R. Fultz lives in Napa, California. His epic fantasy novel Seven Princes was released by Orbit Books earlier this year as the first volume in the Books of the Shaper trilogy. The second book, Seven Kings, follows in January 2013. John’s fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Black Gate, Space & Time, Lightspeed, and the anthologies The Way Of The Wizard and Cthulhu’s Reign.

The first book called to him from a row of shelves smothered in gray dust.

Alone and friendless, he stumbled upon the little bookstore among a row of claustrophobic back-alley shops. It had been a month since his move, and he was still discovering the city’s secrets, the obscure treasures it could offer. Quaint restaurants serving local fare; tiny theatres showing brilliant old films; and cluttered shops like this one, filled with antiques and baroque artifacts. The Bearded Sage read the sign above the door in Old English script. He smiled at the sign’s artwork: a skull and quill lying atop a pile of moldering books.

There is something in here for me, he thought as he turned the brass doorknob. A little bell rang when he stepped across the threshold; it was beginning to rain in the street behind him. Inside were books and more books, stacked on tables, lining rows of shelves, heaped in piles on the floor. The pleasant odor of old paper filled his nostrils.

A whiff of dust made him cough a bit as he entered. An old lady sat behind the counter, Chinese or Filipino. She wore horn-rimmed glasses and slept with her head reclined against the wall. A stick of incense burned across the back of a tiny stone dragon near the cash register, emitting the sweet aroma of jasmine to mix with the perfume of ancient books.

He walked the cluttered aisles, staring at the spines of wrinkled paperbacks, vertical lines of text in his peripheral vision…called onward by the book. He knew it was here, somewhere among these thousands of realities bound by ink and paper. His eyes drank the contents of the shelves, his breathing slow and even. This was the way he moved through any bookstore, corporate chains or obscure nooks of basement treasures.

How do you always find so many great books? his wife had asked him, back when they were still married. You always give me something good to read.

I don’t find them, he had told her. They find me.

She didn’t believe that, as she discounted so many things he told her, but it was true.

His hand reached toward a shelf of heavy volumes near the back of the store. They were all leather-bound editions, a disorganized blend of fiction and non-fiction, encyclopedia and anatomical treatises, first editions and bound runs of forgotten periodicals, books in many languages—some of which he could not recognize. Running along the shelf’s edge, his fingers stopped at a black spine engraved with cracked golden letters. He grabbed it gently and pulled it from its tight niche, accounting for its heaviness. With both hands he brought it down to eye level. Blowing the dust off the cover allowed him to read the title:

The One True World

Volume I: Transcending the Illusions of Modernity and Reason

There was no author listed, and no cover illustration…only faded black leather and its gold leaf inscription. On the spine was a Roman numeral “I” but he saw no accompanying volumes, just the singular tome.

It was the reason he was drawn to this place.

He opened it to the first page. His “acid test” for books: If he read the first few paragraphs and the author impressed him with style, content, imagery, or any combination of these, he would buy it. There was no use struggling through a dull text waiting for it to improve…if an author failed to show some excellence on the very first page, he would likely never show it at all.

After reading the first three sentences, he closed the book, marched to the counter, and woke the old lady by tapping on a little bell.

“I’ll take this one,” he said. His hands trembled as he drew thirty-four dollars out of his wallet and paid her. His gut churned the way it had when he’d first met Joanne…the thrill of discovery, the sense of standing on the edge of something wonderful and strange. Love…or something close to it.

“Great shop. How long have you been in business?” he asked the lady.

“Been here… for-evah!” said the old lady. She smiled at him with crooked teeth.

He laughed. “I’m Jeremy March,” he told her, though he had no idea why.

She nodded, as if confirming his statement, and waved goodbye. “Please come again, Mr. March.”

The tiny bell rang again as he left the shop. He tucked the book under his coat and walked into the pouring rain. Somehow, he walked directly back to his parking spot without even thinking about it. By the time he reached his apartment and laid the book on his bedside table, thunder and lightning had conquered the night.

Perfect night to read a good book.

Alone in his bedroom, his feet tucked beneath the warm covers, he began to read about the One True World.

The first thing you must understand is that the One True World is not a figment of your imagination, and it does not lie in some faraway dimension. To help you understand the relationship between the True World and the False, you must envision the True World lying beneath the False, as a man can lay hidden beneath a blanket, or a woman’s true face can be hidden by an exquisite mask.

The Illusion that hides the True World from the eyes of living men is called the Modern World. It is a dense weave of illusory strands called facts, together composing the Grand Veil of Reason.

The True Philosopher, through dedication and study, comes to realize that Reason is a lie because it is Passion that fuels the universe; that Modernity is a falsehood because the Ancient World has never gone away. It only transforms and evolves, and is never any less Ancient. By meditating on the nature of the One True World, one may cause it to manifest, as Truth always overcomes Illusion, even if buried for eons.

In order to master these principles, to tear aside the dense fabric of Illusion and completely understand the One True World, you must not only read this text in its entirety, but also its succeeding volumes.

Of which there are twelve.

He woke the next day to emerald sunlight shining through the bedroom window. Blinking, he recalled a dream where the sun was not green, but orange, or an intense yellow-white. Or was it a dream? The sun was green—of course—it always had been. He shook the dream from his mind and headed for the bathroom. He’d stayed up most of the night reading the book, finishing it just before dawn. He’d never read a book that fast before.

Visions of the One True World danced through the steam in his bathroom mirror as he shaved…forest kingdoms and cloud cities…mountains full of roaming giants…winged ships soaring like eagles… knights in silver mail stalking the battlements of jade castles…griffins and manticores and herds of pegasi bearing maidens across an alien sea. He shook himself free of this trance, stumbled to the kitchen, and grabbed a diet soda.

He dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and walked outside, staring up at the ball of emerald flame. The day was warm, but not too hot. He pulled car keys from his pocket. There was no time for breakfast. The second book was calling out to him. There was a used book shop in a city some ninety miles north.

There he would find what he needed.

His next glimpse of the One True World.

Books & Candles was a corner shop in the city’s most Bohemian district. The proprietors were an old hippie couple in their mid-sixties. The husband gave a peace sign greeting from behind a pair of John Lennon glasses. Jeremy nodded and walked toward the rows of bookshelves massed together on the left side of the store. On the other side stood a massive collection of handmade candles in all shapes and sizes, almost a shrine, a temple of tiny, dancing flames.

His eyes scanned the shelves, moving up and down, searching. Like walking toward a room where music was playing, and as he came closer to the doorway the melody grew louder.

He moved aside a cardboard box of mildewed paperbacks to reveal a low shelf, and he saw the book. It was identical to the first volume: Bound in black leather with gold leaf etching on spine and cover. He pulled it from the shelf with a symphony blaring between his ears, and stood with its comfortable weight in his hands.

The One True World

Volume II: The Kingdoms of Arthyria, and the Greater Cities

Despite their benign appearance, the hippie couple could tell he wanted the book badly. He had to pay over two-hundred dollars; luckily they accepted his credit card. Forgetting where his car was parked, he walked along the street to a fleabag hotel used mainly by the homeless. He couldn’t wait; he had to read the book now. The day was warm and most of the usual boarders were out roaming the streets. He paid for a cot and lay himself down to read.

Hours later, when the sun set, the city’s disaffected came wandering in to sip at their brown-bagged bottles and play gin rummy on battered folding tables. He never even noticed. His attention was claimed by the book and—just like the first volume—he could not stop reading until he finished every page.

He devoured the words like a famished vagrant at a royal feast.

The rightful name of the One True World is Arthyria. Twenty-one kingdoms there are in total, nine being the Greater Realms and twelve called the Lesser. Three mighty oceans gird the One True World, each taking its color from the emerald flames of the sun, and each with its own mysteries, island cultures, and hidden depths.

Among the nine Greater Realms thirty-three Great Cities thrive, each dating back to the Age of Walking Gods. Some of them have been destroyed many times over, yet always were rebuilt by faithful progeny.

The mightiest and most ancient of the Great Cities are seven in number. These are: Vandrylla (City of the Sword), Zorung (City of Stargazers), Aurealis (City of Wine and Song), Oorg (City of the Questing Mind), Ashingol (City of the Godborn), Zellim Kah (City of Sorcerers), and Yongaya (City of the Squirming Toad).

Among all the Great Cities, there is only one where no living man may tread. Even to speak the name of that Dreaded Place is punishable by death in all kingdoms Greater and Lesser.

Therefore, the name of the Shunned City will not be set down on these pages.

In his dreams, he was still married. He dreamed of Joanne the way she used to be: smiling, full of energy, her hair long and black as jet. The picnic at Albatross Lake was the usual setting for these kinds of dreams. A weird yellow sun blazed in an azure sky, and the wind danced in her hair. They drank a bottle of wine and watched the ducks play across the water before storm clouds rolled in to hide the sun. They lay under a big tree and made love while the rain poured down and leaves sighed over their heads.

I’ve never been more happy, he told her that day. He was only twenty-five, she was a year younger, and they were living proof that opposites attract. He never knew why someone like her had fallen for an eternal dreamer. He was more concerned with writing the perfect song than making a living. She worked at a bank for the entire three years they were married; he worked at a used record store and taught guitar lessons. The first year was bliss, the second a struggle, and the third a constant battle.

You’re such a dreamer, she used to say. As if there was something wrong with that. A few months into the marriage he realized that as long as she made more money than him, he would be a failure in her eyes. That started his suit-and-tie phase, when he hung up his guitar for a mind-numbing corporate job. He did it all for her. She cut her hair short and seemed happy again for a while…but he became more and more miserable. Sterilized rows of cubicles comprised his prison…and prison was a place without hope.

You’re such a dreamer. She told him this again in the dream, unaware of the irony, and her wedding dress turned to ashes when he kissed her.

She stood on a strand of cold gray beach, and he watched her recede as some kind of watercraft carried him away. Eventually she was just a little doll-sized thing, surrounded by other dolls on the beach. He turned to look at the boat, but it was empty. He stood alone on the deck, and a terrible wind caught the sail and drove him farther from shore.

Looking back, he called her name, but he’d drifted too far out on the lonesome tide. He dove into the icy water, determined to get back to shore, to get back to her, to get their love back. It was his only hope. There was nobody but her. There never had been, never would be.

But when the cold waters closed over his head, he remembered that he couldn’t swim. He sank like a stone, salty brine rushing into his lungs.

He woke up gasping for breath among tall stalks of lavender grass. The sun burned high in the lime-colored sky. There was no sign of the cheap boarding house, or the homeless men whose refuge he shared. He lay in a field, alone. He stood and saw the soaring black walls of Aurealis.

Ramparts of basalt encircled the city. They curved several miles to the west, toward the bay where a thousand ships sat at anchor. This was the great port-city, famed far and wide for its excellent wines and superb singers. He walked toward the shore where the proud galleons lingered. He dreaded the open water, but he knew the next book lay beyond the lime-green sea. It called to him, as surely as spring calls forth a sleeping blossom.

By meditating on the nature of the One True World, one may cause it to manifest…

Following a road to the southern gate, he made his way through a crowd of robed pilgrims, armored watchmen, cart-pulling farmers, and simple peasants. Clusters of jade domes and towers gleamed in the distance, surrounded by a vast network of wooden buildings where the common folk worked and lived. The sounds of Aurealis were music and commerce: bards and poets performed on street corners. The smells of the city were horse, sweat, woodsmoke, and a plethora of spices.

Palanquin chairs borne by servants carried the wealthy through the streets. The rich of Aurealis dressed themselves for spectacle. Their robes were satin and silk, studded with patterned jewels to signify the emblems of their houses. Their heads were towering ovals of pastel hair sculpted with strands of pearls and golden wire. Rings sparkled on the fingers of male and female; both sexes painted their faces in shades of amber, ochre, and crimson. Squads of guards in silver ringmail flanked the palanquins, curved broadswords across their backs. The crests of their iron helms were serpents, falcons, or tigers.

As he moved aside to let a nobleman’s entourage pass, Jeremy noticed his own clothing. It was like none worn by the folk of Aurealis. A black woolen tunic covered his chest and arms, tied with a thin belt of silver links. His breeches were some dark purple fabric, supple yet thick as leather, and his tall boots were the same material. A crimson cloak was secured at his neck by a ram’s head amulet forged of silver, or white gold. His clothes smelled of horseflesh and dirt. Instinctively he reached for his wallet and found instead a woolen purse hanging from his belt. He poured the clanking contents into his hand: Eight silver coins with the ram’s head on one side and a shining tower on the other.

Somehow he knew these coins were drins, also called rams, and they were minted in some distant city. He could not recall its name.

He smelled saltwater above the swirling odors of Aurealis. It was a long walk to the quays where the galleons were taking on cargo. Their sails were all the colors of the rainbow, but he recognized none of the emblems flying there. He looked past the crowded bay and the swarm of trading vessels, toward the distant horizon. The sun hung low in the sky now, and the ocean gleamed like a vast emerald shield.

Tarros.

The name surfaced in his mind as if rising from the green sea. It was the name of the island kingdom where he would find the next book.

After much inquiry, he discovered a blue-sailed galleon bearing a white seashell, the standard of the Island Queen. Brown-skinned sailors loaded bales of fabric and casks of Aurealan wine, and it was easy to find the captain and inquire about passage.

“Have you money, Philosopher?” asked the sweaty captain. He was round of body and face, with thick lips and dark curly hair. A necklace of oyster shells hung round his neck.

“I have eight silver rams,” said Jeremy.

The Tarrosian smiled, teeth gleaming like pearls. “Aye, that’ll serve.”

He dumped the coins into the captain’s palm and stared out at the waves.

“We sail by moonlight, when the sea is calm and cool,” said the captain.

Stars blinked to life in the fading sky. The moon rose over the horizon, a jade disc reflected in the dark waves.

He followed the captain—who introduced himself as Zomrah the Seasoned—up the gangplank. Suddenly he remembered the second volume, and the flophouse where he’d fallen asleep after reading it. He had no idea where the book was…did he leave it in the field? Was it somewhere in the city? Or had it disappeared completely? He wanted to run back across the city, back into the open field and see if it lay there among the violet grass.

No, he told himself. I’ve read it.

His path lay forward, across the green waves.

The closer to the island kingdom he came, the more he remembered of himself. By the time the wooded shores of Tarros came in sight, he knew why the captain had called him “philosopher,” and why he wore the silver ram’s head on his breast. He recalled his boyhood in the white towers of Oorg, City of the Questing Mind, the endless libraries that were the city’s temples, and a thousand days spent in contemplation. Much of it still lay under a fog of non-memory, obscured by lingering visions of high school, college, and other lies. Yet after five days on the open ocean, he was certain that he was a trained philosopher from the white city, and that he always had been. On the sixth day out, he remembered his true name.

I am Jeremach of Oorg.

“I am Jeremach of Oorg!” he shouted across the green waves. The Tarrosian sailors largely ignored his outburst, but their narrow eyes glanced his way when they thought he wasn’t looking. Most likely they expected eccentric behavior from a man who spent his life pondering the meaning of existence.

But that’s not all of it, he knew. There’s more…much more. Oorg feels like a memory of what I used to be…not what I am. He knew that he was more than a simple child of Oorg, versed in the eight-hundred avenues of thought, savant of the fifty-nine philosophies. Perhaps the answer lay in the next volume of The One True World.

The rest of his memory lay somewhere within those pages.

After fourteen days of calm seas and healthy winds, the galley dropped anchor in Myroa, the port city of Tarros. It was a pale imitation of Aurealis, a humble collection of mud-walled dwellings, domed temples, and atop its tallest hill the modest palace of the Tarrosian Queen. A single tower rose between four spiked domes, the entire affair built of rose-colored marble veined with purple. The city was full of colorful birds, and the people were simple laborers for the most part, dressed in white shifts and pantaloons. Most of the men and women went bare-chested, though all wore the seashell necklaces that were the sign of their country and queen. The breath of the salty wind was sweetened by the tang of ripe fruit trees.

Zomrah the Seasoned was a trader captain in service to the queen’s viceroy, so he had access to the palace. The viceroy was an old, leathery man with silvery robes and a ridiculous shell-shaped hat on his gray head. Or perhaps it was an actual shell. He examined Zomrah’s bill of lading in a plush anteroom and gave the captain a bag of gold. When Zomrah introduced Jeremach the viceroy looked him over as if examining a new piece of freight. Eventually the old man nodded and motioned for the philosopher to follow him.

Jeremach followed him through winding corridors. Some were open-air walkways hemmed with rows of trellises thick with red and white orchids. Tapestries along the palace walls showed scenes of underwater peril, with trident-bearing heroes battling krakens, sharks, and leviathans. Somewhere, a high voice sang a lovely song that brought the ocean depths to mind.

The Queen of Tarros received Jeremach on the high balcony of her rosy tower. A tall chair had been placed in the sunlight where she could observe the island spreading to the west and north, and leagues of open sea to the east and south. Three brawny Tarrosians stood at attention, her personal guard armed with trident and sword, naked but for white loincloths and seashell amulets.

The queen rose from her chair, and he gasped. Her loveliness was stunning. The narrow chin and sapphire eyes were familiar, and her hair was dyed to the hue of fresh seaweed. It fell below her slim waist, shells of a dozen colors woven among its braids. Her dress was a diaphanous gown, almost colorless, and her brown body was perfect as a jewel.

She greeted him with a warm hug. “You look well, Philosopher. Much younger than when last you visited.” She smiled.

Jeremach bowed, remembering the proper etiquette for such a situation. I’ve been here before. She knows me.

“Great Queen, your realm is the soul of beauty, and you are its heart,” he said.

“Ever the flatterer,” she said. She raised a tiny hand to his cheek and cupped it, staring at him as if amazed by his features.

“You’ve come for your books,” she said, taking him by the hand. Her touch was delicate, yet simmering. “I’ve kept them safe for you.”

Yes. There is more than one volume here.

Jeremach nodded. “Your Majesty is wise…”

“Please,” she said, leading him into the tower. “Call me by my name, as you used to do. You have not forgotten it?”

He searched the murky depths of his memory.

Celestia,” he said. “Sweet Celestia.”

She led him up spiral stairs into a library. Twenty arched windows looked out upon the sea, and hundreds of books lined a shelved wall. He walked without direction to a specific shelf, and his hands reached (as they had done twice before) directly for the third book. Two more volumes sat beside it. He lay all three of them on a marble table and examined their golden inscriptions.

Volume III: The People and Their Faiths

Volume IV: The Lineages of the Great Kings and the Bloodlines of the Great Houses

Volume V: The Societies of the Pseudomen and the Cloud Kingdoms

“You see?” the queen said. “They are safe and whole. I have kept your faith.”

He nodded, aching to open the third volume and read. But first he had to know. “Thank you,” he said. “But how did you come to possess these texts?”

She looked at him quizzically, amused by the question. “You gave them to me when I was only a little girl. I always knew you would return for them, as you promised. I wish you’d have come while Father was still alive. He was very fond of you. We lost him four years ago.”

He recalled a broad-chested man with a thick green beard and a crown of golden shells. In his mind, the King of Tarros laughed, and a little girl sat on his knee.

King Celestior. My friend. She is his daughter, once my student, and now the Queen of Tarros. How many years has it been?

He kissed the queen’s cheek, and she left him to his books. Hours later, her servants brought him seafood stew, Aurealan wine in pearly cups, and a box of fresh candles. He read throughout the long night, while the warm salt air swept in from the sea, and the jade moon crept from window to window.

For days he sat in the chamber and read. Finally, they found him collapsed over the books, snoring, a white beard growing from his chin. They carried him to a proper bed, and he slept, dreaming of a distant world that was a lie, and yet also true in so many ways.

“You’re walking out on me?” she said, eyes brimming with tears.

“You walked out on me,” he told her.

She said nothing.

“Joanne… sweetheart… you know I’ll always love you. But this isn’t working. We…don’t belong together.”

“How can you be so sure?” she cried.

“Because if we did… you would have never climbed into bed with Alan.”

Her sadness turned to anger, as it often did. “I told you! I never meant for it to happen.”

“Yeah, you told me,” he said. “But you did it. You did it, right? Three times…that I know of.”

She grabbed him, wrapped her arms around his neck. Squeezed. “You can’t just leave me behind,” she said.

Now he was crying too. “I’m done with this,” he said.

“No,” she whimpered. “We can still fix it.”

“How?”

She stood back from him, brushing a dark strand of hair from her forehead. Her eyes were dark, too. Black pearls.

“We’ll get counseling,” she pleaded. “We’ll figure out what went wrong and we’ll make sure it never happens again.”

He turned away, lay his forehead against the mantle.

“You cheated too,” she said, almost a whisper.

After you did. He didn’t say it out loud. Maybe she was right. Maybe there still was hope.

He had never loved anyone but her.

Never.

They stood with their arms wrapped around each other for a little while.

“I’ll always love you,” he said. “No matter what happens.”

The people of Arthyria differ greatly in custom, dress, and culture, and wars are not unknown. Each kingdom has its share of inhuman denizens, humanoid races who live in proximity or complete integration with the human populace. These are the Pseudomen, and they have played a great role in many a war as mercenary troops adding to the ranks of whatever city-state they call home. There is generally little prejudice against the Pseudomen, although the Yellow Priests of Naravhen call them “impure” and have banned them from the Yellow Temples.

There are five Great Religions in practice across the triple continents of Arthyria, faiths that have survived the upheaval of ages and come down to us through the fractured corridors of time intact. The cults and sects of lesser deities are without number, but all of the Five Faiths worship some variation of the One Thousand Gods.

Some faiths, such as the Order of the Loyal Heart, are inclusive, claiming that all gods be revered. Others are singular belief systems, focused on only one god drawn from the ranks of the One Thousand. Through these commonalities of faith we see the development of the Tongue, a lingua franca that unites most of Arthyria with its thirty-seven dialects.

Here mention must be made of the Cloud Kingdoms, whose gods are unknown, whose language is incomprehensible to Arthyrians, and whose true nature and purpose has remained a mystery throughout the ages.

When he woke he was closer to being himself, and the people of Tarros were restored. He walked through the palace in search of Celestia, marveling at the beauty of those he had forgotten. Their glistening skins were shades of turquoise, their long fingers and toes webbed, tipped with mother-of-pearl talons. They wore very little clothing, only the same white loincloths he’d seen yesterday. Webbed, spiny crests ran up their backs, across the tops of narrow skulls, terminating on their tall foreheads. Their eyes were black orbs, their lips far thicker than any human’s, and only the females grew any hair: long emerald tresses woven with pearls and shells.

They were amphibious Pseudomen, a marine race that had evolved to live on land. The island kingdom was a small portion of their vast empire, most of which lay deep beneath the waves. Some claimed they ruled the entire ocean, but Jeremach knew better. There were other, less civilized societies below the sea.

Now that he had read three more volumes, Arthyria was one step closer to being whole. So was he. Vastly important things lay just on the edge of his awareness. He must know them…everything depended on it.

He found Celestia in her gardens, surrounded by a coterie of amphibious subjects. They lounged around a great pool of seawater fed by undersea caverns.

“Jeremach… you look more like yourself today,” said the queen, beckoning him with a webbed hand.

“I should say the same to you, Majesty,” he replied. He saw himself now in the surface of the pool. His garb had changed little, but he looked older. At least forty, he guessed, but his hair and thick beard were as white as a codger’s. How old am I really? he wondered. Will I continue aging as the world keeps reverting to its true state?

“I trust you found what you were looking for in those dreadful books?” she asked. She offered him a padded bench beside her own high seat. Tiny Tarrosian children splashed in the pool, playing subaquatic games and surfacing in bubbles of laughter.

“I did,” he said. “I found the truth. Or more of it, at least.”

“It is good to see you again, Old Tutor,” she said, smiling with her marine lips. Her eyes gleamed at him, onyx orbs brimming with affection.

“You were always my favorite pupil,” he told her honestly.

“How long will you stay with us?”

“Not long, I fear. I hear a call that cannot be denied. Tell me, did your father sign a treaty with the Kingdom of Aelda when you were still a child?”

“Yes…” Celestia raised her twin orbs to the sky. “The Treaty of Sea and Sky, signed in 7412, Year of the Ray. It was you who taught me that date.”

“And your father received a gift from the Sovereign of Aelda…do you still have it?”

Clouds of jade cotton moved across the heavens. The next book called to him from somewhere high above the world.

She led him below the palace into a maze of caverns created by seawater in some elder age, and three guards accompanied them bearing torches. When they found the great door of obsidian that sealed the treasure vault, she opened it with a coral key. Inside lay a massive pile of gold and silver coins, centuries of tribute from the realms of Arthyria, fantastic suits of armor carved from coral and bone, spears and shields of gold and iron, jewels in all the colors of the prism, and objects of painful beauty to which he could not even put a name.

Celestia walked about the gleaming hoard until she found a horn of brass, gold, and jet. It might have been the horn of some mighty antelope, the way it twisted and curved. Yet Jeremach knew that it was forged somewhere no land animal could reach. She presented it to him with an air of satisfaction. She was still the student eager to please her tutor. He kissed her cheek and tucked the horn into his belt.

“Something else,” she said. Wrapping her hand about a golden hilt, she drew forth from the piled riches a long, straight sword. The blade gleamed like silver, and the hilt was set with a blue jewel carved to the likeness of a shell. Jeremach remembered this blade hanging on the broad belt of King Celestior. Even a peace-loving king had to fight a few wars in his time.

“Take this,” said the queen.

Jeremach shook his head. “No, Majesty,” he protested. “This was…”

“My father’s sword,” she said. “But he is dead, and he would have wanted you to have it.” She drew close to him, and whispered in his ear. Her voice was the sound of the ocean in the depths of a seashell. “I know something of what you are trying to do. As do others. You may need this.”

Jeremach sighed and bowed. To reject her gift would be to insult her. He took the blade and kissed the hilt. She smiled at him, the tiny gills on her neck pulsing. She found a jeweled scabbard to sheathe the weapon, and he buckled it about his waist alongside the silver belt of the philosopher.

A philosopher who carries a sword, he thought. How absurd.

Yet, was he a philosopher still? What further changes lay in store for him when the last of the One True World was revealed?

He feasted with the queen and her court that night, getting rather drunk on Aurealan wine and stuffed full of clams, crabs, and oysters. By the time he stumbled up to his bed in the high tower, he was nearly senseless. He took off his belts, propped the sword in its scabbard against the bed post, and passed out.

It wasn’t pain that woke him, but rather the terrible lack of air. He saw a green-blue haze, and wondered if Tarros had sank beneath the waves and he was drowning. The pain at his throat was his second sensation, dulled as it was by the great quantities of wine in his belly.

A shadow crouched above him, the toes of leather boots on either side of his face, and a thin strand of wire was cutting through the flesh under his chin, pulling terribly on his beard. It was the beard’s thickness that prevented a quick death, giving him a few seconds to wake and realize he was being strangled.

He gasped for air, his fingers clawing at nothing, his legs wracked by spasms. Any second now the wire would cut through his throat—probably before he suffocated. The strangler tightened its iron grip on the wire, and Jeremach’s body flailed. He could not even scream for help. They would find him here, dead in the queen’s guest chamber, with no idea who killed him.

What will happen when I’m gone? he wondered.

Then, he knew of a certainty, some bit of memory racing back into his head; his face turned purple and his lungs seized up. If he did not finish reading the thirteen volumes, the One True World would fade back into the world of Modernity and Illusion.

If he died, Arthyria died with him.

His grasping fingers found the hilt of Celestior’s sword. He wrapped them about the grip and yanked the sheathed blade up to crack against the strangler’s skull. The stranglehold lessened, but he could not remove the sword from its scabbard, so it was no killing blow. Twice more he bludgeoned the strangler with the sword, wielding it like a metal club wrapped in leather.

On the third blow, the strangler toppled off the bed, and Jeremach sucked in air like a dying fish. He scrambled onto the floor and tried to unsheathe the sword. A dark figure rose across the mattress, hooded and cloaked in shades of midnight. It stepped toward him, face hidden in the shadows of the hood. An iron dagger appeared in its gloved fist, the blade corroded by rust. A single cut from that decayed iron would bring a poisonous death.

He scrambled for air and found his back against the wall. A froglike croaking came from his throat. He fumbled at the scabbard. Why wouldn’t the damn sword come clear?

The assassin placed the rusted blade against his throat.

You cheated too,” said a cold voice from inside the hood.

No, that’s not… that’s not what I heard.

Three golden blade heads burst from the assassin’s stomach. A Tarrosian guard stood behind the attacker, his trident impaling it.

Jeremach finally tore the sword free of the scabbard. He rolled onto his side as the skewered assassin drove its dagger into the stone wall, ignoring the trident jutting from its back.

The guard pulled his trident free for another jab, but Jeremach was on his feet now, both hands wrapped about the sword’s hilt, swinging it in a silver arc. The hooded head flew from the assassin’s body and rolled across the floor to lie at the foot of the bed.

The headless body stood for a moment, holding the rusted dagger. Then it collapsed with a sound like snapping wood, and became only a mound of bones and mildewed black cloth.

He stared at the face on the severed head. A woman with long hair dark as her robes. He blinked, coughed, and he would have screamed in terror, but could not.

Joanne…

He said her name through purple lips, his voice a rasping moan.

She stared up at him: weeping, bleeding, bodiless.

“You can’t do this,” she said, and black blood trickled from her lips. “You can’t throw it all away. You’re destroying our world. You’re destroying the Past. How do you know this is the True World and not the False?”

He had no words; he fell to his knees and stared at her face. His heart ached more terribly than his throat.

“You said… you’d always love me,” she wept. “But you’re throwing it all away. How can you be sure?”

Her tongue, and then the rest of her face, withered into dust.

He stared into the blank sockets of a grinning skull.

Before the sun kissed the ocean, he left the palace and went alone to the island shore. As the first green light seeped into the sky, he blew on the horn of brass, gold, and jet. One long, loud note that rang across the waves and into the clouds of morning.

The island kingdom came to life behind him, and he stared across the waves. Soon he saw a speck of gold gleaming between the clouds. It grew larger, sinking toward the ocean, until it came clearly into view: A slim sky galleon bearing cloud-white sails. It floated toward the island like a great, soaring bird. Some distance from the shore it touched keel to water soundlessly. By the time it reached the sandy embankment, it looked no stranger than any other sea-going vessel. The figurehead on its pointed bow was a beautiful winged woman.

Someone let down a rope ladder, and Jeremach climbed it, dropping himself onto the deck. The sky galleon’s crew were stone men, living statues of pale marble. They said nothing, but nodded politely when he showed them the horn of brass, gold, and jet. Then the stone captain took it from him, crushed it in his massive fist, and dropped its remains into the sea.

The sails caught a gust of wind, and the ship rose from the sea toward the clouds. The island of Tarros was a tiny expanse of forest surrounded by endless green waves; now it was a mote, now completely gone. Continents of cloud passed by on either side of the galleon. Higher and higher it rose, until all of Arthyria was lost below a layer of cumulus. The green sun blazed brightly in the upper realm.

Now the city of Aelda came into view: a sparkling crystal metropolis perched upon an island of white cloud. The spiral towers and needlelike pinnacles were like nothing in the world below. But a sense of vague familiarity flavored Jeremach’s awe.

The rest of the books are here, he remembered.

All but one.

The Winged Folk had no voices, and their bodies were translucent. They moved with all the grace of swans, gliding through the sky on feathery appendages grown from their lean backs. Their beauty was incredible, so much that none could be classified as singly male or female. Their bodies were the sexless perfection of inhumanity. The highest order of all the Pseudomen, the people of the Cloud Kingdoms were also the most mysterious.

A flock of them glided by as the sky galleon docked alongside a crystal tower. They stared at the visitor with eyes of liquid gold. They neither waved nor questioned his presence. He had sounded the horn. Otherwise, he would not be here.

The galleon’s crew of marble men followed him into a corridor of diamond and took their places in carved niches along the walls. Now they were only statues again. Someday, someone in Arthyria would blow another horn of brass, gold, and jet; and the statues would live again to man the golden ship. Jeremach left the stone men to their silent niches.

The scent of the Cloud Realms made his head swim as he walked toward the books. Up here lingered the aromas of unborn rain, naked sunlight, and the fragrance of unsoiled clouds. The diamond walls rang with musical tones, sweet enough to mesmerize the untutored into immobility. But Jeremach heard only the call of his books.

He found them right where he had left them so long ago, in a domed chamber supported by seven pillars of glassy quartz. The tomes lay upon a round table of crystalline substance, and they looked as incongruous here as the tall philosopher’s chair he had placed before the table.

He sat in the chair, sighed, and ran his fingers over the faces of the seven books.

Volume VI: The Knights of Arthyria and the Secret Orders of Starlight

Volume VII: Wizards of the First Age

Volume VIII: Wizards of the Second Age and the Forces Unleashed

Volume IX: Wizards of the Third and Fourth Ages, and the Death of Othaa

Volume X: The Doom of the Forty-Two Gods

Volume XI: The Great Beasts of Arthyria and the Things From Beyond

Volume XII: The Fifth Cataclysm and the Preservation of Ancient Knowledge

Don’t think about Joanne, he told himself.

But her words haunted him.

You’re throwing it all away.

How do you know this is the True World?

He opened the sixth volume, breathing in the smell of ancient papyrus and ink.

It’s my choice.

I choose Arthyria.

He read.

In the year 7478, the Wizard Jeremach returned to the Shunned City.

Legions of the living dead rose from its ruined halls to assail him, but he dismissed them with a wave of his hand, turning them all to pale dust. He walked among the crumbled stones of the First Empire, frigid winds tearing at his long white beard.

As he neared the palace of the Dead King, a horde of black-winged devils descended screeching from the broken towers. These he smote with a flashing silver blade bearing the sign of Tarros. As the last of the fiends died at his feet, the wizard sheathed his weapon. He walked on, toward the Shattered Palace.

Before the Dead King’s gates a band of ghosts questioned Jeremach, but he gave them riddles that would haunt them well into the afterworld. He spoke a single word, and the gates of blackened iron collapsed inward. He entered the utter darkness of the castle and walked until he found the Dead King sitting on a pile of gilded skulls, the heads of all those he had conquered in battle over the course of seven thousand years.

A red flame glowed in a pit before the Dead King’s mailed feet, and he looked upon Jeremach. Similar flames glowed in the hollow pits of his eyes. His flesh had rotted away millennia ago, but his bones refused to die, or to give up his hard-won empire. In the last five thousand years, none but Jeremach had entered these gates and lived to speak of it.

The Dead King took up his great black sword, but Jeremach laughed at him.

“You know that I’ve not come to battle you,” said the wizard.

The Dead King sighed, grave dust spilling from between his teeth. With fleshless fingers he lifted an ancient book from the floor of his hall. He offered it to Jeremach.

The wizard wiped away a coating of dust and saw the book’s title.

The One True World

Volume XIII: The Curse of the Dead King and the Undying Empire

Jeremach did not need to read it, for he knew its contents with a touch.

The Dead King spoke in a voice of grinding bones. “You have won,” he said.

“Yes,” said Jeremach. “Though you cheated, sending an assassin after me. How desperate.”

“I might claim you cheated with these books of yours,” said the skull-king, “But in war all sins are forgiven.”

“Still, I did win,” said the wizard. “I proved that Truth will always overcome Illusion. That a False reality—no matter how tempting—cannot stand against that which is Real. I escaped your trap.”

The Dead King nodded, and a crown of rusted iron tumbled from his skull. “For the first time in history, I have been defeated,” he growled.

Was that relief in his ancient voice?

“Now…will you keep your promise, Stubborn King?” asked Jeremach. “Will you quit the world of the living and let this long curse come to an end? Will you let men reclaim these lands that you have held for millennia?”

The Dead King nodded again, and now his skull tumbled from his shoulders. His bones fell to dust, and a cold wind blew his remains across the hall. The moaning of a million ghosts filled the sky. In the distant cities of Oorg, Aurealis, Vandrylla, and Zorung, the living woke from nightmares and covered their ears.

Jeremach left the ruins of the Shunned City as they crumbled behind him. He carried the black book under his arm. As he walked, the moldering slabs of the city turned to dust, following their king into oblivion, and the frozen earth of that realm began to thaw in the sunlight. After long ages, spring had finally come.

By the time Jeremach crossed the horizon, there was no trace of the haunted kingdom left anywhere beneath the emerald sky.

RUMINATIONS IN AN ALIEN TONGUE

VANDANA SINGH

Vandana Singh is an Indian science fiction writer living in the U.S., where she is a physics professor at a state university. She has published short stories in various anthologies and magazines, including Strange Horizons, TRSF, and most recently Lightspeed; many of her stories have been reprinted in Year’s Best volumes. Her novella Distances (Aqueduct Press) won the 2008 Carl Brandon Parallax award. Most recently she has been a columnist for Strange Horizons, where her reflections on science and the environment can be found.

Birha on the Doorstep

Sitting on the sun-warmed step at the end of her workday, Birha laid her hand on the dog’s neck and let her mind drift. Like a gyre-moth finding the center of its desire, her mind inevitably spiraled inward to the defining moment of her life. It must be something to do with growing old, she thought irritably, that all she did was revisit what had happened all those years ago. Yet her irritation subsided before the memory. She could still see it with the shocking clarity of yesterday: the great, closed eyelid set in the enormous alien stronghold, opening in response to her trick. The thick air of the valley, her breath caught in her throat, the orange-and-yellow uniforms of the waiting soldiers. She had gone up the ladder, stepped through the round opening. Darkness, her footsteps echoing in the enormous space, the light she carried casting a small, bobbing pool of illumination. This was the alien stronghold considered invincible by the human conquerors, to which the last denizens of a dying race had crawled in a war she had forgotten when she was young. She had expected to find their broken, decayed bodies, but instead there was a silence like the inside of a temple up in the mountains. Silence, a faint smell of dust, and a picture forever burned into her mind: in the light of her lamp, the missing soldier, thunderstruck before the great mass of machinery in the center.

That was the moment when everything changed. For her, and eventually for humankind. She had been young then.

“Hah!” she said, a short, sharp sound—an old woman laughing at her foolishness. It felt good to sit here on the doorstep, although now it was turning a little cold. On this world, the sun didn’t set for seven years as counted on the planet where she had been born. She knew she would not live to see another sunset; her bones told her that, and the faint smell in her urine, and her mind, which was falling backward into a void of its own making.

But the clouds could not be ignored, nor the yellow dog at her knee, who wanted to go inside. There would be rain, and the trees would open their veined, translucent cups to the sky. There would be gyre-moths emerging from holes in the ground, flying in smooth, ever-smaller circles, at the center of which was a cup of perfumed rain—and there would be furred worms slithering up the branches to find the sweet moth-meat. In the rain under the trees, the air would quiver with blood and desire, and the human companion animals—the dogs and cats and ferrets—would run to their homes lest the sleehawks or a feral arboril catch them for their next meal. Yes, rain was a time of beauty and bloodshed, here at the edge of the great cloud forest, among the ruins of the university that had been her home for most of her life.

She got up, noting with a grim satisfaction that, in this universe, old knees creaked. She went in with the dog and shut the door and the windows against the siren-like calls of the foghorn trees, and put some water on to boil. Rain drummed on the stone walls of her retreat, and she saw through the big window the familiar ruined curve of the university ramparts through a wall of falling water. Sometimes the sight still took her breath away. That high walk with the sheer, misty drop below was where she had first walked with Thirru.

A Very Short Rumination

When I was born my mother named me Birha, which means “separated” or “parted” in an ancient human language. This was because my mother was about to die.

Difficult Loves

Thirru was difficult and strange. He seemed eager to make Birha happy but was like a big, foolish child, unable to do so. A large, plump man, with hair that stood up on end, he liked to clap his hands loudly when he solved a difficult problem, startling everyone. His breath smelled of bitter herbs from the tea he drank all day. Even at their pairing ceremony he couldn’t stop talking and clapping his hands, which she had then thought only vaguely annoying and perhaps endearing. Later, her irritation at his strangeness, his genius, his imbecility, provoked her into doing some of her best work. It was almost as though, in the discomfort of his presence, she could be more herself.

One time, when she was annoyed with Thirru, she was tempted by another man. This man worked with her; his fingers were long and shapely over the simulator controls, and he leaned toward her when he spoke, always with a warmth that made her feel as though she was a creature of the sunlight, unfurling in the rays of morning. He made her feel younger than she was. She didn’t like him very much; she distrusted people with charm as a matter of principle, but he was more than charm. He was lean, and wore his dark hair long and loose, and every posture of his was insouciant, inviting, relaxed as a predatory animal; when he leaned toward her she felt the yearning, the current pulling her toward him. At these moments she was always stiff and polite with him; in privacy she cursed herself for her weakness. She avoided him, sought him out, avoided him, going on like this for days, until, quite suddenly, she broke through the barrier. She was no longer fascinated by him. It wasn’t that his charm had faded; it was only (she congratulated herself) the fact that she had practiced the art of resisting temptation until she had achieved some mastery. You practice and it becomes easier, just like the alien mathematics on which she was working at the time. Just like anything else.

This freedom from desiring this man was heady. It was also relaxing not to feel drawn to him all the time, to be able to joke and laugh with him, to converse without that terrible, adolescent self-consciousness. She could even let herself like him after that.

In this manner she carried herself through other temptations successfully. Even after Thirru’s own betrayal she wasn’t tempted into another relationship. After the reconciliation they stayed together for an entire cycle, some of which was marked by an easy contentment that she had never known before, a deep wellspring of happiness. When they parted, it was as friends.

But what he left behind, what all old loves left behind were the ghostly imprints of their presence. For her, Thirru came back whenever she looked up at the high walk where she had first walked with him. Thirru was the feel of damp stone, the vivid green of the moss between the rocks, the wet, verdant aroma of the mist. She didn’t have to go there anymore; just looking up at the stone arch against the clouds would bring back the feel of his hands.

After Thirru, she had had her share of companions, long and short term, but nobody had inspired her to love. And when the man happened along who came closest, she was unprepared for him. His name was Rudrak, and he was young.

What she loved about him was his earnestness, his delight in beautiful things, like the poeticas she had set up on the long table. He was an engineer, and his passion was experimental craft designed to explore stars. She loved his beautiful, androgynous face, how it was animated by thought and emotion, how quick his eyes were to smile, the way his brow furrowed in concentration. That crisp, black, curling hair, the brown arm flung out as he declaimed, dramatically, a line from a classic play she’d never heard of. When he came, always infrequently, unexpectedly, always on a quest for the woman Ubbiri, it was as though the sun had come out in the sky of her mind. Conversation with him could be a battle of wits, or the slow, easy, unhurried exchange of long-time lovers. She never asked him to stay for good (as though it were possible), never told him she loved him.

Now she was pottering about in her kitchen, listening to the rain, wondering if he would come one more time before she died. The last time he had come was a half-cycle ago (three and a half years on her birth planet, her mind translated out of habit). There was not much more than a half-cycle left to her. Would he come? Pouring her tea, she realized that despite the certainty with which she loved this man, there was something different about this love. She felt no need for him to reciprocate. Sometimes she would look at her arms, their brown, lean strength, the hands showing the signs of age, and remember what it was like to be touched, lovingly, and wonder what it would be like to caress Rudrak’s arm, to touch his face, his lips. But it was an abstract sort of wondering. Even if she could make him forget Ubbiri (and there was no reason for her to do that), she did not really want him too close to her. Her life was the way she liked it: the rising into early mornings, the work with the poeticas—which was a meditation in sunlight and sound—then the long trek up the hill to the now-abandoned laboratory. Returning in the early evening before the old bells rang sunset (although the sun wouldn’t set for half a cycle yet) into the tranquility of her little stone house, where the village girl entrusted with the task would have left her meal warming on the stove just the way she liked it. The peace of eating and reading by herself, watching the firelings outside her window, in the temporary, watery dark created by the frequent gathering of clouds. In those moments the universe seemed to open to her as much as it seemed shut to her during the long day. She would stare out at the silhouettes of trees and wonder if the answers she was seeking through her theories and equations weren’t instead waiting for her out there in the forest, amidst the ululations of the frenet-bird and the complex script of the fireling’s dance. In those moments it would seem to her as though all she had to do was to walk out into the verdure and pluck the answer from the air like fruit from trees; that it was in these moments of complete receptivity that the universe would be revealed to her, not in the hours at the simulators in the laboratory. That the equations would be like childish chatter compared to what was out there to know in its fullness.

She took her tea to her favorite chair to drink. On the way she let her fingers brush lightly over the wires of the poeticas that stood on wood frames on the long table. The musical notes sounded above the crash of the rain, speaking aloud her ruminations in the lost alien tongue. Rudrak had left his ghost behind here: The remembrance of his body leaning over the instruments, brushing them as he might, in some other universe, be brushing the hair from her face. Asking how this sequence of notes implied those words. Since she had walked into the alien stronghold so many years ago, since the time that everything had changed, Rudrak had visited her nine times. Each time he remembered nothing of his previous visits, not even who she was. Each time she had to explain to him that Ubbiri was dead, and that he should come in, and wouldn’t he like some tea? She went through the repetition as though it was the first time, every time, which in a way it was. A sacred ritual.

Rudrak.

Would he come?

A Rambling Rumination

Simply by virtue of being, we create ripples in the ever-giving cosmic tree, the kalpa-vriksh. Every branch is an entire universe. Even stars, as they are born and die, leave permanent marks in the shadow universe of their memory. Perhaps we are ghosts of our other selves in other universes.

It was not right for Ubbiri to die. There is a lack of symmetry there, a lack even of a proper symmetry breaking. Somewhere, somehow, Ubbiri’s meta-world-line and mine should connect in a shape that is pleasing to the mathematical eye. Sometimes I want to be Ubbiri, to know that a part of me did wander into another universe after all, and that separated, the two parts were joined together at last. There is something inelegant about Ubbiri’s return and subsequent death. Ubbiri should have shared consciousness with me. Then, when Rudrak asks: “I am looking for Ubbiri. Is she here?” for the umpteenth time, I, Birha, will say yes. She’s here.

Instead this is what I say:

“I’m sorry, Ubbiri passed away a long time ago. She told me about you when she died. Won’t you come in?”

What is the probability that I am Ubbiri? If so, am I dead or alive, or both?

Ubbiri is dead. I am Birha, and Birha is alone.

The Discovery

When Birha was neither young nor old, when Thirru had already moved off-planet, a young soldier volunteered to test-fly an alien flyer, one of two intact specimens. The flight went well until upon an impulse he decided to swoop by the alien ruins in the valley below the university. During the dive, he lost control of the flyer, which seemed to be heading straight for a round indentation like an eye in the side of an ancient dome. The indentation revealed itself to be a door, by opening and then closing behind the flyer.

When Birha was consulted about the problem, she suspected that the door worked on an acoustical switch. Calculating the frequency of sound emitted by the alien flyer at a certain speed in the close, thick air of the valley took some time. But when a sound wave of the requisite frequency was aimed at the door, it opened almost immediately, with a sigh as though of relief.

She volunteered to go alone into the chamber. They argued, but she had always been stubborn, and at the end they let her. She was the expert on the aliens after all.

The interior was vast, shrouded in darkness and her footsteps echoed musically. She saw the flyer, in some kind of docking bay, along with a dozen others. There were no decaying alien bodies, only silence. The young man stood in front of the great mass of machinery at the center of the room. In the light from her lamp (which flickered strangely) she saw a complexity of fine, fluted vanes, crystalline pipes as thin as her finger running in and out of lacy metalwork. The whole mass was covered in a translucent dome that gleamed red and blue, yellow and green, in the light from her lamp. There was a door in the side of the dome, which was ringed by pillars.

“My hand…” the soldier was staring at his hand. He looked at Birha at last. “My hand just went through that pillar…”

Birha felt a loosening of her body, as though her joints and tendons were coming apart, without pain. If she breathed out too hard, she might fling herself all over the cosmos. Her heart was beating in an unfamiliar rhythm. She put her hand in her pocket and took some coins out. Carefully she tossed each one in the air. Thirteen coins came down on the floor, all heads.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” she told the aviator. “It’s the machine. It’s an alien artifact that changes the probabilities of things. We’re standing in the leakage field. Look, just come with me. You’ll be all right.”

She led him into the light. The round door was propped open by a steel rod and there were crowds of people waiting at the foot of the ladder. The young man was still dazed.

“It tickled,” he said. “My hand. When it went through the pillar.”

A Rumination on the Aliens

What do we know about them? We know now they are not dead. They went through the great probability machine, the actualizer, to another place, a place we’ll never find. The old pictures show that they had pale brown, segmented bodies, with a skeletal frame that allowed them to stand upright. They were larger than us but not by much, and they had feelers on their heads and light-sensitive regions beneath the feelers, and several limbs. They knew time and space, and as their culture was centered around sound, so was their mathematics centered around probability. Their ancient cities are filled with ruined acoustical devices, enormous poeticas, windchimes, and Aeolian harps as large as a building. Their music is strange but pleasant to humans, although its frequency range goes beyond what we can hear. When I was just an acolyte at the university, I chose to study what scripts were left after the war. They were acoustical scripts, corresponding to the notes in a row of poeticas on the main streets of their cities. I was drunk with discovery, in love with the aliens, overcome with sorrow that they were, as we thought then, all dead. For the first time since I had come to this planet, I felt at home.

To understand the aliens I became a mathematician and a musician. After that, those three things are one thing in my mind: the aliens, the mathematics, the music.

Rudrak’s Story

A bristleship, Rudrak told Birha, is like no other craft. It burrows into the heart of a star, enduring temperatures beyond imagination, and comes out on the other side whole and full of data. The current model was improved by Rudrak in his universe, a branch of the cosmic tree not unlike this one. He did it for his partner, Ubbiri, who was writing a thesis on white dwarf stars. Ubbiri had loved white dwarf stars since a cousin taught her a nursery rhyme about them when Ubbiri was small:

Why are you a star so dim
In the night beyond the rim
Don’t you want someone to love?
In the starry skies above?

Ubbiri had to write a thesis on white dwarf stars. As dictated by academic custom in that culture, her thesis had to connect the six points of the Wheel of Knowing: Meta-networking, Undulant Theory, Fine-Jump Mathematics, Time-Bundles, Poetry, and Love. To enable her to achieve deep-knowing and to therefore truly love the star, she took a ride on the new bristleship with Rudrak. They discovered that when the ship went through the starry core, it entered another reality. This was later called the shadow universe of stars, where their existence and life history is recorded in patterns that no human has completely understood. Some poets call this reality the star’s memory-space, or its consciousness, but Ubbiri thought that was extending metaphor beyond sense. The data from the bristleship told her that this star, this love, had been a golden star in its youth and middle age, harboring six planets (two of which had hosted life), and much space debris. In the late season of its existence it had soared in largeness, dimming and reddening, swallowing its planetary children. Now it was content to bank its fires until death.

After this discovery, Rudrak said, the two of them lived quiet lives that were rich and full. But one day before he was due to take off for another test flight, Ubbiri noticed there was a crack on the heat-shielded viewscreen of the bristleship. Rudrak tested it and repaired it, but Ubbiri was haunted by the possibility of the tiny crack spreading like a web across the viewscreen, and breaking up just as Rudrak was in the star’s heart.

Perhaps that was what she thought when Rudrak disappeared. Rudrak only knew that instead of passing through the shadow universe before coming out, the bristleship took him somewhere else, to a universe so close to his own that he did not know the difference until he had crashlanded on a planet (this planet) and been directed to people who knew the truth. They led him to Birha, who sheltered him for fifteen days, allowed him to mourn and to come slowly to life again. Each time, she sent him back to his universe, as protocol demanded, by way of the alien probability machine, the actualizer. Somehow he was caught in a time-loop that took him back to the day before the ill-fated expedition. He had returned to her in exactly the same way nine times. His return visits were not predictable, being apparently randomly spaced, and her current (and last) calculation was an attempt to predict when he would come next.

Each visit was the same and not the same. Surely he had had less gray hair the last time? And that healed cut on his hand—hadn’t that been from his last trip, when he was trying to help her cut fruit and the knife had slipped? And hadn’t his accent improved just a little bit since last time? They’d had to teach him the language each visit as though it was new, but perhaps it became just a hair’s breadth easier each time?

She tried to make each experience subtly different for him. She was afraid that too drastic a change might upset whatever delicate process was at work in the time-loop. He was like a leaf caught in an eddy—push too hard and the time stream might take him over a precipice. But a little tug here, a tug there, and perhaps he’d land safely on a shore, of this universe or that one.

So far nothing had worked. His bewilderment was the same, each time he appeared on her doorstep, and so was his grief. It was only these small, insignificant things that were different. One time he wore an embroidered collar, another time a plain one. Or the color of his shirt was different.

Birha worked on her calculations, but the kalpa-vriksh gave senseless, contradictory answers.

A Rumination on Timmar’s Rock

I remember when I first came to the university, I used to pass a flat-topped boulder on the way to class. There was a depression on the flat surface of the rock in the exact shape of the bottom of a water bowl. When I met Thirru, he told me that the great Timmar Rayan, who had founded the School of Wind and Water, had sat there in daily meditation for three entire cycles, placing his water bowl in the same spot every time. Over the years the depression had developed. I have always marveled that something as unyielding as rock can give way before sheer habit, or regularity, or persistence, whatever you might call it.

Practice, whether in mathematics or in love, changes things.

Sometimes.

Ubbiri’s Arrival

It was one thing to realize that the alien device in the center of the chamber was some kind of probability-altering machine. That it was the fabled actualizer hinted at in alien manuscripts, which she had always thought of as myth, was quite another thing. This knowledge she owed to Ubbiri, who was discovered lying on the floor of the chamber not three days after Birha had first opened the round door. Ubbiri was immediately incarcerated for questioning and only after several ten-days, when her language had been deciphered and encrypted into a translation device, had Birha been allowed to speak to her. They said the old woman was mad, babbling about shadow universes and tearing at her silver hair, but Birha found her remarkably sane. Ubbiri told her that she had tired of waiting for her partner, who had disappeared during a flight through a certain white-dwarf star, and when he didn’t return, she had taken an old-model bristleship and dived into the heart of the star. When the ship passed through the core she defied its protestations and stepped out of it, seeking either him or death in the shadowy depths of the other reality. Instead she found herself lying on the floor of the chamber, aged beyond her years.

Over the course of four ten-days of conversation, Birha determined that the constants of nature were a hair’s breadth different where Ubbiri came from, so it was very likely another universe entirely. She realized then that the machine at the center of the room did not merely change probabilities. It was an actualizer: a probability wave interference machine, and the portal inside it led to whatever branch of the kalpa-vriksh you created by changing the parameters. But the portal only opened if you’d satisfied consistency checks and if (as far as the machine could tell) the universe was stable. Somehow the pathways to other universes intersected within the cores of stars, hence Ubbiri’s surprising arrival.

Not long after, Ubbiri died. She left a note stating that there were three things she was grateful for: her white dwarf star, Rudrak, and spending her last days with Birha.

A quarter-cycle after Ubbiri’s death, Rudrak came for the first time into Birha’s life.

A Rumination on Thirru, or Rudrak

There is a rift valley between us, a boundary that might separate two people or two universes. I’ve been exploring there, marveling at the tortured geometries of its sheer walls, the pits and chasms on its floor. Through them I’ve sometimes seen stars. So far I’ve avoided falling in, but who knows? One day maybe I’ll hurtle through the layer between this universe and that, and find myself a meteor, a shooting star falling into the gravity well of a far planet.

What if a meteor changed its mind about falling? Would the universe allow it? Only if the rock fell under the sway of another imperative that lifted it beyond gravity’s grasp. But where, in that endless sky, would it find the rift from which it had emerged? It would have to wander, searching, until the journey became an end in itself. And then, one day when the journey had changed it beyond recognition, it would find the rift and it would stand on the lip of it, wondering: Should I return?

But I am not a rock. I am a person, slowly ripening in the sun of this world, like a pear on a tree. I am not hard, I am not protected by rocky layers.

Still, I cannot soar through your sky without burning.

Theories of Probability

What the actualizer did was change probabilities. So sometimes things that were highly improbable, like walking through a wall, or tossing five thousand coins so that heads came up every time—all those things could become much more likely.

Birha thought that in some sense people had always known about the other branches of the kalpa-vriksh. So many of humankind’s fantasies about the magical and the impossible were simply imaginative leaps into different regions of the cosmic tree. But to go to the place of your imagining in the flesh…that wasn’t possible before the actualizer’s discovery. If you adjusted the parameters, the actualizer would tweak the probability amplitudes to make your fairytale universe. Or perhaps it only opened a portal to an already existing one. What’s the difference? So much for you, entropy, for heat death, for death. Make it more likely that you live from fatal cancer than an ant bite…

But you couldn’t always predict how the amplitudes would work for complex systems like universes, and whether programming in coarse features you desired would give too much creative freedom to subsystems, resulting in surprises beyond imagining, and not always pleasant ones. Thus a mythology had already grown around the actualizer, detailing the possible and impossible other universes and their dangers. One made-up story related how they put in the parameters, the universal physical constants and the wavefunction behavior in space and time, and there came to be an instability in the matter of that universe that made people explode like supernovas when they touched each other with love. It was a fanciful lie, but it made a great opera.

In her idle moments, Birha wondered whether there was a curtain through which she could slip to find the place that always stays still amid the shifting cosmi, like the eye of a storm. But the foghorn trees were calling in the rain, and she was nodding over a bowl of soup, like the old woman she was. She looked at the veins standing out on the backs of her hands and the thick-jointed fingers, and thought of the body, her universe, which was not a closed system at all. Was there any system that was completely closed? Not in this universe, at least, where the most insulated of systems must interact with its environment, if only very slowly. So was our universe completely disconnected from the others, or did they bleed into each other? Exchange something? Not energy in any form we recognized, perhaps, but something more subtle, like dreams. She wanted to know what connected the universes, she wanted to step back from it all and see the kalpa-vriksh in its entirety. But she was caught in it as surely as anyone else. A participant-observer who must deduce the grand structure of the cosmic tree from within it, who must work at it while being caught in it, a worm in a twig, a fly in amber, to feel the knowing, the learning, like a new intimacy, a love.

“All matter is wavelike in some sense,” she told the dog. “The actualizer generates waves, and through interference changes the probability amplitudes. The tiny bubble universe so formed then resonates with an existing universe with the same properties, and a doorway opens between them.”

The dog sighed, as though this was passé, which in a way it was, and wagged his tail.

A Rumination, Dozing in the Sun

One day I dreamed I was the light falling off the edge of a leaf, nice and straight, but for the lacy diffraction at the edge. At night I flew into the clouds, to the well of stars, and became a piece of the void, a bit of dark velvet stitched on to the sky. In the afternoon I am just an old woman dozing in the sun with a yellow dog sitting beside her, wondering about stars, worried about the universes. If I could be the tap of your shoe, the glance out of the corner of your eye when you see that man or this woman, if I could be the curled lip of the snarling arboril, or a mote in the eye of a dog. What would I be, if I were to be any of this?

I am myself and yet not so. I contain multitudes and am a part of something larger; I am a cell the size of a planet, swimming in the void of the night.

When They Left

After the actualizer’s discovery, it became a subject of study, a thing to explore, and ultimately an industry dealing in dreams. Streams of adventurers, dreamers, and would-be suicides, people dissatisfied with their lives, went through the actualizer to find the universe that suited them better. The actualizer became a wish-fulfillment machine, opening a path to a universe just like this one, but with your personal parameters adjusted ever so slightly, the complexity matrices shifted just so. (This was actually not possible: manipulating individual meta-world-lines was technically an unsolved problem, but tell that to the dreamers.) Among the last to go were the people who had worked with Birha, her colleagues and students. They claimed not to be deceived by the dream-merchants; their excuse was academic, but they went like so many other people into the void. The exodus left certain towns and regions thinly populated, some planets abandoned. Imagine being dissatisfied enough to want to change not towns, or planets, but entire universes! It was all Birha could do in the early days to stand there and watch the insanity until finally her dear companions were sundered from her by space, time, and whatever boundary kept one universe from another. Some people came back but they were strangers, probably from other planets in her universe. She had discovered the infinite branches of the cosmic tree, but it was not hers to claim in any way. She was the only one who wouldn’t travel its endless ways.

Who knew how long her erstwhile companions would be gone, or in what shape they’d return, if they returned? She was too old to travel, and she liked the pleasures of small things, like tinkering with the tuning on the poeticas, designing and constructing new ones, and sipping the pale tea in the morning. She liked watching the yellow dog chase firelings. But also she was a prickly old woman, conservative as they come about universes and parameters, and she liked this one just fine, thank you. She liked the world on which she lived, with the seven-year day-cycle.

No, she wouldn’t go. She was too obstinate and she disapproved of this meddling with the natural unfolding of things. Besides there was the elegance of death. The neatness of it, the way nothing’s wasted after. It seemed as though only in this universe was death real. She liked to sit on the sunny doorstep and talk to the dog about it all. Dogs, she thought, don’t need other universes; they are already perfect for the one in which they exist. She wondered if humans were refugees from some lost other branch of the Tree, which is why we were so restless. Always dissatisfied, going from planet to planet, galaxy to galaxy, branch to branch of the Cosmic Tree, and maybe rewriting our own life-histories of what-has-been. But we are not all like that; there have always been people who are like the dog, like Birha, perfectly belonging in the worlds of this universe.

A Rumination on Poeticas

A poetica consists of a series of suspended rods or wires under tension, mounted vertically on a frame. A sounding stick run by an ingenious mechanism of gears and a winding mechanism not unlike an old-fashioned clock brushes over the rods at a varying speed, forward and backward. A series of levers controls which rod or wire is struck. While this instrument can be designed to be played by an adept, it can also be fully automated by the mechanism, which is built to last. The enormous ones on public display recount the histories and great epic poems of the people, and are made of wood and stone and metal. Some kinds are designed to be played by the wind, but in these instruments, the sounds, and therefore the meanings, are always new, and ambiguous.

It took me years to learn the musical language of the aliens, and more years to learn to build miniature poeticas.

To sound these ruminations, I have had to interpolate and invent new syllables, new chords and phrases, in order to tell my story. There are no words in their language for some of what I feel and think, and similarly there are sounds in their tongue I’ll never understand.

We call them aliens, but this is their world. We took it from them. We are the strangers, the interlopers, the aliens.

Birha’s Loves

So Birha waits, watching the clouds gather over the university ramparts, walking every day to the abandoned laboratory, where her calculations give her both frustration and pleasure. Following the probability distribution of a single meta-world-line is tremendously difficult. Through the skeins and threads of possibility that arc across the simulator’s three-dimensional result-space, she can discern several answers that fit the constraints. A problem with a multiplicity of answers as scattered as stars. Rudrak will be back in 0.3, or 0.87, or 4.6 cycles. Or in 0.0011, or 5.8, or 0.54 cycles. She is out of temper with herself and the meta-universe at large.

As she goes down the slope in the cloud-darkness that passes for evening, tripping a little bit because she wants to be in the stone house before the rain starts, it occurs to her that her irritation signifies love. For Thirru, for the man who temporarily attracted her, for the lesser loves of all the years after, for Rudrak, for all her long-gone colleagues and students, for the yellow dog who lives with her, for the village girl who brings the evening meal and cleans up in silence. For Timmar’s rock, for the aliens and their gift to her, for the cloud forest, for that ever-giving Tree, the cosmic kalpa-vriksh, and especially her branch of it. And for death, who waits for her as she waits for Rudrak.

As she thinks this, her impatience at Rudrak’s non-arrival dissipates the way the mist does when the sun comes out. In the stone house, she is out of breath; her chest hurts. There is an aroma of warm food and the yellow dog looks up from where he is lying and wags his tail lazily. She sits down to eat, dropping bits for the dog, sipping the pale tea. She thinks how it might be good for her to go out, when the time comes, into the deep forest and let her life be taken by a stinging death-vine, as is the custom among some of the natives. The vine brings a swift, painless death, wrapping the body in a shell of silken threads until all the juices are absorbed. The rest is released to become part of the rich humus of the forest floor. She feels like giving herself back to the world that gave her so much, even though she was not born here. It is comforting to think of dying in this way. The yellow dog will be happy enough with the village girl, and the old stone house will eventually be overcome by the forest. The wind will have to learn to play the poeticas, and then it will interpolate its own story with hers.

Only closed systems are lonely. And there is no such thing as a closed system.

Three days later, as the bell for morning tolls, there is a knock on the door. There is a man standing there. A stranger. No—it takes her a moment to recognize Rudrak, with his customary attitude of bewilderment and anxiety. The change is just enough to render him not quite familiar: more silver hairs, a shirt of a different fashion, in blue with an embroidered sash. He’s taller, stoops a little, and the face is different too, in a way that she can’t quite explain. In that long moment of recognition, the kalpa-vriksh speaks to her. The mistake she had made in her calculations was to assume that through all the changes between universes, through space and through time, Rudrak would be Rudrak, and Birha, Birha, and Ubbiri would always remain Ubbiri. But finally she’s seen it: identity is neither invariant nor closed. No wonder the answers had so much scatter in them! The truth, as always, is more subtle and more beautiful. Birha takes a deep breath of gratitude, feels her death only a few ten-days away.

“I’m looking for Ubbiri,” says this almost-stranger, this new Rudrak. His accent is almost perfect. She ushers him in, and he looks around, at the pale sunlight falling on the long table with the poeticas, which are sounding softly. His look of anxiety fades for a moment, to be replaced by wonder. “This looks familiar,” he says. “Have I been here before?

TEN SIGMAS

PAUL MELKO

Paul Melko’s fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies. Singularity’s Ring, his first novel, was released from Tor in 2008 and, that same year, a science fiction collection, Ten Sigmas and Other Unlikelihoods, was released from Fairwood Press. His work was nominated for the Sturgeon, Nebula, and Hugo awards in 2007. His second novel—a parallel worlds story—was The Walls of the Universe, and the sequel, The Broken Universe, came out in June.

At first we do not recognize the face as such.

One eye is swollen shut, the flesh around it livid. The nose is crusted with blood, above the lip flecked with black-red, and the mouth taped with duct tape that does not contrast enough with her pale skin.

It does not register at first as a human face. No face should be peeking from behind the driver’s seat. No face should look like that.

So at first we do not recognize it, until one of us realizes, and we all look.

For some the truck isn’t even there, and we stand frozen at the sight we have seen. The street outside the bookstore is empty of anything but a pedestrian or two. There is no tractor trailer rumbling down Sandusky Street, no diesel gas engine to disturb the languid spring day.

In some worlds, the truck is there, past us, or there, coming down the road. In some it is red, in some it is blue, and in others it is black. In the one where the girl is looking out the window at us, it is metallic maroon with white script on the door that says “Earl.”

There is just one world where the girl lifts her broken, gagged face and locks her one good eye on me. There is just one where Earl reaches behind him and pulls the girl from sight. In that world, Earl looks at me, his thick face and brown eyes expressionless.

The truck begins to slow, and that me disappears from our consciousness, sundered by circumstance.

No, I did not use my tremendous power for the good of mankind. I used it to steal the intellectual property of a person who exists in one world and pass it off as my own in another. I used my incredible ability to steal songs and stories and publish them as my own in a million different worlds. I did not warn police about terrorist attacks or fires or earthquakes. I don’t even read the papers.

I lived in a house in a town that is sometimes called Delaware, sometimes Follett, sometimes Mingo, always in a house on the corner of Williams and Ripley. I lived there modestly, in my two-bedroom house, sometimes with a pine in front, sometimes with a dogwood, writing down songs that I hear on the radio in other worlds, telling stories that I’ve read somewhere else.

In the worlds where the truck has passed us, we look at the license plate on the truck, framed in silver, naked women, and wonder what to do. There is a pay phone nearby, perhaps on this corner, perhaps on that. We can call the police and say….

We saw the girl once, and that self is already gone to us. How do we know that there is a girl gagged and bound in any of these trucks? We just saw the one.

A part of us recognizes this rationalization for the cowardice it is. We have played this game before. We know that an infinite number of possibilities exist, but that our combined existence hovers around a huge multidimensional probability distribution. If we saw the girl in one universe, then probably she was there in an infinite number of other universes.

And safe in as many other worlds, I think.

For those of us where the truck has passed us, the majority of us step into the street to go to the bagel shop across the way. Some fraction of us turn to look for a phone, and they are broken from us, their choice shaking them loose from our collective.

I am—we are—omniscient, at least a bit. I can do a parlor trick for any friend, let another of me open the envelope and see what’s inside, so we can amaze those around us. Usually we will be right. One of me can flip over the first card and the rest of me will pronounce it for what it is. Ace of Hearts, Four of Clubs, Ten of Clubs. Probably we are right for all fifty-two, at least fifty of them.

We can avoid accidents, angry people, cars, or at least most of us can. Perhaps one of us takes the hit for the rest. One of us is hit first, or sees the punch being thrown, so that the rest of us can ride the probability wave.

For some of us, the truck shifts gears, shuddering as it passes us. Earl, Bill, Tony, Irma look down at us or not, and the cab is past us. The trailer is metallic aluminum. Always.

I feel our apprehension. More of us have fallen away today than ever before. The choice to make a phone call has reduced us by a sixth. The rest of us wonder what we should do.

More of us memorize the license plate of Earl’s truck, turn to find a phone, and disappear.

When we were a child, we had a kitten named “Cocoa.” In every universe it had the same name. It liked to climb trees, and sometimes it couldn’t get back down again. Once it crawled to the very top of the maple tree out front, and we only knew it was up there by its hysterical mewing.

Dad wouldn’t climb up. “He’ll figure it out, or….”

We waited down there until dusk. We knew that if we climbed the tree we would be hurt. Some of us had tried it and failed, disappearing after breaking arms, legs, wrists, even necks.

We waited, not even going in to dinner. We waited with some neighborhood kids, some there because they liked Cocoa and some there because they wanted to see a spectacle. Finally the wind picked up.

We saw one Cocoa fall through the dark green leaves, a few feet away, breaking its neck on the sidewalk. We felt a shock of sorrow, but the rest of us were dodging, our arms outstretched, and we caught the kitten as it plummets, cushioning.

“How’d you do that?” someone asked in a million universes.

I realized then that I was different.

We step back on the sidewalk, waiting for the truck to pass, waiting to get the license plate so we can call the police anonymously. The police might be able to stop Earl with a road block. They could stop him up U.S. 23 a few miles. If they believed us.

If Earl didn’t kill the girl first. If she wasn’t already dead.

My stomach lurched. We couldn’t help thinking of the horror that the girl must have faced, must be facing.

Giving the license plate to the police wouldn’t be enough.

We step into the street and wave our hands, flagging Earl down.

We once dated a woman, a beautiful woman with chestnut hair that fell to the middle of her back. We dated for several years, and finally became engaged. In one of the worlds, just one, she started to change, grew angry, then elated, then just empty. The rest of us watched in horror as she took a knife to us, just once, in one universe, while in a million others, she compassionately helped our retching self to the kitchen sink.

She didn’t understand why I broke off the engagement. But then she didn’t know the things I did.

Earl’s cab shudders as he slams on the brakes. His CB mic slips loose and knocks the windshield. He grabs his steering wheel, his shoulders massive with exertion.

We stand there, our shopping bag dropped by the side of road, slowly waving our hands back and forth.

In a handful of worlds, the tractor trailer slams through us, and we are rattled by my death. But we know he will be caught there. For vehicular manslaughter, perhaps, and then they will find the girl. In almost all the worlds, though, Earl’s semi comes to a halt a few inches from us, a few feet.

We look up over the chrome grill, past the hood ornament, a woman’s head, like on a sea-going vessel of old, and into Earl’s eyes.

He reaches up and lets loose with his horn. We clap our hands over our ears and, in some universes, we stumble to the sidewalk, allowing Earl to grind his truck into first and rumble away. But mostly, we stand there, not moving.

It didn’t matter who was president, or who won the World Series. In sum, it was the same world for each of us, and so we existed together, on top of each other, like a stack of us, all living together within a deck of cards.

Each decision that created a subtly different universe, created another of us, another of a nearly infinite number of mes, who added just a fraction more to our intellect and understanding.

We were not a god. One of us once thought he was, and soon he was no longer with us. He couldn’t have shared our secret. We weren’t scared of that. Who would have believed him? And now that he was alone—for there could only be a handful of us who might have such delusions—there could be no harm to the rest of us.

We were worlds away.

Finally the horn stops and we look up, our ears benumbed, to see Earl yelling at us. We can’t hear what he says, but we recognize on his lips “Mother Fucker” and “Son of a Bitch.” That’s fine. We need him angry. To incite him, we give him the bird.

He bends down, reaching under his seat. He slaps a metal wrench against his open palm. His door opens and he steps down. We wait where we are.

Earl is a large man, six-four, and weighing at least three hundred pounds. He has a belly, but his chest and neck are massive. Black sideburns adorn his face, or it is clearly shaven, or he has a mustache. In all worlds, his dead eyes watch us as if we are a cow and he is the butcher.

I am slight, just five-nine, one hundred and sixty pounds, but as he swings the wrench we dodge inside it as if we know where it is going to be. We do, of course, for it has shattered our skull in a hundred worlds, enough for the rest of us to anticipate the move.

He swings and we dodge again, twice more, and each time a few of us are sacrificed. We are suddenly uncomfortable at the losses. We are the consciousness of millions of mes. But every one of us that dies is a real instance, gone forever. Every death diminishes us.

We can not wait for the police now. We must save as much of ourself as we can.

We dodge again, spinning past him, sacrificing selves to dance around him as if he is a dance partner we have worked with for a thousand years. We climb the steps to the cab, slide inside, slam the door, and lock it.

I am a composite of all versions of myself. I can think in a million ways at once. Problems become picking the best choice of all choices I could ever have picked. I can not see the future or the past, but I can see the present with a billion eyes and decide the safest course, the one that keeps the most of me together.

I am a massively parallel human.

In the worlds where the sleeper is empty, we sit quietly for the police to arrive, weaving a story that they might believe while Earl glares at us from the street. These selves fade away from those where the girl is trussed in the back, tied with wire that cuts her wrists, and gagged with duct tape.

She is dead in some, her face livid with bruises and burns. In others she is alive and conscious and watches us with blue, bloodshot eyes. The cab smells of people living there too long, of sex, of blood.

In the universes where Earl has abducted and raped this young woman, he does not stand idly on the sidewalk, but rather smashes his window open with the wrench.

The second blow catches my forehead, as I have no place to dodge, and I think as my mind shudders that I am one of the sacrificed ones, one of those who has failed so that the rest of us might survive. But then I realize that it is most of us who have been hit. Only a small percentage have managed to dodge the blow. The rest of us roll to our back and kick at Earl’s hand as it reaches in to unlock the cab door. His wrist rakes the broken safety glass, and he cries out, though still manages to pop the lock.

I crab backwards across the seat, flailing my legs at him. There are no options here. All of my selves are fighting for our lives or dying.

A single blow takes half of us. Another takes a third of those that are left. Soon my mind is a cloud. I am perhaps ten thousand, slow-witted. No longer omniscient.

A blow lands and I collapse against the door of the cab. I am just me. There is just one. Empty.

My body refuses to move as Earl loops a wire around my wrists and ankles. He does it perfunctorily—he wants to move, to get out of the middle of Sandusky Street—but it is enough to leave me helpless on the passenger side floor. I can see a half-eaten Big Mac and a can of Diet Coke. My face grinds against small stones and dirt.

I am alone. There is just me, and I am befuddled. My mind works like cold honey. I’ve failed. We all did, and now we will die like the poor girl in the back. Alone.

My vision shifts, and I see the cab from behind Earl’s head, from the sleeping cab. I realize that I am seeing it from a self who has been beaten and tossed into the back. This self is dying, but I can see through his eyes, as the blood seeps out of him. For a moment our worlds are in sync.

His eyes lower and I spot the knife, a hunting knife with a serrated edge, brown with blood. It has fallen under the passenger’s chair in his universe, under the chair I have my back against.

My hands are bound behind me, but I reach as far as I can under the seat. It’s not far enough in my awkward position. My self’s eyes lock on the knife, not far from where my fingers should be. But I have no guarantee that it’s even in my own universe at all. We are no longer at the center of the curve. My choices have brought me far away from the selves now drinking coffee and eating bagels across the street from the bookstore.

Earl looks down at me, curses. He kicks me, and pushes me farther against the passenger seat. Something nicks my finger.

I reach gently around it. It is the knife.

I take moments to maneuver it so that I hold it in my palm, outstretched like the spine of a stegosaurus. I cut myself, and I feel the hilt get slippery. I palm my hand against the gritty carpet and position the knife again.

I wait for Earl to begin a right turn, then I pull my knees in, roll onto my chest, and launch myself, back first with knife extended, at Earl.

In the only universe that I exist in, the knife enters his thigh.

The truck caroms off something in the street, and I am jerked harder against Earl. He is screaming, yelling, pawing at his thigh.

His fist slams against me and I fall to the floor.

As he turns his anger on me, the truck slams hard into something, and Earl is flung against the steering wheel. He remains that way, unconscious, until the woman in the back struggles forward and leans heavily on the knife hilt in his leg, and slices until she finds a vein or artery.

I lie in Earl’s blood until the police arrive. I am alone again, the self who had spotted the knife, gone.

The young woman came to see me while I mended in a hospital bed. There was an air of notoriety about me, and nurses and doctors were extremely pleasant. It was not just the events which had unfolded on the streets of their small town, but that I was the noted author of such famous songs as “Love as a Star” and “Romance Ho” and “Muskrat Love.” The uncovering of Earl’s exploits, including a grim laboratory in his home town of Pittsburgh, added fuel to the fire.

She seemed to have mended a bit better than I, her face now a face, her body and spirit whole again. She was stronger than I, I felt when I saw her smile. My body was healing, the cuts around my wrist and ankle, the shattered bone in my arm. But the sundering of my consciousness had left me dull, broken.

I listened to songs on the radio, other people’s songs, and could not help wondering in how many worlds there had been no knife, there had been no escape. Perhaps I was the only one of us who reached the cab to survive. Perhaps I was the only one who had saved the woman.

“Thanks,” she said. “Thanks for what you did.”

I reached for something to say, something witty, urbane, nonchalant from my mind, but there was nothing there but me.

“Uh… you’re welcome.”

She smiled. “You could have been killed,” she said.

I looked away. She didn’t realize that I had been.

“Well, sorry for bothering you,” she said quickly.

“Listen,” I said, drawing her back. “I’m sorry I didn’t….” I wanted to apologize for not saving more of her. For not ending the lives of more Earls. “I’m sorry I didn’t save you sooner.” It didn’t make any sense, and I felt myself flush.

She smiled and said, “It was enough.” She leaned in to kiss me.

I am disoriented as I feel her lips brush my right cheek, and also my left, and a third kiss lightly on my lips. I am looking at her in three views, a triptych slightly askew, and I manage a smile then, three smiles. And then a laugh, three laughs.

We have saved her at least once. That is enough. In one of the three universes we inhabit, a woman is singing a catchy tune on the radio. I start to write the lyrics down with my good hand, then stop. Enough of that, we three decide. There are other things to do now, other choices.

MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS

KELLY LINK

Kelly Link is the author of three collections, Pretty Monsters, Magic for Beginners, and Stranger Things Happen. Her short stories have won three Nebula awards, a Hugo, a Locus and a World Fantasy Award. She was born in Miami, Florida, and once won a free trip around the world by answering the question “Why do you want to go around the world?” (“Because you can’t go through it.”) Link lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she and her husband, Gavin J. Grant, run Small Beer Press and play ping-pong. In 1996 they started the occasional ’zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.

Fox is a television character, and she isn’t dead yet. But she will be, soon. She’s a character on a television show called The Library. You’ve never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had.

In one episode of The Library, a boy named Jeremy Mars, fifteen years old, sits on the roof of his house in Plantagenet, Vermont. It’s eight o’clock at night, a school night, and he and his friend Elizabeth should be studying for the math quiz that their teacher, Mr. Cliff, has been hinting at all week long. Instead they’ve sneaked out onto the roof. It’s cold. They don’t know everything they should know about X, when X is the square root of Y. They don’t even know Y. They ought to go in.

But there’s nothing good on TV and the sky is very beautiful. They have jackets on, and up in the corners where the sky begins are patches of white in the darkness, still, where there’s snow, up on the mountains. Down in the trees around the house, some animal is making a small, anxious sound: “Why cry? Why cry?”

“What’s that one?” Elizabeth says, pointing at a squarish configuration of stars.

“That’s The Parking Structure,” Jeremy says. “And right next to that is The Big Shopping Mall and The Lesser Shopping Mall.”

“And that’s Orion, right? Orion the Bargain Hunter?”

Jeremy squints up. “No, Orion is over there. That’s The Austrian Bodybuilder. That thing that’s sort of wrapped around his lower leg is The Amorous Cephalopod. The Hungry, Hungry Octopus. It can’t make up its mind whether it should eat him or make crazy, eight-legged love to him. You know that myth, right?”

“Of course,” Elizabeth says. “Is Karl going to be pissed off that we didn’t invite him over to study?”

“Karl’s always pissed off about something,” Jeremy says. Jeremy is resolutely resisting a notion about Elizabeth. Why are they sitting up here? Was it his idea or was it hers? Are they friends, are they just two friends sitting on the roof and talking? Or is Jeremy supposed to try to kiss her? He thinks maybe he’s supposed to kiss her. If he kisses her, will they still be friends? He can’t ask Karl about this. Karl doesn’t believe in being helpful. Karl believes in mocking.

Jeremy doesn’t even know if he wants to kiss Elizabeth. He’s never thought about it until right now.

“I should go home,” Elizabeth says. “There could be a new episode on right now, and we wouldn’t even know.”

“Someone would call and tell us,” Jeremy says. “My mom would come up and yell for us.” His mother is something else Jeremy doesn’t want to worry about, but he does, he does.

Jeremy Mars knows a lot about the planet Mars, although he’s never been there. He knows some girls, and yet he doesn’t know much about them. He wishes there were books about girls, the way there are books about Mars, that you could observe the orbits and brightness of girls through telescopes without appearing to be perverted. Once Jeremy read a book about Mars out loud to Karl, except he kept replacing the word Mars with the word “girls.” Karl cracked up every time.

Jeremy’s mother is a librarian. His father writes books. Jeremy reads biographies. He plays trombone in a marching band. He jumps hurdles while wearing a school tracksuit. Jeremy is also passionately addicted to a television show in which a renegade librarian and magician named Fox is trying to save her world from thieves, murderers, cabalists, and pirates. Jeremy is a geek, although he’s a telegenic geek. Somebody should make a TV show about him.

Jeremy’s friends call him Germ, although he would rather be called Mars. His parents haven’t spoken to each other in a week.

Jeremy doesn’t kiss Elizabeth. The stars don’t fall out of the sky, and Jeremy and Elizabeth don’t fall off the roof either. They go inside and finish their homework.

Someone who Jeremy has never met, never even heard of—a woman named Cleo Baldrick—has died. Lots of people, so far, have managed to live and die without making the acquaintance of Jeremy Mars, but Cleo Baldrick has left Jeremy Mars and his mother something strange in her will: a phone booth on a state highway, some forty miles outside of Las Vegas, and a Las Vegas wedding chapel. The wedding chapel is called Hell’s Bells. Jeremy isn’t sure what kind of people get married there. Bikers, maybe. Supervillains, freaks, and Satanists.

Jeremy’s mother wants to tell him something. It’s probably something about Las Vegas and about Cleo Baldrick, who—it turns out—was his mother’s great-aunt. (Jeremy never knew his mother had a great-aunt. His mother is a mysterious person.) But it may be, on the other hand, something concerning Jeremy’s father. For a week and a half now, Jeremy has managed to avoid finding out what his mother is worrying about. It’s easy not to find out things, if you try hard enough. There’s band practice. He has overslept on weekdays in order to rule out conversations at breakfast, and at night he climbs up on the roof with his telescope to look at stars, to look at Mars. His mother is afraid of heights. She grew up in L.A.

It’s clear that whatever it is she has to tell Jeremy is not something she wants to tell him. As long as he avoids being alone with her, he’s safe.

But it’s hard to keep your guard up at all times. Jeremy comes home from school, feeling as if he has passed the math test after all. Jeremy is an optimist. Maybe there’s something good on TV. He settles down with the remote control on one of his father’s pet couches: oversized and reupholstered in an orange-juice-colored corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture. This couch looks as if its hobby is devouring interior decorators. Jeremy’s father is a horror writer, so no one should be surprised if some of the couches he reupholsters are hideous and eldritch.

Jeremy’s mother comes into the room and stands above the couch, looking down at him. “Germ?” she says. She looks absolutely miserable, which is more or less how she has looked all week.

The phone rings and Jeremy jumps up.

As soon as he hears Elizabeth’s voice, he knows. She says, “Germ, it’s on. Channel forty-two. I’m taping it.” She hangs up.

“It’s on!” Jeremy says. “Channel forty-two! Now!”

His mother has the television on by the time he sits down. Being a librarian, she has a particular fondness for The Library. “I should go tell your dad,” she says, but instead she sits down beside Jeremy. And of course it’s now all the more clear something is wrong between Jeremy’s parents. But The Library is on and Fox is about to rescue Prince Wing.

When the episode ends, he can tell without looking over that his mother is crying. “Don’t mind me,” she says and wipes her nose on her sleeve. “Do you think she’s really dead?”

But Jeremy can’t stay around and talk.

Jeremy has wondered about what kind of television shows the characters in television shows watch. Television characters almost always have better haircuts, funnier friends, simpler attitudes toward sex. They marry magicians, win lotteries, have affairs with women who carry guns in their purses. Curious things happen to them on an hourly basis. Jeremy and I can forgive their haircuts. We just want to ask them about their television shows.

Just like always, it’s Elizabeth who worked out in the nick of time that the new episode was on. Everyone will show up at Elizabeth’s house afterward, for the postmortem. This time, it really is a postmortem. Why did Prince Wing kill Fox? How could Fox let him do it? Fox is ten times stronger.

Jeremy runs all the way, slapping his old track shoes against the sidewalk for the pleasure of the jar, for the sweetness of the sting. He likes the rough, cottony ache in his lungs. His coach says you have to be part-masochist to enjoy something like running. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s something to exploit.

Talis opens the door. She grins at him, although he can tell that she’s been crying, too. She’s wearing a T-shirt that says I’m So Goth I Shit Tiny Vampires.

“Hey,” Jeremy says. Talis nods. Talis isn’t so Goth, at least not as far as Jeremy or anyone else knows. Talis just has a lot of T-shirts. She’s an enigma wrapped in a mysterious T-shirt. A woman once said to Calvin Coolidge, “Mr. President, I bet my husband that I could get you to say more than two words.” Coolidge said, “You lose.” Jeremy can imagine Talis as Calvin Coolidge in a former life. Or maybe she was one of those dogs that don’t bark. A basenji. Or a rock. A dolmen. There was an episode of The Library, once, with some sinister dancing dolmens in it.

Elizabeth comes up behind Talis. If Talis is unGoth, then Elizabeth is Ballerina Goth. She likes hearts and skulls and black pen-ink tattoos, pink tulle, and Hello Kitty. When the woman who invented Hello Kitty was asked why Hello Kitty was so popular, she said, “Because she has no mouth.” Elizabeth’s mouth is small. Her lips are chapped.

“That was the most horrible episode ever! I cried and cried,” she says. “Hey, Germ, so I was telling Talis about how you inherited a gas station.”

“A phone booth,” Jeremy says. “In Las Vegas. This great-great-aunt died. And there’s a wedding chapel, too.”

“Hey! Germ!” Karl says, yelling from the living room. “Shut up and get in here! The commercial with the talking cats is on—”

“Shut it, Karl,” Jeremy says. He goes in and sits on Karl’s head. You have to show Karl who’s boss once in a while.

Amy turns up last. She was in the next town over, buying comics. She hasn’t seen the new episode and so they all shut it (except for Talis, who has not been saying anything at all) and Elizabeth puts on the tape.

In the previous episode of The Library, masked pirate-magicians said they would sell Prince Wing a cure for the spell that infested Faithful Margaret’s hair with miniature, wicked, fire-breathing golems. (Faithful Margaret’s hair keeps catching fire, but she refuses to shave it off. Her hair is the source of all her magic.)

The pirate-magicians lured Prince Wing into a trap so obvious that it seemed impossible it could really be a trap, on the one-hundred-and-fortieth floor of The Free People’s World-Tree Library. The pirate-magicians used finger magic to turn Prince Wing into a porcelain teapot, put two Earl Grey tea bags into the teapot, and poured in boiling water, toasted the Eternally Postponed and Overdue Reign of the Forbidden Books, drained their tea in one gulp, belched, hurled their souvenir pirate mugs to the ground, and then shattered the teapot, which had been Prince Wing, into hundreds of pieces. Then the wicked pirate-magicians swept the pieces of both Prince Wing and collectable mugs carelessly into a wooden cigar box, buried the box in the Angela Carter Memorial Park on the seventeenth floor of The World-Tree Library, and erected a statue of George Washington above it.

So then Fox had to go looking for Prince Wing. When she finally discovered the park on the seventeenth floor of The Library, the George Washington statue stepped down off his plinth and fought her tooth and nail. Literally tooth and nail, and they’d all agreed that there was something especially nightmarish about a biting, scratching, life-sized statue of George Washington with long, pointed metal fangs that threw off sparks when he gnashed them. The statue of George Washington bit Fox’s pinky finger right off, just like Gollum biting Frodo’s finger off on the top of Mount Doom. But of course, once the statue tasted Fox’s magical blood, it fell in love with Fox. It would be her ally from now on.

In the new episode, the actor playing Fox is a young Latina actress whom Jeremy Mars thinks he recognizes. She has been a snotty but well-intentioned fourth-floor librarian in an episode about an epidemic of food poisoning that triggered bouts of invisibility and/or levitation, and she was also a lovelorn, suicidal Bear Cult priestess in the episode where Prince Wing discovered his mother was one of the Forbidden Books.

This is one of the best things about The Library, the way the cast swaps parts, all except for Faithful Margaret and Prince Wing, who are only ever themselves. Faithful Margaret and Prince Wing are the love interests and the main characters, and therefore, inevitably, the most boring characters, although Amy has a crush on Prince Wing.

Fox and the dashing-but-treacherous pirate-magician Two Devils are never played by the same actor twice, although in the twenty-third episode of The Library, the same woman played them both. Jeremy supposes that the casting could be perpetually confusing, but instead it makes your brain catch on fire. It’s magical.

You always know Fox by her costume (the too-small green T-shirt, the long, full skirts she wears to hide her tail), by her dramatic hand gestures and body language, by the soft, breathy-squeaky voice the actors use when they are Fox. Fox is funny, dangerous, bad-tempered, flirtatious, greedy, untidy, accident-prone, graceful, and has a mysterious past. In some episodes, Fox is played by male actors, but she always sounds like Fox. And she’s always beautiful. Every episode you think that this Fox, surely, is the most beautiful Fox there could ever be, and yet the Fox of the next episode will be even more heartbreakingly beautiful.

On television, it’s night in The Free People’s World-Tree Library. All the librarians are asleep, tucked into their coffins, their scabbards, priest-holes, buttonholes, pockets, hidden cupboards, between the pages of their enchanted novels. Moonlight pours through the high, arched windows of the Library and between the aisles of shelves, into the park. Fox is on her knees, clawing at the muddy ground with her bare hands. The statue of George Washington kneels beside her, helping.

“So that’s Fox, right?” Amy says. Nobody tells her to shut up. It would be pointless. Amy has a large heart and an even larger mouth. When it rains, Amy rescues worms off the sidewalk. When you get tired of having a secret, you tell Amy.

Understand: Amy isn’t that much stupider than anyone else in this story. It’s just that she thinks out loud.

Elizabeth’s mother comes into the living room. “Hey guys,” she says. “Hi, Jeremy. Did I hear something about your mother inheriting a wedding chapel?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jeremy says. “In Las Vegas.”

“Las Vegas,” Elizabeth’s mom says. “I won three hundred bucks once in Las Vegas. Spent it on a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. So how many times can you guys watch the same episode in one day?” But she sits down to watch, too. “Do you think she’s really dead?”

“Who’s dead?” Amy says. Nobody says anything.

Jeremy isn’t sure he’s ready to see this episode again so soon, anyway, especially not with Amy. He goes upstairs and takes a shower. Elizabeth’s family have a large and distracting selection of shampoos. They don’t mind when Jeremy uses their bathroom.

Jeremy and Karl and Elizabeth have known each other since the first day of kindergarten. Amy and Talis are a year younger. The five have not always been friends, except for Jeremy and Karl, who have. Talis is, famously, a loner. She doesn’t listen to music as far as anyone knows, she doesn’t wear significant amounts of black, she isn’t particularly good (or bad) at math or English, and she doesn’t drink, debate, knit or refuse to eat meat. If she keeps a blog, she’s never admitted it to anyone.

The Library made Jeremy and Karl and Talis and Elizabeth and Amy friends. No one else in school is as passionately devoted. Besides, they are all the children of former hippies, and the town is small. They all live within a few blocks of each other, in run-down Victorians with high ceilings and ranch houses with sunken living rooms. And although they have not always been friends, growing up, they’ve gone skinny-dipping in lakes on summer nights, and broken bones on each other’s trampolines. Once, during an argument about dog names, Elizabeth, who is hot-tempered, tried to run Jeremy over with her ten-speed bicycle, and once, a year ago, Karl got drunk on green-apple schnapps at a party and tried to kiss Talis, and once, for five months in the seventh grade, Karl and Jeremy communicated only through angry e-mails written in all caps. I’m not allowed to tell you what they fought about.

Now the five are inseparable; invincible. They imagine that life will always be like this—like a television show in eternal syndication—that they will always have each other. They use the same vocabulary. They borrow each other’s books and music. They share lunches, and they never say anything when Jeremy comes over and takes a shower. They all know Jeremy’s father is eccentric. He’s supposed to be eccentric. He’s a novelist.

When Jeremy comes back downstairs, Amy is saying, “I’ve always thought there was something wicked about Prince Wing. He’s a dork and he looks like he has bad breath. I never really liked him.”

Karl says, “We don’t know the whole story yet. Maybe he found out something about Fox while he was a teapot.” Elizabeth’s mom says, “He’s under a spell. I bet you anything.” They’ll be talking about it all week.

Talis is in the kitchen, making a Velveeta-and-pickle sandwich.

“So what did you think?” Jeremy says. It’s like having a hobby, only more pointless, trying to get Talis to talk. “Is Fox really dead?”

“Don’t know,” Talis says. Then she says, “I had a dream.”

Jeremy waits. Talis seems to be waiting, too. She says, “About you.” Then she’s silent again. There is something dreamlike about the way that she makes a sandwich. As if she is really making something that isn’t a sandwich at all; as if she’s making something far more meaningful and mysterious. Or as if soon he will wake up and realize that there are no such things as sandwiches.

“You and Fox,” Talis says. “The dream was about the two of you. She told me. To tell you. To call her. She gave me a phone number. She was in trouble. She said you were in trouble. She said to keep in touch.”

“Weird,” Jeremy says, mulling this over. He’s never had a dream about The Library. He wonders who was playing Fox in Talis’s dream. He had a dream about Talis, once, but it isn’t the kind of dream that you’d ever tell anybody about. They were just sitting together, not saying anything. Even Talis’s T-shirt hadn’t said anything. Talis was holding his hand.

“It didn’t feel like a dream,” Talis says.

“So what was the phone number?” Jeremy says.

“I forgot,” Talis says. “When I woke up, I forgot.”

Kurt’s mother works in a bank. Talis’s father has a karaoke machine in his basement, and he knows all the lyrics to “Like a Virgin” and “Holiday” as well as the lyrics to all the songs from Godspell and Cabaret. Talis’s mother is a licensed therapist who composes multiple-choice personality tests for women’s magazines. “Discover Which Television Character You Resemble Most.” Etc. Amy’s parents met in a commune in Ithaca: her name was Galadriel Moon Shuyler before her parents came to their senses and had it changed legally. Everyone is sworn to secrecy about this, which is ironic, considering that this is Amy.

But Jeremy’s father is Gordon Strangle Mars. He writes novels about giant spiders, giant leeches, giant moths, and once, notably, a giant carnivorous rosebush who lives in a mansion in upstate New York, and falls in love with a plucky, teenaged girl with a heart murmur. Saint Bernard-sized spiders chase his characters’ cars down dark, bumpy country roads. They fight the spiders off with badminton rackets, lawn tools, and fireworks. The novels with spiders are all bestsellers.

Once a Gordon Strangle Mars fan broke into the Marses’s house. The fan stole several German first editions of Gordon Strangle’s novels, a hairbrush, and a used mug in which there were two ancient, dehydrated tea bags. The fan left behind a betrayed and abusive letter on a series of Post-It Notes, and the manuscript of his own novel, told from the point of view of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Jeremy and his mother read the manuscript out loud to each other. It begins: “The iceberg knew it had a destiny.” Jeremy’s favorite bit happens when the iceberg sees the doomed ship drawing nearer, and remarks plaintively, “Oh my, does not the Captain know about my large and impenetrable bottom?”

Jeremy discovered, later, that the novel-writing fan had put Gordon Strangle Mars’s used tea bags and hairbrush up for sale on eBay, where someone paid forty-two dollars and sixty-eight cents, which was not only deeply creepy, but, Jeremy still feels, somewhat cheap. But of course this is appropriate, as Jeremy’s father is famously stingy and just plain weird about money.

Gordon Strangle Mars once spent eight thousand dollars on a Japanese singing toilet. Jeremy’s friends love that toilet. Jeremy’s mother has a painting of a woman wearing a red dress by some artist, Jeremy can never remember who. Jeremy’s father gave her that painting. The woman is beautiful, and she looks right at you as if you’re the painting, not her. As if you’re beautiful. The woman has an apple in one hand and a knife in the other. When Jeremy was little, he used to dream about eating that apple. Apparently the painting is worth more than the whole house and everything else in the house, including the singing toilet. But art and toilets aside, the Marses buy most of their clothes at thrift stores.

Jeremy’s father clips coupons.

On the other hand, when Jeremy was twelve and begged his parents to send him to baseball camp in Florida, his father ponied up. And on Jeremy’s last birthday, his father gave him a couch reupholstered in several dozen yards of heavy-duty Star Wars-themed fabric. That was a good birthday.

When his writing is going well, Gordon Strangle Mars likes to wake up at 6 A.M. and go out driving. He works out new plot lines about giant spiders and keeps an eye out for abandoned couches, which he wrestles into the back of his pickup truck. Then he writes for the rest of the day. On weekends he reupholsters the thrown-away couches in remaindered, discount fabrics. A few years ago, Jeremy went through his house, counting up fourteen couches, eight love seats, and one rickety chaise lounge. That was a few years ago. Once Jeremy had a dream that his father combined his two careers and began reupholstering giant spiders.

All lights in all rooms of the Mars house are on fifteen-minute timers, in case Jeremy or his mother leave a room and forget to turn off a lamp. This has caused confusion—and sometimes panic—on the rare occasions that the Marses throw dinner parties.

Everyone thinks that writers are rich, but it seems to Jeremy that his family is only rich some of the time. Some of the time they aren’t.

Whenever Gordon Mars gets stuck in a Gordon Strangle Mars novel, he worries about money. He worries that he won’t, in fact, manage to finish the current novel. He worries that it will be terrible. He worries that no one will buy it and no one will read it, and that the readers who do read it will demand to be refunded the cost of the book. He’s told Jeremy that he imagines these angry readers marching on the Mars house, carrying torches and crowbars.

It would be easier on Jeremy and his mother if Gordon Mars did not work at home. It’s difficult to shower when you know your father is timing you, and thinking dark thoughts about the water bill, instead of concentrating on the scene in the current Gordon Strangle Mars novel, in which the giant spiders have returned to their old haunts in the trees surrounding the ninth hole of the accursed golf course, where they sullenly feast on the pulped entrail-juices of a brace of unlucky poodles and their owner.

During these periods, Jeremy showers at school, after gym, or at his friends’ houses, even though it makes his mother unhappy. She says that sometimes you just need to ignore Jeremy’s father. She takes especially long showers, lots of baths. She claims that baths are even nicer when you know that Jeremy’s father is worried about the water bill. Jeremy’s mother has a cruel streak.

What Jeremy likes about showers is the way you can stand there, surrounded by water and yet in absolutely no danger of drowning, and not think about things like whether you screwed up on the Spanish assignment, or why your mother is looking so worried. Instead you can think about things like if there’s water on Mars, and whether or not Karl is shaving, and if so, who is he trying to fool, and what the statue of George Washington meant when it said to Fox, during their desperate, bloody fight, “You have a long journey ahead of you,” and, “Everything depends on this.” And is Fox really dead?

After she dug up the cigar box, and after George Washington helped her carefully separate out the pieces of tea mug from the pieces of teapot, after they glued back together the hundreds of pieces of porcelain, when Fox turned the ramshackle teapot back into Prince Wing, Prince Wing looked about a hundred years old, and as if maybe there were still a few pieces missing. He looked pale. When he saw Fox, he turned even paler, as if he hadn’t expected her to be standing there in front of him. He picked up his leviathan sword, which Fox had been keeping safe for him—the one which faithful viewers know was carved out of the tooth of a giant, ancient sea creature that lived happily and peacefully (before Prince Wing was tricked into killing it) in the enchanted underground sea on the third floor—and skewered the statue of George Washington like a kebab, pinning it to a tree. He kicked Fox in the head, knocked her down, and tied her to a card catalog. He stuffed a handful of moss and dirt into her mouth so she couldn’t say anything, and then he accused her of plotting to murder Faithful Margaret by magic. He said Fox was more deceitful than a Forbidden Book. He cut off Fox’s tail and her ears and he ran her through with the poison-edged, dog-headed knife that he and Fox had stolen from his mother’s secret house. Then he left Fox there, tied to the card catalog, limp and bloody, her beautiful head hanging down. He sneezed (Prince Wing is allergic to swordplay) and walked off into the stacks. The librarians crept out of their hiding places. They untied Fox and cleaned off her face. They held a mirror to her mouth, but the mirror stayed clear and unclouded.

When the librarians pulled Prince Wing’s leviathan sword out of the tree, the statue of George Washington staggered over and picked up Fox in his arms. He tucked her ears and tail into the capacious pockets of his bird-shit-stained, verdigris riding coat. He carried Fox down seventeen flights of stairs, past the enchanted-and-disagreeable Sphinx on the eighth floor, past the enchanted-and-stormy underground sea on the third floor, past the even-more-enchanted checkout desk on the first floor, and through the hammered-brass doors of The Free People’s World Tree Library. Nobody in The Library, not in one single episode, has ever gone outside. The Library is full of all the sorts of things that one usually has to go outside to enjoy: trees and lakes and grottoes and fields and mountains and precipices (and full of indoor things as well, like books, of course). Outside The Library, everything is dusty and red and alien, as if George Washington has carried Fox out of The Library and onto the surface of Mars.

“I could really go for a nice cold Euphoria right now,” Jeremy says. He and Karl are walking home.

Euphoria is: The Librarian’s Tonic—When Watchfulness Is Not Enough. There are frequently commercials for Euphoria on The Library. Although no one is exactly sure what Euphoria is for, whether it is alcoholic or caffeinated, what it tastes like, if it is poisonous or delightful, or even whether or not it’s carbonated, everyone, including Jeremy, pines for a glass of Euphoria once in a while.

“Can I ask you a question?” Karl says.

“Why do you always say that?” Jeremy says. “What am I going to say? ‘No, you can’t ask me a question’?”

“What’s up with you and Talis?” Karl says. “What were you talking about in the kitchen?” Jeremy sees that Karl has been Watchful.

“She had this dream about me,” he says, uneasily.

“So do you like her?” Karl says. His chin looks raw. Jeremy is sure now that Karl has tried to shave. “Because, remember how I liked her first?”

“We were just talking,” Jeremy says. “So did you shave? Because I didn’t know you had facial hair. The idea of you shaving is pathetic, Karl. It’s like voting Republican if we were old enough to vote. Or farting in Music Appreciation.”

“Don’t try to change the subject,” Karl says. “When have you and Talis ever had a conversation before?”

“One time we talked about a Diana Wynne Jones book that she’d checked out from the library. She dropped it in the bath accidentally. She wanted to know if I could tell my mother,” Jeremy says. “Once we talked about recycling.”

“Shut up, Germ,” Karl says. “Besides, what about Elizabeth? I thought you liked Elizabeth!”

“Who said that?” Jeremy says. Karl is glaring at him.

“Amy told me,” Karl says.

“I never told Amy I liked Elizabeth,” Jeremy says. So now Amy is a mind reader as well as a blabbermouth? What a terrible, deadly combination!

“No,” Karl says, grudgingly. “Elizabeth told Amy that she likes you. So I just figured you liked her back.”

“Elizabeth likes me?” Jeremy says.

“Apparently everybody likes you,” Karl says. He sounds sorry for himself. “What is it about you? It’s not like you’re all that special. Your nose is funny looking and you have stupid hair.”

“Thanks, Karl.” Jeremy changes the subject. “Do you think Fox is really dead?” he says. “For good?” He walks faster, so that Karl has to almost-jog to keep up. Presently Jeremy is much taller than Karl, and he intends to enjoy this as long as it lasts. Knowing Karl, he’ll either get tall, too, or else chop Jeremy off at the knees.

“They’ll use magic,” Karl says. “Or maybe it was all a dream. They’ll make her alive again. I’ll never forgive them if they’ve killed Fox. And if you like Talis, I’ll never forgive you, either. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I think I mean what I say, but if push came to shove, eventually I’d forgive you, and we’d be friends again, like in seventh grade. But I wouldn’t, and you’re wrong, and we wouldn’t be. We wouldn’t ever be friends again.”

Jeremy doesn’t say anything. Of course he likes Talis. He just hasn’t realized how much he likes her, until recently. Until today. Until Karl opened his mouth. Jeremy likes Elizabeth too, but how can you compare Elizabeth and Talis? You can’t. Elizabeth is Elizabeth and Talis is Talis.

“When you tried to kiss Talis, she hit you with a boa constrictor,” he says. It had been Amy’s boa constrictor. It had probably been an accident. Karl shouldn’t have tried to kiss someone while they were holding a boa constrictor.

“Just try to remember what I just said,” Karl says. “You’re free to like anyone you want to. Anyone except for Talis.”

The Library has been on television for two years now. It isn’t a regularly scheduled program. Sometimes it’s on two times in the same week, and then not on again for another couple of weeks. Often new episodes debut in the middle of the night. There is a large online community who spend hours scanning channels; sending out alarms and false alarms; fans swap theories, tapes, files; write fanfic. Elizabeth has rigged up her computer to shout “Wake up, Elizabeth! The television is on fire!” when reliable Library watch-sites discover a new episode.

The Library is a pirate TV show. It’s shown up once or twice on most network channels, but usually it’s on the kind of channels that Jeremy thinks of as ghost channels. The ones that are just static, unless you’re paying for several hundred channels of cable. There are commercial breaks, but the products being advertised are like Euphoria. They never seem to be real brands, or things that you can actually buy. Often the commercials aren’t even in English, or in any other identifiable language, although the jingles are catchy, nonsense or not. They get stuck in your head.

Episodes of The Library have no regular schedule, no credits, and sometimes not even dialogue. One episode of The Library takes place inside the top drawer of a card catalog, in pitch dark, and it’s all in Morse code with subtitles. Nothing else. No one has ever claimed responsibility for inventing The Library. No one has ever interviewed one of the actors, or stumbled across a set, film crew, or script, although in one documentary-style episode, the actors filmed the crew, who all wore paper bags on their heads.

When Jeremy gets home, his father is making upside-down pizza in a casserole dish for dinner.

Meeting writers is usually disappointing at best. Writers who write sexy thrillers aren’t necessarily sexy or thrilling in person. Children’s book writers might look more like accountants, or axe murderers for that matter. Horror writers are very rarely scary looking, although they are frequently good cooks.

Though Gordon Strangle Mars is scary looking. He has long, thin fingers—currently slimy with pizza sauce—which are why he chose “Strangle” for his fake middle name. He has white-blond hair that he tugs on while he writes until it stands straight up. He has a bad habit of suddenly appearing beside you, when you haven’t even realized he was in the same part of the house. His eyes are deep-set and he doesn’t blink very often. Karl says that when you meet Jeremy’s father, he looks at you as if he were imagining you bundled up and stuck away in some giant spider’s larder. Which is probably true.

People who read books probably never bother to wonder if their favorite writers are also good parents. Why would they?

Gordon Strangle Mars is a recreational shoplifter. He has a special, complicated, and unspoken arrangement with the local bookstore, where, in exchange for autographing as many Gordon Strangle Mars novels as they can possibly sell, the store allows Jeremy’s father to shoplift books without comment. Jeremy’s mother shows up sooner or later and writes a check.

Jeremy’s feelings about his father are complicated. His father is a cheapskate and a petty thief, and yet Jeremy likes his father. His father hardly ever loses his temper with Jeremy, he is always interested in Jeremy’s life, and he gives interesting (if confusing) advice when Jeremy asks for it. For example, if Jeremy asked his father about kissing Elizabeth, his father might suggest that Jeremy not worry about giant spiders when he kisses Elizabeth. Jeremy’s father’s advice usually has something to do with giant spiders.

When Jeremy and Karl weren’t speaking to each other, it was Jeremy’s father who straightened them out. He lured Karl over, and then locked them both into his study. He didn’t let them out again until they were on speaking terms.

“I thought of a great idea for your book,” Jeremy says. “What if one of the spiders builds a web on a soccer field, across a goal? And what if the goalie doesn’t notice until the middle of the game? Could somebody kill one of the spiders with a soccer ball, if they kicked it hard enough? Would it explode? Or even better, the spider could puncture the soccer ball with its massive fangs. That would be cool, too.”

“Your mother’s out in the garage,” Gordon Strangle Mars says to Jeremy. “She wants to talk to you.”

“Oh,” Jeremy says. All of a sudden, he thinks of Fox in Talis’s dream, trying to phone him. Trying to warn him. Unreasonably, he feels that it’s his parents’ fault that Fox is dead now, as if they have killed her. “Is it about you? Are you getting divorced?”

“I don’t know,” his father says. He hunches his shoulders. He makes a face. It’s a face that Jeremy’s father makes frequently, and yet this face is even more pitiful and guilty than usual.

“What did you do?” Jeremy says. “Did you get caught shoplifting at Wal-Mart?”

“No,” his father says.

“Did you have an affair?”

“No!” his father says, again. Now he looks disgusted, either with himself or with Jeremy for asking such a horrible question. “I screwed up. Let’s leave it at that.”

“How’s the book coming?” Jeremy says. There is something in his father’s voice that makes him feel like kicking something, but there are never giant spiders around when you need them.

“I don’t want to talk about that, either,” his father says, looking, if possible, even more ashamed. “Go tell your mother dinner will be ready in five minutes. Maybe you and I can watch the new episode of The Library after dinner, if you haven’t already seen it a thousand times.”

“Do you know the end? Did Mom tell you that Fox is—”

“Oh jeez,” his father interrupts. “They killed Fox?”

That’s the problem with being a writer, Jeremy knows. Even the biggest and most startling twists are rarely twists for you. You know how every story goes.

Jeremy’s mother is an orphan. Jeremy’s father claims that she was raised by feral silent-film stars, and it’s true, she looks like a heroine out of a Harold Lloyd movie. She has an appealingly disheveled look to her, as if someone has either just tied or untied her from a set of train tracks. She met Gordon Mars (before he added the Strangle and sold his first novel) in the food court of a mall in New Jersey, and fell in love with him before realizing that he was a writer and a recreational shoplifter. She didn’t read anything he’d written until after they were married, which was a typically cunning move on Jeremy’s father’s part.

Jeremy’s mother doesn’t read horror novels. She doesn’t like ghost stories or unexplained phenomena or even the kind of phenomena that require excessively technical explanations. For example: microwaves, airplanes. She doesn’t like Halloween, not even Halloween candy. Jeremy’s father gives her special editions of his novels, where the scary pages have been glued together.

Jeremy’s mother is quiet more often than not. Her name is Alice and sometimes Jeremy thinks about how the two quietest people he knows are named Alice and Talis. But his mother and Talis are quiet in different ways. Jeremy’s mother is the kind of person who seems to be keeping something hidden, something secret. Whereas Talis just is a secret. Jeremy’s mother could easily turn out to be a secret agent. But Talis is the death ray or the key to immortality or whatever it is that secret agents have to keep secret. Hanging out with Talis is like hanging out with a teenage black hole.

Jeremy’s mother is sitting on the floor of the garage, beside a large cardboard box. She has a photo album in her hands. Jeremy sits down beside her.

There are photographs of a cat on a wall, and something blurry that looks like a whale or a zeppelin or a loaf of bread. There’s a photograph of a small girl sitting beside a woman. The woman wears a fur collar with a sharp little muzzle, four legs, a tail, and Jeremy feels a sudden pang. Fox is the first dead person that he’s ever cared about, but she’s not real. The little girl in the photograph looks utterly blank, as if someone has just hit her with a hammer. Like the person behind the camera has just said, “Smile! Your parents are dead!”

“Cleo,” Jeremy’s mother says, pointing to the woman. “That’s Cleo. She was my mother’s aunt. She lived in Los Angeles. I went to live with her when my parents died. I was four. I know I’ve never talked about her. I’ve never really known what to say about her.”

Jeremy says, “Was she nice?”

His mother says, “She tried to be nice. She didn’t expect to be saddled with a little girl. What an odd word. Saddled. As if she were a horse. As if somebody put me on her back and I never got off again. She liked to buy clothes for me. She liked clothes. She hadn’t had a happy life. She drank a lot. She liked to go to movies in the afternoon and to séances in the evenings. She had boyfriends. Some of them were jerks. The love of her life was a small-time gangster. He died and she never married. She always said marriage was a joke and that life was a bigger joke, and it was just her bad luck that she didn’t have a sense of humor. So it’s strange to think that all these years she was running a wedding chapel.”

Jeremy looks at his mother. She’s half-smiling, half-grimacing, as if her stomach hurts. “I ran away when I was sixteen. And I never saw her again. Once she sent me a letter, care of your father’s publishers. She said she’d read all his books, and that was how she found me, I guess, because he kept dedicating them to me. She said she hoped I was happy and that she thought about me. I wrote back. I sent a photograph of you. But she never wrote again. Sounds like an episode of The Library, doesn’t it?”

Jeremy says, “Is that what you wanted to tell me? Dad said you wanted to tell me something.”

“That’s part of it,” his mother says. “I have to go out to Las Vegas, to find out some things about this wedding chapel. Hell’s Bells. I want you to come with me.”

“Is that what you wanted to ask me?” Jeremy says, although he knows there’s something else. His mother still has that sad half-smile on her face.

“Germ,” his mother says. “You know I love your father, right?”

“Why?” Jeremy says. “What did he do?”

His mother flips through the photo album. “Look,” she says. “This was when you were born.” In the picture, his father holds Jeremy as if someone has just handed him an enchanted porcelain teapot. Jeremy’s father grins, but he looks terrified, too. He looks like a kid. A scary, scared kid.

“He wouldn’t tell me either,” Jeremy says. “So it has to be pretty bad. If you’re getting divorced, I think you should go ahead and tell me.”

“We’re not getting divorced,” his mother says, “but it might be a good thing if you and I went out to Las Vegas. We could stay there for a few months while I sort out this inheritance. Take care of Cleo’s estate. I’m going to talk to your teachers. I’ve given notice at the library. Think of it as an adventure.”

She sees the look on Jeremy’s face. “No, I’m sorry. That was a stupid, stupid thing to say. I know this isn’t an adventure.”

“I don’t want to go,” Jeremy says. “All my friends are here! I can’t just go away and leave them. That would be terrible!” All this time, he’s been preparing himself for the most terrible thing he can imagine. He’s imagined a conversation with his mother, in which his mother reveals her terrible secret, and in his imagination, he’s been calm and reasonable. His imaginary parents have wept and asked for his understanding. The imaginary Jeremy has understood. He has imagined himself understanding everything. But now, as his mother talks, Jeremy’s heartbeat speeds up, and his lungs fill with air, as if he is running. He starts to sweat, although the floor of the garage is cold. He wishes he were sitting up on top of the roof with his telescope. There could be meteors, invisible to the naked eye, careening through the sky, hurtling toward Earth. Fox is dead. Everyone he knows is doomed. Even as he thinks this, he knows he’s overreacting. But it doesn’t help to know this.

“I know it’s terrible,” his mother says. His mother knows something about terrible.

“So why can’t I stay here?” Jeremy says. “You go sort things out in Las Vegas, and I’ll stay here with Dad. Why can’t I stay here?”

“Because he put you in a book!” his mother says. She spits the words out. He has never heard her sound so angry. His mother never gets angry. “He put you in one of his books! I was in his office, and the manuscript was on his desk. I saw your name, and so I picked it up and started reading.”

“So what?” Jeremy says. “He’s put me in his books before. Like, stuff I’ve said. Like when I was eight and I was running a fever and told him the trees were full of dead people wearing party hats. Like when I accidentally set fire to his office.”

“It isn’t like that,” his mother says. “It’s you. It’s you. He hasn’t even changed your name. The boy in the book, he jumps hurdles and he wants to be a rocket scientist and go to Mars, and he’s cute and funny and sweet and his best friend Elizabeth is in love with him and he talks like you and he looks like you and then he dies, Jeremy. He has a brain tumor and he dies. He dies. There aren’t any giant spiders. There’s just you, and you die.”

Jeremy is silent. He imagines his father writing the scene in his book where the kid named Jeremy dies, and crying, just a little. He imagines this Jeremy kid, Jeremy the character who dies. Poor messed-up kid. Now Jeremy and Fox have something in common. They’re both made-up people. They’re both dead.

“Elizabeth is in love with me?” he says. Just on principle, he never believes anything that Karl says. But if it’s in a book, maybe it’s true.

“Oh, whoops,” his mother says. “I really didn’t want to say that. I’m just so angry at him. We’ve been married for seventeen years. I was just four years older than you when I met him, Jeremy. I was nineteen. He was only twenty. We were babies. Can you imagine that? I can put up with the singing toilet and the shoplifting and the couches and I can put up with him being so weird about money. But he killed you, Jeremy. He wrote you into a book and he killed you off. And he knows it was wrong, too. He’s ashamed of himself. He didn’t want me to tell you. I didn’t mean to tell you.”

Jeremy sits and thinks. “I still don’t want to go to Las Vegas,” he says to his mother. “Maybe we could send Dad there instead.”

His mother says, “Not a bad idea.” But he can tell she’s already planning their itinerary.

In one episode of The Library, everyone was invisible. You couldn’t see the actors: you could only see the books and the bookshelves and the study carrels on the fifth floor where the coin-operated wizards come to flirt and practice their spells. Invisible Forbidden Books were fighting invisible pirate-magicians and the pirate-magicians were fighting Fox and her friends, who were also invisible. The fight was clumsy and full of deadly accidents. You could hear them fighting. Shelves were overturned. Books were thrown. Invisible people tripped over invisible dead bodies, but you didn’t find out who’d died until the next episode. Several of the characters—The Accidental Sword, Hairy Pete, and Ptolemy Krill (who, much like the Vogons in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote poetry so bad it killed anyone who read it)—disappeared for good, and nobody is sure whether they’re dead or not.

In another episode, Fox stole a magical drug from The Norns, a prophetic girl band who headline at a cabaret on the mezzanine of The Free People’s World-Tree Library. She accidentally injected it, became pregnant, and gave birth to a bunch of snakes who led her to the exact shelf where renegade librarians had misshelved an ancient and terrible book of magic which had never been translated, until Fox asked the snakes for help. The snakes writhed and curled on the ground, spelling out words, letter by letter, with their bodies. As they translated the book for Fox, they hissed and steamed. They became fiery lines on the ground, and then they burnt away entirely. Fox cried. That’s the only time anyone has ever seen Fox cry, ever. She isn’t like Prince Wing. Prince Wing is a crybaby.

The thing about The Library is that characters don’t come back when they die. It’s as if death is for real. So maybe Fox really is dead and she really isn’t coming back. There are a couple of ghosts who hang around The Library looking for blood libations, but they’ve always been ghosts, all the way back to the beginning of the show. There aren’t any evil twins or vampires, either. Although someday, hopefully, there will be evil twins. Who doesn’t love evil twins?

“Mom told me about how you wrote about me,” Jeremy says. His mother is still in the garage. He feels like a tennis ball in a game where the tennis players love him very, very much, even while they lob and smash and send him back and forth, back and forth.

His father says, “She said she wasn’t going to tell you, but I guess I’m glad she did. I’m sorry, Germ. Are you hungry?”

“She’s going out to Las Vegas next week. She wants me to go with her,” Jeremy says.

“I know,” his father says, still holding out a bowl of upside-down pizza. “Try not to worry about all of this, if you can. Think of it as an adventure.”

“Mom says that’s a stupid thing to say. Are you going to let me read the book with me in it?” Jeremy says.

“No,” his father says, looking straight at Jeremy. “I burned it.”

“Really?” Jeremy says. “Did you set fire to your computer too?”

“Well, no,” his father says. “But you can’t read it. It wasn’t any good, anyway. Want to watch The Library with me? And will you eat some damn pizza, please? I may be a lousy father, but I’m a good cook. And if you love me, you’ll eat the damn pizza and be grateful.”

So they go sit on the orange couch and Jeremy eats pizza and watches The Library for the second-and-a-half time with his father. The lights on the timer in the living room go off, and Prince Wing kills Fox again. And then Jeremy goes to bed. His father goes away to write or to burn stuff. Whatever. His mother is still out in the garage.

On Jeremy’s desk is a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. If he wanted to, he could call his phone booth. When he dials the number, it rings for a long time. Jeremy sits on his bed in the dark and listens to it ringing and ringing. When someone picks it up, he almost hangs up. Someone doesn’t say anything, so Jeremy says, “Hello? Hello?”

Someone breathes into the phone on the other end of the line. Someone says in a soft, musical, squeaky voice, “Can’t talk now, kid. Call back later.” Then someone hangs up.

Jeremy dreams that he’s sitting beside Fox on a sofa that his father has reupholstered in spider silk. His father has been stealing spider webs from the giant-spider superstores. From his own books. Is that shoplifting or is it self-plagiarism? The sofa is soft and gray and a little bit sticky. Fox sits on either side of him. The right-hand-side Fox is being played by Talis. Elizabeth plays the Fox on his left. Both Foxes look at him with enormous compassion.

“Are you dead?” Jeremy says.

“Are you?” the Fox who is being played by Elizabeth says, in that unmistakable Fox voice which, Jeremy’s father once said, sounds like a sexy and demented helium balloon. It makes Jeremy’s brain hurt, to hear Fox’s voice coming out of Elizabeth’s mouth.

The Fox who looks like Talis doesn’t say anything at all. The writing on her T-shirt is so small and so foreign that Jeremy can’t read it without feeling as if he’s staring at Fox-Talis’s breasts. It’s probably something he needs to know, but he’ll never be able to read it. He’s too polite, and besides he’s terrible at foreign languages.

“Hey look,” Jeremy says. “We’re on TV!” There he is on television, sitting between two Foxes on a sticky gray couch in a field of red poppies. “Are we in Las Vegas?”

“We’re not in Kansas,” Fox-Elizabeth says. “There’s something I need you to do for me.”

“What’s that?” Jeremy says.

“If I tell you in the dream,” Fox-Elizabeth says, “you won’t remember. You have to remember to call me when you’re awake. Keep on calling until you get me.”

“How will I remember to call you,” Jeremy says, “if I don’t remember what you tell me in this dream? Why do you need me to help you? Why is Talis here? What does her T-shirt say? Why are you both Fox? Is this Mars?”

Fox-Talis goes on watching TV. Fox-Elizabeth opens her kind and beautiful un-Hello-Kitty-like mouth again. She tells Jeremy the whole story. She explains everything. She translates Fox-Talis’s T-shirt, which turns out to explain everything about Talis that Jeremy has ever wondered about. It answers every single question that Jeremy has ever had about girls. And then Jeremy wakes up—

It’s dark. Jeremy flips on the light. The dream is moving away from him. There was something about Mars. Elizabeth was asking who he thought was prettier, Talis or Elizabeth. They were laughing. They both had pointy fox ears. They wanted him to do something. There was a telephone number he was supposed to call. There was something he was supposed to do.

In two weeks, on the fifteenth of April, Jeremy and his mother will get in her van and start driving out to Las Vegas. Every morning before school, Jeremy takes long showers and his father doesn’t say anything at all. One day it’s as if nothing is wrong between his parents. The next day they won’t even look at each other. Jeremy’s father won’t come out of his study. And then the day after that, Jeremy comes home and finds his mother sitting on his father’s lap. They’re smiling as if they know something stupid and secret. They don’t even notice Jeremy when he walks through the room. Even this is preferable, though, to the way they behave when they do notice him. They act guilty and strange and as if they are about to ruin his life. Gordon Mars makes pancakes every morning, and Jeremy’s favorite dinner, macaroni and cheese, every night. Jeremy’s mother plans out an itinerary for their trip. They will be stopping at libraries across the country, because his mother loves libraries. But she’s also bought a new two-man tent and two sleeping bags and a portable stove, so that they can camp, if Jeremy wants to camp. Even though Jeremy’s mother hates the outdoors.

Right after she does this, Gordon Mars spends all weekend in the garage. He won’t let either of them see what he’s doing, and when he does let them in, it turns out that he’s removed the seating in the back of the van and bolted down two of his couches, one on each side, both upholstered in electric-blue fake fur.

They have to climb in through the cargo door at the back because one of the couches is blocking the sliding door. Jeremy’s father says, looking very pleased with himself, “So now you don’t have to camp outside, unless you want to. You can sleep inside. There’s space underneath for suitcases. The sofas even have seat belts.”

Over the sofas, Jeremy’s father has rigged up small wooden shelves that fold down on chains from the walls of the van and become table tops. There’s a travel-sized disco ball dangling from the ceiling, and a wooden panel—with Velcro straps and a black, quilted pad—behind the driver’s seat, where Jeremy’s father explains they can hang up the painting of the woman with the apple and the knife.

The van looks like something out of an episode of The Library. Jeremy’s mother bursts into tears. She runs back inside the house. Jeremy’s father says, helplessly, “I just wanted to make her laugh.”

Jeremy wants to say, “I hate both of you.” But he doesn’t say it, and he doesn’t. It would be easier if he did.

When Jeremy told Karl about Las Vegas, Karl punched him in the stomach. Then he said, “Have you told Talis?”

Jeremy said, “You’re supposed to be nice to me! You’re supposed to tell me not to go and that this sucks and you’re not supposed to punch me. Why did you punch me? Is Talis all you ever think about?”

“Kind of,” Karl said. “Most of the time. Sorry, Germ, of course I wish you weren’t going and yeah, it also pisses me off. We’re supposed to be best friends, but you do stuff all the time and I never get to. I’ve never driven across the country or been to Las Vegas, even though I’d really, really like to. I can’t feel sorry for you when I bet you anything that while you’re there, you’ll sneak into some casino and play slot machines and win like a million bucks. You should feel sorry for me. I’m the one that has to stay here. Can I borrow your dirt bike while you’re gone?”

“Sure,” Jeremy said.

“How about your telescope?” Karl said.

“I’m taking it with me,” Jeremy said.

“Fine. You have to call me every day,” Karl said. “You have to e-mail. You have to tell me about Las Vegas show girls. I want to know how tall they really are. Whose phone number is this?”

Karl was holding the scrap of paper with the number of Jeremy’s phone booth.

“Mine,” Jeremy said. “That’s my phone booth. The one I inherited.”

“Have you called it?” Karl said.

“No,” Jeremy said. He’d called the phone booth a few times. But it wasn’t a game. Karl would think it was a game.

“Cool,” Karl said and he went ahead and dialed the number. “Hello?” Karl said, “I’d like to speak to the person in charge of Jeremy’s life. This is Jeremy’s best friend Karl.”

“Not funny,” Jeremy said.

“My life is boring,” Karl said, into the phone. “I’ve never inherited anything. This girl I like won’t talk to me. So is someone there? Does anybody want to talk to me? Does anyone want to talk to my friend, the Lord of the Phone Booth? Jeremy, they’re demanding that you liberate the phone booth from yourself.”

“Still not funny,” Jeremy said and Karl hung up the phone.

Jeremy told Elizabeth. They were up on the roof of Jeremy’s house and he told her the whole thing. Not just the part about Las Vegas, but also the part about his father and how he put Jeremy in a book with no giant spiders in it.

“Have you read it?” Elizabeth said.

“No,” Jeremy said. “He won’t let me. Don’t tell Karl. All I told him is that my mom and I have to go out for a few months to check out the wedding chapel.”

“I won’t tell Karl,” Elizabeth said. She leaned forward and kissed Jeremy and then she wasn’t kissing him. It was all very fast and surprising, but they didn’t fall off the roof. Nobody falls off the roof in this story. “Talis likes you,” Elizabeth said. “That’s what Amy says. Maybe you like her back. I don’t know. But I thought I should go ahead and kiss you now. Just in case I don’t get to kiss you again.”

“You can kiss me again,” Jeremy said. “Talis probably doesn’t like me.”

“No,” Elizabeth said. “I mean, let’s not. I want to stay friends and it’s hard enough to be friends, Germ. Look at you and Karl.”

“I would never kiss Karl,” Jeremy said.

“Funny, Germ. We should have a surprise party for you before you go,” Elizabeth said.

“It won’t be a surprise party now,” Jeremy said. Maybe kissing him once was enough.

“Well, once I tell Amy it can’t really be a surprise party,” Elizabeth said. “She would explode into a million pieces and all the little pieces would start yelling, ‘Guess what? Guess what? We’re having a surprise party for you, Jeremy!’ But just because I’m letting you in on the surprise doesn’t mean there won’t be surprises.”

“I don’t actually like surprises,” Jeremy said.

“Who does?” Elizabeth said. “Only the people who do the surprising. Can we have the party at your house? I think it should be like Halloween, and it always feels like Halloween here. We could all show up in costumes and watch lots of old episodes of The Library and eat ice cream.”

“Sure,” Jeremy said. And then: “This is terrible! What if there’s a new episode of The Library while I’m gone? Who am I going to watch it with?”

And he’d said the perfect thing. Elizabeth felt so bad about Jeremy having to watch The Library all by himself that she kissed him again.

There has never been a giant spider in any episode of The Library, although once Fox got really small and Ptolemy Krill carried her around in his pocket. She had to rip up one of Krill’s handkerchiefs and blindfold herself, just in case she accidentally read a draft of Krill’s terrible poetry. And then it turned out that, as well as the poetry, Krill had also stashed a rare, horned Anubis earwig in his pocket which hadn’t been properly preserved. Ptolemy Krill, it turned out, was careless with his kill jar. The earwig almost ate Fox, but instead it became her friend. It still sends her Christmas cards.

These are the two most important things that Jeremy and his friends have in common: a geographical location, and love of a television show about a library. Jeremy turns on the television as soon as he comes home from school. He flips through the channels, watching reruns of Star Trek and Law & Order. If there’s a new episode of The Library before he and his mother leave for Las Vegas, then everything will be fine. Everything will work out. His mother says, “You watch too much television, Jeremy.” But he goes on flipping through channels. Then he goes up to his room and makes phone calls.

“The new episode needs to be soon, because we’re getting ready to leave. Tonight would be good. You’d tell me if there was going to be a new episode tonight, right?”

Silence.

“Can I take that as a yes? It would be easier if I had a brother,” Jeremy tells his telephone booth. “Hello? Are you there? Or a sister. I’m tired of being good all the time. If I had a sibling, then we could take turns being good. If I had an older brother, I might be better at being bad, better at being angry. Karl is really good at being angry. He learned how from his brothers. I wouldn’t want brothers like Karl’s brothers, of course, but it sucks having to figure out everything all by myself. And the more normal I try to be, the more my parents think that I’m acting out. They think it’s a phase that I’ll grow out of. They think it isn’t normal to be normal. Because there’s no such thing as normal.

“And this whole book thing. The whole shoplifting thing, how my dad steals things, it figures that he went and stole my life. It isn’t just me being melodramatic, to say that. That’s exactly what he did! Did I tell you that once he stole a ferret from a pet store because he felt bad for it, and then he let it loose in our house and it turned out that it was pregnant? There was this woman who came to interview Dad and she sat down on one of the—”

Someone knocks on his bedroom door. “Jeremy,” his mother says. “Is Karl here? Am I interrupting?”

“No,” Jeremy says, and hangs up the phone. He’s gotten into the habit of calling his phone booth every day. When he calls, it rings and rings and then it stops ringing, as if someone has picked up. There’s just silence on the other end, no squeaky pretend-Fox voice, but it’s a peaceful, interested silence. Jeremy complains about all the things there are to complain about, and the silent person on the other end listens and listens. Maybe it is Fox standing there in his phone booth and listening patiently. He wonders what incarnation of Fox is listening. One thing about Fox: she’s never sorry for herself. She’s always too busy. If it were really Fox, she’d hang up on him.

Jeremy opens his door. “I was on the phone,” he says. His mother comes in and sits down on his bed. She’s wearing one of his father’s old flannel shirts. “So have you packed?”

Jeremy shrugs. “I guess,” he says. “Why did you cry when you saw what Dad did to the van? Don’t you like it?”

“It’s that damn painting,” his mother says. “It was the first nice thing he ever gave me. We should have spent the money on health insurance and a new roof and groceries and instead he bought a painting. So I got angry. I left him. I took the painting and I moved into a hotel and I stayed there for a few days. I was going to sell the painting, but instead I fell in love with it, so I came home and apologized for running away. I got pregnant with you and I used to get hungry and dream that someone was going to give me a beautiful apple, like the one she’s holding. When I told your father, he said he didn’t trust her, that she was holding out the apple like that as a trick and if you went to take it from her, she’d stab you with the peeling knife. He says that she’s a tough old broad and she’ll take care of us while we’re on the road.”

“Do we really have to go?” Jeremy says. “If we go to Las Vegas I might get into trouble. I might start using drugs or gambling or something.”

“Oh, Germ. You try so hard to be a good kid,” his mother says. “You try so hard to be normal. Sometimes I’d like to be normal, too. Maybe Vegas will be good for us. Are these the books that you’re bringing?”

Jeremy shrugs. “Not all of them. I can’t decide which ones I should take and which ones I can leave. It feels like whatever I leave behind, I’m leaving behind for good.”

“That’s silly,” his mother says. “We’re coming back. I promise. Your father and I will work things out. If you leave something behind that you need, he can mail it to you. Do you think there are slot machines in the libraries in Las Vegas? I talked to a woman at the Hell’s Bells chapel and there’s something called The Arts and Lovecraft Library where they keep Cleo’s special collection of horror novels and gothic romances and fake copies of The Necronomicon. You go in and out through a secret, swinging-bookcase door. People get married in it. There’s a Dr. Frankenstein’s LoveLab, the Masque of the Red Death Ballroom, and also something just called The Crypt. Oh yeah, and there’s also The Vampire’s Patio and The Black Lagoon Grotto, where you can get married by moonlight.”

“You hate all this stuff,” Jeremy says.

“It’s not my cup of tea,” his mother says. “When does everyone show up tonight?”

“Around eight,” Jeremy says. “Are you going to get dressed up?”

“I don’t have to dress up,” his mother says. “I’m a librarian, remember?”

Jeremy’s father’s office is above the garage. In theory, no one is meant to interrupt him while he’s working, but in practice Jeremy’s father loves nothing better than to be interrupted, as long as the person who interrupts brings him something to eat. When Jeremy and his mother are gone, who will bring Jeremy’s father food? Jeremy hardens his heart.

The floor is covered with books and bolts and samples of upholstering fabrics. Jeremy’s father is lying facedown on the floor with his feet propped up on a bolt of fabric, which means that he is thinking and also that his back hurts. He claims to think best when he is on the verge of falling asleep.

“I brought you a bowl of Froot Loops,” Jeremy says.

His father rolls over and looks up. “Thanks,” he says. “What time is it? Is everyone here? Is that your costume? Is that my tuxedo jacket?”

“It’s five-ish. Nobody’s here yet. Do you like it?” Jeremy says. He’s dressed as a Forbidden Book. His father’s jacket is too big, but he still feels very elegant. Very sinister. His mother lent him the lipstick and the feathers and the platform heels.

“It’s interesting,” his father allows. “And a little frightening.”

Jeremy feels obscurely pleased, even though he knows that his father is more amused than frightened. “Everyone else will probably come as Fox or Prince Wing. Except for Karl. He’s coming as Ptolemy Krill. He even wrote some really bad poetry. I wanted to ask you something, before we leave tomorrow.”

“Shoot,” his father says.

“Did you really get rid of the novel with me in it?”

“No,” his father says. “It felt unlucky. Unlucky to keep it, unlucky not to keep it. I don’t know what to do with it.”

Jeremy says, “I’m glad you didn’t get rid of it.”

“It’s not any good, you know,” his father says. “Which makes all this even worse. At first it was because I was bored with giant spiders. It was going to be something funny to show you. But then I wrote that you had a brain tumor and it wasn’t funny anymore. I figured I could save you—I’m the author, after all—but you got sicker and sicker. You were going through a rebellious phase. You were sneaking out of the house a lot and you hit your mother. You were a real jerk. But it turned out you had a brain tumor and that was making you behave strangely.”

“Can I ask another question?” Jeremy says. “You know how you like to steal things? You know how you’re really, really good at it?”

“Yeah,” says his father.

“Could you not steal things for a while, if I asked you to?” Jeremy says. “Mom isn’t going to be around to pay for the books and stuff that you steal. I don’t want you to end up in jail because we went to Las Vegas.”

His father closes his eyes as if he hopes Jeremy will forget that he asked a question, and go away.

Jeremy says nothing.

“All right,” his father says finally. “I won’t shoplift anything until you get home again.”

Jeremy’s mother runs around taking photos of everyone. Talis and Elizabeth have both showed up as Fox, although Talis is dead Fox. She carries her fake fur ears and tail around in a little see-through plastic purse and she also has a sword, which she leaves in the umbrella stand in the kitchen. Jeremy and Talis haven’t talked much since she had a dream about him and since he told her that he’s going to Las Vegas. She didn’t say anything about that. Which is perfectly normal for Talis.

Karl makes an excellent Ptolemy Krill. Jeremy’s Forbidden Book disguise is admired.

Amy’s Faithful Margaret costume is almost as good as anything Faithful Margaret wears on TV. There are even special effects: Amy has rigged up her hair with red ribbons and wire and spray color and egg whites so that it looks as if it’s on fire, and there are tiny papier-mâché golems in it, making horrible faces. She dances a polka with Jeremy’s father. Faithful Margaret is mad for polka dancing.

No one has dressed up as Prince Wing.

They watch the episode with the possessed chicken and they watch the episode with the Salt Wife and they watch the episode where Prince Wing and Faithful Margaret fall under a spell and swap bodies and have sex for the first time. They watch the episode where Fox saves Prince Wing’s life for the first time.

Jeremy’s father makes chocolate/mango/espresso milk shakes for everyone. None of Jeremy’s friends, except for Elizabeth, know about the novel. Everyone thinks Jeremy and his mother are just having an adventure. Everyone thinks Jeremy will be back at the end of the summer.

“I wonder how they find the actors,” Elizabeth says. “They aren’t real actors. They must be regular people. But you’d think that somewhere there would be someone who knows them. That somebody online would say, hey, that’s my sister! Or that’s the kid I went to school with who threw up in P.E. You know, sometimes someone says something like that or sometimes someone pretends that they know something about The Library, but it always turns out to be a hoax. Just somebody wanting to be somebody.”

“What about the guy who’s writing it?” Karl says.

Talis says, “Who says it’s a guy?” and Amy says, “Yeah, Karl, why do you always assume it’s a guy writing it?”

“Maybe nobody’s writing it,” Elizabeth says. “Maybe it’s magic or it’s broadcast from outer space. Maybe it’s real. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

“No,” Jeremy says. “Because then Fox would really be dead. That would suck.”

“I don’t care,” Elizabeth says. “I wish it were real, anyway. Maybe it all really happened somewhere, like King Arthur or Robin Hood, and this is just one version of how it happened. Like a magical After School Special.”

“Even if it isn’t real,” Amy says, “parts of it could be real. Like maybe The World-Tree Library is real. Or maybe The Library is made up, but Fox is based on somebody that the writer knew. Writers do that all the time, right? Jeremy, I think your dad should write a book about me. I could be eaten by giant spiders. Or have sex with giant spiders and have spider babies. I think that would be so great.”

So Amy does have psychic abilities, after all, although hopefully she will never know this. When Jeremy tests his own potential psychic abilities, he can almost sense his father, hovering somewhere just outside the living room, listening to this conversation and maybe even taking notes. Which is what writers do. But Jeremy isn’t really psychic. It’s just that lurking and hovering and appearing suddenly when you weren’t expecting him are what his father does, just like shoplifting and cooking. Jeremy prays to all the dark gods that he never receives the gift of knowing what people are thinking. It’s a dark road and it ends up with you trapped on late night television in front of an invisible audience of depressed insomniacs wearing hats made out of tinfoil and they all want to pay you nine-ninety-nine per minute to hear you describe in minute, terrible detail what their deceased cat is thinking about, right now. What kind of future is that? He wants to go to Mars. And when will Elizabeth kiss him again? You can’t just kiss someone twice and then never kiss them again. He tries not to think about Elizabeth and kissing, just in case Amy reads his mind. He realizes that he’s been staring at Talis’s breasts, glares instead at Elizabeth, who is watching TV. Meanwhile, Karl is glaring at him.

On television, Fox is dancing in the Invisible Nightclub with Faithful Margaret, whose hair is about to catch fire again. The Norns are playing their screechy cover of “Come On, Eileen.” The Norns only know two songs: “Come On, Eileen,” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” They don’t play real instruments. They play squeaky dog toys and also a bathtub, which is enchanted, although nobody knows who by, or why, or what it was enchanted for.

“If you had to chose one,” Jeremy says, “invisibility or the ability to fly, which would you choose?”

Everybody looks at him. “Only perverts would want to be invisible,” Elizabeth says.

“You’d have to be naked if you were invisible,” Karl says. “Because otherwise people would see your clothes.”

“If you could fly, you’d have to wear thermal underwear because it’s cold up there. So it just depends on whether you like to wear long underwear or no underwear at all,” Amy says.

It’s the kind of conversation that they have all the time. It makes Jeremy feel homesick even though he hasn’t left yet.

“Maybe I’ll go make brownies,” Jeremy says. “Elizabeth, do you want to help me make brownies?”

“Shhh,” Elizabeth says. “This is a good part.”

On television, Fox and Faithful Margaret are making out. The Faithful part is kind of a joke.

Jeremy’s parents go to bed at one. By three, Amy and Elizabeth are passed out on the couch and Karl has gone upstairs to check his e-mail on Jeremy’s iBook. On TV, wolves are roaming the tundra of The Free People’s World-Tree Library’s fortieth floor. Snow is falling heavily and librarians are burning books to keep warm, but only the most dull and improving works of literature.

Jeremy isn’t sure where Talis has gone, so he goes to look for her. She hasn’t gone far. She’s on the landing, looking at the space on the wall where Alice Mars’s painting should be hanging. Talis is carrying her sword with her, and her little plastic purse. In the bathroom off the landing, the singing toilet is still singing away in German. “We’re taking the painting with us,” Jeremy says. “My dad insisted, just in case he accidentally burns down the house while we’re gone. Do you want to go see it? I was going to show everybody, but everybody’s asleep right now.”

“Sure,” Talis says.

So Jeremy gets a flashlight and takes her out to the garage and shows her the van. She climbs right inside and sits down on one of the blue-fur couches. She looks around and he wonders what she’s thinking. He wonders if the toilet song is stuck in her head.

“My dad did all of this,” Jeremy says. He turns on the flashlight and shines it on the disco ball. Light spatters off in anxious, slippery orbits. Jeremy shows Talis how his father has hung up the painting. It looks truly wrong in the van, as if someone demented put it there. Especially with the light reflecting off the disco ball. The woman in the painting looks confused and embarrassed as if Jeremy’s father has accidentally canceled out her protective powers. Maybe the disco ball is her Kryptonite.

“So remember how you had a dream about me?” Jeremy says. Talis nods. “I think I had a dream about you, that you were Fox.”

Talis opens up her arms, encompassing her costume, her sword, her plastic purse with poor Fox’s ears and tail inside.

“There was something you wanted me to do,” Jeremy says. “I was supposed to save you, somehow.”

Talis just looks at him.

“How come you never talk?” Jeremy says. All of this is irritating. How he used to feel normal around Elizabeth, like friends, and now everything is peculiar and uncomfortable. How he used to enjoy feeling uncomfortable around Talis, and now, suddenly, he doesn’t. This must be what sex is about. Stop thinking about sex, he thinks.

Talis opens her mouth and closes it again. Then she says, “I don’t know. Amy talks so much. You all talk a lot. Somebody has to be the person who doesn’t. The person who listens.”

“Oh,” Jeremy says. “I thought maybe you had a tragic secret. Like maybe you used to stutter.” Except secrets can’t have secrets, they just are.

“Nope,” Talis says. “It’s like being invisible, you know. Not talking. I like it.”

“But you’re not invisible,” Jeremy says. “Not to me. Not to Karl. Karl really likes you. Did you hit him with a boa constrictor on purpose?”

But Talis says, “I wish you weren’t leaving.” The disco ball spins and spins. It makes Jeremy feel kind of carsick and also as if he has sparkly, disco leprosy. He doesn’t say anything back to Talis, just to see how it feels. Except maybe that’s rude. Or maybe it’s rude the way everybody always talks and doesn’t leave any space for Talis to say anything.

“At least you get to miss school,” Talis says, at last.

“Yeah,” he says. He leaves another space, but Talis doesn’t say anything this time. “We’re going to stop at all these museums and things on the way across the country. I’m supposed to keep a blog for school and describe stuff in it. I’m going to make a lot of stuff up. So it will be like Creative Writing and not so much like homework.”

“You should make a list of all the towns with weird names you drive through,” Talis says. “Town of Horseheads. That’s a real place.”

“Plantagenet,” Jeremy says. “That’s a real place too. I had something really weird to tell you.”

Talis waits, like she always does.

Jeremy says, “I called my phone booth, the one that I inherited, and someone answered. She sounded just like Fox when she talked. They told me to call back later. So I’ve called a few more times, but I don’t ever get her.”

“Fox isn’t a real person,” Talis says. “The Library is just TV.” But she sounds uncertain. That’s the thing about The Library. Nobody knows for sure. Everyone who watches it wishes and hopes that it’s not just acting. That it’s magic, real magic.

“I know,” Jeremy says.

“I wish Fox was real,” Fox-Talis says.

They’ve been sitting in the van for a long time. If Karl looks for them and can’t find them, he’s going to think that they’ve been making out. He’ll kill Jeremy. Once Karl tried to strangle another kid for accidentally peeing on his shoes. Jeremy might as well kiss Talis. So he does, even though she’s still holding her sword. She doesn’t hit him with it. It’s dark and he has his eyes closed and he can almost imagine that he’s kissing Elizabeth.

Karl has fallen asleep on Jeremy’s bed. Talis is downstairs, fast-forwarding through the episode where some librarians drink too much Euphoria and decide to abolish Story Hour. Not just the practice of having a Story Hour, but the whole Hour. Amy and Elizabeth are still sacked out on the couch. It’s weird to watch Amy sleep. She doesn’t talk in her sleep.

Karl is snoring. Jeremy could go up on the roof and look at stars, except he’s already packed up his telescope. He could try to wake up Elizabeth and they could go up on the roof, but Talis is down there. He and Talis could go sit on the roof, but he doesn’t want to kiss Talis on the roof. He makes a solemn oath to only ever kiss Elizabeth on the roof.

He picks up his phone. Maybe he can call his phone booth and complain just a little and not wake Karl up. His dad is going to freak out about the phone bill. All these calls to Nevada. It’s 4 A.M. Jeremy’s plan is not to go to sleep at all. His friends are lame.

The phone rings and rings and rings and then someone picks up. Jeremy recognizes the silence on the other end. “Everybody came over and fell asleep,” he whispers. “That’s why I’m whispering. I don’t even think they care that I’m leaving. And my feet hurt. Remember how I was going to dress up as a Forbidden Book? Platform shoes aren’t comfortable. Karl thinks I did it on purpose, to be even taller than him than usual. And I forgot that I was wearing lipstick and I kissed Talis and got lipstick all over her face, so it’s a good thing everyone was asleep because otherwise someone would have seen. And my dad says that he won’t shoplift at all while Mom and I are gone, but you can’t trust him. And that fake-fur upholstery sheds like—”

“Jeremy,” that strangely familiar, sweet-and-rusty door-hinge voice says softly. “Shut up, Jeremy. I need your help.”

“Wow!” Jeremy says, not in a whisper. “Wow, wow, wow! Is this Fox? Are you really Fox? Is this a joke? Are you real? Are you dead? What are you doing in my phone booth?”

“You know who I am,” Fox says, and Jeremy knows with all his heart that it’s really Fox. “I need you to do something for me.”

“What?” Jeremy says. Karl, on the bed, laughs in his sleep as if the idea of Jeremy doing something is funny to him. “What could I do?”

“I need you to steal three books,” Fox says. “From a library in a place called Iowa.”

“I know Iowa,” Jeremy says. “I mean, I’ve never been there, but it’s a real place. I could go there.”

“I’m going to tell you the books you need to steal,” Fox says. “Author, title, and the jewelly festival number—”

“Dewey Decimal,” Jeremy says. “It’s actually called the Dewey Decimal number in real libraries.”

“Real,” Fox says, sounding amused. “You need to write this all down and also how to get to the library. You need to steal the three books and bring them to me. It’s very important.”

“Is it dangerous?” Jeremy says. “Are the Forbidden Books up to something? Are the Forbidden Books real, too? What if I get caught stealing?”

“It’s not dangerous to you,” Fox says. “Just don’t get caught. Remember the episode of The Library when I was the little old lady with the beehive and I stole the Bishop of Tweedle’s false teeth while he was reading the banns for the wedding of Faithful Margaret and Sir Petronella the Younger? Remember how he didn’t even notice?”

“I’ve never seen that episode,” Jeremy says, although as far as he knows he’s never missed a single episode of The Library. He’s never even heard of Sir Petronella.

“Oh,” Fox says. “Maybe that’s a flashback in a later episode or something. That’s a great episode. We’re depending on you, Jeremy. You have got to steal these books. They contain dreadful secrets. I can’t say the titles out loud. I’m going to spell them instead.”

So Jeremy gets a pad of paper and Fox spells out the titles of each book twice. (They aren’t titles that can be written down here. It’s safer not to even think about some books.) “Can I ask you something?” Jeremy says. “Can I tell anybody about this? Not Amy. But could I tell Karl or Elizabeth? Or Talis? Can I tell my mom? If I woke up Karl right now, would you talk to him for a minute?”

“I don’t have a lot of time,” Fox says. “I have to go now. Please don’t tell anyone, Jeremy. I’m sorry.”

“Is it the Forbidden Books?” Jeremy says again. What would Fox think if she saw the costume he’s still wearing, all except for the platform heels? “Do you think I shouldn’t trust my friends? But I’ve known them my whole life!”

Fox makes a noise, a kind of pained whuff.

“What is it?” Jeremy says. “Are you okay?”

“I have to go,” Fox says. “Nobody can know about this. Don’t give anybody this number. Don’t tell anyone about your phone booth. Or me. Promise, Germ?”

“Only if you promise you won’t call me Germ,” Jeremy says, feeling really stupid. “I hate when people call me that. Call me Mars instead.”

“Mars,” Fox says, and it sounds exotic and strange and brave, as if Jeremy has just become a new person, a person named after a whole planet, a person who kisses girls and talks to Foxes.

“I’ve never stolen anything,” Jeremy says.

But Fox has hung up.

Maybe out there, somewhere, is someone who enjoys having to say good-bye, but it isn’t anyone that Jeremy knows. All of his friends are grumpy and red-eyed, although not from crying. From lack of sleep. From too much television. There are still faint red stains around Talis’s mouth and if everyone weren’t so tired, they would realize it’s Jeremy’s lipstick. Karl gives Jeremy a handful of quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. “For the slot machines,” Karl says. “If you win anything, you can keep a third of what you win.”

“Half,” Jeremy says, automatically.

“Fine,” Karl says. “It’s all from your dad’s sofas, anyway. Just one more thing. Stop getting taller. Don’t get taller while you’re gone. Okay.” He hugs Jeremy hard: so hard that it’s almost like getting punched again. No wonder Talis threw the boa constrictor at Karl.

Talis and Elizabeth both hug Jeremy good-bye. Talis looks even more mysterious now that he’s sat with her under a disco ball and made out. Later on, Jeremy will discover that Talis has left her sword under the blue fur couch and he’ll wonder if she left it on purpose.

Talis doesn’t say anything and Amy, of course, doesn’t shut up, not even when she kisses him. It feels weird to be kissed by someone who goes right on talking while they kiss you and yet it shouldn’t be a surprise that Amy kisses him. He imagines that later Amy and Talis and Elizabeth will all compare notes.

Elizabeth says, “I promise I’ll tape every episode of The Library while you’re gone so we can all watch them together when you get back. I promise I’ll call you in Vegas, no matter what time it is there, when there’s a new episode.”

Her hair is a mess and her breath is faintly sour. Jeremy wishes he could tell her how beautiful she looks. “I’ll write bad poetry and send it to you,” he says.

Jeremy’s mother is looking hideously cheerful as she goes in and out of the house, making sure that she hasn’t left anything behind. She loves long car trips. It doesn’t bother her one bit that she and her son are abandoning their entire lives. She passes Jeremy a folder full of maps. “You’re in charge of not getting lost,” she says. “Put these somewhere safe.”

Jeremy says, “I found a library online that I want to go visit. Out in Iowa. They have a corn mosaic on the façade of the building, with a lot of naked goddesses and gods dancing around in a field of corn. Someone wants to take it down. Can we go see it first?”

“Sure,” his mother says.

Jeremy’s father has filled a whole grocery bag with sandwiches. His hair is drooping and he looks even more like an axe murderer than usual. If this were a movie, you’d think that Jeremy and his mother were escaping in the nick of time. “You take care of your mother,” he says to Jeremy.

“Sure,” Jeremy says. “You take care of yourself.”

His dad sags. “You take care of yourself, too.” So it’s settled. They’re all supposed to take care of themselves. Why can’t they stay home and take care of each other, until Jeremy is good and ready to go off to college? “I’ve got another bag of sandwiches in the kitchen,” his dad says. “I should go get them.”

“Wait,” Jeremy says. “I have to ask you something before we take off. Suppose I had to steal something. I mean, I don’t have to steal anything, of course, and I know stealing is wrong, even when you do it, and I would never steal anything. But what if I did? How do you do it? How do you do it and not get caught?”

His father shrugs. He’s probably wondering if Jeremy is really his son. Gordon Mars inherited his mutant, long-fingered, ambidextrous hands from a long line of shoplifters and money launderers and petty criminals. They’re all deeply ashamed of Jeremy’s father. Gordon Mars had a gift and he threw it away to become a writer. “I don’t know,” he says. He picks up Jeremy’s hand and looks at it as if he’s never noticed before that Jeremy had something hanging off the end of his wrist. “You just do it. You do it like you’re not really doing anything at all. You do it while you’re thinking about something else and you forget that you’re doing it.”

“Oh, Jeremy says, taking his hand back. “I’m not planning on stealing anything. I was just curious.”

His father looks at him. “Take care of yourself,” he says again, as if he really means it, and hugs Jeremy hard.

Then he goes and gets the sandwiches (so many sandwiches that Jeremy and his mother will eat sandwiches for the first three days, and still have to throw half of them away). Everyone waves. Jeremy and his mother climb in the van. Jeremy’s mother turns on the CD player. Bob Dylan is singing about monkeys. His mother loves Bob Dylan. They drive away.

Do you know how, sometimes, during a commercial break in your favorite television shows, your best friend calls and wants to talk about one of her boyfriends, and when you try to hang up, she starts crying and you try to cheer her up and end up missing about half of the episode? And so when you go to work the next day, you have to get the guy who sits next to you to explain what happened? That’s the good thing about a book. You can mark your place in a book. But this isn’t really a book. It’s a television show.

In one episode of The Library, an adolescent boy drives across the country with his mother. They have to change a tire. The boy practices taking things out of his mother’s purse and putting them back again. He steals a sixteen-ounce bottle of Coke from one convenience market and leaves it at another convenience market. The boy and his mother stop at a lot of libraries, and the boy keeps a blog, but he skips the bit about the library in Iowa. He writes in his blog about what he’s reading, but he doesn’t read the books he stole in Iowa, because Fox told him not to, and because he has to hide them from his mother. Well, he reads just a few pages. Skims, really. He hides them under the blue-fur sofa. They go camping in Utah, and the boy sets up his telescope. He sees three shooting stars and a coyote. He never sees anyone who looks like a Forbidden Book, although he sees a transvestite go into the woman’s rest room at a rest stop in Indiana. He calls a phone booth just outside Las Vegas twice, but no one ever answers. He has short conversations with his father. He wonders what his father is up to. He wishes he could tell his father about Fox and the books. Once the boy’s mother finds a giant spider the size of an Oreo in their tent. She starts laughing hysterically. She takes a picture of it with her digital camera, and the boy puts the picture on his blog. Sometimes the boy asks questions and his mother talks about her parents. Once she cries. The boy doesn’t know what to say. They talk about their favorite episodes of The Library and the episodes that they really hated, and the mother asks if the boy thinks Fox is really dead. He says he doesn’t think so.

Once a man tries to break into the van while they are sleeping in it. But then he goes away. Maybe the painting of the woman with the peeling knife is protecting them.

But you’ve seen this episode before.

It’s Cinco de Mayo. It’s almost seven o’clock at night, and the sun is beginning to go down. Jeremy and his mother are in the desert and Las Vegas is somewhere in front of them. Every time they pass a driver coming the other way, Jeremy tries to figure out if that person has just won or lost a lot of money. Everything is flat and sort of tilted here, except off in the distance, where the land goes up abruptly, as if someone has started to fold up a map. Somewhere around here is the Grand Canyon, which must have been a surprise when people first saw it.

Jeremy’s mother says, “Are you sure we have to do this first? Couldn’t we go find your phone booth later?”

“Can we do it now?” Jeremy says. “I said I was going to do it on my blog. It’s like a quest that I have to complete.”

“Okay,” his mother says. “It should be around here somewhere. It’s supposed to be four point five miles after the turnoff, and here’s the turnoff.”

It isn’t hard to find the phone booth. There isn’t much else around. Jeremy should feel excited when he sees it, but it’s a disappointment, really. He’s seen phone booths before. He was expecting something to be different. Mostly he just feels tired of road trips and tired of roads and just tired, tired, tired. He looks around to see if Fox is somewhere nearby, but there’s just a hiker off in the distance. Some kid.

“Okay, Germ,” his mother says. “Make this quick.”

“I need to get my backpack out of the back,” Jeremy says.

“Do you want me to come too?” his mother says.

“No,” Jeremy says. “This is kind of personal.”

His mother looks like she’s trying not to laugh. “Just hurry up. I have to pee.”

When Jeremy gets to the phone booth, he turns around. His mother has the light on in the van. It looks like she’s singing along to the radio. His mother has a terrible voice.

When he steps inside the phone booth, it isn’t magical. The phone booth smells rank, as if an animal has been living in it. The windows are smudgy. He takes the stolen books out of his backpack and puts them in the little shelf where someone has stolen a phone book. Then he waits. Maybe Fox is going to call him. Maybe he’s supposed to wait until she calls. But she doesn’t call. He feels lonely. There’s no one he can tell about this. He feels like an idiot and he also feels kind of proud. Because he did it. He drove cross-country with his mother and saved an imaginary person.

“So how’s your phone booth?” his mother says.

“Great!” he says, and they’re both silent again. Las Vegas is in front of them and then all around them and everything is lit up like they’re inside a pinball game. All of the trees look fake. Like someone read too much Dr. Seuss and got ideas. People are walking up and down the sidewalks. Some of them look normal. Others look like they just escaped from a fancy-dress ball at a lunatic asylum. Jeremy hopes they’ve just won lots of money and that’s why they look so startled, so strange. Or maybe they’re all vampires.

“Left,” he tells his mother. “Go left here. Look out for the vampires on the crosswalk. And then it’s an immediate right.” Four times his mother let him drive the van: once in Utah, twice in South Dakota, once in Pennsylvania. The van smells like old burger wrappers and fake fur, and it doesn’t help that Jeremy’s gotten used to the smell. The woman in the painting has had a pained expression on her face for the last few nights, and the disco ball has lost some of its pieces of mirror because Jeremy kept knocking his head on it in the morning. Jeremy and his mother haven’t showered in three days.

Here is the wedding chapel, in front of them, at the end of a long driveway. Electric purple light shines on a sign that spells out HELL’S BELLS. There’s a wrought-iron fence and a yard full of trees dripping Spanish moss. Under the trees, tombstones and miniature mausoleums.

“Do you think those are real?” his mother says. She sounds slightly worried.

“‘Harry East, Recently Deceased,’” Jeremy says. “No, I don’t.”

There’s a hearse in the driveway with a little plaque on the back. RECENTLY BURIED MARRIED. The chapel is a Victorian house with a bell tower. Perhaps it’s full of bats. Or giant spiders. Jeremy’s father would love this place. His mother is going to hate it.

Someone stands at the threshold of the chapel, door open, looking out at them. But as Jeremy and his mother get out of the van, he turns and goes inside and shuts the door. “Look out,” his mother says. “They’ve probably gone to put the boiling oil in the microwave.”

She rings the doorbell determinedly. Instead of ringing, there’s a recording of a crow. Caw, caw, caw. All the lights in the Victorian house go out. Then they turn on again. The door swings open and Jeremy tightens his grip on his backpack, just in case. “Good evening, Madam. Young man,” a man says and Jeremy looks up and up and up. The man at the door has to lower his head to look out. His hands are large as toaster ovens. He looks like he’s wearing Chihuahua coffins on his feet. Two realistic-looking bolts stick out on either side of his head. He wears green pancake makeup, glittery green eye shadow, and his lashes are as long and thick and green as AstroTurf. “We weren’t expecting you so soon.”

“We should have called ahead,” Jeremy’s mother says. “I’m real sorry.”

“Great costume,” Jeremy says.

The Frankenstein curls his lip in a somber way. “Thank you,” he says.

“Call me Miss Thing, please.”

“I’m Jeremy,” Jeremy says. “This is my mother.”

“Oh please,” Miss Thing says. Even his wink is somber. “You tease me. She isn’t old enough to be your mother.”

“Oh please, yourself,” Jeremy’s mother says.

“Quick, the two of you,” someone yells from somewhere inside Hell’s Bells. “While you zthtand there gabbing, the devil ithz prowling around like a lion, looking for a way to get in. Are you juthzt going to zthtand there and hold the door wide open for him?”

So they all step inside. “Is that Jeremy Marthz at lathzt?” the voice says. “Earth to Marthz, Earth to Marthz. Marthzzz, Jeremy Marthzzz, there’thz zthomeone on the phone for Jeremy Marthz. She’thz called three timethz in the lathzt ten minutethz, Jeremy Marthzzzz.”

It’s Fox, Jeremy knows. Of course, it’s Fox! She’s in the phone booth. She’s got the books and she’s going to tell me that I saved whatever it is that I was saving. He walks toward the buzzing voice while Miss Thing and his mother go back out to the van.

He walks past a room full of artfully draped spider webs and candelabras drooping with drippy candles. Someone is playing the organ behind a wooden screen. He goes down the hall and up a long staircase. The banisters are carved with little faces. Owls and foxes and ugly children. The voice goes on talking. “Yoohoo, Jeremy, up the stairthz, that’thz right. Now, come along, come right in! Not in there, in here, in here! Don’t mind the dark, we like the dark, just watch your step.” Jeremy puts his hand out. He touches something and there’s a click and the bookcase in front of him slowly slides back. Now the room is three times as large and there are more bookshelves and there’s a young woman wearing dark sunglasses, sitting on a couch. She has a megaphone in one hand and a phone in the other. “For you, Jeremy Marth,” she says. She’s the palest person Jeremy has ever seen and her two canine teeth are so pointed that she lisps a little when she talks. On the megaphone the lisp was sinister, but now it just makes her sound irritable.

She hands him the phone. “Hello?” he says. He keeps an eye on the vampire.

“Jeremy!” Elizabeth says. “It’s on, it’s on, it’s on! It’s just started! We’re all just sitting here. Everybody’s here. What happened to your cell phone? We kept calling.”

“Mom left it in the visitor’s center at Zion,” Jeremy says.

“Well, you’re there. We figured out from your blog that you must be near Vegas. Amy says she had a feeling that you were going to get there in time. She made us keep calling. Stay on the phone, Jeremy. We can all watch it together, okay? Hold on.”

Karl grabs the phone. “Hey, Germ, I didn’t get any postcards,” he says. “You forget how to write or something? Wait a minute. Somebody wants to say something to you.” Then he laughs and laughs and passes the phone on to someone else who doesn’t say anything at all.

“Talis?” Jeremy says.

Maybe it isn’t Talis. Maybe it’s Elizabeth again. He thinks about how his mouth is right next to Elizabeth’s ear. Or maybe it’s Talis’s ear.

The vampire on the couch is already flipping through the channels. Jeremy would like to grab the remote away from her, but it’s not a good idea to try to take things away from a vampire. His mother and Miss Thing come up the stairs and into the room and suddenly the room seems absolutely full of people, as if Karl and Amy and Elizabeth and Talis have come into the room, too. His hand is getting sweaty around the phone. Miss Thing is holding Jeremy’s mother’s painting firmly, as if it might try to escape. Jeremy’s mother looks tired. For the past three days her hair has been braided into two long fat pigtails. She looks younger to Jeremy, as if they’ve been traveling backward in time instead of just across the country. She smiles at Jeremy, a giddy, exhausted smile. Jeremy smiles back.

“Is it The Library?” Miss Thing says. “Is a new episode on?”

Jeremy sits down on the couch beside the vampire, still holding the phone to his ear. His arm is getting tired.

“I’m here,” he says to Talis or Elizabeth or whoever it is on the other end of the phone. “I’m here.” And then he sits and doesn’t say anything and waits with everyone else for the vampire to find the right channel so they can all find out if he’s saved Fox, if Fox is alive, if Fox is still alive.

[a ghost samba]

IAN McDONALD

Ian McDonald is the author of the 2011 Hugo Award-finalist The Dervish House and many other novels, including Hugo Award-nominees River of Gods and Brasyl, and the Philip K. Dick Award-winner King of Morning, Queen of Day. He won a Hugo in 2006 for his novelette, “The Djinn’s Wife,” and has won the Locus Award, three British Science Fiction Awards and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His short fiction, much of which was recently collected in Cyberabad Days, has appeared in magazines such as Interzone and Asimov’s and in numerous anthologies. His latest novel is Planesrunner, from Pyr, the first part of a fun series for younger and younger-at-heart readers.

When Seu Alejandro played, men kissed each other and women ovulated. Brasil is the land of the boy from nowhere, the footballer from the favela, the musician from the mines, the sugarcane cutter from the sertão. Milton Nascimento was a Minas Gerais boy. The late great Chico Science, father of Mangue, was from Olinda. It’s part of our national mythology: in this great nation anyone can rise to anything from anywhere. Cane cutters can become presidents. It’s also part of our national mythology that, like Chico Science, like Seu Alejandro, they should die young. There’s a pure beauty in imagining what they never achieved. The ghost samba can never disappoint you.

He went back for the tapes. He should never have gone back for the tapes. But he was a musician. It would have been like leaving a child in that burning studio. They were the masters for his new collection, the long-awaited second album that would crown the achievement of Boy on the Corner. All second albums are difficult—that’s music—but some are more difficult than others. Seu Alejandro threw out a batch of songs because he wasn’t happy with them. He was going to use Paulistano punk band, then he wasn’t. He was going to duet with LoveFoxxx, then he wasn’t. It was going to be him, alone, with his guitar and a drummer, the way I first heard him in that club in Lapa. Then it wasn’t. His record company put out press releases that it was coming out in two weeks time; that would slip. Months, a season, a year. Four years. That would be the end of a career for anyone less angelically gifted than Seu Alejandro. It merely served to increase the appetite. Then word came that he was going back into the studio. The songs were right. The musicians were right. The arrangements were right. The soul was right and the ideas were running through him like lightning. We’d heard it before. But of course the producer wasn’t right and the studio wasn’t right, so he was going home, back up into Vila Canoas to the little bedroom studio where he produced the first collection of three songs for the MySpace site. And that was where on April 11, 2012, Wilson Severino de Araujo, known as Seu Alejandro, died in a stupid studio fire trying to save the masters of his second album. Pretty Petty Thieves joined the list of legendary albums-that-never-were.

It’s five years since Seu Alejandro died and in that time he has grown from cult to myth to legend. Five years it’s taken me to track down those masters, from legend back through myth to a scorched hard drive. I’m at a bar in Laranjeiras. You wouldn’t know it, you’ve never even heard of it; if you were to come here you would think it dazingly trendy but the moment has already moved on from it. It’s my job to know such things. The people who know all know me as Cento-réis: hundred-réal Man. The joke goes that that’s the amount of money I’ll spend in one session on music. You’d know me better as Rubem de Castro. Columnist reviewer commentator blogger pundit radio-wit and professional idler: the last of the Real Cariocas. All those little things a man must do not to be seen to be trying too hard. If you met me you’d hate me. I’m the guy on the music forums with so much cooler recommendations than yours. At a party I’ll sneer at the host’s unforgivably populist playlist and tell you who you should be listening to now and where to find them. I might even slip on my own podcast and you’ll say, Who are these guys? While you’re jabbering away on your social networking sites about have you heard Tita Maria and Duane Duarte and Bonde do Role? I’ve already moved on to the next thing after the next thing. I could take you to the clubs and the bars and the sound systems but once I’d taken you, that would be the end of it, you know? For four decades I’ve surfed the sea of music that breaks around the rocks of this most lovely of cities. It’s tiring and relentless and it’s no way for a middle-aged man to live, but the moment you lose the wave, you go under.

Because I’m a middle-aged man still living on teenage overhang, when I hear the word “masters” I expect tape. I expect digibeta, DAT; the romantic part of me hopes for reels. The masters for Pretty Petty Thieves are on a hard drive the size of a cigarette packet. They sit on the table next to Guinle’s real packet of Hollywood Blues. Some bright-eyed singer-songwriter is picking out her heart-fluff to the fourths and fifths on the little stage. I’ve heard a thousand heartbreaks just like hers. I move my beer away from the drive. It’s been through fire and deep lost time but I’m terrified of spilling Antarctica over it.

“Can I hear some?”

“It’s a hard drive.” When Guinle left the police, like most of the cops who paid enough to be safe up in the favelas, he set up a private detective agency. His specialism was kidnappings: footballers’ mothers and pets. Now he runs a successful stable of gumshoes so he no longer has to hack security cameras or go through anyone’s garbage with chopsticks and only tackles those cases that interest him. I know him from the days when the New Bossa swept through the city. There’s an old musicians’ gaydar: we recognised each immediately at our tables on opposing sides of the dark, noisy club. It’s the set of the body, the sit and slight lean, the tilt of the head that says that whatever else you are hearing, you are always listening to the music.

I say, “I could be buying someone’s collection of boy-porn.”

Guinle holds out his phone. A set of white earbuds is plugged into it.

“Do you want to listen to it?”

“Have you listened to it?” Panic snatches sudden and cold at my heart. I can’t bear it that Guinle could have listened to the masters before me. It makes it dirty, used. It’s almost a sex thing, like someone else’s girlfriend after an indecently short interval.

“Not a note. What do you take me for? I just copied it because I knew you’d ask me that.”

“Promise me you won’t…” The need in my voice is ridiculous. Have some dignity man.

“I’ll give you until tomorrow morning. Once you’ve remembered that other little matter.”

I slide the envelope of cash across the table. It’s a big envelope, A4, too full to seal down the flap. There’s a pheromone of notes, of ink and hands and trade. Guinle scoops it into his briefcase. He’s too much a carioca to count the notes and too much a pro to query his clients’ cash calls.

“I make no representations about the state of the contents. You asked me to get the masters, I got them.”

“I must ask you how you did that sometime,” I say but I can hear my voice go off the moment, the way you hear it when a singer loses a cover of a song he doesn’t really understand or believe in. Just words. Because I have it. I have the lost Pretty Petty Thieves. In that slightly blackened titanium box is the last musical testament of Seu Alejandro. The world thought it was lost, but I found it and now it sits in the palm of my hand. I see that hand shake.

“Yes, you really must,” says Guinle.

I have a ritual. Everyone has a ritual. I know a great great singer who can only face an audience if he’s masturbated. You’d know him too. He’s a household name. There are footballers who have to put on one boot first, or never wear two the same colour, or carry a picture of the Pope or Our Lady next to their hearts. Truckers bless their rigs, coders bless their keyboards, policemen bless their guns. And then there is sex. There is always sex. Some have times and places and positions; some have foreplay that’s scripted and rehearsed as a high mass. Some cannot achieve anything with the lights on. For some it’s clothing: something they have to wear, or have the other wear, without which they cannot be remotely aroused.

I practice my ritual in the best room in the apartment. It’s not the biggest or the best aired or the quietest but it has a breathtaking view out over Botafogo and Guanabara to the hills of Niteroi beyond. Out of the right-hand window are Leme Morro and the Sugarloaf. In the evening, in the sudden lilac twilight when the lights come like a necklace around the shoulders of the moros, it is heartbreakingly beautiful. Here’s what I keep in this room. A chair of course; an old, deep leather armchair with the springs going so I can sag into it. A beer fridge. A small side table for the beer and the remote. The sound system, in the holy corner where the two views meet. This is my listening room. This is my church. I take my place in the chair. I’ve had it positioned scientifically to get the best surround sound separation. My cleaner is under orders never to move it on pain of instant dismissal. I settle my fat ass deep into the seat. It’s important to get comfortable. I’m going to be there for a while. I take one Antarctica from the fridge and pop the can. Rio spreads like wings on either side of me. I love her so hard it hurts. Then I lift the remote control and start Seu Alejandro’s Pretty Petty Thieves.

On the first listen through I never do anything. I need to get the whole recording. The whole concept, entire, the song order, the big idea. Marcelo from the Tuesday Afternoon Boys calls it the gestalt. He’s some kind of therapist in it. Call that first pass the hearing. This second pass is the listening. It’s then you notice the details of the arrangements, the engineering, how the lyrics work with the melody. Is that a horn section there? He’s pulled the bass up here, pushed it back there. Why has he used a cello line, for God’s sake? The third time is the savouring. You know how the songs work, what they are trying to achieve and the way the music is constructed and how it works on your heart. Now you can appreciate the details. The way drum and bass syncopate against each other. The complex time signature—11/8—that always eludes your four-square tapping toe. That ever-shifting harmony line that disguises a very simple, almost folk melody and gives it a dress of carioca sophistication. The twists, the false starts and surprise endings, the games you can play with middle eights, joys you can only appreciate after a lifetime of immersion in MPB.

But there are holes. There are hideous holes. Trans-Amazonian-Highway holes, that can swallow an entire truck. The main vocals are unmixed. On some of the songs Seu Alejandro sounds like he is bellowing like an old and angry beach bum, others like he is humming to himself trying to find his car in a supermarket car park. Arrangements are fragmentary; there are suggestions of ’70s funk horn sections or his signature trip-hop rhythms, which he lifted from another age, another culture and made unmistakably Tropicalismo. Back vocals are either non-existent or too far to the front and the bass is painfully low in the mix. There is a screamingly frustrating twenty three second gap in the middle of “Immaculate Conception” and track 8: “Bottle Club”, just ends, full stop, whether by fire or intention I can’t tell. The title track doesn’t exist beyond an opening carnaval blast of drums, brass and what sounds like sampled traffic noise. Astonishing, but a shard. Again, this could be a Seu Alejandro joke or the effects of the fire. The last two tracks are sketches: “Breakfast News” is an acoustic guitar piece—few ever tugged the heart so with his strings than Seu Alejandro, with suggestions of lyrics muttered into the mike; scraps and lines and euphonies. The final track, provisionally titled [a ghost samba] is his joyfully melancholy guitar with a severely simple cello line.

But it is Seu Alejandro. Unmistakably, gloriously Seu Alejandro.

I crack a fresh Antarctica and start the third listen. My hand is shaking. As I listen with the ear of savouring, the shake becomes worse until I can hardly hold my beer. My whole body is tight, every muscle like a drumskin; I am quivering as if trying to keep back tears. Not just tears, but the kind of uncontrollable, on-the-floor howling and quaking that leaves phlegm pouring from your nose and mouth, the kind men must never be seen doing, the kind men do when love walks away from them and they realise their lives have been lies. It’s the holes, those Amazonian holes; they join together into a void. How dare Seu Alejandro die and leave it incomplete and damaged? How dare Seu Alejandro leave me with just this? It is as abandonment as complete as any of my brief wives and girlfriends. I am bereft, I am furious with him.

It’s full dark now. The lights draw the curves of the bays and the breasts of the hills. Pretty Petty Thieves comes to its third ending and I am all right. I’m all right. I’m already starting to think of how I might put it all together and complete what the Seu left broken.

We are the Tuesday Afternoon Boys and every Tuesday afternoon we play at the Lagoa futsal court. We’ve been playing every Tuesday for seven years, ever since the first of us turned forty. In the afternoon the only other teams are skinny kids in basketball vests and baggy shorts. We don’t play them, they can dribble the ball around us like Garrincha tying a left-back in knots; we play each other. We play futsal to show we’re still alive, we play in the afternoon to show we’re masters of our own time.

I’m on the subs bench. When the average team age is in the low forties, you spend most of the game on the subs bench, but everyone gets a turn on court. That’s the point of turning up on a Tuesday afternoon. But the real work gets done on that bench.

The ball goes out and Carlinhos, our manager for this week, calls Captain Spooky off. He looks like he’s dying. Face so red it could explode, chest heaving, the sweat lashing off him. He crashes down on the bench beside me and it’s a full two minutes before he can get a word between the death-gasps.

“Jesus and Mary,” I tell him. “You should listen to your doctor sometime. He said this is going to be the death of you.”

He shakes his head, smiling through the panting.

“The person. Most likely. To kill you. Is your own. Doctor.”

Captain Spooky claims he is a real doctor. MDs are not real doctors. It’s all hand waving and wizardry. MD-ing is about instinct and opinion and subjective thought. There’s no science, no objectivity, nothing empirical or evidence-based about medicine. It’s a package of received knowledge, opinion and status-plays. Physicians, from the word physic: that makes it sound like a science. Proper science has hypotheses, experiments, statistical analysis, proof and margins of certainty and error. Physics, now that is science, and that’s what Captain Spooky is: a real, true, proper physicist. With angina.

His real science is theoretical physics. It’s a young man’s game, he’ll tell you—like futsal—but he’s kept his tenure, no lean feat for a man pushing fifty. Five more years, he says. Five more years and he’ll take the retirement package. His field is so complex and abstruse it makes my head swim even thinking about it. It sounds like esoteric nonsense to me, but he swears that theoretical quantum computing has millions of everyday applications and implications that will change our lives beyond recognition. I bow to his experience—he’s beaten off a lot of young dogs snapping from below; all I know is that he’s tried to explain it to me in the Rodrigo de Freitas Bar and Grill over the post-match caipiroskas with which we replace lost body-fluids, and I still don’t get it. When things get really really small and really really short in duration they behave in ways that seem impossible to us; that seems to be the gist of it. And because of that, there isn’t one me, there are billion trillion mes, and there isn’t one world, there are a billion trillion worlds, all different: every possible world and me that can exist, exists somewhere. If you thought about that too much you’d fry your head. And that’s why we call him Captain Spooky.

“So.” The words are easier now. “Your limited edition. How many times have you listened to her now?”

For Captain Spooky everything to do with computers was feminine. Our Lady of the Digits.

“Enough for it to be exciting like a lover, not so much that it’s become a wife.”

“Jesus man, you need to get over that. How long ago was it?”

“Eight years five months.”

“We’ve all been through it. It’s a life stage. Well, all except John the Idiot, and he’d welcome the chance for an agonising divorce.” The circles of sweat on the front and back of his T-shirt are expanding to meet the ones under his arms. It is not a good look. Captain Spooky squirts water from the Action! bottle over his face. He says, “I mean, have you thought about doing anything with it?”

“What, you mean, copy it? Distribute it? Release it?” I think I keep the sudden crackle of rage out of my voice, but I feel my muscles clench and tense. “Do you know what I call those? Blasphemy records. Once they have you, those companies will release every half-baked idea or whistle you ever recorded, every coffee-bar twang. If they could make money they’d put out Seu Alejandro singing in the shower. Bastards. The entire reason I tracked down and bought that disk was to keep it out of the hands of those vultures.”

I feel my face is now the red one, and Captain Spooky’s pale at my anger. He holds up his hands in supplication.

“Okay okay okay man. It’s your music. What I meant was, you say it’s full of holes and drops out and incomplete tracks.” He leans forward. It’s not a good smell. “What if you could fill in those holes and finish those part songs?”

I shake my head.

“It’d be guesswork. It’d be someone else either fitting their own ideas in or, which is worse, doing a bad Seu Alejandro impersonation. No no no, keep it the way it is. I’ll always be imagining what it would have been like. That’s okay. That’s the price.”

Captain Spooky purses thumb and forefinger; a scientist of the very small’s gesture of precision.

“What if we could take imagination out of it? What if we could finish the collection exactly as Seu Alejandro intended? With his own music?”

“Short of a medium I can’t see how anyone could do that.”

“I could. Just give me a copy. I don’t want your masters, you hold on to them, just give a decent OMFs. A disk would do, or email them over to me.”

I want to ask him what spooky macumba he intends to work but the ball has gone out and Carlinhos, the other, real captain, is sending Bastard Max off and signing for me to come on. My muscles have gone tight as a virgin; I will play like a drain but with the Tuesday Afternoon Boys everyone gets a turn on pitch. I can suffer for it later.

The room, the chair, the beer, the sunset. My hand on the remote but my finger wavers over the play button. Three weeks and three days after I sent him the files of Pretty Petty Thieves they came back to me. Captain Spooky hadn’t been at the Lagoa since the day we talked about the good music, the pure music. The chest pains and the overheating had got worse so he’d been to see his doctor and the man had gone berserk. Running around kicking a ball at his age at his weight in this heat. Of course, the doctor still knew nothing, but he’d take his advice—purely precautionary—until the pain went away. Sorry it took so long, he said in the email. The quantum mainframe gets booked pretty solid. I could see alone from the attachment details that they were changed. Fatter, fresher. Frightening. I dithered, I hovered over the files. I didn’t want to open them. I didn’t want to hear them. I wanted to rip them on to my system then and there. I wanted to hear them like my daughter’s voice on the phone.

The sky is lilac but won’t hold it much longer: indigo’s coming. There’s a high jet, night-bound up out over the Atlantic: it’s gold in the caught twilight. The streets and the cars are twinkling and I watch the glow of the cable cars slide like pearls between the pendant lights of the stations. Rio has always, irreducibly been she.

I hit play.

There is a ritual so I give it the three listens though from the very opening bar I can hear the difference. The first time is still the whole thing. I listen to Pretty Petty Thieves straight through. It’s some time before I hit the play button for the second listen. I’m floored, I’m on the ceiling, my heart is racing and at the same time I shine like a child at a first communion. It’s all there. Entire and full and rich and more ambitious, more playful, more daring than I could ever have imagined. No holes, this is a smooth highway of sound. And it’s Seu Alejandro, unmistakably Seu Alejandro though everything is new and strange and wonderful like falling in love. It sounds like the greatest thing you ever heard. I must listen again. I must dive in and swim down deep between the tracks and the layers and the individual notes.

The second time I deep-listen. That’s a Senegalese guitar with a deliberately primitive noreste four-part harmony: it’s Mother Africa but with Seu Alejandro’s signature English trip-hop beat. But there’s invention: musique concrete from Rio traffic noises fluttering as delicate as bird song over “Miracle of the Fishes”, and a dazzling, hilarious two-step of dub bass with Nacão Zumbi death-guitar thrashes on “Angela and Angela”. “Kicking” is so totally different I almost did not recognise the song on first pass, now on second listen the changes are so radical I feel them as a physical shock. It had been faux fun, now it’s a shimmering, shadowy dubstep, dark and melancholic. And then there is [a ghost samba]. It is still the same simple cello line and heartbreak acoustic guitar but it has words now, Seu Alejandro’s unearthly but diamond-clear, diamond-sharp falsetto and a twitter of four-a.m. electronics so ethereal it might come through a radio telescope. The breath catches in my chest. I can hear my heart. It’s some time before I touch the play button again.

And now I listen to taste, to eat the music and make it part of me. This time I break my rule, I’m impatient to get to the final track. I want to hear Seu Alejandro’s words from whatever place Captain Spooky summoned him. That’s a Tuesday Afternoon question. Now I need it to be just me and Seu Alejandro high over the circling city lights. It’s a song about a moment of wonder and the sweetness of loss, like many of the best Brasilian songs. Take her face out of the mornings. I’ve seen that face. Imagined glimpses in a car across the highway, a figure passing on the street that might just be a wish. If our lives were like songs we would hear the harmonies, we would live a chorus. On the street. We are older but no wiser and in a flicker we’ll be gone.

Full dark. I’ve forgotten the hour. My chest is heaving, my face wet with tears. I drove away the women who loved me. I let my children go. I’m not a bad man, I just loved the music with all of my heart. I always knew that the radio played just for me. The songs never let you down. They would always rhyme with your heart.

The cleaner finds me the next morning, still in the chair in the yellow morning light.

“Your macumba is strong,” I say to Captain Spooky and slide the caipiroska across the table to him. I’m one down already and it’s hit hard like a bailiff’s knock.

“I wield the power cosmic,” he says. He takes a big draw from the drink. He winces as the vodka goes down, a grimace of pain. “Jesus.” He thumps his fist against his breastbone, gasps twice. “The laws of the multiverse bow down to me.”

He looks like shit, the kind of pale and pasty shit you get if you feed a dog too much dried food.

“No but really, what did you do? In words a man can understand.”

“There is not one world, there are many worlds.”

“There is not one me, there are many mes, yeah yeah.” Including ones where my social universe doesn’t consist solely of fortysomething males.

“And there are universes where Seu Alejandro didn’t go back into the studio.”

“Since when have you become an expert on Seu Alejandro?”

“Research is my business, right? And universes where that studio never caught fire.”

“So what exactly did you do?”

“The quantum computational equivalent of being a DJ in your own bedroom. I quantumised your master on the uni quantum core and then set her to re-render.”

“That spooky quantum computer of yours.”

“That spooky quantum computer of mine can perform calculations no other computer can in less than the lifetime of the universe because she exports the problem to her sisters in parallel universes. Somewhere in the region of ten to the power of eight hundred universes. In a sense there is only ever one universal quantum computer, spread through the whole multiverse. It’s the one true universal constant.”

When Captain Spooky talks, like his name, it makes my head spin and my balls contract. The world around me goes pale and washed-out, like those old last-century postcards of Rio, bleached by the light of other suns. Millions upon billions of other universes; numbers so huge that even if there were as many Leblon beaches as there were grains of sand on Leblon beach, they still would not be one sand-grain of those other Rios, other lives, other mes. Because I can’t help but think about those other mes and the oblivious lives they lead. On the balance of probabilities I cannot live the best of all those probable lives. It’s equally unlikely that I live the worst. I can easily imagine the worst. I’ve seen it. The terrible news from the multiverse is that I am grey and average. I’m not a football hero or a samba star and I didn’t marry an underwear model. I’m not a wrecked man throwing bottles at the wall every lilac sunset or dead in some police-and-malandros firefight. This is the best I can reasonably hope for. This is…endurable. How can a man face such grand indifference? I am not the centre of the universe after all.

“So is basically the multiversal equivalent of clicking Seu Alejandro on quantum iTunes and downloading Pretty Petty Thieves?”

Captain Spooky throws up his hands in grand offence.

“There’s some work in this you know. Mixing and stuff.”

“You, mix?”

“My nephew works in radio. He’s got this software on his laptop. The question is, never mind my nephew or whatever quantum spookiness I pulled, how does it sound?”

I duck my head in a small acquiescence.

“It sounds like Seu Alejandro.”

“Well there you go. Now, I’m going up to get something to eat. Do you want anything?”

The Grill part of the Rodrigo de Freitas Bar and Grill is a small per-kilo restaurant, fine for lining the stomach against a post-match evening of drinking. See? We don’t even have to worry about Wednesday hangover. Captain Spooky floats and dithers over the buffet. Eating by weight is a fine art to him. He’s shown me his trick of slipping a little finger under the scales to take a coupe of réis off the price. But I’m hearing ghost sambas. What the Captain pulled in from across the universes is Seu Alejandro. There is no doubt that it’s him; from the moment I first heard that hunted, melancholy street guitar and the incredible falsetto soar above it like Christ the Redeemer on his high hill, from that evening he took the chatter and the cynicism of the Cambucás Club and turned it all to him and held every soul in the place until he chose to release it, I’ve learned every grace note Seu Alejandro’s played. It’s him. But of all the many many Pretty Petty Thieves that exist across that head-frying multiverse, how can I trust that this is the one that the Seu Alejandro who died in that studio fire intended; the ghost in the scorched hard drive? It’s a Pretty Petty Thieves, but can I ever know it’s the Pretty Petty Thieves?

The crash is tremendous; a clatter of plates and metal trays and cutlery hitting the harsh white tiles all at once. Captain Spooky is on his side. He is covered in cold starters, his right leg is bent under him in an ugly, terrifying way. He’s not moving. He’s not making any sound. The Tuesday Afternoon Boys are on their feet and the Rodrigo de Freitas Bar and Grill is filled with a dull bellowing.

Rio is not a city for funerals. Suits don’t suit us. We’d rather do our business in Bermudas and Havaianas. São Paolo, wedged between those eerie towers, perhaps in one of those all-too-common grey drizzles, that’s a city that does funerals well. The crumbling pastel colonial facades of Salvador and Olinda; there the slow rot and return to the earth is written into every house-front and Baroque Mission Jesus. That is a landscape of death. Rio is sex and life. That life is cheap—every day I hear the gunfire and the sirens—but cariocas understand that that is how death is done here. What Rio will not forgive is a heart that just grew tired of her and stopped dead at the serving counter in a kilometric restaurant. You get no kiss from Bitch City.

So I’m too hot and too tight in my going-to-funerals suit—I’m at that life stage where I need one—and the collar is chafing my neck. For a time the priests were getting younger. Now they’re all getting older. The seminaries can’t get the young men. It’s no life really. The Tuesday Afternoon Boys have all turned out. In our suits and shades we look like a convention of dons. Our floral tribute is in the shape of a futsal ball. The old Captain would have appreciated the black joke but the family doesn’t seem to appreciate the humour. His daughters look good in their black miniskirts and hats. The youngest has fantastic legs and that sullen pout thing I love in a girl. His students are hot too. They keep back, acquaintances like us. One of them is visibly upset. The guy with his arms around her shoulder must be the boyfriend. I wonder if he knows. They’ll fuck afterwards. People always fuck after funerals. It’s not just Rio’s way, it’s everyone’s way. Death and sex.

I talk with those faces you only see at funerals; those partial conversations that, like Christmas or carnaval chat, continue from calendar to date to calendar, stitched through time; then Marcelo offers me a lift home.

“Did the Cap ever give you his theory for why he was going to live forever?”

“Was this another one of his quantum-theory-explains-everything-inthe-universe theories that no one understood?”

“I always thought you understood.” Marcelo punches the horn as a yellow Honda full of teenagers cuts him up. “Don’t you have jobs to go to? Why aren’t you working? Parasites.”

“Me? God no. I was just impressed with his theory for everything. Then you know what to blame when it goes wrong.”

“No, he had this theory that he was going to live forever. Not just him, everyone. There was a price, though, and he was very drunk when he told me this. He told it like an experiment, like this. You’re a very old and very distinguished physics professor with a very hot young PA. Well, she doesn’t have to be young and hot, she just needs to be an observer. There always had to be observers in Cap’s theories. The reason that you’re very old is that you’re about to put down the big stake on a bet: your life. There’s a gun with some quantum doohickey attached, I don’t know how it works but all it needs is to be a random Russian roulette device. You stand in front of the gun and then you say, all right Miss Hottie, start the process and record what you see. The quantum device spins the gun at random and fires. Click. Nothing happens. And again: click. Nothing happens. And a third time, click. You’re still alive. Miss Hottie notes it down. Round four. The quantum device spins the chamber and fires. Oh my God! screams Miss Hottie as you take one right smack between the eyes and go down dead as dead can be.”

“Correct me if my quantum theory is flawed, my friend, but this sounds more like a quantum suicide device than an immortality theory.”

“Not so fast. Round four, other point of view. The quantum thingie spins the barrel and fires. And where Miss Hottie sees the back of your head come off, all you hear is another click. Empty chamber.”