/ Language: English / Genre:sf,

The Years Best Science Fiction Vol. 20

Gardner Dozois


Gardner Dozois, Editor

The Years Best Science Fiction, Vol. 20

Breathmoss - IAN R. MACLEOD

The Most Famous Little Girl in the World - NANCY KRESS

The Passenger - PAUL J. MCAULEY

The Political Officer - CHARLES COLEMAN FINLAY

Lambing Season - MOLLY GLOSS

Coelacanths - ROBERT REED

Presence - MAUREEN F. MCHUGH

Halo - CHARLES STROSS

In Paradise - BRUCE STERLING

The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars - IAN MCDONALD

Stories for Men - JOHN KESSEL

To Become a Warrior - CHRIS BECKETT

The Clear Blue Seas of Luna - GREGORY BENFORD

V.A.O. - GEOFF RYMAN

Winters Are Hard - STEVEN POPKES

At the Money - RICHARD WADHOLM

Agent Provocateur - ALEXANDER IRVINE

Singleton - GREG EGAN

Slow Life - MICHAEL SWANWICK

A Flock of Birds - JAMES VAN PELT

The Potter of Bones - ELEANOR ARNASON

The Whisper of Disks - JOHN MEANY

The Hotel at Harlan’s Landing - KAGE BAKER

The Millennium Party - WALTER WILLIAMS

Turquoise Days - ALASTAIR REYNOLDS

ISBN 0-312-30859-0 (he)

THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION TWENTIETH ANNUAL COLLECTION. Copyright © 2003 by Gardner Dozois. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

www.stmartins.com

0-312-30860-4 (tp)

FIRST EDITION: JULY 2003

Acknowledgments

Acknowledgments

The editor would like to thank the following people for their help and support: Susan Casper, Ellen Datlow, Gordon Van Gelder, Peter Crowther, David Pringle, Eileen Gunn, Nisi Shawl, Mark Watson, Sheila Williams, Brian Bieniowski, Trevor Quachri, Paul Frazier, Mark R. Kelly, Mark Watson, Gary Turner, Marty Halpern, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Byron R. Tetrick, Richard Freeborn, Robert Silverberg, Cory Doctorow, Michael Swanwick, Charles Stross, Craig Engler, Linn Prentis, Vaughne Lee Hansen, Jed Hartman, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Susan Marie Groppi, Patrick Swenson, Tom Vander Neut, Andy Cox, Steve Pendergrast, Laura Ann Gilman, Alastair Reynolds, Warren Lapine, Shawna McCarthy, David Hartwell, Darrell Schweitzer, Robert Sawyer, Jennifer A. Hall, and special thanks to my own editor, Marc Resnick.

Thanks are also due to Charles N. Brown, whose magazine Locus [Locus Publications, P.O. Box 13305, Oakland, CA 94661, $49 for a one-year subscription (twelve issues) via second class; credit card orders (510) 339-9198] was used as an invaluable reference source throughout the Summation; Locus Online (www.locusmag.com), edited by Mark Kelly, has also become a key reference source. Thanks are also due to the editors of Science Fiction Chronicle (DNA Publications, Inc., P.O. Box 2988, Radford, VA 24143-2988, $45 for a one-year/ twelve-issue subscription via second class) was also used as a reference source throughout.

Introduction - Summation: 2002

Although critics continued to talk about the “Death of Science Fiction” throughout 2002 (some of them with ill-disguised longing), the unpalatable fact (for them) is that science fiction didn’t die this year, and doesn’t even look particularly sick. In fact, sales for many genre titles were brisk, and not only were there not fewer books published this year than last, several new book lines were added that swelled the total and are going to swell it more next year (and this isn’t even counting print-on-demand titles and books sold as electronic downloads from internet Web sites, things much more difficult to keep track of than traditionally printed-and-distributed books). Nor, to my eyes anyway, was there any noticeable fall-off in literary quality. Sure, there’s plenty of crap out there on the bookstore shelves, just as there’s always been. But there’s also more quality SF of many different flavors and varieties (to say nothing of the equally diverse range of quality fantasy titles) available out there this year than any one person is going to be able to read, unless they make a full-time job out of doing so (even the professional reviewers have difficulty keeping up!). In fact, an incredibly wide spectrum of good SF and fantasy, both new titles and formerly long-out-of-print older books, are probably more readily available to the average reader now-in many different forms and formats-than at any other time in history. All of which indicate to me that nailing the coffin-lid shut on the genre, smearing ashes on your face, and trotting out the obituaries might be just a bit premature.

In fact, 2002 was a rather quiet year in the genre market. There were few major changes this year. The slowing economy has yet to hit the genre too hard (knock on wood), although there are signs of possible trouble ahead for conglomerates, such as AOL-Time Warner and Bertelsmann; the difficulties are on high corporate levels and not directly caused by anything happening on the genre level, although they may eventually impact it. There were even some signs of expansion: Five Star Books added a vigorous new SF line, with the emphasis on short-story collections edited by Martin H. Greenberg; Tor added a new Young Adult science fiction and fantasy line, Starscape, and by early in 2003 had added a second YA mass-market line, Tor Teen; Tor is also planning to start a “paranormal romance” line, as yet unnamed, in 2004; Penguin Putnam started a new line of science fiction and fantasy books, Firebird, aimed at young readers; Del Rey introduced a new YA line, Imagine; and HarperCollins started Children’s and YA Eos in the beginning of 2003.

Although all of this sudden interest in producing books for young adults is, of course, attributable to the immense success of the Harry Potter novels, it pleases me to see it, especially in science fiction, since novels aimed at the young adult market more-or-less ceased to exist (or at least became very thin on the ground) after the high days of the Andre Norton and Robert A. Heinlein “juvenile” novels of the ’50s and ’60s. This was short-sighted of science fiction publishers; I think that one reason why fantasy may have had an edge in popularity over science fiction in the last few decades is that fantasy has continued its tradition of easily findable, high-quality YA work-giving young readers somewhere to start, somewhere to become hooked on the form, before they eventually move up to reading more challenging adult-level work-while SF largely abandoned that whole share of the audience. Ironically, the much despised media novels, such as Star Trek and Star Wars books, may have been one of the few things left to play this role to a limited extent for potential new SF readers during the last twenty years, a service that they’ve hardly received any credit for from critics. Good new non-media-specific YA SF would, I think, do an even better job of funneling young new readers directly into the core of the genre, and, with luck, some of those readers might stick around when they get older. The operative word here, though, is “good.” Most of the deliberate attempts to create YA SF novels in the past few years have produced only dull, pompous, and condescending books, usually stuffed to the gunwales with didactic libertarian propaganda. This isn’t going to do it for kids raised on MTV, CGI-drenched movies, and computer games. You need something that will be as exciting to kids in the Oughts as Heinlein’s “juvenile” novels were to kids in the ’50s. And, frankly, rather than being as safe and politically correct as possible, a whiff of nonconformist rebellion and outlaw danger wouldn’t hurt either. So let’s hope that these new YA lines will help. If SF as a genre can find stuff that kids are actually eager to read, rather than having it prescribed for them medicinally, then that will go a long way to assuring that there are people around who still want to read the stuff even in the middle decades of the new century ahead.

2002 was another tough year in the magazine market, but at least the overall losses in circulation were relatively small as opposed to the huge plunges we’ve seen in other years, and there were small gains to partially balance off the losses-although these varied from magazine to magazine, so that Asimov’s Science Fiction gained in subscriptions but lost in newsstand sales, while The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction lost subscriptions but gained in newsstand sales, and so forth.

Last year I went into great detail explaining the publishing factors that were battering the whole magazine industry, regardless of genre, far beyond the boundaries of the science fiction field, including former mega-sellers such as Playboy and TV Guide, and some of the technical reasons why things might not be quite as bad in the SF magazine world as they appeared to be-and, as I’d feared going in, it was largely a waste of time, as I still spent the rest of the year fielding questions in interviews and convention panels about the “Death of Science Fiction” as indicated by declining magazine circulation and listening to remarks about how the editors must be buying the wrong kinds of stories or the circulations wouldn’t be going down. I can’t summon the strength to go through all that again (read the Summation for The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Nineteenth Annual Collection, if you’d like to see the arguments). So I’ll settle for mentioning that while it’s tough to put too positive a spin on the situation in the current SF magazine market, and, of course, no magazine editor is happy to see his overall circulation decline, one factor that is often overlooked is that while circulation decreased by small amounts at most magazines this year, sell-through, the number of magazines that must be put out in the marketplace to sell one, has increased, increased dramatically in some cases-at Asimov’s, sell-through was up to a record 56% last year; at Analog, sell-through was up to a record 55%; and at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, sell-through was up to 37%. This is a factor that goes straight to the profitability of a magazine. To achieve a 35% sell-through, for instance, means that three times as many magazines are printed and put on the newsstands as actually sell: if you can cut-back on the number of unsold copies you have to put out there in order to actually sell one, your sell-through increases, and you save a lot of money in production costs by not having to print and distribute as many “extra” copies that no one is going to buy. This is one of the hidden factors, along with how cheap digest-sized magazines are to produce in the first place, that is, so far anyway, helping to keep the SF magazine market afloat.

If you had a 100% sell-through, you wouldn’t print any more copies of an issue than you were actually going to sell-and you’d probably be a subscription-only magazine, where they know in advance exactly how many copies of an issue they need to print. It may well be that the SF magazines, the digest magazines in particular, are eventually going to go this route, as newsstands themselves dwindle in numbers, and the ones that are still around become ever more reluctant to display fiction magazines-especially digest-sized magazines that don’t really fit into the physical format of most newsstands very well. And most of the digests could probably survive as subscription-only magazines, considering how much newsstand sales have fallen off over the last ten years anyway (the same problem being faced by many other magazines, not just genre magazines). The problem is that the purpose of putting more copies out on the newsstand than you expect to sell in the first place is that the extra copies act as advertising, tempting potential new subscribers into picking them up. If you only print as many copies as your existent subscriber-base, nobody ever chances across a copy somewhere of a magazine they might not even have known existed until that moment, and that makes it hard to gain new subscribers-and eventually your subscription-base is eroded away, as old subscribers die or fall away and are not replaced by new ones.

Can use of the Internet, supplemented by distribution to bookstores rather than to newsstands, solve the advertising/promotional problem of attracting new subscribers that used to be solved by putting extra copies out on the newsstand? No one yet knows-but most of the magazine editors I know are giving it their best shot.

As use of Internet Web sites to push sales of the physical product through subscriptions is becoming increasingly important, I’m going to list the URLs for those magazines that have Web sites: Asimov’s site is at www.asimovs.com. Analog’s site is at www.analogsf.com. The Magazine of Fantasy amp; Science Fiction’s site is at www.sfsite.com/fsf/. Interzone’s site is at www.sfsite.com/interzone/. Realms of Fantasy doesn’t have a Web site per se, although content from it can be found on www.scifi.now.com The amount of activity varies widely from site to site, but the important thing about all of the sites is that you can subscribe to the magazines there, electronically, online, with just a few clicks of some buttons, no stamps, no envelopes, and no trips to the post-office required. And you can subscribe from overseas just as easily as you can from the United States, something that was formerly difficult-to-impossible. Internet sites such as Peanut Press (www.peanutpress.com) and Fictionwise (www.fictionwise.com), which sell electronic downloadable versions of the magazines to be read on your PDA or home computer, are also becoming important.

At any rate, to get down to hard figures, Asimov’s Science Fiction registered a 1.7 loss in overall circulation in 2002, gaining 504 in subscriptions, but losing 1,078 in newsstand sales. Analog Science Fiction amp; Fact registered a 2.4% loss in overall circulation in 2002, gaining 490 in newsstand sales but losing 1,504 in subscriptions. The Magazine of Fantasy amp; Science Fiction registered a 10.1% loss in overall circulation, gaining 374 in newsstand sales, but losing 3,038 in subscriptions. Interzone held steady at a circulation of about 4,000 copies, as it has for several years, more or less evenly split between subscriptions and newsstand sales. No circulation figures for Realms of Fantasy were available.

The lively little Scottish SF magazine Spectrum SF has published so much good professional-quality work over the last three years, including good stories this year by Colin P. Davies, Eric Brown, Chris Lawson, Adam Roberts, and the serialization of Charles Stress’s novel The Atrocity Archive, that I’m listing it here with the professional magazines, rather than in the semiprozine section, where its circulation by rights ought to put it. Unfortunately, not all is well at Spectrum SF; they managed to produce only two out of a scheduled four issues this year, and in the most recent issue, editor Paul Fraser announced that in the future, due to financial difficulties and constraints on his time, Spectrum SF is going to be an “occasional” magazine, cut-back from its quarterly schedule to appearing perhaps a couple of times a year. I’m not sure how much practical difference this really makes, since the magazine never came remotely close to keeping its schedule anyway, but it would be a shame if Fraser became even more discouraged and threw in the towel altogether. So everyone, write lots of encouraging letters to Paul, with even more encouraging subscription money folded inside, because science fiction needs as many markets of this caliber as it can get; this little magazine publishes a disproportionate share of the year’s good fiction every year, and it would be a shame to lose it.

A new British magazine started up this year, 3SF, edited by Liz Holliday, the former editor of Odyssey magazine, which died several years back. The first issue was released in 2002. It’s a nice-looking magazine, with a range of interviews, book reviews, media reviews, and interesting articles on such offbeat topics as alternate history and the fate of English political refugees in eleventh-century Russia. The weakest part of the magazine to date, in fact, is the fiction-issue one features solid talents such as Richard Parks, Jay Lake, and Lawrence Watt-Evans, but nothing here rises much above average-competent, certainly nowhere near the level of the first-rate stuff that has been appearing in Spectrum SF. Let’s hope they can bring the quality of the fiction up in subsequent issues; certainly they have some very talented writers announced as appearing in upcoming issues: a good sign. We should all wish them well, as the field really does need as many viable short-fiction markets as it can get.

Subscription addresses follow: The Magazine of Fantasy amp; Science Fiction, Spilogale, Inc., P.O. Box 3447, Hoboken, NJ, 07030, annual subscription-$38.97 in U.S.; Asimov’s Science Fiction, Dell Magazines, P.O. Box 54033, Boulder, CO, 80322-4033-$39.97 for annual subscription in U.S., Analog, Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, P.O. Box 54625, Boulder, CO, 80323-$39.97 for annual subscription in U.S.; Interzone, 217 Preston Drove, Brighton BN1 6FL, United Kingdom-$60.00 for an airmail one year (twelve issues) subscription; Realms of Fantasy, Sovereign Media Co. Inc., P.O. Box 1623, Williamsport, PA, 17703-$16.95 for an annual subscription in the U.S.; Spectrum SF, Spectrum Publishing, P.O. Box 10308, Aberdeen, ABU 6ZR, United Kingdom-17 pounds sterling for a four-issue subscription, make checks payable to “Spectrum Publishing”; 3SF, Big Engine Co., Ltd, P.O. Box 185, Abingdon, Oxon OX 14 1GR-$45.00 for a six-issue (one year) overseas subscription, or subscribe online at www.3SFmag.co.uk. Note that many of these magazines can also be subscribed to electronically online, at their various Web sites.

The internet scene evolves with such lightning speed, with new e-magazines and internet sites of general interest being born and dying in what seems a blink of the eye, that it remains possible that everything I say about it here will be obsolete by the time this book makes it into print and gets out on a bookshelf somewhere where you can buy it. The only way you can be sure to keep up with the online world is to check out what’s happening there yourself, and keep checking frequently.

Once again this year, one of the major players in the whole genre short-fiction market, not just the online segment of it, was Hugo-winner Ellen Datlow’s Sci Fiction page on the internet (www.scifi.com/scifiction/), a fiction site within the larger umbrella of The Sci-Fi Channel site, which published (or “published,” if you insist) a lot of the year’s best fiction, including stories by Nancy Kress, Robert Reed, Alex Irvine, Paul McAuley, Steven Popkes, James Van Pelt, Terry Bisson, and others. The site also features classic reprints, and a different original short-short story by Michael Swanwick every week.

Although Sci Fiction is no doubt your best bet on the Internet for good short fiction, it’s not the only place to look. Eileen Gunn’s The Infinite Matrix page (www.infinite matrix.net) also published literate and quirky fiction of high quality this year by Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Michael Swanwick, Walter Jon Williams, John Kessel, Maureen F. McHugh, Neal Barrett, Jr., John Varley, and others. The site also features a weblog from Bruce Sterling, a daily feature by Terry Bisson, a series of short-shorts from Richard Kadrey and the indefatigable Michael Swanwick, reviews by John Clute, and other neat stuff. (How long it will survive is, alas, another question; they’re running low on money again, after a grant from an unnamed benefactor kept them going throughout 2002, and have resorted to trying Public Television-style campaign-drives, offering offbeat prizes in return for contributions; let’s hope it works!) The Strange Horizons site (www.strangehorizons.com) is also worth checking out; as well as reprints, reviews, and articles, they run lots of original science fiction, fantasy, slipstream, and mild horror stories-I tend to like their fantasy better than their science fiction, but they published good stories of all sorts this year by Alex Irvine, Jay Lake, Ellen Klages, Tim Pratt, Ruth Nestvold, Greg Van Eekhout, Michael J. Jasper, Karen L. Abrahamson, and others. Another site where professional-quality stories can be found is at Oceans of the Mind (www.trantor publications.com/oceans.htm), where they’ll sell you an electronic download of one of their four annual issues as a PDF file to be read on your home computer or PDA; they ran good stories last year by Richard Paul Russo, Ryck Neube, John Alfred Taylor, Michelle Sahara, among others, and an additional point in their favor is that most of the stuff seems to be core science fiction (for some reason, original science fiction is relatively hard to find on the Internet, although you can find slipstream and horror by the ton; in fact, slipstream and horror (particularly horror) seem to be the Internet default-setting, as far as original short fiction is concerned). Another promising site, Future Orbits (www.futureorbits.com), which ran on the same principal as Oceans of the Mind, died this year after only having been introduced last year, showing you how quickly things can turnover in the online world.

A site called Revolution SF (www.revolutionsf.com), also publishes some original fiction, although the bulk of its space is devoted to media and gaming reviews, book reviews, essays, and interviews; the quality of the fiction has been uneven, but some quite interesting stuff has appeared there this year, including stories by Steven Utley, David Hutchinson, and Chris Nakashima-Brown. Short science fiction stories have even been turning up on Salon (www.salon.com) of all places, which has so far published two good SF stories by Cory Doctorow.

Below this point, it becomes difficult to find short original science fiction of any sort of reasonably professional quality on the Internet. Good short reprint SF, though, is not at all hard to find. For starters, most of the sites that are associated with existent print magazines, such as Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy amp; Science Fiction, Aurealis, and others, will have extensive archives of material, both fiction and nonfiction, previously published by the print versions of the magazines, and some of them regularly run teaser excerpts from stories appearing in forthcoming issues. Another great place to read reprint stories for free (although you have to read them on the screen) is the British Infinity Plus (www.users.zetnet.co.uk/iplus/), a good general site that features a very extensive selection of good quality reprint stories, as well as extensive biographical and bibliographical information, book reviews, and critical essays. And don’t forget that extensive archive of classic reprint stories at Sci Fiction that I mentioned, or the archived backlog of stories at The Infinite Matrix and Strange Horizons, all available to be read for free.

If you’re willing to pay a small fee, though, you can access an even greater range of reprint stories, some of which have been unavailable anywhere else for years. Perhaps the best site to do this at is at Fictionwise (www.fictionwise.com). Unlike a site like Sci Fiction or The Infinite Matrix, Fictionwise is not an “electronic magazine,” but rather a place to buy downloadable e-books and stories to read on your PDA or home computer-and it’s probably the best place on the Internet to do this (as far as accessing good science fiction is concerned), with most of the stuff of high professional quality. In addition to individual stories, you can also buy “fiction bundles” here, which amount to electronic collections, as well as a selection of novels in several different genres; more important to me, you can also subscribe to downloadable versions of several of the SF magazines-including Asimov’s Science Fiction -here, in a number of different formats (as you can at the Peanut Press site). Another similar site where you can buy downloadable e-books of various lengths by top authors is ElectricStory (www.electricstory.com). But here, as at a site like Infinity Plus, you can also access online for free a large array of critical material, including a regular column by Howard Waldrop, movie reviews by Lucius Shepard, and other things. Access for a small fee to both original and reprint SF stories is also offered by sites such as Mind’s Eye Fiction (tale.com/genres.htm), and Alexandria Digital Literature (alexlit.com) as well.

People go online, though, for other reasons other than just finding stories to read. In fact, there’s a large cluster of general interest sites that don’t publish fiction but do publish lots of reviews, critical articles, and genre-oriented news of various kinds, which can be great fun to drop in on. Among my most frequent stops while Web-surfing are: Locus Online (www.locusmag.com), the online version of the newsmagazine Locus, which won a Hugo Award year as “Best Web Site,” one of the most valuable sites on the whole Internet for the SF buff-a great source for fast-breaking genre-related news, as well as access to book reviews, critical lists, and extensive and invaluable data-base archives such as the Locus Index to Science Fiction and the Locus Index to Science Fiction Awards; Science Fiction Weekly (www.scifi.com/sfw/), a similar site, more media-and-gaming oriented than Locus Online, but that also features news and book reviews, as well as regular columns by John Clute, Michael Cassut, and Wil McCarthy; Tangent Online (www.sfsite.com/tangent/), perhaps the most valuable SF-oriented review site on the Internet, especially for short fiction; Best SF (www.bestsf.netf), another great review site, and one of the few places, along with Tangent Online, that makes any attempt to regularly review online fiction as well as print fiction; Bluejack (www.bluejack.com), less exhaustively comprehensive than Tangent On line or Best SF, but still a place to find insightful magazine reviews, as well as bluejack’s own online diary; SFRevu (www.sfrevu.com), another review site, although rather than reviewing short fiction, they specialize in media and novel reviews; the Sci-Fi Channel (www.scifi.com), which provides a home for Ellen Datlow’s Sci Fiction and for Science Fiction Weekly, and to the bimonthly SF-oriented chats hosted by Asimov’s and Analog, as well as vast amounts of material about SF movies and TV shows; the SF Site (www.sfsite.com), which not only features an extensive selection of reviews of books, games, and magazines, interviews, critical retrospective articles, letters, and so forth, plus a huge archive of past reviews; but also serves as host-site for the web-pages of The Magazine of Fantasy amp; Science Fiction, Interzone, and the above-mentioned SFRevu; SFF net (www.sff.net), a huge site featuring dozens of home pages and “newsgroups” for SF writers, plus sites for genre-oriented “live chats”; the Science Fiction Writers of America page (www.sfwa.org); where news, obituaries, award information, and recommended reading lists can be accessed; Audible (www.audible.com) and Beyond 2000 (www.beyond2000.com), where SF-oriented radio plays can be accessed; multiple Hugo-winner David Langford’s online version of his fanzine Ansible (www.dcs.gla.ac.uk/Ansible/), which provides a funny and often iconoclastic slant on genre-oriented news; and Speculations (www.speculations.com), a long-running site which dispenses writing advice, although to access most of it, you’ll have to subscribe to the site.

Live online interviews with prominent genre writers are also offered on a regular basis on many sites, including interviews sponsored by Asimov’s and Analog and conducted by Gardner Dozois on the Sci-Fi Channel (www.scifi.com/chat) every other Tuesday night at 9 p.m. EST (Sci Fiction chats conducted by Ellen Datlow are also featured on the Sci-Fi Channel at irregular intervals, usually on Thursdays, check the site for details); regular scheduled interviews on the Cybling site (www.cybling.com); and occasional interviews on the Talk City site (www.talkcity.com). Many Bulletin Board Services, such as Delphi, CompuServe, and AOL, have large online communities of SF writers and fans, and some of these services also feature regularly scheduled live interactive real-time “chats” or conferences, in which anyone interested in SF is welcome to participate. The SF-oriented chat on Delphi, every Wednesday at about 10 p.m. EST, is the one with which I’m most familiar, but there are similar chats on F.net, and probably on other BBSs as well.

Nobody in this market has as yet figured out a good, steady, reliable way to make money by publishing fiction online, and until that happens, many of these sites and e-zines are going to die from lack of capital and funds (production costs may be a lot lower for “publishing” an e-zine than for publishing an old-fashioned print magazine, but at the very least you still have to have money to pay for the stories, to say nothing of money to pay your staff-and it adds up), and the online market is not going to reach its full potential, which is considerable. Maybe the Fictionwise model, selling individual stories and books in the form of downloads for your PDA, or the Oceans of the Mind model, selling subscriptions to purchase whole issues of a magazine in downloadable form at regular intervals, will prove to be commercially viable, and become the wave of the future. Or maybe not. Only time will tell.

It was at best a so-so year in the print semiprozine market. Nothing has been heard from the once-prominent fiction semiprozine Century for more than two years now, and I’m beginning to wonder if we’re ever going to hear from it again. The acclaimed and long-running Australian fiction semiprozine Eidolon died this year, and Orb, Altair, and Terra Incognita have all gone “on hiatus,” a limbo from which few magazines ever return in the semiprozine world.

The titles consolidated under the umbrella of Warren Lapine’s DNA Publications- Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Weird Tales, Chronicle (formerly Science Fiction Chronicle), the all-vampire-fiction magazine Dreams of Decadence; and Lapine’s original magazine, Absolute Magnitude, The Magazine of Science Fiction Adventures -were all still having trouble keeping to their announced publishing schedules this year, except for Chronicle, which met it, and which seemed to have held steady in circulation as well. The other DNA magazines all registered slight drops in circulation, although no disastrous plunges, and the sell-through for most of them was high as well. An ominous note was struck, though, by a note from publisher Warren Lapine in recent renewal notices to subscribers, which warns that unless subscribers not only renew but subscribe to an additional magazine or purchase a book listed on the back of the renewal flyer, DNA will have to cut costs, including the possibility that at least two magazines will be dropped. This doesn’t sound good.

The most stable of the fiction semiprozines seem to be the long-running Canadian semiprozine On Spec and the leading British semiprozine The Third Alternative, which were among the very few magazines in the entire semipro market to meet their announced production schedules this year. The slick, large-format The Third Alternative is one of the handsomest magazines out there, semiprozine or pro, and seems to just keep getting better, publishing fiction at a fully professional level, most of which remains slipstream and horror, although they’ve been adding a bit of science fiction to the mix of late as well-good stuff by John Grant, Ian Watson, Graham Joyce, Douglas Lain, and others, appeared in The Third Alternative this year. On Spec is another handsome magazine, and also published some good stuff this year by Charles Coleman Finlay, Karen Traviss, Kate Riedel, and others. Talebones, Fiction on the Dark Edge managed only two issues out of a scheduled four this year, but the editors had the best of excuses: the birth of a new baby. Talebones remains a lively little magazine, steadily improving, and published good fiction this year from William Barton, James Van Pelt, James Sallis, Beverly Suarez-Beard, and others.

Artemis Magazine: Science and Fiction for a Space-Faring Society again managed only two issues this year out of their scheduled four; I like the fact that Artemis features center-core science fiction in a marketplace where the bulk of the fiction semiprozines run mostly slipstream or horror instead, but they need to work on making their stories more vivid and powerful; much of the work here this year was rather gray, although there were interesting stories by Edward Willett and Roxanne Hutton. A magazine which couldn’t be more different from Artemis in editorial personality is Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (about all they have in common is that they both only managed to get two issues out this year), which almost never publishes core science-fiction, but does publish some good slipstream stuff, including stories by Jeffrey Ford, Greg Van Eekhout, and others. The other long-running Australian semiprozine, Aurealis, was taken over by a new editor, and managed two of its scheduled four issues this year, with interesting stories by Robert N. Stephenson and Lee Battersby; it’s good to see it surviving, since the fear last year was that it would follow Eidelon into the grave. A new Australian fiction semiprozine, the oddly titled Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, launched this year, but is already reported to be in financial trouble; we’ll see if it makes it. I saw one issue of the quirky Irish semiprozine Albedo One this year and heard rumors that there was a Tales of the Unanticipated, but I never saw it.

Black Gate, the new large-format fantasy magazine, managed two fat issues out of a scheduled four. Although ostensibly a fantasy magazine, they remain very broad-church in their definition of fantasy, but the magazine did feature good stories this year, whatever you define them as, by Ellen Klages, Mike Resnick, Cory Doctorow, Bill Johnson, Gail Sproule, and others.

I don’t follow the horror semiprozine market anymore, but the most prominent magazine there, as usual, seems to be the highly respected Cemetery Dance.

Your best bets in the critical magazine market, and by far the most reliably published, are the two “newszines,” Locus and Chronicle (formerly Science Fiction Chronicle), and David G. Hartwell’s eclectic critical magazine, perhaps the best critical magazine out there at the moment, The New York Review of Science Fiction. There have been a few changes here, at least with the newszines: Locus’s longtime and multiple Hugo-winning editor, Charles N. Brown, supposedly retired in 2002, turning the editorial reins over to Jennifer A. Hall, but since the magazine is still put together in his living room, most insiders guess that he won’t actually “retire” until they pry the magazine from his cold dead fingers. Science Fiction Chronicle was taken over by Warren Lapine’s DNA Publishing Group last year, and this year, longtime editor and Hugo-winner Andy Porter left the magazine he’d founded, among swirling rumors that he’d been fired; he was replaced as News Editor by John Douglas, the title of the magazine was changed to Chronicle, and its formerly erratic publishing schedule was stabilized. One issue of Lawrence Person’s playful Nova Express was published this year, but the editor is considering turning the magazine into an online “electronic magazine” (which I suspect will eventually be the fate of most critical semiprozines). There were several issues of The Fix this year, a welcome new short-fiction review magazine brought to you by the people who put out The Third Alternative.

Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field, Locus Publications, Inc., P.O. Box 13505, Oakland, CA 94661-$56.00 for a one-year first class subscription, 12 issues; The New York Review Of Science Fiction, Dragon Press, P.O. Box 78, Pleasantville, NY, 10570-$32.00 per year, 12 issues; Nova Express, P.O. Box 27231, Austin, TX 78755-2231-$12 for a one-year (four issue) subscription; On Spec, More Than Just Science Fiction, P.O. Box 4727, Edmonton, AB, Canada T6E 5G6-$18 for a one-year subscription; Aurealis, the Australian Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Chimaera Publications, P.O. Box 2164, Mt. Waverley, Victoria 3149, Australia-$43 for a four-issue overseas airmail subscription, “all cheques and money orders must be made out to Chimarea Publications in Australian dollars”; Albedo, Albedo One Productions, 2 Post Road, Lusk, Co., Dublin, Ireland-$34 for a four-issue airmail subscription, make checks payable to “Albedo One”; Pirate Writings, Tales of Fantasy, Mystery amp; Science Fiction, Absolute Magnitude, The Magazine of Science Fiction Adventures, Aboriginal Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Dreams of Decadence, Chronicle -all available from DNA Publications, P.O. Box 2988, Radford, VA 24142-2988-all available for $16 for a one-year subscription, although you can get a group subscription to all five DNA fiction magazines for $70 a year, with Chronicle $45 a year (12 issues), all checks payable to “D.N.A. Publications”; Tales of the Unanticipated, Box 8036, Lake Street Station, Minneapolis, MN 55408-$15 for a four-issue subscription; Artemis Magazine: Science and Fiction for a Space-Faring Society, LRC Publications, 1380 E. 17th St., Suite 201, Brooklyn NY 11230-6011-$15 for a four-issue subscription, checks payable to LRC Publications; Talebones, Fiction on the Dark Edge, 5203 Quincy Ave. SE, Auburn, WA 98092-$18 for four issues; The Third Alternative, TTA Press, 5 Martins Lane, Witcham, Ely, Cambs. CB6 2LB, England, UK-$22 for a four-issue subscription, checks made payable to “TTA Press”; Black Gate, New Epoch Press, 815 Oak Street, St. Charles, IL 60174-$25.95 for a one-year (four issue) subscription; Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Small Beer Press, 360 Atlantic Avenue, PMB #132, Brooklyn, NY 11217-$12 for four issues, all checks payable to Gavin Grant; The Fix: The Review of Short Fiction, TTA Press, Wayne Edwards, P.O. Box 219, Olyphant, PA 18447-$28.00 for a six-issue subscription, make checks payable to “TTA Press”; Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, P.O. Box 495, Chinchilla QLD 4415 Australia-$35.00 for a one-year subscription. Many of these magazines can also be ordered online, at their Web sites; see the online section for URLs.

Yet again, it was a pretty weak year for original anthologies.

The best original SF anthology of the year, with almost no competition, was Mars Probes (DAW), edited by Peter Crowther. Having said that, I must admit that I found Mars Probes somewhat disappointing overall, in comparison with Crowther’s 1999 anthology Moon Shots. With all the good science fiction that’s been written about Mars at novel-length in recent years, I’d hoped for a really solid, definitive collection of core SF, reflecting some of the recent science fiction thinking about the Red Planet, and there is some of that here-but a great deal of the anthology (too much of it, in my opinion) is devoted to fabulations and homages drawing not on scientific fact but on other fictional versions of Mars, from Bradbury’s “Mars” to Burrough’s “Barsoom,” including an uncannily spot-on pastiche/homage of Leigh Brackett’s pulp-era Martian stories by Michael Moorcock. Even Paul McAuley, who has done some of the best of the recent work about Mars, contributes a near-mainstream story set in a Martian theme park rather than a hard-science story. Most of this stuff is clever, well-crafted, and entertaining, but it makes the anthology as a whole a little more insubstantial as a science fiction anthology than I was hoping it would be (perhaps the problem is with my own expectations rather than with the anthology itself); in spite of these quibbles, though, it’s still easily the best SF anthology of the year. The best story in Mars Probes is Ian McDonald’s “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars,” but there’s also good work here by Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Eric Brown, Gene Wolfe, Allen Steele, and others.

It’s nearly impossible to come up with a follow-up candidate for best original SF anthology this year, although there were several anthologies with one or two good stories apiece in them. The most solid of these overall was probably 30th Anniversary DAW: Science Fiction (DAW), edited by Elizabeth R. Wollheim and Sheila E. Gilbert; a lot of the stuff here is just fragments of larger story-arcs, depending on your familiarity with long-running DAW novel series for full effect, but there is some good self-contained work here by Neal Barrett, Jr., Brian Stableford, C. J. Cherryh, Charles L. Harness, Ian Watson, and others. Once Upon a Galaxy (DAW), edited by Wil McCarthy, Martin H. Greenberg, and John Heifers, an anthology of fairy-tales retold as science fiction, has some clever stuff in it. The best story here is by Paul Di Filippo, but there is also good stuff by Gregory Benford, Stanley Schmidt, Scott Edleman, Thomas Wylde, and others. Sol’s Children (DAW), edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg, features good but unexceptional stories by Timothy Zahn, Michael A. Stackpole, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, the late Jack C. Haldeman II, and others. Oceans of Space (DAW), edited by Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg, is largely unimpressive, but has decent stories by Andre Norton, Mike Resnick, Simon Hawke, and others.

PS Publishing, edited by Peter Crowther, which for the last couple of years has been bringing out novellas in individual chapbook form, produced another bunch of titles this year, including the excellent V.A.O., by Geoff Ryman, good novellas such as Riding the Rock, by Stephen Baxter, The Tain, by China Mieville, and others. Golden Gryphon Press got into the same business this year, bringing Alastair Reynold’s first-rate novella Turquoise Days out as an individual chapbook. You’re more likely to find really good science fiction in these chapbooks than you are to find it in most of the second-tier anthologies mentioned above.

There were three original Alternate History anthologies this year, the best of which was Worlds That Weren’t (Roc), edited by Laura Ann Gilman; the best story here is Walter Jon Williams’s strange novella “The Last Ride of German Freddie,” but the book also features good novellas by Harry Turtledove, Mary Gentle, and S. M. Stirling. Alternate Generals II (Baen), edited by Harry Turtledove, is also worthwhile, although it may appeal more to military history buffs than to the average reader, since a number of the stories here require more knowledge of the intricate details of past wars for full appreciation than the average reader is likely to possess. The best story here is William Sanders’s “Empire,” although there is also good work by Judith Tarr, Michael F. Flynn, Susan Shwartz, and others (I do wonder, though, how many people are going to be willing to pay $24.00 for this: I think they would have been better off bringing it out as an inexpensive mass-market paperback, like the first Alternate Generals anthology, than as an expensive hardcover). Alternate Gettysburgs (Berkley), edited by Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg, is even more specialized-if you’re not reasonably au courant with the American Civil War, and especially the Battle of Gettysburg, you might as well forget it; most of the stories in these three books are alternate history, unsurprisingly enough, but the best story in Alternate Gettysburgs is an SF story by William H. Keith, Jr., although there are also good stories by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Brendan DuBois, and others here, probably enough to make it worthwhile as a $6.99 paperback (I wouldn’t have wanted to buy it as a $24.00 hardcover).

There was supposedly a new volume in the assembled-online “SFF.net” annual anthology series this year, called Beyond the Last Star, edited by Sherwood Smith, but I never saw it; I’ll have to save it for consideration for next year.

As usual, L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume XVIII (Bridge), edited by Algis Budrys, presents novice work by beginning writers, some of whom may later turn out to be important talents. Much the same could be said of Empire of Dreams and Miracles (Phobos), edited by Orson Scott Card, which features winners of the 1st Annual Phobos Fiction Contest.

In terms of literary quality, the line-by-line quality of the writing, the best anthology of the year may well be Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, a special issue of the literary publication Conjunctions guest-edited by Peter Straub-although some genre fans are going to find it disappointing in spite of the bravura quality of the prose. The (somewhat unclear) intention here seems to have been to produce an “all genres” anthology aimed at the mainstream literary audience, but there is almost no science fiction here-with the exception of a good Alternate History story by John Kessel, “The Invisible Empire”-and surprisingly, considering that horror superstar Peter Straub was the editor, almost no horror either; most of the stories fall somewhere on the line between fantasy and slipstream / surrealism / Magic Realism / whatever-we’re-calling-it-this-month, although several of the anthologies very best stories, such as Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man” and John Crowley’s “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroine,” strike me as straight mainstream stories (in spite of Straub’s rather too-clever attempts to argue that the Crowley is really a fantasy story after all). Although Straub does brandish the term “post-transformation fiction,” it’s hard for me to perceive that any coherent critical argument is being made here, or to discern why this particular group of authors are “New Wave Fabulists,” or what makes them so, or what that term means, or why they were selected rather than some other grouping of authors; it seems instead like the partially random selection of authors you’d get assembling any original anthology, depending largely on the luck of the draw, rather than a list of authors collected with critical rigor or to demonstrate some particular mode or emerging school of fiction. Still, if you set aside considerations of genre or of critical canon-forming, what you get is an anthology with some really good stuff to read in it. After the above-mentioned stories by Fowler, Crowley, and Kessel, the best stories here are Andy Duncan’s flamboyant “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and China Mieville’s grisly “Familiar,” but the anthology also features good-to-excellent stories by Nalo Hopkinson, Neil Caiman, Elizabeth Hand, Peter Straub himself, and others, plus excerpts from forthcoming novels by Joe Haldeman and Gene Wolfe, a book well worth the $15 cover price, especially for those who don’t insist on drinking their genre neat.

There were four other small press anthologies this year that mixed slipstream, horror, fantasy, and science fiction in their contents lists to varying effect, usually with science fiction the smallest element in the mix by far. Polyphony, Volume 1 (Wheatland Press), edited by Deborah Layne and Jay Lake, is more unambiguously a “slipstream” anthology than Conjunctions 39, with little that could be mistaken for any other genre, but is still worthwhile. The best story here is Maureen F. McHugh’s “Laika Comes Home Safe,” but Polyphony also contains good stuff by Andy Duncan, Lucius Shepard, Leslie What, James Van Pelt, and others. Leviathan Three (Ministry of Whimsy Press), edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Forrest Aguirre, mixes other fairly identifiable genres (mostly fantasy) in with the slipstream stuff, and mixes genres more within individual stories than most of these anthologies do (Brian Stableford’s story, for instance, mixes science fiction and fantasy to enough of a degree that it can only be called science-fantasy), and although there’s some over-pretentious and rather dull stuff here, there’s also some excellent work. The best stories here are “The Face of an Angel,” by Brian Stableford and “The Fool’s Tale,” by L. Timmel Duchamp, but there are also good stories by Jeffrey Ford, Carol Emshwiller, Stepan Chapman, and others. J. K. Potter’s Embrace the Mutation (Subterranean Press), edited by William Schafer and Bill Sheehan, is an anthology of stories supposedly inspired by the work of artist J. K. Potter (included in the book); not surprisingly, considering Potter’s sometimes grotesque work and the publisher’s usual fare, Embrace the Mutation leans a good deal more toward straight horror than the other three anthologies being discussed here, but there still are visitations from other genres, notably pure fantasy in a story by Elizabeth Hand and even science fiction in a story by Lucius Shepard-those two, in fact, “Pavane for a Prince of the Air,” by Elizabeth Hand, and “Radiant Green Star,” by Lucius Shepard, are the best stories in the book, but it also features good work by Michael Bishop, Kim Newman, John Crowley, Peter Crowther, and others. In the Shadow of the Wall (Cumberland House), edited by Byron R. Tetrick and Martin H. Greenberg, is an otherwise pretty good anthology, mostly of rather Twilight Zonish fantasy stories, that hampers itself a bit by insisting that all its stories deal centrally with the Vietnam Memorial (the Wall of the title. The best story here is Michael Swanwick’s bitter little story “Dirty Little War,” but there is also good work by Barry N. Malzberg, Orson Scott Card, Nick DiChario, and Byron R. Terrick himself.

Two other small-press anthologies filled an odd and rather specialized literary niche: anthologies of stories about (or inspired by, in one case, to be precise) science fiction and fantasy bookstores. Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores (DreamHaven), edited by Gregg Ketter, the owner of the DreamHaven science fiction bookstore in Minneapolis. Shelf Life deals pretty centrally with the bookstore theme, here treated mostly as a variant of the “little magic shop” story in a sequence of mostly rather gentle fantasy stories, with some mild horror, by Gene Wolfe (with his “From the Cradle,” being, unsurprisingly, the volume’s best), P. D. Cacek, John J. Miller, and others, plus one SF story by Jack Williamson (a pleasant-enough anthology, but at $75.00, it’s wildly overpriced). The Bakka Anthology (The Bakka Collection), edited by Kristen Pederson Chew, has a looser theme, stories “inspired by” the authors having worked in the Bakka science fiction bookstore in Toronto, and, as might be expected, gathers a more eclectic crop of stories as a result, mostly science fiction, with some fantasy and harder-to-classify stuff thrown in. The best story here is Michelle Sagara West’s “To Kill an Immortal,” but there’s good work by Cory Doctorow, Nalo Hopkinson, Robert J. Sawyer, and others, here as well.

The best original genre fantasy anthology of the year, again with little real competition, was probably The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest (Viking) edited by Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling, which contained good-to-excellent work by M. Shayne Bell, Tanith Lee, Delia Sherman, Emma Bull, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Patricia A. McKillip, and others. 30th Anniversary DAW: Fantasy (DAW), edited by Ellizabeth R. Wollheim and Sheila E. Gilbert is also worth mentioning; although it suffers from the same faults as its SF brother-volume, it contains good work by Tanith Lee, Michelle West, and others. The rest of the year’s original fantasy anthologies were pleasant but minor, including, Knight Fantastic (DAW), edited by John Heifers and Martin H. Greenberg; Pharaoh Fantastic (DAW), edited by Brittiany A. Koren and Martin H. Greenberg; and Apprentice Fantastic (DAW), edited by Russell Davis and Martin H. Greenberg.

Shared-world anthologies this year included Wild Cards: Deuces Down (ibooks), edited by George R. R. Martin; Thieves’ World: Turning Points (Tor), edited by Lynn Abbey; and Deryni Tales (Ace), edited by Katherine Kurtz.

Although I don’t pay a lot of attention to the horror genre anymore, from what I could tell the big original anthology of the year there seemed to be Dark Terrors 6 (Gollancz), edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton. Other original horror anthologies included The Children of Cthulhu: Chilling Tales Inspired by H. P. Lovecraft (Del Rey), edited by John Polant and Benjamin Adams and The Darker Side: Generations of Horror (Roc), edited by John Pelan.

A new anthology by Peter Crowther and Robert Silverberg’s Legends II is about all there is to look forward to in the original anthology market for next year. Maybe the long-promised Greg Benford anthology will finally appear. Not a lot else on the horizon.

Addresses: PS Publishing, 98 High Ash Drive, Leeds L517 8RE, England, UK-$14.00 for V.A.O., by Geoff Ryman, $14.00 for Riding the Rock, by Stephen Baxter, $14.00 for The Tain, by China Mieville; Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802-$15.95 for Turquoise Days, by Alastair Reynolds; Conjunctions, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504-$15 for Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists; Wheatland Press, P.O. Box 1818, Wilsonville, OR 97070-$16.95 for Polyphony; Subterranean Press, P.O. Box 190106, Burton, MI 48519-$40.00 for Embrace the Mutation; Ministry of Whimsy Press, P.O. Box 4248, Tallahasse, FL 32315-$21.95 for Leviathan 3; Cumberland House, 431 Harding Industrial Drive, Nashville, TN 37211-$14.95 for In the Shadow of the Wall; DreamHaven Books, 912 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN 55408-$75.00 for Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores; The Bakka Collection, 598 Yonge Street, Toronto, ONT M4Y 1Z3-$30.00 for The Bakka Anthology.

2002 seemed like a pretty strong year for novels, in spite of all the moaning about how SF is dying and there’s nothing worthwhile to read left out there on the bookstore shelves. According to the newsmagazine Locus, there were 2,241 books “of interest to the SF field,” both original and reprint, published in 2002, up by 4% from 2001’s total of 2,158. Original books were up by 5% to 1,271 from last year’s total of 1,210; reprint books were up by 2 % to 970 titles over last year’s total of 948. The number of new SF novels was up slightly, with 256 new titles published as opposed to 251 novels published in 2001. The number of new fantasy novels was also up, to 333, as opposed to 282 novels published in 2001. Horror, however, was down, dropping to 112 from last year’s total of 151. And, for the most part, these totals don’t even reflect print-on-demand novels, novels offered as downloads on the internet, media tie-in-novels, novelizations of movies, gaming novels, or novels drawn from TV shows such as Charmed, Angel, and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

Even sticking to the SF novels alone, that’s a lot of novels. How many of the people who complain that “there’s nothing to read out there” have really sampled even a small percentage of them, let alone all 256?

I myself didn’t have time to read many novels this year, with all the reading I have to do at shorter lengths. So instead I’ll limit myself to mentioning novels that received a lot of attention and acclaim in 2002 include: Guardian (Ace), Joe Haldeman; Schild’s Ladder (Eos), Greg Egan; Probability Space (Tor), Nancy Kress; The Years of Rice and Salt (Bantam), Kim Stanley Robinson; Bones of the Earth (Eos), Michael Swanwick; Coyote (Ace), Allen Steele; Light Music (Eos), Kathleen Ann Goonan; The Scar (Del Rey), China Mieville; The Praxis (Avon), Walter Jon Williams; Redemption Ark (Ace), Alastair Reynolds; Evolution (Del Rey), Stephen Baxter; The Disappeared (Roc), Kristine Kathryn Rusch; Light (Gollancz), M. John Harrison; Castles Made of Sand (Gollancz), Gwyneth Jones; The Lady of the Sorrows (Warner Aspect), Cecilia Dart-Thornton; Shadow Puppets (Tor), Orson Scott Card; Kiln People (Tor), David Brin; Vitals (Del Rey), Greg Bear; Engine City (Tor), Ken MacLeod; The Fall of the Kings (Bantam Spectra), Ellen Kushner amp; Delia Sherman; Ares Express (Earthlight), Ian McDonald; The Sky So Big and Black (Tor), John Barnes; Transcension (Tor), Damien Broderick; Chindi (Ace), Jack McDevitt; Empire of Bones (Bantam Spectra), Liz Williams; The Omega Expedition (Tor) Brian Stableford; The Visitor (Eos), Sheri S. Tepper; The Impossible Bird (Tor), Patrick O’Leary; Ruled Britannia (NAL), Harry Turtledove; The Separation (Scribner UK), Christopher Priest; Spaceland (Tor), Rudy Rucker; A Winter Haunting (Morrow), Dan Simmons; The Translator (Morrow), John Crowley; White Apples (Tor), Jonathan Carroll; The Devil and Deep Space (Roc), Susan R. Matthews; Permanence (Tor), Karl Schroeder; Pitcher’s Brides (Tor), Gregory Frost; Explorer (DAW), C. J. Cherryh; Kushiel’s Chosen (Tor), Jacqueline Carey; The Longest Way Home (Eos), Robert Silverberg; Dark Ararat (Tor), Brian Stableford; Resurgence (Baen), Charles Sheffield; Manifold: Origin (Del Rey), Stephen Baxter; Night Watch (HarperCollins), Terry Pratchett; Burning the Ice (Tor), Laura J. Mixon; The King (Ace), David Feintuch; Jupiter (Tor), Ben Bova; The Alchemist’s Door (Tor), Lisa Goldstein; and Coraline (Harper), Neil Caiman.

The first novels that drew the most attention this year seemed to be The Golden Age (Tor), John C. Wright, A Scattering of Jades (Tor), Alexander C. Irvine, and The Atrocity Archive, Charles Stress (the Stress suffering under the handicap of only appearing as a serial in Spectrum SF magazine, and not yet in book form; in spite of this, it got a lot of notice). Other first novels included: Solitaire (Eos), Kelly Eskridge; The Summer Country (Ace), James A. Hetley; Fires of the Faithful (Bantam Spectra), Naomi Kritzer; The Red Church (Pinnacle), Scott Nicholson; The Eve of Night (Bantam Spectra), Pauline J. Alama; Altered Carbon (Del Rey), Richard Morgan; Warchild (Warner Aspect), Karin Lowachee; Just Like Beauty (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Lisa Lerner; and The God Who Beget a Jackal (Picador USA), Nega Mezlekia.

Looking over these lists, it’s clear that Tor, Eos, and Ace had strong years, although Del Rey had a pretty good year as well. And in spite of the usual critical chorus about how science fiction is “dying” or being driven off the shelves by fantasy, it’s clear that the majority of novels here are center-core science fiction. Even omitting the fantasy of novels and the borderline genre-straddling work from the list, the Egan, the Kress, the two Baxters, the Reynolds, the McDevitt, the Swanwick, the Stablefords, the Barnes, the Goonan, the Harrison, the Bear, the Bova, the Sheffield, the Silverberg, the McDonald, the McDevitt, the Williams, the MacLeod, the Brin, the Card, the Steele, and almost a dozen others are clearly and unmistakably science fiction, many of them “hard science fiction” at that. Pretty fair numbers for an endangered species!

Meanwhile, this is the best time in decades to pick up new editions of long out-of-print classics of science fiction and fantasy, books that have been unavailable to the average reader since the ’70s in some cases. Throughout the last two decades, reissues had become as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth, as shortsighted bottom-line corporate publishing practices meant that books almost never came back into print once they had gone out of it, and that reprints of even older classics were out of the question. Now, however, the ice is beginning to break up a bit. The SF Masterworks and the Fantasy Masterworks reprint series, from English publisher Millennium, have brought forth slews of classic reprints during the last few years, joined by American lines such as Tor Orb, Del Rey Impact, Baen Books, and Vintage, as well as print-on-demand publishers such as Wildside and Big Engine, and Internet sites such as Fictionwise and Electric Story, where classic novels and stories are available for purchase in downloadable form. This year, ibooks joined in with a wave of classic reprints, including Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, Up the Line, and The Man in the Maze, Brian W. Aldiss’s Helliconia triology, Greg Bear’s Blood Music and Strength of Stories, William Rotsler’s Patron of the Arts, Roger Zelazny’s collection The Last Defender of Camelot, an omnibus of three Barry Malzberg novels collected as On a Planet Alien, and Harlan Ellison’s famous anthology Dangerous Visions; Vintage reissued a flood of Philip K. Dick titles, including Time Out of Joint, Dr. Bloodmoney, Clans of the Alphane Moon, The Simulacra, Counter-Clock World, The Man Who Japed, and The Zap Gun (if you can afford only one of these, make it Time Out of Joint, one of Dick’s best; some of the others are rather minor), as well as reprints of Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (one of the best and most influential books of its decade) and a combination volume consisting of his Babel-17/Empire Star. Orb published an omnibus by Hal Clement, Heavy Planet, containing his novels Mission of Gravity and Star Light, plus other related material, and an omnibus of three of James White’s “Sector General” novels, Alien Emergencies, as well as a reissue of A E. Van Vogt’s The World of Null-A. Tor reprinted Frank Herbert’s The Green Brain and The Santaroga Barrier, as well as releasing omnibus collections of “Stainless Steel Rat” novels by Harry Harrison, A Stainless Steel Trio, and of “Dorsai” novels by Gordon R. Dickson, Dorsai Spirit. Baen released an omnibus collection of “Lord Darcy” stories and novels by Randall Garrett, Lord Darcy, as well as an omnibus of “Miles Vorkesigan” novels by Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Errant, and a collection of stories and novels by James H. Schmitz, Eternal Frontier. Gollancz reprinted Jack Vance’s Big Planet, Joe Haldeman’s Worlds, Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewels of Aptor, Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time, John Sladek’s Tik-Tok, and Ian Watson’s The Jonah Kit. Big Engine made available an omnibus of Brian Stableford novels, Swan Songs: The Complete Hooded Swan Collection, as well as Leigh Kennedy’s novel The Journal of Nicholas the American; Perennial reprinted John Crowley’s Little, Big, and issued an omnibus of three other Crowley novels, Otherwise. NESFA Press issued an omnibus of novels by Fredric Brown, Martians and Madness: The Complete SF Novels of Fredric Brown, and an omnibus of Robert Sheckley novels, Dimensions of Sheckley. Tachyon Publications reissued Pat Murphy’s The Shadow Hunter and Avram Davidson’s The Phoenix and the Mirror. Overlook Press reissued Evangeline Walton’s The Maginogion Tetralogy; Del Rey reissued Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite; and Starscape reprinted Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

And no doubt there were other reprints that I’ve missed.

As I said, this is the best time in decades to pick up new editions of long out-of-print work, so go out and get them while you can!

I’ve almost given up trying to guess which novels are going to win the year’s major awards, especially as SFWA’s weird and dysfunctional “rolling eligibility” rule means that books that already won a Hugo last year, such as Neil Caiman’s American Gods, get to go head-to-head with new novels such as Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth. To be fair, it’s hard to see a clear or obvious winner for the Hugo, either. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Small-press original novels of interest this year included Charles L. Harness’s Cybele, with Bluebonnets (NESFA Press), an autobiographical novel with some fantastic elements, and Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount (Small Beer Press).

Associational novels by SF writers this year included a mystery novel by Ray Bradbury, Let’s All Kill Constance (HarperCollins/Morrow).

Mail-order information: NESFA Press, P.O. Box 809, Frammghan, MA 01701-0809-$21 (plus $2.50 shipping in all cases) for Cybele, with Bluebonnets, by Charles Harness, $29.00 (plus $2.50 shipping) for Martians and Madness: The Complete SF Novels of Fredric Brown, $29.00 for Dimensions of Sheckley, by Robert Sheckley; Small Beer Press, 360 Atlantic Avenue, PMB #132, Brooklyn, NY 112117-$16 for The Mount, by Carol Em-shwiller; Tachyon Publications, 1459 18th Street #139, San Francisco, CA 94107-$14.95 for The Shadow Hunter, by Pat Murphy, $15.00 for The Phoenix and the Mirror, by Avram Davidson.

It was another good year for short-story collections. The year’s best collections included: The Birthday of the World (HarperCollins), by Ursula K. Le Guin; Black Projects, White Nights; The Company Dossiers (Golden Gryphon), by Kage Baker; Toast and Other Rusted Futures (Cosmos), by Charles Stress; Worlds Enough amp; Time (Subterranean), by Dan Simmons; Strange But Not a Stranger (Golden Gryphon), by James Patrick Kelly; The Retrieval Artist and Other Stories (Five Star), by Kristine Kathryn Rusch; Vinland the Dream and Other Stories (Voyager), In Another Country and Other Short Novels (Five Star), by Robert Silverberg; Stories of Your Life and Others (Tor), by Ted Chiang; The Lady Vanishes and Other Oddities of Nature (Five Star), by Charles Sheffield; Everything’s Eventual (Scribner), by Stephen King, Aristotle and the Gun and Other Stories (Five Star), by L. Sprague de Camp; and Phase Space (Voyager), by Stephen Baxter. (It’s worth noting that the Le Guin, the Baker, the Stress, the Simmons, the Kelly, the Rusch, and the Chiang collections all contain original stories.)

Other good collections included The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon), by Jeffery Ford; The Great Escape (Golden Gryphon), by Ian Watson; Strangers and Beggars (Fairwood Press), by James Van Pelt; Hunting the Snark and Other Short Novels (Five Star), by Mike Resnick; Rosetti Song: Four Stories (Small Beer Press), by Alex Irvine; Dragon’s Island and Other Stories (Five Star), by Jack Williamson; The Mountain Cage and Other Stories (Meisha Merlin), by Pamela Sargent; Human Voices (Five Star), by James Gunn; Counting Up, Counting Down (Del Rey), by Harry Turtledove; The Ogre’s Wife (Obscura Press), by Richard Parks; Babylon Sisters and Other Posthuman Stories (Prime), by Paul Di Filippo; God Is an Iron and Other Stories (Five Star), by Spider Robinson; Little Doors (Four Walls, Eight Windows), by Paul Di Filippo; Generation Gap and Other Stories (Five Star), by Stanley Schmidt; If Lions Could Speak (Cosmos), by Paul Park; Report to the Men’s Club and Other Stories (Small Beer Press), by Carol Emshwiller; Death and the Librarian and Other Stories (Five Stars), by Esther Friesner; Waifs and Strays (Viking), by Charles de Lint; Through My Glasses Darkly (KaCSFFS Press), by Frank Robinson, selected and edited by Robin Wayne Bailey; Claremont Tales II (Golden Gryphon), by Richard Lupoff; Swift Thoughts (Golden Gryphon), by George Zebrowski; and Lord Stink and Other Stories (Small Beer Press), Judith Berman.

The year also featured excellent retrospective collections such as The Collected Stories of Greg Bear (Tor), by Greg Bear; Smoke Ghost amp; Other Apparitions (Midnight House), by Fritz Leiber; Going For Infinity (Tor), by Poul Anderson; Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side (Baen), by Keith Laumer; One More for the Road (Morrow), by Ray Bradbury; The Amazing Dr. Darwin (Baen), by Charles Sheffield; Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick (Pantheon), by Philip K. Dick; Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Tor), by Richard Matheson; Med Ship (Baen), by Murry Leinster; The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson; Volume Four: Spider Island and Other Stories, by Jack Williamson; The Emperor of Dreams (Gollancz), by Clark Ashton Smith; Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (Big Engine), by John Sladek; and Bright Segment: The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, Volume VIII (North Atlantic), by Theodore Sturgeon.

It’s good to see regular trade publishers such as Tor and HarperCollins publishing collections, especially major, important collections such as the Bear, the Anderson, the Chiang, and the Le Guin, but, as has been true for many years now, it’s still the small press publishers who are publishing the bulk of the year’s collections. New book line Five Star Books exploded on the scene with an unprecedented twelve collections, but Golden Cryphon Press held its own with six, and may have had the edge in overall quality, although both houses brought out first-rate collections this year. But as you can see from the lists above, publishers such as NESFA Press, Four Walls, Eight Windows, and North Atlantic remain important as well, as do even smaller presses such as Fairwood Press. Print-on-demand collections are becoming more frequent as well, with collections from Charles Stross, Paul Park, John Sladek, and others, coming out from POD houses such as Cosmos/Wildside and Big Engine, and I suspect that this area will grow in importance as a source of short-story collections as the years go by. (Toast, by Charles Stross and If Lions Could Speak, by Paul Park can be ordered from Wildside Press at www.wildsidepress.com. Maps: the Uncollected John Sladek, by John Sladek, can be ordered from Big Engine Press at www.bigengine.com.)

“Electronic collections” continue to be available for downloading online at sites such as Fictionwise and ElectricStory, and I expect that this area will continue to grow as we progress into the century as well.

As very few small-press titles will be findable in the average bookstore, or even in the average chain superstore, means that mail-order is still your best bet, and so I’m going to list the addresses of the small-press publishers mentioned above who have little presence in most bookstores: Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802-$24.95 for Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers, by Kage Baker, $25.95 for Strange but Not a Stranger, by James Patrick Kelly, $23.95 for The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant and Other Stories, by Jeffrey Ford, $23.95 for The Great Escape, by Ian Watson, $23.95 for Claremont Tales II, by Richard Lupoff; $24.95 for Swift Thoughts, by George Zebrowski; Midnight House, 4128 Woodland Park Ave., N. Seattle, WA 98103-$40.00 for Smoke Ghost and Other Apparitions, by Fritz Leiber; Fairwood Press, 5203 Quincy Ave SE, Auburn, WA 98092-$17.99 for Strangers and Beggars, by James Van Pelt; Haffner Press, 5005 Crooks Rd., Suite 35, Royal Oak, MI 48G73-1239-$35.00 plus $5.00 postage for The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, Volume Four: Spider Island and Other Stories, by Jack Williamson; Small Beer Press, 360 Atlantic Avenue, PMB# 132, Brooklyn, NY 11217-$16.00 for Report to the Men’s Club and Other Stories, by Carol Emshwiller, $6.00 including shipping for Rosetti Song: Four Stories, by Alex Irvine, $6.00 including shipping for Lord Stink and Other Stories, by Judith Berman; Obscura Press, P.O. Box 1992, Ames, 1A, 50010-$18.95 for The Ogre’s Wife, by Richard Parks; KaCSFFS Press, P.O. Box 36212, Kansas City, MO, 64171-6212-$15.00 for Through My Glasses Darkly, by Frank M. Robinson; Prime, P.O. Box 36503, Canton, OH 44735-$17.95 for Babylon Sisters and Other Posthuman Stories, by Paul Di Filippo; North Atlantic Press, P.O. Box 12327, Berkeley, CA 94701-$35.00 for Bright Segment: The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, Volume VIII.

2002 was another strong year for reprint anthologies; in fact, the reprint anthology market was actually stronger than the original anthology market, with a lot more value for your buck.

Among the most reliable bets for your money in this category, as usual, were the various “Best of the Year” anthologies. This year, science fiction was covered by three “Best of the Year” anthology series: the one you are holding in your hand (presumably, unless you’re levitating it with your vast mental powers), The Year’s Best Science Fiction series from St. Martin’s, now up to its twentieth annual volume; the Year’s Best SF series (Eos) edited by David G. Hartwell, now up to its eighth annual volume, and a new science fiction “Best of the Year” series added to the mix last year, Science Fiction: The Best of 2002 (ibooks), edited by Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber. Once again, there were two Best of the Year anthologies covering horror in 2002: the latest edition in the British series The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (Robinson, Caroll amp; Graff), edited by Stephen Jones, now up to Volume Thirteen, and the Ellen Dallow half of a huge volume covering both horror and fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin’s Press), edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, this year up to its Fifteenth Annual Collection. For the second year in a row, fantasy is being covered by three Best of the Year anthologies, by the Windling half of the Datlow/Windling anthology, by the Year’s Best Fantasy (Eos), edited by David G. Hartwell and Katherine Cramer, now up to its third annual volume, and by a new “Best of the Year” series covering fantasy introduced last year, Fantasy: The Best of 2002 (ibooks), edited by Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber, now in its second year. Similar in a way, and also good, is the annual Nebula Award anthology, Nebula Awards Showcase 2002 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), edited by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Turning from series to stand-alone books, there were some excellent retrospective anthologies this year. The best of these is the exceptional The Hard SF Renaissance (Tor), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, probably the best reprint anthology of the decade so far, and one of the best to come out in the last ten years as well. I don’t always agree with Hartwell and Cramer’s critical opinions and rhetoric, expressed in the extensive storynotes and introductions, and I don’t always agree that all of their selections are a perfect fit for the book, but when any anthology includes 960 pages filled with stories such as Greg Egan’s “Wang’s Carpets,” Paul McAuley’s “Gene Wars,” Poul Anderson’s “Genesis,” Michael Swanwick’s “Griffin’s Egg,” Bruce Sterling’s “Taklamakan,” Stephen Baxter’s “On the Orion Line,” and thirty-five other good-to-great stories by writers such as Nancy Kress, Joe Haldeman, Hal Clement, Kim Stanley Robinson, Brian Stableford, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Sheffield, Gregory Benford, and many others, then it becomes pointless to quibble about such things. This book is a great read, and an invaluable reference anthology if you want a picture of how SF is evolving in the Oughts, and even at $39.95, it’s one of the best reading bargains you’re going to find this year; buy it. The Mammoth Book of Science Fiction (Carroll amp; Graf), edited by Mike Ashley, is not quite as exceptional as the Hartwell/Cramer anthology, but is still a good solid value, featuring first-rate stories such as Connie Willis’s “Firewatch,” Michael Swanwick’s “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” Damon Knight’s “Anacron,” Greg Egan’s “The Infinite Assassin,” Geoffry A. Landis’s “Approaching Perimelasma,” Clifford D. Simak’s “A Death in the House,” and lots of others. The Great SF Stories (1964) (NESFA Press), edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg, takes a look back at the year 1964, when classic stories such as Jack Vance’s “The Kraken,” Roger Zelazny’s “The Graveyard Heart,” Fritz Leiber’s “When the Change Winds Blow,” Gordon R. Dickson’s “Soldier, Ask Not,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dowry of Angyat,” and Norman Kagan’s “Four Brands of Impossible” appeared, demonstrating that it was a very good year indeed. And The Ultimate Cyberpunk (ibooks), edited by Pat Cadigan, takes a look back into the more-recent past, at the Cyberpunk Revolution of the mid-’80s, examining some of cyberpunk’s rarely mentioned roots in stories such as James Tiptree’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” and Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Farenheit,” and then passing through some canonical stories such as William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome,” Greg Bear’s “Blood Music,” William Gibson and Michael Swanwick’s “Dogfight,” Bruce Sterling’s “Green Days in Brunei,” and Cadigan’s own “Patterns,” before considering more-recent progressions of the form such as Paul McAuley’s “Dr. Luther’s Assistant.” At $16.00 for the trade paperback, this is a great reading bargain, and another valuable reference anthology.

Noted without comment: Future Sports (Ace), edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, and Beyond Flesh (Ace), edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois.

The most important reprint fantasy anthology this year (indeed, one of the only reprint fantasy anthologies this year, other than the two Fantasy Bests and the Windling half of the Datlow/Windling) was The American Fantasy Tradition (Tor), edited by Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg, which gives a comprehensive overview of the evolution of American fantasy, from stories by Nathanial Hawthorne, Stephen Vincent Benet, Mark Twain, and Robert W. Chambers on to more recent classics such as H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” Manly Wade Wellman’s “O Ugly Bird!,” R. A. Lafferty’s “Narrow Valley,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Ray Bradbury’s “The Black Ferris,” Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” Orson Scott Card’s “Hatrack River,” and many others.

Other than the Stephen Jones “Best” anthology and Datlow’s half of the Datlow A Vindling anthology, there didn’t seem to be many reprint horror anthologies this year either, but then again, I wasn’t looking intensively for them either. I did spot The Literary Werewolf: An Anthology (Syracuse University Press), edited by Charlotte F. Otten, which could also be considered to be a fantasy anthology instead, I suppose, depending on how you squint at it.

It was an unexceptional year in the SF-and-fantasy-oriented nonfiction and reference book field, although there were a slew of literary biographies and studies of the work of individual authors, including L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz (St. Martin’s), by Katharine M. Rogers; The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (MacFarland), by Karen L. Hellekson; A. E. van Vogt: Science Fantasy’s Icon (H. L. Drake), by H. L. Drake; Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold: A Life (Overlook), by Malcolm Yorke; Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (Ohio State), by Ellen Weil and Gary K. Wolfe; Starlight Man: The Extraordinary Life of Algernon Blackwood (Constable), by Mike Ashley; The Age of Chaos: The Multiverse of Michael Moorcock (The British Fantasy Society), by Jeff Gardiner; Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic (HarperCollins), by Douglas E. Winter, and Isaac Asimov: It’s Been a Good Life (Promethaeus Books), edited by J. O. Jeppsen, a nonfiction collection of excerpts from Asimov’s three previous autobiographical volumes. Of books of this sort this year, the most accessible to the average reader, and probably the most enjoyable, would be Judith Merril’s “autobiography,” Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril (Between the Lines, 720 Bathurst St., Suite 404, Toronto, Ontario M5S 2R4, C$29.95), by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary. The quotation marks around “autobiography” are there because Merril didn’t live to complete the full-dress autobiography she’d had planned, and there are only pieces of it here, with the book filled out with articles, letters, and other autobiographical snippets Merril produced for one reason or another over the years. There’s still enough here though to give you a bit of the flavor of Merril’s colorful, highly opinionated, passionate, and forceful personality, make this an entertaining read, and make you wish that she’d been able to complete a full autobiography before her untimely death.

More generalized reference books this year included Supernatural Fiction Writers: Contemporary Fantasy and Horror, Volumes I amp; II (Scribner), edited by Richard Bleiler; The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (Wesleyan), by Justine Larbalestier; Once There Was a Magazine (Beccon), by Fred Smith; John W. Campbell’s Golden Age of Science Fiction (DMZ), by Eric Solstein; Smokin’ Rockets (McFarland), by Patrick Lucanio and Gary Coville; and, probably the most accessible of these for the average reader, a collection of essays by horror writer Ramsey Campbell, Ramsey Campbell, Probably: On Horror and Sundry Fantasies (PS Publishing), by Ramsey Campbell.

The most generally enjoyable books in this category this year (or at least they sort of fit into this category; although they’re not a perfect fit anywhere) are two “travel guide” books, Roswell, Vegas, and Area 51: Travels with Courtney (Wormhole Books, 413 High St., Fort Wayne, IN 46808, $15.00), by Connie Willis, and A Walking Tour of the Shambles (American Fantasy Press, P.O. Box 1059, Woodstock, IL 60098, $15.00), by Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman. A Walking Tour of the Shambles is a whimsical and good-naturedly grotesque “travel guide” to an imaginary Chicago neighborhood filled with enchanted places and magical people, and Roswell, Vegas, and Area 51: Travels with Courtney is a caustic, sharp-eyed, and very funny tour through real places so bizarre and unlikely that they might just as well be the products of a fantasy writer’s fevered imagination (and it makes it even funnier that they are not).

As has been true for the last few years, the art book field was very strong this year. Among the best of the art books were Fantasy Art Masters: The Best in Fantasy and SF Art Worldwide (Collins), by Dick Jude; Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery (Paper Tiger), edited by Paul Barnett; The Art of Jeffrey Jones (Underwood Books), edited by Cathy and Arnie Fenner; The Science Fiction Art of Vincent Di Fate (Paper Tiger), by Vincent Di Fate; Perceptualistics: Art by Jael (Paper Tiger), by Jael and John Grant; Manchu: Science (Fiction) (Guy Delcourt), by Manchu; Dragonhenge (Paper Tiger), by Bob Eggleton and John Grant; GOAD: The Many Moods of Phil Hale (Donald M. Grant), by Phil Hale, and the latest edition in a Best-of-the-Year-like retrospective of the year in fantastic art, Spectrum 9: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art (Underwood), by Kathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner.

There were only a few general genre-related nonfiction books of interest this year. The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos (Princeton University Press), by Robert P. Kirshner, may help you make sense of recent cosmological discoveries (primarily, that the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating as it expands) that have turned our entire picture of the nature of the universe upside-down. You may be prepared for some possibly even weirder future revelations if you check out one of the most fiercely controversial books in years, A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media), by Stephen Wolfram, which puts forth the radical idea that the entire universe is controlled by the same basic set of rules that control cellular animations. To bring things back to Earth, there’s the late Stephen Jay Gould’s last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press), but although Gould’s lucid prose and experience at explaining scientific theory in comprehensible terms help, this is primarily aimed at specialists, and there are probably few laymen who are going to be willing to devote the time and brainwork necessary to absorb and comprehend its thousand-plus pages of text. For a less demanding and more easily graspable and enjoyable book that covers at least some of the same ground, take a look at The Life of Mammals (BBC Books), by David Attenborough, which examines in fascinating detail (complete with gorgeous color photographs) the strange and wonderful lifeways of some of the creatures we share our planet with, lifeways that are often far more astonishing and strange than those of most SF writers’s aliens. It’s hard to come up with a really credible genie-related justification for listing the next book, except perhaps that many SF fans are also history buffs, but in spite of that I’m going to recommend that you go out and buy a copy of The Cartoon History of the Universe III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance (W.W. Norton amp; Company), by Larry Gonick, one of the most informative, sharp-witted, erudite, and flat-out funny books you’re likely to find on the shelves anywhere, and one that’s perhaps particularly germane and valuable this year, as another war in the Middle East looms on the horizon, dealing centrally as it does with the birth and spread of Islam, and some of the root causes of misunderstandings between it and the West. Perhaps a similar weak justification could be used to work-in a mention of Sahara (St. Martin’s), by Michael Palin, which documents a grueling trip around the war-torn Saharan Africa, and shows just how closed-off and inaccessible many of the areas of our planet have become, as war, feral nationalism, and religious intolerance close border after border to the ordinary traveler, leaving us living on a planet where it may be easier to go to the Moon than to go from one country to the country next door.

It was another fairly good year for fantasy movies, but an unimpressive one for science fiction movies, in spite of the release of new entries in the two most successful media SF series of all time.

The big story of the year, easily overshadowing the new Star Wars movie in terms of the buzz and excitement it generated (and it is itself an interesting sign of the times that that can be said), was the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Although there are considerably more changes made here from the storyline of Tolkien’s text than there had been in the first movie, and in some ways more substantive ones, the movie remained true to the spirit of Tolkien’s great work, and all but the most fanatically obsessed fans seemed to be willing to cut Director Peter Jackson some slack. At any rate, although there were quibbles in plenty, they lacked any real force, and the overwhelming majority of Tolkien fans seemed willing to embrace the movie in spite of departures from the Sacred Cannon. There is a lot worth embracing: even if some of Tolkien’s more subtle nuances are lost, the movie is fast-paced and tremendously exciting, shot through with moments of both terror and wonder (although not as quite as many of the later as I’d have liked; the scene of Gandalf and Bilbo relaxing and blowing magical smoke-rings in Fellowship of the Rings was one of the most effective of the whole movie for me, and I’d liked to have seen a few more moments of quiet wonder here as well) and not only features good performances on every level from the live actors, but what is surely by far the best “performance” ever from a CGI-created or animated creature, as Gollum comes close to stealing the movies even from gifted professionals such as Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee. The Two Towers is certainly one of your very best bets this year for good value in return for your money, and if for some odd reason (a supernaturally enforced quota? An aesthetic diet?) you can only see one of 2002’s genre movies, this is undoubtedly the one to see.

The new Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, also seems to have satisfied its picky and fanatically loyal fan base, making few (if any) changes from the text of J. K. Rowling’s novel, and also did well at the box-office, although not quite as well as the first one had. It’s a darker movie, a lot more scary, more suspenseful and faster-paced than last year’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but with even less of the feeling of enchantment and wonder than the previous movie had managed to generate. As I said last year for a film about a school for magicians, especially one loaded with CGI-effects, the film lacks magic somehow-that’s even more true of Chamber of Secrets than it was of Sorcerer’s Stone, perhaps because the movie hurtles along at a headlong-enough pace not to have room for even the few evocative magical set-pieces the first film managed to work in. None of these quibbles matter anyway, though, because the movie’s main audience is kids, and the kids seemed perfectly happy with it, and, even more important, no doubt will be perfectly willing to drag their parents (willingly or unwillingly) to the next film in the series.

The year’s other heavy-hitter at the box-office was Spider-Man, which I suppose most people wouldn’t consider to be a fantasy movie, but which is certainly not a science fiction movie (or at least not a good one), as the “science” is complete nonsense-what it really is, of course, is a comic-book movie, practically a genre of their own, which straddle the borderline of both fantasy and science fiction, and play by their own aesthetic rules and their own brand of internal logic (which is why nobody ever realizes that Clark Kent looks exactly like Superman with glasses on). By the rules of real-world logic that the rest of us operate on, Spider-Man makes not a lick of sense, of course, but judged on its own terms, by comic-book aesthetics and comic-book logic, it’s a pretty good version of the adventures of perhaps the most famous superhero of all, after Superman and Batman. Spider-Man was always the comic of choice of intellectual nerds who got slammed up against lockers in high-school and laughed at in gym class, and the movie does a good job of capturing this part of the character’s appeal, with Tobey McGuire somehow managing to actually look like one of Steve Ditko’s drawings of the scrawny, squamulous, lopsided-headed Peter Parker in some of the early scenes. Even after the character’s transformation into a being with vast superpowers, when we’re deep into classic wish-fulfillment/Revenge Fantasy territory, McGuire does a good job of somehow letting us know that, deep inside the skintight costume and the bulging muscles, Peter Parker realizes that he’s still a loser no woman would touch with a stick-an intelligent job of acting. Spider-Man is the most successful film version of a comic-book, both critically and financially, since The X-Men, if not the original Tim Burton Batman, and not only has spawned a new franchise, with several sequels already in the works, but has sent producers scurrying to buy film rights to every comic-book they can find, no matter how obscure. So, like it or loathe it, there’s lot more of this stuff yet to come.

Things were less interesting on the science fiction side of the ledger. The most commercially successful of the year’s SF movies was also in some ways the most disappointing: Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones still managed to pack in the audiences, but was savaged critically, and, more significantly, didn’t get good word-of-mouth afterward from People who’d seen it, with even most stone Star Wars fans being unable to find anything more positive about it to say than “it was better than The Phantom Menace, anyway.” In spite of good special effects, evocative CGI-generated or augmented sets, wonderful costuming and set-dressing, and even a few good fight scenes (the light-saber battle between Yoda and Christopher Lee was a knockout, but unfortunately was good enough to make most of the rest of the movie look even more limp by comparison), this lack of enthusiasm Was not unearned-the dialog was awful, the storyline made even less sense than it had in The Phantom Menace (and twisted the backstory into even more contradictory knots), and the acting was so flat and wooden throughout, even from ordinarily good actors, that one finds it hard not to give some credence to the rumor that Lucas deliberately directs them to act that way. Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker is an improvement over that creepy little kid from the previous movie, but his portrayal of the Darth-Vader-To-Be as a sullen, whiny, and sulky teenager, seemingly always on the verge of throwing a tantrum and holding his breath until he turns blue (“Why CAN’T I be the most powerful Jedi Knight? I WANNA be the most powerful Jedi Knight! You never let me do ANYTHING!”), lacks any sort of impact or conviction (his love scenes are enough to make a cat laugh), and drains the power from what, in the right hands, could have been an archetypically potent role. A review from The New York Times famously referred to Attack of the Clones as “a two-hour-and-12-minute action-figure commercial,” and, sadly, that largely sums it up.

Meanwhile, over at media SF’s other most famous franchise, things weren’t much better; in fact, in some ways, they were worse. The new Star Trek movie, Star Trek: Nemesis, didn’t do a lot better than Attack of the Clones with the critics (it did a little better: usually the reviews were lukewarm rather than scathing), and it did considerably worse at the box-office-not a total bomb, but certainly a disappointment, in terms of what they hoped it would draw, and what it cost to make. Again, even long-term, hardcore Star Trek fans seemed unexcited by it, and the movie generated little or no buzz even among media fans, let alone the general audience. Combined with the tepid performance of the current Star Trek television series, Enterprise, the mediocre performance of Star Trek: Nemesis is a major blow to the franchise, and radically decreases the chance of there ever being another Star Trek theatrical movie, as even the producers are ruefully admitting in public.

Minority Report and Signs, on the other hand, did make a lot of money, although I, finicky bastard that I am, was unimpressed with either. I liked Minority Report better than Signs- a sickly blend of science fiction and horror, freighted with an inspirational message about Faith and Redemption-but found it depressing that stories drawn from Philip K. Dick’s work, as Minority Report is, somehow always seem to come out more about car-chases, action scenes, and big explosions than about the intellectual/philosophical/mystical territory that Dick explored in such intricate and unsettling detail. Men in Black II was a limp sequel that managed to be not even half as much fun as the original, in spite of pumping in more special effects, more silly aliens, and lots more gags (fewer of which were really funny). Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones do their best at being frenetic and charming, but they mostly just look tired, particularly Tommy Lee Jones, who looks throughout like he’s grumpy after being woken up from a long nap on the sofa. Solaris, the remake of the old Russian film version of Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name, was too lowbrow for the author, who criticized it sharply, and too highbrow for the viewing audience, who stayed away in droves. Reign of Fire had the last men on Earth earnestly fighting a plague of CGI dragons, rather than just instructing the special effects people to turn them off. And the latest Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, was such an enormous bomb that echoes of it are still washing back-and-forth between the Hollywood Hills, a sci-fi movie so bad that it makes you cry grateful tears to have something as good as Men in Black II to watch. And that was about it for science fiction films this year, live-action ones, anyway.

Two of the most successful films last year were animated features, Monsters, Inc. and (especially) Shrek, but this year’s animated films met with varying fates at the box-office. Disney’s Lilo and Stitch was very successful, both commercially and critically, a slightly edgier film (although, of course, still “warm-hearted” at base) then is usual from Disney, with vigorous and highly stylized-although somewhat crude-animation, lots of slapstick Roadrunner-style action, and a generous sprinkling of genuinely witty lines and incidental bits of business; it reminded me more of The Emperor’s New Groove from a few years back-loose-jointed and jazzy, with a lot of anachronistic, self-referential postmodern chops-than the standard non-Pixar Disney product. On the other hand, Disney’s Treasure Planet, a film with much more traditional Disney aesthetics, storytelling choices, and animation style, was a box-office disaster, especially considering how much it cost to make. The large number of direct-to-video quick-knockoff sequels of Disney classics that the studio cranked out this year- Peter Pan II, The Little Mermaid II, and so forth-didn’t seem to be setting the world on fire either. Coupled with the failure of last year’s traditional Disney animated feature, Atlantis, and the success of films such as Shrek, far ruder and cruder than the Disney average, I wonder if this doesn’t indicate that there’s been a fundamental shift in the taste of the audience. Kids who have grown up watching cartoons on Nickleodeon, stuff like SpongeBob and Dexter’s Laboratory and Rug-Rats and The Powerpuff Girls, may now want something edgier and hipper and zanier in their full-length animated movies than anything that Disney usually gives them. Ice Age also did well at the box-office and shared some of the same kind of self-referential postmodern humor as Lilo and Stitch or The Emperor’s New Groove, but I found it more heavy-handed and not as imaginative or engaging as either of those films. And the Japanese Spirited Away, aimed at an adult rather than a children’s audience, did very well with the critics, but was hard to find anywhere except in art-houses in the very biggest cities.

There were lots of horror movies, I’m sure, but I didn’t go see any of them, so you’re on your own there.

Coming up next year: More Sequels! (What a surprise!) 2004 or late 2003 should see the final Lord of the Rings movie, a new Harry Potter movie, two new Matrix movies, a new X-Men movie, maybe a new Spider-Man movie, and so forth. Maybe even a couple of stand-alone movies! (Or maybe not.)

In closing, it’s interesting to realize that all but two or three of the list of the twenty highest-grossing movies of all time are science fiction or fantasy films! No wonder the studios can swallow a bomb like The Adventures of Pluto Nash and not give up on making genre films!

It wasn’t a very good year for SF and fantasy on television either. Although Stargate SGI is doing better than ever in the ratings, the Sci-Fi Channel canceled Farscape (which hadn’t significantly built its audience) in spite of anguished howls of protest from its devoted fan base and a hastily organized write-in and e-mail campaign petitioning the Sci-Fi Channel execs to keep it alive. (They canceled Farscape, one of the few relatively intelligent SF shows on the air, and immediately announced plans to re-run Battlestar Galactica, one of the dumbest and most pallidly horrid SF series of all time, and what’s more, a show that almost no one liked the first time around; at least Farscape had people who actually wanted to watch it, before the plug was pulled, while I’ve talked to no one who feels anything other than sadness, distaste, and vague dread that Battlestar Galactica is coming back. Go figure. Those wacky Suits!)

The new Star Trek series, Enterprise, now in its sophomore year, is not doing badly, but it is doing worse in the ratings than any of the other Star Trek series did, and its future may also be in doubt. With the indifferent performance of the new Star Trek theatrical movie, Star Trek: Nemesis, and Enterprise’s relatively mediocre numbers, it suddenly looks as if the whole franchise may be in danger, and we might be faced with the prospect of-horror of horrors!-a world without Star Trek!! If this dire possibility actually comes to pass, fans can console themselves with the Trek novels, I suppose, which show no sign of stopping (in fact, they’re selling better than ever), with Trek computer games (ditto), and with the fact that re-runs of the various Trek shows will probably be in syndication for years-if not decades-to come. Which raises the odd possibility that the various Star Trek spin-off products may continue to sell vigorously long after there’s no longer an original franchise show running anywhere on television.

Firefly, the much-hyped and much anticipated new “space western” from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, debuted this year, but even the hardest-core Buffy fans hated it, it failed to either carry the Buffy audience or find alternative audiences of its own, the ratings were disastrous, and it was cancelled by mid-season, in spite of all of Whedon’s clout and all the pressure he could bring to bear on network execs to save it. Meanwhile, the end is finally in sight for Buffy, the Vampire Slayer itself, after two years of disappointing episodes and decreasing ratings, with the announcement that Sarah Michelle Geller, who portrays Buffy, is leaving the show at the end of the current seventh season for greener pastures in the film world. There are rumors about another possible Buffy spin-off series, but as I type these words, nobody knows what such a series would be, who would be in it, or, most important, if there’s going to even be one in the first place. It’s also unknown as I type this whether or not the network is going to renew the original Buffy spin-off series, Angel, for another season-too bad if they don’t, Angel has been pretty good this year, better, in fact, than its parent series has been (Angel’s writing seeming to improve in quality as Buffy’s relentlessly declined). Again, it’s interesting to see how quickly these TV franchise empires can fall apart-at the beginning of the year, Whedon’s production company was at the top of the television food-chain, with three shows running at once; by the end of 2003, it’s possible that they’ll have none. (Although Buffy and Angel novels and other franchise products may continue on long after both shows are gone, too, in the same way that the Star Trek products might).

Charmed and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, similar if considerably more lightweight supernatural-themed shows, still seem to be pretty successful, Smallville remains a genuine smash, and The Dead Zone seems to be doing okay, but several new shows such as Birds of Prey and Haunted came and went almost before you could notice them, and The New Twilight Zone is a pale imitation even of the previous remake of the show, let alone the original series.

South Park and The Simpsons, if you consider them to be genre shows, are still around, but I no longer pay much attention to them. The more genre-specific Futurama is gone.

Taken was a big hit in the ratings, and covered very similar ground as Signs, but I don’t approve of shows that pander to and encourage the already too-prevalent UFO-abductee mania, and so I didn’t watch it. Dinotopia failed to find an audience, in spite of some very nice dinosaur effects. And The History Channel produced a very disappointing “history” of science fiction, one that ignored most of the real history of the form to concentrate instead on the history of sci-fi movies, and which left many hours of recorded interviews with actual SF writers on the cutting-room floor. (Let’s hope they do a better job with their other “historical” documentaries!)

Coming up next year, a new version of Mr. Ed, proving that the television execs are every bit as creative as the Hollywood moguls who brought us a remake of Lost in Space and who are in the process of bringing us a big-budget remake of Bewitched.

The 60th World Science Fiction Convention, ConJose, was held in San Jose, California, from August 30-September 3, 2002, and drew an estimated attendance of 5,500. The 2002 Hugo Awards, presented at ConJose, were: Best Novel, American Gods, by Neil Caiman; Best Novella, “Fast Times at Fairmont High,” by Vernor Vinge; Best Novelette, “Hell is the Absence of God,” by Ted Chiang; Best Short Story, “The Dog Said Bow-Wow,” by Michael Swanwick; Best Related Book, The Art of Chesley Bonestell, by Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III, with Melvin H. Schuetz; Best Professional Editor, Ellen Datlow; Best Professional Artist, Michael Whelan; Best Dramatic Presentation, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings; Best Semiprozine, Locus, edited by Charles N. Brown; Best Fanzine, Ansible, edited by David Langford; Best Fan Writer, David Langford; Best Fan Artist, Teddy Harvia; plus the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer to Jo Walton; and the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award to R. A. Lafferty.

The 2001 Nebula Awards, presented at a banquet at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 27, 2002, were: Best Novel, The Quantum Rose, by Catherine Asaro; Best Novella, “The Ultimate Earth,” by Jack Williamson; Best Novelette, “Louise’s Ghost,” by Kelly Link; Best Short Story, “The Cure for Everything,” by Severna Park; Best Script, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, by James Schamus, Kuo Jun Tsai, and Hui-Ling Wang; plus a special Lifetime Achievement Award to Betty Ballantine.

The World Fantasy Awards, presented at the Twenty-Eighth Annual World Fantasy Convention at the Hilton Towers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 3, 2002, were: Best Novel, The Other Wind, by Ursula K. Le Guin; Best Novella, “The Bird Catcher,” by S. P. Somtow; Best Short Fiction, “Queen for a Day,” Albert E. Cowdrey; Best Collection, Skin Folk, by Nalo Hopkinson; Best Anthology, The Museum of Horrors, edited by Dennis Etchison; Best Artist, Allen Koszowski; Special Award (Professional), to Stephen Jones and Jo Fletcher (tie); Special Award (Non-Professional), to Raymond Russell and Rosalie Parker; plus the Life Achievement Award to George Scithers and Forrest J. Ackerman.

The 2002 Bram Stoker Awards, presented by the Horror Writers of America during a banquet in Chicago, Illinois, on June 8, 2002, were: Best Novel, American Gods, by Neil Caiman; Best First Novel, Deadliest of the Species, Michael Oliveri; Best Collection, The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists, by Norman Partridge; Best Long Fiction, “In These Final Days of Sales,” by Steve Rasnic Tern; Best Short Story, “Reconstructing Amy,” Tim Lebbon; Nonfiction, Jobs in Hell, edited by Brian Keene; Best Anthology, Extremes 2: Fantasy and Horror from the Ends of the Earth, edited by Brian A. Hopkins; Best Screenplay, Memento, by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; Best Work for Young Readers, The Willow Files 2, by Yvonne Navarro; Poetry Collection, Consumed, Reduced to Beautiful Gray Ashes, by Linda Addison; Best Alternative Forms, Dark Dreaming: Facing the Masters of Fear, by Beth Gwinn and Stanley Winter; plus the Lifetime Achievement Award to John Farris.

The 2001 John W. Campbell Memorial Award was won by Terraforming Earth, by Jack Williamson and The Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson (tie).

The 2001 Theodore Sturgeon Award for Best Short Story was won by “The Chief Designer,” by Andy Duncan.

The 2001 Philip K. Dick Memorial Award went to Ship of Fools, by Richard Paul Russo.

The 2001 Arthur C. Clarke award was won by Bold as Love, by Gwyneth Jones.

The 2001 James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award was won by The Kappa Child, by Hiromi Goto.

Death struck the SF field heavily once again this year. Dead in 2002 or early 2003 were: DAMON KNIGHT, 79, author, editor, critic, anthologist, one of the most influential figures in the history of modern science fiction, editor of the long-running ORBIT anthology series, one of the founders of the Science Fiction Writers of America, author of dozens of classic SF stories such as “The Country of the Kind,” “Stranger Station,” “Dio,” “The Earth Quarter,” “Rule Golden,” “Mary,” and “To Serve Man,” as well as many novels such as The Man in the Tree, Why Do Birds?, and Humptey Dumptey: An Oval, a mentor and a friend to me ever since I entered this field, and an inspiration to generations of new writers; R. A. LAFFERTY, 87, eclectic and utterly individual writer, author of some of the freshest and funniest short stories ever written, such as “Narrow Valley,” “Thus We Frustrate Charlemange,” “Slow Tuesday Night,” “Hog-Belly Honey,” “The Hole on the Corner,” and many others, as well as quirky and challenging novels such as The Reefs of Earth, Past Master, Okla Hannali, The Fall of Rome, and The Devil is Dead, posthumous winner of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award; CHARLES SHEFFIELD, 67, scientist and Hugo-winning writer, author of The Web Between the Worlds, My Brother’s Keeper, Summertide, Transcendence, Cold as Ice, The Mind Pool, and many others, as well as much first-rate short fiction in both the SF and mystery fields, a personal friend; GEORGE ALEC EFFINGER, 55, critically acclaimed and Hugo-winning author of When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, The Exile Kiss, What Entropy Means to Me, The Nick of Time, The Wolves of Memory, and others, as well as dozens of short stories such as “Two Sadnesses,” “Schrodinger’s Kitten,” “Put Your Hands Together,” “Afternoon Under Glass,” “Everything but Honor,” “Naked to the Invisible Eye,” and many others, a personal friend for more than thirty years; JOHN MIDDLETON MURRY, Jr., 75, British writer who, as RICHARD COWPER, wrote such acclaimed SF novels as The Road to Corlay, A Dream of Kinship, A Tapestry of Time, and The Twilight of Briareus, and short fiction such as “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” “The Custodians,” and “Out There Where the Big Ships Go”; ROBERT L. FORWARD, 70, scientist and writer, author of Dragon’s Egg, Starquake, The Flight of the Dragonfly, and other novels; LLOYD BIGGLE, Jr., 79, writer and musicologist, author of All the Colors of Darkness, The World Menders, The Angry Espers, The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets, and other novels and stories; CHERRY WILDER, 71, New Zealand-born author of The Luck of Brins Five, Second Nature, The Summer’s King, and other novels, as well as a large amount of eloquent short fiction; LAWRENCE M. JENIFER, 69, SF author whose work appeared in Astounding/Analog over the course of several decades, author of the popular “Knave” series, and of novels including Survivor, Knave in Hand, Knave in the Game, and others; HENRY SLEZAR, 74, SF and mystery writer, and prolific writer of television screenplays; JERRY SOHL, 88, SF novelist and television scriptwriter, author of Costigan’s Needle and Point Ultimate; JOHN R. PIERCE, 92, author, electrical engineer, and acoustics expert; KATHLEEN M. MASSIE-FERCH, 47, author, editor, anthologist, and scientist; MARY SCOTT, 54, British author; THOMAS E. FULLER, 54, SF writer and dramatist; DAVE VAN ARNAM, SF writer and fan; STEPHEN JAY GOULD, 60, biologist and evolutionary theorist whose controversial theory of “punctured evolution” inspired many SF writers, as well as one of the most popular “science popularizers” since Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, and whose long-running columns in Natural History magazine were collected into many books such as The Panda’s Thumb; VIRGINIA KIDD, 81, one of the last of the Futurians, writer, anthologist, and for more than forty years one of the leading literary agents in science fiction, a longtime friend and colleague; LESLIE FIEDLER, 85, respected literary critic who occasionally slummed in the SF world, author of a biography of Olaf Stapledon and of the “historical-critical” anthology of science fiction, In Dreams Awake; RON WALOTSKY, 58, one of the leading SF cover artists and illustrators, whose work was recently collected in Inner Visions: The Art of Ron Walotsky, a friend; CHUCK JONES, 89, the mastermind behind decades of “Looney Tunes” cartoons, including the Roadrunner series, and also of the-far superior to the later live-action remake-original animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas; BILL PEET, 87, artist, children’s book author, and part of the animation team that created many of the most classic Disney animated features; RICHARD HARRIS, 72, actor probably best known to the genre audience for his role as Professor Dumbledore in the two “Harry Potter” movies; ROD STEIGER, 77, actor, probably best known to genre audiences for his role in the film version of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man; JONATHAN HARRIS, 87, actor, probably best known to the genre audience for his role as the villainous but loveable Dr. Smith in the old television series Lost in Space; DONALD FRANSON, 85, writer and fan, coeditor (with Howard DeVore) of the invaluable reference source, A History of the Hugo, Nebula, and International Fantasy Award; BETSY CURTIS, 84, writer, fan, costumer; JON GUSTAFSON, 56, writer, editor, illustrator, longtime fan; WYNNE WHITEFORD, 87, Australian SF author and fan; WILLIAM SARJEANT, 66, author, geologist, and paleontologist; BRUCE PELZ, 65, longtime fan and convention organizer, chairman of the 1972 Worldcon; HARRY NADLER, 61, longtime British fan and film enthusiast; VIRGINIA HEINLEIN, 86, widow of SF writer Robert A. Heinlein, and the model for many of the female characters in his books; JOAN HARRISON, 72, wife of SF author Harry Harrison; JOAN BENFORD, 62, wife of SF writer Gregory Benford; DR. CHARLES NORTH, 62, partner of SF writer Liz Williams; DREW CHRISTIAN STAFANSON, 39, partner of SF writer M. Shayne Bell; MARY GUNN, 81, mother of SF writer and editor Eileen Gunn; and DEE L. FROST, 81, father of SF writer Gregory Frost.

Breathmoss - IAN R. MACLEOD

Breathmoss - IAN R. MACLEOD

British writer Ian R. MacLeod was one of the hottest new writers of the nineties, and, as we travel into the new century ahead, his work continues to grow in power and deepen in maturity. MacLeod has published a slew of strong stories in Interzone, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Amazing, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, among other markets. Several of these stories made the cut for one or another of the various “Best of the Year” anthologies; in 1990, in fact, he appeared in three different Best of the Year anthologies with three different stories, certainly a rare distinction. His stories have appeared in our Eighth through Thirteenth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Nineteenth Annual Collections. His first novel, The Great Wheel, was published to critical acclaim in 1997, followed by a major collection of his short work, Voyages by Starlight. In 1999, he won the World Fantasy Award with his brilliant novella “The Summer Isles,” and followed it up in 2000 by winning another World Fantasy Award for his novelette “The Chop Girl.” His most recent book is a major new novel, The Light Ages. MacLeod lives with his wife and young daughter in the West Midlands of England, and is at work on several new novels.

Here he takes us across the galaxy and thousands of years into the far-future, for the intimate story of a child growing into a woman that is also a generation-spanning epic tale of love, loss, tragedy, and redemption, played out against the backdrop of a world as vivid, rich, layered, evocative, and luminously strange as any the genre has seen since Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.

1.

In her twelfth standard year, which on Habara was the Season of Soft Rains, Jalila moved across the mountains with her mothers from the high plains of Tabuthal to the coast. For all of them, the journey down was one of unhurried discovery, with the kamasheens long gone and the world freshly moist, and the hayawans rusting as they rode them, the huge flat plates of their feet swishing through purplish-green undergrowth. She saw the cliffs and qasrs she’d only visited from her dreamtent, and sailed across the high ridges on ropewalks her distant ancestors had built, which had seemed frail and antique to her in her worried imaginings, but were in fact strong and subtle; huge dripping gantries heaving from the mist like wise giants, softly humming, and welcoming her and her hayawan, whom she called Robin, in cocoons of effortless embrace. Swaying over the drop beyond into grey-green nothing was almost like flying.

The strangest thing of all in this journey of discoveries was that the landscape actually seemed to rise higher as they descended and encamped and descended again; the sense of up increased, rather than that of down. The air on the high plains of Tabuthal was rarefied-Jalila knew that from her lessons in her dreamtent; they were so close to the stars that Pavo had had to clap a mask over her face from the moment of her birth until the breathmoss was embedded in her lungs. And it had been clear up there, it was always clear, and it was pleasantly cold. The sun shone all day hard and cold and white from the blue blackness, as did a billion stars at night, although Jalila had never thought of those things as she ran amid the crystal trees and her mothers smiled at her and occasionally warned her that, one day, all of this would have to change.

And now that day was upon her, and this landscape-as Robin, her, hayawan, rounded the path through an urrearth forest of alien-looking trees with wrinkled brown trunks and soft green leaves, and the land fell away, and she caught her first glimpse of something far and flat on the horizon-had never seemed so high.

Down on the coast, the mountains reared behind them and around a bay. There were many people here-not the vast numbers, perhaps, of Jalila’s dreamtent stories of the Ten Thousand and One Worlds, but so many that she was sure, as she first walked the streets of a town where the buildings huddled in ridiculous proximity, and tried not to stare at all the faces, that she would never know all their families.

Because of its position at the edge of the mountains, the town was called Al Janb, and, to Jalila’s relief, their new haramlek was some distance away from it, up along a near-unnoticeable dirt track that meandered off from the blue-black serraplated coastal road. There was much to be done there by way of repair, after the long season that her bondmother Lya had left the place deserted. The walls were fused stone, but the structure of the roof had been mostly made from the stuff of the same strange urrearth trees that grew up the mountains, and in many places it had sagged and leaked and grown back toward the chaos that seemed to want to encompass everything here. The hayawans, too, needed much attention in their makeshift stables as they adapted to this new climate, and mother Pavo was long employed constructing the necessary potions to mend the bleeding bonds of rusty metal and flesh, and then to counteract the mold that grew like slow tears across their long, solemn faces. Jalila would normally have been in anguish to think of the sufferings that this new climate was visiting on Robin, but she was too busy feeling ill herself to care. Ridiculously, seeing as there was so much more oxygen to breathe in this rich coastal air, every lungful became a conscious effort, a dreadful physical lunge. Inhaling the damp, salty, spore-laden atmosphere was like sucking soup through a straw. She grew feverish for a while, and suffered the attentions of similar molds to those that were growing over Robin, yet in even more irritating and embarrassing places. More irritating still was the fact that Ananke her birthmother and Lya her bondmother-even Pavo, who was still busily attending to the hayawans-treated her discomforts and fevers with airy disregard. They had, they all assured her vaguely, suffered similarly in their own youths. And the weather would soon change in any case. To Jalila, who had spent all her life in the cool unvarying glare of Tabuthal, where the wind only ever blew from one direction and the trees jingled like ice, that last statement might as well have been spoken in another language.

If anything, Jalila was sure that she was getting worse. The rain drummed on what there was of the roof of their haramlek, and dripped down and pooled in the makeshift awnings, which burst in bucketloads down your neck if you bumped into them, and the mist drifted in from every direction through the paneless windows, and the mountains, most of the time, seemed to consist of cloud, or to have vanished entirely. She was coughing. Strange stuff was coming out on her hands, slippery and green as the slime that tried to grow everywhere here. One morning, she awoke, sure that part of her was bursting, and stumbled from her dreamtent and out through the scaffolding that had by then surrounded the haramlek, then barefoot down the mud track and across the quiet black road and down onto the beach, for no other reason than that she needed to escape.

She stood gasping amid the rockpools, her hair lank and her skin feverishly itching. There was something at the back of her throat. There was something in her lungs. She was sure that it had taken root and was growing. Then she started coughing as she had never coughed before, and more of the greenstuff came splattering over her hands and down her chin. She doubled over. Huge lumps of it came showering out, strung with blood. If it hadn’t been mostly green, she’d have been sure that it was her lungs. She’d never imagined anything so agonizing. Finally, though, in heaves and starts and false dawns, the process dwindled. She wiped her hands on her nightdress. The rocks all around her were splattered green. It was breathmoss; the stuff that had sustained her on the high plains. And now look at it! Jalila took a slow, cautious breath. And then another. Her throat ached. Her head was throbbing. But still, the process was suddenly almost ridiculously easy. She picked her way back across the beach, up through the mists to her haramlek. Her mothers were eating breakfast. Jalila sat down with them, wordlessly, and started to eat.

That night, Ananke came and sat with Jalila as she lay in her dreamtent in plain darkness and tried not to listen to the sounds of the rain falling on and through the creaking, dripping building. Even now, her birthmother’s hands smelled and felt like the high desert as they touched her face. Rough and clean and warm, like rocks in starlight, giving off their heat. A few months before, Jalila would probably have started crying.

“You’ll understand now, perhaps, why we thought it better not to tell you about the breathmoss…?”

There was a question mark at the end of the sentence, but Jalila ignored it. They’d known all along! She was still angry.

“And there are other things, too, which will soon start to happen to your body. Things that are nothing to do with this place. And I shall now tell you about them all, even though you’ll say you knew it before…”

The smooth, rough fingers stroked her hair. As Ananke’s words unraveled, telling Jalila of changings and swellings and growths she’d never thought would really apply to her, and which these fetid lowlands really seemed to have brought closer, Jalila thought of the sound of the wind, tinkling through the crystal trees up on Tabuthal. She thought of the dry cold wind in her face. The wet air here seemed to enclose her. She wished that she was running. She wanted to escape.

Small though Al Janb was, it was as big a town as Jalila had ever seen, and she soon came to volunteer to run all the various errands that her mothers required as they restored and repaired their haramlek. She was used to wide expanses, big horizons, the surprises of a giant landscape that crept upon you slowly, visible for miles. Yet here, every turn brought abrupt surprise and sudden change. The people had such varied faces and accents. They hung their washing across the streets, and bickered and smoked in public. Some ate with both hands. They stared at you as you went past, and didn’t seem to mind if you stared back at them. There were unfamiliar sights and smells, markets that erupted on particular days to the workings of no calendar Jalila yet understood, and which sold, in glittering, shining, stinking, disgusting, fascinating arrays, the strangest and most wonderful things. There were fruits from off-planet, spices shaped like insects, and insects that you crushed for their spice. There were swarming vats of things Jalila couldn’t possibly imagine any use for, and bright silks woven thin as starlit wind that she longed for with an acute physical thirst. And there were aliens, too, to be glimpsed sometimes wandering the streets of Al Janb, or looking down at you from its overhung top windows like odd pictures in old frames. Some of them carried their own atmosphere around with them in bubbling hookahs, and some rolled around in huge grey bits of the sea of their own planets, like babies in a birthsac. Some of them looked like huge versions of the spice insects, and the air around them buzzed angrily if you got too close. The only thing they had in common was that they seemed blithely unaware of Jalila as she stared and followed them, and then returned inexcusably late from whatever errand she’d supposedly been sent on. Sometimes, she forgot her errands entirely.

“You must learn to get used to things…” Lya her bondmother said to her with genuine irritation late one afternoon, when she’d come back without the tool she’d been sent to get early that morning, or even any recollection of its name or function. “This or any other world will never be a home to you if you let every single thing surprise you…” But Jalila didn’t mind the surprises; in fact, she was coming to enjoy them, and the next time the need arose to visit Al Janb to buy a new growth-crystal for the scaffolding, she begged to be allowed to go, and her mothers finally relented, although with many a warning shake of the head.

The rain had stopped at last, or at least held back for a whole day, although everything still looked green and wet to Jalila as she walked along the coastal road toward the ragged tumble of Al Janb. She understood, at least in theory, that the rain would probably return, and then relent, and then come back again, but in a decreasing pattern, much as the heat was gradually increasing, although it still seemed ridiculous to her that no one could ever predict exactly how, or when, Habara’s proper Season of Summers would arrive. Those boats she could see now, those fisherwomen out on their feluccas beyond the white bands of breaking waves, their whole lives were dictated by these uncertainties, and the habits of the shoals of whiteback that came and went on the oceans, and which could also only be guessed at in this same approximate way. The world down here on the coast was so unpredictable compared with Tabuthal! The markets, the people, the washing, the sun, the rain, the aliens. Even Hayam and Walah, Habara’s moons, which Jalila was long used to watching, had to drag themselves through cloud like cannonballs through cotton as they pushed and pulled at this ocean. Yet today, as she clambered over the groynes of the long shingle beach that she took as a shortcut to the center of the town when the various tides were out, she saw a particular sight that surprised her more than any other.

There was a boat, hauled far up from the water, longer and blacker and heavier-looking than the feluccas, with a sort-of ramshackle house at the prow, and a winch at the stern that was so massive that Jalila wondered if it wouldn’t tip the craft over if it ever actually entered the water. But, for all that, it wasn’t the boat that first caught her eye, but the figure who was working on it. Even from a distance, as she struggled to heave some ropes, there was something different about her, and the way she was moving. Another alien? But she was plainly human. And barefoot, in ragged shorts, and bare-breasted. In fact, almost as flat-chested as Jalila still was, and probably of about her age and height. Jalila still wasn’t used to introducing herself to strangers, but she decided that she could at least go over, and pretend an interest in-or an ignorance of-this odd boat.

The figure dropped another loop of rope over the gunwales with a grunt that carried on the smelly sea breeze. She was brown as tea, with her massy hair hooped back and hanging in a long tail down her back. She was broad-shouldered, and moved in that way that didn’t quite seem wrong, but didn’t seem entirely right either. As if, somewhere across her back, there was an extra joint. When she glanced up at the clatter of shingle as Jalila jumped the last groyne, Jalila got a proper full sight of her face, and saw that she was big-nosed, big-chinned, and that her features were oddly broad and flat. A child sculpting a person out of clay might have done better.

“Have you come to help me?”

Jalila shrugged. “I might have done.”

“That’s a funny accent you’ve got.”

They were standing facing each other. She had grey eyes, which looked odd as well. Perhaps she was an off-worlder. That might explain it. Jalila had heard that there were people who had things done to themselves so they could live in different places. She supposed the breathmoss was like that, although she’d never thought of it that way. And she couldn’t quite imagine why it would be a requirement for living on any world that you looked this ugly.

“Everyone talks oddly here,” she replied. “But then your accent’s funny as well.”

“I’m Kalal. And that’s just my voice. It’s not an accent.” Kalal looked down at her oily hands, perhaps thought about wiping one and offering it to shake, then decided not to bother.

“Oh…?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” That gruff voice. The odd way her features twisted when she smiled.

“What is there to get? You’re just-”

“-I’m a man.” Kalal picked up a coil of rope from the shingle, and nodded to another beside it. “Well? Are you going to help me with this, or aren’t you?”

The rains came again, this time starting as a thing called drizzle, then working up the scale to torrent. The tides washed especially high. There were storms, and white crackles of lightening, and the boom of a wind that was so unlike the kamasheen. Jalila’s mothers told her to be patient, to wait, and to remember- please remember this time, so you don’t waste the day for us all, Jalilaneen-the things that they sent her down the serraplate road to get from Al Janb. She trudged under an umbrella, another new and useless coastal object, which turned itself inside out so many times that she ended up throwing it into the sea, where it floated off quite happily, as if that was the element for which it was intended in the first place. Almost all of the feluccas were drawn up on the far side of the roadway, safe from the madly bashing waves, but there was no sign of that bigger craft belonging to Kalal. Perhaps he-the antique genderative word was he, wasn’t it?-was out there, where the clouds rumbled like boulders. Perhaps she’d imagined their whole encounter entirely.

Arriving back home at the haramlek surprisingly quickly, and carrying for once the things she’d been ordered to get, Jalila dried herself off and buried herself in her dreamtent, trying to find out from it all that she could about these creatures called men. Like so many things about life at this awkward, interesting, difficult time, men were something Jalila would have insisted she definitely already knew about a few months before up on Tabuthal. Now, she wasn’t so sure. Kalal, despite his ugliness and his funny rough-squeaky voice and his slightly odd smell, looked little like the hairy-faced werewolf figures of her childhood stories, and seemed to have no particular need to shout or fight, to carry her off to his rancid cave, or to start collecting odd and pointless things that he would then try to give her. There had once, Jalila’s dreamtent told her, for obscure biological reasons she didn’t quite follow, been far more men in the universe; almost as many as there had been women. Obviously, they had dwindled. She then checked on the word rape, to make sure it really was the thing she’d imagined, shuddered, but nevertheless investigated in full holographic detail the bits of himself that Kalal had kept hidden beneath his shorts as she’d helped stow those ropes. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. It was all so pointless and ugly. Had his birth been an accident? A curse? She began to grow sleepy. The subject was starting to bore her. The last thing she remembered learning was that Kalal wasn’t a proper man at all, but a boy -a half-formed thing; the equivalent to girl-another old urrearth word. Then sleep drifted over her, and she was back with the starlight and the crystal trees of Tabuthal, and wondering as she danced with her own reflection which of them was changing.

By next morning, the sun was shining as if she would never stop. As Jalila stepped out onto the newly formed patio, she gave the blazing light the same sort of an appraising what-are-you-up-to-now glare that her mothers gave her when she returned from Al Janb. The sun had done this trick before of seeming permanent, then vanishing by lunchtime into sodden murk, but today her brilliance continued. As it did the day after. And the day after that. Half a month later, even Jalila was convinced that the Season of Summers on Habara had finally arrived.

The flowers went mad, as did the insects. There were colors everywhere, pulsing before your eyes, swarming down the cliffs toward the sea, which lay flat and placid and salt-rimed, like a huge animal, basking. It remained mostly cool in Jalila’s dreamtent, and the haramlek by now was a place of tall malqaf windtowers and flashing fans and well-like depths, but stepping outside beyond the striped shade of the mashrabiyas at midday felt like being hit repeatedly across the head with a hot iron pan. The horizons had drawn back; the mountains, after a few last rumbles of thunder and mist, as if they were clearing their throats, had finally announced themselves to the coastline in all their majesty, and climbed up and up in huge stretches of forest into stone limbs that rose and tangled until your eyes grew tired of rising. Above them, finally, was the sky, which was always blue in this season; the blue color of flame. Even at midnight, you caught the flash and swirl of flame.

Jalila learned to follow the advice of her mothers, and to change her daily habits to suit the imperious demands of this incredible, fussy, and demanding weather. If you woke early, and then drank lots of water, and bowed twice in the direction of Al’Toman while she was still a pinprick in the west, you could catch the day by surprise, when dew lay on the stones and pillars, and the air felt soft and silky as the arms of the ghostly women who sometimes visited Jalila’s nights. Then there was breakfast, and the time of work, and the time of study, and Ananke and Pavo would quiz Jalila to ensure that she was following the prescribed Orders of Knowledge. By midday, though, the shadows had drawn back and every trace of moisture had evaporated, and your head swarmed with flies. You sought your own company, and didn’t even want that, and wished, as you tossed and sweated in your dreamtent, for frost and darkness. Once or twice, just to prove to herself that it could be done, Jalila had tried walking to Al Janb at this time, although of course everything was shut and the whole place wobbled and stank in the heat like rancid jelly. She returned to the haramlek gritty and sweaty, almost crawling, and with a pounding ache in her head.

By evening, when the proper order of the world had righted itself, and Al’Toman would have hung in the east if the mountains hadn’t swallowed her, and the heat, which never vanished, had assumed a smoother, more manageable quality, Jalila’s mothers were once again hungry for company, and for food and for argument. These evenings, perhaps, were the best of all the times that Jalila could remember of her early life on the coast of Habara’s single great ocean, at that stage in her development from child to adult when the only thing of permanence seemed to be the existence of endless, fascinating change. How they argued! Lya, her bondmother, and the oldest of her parents, who wore her grey hair loose as cobwebs with the pride of her age, and waved her arms as she talked and drank, wreathed in endless curls of smoke. Little Pavo, her face smooth as a carved nutmeg, with her small, precise hands, and who knew so much but rarely said anything with insistence. And Jalila’s birthmother Ananke, for whom, of her three mothers, Jalila had always felt the deepest, simplest love, who would always touch you before she said anything, and then fix you with her sad and lovely eyes, as if touching and seeing were far more important than any words. Jalila was older now. She joined in with the arguments-of course, she had always joined in, but she cringed to think of the stumbling inanities to which her mothers had previously had to listen, while, now, at last, she had real, proper things to say about life, whole new philosophies that no one else on the Ten Thousand Worlds and One had ever thought of… Most of the time, her mothers listened. Sometimes, they even acted as if they were persuaded by their daughter’s wisdom.

Frequently, there were visitors to these evening gatherings. Up on Tabuthal, visitors had been rare animals, to be fussed over and cherished and only reluctantly released for their onward journey across the black dazzling plains. Down here, where people were nearly as common as stones on the beach, a more relaxed attitude reigned. Sometimes, there were formal invitations that Lya would issue to someone who was this or that in the town, or more often Pavo would come back with a person she had happened to meet as she poked around for lifeforms on the beach, or Ananke would softly suggest a neighbor (another new word and concept to Jalila) might like to pop in (ditto). But Al Janb was still a small town, and the dignitaries generally weren’t that dignified, and Pavo’s beach wanderers were often shy and slight as she was, while neighbor was frequently a synonym for boring. Still, Jalila came to enjoy most kinds of company, if only so that she could hold forth yet more devastatingly on whatever universal theory of life she was currently developing.

The flutter of lanterns and hands. The slow breath of the sea. Jalila ate stuffed breads and foul and picked at the mountains of fruit and sucked lemons and sweet blue rutta and waved her fingers. The heavy night insects, glowing with the pollen they had collected, came bumbling toward the lanterns or would alight in their hands. Sometimes, afterward, they walked the shore, and Pavo would show them strange creatures with blurring mouths like wheels, or point to the vast, distant beds of the tideflowers that rose at night to the changes of the tide; silver, crimson, or glowing, their fronds waving through the dark like the beckoning palm trees of islands from storybook seas.

One guestless night, when they were walking north away from the lights of the town, and Pavo was filling a silver bag for an aquarium she was ostensibly making for Jalila, but in reality for herself, the horizon suddenly cracked and rumbled. Instinctively by now, Jalila glanced overhead, expecting clouds to be covering the coastal haze of stars. But the air was still and clear; the hot dark edge of that blue flame. Across the sea, the rumble and crackle was continuing, accompanied by a glowing pillar of smoke that slowly tottered over the horizon. The night pulsed and flickered. There was a breath of impossibly hot salt air. The pillar, a wobbly finger with a flame-tipped nail, continued climbing skyward. A few geelies rose and fell, clacking and cawing, on the far rocks; black shapes in the darkness.

“It’s the start of the Season of Rockets,” Lya said. “I wonder who’ll be coming…?”

2.

By now, Jalila had acquired many of her own acquaintances and friends. Young people were relatively scarce amid the long-lived human Habarans, and those who dwelt around Al Janb were continually drawn together and then repulsed from each other like spinning magnets. The elderly mahwagis, who had outlived the need for wives and the company of a haramlek and lived alone, were often more fun, and more reliably eccentric. It was a relief to visit their houses and escape the pettinesses and sexual jealousies that were starting to infect the other girls near to Jalila’s own age. She regarded Kalal similarly-as an escape-and she relished helping him with his boat, and enjoyed their journeys out across the bay, where the wind finally tipped almost cool over the edge of the mountains and lapped the sweat from their faces.

Kalal took Jalila out to see the rocketport one still, hot afternoon. It lay just over the horizon, and was the longest journey they had undertaken. The sails filled with the wind, and the ocean grew almost black, yet somehow transparent, as they hurried over it. Looking down, Jalila believed that she could glimpse the white sliding shapes of the great sea-leviathans who had once dwelt, if local legend was to be believed, in the ruined rock palaces of the qasrs, which she had passed on her journey down from Tabuthal. Growing tired of sunlight, they had swarmed back to the sea that had birthed them, throwing away their jewels and riches, which bubbled below the surface, then rose again under Habara’s twin moons to become the beds of tideflowers. She had gotten that part of the story from Kalal. Unlike most people who lived on the coast, Kalal was interested in Jalila’s life in the starry darkness of Tabuthal, and repaid her with his own tales of the ocean.

The boat ploughed on, rising, frothing. Blissfully, it was almost cold. Just how far out at sea was this rocketport? Jalila had watched some of the arrivals and departures from the quays at Al Janb, but those journeys took place in sleek sailless craft with silver doors that looked, as they turned out from the harbor and rose out on stilts from the water, as if they could travel half-way up to the stars on their own. Kalal was squatting at the prow, beyond that ramshackle hut that Jalila now knew contained the pheromones and grapplers that were needed to ensnare the tideflowers that this craft had been built to harvest. The boat bore no name on the prow, yet Kalal had many names for it, which he would occasionally mention without explaining. If there was one thing that was different about Kalal. Jalila had decided, it was this absence of proper talk or explanation. It put many people off, but she had found that most things became apparent if you just hung around him and didn’t ask direct questions.

People generally pitied Kalal, or stared at him as Jalila still stared at the aliens, or asked him questions that he wouldn’t answer with anything other than a shrug. Now that she knew him better, Jalila was starting to understand just how much he hated such treatment-almost as much, in fact, as he hated being thought of as ordinary. I am a man, you know, he’d still remark sometimes-whenever he felt that Jalila was forgetting. Jalila had never yet risked pointing out that he was in fact a boy. Kalal could be prickly and sensitive if you treated him as if things didn’t matter. It was hard to tell, really, just how much of how he acted was due to his odd sexual identity, and how much was his personality.

To add to his freakishness, Kalal lived alone with another male-in fact, the only other male in Al Janb-at the far end of the shore cottages, in a birthing relationship that made Kalal term him his father. His name was Ibra, and he looked much more like the males of Jalila’s dreamtent stories. He was taller than almost anyone, and wore a black beard and long colorful robes or strode about bare-chested, and always talked in a thunderously deep voice, as if he were addressing a crowd through a megaphone. Ibra laughed a lot and flashed his teeth through that hairy mask, and clapped people on the back when he asked them how they were, and then stood away and seemed to lose interest before they had answered. He whistled and sang loudly and waved to passers-by while he worked at repairing the feluccas for his living. Ibra had come to this planet when Kalal was a baby, under circumstances that remained perennially vague. He treated Jalila with the same loud and grinning friendship with which he treated everyone, and which seemed like a wall. He was at least as alien as the tube-like creatures who had arrived from the stars with this new Season of Rockets, which had had one of the larger buildings in Al Janb encased in transparent plastics and flooded in a freezing grey goo so they could live in it. Ibra had come around to their haramlek once, on the strength of one of Ananke’s pop in evening invitations. Jalila, who was then nurturing the idea that no intelligence could exist without the desire to acknowledge some higher deity, found her propositions and examples drowned out in a flurry of counter-questions and assertions and odd bits of information that she half-suspected that Ibra, as he drank surprising amounts of virtually undiluted zibib and freckled aniseed spit at her, was making up on the spot. Afterward, as they walked the shore, he drew her apart and laid a heavy hand on her shoulder and confided in his rambling growl how much he’d enjoyed fencing with her. Jalila knew what fencing was, but she didn’t see what it had to do with talking. She wasn’t even sure if she liked Ibra. She certainly didn’t pretend to understand him.

The sails thrummed and crackled as they headed toward the spaceport. Kalal was absorbed, staring ahead from the prow, the water splashing reflections across his lithe brown body. Jalila had almost grown used to the way he looked. After all, they were both slightly freakish: she, because she came from the mountains; he, because of his sex. And they both liked their own company, and could accept each other into it without distraction during these long periods of silence. One never asked the other what they were thinking. Neither really cared, and they cherished that privacy.

“Look-” Kalal scuttled to the rudder. Jalila hauled back the jib. In wind-crackling silence, they and their nameless and many-named boat tacked toward the spaceport.

The spaceport was almost like the mountains: when you were close up, it was too big to be seen properly. Yet, for all its size, the place was a disappointment; empty and messy, like a huge version of the docks of Al Janb, similarly reeking of oil and refuse, and essentially serving a similar function. The spaceships themselves-if indeed the vast cistern-like objects they saw forever in the distance as they furled the sails and rowed along the maze of oily canals were spaceships-were only a small part of this huge floating complex of islands. Much more of it was taken up by looming berths for the tugs and tankers that placidly chugged from icy pole to equator across the watery expanses of Habara, taking or delivering the supplies that the settlements deemed necessary for civilized life, or collecting the returning fallen bulk cargoes. The tankers were rust-streaked beasts, so huge that they hardly seemed to grow as you approached them, humming and eerily deserted, yet devoid of any apparent intelligence of their own. They didn’t glimpse a single alien at the spaceport. They didn’t even see a human being.

The journey there, Jalila decided as they finally got the sails up again, had been far more enjoyable and exciting than actually arriving. Heading back toward the sun-pink coastal mountains, which almost felt like home to her now, she was filled with an odd longing that only diminished when she began to make out the lighted dusky buildings of Al Janb. Was this homesickness, she wondered? Or something else?

This was the time of Habara’s long summer. This was the Season of Rockets. When she mentioned their trip, Jalila was severely warned by Pavo of the consequences of approaching the spaceport during periods of possible launch, but it went no further than that. Each night now, and deep into the morning, the rockets rumbled at the horizon and climbed upward on those grumpy pillars, bringing to the shore a faint whiff of sulphur and roses, adding to the thunderous heat. And outside at night, if you looked up, you could sometimes see the blazing comet-trails of the returning capsules, which would crash somewhere in the distant seas.

The beds of tideflowers were growing bigger as well. If you climbed up the sides of the mountains before the morning heat flattened everything, you could look down on those huge, brilliant, and ever-changing carpets, where every pattern and swirl seemed gorgeous and unique. At night, in her dreamtent, Jalila sometimes imagined that she was floating up on them, just as in the oldest of the old stories. She was sailing over a different landscape on a magic carpet, with the cool night desert rising and falling beneath her like a soft sea. She saw distant palaces, and clusters of palms around small and tranquil lakes that flashed the silver of a single moon. And then yet more of this infinite Sahara, airy and frosty, flowed through curves and undulations, and grew vast and pinkish in her dreams. Those curves, as she flew over them and began to touch herself, resolved into thighs and breasts. The winds stirring the peaks of the dunes resolved in shuddering breaths.

This was the time of Habara’s long summer. This was the Season of Rockets.

Robin, Jalila’s hayawan, had by now, under Pavo’s attentions, fully recovered from the change to her environment. The rust had gone from her flanks, the melds with her thinly grey-furred flesh were bloodless and neat. She looked thinner and lighter. She even smelled different. Like the other hayawans, Robin was frisky and bright and brown-eyed now, and didn’t seem to mind the heat, or even Jalila’s forgetful neglect of her. Down on the coast, hayawans were regarded as expensive, uncomfortable, and unreliable, and Jalila and her mothers took a pride in riding across the beach into Al Janb on their huge, flat-footed, and loping mounts, enjoying the stares and the whispers, and the whispering space that opened around them as they hobbled the hayawans in a square. Kalal, typically, was one of the few coastal people who expressed an interest in trying to ride one of them, and Jalila was glad to teach him, showing him the clicks and calls and nudges, the way you took the undulations of the creature’s back as you might the ups and downs of the sea, and when not to walk around their front and rear ends. After her experiences on his boat, the initial rope burns, the cracks on the head and the heaving sickness, she enjoyed the reversal of situations.

There was a Tabuthal saying about falling off a hayawan ninety-nine times before you learnt to ride, which Kalal disproved by falling off far into triple figures. Jalila chose Lya’s mount Abu for him to ride, because she was the biggest, the most intelligent, and generally the most placid of the beasts unless she felt that something was threatening her, and because Lya, more conscious of looks and protocol down here than the other mothers, rarely rode her. Domestic animals, Jalila had noticed, often took oddly to Kalal when they first saw and scented him, but he had learned the ways of getting around them, and developed a bond and understanding with Abu even while she was still trying to bite his legs. Jalila had made a good choice of riding partners. Both of them, hayawan and human, while proud and aloof, were essentially playful, and never shirked a challenge. While all hayawans had been female throughout all recorded history, Jalila wondered if there wasn’t a little of the male still embedded in Abu’s imperious downward glance.

Now that summer was here, and the afternoons had vanished into the sun’s blank blaze, the best time to go riding was the early morning. North, beyond Al Janb, there were shores and there were saltbeds and there were meadows, there were fences to be leapt, and barking feral dogs as male as Kalal to be taunted, but south, there were rocks and forests, there were tracks that led nowhere, and there were headlands and cliffs that you saw once and could never find again. South, mostly, was the way that they rode.

“What happens if we keep riding?”

They were taking their breath on a flatrock shore where a stream, from which they had all drunk, shone in pools on its way to the ocean. The hayawans had squatted down now in the shadows of the cliff and were nodding sleepily, one nictitating membrane after another slipping over their eyes. As soon as they had gotten here and dismounted, Kalal had walked straight down, arms outstretched, into the tideflower-bobbing ocean. Jalila had followed, whooping, feeling tendrils and petals bumping into her. It was like walking through floral soup. Kalal had sunk to his shoulders and started swimming, which was something Jalila still couldn’t quite manage. He splashed around her, taunting, sending up sheets of colored light. They’d stripped from their clothes as they clambered out, and laid them on the hot rocks, where they now steamed like fresh bread.

“This whole continent’s like a huge island,” Jalila said in delayed answer to Kalal’s question. “We’d come back to where we started.”

Kalal shook his head. “Oh, you can never do that…”

“Where would we be, then?”

“Somewhere slightly different. The tideflowers would have changed, and we wouldn’t be us, either.” Kalal wet his finger, and wrote something in naskhi script on the hot, flat stone between them. Jalila thought she recognized the words of a poet, but the beginning had dissolved into the hot air before she could make proper sense of it. Funny, but at home with her mothers, and with their guests, and even with many of the people of her own age, such statements as they had just made would have been the beginning of a long debate. With Kalal, they just seemed to hang there. Kalal, he moved, he passed on. Nothing quite seemed to stick. There was something, somewhere, Jalila thought, lost and empty about him.

The way he was sitting, she could see most of his genitals, which looked quite jaunty in their little nest of hair, like a small animal. She’d almost gotten as used to the sight of them as she had to the other peculiarities of Kalal’s features. Scratching her nose, picking off some of the petals that still clung to her skin like wet confetti, she felt no particular curiosity. Much more than Kalal’s funny body, Jalila was conscious of her own-especially her growing breasts, which were still somewhat uneven. Would they ever come out right, she wondered, or would she forever be some unlovely oddity, just as Kalal seemingly was? Better not to think of such things. Better to just enjoy the feel of the sun baking her shoulders, loosening the curls of her hair.

“Should we turn back?” Kalal asked eventually. “It’s getting hotter…”

“Why bother with that-if we carry on, we’ll get back to where we started.”

Kalal stood up. “Do you want to bet?”

So they rode on, more slowly, uphill through the uncharted forest, where the urrearth trees tangled with the blue fronds of Habara fungus, and the birds were still, and the crackle of the dry undergrowth was the only sound in the air. Eventually, ducking boughs, then walking, dreamily lost and almost ready to turn back, they came to a path, and remounted. The trees fell away, and they found that they were on a clifftop, far, far higher above the winking sea than they could Possibly have imagined. Midday heat clapped around them. Ahead, where the cliff stuck out over the ocean like a cupped hand, shimmering and yet solid, was one of the ruined castles or geological features that the sea-leviathans had supposedly deserted before the arrival of people on this planet-a qasr. They rode slowly toward it, their hayawans’ feet thocking in the dust. It looked like a fairy place. Part natural, but roofed and buttressed, with grey-black gables and huge and intricate windows, that flashed with the colors of the sea. Kalal gestured for silence, dismounted from Abu, led his mount back into the shadowed arms of the forest, and flicked the switch in her back that hobbled her.

“You know where this is?”

Kalal beckoned.

Jalila, who knew him better than to ask questions, followed.

Close to, much of the qasr seemed to be made of a quartz-speckled version of the same fused stone from which Jalila’s haramlek was constructed. But some other bits of it appeared to be natural effusions of the rock. There was a big arched door of sun-bleached and iron-studded oak, reached by a path across the narrowing cliff, but Kalal steered Jalila to the side, and then up and around a bare angle of hot stone that seemed ready at any moment to tilt them down into the distant sea. But the way never quite gave out; there was always another handhold. From the confident manner in which he moved up this near-cliff face, then scrambled across the blistering black tiles of the rooftop beyond, and dropped down into the sudden cool of a narrow passageway, Jalila guessed that Kalal had been to this qasr before. At first, there was little sense of trespass. The place seemed old and empty-a little-visited monument. The ceilings were stained. The corridors were swept with the litter of winter leaves. Here and there along the walls, there were friezes, and long strings of a script which made as little sense to Jalila, in their age and dimness, as that which Kalal had written on the hot rocks.

Then Kalal gestured for Jalila to stop, and she clustered beside him, and they looked down through the intricate stone lattice of a mashrabiya into sunlight. It was plain from the balcony drop beneath them that they were still high up in this qasr. Below, in the central courtyard, somehow shocking after this emptiness, a fountain played in a garden, and water lapped from its lip and ran in steel fingers toward cloistered shadows.

“Someone lives here?”

Kalal mouthed the word tariqua. Somehow, Jalila instantly understood. It all made sense, in this Season of Rockets, even the dim scenes and hieroglyphs carved in the honeyed stones of this fairy castle. Tariquas were merely human, after all, and the spaceport was nearby; they had to live somewhere. Jalila glanced down at her scuffed sandals, suddenly conscious that she hadn’t taken them off-but by then it was too late, and below them and through the mashrabiya a figure had detached herself from the shadows. The tariqua was tall and thin, and black and bent as a burnt-out matchstick. She walked with a cane. Jalila didn’t know what she’d expected-she’d grown older since her first encounter with Kalal, and no longer imagined that she knew about things just because she’d learnt of them in her dreamtent. But still, this tariqua seemed a long way from someone who piloted the impossible distances between the stars, as she moved and clicked slowly around that courtyard fountain, and far older and frailer than anyone Jalila had ever seen. She tended a bush of blue flowers, she touched the fountain’s bubbling stone lip. Her head was ebony bald. Her fingers were charcoal. Her eyes were as white and seemingly blind as the flecks of quartz in the fused stone of this building. Once, though, she seemed to look up toward them. Jalila went cold. Surely it wasn’t possible that she could see them?-and in any event, there was something about the motion of looking up which seemed habitual. As if, like touching the lip of the fountain, and tending that bush, the tariqua always looked up at this moment of the day at that particular point in the stone walls that rose above her.

Jalila followed Kalal further along the corridors, and down stairways and across drops of beautifully clear glass, that hung on nothing far above the prismatic sea. Another glimpse of the tariqua, who was still slowly moving, her neck stretching like an old tortoise as she bent to sniff a flower. In this part of the qasr, there were more definite signs of habitation. Scattered cards and books. A moth-eaten tapestry that billowed from a windowless arch overlooking the sea. Empty coat hangers piled like the bones of insects. An active but clearly little-used chemical toilet. Now that the initial sense of surprise had gone, there was something funny about this mixture of the extraordinary and the everyday. Here, there was a kitchen, and a half-chewed lump of aish on a plate smeared with seeds. To imagine, that you could both travel between the stars and eat bread and tomatoes! Both Kalal and Jalila were red-faced and chuffing now from suppressed hilarity. Down now at the level of the cloisters, hunched in the shade, they studied the tariqua’s stooping back. She really did look like a scrawny tortoise, yanked out of its shell, moving between these bushes. Any moment now, you expected her to start chomping on the leaves. She moved more by touch than by sight. Amid the intricate colors of this courtyard, and the flashing glass windchimes that tinkled in the far archways, as she fumbled sightlessly but occasionally glanced at things with those odd, white eyes, it seemed yet more likely that she was blind, or at least terribly near-sighted. Slowly, Jalila’s hilarity receded, and she began to feel sorry for this old creature who had been aged and withered and wrecked by the strange process of travel between the stars. The Pain of Distance -now, where had that phrase come from?

Kalal was still puffing his cheeks. His eyes were watering as he ground his fist against his mouth and silently thumped the nearest pillar in agonized hilarity. Then he let out a nasal grunt, which Jalila was sure that the tariqua must have heard. But her stance didn’t alter. It wasn’t so much as if she hadn’t noticed them, but that she already knew that someone was there. There was a sadness and resignation about her movements, the tap of her cane… But Kalal had recovered his equilibrium, and Jalila watched his fingers snake out and enclose a flake of broken paving. Another moment, and it spun out into the sunlit courtyard in an arc so perfect that there was never any doubt that it was going to strike the tariqua smack between her bird-like shoulders. Which it did-but by then they were running, and the tariqua was straightening herself up with that same slow resignation. Just before they bundled themselves up the stairway, Jalila glanced back, and felt a hot bar of light from one of the qasr’s high upper windows stream across her face. The tariqua was looking straight toward her with those blind white eyes. Then Kalal grabbed her hand. Once again, she was running.

Jalila was cross with herself, and cross with Kalal. It wasn’t like her, a voice like a mingled chorus of her three mothers would say, to taunt some poor old mahwagi, even if that mahwagi happened also to be an aged tariqua. But Jalila was young, and life was busy. The voice soon faded. In any case, there was the coming moulid to prepare for.

The arrangement of festivals, locally, and on Habara as a whole, was always difficult. Habara’s astronomical year was so long that it made no sense to fix the traditional cycle of moulids by it, but at the same time, no one felt comfortable celebrating the same saint or eid in conflicting seasons. Fasting, after all, properly belonged to winter, and no one could quite face their obligations toward the Almighty with quite the same sense of surrender and equanimity in the middle of spring. People’s memories faded, as well, as to how one did a particular saint in autumn, or revered a certain enlightenment in blasting heat that you had previously celebrated by throwing snowballs. Added to this were the logistical problems of catering for the needs of a small and scattered population across a large planet. There were travelling players, fairs, wandering sufis and priests, but they plainly couldn’t be everywhere at once. The end result was that each moulid was fixed locally on Habara, according to a shifting timetable, and after much discussion and many meetings, and rarely happened twice at exactly the same time, or else occurred simultaneously in different places. Lya threw herself into these discussions with the enthusiasm of one who had long been missing such complexities in the lonelier life up on Tabuthal. For the Moulid of First Habitation-which commemorated the time when the Blessed Joanna had arrived on Habara at a site that several different towns claimed, and cast the first urrearth seeds, and lived for five long Habaran years on nothing but tideflowers and starlight, and rode the sea-leviathans across the oceans as if they were hayawans as she waited for her lover Pia-Lya was the leading light in the local organizations at Al Janb, and the rest of her haramlek were expected to follow suit.

The whole of Al Janb was to be transformed for a day and a night. Jalila helped with the hammering and weaving, and tuning Pavo’s crystals and plants, which would supposedly transform the serraplate road between their haramlek and the town into a glittering tunnel. More in the forefront of Jalila’s mind were those colored silks that came and went at a particular stall in the markets, and which she was sure would look perfect on her. Between the planning and the worries about this or that turning into a disaster, she worked carefully on each of her three mothers in turn; a nudge here, a suggestion there. Turning their thoughts toward accepting this extravagance was a delicate matter, like training a new hayawan to bear the saddle. Of course, there were wild resistances and buckings, but you were patient, you were stronger. You knew what you wanted. You kept to your subject. You returned and returned and returned to it.

On the day when Ananke finally relented, a worrying wind had struck up, pushing at the soft, half-formed growths that now straggled through the normal weeds along the road into Al Janb like silvered mucus. Pavo was fretting about her creations. Lya’s life was one long meeting. Even Ananke was anxious as they walked into Al Janb, where faulty fresh projections flickered across the buildings and squares like an incipient headache as the sky greyed. Jalila, urging her birthmother on as she paused frustratingly, was sure that the market wouldn’t be there, or that if it was, the stall that sold the windsilks was sure to have sold out or, even then, that the particular ones she’d set her mind on would have gone…

But it was all there. In fact, a whole new supply of windsilks, even more marvelous and colorful, had been imported for this moulid. They blew and lifted like colored smoke. Jalila caught and admired them.

“I think this might be you…”

Jalila turned at the voice. It was Nayra, a girl about a standard year and a half older than her, whose mothers were amongst the richest and most powerful in Al Janb. Nayra herself was both beautiful and intelligent; witty, and sometimes devastatingly cruel. She was generally at the center of things, surrounded by a bickering and admiring crowd of seemingly lesser mortals, which sometimes included Jalila. But today she was alone.

“You see, Jalila. That crimson. With your hair, your eyes…”

She held the windsilk across Jalila’s face like a yashmak. It danced around her eyes. It blurred over her shoulders. Jalila would have thought the color too bold. But Nayra’s gaze, which flickered without ever quite leaving Jalila’s, her smoothing hands, told Jalila that it was right for her far better than any mirror could have. And then there was blue-that flame color of the summer night. There were silver clasps, too, to hold these windsilks, which Jalila had never noticed on sale before. The stallkeeper, sensing a desire to purchase that went beyond normal bargaining, drew out more surprises from a chest. Feel! They can only be made in one place, on one planet, in one season. Look! The grubs, they only hatch when they hear the song of a particular bird, which sings only once in its life before it gives up its spirit to the Almighty… And so on. Ananke, seeing that Jalila had found a more interested and willing helper, palmed her far more cash than she’d promised, and left her with a smile and an oddly sad backward glance.

Jalila spent the rest of that grey and windy afternoon with Nayra, choosing clothes and ornaments for the moulid. Bangles for their wrists and ankles. Perhaps-no? yes?-even a small tiara. Bolts of cloth the color of today’s sky bound across her hips to offset the windsilk’s beauty. A jewel still filled with the sapphire light of a distant sun to twinkle at her belly. Nayra, with her dark blonde hair, her light brown eyes, her fine strong hands, which were pale pink beneath the fingernails like the inside of a shell, she hardly needed anything to augment her obvious beauty. But Jalila knew from her endless studies of herself in her dreamtent mirror that she needed to be more careful; the wrong angle, the wrong light, an incipient spot, and whatever effect she was striving for could be so easily ruined. Yet she’d never really cared as much about such things as she did on that windy afternoon, moving through stalls and shops amid the scent of patchouli. To be so much the focus of her own and someone else’s attention! Nayra’s hands, smoothing across her back and shoulders, lifting her hair, cool sweat at her shoulders, the cool slide and rattle of her bangles as she raised her arms…

We could be creatures from a story, Jalila. Let’s imagine I’m Scheherazade.” A toss of that lovely hair. Liquid gold. Nayra’s seashell fingers, stirring. “You can be her sister, Dinarzade…”

Jalila nodded enthusiastically, although Dinarzade had been an unspectacular creature as far as she remembered the tale; there only so that she might waken Scheherazade in the Sultana’s chamber before the first cock crow of morning. But her limbs, her throat, felt strange and soft and heavy. She reminded herself, as she dressed and undressed, of the doll Tabatha she’d once so treasured up on Tabuthal, and had found again recently, and thought for some odd reason of burying…

The lifting, the pulling, Nayra’s appraising hands and glance and eyes. This unresisting heaviness. Jalila returned home to her haramlek dazed and drained and happy, and severely out of credit.

That night, there was another visitor for dinner. She must have taken some sort of carriage to get there, but she came toward their veranda as if she’d walked the entire distance. Jalila, whose head was filled with many things, was putting out the bowls when she heard the murmur of footsteps. The sound was so slow that eventually she noticed it consciously, looked up, and saw a thin, dark figure coming up the sandy path between Pavo’s swaying and newly sculpted bushes. One arm leaned on a cane, and the other strained seekingly forward. In shock, Jalila dropped the bowl she was holding. It seemed to roll around and around on the table forever, slipping playfully out of reach of her fingers before spinning off the edge and shattering into several thousand white pieces.

“Oh dear,” the tariqua said, finally climbing the steps beside the windy trellis, her cane tap-tapping. “Perhaps you’d better go and tell one of your mothers, Jalila.”

Jalila felt breathless. All through that evening, the tariqua’s trachoman white eyes, the scarred and tarry driftwood of her face, seemed to be studying her. Even apart from that odd business of her knowing her name, which she supposed could be explained, Jalila was more and more certain that the tariqua knew that it was she and Kalal who had spied on her and thrown stones at her on that hot day in the qasr. As if that mattered. But somehow, it did, more than it should have done. Amid all this confused thinking, and the silky memories of her afternoon with Nayra, Jalila scarcely noticed the conversation. The weather remained gusty, spinning the lanterns, playing shapes with the shadows, making the tapestries breathe. The tariqua’s voice was as thin as her frame. It carried on the spinning air like the croak of an insect.

“Perhaps we could walk on the beach, Jalila?”

“What?” She jerked as if she’d been abruptly awakened. Her mothers were already clearing things away, and casting odd glances at her. The voice had whispered inside her head, and the tariqua was sitting there, her burnt and splintery arm outstretched, in the hope, Jalila supposed, that she would be helped up from the table. The creature’s robe had fallen back. Her arm looked like a picture Jalila had once seen of a dried cadaver. With an effort, nearly knocking over another bowl, Jalila moved around the billowing table. With an even bigger effort, she placed her own hand into that of the tariqua. She’d expected it to feel leathery, which it did. But it was also hot beyond fever. Terribly, the fingers closed around hers. There was a pause. Then the tariqua got up with surprising swiftness, and reached around for her cane, still holding Jalila’s hand, but without having placed any weight on it. She could have done all that on her own, the old witch, Jalila thought. And she can see, too-look at the way she’s been stuffing herself with kofta all evening, reaching over for figs…

“What do you know of the stars, Jalila?” the tariqua asked as they walked beside the beach. Pavo’s creations along the road behind them still looked stark and strange and half-formed as they swayed in the wind, like the wavering silver limbs of an upturned insect. The waves came and went, strewing tideflowers far up the strand. Like the tongue of a snake, the tariqua’s cane darted ahead of her.

Jalila shrugged. There were these Gateways, she had always known that. There were these Gateways, and they were the only proper path between the stars, because no one could endure the eons of time that crossing even the tiniest fragment of the Ten Thousand and One Worlds would entail by the ordinary means of traveling from there to here.

“Not, of course,” the tariqua was saying, “that people don’t do such things. There are tales, there are always tales, of ghost-ships of sufis drifting for tens of centuries through the black and black… But the wealth, the contact, the community, flows through the Gateways. The Almighty herself provided the means to make them in the Days of Creation, when everything that was and will ever be spilled out into a void so empty that it did not even exist as an emptiness. In those first moments, as warring elements collided, boundaries formed, dimensions were made and disappeared without ever quite dissolving, like the salt tidemarks on those rocks…” As they walked, the tariqua waved her cane. “… which the sun and the eons can never quite bake away. These boundaries are called cosmic strings, Jalila, and they have no end. They must form either minute loops, or they must stretch from one end of this universe to the other, and then turn back again, and turn and turn without end.”

Jalila glanced at the brooch the tariqua was wearing, which was of a worm consuming its tail. She knew that the physical distances between the stars were vast, but the tariqua somehow made the distances that she traversed to avoid that journey seem even vaster…

“You must understand,” the tariqua said, “that we tariquas pass through something worse than nothing to get from one side to the other of a Gateway.”

Jalila nodded. She was young, and nothing didn’t sound especially frightening. Still, she sensed that there were the answers to mysteries in this near-blind gaze and whispering voice that she would never get from her dreamtent or her mothers. But, hanim, what could be worse,” she asked dutifully, although she still couldn’t think of the tariqua in terms of a name, and thus simply addressed her with the short honorific, “than sheer emptiness?”

Ah, but emptiness is nothing. Imagine, Jalila, passing through everything instead!” The tariqua chuckled, and gazed up at the sky. “But the stars are beautiful, and so is this night. You come, I hear, from Tabuthal. There, the skies must all have been very different.”

Jalila nodded. A brief vision flared over her. The way that up there, on the clearest, coldest nights, you felt as if the stars were all around you. Even now, m uch though she loved the fetors and astonishments of the coast, she still felt the odd pang of missing something. It was a feeling she missed, as much as the place itself, which she guessed would probably seem bleak and lonely if she returned to it now. It was partly to do, she suspected, with that sense that she was losing her childhood. It was like being on a ship, on Kalal’s nameless boat, and watching the land recede, and half of you loving the loss, half of you hating it. A war seemed to be going on inside her between these two warring impulses…

To her surprise, Jalila realized that she wasn’t just thinking these thoughts, but speaking them, and that the tariqua, walking at her slow pace, the weight of her head bending her spine, her cane whispering a jagged line in the dust as the black rags of her djibbah flapped around her, was listening. Jalila supposed that she, too, had been young once, although that was hard to imagine. The sea frothed and swished. They were at the point in the road now where, gently buzzing and almost out of sight amid the forest, hidden there as if in shame, the tariqua’s caleche lay waiting. It was a small filigree, a thing as old and black and ornate as her brooch. Jalila helped her toward it through the trees. The craft’s door creaked open like an iron gate, then shut behind the tariqua. A few crickets sounded through the night’s heat. Then, with a soft rush, and a static glow like the charge of windsilk brushing flesh, the caleche rose up through the treetops and wafted away.

The day of the moulid came. It was everything that Jalila expected, although she paid it little attention. The intricate, bowered pathway that Pavo had been working on finally shaped itself to her plans-in fact, it was better than that, and seemed like a beautiful accident. As the skies cleared, the sun shone through prismatic arches. The flowers, which had looked so stunted only the evening before, suddenly unfolded, with petals like beaten brass, and stamens shaped so that the continuing breeze, which Pavo had always claimed to have feared, laughed and whistled and tooted as it passed through them. Walking beneath the archways of flickering shadows, you were assailed by scents and the clashes of small orchestras. But Jalila’s ears were blocked, her eyes were sightless. She, after all, was Dinarzade, and Nayra was Scheherazade of the Thousand and One Nights.

Swirling windsilks, her heart hammering, she strode into Al Janb. Everything seemed to be different today. There were too many sounds and colors. People tried to dance with her, or sell her things. Some of the aliens seemed to have dressed themselves as humans. Some of the humans were most definitely dressed as aliens. Her feet were already blistered and delicate from her new crimson slippers. And there was Nayra, dressed in a silvery serwal and blouse of such devastating simplicity that Jalila felt her heart kick and pause in its beating. Nayra was surrounded by a small storm of her usual admirers. Her eyes took in Jalila as she stood at their edge, then beckoned her to join them. The idea of Dinarzade and Scheherazade, which Jalila had thought was to be their secret, was now shared with everyone. The other girls laughed and clustered around, admiring, joking, touching and stroking bits of her as if she was a hayawan. You of all people, Jalila! And such jewels, such silks… Jalila stood half-frozen, her heart still kicking. So, so marvelous! And not at all dowdy… She could have lived many a long and happy life without such compliments.

Thus the day continued. All of them in a crowd, and Jalila feeling both over- dressed and exposed, with these stirring, whispering windsilks that covered and yet mostly seemed to reveal her body. She felt like a child in a ribboned parade, and when one of the old mahwagis even came up and pressed a sticky lump of basbousa into her hand, it was the final indignity. She trudged off alone, and found Kalal and his father Ibra managing a seafront stall beside the swaying masts of the bigger trawlers, around which there was a fair level of purchase and interest. Ibra was enjoying himself, roaring out enticements and laughter in his big, belling voice. At last, they’d gotten around to harvesting some of the tideflowers for which their nameless boat had been designed, and they were selling every sort here, salt-fresh from the ocean.

“Try this one…” Kalal drew Jalila away to the edge of the harbor, where the oiled water flashed below. He had just one tideflower in his hand. It was deep-banded the same crimson and blue as her windsilks. The interior was like the eye of an anemone.

Jalila was flattered. But she hesitated. “I’m not sure about wearing something dead.” In any case, she knew she already looked ridiculous. That this would be more of the same.

“It isn’t dead, it’s as alive as you are.” Kalal held it closer, against Jalila’s shoulder, toward the top of her breast, smoothing out the windsilks in a way that briefly reminded her of Nayra. “And isn’t this material the dead tissue of some creature or other…?” Still, his hands were smoothing. Jalila thought again of Nayra. Being dressed like a doll. Her nipples started to rise. “And if we take it back to the tideflower beds tomorrow morning, place it down there carefully, it’ll still survive…” The tideflower had stuck itself to her now, anyway, beneath the shoulder, its adhesion passing through the thin windsilks, burning briefly as it bound to her flesh. And it was beautiful, even if she wasn’t, and it would have been churlish to refuse. Jalila placed her finger into the tideflower’s center, and felt a soft suction, like the mouth of a baby. Smiling, thanking Kalal, feeling somehow better and more determined, she walked away.

The day went on. The night came. Fireworks crackled and rumpled, rippling down the slopes of the mountains. The whole of the center of Al Janb was transformed unrecognizably into the set of a play. Young Joanna herself walked the vast avenues of Ghezirah, the island city that lies at the center of all the Ten Thousand and One Worlds, and which grows in much the same way as Pavo’s crystal scaffoldings, but on an inconceivable scale, filled with azure skies, glinting in the dark heavens like a vast diamond. The Blessed Joanna, she was supposedly thinking of a planet that had come to her in a vision as she wandered beside Ghezirah’s palaces; it was a place of fine seas, lost giants, and mysterious natural castles, although Jalila, as she followed in the buffeting, cheering procession, and glanced around at the scale of the projections that briefly covered Al Janb’s ordinary buildings, wondered why, even if this version of Ghezirah was fake and thin, Joanna would ever have wanted to leave that city to come to a place such as this.

There were more fireworks. As they rattled, a deeper sound swept over them in a moan from the sea, and everyone looked up as sunglow poured through the gaudy images of Ghezirah that still clad Al Janb’s buildings. Not one rocket, or two, but three, were all climbing up from the spaceport simultaneously, the vast white plumes of their energies fanning out across half the sky to form a billowy fleur de lys. At last, as she craned her neck and watched the last of those blazing tails diminish, Jalila felt exulted by this moulid. In the main square, the play continued. When she found a place on a bench and began to watch the more intimate parts of the drama unfold, as Joanna’s lover Pia pleaded with her to remain amid the cerulean towers of Ghezirah, a figure moved to sit beside her. To Jalila’s astonishment, it was Nayra.

“That’s a lovely flower. I’ve been meaning to ask you all day…” Her fingers moved across Jalila’s shoulder. There was a tug at her skin as she touched the petals.

“I got it from Kalal.”

“Oh…” Nayra sought the right word. “ Him. Can I smell it…?” She was already bending down, her face close to Jalila’s breast, the golden fall of her hair brushing her forearm, enclosing her in the sweet, slightly vanilla scent of her body. “That’s nice. It smells like the sea-on a clear day, when you climb up and look down at it from the mountains…”

The play continued. Would Joanna really go to this planet, which kept appearing to her in these visions? Jalila didn’t know. She didn’t care. Nayra’s hand slipped into her own and lay there upon her thigh with a weight and presence that seemed far heavier than the entire universe. She felt like that doll again. Her breath was pulling, dragging. The play continued, and then, somewhere, somehow, it came to an end. Jalila felt an aching sadness. She’d have been happy for Joanna to continue her will-I-won’t-I agonizing and prayers throughout all of human history, just so that she and Nayra could continue to sit together like this, hand in hand, thigh to thigh, on this hard bench.

The projections flickered and faded. She stood up in wordless disappointment. The whole square suddenly looked like a wastetip, and she felt crumpled and used-up in these sweaty and ridiculous clothes. It was hardly worth looking back toward Nayra to say goodbye. She would, Jalila was sure, have already vanished to rejoin those clucking, chattering friends who surrounded her like a wall.

“Wait!” A hand on her arm. That same vanilla scent. “I’ve heard that your mother Pavo’s displays along the south road are something quite fabulous…” For once, Nayra’s golden gaze as Jalila looked back at her was almost coy, nearly averted. “I was rather hoping you might show me…”

The two of them. Walking hand in hand, just like all lovers throughout history. Like Pia and Joanna. Like Romana and Juliet. Like Isabel and Genya. Ghosts of smoke from the rocket plumes that had buttressed the sky hung around them, and the world seemed half-dissolved in the scent of sulphur and roses. An old woman they passed, who was sweeping up discarded kebab sticks and wrappers, made a sign as they passed, and gave them a weary, sad-happy smile. Jalila wasn’t sure what had happened to her slippers, but they and her feet both seemed to have become weightless. If it hadn’t been for the soft sway and pull of Nayra’s arm, Jalila wouldn’t even have been sure that she was moving. People’s feet really don’t touch the ground when they are in love! Here was something else that her dreamtent and her mothers hadn’t told her.

Pavo’s confections of plant and crystal looked marvelous in the hazed and doubled silver shadows of the rising moons. Jalila and Nayra wandered amid them, and the rest of the world felt withdrawn and empty. A breeze was still playing over the rocks and the waves, but the fluting sound had changed. It was one soft pitch, rising, falling. They kissed. Jalila closed her eyes-she couldn’t help it-and trembled. Then they held both hands together and stared at each other, unflinching. Nayra’s bare arms in the moonslight, the curve inside her elbow and the blue trace of a vein: Jalila had never seen anything as beautiful, here in this magical place.

The stables, where the hayawans were breathing. Jalila spoke to Robin, to Abu. The beasts were sleepy. Their flesh felt cold, their plates were warm, and Nayra seemed a little afraid. There, in the sighing darkness, the clean scent of feed and straw was overlaid with the heat of the hayawans’ bodies and their dung. The place was no longer a ramshackle tent, but solid and dark, another of Pavo’s creations; the stony catacombs of ages. Jalila led Nayra through it, her shoulders brushing pillars, her heart pounding, her slippered feet whispering through spills of straw. To the far corner, where the fine new white bedding lay like depths of cloud. They threw themselves onto it, half-expecting to fall through. But they were floating in straggles of windsilk, held in tangles of their own laughter and limbs.

“Remember.” Nayra’s palm on Jalila’s right breast, scrolled like an old print in the geometric moonlight that fell from Walah, and then through the arched stone grid of a murqana that lay above their heads. “I’m Scheherazade. You’re Dinarzade, my sister…” The pebble of Jalila’s nipple rising through the windsilk. “That old, old story, Jalila. Can you remember how it went…?”

In the tide of yore and in the time of long gone before, there was a Queen of all the Queens of the Banu Sasan in the far islands of India and China, a Lady of armies and guards and servants and dependants…

Again, they kissed.

Handsome gifts, such as horses with saddles of gem-encrusted gold; mamelukes, or white slaves; beautiful handmaids, high-breasted virgins, and splendid stuffs and costly…

Nayra’s hand moved from Jalila’s breast to encircle the tideflower. She gave it a tug, pulled harder. Something held, gave, held, hurt, then gave entirely. The windsilks poured back. A small dark bead of blood welled at the curve between Jalila’s breast and shoulder. Nayra licked it away.

In one house was a girl weeping for the loss of her sister. In another, perhaps a mother trembling for the fate of her child; and instead of the blessings that had formerly been heaped on the Sultana’s head, the air was now full of curses…

Jalila was rising, floating, as Nayra’s mouth traveled downward to suckle at her breast.

Now the Wazir had two daughters, Scheherazade and Dinarzade, of whom the elder had perused the books, annals, and legends of preceding queens and empresses, and the stories, examples, and instances of bygone things. Scheherazade had read the works of the poets and she knew them by heart. She had studied philosophy, the sciences, the arts, and all accomplishments. And Scheherazade was pleasant and polite, wise and witty. Scheherazade, she was beautiful and well bred…

Flying far over frost-glittering saharas, beneath the twin moons, soaring through the clouds. The falling, rising dunes. The minarets and domes of distant cities. The cries and shuddering sighs of the beloved. Patterned moonlight falling through the murqana in a white and dark tapestry across the curves and hollows of Nayra’s belly.

Alekum as-salal wa rahmatu allahi wa barakatuh…

Upon you, the peace and the mercy of God and all these blessings.

Amen.

There was no cock-crow when Jalila startled awake. But Walah had vanished, and so had Nayra, and the light of the morning sun came splintering down through the murqana’s hot blue lattice. Sheltering her face with her hands, Jalila looked down at herself, and smiled. The jewel in her belly was all that was left of her costume. She smelled faintly of vanilla, and much of Nayra, and nothing about her flesh seemed quite her own. Moving through the dazzling drizzle, she gathered up the windsilks and other scraps of clothing that had settled into the fleece bedding. She found one of Nayra’s earrings, which was twisted to right angles at the post, and had to smile again. And here was that tideflower, tossed upturned like an old cup into the corner. She touched the tiny scab on her shoulder, then lifted the flower up and inhaled, but caught on her palms only the scents of Nayra. She closed her eyes, feeling the diamond speckles of heat and cold across her body like the ripples of the sea.

The hayawans barely stirred as she moved out through their stables. Only Robin regarded her, and then incuriously, as she paused to touch the hard grey melds of her flank that she had pressed against the bars of her enclosure. One eye, grey as rocket smoke, opened, then returned to its saharas of dreams. The hayawans, Jalila supposed for the first time, had their own passions, and these were not to be shared with some odd two-legged creatures of another race and planet.

The morning was still clinging to its freshness, and the road, as she crossed it, was barely warm beneath her feet. Wind-towered Al Janb and the haramlek behind her looked deserted. Even the limbs of the mountains seemed curled in sleepy haze. On this day after the moulid, no one but the geelies was yet stirring. Cawing, they rose and settled in flapping red flocks from the beds of the tideflowers as Jalila scrunched across the hard stones of the beach. Her feet encountered the cool, slick water. She continued walking, wading, until the sea tickled her waist and what remained of the windsilks had spread about in spills of dye. From her cupped hands, she released the tideflower, and watched it float away. She splashed her face. She sunk down to her shoulders as the windsilks dissolved from her, and looked down between her breasts at the glowing jewel that was still stuck in her belly, and plucked it out, and watched it sink; the sea-lantern of a ship, drowning.

Walking back up the beach, wringing the wet from her hair, Jalila noticed a rich green growth standing out amid the sky-filled rockpools and the growths of lichen. Pricked by something resembling Pavo’s curiosity, she scrambled over, and crouched to examine it as the gathering heat of the sun dried her back. She recognized this spot-albeit dimly-from the angle of a band of quartz that glittered and bled blue oxides. This was where she had coughed up her breathmoss in that early Season of Soft Rains. And here it still was, changed but unmistakable-and growing. A small patch here, several larger patches there. Tiny filaments of green, a minute forest, raising its boughs and branches to the sun.

She walked back up toward her haramlek, humming.

3.

The sky was no longer blue. It was no longer white. It had turned to mercury. The rockets rose and rose in dry crackles of summer lightening. The tube-like aliens fled, leaving their strange house of goo-filled windows and pipes still clicking and humming until something burst and the whole structure deflated, and the mess of it leaked across the nearby streets. There were warnings of poisonings and strange epidemics. There were cloggings and stenches of the drains.

Jalila showed the breathmoss to her mothers, who were all intrigued and delighted, although Pavo had of course noticed and categorized the growth long before, while Ananke had to touch the stuff, and left a small brown mark there like the tips of her three fingers, which dried and turned golden over the days that followed. But in this hot season, these evenings when the sun seemed as if it would never vanish, the breathmoss proved surprisingly hardy…

After that night of the moulid, Jalila spent several happy days absorbed and alone, turning and smoothing the memory of her love-making with Nayra. Wandering above and beneath the unthinking routines of everyday life, she was like a fine craftsman, spinning silver, shaping sandalwood. The dimples of Nayra’s back. Sweat glinting in the checkered moonlight. That sweet vein in the crook of her beloved’s arm, and the pulse of the blood that had risen from it to the drumbeats of ecstasy. The memory seemed entirely enough to Jalila. She was barely living in the present day. When, perhaps six days after the end of the moulid, Nayra turned up at their doorstep with the ends of her hair chewed wet and her eyes red-rimmed, Jalila had been almost surprised to see her, and then to notice the differences between the real Nayra and the Scheherazade of her memories. Nayra smelled of tears and dust as they embraced; like someone who had arrived from a long, long journey.

“Why didn’t you call me? I’ve been waiting, waiting…”

Jalila kissed her hair. Her hand traveled beneath a summer shawl to caress Nayra’s back, which felt damp and gritty. She had no idea how to answer her questions. They walked out together that afternoon in the shade of the woods behind the haramlek. The trees had changed in this long, hot season, departing from their urrearth habits to coat their leaves in a waxy substance that smelled medicinal. The shadows of their boughs were chalkmarks and charcoal. All was silent. The urrearth birds had retreated to their summer hibernations until the gusts of autumn came to rouse them again. Climbing a scree of stones, they found clusters of them at the back of a cave; feathery bundles amid the dripping rock, seemingly without eyes or beak.

As they sat at the mouth of that cave, looking down across the heat-trembling bay, sucking the ice and eating the dates that Ananke had insisted they bring with them, Nayra had seemed like a different person than the one Jalila had thought she had known before the day of the moulid. Nayra, too, was human, and not the goddess she had seemed. She had her doubts and worries. She, too, thought that the girls who surrounded her were mostly crass and stupid. She didn’t even believe in her own obvious beauty. She cried a little again, and Jalila hugged her. The hug became a kiss. Soon, dusty and greedy, they were tumbling amid the hot rocks. That evening, back at the haramlek, Nayra was welcomed for dinner by Jalila’s mothers with mint tea and the best china. She was invited to bathe. Jalila sat beside her as they ate figs fresh from distant Ras and the year’s second crop of oranges. She felt happy. At last, life seemed simple. Nayra was now officially her lover, and this love would form the pattern of her days.

Jalila’s life now seemed complete; she believed that she was an adult, and that she talked and spoke and loved and worshipped in an adult way. She still rode out sometimes with Kalal on Robin and Abu, she still laughed or stole things or played games, but she was conscious now that these activities were the sweetmeats of life, pleasing but innutritious, and the real glories and surprises lay with being with Nayra, and with her mothers, and the life of the haramlek that the two young women talked of founding together one day.

Nayra’s mothers lived on the far side of Al Janb, in a fine tall clifftop palace that was one of the oldest in the town, clad in white stone and filled with intricate courtyards, and a final beautiful tajo that looked down from gardens of tarragon across the whole bay. Jalila greatly enjoyed exploring this haramlek, deciphering the peeling scripts that wound along the cool vaults, and enjoying the company of Nayra’s mothers who, in their wealth and grace and wisdom, often made her own mothers seem like the awkward and recent provincial arrivals that they plainly were. At home, in her own haramlek, the conversations and ideas seemed stale. An awful dream came to Jalila one night. She was her old doll Tabatha, and she really was being buried. The ground she lay in was moist and dank, as if it was still the Season of Soft Rains, and the faces of everyone she knew were clustered around the hole above her, muttering and sighing as her mouth and eyes were inexorably filled with soil.

“Tell me what it was like, when you first fell in love.”

Jalila had chosen Pavo to ask this question of Ananke would probably just hug her, while Lya would talk and talk until there was nothing to say.

“I don’t know. Falling in love is like coming home. You can never quite do it for the first time.”

“But in the stories-”

“-The stories are always written afterward, Jalila.”

They were walking the luminous shore. It was near midnight, which was now by far the best time of the night or day. But what Pavo had just said sounded wrong; perhaps she hadn’t been the right choice of mother to speak to, after all. Jalila was sure she’d loved Nayra since that day before the moulid of Joanna, although it was true she loved her now in a different way.

“You still don’t think we really will form a haramlek together, do you?”

“I think that it’s too early to say.”

“You were the last of our three, weren’t you? Lya and Ananke were already together.”

“It was what drew me to them. They seemed so happy and complete. It was also what frightened me and nearly sent me away.”

“But you stayed together, and then there was…” This was the part that Jalila still found hardest to acknowledge; the idea that her mothers had a physical, sexual relationship. Sometimes, deep at night, from someone else’s dreamtent, she had heard muffled sighs, the wet slap of flesh. Just like the hayawans, she supposed, there were things about other people’s lives that you could never fully understand, no matter how well you thought you knew them.

She chose a different tack. “So why did you choose to have me?”

“Because we wanted to fill the world with something that had never ever existed before. Because we felt selfish. Because we wanted to give ourselves away.”

“Ananke, she actually gave birth to me, didn’t she?”

“Down here at Al Janb, they’d say we were primitive and mad. Perhaps that was how we wanted to be. But all the machines at the clinics do is try to re-create the conditions of a real human womb-the voices, the movements, the sound of breathing… Without first hearing that Song of Life, no human can ever be happy, so what better way could there be than to hear it naturally?”

A flash of that dream-image of herself being buried. “But the birth itself-”

“-I think that was something we all underestimated.” The tone of Pavo’s voice told Jalila that this was not a subject to be explored on the grounds of mere curiosity.

The tideflower beds had solidified. You could walk across them as if they were dry land. Kalal, after several postponements and broken promises, took Jalila and Nayra out one night to demonstrate.

Smoking lanterns at the prow and stern of his boat. The water slipping warm as blood through Jalila’s trailing fingers. Al Janb receding beneath the hot thighs of the mountains. Kalal at the prow. Nayra sitting beside her, her arm around her shoulder, hand straying across her breast until Jalila shrugged it away because the heat of their two bodies was oppressive.

This season’ll end soon,” Nayra said. “You’ve never known the winter here, have you?”

I was born in the winter. Nothing here could be as cold as the lightest spring morning in the mountains of Tabuthal.”

Ah, the mountains. You must show me sometime. We should travel there together…”

Jalila nodded, trying hard to picture that journey. She’d attempted to interest Nayra in riding a hayawan, but she grew frightened even in the presence of the beasts. In so many ways, in fact, Nayra surprised Jalila with her timidity. Jalila, in these moments of doubt, and as she lay alone in her dreamtent and wondered, Would list to herself Nayra’s many assets: her lithe and willing body; the beautiful haramlek of her beautiful mothers; the fact that so many of the other girls now envied and admired her. There were so many things that were good about Nayra.

Kalal, now that his boat had been set on course for the further tidebeds, came to sit with them, his face sweated lantern-red. He and Nayra shared many memories, and now, as the sails pushed on from the hot air off the mountains, they vied to tell Jalila of the surprises and delights of winters in Al Janb. The fogs when you couldn’t see your hand. The intoxicating blue berries that appeared in special hollows through the crust of the snow. The special saint’s days… If Jalila hadn’t known better, she’d have said that Nayra and Kalal were fighting over something more important.

The beds of tideflowers were vast, luminous, heavy-scented. Red-black clusters of geelies rose and fell here and there in the moonslight. Walking these gaudy carpets was a most strange sensation. The dense interlaces of leaves felt like rubber matting, but sank and bobbed. Jalila and Nayra lit more lanterns and dotted them around a field of huge primrose and orange petals. They sang and staggered and rolled and fell over. Nayra had brought a pipe of kif resin, and the sensation of smoking that and trying to dance was hilarious. Kalal declined, pleading that he had to control the boat on the way back, and picked his way out of sight, disturbing flocks of geelies.

And so the two girls danced as the twin moons rose. Nayra, twirling silks, her hair fanning, was graceful as Jalila still staggered amid the lapping flowers. As she lifted her arms and rose on tiptoe, bracelets glittering, she had never looked more desirable. Somewhat drunkenly-and slightly reluctantly, because Kalal might return at any moment-Jalila moved forward to embrace her. It was good to hold Nayra, and her mouth tasted like the tideflowers and sucked needily at her own. In fact, the moments of their love had never been sweeter and slower than they were on that night, although, even as Jalila marveled at the shape of Nayra’s breasts and listened to the changed song of her breathing, she felt herself chilling, receding, drawing back, not just from Nayra’s physical presence, but from this small bay beside the small town on the single continent beside Habara’s great and lonely ocean. Jalila felt infinitely sorry for Nayra as she brought her to her little ecstasies and they kissed and rolled across the beds of flowers. She felt sorry for Nayra because she was beautiful, and sorry for her because of all her accomplishments, and sorry for her because she would always be happy here amid the slow seasons of this little planet.

Jalila felt sorry for herself as well; sorry because she had thought that she had known love, and because she knew now that it had only been a pretty illusion.

There was a shifting wind, dry and abrasive, briefly to be welcomed, until it became something to curse and cover your face and close your shutters against.

Of Jalila’s mothers, only Lya seemed at all disappointed by her break from Nayra, no doubt because she had fostered hopes of their union forming a powerful bond between their haramleks, and even she did her best not to show it. Of the outside world, the other young women of Al Janb all professed total disbelief- why if it had been me, I’d never have… But soon, they were cherishing the new hope that it might indeed be them. Nayra, to her credit, maintained an extraordinary dignity in the face of the fact that she, of all people, had finally been rejected. She dressed in plain clothes. She spoke and ate simply. Of course, she looked more devastatingly beautiful than ever, and everyone’s eyes were reddened by air-borne grit in any case, so it was impossible to tell how much she had really been crying. Now, as the buildings of Al Janb creaked and the breakers rolled and the wind howled through the teeth of the mountains, Jalila saw the gaudy, seeking and competing creatures who so often surrounded Nayra quite differently. Nayra was not, had never been, in control of them. She was more like the bloody carcass over which, flashing their teeth, their eyes, stretching their limbs, they endlessly fought. Often, riven by a sadness far deeper than she had ever experienced, missing something she couldn’t explain, wandering alone or lying in her dreamtent, Jalila nearly went back to Nayra… But she never did.

This was the Season of Winds, and Jalila was heartily sick of herself and Al Janb, and the girls and the mahwagis and the mothers, and of this changing, buffeting banshee weather that seemed to play with her moods. Sometimes now, the skies were entirely beautiful, strung by the curling multicolored banners of sand that the winds had lifted from distant corners of the continent. There was crimson and there was sapphire. The distant saharas of Jalila’s dreams had come to haunt her. They fell-as the trees tore and the paint stripped from the shutters and what remained of Pavo’s arches collapsed-in an irritating grit that worked its way into all the crevices of your body and every weave of your clothes.

The tariqua had spoken of the pain of nothing, and then of the pain of everything. At the time, Jalila had understood neither, but now, she felt that she understood the pain of nothing all too well. The product of the combined genes of her three mothers; loving Ananke, ever-curious Pavo, proud and talkative Lya, she had always felt glad to recognize these characteristics mingled in herself, but now she wondered if these traits hadn’t cancelled each other out. She was a null-point, a zero, clumsy and destructive and unloving. She was Jalila, and she walked alone and uncaring through this Season of Winds.

One morning, the weather was especially harsh. Jalila was alone in the haramlek, although she cared little where she or anywhere else was. A shutter must have come loose somewhere. That often happened now. It had been banging and hammering so long that it began to irritate even her. She climbed stairs and slammed doors over jamming drifts of mica. She flapped back irritably at flapping curtains. Still, the banging went on. Yet all the windows and doors were now secure. She was sure of it. Unless…

Someone was at the front door. She could see a swirling globular head through the greenish glass mullion. Even though they could surely see her as well, the banging went on. Jalila wondered if she wanted it to be Nayra; after all, this was how she had come to her after the moulid; a sweet and needy human being to drag her out from her dreams. But it was only Kalal. As the door shoved Jalila back, she tried not to look disappointed.

“You can’t do this with your life!”

“Do what?”

“This- nothing. And then not answering the fucking door…” Kalal prowled the hallway as the door banged back and forth and tapestries flailed, looking for clues as if he was a detective. “Let’s go out.”

Even in this weather, Jalila supposed that she owed it to Robin. Then Kalal had wanted to go north, and she insisted on going south, and was not in any mood for arguing. It was an odd journey, so unlike the ones they’d undertaken in the summer. They wrapped their heads and faces in flapping howlis, and tried to ride mostly in the forest, but the trees whipped and flapped and the raw air still abraded their faces.

They took lunch down by a flatrock shore, in what amounted to shelter, although there was still little enough of it as the wind eddied about them. This could have been the same spot where they had stopped in summer, but it was hard to tell; the light was so changed, the sky so bruised. Kalal seemed changed, too. His face beneath his howli seemed older, as he tried to eat their aish before the sand-laden air got to it, and his chin looked prickled and abraded. Jalila supposed that this was the same facial growth that his father Ibra was so fond of sporting. She also supposed he must choose to shave his off in the way that some women on some decadent planets were said to shave their legs and armpits.

“Come a bit closer-” she half-shouted, working her way back into the lee of the bigger rock beside which she was sitting to make room for him. “I want you to tell me what you know about love, Kalal.”

Kalal hunched beside her. For a while, he just continued tearing and chewing bits of aish, with his body pressed against hers as the winds boiled around them, the warmth of their flesh almost meeting. And Jalila wondered if men and women, when their lives and needs had been more closely intertwined, had perhaps known the answer to her question. What was love, after all? It would have been nice to think that, in those dim times of myth, men and women had whispered the answer to that question to each other…

She thought then that Kalal hadn’t properly heard her. He was telling her about his father, and a planet he barely remembered, but on which he was born. The sky there had been fractaled gold and turquoise-colors so strange and bright that they came as a delight and a shock each morning. It was a place of many islands, and one great city. His father had been a fisherman and boat-repairer of sorts there as well, although the boats had been much grander than anything you ever saw at Al Janb, and the fish had lived not as single organisms, but as complex shoals that were caught not for their meat, but for their joint minds. Ibra had been approached by a woman from off-world, who had wanted a ship on which she could sail alone around the whole lonely band of the northern oceans. She had told him that she was sick of human company. The planning and the making of the craft was a joy for Ibra, because such a lonely journey had been one that he had long dreamed of making, if ever he’d had the time and money. The ship was his finest-ever creation, and it turned out, as they worked on it, that neither he nor the woman were quite as sick of human company as they had imagined. They fell in love as the keel and the spars grew in the city dockyards and the ship’s mind was nurtured, and as they did so, they slowly re-learned the expressions of sexual need between the male and female.

“You mean he raped her?”

Kalal tossed his last nub of bread toward the waves. “I mean that they made love.”

After the usual negotiations and contracts, and after the necessary insertions of the appropriate cells, Ibra and this woman (whom Kalal didn’t name in his story, any more than he named the world) set sail together, fully intending to conceive a child in the fabled way of old.

“Which was you?”

Kalal scowled. It was impossible to ask him even simple questions on this subject without making him look annoyed. “Of course it was! How many of me do you think there are?” Then he lapsed into silence. The sands swirled in colored helixes before them.

“That woman-your birthmother. What happened to her?”

“She wanted to take me away, of course-to some haramlek on another world, just as she’d been planning all along. My father was just a toy to her. As soon as their ship returned, she started making plans, issuing contracts. There was a long legal dispute with my father. I was placed in a birthsac, in stasis.”

“And your father won?”

Kalal scowled. “He took me here, anyway. Which is winning enough.”

There were many other questions about this story that Jalila wanted to ask Kalal, if she hadn’t already pressed too far. What, after all, did this tale of dispute and deception have to do with love? And were Kalal and Ibra really fugitives? It would explain quite a lot. Once more, in that familiar welling, she felt sorry for him. Men were such strange, sad creatures; forever fighting, angry, lost…

“ I’m glad you’re here anyway,” she said. Then, on impulse, one of those careless things you do, she took that rough and ugly chin in her hand, turned his face toward hers and kissed him lightly on the lips.

“What was that for?”

“ El-hamdu-l-Illah. That was for thanks.”

They plodded further on their hayawans. They came eventually to a cliff-edge so high that the sea and sky above and beneath vanished. Jalila already knew what they would see as they made their way along it, but still it was a shock; that qasr, thrust into these teeming ribbons of sand. The winds whooped and howled, and the hayawans raised their heads and howled back at it. In this grinding atmosphere, Jalila could see how the qasrs had been carved over long years from pure natural rock. They dismounted, and struggled bent-backed across the narrowing track toward the qasr’s studded door. Jalila raised her fist and beat on it.

She glanced back at Kalal, but his face was entirely hidden beneath his hood. Had they always intended to come here? But they had traveled too far to do otherwise now; Robin and Abu were tired and near-blinded; they all needed rest and shelter. She beat on the door again, but the sound was lost in the booming storm. Perhaps the tariqua had left with the last of the Season of Rockets, just as had most of the aliens. Jalila was about to turn away when the door, as if thrown Wide by the wind, blasted open. There was no one on the other side, and the hallway beyond was dark as the bottom of a dry well. Robin hoiked her head back and howled and resisted as Jalila hauled her in. Kalal with Abu followed. The door, with a massive drumbeat, hammered itself shut behind them. Of course, it was only some old mechanism of this house, but Jalila felt the hairs on the nape of her neck rise.

They hobbled the hayawans beside the largest of the scalloped arches, and walked on down the passageway beyond. The wind was still with them, and the shapes of the pillars were like the swirling helixes of sand made solid. It was hard to tell what parts of this place had been made by the hands of women and what was entirely natural. If the qasr had seemed deserted in the heat of summer, it was entirely abandoned now. A scatter of glass windchimes, torn apart by the wind. A few broken plates. Some flapping cobwebs of tapestry.

Kalal pulled Jalila’s hand.

“Let’s go back…”

But there was greater light ahead, the shadows of the speeding sky. Here was the courtyard where they had glimpsed the tariqua. She had plainly gone now-the fountain was dry and clogged, the bushes were bare tangles of wire. They walked out beneath the tiled arches, looking around. The wind was like a million voices, rising in ululating chorus. This was a strange and empty place; somehow dangerous… Jalila span around. The tariqua was standing there, her robes flapping. With insect fingers, she beckoned.

“Are you leaving?” Jalila asked. “I mean, this place…”

The tariqua had led them into the shelter of a tall, wind-echoing chamber set with blue and white tiles. There were a few rugs and cushions scattered on the floor, but still the sense of abandonment remained. As if, Jalila thought, as the tariqua folded herself on the floor and gestured that they join her, this was her last retreat.

“No, Jalila. I won’t be leaving Habara. Itfaddal… Do sit down.”

They stepped from their sandals and obeyed. Jalila couldn’t quite remember now whether Kalal had encountered the tariqua on her visit to their haramlek, although it seemed plain from his stares at her, and the way her grey-white gaze returned them, that they knew of each other in some way. Coffee was brewing in the corner, over a tiny blue spirit flame, which, as it fluttered in the many drafts, would have taken hours to heat anything. Yet the spout of the brass pot was steaming. And there were dates, too, and nuts and seeds. The tariqua, apologizing for her inadequacy as a host, nevertheless insisted that they help themselves. And somewhere there was a trough of water, too, for their hayawans, and a basket of acram leaves.

Uneasily, they sipped from their cups, chewed the seeds. Kalal had picked up a chipped lump of old stone and was playing with it nervously. Jalila couldn’t quite see what it was.

“So,” he said, clearing his throat, “you’ve been to and from the stars, have you?”

“As have you. Perhaps you could name the planet? It may have been somewhere that we have both visited…”

Kalal swallowed. His lump of old stone clicked the floor. A spindle of wind played chill on Jalila’s neck. Then-she didn’t know how it began-the tariqua was talking of Ghezirah, the great and fabled city that lay at the center of all the Ten Thousand and One Worlds. No one Jalila had ever met or heard of had ever visited Ghezirah, not even Nayra’s mothers-yet this tariqua talked of it as if she knew it well. Before, Jalila had somehow imagined the tariqua trailing from planet to distant planet with dull cargoes of ore and biomass in her ship’s holds. To her mind, Ghezirah had always been more than half-mythical-a place from which a dubious historical figure such as the Blessed Joanna might easily emanate, but certainly not a place composed of solid streets upon which the gnarled and bony feet of this old woman might once have walked…

Ghezirah… she could see it now in her mind, smell the shadowy lobbies, see the ever-climbing curve of its mezzanines and rooftops vanishing into the impossible greens of the Floating Ocean. But every time Jalila’s vision seemed about to solidify, the tariqua said something else that made it tremble and change. And then the tariqua said the strangest thing of all, which was that the City At The End Of All Roads was actually alive. Not alive in the meager sense in which every town has a sort of life, but truly living. The city thought. It grew. It responded. There was no central mind or focus to this consciousness, because Ghezirah itself, its teeming streets and minarets and rivers and caleches and its many millions of lives, was itself the mind…

Jalila was awestruck, but Kalal seemed unimpressed, and was still playing with that old lump of stone.

4.

“Jalilaneen…”

The way bondmother Lya said her name made Jalila look up. Somewhere in her throat, a wary nerve started ticking. They took their meals inside now, in the central courtyard of the haramlek, which Pavo had provided with a translucent roofing to let in a little of what light there was in the evenings’ skies, and keep out most of the wind. Still, as Jalila took a sip of steaming hibiscus, she was sure that the sand had gotten into something.

“We’ve been talking. Things have come up-ideas about which we’d like to seek your opinion…”

In other words, Jalila thought, her gaze traveling across her three mothers, you’ve decided something. And this is how you tell me-by pretending that you’re consulting me. It had been the same with leaving Tabuthal. It was always the same. An old ghost of herself got up at that point, threw down her napkin, stalked off up to her room. But the new Jalila remained seated. She even smiled and tried to look encouraging.

“We’ve seen so little of this world,” Lya continued. “All of us, really. And especially since we had you. It’s been marvelous. But, of course, it’s also been confining… Oh no -” Lya waved the idea away quickly, before anyone could even begin to start thinking it. “-we won’t be leaving our haramlek and Al Janb. There are many things to do. New bonds and friendships have been made. Ananke and I won’t be leaving, anyway… But Pavo…” And here Lya, who could never quite stop being the chair of a committee, gave a nod toward her mate. “… Pavo here has dec-expressed a wish- that she would like to travel.”

“Travel?” Jalila leaned forward, her chin resting on her knuckles. “How?”

Pavo gave her plate a half turn. “By boat seems the best way to explore Habara. With such a big ocean…” She turned the plate again, as if to demonstrate.

“And not just a boat,” Ananke put in encouragingly. “A brand new ship. We’re having it built-”

“-But I thought you said you hadn’t yet decided?”

“The contract, I think, is still being prepared,” Lya explained. “And much of the craft will be to Pavo’s own design.”

“Will you be building it yourself?”

“Not alone.” Pavo gave another of her flustered smiles. “I’ve asked Ibra to help me. He seems to be the best, the most knowledgeable-”

“-Ibra? Does he have any references?”

“This is Al Janb, Jalila,” Lya said. “We know and trust people. I’d have thought that, with your friendship with Kalal…”

“This certainly is Al Janb…” Jalila sat back. “How can I ever forget it!” All of her mothers’ eyes were on her. Then something broke. She got up and stormed off to her room.

The long ride to the tariqua’s qasr, the swish of the wind, and banging three times on the old oak door. Then hobbling Robin and hurrying through dusty corridors to that tall tiled chamber, and somehow expecting no one to be there, even though Jalila had now come here several times alone.

But the tariqua was always there. Waiting.

Between them now, there was much to be said.

“This ant, Jalila, which crawls across this sheet of paper from here to there. She is much like us as we crawl across the surface of this planet. Even if she had the wings some of her kind sprout, just as I have my caleche, it would still be the same.” The tiny creature, waving feelers, was plainly lost. A black dot. Jalila understood how it felt. “But say, if we were to fold both sides of the paper together. You see how she moves now…?” The ant, antennae waving, hesitant, at last made the tiny jump. “We can move more quickly from one place to another by not travelling across the distance that separates us from it, but by folding space itself.

“Imagine now, Jalila, that this universe is not one thing alone, one solitary series of this following that, but an endless branching of potentialities. Such it has been since the Days of Creation, and such it is even now, in the shuffle of that leaf as the wind picks at it, in the rising steam of your coffee. Every moment goes in many ways. Most are poor, half-formed things, the passing thoughts and whims of the Almighty. They hang there and they die, never to be seen again. But others branch as strongly as this path that we find ourselves following. There are universes where you and I have never sat here in this qasr. There are universes where there is no Jalila… Will you get that for me…?”

The tariqua was pointing to an old book in a far corner. Its leather was cracked, the wind lifted its pages. As she took it from her, Jalila felt the hot brush of the old woman’s hand.

“So now, you must imagine that there is not just one sheet of a single universe, but many, as in this book, heaped invisibly above and beside and below the page upon which we find ourselves crawling. In fact…” The ant recoiled briefly, sensing the strange heat of the tariqua’s fingers, then settled on the open pages. “You must imagine shelf after shelf, floor upon floor of books, the aisles of an infinite library. And if we are to fold this one page, you see, we or the ant never quite knows what lies on the other side of it. And there may be a tear in that next page as well. It may even be that another version of ourselves has already torn it.”

Despite its worn state, the book looked potentially valuable, hand-written in a beautiful flowing script. Jalila had to wince when the tariqua’s fingers ripped through them. But the ant had vanished now. She was somewhere between the book’s pages…

“That, Jalila, is the Pain of Distance-the sense of every potentiality. So that womankind may pass over the spaces between the stars, every tariqua must experience it.” The wind gave an extra lunge, flipping the book shut. Jalila reached forward, but the tariqua, quick for once, was ahead of her. Instead of opening the book to release the ant, she weighed it down with the same chipped old stone with which Kalal had played on his solitary visit to this qasr.

“Now, perhaps, my Jalila, you begin to understand?”

The stone was old, chipped, grey-green. It was inscribed, and had been carved with the closed wings of a beetle. Here was something from a world so impossibly old and distant as to make the book upon which it rested seem fresh and new as an unbudded leaf-a scarab, shaped for the Queens of Egypt.

“See here, Jalila. See how it grows. The breathmoss?”

This was the beginning of the Season of Autumns. The trees were beautiful; the forests were on fire with their leaves. Jalila had been walking with Pavo, enjoying the return of the birdsong, and wondering why it was that this new season felt sad when everything around her seemed to be changing and growing.

“Look…”

The breathmoss, too, had turned russet-gold. Leaning close to it beneath this tranquil sky, which was composed of a blue so pale it was as if the sea had been caught in reflection inside an upturned white bowl, was like looking into the arms of a miniature forest.

“Do you think it will die?”

Pavo leaned beside her. “Jalila, it should have died long ago. Inshallah, it is a small miracle.” There were the three dead marks where Ananke had touched it in a Season of Long Ago. “You see how frail it is, and yet…”

“At least it won’t spread and take over the planet.”

“Not for a while, at least.”

On another rock lay another small colony. Here, too, oddly enough, there were marks. Five large dead dots, as if made by the outspread of a hand, although the shape of it was too big to have been Ananke’s. They walked on. Evening was coming. Their shadows were lengthening. Although the sun was shining and the Waves sparkled, Jalila wished that she had put on something warmer than a shawl.

“That tariqua. You seem to enjoy her company…”

Jalila nodded. When she was with the old woman, she felt at last as if she was escaping the confines of Al Janb. It was liberating, after the close life in this town and with her mothers in their haramlek, to know that interstellar space truly existed, and then to feel, as the tariqua spoke of Gateways, momentarily like that ant, infinitely small and yet somehow inching, crawling across the many universes’ infinite pages. But how could she express this? Even Pavo wouldn’t understand.

“How goes the boat?” she asked instead.

Pavo slipped her arm into to crook of Jalila’s and hugged her. “You must come and see! I have the plan in my head, but I’d never realized quite how big it would be. And complex. Ibra’s full of enthusiasm.”

“I can imagine!”

The sea flashed. The two women chuckled.

“The way the ship’s designed, Jalila, there’s more than enough room for others. I never exactly planned to go alone, but then Lya’s Lya. And Ananke’s always-”

Jalila gave her mother’s arm a squeeze. “I know what you’re saying.”

“I’d be happy if you came, Jalila. I’d understand if you didn’t. This is such a beautiful, wonderful planet. The leviathans-we know so little about them, yet they plainly have intelligence, just as all those old myths say.”

“You’ll be telling me next about the qasrs…”

“The ones we can see near here are nothing! There are islands on the ocean that are entirely made from them. And the wind pours through. They sing endlessly. A different song for every mood and season.”

“Moods! If I’d said something like that when you were teaching me of the Pillars of Life, you’d have told me I was being unscientific!”

“Science is about wonder, Jalila. I was a poor teacher if I never told you that.”

“You did.” Jalila turned to kiss Pavo’s forehead. “You did…”

Pavo’s ship was a fine thing. Between the slipways and the old mooring posts, where the red-flapping geelies quarreled over scraps of dying tideflower, it grew and grew. Golden-hulled. Far sleeker and bigger than even the ferries that had once borne Al Janb’s visitors to and from the rocket port, and which now squatted on the shingle nearby, gently rusting. It was the talk of the Season. People came to admire its progress.

As Jalila watched the spars rise over the clustered roofs of the fisherwomen’s houses, she was reminded of Kalal’s tale of his father and his nameless mother, and that ship that they had made together in the teeming dockyards of that city. Her thoughts blurred. She saw the high balconies of a hotel far bigger than any of Al Janb’s inns and boarding houses. She saw a darker, brighter ocean. Strange flesh upon flesh, with the windows open to the oil-and-salt breeze, the white lace curtains rising, falling…

The boat grew, and Jalila visited the tariqua, although back in Al Janb, her thoughts sometimes trailed after Kalal as she wondered how it must be-to be male, like the last dodo, and trapped in some endless state of part-arousal, like a form of nagging worry. Poor Kalal. But his life certainly wasn’t lonely. The first time Jalila noticed him at the center of the excited swarm of girls that once again surrounded Nayra, she’d almost thought that she was seeing things. But the gossip was loud and persistent. Kalal and Nayra were a couple- the phrase normally followed by a scandalized shriek, a hand-covered mouth. Jalila could only guess what the proud mothers of Nayra’s haramlek thought of such a union, but, of course, no one could subscribe to outright prejudice. Kalal was, after all, just another human being. Lightly probing her own mothers’ attitudes, she found the usual condescending tolerance. Having sexual relations with a male would be like smoking kif, or drinking alcohol, or any other form of slightly aberrant adolescent behavior, to be tolerated with easy smiles and sympathy, as long as it didn’t go on for too long. To be treated, in fact, in much the same manner as her mothers were now treating her regular visits to the tariqua.

Jalila came to understand why people thought of the Season of Autumns as a sad time. The chill nights. The morning fogs that shrouded the bay. The leaves, finally falling, piled into rotting heaps. The tideflower beds, also, were dying as the waves pulled and dismantled what remained of their colors, and they drifted to the shores, the flowers bearing the same stench and texture and color as upturned clay. The geelies were dying as well. In the town, to compensate, there was much bunting and celebration for yet another moulid, but to Jalila the brightness seemed feeble-the flame of a match held against winter’s gathering gale. Still, she sometimes wandered the old markets with some of her old curiosity, nostalgically touching the flapping windsilks, studying the faces and nodding at the many she now knew, although her thoughts were often literally light-years away. The Pain of Distance; she could feel it. Inwardly, she was thrilled and afraid. Her mothers and everyone else, caught up in the moulid and Pavo’s coming departure, imagined from her mood that she had now decided to take that voyage with her. She deceived Kalal in much the same way.

The nights became clearer. Riding back from the qasr one dark evening with the tariqua’s slight voice ringing in her ears, the stars seemed to hover closer around her than at any time since she had left Tabuthal. She could feel the night blossoming, its emptiness and the possibilities spinning out to infinity. She felt both like crying, and like whooping for joy. She had dared to ask the tariqua the question she had long been formulating, and the answer, albeit not entirely yes, had not been no. She talked to Robin as they bobbed along, and the puny yellow smudge of Al Janb drew slowly closer. You must understand, she told her hayawan, that the core of the Almighty is like the empty place between these stars, around which they all revolve. It is there, we know it, but we can never see it… She sang songs from the old saharas about the joy of loneliness, and the loneliness of joy. From here, high up on the gradually descending road that wound its way down toward her haramlek, the horizon was still distant enough for her to see the lights of the rocketport. It was like a huge tidebed, holding out as the season changed. And there at the center of it, rising golden, no longer a stumpy silo-shaped object but somehow beautiful, was the last of the year’s rockets. It would have to rise from Habara before the coming of the Season of Winters.

Her mothers’ anxious faces hurried around her in the lamplight as she led Robin toward the stable.

“Where have you been, Jalilaneen?”

“Do you know what time it is?”

“We should be in the town already!”

For some reason, they were dressed in their best, most formal robes. Their palms were hennaed and scented. They bustled Jalila out of her gritty clothes, practically washed and dressed her, then flapped themselves down the serraplate road into town, where the processions had already started. Still, they were there in plenty of time to witness the blessing of Pavo’s ship. It was to be called Endeavor, and Pavo and Jalila together smashed the bottle of wine across its prow before it rumbled into the nightblack waters of the harbor with an enormous white splash. Everyone cheered, Pavo hugged Jalila.

There were more bottles of the same frothy wine available at the party afterward. Lya, with her usual thoroughness, had ordered a huge case of the stuff, although many of the guests remembered the Prophet’s old injunction and avoided imbibing. Ibra, though, was soon even more full of himself than usual, and went around the big marquee with a bottle in each hand, dancing clumsily with anyone who was foolish enough to come near him. Jalila drank a little of the stuff herself. The taste was sweet, but oddly hot and bitter. She filled up another glass.

“Wondered what you two mariners were going to call that boat…”

It was Kalal. He’d been dancing with many of the girls, and he looked almost as red-faced as his father.

“Bet you don’t even know what the first Endeavor was.”

“You’re wrong there,” Jalila countered primly, although the simple words almost fell over each other as she tried to say them. “It was the spacecraft of Captain Cook. She was one of the urrearth’s most famous early explorers.”

“I thought you were many things,” Kalal countered, angry for no apparent reason. “But I never thought you were stupid.”

Jalila watched him walk away. The dance had gathered up its beat. Ibra had retreated to sit, foolishly glum, in a corner, and Nayra had moved to the middle of the floor, her arms raised, bracelets jingling, an opal jewel at her belly, windsilk-draped hips swaying. Jalila watched. Perhaps it was the drink, but for the first time in many a Season, she felt a slight return of that old erotic longing as she watched Nayra swaying. Desire was the strangest of all emotions. It seemed so trivial when you weren’t possessed of it, and yet when you were possessed, it was as if all the secrets of the universe were waiting… Nayra was the focus of all attention now as she swayed amid the crowd, her shoulders glistening. She danced before Jalila, and her languorous eyes fixed her for a moment before she danced on. Now she was dancing with Kalal, and he was swaying with her, her hands laid upon his shoulders, and everyone was clapping. They made a fine couple. But the music was getting louder, and so were people’s voices. Her head was pounding. She left the marquee.

She welcomed the harshness of the night air, the clear presence of the stars. Even the stench of the rotting tideflowers seemed appropriate as she picked her way across the ropes and slipways of the beach. So much had changed since she had first come here-but mostly what had changed had been herself. Here, its shape unmistakable as rising Walah spread her faint blue light across the ocean, was Kalal’s boat. She sat down on the gunwale. The cold wind bit into her. She heard the crunch of shingle, and imagined it was someone else who was in need of solitude. But the sound grew closer, and then whoever it was sat down on the boat beside her. She didn’t need to look up now. Kalal’s smell was always different, and now he was sweating from the dancing.

“I thought you were enjoying yourself,” she muttered.

“Oh-I was…” The emphasis on the was was strong.

They sat there for a long time, in windy, wave-crashing silence. It was almost like being alone. It was like the old days of their being together.

“So you’re going, are you?” Kalal asked eventually.

“Oh, yes.”

“I’m pleased for you. It’s a fine boat, and I like Pavo best of all your mothers. You haven’t seemed quite so happy lately here in Al Janb. Spending all that time with that old witch in the qasr.”

“She’s not a witch. She’s a tariqua. It’s one of the greatest, oldest callings. Although I’m surprised you’ve had time to notice what I’m up to, anyway. You and Nayra…”

Kalal laughed, and the wind made the sound turn bitter.

“I’m sorry,” Jalila continued. “I’m sounding just like those stupid gossips. I know you’re not like that. Either of you. And I’m happy for you both. Nayra’s sweet and talented and entirely lovely… I hope it lasts… I hope…”

After another long pause, Kalal said, “Seeing as we’re apologizing, I’m sorry I got cross with you about the name of that boat you’ll be going on-the Endeavor. It’s a good name.”

“Thank you. El-hamadu-l-illah.”

“In fact, I could only think of one better one, and I’m glad you and Pavo didn’t use it. You know what they say. To have two ships with the same name confuses the spirits of the winds…”

“What are you talking about, Kalal?”

“This boat. You’re sitting right on it. I thought you might have noticed.”

Jalila glanced down at the prow, which lay before her in the moonlight, pointing toward the silvered waves. From this angle, and in the old naskhi script that Kalal had used, it took her a moment to work out the craft’s name. Something turned inside her.

Breathmoss.

In white, moonlit letters.

“I’m sure there are better names for a boat,” she said carefully. “Still, I’m flattered.”

“Flattered?” Kalal stood up. She couldn’t really see his face, but she suddenly knew that she’d once again said the wrong thing. He waved his hands in an odd shrug, and he seemed for a moment almost ready to lean close to her-to do something unpredictable and violent-but instead, picking up stones and skimming them hard into the agitated waters, he walked away.

***

Pavo was right. If not about love-which Jalila knew now that she still waited to experience-then at least about the major decisions of your life. There was never quite a beginning to them, although your mind often sought for such a thing.

When the tariqua’s caleche emerged out of the newly teeming rain one dark evening a week or so after the naming of the Endeavor, and settled itself before the lights of their haramlek, and the old woman herself emerged, somehow still dry, and splashed across the puddled garden while her three mothers flustered about to find the umbrella they should have thought to look for earlier, Jalila still didn’t know what she should be thinking. The four women would, in any case, need to talk alone; Jalila recognized that. For once, after the initial greetings, she was happy to retreat to her dreamtent.

But her mind was still in turmoil. She was suddenly terrified that her mothers would actually agree to this strange proposition, and then that, out of little more than embarrassment and obligation, the rest of her life would be bound to something that the tariqua called the Church of the Gateway. She knew so little. The tariqua talked only in riddles. She could be a fraud, for all Jalila knew-or a witch, just as Kalal insisted. Thoughts swirled about her like the rain. To make the time disappear, she tried searching the knowledge of her dreamtent. Lying there, listening to the rising sound of her mothers’ voices, which seemed to be studded endlessly with the syllables of her own name, Jalila let the personalities who had guided her through the many Pillars of Wisdom tell her what they knew about the Church of the Gateway.

She saw the blackness of planetary space, swirled with the mica dots of turning planets. Almost as big as those as she zoomed close to it, yet looking disappointingly like a many-angled version of the rocketport, lay the spacestation, and, within it, the junction that could lead you from here to there without passing across the distance between. A huge rent in the Book of Life, composed of the trapped energies of those things the tariqua called cosmic strings, although they and the Gateway itself were visible as nothing more than a turning ring near to the center of the vast spacestation, where occasionally, as Jalila watched, crafts of all possible shapes would seem to hang, then vanish. The gap she glimpsed inside seemed no darker than that which hung between the stars behind it, but it somehow hurt to stare at it. This, then, was the core of the mystery; something both plain and extraordinary. We crawl across the surface of this universe like ants, and each of these craft, switching through the Gateway’s moment of loss and endless potentiality, is piloted by the will of a tariqua’s conscious intelligence, which must glimpse those choices, then somehow emerge sane and entire at the other end of everything…

Jalila’s mind returned to the familiar scents and shapes of her dreamtent, and the sounds of the rain. The moment seemed to belong with those of the long-ago Season of Soft Rains. Downstairs, there were no voices. As she climbed out from her dreamtent, warily expecting to find the haramlek leaking and half-finished, Jalila was struck by an idea that the tariqua hadn’t quite made plain to her; that a Gateway must push through time just as easily as it pushes through every other dimension…! But the rooms of the haramlek were finely furnished, and her three mothers and the tariqua were sitting in the rainswept candlelight of the courtyard, waiting.

With any lesser request, Lya always quizzed Jalila before she would even consider granting it. So as Jalila sat before her mothers and tried not to tremble in their presence, she wondered how she could possibly explain her ignorance of this pure, boundless mystery.

But Lya simply asked Jalila if this was what she wanted-to be an acolyte of the Church of the Gateway.

“Yes.”

Jalila waited. Then, not even, are you sure? They’d trusted her less than this when they’d sent her on errands into Al Janb… It was still raining. The evening was starless and dark. Her three mothers, having hugged her, but saying little else, retreated to their own dreamtents and silences, leaving Jalila to say farewell to the tariqua alone. The heat of the old woman’s hand no longer came as a surprise to Jalila as she helped her up from her chair and away from the sheltered courtyard.

“Well,” the tariqua croaked, “that didn’t seem to go so badly.”

“But I know so little!” They were standing on the patio at the dripping edge of the night. Wet streamers of wind tugged at them.

“I know you wish I could tell you more, Jalila-but then, would it make any difference?”

Jalila shook her head. “Will you come with me?”

“Habara is where I must stay, Jalila. It is written.”

“But I’ll be able to return?”

“Of course. But you must remember that you can never return to the place you have left.” The tariqua fumbled with her clasp, the one of a worm consuming its tail. “I want you to have this.” It was made of black ivory, and felt as hot as the old woman’s flesh as Jalila took it. For once, not really caring whether she broke her bones, she gave the small, bird-like woman a hug. She smelled of dust and metal, like an antique box left forgotten on a sunny windowledge. Jalila helped her out down the steps into the rainswept garden.

“I’ll come again soon,” she said, “to the qasr.”

“Of course… there are many arrangements.” The tariqua opened the dripping filigree door of her caleche and peered at her with those half-blind eyes. Jalila waited. They had stood too long in the rain already.

“Yes?”

“Don’t be too hard on Kalal.”

Puzzled, Jalila watched the caleche rise and turn away from the lights of the haramlek.

Jalila moved warily through the sharded glass of her own and her mothers’ expectations. It was agreed that a message concerning her be sent, endorsed by the full long and ornate formal name of the tariqua, to the body that did indeed call itself the Church of the Gateway. It went by radio pulse to the spacestation in wide solar orbit that received Habara’s rockets and was then passed on inside a vessel from here to there that was piloted by a tariqua. Not only that, but the message was destined for Ghezirah! Riding Robin up to the cliffs where, in this newly clear autumn air, under grey skies and tearing wet wind, she could finally see the waiting fuselage of that last golden rocket, Jalila felt confused and tiny, huge and mythic. It was agreed though, that for the sake of everyone-and not least Jalila herself, should she change her mind-that the word should remain that she was traveling out around the planet with Pavo onboard the Endeavor. In need of something to do when she wasn’t brooding, and waiting for further word from (could it really be?) the sentient city of Ghezirah, Jalila threw herself into the listings and loadings and preparations with convincing enthusiasm.

“The hardest decisions, once made, are often the best ones.”

“Compared to what you’ll be doing, my little journey seems almost pointless.”

“We love you so deeply.”

Then the message finally came: an acknowledgement; an acceptance; a few (far too few, it seemed) particulars of the arrangements and permissions necessary for such a journey. All on less than half a sheet of plain two-dimensional printout.

Even Lya had started touching and hugging her at every opportunity.

Jalila ate lunch with Kalal and Nayra. She surprised herself and talked gaily at first of singing islands and sea-leviathans, somehow feeling that she was hiding little from her two best friends but the particular details of the journey she was undertaking. But Jalila was struck by the coldness that seemed to lie between these two supposed lovers. Nayra, perhaps sensing from bitter experience that she was once again about to be rejected, seemed near-tearful behind her dazzling smiles and the flirtatious blonde tossings of her hair, while Kalal seemed… Jalila had no idea how he seemed, but she couldn’t let it end like this, and concocted some queries about the Endeavor so that she could lead him off alone as they left the bar. Nayra, perhaps fearing something else entirely, was reluctant to leave them.

“I wonder what it is that we’ve both done to her?” Kalal sighed as they watched her give a final sideways wave, pause, and then turn reluctantly down a sidestreet with a most un-Nayran duck of her lovely head.

They walked toward the harbor through a pause in the rain, to where the Endeavor was waiting.

“Lovely, isn’t she?” Kalal murmured as they stood looking down at the long deck, then up at the high forest of spars. Pavo, who was developing her acquaintance with the ship’s mind, gave them a wave from the bubble of the forecastle. “How long do you think your journey will take? You should be back by early spring, I calculate, if you get ahead of the icebergs…”

Jalila fingered the brooch that the tariqua had given her, and which she had taken to wearing at her shoulder in the place where she had once worn the tideflower. It was like black ivory, but set with tiny white specks that loomed at your eyes if you held it close. She had no idea what world it was from, or of the substance of which it was made.

“… You’ll miss the winter here. But perhaps that’s no bad thing. It’s cold, and there’ll be other Seasons on the ocean. And there’ll be other winters. Well, to be honest, Jalila, I’d been hoping-”

“Look!” Jalila interrupted, suddenly sick of the lie she’d been living. “I’m not going.”

They turned and were facing each other by the harbor’s edge. Kalal’s strange face twisted into surprise, and then something like delight. Jalila thought that he was looking more and more like his father. “That’s marvelous!” He clasped each of Jalila’s arms and squeezed her hard enough to hurt. “It was rubbish, by the way, what I just said about winters here in Al Janb. They’re the most magical, wonderful season. We’ll have snowball fights together! And when Eid al-Fitr comes…”

His voice trailed off. His hands dropped from her. “What is it, Jalila?”

“I’m not going with Pavo on the Endeavor, but I’m going away. I’m going to Ghezirah. I’m going to study under the Church of the Gateway. I’m going to try to become a tariqua.”

His face twisted again. “That witch-”

“-don’t keep calling her that! You have no idea!”

Kalal balled his fists, and Jalila stumbled back, fearing for a moment that this wild, odd creature might actually be about to strike her. But he turned instead, and ran off from the harbor.

Next morning, to no one’s particular surprise, it was once again raining. Jalila felt restless and disturbed after her incomplete exchanges with Kalal. Some time had also passed since the message had been received from Ghezirah, and the few small details it had given of her journey had become vast and complicated and frustrating in their arranging. Despite the weather, she decided to ride out to see the tariqua.

Robin’s mood had been almost as odd as her mothers, recently, and she moaned and snickered at Jalila when she entered the stables. Jalila called back to her, and stroked her long nose, trying to ease her agitation. It was only when she went to check the harnesses that she realized that Abu was missing. Lya was in the haramlek, still finishing breakfast. It had to be Kalal who had taken her.

The swirling serraplated road. The black, dripping trees. The agitated ocean. Robin was starting to rust again. She would need more of Pavo’s attention. But Pavo would soon be gone too… The whole planet was changing, and Jalila didn’t know what to make of anything, least of all what Kalal was up to, although the unasked-for borrowing of a precious mount, even if Abu had been virtually Kalal’s all summer, filled her with a foreboding that was an awkward load, not especially heavy, but difficult to carry or put down; awkward and jagged and painful. Twice, now, he had turned from her and walked away with something unsaid. It felt like the start of some prophecy…

The qasr shone jet-black in the teeming rain. The studded door, straining to overcome the swelling damp, burst open more forcefully than usual at Jalila’s third knock, and the air inside swirled dark and empty. No sign of Abu in the place beyond the porch where Kalal would probably have hobbled him, although the floor here seemed muddied and damp, and Robin was agitated. Jalila glanced back, but she and her hayawan had already obscured the possible signs of another’s presence. Unlike Kalal, who seemed to notice many things, she decided that she made a poor detective.

Cold air stuttered down the passageways. Jalila, chilled and watchful, had grown so used to this qasr’s sense of abandonment that it was impossible to tell whether the place was now finally empty. But she feared that it was. Her thoughts and footsteps whispered to her that the tariqua, after ruining her life and playing with her expectations, had simply vanished into a puff of lost potentialities. Already disappointed, angry, she hurried to the high-ceilinged room set with blue and white tiles and found, with no great surprise, that the strewn cushions were cold and damp, the coffee lamp was unlit, and that the book through which that patient ant had crawled was now sprawled in a damp-leafed scatter of torn pages. There was no sign of the scarab. Jalila sat down, and listened to the wind’s howl, the rain’s ticking, wondering for a long time when it was that she had lost the ability to cry.

Finally, she stood up and moved toward the courtyard. It was colder today than it had ever been, and the rain had greyed and thickened. It gelled and dripped from the gutters in the form of something she supposed was called sleet, and which she decided as it splattered down her neck that she would hate forever. It filled the bowl of the fountain with mucus-like slush, and trickled sluggishly along the lines of the drains. The air was full of weepings and howlings. In the corner of the courtyard, there lay a small black heap.

Sprawled half in, half out of the poor shelter of the arched cloisters, more than ever like a flightless bird, the tariqua lay dead. Her clothes were sodden. All the furnace heat had gone from her body, although, on a day such as this, that would take no more than a matter of moments. Jalila glanced up through the sleet toward the black wet stone of the latticed mashrabiya from which she and Kalal had first spied on the old woman, but she was sure now that she was alone. People shrank incredibly when they were dead-even a figure as frail and old as this creature had been. And yet, Jalila found as she tried to move the tariqua’s remains out of the rain, their spiritless bodies grew uncompliant; heavier and stupider than clay. The tariqua’s face rolled up toward her. One side was pushed in almost unrecognizably, and she saw that a nearby nest of ants were swarming over it, busily tunneling out the moisture and nutrition, bearing it across the smeared paving as they stored up for the long winter ahead.

There was no sign of the scarab.

5.

This, for Jalila and her mothers, was the Season of Farewells. It was the Season of Departures.

There was a small and pretty onion-domed mausoleum on a headland overlooking Al Janb, and the pastures around it were a popular place for picnics and lovers’ trysts in the Season of Summers, although they were scattered with tombstones. It was the ever-reliable Lya who saw to the bathing and shrouding of the tariqua’s body, which was something Jalila could not possibly face, and to the sending out through the null-space between the stars of all the necessary messages. Jalila, who had never been witness to the processes of death before, was astonished at the speed with which everything was arranged. As she stood with the other mourners on a day scarfed with cloud, beside the narrow rectangle of earth within which what remained of the tariqua now lay, she could still hear the wind booming over the empty qasr, feel the uncompliant weight of the old woman’s body, the chill speckle of sleet on her face.

It seemed as if most of the population of Al Janb had made the journey with the cortege up the narrow road from the town. Hard-handed fisherwomen. Gaudily dressed merchants. Even the few remaining aliens. Nayra was there, too, a beautiful vision of sorrow surrounded by her lesser black acolytes. So was Ibra. So, even, was Kalal. Jalila, who was acknowledged to have known the old woman better than anyone, said a few words that she barely heard herself over the wind. Then a priestess who had flown in specially from Ras pronounced the usual prayers about the soul rising on the arms of Munkar and Nakir, the blue and the black angels. Looking down into the ground, trying hard to think of the Gardens of Delight that the Almighty always promised her stumbling faithful, Jalila could only remember that dream of her own burial: the soil pattering on her face, and everyone she knew looking down at her. The tariqua, in one of her many half-finished tales, had once spoken to her of a world upon which no sun had ever shone, but which was nevertheless warm and bounteous from the core of heat beneath its surface, and where the people were all blind, and moved by touch and sound alone; it was a joyous place, and they were forever singing. Perhaps, and despite all the words of the Prophet, Heaven, too, was a place of warmth and darkness.

The ceremony was finished. Everyone moved away, each pausing to toss in a damp clod of earth, but leaving the rest of the job to be completed by a dull-minded robotic creature, which Pavo had had to rescue from the attentions of the younger children, who, all through the long Habaran summer, had ridden around on it. Down at their haramlek, Jalila’s mothers had organized a small feast. People wandered the courtyard, and commented admiringly on the many changes and improvements they had made to the place. Amid all this, Ibra seemed subdued-a reluctant presence in his own body-while Kalal was nowhere to be seen at all, although Jalila suspected that, if only for the reasons of penance, he couldn’t be far away.

Of course, there had been shock at the news of the tariqua’s death, and Lya, who had now become the person to whom the town most often turned to resolve its difficulties, had taken the lead in the inquiries that followed. A committee of wisewomen was organized even more quickly than the funeral, and Jalila had been summoned and interrogated. Waiting outside in the cold hallways of Al Janb’s municipal buildings, she’d toyed with the idea of keeping Abu’s disappearance and her suspicions of Kalal out of her story, but Lya and the others had already spoken to him, and he’d admitted to what sounded like everything. He’d ridden to the qasr on Abu to remonstrate with the tariqua. He’d been angry, and his mood had been bad. Somehow, but only lightly, he’d pushed the old woman, and she had fallen badly. Then, he panicked. Kalal bore responsibility for his acts, it was true, but it was accepted that the incident was essentially an accident. Jalila, who had imagined many versions of Kalal’s confrontation with the tariqua, but not a single one that seemed entirely real, had been surprised at how easily the people of Al Janb were willing to absolve him. She wondered if they would have done so quite so easily if Kalal had not been a freak-a man. And then she also wondered, although no one had said a single word to suggest it, just how much she was to blame for all of this herself.

She left the haramlek from the funeral wake and crossed the road to the beach. Kalal was sitting on the rocks, his back turned to the shore and the mountains. He didn’t look around when she approached and sat down beside him. It was the first time since before the tariqua’s death that they’d been alone.

“I’ll have to leave here,” he said, still gazing out toward the clouds that trailed the horizon.

“There’s no reason-”

“-no one’s asked me and Ibra to stay. I think they would, don’t you, if anyone had wanted us to? That’s the way you women work.”

“We’re not you women, Kalal. We’re people.”

“So you always say. And all Al Janb’s probably terrified about the report they’ve had to make to that thing you’re joining-the Church of the Gateway. Some big, powerful body, and-whoops-we’ve killed one of your old employees…”

“Please don’t be bitter.”

Kalal blinked and said nothing. His cheeks were shining.

“You and Ibra-where will you both go?”

“There are plenty of other towns around this coast. We can use our boat to take us there before the ice sets in. We can’t afford to leave the planet. But maybe in the Season of False Springs, when I’m a grown man and we’ve made some of the proper money we’re always talking about making from harvesting the tideflowers-and when word’s got around to everyone on this planet of what happened here. Maybe then we’ll leave Habara.” He shook his head and sniffed. “I don’t know why I bother to say maybe…”

Jalila watched the waves. She wondered if this was the destiny of all men; to wander forever from place to place, planet to planet, pursued by the knowledge of vague crimes that they hadn’t really committed.

“I suppose you want to know what happened?”

Jalila shook her head. “It’s in the report, Kalal. I believe what you said.”

He wiped his face with his palms, studied their wetness. “I’m not sure I believe it myself, Jalila. The way she was, that day. That old woman-she always seemed to be expecting you, didn’t she? And then she seemed to know. I don’t understand quite how it happened, and I was angry, I admit. But she almost lunged at me… She seemed to want to die…”

“You mustn’t blame yourself. I brought you to this, Kalal. I never saw…” Jalila shook her head. She couldn’t say. Not even now. Her eyes felt parched and cold.

“I loved you, Jalila.”

The worlds branched in a million different ways. It could all have been different. The tariqua still alive. Jalila and Kalal together, instead of the half-formed thing that the love they had both felt for Nayra had briefly been. They could have taken the Endeavor together and sailed this planet’s seas; Pavo would probably have let them-but when, but where, but how? None of it seemed real. Perhaps the tariqua was right; there are many worlds, but most of them are poor, half-formed things.

Jalila and Kalal sat there for a while longer. The breathmoss lay not far off, darkening and hardening into a carpet of stiff grey. Neither of them noticed it.

For no other reason than the shift of the tides and the rapidly coming winter, Pavo, Jalila, and Kalal and Ibra all left Al Janb on the same morning. The days before were chaotic in the haramlek. People shouted and looked around for things and grew cross and petty. Jalila was torn between bringing everything and nothing, and after many hours of bag-packing and lip-chewing, decided that it could all be thrown out, and that her time would be better spent down in the stables, with Robin. Abu was there too, of course, and she seemed to sense the imminence of change and departure even more than Jalila’s own hayawan. She had become Kalal’s mount far more than she had ever been Lya’s, and he wouldn’t come to say goodbye.

Jalila stroked the warm felt of the creatures’ noses. Gazing into Abu’s eyes as she gazed back at hers, she remembered their rides out in the heat of summer. Being with Kalal then, although she hadn’t even noticed it, had been the closest she had ever come to loving anyone. On the last night before their departure, Ananke cooked one of her most extravagant dinners, and the four women sat around the heaped extravagance of the table that she’d spent all day preparing, each of them wondering what to say, and regretting how much of these precious last times together they’d wasted. They said a long prayer to the Almighty, and bowed in the direction of Al’Toman. It seemed that, tomorrow, even the two mothers who weren’t leaving Al Janb would be setting out on a new and difficult journey.

Then there came the morning, and the weather obliged with chill sunlight and a wind that pushed hard at their cloaks and nudged the Endeavor away from the harbor even before her sails were set. They all watched her go, the whole town cheering and waving as Pavo waved back, looking smaller and neater and prettier than ever as she receded. Without ceremony, around the corner from the docks, out of sight and glad of the Endeavor’s distraction, Ibra and Kalal were also preparing to leave. At a run, Jalila caught them just as they were starting to shift the hull down the rubbled slipway into the waves. Breathmoss; she noticed that Kalal had kept the name, although she and he stood apart on that final beach and talked as two strangers.

She shook hands with Ibra. She kissed Kalal lightly on the cheek by leaning stiffly forward, and felt the roughness of his stubble. Then the craft got stuck on the slipway, and they were all heaving to get her moving the last few meters into the ocean, until, suddenly, she was afloat, and Ibra was raising the sails, and Kalal was at the prow, hidden behind the tarpaulined weight of their belongings. Jalila only glimpsed him once more, and by then Breathmoss had turned to meet the stronger currents that swept outside the grey bay. He could have been a figurehead.

Back at the dock, her mothers were pacing, anxious.

“Where have you been?”

“Do you know what time it is?”

Jalila let them scald her. She was almost late for her own leaving. Although most of the crowds had departed, she’d half expected Nayra to be there. Jalila was momentarily saddened, and then she was glad for her. The silver craft that would take her to the rocketport smelled disappointingly of engine fumes as she clambered into it with the few other women and aliens who were leaving Habara. There was a loud bang as the hatches closed, and then a long wait while nothing seemed to happen, and she could only wave at Lya and Ananke through the thick porthole, smiling and mouthing stupid phrases until her face ached. The ferry bobbed loose, lurched, turned, and angled up. Al Janb was half gone in plumes of white spray already.

Then it came in a huge wave. That feeling of incompleteness, of something vital and unknown left irretrievably behind, which is the beginning of the Pain of Distance that Jalila, as a tariqua, would have to face throughout her long life. A sweat came over her. As she gazed out through the porthole at what little there was to see of Al Janb and the mountains, it slowly resolved itself into one thought. Immense and trivial. Vital and stupid. That scarab. She’d never asked Kalal about it, nor found it at the qasr, and the ancient object turned itself over in her head, sinking, spinning, filling her mind and then dwindling before rising up again as she climbed out, nauseous, from the ferry and crossed the clanging gantries of the spaceport toward the last huge golden craft, which stood steaming in the winter’s air. A murder weapon?-but no, Kalal was no murderer. And, in any case, she was a poor detective. And yet…

The rockets thrust and rumbled. Pushing back, squeezing her eyeballs. There was no time now to think. Weight on weight, terrible seconds piled on her. Her blood seemed to leave her face. She was a clay-corpse. Vital elements of her senses departed. Then, there was a huge wash of silence. Jalila turned to look through the porthole beside her, and there it was. Mostly blue, and entirely beautiful: Habara, her birth planet. Jalila’s hands rose up without her willing, and her fingers squealed as she touched the glass and tried to trace the shape of the greenish-brown coastline, the rising brown and white of the mountains of that huge single continent that already seemed so small, but of which she knew so little. Jewels seemed to be hanging close before her, twinkling and floating in and out of focus like the hazy stars she couldn’t yet see. They puzzled her for a long time, did these jewels, and they were evasive as fish as she sought them with her weightlessly clumsy fingers. Then Jalila felt the salt break of moisture against her face, and realized what it was.

At long last, she was crying.

6.

Jalila had long been expecting the message when it finally came. At only one hundred and twenty standard years, Pavo was still relatively young to die, but she had used her life up at a frantic pace, as if she had always known that her time would be limited. Even though the custom for swift funerals remained on Habara, Jalila was able to use her position as a tariqua to ride the Gateways and return for the service. The weather on the planet of her birth was unpredictable as ever, raining one moment and then sunny the next, even as she took the ferry to Al Janb from the rocketport, and hot and cold winds seemed to strike her face as she stood on the dock’s edge and looked about for her two remaining mothers. They embraced. They led her to their haramlek, which seemed smaller to Jalila each time she visited it, despite the many additions and extensions and improvements they had made, and far closer to Al Janb than the long walk she remembered once taking on those many errands. She wandered the shore after dinner, and searched the twilight for a particular shape and angle of quartz, and the signs of dark growth. But the heights of the Season of Storms on this coastline were ferocious, and nothing as fragile as breathmoss could have survived. She lay sleepless that night in her old room within her dreamtent, breathing the strong, dense, moist atmosphere with difficulty, listening to the sound of the wind and rain.

She recognized none of the faces but her mothers’ of the people who stood around Pavo’s grave the following morning. Al Janb had seemed so changeless, yet even Nayra had moved on-and Kalal was far away. Time was relentless. Far more than the wind that came in off the bay, it chilled Jalila to the bone. One mother dead, and her two others looking like the mahwagis she supposed they were becoming. The Pain of Distance. More than ever now, and hour by hour and day by day in this life that she had chosen, Jalila knew what the old tariqua had meant. She stepped forward to say a few words. Pavo’s life had been beautiful and complete. She had passed on much knowledge about this planet to all womankind, just as she had once passed on her wisdom to Jalila. The people listened respectfully to Jalila, as if she were a priest. When the prayers were finished and the clods of earth had been tossed and the groups began to move back down the hillside, Jalila remained standing by Pavo’s grave. What looked like the same old part-metal beast came lumbering up, and began to fill in the rest of the hole, lifting and lowering the earth with reverent, childlike care. Just as Jalila had insisted, and despite her mothers’ puzzlement, Pavo’s grave lay right beside the old tariqua’s whom they had buried so long ago. This was a place that she had long avoided, but now that Jalila saw the stone, once raw and brittle, but now smoothed and greyed by rain and wind, she felt none of the expected agony. She traced the complex name, scrolled in naskhi script, which she had once found impossible to remember, but which she had now recited countless times in the ceremonials that the Church of the Gateway demanded of its acolytes. Sometimes, especially in the High Temple at Ghezirah, the damn things could go on for days. Yet not one member of the whole Church had seen fit to come to the simple ceremony of this old woman’s burial. It had hurt her, once, to think that no one from offworld had come to her own funeral. But now she understood.

About to walk away, Jalila paused, and peered around the back of the gravestone. In the lee of the wind, a soft green patch of life was thriving. She stooped to examine the growth, which was thick and healthy, forming a patch more than the size of her two outstretched hands in this sheltered place. Breathmoss. It must have been here for a long time. Yet who would have thought to bring it? Only Pavo: only Pavo could possibly have known.

As the gathering of mourners at the haramlek started to peter out, Jalila excused herself and went to Pavo’s quarters. Most of the stuff up here was a mystery to her. There were machines and nutrients and potions beyond anything you’d expect to encounter on such an out-of-the way planet. Things were growing. Objects and data needed developing, tending, cataloging, if Pavo’s legacy was to be maintained. Jalila would have to speak to her mothers. But, for now, she found what she wanted, which was little more than a glass tube with an open end. She pocketed it, and walked back up over the hill to the cemetery, and said another few prayers, and bent down in the lee of the wind behind the old gravestone beside Pavo’s new patch of earth, and managed to remove a small portion of the breathmoss without damaging the rest of it.

That afternoon, she knew that she would have to ride out. The stables seemed virtually unchanged, and Robin was waiting. She even snickered in recognition of Jalila, and didn’t try to bite her when she came to introduce the saddle. It had been such a long time that the animal’s easy compliance seemed a small miracle. But perhaps this was Pavo again; she could have done something to preserve the recollection of her much-changed mistress in some circuit or synapse of the hayawan’s memory. Snuffling tears, feeling sad and exulted, and also somewhat uncomfortable, Jalila headed south on her hayawan along the old serraplate road, up over the cliffs and beneath the arms of the urrearth forest. The trees seemed different; thicker-leafed. And the birdsong cooed slower and deeper than she remembered. Perhaps, here in Habara, this was some Season other than all of those that she remembered. But the qasr reared as always-out there on the cliff face, and plainly deserted. No one came here now, but, like Robin, the door, at three beats of her fists, remembered.

Such neglect. Such decay. It seemed a dark and empty place. Even before Jalila came across the ancient signs of her own future presence-a twisted coat-hanger, a chipped plate, a few bleached and rotting cushions, some odd and scattered bits of Gateway technology that had passed beyond malfunction and looked like broken shells-she felt lost and afraid. Perhaps this, at last, was the final moment of knowing that she had warned herself she might have to face on Habara. The Pain of Distance. But at the same time, she knew that she was safe as she crawled across this particular page of her universe, and that when she did finally take a turn beyond the Gateways through which sanity itself could scarcely follow, it would be of her own volition, and as an impossibly old woman. The tariqua. Tending flowers like an old tortoise thrust out of its shell. Here, on a sunny, distant day. There were worse things. There were always worse things. And life was good. For all of this, pain was the price you paid.

Still, in the courtyard, Jalila felt the cold draft of prescience upon her neck from that lacy mashrabiya where she and Kalal would one day stand. The movement she made as she looked up toward it even reminded her of the old tariqua. Even her eyesight was not as sharp as it had once been. Of course, there were ways around that which could be purchased in the tiered and dizzy markets of Ghezirah, but sometimes it was better to accept a few things as the will of the Almighty. Bowing down, muttering the shahada, Jalila laid the breathmoss upon the shaded stone within the cloister. Sheltered here, she imagined that it would thrive. Mounting Robin, riding from the qasr, she paused once to look back. Perhaps her eyesight really was failing her, for she thought she saw the ancient structure shimmer and change. A beautiful green castle hung above the cliffs, coated entirely in breathmoss; a wonder from a far and distant age. She rode on, humming snatches of the old songs she’d once known so well about love and loss between the stars. Back at the haramlek, her mothers were as anxious as ever to know where she had been. Jalila tried not to smile as she endured their familiar scolding. She longed to hug them. She longed to cry.

That evening, her last evening before she left Habara, Jalila walked the shore alone again. Somehow, it seemed the place to her where Pavo’s ghost was closest. Jalila could see her mother there now, as darkness welled up from between the rocks; a small, lithe body, always stooping, turning, looking. She tried going toward her; but Pavo’s shadow always flickered shyly away. Still, it seemed to Jalila as if she had been led toward something, for here was the quartz-striped rock from that long-ago Season of the Soft Rains. Of course, there was no breathmoss left, the storms had seen to that, but nevertheless, as she bent down to examine it, Jalila was sure that she could see something beside it, twinkling clear from a rockpool through the fading light. She plunged her hand in. It was a stone, almost as smooth and round as many millions of others on the beach, yet this one was worked and carved. And its color was greenish-grey.

The soapstone scarab, somehow thrust here to this beach by the storms of potentiality that the tariquas of the Church of the Gateway stirred up by their impossible journeyings, although Jalila was pleased to see that it looked considerably less damaged than the object she remembered Kalal turning over and over in his nervous hands as he spoke to her future self. Here at last was the link that would bind her through the pages of destiny, and, for a moment, she hitched her hand back and prepared to throw it so far out into the ocean that it would never be reclaimed. Then her arm relaxed. Out there, all the way across the darkness of the bay, the tideflowers of Habara were glowing.

She decided to keep it.

The Most Famous Little Girl in the World - NANCY KRESS

Nancy Kress began selling her elegant and incisive stories in the mid-seventies, and has since become a frequent contributor to Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sci Fiction, and elsewhere. Her books include the novels The Prince Of Morning Bells, The Golden Grove, The White Pipes, An Alien Light, Brain Rose, Oaths amp; Miracles, Stinger, Maximum Light, the novel version of her Hugo and Nebula-winning story, Beggars in Spain, and a sequel, Beggars and Choosers. Her short work has been collected in Trinity and Other Stories, The Aliens of Earth, and Beaker’s Dozen. Her most recent books are a sequence of novels, Probability Moon, Probability Sun, and Probability Space. Upcoming is a new novel, Crossfire. She has also won Nebula Awards for her stories “Out of All Them Bright Stars” and “The Flowers of Aulit Prison.” She has had stories in our Second, Third, Sixth through Fifteenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Annual Collections.

In the intricate, poignant, and absorbing story that follows, she shows us how a few minutes can birth all the rest of your life…

The most famous little girl in the world stuck out her tongue at me. “These are all my Barbie dolls and you can’t use them!”

I ran to Mommy. “Kyra won’t share!”

“Kyra, dear,” Aunt Julie said in that funny tight voice she had ever since IT happened, “share your new dolls with Amy.”

“No, they’re mine!” Kyra said. “The news people gave them all to me!” She tried to hold all the Barbie dolls, nine or ten, in her arms all at once, and then she started to cry.

She does that a lot now.

“Julie,” Mommy said, real quiet, “she doesn’t have to share.”

“Yes, she does. Just because she’s now some sort of… oh, God, I wish none of this had happened!” Then Aunt Julie was crying, too.

Grown-ups aren’t supposed to cry. I looked at Aunt Julie, and then at stupid Kyra, still bawling, and then at Aunt Julie again. Nothing was right.

Mommy took me by the hand, led me into the kitchen, and sat me on her lap. The kitchen was all warm and there were chocolate-chip cookies baking, so that was good. “Amy,” Mommy said, “I want to talk to you.”

“I’m too big to sit on your lap,” I said.

“No, you’re not,” Mommy said, and held me closer, and I felt better. “But you are big enough to understand what happened to Kyra.”

“Kyra says she doesn’t understand it!”

“Well, in one sense that’s true,” Mommy said. “But you understand some of it, anyway. You know that Kyra and you were in the cow field, and a big spaceship came down.”

“Can I have a cookie?”

“They’re not done yet. Sit still and listen, Amy.”

I said, “I know all this! The ship came down, and the door opened, and Kyra went in and I was far away and I didn’t.” And then I called Mommy on the cell phone and she called 911 and people came running. Not Aunt Julie-Mommy was baby-sitting Kyra at Kyra’s house. But police cars and firemen and ambulances. The cars drove right into the cow field, right through cow poop. If the cows hadn’t been all bunched together way over by the fence, I bet the cars would have driven through the cows, too. That would have been kind of cool.

Kyra was in there a long time. The police shouted at the little spaceship, but it didn’t open up or anything. I was watching from an upstairs window, where Mommy made me go, through Uncle John’s binoculars. A helicopter came but before it could do anything, the spaceship door opened and Kyra walked out and policemen rushed forward and grabbed her. And then the spaceship just rose up and went away, passing the helicopter, and ever since everybody thinks Kyra is the coolest thing in the world. Well, I don’t.

“I hate her, Mommy.”

“No, you don’t. But Kyra is getting all the attention and-” She sighed and held me tighter. It was nice, even though I’m too big to be held tight like that.

“Is Kyra going to go on TV?”

“ No. Aunt Julie and I agreed to keep both of you off TV and magazines and whatever.”

“Kyra’s been on lots of magazines.”

“Not by choice.”

“Mommy,” I said, because it was safe sitting there on her lap and the cookies smelled good, “what did Kyra do in the spaceship?”

Her chest got stiff. “We don’t know. Kyra can’t remember. Unless… unless she told you something, Amy?”

“She says she can’t remember.”

I twisted to look at Mommy’s face. “So how come they still send presents? It was last year!”

I know.” Mommy put me on the floor and opened the oven to poke at the cookies. They smelled wonderful.

“And,” I demanded, “how come Uncle John doesn’t come home anymore?”

Mommy bit her lip. “Would you like a cookie, Amy?”

“Yes. How come?”

“Sometimes people just-”

“Are Aunt Julie and Uncle John getting a divorce? Because of Kyra?”

“ No. Kyra is not responsible here, and you just remember that, young lady! I don’t want you making her feel, more confused than she is!”

I ate my cookie. Kyra wasn’t confused. She was a cry-baby and a Barbie hog and I hated her. I didn’t want her to be my cousin anymore.

What was so great about going into some stupid spaceship, anyway? Nothing. She couldn’t even remember anything about it!

Mommy put her hands over her face.

2008

Whispers broke out all over the cafeteria. “That’s her… her… her!”

Oh, shit. I bent my head over my milk. Last year the cafeteria used to serve fizzies and Coke and there were vending machines with candy and chips, but the new principal took all that out. He’s a real bastard. Part of the “Clean Up America” campaign our new president is forcing down our throats, Dad said. Only he didn’t say “forcing” because he thinks it’s cool, like all the Carter Falls High parents do. Supervision for kids. School uniforms. Silent prayer. A mandatory class in citizenship. Getting expelled for everything short of breathing. It all sucks.

“It is her,” Jack said. “I saw her picture online.”

Hannah said, “What do you suppose they really did to her in that ship when she was a little kid?”

Angie giggled and licked her lips. She has a really dirty mind. Carter, who’s sort of a goody-goody even though he’s on the football team, said, “It’s none of our business. And she was just a little kid.”

“So?” Angie smirked. “You never heard of pedophiles?”

Hannah said, “Pedophile aliens? Grow up, Angie.”

Jack said, “She’s kind of cute.”

“I thought you wanted a virgin, Jack,” Angie said, still smirking.

Carter said, “Oh, give her a break. She just moved here, after all.”

I watched Kyra walk uncertainly toward the cafeteria tables. The monitors were keeping a close eye on everybody. We have monitors everywhere, just like the street has National Guard everywhere. Clean up America, my ass. Kyra squinted; she’s near-sighted and doesn’t like to wear her contacts because she says they itch. I ducked lower over my milk.

Angie said, “Somebody told me Kyra Lunden is your cousin.”

Everybody’s head jerked to look at me. Damn that bitch Angie! Where had she heard that? Mom had promised me that nobody in school would know and Kyra wouldn’t say anything! She and Aunt Julie had to move, Mom and Dad said, because Aunt Julie was having a rough time since the divorce and she needed to be close to her sister, and I should understand that. Well, I did, I guess, but not if Kyra blasted in and ruined everything for me. This was my school, not hers, I spent a lot of time getting into the good groups, the ones I was never part of in junior high, and no pathetic famous cousin was going to wreck that. She couldn’t even dance.

Jack said, “Kyra Lunden is your cousin, Amy? Really?”

“No,” I said. “Of course not.”

Angie said, “That’s not what I heard.”

Carter said, “So it’s just gossip? You can hurt people that way, Angie.”

“God, Carter, don’t you ever let up? Holier-than-thou!”

Carter mottled red. Hannah, who likes him even though Carter doesn’t know it, said, “It’s nice that some people at least try to be kind to others.”

“Spit it in your soup, Hannah,” Angie said.

Jack and Hannah exchanged a look. They really make the decisions for the group, and for a bunch of other groups, too. Angie’s too stupid to realize that, or to realize that she’s going to be oozed out. I don’t feel sorry for her. She deserves it, even if being oozed is really horrible. You walk through the halls alone, and nobody looks directly at you, and people laugh at you behind your back because you can’t even keep your own friends. Still, Angie deserves it.

Hannah looked at me straight, with that look Jack calls her “police interrogation gaze.” “Amy… is Kyra Lunden your cousin?”

Kyra sat alone at one end of a table. A bunch of kids, the really cobra ones that run the V-R lab, sat at the other end, kind of laughing at her without laughing. I saw Eleanor Murphy, who was elected Queen of V-R Gala even though she’s only a junior, give Kyra a long cool level look and then turn disdainfully away.

“No,” I said, “I already told you. She’s not my cousin. In fact, I never even met her.”

2018

I stared at the villa with disbelief. Not at the guards-everywhere rich is guarded now, we’re a nation of paranoids, perhaps not without reason. There seems no containing the lunatic terrorists, home-grown patriotic militias, White Supremacists and Black Equalizers, not to mention the run-of-the-mill gangs and petty drug lords and black-market smugglers. Plus, of course, the government’s response to these, which sometimes seems to involve putting every single nineteen-year-old in the country out on the streets in camouflage-except, of course, those nineteen-year-olds who are already bespoken as lunatic terrorists, home-grown militia, White Supremacists, et al. The rest of us get on with our normal lives.

So the guards didn’t surprise me-the villa did. It was a miniaturized replica of a Forbidden City palace-in Minnesota.

The chief guard caught me gaping at the swooping curved roof, the gilded archways, the octagonal pagoda. “Papers, please?”

I pulled myself together and looked professional, which is to say, not desperate. I was desperate, of course. But not even Kyra was going to know that.

“I am Madame Lunden’s cousin,” I said formally, “Amy Parker. Madame Lunden is expecting me.”

Forget inscrutable Chinese-the guard looked as suspicious as if I’d said I was a Muslim Turkic Uighur. He examined me, he examined my identity card, he ran the computer match on my retina scan. I walked through metal detectors, explosive residue detectors, detector detectors. I was patted down thoroughly but not obscenely. Finally he let me through the inner gate, watching me all the way through the arch carved with incongruous peacocks and dragons.

Kyra waited in the courtyard beyond the arch. She wore an aggressively fashionable blue jumpsuit with a double row of tiny mirrors sewn down the front. Her hair was dyed bright blonde and cut in the sharp asymmetrical cut popularized by that Dutch on-line model, Brigitte. In the traditional Chinese courtyard, set with flowering plum trees in porcelain pots and a pool with golden carp, she looked either ridiculous or exotic, depending on your point of view. Point of view was why I was here. We hadn’t seen each other in eight years.

“Hello, Amy,” Kyra said in her low, husky voice.

“Hello, Kyra. Thank you for seeing me.”

“My pleasure.”

Was there mockery in her tone? Probably. If so, I’d earned it. “How is Aunt Julie?”

“I have no idea. She refuses to have any contact with me.”

My eyes widened; I hadn’t known that. I should have known that. A good journalist does her homework. Kyra smiled at me, and this time there was no mistaking the mockery. I had stepped in it, and oh God, I couldn’t afford to ruin this interview. My job depended on it. Staff was being cut, and Paul had not axed me only because I said, with the desperation of fear, Kyra Lunden is my cousin. I know she’s refused all other interviews, but maybe…

Kyra said, “Sit down, Amy. Shall we start? Which service do you write for, again?”

“ Times online.”

“Ah, yes. Well, what do you want to know?”

“I thought we’d start with some background. How did you and General Chou meet?”

“At a party.”

“Oh. Where was the party held?” She wasn’t going to help me at all.

Kyra crossed her legs. The expensive blue fabric of the jumpsuit draped becomingly. She looked fabulous; I wondered if she’d had any body work done. But, then, she’d always been pretty, even when she’d been ten and the most famous little girl in the world, blinking bewildered into the clunky TV equipment of sixteen years ago. My robocam drifted beside me, automatically recording us from the most flattering angles.

“The party was at Carol Perez’s,” Kyra said, naming a Washington hostess I’d only seen in the society programs. “I’d met Carol at Yale, of course. I met a lot of people at Yale.”

Yes, she did. By college, Kyra had lost her shyness about what had happened to her when we were ten. She’d developed what sounded like a superb act-we had mutual friends-composed of mystery combined with notoriety. Subtly she reminded people that she had had an experience unique to all of mankind, never duplicated since, and that although she was reluctant to talk about it, yes, it was true that she was undergoing deep hypnosis and it was possible she might remember what actually happened…

By her junior year, she’d “remembered.” Tastefully, shyly, nothing to make people label her a lunatic. The aliens were small and bipedal, they’d put a sort of helmet on her head and she’d watched holograms while, presumably, they recorded her reactions… No, she couldn’t remember any specifics. Not yet, anyway.

Yale ate it up. Intellectuals, especially political types, debated the aliens’ intentions in terms of future United States policy. Artsy preppies’ imaginations were stirred. Socialites decided that Kyra Lunden was an interesting addition to their parties. She was in.

“Carol’s party was at their Virginia home,” Kyra continued. “Diplomats, horse people, the usual. Ch’un-fu and I were introduced, and we both knew right away this could be something special.”

I peered at her. Could she really be that naive? Chou Ch’un-fu had already had two American mistresses. The Han Chinese, Chou’s party, and the United States were now allies, united in their actions against terrorists from the western part of China, the Muslim Turkic Uighurs, who were destabilizing China with their desperate war for independence. The Uighurs would lose. Everyone knew this, probably even the Uighurs. But until they did, they were blowing up things in Peking and Shanghai and San Francisco and London, sometimes in frantic negotiation for money, sometimes with arrogant political manifestos, sometimes, it seemed, out of sheer frustration. The carnage, even in a century used to it, could make a diplomat pale. General Chou was experienced in all this. Press drudges like me don’t get insider data, but rumor linked him with some brutal actions. He maintained a home in Minnesota because it was easy to reach on the rocket flights over the pole.

And Kyra believed they had a “special” romantic relationship?

Incredibly, it seemed she did. As she talked about their meeting, about her life with Chou, I saw no trace of irony, of doubt, of simple confusion. Certainly not of anything approaching shame. I did detect anger, and that was the most intriguing thing about her demeanor. Who was she angry with? Chou? Her mother, that straight-laced paragon who had rejected her? The aliens? Fate?

She deflected all political questions. “Kyra, do you approve of the way the Chinese-American alliance is developing?”

“I approve of the way my life is developing.” Tinkly laugh, undercut with anger.

We toured the villa, and she let me photograph everything, even their bedroom. Huge canopied bed, carved chests, jars of plum blossoms. Chou, or some PR spinner, had decided that a Chinese political partner should appear neither too austere nor too American. China’s past was honored in her present, even as she looked toward the future-that was clearly the message I was to get out. I recorded everything. Kyra said nothing as we toured, usually not even looking at me. She combed her hair in front of her ornate carved mirror, fiddled with objects, sat in deep reverie. It was as if she’d forgotten I was there.

Kyra’s silence broke only as she escorted me to the gate. Abruptly she said, “Amy… do you remember Carter Falls High? The V-R Gala?”

“Yes,” I said cautiously.

“You and I and our dates were in the jungle room. There was a virtual coconut fight. I tossed a coconut at you, it hit, and you pretended you didn’t even see it.”

“Yes,” I said. Out of all the shunning I’d done to her in those horrible, terrified, cruel teenage years, she picked that to recall!

“But you did see it. You knew I was there.”

“Yes. I’m sorry, Kyra.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, with such a glittering smile that all at once I knew who her anger was directed at. She had given me this interview out of old family ties, or a desire to show off the superiority of our relative positions, or something, but she was angry at me. And always would be.

“I’m sorry,” I said again, with spectacular inadequacy. Kyra didn’t answer, merely turned and walked back toward her tiny Forbidden City.

My story was a great success. The Times ran it in flat-screen, 3-D, and V-R, and its access rate went off the charts. It was the first time anyone had been inside the Chou compound, had met the American girlfriend of an enigmatic general, had seen that particular lifestyle up close. Kyra’s mysterious encounter with aliens sixteen years ago gave it a unique edge. Even those who hated the story-and there were many, calling it exploitative, immoral, decadent, symptomatic of this or that-noticed it. My message system nearly collapsed under the weight of congratulations, condemnations, job offers.

The next day, Kyra Lunden called a press conference. She denied everything. I had been admitted to the Chou villa, yes, but only as a relative, for tea. Our agreement had been no recorders. I had violated that, had recorded secretly, and furthermore had endangered Chinese-American relations. Kyra had tears in her eyes. The Chinese Embassy issued an angry denunciation. The State Department was not pleased.

The Times fired me.

Standing in my apartment, still surrounded by the masses of flowers that had arrived yesterday, I stared at nothing. The sickeningly sweet fragrances made me queasy. Wild ideas, stupid ideas, rioted in my head. I could sue. I could kill myself. Kyra really had been altered by the aliens. She was no longer human, but a V-R-thriller simulacrum of a human, and it was my duty to expose her.

All stupid. Only one idea was true.

Kyra had, after all these years, found a way to get even.

2027

In the second year of the war, the aliens came back.

David told me while I was bathing the baby in the kitchen sink. The twins, Lucy and Lem, were shrieking around the tiny apartment like a pair of banshees. It was a crummy apartment, but it wasn’t too far from David’s job, and we were lucky to get it. There was a war on.

“The Blanding telescope has picked up an alien ship heading for Earth.” David spoke the amazing sentence flatly, the way he speaks everything to me now. It was the first time he’d initiated conversation in two weeks.

I tightened my grip on Robin, a wriggler slippery with soap, and stared at him. “When… how…”

“It would be good, Amy, if you could ever finish a sentence,” David said, with the dispassionate hypercriticism he brings these days to everything I say. It wasn’t always like this. David wasn’t always like this. Depression, his doctor told me, unfortunately not responding to available medications. Well, great, so David’s depressed. The whole country’s depressed. Also frightened and poor and gray-faced with anxiety about this unpredictable war’s bio-attacks and Q-bomb attacks and EMP attacks, all seemingly random. We’re all depressed, but not all of us take it out on the people we live with.

I said with great deliberation, “When did the Blanding pick up the aliens, and do the scientists believe they’re the same aliens that came here in July of 2002?”

“Yesterday. Yes. You should either bathe Robin or not bathe him, instead of suspending a vital parental job in the middle like that.” He left the room.

I rinsed Robin, wrapped him in a large, gray-from-age towel, and laid him on the floor. He smiled at me; such a sweet-natured child. I gave Lucy and Lem, too frenetic for sweetness, a hoarded cookie each, and turned on the Internet. The Trumpeter avatar, whom someone had designed to subtly remind viewers of Honest Abe Lincoln, was in the middle of the story, complete with what must have been hastily assembled archival footage from obsolete media.

There was the little pewter-colored spaceship in my Uncle John’s cow field twenty-five years ago, and Kyra walking out with a dazed look on her small face. God-she’d been only a few years older than Lucy and Lem. There was the ship lifting straight up, passing the Army helicopter. That time, no watching telescopes or satellites had detected a larger ship, coming or going… either our technology was better now, or the aliens had a different game plan. Now the screen showed pictures from the Blanding, which looked like nothing but a dot in space until computers enhanced it, surrounded it with graphics, and “artistically rendered” various imaginary appearances and routes and speculations. In the midst of the hype given somberly in Abraham Lincoln’s “voice,” I gathered that the ship’s trajectory would intersect with the same cow pasture as last time-unless, of course, it didn’t-and would arrive at Earth in thirteen hours and seven minutes.

A Chinese general appeared on-screen, announcing in translation that China was prepared to shoot the intruder down.

“Mommy!” Lucy shrieked. “My cookie’s gone!”

“Not now, honey.”

“But Lem gots some of his cookie and he won’t share!”

“In a minute!”

“But Mommy-”

The Internet abruptly cut out. The Internet.

Into the shocking, eerie silence came Lem’s voice, marginally quieter than his sister’s. “Mommy. I hear some sirens.”

Three days of chaos. I had never believed panic-old-style Roman rioting in the streets, totally out of control, murderous panic-could happen in the United States, in gray cities like Rochester, New York. Yes, there were periodic race riots in Atlanta and looting spells in New York or war hysteria in San Francisco, but the National Guard quickly contained them in neighborhoods where violence was a way of life anyway. But this panic took over the whole city-Rochester-in a cold February and watching on the Internet, when a given site’s coverage was up anyway, was to know a surreal horror. This was supposed to be America.

People were publicly beheaded on the lawns of the art museum, their breath frozen on the winter air a second before the blood leapt from their severed heads toward the camera. No one could say why they were being executed, or even if there was a reason. Buildings that the National Guard had protected from being bombed by Chinese terrorists were bombed by crazed Americans. Anyone Chinese-American, or appearing Chinese-American, or rumored to be Chinese-American, was so savagely assaulted that the fourteenth century would have been disgusted. A dead, mangled baby was thrown onto our fourth-floor fire escape, where it lay for the entire three days, pecked at by crows.

I kept the children huddled in the bathroom, which had no windows to shatter. Or see out of. The electricity went off, then on, then off for good. The heat ceased. David stayed by the living room window in case the building caught fire and we had no choice but to evacuate. Even during this horror he belittled and criticized: “If you’d had more food stockpiled, Amy, maybe the kids wouldn’t have to have cereal again.” “You never were any good at keeping them soothed and quiet.”

Soothed and quiet. The crows on the fire escape had plucked out the dead infant’s eyes.

Whenever Lucy, Lem, and Robin were finally asleep, I turned on the radio. The riots were coming under control. No, they weren’t. The President was dead. No, he wasn’t. The President had declared martial law. Massive bio-weapons had been unleashed in New York. No, in London. No, in Peking. The Chinese were behind these attacks. No, the Chinese were having worse riots than we were, their present chaos merging with their previous chaos of civil war. It was that civil war that had broken the American-Chinese alliance three years ago. And then during their civil upheavals, the Chinese had attacked Alaska. Maybe. Not even the international intelligence network was completely sure who’d released the bubonic-plague-carrying rats in Anchorage. But, announced the White House, the excesses of China had become too much for the Western world to stomach.

I didn’t see how those excesses could be worse than this.

And then it was over. The Army prevailed. Or maybe the chaos, self-limiting as some plagues, just ran its course. Everyone left alive was immune. After another week, David and I-but not the kids-emerged from our building into the rubble to start rebuilding some sort of economic and communal existence. We never left the children alone, but even so David had found an isolated moment to say, resentment in every line of his body, “You’re the one who wanted to have children. I don’t know how much longer I can go on paying for your bad judgment.”

It was then that I got the e-mail from Kyra.

“Why did you come?” Kyra asked me.

We faced each other in a federal prison in the Catskill Mountains northeast of New York City. The prison, built in 2022, was state-of-the-art. Nothing could break in or out, including bacteria, viruses, and some radiation. The Kyra sitting opposite me, this frightened woman, was actually two miles away, locked in some cell that probably looked nothing like the hologram of her I faced in the Visitors’ Center.

I said slowly, “I can’t say why I came.” This was the truth. Or, rather, I could say but only with so much mixed motive that she would never understand. Because I had to get away from David for these two days. Because the childhood she and I shared, no matter how embittered by events, nonetheless looked to me now like Arcadia. Because I wanted to see Kyra humbled, in pain, as she had once put me. Because I had some insane idea, as crazy as the chaos we had lived through two weeks ago, that she might hold a key to understanding the inexplicable. Because.

She said, “Did you come to gloat?”

“In part.”

“All right, you’re entitled. Just help me!”

“To tell the truth, Kyra, you don’t look like you need all that much help. You look well-fed, and bathed, and safe enough behind these walls.” All more than my children were. “When did you land in here, anyway?”

“They put me in the second the alien ship was spotted.” Her voice was bitter.

“On what charges?”

“No charges. I’m a detainee for the good of the state.”

I said levelly, “Because of the alien ship or because you slept with the Chinese enemy?”

“They weren’t the enemy then!” she said angrily, and I saw that my goading was pushing her to the point where she wanted to tell me to fuck off. But she didn’t dare.

She didn’t look bad. Well-fed, bathed, as I’d said. No longer pretty, however. Well, it had been nine hard years since I’d seen her. That delicate skin had coarsened and wrinkled much more than mine, as if she’d spent a lot of time in the sun. The hair, once blazingly blonde, was a dull brown streaked with gray. My Aunt Julie, her mother, had died five years ago in a traffic accident.

“Amy,” she said, visibly controlling herself, “I’m afraid they’ll just quietly keep me here forever. I don’t have any ties with the Chinese anymore, and I don’t know anything about or from that alien ship. I was just living quietly, under an alias, and then they broke in to my apartment in the middle of the night and cuffed me and brought me here.”

“Why don’t you contact General Chou?” I said cruelly.

Kyra only looked at me with such despair that I despised her. She was, had always been, a sentimentalist. I remembered how she’d actually thought that military monster loved her.

“Tell me what happened since 2018,” I said, and watched her seize on this with desperate hope.

“After your news story came out and-I’m sorry, Amy, I…”

“Don’t,” I said harshly, and she knew enough to stop.

“I left Chun’fu, or rather he threw me out. It hit me hard, although I guess I was pretty much a fool not to think he’d react that way, not to anticipate-” She looked away, old pain fresh on her face. I thought that “fool” didn’t begin to cover it.

“Anyway, I had some old friends who helped me. Most people wanted nothing to do with me, but a few loyal ones got me a new identity and a job on a lobster farm on Cape Cod. You know, I liked it. I’d forgotten how good it can feel to work outdoors. It was different from my father’s dairy farm, of course, but the wind and the rain and the sea…” She trailed off, remembering things I’d never seen.

“I met a lobster farmer named Daniel and we lived together. I never told him my real name. We had a daughter, Jane…”

I thought I’d seen pain on her face before. I’d been wrong.

I said, and it came out gentle, “Where are Daniel and Jane now?”

“Dead. A bio-virus attack. I didn’t think I could go on after that, but of course I did. People do. Are you married, Amy?”

“Yes. I hate him.” I hadn’t planned on saying that. Something in her pain drew out my own. Kyra didn’t look shocked.

“Kids?”

“Three wonderful ones. Five-year-old twins and a six-month-old.”

She leaned forward, like a plant hungry for sun. “What are their names?”

“Lucy. Lem. Robin. Kyra… how do you think I can help you?”

“Write about me. You’re a journalist.”

“No, I’m not. You ended my career.” Did Kyra really not know that?

“Then call a press conference. Send data to the news outlets. Write letters to Congress. Just don’t let me rot here indefinitely because they don’t know what to do with me!”

She really had no idea how things worked. Still an innocent. I wasn’t ready yet to tell her that all her anguish was silly. Instead I said, “Did the aliens communicate with you from their ship in some way?”

“Of course not!”

“The ship left, you know.”

From her face, it was clear she didn’t know. “They left?”

“Two weeks ago. Came no closer than the moon. If we had any sort of decent space program left, if anyone did, we might have tried to contact them. But they just observed us, or whatever, from that distance, then took off again.”

“Fuck them to bloody hell! I wish we had shot them down!”

She had surprised me, with both the language-Kyra had always been a bit prissy, despite her sexual adventures-and the hatred. My surprise must have shown on my face.

“Amy,” Kyra said, “they ruined my life. Without that abduction-” the word didn’t really seem appropriate-“when I was ten, my parents would never have divorced. I wouldn’t have been an outcast in school. I never would have met Chou, or behaved like… and I certainly wouldn’t be in this fucking prison now! They came here to ruin my life and they succeeded!”

“You take no responsibility for anything,” I said evenly.

Kyra glared at me. “Don’t you dare judge me, Amy. You with your beautiful living children and your life free of any suspicion that you’re somehow deformed and dangerous because of a few childhood hours you can’t even remember-”

“ ‘Can’t remember’? What about the helmet and the flickering images and the observing aliens? Did you make those all up, Kyra?”

Enraged, she lunged forward to slap me. There was nothing there, of course. We were only virtually together. I stood to leave my half of the farce.

“Please, Amy… please! Say you’ll help me!”

“You’re a fool, Kyra. You learn nothing. Do you think the prison officials would be letting you have this ‘meeting’ with me if they were going to keep you here hidden away for good? Do you think you’d even have been permitted to send me e-mail? You’re as good as out already. And when you are, try this time to behave as if you weren’t still ten years old.”

We parted in contempt and anger. I hoped to never see or hear from her again.

2047

The next time the aliens returned, they landed.

I was at JungleTime Playland with my granddaughter, Lehani. She loved JungleTime Playland. I was amused by it; in the long, long rebuilding after the war, V-R had finally reached the commercial level that Robin and Lucy and Lem, Lehani’s father, had also played in. Of course, government applications of V-R and holo and AI were another matter, but I had nothing to do with those. I led a very small, contented life.

“I go Yung Lan,’ ” Lehani said, looking up at me with the shining, wholehearted hope of the young on her small face. Every wish granted is paradise, every wish crushed is eternal disappointment.

“Yes, you can go into JungleLand, but we have to wait our turn, dear heart.”

So she stood in line beside me, hopping from foot to foot, holding my hand. Nobody ever told me grandmotherhood was going to be this sweet.

When we finally reached the head of the line, I registered her, put the tag on her neck that would keep me informed of her every move as well as the most minute changes in her skin conductivity. If she got scared or inattentive, I would know it. No adults are allowed in Jungle Playland; that would spoil the thrill. Lehani grinned and ran through the virtual curtain. I accepted the map tuned to her tag and sat at a table in the lobby, surrounded by lines of older children registering for the other V-R playlands.

Sipping tea, I was checking my e-mail when the big lobby screen abruptly came on.

“News! News! An alien ship has been sighted moving toward Earth. Government sources say it resembles the ship that landed in Minnesota in 2002 and traveled as far as lunar orbit in 2027 but so far no-”

People erupted all around me. Buzzing, signaling for their children, and, in the case of one stupid woman, pointless shrieking. Under cover of the noise I comlinked Central, before the site was hopelessly jammed.

“Library,” I keyed in. “Public Records, State of Maine. Data search.”

“Search ready,” the tiny screen said.

“Death certificate, first name Daniel, same date as death certificate, first name Jane, years 2020 through 2026.”

“Searching.”

Children began to pour out of the playlands, most resentful at having their V-R time interrupted. Kyra had never told me Daniel’s last name. Nor did I have any idea what name she was using now. But if she simply wanted to pass unnoticed among ordinary people, his name would do, and Kyra had always been sentimental. The government, of course, would know exactly where she was, but they would know that no matter what name she used or what paper trails she falsified. Her DNA was on record. The press, too, could track her down if they decided to take the trouble. The alien landing meant they would take the trouble.

My handheld displayed, “Daniel Ethan Parmani, died June 16, 2025, age forty-two, and Jane Julia Parmani, died June 16, 2025, age three.”

“Second search. United States. Locate Kyra Parmani, ages-” What age might Kyra think she could pass for? In prison, twenty years ago, she had looked far older than she was. “Ages fifty through seventy.”

“Searching.”

Lehani appeared at the JungleLand door, looking furious. She spied me and ran over. “Lady sayed I can’t play!”

“I know, sweetie. Come sit on Grandma’s lap.”

She climbed onto me, buried her head in my shoulder, and burst into angry tears. I peered around her to see the handheld.

“Six matches.” It displayed them. Six? With a name like “Parmani” coupled with one like “Kyra”? I sighed and shifted Lehani’s weight.

“Call each of them in turn.”

Kyra was the second match. She answered the call herself, her voice unconcerned. She hadn’t heard. “Hello?”

“Kyra. It’s Amy, your cousin. Listen, they’ve just spotted an alien ship coming in. They’ll be looking for you again.” Silence on the other end. “Kyra?”

“How did you find me?”

“Lucky guesswork. But if you want to hide, from the feds or the press…” They might put her in jail again, and who knew this time when she would get out? At the very least, the press would make her life, whatever it was now, a misery. I said, “Do you have somewhere to go? Some not-too-close-but-perfectly-trusted friend’s back bedroom or strange structure in a cowfield?”

She didn’t laugh. Kyra never had had much of a sense of humor. Not that this was an especially good time for joking.

“Y es, Amy. I do. Why are you warning me?”

“Oh, God, Kyra, how do I answer that?”

Maybe she understood. Maybe not. She merely said, “All right. And thanks. Amy…”

“What?”

“I’m getting married again. I’m happy.”

That was certainly like her: blurting out the personal that no one had asked about. For a second I, too, was the old Amy, bitter and jealous. I had not remarried since my terrible divorce from David, had not even loved any one again. I suspected I never would. But the moment passed. I had Robin and Lem and Lehani and, intermittently when she was in the country, Lucy.

“Congratulations, Kyra. Now get going. They can find you in about forty seconds if they want to, you know.”

“I know. I’ll call you when this is all over, Amy. Where are you?”

“Prince George’s County, Maryland. Amy Suiter Parker. Bye, Kyra.” I broke the link.

“Who on link?” Lehani demanded, apparently having decided her tears were not accomplishing anything.

“Somebody Grandma knew a long time ago, dear heart. Come on, let’s go home, and you can play with Mr. Grindle’s cat.”

“Yes! Yes!”

It is always so easy to distract the uncorrupted.

The alien ship parked itself in lunar orbit for the better part of three days. Naturally we had no one up there; not a single nation on Earth had anything you could call a space program anymore. But there were satellites. Maybe we communicated with the aliens, or they with us, or maybe we tried to destroy them, or entice them, or threaten them. Or all of the above, by different nations with different satellites. Ordinary citizens like me were not told. And of course the aliens could have been doing anything with their ship: sampling broadcasts, scrambling military signals, seeding clouds, sending messages to true believers’ back teeth. How would I know?

On the second day, three agents from People’s Safety Commission, the latest political reincarnation of that office, showed up to ask me about Kyra’s whereabouts. I said, truthfully, that I hadn’t seen her in twenty years and had no idea where she was now. They thanked me politely and left. News cams staked out her house, a modest foamcast building in a small Pennsylvania town, and they dissected her current life, but they never actually found her, so it made a pretty lackluster story.

After three days of lunar orbit, a small alien craft landed on the upland savanna of East Africa.

Somehow it sneaked past whatever surveillance we had as if it didn’t exist. The ship set down just beyond sight of a Kikuyu village. Two small boys herding goats spotted it, and one of them went inside.

By the time the world learned of this, from a call made on the village’s only comlink, the child was already inside the alien ship. News people and government people raced to the scene. East Africa was in its usual state of confused civil war, incipient drought, and raging disease. The borders were theoretically sealed. This made no difference whatsoever. Gunfire erupted, disinformation spread, ultimata were issued. The robocams went on recording.

“Does it look the same as the ship you saw?” Lem said softly, watching the news beside me. His wife Amalie was in the kitchen with Lehani. I could hear them laughing.

“It looks the same.” Forty-five years fell away and I stood in Uncle John’s cow field, watching Kyra walk into the pewter-colored ship and walk out the most famous little girl in the world.

Lem said, “What do you think they want?”

I stared at him. “Don’t you think I’ve wondered that for four and a half decades? That everyone has wondered that?”

Lem was silent.

A helicopter appeared in the sky over the alien craft. That, too, was familiar-until it set down and I grasped its huge size. Troops began pouring out, guns were leveled, and orders barked. A newsman, maybe live but probably virtual, said, “We’re being ordered to shut down all reporting on this-” He disappeared.

A black cloud emanated from the helicopter, but not before a robocam had shown more equipment being off-loaded. Lem said, “My God, I think that’s a bombcase!” Through the black cloud ripped more gunfire.

Then no news came through at all.

The stories conflicted wildly, of course. At least six different agencies, in three different countries, were blamed. A hundred and three people died at the scene, and uncounted more in the senseless riots that followed. One of the dead was the second little boy that had witnessed the landing.

The first child went up with the ship. It was the only picture that emerged after the government erected visual and electronic blockage: the small craft rising unharmed above the black cloud, ascending into the sky and disappearing into the bright African sunlight.

The Kikuyu boy was released about a hundred miles away, near another village, but it was a long time before ordinary people learned that.

Kyra never called me after the furor had died down. I searched for her, but she was more savvy about choosing her aliases. If the government located her, and I assumed they did, no one informed me.

Why would they?

Sometimes the world you want comes too late.

It was not really the world anyone wanted, of course. Third world countries, especially but not exclusively in Africa, were still essentially ungovernable. Fetid urban slums, disease, and terror from local warlords. Daily want, brutality, and suffering, all made orders of magnitude worse by the lunatic compulsion to genocide. Much of the globe lives like this, with little hope of foreseeable change.

But inside the United States’s tightly guarded, expensively defended borders, a miracle had occurred. Loaves from fishes, something for nothing, the free lunch there ain’t supposed to be one of. Nanotechnology.

It was still an embryonic industry. But it had brought burgeoning prosperity. And with prosperity came the things that aren’t supposed to cost money but always do: peace, generosity, civility. And one more thing: a space program, the cause of all the news agitation I was pointedly not watching.

“It’s not fair to say that nano brought civility,” Lucy protested. She was back from a journalism assignment in Sudan that had left her gaunt and limping, with half her hair fallen out. Lucy didn’t volunteer details and I didn’t ask. From the look in her haunted eyes, I didn’t think I could bear to hear her answers.

“Civility is a by-product of money,” I said. “Starving people are not civil to each other.”

“Sometimes they are,” she said, looking at some painful memory I could not imagine.

“Often?” I pressed.

“No. Not often.” Abruptly Lucy left the room.

I have learned to wait serenely until she’s ready to return to me, just as she has learned to wait, less serenely, until she is ready to return to those parts of the world where she makes her living. My daughter is too old for what she does, but she cannot, somehow, leave it alone. Injured, diseased, half bald, she always goes back.

But Lucy is partly right. It isn’t just America’s present riches that have led to her present civility. This decade’s culture-optimistic, tolerant, fairly formal-is also a simple backlash to what went before. Pendulums swing. They cannot not swing.

While I waited for Lucy, I returned to my needlepoint. Now that nano has begun to easily make us anything, things that are hard to make are back in fashion. My eyes are too old for embroidery or even petit point, but gros point I can do. Under my fingers, roses bloomed on a pair of slippers. A bird flew to the tree beside me, lit on a branch, and watched me solemnly.

I’m still not used to birds in the house. But, then, I’m not used to this house of my son’s, either. All the rooms open into an open central courtyard two stories high. Atop the courtyard is some sort of invisible shield that I don’t understand. It keeps out cold and insects, and it can be adjusted to let rain in or keep it out. The shield keeps in the birds who live here. What Lem has is a miniature, climate-controlled, carefully landscaped, indoor Eden. The bird watching me was bright red with an extravagant gold tail, undoubtedly genetically engineered for health and long life. Other birds glow in the dark. One has what looks like blue fur.

“Go away,” I told it. I like the fresh air; the genemod birds give me the creeps.

When Lucy returned, someone was with her. I put down my needlework, pasted on a smile, and prepared to be civil. The visitor used a walker, moving very slowly. She had sparse gray hair. I let out a little cry.

I hadn’t even known Kyra was still alive.

“Mom, guess who’s here! Your cousin Kyra!”

“Hello, Amy,” Kyra said, and her voice hadn’t changed, still low and husky.

“Where… how did you…”

“Oh, you were always easy to find, remember? I was the difficult one to locate.”

Lucy said, “Are they looking for you now, Kyra?”

Kyra. Lucy was born too soon for the new civil formality. Lem’s and Robin’s children would have called her Ms. Lunden, or ma’am.

“Oh, probably,” Kyra said. “But if they show up, child, just tell them my hearing implant failed again.” She lowered herself into a chair, which obligingly curved itself around her. That still gives me the creeps, too, but Kyra didn’t seem to mind.

We stared at each other, two ancient ladies in comfortable baggy clothing, and I suddenly saw the twenty-six-year-old she had been, gaudily dressed mistress to an enemy general. Every detail was sharp as winter air: her blue jumpsuit with a double row of tiny mirrors sewn down the front, her asymmetrical hair the color of gold-leaf. That happens to me more and more. The past is so much clearer than the present.

Lucy said, “I’ll go make some tea, all right?”

“Yes, dear, please,” I said.

Kyra smiled. “She seems like a good person.”

“Too good,” I said, without explanation. “Kyra, why are you here? Do you need to hide again? This probably isn’t the best place.”

“No, I’m not hiding. They’re either looking for me or they’re not, but I think not. They’ve got their hands full, after all, up at Celadon.”

Celadon is the aggressively new international space station. When I first heard the name, I’d thought, why name a space station after a color? But it turns out that’s the name of some famous engineer who designed the nuclear devices that make it cheap to hoist things back and forth from Earth to orbit. They’ve hoisted a lot of things. The station is still growing, but it already houses one hundred seventy scientists, techies, and administrators. Plus, now, two aliens.

They appeared in the solar system three months ago. The usual alarms went off, but there was no rioting, at least not in the United States. People watched their children more closely. But we had the space station now, a place for the aliens to contact, without actually coming to Earth. And maybe the New Civility (that’s how journalists write about it, with capital letters) made a difference as well. I couldn’t say. But the aliens spent a month or so communicating with Celadon, and then they came aboard, and a few selected humans went aboard their mother ship, and the whole thing began to resemble a tea party fortified with the security of a transnational bank vault.

Kyra was watching me. “You aren’t paying any attention to the aliens’ return, are you, Amy?”

“Not really.” I picked up my needlepoint and started to work.

“That’s a switch, isn’t it? It used to be you who were interested in the political and me who wasn’t.”

It seemed an odd thing to say, given her career, but I didn’t argue. “How are you, Kyra?”

“Old.”

“Ah, yes. I know that feeling.”

“And your children?”

I made myself go on stitching. “Robin is dead. Cross-fire victim. His ashes are buried there, under that lilac tree. Lucy you saw. Lem and his wife are fine, and their two kids, and my three great-grandchildren.”

Kyra nodded, unsurprised. “I have three step-children, two step-grandchildren. Wonderful kids.”

“You married again?”

“Late. I was sixty-five, Bill sixty-seven. A pair of sagging gray arthritic honeymooners. But we had ten good years, and I’m grateful for them.”

I knew what she meant. At the end, one was grateful for all the good years, no matter what their aftermath. I said, “Kyra, I still don’t know why you’re here. Not that you’re not welcome, of course, but why now?”

“I told you. I wanted to hear what you thought of the aliens’ coming to Celadon.”

“You could have comlinked.”

She didn’t say anything to that. I stitched on. Lucy brought tea, poured it, and left again.

“Amy, I really want to know what you think.”

She was serious. It mattered to her. I put down my teacup. “All right. On Mondays I think they’re not on Celadon at all and the government made the whole thing up. On Tuesdays I think that they’re here to do just what it looks like: make contact with humans, and this is the first time it looks safe to them. The other three times we met them with soldiers and bombs and anger because they landed on our planet. Now there’s a place to interact without coming too close, and we aren’t screeching at them in panic, and they were waiting for that in order to establish trade and/or diplomatic relations. On Wednesdays I think they’re worming their way into our confidence, gathering knowledge about our technology, in order to enslave us or destroy us. On Thursdays I think that they’re aliens, so how can we ever hope to understand their reasons? They’re not human. On Fridays I hope, and on Saturdays I despair, and on Sundays I take a day of rest.”

Kyra didn’t smile. I remembered that about her: she didn’t have much of a sense of humor. She said, “And why do you think they took me and that Kikuyu boy into their ships?”

“On Mondays-”

“I’m serious, Amy!”

“Always. All right, I guess they just wanted to learn about us in person, so they picked out two growing specimens and knocked them out so they could garner all the secrets of our physical bodies for future use. They might even have taken some of your DNA, you know. You’d never miss it. There could be small culture-grown Kyras running around some distant planet. Or not so small, by now.”

But Kyra wasn’t interested in the possibilities of genetic engineering. “I think I know why they came.”

“You do?” Once she had told me that the aliens came just to destroy her life. But that kind of hubris was for the young.

“Yes,” Kyra said. “I think they came without knowing the reason. They just came. After all, Amy, if I think about it, I can’t really say why I did half the things in my life. They just seemed the available course of action at the time, so I did them. Why should the aliens be any different? Can you say that you really know why you did all the things in your life?”

Could I? I thought about it. “Yes, Kyra. I think I can, pretty much. That’s not to say my reasons were good. But they were understandable.”

She shrugged. “Then you’re different from me. But I’ll tell you this: Any plan the government makes to deal with these aliens won’t work. You know why? Because it will be one plan, one set of attitudes and procedures, and pretty soon things will change on Earth or on Celadon or for the aliens, and then the plan won’t work anymore and still everybody will try desperately to make it work. They’ll try to stay in control, and nobody can control anything important.”

She said this last with such intensity that I looked up from my needlepoint. She meant it, this banal and obvious insight that she was offering as if it were cutting edge knowledge.

And yet, it was cutting edge, because each person had to acquire it painfully, in his or her own way, through loss and failure and births and plagues and war and victories and, sometimes, a life shaped by an hour in an alien spaceship. All fodder for the same trite, heart-breaking conclusion. Everything old is new again.

And yet-

Sudden tenderness washed over me for Kyra. We had spent most of our lives locked in pointless battle. I reached over to her, carefully so as not to aggravate my creaky joints, and took her hand.

“Kyra, if you believe you can’t control anything, then you won’t try for control, which of course guarantees that you end up not controlling anything.”

“Never in my whole life have I been able to make a difference to- what the fuck is that!”

The furry blue bird had landed on her head, its feet tangling briefly in her hair. “It’s one of Lem’s genernod birds,” I said. “It’s been engineered to have no fear of humans.”

“Well, that’s a stupid idea!” Kyra said, swatting at it with surprising vigor. The bird flew away. “If that thing lands on me again, I’ll strangle it!”

“Yes,” I said, and laughed, and didn’t bother to explain why.

The Passenger - PAUL J. MCAULEY

Born in Oxford, England, in 1 955, Paul J. McAuley now makes his home in London. A professional biologist for many years, he sold his first story in 1984, and has gone on to be a frequent contributor to Interzone, as well as to markets such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Skylife, The Third Alternative, When the Music’s Over, and elsewhere.

McAuley is considered to be one of the best of the new breed of British writers (although a few Australian writers could be fit in under this heading as well) who are producing that brand of rigorous hard science fiction with updated modern and stylistic sensibilities that is sometimes referred to as “radical hard science fiction,” but he also writes Dystopian sociological speculations about the very near future. He also is one of the major young writers who is producing that revamped and retooled widescreen Space Opera that has sometimes been called the New Baroque Space Opera, reminiscent of the Superscience stories of the 1930s taken to an even higher level of intensity and scale. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Award, and his acclaimed novel Fairyland won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1996. His other books include the novels Of The Fall, Eternal Light, and Pasquale’s Angel, Confluence- a major trilogy of ambitious scope and scale set ten million years in the future, comprised of the novels Child of the River, Ancient of Days, and Shrine of Stars-and Life on Mars. His short fiction has been collected in The King of the Hill and Other Stories and The Invisible Country, and he is the coeditor, with Kim Newman, of an original anthology, In Dreams. His stories have appeared in our Fifth, Ninth, Thirteenth, and Fifteenth through Nineteenth Annual Collections. His most recent books are two new novels, The Secret of Life and Whole Wide World.

Here he takes us along with a crew salvaging spaceships in the aftermath of an interplanetary war who run into some life-or-death problems of a kind that they never expected to face…

The sky was full of ships.

Sturdy little scows that were mostly motor; lumpy intrasystem shuttles, the workhorses of space; the truncated cones of surface-to-orbit gigs; freighters that, stripped of their cargo pods, looked like the unclad skeletons of skyscrapers; even an elegant clipper, a golden arc like the crescent moon of a fairy-tale illustration. More than a hundred ships spread in a rough sphere a thousand kilometers in diameter, in the Lagrangian point sixty degrees of arc ahead of Dione. All of them hulks. Combat wreckage. Spoils of war waiting to be rendered into useful components, rare metals, and scrap.

From the viewports of the battered hab-modules of the wrecking gangs, hung in the midst of this junkyard Sargasso, four or five ships were always visible, framed at various angles against starry space. Only a few showed obvious signs of damage. There was a passenger shuttle whose cylindrical lifesystem had been unseamed by carefully placed bomblets, a kamikaze act of sabotage that had killed the fleeing government of Baghdad, Enceladus. There was a freighter wrecked by a missile strike, its frame peeled back and half-melted, like a Daliesque flower. A dozen tugs, converted into singleship fighters, had been drilled by X-ray lasers or holed by smart rocks. But most were simply brain dead, their cybernetic nervous systems zapped by neutron lasers, microwave bursts or emp mines during the investment of the Saturn system. Salvage robots had attached themselves to these hulks and pushed them into low-energy orbits that had eventually intersected that of Dione. Their cargo pods had been dismounted, the antihydrogen and antilithium had been removed from their motors, and now, two hundred days after the end of the Quiet War, they awaited the attention of the wrecking gangs.

The men and women of the gangs were all outers recruited by Symbiosis, the Earth-based transnat that had won the auction for salvaging and rendering these casualties of the Quiet War. They were engineers, General Labor Pool grunts, and freefall construction mechanics on thirty-days-on/thirty-days-off shifts under minimum wage contracts, and pleased to get the work; the Quiet War had wrecked the economy of the Outer System colonies, and seventy percent of the population depended upon the charity of the victorious Three Powers Alliance.

Maris Delgado, foreperson of Wrecking Gang #3, was supporting her mother and father, and her brother and his family back in Athens, Tethys. Every cent of her wages, after deductions, went to them. Maris was a practical, gruff, levelheaded woman. She preferred to put her faith in machines rather than people. You could always flange up a rough solution to a machine’s problems, but people were unfathomable and all too often untrustworthy. Her approach to running her gang was pragmatic: do what Symbiosis asked, no more and no less. Her family depended upon her, and she wanted to get the job done with the minimum of fuss. She took no part in the gossip and rumors the wrecking gangs exchanged by clandestine laser blink whenever they were out of the line-of-sight of the Symbiosis supervisor’s ship. She poured scorn on the rumors of ghosts and hauntings, of curses worked by dying crews, of hatches mysteriously locked or unlocked, machinery suddenly starting up or breaking down. She ridiculed the vivid stories that Ty Siriwardene, the youngest member of her gang, liked to conjure up, told him that the last thing you needed on a job like this was an imagination.

Not even on their latest assignment, which was a shuttle that Maris had helped to build a couple of years before the war, when she had been working in the orbital shipyards of Tethys. Ty said that the coincidence was spooky; Maris said that it was ridiculous to make anything of it. She’d worked fifteen years at the yards-all her working life. It was a statistical inevitability that sooner or later she’d find herself taking apart a ship that she had once helped assemble, and she was determined to treat it like any other.

Maris did the initial survey of the hulk with Somerset. It was grossly intact, and its lifesystem still pressurized; the only potential problem was the thick black crust growing around the motor, a vacuum organism that was probably subsisting on water vapor leaking from the attitude-control tanks. Somerset, who had been a data miner before getting religion, plugged a slate into the shuttle’s dead computer and pulled the manifest from the memory core. The shuttle had been carrying a single passenger and miscellaneous agricultural supplies; it seemed likely that the vacuum organism had escaped from one of the cargo pods before they had been removed.

For once, Maris and Somerset didn’t have to search for the crew; the Symbiosis workers who had uncoupled the cargo pods and decommissioned the motor had already done that. The three bodies, still wearing sealed pressure suits, were huddled together in an equipment locker around some kind of impedance heater lashed up from cable and an exhausted fuel cell. The locker, the heater, and the p-suits had been the crew’s last stand against the inevitable after the shuttle’s systems had been fritzed by an emp mine and the stricken lifesystem had cooled to minus two hundred degrees centigrade. One by one, they had succumbed to hypothermia’s deep sleep, and their corpses had frozen solid.

Watched by one of the half-dozen drones that for some reason were floating about the lifesystem, Maris and Somerset identified each of the bodies, collected and documented their personal effects, and sealed them into coffins that Symbiosis would with impersonal charity deliver to surviving relatives. They were one body short-the passenger. Maris assumed that the woman had wandered off to die on her own in some obscure spot not discovered by the Symbiosis workers; the wrecking gang would find her frozen corpse by and by, when they stripped out the lifesystem.

Once the coffins had been sent on their way, the other two members of the wrecking gang came aboard. They rigged lights and a power supply, collected drifting trash, vented the lifesystem, and generally made the hulk safe, so that they could begin the second stage of the salvage operation, stripping out gold and silver, indium and germanium, and all the other rare metals from the shuttle’s control systems.

It was Ty Siriwardene who noticed that the shuttle’s foodmaker had been dismantled, and that its yeast base block was missing. He told Maris about it at the end of the shift, back in the hab-module; she suggested that it couldn’t be due to one of his famous ghosts, because it was well known that ghosts didn’t eat.

“ Something took the stuff,” Ty said stubbornly. “I’m not making this up.”

He was a raggedy young man, scrawny and slight in his grubby blue suitliner, thick black tattoos squirming over his shaven scalp. He chewed gum incessantly; he was chewing it now, a tendon jumping on his neck, as he locked eyes with Maris.

“Maybe the crew ate the yeast because the maker couldn’t synthesize food without power,” Maris said.

Ty popped gum. “If they just wanted the yeast, why did they dismantle the maker? And why would they have eaten the yeast when they hardly touched the reserves of food paste in their suits?”

“They preferred yeast,” Maris said curtly. She was tired. She had been working for twelve hours straight. She was looking forward to a shower and a long sleep. She didn’t have time for Ty’s spooky shit. He wanted her to contradict him, she realized, so that he could keep his silly notions alive in a pointless argument. She said, “We’ve got just one week left before we’re all rotated rockside. Let it go, Ty, unless you want to write up a report for Barrett.”

Ty didn’t write it up, of course. The supervisor, James Lo Barrett, was considered a joke amongst the wrecking gangs: an inflexible bureaucrat who was working off some kind of demerit at this obscure posting, an incomer who hardly ever left his ship, who had no idea of the practical difficulties of the work. But Ty didn’t let it go, either. The next day, midshift, he swam up to Maris and pulled a patch cord from his p-suit’s utility belt. Maris sighed, but took the free end of the cord and plugged it in.

“Something’s screwy,” Ty said. “I was outside, checking the service compartment? Turns out all the fuel cells in the back-up power system are gone.”

“The crew moved them inside after their ship was crippled,” Maris said. “We found one cell right by their bodies.”

“Yeah, but where are the other three?”

“They’ll turn up,” Maris said. “Forget it, and get back to work.”

They were floating head-to-head in the narrow shaft that ran through the middle of the shuttle’s tiny lifesystem, where Maris was feeding circuitry into the squat cube of a portable refinery that boiled off metals and separated and collected them by laser chromatography. Ty’s gaze was grabby and nervous behind his gold-filmed visor. He really was spooked. He said, “You don’t feel it? It’s not just that something weird happened here. It’s as if something’s still here. A presence, a ghost.”

“That would be Barrett. You know he’s always on my tail to keep you guys on schedule. We have fifteen days to strip this hulk. If we fall behind, he’ll dock our pay. Can you afford that, Ty? I can’t. I have people who depend on me. Forget about the fuel cells. It’s one of those mysteries that really isn’t worth thinking about. It’s nothing. Let me hear you say that.”

“It’s something,” Ty said, with a flicker of insolence. He pulled the patch cord, spun head-over-heels, and shot away down the long corridor.

“And another thing,” Maris said over the common radio channel, as Ty did a tuck-and-turn and pulled himself through a hatchway, “don’t fuck around with any more drones. Barrett called me up a couple of hours ago, said he thought you’d done something to one of them.”

“I don’t like being watched while I work,” Ty said.

“What did you do, Ty?”

“Glued it to a bulkhead. If Barrett wants to spy on me, he can come out and unglue it himself.”

Ty wouldn’t give up his idea that something was haunting the shuttle. Later, Maris caught him plugged into a private conversation with Bruno Peterfreund, the fourth member of the wrecking gang. They had just spent a couple of hours combing through the shuttle’s lifesystem, and presented her with an inventory: the com module gone; pumps and filters from the air conditioning dismounted; sleeping bags and tools missing.

“Something took all this stuff,” Ty said, “and made itself a nice cozy nest.”

“I think he’s right, boss,” Bruno said. “The stuff, it is not floating around somewhere. It’s gone.”

“The shuttle was zapped right at the beginning of the war,” Maris said. “Nothing could have survived out here for three hundred days.”

“Nothing human,” Ty said. “It’s a spook of some kind for sure. Hiding in the shadows, waiting to jump our asses.”

Maris told the two men to get back to work, but she knew this wouldn’t be the end of it. Ty and Bruno had wasted precious time chasing a ghost that couldn’t possibly exist. They had fallen behind on the job.

Sure enough, Barrett called her that evening. He’d checked her day log, and wanted to know why her gang were still refining rare metals when they should have started to dismount the fusion plant. Maris wasn’t prepared to expose her crew to Barrett’s acid ridicule, so she flat-out lied. She told him that the calibration of the refinery had drifted, that there had been cross-contamination in the collection chambers, that she had had to run everything through the refinery all over again.

“I don’t want to fine you,” Barrett said, “but I’m going to have to do it all the same. You’ve gotten behind, Maris, and I can’t be seen to favor one gang over another. It’s nothing, just 30 percent of the day’s pay, but if your gang don’t have the fusion plant dismounted by the end of tomorrow, I’m afraid that I’ll be forced to invoke another penalty.”

James Lo Barrett, the smug bastard, giving her a synthetic look of soapy sympathy. He had a fleshy, pouched face, a shaven head (even his eyebrows were shaved), and a pussy little beard that was no more than a single long braid hung off his chin and wrapped in black silk thread. He looked, Maris thought, like a fetus blimped up by some kind of accelerated growth program. He was sitting at his desk, at ease in the centrifugal gravity of his ship in a clean, brightly lit room, with real plants growing on a shelf behind him and a mug of something smothered in his podgy hands. Coffee, probably-Maris thought she could see steam rising from it. She hadn’t had a proper hot drink or meal in twenty days; the hab-module’s atmosphere was a nitrox mix at less than half an atmosphere, and water boiled at seventy degrees centigrade. It stank too, because its air scrubbers didn’t work properly; its joints needed careful monitoring because they were prone to spring leaks; its underpowered electrical system was liable to unpredictable brownouts and cut-offs; it had a low grade but intractable black mold infection; the motors and fans of its air conditioning thrummed and clanked and groaned in a continual dismal chorus. But it was infinitely better than sitting rockside, subsiding on the meager charity of the Three Powers Occupation Force and enduring the random sweeps of its police. It was work, and work was what Maris lived for, even if she had to deal with people like Barrett.

She’d met him just once, at the start of her contract. He’d made a big deal about coming out to the hab-module to meet the new wrecking gang, had a clammy handshake, grabby eyes, and smelled of eucalyptus oil. He’d tried to convince her then that he was on her side, that he thought outers were getting a tough break. “The war is over,” he’d told her. “We should draw a line under it and move on. There are tremendous possibilities out here, vast resources. Everyone can benefit. So don’t think of me as the enemy, that’s all in the past. Deal with me like you would anyone else, and we’ll get along just fine.”

Maris decided then that although she had to work for him, he couldn’t make her pretend to like him. She said now, direct and matter-of-fact, “We’ll get back on schedule. No problem.”

“Work with me, Delgado. Don’t let me down.”

“Absolutely,” Maris said. Her job would have been so much easier if Barrett had been a tough son of a bitch. Maris could deal with sons of bitches-you always knew where you were with them. But Barrett pretended that he was not responsible for the authority he wielded, pretended that punishing his crews hurt him as much as it hurt them, demanding their sympathy even as he sequestered money that was needed to feed starving children. His spineless mendacity made him a worse tyrant than any bully.

“If there’s a problem,” he said, “you know I’m always here to help.”

Yeah, right. Maris knew that if there really was a problem, he’d get rid of her without a qualm. She gave her best smile, and said, “The refinery threw a glitch, but it’s fixed now. We’ll get on top of the schedule first thing.”

“That’s the spirit. And Delgado? No more games with my drones.”

Wrecking Gang #3’s hab-module was nothing more than two stubby, double-skinned cargo pods welded either side of a central airlock, like two tin cans kissing a fat ball bearing. Maris sculled from the workspace cylinder, with its lockers and racks and benches, through the spherical airlock, into the living quarters. Ty glanced up from his TV; he was an addict of the spew of reworked ancient programs pumped out by autonomous self-replicating satellites in Saturn’s ring system. Half hidden by the flexing silvery tube of the air ducting, Bruno Peterfreund, his long blond hair coiled under a knitted cap, was painstakingly scraping mold from a viewport.

Maris told the two men the bad news. She gave it to them straight. She didn’t mention their sudden obsession with missing fuel cells and the rest; she let the inference hang in the air. “You guys will start dismounting the fusion plant,” she said, “and once Somerset and I have finished up metal reclamation, we’ll come and give you a hand. We’ll start early, finish late. Okay?”

“Whatever,” Ty said, affecting indifference but not quite daring to meet Maris’s fierce gaze.

“That won’t interfere with your social plans, Bruno?”

“Nothing I can’t put off, boss.” Bruno was a stolid, taciturn man of thirty-five, exactly the same age as Maris, a ship’s engineer from Europa who had been stranded in the Saturn system by the war. He had spent more than a hundred days in a forced labor camp, helping to rebuild wrecked agricultural domes. Now that the Three Powers Occupation Force had declared “normalization” throughout the Outer System, and the embargo on civilian travel had been lifted, he hoped to earn enough from salvage work to pay for his ticket home. He had a round, impassive face and dark watchful eyes that didn’t miss much; lately, Maris had caught him checking out her trim whenever he thought she wasn’t looking. He was lonesome, she thought, missing the family he hadn’t seen for almost a year. If he hadn’t been married, and if they hadn’t been working together, she might have responded; as it was, by unspoken agreement, they kept it at the level of mutually respectful banter.

“We’ll make up the time,” Maris told the two men. “I know you guys can work hard when you have to. Where’s Somerset? Gardening?”

“As usual,” Ty said.

Somerset was cocooned in a sleeping bag in a curtained niche at the far end of the chamber, eyes masked by spex, ringed fingers flexing like pale sea plants.

“Hey,” Maris said.

Somerset pushed up the spex and turned its calm, untroubled gaze toward her. Like all neuters, its age was difficult to estimate; although it was thirty years older than Maris, and its spiky crest of hair was as white as nitrogen snow, its coffee-and-cream skin had the smooth, unlined complexion of a child. It was a member of some kind of Buddhist sect, and all of its wages went to the refugee center run by its temple. It owned nothing but a couple of changes of clothes, its p-suit, and its garden-a virtual microhabitat whose health and harmony were, according to the precepts of its faith, a reflection of its spiritual state.

Maris said, “How’s everything growing?”

Somerset shrugged and said dryly, “You don’t have to attempt pleasantries, Maris. I will do my part.”

“You heard what I told Ty and Bruno.”

“I thought you were quite restrained, considering the trouble they have caused.”

“I want to know just one thing,” Maris said. “I want to know if this is some kind of joke on me. If you’re all winding me up because I helped build the ship, and I’ve bored you to death about why I don’t believe in ghosts. If that’s what it is, ha-ha, you’ve all made your point, and I’m wiser for it. But we have to get back on schedule.”

“I don’t play games,” Somerset said disdainfully.

Maris said, “But you know what’s going on, don’t you? It’s Ty. Ty for sure, and maybe Bruno. Bruno’s quiet, but he’s sly.”

“To begin with,” Somerset said, “I thought Ty’s stories were as silly as you did, but now I’m not so sure. We still haven’t found that missing passenger, after all.”

“She died in some obscure little spot,” Maris said, “or she took a walk out of the airlock. One or the other. The ship was shut down, Somerset. It was killed stone dead. The emp blast fritzed every circuit. No lights, no air conditioning, no heat, no communications, no hope of rescue. Remember that other shuttle we did, last shift? All the crew were gone. They took the big step rather than die a long lingering death by freezing or asphyxiation.”

“I did an infrared scan,” Somerset said. “Just in case.”

Maris nodded. Somerset was smart; Somerset was methodical. Anything warmer than the vacuum, such as a hidey-hole with a warm body living in it, would show up stark white in infrared. She said, “I should have thought of that.”

Somerset smiled. “But I didn’t find anything.”

“There you are.”

“Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

“Meaning?”

“Its hiding place could be well-insulated. It could be buried deep in the shuttle’s structure.”

“Bullshit,” Maris said. “We’ll finish stripping out the circuitry tomorrow. We’ll find her body in some corner, and that will be an end to it.”

Maris and Somerset didn’t find the missing passenger. Ty and Bruno did.

The two men came into the lifesystem a couple of hours before the end of the shift, ricocheting down the central shaft like a couple of freefall neophytes. Ty was so shaken that he couldn’t string together a coherent sentence; even the normally imperturbable Bruno was spooked.

“You have to see it for yourself, boss,” Bruno told Maris, after they had all used patch cords to link themselves together, so that Barrett couldn’t overhear them.

“If you guys are setting me up for something, I’ll personally drag your asses rockside.”

“No joke,” Ty said. “Clan’s honor this is no joke.”

“Tell us again what you found,” Somerset said calmly. “Think carefully. Describe everything you saw.”

Ty and Bruno talked: ten minutes.

When they were finished, Maris said, “If she’s in there, she can’t be alive.”

“Gang #1 found bodies hung on a bulkhead in one of the freighters,” Ty said. “Bodies with chunks missing from them. They figure that one of the crew killed the rest. They think that he might still be alive.”

Maris said firmly, “No one could have survived for long in any of these hulks. No power, no food, no air… it isn’t possible.”

“You don’t know what the gene wizards made for the war,” Ty said. “No one does.”

Maris had to admit that Ty had a point. Before the Quiet War, Earth had infiltrated the Outer System colonies with spies, doppelgangers, and suicide artists, most of them clones and most of them gengineered. The suicide artists had been the worst-terror weapons in human form, berserkers, walking bombs. One type had hidden themselves near sensitive installations and simply died; symbiotic bacteria had transformed their corpses into unstable lumps of high explosive. Maris’s younger brother had been killed when one of these corpse-bombs had blown a hole in the agricultural dome where he had been working.

She said, “Did any of Barrett’s drones follow you?”

“Not a one,” Ty said.

“You’re sure.”

“My suit’s radar can spot a flea’s heartbeat at a hundred klicks. Yeah, I’m sure.”

“If Barrett suspected anything, boss,” Bruno said, “he would be asking you some hard questions around about now.”

“We should consider telling him,” Somerset said. “If something dangerous is hiding in there, Symbiosis can provide the appropriate back-up.”

“Soldiers,” Ty said. “ Armed soldiers.”

“If we could tell anyone other than Barrett, I’d agree with you,” Maris said. “But Barrett can’t make a decision to save his life. Faced with something like this, something that isn’t covered by his precious rule book, he’ll panic. The first thing he’ll do is sling our asses rockside. The second thing he’ll do is, if by some miracle she’s still alive, he’ll kill her. He’ll declare her a saboteur or a spy, kill her, and get promoted for it. Or he’ll simply get rid of her, pretend she never existed. And don’t try and tell me that this is some spook or monster, Ty. This has to be the missing passenger-Alice Eighteen Singh Rai. A person, not a monster.”

“The boss has a point,” Bruno said. “Barrett does not accept responsibility for his actions. He hides behind his position in the company, and his position in the company is all he is. In the camp, there were many like him, people who told themselves that they must do terrible things to the prisoners because their superiors demanded it, people who refused to see that they were doing these things out of fear and denial. Those people, they made themselves into monsters, and I think Barrett is that kind of monster. He will commit murder rather than risk doing something that might endanger his status, and he will tell himself it is for the good of the company.”

It was the longest speech any of them had heard Bruno make, and the only time he had ever talked about the labor camp.

“Aw, shit,” Ty said. “Let’s do it. But if we all get killed by some kind of monster, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I would like you all to remember that I have expressed my reservations,” Somerset said.

“If it was a monster,” Maris said, “don’t you think it would have killed us already?”

They went out together. They carried percussion hammers, bolt cutters, glue guns. Bruno carried a portable airlock kit. Ty carried a switchblade he’d somehow smuggled past Symbiont security. Maris carried a tube of plastic explosive. Somerset carried a portable ultrasonic scanner. They fingertip-flew over the swell of the shuttle’s main body toward the flared skirt of the motor’s radiation shield. Saturn’s pale crescent, nipped like a fingernail paring in the delicate tweezers of its ring system, hung just a few degrees above it. At zenith, the twin stars of the Symbiosis ship, motor and lifesystem linked by a fullerene tether four kilometers long, rotated once a second around their common center.

Beyond the radiation shield, the bulbous cylinder of the motor and most of its ancillary spheres and spars were coated with the black crust of the vacuum organism, smooth as spilled paint in some places, raised in thin, stiff sheets in others. The biggest sheets clustered like mutant funeral flowers around the mass-reaction tanks, a ring of six aluminum spheres, each three meters in diameter, that were tucked in the lee of the radiation skirt. The tanks contained water that had fuelled superheated steam Venturis used for delicate attitude control; one of the tanks, Ty claimed, was the hiding place of a monster.

They plugged in patch cords; they went to work.

While Somerset fiddled with the ultrasonic scanner, Maris used a wand to confirm that the tank was leaking minute traces of an oxyhelium mix. Bruno showed her a clear spot in the otherwise ubiquitous coating of the vacuum organism, hidden behind one of the triangular struts that secured the tank to the motor’s spine. It was like a dull grey eye surrounded by ridged and puckered black tar; in its center, a fine seam defined a circle about half a meter in diameter.

“That is what gave us the clue,” Bruno said. “The vacuum organism must be an oxygen hater. Also, we find a current flowing in it.”

“It’s not just photosynthetic,” Ty said. He hung back from the tank as if ready to bolt, the patch cord that connected him to Bruno at full stretch. His white p-suit was painted with swirling lines and dots that echoed his tattoos.

“It generates electricity,” Bruno said. “Something like ten point six watts over its entire surface. Not very much, but enough-”

“I’m ahead of you,” Maris said. “It’s enough to run the tank’s internal heaters. Well, but it doesn’t mean that she’s alive. What do you see, Somerset?”

Somerset, hanging head down close to the tank’s sphere, his orange p-suit vivid against the stiff black sheets of the vacuum organism, was using the ultrasonic scanner. It said, “Nothing at all. It is very well insulated. Maris, you know that we have to tell Symbiosis.”

“If it is the missing passenger, she has to be crazy,” Bruno said. “Or why would she still be hiding?”

“She has to be some kind of thing,” Ty said.

“She has to be dead,” Maris said. “Let’s get her out of there.”

They set dots of plastic explosive around the almost invisible seam. They rigged the portable airlock over it. They took shelter behind another tank, and Maris blew the charges.

An aluminum disc, forced out by pressure inside the tank, shot to the top of the transparent tent of the airlock and bounced back to meet something shuddering out of the hole-another portable airlock struggling to fit inside the first. After nothing else happened for a whole minute, Maris sculled over to investigate. She pushed the visor of her helmet against the double layer of taut, transparent plastic, and shone her flashlight inside.

At the center of the tank, curled up in a nest made from the absorbent material and honeycomb vanes that had channeled the water, was the body of a little girl in a cut-down pressure suit.

***

They thought at first that she was dead: her p-suit’s internal temperature was just two degrees centigrade, barely above the freezing point of water, and she had no pulse or respiration signs. But a quick ultrasonic scan showed that her blood was sluggishly circulating through a cascade filter pump connected to the femoral artery of her left leg. There was also a small machine attached to the base of her skull, something coiled in her stomach, and a line in the vein of her left arm that went through the elbow joint of her p-suit and was coupled to a lash-up of tubing, pumps and bags of clear and cloudy liquids, and the three missing fuel cells.

“That’s what happened to the foodmaker,” Ty said. “She’s got some kind of continuous culture running.”

He hung just outside the hatch, watching as Maris and Somerset worked inside the tank, tying off the line into the little girl’s arm, detaching a cable trickling amps to her p-suit.

“She is hibernating,” Bruno said, his helmet jostling beside Ty’s. “I have heard of the technique. Soldiers on the other side were infected with nanotech that could shut them down if they were badly injured.”

“Then she’s a spy,” Ty said.

“I don’t know what she is,” Somerset said, looking across the little girl’s body at Maris, “but I do know that no ordinary child could have rigged this. We should leave her here. Let Symbiosis deal with her as I have already suggested.”

“I don’t think so,” Maris said. “The temperature inside her suit has risen by five degrees, and it’s still rising. I think she’s waking up.”

They waited until the Symbiosis ship was eclipsed by a freighter that was slowly rotating end over end thirty klicks beyond the shuttle, and then rode their sled to the hab-module. Halfway there, the little girl’s arms and legs spasmed; Maris held her down, saw that she was dribbling a clear liquid from her mouth and nostrils. Then her eyes opened, and she looked straight at Maris.

Her eyes were beaten gold, with silvery, pinprick pupils.

Maris touched her visor to the little girl’s. “It’s okay,” she said. “Everything’s okay, sweetheart. We’ll look after you. I promise.”

By the time they had bundled her inside the hab-module, the little girl was dazed but fully awake. Out of her p-suit, she stank like a pharm goat and was as skinny as a snake, in a liner that was two sizes too big. Even though the intravenous line had been dripping vitamins, amino acids, and complex carbohydrates from the yeast culture into her blood, she had used up all of her body fat and a good deal of muscle mass in her long sleep. She seemed to be about eight or nine, was completely hairless, and had bronze skin, and those big silver-on-gold eyes that stared boldly at the wrecking crew who hung around her.

Although she responded to her name, she wouldn’t or couldn’t talk; hardly surprising, Maris said, considering what she had been through. When Bruno tried to examine the blood pump that clung to her leg like a swollen leech, she drew her knees to her chest and carefully detached it, then reached behind her head, plucked the tiny machine from the base of her skull, and nicked it away. Bruno deftly caught it on the rebound, and after a brief examination said it was some kind of Russian Sleep gadget. “Some monster, boss,” he said. “I’m disappointed.”

“We could throw her back,” Maris said, “and try for something better.”

Ty laughed, showing for a moment the wad of green gum that lay on his tongue. He was fascinated by the little girl; his fear had transformed directly to excitement and a kind of proprietorial pride. “She’s amazing,” he said. “Could you have done what she did? I couldn’t.”

“None of us could,” Somerset said. “That’s why she can’t be a normal little girl. That’s why we have taken a very grave risk in bringing her aboard.”

“Aw, come on,” Ty said. “Look at her. She’s a kid. She’s half-starved to death. She couldn’t harm a blade of grass.”

“Appearances can be deceptive,” Somerset said.

Alice Eighteen Singh Rai watched them carefully as they spoke about her, but showed no sign that she understood what they were saying.

“She would have died if we had not found her,” Bruno said. “Whatever she is, she needs our help.”

“Of course,” Somerset said. “But we know nothing about her.”

Ty snorted air through his nose. “What are you saying, we should tie her up?”

“We should certainly take precautions,” Somerset said, ignoring Ty’s sarcasm.

Maris decided that Somerset needed something to do, and told him, “Before we can decide anything, I need you to find out everything you can about where Alice came from.”

“Somewhere on Iapetus, I should think,” Somerset said. “That was the shuttle’s point of departure, according to its manifest. It was on a straight run to Mimas when the emp mine intercepted it.”

“I’m sure you can find out exactly where on Iapetus.”

“I will try my best,” Somerset said, and swam off to its cubicle.

“And take the rod out of your ass while you’re about it,” Ty murmured.

“Somerset does have a point,” Bruno said. “We have to think very carefully about what we’re going to do.”

“I’m going to have to come up with some excuse for Barrett,” Maris said. “But first, I’m going to give this little girl her first shower in three hundred days.”

Alice Eighteen Singh Rai scrubbed up well, submitting docilely to the air-mask necessary in the freefall shower. Enveloped in one of Maris’s jumpers, she refused the bags of chow Ty patiently offered one by one, then suddenly kicked off toward the kitchen nook, quick and agile as an eel. She had ripped open a tube and was cramming black olive paste into her mouth before Ty could pull her away by an ankle.

“Let her eat,” Maris said. “I think she knows what her body needs.”

“Man,” Ty said, wonderingly, “she sure is hungry.”

Bruno said, “I have only a minimum of medical training, boss. I don’t know anything about mental illness or brain damage. The autodoc can work up her blood and urine chemistry for chemical signs of psychosis, but that’s about all. I hate to say it, but the Symbiosis ship has better facilities.”

“I don’t want to turn her over to Barrett.”

Bruno nodded. His eyes were dark and solemn under the brim of his knitted cap. “She’s one of us, isn’t she?”

“She’s no ordinary little girl. Somerset is right about that. But she’s no monster, either.”

“She sure is hungry,” Ty said again, watching with tender pride as Alice unseamed her third tube of olive paste.

Maris left her with Ty and Bruno, and, with heavy foreboding, wrote up a false report for the day log and sent it off. Barrett called back almost at once. He said, “I want to believe you, but somehow I’m having a hard time.”

Maris’s first thought was that one of Barrett’s drones had spotted them working around Alice’s nest. She hunched over the com, sweat popping over her body. Her pulse beat heavily in her temples. She said, “If this is about why we’re still behind-”

“Of course it is. And I’m very disappointed.”

“The vacuum organism caused a bigger problem than we anticipated.”

“All you have to do is cut through it,” Barrett said scornfully. “Cut through it, scorch it off, deal with it.”

“Can you tell me about the shuttle’s cargo, Barrett? What was it carrying?”

Barrett gave her a sharp, bright look. “Why do you want to know?”

“Perhaps the vacuum organism was part of the cargo. If we know what it is, we can deal with it more easily.”

“The V.O. was checked out when the cargo pods were detached. It’s nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Don’t you have more specific information? The ship was recovered five months ago. Symbiosis must know what was in the cargo pods by now.”

“That’s none of your business, Delgado. Your business is to render down that shuttle, and your gang is a whole ten hours behind. You have to understand that Symbiosis wrote up these work schedules with generous margins-”

Relief that Barrett didn’t seem to know about Alice made Maris bold. She said, “The schedules weren’t drawn up with vacuum organism contamination in mind.”

“Please don’t interrupt me again,” Barrett said, all frosty rectitude. “The margins are there, and you’ve overrun them. You know the contract regs as well as I, Delgado. What else can I do?”

“Okay, fine, take off ten hours pay.”

“A day’s pay plus penalties. The contract is quite specific.”

“Okay.”

“What’s wrong, Delgado? Talk to me. Are you having trouble maintaining discipline?” Barrett suddenly mock-solicitous, leaning so close to the camera that his face looked like a pockmarked moon, his silly little braid wagging on his chin.

“T here’s no problem,” Maris said, snapping off the com and instantly regretting it. It was a sign of weakness, and the one skill that Barrett had honed to perfection was sniffing out weaknesses in others.

She waited five minutes in case he called back, then sculled back to the living quarters. Ty and Alice were watching a TV sheet floating in the air. Both were chewing gum. Bruno and Somerset broke off a whispered conversation, and Somerset told Maris, “I have found out where she came from.”

***

The Saturn infonet had been badly damaged during the Quiet War, but after running Alice’s name through half a dozen clandestine search engines, Somerset had discovered that the shuttle’s cargo and passenger had both originated in Hawaiki, an agricultural settlement on the great dark plains of Iapetus’s Cassini Regio.

“I discovered something else, too,” Somerset said. “The settlement was designed by Avernus.”

The name of the woman who had been the Outer System’s most famous gene wizard, and was now its most wanted so-called war criminal, hung in the air for a moment.

“Man,” Ty said, “I knew our Alice was something special. Didn’t I say she was special?”

“Avernus was famous for the totality of her designs,” Somerset said. “She tailored both ecospheres and their inhabitants. Given her appearance and what she did to survive, it seems quite likely that our guest benefited from Avernus’s art.”

Alice smiled at them all, seemingly quite happy to be the center of their attention.

“It doesn’t mean that she’s a monster,” Maris said forthrightly, although she had to admit that Somerset’s discovery was disquieting. Avernus had dedicated her considerable skills to pushing the envelope of humanity’s range. Some of her commissions-a sect in which adults lost the use of their limbs and eyes and grew leathery, involuted integuments stained purple with photosynthetic pigment, becoming sessile eremites devoted to praising God; a community with a completely closed ecosystem, the bellies of its citizens swollen with sacs of symbiotic bacteria-had tested even the generously inclusive tolerance of the outers.

“Aw, hell,” Ty said, “according to the flatlanders, we’re all monsters. And you know what? It’s true. We’re all tweaks, and we’re all proud to be tweaks! Flatlanders need drugs and nanotech to live here, but we’re gengineered for low-gravity. Maybe Avernus gave Alice a few extra special abilities, but so what?”

Maris asked Somerset, “Can we get in touch with Alice’s home?”

“Hawaiki no longer exists,” Somerset said. “It was captured and destroyed during the war.”

“There must be survivors,” Maris said.

“They were probably put in a camp,” Bruno said darkly. “One of those experimental camps.”

“Hey,” Ty said, “not in front of Alice.”

“The TPA must know,” Somerset said, “but there are no records that I can access.”

“One thing is certain,” Maris said. “We were absolutely right not to tell Barrett about Alice.”

She remembered with a chill the supervisor’s sudden bright look when she had asked about the shuttle’s cargo, and knew that he knew all about the shuttle’. passenger, knew that she was valuable.

“You’re going to stay here,” Ty told the golden-eyed little girl. “Stay here with us, until we find a way of getting you back to your family.”

“I would like to know,” Somerset said, “how we can keep Barrett from finding out about her.”

“We just don’t tell him,” Maris said.

“I’m relieved to see that you have thought it through,” Somerset said.

Bruno said, “The boss is right, Somerset. Barrett hardly ever leaves his ship. If we don’t tell him about Alice, he’ll never know.”

“This isn’t like playing around in your garden,” Ty said. “This is for real.”

“My garden has nothing to do with this,” Somerset said.

“Ty didn’t mean anything by it,” Maris said.

“I meant,” Ty said doggedly, “that this is the real world, where what you do has real consequences for real people. We rescued Alice, Somerset, so it’s up to us to look after her.”

“I believe that we have all agreed that Barrett would almost certainly kill Alice if he found out about her,” Somerset said, with acid patience. “It follows that the only morally correct course of action is to assume responsibility for her care. I merely point out that it is also a very dangerous course of action.”

“Nevertheless, we’re all in this together,” Maris said.

Everyone looked at everyone else. Everyone said yes. Alice smiled.

Maris, strung out by anxiety and the physical exhaustion of zero-gravity work, fell asleep almost as soon as she wriggled into her sleeping bag. She slept deeply and easily, and when she woke in the middle of the night, it took her a little while to realize what was wrong.

The spavined rattle and bone-deep thrum of the air conditioning was gone.

Maris pushed up her mask, hitched out of the sleeping bag, and ducked through her privacy curtain. Ty and Bruno hung in midair, watching Alice mime something in the soft red light of the hab-module’s sleep-cycle illumination. Ty spun around as Maris caught a rung. He was chewing gum and grinning from ear to ear. “She fixed the air conditioning,” he said.

“You mean she broke it.”

“She fixed it,” Ty insisted. “Listen.”

Ty and Bruno and Alice watched as Maris concentrated on nothing but the sound of her own ragged breath… and heard, at the very edge of audibility, a soft pulsing hum, a whisper of moving air.

Somerset shot through its privacy curtain, caught a rung, reversed. Its crest of white hair was all askew. It said, “What did she do?”

Bruno said, “She altered the rate of spin of every fan in the system, tuning them to a single harmonic. No more vibration.”

“Alice knows machines,” Ty said proudly.

“ It seems she does not sleep,” Bruno said. “So, while we slept, she fixed the air conditioning.”

Swaddling,” Somerset said. “Or a tether. I am serious. Suppose she meddles with something else? We do not know what she can do.”

“Alice knows machines,” Ty insisted, proud as a new parent.

Which, in a sense, he was, Maris thought. Which, in a sense, they all were. She sculled through the air until her face was level with Alice’s. Those strange silver-on-gold eyes, unreadable as coins, stared into hers. She said gently, “You did a good job, but you mustn’t touch anything else. Do you understand?”

The little girl nodded-a fractional movement, but a definite assent.

“If she did a good job,” Ty said, “what’s the problem?”

“We hardly know anything about her,” Somerset said. “That’s the problem.”

“You can find out,” Bruno told Somerset. “Use those data mining skills of yours to dig deeper.”

“I have found all there is to find,” Somerset said. “The war wrecked most of the infonet. I am surprised that I found anything at all.”

“Let’s all get some rest,” Maris said. “We have to start work in three hours. A lot of work.”

She did not think that she would get back to sleep, but she did, and slept peacefully in the harmonious murmur of the fans.

They started their shift early. As they all sucked down a hasty breakfast of gritty, fruit-flavored oat paste and lukewarm coffee, Somerset made it clear just how unhappy it was about leaving Alice alone in the hab-module.

“We should take her with us,” the neuter said. “If she is as good with machines as Ty claims, she can be of some help.”

“No way,” Maris said. “Even Barrett can count up to five. What do you think he’ll do if he spots an extra body out there?”

“Then someone should stay behind with her,” Somerset said stubbornly.

“If Barrett can count up to five,” Maris said, “he can also count up to three. None of us can afford to lose any more pay, and we’ll never catch up on our schedule if we’re one body short.”

Ty said, “Alice, honey, you know we have to go out, don’t you? You promise you’ll be good while we’re away?”

Alice was floating in midair with her arms hooked under her knees, watching TV; when she heard her name, she looked over at Ty, eyes flashing in the half-dark, and nodded once.

“You see,” Ty said. “It’s not a problem.”

“I don’t like what she did to the air,” Somerset said. “It smells strange.”

“If by strange you mean it doesn’t smell of crotch-sweat and stale farts anymore,” Ty said, “then I don’t think it’s strange-I think it’s an improvement!”

“The temperature is higher, too,” Somerset said.

“Yeah,” Ty said. “Nice and comfortable, isn’t it? Look, Somerset, Alice is just a kid. I guess, what with your religious bent and all, you might not know much about kids, but I do. I used to look after a whole bunch of them back in the clan. Trust me on this. There’s no problem.”

“She is not merely-”

Maris flicked her empty paste and coffee tubes into the maw of the disposal. “No time for argument, gentlemen. Suit up and ship out. We have plenty of work to do.”

For a little while, absorbed in the hard, complicated job of dismounting the shuttle’s fusion plant, they all forgot their worries. Clambering about the narrow crawlspaces around the plant’s combustion chamber, they severed cables and pipes, sheared bolts and cut through supports, strung temporary tethers. They worked well; they worked as a team; they made good time. Maris was beginning to plan the complicated pattern of explosive charges that would pop the fusion plant out of its shaft when her radio shrieked, a piercing electronic squeal that cut off before she could access her suit’s com menu.

Everyone shot out of the access hatch, using their suit thrusters to turn toward the hab-module.

“Alice,” Ty said, his voice sounding hollow in the echo of the radio squeal. “She’s in trouble.”

Bruno, his p-suit painted, Jupiter-system style, with an elaborate abstract pattern, spun around and shot off toward the sled. Maris saw the black sphere of Barrett’s pressurized sled clinging like a blood-gorged tick to one of the hatches of the hab-module’s airlock, and chased after him.

Bruno took the helm of the sled, told them all to hang on, and punched out with a hard continuous burn. Directly ahead, the hab-module expanded with alarming speed.

“You’ll overshoot,” Somerset said calmly.

“Saint Isaac Newton, bless me now in my hour of need,” Bruno said. He flipped the sled with a nicely judged blip of its attitude jets, opened the throttle in a hard blast of deceleration that seemed to squeeze every drop of Maris’s blood into her boots, and fired off tethers whose sticky pads slapped against the airlock and jerked the sled to a halt.

Maris signed for radio silence. They fanned out, peering through view-ports into the red-lit interiors of the two cylinders. Somerset’s orange-suited figure, at the far end of the workspace, raised a hand, pointed down. The others clustered around him.

Alice stared up at them through the little disc of scratched, triple-layered plastic. After a moment, she smiled.

They opened the airlock’s secondary hatch and cycled through, the four of them crowding each other in the little spherical space as they shucked helmets and gloves. Alice was waiting placidly in the center of the cluttered workroom, floating as usual in midair, hands hooked under her knees.

“Oh my,” Maris said in dismay.

Still in its yellow p-suit, Symbiosis’s sunburst-in-a-green-circle logo on its chest-plate, Barrett’s body was strung against the bulkhead behind Alice. Its arms were bound to its sides by a whipcord tether; a wormy knot of patch sealant filled the broken visor of its helmet. The end of Barrett’s braided beard stuck out of the hard white foam like a mountaineer’s flag on a snowy peak. Maris didn’t need Bruno’s pronouncement to know that the supervisor was dead.

It took Ty ten minutes to get the story from Alice. He asked questions; she answered by nods or shakes. Apparently, Barrett had come looking for her after his AI had decrypted and audited Somerset’s infonet usage records; he’d boasted about his cleverness. He had been friendly at first, but when Alice had refused to answer his questions, he had threatened to kill her. That was when she had immobilized him with the tether and suffocated him with the sealant.

Somerset found Barrett’s weapon. It had fetched up against one of the air-conditioning outlets.

Ty asked Alice, “Did he threaten to kill you, honey?”

A quick nod.

“Why did he want to kill you? Was he scared of you?”

Alice nodded, then shook her head.

“Okay, he was scared of you, but that wasn’t why he wanted to kill you.”

A nod.

“He wanted something from you.”

A nod.

“He probably wanted Alice,” Bruno said. “She has been gengineered by Avernus. Her genome, it must be very valuable.”

Alice shook her head.

Ty said, “What did he want, honey?”

Alice put a finger to her lips, assumed a sudden look of inward concentration, and started, very delicately, to choke. She shook her head when Ty reached for her, coughed, and started to pull something from her mouth.

Blue plastic wire, over two meters of it.

Maris’s parents had owned a vacuum organism farm before the war; she knew at once what the wire was. “That’s how vacuum organism spores are packaged.”

Alice smiled and nodded.

Maris said, “Does it contain spores of the vacuum organism growing on the shuttle?”

Alice nodded again, then held up her right hand, opened and closed it half a dozen times.

Ty said, “It contains all kinds of spores?”

Bruno said, “This is why you were a passenger. You were carrying it all the time.”

“Symbiosis knew about it,” Maris said. “They must have had the complete cargo inventory. When they didn’t find it in the cargo pods, they searched the lifesystem for the only passenger. And Barrett knew about it too, or found out about it. That’s why he sent drones to watch us as we stripped out the lifesystem.”

“He did not watch us work outside,” Bruno said.

“Barrett is a flatlander,” Maris said. “It didn’t occur to him that the passenger might be hiding outside. Outside is a bad, scary place, as far as flatlanders are concerned; that’s why he hardly ever left his ship. But then he discovered Somerset’s trail in the infonet, and worked out that we had found Alice. He wanted her for himself, so he couldn’t confront us directly; he waited until we went to work, got up his nerve, and came here.”

Somerset was hanging back from the others, near the hatch to the airlock. It said, “You grow an intricate story from only a few facts.”

Ty told the neuter, “Don’t you realize it’s your fault Barrett found out about Alice?”

“I asked Somerset to make a search on the infonet,” Maris said. “It isn’t its fault that Barrett’s AI was able to break into its records. And I was stupid enough to ask Barrett about the shuttle’s cargo, which probably made him suspicious in the first place.” She took a breath to center herself, called up every gram of her resolve. “Listen up, you three. We all brought Alice back; we all decided that we couldn’t give her up to Barrett; we’re all in this together. We have to decide what to do, and we have to do it quickly, before the crew of the Symbiosis ship start to worry about their boss.”

“Somerset has a point,” Bruno said. “We don’t know what happened between Alice and Barrett.”

“He didn’t come over for a social visit,” Ty said. “He wanted these spores, he threatened her with the weapon. That’s why she killed him.”

Somerset said calmly, “I am not sure that Symbiosis will believe your story.”

Ty knuckled his tattooed scalp. “Fuck you, Somerset! I know Alice is no murderer, and that’s all that matters to me.”

“That’s the problem,” Somerset said, and pointed Barrett’s weapon at Ty. It was as black and smooth as a pebble, with a blunt snout that nestled between the neuter’s thumb and forefinger.

Maris said, “What are you doing, Somerset?”

Somerset’s narrow face was set with cold resolve. It looked wholly masculine now. It said, “This fires needles stamped from a ribbon of smart plastic. Some of the needles are explosive; others sprout hooks and barbs when they strike something; they all cause a lot of damage. It is a disgusting weapon, but I will use it if I have to, for the greater moral good.”

“Stay calm, Somerset,” Maris said. “Don’t do anything foolish.”

“Yeah,” Ty said. “If you want to play with that, go outside.”

“I want you all to listen to me. Ty, before we found Alice, you were convinced that she was a monster. I believe that you were right. Because she looks like a little girl, she triggers protective reflexes in ordinary men and women, and they do not realize that they are being manipulated. I, however, am immune. I see her for what she is, and I want you all to share this clear, uncomfortable insight.”

Ty said, “She killed Barrett in self-defense, man!” He had drifted in front of Alice, shielding her from Somerset.

“We do not know what happened,” Somerset said. “We see a dead man. We see what looks like a little girl. We make assumptions, but how do we know the truth? Perhaps Barrett drew this weapon in self-defense.”

Maris said, “You don’t like violence, Somerset. I understand that. But what you’re doing now makes you as bad as Barrett.”

“Not at all,” Somerset said. “As I believe I have said before, if you take the side of a murderer with no good reason, then you are as morally culpable as she is.”

“She isn’t a murderer,” Ty said.

“We do not know that,” Somerset insisted calmly.

“You fucking traitor!” Bruno said, and dove straight at the neuter.

Somerset swung around. The weapon in his fist made a mild popping sound. Bruno bellowed with pain and clutched at his right arm. Suddenly off-balance, he missed Somerset entirely, slammed against the edge of the airlock hatch, and tumbled backward. And Alice spun head-over-heels and threw something with such force that Maris only saw it on the rebound, after it had sliced through Somerset’s fingers. It was a power saw blade, a diamond disc that ricocheted sideways and lodged in the door of a locker with an emphatic thud. Somerset, its truncated right hand pumping strings of crimson droplets into the air, made a clumsy grab for the weapon; Maris snatched the black pebble out of the air, and Ty knocked the neuter through the airlock hatch.

Ty and Maris trussed Somerset with tethers, and Bruno staunched its bleeding finger stumps and gave it a shot of painkiller before allowing Maris to bandage his own, much more superficial wound. Alice hung back, calm and watchful.

“I am lucky,” Bruno said. “It was not an explosive needle.”

“You’re lucky Somerset couldn’t shoot straight,” Maris told him.

“I don’t think Somerset wanted to kill me, boss.”

“We should make the fucker take the big walk without its suit,” Ty said, glaring at Somerset.

“You know we can’t do that,” Maris said.

“ I can do it,” Ty said grimly.

Somerset returned Ty’s angry glare with woozy equanimity, and said, “If you kill me, you will only prove that I was right all along.”

“Then we’ll both be happy,” Ty said.

“She’s using us,” Somerset said, slurring every s, “and no one sees it but me.”

Maris grabbed the hypo from the medical kit and swam up to Somerset. “You can’t keep quiet, can you?”

“Silence is a form of complicity,” Somerset said. Its eyes crossed as it tried to focus on the hypo. “I do not need another shot. I can bear pain.”

“This is for us,” Maris said, and pressed the hypo against Somerset’s neck. The neuter started to protest, but then the blast of painkiller hit and its eyes rolled up.

“We could fly it right out of the airlock,” Ty said. “It wouldn’t feel a thing.”

“You know we aren’t going to do any such thing,” Maris said. “Listen up. Any minute now, the ship’s crew are going to notice that their boss is missing. What we have to do is work out what we’re going to tell them.”

Ty said, “I’m not giving her up.”

“We know Alice must have killed Barrett in self-defense,” Maris said. “We can testify-”

Bruno said, “Ty is right, boss. We know that Alice isn’t a murderer, but our testimony won’t mean much in court.”

Alice waved her hands to get their attention, then pointed to the workshop’s camera.

“It’s recording,” Ty said. He laughed, and turned a full somersault in midair. “Alice knows machines! She had the internal com record everything!”

Maris shook out a screen, plugged it into the camera, and started the playback. Ty and Bruno crowded around her, watched Barrett struggle through the airlock in his p-suit, watched him question Alice, his p-suit still sealed, his voice coming cold and metallic through its speaker. He loomed over her like a fully armed medieval knight menacing a helpless maiden. Her stubborn intervals of silence, his amplified voice getting louder, his gestures angrier. Alice shrank back. He showed her his weapon. And Alice flew at him, whipping a tether around his arms and body, the tether contracting in a tight embrace as her momentum drove him backward; she wrapped her legs around his chest, smashed his visor with a jack-hammer, and emptied a canister of foam into his helmet.

The camera saw everything; it even picked up the glint of the weapon when it flew from Barrett’s gloved hand. He flung his helmeted head from side to side, trying to shake off the foam’s suffocating mask; Alice pressed against a wall, unobtrusively out of focus, as his struggles quietened.

Maris said, “It looks good, but will it look good to the court?”

“We can’t turn her over to Symbiosis or the TPA police,” Bruno said. “At best, they’ll turn her into a lab specimen. At worst-”

“Where is she?” Ty said.

Alice was gone; the hatch to the airlock was closed. Neither the automatic nor manual system would budge it. As Bruno prized off the cover of the servomotor, Maris joined Ty at the door’s little port, saw Alice wave bye-bye and shoot through the hatch into Barrett’s sled. A moment later, there was a solid thump as the sled decoupled.

Maris and Bruno and Ty rushed to the viewports.

“Look at her go!” Maris said.

“Where is she going?” Ty said.

“It looks like she is heading straight to the Symbiosis ship,” Bruno said. “She sure can fly that sled.”

“Of course she can,” Ty said. “What do you think she’s going to do?”

“We’ll see soon enough,” Maris said. “Meanwhile, let’s get busy, gentlemen.”

Bruno glanced at her. “I do believe you have a plan,” he said.

“It’s not much of one, but hear me out.”

By the time Ty and Maris had hauled Barrett’s body to the shuttle, his sled had docked with the motor section of the Symbiosis ship. They tethered the body to the tank where Alice had slept out three hundred days, and tethered the weapon to the utility belt of its p-suit. Maris dragged some of the plastic insulation out of the tank’s hatch for dramatic effect, fired a couple of shots into the tangle of bags and tubes inside, then scooted back to look at her work. The tank looked like something had hatched from it in a hurry; Barrett’s body, with its mask of lumpy foam, hung half-folded like a grotesque unstrung puppet, its yellow p-suit vivid against the black film of the vacuum organism.

“It looks kind of cheesy,” Ty said doubtfully, over their patch cord link.

“If you have a better idea,” Maris said, “let me know.”

“Maybe it’s because I don’t think he would have had the sense to tether his weapon.”

“He found where Alice was hiding,” Maris said, “and opened up the tank. There was a struggle. She killed him and took his sled. The weapon is necessary. It shows he meant her harm. If we don’t tether it to him, it’ll drift off somewhere and no one will find it. So let’s pretend that in his last moments he was overcome with common sense.”

“Yeah, well, none of that will matter if the crew knew where he was going in the first place.”

“We’ve been over that already. Barrett wouldn’t have told them where he was going because he wanted what Alice had for himself. Otherwise, you can bet that he would have come with plenty of back-up, or sat tight in the safety of his ship and let the Symbiosis cops take care of it.”

Ty looked as though he was ready to argue the point, but before he could say anything, Bruno broke in on the common channel. “Heads up,” he said. “The Symbiosis ship just broke apart. It would seem that the cable linking the two halves has been severed.”

Maris called up her suit’s navigation menu, and after a couple of moments, it confirmed Bruno’s guess. With the cable cut, the lifesystem and motor section of the ship had shot away in opposite directions. The lifesystem, tumbling badly, was heading into a slightly higher orbit; the motor section was accelerating toward Saturn, its exhaust a steady, brilliant star beyond the ragged sphere of wrecked ships. Maris’s com system lit up: the distress signal of the Symbiosis ship’s lifesystem; messages from the other two wrecking gangs; Dione’s traffic control.

“A perfect burn,” Bruno said, with professional admiration. “It is too early to judge exactly, but if I had to make a guess, I would say that it is heading toward the rings.”

“Let’s get packed up,” Maris told Ty, over the patch cord. “The cops will be here pretty soon.”

“She’ll be all right, won’t she?”

“I think she knew what she was doing all along.”

Back at the hab-module, Maris and Ty stripped off their suits and grabbed tubes of coffee while Bruno flipped through a babble of voices on the radio channels. Two tugs were chasing the Symbiosis ship’s lifesystem, but as yet no one was pursuing the motor section. Bruno had worked up a trajectory, and showed Maris and Ty that it would graze the outer edge of the B ring.

“One hears many wild stories of rebels and refugees hiding inside the minor bodies of the rings,” he remarked. “Perhaps some of them are true.”

Maris said, “She’s going home.”

A small, happy thought to cling to, in the cold certainty of days of inquiries, investigations, accusations. Wherever Alice was going, Wrecking Gang #3 was headed rockside, their contracts terminated.

“We’ll have to let Somerset go,” she said.

“I still think we should make it take the big step,” Ty said. “Anyone seen my TV? Maybe the news channels will tell us what’s going down.”

“Somerset is a fool,” Bruno said, “but it is also one of us.”

Maris said, “I can’t help wondering if Somerset was right. That we were manipulated by Alice. She killed Barrett and ran off, and left us to deal with the consequences.”

“She could have taken Barrett’s shuttle as soon as she killed him,” Bruno said. “Instead, she took a very big risk, alerting us with that radio squeal, waiting for us to get back. She wanted us to know she was innocent. And she wanted to give us a chance to get our story straight.”

Maris nodded. “It’s a pretty thought, but we’ll never know for sure.”

Ty suddenly kicked back from his locker, waving something as he tumbled backward down the long axis of the living quarters. It was his TV, rolled up in a neat scroll. “Will you look at this,” he said.

The scroll was tied with a length of blue wire. The wire Alice had regurgitated. The cargo she had guarded all this time.

The consequences of Barrett’s murder and the sabotage of the Symbiosis ship took a couple of dozen days to settle. Maris and the rest of Wrecking Gang #3 spent some of that time in jail, but were eventually released without trial.

Before the cops came for them, they agreed to take equal shares of Alice’s gift. At first, Ty didn’t want to give Somerset anything, and Somerset refused to take its share of the wire.

“I have agreed to lie about what happened. I have agreed to tell the police that my injury was caused by an accident. I do not need payment for this; I do it to make amends to you all.”

“It isn’t payment,” Maris said. “It’s a gift. You take it, Somerset. What you do with it is up to you.”

Maris hid the wire by splicing it into the control cable of her p-suit’s thruster pack. It turned out to be an unnecessary precaution; Symbiosis believed that the passenger had taken the missing vacuum organism spores with her, after she had killed Barrett and hijacked the engine section of his ship, and the police’s search of the hab-module was cursory. After they were released, the members of Wrecking Gang #3 met just once, to divide the spore-laden spool of wire into four equal lengths. They never saw each other again.

Somerset and Bruno sold their portions on the grey market. Somerset donated the money to his temple’s refugee center; Bruno bought a ticket on a Pacific Community liner to the Jupiter System. Maris became a farmer. With an advance on the license fees for the two novel varieties of vacuum organism that her length of wire yielded, she and her family set up an agribusiness on Iapetus, ten thousand square kilometers of the black, carbonaceous-rich plains of Cassini Regio. The farm prospered: the population of the Outer System was expanding rapidly as the economy recovered and migrants poured in from Earth. Maris married the technician who had helped type her vacuum organisms. He was ten years younger than her, and eager to start a family. The dangerous idea of exploring the ruins of the domed crater where Alice’s family had lived was an itch that soon dissolved in the ordinary clamor of everyday life.

A few years later, on a business trip to Tethys, Maris paid a spur-of-the-moment visit to the hearth-home of Ty’s clan. She learned that he’d given them his length of wire and set off on a Wanderjahr. His last message had been sent from a hotel in Camelot, the only city on Mimas, the small, icy moon whose orbit lay between Saturn’s G and E rings. It seemed that Ty had taken a sled on a trip to the central peak of Hershel, the huge crater smashed into the leading edge of Mimas, and had not returned. The sled had been found, but his body had never been recovered.

Maris believed that she knew what grail Ty might have been searching for under the geometric glory of Saturn’s rings, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Tales of feral communities, fiddler’s greens, pirate cities, rebel hideouts, edens, posthuman clades, and other wonders hidden in the millions of moonlets of Saturn’s rings were by now the mundane stuff of sagas, psychodramas, and the generic fictions broadcast on illicit TV. Maris knew better than most that a few of these stories had been grown from grains of truth, but by now there were so many that it was impossible even for her to tell fact from fable.

The Political Officer - CHARLES COLEMAN FINLAY

New writer Charles Coleman Finlay made his first sale last year to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and has since followed it up with three more sales to that magazine, including the taut and suspenseful story that follows, which takes us on a deeply hazardous top secret mission into deep space, with a hard-pressed crew who soon discover that for all the dangers outside, the biggest dangers may be the ones that lurk within…

Finlay lives with his family in Columbus, Ohio.

Laxim Nikomedes saw the other man rush toward him but there was no room to dodge in the crate-packed corridor. He braced for the impact. The other man pulled up short, his face blanching in the pallid half-light of the “night” rotation. It was Kulakov, the chief petty officer. He went rigid and snapped a salute.

“Sir! Sorry, sir!” His voice trembled.

“At ease, Kulakov,” Max said. “Not your fault. It’s a tight fit inside this metal sausage.”

Standard ship joke. The small craft was stuffed with supplies, mostly food, for the eighteen-month voyage ahead. Max waited for the standard response, but Kulakov stared through the hull into deep space. He was near sixty, old for the space service, old for his position, and the only man aboard who made Max, in his mid-forties, feel young.

Max smiled, an expression so faint it could be mistaken for a twitch. “But it’s better than being stuck in a capped-off sewer pipe, no?”

Which is what the ship would be on the voyage home. “You’ve got that right, sir!” said Kulakov.

“Carry on.”

Kulakov shrank aside like an old church deacon, afraid to touch a sinner lest he catch the sin. Max expected that reaction from the crew, and not just because they’d nicknamed him the Corpse for his cadaverous and dead expression. As the political officer, he held the threat of death over every career aboard: the death of some careers would entail a corporeal equivalent. For the first six weeks of their mission, after spongediving the new wormhole, Max had cultivated invisibility and waited for the crew to fall into the false complacency of routine. Now it was time to shake them up again to see if he could find the traitor he suspected. He brushed against Kulakov on purpose as he passed by him.

He twisted his way through the last passage and paused outside the visiting officers’ cabin. He lifted his knuckles to knock, then changed his mind, turned the latch and swung open the door. The three officers sitting inside jumped at the sight of him. Guilty consciences, Max hoped.

Captain Ernst Petoskey recovered first. “Looking for someone, Lieutenant?”

Max let the silence become uncomfortable while he studied Petoskey. The captain stood six and a half feet tall, his broad shoulders permanently hunched from spending too much time in ships built for smaller men. The crew loved him and would eagerly die-or kill-for him. Called him Papa behind his back. He wouldn’t shave again until they returned safely to spaceport, and his beard was juice-stained at the corner by proscripted chewing tobacco. Max glanced past Lukinov, the paunchy, balding “radio lieutenant,” and stared at Ensign Pen Reedy, the only woman on the ship.

She was lean, with prominent cheekbones, but the thing Max always noticed first were her hands. She had large, red-knuckled hands. She remained impeccably dressed and groomed, even six weeks into the voyage. Every hair on her head appeared to be individually placed as if they were all soldiers under her command.

Petoskey and Lukinov sat on opposite ends of the bunk. Reedy sat on a crate across from them. Another crate between them held a bottle, tumblers, and some cards.

Petoskey, finally uncomfortable with the silence, opened his mouth again.

“Just looking,” Max pre-empted him. “And what do I find but the captain himself in bed with Drozhin’s boys?”

Petoskey glanced at the bunk. “I see only one, and he’s hardly a boy.”

Lukinov, a few years younger than Max, smirked and tugged at the lightning-bolt patch on his shirtsleeve. “And what’s with calling us Drozhin’s boys? We’re just simple radiomen. If I have to read otherwise, I’ll have you up for falsifying reports when we get back to Jesusalem.”

He pronounced their home Hey-zoo-salaam, like the popular video stars did, instead of the older way, Jeez-us-ail-em.

“Things are not always what they appear to be, are they?” said Max.

Lukinov, Reedy, and a third man, Burdick, were the intelligence listening team assigned to intercept and decode Adarean messages-the newly opened wormhole passage would let the ship dive undetected into the Adarean system to spy. The three had been personally selected and prepped for this mission by Dmitri Drozhin, the legendary Director of Jesusalem’s Department of Intelligence. Drozhin had been the Minister too, back when it had still been the Ministry of the Wisdom of Prophets Reborn. He was the only high government official to survive the Revolution in situ, but these days younger men like Mallove in the Department of Political Education challenged his influence.

“Next time, knock first, Lieutenant,” Petoskey said.

“Why should I, Captain?” Max returned congenially. “An honest man has noth ing to fear from his conscience, and what am I if not the conscience of every man aboard this ship?”

“We don’t need a conscience when we have orders,” Petoskey said with a straight face.

Lukinov tilted his head back dramatically and sneered. “Come off it, Max. I invited the captain up here to celebrate, if that’s all right with you. Reedy earned her comet today.”

Indeed, she had. The young ensign wore a gold comet pinned to her left breast pocket, similar to the ones embroidered on the shirts of the other two officers. Crewmen earned their comets by demonstrating competence on every ship system-Engineering, Ops and Nav, Weapons, Vacuum and Radiation. Reedy must have qualified in record time. This was her first space assignment. “Congratulations,” Max said.

Reedy suppressed a genuine smile. “Thank you, sir.”

“That makes her the last one aboard,” Petoskey said. “Except for you.”

“What do I need to know about ship systems? If I understand the minds and motivations of the men who operate them, it is enough.”

“It isn’t. Not with this,” his mouth twisted distastefully, “ miscegenated, patched-together, scrapyard ship. I need to be able to count on every man in an emergency.”

“Is it that bad? What kind of emergency do you expect?”

Lukinov sighed loudly. “You’re becoming a bore, Max. You checked on us, now go make notes in your little spy log and leave us alone.”

“Either that or pull up a crate and close the damn hatch,” said Petoskey. “We could use a fourth.”

The light flashed off Lukinov’s gold signet ring as he waved his hand in clear negation. “You don’t want to do that, Ernst. This is the man who won his true love in a card game.”

Petoskey looked over at Max. “Is that so?”

“I won my wife in a card game, yes.” Max didn’t think that story was widely known outside his own department. “But that was many years ago.”

“I heard you cheated to win her,” said Lukinov. He was Max’s counterpart in Intelligence-the Department of Political Education couldn’t touch him. The two Departments hated each other and protected their own. “Heard that she divorced you too. I guess an ugly little weasel like you has to get it where he can.”

“But unlike your wife, she always remained faithful.”

Lukinov muttered a curse and pulled back his fist. Score one on the sore spot. Petoskey reached out and grabbed the intelligence officer’s elbow. “None of that aboard my ship. I don’t care who you two are. Come on, Nikomedes. If you’re such a hotshot card player, sit down. I could use a little challenge.”

A contrary mood seized Max. He turned into the hallway, detached one of the crates, and shoved it into the tiny quarters.

“So what are we playing?” he asked, sitting down.

“Blind Man’s Draw,” said Petoskey, shuffling the cards. “Deuce beats an ace, ace beats everything else.”

Max nodded. “What’s the minimum?”

“A temple to bid, a temple to raise.”

Jesusalem’s founders stamped their money with an image of the Temple to encourage the citizen-colonists to render their wealth unto God. The new plastic carried pictures of the revolutionary patriots who’d overthrown the Patriarch, but everyone still called them temples. “Then I’m in for a few hands,” Max said.

Petoskey dealt four cards face down. Max kept the king of spades and tossed three cards back into the pile. The ones he got in exchange were just as bad.

“So,” said Lukinov, peeking at his hand. “We have the troika of the Service all gathered in one room. Military, Intelligence, and-one card, please, ah, raise you one temple-and what should I call you, Max? Schoolmarm?”

Max saw the raise. “If you like. Just remember that Intelligence is useless without a good Education.”

“Is that your sermon these days?”

Petoskey collected the discards. “Nothing against either of you gentlemen,” he said, “but it’s your mother screwed three ways at once, isn’t it. There’s three separate chains of command on a ship like this one. It’s a recipe for mutiny.” He pulled at his beard. “Has been on other ships, strictly off the record. And with this mission ahead, if we don’t all work together, God help us.”

Max kept the ten of spades with his king and took two more cards. “Not that there is one,” he said officially, “but let God help our enemies. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

Petoskey nodded his agreement. “That’s a good way to look at it. A cord of three strands, all intertwined.” He stared each of them in the eyes. “So take care of the spying, and the politics, but leave the running of the ship to me.”

“Of course,” said Lukinov.

“That’s why you’re the captain and both of us are mere lieutenants,” said Max. In reality, both he and Lukinov had the same service rank as Petoskey. On the ground, in Jesusalem’s mixed-up service, they were all three colonels. Lukinov was technically senior of the three, though Max had final authority aboard ship within his sphere.

It was, indeed, a troubling conundrum.

Max’s hand held nothing-king and ten of spades, two of hearts, and a seven of clubs. Petoskey tossed the fifth card down face-up. Another deuce.

Max hated Blind Man’s Draw. It was like playing the lottery. The card a man showed you was the one he’d just been dealt; you never really knew what he might be hiding. He looked at the other players’ hands. Petoskey showed the eight of clubs and Lukinov the jack of diamonds. Ensign Reedy folded her hand and said, “I’m out.”

“Raise it a temple and call,” Max said, on the off chance he might beat a pair of aces. They turned their cards over and it was money thrown away. Petoskey won with three eights.

Lukinov shook his head. “Holding onto the deuces, Max? That’s almost always a loser’s hand.”

“Except when it isn’t.”

Petoskey won three of the next five hands, with Lukinov and Max splitting the other two. The poor ensign said little and folded often. Max decided to deal in his other game. While Lukinov shuffled the cards, Max rubbed his nose and said to the air, “You’re awfully silent, Miss Reedy. Contemplating your betrayal of us to the Adareans?”

Lukinov mis-shuffled. A heartbeat later, Captain Petoskey picked up his spittoon and spat.

Reedy’s voice churned as steady as a motor in low gear. “What do you mean, sir?”

“You’re becoming a bore again, Max,” Lukinov said under his breath.

“What’s this about?” Petoskey asked.

“Perhaps Miss Reedy should explain it herself,” Max replied. “Go on, Ensign. Describe the immigrant ghetto in your neighborhood, your childhood chums, Sabbathday afternoons at language academy.”

“It was hardly that, sir,” she said smoothly. “They were just kids who lived near our residence in the city. And there were never any formal classes.”

“Oh, there was much more to it than that,” Max pressed. “Must I spell it out for you? You lived in a neighborhood of expatriate Adareans. Some spymaster chose you to become a mole before you were out of diapers and started brainwashing you before you could talk. Now while you pretend to serve Jesusalem you really serve Adares. Yes?”

“No. Sir.” Reedy’s hands, resting fingertip to fingertip across her knees, trembled slightly. “For one thing, how did they know women would ever be admitted to the military academies?”

Reedy hadn’t been part of the first class to enter, but she graduated with the first class to serve active duty. “They saw it was common everywhere else. Does it matter? Who can understand their motives? Their gene modifications make them impure. Half-animal, barely human.”

She frowned, as if she couldn’t believe that kind of prejudice still existed. “Nukes don’t distinguish between one set of genes and another, sir. They suffered during the bombardments, just like we did. They fought beside us, they went to our church. Even the archbishop called them good citizens. They’re as proud to be Jesusalemites as I am. And as loyal. Sir.”

Max rubbed his nose again. “A role model for treason. They betrayed one government to serve another. I know for a fact this crew contains at least one double agent, someone who serves two masters. I suspect there are more. Is it you, Miss Reedy?”

Lukinov turned into a fossil before Max’s eyes. Petoskey glared at the young intelligence officer across the table like a man contemplating murder.

Reedy pressed her fingertips together until her hands grew still. “Sir. There may be a traitor, but it’s not me. Sir.”

Max leaned back casually. “I’ve read your Academy records, Ensign, and find them interesting for the things they leave out. Such as your role in the unfortunate accident that befell Cadet Vance.”

Reedy was well disciplined. Max’s comments were neither an order nor a question, so she said nothing, gave nothing away.

“Vance’s injuries necessitated his withdrawal from the Academy,” Max continued. “What exactly did you have to do with that situation?”

“Come on, Max,” said Lukinov in his senior officer’s cease-and-desist voice. “This is going too far. There are always accidents in the Academy and in the service. Usually it’s the fault of the idiot who ends up slabbed. Some stupid mistake.”

Before Max could observe that Vance’s mistake had been antagonizing Reedy, Petoskey interrupted. “Lukinov, have you forgotten how to deal? Are you broke yet, Nikomedes? You can quit any time you want.”

Max flashed the plastic in his pocket while Lukinov started tossing down the cards. As he made the second circuit around their makeshift table, the lights flickered and went off. Max’s stomach fluttered as the emergency lights blinked on, casting a weak red glare over the cramped room. The cards sailed past the table and into the air. Petoskey slammed his glass down. It bounced off the table and twirled toward the ceiling, spilling little brown droplets of whiskey.

Petoskey slapped the ship’s intercom. “Bridge!”

“Ensign,” Lukinov said. “Find something to catch that mess before the grav comes back on and splatters it everywhere.”

“Yes, sir,” Reedy answered and scrambled to the bathroom for a towel.

“Bridge!” shouted Petoskey, then shook his head. “The com’s down.”

“It’s just the ship encounter drill,” Lukinov said.

“There’s no drill scheduled for this rotation. And we haven’t entered Adarean space yet, so we can’t be encountering another ship…”

Another ship.

The thought must have hit all four of them simultaneously. As they propelled themselves frog-like toward the hatch, they crashed into one another, inevitable in the small space. During the jumble, Max took a kick to the back of his head. It hurt, even without any weight behind it. No accident, he was sure of that, but he didn’t see who did it.

Petoskey flung the door open. “The pig-hearted, fornicating bastards.”

Max echoed the sentiment when he followed a moment later. The corridor was blocked by drifting crates. They’d been improperly secured.

“Ensign!” snapped Petoskey.

“Yes, Captain.”

“To the front! I’ll pass you the crates, you attach them.”

“Y es, sir.”

“Can I trust you to do that?”

“Yes, sir!”

Max almost felt sorry for Reedy. Almost. In typical fashion for these older ships, someone had strung a steel cable along the corridor, twist-tied to the knobs of the security lights. Max held onto it and stayed out of the way as Petoskey grabbed one loose box after another and passed them back to Reedy. There was the steady rasp of Velcro as they made their way toward the bridge.

“What do you think it is?” Lukinov whispered to him. “If it’s a ship, then the wormhole’s been discovered…”

The implications hung in the air like everything else. Max compared the size of Lukinov’s boot with the sore spot on the back of his head. “Could be another wormhole. The sponge is like that. Once one hole opens up, you usually find several more. There’s no reason why the Adareans couldn’t find a route in the opposite direction.”

Lukinov braced himself against the wall, trying to keep himself oriented as if the grav was still on. “If it’s the Adareans, they’ll be thinking invasion again.”

“It could be someone neutral too,” said Max. “Most of the spongedivers from Earth are prospecting in toward the core again, so it could be one of them. Put on your ears and find out who they are. I’ll determine whether they’re for us or against us.”

Lukinov laughed. “If they’re against us, then Ernst can eliminate them. That’s a proper division of labor.”

“Our system is imperfect, but it works.” That was a stretch, Max told himself. Maybe he ought to just say that the system worked better than the one it replaced.

“Hey,” Petoskey shouted. “Are you gentlemen going to sit there or join me on the bridge?”

“Coming,” said Lukinov, echoed a second later by Max.

They descended two levels and came to the control center. Max followed the others through the open hatch. Men sat strapped to their chairs, faces tinted the color of blood by the glow of the emergency lights. Conduits, ducts, and wires ran overhead, like the intestines of some manmade monster. One of the vents kicked on, drawing a loud mechanical breath. Truly, Max thought, they were in the belly of leviathan now.

One of the men called “Attention” and Petoskey immediately replied, “At ease-report!”

“Lefty heard a ship,” returned Commander Gordet, a plug-shaped man with a double chin. “It was nothing more than a fart in space, I swear. I folded the wings and initiated immediate shutdown per your instructions before our signature could be detected.”

“Contact confirmed?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good work then.” The ship chairs were too small for Petoskey’s oversized frame. He preferred to stand anyway and had bolted a towel rack to the floor in the center of the deck. The crew tripped over it when the grav was on, but now Petoskey slipped his feet under it to keep from bumping his head on the low ceilings. It was against all regulations, but, just as with his smuggled tobacco, Petoskey broke regulations whenever it suited him. He shared this quality with many of the fleet’s best deep space captains. “Those orders were for when we entered Adarean space, Commander,” Petoskey added. “I commend your initiative. Put a commendation in Engineer Elefteriou’s record also.”

“Yes, sir.” Gordet’s voice snapped like elastic, pleased by the captain’s praise.

“Identity?”

“Its prime number pings up Outback. Corporate prospectors. Her signature looks like one of the new class.”

Petoskey grabbed the passive scope above his head and pulled it down to his eyes. “Vector?”

“Intercept.”

“Intercept?”

“It’s headed in-system and we’re headed out. At our current respective courses and velocities, we should come within spitting distance of each other just past Big Brother.”

Big Brother was the nickname for this system’s larger gas giant. Little Brother, the smaller gas giant, was on the far side of the sun, out past the wormhole to home.

“Are they coming from the Adares jump?” Petoskey asked.

“That’s what we thought at first,” said Gordet. “But it appears now that they’re entering from a third wormhole. About thirty degrees negative of the Adares jump, on the opposite side of the ecliptic.” He glanced over the navigator’s shoulder at the monitor and read off the orbital velocity.

Petoskey continued to stare into the scope. “Shit. There’s nothing out here.”

Gordet cleared his throat. “It’s millions of kilometers out, sir. Still too far away for a clear visual.”

“No, I mean there’s nothing out here. This system won’t hold their attention for long. It’s only a matter of time before they find the opened holes to Adares and home.” He paused. “Do that and they’ll close our route back.”

Indeed. Max had a strong urge to pace. If he started bouncing off the walls Petoskey would order him off the bridge, so he tried to float with purpose. Burdick, the third member of the intelligence team, paused in the hatch, carrying a large box. He nodded to Lukinov and Reedy, who followed him forward toward the secure radio room. Max wondered briefly why Burdick had left his post.

“The intercept makes things easier for us,” Petoskey concluded aloud. “Calculate the soonest opportunity to engage without warning. With any luck, the missing ship will be counted as a wormhole mishap.” Absorbed by the sponge.

Elefteriou turned and spoke to Rucker, the first lieutenant, who spoke to Gordet, who said, “Sir, radio transmissions from the ship appear to be directed at another ship in the vicinity of the jump. If we neutralize this target, then the other dives out and lives to witness.”

“Just one other ship?”

“No way of telling this far out without the active sensors.” Which they couldn’t use without showing up like a solar flare.

“The order stands,” said Petoskey. “Also, Commander, loose cargo in the corridors impeded my progress to the bridge. This is a contraindication of ship readiness.”

Gordet stiffened, as crushed by this criticism as he’d been puffed up by the praise. “It’ll be taken care of, sir.”

“See to it. Where’s Chevrier?” Arkady Chevrier was the chief engineer. He came from a family of industrialists that contributed heavily to the Revolution. His uncle headed the Department of Finance, and his father was a general. Mallove, Max’s boss in Political Education, had warned him not to antagonize Chevrier.

“In the engine room, sir,” answered Gordet. “He thought that the sudden unscheduled shutdown of main power resulted in a drain on the main battery arrays. I sent him to fix it.”

“Raise Engineering on the com.”

“Yes, sir,” said Gordet. “Raise Engineering.”

Lefty punched his console, listened to his earphones, shook his head.

Petoskey shifted the plug of tobacco in his mouth. “When I tried to contact the bridge from quarters, the com was down. If I have to choose between ship communications and life support in the presence of a possible enemy vessel, I want communications first. Get a status report from Engineering and give me a com link to all essential parts of the ship if you have to do it with tin cans and string. Is that clear?”

Gordet’s jowls quivered as he answered. “Yessir!”

Max noted that Gordet did not divide his attention well. He’d been so absorbed with the other ship, he hadn’t noticed the ship communications problem. Several past errors in judgment featured prominently in his permanent file. He seemed unaware that this was the reason he’d been passed over for ship command of his own. But he was steady, and more or less politically sound.

He could also be a vindictive S.O.B. Max watched him turn on his subordinates. “Corporal Elefteriou,” Gordet said. “I want a full report on com status. Five minutes ago is not soon enough. Lieutenant Rucker!”

“Sir.”

“Get your ass to Engineering. I want to receive Chevrier’s verbal report on this com here.” He punched it with his fist for emphasis. “If it doesn’t come in fifteen minutes, you can hold your breath while the rest of us put on space gear.”

The first lieutenant set off for Engineering. Petoskey cleared his throat. “Commander, one other thing.”

“Yes?”

“We’ll switch to two shifts now, six hours on, six off. All crew.”

“Yes, sir.”

Petoskey gestured for Max to come beside him.

“So now we wait around for three days to intercept,” Petoskey said in a low voice. “You look like a damn monkey floating there, Nikomedes. We could surgi-tape your boots to the deck.”

“That’s not necessary.” Petoskey wasn’t the only captain in the fleet who’d tie his political officer down to one spot if he could. Max needed to be free to move around to catch his traitor.

“If you were qualified for any systems, I’d put you to work.”

An excellent reason to remain unqualified. “And what would you have me do?”

“At this point?” Petoskey shrugged. Then he frowned, and jerked his head toward the intelligence team’s radio room. “Was that true? About-?”

“This is not the place,” Max said firmly. Illusion was not reality; the crew pretended not to hear Petoskey speak, but they’d repeat every word that came from his mouth.

“I hate the Adareans, I want you to know that,” Petoskey said. “Anything to do with the Adareans, I hate, and I’ll have none of it aboard my ship. So if there’s any danger, even from one of the intelligence men-”

“There will be no danger,” Max asserted firmly. “It is my job to make certain of that.”

“See to it, Lieutenant.”

“I will.” Max was surprised. That qualified as the most direct command any captain had given him during his tenure as a political officer.

Petoskey returned an almost respectful nod. Max was about to suggest a later discussion when Lukinov shouted from the hatch.

“Captain. You might want to listen to this. We tried to raise you on the com, but it’s not working.”

Petoskey slipped his feet free and followed the intelligence officer. Max invited himself and swam along.

Inside the listening room, Reedy stood-or floated-at a long desk, wearing headphones and making notes on the translation in her palm-pad. Burdick had a truck battery surgi-taped to a table wedged in the tiny room’s rounded corner. Wires ran from it to an open panel on the main concomsole, and Burdick connected others. He looked up from his work and grinned as they came into the hatch. “Gotta love the electrician’s mates,” he said. “They’ve got every thing.”

Lukinov laughed and handed headphones to Petoskey. “Wait until you hear this.”

Petoskey slipped the earpieces into place. “I don’t understand Chinese,” he said after a minute. “Always sounds like an out-of-tune guitar to me.”

Lukinov’s smile widened. “But it’s voices, not code, don’t you see? The level of encryption was like cheap glue.” He made a knife-opening-a-letter gesture with his hands.

“Good work. What have you learned so far?”

Lukinov leaned over Reedy’s shoulder to look at her palm-pad. “Corporate security research ship. Spongedivers.”

Petoskey nodded. “Bunch of scientists and part-time soldiers. Soft, but great tech. Way beyond ours. It’s a safe bet their battery arrays don’t go down when they fly mute. Lefty says there’s another one parked out by the wormhole.”

Lukinov confirmed this. “We know it because the radio tech is talking to his girlfriend over on the other ship.”

Burdick snickered, and Petoskey muttered “Mixed crews” with all the venom of a curse. He glared at Reedy so hard his eyes must have burned a hole in the ensign’s head. The young woman looked up. “Yes, sir?” she asked.

“I didn’t speak to you,” Petoskey snapped.

Mixed crews were part of the Revolution, a way to double manpower-so to speak-in the military forces and give Jesusalem a chance to catch up. So far it was only in the officer corps, and even there it hadn’t been received well. Some men, like Vance at the Academy, openly tried to discourage it despite the government’s commitment.

Lukinov held the back of Reedy’s seat to keep from drifting toward the ceiling. “The inbound ship’s called the Deng Xiaopeng. Why does that name sound familiar?”

Petoskey shrugged. “Means nothing to me.”

If they didn’t know, then Max would give them an answer. He cleared his throat. “I believe that Deng Xiaopeng was one of Napoleon’s generals.”

Lukinov curled his mouth skeptically.

“That doesn’t sound right,” said Petoskey.

“I’m quite certain of it,” said Max, bracing himself between the wall and floor at angle sideways to the others. “Confusion to the enemy.”

“Always,” replied Petoskey, apparently happy to find something he could agree with. “Always.”

Max lay on the bunk in his cabin waiting for the clock to tick over to morning. Two days after the spongedivers had been sighted, his thoughts still careened weightlessly off the small walls. The presence of the ship from Outback complicated the ship’s mission and his. Meanwhile, he was cut off from his superiors, unable to guess which goal they wanted him to pursue now. Or goals, as the case more likely was. So he was on his own again. Forced to decide for himself.

Nothing new about that, he thought ruefully.

He released the straps and pushed off for the door to take a tour of the ship. He paused for a moment, then grabbed his cap, and tugged it down tight on his head. If he made it a formal tour of the ship, it might draw out his traitor.

When he opened the door, he saw another one cracked open down the corridor. Lieutenant Rucker peeked out and gestured for Max to come inside. Max checked to see that no one was in the hall and slipped into the room.

The blond young man closed the door too fast and it slammed shut. He noticed Max’s cap and saluted with perfect etiquette before producing an envelope. “I was hoping to catch you,” he said. “This is from Commander Gordet.”

Max took the multi-tool from his pocket and flicked out the miniature knife to slice open the seal. He studied the sheet inside. Gordet had written down the codes for the safe that held the captain’s secret orders. Interesting. Max wondered if Rucker had made a copy for himself. “Did Gordet say anything specific?”

“He said to tell you that if we were to engage the Outback ship in combat and anything unfortunate were to happen to the captain, you would have his full cooperation and support.”

“So what did he tell the captain?”

Rucker looked at the wall, opened his mouth, closed it again. He was not a quick liar.

Max gave him an avuncular clap on the shoulder. “You can tell me, Lieutenant. I’ll find out anyway.”

Rucker gulped, still refusing to meet Max’s eyes. “He told the captain that, um, if we were to engage the other ship in combat, and anything unfortunate were to happen to you, he’d make sure it was all clear in the records.”

So Gordet was indecisive, trying to play both sides at once. That was a hard game. The Commander had no gift for it either. “What’s your opinion of Gordet?” probed Max.

“He’s a good officer. I’m proud to serve under him.”

Rather standard response, deserving of Max’s withering stare. This time Rucker’s eyes did meet his.

“But, um, he’s still mad about losing his cabin to you, sir. He doesn’t like bunking with the junior officers.”

“He’ll get over it,” said Max. “Just remind him that Lukinov is bunking with Burdick, eh?” He gestured at Rucker to open the door. Rucker looked both ways down the corridor, motioned that it was clear, and Max went on his way.

He headed topside, pulling himself hand over hand up the narrow shaft. When he exited the tube he found Kulakov conducting an emergency training drill in the forward compartments. Stick-its posted to all the surfaces indicated the type and extent of combat damage. Crews in full space gear performed “repairs” while the chief petty officer graded their performance.

“You’re dead,” shouted Kulakov, grabbing a man by his collar and pulling him out of the exercise. “You forgot that you’re a vacuum cleaner!”

“But sir, I’m suited up properly.” His voice sounded injured, even distorted slightly by the microphone.

“But you’re not plugged in,” Kulakov said, tapping the stick-it on the wall. “That’s open to the outside, and without your tether you’re nothing more now than a very small meteor moving away from the ship! What are the rest of you looking at?”

He glanced over his shoulder, saw Max, and froze. The crews stopped their exercise.

“You just spaced another crewman,” said Max, tilting his head toward a man who’d backed into the wall. “Carry on.”

He turned away without waiting for Kulakov’s salute. He didn’t know why he had such an effect on that man, but now he was thinking he should look into it.

He proceeded through several twisting corridors, designed to slow and confuse boarding parties headed for the bridge, and passed the gym. He needed exercise. The weightlessness was already starting to get to him. But he decided to worry about that later.

He paused when he came to the missile room.

The Black Forest.

That was the crew’s nickname for it. Four polished black columns rose four uninterrupted stories-tubes for nuclear missiles, back when this ship was intended to fight the same kind of dirty war waged by the Adareans. It was the largest open space in the entire ship. When the grav was on, the men exercised by running laps, up one set of stairs, across the catwalk, down the other, around the tubes, and up again.

Max went out onto the catwalk, climbed up on the railing, and jumped.

If one could truly jump in zero-gee, that was. He pushed himself toward the floor and prayed that the grav didn’t come on unexpectedly. On the way down he noticed someone who feared just that possibility making their way up the stairs.

Max did a somersault, extending his legs to change his momentum and direction, pushed off one of the tubes, and bounced over to see who it was. He immediately regretted doing so. It was Sergeant Simco, commander of the combat troops.

Every captain personally commanded a detachment of ground troops. It could be as big as a battalion in some cases, but for this voyage, with an entire crew of only 141, the number was limited to ten. Officially, they were along to repel boarders and provide combat assistance if needed. Unofficially, they were called troubleshooters. If crewmen gave the captain any trouble, it was the troopers’ job to shoot them.

Simco would enjoy doing it too. He had more muscles than brains. But then nobody had that many brains.

“Hello, Sergeant,” Max called.

“Sir, that was nicely done.”

“I didn’t have you pegged for the cautious type.”

Simco shook his head. “I don’t like freefall unless I’ve got a parachute strapped to my back.”

Typical groundhog response. “Are your men ready to board and take that Outback ship, Sergeant?”

“Sir, I could do it all by myself. They’re women.”

They both laughed, Simco snapped a perfect salute, and Max pushed off from the railing. When he landed on the bottom, he saw placards marked “Killshot” hanging on each of the four tubes. That meant they were loaded with live missiles, ready to launch. Something new since the last time he’d passed through the Black Forest. He saw handwriting scrawled across the bottom of the placards, and went up close to read it. A. G. W.

Under the old government, the hastily thrown together Department of War had been called the Ministry of A Just God’s Wrath. Considering the success of the Adareans, the joke had been that the name was a typo and should have been called Adjust God’s Wrath. Some devout crewmen still had the same goal.

On the lower level, Max continued to the aftmost portion of the ship, off limits to all crew except for Engineering and Senior officers. Only one sealed hatch allowed direct entrance to this section. Max found an off-duty electrician’s mate sitting there, watching a pocketvid. The faint sound of someone dying came from the tiny speaker.

Max stopped in front of the crewman. “What are you watching?”

The crewman looked up, startled. DePuy, that was his name. He jumped to his feet and went all the way to the ceiling. He saluted with one hand, while the thumb of the other flicked to the pause button. “It’s A Fire on the Land, sir. It’s about the Adarean nuking of New Nazareth.”

“I’m familiar with it,” Max replied. Political Education approved all videos, practically ran the video business. “The bombing and the vid. Move aside and let me pass.”

“Sorry, sir, the chief engineer said…”

Max turned as cold as deep space. He reached under DePuy to open the hatch. “Move aside, crewman.”

“The chief engineer gave me a direct order, sir!”

“And I am giving you another direct order right now.” Damn it, thought Max, the man still hesitated. “Rejecting an order from your political officer is mutiny, Mr. DePuy. A year is a very long time to spend in the ship’s brig waiting for trial.”

“Sir! A year is a very long time to serve under a chief officer who holds grudges, sir!”

“If I have to repeat my order a third time, you will go to the brig.”

DePuy pushed off from the wall. Though he seemed to seriously consider, for a split second, whether he wouldn’t rather be locked up than face Chevrier’s temper.

Max went down the corridor and paused outside the starboard Battery Room. The hatch stood open on the two-story space. One of the battery arrays was completely disassembled and diagrammed on the wall, with the key processing chips circled in red. A small group of men, most of them stripped to their waists, crowded into the soft-walled clean room in the corner. A large duct ran up from it toward the ceiling, the motor struggling to draw air. A crewman looked up and tapped the chief engineer on the shoulder.

“You!” Chevrier shouted as soon as he saw Max. “This is a restricted area! I want you out of my section right now!”

“Nothing is off limits to me,” Max replied.

“Fuck your mother!” Chevrier thundered, shooting across the room and getting right in Max’s face. Chevrier’s eyes had dark circles around them like storm clouds, and red lines in the whites like tiny bolts of lightning. He probably hadn’t slept since the spongediver was spotted; no doubt he was also pumped up on Nova or its more legal equivalent from the dispensary. That would explain his heavy sweating. It couldn’t drip off him in the weightlessness, but had simply accumulated in a pool about a half inch deep that sloshed freely in the vicinity of his breastbone. Max noticed that the comet insignia was branded on Chevrier’s bare chest. The Revolutionary government had banned that tradition, but the branding irons still floated around some ships in the service. Chevrier was the type who had probably heated it up with a hand welder and branded himself. He jabbed a finger in the direction of the empty spot on Max’s left breast pocket. “You haven’t qualified for a single ship’s system,” he said, “and you sure as hell aren’t reactor qualified. Now get out of my section!”

“You forgetting something, soldier?” Max asked, in as irritating a voice as he could manage.

Chevrier laughed in disbelief. “I wish I could forget! I’ve got a major problem on my hands, a ship with no fucking backup power.”

Max took a deep breath. “Did somebody break your arm, soldier?”

Chevrier’s eyes flickered. He made a sloppy motion with his right hand in the general direction of his head. Had Mallove sent word in the other direction too? Did Chevrier know that Max was supposed to leave him alone?

“Good. Give me a status report on the power situation.”

The chief engineer inhaled deeply. “Screwed up and likely to stay that way. The crewman on duty panicked-he folded the wings and powered down the Casmir drive without disengaging the batteries first and fried half the chips. We are now trying to build new chips, atom by atom, but you need a grade A clean hood to do that. And our hood is about as tight and clean as an old whore.”

Max had heard all this already, less vividly described, from the captain’s reports. “Go on.”

“Normally, we could just switch over to the secondary array, but some blackhole of a genius gutted our portside Battery Room and replaced it with a salvaged groundside nuclear reactor so we can float through Adarean space disguised like background radiation in order to do God knows what.”

“But you can switch communications, ship systems, propulsion, all that, over to the reactor, right?”

That was the plan: dive into Adarean space, do one circuit around the sun running on the nukes while recording everything they could on the military and political communications channels, then head home again.

“We’ve already done all that,” answered Chevrier, “but we can’t power up the Casmir drive with it. It’s strictly inner system, no diving.” He suddenly noticed the pool of sweat on his chest, went to flick it away, then stopped. “The Adareans won’t scan us if we’re running on nuclears, but they wouldn’t scan canvas sails either, so we might as well have used them instead. We’ve got to fix the main battery at some point.”

“Can you bring the grav back online?”

“Not safely, no, and not with the reactor. It’s a power hog. Too many things to go wrong.”

“Lasers?”

Chevrier ground his teeth. “You could talk to the captain, you know. He sends down here every damned hour for another report, asking the same exact damn questions.”

“Lasers?” repeated Max firmly.

“I recommended other options to the captain, but if you want to turn some Outback ship into space slag, I’ll give you enough power to do it. As long as you let me comb through the debris for spare parts once you’re done. Might be one way to get some decent equipment.”

“Fair enough. How are your men holding up?”

“They’re soldiers.” He pronounced the word very differently than Max had. “They do exactly what they’re told. Except for that worthless snot of a mate who apparently can’t even guard a fucking sealed hatch properly.”

Max didn’t like the sound of that. Chevrier couldn’t keep pushing his men as hard as he pushed himself, or they’d start to break. “Your men are not machines-”

“Hell they aren’t! A ship’s crew is one big machine and you’re a piece of grit in the silicone, a short in the wire. With you issuing orders outside the chain of command, the command splits. You either need to fit in or get the hell out of the machine!”

Chevrier jabbed his finger at Max’s chest again to punctuate his statement. This time, he made contact with enough force to send the two men in opposite directions.

It was clear that he didn’t mean to touch Max, and just as clear that he didn’t mean to back down. He glared at Max, daring him to make something of it. Aggressiveness was the main side effect of Nova. It built up until the men went supernova and burned out. On top of that, Chevrier also had that look some men got when things went very wrong. He couldn’t fix things so he wanted to smash them instead.

Max could bring him up on charges, but the ship needed its chief engineer right now. And if Mallove had promised his friends in government that he would protect Chevrier…

Max decided to ignore the incident. For the time being. “I’ll be sure to make a record of your comments.”

Chevrier snorted, as if he’d won a game of chicken. “If you have problems with any of the big words, come back and I’ll spell them out for you.” He flapped his hand near his head again, turned and went back to the clean hood.

The other men scowled at Max.

That was the problem with anger-it was an infectious disease. Frustration only made it spread faster. He continued his tour, looking into the main engine room and then at the nuclear reactors. Nobody was in the former because there was nothing to be done there, and nobody was in the latter because radiation spooked them. One man sat in the control room, reading the monitors. Max hovered near the ceiling a moment looking over the crewman’s shoulder, comparing the pictures on the vids to the layout of the rooms. The crewman stared at the monitors intently, pretending not to see Max. Yes, thought Max, anger was very infectious. You never knew who might catch it next.

The hapless mate DePuy still guarded the hatch, whipping the vid behind his back as he snapped to attention. Max ignored him. Accidents happened. Some idiots would just slab themselves.

He went back through the Black Forest, acknowledging salutes from a pair of shooters, the tactics officer’s mates. He swam through the air to the top level, and down the main corridor, past the open door of the exercise room. He turned back. If grav was going to be offline much longer, he needed to sign up for exercise time. Physically, he needed to stay sharp right now.

Max pushed the door open. The room was dark. It surprised him briefly that no one was there, but then, with the six-and-sixes, and all the drills, the men were probably too busy. He hit the light switch. Nothing came on. He moved farther into the room to hit the second switch. Something hard smashed on the back of the head, knocking his cap off. He twisted, trying to get a hold of his assailant, but there was no one behind him. He realized that the other man was above him, on the ceiling, too late, and as he twisted in the dark room, he suddenly became very dizzy, losing any sense of direction, any orientation to the walls and floors. A thick arm snaked around his throat, choking off his nausea along with his breath. Max got hold of a thumb and managed to pull it halfway loose, but he had no leverage at all.

He swung his elbows forcefully and futilely as black dots swam before his eyes like collapsing stars in the darkened room.

Then the darkness became absolute.

***

He experienced a floating, disconnected sensation, like being in the sensory deprivation tanks they’d used for some of his conditioning experiments. Max had hated the feeling then, of being lost, detached, and he hated it now. Then light knifed down into one of his eyes and all his pains awoke at once.

“Do you hear me, Lieutenant Nikomedes?”

“Yes,” croaked Max. His throat felt raw. The light flicked off, then stabbed into the other eye. “That hurts.”

“I should imagine that it’s the least of your hurts. Has the painkiller worn off completely then?”

“I hope so, because if it hasn’t you should just kill me now.” His throat felt crushed and his kidneys ached like hell. The light went off and Max’s eyes adjusted to the setting. He was in the sickbay with the Doc hovering over him. His name was Noyes, and he was only a medtech, but the crew still called him Doc. The service was short of surgeons. Command didn’t want to spare one for this voyage.

“Your pupils look good,” Noyes continued. “There’s a ruptured blood vessel in the right eye. It’s not pretty, but the damage is superficial. We had some concern about how long you’d been without oxygen when you came in.”

Yeah, thought Max. He was concerned too. “So how long was it?”

“Not long. Seconds, maybe. A couple of the shooters found you unconscious in the gym.”

“And so they brought the Corpse to sickbay?”

“You know that nickname?” Noyes administered an injection and Max’s pain lessened. “Whoever attacked you knew what he was doing. He cut off your air supply without crushing your windpipe or leaving any fingerprint type bruises on your throat. You’re lucky-the shooters did chest compressions as soon as they found you and got you breathing again.”

So this wasn’t just a warning. Someone had tried to kill him, and failed. Unless the shooters were in on it. But who would do it and why? His hand shot up to his breast pocket. Gordet’s note with the secret codes was still there.

“What’s that?” asked Noyes, noticing the gesture.

“A list of suspects,” replied Max. He wondered if someone had followed him from Engineering. “Did you hear the one about the political officer who was killed during wargame exercises?”

Suspicion flickered across the Doc’s face. “No,” he said slowly.

“They couldn’t call it friendly fire because he had no friends.”

Noyes didn’t laugh. He was young, barely thirty, if that. But his face was worn, and he had a deep crease between his eyes. “Can I ask you a direct question?”

“If it’s about who did this-”

“No. It’s about the ship’s mission.”

“I may not be able to answer.”

“It’s just the crew, you know what they’re saying, that this is a suicide mission. We’re supposed to sneak into Adarean space, nuke their capital, and then blow ourselves up, vaporize the evidence.”

“Ah.” No, Max hadn’t heard that one yet, though he supposed he should have thought of it himself. Sometimes there were disadvantages to knowing inside information; it limited one’s ability to imagine other possibilities. “We could blow up their capital, but their military command is space-based, decentralized. That kind of strike wouldn’t touch them at all. That doesn’t make any sense, Doc.”

“It doesn’t have to make sense for the service to order it.” Noyes laughed, a truncated little puff of air. “I was scheduled for leave, I was supposed to be getting married on my leave, and I got yanked off the transport and put on this ship without a word of explanation, and then found out I was going to be gone for a year and a half. So don’t tell me the service only gives orders that make any sense.”

Max had no answer for that. He knew how orders were.

“Is this a suicide mission?” asked Noyes. “Tell me straight. The shooters think that’s why someone tried to kill you, because they don’t have to worry about consequences when they get back home.”

And they could die knowing they’d offed an officer. There were definitely a few of that type onboard. But Max didn’t think it was that random. “And if it is a suicide mission?”

The medtech’s face grew solemn. “Then I want to send some kind of message back to Suzan. I don’t want her to think I simply disappeared on her. I don’t want her to live the rest of her life with that.”

Noyes couldn’t be the only one having those thoughts. No wonder there was tension on the ship. “This isn’t a suicide mission,” Max said firmly.

“Your word on that?”

“Yes.” He would have to try to kill this rumor. Even if it proved to be true. Max touched his pocket again. What exactly were the secret orders? He thought he knew them, but maybe he didn’t.

Noyes shook his head. “Too bad you’re the political officer. Everyone knows your word can’t be trusted.” He handed Max a bottle of pills. “The captain wants to see you on the bridge right away. Take one of these if you feel weak, or in pain, and then report back to sickbay next shift.”

Max sat up, and noticed his pants pockets were inside out. So someone had been searching him after all and the shooters interrupted them. Unless that too was part of the ruse. For now, he’d stick to the simpler explanation.

Noyes helped him to his feet. “I ought to keep you for observation,” he said.

“No,” replied Max. “I’m fine.” I’m as rotten a liar as Rucker is, he thought. He wondered if the first lieutenant had changed his mind. Or changed his allegiances.

The door opened and Simco waited outside. His bulk seemed to fill the small corridor. He held his hands folded behind his back. “Captain assigned me to be your guard, sir. He asks you not to speak about this incident while I’m investigating it. He also requires your immediate attention on the bridge.”

“The assignment comes a little too late, apparently, Sergeant,” murmured Max. He gestured for Simco to lead the way.

“You first, sir.”

Trouble never came looking for him face-to-face, thought Max as he led the way through the corridors. It always came sneaking up behind.

***

A double crew packed the already tight bridge because of shift change, giving reports to one another in low tones.

No one but the captain bothered to look up when Max entered, and even he only glanced away from the scope for a second. Vents hissed above the muted beeps from the monitors. The two shooters Max had seen in the Black Forest were seated next to the tactics officer. Max waited to make eye contact with them, to say thanks, but they were so absorbed in their work they didn’t notice him. He gave up waiting, and slid over to stand by Petoskey.

“It’s about damn time, Nikomedes,” growled Petoskey.

“I had a slight accident.”

“Well I have a slight problem. The incoming ship boosted. They’re in some kind of a hurry. So our window of opportunity is here, and it’s closing fast.”

He hasn’t made up his mind yet, Max realized. “Have they detected us?”

“No. We’re between them and the rings. They don’t see us because we’re floating dead, and because they don’t expect to see anyone out here.”

Max remained silent, running the calculations through his head. Outback’s presence would not affect the Jesusalem’s claim to the system, only the possible success of their mission through Adarean space.

“ ‘War is an extension of political policy with military force,’ ” prompted Petoskey, quoting regulations.

And it was the job of the political officer to be the final arbiter of policy. This was exactly the type of unforeseen situation that created the need for political officers on ships. “What are our options?”

Petoskey shifted his chewing tobacco into a spot below his lower lip. “Chevrier says we could power up and hit them with the lasers, but we wouldn’t get more than one or two shots. I don’t like our chances at this distance. We could launch the nuclears at them. They’d see them coming, but we could bracket them so that they’ll still take on a killer dose of radiation even if we don’t score a direct hit. Or we could do nothing.”

“What are your concerns?”

He sucked the tobacco juice through his teeth. “The last I heard officially, Outback was one of our trading partners.”

“We have met the enemy,” Max mused softly, “and they are us.”

Petoskey scowled. “But Outback also trades with Adares. If they find our dive to their system, they’ll let the Adareans know about it and that endangers our mission. So what’s the politically correct thing for me to do?”

“I would suggest that we haven’t been tasked with guarding the system or the other wormhole. I would point out that there are other ships in place specifically to do just that.” He paused. “And as long as we dive undetected, our mission isn’t really endangered.”

Petoskey leaned back and straightened so that his head nearly scraped the pipes. He slammed the scope back into its slot and stared hard at Max. “So we let them pass?”

“They’ve got a second ship outside our range. We pop this one and the other one sees us, then Jesusalem could face a war on two fronts.” Although they weren’t technically at war with Adares any longer, the capital was filled with rumors of war. “Politically, we’re not ready to handle that.”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Petoskey, with a slight shudder that mixed revulsion with unease. “I’m glad not to use the nukes. Those are dirty weapons to use. On people.”

“I fail to see any difference,” said Max. “Two kinds of fire. Lasers or nukes, they would be equally dead.”

Petoskey had a lidded cup taped to the conduits on the wall. He pulled it off, spit into it, and taped it back up again. Pausing, so he could change the subject. “I understand that you were nearly dead a little while ago, Nikomedes. Simco has one of his men guarding Reedy.”

“Why?” asked Max. Had the ensign been attacked also?

“Spy or not, it’s obvious she’s trying to get back at you for your comments in quarters the other day. I asked around and found out what she did to Vance. Shows what happens when you don’t keep women in their place. Before I had her locked up, I wanted to make certain this wasn’t something arranged between the two of you. Some kind of duel. Not that I thought it was, but…”

He thought it might be, finished Max to himself. Or hoped it might be. “It wasn’t Reedy as far as I know. But let Simco’s man watch her while Simco investigates. If Reedy’s guilty, maybe she’ll give herself away.”

“Shouldn’t have a woman onboard anyway, even if she is language qualified. We can’t afford dissension on a voyage like this one. I will personally execute anyone who endangers this mission. I don’t care if it is a junior officer.”

Or a woman, thought Max. “Understood,” he answered. He looked up one last time, to see if he could catch the shooters’ eyes. That’s when he noticed Rucker and Gordet staring at him. They had been whispering to one another and stopped. “In fact, I think I’ll head down to the radio room right now.”

“You’re dismissed from duty until Doc says you’ve recovered. And Simco or one of his men will stay with you at all times.”

That was not what Max wanted, not at all. “Thanks. I appreciate that.”

Petoskey nodded, dismissing him.

Max began to wish that whoever had attacked him had done a better job.

***

He went to the secure radio room and all three of the intelligence officers stopped talking and turned toward the doorway. It’s the Political Officer Effect, thought Max.

“What happened to your face?” Lukinov asked.

“I fought the law and the law won,” Max answered impulsively.

Burdick burst out laughing. Even Lukinov smiled. “Why does that sound so damned familiar?” he asked.

“Judas’s Chariot,” answered Burdick. “The vid. It was one of Barabbas’s lines.”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember that one now. It had Oliver Whatshisname in it. I got to meet him once, at a party, when he did that public information vid. Good man.” He twisted around. The smell of his cologne nearly choked Max. “Seriously, Max, what happened? Why has the captain put a guard on one of my men?”

“Someone tried to kill me.” Max was disappointed with the surprise in Lukinov’s expression. In all of their expressions. Intelligence was supposed to know everything. “Captain suspects the ensign here.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Lukinov rolled his eyes. Anger flashed across Reedy’s face.

“It wasn’t my suggestion,” Max replied. “But if you don’t mind my asking, which one of you is just coming on shift?”

“I am, sir,” Reedy answered immediately.

“And where were you?”

“In her quarters sleeping,” interjected Lukinov. “Where else would she have been?”

“You were there with her?” No one wanted to answer that accusation, so Max slid past it. “You two usually work one shift together, and Burdick takes the other, right?”

The senior officer hesitated. “I doubled shifted with Burdick because of the information we were getting.”

So. Reedy had been alone. Not that Max suspected her of the attack. But now he’d have to. Maybe he’d misestimated her in the first place. “What information is that?”

“The other Outback ship is doing some kind of military research defending the wormhole. Based on what we’re overhearing from observers in the shuttles. We’ve got a name on the second ship. It’s the Jiang Qing, same class as the other one.” He paused. “You aren’t going to try to tell me that Jiang Qing was one of Napoleon’s generals too, are you, Max?”

“Why not?” asked Max flatly. “Historically, Earth has had women generals for centuries. Jesusalem was the only planet without a mixed service.”

Lukinov’s lip curled. “We finally tracked down Deng Xiaopeng. He and this Jiang Qing woman were both part of the Chinese revolution. Reedy found the information.”

“The Chinese communist revolution,” clarified the ensign. “They were minor figures, associated with Mao. Both were charged with crimes though they helped bring about important political changes that led to the second revolution.”

“Ah,” said Max. A wave of pain shot through him. If his legs had been supporting his weight, they would surely have buckled. “Please cooperate with Sergeant Simco until we can get this straightened out. Now, if you will excuse me.”

He didn’t wait for their response, but turned back to the hall. Simco waited at parade rest, his hands behind his back. Another trooper stood beside him.

“I’m going to return to my cabin now,” Max said.

“I’ve detailed Rambaud here to watch you while I begin my investigation,” Simco replied. Rambaud was a smaller but equally muscled version of his superior officer. “I’ll be rotating all my men through this duty until we find the culprit.”

“Keeping them sharp?” Max said.

Simco nodded. “A knife can’t cut if you don’t keep it sharp.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Max barely noticed the other man shadowing him through the narrow maze of corridors. When he reached his room, he took a double dose of the doctor’s painkillers, added one from his own stock, and washed them all down with a gulp of warm, flat water. He looked in the bathroom mirror at his damaged eye. That was when he started to shake. He had the ludicrous sensation that he was going to fall down, so he grabbed hold of the sink and tried to steady himself. Eventually it passed, but not before his breath came out in ragged gasps.

He’d come too close to dying this time. And why?

The rumor of the suicide mission still bothered him, and so did the problem of Reedy. When he drifted off to sleep, he dreamed that he was wandering an empty vessel searching for someone who was no longer aboard, through corridors that were kinked and slicked like the intestines of some animal. They started shrinking, squeezing the crates and boxes that filled them into a solid mass, as Max tried to find his way out. The last section dead-ended in a mirror, and when he paused to look into its silver surface he saw a bloody eye above a pyramid.

He woke up shivering and nauseous. According to the clock, he’d slept nearly four and a half hours, but he didn’t believe it. He wasn’t inclined to believe anything right now.

He rose and dressed himself. He needed better luck. If it wouldn’t come looking for him, he’d have to go looking for it.

***

Down in the very bottom of the ship rested an observation chamber that contained the only naked ports in the entire vessel. Max went down there to think, dutifully followed by Simco’s watchdog.

Max paused outside the airlock. “You can wait here.”

“I’m supposed to stay with you, sir.”

“The lights are off, it’s empty,” said Max, realizing as soon as the words were out of his mouth what had happened the last time he went into a dark room alone. “If someone’s waiting in there to kill me, then you’ve got them trapped. You’ll get a commendation.”

Rambaud relented. Max entered the room, closing the hatch behind him. It sealed automatically, reminding Max of the sound of a prison cell door shutting.

Outside the round windows stretched the infinite expanse of space. The sun was a small, cold ember in a charcoal-colored sky dominated by the vast and ominous bulk of Big Brother. They were close enough that Max could see crimson storms raging on its surface, swirling hurricanes larger than Jesusalem itself. He counted three moons spinning around the planet, and great rings of dust, as if everything in space was drawn into satellites around the self-consuming fire of its mass.

A quiet cough came from the rear of the compartment.

Max pirouetted, and saw another man floating cross-legged in the air. As he unfolded and came to attention, light glinted off the jack that sat lodged in his forehead like a third eye. It was the spongediver, the ship’s pilot, Patchett.

“At ease, Patchett,” said Max.

Patchett nodded toward the port as he clasped his hands behind his back. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“It’s no place for a human being to live,” Max said. “Give me a little blue marble of a planet any day instead.”

The pilot smiled. “That figures.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re the political officer, and politics is always about the place we live, how we live together.” He gestured at the sweep of the illuminated rings. “But this is why I joined the service-to explore, to see space.”

“Has it been worth it?”

“Too much waiting, too much doing nothing.” Patchett shifted his position, rotating a quarter circle. “The diving makes it worthwhile.”

“Good,” murmured Max, looking away.

“You and I are alike that way. We both are the most useless men on the ship except for that one moment when we’re the only one qualified to do the job.” He stared out the port. “What happened to you, that was wrong, sir.”

Max gazed out the window also, saying nothing.

“I’d guess,” Patchett said, “that I’ve been in the service as long as you have. Nearly twenty years.”

“Just past thirty years now,” Max replied. It wasn’t all in the official records, but thirty years total. A very long time. Patchett clearly wanted to say something more. “What is it?” asked Max. “Speak freely.”

Patchett exhaled. “Things have been going downhill the past few years, sir. The wrong men in charge, undermining everything we hoped to accomplish in the Revolution. They all want war. They forget what the last one was like.”

“Are you sure you should be telling this to your political officer?”

“You may be the only one I can say it to. You have to know it already. Petoskey’s an excellent captain, don’t get me wrong, sir. But he’s too young to remember what the last war was like.”

They hung there in the dark, weightless, silent, watching the giant spin on its axis. If Patchett was right, there was one moment in the voyage when only Max’s skills would make a difference. But what moment, and what kind of difference, there was no way to know in advance.

When Max went to the med bay to check in with Noyes he found Simco sitting-more or less-at the exam table. “I’d salute,” Simco said, “but Doc here’s treating a sprain.”

“Dislocation,” corrected Noyes.

“What happened?” asked Max.

Simco grinned. “I scheduled extra combat training for my men. Want to make sure they’re ready in case they run into whoever attacked you. It doesn’t really count as a good workout unless someone dislocates something.”

Noyes snorted.

“Plus, Doc here says that we have to exercise at least an hour a day or we’ll start losing bone and muscle mass.”

“Nobody’s had to deal with prolonged weightlessness in a couple of hundred years,” added Noyes. “I’m only finding hints of the information I need in our database. The nausea, vertigo, lethargy-that I expected and was prepared for. But we’re already seeing more infections, shortness of breath, odd stuff. And we’ve got orders to spend months like this? It’s madness. Take it easy on this thumb for a few more days, Simco.” He went to lay his stim-gun on the table and it floated off sideways across the room. “Damn. Not again.”

Max snatched it out of the air and handed it back to the Doc. “Any word on who my attacker was?” he asked Simco.

“No.” The sergeant blew out his breath. “But I did hear that you picked a fight with Chevrier down in Engineering.”

“Nothing even close to that.”

“Good. He’s a big man, completely out of your weight class.”

“Right now, we’re all in the same weight class.”

That won Max a laugh from both Simco and Noyes. “Still, if you go see him again, about anything, please inform me first,” the sergeant said.

“You’ll know about it before I do,” promised Max.

After the Doc finished checking him, Max went back through the crate-packed corridors toward his quarters. On the way, he passed Reedy, whose mouth quirked in a brief smile as Max squeezed past her.

“What do you find so funny, Ensign?” Max growled.

Reedy’s eyes flicked, indicating the trooper following her and the one behind Max. “For a second there, sir, I wondered which of us was the real prisoner.”

Very perceptive. She had an edge to her voice that reminded him of Chevrier. He recalled that she had shown a strong aversion to confinement after the incident with Vance. “Remember who you’re speaking to, Ensign!”

“Yes, sir. It won’t happen again, sir.”

“See that it doesn’t.”

He went into his room and swallowed another painkiller. Even if the moment came when he could make a difference, would he be able to get away from his minders long enough to do it?

Eight more shifts, two more days, and nothing.

Max had no appetite, the food all tasted bland to him. He couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time. If he turned the lights off, he’d wake in a panic, disoriented, unsure of his location. But if he slept with the lights on, they poked at the edge of his consciousness, prodding him awake. He tried to exercise one hour out of every two shifts, but everything seemed tedious. It just felt wrong, empty motions with nothing to push against.

On the bridge, he asked Petoskey if it was still necessary to have a guard.

“The attack’s still unsolved,” Petoskey said. “Until Simco brings me the manor woman-who did it, I want you protected.”

Max had the sinking feeling that might be for the rest of the voyage. “How are the repairs going?”

“Chevrier replaced all the chips in the dead array with new ones, but something failed when he tested it. He has an idea for rebuilding the chips with some kind of silicon alloy crystal. Says he can grow it as long as we stay weightless. Some other kind of old tech. Inorganic. He tried to explain it to me, but he’s the only one who really understands it.”

“Can we wait that long?”

“We can’t power up to jump as long as those Outback ships are in the vicinity. They’d see us-and the wormhole-in a microsecond. So far they still haven’t detected our buoy. Or if they have, they just took it for a pulsar signal.” Which was the idea, after all. Petoskey tugged hard at his beard. There were dark stains of sleeplessness under his eyes. “Don’t you have some work to do, some reports to write?”

He meant it as a dismissal. Max was willing to be dismissed. He was still no closer to catching his traitor, and his luck couldn’t have been more execrable.

He went to the ship’s library to read. Rambaud, his trooper again this shift, had no interest in reading or studying vids of any kind. He writhed in almost open pain as Max made it clear that he intended to stay at a desk alone for several hours. Max decided that it wouldn’t be murder if he bored Simco’s men to death.

He sat there, scanning Pier’s monograph on the Adarean war, skimming through the casualty lists in the appendixes, thinking about some of the worst battles, early on, and the consequences of war, when a voice intruded on his contemplations.

“… bored as hell down here. Uh-huh. Wargames. That sounds interesting. Can you understand that Outback lingo?”

Rambaud was whispering on the comlink to his compatriot in charge of Reedy. Max let the conversation turn to complaints about the exercise regimen and weightlessness before he flipped off his screen and rose to go.

He headed for the intelligence radio room. The scent of Lukinov’s imported cologne drifted out the open door into the corridor. Max paused at the doorway. Inside, the trooper floated behind Lukinov and Reedy. He wore a set of earphones.

“So this is how well you keep secrets?” asked Max.

The trooper saw Max, yanked the earphones out of his ear, and handed them back to an ebullient Lukinov. “Wait until you hear this, Max!” Lukinov said.

The trooper tried to squeeze by Max without touching him. Max stayed firmly in his way, making him as uncomfortable as possible. “Rambaud,” he said to his own man, “I believe I left my palm-pad down in the library by accident. Retrieve it for me and bring it to this room immediately so I can record this conversation.”

Rambaud hesitated before answering. “Yes, sir.”

The other trooper went over Max’s head and took up station outside the door. Max kicked the door shut and latched it.

“What’s going on with the spongediver?” asked Max.

“They’re testing a new laser deflector, using it for wormhole defense.” Lukinov grinned. “Go ahead and listen.”

Max picked up the headphones and fit the wires into his ears. Pilots chattered with tactics officers, describing the kind of run they were simulating. No wonder Outback outfitted their survey ships with the newest military equipment. The blind side of a wormhole dive was probably the only place in the galaxy they could test any new weapons without being observed. “Very standard stuff here,” he said after a moment. “Is there just one channel of this?”

“Their scientists are on the other channel, the one Reedy’s monitoring. But don’t you see what an advantage this gives us if we can steal it? We can attack Adares with impunity and keep them from diving into our system.”

Max switched the channel setting to the one Reedy listened to. “Do unto others before they do unto you?”

“Exactly!” replied Lukinov.

Reedy’s eyes went wide open. She started tapping the desk to get their attention. “Sir,” she said. “There’s something you should…”

“Not right now,” said Max.

Lukinov frowned at him. “Now see here-”

“No, you see here. Has the captain been informed of this?”

“Not yet,” replied Lukinov.

“You invite some grunt in here to listen to information that will certainly be classified top secret before you notify the captain?” He sneered at Lukinov, pausing long enough to listen to the scientists talk. “You can be sure that my Department will file a record of protest on our return. In the meantime, I better go get the captain.”

Lukinov popped out of his seat. “No, I’ll do that. I was just planning to do that anyway, if you hadn’t interrupted.”

“Sir,” repeated Reedy. “Sirs.”

“Ensign,” said Max, “Shut. Up.”

The ensign nodded mutely, her eyes shaped like two satellite dishes trying to pick up a signal.

“I’m coming with you, Lukinov,” Max said.

“No, you aren’t, Lieutenant,” snapped the intelligence officer. “I’m the one man on this ship you can’t give direct orders to and don’t you forget it.”

Max saluted, a gesture sharp enough to have turned into a knife hand strike at the other man’s throat. Lukinov stormed out of the room. Max turned back to the ensign, who simply stared at him.

“They just broadcast the complete specifications,” said Reedy. “They were checking for field deformation-”

“I know that,” said Max. And then he did something he never expected to do, not on this voyage. He said aloud the secret intelligence code word for “render all assistance.” Silently, to himself, he added a prayer that it was current, and that Reedy would recognize it.

“Wh-what did you say?” she stammered.

Max repeated the code word for “render all assistance” while he pulled off his earphones and reached in his pocket for his multi-tool. His fingers found nothing, and he realized that it had been missing since his attack. “And give me a screwdriver,” he added.

Reedy handed over the tool. “But… but…”

Max ignored her. In thirty seconds, he’d disconnected the power and disassembled the outer case of the radio. “Give me the laser,” he said.

The ensign’s hands shook as she complied.

“I need two new memory chips and the spare pod.” Reedy just stared at him, uncomprehending. “Now!” spit Max, and the ensign dove for the equipment box.

Max shoved the loaded chips into his pockets and snapped the replacements into their slots as Reedy handed them over. The radio was still a mess of pieces when someone rapped on the door.

“Stall them!” hissed Max.

The rap came again and the door cracked open. Rambaud pushed his head in partway. “Here’s your palm-pad, sir.”

“I’ll take it,” said Reedy, grabbing it and shoving the door shut on him.

“Thanks!” called Max. He’d lost one of the screws, and when he looked up from the equipment to see if it was floating somewhere, he was temporarily disoriented. His stomach did a flip-flop and his head spun in a circle. “Shit!”

Rambaud pushed back on the door. “Are you safe in there, sir? I’m coming in.”

Reedy wedged herself against the wall to block the door.

Max heard a plain thump as Rambaud bounced against it. He saw the screw floating near his ankles and scooped it up. He fixed the cover and powered the machine up again. Reedy grunted as the door pushed against her, cracking open. “I’m fine,” Max said loudly.

Rambaud nodded, but he stood outside the cracked door peering in.

Reedy panted, caught herself, controlled it. A thousand questions formed and died on her lips. Max had taken the leap, and now he had to see how far that leap would take him.

“Ensign,” he whispered.

“Yes, sir?”

“From this moment forth,” his lips barely moved, “you will consider me your sole superior officer.”

Her eyes jumped to the door. “Sir? But-”

“That is a direct order.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will not tell anyone-”

But he did not get the chance to tell Reedy what she should and shouldn’t say. The door swung open and Lukinov entered, followed by Captain Petoskey. Lukinov grinned like a party girl full of booze. “Wait until you hear this,” he said. He put his headphones on, and handed one to Petoskey as Reedy slid quickly back into her place.

They listened for a moment. Petoskey squinted his eyes, and rounded his shoulders even more than usual. “Sounds like they’re bringing the shuttles in, getting ready to leave. Radioing a safe voyage message to their other ship. What was I supposed to hear?”

“They’re testing a new deflector for wormhole defense. If we attack their ship and kill them, we can take it. Their other ship will be stuck in-system and we can nuke them.”

“Captain,” said Max.

“Yes?”

“I didn’t hear any evidence of this deflector. I can’t recommend an attack.”

Lukinov frantically punched commands into his keypad. “Let me back up to an hour ago.” His face went as blank as the records he was trying to access. “I can’t seem to find it. Reedy, what’s going on here?”

“Sir,” she muttered, with a pleading glance at Max, “uh, I don’t know, sir.”

“She’s covering up,” said Max.

Three faces stared at him with variations of disbelief.

“Look at the battery, it’s not properly grounded.” It was an awful explanation, but the best that Max could come up with on the spot. “Reedy was moving some equipment around, hit it with something. I didn’t see what. Sparks flew and the screens all went dead. She got them back up right away, but she probably wiped the memories.”

“Ensign,” Lukinov said coldly. “Explain yourself.”

Reedy’s mouth hung open. She didn’t know what to say. Betrayal was written all over her face.

Petoskey took off his headset. “Lukinov, I trust you to take care of this. Nikomedes…”

“Yes, sir?”

Petoskey couldn’t seem to think of any orders to give him. “I have to go talk to Chevrier. We have our mission. With the second ship out of the way, we have to prepare to dive.”

Max followed Petoskey out into the corridor, but returned to his room to stash the stolen memory. Only two things mattered now: getting the information to his superior, and keeping Lukinov from getting it to his. It needed to be used as a defensive weapon, not as an excuse to start a war. Lukinov had access to the radio and official channels. Max didn’t. That stacked the cards in Lukinov’s favor.

He had to do something with it soon, before they jumped to Adarean space. And he had to hope that a baby-faced ensign just out of the Academy didn’t fold under pressure and give him away. It was like a game of Blind Man’s Draw. Max had already put everything he had into the pot.

There was nothing else he could do at this point except play the card that he was dealt.

Meal time. Max sat by himself, as usual, at his own narrow table in the galley. Even the trooper guarding him sat with some of the other crewmen.

Lukinov entered, saw Max, and came straight over to him. “Reedy won’t say that you were lying, but you were,” the intelligence officer said. “Not that it matters. The machines are buggered, the data’s all gone. Even Burdick can’t find it.’

Max had a blank sheet in his pocket. He pulled it out, and a stylus, and passed it over to Lukinov. This was the way duels were proposed at the Academy. According to the Academy’s cover story, it was the way Reedy had arranged to meet with Vance.

Lukinov looked at the sheet, then scratched “observation room” and a time two hours distant on it. He pushed it back over to Max, who shook his head, and wrote “reactor room.”

“Why there?” asked the intelligence officer.

“They’ve got cameras there, but no mikes. It’s off limits to Simco’s troopers, but not to us. We won’t be there long.”

“So this is just to be a private conversation? I should leave my weapons behind?”

“I wish you would.”

“More’s the pity,” said Lukinov, and stormed out.

Max was putting his tray away, trying to resolve his other problem, when Simco came in. “Lukinov won’t let us throw the ensign in the brig, not yet. But he thought it was best if I stuck with you personally in the meantime.”

Perfect, thought Max, just perfect.

***

Two hours had never stretched out to such an eternity before in all Max’s life. Simco escorted him to his quarters and joined him inside.

“Do you want to follow me into the head and shake it dry for me?” asked Max on his way into the bathroom.

Simco laughed, but remained in the other room. Max retrieved a bottle of pills and an old pair of nail clippers from the medicine cabinet, putting them in his pocket. Then he led Simco on a long, roundabout trip through the corridors that ended up on the floor of the Black Forest. He stopped when he got there and snapped his fingers.

“I forgot something,” Max said. “You don’t mind if I borrow that multi-tool in your pocket, do you?”

Simco stuffed his hand automatically into his pants, wrapped it around the bulge there, and froze. “Sorry, sir, I don’t have one with me,” he said, grinning. “Got one in my locker. Or do you want to hit Engineering to borrow one?”

“No, it’s nothing I need that badly.” He jumped. “Meet you up top, in the exercise room.” He grabbed hold of the service ladder outside one of the missile shafts, and pulled himself up. He used his momentum to spin, kicking off from the side of the shaft, and shot like a rocket toward the ceiling.

“Hold up there,” called Simco, halfway up the stairs.

Max ducked into the upper corridor. He dove through the hall as fast as he could, past the exercise room, down the access shaft, and back out the corridor below, returning to the missile room. He watched Simco’s feet disappear above him into the top corridor, and then he flew straight across the cavern to the section over Engineering, opened a portside hatch, and closed it again after himself.

A long time ago Max had modified his nail clippers to function as a makeshift tool. Bracing himself against the wall, he used it now to remove the grille from the ceiling vent-it was the supply duct for the HEPA filters in the clean hood corner of the battery room directly below. He squeezed inside, feet first, pulling the grille after him. There was no way to reattach it, but with no gravity he didn’t need to. He simply pulled it into place and it stayed there.

It was an eighteen-inch duct and he was a small man. Even so, he felt like toothpaste being forced back into the tube. He had to twist sideways and flip over to get past the L-curve, but after that it was a straight trip down to the reactor room. With his arms pinned above his head, and no gravity to help him, he writhed downward like a rat caught in a drainpipe. He reached bottom, unable to go any further. His kicks had no effect at all and his heart began to race as he wondered if he’d be trapped inside the duct. Finally, by pressing his elbows out into the corners, and hooking one foot on the lip where the vent teed out horizontally, he was able to push the other foot downward until the duct tore open.

He eased downward into the plenum space above the hood ceiling and kicked through the tiles. When he finally lowered himself into the battery room he was drenched in sweat and his pants were ripped in the thigh. He hadn’t even noticed. He undid his belt and looked at the scrape on his leg. It was mostly superficial. Not much blood.

He leaned in the corner, with the hood’s softwalls pulled back, catching his breath. The cameras were all installed to monitor the reactor, so they faced the center of the room. Most of them close-upped on specific pieces of equipment. He eased out, pushing himself up toward the high ceiling.

He glanced at his chrono. Already seven minutes past his meeting time with Lukinov. He waited two more minutes before the hatch popped open. He had a split second to decide what he would do if it was one of the engineers.

But a familiar balding head poked through the door. Max eased out of the hood area. “Hey, Lukinov.”

“Max?” The other man twisted around to see him. He entered, closing the hatch behind him. “How the hell did you get in here? Chevrier’s guard at the door gave me the runaround, swore he hadn’t seen you. The mate watching the monitors said you never came in here either. What are you, some damn spook?”

Max ignored the questions. “You wanted to talk to me about the radio room. It was me. I stole the memory chips.”

Lukinov came toward him, pale with fury. “You did what? By god, I’ll see you shot.”

“Intelligence won’t touch me,” said Max. “Not for this.”

“I’ll get Political Education to do it, you goddamn weasel,” Lukinov vowed. He launched himself toward Max, keeping a hand against the wall to orient himself. “Your boss, Mallove, is a personal friend of mine. He won’t like-”

Max jumped, tucking his knees and spinning as he sailed in the air. He wrapped his belt around Lukinov’s throat, pivoted, twisting the belt as he pulled himself back to the floor. The motion jerked Lukinov upside down so that he floated in the air like a child’s balloon.

“Y our boss, Drozhin,” whispered Max, “doesn’t like the way you’ve been selling Intelligence’s secrets out to Political Education and War.”

Drozhin was Max’s boss too. He’d moled Max in Political Education as soon as the new Department formed.

Lukinov panicked. He thrashed his arms and legs, disoriented, trying to make contact with any surface, clutching futilely at Max, who was behind his back and below him. Max twisted the belt, pinching the carotid arteries and cutting off blood flow to the brain. Lukinov was unconscious in about seven seconds. His body just went still. He was dead a few seconds later.

Drozhin had ordered Max to watch Lukinov, not kill him, but he couldn’t see any other way around it. He shoved the body toward the corner, under the vent, and put his belt back on.

Still nobody at the hatch. Maybe they hadn’t noticed. Maybe they were summoning Simco. There’d be no denying this one, not if he’d missed the location of any cameras.

But he had no time to think about failure. He didn’t want anyone looking closely at Lukinov’s body and he didn’t want the ship making the jump to Adares. Intelligence was publicly part of the war party, but Drozhin believed that war would destroy Jesusalem and wanted it sabotaged at all costs. Max took the medicine bottle from his pocket and removed the two pills that weren’t pills. He popped them into his mouth to warm them-they tasted awful-while he removed the wire and blasting cap from the bottle’s lid.

He couldn’t blow any main part of the reactor, he understood that much. But the cooling circuit used water pipes, and a radioactive water spill could scuttle the jump. Max darted in, fixed the explosive to a blue-tagged pipe, plugged the wire in it, and hurried back to the hood. He pushed Lukinov’s corpse in the direction of the explosive before he climbed through the hole into the vent.

There was a soft boom behind him.

Max cranked his neck to peer down between his feet and saw the water spray in a fine mist, filling the air like fog. All the radiation alarms blared at once.

They sounded far off at first while he wiggled upward. He thought he was sweating, but realized that the busted air flow was drawing some of the water up through the shaft. Droplets pelleted him with radiation, and that made him crawl faster. He got stuck in the bend for a moment, finally squeezing through, and thrusting the vent cover out of the way without checking first to see if anyone was in the corridor. But it was empty-so far his luck held! He retrieved the grille and screwed it back into place. One of the alarms was located directly beside him. Its wailing made his pulse skip.

He emerged into the shaft of the weapons compartment as men raced both ways, toward the accident and away from it. No one noticed him. He was headed across the void toward his quarters when someone called his name.

“Hey, Nikomedes!”

He saw the medtech, Noyes, down by the corridor that led to Engineering. “What is it, Doc?”

“You don’t have your comet, do you?”

Max touched the empty spot on his breast pocket. “No. Why?”

“Radiation emergency!” he screamed. “You’re drafted as the surgeon’s assistant-come on!”

Max considered ignoring the command, but according to regulations, Doc was right. Anyone who wasn’t Vacuum and Radiation qualified was designated an orderly to help treat those who were. Plus it gave him an alibi. He jumped toward the bottom of the Black Forest and joined Noyes.

“Here, carry this kit,” Noyes said, handing over a box of radiation gear as he went back across the hall to grab another.

“Where is it?” asked Max. He held the gear close, covering the rip in his pants. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t know. The com’s down again. But it has to be the reactor.”

Nobody guarded the main hatch to Engineering so the two men went straight in. A crowd gathered in the monitor room, spilling out into the corridor. Noyes pushed straight through, and Max followed along behind him. Chevrier was shaking a crewman by the throat.

“-what the hell did you let him in there for?”

“He ordered me to!” the man complained. It was DePuy.

“There’s water everywhere!” another one of the men yelled, coming back from the direction of the reactor room hatch. “The reactor’s over-heating fast!”

“It’s already past four hundred cees,” said one of the men at the monitors.

Chevrier tried to fling DePuy at the wall, but they just flopped a short distance apart. The chief engineer turned toward the rest of crew in disgust.

Rucker, the first lieutenant, showed up behind Max. “Captain wants a report-the com’s down again!”

“That’s because the reactor’s overheating,” Chevrier said. “The cooling system’s busted.”

“My God,” said Rucker, invoking a deity he probably didn’t believe in, thought Max.

Noyes slapped a yellow patch on the first lieutenant’s shirt. “Radiation detectors, everyone. When they turn orange, you’re in danger, means get out. Red means see me for immediate treatment.” He handed some to Max. “Make sure everyone wears one.”

“We’ve got to go in there, fix the pipe, and cool the reactor,” said Chevrier. Some of the men started to protest. “Shut the fuck up! I’m asking for volunteers. And I’ll be going in with you.”

Rucker wiped the blond cowlick back off his forehead. “I’ll go in,” he said. Six other crewmen volunteered, most of them senior engineers. Max slapped radiation badges on those men first.

“Here’s the plan.” Chevrier pointed to pictures on the monitors. “We’re going to shut off these valves here and here, cut out and replace this section of pipe-”

Noyes, looking over his shoulder, said, “That man in there ought to come out at once. He looks unconscious.”

“That man is dead,” said Chevrier, “and it’s a good thing too, or I’d kill him. Then we’re going to run a pipe through here, from the drinking water supply-”

A moan of dismay.

“-shut up! We’ll take it from the number three reserve tank. That ought to be enough, and it won’t contaminate the rest of the water. Once we get the main engine back up, we can make more water off the fuel cells.”

Everyone had a badge now, and Max hung back with Noyes.

“I’d like someone to go in there and turn off these,” Chevrier tapped spots on one of the monitors, “here, here, and here, while I get the repair set up.”

“That’ll be me,” Rucker said. Like any junior officer, Max thought, trying to set a good example.

Chevrier gave him a nod. “This one here is tough. It’ll take you a few minutes. It’s right next to the reactor, and it’s going to be hotter than hell.” He gave Rucker the tools he needed and sent him off down the tube to the reactor room.

“I’ll need a shower set up for decontamination,” said Noyes.

Max found the air shower over by the other clean room, and showed him where it was. Noyes started setting up the lead-lined bags for clothing and equipment disposal.

By the time they went back to the monitor room, Chevrier had diagrammed his repair. His volunteers double-checked the equipment lined up in the hall. He sent others, who hadn’t volunteered, to run a connector line from the freshwater tank. They were just getting ready to go in, when Rucker staggered back out. He looked… cooked. Like the worst sunburn Max had ever seen. His clothes were soaked, and glowing drops of water followed through the air in his wake. Noyes was there, swiping the droplets out of the air with a lead blanket. He wrapped Rucker in it, and started leading him toward the shower.

The lieutenant’s badge was bright red.

One crewman bolted, another threw up. No one said anything about the smell, but one of the men took off his shirt and tried to catch the vomit as it scattered through the air.

Chevrier ripped his badge off. “Won’t need this. Just one more distraction. If we’re going to go swimming, we might as well go skinny-dipping.” He stripped off his clothes and the other volunteers followed his example. “Can’t handle tools in those damn vacuum suits anyway.”

Anger, fear, those things were contagious, Max reflected. But so were courage and foolhardy bravery. He hoped the price was worth it.

He supposed he ought to be at decontamination, with Noyes, but he couldn’t tear himself away from the monitors. There were no cameras aimed directly at the spot where the men were working with the pipes, but they passed in and out of the vids. The radioactive water pooled in the air, drop meeting drop, coalescing into larger blobs like mercury spilled on a lab table and just as poisonous. Or perhaps more like antibodies in a bloodstream. The men splashed into them as they moved and the water clung to their skin, searing wherever it touched.

Simco appeared at the door demanding a report for the captain. Max ignored him. Paint peeled off the overheating reactor, curling like bits of ash as it burned away. Water that hit its surface boiled away into steam, but the steam hit the other water, and became drops again instantly, a swirling rain that never fell. And, except for the dead tone of the radiation alarms, it all happened in silence, with no one in the monitor room speaking for long minutes, and no sound at all from the reactor room.

Noyes appeared beside Max. “That man needs to come out right now to have those burns treated,” he said, tapping at one of the monitors. Glowing circles spun in slow lambent spirals on one man’s buttocks.

Max laughed, a sound that came out of his mouth only as a breathless sigh. Those are tattoos, Doc. Jets. Lightning bug juice impregnated in the subdermal cells.”

“I’ve… never heard of that,” said Noyes.

“It’s supposed to bring a spacer safely home again.”

It’s an abomination,” blurted Noyes. The people of Jesusalem were against any mixing of the species. “Let’s hope it does,” he said.

“Indeed,” replied Max.

DePuy stood beside them, shaking his head. “They’re not getting it fixed.”

Max began to think he’d miscalculated badly. He hadn’t wanted anyone to look too closely at Lukinov’s corpse. He wanted the ship to turn around and head back home. But with the main engine down and the back-up scuttled, they were in big trouble.

The hatch flew open and two men came out.

“They’ve been in there almost an hour,” said Noyes, checking his chrono and calculating the damage to them.

“Is it done?” the men in the monitor room demanded. Max heard his own voice blurt out, “Is it fixed?”

But their faces were mute. The blistered flesh bubbled off as Doc wrapped them in blankets. Noyes helped one toward the shower, and Max took the other. “This is hopeless,” Noyes said, trying to clean the men. “You have to go back there now and get the other men out before they die.”

“I think we all die with the ship if they fail,” said Max.

Rambaud, one of the troopers, appeared in the door. “Message from the captain, Doc. He wants you on the bridge.”

“Tell him no.”

The trooper’s eyes kept flicking nervously to their badges. Max noticed his own was a sickly orange color. “Beg your pardon, Doc, but he’s getting ready to abandon ship. If it’s necessary.”

“If he wants to give me an order, he can come down here and do it himself,” said Noyes, shooting the burned man full of painkillers and starting an IV pump.

Rambaud fled.

Noyes stared after him. “They were going to suicide all of us anyway, for nothing. If I’m going to die, it might as well be doing my job.”

“Hell, yes.” Max’s job was getting the specifications on the deflectors to Drozhin. If the captain took the escape shuttles and flew in system, then it was Max’s duty to retrieve the chips from his quarters and get on a shuttle.

He followed Noyes back into the mouth of fire instead.

“They’re coming out!” someone shouted.

Four more men this time, in worse shape than the others. Noyes had to hypospray them full of painkillers just to get them down to the shower. Max carried the man with the tattoos. They were coal black in his skin. Whatever lived in the cells and gave them their luminescence had been killed off by the radiation.

Before they finished the others, Chevrier was brought to them, covered with burn blisters, his hands raw meat, his eyes blind. He couldn’t speak.

“Did he get it done?” shouted Max.

No one knew, so Max flew back toward the monitor room, where the handful of men who remained were arguing over the monitors. “The temperatures are still climbing,” shouted DePuy. His voice had risen an octave in pitch. “I tell you he didn’t get it running.”

“What’s going on?” asked Max.

“The pipes aren’t open,” said one of the electrician’s mates.

“Somebody needs to go in there and turn this valve here,” said DePuy. He pointed to a spot in the middle of the thick steam that surrounded the overheating reactor.

No one volunteered.

They were boys mostly, eighteen or nineteen, junior crewmen. They’d all seen the others carried out, had smelled the burned flesh, had listened to their weeping.

The cut on Max’s leg throbbed. His face and arms felt hot, burned. “I’ll go in,” he said.

Reactors were the only ship system he wasn’t officially trained on, and all the reading he’d done before the voyage seemed inadequate to the task now. But he could go in there and turn a valve. He could do that much.

He went out to the corridor and found it blocked by a man in a vacuum suit, dragging a plasma cutter on a tether and reading the manual in his palm-pad. The man turned, his face gray behind the clear mask covering his face. It was Kulakov, the chief petty officer.

For a second Max thought the man would freeze up.

Kulakov looked back down at his diagram. “Be sure to seal the locks tight behind me,” he said. “Send someone right now to levels three and four, portside, directly above us, to clear the corridors and seal the locks there. You have to do that!”

“Will do,” said Max. Then, “Carry on.”

Kulakov passed through the hatch, but when Max went to seal it, the freshwater supply tubing blocked it. “Damn,” he said, with a very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Damn, damn, damn.”

Then DePuy was there beside him with a clamp and some cutters. He severed the pipe, and tossed the loose end through the hatch after Kulakov. Max sealed the door. “Did someone go to three and four?”

DePuy nodded. “But I’ll go double-check,” he added, glancing at the bare spot where Max’s comet should have been. No, he was looking at Max’s radiation badge. It was orange-red, bleeding into a bright crimson.

“You better head over to see Doc,” said the electrician’s mate at the monitors.

“Not yet,” said Max.

On the video feed they watched Kulakov move methodically from point to point, comparing the hook-up and settings with the diagram on his palm-pad. It took him much longer than it had Chevrier when he was naked. A couple times it was clear that between the fog, and the loss of sensation caused by the suit, Kulakov became disoriented crossing an open space. He spun in circles until he found the right side up again. He reached the final valve but couldn’t turn it. He peeled his gloves off, surrounded by the steam, and slowly cranked it over.

The electrician’s mate pounded the monitors. “It’s running! Look at the temps drop!”

Max did, but he watched Kulakov too as he struggled to put his gloves back on, picked up the plasma cutter, and then burned a hole through the hull.

The weeping sound of the radiation alarms was joined by the sudden keening of the hull breech alarms. The whole ship shuddered, the bulkhead creaked beside him, and Max’s ears popped.

But he kept his eyes fixed on the screen in the reactor room. The steam and all the radioactive water whooshed out of the ship. So did Lukinov’s body. And so did Kulakov.

There was a dark, flat line straight across one of the screens, like a dead reading on a monitor.

Kulakov’s tether.

“Hey look!” whispered one of the crewmen as Max entered the sick bay. “The Corpse is up and walking!”

They all laughed at that, the survivors, even Max. Chevrier was dead, and so was Rucker, and so were two other men. Of the six surviving men who’d received red badge levels of radiation exposure, only Max was strong enough to walk.

Kulakov sat in the middle of them. His hands were wrapped in bandages, two crooked, crippled hooks. Max nodded to him. “They still giving you a hard time?” he asked.

“You know it,” grinned Kulakov.

“Well it’s not fair that he should be the only one who gets leave while we’re on this voyage,” said one of the men.

“How can it be shore leave without a shore, that’s what I want to know,” said Kulakov.

They all laughed again, even Max. That was going to be a ship joke for a long time, how Kulakov got liberty-hanging on a tether outside the ship.

“Papa sent me down here with a message,” said Max. Captain Petoskey, Papa, had only been to the sick bay once since the accident, and quickly. Most of the other crewman stayed away as if radiation sickness were something contagious.

“What is it?” said Kulakov, the words thick in his throat.

“He wanted me to tell you that he’s going to request that they rename the ship.” The crewmen looked up at him seriously, all the humor gone from their eyes. “They’re going to call it the New Nazareth.”

New Nazareth had been nuked the worst by the Adareans. The land there still glowed in the dark.

Kulakov chuckled first, then the other men broke out laughing. Max saluted them, holding himself stiff for a full three seconds, then turned to go see Noyes. The medtech slumped in his chair, head sprawled across his arms on the desk, eyes closed. “I’m not sleeping,” he muttered. “I’m just thinking.”

“About your fiancйe,” asked Max, “waiting for you at home?”

“No, about the bone marrow cultures I’ve got growing in the vats, and the skin sheets, and the transplant surgery I have to do later this afternoon, that I’ve never done unassisted before, and the one I have to do tonight that I’m not trained to do at all.” He twisted his head, peeking one eye out at Max. “And Suzan. Waiting for me. And the ship flying home. How are you feeling?”

“I’d be fine if you had any spare teeth,” Max said, poking his tongue into the empty spots in his gums. That didn’t feel as strange as having gravity under his feet again.

“They’re in a drawer over by the sink,” said Noyes. “Take two and call me in the morning.”

***

Max walked through corridors considerably less crowded than they had been a few days before. Almost everything inside the ship had received some radiation. The crewmen went crate to crate with geiger counters deciding what could be saved and what should be jettisoned. With the grav back on, the men’s appetites returned. They also had a year’s worth of supplies and only a short voyage ahead of them, so every meal became a feast. Some celebrated the fact that they were going home, and others the simple fact that they’d survived.

Only Captain Petoskey failed to join the celebration. When Max entered the galley, Petoskey wore the expression of a man on the way to the lethal injection chamber. Max couldn’t say for sure if it was the condemned man’s expression or the executioner’s.

Ensign Reedy sat on one side of a long table, with two troopers standing guard behind her. Petoskey and Commander Gordet sat on the opposite side with Simco standing at attention. Petoskey looked naked without his beard, shorn before they recorded these official proceedings. Burdick, the other intelligence officer, sat off to one end.

Petoskey invited Max to the empty seat beside him. “Are you sure you feel up to this, Nikomedes?”

“Doc says I’ll be fine as long as it’s brief.”

“This’ll be quick.”

Petoskey turned on the recorder and read the regulations calling a board of inquiry. “Ensign Reedy, do you wish to make a confession of your crimes at this time?”

Max looked at the youngster. He hadn’t seen or spoken to her since he’d taken the chips in the radio room. If Reedy broke and told them what Max had done, then the entire gamble was for naught.

“I have nothing to confess,” Reedy said.

“Corporal Burdick,” continued Petoskey, “will you describe what you found in the radio room.”

“The equipment had been disassembled and the memory chips replaced with spares.” He made eye contact with no one. “This happened sometime during the last shift when Lieutenant Lukinov and Ensign Reedy were on duty together.”

“Sergeant Simco, please describe your actions.”

“Sir, we made a complete search of Ensign Reedy’s person and belongings looking for the items described by Corporal Burdick. We found nothing there, nor in any place she is known to have visited. We also searched Lieutenant Lukinov’s belongings and found nothing.”

“Lieutenant Nikomedes,” continued Petoskey. “Would you describe what you saw in the radio room.” He added the exact date and shift.

Max repeated his story about the battery short circuit. “If Lukinov removed the chips that Ensign Burdick described, and he had them on him, then they were spaced.”

Petoskey nodded. “Yes, I’ve thought of that. Ensign Reedy, can you explain what happened to the chips containing the communications from the neutral ship?”

“No sir, I cannot.”

“Were you and Lieutenant Lukinov working together as spies for the Adareans?”

“I was not,” answered Reedy. “I can’t speak for the lieutenant, as I was not in his confidence.”

Petoskey slammed his fist on the table. “I think you’re a coward, Reedy. You’re too weak to take responsibility for your actions. I’d tell you to act like a man, but you’re not.”

If Petoskey hoped to provoke Reedy, then his gambit failed. She sat there, placid as a lake on a still summer day.

“Can we conduct a medical interrogation?” interjected Max.

Petoskey went to tug at his beard, but his fingers clutched at emptiness. “I’ve discussed that already with the surgeon and Commander Gordet. Noyes is only a medtech and not qualified to conduct an interrogation that will hold up in military court. Conceivably, we could even taint the later results of a test.”

Max leaned forward. “Can we use more… traditional methods?”

“I won’t command it,” said Petoskey, looking directly into the recorder. He waited for Max to speak again.

Max ran his tongue over the loose replacement teeth, saying nothing, and leaned back. He might get out of this, after all.

“However, if you think…,” said Petoskey.

Max looked at the camera. “Without an immediate danger, we should follow standard procedures.”

Petoskey accepted this disappointment and concluded the proceedings with a provisional declaration of guilt. He ordered Reedy confined to the brig until they returned to Jesusalem.

As Max limped back toward his quarters afterward he noticed that Gordet followed him.

“What can I do for you, Commander?” asked Max.

The bull-shaped second-in-command looked around nervously, then leaned in close. “There’s something you should know, sir.”

“What?” asked Max wearily. “That Petoskey ordered Simco to kill me, that he intended to blame it on Reedy, and then have her arrested and executed?”

Gordet jerked back. “Did you check the secret orders too?”

“What does it matter now? Simco failed, Reedy’s arrested anyway, and we’re on our way home. A bit of advice for you, Mr. Gordet.” He clapped him on the shoulder. “Next time you should pick your horse before the race is over.”

He walked away. When he returned to his room, he recovered the sheet with the combination from its hiding spot and destroyed it. He didn’t know what the secret orders said. He didn’t care.

There was only one thing he had left to do.

***

Third shift, night rotation, normal schedule. Max headed down to the brig carrying a black bag. One of Simco’s troopers stood guard. “I’m here to interrogate the prisoner,” Max said.

“Let me check with Sergeant Simco, sir.”

Max had been thinking hard about this. Only two people knew that he had the plans for the deflector, and the only way two people could keep a secret was if one of them was dead.

“Sarge wants to know if you need help,” said the trooper.

“Tell him that I take full responsibility for this, in the name of the Department of Political Education, and that no assistance will be necessary.”

The trooper relayed this information, then gave Max a short, sneering nod. “He says he understands. Perfectly. But he wants me to make sure that you’ll be safe in there.”

Max patted a hand on his black bag. “If you hear screaming,” he said, “don’t interrupt us unless it’s mine.”

The trooper twitched uncomfortably under Max’s glare. “Yes, sir.” He opened the door for Max.

Reedy twitched then sat up quickly on the edge of her bunk. Her wrists and ankles were cuffed, and she wore insignialess fatigues. She folded her hands on her knees, fingertip to fingertip, pressed together hard enough to turn her knuckles white.

He stepped inside. The room was barely eight feet by four, with a bed on one wall and a stainless steel toilet built into the corner opposite the door, “That’ll be all, trooper,” Max said. “I’ll signal you when I’m done.”

The hatch closed behind him and latched shut. He looked at Reedy. Her eyes were red and puffy but devoid of feeling, her cheeks hollow and drawn. A blue vein stood out vulnerably on her pale neck.

With his lips tight, Max gave her a small nod. He removed a wand from his bag and searched the room for bugs. She watched closely while he located and destroyed them.

“You look depressed,” he said quietly when he was done.

She shook her head, once. “No, I’ve been depressed before. This time it’s not bad.”

“Define not bad.”

“It’s bad when you want to kill yourself. Right now, I just wish I was dead. That’s not bad.”

Max sat down with his back against the door and opened his bag. He removed two tumblers and a bottle of ouzo. The ensign remained perfectly still as Max pulled out a plate, and ripped open vacuum-wrapped packages of cheese, sausages, and anchovies to set on it.

“Not proper mezedes at all,” he said apologetically. “The fish should always be fresh.”

He filled one cup and pushed it over toward Reedy, then poured and swallowed his own. It tasted like licorice, reminding him both of his childhood and his days as a young man in completely different ways. Reedy remained immobile.

“I’ve been thinking.” Max spoke very quietly, unbuttoning his collar. “When two men know a secret, it’s only safe if one of them is dead.” Good men had died already because of this. So would many more, likely enough, along with the bad. “Therefore you don’t know anything. Only I, and Lukinov, and Luldnov’s dead. Do you understand this?”

“I don’t know anything,” Reedy said, with just a hint of irony. She reached over and lifted the glass of ouzo with both hands.

“My department will declare you the most politically sound of officers. Intelligence will know the truth, at least at the level that matters. Drozhin will get the captain’s official report, but he’ll get another report unofficially. You’ll be fine.” He picked up an anchovy. “There will be a very difficult time, a very ugly court-martial. But you can survive that.”

“Again?”

“Again. This one will not be removed from the record due to extenuating circumstances.” Her attack on Vance had been one of self-defense. “But you’ll be exonerated. You’ll be fine. Things are changing. They’ll be better.” He believed that.

She leaned her head back and tossed down the ouzo. Max reached over and poured her another glass while her eyes were still watering. “When I got this assignment,” she said, “I couldn’t figure out if I was being rewarded for being at the top of the class in languages, despite being a woman. Or if I was being punished for being a woman.”

“Sometimes it’s both ways at once,” Max said. He bit the anchovy and found he didn’t care for the taste.

“Can I ask you one question?” asked Reedy.

Why did people always think he had all the answers? “Information is like ouzo. A little bit can clear your head, make you feel better. Too much will make you sick, maybe even kill you.” He twirled his cup. “What’s your question?”

“Did you really win your wife in a card game?”

“Yes.” He drained his glass to cover his surprise. Though he’d won her with a bluff and not by cheating.

“Why did she leave you?”

Max thought about telling her that was two questions. Then he thought about telling her the truth, that his wife hadn’t left him, that she waited at home for him, not knowing where he was or what he did, going to church every day, caring for their two grandchildren. His daughter was about Reedy’s age. But he’d kept his life sealed in separate compartments and wouldn’t breech one of them now.

“Love, like loyalty,” he said, “is a gift. You can only try to be worthy of it.”

The silence lengthened out between them like all of the empty, uncharted universe. The food sat untouched while they drank. Max could feel himself getting drunk. It felt good.

Lambing Season - MOLLY GLOSS

Molly Gloss made her first sale in 1984, and has since sold to Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Universe, and elsewhere. She published a fantasy novel, Outside the Gates, in 1986, and another novel, The Jump-Off Creek, a “woman’s western,” was released in 1990. In 1997, she published an SF novel, The Dazzle of Day, which was a New York Times Notable Book for that year. Her most recent book, another SF novel, Wild Life, won the prestigious James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award in 2001. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Since Biblical times, shepherds “watching their sheep by night” have always seen strange things in the sky. Probably not quite as strange, though, as the celestial visitation that the compassionate shepherd of this story finds that she has to deal with…

From May to September, Delia took the Churro sheep and two dogs and went up on Joe-Johns Mountain to live. She had that country pretty much to herself all summer. Ken Owen sent one of his Mexican hands up every other week with a load of groceries, but otherwise she was alone, alone with the sheep and the dogs. She liked the solitude. Liked the silence. Some sheepherders she knew talked a blue streak to the dogs, the rocks, the porcupines, they sang songs and played the radio, read their magazines out loud, but Delia let the silence settle into her, and, by early summer, she had begun to hear the ticking of the dry grasses as a language she could almost translate. The dogs were named Jesus and Alice. “Away to me, Jesus,” she said when they were moving the sheep. “Go bye, Alice.” From May to September these words spoken in command of the dogs were almost the only times she heard her own voice; that, and when the Mexican brought the groceries, a polite exchange in Spanish about the weather, the health of the dogs, the fecundity of the ewes.

The Churros were a very old breed. The O-Bar Ranch had a federal allotment up on the mountain, which was all rimrock and sparse grasses well suited to the Churros, who were fiercely protective of their lambs and had a long-stapled top coat that could take the weather. They did well on the thin grass of the mountain where other sheep would lose flesh and give up their lambs to the coyotes. The Mexican was an old man. He said he remembered Churros from his childhood in the Oaxaca highlands, the rams with their four horns, two curving up, two down. “Buen’ carne,” he told Delia. Uncommonly fine meat.

The wind blew out of the southwest in the early part of the season, a wind that smelled of juniper and sage and pollen; in the later months, it blew straight from the east, a dry wind smelling of dust and smoke, bringing down showers of parched leaves and seedheads of yarrow and bittercress. Thunderstorms came frequently out of the east, enormous cloudscapes with hearts of livid magenta and glaucous green. At those times, if she was camped on a ridge, she’d get out of her bed and walk downhill to find a draw where she could feel safer, but if she were camped in a low place, she would stay with the sheep while a war passed over their heads, spectacular jagged flares of lightning, skull-rumbling cannonades of thunder. It was maybe bred into the bones of Churros, a knowledge and a tolerance of mountain weather, for they shifted together and waited out the thunder with surprising composure; they stood forbearingly while rain beat down in hard blinding bursts.

Sheepherding was simple work, although Delia knew some herders who made it hard, dogging the sheep every minute, keeping them in a tight group, moving all the time. She let the sheep herd themselves, do what they wanted, make their own decisions. If the band began to separate, she would whistle or yell, and often the strays would turn around and rejoin the main group. Only if they were badly scattered did she send out the dogs. Mostly she just kept an eye on the sheep, made sure they got good feed, that the band didn’t split, that they stayed in the boundaries of the O-Bar allotment. She studied the sheep for the language of their bodies, and tried to handle them just as close to their nature as possible. When she put out salt for them, she scattered it on rocks and stumps as if she were hiding Easter eggs, because she saw how they enjoyed the search.

The spring grass made their manure wet, so she kept the wool cut away from the ewes’ tail area with a pair of sharp, short-bladed shears. She dosed the sheep with wormer, trimmed their feet, inspected their teeth, treated ewes for mastitis. She combed the burrs from the dogs’ coats and inspected them for ticks. You’re such good dogs, she told them with her hands. I’m very very proud of you.

She had some old binoculars, 7 x 32s, and in the long quiet days, she watched bands of wild horses miles off in the distance, ragged looking mares with dorsal stripes and black legs. She read the back issues of the local newspapers, looking in the obits for names she recognized. She read spine-broken paperback novels and played solitaire and scoured the ground for arrowheads and rocks she would later sell to rockhounds. She studied the parched brown grass, which was full of grasshoppers and beetles and crickets and ants. But most of her day was spent just walking. The sheep sometimes bedded quite a ways from her trailer and she had to get out to them before sunrise when the coyotes would make their kills. She was usually up by three or four and walking out to the sheep in darkness. Sometimes she returned to the camp for lunch, but always she was out with the sheep again until sundown, when the coyotes were likely to return, and then she walked home after dark to water and feed the dogs, eat supper, climb into bed.

In her first years on Joe-Johns, she had often walked three or four miles away from the band just to see what was over a hill, or to study the intricate architecture of a sheepherder’s monument. Stacking up flat stones in the form of an obelisk was a common herders’ pastime, their monuments all over that sheep country, and though Delia had never felt an impulse to start one herself, she admired the ones other people had built. She sometimes walked miles out of her way just to look at a rockpile up close.

She had a mental map of the allotment, divided into ten pastures. Every few days, when the sheep had moved on to a new pasture, she moved her camp. She towed the trailer with an old Dodge pickup, over the rocks and creekbeds, the sloughs and dry meadows, to the new place. For a while afterward, after the engine was shut off and while the heavy old body of the truck was settling onto its tires, she would be deaf, her head filled with a dull roaring white noise.

She had about eight hundred ewes, as well as their lambs, many of them twins or triplets. The ferocity of the Churro ewes in defending their offspring was sometimes a problem for the dogs, but in the balance of things, she knew that it kept her losses small. Many coyotes lived on Joe-Johns, and sometimes a cougar or bear would come up from the salt pan desert on the north side of the mountain, looking for better country to own. These animals considered the sheep to be fair game, which Delia understood to be their right; and also her right, hers and the dogs’, to take the side of the sheep. Sheep were smarter than people commonly believed and the Churros smarter than other sheep she had tended, but by midsummer the coyotes always passed the word among themselves, buen’ carne, and Delia and the dogs then had a job to work, keeping the sheep out of harm’s way.

She carried a.32 caliber Colt pistol in an old-fashioned holster worn on her belt. If you’re a coyot’ you’d better be careful of this woman, she said with her body, with the way she stood and the way she walked when she was wearing the pistol. That gun and holster had once belonged to her mother’s mother, a woman who had come West on her own and homesteaded for a while, down in the Sprague River Canyon. Delia’s grandmother had liked to tell the story: how a concerned neighbor, a bachelor with an interest in marriageable females, had pressed the gun upon her, back when the Klamaths were at war with the army of General Joel Palmer; and how she never had used it for anything but shooting rabbits.

In July, a coyote killed a lamb while Delia was camped no more than two hundred feet away from the bedded sheep. It was dusk, and she was sitting on the steps of the trailer reading a two-gun western, leaning close over the pages in the failing light, and the dogs were dozing at her feet. She heard the small sound, a strange high faint squeal she did not recognize and then did recognize, and she jumped up and fumbled for the gun, yelling at the coyote, at the dogs, her yell startling the entire band to its feet but the ewes making their charge too late, Delia firing too late, and none of it doing any good beyond a release of fear and anger.

A lion might well have taken the lamb entire; she had known of lion kills where the only evidence was blood on the grass and a dribble of entrails in the beam of a flashlight. But a coyote is small and will kill with a bite to the throat and then perhaps eat just the liver and heart, though a mother coyote will take all she can carry in her stomach, bolt it down and carry it home to her pups. Delia’s grandmother’s pistol had scared this one off before it could even take a bite, and the lamb was twitching and whole on the grass, bleeding only from its neck. The mother ewe stood over it, crying in a distraught and pitiful way, but there was nothing to be done, and, in a few minutes, the lamb was dead.

There wasn’t much point in chasing after the coyote, and anyway, the whole band was now a skittish jumble of anxiety and confusion; it was hours before the mother ewe gave up her grieving, before Delia and the dogs had the band calm and bedded down again, almost midnight. By then, the dead lamb had stiffened on the ground, and she dragged it over by the truck and skinned it and let the dogs have the meat, which went against her nature, but was about the only way to keep the coyote from coming back for the carcass.

While the dogs worked on the lamb, she stood with both hands pressed to her tired back, looking out at the sheep, the mottled pattern of their whiteness almost opalescent across the black landscape, and the stars thick and bright above the faint outline of the rock ridges, stood there a moment before turning toward the trailer, toward bed, and afterward, she would think how the coyote and the sorrowing ewe and the dark of the July moon and the kink in her back, how all of that came together and was the reason that she was standing there watching the sky, was the reason that she saw the brief, brilliantly green flash in the southwest and then the sulfur yellow streak breaking across the night, southwest to due west on a descending arc onto Lame Man Bench. It was a broad bright ribbon, rainbow-wide, a cyanotic contrail. It was not a meteor, she had seen hundreds of meteors. She stood and looked at it.

Things to do with the sky, with distance, you could lose perspective, it was hard to judge even a lightning strike, whether it had touched down on a particular hill or the next hill or the valley between. So she knew this thing falling out of the sky might have come down miles to the west of Lame Man, not onto Lame Man at all, which was two miles away, at least two miles, and getting there would be all ridges and rocks, no way to cover the ground in the truck. She thought about it. She had moved camp earlier in the day, which was always troublesome work, and it had been a blistering hot day, and now the excitement with the coyote. She was very tired, the tiredness like a weight against her breastbone. She didn’t know what this thing was, falling out of the sky. Maybe if she walked over there she would find just a dead satellite or a broken weather balloon and not dead or broken people. The contrail thinned slowly while she stood there looking at it, became a wide streak of yellowy cloud against the blackness, with the field of stars glimmering dimly behind it.

After a while, she went into the truck and got a water bottle and filled it, and also took the first aid kit out of the trailer and a couple of spare batteries for the flashlight and a handful of extra cartridges for the pistol, and stuffed these things into a backpack and looped her arms into the straps and started up the rise away from the dark camp, the bedded sheep. The dogs left off their gnawing of the dead lamb and trailed her anxiously, wanting to follow, or not wanting her to leave the sheep. “Stay by,” she said to them sharply, and they went back and stood with the band and watched her go. That coyot’, he’s done with us tonight: This is what she told the dogs with her body, walking away, and she believed it was probably true.

Now that she’d decided to go, she walked fast. This was her sixth year on the mountain, and, by this time, she knew the country pretty well. She didn’t use the flashlight. Without it, she became accustomed to the starlit darkness, able to see the stones and pick out a path. The air was cool, but full of the smell of heat rising off the rocks and the parched earth. She heard nothing but her own breathing and the gritting of her boots on the pebbly dirt. A little owl circled once in silence and then went off toward a line of cottonwood trees standing in black silhouette to the northeast.

Lame Man Bench was a great upthrust block of basalt grown over with scraggly juniper forest. As she climbed among the trees, the smell of something like ozone or sulfur grew very strong, and the air became thick, burdened with dust. Threads of the yellow contrail hung in the limbs of the trees. She went on across the top of the bench and onto slabs of shelving rock that gave a view to the west. Down in the steep-sided draw below her there was a big wing-shaped piece of metal resting on the ground, which she at first thought had been torn from an airplane, but then realized was a whole thing, not broken, and she quit looking for the rest of the wreckage. She squatted down and looked at it. Yellow dust settled slowly out of the sky, pollinating her hair, her shoulders, the toes of her boots, faintly dulling the oily black shine of the wing, the thing shaped like a wing.

While she was squatting there looking down at it, something came out from the sloped underside of it, a coyote she thought at first, and then it wasn’t a coyote but a dog built like a greyhound or a whippet, deep-chested, long legged, very light-boned and frail-looking. She waited for somebody else, a man, to crawl out after his dog, but nobody did. The dog squatted to pee and then moved off a short distance and sat on its haunches and considered things. Delia considered, too. She considered that the dog might have been sent up alone. The Russians had sent up a dog in their little sputnik, she remembered. She considered that a skinny almost hairless dog with frail bones would be dead in short order if left alone in this country. And she considered that there might be a man inside the wing, dead or too hurt to climb out. She thought how much trouble it would be, getting down this steep rock bluff in the darkness to rescue a useless dog and a dead man.

After a while, she stood and started picking her way into the draw. The dog by this time was smelling the ground, making a slow and careful circuit around the black wing. Delia kept expecting the dog to look up and bark, but it went on with its intent inspection of the ground as if it was stone deaf, as if Delia’s boots making a racket on the loose gravel was not an announcement that someone was coming down. She thought of the old Dodge truck, how it always left her ears ringing, and wondered if maybe it was the same with this dog and its wing-shaped sputnik, although the wing had fallen soundless across the sky.

When she had come about half way down the hill, she lost footing and slid down six or eight feet before she got her heels dug in and found a handful of willow scrub to hang onto. A glimpse of this movement-rocks sliding to the bottom, or the dust she raised-must have startled the dog, for it leaped backward suddenly and then reared up. They looked at each other in silence, Delia and the dog, Delia standing leaning into the steep slope a dozen yards above the bottom of the draw, and the dog standing next to the sputnik, standing all the way up on its hind legs like a bear or a man and no longer seeming to be a dog but a person with a long narrow muzzle and a narrow chest, turned-out knees, delicate dog-like feet. Its genitals were more cat-like than dog, a male set but very small and neat and contained. Dog’s eyes, though, dark and small and shining below an anxious brow, so that she was reminded of Jesus and Alice, the way they had looked at her when she had left them alone with the sheep. She had years of acquaintance with dogs and she knew enough to look away, break off her stare. Also, after a moment, she remembered the old pistol and holster at her belt. In cowboy pictures, a man would unbuckle his gunbelt and let it down on the ground as a gesture of peaceful intent, but it seemed to her this might only bring attention to the gun, to the true intent of a gun, which is always killing. This woman is nobody at all to be scared of, she told the dog with her body, standing very still along the steep hillside, holding onto the scrub willow with her hands, looking vaguely to the left of him, where the smooth curve of the wing rose up and gathered a veneer of yellow dust.

The dog, the dog person, opened his jaws and yawned the way a dog will do to relieve nervousness, and then they were both silent and still for a minute. When finally he turned and stepped toward the wing, it was an unexpected, delicate movement, exactly the way a ballet dancer steps along on his toes, knees turned out, lifting his long thin legs; and then he dropped down on all-fours and seemed to become almost a dog again. He went back to his business of smelling the ground intently, though every little while he looked up to see if Delia was still standing along the rock slope. It was a steep place to stand. When her knees finally gave out, she sat down very carefully where she was, which didn’t spook him. He had become used to her by then, and his brief, sliding glance just said, That woman up there is nobody at all to be scared of.

What he was after, or wanting to know, was a mystery to her. She kept expecting him to gather up rocks, like all those men who’d gone to the moon, but he only smelled the ground, making a wide slow circuit around the wing the way Alice always circled round the trailer every morning, nose down, reading the dirt like a book. And when he seemed satisfied with what he’d learned, he stood up again and looked back at Delia, a last look delivered across his shoulder before he dropped down and disappeared under the edge of the wing, a grave and inquiring look, the kind of look a dog or a man will give you before going off on his own business, a look that says, You be okay if I go? If he had been a dog, and if Delia had been close enough to do it, she’d have scratched the smooth head, felt the hard bone beneath, moved her hands around the soft ears. Sure, okay, you go on now, Mr. Dog: This is what she would have said with her hands. Then he crawled into the darkness under the slope of the wing, where she figured there must be a door, a hatch letting into the body of the machine, and after a while he flew off into the dark of the July moon.

In the weeks afterward, on nights when the moon had set or hadn’t yet risen, she looked for the flash and streak of something breaking across the darkness out of the southwest. She saw him come and go to that draw on the west side of Lame Man Bench twice more in the first month. Both times, she left her grandmother’s gun in the trailer and walked over there arid sat in the dark on the rock slab above the draw and watched him for a couple of hours. He may have been waiting for her, or he knew her smell, because both times he reared up and looked at her just about as soon as she sat down. But then he went on with his business. That woman is nobody to be scared of, he said with his body, with the way he went on smelling the ground, widening his circle and widening it, sometimes taking a clod or a sprig into his mouth and tasting it, the way a mild-mannered dog will do when he’s investigating something and not paying any attention to the person he’s with.

Delia had about decided that the draw behind Lame Man Bench was one of his regular stops, like the ten campsites she used over and over again when she was herding on Joe-Johns Mountain; but after those three times in the first month, she didn’t see him again.

At the end of September, she brought the sheep down to the O-Bar. After the lambs had been shipped out she took her band of dry ewes over onto the Nelson prairie for the fall, and in mid-November, when the snow had settled in, she brought them to the feed lots. That was all the work the ranch had for her until lambing season. Jesus and Alice belonged to the O-Bar. They stood in the yard and watched her go.

In town, she rented the same room as the year before, and, as before, spent most of a year’s wages on getting drunk and standing other herders to rounds of drink. She gave up looking into the sky.

In March, she went back out to the ranch. In bitter weather, they built jugs and mothering-up pens, and trucked the pregnant ewes from Green, where they’d been feeding on wheat stubble. Some ewes lambed in the trailer on the way in, and after every haul, there was a surge of lambs born. Delia had the night shift, where she was paired with Roy Joyce, a fellow who raised sugar beets over in the valley and came out for the lambing season every year. In the black, freezing cold middle of the night, eight and ten ewes would be lambing at a time. Triplets, twins, big singles, a few quads, ewes with lambs born dead, ewes too sick or confused to mother. She and Roy would skin a dead lamb and feed the carcass to the ranch dogs and wrap the fleece around a bummer lamb, which was intended to fool the bereaved ewe into taking the orphan as her own, and sometimes it worked that way. All the mothering-up pens swiftly filled, and the jugs filled, and still some ewes with new lambs stood out in the cold field waiting for a room to open up.

You couldn’t pull the stuck lambs with gloves on, you had to reach into the womb with your fingers to turn the lamb, or tie cord around the feet, or grasp the feet barehanded, so Delia’s hands were always cold and wet, then cracked and bleeding. The ranch had brought in some old converted school buses to house the lambing crew, and she would fall into a bunk at daybreak and then not be able to sleep, shivering in the unheated bus with the gray daylight pouring in the windows and the endless daytime clamor out at the lambing sheds. All the lambers had sore throats, colds, nagging coughs. Roy Joyce looked like hell, deep bags as blue as bruises under his eyes, and Delia figured she looked about the same, though she hadn’t seen a mirror, not even to draw a brush through her hair, since the start of the season.

By the end of the second week, only a handful of ewes hadn’t lambed. The nights became quieter. The weather cleared, and the thin skiff of snow melted off the grass. On the dark of the moon, Delia was standing outside the mothering-up pens drinking coffee from a thermos. She put her head back and held the warmth of the coffee in her mouth a moment, and, as she was swallowing it down, lowering her chin, she caught the tail end of a green flash and a thin yellow line breaking across the sky, so far off anybody else would have thought it was a meteor, but it was bright, and dropping from southwest to due west, maybe right onto Lame Man Bench. She stood and looked at it. She was so very goddamned tired and had a sore throat that wouldn’t clear, and she could barely get her fingers to fold around the thermos, they were so split and tender.

She told Roy she felt sick as a horse, and did he think he could handle things if she drove herself into town to the Urgent Care clinic, and she took one of the ranch trucks and drove up the road a short way and then turned onto the rutted track that went up to Joe-Johns.

The night was utterly clear and you could see things a long way off. She was still an hour’s drive from the Churros’ summer range when she began to see a yellow-orange glimmer behind the black ridgeline, a faint nimbus like the ones that marked distant range fires on summer nights.

She had to leave the truck at the bottom of the bench and climb up the last mile or so on foot, had to get a flashlight out of the glove box and try to find an uphill path with it because the fluttery reddish lightshow was finished by then, and a thick pall of smoke overcast the sky and blotted out the stars. Her eyes itched and burned, and tears ran from them, but the smoke calmed her sore throat. She went up slowly, breathing through her mouth.

The wing had burned a skid path through the scraggly junipers along the top of the bench and had come apart into about a hundred pieces. She wandered through the burnt trees and the scattered wreckage, shining her flashlight into the smoky darkness, not expecting to find what she was looking for, but there he was, lying apart from the scattered pieces of metal, out on the smooth slab rock at the edge of the draw. He was panting shallowly and his close coat of short brown hair was matted with blood. He lay in such a way that she immediately knew his back was broken. When he saw Delia coming up, his brow furrowed with worry. A sick or a wounded dog will bite, she knew that, but she squatted next to him. It’s just me, she told him, by shining the light not in his face but in hers. Then she spoke to him. “Okay,” she said. “I’m here now,” without thinking too much about what the words meant, or whether they meant anything at all, and she didn’t remember until afterward that he was very likely deaf anyway. He sighed and shifted his look from her to the middle distance, where she supposed he was focused on approaching death.

Near at hand, he didn’t resemble a dog all that much, only in the long shape of his head, the folded-over ears, the round darkness of his eyes. He lay on the ground flat on his side like a dog that’s been run over and is dying by the side of the road, but a man will lay like that too when he’s dying. He had small-fingered nailless hands where a dog would have had toes and front feet. Delia offered him a sip from her water bottle, but he didn’t seem to want it, so she just sat with him quietly, holding one of his hands, which was smooth as lambskin against the cracked and roughened flesh of her palm. The batteries in the flashlight gave out, and sitting there in the cold darkness she found his head and stroked it, moving her sore fingers lightly over the bone of his skull, and around the soft ears, the loose jowls. Maybe it wasn’t any particular comfort to him, but she was comforted by doing it. Sure, okay, you can go on.

She heard him sigh, and then sigh again, and each time wondered if it would turn out to be his death. She had used to wonder what a coyote, or especially a dog, would make of this doggish man, and now while she was listening, waiting to hear if he would breathe again, she began to wish she’d brought Alice or Jesus with her, though not out of that old curiosity. When her husband had died years before, at the very moment he took his last breath, the dog she’d had then had barked wildly and raced back and forth from the front to the rear door of the house as if he’d heard or seen something invisible to her. People said it was her husband’s soul going out the door or his angel coming in. She didn’t know what it was the dog had seen or heard or smelled, but she wished she knew. And now she wished she had a dog with her to bear witness.

She went on petting him even after he had died, after she was sure he was dead, went on petting him until his body was cool, and then she got up stiffly from the bloody ground and gathered rocks and piled them onto him, a couple of feet high, so that he wouldn’t be found or dug up. She didn’t know what to do about the wreckage, so she didn’t do anything with it at all.

In May, when she brought the Churro sheep back to Joe-Johns Mountain, the pieces of the wrecked wing had already eroded, were small and smooth-edged like the bits of sea glass you find on a beach, and she figured that this must be what it was meant to do: to break apart into pieces too small for anybody to notice, and then to quickly wear away. But the stones she’d piled over his body seemed like the start of something, so she began the slow work of raising them higher into a sheepherder’s monument. She gathered up all the smooth eroded bits of wing, too, and laid them in a series of widening circles around the base of the monument. She went on piling up stones through the summer and into September, until it reached fifteen feet. Mornings, standing with the sheep miles away, she would look for it through the binoculars and think about ways to raise it higher, and she would wonder what was buried under all the other monuments sheepherders had raised in that country. At night, she studied the sky, but nobody came for him.

In November, when she finished with the sheep and went into town, she asked around and found a guy who knew about star-gazing and telescopes. He loaned her some books and sent her to a certain pawnshop, and she gave most of a year’s wages for a 14 x 75 telescope with a reflective lens. On clear, moonless nights, she met the astronomy guy out at the Little League baseball field, and she sat on a fold-up canvas stool with her eye against the telescope’s finder while he told her what she was seeing: Jupiter’s moons, the Pelican Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy. The telescope had a tripod mount, and he showed her how to make a little jerry-built device so she could mount her old 7 x 32 binoculars on the tripod too. She used the binoculars for their wider view of star clusters and small constellations. She was indifferent to most discomforts, could sit quietly in one position for hours at a time, teeth rattling with the cold, staring into the immense vault of the sky until she became numb and stiff, barely able to stand and walk back home. Astronomy, she discovered, was a work of patience, but the sheep had taught her patience, or it was already in her nature before she ever took up with them.

Coelacanths - ROBERT REED

Robert Reed sold his first story in 1986, and quickly established himself as a frequent contributor to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov’s Science Fiction, as well as selling many stories to Science Fiction Age, Universe, New Destinies, Tomorrow, Synergy, Starlight, and elsewhere. Reed may be one of the most prolific of today’s young writers, particularly at short fiction lengths, seriously rivaled for that position only by authors such as Stephen Baxter and Brian Stableford. And-also like Baxter and Stableford-he manages to keep up a very high standard of quality while being prolific, something that is not at all easy to do. Reed stories such as “Sister Alice,” “Brother Perfect,” “Decency,” “Savior,” “The Remoras,” “Chrysalis,” “Whiptail,” “The Utility Man,” “Marrow,” “Birth Day,” “Blind,” “The Toad of Heaven,” “Stride,” “The Shape of Everything,” “Guest of Honor,” “Waging Good,” and “Killing the Morrow,” among at least a half-dozen others equally as strong, count as among some of the best short work produced by anyone in the ’80s and ’90s. Nor is he non-prolific as a novelist, having turned out eight novels since the end of the ’80s, including The Lee Shore, The Hormone Jungle, Black Milk, The Remarkables, Down the Bright Way, Beyond the Veil of Stars, An Exaltation of Larks, and Beneath the Gated Sky. His reputation can only grow as the years go by, and I suspect that he will become one of the Big Names of the first decade of the new century that lies ahead. His stories have appeared in our Ninth through Seventeenth, and our Nineteenth Annual Collections. Some of the best of his short work was collected in The Dragons of Springplace. His most recent book is Marrow, a novel-length version of his 1 997 novella of the same name. Reed lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Here’s as strange and distant a far-future as you’re ever likely to see, even in today’s science fiction, a world that has become so alien to the few remaining humans who scuttle like cockroaches through its interstices that they have given up all hope of understanding it, and concentrate all their energies and ingenuity just on the daily battle to survive…

THE SPEAKER

He stalks the wide stage, a brilliant beam of hot blue light fixed squarely upon him. “We are great! We are glorious!” the man calls out. His voice is pleasantly, effortlessly loud. With a face handsome to the brink of lovely and a collage of smooth, passionate mannerisms, he performs for an audience that sits in the surrounding darkness. Flinging long arms overhead, hands reaching for the distant light, his booming voice proclaims, “We have never been as numerous as we are today. We have never been this happy. And we have never known the prosperity that is ours at this golden moment. This golden now!” Athletic legs carry him across the stage, bare feet slapping against planks of waxed maple. “Our species is thriving,” he can declare with a seamless ease. “By every conceivable measure, we are a magnificent, irresistible tide sweeping across the universe!”

Transfixed by the blue beam, his naked body is shamelessly young, rippling with hard muscles over hard bone. A long fat penis dangles and dances, accenting every sweeping gesture, every bold word. The living image of a small but potent god, he surely is a creature worthy of admiration, a soul deserving every esteem and emulation. With a laugh, he promises the darkness, “We have never been so powerful, we humans.” Yet in the next breath, with a faintly apologetic smile, he must add, “Yet still, as surely as tomorrow comes, our glories today will seem small and quaint in the future, and what looks golden now will turn to the yellow dust upon which our magnificent children will tread!”

PROCYON

Study your history. It tells you that travel always brings its share of hazards; that’s a basic, impatient law of the universe. Leaving the security and familiarity of home is never easy. But every person needs to make the occasional journey, embracing the risks to improve his station, his worth and self-esteem. Procyon explains why this day is a good day to wander. She refers to intelligence reports as well as the astrological tables. Then by a dozen means, she maps out their intricate course, describing what she hopes to find and everything that she wants to avoid.

She has twin sons. They were born four months ago, and they are mostly grown now. “Keep alert,” she tells the man-children, leading them out through a series of reinforced and powerfully camouflaged doorways. “No naps, no distractions,” she warns them. Then with a backward glance, she asks again, “What do we want?”

“Whatever we can use,” the boys reply in a sloppy chorus.

“Quiet,” she warns. Then she nods and shows a caring smile, reminding them, “A lot of things can be used. But their trash is sweetest.”

Mother and sons look alike: They are short, strong people with closely cropped hair and white-gray eyes. They wear simple clothes and three fashions of camou flage, plus a stew of mental add-ons and microchine helpers as well as an array of sensors that never blink, watching what human eyes cannot see. Standing motionless, they vanish into the convoluted, ever-shifting background. But walking makes them into three transient blurs-dancing wisps that are noticeably simpler than the enormous world around them. They can creep ahead only so far before their camouflage falls apart, and then they have to stop, waiting patiently or otherwise, allowing the machinery to find new ways to help make them invisible.

“I’m confused,” one son admits. “That thing up ahead-”

“Did you update your perception menu?”

“I thought I did.”

Procyon makes no sound. Her diamond-bright glare is enough. She remains rigidly, effortlessly still, allowing her lazy son to finish his preparations. Dense, heavily encoded signals have to be whispered, the local net downloading the most recent topological cues, teaching a three-dimensional creature how to navigate through this shifting, highly intricate environment.

The universe is fat with dimensions.

Procyon knows as much theory as anyone. Yet despite a long life rich with experience, she has to fight to decipher what her eyes and sensors tell her. She doesn’t even bother learning the tricks that coax these extra dimensions out of hiding. Let her add-ons guide her. That’s all a person can do, slipping in close to one of them. In this place, up is three things and sideways is five others. Why bother counting? What matters is that when they walk again, the three of them move through the best combination of dimensions, passing into a little bubble of old-fashioned up and down. She knows this place. Rising up beside them is a trusted landmark-a red granite bowl that cradles what looks like a forest of tall sticks, the sticks leaking a warm light that Procyon ignores, stepping again, moving along on her tiptoes.

One son leads the way. He lacks the experience to be first, but in another few weeks, his flesh and sprint-grown brain will force him into the world alone. He needs his practice, and more important, he needs confidence, learning to trust his add-ons and his careful preparations, and his breeding, and his own good luck.

Procyon’s other son lingers near the granite bowl. He’s the son who didn’t update his menu. This is her dreamy child, whom she loves dearly. Of course she adores him. But there’s no escaping the fact that he is easily distracted, and that his adult life will be, at its very best, difficult. Study your biology. Since life began, mothers have made hard decisions about their children, and they have made the deadliest decisions with the tiniest of gestures.

Procyon lets her lazy son fall behind.

Her other son takes two careful steps and stops abruptly, standing before what looks like a great black cylinder set on its side. The shape is a fiction: The cylinder is round in one fashion but incomprehensible in many others. Her add-ons and sensors have built this very simple geometry to represent something far more elaborate. This is a standard disposal unit. Various openings appear as a single slot near the rim of the cylinder, just enough room snowing for a hand and forearm to reach through, touching whatever garbage waits inside.

Her son’s thick body has more grace than any dancer of old, more strength than a platoon of ancient athletes. His IQ is enormous. His reaction times have been enhanced by every available means. His father was a great old soul who survived into his tenth year, which is almost forever. But when the boy drifts sideways, he betrays his inexperience. His sensors attack the cylinder by every means, telling him that it’s a low-grade trash receptacle secured by what looks like a standard locking device, AI-managed and obsolete for days, if not weeks. And inside the receptacle is a mangled piece of hardware worth a near-fortune on the open market.

The boy drifts sideways, and he glimmers.

Procyon says, “No,” too loudly.

But he feels excited, invulnerable. Grinning over his shoulder now, he winks and lifts one hand with a smooth, blurring motion-

Instincts old as blood come bubbling up. Procyon leaps, shoving her son off his feet and saving him. And in the next horrible instant, she feels herself engulfed, a dry cold hand grabbing her, then stuffing her inside a hole that by any geometry feels nothing but bottomless.

ABLE

Near the lip of the City, inside the emerald green ring of Park, waits a secret place where the moss and horsetail and tree fern forest plunges into a deep crystalline pool of warm spring water. No public map tells of the pool, and no trail leads the casual walker near it. But the pool is exactly the sort of place that young boys always discover, and it is exactly the kind of treasure that remains unmentioned to parents or any other adult with suspicious or troublesome natures.

Able Quotient likes to believe that he was first to stumble across this tiny corner of Creation. And if he isn’t first, at least no one before him has ever truly seen the water’s beauty, and nobody after him will appreciate the charms of this elegant, timeless place.

Sometimes Able brings others to the pool, but only his best friends and a few boys whom he wants to impress. Not for a long time does he even consider bringing a girl, and then it takes forever to find a worthy candidate, then muster the courage to ask her to join him. Her name is Mish. She’s younger than Able by a little ways, but like all girls, she acts older and much wiser than he will ever be. They have been classmates from the beginning. They live three floors apart in The Tower Of Gracious Good, which makes them close neighbors. Mish is pretty, and her beauty is the sort that will only grow as she becomes a woman. Her face is narrow and serious. Her eyes watch everything. She wears flowing dresses and jeweled sandals, and she goes everywhere with a clouded leopard named Mr. Stuff-and-Nonsense. “If my cat can come along,” she says after hearing Able’s generous offer. “Are there any birds at this pond of yours?”

Able should be horrified by the question. The life around the pool knows him and has grown to trust him. But he is so enamored by Mish that he blurts out, “Yes, hundreds of birds. Fat, slow birds. Mr. Stuff can eat himself sick.”

“But that wouldn’t be right,” Mish replies with a disapproving smirk. “I’ll lock down his appetite. And if we see any wounded birds… any animal that’s suffering… we can unlock him right away…!”

“Oh, sure,” Able replies, almost sick with nerves. “I guess that’s fine, too.”

People rarely travel any distance. City is thoroughly modern, every apartment supplied by conduits and meshed with every web and channel, shareline and gossip run. But even with most of its citizens happily sitting at home, the streets are jammed with millions of walking bodies. Every seat on the train is filled all the way to the last stop. Able momentarily loses track of Mish when the cabin walls evaporate. But thankfully, he finds her waiting at Park’s edge. She and her little leopard are standing in the narrow shade of a horsetail. She teases him, observing, “You look lost.” Then she laughs, perhaps at him, before abruptly changing the subject. With a nod and sweeping gesture, she asks, “Have you noticed? Our towers look like these trees.”

To a point, yes. The towers are tall and thin and rounded like the horsetails, and the hanging porches make them appear rough-skinned. But there are obvious and important differences between trees and towers, and if she were a boy, Able would make fun of her now. Fighting his nature, Able forces himself to smile. “Oh, my,” he says as he turns, looking back over a shoulder. “They do look like horsetails, don’t they?”

Now the three adventurers set off into the forest. Able takes the lead. Walking with boys is a quick business that often turns into a race. But girls are different, particularly when their fat, unhungry cats are dragging along behind them. It takes forever to reach the rim of the world. Then it takes another two forevers to follow the rim to where they can almost see the secret pool. But that’s where Mish announces, “I’m tired!” To the world, she says, “I want to stop and eat. I want to rest here.”

Able nearly tells her, “No.”

Instead he decides to coax her, promising, “It’s just a little farther.”

But she doesn’t seem to hear him, leaping up on the pink polished rim, sitting where the granite is smooth and flat, legs dangling and her bony knees exposed. She opens the little pack that has floated on her back from the beginning, pulling out a hot lunch that she keeps and a cold lunch that she hands to Able. “This is all I could take,” she explains, “without my parents asking questions.” She is reminding Able that she never quite got permission to make this little journey. “If you don’t like the cold lunch,” she promises, “then we can trade. I mean, if you really don’t.”

He says, “I like it fine,” without opening the insulated box. Then he looks inside, discovering a single wedge of spiced sap, and it takes all of his poise not to say, “Ugh!”

Mr. Stuff collapses into a puddle of towerlight, instantly falling asleep.

The two children eat quietly and slowly. Mish makes the occasional noise about favorite teachers and mutual friends. She acts serious and ordinary, and disappointment starts gnawing at Able. He isn’t old enough to sense that the girl is nervous. He can’t imagine that Mish wants to delay the moment when they’ll reach the secret pool, or that she sees possibilities waiting there-wicked possibilities that only a wicked boy should be able to foresee.

Finished with her meal, Mish runs her hands along the hem of her dress, and she kicks at the air, and then, hunting for any distraction, she happens to glance over her shoulder.

Where the granite ends, the world ends. Normally nothing of substance can be seen out past the pink stone-nothing but a confused, ever-shifting grayness that extends on forever. Able hasn’t bothered to look out there. He is much too busy trying to finish his awful meal, concentrating on his little frustrations and his depraved little daydreams.

“Oh, goodness,” the young girl exclaims. “Look at that!”

Able has no expectations. What could possibly be worth the trouble of turning around? But it’s an excuse to give up on his lunch, and after setting it aside, he turns slowly, eyes jumping wide open and a surprised grunt leaking out of him as he tumbles off the granite, landing squarely on top of poor Mr. Stuff.

ESCHER

She has a clear, persistent memory of flesh, but the flesh isn’t hers. Like manners and like knowledge, what a person remembers can be bequeathed by her ancestors. That’s what is happening now. Limbs and heads; penises and vaginas. In the midst of some unrelated business, she remembers having feet and the endless need to protect those feet with sandals or boots or ostrich skin or spiked shoes that will lend a person even more height. She remembers wearing clothes that gave color and bulk to what was already bright and enormous. At this particular instant, what she sees is a distant, long-dead relative sitting on a white porcelain bowl, bare feet dangling, his orifices voiding mountains of waste and an ocean of water.

Her oldest ancestors were giants. They were built from skin and muscle, wet air and great slabs of fat. Without question, they were an astonishing excess of matter, vast beyond all reason, yet fueled by slow, inefficient chemical fires.

Nothing about Escher is inefficient. No flesh clings to her. Not a drop of water or one glistening pearl of fat. It’s always smart to be built from structure light and tested, efficient instructions. It’s best to be tinier than a single cell and as swift as electricity, slipping unseen through places that won’t even notice your presence.

Escher is a glimmer, a perfect and enduring whisper of light. Of life. Lovely in her own fashion, yet fierce beyond all measure.

She needs her fierceness.

When cooperation fails, as it always does, a person has to throw her rage at the world and her countless enemies.

But in this place, for this moment, cooperation holds sway.

Manners rule.

Escher is eating. Even as tiny and efficient as she is, she needs an occasional sip of raw power. Everyone does. And it seems as if half of everyone has gathered around what can only be described as a tiny, delicious wound. She can’t count the citizens gathered at the feast. Millions and millions, surely. All those weak glimmers join into a soft glow. Everyone is bathed in a joyous light. It is a boastful, wasteful show, but Escher won’t waste her energy with warnings. Better to sip at the wound, absorbing the free current, building up her reserves for the next breeding cycle. It is best to let others make the mistakes for you: Escher believes nothing else quite so fervently.

A pair of sisters float past. The familial resemblance is obvious, and so are the tiny differences. Mutations as well as tailored changes have created two loud gossips who speak and giggle in a rush of words and raw data, exchanging secrets about the multitude around them.

Escher ignores their prattle, gulping down the last of what she can possibly hold, and then pausing, considering where she might hide a few nanojoules of extra juice, keeping them safe for some desperate occasion.

Escher begins to hunt for that unlikely hiding place.

And then her sisters abruptly change topics. Gossip turns to trading memories stolen from The World. Most of it is picoweight stuff, useless and boring. An astonishing fraction of His thoughts are banal. Like the giants of old, He can afford to be sloppy. To be a spendthrift. Here is a pointed example of why Escher is happy to be herself. She is smart in her own fashion, and imaginative, and almost everything about her is important, and when a problem confronts her, she can cut through the muddle, seeing the blessing wrapped up snug inside the measurable risks.

Quietly, with a puzzled tone, one sister announces, “The World is alarmed.”

“About?” says the other.

“A situation,” says the first. “Yes, He is alarmed now. Moral questions are begging for His attention.”

“What questions?”

The first sister tells a brief, strange story.

“You know all this?” asks another. Asks Escher. “Is this daydream or hard fact?”

“I know, and it is fact.” The sister feels insulted by the doubting tone, but she puts on a mannerly voice, explaining the history of this sudden crisis.

Escher listens.

And suddenly the multitude is talking about nothing else. What is happening has never happened before, not in this fashion… not in any genuine memory of any of the millions here, it hasn’t… and some very dim possibilities begin to show themselves. Benefits wrapped inside some awful dangers. And one or two of these benefits wink at Escher, and smile…

The multitude panics, and evaporates.

Escher remains behind, deliberating on these possibilities. The landscape beneath her is far more sophisticated than flesh, and stronger, but it has an ugly appearance that reminds her of a flesh-born memory. A lesion; a pimple. A tiny, unsightly ruin standing in what is normally seamless, and beautiful, and perfect.

She flees, but only so far.

Then she hunkers down and waits, knowing that eventually, in one fashion or another, He will scratch at this tiny irritation.

THE SPEAKER

“You cannot count human accomplishments,” he boasts to his audience, strutting and wagging his way to the edge of the stage. Bare toes curl over the sharp edge, and he grins jauntily, admitting, “And I cannot count them, either. There are simply too many successes, in too many far-flung places, to nail up a number that you can believe. But allow me, if you will, this chance to list a few important marvels.”

Long hands grab bony hips, and he gazes out into the watching darkness. “The conquest of our cradle continent,” he begins, “which was quickly followed by the conquest of our cradle world. Then after a gathering pause, we swiftly and thoroughly occupied most of our neighboring worlds, too. It was during those millennia when we learned how to split flint and atoms and DNA and our own restless psyches. With these apish hands, we fashioned great machines that worked for us as our willing, eager slaves. And with our slaves’ more delicate hands, we fabricated machines that could think for us.” A knowing wink, a mischievous shrug. “Like any child, of course, our thinking machines eventually learned to think for themselves. Which was a dangerous, foolish business, said some. Said fools. But my list of our marvels only begins with that business. This is what I believe, and I challenge anyone to say otherwise.”

There is a sound-a stern little murmur-and perhaps it implies dissent. Or perhaps the speaker made the noise himself, fostering a tension that he is building with his words and body.

His penis grows erect, drawing the eye.

Then with a wide and bright and unabashedly smug grin, he roars out, “Say this with me. Tell me what great things we have done. Boast to Creation about the wonders that we have taken part in…!”

PROCYON

Torture is what this is: She feels her body plunging from a high place, head before feet. A frantic wind roars past. Outstretched hands refuse to slow her fall. Then Procyon makes herself spin, putting her feet beneath her body, and gravity instantly reverses itself. She screams, and screams, and the distant walls reflect her terror, needles jabbed into her wounded ears. Finally, she grows quiet, wrapping her arms around her eyes and ears, forcing herself to do nothing, hanging limp in space while her body falls in one awful direction.

A voice whimpers.

A son’s worried voice says, “Mother, are you there? Mother?”

Some of her add-ons have been peeled away, but not all of them. The brave son uses a whisper-channel, saying, “I’m sorry,” with a genuine anguish. He sounds sick and sorry, and exceptionally angry, too. “I was careless,” he admits. He says, “Thank you for saving me.” Then to someone else, he says, “She can’t hear me.”

“I hear you,” she whispers.

“Listen,” says her other son. The lazy one. “Did you hear something?”

She starts to say, “Boys,” with a stern voice. But then the trap vibrates, a piercing white screech nearly deafening Procyon. Someone physically strikes the trap. Two someones. She feels the walls turning around her, the trap making perhaps a quarter-turn toward home.

Again, she calls out, “Boys.”

They stop rolling her. Did they hear her? No, they found a hidden restraint, the trap secured at one or two or ten ends.

One last time, she says, “Boys.”

“I hear her,” her dreamy son blurts.

“Don’t give up, Mother,” says her brave son. “We’ll get you out. I see the locks, I can beat them-”

“You can’t,” she promises.

He pretends not to have heard her. A shaped explosive detonates, making a cold ringing sound, faraway and useless. Then the boy growls, “Damn,” and kicks the trap, accomplishing nothing at all.

“It’s too tough,” says her dreamy son. “We’re not doing any good-”

“Shut up,” his brother shouts.

Procyon tells them, “Quiet now. Be quiet.”

The trap is probably tied to an alarm. Time is short, or it has run out already. Either way, there’s a decision to be made, and the decision has a single, inescapable answer. With a careful and firm voice, she tells her sons, “Leave me. Now. Go!”

“I won’t,” the brave son declares. “Never!”

“Now,” she says.

“It’s my fault,” says the dreamy son. “I should have been keeping up-”

“Both of you are to blame,” Procyon calls out. “And I am, too. And there’s bad luck here, but there’s some good, too. You’re still free. You can still get away. Now, before you get yourself seen and caught-”

“You’re going to die,” the brave son complains.

“One day or the next, I will,” she agrees. “Absolutely.”

“We’ll find help,” he promises.

“From where?” she asks.

“From who?” says her dreamy son in the same instant. “We aren’t close to anyone-”

“Shut up,” his brother snaps. “Just shut up!”

“Run away,” their mother repeats.

“I won’t,” the brave son tells her. Or himself. Then with a serious, tight little voice, he says, “I can fight. We’ll both fight.”

Her dreamy son says nothing.

Procyon peels her arms away from her face, opening her eyes, focusing on the blurring cylindrical walls of the trap. It seems that she was wrong about her sons. The brave one is just a fool, and the dreamy one has the good sense. She listens to her dreamy son saying nothing, and then the other boy says, “Of course you’re going to fight. Together, we can do some real damage-”

“I love you both,” she declares.

That wins a silence.

Then again, one last time, she says, “Run.”

“I’m not a coward,” one son growls.

While her good son says nothing, running now, and he needs his breath for things more essential than pride and bluster.

ABLE

The face stares at them for the longest while. It is a great wide face, heavily bearded with smoke-colored eyes and a long nose perched above the cavernous mouth that hangs open, revealing teeth and things more amazing than teeth. Set between the bone-white enamel are little machines made of fancy stuff. Able can only guess what the add-on machines are doing. This is a wild man, powerful and free. People like him are scarce and strange, their bodies reengineered in countless ways. Like his eyes: Able stares into those giant gray eyes, noticing fleets of tiny machines floating on the tears. Those machines are probably delicate sensors. Then with a jolt of amazement, he realizes that those machines and sparkling eyes are staring into their world with what seems to be a genuine fascination.

“He’s watching us,” Able mutters.

“No, he isn’t,” Mish argues. “He can’t see into our realm.”

“We can’t see into his either,” the boy replies. “But just the same, I can make him out just fine.”

“It must be…” Her voice falls silent while she accesses City’s library. Then with a dismissive shrug of her shoulders, she announces, “We’re caught in his topological hardware. That’s all. He has to simplify his surroundings to navigate, and we just happen to be close enough and aligned right.”

Able had already assumed all that.

Mish starts to speak again, probably wanting to add to her explanation. She can sure be a know-everything sort of girl. But then the great face abruptly turns away, and they watch the man run away from their world.

“I told you,” Mish sings out. “He couldn’t see us.”

“I think he could have,” Able replies, his voice finding a distinct sharpness.

The girl straightens her back. “You’re wrong,” she says with an obstinate tone. Then she turns away from the edge of the world, announcing, “I’m ready to go on now.”

“I’m not,” says Able.

She doesn’t look back at him. She seems to be talking to her leopard, asking, “Why aren’t you ready?”

“I see two of them now,” Able tells her.

“You can’t.”

“I can.” The hardware trickery is keeping the outside realms sensible. A tunnel of simple space leads to two men standing beside an iron-black cylinder. The men wear camouflage, but they are moving too fast to let it work. They look small now. Distant, or tiny. Once you leave the world, size and distance are impossible to measure. How many times have teachers told him that? Able watches the tiny men kicking at the cylinder. They beat on its heavy sides with their fists and forearms, managing to roll it for almost a quarter turn. Then one of the men pulls a fist-sized device from what looks like a cloth sack, fixing it to what looks like a sealed slot, and both men hurry to the far end of the cylinder.

“What are they doing?” asks Mish with a grumpy interest.

A feeling warns Able, but too late. He starts to say, “Look away-”

The explosion is brilliant and swift, the blast reflected off the cylinder and up along the tunnel of ordinary space, a clap of thunder making the giant horsetails sway and nearly knocking the two of them onto the forest floor.

“They’re criminals,” Mish mutters with a nervous hatred.

“How do you know?” the boy asks.

“People like that just are,” she remarks. “Living like they do. Alone like that, and wild. You know how they make their living.”

“They take what they need-”

“They steal!” she interrupts.

Able doesn’t even glance at her. He watches as the two men work frantically, trying to pry open the still-sealed doorway. He can’t guess why they would want the doorway opened. Or rather, he can think of too many reasons. But when he looks at their anguished, helpless faces, he realizes that whatever is inside, it’s driving these wild men very close to panic.

“Criminals,” Mish repeats.

“I heard you,” Able mutters.

Then before she can offer another hard opinion, he turns to her and admits, “I’ve always liked them. They live by their wits, and mostly alone, and they have all these sweeping powers-”

“Powers that they’ve stolen,” she whines.

“From garbage, maybe.” There is no point in mentioning whose garbage. He stares at Mish’s face, pretty but twisted with fury, and something sad and inevitable occurs to Able. He shakes his head and sighs, telling her, “I don’t like you very much.”

Mish is taken by surprise. Probably no other boy has said those awful words to her, and she doesn’t know how to react, except to sputter ugly little sounds as she turns, looking back over the edge of the world.

Able does the same.

One of the wild men abruptly turns and runs. In a supersonic flash, he races past the children, vanishing into the swirling grayness, leaving his companion to stand alone beside the mysterious black cylinder. Obviously weeping, the last man wipes the tears from his whiskered face with a trembling hand, while his other hand begins to yank a string of wondrous machines from what seems to be a bottomless sack of treasures.

ESCHER

She consumes all of her carefully stockpiled energies, and for the first time in her life, she weaves a body for herself: A distinct physical shell composed of diamond dust and keratin and discarded rare earths and a dozen subtle glues meant to bind to every surface without being felt. To a busy eye, she is dust. She is insubstantial and useless and forgettable. To a careful eye and an inquisitive touch, she is the tiniest soul imaginable, frail beyond words, forever perched on the brink of extermination. Surely she poses no threat to any creature, least of all the great ones. Lying on the edge of the little wound, passive and vulnerable, she waits for Chance to carry her where she needs to be. Probably others are doing the same. Perhaps thousands of sisters and daughters are hiding nearby, each snug inside her own spore case. The temptation to whisper, “Hello,” is easily ignored. The odds are awful as it is; any noise could turn this into a suicide. What matters is silence and watchfulness, thinking hard about the great goal while keeping ready for anything that might happen, as well as everything that will not.

The little wound begins to heal, causing a trickling pain to flow.

The World feels the irritation, and in reflex, touches His discomfort by several means, delicate and less so.

Escher misses her first opportunity. A great swift shape presses its way across her hiding place, but she activates her glues too late. Dabs of glue cure against air, wasted. So she cuts the glue loose and watches again. A second touch is unlikely, but it comes, and she manages to heave a sticky tendril into a likely crevice, letting the irresistible force yank her into a brilliant, endless sky.

She will probably die now.

For a little while, Escher allows herself to look back across her life, counting daughters and other successes, taking warm comfort in her many accomplishments.

Someone hangs in the distance, dangling from a similar tendril. Escher recognizes the shape and intricate glint of her neighbor’s spore case; she is one of Escher’s daughters. There is a strong temptation to signal her, trading information, helping each other-

But a purge-ball attacks suddenly, and the daughter evaporates, nothing remaining of her but ions and a flash of incoherent light.

Escher pulls herself toward the crevice, and hesitates. Her tendril is anchored on a fleshy surface. A minor neuron-a thread of warm optical cable-lies buried inside the wet cells. She launches a second tendril at her new target. By chance, the purge-ball sweeps the wrong terrain, giving her that little instant. The tendril makes a sloppy connection with the neuron. Without time to test its integrity, all she can do is shout, “Don’t kill me! Or my daughters! Don’t murder us, Great World!”

Nothing changes. The purge-ball works its way across the deeply folded flesh-scape, moving toward Escher again, distant flashes announcing the deaths of another two daughters or sisters.

“Great World!” she cries out.

He will not reply. Escher is like the hum of a single angry electron, and she can only hope that he notices the hum.

“I am vile,” she promises. “I am loathsome and sneaky, and you should hate me. What I am is an illness lurking inside you. A disease that steals exactly what I can steal without bringing your wrath.”

The purge-ball appears, following a tall reddish ridge of flesh, bearing down on her hiding place.

She says, “Kill me, if you want. Or spare me, and I will do this for you.” Then she unleashes a series of vivid images, precise and simple, meant to be compelling to any mind.

The purge-ball slows, its sterilizing lasers taking careful aim.

She repeats herself, knowing that thought travels only so quickly and The World is too vast to see her thoughts and react soon enough to save her. But if she can help… if she saves just a few hundred daughters…?

Lasers aim, and do nothing. Nothing. And after an instant of inactivity, the machine changes its shape and nature. It hovers above Escher, sending out its own tendrils. A careless strength yanks her free of her hiding place. Her tendrils and glues are ripped from her aching body. A scaffolding of carbon is built around her, and she is shoved inside the retooled purge-ball, held in a perfect darkness, waiting alone until an identical scaffold is stacked beside her.

A hard, angry voice boasts, “I did this.”

“What did you do?” asks Escher.

“I made the World listen to reason.” It sounds like Escher’s voice, except for the delusions of power. “I made a promise, and that’s why He saved us.”

With a sarcastic tone, she says, “Thank you ever so much. But now where are we going?”

“I won’t tell you,” her fellow prisoner responds.

“Because you don’t know where,” says Escher.

“I know everything I need to know.”

“Then you’re the first person ever,” she giggles, winning a brief, delicious silence from her companion.

Other prisoners arrive, each slammed into the empty spaces between their sisters and daughters. Eventually the purge-ball is a prison-ball, swollen to vast proportions, and no one else is being captured. Nothing changes for a long while. There is nothing to be done now but wait, speaking when the urge hits and listening to whichever voice sounds less than tedious.

Gossip is the common currency. People are desperate to hear the smallest glimmer of news. Where the final rumor comes from, nobody knows if it’s true. But the woman who was captured moments after Escher claims, “It comes from the world Himself. He’s going to put us where we can do the most good.”

“Where?” Escher inquires.

“On a tooth,” her companion says. “The right incisor, as it happens.” Then with that boasting voice, she adds, “Which is exactly what I told Him to do. This is all because of me.”

“What isn’t?” Escher grumbles.

“Very little,” the tiny prisoner promises. “Very, very little.”

THE SPEAKER

“We walk today on a thousand worlds, and I mean ‘walk’ in all manners of speaking.” He manages a few comical steps before shifting into a graceful turn, arms held firmly around the wide waist of an invisible and equally graceful partner. “A hundred alien suns bake us with their perfect light. And between the suns, in the cold and dark, we survive, and thrive, by every worthy means.”

Now he pauses, hands forgetting the unseen partner. A look of calculated confusion sweeps across his face. Fingers rise to his thick black hair, stabbing it and yanking backward, leaving furrows in the unruly mass.

“Our numbers,” he says. “Our population. It made us sick with worry when we were ten billion standing on the surface of one enormous world. ‘Where will our children stand?’ we asked ourselves. But then in the next little while, we became ten trillion people, and we had split into a thousand species of humanity, and the new complaint was that we were still too scarce and spread too far apart. ‘How could we matter to the universe?’ we asked ourselves. ‘How could so few souls endure another day in our immeasurable, uncaring universe?’”

His erect penis makes a little leap, a fat and vivid white drop of semen striking the wooden stage with an audible plop.

“Our numbers,” he repeats. “Our legions.” Then with a wide, garish smile, he confesses, “I don’t know our numbers today. No authority does. You make estimates. You extrapolate off data that went stale long ago. You build a hundred models and fashion every kind of vast number. Ten raised to the twentieth power. The thirtieth power. Or more.” He giggles and skips backward, and with the giddy, careless energy of a child, he dances where he stands, singing to lights overhead, “If you are as common as sand and as unique as snowflakes, how can you be anything but a wild, wonderful success?”

ABLE

The wild man is enormous and powerful, and surely brilliant beyond anything that Able can comprehend-as smart as City as a whole-but despite his gifts, the man is obviously terrified. That he can even manage to stand his ground astonishes Able. He says as much to Mish, and then he glances at her, adding, “He must be very devoted to whoever’s inside.”

“Whoever’s inside what?” she asks.

“That trap.” He looks straight ahead again, telling himself not to waste time with the girl. She is foolish and bad-tempered, and he couldn’t be any more tired of her. “I think that’s what the cylinder is,” he whispers. “A trap of some kind. And someone’s been caught in it.”

“Well, I don’t care who,” she snarls.

He pretends not to notice her.

“What was that?” she blurts. “Did you hear that-?”

“No,” Able blurts. But then he notices a distant rumble, deep and faintly rhythmic, and with every breath, growing. When he listens carefully, it resembles nothing normal. It isn’t thunder, and it can’t be a voice. He feels the sound as much as he hears it, as if some great mass were being displaced. But he knows better. In school, teachers like to explain what must be happening now, employing tortuous mathematics and magical sleights of hand. Matter and energy are being rapidly and brutally manipulated. The universe’s obscure dimensions are being twisted like bands of warm rubber. Able knows all this. But still, he understands none of it. Words without comprehension; froth without substance. All that he knows for certain is that behind that deep, unknowable throbbing lies something even farther beyond human description.

The wild man looks up, gray eyes staring at that something.

He cries out, that tiny sound lost between his mouth and Able. Then he produces what seems to be a spear-no, an elaborate missile-that launches itself with a bolt of fire, lifting a sophisticated warhead up into a vague gray space that swallows the weapon without sound, or complaint.

Next the man aims a sturdy laser, and fires. But the weapon simply melts at its tip, collapsing into a smoldering, useless mass at his feet.

Again, the wild man cries out.

His language could be a million generations removed from City-speech, but Able hears the desperate, furious sound of his voice. He doesn’t need words to know that the man is cursing. Then the swirling grayness slows itself, and parts, and stupidly, in reflex, Able turns to Mish, wanting to tell her, “Watch. You’re going to see one of Them.”

But Mish has vanished. Sometime in the last few moments, she jumped off the world’s rim and ran away, and save for the fat old leopard sleeping between the horsetails, Able is entirely alone now.

“Good,” he mutters.

Almost too late, he turns and runs to the very edge of the granite rim.

The wild man stands motionless now. His bowels and bladder have emptied themselves. His handsome, godly face is twisted from every flavor of misery. Eyes as big as windows stare up into what only they can see, and to that great, unknowable something, the man says two simple words.

“Fuck you,” Able hears.

And then the wild man opens his mouth, baring his white apish teeth, and just as Able wonders what’s going to happen, the man’s body explodes, the dull black burst of a shaped charge sending chunks of his face skyward.

PROCYON

One last time, she whispers her son’s name.

She whispers it and closes her mouth and listens to the brief, sharp silence that comes after the awful explosion. What must have happened, she tells herself, is that her boy found his good sense and fled. How can a mother think anything else? And then the ominous deep rumbling begins again, begins and gradually swells until the walls of the trap are shuddering and twisting again. But this time the monster is slower. It approaches the trap more cautiously, summoning new courage. She can nearly taste its courage now, and with her intuition, she senses emotions that might be curiosity and might be a kind of reflexive admiration. Or do those eternal human emotions have any relationship for what It feels…?

What she feels, after everything, is numbness. A terrible deep weariness hangs on her like a new skin. Procyon seems to be falling faster now, accelerating down through the bottomless trap. But she doesn’t care anymore. In place of courage, she wields a muscular apathy. Death looms, but when hasn’t it been her dearest companion? And in place of fear, she is astonished to discover an incurious little pride about what is about to happen: How many people-wild free people like herself-have ever found themselves so near one of Them?

Quietly, with a calm smooth and slow voice, Procyon says, “I feel you there, you. I can taste you.”

Nothing changes.

Less quietly, she says, “Show yourself.”

A wide parabolic floor appears, gleaming and black and agonizingly close. But just before she slams into the floor, a wrenching force peels it away. A brilliant violet light rises to meet her, turning into a thick sweet syrup. What may or may not be a hand curls around her body, and squeezes. Procyon fights every urge to struggle. She wrestles with her body, wrestles with her will, forcing both to lie still while the hand tightens its grip and grows comfortable. Then using a voice that betrays nothing tentative or small, she tells what holds her, “I made you, you know.”

She says, “You can do what you want to me.”

Then with a natural, deep joy, she cries out, “But you’re an ungrateful glory… and you’ll always belong to me…!”

ESCHER

The prison-ball has been reengineered, slathered with camouflage and armor and the best immune-suppressors on the market, and its navigation system has been adapted from add-ons stolen from the finest trashcans. Now it is a battle-phage riding on the sharp incisor as far as it dares, then leaping free. A thousand similar phages leap and lose their way, or they are killed. Only Escher’s phage reaches the target, impacting on what passes for flesh and launching its cargo with a microscopic railgun, punching her and a thousand sisters and daughters through immeasurable distances of senseless, twisted nothing.

How many survive the attack?

She can’t guess how many. Can’t even care. What matters is to make herself survive inside this strange new world. An enormous world, yes. Escher feels a vastness that reaches out across ten or twelve or maybe a thousand dimensions. How do I know where to go? she asks herself. And instantly, an assortment of possible routes appear in her consciousness, drawn in the simplest imaginable fashion, waiting and eager to help her find her way around.

This is a last gift from Him, she realizes. Unless there are more gifts waiting, of course.

She thanks nobody.

On the equivalent of tiptoes, Escher creeps her way into a tiny conduit that moves something stranger than any blood across five dimensions. She becomes passive, aiming for invisibility. She drifts and spins, watching her surroundings turn from a senseless glow into a landscape that occasionally seems a little bit reasonable. A little bit real. Slowly, she learns how to see in this new world. Eventually she spies a little peak that may or may not be ordinary matter. The peak is pink and flexible and sticks out into the great artery, and flinging her last tendril, Escher grabs hold and pulls in snug, knowing that the chances are lousy that she will ever find anything nourishing here, much less delicious.

But her reserves have been filled again, she notes. If she is careful-and when hasn’t she been-her energies will keep her alive for centuries.

She thinks of the World, and thanks nobody.

“Watch and learn,” she whispers to herself.

That was the first human thought. She remembers that odd fact suddenly. People were just a bunch of grubbing apes moving blindly through their tiny lives until one said to a companion, “Watch and learn.”

An inherited memory, or another gift from Him?

Silently, she thanks Luck, and she thanks Him, and once again, she thanks Luck.

“Patience and planning,” she tells herself.

Which is another wise thought of the conscious, enduring ape.

THE LAST SON

The locked gates and various doorways know him-recognize him at a glance-but they have to taste him anyway. They have to test him. Three people were expected, and he can’t explain in words what has happened. He just says, “The others will be coming later,” and leaves that lie hanging in the air. Then as he passes through the final doorway, he says, “Let no one through. Not without my permission first.”

“This is your mother’s house,” says the door’s AI.

“Not anymore,” he remarks.

The machine grows quiet, and sad.

During any other age, his home would be a mansion. There are endless rooms, rooms beyond counting, and each is enormous and richly furnished and lovely and jammed full of games and art and distractions and flourishes that even the least aesthetic soul would find lovely. He sees none of that now. Alone, he walks to what has always been his room, and he sits on a leather recliner, and the house brings him a soothing drink and an intoxicating drink and an assortment of treats that sit on the platter, untouched.

For a long while, the boy stares off at the distant ceiling, replaying everything with his near-perfect memory. Everything. Then he forgets everything, stupidly calling out, “Mother,” with a voice that sounds ridiculously young. Then again, he calls, “Mother.” And he starts to rise from his chair, starts to ask the great empty house, “Where is she?”

And he remembers.

As if his legs have been sawed off, he collapses. His chair twists itself to catch him, and an army of AIs brings their talents to bear. They are loyal, limited machines. They are empathetic, and on occasion, even sweet. They want to help him in any fashion, just name the way… but their appeals and their smart suggestions are just so much noise. The boy acts deaf, and he obviously can’t see anything with his fists jabbed into his eyes like that, slouched forward in his favorite chair, begging an invisible someone for forgiveness…

THE SPEAKER

He squats and uses the tip of a forefinger to dab at the puddle of semen, and he rubs the finger against his thumb, saying, “Think of cells. Individual, self-reliant cells. For most of Earth’s great history, they ruled. First as bacteria, and then as composites built from cooperative bacteria. They were everywhere and ruled everything, and then the wild cells learned how to dance together, in one enormous body, and the living world was transformed for the next seven hundred million years.”

Thumb and finger wipe themselves dry against a hairy thigh, and he rises again, grinning in that relentless and smug, yet somehow charming fashion. “Everything was changed, and nothing had changed,” he says. Then he says, “Scaling,” with an important tone, as if that single word should erase all confusion. “The bacteria and green algae and the carnivorous amoebae weren’t swept away by any revolution. Honestly, I doubt if their numbers fell appreciably or for long.” And again, he says, “Scaling,” and sighs with a rich appreciation. “Life evolves. Adapts. Spreads and grows, constantly utilizing new energies and novel genetics. But wherever something large can live, a thousand small things can thrive just as well, or better. Wherever something enormous survives, a trillion bacteria hang on for the ride.”

For a moment, the speaker hesitates.

A slippery half-instant passes where an audience might believe that he has finally lost his concentration, that he is about to stumble over his own tongue. But then he licks at the air, tasting something delicious. And three times, he clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

Then he says what he has planned to say from the beginning.

“I never know whom I’m speaking to,” he admits. “I’ve never actually seen my audience. But I know you’re great and good. I know that however you appear, and however you make your living, you deserve to hear this:

“Humans have always lived in terror. Rainstorms and the eclipsing moon and earthquakes and the ominous guts of some disemboweled goat-all have preyed upon our fears and defeated our fragile optimisms. But what we fear today-what shapes and reshapes the universe around us-is a child of our own imaginations.

“A whirlwind that owes its very existence to glorious, endless us!”

ABLE

The boy stops walking once or twice, letting the fat leopard keep pace. Then he pushes his way through a last wall of emerald ferns, stepping out into the bright damp air above the rounded pool. A splashing takes him by surprise. He looks down at his secret pool, and he squints, watching what seems to be a woman pulling her way through the clear water with thick, strong arms. She is naked. Astonishingly, wonderfully naked. A stubby hand grabs an overhanging limb, and she stands on the rocky shore, moving as if exhausted, picking her way up the slippery slope until she finds an open patch of halfway flattened earth where she can collapse, rolling onto her back, her smooth flesh glistening and her hard breasts shining up at Able, making him sick with joy.

Then she starts to cry, quietly, with a deep sadness.

Lust vanishes, replaced by simple embarrassment. Able flinches and starts to step back, and that’s when he first looks at her face.

He recognizes its features.

Intrigued, the boy picks his way down to the shoreline, practically standing beside the crying woman.

She looks at him, and she sniffs.

“I saw two of them,” he reports. “And I saw you, too. You were inside that cylinder, weren’t you?”

She watches him, saying nothing.

“I saw something pull you out of that trap. And then I couldn’t see you. It must have put you here, I guess. Out of its way.” Able nods, and smiles. He can’t help but stare at her breasts, but at least he keeps his eyes halfway closed, pretending to look out over the water instead. “ It took pity on you, I guess.”

A good-sized fish breaks on the water.

The woman seems to watch the creature as it swims past, big blue scales catching the light, heavy fins lazily shoving their way through the warm water. The fish eyes are huge and black, and they are stupid eyes. The mind behind them sees nothing but vague shapes and sudden motions. Able knows from experience: If he stands quite still, the creature will come close enough to touch.

“They’re called coelacanths,” he explains.

Maybe the woman reacts to his voice. Some sound other than crying now leaks from her.

So Able continues, explaining, “They were rare, once. I’ve studied them quite a bit. They’re old and primitive, and they were almost extinct when we found them. But when they got loose, got free, and took apart the Earth… and took everything and everyone with them up into the sky…”

The woman gazes up at the towering horsetails.

Able stares at her legs and what lies between them.

“Anyway,” he mutters, “there’s more coelacanths now than ever. They live in a million oceans, and they’ve never been more successful, really.” He hesitates, and then adds, “Kind of like us, I think. Like people. You know?”

The woman turns, staring at him with gray-white eyes. And with a quiet hard voice, she says, “No.”

She says, “That’s an idiot’s opinion.”

And then with a grace that belies her strong frame, she dives back into the water, kicking hard and chasing that ancient and stupid fish all the way back to the bottom.

Presence - MAUREEN F. MCHUGH

Maureen F. McHugh made her first sale in 1989, and has since made a powerful impression on the SF world with a relatively small body of work, becoming one of today’s most respected writers. In 1992, she published one of the year’s most widely acclaimed and talked-about first novels, China Mountain Zhang, which won the Locus Award for Best First Novel, the Lambda Literary Award, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award, and which was named a New York Times Notable Book as well as being a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Her other books, including the novels Half the Day is Night and Mission Child, have been greeted with similar enthusiasm. Her most recent book is a major new novel, Nekropolis. Her powerful short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Starlight, Alternate Warriors, Aladdin, Killing Me Softly, and other markets, and is about to be assembled in a collection called The Lincoln Train. She has had stories in our Tenth through Fourteenth, and our Nineteenth Annual Collections. She lives in Twinsburg, Ohio, with her husband, her son, and a golden retriever named Smith.

In the eloquent and moving story that follows, she shows us that perhaps it is sometimes better not to know what you have lost…

Lila sits at her desk in Ohio and picks up the handle of the new disposable razor in… Shen Zhen, China? Juarez, Mexico? She can’t remember where they’re assembling the parts. She pans left and right and decides it must be Shen Zhen, because when she looks around there’s no one else in camera range. There’s a twelve-hour time-zone difference. It’s eleven at night in China, so the only other activity is another production engineer doing telepresence work-waldos sorting through a bin of hinge joints two tables over in a pool of light. Factories are dim and dirty places, but cameras need light, so telepresence stations are islands in the darkness.

She lifts the dark blue plastic part in front of the CMM and waits for it to measure the cavity. She figures they’re running about twenty percent out of spec, but they are so far behind on the razor product launch they can’t afford to have the vendor resupply, so tomorrow, underpaid Chinese employees in Shen Zhen raw materials will have to hand-inspect the parts, discard the bad ones and send the rest to packaging.

Her phone rings.

She disengages the waldos and the visor. The display is her home number and she winces.

“Hello?” says her husband, Gus. “Hello, who is this?”

“It’s Mila,” she says. “It’s Mila, honey.”

“Mila?” he says. “That’s what the Speed Dial said. Where are you?”

“I’m at work,” she says.

“At P amp;G?” he says.

“No, honey, now I work for Gillette. You worked for Gillette, too.”

“I did not,” he says, suspicious. Gus has Alzheimer’s. He is fifty-seven.

“Where’s Cathy?” Mila asks.

“Cathy?” his voice lowers. “Is that her name? I was calling because she was here. What is she doing in our house?”

“She’s there to help you,” Mila says helplessly. Cathy is the new home health. She’s been watching Gus during the day for almost three weeks now, but Gus still calls to ask who she is.

“She’s black,” Gus says. “Not that it matters. Is she from the neighborhood? Is she Dan’s friend?” Dan is their son. He’s twenty-five and living in Boulder.

“Are you hungry?” Mila asks. “Cathy can make you a sandwich. Do you want a sandwich?”

“I don’t need help,” Gus says, “Where’s my car? Is it in the shop?”

“Yes,” Mila says, seizing on the excuse.

“No it’s not,” he says. “You’re lying to me. There’s a woman here, some strange woman, and she’s taken my car.”

“No, baby,” Mila says. “You want me to come home for lunch?” It’s eleven, she could take an early lunch. Not that she really wants to go home if Gus is agitated.

Gus hangs up the phone.

Motherfucker. She grabs her purse.

Cathy is standing at the door, holding her elbows. Cathy is twenty-five and Gus is her first assignment from the home healthcare agency. Mila likes her, likes even her beautifully elaborate long, polished fingernails. “Mrs. Schuster? Mr. Schuster is gone. I was going to follow his minder but he took my locater. I’m sorry, it was in my purse and I never thought he’d take it out-”

“Oh, Jesus,” Mila says. She runs upstairs and gets her minder from her bedside table. She flicks it on and it says that Gus is within 300 meters. The indicator arrow says he’s headed away from Glenwood, where all the traffic is, and down toward the dead end or even the pond.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Schuster,” Cathy says.