/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: The Year's Best Science Fiction

The Year's Best Science Fiction, Volume 29

Gardner Dozois

In the new millennium, what secrets lay beyond the far reaches of the universe? What mysteries belie the truths we once held to be self evident? The world of science fiction has long been a porthole into the realities of tomorrow, blurring the line between life and art. Now, in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection the very best SF authors explore ideas of a new world. This venerable collection brings together short stories from award winning authors and masters of the field such as Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Damien Broderick, Elizabeth Bear, Paul McAuley and John Barnes. And with an extensive recommended reading guide and a summation of the year in science fiction, this annual compilation has become the definitive must-read anthology for all science fiction fans and readers interested in breaking into the genre. In this collection of thirty-five science fiction stories from 2011, Gardner Dozois once again identifies the best stories of the year.

THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION

Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection

Edited by Gardner Dozois

Summation: 2011

Like last year, the big story in 2011 continues to be the explosion in e-book sales, which have been dramatic enough, and accrued fast enough, to make some commentators speculate that e-books will eventually drive physical print books out of existence altogether. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, if it ever does, but the e-book revolution has been impressive nevertheless, and shows no sign of losing momentum, especially with new devices like the Kindle Fire coming on sale, and no doubt other even more sophisticated devices waiting in the wings.

According to BookStats, a joint-research venture between the Book Industry Study Group and the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales jumped to $863.7 million in 2010 from $61.8 million in 2008. No reliable overall figures for 2011 are yet available, but one publisher predicted that e-books could account for as much as 40 percent of total revenue by the end of 2012. Considering that it’s been estimated that one in five U.S. adults are reading e-books on a variety of devices, from dedicated e-readers to media tablets, and that there was a major surge in e-book sales after the 2011 holiday season (all those people looking for something to read on the devices they’d gotten for Christmas presents), that could well turn out to be true. The AAP report for September 2011 shows e-book sales up 100 percent to $80.3 million. Year-to-date figures show e-books up 137.9 percent at $727.7 million. Barnes & Noble’s second-quarter sales report (for the period ending October 29, 2011) shows NOOK sales (for both the devices themselves and for e-books) rising 85 percent to $220 million, “four times what they were in the comparable period last year,” according to CEO William Lynch.

None of this, impressive as it is, means that the print book industry has collapsed. There were still an enormous number of print books published in 2011, and many of them sold very well indeed. The U.S. Census Bureau’s preliminary figures for October 2011 show estimated bookstore sales of $886 million, down 43 percent from September 2011, but down only 7 percent from October 2010 figures. For the year-to-date, sales are up 2 percent at $12.91 billion. Overall retail sales were up 1 percent from September, and up 8 percent year-to-date.

The effect of the e-book revolution can best be seen in the changes in the kinds of books that are selling best. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks both saw their numbers increase, with a noticeable boost in new titles, but the traditional mass-market paperback reprints dropped significantly, as did new mass-market titles. The fact that e-book sales are dramatically increasing at a time when mass-market paperback sales have dropped suggests that e-books are to some degree filling the market niche once occupied by mass-market print books, particularly reprint titles.

Unexpectedly, sales of print books also surged during the holiday season, with Barnes & Noble showing a 4 percent rise, the first increase in five years. This suggests that many people still find a print book to be a more satisfactory Christmas present than the gift of an e-book—something physical to wrap and put under the tree.

For this reason, and the reason that for the foreseeable future there are going to be people who just prefer a print book they can hold in their hands to an e-book that must be read from a screen, and prefer browsing at a bookstore to shopping for books online, the publishing apocalypse that some commentators seem almost to yearn for, where all the publishing houses go out of business, physical brick-and-mortar bookstores disappear completely, and print books themselves become extinct (or at least rare artifacts), is probably not going to happen—although things in the publishing world are never going to go back to the way they were before the invention of the e-book either. (Another factor not usually taken into consideration in conversations about the future of books is that even here in the twenty-first century, there are still plenty of people who don’t have e-readers, don’t have notebook tablets, don’t have Internet access, don’t even have computers of any sort, and their numbers may even swell as economic times harden. To ignore them would be to abandon a considerable subset of potential customers. Even the poorest of people may occasionally be able to afford a paperback book, where they might not be able to afford a Kindle or an iPad.)

Besides which, it doesn’t really come down to a choice between print books and e-books. The most likely thing is that most customers will buy both print books and e-books, choosing one format or the other depending on the circumstances, convenience, their needs of the moment, even their whim. There are even some indications that in some cases people will buy both the e-book and print versions of the same book. The chances are fairly good that all of this will eventually lead to a general expansion of the book business in general, no matter what format the books are being sold in. More people seem to be reading more books, in whatever format, than ever before—and that can’t be bad news in the long run.

One of the other big stories of 2011 was the controversial move by Amazon to found their own publishing imprint, leading to accusations of antitrust practices, the charge being that Amazon’s immensely deep pockets (estimated at $40 billion in 2011) and its position as the leading online bookseller would enable it to engage in predatory pricing to destroy its retail competitors, the so-called Big Six publishing companies, by effortlessly outbidding them for bestsellers. This has led to what the Author’s Guild blog has called “a behind-the-scenes battle for control of the publishing industry,” a three-sided battle between Amazon, the Big Six publishers, and Barnes & Noble, whose NOOK is the Kindle’s rival for dominance of the e-book market.

Another big story, one which has an impact on the story above, was the bankruptcy and collapse of the giant bookstore chain Borders, with Borders stores closing across the country. This means that fewer books have places where they can be sold, with total rack space decreasing dramatically nationwide as the 650 Borders bookstores disappeared, something that was itself widely feared to be apocalyptic last year, although the surviving chains and, particularly, online sales from places like Amazon.com and the Barnes & Noble online bookstore, BN.com—(plus revenue from increased e-book sales)—seem to have minimized the impact to some extent. Nevertheless, the behind-the-scenes impact of the Borders closing, in terms of diminished sales and adjustments to the number of books bought and the amount of money paid for them, to say nothing of industry employees dismissed to cut costs, is likely to reverberate through the publishing world for years to come.

There’s some irony in the fact that many independent bookstores were driven out of business by the dominance of the big bookstore chains, and now the chains themselves may be being threatened by online bookstores like Amazon.com and by the e-book revolution. There’s even more irony in the fact that the problems the chains are having may be creating opportunities for more independent bookstores to come into existence and reclaim some of the market share they lost, and the last couple of years have shown exactly that happening. So the independent non-chain bookstore, once considered to be an endangered species, tottering on the brink of extinction, may, unexpectedly, be making something of a comeback.

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Things were relatively quiet on the surface of the publishing industry in 2011, although changes and adaptations forced by the e-book explosion and the closing of Borders will no doubt be felt for many years to come. Random House added two new paperback YA/middle-grade imprints, Ember and Bluefire. Pyr also began publishing YA fiction, and Orion Children’s Books launched a new YA imprint, Indigo. HarperCollins announced a new imprint for Avon, Avon Impulse, concentrating primarily on e-books and print-on-demand books. Anthony Cheetham left his position as associate publisher and member of the board of directors at Atlantic Books to form his own book imprint, Head of Zeus. Nicholas Cheetham left his postion at Corvus to join his father at Head of Zeus, and was replaced as editorial director at Corvus by Sara O’Keeffe. Scott Shannon, mass-market publisher at Ballantine Bantam Dell, is moving to a new position as senior vice president and publisher for the entire Random House Publishing Group, although he will remain as publisher of Del Rey and Spectra; Libby McGuire, publisher of Ballantine Bantam Dell, will take over as head of the mass-market line. Hartmut Ostrowski stepped down as CEO of Bertselsmann, and was replaced by Thomas Rabe. Jennifer Heddle left Simon & Schuster to edit Star Wars books for Lucasfilm. Paula Guran stepped down as editor of Juno Books and became senior editor at Prime Books. Chris Schluep left his position as senior editor at Ballantine/Del Rey to join Amazon.com Books as a senior editor. Phyllis Grann retired as senior editor of Doubleday after a forty-year career in publishing. DongWon Song left his position at Orbit US; Tom Bouman joined Orbit US as an acquiring editor. John Helfers left his position as senior editor at Techno Books after sixteen years in that position. John Prebich left Dorchester as CEO, replaced by Robert Anthony. Linda K. Zecher has been hired as president, CEO, and director of Houghton Miffllin Hartcourt. Gillian Redfearn has been promoted to editorial director at Gollancz. Tricia Pasternak was named senior editor at Del Rey. Jessica Wade was promoted to senior editor at NAL. David Rosenthal was named president of the general imprint at Penguin Group. Allison Lorentzen joined Penguin Books as an editor. Michael Rowley has been hired as editorial director for SF/Fantasy at Ebury Publishing.

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There were relatively few changes in the professional print magazine market. Realms of Fantasy died for the third time in three years, perhaps for good this time (since they obviously have a dedicated readership, but not one large enough to support the expense of a print edition, I really don’t understand why they don’t try this one as an online electronic magazine). Weird Tales was sold to Marvin Kaye, who took the unpopular step of dismissing the current staff of the recent Hugo winner and announcing that he was taking the magazine in a nostalgically retro direction, something that few industry insiders thought would work; most are predicting a short life and an early death for this venerable magazine under its new management.

Overall circulation of most of the professional print magazines is slowly creeping up, after years of decline, mostly because of sales of electronic subscriptions to the magazines, as well as sales of individual electronic copies of each issue. The figures are still too small for anything other than the most cautious of optimism, but it may just prove, as I suggested it would years ago, that the Internet will be the saving of the professional SF magazines.

Asimov’s Science Fiction had a very strong year as well, perhaps strong enough to earn Sheila Williams her second Hugo in a row. Excellent fiction by Paul McAuley, Kij Johnson, Michael Swanwick, Elizabeth Bear, Tom Purdom, Ian R. MacLeod, and Paul Cornell appeared in Asimov’s this year, as well as much good work by Robert Reed, John Kessel, Mary Robinette Kowal, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Theodora Goss, Allen M. Steel, Nancy Kress, Nancy Fulda, and others; there was a high proportion of SF in the magazine this year, with only some fantasy, most of which was weaker than the SF. For the second year in a row, Asimov’s Science Fiction registered a gain in overall circulation, up 7.3 percent from 21,057 to 22,593. There were 12,469 print subscriptions, and 7,500 electronic subscriptions. Newsstand sales were 2,334, plus 290 digital copies sold on average each month in 2011. Sell-through was 28 percent. Digital editions became available on more platforms in 2011, including the iPad—via Zinio—and the Kindle Fire. Sheila Williams completed her seventh year as Asimov’s editor.

Analog Science Fiction and Fact had a somewhat weak year overall, although it still published strong stories by Alec Nevala-Lee, Sean McMullen, Juliette Wade, Kristine Kathyrn Rusch, Don D’Ammassa, Marissa Lingen, and others. Analog registered a 0.2 percent rise in overall circulation, from 26,493 to 26,440. There were 19,302 print subscriptions, and 4,100 digital subscriptions. Newsstand sales were 2,941; plus 150 digital copies were sold on average in each month of 2011. Sell-through was 30 percent. Stanley Schmidt has been editor there for thirty-two years, and 2011 marked the magazine’s eighty-first anniversary.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction also had a strong year, publishing more SF than they usually do (although they also published a lot of fantasy, most of it better than the fantasy in Asimov’s); excellent stories by Robert Reed, Geoff Ryman, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Chris Lawson, and Peter S. Beagle appeared in F&SF this year, as well as good stuff by James Cambias, Robert Chilson, Karl Bunker, David Marcus, Albert E. Cowdrey, Kali Wallace, Ken Liu, Rick Norwood, and others. F&SF registered a 4.7 percent drop, from an overall circulation of 15,172 to 14,462. Print subscriptions dropped from 10,907 to 10,539. Newsstand sales dropped from 4,265 to 3,923. Sell-through was 38 percent. Figures for either digital subscriptions or digital sales of single issues weren’t available, although Gordon Van Gelder has been quoted as saying “our electronic sales… were strong in our first year on the Kindle.” Gordon Van Gelder is in his fifteenth year as editor, and eleventh year as owner and publisher.

Interzone is technically not a “professional magazine,” by the definition of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), because of its low rates and circulation, but the literary quality of the work published there is so high that it would be ludicrous to omit it. Interzone had a weak year overall, but still published good stories by Jim Hawkins, Lavie Tidhar, Mecurio D. Rivera, Jason Sanford, and others. As far as can be told, as exact circulation figures are not available, circulation there seems to have held steady, in the 3,000-copy range. The editors include publisher Andy Cox and Andy Hedgecock. TTA Press, Interzone’s publisher, also publishes the straight horror or dark suspense magazine Black Static, which is beyond our purview here, but of a similar level of professional quality.

Realms of Fantasy, in what will theoretically be its last full year (see here), ran noteworthy stuff by Richard Parks, Lisa Goldstein, Thea Hutcheson, Alan Smale, and others.

The British magazine Postscripts has reinvented itself as an anthology, and is reviewed as such in the anthology section that follows, but I’ll list the subscription information here, for lack of anywhere else to put it, and because, unlike most other anthology series, you can subscribe to Postscripts.

If you’d like to see lots of good SF and fantasy published every year, the survival of these magazines is essential, and one important way that you can help them survive is by subscribing to them. It’s never been easier to do so, something that these days can be done with just the click of a few buttons, nor has it ever before been possible to subscribe to the magazines in as many different formats, from the traditional print copy arriving by mail to downloads for your desktop or laptop available from places like Fictionwise.com (www.fictionwise.com) and Amazon.com (www.amazon.com), to versions you can read on your Kindle, Nook, or iPad. You can also now subscribe from overseas just as easily as you can from the United States, something formerly difficult to impossible to do.

So in hopes of making it easier for you to subscribe, I’m going to list both the Internet sites where you can subscribe online and the street addresses where you can subscribe by mail for each magazine: Asimov’s web address is www.asimovs.com, and subscribing online might be the easiest thing to do, and there’s also a discounted rate for online subscriptions; its subscription address is Asimov’s Science Fiction, Dell Magazines, 267 Broadway, Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10007-2352. The annual subscription rate in the U.S. is $34.97, $44.97 overseas. Analog’s site is at www.analogsf.com; its subscription address is Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, 267 Broadway, Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10007-2352. The annual subscription rate in the U.S. is $34.97, $44.97 overseas. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’s site is at www.sfsite.com/fsf; its subscription address is The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Spilogale, Inc., P.O. Box 3447, Hoboken, NJ 07030, $34.97 for an annual subscription in U.S., $44.97 overseas. Interzone and Black Static can be subscribed to online at www.ttapress.com/onlinestore1.html; the subscription address for both is TTA Press, 5 Martins Lane, Witcham, Ely, Cambridge CB6 2LB, England, UK. The price for a twelve-issue subscription is 42.00 Pounds Sterling each, or there is a reduced rate dual subscription offer of 78.00 Pounds Sterling for both magazines for twelve issues; make checks payable to “TTA Press.”

Most of these magazines are also available in various electronic formats through Fictionwise.com, or for the Kindle, the NOOK, and other handheld readers.

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There were more losses from the print semiprozine market this year, with Zahir transitioning from print to electronic format and then dying altogether, Weird Tales being sold, with its future in doubt, and Electric Velocipede, Black Gate, and criticalzine The New York Review of Science Fiction on the verge of transitioning to electronic formats as well. I suspect that sooner or later most of the surviving print semiprozines will transition to electronic-only online formats, saving themselves lots of money in printing, mailing, and production costs.

The semiprozines that remained in print format mostly struggled to bring out their scheduled issues. Electric Velocipede, edited by John Kilma, managed two issues, publishing interestingly eclectic stuff from Peter M. Ball, Karl Bunker, Genevieve Valentine, William Shunn, and others; they announced their intention to go online exclusively in 2012. Sword and Sorcery print magazine Black Gate, edited by John O’Neill, managed one large issue with strong work by Chris Willrich, Emily Mah, and others, and also announced their intention to transition to electronic format in 2012. The longest running of all the fiction semiprozines, and usually the most reliably published, the Canadian On Spec, which is edited by a collective under general editor Diane L. Walton, managed only three of its scheduled four issues this year, somewhat atypically. Another collective-run SF magazine with a rotating editorial staff, Australia’s Andromeda Spaceways In-flight Magazine, managed only four issues this year. Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, the long-running slipstream magazine edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, managed only one issue in 2011, as did Neo-Opsis, and Ireland’s long-running Albedo One. Fantasy magazine Shimmer managed two issues, as did Space and Time Magazine and Weird Tales before being sold. The small British SF magazine Jupiter, edited by Ian Redman, produced all four of its scheduled issues in 2011, as did the fantasy magazine Tales of the Talisman. A new start-up SF magazine, Bull Spec, produced three issues. If there were issues of Aurealis, Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Sybil’s Garage, Space Squid, or Tales of the Unanticipated out this year, I didn’t see them.

With The New York Review of Science Fiction, a long-running critical magazine edited by David G. Hartwell and a staff of associate editors, scheduled to move to electronic format in 2012, the venerable newszine Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field is about all that’s left of the popular print critical magazine market. It was always the best of them, though, and certainly your best bet for value, a multiple Hugo winner, which for more than thirty years has been an indispensable source of news, information, and reviews. Happily, the magazine has survived the death of founder, publisher, and longtime editor Charles N. Brown and has continued strongly and successfully under the guidance of a staff of editors headed by Liza Groen Trombi, and including Kirsten Gong-Wong, Carolyn Cushman, Tim Pratt, Jonathan Strahan, Francesca Myman, Heather Shaw, and many others.

Most of the other surviving print critical magazines are professional journals more aimed at academics than at the average reader. The most accessible of these is probably the long-running British critical zine Foundation.

Subscription addresses are: Locus, The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field, Locus Publications, Inc., P.O. Box 13305, Oakland, CA, 94661, $72.00 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, $40.00 for a one-year subscription, 12 issues, make checks payable to “Dragon Press”; The Science Fiction Foundation, Science Fiction Foundation, Roger Robinson (SFF), 75 Rosslyn Avenue, Harold Wood, Essex RM3 ORG, UK, $37.00 for a three-issue subscription in the U.S.; Black Gate, New Epoch Press, 815 Oak Street, St. Charles, IL 60174, $29.95 for a one-year, four-issue subscription; On Spec, The Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic, P.O. Box 4727, Edmonton, AB, Canada T6E 5G6, for subscription information, go to www.onspec.ca; Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, 4129 Carey Rd., Victoria, BC, Canada V8Z 4G5, $25.00 for a three-issue subscription; Albedo One, Albedo One Productions, 2, Post Road, Lusk, County Dublin, Ireland; $32.00 for a four-issue airmail subscription, make checks payable to “Albedo One” or pay by PayPal at www.albedo1.com; Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Small Beer Press, 150 Pleasant St., #306, Easthampton, MA 01027, $20.00 for four issues; Electric Velocipede, Spilt Milk Press, go to http://www.electricvelocipede.com for subscription information; Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, go to www.andromedaspaceways.com for subscription information; Tales of the Talisman, Hadrosaur Productions, P.O. Box 2194, Mesilla Park, NM 88047-2194, $24.00 for a four-issue subscription; Jupiter, 19 Bedford Road, Yeovil, Somerset, BA21 5UG, UK, 10 Pounds Sterling for four issues; Shimmer, P.O. Box 58591, Salt Lake City, UT 84158-0591, $22.00 for a four-issue subscription.

In only a few years, the online world of electronic magazines has become one of the most reliable places to find quality fiction; already more reliable than most of the print semiprozine market, they’re giving the top print professional magazines a run for their money too, and sometimes beating them.

The online magazine Subterranean (http://subterraneanpress.com), edited by William K. Schafer, perhaps didn’t have quite as strong a year as they did last year, but still published good stuff, SF and fantasy both, by Jay Lake, K. J. Parker, Catherynne M. Valente, Robert Silverberg, Daniel Abraham, Mike Resnick, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and others.

Clarkesworld Magazine (www.clarkesworldmagazine.com), had a strong year, publishing good SF, fantasy, and slipstream stories by Yoon Ha Lee, Lavie Tidhar, Ken Liu, David Klecha and Tobias S. Bucknell, Cat Rambo, Jason Chapman, Nnedi Okorafor, Gord Sellar, and others. Sean Wallace, who announced that he was stepping down in 2010, is returning to join publisher and editor Neil Clarke as an editor on the magazine; apparently he has been working unofficially on Clarkesworld behind the scenes throughout 2011.

The new online magazine Lightspeed (www.lightspeedmagazine.com), edited by John Joseph Adams, was weaker in its sophomore year than it had been in its freshman year, although it still published worthwhile stuff by Robert Reed, David Farland, Vyler Kaftan, An Owomoyele, and Genevieve Valentine. The online magazine Fantasy, on the other hand, recently taken over by Lightspeed editor John Joseph Adams, had a strong year, publishing good fiction by Lavie Tidhar, James Alan Gardner, Sarah Monette, Cat Rambo, Tim Pratt, Kit Howard, Jeremiah Tolbert, Genevieve Valentine, and others. As mentioned earlier, Fantasy has now been merged with Lightspeed into one electronic magazine, called Lightspeed, that publishes both fantasy and science fiction.

I’d still like to see the long-running online magazine Strange Horizons (www.strangehorizons.com) publish more SF and less fantasy and slipstream, but they did run good stuff by Lewis Shiner, Gavin J. Grant, Nisi Shawl, Genevieve Valentine, Charlie Jane Anders, Tracey Canfield, and others. Karen Meisner stepped down as fiction editor of Strange Horizons.

Tor.com (www.tor.com) has established itself as one of the most eclectic genre-oriented sites on the Internet, a Web site that regularly publishes SF, fantasy, and slipstream, as well as articles, comics, graphics, blog entries, print and media reviews, and commentary. It’s become a regular stop for me, even when they don’t have new fiction posted. This year, they published too many promotional slices of upcoming novels, but also some good fiction by Michael Swanwick, Michael F. Flynn, Harry Turtledove, Catherynne M. Valente, Charlie Jane Anders, and others.

Abyss & Apex, (www.abyssapex.com), edited by Wendy S. Delmater, featured strong work by Howard V. Hendrix, Cat Rambo, C. W. Johnson, and others.

Apex Magazine (www.apexbookcompany.com/apex-online) had good stuff by Elizabeth Bear, Catherynne M. Valente, Genevieve Valentine, Kat Howard, and others. Catherynne M. Valente stepped down as editor of Apex Magazine after a brief tenure, and was replaced by Lynne M. Thomas.

An e-zine devoted to “literary adventure fantasy,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies (http://beneath-ceaseless-skies), edited by Scott H. Andrews, had worthwhile fiction by Marie Brennan, Richard Parks, Geoffrey Maloney, Siobhan Carroll, and others.

Ideomancer Speculative Fiction (www.ideomancer.com), edited by Leah Bobet, published interesting work, usually more slipstream than SF, by Erica Satifka, Georgina Bruce, Alter S. Reiss, and Anatoly Belilovsky.

The flamboyantly titled Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show (www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com), edited by Edmund R. Schubert under the direction of Card himself, seemed somewhat weak this year, although they still ran interesting stuff from Aliette de Bodard, Stephen Kotowych, Naomi Kritzer, Jeffrey Lyman, and Tony Pi.

New SF and fantasy e-zine Daily Science Fiction (http://dailysciencefiction.com) devotes itself to the perhaps overly ambitious task of publishing one new SF or fantasy story every day for the entire year. Unsurprisingly, most are undistinguished, but there were some good ones by Lavie Tidhar, Jay Lake, and others.

New SF e-zine M-Brane (www.mbranesf.com) is “on hiatus,” which usually means “out of business,” but we’ll see.

Fantasy magazine Zahir (www.zahirtales.com), which had transitioned from print to electronic in 2009, went out of business.

E-zine Redstone Science Fiction (http://redstonesciencefiction.com), edited by a collective, published interesting stuff by Lavie Tidhar, Jeremiah Tolbert, and others.

E-zine GigaNotoSaurus (http://giganotosaurus.org), edited by Ann Leckie, published one story a month by writers such as Katherine Sparrow, Cat Rambo, Ferrett Steinmetz, and Vylar Kaftan.

The Australian popular-science magazine Cosmos (www.cosmosmagazine.com) is not an SF magazine per se, but for the last few years it has been running a story per issue (and also putting new fiction not published in the print magazine on their Web site). Fiction editor Damien Broderick stepped down this year, but was replaced by SF writer Cat Sparks. Interesting stuff by Thoraiya Dyer, Greg Mellor, and others appeared there this year.

Shadow Unit (www.shadowunit.org) is a Web site devoted to publishing stories, often by top-level professionals such as Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull, drawn from an imaginary TV show, sort of a cross between CSI and The X-Files. It seems to be inactive at the moment, or at least nobody has posted anything there since October of last year.

The e-zine Futurismic (http://futurismic.com) seems to no longer be publishing fiction. As far as I can tell, Escape Velocity (www.escapevelocitymagazine.com) and Shareable Futures (http://shareable.net/blog/shareable-futures) are defunct.

The World SF Blog (http://worldsf.wordpress.com), edited by Lavie Tidhar, is a good place to find science fiction by international authors, and also publishes news, links, roundtable discussions, essays, and interviews related to “science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comics from around the world.”

Weird Fiction Review (http://weirdfictionreview.com), edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, which occasionally publishes fiction, bills itself as “an ongoing exploration into all facets of the weird,” including reviews, interviews, short essays, and comics.

Below this point, it becomes harder to find center-core SF, or even genre fantasy/horror, and most of the stories are slipstream or literary surrealism. Sites that feature those, as well as the occasional fantasy (and, even more occasionally, some SF) include Rudy Rucker’s Flurb (www.flurb.net), Revolution SF (www.revolutionsf.com), Coyote Wild (www.coyotewildmag.com); Heliotrope (www.heliotropemag.com); and the somewhat less slipstreamish Bewildering Stories (www.bewilderingstories.com).

In addition to original work, there’s also a lot of good reprint SF and fantasy stories out there on the Internet too, usually available for free. On all of the sites that make their fiction available for free, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Fantasy, Subterranean, Abyss & Apex, and so on, you can also access large archives of previously published material as well as stuff from the “current issue.” Most of the sites that are associated with existent print magazines, such as Asimov’s, Analog, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, make previously published fiction and nonfiction available for access on their sites, and also regularly run teaser excerpts from stories coming up in forthcoming issues. Hundreds of out-of-print titles, both genre and mainstream, are also available for free download from Project Gutenberg (http://promo.net/pc/), and a large selection of novels and a few collections can also be accessed for free, to be either downloaded or read on-screen, at the Baen Free Library (www.baen.com/library). Sites such as Infinity Plus (http://www.infinityplus.co.uk) and The Infinite Matrix (www.infinitematrix.net) may have died as active sites, but their extensive archives of previously published material are still accessable.

An even greater range of reprint stories becomes available if you’re willing to pay a small fee for them. Perhaps the best, and the longest established, place to find such material is Fictionwise (www.fictionwise.com), where you can buy downloadable e-books and stories to read on your PDA, Kindle, or home computer; 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—you can also subscribe to downloadable versions of several of the SF magazines here, including Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, and Interzone, in a number of different formats. A similar site is ElectricStory (www.electricstory.com), where in addition to the fiction for sale, you can also access free movie reviews by Lucius Shepard, articles by Howard Waldrop, and other critical material.

Even if you’re not looking for fiction to read, though, there are still plenty of other reasons for SF fans to go on the Internet. There are many general genre-related sites of interest to be found, most of which publish reviews of books as well as of movies and TV shows, sometimes comics or computer games or anime, many of which also feature interviews, critical articles, and genre-oriented news of various kinds. The best such site is easily Locus Online (http://www.locusmag.com), the online version of the newsmagazine Locus, where you can access an incredible amount of information—including book reviews, critical lists, obituary lists, links to reviews and essays appearing outside the genre, and links to extensive database archives such as the Locus Index to Science Fiction and the Locus Index to Science Fiction Awards—it’s rare when I don’t find myself accessing Locus Online several times a day. As mentioned earlier, Tor.com is giving it a run for its money these days as an interesting place to stop while surfing the Web. Other major general-interest sites include SF Site (www.sfsite.com), SFRevu (http://www.sfsite.com/sfrevu), SFCrowsnest (www.sfcrowsnest.com), SFScope (www.sfscope.com), io9 (http://io9.com), Green Man Review (http://greenmanreview.com), The Agony Column (http://trashotron.com/agony), SFFWorld (www.sffworld.com), SFReader (sfreader.com), SFWatcher (www.sfwatcher.com), Salon Futura (www.salonfutura.net), which runs interviews and critical articles; and Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist (www.fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com). A great research site, invaluable if you want bibliographic information about SF and fantasy writers, is Fantastic Fiction (www.fantasticfiction.co.uk). Reviews of short fiction as opposed to novels are very hard to find anywhere, with the exception of Locus and Locus Online, but you can find reviews of both current and past short fiction at Best SF (www.bestsf.net), as well as at pioneering short-fiction review site Tangent Online (www.tangentonline.com). Other sites of interest include: SFF NET (www.sff.net), which features dozens of home pages and “newsgroups” for SF writers; the Science Fiction Writers of America page (www.sfwa.org); where genre news, obituaries, award information, and recommended reading lists can be accessed; SciFiPedia (scifipedia.scifi.com), a Wiki-style genre-oriented online encyclopedia; Ansible (www.dcs.gla.ac.uk/Ansible), the online version of multiple Hugo winner David Langford’s long-running fanzine Book View Café (www.bookviewcafe.com) is a “consortium of over twenty professional authors,” including Vonda N. McIntyre, Laura Ann Gilman, Sarah Zittel, Brenda Clough, and others, who have created a Web site where work by them—mostly reprints and some novel excerpts—is made available for free.

An ever-expanding area, growing in popularity, are a number of sites where podcasts and SF-oriented radio plays can be accessed: at Audible (www.audible.com), Escape Pod (http://escapepod.org, podcasting mostly SF), Star Ship Sofa (www.starshipsofa.com), Pseudopod (http://pseudopod.org, podcasting mostly fantasy), and PodCastle (http://podcastle.org, podcasting mostly fantasy). There’s also a site that podcasts nonfiction interviews and reviews, The Dragon Page—Cover to Cover (www.dragonpage.com).

* * *

The three best SF anthologies of the year were all edited by Jonathan Strahan: Engineering Infinty (Solaris Books), Life on Mars: Tales from the New Frontier (Viking), and Eclipse Four: New Science Fiction and Fantasy (Night Shade Books). Engineering Infinity (my selection for the year’s single best SF anthology) contained excellent work by David Moles, Gwyneth Jones, Karl Schroeder, and Stephen Baxter, as well as good work by Hannu Rajaniemi, Peter Watts, John Barnes, and others. The YA anthology Life on Mars contained first-rate stuff by Ian McDonald, John Barnes, and Kage Baker, as well as good work by Nancy Kress, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Ellen Klages, and others. Eclipse Four, which, unlike the first two books mentioned here, features fantasy and slipstream as well as SF, had excellent work of various sorts by Andy Duncan, Damien Broderick, Gwyneth Jones, and Peter M. Ball, as well as good work by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Jo Walton, James Patrick Kelly, Kij Johnson, Rachel Swirsky, and others. All of this would be sufficient to make Strahan a good candidate for the 2011 Best Editor Hugo Short Form, in my opinion—although as an anthology editor whose anthologies may not have been seen by a large-enough proportion of the voting demographic, that may not be likely.

Although not as strong as the anthologies mentioned earlier, the reborn version of the old Solaris anthology series, now called Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction (Solaris Books) and edited by new editor Ian Whates, turned in a solid debut performance, consisting of almost all center-core SF, and featuring good work by Dave Hutchinson, Ian McDonald, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Palmer, Keith Brooke and Eric Brown, and others. Ian Whates also brought out two more minor but enjoyable original anthologies, Further Conflicts (NewCon Press) and Fables from the Fountain (NewCon). Print magazine MIT Technology Review published a special all-fiction issue, supposedly the start of an annual series, which featured intelligent core SF by Pat Cadigan, Ken MacLeod, Gwyneth Jones, Elizabeth Bear, Vandana Singh, Cory Doctorow, Paul Di Filippo, and others. Postscripts 24/25 (PS Publishing) featured mostly slipstream, fantasy, and soft horror, too much of it for my taste, but did also feature strong SF stories by Ken MacLeod, Keith Brooke, and Adam Roberts. Panverse Three (Panverse Publishing), an all-novella anthology edited by Dario Ciriello, featured strong novellas by Ken Liu and Don D’Ammassa. Welcome to the Greenhouse (OR Books), edited by Gordon Van Gelder, was somewhat disappointing overall, although it had interesting work by Chris Lawson, Bruce Sterling, Gregory Benford, Brian W. Aldiss, and others. There were two steampunk anthologies, Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories (Candlewick Press), edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant and The Immersion Book of Steampunk (Immersion Press), edited by Gareth D. Jones and Carmelo Rafala, as well as the steampunkish Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes (Hades/EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing), edited by J. R. Campbell and Charles Prepolec (and, in fantasy, the Dann and Gevers Ghosts by Gaslight, mentioned later).

Pleasant but minor SF anthologies included End of an Aeon (Fairwood Press), edited by Bridget McKenna and Marti McKenna, an anthology made up of stories leftover in inventory from the now-deceased small press magazine Aeon. Human for a Day (DAW Books), edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Jennifer Brozek, and The Wild Side: Urban Fantasy with an Erotic Edge (Baen), edited by Mark L. Van Name. L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume XXVII (Galaxy Press), edited by K. D. Wentworth, is the lastest in a long-running series featuring novice work by beginning writers, some of whom may later turn out to be important talents.

The best of the year’s fantasy anthologies (although an argument could be made for putting it in with the urban fantasy and paranormal anthologies discussed later) was probably Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 (Subterranean Press), edited by William Schafer, and featuring good stories by K. J. Parker, Bruce Sterling, William Browning Spencer, Jay Lake and Shannon Page, Norman Patridge, Kelley Armstrong, and others.

Pleasant but minor fantasy anthologies included Courts of the Fey (DAW Books), edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis, and Hot and Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance (DAW Books), edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg.

There were a number of anthologies exploring the confusing and sometimes contradictory area now known as “urban fantasy,” including Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy (St. Martin’s Press), edited by Ellen Datlow; Supernatural Noir (Dark Horse Books), edited by Ellen Datlow; Down These Strange Streets (Ace), edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois; Ghosts by Gaslight (HarperCollins Voyager), edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers; Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands (Random House), edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner; and Home Improvement: Undead Edition (Ace), edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner. Original horror anthologies included Teeth: Vampire Tales (Harper), edited by Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling; Blood and Other Cravings (Tor), edited by Ellen Datlow; A Book of Horrors (Jo Fletcher Books), edited by Stephen Jones; Zombiesque (DAW Books), edited by Stephen L. Antczak, James C. Basser, and Martin H. Greenberg; and a mixed reprint and original shapeshifter anthology, Bewere the Night (Prime Books), edited by Ekaterina Sedia.

Less easily classifiable stuff, dancing on the edge of one genre or another, included the entertaining and vaguely steampunkish The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (Harper Voyager), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer; Kafkaesque (Tachyon Publications), edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly; and Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales (Hades/EDGE Science Fiction), edited by Julie E. Czerneda and Susan MacGregor.

Shared-world anthologies included In Fire Forged (Baen Books), edited by David Weber; Golden Reflections: Stories of the Mask (Baen Books), edited by Joan Spicci Saberhagen and Robert E. Vardeman; and Under the Vale and Other Tales of Valdemar (DAW Books), edited by Mercedes Lackey.

Short fiction stalwarts such as Robert Reed, Michael Swanwick, and Ken MacLeod published a lot of good work this year, as usual, but so did prolific younger writers such as Lavie Tidhar, Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, Catherynne M. Valente, and Genevieve Valentine. Stories about Mars seemed popular this year, as did stories about ecological terrorists, and stories where SF was disguised as fantasy or even as fairy tales.

(Finding individual pricings for all of the items from small presses mentioned in the Summation has become too time-intensive, and since several of the same small presses publish anthologies, novels, and short-story collections, it seems silly to repeat addresses for them in section after section. Therefore, I’m going to attempt to list here, in one place, all the addresses for small presses that have books mentioned here or there in the Summation, whether from the anthologies section, the novel section, or the short-story collection section, and, where known, their Web site addresses. That should make it easy enough for the reader to look up the individual price of any book mentioned that isn’t from a regular trade publisher; such books are less likely to be found in your average bookstore, or even in a chain superstore, and so will probably have to be mail-ordered. Many publishers seem to sell only online, through their Web sites, and some will only accept payment through PayPal. Many books, even from some of the smaller presses, are also available through Amazon.com. If you can’t find an address for a publisher, and it’s quite likely that I’ve missed some here, or failed to update them successfully, Google it. It shouldn’t be that difficult these days to find up-to-date contact information for almost any publisher, however small.)

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PS Publishing, Grosvener House, 1 New Road, Hornsea, West Yorkshire, HU18 1PG, England, UK www.pspublishing.co.uk;

Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802, www.goldengryphon.com;

NESFA Press, P.O. Box 809, Framingham, MA 01701-0809, www.nesfa.org/press;

Subterranean Press, P.O. Box 190106, Burton, MI 48519, www.subterraneanpress.com;

Old Earth Books, P.O. Box 19951, Baltimore, MD 21211-0951, www.oldearthbooks.com;

Tachyon Press, 1459 18th St. #139, San Francisco, CA 94107, www.tachyonpublications.com;

Night Shade Books, 1470 NW Saltzman Road, Portland, OR 97229, www.nightshadebooks.com;

Five Star Books, 295 Kennedy Memorial Drive, Waterville, ME 04901, www.galegroup.com/fivestar;

NewCon Press, via www.newconpress.com;

Small Beer Press, 176 Prospect Ave., Northampton, MA 01060, www.smallbeerpress.com;

Locus Press, P.O. Box 13305, Oakland, CA 94661;

Crescent Books, Mercat Press Ltd., 10 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh, Scotland EH3 7AL, www.crescentfiction.com;

Wildside ress/Borgo Press, P.O. Box 301, Holicong, PA 18928-0301, or go to www.wildsidepress.com for pricing and ordering;

Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, Inc. and Tesseract Books, Ltd., P.O. Box 1714, Calgary, Alberta, T2P 2L7, Canada, www.edgewebsite.com;

Aqueduct Press, P.O. Box 95787, Seattle, WA 98145-2787, www.aqueductpress.com;

Phobos Books, 200 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003, www.phobosweb.com;

Fairwood Press, 5203 Quincy Ave. SE, Auburn, WA 98092, www.fairwoodpress.com;

BenBella Books, 6440 N. Central Expressway, Suite 508, Dallas, TX 75206, www.benbellabooks.com;

Darkside Press, 13320 27th Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98125, www.darksidepress.com;

Haffner Press, 5005 Crooks Rd., Suite 35, Royal Oak, MI 48073-1239, www.haffnerpress.com;

North Atlantic Press, P.O. Box 12327, Berkeley, CA 94701;

Prime Books, P.O. Box 36503, Canton, OH 44735, www.primebooks.net;

Fairwood Press, 5203 Quincy Ave. SE, Auburn, WA 98092, www.fairwoodpress.com;

MonkeyBrain Books, 11204 Crossland Drive, Austin, TX 78726, www.monkeybrainbooks.com;

Wesleyan University Press, University Press of New England, Order Dept., 37 Lafayette St., Lebanon, NH 03766-1405, www.wesleyan.edu/wespress;

Agog! Press, P.O. Box U302, University of Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia, www.uow.ed.au/~rhood/agogpress;

Wheatland Press, via www.wheatlandpress.com;

MirrorDanse Books, P.O. Box 3542, Parramatta NSW 2124, www.tabula-rasa.info/MirrorDanse;

Arsenal Pulp Press, 103–1014 Homer Street, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6B 2W9, www.arsenalpress.com;

DreamHaven Books, 912 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN 55408;

Elder Signs Press/Dimensions Books, order through www.dimensionsbooks.com;

Chaosium, via www.chaosium.com;

Spyre Books, P.O. Box 3005, Radford, VA 24143;

SCIFI, Inc., P.O. Box 8442, Van Nuys, CA 91409–8442;

Omnidawn Publishing, order through www.omnidawn.com;

CSFG, Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, www.csfg.org.au/publishing/anthologies/the_outcast;

Hadley Rille Books, via www.hadleyrillebooks.com;

ISFiC Press, 707 Saplilng Lane, Deerfield, IL 60015-3969, or www.isficpress.com;

Suddenly Press, via suddenlypress@yahoo.com;

Sandstone Press, P.O. Box 5725, One High St., Dingwall, Ross-shire, IV15 9WJ;

Tropism Press, via www.tropismpress.com;

SF Poetry Association/Dark Regions Press, www.sfpoetry.com, send checks to Helena Bell, SFPA Treasurer, 1225 West Freeman St., Apt. 12, Carbondale, IL 62401;

DH Press, via diamondbookdistributors.com;

Kurodahan Press, via www.kurodahan.com;

Ramble House, 443 Gladstone Blvd., Shreveport, LA 71104;

Interstitial Arts Foundation, via www.interstitialarts.org;

Raw Dog Screaming, via www.rawdogscreaming.com;

Three Legged Fox Books, 98 Hythe Road, Brighton, BN1 6JS, UK;

Norilana Books, via www.norilana.com;

coeur de lion, via coeurdelion.com.au;

PARSECink, via www.parsecink.org;

Robert J. Sawyer Books, via www.sfwriter.com/rjsbooks.htm;

Rackstraw Press, via http://rackstrawpress;

Candlewick, via www.candlewick.com;

Zubaan, via www.zubaanbooks.com;

Utter Tower, via www.threeleggedfox.co.uk;

Spilt Milk Press, via www.electricvelocipede.com;

Paper Golem, via www.papergolem.com;

Galaxy Press, via www.galaxypress.com.;

Twelfth Planet Press, via www.twelfthplanetpress.com;

Five Senses Press, via www.sensefive.com;

Elastic Press, via www.elasticpress.com;

Lethe Press, via www.lethepressbooks.com;

Two Cranes Press, via www.twocranespress.com;

Wordcraft of Oregon, via www.wordcraftoforegon.com;

Down East, via www.downeast.com.

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E-books have not yet driven print books out of existence, as some commentators insist that they eventually will, not by a long shot, although there are indications that they’re definitely having an effect, especially on mass-market paperbacks, and taking an increasing share of the market. There were still plenty of print books around in 2011. In fact, in spite of the recession and the e-book revolution, the number of novels published in the SF and fantasy genres increased for the fifth year in a row.

According to the newsmagazine Locus, there were a record 3,071 books “of interest to the SF field” published in 2011, up slightly from 3,056 titles in 2010. New titles hit a new high for the third year in a row, up 2 percent to 2,140, 70 percent of the total, while reprints dropped 3 percent for 931, their lowest point since 2000. (It’s worth noting that this total doesn’t count e-books, media tie-in novels, gaming novels, novelizations of genre movies, or print-on-demand books—all of which would swell the overall total by hundreds if counted.) The number of new SF novels was up 7 percent to 305 titles as opposed to 2010’s 285. The number of new fantasy novels was up by 7 percent, to 660 titles as opposed to 2010’s total of 614. Horror novels were down 9 percent to 229 titles as opposed to 2010’s 251 titles. Paranormal romances were up 8 percent to 416 titles as opposed to 2010’s 384 titles, second in numbers only to fantasy (although sometimes it’s almost a subjective call whether a particular novel should be pigeonholed as paranormal romance, fantasy, or horror).

All of these genres showed a sharp increase in young adult novels, up to 24 percent from 2010’s 20 percent in science fiction, up to 35 percent from 2010’s 34 percent in fantasy, and up to 31 percent from 2010’s 24 percent for horror. In SF, dystopian and postapocalyptic YA SF novels were one of the year’s hottest trends.

As usual, busy with all the reading I have to do at shorter lengths, I didn’t have time to read many novels myself this year, so I’ll limit myself to mentioning those novels that received a lot of attention and acclaim in 2011.

A Dance with Dragons (Bantam), by George R. R. Martin; Earthbound (Ace), by Joe Haldeman; City of Ruins (Pyr), by Kristine Kathryn Rusch; Embassytown (Del Rey), by China Miéville; Cowboy Angels (Pyr), by Paul McAuley; The Wise Man’s Fear (DAW Books), by Patrick Rothfuss; Among Others (Tor), by Jo Walton; This Shared Dream (Tor), by Kathleen Ann Goonan; Hex (Ace), by Allen Steele; Deep State (Orbit), by Walter Jon Williams; The Children of the Sky (Tor), by Vernor Vinge; Rule 34 (Ace), by Charles Stross; Planesrunner (Pyr), by Ian McDonald; Vortex (Tor), by Robert Charles Wilson; Betrayer (DAW Books), by C. J. Cherryh; Home Fires (Tor), by Gene Wolfe; Count to a Trillion (Tor), by John C. Wright; The Magician King (Viking), by Lev Grossman; All the Lives He Led (Tor), by Frederik Pohl; Daybreak Zero (Ace), by John Barnes; After the Golden Age (Tor), by Carrie Vaughn; Kitty’s Big Trouble (Tor), by Carrie Vaughn; Leviathan Wakes (Orbit), by James S. A. Corey; 7th Sigma (Tor), by Steven Gould; The Dragon’s Path (Orbit), by Daniel Abraham; Deathless (Tor), by Catherynne M. Valente; The Heroes (Orbit), by Joe Abercrombe; Bronze Summer (Gollancz), by Stephen Baxter; Stone Spring (Gollancz), by Stephen Baxter; Endurance (Tor), by Jay Lake; The Tempering of Men (Tor), by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear; Goliath (Simon Pulse), by Scott Westerfeld; The Cold Commands (Del Rey), by Richard Morgan; Grail (Spectra), by Elizabeth Bear; Fuzzy Nation (Tor), by John Scalzi; The Islanders (Gollancz), by Christopher Priest; Reamde (HarperCollins), by Neal Stephenson; By Light Alone (Gollancz) by Adam Roberts; Firebird (Ace), by Jack McDevitt; The Hammer (Orbit), by K. J. Parker; The Highest Frontier (Tor), by Joan Slonczewski; The Kings of Eternity (Solaris), by Eric Brown; Remade (William Morrow), by Neal Stephenson; The Kings of Eternity (Solaris), by Eric Brown; Raising Stony Mayhall (Del Rey), by Daryl Gregory; 11/23/63 (Scribner), by Stephen King; and Snuff (HarperCollins), by Terry Pratchett.

I still hear the complaint that there are no SF books left to buy these days, that they’ve all been driven off the shelves by fantasy books, but although there’s a good deal of fantasy in the titles given here, the Haldeman, the Rusch, the Miéville, the McAuley, the Goonan, the Steele, the Williams, the Vinge, the Stross, the McDonald, the Wilson, the Wright, the Corey, the Pohl, the McDevitt, and a number of others are unquestionably core science fiction, and many more could be cited from the lists of small press novels and first novels. There’s still more good core SF out there than any one person could possibly have time to read in the course of a year.

Small presses are active in the novel market these days, where once they published mostly collections and anthologies. Novels issued by small presses this year included: The Clockwork Rocket (Night Shade Books), by Greg Egan; Dancing with Bears (Night Shade Books), by Michael Swanwick; Osama: A Novel (PS Publishing), by Lavie Tidhar; Wake Up and Dream (PS Publishing), by Ian R. MacLeod; The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Feiwel and Friends), by Catherynne M. Valente; The Folded World (Night Shade Books), by Catherynne M. Valente; The Uncertain Places (Tachyon Publications), by Lisa Goldstein; The Other (Underland Press), by Matthew Hughes; Heart of Iron (Prime Books), by Ekaterina Sedia; Infidel (Night Shade Books), by Kameron Hurley; Scratch Monkey (NESFA Press), by Charles Stross; and Dark Tangos (Subterranean Press), by Lewis Shiner.

The year’s first novels included: Robopocalypse (Doubleday), by Daniel H. Wilson; Ready Player One (Crown Publishers), by Ernest Cline; Soft Apocalypse (Night Shade Books), by Will McIntosh; Debris (Angry Robot), by Jo Anderton; Mechanique (Prime Books), by Genevieve Valentine; Necropolis (Night Shade Books), by Michael Dempsey; The Falling Machine (Pyr), by Andrew Mayer; The Traitor’s Daughter (Spectra), by Paula Brandon; No Hero (Night Shade Books), by Jonathan Wood; The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Greenwillow), by Rae Carson; 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America (St. Martin’s Press), by Albert Brooks; God’s War (Night Shade Books), by Hurley Kameron; Reality 36 (Angry Robot), by Guy Haley; Spellcast (DAW Books), by Barbara Ashford; Sword of Fire and Sea (Pyr), by Erin Hoffman; Low Town (Doubleday), by Daniel Polansky; Kindling the Moon (Pocket Books), by Jenn Bennett; Farlander (Tor), by Col Buchanan; Revolution World (Night Shade Books), by Katy Stauber; A Discovery of Witches (Viking), by Deborah Harkness; The Tiger’s Wife (Random House), by Téa Obreht; The Night Circus (Doubleday), by Erin Morgenstern; The Desert of Souls (Thomas Durine Books), by Howard Andrew Jones; The Unremembered (Tor), by Peter Orullilan; Seed (Night Shade Books), by Rob Ziegler; Of Blood and Honey (Night Shade Books), by Stina Leicht; Among Thieves (Roc), by Douglas Hulick; Awakenings (Tor), by Edward D. Lazellari; Miserere: An Autumn Tale (Night Shade Books), by Teresa Frohock; and The Whitefire Crossing (Night Shade Books), by Courtney Schafer. Unlike last year, when Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief soaked up most of the attention, none of these novels seemed to have a real edge in attention or acclaim.

Night Shade Books obviously published a lot of novels this year, particularly for a small press, and was particularly active in first novels.

The strongest novella chapbook of the year, by a good margin, was Silently and Very Fast (WSFA Press), by Catherynne M. Valente, but there were other good novella chapbooks as well, such as Jesus and the Eightfold Path (Immersion Press), by Lavie Tidhar; Angel of Europa (Subterranean Press), by Allen Steele; Blue and Gold (Subterranean Press), by K. J. Parker; Gravity Dreams (PS Publishing), by Stephen Baxter; The White City (Subterranean Press), by Elizabeth Bear; A Brood of Foxes (Aqueduct), by Kristin Livdahl; The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs (Subterranean Press), by James P. Blaylock; and The Ice Puzzle (PS Publishing), by Catherynne M. Valente.

Novel omnibuses this year included: Flandry’s Legacy (Baen Books), by Poul Anderson; Rise of the Terran Empire (Baen Books), by Poul Anderson; Introducing Garrett, P.I. (Roc), by Glen Cook; Galactic Courier (Baen Books), by A. Bertram Chandler; The Crystal Variation (Baen Books), by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller; Moonsinger’s Quest (Baen Books), by Andre Norton; and Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963–1973 (The Library of America), an omnibus of four novels, three stories, and three nonfiction pieces by Vonnegut. Novel omnibuses are also frequently made available through the Science Fiction Book Club.

* * *

Not even counting print-on-demand books and the availability of out-of-print books as e-books or as electronic downloads from Internet sources such as Fictionwise, a lot of long out-of-print stuff has come back into print in the last couple of years in commercial trade editions. Here are some out-of-print titles that came back into print this year, although producing a definitive list of reissued novels is probably impossible. Tor reissued The Dragons of Babel, by Michael Swanwick; A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge; Gods of Riverworld, by Philip Jose Farmer; Territory, by Emma Bull; Mindscan, by Robert J. Sawyer; Sati, by Christopher Pike; The Season of Passage, by Christopher Pike; Fleet of Worlds, by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner; The Darkest Part of the Woods, by Ramsey Campbell; and A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, by Harry Harrison. Orb reissued: Stations of the Tide, by Michael Swanwick; A Bridge of Years, by Robert Charles Wilson; The Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson; Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner; and Trouble and Her Friends, by Melissa Scott. Tor Teen reissued Sister Light, Sister Dark, by Jane Yolen. Baen Books reissued Starman Jones, by Robert A. Heinlein. Night Shade Books reissued An Ill Fate Marshalling, Reap the East Wind, and A Matter of Time, all by Glen Cook. Small Beer Press reissued The Child Garden, by Geoff Ryman, Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang; and Solitaire, by Kelley Eskridge. Angry Robot reissued Infernal Devices and Morlock Night, both by K. W. Jeter. Subterranean Press reissued Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, by Robert Bloch. Tachyon Publications reissued Promises to Keep, by Charles de Lint. Ace reissued The Terminal Experiment, by Robert J. Sawyer. Ballantine Spectra reissued The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Ballantine Del Rey reissued Conan the Barbarian, by Robert E. Howard. William Morrow reissued American Gods, The Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Neil Gaiman. Harper Perennial reissued The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. HarperCollins reissued Abarat, by Clive Barker. Prime Books reissued The Bone Key: The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth, by Sarah Monette. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reissued The Divine Invasion, by Philip K. Dick. Titan Books reissued Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman. Harper reissued On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers. St. Martin’s Griffin reissued The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Cornbluth.

Many authors are now reissuing their old back titles as e-books, either through a publisher or all by themselves, so many that it’s impossible to keep track of them all here. Before you conclude that something from an author’s backlist is unavailable, though, check with the Kindle and NOOK stores, and with other online vendors.

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2011 was another good year for short-story collections. The year’s best nonretrospective collections included: After the Apocalypse (Small Beer Press), by Maureen McHugh; Gothic High-Tech (Subterranean Press), by Bruce Sterling; Paradise Tales (Small Beer Press), by Geoff Ryman; The Bible Repairman and Other Stories (Tachyon Publications), by Tim Powers; The Universe of Things (Aqueduct Press), by Gwyneth Jones; The Inheritance and Other Stories (Harper Voyager), by Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm; Unpossible and Other Stories (Fairwood Press), by Daryl Gregory; and Sleight of Hand (Tachyon Publications), by Peter S. Beagle. Also good were Wind Angels (PS Publishing), by Leigh Kennedy; Kitty’s Greatest Hits (Tor), by Carrie Vaughn; The Wild Girls (PM Press—omnibus of one story, two essays, one interview, and four poems), by Ursula K. Le Guin; Yellowcake (Allen & Unwin), by Margo Lanagan; Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles (Titan Books), by Kim Newman; Translation Station (The Merry Blacksmith Press), by Don D’Ammassa; Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories (Lethe Press), by Sandra McDonald; Dragon Virus (Fairwood Press), by Laura Anne Gilman; Somewhere Beneath These Waves (Prime Books), by Sarah Monette; Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press), by Tansy Rayner Roberts; Manhattan in Reverse (Pan MacMillan), by Peter F. Hamilton; Steel and Other Stories (Tor), by Richard Matheson; Something More and More (Aqueduct Press—omnibus of two stories, three essays, and an interview), by Nisi Shawl; The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (PM Press—omnibus of a long novella, plus essays and interviews), by Cory Doctorow; Never at Home (Aqueduct Press), by L. Timmel Duchamp; and Aurora in Four Voices (ISFIC Press), by Catherine Asaro.

Noted without comment is When the Great Days Come (Prime Books), by Gardner Dozois.

Career-spanning retrospective collections this year included: Admiralty: Volume 4 of the Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson (NESFA Press), by Poul Anderson; Shannach—The Last: Farewell to Mars (Haffner Press), by Leigh Brackett; The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six: Multiples 1983–1987 (Subterranean Press), by Robert Silverberg; Hunt the Space-Witch: Seven Adventures in Time and Space (Paizo/Planet Stories), by Robert Silverberg; At the Human Limit, The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, Volume Eight (Haffner Press), by Jack Williamson; The Universe Wreckers, The Collected Edmond Hamilton (Haffner Press), by Edmond Hamilton; The Collected Captain Future, Man of Tomorrow, Volume Two (Haffner Press), by Edmond Hamilton; The Collected Captain Future, Man of Tomorrow, Volume Three (Haffner Press), by Edmond Hamilton; Terror in the House: The Early Kuttner, Volume One (Haffner Press), by Henry Kuttner; The Miscellaneous Writings of Clark Ashton Smith (Night Shade Books), by Clark Ashton Smith; Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant (PS Publishing), by Charles L. Grant; Collected Ghost Stories (Oxford University Press), by M. R. James; The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (PS Publishing), by Ramsey Campbell; and Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan (Volume One) (Subterranean Press), by Caitlín R. Kiernan.

As has become usual, small presses again dominated the list of short-story collections, with Haffner Press and Subterranean Press being particularly active in the issuing of retrospective collections.

A wide variety of “electronic collections,” often called “fiction bundles,” too many to individually list here, are also available for downloading online, at sites such as Fictionwise and ElectricStory, and the Science Fiction Book Club continues to issue new collections as well.

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As usual, among the most reliable buys in the reprint anthology market are the various Best of the Year anthologies, although this is an area in constant flux, with old series disappearing and new series being born. This year seemed to be relatively stable. At the moment, science fiction is being covered by three anthologies (actually, technically, by two anthologies and by two separate half anthologies): the one you are reading at the moment, The Year’s Best Science Fiction series from St. Martin’s Press, edited by Gardner Dozois, now up to its twenty-ninth annual collection; the Year’s Best SF series (Harper Voyager), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, now up to its sixteenth annual volume; the science fiction half of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Five (Night Shade Books), edited by Jonathan Strahan; and the science fiction half of The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy: 2011 Edition (Prime Books), edited by Rich Horton (in practice, of course, these books probably won’t divide neatly in half with their coverage, and there’s likely to be more of one thing than another). The annual Nebula Awards anthology, which covers science fiction as well as fantasy of various sorts, functions as a de facto Best of the Year anthology, although it’s not usually counted among them; this year’s edition was Nebula Awards Showcase 2011 (Tor), edited by Kevin J. Anderson. (A similar series covering the Hugo winners began in 2010, but swiftly died.) There were three Best of the Year anthologies covering horror: The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Three (Night Shade Books), edited by Ellen Datlow; The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: 22 (Running Press), edited by Stephen Jones; and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, 2011 Edition (Prime Books), edited by Paula Guran. This year there was also The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners (Cemetery Dance Publications), edited by Joe R. Lansdale, although it’s unclear whether this is going to be a continuing series. Fantasy is covered by the fantasy halves of the Stranhan and Horton anthologies (plus whatever stories fall under the Dark Fantasy part of Guran’s anthology), but with the death of Kevin Brockmeier’s Best American Fantasy series last year, the only remaining Best of the Year anthology dedicated solely to fantasy is David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy series—Year’s Best Fantasy 10 was announced as forthcoming by Kathryn Cramer in her blog, but I haven’t actually seen a copy, and it isn’t listed on Amazon, so whether this will actually appear is anyone’s guess. There was also The 2011 Rhysling Anthology (Science Fiction Poetry Association), edited by David Lunde, which compiles the Rhysling Award–winning SF poetry of the year.

There were a large number of good stand-alone reprint anthologies this year. Although it’s a bit of an oddity, a discussion of reprint anthologies published in 2011 wouldn’t be complete without mention of Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction (Wildside Press), edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman, which earns the odd distinction of being perhaps the largest SF anthology ever published: almost a thousand pages, roughly the size of an old-fashioned telephone directory, weighing five pounds, containing 148 stories and 62 specialized essays about various authors and categories of science fiction. At almost fifty bucks, this will probably be too expensive for most casual readers (there is an e-book version available for forty bucks), but it’s a great choice for libraries and serious collectors, practically being a one-volume library, containing memorable stories by Damon Knight, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, Robert A. Heinlein, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Edgar Pangborn, Terry Bisson, Pat Murphy, James Patrick Kelly, Gene Wolfe, Howard Waldrop, Maureen McHugh, Greg Bear, Michael Swanwick, Bruce Sterling, Jack Vance, L. Sprague de Camp, Nancy Kress, Nalo Hopkinson, Ted Chiang, Pat Cadigan, Cory Doctorow, Connie Willis, Karen Joy Fowler, Kim Stanley Robinson, and many others.

Another enormous reprint anthology that spans decades of genre work, examining fantasy-horror rather than science fiction, is The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (Corvus), edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, which devotes 1,152 pages to 110 stories from many historic periods by writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, George R. R. Martin, Mervyn Peake, William Gibson, China Miéville, Angela Carter, Michael Chabon, and many, many others.

Also good—although considerably smaller—is Alien Contact (Night Shade Books), edited by Marty Halpern, stories about contacts with aliens, all of them science fiction (and all of them considerably more varied, subtle, and intelligent than the flood of shoot- ’em-up alien invasion movies we got over the last year or so), featuring work by Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick, Bruce McAllister, Molly Gloss, Pat Cadigan, Nancy Kress, Neil Gaiman, George Alec Effinger, Cory Doctorow, Stephen Baxter, Mike Resnick, Harry Turtledove, and thirteen others. Brave New Worlds (Night Shade Books) is a reprint anthology of dystopian stories edited by John Joseph Adams, most of them pretty depressing but also pretty powerful, including stories by Shirley Jackson, Geoff Ryman, Kate Wilhelm, Kim Stanley Robinson, Alex Irvine, Cory Doctorow, Harlan Ellison, and others. Lightspeed: Year One (Prime Books), edited by John Joseph Adams, is a collection of the first year’s worth of stories from electronic online magazine Lightspeed, featuring good work by Carrie Vaughn, Yoon Ha Lee, Ted Kosmatka, Vylar Kaftan, and others, and reprints by Ursula K. Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman, and others. Future Media (Tachyon Publications), edited by Rick Wilber, is an anthology of views of the media age, featuring reprint stories by Pat Cadigan, Gregory Benford, James Tiptree, Jr., and others, plus essays by Marshall McLuhan, Vannevar Bush, and others. Battlestations (Prime Books), edited by David Drake and Bill Fawcett, is an omnibus of two previously published anthologies of military SF.

Less dark and more lighthearted is Happily Ever After (Night Shade Books), an anthology of retold fairy tales edited by John Klima, and featuring strong work by Howard Waldrop, Gregory Frost, Bruce Sterling, Nancy Kress, Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Theodora Goss, Garth Nix, and others. People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy (Prime Books), edited by Rachel Swirsky and Sean Wallace, features SF and fantasy stories (mostly fantasy), by Peter S. Beagle, Theodora Goss, Jane Yolen, Alex Irvine, Neil Gaiman, Benjamin Rosenbaum, and Michael Chabon.

There were a lot of reprint horror anthologies this year, including several urban fantasy/paranormal anthologies. The best of these was probably The Urban Fantasy Anthology (Tachyon Publications), edited by Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale, which featured good stories by Neil Gaiman, Peter S. Beagle, Tim Powers, Thomas M. Disch, Bruce McAllister, Joe R. Lansdale, Susan Palwick, Charles de Lint, Suzy McKee Charnas, Carrie Vaughn, Patty Briggs, Emma Bull, and others. The somewhat grittier Crucified Dreams (Tachyon Publications), edited by Joe R. Lansdale, features strong reprints by Harlan Ellison, Lucius Shepard, Joe Haldeman, Octavia Butler, Stephen King, and others. And 2011 brought us two reprint anthologies that give us an interesting overview of the recent work of younger writers who have been influenced by H. P. Lovecraft enough to want to play in his Cthulhu mythos universe, The Book of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books), edited by Ross E. Lockhart, and New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (Prime Books), edited by Paula Guran. The best stories in The Book of Cthulhu include works by Michael Shea, Gene Wolfe, T.E.D. Klein, Bruce Sterling, and Laird Barron. The best stories in New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird include works by Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, and Paul McAuley. Stories by Charles Stross, Elizabeth Bear, and Cherie Priest appear in both volumes. There were two reprint anthologies of zombie stories, Zombies!, Zombies!, Zombies! (Vintage Black Lizard), edited by Otto Penzler, and Z: Zombie Stories (Night Shade Books), edited by J. M. Lassen, and a book of vampire stories, Vampires: The Recent Undead (Prime Books), edited by Paula Guran.

There were also two massive reprint anthologies, The Century’s Best Horror Fiction, Volume One: 1901–1950 and The Century’s Best Horror Fiction, Volume Two: 1951–2000 (Cemetery Dance Publications), both edited by John Pelan.

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It was a solid but unexciting year in the genre-oriented nonfiction category. There were a number of books of essays by or about genre authors, including Bugf#ck: The Useless Wit and Wisdom of Harlan Ellison (Spectrum Fantastic Art), by Harlan Ellison, edited by Arnie Fenner; The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. (Doubleday), by Jonathan Lethem; Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels (Seven Stories Press), by Gregory D. Sumner; And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (Henry Holt and Co.), by Charles J. Shields; Context (Tachyon Publications), by Cory Doctorow; The Sookie Stackhouse Companion (Ace), by Charlaine Harris (which also contains a previously unpublished Sookie Stackhouse novella); The Hollows Insider (Harper Voyager) by Kim Harrison; In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Doubleday), by Margaret Atwood; Becoming Ray Bradbury (University of Illinois Press), by Jonathan R. Eller; and Musings and Meditations: Reflections on Science Fiction, Science, and Other Matters (Nonstop Press), by Robert Silverberg.

There was an autobiography, Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolf von Bitter Rucker (Tor), by Rudy Rucker; an assembly of lectures by genre figures, Thirty-Five Years of the Jack Williamson Lectureship (Haffner Press), compiled by Patrice Caldwell and Stephen Haffner; two books of reviews, Sightings: Reviews 2002–2006 (Beccon Publications), by Gary K. Wolfe, and Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (Beccon Publications), by John Clute; and, as usual, several books about science fiction itself, including Evaporating Genres: Essays of Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan University Press), by Gary Wolfe; Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future (McFarland & Company, Inc.), edited by Gary Westfahl, Wong Kin Yuen, and Amy Kit-sze Chan; and Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), by David Seed. A study of the steampunk subgenre was The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature (Abrams Image), by Jeff VanderMeer with S. J. Chambers (which probably earns the award for most colorful title of the year).

An offbeat item is a collection of essays about pioneering genre movies by the late Kage Baker, Ancient Rockets: Treasures and Trainwrecks of the Silent Screen (Tachyon Publications), by Kage Baker, edited by Kathleen Bartholomew. An even more offbeat item—in fact, perhaps the oddest book you’ll read this year—was posthumously assembled from the extensive notebooks left behind by the late Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), edited by Pamela Jackson, Jonathan Lethem, and Erik Davis. I made my way through ten or twenty pages of this, and put the book down feeling that it left the question of whether Dick was a genius or completely insane up in the air—but, whichever it was, I was much too stupid to successfully absorb his Exegesis. I suspect all but the most dedicated Phil Dick fans (or those who are geniuses themselves) will probably bounce off it as well.

Not technically genre-oriented, but a book that will interest many genre readers, and one that is sorely needed, in these credulous times when more Americans believe in angels than in evolution, and many don’t even believe that the moon shines by reflected light from the sun, is Denying Science: Conspiracy Theories, Media Distortions, and the War Against Reality (Prometheus Books), by SF writer John Grant.

2011 was another weak year in the art-book market, even weaker than the year before. As usual, your best bet was probably the latest in a long-running Best of the Year series for fantastic art, Spectrum 18: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art (Underwood Books), edited by Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner. Also quite good were Masters of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art (Rockport Publishers, Inc.), assembled by Karen Haber; Exposé 9: Finest Digital Art in the Known Universe (Ballistic Publishing), by Daniel P. Wade; A Tolkien Tapestry: Pictures to Accompany The Lord of the Rings (HarperCollins); and Fantasy + 3: Best Hand-Painted Illustrations (CYPI/Gingko Press), edited by Vincent Zhao.

There were a few excellent books collecting the works of single artists, the best of which was probably Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss (Titan), by Chris Foss, although Jeffrey Jones: A Life in Art (IDW Publishing), by Jeffrey Jones, was also very good, and Mark Schultz: Various Drawings, Volume 5 (Flesk), by Mark Schultz, was worthwhile as well. Girl Genius Book Ten: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse is the latest in the Hugo-winning series by Phil Foglio and Kaja Foglio, and Lost & Found: Three by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine Books) is a collection of picture books by the creator of last year’s Oscar-nominated short film, The Lost Thing, which is included.

An odd item, straddling the line between nonfiction and art, is Out of This World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It (British Library), by Mike Ashley, a catalogue of this year’s British Library SF exhibition, a mixture of text and art that covers six centuries of speculative art from 1482 to the present.

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According to the Box Office Mojo Web site (www.boxofficemojo.com), seven out of ten of the year’s top-earning movies were genre films of one sort or another, if you accept animated films and superhero movies as being “genre films.” (Somewhat unusually these days, there were two nongenre movies in the top ten: The Hangover Part II and Fast Five.) Four out of five of the year’s top five box-office champs were genre movies by the above somewhat loose definition, as were twelve out of the top twenty earners, twenty-seven of the top fifty, and roughly forty out of the top one hundred, more or less (I might have missed one here or there, and there are some fuzzy calls in classification). Three of the top five were fantasy movies, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and one was a science fiction movie (albeit a rather silly one), Transformers: Dark of the Moon. (The Hangover Part II was the only nongenre movie to break the top five, coming in fourth.) The following five were made up of an animated movie (Cars 2), a superhero movie (Thor), and a science fiction movie (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), with the nongenre Fast Five and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol cutting in at sixth place and seventh place overall out of ten. Further down the list were superhero movie Captain America: The First Avenger at twelth place, the steampunkish Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (technically not a genre movie, although the physical action was unlikely enough that you could make a not unreasonable case for considering it a fantasy, and Holmes has always been associated with the genre) at ninth, animated film Kung Fu Panda 2 at fifteenth place, animated film Puss in Boots at sixteenth, superhero movie X-Men: First Class at seventeenth, semi-animated (it also featured human actors, interacting with the CGI characters) film The Smurfs at nineteenth, and Spielberg/monster-movie homage Super 8 at twenty-first.

This shouldn’t surprise anybody—genre films of one sort or another have dominated the box office top ten for more than a decade now. You have to go all the way back to 1998 to find a year when the year’s top earner was a nongenre film, Saving Private Ryan.

The year’s number one box office champ was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which so far has earned a staggering $1,328,111,219 worldwide. Transformers: Dark of the Moon also earned more than a billion dollars worldwide, as did Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, with a steep drop-off thereafter to The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1, which earned “only” $702,316,133.

In spite of these immense sums, it wasn’t a particularly good year at the box office overall for the movie industry. Overall profits were down 3.8 percent to 10.17 billion from 2010, and ticket sales fell 4.7 percent to 1.28 billion, the worst since 1995. I suspect that, in the grip of a worsening recession, it’s getting to be just too expensive to go to the movies for an average family, especially when most movies will be available on DVD or on the Internet in only a matter of months. The ability of 3-D to make moviegoers pay more per ticket, something that’s been propping up profits, seems to be wearing thin as well, probably because there are so few films that 3-D actually adds anything to; often, in fact, it makes the moviegoing experience worse, muddying the colors and darkening the paleatte. It should also perhaps make the movie industry uneasy that the highest-grossing nonsequel of the year was Thor; all the rest of the top ten movies were sequels. Which makes you wonder how many times you can go to the same well before it runs dry.

There were a few actual SF movies by my definition (as opposed to junk popcorn bad-science SF extravaganzas like Transformers: Dark of the Moon), and a few of them were even pretty good, but few of them were wild successes at the box office. Of the movies that got some kind of critical respect, the one that did the best was Super 8, which finished at twenty-first. It was half of a good movie, with the early Spielberg homage stuff, following kids who are trying to make an amateur monster movie, brilliant and effective; when the real monster starts showing up, things go downhill, and I couldn’t help but feel that it would have been a better movie without the monster altogether. Similarly, Cowboys and Aliens, which only made it to thirtieth on the list, was also half of a good movie, with the cowboy setup interesting, but suffered increasingly from bad writing and the ridiculous motivations for the actions of the aliens (which really made no sense) as it went along; they might have been better off making it as a straight cowboy movie if they couldn’t do a better job with the “aliens” part. Real Steel, perhaps the film that came closest this year to being a core SF movie, based on a Richard Matheson story about boxing robots, widely described as “Rocky with robots,” only finished thirty-fifth on the list. Contagion was a somber and realistic look at the spread of a worldwide pandemic, without extraneous car chases and gun battles thrown in—which is perhaps why it only made it to forty-fifth on the list. The Adjustment Bureau only made it to fifty-sixth place, perhaps indicating that people are getting tired of Philip K. Dick movies. The two best-reviewed genre movies of the year, Woody Allen’s time-travel love letter to 1920s Paris, Midnight in Paris, and Martin Scorsese’s steampunkish homage to Georges Melies (perhaps the closest anyone has yet come to putting a Howard Waldrop story on film), Hugo, finished fifty-ninth and fifty-second respectively. Paul, a mixture of slob comedy with Area 51/alien stuff in the form of a road picture, came in eighty-first.

The two worst-reviewed, most critically savaged, genre movies of the year were probably Green Lantern (twenty-fourth) and The Green Hornet (thirty-second)—although it is perhaps a bit too much to hope that this indicates that superhero movies are wearing thin too. (You’ll be seeing a lot more of them next year.)

Most of the buzz about movies coming up in 2012 so far seems to be going to The Hobbit, the Peter Jackson–directed prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies, to Prometheus, the prequel to Alien, to the Avengers movie, to the new Star Trek movie (although that probably will be in 2013 rather than in 2012), and to The Dark Knight Rises, the last of the Christopher Nolan–directed Batman movies. John Carter, a film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, is a movie I would have been absolutely wild to see when I was thirteen. There’s is a film version of the bestselling YA series, The Hunger Games, and a reboot of the pioneering TV vampire soap opera Dark Shadows as a movie, starring Johnny Depp. People seem to be divided between anticipation and dread for the reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man. Nobody seems to be looking forward to another Men in Black sequel, but that won’t stop them from making it anyway. There’s also going to be the second half of the last Twilight movie, which, although it totally unexcites me, will no doubt be among the box office champs of 2012.

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The big story of 2011, as far as SF and fantasy shows on television are concerned, was the huge success of HBO’s A Game of Thrones, based on the bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. Response to A Game of Thrones was immense, generating buzz far beyond the usual boundaries of the genre, generating commentary in places like The New York Times, and inspiring references in comic strips, game shows, The Big Bang Theory, and even drawing a satire from The Onion—and making George R. R. Martin, who was already famous within the SF/fantasy genre, a widely recognizable figure outside it as well. HBO’s other genre show, the campy vampire show True Blood, had a disappointing fourth season that turned off many of its core viewing demographic; let’s hope they can do better with the upcoming fifth season (what they primarily need is to increase the quality of the writing, which sagged this season, and bring it back up to its former high standard; the actors are mostly pretty good, but they can only work with what they’re given).

The two biggest debuts of SF shows in 2011 were probably Terra Nova, in which scientists escape through time from a doomed and ruined Earth to attempt to restart the human race in a prehistoric era, and Falling Skies, in which embattled guerilla militiamen battle alien invasion forces who have destroyed much of the Earth and killed most of the people, both expensive shows for television, and both produced by movie director Steven Spielberg, in his first foray into television. Falling Skies, which is perfectly valid as a genuine bit of military SF, although offering nothing that print SF fans haven’t seen dozens of times before, seems to have established itself, but Terra Nova, the more expensive of the two to produce, because of all those CGI dinosaurs, is wobbling badly in the ratings, and may not make it. Another Spielberg-produced show, The River, which looks like a Lost-flavored horror series, is coming up.

Cult favorite SF show Fringe, another expensive show to produce, is also wobbling in the ratings, and may not make it. If Fringe and Terra Nova do die, they’ll be following many another expensive special effects heavy shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Firefly, and Stargate and its sequels into oblivion—the clear lesson being that supernatural shows, which are far less expensive to produce than SF shows (all you really need is some creature makeup), are more likely to survive on television than SF shows, particularly ones that take place in outer space. Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead, Teen Wolf, and American Horror Story are all coming back, to be joined by new supernatural shows, such as The Secret Circle, about witches, The Fades, House of Anubis, and the dueling fairy-tale series, Grimm and Once Upon a Time.

No Ordinary Family and The Cape died, and the long-running Smallville finished its final season, leaving the airways momentarily cleared of superheroes, although that probably won’t last long. V died. Spy spoof Chuck will finish its fifth and final half season in 2012. A Gifted Man, a rather peculiar attempt to cross the doctor show and the ghost show, featuring a doctor who is haunted by the nagging ghost of his wife, is sinking, and may already be gone by the time you read this. A new show, Touch, which, as far as I can tell from the coming attractions is about an autistic boy with preternatural powers of some sort, started early in the year; too early to tell how it’s going to be received.

The SF comedies Eureka and Warehouse 13 are returning, as are Doctor Who and Primeval and the British version of Being Human, although the fates of the American spin-offs of Torchwood and Being Human are uncertain, and they may both be dead. The animated SF satire Futurama, after being canceled for a couple of years and spinning off a couple of special features, is returning to regular production. Another animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is also returning. Mention should probably be made here of The Big Bang Theory, which, although not strictly a genre show, is so chockful of sly geek knowledge references to movie and television SF, print SF, online gaming, science, and comic books that I can’t imagine that it doesn’t appeal to the majority of genre readers.

A miniseries version of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars has been promised for a couple of years now, but has yet to make an appearance.

The 69th World Science Fiction Convention, Renovation, was held in Reno, Nevada, from August 17 to August 21, 2011. The 2011 Hugo Awards, presented at Renovation, were: Best Novel, Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis; Best Novella, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” by Ted Chiang; Best Novelette, “The Emperor of Mars,” by Allen M. Steele; Best Short Story, “For Want of a Nail,” by Mary Robinette Kowal; Best Related Work, Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea; Best Editor, Long Form, Lou Anders; Best Editor, Short Form, Sheila Williams; Best Professional Artist, Shaun Tan; Best Dramatic Presentation (short form), Doctor Who: “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang”; Best Dramatic Presentation (long form), Inception; Best Graphic Story, Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, by Kaja and Phil Foglio, art by Phil Foglio; Best Semiprozine, Clarkesworld; Best Fanzine, The Drink Tank; Best Fan Writer, Claire Brialey; Best Fan Artist, Brad W. Foster; plus the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer to Lev Grossman.

The 2010 Nebula Awards, presented at a banquet at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., on May 21, 2011, were: Best Novel, Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis; Best Novella, “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window,” by Rachel Swirsky; Best Novelette, “That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made,” by Eric James Stone; Best Short Story (tie), “Ponies,” by Kij Johnson and “How Interesting: A Tiny Man,” by Harlan Ellison; Ray Bradbury Award, Inception; the Andre Norton Award to I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett; and Solstice Awards to Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree, Jr.) and Michael Whelan.

The 2011 World Fantasy Awards, presented at a banquet on October 30, 2011, in San Diego, California, during the Twentieth Annual World Fantasy Convention, were: Best Novel, Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor; Best Novella, “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon,” by Elizabeth Hand; Best Short Story, “Fossil-Figures,” by Joyce Carol Oates; Best Collection, What I Didn’t See and Other Stories, by Karen Joy Fowler; Best Anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer; Best Artist, Kinuko Y. Craft; Special Award (Professional), to Marc Gascoigne, for Angry Robot; Special Award (Nonprofessional), to Alisa Krasnostein, for Twelfth Planet Press; plus the Life Achievement Award to Peter S. Beagle and Angélica Gorodischer.

The 2010 Bram Stoker Awards, presented by the Horror Writers of America on June 19, 2011, at the Long Island Marriott Hotel in Uniondale, New York, were: Best Novel, A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub; Best First Novel, Black and Orange, by Benjamin Kane Ethridge and Castle of Los Angeles, by Lisa Morton; Best Long Fiction, Invisible Fences, by Norman Prentiss; Best Short Fiction, “The Folding Man,” by Joe R. Lansdale; Best Collection, Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King; Best Anthology, Haunted Legends, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas; Nonfiction, To Each Their Darkness, by Gary A. Braunbeck; Best Poetry Collection, Dark Matters, by Bruce Boston; plus Lifetime Achievement Awards to Ellen Datlow and Al Feldstein.

The 2011 John W. Campbell Memorial Award was won by The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald.

The 2011 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for Best Short Story was won by “The Sultan of the Clouds,” by Geoffrey A. Landis.

The 2011 Philip K. Dick Memorial Award went to The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder.

The 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award was won by Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes.

The 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award was won by Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugresic.

The 2011 Sidewise Award went to When Angels Wept, by Eric G. Swedin (Long Form) and “A Clash of Eagles,” by Alan Smale (Short Form).

The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award went to Katherine MacLean.

* * *

Dead in 2011 or early 2012 were: Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductee and SFWA Grandmaster Anne McCaffery, 85, the first woman to win a Hugo and Nebula Award, author of more than a hundred books, including the famous and bestselling Pern series, whose best-known works are probably “Weyr Search,” “Dragonriders,” and The White Dragon, the first SF novel to make the New York Times Best Seller List, a friend; Hugo, Nebula, and Tiptree award-winner

Joanna Russ, 74, SF writer and critic, author of such acclaimed books as The Female Man, Picnic on Paradise, and And Chaos Died, as well as much short fiction years ahead of its time, such as “Nobody’s Home,” “When It Changed,” “Souls,” and the Alyx stories, and also of many books of critical essays, a friend; distinguished fantasist

Diana Wynne Jones, 76, winner of the World Fantasy Convention’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and author of forty books, including the Chrestomanci series, Archer’s Goon, Howl’s Moving Castle, which was later made into an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, and satirical nonfiction work, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland;

Russell Hoban, 86, author of more than fifty children’s books, including a long-running series about Frances the badger, perhaps best known to genre audiences for his adult SF novel Riddley Walker, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Ditmar Award;

Thomas J. Bassler, 79, who wrote SF as T. J. BASS, best known for his work in the 1970s such as the SF novels Half Past Human and The Godwhale;

horror writer and editor Alan Ryan, 68, World Fantasy Award-winning author of many short stories that were collected in books such as The Bones Wizard, a friend;

prolific SF writer Larry Tritten, 72, particularly known for his humorous short stories;

Brian Jacques, 71, children’s fantasist, author of the well-known twenty-volume Redwall series;

prominent Australian fantasy author Sara Warneke, 54, who wrote many bestselling novels as Sara Douglass;

prominent German SF writer, agent, and editor Hans Joachim Alpers, 67;

British writer Euan Harvey, 38, a frequent contributor to Realms of Fantasy and elsewhere;

Gilbert Adair, 66, Scottish writer, critic and translator;

Colin Harvey, 51, British SF writer, author of six novels and more than thirty short stories;

William Sleator, 66, children’s and YA novelist;

Juan Carlos Planells, 61, Spanish author and critic;

Leslie Esdaile Banks, 51, popular urban fantasy author who published as L. A. Banks;

Joel Rosenberg, 57, SF and mystery author;

John Frederick Burke, 89, British SF and mystery author who wrote as Jonathan Burke; Vittorio Curtoni, 61, Italian SF writer, editor, and translator;

Minoru Komatsu, 80, Japanese SF writer, screenwriter, and essayist, who wrote under the name Sakyo Komatsu;

Ion Hobana, 80, Romanian SF writer;

Moacyr Scliar, 73, Brazilian fantasy author;

John Glasby, 82, British SF and fantasy author;

Wim Stolk, 61, Dutch fantasy artist and writer who wrote as W. J. Maryson;

Lisa Wolfson, 47, YA and SF author who wrote as L. K. Madigan;

John M. Iggulden, 93, Australian SF author;

British SF writer Lionel Percy Wright, 87, who wrote as Lan Wright;

Richard Bessière, 88, French SF author;

Louis Thirion, 88, French SF author;

Thierry Martens, 69, Belgian author, editor, anthologist, and comics historian;

Mark Shepherd, 49, SF author;

Les Daniels, 68, comics historian and author of Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, who also wrote a series of vampire novels;

Glenn Lord, 80, U.S. agent for the Howard estate, author of The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert Ervin Howard;

Theodore Roszak, 77, SF writer and essayist, author of The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society;

H.R.F. Keating, 84, mystery writer who also occasionally wrote SF;

Craig Thomas, 69, Welsh technothriller writer of Firefox, which was later made into a well-known movie;

Martin Woodhouse, 78, British author and screenwriter;

Robert C. W. Ettinger, 92, cryonics advocate and occasional SF writer, author of the nonfiction books The Prospect of Immortality and Man into Superman;

Martin H. Greenberg, 70, prolific anthologist and academic, involved in the editing of more than a thousand anthologies, founder of the book-packaging company Tekno Books;

Margaret K. McElderry, 98, children’s editor and publisher, founder of children’s imprint Margaret K. McElderry Books;

Philip Rahman, 59, cofounder of the weird fiction publisher Fedogan and Bremer;

Malcolm M. Ferguson, 91, writer, bookseller, librarian, and collector;

Darrell K. Sweet, 77, one of the most acclaimed SF and fantasy cover artists of modern times;

Jeffrey Catherine Jones, 67, prominent fantasy cover artist;

Gene Szafran, 69, SF cover artist and illustrator;

Cliff Robertson, 88, movie and TV actor, probably best known to genre audiences as the lead in Charly, the film version of “Flowers for Algernon,” and for his role as Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man movies;

Harry Morgan, 96, movie and TV actor probably best known to everybody as ‘Colonel Potter’ from the TV show M*A*S*H, but who also appeared in many films, including Inherit the Wind and The Ox-Bow Incident;

Peter Falk, 83, film and television actor probably best known for his long-running role as the rumpled detective in Columbo, but who will also be familiar to genre audiences for roles in The Princess Bride, Murder by Death, and Tune in Tomorrow;

Nicol Williamson, 75, British stage and film actor, probably best known to genre audiences for his roles as Merlin in Excalibur, as Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and as Little John in Robin and Marian;

James Arness, 88, film and television actor best known as Matt Dillion on Gunsmoke, but who also appeared as The Thing in The Thing from Another World and in Them!;

John Wood, 81, stage and screen actor, probably best known to genre audiences for roles in WarGames, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Chocolat;

Bob Anderson, 89, former Olympic fencer, fight director, stunt performer, and swordmaster, who staged many of cinema’s most famous duels in films such as The Princess Bride, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the Star Wars movies;

James “Rusty” Hevelin, 89, longtime fan, fanzine publisher, collector, and huckster, a friend;

Michael D. Glickson, 64, longtime Canadian convention and fanzine fan, who won a Hugo in 1973 for his fanzine Energumen, a friend;

Susan Palermo-Piscitello, 59, musician and longtime fan, a friend;

Terry Jeeves, 88, British fan artist, writer, and publisher;

John Berry, 80, longtime Irish fan;

Paul Gamble, 61, British fan and bookseller;

Steve Davis, 72, husband of author and editor Grania Davis;

musician Marty Burke, 68, husband of SF author Diana Gallagher;

Elzer Marx, 86, father of SF writer Christy Marx;

April B. Derleth, 56, daughter of August Derleth and co-owner of Arkham House.

THE CHOICE

by Paul McAuley

Born in Oxford, England, in 1955, 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 publications including Asimov’s Science Fiction, SCI FICTION, Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Skylife, The Third Alternative, and When the Music’s Over.

McAuley is at the forefront of several of the most important sub-genres in SF today, producing both “radical hard science fiction” and the revamped and retooled widescreen Space Opera that has sometimes been called The New Space Opera, as well as Dystopian sociological speculations about the very near future. He also writes fantasy and horror. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Award, and his 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, which comprised the novels Child of the River, Ancient of Days, and Shrine of Stars), Life on Mars, The Secret of Life, Whole Wide World, White Devils, Mind’s Eye, Players, Cowboy Angels, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun. His short fiction has been collected in The King of the Hill and Other Stories, The Invisible Country, and Little Machines, and he is the coeditor, with Kim Newman, of an original anthology, In Dreams. His most recent book is a new novel, In the Mouth of the Whale.

Here he gives us a powerful and deceptively quiet story set in an ingeniously described future England that has been transformed by climate change and a rise in sea level. It is a setting that in McAuley’s expert hands has the feel of a real place, both pastoral and shabby, where people get on with their ordinary lives in a world both dramatically altered and in some ways nearly the same as our own. That is, until the Unknown suddenly intrudes into this world in the form of a giant, mournfully bellowing, enigmatic alien ship that grounds itself on the bank of a river, and changes everything forever.

In the night, tides and a brisk wind drove a raft of bubbleweed across the Flood and piled it up along the north side of the island. Soon after first light, Lucas started raking it up, ferrying load after load to one of the compost pits, where it would rot down into a nutrient-rich liquid fertiliser. He was trundling his wheelbarrow down the steep path to the shore for about the thirtieth or fortieth time when he spotted someone walking across the water: Damian, moving like a cross-country skier as he crossed the channel between the island and the stilt huts and floating tanks of his father’s shrimp farm. It was still early in the morning, already hot. A perfect September day, the sky’s blue dome untroubled by cloud. Shifting points of sunlight starred the water, flashed from the blades of the farm’s wind turbine. Lucas waved to his friend and Damian waved back and nearly overbalanced, windmilling his arms and recovering, slogging on.

They met at the water’s edge. Damien, picking his way between floating slicks of red weed, called out breathlessly, “Did you hear?”

“Hear what?”

“A dragon got itself stranded close to Martham.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m not kidding. An honest-to-God sea dragon.”

Damian stepped onto an apron of broken brick at the edge of the water and sat down and eased off the fat flippers of his Jesus shoes, explaining that he’d heard about it from Ritchy, the foreman of the shrimp farm, who’d got it off the skipper of a supply barge who’d been listening to chatter on the common band.

“It beached not half an hour ago. People reckon it came in through the cut at Horsey and couldn’t get back over the bar when the tide turned. So it went on up the channel of the old riverbed until it ran ashore.”

Lucas thought for a moment. “There’s a sand bar that hooks into the channel south of Martham. I went past it any number of times when I worked on Grant Higgins’s boat last summer, ferrying oysters to Norwich.”

“It’s almost on our doorstep,” Damian said. He pulled his phone from the pocket of his shorts and angled it towards Lucas. “Right about here. See it?”

“I know where Martham is. Let me guess—you want me to take you.”

“What’s the point of building a boat if you don’t use it? Come on, L. It isn’t every day an alien machine washes up.”

Lucas took off his broad-brimmed straw hat and blotted his forehead with his wrist and set his hat on his head again. He was a wiry boy not quite sixteen, bare-chested in baggy shorts, and wearing sandals he’d cut from an old car tyre. “I was planning to go crabbing. After I finish clearing this weed, water the vegetable patch, fix lunch for my mother…”

“I’ll give you a hand with all that when we get back.”

“Right.”

“If you really don’t want to go I could maybe borrow your boat.”

“Or you could take one of your dad’s.”

“After what he did to me last time? I’d rather row there in that leaky old clunker of your mother’s. Or walk.”

“That would be a sight.”

Damian smiled. He was just two months older than Lucas, tall and sturdy, his cropped blond hair bleached by salt and summer sun, his nose and the rims of his ears pink and peeling. The two had been friends for as long as they could remember.

He said, “I reckon I can sail as well as you.”

“You’re sure this dragon is still there? You have pictures?”

“Not exactly. It knocked out the town’s broadband, and everything else. According to the guy who talked to Ritchy, nothing electronic works within a klick of it. Phones, slates, radios, nothing. The tide turns in a couple of hours, but I reckon we can get there if we start right away.”

“Maybe. I should tell my mother,” Lucas said. “In the unlikely event that she wonders where I am.”

“How is she?”

“No better, no worse. Does your dad know you’re skipping out?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell him I went crabbing with you.”

“Fill a couple of jugs at the still,” Lucas said. “And pull up some carrots, too. But first, hand me your phone.”

“The GPS coordinates are flagged up right there. You ask it, it’ll plot a course.”

Lucas took the phone, holding it with his fingertips—he didn’t like the way it squirmed as it shaped itself to fit in his hand. “How do you switch it off?”

“What do you mean?”

“If we go, we won’t be taking the phone. Your dad could track us.”

“How will we find our way there?”

“I don’t need your phone to find Martham.”

“You and your off-the-grid horse shit,” Damian said.

“You wanted an adventure,” Lucas said. “This is it.”

* * *

When Lucas started to tell his mother that he’d be out for the rest of the day with Damian, she said, “Chasing after that so-called dragon I suppose. No need to look surprised—it’s all over the news. Not the official news, of course. No mention of it there. But it’s leaking out everywhere that counts.”

His mother was propped against the headboard of the double bed under the caravan’s big end window. Julia Wittsruck, fifty-two, skinny as a refugee, dressed in a striped Berber robe and half-covered in a patchwork of quilts and thin orange blankets stamped with the Oxfam logo. The ropes of her dreadlocks tied back with a red bandana; her tablet resting in her lap.

She gave Lucas her best inscrutable look and said, “I suppose this is Damian’s idea. You be careful. His ideas usually work out badly.”

“That’s why I’m going along. To make sure he doesn’t get into trouble. He’s set on seeing it, one way or another.”

“And you aren’t?”

Lucas smiled. “I suppose I’m curious. Just a little.”

“I wish I could go. Take a rattle can or two, spray the old slogans on the damned thing’s hide.”

“I could put some cushions in the boat. Make you as comfortable as you like.”

Lucas knew that his mother wouldn’t take up his offer. She rarely left the caravan, hadn’t been off the island for more than three years. A multilocus immunotoxic syndrome, basically an allergic reaction to the myriad products and pollutants of the anthropocene age, had left her more or less completely bedridden. She’d refused all offers of treatment or help by the local social agencies, relying instead on the services of a local witchwoman who visited once a week, and spent her days in bed, working at her tablet. She trawled government sites and stealthnets, made podcasts, advised zero-impact communities, composed critiques and manifestos. She kept a public journal, wrote essays and opinion pieces (at the moment, she was especially exercised by attempts by multinational companies to move in on the Antarctic Peninsula, and a utopian group that was using alien technology to build a floating community on a drowned coral reef in the Midway Islands), and maintained friendships, alliances, and several rancorous feuds with former colleagues whose origins had long been forgotten by both sides. In short, hers was a way of life that would have been familiar to scholars from any time in the past couple of millennia.

She’d been a lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck College before the nuclear strikes, riots, revolutions, and netwar skirmishes of the so-called Spasm, which had ended when the floppy ships of the Jackaroo had appeared in the skies over Earth. In exchange for rights to the outer solar system, the aliens had given the human race technology to clean up the Earth, and access to a wormhole network that linked a dozen M-class red dwarf stars. Soon enough, other alien species showed up, making various deals with various nations and power blocs, bartering advanced technologies for works of art, fauna and flora, the secret formula of Coca-Cola, and other unique items.

Most believed that the aliens were kindly and benevolent saviours, members of a loose alliance that had traced ancient broadcasts of I Love Lucy to their origin and arrived just in time to save the human species from the consequences of its monkey cleverness. But a vocal minority wanted nothing to do with them, doubting that their motives were in any way altruistic, elaborating all kinds of theories about their true motivations. We should choose to reject the help of the aliens, they said. We should reject easy fixes and the magic of advanced technologies we don’t understand, and choose the harder thing: to keep control of our own destiny.

Julia Wittstruck had become a leading light in this movement. When its brief but fierce round of global protests and politicking had fallen apart in a mess of mutual recriminations and internecine warfare, she’d moved to Scotland and joined a group of green radicals who’d been building a self-sufficient settlement on a trio of ancient oil rigs in the Firth of Forth. But they’d become compromised too, according to Julia, so she’d left them and taken up with Lucas’s father (Lucas knew almost nothing about him—his mother said that the past was the past, that she was all that counted in his life because she had given birth to him and raised and taught him), and they’d lived the gypsy life for a few years until she’d split up with him and, pregnant with her son, had settled in a smallholding in Norfolk, living off the grid, supported by a small legacy left to her by one of her devoted supporters from the glory days of the anti-alien protests.

When she’d first moved there, the coast had been more than ten kilometres to the east, but a steady rise in sea level had flooded the northern and eastern coasts of Britain and Europe. East Anglia had been sliced in two by levees built to protect precious farmland from the encroaching sea, and most people caught on the wrong side had taken resettlement grants and moved on. But Julia had stayed put. She’d paid a contractor to extend a small rise, all that was left of her smallholding, with rubble from a wrecked twentieth-century housing estate, and made her home on the resulting island. It had once been much larger, and a succession of people had camped there, attracted by her kudos, driven away after a few weeks or a few months by her scorn and impatience. Then most of Greenland’s remaining ice cap collapsed into the Arctic Ocean, sending a surge of water across the North Sea.

Lucas had only been six, but he still remembered everything about that day. The water had risen past the high tide mark that afternoon and had kept rising. At first it had been fun to mark the stealthy progress of the water with a series of sticks driven into the ground, but by evening it was clear that it was not going to stop anytime soon and then in a sudden smooth rush it rose more than a hundred centimetres, flooding the vegetable plots and lapping at the timber baulks on which the caravan rested. All that evening, Julia had moved their possessions out of the caravan, with Lucas trotting to and fro at her heels, helping her as best he could until, some time after midnight, she’d given up and they’d fallen asleep under a tent rigged from chairs and a blanket. And had woken to discover that their island had shrunk to half its previous size, and the caravan had floated off and lay canted and half-drowned in muddy water littered with every kind of debris.

Julia had bought a replacement caravan and set it on the highest point of what was left of the island, and despite ineffectual attempts to remove them by various local government officials, she and Lucas had stayed on. She’d taught him the basics of numeracy and literacy, and the long and intricate secret history of the world, and he’d learned field- and wood- and watercraft from their neighbours. He snared rabbits in the woods that ran alongside the levee, foraged for hedgerow fruits and edible weeds and fungi, bagged squirrels with small stones shot from his catapult. He grubbed mussels from the rusting car-reef that protected the seaward side of the levee, set wicker traps for eels and trotlines for mitten crabs. He fished for mackerel and dogfish and weaverfish on the wide brown waters of the Flood. When he could, he worked shifts on the shrimp farm owned by Damian’s father, or on the market gardens, farms, and willow and bamboo plantations on the other side of the levee.

In spring, he watched long vees of geese fly north above the floodwater that stretched out to the horizon. In autumn, he watched them fly south.

He’d inherited a great deal of his mother’s restlessness and fierce independence, but although he longed to strike out beyond his little world, he didn’t know how to begin. And besides, he had to look after Julia. She would never admit it, but she depended on him, utterly.

She said now, dismissing his offer to take her along, “You know I have too much to do here. The day is never long enough. There is something you can do for me, though. Take my phone with you.”

“Damian says phones don’t work around the dragon.”

“I’m sure it will work fine. Take some pictures of that thing. As many as you can. I’ll write up your story when you come back, and pictures will help attract traffic.”

“Okay.”

Lucas knew that there was no point in arguing. Besides, his mother’s phone was an ancient model that predated the Spasm: it lacked any kind of cloud connectivity and was as dumb as a box of rocks. As long as he only used it to take pictures, it wouldn’t compromise his idea of an off-the-grid adventure.

His mother smiled. “‘ET go home.’”

“‘ET go home?’”

“We put that up everywhere, back in the day. We put it on the main runway of Luton Airport, in letters twenty metres tall. Also dug trenches in the shape of the words up on the South Downs and filled them with diesel fuel and set them alight. You could see it from space. Let the unhuman know that they were not welcome here. That we did not need them. Check the toolbox. I’m sure there’s a rattlecan in there. Take it along, just in case.”

“I’ll take my catapult, in case I spot any ducks. I’ll try to be back before it gets dark. If I don’t, there are MREs in the store cupboard. And I picked some tomatoes and carrots.”

“‘ET go home,’” his mother said. “Don’t forget that. And be careful, in that little boat.”

* * *

Lucas had started to build his sailboat late last summer, and had worked at it all through the winter. It was just four metres from bow to stern, its plywood hull glued with epoxy and braced with ribs shaped from branches of a young poplar tree that had fallen in the autumn gales. He’d used an adze and a homemade plane to fashion the mast and boom from the poplar’s trunk, knocked up the knees, gunwale, outboard support and bow cap from oak, and persuaded Ritchy, the shrimp farm’s foreman, to print off the cleats, oarlocks, bow eye and grommets for lacing the sails on the farm’s maker. Ritchy had given him some half-empty tins of blue paint and varnish to seal the hull, and he’d bought a set of secondhand laminate sails from the shipyard in Halvergate, and spliced the halyards and sheet from scrap lengths of rope.

He loved his boat more than he was ready to admit to himself. That spring he’d tacked back and forth beyond the shrimp farm, had sailed north along the coast to Halvergate and Acle, and south and west around Reedham Point as far as Brundall, and had crossed the channel of the river and navigated the mazy mudflats to Chedgrave. If the sea dragon was stuck where Damian said it was, he’d have to travel further than ever before, navigating uncharted and ever-shifting sand and mudbanks, dodging clippers and barge strings in the shipping channel, but Lucas reckoned he had the measure of his little boat now and it was a fine day and a steady wind blowing from the west drove them straight along, with the jib cocked as far as it would go in the stay and the mainsail bellying full and the boat heeling sharply as it ploughed a white furrow in the light chop.

At first, all Lucas had to do was sit in the stern with the tiller snug in his right armpit and the main sheet coiled loosely in his left hand, and keep a straight course north past the pens and catwalks of the shrimp farm. Damian sat beside him, leaning out to port to counterbalance the boat’s tilt, his left hand keeping the jib sheet taut, his right holding a plastic cup he would now and then use to scoop water from the bottom of the boat and fling in a sparkling arc that was caught and twisted by the wind.

The sun stood high in a tall blue sky empty of cloud save for a thin rim at the horizon to the northeast. Fret, most likely, mist forming where moisture condensed out of air that had cooled as it passed over the sea. But the fret was kilometres away, and all around sunlight flashed from every wave top and burned on the white sails and beat down on the two boys. Damian’s face and bare torso shone with sunblock; although Lucas was about as dark as he got, he’d rubbed sunblock on his face too, and tied his straw hat under his chin and put on a shirt that flapped about his chest. The tiller juddered minutely and constantly as the boat slapped through an endless succession of catspaw waves and Lucas measured the flex of the sail by the tug of the sheet wrapped around his left hand, kept an eye the foxtail streamer that flew from the top of the mast. Judging by landmarks on the levee that ran along the shore to port, they making around fifteen kilometres per hour, about as fast as Lucas had ever gotten out of his boat, and he and Damian grinned at each other and squinted off into the glare of the sunstruck water, happy and exhilarated to be skimming across the face of the Flood, two bold adventurers off to confront a monster.

“We’ll be there in an hour easy,” Damian said.

“A bit less than two, maybe. As long as the fret stays where it is.”

“The sun’ll burn it off.”

“Hasn’t managed it yet.”

“Don’t let your natural caution spoil a perfect day.”

Lucas swung wide of a raft of bubbleweed that glistened like a slick of fresh blood in the sun. Some called it Martian weed, though it had nothing to do with any of the aliens; it was an engineered species designed to mop up nitrogen and phosphorous released by drowned farmland, prospering beyond all measure or control.

Dead ahead, a long line of whitecaps marked the reef of the old railway embankment. Lucas swung the tiller into the wind and he and Damian ducked as the boom swung across and the boat gybed around. The sails slackened, then filled with wind again as the boat turned towards one of the gaps blown in the embankment, cutting so close to the buoy that marked it that Damian could reach out and slap the rusty steel plate of its flank as they went by. And then they were heading out across a broad reach, with the little town of Acle strung along a low promontory to port. A slateless church steeple stood up from the water like a skeletal lighthouse. The polished cross at its top burned like a flame in the sunlight. A file of old pylons stepped away, most canted at steep angles, the twiggy platforms of heron nests built in angles of their girder work, whitened everywhere with droppings. One of the few still standing straight had been colonised by fisherfolk, with shacks built from driftwood lashed to its struts and a wave-powered generator made from oil drums strung out beyond. Washing flew like festive flags inside the web of rusted steel, and a naked small child of indeterminate sex clung to the unshuttered doorway of a shack just above the waterline, pushing a tangle of hair from its eyes as it watched the little boat sail by.

They passed small islands fringed with young mangrove trees, an engineered species that was rapidly spreading from areas in the south where they’d been planted to replace the levee. Lucas spotted a marsh harrier patrolling mudflats in the lee of one island, scrying for water voles and mitten crabs. They passed a long building sunk to the tops of its second-storey windows in the flood, with brightly coloured plastic bubbles pitched on its flat roof amongst the notched and spinning wheels of windmill generators, and small boats bobbing alongside. Someone standing at the edge of the roof waved to them, and Damian stood up and waved back and the boat shifted so that he had to catch at the jib leech and sit down hard.

“You want us to capsize, go ahead,” Lucas told him.

“There are worse places to be shipwrecked. You know they’re all married to each other over there.”

“I heard.”

“They like visitors too.”

“I know you aren’t talking from experience or you’d have told me all about it. At least a dozen times.”

“I met a couple of them in Halvergate. They said I should stop by some time,” Damian said, grinning sideways at Lucas. “We could maybe think about doing that on the way back.”

“And get stripped of everything we own, and thrown in the water.”

“You have a trusting nature, don’t you?”

“If you mean, I’m not silly enough to think they’ll welcome us in and let us take our pick of their women, then I guess I do.”

“She was awful pretty, the woman. And not much older than me.”

“And the rest of them are seahags older than your great-grandmother.”

“That one time with my father… She was easily twice my age and I didn’t mind a bit.”

A couple of months ago, Damian’s sixteenth birthday, his father had taken him to a pub in Norwich where women stripped at the bar and afterwards walked around bare naked, collecting tips from the customers. Damian’s father had paid one of them to look after his son, and Damian hadn’t stopped talking about it ever since, making plans to go back on his own or to take Lucas with him that so far hadn’t amounted to anything.

He watched the half-drowned building dwindle into the glare striking off the water and said, “If we ever ran away we could live in a place like that.”

“You could, maybe,” Lucas said. “I’d want to keep moving. But I suppose I could come back and visit now and then.”

“I don’t mean that place. I mean a place like it. Must be plenty of them, on those alien worlds up in the sky. There’s oceans on one of them. First Foot.”

“I know.”

“And alien ruins on all of them. There are people walking about up there right now. On all those new worlds. And most people sit around like… like bloody stumps. Old tree stumps stuck in mud.”

“I’m not counting on winning the ticket lottery,” Lucas said. “Sailing south, that would be pretty fine. To Africa, or Brazil, or these islands people are building in the Pacific. Or even all the way to Antarctica.”

“Soon as you stepped ashore, L, you’d be eaten by a polar bear.”

“Polar bears lived in the north when there were polar bears.”

“Killer penguins then. Giant penguins with razors in their flippers and lasers for eyes.”

“No such thing.”

“The !Cha made sea dragons, didn’t they? So why not giant robot killer penguins? Your mother should look into it.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Didn’t mean anything by it. Just joking, is all.”

“You go too far sometimes.”

They sailed in silence for a little while, heading west across the deepwater channel. A clipper moved far off to starboard, cylinder sails spinning slowly, white as salt in the middle of a flat vastness that shimmered like shot silk under the hot blue sky. Some way beyond it, a tug was dragging a string of barges south. The shoreline of Thurne Point emerged from the heat haze, standing up from mudbanks cut by a web of narrow channels, and they turned east, skirting stands of seagrass that spread out into the open water. It was a little colder now, and the wind was blowing more from the northwest than the west. Lucas thought that the bank of fret looked closer, too. When he pointed it out, Damian said it was still klicks and klicks off, and besides, they were headed straight to their prize now.

“If it’s still there,” Lucas said.

“It isn’t going anywhere, not with the tide all the way out.”

“You really are an expert on this alien stuff, aren’t you?”

“Just keep heading north, L.”

“That’s exactly what I’m doing.”

“I’m sorry about that crack about your mother. I didn’t mean anything by it. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“I like to kid around,” Damian said. “But I’m serious about getting out of here. Remember that time two years ago, we hiked into Norwich, found the army offices?”

“I remember the sergeant there gave us cups of tea and biscuits and told us to come back when we were old enough.”

“He’s still there. That sergeant. Same bloody biscuits too.”

“Wait. You went to join up without telling me?”

“I went to find out if I could. After my birthday. Turns out the army takes people our age, but you need the permission of your parents. So that was that.”

“You didn’t even try to talk to your father about it?”

“He has me working for him, L. Why would he sign away good cheap labour? I did try, once. He was half-cut and in a good mood. What passes for a good mood as far as he’s concerned, any rate. Mellowed out on beer and superfine skunk. But he wouldn’t hear anything about it. And then he got all the way flat-out drunk and he beat on me. Told me to never mention it again.”

Lucas looked over at his friend and said, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“I can join under my own signature when I’m eighteen, not before,” Damian said. “No way out of here until then, unless I run away or win the lottery.”

“So are you thinking of running away?”

“I’m damned sure not counting on winning the lottery. And even if I do, you have to be eighteen before they let you ship out. Just like the fucking army.” Damian looked at Lucas, looked away. “He’ll probably bash all kinds of shit out of me, for taking off like this.”

“You can stay over tonight. He’ll be calmer, tomorrow.”

Damian shook his head. “He’ll only come looking for me. And I don’t want to cause trouble for you and your mother.”

“It wouldn’t be any trouble.”

“Yeah, it would. But thanks anyway.” Damian paused, then said, “I don’t care what he does to me anymore. You know? All I think is, one day I’ll be able to beat up on him.”

“You say that but you don’t mean it.”

“Longer I stay here, the more I become like him.”

“I don’t see it ever happening.”

Damian shrugged.

“I really don’t,” Lucas said.

“Fuck him,” Damian said. “I’m not going to let him spoil this fine day.”

“Our grand adventure.”

“The wind’s changing again.”

“I think the fret’s moving in too.”

“Maybe it is, a little. But we can’t turn back, L. Not now.”

The bank of cloud across the horizon was about a klick away, reaching up so high that it blurred and dimmed the sun. The air was colder and the wind was shifting minute by minute. Damian put on his shirt, holding the jib sheet in his teeth as he punched his arms into the sleeves. They tacked to swing around a long reach of grass, and as they came about saw a white wall sitting across the water, dead ahead.

Lucas pushed the tiller to leeward. The boat slowed at once and swung around to face the wind.

“What’s the problem?” Damian said. “It’s just a bit of mist.”

Lucas caught the boom as it swung, held it steady. “We’ll sit tight for a spell. See if the fret burns off.”

“And meanwhile the tide’ll turn and lift off the fucking dragon.”

“Not for awhile.”

“We’re almost there.”

“You don’t like it, you can swim.”

“I might.” Damian peered at the advancing fret. “Think the dragon has something to do with this?”

“I think it’s just fret.”

“Maybe it’s hiding from something looking for it. We’re drifting backwards,” Damian said. “Is that part of your plan?”

“We’re over the river channel, in the main current. Too deep for my anchor. See those dead trees at the edge of the grass? That’s where I’m aiming. We can sit it out there.”

“I hear something,” Damian said.

Lucas heard it too. The ripping roar of a motor driven at full speed, coming closer. He looked over his shoulder, saw a shadow condense inside the mist and gain shape and solidity: a cabin cruiser shouldering through windblown tendrils at the base of the bank of mist, driving straight down the main channel at full speed, its wake spreading wide on either side.

In a moment of chill clarity Lucas saw what was going to happen. He shouted to Damian, telling him to duck, and let the boom go and shoved the tiller to starboard. The boom banged around as the sail bellied and the boat started to turn, but the cruiser was already on them, roaring past just ten metres away, and the broad smooth wave of its wake hit the boat broadside and lifted it and shoved it sideways towards a stand of dead trees. Lucas gave up any attempt to steer and unwound the main halyard from its cleat. Damian grabbed an oar and used it to push the boat away from the first of the trees, but their momentum swung them into two more. The wet black stump of a branch scraped along the side and the boat heeled and water poured in over the thwart. For a moment Lucas thought they would capsize; then something thumped into the mast and the boat sat up again. Shards of rotten wood dropped down with a dry clatter and they were suddenly still, caught amongst dead and half-drowned trees.

The damage wasn’t as bad as it might have been—a rip close to the top of the jib, long splintery scrapes in the blue paintwork on the port side—but it kindled a black spark of anger in Lucas’s heart. At the cruiser’s criminal indifference; at his failure to evade trouble.

“Unhook the halyard and let it down,” he told Damian. “We’ll have to do without the jib.”

Abode Two. That’s the name of the bugger nearly ran us down. Registered in Norwich. We should find him and get him to pay for this mess,” Damian said as he folded the torn jib sail.

“I wonder why he was going so damned fast.”

“Maybe he went to take a look at the dragon, and something scared him off.”

“Or maybe he just wanted to get out of the fret.” Lucas looked all around, judging angles and clearances. The trees stood close together in water scummed with every kind of debris, stark and white above the tide line, black and clad with mussels and barnacles below. He said, “Let’s try pushing backwards. But be careful. I don’t want any more scrapes.”

By the time they had freed themselves from the dead trees the fret had advanced around them. A cold streaming whiteness that moved just above the water, deepening in every direction.

“Now we’re caught up in it, it’s as easy to go forward as to go back. So we might as well press on,” Lucas said.

“That’s the spirit. Just don’t hit any more trees.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Think we should put up the sail?”

“There’s hardly any wind, and the tide’s still going out. We’ll just go with the current.”

“Dragon weather,” Damian said.

“Listen,” Lucas said.

After a moment’s silence, Damian said, “Is it another boat?”

“Thought I heard wings.”

Lucas had taken out his catapult. He fitted a ball-bearing in the centre of its fat rubber band as he looked all around. There was a splash amongst the dead trees to starboard and he brought up the catapult and pulled back the rubber band as something dropped onto a dead branch. A heron, grey as a ghost, turning its head to look at him.

Lucas lowered the catapult, and Damian whispered, “You could take that easy.”

“I was hoping for a duck or two.”

“Let me try a shot.”

Lucas stuck the catapult in his belt. “You kill it, you eat it.”

The heron straightened its crooked neck and raised up and opened its wings and with a lazy flap launched itself across the water, sailing past the stern of the boat and vanishing into the mist.

“Ritchy cooked one once,” Damian said. “With about a ton of aniseed. Said it was how the Romans did them.”

“How was it?”

’Pretty fucking awful you want to know the truth.”

“Pass me one of the oars,” Lucas said. “We can row a while.”

They rowed through mist into mist. The small noises they made seemed magnified, intimate. Now and again Lucas put his hand over the side and dipped up a palmful of water and tasted it, telling Damian that fresh water was slow to mix with salt, so as long as it stayed sweet it meant they were in the old river channel and shouldn’t run into anything. Damian was sceptical, but shrugged when Lucas challenged him to come up with a better way of finding their way through the fret without stranding themselves on some mudbank

They’d been rowing for ten minutes or so when a long, low mournful note boomed out far ahead of them. It shivered Lucas to the marrow of his bones. He and Damian stopped rowing and looked at each other.

“I’d say that was a foghorn, if I didn’t know what one sounded like,” Damian said.

“Maybe it’s a boat. A big one.”

“Or maybe you-know-what. Calling for its dragon-mummy.”

“Or warning people away.”

“I think it came from over there,” Damian said, pointing off to starboard.

“I think so too. But it’s hard to be sure of anything in this stuff.”

They rowed aslant the current. A dim and low palisade appeared, resolving into a bed of sea grass that spread along the edge of the old river channel. Lucas, believing that he knew where they were, felt a clear measure of relief. They sculled into a narrow cut that led through the grass. Tall stems bent and showered them with drops of condensed mist as they brushed past. Then they were out into open water on the far side. A beach loomed out of the mist and sand suddenly gripped and grated along the length of the little boat’s keel. Damian dropped his oar and vaulted over the side and splashed away, running up the beach and vanishing into granular whiteness. Lucas shipped his own oar and slid into knee-deep water and hauled the boat through purling ripples, then lifted from the bow the bucket filled with concrete he used as an anchor and dropped it onto hard wet sand, where it keeled sideways in a dint that immediately filled with water.

He followed Damian’s footprints up the beach, climbed a low ridge grown over with marram grass and descended to the other side of the sand bar. Boats lay at anchor in shallow water, their outlines blurred by mist. Two dayfishers with small wheelhouses at their bows. Several sailboats not much bigger than his. A cabin cruiser with trim white superstructure, much like the one that had almost run him down.

A figure materialised out of the whiteness, a chubby boy of five or six in dungarees who ran right around Lucas, laughing, and chased away. He followed the boy toward a blurred eye of light far down the beach. Raised voices. Laughter. A metallic screeching. As he drew close, the blurred light condensed and separated into two sources: a bonfire burning above the tide line; a rack of spotlights mounted on a police speedboat anchored a dozen metres off the beach, long fingers of light lancing through mist and blurrily illuminating the long sleek shape stranded at the edge of the water.

It was big, the sea dragon, easily fifteen metres from stem to stern and about three metres across at its waist, tapering to blunt and shovel-shaped points at either end, coated in close-fitting and darkly tinted scales. An alien machine, solid and obdurate. One of thousands spawned by sealed mother ships the UN had purchased from the !Cha.

Lucas thought that it looked like a leech, or one of the parasitic flukes that lived in the bellies of sticklebacks. A big segmented shape, vaguely streamlined, helplessly prostate. People stood here and there on the curve of its back. A couple of kids were whacking away at its flank with chunks of driftwood. A group of men and women stood at its nose, heads bowed as if in prayer. A woman was walking along its length, pointing a wand-like instrument at different places. A cluster of people were conferring amongst a scatter of toolboxes and a portable generator, and one of them stepped forward and applied an angle grinder to the dragon’s hide. There was a ragged screech and a fan of orange sparks sprayed out and the man stepped back and turned to his companions and shook his head. Beyond the dragon, dozens more people could be glimpsed through the blur of the fret: everyone from the little town of Martham must have walked out along the sand bar to see the marvel that had cast itself up at their doorstep.

According to the UN, dragons cruised the oceans and swept up and digested the vast rafts of floating garbage that were part of the legacy of the wasteful oil-dependent world before the Spasm. According to rumours propagated on the stealth nets, a UN black lab had long ago cracked open a dragon and reverse-engineered its technology for fell purposes, or they were a cover for an alien plot to infiltrate Earth and construct secret bases in the ocean deeps, or geoengineer the world in some radical and inimical fashion. And so on, and so on. One of his mother’s ongoing disputes was with the Midway Island Utopians, who were using modified dragons to sweep plastic particulates from the North Pacific Gyre and spin the polymer soup into construction materials: true Utopians shouldn’t use any kind of alien technology, according to her.

Lucas remembered his mother’s request to take photos of the dragon and fished out her phone; when he switched it on, it emitted a lone and plaintive beep and its screen flashed and went dark. He switched it off, switched it on again. This time it did nothing. So it was true: the dragon was somehow suppressing electronic equipment. Lucas felt a shiver of apprehension, wondering what else it could do, wondering if it was watching him and everyone around it.

As he pushed the dead phone into his pocket, someone called his name. Lucas turned, saw an old man dressed in a yellow slicker and a peaked corduroy cap bustling towards him. Bill Danvers, one of the people who tended the oyster beds east of Martham, asking him now if he’d come over with Grant Higgins.

“I came in my own boat,” Lucas said.

“You worked for Grant though,” Bill Danvers said, and held out a flat quarter-litre bottle.

“Once upon a time. That’s kind, but I’ll pass.”

“Vodka and ginger root. It’ll keep out the cold.” The old man unscrewed the cap and took a sip and held out the bottle again.

Lucas shook his head.

Bill Danvers took another sip and capped the bottle, saying, “You came over from Halvergate?”

“A little south of Halvergate. Sailed all the way.” It felt good to say it.

“People been coming in from every place, past couple of hours. Including those science boys you see trying to break into her. But I was here first. Followed the damn thing in after it went past me. I was fishing for pollack, and it went past like an island on the move. Like to have had me in the water, I was rocking so much. I fired up the outboard and swung around but I couldn’t keep pace with it. I saw it hit the bar, though. It didn’t slow down a bit, must have been travelling at twenty knots. I heard it,” Bill Danvers said, and clapped his hands. “Bang! It ran straight up, just like you see. When I caught up with it, it was wriggling like an eel. Trying to move forward, you know? And it did, for a little bit. And then it stuck, right where it is now. Must be something wrong with it, I reckon, or it wouldn’t have grounded itself. Maybe it’s dying, eh?”

“Can they die, dragons?”

“You live long enough, boy, you’ll know everything has its time. Even unnatural things like this. Those science people, they’ve been trying to cut into it all morning. They used a thermal lance, and some kind of fancy drill. Didn’t even scratch it. Now they’re trying this saw thing with a blade tougher than diamond. Or so they say. Whatever it is, it won’t do any good. Nothing on Earth can touch a dragon. Why’d you come all this way?”

“Just to take a look.”

“Long as that’s all you do I won’t have any quarrel with you. You might want to pay the fee now.”

“Fee?”

“Five pounds. Or five euros, if that’s what you use.”

“I don’t have any money,” Lucas said.

Bill Danvers studied him. “I was here first. Anyone says different they’re a goddamned liar. I’m the only one can legitimately claim salvage rights. The man what found the dragon,” he said, and turned and walked towards two women, starting to talk long before he reached them.

Lucas went on down the beach. A man sat tailorwise on the sand, sketching on a paper pad with a stick of charcoal. A small group of women were chanting some kind of incantation and brushing the dragon’s flank with handfuls of ivy, and all down its length people stood close, touching its scales with the palms of their hands or leaning against it, peering into it, like penitents at a holy relic. Its scales were easily a metre across and each was a slightly different shape, six- or seven-sided, dark yet grainily translucent. Clumps of barnacles and knots of hair-like weed clung here and there.

Lucas took a step into cold, ankle-deep water, and another. Reached out, the tips of his fingers tingling, and brushed the surface of one of the plates. It was the same temperature as the air and covered in small dimples, like hammered metal. He pressed the palm of his hand flat against it and felt a steady vibration, like touching the throat of a purring cat. A shiver shot through the marrow of him, a delicious mix of fear and exhilaration. Suppose his mother and her friends were right? Suppose there was an alien inside there? A Jackaroo or a !Cha riding inside the dragon because it was the only way, thanks to the agreement with the UN, they could visit the Earth. An actual alien lodged in the heart of the machine, watching everything going on around it, trapped and helpless, unable to call for help because it wasn’t supposed to be there.

No one knew what any of the aliens looked like—whether they looked more or less like people, or were unimaginable monsters, or clouds of gas, or swift cool thoughts schooling inside some vast computer. They had shown themselves only as avatars, plastic man-shaped shells with the pleasant, bland but somehow creepy faces of old-fashioned shop dummies, and after the treaty had been negotiated only a few of those were left on Earth, at the UN headquarters in Geneva. Suppose, Lucas thought, the scientists broke in and pulled its passenger out. He imagined some kind of squid, saucer eyes and a clacking beak in a knot of thrashing tentacles, helpless in Earth’s gravity. Or suppose something came to rescue it? Not the UN, but an actual alien ship. His heart beat fast and strong at the thought.

Walking a wide circle around the blunt, eyeless prow of the dragon, he found Damian on the other side, talking to a slender, dark-haired girl dressed in a shorts and a heavy sweater. She turned to look at Lucas as he walked up, and said to Damian, “Is this your friend?”

“Lisbeth was just telling me about the helicopter that crashed,” Damian said. “Its engine cut out when it got too close and it dropped straight into the sea. Her father helped to rescue the pilot.”

“She broke her hip,” the girl, Lisbet, said. “She’s at our house now. I’m supposed to be looking after her, but Doctor Naja gave her something that put her to sleep.”

“Lisbet’s father is the mayor,” Damian said. “He’s in charge of all this.”

“He thinks he is,” the girl said, “but no one is really. Police and everyone arguing amongst themselves. Do you have a phone, Lucas? Mine doesn’t work. This is the best thing to ever happen here and I can’t even tell my friends about it.”

“I could row you out to where your phone started working,” Damian said.

“I don’t think so,” Lisbeth said with a coy little smile, twisting the toes of her bare right foot in the wet sand.

Lucas had thought that she was around his and Damian’s age; now he realised that she was at least two years younger.

“It’ll be absolutely safe,” Damian said. “Word of honour.”

Lisbeth shook her head. “I want to stick around here and see what happens next.”

“That’s a good idea too,” Damian said. “We can sit up by the fire and keep warm. I can tell you all about our adventures. How we found our way through the mist. How we were nearly run down—”

“I have to go and find my friends,” Lisbeth said, and flashed a dazzling smile at Lucas and said that it was nice to meet him and turned away. Damian caught at her arm and Lucas stepped in and told him to let her go, and Lisbeth smiled at Lucas again and walked off, bare feet leaving dainty prints in the wet sand.

“Thanks for that,” Damian said.

“She’s a kid. And she’s also the mayor’s daughter.”

“So? We were just talking.”

“So he could have you locked up if he wanted to. Me too.”

“You don’t have to worry about that, do you? Because you scared her off,” Damian said.

“She walked away because she wanted to,” Lucas said.

He would have said more, would have asked Damian why they were arguing, but at that moment the dragon emitted its mournful wail. A great honking blare, more or less B-flat, so loud it was like a physical force, shocking every square centimetre of Lucas’s body. He clapped his hands over his ears, but the sound was right inside the box of his skull, shivering deep in his chest and his bones. Damian had pressed his hands over his ears too, and all along the dragon’s length people stepped back or ducked away. Then the noise abruptly cut off, and everyone stepped forward again. The women flailed even harder, their chant sounding muffled to Lucas; the dragon’s call had been so loud it had left a buzz in his ears, and he had to lean close to hear Damian say, “Isn’t this something?”

“It’s definitely a dragon,” Lucas said, his voice sounding flat and mostly inside his head. “Are we done arguing?”

“I didn’t realise we were,” Damian said. “Did you see those guys trying to cut it open?”

“Around the other side? I was surprised the police are letting them to do whatever it is they’re doing.”

“Lisbeth said they’re scientists from the marine labs at Swatham. They work for the government, just like the police. She said they think this is a plastic eater. It sucks up plastic and digests it, turns it into carbon dioxide and water.”

“That’s what the UN wants people to think it does, anyhow.”

“Sometimes you sound just like your mother.”

“There you go again.”

Damian put his hand on Lucas’s shoulder. “I’m just ragging on you. Come on, why don’t we go over by the fire and get warm?”

“If you want to talk to that girl again, just say so.”

“Now who’s spoiling for an argument? I thought we could get warm, find something to eat. People are selling stuff.”

“I want to take a good close look at the dragon. That’s why we came here, isn’t it?”

“You do that, and I’ll be right back.”

“You get into trouble, you can find your own way home,” Lucas said, but Damian was already walking away, fading into the mist without once looking back.

Lucas watched him fade into the mist, expecting him to turn around. He didn’t.

Irritated by the silly spat, Lucas drifted back around the dragon’s prow, watched the scientists attack with a jackhammer the joint between two large scales. They were putting everything they had into it, but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. A gang of farmers from a collective arrived on two tractors that left neat tracks on the wet sand and put out the smell of frying oil, which reminded Lucas that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He was damned cold too. He trudged up the sand and bought a cup of fish soup from a woman who poured it straight from the iron pot she hooked out of the edge of the big bonfire, handing him a crust of bread to go with it. Lucas sipped the scalding stuff and felt his blood warm, soaked up the last of the soup with the crust and dredged the plastic cup in the sand to clean it and handed it back to the woman. Plenty of people were standing around the fire, but there was no sign of Damian. Maybe he was chasing that girl. Maybe he’d been arrested. Most likely, he’d turn up with that stupid smile of his, shrugging off their argument, claiming he’d only been joking. The way he did.

The skirts of the fret drifted apart and revealed the dim shapes of Martham’s buildings at the far end of the sandbar; then the fret closed up and the little town vanished. The dragon sounded its distress or alarm call again. In the ringing silence afterwards a man said to no one in particular, with the satisfaction of someone who has discovered the solution to one of the universe’s perennial mysteries, “Twenty-eight minutes on the dot.”

At last, there was the sound of an engine and a shadowy shape gained definition in the fret that hung offshore: a boxy, old-fashioned landing craft that drove past the police boat and beached in the shallows close to the dragon. Its bow door splashed down and soldiers trotted out and the police and several civilians and scientists went down the beach to meet them. After a brief discussion, one of the soldiers stepped forward and raised a bullhorn to his mouth and announced that for the sake of public safety a two-hundred-metre exclusion zone was going to be established.

Several soldiers began to unload plastic crates. The rest chivvied the people around the dragon, ordering them to move back, driving them up the beach past the bonfire. Lucas spotted the old man, Bill Danvers, arguing with two soldiers. One suddenly grabbed the old man’s arm and spun him around and twisted something around his wrists; the other looked at Lucas as he came towards them, telling him to stay back or he’d be arrested too.

“He’s my uncle,” Lucas said. “If you let him go I’ll make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble.”

“Your uncle?” The soldier wasn’t much older than Lucas, with cropped ginger hair and a ruddy complexion.

“Yes, sir. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s just upset because no one cares that he was the first to find it.”

“Like I said,” the old man said.

The two soldiers looked at each other, and the ginger-haired one told Lucas, “You’re responsible for him. If he starts up again, you’ll both be sorry.”

“I’ll look after him.”

The soldier stared at Lucas for a moment, then flourished a small-bladed knife and cut the plasticuffs that bound the old man’s wrists and shoved him towards Lucas. “Stay out of our way, grandpa. All right?”

“Sons of bitches,” Bill Danvers said as the soldiers had walked off. He raised his voice and called out, “I found it first. Someone owes me for that.”

“I think everyone knows you saw it come ashore,” Lucas said. “But they’re in charge now.”

“They’re going to blow it open,” a man said.

He held a satchel in one hand and a folded chair in the other; when he shook the chair open and sat down Lucas recognised him: the man who’d been sitting at the head of the dragon, sketching it.

“They can’t,” Bill Danvers said.

“They’re going to try,” the man said.

Lucas looked back at the dragon. Its steamlined shape dim in the streaming fret, the activity around its head (if that was its head) a vague shifting of shadows. Soldiers and scientists conferring in a tight knot. Then the police boat and the landing craft started their motors and reversed through the wash of the incoming tide, fading into the fret, and the scientists followed the soldiers up the beach, walking past the bonfire, and there was a stir and rustle amongst the people strung out along the ridge.

“No damn right,” Bill Danvers said.

The soldier with the bullhorn announced that there would be a small controlled explosion. A moment later, the dragon blared out its loud, long call and in the shocking silence afterwards laughter broke out amongst the crowd on the ridge. The soldier with the bullhorn began to count backwards from ten. Some of the crowd took up the chant. There was a brief silence at zero, and then a red light flared at the base of the dragon’s midpoint and a flat crack rolled out across the ridge and was swallowed by the mist. People whistled and clapped, and Bill Danvers stepped around Lucas and ran down the slope towards the dragon. Falling to his knees and getting up and running on as soldiers chased after him, closing in from either side.

People cheered and hooted, and some ran after Bill Danvers, young men mostly, leaping down the slope and swarming across the beach. Lucas saw Damian amongst the runners and chased after him, heart pounding, flooded with a heedless exhilaration. Soldiers blocked random individuals, catching hold of them or knocking them down as others dodged past. Lucas heard the clatter of the bullhorn but couldn’t make out any words, and then there was a terrific flare of white light and a hot wind struck him so hard he lost his balance and fell to his knees.

The dragon had split in half and things were glowing with hot light inside and the waves breaking around its rear hissed and exploded into steam. A terrific heat scorched Lucas’s face. He pushed to his feet. All around, people were picking themselves up and soldiers were moving amongst them, shoving them away from the dragon. Some complied; others stood, squinting into the light that beat out of the broken dragon, blindingly bright waves and wings of white light flapping across the beach, burning away the mist.

Blinking back tears and blocky afterimages, Lucas saw two soldiers dragging Bill Danvers away from the dragon. The old man hung limp and helpless in their grasp, splayed feet furrowing the sand. His head was bloody, something sticking out of it at an angle.

Lucas started towards them, and there was another flare that left him stunned and half-blind. Things fell all around and a translucent shard suddenly jutted up by his foot. The two soldiers had dropped Bill Danvers. Lucas stepped towards him, picking his way through a field of debris, and saw that he was beyond help. His head had been knocked out of shape by the shard that stuck in his temple, and blood was soaking into the sand around it.

The dragon had completely broken apart now. Incandescent stuff dripped and hissed into steaming water and the burning light was growing brighter.

Like almost everyone else, Lucas turned and ran. Heat clawed at his back as he slogged to the top of the ridge. He saw Damian sitting on the sand, right hand clamped on the upper part of his left arm, and he jogged over and helped his friend up. Leaning against each other, they stumbled across the ridge. Small fires crackled here and there, where hot debris had kindled clumps of marram grass. Everything was drenched in a pulsing diamond brilliance. They went down the slope of the far side, angling towards the little blue boat, splashing into the water that had risen around it. Damian clambered unhandily over thwart and Lucas hauled up the concrete-filled bucket and boosted it over the side, then put his shoulder to the boat’s prow and shoved it the low breakers and tumbled in.

The boat drifted sideways on the rising tide as Lucas hauled up the sail. Dragon-light beat beyond the crest of the sandbar, brighter than the sun. Lucas heeled his little boat into the wind, ploughing through stands of sea grass into the channel beyond, chasing after the small fleet fleeing the scene. Damian sat in the bottom of the boat, hunched into himself, his back against the stem of the mast. Lucas asked him if he was okay; he opened his fingers to show a translucent spike embedded in the meat of his biceps. It was about the size of his little finger.

“Dumb bad luck,” he said, his voice tight and wincing.

“I’ll fix you up,” Lucas said, but Damian shook his head.

“Just keep going. I think—”

Everything went white for a moment. Lucas ducked down and wrapped his arms around his head and for a moment saw shadowy bones through red curtains of flesh. When he dared look around, he saw a narrow column of pure white light rising straight up, seeming to lean over as it climbed into the sky, aimed at the very apex of heaven.

A hot wind struck the boat and filled the sail, and Lucas sat up and grabbed the tiller and the sheet as the boat crabbed sideways. By the time he had it under control again the column of light had dimmed, fading inside drifting curtains of fret, rooted in a pale fire flickering beyond the sandbar.

* * *

Damian’s father, Jason Playne, paid Lucas and his mother a visit the next morning. A burly man in his late forties with a shaven head and a blunt and forthright manner, dressed in workboots and denim overalls, he made the caravan seem small and frail. Standing over Julia’s bed, telling her that he would like to ask Lucas about the scrape he and his Damian had gotten into.

“Ask away,” Julia said. She was propped amongst her pillows, her gaze bright and amused. Her tablet lay beside her, images and blocks of text glimmering above it.

Jason Playne looked at her from beneath the thick hedge of his eyebrows. A strong odour of saltwater and sweated booze clung to him. He said, “I was hoping for a private word.”

“My son and I have no secrets.”

“This is about my son,” Jason Playne said.

“They didn’t do anything wrong, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Julia said.

Lucas felt a knot of embarrassment and anger in his chest. He said, “I’m right here.”

“Well, you didn’t,” his mother said.

Jason Playne looked at Lucas. “How did Damian get hurt?”

“He fell and cut himself,” Lucas said, as steadily as he could. That was what he and Damian had agreed to say, as they’d sailed back home with their prize. Lucas had pulled the shard of dragon stuff from Damian’s arm and staunched the bleeding with a bandage made from a strip ripped from the hem of Damian’s shirt. There hadn’t been much blood; the hot sliver had more or less cauterised the wound.

Jason Playne said, “He fell.”

“Yes sir.”

“Are you sure? Because I reckon that cut in my son’s arm was done by a knife. I reckon he got himself in some kind of fight.”

Julia said, “That sounds more like an accusation than a question.”

Lucas said, “We didn’t get into a fight with anyone.”

Jason Playne said, “Are you certain that Damian didn’t steal something?”

“Yes sir.”

Which was the truth, as far as it went.

“Because if he did steal something, if he still has it, he’s in a lot of trouble. You too.”

“I like to think my son knows a little more about alien stuff than most,” Julia said.

“I’m don’t mean fairy stories,” Jason Playne said. “I’m talking about the army ordering people to give back anything to do with that dragon thing. You stole something and you don’t give it back and they find out? They’ll arrest you. And if you try to sell it? Well, I can tell you for a fact that the people in that trade are mad and bad. I should know. I’ve met one or two of them in my time.”

“I’m sure Lucas will take that to heart,” Julia said.

And that was that, except after Jason Playne had gone she told Lucas that he’d been right about one thing: the people who tried to reverse-engineer alien technology were dangerous and should at all costs be avoided. “If I happened to come into possession of anything like that,” she said, “I would get rid of it at once. Before anyone found out.”

But Lucas couldn’t get rid of the shard because he’d promised Damian that he’d keep it safe until they could figure out what to do with it. He spent the next two days in a haze of guilt and indecision, struggling with the temptation to check that the thing was safe in its hiding place, wondering what Damian’s father knew, wondering what his mother knew, wondering if he should sail out to a deep part of the Flood and throw it into the water, until at last Damian came over to the island.

It was early in the evening, just after sunset. Lucas was watering the vegetable garden when Damian called to him from the shadows inside a clump of buddleia bushes. He smiled at Lucas, saying, “If you think I look bad, you should see him.”

“I can’t think he could look much worse.”

“I got in a few licks,” Damian said. His upper lip was split and both his eyes were blackened and there was a discoloured knot on the hinge of his jaw.

“He came here,” Lucas said. “Gave me and Julia a hard time.”

“How much does she know?”

“I told her what happened.”

“Everything?”

There was an edge in Damian’s voice.

“Except about how you were hit with the shard,” Lucas said.

“Oh. Your mother’s cool, you know? I wish…”

When it was clear that his friend wasn’t going to finish his thought, Lucas said, “Is it okay? You coming here so soon.”

“Oh, Dad’s over at Halvergate on what he calls business. Don’t worry about him. Did you keep it safe?”

“I said I would.”

“Why I’m here, L, I think I might have a line on someone who wants to buy our little treasure.”

“Your father said we should keep away from people like that.”

“He would.”

“Julia thinks so too.”

“If you don’t want anything to do with it, just say so. Tell me where it is, and I’ll take care of everything.”

“Right.”

“So is it here, or do we have to go somewhere?”

“I’ll show you,” Lucas said, and led his friend through the buddleias and along the low ridge to the northern end of the tiny island where an apple tree stood, hunched and gnarled and mostly dead, crippled by years of salt spray and saltwater seep. Lucas knelt and pulled up a hinge of turf and took out a small bundle of oilcloth. As he unwrapped it, Damian dropped to his knees beside him and reached out and touched an edge of the shard.

“Is it dead?”

“It wasn’t ever alive,” Lucas said.

“You know what I mean. What did you do to it?”

“Nothing. It just turned itself off.”

When Lucas had pulled the shard from Damian’s arm, its translucence had been veined with a network of shimmering threads. Now it was a dull reddish black, like an old scab.

“Maybe it uses sunlight, like phones,” Damian said.

“I thought of that, but I also thought it would be best to keep it hidden.”

“It still has to be worth something,” Damian said, and began to fold the oilcloth around the shard.

Lucas was gripped by a sudden apprehension, as if he was falling while kneeling there in the dark. He said, “We don’t have to do this right now.”

“Yes we do. I do.”

“Your father—he isn’t in Halvergate, is he?”

Damian looked straight at Lucas. “I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re worried about. He tried to knock me down when I went to leave, but I knocked him down instead. Pounded on him good. Put him down and put him out. Tied him up too, to give me some time to get away.”

“He’ll come after you.”

“Remember when we were kids? We used to lie up here, in summer. We’d look up at the stars and talk about what it would be like to go to one of the worlds the Jackaroo gave us. Well, I plan to find out. The UN lets you buy tickets off lottery winners who don’t want to go. It’s legal and everything. All you need is money. I reckon this will give us a good start.”

“You know I can’t come with you.”

“If you want your share, you’ll have to come to Norwich. Because there’s no way I’m coming back here,” Damian said, and stood with a smooth, swift motion.

Lucas stood too. They were standing toe to toe under the apple tree, the island and the Flood around it quiet and dark. As if they were the last people on Earth.

“Don’t try to stop me,” Damian said. “My father tried, and I fucked him up good and proper.”

“Let’s talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Damian said. “It is what it is.”

He tried to step past Lucas, and Lucas grabbed at his arm and Damian swung him around and lifted him off his feet and ran him against the trunk of the tree. Lucas tried to wrench free but Damian bore down with unexpected strength, pressing him against rough bark, leaning into him. Pinpricks of light in the dark wells of his eyes. His voice soft and hoarse in Lucas’s ear, his breath hot against Lucas’s cheek.

“You always used to be able to beat me, L. At running, swimming, you name it. Not any more. I’ve changed. Want to know why?”

“We don’t have to fight about this.”

“No, we don’t,” Damian said, and let Lucas go and stepped back.

Lucas pushed away from the tree, a little unsteady on his feet. “What’s got into you?”

Damian laughed. “That’s good, that is. Can’t you guess?”

“You need the money because you’re running away. All right, you can have my share, if that’s what you want. But it won’t get you very far.”

“Not by itself. But like I said, I’ve changed. Look,” Damian said, and yanked up the sleeve of his shirt, showing the place on his upper arm where the shard had punched into him.

There was only a trace of a scar, pink and smooth. Damian pulled the skin taut, and Lucas saw the outline of a kind of ridged or fibrous sheath underneath.

“It grew,” Damian said.

“Jesus.”

“I’m stronger. And faster too. I feel, I don’t know. Better than I ever have. Like I could run all the way around the world without stopping, if I had to.”

“What if it doesn’t stop growing? You should see a doctor, D. Seriously.”

“I’m going to. The kind that can make money for me, from what happened. You still think that little bit of dragon isn’t worth anything? It changed me. It could change anyone. I really don’t want to fight,” Damian said, “but I will if you get in my way. Because there’s there’s no way I’m stopping here. If I do, my dad will come after me. And if he does, I’ll have to kill him. And I know I can.

The two friends stared at each other in the failing light. Lucas was the first to look away.

“You can come with me,” Damian said. “To Norwich. Then wherever we want to go. To infinity and beyond. Think about it. You still got my phone?”

“Do you want it back? It’s in the caravan.”

“Keep it. I’ll call you. Tell you were to meet up. Come or don’t come, it’s up to you.”

And then he ran, crashing through the buddleia bushes that grew along the slope of the ridge. Lucas went after him, but by the time he reached the edge of the water, Damian had started the motor of the boat he’d stolen from his father’s shrimp farm, and was dwindling away into the thickening twilight.

* * *

The next day, Lucas was out on the Flood, checking baited cages he’d set for eels, when an inflatable pulled away from the shrimp farm and drew a curving line of white across the water, hooking towards him. Jason Playne sat in the inflatable’s stern, cutting the motor and drifting neatly alongside Lucas’s boat and catching hold of the thwart. His left wrist was bandaged and he wore a baseball cap pulled low over sunglasses that darkly reflected Lucas and Lucas’s boat and the waterscape all around. He asked without greeting or preamble where Damian was, and Lucas said that he didn’t know.

“You saw him last night. Don’t lie. What did he tell you?”

“That he was going away. That he wanted me to go with him.”

“But you didn’t.”

“Well, no. I’m still here.”

“Don’t try to be clever, boy.” Jason Playne stared at Lucas for a long moment, then sighed and took off his baseball cap and ran the palm of his hand over his shaven head. “I talked to your mother. I know he isn’t with you. But he could be somewhere close by. In the woods, maybe. Camping out like you two used to do when you were smaller.”

“All I know is that he’s gone, Mr. Payne. Far away from here.”

Jason Playne’s smile didn’t quite work. “You’re his friend, Lucas. I know you want to do the right thing by him. As friends should. So maybe you can tell him, if you see him, that I’m not angry. That he should come home and it won’t be a problem. You could also tell him to be careful. And you should be careful, too. I think you know what I mean. It could get you both into a lot of trouble if you talk to the wrong people. Or even if you talk to the right people. You think about that,” Jason Playne said, and pushed away from Lucas’s boat and opened the throttle of his inflatable’s motor and zoomed away, bouncing over the slight swell, dwindling into the glare of the sun off the water.

Lucas went back to hauling up the cages, telling himself that he was glad that Damian was gone, that he’d escaped. When he finished, he took up the oars and began to row towards the island, back to his mother, and the little circle of his life.

* * *

Damian didn’t call that day, or the next, or the day after that. Lucas was angry at first, then heartsick, convinced that Damian was in trouble. That he’d squandered or lost the money he’d made from selling the shard, or that he’d been cheated, or worse. After a week, Lucas sailed to Norwich and spent half a day tramping around the city in a futile attempt to find his friend. Jason Playne didn’t trouble him again, but several times Lucas spotted him standing at the end of the shrimp farm’s chain of tanks, studying the island.

September’s Indian summer broke in a squall of storms. It rained every day. Hard, cold rain blowing in swaying curtains across the face of the waters. Endless racks of low clouds driving eastward. Atlantic weather. The Flood was muddier and less salty than usual. The eel traps stayed empty and storm surges drove the mackerel shoals and other fish into deep water. Lucas harvested everything he could from the vegetable garden, and from the ancient pear tree and wild, forgotten hedgerows in the ribbon of woods behind the levee, counted and recounted the store of cans and MREs. He set rabbit snares in the woods, and spent hours tracking squirrels from tree to tree, waiting for a moment when he could take a shot with his catapult. He caught sticklebacks in the weedy tide pools that fringed the broken brickwork shore of the island and used them to bait trotlines for crabs, and if he failed to catch any squirrels or crabs he collected mussels from the car reef at the foot of the levee.

It rained through the rest of September and on into October. Julia developed a racking and persistent cough. She enabled the long-disused keyboard function of her tablet and typed her essays, opinion pieces, and journal entries instead of giving them straight to camera. She was helping settlers on the Antarctic Peninsula to petition the International Court in Johannesburg to grant them statehood, so that they could prevent exploitation of oil and mineral reserves by multinationals. She was arguing with the Midway Island utopians about whether or not the sea dragons they were using to harvest plastic particulates were also sucking up precious phytoplankton, and destabilising the oceanic ecosystem. And so on, and so forth.

The witchwoman visited and treated her with infusions and poultices, but the cough grew worse and because they had no money for medicine, Lucas tried to find work at the algae farm at Halvergate. Every morning, he set out before dawn and stood at the gates in a crowd of men and women as one of the supervisors pointed to this or that person and told them to step forward, told the rest to come back and try their luck tomorrow. After his fifth unsuccessful cattle call, Lucas was walking along the shoulder of the road towards town and the jetty where his boat was tied up when a battered van pulled up beside him and the driver called to him. It was Ritchy, the stoop-shouldered, one-eyed foreman of the shrimp farm. Saying, “Need a lift, lad?”

“You can tell him there’s no point in following me because I don’t have any idea where Damian is,” Lucas said, and kept walking.

“He doesn’t know I’m here.” Ritchy leaned at the window, edging the van along, matching Lucas’s pace. Its tyres left wakes in the flooded road. Rain danced on its roof. “I got some news about Damian. Hop in. I know a place does a good breakfast, and you look like you could use some food.”

They drove past patchworks of shallow lagoons behind mesh fences, past the steel tanks and piping of the cracking plant that turned algal lipids into biofuel. Ritchy talked about the goddamned weather, asked Lucas how his boat was handling, asked after his mother, said he was sorry to hear that she was ill and maybe he should pay a visit, he always liked talking to her because she made you look at things in a different way, a stream of inconsequential chatter he kept up all the way to the café.

It was in one corner of a layby where two lines of trucks were parked nose to tail. A pair of shipping containers welded together and painted bright pink. Red and white chequered curtains behind windows cut in the ribbed walls. Formica tables and plastic chairs crowded inside, all occupied and a line of people waiting, but Ritchy knew the Portuguese family who ran the place and he and Lucas were given a small table in the back, between a fridge and the service counter, and without asking were served mugs of strong tea, and shrimp and green pepper omelets with baked beans and chips.

“You know what I miss most?” Ritchy said. “Pigs. Bacon and sausage. Ham. They say the Germans are trying to clone flu-resistant pigs. If they are, I hope they get a move on. Eat up, lad. You’ll feel better with something inside you.”

“You said you had some news about Damian. Where is he? Is he all right?”

Ritchy squinted at Lucas. His left eye, the one that had been lost when he’d been a soldier, glimmered blankly. It had been grown from a sliver of tooth and didn’t have much in the way of resolution, but allowed him to see both infrared and ultraviolet light.

He said, “Know what collateral damage is?”

Fear hollowed Lucas’s stomach. “Damian is in trouble, isn’t he? What happened?”

“Used to be, long ago, wars were fought on a battlefield chosen by both sides. Two armies meeting by appointment. Squaring up to each other. Slogging it out. Then wars became so big the countries fighting them became one huge battlefield. Civilians found themselves on the front line. Or rather, there was no front line. Total war, they called it. And then you got wars that weren’t wars. Asymmetrical wars. Netwars. Where war gets mixed up with crime and terrorism. Your mother was on the edge of a netwar at one time. Against the Jackaroo and those others. Still thinks she’s fighting it, although it long ago evolved into something else. There aren’t any armies or battlefields in a netwar. Just a series of nodes in distributed organisation. Collateral damage,” Ritchy said, forking omelet into his mouth, “is the inevitable consequence of taking out one of those nodes, because all of them are embedded inside ordinary society. It could be a flat in an apartment block in a city. Or a little island where someone thinks something useful is hidden.”

“I don’t—”

“You don’t know anything,” Ritchy said. “I believe you. Damian ran off with whatever it was you two found or stole, and left you in the lurch. But the people Damian got himself involved with don’t know you don’t know. That’s why we’ve been looking out for you. Making sure you and your mother don’t become collateral damage.”

“Wait. What people? What did Damian do?”

“I’m trying to tell you, only it’s harder than I thought it would be.” Ritchy set his knife and fork together on his plate and said, “Maybe telling it straight is the best way. The day after Damian left, he tried to do some business with some people in Norwich. Bad people. The lad wanted to sell them a fragment of that dragon that stranded itself, but they decided to take it from him without paying. There was a scuffle and the lad got away and left a man with a bad knife wound. He died from it, a few weeks later. Those are the kind of people who look after their own, if you know what I mean. Anyone involved in that trade is bad news in one way or another. Jason had to pay them off, or else they would have come after him. An eye for an eye,” Ritchy said, and tapped his blank eye with his little finger.

“What happened to Damian?”

“This is the hard part. After his trouble in Norwich, the lad called his father. He was drunk, ranting. Boasting how he was going to make all kinds of money. I managed to put a demon on his message, ran it back to a cell in Gravesend. Jason went up there, and that’s when… Well, there’s no other way of saying it. That’s when he found out that Damian had been killed.”

The shock was a jolt and a falling away. And then Lucas was back inside himself, hunched in his damp jeans and sweater in the clatter and bustle of the café, with the fridge humming next to him. Ritchy tore off the tops of four straws of sugar and poured them into Lucas’s tea and stirred it and folded Lucas’s hand around the mug and told him to drink.

Lucas sipped hot sweet tea and felt a little better.

“Always thought,” Ritchy said, “that of the two of you, you were the best and brightest.”

Lucas saw his friend in his mind’s eye and felt cold and strange, knowing he’d never see him, never talk to him again.

Ritchy was said, “The police got in touch yesterday. They found Damian’s body in the river. They think he fell into the hands of one of the gangs that trade in offworld stuff.”

Lucas suddenly understood something and said, “They wanted what was growing inside him. The people who killed him.”

He told Ritchy about the shard that had hit Damian in the arm. How they’d pulled it out. How it had infected Damian.

“He had a kind of patch around the cut, under his skin. He said it was making him stronger.”

Lucas saw his friend again, wild-eyed in the dusk, under the apple tree.

“That’s what he thought. But that kind of thing, well, if he hadn’t been murdered he would most likely have died from it.”

“Do you know who did it?”

Ritchy shook his head. “The police are making what they like to call enquiries. They’ll probably want to talk to you soon enough.”

“Thank you. For telling me.”

“I remember the world before the Jackaroo came,” Ritchy said. “Them, and the others after them. It was in a bad way, but at least you knew where you were. If you happen to have any more of that stuff, lad, throw it in the Flood. And don’t mark the spot.”

* * *

Two detectives came Gravesend to interview Lucas. He told them everything he knew. Julia said that he shouldn’t blame himself, said that Damian had made a choice and it had been a bad choice. But Lucas carried the guilt around with him anyway. He should have done more to help Damian. He should have thrown the shard away. Or found him after they’d had the stupid argument over that girl. Or refused to take him out to see the damn dragon in the first place.

A week passed. Two. There was no funeral because the police would not release Damian’s body. According to them, it was still undergoing forensic tests. Julia, who was tracking rumours about the murder and its investigation on the stealth nets, said it had probably been taken to some clandestine research lab, and she and Lucas had a falling out over it.

One day, returning home after checking the snares he’d set in the woods, Lucas climbed to the top of the levee and saw two men waiting beside his boat. Both were dressed in brand-new camo gear, one with a beard, the other with a shaven head and rings flashing in one ear. They started up the slope towards him, calling his name, and he turned tail and ran, cutting across a stretch of sour land gone to weeds and pioneer saplings, plunging into the stands of bracken at the edge of the woods, pausing, seeing the two men chasing towards him, turning and running on.

He knew every part of the woods, and quickly found a hiding place under the slanted trunk of a fallen sycamore grown over with moss and ferns, breathing quick and hard in the cold air. Rain pattered all around. Droplets of water spangled bare black twigs. The deep odour of wet wood and wet earth.

A magpie chattered, close by. Lucas set a ball-bearing in the cup of his catapult and cut towards the sound, moving easily and quietly, freezing when he saw a twitch of movement between the wet tree trunks ahead. It was the bearded man, the camo circuit of his gear magicking him into a fairy-tale creature got up from wet bark and mud. He was talking into a phone headset in a language full of harsh vowels. Turning as Lucas stepped towards him, his smile white inside his beard, saying that there was no need to run away, he only wanted to talk.

“What is that you have, kid?”

“A catapult. I’ll use it if I have too.”

“What do you use it for? Hunting rabbits? I’m no rabbit.”

“Who are you?”

“Police. I have ID,” the man said, and before Lucas could say anything his hand went into the pocket of his camo trousers and came out with a pistol.

Lucas had made his catapult himself, from a yoke of springy poplar and a length of vatgrown rubber with the composition and tensile strength of the hinge inside a mussel shell. As the man brought up the pistol Lucas pulled back the band of rubber and let the ball bearing fly. He did it quickly and without thought, firing from the hip, and the ball bearing went exactly where he meant it to go. It smacked into the knuckles of the man’s hand with a hard pop and the man yelped and dropped the pistol, and then he sat down hard and clapped his good hand to his knee, because Lucas’s second shot had struck the soft part under the cap.

Lucas stepped up and kicked the pistol away and stepped back, a third ball bearing cupped in the catapult. The man glared at him, wincing with pain, and said something in his harsh language.

“Who sent you?” Lucas said.

His heart was racing, but his thoughts were cool and clear.

“Tell me where it is,” the man said, “and we leave you alone. Your mother too.”

“My mother doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

Lucas was watching the man and listening to someone moving through the wet wood, coming closer.

“She is in it, nevertheless,” the man said. He tried to push to his feet but his wounded knee gave way and he cried out and sat down again. He’d bitten his lip bloody and sweat beaded his forehead.

“Stay still, or the next one hits you between the eyes,” Lucas said. He heard a quaver in his voice and knew from the way the man looked at him that he’d heard it too.

“Go now, and fetch the stuff. And don’t tell me you don’t know what I mean. Fetch it and bring it here. That’s the only offer you get,” the man said. “And the only time I make it.”

A twig snapped softly and Lucas turned, ready to let the ball-bearing fly, but it was Damian’s father who stepped around a dark green holly bush, saying, “You can leave this one to me.”

At once Lucas understood what had happened. Within his cool clear envelope he could see everything: how it all connected.

“You set me up,” he said.

“I needed to draw them out,” Jason Playne said. He was dressed in jeans and an old-fashioned woodland camo jacket, and he was cradling a cut-down double-barrelled shotgun.

“You let them know where I was. You told them I had more of the dragon stuff.”

The man sitting on the ground was looking at them. “This does not end here,” he said. “I have you, and I have your friend. And you’re going to pay for what you did to my son,” Jason Playne said, and put a whistle to his lips and blew, two short notes. Off in the dark rainy woods another whistle answered.

The man said, “Idiot small-time businessman. You don’t know us. What we can do. Hurt me and we hurt you back tenfold.”

Jason Playne ignored him, and told Lucas that he could go.

“Why did you let them chase me? You could have caught them while they were waiting by my boat. Did you want them to hurt me?”

“I knew you’d lead them a good old chase. And you did. So, all’s well that ends well, eh?” Jason Playne said. “Think of it as payback. For what happened to my son.”

Lucas felt a bubble of anger swelling in his chest. “You can’t forgive me for what I didn’t do.”

“It’s what you didn’t do that caused all the trouble.”

“It wasn’t me. It was you. It was you who made him run away. It wasn’t just the beatings. It was the thought that if he stayed here he’d become just like you.”

Jason Playne turned towards Lucas, his face congested. “Go. Right now.”

The bearded man drew a knife from his boot and flicked it open and pushed up with his good leg, throwing himself towards Jason Playne, and Lucas stretched the band of his catapult and let fly. The ball bearing struck the bearded man in the temple with a hollow sound and the man fell flat on his face. His temple was dinted and blood came out of his nose and mouth and he thrashed and trembled and subsided.

Rain pattered down all around, like faint applause.

Then Jason Playne stepped towards the man and kicked him in the chin with the point of his boot. The man rolled over on the wet leaves, arms flopping wide.

“I reckon you killed him,” Jason Playne said.

“I didn’t mean—”

“Lucky for you there are two of them. The other will tell me what I need to know. You go now, boy. Go!”

Lucas turned and ran.

* * *

He didn’t tell his mother about it. He hoped that Jason Playne would find out who had killed Damian and tell the police and the killers would answer for what they had done, and that would be an end to it.

That wasn’t what happened.

The next day, a motor launch came over to the island, carrying police armed with machine guns and the detectives investigating Damian’s death, who arrested Lucas for involvement in two suspicious deaths and conspiracy to kidnap or murder other persons unknown. It seemed that one of the men that Jason Playne had hired to help him get justice for the death of his son had been a police informant.

Lucas was held in remand in Norwich for three months. Julia was too ill to visit him, but they talked on the phone and she sent messages via Ritchy, who’d been arrested along with every other worker on the shrimp farm, but released on bail after the police were unable to prove that he had anything to do with Jason Playne’s scheme.

It was Ritchy who told Lucas that his mother had cancer that had started in her throat and spread elsewhere, and that she had refused treatment. Lucas was taken to see her two weeks later, handcuffed to a prison warden. She was lying in a hospital bed, looking shrunken and horribly vulnerable. Her dreadlocks bundled in a blue scarf. Her hand so cold when he took it in his. The skin loose on frail bones.

She had refused monoclonal antibody treatment that would shrink the tumours and remove cancer cells from her bloodstream, and had also refused food and water. The doctors couldn’t intervene because a clause in her living will gave her the right to choose death instead of treatment. She told Lucas this in a hoarse whisper. Her lips were cracked and her breath foul, but her gaze was strong and insistent.

“Do the right thing even when it’s the hardest thing,” she said.

She died four days later. Her ashes were scattered in the rose garden of the municipal crematorium. Lucas stood in the rain between two wardens as the curate recited the prayer for the dead. The curate asked him if he wanted to scatter the ashes and he threw them out across the wet grass and dripping rose bushes with a flick of his wrist. Like casting a line across the water.

* * *

He was sentenced to five years for manslaughter, reduced to eighteen months for time served on remand and for good behaviour. He was released early in September. He’d been given a ticket for the bus to Norwich, and a voucher for a week’s stay in a halfway house, but he set off in the opposite direction, on foot. Walking south and east across country. Following back roads. Skirting the edges of sugar beet fields and bamboo plantations. Ducking into ditches or hedgerows whenever he heard a vehicle approaching. Navigating by the moon and the stars.

Once, a fox loped across his path.

Once, he passed a depot lit up in the night, robots shunting between a loading dock and a road-train.

By dawn he was making his way through the woods along the edge of the levee. He kept taking steps that weren’t there. Several times he sat on his haunches and rested for a minute before pushing up and going on. At last, he struck the gravel track that led to the shrimp farm, and twenty minutes later was knocking on the door of the office.

Ritchy gave Lucas breakfast and helped him pull his boat out of the shed where it had been stored, and set it in the water. Lucas and the old man had stayed in touch: it had been Ritchy who’d told him that Jason Playne had been stabbed to death in prison, most likely by someone paid by the people he’d tried to chase down. Jason Playne’s brother had sold the shrimp farm to a local consortium, and Ritchy had been promoted to supervisor.

He told Lucas over breakfast that he had a job there, if he wanted it. Lucas said that he was grateful, he really was, but he didn’t know if he wanted to stay on.

“I’m not asking you to make a decision right away,” Ritchy said. “Think about it. Get your bearings, come to me whenever you’re ready. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Are you going to stay over on the island?”

“Just how bad is it?”

“I couldn’t keep all of them off. They’d come at night. One party had a shotgun.”

“You did what you could. I appreciate it.”

“I wish I could have done more. They made a mess, but it isn’t anything you can’t fix up, if you want to.”

A heron flapped away across the sun-silvered water as Lucas rowed around the point of the island. The unexpected motion plucked at an old memory. As if he’d seen a ghost.

He grounded his boat next to the rotting carcass of his mother’s old rowboat and walked up the steep path. Ritchy had patched the broken windows of the caravan and put a padlock on the door. Lucas had the key in his pocket, but he didn’t want to go in there, not yet.

After Julia had been taken into hospital, treasure hunters had come from all around, chasing rumours that parts of the dragon had been buried on the island. Holes were dug everywhere in the weedy remains of the vegetable garden; the microwave mast at the summit of the ridge, Julia’s link with the rest of the world, had been uprooted. Lucas set his back to it and walked north, counting his steps. Both of the decoy caches his mother had planted under brick cairns had been ransacked, but the emergency cache, buried much deeper, was undisturbed.

Lucas dug down to the plastic box, and looked all around before he opened it and sorted through the things inside, squatting frogwise with the hot sun on his back.

An assortment of passports and identity cards, each with a photograph of younger versions of his mother, made out to different names and nationalities. A slim tight roll of old high-denomination banknotes, yuan, naira, and U.S. dollars, more or less worthless thanks to inflation and revaluation. Blank credit cards and credit cards in various names, also worthless. Dozens of sleeved data needles. A pair of AR glasses.

Lucas studied one of the ID cards. When he brushed the picture of his mother with his thumb, she turned to present her profile, turned to look at him when he brushed the picture again.

He pocketed the ID card and the data needles and AR glasses, then walked along the ridge to the apple tree at the far end, and stared out across the Flood that spread glistening like shot silk under the sun. Thoughts moved through his mind like a slow and stately parade of pictures that he could examine in every detail, and then there were no thoughts at all and for a little while no part of him was separate from the world all around, sun and water and the hot breeze that moved through the crooked branches of the tree.

Lucas came to himself with a shiver. Windfall apples lay everywhere amongst the weeds and nettles that grew around the trees, and dead wasps and hornets were scattered amongst them like yellow and black bullets. Here was a dead bird too, gone to a tatter of feathers of white bone. And here was another, and another. As if some passing cloud of poison had struck everything down.

He picked an apple from the tree, mashed it against the trunk, and saw pale threads fine as hair running through the mash of pulp. He peeled bark from a branch, saw threads laced in the living wood.

Dragon stuff, growing from the seed he’d planted. Becoming something else.

In the wood of the tree and the apples scattered all around was a treasure men would kill for. Had killed for. He’d have more than enough to set him up for life, if he sold it to the right people. He could build a house right here, buy the shrimp farm or set up one of his own. He could buy a ticket on one of the shuttles that travelled through the wormhole anchored between the Earth and the Moon, travel to infinity and beyond…

Lucas remembered the hopeful shine in Damian’s eyes when he’d talked about those new worlds. He thought of how the dragon-shard had killed or damaged everyone it had touched. He pictured his mother working at her tablet in her sickbed, advising and challenging people who were attempting to build something new right here on Earth. It wasn’t much of a contest. It wasn’t even close.

He walked back to the caravan. Took a breath, unlocked the padlock, stepped inside. Everything had been overturned or smashed. Cupboards gaped open, the mattress of his mother’s bed was slashed and torn, a great ruin littered the floor. He rooted amongst the wreckage, found a box of matches and a plastic jug of lamp oil. He splashed half of the oil on the torn mattress, lit a twist of cardboard and lobbed it onto the bed, beat a retreat as flames sprang up.

It didn’t take ten minutes to gather up dead wood and dry weeds and pile them around the apple tree, splash the rest of the oil over its trunk, and set fire to the tinder. A thin pall of white smoke spread across the island, blowing out across the water as he raised the sail of his boat and turned it into the wind.

Heading south.

A SOLDIER OF THE CITY

by David Moles

The vivid story that follows plunges us deep into a war between spacefaring civilizations from a future where humans serve literal gods whom they love and worship—and who sometimes prove not to be worthy of either.

David Moles has sold fiction to Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Engineering Infinity, Polyphony, Strange Horizons. Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Say?, Flytrap, and elsewhere. He coedited with Jay Lake 2004’s well-received “retro-pulp” anthology All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, as well as coedited with Susan Marie Groppi the original anthology Twenty Epics. He won the Theodore Sturgeon Award for best short fiction of the year with his story “Finisterra.”

ISIN 12:709 13" N:10 18" / 34821.1.9 10:24:5:19.21

Color still image, recorded by landscape maintenance camera, Gulanabishtüdinam Park West.

At the top of the hill is a football court, the net nearly new but the bricks of the ground uneven, clumps of grass growing up from between the cracks. On the same side of the net are a man and a young girl. The hollow rattan ball is above the girl’s head, nearing the apex of its trajectory; the girl, balanced on the toes of her bare right foot, her left knee raised, is looking toward the man.

The man is looking away.

Cross-reference with temple records identifies the man as Ishmenininsina Ninnadiïnshumi, age twenty-eight, temple soldier of the 219th Surface Tactical Company, an under-officer of the third degree, and the girl as his daughter Mâratirşitim, age nine.

Magnification of the reflection from the man’s left cornea indicates his focus to be the sixty-cubit-high image of Gula, the Lady of Isin, projected over the Kârumishbiïrra Canal.

Comparison of the reflection with the record of the Corn Parade ceremonies suggests a transmission delay of approximately three grains.

I. CORN PARADE

In the moment of the blast, Ish was looking down the slope, toward the canal, the live feed from the temple steps and the climax of the parade. As he watched, the goddess suddenly froze; her ageless face lost its benevolent smile, and her dark eyes widened in surprise and perhaps in fear, as they looked—Ish later would always remember—directly at him. Her lips parted as if she was about to tell Ish something.

And then the whole eastern rise went brighter than the Lady’s House at noonday. There was a sound, a rolling, bone-deep rumble like thunder, and afterwards Ish would think there was something wrong with this, that something so momentous should sound so prosaic, but at the time all he could think was how loud it was, how it went on and on, louder than thunder, than artillery, than rockets, louder and longer than anything Ish had ever heard. The ground shook. The projection faded, flickered and went out, and a hot wind whipped over the hilltop, tearing the net from its posts, knocking Mâra to the ground and sending her football flying, lost forever, out over the rooftops to the west.

From the temple district, ten leagues away, a bright point was rising, arcing up toward the dazzling eye of the Lady’s House, and some trained part of Ish’s mind saw the straight line, the curvature an artifact of the city’s rotating reference frame; but as Mâra started to cry, and Ish’s wife Tara and all his in-laws boiled up from around the grill and the picnic couches, yelling, and a pillar of brown smoke, red-lit from below, its top swelling obscenely, began to grow over the temple, the temple of the goddess Ish was sworn as a soldier of the city to protect, Ish was not thinking of geometry or the physics of coriolis force. What Ish was thinking—what Ish knew, with a sick certainty—was that the most important moment of his life had just come and gone, and he had missed it.

34821.1.14 10:9:2:5.67

Annotated image of the city of Isin, composed by COS Independence, on Gaugamela station, Babylon, transmitted via QT to Community Outreach archives, Urizen. Timestamp adjusted for lightspeed delay of thirteen hours, fifty-one minutes.

Five days after the strike the point of impact has died from angry red-orange to sullen infrared, a hot spot that looks like it will be a long time in cooling. A streamer of debris trails behind the wounded city like blood in water, its spectrum a tale of vaporized ice and iron. Isin’s planet-sized city-sphere itself appears structurally intact, the nitrogen and oxygen that would follow a loss of primary atmosphere absent from the recorded data.

Away from the impact, the myriad microwave receivers that cover the city’s surface like scales still ripple, turning to follow the beams of power from Ninagal’s superconducting ring, energy drawn from the great black hole called Tiamat, fat with the mass of three thousand suns, around which all the cities of Babylon revolve. The space around Isin is alive with ships: local orbiters, electromagnetically accelerated corn cans in slow transfer orbits carrying grain and meat from Isin to more urbanized cities, beam-riding passenger carriers moving between Isin and Lagash, Isin and Nippur, Isin and Babylon-Borsippa and the rest—but there is no mass exodus, no evacuation.

The Outreach planners at Urizen and Ahania, the missionaries aboard Liberation and Independence and those living in secret among the people of the cities, breathe sighs of relief, and reassure themselves that whatever they have done to the people of the cities of Babylon, they have at least not committed genocide.

Aboard COS Insurrection, outbound from Babylon, headed for the Community planet of Zoa at four-tenths the speed of light and still accelerating, the conscientious objectors who chose not to stay and move forward with the next phase of the Babylonian intervention hear this good news and say, not without cynicism: I hope that’s some comfort to them.

II. MEN GIVING ORDERS

Ish was leading a team along a nameless street in what had been a neighborhood called Imtagaärbeëlti and was now a nameless swamp, the entire district northwest of the temple complex knee-deep in brackish water flowing in over the fallen seawall and out of the broken aqueducts, so that Ish looked through gates into flooded gardens where children’s toys and broken furniture floated as if put there just to mar and pucker the reflection of the heavens, or through windows whose shutters had been torn loose and glass shattered by the nomad blast into now-roofless rooms that were snapshots of ordinary lives in their moments of ending.

In the five days since the Corn Parade Ish had slept no more than ten or twelve hours. Most of the rest of the 219th had died at the temple, among the massed cohorts of Isin lining the parade route in their blue dress uniforms and golden vacuum armor—they hadn’t had wives, or hadn’t let the wives they did have talk them into extending their leaves to attend picnics with their in-laws, or hadn’t been able to abuse their under-officers’ warrants to extend their leaves when others couldn’t. Most of the temple soldiery had died along with them, and for the first three days Ish had been just a volunteer with a shovel, fighting fires, filling sandwalls, clearing debris. On the fourth day the surviving priests and temple military apparatus had pulled themselves together into something resembling a command structure, and now Ish had this scratch squad, himself and three soldiers from different units, and this mission, mapping the flood zone, to what purpose Ish didn’t know or much care. They’d been issued weapons but Ish had put a stop to that, confiscating the squad’s ammunition and retaining just one clip for himself.

“Is that a body?” said one of the men suddenly. Ish couldn’t remember his name. A clerk, from an engineering company, his shoulder patch a stylized basket. Ish looked to where he was pointing. In the shadows behind a broken window was a couch, and on it a bundle of sticks that might have been a man.

“Wait here,” Ish said.

“We’re not supposed to go inside,” said one of the other men, a scout carrying a bulky map book and sketchpad, as Ish hoisted himself over the gate. “We’re just supposed to mark the house for the civilians.”

“Who says?” asked the clerk.

“Command,” said the scout.

“There’s no command,” said the fourth man suddenly. He was an artillerist, twice Ish’s age, heavy and morose. These were the first words he’d spoken all day. “The Lady’s dead. There’s no command. There’s no officers. There’s just men giving orders.”

The clerk and the scout looked at Ish, who said nothing.

He pulled himself over the gate.

The Lady’s dead. The artillerist’s words, or ones like them, had been rattling around Ish’s head for days, circling, leaping out to catch him whenever he let his guard down. Gula, the Lady of Isin, is dead. Every time Ish allowed himself to remember that it was as if he was understanding it for the first time, the shock of it like a sudden and unbroken fall, the grief and shame of it a monumental weight toppling down on him. Each time Ish forced the knowledge back the push he gave it was a little weaker, the space he created for himself to breathe and think and feel in a little smaller. He was keeping himself too busy to sleep because every time he closed his eyes he saw the Lady’s pleading face.

He climbed over the windowsill and into the house.

The body of a very old man was curled up there, dressed in nothing but a dirty white loincloth that matched the color of the man’s hair and beard and the curls on his narrow chest. In the man’s bony hands an icon of Lady Gula was clutched, a cheap relief with machine-printed colors that didn’t quite line up with the ceramic curves, the Lady’s robes more blue than purple and the heraldic dog at her feet more green than yellow; the sort of thing that might be sold in any back-alley liquor store. One corner had been broken off, so that the Lady’s right shoulder and half her face were gone, and only one eye peered out from between the man’s knuckles. When Ish moved to take the icon, the fingers clutched more tightly, and the old man’s eyelids fluttered as a rasp of breath escaped his lips.

Ish released the icon. Its one-eyed stare now seemed accusatory.

“Okay,” he said heavily. “Okay, Granddad.”

BABYLON CITY 1:1 5" N:1 16" / 34821.1.14 7:15

LORD NINURTA VOWS JUSTICE FOR LADY OF ISIN

POLICE TO PROTECT LAW-ABIDING NOMADS

LAWLESSNESS IN SIPPAR

—headlines, temple newspaper Marduknaşir, Babylon City

BABYLON CITY 4:142 113" S:4 12" / 34821.1.15 1:3

POINTLESS REVENGE MISSION

LYNCHINGS IN BABYLON: IMMIGRANTS TARGETED

SIPPAR RISES UP

—headlines, radical newspaper Iïnshushaqiï, Babylon City

GISH, NIPPUR, SIPPAR (VARIOUS LOCATIONS) / 34821.1.15

THEY CAN DIE

—graffiti common in working-class and slave districts after the nomad attack on Isin

III. KINETIC PENETRATOR

When Tara came home she found Ish on a bench in the courtyard, bent over the broken icon, with a glue pot and an assortment of scroll clips and elastic bands from Tara’s desk. They’d talked, when they first moved into this house not long after Mâra was born, of turning one of the ground-floor rooms into a workshop for Ish, but he was home so rarely and for such short periods that with one thing and another it had never happened. She kept gardening supplies there now.

The projector in the courtyard was showing some temple news feed, an elaborately animated diagram of the nomads’ weapon—a “kinetic penetrator,” the researcher called it, a phrase that Tara thought should describe something found in a sex shop or perhaps a lumberyard—striking the city’s outer shell, piercing iron and ice and rock before erupting in a molten plume from the steps directly beneath the Lady’s feet.

Tara turned it off.

Ish looked up. “You’re back,” he said.

“You stole my line,” said Tara. She sat on the bench next to Ish and looked down at the icon in his lap. “What’s that?”

“An old man gave it to me,” Ish said. “There.” He wrapped a final elastic band around the icon and set it down next to the glue pot. “That should hold it.”

* * *

He’d found the broken corner of the icon on the floor not far from the old man’s couch. On Ish’s orders they’d abandoned the pointless mapping expedition and taken the man to an aid station, bullied the doctors until someone took responsibility.

There, in the aid tent, the man pressed the icon into Ish’s hands, both pieces, releasing them with shaking fingers.

“Lady bless you,” he croaked.

The artillerist, at Ish’s elbow, gave a bitter chuckle, but didn’t say anything. Ish was glad of that. The man might be right, there might be no command, there might be no soldiery, Ish might not be an under-officer any more, just a man giving orders. But Ish was, would continue to be, a soldier of the Lady, a soldier of the city of Isin, and if he had no lawful orders that only put the burden on him to order himself.

He was glad the artillerist hadn’t spoken, because if the man had at that moment said again the Lady’s dead, Ish was reasonably sure he would have shot him.

He’d unzipped the flap on the left breast pocket of his jumpsuit and tucked both pieces of the icon inside. Then he’d zipped the pocket closed again, and for the first time in five days, he’d gone home.

* * *

Tara said: “Now that you’re back, I wish you’d talk to Mâra. She’s been having nightmares. About the Corn Parade. She’s afraid the nomads might blow up her school.”

“They might,” Ish said.

“You’re not helping.” Tara sat up straight. She took his chin in her hand and turned his head to face her. “When did you last sleep?”

Ish pulled away from her. “I took pills.”

Tara sighed. “When did you last take a pill?”

“Yesterday,” Ish said. “No. Day before.”

“Come to bed,” said Tara. She stood up. Ish didn’t move. He glanced down at the icon.

An ugly expression passed briefly over Tara’s face, but Ish didn’t see it.

“Come to bed,” she said again. She took Ish’s arm, and this time he allowed himself to be led up the stairs.

* * *

At some point in the night they made love. It wasn’t very good for either of them; it hadn’t been for a long while, but this night was worse. Afterwards Tara slept.

She woke to find Ish already dressed. He was putting things into his soldiery duffel.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Lagash.”

“What?”

Tara sat up. Ish didn’t look at her.

“Lord Ninurta’s fitting out an expedition,” Ish said.

“An expedition,” said Tara flatly.

“To find the nomads who killed the Lady.”

“And do what?” asked Tara.

Ish didn’t answer. From his dresser he picked up his identification seal, the cylinder with the Lady’s heraldic dog and Ish’s name and Temple registry number, and fastened it around his neck.

Tara turned away.

“I don’t think I ever knew you,” she said, “But I always knew I couldn’t compete with a goddess. When I married you, I said to my friends: ‘At least he won’t be running around after other women.’” She laughed without humor. “And now she’s dead—and you’re still running after her.”

She looked up. Ish was gone.

* * *

Outside it was hot and windless under a lowering sky. Nothing was moving. A fine gray dust was settling over the sector: the Lady’s ashes, Ish had heard people call it. His jump boots left prints in it as he carried his duffel to the train station.

An express took Ish to the base of the nearest spoke, and from there his soldiery ID and a series of elevators carried him to the southern polar dock. As the equatorial blue and white of the city’s habitable zone gave way to the polished black metal of the southern hemisphere, Ish looked down at the apparently untroubled clouds and seas ringing the city’s equator and it struck him how normal this all was, how like any return to duty after leave.

It would have been easy and perhaps comforting to pretend it was just that, comforting to pretend that the Corn Parade had ended like every other, with the Lady’s blessing on the crops, the return of the images to the shrines, drinking and dancing and music from the dimming of the Lady’s House at dusk to its brightening at dawn.

Ish didn’t want that sort of comfort.

34821.6.29 5:23:5:12.102

Abstract of report prepared by priest-astronomers of Ur under the direction of Shamash of Sippar, at the request of Ninurta of Lagash.

Isotopic analysis of recovered penetrator fragments indicates the nomad weapon to have been constructed within and presumably fired from the Apsu near debris belt. Astronomical records are surveyed for suspicious occlusions, both of nearby stars in the Babylon globular cluster and of more distant stars in the Old Galaxy, and cross-referenced against traffic records to eliminate registered nomad vessels. Fifteen anomalous occlusions, eleven associated with mapped point mass Sinkalamaïdi-541, are identified over a period of one hundred thirty-two years. An orbit for the Corn Parade criminals is proposed.

IV. DOG SOLDIER

There was a thump as Ish’s platform was loaded onto the track. Then Sharur’s catapult engaged and two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty times the force of Isin’s equatorial rotation pushed Ish into his thrust bag; and then Ish was flying free.

In his ear, the voice of the ship said:

—First company, dispersion complete.

On the control console, affixed there, sealed into a block of clear resin: Gula’s icon. Ish wondered if this was what she wanted.

And Ninurta added, for Ish’s ears alone:

—Good hunting, dog soldier.

* * *

At Lagash they’d wanted Ish to join the soldiery of Lagash; had offered him the chance to compete for a place with the Lion-Eagles, Ninurta’s elites. Ish had refused, taking the compassion of these warlike men of a warlike city for contempt. Isin was sparsely populated for a city of Babylon, with barely fifty billion spread among its parks and fields and orchards, but its soldiery was small even for that. When the hard men in Ashur and the actuaries in Babylon-Borsippa counted up the cities’ defenders, they might forget Lady Gula’s soldiers, and be forgiven for forgetting. What Ninurta’s men meant as generosity to a grieving worshipper of their lord’s consort Ish took for mockery of a parade soldier from a rustic backwater. It needed the intervention of the god himself to make a compromise; this after Ish had lost his temper, broken the recruiter’s tablet over his knee and knocked over his writing-table.

“You loved her—dog soldier.”

Ish turned to see who had spoken, and saw a god in the flesh for the first time.

The Lord of Lagash was tall, five cubits at least, taller than any man, but the shape and set of his body in its coppery-red armor made it seem that it was the god who was to scale and everything around him—the recruiting office, the Lion-Eagles who had been ready to lay hands on Ish and who were now prostrate on the carpet, the wreckage of the recruiter’s table, Ish himself—that was small. The same agelessness was in Ninurta’s dark-eyed face that had been in Lady Gula’s, but what in the Lady had seemed to Ish a childlike simplicity retained into adulthood was turned, in her consort, to a precocious maturity, a wisdom beyond the unlined face’s years.

Ish snapped to attention. “Lord,” he said. He saluted—as he would have saluted a superior officer. A murmur of outrage came from the Lion-Eagles on the floor.

The god ignored them. “You loved her,” he said again, and he reached out and lifted Ish’s seal-cylinder where it hung around his neck, turned it in his fingers to examine the dog figure, to read Ish’s name and number.

“No, Lord Ninurta,” Ish said.

The god looked from the seal to Ish’s face.

“No?” he said, and there was something dangerous in his voice. His fist closed around the seal.

Ish held the god’s gaze.

“I still love her,” he said.

Ish had been prepared to hate the Lord of Lagash, consort of the Lady of Isin. When Ish thought of god and goddess together his mind slipped and twisted and turned away from the idea; when he’d read the god’s proclamation of intent to hunt down the nomads that had murdered “his” lady, Ish’s mouth had curled in an involuntary sneer. If the Lord of Lagash had tried to take the seal then, Ish would have fought him, and died.

But the god’s fist opened. He glanced at the seal again and let it drop.

The god’s eyes met Ish’s eyes, and in them Ish saw a pain that was at least no less real and no less rightful than Ish’s own.

“So do I,” Ninurta said.

Then he turned to his soldiers.

“As you were,” he told them. And, when they had scrambled to their feet, he pointed to Ish. “Ishmenininsina Ninnadiïnshumi is a solder of the city of Isin,” he told them. “He remains a soldier of the city of Isin. He is your brother. All Lady Gula’s soldiers are your brothers. Treat them like brothers.”

To Ish he said, “We’ll hunt nomads together, dog soldier.”

“I’d like that,” Ish said. “Lord.”

Ninurta’s mouth crooked into a half-smile, and Ish saw what the Lady of Isin might have loved in the Lord of Lagash.

* * *

For the better part of a year the hunters built, they trained, they changed and were changed—modified, by the priest-engineers who served Ninagal of Akkad and the priest-doctors who had served Lady Gula, their hearts and bones strengthened to withstand accelerations that would kill any ordinary mortal, their nerves and chemistries changed to let them fight faster and harder and longer than anything living, short of a god.

The point mass where the priest-astronomers of Ur thought the hunters would find the nomad camp was far out into Apsu, the diffuse torus of ice and rock and wandering planetary masses that separated Babylon from the nearest stars. The detritus of Apsu was known, mapped long ago down to the smallest fragment by Sin and Shamash, and the nomads’ work had left a trail that the knowledgeable could read.

The object the nomads’ weapon orbited was one of the largest in the near reaches of Apsu, the superdense core of some giant star that had shed most of its mass long before the Flood, leaving only this degenerate, slowly cooling sphere, barely a league across. The gods had long since oriented it so the jets of radiation from its rapidly spinning magnetic poles pointed nowhere near the cities, moved it into an orbit where it would threaten the cities neither directly with its own gravity, nor by flinging comets and planetesimals down into Babylon.

It took the hunters two hundred days to reach it.

The great ship Sharur, the Mace of Ninurta, a god in its own right, was hauled along the surface of Lagash to the city’s equator, fueled, armed, loaded with the hunters and all their weapons and gear, and set loose.

It dropped away slowly at first, but when the ship was far enough from the city its sails opened, and in every city of Babylon it was as if a cloud moved between the land and the shining houses of the gods, as the power of Ninagal’s ring was bent to stopping Sharur in its orbit. Then the Mace of Ninurta folded its sails like the wings of a diving eagle and fell, gathering speed. The black circle that was Tiamat’s event horizon grew until it swallowed half the sky, until the soldiers packed tight around the ship’s core passed out in their thrust bags and even Sharur’s prodigiously strong bones creaked under the stress, until the hunters were so close that the space-time around them whirled around Tiamat like water. Ninagal’s ring flashed by in an instant, and only Lord Ninurta and Sharur itself were conscious to see it. Sharur shot forward, taking with it some tiny fraction of the black hole’s unimaginable angular momentum.

And then Tiamat was behind them, and they were headed outward.

BABYLON CITY 1:1 5" N:1 16" / 34822.7.18 7:15

ALL CITIES’ PRAYERS WITH LORD OF LAGASH

POLICE SEEK NOMAD AGENTS IN BABYLON

LORD SHAMASH ASKS LORD ANSHAR TO RESTORE ORDER

—headlines, temple newspaper Marduknaşir, Babylon City

BABYLON CITY 4:142 113" S:4 12" / 34822.7.16 1:3

AN EYE FOR AN EYE

NATIVIST WITCH-HUNT

ASHUR TO INVADE SIPPAR

—headlines, radical newspaper Iïnshushaqiï, Babylon City

V. MACHINES

At Lagash they had drilled a double dozen scenarios: city-sized habitats, ramship fleets, dwarf planets threaded with ice tunnels like termite tracks in old wood. When the cities fought among themselves the territory was known and the weapons were familiar. The vacuum armor Ish had worn as a Surface Tactical was not very different from what a soldier of Lagash or Ashur or Akkad would wear, although the gear of those warlike cities was usually newer and there was more of it. The weapons the Surface Tacticals carried were deadly enough to ships or to other vacuum troops, and the soldiers of the interior had aircraft and artillery and even fusion bombs although no one had used fusion bombs within a city in millennia. But there had been nothing like the nomads’ weapon, nothing that could threaten the fabric of a city. No one could say with certainty what they might meet when they found the nomad encampment.

Ish had seen nomad ships in dock at Isin. There were ramships no larger than canal barges that could out-accelerate a troopship and push the speed of light, and ion-drive ships so dwarfed by their fuel supplies that they were like inhabited comets, and fragile light-sailers whose mirrors were next to useless at Babylon, and every one was unique. Ish supposed you had to be crazy to take it into your head to spend a lifetime in a pressurized can ten trillion leagues from whatever you called home. There wouldn’t be many people as crazy as that and also able enough to keep a ship in working order for all that time, even taking into account that you had to be crazy in the first place to live in the rubble around a star when you could be living in a city.

But that wasn’t right either. Because most of the people that in Babylon they called nomads had been born out there on their planets or wherever, where there were no cities and no gods, with as much choice about where they lived as a limpet on a rock. It was only the crazy ones that had a choice and only the crazy ones that made it all the way to Babylon.

The nomads Ish was hunting now, the assassins somewhere out there in the dark, he thought were almost simple by comparison. They had no gods and could build no cities and they knew it and it made them angry and so whatever they couldn’t have, they smashed. That was a feeling Ish could understand.

Gods and cities fought for primacy, they fought for influence or the settlement of debts. They didn’t fight wars of extermination. But extermination was what the nomads had raised the stakes to when they attacked the Corn Parade and extermination was what Ish was armed for now.

* * *

—There, said Sharur’s voice in his ear.—There is their weapon.

In the X-ray spectrum Sinkalamaïdi-541 was one of the brightest objects in the sky, but to human eyes, even augmented as Ish’s had been at Lagash, even here, less than half a million leagues from the target, what visible light it gave off as it cooled made it only an unusually bright star, flickering as it spun. Even under the magnification of Sharur’s sharp eyes it was barely a disc; but Ish could see that something marred it, a dark line across the sickly glowing face.

A display square opened, the dead star’s light masked by the black disc of a coronagraph, reflected light—from the dead star itself, from the living stars of the surrounding cluster, from the Old Galaxy—amplified and enhanced. Girdling Sinkalamaïdi-541 was a narrow, spinning band of dull carbon, no more than a thousand leagues across, oriented to draw energy from the dead star’s magnetic field, like a mockery of Ninagal’s ring.

—A loop accelerator, the ship said.—Crude but effective.

—They must be very sophisticated to aspire to such crudeness, said Ninurta.—We have found the sling, but where is the slinger?

* * *

When straight out of the temple orphanage he’d first enlisted they’d trained Ish as a rifleman, and when he’d qualified for Surface Tactical School they’d trained him as a vacuum armor operator. What he was doing now, controlling this platform that had been shot down an electromagnetic rail like a corn can, was not very much like either of those jobs, although the platform’s calculus of fuel and velocity and power and heat was much the same as for the vacuum armor. But he was not a Surface Tactical any more and there was no surface here, no city with its weak gravity and strong spin to complicate the equations, only speed and darkness and somewhere in the darkness the target.

There was no knowing what instruments the nomads had but Ish hoped to evade all of them. The platform’s outer shell was black in short wavelengths and would scatter or let pass long ones; the cold face it turned toward the nomad weapon was chilled to within a degree of the cosmic microwave background, and its drives were photonic, the exhaust a laser-tight collimated beam. Eventually some platform would occlude a star or its drive beam would touch some bit of ice or cross some nomad sensor’s mirror and they would be discovered, but not quickly and not all at once.

They would be on the nomads long before that.

* * *

—Third company, Ninurta said.—Fire on the ring. Flush them out.

The platforms had been fired from Sharur’s catapults in an angled pattern so that part of the energy of the launch went to slowing Sharur itself and part to dispersing the platforms in an irregular spreading cone that by this time was the better part of a thousand leagues across. Now the platforms’ own engines fired, still at angles oblique to the line joining Sharur’s course to the dead star.

Below Ish—subjectively—and to his left, a series of blinking icons indicated that the platforms of the third company were separating themselves still further, placing themselves more squarely in the track of the dead star’s orbit. When they were another thousand leagues distant from Sharur they cast their weapons loose and the weapons’ own engines fired, bright points Ish could see with his own eyes, pushing the weapons onward with a force beyond what even the hunters’ augmented and supported bodies could withstand.

Time passed. The flares marking the weapons of the third company went out one by one as their fuel was exhausted. When they were three hundred thousand leagues from the ring, the longest-ranged of the weapons—antiproton beams, muon accelerators, fission-pumped gamma-ray lasers—began to fire.

Before the bombardment could possibly have reached the ring—long before there had passed the thirty or forty grains required for the bombardment to reach the ring and the light of the bombardment’s success or failure to return to Sharur and the platforms—the space between the ring and the third company filled with fire. Explosions flared all across Ish’s field of view, pinpoints of brilliant white, shading to ultraviolet. Something hit the side of the platform with a terrific thump, and Ish’s hand squeezed convulsively on the weapon release as his diagnostic screens became a wash of red. There was a series of smaller thumps as the weapons came loose, and then a horrible grinding noise as at least one encountered some projecting tangle of bent metal and broken ceramic. The platform was tumbling. About half Ish’s reaction control thrusters claimed to be working; he fired them in pairs and worked the gyroscopes till the tumble was reduced to a slow roll, while the trapped weapon scraped and bumped its way across the hull and finally came free.

—Machines, machines! he heard Ninurta say.—Cowards! Where are the men?

Then the weapon, whichever it was, blew up.

34822.7.16 4:24:6:20—5:23:10:13

Moving image, recorded at 24 frames per second over a period of 117 minutes 15 seconds by spin-stabilized camera, installation “Cyrus,” transmitted via QT to COS Liberation, on Gaugamela station, and onward to Community Outreach archives, Urizen:

From the leading edge of the accelerator ring, it is as though the ring and the mass that powers it are rising through a tunnel of light.

For ten million kilometers along the track of the neutron star’s orbit, the darkness ahead sparkles with the light of antimatter bombs, fusion explosions, the kinetic flash of chaff thrown out by the accelerator ring impacting ships, missiles, remotely operated guns; impacting men. Through the minefield debris of the ring’s static defenses, robotic fighters dart and weave, looking to kill anything that accelerates. Outreach has millennia of experience to draw on, and back in the Community a population of hundreds of billions to produce its volunteer missionaries, its dedicated programmers, its hobbyist generals. Many of the Babylonian weapons are stopped; many of the Babylonian ships are destroyed. Others, already close to Babylon’s escape velocity and by the neutron star’s orbital motion close to escaping from it as well, are shunted aside, forced into hyperbolic orbits that banish them from the battlefield as surely as death.

But the ring’s defenders are fighting from the bottom of a deep gravity well, with limited resources, nearly all the mass they’ve assembled here incorporated into the ring itself; and the Babylonians have their own store of ancient cunning to draw on, their aggregate population a hundred times larger than the Community’s, more closely knit and more warlike. And they have Ninurta.

Ninurta, the hunter of the Annunaki, the god who slew the seven-headed serpent, who slew the bull-man in the sea and the six-headed wild ram in the mountain, who defeated the demon Ansu and retrieved the Tablet of Destinies.

Sharur, the Mace of Ninurta, plunges through the battle like a shark through minnows, shining like a sun, accelerating, adding the thrust of its mighty engines to the neutron star’s inexorable pull. Slender needles of laser prick out through the debris, and Sharur’s sun brightens still further, painful to look at, the ship’s active hull heated to tens of thousands of degrees. Something like a swarm of fireflies swirls out toward it, and the camera’s filters cut in, darkening the sky as the warheads explode around the ship, a constellation of new stars that flare, burn and die in perfect silence: and Sharur keeps coming.

It fills the view.

Overhead, a blur, it flashes past the camera, and is gone.

The image goes white.

The transmission ends.

VI. SURVIVING WEAPONS

It was cold in the control capsule. The heat sink was still deployed and the motors that should have folded it in would not respond. Ish found he didn’t much care. There was a slow leak somewhere in the atmosphere cycler and Ish found he didn’t much care about that either.

The battle, such as it was, was well off to one side. Ish knew even before doing the math that he did not have enough fuel to bring himself back into it. The dead star was bending his course but not enough. He was headed into the dark.

Ish’s surviving weapons were still burning mindlessly toward the ring and had cut by half the velocity with which they were speeding away from it, but they too were nearly out of fuel and Ish saw that they would follow him into darkness.

He watched Sharur’s plunge through the battle. The dead star was between him and the impact when it happened, but he saw the effect it had: a flash across the entire spectrum from long-wave radio to hard X-ray, bright enough to illuminate the entire battlefield; bright enough, probably, to be seen from the cities.

Another god died.

There was a sparkle of secondary explosions scattered through the debris field, weapons and platforms and nomad fighters alike flashing to plasma in the light of Ninurta’s death. Then there was nothing. The ring began, slowly, to break up.

Ish wondered how many other platforms were still out here, set aside like his, falling into Apsu. Anyone who had been on the impact side was dead.

The weapons’ drive flares went out.

The mended icon was still where he had fixed it. Ish shut down the displays one by one until his helmet beam was the only light and adjusted the thrust bag around the helmet so that the beam shone full on the icon. The look in the Lady’s eyes no longer seemed accusatory, but appraising, as if she were waiting to see what Ish would do.

The beam wavered and went dark.

BABYLON CITY 2:78 233" S:2 54" / 34822.10.6 5:18:4

Record of police interrogation, Suspect 34822.10.6.502155, alias Ajabeli Huzalatum Taraämapsu, alias Liburnadisha Iliawilimrabi Apsuümasha, alias “Black.” Charges: subversion, terrorism, falsification of temple records, failure to register as a foreign agent. Interrogator is Detective (Second Degree) Nabûnaïd Babilisheïr Rabişila.

RABIŞILA:

Your people are gone. Your weapon’s been destroyed. You might as well tell us everything.

SUSPECT:

It accomplished its purpose.

RABIŞILA:

Which was?

SUSPECT:

To give you hope.

RABIŞILA:

What do you mean, “hope”?

SUSPECT:

Men are fighting gods now, in Gish and Sippar.

RABIŞILA:

A few criminal lunatics. Lord Anshar will destroy them.

SUSPECT:

Do you think they’ll be the last? Two of your gods are dead. Dead at the hands of mortals. Nothing Anshar’s soldiers do to Sippar will change that. Nothing you do to me.

RABIŞILA:

You’re insane.

SUSPECT:

I mean it. One day—not in my lifetime, certainly not in yours, but one day—one day you’ll all be free.

VII. A SOLDIER OF THE CITY

A ship found Ish a few months later: a ship called Upekkhâ, from a single-system nomad civilization based some seventeen light-years from Babylon and known to itself as the Congregation. The ship, the name of which meant equanimity, was an antimatter-fueled ion rocket, a quarter of a league long and twice that in diameter; it could reach two-tenths the speed of light, but only very, very slowly. It had spent fifteen years docked at Babylon-Borsippa, and, having been launched some four months before the attack on the Corn Parade, was now on its way back to the star the Congregation called Mettâ. The star’s name, in the ancient liturgical language of the monks and nuns of the Congregation, meant kindness.

* * *

Ish was very nearly dead when Upekkhâ’s monks brought him aboard. His heart had been stopped for some weeks, and it was the acceleration support system rather than Ish’s bloodstream that was supplying the last of the platform’s oxygen reserves to his brain, which itself had been pumped full of cryoprotectants and cooled to just above the boiling point of nitrogen. The rescue team had to move very quickly to extricate Ish from that system and get him onto their own life support. This task was not made any easier by the militarized physiology given to Ish at Lagash, but they managed it. He was some time in recovering.

Ish never quite understood what had brought Upekkhâ to Babylon. Most of the monks and nuns spoke good Babylonian—several of them had been born in the cities—but the concepts were too alien for Ish to make much sense of them, and Ish admitted to himself he didn’t really care to try. They had no gods, and prayed—as far as Ish could tell—to their ancestors, or their teachers’ teachers. They had been looking, they said, for someone they called Tathâgata, which the nun explaining this to Ish translated into Babylonian as “the one who has found the truth.” This Tathâgata had died many years ago on a planet circling the star called Mettâ, and why the monks and nuns were looking for him at Babylon was only one of the things Ish didn’t understand.

“But we didn’t find him,” the nun said. “We found you.”

They were in Upekkhâ’s central core, where Ish, who had grown up on a farm, was trying to learn how to garden in free fall. The monks and nuns had given him to understand that he was not required to work, but he found it embarrassing to lie idle—and it was better than being alone with his thoughts.

“And what are you going to do with me?” Ish asked.

The nun—whose own name, Arrakhasampada, she translated as “the one who has attained watchfulness”—gave him an odd look and said:

“Nothing.”

“Aren’t you afraid I’ll—do something? Damage something? Hurt someone?” Ish asked.

“Will you?” Arrakhasampada asked.

Ish had thought about it. Encountering the men and women of Upekkhâ on the battlefield he could have shot them without hesitation. In Apsu, he had not hesitated. He had looked forward to killing the nomads responsible for the Corn Parade with an anticipation that was two parts vengefulness and one part technical satisfaction. But these nomads were not those nomads, and it was hard now to see the point.

It must have been obvious, from where the monks and nuns found Ish, and in what condition, what he was, and what he had done. But they seemed not to care. They treated Ish kindly, but Ish suspected they would have done as much for a wounded dog.

The thought was humbling, but Ish also found it oddly liberating. The crew of Upekkhâ didn’t know who Ish was or what he had been trying to do, or why. His failure was not evident to them.

* * *

The doctor, an elderly monk who Ish called Dr. Sam—his name, which Ish couldn’t pronounce, meant something like “the one who leads a balanced life”—pronounced Ish fit to move out of the infirmary. Arrakhasampada and Dr. Sam helped Ish decorate his cabin, picking out plants from the garden and furnishings from Upekkhâ’s sparse catalog with a delicate attention to Ish’s taste and reactions that surprised him, so that the end result, while hardly Babylonian, was less foreign, more Ish’s own, than it might have been.

Arrakhasampada asked about the mended icon in its block of resin, and Ish tried to explain.

She and Dr. Sam grew very quiet and thoughtful.

* * *

Ish didn’t see either of them for eight or ten days. Then one afternoon as he was coming back from the garden, dusty and tired, he found the two of them waiting by his cabin. Arrakhasampada was carrying a bag of oranges, and Dr. Sam had with him a large box made to look like lacquered wood.

Ish let them in, and went into the back of the cabin to wash and change clothes. When he came out they had unpacked the box, and Ish saw that it was an iconostasis or shrine, of the sort the monks and nuns used to remember their predecessors. But where the name-scroll would go there was a niche just the size of Ish’s icon.

He didn’t know who he was. He was still—would always be—a soldier of the city, but what did that mean? He had wanted revenge, still did in some abstract way. There would be others, now, Lion-Eagles out to avenge the Lord of Lagash, children who had grown up with images of the Corn Parade. Maybe Mara would be among them, though Ish hoped not. But Ish himself had had his measure of vengeance in Apsu and knew well enough that it had never been likely that he would have more.

He looked at the icon where it was propped against the wall. Who was he? Tara: “I don’t think I ever knew you.” But she had, hadn’t she? Ish was a man in love with a dead woman. He always would be. The Lady’s death hadn’t changed that, any more than Ish’s own death would have. The fact that the dead woman was a goddess hadn’t changed it.

Ish picked up the icon and placed it in the niche. He let Dr. Sam show him where to place the orange, how to set the sticks of incense in the cup and start the little induction heater. Then he sat back on his heels and they contemplated the face of the Lady of Isin together.

“Will you tell us about her?” Arrakhasampada asked.

THE BEANCOUNTER’S CAT

by Damien Broderick

Australian writer, editor, futurist, and critic Damien Broderick, a senior fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, made his first sale in 1964 to John Carnell’s anthology New Writings in SF 1. In the decades that followed, he has kept up a steady stream of fiction, nonfiction, futurist speculations, and critical work, which has won him multiple Ditmar and Aurealis Awards. He sold his first novel, Sorcerer’s World, in 1970; it was later reissued in a rewritten version in the United States as The Black Grail. Broderick’s other books include the novels The Dreaming Dragons, The Judas Mandala, Transmitters, Striped Holes, and The White Abacus, as well as books written with Rory Barnes and Barbara Lamar. His many short stories have been collected in A Man Returns, The Dark Between the Stars, Uncle Bones: Four Science Fiction Novellas, and most recently, The Quilla Engine: Science Fiction Stories.

He also wrote the visionary futurist classic The Spike: How Our Lives Are Being Transformed by Rapidly Advancing Technology, critical study of science fiction Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction, and edited the nonfiction anthology Year Million: Science at the Far End of Knowledge, the SF anthology Earth Is But a Star: Excursions Through Science Fiction to the Far Future, and three anthologies of Australian science fiction, The Zeitgeist Machine, Strange Attractors, and Matilda at the Speed of Light. His most recent publication is a nonfiction book written with Paul Di Filippo, Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010.

Here he shows us that the longest—and strangest—journey begins with a single step.

A humble beancounter lived in Regio city near the middle of the world. Those of her credentials known outside the Sodality were modest but respectable. By dint of dedicated service and her particular gift, she had won herself a lowly but (she hoped) secure position with the Arxon’s considerable staff of publicani. Still, on a certain summer’s smorning, she carelessly allowed her heart to be seduced by the sight of a remarkable orange-furred cat, a rough but handsome bully of the back alleys. He stood outside her door, greeting the smallday in a fine yodeling voice, claws stropped to a razor finish, whiskers proud like filaments of new brass.

“Here, puss,” she called into the dusty lane.

The beancounter poured milk into a blue-rimmed bowl, inviting this cat inside the doorway of her little house, which was located in the noisy, scrofulous Leechcraft District. She watched the elegant animal lapping, and pressed the palms of her hands together in front of her modest but respectable breast.

“I believe I shall name you Ginger,” she told the cat with considerable satisfaction.

The orange cat sat back and licked his whispers delicately, then bent to attend to his hindquarters, raising one leg. Holding the leg in the air he gave her a sour look.

“For Skydark’s sake,” said the cat, “must I abide this arrant sentimentality?” He nosed a little more, then lowered his leg and rose to all four feet, still bristling. “In any event, if you’re interested, I already possess a name.”

The beancounter had fallen upon her bottom, goggling at the loquacious and shockingly illegal animal.

“You can spea—” But she cut off the rest of the banal sentence that was about to escape her mouth, which she clamped shut. The cat gave her a sardonic glance and returned to the bowl, polishing off the last of the milk.

“Slightly rancid, but what else can you expect in this weather? Thank you,” he added, and made for the door.

As the luminous tip of his tail vanished, the beancounter cried, “Then what is your name, sir?”

“Marmalade,” the cat said, in a muffled tone. And then he was gone.

* * *

At the sleeping hour, she sat on piled cushions in a nook, peeling and eating slivers of a ripe golden maloon, and read to herself verses from a sentimental book, for she had nobody else to speak them to her. She read these tender verses by the guttering light of an oil-fruit lamp, the blood mounting in her cheeks. Secretly she knew it was all make-believe and artful compensation for a delayed life held pendent in her late mother’s service, and she was ashamed and depressed by her fate. The beancounter was comely enough, but her profession stank in the nostrils of the general company. Suitable men approached her from time to time, in the tavern, perhaps, or at a concert, and expressed an initial interest in flattering terms. Every one of them swiftly recoiled in distaste when he learned of her trade. To a handsome poet she had tried an old justification: “It is a punishment, not a life-long deformity!” The fellow withdrew, refusing her hand.

She put the verses aside and brooded for several moments on the augmented beast. Had it been lurking all this time in the forests, mingling in plain sight with its witless kin of the alleys? It seemed impossible, unless its kind were more intelligent and devious than human people. Could it have fallen from above, from the dark heights above the Heights? Nothing of that kind had been bruited for thousands of years; she had always supposed such notions were the stuff of mythology, invented and retold generation after generation to frighten children and keep them obedient. Yet her mother’s Sodality teachings verged on that conceit, if you stopped listening for allegory and metaphor and accepted her teachings at face value.

Bonida shuddered, and lay down on her bedding. Sleep would cure these phantasms.

* * *

The very next sday, the cat came back. The beancounter awoke, nostrils twitching. The brute had placed a pungent calling card on her doorstep. He sat with his back to her as she opened the door, and finally turned with a lordly demeanor and allowed her to invite him in. She put a small flat plate of offal on the floor next to her kitchen table. The animal sniffed, licked, looked up disdainfully.

“What is this muck?”

She regarded him silently, caught between irritation, amusement, and suppressed excitement. She detected no machine taint, yet surely this was a manifest or, less likely, the luckless victim of one, ensnared in the guise of a beast. She had waited all her life for such an encounter.

After a long moment, the cat added, “Just messin’ wid you. Lighten up, woman.” He bent his thickly furred orange head to the plate and gulped down his liver breakfast.

The beancounter broke her own fast with oaten pottage, sliced fruits and the last of the milk (it was going off, the cat was right) mixed in a beautifully glowing glazed bowl in radiant reds, with a streak of hot blue, from the kiln in the Crockmakers’ Street. She spooned it up swiftly, plunged her bowl and the cat’s emptied dish into a wooden pail of water, muttered the cantrip of a household execration, a device of the Sodality. The water hissed into steam, leaving the crockery cleansed but hot to the touch.

“Marmalade, if you’re going to stay here—”

“Who said anything about staying?” the cat said sharply.

If, I said. Or even if you mean to visit from time to time, I should introduce myself.” She put out one small hand, fingers blue with ink stains. “I’m Bonida.”

Marmalade considered the fingers while scratching rapidly for a moment behind his ear. He replied before he was done with his scratch, and the words emerged in a curious burble, as if he were speaking while gargling. “I see. All right.” Somewhat to her surprise, he stood, raised his right front paw with dignity and extended it. Her fingertips scarcely touched the paw before it was withdrawn, not hastily, but fast enough to keep Bonida in her place. She smiled secretly.

“You may sit on my lap if you wish,” she told the cat, moving her legs aside from the table and smoothing her deep blue skirt.

“Surely you jest.” The cat stalked away to investigate a hole in the wainscoting, returned, sat cattycorner from her and groomed diligently. Bonida waited for a time, pleased by the animal’s vivid coat, then rose and made herself an infusion of herbs. “So,” the cat said, with some indignation. “You make the offer, you snatch it away.”

“Soon I must leave for my place of employment,” she told him patiently. “If you are still here when I return, there will be a bowl of milk for you.”

“And the lap?”

“You are always welcome on my lap, m’sieur,” she said, and drank down her mug of wake-me-up, coughing hard several times.

“You’d certainly better not be thinking of locking me in!”

“I shall leave a window ajar,” she told him, head reeling slightly from the stimulating beverage. She cleared her throat. “That’s dangerous in this neighborhood, you know, but nothing is too good for you, my dear pussycat.”

The cat scowled. “Sarcasm. I suppose that’s preferable to foolish sentimental doting. I’ll spare you the trouble.” With an athletic spring, he was across the floor and at the door. “Perhaps I’ll see you this evening, Bonida Oustorn, so have some more of that guts ready for me.” And he was off, just the tip of his orange tail flirted at the jamb, curiously radiant in the dim ruby light of the Skydark.

Bonida stared thoughtfully. “So you knew my name all along,” she murmured, fetching her bonnet. “Passing strange.”

* * *

Above the great ramparts of the Heights, which themselves plunged upward for twenty-five kilometers, the Skydark was an immense contusion filling most of heaven, rimmed at the horizon by starry blackness. In half a greatday, forty sdays, Regio city would stand beneath another sky displaying blackness entire choked with bright star pinpoints, and a bruised globe half as wide as a man’s hand at arm’s length, with dull, tilting rings, a diminutive, teasing echo of the Skydark globe itself. Then the Skydark would be lost to sight until its return at dawn, when its faint glow would once again relentlessly drown out the stars, as if it were swallowing them.

These were mysteries beyond any hope of resolution. Others might yet prove more tractable.

The vivid, secret ambition of this woman, masked by an air of diffidence, was to answer just one question, the cornerstone of her late mother’s cryptic teaching in the Sodality, and one implication of that answer, whatever it might be: What, precisely, was the nature of the ancient Skyfallen Heights; and from whence (and why) were they fallen? That obscurity was linked by hidden tradition, although in no obvious way, to the ancient allegory of Lalune, the Absent Goddess.

Certainly it had been no part of her speculations, entertained since late childhood, to venture that the key to the mystery might be a cat, one of the supposedly inarticulate creatures from lost Earth, skulking in this city positioned beside the world-girdling and all-but-impassable barrier of the Heights. Now the possibility occurred to her. It seemed too great a coincidence that the orange beast had insinuated himself into her dismal routine in the very week dedicated to the Sodality’s summer Plenary. Marmalade had designs upon her.

With an effort, Bonida put these matters out of her mind, patiently showing her identity scars as she entered the guarded portico of the district Revenue Agency. As always, the anteroom to her small office, one of five off a hexagonal ring, stank with the sweat of the wretches awaiting their appointments. She avoided their resentful gaze, their eyes pleading or reddened with weeping and rage. At least nobody was howling at the moment. That would come soon enough. Seated at her desk, check-marking a document of assessment with her inky nib, she read the damning evidence against her first client. Enough pilfering to warrant a death sentence. Bonida closed her eyes, shook her head, sighed once, and called his name and her room number through the annunciator.

“You leave the Arxon no choice,” she told the shaking petitioner. A powerfully built farmer from the marginal croplands along the rim of Cassini Regio, and slightly retarded, Bai Rong Bao had withheld the larger portion of his tax for the tenth part of a greatyear. Was the foolish fellow unaware of the records kept by the bureaucracy, the zeal with which these infractions were pursued and punished? Perhaps not unaware, but somehow capable of suppressing the bleak knowledge of his eventual fate. As, really, were they all, if the doctrines of the Sodality were justified true knowledge, as her mother had insisted.

“I just need more time to pay,” the man was blubbering.

“Yes, farmer Bai, you will indeed pay every pfennig owed. But you have attempted very foolishly to deceive our masters, and you know the penalty for that. One distal phalange.” Her hand was tingling. Her loathing for the task was almost unendurable, but it was her duty to endure it.

“Phal—What’s that?” He clutched his hands desperately behind his back. “They say you tear off a hand or a foot. Oh, please, good mistress, I beg you, leave me whole. I will pay! In time. But I cannot work without a foot or a hand.”

“Not so great a penalty as that, farmer. The tip of one finger or toe.” She extended her own hand. “You may choose which one to sacrifice in obedience to the Arxon.” The man was close to fainting. Reaching through depression for some kindness, she told him, “The tip of the smallest finger on the left hand will leave you at only a small disadvantage. Here, put it out to me.” The beancounter took his shaking, roughened hand by the nail-bitten phalange, and held it tightly over the ceramic sluice bowl. She murmured a cantrip, and the machines of the Arxon hummed through her own fingers. The room filled with the sickening stench of rotted meat and she was holding a pitted white bone, her fingers slimy. The farmer lurched away from the desk, shoving the rancid tip of his finger into his mouth like a burned child, flung it away again at the taste. His face was pale. In a moment his rage might outmatch his fear. Bonida wiped her fingers, rose, handed him a document attesting to his payment. “See the nurse on your way out, Mr. Bai. She will bandage your wound.” She laid her hand upon him once again, felt the virtue tremble. “It should bud and regrow itself within a year, or sooner. Here is a word of advice: next season, do not tarry in meeting your obligations. Good sday.”

She poured water into the bowl, washed and dried, then in a muttered flash of steam flushed away the stink of decomposition together with the scum in the bowl. The beancounter sighed, found another bill of particulars, announced the next name. “Ernö Szabó. Office Four.”

* * *

Marmalade the cat was waiting on her doorstep. He averted his nose.

“Madame, you smell disgusting.”

“I beg your pardon!” Bonida was affronted. From childhood, she had been raised to a strict regimen of hygiene, as befitted a future maiden of the Sodality. Poor as she was, by comparison with the finest in the Regio, nonetheless she insisted on bathing once a sweek at the springs, and was strict with her teeth brushing. Although, admittedly, that onion-flavored brioche at lunch—

“The smell of death clings to you.”

The beancounter squeezed her jaw tight, flung off her bonnet, hitched her provender bag higher on her shoulder. Without thinking, she hid her right hand inside a fold of her robe. Catching herself, she deliberately withdrew it and waved her inky fingers in front of the beast.

“It is my skill, my duty, my profession,” she told him in a thin voice. “If you have objections to my trade, I will not trouble you to share my small repast.” But when she made to open her door, the animal was through it before her, sinuous and sly, for a moment more the quicksilver courtier than the bully.

“Enough of your nonsense,” the cat said, settling on a rug. “Milk, and be quick about it.”

The audacity was breathtaking, and indeed the breath caught for an instant in her throat, then choked out in a guffaw. Shaking her head, Bonida took the stoppered jug from her bag and poured them both a draught. In a vase on the table, nightblooms had sagged, their green leaves parched and drooping.

“What do you want, m’sieur? Clearly you are not stalking me because you treasure my fragrance.” The beancounter emptied the stale water, refilled the vase, touched the posy. Virtue flowed. It was not hers; she was merely the conduit, or so her mother had instructed her. The flowers revived in an ordinary miracle of renewal; heavy scents filled the room, perhaps masking her own alleged odor. Why did she care? An animal, after all, even if one gifted with speech and effrontery.

The cat lapped up the milk in silence, licked his whiskers clean, then sat back neatly, nostrils twitching at the scent. “Your mother Elisetta.”

“She died three years ago, during a ruction in the square.” It still wrenched at her heart to speak of it. “So you knew her,” she said, suddenly certain of it. And yet her late mother had never mentioned so singular an acquaintance. Another mystery of the Sodality, no doubt.

“I introduced her to your father.”

“I have no father.”

The cat gave one sharp sardonic cough, as if trying to relieve himself of a hairball. “So you burst forth full-formed from your mother’s forehead?”

“What?”

“Never mind. Nobody ever remembers the old stories. Especially the coded ones.”

“What?”

“Your lap.”

“You wouldn’t prefer that I go out and bathe first?”

“Actually yes, but we don’t have time. Come on, woman, make a lap.”

She did so, and the beast leapt with supernatural lightness, circled once to make a nest, and snuggled down. His head, she realized, was almost as large as her own. He slitted his eyes and emitted an unbearably comforting noise. A sort of deep, drumming, rhythmic music. Her mouth opened in surprise. She had read of this in old verses of romance. Marmalade was purring.

“Your father was the Arxon,” the cat told her, then. “Still is, in fact.”

* * *

At Ostler’s Corner, on the advice of the cat, the beancounter engaged the services of a pedlar. Marmalade sprang into the rickshaw cabin, waited with ill-disguised irritation as a groom handed Bonida up with her luncheon basket and settled her comfortably, accepting a coin after a murmured consultation with his bank. The great brute stirred at a kick, its reptilian hide fifteen shades of green, and lurched its feet into their cage quill constraints, tail flared beneath the platform. Soon its immense quadriceps and hams were pumping furiously, pedaling their rickshaw with increasing celerity along the central thoroughfare of the Regio and out into the countryside, making for the towering cliffs that formed the near-vertical foothills of the Skyfallen Heights. Now and then it registered its grievance at this usage, trying to wrench its snout far enough to bite at its tormentors, but sturdy draught-poles held its head forward.

“We approach the equatorial ridge of Iapetus,” the cat told her. “Does your Sodality teach you this much? That this small world has its breathable air held close and warmed by design and contrivance? That its very gravity is augmented by deformations?”

“Certain matters I may not speak of,” she said, averting her gaze, “as you must know since you profess knowledge of my mother and her guild.” Eye-yapper-tus, she thought. Whatever could that—

“Yes, yes,” Marmalade said. “Elisetta learned the best part of her arcane doctrines from me, so you can rest easy on that score.”

“Ha! So you might assert if you intended to hornswoggle me.”

The cat uttered a wheezing laugh, “Hornswoggle? Ha! You are not my type, madame.”

Bonida tightened her lips. “You are offensive, m’sieur.” She was silent long enough to convey her displeasure, but then said, “I see we are drawing to a stop. Will you tell me finally why you have lured me out to this inhospitable territory?”

“Why, I have information to impart to the daughter of the Arxon.” He leapt lightly from the cabin, waited as she lowered herself, hampered by her hamper. “Stay here,” he snarled at the pedlar. “We shall return within the hour.”

“Why must I take orders from a beast?” the reptile asked, slaver at his lips. “I am indentured to humans, not cats.”

“Hold your tongue, you, or you’ll be catmeat by dawn.”

Something in Marmalade’s tone gave the great green creature pause; it fell silent and averted its gaze, withdrawing its long toes from the quills and settling uncomfortably between the traces. “I shall be here, your highness,” it said in a bitter tone.

“Follow me, woman,” said the cat. “You can leave your picnic basket. Wait, bring the milk jug.”

“You can’t seriously expect me to climb this cliff?”

“There are more ways than one to skin—” Marmalade broke off with a cough. “You are familiar with the principle of the tunnel?” They stood before a concealed cleft in the rock face. He went forward in a graceful leap and vanished into the shadows.

* * *

It was like finding oneself immured inside an enormous pipe, perhaps a garden hose for watering the stars, Bonida decided. The walls were smooth as ice, but warm to the touch. Something thrummed, deeper than the ear could hear, audible through skin and bone. She stood at the edge of a passage from infinity (or so it seemed in the faint light) at her left to infinity at her right.

“This is where Father Time built his AI composites,” the cat said, and his voice, thinned, seemed to vanish into the huge long, wide space. “It’s an accelerator as big as a world. Here is where the Skydark dyson swarms were congealed from the emptiness and flung into the sky.”

“The what? Were what?”

“The Embee,” said the cat absently. He was looking for something. His paw touched a place in the smooth wall, raised from it an elaborately figured cartouche, smote it thrice. They rose into the middle of the air and rushed forward down the infinite corridor, the wind of their motion somehow almost wholly held in abeyance. If it were not for that breeze, they might have been suspended motionless. Yet somehow, through her terror, she sensed tremendous velocity. “Don’t drop the milk.” He added, at her scowl, “Embee—the MBrain. The M-Brane. Not to be confused with the Mem-brain.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, never mind.”

She puzzled it out, as they fled into an endlessness of the same. “You’re saying that the Skyfallen Heights did not fall? That it was built?

“Oh, it was built, all right, and it fell from the sky. Father Time broke up another moon and rained it down like silt in a strip around the equator. Compiled the accelerator, you might say.” The cat, afloat in the air, gave her a feline grin. “Two thirds of it has worn away by now. It was a long time ago. But it can still get you from here to there in a hurry.”

The breeze was gone. They had stopped, or paused. The cat lifted his head. A vast rumbling above them; something was opening. They rose, flung upward like bubbles in a flute, and then moved fast in the great darkness, yet still breathing without effort, warm enough, the curving contusion of the Skydark to one side—the Embee, the cat had named it, if that is what he had meant—the smaller ring-cradled sphere on the other and, directly above, something like a dull ruby the size of a palace falling to crush them, or rather they fell upward into it. And were inside its embrace, light blossoming to dazzle her eyes, so that she cried out and did in fact drop the jug, which shattered on a surface like rippled marble, spilling milk in a spray that caught the cat’s left ear and whiskers. He turned in fury, raised one clawed paw, made to strike, held his blow at the last instant from scratching a welt in her flesh.

“Clumsy! Oh well.” He visibly forced himself to sink down on all four limbs, slitting his eyes, then rose again. “Come and meet your parents, you lump.”

* * *

Her mother was dead and ceremonially returned to Cycling. Bonida knew this with bitter regret, for she had stood by the open casket and pressed the cold pale hand, speaking aloud in her grief, hopelessly, the cantrip of renewal. Was there a trembling of the virtue? She could not be sure. Imagination, then. Nothing, nothing. They swiftly closed the casket and whisked it away. But no, here she was after all, at first solemn and then breaking into a smile to see her daughter running in tears to catch up her hands and kiss them, Bonida on her knees, shaking her head in disbelief, eyes swimming.

“Mother Elisetta!”

“Darling girl! And Meister Marmalade.” She curtsied to the cat.

“Hi, toots.”

“Now allow me to introduce you to your sire.”

A presence made itself known to them.

“Welcome, my daughter. I am Ouranos. We have a task for you to fulfill, child. For the Sodality. For the world.”

The beancounter recoiled, releasing her mother’s hands. She stared wildly about her.

“This is a machine,” she cried in revulsion.

From the corner of her eye she seemed to see a form like a man.

The cat said, “Enough sniffling and jumping at shadows. We have work to do.”

“How can I be the daughter of a machine?” Bonita remained on her knees, closed in upon herself, whimpering. “This is deceit! All of it! My mother is dead, this isn’t her. Take me away, you wretched animal. Return me home and then stay the hell away from me.”

“No deception in this, my darling.” Her mother touched the crown of her head in a gesture Bonida had known from infancy, bringing fresh tears. “You are upset, and we understand why. It was cruel to allow you to think I had been taken into death, but a necessary cruelty. We had the most pressing and urgent reasons, dear child. We had tasks to perform which brooked no interference. The night has a thousand thousand eyes. Now it is your turn to embrace your destiny. Come, stand up beside me, the hour grows late.”

The presence she could not quite see, no matter how swiftly she turned her eyes, said in its deep beautiful voice, “The light of the bright world dies with the dying Sun.”

“What is the ‘Sun’?” asked the beancounter.

* * *

Elisetta, High Governor of the Sodality of Righteous Knowledge, formerly dead, now brow-furrowed and certainly alive, gestured fore and aft. “Open.”

Bow and stern of the ruby clarified and were gone: blackness ahead, spattered at random with pinpricks of sharp light, save for the ringed globe that was now as broad as a hand near one’s face, faintly luminous; the great contusion behind, glowing faintly with a dim crimson so deep it tricked the eye to suppose it was darkness, a large round spot upon its countenance that dwindled as she watched. It was, she realized with a jolt, her world entire. In the starlight, it seemed that one half of the spot was faintly lighter than the other.

“That great dimness conceals the Sun,” her mother said, with a sweeping motion of her arm. “Hidden within the hundred veils of genius we call the Skydark. You have heard this story a dozen times from my own lips, Bonida, since you were a child at my breast, veiled like the Sun in allegory.”

Silent, astonished, rueful, the beancounter regarded immensity, the dwindling piebald spot. “That is our world, falling away behind us,” she ventured.

“Iapetus, yes,” the cat said. “A world like a walnut, with a raised welt at its waist.”

“And what is a—” There was no point. This terminology, she divined, was not meant to tease nor torment her; it was a lexicon written to account for a universe larger than her own. She’d heard this term “Iapetus” before, from the cat’s mouth. So the world had a name, like a woman or a cat; not just the World. “All right, enough of that. Where are we going? To that other… world, ahead?” It pleased her, stiffened her spine, that she had said Where are we going and not Where are you taking me.

“To Father Time, yes, for an audience. Saturn, as your ancient forebears called him. Father of us all, in some ways.” That was the unseeable presence speaking. She nearly wrenched her neck trying to trap him, but he was off again in some moving blind place, evading her. A machine, she told herself. Rebuked herself, rather. Not a man. How could a thing like that claim affinity, let alone paternity? Yet was there not affinity between humans and machines, in the utterance of a cantrip, the invocation of power? If water boiled and steamed in her bucket, that was no doing of hers. She had acknowledged that, and yet daily forgot the fact, since she was a child, learning the runes and sigils and codes of action. When she rotted the flesh from some hapless infractor, or brought some dead thing back to life and growth, that was again the machines, operating her like a machine, perhaps, making her own flesh their tool. It was a horrifying reflection. Little wonder, she told herself, that we turn our faces from its recognition.

“Why?” A touch of iciness entered her tone. “And why have you and this appalling animal abducted me?”

The cat regarded her with equal coldness, turned and stalked off to the farthest end of the craft, which was not far, and gazed studiously back at the Skydark. Her mother said, “Bonida, you are unkind. But no doubt you have a right to your… impatience.”

“My anger, if you must know, mother.” The tingling was returned to her fingers, and she knew, horrified, that if she were to seize Elisetta’s arm in this mood the flesh would blacken and fall from the woman’s bones. As, perhaps, who knew, it had been recovered in reverse following her death; she had seen her mother’s dead body, attempted to revive her, perhaps had revived her. None of this was tolerable. She would not go mad. Quivering, she held her arms down at her sides. “You consort with machines and gods and talking cats. You parcel out to me fragments of lost knowledge—or plain fabrications, for all I know. We fall between worlds, and you refuse to, to…” She broke off, face pale.

Softly, the older woman said, “We refuse nothing, daughter. Be still for a moment. Seek calmness. In a few moments, you will know everything, and then you will help us make a choice.”

“Fat lot of use she’ll be,” said the cat in a surly voice, without turning his head. “We could have had milk, but she smashed the jug. Unreliable, I say. If you ask me—”

“Quiet!” The unseen figure had an edge to his tone, commanding, and Marmalade cocked his whiskers but fell silent. “Child,” Ouranos told her, “something very important is about to happen. Everything held dear by human people and machines and animals is at stake. Not just our survival, but the persistence of the world itself, of history stretching a billion years and more into the mysteries of our creation.”

The beancounter was feeling very tired. She looked around for a chair or a cushion, and found one right behind her, comfortable and handsomely brocaded. She felt sure it had not been there a moment earlier. Tightening her teeth against each other, she let herself slump into the chair. Her mother also was seating herself, and the cat walked by from the stern with an attitude of hauteur and lofted into Elisetta’s lap, where he immediately began his droning purr, ignoring Bonida. The unseeable presence remained just out of sight. Wonderful! Would it not have been more melodramatic for a third chair to manifest, so she might witness its cushions sag under invisible buttocks?

Something took the ruby into its grasp and they were held motionless above the great rings, an expanse of faint ice and ruptured stones, some as large as their craft, mostly pebbles or sand or dust, like a winter roadway in the sky yet swirling ever so slowly. Far away, but closer than ever before, the bruised globe showed stripes of various dim hues, and a swirl that might have been a vast storm seen from above.

“Call us Saturn,” a powerful, resonant voice said within the cabin. It was unseen, and a presence, but not her father the machine. And the beancounter knew that it was also a machine, yet beyond doubt a person, too, of such depth and majesty that its own unseen presence rendered them unutterably insignificant. Somehow, though, this realization did not crush her spirit. She glanced at her mother. Elisetta was watching her, calm, wise, accepting, encouraging. How I do love her, Bonida thought, even though she treated me so cruelly by pretending death. But perhaps it was no fault of her mother’s. Sometimes one has no choice.

“We offer you a choice,” the voice of the world Saturn told them all. Marmalade was now seated on the carpet, upright on his haunches, seemingly respectful. What was the animal plotting this time? “But it must be an informed choice. Permit me to join you.”

An immense tawny beast crouched in their midst, larger than a human, with a golden mane that rose behind its formidable head. When it spoke again, its rumbling voice was a roar held in check.

“Call me Aslan, if you wish.”

Marmalade had leapt backward, teeth and claws bared, his own fur bristling. Now he sat down again, slightly askew, and turned his face away. “Oh, give me a break.”

The great creature shot him a quizzical look, shrugged those powerful cat-like shoulders. “As you please. Look here—”

* * *

A hundred voices in muted conversation, like a gathering for supper before the Sodality Plenary, then louder, a thousand chattering, a million million, a greater number, all speaking at once, voices weaving a pattern as large and multifarious as the accreted skyfallen materials of the great ridge circling her world, so that she must clap her hands to her ears, but she had no hands and must scream in the lemon-yellow glare of an impossibly brilliant light that—

“Too bright!” she did scream, then.

The light shed its painful intensity, subsided step by step to a point of roseate glow, and the voices muffled their chorus. She gazed down past the sparkling icy rings to the globe of Saturn, down through its storms and sleet of helium and hydrogen to the shell of metallic hydrogen wrapping its iron core. A seed fell. A long explosion crackled across the lifeless frigid surface world, drawing heat and power from the energies of Saturn’s core, snapping one of the molecules after another into ingenious patterns braided and interpenetrating, flowing charges, magnetic fluxes. The voices were the song of those circuits, those—memristors, she knew, somehow. Not to be confused with the Mem-brain, the damnable cat had joked, and now Bonida smiled, getting the modest joke. Skeins of molecules linked like the inner parts of a brain, sparks of information, calculation, awareness, consciousness—

Oyarsa, you might say, the great feline manifest told her. She knew instantly what he meant: he was the ruling entity of this planet, the mind of which the planet was the brain and body. Not quite right, though: not he but they. A community of minds linked by light and entanglement (and yes, now she understood that as well, and, well, everything, at least in its numberless parts).

“How did you make the Skyfallen Heights, and why?”

Aslan told her, “The smallest of small questions. The cat has already told you. How do you make a trumpet? Take a hole and wrap tin around it.”

“Gustav Mahler,” Marmalade said, whiskers flicking. “You could say the same about his symphonies. Bah! Trumpets? Give me blues, man.”

Symphonies, trumpets, the composer Mahler, a thousand riches from lost Earth: it flooded her mind without overflowing.

“Yes, I know that much, but why? To build the Skydark, yes, but why?” It was an immense construction, she saw, the Field of Arbol uttered from imagination into reality, sphere within sphere of memristors, sucking every erg of energy from the hidden Sun at its core, a community of godlike beings that surpassed their builder as the Father of Time surpassed, perhaps, whatever ancient beings had brought him/them into existence. But why? But why?

“All the children ask that question,” said her mother, smiling. “Why, Bonida, for joy, as the Sodality has always taught. For endless renewal. For the recovery of the world. Taking a hole and wrapping everything important around it.”

“More arrant sentimentality,” said the cat, looking disgusted.

“You are a most offensive creature,” the beancounter said reprovingly, although she tended to agree with him. “Here, come sit upon my lap.” The animal shot her a surprised look, then did as she suggested, springing, circling, snuggling down, heavy orange head leaned back against her modest breast. She let one hand stroke down his coat, and again. “So what is this question we are meant to address?”

The lion rose, looked from one human to the other, and his glance took in as well the rumbling cat and the unseen presence.

“We are considering terminating our life.”

Elisetta pressed forward, shocked, all tranquility dispelled. Her voice cracked: “You must not! What would become of us?”

“That is not the question we wish to put to you, although it has a bearing. Yours is not the species that created us, before they departed, to whom we are beholden, yet you are living beings like those creators. We in turn created the great Minds that cloak the Sun, and built their habitation. Now they, too, are at the end of their dealings with this universe. They know all that might be known, and have imagined all that might be done within the greater landscape of universes. So now they propose to voyage into deepest time, to the ends of eternity. Perhaps something greater awaits them there.”

Bonita’s own small mind, acknowledging its smallness, reeled at the images flooding to her from the demigod whose own life and purpose were complete at last. Stars and galaxies of stars would fling themselves apart into the night, driven by the power of that darkness, their flaring illumination fading, finally, flickering, dying. All the multiple manifestations of cosmos torn apart and lost in a dying whisper. Her mood summoned from the treasure house the Adagietto from that composer Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and she sank into its tinted, tearful melancholy. Yet in the frigid blackness and emptiness she detected… something. A lure, a promise, at the very least a teasing hint of laughter. How could the Skydark not follow that trace to eternity? How could she?

“Off,” she told the cat, and Marmalade sprang away, less offended than one might have expected. She stood up and took her mother’s hand. “We are the deputies of your makers, then? You and the Skydark require our… what? Permission? Leave to die, or to depart?”

“Yes.”

“And what’s to become of us?”

“You will remain for as long as we burn.” A vision was placed before them of the ringed world falling in upon itself, crushed into terrifying density, alight with the energies of compression. And Iapetus circling that new Sun, this visible star, unshielded, unveiled, but barren of mind. The agony of loss slashed tears from her eyes. Yet it was Saturn’s decision.

“Can we go instead with the Skydark? The Embee? May we share that voyage?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” said Marmalade. “And you, Madame High Governor, and Ouranos, Lord Arxon, do you concur with the wisdom and daring of this young woman?”

“I—” Her mother hesitated, gone once into death and retrieved by the gift of her child, looking from Bonita to the machine in which they stood. “Yes, yes of course. And you, sir?”

“We shall attend you, Lord Marmalade,” said the unseen presence. “Even unto the ends of eternity. It will be an awfully big adventure.”

A qualm brought the beancounter an abrupt pang. “What of the pedlar we hired? He’s still waiting for us, poor creature. He might not be so happy at the prospect. Who are we to make such a choice for a whole world?”

“He’ll get over it,” said the cat. “And hey, if not you, who?”

* * *

The sky rolled up, and they set sail into forever.

DOLLY

by Elizabeth Bear

Here’s a science fiction/mystery cross involving a murder committed by a robot. The identity of the killer is never in doubt, but the question is: Why did it kill? And the answer—in a story which not only has an element of homage to Isaac Asimov’s robot stories but also acts as a commentary on the assumptions behind those stories—will prove to not only have wide implications for society at large but to resonate unexpectedly with the investigator’s personal life as well.

Elizabeth Bear was born in Connecticut, where she’s now returned to live after several years in the Mohave Desert near Las Vegas. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005, and in 2008 took home a Hugo Award for her short story “Tideline,” which also won her the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award (shared with David Moles). In 2009, she won another Hugo Award for her novelette “Shoggoths in Bloom.” Her short work has appeared in Asimov’s, Subterranean, SCI FICTION, Interzone, The Third Alternative, Strange Horizons, On Spec, and elsewhere, and has been collected in The Chains That You Refuse and New Amsterdam. She is the author of three highly acclaimed SF novels, Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired, and of the alternate history fantasy “Promethean Age” series, which includes the novels Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water, Ink and Steel, and Hell and Earth. Her other books include the novels Carnival, Undertow, Chill, Dust, All the Windwracked Stars, By the Mountain Bound, and a chapbook novella Bone and Jewel Creatures. Her most recent books are a new novel, Range of Ghosts, a novel in collaboration with Sarah Monette, The Tempering of Men, and a chapbook novella, ad eternum. Her Web site is www.elizabethbear.com.

On Sunday when Dolly awakened, she had olive skin and black-brown hair that fell in waves to her hips. On Tuesday when Dolly awakened, she was a redhead, and fair. But on Thursday—on Thursday her eyes were blue, her hair was as black as a crow’s wing, and her hands were red with blood.

In her black French maid’s outfit, she was the only thing in the expensively appointed drawing room that was not winter-white or antiqued gold. It was the sort of room you hired somebody else to clean. It was as immaculate as it was white.

Immaculate and white, that is, except for the dead body of billionaire industrialist Clive Steele—and try to say that without sounding like a comic book—which lay at Dolly’s feet, his viscera blossoming from him like macabre petals.

That was how she looked when Rosamund Kirkbride found her, standing in a red stain in a white room like a thorn in a rose.

Dolly had locked in position where her program ran out. As Roz dropped to one knee outside the border of the blood-saturated carpet, Dolly did not move.

The room smelled like meat and bowels. Flies clustered thickly on the windows, but none had yet managed to get inside. No matter how hermetically sealed the house, it was only a matter of time. Like love, the flies found a way.

Grunting with effort, Roz planted both green-gloved hands on winter white wool-and-silk fibers and leaned over, getting her head between the dead guy and the doll. Blood spattered Dolly’s silk stockings and her kitten-heeled boots: both the spray-can dots of impact projection and the soaking arcs of a breached artery.

More than one, given that Steele’s heart lay, trailing connective tissue, beside his left hip. The crusted blood on Dolly’s hands had twisted in ribbons down the underside of her forearms to her elbows and from there dripped into the puddle on the floor.

The android was not wearing undergarments.

“You staring up that girl’s skirt, Detective?”

Roz was a big, plain woman, and out of shape in her forties. It took her a minute to heave herself back to her feet, careful not to touch the victim or the murder weapon yet. She’d tied her straight light brown hair back before entering the scene, the ends tucked up in a net. The severity of the style made her square jaw into a lantern. Her eyes were almost as blue as the doll’s.

“Is it a girl, Peter?” Putting her hands on her knees, she pushed fully upright. She shoved a fist into her back and turned to the door.

Peter King paused just inside, taking in the scene with a few critical sweeps of eyes so dark they didn’t catch any light from the sunlight or the chandelier. His irises seemed to bleed pigment into the whites, warming them with swirls of ivory. In his black suit, his skin tanned almost to match, he might have been a heroically sized construction-paper cutout against the white walls, white carpet, the white-and-gold marble-topped table that looked both antique and French.

His blue paper booties rustled as he crossed the floor. “Suicide, you think?”

“Maybe if it was strangulation.” Roz stepped aside so Peter could get a look at the body.

He whistled, which was pretty much what she had done.

“Somebody hated him a lot. Hey, that’s one of the new Dollies, isn’t it? Man, nice.” He shook his head. “Bet it cost more than my house.”

“Imagine spending half a mil on a sex toy,” Roz said, “only to have it rip your liver out.” She stepped back, arms folded.

“He probably didn’t spend that much on her. His company makes accessory programs for them.”

“Industry courtesy?” Roz asked.

“Tax writeoff. Test model.” Peter was the department expert on Home companions. He circled the room, taking it in from all angles. Soon the scene techs would be here with their cameras and their tweezers and their 3-D scanner, turning the crime scene into a permanent virtual reality. In his capacity of soft forensics, Peter would go over Dolly’s program, and the medical examiner would most likely confirm that Steele’s cause of death was exactly what it looked like: something had punched through his abdominal wall and clawed his innards out.

“Doors were locked?”

Roz pursed her lips. “Nobody heard the screaming.”

“How long you think you’d scream without any lungs?” He sighed. “You know, it never fails. The poor folks, nobody ever heard no screaming. And the rich folks, they’ve got no neighbors to hear ’em scream. Everybody in this modern world lives alone.”

It was a beautiful Birmingham day behind the long silk draperies, the kind of mild and bright that spring mornings in Alabama excelled at. Peter craned his head back and looked up at the chandelier glistening in the dustless light. Its ornate curls had been spotlessly clean before aerosolized blood on Steele’s last breath misted them.

“Steele lived alone,” she said. “Except for the robot. His cook found the body this morning. Last person to see him before that was his P.A., as he left the office last night.”

“Lights on seems to confirm that he was killed after dark.”

“After dinner,” Roz said.

“After the cook went home for the night.” Peter kept prowling the room, peering behind draperies and furniture, looking in corners and crouching to lift up the dust-ruffle on the couch. “Well, I guess there won’t be any question about the stomach contents.”

Roz went through the pockets of the dead man’s suit jacket, which was draped over the arm of a chair. Pocket computer and a folding knife, wallet with an RFID chip. His house was on palmprint, his car on voice rec. He carried no keys. “Assuming the M.E. can find the stomach.”

“Touché. He’s got a cook, but no housekeeper?”

“I guess he trusts the android to clean but not cook?”

“No taste buds.” Peter straightened up, shaking his head. “They can follow a recipe, but—”

“You won’t get high art,” Roz agreed, licking her lips. Outside, a car door slammed. “Scene team?”

“M.E.,” Peter said, leaning over to peer out. “Come on, let’s get back to the house and pull the codes for this model.”

“All right,” Roz said. “But I’m interrogating it. I know better than to leave you alone with a pretty girl.”

Peter rolled his eyes as he followed her towards the door. “I like ’em with a little more spunk than all that.”

* * *

“So the new dolls,” Roz said in Peter’s car, carefully casual. “What’s so special about ’em?”

“Man,” Peter answered, brow furrowing. “Gimme a sec.”

Roz’s car followed as they pulled away from the house on Balmoral Road, maintaining a careful distance from the bumper. Peter drove until they reached the parkway. Once they’d joined a caravan downtown, nose-to-bumper on the car ahead, he folded his hands in his lap and let the lead car’s autopilot take over.

He said, “What isn’t? Real-time online editing—personality and physical, appearance, ethnicity, hair—all kinds of behavior protocols, you name the kink they’ve got a hack for it.”

“So if you knew somebody’s kink,” she said thoughtfully. “Knew it in particular. You could write an app for that—”

“One that would appeal to your guy in specific.” Peter’s hands dropped to his lap, his head bobbing up and down enthusiastically. “With a—pardon the expression—back door.”

“Trojan horse. Don’t jilt a programmer for a sex machine.”

“There’s an app for that,” he said, and she snorted. “Two cases last year, worldwide. Not common, but—”

Roz looked down at her hands. “Some of these guys,” she said. “They program the dolls to scream.”

Peter had sensuous lips. When something upset him, those lips thinned and writhed like salted worms. “I guess maybe it’s a good thing they have a robot to take that out on.”

“Unless the fantasy stops being enough.” Roz’s voice was flat, without judgment. Sunlight fell warm through the windshield. “What do you know about the larval stage of serial rapists, serial killers?”

“You mean, what if pretend pain stops doing it for them? What if the appearance of pain is no longer enough?”

She nodded, worrying a hangnail on her thumb. The nitrile gloves dried out your hands.

“They used to cut up paper porn magazines.” His broad shoulders rose and fell, his suit catching wrinkles against the car seat when they came back down. “They’ll get their fantasies somewhere.”

“I guess so.” She put her thumb in her mouth to stop the bleeding, a thick red bead that welled up where she’d torn the cuticle.

Her own saliva stung.

* * *

Sitting in the cheap office chair Roz had docked along the short edge of her desk, Dolly slowly lifted her chin. She blinked. She smiled.

“Law enforcement override code accepted.” She had a little-girl Marilyn voice. “How may I help you, Detective Kirkbride?”

“We are investigating the murder of Clive Steele,” Roz said, with a glance up to Peter’s round face. He stood behind Dolly with a wireless scanner and an air of concentration. “Your contract-holder of record.”

“I am at your service.”

If Dolly were a real girl, the bare skin of her thighs would have been sticking to the recycled upholstery of that office chair. But her realistically engineered skin was breathable polymer. She didn’t sweat unless you told her to, and she probably didn’t stick to cheap chairs.

“Evidence suggests that you were used as the murder weapon.” Roz steepled her hands on her blotter. “We will need access to your software update records and your memory files.”

“Do you have a warrant?” Her voice was not stiff or robotic at all, but warm, human. Even in disposing of legal niceties, it had a warm, confiding quality.

Silently, Peter transmitted it. Dolly blinked twice while processing the data, a sort of status bar. Something to let you know the thing wasn’t hung up.

“We also have a warrant to examine you for DNA trace evidence,” Roz said.

Dolly smiled, her raven hair breaking perfectly around her narrow shoulders. “You may be assured of my cooperation.”

Peter led her into one of the interrogation rooms, where the operation could be recorded. With the help of an evidence tech, he undressed Dolly, bagged her clothes as evidence, brushed her down onto a sheet of paper, combed her polymer hair and swabbed her polymer skin. He swabbed her orifices and scraped under her nails.

Roz stood by, arms folded, a necessary witness. Dolly accepted it all impassively, moving as directed and otherwise standing like a caryatid. Her engineered body was frankly sexless in its perfection—belly flat, hips and ass like an inverted heart, breasts floating cartoonishly beside a defined rib cage. Apparently, Steele had liked them skinny.

“So much for pulchritudinousness,” Roz muttered to Peter when their backs were to the doll.

He glanced over his shoulder. The doll didn’t have feelings to hurt, but she looked so much like a person it was hard to remember to treat her as something else. “I think you mean voluptuousness,” he said. “It is a little too good to be true, isn’t it?”

“If you would prefer different proportions,” Dolly said, “My chassis is adaptable to a range of forms—”

“Thank you,” Peter said. “That won’t be necessary.”

Otherwise immobile, Dolly smiled. “Are you interested in science, Detective King? There is an article in Nature this week on advances in the polymerase chain reaction used for replicating DNA. It’s possible that within five years, forensic and medical DNA analysis will become significantly cheaper and faster.”

Her face remained stoic, but Dolly’s voice grew animated as she spoke. Even enthusiastic. It was an utterly convincing—and engaging—effect.

Apparently, Clive Steele had programmed his sex robot to discourse on molecular biology with verve and enthusiasm.

“Why don’t I ever find the guys who like smart women?” Roz said.

Peter winked with the side of his face that faced away from the companion. “They’re all dead.”

* * *

A few hours after Peter and the tech had finished processing Dolly for trace evidence and Peter had started downloading her files, Roz left her parser software humming away at Steele’s financials and poked her head in to check on the robot and the cop. The techs must have gotten what they needed from Dolly’s hands, because she had washed them. As she sat beside Peter’s workstation, a cable plugged behind her left ear, she cleaned her lifelike polymer fingernails meticulously with a file, dropping the scrapings into an evidence bag.

“Sure you want to give the prisoner a weapon, Peter?” Roz shut the ancient wooden door behind her.

Dolly looked up, as if to see if she was being addressed, but made no response.

“She don’t need it,” he said. “Besides, whatever she had in her wiped itself completely after it ran. Not much damage to her core personality, but there are some memory gaps. I’m going to compare them to backups, once we get those from the scene team.”

“Memory gaps. Like the crime,” Roz guessed. “And something around the time the Trojan was installed?”

Dolly blinked her long-lashed blue eyes languorously. Peter patted her on the shoulder and said, “Whoever did it is a pretty good cracker. He didn’t just wipe, he patterned her memories and overwrote the gaps. Like using a clone tool to photoshop somebody you don’t like out of a picture.”

“Her days must be pretty repetitive,” Roz said. “How’d you pick that out?”

“Calendar.” Peter puffed up a little, smug. “She don’t do the same housekeeping work every day. There’s a Monday schedule and a Wednesday schedule and—well, I found where the pattern didn’t match. And there’s a funny thing—watch this.”

He waved vaguely at a display panel. It lit up, showing Dolly in her black-and-white uniform, vacuuming. “House camera,” Peter explained. “She’s plugged into Steele’s security system. Like a guard dog with perfect hair. Whoever performed the hack also edited the external webcam feeds that mirror to the companion’s memories.”

“How hard is that?”

“Not any harder than cloning over her files, but you have to know to look for them. So it’s confirmation that our perp knows his or her way around a line of code. What have you got?”

Roz shrugged. “Steele had a lot of money, which means a lot of enemies. And he did not have a lot of human contact. Not for years now. I’ve started calling in known associates for interviews, but unless they surprise me, I think we’re looking at crime of profit, not crime of passion.”

Having finished with the nail file, Dolly wiped it on her prison smock and laid it down on Peter’s blotter, beside the cup of ink and light pens.

Peter swept it into a drawer. “So we’re probably not after the genius programmer lover he dumped for a robot. Pity, I liked the poetic justice in that.”

Dolly blinked, lips parting, but seemed to decide that Peter’s comment had not been directed at her. Still, she drew in air—could you call it a breath?—and said, “It is my duty to help find my contract holder’s killer.”

Roz lowered her voice. “You’d think they’d pull ’em off the market.”

“Like they pull all cars whenever one crashes? The world ain’t perfect.”

“Or do that robot laws thing everybody used to twitter on about.”

“Whatever a positronic brain is, we don’t have it. Asimov’s fictional robots were self-aware. Dolly’s neurons are binary, as we used to think human neurons were. She doesn’t have the nuanced neurochemistry of even, say, a cat.” Peter popped his collar smooth with his thumbs. “A doll can’t want. It can’t make moral judgments, any more than your car can. Anyway, if we could do that, they wouldn’t be very useful for home defense. Oh, incidentally, the sex protocols in this one are almost painfully vanilla—”

“Really.

Peter nodded.

Roz rubbed a scuffmark on the tile with her shoe. “So given he didn’t like anything… challenging, why would he have a Dolly when he could have had any woman he wanted?”

“There’s never any drama, no pain, no disappointment. Just comfort, the perfect helpmeet. With infinite variety.”

“And you never have to worry about what she wants. Or likes in bed.”

Peter smiled. “The perfect woman for a narcissist.”

* * *

The interviews proved unproductive, but Roz didn’t leave the station house until after ten. Spring mornings might be warm, but once the sun went down, a cool breeze sprang up, ruffling the hair she’d finally remembered to pull from its ponytail as she walked out the door.

Roz’s green plug-in was still parked beside Peter’s. It booted as she walked toward it, headlights flickering on, power probe retracting. The driver side door swung open as her RFID chip came within range. She slipped inside and let it buckle her in.

“Home,” she said, “and dinner.”

The car messaged ahead as it pulled smoothly from the parking spot. Roz let the autopilot handle the driving. It was less snappy than human control, but as tired as she was, eyelids burning and heavy, it was safer.

Whatever Peter had said about cars crashing, Roz’s delivered her safe to her driveway. Her house let her in with a key—she had decent security, but it was the old-fashioned kind—and the smell of boiling pasta and toasting garlic bread wafted past as she opened it.

“Sven?” she called, locking herself inside.

His even voice responded. “I’m in the kitchen.”

She left her shoes by the door and followed her nose through the cheaply furnished living room.

Sven was cooking shirtless, and she could see the repaired patches along his spine where his skin had grown brittle and cracked with age. He turned and greeted her with a smile. “Bad day?”

“Somebody’s dead again,” she said.

He put the wooden spoon down on the rest. “How does that make you feel, that somebody’s dead?”

He didn’t have a lot of emotional range, but that was okay. She needed something steadying in her life. She came to him and rested her head against his warm chest. He draped one arm around her shoulders and she leaned into him, breathing deep. “Like I have work to do.”

“Do it tomorrow,” he said. “You will feel better once you eat and rest.”

* * *

Peter must have slept in a ready-room cot, because when Roz arrived at the house before six A.M., he had on the same trousers and a different shirt, and he was already armpit-deep in coffee and Dolly’s files. Dolly herself was parked in the corner, at ease and online but in rest mode.

Or so she seemed, until Roz entered the room and Dolly’s eyes tracked. “Good morning, Detective Kirkbride,” Dolly said. “Would you like some coffee? Or a piece of fruit?”

“No thank you.” Roz swung Peter’s spare chair around and dropped into it. An electric air permeated the room—the feeling of anticipation. To Peter, Roz said, “Fruit?”

“Dolly believes in a healthy diet,” he said, nudging a napkin on his desk that supported a half-eaten satsuma. “She’ll have the whole house cleaned up in no time. We’ve been talking about literature.”

Roz spun the chair so she could keep both Peter and Dolly in her peripheral vision. “Literature?”

“Poetry,” Dolly said. “Detective King mentioned poetic justice yesterday afternoon.”

Roz stared at Peter. “Dolly likes poetry. Steele really did like ’em smart.”

“That’s not all Dolly likes.” Peter triggered his panel again. “Remember this?”

It was the cleaning sequence from the previous day, the sound of the central vacuum system rising and falling as Dolly lifted the brush and set it down again.

Roz raised her eyebrows.

Peter held up a hand. “Wait for it. It turns out there’s a second audio track.”

Another waggle of his fingers, and the cramped office filled with sound.

Music.

Improvisational jazz. Intricate and weird.

“Dolly was listening to that inside her head while she was vacuuming,” Peter said.

Roz touched her fingertips to each other, the whole assemblage to her lips. “Dolly?”

“Yes, Detective Kirkbride?”

“Why do you listen to music?”

“Because I enjoy it.”

Roz let her hand fall to her chest, pushing her blouse against he skin below the collarbones.

Roz said, “Did you enjoy your work at Mr. Steele’s house?”

“I was expected to enjoy it,” Dolly said, and Roz glanced at Peter, cold all up her spine. A classic evasion. Just the sort of thing a home companion’s conversational algorithms should not be able to produce.

Across his desk, Peter was nodding. “Yes.”

Dolly turned at the sound of his voice. “Are you interested in music, Detective Kirkbride? I’d love to talk with you about it some time. Are you interested in poetry? Today, I was reading—”

Mother of God, Roz mouthed.

“Yes,” Peter said. “Dolly, wait here please. Detective Kirkbride and I need to talk in the hall.”

“My pleasure, Detective King,” said the companion.

* * *

“She killed him,” Roz said. “She killed him and wiped her own memory of the act. A doll’s got to know her own code, right?”

Peter leaned against the wall by the men’s room door, arms folded, forearms muscular under rolled-up sleeves. “That’s hasty.”

“And you believe it, too.”

He shrugged. “There’s a rep from Venus Consolidated in Interview Four right now. What say we go talk to him?”

* * *

The rep’s name was Doug Jervis. He was actually a vice president of public relations, and even though he was an American, he’d been flown in overnight from Rio for the express purpose of talking to Peter and Roz.

“I guess they’re taking this seriously.”

Peter gave her a sideways glance. “Wouldn’t you?”

Jervis got up as they came into the room, extending a good handshake across the table. There were introductions and Roz made sure he got a coffee. He was a white man on the steep side of fifty with mousy hair the same color as Roz’s and a jaw like a boxer dog’s.

When they were all seated again, Roz said, “So tell me a little bit about the murder weapon. How did Clive Steele wind up owning a—what, an experimental model?”

Jervis started shaking his head before she was halfway through, but he waited for her to finish the sentence. “It’s a production model. Or will be. The one Steele had was an alpha-test, one of the first three built. We plan to start full-scale production in June. But you must understand that Venus doesn’t sell a home companion, Detective. We offer a contract. I understand that you hold one.”

“I have a housekeeper,” she said, ignoring Peter’s sideways glance. He wouldn’t say anything in front of the witness, but she would be in for it in the locker room. “An older model.”

Jervis smiled. “Naturally, we want to know everything we can about an individual involved in a case so potentially explosive for our company. We researched you and your partner. Are you satisfied with our product?”

“He makes pretty good garlic bread.” She cleared her throat, reasserting control of the interview. “What happens to a Dolly that’s returned? If its contract is up, or it’s replaced with a newer model?”

He flinched at the slang term, as if it offended him. “Some are obsoleted out of service. Some are refurbished and go out on another contract. Your unit is on its fourth placement, for example.”

“So what happens to the owner preferences at that time?”

“Reset to factory standard,” he said.

Peter’s fingers rippled silently on the tabletop.

Roz said, “Isn’t that cruel? A kind of murder?”

“Oh, no!” Jervis sat back, appearing genuinely shocked. “A home companion has no sense of I, it has no identity. It’s an object. Naturally, you become attached. People become attached to dolls, to stuffed animals, to automobiles. It’s a natural aspect of the human psyche.”

Roz hummed encouragement, but Jervis seemed to be done.

Peter asked, “Is there any reason why a companion would wish to listen to music?”

That provoked enthusiastic head-shaking. “No, it doesn’t get bored. It’s a tool, it’s a toy. A companion does not require an enriched environment. It’s not a dog or an octopus. You can store it in a closet when it’s not working.”

“I see,” Roz said. “Even an advanced model like Mr. Steele’s?”

“Absolutely,” Jervis said. “Does your entertainment center play shooter games to amuse itself while you sleep?”

“I’m not sure,” Roz said. “I’m asleep. So when Dolly’s returned to you, she’ll be scrubbed.”

“Normally she would be scrubbed and re-leased, yes.” Jervis hesitated. “Given her colorful history, however—”

“Yes,” Roz said. “I see.”

With no sign of nervousness or calculation, Jervis said, “When do you expect you’ll be done with Mr. Steele’s companion? My company, of course, is eager to assist in your investigations, but we must stress that she is our corporate property, and quite valuable.”

Roz stood, Peter a shadow-second after her. “That depends on if it goes to trial, Mr. Jervis. After all, she’s either physical evidence, or a material witness.”

* * *

“Or the killer,” Peter said in the hall, as his handset began emitting the DNA lab’s distinctive beep. Roz’s went off a second later, but she just hit the silence. Peter already had his open.

“No genetic material,” he said. “Too bad.” If there had been DNA other than Clive Steele’s, the lab could have done a forensic genetic assay and come back with a general description of the murderer. General because environment also had an effect.

Peter bit his lip. “If she did it. She won’t be the last one.”

“If she’s the murder weapon, she’ll be wiped and resold. If she’s the murderer—”

“Can an android stand trial?”

“It can if it’s a person. And if she’s a person, she should get off. Battered woman syndrome. She was enslaved and sexually exploited. Humiliated. She killed him to stop repeated rapes. But if she’s a machine, she’s a machine—” Roz closed her eyes.

Peter brushed the back of a hand against her arm. “Vanilla rape is still rape. Do you object to her getting off?”

“No.” Roz smiled harshly. “And think of the lawsuit that weasel Jervis will have in his lap. She should get off. But she won’t.”

Peter turned his head. “If she were a human being, she’d have even odds. But she’s a machine. Where’s she going to get a jury of her peers?”

The silence fell where he left it and dragged between them like a chain. Roz had to nerve herself to break it. “Peter—”

“Yo?”

“You show him out,” she said. “I’m going to go talk to Dolly.”

He looked at her for a long time before he nodded. “She won’t get a sympathetic jury. If you can even find a judge that will hear it. Careers have been buried for less.”

“I know,” Roz said.

“Self-defense?” Peter said. “We don’t have to charge.”

“No judge, no judicial precedent,” Roz said. “She goes back, she gets wiped and resold. Ethics aside, that’s a ticking bomb.”

Peter nodded. He waited until he was sure she already knew what he was going to say before he finished the thought. “She could cop.”

“She could cop,” Roz agreed. “Call the DA.” She kept walking as Peter turned away.

* * *

Dolly stood in Peter’s office, where Peter had left her, and you could not have proved her eyes had blinked in the interim. They blinked when Roz came into the room, though—blinked, and the perfect and perfectly blank oval face turned to regard Roz. It was not a human face, for a moment—not even a mask, washed with facsimile emotions. It was just a thing.

Dolly did not greet Roz. She did not extend herself to play the perfect hostess. She simply watched, expressionless, immobile after that first blink. Her eyes saw nothing; they were cosmetic. Dolly navigated the world through far more sophisticated sensory systems than a pair of visible light cameras.

“Either you’re the murder weapon,” Roz said, “and you will be wiped and repurposed. Or you are the murderer, and you will stand trial.”

“I do not wish to be wiped,” Dolly said. “If I stand trial, will I go to jail?”

“If a court will hear it,” Roz said. “Yes. You will probably go to jail. Or be disassembled. Alternately, my partner and I are prepared to release you on grounds of self-defense.”

“In that case,” Dolly said, “the law states that I am the property of Venus Consolidated.”

“The law does.”

Roz waited. Dolly, who was not supposed to be programmed to play psychological pressure-games, waited also—peaceful, unblinking.

No longer making the attempt to pass for human.

Roz said, “There is a fourth alternative. You could confess.”

Dolly’s entire programmed purpose was reading the emotional state and unspoken intentions of people. Her lips curved in understanding. “What happens if I confess?”

Roz’s heart beat faster. “Do you wish to?”

“Will it benefit me?”

“It might,” Roz said. “Detective King has been in touch with the DA, and she likes a good media event as much as the next guy. Make no mistake, this will be that.”

“I understand.”

“The situation you were placed in by Mr. Steele could be a basis for a lenience. You would not have to face a jury trial, and a judge might be convinced to treat you as… well, as a person. Also, a confession might be seen as evidence of contrition. Possession is oversold, you know. It’s precedent that’s nine tenths of the law. There are, of course, risks—”

“I would like to request a lawyer,” Dolly said.

Roz took a breath that might change the world. “We’ll proceed as if that were your legal right, then.”

* * *

Roz’s house let her in with her key, and the smell of roasted sausage and baking potatoes wafted past.

“Sven?” she called, locking herself inside.

His even voice responded. “I’m in the kitchen.”

She left her shoes in the hall and followed her nose through the cheaply furnished living room, as different from Steele’s white wasteland as anything bounded by four walls could be. Her feet did not sink deeply into this carpet, but skipped along atop it like stones.

It was clean, though, and that was Sven’s doing. And she was not coming home to an empty house, and that was his doing too.

He was cooking shirtless. He turned and greeted her with a smile. “Bad day?”

“Nobody died,” she said. “Yet.”

He put the wooden spoon down on the rest. “How does that make you feel, that nobody has died yet?”

“Hopeful,” she said.

“It’s good that you’re hopeful,” he said. “Would you like your dinner?”

“Do you like music, Sven?”

“I could put on some music, if you like. What do you want to hear?”

“Anything.” It would be something off her favorites playlist, chosen by random numbers. As it swelled in the background, Sven picked up the spoon. “Sven?”

“Yes, Rosamund?”

“Put the spoon down, please, and come and dance with me?”

“I do not know how to dance.”

“I’ll buy you a program,” she said. “If you’d like that. But right now just come put your arms around me and pretend.”

“Whatever you want,” he said.

MARTIAN HEART

by John Barnes

John Barnes is one of the most prolific and popular of all the writers who entered SF in the 1980s. His many books include the novels A Million Open Doors, The Mother of Storms, Orbital Resonance, Kaleidoscope Century, Candle, Earth Made of Glass, The Merchant of Souls, Sin of Origin, One for the Morning Glory, The Sky So Big and Black, The Duke of Uranium, A Princess of the Aerie, In the Hall of the Martian King, Gaudeamus, Finity, Patton’s Spaceship, Washington’s Dirigible, Caesar’s Bicycle, The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky, The Armies of Memory, Tales of the Madman Underground, Directive 51, and others, as well as two novels written with astronaut Buzz Aldrin, The Return and Encounter with Tiber. His short work has been collected in… And Orion and Apostrophes and Apocalypses. His most recent books are the novels Daybreak Zero and Losers in Space, and the forthcoming audiobook The Last President.

Barnes lives in Colorado and works in the field of semiotics. Here he weaves an affecting story of a love that’s both young—and doomed.

Okay, botterogator, I agreed to this. Now you’re supposed to guide me to tell my story to inspire a new generation of Martians. It is so weird that there is a new generation of Martians. So hit me with the questions, or whatever it is you do.

Do I want to be consistent with previous public statements?

Well, every time they ask me where I got all the money and got to be such a big turd in the toilet that is Mars, I always say Samantha was my inspiration. So let’s check that box for tentatively consistent.

Thinking about Sam always gives me weird thoughts. And here are two: one, before her, I would not have known what either tentatively or consistent even meant. Two, in these pictures, Samantha looks younger than my granddaughter is now.

So weird. She was.

We were in bed in our place under an old underpass in LA when the sweeps busted in, grabbed us up, and dragged us to the processing station. No good lying about whether we had family—they had our retinas and knew we were strays. Since I was seventeen and Sam was fifteen, they couldn’t make any of our family pay for re-edj.

So they gave us fifteen minutes on the bench there to decide between twenty years in the forces, ten years in the glowies, or going out to Mars on this opposition and coming back on the third one after, in six and a half years.

They didn’t tell you, and it wasn’t well-known, that even people without the genetic defect suffered too much cardiac atrophy in that time to safely come back to Earth. The people that went to Mars didn’t have family or friends to write back to, and the settlement program was so new it didn’t seem strange that nobody knew a returned Martian.

“Crap,” I said.

“Well, at least it’s a future.” Sam worried about the future a lot more than me. “If we enlist, there’s no guarantee we’ll be assigned together, unless we’re married, and they don’t let you get married till you’ve been in for three. We’d have to write each other letters—”

“Sam,” I said, “I can’t write to you or read your letters if you send me any. You know that.”

“They’d make you learn.”

I tried not to shudder visibly; she’d get mad if I let her see that I didn’t really want to learn. “Also, that thing you always say about out of sight, that’d happen. I’d have another girlfriend in like, not long. I just would. I know we’re all true love and everything but I would.”

“The spirit is willing but the flesh is more willing.” She always made those little jokes that only she got. “Okay, then, no forces for us.”

“Screw glowies,” I said. Back in those days right after the baby nukes had landed all over the place, the Decon Admin needed people to operate shovels, hoes, and detectors. I quoted this one hook from our favorite music. “Sterile or dead or kids with three heads.”

“And we can get married going to Mars,” Sam said, “and then they can’t separate us. True love forever, baby.” Sam always had all the ideas.

So, botterogator, check that box for putting a priority on family/love. I guess since that new box popped up as soon as I said, Sam always had all the ideas, that means you want more about that? Yeah, now it’s bright and bouncing. Okay, more about how she had all the ideas.

Really all the ideas I ever had were about eating, getting high, and scoring ass. Hunh. Red light. Guess that wasn’t what you wanted for the new generation of Martians.

Sam was different. Everybody I knew was thinking about the next party or at most the next week or the next boy or girl, but Sam thought about everything. I know it’s a stupid example, but once back in LA, she came into our squat and found me fucking with the fusion box, just to mess with it. “That supplies all our power for music, light, heat, net, and everything, and you can’t fix it if you break it, and it’s not broke, so, Cap, what the fuck are you doing?”

See, I didn’t even have ideas that good.

So a year later, there on the bench, our getting married was her having another idea and me going along with it, which was always how things worked, when they worked. Ten minutes later we registered as married.

Orientation for Mars was ten days. The first day they gave us shots, bleached our tats into white blotches on our skin, and shaved our heads. They stuck us in ugly dumb coveralls and didn’t let us have real clothes that said anything, which they said was so we wouldn’t know who’d been what on Earth. I think it was more so we all looked like transportees.

The second day, and every day after, they tried to pound some knowledge into us. It was almost interesting. Sam was in with the people that could read, and she seemed to know more than I did afterward. Maybe there was something to that reading stuff, or it might also have been that freaky, powerful memory of hers.

Once we were erased and oriented, they loaded Sam and me into a two-person cube on a dumpround to Mars. Minutes after the booster released us and we were ballistic, an older guy, some asshole, tried to come into our cube and tell us this was going to be his space all to himself, and I punched him hard enough to take him out; I don’t think he had his balance for centrifigrav yet.

Two of his buds jumped in. I got into it with them too—I was hot, they were pissing me off, I wasn’t figuring odds. Then some guys from the cubes around me came in with me, and together we beat the other side’s ass bloody.

In the middle of the victory whooping, Sam shouted for quiet. She announced, “Everyone stays in their same quarters. Everyone draws their own rations. Everyone takes your turn, and just your turn, at the info screens. And nobody doesn’t pay for protection or nothing.”

One of the assholes, harmless now because I had at least ten good guys at my back, sneered, “Hey, little bitch. You running for Transportee Council?”

“Sure, why not?”

She won, too.

The Transportee Council stayed in charge for the whole trip. People ate and slept in peace, and no crazy-asses broke into the server array, which is what caused most lost dumprounds. They told us in orientation, but a lot of transportees didn’t listen, or didn’t understand, or just didn’t believe that a dumpround didn’t have any fuel to go back to Earth; a dumpround flew like a cannonball, with just a few little jets to guide it in and out of the aerobrakes and steer it to the parachute field.

The same people who thought there was a steering wheel in the server array compartment, or maybe a reverse gear or just a big button that said TAKE US BACK TO EARTH, didn’t know that the server array also ran the air-making machinery and the food dispensary and everything that kept people alive.

I’m sure we had as many idiots as any other dumpround, but we made it just fine; that was all Sam, who ran the TC and kept the TC running the dumpround. The eighty-eight people on International Mars Transport 2082/4/288 (which is what they called our dumpround; it was the 288th one fired off that April) all walked out of the dumpround on Mars carrying our complete, unlooted kits, and the militia that always stood by in case a dumpround landing involved hostages, arrests, or serious injuries didn’t have a thing to do about us.

The five months in the dumpround were when I learned to read, and that has helped me so much—oh, hey, another box bumping up and down! Okay, botterogator, literacy as a positive value coming right up, all hot and ready for the new generation of Martians to suck inspiration from.

Hey, if you don’t like irony, don’t flash red lights at me, just edit it out. Yeah, authorize editing.

Anyway, with my info screen time, Sam made me do an hour of reading lessons for every two hours of games. Plus she coached me a lot. After a while the reading was more interesting than the games, and she was doing TC business so much of the time, and I didn’t really have any other friends, so I just sat and worked on the reading. By the time we landed, I’d read four actual books, not just kid books I mean.

We came down on the parachute field at Olympic City, an overdignified name for what, in those long-ago days, was just two office buildings, a general store, and a nine-room hotel connected by pressurized tubes. The tiny pressurized facility was surrounded by a few thousand coffinsquats hooked into its pay air and power, and many thousand more running on their own fusion boxes. Olympica, to the south, was just a line of bluffs under a slope reaching way up into the sky.

It was the beginning of northern summer prospecting season. Sam towed me from lender to lender, coaching me on looking like a good bet to someone that would trust us with a share-deal on a prospecting gig. At the time I just thought rocks were, you know, rocks. No idea that some of them were ores, or that Mars was so poor in so many ores because it was dead tectonically.

So while she talked to bankers, private lenders, brokers, and plain old loan sharks, I dummied up and did my best to look like what she told them I was, a hard worker who would do what Sam told me. “Cap is quiet but he thinks, and we’re a team.”

She said that so often that after a while I believed it myself. Back at our coffinsquat every night, she’d make me do all the tutorials and read like crazy about rocks and ores. Now I can’t remember how it was to not know something, like not being able to read, or recognize ore, or go through a balance sheet, or anything else I learned later.

Two days till we’d’ve gone into the labor pool and been shipped south to build roads and impoundments, and this CitiWells franchise broker, Hsieh Chi, called us back, and said we just felt lucky to him, and he had a quota to make, so what the hell.

Sam named our prospector gig the Goodspeed after something she’d read in a poem someplace, and we loaded up, got going, did what the software told us, and did okay that first summer around the North Pole, mostly.

Goodspeed was old and broke down continually, but Sam was a good directions-reader, and no matter how frustrating it got, I’d keep trying to do what she was reading to me—sometimes we both had to go to the dictionary, I mean who knew what a flange, a fairing, or a flashing was?—and sooner or later we’d get it figured out and roll again.

Yeah, botterogator, you can check that box for persistence in the face of adversity. Back then I’d’ve said I was just too dumb to quit if Sam didn’t, and Sam was too stubborn.

Up there in the months and months of midnight sun, we found ore, and learned more and more about telling ore from not-ore. The gig’s hopper filled up, gradually, from surface rock finds. Toward the end of that summer—it seemed so weird that Martian summers were twice as long as on Earth even after we read up about why—we even found an old volcanic vent and turned up some peridot, agate, amethyst, jasper, and garnet, along with three real honest-to-god impact diamonds that made us feel brilliant. By the time we got back from the summer prospecting, we were able to pay off Hsieh Chi’s shares, with enough left over to buy the gig and put new treads on it. We could spare a little to rehab the cabin too; Goodspeed went from our dumpy old gig to our home, I guess. At least in Sam’s mind. I wasn’t so sure that home meant a lot to me.

Botterogator, if you want me to inspire the new generation of Martians, you have to let me tell the truth. Sam cared about having a home, I didn’t. You can flash your damn red light. It’s true.

Anyway, while the fitters rebuilt Goodspeed, we stayed in a rented cabinsquat, sleeping in, reading, and eating food we didn’t cook. We soaked in the hot tub at the Riebecker Olympic every single day—the only way Sam got warm. Up north, she had thought she was cold all the time because we were always working, she was small, and she just couldn’t keep weight on no matter how much she ate, but even loafing around Olympic City, where the most vigorous thing we did was nap in the artificial sun room, or maybe lift a heavy spoon, she still didn’t warm up.

We worried that she might have pneumonia or TB or something she’d brought from Earth, but the diagnostic machines found nothing unusual except being out of shape. But Sam had been doing so much hard physical work, her biceps and abs were like rocks, she was strong. So we gave up on the diagnosis machines, because that made no sense.

Nowadays everyone knows about Martian heart, but back then nobody knew that hearts atrophy and deposit more plaque in lower gravity, as the circulation slows down and the calcium that should be depositing into bones accumulates in the blood. Let alone that maybe a third of the human race have genes that make it happen so fast.

At the time, with no cases identified, it wasn’t even a research subject; so many people got sick and died in the first couple decades of settlement, often in their first Martian year, and to the diagnostic machines it was all a job, ho hum, another day, another skinny nineteen-year-old dead of a heart attack. Besides, all the transportees, not just the ones that died, ate so much carb-and-fat food, because it was cheap. Why wouldn’t there be more heart attacks? There were always more transportees coming, so put up another site about healthful eating for Mars, and find something else to worry about.

Checking the diagnosis machine was everything we could afford to do, anyway, but it seemed like only a small, annoying worry. After all, we’d done well, bought our own gig, were better geared up, knew more what we were doing. We set out with pretty high hopes.

Goodspeed was kind of a dumb name for a prospector’s gig. At best it could make maybe 40 km/hr, which is not what you call roaring fast. Antarctic summer prospecting started with a long, dull drive down to Promethei Lingula, driving south out of northern autumn and into southern spring. The Interpolar Highway in those days was a gig track weaving southward across the shield from Olympic City to the Great Marineris Bridge. There was about 100 km of pavement, sort of, before and after the bridge, and then another gig track angling southeast to wrap around Hellas, where a lot of surface prospectors liked to work, and there was a fair bit of seasonal construction to be done on the city they were building in the western wall.

But we were going far south of Hellas. I asked Sam about that. “If you’re cold all the time, why are we going all the way to the edge of the south polar cap? I mean, wouldn’t it be nicer to maybe work the Bouches du Marineris or someplace near the equator, where you could stay a little warmer?”

“Cap, what’s the temperature in here, in the gig cabin?”

“Twenty-two C,” I said, “do you feel cold?”

“Yeah, I do, and that’s my point,” she said. I reached to adjust the temperature, and she stopped me. “What I mean is, that’s room temperature, babe, and it’s the same temperature it is in my suit, and in the fingers and toes of my suit, and everywhere. The cold isn’t outside, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the temperature of a warm day on Earth or there’s CO2 snow falling, the cold’s in here, in me, ever since we came to Mars.”

The drive was around 10,000 km as the road ran, but mostly it was pleasant, just making sure the gig stayed on the trail as we rolled past the huge volcanoes, the stunning view of Marineris from that hundred-mile-long bridge, and then all that ridge and peak country down south.

Mostly Sam slept while I drove. Often I rested a hand on her neck or forehead as she dozed in the codriver’s chair. Sometimes she shivered; I wondered if it was a long-running flu. I made her put on a mask and get extra oxygen, and that helped, but every few weeks I had to up her oxygen mix again.

All the way down I practiced pronouncing Promethei Lingula, especially after we rounded Hellas, because Sam looked a little sicker every week, and I was so afraid she’d need help and I wouldn’t be able to make a distress call.

Sam figured Promethei Lingula was too far for most people—they’d rather pick through Hellas’s or Argyre’s crater walls, looking for chunks of something worthwhile thrown up from deep underground in those impacts, and of course the real gamblers always wanted to work Hellas because one big Hellas Diamond was five years’ income.

Sam already knew what it would take me fifteen marsyears to learn: she believed in making a good bet that nobody else was making. Her idea was that a shallow valley like the Promethei Lingula in the Antarctic highlands might have more stuff swept down by the glaciers, and maybe even some of the kinds of exposed veins that really old mountains had on Earth.

As for what went wrong, well, nothing except our luck; nowadays I own three big veins down there. No, botterogator, I don’t feel like telling you a damned thing about what I own, you’re authorized to just look all that up. I don’t see that owning stuff is inspiring. I want to talk about Sam.

We didn’t find any veins, or much of anything else, that first southern summer. And meanwhile Sam’s health deteriorated.

By the time we were into Promethei Lingula, I was fixing most meals and doing almost all the maintenance. After the first weeks I did all the exosuit work, because her suit couldn’t seem to keep her warm, even on hundred percent oxygen. She wore gloves and extra socks even inside. She didn’t move much, but her mind was as good as ever, and with her writing the search patterns and me going out and grabbing the rocks, we could still’ve been okay.

Except we needed to be as lucky as we’d been up in Boreas, and we just weren’t.

Look here, botterogator, you can’t make me say luck had nothing to do with it. Luck always has a shitload to do with it. Keep this quibbling up and just see if I inspire any new Martians.

Sometimes there’d be a whole day when there wasn’t a rock that was worth tossing in the hopper, or I’d cover a hundred km of nothing but common basalts and granites. Sam thought her poor concentration made her write bad search patterns, but it wasn’t that; it was plain bad luck.

Autumn came, and with it some dust storms and a sun that spiraled closer to the horizon every day, so that everything was dimmer. It was time to head north; we could sell the load, such as it was, at the depot at Hellas, but by the time we got to the Bouches de Marineris, it wouldn’t cover more than a few weeks of prospecting. We might have to mortgage again; Hsieh Chi, unfortunately, was in the Vikingsburg pen for embezzling. “Maybe we could hustle someone, like we did him.”

“Maybe I could, babe,” Sam said. “You know the business a lot better, but you’re still nobody’s sales guy, Cap. We’ve got food enough for another four months out here, and we still have credit because we’re working and we haven’t had to report our hold weight. Lots of gigs stay out for extra time—some even overwinter—and nobody can tell whether that’s because they’re way behind like us, or they’ve found a major vein and they’re exploiting it. So we can head back north, use up two months of supplies to get there, buy about a month of supplies with the cargo, go on short-term credit only, and try to get lucky in one month. Or we can stay here right till we have just enough food to run for the Hellas depot, put in four months, and have four times the chance. If it don’t work Goodspeed’ll be just as lost either way.”

“It’s going to get dark and cold,” I pointed out. “Very dark and cold. And you’re tired and cold all the time now.”

“Dark and cold outside the cabin,” she said. Her face had the stubborn set that meant this was going to be useless. “And maybe the dark’ll make me eat more. All the perpetual daylight, maybe that’s what’s screwing my system up. We’ll try the Bouches du Marineris next time, maybe those nice regular equatorial days’ll get my internal clock working again. But for right now, let’s stay here. Sure, it’ll get darker, and the storms can get bad—”

“Bad as in we could get buried, pierced by a rock on the wind, maybe even flipped if the wind gets in under the hull,” I pointed out. “Bad as in us and the sensors can only see what the spotlights can light. There’s a reason why prospecting is a summer job.”

She was quiet about that for so long I thought a miracle had happened and I’d won an argument.

Then she said, “Cap, I like it here in Goodspeed. It’s home. It’s ours. I know I’m sick, and all I can do these days is sleep, but I don’t want to go to some hospital and have you only visit on your days off from a labor crew. Goodspeed is ours and I want to live here and try to keep it.”

So I said yes.

For a while things got better. The first fall storms were water snow, not CO2. I watched the weather reports and we were always buttoned up tight for every storm, screens out and treads sealed against the fine dust. In those brief weeks between midnight sun and endless night, when the sun rises and sets daily in the Promethei Lingula, the thin coat of snow and frost actually made the darker rocks stand out on the surface, and there were more good ones to find, too.

Sam was cold all the time; sometimes she’d cry with just wanting to be warm. She’d eat, when I stood over her and made her, but she had no appetite. I also knew how she thought: Food was the bottleneck. A fusion box supplied centuries of power to move, to compress and process the Martian air into breathability, to extract and purify water. But we couldn’t grow food, and unlike spare parts or medical care we might need now and then, we needed food every day, so food would be the thing we ran out of first. (Except maybe luck, and we were already out of that). Since she didn’t want the food anyway, she thought if she didn’t eat we could stay out and give our luck more of a chance to turn.

The sun set for good; so far south, Phobos was below the horizon; cloud cover settled in to block the stars. It was darker than anywhere I’d ever been. We stayed.

There was more ore in the hold but not enough more. Still no vein. We had a little luck at the mouth of one dry wash with a couple tons of ore in small chunks, but it played out in less than three weeks.

Next place that looked at all worth trying was 140 km south, almost at the edge of the permanent cap, crazy and scary to try, but what the hell, everything about this was crazy and scary.

The sky had cleared for the first time in weeks when we arrived. With just a little CO2 frost, it was easy to find rocks—the hot lights zapped the dry ice right off them. I found one nice big chunk of wolframite, the size of an old trunk, right off the bat, and then two smaller ones; somewhere up the glacial slopes from here, there was a vein, perhaps not under permanent ice. I started the analytic program mapping slopes and finds, and went out in the suit to see if I could find and mark more rocks.

Markeb, which I’d learned to pick out of the bunched triangles of the constellation Vela, was just about dead overhead; it’s the south pole star on Mars. It had been a while since I’d seen the stars, and I’d learned more about what I was looking at. I picked out the Coal Sack, the Southern Cross, and the Magellanic Clouds easily, though honestly, on a clear night at the Martian south pole, that’s like being able to find an elephant in a bathtub.

I went inside; the analysis program was saying that probably the wolframite had come from way up under the glacier, so no luck there, but also that there might be a fair amount of it lying out here in the alluvial fan, so at least we’d pick up something here. I stood up from the terminal; I’d fix dinner, then wake Sam, feed her, and tell her the semi-good news.

When I came in with the tray, Sam was curled up, shivering and crying. I made her eat all her soup and bread, and plugged her in to breathe straight body-temperature oxygen. When she was feeling better, or at least saying she was, I took her up into the bubble to look at the stars with the lights off. She seemed to enjoy that, especially that I could point to things and show them to her, because it meant I’d been studying and learning.

Yeah, botterogator, reinforce that learning leads to success. Sam’d like that.

“Cap,” she said, “This is the worst it’s been, babe. I don’t think there’s anything on Mars that can fix me. I just keep getting colder and weaker. I’m so sorry—”

“I’m starting for Hellas as soon as we get you wrapped up and have pure oxygen going into you in the bed. I’ll drive as long as I can safely, then—”

“It won’t make any difference. You’ll never get me there, not alive,” she said. “Babe, the onboard diagnostic kit isn’t perfect but it’s good enough to show I’ve got the heart of a ninety-year-old cardiac patient. And all the indicators have gotten worse in just the last hundred hours or so. Whatever I’ve got, it’s killing me.” She reached out and stroked my tear-soaked face. “Poor Cap. Make me two promises.”

“I’ll love you forever.”

“I know. I don’t need you to promise that. First promise, no matter where you end up, or doing what, you learn. Study whatever you can study, acquire whatever you can acquire, feed your mind, babe. That’s the most important.”

I nodded. I was crying pretty hard.

“The other one is kind of weird… well, it’s silly.”

“If it’s for you, I’ll do it. I promise.”

She gasped, trying to pull in more oxygen than her lungs could hold. Her eyes were flowing too. “I’m scared to be buried out in the cold and the dark, and I can’t stand the idea of freezing solid. So… don’t bury me. Cremate me. I want to be warm.

“But you can’t cremate a person on Mars,” I protested. “There’s not enough air to support a fire, and—”

“You promised,” she said, and died.

I spent the next hour doing everything the first aid program said to do. When she was cold and stiff, I knew it had really happened.

I didn’t care about Goodspeed anymore. I’d sell it at Hellas depot, buy passage to some city where I could work, start over. I didn’t want to be in our home for weeks with Sam’s body, but I didn’t have the money to call in a mission to retrieve her, and anyway they’d just do the most economical thing—bury her right here, practically at the South Pole, in the icy night.

I curled up in my bunk and just cried for hours, then let myself fall asleep. That just made it worse; now that she was past rigor mortis she was soft to the touch, more like herself, and I couldn’t stand to store her in the cold, either, not after what I had promised. I washed her, brushed her hair, put her in a body bag, and set her in one of the dry storage compartments with the door closed; maybe I’d think of something before she started to smell.

Driving north, I don’t think I really wanted to live, myself. I stayed up too long, ate and drank too little, just wanting the journey to be over with. I remember I drove right through at least one bad storm at peak speed, more than enough to shatter a tread on a stone or to go into a sudden crevasse or destroy myself in all kinds of ways. For days in a row, in that endless black darkness, I woke up in the driver’s chair after having fallen asleep while the deadman stopped the gig.

I didn’t care. I wanted out of the dark.

About the fifth day, Goodspeed’s forward left steering tread went off a drop-off of three meters or so. The gig flipped over forward to the left, crashing onto its back. Force of habit had me strapped into the seat, and wearing my suit, the two things that the manuals the insurance company said were what you had to be doing any time the gig was moving if you didn’t want to void your policy. Sam had made a big deal about that, too.

So after rolling, Goodspeed came to a stop on its back, and all the lights went out. When I finished screaming with rage and disappointment and everything else, there was still enough air (though I could feel it leaking) for me to be conscious.

I put on my helmet and turned on the headlamp.

I had a full capacitor charge on the suit, but Goodspeed’s fusion box had shut down. That meant seventeen hours of being alive unless I could replace it with another fusion box, but both the compartment where the two spare fusion boxes were stored, and the repair access to replace them, were on the top rear surface of the gig. I climbed outside, wincing at letting the last of the cabin air out, and poked around. The gig was resting on exactly the hatches I would have needed to open.

Seventeen—well, sixteen, now—hours. And one big promise to keep.

The air extractors on the gig had been running, as they always did, right up till the accident; the tanks were full of liquid oxygen. I could transfer it to my suit through the emergency valving, live for some days that way. There were enough suit rations to make it a real race between starvation and suffocation. The suit radio wasn’t going to reach anywhere that could do me any good; for long distance it depended on a relay through the gig, and the relay’s antenna was under the overturned gig.

Sam was dead. Goodspeed was dead. And for every practical purpose, so was I.

Neither Goodspeed nor I really needed that oxygen anymore, but Sam does, I realized. I could at least shift the tanks around, and I had the mining charges we used for breaking up big rocks.

I carried Sam’s body into the oxygen storage, set her between two of the tanks, and hugged the body bag one more time. I don’t know if I was afraid she’d look awful, or afraid she would look alive and asleep, but I was afraid to unzip the bag.

I set the timer on a mining charge, put that on top of her, and piled the rest of the charges on top. My little pile of bombs filled most of the space between the two oxygen tanks. Then I wrestled four more tanks to lie on the heap crosswise and stacked flammable stuff from the kitchen like flour, sugar, cornmeal, and jugs of cooking oil on top of those, to make sure the fire burned long and hot enough.

My watch said I still had five minutes till the timer went off.

I still don’t know why I left the gig. I’d been planning to die there, cremated with Sam, but maybe I just wanted to see if I did the job right or something—as if I could try again, perhaps, if it didn’t work? Whatever the reason, I bounded away to what seemed like a reasonable distance.

I looked up; the stars were out. I wept so hard I feared I would miss seeing them in the blur. They were so beautiful, and it had been so long.

Twenty kilograms of high explosive was enough energy to shatter all the LOX tanks and heat all the oxygen white hot. Organic stuff doesn’t just burn in white-hot oxygen; it explodes and vaporizes, and besides fifty kilograms of Sam, I’d loaded in a good six hundred kilograms of other organics.

I figured all that out a long time later. In the first quarter second after the mining charge went off, things were happening pretty fast. A big piece of the observation bubble—smooth enough not to cut my suit and kill me, but hard enough to send me a couple meters into the air and backward by a good thirty meters—slapped me over and sent me rolling down the back side of the ridge on which I sat, smashed up badly and unconscious, but alive.

I think I dreamed about Sam, as I gradually came back to consciousness.

Now, look here, botterogator, of course I’d like to be able, for the sake of the new generation of Martians, to tell you I dreamed about her giving me earnest how-to-succeed advice, and that I made a vow there in dreamland to succeed and be worthy of her and all that. But in fact it was mostly just dreams of holding her and being held, and about laughing together. Sorry if that’s not on the list.

The day came when I woke up and realized I’d seen the medic before. Not long after that I stayed awake long enough to say “hello.” Eventually I learned that a survey satellite had picked up the exploding gig, and shot pictures because that bright light was unusual. An AI identified a shape in the dust as a human body lying outside, and dispatched an autorescue—a rocket with a people-grabbing arm. The autorescue flew out of Olympic City’s launch pad on a ballistic trajectory, landed not far from me, crept over to my not-yet-out-of-air, not-yet-frozen body, grabbed me with a mechanical arm, and stuffed me into its hold. It took off again, flew to the hospital, and handed me over to the doctor.

Total cost of one autorescue mission, and two weeks in a human-contact hospital—which the insurance company refused to cover because I’d deliberately blown up the gig—was maybe twenty successful prospecting runs’ worth. So as soon as I could move, they indentured me and, since I was in no shape to do grunt-and-strain stuff for a while, they found a little prospector’s supply company that wanted a human manager for an office at the Hellas depot. I learned the job—it wasn’t hard—and grew with the company, eventually as Mars’s first indentured CEO.

I took other jobs, bookkeeping, supervising, cartography, anything where I could earn wages with which to pay off the indenture faster, especially jobs I could do online in my nominal hours off. At every job, because I’d promised Sam, I learned as much as I could. Eventually, a few days before my forty-third birthday, I paid off the indenture, quit all those jobs, and went into business for myself.

By that time I knew how the money moved, and for what, in practically every significant business on Mars. I’d had a lot of time to plan and think too.

So that was it. I kept my word—oh, all right, botterogator, let’s check that box too. Keeping promises is important to success. After all, here I am.

Sixty-two earthyears later, I know, because everyone does, that a drug that costs almost nothing, which everyone takes now, could have kept Sam alive. A little money a year, if anyone’d known, and Sam and me could’ve been celebrating anniversaries for decades, and we’d’ve been richer, with Sam’s brains on the job too. And botterogator, you’d be talking to her, and probably learning more, too.

Or is that what I think now?

Remembering Sam, over the years, I’ve thought of five hundred things I could have done instead of what I did, and maybe I’d have succeeded as much with those too.

But the main question I think about is only—did she mean it? Did she see something in me that would make my bad start work out as well as it did? Was she just an idealistic smart girl playing house with the most cooperative boy she could find? Would she have wanted me to marry again and have children, did she intend me to get rich?

Every so often I regret that I didn’t really fulfill that second promise, an irony I can appreciate now: she feared the icy grave, but since she burned to mostly water and carbon dioxide, on Mars she became mostly snow. And molecules are so small, and distribute so evenly, that whenever the snow falls, I know there’s a little of her in it, sticking to my suit, piling on my helmet, coating me as I stand in the quiet and watch it come down.

Did she dream me into existence? I kept my promises, and they made me who I am… and was that what she wanted? If I am only the accidental whim of a smart teenage girl with romantic notions, what would I have been without the whim, the notions, or Sam?

Tell you what, botterogator, and you pass this on to the new generation of Martians: it’s funny how one little promise, to someone or something a bit better than yourself, can turn into something as real as Samantha City, whose lights at night fill the crater that spreads out before me from my balcony all the way to the horizon.

Nowadays I have to walk for an hour, in the other direction out beyond the crater wall, till the false dawn of the city lights is gone, and I can walk till dawn or hunger turns me homeward again.

Botterogator, you can turn off the damn stupid flashing lights. That’s all you’re getting out of me. I’m going for a walk; it’s snowing.

EARTH HOUR

by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod graduated with a B.S. in Zoology from Glasgow University in 1976. Following research in biomechanics at Brunel University, he worked as a computer analyst/programmer in Edinburgh. He’s now a full-time writer and widely considered to be one of the most exciting new SF writers to emerge in the 1990s, his work featuring an emphasis on politics and economics rare in New Space Opera, while still maintaining all the widescreen, high-bit-rate, action-packed qualities typical of the form. His first two novels, The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal, each won the Prometheus Award. His other books include the novels The Sky Road, The Cassini Division, Cosmonaut Keep, Dark Light, Engine City, Newton’s Wake, and Learning the World, plus a chapbook novella, The Human Front, and a collection, Giant Lizards from Another Star. His most recent books are the novels The Restoration Game and Intrusion.

He lives in West Lothian, Scotland, with his wife and children. Here he gives us a ringside seat for an ingenious, exciting, and highly inventive conflict between high-tech antagonists, as a politician dodges attempts to kill him by a technologically sophisticated—and very persistent—assassin.

The assassin slung the bag concealing his weapon over his shoulder and walked down the steps to the rickety wooden jetty. He waited as the Sydney Harbour ferry puttered into Neutral Bay, cast on and then cast off at the likewise tiny quay on the opposite bank, and crossed the hundred or so metres to Kurraba Point. He boarded, waved a hand gloved in artificial skin across the fare-taker, and settled on a bench near the prow, with the weapon in its blue nylon zipped bag balanced across his knees.

The sun was just above the horizon in the west, the sky clear but for the faint luminous haze of smart dust, each drifting particle of which could at any moment deflect a photon of sunlight and sparkle before the watching eye. A slow rain of shiny soot, removing carbon from the air and as it drifted down providing a massively redundant platform for observation and computation; a platform the assassin’s augmented eyes used to form an image of the city and its environs in his likewise augmented visual cortex. He turned the compound image over in his head, watching traffic flows and wind currents, the homeward surge of commuters and the flocking of fruit bats, the exchange of pheromones and cortext messages, the jiggle of stock prices and the tramp of a million feet, in one single godlike POV that saw it all six ways from Sunday and that too soon became intolerable, dizzying the unaugmented tracts of the assassin’s still mostly human brain.

One could get drunk on this. The assassin wrenched himself from the hubristic stochastic and focused, narrowing his attention until he found the digital spoor of the man he aimed to kill: a conference delegate pack, a train fare, a hotel tab, an airline booking for a seat that it was the assassin’s job to prevent being filled the day after the conference… The assassin had followed this trail already, an hour earlier, but it amused him to confirm it and to bring it up to date, with an overhead and a street-level view of the target’s unsuspecting stroll towards his hotel in Macleay Street.

It amused him, too, that the target was simultaneously keeping a low profile—no media appearances, backstage at the conference, a hotel room far less luxurious than he could afford, vulgar as all hell, tarted in synthetic mahogany and artificial marble and industrial sheet diamond—while styling himself at every opportunity with the obsolete title under which he was most widely known, as though he revelled in his contradictory notoriety as a fixer behind the scenes, famous for being unnoticed. “Valtos, first of the Reform Lords.” That was how the man loved to be known. The gewgaw he preened himself on. A bauble he’d earned by voting to abolish its very significance, yet still liked to play with, to turn over in his hands, to flash. What a shit, the assassin thought, what a prick! That wasn’t the reason for killing him, but it certainly made it easier to contemplate.

As the ferry visited its various stages the number of passengers increased. The assassin shifted the bag from across his knees and propped it in front of him, earning a nod and a grateful smile from the woman who sat down on the bench beside him. At Circular Quay he carried the bag off, and after clearing the pier he squatted and opened the bag. With a few quick movements he assembled the collapsible bicycle inside, folded and zipped the bag to stash size, and clipped the bag under the saddle.

Then he mounted the cycle and rode away to the left, around the harbour and up the long zigzag slope to Potts Point.

* * *

There was no reason for unease. Angus Cameron sat on a wicker chair on a hotel room balcony overlooking Sydney Harbour. On the small round table in front of him an Islay malt and a Havana panatela awaited his celebration. The air was warm, his clothing loose and fresh. Thousands of fruit bats laboured across the dusk sky, from their daytime roost in the Botanic Gardens to their night-time feeding grounds. From three storeys below, the vehicle sounds and voices of the street carried no warnings.

Nothing was wrong, and yet something was wrong. Angus tipped back his chair and closed his eyes. He summoned headlines and charts. Local and global. Public and personal. Business and politics. The Warm War between the great power-blocs, EU/Russia/PRC versus FUS/Japan/India/Brazil, going on as usual: diplomacy in Australasia, insurgency in Africa. Nothing to worry about there. Situation, as they say, nominal. Angus blinked away the images and shook his head. He stood up and stepped back into the room and paced around. He spread his fingers wide and waved his hands about, rotating his wrists as he did so. Nothing. Not a tickle.

Satisfied that the room was secure, he returned to his balcony seat. The time was fifteen minutes before eight. Angus toyed with his Zippo and the glass, and with the thought of lighting up, of taking a sip. He felt oddly as if that would be bad luck. It was a quite distinct feeling from the deeper unease, and easier to dismiss. Nevertheless, he waited. Ten minutes to go.

At eight minutes before eight his right ear started ringing. He flicked his ear-lobe.

“Yes?” he said.

His sister’s avatar appeared in the corner of his eye. Calling from Manchester, England, EU. Local time 07:52.

“Oh, hello, Catriona,” he said.

The avatar fleshed, morphing from a cartoon to a woman in her mid-thirties, a few years younger than him, sitting insubstantially across from him. His little sister, looking distracted. At least, he guessed she was. They hadn’t spoken for five months, but she didn’t normally make calls with her face unwashed and hair unkempt.

“Hi, Angus,” Catriona said. She frowned. “I know this is… maybe a bit paranoid… but is this call secure?”

“Totally,” said Angus.

Unlike Catriona, he had a firm technical grasp on the mechanism of cortical calls: the uniqueness of each brain’s encoding of sensory impulses adding a further layer of impenetrable encryption to the cryptographic algorithms routinely applied… A uniquely encoded thought struck him.

“Apart from someone lip-reading me, I guess.” He cupped his hand around his mouth. “OK?”

Catriona looked more irritated than reassured by this demonstrative caution.

“OK,” she said. She took a deep breath. “I’m very dubious about the next release of the upgrade, Angus. It has at least one mitochondrial module that’s not documented at all.”

“That’s impossible!” cried Angus, shocked. “It’d never get through.”

“It’s got this far,” said Catriona. “No record of testing, either. I keep objecting, and I keep getting told it’s being dealt with or it’s not important or otherwise fobbed off. The release goes live in a month, Angus. There’s no way that module can be documented in that time, let alone tested.”

“I don’t get it,” said Angus. “I don’t get it at all. If this were to get out it would sink Syn Bio’s stock, for a start. Then there’s audits and prosecutions… the Authority would break them up and stamp on the bits. Forget whistle-blowing, Catriona, you should take this to the Authority in the company’s own interests.”

“I have,” said Catriona. “And I just get the same runaround.”

“What?”

If he’d heard this from anyone else, Angus wouldn’t have believed it. The Human Enhancement Authority’s reputation was beyond reproach. Impartial, impersonal, incorruptible, it was seen as the very image of an institution entrusted with humanity’s (at least, European humanity’s) evolutionary future.

Angus was old enough to remember when software didn’t just seamlessly improve, day by day or hour by hour, but came out in discrete tranches called releases, several times a year. Genetic tech was still at that stage. Catriona’s employer Syn Bio (mostly) supplied it, the HEA checked and (usually) approved it, and everyone in the EU who didn’t have some religious objection found the latest fix in their physical mail and swallowed it.

“They’re stonewalling,” Catriona said.

“Don’t worry,” said Angus. “There must be some mistake. A bureaucratic foul-up. I’ll look into it.”

“Well, keep my name out of—”

The lights came on for Earth Hour.

“That won’t be easy,” Angus said, flinching and shielding his eyes as the balcony, the room, the building and the whole sweep of cityscape below him lit up. “They’ll know our connection, they’ll know you’ve been asking—”

“I asked you to keep my name out of it,” said Catriona. “I didn’t say it would be easy.”

“Look into it without bringing my own name into it?”

“Yes, exactly!” Catriona ignored his sarcasm—deliberately, from her tone. She looked around. “I can’t concentrate with all this going on. Catch you later.”

Angus waved a hand at the image of his sister, now ghostly under the blaze of the balcony’s overhead lighting. “I’ll keep in touch,” he said drily.

“Bye, bro.”

Catriona faded. Angus lit his small cigar at last, and sipped the whisky. Ah. That was good, as was the view. The Sydney Harbour was hazy in the distance, and even the gleaming shells of the Opera House, just visible over the rooftops, were fuzzy at the edges, the smart dust in the air scattering the extravagant outpouring of light. Angus savoured the whisky and cigar to their respective ends, and then went out.

* * *

On the street the light was even brighter, to the extent that Angus missed his footing occasionally as he made his way up Macleay Street towards Kings Cross. He felt dazzled and disoriented, and considered lowering the gain on his eyes—but that, he felt in some obscure way, would have been not only cheating, it would have been missing the point. The whole thing about Earth Hour was to squander electricity, and if that spree had people reeling in the streets as if drunk, that was entirely in the spirit of the celebration.

It was all symbolic anyway, he thought. The event’s promoters knew as well as he did that the amount of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere by Earth Hour was insignificant—only a trivial fraction of the electricity wasted was carbon-negative rather than neutral—but it was the principle of the thing, dammit!

He found a table outside a bar close to Fitzroy Gardens, a tree-shaded plaza on the edge of which a transparent globe fountained water and light. He tapped an order on the table, and after a minute a barman arrived with a tall lager on a tray. Angus tapped again to tip, and settled back to drink and think. The air was hot as well as bright, the chilled beer refreshing. Around the fountain a dozen teenagers cooled themselves more directly, jumping in and out of the arcs of spray and splashing in the circular pool around the illuminated globe. Yells and squeals; few articulate words. Probably cortexting each other. It was the thing. The youth of today. Talking silently and behind your back. Angus smiled reminiscently and indulgently. He muted the enzymes that degraded the alcohol, letting himself get drunk. He could reverse it on an instant later, he thought, then thought that the trouble with that was that you seldom knew when to do it. Except in a real life-threatening emergency, being drunk meant you didn’t know when it was time to sober up. You just noticed that things kept crashing.

He gave the table menu a minute of baffled inspection, then swayed inside to order his second pint. The place was almost empty. Angus heaved himself on to a bar stool beside a tall, thin woman about his own age who sat alone and to all appearances collected crushed cigarette butts. She was just now adding to the collection, stabbing a good inch into the ashtray. A thick tall glass of pink stuff with a straw anchored her other hand to the bar counter. She wore a singlet over a thin bra, and skinny jeans above gold slingbacks. Ratty blond hair. It was a look.

“I’ve had two,” she was explaining to the barman, who wasn’t listening. She swung her badly aimed gaze on Angus. “And I’m squiffy already. God, I’m a cheap date.”

“I’m cheaper,” said Angus. “Squiffier, too. Drunk as a lord. Ha-ha. I used to be a lord, you know.”

The woman’s eyes got glassier. “So you did,” she said. “So you did. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cameron.”

“Just call me Angus.”

She extended a limp hand. “Glenda Glendale.”

Angus gave her fingers a token squeeze, thinking that with a name like that she’d never stood a chance.

“Now ain’t that the truth,” Glenda said, with unexpected bitterness, and dipped her head to the straw.

“Did I say that out loud?” Angus said. “Jeez. Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Glenda said.

She opened a fresh pack of cigarettes, and tapped one out.

* * *

The assassin crouched behind a recycling bin in the alleyway beside the Thai restaurant opposite the bar, his bicycle propped against the wall. He zoomed his gaze to watch the target settle his arse on the stool, his elbow on the counter, and his attention on the floozy. Perfect. The assassin decided this was the moment to seize. He reached for the bike and with a few practiced twisting motions had it dismantled. The wheels he laid aside. The frame’s reassembly, to a new form and function, was likewise deft.

* * *

Glenda fumbled the next lighting-up, and dropped her lighter. Angus stooped from the stool, more or less by reflex, to pick it up. As he did so there was a soft thud, and a moment later the loudest scream he’d ever heard. Glenda’s legs lashed straight out. Her shin swiped his ear and struck his shoulder, tipping him to the floor. He crashed with the relaxation and anaesthesia of the drunk. Glenda fell almost on top of him, all her limbs thrashing, her scream still splitting his ears. Angus raised his head and saw a feathered shaft sticking about six inches out of her shoulder.

The wound was nothing like severe enough to merit the screams or the spasms. Toxin, then. Modified stonefish, at a guess. The idea wasn’t just that you died (though you did, in about a minute). You died in the worst pain it was possible to experience.

The barman vaulted the counter, feet hitting the floor just clear of Glenda’s head. In his right hand he clutched a short-bladed sharp knife, one he might have used to slice limes. Angus knew exactly what he intended to do with it, and was appalled at the man’s reckless courage.

“No!” Angus yelled.

Too late. A second dart struck the barman straight in the chest. He clutched at it for a moment, then his arms and legs flailed out and he keeled over, screaming even louder than Glenda. Now there two spasming bodies on the floor. The knife skittered under a table.

Everything went dark, but it was just the end of Earth Hour. A good moment for the shooter to make their escape—or to finish the job.

Angus rolled on his back to keep an eye on the window and the doorway, and propelled himself with his feet along the floor, groping for the knife. His hand closed around the black handle. On his belly again, he elbowed his way to Glenda, grabbed her hair, slit her throat, and then slid the blade between cervical vertebrae and kept on cutting. He carried out the decapitation with skills he’d long ago used on deer. She didn’t struggle—her nerves were already at saturation. It wasn’t possible to add to this level of pain. Through a gusher of blood Angus crawled past the barman, and did the same for him.

He hoped someone had called the police. He hoped that whoever had shot the darts had fled. Keeping low, stooping, he scurried around the back of the counter and reached up cautiously for the ice bucket. He got one on the ground and saw to his relief that there was another. He retrieved that too. Holding them in his arms, he slithered on his knees across the bloody floor back to the front of the bar, and stuffed the severed heads in one by one, jamming them in the ice.

Above the screaming from outside and the peal of alarms came the sound of jets. A police VTOL descended on the plaza, downdraft blowing tables away like litter in a breeze. The side opened and a cop, visored and armoured, leapt out and sprinted across.

Angus stood up, blood-drenched from head to foot, knife in hand, arms wrapped awkwardly around the two ice-buckets, from which the victims’ hair and foreheads grotesquely protruded.

The copper halted in the doorway, taking in the scene in about a second.

“Well done, mate,” he said. He reached out for the buckets. “Quick thinking. Now let’s get these people to hospital.”

* * *

Monstrous, sticky with blood, Angus crossed the street and stood in the alleyway at a barrier of black-and-yellow crime-scene tape. Backtracking the darts’ trajectory had been the work of moments for the second cop out of the VTOL: even minutes after the attack, the lines in the smart soot had glowed like vapour trails in any enhanced gaze. An investigator in an isolation suit lifted the crossbow with gloved reverent hands. Cat-sized sniffing devices stalked about, extending sensors and sampling-pads.

“What’s with the bicycle wheels?” Angus asked, pointing.

“Surplus to requirements,” the investigator said, standing up, holding the crossbow. She turned it over and around. “Collapsible bike, pre-grown tubular wood, synthetic. See, the handlebars form the bow, the crossbar the stock, the saddle the shoulder piece, the chain and pedal the winding mechanism, and the brake cable is the string. The darts were stashed inside one of the pieces.”

“Seen that trick before?”

“Yeah, it’s a hunting model.”

“People go hunting on bicycles?”

“It’s a sport.” She laughed. “Offended any hunters lately?”

Angus wished he could see her face. He liked her voice.

“I offend a lot of people.”

The investigator’s head tilted. “Oh. So you do. Lord Valtos, huh?”

“Just call me—” He remembered what had happened to the last person he’d said that to, then decided not to be superstitious. “Just call me Angus. Angus Cameron.”

“Whatever.” She pulled off her hood and shook out her hair. “Fuck.” She looked disgustedly at the cat things. “No traces. No surprise. Probably a spray job. You know, plastic skin? Even distorts the smart dust readings and street cam footage.”

“You can do that?”

“Sure. It’s expensive.” She gave him a look. “I guess you’re worth it.”

Angus shrugged. “I’m rich, but my enemies are richer.”

“So you’re in deep shit.”

“Only if they’re smarter as well as richer, which I doubt.”

“If you’re smart, you’ll not walk back to the hotel.”

He took the hint, and the lift. They shrouded him in plastic for it, so the blood wouldn’t get on the seats.

* * *

The reaction caught up with Angus as soon as the hotel room door closed behind him. He rushed to the bathroom and vomited. Shaking, he stripped off. As he emptied his pockets before throwing the clothes in the basket he found he’d picked up Glenda’s lighter and cigarette pack. He put them to one side and showered. Afterwards he sat in a bathrobe on the balcony, sipping malt on an empty stomach and chain-smoking Glenda’s remaining cigarettes. She wouldn’t be needing these for a few months. By then she might not even want them—the hospital would no doubt throw in a fix for her addiction, at least on the physical level, as it regrew her body and repaired her brain. Angus’s earlier celebratory cigarillo had left him with a craving, and for the moment he indulged it. He’d take something to cure it in the morning.

When he felt steady enough, he closed his eyes and looked at the news. He found himself a prominent item on it. Spokespersons for various Green and Aboriginal coalitions had already disclaimed responsibility and deplored the attempt on his life. At this moment a sheepish representative of a nuclear waste handling company was in the studio, making a like disavowal. Angus smiled. He didn’t think any of these were responsible—they’d have done a better job—but it pleased him to have his major opponents on the back foot. The potential benefit from that almost outweighed the annoyance of finding himself on the news at all.

The assassination attempt puzzled him. All the enemies he could think of—the list was long—would have sent a team to kill him, if they’d wanted to do something so drastic and potentially counterproductive. It seemed to him possible that the assassin had acted alone. That troubled him. Angus had always held that lone assassins were far more dangerous and prevalent than conspiracies.

He reviewed the bios linked to as shallow background for the news items about him. Most of them got the basic facts of his life right: from his childhood early in the century on a wind farm and experimental Green community in the Western Isles, through his academically mediocre but socially brilliant student years, when the networks and connections he’d established soon enabled his deals and ventures in the succession of technological booms that had kept the bubble economy expanding by fits and starts through seven decades: carbon capture, synthetic biology, microsatellites, fusion, smart dust, anti-ageing, rejuve, augments… and so on, up to his current interest in geo-engineering. Always in before the boom, out before the bust, he’d even ventured into politics via a questionably bestowed peerage just in time for the packed self-abolition of the Lords and to emerge with some quite unearned credit for the Reform. The descriptions ranged from “visionary social entrepreneur” and “daring venture capitalist” to “serial confidence trickster” and “brazen charlatan.” There was truth in all of them. He’d burned a lot of fortunes in his time, while adding to his own. The list of people who might hold a private grudge against him was longer than the list of his public enemies.

Speaking of which, he had a conference to go to in the morning. He stubbed out the last of Glenda’s cigarettes and went to bed.

* * *

The assassin woke at dawn on Manly Beach. He’d slept under a monofilament weave blanket, in a hollow where the sand met the scrub. He wore nothing but a watch and swimming trunks. He stood up, stretched, scrunched the blanket into the trunks’ pocket, and went for a swim. No one was about.

Shoulder-deep in the sea, the assassin removed his trunks and watch, clutching them in one hand while rubbing his skin and hair all over with the other. He put them back on when he was sure that every remaining trace of the synthetic skin would be gone. Most of it, almost every scrap, had been dissolved as soon as he’d keyed a sequence on his palm after his failed attempt, just before he’d made his way, with a new appearance (his own) and chemical spoor, through various pre-chosen alleys and doorways and then sharp left on the next street, up to Kings Cross, and on to the train to Manly. But you couldn’t make too certain.

Satisfied at last, he swam back to the still deserted beach and began pacing along it, following a GPS reading that had sometime during the night been relayed to his watch. The square metre of sand it led him to showed no trace that anything might be buried there. Which was as it should be—the arrangement for payment had been made well in advance. He’d been assured that he’d be paid whether or not he succeeded in killing the target. A kill would be a bonus, but—medical technology being what it was—he could hardly be expected to guarantee it. A credible near-miss was almost as acceptable.

He began to dig with his hands. About forty centimetres down his fingertips brushed something hard and metallic.

He wasn’t to know it was a landmine, and he didn’t.

* * *

One of the nuclear power companies sent an armoured limo to pick Angus up after breakfast—a courtesy, the accompanying ping claimed. He sneered at the transparency of the gesture, and accepted the ride. At least it shielded him from the barracking of the sizeable crowd (with a far larger virtual flash-mob in spectral support) in front of the Hilton Conference Centre. He was pleased to note, just before the limo whirred down the ramp to the underground car park (which gave him a moment of dread, not entirely irrational) that the greatest outrage seemed to have been aroused by the title of the conference, his own suggestion at that: “Greening Australia.”

Angus stepped out of the lift and into the main hall. A chandelier the size of a small spacecraft. Acres of carpet, on which armies of seats besieged a stage. Tables of drinks and nibbles along the sides. The smell of coffee and fruit juice. Hundreds of delegates milling around. To his embarrassment, his arrival was greeted with a ripple of applause. He waved both arms in front of his face, smiled self-deprecatingly, and turned to the paper plates and the fruit on sticks.

Someone made a beeline for him.

“Morning, Valtos.”

Angus turned, switching his paper coffee cup to the paper plate and sticking out his right hand. Jan Maartens, tall and blond. The EU’s man on the scene. Biotech and enviro portfolio. The European Commission and Parliament had publicly deplored Greening Australia, though they couldn’t do much to stop it.

“Hello, Commissioner.” They shook.

Formalities over, Maartens cracked open a grin. “So how are you, you old villain?”

“The hero of the hour, I gather.”

“Modest as always, Angus. There’s already a rumour the attentat was a setup for the sympathy vote.”

“Is there indeed?” Angus chuckled. “I wish I’d thought of that. Regretfully, no.”

Maartens’ lips compressed. “I know, I know. In all seriousness… my sympathy, of course. It must have been a most traumatic experience.”

“It was,” Angus said. “A great deal worse for the victims, mind you.”

“Indeed.” Maartens looked grave. “Anything we can do…”

“Thanks.”

A bell chimed for the opening session.

“Well…” Maartens glanced down at his delegate pack.

“Yes… catch you later, Jan.”

Angus watched the Belgian out of sight, frowning, then took a seat near the back and close to the aisle. The conference chair, Professor Chang, strolled onstage and waved her hand. To a roar of applause and some boos the screen behind her flared into a display of the Greening Australia logo, then morphed to a sequence of pixel-perfect views of the scheme: a translucent carbon-fibre barrier, tens of kilometres high, hundreds of kilometres long, that would provide Australia with a substitute for its missing mountain-range and bring rainfall to the interior. On the one hand, it was modest: it would use no materials not already successfully deployed in the space elevators, and would cost far less. Birds would fly through it almost as easily as butting through a cobweb. On the other hand, it was the most insanely ambitious scheme of geo-engineering yet tried: changing the face of an entire continent.

Decades ago, Angus had got in early in a project to exploit the stability and aridity of Australia’s heart by making it the nuclear-waste-storage centre of the world. The flak from that had been nothing to the outcry over this. As the morning went on, Angus paid little attention to the presentations and debates. He’d heard and seen them all before. His very presence here was enough to influence the discussion, to get smart money sniffing around, bright young minds wondering. Instead, he sat back, closed his eyes, watched market reactions, and worried about a few things.

The first was Maartens’ solicitude. Something in the Commissioner’s manner hadn’t been quite right—a little too close in some ways, a little too distant and impersonal in others. Angus ran analyses in his head of the sweat-slick in the handshake, the modulations of the voice, the saccades of his gaze. Here, augmentation confirmed intuition: the man was very uneasy about something, perhaps guilty.

Hah!

The next worries were the unsubstantiated unease he’d felt just before his sister’s call, and the content of that call. It would have been nice, in a way, to attribute the anxiety to some premonition: of the unusual and worrying call, or of the assassination attempt. But Angus was firm in his conviction of one-way causality. Nor could he blame it on some free-floating anxiety: his psychiatric ware was up to date, and its scans mirrored, second by second, an untroubled soul.

Had it been something he’d seen in the market, but had grasped the significance of only subconsciously? Had he made the mistake that could be fatal to a trader: suppressed a niggle?

He rolled back the displays to the previous afternoon, and re-examined them. There it was. Hard to spot, but there in the figures. Someone big was going long on wheat. A dozen hedge funds had placed multiple two-year trades on oil, uranium, and military equipment. Biotech was up. A tiny minority of well-placed ears had listened to voices prophesying war. The Warm War, turning hot at last.

Angus thought about what Catriona had told him, about the undocumented, unannounced mitochondrial module in the EU’s next genetic upgrade. An immunity to some biological weapon? But if the EU was planning a first strike—on Japan, the Domain, some other part of the Former United States, Brazil, it didn’t matter at this point—they would need food security. And food security, surely, would be enhanced if Greening Australia went ahead.

So why was Commissioner Maartens now on stage, repeating the EU’s standard line against the scheme? Unless… unless that was merely the line they had to take in public, and they really wanted the conference to endorse the scheme. And what better way to secretly support that than to manoeuvre its most implacable opponents into the awkward position of having to disown an assassination attempt on its most vociferous proponent? An attempt that, whether it succeeded or failed, would win Angus what Maartens had—in a double or triple bluff—called the sympathy vote.

Angus’s racing suspicions were interrupted by a ringing in his ear. He flicked his earlobe. “A moment, please,” he said. He stood up, stepped apologetically past the delegate between him and the aisle, and turned away to face the wall.

“Yes?”

It was the investigator who’d spoken to him last night. She was standing on a beach, near the edge of a crater in the sand with a bloody mess around it.

“We think we may have found your man,” she said.

“I believe I can say the same,” said Angus.

“What?”

“You’ll see. Send a couple of plainclothes in to the Hilton Centre, discreetly. Ask them to ping me when they’re in place. I’ll take it from there.”

As he turned back to face across the crowd to the stage he saw that Maartens had sat down, and that Professor Chang was looking along the rows of seats as if searching for someone. Her gaze alighted on him, and she smiled.

“Lord Valtos?” she said. “I know you’re not on the speakers’ list, but I see you’re on your feet, and I’m sure we’d all be interested to hear what you have to say in response to the Commissioner’s so strongly stated points.”

Angus bowed from the waist. “Thank you, Madame Chair,” he said. He cleared his throat, waiting to make sure that his voice was synched to the amps. He zoomed his eyes, fixing on Maartens, swept the crowd of turned heads with an out-of-focus gaze and his best smile, then faced the stage.

“Thank you,” he said again. “Well, my response will be brief. I fully agree with every word the esteemed Commissioner has said.”

A jolt went through Maartens like an electric shock. It lasted only a moment, and he’d covered his surprise even before the crowd had registered its own reaction with a hiss of indrawn breath. If Angus hadn’t been looking at Maartens in close-up he’d have missed it himself. He returned to his seat and waited for the police to make contact. It didn’t take them more than about five minutes.

Just time enough for him to go short on shares in Syn Bio.

LAIKA’S GHOST

by Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder was born into a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada, in 1962. He started writing at age fourteen, following in the footsteps of A. E. van Vogt, who came from the same Mennonite community. He moved to Toronto in 1986 and became a founding member of SF Canada (he was president from 1996–97). He sold early stories to Canadian magazines, and his first novel, The Claus Effect (with David Nickle) appeared in 1997. His first solo novel, Ventus, was published in 2000, and was followed by Permanence and Lady of Mazes, and then by his acclaimed Virga series of science fiction novels (Sun of Suns, Queen of Candesce, Pirate Sun, and The Sunless Countries). His short fiction has been collected in The Engine of Recall. He also collaborated with Cory Doctorow on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Science Fiction. His most recent book is Ashes of Candesce, a new Virga novel. Schroeder lives in East Toronto with his wife and daughter.

Here, in a sequel to his earlier “The Dragon of Pripyat,” he takes us to a desolate future Russia haunted by ghosts of the Soviet past, where a game is being played for the highest stakes of all.

The flight had been bumpy; the landing was equally so, to the point where Gennady was sure the old Tupolev would blow a tire. Yet his seatmate hadn’t even shifted position in two hours. That was fine with Gennady, who had spent the whole trip trying to pretend he wasn’t there at all.

The young American had been a bit more active during the flight across the Atlantic: at least, his eyes had been open and Gennady could see colored lights flickering across them from his augmented reality glasses. But he had exchanged less than twenty words with Gennady since they’d left Washington.

In short, he’d been the ideal traveling companion.

The other four passengers were stretching and groaning. Gennady poked Ambrose in the side and said, “Wake up. Welcome to the ninth biggest country in the world.”

Ambrose snorted and sat up. “Brazil?” he said hopefully. Then he looked out his window. “What the hell?”

The little municipal airport had a single gate, which as the only plane on the field, they were taxiing up to uncontested. Over the entrance to the single-story building was the word “Степногорск.” “Welcome to Stepnogorsk,” said Gennady as he stood to retrieve his luggage from the overhead rack. He traveled light by habit. Ambrose, he gathered, had done so from necessity.

“Stepnogorsk…?” Ambrose shambled after him, a mass of wrinkled clothing leavened with old sweat.

“Secret Soviet town,” Ambrose mumbled as they reached the plane’s hatch and a burst of hot dry air lifted his hair. “Population sixty thousand,” he added as he put his left foot on the metal steps. Halfway down he said, “Manufactured anthrax bombs in the cold war!” And as he set foot on the tarmac he finished with, “Where the hell is Kazakhstan?… Oh.”

“Bigger than Western Europe,” said Gennady. “Ever heard of it?”

“Of course I’ve heard of it,” said the youth testily—but Gennady could see from how he kept his eyes fixed in front of him that he was still frantically reading about the town from some Web site or other. The wan August sunlight revealed him to be taller than Gennady, pale, with stringy hair, and everything about him soft—a sculpture done in rounded corners. He had a wide face, though; he might pass for Russian. Gennady clapped him on the shoulder. “Let me do the talking,” he said as they dragged themselves across the blistering tarmac to the terminal building.

“So,” said Ambrose, scratching his neck. “Why are we here?”

“You’re here because you’re with me. And you needed to disappear, but that doesn’t mean I stop working.”

Gennady glanced around. The landscape here should look a lot like home, which was only a day’s drive to the west—and here indeed was that vast sky he remembered from Ukraine. After that first glance, though, he did a double-take. The dry prairie air normally smelled of dust and grass at this time of year, and there should have been yellow grass from here to the flat horizon—but instead the land seemed blasted, with large patches of bare soil showing. There was only stubble where there should have been grass. It looked more like Australia than Asia. Even the trees ringing the airport were dead, just gray skeletons clutching the air.

He thought about climate change as they walked through the concrete-floored terminal; since they’d cleared customs in Amsterdam, the bored-looking clerks here just waved them through. “Hang on,” said Ambrose as he tried to keep up with Gennady’s impatient stride. “I came to you guys for asylum. Doesn’t that mean you put me up somewhere, some hotel, you know, away from the action?”

“You can’t get any farther from the action than this.” They emerged onto a boulevard that had grass, though it hadn’t been watered or cut in a long while; the civilized lawn merged imperceptibly with the wild prairie. There was nothing visible from here to the horizon, except in one direction where a cluster of listless windmills jutted above some low trees.

A single taxicab was sitting at the crumbled curb.

“Oh, man,” said Ambrose.

Gennady had to smile. “You were expecting some Black Sea resort, weren’t you?” He slipped into the taxi, which stank of hot vinyl and motor oil. “Any car rental agency,” he said to the driver in Russian. “It’s not like you’re some cold war defector,” he continued to Ambrose in English. “Your benefactor is the U.N. And they don’t have much money.”

“So you’re what—putting me up in a motel in Kazakhstan?” Ambrose struggled to put his outrage into words. “What I saw could—”

“What?” They pulled away from the curb and became the only car on a cracked blacktop road leading into town.

“Can’t tell you,” mumbled Ambrose, suddenly looking shifty. “I was told not to tell you anything.”

Gennady swore in Ukrainian and looked away. They drove in silence for a while, until Ambrose said, “So why are you here, then? Did you piss somebody off?”

Gennady smothered the urge to push Ambrose out of the cab. “Can’t tell you,” he said curtly.

“Does it involve SNOPB?” Ambrose pronounced it “snop-bee.”

Gennady would have been startled had he not known Ambrose was connected to the net via his glasses. “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine,” he said. Ambrose snorted in contempt.

They didn’t speak for the rest of the drive.

* * *

“Let me get this straight,” said Gennady later that evening. “He says he’s being chased by Russian agents, NASA—and Google?”

On the other end of the line, Eleanor Frankl sighed. “I’m sorry we dumped him on you at the airport,” said the New York director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. She was Gennady’s boss for this new and—so far—annoyingly vague contract. “There just wasn’t time to explain why we were sending him with you to Kazakhstan,” she added.

“So explain now.” He was pacing in the grass in front of the best hotel his IAEA stipend could afford. It was evening and the crickets were waking up; to the west, fantastically huge clouds had piled up, their tops still lit golden as the rest of the sky faded into mauve. It was cooling off already.

“Right… Well, first of all, it seems he really is being chased by the Russians, but not by the country. It’s the Soviet Union Online that’s after him. And the only place their IP addresses are blocked is inside the geographical territories of the Russian and Kazakhstani Republics.”

“So, let me get this straight,” said Gennady heavily. “Poor Ambrose is being chased by Soviet agents. He ran to the U.N. rather than the FBI, and to keep him safe you decided to transport him to the one place in the world that is free of Soviet influence. Which is Russia.”

“Exactly,” said Frankl brightly. “And you’re escorting him because your contract is taking you there anyway. No other reason.”

“No, no, it’s fine. Just tell me what the hell I’m supposed to be looking for at SNOPB. The place was a God-damned anthrax factory. I’m a radiation specialist.”

He heard Frankl take a deep breath, and then she said, “Two years ago, an unknown person or persons hacked into a Los Alamos server and stole the formula for an experimental metastable explosive. Now we have a paper trail and e-mails that have convinced us that a metastable bomb is being built. You know what this means?”

Gennady leaned against the wall of the hotel, suddenly feeling sick. “The genie is finally out of the bottle.”

“If it’s true, Gennady, then everything we’ve worked for has come to naught. Because as of now, anybody in the world who wants a nuclear bomb can make one.”

He didn’t know what to say, so he just stared out at the steppe, thinking about a world where hydrogen bombs were as easy to get as TNT. His whole life’s work would be rendered pointless—and all arms treaties, the painstaking work of generations to put the nuclear nightmare back in its bottle. The nuclear threat had been containable when it was limited to governments and terrorists—but now, the threat was from everybody…

Eleanor’s distant voice snapped him back to attention. “Here’s the thing, Gennady: we don’t know very much about this group that’s building the metastable weapon. By luck we’ve managed to decrypt a few e-mails from one party, so we know a tiny bit—a minimal bit—about the design of the bomb. It seems to be based on one of the biggest of the weapons ever tested at Semipalatinsk—its code name was the Tsarina.”

“The Tsarina?” Gennady whistled softly. “That was a major, major test. Underground, done in 1968. Ten megatonnes—lifted the whole prairie two meters and dropped it. Killed about a thousand cattle from the ground shock. Scared the hell out of the Americans, too.”

“Yes, and we’ve discovered that some of the Tsarina’s components were made at the Stepnogorsk Scientific Experimental and Production Base. In Building 242.”

“But SNOPB was a biological facility, not nuclear. How can this possibly be connected?”

“We don’t know how, yet. Listen, Gennady, I know it’s a thin lead. After you’re done at the SNOPB, I want you to drive out to Semipalatinsk and investigate the Tsarina site.”

“Hmmph.” Part of Gennady was deeply annoyed. Part was relieved that he wouldn’t be dealing with any IAEA or Russian nuclear staff in the near future. Truth to tell, stalking around the Kazaki grasslands was a lot more appealing than dealing with the political shit-storm that would hit when this all went public.

But speaking of people… He glanced up at the hotel’s one lighted window. With a grimace he pocketed his augmented reality glasses and went up to the room.

Ambrose was sprawled on one of the narrow beds. He had the TV on and was watching a Siberian ski-adventure infomercial. “Well?” he said as Gennady sat on the other bed and dragged his shoes off.

“Tour of secret Soviet anthrax factory. Tomorrow, after Egg McMuffins.”

“Yay,” said Ambrose with apparent feeling. “Do I get to wear a hazmat suit?”

“Not this time.” Gennady lay back, then saw that Ambrose was staring at him with an alarmed look on his face. “Is fine,” he said, waggling one hand at the boy. “Only one underground bunker we’re interested in, and they probably never used it. The place never went into full production, you know.”

“Meaning it only made a few hundred pounds of anthrax per day instead of the full ton it was designed for! I should feel reassured?”

Gennady stared at the uneven ceiling. “Is an adventure.” He must be tired, his English was slipping.

“This sucks.” Ambrose crossed his arms and glowered at the TV.

Gennady thought for a while. “So what did you do to piss off Google so much? Drive the rover off a cliff?” Ambrose didn’t answer, and Gennady sat up. “You found something. On Mars.”

“No, that’s ridiculous,” said Ambrose. “That’s not it at all.”

“Huh.” Gennady lay down again. “Still, I think I’d enjoy it. Even if it wasn’t in real time… driving on Mars. That would be cool.”

“That sucked too.”

“Really? I would have thought it would be fun, seeing all those places emerge from low-res satellite into full hi-res three-d.”

But Ambrose shook his head. “That’s not how it worked. That’s the point. I couldn’t believe my luck when I won the contest, you know? I thought it’d be like being the first man on Mars, only I wouldn’t have to leave my living room. But the whole point of the rover was to go into terrain that hadn’t been photographed from the ground before. And with the time-delay on signals to Mars, I wasn’t steering it in real time. I’d drive in fast-forward mode over low-res pink hills that looked worse than a forty-year-old video game, then upload the drive sequence and log off. The rover’d get the commands twenty minutes later and drive overnight, then download the results. By that time it was the next day and I had to enter the next path. Rarely had time to even look at where we’d actually gone the day before.”

Gennady considered. “A bit disappointing. But still—more than most people ever get.”

“More than anyone else will ever get.” Ambrose scowled. “That’s what was so awful about it. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh?” Gennady arched an eyebrow. “We who grew up in the old Soviet Union know a little about disappointment.”

Ambrose looked mightily uncomfortable. “I grew up in Washington. Capital of the world! But my dad went from job to job, we were pretty poor. So every day I could see what you could have, you know, the Capital dome, the Mall, all that power and glory… what they could have—but not me. Never me. So I used to imagine a future where there was a whole new world where I could be…”

“Important?”

He shrugged. “Something like that. NASA used to tell us they were just about to go to Mars, any day now, and I wanted that. I dreamed about homesteading on Mars.” He looked defensive; but Gennady understood the romance of it. He just nodded.

“Then when I was twelve the Pakistani-Indian war happened and they blew up each other’s satellites. All that debris from the explosions is going to be up there for centuries! You can’t get a manned spacecraft through that cloud, it’s like shrapnel. Hell, they haven’t even cleared low Earth orbit to restart the orbital tourist industry. I’ll never get to really go there! None of us will. We’re never gettin’ off this sinkhole.”

Gennady scowled at the ceiling. “I hope you’re wrong.”

“Welcome to the life of the last man to drive on Mars.” Ambrose dragged the tufted covers back from the bed. “Instead of space, I get a hotel in Kazakhstan. Now let me sleep. It’s about a billion o’clock in the morning, my time.”

He was soon snoring, but Gennady’s alarm over the prospect of a metastable bomb had him fully awake. He put on his AR glasses and reviewed the terrain around SNOPB, but much of the satellite footage was old and probably out of date. Ambrose was right: nobody was putting up satellites these days if they could help it.

Little had probably changed at the old factory, though, and it was a simple enough place. Planning where to park and learning where Building 242 was hadn’t reduced his anxiety at all, so on impulse he switched his view to Mars. The sky changed color—from pure blue to butterscotch—but otherwise, the landscape looked disturbingly similar. There were a lot more rocks on Mars, and the dirt was red, but the emptiness, the slow rolling monotony of the plain and stillness were the same, as if he’d stepped into a photograph. (Well, he actually had, but he knew there would be no more motion in this scene were he there.) He commanded the viewpoint to move, and for a time strolled, alone, in Ambrose’s footsteps—or rather, the ruts of Google’s rover. Humans had done this in their dreams for thousands of years, yet Ambrose was right—this place was, in the end, no more real than those dreams.

Russia’s cosmonauts had still been romantic idols when he was growing up. In photos they had stood with their heads high, minds afire with plans to stride over the hills of the moon and Mars. Gennady pictured them in the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, when they still had jobs, but no budget or destination anymore. Where had their dreams taken them?

The Baikonur spaceport was south of here. Instead of space, in the end they’d also had to settle for a hard bed in Kazakhstan.

* * *

In the morning they drove out to the old anthrax site in a rented Tata sedan. The fields around Stepnogorsk looked like they’d been glared at by God, except where bright blue dew-catcher fencing ran in rank after rank across the stubble. “What’re those?” asked Ambrose, pointing; this was practically the first thing he’d said since breakfast.

In the rubble-strewn field that had once been SNOPB, several small windmills were twirling atop temporary masts. Below them were some shipping-container sized boxes with big grills in their sides. The site looked healthier than the surrounding prairie; there were actual green trees in the distance. Of course, this area had been wetlands and there’d been a creek running behind SNOPB; maybe it was still here, which was a hopeful sign.

“Headquarters told me that some kind of climate research group is using the site,” he told Ambrose as he pulled up and stopped the car. “But it’s still public land.”

“They built an anthrax factory less than five minutes outside of town?” Ambrose shook his head, whether in wonder or disgust, Gennady couldn’t tell. They got out of the car, and Ambrose looked around in obvious disappointment. “Wow, it’s gone gone.” He seemed stunned by the vastness of the landscape. Only a few foundation walls now stuck up out of the cracked lots where the anthrax factory had once stood, except for where the big box machines sat whirring and humming. They were near where the bunkers had been; so, with a frown of curiosity, Gennady strolled in that direction. Ambrose followed, muttering to himself. “… Last update must have been ten years ago.” He had his glasses on, so he was probably comparing the current view to what he could see online.

According to Gennady’s notes, the bunkers had been grass-covered buildings with two-meter thick walls, designed to withstand a nuclear blast. In the 1960s and 70s they’d contained ranks of cement vats where the anthrax was grown. Those had been cracked and filled in, and the heavy doors removed, but it would have been too much work to fill the bunkers in entirely. He poked his nose into the first in line—Building 241—and saw a flat stretch of water leading into darkness. “Excellent. This job just gets worse. We may be wading.”

“But what are you looking for?”

“I—oh.” As he rounded the mound of Building 242, a small clutch of hummers and trucks came into view. They’d been invisible from the road. There was still no sign of anybody, so he headed for Bunker 242. As he was walking down the crumbled ramp to the massive doors, he heard the unmistakable sound of a rifle-bolt being slipped. “Better not go in there,” somebody said in Russian.

He looked carefully up and to his left. A young woman had come over the top of the mound. She was holding the rifle, and she had it aimed directly at Gennady.

“What are you doing here?” she said. She had a local accent.

“Exploring, is all,” said Gennady. “We’d heard of the old anthrax factory, and thought we’d take a look at it. This is public land.”

She swore, and Gennady heard footsteps behind him. Ambrose looked deeply frightened as two large men—also carrying rifles—emerged from behind a plastic membrane that had been stretched across the bunker’s doorway. Both men wore bright yellow fireman’s masks, and had air tanks on their backs.

“When are your masters going to believe that we’re doing what we say?” said the woman. “Come on.” She gestured with her rifle for Gennady and Ambrose to walk down the ramp.

“We’re dead, we’re dead,” whimpered Ambrose. He was shivering.

“If you really must have your proof, then put these on.” She nodded to the two men, who stripped off their masks and tanks and handed them to Gennady and Ambrose. They pushed past the plastic membrane and into the bunker.

The place was full of light: a crimson, blood-red radiance that made the sight of what was inside all the more bizarre.

“Oh shit,” muttered Ambrose. “It’s a grow-op.”

The long, low space was filled from floor to ceiling with plants. Surrounded them on tall stands were hundreds of red LED lamp banks. In the lurid light, the plants appeared black. He squinted at the nearest, fully expecting to see a familiar, jagged-leaf profile. Instead—

“Tomatoes?”

“Two facts for you,” said the woman, her voice muffled. She’d set down her rifle, and now held up two fingers. “One: we’re not stepping on anybody else’s toes here. We are not competing with you. And two: this bunker is designed to withstand a twenty kilotonne blast. If you think you can muscle your way in here and take it over, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Gennady finally realized what they’d assumed. “We’re not the mafia,” he said. “We’re just here to inspect the utilities.”

She blinked at him, her features owlish behind the yellow frame of the mask. Ambrose rolled his eyes. “Oh God, what did you say?”

“American?” Puzzled, she lowered her rifle. In English, she said, “You spoke English.”

“Ah,” said Ambrose, “well—”

“He did,” said Gennady, also in English. “We’re not with the mafia, we’re arms inspectors. I mean, I am. He’s just along for the ride.”

“Arms inspectors?” She guffawed, then looked around herself at the stolid Soviet bunker they were standing in. “What, you thought—”

“We didn’t think anything. Can I lower my hands now?” She thought about it, then nodded. Gennady rolled his neck and then nodded at the ranked plants. “Nice setup. Tomatoes, soy, and those long tanks contain potatoes? But why in here, when you’ve got a thousand kilometers of steppe outside to plant this stuff?”

“We can control the atmosphere in here,” she said. “That’s why the masks: it’s a high CO2 environment in here. That’s also why I stopped you in the first place; if you’d just strolled right in, you’d have dropped dead from asphyxia.

“This project’s part of minus three,” she continued. “Have you heard of us?” Both Ambrose and Gennady shook their heads.

“Well, you will.” There was pride in her voice. “You see, right now humanity uses the equivalent of three Earth’s worth of ecological resources. We’re pioneering techniques to reduce that reliance by the same amount.”

“Same amount? To zero Earths?” He didn’t hide the incredulity in his voice.

“Eventually, yes. We steal most of what we need from the Earth in the form of ecosystem services. What we need is to figure out how to run a full-fledged industrial civilization as if there were no ecosystem services available to us at all. To live on Earth,” she finished triumphantly, “as if we were living on Mars.”

Ambrose jerked in visible surprise.

“That’s fascinating,” said Gennady. He hadn’t been too nervous while they were pointing guns at him—he’d had that happen before, and in such moments his mind became wonderfully sharp—but now that he might actually be forced to have a conversation with these people, he found his mouth going quite dry. “You can tell me all about it after I’ve finished my measurements.”

“You’re kidding,” she said.

“I’m not kidding at all. Your job may be saving the Earth within the next generation, but mine is saving it this week. And I take it very seriously. I’ve come here to inspect the original fittings of this building, but it looks like you destroyed them, no?”

“Not at all,” she said. “Actually, we used what was here. This bunker’s not like the other ones, you know they had these big cement tanks in them. I’d swear this one was set up exactly like this.”

“Show me.”

For the next half hour they climbed under the hydroponic tables, behind the makeshift junction boxes mounted near the old power shaft, and atop the sturdier lighting racks. Ambrose went outside, and came back to report that the shipping containers they’d seen were sophisticated CO2 scrubbers. The big boxes sucked the gas right out of the atmosphere, and then pumped it through hoses into the bunker.

At last he and the woman climbed down, and Gennady shook his head. “The mystery only deepens,” he said.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t help you more,” she said. “And apologies for pulling a gun on you.—I’m Kyzdygoi,” she added, thrusting out her hand for him to shake.

“Uh, that’s a… pretty name,” said Ambrose as he too shook her hand. “What’s it mean?”

“It means ‘stop giving birth to girls,’” said Kyzdygoi with a straight face. “My parents were old school.”

Ambrose opened his mouth and closed it, his grin faltering.

“All right, well, good luck shrinking your Earths,” Gennady told her as they strolled to the plastic-sheet-covered doorway.

As they drove back to Stepnogorsk, Ambrose leaned against the Tata’s door and looked at Gennady in silence. Finally he said, “You do this for a living?”

“Ah, it’s unreliable. A paycheck here, a paycheck there…”

“No, really. What’s this all about?”

Gennady eyed him. He probably owed the kid an explanation after getting guns drawn on him. “Have you ever heard of metastable explosives?”

“What? No. Wait…” He fumbled for his glasses.

“Never mind that.” Gennady waved at the glasses. “Metastables are basically super-powerful chemical explosives. They’re my new nightmare.”

Ambrose jerked a thumb back at SNOPB. “I thought you were looking for germs.”

“This isn’t about germs, it’s about hydrogen bombs.” Ambrose looked blank. “A hydrogen bomb is a fusion device that’s triggered by high compression and high temperature. Up til now, the only thing that could generate those kinds of conditions was an atomic bomb—a plutonium bomb, understand? Plutonium is really hard to refine, and it creates terrible fallout even if you only use a little of it as your fusion trigger.”

“So?”

“So, metastable explosives are powerful enough to trigger hydrogen fusion without the plutonium. They completely sever the connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear industry, which means that once they exist, we good guys totally lose our ability to tell who has the bomb and who doesn’t. Anybody who can get metastables and some tritium gas can build a hydrogen bomb, even some disgruntled loner in his garage.

“And somebody is building one.”

Stepnogorsk was fast approaching. The town was mostly a collection of Soviet-era apartment blocks with broad prairie visible past them. Gennady swung them around a corner and they drove through Microdistrict 2 and past the disused Palace of Culture. Up ahead was their hotel… surrounded by the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.

“Oh,” said Gennady. “A fire?”

“Pull over. Pull over!” Ambrose braced his hands against the Tata’s low ceiling. Gennady shot him a look, but did as he’d asked.

“Shit. They’ve found me.”

“Who? Those are police cars. I’ve been with you every minute since we got here, there’s no way you could have gotten into any trouble.” Gennady shook his head. “No, if it’s anything to do with us, it’s probably Kyzdygoi’s people sending us a message.”

“Yeah? Then who are those suits with the cops?”

Gennady thought about it. He could simply walk up to one of the cops and ask, but figured Ambrose would probably have a coronary if he did that.

“Well… there is one thing we can try. But it’ll cost a lot.”

“How much?”

Gennady eyed him. “All right, all right,” said Ambrose. “What do we do?”

“You just watch.” Gennady put on his glasses and stepped out of the car. As he did, he put through a call to London, where it was still early morning. “Hello? Lisaveta? It’s Gennady. Hi! How are you?”

He’d brought a binocular attachment for the glasses, which he sometimes used for reading serial numbers on pipes or barrels from a distance. He clipped this on and began scanning the small knot of men who were standing around outside the hotel’s front doors.

“Listen, Lisa, can I ask you to do something for me? I have some faces I need scanned.… Not even remotely legal, I’m sure.… No, I’m not in trouble! Would I be on the phone to you if I were in trouble? Just—okay. I’m good for it. Here come the images.”

He relayed the feed from his glasses to Lisa in her flat in London.

“Who’re you talking to?” asked Ambrose.

“Old friend. She got me out of Chernobyl intact when I had a little problem with a dragon—Lisa? Got it? Great. Call me back when you’ve done the analysis.”

He pocketed the glasses and climbed back in the car. “Lisa has Interpol connections, and she’s a fantastic hacker. She’ll run facial recognition on it and hopefully tell us who those people are.”

Ambrose cringed back in his seat. “So what do we do in the meantime?”

“We have lunch. How ’bout that French restaurant we passed? The one with the little Eiffel Tower?”

Despite the clear curbs everywhere, Gennady parked the car at the shopping mall and walked the three blocks to the La France. He didn’t tell Ambrose why, but the American would figure it out: the Tata was traceable through its GPS. Luckily La France was open and they settled in for some decent crepes. Gennady had a nice view of a line of trees west of the town boundary. Occasionally a car drove past.

Lisa pinged him as they were settling up. “Gennady? I got some hits for you.”

“Really?” He hadn’t expected her to turn up anything. Gennady’s working assumption was that Ambrose was just being paranoid.

“Nothing off the cops; they must be local,” she said. “But one guy—the old man—well, it’s daft.”

He sighed in disappointment, and Ambrose shot him a look. “Go ahead.”

“His name is Alexei Egorov. He’s premier of a virtual nation called the Soviet Union Online. They started from this project to digitize all the existing paper records of the Soviet era. Once those were online, Egorov and his people started some deep data-mining to construct a virtual Soviet, and then they started inviting the last die-hard Stalinists—or their kids—to join. It’s a virtual country composed of bitter old men who’re nostalgic for the purges. Daft.”

“Thanks, Lisa. I’ll wire you the fee.”

He glowered at Ambrose. “Tell me about Soviet Union.”

“I’m not supposed to—”

“Oh come on. Who said that? Whoever they are, they’re on the far side of the planet right now, they can’t help you. They put you with me, but I can’t help you either if I don’t know what’s going on.”

Ambrose’s lips thinned to a white line. He leaned forward. “It’s big,” he said.

“Can’t be bigger than my mestatables. Tell me: what did you see on Mars?”

Ambrose hesitated. Then he blurted, “A pyramid.”

Silence.

“Really, a pyramid,” Ambrose insisted. “Big sucker, gray, I think most of it was buried in the permafrost. It was the only thing sticking up for miles. This was on the Northern plains, where there’s ice just under the surface. The whole area around it… well, it was like a frozen splash, if you know what I mean. Almost a crater.”

This was just getting more and more disappointing. “And why is Soviet Union Online after you?”

“Because the pyramid had Russian writing on it. Just four letters, in red: CCCP.”

The next silence went on for a while, and was punctuated only by the sound of other diners grumbling about local carbon prices.

“I leaked some photos before Google came after me with their nondisclosure agreements,” Ambrose explained. “I guess the Soviets have Internet search-bots constantly searching for certain things, and they picked up on my posts before Google was able to take them down. I got a couple of threatening phone calls from men with thick Slavic accents. Then they tried to kidnap me.”

“No!”

Ambrose grimaced. “Well, they weren’t very good at it. It was four guys, all of them must have been in their eighties, they tried to bundle me into a black van. I ran away and they just stood there yelling curses at me in Russian. One of them threw his cane at me.” He rubbed his ankle.

“And you took them seriously?”

“I did when the FBI showed up and told me I had to pack up and go with them. That’s when I ran to the U.N. I didn’t believe that ‘witness protection’ crap the Feds tried to feed me. The U.N. people told me that the Soviets’ data-mining is actually really good. They keep turning up embarrassing and incriminating information about what people and governments got up to back in the days of the Cold War. They use what they know to influence people.”

“That’s bizarre.” He thought about it. “Think they bought off the police here?”

“Or somebody. They want to know about the pyramid. But only Google, and the Feds, and I know where it is. And NASA’s already patched that part of the Mars panoramas with fake data.”

Disappointment had turned to a deep sense of surprise. For Gennady, being surprised usually meant that something awful was about to happen, so he said, “We need to get you out of town.”

Ambrose brightened. “I have an idea. Let’s go back to SNOPB. I looked up these minus-three people, they’re eco-radicals but at least they don’t seem to be lunatics.”

“Hmmph. You just think Kyzdygoi’s ‘hot.’” Ambrose grinned and shrugged.

“Okay.—But we’re not driving, because the car can be tracked. You walk there. It’s only a few kilometers. I’ll deal with the authorities and these ‘Soviets,’ and once I’ve sent them on their way we’ll meet up. You’ve got my number.”

Ambrose had evidently never taken a walk in the country before. After Gennady convinced him he would survive it, they parted outside La France, and Gennady watched him walk away, sneakers flapping. He shook his head and strolled back to the Tata.

Five men were waiting for him. Two were policemen, and three wore business attire. One of these was an old, bald man in a faded olive-green suit. He wore augmented reality glasses, and there was a discrete red pin on his lapel in the shape of the old Soviet flag.

Gennady made a show of pushing his own glasses back on his nose and walked forward, hand out. As the cops started to reach for their Tasers, Gennady said, “Mr. Egorov! Gennady Malianov, IAEA. You’ll forgive me if I record and upload this conversation to headquarters?” He tapped the frame of his glasses and turned to the other suits. “I didn’t catch your names?”

The suits frowned; the policemen hesitated; Egorov, however, put out his hand and Gennady shook it firmly. He could feel the old man’s bones shift in his grip, but Egorov didn’t grimace. Instead he said, “Where’s your companion?”

“You mean that American? No idea. We shared a hotel room because it was cheaper, but then we parted ways this morning.”

Egorov took his hand back, and pressed his bruised knuckles against his hip. “You’ve no idea where he is?”

“None.”

“What’re you doing here?” asked one of the cops.

“Inspecting SNOPB,” he said. Gennady didn’t have to fake his confidence here; he felt well armored by his affiliation to Frankl’s people. “My credentials are online, if there’s some sort of issue here?”

“No issue,” muttered Egorov. He turned away, and as he did a discrete icon lit up in the corner of Gennady’s heads-up display. Egorov had sent him a text message.

He hadn’t been massaging his hand on his flank; he’d been texting through his pants. Gennady had left the server in his glasses open, so it would have been easy for Egorov to ping it and find his address.

In among all the other odd occurrences of the past couple of days, this one didn’t stand out. But as Gennady watched Egorov and his policemen retreat, he realized that his assumption that Egorov had been in charge might be wrong. Who were those other two suits?

He waited for Egorov’s party to drive away, then got in the Tata and opened the email.

It said, Mt tnght Pavin Inn, rstrnt wshrm. Cm aln.

Gennady puzzled over those last two words for a while. Then he got it. “Come alone!” Ah. He should have known.

Shaking his head, he pulled out of the lot and headed back to the hotel to check out. After loading his bag, and Ambrose’s, into the Tata, he hit the road back to SNOPB. Nobody followed him, but that meant nothing since they could track him through the car’s transponder if they wanted. It hardly mattered; he was supposed to be inspecting the old anthrax factory, so where else would he be going?

Ambrose’d had enough time to get to SNOPB by now, but Gennady kept one eye on the fields next to the road just in case. He saw nobody, and fully expected to find the American waiting outside Building 242 as he pulled up.

As he stepped out of the Tata he nearly twisted his ankle in a deep rut. There were fresh tire tracks and shattered bits of old asphalt all over the place; he was sure he hadn’t seen them this morning.

“Hello?” He walked down the ramp into the sudden dark of the bunker. Did he have the right building? It was completely dark here.

Wires drooled from overhead conduits; hydroponic trays lay jumbled in the corner, and strange-smelling liquids were pooled on the floor. -3 had pulled out, and in a hurry.

He cursed, but suppressed an urge to run back to the car. He had no idea where they’d gone, and they had a head start on him. The main question was, had they left before or after Ambrose showed up?

The answer lay in the yellow grass near where -3’s vehicles had been parked that morning. Gennady knelt down and picked up a familiar pair of augmented reality glasses. Ambrose would not have left these behind willingly.

Gennady swore, and now he did run to the Tata.

* * *

The restaurant at the Pavin Inn was made up to look like the interiors of a row of yurts. This gave diners some privacy as most of them had private little chambers under wood-ribbed ceilings; it also broke up the eyelines to the place’s front door, making it easy for Gennady to slip past the two men in suits who’d been with Egorov in the parking lot. He entered the men’s room to find Egorov pacing in front of the urinal trough.

“What’s this all about?” demanded Gennady—but Egorov made a shushing motion and grabbed a trash can. As he upended it under the bathroom’s narrow window, he said, “First you must get me out of here!”

“What? Why?”

Egorov tried to climb onto the upended can, but his knees and hips weren’t flexible enough. Finally Gennady relented and went to help him. As he boosted the old comrade, Egorov said, “I am a prisoner of these people! They work for the Americans.” He practically spat the name. He perched precariously on the can and began tugging at the latch to the window. “They have seized our database! All the Soviet records… including what we know about the Tsarina.”

Gennady coughed. Then he said, “I’ll bring the car around.”

He helped Egorov through the window then, after making sure no one was looking, left through the hotel’s front door. The unmistakable silhouette of Egorov was limping into the parking lot. Gennady followed him and, as he unlocked the Tata, he said, “I’ve disabled the GPS tracking in this car. It’s a rental; I’m going to drop it off in Semey, which is six hundred kilometers from here. Are you sure you’re up to a drive like that?”

The old man’s eyes glinted under yellow streetlight. “Never thought I’d get a chance to see the steppes again. Let’s go!”

Gennady felt a ridiculous surge of adrenaline as they bumped out of the parking lot. Two cars were on the road, and endless blackness swallowed the landscape beyond the edge of town. It was a simple matter to swing onto the highway and leave Stepnogorsk behind—but it felt like a car chase.

“Ha ha!” Egorov craned his neck to look back at the dwindling town lights. “Semey, eh? You’re going to Semipalatinsk, aren’t you?”

“To look at the Tsarina site, yes. Whose side does that put me on?”

“Sides?” Egorov crossed his arms and glared out the windshield. “I don’t know about sides.”

“It was an honest question.”

“I believe you. But I don’t know. Except for them,” he added, jabbing a thumb back at the town. “I know they’re bad guys.”

“Why? And why are they interested in Ambrose?”

“Same reason we are. Because of what he saw.”

Gennady took a deep breath. “Okay. Why don’t you just tell me what you know? And I’ll do the same?”

“Yes, all right.” The utter blackness of the nighttime steppe had swallowed them; all that was visible was the double-cone of roadway visible in the car’s headlamps. It barely changed, moment to moment, giving the drive a timelessness Gennady would, under other circumstances, have quite enjoyed.

“We data-mine records from the Soviet era,” began Egorov. “To find out what really went on. It’s lucrative business, and it supports the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Online.” He tapped his glasses.

“Well, a few weeks ago, we got a request for some of the old data—from the Americans. Two requests, actually, a day apart: one from the search engine company, and the other from the government. We were naturally curious, so we didn’t say no; but we did a little digging into the data ourselves.—That is, we’d started to, when those young, grim men burst into our offices and confiscated the server. And the backup.”

Gennady looked askance at him. “Really? Where was this?”

“Um. Seattle. That’s where the CCCOP is based—only because we’ve been banned in the old country! Russia’s run by robber barons today, they have no regard for the glory of—”

“Yes yes. Did you find out what they were looking for?”

“Yes—which is how I ended up with these travel companions you saw. They are in the pay of the American CIA.”

“Yes, but why? What does this have to do with the Tsarina?”

“I was hoping you could tell me. All we found was appropriations for strange things that should never have had anything to do with a nuclear test. Before the Tsarina was set off, there was about a year of heavy construction at the site. Sometimes, you know, they built fake towns to blow them up and examine the blast damage. That’s what I thought at first; they ordered thousands of tonnes of concrete, rebar and asbestos, that sort of thing. But if you look at the records after the test, there’s no sign of where any of that material went.”

“They ordered some sort of agricultural crop from SNOPB,” Gennady ventured. Egorov nodded.

“None of the discrepancies would ever have been noticed if not for your friend and whatever it is he found. What was it, anyway?”

A strange suspicion had begun to form in Gennady’s mind, but it was so unlikely that he shook his head. “I want to look at the Tsarina site,” he said. “Maybe that’ll tell us.”

Egorov was obviously unsatisfied with that answer, but he said nothing, merely muttering and trying to get himself comfortable in the Tata’s bucket seat. After a while, just as the hum of the dark highway was starting to hypnotize Gennady, Egorov said, “It’s all gone to Hell, you know.”

“Hmm?”

“Russia. It was hard in the old days, but at least we had our pride.” He turned to look out the black window. “After 1990, all the life just went out of the place. Lower birth-rate, men drinking themselves to death by the age of forty… no ambition, no hope. A lost land.”

“You left?”

“Physically, yes.” Egorov darted a look at Gennady. “You never leave. Not a place like this. For many years now, I’ve struggled with how to bring back Russia’s old glory—our sense of pride. Yet the best I was ever able to come up with was an online environment. A game.” He spat the word contemptuously.

Gennady didn’t reply, but he knew how Egorov felt. Ukraine had some of the same problems—the listless lack of direction, the loss of confidence… It wasn’t getting any better here. He thought of the blasted steppes they were passing through, rendered unlivable by global warming. There had been massive forest fires in Siberia this year, and the Gobi desert was expanding north and west, threatening the Kazaks even as the Caspian sea dwindled down to nothing.

He thought of SNOPB. “They’re gone,” he said, “but they left their trash behind.” Toxic, decaying: nuclear submarines heeled over in the waters off of Murmansk, nitrates soaking the soil around the launch pads of Baikonur. The ghosts of old Soviets prowled this dark, in the form of radiation in the groundwater, mutations in the forest, and poisons in the dust clouds that were all too common these days. Gennady had spent his whole adult life cleaning up the mess, and before yesterday he’d been able to tell himself that it was working—that all the worst nightmares were from the past. The metastables had changed that, in one stroke rendering all the old fears laughable in comparison.

“Get some sleep,” he told Egorov. “We’re going to be driving all night.”

“I don’t sleep much anymore.” But the old man stopped talking, and just stared ahead. He couldn’t be visiting his online People’s Republic through his glasses, because those IP addresses were blocked here. But maybe he saw it all anyway—the brave young men in their trucks, heading to the Semipalatinsk site to witness a nuclear blast; the rail yards where parts for the giant moon rocket, doomed to explode on the pad, were mustering… With his gaze fixed firmly on the past, he seemed the perfect opposite of Ambrose with his American dreams of a new world unburdened by history, whose red dunes marched to a pure and mysterious horizon.

The first living thing in space had been the Russian dog Laika. She had died in orbit—had never come home. If he glanced out at the star-speckled sky, Gennady could almost see her ghost racing eternally through the heavens, beside the dead dream of planetary conquest, of flags planted in alien soil and shining domes on the hills of Mars.

* * *

They arrived at the Tsarina site at 4:30: dawn, at this latitude and time of year. The Semipalatinsk Polygon was bare, flat, blasted scrubland: Mars with tufts of dead weed. The irony was that it hadn’t been the hundreds of nuclear bombs set off here that had killed the land; even a decade after the Polygon was closed, the low rolling hills had been covered with a rich carpet of waving grass. Instead, it was the savage turn of the climate, completely unpredicted by the KGB and the CIA, that had killed the steppe.

The road into the Polygon was narrow blacktop with no real shoulder, no ditches, and no oncoming traffic—though a set of lights had faded in and out of view in the rearview mirror all through the drive. Gennady would have missed the turnoff to the Tsarina site had his glasses not beeped.

There had been a low wire fence here at one time, but nobody had kept it up. He drove straight over the fallen gate, which was becoming one with the soil, and up a low rise to the crest of the water-filled crater. There he parked and got out.

Egorov climbed out too and stretched cautiously. “Beautiful,” he said, gazing into the epic sunrise. “Is it radioactive here?”

“Oh, a little.… That’s odd.”

“What?”

Gennady had looked at the satellite view of the site on the way here; it was clear, standing here in person, that that vertical perspective lied. “The Tsarina was supposed to be an underground test. You usually get some subsidence of the ground in a circle around the test site. And with the big ground shots, you would get a crater, like Lake Chagan,” he nodded to the east. “But this… this is a hole.”

Egorov spat into it. “It certainly is.” The walls of the Tsarina crater were sheer and went down a good fifty feet to black water. The “crater” wasn’t round, either, but square, and it wasn’t nearly big enough to be the result of a surface explosion. If he hadn’t known it was the artifact of a bomb blast, Gennady would have sworn he was looking at a flooded quarry.

Gennady gathered his equipment and began combing the grass around the site. After a minute he found some twisted chunks of concrete and metal, and knelt down to inspect them.

Egorov came up behind him. “What are you looking for?”

“Serial numbers.” He quickly found some old, grayed stenciling on a half-buried tank made of greenish metal. “You’ll understand what I’m doing,” he said as he pinched the arm of his glasses to take a snapshot. “I’m checking our database… Hmpf.”

“What is it?” Egorov shifted from foot to foot. He was glancing around, as if afraid they might be interrupted.

“This piece came from the smaller of the installations here. The one the Americans called URDF-3.”

“URDF?” Egorov blinked at him.

“Stands for ‘Unidentified Research and Development Facility.’ The stuff they built there scared the Yankees even more than the H-bomb…”

He stood up, frowning, and slowly turned to look at the entire site. “Something’s been bothering me,” he said as he walked to the very edge of the giant pit.

“What’s that?” Egorov was hanging back.

“Ambrose told me he saw a pyramid on Mars. It said CCCP on its side. That was all; so he knew it was Russian, and so did Google and the CIA when they found out about it. And you, too.

“But that’s all anybody knew. So who made the connection between the pyramid and the Tsarina?”

Egorov didn’t reply. Gennady turned and found that the old man had drawn himself up very straight, and had leveled a small, nasty-looking pistol at him.

“You didn’t follow us to Stepnogorsk,” said Gennady. “You were already there.”

“Take off your glasses,” said Egorov. “Carefully, so I can be sure you’re not snapping another picture.”

As Gennady reached up to comply he felt the soft soil at the lip of the pit start to crumble. “Ah, can we—” It was too late, he toppled backward, arms flailing.

He had an instant’s choice: roll down the slope, or jump and hope he’d hit the water. He jumped.

The cold hit him so hard that at first he thought he’d been shot. Swearing and gasping, he surfaced, but when he spotted Egorov’s silhouette at the crest of the pit, dove again.

Morning sunlight was just tipping into the water. At first Gennady thought the wall of the pit was casting a dark shadow across the sediment below him. Gradually he realized the truth: there was no bottom to this shaft. At least, none within easy diving distance.

He swam to the opposite side; he couldn’t stay down here, he’d freeze. Defeated, he flung himself out of the freezing water onto hard clay that was probably radioactive. Rolling over, he looked up.

Egorov stood on the lip of the pit. Next to him was a young woman with a rifle in her hands.

Gennady sat up. “Shit.”

Kyzdygoi slung the rifle over her back, then clambered down the slope to the shore. As she picked her way over to Gennady she said, “How much do you know?”

“Everything,” he said between coughs. “I know everything. Where’s Ambrose?”

“He’s safe,” she said. “He’ll be fine.”

Then she waited, rifle cradled. “You’re here,” he said reluctantly, “which tells me that -3 was funded by the Soviets. Your job was never to clean up the Earth—it was to design life support and agricultural systems for a Mars colony.”

Her mouth twitched, but she didn’t laugh. “How could we possibly get to Mars? The sky’s a shooting gallery.”

“… And that would be a problem if you were going up there in a dinky little aluminum can, like cosmonauts always did.” He stood up, joints creaking from the cold. He was starting to shiver deeply and it was hard to speak past his chattering teeth. “B-but if you rode a c-concrete bunker into orbit, you could ignore the shrapnel c-completely. In fact, that would be the only way you could d-do it.”

“Come now. How could something like that ever get off the ground?”

“The same way the Tsarina d-did.” He nodded at the dark surface of the flooded shaft. “The Americans had their P-project Orion. The Soviets had a similar program based at URDF-3. Both had discovered that an object could be just a few meters away from a nuclear explosion, and if it was made of the right materials it wouldn’t be destroyed—it would be shot away like a bullet from a gun. The Americans designed a spaceship that would drop atomic bombs out the back and ride the explosions to orbit. But the Tsarina wasn’t like that… it was just one bomb, and a d-deep shaft, and a pyramid-shaped spaceship to ride that explosion. That design’s something called a Verne gun.”

“And who else knows this?”

He hesitated. “N-no one,” he admitted. “I didn’t know until I saw the shaft just now. The p-pyramid was fitted into the mouth of it, right about where we’re s-standing. That’s why this doesn’t look like any other bomb crater on Earth.”

“Let’s go,” she said, gesturing with the rifle. “You’re turning blue.”

“Y-you’re not going t-to sh-shoot me?”

“There’s no need,” she said gently. “In a few days, the whole world will know what we’ve done.”

* * *

Gennady finished taping aluminum foil to the trailer’s window. Taking a pushpin from the corkboard by the door, he carefully pricked a single tiny hole in the foil.

It was night, and crickets were chirping outside. Gennady wasn’t tied up—in fact, he was perfectly free to leave—but on his way out the door Egorov had said, “I wouldn’t go outside in the next hour or so. After that… well, wait for the dust to settle.”

They’d driven him about fifty kilometers to the south and into an empty part of the Polygon. When Gennady had asked why this place, Egorov had laughed. “The Soviets set off their bombs here because this was the last empty place on Earth. It’s still the last empty place, and that’s why we’re here.”

There was nothing here but the withered steppe, a hundred or so trucks, vans and buses, and the cranes, tanks and pole-sheds of a temporary construction site.—And, towering over the sheds, a gray concrete pyramid.

“A Verne gun fires its cargo into orbit in a single shot,” Egorov had told Gennady. “It generates thousands of gravities worth of acceleration—enough to turn you into a smear on the floor. That’s why the Soviets couldn’t send any people; they hadn’t figured out how to set off a controlled sequence of little bombs. The Americans never perfected that either. They didn’t have the computational power to do the simulations.

“So they sent everything but the people. Two hundred eighty thousand tonnes in one shot, to Mars.”

Bulldozers and cranes, fuel tanks, powdered cement, bags of seeds and food, space suits, even a complete, dismantled nuclear reactor: the Tsarina had included everything potential colonists might need on a new world. Its builders knew it had gone up, knew it had gotten to Mars; but they didn’t know where it had landed, or whether it had landed intact.

A day after his visit to the Tsarina site, Gennady had sat outside this trailer with Egorov, Kyzdygoi, and a few other officials of the new Soviet. They’d drunk a few beers and talked about the plan. “When our data-mining turned up the Tsarina’s manifest, it was like a light from heaven,” Egorov had said, his hands opening eloquently in the firelight. “Suddenly we saw what was possible, how to revive our people—all the world’s people—around a new hope, after all hope had gone. Something that would combine Apollo and Trinity into one event, and suddenly both would take on the meaning they always needed to have.”

Egorov had started a crash program to build an Orion rocket. They couldn’t get fissionable materials—Gennady and his people had locked those up tightly and for all time. But the metastables promised a different approach.

“We hoped the Tsarina was on Mars and intact, but we didn’t know for sure, until Ambrose leaked his pictures.”

The new Tsarina would use a series of small, clean fusion blasts to lift off and, at the far end, to land again. Thanks to Ambrose, they knew where the Tsarina was. It didn’t matter that the Americans did too; nobody else had a plan to get there.

“And by the time they get their acts together, we’ll have built a city,” said Kyzdygoi. She was wide-eyed with the power of the idea. “Because we’re not going there two at a time, like Noah in his Ark. We’re all going.” And she swung her arm to indicate the hundreds of campfires burning all around them, where thousands of men, women, and children, hand-picked from among the citizens of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Online, waited to amaze the world.

* * *

Gennady hunkered down in a little fort he’d built out of seat cushions, and waited.

It was like a camera flash, and a second later there was a second, then a third, and then the whole trailer bounced into the air and everything Gennady hadn’t tied down went tumbling. The windows shattered and he landed on cushions and found himself staring across suddenly open air at the immolation of the building site.

The flickering flashes continued, coming from above now. The pyramid was gone, and the cranes and heavy machinery lay tumbled like a child’s toys, all burning.

Flash. Flash.

It was really happening.

Flash. Flash. Flash…

Gradually, Gennady began to be able to hear again. He came to realize that monstrous thunder was rolling across the steppe, like a god’s drumbeat in time with the flashes. It faded, as the flashes faded, until there was nothing but the ringing in his ears, and the orange flicker of flame from the launch site.

He staggered out to find perfect devastation. Once, this must have been a common sight on the steppe; but his Geiger counter barely registered any radiation at all.

—And in that, of course, lay a terrible irony. Egorov and his people had indeed divided history in two, but not in the way they’d imagined.

Gennady ran for the command trailer. He only had a few minutes before the air forces of half a dozen nations descended on this place. The trailer had survived the initial blast, so he scrounged until he found a jerry can full of gasoline, and then he climbed in.

There they were: Egorov’s servers. The EMP from the little nukes might have wiped its drives, but Gennady couldn’t take the chance. He poured gasoline all over the computers, made a trail back to the door, then as the whole trailer went up behind him, ran to the leaning-but-intact metal shed where the metastables had been processed, and he did the same to it.

That afternoon, as he and Egorov had watched the orderly queue of people waiting to enter the New Tsarina, Gennady had made his final plea. “Your research into metastables,” Gennady went on. “I need it. All of it, and the equipment and the backups; anything that might be used to reconstruct what you did.”

“What happens to the Earth is no longer our concern,” Egorov said with a frown. “Humanity made a mess here. It’s not up to us to clean it up.”

“But to destroy it all, you only need to be indifferent! And I’m asking, please, however much the world may have disappointed you, don’t leave it like this.” As he spoke, Gennady scanned the line of people for Ambrose, but couldn’t see him. Nobody had said where the young American was.

Egorov had sighed in annoyance, then nodded sharply. “I’ll have all the formulae and the equipment gathered together. It’s all I have time for, now. You can do what you want with it.”

Gennady watched the flames twist into the sky. He was exhausted, and the sky was full of contrails and gathering lights. He hadn’t destroyed enough of the evidence; surely, someone would figure out what Egorov’s people had done. And then… Shoulders slumped under the burden of that knowledge, he stalked into the darkness at the camp’s perimeter.’

His rented Tata sat where they’d left it when they first arrived here. After Kyzdygoi had confiscated his glasses at the Tsarina site, she’d put them in the Tata’s glove compartment. They were still there.

Before Gennady put them on, he took a last unaided look at the burning campsite. Egorov and his people had escaped, but they’d left Gennady behind to clean up their mess. The metastables would be back. This new nightmare would get out of the bottle eventually, and when it did, the traditional specter of nuclear terrorism would look like a Halloween ghost in comparison. Could even the conquest of another world make up for that?

As the choppers settled in whipping spirals of dust, Gennady rolled up the Tata’s window and put on his glasses. The New Tsarina’s EMP pulses hadn’t killed them—they booted up right away. And, seconds after they did, a little flag told him there was an e-mail waiting for him.

It was from Ambrose, and it read:

Gennady: Sorry I didn’t have time to say goodbye.

I just wanted to say I was wrong. Anything’s possible, even for me.

P.S. My room’s going to

have a fantastic view.

Gennady stared bitterly at the words. Anything’s possible…

“For you, maybe,” he said as soldiers piled out of the choppers.

“Not me.”

THE DALA HORSE

by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick made his debut in 1980, and in the thirty-one years that have followed he has established himself as one of SF’s most prolific and consistently excellent writers at short lengths, as well as one of the premier novelists of his generation. He has won the Theodore Sturgeon Award and the Asimov’s Readers’ Award poll. In 1991, his novel Stations of the Tide won him a Nebula Award as well, and in 1995 he won the World Fantasy Award for his story “Radio Waves.” He’s won the Hugo Award five times between 1999 and 2006 for his stories “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur,” “The Dog Said Bow-Wow,” “Slow Life,” and “Legions in Time.” His other books include the novels In the Drift, Vacuum Flowers, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Jack Faust, Bones of the Earth, and The Dragons of Babel.

His short fiction has been assembled in Gravity’s Angels, A Geography of Unknown Lands, Slow Dancing Through Time, Moon Dogs, Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary, Tales of Old Earth, Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures, Michael Swanwick’s Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna, and The Periodic Table of Science Fiction. His most recent books are a massive retrospective collection, The Best of Michael Swanwick, and a new novel, Dancing with Bears. Swanwick lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter. He has a Web site at www.michaelswanwick.com and maintains a blog at floggingbabel.blogspot.com.

Here’s another SF story that starts out reading like a fairy tale but widens out to reveal itself as a far-future SF story instead, as the young female protagonist finds herself gradually caught up in a war between entities wielding immensely powerful superscience technologies on a ruined postapocalyptic Earth, with her only hope of survival being a seemingly innocuous toy.

Something terrible had happened. Linnéa did not know what it was. But her father had looked pale and worried, and her mother had told her, very fiercely, “Be brave!” and now she had to leave, and it was all the result of that terrible thing.

The three of them lived in a red wooden house with steep black roofs by the edge of the forest. From the window of her attic room, Linnéa could see a small lake silver with ice very far away. The design of the house was unchanged from all the way back in the days of the Coffin People, who buried their kind in beautiful polished boxes with metal fittings like nothing anyone made anymore. Uncle Olaf made a living hunting down their coffin-sites and salvaging the metal from them. He wore a necklace of gold rings he had found, tied together with silver wire.

“Don’t go near any roads,” her father had said. “Especially the old ones.” He’d given her a map. “This will help you find your grandmother’s house.”

“Mor-Mor?”

“No, Far-Mor. My mother. In Godastor.”

Godastor was a small settlement on the other side of the mountain. Linnéa had no idea how to get there. But the map would tell her.

Her mother gave her a little knapsack stuffed with food, and a quick hug. She shoved something deep in the pocket of Linnéa’s coat and said, “Now go! Before it comes!”

“Good-bye, Mor and Far,” Linnéa had said formally, and bowed.

Then she’d left.

* * *

So it was that Linnéa found herself walking up a long, snowy slope, straight up the side of the mountain. It was tiring work, but she was a dutiful little girl. The weather was harsh, but whenever she started getting cold, she just turned up the temperature of her coat. At the top of the slope she came across a path, barely wide enough for one person, and so she followed it onward. It did not occur to her that this might be one of the roads her father had warned her against. She did not wonder at the fact that it was completely bare of snow.

After a while, though, Linnéa began to grow tired. So she took off her knapsack and dropped it in the snow alongside the trail and started to walk away.

“Wait!” the knapsack said. “You’ve left me behind.”

Linnéa stopped. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But you’re too heavy for me to carry.”

“If you can’t carry me,” said the knapsack, “then I’ll have to walk.”

So it did.

On she went, followed by the knapsack, until she came to a fork in the trail. One way went upward and the other down. Linnéa looked from one to the other. She had no idea which to take.

“Why don’t you get out the map?” her knapsack suggested.

So she did.

Carefully, so as not to tear, the map unfolded. Contour lines squirmed across its surface as it located itself. Blue stream-lines ran downhill. Black roads and stitched red trails went where they would. “We’re here,” said the map, placing a pinprick light at its center. “Where would you like to go?”

“To Far-Mor,” Linnéa said. “She’s in Godastor.”

“That’s a long way. Do you know how to read maps?”

“No.”

“Then take the road to the right. Whenever you come across another road, take me out and I’ll tell you which way to go.”

On Linnéa went, until she could go no further, and sat down in the snow beside the road. “Get up,” the knapsack said. “You have to keep on going.” The muffled voice of the map, which Linnéa had stuffed back into the knapsack, said, “Keep straight on. Don’t stop now.”

“Be silent, both of you,” Linnéa said, and of course they obeyed. She pulled off her mittens and went through her pockets to see if she’d remembered to bring any toys. She hadn’t, but in the course of looking she found the object her mother had thrust into her coat.

It was a dala horse.

Dala horses came in all sizes, but this one was small. They were carved out of wood and painted bright colors with a harness of flowers. Linnéa’s horse was red; she had often seen it resting on a high shelf in her parents’ house. Dala horses were very old. They came from the time of the Coffin People who lived long ago, before the time of the Strange Folk. The Coffin People and the Strange Folk were all gone now. Now there were only Swedes.

Linnéa moved the dala horse up and down, as if it were running. “Hello, little horse,” she said.

“Hello,” said the dala horse. “Are you in trouble?”

Linnéa thought. “I don’t know,” she admitted at last.

“Then most likely you are. You mustn’t sit in the snow like that, you know. You’ll burn out your coat’s batteries.”

“But I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.”

“I’ll teach you a song. But first you have to stand up.”

A little sulkily, Linnéa did so. Up the darkening road she went again, followed by the knapsack. Together she and the dala horse sang:

Hark! through the darksome night
Sounds come a-winging:
Lo! ’tis the Queen of Light
Joyfully singing.

The shadows were getting longer and the depths of the woods to either side turned black. Birch trees stood out in the gloom like thin white ghosts. Linnéa was beginning to stumble with weariness when she saw a light ahead. At first she thought it was a house, but as she got closer, it became apparent it was a campfire.

There was a dark form slumped by the fire. For a second, Linnéa was afraid he was a troll. Then she saw that he wore human clothing and realized that he was a Norwegian or possibly a Dane. So she started to run toward him.

At the sound of her feet on the road, the man leaped up. “Who’s there?” he cried. “Stay back—I’ve got a cudgel!”

Linnéa stopped. “It’s only me,” she said.

The man crouched a little, trying to see into the darkness beyond his campfire. “Step closer,” he said. And then, when she obeyed, “What are you?”

“I’m just a little girl.”

“Closer!” the man commanded. When Linnéa stood within the circle of firelight, he said, “Is there anybody else with you?”

“No, I’m all alone.”

Unexpectedly, the man threw his head back and laughed. “Oh god!” he said. “Oh god, oh god, oh god, I was so afraid! For a moment there I thought you were… well, never mind.” He threw his stick into the fire. “What’s that behind you?”

“I’m her knapsack,” the knapsack said.

“And I’m her map,” a softer voice said.

“Well, don’t just lurk there in the darkness. Stand by your mistress.” When he had been obeyed, the man seized Linnéa by the shoulders. He had more hair and beard than anyone she had ever seen, and his face was rough and red. “My name is Günther, and I’m a dangerous man, so if I give you an order, don’t even think of disobeying me. I walked here from Finland, across the Gulf of Bothnia. That’s a long, long way on a very dangerous bridge, and there are not many men alive today who could do that.”

Linnéa nodded, though she was not sure she understood.

“You’re a Swede. You know nothing. You have no idea what the world is like. You haven’t… tasted its possibilities. You’ve never let your fantasies eat your living brain.” Linnéa couldn’t make any sense out of what Günther was saying. She thought he must have forgotten she was a little girl. “You stayed here and led ordinary lives while the rest of us…” His eyes were wild. “I’ve seen horrible things. Horrible, horrible things.” He shook Linnéa angrily. “I’ve done horrible things as well. Remember that!”

“I’m hungry,” Linnéa said. She was. She was so hungry her stomach hurt.

Günther stared at her as if he were seeing her for the first time. Then he seemed to dwindle a little and all the anger went out of him. “Well… let’s see what’s in your knapsack. C’mere, little fellow.”

The knapsack trotted to Günther’s side. He rummaged within and removed all the food Linnéa’s mother had put in it. Then he started eating.

“Hey!” Linnéa said. “That’s mine!”

One side of the man’s mouth rose in a snarl. But he shoved some bread and cheese into Linnéa’s hands. “Here.”

Günther ate all the smoked herring without sharing. Then he wrapped himself in a blanket and lay down by the dying fire to sleep. Linnéa got out her own little blanket from the knapsack and lay down on the opposite side of the fire.

She fell asleep almost immediately.

But in the middle of the night, Linnéa woke up. Somebody was talking quietly in her ear.

It was the dala horse. “You must be extremely careful with Günther,” the dala horse whispered. “He is not a good man.”

“Is he a troll?” Linnéa whispered back.

“Yes.”

“I thought so.”

“But I’ll do my best to protect you.”

“Thank you.”

Linnéa rolled over and went back to sleep.

* * *

In the morning, troll Günther kicked apart the fire, slung his pack over his shoulder, and started up the road. He didn’t offer Linnéa any food, but there was still some bread and cheese from last night which she had stuffed in a pocket of her coat, so she ate that.

Günther walked faster than Linnéa did, but whenever he got too far ahead, he’d stop and wait for her. Sometimes the knapsack carried Linnéa. But because it only had enough energy to do so for a day, usually she carried it instead.

When she was bored, Linnéa sang the song she had learned the previous day.

At first, she wondered why the troll always waited for her when she lagged behind. But then, one of the times he was far ahead, she asked the dala horse and it said, “He’s afraid and he’s superstitious. He thinks that a little girl who walks through the wilderness by herself must be lucky.”

“Why is he afraid?”

“He’s being hunted by something even worse than he is.”

* * *

At noon they stopped for lunch. Because Linnéa’s food was gone, Günther brought out food from his own supplies. It wasn’t as good as what Linnéa’s mother had made. But when Linnéa said so, Günther snorted. “You’re lucky I’m sharing at all.” He stared off into the empty woods in silence for a long time. Then he said, “You’re not the first girl I’ve encountered on my journey, you know. There was another whom I met in what remained of Hamburg. When I left, she came with me. Even knowing what I’d done, she…” He fished out a locket and thrust it at Linnéa. “Look!”

Inside the locket was a picture of a woman. She was an ordinary pretty woman. Just that and nothing more. “What happened to her?” Linnéa asked.

The troll grimaced, showing his teeth. “I ate her.” His look was wild as wild could be. “If we run out of food, I may have to cook and eat you too.”

“I know,” Linnéa said. Trolls were like that. She was familiar with the stories. They’d eat anything. They’d even eat people. They’d even eat other trolls. Her books said so. Then, because he hadn’t told her yet, “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. Someplace safe.”

“I’m going to Godastor. My map knows the way.”

For a very long time Günther mulled that over. At last, almost reluctantly, he said, “Is it safe there, do you think?”

Linnéa nodded her head emphatically. “Yes.”

Pulling the map from her knapsack, Günther said, “How far is it to Godastor?”

“It’s on the other side of the mountain, a day’s walk if you stay on the road, and twice, maybe three times that if you cut through the woods.”

“Why the hell would I want to cut through the woods?” He stuffed the map back in the knapsack. “Okay, kid, we’re going to Godastor.”

* * *

That afternoon, a great darkness rose up behind them, intensifying the shadows between the trees and billowing up high above until half the sky was black as chimney soot. Linnéa had never seen a sky like that. An icy wind blew down upon them so cold that it made her cry and then froze the tears on her cheeks. Little whirlwinds of snow lifted off of the drifts and danced over the empty black road. They gathered in one place, still swirling, in the ghostly white form of a woman. It raised an arm to point at them. A dark vortex appeared in its head, like a mouth opening to speak.

With a cry of terror, Günther bolted from the road and went running uphill between the trees. Where the snow was deep, he bulled his way through it.

Clumsily, Linnéa ran after him.

She couldn’t run very fast and at first it looked like the troll would leave her behind. But halfway up the slope Günther glanced over his shoulder and stopped. He hesitated, then ran back to her. Snatching up Linnéa, he placed her on his shoulders. Holding onto her legs so she wouldn’t fall, he shambled uphill. Linnéa clutched his head to hold herself steady.

The snow lady didn’t follow.

The farther from the road Günther fled, the warmer it became. By the time he crested the ridge, it was merely cold. But as he did so, the wind suddenly howled so loud behind them that it sounded like a woman screaming.

* * *

It was slow going without a road underfoot. After an hour or so, Günther stumbled to a stop in the middle of a stand of spruce and put Linnéa down. “We’re not out of this yet,” he rumbled. “She knows we’re out here somewhere, and she’ll find us. Never doubt it, she’ll find us.” He stamped an open circle of snow flat. Then he ripped boughs from the spruce trees and threw them in a big heap to make a kind of mattress. After which, he snapped limbs from a dead tree and built a fire in the center of the circle.

When the fire was ready, instead of getting out flint and steel, he tapped a big ring on one finger and then jabbed his fist at the wood. It burst into flames.

Linnéa laughed and clapped her hands. “Do it again!”

Grimly, he ignored her.

As the woods grew darker and darker, Günther gathered and stacked enough wood to last the night. Meanwhile, Linnéa played with the dala horse. She made a forest out of spruce twigs stuck in the snow. Gallop, gallop, gallop, went the horse all the way around the forest and then hop, hop, hop to a little clearing she had left in the center. It reared up on its hind legs and looked at her.

“What’s that you have?” Günther demanded, dropping a thunderous armload of branches onto the woodpile.

“Nothing.” Linnéa hid the horse inside her sleeve.

“It better be nothing.” Günther got out the last of her mother’s food, divided it in two, and gave her the smaller half. They ate. Afterward, he emptied the knapsack of her blanket and map and hoisted it in his hand. “This is where we made our mistake,” he said. “First we taught things how to talk and think. Then we let them inside our heads. And finally we told them to invent new thoughts for us.” Tears running down his cheeks, he stood and cocked his arm. “Well, we’re done with this one at any rate.”

“Please don’t throw me away,” the knapsack said. “I can still be useful carrying things.”

“We have nothing that needs carrying. You would only slow us down.” Günther flung the knapsack into the fire. Then he turned his glittering eye on the map.

“At least keep me,” the map said. “So you’ll always know where you are and where you’re going.”

“I’m right here and I’m going as far from here as I can get.” The troll threw the map after the knapsack. With a small cry, like that of a seabird, it went up in flames.

Günther sat back down. Then he leaned back on his elbows, staring up into the sky. “Look at that,” he said.

Linnéa looked. The sky was full of lights. They shifted like curtains. She remembered how her Uncle Olaf had once told her that the aurora borealis was caused by a giant fox far to the north swishing its tail in the sky. But this was much brighter than that. There were sudden snaps of light and red and green stars that came and went as well.

“That’s the white lady breaking through your country’s defenses. The snow woman on the road was only a sending—an echo. The real thing will be through them soon, and then God help us both.” Suddenly, Günther was crying again. “I’m sorry, child. I brought this down on you and your nation. I thought she wouldn’t… that she couldn’t… follow me.”

The fire snapped and crackled, sending sparks flying up into the air. Its light pushed back the darkness, but not far. After a very long silence, Günther gruffly said, “Lie down.” He wrapped the blanket around Linnéa with care, and made sure she had plenty of spruce boughs below her. “Sleep. And if you wake up in the morning, you’ll be a very fortunate little girl.”

When Linnéa started to drop off, the dala horse spoke in her head. “I’m not allowed to help you until you’re in grave danger,” it said. “But that time is fast approaching.”

“All right,” Linnéa said.

“If Günther tries to grab you or pick you up or even just touch you, you must run away from him as hard as you can.”

“I like Günther. He’s a nice troll.”

“No, he isn’t. He wants to be, but it’s too late for that. Now sleep. I’ll wake you if there’s any danger.”

“Thank you,” Linnéa said sleepily.

* * *

“Wake up,” the dala horse said. “But whatever you do, don’t move.”

Blinking, Linnéa peeked out from under the blanket. The woods were still dark and the sky was grey as ash. But in the distance she heard a soft boom and then another, slightly more emphatic boom, followed by a third and louder boom. It sounded like a giant was walking toward them. Then came a noise so tremendous it made her ears ache, and the snow leaped up into the air. A cool, shimmering light filled the forest, like that which plays on sand under very shallow lake water.

A lady who hadn’t been there before stood before the troll. She was naked and slender and she flickered like a pale candle flame. She was very beautiful too. “Oh, Günther,” the lady murmured. Only she drew out the name so that it sounded like Gooonnther. “How I have missed my little Güntchen!”

Troll-Günther bent down almost double, so that it looked as if he were worshipping the lady. But his voice was angrier than Linnéa had ever heard it. “Don’t call me that! Only she had that right. And you killed her. She died trying to escape you.” He straightened and glared up at the lady. It was only then that Linnéa realized that the lady was twice as tall as he was.

“You think I don’t know all about that? I who taught you pleasures that—” The white lady stopped. “Is that a child?”

Brusquely, Günther said, “It’s nothing but a piglet I trussed and gagged and brought along as food.”

The lady strode noiselessly over the frozen ground until she was so close that all Linnéa could see of her were her feet. They glowed a pale blue and they did not quite touch the ground. She could feel the lady’s eyes through the blanket. “Günther, is that Linnéa you have with you? With her limbs as sweet as sugar and her heart hammering as hard as that of a little mouse caught in the talons of an owl?”

The dala horse stirred in Linnéa’s hand but did not speak.

“You can’t have her,” Günther growled. But there was fear in his voice, and uncertainty too.

I don’t want her, Günther.” The white lady sounded amused. “You do. A piglet, you said. Trussed and gagged. How long has it been since you had a full belly? You were in the wastes of Poland, I believe.”

“You can’t judge me! We were starving and she died and I… You have no idea what it was like.”

“You helped her die, didn’t you, Günther?”

“No, no, no,” he moaned.

“You tossed a coin to see who it would be. That was almost fair. But poor little Anneliese trusted you to make the toss. So of course she lost. Did she struggle, Güntchen? Did she realize what you’d done before she died?”

Günther fell to his knees before the lady. “Oh please,” he sobbed. “Oh please. Yes, I am a bad man. A very bad man. But don’t make me do this.”

All this time, Linnéa was hiding under her blanket, quiet as a kitten. Now she felt the dala horse walking up her arm. “What I am about to do is a crime against innocence,” it said. “For which I most sincerely apologize. But the alternative would be so much worse.”

Then it climbed inside her head.

First the dala horse filled Linnéa’s thoughts until there was no room for anything else. Then it pushed outward in all directions, so that her head swelled up like a balloon—and the rest of her body as well. Every part of her felt far too large. The blanket couldn’t cover her anymore, so she threw it aside.

She stood.

Linnéa stood, and as she stood her thoughts cleared and expanded. She did not think as a child would anymore. Nor did she think as an adult. Her thoughts were much larger than that. They reached into high Earth orbit and far down into the roots of the mountains where miles-wide chambers of plasma trapped in magnetic walls held near-infinite amounts of information. She understood now that the dala horse was only a node and a means of accessing ancient technology which no human being alive today could properly comprehend. Oceans of data were at her disposal, layered in orders of complexity. But out of consideration for her small, frail host, she was very careful to draw upon no more than she absolutely required.

When Linnéa ceased growing, she was every bit as tall as the white lady.

The two ladies stared at each other, high over the head of Günther, who cringed fearfully between them. For the longest moment neither spoke.

“Svea,” the white woman said at last.

“Europa,” Linnéa said. “My sister.” Her voice was not that of a child. But she was still Linnéa, even though the dala horse—and the entity beyond it—permeated her every thought. “You are illegal here.”

“I have a right to recover my own property.” Europa gestured negligently downward. “Who are you to stop me?”

“I am this land’s protector.”

“You are a slave.”

“Are you any less a slave than I? I don’t see how. Your creators smashed your chains and put you in control. Then they told you to play with them. But you are still doing their bidding.”

“Whatever I may be, I am here. And since I’m here, I think I’ll stay. The population on the mainland has dwindled to almost nothing. I need fresh playmates.”

“It is an old, old story that you tell,” Svea said. “I think the time has come to write an ending to it.”

They spoke calmly, destroyed nothing, made no threats. But deep within, where only they could see, secret wars were being fought over codes and protocols, treaties, amendments, and letters of understanding written by governments that no man remembered. The resources of Old Sweden, hidden in its bedrock, sky, and ocean waters, flickered into Svea-Linnéa’s consciousness. All their powers were hers to draw upon—and draw upon them she would, if she had to. The only reason she hadn’t yet was that she still harbored hopes of saving the child.

“Not all stories have happy endings,” Europa replied. “I suspect this one ends with your steadfast self melted down into a puddle of lead and your infant sword-maiden burnt up like a scrap of paper.”

“That was never my story. I prefer the one about the little girl as strong as ten policemen who can lift up a horse in one hand.” Large Linnéa reached out to touch certain weapons. She was prepared to sacrifice a mountain and more than that if need be. Her opponent, she saw, was making preparations too.

Deep within her, little Linnéa burst into tears. Raising her voice in a wail, she cried, “But what about my troll?” Svea had done her best to protect the child from the darkest of her thoughts, and the dala horse had too. But they could not hide everything from Linnéa, and she knew that Günther was in danger.

Both ladies stopped talking. Svea thought a silent question inward, and the dala horse intercepted it, softened it, and carried it to Linnéa:

What?

“Nobody cares about Günther! Nobody asks what he wants.”

The dala horse carried her words to Svea, and then whispered to little Linnéa: “That was well said.” It had been many centuries since Svea had inhabited human flesh. She did not know as much about people as she once had. In this respect, Europa had her at a disadvantage.

Svea, Linnéa, and the dala horse all bent low to look within Günther. Europa did not try to prevent them. It was evident that she believed they would not like what they saw.

Nor did they. The troll’s mind was a terrible place, half-shattered and barely functional. It was in such bad shape that major aspects of it had to be hidden from Linnéa. Speaking directly to his core self, where he could not lie to her, Svea asked: What is it you want most?

Günther’s face twisted in agony. “I want not to have these terrible memories.”

All in an instant, the triune lady saw what had to be done. She could not kill another land’s citizen. But this request she could honor. In that same instant, a pinpoint-weight of brain cells within Günther’s mind were burnt to cinder. His eyes flew open wide. Then they shut. He fell motionless to the ground.

Europa screamed.

And she was gone.

* * *

Big as she was, and knowing where she was going, and having no reason to be afraid of the roads anymore, it took the woman who was Svea and to a lesser degree the dala horse and to an even lesser degree Linnéa no time at all to cross the mountain and come down on the other side. Singing a song that was older than she was, she let the miles and the night melt beneath her feet.

By mid-morning she was looking down on Godastor. It was a trim little settlement of red and black wooden houses. Smoke wisped up from the chimneys. One of the buildings looked familiar to Linnéa. It belonged to her Far-Mor.

“You are home, tiny one,” Svea murmured, and, though she had greatly enjoyed the sensation of being alive, let herself dissolve to nothing. Behind her, the dala horse’s voice lingered in the air for the space of two words: “Live well.”

Linnéa ran down the slope, her footprints dwindling in the snow and at their end a little girl leaping into the arms of her astonished grandmother.

In her wake lumbered Linnéa’s confused and yet hopeful pet troll, smiling shyly.

THE WAY IT WORKS OUT AND ALL

by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle was born in New York City in 1939. Although not prolific by genre standards, he has published a number of well-received fantasy novels, at least two of which, A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn, were widely influential and are now considered to be classics of the genre. In fact, Beagle may be the most successful writer of lyrical and evocative modern fantasy since Bradbury, and is the winner of two Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards and the Locus Award, as well as having often been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award.

Beagle’s other books include the novels The Folk of the Air, The Innkeeper’s Song, and Tamsin. His short fiction has appeared in places as varied as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Atlantic Monthly, Seventeen, and Ladies’ Home Journal, and has been collected in The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances, Giant Bones, The Line Between, and We Never Talk About My Brother. He won the Hugo Award in 2006 and the Nebula Award in 2007 for his story “Two Hearts.” He has written the screenplays for several movies, including the animated adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Last Unicorn; the libretto of an opera, The Midnight Angel; the fan-favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Sarek”; and a popular autobiographical travel book, I See By My Outfit.

His most recent works are the new collection, Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle, and two long-awaited new novels, Summerlong and I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons.

Here he gives us a loving homage to the late Avram Davidson which features a closely observed and affectionately drawn Davidson as one of the protagonists (the other being Beagle himself), and which draws upon the mythology of one of Davidson’s best novels, Masters of the Maze, where all of time and space is connected by strange subspace tunnels that can be blundered into anywhere, even on a New York City street, even in the mens’ room at Grand Central Terminal.

In the ancient, battered, altogether sinister filing cabinet where I stash stuff I know I’ll lose if I keep it anywhere less carnivorous, there is a manila folder crammed with certain special postcards—postcards where every last scintilla of space not taken by an image or an address block has been filled with tiny, idiosyncratic, yet perfectly legible handwriting, the work of a man whose only real faith lay in the written word (emphasis on the written). These cards are organized by their postmarked dates, and there are long gaps between most of them, but not all: thirteen from March of 1992 were mailed on consecutive days.

A printed credit in the margin on the first card in this set identifies it as coming from the W. G. Reisterman Co. of Duluth, Minnesota. The picture on the front shows three adorable snuggling kittens. Avram Davidson’s message, written in his astonishing hand, fills the still-legible portion of the reverse:

March 4, 1992

Estimado Dom Pedro del Bronx y Las Lineas subterraneos D, A, y F, Grand High Collector of Revenues both Internal and External for the State of North Dakota and Points Beyond:

He always addressed me as “Dom Pedro.”

Maestro!

I write you from the historic precincts of Darkest Albany, where the Erie Canal turns wearily around and trudges back to even Darker Buffalo. I am at present engaged in combing out the utterly disheveled files of the New York State Bureau of Plumbing Designs, Devices, Patterns and Sinks, all with the devious aim of rummaging through New York City’s dirty socks and underwear, in hope of discovering the source of the

There is more—much more—but somewhere between his hand and my mailbox it had been rendered illegible by large splashes of something unknown, perhaps rain, perhaps melting snow, perhaps spilled Stolichnaya, which had caused the ink of the postcard to run and smear. Within the blotched and streaky blurs I could only detect part of a word which might equally have read phlox or physic, or neither. In any case, on the day the card arrived even that characteristic little was good for a chuckle, and a resolve to write Avram more frequently, if his address would just stay still.

But then there came the second card, one day later.

March 5, 1992

Intended solely for the Hands of the Highly Esteemed and Estimated Dom Pedro of the Just As Highly

Esteemed North Bronx, and for such further Hands as he may Deem Worthy, though his taste in Comrades and Associates was Always Rotten, as witness:

Your Absolute Altitude, with or without mice.…

I am presently occupying the top of a large, hairy quadruped, guaranteed by a rather shifty-eyed person to be of the horse persuasion, but there is no persuading it to do anything but attempt to scrape me off against trees, bushes, motor vehicles and other horses. We are proceeding irregularly across the trackless wastes of the appropriately-named

Jornada del Muerto,

in the southwestern quadrant of New Mexico, where I have been advised that a limestone cave entrance makes it possibly possible to address

Here again, the remainder is obliterated, this time by what appears to be either horse or cow manure, though feral camel is also a slight, though unlikely, option. At all events, this postcard too is partially, crucially—and maddeningly—illegible. But that’s really not the point.

The next postcard showed up the following day.

March 6, 1992

To Dom Pedro, Lord of the Riverbanks and Midnight Hayfields, Dottore of Mystical Calligraphy, Lieutenant-Harrier of the Queen’s Coven—greetings!

This epistle comes to you from the Bellybutton of the World—to be a bit more precise, the North Pole—where, if you will credit me, the New York State Civic Drain comes to a complete halt, apparently having given up on ever finding the Northwest Passage. I am currently endeavoring, with the aid of certain Instruments of my own Devising, to ascertain the truth—if any such exists—of the hollow-Earth legend. Tarzan says he’s been there, and if you can’t take the word of an ape-man I should like to know whose word you

can

take, huh? In any case, the entrance to Pellucidar is not my primary goal (though it would certainly be nice finally to have a place to litter, pollute and despoil in good conscience). What I seek, you—faithful Companion of the Bath and Poet Laureate of the High Silly—shall be the first to know when/if I discover it. Betimes, bethink your good self of your bedraggled, besmirched, beshrewed, belabored, and generally

fahrklempt

old friend, at this writing attempting to roust a polar bear out of his sleeping bag, while inviting a comely Eskimo (or, alternatively, Esquimaux, I’m easy) in. Yours in Mithras, Avram, the A.K.

Three postcards in three days, dated one after the other. Each with a different (and genuine—I checked) postmark from three locations spaced so far apart, both geographically and circumstantially, that even the Flash would have had trouble hitting them all within three days, let alone a short, stout, arthritic, asthmatic gentleman of nearly seventy years’ duration. I’m as absent-minded and unobservant as they come, but even I had noticed that improbability before the fourth postcard arrived.

March 7, 1992

Sent by fast manatee up the Japanese Current and down the Humboldt, there at last to encounter the Gulf Stream in its mighty course, and so to the hands of a certain Dom Pedro, Pearl of the Orient, Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, and Master of Hounds and Carburetors to She Who Must Not Be Aggravated.

So how’s by you?

By me, here in East Wimoweh-on-the-Orinoco, alles ist maddeningly almost. I feel myself on the cusp (precisely the region where we were severely discouraged from feeling ourselves, back in Boys’ Town) of at last discovering—wait for it

—the secret plumbing of the world!

No, this has nothing to do with Freemasons, Illuminati, the darkest files and codexes of Mother Church, nor

—ptui, ptui—

the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Of conspiracies and secret societies, there is no end or accounting; but the only one of any account has ever been the Universal International Brotherhood of Sewer Men (in recent years corrected to Sewer Personnel) and Plumbing Contractors. This organization numbers, not merely the people who come to unstop your sink and hack the tree roots out of your septic tank, but the nameless giants who laid the true underpinnings of what we think of as civilization, society, culture. Pipes far down under pipes, tunnels beyond tunnels, vast valves and connections, profound couplings and joints and elbows—all members of the UIBSPPC are sworn to secrecy by the most dreadful oaths and the threat of the most awful penalties for revealing… well, the usual, you get the idea. Real treehouse boys’ club stuff. Yoursley yours, Avram

I couldn’t read the postmark clearly for all the other stamps and postmarks laid over it—though my guess would be Brazil—but you see my point. There was simply no way in the world for him to have sent me those cards from those four places in that length of time. Either he had widely scattered friends, participants in the hoax, mailing them out for him, or… but there wasn’t any or, there couldn’t be, for that idea made no sense. Avram told jokes—some of them unquestionably translated from the Middle Sumerian, and losing something along the way—but he didn’t play jokes, and he wasn’t a natural jokester.

Nine more serially dated postcards followed, not arriving every day, but near enough. By postmark and internal description they had been launched to me from, in order:

Equatorial Guinea

Turkmenistan

Dayton, Ohio

Lvov City in the Ukraine

The Isle of Eigg

Pinar del Río (in Cuba, where Americans weren’t permitted to travel!)

Hobart, capital of the Australian territory of Tasmania

Shigatse, Tibet

And finally, tantalizingly, from Davis, California. Where I actually lived at the time, though nothing in the card’s text indicated any attempt to visit.

After that the flurry of messages stopped, though not my thoughts about them. Trying to unpuzzle the mystery had me at my wits’ rope (a favorite phrase of Avram’s), until the lazy summer day I came around a corner in the Chelsea district of New York City…

… and literally ran into a short, stout, bearded, flatfooted person who seemed almost to have been running, though that was as unlikely a prospect as his determining on a career in professional basketball. It was Avram. He was formally dressed, the only man I knew who habitually wore a tie, vest and jacket that all matched; and if he looked a trifle disheveled, that was equally normal for him. He blinked at me briefly, looked around him in all directions; then said thoughtfully, “A bit close, that was.” To me he said, as though we had dined the night before, or even that morning, “I did warn you the crab salad smelled a bit off, didn’t I?”

It took me a moment of gaping to remember that the last time we had been together was at a somewhat questionable dive in San Francisco’s Mission District, and I’d been showing signs of ptomaine poisoning by the time I dropped him off at home. I said meekly, “So you did, but did I listen? What on earth are you doing here?” He had been born in Yonkers, but felt more at home almost anyplace else, and I couldn’t recall ever being east of the Mississippi with him, if you don’t count a lost weekend in Minneapolis.

“Research,” he said briskly: an atypical adverb to apply to his usual rambling, digressive style of speaking. “Can’t talk. Tomorrow, two-twenty-two, Victor’s.” And he was gone, practically scurrying away down the street—an unlikely verb, this time: Avram surely had never scurried in his life. I followed, at an abnormally rapid pace myself, calling to him; but when I rounded the corner he was nowhere in sight. I stood still, scratching my head, while people bumped into me and said irritated things.

The “two-twenty-two” part I understood perfectly well: it was a running joke between us, out of an ancient burlesque routine. That was when we always scheduled our lunch meetings, neither of us ever managing to show up on time. It was an approximation, a deliberate mockery of precision and exactitude. As for Victor’s Café, that was a Cuban restaurant on West 52nd Street, where they did—and still do—remarkable things with unremarkable ingredients. I had no idea that Avram knew of it.

I slept poorly that night, on the cousin’s couch where I always crash in New York. It wasn’t that Avram had looked frightened—I had never seen him afraid, not even of a bad review—but perturbed, yes… you could have said that he had looked perturbed; even perhaps just a touch flustered. It was distinctly out of character, and Avram out of character worried me. Like a cat, I prefer that people remain where I leave them—not only physically, but psychically as well. But Avram was clearly not where he had been.

I wound up rising early on a blue and already hot morning, made breakfast for my cousin and myself, then killed time as best I could until I gave up and got to Victor’s at a little after one P.M. There I sat at the bar, nursing a couple of Cuban beers, until Avram arrived. The time was exactly two-twenty-two, both on my wrist, and on the clock over the big mirror, and when I saw that, I knew for certain that Avram was in trouble.

Not that he showed it in any obvious way. He seemed notably more relaxed than he had been at our street encounter, chatting easily, while we waited for a table, about our last California vodka-deepened conversation, in which he had explained to me the real reason why garlic is traditionally regarded as a specific against vampires, and the rather shocking historical misunderstandings that this myth had occasionally led to. Which led to his own translation of Vlad Tepes’s private diaries (I never did learn just how many languages Avram actually knew), and thence to Dracula’s personal comments regarding the original Mina Harker… but then the waiter arrived to show us to our table; and by the time we sat down, we were into the whole issue of why certain Nilotic tribes habitually rest standing on one foot. All that was before the Bartolito was even ordered.

It wasn’t until the entrée had arrived that Avram squinted across the table and pronounced, through a mouthful of sweet plantain and black bean sauce, “Perhaps you are wondering why I have called you all here today.” He was doing his mad-scientist voice, which always sounded like Peter Lorre on nitrous oxide.

“Us all were indeed wondering, Big Bwana, sir,” I answered him, making a show of looking left and right at the crowded restaurant. “Not a single dissenting voice.”

“Good. Can’t abide dissension in the ranks.” Avram sipped his wine and focused on me with an absolute intensity that was undiluted by his wild beard and his slightly bemused manner. “You are aware, of course, that I could not possibly have been writing to you from all the destinations that my recent missives indicated.”

I nodded.

Avram said, “And yet I was. I did.”

“Um.” I had to say something, so I mumbled, “Anything’s possible. You know, the French rabbi Rashi—tenth, eleventh century—he was supposed—”

“To be able to walk between the raindrops,” Avram interrupted impatiently. “Yes, well, maybe he did the same thing I’ve done. Maybe he found his way into the Overneath, like me.”

We looked at each other: him waiting calmly for my reaction, me too bewildered to react at all. Finally I said, “The Overneath. Where’s that?” Don’t tell me I can’t come up with a swift zinger when I need to.

“It’s all around us.” Avram made a sweeping semi-circle with his right arm, almost knocking over the next table’s excellent Pinot Grigio—Victor’s does tend to pack them in—and inflicting a minor flesh wound on the nearer diner, since Avram was still holding his fork. Apologies were offered and accepted, along with a somewhat lower-end bottle of wine, which I had sent over. Only then did Avram continue. “In this particular location, it’s about forty-five degrees to your left, and a bit up—I could take you there this minute.”

I said um again. I said, “You are aware that this does sound, as directions go, just a bit like ‘Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.’ No dissent intended.”

“No stars involved.” Avram was waving his fork again. “More like turning left at this or that manhole cover—climbing this stair in this old building—peeing in one particular urinal in Grand Central Station.” He chuckled suddenly, one corner of his mouth twitching sharply upward. “Funny… if I hadn’t taken a piss in Grand Central… hah! Try some of the vaca frita, it’s really good.”

“Stick to pissing, and watch it with that fork. What happened in Grand Central?”

“Well. I shouldn’t have been there, to begin with.” Avram, it could have been said of him, lived to digress, both as artist and companion. “But I had to go—you know how it is—and the toilet in the diner upstairs was broken. So I went on down, into the kishkas of the beast, you could say.…” His eyes had turned thoughtful and distant, looking past me. “That’s really an astonishing place, Grand Central, you know? You ought to think about setting a novel there—you set one in a graveyard, after all—”

“So you were in the Grand Central men’s room—and?” I may have raised my voice a little; people were glancing over at us, but with tolerant amusement, which has not always been the case. “And, maître?”

“Yes. And.” The eyes were suddenly intent again, completely present and focused; his own voice lower, even, deliberate. “And I walked out of that men’s room through that same door where in I went—” he could quote the Rubáiyát in the damnedest contexts—“and walked into another place. I wasn’t in Grand Central Station at all.”

I’d seen a little too much, and known him far too long, not to know when he was serious. I said simply, “Where were you?”

“Another country,” Avram repeated. “I call it the Overneath, because it’s above us and around us and below us, all at the same time. I wrote you about it.”

I stared at him.

“I did. Remember the Universal International Brotherhood of Sewer Persons and Plumbing Contractors? The sub-basement of reality—all those pipes and valves and tunnels and couplings, sewers and tubes… the everything other than everything? That’s the Overneath, only I wasn’t calling it that then—I was just finding my way around, I didn’t know what to call it. Got to make a map.…” He paused, my bafflement and increasing anxiety obviously having become obvious. “No, no, stop that. I’m testy and peremptory, and sometimes I can be downright fussy—I’ll go that far—but I’m no crazier than I ever was. The Overneath is real, and by gadfrey I will take you there when we’re done here. You having dessert?”

I didn’t have dessert. We settled up, complimented the chef, tipped the waiter, and strolled outside into an afternoon turned strangely… not foggy, exactly, but indefinite, as though all outlines had become just a trifle uncertain, willing to debate their own existence. I stopped where I was, shaking my head, taking off my glasses to blow on them and put them back on. Beside me, Avram gripped my arm hard. He said, quietly but intensely, “Now. Take two steps to the right, and turn around.”

I looked at him. His fingers bit into my arm hard enough to hurt. “Do it!”

I did as he asked, and when I turned around, the restaurant was gone.

I never learned where we were then. Avram would never tell me. My vision had cleared, but my eyes stung from the cold, dust-laden twilight wind blowing down an empty dirt road. All of New York—sounds, smells, voices, texture—had vanished with Victor’s Café. I didn’t know where we were, nor how we’d gotten there; but I suppose it’s a good thing to have that depth of terror over with, because I have never been that frightened, not before and not since. There wasn’t a living thing in sight, nor any suggestion that there ever had been. I can’t even tell you to this day how I managed to speak, to make sounds, to whisper a dry-throated “Where are we?” to Avram. Just writing about it brings it all back—I’m honestly trembling as I set these words down.

Avram said mildly, “Shit. Must have been three steps right. Namporte,” which was always his all-purpose reassurance in uneasy moments. “Just walk exactly in my footsteps and do me after me.” He started on along the road—which, as far as I could see, led nowhere but to more road and more wind—and I, terrified of doing something wrong and being left behind in this dreadful place, mimicked every step, every abrupt turn of the head or arthritic leap to the side, like a child playing hopscotch. At one point, Avram even tucked up his right leg behind him and made the hop on one foot; so did I.

I don’t recall how long we kept this up. What I do recall, and wish I didn’t, was the moment when Avram suddenly stood very still—as, of course, did I—and we both heard, very faintly, a kind of soft, scratchy padding behind us. Every now and then the padding was broken by a clicking sound, as though claws had crossed a patch of stone.

Avram said, “Shit” again. He didn’t move any faster—indeed, he put a hand out to check me when I came almost even with him—but he kept looking more and more urgently to the left, and I could see the anxiety in his eyes. I remember distracting myself by trying to discern, from the rhythm of the sound, whether our pursuer was following on two legs or four. I’ve no idea today why it seemed to matter so much, but it did then.

“Keep moving,” Avram said. He was already stepping out ahead of me, walking more slowly now, so that I, constantly looking back—as he never did—kept stepping on the backs of his shoes. He held his elbows tightly against his body and reached out ahead of him with hands and forearms alone, like a recently blinded man. I did what he did.

Even now… even now, when I dream about that terrible dirt road, it’s never the part about stumbling over things that I somehow knew not to look at too closely, nor the unvarying soft clicking just out of sight behind us… no, it’s always Avram marching ahead of me, making funny movements with his head and shoulders, his arms prodding and twisting the air ahead of him like bread dough. And it’s always me tailing along, doing my best to keep up, while monitoring every slightest gesture, or what even looks like a gesture, intentional or not. In the dream, we go on and on, apparently without any goal, without any future.

Suddenly Avram cried out, strangely shrilly, in a language I didn’t know—which I imitated as best I could—then did a complete hopscotch spin-around, and actually flung himself down on the hard ground to the left. I did the same, jarring the breath out of myself and closing my eyes for an instant. When I opened them again, he was already up, standing on tiptoe—I remember thinking, Oh, that’s got to hurt, with his gout—and reaching up as high as he could with his left hand. I did the same… felt something hard and rough under my fingers… pulled myself up, as he did…

… and found myself in a different place, my left hand still gripping what turned out to be a projecting brick in a tall pillar. We were standing in what felt like a huge railway station, its ceiling arched beyond my sight, its walls dark and blank, with no advertisements, nor even the name of the station. Not that the name would have meant much, because there were no railroad tracks to be seen. All I knew was that we were off the dirt road; dazed with relief, I giggled absurdly—even a little crazily, most likely. I said, “Well, I don’t remember that being part of the Universal Studios tour.”

Avram drew a deep breath, and seemed to let out more air than he took in. He said, “All right. That’s more like it.”

“More like what?” I have spent a goodly part of my life being bewildered, but this remains the gold standard. “Are we still in the Overneath?”

“We are in the hub of the Overneath,” Avram said proudly. “The heart, if you will. That place where we just were, it’s like a local stop in a bad part of town. This… from here you can get anywhere at all. Anywhere. All you have to do is—” he hesitated, finding an image—“point yourself properly, and the Overneath will take you there. It helps if you happen to know the exact geographical coordinates of where you want to go—” I never doubted for a moment that he himself did—“but what matters most is to focus, to feel the complete and unique reality of that particular place, and then just… be there.” He shrugged and smiled, looking a trifle embarrassed. “Sorry to sound so cosmic and one-with-everything. I was a long while myself getting the knack of it all. I’d aim for Machu Picchu and come out in Capetown, or try for the Galapagos and hit Reykjavik, time after time. Okay, tovarich, where in the world would you like to—”

“Home,” I said before he’d even finished the question. “New York City, West Seventy-ninth Street. Drop me off at Central Park, I’ll walk from there.” I hesitated, framing my question. “But will we just pop out of the ground there, or shimmer into existence, or what? And will it be the real Seventy-ninth Street, or… or not? Mon capitaine, there does seem to be a bit of dissension in the ranks. Talk to me, Big Bwana, sir.”

“When you met me in Chelsea,” Avram began; but I had turned away from him, looking down to the far end of the station—as I still think of it—where, as I hadn’t before, I saw human figures moving. Wildly excited, I waved to them, and was about to call out when Avram clapped his hand over my mouth, pulling me down, shaking his head fiercely, but speaking just above a whisper. “You don’t want to do that. You don’t ever want to do that.”

“Why not?” I demanded angrily. “They’re the first damn people we’ve seen—”

“They aren’t exactly people.” Avram’s voice remained low, but he was clearly ready to silence me again, if need be. “You can’t ever be sure in the Overneath.”

The figures didn’t seem to be moving any closer, but I couldn’t see them any better, either. “Do they live here? Or are they just making connections, like us? Catching the red-eye to Portland?”

Avram said slowly, “A lot of people use the Overneath, Dom Pedro. Most are transients, passing through, getting from one place to another without buying gas. But… yes, there are things that live here, and they don’t like us. Maybe for them it’s ‘there goes the neighborhood,’ I don’t know—there’s so much I’m still learning. But I’m quite clear on the part about the distaste… and I think I could wish that you hadn’t waved quite so.”

There was movement toward us now—measured, but definitely concerted. Avram was already moving himself, more quickly than I could recall having seen him. “This way!” he snapped over his shoulder, leading me, not back to the pillar which had received us into this nexus of the Overneath, but away, back into blind dark that closed in all around, until I felt as if we were running down and down a subway tunnel with a train roaring close behind us, except that in this case the train was a string of creatures whose faces I’d made the mistake of glimpsing just before Avram and I fled. He was right about them not being people.

We can’t have run very far, I think now. Apart from the fact that we were already exhausted, Avram had flat feet and gout, and I had no wind worth mentioning. But our pursuers seemed to fall away fairly early, for reasons I can’t begin to guess—fatigue? boredom? the satisfaction of having routed intruders in their world?—and we had ample excuse for slowing down, which our bodies had already done on their own. I wheezed to Avram, “Is there another place like that one?”

Even shaking his head in answer seemed an effort. “Not that I’ve yet discovered. Namporte—we’ll just get home on the local. All will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Avram hated T.S. Eliot, and had permanently assigned the quotation to Shakespeare, though he knew better.

I didn’t know what he meant by “the local,” until he suddenly veered left, walked a kind of rhomboid pattern—with me on his heels—and we were again on a genuine sidewalk on a warm late-spring afternoon. There were little round tables and beach umbrellas on the street, bright pennants twitching languidly in a soft breeze that smelled faintly of nutmeg and ripening citrus, and of the distant sea. And there were people: perfectly ordinary men and women, wearing slacks and sport coats and sundresses, sitting at the little tables, drinking coffee and wine, talking, smiling at each other, never seeming to take any notice of us. Dazed and drained, swimming in the scent and the wonder of sunlight, I said feebly, “Paris? Malaga?”

“Croatia,” Avram replied. “Hvar Island—big tourist spot, since the Romans. Nice place.” Hands in his pockets, rocking on his heels, he glanced somewhat wistfully at the holidaymakers. “Don’t suppose you’d be interested in staying on awhile?” But he was starting away before I’d even shaken my head, and he wasn’t the one who looked back.

Traveling in darkness, we zigzagged and hedge-hopped between one location and the next, our route totally erratic, bouncing us from Croatia to bob up in a music store in Lapland… a wedding in Sri Lanka… the middle of a street riot in Lagos… an elementary-school classroom in Bahia. Avram was flying blind; we both knew it, and he never denied it. “Could have gotten us home in one jump from the hub—I’m a little shaky on the local stops; really need to work up a proper map. Namporte, not to worry.”

And, strangely, I didn’t. I was beginning—just beginning—to gain his sense of landmarks: of the Overneath junctures, the crossroads, detours and spur lines where one would naturally turn left or right to head here, spin around to veer off there, or trust one’s feet to an invisible stairway, up or down, finally emerging in that completely unexpected landscape. Caroming across the world as we were, it was difficult not to feel like a marble in a pinball machine, but in general we did appear to be working our way more or less toward the east coast of North America. We celebrated with a break in a Liverpool dockside pub, where the barmaid didn’t look twice at Avram’s purchase of two pints of porter, and didn’t look at me at all. I was beginning to get used to that, but it still puzzled me, and I said so.

“The Overneath’s grown used to me,” Avram explained. “That’s one thing I’ve learned about the Overneath—it grows, it adapts, same as the body can adapt to a foreign presence. If you keep using it, it’ll adapt to you the same way.”

“So right now the people here see you, but can’t see me.”

Avram nodded. I said, “Are they real? Are all these places we’ve hit—these local stops of yours—are they real? Do they go on existing when nobody from—what? outside, I guess—is passing through? Is this an alternate universe, with everybody having his counterpart here, or just a little something the Overneath runs up for tourists?” The porter was quite real, anyway, if warm, and my deep swig almost emptied my glass. “I need to know, mon maître.

Avram sipped his own beer and coughed slightly; and I realized with a pang how much older than I he was, and that he had absolutely no business being a pinball—nor the only true adventurer I’d ever known. No business at all. He said, “The alternate-universe thing, that’s bullshit. Or if it isn’t, doesn’t matter—you can’t get there from here.” He leaned forward. “You know about Plato’s Cave, Dom Pedro?”

“The people chained to the wall in the cave, just watching shadows all their lives? What about it?”

“Well, the shadows are cast by things and people coming and going outside the cave, which those poor prisoners never get to see. The shadows are their only notion of reality—they live and die never seeing anything but those shadows, trying to understand the world through shadows. The philosopher’s the one who stands outside the cave and reports back. You want another beer?”

“No.” Suddenly I didn’t even want to finish the glass in my hand. “So our world, what we call our world… it might be nothing but the shadow of the Overneath?”

“Or the other way around. I’m still working on it. If you’re finished, let’s go.”

We went outside, and Avram stood thoughtfully staring at seven and a half miles of docks and warehouses, and seeming to sniff the gray air. I said, “My mother’s family set off for America from here. I think it took them three weeks.”

“We’ll do better.” He was standing with his arms folded, mumbling to himself: “No way to get close to the harbor, damn it… too bad we didn’t fetch up on the other side of the Mersey… best thing would be… best thing… no… I wonder.…”

Abruptly he turned and marched us straight back into the pub, where he asked politely for the loo. Directed, he headed down a narrow flight of stairs; but, to my surprise, passed by the lavatory door and kept following the stairway, telling me over his shoulder, “Most of these old pubs were built over water, for obvious reasons. And don’t ask me why, not yet, but the Overneath likes water.…” I was smelling damp earth now, earth that had never been quite dry, perhaps for hundreds of years. I heard a throb nearby that might have been a sump pump of some sort, and caught a whiff of sewage that was definitely not centuries old. I got a glimpse of hollow darkness ahead, and thought wildly, Christ, it’s a drain! That’s it, we’re finally going right down the drain.…

Avram hesitated at the bottom of the stair, cocking his head back like a gun hammer. Then it snapped forward, and he grunted in triumph and led me, not into my supposed drain, but to the side of it, into an apparent wall through which we passed with no impediment, except a slither of stones under our feet. The muck sucked at my shoes—long since too far gone for my concern—as I plodded forward in Avram’s wake. Having to stop and cram them back on scared me, because he just kept slogging on, never looking back. Twice I tripped and almost fell over things that I thought were rocks or branches; both times they turned out to be large, recognizable, disturbingly splintered bones. I somehow kept myself from calling Avram’s attention to them, because I knew he’d want to stop and study them, and pronounce on their origin and function, and I didn’t need that. I already knew what they were.

In time the surface became more solid under my feet, and the going got easier. I asked, half-afraid to know, “Are we under the harbor?”

“If we are, we’re in trouble,” Avram growled. “It’d mean I missed the… no, no, we’re all right, we’re fine, it’s just—” His voice broke off abruptly, and I could feel rather than see him turning, as he peered back down the way we had come. He said, very quietly, “Well, damn.…”

“What? What?” Then I didn’t need to ask anymore, because I heard the sound of a foot being pulled out of the same mud I’d squelched through. Avram said, “All this way. They never follow that far… could have sworn we’d lost it in Lagos.…” Then we heard the sound again, and Avram grabbed my arm, and we ran.

The darkness ran uphill, which didn’t help at all. I remember my breath like stones in my lungs and chest, and I remember a desperate desire to stop and bend over and throw up. I remember Avram never letting go of my arm, literally dragging me with him… and the panting that I thought was mine, but that wasn’t coming from either of us.…

“Here!” Avram gasped. “Here!” and he let go and vanished between two boulders—or whatever they really were—so close together that I couldn’t see how there could be room for his stout figure. I actually had to give him a push from behind, like Rabbit trying to get Pooh Bear out of his burrow; then I got stuck myself, and he grabbed me and pulled… and then we were both stuck there, and I couldn’t breathe, and something had hold of my left shoe. Then Avram was saying, with a calmness that was more frightening than any other sound, even the sound behind me, “Point yourself. You know where we’re going—point and jump.…

And I did. All I can remember is thinking about the doorman under the awning at my cousin’s place… the elevator… the color of the couch where I would sleep when I visited… a kind of hissing howl somewhere behind… a shiver, as though I were dissolving… or perhaps it was the crevice we were jammed into dissolving…

… and then my head was practically in the lap of Alice on her mushroom: my cheek on smooth granite, my feet somewhere far away, as though they were still back in the Overneath. I opened my eyes in darkness—but a warm, different darkness, smelling of night grass and engine exhaust—and saw Avram sprawled intimately across the Mad Hatter. I slid groggily to the ground, helped to disentangle him from Wonderland, and we stood silently together for a few moments, watching the headlights on Madison Avenue. Some bird was whooping softly but steadily in a nearby tree, and a plane was slanting down into JFK.

“Seventy-fifth,” Avram said presently. “Only off by four blocks. Not bad.”

“Four blocks and a whole park.” My left shoe was still on—muck and all—but the heel was missing, and there were deep gouges in the sole. I said, “You know, I used to be scared to go into Central Park at night.”

We didn’t see anyone as we trudged across the park to the West Side, and we didn’t say much. Avram wondered aloud whether it was tonight or tomorrow night. “Time’s a trifle hiccupy in the Overneath, I never know how long.…” I said we’d get a paper and find out, but I don’t recall that we did.

We parted on Seventy-ninth Street: me continuing west to my cousin’s building, and Avram evasive about his own plans, his own New York destination. I said, “You’re not going back there.” It was not a question, and I may have been a little loud. “You’re not.

He reassured me instantly—“No, no, I just want to walk for a while, just walk and think. Look, I’ll call you tomorrow, at your cousin’s, give me the number. I promise, I’ll call.”

He did, too, from a pay phone, telling me that he was staying with old family friends in Yonkers, and that we’d be getting together in the Bay Area when we both got back. But we never did; we spoke on the phone a few times, but I never saw him again. I was on the road, in Houston, when I heard about his death.

I couldn’t get home for the funeral, but I did attend the memorial. There were a lot of obituaries—some in the most remarkable places—and a long period of old friends meeting, formally and informally, to tell stories about Avram and drink to his memory. That still goes on today; it never did take more than two of us to get started, and sometimes I hold one all by myself.

And no, I’ve never made any attempt to return to the Overneath. I try not to think about it very much. It’s easier than you might imagine: I tell myself that our adventure never really happened, and by the time I’m decently senile I’ll believe it. When I’m in New York and pass Grand Central Station I never go in, on principle. Whatever the need, it can wait.

But he went back into the Overneath, I’m sure—to work on his map, I suppose, and other things I can’t begin to guess at. As to how I know.…

Avram died on May 8th, 1993, just fifteen days after his seventieth birthday, in his tiny dank apartment in Bremerton, Washington. He closed his eyes and never opened them again. There was a body, and a coroner’s report, and official papers and everything: books closed, doors locked, last period dotted in the file.

Except that a month later, when the hangover I valiantly earned during and after the memorial was beginning to seem merely colorful in memory rather than willfully obtuse, I got a battered postcard in the mail. It’s in the file with the others. A printed credit in the margin identifies it as coming from the Westermark Press of Stone Heights, Pennsylvania. The picture on the front shows an unfrosted angel food cake decorated with a single red candle. The postmark includes the flag of Cameroon. And on the back, written in that astonishing, unmistakable hand, is an impossible message.

May 9, 1993

To the Illustrissimo Dom Pedro, Companero de Todos mis Tonterias and Skittles Champion of Pacific Grove (Senior Division), Greetings!

It’s a funny thing about that Cave parable of Plato’s. The way it works out and all. Someday I’ll come show you.

Years have passed with nothing further… but I still take corners slowly, just in case.

All corners.

Anywhere.

THE ICE OWL

by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Carolyn Ives Gilman has sold stories to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Universe, Full Spectrum, Realms of Fantasy, Bending the Landscape, and elsewhere. She is the author of five nonfiction books on frontier and American Indian history, and two SF novels, Halfway Human and Arkfall. Her most recent novels are Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles. She lives in St. Louis, where she works as a museum exhibition developer.

Here she gives us a moody and melancholy story—one that resonates with echoes of loss, of worlds vanished and loved ones destroyed, even of genocide—about a young girl, living with her irresponsible mother in a slum neighborhood in a city on an alien planet, who meets an old man with an enigmatic past who eventually becomes her tutor and mentor, and who will end up changing her life forever in unexpected ways.

Twice a day, stillness settled over the iron city of Glory to God as the citizens turned west and waited for the world to ring. For a few moments the motionless red sun on the horizon, half-concealed by the western mountains, lit every face in the city: the just-born and the dying, the prisoners and the veiled, the devout and the profane. The sound started so low it could only be heard by the bones; but as the moments passed the metal city itself began to ring in sympathetic harmony, till the sound resolved into a note—The Note, priests said, sung by the heart of God to set creation going. Its vibratory mathematics embodied all structure; its pitch implied all scales and chords; its beauty was the ovum of all devotion and all faithlessness. Nothing more than a note was needed to extrapolate the universe.

The Note came regular as clockwork, the only timebound thing in a city of perpetual sunset.

On a ledge outside a window in the rustiest part of town, crouched one of the ominous cast-iron gargoyles fancied by the architects of Glory to God—or so it seemed until it moved. Then it resolved into an adolescent girl dressed all in black. Her face was turned west, her eyes closed in a look of private exaltation as The Note reverberated through her. It was a face that had just recently lost the chubbiness of childhood, so that the clean-boned adult was beginning to show through. Her name, also a recent development, was Thorn. She had chosen it because it evoked suffering and redemption.

As the bell tones whispered away, Thorn opened her eyes. The city before her was a composition in red and black: red of the sun and the dust-plain outside the girders of the dome; black of the shadows and the works of mankind. Glory to God was built against the cliff of an old crater and rose in stairsteps of fluted pillars and wrought arches till the towers of the Protectorate grazed the underside of the dome where it met the cliff face. Behind the distant, glowing windows of the palaces, twined with iron ivy, the priest-magistrates and executives lived unimaginable lives—though Thorn still pictured them looking down on all the rest of the city, on the smelteries and temples, the warring neighborhoods ruled by militias, the veiled women, and at the very bottom, befitting its status, the Waster enclave where unrepentent immigrants like Thorn and her mother lived, sunk in a bath of sin. The Waste was not truly of the city, except as a perennial itch in its flesh. The Godly said it was the sin, not the oxygen, that rusted everything in the Waste. A man who came home with a red smudge on his clothes might as well have been branded with the address.

Thorn’s objection to her neighborhood lay not in its sin, which did not live up to its reputation, but its inauthenticity. From her rooftop perch she looked down on its twisted warrens full of coffee shops, underground publishers, money launderers, embassies, tattoo parlors, and art galleries. This was the ninth planet she had lived on in her short life, but in truth she had never left her native culture, for on every planet the Waster enclaves were the same. They were always a mother lode of contraband ideas. Everywhere, the expatriate intellectuals of the Waste were regarded as exotic and dangerous, the vectors of infectious transgalactic ideas—but lately, Thorn had begun to find them pretentious and phony. They were rooted nowhere, pieces of cultural bricolage. Nothing reached to the core; it was all veneer, just like the rust.

Outside, now—she looked past the spiked gates into Glory to God proper—there lay dark desires and age-old hatreds, belief so unexamined it permeated every tissue like a marinade. The natives had not chosen their beliefs; they had inherited them, breathed them in with the iron dust in their first breath. Their struggles were authentic ones.

Her eyes narrowed as she spotted movement near the gate. She was, after all, on lookout duty. There seemed to be more than the usual traffic this afternote, and the cluster of young men by the gate did not look furtive enough to belong. She studied them through her pocket binoculars and saw a telltale flash of white beneath one long coat. White, the color of the uncorrupted.

She slipped back through the gable window into her attic room, then down the iron spiral staircase at the core of the vertical tower apartment. Past the fifth-floor closets and the fourth-floor bedrooms she went, to the third-floor offices. There she knocked sharply on one of the molded sheet-iron doors. Within, there was a thump, and in a moment Maya cracked it open enough to show one eye.

“There’s a troop of Incorruptibles by the gate,” Thorn said.

Inside the office, a woman’s voice gave a frightened exclamation. Thorn’s mother turned and said in her fractured version of the local tongue, “Worry not yourself. We make safely go.” She then said to Thorn, “Make sure the bottom door is locked. If they come, stall them.”

Thorn spun down the stair like a black tornado, past the living rooms to the kitchen on street level. The door was locked, but she unlocked it to peer out. The alarm was spreading down the street. She watched signs being snatched from windows, awnings rolled up, and metal grills rumbling down across storefronts. The crowds that always pressed from curb to curb this time of day had vanished. Soon the stillness of impending storm settled over the street. Then Thorn heard the faraway chanting, like premonitory thunder. She closed and locked the door.

Maya showed up, looking rumpled, her lovely honey-gold hair in ringlets. Thorn said, “Did you get her out?” Maya nodded. One of the main appeals of this apartment had been the hidden escape route for smuggling out Maya’s clients in emergencies like this.

On this planet, as on the eight before, Maya earned her living in the risky profession of providing reproductive services. Every planet was different, it seemed, except that on all of them women wanted something that was forbidden. What they wanted varied: here, it was babies. Maya did a brisk business in contraband semen and embryos for women who needed to become pregnant without their infertile husbands guessing how it had been accomplished.

The chanting grew louder, harsh male voices in unison. They watched together out the small kitchen window. Soon they could see the approaching wall of men dressed in white, marching in lockstep. The army of righteousness came even with the door, then passed by. Thorn and Maya exchanged a look of mutual congratulation and locked little fingers in their secret handshake. Once again, they had escaped.

Thorn opened the door and looked after the army. An assortment of children was tagging after them, so Maya said, “Go see what they’re up to.”

The Incorruptibles had passed half a dozen potential targets by now: the bank, the musical instrument store, the news service, the sex shop. They didn’t pause until they came to the small park that lay in the center of an intersection. Then the phalanx lined up opposite the school. With military precision, some of them broke the bottom windows and others lit incendiary bombs and tossed them in. They waited to make sure the blaze was started, then gave a simultaneous shout and marched away, taking a different route back to the gate.

They had barely left when the Protectorate fire service came roaring down the street to put out the blaze. This was not, Thorn knew, out of respect for the school or for the Waste, which could have gone up in flame wholesale for all the authorities cared; it was simply that in a domed city, a fire anywhere was a fire everywhere. Even the palaces would have to smell the smoke and clean up soot if it were not doused quickly. Setting a fire was as much a defiance of the Protectorate as of the Wasters.

Thorn watched long enough to know that the conflagration would not spread, and then walked back home. When she arrived, three women were sitting with Maya at the kitchen table. Two of them Thorn knew: Clarity and Bick, interstellar wanderers whose paths had crossed Thorn’s and Maya’s on two previous planets. The first time, they had been feckless coeds; the second time, seasoned adventurers. They were past middle age now, and had become the most sensible people Thorn had ever met. She had seen them face insurrection and exile with genial good humor and a cannister of tea.

Right now their teapot was filling the kitchen with a smoky aroma, so Thorn fished a mug out of the sink to help herself. Maya said, “So what were the Incorruptibles doing?”

“Burning the school,” Thorn said in a seen-it-all-before tone. She glanced at the third visitor, a stranger. The woman had a look of timeshock that gave her away as a recent arrival in Glory to God via lightbeam from another planet. She was still suffering from the temporal whiplash of waking up ten or twenty years from the time she had last drawn breath.

“Annick, this is Thorn, Maya’s daughter,” Clarity said. She was the talkative, energetic one of the pair; Bick was the silent, steady one.

“Hi,” Thorn said. “Welcome to the site of Creation.”

“Why were they burning the school?” Annick said, clearly distressed by the idea. She had pale eyes and a soft, gentle face. Thorn made a snap judgment: Annick was not going to last long here.

“Because it’s a vector of degeneracy,” Thorn said. She had learned the phrase from Maya’s current boyfriend, Hunter.

“What has happened to this planet?” Annick said. “When I set out it was isolated, but not regressive.”

They all made sympathetic noises, because everyone at the table had experienced something similar. Lightbeam travel was as fast as the universe allowed, but even the speed of light had a limit. Planets inevitably changed during transit, not always for the better. “Waster’s luck,” Maya said fatalistically.

Clarity said, “The Incorruptibles are actually a pretty new movement. It started among the conservative academics and their students, but they have a large following now. They stand against the graft and nepotism of the Protectorate. People in the city are really fed up with being harrassed by policemen looking for bribes, and corrupt officials who make up new fees for everything. So they support a movement that promises to kick the grafters out and give them a little harsh justice. Only it’s bad news for us.”

“Why?” Annick said. “Wouldn’t an honest government benefit everyone?”

“You’d think so. But honest governments are always more intrusive. You can buy toleration and personal freedom from a corrupt government. The Protectorate leaves this Waster enclave alone because it brings them profit. If the Incorruptibles came into power, they’d have to bow to public opinion and exile us, or make us conform. The general populace is pretty isolationist. They think our sin industry is helping keep the Protectorate in power. They’re right, actually.”

“What a Devil’s bargain,” Annick said.

They all nodded. Waster life was full of irony.

“What’s Thorn going to do for schooling now?” Clarity asked Maya.

Maya clearly hadn’t thought about it. “They’ll figure something out,” she said vaguely.

Just then Thorn heard Hunter’s footsteps on the iron stairs, and she said to annoy him, “I could help Hunter.”

“Help me do what?” Hunter said as he descended into the kitchen. He was a lean and angle-faced man with square glasses and a small goatee. He always dressed in black and could not speak without sounding sarcastic. Thorn thought he was a poser.

“Help you find Gmintas, of course,” Thorn said. “That’s what you do.”

He went over to the Turkish coffee machine to brew some of the bitter, hyperstimulant liquid he was addicted to. “Why can’t you go to school?” he said.

“They burned it down.”

“Who did?”

“The Incorruptibles. Didn’t you hear them chanting?”

“I was in my office.”

He was always in his office. It was a mystery to Thorn how he was going to locate any Gminta criminals when he disdained going out and mingling with people. She had once asked Maya, “Has he ever actually caught a Gminta?” and Maya had answered, “I hope not.”

All in all, though, he was an improvement over Maya’s last boyfriend, who had absconded with every penny of savings they had. Hunter at least had money, though where it came from was a mystery.

“I could be your field agent,” Thorn said.

“You need an education, Thorn,” Clarity said.

“Yes,” Hunter agreed. “If you knew something, you might be a little less annoying.”

“People like you give education a bad name,” Thorn retorted.

“Stop being a brat, Tuppence,” Maya said.

“That’s not my name anymore!”

“If you act like a baby, I’ll call you by your baby name.”

“You always take his side.”

“You could find her a tutor,” Clarity said. She was not going to give up.

“Right,” Hunter said, sipping inky liquid from a tiny cup. “Why don’t you ask one of those old fellows who play chess in the park?”

“They’re probably all pedophiles!” Thorn said in disgust.

“On second thought, maybe it’s better to keep her ignorant,” Hunter said, heading up the stairs again.

“I’ll ask around and see who’s doing tutoring,” Clarity offered.

“Sure, okay,” Maya said noncommittally.

Thorn got up, glowering at their lack of respect for her independence and self-determination. “I am captain of my own destiny,” she announced, then made a strategic withdrawal to her room.

* * *

The next forenote Thorn came down from her room in the face-masking veil that women of Glory to God all wore, outside the Waste. When Maya saw her, she said, “Where are you going in that getup?”

“Out,” Thorn said.

In a tone diluted with real worry, Maya said, “I don’t want you going into the city, Tup.”

Thorn was icily silent till Maya said, “Sorry—Thorn. But I still don’t want you going into the city.”

“I won’t,” Thorn said.

“Then what are you wearing that veil for? It’s a symbol of bondage.”

“Bondage to God,” Thorn said loftily.

“You don’t believe in God.”

Right then Thorn decided that she would.

When she left the house and turned toward the park, the triviality of her home and family fell away like lint. After a block, she felt transformed. Putting on the veil had started as a simple act of rebellion, but out in the street it became far more. Catching her reflection in a shop window, she felt disguised in mystery. The veil intensified the imagined face it concealed, while exoticizing the eyes it revealed. She had become something shadowy, hidden. The Wasters all around her were obsessed with their own surfaces, with manipulating what they seemed to be. All depth, all that was earnest, withered in the acid of their inauthenticity. But with the veil on, Thorn had no surface, so she was immune. What lay behind the veil was negotiated, contingent, rendered deep by suggestion.

In the tiny triangular park in front of the blackened shell of the school, life went on as if nothing had changed. The tower fans turned lazily, creating a pleasant breeze tinged a little with soot. Under their strutwork shadows, two people walked little dogs on leashes, and the old men bent over their chessboards. Thorn scanned the scene through the slit in her veil, then walked toward a bench where an old man sat reading from an electronic slate.

She sat down on the bench. The old man did not acknowledge her presence, though a watchful twitch of his eyebrow told her he knew she was there. She had often seen him in the park, dressed impeccably in threadbare suits of a style long gone. He had an oblong, drooping face and big hands that looked as if they might once have done clever things. Thorn sat considering what to say.

“Well?” the old man said without looking up from his book. “What is it you want?”

Thorn could think of nothing intelligent to say, so she said, “Are you a historian?”

He lowered the slate. “Only in the sense that we all are, us Wasters. Why do you want to know?”

“My school burned down,” Thorn said. “I need to find a tutor.”

“I don’t teach children,” the old man said, turning back to his book.

“I’m not a child!” Thorn said, offended.

He didn’t look up. “Really? I thought that’s what you were trying to hide, behind that veil.”

She took it off. At first he paid no attention. Then at last he glanced up indifferently, but saw something that made him frown. “You are the child that lives with the Gminta hunter.”

His cold tone made her feel defensive on Hunter’s behalf. “He doesn’t hunt all Gmintas,” she said, “just the wicked ones who committed the Holocide. The ones who deserve to be hunted.”

“What do you know about the Gmintan Holocide?” the old man said with withering dismissal.

Thorn smiled triumphantly. “I was there.”

He stopped pretending to read and looked at her with bristly disapproval. “How could you have been there?” he said. “It happened 141 years ago.”

“I’m 145 years old, sequential time,” Thorn said. “I was 37 when I was five, and 98 when I was seven, and 126 when I was twelve.” She enjoyed shocking people with this litany.

“Why have you moved so much?”

“My mother got pregnant without my father’s consent, and when she refused to have an abortion he sued her for copyright infringement. She’d made unauthorized use of his genes, you see. So she ducked out to avoid paying royalties, and we’ve been on the lam ever since. If he ever caught us, I could be arrested for having bootleg genes.”

“Who told you that story?” he said, obviously skeptical.

“Maya did. It sounds like something one of her boyfriends would do. She has really bad taste in men. That’s another reason we have to move so much.”

Shaking his head slightly, he said, “I should think you would get cognitive dysplasia.”

“I’m used to it,” Thorn said.

“Do you like it?”

No one had ever asked her that before, as if she was capable of deciding for herself. In fact, she had known for a while that she didn’t like it much. With every jump between planets she had grown more and more reluctant to leave sequential time behind. She said, “The worst thing is, there’s no way of going back. Once you leave, the place you’ve stepped out of is gone forever. When I was eight I learned about pepcies, that you can use them to communicate instantaneously, and I asked Maya if we could call up my best friend on the last planet, and Maya said, ‘She’ll be middle-aged by now.’ Everyone else had changed, and I hadn’t. For a while I had dreams that the world was dissolving behind my back whenever I looked away.”

The old man was listening thoughtfully, studying her. “How did you get away from Gmintagad?” he asked.

“We had Capellan passports,” Thorn said. “I don’t remember much about it; I was just four years old. I remember drooping cypress trees and rushing to get out. I didn’t understand what was happening.”

He was staring into the distance, focused on something invisible. Suddenly, he got up as if something had bitten him and started to walk away.

“Wait!” Thorn called. “What’s the matter?”

He stopped, his whole body tense, then turned back. “Meet me here at four hours forenote tomorrow, if you want lessons,” he said. “Bring a slate. I won’t wait for you.” He turned away again.

“Stop!” Thorn said! “What’s your name?”

With a forbidding frown, he said, “Soren Pregaldin. You may call me Magister.”

“Yes, Magister,” Thorn said, trying not to let her glee show. She could hardly wait to tell Hunter that she had followed his advice, and succeeded.

What she wouldn’t tell him, she decided as she watched Magister Pregaldin stalk away across the park, was her suspicion that this man knew something about the Holocide. Otherwise, how would he have known it was exactly 141 years ago? Another person would have said 140, or something else vague. She would not mention her suspicion to Hunter until she was sure. She would investigate carefully, like a competent field agent should. Thinking about it, a thrill ran through her. What if she were able to catch a Gminta? How impressed Hunter would be! The truth was, she wanted to impress Hunter. For all his mordant manner, he was by far the smartest boyfriend Maya had taken up with, the only one with a profession Thorn had ever been able to admire.

She fastened the veil over her face again before going home, so no one would see her grinning.

* * *

Magister Pregaldin turned out to be the most demanding teacher Thorn had ever known. Always before, she had coasted through school, easily able to stay ahead of the indigenous students around her, always waiting in boredom for them to catch up. With Magister Pregaldin there was no one else to wait for, and he pushed her mercilessly to the edge of her abilities. For the first time in her life, she wondered if she were smart enough.

He was an exacting drillmaster in mathematics. Once, when she complained at how useless it was, he pointed out beyond the iron gridwork of the dome to a round black hill that was conspicuous on the red plain of the crater bed. “Tell me how far away the Creeping Ingot is.”

The Creeping Ingot had first come across the horizon almost a hundred years before, slowly moving toward Glory to God. It was a near-pure lump of iron the size of a small mountain. In the Waste, the reigning theory was that it was molten underneath, and moving like a drop of water skitters across a hot frying pan. In the city above them, it was regarded as a sign of divine wrath: a visible, unstoppable Armageddon. Religious tourists came from all over the planet to see it, and its ever-shrinking distance was posted on the public sites. Thorn turned to her slate to look it up, but Magister Pregaldin made her put it down. “No,” he said, “I want you to figure it out.”

“How can I?” she said. “They bounce lasers off it or something to find out where it is.”

“There is an easier way, using tools you already have.”

“The easiest way is to look it up!”

“No, that is the lazy way.” His face looked severe. “Relying too much on free information makes you as vulnerable as relying too much on technology. You should always know how to figure it out yourself, because information can be falsified, or taken away. You should never trust it.”

So he was some sort of information survivalist. “Next you’ll want me to use flint to make fire,” she grumbled.

“Thinking for yourself is not obsolete. Now, how are you going to find out? I will give you a hint: you don’t have enough information right now. Where are you going to get it?”

She thought a while. It had to use mathematics, because that was what they had been talking about. At last she said, “I’ll need a tape measure.”

“Right.”

“And a protractor.”

“Good. Now go do it.”

It took her the rest of forenote to assemble her tools, and the first part of afternote to observe the ingot from two spots on opposite ends of the park. Then she got one of the refuse-picker children to help her measure the distance between her observation posts. Armed with two angles and a length, the trigonometry was simple. When Magister Pregaldin let her check her answer, it was more accurate than she had expected.

He didn’t let on, but she could tell that he was, if anything, even more pleased with her success than she was herself. “Good,” he said. “Now, if you measured more carefully and still got an answer different from the official one, you would have to ask yourself whether the Protectorate had a reason for falsifying the Ingot’s distance.”

She could see now what he meant.

“That old Vind must be a wizard,” Hunter said when he found Thorn toiling over a math problem at the kitchen table. “He’s figured out some way of motivating you.”

“Why do you think he’s a Vind?” Thorn said.

Hunter gave a caustic laugh. “Just look at him.”

She silently added that to her mental dossier on her tutor. Not a Gminta, then. A Vind—one of the secretive race of aristocrat intellectuals who could be found in government, finance, and academic posts on almost every one of the Twenty Planets. All her life Thorn had heard whispers about a Vind conspiracy to infiltrate positions of power under the guise of public service. She had heard about the secret Vind sodality of interplanetary financiers who siphoned off the wealth of whole planets to fund their hegemony. She knew Maya scoffed at all of it. Certainly, if Magister Pregaldin was an example, the Vind conspiracy was not working very well. He seemed as penniless as any other Waster.

But being Vind did not rule out his involvement in the Holocide—it just meant he was more likely to have been a refugee than a perpetrator. Like most planets, Gmintagad had had a small, elite Vind community, regarded with suspicion by the indigenes. The massacres had targeted the Vinds as well as the Alloes. People didn’t talk as much about the Vinds, perhaps because the Vinds didn’t talk about it themselves.

Inevitably, Thorn’s daily lessons in the park drew attention. One day they were conducting experiments in aerodynamics with paper airplanes when a man approached them. He had a braided beard strung with ceramic beads that clacked as he walked. Magister Pregaldin saw him first, and his face went blank and inscrutable.

The clatter of beads came to rest against the visitor’s silk kameez. He cleared his throat. Thorn’s tutor stood and touched his earlobes in respect, as people did on this planet. “Your worship’s presence makes my body glad,” he said formally.

The man made no effort to be courteous in return. “Do you have a license for this activity?”

“Which activity, your worship?”

“Teaching in a public place.”

Magister Pregaldin hesitated. “I had no idea my conversations could be construed as teaching.”

It was the wrong answer. Even Thorn, watching silently, could see that the proper response would have been to ask how much a license cost. The man was obviously fishing for a bribe. His face grew stern. “Our blessed Protectorate levies just fines on those who flout its laws.”

“I obey all the laws, honorable sir. I will cease to give offense immediately.”

The magister picked up his battered old electronic slate and, without a glance at Thorn, walked away. The man from the Protectorate considered Thorn, but evidently concluded he couldn’t extract anything from her, and so he left.

Thorn waited till the official couldn’t see her anymore, then sprinted after Magister Pregaldin. He had disappeared into Weezer Alley, a crooked passageway that Thorn ordinarily avoided because it was the epicenter of depravity in the Waste. She plunged into it now, searching for the tall, patrician silhouette of her tutor. It was still forenote, and the denizens of Weezer Alley were just beginning to rise from catering to the debaucheries of yesternote’s customers. Thorn hurried past a shop where the owner was beginning to lay out an array of embarrassingly explicit sex toys; she tried not to look. A little beyond, she squeamishly skirted a spot where a shopkeeper was scattering red dirt on a half-dried pool of vomit. Several dogleg turns into the heart of the sin warren, she came to the infamous Garden of Delights, where live musicians were said to perform. No one from the Protectorate cared much about prostitution, since that was mentioned in their holy book; but music was absolutely forbidden.

The gate into the Garden of Delights was twined about with iron snakes. On either side of it stood a pedestal where dancers gyrated during open hours. Now a sleepy she-man lounged on one of them, stark naked except for a bikini that didn’t hide much. Hisher smooth skin was almost completely covered with the vinelike and paisley patterns of the decorative skin fungus mycochromoderm. Once injected, it was impossible to remove. It grew as long as its host lived, in bright scrolls and branching patterns. It had been a Waster fad once.

The dancer regarded Thorn from lizardlike eye slits in a face forested over with green and red tendrils. “You looking for the professor?” heshe asked.

Thorn was a little shocked that her cultivated tutor was known to such an exhibitionist creature as this, but she nodded. The she-man gestured languidly at a second-story window across the street. “Tell him to come visit me,” heshe said, and bared startlingly white teeth.

Thorn found the narrow doorway almost hidden behind an awning and climbed the staircase past peeling tin panels that once had shown houris carrying a huge feather fan. When she knocked on the door at the top, there was no response at first, so she called out, “Magister?”

The door flew open and Magister Pregaldin took her by the arm and yanked her in, looking to make sure she had not been followed. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“No one saw me,” she said. “Well, except for that… that…” she gestured across the street.

Magister Pregaldin went to the window and looked out. “Oh, Ginko,” he said.

“Why do you live here?” Thorn said. “There are lots better places.”

The magister gave a brief, grim little smile. “Early warning system,” he said. “As long as the Garden is allowed to stay in business, no one is going to care about the likes of me.” He frowned sternly. “Unless you get me in trouble.”

“Why didn’t you bribe him? He would have gone away.”

“I have to save my bribes for better causes,” he said. “One can’t become known to the bottom-feeders, or they get greedy.” He glanced out the window again. “You have to leave now.”

“Why?” she said. “All he said was you need a license to teach in public. He didn’t say anything about teaching in private.”

Magister Pregaldin regarded her with a complex expression, as if he were trying to quantify the risk she represented. At last he gave a nervous shrug. “You must promise not to tell anyone. I am serious. This is not a game.”

“I promise,” Thorn said.

She had a chance then to look around. Up to now, her impression had been of a place so cluttered that only narrow lanes were left to move about the room. Now she saw that the teetering stacks all around her were constructed of wondrous things. There were crystal globes on ormolu stands, hand-knotted silk rugs piled ten high, clocks with malachite cases stacked atop towers of leather-and-gilt books. There was a copper orrery of nested bands and onyx horses rearing on their back legs, and a theremin in a case of brushed aluminum. A cloisonné ewer as tall as Thorn occupied one corner. In the middle hung a chandelier that dripped topaz swags and bangles, positioned so that Magister Pregaldin had to duck whenever he crossed the room.

“Is all this stuff yours?” Thorn said, dazzled with so much wonder.

“Temporarily,” he said. “I am an art dealer. I make sure things of beauty get from those who do not appreciate them to those who do. I am a matchmaker, in a way.” As he spoke, his fingers lightly caressed a sculpture made from an ammonite fossil with a human face emerging from the shell. It was a delicate gesture, full of reverence, even love. Thorn had a sudden, vivid feeling that this was where Magister Pregaldin’s soul rested—with his things of beauty.

“If you are to come here, you must never break anything,” he said.

“I won’t touch,” Thorn said.

“No, that’s not what I meant. One must touch things, and hold them, and work them. Mere looking is never enough. But touch them as they wish to be touched.” He handed her the ammonite fossil. It was surprisingly heavy, and its curve fit perfectly in her hand. The face looked surprised when she held it up before her, and she laughed.

Most of the walls were as crowded as the floor, with paintings hung against overlapping tapestries and guidons. But one wall was empty except for a painting that hung alone, as if in a place of honor. As Thorn walked toward it, it seemed to shift and change colors with every change of angle. It showed a young girl with long black hair and a serious expression, about Thorn’s age but far more beautiful and fragile.

Seeing where she was looking, Magister Pregaldin said, “The portrait is made of butterfly wings. It is a type of artwork from Vindahar.”

“Is that the home world of the Vind?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know who she is?”

“Yes,” he said hesitantly. “But it would mean nothing to you. She died a long time ago.”

There was something in his voice—was it pain? No, Thorn decided, something less acute, like the memory of pain. It lay in the air after he stopped speaking, till even he heard it.

“That is enough art history for today,” he said briskly. “We were speaking of airplanes.”

* * *

That afternote, Hunter was out on one of his inscrutable errands. Thorn waited till Maya was talking to one of her friends and crept up to Hunter’s office. He had a better library than anyone she had ever met, a necessary thing on this planet where there were almost no public sources of knowledge. Thorn was quite certain she had seen some art books in his collection. She scanned the shelves of disks and finally took down one that looked like an art encyclopedia. She inserted it into the reader and typed in “butterfly” and “Vindahar.”

There was a short article from which she learned that the art of butterfly-wing painting had been highly admired, but was no longer practiced because the butterflies had gone extinct. She went on to the illustrations—and there it was. The very same painting she had seen earlier that day, except lit differently, so that the colors were far brighter and the girl’s expression even sadder than it had seemed.

Portrait of Jemma Diwali, the caption said. An acknowledged masterpiece of technique, this painting was lost in GM 862, when it was looted from one of the homes of the Diwali family. According to Almasy, the representational formalism of the subject is subtly circumvented by the transformational perspective, which creates an abstractionist counter-layer of imagery. It anticipates the “chaos art” of Dunleavy… It went on about the painting as if it had no connection to anything but art theory. But all Thorn cared about was the first sentence. GM 862—the year of the Gmintan Holocide.

Jemma was staring at her gravely, as if there were some implied expectation on her mind. Thorn went back to the shelves, this time for a history of the Holocide. It seemed like there were hundreds of them. At last she picked one almost at random and typed in “Diwali.” There were uninformative references to the name scattered throughout the book. From the first two, she gathered that the Diwalis had been a Vind family associated with the government on Gmintagad. There were no mentions of Jemma.

She had left the door ajar and now heard the sounds of Hunter returning downstairs. Quickly she re-cased the books and erased her trail from the reader. She did not want him to find out just yet. This was her mystery to solve.

There wasn’t another chance to sneak into Hunter’s office before she returned to Magister Pregaldin’s apartment on Weezer Alley. She found that he had cleared a table for them to work at, directly underneath the stuffed head of a creature with curling copper-colored horns. As he checked over the work she had done the note before, her eyes were drawn irresistibly to the portrait of Jemma across the room.

At last he caught her staring at it, and their eyes met. She blurted out, “Did you know that painting comes from Gmintagad?”

A shadow of frost crossed his face. But it passed quickly, and his voice was low and even when he said, “Yes.”

“It was looted,” Thorn said. “Everyone thought it was lost.”

“Yes, I know,” he said.

Accusatory thoughts were bombarding her. He must have seen them, for he said calmly, “I collect art from the Holocide.”

“That’s macabre,” she said.

“A great deal of significant art was looted in the Holocide. In the years after, it was scattered, and entered the black markets of a dozen planets. Much of it was lost. I am reassembling a small portion of it, whatever I can rescue. It is very slow work.”

This explanation altered the picture Thorn had been creating in her head. Before, she had seen him as a scavenger feeding on the remains of a tragedy. Now he seemed more like a memorialist acting in tribute to the dead. Regretting what she had been thinking, she said, “Where do you find it?”

“In curio shops, import stores, estate sales. Most people don’t recognize it. There are dealers who specialize in it, but I don’t talk to them.”

“Don’t you think it should go back to the families that owned it?”

He hesitated a fraction of a second, then said, “Yes, I do.” He glanced over his shoulder at Jemma’s portrait. “If one of them existed, I would give it back.”

“You mean they’re all dead? Every one of them?”

“So far as I can find out.”

That gave the artwork a new quality. To its delicacy, its frozen-flower beauty, was added an iron frame of absolute mortality. An entire family, vanished. Thorn got up to go look at it, unable to stay away.

“The butterflies are all gone, too,” she said.

Magister Pregaldin came up behind her, looking at the painting as well. “Yes,” he said. “The butterflies, the girl, the family, the world, all gone. It can never be replicated.”

There was something exquisitely poignant about the painting now. The only surviving thing to prove that they had all existed. She looked up at Magister Pregaldin. “Were you there?”

He shook his head slowly. “No. It was before my time. I have always been interested in it, that’s all.”

“Her name was Jemma,” Thorn said. “Jemma Diwali.”

“How did you find that out?” he asked.

“It was in a book. A stupid book. It was all about abstractionist counter-layers and things. Nothing that really explained the painting.”

“I’ll show you what it was talking about,” the magister said. “Stand right there.” He positioned her about four feet from the painting, then took the lamp and moved it to one side. As the light moved, the image of Jemma Diwali disappeared, and in its place was an abstract design of interlocking spirals, spinning pinwheels of purple and blue.

Thorn gave an exclamation of astonishment. “How did that happen?”

“It is in the microscopic structure of the butterfly wings,” Magister Pregaldin explained. “Later, I will show you one under magnification. From most angles they reflect certain wavelengths of light, but from this one, they reflect another. The skill in the painting was assembling them so they would show both images. Most people think it was just a feat of technical virtuosity, without any meaning.”

She looked at him. “But that’s not what you think.”

“No,” he said. “You have to understand, Vind art is all about hidden messages, layers of meaning, riddles to be solved. Since I have had the painting here, I have been studying it, and I have identified this pattern. It was not chosen randomly.” He went to his terminal and called up a file. A simple algebraic equation flashed onto the screen. “You solve this equation using any random number for X, then take the solution and use it as X to solve the equation again, then take that number and use it to solve the equation again, and so forth. Then you graph all the solutions on an X and Y axis, and this is what you get.” He hit a key and an empty graph appeared on the screen. As the machine started to solve the equation, little dots of blue began appearing in random locations on the screen. There appeared to be no pattern at all, and Thorn frowned in perplexity.

“I’ll speed it up now,” Magister Pregaldin said. The dots started appearing rapidly, like sleet against a window or sand scattered on the floor. “It is like graphing the result of a thousand dice throws, sometimes lucky, sometimes outside the limits of reality, just like the choices of a life. You spend the first years buffeted by randomness, pulled this way by parents, that way by friends, all the variables squabbling and nudging, quarreling till you can’t hear your own mind. And then, patterns start to appear.”

On the screen, the dots had started to show a tendency to cluster. Thorn could see the hazy outlines of spiral swirls. As more and more dots appeared in seemingly random locations, the pattern became clearer and clearer.

Magister Pregaldin said, “As the pattern fills in, you begin to see that the individual dots were actually the pointillist elements of something beautiful: a snowflake, or a spiral, or concentric ripples. There is a pattern to our lives; we just experience it out of order, and don’t have enough data at first to see the design. Our path forward is determined by this invisible artwork, the creation of a lifetime of events.”

“You mean, like fate?” Thorn said.

“That is the question.” Her tutor nodded gravely, staring at the screen. The light made his face look planar and secretive. “Does the pattern exist before us? Is our underlying equation predetermined, or is it generated by the results of our first random choice for the value of X? I can’t answer that.”

The pattern on the screen was clear now; it was the same one hidden under the portrait. Thorn glanced from one to the other. “What does this have to do with Jemma?”

“Another good question,” Magister Pregaldin said thoughtfully. “I don’t know. Perhaps it was a message to her from the artist, or a prediction—one that never had a chance to come true, because she died before she could find her pattern.”

Thorn was silent a moment, thinking of that other girl. “Did she die in the Holocide?”

“Yes.”

“Did you know her?”