To the writers of the Wooden Whale
And to friend and former roommate Larry Hackman, who gave me the gloomy tag-line


And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.

—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces


Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick


(Yes, Mr. Melville, I would. A cataract of sand, especially one the size of Niagara Falls, would be mind-bogglingly cool.)


The best is the enemy of the good.




Thanks to Khalid Shaukat for calculating the Islamic date. Thanks to A. A. Milne for Zunctweed. Thanks to Howard Gardner (no relation) for his theory of multiple intelligences, reflected here in aspects of the way psionic powers work. Thanks to John McMullen and Anton Kostechne for creative uses of nanotechnology. Thanks to Derwin Mak for winning the auction and dying so colorfully. Thanks to Linda Carson, Richard Curtis, and Jennifer Brehl for the usual editorial advice.

Death Hotel really exists, and I'm glad I got the chance to put it into a story. My only regret is that I couldn't work in one other tidbit about the Hotel: it sits close to a pioneer cemetery with a special gate designed to prevent witches from stealing corpses. Two hundred years ago, witches were supposedly incapable of turning sharp corners, so the gate forced people to turn sharply several times on their way in or out.

It must have been a great annoyance to pallbearers.


Earth: Town of Simka, Feliss Province

One day before the spring equinox

2457 A.D.



It began, as many things do, in a tavern: about eight o'clock on a Friday evening, in The Pot of Gold on Post-Hoc Lane in Simka. Contrary to its end-of-the-rainbow name, The Pot of Gold was a dreary blood-clot of a place—the sort of vomitous swill-hole where the lamps had to be locked in wire cages to prevent drunks from swigging the kerosene, where the tapman's only insurance policy was a trio of flintlock pistols worn on a grease-smudged bandoleer, and where the Steel Caryatid squashed a cockroach <BANG> with her tankard before asking, "Why would anyone go on a quest?"

"For glory," said Sir Pelinor.

"For God," said Sister Impervia.

"For kicks," said Myoko Namida.

"For Gretchen Kinnderboom," said I, "provided the task didn't take too much effort, and Gretchen promised to be extravagantly grateful."

The Caryatid slapped my foot (which was propped on the table beside her). "Be serious, Phil," she told me. "I'm talking about real, honest-to-goodness quests, not trotting down to Dover-on-Sea to fetch peach-scented soap."

I sat up straighter. "They've got a new supply of peach-scented soap?"

"Vanity, vanity," murmured Sister Impervia, whose own taste in soap could be described as "The more lye, the better."

"We're talking about quests," said the Caryatid, "and I don't understand why a sane person would go on one. Not that anyone at this table qualifies as sane."

Sir Pelinor socked on his mustache, producing a wheezy, bubbling sound that was amusing the first time I heard it, irritating the next dozen times, totally maddening the three hundred times after that, and now a source of complete indifference. "Depends what you call a quest," he said. "Suppose a village hereabouts was having trouble with a largish animal—a bear, perhaps, or a cougar. I wouldn't call it insane to gather a few friends and go hunt down the beast."

"Especially," Myoko added, "if the villagers offered a reward."

"Or suppose," Sister Impervia said, "a gang of heathen bandits stole St. Judith's jawbone from the academy chapel. Wouldn't we be honorbound to organize a party and retrieve the saint's remains?"

The Caryatid made a face. "Those aren't quests, they're errands. You'd leave such business to the town watch... if Simka had a real town watch, instead of Whisky Jess and the Paunch That Walks Like a Man. I'm not talking about junkets to the countryside, I mean real live quests."

"What qualifies as a real live quest?" Myoko asked. "Finding the Holy Grail? Slaying the Jabberwock?"

"Saw a Jabberwock once," Sir Pelinor said with another mustache-suck. "Rusty mechanical thing in the remains of an OldTech amusement park. Four hundred years ago, parents paid for their kiddies to ride its back. No wonder OldTech society collapsed—if I'd seen that monster when I was a child, I wouldn't have slept again till I was twenty."

"I don't care about your Jabberwock," the Caryatid said. "I don't care about quests at all."

"Then why," Myoko asked, "do you keep talking about them?"

"Because," the Caryatid answered, staring moodily at the cockroach guts on the table, "this afternoon I had a sort of a prophecy kind of thing."

"Uh-oh," said the other four of us in unison... even Sister Impervia, who's theologically obliged to treat prophecies as Precious Gifts From Heaven. We all knew the Caryatid had flashes of second sight; alas, her gift of prophecy only raised its head when something really ugly was about to happen.

I won't bother you with the full story of how the Caryatid got this way, but here's the gist: twenty years ago, when she still had a normal name and was doing her bachelor's in thaumaturgy, the Caryatid got shanghaied into a necromantic experiment run by a grad student. Like most sorcerous projects, this one required a long disgusting ritual... and partway through a procedure involving two tubs of lard and a hand-puppet, the grad student lost his nerve and ran shrieking from the room. Our friend Caryatid managed to slide off the pony and shut down the calliope before she could be incinerated by eldritch forces; but the experience gave her a serious sunburn and an incurable case of the premonitions.

Personally, I have nothing against premonitions if they provide useful information about the future... like whether your partner has a stopper in spades, or if Gretchen Kinnderboom will be in a forthcoming mood two weekends hence. But the Caryatid never foresaw anything helpful; she only perceived disasters, and then only when it was too late to avert them.

An illustrative example: at Feliss Academy's most recent staff party, all of us teachers had just finished dinner when a trout skeleton on the Caryatid's plate proclaimed, "You're sure going to regret eating me." The entire faculty rose as one, hied ourselves to the closest commode, and desperately stuck our fingers down our throats. Alas, to no avail—everyone from the chancellor down to the lowest lecturer in Latin literature succumbed to a dose of the trots.

If the Caryatid had received another vision of the future, the only sensible response was bowel-chilling dread. We therefore sat in clenched silence for at least a count of ten before anyone mustered the nerve to speak. Finally, it was Pelinor who ventured to ask the obvious: "So, er... what did this sort of a prophecy kind of thing say?"

"Well..." The Caryatid kept her gaze on the crushed cockroach rather than making eye contact with the rest of us. "I was in the lab cleaning up after Freshman Class 4A—"

"May they burn in hell for eternity," Sister Impervia said.

We looked at her curiously.

"It's book report week," she explained.

We all said, "Ahh!"

"I was cleaning up after Freshman 4A," the Caryatid resumed, "and I peeked into the crucible of Two-Jigger Volantés... you know him?"

We nodded. I had no direct acquaintance with the unfortunate Mr. Volantés, but word gets around. The Freshman collective unconscious had appointed Two-Jigger the Official Class Goat—the brunt of their jokes, the person nobody sat with at mealtimes, and the one whose underclothes were most often on display atop the school's flag pole.

"So what I found in the crucible," continued the Caryatid, "was what I call Goat Stew. Someone always convinces the Class Goat you can make an infallible love potion from eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog... the whole Scottish formula. Let me tell you, that does not make a love potion."

"What does it make?" asked Pelinor.

"Blind newts, lame frogs, cold bats, and a cocker spaniel who makes god-awful sucking sounds when he's trying to drink from his dish. So I'm staring at this mess when suddenly the newt's eye turns my way. Then the dog's tongue says, You're going on a quest?"

"Do dogs have deep voices?" Pelinor asked. "I've always wondered. It stands to reason a Chihuahua would have a higher voice than a bloodhound, but if you got, say, a male Doberman and a female, would the male be a bass and the female an alto? Or would they both be baritones?"

"This particular dog was a tenor," said the Caryatid. "I don't know its breed or gender. So it told me—"

"Did it have an accent?" Pelinor asked.

"No," the Caryatid snapped. "And it had flawless diction, even though it didn't have lips or a larynx, all right? It told me, You're going on a quest. I said, What kind of quest? and it answered, A dangerous one. I asked, Why on Earth would I go on a dangerous quest? It said, Hey, lady, I may be a talking dog tongue, but I'm no mindreader."

"Don't you just hate it," Myoko murmured, "when animal parts get uppity?"

"So," the Caryatid went on, "I say, What's this quest about? The tongue tells me, Love, courage, meaning... the usual. A lot of good that does me. Details, I say, give me details! The tongue wiggles around like a long strip of bacon, then finally gasps out, Future cloudy: ask again later."

"That was the end?" Myoko asked.

"I thought so," the Caryatid said. "But as I set down the crucible, a piece of chalk flew into the air and scrawled on the blackboard, Your friends have to go too."

Myoko and I groaned. Pelinor and Impervia exercised more restraint, but both showed noticeable bulges around their jaws as their teeth clenched. "Well," said Pelinor after a few moments' silence, "a quest, eh? What jolly fun."

We all glared at him. None of us truly believed his "knight of the realm" persona—rumor had it he was a retired corporal from the Feliss border patrol, and he'd faked both his résumé and his accent to get the cushy post of academy armsmaster. Still, he did his job well... and one had to admire the way he gamely kept up the facade of being a sword-sworn crusader. "Never fret," he told us, "a little adventure is just the thing to chase away our winter blues: battling monsters, righting wrongs..."

"Finding lost treasure..." Myoko added.

"Doing God's work..." Impervia put in.

"And perhaps impressing Gretchen Kinnderboom," I finished. "Won't that be ducky."

The Caryatid sighed. "If nothing else, maybe we'll be too busy slaying dragons to proctor final exams."

"I'll drink to that!" Myoko said, her face cheering up. "To our quest—may it get us out of promotion meetings."

All five of us clanked cups and tankards with exaggerated enthusiasm... trying to pretend we weren't terrified.


"Why are you so goddamned happy?" growled a voice from the door.

We turned. Three burly gentlemen had just entered, accompanied by the pungent odor of rancid fish—probably boat workers who'd docked at Dover-on-Sea and headed straight to Simka because of our higher quality night life (i.e., ladies of the evening who still looked female after they'd removed their clothes). These particular fishermen had already sampled copious liquid refreshment at other drinking holes, judging by the volume of their voices and the way they slurred their words.

"I'm afraid," said Myoko, "it's hard to explain the reason for our toast."

" 'It's hard to explain,' " the most voluble fisherman repeated, mimicking her voice and accent. "You come from that goddamned school, don't you?"

"We're teachers there, yes."

The talkative fisherman sneered. "So you sit around all day, kissing the arses of rich goddamned thumbsuckers who think they're too good for a normal school."

Sister Impervia pushed back her chair. "That is three times you've said 'goddamned.' The clergy occasionally debate whether such talk is truly blasphemous or simply vulgar, but they're universally agreed it's ignorant and rude."

"Are you calling me ignorant and rude?"

"Also drunk and smelly," Impervia said.

The tapman behind the bar removed a flintlock from his bandoleer and thumbed back the hammer. "Closing time," he announced.

"What the hell?" said the fisherman.

"The bar owner says to close this time every night."

"What time?"

"Thirty seconds before the fight." The tapman pointed his pistol at the newcomers. "We reopen thirty seconds after. Come back if you're still on your feet."

"If!" The head fisherman looked at the five of us, then emitted what would be called a Hearty Guffaw by anyone who didn't disdain words like Hearty. And Guffaw. "These pantywaists," the man said, "will fall down if I breathe on them."

"Quite possibly," Impervia replied. "On the other hand, we have little to fear from your fists."

"Out," said the tapman. "Now."

We complied, taking a roundabout route to the door so we didn't pass within arm's reach of the fishermen. In the doorway, Impervia turned back to the tapman. "Could you please make more tea while we're gone? We'll be back before it's cold."

The lead fisherman made a belligerent sound and blustered angrily after us.


The odds were five against three in our favor, so I strode out to Post-Hoc Lane without too much trepidation. Alas, the spring in my step turned to icy black winter as soon as I reached the cold cobblestones. By the light of the block's single streetlamp, I saw seven more fishermen weaving toward us: six of them human, one not.

The nonhuman was a half-height yellow alien, mostly hominid-shaped but with tangerinelike spheres on the top of his head in lieu of Homo sapiens ears. He belonged to one of the Divian subspecies, but I couldn't tell which—I've never been an expert on extraterrestrials. Suffice it to say, this fellow was yet another descendant of spacefarers who FTLed in to exploit our planet after OldTech civilization collapsed, and who got trapped here when the Spark Lords put Earth into lockdown. Since then, all aliens had come to be called "demons"... or more accurately, "slaves." The ET coming toward us was probably owned by one of the other fishermen, or perhaps by the captain of their boat; there were plenty of slave-aliens in the Dover fishing fleet, and many of them fit in so well they were allowed to go drinking with the rest of the crew.

So the Divian and his six buddies tottered drunkenly down the street Add in the three from the tavern, and that made the odds ten-to-five against us. "I think we just got outnumbered," I said.

"Maybe," Myoko whispered, "that bunch are from a rival fishing boat and they'll side with us against these other lollies."

"Hey, are you calling us lollies?" shouted a keen-eared someone at our backs.

"What's that?" yelled the Divian, clearly one of the boys even if he was a slave. "Something wrong there, Nathan?"

"Nothing wrong," replied the most outspoken man behind us. "We just got some eggheads to crack."

The new group roared their approval. "Goddamned time we found a fight in this town! They insult you, Nathan?"

"They sure did," answered the one called Nathan. "They didn't like the smell of fish."

"To be accurate," said Impervia, "I have nothing against the smell of fish. It was your odor I found objectionable."

Myoko sighed. "That line Blessed are the peacemakers went right over your head, didn't it, Impervia."

Before the good sister could answer, Nathan loosed a mighty bellow and charged straight at her.

Given that I haven't described Impervia, you might be picturing her as some elderly antique: the sort of wizened gray-haired woman who gravitates to the teaching profession for the love of smacking young knuckles with a ruler. Nothing could be further from the truth... except the part about smacking knuckles. Impervia was twenty-six and as lean as a bullwhip, with black skin and blacker hair shaved within a millimeter of her scalp. Between classes, she had a fondness for dropping behind her desk and doing one-armed push-ups until the next bell rang.

Impervia's Holy Order claimed to be spiritual descendants of the Shaolin monks, those soft-speaking folks who gave the world kung fu. I suspected this claim was false; for one thing, the Shaolins were Buddhist while Impervia was a Handmaid of the Magdalene. (Basically Christian, but with some exotic notions about Mary Magdalene being "purified" by Jesus and thereafter divine herself: the Trinity's Spirtia Sancta.) More likely, the early Magdalenes thought the Shaolin name would give them added credibility, so they invented a fictitious lineage tracing their sect back to China. I judged this more probable than any genuine historical connection... but I never told Impervia I doubted her kung fu heritage. Whether she was true Shaolin or not, she could still kick a bull's testicles straight through its body and out the ring on its nose.

This explains why none of us tried to help the good sister as bull-like Nathan charged forward. In fact, we retreated to give Impervia more room. I planted my back against the door of a chandler's shop across the street and prepared to contribute to the fight by playing referee.

Impervia met the fisherman's charge in a businesslike kickboxing pose, fists up, chin down: no showy Crane-stance/Dragon-stance nonsense when she had real opponents to scuttle. She wore loose black clothing and black leather gloves—the gloves protected her against winter's cold, but also against getting her hands carved up in forceful collisions with an opponent's teeth. Nathan, in contrast, had no special fighting outfit, and attacked like a man who was

(a) drunk; and

(b) experienced only in fighting other drunks.

As a result, he took a single clumsy swipe at our friend: an ill-defined move that might have been a punch, a slap, or an attempt to grab her throat Impervia sidestepped and smartly tossed a jab to the man's nose, a palm-heel to his floating ribs, and a full-force stomp on his foot. Not surprisingly, Nathan fell to the cobblestones, with nothing more than a grunting gulp. It was only two seconds later that he began howling obscenities.

"Why doesn't she ever try a good hard knee to the groin?" Myoko asked, slipping into the doorway beside me.

"She says it's overrated," I replied. "First, it's not the guaranteed man-dropper everyone believes—many men can shrug off the pain, especially under the influence of drink, dope, or adrenaline. Second, experienced bar brawlers often stuff their crotches with padding before they go to the pub; they intend to get into fights, so they protect the family jewels. Third, a groin attack is the only fighting maneuver a man can block instinctively. It takes practice to cope with a punch to one's face, but every male in the world has a built-in reflex to avoid getting kicked in the balls."

"What an education Impervia is," Myoko said admiringly.

At that moment, Impervia was educating the other two men who'd accompanied Nathan into the tavern. One of these men learned what it felt like to have an ax kick fracture his collarbone; the other came to a greater understanding of how a fist to the solar plexus can paralyze the nerves required for breathing. The kicked man staggered back cursing, but the recipient of the gut punch simply dropped to the pavement making surprised little wheezes.

Impervia's speed, skill, and strength also made an impression on the remaining seven fishermen—her flying fists looked like blurs. Then again, even a snail might have struck that group as blurry: all seven had reached the stumblebum stage of intoxication, and I think they knew it. No doubt they still felt obliged to help their friends, but none wanted to be first into the fray.

While those at the front of the fisherman pack hesitated, I caught sight of a metallic glint somewhere to the rear. The globe-eared Divian had pulled out a big fancy broadsword he must have had sheathed down his back. "Blade!" I shouted. "The alien's got a sword."

"On my way," Pelinor said.

Pelinor, of course, had a sword of his own. Pelinor also had armor, though he wasn't wearing it at the moment—one doesn't wander the back streets of Simka dressed up for a coronation. If, however, a coronation spontaneously broke out, Pelinor's room on the far side of town held enough arms and armor to equip a complete honor guard. In his decades of wandering as a knight errant (or more likely, impounding contraband on our province's border and keeping the best for himself), our school armsmaster had amassed an eclectic assortment of war-toys: everything from curare-tipped blow-darts to a slightly dented Sig-Sauer P-220 autoloader... sans bullets, alas, but still quite splendid for administering an effective pistol-whip.

Tonight, Pelinor carried a simple cutlass—heavy as a meat cleaver but with a lot more reach... in case you wanted to chop pork from a distance. The pork in question (i.e., the Divian) shoved past his comrades and prepared to thrust his sword at Impervia; but before the blade could strike home, Pelinor's cutlass was there, slapping away the weapon with a loud metallic clank.

"A true swordsman doesn't attack an unarmed opponent," Pelinor said. "A true swordsman tests his mettle against an evenly matched foe."

The Divian just blinked at those words, his eyelids flicking from the bottom up instead of top down. Perhaps on his home-planet far across the galaxy, nature had never evolved the concept of "fair fight." His species might be more at home with the "leap from the shadows, stab in the back" school of combat. Still, the Divian collected himself with commendable speed and made a tentative stab in Pelinor's direction.

Even I could see it was a graceless attack; the alien held his weapon awkwardly, as if he'd never used it before. Perhaps he was hampered by the decorative fripperies on the sword's pommel—a profusion of braid and curlicues that must have interfered with getting a good grip. It looked more like a ceremonial weapon than a practical tool in rough-and-tumble situations. A cynic might even suspect the sword had been acquired under questionable circumstances, by mugging a wealthy merchant or drawing a hidden ace out of a shirt cuff. The weapon looked too ornate and expensive for an ET slave to own legitimately.

But no matter how the Divian got his sword, Pelinor parried the attack easily, exactly the way he did when facing a freshman who couldn't tell her quarte from her quinte. "Slant your blade slightly upward," our armsmaster said. "See how easily <CLANG> I can knock the sword down <WHANG> if you don't keep up the tip? <BANG> That's right, just a little tilt. Not too much, though, or I can bap the blade back into your... <TWANG> Sorry, did I hit your nose?"

Pelinor had clearly ensured he didn't hit the alien's nose. He'd given his cutlass an extra twist so the Divian's weapon would turn and slap with the flat of the blade. This was, after all, a bar fight with drunks, and neither Impervia nor Pelinor wanted to dole out life-threatening injuries. Therefore, Pelinor used some quick flicking strikes to separate the sword-wielding extraterrestrial from the rest of his fellows, making it less likely the others would get accidentally nicked.

This left Impervia with nine opponents, three of whom were already nursing wounds while the remaining six wobbled half a beer short of passing out. It was now an even contest... barely. Six against one made for hefty odds, even when the six were staggery-sloppily stewed.

You must understand one crucial point: Impervia was undoubtedly faster and tougher than your average lager lout, but she was, in the end, just a schoolteacher. Not a professional fighter. Not an elite commando. Not even a third-order Magdalene, one of those select women within her sisterhood who were trained for "specialized" assignments. Impervia was only impressive when compared to untrained oafs—against topnotch champions, she was barely an also-ran.

There is, alas, a heartbreaking gap between the Good and the Best. As many of us have realized to our sorrow.

Even against drunken fishermen, Impervia was not a surefire winner. She almost never finished one of these Friday-night brawls without an eye swollen shut, a few cracked ribs, or a dislocated shoulder. Twice, she'd been battered unconscious before the rest of us could intervene. One had to wonder why she kept provoking these scuffles when she often got the worst of them; but she'd never opened up about her inner demons, and the rest of us didn't pry. We simply crossed our fingers and hoped she never truly got in over her head.

At the moment, it was the fishermen who believed they were out of their depth. The uninjured six stayed bunched together, blearily waiting for someone to make the first move. Finally the man on the ground, Nathan, shouted, "Get going, you fuckwits! The lot of you! Just pile onto her!"

The fisherfolk looked at each other, then shuffled reluctantly forward.

Impervia leapt to meet them. The man she reached first went down under a fast jab to the jaw followed by a teeth-cracking uppercut. In other circumstances, he would have toppled back; but his friends were behind him, still moving forward. Accidentally or intentionally, they shoved the man's semiconscious body toward the good sister, giving it a good hard push. She tried to dodge, but didn't quite get out of the way—the dazed man thudded into her shoulder like a deadweight sack of flour and Impervia was spun half-sideways, ending with her back to three of the attackers.

She realized her danger and snapped out a low donkey kick: not even looking at the men behind her, just lifting her foot and driving it backward, hoping to discourage anyone from coming too close. One man groaned, "Shit!" and crumpled, clutching his leg... but the other two blundered forward, one cuffing the back of Impervia's head while the other seized her arm. She tried to wrench away from the man who'd grabbed her, throwing a distraction kick at his ankles to make him loosen his grip. By then, however, the men in front were attacking too—one with a punch to the face that she managed to diminish by jerking away her head, and one with a fist to the gut that she didn't diminish at all. The breath whooshed out of her as she was lifted off her feet by the blow. A second later, she flopped to the cobblestones.

"Myoko!" I shouted, "do something!" But Myoko, still in the doorway by my side, was already on the job: staring at Impervia with intense concentration, her hands clenched tight into fists.

Unlike Impervia, Myoko didn't look dangerous. Though she was almost thirty, she could pass for fifteen: barely four foot eight and slender, with waterfall-straight black hair that hung to her thighs, always pulled back from her face with two ox-bone barrettes. At the academy, outsiders mistook her for a student—perhaps the daughter of a minor daimyo, a quiet schoolgirl destined for flower arranging and calligraphy. But Myoko was neither quiet nor a schoolgirl... and if she ever wanted to arrange flowers, she could do it at a distance of twenty paces by sheer force of will.

Much as I wanted to keep my eye on Impervia—twisting and writhing across the cobblestones as the fishermen threw clumsy kicks at her—I couldn't help be distracted by the movement of Myoko's hair as her concentration increased. Individual strands began to separate from the long straight whole, lifting up like puppet strings. In less than three seconds, all the ends splayed out from each other, fanning wide into the air. As a man of science, I assumed the effect came from static electricity; but the electrical charge was created by a source far more esoteric than the Van de Graaff generator we'd used to do the same trick back in college.

With a sudden lurch, Sister Impervia's body heaved off the ground and rose into the air. The tips of Myoko's hair lifted too, curling up like a counterbalance... and I told myself perhaps Myoko's brand of telekinesis needed the curling hair to produce counteracting leverage.

What, after all, did I know about the physics of psionics? Nothing. As a scientist, my only certainty was that psychic powers had been foisted on humankind by outer-space high-tech, courtesy of the ultra-advanced aliens known as the League of Peoples. Before the League visited Earth, psionics were a myth; after the League had passed through, ESP and suchlike abilities became undeniable fact, easily reproduced in the lab (and on the back streets of Simka). No one knew how or why the League had given one human in a thousand such a gift; all we could do was marvel at its effects... such as now, when Impervia soared aloft on Myoko's mental hoist, raised high above the mob's clamoring reach.

At first, the fishermen didn't grasp what was happening. One of them actually made a bumbling attempt to leap up and slap Impervia's legs, the way boys jump to tag dangling store signs as they walk down the street. The man missed and thumped heavily to the pavement... which seems to have been the moment at which he and his companions realized there was something less than ordinary about a woman levitating above their heads. They fell back open-mouthed, staring up at Impervia as if she were some new celestial object, a sweat-gleaming chunk of dark matter suspended in the night.

"Ahem. Gentlemen?"

The Steel Caryatid stepped from a doorway five paces down the street. She was pale in the lamplight, the sort of Nordic blonde who looks three-quarters albino... and like many a sorceress, she wore nothing but a skin-tight crimson body sheath. If that sounds seductive, you're too eager to be seduced. The Caryatid was a big-hipped woman of forty, broad, round, and motherly; ninety percent the kind of mother who bakes the best cookies in the neighborhood, and ten percent the kind who has to be locked in the attic and fed bouillon through a straw.

All the sorcerers I'd known had been that way: a little bit crazy. Or a lot. Maybe it was impossible to learn the craft unless you were slightly divorced from reality; or maybe the things sorcerers did were enough to make a sane person unbalanced. Incantations. Rituals. Attunements. I didn't believe that sorcery was truly supernatural—like psionics, sorcery started working only after the League of Peoples paid their visit to Earth, so "magic" was another type of high-tech in disguise—but even though I knew there had to be a scientific explanation, sorcery and its practitioners could be bone-chillingly creepy.

"Now that my friend is out of reach," the Caryatid told the fishermen, "it's time to say good night. And here's something to light you to bed."

She pulled a match from her sleeve and struck a light on the wall beside her. (The Caryatid possessed an inexhaustible supply of matches; I could almost believe a new box materialized in her pocket whenever an old box ran out.) The match flame flickered in the breeze of the laneway, but after a moment it stabilized.

"Do you like fire?" the Caryatid asked, as if she were speaking to children at storytime. "I don't mean the things fire can do. Do you like fire itself? The look of it. The feel of it." She swept her finger lazily through the flame, just fast enough to avoid getting burned.

None of the fishermen seemed to realize the match was lasting longer than it should. In fact, the men might have been so stupefied at seeing Impervia float overhead, their brains weren't questioning anything.

"I like fire," the Caryatid said. "I've always liked it. Some children talk to their dolls; when I was young, I talked to the hearth. It worried my parents... but fortunately, one of my schoolteachers realized I didn't have a problem, I had a gift. Something to remember, the right teacher can make such a difference."

Far from burning out, the match flame had begun to grow—roughly the size of a big candle now. Off down the street, Sir Pelinor knocked the broadsword from the Divian's hand and kicked the weapon down a storm sewer drain. "Listen to the lady," Pelinor told the alien.

"Fire loves those who love it back," the Caryatid said. "It's very warmhearted." She smiled. I usually liked her smile—it was the comfortable sort of smile you might get from a dowdy maiden aunt—but when the Caryatid had a flame in her hand, her smile could send prickles up my spine.

She swept her finger through the matchlight again. The flame curled like a cat responding to a caress. "Fire is a wild animal—not tame, but willing to befriend those who approach it the right way." One by one, she stuck her fingers into the flame and held them there for a full second; one by one, she removed each finger to show a dab of fire on the fingertip. She smiled girlishly at the fishermen. "They tickle," she said, wiggling the tiny flames. "They're furry."

Several fishermen whispered phrases Impervia would class as ignorant and rude. The words sounded more scared than angry.

"Would you like to meet my friends?" the Caryatid asked. Without waiting for an answer, she bent to the ground and lowered her burning hand as if she were setting down a pet mouse. Each of the flames hopped off a finger and onto the pavement—five small points of light. "Go say hello to the nice men," the Caryatid said.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then all five flames bounced into the air, coming down a pace closer to the fishermen. The Divian squealed and bolted. Pelinor stepped aside and waved good-bye as the alien sped past.

The flames leapt again, another pace closer. Each dot of fire was no bigger than a candle, but the fishermen staggered back, their eyes wide. Three more of them broke from the pack and dashed into the night.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," the Caryatid said. "My friends just want to meet you." The flames took another jump.

That was enough for the remaining fishermen. Clambering over each other, howling in fear, they took to their heels and thundered off down the street... all but one. Nathan, sprawled on the pavement, possibly unable to stand because of Impervia's stomp to his foot, screamed one last obscenity and drew a gun from his sleeve.

It was only a tiny pistol, some modern steelsmith's copy of an OldTech Derringer; half those things blew up in their owners' faces within the first ten shots. Still, this was no time for taking chances—Pelinor was way down the street, Myoko had to concentrate on keeping Impervia in the air, and the Caryatid's little flame friends were still several jumps from the fallen fisherman.

Gibbering with terror, Nathan lifted the gun and took shaky aim at the Caryatid.

Making it my turn to act.

My name is Philemon Abu Dhubhai—Doctor Dhubhai, thanks to my Ph.D. in mathematical physics. I shan't describe myself except to say I was thirty-five at the time and much too inclined to gloomy introspection. Amongst our band of tavern-teddies, Impervia had muscles, Pelinor had a sword, Myoko had brainpower, the Caryatid had sorcery, and I... I had a bulging money-purse. My family was stinking rich; even though I'd put an entire ocean between me and my relatives, they still sent regular pouches of gold so I'd never have to besmirch the Dhubhai name by darning my own socks. Therefore when my friends and I visited the drinking establishments of Simka, I always bought the first round of drinks, tipped the barmaid, and paid for broken windows. My role in bar fights wasn't as glamorous as my companions', but it still came in handy. When all else failed, I could throw money at the problem.

So I heaved my change-purse at the fisherman's head. It was a big heavy purse, filled with several kilos of coins; I'd used it as a bludgeon more than once. It hit Nathan's face like a blackjack to the nose. The man's hand went limp and the gun clattered to the cobblestones.


I picked up my purse and gave it a fond little squeeze. As usual, the purse was utterly undamaged. It was made from some rubbery black material no one had ever been able to identify—not even back in college, when a chemist friend tried to analyze it. The best he could tell me was, "Airtight, watertight, impervious to all electromagnetic radiation: probably extraterrestrial in origin"... which didn't come as a surprise. I'd inherited the purse from my grandmother, who'd received it herself from the Spark Lords. Rumor said the Sparks got a lot of inexplicable trinkets from aliens in the upper echelons of the League of Peoples. For all I knew, the lining of my purse contained billions of fancy nano-devices for curing cancer, breaking the speed of light, and brewing a good cup of coffee. But if such devices existed, I had no idea how to activate them; so I used this wonder from beyond the stars for holding my spare change.

(Welcome to our modern world! Where OldTech computers serve as footstools, while the rusted remains of jumbo jets get converted to beer-halls and brothels.)

As I stuffed the purse back into my pocket, I checked that Fisherman Nathan was still breathing. He was. A trickle of blood seeped out of one nostril, but nothing too alarming. I arranged his unconscious body in the classic Recovery Position, designed to make sure drunks don't choke on their own vomit when they're sleeping off a bender.

"Thanks, Phil," the Caryatid said, coming up behind me. Her five tiny flames flickered excitedly, bouncing in a circle around Nathan's fallen pistol. "Now, now," she told them, "leave that nasty thing alone." She knelt on the pavement and held out her arms to the little fires. "Come here, darlings."

All five flames bounded back to her with the enthusiasm of four-year-olds who want a treat They leapt into the Caryatid's hands, then bounced up higher, brushed past her face with happy little kisses, and vanished into her hair. The sight made me queasy—I once set my hair on fire in a university chem-lab and still had nightmares about it. But no fire would be so presumptuous as to singe the Caryatid.

"That woman is spooky," Myoko whispered to me.

I rolled my eyes. "Says the person who is holding up Impervia by willpower alone."

"Sorry. Forgot"

Myoko let Impervia drift feet first to the ground.

"Thank you, Myoko," Impervia said, adjusting her clothes with casual briskness... or at least attempting to. I couldn't help noticing the good sister winced as she moved; the fishermen had been too drunk to land any truly solid kicks, but there are inevitable cumulative effects of being used as a human soccer ball. Still, Impervia's voice was strong as she told the rest of us, "I found that most invigorating."

"The levitation or the fighting?" I asked.

"Are you suggesting I enjoy fighting?"

"I know better," I answered—and I did know better than to suggest Impervia enjoyed fighting... especially to Impervia's face. "It just seems odd," I said, "how often fights arise in a quiet little town like Simka."

"The Lord provides for his children," Impervia said. "Our Heavenly Father knows my skills would get rusty if they didn't receive constant polishing."

Without another word, she slapped open the door of the tavern and went back inside. As she passed the bar, the tapman handed her a cup of tea. "Longer than usual tonight" he said.

The holy sister sniffed with righteous indignation.



My pocket watch said it was one o'clock. In the morning.

Under cloudy black skies, I walked up the drive of Feliss Academy, gravel crunching beneath my boots. Alone, alone, all alone—my drinking companions boarded in rooms off campus, and didn't plan on returning to musty F.A. till the weekend was over. I, however, occupied a don's suite in the school's residence wing... which is why I was still on my feet, trudging a full kilometer past the town limits, when my friends were already snoring in their beds.

Let me list the pluses of don-ship: cleaning staff emptied my wastebaskets, washed my linen, and occasionally removed the dust coyotes that had long ago devoured the dust bunnies under my bed. Let me also list the minuses: long late liquorized limps from the pub, back to a place where I was required to serve as shepherd, mentor, and surrogate father to twenty teenaged boys, all either wealthy brats, wealthy wallflowers, or wealthy nice-kids whose eyes glazed over at the word "geometry."

The academy seemed peaceful as I approached. The calm was due to the season—in the official calendar of the Spark Lords, it was the Month of the Quill, but in the classic calendar still observed by my family, it was Zul-Hijjah: the ash-end of winter, leaving muddy clumps of snow mixed with snowy clumps of mud all over the school's campus. That night, the vernal equinox was a single day away... and while the weather was unlikely to change just because the almanac turned to a new page, I fondly looked forward to the moment I could shout, "Spring, spring, spring!"

Everyone I knew was sick of winter. The students had long ago lost interest in icy midnight frolics (diving naked into snow drifts or stealing trays from the refectory to go tobogganing down the greenhouse hill); every last kid in our dormitory was now a sweaty stick of dynamite, just waiting to explode in spring madness. One breath of warm wind and kaboom, the school grounds would be littered with teenaged bodies, wriggling under every bush, sprawled on the banks of our local creek, or snuggling in more imaginative trysting spots (up a tree, down a storm sewer, on top of the school roof)... but for now, it was still too cold, too muddy, and too much the middle of term. As summer approached—as holiday separations loomed, and, "Who knows if we'll both be back in the fall?"—the antics and romantics would sprout behind every bush, and I would...

I would...

I would seethe with envy at their feverish innocence.

Envy was an occupational hazard of teaching—envy and cynical disdain. Teachers affected by such feelings usually went one of two ways: either they acted like adolescents themselves, or else they viewed youth as a disease that must be cured by heaping doses of tedium. Our academy had plenty of both types in the faculty common room: middle-aged men and women dressed in frowzy imitations of youth fashion sitting cheek by jowl with other middle-aged men and women who ranted about "irresponsible immaturity" and devoted themselves to expunging every particle of teenage joy.

Was I becoming either of those? I fervently hoped not. I'd set my sights on becoming a font of inspiration, guiding young minds and spurring them on to heights of intellectual...

Damn. I wasn't drunk enough to believe my usual diatribe. Lately it had become my habit to wax eloquent about the glories of my career as I tottered home after a session of poisoning my liver. Some drunks weep about the girls they left behind; others rage at the girls they didn't leave behind; still others sing random verses of "The Maiden and the Hungry Pigboy," or tell (for the fortieth time) about the night they saw a Spark Lord battle a headless white alien atop an OldTech skyscraper. When I was drunk, I made speeches to myself: pedantic internal monologues where I tried to find the perfect words to express why I hadn't been wasting my life teaching the same classes, year after year, to kids who'd forget every lesson the moment they graduated.

My goodness, what an important job teaching was! How crucial for students to know someone like me, levelheaded but possessed of a sense of fun, a man of science, a role model! How especially vital it was to enlighten these children, the sons and daughters of privilege, the future leaders of the world!

But I wasn't sufficiently soused tonight to believe my own propaganda. The words I habitually recited to myself kept getting confused with the truth: that I'd fallen into teaching because I had nothing better to do, that I did an acceptable job but not an extraordinary one, and that the whole student body of Feliss Academy consisted of rich second-raters who wouldn't recognize excellence if it bit them on the silk-covered ass.

Take the Caryatid's Freshman 4A. All showed a modest talent for sorcery, but none had the drive and obsession to get into a genuine school of wizardry. Perhaps one among them would surprise us; perhaps some formerly feckless freshman would catch fire (so to speak) and go on to more intense pursuits. The majority, however, would return unchanged to their wealthy families, bearing with them a few cheap parlor tricks, plus a handful of disconnected facts that got lodged in their brains by accident and stayed behind like slivers under the skin. (A former student once wrote me, asking for help on a question that was "driving him wild": he could remember F = ma because I'd harped on it so much in class, but for the life of him, he couldn't recall what F, m, or a was.)

That was the type of student who came to Feliss... and we teachers weren't much better. To return to Freshman 4A: if the students were dullards, the Caryatid herself was only a step above them on the ladder, a humble drudge compared to any working sorcerer. She grasped the basic principles and could present them in ways a teenager might understand; but she was the first to admit she wasn't moon-mad enough to practice magic for anyone more demanding than Two-Jigger Volantés.

I wasn't moon-mad either. My curse was to have a documentedly high intelligence—back in college, I scored 168 on an OldTech IQ test—but I was utterly devoid of genius. I could get good grades in any academic subject, but apart from answering exam questions, I hadn't a clue what to do with myself.

Music? I could play, compose, and improvise on half a dozen instruments... but I didn't yearn to fill the world with glorious sound, I just futzed about writing funny songs, hoping I might someday impress a good-looking woman out of her petticoats. Poetry? When depressed about the failure of the aforesaid songs to woo the aforesaid women, I could ink up the page with my woes... but they were such humdrum woes: whiny pedestrian bitching, not deep outcries from a passionate heart. (My immune system seems to produce highly effective antibodies against angst.) And science? I never got less than top marks in math, physics, or chemistry, but when it came to original research, my mind went blank. There was nothing I wanted to do, no realm of knowledge I hungered to explore. I digested textbook after textbook, but lacked the drive and vocation to aim my life toward any thought-worthy goal.

Lots of brains but no special calling. All dressed up with no place to go.

So after I got my Ph.D. (on a thesis topic suggested by my tutor, regurgitating an OldTech treatise that applied projective geometry techniques to modeling the asymptotic behavior of relativistic space-times... in other words, sheer mental masturbation), I fell into a job teaching at Feliss Academy. Specifically, I was hired to teach the woefully elementary tidbits of science that were still relevant four hundred years after OldTech civilization had spluttered out, plus a survey course on all the things we couldn't do anymore—computers, rocketry, bioengineering, nuclear fusion, organ transplants, mass production, heavier-than-air flight. Ye Olde Wonders of Earth and Sky. Students approached the subject as a not-very-interesting branch of mythology, barely more credible than Gilgamesh, Sinbad, and the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Thus I spoon-fed teenage drudges the same material, term after term, year after year, while visiting backstreet taverns each weekend in the hope Impervia would start a fight and get my heart beating faster for a minute or two.

As my willfully morose college roommate used to say, "So it's come to this. And hasn't it been a long way down?"


The fastest way to the residence wing was a shortcut through the school itself—the building was shaped like a four-storied T, with classrooms forming the front crossbar and dormitories extending out the back. I used my pass key to unlock the doors at the center of the T... and the moment I passed inside, I heard the sound of weeping. Quiet little sniffles, welling up into tightly choked sobs. They echoed off the walls and terrazzo floors so I couldn't tell where the whimpers came from.


A corridor of classrooms ran left and right; a short passageway lay directly ahead, leading into the dorm wing. But the whole area was pitch-black... no light except the spill of starshine coming through the glass doors behind me. Since I never carried a lantern on drinking nights (best not to be holding breakable glass filled with flammable oil when you expect to get into a brawl), there was no way to see who was crying in the darkness.

Tentatively I moved forward, thinking the sounds must come from the residence wing; this wouldn't be the first time some student crept out of bed and huddled forlornly in the hall, shedding tears over bad grades or love gone wrong. But as I advanced down the passageway, the sniffling grew fainter, fading to inaudibility. I backtracked, picked up the noise again, and was soon feeling my way past darkened classrooms—keeping one hand on the wall to maintain my bearings.

It's odd how the academy's smell changes at night. During the day, the aroma is young, young, young—dozens of different perfumes, lavishly applied by students who get their families to send the latest scents from Bangkok, Damascus, or São Paulo. After dark, though, the jasmine and ginger die away, to be replaced by fragrances much, much older: the dark varnished oak of the wainscoting; the mausoleum dryness of chalk dust; two centuries worth of oil paints from the art room, sweat from the gym, and book leather from the library.

At night, the school showed its age. Feliss didn't have the prestige of institutions that traced their lineage a full four hundred years back to OldTech times, but it was still venerable by conventional standards. There was good reason why we attracted students from important families all over the world—never the best, of course, never the talented eldest son or the brilliant youngest daughter, but the "tries-very-hard" middle children who needed decent schooling too. Feliss Academy provided such schooling, in an appropriately time-honored venue... and it was only at night that you could smell the decades of glum mediocrity accumulated within these walls: the psychic residue of generation after generation who subconsciously recognized they weren't destined for greatness.

No. I wasn't projecting my own thoughts at all.


The sounds of sorrow drew me on. The snuffles weren't loud—they seemed to recede as I moved forward—but they continued in quiet anguish, leading me to the Instrumental Music room at the end of the corridor. I stopped outside, peering through the small pane of glass in the room's wooden door. No sign of anyone within, even though an adequate amount of starlight trickled its way through windows on the far wall. Then again, my view of the room was restricted, showing the middle but not the shadowy edges.

When I tried the door, it was locked. That was mildly unusual; most rooms in the school are left open day and night. I got out my pass key again and slid it into the lock, making just enough noise that the weeper would know I was coming. No point in startling some heartbroken teenager who'd come all this way to keep others from hearing the sobs. Opening the door, I said, "Hello," in what I hoped was a comforting voice. "Is there some way I can help?"

No answer. The crying had stopped the moment I spoke. I looked around the room, but saw no one. "It's Dr. Dhubhai," I said. "Would you like to talk?"

Total silence... and I still couldn't see a soul. There were plenty of hiding places available—the big walk-in cupboard on my left where students stored instruments from alt-horns to zithers, plus a smaller one on my right where the teacher, Annah Khan, kept rosin, reeds, and sheet music. For that matter, a timid little freshman might be small enough to cower out of sight behind the tubas or the tympani. "It's all right," I said, "I'm not here to yell at you. Come out and let's talk."

No response.

I knew Annah kept an oil lamp on her desk. Groping through my pockets, I found my own matchbox and struck a light The flame lasted less than a second before a sharp puff of wind blew it out I tried another match; me same puff of wind gusted up in an otherwise still classroom, and I was back in darkness again.


Feliss Academy was not immune to drafts; however, such drafts seldom manifested themselves as well-timed, well-focused gusts that came from nowhere. I suspected something more than a chance breeze was making its presence known—especially in light of the Caryatid's sort of a prophecy kind of thing.

Just as the League of Peoples had given us psionics and sorcery, they'd introduced lots of other simulated mystical baggage from terrestrial folklore.

Like ghosts.

Something went <PLINK> in the darkness—a single note plucked on a string instrument The pitch was high enough that I immediately thought, Violin. Then came a second note, lower, down in the cello range. Three more notes, low, medium, high... and I knew I was hearing the harp.

The school owned a splendid harp: a hellishly pricey thing all gold leaf and rosewood, donated by some doting father whose daughter was certain she'd become a world-famous harpist if only she could practice on a proper instrument The girl's enthusiasm lasted an hour—the time it took her to realize she wasn't some prodigy who'd be playing Mozart her very first day. At the end of term, the girl departed and the harp stayed. Since then, a succession of other students had tried their hands at the instrument, some with modest success; but none ever came close to fulfilling the harp's true potential.

Now... plink, plink, plink. Single notes, played at random. Then one of the pedals creaked, and the strings began a slow, simple scale.

I'd never tried the harp myself, but I'd played enough other instruments to recognize the sound of a beginner: the hesitations between notes as the player reached to get the correct finger in place; the extra twang on strings that got plucked too hard, followed by soft almost-not-there notes when the player tried to go easier; the which-foot-do-I-use pause whenever it was necessary to use a pedal. The player in the dark never struck a wrong note, but I suspected the scale was an easy one... like C major on a piano, where you can't go wrong if you keep to the white keys.

The harp stood back in the corner of the room, behind the percussion section—not a good location for the harpist to be heard, but ideal if your first priority was making sure students didn't accidentally break the most valuable instrument in the music department. From where I stood, I couldn't see anyone sitting on the player's stool; but it was dark enough back there that I couldn't be sure the stool was empty.

Swallowing hard, I walked toward the sound... which is to say I began to clamber around the chairs, drums, and glockenspiels that separated me from the back corner.

Meanwhile, the music continued—a two-octave scale up and down, then repeated. The second time through was quicker and more even... as if the player had gained confidence after warming up. I, on the other hand, was losing confidence by the moment the closer I got to the harp, the more clearly I could see that the instrument was playing itself. No one sat on the stool; if there were hands moving over the strings, those hands were invisible.

All right, I thought, it is now time to leave. This wouldn't be fleeing with my tail between my legs; I simply intended to seek advice from someone who understood pseudo-supernatural events better than I. The Caryatid and Myoko weren't close at hand, but surely some don in residence had occult experience. Chen Fai-Hung, for example: he was always boasting how he'd studied at Core Haven for three years, and made it to the second last round for Elemarch of Molybdenum. Fai-Hung might not know as much about uncanny phenomena as a sorcerer or psionic, but he must have learned more on the subject than I did in Differential Geometry 327.

Therefore I took a step backward, intending to scuttle from the room; but before I could retreat farther, a sob wrenched out of the harpist who wasn't there. A heartbroken, heartbreaking sound. At the same time the music shifted, from scales into a simple melody plucked one note at a time.

I didn't recognize the tune—something in Dorian mode, which always strikes me as bittersweet: close to a minor key but more melancholy, with just a tiny B natural of wistful hope. When the piece began, it had the same hesitations and unevenness as the first scale I'd heard, some strings plucked too loudly and others too soft. A few strings were also a shade out of tune... almost always the case with an instrument that spends much of its time unused.

But now, as the playing continued in the darkened room, the hesitations grew fewer and the music flowed more smoothly. Even the tuning got better—the melody never stopped, but I heard the low creak of tuning pegs, as if the harpist possessed a third hand for tuning while the other two hands played. Over the music, the weeping resumed... until gradually, the soft bleak sobs blended with the notes like someone humming through her tears.

Her tears. Yes: the humming sounded female. When I realized that, I couldn't help speaking again. "What's wrong? Are you hurt? Can I help?"

The music bloomed in response... losing all amateurish lack of control, the sound swelling in the blackness: melody, harmony, and counterpoint. A sorrowful song played by a virtuoso, something ancient and rare from an aching soul—as if I were hearing the distillation of all the music someone wished she could have played, a lifetime's worth of longing compressed into a single grieving requiem.

It ended with a minor chord that stretched the full range of the harp, a simultaneous clutch of notes that could never have been played with a mere ten fingers. Then, as the strings continued to echo, a single piercing shriek burst from the emptiness above the harpist's stool—a cry filled with pain and the anger of death. I hurried forward as if there were some way I could help the unseen woman... but when I reached out to where she should be, my hands passed through icy nothingness: a cold so fierce it wracked my fingers and chilblained my arms.

I jerked back quickly, shivering despite my winter coat. Shoving my bare hands into my armpits, I squeezed them tight, trying to force some heat into my flesh. As I did, I caught movement in the shadows beside me... and though it terrified me to look, I turned my gaze directly at the harp.

Slowly, very slowly, liquid trickled down a string. In the dark it looked black, but I knew it had to be red. Deep scarlet.

Blood. How else would a haunting end?

More beads of black crimson appeared out of nowhere, forming at the top of each string and dribbling down into shadow. Within seconds the whole harp was seeping, blood oozing from the air, flowing freely, pattering onto the floor. I felt a drip splash on the toe of my boot... and that's when I finally ran.



I stood outside Annah Khan's room, mustering the nerve to knock. Not that I was concerned about disturbing her at one in the morning—our musicmaster Annah was don of Ladies North 3, and in that capacity, she was obliged to accept crises during the wee hours. Heaven knows, I had people banging on my door after midnight several times a month: boys who wanted help with their lessons... boys who'd just had their first wet dream and were sure it was some horrid disease... boys who desperately needed to know if I believed in God (whichever particular God was weighing on their minds)... not to mention the future Duke Simon Westmarch who owned his own stethoscope and woke me at least once a week to listen to his heartbeat because this time he was positive it "had gone all funny." If I had to cope with such nonsense, why should any other don have it easy?

But Annah wasn't just any other don: she was a don who'd nursed a crush on me since we both arrived at the school ten years ago. A crush of operatic proportions, but conducted pianissimo. I'd catch her staring across the study hall with her huge brown eyes, wearing an expression so intense it seemed she might devour me... but when I talked to her, she barely answered. The few times I'd asked if she'd like to go for a walk—because she was certainly worth the attention, thirty-two years old and delicately lovely, like porcelain the color of coffee—she'd invented awkward excuses and practically fled the room. My psychic friend Myoko contended Annah didn't want me as a man at all; Annah wanted me as an object of Tragic Yearning, someone she could pine over from a distance while writing torrid sonatas for unaccompanied violin.

Therefore, knocking on Annah's door in the middle of the night was fraught with implications. In my then mental state (muddled with drink, and a touch hysterical over what I'd seen in the music room), I imagined she might react to my arrival in some extravagant way: screaming in terror perhaps... or shouting, "At long last, darling!" and throwing herself into my arms... or even letting the clothes drop from her body in naked surrender, a tear trickling down her cheek as she waited for me to slake my bestial appetites.

Or, I told myself, she could react like a real human being instead of some drunk's sexual fantasy—which meant she'd glare and say, "What the hell do you want at this hour?"

I knocked.

There was no noise within. All the rooms in the school's dormitories were moderately soundproof and the dons' suites deliberately more so—when a student and don had a heart-to-heart chat/sob/confession, it was best if such confidences weren't overheard by prying ears in the hall. The extra soundproofing was also useful when a don wanted to entertain company of a romantic nature without providing an audible show for snickering teenagers; and the teenagers liked the soundproofing too, since it meant they could sneak around after hours without the dons hearing. (Feliss Academy discreetly indulged interstudent liaisons. These were, after all, children of privilege; as education for later life, they were expected to dally with one another, provided they kept such affairs clandestine and Took Sensible Precautions.)

Ten seconds after I knocked, a light came to life on the other side of the door. I could see it through the peephole—not that the peephole was designed to let visitors see into the room, but I was standing in pitch blackness so it was easy to notice any illumination coming through the fish-eye lens. Annah had lit a candle or lamp. I composed myself in front of the peephole, trying to look sober and respectable... but I gave that up as soon as I realized the hall was too dark for Annah to see me, no matter how much she peeped through the viewer. All she could do was open the door; and a few seconds later, that's what she did, holding a rose-glassed kerosene lamp in her hand.

She'd been sleeping in a long white nightgown—not excessively sheer, but modest white cotton simply isn't equipped to hide warm dark skin completely. Over the top of the nightie, she'd donned a thicker brown robe but hadn't bothered to tie the belt; no doubt she'd assumed the knock came from one of her girls, some fifteen-year-old with a sore throat or a broken heart. Why would Annah fret about modesty under such circumstances?

When she saw it was me, she froze. Like a stage actor doing a double take: eyes going wide, body turning rigid. It almost made me laugh... but my nerves were so strained from the ghost-harp concerto, the laugh would have come out shrill. I swallowed the hysteria and simply said, "Annah."

My voice seemed to break the spell. Annah's hand flew to the lapel of her robe, ready to pull her clothes hastily shut; but then she let go, as if there was no point in covering up: as if some irredeemable damage had already been done. Instead, she moved the lamp toward my face, peering intently into my eyes. She said nothing. Just waiting.

"Annah," I said again. "I saw... I was coming back tonight and I heard... in the music room..."

Bollixed and tongue-tied. Wondering what thoughts were going through Annah's mind. She surely smelled the ale on my breath, not to mention on my coat and hair. I had the galling apprehension she saw me as a drunk turned amorous, on the prowl for some slap-and-tickle; I pictured her previous infatuation with me twisting into disdain, and though I'd been exasperated by her puppy-eyed glances, I didn't want to lose them this way. "Someone was playing the harp," I said. "A ghost. And there was blood. On my boot."

Stupidly, I held out my foot for her to examine. She never took her eyes off my face. My skin was turning clammy, my tongue stumbling over words. "I came here to ask if you knew about the ghost... or if there's someone in your classes, a girl who plays the harp, and maybe, if she died tonight, cared enough about the music that she'd play one final piece—"

Annah reached out and put her fingers to my mouth. Touching my lips, silencing me. Then she took my hand... drew me into the room... shut the door... set down the lamp... wrapped her arms around me and pulled my head into the curve of her shoulder where I blubbered into her hair.


Some time later, I pulled away. "Sorry," I said. I touched her hair where I'd pressed my face against it: the thick dark strands were damp with my ridiculous tears. "Sorry," I said again.

"Shock," she replied. A soft voice, but controlled. The Caryatid once told me Annah had trained as a singer, until some vocal coach informed her she'd never amount to much because she didn't have enough resonance in her head. Small sinuses or something. It tells you a lot about Annah that she took the coach's word and gave up immediately. It also tells you a lot that she turned straight to the violin instead... and to the oboe, the cello, the sitar, the celeste...

Music, one way or another. She'd known what she wanted to do with her life—what her calling was. I envied her.

Annah stepped back and studied me. For a moment, I worried she would revert to her habit of silent staring... but then she said, "Yes. Just shock. Delayed reaction. You think you saw a ghost?"

"I didn't see it; I heard it. In the music room."

She took another step back, then sat gracefully in a chair covered with a throw-cloth of red and yellow satin. Her eyes never left my face. "Tell me," Annah said.

I did... settling into a wooden rocking chair padded with a white wool quilt. It was positioned opposite Annah's seat—probably where girls from the dorm sat when pouring out their hearts. I felt sheepish being there. But she wasn't listening like a don forcing herself to endure the woes of a whiny adolescent; her eyes were bright and glistening, her whole body leaning forward to catch every word. And why not? A ghost in her music room. A man who came babbling to her door. A chance to embrace him and give silent comfort. Deliriously operatic stuff. However soberly she sat, her face shone.

"So," I finished a few minutes later, "I came to you. Because it's your music room. You'd know if there'd been hauntings before. But I also wanted to ask who played the harp. In your classes. If there's a girl so devoted to the instrument that when she died... that her ghost... not that I believe in ghosts... that some effect would make it look as if her ghost had gone to play all the things she never had time to learn..."

I stopped because Annah was nodding. "There is such a girl. Who cares deeply. Who has a gift. When she arrived at the school, she already played a number of instruments, so I set her to learning the harp. It's such a lovely instrument; I wanted to hear it played by someone who wouldn't just go by rote. Rosalind's still just starting, but you can tell—"

"Rosalind?" I interrupted. "Rosalind Tzekich?"

"Yes. You know her?"

"She's in my Math C."

Rosalind Tzekich. Sixteen years old, very quiet, very intense. Perhaps the same sort of girl Musicmaster Annah had been at that age, except that Rosalind had black hair cut in bangs, a Mediterranean complexion, and a plumpish body she hid under shapeless frayed-hem dresses. Compared to the stylish fashion-plates who populated our school, Rosalind stood out like a sack of onions... though she could probably buy and sell the entire families of many of our students.

Rosalind's mother, Elizabeth Tzekich—known also as Elsbeth the Bloody, Our Lady of Shadows, or Knife-Hand Liz—was the outlaw terror of Southern Europe... or at least one of the terrors, since Hispania, Romana, Hellene, and the Balkans all seemed to cultivate criminal organizations as profusely as olives. (The Black Hand. The Hidden Cry. The Circle of Friends. Each specializing in some form of ugliness, from extortion to smuggling to kidnap.)

Mother Tzekich ran a band of thugs called the Ring of Knives. They made their money through sleazy mod-and-aug operations in back alleys from Gibraltar to Jerusalem. Did you want a poison gland implanted in your tongue so you could murder someone with a single kiss? Did you want a winning smile and a constant halo of pheromones? Or maybe you just fantasized about looking younger, more svelte, better endowed. Your dreams could come true for a price: through surgery, through sorcery, through OldTech procedures that rewrote your genes. A number of patients died on the operating table, a number came out disfigured or blighted, and plenty emptied their purses for no results whatsoever; but a sufficient tally of customers got enough of what they wanted that the Ring of Knives grew and prospered.

Ambitious Mother Tzekich didn't rest on her laurels. After making a name in the slice'n'dice trade, the Ring branched into other realms of business: forcibly seizing enterprises run by other criminal clans. The resulting gang war shook the Mediterranean. Soon it escalated farther afield, as the Ring fought to expand east into Asia and west to the Americas. In skirmish after skirmish, the Ring never suffered a significant defeat—partly because Tzekich had a genius for choosing the right targets, and partly because the Ring decked out its people with subcutaneous armor, enhanced reflexes, and even (so the rumors went) genes spliced from nonhuman sources. Animals and aliens, plants and ETs.

So the Ring of Knives gashed its way around the planet. Rival gangs fought back without mercy: dons and capos and czars would stop at nothing to see Elizabeth Tzekich dead. All this time, Rosalind stayed with her mother; but after a close call with a bomb spraying OldTech neurotoxins, the girl had been sent away for her own protection, to a boarding school in Nankeen.

Then to Alice Springs.

Then Quito.

Then Brazzaville.

Then Port-au-Prince.

Now it was Feliss. Where the girl was expected to last another month or two before being hustled off in the dead of night, moved to another school on another continent to keep ahead of her mother's enemies. Rosalind's clothes were worn and threadbare because she'd been living out of suitcases since she was thirteen; her soul was worn and threadbare for the same reason.

As far as I knew, Rosalind had never tried to make friends at our school—why bother when she might be dragged away at any moment? She did her homework as a way to keep busy, but mostly she passed her time staring out the window. In the middle of class I'd glance in Rosalind's direction and she'd be gazing out at bare trees against the winter sky. Perhaps she was wondering if she'd stay long enough to see leaves on those trees; or perhaps she didn't ask such questions anymore: she just disengaged her mind and let minutes or hours roll by. I was glad to hear she had a passion for music... glad she cared about anything. Rosalind had struck me as a girl who might do nothing but stare out the window her entire life.

"We should check on her," I told Annah. "To see if she's all right. Do you know which dorm she's in?"

"Mine," Annah answered. "I asked for her especially. Because she was so good in music. She's just down the hall."

Annah stood, reaching down the front of her nightgown and pulling out a thin silver necklace. On the end was a pass key, similar to the one in my pocket. (Similar, but not identical—for the sake of propriety, my pass key didn't work on girls' rooms and Annah's didn't work on boys'.) I had to smile at the notion a pass key was so valuable one had to wear it on a chain close to one's heart... but that was just like Annah, going the extra distance to imbue tiny things with dramatic import.

She ducked her head and lifted off the necklace, squeezing the chain in her fist as she stepped to the door. I rose to follow. Annah turned... and for a moment there was something in the air, something she was going to say or do; I could see it pass through her mind, though I couldn't tell what it was. Maybe she was just going to say she wanted to check on Rosalind alone—to avoid embarrassment if the girl came to the door in her underwear. Or maybe Annah was thinking something quite different. In the end, she simply picked up the rose-glassed lamp and said, "Let's go."


By the time we knocked on Rosalind's door, tousle-haired heads had appeared up and down the hall. I suppose they'd been wakened a few minutes earlier, by my babbling in Annah's doorway... or perhaps they possessed some instinct for sensing trouble. Whatever the explanation, all the girls on the floor had got up to see what was happening. Now they peered out of their rooms, holding their nighties closed and squinting blearily as if they needed glasses. Most of them did.

Without looking at anyone in particular, Annah announced, "Well-bred ladies do not pry into another lady's affairs." Her voice had a stern edge I'd never heard before; I hadn't suspected her capable of it. Full of surprises, our Annah—I mentally kicked myself and resolved to stop underestimating her. She was, after all, an experienced teacher... and a teacher needs many different ways to speak to students.

This particular way was effective. All along the corridor, doors closed immediately.

Rosalind didn't answer our first knock. Annah knocked again, more sharply. "Rosalind dear, it's Professor Khan. Sorry to wake you, but could we see you a moment?"

Not a sound from inside. No light through the peephole.

"Of course," Annah murmured, "the poor girl might be afraid to open the door. It's the middle of the night; how does she know we aren't enemies trying to kidnap her?"

"In that case," I said, "she may try to shoot us through the door."

Annah met my gaze. Firearms were technically forbidden in the dorms, but parents often went to great lengths to make sure their children had an ample supply of concealed weapons. Especially parents like Elizabeth Tzekich.

Quietly, Annah and I moved to either side of the doorway, out of the line of fire.

Seconds passed. Annah knocked a third time. "Rosalind, please, we're worried about you. If you don't answer, we'll have to come in."

Still no response. Annah clutched her pass key and gave me a look; I nodded. Staying off to one side, Annah slipped the key into the lock. The dead-bolt slid back with a solid thunk. Annah took a deep breath, then gave the door a light shove.

Neither she nor I tried to peek around the door frame—just in case Rosalind really did have a shotgun or some other violent reception for unwelcome visitors. Three seconds later, I knew we didn't have to look... because a terrible smell of meat and excrement oozed into my nostrils.


I hadn't seen death all that often—I wasn't a surgeon, soldier, or in any other profession that regularly produced cadavers—but I came from a family where generations lived and died together in the same house.

When I was very young, I clutched my mother's leg as she and my great-grandfather washed the wrinkled skin of his just-dead wife, carefully preparing the old woman for burial. Several years later, that same great-grandfather died right in front of me; he was withering away from a cancerous mass in his belly, and toward the end, everyone in the house took turns reading him the Koran, around the clock, twenty-four hours a day. (For some, it was the first time we'd read the Book: Great-Granddad was the only genuine Believer in our family. The generation after his had all become adamant atheists for reasons they never discussed, and those of us born later were brought up in bland secularity... idly curious about the old ways, but never to the point where we considered prostrating ourselves when the muezzin called.) I was waiting my turn to take over the reading from Aunt Rahel when the breath slipped out of the old man and the smell of his loosened bowels filled the room. (My aunt immediately turned to the Opening, Al-Fatiha, and read, "In the name of Most Merciful Compassionate God: Praise be to God, the Lord of all Being; All-Merciful, All-Compassionate, the Master of the day of judgment. Thee only do we worship and of thee do we beg assistance. Guide us in the straight path, the way of the blessed—not of those who have earned Your wrath or those who have wandered astray." Only then did she look up and say, "He's gone.") And there were other deaths through the years, great-uncles and elderly cousins, a maid who drank poison (no one knew why), a gateman stabbed by a thief, the thief himself brought down by guard dogs and shot in cold blood by my grandma Khadija, a peasant boy who'd climbed our wall and was found floating in the fish pond (probably chased there by the dogs)... perhaps two or three dozen dead in all. Not a lot of corpses by many people's standards, but enough that I recognized the smell of a room where life had vanished.

Rosalind's room had that smell.

I glanced across at Annah. Her expression showed that she too recognized the odor of death. Even the oil lamp in her hands seemed aware of the smell—the lamp's flame burned brighter, fed by the gases of putrefaction. Or perhaps I just imagined that.


It's hard to describe how I felt at that moment—not calm, certainly, but neither was I falling apart. I'd already had my breakdown. And the smell from Rosalind's room wasn't a surprise... just the confirmation of something I'd suspected ever since I heard that harp.

If I was worried about anything, it was Annah. Her hand had begun to tremble; the lamp rattled in her grip, enough to send our shadows veering across the wall. I reached out and took the light from her. "Do you need to sit down?"

She didn't answer. Her other hand clutched the pass key so tightly, the metal must have dug into her palm. I took a step forward, opened my arms—intending to hold her the way she held me. But she shrank away. "No," Annah said. "No. Just... could you... you look. I'll be along. In a second."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. I'll be all right. Please go."

I stared at her a moment longer—stupidly affronted she wouldn't let me wrap her in my arms. But her body was clenched so tightly she looked like she might scream if I moved any closer. "All right," I said, "I'll go see what's happened. Call if you need me."

She gave the slightest hint of a nod. Not even looking in my direction.


With lamp in hand, I moved into the room. My first impression was how clean it looked—nothing strewn on the floor, no piles of books in the corner, not a single paper out on the desk. In my own section of the dorm, students kept their rooms more cluttered... even the boys who were taunted for being fastidious. Perhaps the difference was that my boys lived in their rooms; Rosalind Tzekich had simply been passing through. Beneath the window stood two modest carrying cases, as if the girl was packed and ready to go the instant her mother commanded. I could almost believe Rosalind locked her meager belongings in those cases every night, so there'd be no delay if she had to flee.

But now she was going nowhere.

Rosalind lay on her back in the bed: her plump body naked and spreadeagled, the sheets and blankets thrown open. I caught myself thinking, She looks so cold—splayed pale and exposed, as if she should be shivering in the dark chill. But she wasn't.

I crossed the room quickly, intending to cover the girl's corpse. Not just because she looked cold—it felt indecent for me to be seeing her breasts and bare pelvis, her lifeless legs spread obscenely wide. An unforgivable desecration. My hand was reaching for the blankets, my eyes locked on the girl's face to avoid looking at any other part of her...

...when I saw a gooey white nodule ooze from her left nostril.

My hand froze. I clenched my fingers. Drew the hand back without touching anything. Held the lamp closer to Rosalind's face.

The nodule reminded me of cottage cheese: a soft curdy nugget sodden with creamy white fluid. The same sort of fluid had run from her other nostril too—it glistened wetly on her upper lip. As I watched, another soft curd forced its way from her nose, like an insect egg being laid. The nugget balanced stickily for a moment, then slid off down her cheek. It left a damp trail on the girl's skin.

I retreated a step. Forced myself to be clinical as I ran my gaze over the naked corpse. No obvious cause of death: no bleeding, no bruises, no marks on the throat. There might be some wound I couldn't see, a stab or bullethole in her back, but I wasn't going to turn her over to check. I had the sudden suspicion it would be suicide to touch anything in this room. Certainly not poor Rosalind's body.

Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out one of the pencils I always carried with me. Back to the girl's face, holding the light close. I teased the point of the pencil between the girl's lips and levered it between her teeth. The jaw was slack—no rigor mortis yet. When this was over, I'd have to check my reference books to see how soon after death the rigor sets in; that could tell me how recently Rosalind had died. In the meantime, I worked the pencil until I'd pried open her jaw.

The dead girl's mouth was half full of curds. Cottage cheese goo. A mass of it clogged her throat, and the mass was growing. I could see it expand, inching up the girl's tongue. (The tongue was swollen a dark ugly red.) In a few minutes, the white infestation would spill out and slop down her chin.

I didn't want to be here when that happened. The sight would make me sick.

But there was one other thing to check before I got out of the room: the girl's eyes. Their surface had begun to flatten—internal fluids seeping away, unable to keep enough pressure for normal roundness—but it was easy to see tiny red dots in the whites. Pinpricks of blood I knew were called ocular petechiae. Typically seen in cases of smothering and strangulation. As the dying body struggles for air, as the eyes bulge wide, small blood vessels pop under the strain. The results were those scarlet specks.

Whatever the white substance was in her mouth and nose, Rosalind Tzekich had choked to death on it. Silently. Unable to scream.

The end of my pencil was damp with the stuff. I threw the pencil down and kicked it under the bed.


"Some sort of disease?"

Annah had come in quietly. Her face was composed into careful blankness—no tears, no expression. She leaned over Rosalind and pulled lightly on my hand to bring the lamp closer. Annah's fingers felt cold where they touched me. "I've heard diphtheria produces a growth in your throat. Something that suffocates you."

"This isn't diphtheria," I said. "Not a natural strain anyway. Diphtheria doesn't grow so rampantly it oozes out your nose. Besides, a normal disease takes time to develop. Fever. Pain. Days of being sick. Rosalind was in my math class this afternoon and she looked fine."

"Yes." Annah stared down at the dead girl. "I sat with her at dinner. We talked about music—a few simple pieces by Bach she might be ready to play. She had a healthy appetite; a little distracted but in quite a good mood."

Annah reached out as if she were going to touch the girl: pat her cheek, straighten her hair. I grabbed Annah's hand and pulled it back... maybe too roughly, but this was no time for delicacy. "Don't touch," I said. "We should get out of here fast. Before we catch something."

"You said it wasn't a disease."

"I said it wasn't a natural disease. Let's go."

I put my hand on her shoulder and tried to nudge her toward the door. Annah's body had gone rigid, eyes still on Rosalind. "You think it's sorcery?"

"Sorcery is extraterrestrial science; I think this stuff is homegrown. A plague made by OldTech bioengineers: very human, very deadly. Annah, please, let's leave."

I took her hand in mine. This time, she let herself be led away. I closed the door behind us and made sure she locked it.


Back to Annah's room. It wasn't until we got there that I realized I was still holding her hand; when I tried to let go, she kept a solid grip. "What is it?" she asked, refusing to release me.

"What is what?"

"Inside Rosalind. What was coming out of her nose?" When I didn't answer right away, she squeezed my fingers impatiently. "You think you know, don't you? Something OldTech. Tell me."

I sighed. "When OldTech civilization began its breakdown, certain governments thought there'd be war. A big war. They couldn't believe everything would just fall apart quietly—if their world was ending, there had to be an apocalypse. Nothing else would give closure. Never mind that there was no reason for anyone to fight: nothing to fight over, no enemy you could shoot to fix the world's problems. People thought there'd be war. So military scientists worked day and night to develop weapons worthy of Armageddon. Including bioweapons: ultra-lethal diseases; virulent molds and fungi; deadly internal parasites."

Annah looked as if she didn't believe me. "It's true," I said. "They created plagues. Some designed to stay latent a long time until they'd infected huge chunks of the populace; others intended to be deadly fast. The slow ones were for terrorism, the fast for actual war: spread quick-kill microbes on your enemy's army and within hours there'd be no one to fight you. Ideally, they wanted the effects of the disease to be horrifyingly repugnant... demoralizing for those who didn't actually catch the bug."

"And you think Rosalind died from a quick-kill germ?"

"You said she was perfectly healthy a few hours ago. Natural throat infections don't develop that fast."

Silence. For the first time, Annah seemed to realize she was holding my hand; she looked down, saw her fingers clasping mine, and let go. Flustered, she turned away. Her voice sounded muffled as she said, "Who did it? Enemies of the girl's mother?"

"Most likely. Some of the Ring's rivals go back centuries: the Omerta... the Sons of the Black Czar... the Third Hand of Allah... they all originated in OldTech times. Any of those groups could have pilfered bacteria from a germ warfare lab while OldTech civilization was crumbling. Toward the end, military security was practically nonexistent. You must have heard about that group who stole an H-bomb and tried to blow up London."

"But they were stopped by the Spark Lords," Annah said. "That was the first time the Lords ever made an appearance. Then Spark Royal began the big purge—getting rid of the bombs, poison gas, everything. They eradicated mass weapons; that's one reason the Sparks claim they have a right to rule."

I shrugged. "There's a difference between finding huge nuclear missiles stuck in stationary silos and finding a single Petri dish containing a super-diphtheria. It's possible someone kept a germ culture alive all these years without Spark Royal knowing. Only using the germs for very special executions."

Annah shuddered. "I wish I didn't believe you—I wish I thought people couldn't be vicious enough to kill an innocent girl just to hurt her mother. But I know all too well..." She stopped herself, lowered her eyes, then crossed the floor and dropped into her chair. "It wouldn't have been hard to plant something in Rosalind's room. Probably tonight while we were at dinner; by then, most of the house staff had left for the weekend, so someone could sneak in without being seen."

"Right," I said. "An assassin would just have to rub some germs on the girl's toothbrush. The rim of her water glass. Any food she kept in the room. No difficulty at all; Feliss has never been a high-security institution."

"I used to think that was one of its charms." Annah let her head fall back against the chair. "Are we infected too?"

"Neither of us touched anything, and we didn't stay long in the room. We should be safe."

"We didn't inhale it from the air?"

I shook my head. "OldTech scientists weren't totally deranged!—they didn't want to release something so impossible to contain that it might destroy the human race. An airborne germ would just be too risky; better to have a short-lived aerosol, or something thick and creamy that could be poured down on enemies like rain."

"The white stuff in Rosalind's nose."

I nodded. Now was not the time to mention that even a curds-and-cream disease was insanely dangerous. Fluids had a way of sinking into the water table... and water flowed into the sea. Furthermore, once you'd visited a disease on your enemies, those enemies could grow cultures of the same germ from infected cadavers. Next thing you knew, saboteurs would be dumping the stuff on you. OldTech scientists devoted a lot of ingenuity toward getting around that basic dilemma—making germs that couldn't live outside the human body, and germs that stopped reproducing within a few hours so they couldn't spread or be cultivated—but nothing was ever foolproof. Which is why (God is merciful) no OldTech nation ever attempted a large-scale deployment of bioweapons.

"There's another reason," I said, "why I doubt the disease is too virulent. If rivals of the Ring of Knives started an epidemic, the Sparks would declare total war. One hundred percent annihilation of those responsible for the plague—the killers, whoever hired them, all known associates, all associates of the associates, the seamstress who hemmed their trousers, and the boy who delivered their coal. The Spark Lords are ruthless, and when they call themselves Protectors of Humanity they mean it. Whatever criminal clan killed poor Rosalind, I can't imagine they're crazy enough to antagonize the Sparks over a sixteen-year-old girl."

Annah lifted her head, large brown eyes looking up at me. "You underestimate the craziness of criminals." She spoke in a low voice. "There are people who think they're so clever they can get away with anything, even if it's outwitting the Sparks... and others who don't care if they get caught, as long as they first have the pleasure of causing pain... and even a few who believe revenge is more important than life itself—an absolute necessity, a religious imperative, taking vengeance no matter the consequences to friends and family."

I wanted to ask how she knew such things—quiet intense Annah—but I couldn't think how to phrase the question. She even waited for me to speak... but when I didn't, she just got out of her chair. "I'm going to wash my hands. I didn't touch anything, but I'm going to wash."

She held out her hand to me. In retrospect, it was an odd thing to do if she thought she might have deadly microbes on her fingers; but at the time, her gesture seemed perfectly natural. I took the offered hand and we went into her small bathroom together.

We washed for a long time. Without saying a word. Perhaps we weren't soaping off germs, but death itself. The smell of it. The cruelty. The sight of a dead sixteen-year-old lying bare, cold, and cooling because she happened to have the wrong mother.

We washed and washed and washed. The more lye, the better.



Annah checked her other girls. While she went from room to room making sleepy teenagers open their mouths and say, "Ahh!", I stuffed towels into the crack under Rosalind's door. However much I believed no microbes would ooze out, it was foolish to take chances. Eventually we'd have to incinerate Rosalind's entire room, preferably with the Caryatid supervising the flames... but that had to wait. If this was an OldTech bioweapon, we couldn't destroy the evidence until the Spark Lords had examined it.

We didn't want to upset the Sparks; they were a greater hazard to one's health than any disease. Besides, I truly didn't think the clotted-cream deposits in Rosalind's throat were overly contagious. Otherwise, I wouldn't have let Annah make the rounds of girls on her floor—I'd have locked us both into quarantine.

But I believed Annah and I were clean... thanks in part to the Caryatid's sort of a prophecy kind of thing. I was doomed to go questing—ergo, no illness would keep me home. In fact, the quest would almost certainly be a result of Rosalind's death; the only question was how that would come about.

I looked down the hall in Annah's direction. She was talking now to a seventeen-year-old named Fatima Nouri—a distant cousin of mine, though we'd never met before Fatima came to Feliss. (The Nouris controlled most of the power and money in Ka'aba province on the east side of the Red Sea, while my own family dominated Sheba on the west. Every generation, a diplomatic marriage was arranged between a Nouri and a Dhubhai as a gesture of goodwill... and as a way to plant spies in each other's camps.) I pushed the towels a little farther under Rosalind's door, then walked down to talk with my cousin.

Annah said nothing as I approached. Fatima grinned broadly, looking back and forth between Annah and me as if she was sure we were lovers—why else would we be together in the middle of the night? I could tell young Fatima was mentally composing a letter home: "Ooo, Cousin Philemon has a girlfriend. A dark and delicate houri." But let the girl gloat; let her flash her saucy grin as long as she could. She didn't know what had happened to Rosalind... and when my lascivious but decent-hearted cousin learned the truth, she would weep for days.

"Fatima," I said, "could you run an errand for me?"

"Now?" Her grin faltered. "Right now?"

"Right now. I'd like you to go into Simka and bring back the Steel Caryatid. Do you know where she lives?"

Fatima nodded. Her grin had returned in full—apparently she was tickled by the thought of sallying forth in the dead of night.

"Are you sure it's safe?" Annah asked. "A girl alone at this hour..."

"I'll take my sword," Fatima said. She turned back to me. "Can I take my sword?"

"As long as you don't stab the town watchmen. You'll recognize them; they're the ones asleep in the gutters."

Fatima laughed and whirled away—back into her room to get dressed. Annah looked at me reprovingly. "It's all right," I said. "Fatima can take care of herself." All the Nouri family, male and female, were trained from childhood in the Way of the Clever Blade. Fatima herself was Pelinor's prize pupil: fourth this year in the provincial fencing finals, better than any other academy student in the past two decades. She had nothing to fear from drunks, ruffians, or blob-eared aliens who couldn't hold their broadswords straight.

Annah continued her progress down the hall while I waited for my cousin. Third cousin? Fourth cousin twice removed? I'd never bothered to calculate the exact relationship; I'm sure Fatima hadn't either. We simply knew our families were connected, the same way we were connected with every other powerful clan from the Sahara to the Khyber Pass. Wherever people like us touched down in that region, we'd always have a great-aunt or nephew-in-law serving as deputy-something to the local governor... which explains why I fled to the other side of the planet as soon as I earned my doctorate.

Life wasn't so claustrophobic here. Fatima may have come to Feliss for the same reason, badgering her parents until they let her go to school on a strange foreign continent. When my cousin graduated at the end of the year, it wouldn't surprise me if she skipped going home and instead headed for Feliss City to join the governor's guard. Plenty of our relatives had done the same: third sons and fourth daughters who chafed under the omnipresence of family connections and ran off to new lands where they could breathe on their own.

Make your own mistakes. The story of my life.

Within minutes, Fatima emerged from her room in her version of street clothes (more slovenly than anything worn by the town's true poor). Her favorite scimitar hung in a sheath on her belt. The sword was an exquisitely functional weapon: no curlicues, no filigree, just a balanced blade in a solid grip. The Nouris always loved simple steel—simple sharp steel.

Fatima struck a pose, one hand resting oh-so-casually on the sword's pommel. "Do I pass, teacher?" she asked.

"Provided you don't go asking for trouble. Your job is to carry a message, not tangle with the thugs of Simka. Take the safest streets, straight to the Caryatid and back, all right?"

Fatima gave an indulgent smile, humoring a timid old fuddy-duddy. "What's the message?"

"Tell the Caryatid to come right away. To, uhh..." I considered where Annah and I would go after we'd finished here. "To the chancellor's suite," I said. "If not there, to Professor Khan's room."

"And if she asks why?"

Oh no, dear cousin, you don't get the juicy details that easily. Fatima must have realized something out of the ordinary was happening, but I could tell her thoughts ran to conventional scandals: a girl caught with a boy... or with liquor... or both. She was grinning too widely to suspect anything more sinister or tragic. "If the Caryatid asks what's going on," I said, "tell her the dog's tongue was speaking the truth."

"The dog's tongue?"

"The dog's tongue. Now get going."

Fatima hesitated a moment longer; then she favored me with one last grin and pounded a fist to her chest in a passable reproduction of my family's house salute. "Hail the Dhubhais!" she said, then giggled. She left at a gallop, scimitar bouncing against her side.


I'd said we'd be with the chancellor. When Annah completed her throat inspections, that's precisely where we went: to the penthouse atop the school's dormitory wing, the home of Chancellor Opal Quintelle.

Opal was the one person at the academy who knew as much science as I did; possibly more than I did, though she was too polite to make it obvious. From time to time, however, when we were discussing plate tectonics or the evolutionary effects of human emotions on other species (why do we find mammal babies appealing? perhaps because our hunter ancestors were more likely to kill animals that didn't engage our sympathies, so that, over the millennia, looking sweet and cute to humans became a useful survival trait)... from time to time, as Opal and I were conversing about such things, she would suddenly stop as if afraid of revealing too much and bite back whatever words she'd intended to say.

How did she know so much? I couldn't tell. She never talked about her past or her upbringing, and her accent didn't fit with anyplace I knew: as elegant as British nobility, but with different intonation on the long vowels. Her appearance gave no clue to her background; her face was unnaturally smooth and devoid of ethnic characteristics, with the waxy look of someone who's had extensive plastic surgery... either to remove signs of age (Opal claimed to be sixty-two, though she could have passed for much younger) or to correct some conspicuous disfigurement: scars or perhaps a birthmark.

As I was climbing the stairs to Opal's room, it occurred to me that plastic surgery was the stock and trade of Mother Tzekich's group, the Ring of Knives. Backstreet beautification. Was Opal a Ring of Knives customer? Or more than a customer? No one in the faculty lounge knew anything about Opal's life before she arrived in Feliss... so perhaps it wasn't mere chance that delivered Rosalind to our door. Perhaps some prior association had convinced Mother Tzekich that Opal could be trusted to keep her daughter safe. After all, there were plenty of schools like ours in the world, and a woman as shrewd as Knife-Hand Liz wouldn't pick one out of a hat. She'd want somebody in place to keep an eye on the girl; didn't that make sense?

Or was I inventing complications when we had enough real trouble to handle?

With such thoughts filling my mind, I knocked on the chancellor's door.


Opal answered the knock within seconds... and as always, she was turned out ready to meet royalty. Her silver hair hung loosely below her shoulders, but she was clad in an impeccable gown of subdued red suede. She must have kept the dress beside her bed, an outfit she could shimmy into without wasting time on buttons or hooks, so she could quickly and chicly present herself to whoever came calling at one-thirty in the morning. Perhaps in her youth, she'd belonged to some crack military unit that had to be ready at an instant's notice; or perhaps I was really letting my imagination run away with me.

When she saw who was calling, Opal raised an eyebrow. "Crisis?"





Opal beckoned us into her sitting room. It was a spacious place, decorated with the sort of bric-a-brac that accumulates in the chancellor's quarters of a school two centuries old: gifts from parents and grateful students. Jungle masks that were taller than me shared wall space with an ermine-covered cricket bat and several painted portraits where both subjects and artists had long ago faded from memory. On one table, five music boxes were stacked atop each other in diminishing order by size; the housemaids kept them free of dust, but no one bothered to polish the tarnished little plaques that told what tunes the boxes played. Another table held an assortment of plaster figurines, all of them kittens or puppies or chubby-cheeked children in dirndls and lederhosen. These trinkets were "the artistic heritage of the academy" passed from one chancellor to the next, like some pox nobody could cure. Opal sometimes talked about throwing everything out... but she never did. It seemed inevitable the next chancellor would inherit the same regrettable collection, plus whatever new "riches" would arrive during Opal's administration.

Annah and I sat ourselves on a "genuine-Inuit" couch upholstered in scratchy caribou hide. Our Esteemed Chancellor took a seat opposite us on a faux-Chippendale chair painted white with green vines twining up its legs and around its frame. She said nothing—Opal seldom wasted words—but she cocked her head to show she was ready to listen. Since Annah showed no sign of speaking, I took the lead. "Rosalind Tzekich is dead. In her room. Almost certainly murdered."

Opal's expression didn't change, but she shifted her gaze and murmured, "That's what 'expendable' means." When I stared at her in surprise, she focused back on me. "Sorry. Where I come from, that's a type of prayer for the dead."

She fell silent again. I waited a few seconds, then said, "There's more bad news. I think the killer used an OldTech bioweapon—the kind we should report to Spark Royal."

Opal looked up sharply. "Are you sure?"

I described what I'd seen: the white curds clogging the girl's airways. I also told about the Caryatid's sort of a prophecy kind of thing, and the ghostly harp music that led me to Rosalind in the first place. Annah verified that Rosalind had been in perfect health at dinner, and that none of the other girls on the floor showed any signs of sickness... which argued against a natural disease, if any such argument was necessary.

Opal nodded as she listened, asking no questions, taking it all in. When I finished, she remained silent for several more heartbeats; then she settled back into her chair, lifting her gaze to a window that looked out on darkness. "So," she said, "here it is."

"Here what is?" I asked.

She didn't answer. Instead she rose and walked to the window, as if expecting to see something outside... but instead of looking down at the campus four floors below, her eyes were turned to the sky. "I'd hoped they were wrong," she said, facing the stars, "but of course they weren't. It sure is a bitch living in a universe where so many species are smarter than you."

I wanted to ask, "What are you talking about?"... but some inner voice said I didn't want to know. Despite all the horrors I'd experienced, I hadn't reached the true edge of the precipice until this moment: half-drunk, surrounded by ugly knickknacks, with our chancellor speaking in riddles. I'd been thinking my responsibilities would soon be over—that Opal would take charge of everything and absolve me from further decisions—but I suddenly realized with icy dread that Opal would offer no salvation.

In the end, it was Annah who spoke the words: "Opal... what do you know?"

"Can you keep a secret?" Opal asked.

I knew I should leave, but I didn't. I just nodded. Annah did too.

Opal turned back to look at us. "Promise?"

We nodded again.

"All right," Opal said. "All right." She paused, then muttered, "Where the fuck do I start?"

I'd never heard her use such strong language... and her accent had grown more pronounced, as if she were slipping back into habits from some unladylike former life. "Oh, what the hell," she said. "Once upon a time..."


Once upon a time, a baby girl was born far, far away. She grew up clever and strong, but not pretty; she was as far from pretty as you could get. So the people who decided such things told her she would be trained for special work in out-of-the-way places where her appearance wouldn't bother "decent folk."

[Annah shivered and drew a bit closer to me. I tried to guess which country Opal might come from... but my guesses were so utterly wrong, there's no point writing them down.]

In time, the little girl became an Explorer: a person sent to unknown places to see what was there. Sometimes the work she did was important; sometimes it was pointless; often it was hard to tell the difference. But she took great personal pride in her accomplishments, even on missions that achieved nothing useful... and her greatest pride was always coming back alive.

One day, her superiors assigned her to the service of a man named Chee: an aged and aging admiral full of whims. Some of his whims were inspired—his unconventional attitudes made Chee valuable on occasions when orthodoxy couldn't cope. Other Chee whims were just harmless or quaint, but occasionally... occasionally it was unlucky to be the subordinate of a man who was famed for caprice.

There came a time when Chee wanted pipe tobacco; and no tobacco would do except the very best leaf, fresh from the finest farms on Earth. So Chee commanded his flagship to set sail for an isle where tobacco grew most sweet and rich... but alas, due to old political enmities, Chee and his people were hated on that island. They couldn't land openly and purchase leaf in the market. Therefore Chee directed his ship to lie off at a distance, while the young woman Explorer landed under cover of darkness and stole as much as she could carry.

["Stole?" Annah asked. "You robbed some poor farmer?"

["Oh," said Opal, "each year, Chee had his Explorers leave a generous amount of gold as payment; but I don't know how many farmers dared to pocket it. There was a treaty in place that forbade all interaction between my people and the islanders. If the farmer kept the gold and was found out later... well, being robbed isn't half as bad as getting caught trading with the enemy."]

So in the deepest hour of night, the Explorer found herself in a field full of half-picked tobacco. At the edge of that field stood six tarpaper shacks—the curing kilns or "kills" where harvested leaves were baked until they were golden brown and ready for market. The plan was to check each kill to find one whose leaves were nearly finished curing. Those were the leaves Chee wanted, the ones the Explorer would steal.

But as the Explorer approached the kills, a man stepped out from the shadows between two of them. He was quite possibly the most handsome man she'd ever seen: young, virile, shirtless, barefoot, smiling as if he was about to greet a lover. The Explorer thought perhaps that's why he'd been waiting in the darkness; perhaps this man had planned a midnight rendezvous with another man's wife, or some sly-footed girl sneaking away from overprotective parents. He might have heard a noise and came out expecting to see his paramour... so what would he make of a stranger in odd foreign clothes?

The man smiled. "Good evening." Which the Explorer found surprising—on this island, the greeting should have been "Buenas tardes." But she didn't let herself dwell on that oddity. Instead, she reached (regretfully) toward a holster on her belt.

The Explorer carried a weapon, a pistol of sorts, which fired hypersonic waves on a range of frequencies that disrupted neural functioning. Her orders from Chee were explicit: shoot any witnesses immediately. One shot was sufficient to render an adult unconscious for six hours, but the effect left no permanent damage.

[That caught my attention; I'd never heard of such a weapon. The Spark Lords occasionally produced big bulky rifles with a "hypersonic stun" setting, but never anything as small and convenient as a pistol. The OldTechs had never used hypersonics either. If Opal's people had the technical expertise to create such weapons, it was something they'd learned on their own. Which suggested a flabbergasting degree of scientific sophistication.

[I've already said Opal knew more science than me; where could she have come from that was so much more advanced than the rest of the world? My alma mater, the Collegium Ismaili, was the finest university on Earth.

[On Earth.

[Another chill went through me. Opal had started with, "Once upon a time, a baby girl was born far, far away." How far was far?]

The Explorer raised her pistol. The man's smile never wavered; he made no move to duck or dodge, though in the darkness he couldn't possibly tell what kind of gun was aiming at his face. For all he knew, it was a normal flintlock, or even an OldTech weapon with enough power to stop an elephant. Yet the man continued to smile.

How odd.

The Explorer pulled the trigger. The pistol made a soft whir—an extra sound added to the gun's mechanism so the shooter would know it was working. (The hypersonics themselves were beyond the range of human hearing.)

Yet the man did not fall down. He whispered, "Surprise, Explorer. Your toy doesn't work on me."

Without conscious thought, the Explorer dived to one side, like a woman throwing herself from the path of a runaway horse. It was an automatic action, instilled by her training—whenever something caught her completely by surprise, combat reflexes took over. Dive, roll. As she landed, she crushed a dozen tobacco plants beneath her weight; but that barely registered on her consciousness. Her mind was occupied with more pressing concerns. How did the man know she was an Explorer? And how could he have been waiting for her?

She knew Chee had come to this place before—every year at this time, he sent one of his Explorers on a tobacco raid—but it was a big island, and Chee never targeted the same farm twice. How could this man be in exactly the right place at the right time to meet her? How could he resist the hypersonics? How could he know to call her "Explorer"?

From a few steps away, the man laughed. He was coming toward her through the tobacco, intentionally trampling plants as he passed. It wasn't easy—tobacco grows tall, with a tough thick stalk—but the man stamped hard, apparently from sheer spite. He seemed to relish the destruction.

The Explorer had rolled to her feet and was trying to put some distance between herself and the man; but the clothes she wore were bulky, and would slow her excessively if she tried to run...

[I had the vision of Opal in some kind of cumbersome spacesuit. Did that make sense? Yes. If she came from a world beyond our own, she might want to avoid exposure to our local microorganisms... and to prevent her own microbes from infecting Earth. Therefore she'd wear some airtight outfit like a perfectly sealed cocoon. It would be heavy and need its own oxygen supply—an unfortunate weight to bear if you wanted to flee from a threat.]

Meanwhile, the man just laughed and slashed through the tobacco after her. She tried to shoot him again, but the gun had no effect. Then he grabbed her and knocked the pistol out of her hand.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"Everything," he said. "Your weapon. Your equipment. You."

She tried to break free, but her clothes impeded her movement. The man held on. She stopped her struggles and asked, "How did you know I'd be coming here?"

He said, "Because I arranged it."

"That's not true."

"You're naïve. How did you find your landing site? You followed a beacon you sent ahead of time. What would happen if someone activated a much more powerful beacon? You'd land where he wanted you to land." The man laughed. "This is the time of year you always come. I've been waiting every night for a week... but in the end, I knew you'd come to me."

[I was frustrated at the details missing from Opal's account. How did she actually land on our planet? A small flying ship? Some means of teleportation, like the ones described in OldTech fantasy fiction? What kind of beacon would that involve? As a scientist, I wanted to know... but the gist of the story was clear, despite the lack of specifics. Opal had been decoyed from her intended landing site to the place where the man was waiting. I grudgingly admitted the precise mechanism didn't matter.]

"Why do you want my equipment?" the Explorer asked. "If you're smart enough to build a beacon to lure me, can't you build other things too?"

"This is a primitive place," the man said. "Advanced materials are hard to find. Attempting to produce or procure such materials can draw unwanted attention from the Spark Lords."

"And you're hiding from the Sparks?"

"Until I'm ready." He glanced at the stun-pistol lying in the dirt. "Spark armor can resist normal weapon fire; but that's not a normal weapon. It might give me an advantage—when the time comes."

"I don't want you shooting people with my gun." And the Explorer drove her knee into the man's testicles.

He didn't try to evade it. [No automatic reflex to avoid groin attacks.] The Explorer's knee struck hard into flesh... and kept on going, like plunging into soft yielding sand. Immediately, she pulled back. Bits of the man's lower abdomen clung to the clothes around her knee. The scraps of flesh quivered for a moment, then shriveled into small dry grains reminiscent of gunpowder.

The man said, "Full of surprises, aren't I?"

His hand shot forward... but it had ceased to look like a human appendage. It was black and crusted, each finger thinning to a spikelike tip. They stabbed through the Explorer's special uniform like rusty nails driven through paper; they pierced her shoulder, bringing a gush of blood and pain.

"What are you?" the Explorer whispered, trying to pull away but too deeply impaled.

"What do you think? An alien. A shapeshifter. Trapped on this insufferable planet, forced to flee from the Spark Lords, trying to stay one step ahead..."

"And failing miserably," said a new voice.

The Explorer and shapeshifter snapped their heads toward the voice. A woman stood among crushed tobacco plants, only a pace away. She wore armor of bright yellow plastic, a shell that covered her completely from head to toe; the visor of her helmet was a blank plate showing nothing of the face beneath. In one hand, she held a long sword. She tapped the pommel against her thigh and the blade shone forth with a buttery light.

"War-Lord Vanessa of Spark," she said. "The introduction is for your benefit, Explorer. Your companion knows who I am. I've been chasing him a long time... and I finally caught up." She chuckled. "He gives off a stink that Spark Royal can smell—especially if he stays in one place for a while. Isn't that right, monster? I heard you say you've been waiting here every night for a week. Bad planning, BEM-brain. You should have stayed on the move."

As a response, the alien twisted the talons still imbedded in the Explorer's shoulder. The Explorer winced in pain. "If you come any closer," the alien told Vanessa, "I'll kill this woman."

"Feel free," the War-Lord answered. "You'll save me the trouble later. And do it as messily as you can. We have to make an example of her... for any other intruders who think they can come here in defiance of the treaties." Vanessa lifted her sword. "Here's a plan: you keep ripping the crap out of that shoulder while I decapitate the bitch. Or maybe I'll chop off her hands—that's the traditional punishment for thieves, isn't it?"

The alien growled in anger, or perhaps confusion at the War-Lord's response. In that moment, as the creature hesitated, Vanessa swung her weapon... but not at the Explorer. The glowing blade twisted at the last instant and bit deeply into the shapeshifter's neck. The trick maneuver didn't have as much strength as a full-motion swing, but it still came close to lopping off the creature's head. Furthermore, the sword's yellow shine caused as much damage as the blade itself: while the blade severed flesh, the shine seemed to wither surrounding tissues to the same black gunpowder the Explorer had seen after ramming the alien with her knee.

The force of Vanessa's blow threw the alien's head forward, nearly smashing it against the Explorer. The head lay tilted for a moment; then it suddenly shot upward, wrenching free from its body and hurtling several paces across the tobacco field. Before it landed, it had already sprouted legs from its severed throat: black spider-limbs on which it began scuttling for the shadows.

"Hold on to the body," Vanessa shouted to the Explorer; then she ran off after the head. Almost immediately, the rest of the alien began breaking into pieces too. Both legs and arms detached themselves from the torso; one arm remained stuck in the Explorer's shoulder, but the other parts fell to the ground and extruded spider-limbs of their own. The Explorer snatched up the alien's right leg before it could escape, and threw herself down on her knees to pin the torso. However, she had no way to stop the other leg and arm from scurrying into the night.

The arm that was still dug deep into the Explorer's shoulder began to writhe, trying to break free... and perhaps also trying to cause enough agony that she'd release her grip on the leg or the torso. Too much more, and the Explorer knew she'd pass out from pain; but before that could happen, Vanessa returned.

Instead of a glowing sword, the War-Lord now carried a small slim rod, as wide as a pinkie finger but three times as long. She tapped a button on the end of the rod and suddenly glitters of red and green light sparkled into life up and down the rod's length. Quickly, she slapped the rod's tip onto the arm that was speared into the Explorer's shoulder. The alien limb vanished with a soft <BINK>: collapsing in on itself, twisting and turning until it folded itself entirely out of this plane of existence. Two more slaps on the torso and leg, <BINK>, <BINK>... then all evidence of the alien was gone, leaving nothing but a salad of trampled tobacco.

The Explorer remained on her knees, trying to keep from vomiting. Vanessa crouched beside her. "You'll have to come to Spark Royal. That's the only place with facilities to clean your wound—it's sure to be infected with alien tissues."

"I thought you intended to kill me," the Explorer said. "For breaking the treaty."

Vanessa shrugged. "Usually we do kill outsiders... but your damned Admiral Chee has friends in high places. Very high. Each year the smug old bugger sends someone to steal tobacco, and each year he goes off thinking he caught Spark Royal with its pants down. It never occurs to the bastard we let him get away. Chee has no clue he's part of something larger—a long-term plan by forces far beyond him, or any other human."

"And you Sparks have to obey those forces?"

The War-Lord growled. "Sparks don't obey anyone. But we've come to an agreement with certain allies, and part of the deal is we don't kill Chee... or any other member of the Explorer Corps."

"So I'm safe," the Explorer said.

"No. You'll be dead in a week if I don't treat that wound. And don't get any stupid ideas about your own doctors dealing with it; that alien is way out of their league. Or League."

"What was that thing you killed?" the Explorer asked. "Was it really an alien? A shapeshifter?"

"Yes," Vanessa said. "I don't know the species's real name, but Spark Royal calls them Lucifers. Like a lot of advanced races, they're actually hive minds made up of millions of smaller units." She pointed to the gunpowder specks on the Explorer's knee. "Each one of those grains is a cellule, a separate organism... but it's in mental contact with almost every other Lucifer in the universe. Put a million cellules together and they can modify themselves to look like anything. Lucky for us, they don't reproduce quickly; it'll take years for those parts that got away to grow enough mass to impersonate humans again. But they're evil little shits who love to cause pain and death. I guarantee you've got at least one cellule still burrowed into your shoulder. It'll do its damnedest to kill you, just for spite... and as a shapeshifter, it's got a lot of nasty tricks at its disposal."

The Explorer tried to stand. Her legs were too weak to support her. Vanessa picked her up as easily as she would a child and started walking across the field.

"Chee expects me back," the Explorer said.

"Give him a radio call. Tell him you refuse to go home. The Explorer Corps treats you like shit and you've decided there must be better ways to spend your life."

"That's what I've decided, is it?"

"Yes," Vanessa said. She hugged the Explorer's body a little closer.

"And how will I spend my life in a place like this? I don't fit in; I don't know how people live here."

Vanessa chuckled. "Spark Royal will give you something to do. We're bastards that way. Once we save your life, you'll be in our debt and we'll exploit you shamelessly."


"I'll have to think about that. If Explorers are as clever and resourceful as I've heard, there are lots of ways you can make yourself useful." Vanessa laughed. "Working for Spark Royal is just as dangerous as being an Explorer, but it's a hell of a lot more fun."

And the War-Lord was right. The Explorer felt no regrets at abandoning her former life. She radioed Chee and told him where he could put his missions and his tobacco; she returned to Spark Royal with Vanessa, where she received training, friendship, and a new face... this time an attractive one that didn't make "decent folk" avert their eyes; and she had many, many adventures with Vanessa all around the world.

In time she got too old for rough action; but Spark Royal had use for her, even in retirement. The Sparks controlled a network of spies in every part of the planet—not just placed at random, but in locations where trouble was expected. When Spark Royal told the Explorer she would become chancellor of an undistinguished school in Simka, she asked how such a place could possibly be considered a hot spot. "Haven't a clue," Vanessa answered, "but we've got it on good authority."

"What good authority?"

"Some high hoity-toit in the League of Peoples... an asshole who specializes in advance knowledge of where things will go wrong." Vanessa sighed. "Just between you and me, I hate the way aliens can predict the future. It's fucking spooky."

"How do they do it?"

"According to them, superior brainpower. One of them gave me this analogy: suppose you see a rock perched on the edge of a cliff. You're smart enough to know the rock will fall sooner or later; a wind will blow it over, rain will erode the ground underneath, some kid will shove it off just for kicks... however it happens, you have no doubt the rock will plummet eventually. But lesser intelligences can't make that connection—a dog or a cat or something similar just can't see what's bound to happen."

"And these aliens compare us to dogs? We're surrounded by rocks on the edges of cliffs and we're too stupid to recognize the inevitable?"

"Exactly," Vanessa said. "Also too stupid to recognize our limitations. When someone else says, 'This is obvious,' we don't believe it. We think it's a trick. We call it unfair or illogical... when really, it's ridiculous to regard ourselves as the ultimate judges of what intellect can do. Our brains are only a few million years ahead of a dog's; and some alien races evolved billions of years before we did. On the ladder of intelligence, we're barely off the ground—but it sure is a bitch living in a universe where so many species are smarter than you."

So the Explorer went where she was told. To the Feliss Academy. She didn't believe anything important could happen in such a backwater... but one should never bet against the Spark Lords.

Opal spread her hands, then let them fall into her lap. "And that's the end of my story. Or the beginning of someone else's. Take your pick."


Annah and I didn't speak for several seconds after Opal finished. I was overwhelmed by the thought that this woman I knew had come from outer space; but when I considered her scientific knowledge—and those moments during past conversations when she'd catch her breath to correct me, then fall silent like someone afraid to reveal too much—I could believe she had been born on some world more advanced than Earth.

Even more boggling was the idea that she'd been assigned to our school in anticipation of some crisis. Five years ago, when Opal became chancellor, how could anyone foresee Rosalind's arrival and the use of a bioweapon? Could Spark Royal's alien allies really be that smart?

It was Annah who finally broke the silence. "It's an amazing story, chancellor," Annah said. "But I'm... it's... why did you tell us?"

Opal gave a humorless laugh. "Because I've been dying to tell someone for years. And because a sort of a prophecy kind of thing says Phil is going on a quest. I was an Explorer once; I don't like people heading into danger when they don't know all the facts. So I thought I should tell you what I could." She paused. "But remember, Phil; it's still secret. Don't go blabbing to those drinking buddies of yours."

"I'll keep it quiet," I said, "unless it really becomes necessary to tell my friends."

"Fair enough," Opal agreed. "And let's hope that never happens. Maybe your quest will go in some completely different direction."

"At the moment, we don't have a quest," I said. "What great deed needs doing? What sacred treasure has been lost?"

"I suppose we'll find out eventually." Opal shrugged. "Meanwhile, our next move is obvious."

"What is it?"

"Call the Sparks," she said. "Let them sort out this damned mess."