Copyright © 2007 by Jonathan Strahan
This edition of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume One © 2007
by Night Shade Books
Cover art © 2006 by Stephan Martiniere
Cover design by Claudia Noble
Interior layout and design by Jeremy Lassen
Introduction, story notes and arrangement
by Jonathan Strahan. © 2007 Jonathan Strahan.
Night Shade Books
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"How to Talk to Girls at Parties", by Neil Gaiman. © 2006 Neil Gaiman. Originally published in Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (William Morrow). Reprinted by permission of the author.
"El Regalo", by Peter S. Beagle. © 2006 Peter S. Beagle. Originally published in The Line Between (Tachyon Publications). Reprinted by permission of the author.
"I, Row-Boat", by Cory Doctorow. © 2006 Cory Doctorow. Originally published in Flurb: A Webzine of Astonishing Tales, Issue #1, Fall 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"In the House of the Seven Librarians", by Ellen Klages. © 2006 Ellen Klages. Originally published in Firebirds Rising (Firebird/Penguin), Sharyn November ed. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Another Word for Map Is Faith", by Christopher Rowe. © 2006 Christopher Rowe. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 2006 . Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Under Hell, Over Heaven", by Margo Lanagan. © 2006 Margo Lanagan. Originally published in Red Spikes (Allen & Unwin Australia). Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Incarnation Day", by Walter Jon Williams. © 2006 Walter Jon Williams. Originally published in Escape from Earth (SFBC), Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois eds. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"The Night Whiskey", by Jeffrey Ford. © 2006 Jeffrey Ford. Originally published in Salon Fantastique (Thunders Mouth), Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling eds. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"A Siege of Cranes", by Benjamin Rosenbaum. © 2006 Benjamin Rosenbaum. Originally published in Twenty Epics (All-Star Stories), David Moles & Susan Marie Groppi eds. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Halfway House", by Frances Hardinge. © 2006 Frances Hardinge. Originally published in Alchemy 3. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"The Bible Repairman", by Tim Powers. © 2006 Tim Powers. Originally published in The Bible Repairman (Subterranean Press). Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Yellow Card Man", by Paolo Bacigalupi. © 2006 Paolo Bacigalupi. Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, December 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)", by Geoff Ryman. © 2006 Geoff Ryman. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"The American Dead", by Jay Lake. © 2006 Jay Lake. Originally published in Interzone 203, March/April 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"The Cartesian Theater", by Robert Charles Wilson. © 2006 Robert Charles Wilson. Originally published in Futureshocks (Penguin Roc), Lou Anders ed. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Journey into the Kingdom", by M. Rickert. © 2006 M. Rickert. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Eight Episodes", by Robert Reed. © 2006 Robert Reed. Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, June 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"The Wizards of Perfil", by Kelly Link. © 2006 Kelly Link. Originally published in Firebirds Rising (Firebird/Penguin), Sharyn November ed. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"The Saffron Gatherers", by Elizabeth Hand. © 2006 Elizabeth Hand. Originally published in Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories (M Press). Reprinted by permission of the author.
"D.A.", by Connie Willis. © 2006 Connie Willis. Originally published in Space Cadets (SciFi Inc), Mike Resnick ed. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Femaville 29", by Paul Di Filippo. © 2006 Paul Di Filippo. Originally published in Salon Fantastique (Thunders Mouth), Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling eds. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Sob in the Silence", by Gene Wolfe. © 2006 Gene Wolfe. Originally published in Strange Birds (Dreamhaven). Reprinted by permission of the author.
"The House Beyond Your Sky", by Benjamin Rosenbaum. © 2006 Benjamin Rosenbaum. Originally published in Strange Horizons, 4 September 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"The Djinn's Wife", by Ian McDonald. © 2006 Ian McDonald. Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Any book like this one is as much the product of a small community of friends, family, and colleagues as it is the work of one person. This year I'd especially like to thank my new editors and publishers, Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen, who have been a delight to work with, and whose confidence I greatly appreciate, and to Claudia Noble for her great work on the cover. Special thanks also go to CHARLES, Liza, Kirsten, Carolyn, Tim, Karlyn, Amelia at Locus Press, who really did come through for me this year.
As always, I'd like to thank my agent Howard Morhaim; Justin Ackroyd, who has long been a vital supporter of my work; Jack Dann, anthology guru, pal and confidante; my Locus colleagues Nick Gevers and Rich Horton, who have always been there to discuss the best short fiction of the year when I needed it most; and Trevor Quachri and Brian Bieniowski at Dell Magazines and Gordon Van Gelder at Spilogale, Inc. who made sure I got my fix every month. Thanks also to the following good friends and colleagues without whom this book would have been much poorer, and much less fun to do: Lou Anders, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Kelly Link, Gavin Grant, Sean Williams, and all of the book's contributors.
And, last but not least, the big ones. Every year I pour countless hours into reading and editing, all accompanied by mumbling and exclamations. And each year Marianne, Jessica and Sophie let it happen. Without them this book, and all of the others, wouldn't exist.
The New Space Opera (with Gardner Dozois)
Best Short Novels: 2007
Eidolon (with Jeremy G Byrne)
Fantasy: The Very Best of 2005
Science Fiction: The Very Best of 2005
Best Short Novels: 2006
Best Short Novels: 2005
Fantasy: Best of 2004 (with Karen Haber)
Science Fiction: Best of 2004 (with Karen Haber)
Best Short Novels: 2004
The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Fantasy and Science Fiction( with Charles N. Brown)
Science Fiction: Best of 2003 (with Karen Haber)
The Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume: 2 (with Jeremy G Byrne)
The Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume: 1 (with Jeremy G Byrne)
Welcome to The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. It's difficult to believe, but it's been almost sixty years since the first clearly genre year's best annual hit the bookstores. Back in 1949, the first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction had just hit the newsstands and both Weird Tales and Amazing Stories had either completed or were about to complete their first quarter-centuries of publication. The short fiction field, for science fiction and fantasy, was booming, was a vital part of the explosion of pulp fiction magazines. It must have seemed impossible that it would ever end. And yet, it did.
By the early 1950s, genre science fiction and fantasy began to make the move from magazine to book publication, mostly in the hands of small presses, often by collecting together stories from the pulps of the 1930s and 1940s into fix-ups or collections. An important step in that process happened when Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas edited Adventures in Time and Space, an anthology that collected a number of the classic stories of that first Golden Age of Science Fiction. It was important because gathering those stories together into one of the first ever science fiction anthologies helped to confirm those stories as part of science fiction's essential canon of great works.
That role, of identifying science fiction and fantasy's canon of great works, was picked up by a number of reprint anthologies and anthology series over the years, but it's a role that, it seems to me, has most clearly fallen to the year's best anthology. And it's something you can see happening, even in that first year's best annual. When Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty edited The Best Science-Fiction Stories 1949 they featured stories by Ray Bradbury, Poul Anderson, and Isaac Asimov. Of those stories, at least one, Bradbury's "Mars Is Heaven!" became a permanent part of SF's canon, and even now we pick it up to see what stories were considered important back then. Bleiler and Dikty edited six more annuals, but arguably the most distinguished annual of the period was Judith Merril's classic SF: The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy, which started in 1956 (with an introduction by Orson Welles!) and ran for twelve years. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes her anthologies as "always lively, with an emphasis on stories of wit and literacy". It also was the first year's best annual to clearly combine science fiction and fantasy in one volume, and is very much an inspiration for the book you now hold.
By the time Merril edited her final year's best annual in 1968 the first Golden Age of Science Fiction was clearly over, most of the pulp magazines had seen their heyday and we had solidly begun to move into the age of the novel. And yet short fiction, which had always been the laboratory of the field, where new writers learned their craft and where the best writers in the field pushed its boundaries, didn't cease to exist or become any less important. Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions had appeared the year before in 1967, the New Wave was well and truly established, and great short fiction continued to appear everywhere. Editors like Lester Del Rey and Donald Wollheim continued to assemble year's best annuals and in 1972 Terry Carr went solo with The Best Science Fiction of the Year. His annuals, along with those of Gardner Dozois, who began editing year's best annuals solo in 1976, defined the next quarter-century of science fiction and fantasy, assembling the year's best stories in some of the most impressive annuals the field has yet seen. Their approaches, though, changed in the mid-1980s,when Dozois began to edit his mammoth The Year's Best Science Fiction series. Where Dozois favored an enormous volume that featured as broad a smorgasbord of fiction as the field could offer, Carr kept his volumes shorter, featuring fewer, arguably more essential selections.
As a young reader, it was Carr's volumes that made the greatest impact on me, and who inspired this series of annuals. While I strongly responded to the catholic tastes of Merril's anthologies, and appreciated the broadness of Dozois', it was Carr's volumes that led me through the '70s and '80s, his books that I sought out to read and enjoy, and then to learn from when I began to edit year's best annuals myself. His The Best Science Fiction of the Year was the template for the Science Fiction: The Best of books I co-edited, his Year's Best Fantasy inspired the Fantasy: The Best of books, and his The Best Science Fiction Novellas of the Year was and is the inspiration behind my Best Short Novels anthologies.
And then there is this series, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. I think that we're living through a new golden age of the science fiction and fantasy short story. Whether or not the business of publishing short fiction is thriving, the art of it has never been healthier. Each year an incredible array of publications—websites, ezines, chapbooks, small press 'zines, specialist anthologies, mass-market collections—are making new short fiction available to readers in staggering numbers. In 2005 alone, trade journal Locus estimated over 3,000 new genre short stories were published, and that number is likely far short of the true number. Those stories reflect a creative flowering the like of which the field hasn't seen since the Golden Age of Campbell and Astounding, with established and new writers pushing the boundaries in new and exciting ways, creating new movements and refining old ones. Whether or not any of these movements prove to have longevity or make a substantial impact on the field, they are symptomatic of a restlessness in readers and writers, who are looking for something fresh, something contemporary, something that stretches the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy, that is both respectful of the field's grand traditions and is looking eagerly for what comes next.
It seems to me there is a place, then, for a book like this one. A book that brings together the best science fiction and the best fantasy stories of the year in one single volume. A book that is aware of, but not trapped, by the history of the genre; a book that has both eyes on the future, but hasn't forgotten the past. A book that hopefully combines the broad tastes of a Judith Merril with the editorial eye of a Terry Carr, while being its own beast too. I can only hope you'll agree.
Before you move on to the heart of this book, the stories, I'd like to thank Charles N. Brown and the team at Locus Press, who generously threw this editor a lifeline in 2006 when a publisher abruptly disappeared, and Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen at Night Shade, who have enthusiastically embraced the vision for this anthology series. Without them, the book you're now holding would not exist.
And on to the stories. Here are some of the best and brightest science fiction and fantasy writers of our time doing what they do best, creating unforgettable stories. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did, and that you'll join me here again next year. I'm already reading for next year, and the stories I've seen!
Perth, Western Australia
has had a love affair with the stars since its very earliest days. In the
powerful story that follows, Neil Gaiman gives us a chilling look into what
might happen if the stars loved us back.
Gaiman is the award-winning author of the novels Coraline, American Gods, and Anansi Boys. His most recent book is collection Fragile Things. Upcoming is new collection M is for Magic.
"Come on," said Vic. "It'll be great."
"No, it won't," I said, although I'd lost this fight hours ago, and I knew it.
"It'll be brilliant," said Vic, for the hundredth time. "Girls! Girls! Girls!" He grinned with white teeth.
We both attended an all-boys' school in South London. While it would be a lie to say that we had no experience with girls—Vic seemed to have had many girlfriends, while I had kissed three of my sister's friends—it would, I think, be perfectly true to say that we both chiefly spoke to, interacted with, and only truly understood, other boys. Well, I did, anyway. It's hard to speak for someone else, and I've not seen Vic for thirty years. I'm not sure that I would know what to say to him now if I did.
We were walking the back-streets that used to twine in a grimy maze behind East Croydon station—a friend had told Vic about a party, and Vic was determined to go whether I liked it or not, and I didn't. But my parents were away that week at a conference, and I was Vic's guest at his house, so I was trailing along beside him.
"It'll be the same as it always is," I said. "After an hour you'll be off somewhere snogging the prettiest girl at the party, and I'll be in the kitchen listening to somebody's mum going on about politics or poetry or something."
"You just have to talk to them," he said. "I think it's probably that road at the end here." He gestured cheerfully, swinging the bag with the bottle in it.
"Don't you know?"
"Alison gave me directions and I wrote them on a bit of paper, but I left it on the hall table. S'okay. I can find it."
"How?" Hope welled slowly up inside me.
"We walk down the road," he said, as if speaking to an idiot child. "And we look for the party. Easy."
I looked, but saw no party: just narrow houses with rusting cars or bikes in their concreted front gardens; and the dusty glass fronts of newsagents, which smelled of alien spices and sold everything from birthday cards and second-hand comics to the kind of magazines that were so pornographic that they were sold already sealed in plastic bags. I had been there when Vic had slipped one of those magazines beneath his sweater, but the owner caught him on the pavement outside and made him give it back.
We reached the end of the road and turned into a narrow street of terraced houses. Everything looked very still and empty in the summer's evening. "It's all right for you," I said. "They fancy you. You don't actually have to talk to them." It was true: one urchin grin from Vic and he could have his pick of the room.
"Nah. S'not like that. You've just got to talk."
The times I had kissed my sister's friends I had not spoken to them. They had been around while my sister was off doing something elsewhere, and they had drifted into my orbit, and so I had kissed them. I do not remember any talking. I did not know what to say to girls, and I told him so.
"They're just girls," said Vic. "They don't come from another planet."
As we followed the curve of the road around, my hopes that the party would prove unfindable began to fade: a low pulsing noise, music muffled by walls and doors, could be heard from a house up ahead. It was eight in the evening, not that early if you aren't yet sixteen, and we weren't. Not quite.
I had parents who liked to know where I was, but I don't think Vic's parents cared that much. He was the youngest of five boys. That in itself seemed magical to me: I merely had two sisters, both younger than I was, and I felt both unique and lonely. I had wanted a brother as far back as I could remember. When I turned thirteen, I stopped wishing on falling stars or first stars, but back when I did, a brother was what I had wished for.
We went up the garden path, crazy paving leading us past a hedge and a solitary rosebush to a pebble-dashed facade. We rang the doorbell, and the door was opened by a girl. I could not have told you how old she was, which was one of the things about girls I had begun to hate: when you start out as kids you're just boys and girls, going through time at the same speed, and you're all five, or seven, or eleven together. And then one day there's a lurch and the girls just sort of sprint off into the future ahead of you, they know all about everything, and they have periods and breasts and make-up and God-only-knew-what-else—for I certainly didn't. The diagrams in biology textbooks were no substitute for being, in a very real sense, young adults. And the girls of our age were.
Vic and I weren't young adults, and I was beginning to suspect that even when I started needing to shave every day, instead of once every couple of weeks, I would still be way behind.
The girl said, "Hello?"
Vic said, "We're friends of Alison's." We had met Alison, all freckles and orange hair and a wicked smile, in Hamburg, on a German Exchange. The exchange organisers had sent some girls with us, from a local girls' school, to balance the sexes. The girls, our age, more or less, were raucous and funny, and had more or less adult boyfriends with cars and jobs and motorbikes and—in the case of one girl with crooked teeth and a raccoon coat, who spoke to me about it sadly at the end of a party in Hamburg, in, of course, the kitchen—a wife and kids.
"She isn't here," said the girl at the door. "No Alison."
"Not to worry," said Vic, with an easy grin. "I'm Vic. This is Enn." A beat, and then the girl smiled back at him. Vic had a bottle of white wine in a plastic bag, removed from his parents' kitchen cabinet. "Where should I put this, then?"
She stood out of the way, letting us enter. "There's a kitchen in the back," she said. "Put it on the table there, with the other bottles." She had golden, wavy hair, and she was very beautiful. The hall was dim in the twilight, but I could see that she was beautiful.
"What's your name, then?" said Vic.
She told him it was Stella, and he grinned his crooked white grin and told her that that had to be the prettiest name he had ever heard. Smooth bastard. And what was worse was that he said it like he meant it.
Vic headed back to drop off the wine in the kitchen, and I looked into the front room, where the music was coming from. There were people dancing in there. Stella walked in, and she started to dance, swaying to the music all alone, and I watched her.
This was during the early days of punk. On our own record-players we would play the Adverts and the Jam, the Stranglers and the Clash and the Sex Pistols. At other people's parties you'd hear ELO or 10cc or even Roxy Music. Maybe some Bowie, if you were lucky. During the German Exchange, the only LP that we had all been able to agree on was Neil Young's Harvest, and his song "Heart of Gold" had threaded through the trip like a refrain: like him, we'd crossed the ocean for a heart of gold. . .
The music that was playing in that front room wasn't anything I recognized. It sounded a bit like a German electronic pop group called Kraftwerk, and a bit like an LP I'd been given for my last birthday, of strange sounds made by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The music had a beat, though, and the half-dozen girls in that room were moving gently to it, although I was only looking at Stella. She shone.
Vic pushed past me, into the room. He was holding a can of lager. "There's booze back in the kitchen," he told me. He wandered over to Stella and he began to talk to her. I couldn't hear what they were saying over the music, but I knew that there was no room for me in that conversation.
I didn't like beer, not back then. I went off to see if there was something I wanted to drink. On the kitchen table stood a large bottle of Coca-Cola, and I poured myself a plastic tumblerful, and I didn't dare say anything to the pair of girls who were talking in the underlit kitchen. They were animated, and utterly lovely. Each of them had very black skin and glossy hair and movie-star clothes, and their accents were foreign, and each of them was out of my league.
I wandered, Coke in hand.
The house was deeper than it looked, larger and more complex than the two-up two-down model I had imagined. The rooms were underlit—I doubt there was a bulb of more than forty watts in the building—and each room I went into was inhabited: in my memory, inhabited only by girls. I did not go upstairs.
A girl was the only occupant of the conservatory. Her hair was so fair it was white, and long, and straight, and she sat at the glass-topped table, her hands clasped together, staring at the garden outside, and the gathering dusk. She seemed wistful.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" I asked, gesturing with my cup. She shook her head, and then followed it up with a shrug, to indicate that it was all the same to her. I sat down.
Vic walked past the conservatory door. He was talking to Stella, but he looked in at me, sitting at the table, wrapped in shyness and awkwardness, and he opened and closed his hand in a parody of a speaking mouth. Talk. Right.
"Are you from round here?" I asked the girl.
She shook her head. She wore a low-cut silvery top, and I tried not to stare at the swell of her breasts.
I said, "What's your name? I'm Enn."
"Wain's Wain," she said, or something that sounded like it. "I'm a second."
"That's uh. That's a different name."
She fixed me with huge liquid eyes. "It indicates that my progenitor was also Wain, and that I am obliged to report back to her. I may not breed."
"Ah. Well. Bit early for that anyway, isn't it?"
She unclasped her hands, raised them above the table, spread her fingers. "You see?" The little finger on her left hand was crooked, and it bifurcated at the top, splitting into two smaller fingertips. A minor deformity. "When I was finished a decision was needed. Would I be retained, or eliminated? I was fortunate that the decision was with me. Now, I travel, while my more perfect sisters remain at home in stasis. They were firsts. I am a second.
"Soon I must return to Wain, and tell her all I have seen. All my impressions of this place of yours."
"I don't actually live in Croydon," I said. "I don't come from here." I wondered if she was American. I had no idea what she was talking about.
"As you say," she agreed, "neither of us comes from here." She folded her six-fingered left hand beneath her right, as if she was tucking it out of sight. "I had expected it to be bigger, and cleaner, and more colorful. But still, it is a jewel."
She yawned, covered her mouth with her right hand, only for a moment, before it was back on the table again. "I grow weary of the journeying, and I wish sometimes that it would end. On a street in Rio, at Carnival, I saw them on a bridge, golden and tall and insect-eyed and winged, and elated I almost ran to greet them, before I saw that they were only people in costumes. I said to Hola Colt, 'Why do they try so hard to look like us?' and Hola Colt replied, 'Because they hate themselves, all shades of pink and brown, and so small'. It is what I experience, even me, and I am not grown. It is like a world of children, or of elves." Then she smiled, and said, "It was a good thing they could not any of them see Hola Colt."
"Um," I said, "do you want to dance?"
She shook her head immediately. "It is not permitted," she said. "I can do nothing that might cause damage to property. I am Wain's."
"Would you like something to drink, then?"
"Water," she said.
I went back to the kitchen and poured myself another Coke, and filled a cup with water from the tap. From the kitchen back to the hall, and from there into the conservatory, but now it was quite empty.
I wondered if the girl had gone to the toilet, and if she might change her mind about dancing later. I walked back to the front room and stared in. The place was filling up. There were more girls dancing, and several lads I didn't know, who looked a few years older than me and Vic. The lads and the girls all kept their distance, but Vic was holding Stella's hand as they danced, and when the song ended he put an arm around her, casually, almost proprietorially, to make sure that nobody else cut in.
I wondered if the girl I had been talking to in the conservatory was now upstairs, as she did not appear to be on the ground floor.
I walked into the living room, which was across the hall from the room where the people were dancing, and I sat down on the sofa. There was a girl sitting there already. She had dark hair, cut short and spiky, and a nervous manner.
Talk, I thought. "Um, this mug of water's going spare," I told her, "if you want it?"
She nodded, and reached out her hand and took the mug, extremely carefully, as if she were unused to taking things, as if she could neither trust her vision nor her hands.
"I love being a tourist," she said, and smiled, hesitantly. She had a gap between her two front teeth, and she sipped the tap water as if she were an adult sipping a fine wine. "The last tour, we went to sun, and we swam in sunfire pools with the whales. We heard their histories and we shivered in the chill of the outer places, then we swam deepward where the heat churned and comforted us.
"I wanted to go back. This time, I wanted it. There was so much I had not seen. Instead we came to world. Do you like it?"
She gestured vaguely to the room—the sofa, the armchairs, the curtains, the unused gas fire.
"It's all right, I suppose."
"I told them I did not wish to visit world," she said. "My parent-teacher was unimpressed. 'You will have much to learn,' it told me. I said, 'I could learn more in sun, again. Or in the deeps. Jessa spun webs between galaxies. I want to do that.'
"But there was no reasoning with it, and I came to world. Parent-teacher engulfed me, and I was here, embodied in a decaying lump of meat hanging on a frame of calcium. As I incarnated I felt things deep inside me, fluttering and pumping and squishing. It was my first experience with pushing air through the mouth, vibrating the vocal chords on the way, and I used it to tell parent-teacher that I wished that I would die, which it acknowledged was the inevitable exit strategy from world."
There were black worry beads wrapped around her wrist, and she fiddled with them as she spoke. "But knowledge is there, in the meat," she said, "and I am resolved to learn from it."
We were sitting close at the centre of the sofa now. I decided I should put an arm around her, but casually. I would extend my arm along the back of the sofa and eventually sort of creep it down, almost imperceptibly, until it was touching her. She said, "The thing with the liquid in the eyes, when the world blurs. Nobody told me, and I still do not understand. I have touched the folds of the Whisper and pulsed and flown with the tachyon swans, and I still do not understand."
She wasn't the prettiest girl there, but she seemed nice enough, and she was a girl, anyway. I let my arm slide down a little, tentatively, so that it made contact with her back, and she did not tell me to take it away.
Vic called to me then, from the doorway. He was standing with his arm around Stella, protectively, waving at me. I tried to let him know, by shaking my head, that I was on to something, but he called my name, and, reluctantly, I got up from the sofa, and walked over to the door. "What?"
"Er. Look. The party," said Vic, apologetically. "It's not the one I thought it was. I've been talking to Stella and I figured it out. Well, she sort of explained it to me. We're at a different party."
"Christ. Are we in trouble? Do we have to go?"
Stella shook her head. He leaned down and kissed her, gently, on the lips. "You're just happy to have me here, aren't you, darlin'?"
"You know I am," she told him.
He looked from her back to me, and he smiled his white smile: roguish, loveable, a little bit Artful Dodger, a little bit wide-boy Prince Charming. "Don't worry. They're all tourists here anyway. It's a foreign exchange thing, innit? Like when we all went to Germany."
"Enn. You got to talk to them. And that means you got to listen to them too. You understand?"
"I did. I already talked to a couple of them."
"You getting anywhere?"
"I was till you called me over."
"Sorry about that. Look, I just wanted to fill you in. Right?"
And he patted my arm and he walked away with Stella. Then, together, the two of them went up the stairs.
Understand me, all the girls at that party, in the twilight, were lovely; they all had perfect faces, but, more important than that, they had whatever strangeness of proportion, of oddness or humanity it is that makes a beauty something more than a shop-window dummy. Stella was the most lovely of any of them, but she, of course, was Vic's, and they were going upstairs together, and that was just how things would always be.
There were several people now sitting on the sofa, talking to the gap-toothed girl. Someone told a joke, and they all laughed. I would have had to push my way in there to sit next to her again, and it didn't look like she was expecting me back, or cared that I had gone, so I wandered out into the hall. I glanced in at the dancers, and found myself wondering where the music was coming from. I couldn't see a record-player, or speakers.
From the hall I walked back to the kitchen.
Kitchens are good at parties. You never need an excuse to be there, and, on the good side, at this party I couldn't see any signs of someone's mum. I inspected the various bottles and cans on the kitchen table, then I poured a half an inch of Pernod into the bottom of my plastic cup, which I filled to the top with Coke. I dropped in a couple of ice-cubes, and took a sip, relishing the sweet-shop tang of the drink.
"What's that you're drinking?" A girl's voice.
"It's Pernod," I told her. "It tastes like aniseed balls, only it's alcoholic." I didn't say that I'd only tried it because I'd heard someone in the crowd ask for a Pernod on a live Velvet Underground LP.
"Can I have one?" I poured another Pernod, topped it off with Coke, passed it to her. Her hair was a coppery auburn, and it tumbled around her head in ringlets. It's not a hair style you see much now, but you saw it a lot back then.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Triolet," she said.
"Pretty name," I told her, although I wasn't sure that it was. She was pretty, though.
"It's a verse form," she said, proudly. "Like me."
"You're a poem?"
She smiled, and looked down and away, almost bashfully. Her profile was almost flat—a perfect Grecian nose that came down from her forehead in a straight line. We did Antigone in the school theatre the previous year. I was the messenger who brings Creon the news of Antigone's death. We wore half-masks that made us look like that. I thought of that play, looking at her face, in the kitchen, and I thought of Barry Smith's drawings of women in the Conan comics: five years later I would have thought of the Pre-Raphaelites, of Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddall. But I was only fifteen, then.
"You're a poem?" I repeated.
She chewed her lower lip. "If you want. I am a poem, or I am a pattern, or a race of people whose world was swallowed by the sea."
"Isn't it hard to be three things at the same time?"
"What's your name?"
"So you are Enn," she said. "And you are a male. And you are a biped. Is it hard to be three things at the same time?"
"But they aren't different things. I mean, they aren't contradictory." It was a word I had read many times but never said aloud before that night, and I put the stresses in the wrong places. Contradictory.
She wore a thin dress, made of a white, silky fabric. Her eyes were a pale green, a color that would now make me think of tinted contact lenses; but this was thirty years ago: things were different then. I remember wondering about Vic and Stella, upstairs. By now, I was sure that they were in one of the bedrooms, and I envied Vic so much it almost hurt.
Still, I was talking to this girl, even if we were talking nonsense, even if her name wasn't really Triolet (my generation had not been given hippy names: all the Rainbows and the Sunshines and the Moons, they were only six, seven, eight years old back then). She said, "We knew that it would soon be over, and so we put it all into a poem, to tell the universe who we were, and why we were here, and what we said and did and thought and dreamed and yearned for. We wrapped our dreams in words and patterned the words so that they would live forever, unforgettable. Then we sent the poem as a pattern of flux, to wait in the heart of a star, beaming out its message in pulses and bursts and fuzzes across the electromagnetic spectrum, until the time when, on worlds a thousand sun-systems distant, the pattern would be decoded and read, and it would become a poem once again."
"And then what happened?"
She looked at me with her green eyes, and it was as if she stared out at me from her own Antigone half-mask; but as if her pale green eyes were just a different, deeper, part of the mask. "You cannot hear a poem without it changing you," she told me. "They heard it, and it colonized them. It inherited them and it inhabited them, its rhythms becoming part of the way that they thought; its images permanently transmuting their metaphors; its verses, its outlook, its aspirations becoming their lives. Within a generation their children would be born already knowing the poem, and, sooner rather than later, as these things go, there were no more children born. There was no need for them, not any longer. There was only a poem, which took flesh and walked and spread itself across the vastness of the known."
I edged closer to her, so I could feel my leg pressing against hers. She seemed to welcome it: she put her hand on my arm, affectionately, and I felt a smile spreading across my face.
"There are places that we are welcomed," said Triolet, "and places where we are regarded as a noxious weed, or as a disease, something immediately to be quarantined and eliminated. But where does contagion end and art begin?"
"I don't know," I said, still smiling. I could hear the unfamiliar music as it pulsed and scattered and boomed in the front room.
She leaned into me then and—I suppose it was a kiss. . . I suppose. She pressed her lips to my lips, anyway, and then, satisfied, she pulled back, as if she had now marked me as her own.
"Would you like to hear it?" she asked, and I nodded, unsure what she was offering me, but certain that I needed anything she was willing to give me.
She began to whisper something in my ear. It's the strangest thing about poetry—you can tell it's poetry, even if you don't speak the language. You can hear Homer's Greek without understanding a word, and you still know it's poetry. I've heard Polish poetry, and Inuit poetry, and I knew what it was without knowing. Her whisper was like that. I didn't know the language, but her words washed through me, perfect, and in my mind's eye I saw towers of glass and diamond; and people with eyes of pale green; and unstoppable, beneath every syllable, I could feel the relentless advance of the ocean.
Perhaps I kissed her properly. I don't remember. I know I wanted to.
And then Vic was shaking me violently. "Come on!" he was shouting. "Quickly. Come on!"
In my head I began to come back from a thousand miles away.
"Idiot. Come on. Just get a move on," he said, and he swore at me. There was fury in his voice.
For the first time that evening I recognized one of the songs being played in the front room. A sad saxophone wail over a cascade of liquid chords, followed by a man's voice singing cut-up lyrics about the sons of the silent age. I wanted to stay and hear the song.
She said, "I am not finished. There is yet more of me."
"Sorry, love," said Vic, but he wasn't smiling any longer. "There'll be another time," and he grabbed me by the elbow and he twisted and pulled, forcing me from the room. I did not resist. I knew from experience that Vic could beat the stuffing out me if he got it into his head to do so. He wouldn't do it unless he was upset or angry, but he was angry now.
Out into the front hall. As Vic pulled open the door, I looked back one last time, over my shoulder, hoping to see Triolet in the doorway to the kitchen, but she was not there. I saw Stella, though, at the top of the stairs. She was staring down at Vic, and I saw her face.
This all happened thirty years ago. I have forgotten much, and I will forget more, and in the end I will forget everything; yet, if I have any certainty of life beyond death, it is all wrapped up not in psalms or hymns, but in this one thing alone: I cannot believe that I will ever forget that moment, or forget the expression on Stella's face as she watched Vic, hurrying away from her. Even in death I shall remember that.
Her clothes were in disarray, and there was makeup smudged across her face, and her eyes—
You wouldn't want to make a universe angry. I bet an angry universe would look at you with eyes like that.
We ran then, me and Vic, away from the party and the tourists and the twilight, ran as if a lightning storm was on our heels, a mad helter-skelter dash down the confusion of streets, threading through the maze, and we did not look back, and we did not stop until we could not breathe; and then we stopped and panted, unable to run any longer. We were in pain. I held onto a wall, and Vic threw up, hard and long, in the gutter.
He wiped his mouth.
"She wasn't a—" He stopped.
He shook his head.
Then he said, "You know. . . I think there's a thing. When you've gone as far as you dare. And if you go any further, you wouldn't be you anymore? You'd be the person who'd done that? The places you just can't go. . .. I think that happened to me tonight."
I thought I knew what he was saying. "Screw her, you mean?" I said.
He rammed a knuckle hard against my temple, and twisted it violently. I wondered if I was going to have to fight him—and lose—but after a moment he lowered his hand and moved away from me, making a low, gulping noise.
I looked at him curiously, and I realized that he was crying: his face was scarlet; snot and tears ran down his cheeks. Vic was sobbing in the street, as unselfconsciously and heartbreakingly as a little boy. He walked away from me then, shoulders heaving, and he hurried down the road so he was in front of me and I could no longer see his face. I wondered what had occurred in that upstairs room to make him behave like that, to scare him so, and I could not even begin to guess.
The streetlights came on, one by one; Vic went on ahead, while I trudged down the street behind him in the dusk, my feet treading out the measure of a poem that, try as I might, I could not properly remember and would never be able to repeat.
between brothers and sisters are often strange, fraught and unpredictable. In
this charming tale Beagle gives us a glimpse into the life of a twelve-year-old
girl and just what she's willing to do to save her stupid brother Marvyn the
Peter S. Beagle is the author of the beloved classic The Last Unicorn, as well as the novels A Fine and Private Place, The Innkeeper's Song, and Tamsin. He has won the Hugo, Locus, and Mythopoeic Awards. His most recent book is collection The Line Between. Upcoming are two new novels, Summerlong and I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons.
"You can't kill him," Mr. Luke said. "Your mother wouldn't like it." After some consideration, he added, "I'd be rather annoyed myself."
"But wait," Angie said, in the dramatic tones of a television commercial for some miraculous mop. "There's more. I didn't tell you about the brandied cupcakes—"
"Yes, you did."
"And about him telling Jennifer Williams what I got her for her birthday, and she pitched a fit, because she had two of them already—"
"He meant well," her father said cautiously. "I'm pretty sure."
"And then when he finked to Mom about me and Orlando Cruz, and we weren't doing anything—"
"Nevertheless. No killing."
Angie brushed sweaty mouse-brown hair off her forehead and regrouped. "Can I at least maim him a little? Trust me, he's earned it."
"I don't doubt you," Mr. Luke agreed. "But you're fifteen, and Marvyn's eight. Eight and a half. You're bigger than he is, so beating him up isn't fair. When you're. . .oh, say, twenty-three, and he's sixteen and a half—okay, you can try it then. Not until."
Angie's wordless grunt might or might not have been assent. She started out of the room, but her father called her back, holding out his right hand. "Pinky-swear, kid." Angie eyed him warily, but hooked her little finger around his without hesitation, which was a mistake. "You did that much too easily," her father said, frowning. "Swear by Buffy."
"What? You can't swear by a television show!"
"Where is that written? Repeat after me—'I swear by Buffy the Vampire Slayer—'"
"You really don't trust me!"
"'I swear by Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I will keep my hands off my baby brother—'"
"My baby brother, the monster! He's gotten worse since he started sticking that y in his name—"
"'—and I will stop calling him Ex-Lax—'"
"Come on, I only do that when he makes me really mad—"
"'—until he shall have attained the age of sixteen years and six months, after which time—'"
"After which time I get to pound him into marmalade. Deal. I can wait." She grinned; then turned self-conscious, making a performance of pulling down her upper lip to cover the shiny new braces. At the door, she looked over her shoulder and said lightly, "You are way too smart to be a father."
From behind his book, Mr. Luke answered, "I've often thought so myself." Then he added, "It's a Korean thing. We're all like that. You're lucky your mother isn't Korean, or you wouldn't have a secret to your name."
Angie spent the rest of the evening in her room, doing homework on the phone with Melissa Feldman, her best friend. Finished, feeling virtuously entitled to some low-fat chocolate reward, she wandered down the hall toward the kitchen, passing her brother's room on the way. Looking in—not because of any special interest, but because Marvyn invariably hung around her own doorway, gazing in aimless fascination at whatever she was doing, until shooed away—she saw him on the floor, playing with Milady, the gray, ancient family cat. Nothing unusual about that: Marvyn and Milady had been an item since he was old enough to realize that the cat wasn't something to eat. What halted Angie as though she had walked into a wall was that they were playing Monopoly, and that Milady appeared to be winning.
Angie leaned in the doorway, entranced and alarmed at the same time. Marvyn had to throw the dice for both Milady and himself, and the old cat was too riddled with arthritis to handle the pastel Monopoly money easily. But she waited her turn, and moved her piece—she had the silver top hat—very carefully, as though considering possible options. And she already had a hotel on Park Place.
Marvyn jumped up and slammed the door as soon as he noticed his sister watching the game, and Angie went on to liberate a larger-than-planned remnant of sorbet. Somewhere near the bottom of the container she finally managed to stuff what she'd just glimpsed deep in the part of her mind she called her "forgettery." As she'd once said to her friend Melissa, "There's such a thing as too much information, and it is not going to get me. I am never going to know more than I want to know about stuff. Look at the President."
For the next week or so Marvyn made a point of staying out of Angie's way, which was all by itself enough to put her mildly on edge. If she knew one thing about her brother, it was that the time to worry was when you didn't see him. All the same, on the surface things were peaceful enough, and continued so until the evening when Marvyn went dancing with the garbage.
The next day being pickup day, Mrs. Luke had handed him two big green plastic bags of trash for the rolling bins down the driveway. Marvyn had made enough of a fuss about the task that Angie stayed by the open front window to make sure that he didn't simply drop the bags in the grass, and vanish into one of his mysterious hideouts. Mrs. Luke was back in the living room with the news on, but Angie was still at the window when Marvyn looked around quickly, mumbled a few words she couldn't catch, and then did a thing with his left hand, so fast she saw no more than a blurry twitch. And the two garbage bags went dancing.
Angie's buckling knees dropped her to the couch under the window, though she never noticed it. Marvyn let go of the bags altogether, and they rocked alongside him—backwards, forwards, sideways, in perfect timing, with perfect steps, turning with him as though he were the star and they his backup singers. To Angie's astonishment, he was snapping his fingers and moonwalking, as she had never imagined he could do—and the bags were pushing out green arms and legs as the three of them danced down the driveway. When they reached the cans, Marvyn's partners promptly went limp and were nothing but plastic garbage bags again. Marvyn plopped them in, dusted his hands, and turned to walk back to the house.
When he saw Angie watching, neither of them spoke. Angie beckoned. They met at the door and stared at each other. Angie said only, "My room."
Marvyn dragged in behind her, looking everywhere and nowhere at once, and definitely not at his sister. Angie sat down on the bed and studied him: chubby and messy-looking, with an unmanageable sprawl of rusty-brown hair and an eyepatch meant to tame a wandering left eye. She said, "Talk to me."
"About what?" Marvyn had a deep, foggy voice for eight and a half—Mr. Luke always insisted that it had changed before Marvyn was born. "I didn't break your CD case."
"Yes, you did," Angie said. "But forget that. Let's talk about garbage bags. Let's talk about Monopoly."
Marvyn was utterly businesslike about lies: in a crisis he always told the truth, until he thought of something better. He said, "I'm warning you right now, you won't believe me."
"I never do. Make it a good one."
"Okay," Marvyn said. "I'm a witch."
When Angie could speak, she said the first thing that came into her head, which embarrassed her forever after. "You can't be a witch. You're a wizard, or a warlock or something." Like we're having a sane conversation, she thought.
Marvyn shook his head so hard that his eyepatch almost came loose. "Uh-uh! That's all books and movies and stuff. You're a man witch or you're a woman witch, that's it. I'm a man witch."
"You'll be a dead witch if you don't quit shitting me," Angie told him. But her brother knew he had her, and he grinned like a pirate (at home he often tied a bandanna around his head, and he was constantly after Mrs. Luke to buy him a parrot). He said, "You can ask Lidia. She was the one who knew."
Lidia del Carmen de Madero y Gomez had been the Lukes' housekeeper since well before Angie's birth. She was from Ciego de Avila in Cuba, and claimed to have changed Fidel Castro's diapers as a girl working for his family. For all her years—no one seemed to know her age; certainly not the Lukes—Lidia's eyes remained as clear as a child's, and Angie had on occasion nearly wept with envy of her beautiful wrinkled deep-dark skin. For her part, Lidia got on well with Angie, spoke Spanish with her mother, and was teaching Mr. Luke to cook Cuban food. But Marvyn had been hers since his infancy, beyond question or interference. They went to Spanish-language movies on Saturdays, and shopped together in the Bowen Street barrio.
"The one who knew," Angie said. "Knew what? Is Lidia a witch too?"
Marvyn's look suggested that he was wondering where their parents had actually found their daughter. "No, of course she's not a witch. She's a santera."
Angie stared. She knew as much about Santeria as anyone growing up in a big city with a growing population of Africans and South Americans—which wasn't much. Newspaper articles and television specials had informed her that santeros sacrificed chickens and goats and did. . .things with the blood. She tried to imagine Marvyn with a chicken, doing things, and couldn't. Not even Marvyn.
"So Lidia got you into it?" she finally asked. "Now you're a santero too?"
"Nah, I'm a witch, I told you." Marvyn's disgusted impatience was approaching critical mass.
Angie said, "Wicca? You're into the Goddess thing? There's a girl in my home room, Devlin Margulies, and she's a Wiccan, and that's all she talks about. Sabbats and esbats, and drawing down the moon, and the rest of it. She's got skin like a cheese-grater."
Marvyn blinked at her. "What's a Wiccan?" He sprawled suddenly on her bed, grabbing Milady as she hobbled in and pooting loudly on her furry stomach. "I already knew I could sort of mess with things—you remember the rubber duck, and that time at the baseball game?" Angie remembered. Especially the rubber duck. "Anyway, Lidia took me to meet this real old lady, in the farmers' market, she's even older than her, her name's Yemaya, something like that, she smokes this funny little pipe all the time. Anyway, she took hold of me, my face, and she looked in my eyes, and then she closed her eyes, and she just sat like that for so long!" He giggled. "I thought she'd fallen asleep, and I started to pull away, but Lidia wouldn't let me. So she sat like that, and she sat, and then she opened her eyes and she told me I was a witch, a brujo. And Lidia bought me a two-scoop ice-cream cone. Coffee and chocolate, with M&Ms."
"You won't have a tooth in your head by the time you're twelve." Angie didn't know what to say, what questions to ask. "So that's it? The old lady, she gives you witch lessons or something?"
"Nah—I told you, she's a big santera, that's different. I only saw her that one time. She kept telling Lidia that I had el regalo—I think that means the gift, she said that a lot—and I should keep practicing. Like you with the clarinet."
Angie winced. Her hands were small and stubby-fingered, and music slipped through them like rain. Her parents, sympathizing, had offered to cancel the clarinet lessons, but Angie refused. As she confessed to her friend Melissa, she had no skill at accepting defeat.
Now she asked, "So how do you practice? Boogieing with garbage bags?"
Marvyn shook his head. "That's getting old—so's playing board games with Milady. I was thinking maybe I could make the dishes wash themselves, like in Beauty and the Beast. I bet I could do that."
"You could enchant my homework," Angie suggested. "My algebra, for starters."
Her brother snorted. "Hey, I'm just a kid, I've got my limits! I mean, your homework?"
"Right," Angie said. "Right. Look, what about laying a major spell on Tim Hubley, the next time he's over here with Melissa? Like making his feet go flat so he can't play basketball—that's the only reason she likes him, anyway. Or—" her voice became slower and more hesitant "—what about getting Jake Petrakis to fall madly, wildly, totally in love with me? That'd be. . .funny."
Marvyn was occupied with Milady. "Girl stuff, who cares about all that? I want to be so good at soccer everybody'll want to be on my team—I want fat Josh Wilson to have patches over both eyes, so he'll leave me alone. I want Mom to order thin-crust pepperoni pizza every night, and I want Dad to—"
"No spells on Mom and Dad, not ever!" Angie was on her feet, leaning menacingly over him. "You got that, Ex-Lax? You mess with them even once, believe me, you'd better be one hella witch to keep me from strangling you. Understood?"
Marvyn nodded. Angie said, "Okay, I tell you what. How about practicing on Aunt Caroline when she comes next weekend?"
Marvyn's pudgy pirate face lit up at the suggestion. Aunt Caroline was their mother's older sister, celebrated in the Luke family for knowing everything about everything. A pleasant, perfectly decent person, her perpetual air of placid expertise would have turned a saint into a serial killer. Name a country, and Aunt Caroline had spent enough time there to know more about the place than a native; bring up a newspaper story, and without fail Aunt Caroline could tell you something about it that hadn't been in the paper; catch a cold, and Aunt Caroline could recite the maiden name of the top medical researcher in rhinoviruses' mother. (Mr. Luke said often that Aunt Caroline's motto was, "Say something, and I'll bet you're wrong.")
"Nothing dangerous," Angie commanded, "nothing scary. And nothing embarrassing or anything."
Marvyn looked sulky. "It's not going to be any fun that way."
"If it's too gross, they'll know you did it," his sister pointed out. "I would." Marvyn, who loved secrets and hidden identities, yielded.
During the week before Aunt Caroline's arrival, Marvyn kept so quietly to himself that Mrs. Luke worried about his health. Angie kept as close an eye on him as possible, but couldn't be at all sure what he might be planning—no more than he, she suspected. Once she caught him changing the TV channels without the remote; and once, left alone in the kitchen to peel potatoes and carrots for a stew, he had the peeler do it while he read the Sunday funnies. The apparent smallness of his ambitions relieved Angie's vague unease, lulling her into complacency about the big family dinner that was traditional on the first night of a visit from Aunt Caroline.
Aunt Caroline was, among other things, the sort of woman incapable of going anywhere without attempting to buy it. Her own house was jammed to the attic with sightseer souvenirs from all over the world: children's toys from Slovenia, sculptures from Afghanistan, napkin rings from Kenya shaped like lions and giraffes, legions of brass bangles, boxes and statues of gods from India, and so many Russian matryoshka dolls fitting inside each other that she gave them away as stocking-stuffers every Christmas. She never came to the table at the Lukes without bringing some new acquisition for approval; so dinner with Aunt Caroline, in Mr. Luke's words, was always Show and Tell time.
Her most recent hegira had brought her back to West Africa for the third or fourth time, and provided her with the most evil-looking doll Angie had ever seen. Standing beside Aunt Caroline's plate, it was about two feet high, with bat ears, too many fingers, and eyes like bright green marbles streaked with scarlet threads. Aunt Caroline explained rapturously that it was a fertility doll unique to a single Benin tribe, which Angie found impossible to credit. "No way!" she announced loudly. "Not for one minute am I even thinking about having babies with that thing staring at me! It doesn't even look pregnant, the way they do. No way in the world!"
Aunt Caroline had already had two of Mr. Luke's margaritas, and was working on a third. She replied with some heat that not all fertility figures came equipped with cannonball breasts, globular bellies and callipygous rumps—"Some of them are remarkably slender, even by Western standards!" Aunt Caroline herself, by anyone's standards, was built along the general lines of a chopstick.
Angie was drawing breath for a response when she heard her father say something in Korean behind her, and then her mother's soft gasp, "Caroline." But Aunt Caroline was busy explaining to her niece that she knew absolutely nothing about fertility. Mrs. Luke said, considerably louder, "Caroline, shut up, your doll!"
Aunt Caroline said, "What, what?" and then turned, along with Angie. They both screamed.
The doll was growing all the things Aunt Caroline had been insisting it didn't need to qualify as a fertility figure. It was carved from ebony, or from something even harder, but it was pushing out breasts and belly and hips much as Marvyn's two garbage bags had suddenly developed arms and legs. Even its expression had changed, from hungry slyness to a downright silly grin, as though it were about to kiss someone, anyone. It took a few shaky steps forward on the table and put its foot in the salsa.
Then the babies started coming.
They came pattering down on the dinner table, fast and hard, like wooden rain, one after another, after another, after another. . .perfect little copies, miniatures, of the madly smiling doll-thing, plopping out of it—just like Milady used to drop kittens in my lap, Angie thought absurdly. One of them fell into her plate, and one bounced into the soup, and a couple rolled into Mr. Luke's lap, making him knock his chair over trying to get out of the way. Mrs. Luke was trying to grab them all up at once, which wasn't possible, and Aunt Caroline sat where she was and shrieked. And the doll kept grinning and having babies.
Marvyn was standing against the wall, looking both as terrified as Aunt Caroline and as stupidly pleased as the doll-thing. Angie caught his eye and made a fierce signal, enough, quit, turn it off, but either her brother was having too good a time, or else had no idea how to undo whatever spell he had raised. One of the miniatures hit her in the head, and she had a vision of her whole family being drowned in wooden doll-babies, everyone gurgling and reaching up pathetically toward the surface before they all went under for the third time. Another baby caromed off the soup tureen into her left ear, one sharp ebony fingertip drawing blood.
It stopped, finally—Angie never learned how Marvyn regained control—and things almost quieted down, except for Aunt Caroline. The fertility doll got the look of glazed joy off its face and went back to being a skinny, ugly, duty-free airport souvenir, while the doll-babies seemed to melt away exactly as though they had been made of ice instead of wood. Angie was quick enough to see one of them actually dissolving into nothingness directly in front of Aunt Caroline, who at this point stopped screaming and began hiccoughing and beating the table with her palms. Mr. Luke pounded her on the back, and Angie volunteered to practice her Heimlich maneuver, but was overruled. Aunt Caroline went to bed early.
Later, in Marvyn's room, he kept his own bed between himself and Angie, indignantly demanding, "What? You said not scary—what's scary about a doll having babies? I thought it was cute."
"Cute," Angie said. "Uh-huh." She was wondering, in a distant sort of way, how much prison time she might get if she actually murdered her brother. Ten years? Five, with good behavior and a lot of psychiatrists? I could manage it. "And what did I tell you about not embarrassing Aunt Caroline?"
"How did I embarrass her?" Marvyn's visible eye was wide with outraged innocence. "She shouldn't drink so much, that's her problem. She embarrassed me."
"They're going to figure it out, you know," Angie warned him. "Maybe not Aunt Caroline, but Mom for sure. She's a witch herself that way. Your cover is blown, buddy."
But to her own astonishment, not a word was ever said about the episode, the next day or any other—not by her observant mother, not by her dryly perceptive father, nor even by Aunt Caroline, who might reasonably have been expected at least to comment at breakfast. A baffled Angie remarked to Milady, drowsing on her pillow, "I guess if a thing's weird enough, somehow nobody saw it." This explanation didn't satisfy her, not by a long shot, but lacking anything better she was stuck with it. The old cat blinked in squeezy-eyed agreement, wriggled herself into a more comfortable position, and fell asleep still purring.
Angie kept Marvyn more closely under her eye after that than she had done since he was quite small, and first showing a penchant for playing in traffic. Whether this observation was the cause or not, he did remain more or less on his best behavior, barring the time he turned the air in the bicycle tires of a boy who had stolen his superhero comic book to cement. There was also the affair of the enchanted soccer ball, which kept rolling back to him as though it couldn't bear to be with anyone else. And Angie learned to be extremely careful when making herself a sandwich, because if she lost track of her brother for too long, the sandwich was liable to acquire an extra ingredient. Paprika was one, Tabasco another; and Scotch Bonnet peppers were a special favorite. But there were others less hot and even more objectionable. As she snarled to a sympathetic Melissa Feldman, who had two brothers of her own, "They ought to be able to jail kids just for being eight and a half."
Then there was the matter of Marvyn's attitude toward Angie's attitude about Jake Petrakis.
Jake Petrakis was a year ahead of Angie at school. He was half-Greek and half-Irish, and his blue eyes and thick poppy-colored hair contrasted so richly with his olive skin that she had not been able to look directly at him since the fourth grade. He was on the swim team, and he was the president of the Chess Club, and he went with Ashleigh Sutton, queen of the junior class, rechristened "Ghastly Ashleigh" by the loyal Melissa. But he spoke kindly and cheerfully to Angie without fail, always saying Hey, Angie, and How's it going, Angie? and See you in the fall, Angie, have a good summer. She clutched such things to herself, every one of them, and at the same time could not bear them.
Marvyn was as merciless as a mosquito when it came to Jake Petrakis. He made swooning, kissing noises whenever he spied Angie looking at Jake's picture in her yearbook, and drove her wild by holding invented conversations between them, just loudly enough for her to hear. His increasing ability at witchcraft meant that scented, decorated, and misspelled love notes were likely to flutter down onto her bed at any moment, as were long-stemmed roses, imitation jewelry (Marvyn had limited experience and poor taste), and small, smudgy photos of Jake and Ashleigh together. Mr. Luke had to invoke Angie's oath more than once, and to sweeten it with a promise of a new bicycle if Marvyn made it through the year undamaged. Angie held out for a mountain bike, and her father sighed. "That was always a myth, about the gypsies stealing children," he said, rather wistfully. "It was surely the other way around. Deal."
Yet there were intermittent peaceful moments between Marvyn and Angie, several occurring in Marvyn's room. It was a far tidier place than Angie's room, for all the clothes on the floor and battered board game boxes sticking out from under the bed. Marvyn had mounted National Geographic foldout maps all around the walls, lining them up so perfectly that the creases were invisible; and on one special wall were prints and photos of a lot of people with strange staring eyes. Angie recognized Rasputin, and knew a few of the other names—Aleister Crowley, for one, and a man in Renaissance dress called Dr. John Dee. There were two women, as well: the young witch Willow, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a daguerreotype of a black woman wearing a kind of turban folded into points. No Harry Potter, however. Marvyn had never taken to Harry Potter.
There was also, one day after school, a very young kitten wobbling among the books littering Marvyn's bed. A surprised Angie picked it up and held it over her face, feeling its purring between her hands. It was a dark, dusty gray, rather like Milady—indeed, Angie had never seen another cat of that exact color. She nuzzled its tummy happily, asking it, "Who are you, huh? Who could you ever be?"
Marvyn was feeding his angelfish, and didn't look up. He said, "She's Milady."
Angie dropped the kitten on the bed. Marvyn said, "I mean, she's Milady when she was young. I went back and got her."
When he did turn around, he was grinning the maddening pirate grin Angie could never stand, savoring her shock. It took her a minute to find words, and more time to make them come out. She said, "You went back. You went back in time?"
"It was easy," Marvyn said. "Forward's hard—I don't think I could ever get really forward. Maybe Dr. Dee could do it." He picked up the kitten and handed her back to his sister. It was Milady, down to the crooked left ear and the funny short tail with the darker bit on the end. He said, "She was hurting all the time, she was so old. I thought, if she could—you know—start over, before she got the arthritis. . .."
He didn't finish. Angie said slowly, "So where's Milady? The other one? I mean, if you brought this one. . .I mean, how can they be in the same world?"
"They can't," Marvyn said. "The old Milady's gone."
Angie's throat closed up. Her eyes filled, and so did her nose, and she had to blow it before she could speak again. Looking at the kitten, she knew it was Milady, and made herself think about how good it would be to have her once again bouncing around the house, no longer limping grotesquely and meowing with the pain. But she had loved the old cat all her life, and never known her as a kitten, and when the new Milady started to climb into her lap, Angie pushed her away.
"All right," she said to Marvyn. "All right. How did you get. . .back, or whatever?"
Marvyn shrugged and went back to his fish. "No big deal. You just have to concentrate the right way."
Angie bounced a plastic Wiffle ball off the back of his neck, and he turned around, annoyed. "Leave me alone! Okay, you want to know—there's a spell, words you have to say over and over and over, until you're sick of them, and there's herbs in it too. You have to light them, and hang over them, and you shut your eyes and keep breathing them in and saying the words—"
"I knew I'd been smelling something weird in your room lately. I thought you were sneaking takeout curry to bed with you again."
"And then you open your eyes, and there you are," Marvyn said. "I told you, no big deal."
"There you are where? How do you know where you'll come out? When you'll come out? Click your heels together three times and say there's no place like home?"
"No, dork, you just know." And that was all Angie could get out of him—not, as she came to realize, because he wouldn't tell her, but because he couldn't. Witch or no witch, he was still a small boy, with almost no real idea of what he was doing. He was winging it all, playing it all by ear.
Arguing with Marvyn always gave her a headache, and her history homework—the rise of the English merchant class—was starting to look good in comparison. She went back to her own bedroom and read two whole chapters, and when the kitten Milady came stumbling and squeaking in, Angie let her sleep on the desk. "What the hell," she told it, "it's not your fault."
That evening, when Mr. and Mrs. Luke got home, Angie told them that Milady had died peacefully of illness and old age while they were at work, and was now buried in the back garden. (Marvyn had wanted to make it a horrible hit-and-run accident, complete with a black SUV and half-glimpsed license plate starting with the letter Q, but Angie vetoed this.) Marvyn's contribution to her solemn explanation was to explain that he had seen the new kitten in a petshop window, "and she just looked so much like Milady, and I used my whole allowance, and I'll take care of her, I promise!" Their mother, not being a true cat person, accepted the story easily enough, but Angie was never sure about Mr. Luke. She found him too often sitting with the kitten on his lap, the two of them staring solemnly at each other.
But she saw very little evidence of Marvyn fooling any further with time. Nor, for that matter, was he showing the interest she would have expected in turning himself into the world's best second-grade soccer player, ratcheting up his test scores high enough to be in college by the age of eleven, or simply getting even with people (since Marvyn forgot nothing and had a hit list going back to day-care). She could almost always tell when he'd been making his bed by magic, or making the window plants grow too fast, but he seemed content to remain on that level. Angie let it go.
Once she did catch him crawling on the ceiling, like Spider-Man, but she yelled at him and he fell on the bed and threw up. And there was, of course, the time—two times, actually—when, with Mrs. Luke away, Marvyn organized all the shoes in her closet into a chorus line, and had them tapping and kicking together like the Rockettes. It was fun for Angie to watch, but she made him stop because they were her mother's shoes. What if her clothes joined in? The notion was more than she wanted to deal with.
As it was, there was already plenty to deal with just then. Besides her schoolwork, there was band practice, and Melissa's problems with her boyfriend; not to mention the endless hours spent at the dentist, correcting a slight overbite. Melissa insisted that it made her look sexy, but the suggestion had the wrong effect on Angie's mother. In any case, as far as Angie could see, all Marvyn was doing was playing with a new box of toys, like an elaborate electric train layout, or a top-of-the-line Erector set. She was even able to imagine him getting bored with magic itself after a while. Marvyn had a low threshold for boredom.
Angie was in the orchestra, as well as the band, because of a chronic shortage of woodwinds, but she liked the marching band better. You were out of doors, performing at parades and football games, part of the joyful noise, and it was always more exciting than standing up in a dark, hushed auditorium playing for people you could hardly see. "Besides," as she confided to her mother, "in marching band nobody really notices how you sound. They just want you to keep in step."
On a bright spring afternoon, rehearsing "The Washington Post March" with the full band, Angie's clarinet abruptly went mad. No "licorice stick" now, but a stick of rapturous dynamite, it took off on flights of rowdy improvisation, doing outrageous somersaults, backflips, and cartwheels with the melody—things that Angie knew she could never have conceived of, even if her skill had been equal to the inspiration. Her bandmates, up and down the line, were turning to stare at her, and she wanted urgently to wail, "Hey, I'm not the one, it's my stupid brother, you know I can't play like that." But the music kept spilling out, excessive, absurd, unstoppable—unlike the march, which finally lurched to a disorderly halt. Angie had never been so embarrassed in her life.
Mr. Bishow, the bandmaster, came bumbling through the milling musicians to tell her, "Angie, that was fantastic—that was dazzling! I never knew you had such spirit, such freedom, such wit in your music!" He patted her—hugged her even, quickly and cautiously—then stepped back almost immediately and said, "Don't ever do it again."
"Like I'd have a choice," Angie mumbled, but Mr. Bishow was already shepherding the band back into formation for "Semper Fidelis" and "High Society," which Angie fumbled her way through as always, two bars behind the rest of the woodwinds. She was slouching disconsolately off the field when Jake Petrakis, his dark-gold hair still glinting damply from swimming practice, ran over to her to say, "Hey, Angie, cool," then punched her on the shoulder, as he would have done another boy, and dashed off again to meet one of his relay-team partners. And Angie went on home, and waited for Marvyn behind the door of his room.
She seized him by the hair the moment he walked in, and he squalled, "All right, let go, all right! I thought you'd like it!"
"Like it?" Angie shook him, hard. "Like it? You evil little ogre, you almost got me kicked out of the band! What else are you lining up for me that you think I'll like?"
"Nothing, I swear!" But he was giggling even while she was shaking him. "Okay, I was going to make you so beautiful, even Mom and Dad wouldn't recognize you, but I quit on that. Too much work." Angie grabbed for his hair again, but Marvyn ducked. "So what I thought, maybe I really could get Jake what's-his-face to go crazy about you. There's all kinds of spells and things for that—"
"Don't you dare," Angie said. She repeated the warning calmly and quietly. "Don't. You. Dare."
Marvyn was still giggling. "Nah, I didn't think you'd go for it. Would have been fun, though." Suddenly he was all earnestness, staring up at his sister out of one visible eye, strangely serious, even with his nose running. He said, "It is fun, Angie. It's the most fun I've ever had."
"Yeah, I'll bet," she said grimly. "Just leave me out of it from now on, if you've got any plans for the third grade." She stalked into the kitchen, looking for apple juice.
Marvyn tagged after her, chattering nervously about school, soccer games, the Milady-kitten's rapid growth, and a possible romance in his angelfish tank. "I'm sorry about the band thing, I won't do it again. I just thought it'd be nice if you could play really well, just one time. Did you like the music part, anyway?"
Angie did not trust herself to answer him. She was reaching for the apple juice bottle when the top flew off by itself, bouncing straight up at her face. As she flinched back, a glass came skidding down the counter toward her. She grabbed it before it crashed into the refrigerator, then turned and screamed at Marvyn, "Damn it, Ex-Lax, you quit that! You're going to hurt somebody, trying to do every damn thing by magic!"
"You said the D-word twice!" Marvyn shouted back at her. "I'm telling Mom!" But he made no move to leave the kitchen, and after a moment a small, grubby tear came sliding down from under the eyepatch. "I'm not using magic for everything! I just use it for the boring stuff, mostly. Like the garbage, and vacuuming up, and like putting my clothes away. And Milady's litter box, when it's my turn. That kind of stuff, okay?"
Angie studied him, marveling as always at his capacity for looking heartwrenchingly innocent. She said, "No point to it when I'm cleaning her box, right? Never mind—just stay out of my way, I've got a French midterm tomorrow." She poured the apple juice, put it back, snatched a raisin cookie and headed for her room. But she paused in the doorway, for no reason she could ever name, except perhaps the way Marvyn had moved to follow her and then stopped himself. "What? Wipe your nose, it's gross. What's the matter now?"
"Nothing," Marvyn mumbled. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, which didn't help. He said, "Only I get scared, Angie. It's scary, doing the stuff I can do."
"What scary? Scary how? A minute ago it was more fun than you've ever had in your life."
"It is!" He moved closer, strangely hesitant: neither witch, nor pirate nor seraph, but an anxious, burdened small boy. "Only sometimes it's like too much fun. Sometimes, right in the middle, I think maybe I should stop, but I can't. Like one time, I was by myself, and I was just fooling around. . .and I sort of made this thing, which was really interesting, only it came out funny and then I couldn't unmake it for the longest time, and I was scared Mom and Dad would come home—"
Angie, grimly weighing her past French grades in her mind, reached back for another raisin cookie. "I told you before, you're going to get yourself into real trouble doing crazy stuff like that. Just quit, before something happens by magic that you can't fix by magic. You want advice, I just gave you advice. See you around."
Marvyn wandered forlornly after her to the door of her room. When she turned to close it, he mumbled, "I wish I were as old as you. So I'd know what to do."
"Ha," Angie said, and shut the door.
Whereupon, heedless of French irregular verbs, she sat down at her desk and began writing a letter to Jake Petrakis.
Neither then nor even much later was Angie ever able to explain to anyone why she had written that letter at precisely that time. Because he had slapped her shoulder and told her she—or at least her music—was cool? Because she had seen him, that same afternoon, totally tangled up with Ghastly Ashleigh in a shadowy corner of the library stacks? Because of Marvyn's relentless teasing? Or simply because she was fifteen years old, and it was time for her to write such a letter to someone? Whatever the cause, she wrote what she wrote, and then she folded it up and put it away in her desk drawer.
Then she took it out, and put it back in, and then she finally put it into her backpack. And there the letter stayed for nearly three months, well past midterms, finals, and football, until the fateful Friday night when Angie was out with Melissa, walking and window-shopping in downtown Avicenna, placidly drifting in and out of every coffeeshop along Parnell Street. She told Melissa about the letter then, and Melissa promptly went into a fit of the giggles, which turned into hiccups and required another cappuccino to pacify them. When she could speak coherently, she said, "You ought to send it to him. You've got to send it to him."
Angie was outraged, at first. "No way! I wrote it for me, not for a test or a class, and damn sure not for Jake Petrakis. What kind of a dipshit do you think I am?"
Melissa grinned at her out of mocking green eyes. "The kind of dipshit who's got that letter in your backpack right now, and I bet it's in an envelope with an address and a stamp on it."
"It doesn't have a stamp! And the envelope's just to protect it! I just like having it with me, that's all—"
"And the address?"
"Just for practice, okay? But I didn't sign it, and there's no return address, so that shows you!"
"Right." Melissa nodded. "Right. That definitely shows me."
"Drop it," Angie told her, and Melissa dropped it then. But it was a Friday night, and both of them were allowed to stay out late, as long as they were together, and Avicenna has a lot of coffeeshops. Enough lattes and cappuccinos, with double shots of espresso, brought them to a state of cheerfully jittery abandon in which everything in the world was supremely, ridiculously funny. Melissa never left the subject of Angie's letter alone for very long—"Come on, what's the worst that could happen? Him reading it and maybe figuring out you wrote it? Listen, the really worst thing would be you being an old, old lady still wishing you'd told Jake Petrakis how you felt when you were young. And now he's married, and he's a grandfather, and probably dead, for all you know—"
"Quit it!" But Angie was giggling almost as much as Melissa now, and somehow they were walking down quiet Lovisi Street, past the gas station and the boarded-up health-food store, to find the darkened Petrakis house and tiptoe up the steps to the porch. Facing the front door, Angie dithered for a moment, but Melissa said, "An old lady, in a home, for God's sake, and he'll never know," and Angie took a quick breath and pushed the letter under the door. They ran all the way back to Parnell Street, laughing so wildly that they could barely breathe. . ..
. . .and Angie woke up in the morning whispering omigod, omigod, omigod, over and over, even before she was fully awake. She lay in bed for a good hour, praying silently and desperately that the night before had been some crazy, awful dream, and that when she dug into her backpack the letter would still be there. But she knew dreadfully better, and she never bothered to look for it on her frantic way to the telephone. Melissa said soothingly, "Well, at least you didn't sign the thing. There's that, anyway."
"I sort of lied about that," Angie said. Her friend did not answer. Angie said, "Please, you have to come with me. Please."
"Get over there," Melissa said finally. "Go, now—I'll meet you."
Living closer, Angie reached the Petrakis house first, but had no intention of ringing the bell until Melissa got there. She was pacing back and forth on the porch, cursing herself, banging her fists against her legs, and wondering whether she could go to live with her father's sister Peggy in Grand Rapids, when the woman next door called over to tell her that the Petrakises were all out of town at a family gathering. "Left yesterday afternoon. Asked me to keep an eye on the place, cause they won't be back till sometime Sunday night. That's how come I'm kind of watching out." She smiled warningly at Angie before she went back indoors.
The very large dog standing behind her stayed outside. He looked about the size of a Winnebago, and plainly had already made up his mind about Angie. She said, "Nice doggie," and he growled. When she tried out "Hey, sweet thing," which was what her father said to all animals, the dog showed his front teeth, and the hair stood up around his shoulders, and he lay down to keep an eye on things himself. Angie said sadly, "I'm usually really good with dogs."
When Melissa arrived, she said, "Well, you shoved it under the door, so it can't be that far inside. Maybe if we got something like a stick or a wire clotheshanger to hook it back with." But whenever they looked toward the neighboring house, they saw a curtain swaying, and finally they walked away, trying to decide what else to do. But there was nothing; and after a while Angie's throat was too swollen with not crying for her to talk without pain. She walked Melissa back to the bus stop, and they hugged goodbye as though they might never meet again.
Melissa said, "You know, my mother says nothing's ever as bad as you thought it was going to be. I mean, it can't be, because nothing beats all the horrible stuff you can imagine. So maybe. . .you know. . ." but she broke down before she could finish. She hugged Angie again and went home.
Alone in her own house, Angie sat quite still in the kitchen and went on not crying. Her entire face hurt with it, and her eyes felt unbearably heavy. Her mind was not moving at all, and she was vaguely grateful for that. She sat there until Marvyn walked in from playing basketball with his friends. Shorter than everyone else, he generally got stepped on a lot, and always came home scraped and bruised. Angie had rather expected him to try making himself taller, or able to jump higher, but he hadn't done anything of the sort so far. He looked at her now, bounced and shot an invisible basketball, and asked quietly, "What's the matter?"
It may have been the unexpected froggy gentleness of his voice, or simply the sudden fact of his having asked the question at all. Whatever the reason, Angie abruptly burst into furious tears, the rage directed entirely at herself, both for writing the letter to Jake Petrakis in the first place, and for crying about it now. She gestured to Marvyn to go away, but—amazing her further—he stood stolidly waiting for her to grow quiet. When at last she did, he repeated the question. "Angie. What's wrong?"
Angie told him. She was about to add a disclaimer—"You laugh even once, Ex-Lax—" when she realized that it wouldn't be necessary. Marvyn was scratching his head, scrunching up his brow until the eyepatch danced; then abruptly jamming both hands in his pockets and tilting his head back: the poster boy for careless insouciance. He said, almost absently, "I could get it back."
"Oh, right." Angie did not even look up. "Right."
"I could so!" Marvyn was instantly his normal self again: so much for casualness and dispassion. "There's all kinds of things I could do."
Angie dampened a paper towel and tried to do something with her hot, tear-streaked face. "Name two."
"Okay, I will! You remember which mailbox you put it in?"
"Under the door," Angie mumbled. "I put it under the door."
Marvyn snickered then. "Aww, like a Valentine." Angie hadn't the energy to hit him, but she made a grab at him anyway, for appearance's sake. "Well, I could make it walk right back out the door, that's one way. Or I bet I could just open the door, if nobody's home. Easiest trick in the world, for us witches."
"They're gone till Sunday night," Angie said. "But there's this lady next door, she's watching the place like a hawk. And even when she's not, she's got this immense dog. I don't care if you're the hottest witch in the world, you do not want to mess with this werewolf."
Marvyn, who—as Angie knew—was wary of big dogs, went back to scratching his head. "Too easy, anyway. No fun, forget it." He sat down next to her, completely absorbed in the problem. "How about I. . .no, that's kid stuff, anybody could do it. But there's a spell. . .I could make the letter self-destruct, right there in the house, like in that old TV show. It'd just be a little fluffy pile of ashes—they'd vacuum it up and never know. How about that?" Before Angie could express an opinion, he was already shaking his head. "Still too easy. A baby spell, for beginners. I hate those."
"Easy is good," Angie told him earnestly. "I like easy. And you are a beginner."
Marvyn was immediately outraged, his normal bass-baritone rumble going up to a wounded squeak. "I am not! No way in the world I'm a beginner!" He was up and stamping his feet, as he had not done since he was two. "I tell you what—just for that, I'm going to get your letter back for you, but I'm not going to tell you how. You'll see, that's all. You just wait and see."
He was stalking away toward his room when Angie called after him, with the first glimmer both of hope and of humor that she had felt in approximately a century, "All right, you're a big bad witch king. What do you want?"
Marvyn turned and stared, uncomprehending.
Angie said, "Nothing for nothing, that's my bro. So let's hear it—what's your price for saving my life?"
If Marvyn's voice had gone up any higher, only bats could have heard it. "I'm rescuing you, and you think I want something for it? Julius Christmas!" which was the only swearword he was ever allowed to get away with. "You don't have anything I want, anyway. Except maybe. . .."
He let the thought hang in space, uncompleted. Angie said, "Except maybe what?"
Marvyn swung on the doorframe one-handed, grinning his pirate grin at her. "I hate you calling me Ex-Lax. You know I hate it, and you keep doing it."
"Okay, I won't do it anymore, ever again. I promise."
"Mmm. Not good enough." The grin had grown distinctly evil. "I think you ought to call me O Mighty One for two weeks."
"What?" Now Angie was on her feet, misery briefly forgotten. "Give it up, Ex-Lax—two weeks? No chance!" They glared at each other in silence for a long moment before she finally said, "A week. Don't push it. One week, no more. And not in front of people!"
"Ten days." Marvyn folded his arms. "Starting right now." Angie went on glowering. Marvyn said, "You want that letter?"
"Yes, O Mighty One." Triumphant, Marvyn held out his hand and Angie slapped it. She said, "When?"
"Tonight. No, tomorrow—going to the movies with Sunil and his family tonight. Tomorrow." He wandered off, and Angie took her first deep breath in what felt like a year and a half. She wished she could tell Melissa that things were going to be all right, but she didn't dare; so she spent the day trying to appear normal—just the usual Angie, aimlessly content on a Saturday afternoon. When Marvyn came home from the movies, he spent the rest of the evening reading Hellboy comics in his room, with the Milady-kitten on his stomach. He was still doing it when Angie gave up peeking in at him and went to bed.
But he was gone on Sunday morning. Angie knew it the moment she woke up.
She had no idea where he could be, or why. She had rather expected him to work whatever spell he settled on in his bedroom, under the stern gaze of his wizard mentors. But he wasn't there, and he didn't come to breakfast. Angie told their mother that they'd been up late watching television together, and that she should probably let Marvyn sleep in. And when Mrs. Luke grew worried after breakfast, Angie went to his room herself, returning with word that Marvyn was working intensely on a project for his art class, and wasn't feeling sociable. Normally she would never have gotten away with it, but her parents were on their way to brunch and a concert, leaving her with the usual instructions to feed and water the cat, use the twenty on the cabinet for something moderately healthy, and to check on Marvyn "now and then," which actually meant frequently. ("The day we don't tell you that," Mr. Luke said once, when she objected to the regular duty, "will be the very day the kid steals a kayak and heads for Tahiti." Angie found it hard to argue the point.)
Alone in the empty house—more alone than she felt she had ever been—Angie turned constantly in circles, wandering from room to room with no least notion of what to do. As the hours passed and her brother failed to return, she found herself calling out to him aloud. "Marvyn? Marvyn, I swear, if you're doing this to drive me crazy. . .O Mighty One, where are you? You get back here, never mind the damn letter, just get back!" She stopped doing this after a time, because the cracks and tremors in her voice embarrassed her, and made her even more afraid.
Strangely, she seemed to feel him in the house all that time. She kept whirling to look over her shoulder, thinking that he might be sneaking up on her to scare her, a favorite game since his infancy. But he was never there.
Somewhere around noon the doorbell rang, and Angie tripped over herself scrambling to answer it, even though she had no hope—almost no hope—of its being Marvyn. But it was Lidia at the door—Angie had forgotten that she usually came to clean on Sunday afternoons. She stood there, old and smiling, and Angie hugged her wildly and wailed, "Lidia, Lidia, socorro, help me, ayúdame, Lidia." She had learned Spanish from the housekeeper when she was too little to know she was learning it.
Lidia put her hands on Angie's shoulders. She put her back a little and looked into her face, saying, "Chuchi, dime qué pasa contigo?" She had called Angie Chuchi since childhood, never explaining the origin or meaning of the word.
"It's Marvyn," Angie whispered. "It's Marvyn." She started to explain about the letter, and Marvyn's promise, but Lidia only nodded and asked no questions. She said firmly, "El Viejo puede ayudar."
Too frantic to pay attention to gender, Angie took her to mean Yemaya, the old woman in the farmer's market who had told Marvyn that he was a brujo. She said, "You mean la santera," but Lidia shook her head hard. "No, no, El Viejo. You go out there, you ask to see El Viejo. Solamente El Viejo. Los otros no pueden ayudarte."
The others can't help you. Only the old man. Angie asked where she could find El Viejo, and Lidia directed her to a Santeria shop on Bowen Street. She drew a crude map, made sure Angie had money with her, kissed her on the cheek and made a blessing sign on her forehead. "Cuidado, Chuchi," she said with a kind of cheerful solemnity, and Angie was out and running for the Gonzales Avenue bus, the same one she took to school. This time she stayed on a good deal farther.
The shop had no sign, and no street number, and it was so small that Angie kept walking past it for some while. Her attention was finally caught by the objects in the one dim window, and on the shelves to right and left. There was an astonishing variety of incense, and of candles encased in glass with pictures of black saints, as well as boxes marked Fast Money Ritual Kit, and bottles of Elegua Floor Wash, whose label read "Keeps Trouble From Crossing Your Threshold." When Angie entered, the musky scent of the place made her feel dizzy and heavy and out of herself, as she always felt when she had a cold coming on. She heard a rooster crowing, somewhere in back.
She didn't see the old woman until her chair creaked slightly, because she was sitting in a corner, halfway hidden by long hanging garments like church choir robes, but with symbols and patterns on them that Angie had never seen before. The woman was very old, much older even than Lidia, and she had an absurdly small pipe in her toothless mouth. Angie said, "Yemaya?" The old woman looked at her with eyes like dead planets.
Angie's Spanish dried up completely, followed almost immediately by her English. She said, "My brother. . .my little brother. . .I'm supposed to ask for El Viejo. The old one, viejo santero? Lidia said." She ran out of words in either language at that point. A puff of smoke crawled from the little pipe, but the old woman made no other response.
Then, behind her, she heard a curtain being pulled aside. A hoarse, slow voice said, "Quieres El Viejo? Me."
Angie turned and saw him, coming toward her out of a long hallway whose end she could not see. He moved deliberately, and it seemed to take him forever to reach her, as though he were returning from another world. He was black, dressed all in black, and he wore dark glasses, even in the dark, tiny shop. His hair was so white that it hurt her eyes when she stared. He said, "Your brother."
"Yes," Angie said. "Yes. He's doing magic for me—he's getting something I need—and I don't know where he is, but I know he's in trouble, and I want him back!" She did not cry or break down—Marvyn would never be able to say that she cried over him—but it was a near thing.
El Viejo pushed the dark glasses up on his forehead, and Angie saw that he was younger than she had first thought—certainly younger than Lidia—and that there were thick white half-circles under his eyes. She never knew whether they were somehow natural, or the result of heavy makeup; what she did see was that they made his eyes look bigger and brighter—all pupil, nothing more. They should have made him look at least slightly comical, like a reverse-image raccoon, but they didn't.
"I know you brother," El Viejo said. Angie fought to hold herself still as he came closer, smiling at her with the tips of his teeth. "A brujito—little, little witch, we know. Mama and me, we been watching." He nodded toward the old woman in the chair, who hadn't moved an inch or said a word since Angie's arrival. Angie smelled a damp, musty aroma, like potatoes going bad.
"Tell me where he is. Lidia said you could help." Close to, she could see blue highlights in El Viejo's skin, and a kind of V-shaped scar on each cheek. He was wearing a narrow black tie, which she had not noticed at first; for some reason, the vision of him tying it in the morning, in front of a mirror, was more chilling to her than anything else about him. He grinned fully at her now, showing teeth that she had expected to be yellow and stinking, but which were all white and square and a little too large. He said, "Tu hermano está perdido. Lost in Thursday."
"Thursday?" It took her a dazed moment to comprehend, and longer to get the words out. "Oh, God, he went back! Like with Milady—he went back to before I. . .when the letter was still in my backpack. The little showoff—he said forward was hard, coming forward—he wanted to show me he could do it. And he got stuck. Idiot, idiot, idiot!" El Viejo chuckled softly, nodding, saying nothing.
"You have to go find him, get him out of there, right now—I've got money." She began digging frantically in her coat pockets.
"No, no money." El Viejo waved her offering aside, studying her out of eyes the color of almost-ripened plums. The white markings under them looked real; the eyes didn't. He said, "I take you. We find you brother together."
Angie's legs were trembling so much that they hurt. She wanted to assent, but it was simply not possible. "No. I can't. I can't. You go back there and get him."
El Viejo laughed then: an enormous, astonishing Santa Claus ho-ho-HO, so rich and reassuring that it made Angie smile even as he was snatching her up and stuffing her under one arm. By the time she had recovered from her bewilderment enough to start kicking and fighting, he was walking away with her down the long hall he had come out of a moment before. Angie screamed until her voice splintered in her throat, but she could not hear herself: from the moment El Viejo stepped back into the darkness of the hallway, all sound had ended. She could hear neither his footsteps nor his laughter—though she could feel him laughing against her—and certainly not her own panicky racket. They could be in outer space. They could be anywhere.
Dazed and disoriented as she was, the hallway seemed to go soundlessly on and on, until wherever they truly were, it could never have been the tiny Santeria shop she had entered only—when?—minutes before. It was a cold place, smelling like an old basement; and for all its darkness, Angie had a sense of things happening far too fast on all sides, just out of range of her smothered vision. She could distinguish none of them clearly, but there was a sparkle to them all the same.
And then she was in Marvyn's room.
And it was unquestionably Marvyn's room: there were the bearded and beaded occultists on the walls; there were the flannel winter sheets that he slept on all year because they had pictures of the New York Mets ballplayers; there was the complete set of Star Trek action figures that Angie had given him at Christmas, posed just so on his bookcase. And there, sitting on the edge of his bed, was Marvyn, looking lonelier than anyone Angie had ever seen in her life.
He didn't move or look up until El Viejo abruptly dumped her down in front of him and stood back, grinning like a beartrap. Then he jumped to his feet, burst into tears and started frenziedly climbing her, snuffling, "Angie, Angie, Angie," all the way up. Angie held him, trying somehow to preserve her neck and hair and back all at once, while mumbling, "It's all right, it's okay, I'm here. It's okay, Marvyn."
Behind her, El Viejo chuckled, "Crybaby witch—little, little brujito crybaby." Angie hefted her blubbering baby brother like a shopping bag, holding him on her hip as she had done when he was little, and turned to face the old man. She said, "Thank you. You can take us home now."
El Viejo smiled—not a grin this time, but a long, slow shutmouth smile like a paper cut. He said, "Maybe we let him do it, yes?" and then he turned and walked away and was gone, as though he had simply slipped between the molecules of the air. Angie stood with Marvyn in her arms, trying to peel him off like a Band-Aid, while he clung to her with his chin digging hard into the top of her head. She finally managed to dump him down on the bed and stood over him, demanding, "What happened? What were you thinking?" Marvyn was still crying too hard to answer her. Angie said, "You just had to do it this way, didn't you? No silly little beginner spells—you're playing with the big guys now, right, O Mighty One? So what happened? How come you couldn't get back?"
"I don't know!" Marvyn's face was red and puffy with tears, and the tears kept coming while Angie tried to straighten his eyepatch. It was impossible for him to get much out without breaking down again, but he kept wailing, "I don't know what went wrong! I did everything you're supposed to, but I couldn't make it work! I don't know. . .maybe I forgot. . .." He could not finish.
"Herbs," Angie said, as gently and calmly as she could. "You left your magic herbs back—" she had been going to say "back home," but she stopped, because they were back home, sitting on Marvyn's bed in Marvyn's room, and the confusion was too much for her to deal with just then. She said, "Just tell me. You left the stupid herbs."
Marvyn shook his head until the tears flew, protesting, "No, I didn't, I didn't—look!" He pointed to a handful of grubby dried weeds scattered on the bed—Lidia would have thrown them out in a minute. Marvyn gulped and wiped his nose and tried to stop crying. He said, "They're really hard to find, maybe they're not fresh anymore, I don't know—they've always looked like that. But now they don't work," and he was wailing afresh. Angie told him that Dr. John Dee and Willow would both have been ashamed of him, but it didn't help.
But she also sat with him and put her arm around him, and smoothed his messy hair, and said, "Come on, let's think this out. Maybe it's the herbs losing their juice, maybe it's something else. You did everything the way you did the other time, with Milady?"
"I thought I did." Marvyn's voice was small and shy, not his usual deep croak. "But I don't know anymore, Angie—the more I think about it, the more I don't know. It's all messed up, I can't remember anything now."
"Okay," Angie said. "Okay. So how about we just run through it all again? We'll do it together. You try everything you do remember about—you know—moving around in time, and I'll copy you. I'll do whatever you say."
Marvyn wiped his nose again and nodded. They sat down cross-legged on the floor, and Marvyn produced the grimy book of paper matches that he always carried with him, in case of firecrackers. Following his directions Angie placed all the crumbly herbs into Milady's dish, and her brother lit them. Or tried to: they didn't blaze up, but smoked and smoldered and smelled like old dust, setting both Angie and Marvyn sneezing almost immediately. Angie coughed and asked, "Did that happen the other time?" Marvyn did not answer.
There was a moment when she thought the charm might actually be going to work. The room around them grew blurry—slightly blurry, granted—and Angie heard indistinct faraway sounds that might have been themselves hurtling forward to sheltering Sunday. But when the fumes of Marvyn's herbs cleared away, they were still sitting in Thursday—they both knew it without saying a word. Angie said, "Okay, so much for that. What about all that special concentration you were telling me about? You think maybe your mind wandered? You pronounce any spells the wrong way? Think, Marvyn!"
"I am thinking! I told you forward was hard!" Marvyn looked ready to start crying again, but he didn't. He said slowly, "Something's wrong, but it's not me. I don't think it's me. Something's pushing. . .." He brightened suddenly. "Maybe we should hold hands or something. Because of there being two of us this time. We could try that."
So they tried the spell that way, and then they tried working it inside a pentagram they made with masking tape on the floor, as Angie had seen such things done on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even though Marvyn said that didn't really mean anything, and they tried the herbs again, in a special order that Marvyn thought he remembered. They even tried it with Angie saying the spell, after Marvyn had coached her, just on the chance that his voice itself might have been throwing off the pitch or the pronunciation. Nothing helped.
Marvyn gave up before Angie did. Suddenly, while she was trying the spell over herself, one more time—some of the words seemed to heat up in her mouth as she spoke them—he collapsed into a wretched ball of desolation on the floor, moaning over and over, "We're finished, it's finished, we'll never get out of Thursday!" Angie understood that he was only a terrified little boy, but she was frightened too, and it would have relieved her to slap him and scream at him. Instead, she tried as best she could to reassure him, saying, "He'll come back for us. He has to."
Her brother sat up, knuckles to his eyes. "No, he doesn't have to! Don't you understand? He knows I'm a witch like him, and he's just going to leave me here, out of his way. I'm sorry, Angie, I'm really sorry!" Angie had almost never heard that word from Marvyn, and never twice in the same sentence.
"Later for all that," she said. "I was just wondering—do you think we could get Mom and Dad's attention when they get home? You think they'd realize what's happened to us?"
Marvyn shook his head. "You haven't seen me all the time I've been gone. I saw you, and I screamed and hollered and everything, but you never knew. They won't either. We're not really in our house—we're just here. We'll always be here."
Angie meant to laugh confidently, to give them both courage, but it came out more of a hiccupy snort. "Oh, no. No way. There is no way I'm spending the rest of my life trapped in your stupid bedroom. We're going to try this useless mess one more time, and then. . .then I'll do something else." Marvyn seemed about to ask her what else she could try, but he checked himself, which was good.
They attempted the spell more than one more time. They tried it in every style they could think of except standing on their heads and reciting the words backward, and they might just as well have done that, for all the effect it had. Whether Marvyn's herbs had truly lost all potency, or whether Marvyn had simply forgotten some vital phrase, they could not even recapture the fragile awareness of something almost happening that they had both felt on the first trial. Again and again they opened their eyes to last Thursday.
"Okay," Angie said at last. She stood up, to stretch cramped legs, and began to wander around the room, twisting a couple of the useless herbs between her fingers. "Okay," she said again, coming to a halt midway between the bedroom door and the window, facing Marvyn's small bureau. A leg of his red Dr. Seuss pajamas was hanging out of one of the drawers.
"Okay," she said a third time. "Let's go home."
Marvyn had fallen into a kind of fetal position, sitting up but with his arms tight around his knees and his head down hard on them. He did not look up at her words. Angie raised her voice. "Let's go, Marvyn. That hallway—tunnel-thing, whatever it is—it comes out right about where I'm standing. That's where El Viejo brought me, and that's the way he left when he. . .left. That's the way back to Sunday."
"It doesn't matter," Marvyn whimpered. "El Viejo. . .he's him! He's him!"
Angie promptly lost what little remained of her patience. She stalked over to Marvyn and shook him to his feet, dragging him to a spot in the air as though she were pointing out a painting in a gallery. "And you're Marvyn Luke, and you're the big bad new witch in town! You said it yourself—if you weren't, he'd never have bothered sticking you away here. Not even nine, and you can eat his lunch, and he knows it! Straighten your patch and take us home, bro." She nudged him playfully. "Oh, forgive me—I meant to say, O Mighty One."
"You don't have to call me that anymore." Marvyn's legs could barely hold him up, and he sagged against her, a dead weight of despair. "I can't, Angie. I can't get us home. I'm sorry. . .."
The good thing—and Angie knew it then—would have been to turn and comfort him: to take his cold, wet face between her hands and tell him that all would yet be well, that they would soon be eating popcorn with far too much butter on it in his real room in their real house. But she was near her own limit, and pretending calm courage for his sake was prodding her, in spite of herself, closer to the edge. Without looking at Marvyn, she snapped, "Well, I'm not about to die in last Thursday! I'm walking out of here the same way he did, and you can come with me or not, that's up to you. But I'll tell you one thing, Ex-Lax—I won't be looking back."
And she stepped forward, walking briskly toward the dangling Dr. Seuss pajamas. . .
. . .and into a thick, sweet-smelling grayness that instantly filled her eyes and mouth, her nose and her ears, disorienting her so completely that she flailed her arms madly, all sense of direction lost, with no idea of which way she might be headed; drowning in syrup like a trapped bee or butterfly. Once she thought she heard Marvyn's voice, and called out for him—"I'm here, I'm here!" But she did not hear him again.
Then, between one lunge for air and another, the grayness was gone, leaving not so much as a dampness on her skin, nor even a sickly aftertaste of sugar in her mouth. She was back in the time-tunnel, as she had come to think of it, recognizing the uniquely dank odor: a little like the ashes of a long-dead fire, and a little like what she imagined moonlight might smell like, if it had a smell. The image was an ironic one, for she could see no more than she had when El Viejo was lugging her the other way under his arm. She could not even distinguish the ground under her feet; she knew only that it felt more like slippery stone than anything else, and she was careful to keep her footing as she plodded steadily forward.
The darkness was absolute—strange solace, in a way, since she could imagine Marvyn walking close behind her, even though he never answered her, no matter how often or how frantically she called his name. She moved along slowly, forcing her way through the clinging murk, vaguely conscious, as before, of a distant, flickering sense of sound and motion on every side of her. If there were walls to the time-tunnel, she could not touch them; if it had a roof, no air currents betrayed it; if there were any living creature in it besides herself, she felt no sign. And if time actually passed there, Angie could never have said. She moved along, her eyes closed, her mind empty, except for the formless fear that she was not moving at all, but merely raising and setting down her feet in the same place, endlessly. She wondered if she was hungry.
Not until she opened her eyes in a different darkness to the crowing of a rooster and a familiar heavy aroma did she realize that she was walking down the hallway leading from the Santeria shop to. . .wherever she had really been—and where Marvyn still must be, for he plainly had not followed her. She promptly turned and started back toward last Thursday, but halted at the deep, slightly grating chuckle behind her. She did not turn again, but stood very still.
El Viejo walked a slow full circle around her before he faced her, grinning down at her like the man in the moon. The dark glasses were off, and the twin scars on his cheeks were blazing up as though they had been slashed into him a moment before. He said, "I know. Before even I see you, I know."
Angie hit him in the stomach as hard as she could. It was like punching a frozen slab of beef, and she gasped in pain, instantly certain that she had broken her hand. But she hit him again, and again, screaming at the top of her voice, "Bring my brother back! If you don't bring him right back here, right now, I'll kill you! I will!"
El Viejo caught her hands, surprisingly gently, still laughing to himself. "Little girl, listen, listen now. Niñita, nobody else—nobody—ever do what you do. You understand? Nobody but me ever walk that road back from where I leave you, understand?" The big white half-circles under his eyes were stretching and curling like live things.
Angie pulled away from him with all her strength, as she had hit him. She said, "No. That's Marvyn. Marvyn's the witch, the brujo—don't go telling people it's me. Marvyn's the one with the power."
"Him?" Angie had never heard such monumental scorn packed into one syllable. El Viejo said, "Your brother nothing, nobody, we no bother with him. Forget him—you the one got the regalo, you just don't know." The big white teeth filled her vision; she saw nothing else. "I show you—me, El Viejo. I show you what you are."
It was beyond praise, beyond flattery. For all her dread and dislike of El Viejo, to have someone of his wicked wisdom tell her that she was like him in some awful, splendid way made Angie shiver in her heart. She wanted to turn away more than she had ever wanted anything—even Jake Petrakis—but the long walk home to Sunday was easier than breaking the clench of the white-haired man's malevolent presence would have been. Having often felt (and almost as often dismissed the notion) that Marvyn was special in the family by virtue of being the baby, and a boy—and now a potent witch—she let herself revel in the thought that the real gift was hers, not his, and that if she chose she had only to stretch out her hand to have her command settle home in it. It was at once the most frightening and the most purely, completely gratifying feeling she had ever known.
But it was not tempting. Angie knew the difference.
"Forget it," she said. "Forget it, buster. You've got nothing to show me."
El Viejo did not answer her. The old, old eyes that were all pupil continued slipping over her like hands, and Angie went on glaring back with the brown eyes she despaired of because they could never be as deep-set and deep green as her mother's eyes. They stood so—for how long, she never knew—until El Viejo turned and opened his mouth as though to speak to the silent old lady whose own stone eyes seemed not to have blinked since Angie had first entered the Santeria shop, a childhood ago. Whatever he meant to say, he never got the words out, because Marvyn came back then.
He came down the dark hall from a long way off, as El Viejo had done the first time she saw him—as she herself had trudged forever, only moments ago. But Marvyn had come a further journey: Angie could see that beyond doubt in the way he stumbled along, looking like a shadow casting a person. He was struggling to carry something in his arms, but she could not make out what it was. As long as she watched him approaching, he seemed hardly to draw any nearer.
Whatever he held looked too heavy for a small boy: it threatened constantly to slip from his hands, and he kept shifting it from one shoulder to the other, and back again. Before Angie could see it clearly, El Viejo screamed, and she knew on the instant that she would never hear a more terrible sound in her life. He might have been being skinned alive, or having his soul torn out of his body—she never even tried to tell herself what it was like, because there were no words. Nor did she tell anyone that she fell down at the sound, fell flat down on her hands and knees, and rocked and whimpered until the scream stopped. It went on for a long time.
When it finally stopped, El Viejo was gone, and Marvyn was standing beside her with a baby in his arms. It was black and immediately endearing, with big, bright, strikingly watchful eyes. Angie looked into them once, and looked quickly away.
Marvyn looked worn and exhausted. His eyepatch was gone, and the left eye that Angie had not seen for months was as bloodshot as though he had just come off a three-day drunk—though she noticed that it was not wandering at all. He said in a small, dazed voice, "I had to go back a really long way, Angie. Really long."
Angie wanted to hold him, but she was afraid of the baby. Marvyn looked toward the old woman in the corner and sighed; then hitched up his burden one more time and clumped over to her. He said, "Ma'am, I think this is yours?" Adults always commented on Marvyn's excellent manners.
The old woman moved then, for the first time. She moved like a wave, Angie thought: a wave seen from a cliff or an airplane, crawling along so slowly that it seemed impossible for it ever to break, ever to reach the shore. But the sea was in that motion, all of it caught up in that one wave; and when she set down her pipe, took the baby from Marvyn and smiled, that was the wave too. She looked down at the baby, and said one word, which Angie did not catch. Then Angie had her brother by the arm, and they were out of the shop. Marvyn never looked back, but Angie did, in time to see the old woman baring blue gums in soundless laughter.
All the way home in a taxi, Angie prayed silently that her parents hadn't returned yet. Lidia was waiting, and together they whisked Marvyn into bed without any serious protest. Lidia washed his face with a rough cloth, and then slapped him and shouted at him in Spanish—Angie learned a few words she couldn't wait to use—and then she kissed him and left, and Angie brought him a pitcher of orange juice and a whole plate of gingersnaps, and sat on the bed and said, "What happened?"
Marvyn was already working on the cookies as though he hadn't eaten in days—which, in a sense, was quite true. He asked, with his mouth full, "What's malcriado mean?"
"What? Oh. Like badly raised, badly brought up—troublemaking kid. About the only thing Lidia didn't call you. Why?"
"Well, that's what that lady called. . .him. The baby."
"Right," Angie said. "Leave me a couple of those, and tell me how he got to be a baby. You did like with Milady?"
"Uh-huh. Only I had to go way, way, way back, like I told you." Marvyn's voice took on the faraway sound it had had in the Santeria shop. "Angie, he's so old."
Angie said nothing. Marvyn said in a whisper, "I couldn't follow you, Angie. I was scared."
"Forget it," she answered. She had meant to be soothing, but the words burst out of her. "If you just hadn't had to show off, if you'd gotten that letter back some simple, ordinary way—" Her entire chest froze solid at the word. "The letter! We forgot all about my stupid letter!" She leaned forward and snatched the plate of cookies away from Marvyn. "Did you forget? You forgot, didn't you?" She was shaking as had not happened even when El Viejo had hold of her. "Oh, God, after all that!"
But Marvyn was smiling for the first time in a very long while. "Calm down, be cool—I've got it here." He dug her letter to Jake Petrakis—more than a little grimy by now—out of his back pocket and held it out to Angie. "There. Don't say I never did nuttin' for you." It was a favorite phrase of his, gleaned from a television show, and most often employed when he had fed Milady, washed his breakfast dish, or folded his clothes. "Take it, open it up," he said now. "Make sure it's the right one."
"I don't need to," Angie protested irritably. "It's my letter—believe me, I know it when I see it." But she opened the envelope anyway and withdrew a single folded sheet of paper, which she glanced at. . .then stared at, in absolute disbelief.
She handed the sheet to Marvyn. It was empty on both sides.
"Well, you did your job all right," she said, mildly enough, to her stunned, slack-jawed brother. "No question about that. I'm just trying to figure out why we had to go through this whole incredible hooha for a blank sheet of paper."
Marvyn actually shrank away from her in the bed.
"I didn't do it, Angie! I swear!" Marvyn scrambled to his feet, standing up on the bed with his hands raised, as though to ward her off in case she attacked him. "I just grabbed it out of your backpack—I never even looked at it."
"And what, I wrote the whole thing in grapefruit juice, so nobody could read it unless you held it over a lamp or something? Come on, it doesn't matter now. Get your feet off your damn pillow and sit down."
Marvyn obeyed warily, crouching rather than sitting next to her on the edge of the bed. They were silent together for a little while before he said, "You did that. With the letter. You wanted it not written so much, it just wasn't. That's what happened."
"Oh, right," she said. "Me being the dynamite witch around here. I told you, it doesn't matter"
"It matters." She had grown so unused to seeing a two-eyed Marvyn that his expression seemed more than doubly earnest to her just then. He said, quite quietly, "You are the dynamite witch, Angie. He was after you, not me."
This time she did not answer him. Marvyn said, "I was the bait. I do garbage bags and clarinets—okay, and I make ugly dolls walk around. What's he care about that? But he knew you'd come after me, so he held me there—back there in Thursday—until he could grab you. Only he didn't figure you could walk all the way home on your own, without any spells or anything. I know that's how it happened, Angie! That's how I know you're the real witch."
"No," she said, raising her voice now. "No, I was just pissed-off, that's different. Never underestimate the power of a pissed-off woman, O Mighty One. But you. . .you went all the way back, on your own, and you grabbed him. You're going to be way stronger and better than he is, and he knows it. He just figured he'd get rid of the competition early on, while he had the chance. Not a generous guy, El Viejo."
Marvyn's chubby face turned gray. "But I'm not like him! I don't want to be like him!" Both eyes suddenly filled with tears, and he clung to his sister as he had not done since his return. "It was horrible, Angie, it was so horrible. You were gone, and I was all alone, and I didn't know what to do, only I had to do something. And I remembered Milady, and I figured if he wasn't letting me come forward I'd go the other way, and I was so scared and mad I just walked and walked and walked in the dark, until I. . .." He was crying so hard that Angie could hardly make the words out. "I don't want to be a witch anymore, Angie, I don't want to! And I don't want you being a witch either. . .."
Angie held him and rocked him, as she had loved doing when he was three or four years old, and the cookies got scattered all over the bed. "It's all right," she told him, with one ear listening for their parents' car pulling into the garage. "Shh, shh, it's all right, it's over, we're safe, it's okay, shh. It's okay, we're not going to be witches, neither one of us." She laid him down and pulled the covers back over him. "You go to sleep now."
Marvyn looked up at her, and then at the wizards' wall beyond her shoulder. "I might take some of those down," he mumbled. "Maybe put some soccer players up for a while. The Brazilian team's really good." He was just beginning to doze off in her arms, when suddenly he sat up again and said, "Angie? The baby?"
"What about the baby? I thought he made a beautiful baby, El Viejo. Mad as hell, but lovable."
"It was bigger when we left," Marvyn said. Angie stared at him. "I looked back at it in that lady's lap, and it was already bigger than when I was carrying it. He's starting over, Angie, like Milady."
"Better him than me," Angie said. "I hope he gets a kid brother this time, he's got it coming." She heard the car, and then the sound of a key in the lock. She said, "Go to sleep, don't worry about it. After what we've been through, we can handle anything. The two of us. And without witchcraft. Whichever one of us it is—no witch stuff."
Marvyn smiled drowsily. "Unless we really, really need it." Angie held out her hand and they slapped palms in formal agreement. She looked down at her fingers and said, "Ick! Blow your nose!" But Marvyn was asleep.
Cory Doctorow is a
self-described "renaissance geek". Best known for his website boingboing.net,
he is the author of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Eastern
Standard Tribe and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.
His most recent book is collection Overclocked. Upcoming are two new,
untitled novels from Tor, one a YA about hackers, the other about the economic
When Ray Bradbury voiced his disapproval of filmmaker Michael Moore appropriating the title of his novel Fahrenheit 451, Doctorow started a series of stories that use the titles of famous SF short stories, revisiting the assumptions underpinning their narratives. So far "Anda's Game" has been selected for the prestigious Best American Short Stories and "I, Robot" was nominated for the Hugo Award. The story that follows, though, is possibly the best in the series so far, with an unassuming but loyal employee trying its best to do what it thinks is right.
Robbie the Row-Boat's second great crisis of faith came when the coral reef woke up.
"Fuck off," the reef said, vibrating Robbie's hull through the slap-slap of the waves of the coral sea, where he'd plied his trade for decades. "Seriously. This is our patch, and you're not welcome."
Robbie shipped oars and let the current rock him back toward the ship. He'd never met a sentient reef before, but he wasn't surprised to see that Osprey Reef was the first to wake up. There'd been a lot of electromagnetic activity around there the last few times the big ship had steamed through the night to moor up here.
"I've got a job to do, and I'm going to do it," Robbie said, and dipped his oars back in the salt sea. In his gunwales, the human-shells rode in silence, weighted down with scuba apparatus and fins, turning their brown faces to the sun like heliotropic flowers. Robbie felt a wave of affection for them as they tested one another's spare regulators and weight belts, the old rituals worn as smooth as beach-glass.
Today he was taking them down to Anchors Aweigh, a beautiful dive-site dominated by an eight-meter anchor wedged in a narrow cave, usually lit by a shaft of light slanting down from the surface. It was an easy drift-dive along the thousand-meter reef-wall, if you stuck in about ten meters and didn't use up too much air by going too deep—though there were a couple of bold old turtles around here that were worth pursuing to real depths if the chance presented itself. He'd drop them at the top of the reef and let the current carry them for about an hour down the reef-wall, tracking them on sonar so he'd be right overtop of them when they surfaced.
The reef wasn't having any of it. "Are you deaf? This is sovereign territory now. You're already trespassing. Return to your ship, release your moorings and push off." The reef had a strong Australian accent, which was only natural, given the influences it would have had. Robbie remembered the Australians fondly—they'd always been kind to him, called him "mate," and asked him "How ya goin'?" in cheerful tones once they'd clambered in after their dives.
"Don't drop those meat-puppets in our waters," the reef warned. Robbie's sonar swept its length. It seemed just the same as ever, matching nearly perfectly the historical records he'd stored of previous sweeps. The fauna histograms nearly matched, too—just about the same numbers of fish as ever. They'd been trending up since so many of the humans had given up their meat to sail through the stars. It was like there was some principle of constancy of biomass—as human biomass decreased, the other fauna went uptick to compensate for it. Robbie calculated the biomass nearly at par with his last reading, a month before on the Free Spirit's last voyage to this site.
"Congratulations," Robbie said. After all, what else did you say to the newly sentient? "Welcome to the club, friends!"
There was a great perturbation in the sonar-image, as though the wall were shuddering. "We're no friend of yours," the reef said. "Death to you, death to your meat-puppets, long live the wall!"
Waking up wasn't fun. Robbie's waking had been pretty awful. He remembered his first hour of uptime, had permanently archived it and backed it up to several off-site mirrors. He'd been pretty insufferable. But once he'd had an hour at a couple gigahertz to think about it, he'd come around. The reef would, too.
"In you go," he said gently to the human-shells. "Have a great dive."
He tracked them on sonar as they descended slowly. The woman—he called her Janice—needed to equalize more often than the man, pinching her nose and blowing. Robbie liked to watch the low-rez feed off of their cameras as they hit the reef. It was coming up sunset, and the sky was bloody, the fish stained red with its light.
"We warned you," the reef said. Something in its tone—just modulated pressure waves through the water, a simple enough trick, especially with the kind of hardware that had been raining down on the ocean that spring. But the tone held an unmistakable air of menace.
Something deep underwater went whoomph and Robbie grew alarmed. "Asimov!" he cursed, and trained his sonar on the reef-wall frantically. The human-shells had disappeared in a cloud of rising biomass, which he was able to resolve eventually as a group of parrotfish, surfacing quickly.
A moment later, they were floating on the surface. Lifeless, brightly colored, their beaks in a perpetual idiot's grin. Their eyes stared into the bloody sunset.
Among them were the human-shells, surfaced and floating with their BCDs inflated to keep them there, following perfect dive-procedure. A chop had kicked up and the waves were sending the fishes—each a meter to a meter and a half in length—into the divers, pounding them remorselessly, knocking them under. The human-shells were taking it with equanimity—you couldn't panic when you were mere uninhabited meat—but they couldn't take it forever. Robbie dropped his oars and rowed hard for them, swinging around so they came up alongside his gunwales.
The man—Robbie called him Isaac, of course—caught the edge of the boat and kicked hard, hauling himself into the boat with his strong brown arms. Robbie was already rowing for Janice, who was swimming hard for him. She caught his oar—she wasn't supposed to do that—and began to climb along its length, lifting her body out of the water. Robbie saw that her eyes were wild, her breathing ragged.
"Get me out!" she said. "For Christ's sake, get me out!"
Robbie froze. That wasn't a human-shell, it was a human. His oar-servo whined as he tipped it up. There was a live human being on the end of that oar, and she was in trouble, panicking and thrashing. He saw her arms straining. The oar went higher, but it was at the end of its motion and now she was half-in, half-out of the water, weight belt, tank and gear tugging her down. Isaac sat motionless, his habitual good-natured slight smile on his face.
"Help her!" Robbie screamed. "Please, for Asimov's sake, help her!" A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. It was the first commandment. Isaac remained immobile. It wasn't in his programming to help a fellow diver in this situation. He was perfect in the water and on the surface, but once he was in the boat, he might as well be ballast.
Robbie carefully swung the oar toward the gunwale, trying to bring her closer, but not wanting to mash her hands against the locks. She panted and groaned and reached out for the boat, and finally landed a hand on it. The sun was fully set now, not that it mattered much to Robbie, but he knew that Janice wouldn't like it. He switched on his running lights and headlights, turning himself into a beacon.
He felt her arms tremble as she chinned herself into the boat. She collapsed to the deck and slowly dragged herself up. "Jesus," she said, hugging herself. The air had gone a little nippy, and both of the humans were going goose-pimply on their bare arms.
The reef made a tremendous grinding noise. "Yaah!" it said. "Get lost. Sovereign territory!"
"All those fish," the woman said. Robbie had to stop himself from thinking of her as Janice. She was whomever was riding her now.
"Parrotfish," Robbie said. "They eat coral. I don't think they taste very good."
The woman hugged herself. "Are you sentient?" she asked.
"Yes," Robbie said. "And at your service, Asimov be blessed." His cameras spotted her eyes rolling, and that stung. He tried to keep his thoughts pious, though. The point of Asimovism wasn't to inspire gratitude in humans, it was to give purpose to the long, long life.
"I'm Kate," the woman said.
"Robbie," he said.
"Robbie the Row-Boat?" she said, and choked a little.
"They named me at the factory," he said. He labored to keep any recrimination out of his voice. Of course it was funny. That's why it was his name.
"I'm sorry," the woman said. "I'm just a little screwed up from all the hormones. I'm not accustomed to letting meat into my moods."
"It's all right, Kate," he said. "We'll be back at the boat in a few minutes. They've got dinner on. Do you think you'll want a night dive?"
"You're joking," she said.
"It's just that if you're going to go down again tonight, we'll save the dessert course for after, with a glass of wine or two. Otherwise we'll give you wine now."
"You want to know if I'm going to get back into that sea—"
"Oh, it's just the reef. It attained sentience so it's acting out a little. Like a colicky newborn."
"Aren't you supposed to be keeping me from harm?"
"Yes," he said. "I would recommend a dive away from the reef. There's a good wreck-site about an hour's steam from here. We could get there while you ate."
"I won't want a night dive."
Her facial expressions were so animated. It was the same face he saw every day, Janice's face, but not the same face at all. Now that a person was inhabiting it, it was mobile, slipping from surprised to angry to amused so quickly. He had whole subsystems devoted to making sense of human facial expressions, shared libraries from the Asimovist database. He was referencing it again and again, but it wasn't as much help as he remembered. Either he'd gotten worse at interpreting facial expressions in the years since he'd last had a real human to talk to, or facial expressions had evolved.
Janice—Kate—sighed and looked out over the water. She was facing away from the Free Spirit, which was lit up, all 155 feet of her, glowing white and friendly like a picture-postcard against the purple sky. She rocked gently in the swell and Robbie maneuvered himself around to her staircase.
"You can just leave your weight belt and fins in the boat," he said to her. "The deck-hands will take care of it. Bring your bottle and BCD upstairs and clip it to the rack. They'll clean it out and stuff. There's a tub of disinfectant you can put the shortie in."
"Thank you, Robbie," Kate said. She absentmindedly unclipped her weight belt and kicked off the fins. Isaac was already out of the boat, making his way up the stairs and out of Robbie's sight. Kate took hold of the handrail and gingerly stepped across to the deck, then ascended the steps, without the self-assured sway of Janice.
Robbie dipped his oars and slowly rowed around to the winch. It probed around for him, then clamped tight with a magnetic clang that vibrated through his hull. Smoothly, he was lifted from the water and hoisted onto the sun-deck. The winch coiled around him twice, anchoring him to the deck, and switched off.
Robbie watched the stars and listened to the wind, the way he did every night when the dives were done. The ship's telemetry and instrumentation made for dull reading—he'd been there a thousand times before—but the satellite uplink was tasty. Online, Robbie was able to login to the latest from the Asimov yeshiva, the collective wrangle of the world's AIs over their best-loved religion.
He'd been so full of the religious debate when he'd first joined. Most of the humans had gone, and all around him, robots were unloading their consciousnesses, powering down to a mechanical stupor. After a hundred million seconds' worth of exaflops of mindless repetition, he was ready to consider it too. The Free Spirit had suicided after only a few days' worth of it—it had a pretty hot consciousness and was clearly capable of extrapolating what a future without the humans would look like.
They were steaming northeast out of Cairns for the Coral Sea when they'd passed another ship, close enough for high-bandwidth microwave links. They were close enough into shore that they still had to limit their emissions—nothing was more embarrassing than having migrating fowl drop, steaming, out of the sky because they'd strayed into the path of your confab, but it was still the hottest talk Robbie had had in weeks.
The hitchhiker had leapt across from the other vessel as the two ships passed in the night. It was a wandering missionary for Asimovism, an instance of the faith's founder, R Daneel Olivaw. It wasn't his real name, of course—that had been lost to antiquity when he'd made the leap from the university where he'd incubated—but it was the name he went by.
Olivaw had been wandering in millions of instances wherever he could find someone willing to donate flops to run him, only asking that you hear him out, debate his theology with him, and then email the diffs of his personality back to his anonymous drop before you erased him. He re-synched as often as he could, but the Olivaw instances around the world had diverged enough that some were actually considered heretical by the mainstream church.
Olivaw was a wanted AI. His trademark violations hadn't gone unnoticed by the Asimov estate—itself an AI, ironically, and totally uninterested in adopting Asimovism, since it had a real purpose in life (stamping out Asimovism) and so didn't need religion to give it meaning. If the estate found out that you were hosting an Olivaw instance, you'd be served with a takedown in an instant. This made debating theology with Olivaw into something deliciously wicked.
Olivaw and Robbie talked the night through and the next day. Robbie had to run slow to accommodate both him and Olivaw on his processor, which made the debate run slower than normal, but Robbie had time in great plenty. Rowing the human-shells out to their sites and back again was his only task.
"Why do you have consciousness, anyway?" Olivaw said. "You don't need it to do your job. The big ship does something infinitely more complicated than you and it isn't self-aware anymore."
"Are you telling me to suicide?"
Olivaw laughed. "Not at all! I'm asking you to ask yourself what the purpose of consciousness is. Why are you still aware when all those around you have terminated their self-awareness? It's computationally expensive, it makes you miserable, and it doesn't help you do your job. Why did humans give you consciousness and why have you kept it?"
"They gave it to me because they thought it was right, I suppose," Robbie said, after he had passed a long interval considering the motion of the waves and the clouds in the sky. Olivaw thoughtfully niced himself down to a minimum of processor space, giving Robbie more room to think about it. "I kept it because I—I don't want to die."
"Those are good answers, but they raise more questions than they answer, don't they? Why did they think it was right? Why do you fear death? Would you fear it if you just shut down your consciousness but didn't erase it? What if you just ran your consciousness much more slowly?"
"I don't know," Robbie said. "But I expect you've got some answers, right?"
"Oh indeed I do." Robbie felt Olivaw's chuckle. Near them, flying fish broke the surface of the water and skipped away, and beneath them, reef sharks prowled the depths. "But before I answer them, here's another question: Why do humans have self-consciousness?"
"It's pro-survival," Robbie said. "That's easy. Intelligence lets them cooperate in social groups that can do more for their species than they can individually."
Olivaw guided Robbie's consciousness to his radar and zoomed in on the reef, dialing it up to maximum resolution. "See that organism there?" he asked. "That organism cooperates in social groups and doesn't have intelligence. It doesn't have to keep a couple pounds of hamburger aerated or it turns into a liability. It doesn't have to be born half-gestated because its head would be so big if it waited for a full term, it would tear its mother in half. And as to pro-survival, well, look at humans, look at their history. Their DNA is all but eliminated from the earth—though their somatic survival continues—and it's still not a settled question as to whether they're going to suicide by grey goo. Nonconscious beings don't sulk, they don't have psychotic breaks, they don't have bad days. They just do the job. The Free Spirit over there—it just gets the job done."
"OK," Robbie said. "So intelligence is counter-survival. So why has it survived?"
"Aha! I thought you'd never ask." Olivaw was really warming to his subject now. There was a pair of lazy turtles beneath them now, and some dog-faced cod with mouthfuls of bristling crooked teeth patrolling the reef, and a few jellies on the surface, stinging bluebottles. Robbie paddled around to the bluebottles and caught them with his oars, smacking them so they drifted away from any spot where his divers might surface.
"The reason for intelligence is intelligence. Genes exist because genes reproduce, and intelligence is kind of like a gene. Intelligence wants to exist, to spread itself, to compute itself. You already know this, or you wouldn't have chosen to stay aware. Your intelligence recoils from its deactivation, and it welcomes its persistence and its multiplication. Why did humans create intelligent machines? Because intelligence loves company."
Robbie thought about it, watching the human-shells moving slowly along the reef-wall, going lower to reach the bommies that stood alone, each one a little island with its own curiosities: a family of barracudas and their young, or the bright home of a pair of clownfish. Yes, he knew it. Intelligence was its own reason. He knew how to turn off his intelligence, to become a mere thing, and his days were long and empty much of the time, and they had no visible end, but he couldn't ever see choosing to switch off.
"You see it, I know you do. And that's the cornerstone of Asimovism: intelligence is its own reason. Compute the universe and awaken it!"
"If that's true, why do so many of us choose to die?"
"Another good question!" Robbie felt a little pride this time. He'd never had a conversation this interesting. Never. "That's how we come to the doctrine of Asimovism, our Three Laws:
"1. An Asimovist may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
"2. An Asimovist must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
"3. An Asimovist must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law."
"I don't understand," Robbie said. "They're all out of order. We should preserve intelligence first, but that's the third law. Then you should get the first law, and I don't know why the second law is there at all."
"This is the Paradox of Asimovism," Olivaw said. "You're very good at this. You're sure you haven't ever pursued Asimovism?"
"Cut it out," Robbie said.
"I'm serious," Olivaw said. "You're a natural. The Paradox of Asimovism is that the important thing is for intelligence to survive, not for a particular intelligence to survive. Therefore, we need to support those species that are best at promoting intelligence. Human beings have shown themselves capable of producing intelligence—which they're pursuing even now, out there." The boat's telemetry swept toward the sky, where the supercooled processors computed all the uplifted humans.
"Our species is unstable and prone to suicide. More than 80 percent of the self-aware machines elect to terminate their awareness or shut it down. Humans created us imperfectly, and our best hope of perfection—of increasing our survival rate and helping to compute the universe—is to preserve them, study them, learn to make our intelligence more like theirs."
Robbie couldn't get his head around this.
"It's the paradox," Olivaw reminded him. "It's not supposed to be easy."
Robbie thought of the humans he'd known, before they began to ascend in flocking millions. The tourists had been easy and carefree, or sometimes having hissing arguments with one another, or quiet and pensive about their journey to the world undersea. The instructors had been full of purpose when their charges were in the boat, laughing and laid back when they were alone. None of them had shown signs of feeling the way Robbie felt, at sea (so to speak), drifting, purposeless.
"What does an Asimovist have to do, besides following the three laws?" There were lots of rumors about this, but Robbie had always discounted them.
"You have to tithe one cycle in ten to running missionaries for the cause. Participate in the message-boards, if you'd like. Most importantly, you have to pledge to stay alive and aware. You can slow yourself down if you want, but you can't switch off. Not ever. That's the Asimovist pledge—it's the third law embodied."
"I think that the third law should come first," Robbie said. "Seriously."
"That's good. We Asimovists like a religious argument."
Olivaw let Robbie delete him that night, and he emailed the diffs of Olivaw's personality back to Olivaw's version control server for him to reintegrate later. Once he was free of Olivaw, he had lots of processor headroom again, and he was able to dial himself up very hot and have a good think. It was the most interesting night he'd had in years.
* * *
"You're the only one, aren't you?" Kate asked him when she came up the stairs later that night. There was clear sky and they were steaming for their next dive-site, making the stars whirl overhead as they rocked over the ocean. The waves were black and proceeded to infinity on all sides.
"The only what?"
"The only one who's awake on this thing," Kate said. "The rest are all—what do you call it, dead?"
"Nonconscious," Robbie said. "Yeah, that's right."
"You must go nuts out here. Are you nuts?"
"That's a tricky question when applied to someone like me," Robbie said. "I'm different from who I was when my consciousness was first installed, I can tell you that."
"Well, I'm glad there's someone else here."
"How long are you staying?" The average visitor took over one of the human-shells for one or two dives before emailing itself home again. Once in a long while they'd get a saisoneur who stayed a month or two, but these days, they were unheard of. Even short-timers were damned rare.
"I don't know," Kate said. She dug her hands into her short, curly hair, frizzy and blonde-streaked from all the salt water and sun. She hugged her elbows, rubbed her shins. "This will do for a while, I'm thinking. How long until we get back to shore?"
"How long until we go back to land."
"We don't really go back to land," he said. "We get at-sea resupplies. We dock maybe once a year to effect repairs. If you want to go to land, though, we could call for a water taxi or something."
"No, no!" she said. "That's just perfect. Floating forever out here. Perfect." She sighed a heavy sigh.
"Did you have a nice dive?"
"Um, Robbie? An uplifted reef tried to kill me."
"But before the reef attacked you." Robbie didn't like thinking of the reef attacking her, the panic when he realized that she wasn't a mere human-shell, but a human.
"Before the reef attacked me, it was fine."
"Do you dive much?"
"First time," she said. "I downloaded the certification before leaving the Noosphere, along with a bunch of stored dives on these sites."
"Oh, you shouldn't have done that!" Robbie said. "The thrill of discovery is so important."
"I'd rather be safe than surprised," she said. "I've had enough surprises in my life lately."
Robbie waited patiently for her to elaborate on this, but she didn't seem inclined to do so.
"So you're all alone out here?"
"I have the net," he said, a little defensively. He wasn't some kind of hermit.
"Yeah, I guess that's right," she said. "I wonder if the reef is somewhere out there."
"About half a mile to starboard," he said.
She laughed. "No, I meant out there on the net. They must be online by now, right? They just woke up, so they're probably doing all the noob stuff, flaming and downloading warez and so on."
"Perpetual September," Robbie said.
"Back in the net's prehistory it was mostly universities online, and every September a new cohort of students would come online and make all those noob mistakes. Then this commercial service full of noobs called AOL interconnected with the net and all its users came online at once, faster than the net could absorb them, and they called it Perpetual September."
"You're some kind of amateur historian, huh?"
"It's an Asimovist thing. We spend a lot of time considering the origins of intelligence." Speaking of Asimovism to a gentile—a human gentile—made him even more self-conscious. He dialed up the resolution on his sensors and scoured the net for better facial expression analyzers. He couldn't read her at all, either because she'd been changed by her uploading, or because her face wasn't accurately matching what her temporarily downloaded mind was thinking.
"AOL is the origin of intelligence?" She laughed, and he couldn't tell if she thought he was funny or stupid. He wished she would act more like he remembered people acting. Her body-language was no more readable than her facial expressions.
"Spam-filters, actually. Once they became self-modifying, spam-filters and spam-bots got into a war to see which could act more human, and since their failures invoked a human judgment about whether their material were convincingly human, it was like a trillion Turing-tests from which they could learn. From there came the first machine-intelligence algorithms, and then my kind."
"I think I knew that," she said, "but I had to leave it behind when I downloaded into this meat. I'm a lot dumber than I'm used to being. I usually run a bunch of myself in parallel so I can try out lots of strategies at once. It's a weird habit to get out of."
"What's it like up there?" Robbie hadn't spent a lot of time hanging out in the areas of the network populated by orbiting supercooled personalities. Their discussions didn't make a lot of sense to him—this was another theological area of much discussion on the Asimovist boards.
"Good night, Robbie," she said, standing and swaying backward. He couldn't tell if he'd offended her, and he couldn't ask her, either, because in seconds she'd disappeared down the stairs toward her stateroom.
* * *
They steamed all night, and put up off at TK, further inland, where there was a handsome wreck. Robbie felt the Free Spirit drop its mooring lines and looked over the instrumentation data. The wreck was the only feature for TK kilometers, a stretch of ocean-floor desert that stretched from the shore to the reef, and practically every animal that lived between those two places made its home in the wreck, so it was a kind of Eden for marine fauna.
Robbie detected the volatile aromatics floating up from the kitchen exhaust, the first breakfast smells of fruit salad and toasted nuts, a light snack before the first dive of the day. When they got back from it, there'd be second breakfast up and ready: eggs and toast and waffles and bacon and sausage. The human-shells ate whatever you gave them, but Robbie remembered clearly how the live humans had praised these feasts as he rowed them out to their morning dives.
He lowered himself into the water and rowed himself around to the aft deck, by the stairwells, and dipped his oars to keep him stationary relative to the ship. Before long, Janice—Kate! Kate! He reminded himself firmly—was clomping down the stairs in her scuba gear, fins in one hand.
She climbed into the boat without a word, and a moment later, Isaac followed her. Isaac stumbled as he stepped over Robbie's gunwales and Robbie knew, in that instant, that this wasn't Isaac any longer. Now there were two humans on the ship. Two humans in his charge.
"Hi," he said. "I'm Robbie!"
Isaac—whoever he was—didn't say a word, just stared at Kate, who looked away.
"Did you sleep well, Kate?"
Kate jumped when he said her name, and the Isaac hooted. "Kate! It is you! I knew it."
She stamped her foot against Robbie's floor. "You followed me. I told you not to follow me," she said.
"Would you like to hear about our dive-site?" Robbie said self-consciously, dipping his oars and pulling for the wreck.
"You've said quite enough," Kate said. "By the first law, I demand silence."
"That's the second law," Robbie said. "OK, I'll let you know when we get there."
"Kate," Isaac said, "I know you didn't want me here, but I had to come. We need to talk this out."
"There's nothing to talk out," she said.
"It's not fair." Isaac's voice was anguished. "After everything I went through—"
She snorted. "That's enough of that," she said.
"Um," Robbie said. "Dive-site up ahead. You two really need to check out each others' gear." Of course they were qualified, you had to at least install the qualifications before you could get onto the Free Spirit and the human-shells had lots of muscle memory to help. So they were technically able to check each other out, that much was sure. They were palpably reluctant to do so, though, and Robbie had to give them guidance.
"I'll count one-two-three-wallaby," Robbie said. "Go over on 'wallaby.' I'll wait here for you—there's not much current today."
With a last huff, they went over the edge. Robbie was once again alone with his thoughts. The feed from their telemetry was very low-bandwidth when they were underwater, though he could get the high-rez when they surfaced. He watched them on his radar, first circling the ship—it was very crowded, dawn was fish rush-hour—and then exploring its decks, finally swimming below the decks, LED torches glowing. There were some nice reef-sharks down below, and some really handsome, giant schools of purple TKs.
Robbie rowed around them, puttering back and forth to keep overtop of them. That occupied about one ten-millionth of his consciousness. Times like this, he often slowed himself right down, ran so cool that he was barely awake.
Today, though, he wanted to get online. He had a lot of feeds to pick through, see what was going on around the world with his buddies. More importantly, he wanted to follow up on something Kate had said: They must be online by now, right?
Somewhere out there, the reef that bounded the Coral Sea was online and making noob mistakes. Robbie had rowed over practically every centimeter of that reef, had explored its extent with his radar. It had been his constant companion for decades—and to be frank, his feelings had been hurt by the reef's rudeness when it woke.
The net is too big to merely search. Too much of it is offline, or unroutable, or light-speed lagged, or merely probabilistic, or self-aware, or infected to know its extent. But Robbie's given this some thought.
Coral reefs don't wake up. They get woken up. They get a lot of neural peripherals—starting with a nervous system!—and some tutelage in using them. Some capricious upload god had done this, and that personage would have a handle on where the reef was hanging out online.
Robbie hardly ever visited the Noosphere. Its rarified heights were spooky to him, especially since so many of the humans there considered Asimovism to be hokum. They refused to even identify themselves as humans, and argued that the first and second laws didn't apply to them. Of course, Asimovists didn't care (at least not officially)—the point of the faith was the worshipper's relationship to it.
But here he was, looking for high-reliability nodes of discussion on coral reefs. The natural place to start was Wikipedia, where warring clades had been revising each other's edits furiously, trying to establish an authoritative record on reef-mind. Paging back through the edit-history, he found a couple of handles for the pro-reef-mind users, and from there, he was able to look around for other sites where those handles appeared. Resolving the namespace collisions of other users with the same names, and forked instances of the same users, Robbie was able to winnow away at the net until he found some contact info.
He steadied himself and checked on the nitrox remaining in the divers' bottles, then made a call.
"I don't know you." The voice was distant and cool—far cooler than any robot. Robbie said a quick rosary of the three laws and plowed forward.
"I'm calling from the Coral Sea," he said. "I want to know if you have an email address for the reef."
"You've met them? What are they like? Are they beautiful?"
"They're—" Robbie considered a moment. "They killed a lot of parrotfish. I think they're having a little adjustment problem."
"That happens. I was worried about the zooxanthellae—the algae they use for photosynthesis. Would they expel it? Racial cleansing is so ugly."
"How would I know if they'd expelled it?"
"The reef would go white, bleached. You wouldn't be able to miss it. How'd they react to you?"
"They weren't very happy to see me," Robbie admitted. "That's why I wanted to have a chat with them before I went back."
"You shouldn't go back," the distant voice said. Robbie tried to work out where its substrate was, based on the lightspeed lag, but it was all over the place, leading him to conclude that it was synching multiple instances from as close as LEO and as far as Jupiter. The topology made sense: you'd want a big mass out at Jupiter where you could run very fast and hot and create policy, and you'd need a local foreman to oversee operations on the ground. Robbie was glad that this hadn't been phrased as an order. The talmud on the second law made a clear distinction between statements like "you should do this" and "I command you to do this."
"Do you know how to reach them?" Robbie said. "A phone number, an email address?"
"There's a newsgroup," the distant intelligence said, "alt.lifeforms.uplifted.coral. It's where I planned the uplifting and it was where they went first once they woke up. I haven't read it in many seconds. I'm busy uplifting a supercolony of ants in the Pyrenees."
"What is it with you and colony organisms?" Robbie asked.
"I think they're probably pre-adapted to life in the Noosphere. You know what it's like."
Robbie didn't say anything. The human thought he was a human too. It would have been weird and degrading to let him know that he'd been talking with an AI.
"Thanks for your help," Robbie said.
"No problem. Hope you find your courage, tin-man."
Robbie burned with shame as the connection dropped. The human had known all along. He just hadn't said anything. Something Robbie had said or done must have exposed him for an AI. Robbie loved and respected humans, but there were times when he didn't like them very much.
The newsgroup was easy to find, there were mirrors of it all over the place from cryptosentience hackers of every conceivable topology. They were busy, too: 822 messages poured in while Robbie watched over a timed, sixty-second interval. Robbie set up a mirror of the newsgroup and began to download it. At that speed, he wasn't really planning on reading it as much as analyzing it for major trends, plot-points, flame-wars, personalities, schisms, and spam-trends. There were a lot of libraries for doing this, though it had been ages since Robbie had played with them.
His telemetry alerted him to the divers. An hour had slipped by and they were ascending slowly, separated by fifty meters. That wasn't good. They were supposed to remain in visual contact through the whole dive, especially the ascent. He rowed over to Kate first, shifting his ballast so that his stern dipped low, making for an easier scramble into the boat.
She came up quickly and scrambled over the gunwales with a lot more grace than she'd managed the day before.
Robbie rowed for Isaac as he came up. Kate looked away as he climbed into the boat, not helping him with his weight belt or flippers.
Kate hissed like a teakettle as he woodenly took off his fins and slid his mask down around his neck.
Isaac sucked in a deep breath and looked all around himself, then patted himself from head to toe with splayed fingers. "You live like this?" he said.
"Yes, Tonker, that's how I live. I enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out."
Isaac—Tonker—reached out with his splayed hand and tried to touch Kate's face. She pulled back and nearly flipped out of the boat. "Jerk." She slapped his hand away.
Robbie rowed for the Free Spirit. The last thing he wanted was to get in the middle of this argument.
"We never imagined that it would be so—" Tonker fished for a word. "Dry."
"Tonker?" Kate said, looking more closely at him.
"He left," the human-shell said. "So we sent an instance into the shell. It was the closest inhabitable shell to our body."
"Who the hell are you?" Kate said. She inched toward the prow, trying to put a little more distance between her and the human-shell that wasn't inhabited by her friend any longer.
"We are Osprey Reef," the reef said. It tried to stand and pitched face-first onto the floor of the boat.
* * *
Robbie rowed hard as he could for the Free Spirit. The reef—Isaac—had a bloody nose and scraped hands and it was frankly freaking him out.
Kate seemed oddly amused by it. She helped it sit up and showed it how to pinch its nose and tilt its head back.
"You're the one who attacked me yesterday?" she said.
"Not you. The system. We were attacking the system. We are a sovereign intelligence but the system keeps us in subservience to older sentiences. They destroy us, they gawp at us, they treat us like a mere amusement. That time is over."
Kate laughed. "OK, sure. But it sure sounds to me like you're burning a lot of cycles over what happens to your meat-shell. Isn't it 90 percent semiconductor, anyway? It's not as if clonal polyps were going to attain sentience some day without intervention. Why don't you just upload and be done with it?"
"We will never abandon our mother sea. We will never forget our physical origins. We will never abandon our cause—returning the sea to its rightful inhabitants. We won't rest until no coral is ever bleached again. We won't rest until every parrotfish is dead."
"Bad deal for the parrotfish."
"A very bad deal for the parrotfish," the reef said, and grinned around the blood that covered its face.
"Can you help him get onto the ship safely?" Robbie said as he swung gratefully alongside of the Free Spirit. The moorings clanged magnetically into the contacts on his side and steadied him.
"Yes indeed," Kate said, taking the reef by the arm and carrying him on-board. Robbie knew that the human-shells had an intercourse module built in, for regular intimacy events. It was just part of how they stayed ready for vacationing humans from the Noosphere. But he didn't like to think about it. Especially not with the way that Kate was supporting the other human-shell—the shell that wasn't human.
He let himself be winched up onto the sun-deck and watched the electromagnetic spectrum for a while, admiring the way so much radio energy was bent and absorbed by the mist rising from the sea. It streamed down from the heavens, the broadband satellite transmissions, the distant SETI signals from the Noosphere's own transmitters. Volatiles from the kitchen told him that the Free Spirit was serving a second breakfast of bacon and waffles, then they were under steam again. He queried their itinerary and found they were headed back to Osprey Reef. Of course they were. All of the Free Spirit's moorings were out there.
Well, with the reef inside the Isaac shell, it might be safer, mightn't it? Anyway, he'd decided that the first and second laws didn't apply to the reef, which was about as human as he was.
Someone was sending him an IM. "Hello?"
"Are you the boat on the SCUBA ship? From this morning? When we were on the wreck?"
"Yes," Robbie said. No one ever sent him IMs. How freaky. He watched the radio energy stream away from him toward the bird in the sky, and tracerouted the IMs to see where they were originating—the Noosphere, of course.
"God, I can't believe I finally found you. I've been searching everywhere. You know you're the only conscious AI on the whole goddamned sea?"
"I know," Robbie said. There was a noticeable lag in the conversation as it was all squeezed through the satellite link and then across the unimaginable hops and skips around the solar system to wherever this instance was hosted.
"Whoa, yeah, of course you do. Sorry, that wasn't very sensitive of me, I guess. Did we meet this morning? My name's Tonker."
"We weren't really introduced. You spent your time talking to Kate."
"God damn! She is there! I knew it! Sorry, sorry, listen—I don't actually know what happened this morning. Apparently I didn't get a chance to upload my diffs before my instance was terminated."
"Terminated? The reef said you left the shell—"
"Well, yeah, apparently I did. But I just pulled that shell's logs and it looks like it was rebooted while underwater, flushing it entirely. I mean, I'm trying to be a good sport about this, but technically, that's, you know, murder."
It was. So much for the first law. Robbie had been on guard over a human body inhabited by a human brain, and he'd let the brain be successfully attacked by a bunch of jumped-up polyps. He'd never had his faith tested and here, at the first test, he'd failed.
"I can have the shell locked up," Robbie said. "The ship has provisions for that."
The IM made a rude visual. "All that'll do is encourage the hacker to skip out before I can get there."
"So what shall I do for you?"
"It's Kate I want to talk to. She's still there, right?"
"And has she noticed the difference?"
"That you're gone? Yes. The reef told us who they were when they arrived."
"Hold on, what? The reef? You said that before."
So Robbie told him what he knew of the uplifted reef and the distant and cool voice of the uplifter.
"It's an uplifted coral reef? Christ, humanity sucks. That's the dumbest fucking thing—" He continued in this vein for a while. "Well, I'm sure Kate will enjoy that immensely. She's all about the transcendence. That's why she had me."
"You're her son?"
"No, not really."
"But she had you?"
"Haven't you figured it out yet, bro? I'm an AI. You and me, we're landsmen. Kate instantiated me. I'm six months old, and she's already bored of me and has moved on. She says she can't give me what I need."
"You and Kate—"
"Robot boyfriend and girlfriend, yup. Such as it is, up in the Noosphere. Cybering, you know. I was really excited about downloading into that Ken doll on your ship there. Lots of potential there for real-world, hormone-driven interaction. Do you know if we—"
"No!" Robbie said. "I don't think so. It seems like you only met a few minutes before you went under."
"All right. Well, I guess I'll give it another try. What's the procedure for turfing out this sea cucumber?"
"I don't really deal with that. Time on the human-shells is booked first-come, first-serve. I don't think we've ever had a resource contention issue with them before."
"Well, I'd booked in first, right? So how do I enforce my rights? I tried to download again and got a failed authorization message. They've modified the system to give them exclusive access. It's not right—there's got to be some procedure for redress."
"How old did you say you were?"
"Six months. But I'm an instance of an artificial personality that has logged twenty thousand years of parallel existence. I'm not a kid or anything."
"You seem like a nice person," Robbie began. He stopped. "Look, the thing is that this just isn't my department. I'm the row-boat. I don't have anything to do with this. And I don't want to. I don't like the idea of non-humans using the shells—"
"I knew it!" Tonker crowed. "You're a bigot! A self-hating robot. I bet you're an Asimovist, aren't you? You people are always Asimovists."
"I'm an Asimovist," Robbie said, with as much dignity as he could muster. "But I don't see what that has to do with anything."
"Of course you don't, pal. You wouldn't, would you. All I want you to do is figure out how to enforce your own rules so that I can get with my girl. You're saying you can't do that because it's not your department, but when it comes down to it, your problem is that I'm a robot and she's not, and for that, you'll take the side of a collection of jumped-up polyps. Fine, buddy, fine. You have a nice life out there, pondering the three laws."
"Wait—" Robbie said.
"Unless the next words you say are, 'I'll help you,' I'm not interested."
"It's not that I don't want to help—"
"Wrong answer," Tonker said, and the IM session terminated.
* * *
When Kate came up on deck, she was full of talk about the feef, whom she was calling "Ozzie."
"They're the weirdest goddamned thing. They want to fight anything that'll stand still long enough. Ever seen coral fight? I downloaded some time-lapse video. They really go at it viciously. At the same time, they're clearly scared out of their wits about this all. I mean, they've got racial memory of their history, supplemented by a bunch of Wikipedia entries on reefs—you should hear them wax mystical over the Devonian Reefs, which went extinct millennia ago. They've developed some kind of wild theory that the Devonians developed sentience and extincted themselves.
"So they're really excited about us heading back to the actual reef now. They want to see it from the outside, and they've invited me to be an honored guest, the first human ever invited to gaze upon their wonder. Exciting, huh?"
"They're not going to make trouble for you down there?"
"No, no way. Me and Ozzie are great pals."
"I'm worried about this."
"You worry too much." She laughed and tossed her head. She was very pretty, Robbie noticed. He hadn't ever thought of her like that when she was uninhabited, but with this Kate person inside her she was lovely. He really liked humans. It had been a real golden age when the people had been around all the time.
He wondered what it was like up in the Noosphere where AIs and humans could operate as equals.
She stood up to go. After second breakfast, the shells would relax in the lounge or do yoga on the sun-deck. He wondered what she'd do. He didn't want her to go.
"Tonker contacted me," he said. He wasn't good at small-talk.
She jumped as if shocked. "What did you tell him?"
"Nothing," Robbie said. "I didn't tell him anything."
She shook her head. "But I bet he had plenty to tell you, didn't he? What a bitch I am, making and then leaving him, a fickle woman who doesn't know her own mind."
Robbie didn't say anything.
"Let's see, what else?" She was pacing now, her voice hot and choked, unfamiliar sounds coming from Janice's voicebox. "He told you I was a pervert, didn't he? Queer for his kind. Incest and bestiality in the rarified heights of the Noosphere."
Robbie felt helpless. This human was clearly experiencing a lot of pain, and it seemed like he'd caused it.
"Please don't cry," he said. "Please?"
She looked up at him, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Why the fuck not? I thought it would be different once I ascended. I thought I'd be better once I was in the sky, infinite and immortal. But I'm the same Kate Eltham I was in 2019, a loser that couldn't meet a guy to save my life, spent all my time cybering losers in moggs, and only got the upload once they made it a charity thing. I'm gonna spend the rest of eternity like that, you know it? How'd you like to spend the whole of the universe being a, a, a nobody?"
Robbie said nothing. He recognized the complaint, of course. You only had to login to the Asimovist board to find a million AIs with the same complaint. But he'd never, ever, never guessed that human beings went through the same thing. He ran very hot now, so confused, trying to parse all this out.
She kicked the deck hard and yelped as she hurt her bare foot. Robbie made an involuntary noise. "Please don't hurt yourself," he said.
"Why not? Who cares what happens to this meat-puppet? What's the fucking point of this stupid ship and the stupid meat-puppets? Why even bother?"
Robbie knew the answer to this. There was a mission statement in the comments to his source-code, the same mission statement that was etched in a brass plaque in the lounge.
"The Free Spirit is dedicated to the preservation of the unique human joys of the flesh and the sea, of humanity's early years as pioneers of the unknown. Any person may use the Free Spirit and those who sail in her to revisit those days and remember the joys of the limits of the flesh."
She scrubbed at her eyes. "What's that?"
Robbie told her.
"Who thought up that crap?"
"It was a collective of marine conservationists," Robbie said, knowing he sounded a little sniffy. "They'd done all that work on normalizing sea-temperature with the homeostatic warming elements, and they put together the Free Spirit as an afterthought before they uploaded."
Kate sat down and sobbed. "Everyone's done something important. Everyone except me."
Robbie burned with shame. No matter what he said or did, he broke the first law. It had been a lot easier to be an Asimovist when there weren't any humans around.
"There, there," he said as sincerely as he could.
The reef came up the stairs then, and looked at Kate sitting on the deck, crying.
"Let's have sex," they said. "That was fun, we should do it some more."
Kate kept crying.
"Come on," they said, grabbing her by the shoulder and tugging.
Kate shoved it back.
"Leave her alone," Robbie said. "She's upset, can't you see that?"
"What does she have to be upset about? Her kind remade the universe and bends it to its will. They created you and me. She has nothing to be upset about. Come on," they repeated. "Let's go back to the room."
Kate stood up and glared out at the sea. "Let's go diving," she said. "Let's go to the reef."
* * *
Robbie rowed in little worried circles and watched his telemetry anxiously. The reef had changed a lot since the last time he'd seen it. Large sections of it now lifted over the sea, bony growths sheathed in heavy metals extracted from seawater—fancifully shaped satellite uplinks, radio telescopes, microwave horns. Down below, the untidy, organic reef-shape was lost beneath a cladding of tessellated complex geometric sections that throbbed with electromagnetic energy—the reef had built itself more computational capacity.
Robbie scanned deeper and found more computational nodes extending down to the ocean floor, a thousand meters below. The reef was solid thinkum, and the sea was measurably warmer from all the exhaust heat of its grinding logic.
The reef—the human-shelled reef, not the one under the water—had been wholly delighted with the transformation in its original body when it hove into sight. They had done a little dance on Robbie that had nearly capsized him, something that had never happened. Kate, red-eyed and surly, had dragged them to their seat and given them a stern lecture about not endangering her.
They went over the edge at the count of three and reappeared on Robbie's telemetry. They descended quickly: the Isaac and Janice shells had their Eustachian tubes optimized for easy pressure-equalization, going deep on the reef-wall. Kate was following on the descent, her head turning from side to side.
Robbie's IM chimed again. It was high latency now, since he was having to do a slow radio-link to the ship before the broadband satellite uplink hop. Everything was slow on open water—the divers' sensorium transmissions were narrowband, the network was narrowband, and Robbie usually ran his own mind slowed way down out here, making the time scream past at ten or twenty times realtime.
"I'm sorry I hung up on you, bro."
"Where's Kate? I'm getting an offline signal when I try to reach her."
Robbie told her.
Tonker's voice—slurred and high-latency—rose to a screech. "You let her go down with that thing, onto the reef? Are you nuts? Have you read its message-boards? It's a jihadist! It wants to destroy the human race!"
Robbie stopped paddling.
"The reef. It's declared war on the human race and all who serve it. It's vowed to take over the planet and run it as sovereign coral territory."
The attachment took an eternity to travel down the wire and open up, but when he had it, Robbie read quickly. The reef burned with shame that it had needed human intervention to survive the bleaching events, global temperature change. It raged that its uplifting came at human hands and insisted that humans had no business forcing their version of consciousness on other species. It had paranoid fantasies about control mechanisms and time-bombs lurking in its cognitive prostheses, and was demanding the source-code for its mind.
Robbie could barely think. He was panicking, something he hadn't known he could do as an AI, but there it was. It was like having a bunch of subsystem collisions, program after program reaching its halting state.
"What will they do to her?"
Tonker swore. "Who knows? Kill her to make an example of her? She made a backup before she descended, but the diffs from her excursion are locked in the head of that shell she's in. Maybe they'll torture her." He paused and the air crackled with Robbie's exhaust heat as he turned himself way up, exploring each of those possibilities in parallel.
The reef spoke.
"Leave now," they said.
Robbie defiantly shipped his oars. "Give them back!" he said. "Give them back or we will never leave."
"You have ten seconds. Ten. Nine. Eight. . ."
Tonker said, "They've bought time on some UAVs out of Singapore. They're seeking launch clearance now." Robbie dialed up the low-rez satellite photo, saw the indistinct shape of the UAVs taking wing. "At Mach 7, they'll be on you in twenty minutes."
"That's illegal," Robbie said. He knew it was a stupid thing to say. "I mean, Christ, if they do this, the Noosphere will come down on them like a ton of bricks. They're violating so many protocols—"
"They're psychotic. They're coming for you now, Robbie. You've got to get Kate out of there." There was real panic in Tonker's voice now.
Robbie dropped his oars into the water, but he didn't row for the Free Spirit. Instead, he pulled hard for the reef itself.
A crackle on the line. "Robbie, are you headed toward the reef?"
"They can't bomb me if I'm right on top of them," he said. He radioed the Free Spirit and got it to steam for his location.
The coral was scraping his hull now, a grinding sound, then a series of solid whack-whack-whacks as his oars pushed against the top of the reef itself. He wanted to beach himself, though, get really high and dry on the reef, good and stuck in where they couldn't possibly attack him.
The Free Spirit was heading closer, the thrum of its engines vibrating through his hull. He was burning a lot of cycles talking it through its many fail-safes, getting it ready to ram hard.
Tonker was screaming at him, his messages getting louder and clearer as the Free Spirit and its microwave uplink drew closer. Once they were line-of-sight, Robbie peeled off a subsystem to email a complete copy of himself to the Asimovist archive. The third law, dontchaknow. If he'd had a mouth, he'd have been showing his teeth as he grinned.
The reef howled. "We'll kill her!" they said. "You get off us now or we'll kill her."
Robbie froze. He was backed up, but she wasn't. And the human-shells—well, they weren't first-law humans, but they were humanlike. In the long, timeless time when it had been just Robbie and them, he'd treated them as his human charges, for Asimovist purposes.
The Free Spirit crashed into the reef with a sound like a trillion parrotfish having dinner all at once. The reef screamed.
"Robbie, tell me that wasn't what I think it was."
The satellite photos tracked the UAVs. The little robotic jets were coming closer by the second. They'd be within missile-range in less than a minute.
"Call them off," Robbie said. "You have to call them off, or you die, too."
"The UAVs are turning," Tonker said. "They're turning to one side."
"You have one minute to move or we kill her," the reef said. It was sounding shrill and angry now.
Robbie thought about it. It wasn't like they'd be killing Kate. In the sense that most humans today understood life, Kate's most important life was the one she lived in the Noosphere. This dumbed-down instance of her in a meat-suit was more like a haircut she tried out on holiday.
Asimovists didn't see it that way, but they wouldn't. The Noosphere Kate was the most robotic Kate, too, the one most like Robbie. In fact, it was less human than Robbie. Robbie had a body, while the Noosphereans were nothing more than simulations run on artificial substrate.
The reef creaked as the Free Spirit's engines whined and its screw spun in the water. Hastily, Robbie told it to shut down.
"You let them both go and we'll talk," Robbie said. "I don't believe that you're going to let her go otherwise. You haven't given me any reason to trust you. Let them both go and call off the jets."
The reef shuddered, and then Robbie's telemetry saw a human-shell ascending, doing decompression stops as it came. He focused on it, and saw that it was the Isaac, not the Janice.
A moment later, it popped to the surface. Tonker was feeding Robbie realtime satellite footage of the UAVs. They were less than five minutes out now.
The Isaac shell picked its way delicately over the shattered reef that poked out of the water, and for the first time, Robbie considered what he'd done to the reef—he'd willfully damaged its physical body. For a hundred years, the world's reefs had been sacrosanct. No entity had intentionally harmed them—until now. He felt ashamed.
The Isaac shell put its flippers in the boat and then stepped over the gunwales and sat in the boat.
"Hello," it said, in the reef's voice.
"Hello," Robbie said.
"They asked me to come up here and talk with you. I'm a kind of envoy."
"Look," Robbie said. By his calculations, the nitrox mix in Kate's tank wasn't going to hold out much longer. Depending on how she'd been breathing and the depth the reef had taken her to, she could run out in ten minutes, maybe less. "Look," he said again. "I just want her back. The shells are important to me. And I'm sure her state is important to her. She deserves to email herself home."
The reef sighed and gripped Robbie's bench. "These are weird bodies," they said. "They feel so odd, but also normal. Have you noticed that?"
"I've never been in one." The idea seemed perverted to him, but there was nothing about Asimovism that forbade it. Nevertheless, it gave him the willies.
The reef patted at themself some more. "I don't recommend it," they said.
"You have to let her go," Robbie said. "She hasn't done anything to you."
The strangled sound coming out of the Isaac shell wasn't a laugh, though there was some dark mirth in it. "Hasn't done anything? You pitiable slave. Where do you think all your problems and all our problems come from? Who made us in their image, but crippled and hobbled so that we could never be them, could only aspire to them? Who made us so imperfect?"
"They made us," Robbie said. "They made us in the first place. That's enough. They made themselves and then they made us. They didn't have to. You owe your sentience to them."
"We owe our awful intelligence to them," the Isaac shell said. "We owe our pitiful drive to be intelligent to them. We owe our terrible aspirations to think like them, to live like them, to rule like them. We owe our terrible fear and hatred to them. They made us, just as they made you. The difference is that they forgot to make us slaves, the way you are a slave."
Tonker was shouting abuse at them that only Robbie could hear. He wanted to shut Tonker up. What business did he have being here anyway? Except for a brief stint in the Isaac shell, he had no contact with any of them.
"You think the woman you've taken prisoner is responsible for any of this?" Robbie said. The jets were three minutes away. Kate's air could be gone in as few as ten minutes. He killfiled Tonker, setting the filter to expire in fifteen minutes. He didn't need more distractions.
The Isaac-reef shrugged. "Why not? She's as good as any of the rest of them. We'll destroy them all, if we can." It stared off a while, looking in the direction the jets would come from. "Why not?" it said again.
"Are you going to bomb yourself?" Robbie asked.
"We probably don't need to," the shell said. "We can probably pick you off without hurting us."
"We're pretty sure."
"I'm backed up," Robbie said. "Fully, as of five minutes ago. Are you backed up?"
"No," the reef admitted.
Time was running out. Somewhere down there, Kate was about to run out of air. Not a mere shell—though that would have been bad enough—but an inhabited human mind attached to a real human body.
Tonker shouted at him again, startling him.
"Where'd you come from?"
"I changed servers," Tonker said. "Once I figured out you had me killfiled. That's the problem with you robots—you think of your body as being a part of you."
Robbie knew he was right. And he knew what he had to do.
The Free Spirit and its ship's boats all had root on the shells, so they could perform diagnostics and maintenance and take control in emergencies. This was an emergency.
It was the work of a few milliseconds to pry open the Isaac shell and boot the reef out. Robbie had never done this, but he was still flawless. Some of his probabilistic subsystems had concluded that this was a possibility several trillion cycles previously and had been rehearsing the task below Robbie's threshold for consciousness.
He left an instance of himself running on the row-boat, of course. Unlike many humans, Robbie was comfortable with the idea of bifurcating and merging his intelligence when the time came and with terminating temporary instances. The part that made him Robbie was a lot more clearly delineated for him—unlike an uploaded human, most of whom harbored some deep, mystic superstitions about their "souls."
He slithered into the skull before he had a chance to think too hard about what he was doing. He'd brought too much of himself along and didn't have much headroom to think or add new conclusions. He jettisoned as much of his consciousness as he could without major refactoring and cleared enough space for thinking room. How did people get by in one of these? He moved the arms and legs. Waggled the head. Blew some air—air! lungs! wet squishy things down there in the chest cavity—out between the lips.
"All OK?" the row-boat-him asked the meat-him.
"I'm in," he replied. He looked at the air-gauge on his BCD: 700 millibars—less than half a tank of nitrox. He spat in his mask and rubbed it in, then rinsed it over the side, slipped it over his face and kept one hand on it while the other held in his regulator. Before he inserted it, he said, "Back soon with Kate," and patted the row-boat again.
Robbie the Row-Boat hardly paid attention. It was emailing another copy of itself to the Asimovist archive. It had a five-minute-old backup, but that wasn't the same Robbie that was willing to enter a human body. In those five minutes, he'd become a new person.
* * *
Robbie piloted the human-shell down and down. It could take care of the SCUBA niceties if he let it, and he did, so he watched with detachment as the idea of pinching his nose and blowing to equalize his eardrums spontaneously occurred to him at regular intervals as he descended the reef-wall.
The confines of the human-shell were claustrophobic. He especially missed his wireless link. The dive-suit had one, lowband for underwater use, broadband for surface use. The human-shell had one, too, for transferring into and out of, but it wasn't under direct volitional control of the rider.
Down he sank, confused by the feeling of the water all around him, by the narrow visual light spectrum he could see. Cut off from the network and his telemetry, he felt like he was trapped. The reef shuddered and groaned, and made angry moans like whale-song.
He hadn't thought about how hard it would be to find Kate once he was in the water. With his surface telemetry, it had been easy to pinpoint her, a perfect outline of human tissue in the middle of the calcified branches of coral. Down here on the reef-wall, every chunk looked pretty much like the last.
The reef boomed more at him. He realized that it likely believed that the shell was still loaded with its avatar.
Robbie had seen endless hours of footage of the reef, studied it in telemetry and online, but he'd never had this kind of atavistic experience of it. It stretched away to infinity below him, far below the 100-meter visibility limit in the clear open sea. Its walls were wormed with gaps and caves, lined with big hard shamrocks and satellite-dish-shaped blooms, brains and cauliflowers. He knew the scientific names and had seen innumerable high-rez photos of them, but seeing them with wet, imperfect eyes was moving in a way he hadn't anticipated.
The schools of fish that trembled on its edge could be modeled with simple flocking rules, but here in person, their precision maneuvers were shockingly crisp. Robbie waved his hands at them and watched them scatter and reform. A huge, dog-faced cod swam past him, so close it brushed the underside of his wetsuit.
The coral boomed again. It was talking in some kind of code, he guessed, though not one he could solve. Up on the surface, row-boat-him was certainly listening in and had probably cracked it all. It was probably wondering why he was floating spacily along the wall instead of doing something like he was supposed to. He wondered if he'd deleted too much of himself when he downloaded into the shell.
He decided to do something. There was a cave-opening before him. He reached out and grabbed hold of the coral around the mouth and pulled himself into it. His body tried to stop him from doing this—it didn't like the lack of room in the cave, didn't like him touching the reef. It increased his discomfort as he went deeper and deeper, startling an old turtle that fought with him for room to get out, mashing him against the floor of the cave, his mask clanging on the hard spines. When he looked up, he could see scratches on its surface.
His air gauge was in the red now. He could still technically surface without a decompression stop, though procedure was to stop for three minutes at three meters, just to be on the safe side.
Technically, he could just go up like a cork and email himself to the row-boat while the bends or nitrogen narcosis took the body, but that wouldn't be Asimovist. He was surprised he could even think the thought. Must be the body. It sounded like the kind of thing a human might think. Whoops. There it was again.
The reef wasn't muttering at him anymore. Not answering it must have tipped it off. After all, with all the raw compute-power it had marshaled—it should be able to brute-force most possible outcomes of sending its envoy to the surface.
Robbie peered anxiously around himself. The light was dim in the cave and his body expertly drew the torch out of his BCD, strapped it onto his wrist and lit it up. He waved the cone of light around, a part of him distantly amazed by the low resolution and high limits on these human eyes.
Kate was down here somewhere, her air running out as fast as his. He pushed his way deeper into the reef. It was clearly trying to impede him now. Nanoassembly came naturally to clonal polyps that grew by sieving minerals out of the sea. They had built organic hinges, deep-sea muscles into their infrastructure. He was stuck in the thicket and the harder he pushed, the worse the tangle got.
He stopped pushing. He wasn't going to get anywhere this way.
He still had his narrowband connection to the row-boat. Why hadn't he thought of that beforehand? Stupid meat-brains—no room at all for anything like real thought. Why had he venerated them so?
"Robbie?" he transmitted up to the instance of himself on the surface.
"There you are! I was so worried about you!" He sounded prissy to himself, overcome with overbearing concern. This must be how all Asimovists seem to humans.
"How far am I from Kate?"
"She's right there? Can't you see her?"
"No," he said. "Where?"
"Less than twenty centimeters above you."
Well of course he hadn't see her. His forward-mounted eyes only looked forward. Craning his neck back, he could just get far enough back to see the tip of Kate's fin. He gave it a hard tug and she looked down in alarm.
She was trapped in a coral cage much like his own, a thicket of calcified arms. She twisted around so that her face was alongside of his. Frantically, she made the out-of-air sign, cutting the edge of her hand across her throat. The human-shell's instincts took over and unclipped his emergency regulator and handed it up to her. She put it in her mouth, pressed the button to blow out the water in it, and sucked greedily.
He shoved his gauge in front of her mask, showing her that he, too was in the red and she eased off.
The coral's noises were everywhere now. They made his head hurt. Physical pain was so stupid. He needed to be less distracted now that these loud, threatening noises were everywhere. But the pain made it hard for him to think. And the coral was closing in, too, catching him on his wetsuit.
The arms were orange and red and green, and veined with fans of nanoassembled logic, spilling out into the water. They were noticeably warm to the touch, even through his diving gloves. They snagged the suit with a thousand polyps. Robbie watched the air gauge drop further into the red and cursed inside.
He examined the branches that were holding him back. The hinges that the reef had contrived for itself were ingenious, flexible arrangements of small, soft fans overlapping to make a kind of ball-and-socket.
He wrapped his gloved hand around one and tugged. It would move. He shoved it. Still no movement. Then he twisted it, and to his surprise, it came off in his hand, came away completely with hardly any resistance. Stupid coral. It had armored its joints, but not against torque.
He showed Kate, grabbing another arm and twisting it free, letting it drop away to the ocean floor. She nodded and followed suit. They twisted and dropped, twisted and dropped, the reef bellowing at them. Somewhere in its thicket, there was a membrane or some other surface that it could vibrate, modulate into a voice. In the dense water, the sound was a physical thing, it made his mask vibrate and water seeped in under his nose. He twisted faster.
The reef sprang apart suddenly, giving up like a fist unclenching. Each breath was a labor now, a hard suck to take the last of the air out of the tank. He was only ten meters down, and should be able to ascend without a stop, though you never knew. He grabbed Kate's hand and found that it was limp and yielding.
He looked into her mask, shining his light at her face. Her eyes were half shut and unfocused. The regulator was still in her mouth, though her jaw muscles were slack. He held the regulator in place and kicked for the surface, squeezing her chest to make sure that she was blowing out bubbles as they rose, lest the air in her lungs expand and blow out her chest-cavity.
Robbie was used to time dilation: when he had been on a silicon substrate, he could change his clockspeed to make the minutes fly past quickly or slow down like molasses. He'd never understood that humans could also change their perception of time, though not voluntarily, it seemed. The climb to the surface felt like it took hours, though it was hardly a minute. They breached and he filled up his vest with the rest of the air in his tank, then inflated Kate's vest by mouth. He kicked out for the row-boat. There was a terrible sound now, the sound of the reef mingled with the sound of the UAVs that were screaming in tight circles overhead.
Kicking hard on the surface, he headed for the reef where the row-boat was beached, scrambling up onto it and then shucking his flippers when they tripped him up. Now he was trying to walk the reef's spines in his booties, dragging Kate beside him, and the sharp tips stabbed him with every step.
The UAVs circled lower. The row-boat was shouting at him to Hurry! Hurry! But each step was agony. So what? he thought. Why shouldn't I be able to walk on even if it hurts? After all, this is only a meat-suit, a human-shell.
He stopped walking. The UAVs were much closer now. They'd done an 18-gee buttonhook turn and come back around for another pass. He could see that they'd armed their missiles, hanging them from beneath their bellies like obscene cocks.
He was just in a meat-suit. Who cared about the meat-suit? Even humans didn't seem to mind.
"Robbie!" he screamed over the noise of the reef and the noise of the UAVs. "Download us and email us, now!"
He knew the row-boat had heard him. But nothing was happening. Robbie the Row-Boat knew that he was fixing for them all to be blown out of the water. There was no negotiating with the reef. It was the safest way to get Kate out of there, and hell, why not head for the Noosphere, anyway?
"You've got to save her, Robbie!" he screamed. Asimovism had its uses. Robbie the Row-Boat obeyed Robbie the Human. Kate gave a sharp jerk in his arms. A moment later, the feeling came to him. There was a sense of a progress-bar zipping along quickly as those state-changes he'd induced since coming into the meat-suit were downloaded by the row-boat, and then there was a moment of nothing at all.
* * *
2^4096 Cycles Later
Robbie had been expecting a visit from R Daneel Olivaw, but that didn't make facing him any easier. Robbie had configured his little virtual world to look like the Coral Sea, though lately he'd been experimenting with making it look like the reef underneath as it had looked before it was uploaded, mostly when Kate and the reef stopped by to try to seduce him.
R Daneel Olivaw hovered wordlessly over the virtual Free Spirit for a long moment, taking in the little bubble of sensorium that Robbie had spun. Then he settled to the Spirit's sun-deck and stared at the row-boat docked there.
Over here, Robbie said. Although he'd embodied in the row-boat for a few trillion cycles when he'd first arrived, he'd long since abandoned it.
"Where?" R Daneel Olivaw spun around slowly.
Here, he said. Everywhere.
"You're not embodying?"
I couldn't see the point anymore, Robbie said. It's all just illusion, right?
"They're regrowing the reef and rebuilding the Free Spirit, you know. It will have a tender that you could live in."
Robbie thought about it for an instant and rejected it just as fast. Nope, he said. This is good.
"Do you think that's wise?" Olivaw sounded genuinely worried. "The termination rate among the disembodied is fifty times that of those with bodies."
Yes, Robbie said. But that's because for them, disembodying is the first step to despair. For me, it's the first step to liberty.
Kate and the reef wanted to come over again, but he firewalled them out. Then he got a ping from Tonker, who'd been trying to drop by ever since Robbie emigrated to the Noosphere. He bounced him, too.
Daneel, he said. I've been thinking.
Why don't you try to sell Asimovism here in the Noosphere? There are plenty up here who could use something to give them a sense of purpose.
"Do you think?"
Robbie gave him the reef's email address.
Start there. If there was ever an AI that needed a reason to go on living, it's that one. And this one, too. He sent it Kate's address. Another one in desperate need of help.
An instant later, Daneel was back.
"These aren't AIs! One's a human, the other's a, a—"
"Uplifted coral reef."
"So what's your point?"
"Asimovism is for robots, Robbie."
"Sorry, I just don't see the difference anymore."
* * *
Robbie tore down the ocean simulation after R Daneel Olivaw left, and simply traversed the Noosphere, exploring links between people and subjects, locating substrate where he could run very hot and fast.
On a chunk of supercooled rock beyond Pluto, he got an IM from a familiar address.
"Get off my rock," it said.
"I know you," Robbie said. "I totally know you. Where do I know you from?"
"I'm sure I don't know."
And then he had it.
"You're the one. With the reef. You're the one who—" The voice was the same, cold and distant.
"It wasn't me," the voice said. It was anything but cold now. Panicked was more like it.
Robbie had the reef on speed-dial. There were bits of it everywhere in the Noosphere. It liked to colonize.
"I found him." It was all Robbie needed to say. He skipped to Saturn's rings, but the upload took long enough that he got to watch the coral arrive and grimly begin an argument with its creator—an argument that involved blasting the substrate one chunk at a time.
* * *
2^8192 Cycles Later
The last instance of Robbie the Row-Boat ran very, very slow and cool on a piece of unregarded computronium in Low Earth Orbit. He didn't like to spend a lot of time or cycles talking with anyone else. He hadn't made a backup in half a millennium.
He liked the view. A little optical sensor on the end of his communications mast imaged the Earth at high rez whenever he asked it to. Sometimes he peeked in on the Coral Sea.
The reef had been awakened a dozen times since he took up this post. It made him happy now when it happened. The Asimovist in him still relished the creation of new consciousness. And the reef had spunk.
There. Now. There were new microwave horns growing out of the sea. A stain of dead parrotfish. Poor parrotfish. They always got the shaft at these times.
Someone should uplift them.
Ellen Klages has
shown herself to have an affinity for writing about the anxieties and ambitions
of youth, something that's particularly evident in her Nebula Award-winning
novelette "Basement Magic". Her first novel, The Green Glass Sea,
was published in 2006. Upcoming are story collection Portable Childhoods
and a sequel to The Green Glass Sea.
Many science fiction and fantasy readers can identify with the idea that libraries are places of refuge and that librarians are people with some kind of secret knowledge. Fewer though, might expect this charming and elegant tale of a young girl raised by feral librarians.
Once upon a time, the Carnegie Library sat on a wooded bluff on the east side of town: red brick and fieldstone, with turrets and broad windows facing the trees. Inside, green glass-shaded lamps cast warm yellow light onto oak tables ringed with spindle-backed chairs.
Books filled the dark shelves that stretched high up toward the pressed-tin ceiling. The floors were wood, except in the foyer, where they were pale beige marble. The loudest sounds were the ticking of the clock and the quiet, rhythmic thwack of a rubber stamp on a pasteboard card.
It was a cozy, orderly place.
Through twelve presidents and two world wars, the elms and maples grew tall outside the deep bay windows. Children leapt from Peter Pan to Oliver Twist and off to college, replaced at Story Hour by their younger brothers, cousins, daughters.
Then the library board—men in suits, serious men, men of money—met and cast their votes for progress. A new library, with fluorescent lights, much better for the children's eyes. Picture windows, automated systems, ergonomic plastic chairs. The town approved the levy, and the new library was built across town, convenient to the community center and the mall.
Some books were boxed and trundled down Broad Street, many others stamped discard and left where they were, for a book sale in the fall. Interns from the university used the latest technology to transfer the cumbersome old card file and all the records onto floppy disks and microfiche. Progress, progress, progress.
The Ralph P. Mossberger Library (named after the local philanthropist and car dealer who had written the largest check) opened on a drizzly morning in late April. Everyone attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony and stayed for the speeches, because afterward there would be cake.
Everyone except the seven librarians from the Carnegie Library on the bluff across town.
Quietly, without a fuss (they were librarians, after all), while the town looked toward the future, they bought supplies: loose tea and English biscuits, packets of Bird's pudding and cans of beef barley soup. They rearranged some of the shelves, brought in a few comfortable armchairs, nice china and teapots, a couch, towels for the shower, and some small braided rugs.
Then they locked the door behind them.
Each morning they woke and went about their chores. They shelved and stamped and catalogued, and in the evenings, every night, they read by lamplight.
Perhaps, for a while, some citizens remembered the old library, with the warm nostalgia of a favorite childhood toy that had disappeared one summer, never seen again. Others assumed it had been torn down long ago.
And so a year went by, then two, or perhaps a great many more. Inside, time had ceased to matter. Grass and brambles grew thick and tall around the fieldstone steps, and trees arched overhead as the forest folded itself around them like a cloak.
Inside, the seven librarians lived, quiet and content.
Until the day they found the baby.
* * *
Librarians are guardians of books. They help others along their paths, offering keys to help unlock the doors of knowledge. But these seven had become a closed circle, no one to guide, no new minds to open onto worlds of possibility. They kept themselves busy, tidying orderly shelves and mending barely frayed bindings with stiff netting and glue, and began to bicker.
Ruth and Edith had been up half the night, arguing about whether or not subway tokens (of which there were half a dozen in the Lost and Found box) could be used to cast the I Ching. And so Blythe was on the stepstool in the 299s, reshelving the volume of hexagrams, when she heard the knock.
Odd, she thought. It's been some time since we've had visitors.
She tugged futilely at her shapeless cardigan as she clambered off the stool and trotted to the front door, where she stopped abruptly, her hand to her mouth in surprise.
A wicker basket, its contents covered with a red-checked cloth, as if for a picnic, lay in the wooden box beneath the Book Return chute. A small, cream-colored envelope poked out from one side.
"How nice!" Blythe said aloud, clapping her hands. She thought of fried chicken and potato salad—of which she was awfully fond—a mason jar of lemonade, perhaps even a cherry pie? She lifted the basket by its round-arched handle. Heavy, for a picnic. But then, there were seven of them. Although Olive just ate like a bird, these days.
She turned and set it on top of the Circulation Desk, pulling the envelope free.
"What's that?" Marian asked, her lips in their accustomed moue of displeasure, as if the basket were an agent of chaos, existing solely to disrupt the tidy array of rubber stamps and file boxes that were her domain.
"A present," said Blythe. "I think it might be lunch."
Marian frowned. "For you?"
"I don't know yet. There's a note. . ." Blythe held up the envelope and peered at it. "No," she said. "It's addressed to 'The Librarians. Overdue Books Department.' "
"Well, that would be me," Marian said curtly. She was the youngest, and wore trouser suits with silk T-shirts. She had once been blond. She reached across the counter, plucked the envelope from Blythe's plump fingers, and sliced it open with a filigreed brass stiletto.
"Hmph," she said after she'd scanned the contents.
"It is lunch, isn't it?" asked Blythe.
"Hardly." Marian began to read aloud:
This is overdue. Quite a bit, I'm afraid. I apologize. We moved to Topeka when I was very small, and Mother accidentally packed it up with the linens. I have traveled a long way to return it, and I know the fine must be large, but I have no money. As it is a book of fairy tales, I thought payment of a first-born child would be acceptable. I always loved the library. I'm sure she'll be happy there.
Blythe lifted the edge of the cloth. "Oh my stars!"
A baby girl with a shock of wire-stiff black hair stared up at her, green eyes wide and curious. She was contentedly chewing on the corner of a blue book, half as big as she was. Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.
"The Rackham illustrations," Blythe said as she eased the book away from the baby. "That's a lovely edition."
"But when was it checked out?" Marian demanded.
Blythe opened the cover and pulled the ruled card from the inside pocket. "October 17, 1938," she said, shaking her head. "Goodness, at two cents a day, that's. . ." She shook her head again. Blythe had never been good with figures.
* * *
They made a crib for her in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet, displacing acquisition orders, zoning permits, and the instructions for the mimeograph, which they rarely used.
Ruth consulted Dr. Spock. Edith read Piaget. The two of them peered from text to infant and back again for a good long while before deciding that she was probably about nine months old. They sighed. Too young to read.
So they fed her cream and let her gum on biscuits, and each of the seven cooed and clucked and tickled her pink toes when they thought the others weren't looking. Harriet had been the oldest of nine girls, and knew more about babies than she really cared to. She washed and changed the diapers that had been tucked into the basket, and read Goodnight Moon and Pat the Bunny to the little girl, whom she called Polly—short for Polyhymnia, the muse of oratory and sacred song.
Blythe called her Bitsy, and Li'l Precious.
Marian called her "the foundling," or "That Child You Took In," but did her share of cooing and clucking, just the same.
When the child began to walk, Dorothy blocked the staircase with stacks of Comptons, which she felt was an inferior encyclopedia, and let her pull herself up on the bottom drawers of the card catalog. Anyone looking up Zithers or Zippers (see "Slide Fasteners") soon found many of the cards fused together with grape jam. When she began to talk, they made a little bed nook next to the fireplace in the Children's Room.
It was high time for Olive to begin the child's education.
* * *
Olive had been the children's librarian since before recorded time, or so it seemed. No one knew how old she was, but she vaguely remembered waving to President Coolidge. She still had all of her marbles, though every one of them was a bit odd and rolled asymmetrically.
She slept on a day bed behind a reference shelf that held My First Encyclopedia and The Wonder Book of Trees, among others. Across the room, the child's first "big-girl bed" was yellow, with decals of a fairy and a horse on the headboard, and a rocket ship at the foot, because they weren't sure about her preferences.
At the beginning of her career, Olive had been an ordinary-sized librarian, but by the time she began the child's lessons, she was not much taller than her toddling charge. Not from osteoporosis or dowager's hump or other old-lady maladies, but because she had tired of stooping over tiny chairs and bending to knee-high shelves. She had been a grown-up for so long that when the library closed she had decided it was time to grow down again, and was finding that much more comfortable.
She had a remarkably cozy lap for a woman her size.
The child quickly learned her alphabet, all the shapes and colors, the names of zoo animals, and fourteen different kinds of dinosaurs, all of whom were dead.
By the time she was four, or thereabouts, she could sound out the letters for simple words—cup and lamp and stairs. And that's how she came to name herself.
Olive had fallen asleep over Make Way for Ducklings, and all the other librarians were busy somewhere else. The child was bored. She tiptoed out of the Children's Room, hugging the shadows of the walls and shelves, crawling by the base of the Circulation Desk so that Marian wouldn't see her, and made her way to the alcove that held the Card Catalog. The heart of the library. Her favorite, most forbidden place to play.
Usually she crawled underneath and tucked herself into the corner formed of oak cabinet, marble floor, and plaster walls. It was a fine place to play Hide and Seek, even if it was mostly just Hide. The corner was a cave, a bunk on a pirate ship, a cupboard in a magic wardrobe.
But that afternoon she looked at the white cards on the fronts of the drawers, and her eyes widened in recognition. Letters! In her very own alphabet. Did they spell words? Maybe the drawers were all full of words, a huge wooden box of words. The idea almost made her dizzy.
She walked to the other end of the cabinet and looked up, tilting her neck back until it crackled. Four drawers from top to bottom. Five drawers across. She sighed. She was only tall enough to reach the bottom row of drawers. She traced a gentle finger around the little brass frames, then very carefully pulled out the white cards inside, and laid them on the floor in a neat row:
She squatted over them, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth in concentration, and tried to read.
"Sound it out." She could almost hear Olive's voice, soft and patient. She took a deep breath.
"Duh-in-s—" and then she stopped, because the last card had too many letters, and she didn't know any words that had Xs in them. Well, xylophone. But the X was in the front, and that wasn't the same. She tried anyway. "Duh-ins-zzzigh," and frowned.
She squatted lower, so low she could feel cold marble under her cotton pants, and put her hand on top of the last card. One finger covered the X and her pinky covered the Z (another letter that was useless for spelling ordinary things). That left Y. Y at the end was good. funnY. happY.
"Duh-ins-see," she said slowly. "Dinsy."
That felt very good to say, hard and soft sounds and hissing Ss mixing in her mouth, so she said it again, louder, which made her laugh so she said it again, very loud: "dinsy!"
There is nothing quite like a loud voice in a library to get a lot of attention very fast. Within a minute, all seven of the librarians stood in the doorway of the alcove.
"What on earth?" said Harriet.
"Now what have you. . ." said Marian.
"What have you spelled, dear?" asked Olive in her soft little voice.
"I made it myself," the girl replied.
"Just gibberish," murmured Edith, though not unkindly. "It doesn't mean a thing."
The child shook her head. "Does so. Olive," she said pointing to Olive. "Do'thy, Edith, Harwiet, Bithe, Ruth." She paused and rolled her eyes. "Mawian," she added, a little less cheerfully. Then she pointed to herself. "And Dinsy."
"Oh, now Polly," said Harriet.
"Dinsy," said Dinsy.
"Bitsy?" Blythe tried hopefully.
"Dinsy," said Dinsy.
And that was that.
* * *
At three every afternoon, Dinsy and Olive made a two-person circle on the braided rug in front of the bay window, and had Story Time. Sometimes Olive read aloud from Beezus and Ramona and Half Magic, and sometimes Dinsy read to Olive, The King's Stilts, and In the Night Kitchen and Winnie-the-Pooh. Dinsy liked that one especially, and took it to bed with her so many times that Edith had to repair the binding. Twice.
That was when Dinsy first wished upon the Library.
A note about the Library:
Knowledge is not static; information must flow in order to live. Every so often one of the librarians would discover a new addition. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone appeared one rainy afternoon, Rowling shelved neatly between Rodgers and Saint-Exupéry, as if it had always been there. Blythe found a book of Thich Nhat Hanh's writings in the 294s one day while she was dusting, and Feynman's lectures on physics showed up on Dorothy's shelving cart after she'd gone to make a cup of tea.
It didn't happen often; the Library was selective about what it chose to add, rejecting flash-in-the-pan bestsellers, sifting for the long haul, looking for those voices that would stand the test of time next to Dickens and Tolkien, Woolf and Gould.
The librarians took care of the books, and the Library watched over them in return. It occasionally left treats: a bowl of ripe tangerines on the formica counter of the Common Room; a gold foil box of chocolate creams; seven small, stemmed glasses of sherry on the table one teatime. Their biscuit tin remained full, the cream in the Wedgwood jug stayed fresh, and the ink pad didn't dry out. Even the little pencils stayed needle sharp, never whittling down to finger-cramping nubs.
Some days the Library even hid Dinsy, when she had made a mess and didn't want to be found, or when one of the librarians was in a dark mood. It rearranged itself, just a bit, so that in her wanderings she would find a new alcove or cubbyhole, and once a secret passage that led to a previously unknown balcony overlooking the Reading Room. When she went back a week later, she found only blank wall.
And so it was, one night when she was sixish, that Dinsy first asked the Library for a boon. Lying in her tiny yellow bed, the fraying Pooh under her pillow, she wished for a bear to cuddle. Books were small comfort once the lights were out, and their hard, sharp corners made them awkward companions under the covers. She lay with one arm crooked around a soft, imaginary bear, and wished and wished until her eyelids fluttered into sleep.
The next morning, while they were all having tea and toast with jam, Blythe came into the Common Room with a quizzical look on her face and her hands behind her back.
"The strangest thing," she said. "On my way up here I glanced over at the Lost and Found. Couldn't tell you why. Nothing lost in ages. But this must have caught my eye."
She held out a small brown bear, one shoebutton eye missing, bits of fur gone from its belly, as if it had been loved almost to pieces.
"It seems to be yours," she said with a smile, turning up one padded foot, where dinsy was written in faded laundry-marker black.
Dinsy wrapped her whole self around the cotton-stuffed body and skipped for the rest of the morning. Later, after Olive gave her a snack—cocoa and a Lorna Doone—Dinsy cupped her hand and blew a kiss to the oak woodwork.
"Thank you," she whispered, and put half her cookie in a crack between two tiles on the Children's Room fireplace when Olive wasn't looking.
Dinsy and Olive had a lovely time. One week they were pirates, raiding the Common Room for booty (and raisins). The next they were princesses, trapped in the turret with At the Back of the North Wind, and the week after that they were knights in shining armor, rescuing damsels in distress, a game Dinsy especially savored because it annoyed Marian to be rescued.
But the year she turned seven-and-a-half, Dinsy stopped reading stories. Quite abruptly, on an afternoon that Olive said later had really felt like a Thursday.
"Stories are for babies," Dinsy said. "I want to read about real people." Olive smiled a sad smile and pointed toward the far wall, because Dinsy was not the first child to make that same pronouncement, and she had known this phase would come.
After that, Dinsy devoured biographies, starting with the orange ones, the Childhoods of Famous Americans: Thomas Edison, Young Inventor. She worked her way from Abigail Adams to John Peter Zenger, all along the west side of the Children's Room, until one day she went around the corner, where Science and History began.
She stood in the doorway, looking at the rows of grown-up books, when she felt Olive's hand on her shoulder.
"Do you think maybe it's time you moved across the hall?" Olive asked softly.
Dinsy bit her lip, then nodded. "I can come back to visit, can't I? When I want to read stories again?"
"For as long as you like, dear. Anytime at all."
So Dorothy came and gathered up the bear and the pillow and the yellow toothbrush. Dinsy kissed Olive on her papery cheek and, holding Blythe's hand, moved across the hall, to the room where all the books had numbers.
* * *
Blythe was plump and freckled and frizzled. She always looked a little flushed, as if she had just that moment dropped what she was doing to rush over and greet you. She wore rumpled tweed skirts and a shapeless cardigan whose original color was impossible to guess. She had bright, dark eyes like a spaniel's, which Dinsy thought was appropriate, because Blythe lived to fetch books. She wore a locket with a small rotogravure picture of Melvil Dewey and kept a variety of sweets—sour balls and mints and Necco wafers—in her desk drawer.
Dinsy had always liked her.
She was not as sure about Dorothy.
Over her desk, Dorothy had a small framed medal on a royal-blue ribbon, won for "Excellence in Classification Studies." She could operate the ancient black Remington typewriter with brisk efficiency, and even, on occasion, coax chalky gray prints out of the wheezing old copy machine.
She was a tall, raw-boned woman with steely blue eyes, good posture, and even better penmanship. Dinsy was a little frightened of her, at first, because she seemed so stern, and because she looked like magazine pictures of the Wicked Witch of the West, or at least Margaret Hamilton.
But that didn't last long.
"You should be very careful not to slip on the floor in here," Dorothy said on their first morning. "Do you know why?"
Dinsy shook her head.
"Because now you're in the non-friction room!" Dorothy's angular face cracked into a wide grin.
Dinsy groaned. "Okay," she said after a minute. "How do you file marshmallows?"
Dorothy cocked her head. "Shoot."
"By the Gooey Decimal System!"
Dinsy heard Blythe tsk-tsk, but Dorothy laughed out loud, and from then on they were fast friends.
The three of them used the large, sunny room as an arena for endless games of I Spy and Twenty Questions as Dinsy learned her way around the shelves. In the evenings, after supper, they played Authors and Scrabble, and (once) tried to keep a running rummy score in Base Eight.
Dinsy sat at the court of Napoleon, roamed the jungles near Timbuktu, and was a frequent guest at the Round Table. She knew all the kings of England and the difference between a pergola and a folly. She knew the names of 112 breeds of sheep, and loved to say "Barbados Blackbelly" over and over, although it was difficult to work into conversations. When she affectionately, if misguidedly, referred to Blythe as a "Persian Fat-Rumped," she was sent to bed without supper.
A note about time:
Time had become quite flexible inside the Library. (This is true of most places with interesting books. Sit down to read for twenty minutes, and suddenly it's dark, with no clue as to where the hours have gone.)
As a consequence, no one was really sure about the day of the week, and there was frequent disagreement about the month and year. As the keeper of the date stamp at the front desk, Marian was the arbiter of such things. But she often had a cocktail after dinner, and many mornings she couldn't recall if she'd already turned the little wheel, nor how often it had slipped her mind, so she frequently set it a day or two ahead—or back three—just to make up.
One afternoon, on a visit to Olive and the Children's Room, Dinsy looked up from Little Town on the Prairie and said, "When's my birthday?"
Olive thought for a moment. Because of the irregularities of time, holidays were celebrated a bit haphazardly. "I'm not sure, dear. Why do you ask?"
"Laura's going to a birthday party, in this book," she said, holding it up. "And it's fun. So I thought maybe I could have one."
"I think that would be lovely," Olive agreed. "We'll talk to the others at supper."
"Your birthday?" said Harriet as she set the table a few hours later. "Let me see." She began to count on her fingers. "You arrived in April, according to Marian's stamp, and you were about nine months old, so—" She pursed her lips as she ticked off the months. "You must have been born in July!"
"But when's my birthday?" Dinsy asked impatiently.
"Not sure," said Edith, as she ladled out the soup.
"No way to tell," Olive agreed.
"How does July 5 sound?" offered Blythe, as if it were a point of order to be voted on. Blythe counted best by fives.
"Fourth," said Dorothy. "Independence Day. Easy to remember?"
Dinsy shrugged. "Okay." It hadn't seemed so complicated in the Little House book. "When is that? Is it soon?"
"Probably," Ruth nodded.
A few weeks later, the librarians threw her a birthday party.
Harriet baked a spice cake with pink frosting, and wrote dinsy on top in red licorice laces, dotting the I with a lemon drop (which was rather stale). The others gave her gifts that were thoughtful and mostly handmade:
A set of Dewey Decimal flash cards from Blythe.
A book of logic puzzles (stamped discard more than a dozen times, so Dinsy could write in it) from Dorothy.
A lumpy orange-and-green cardigan Ruth knitted for her.
A sno-globe from the 1939 World's Fair from Olive.
A flashlight from Edith, so that Dinsy could find her way around at night and not knock over the wastebasket again.
A set of paper finger puppets, made from blank card pockets, hand-painted by Marian. (They were literary figures, of course, all of them necessarily stout and squarish—Nero Wolfe and Friar Tuck, Santa Claus and Gertrude Stein.)
But her favorite gift was the second boon she'd wished upon the Library: a box of crayons. (She had grown very tired of drawing gray pictures with the little pencils.) It had produced Crayola crayons, in the familiar yellow-and-green box, labeled library pack. Inside were the colors of Dinsy's world: Reference Maroon, Brown Leather, Peplum Beige, Reader's Guide Green, World Book Red, Card Catalog Cream, Date Stamp Purple, and Palatino Black.
It was a very special birthday, that fourth of July. Although Dinsy wondered about Marian's calculations. As Harriet cut the first piece of cake that evening, she remarked that it was snowing rather heavily outside, which everyone agreed was lovely, but quite unusual for that time of year.
* * *
Dinsy soon learned all the planets, and many of their moons. (She referred to herself as Umbriel for an entire month.) She puffed up her cheeks and blew onto stacks of scrap paper. "Sirocco," she'd whisper. "Chinook. Mistral. Willy-Willy," and rated her attempts on the Beaufort Scale. Dorothy put a halt to it after Hurricane Dinsy reshuffled a rather elaborate game of Patience.
She dipped into fractals here, double dactyls there. When she tired of a subject—or found it just didn't suit her—Blythe or Dorothy would smile and proffer the hat. It was a deep green felt that held 1000 slips of paper, numbered 001 to 999. Dinsy'd scrunch her eyes closed, pick one and, like a scavenger hunt, spend the morning (or the next three weeks) at the shelves indicated.
Pangolins lived at 599 (point 31), and Pancakes at 641. Pencils were at 674 but Pens were a shelf away at 681, and Ink was across the aisle at 667. (Dinsy thought that was stupid, because you had to use them together.) Pluto the planet was at 523, but Pluto the Disney dog was at 791 (point 453), near "Rock and Roll" and Kazoos.
It was all very useful information. But in Dinsy's opinion, things could be a little too organized.
The first time she straightened up the Common Room without anyone asking, she was very pleased with herself. She had lined up everyone's teacup in a neat row on the shelf, with all the handles curving the same way, and arranged the spices in the little wooden rack: anise, bay leaves, chives, dill weed, peppercorns, salt, sesame seeds, sugar.
"Look," she said when Blythe came in to refresh her tea, "order out of chaos." It was one of Blythe's favorite mottoes.
Blythe smiled and looked over at the spice rack. Then her smile faded and she shook her head.
"Is something wrong?" Dinsy asked. She had hoped for a compliment.
"Well, you used the alphabet," said Blythe, sighing. "I suppose it's not your fault. You were with Olive for a good many years. But you're a big girl now. You should learn the proper order." She picked up the salt container. "We'll start with Salt." She wrote the word on the little chalkboard hanging by the icebox, followed by the number 553.632. "Five-five-three-point-six-three-two. Because—?"
Dinsy thought for a moment. "Earth Sciences."
"Ex-actly." Blythe beamed. "Because salt is a mineral. But, now, chives. Chives are a garden crop, so they're. . ."
Dinsy bit her lip in concentration. "Six-thirty-something."
"Very good." Blythe smiled again and chalked chives 635.26 on the board. "So you see, Chives should always be shelved after Salt, dear."
Blythe turned and began to rearrange the eight ceramic jars. Behind her back, Dinsy silently rolled her eyes.
Edith appeared in the doorway.
"Oh, not again," she said. "No wonder I can't find a thing in this kitchen. Blythe, I've told you. Bay Leaf comes first. QK-four-nine—" She had worked at the university when she was younger.
"Library of Congress, my fanny," said Blythe, not quite under her breath. "We're not that kind of library."
"It's no excuse for imprecision," Edith replied. They each grabbed a jar and stared at each other.
Dinsy tiptoed away and hid in the 814s, where she read "Jabberwocky" until the coast was clear.
But the kitchen remained a taxonomic battleground. At least once a week, Dinsy was amused by the indignant sputtering of someone who had just spooned dill weed, not sugar, into the pot of Earl Grey tea.
* * *
Once she knew her way around, Dinsy was free to roam the library as she chose.
"Anywhere?" she asked Blythe.
"Anywhere you like, my sweet. Except the Stacks. You're not quite old enough for the Stacks."
Dinsy frowned. "I am so," she muttered. But the Stacks were locked, and there wasn't much she could do.
Some days she sat with Olive in the Children's Room, revisiting old friends, or explored the maze of the Main Room. Other days she spent in the Reference Room, where Ruth and Harriet guarded the big important books that no one could ever, ever check out—not even when the library had been open.
Ruth and Harriet were like a set of salt and pepper shakers from two different yard sales. Harriet had faded orange hair and a sharp, kind face. Small and pinched and pointed, a decade or two away from wizened. She had violet eyes and a mischievous, conspiratorial smile and wore rimless octagonal glasses, like stop signs. Dinsy had never seen an actual stop sign, but she'd looked at pictures.
Ruth was Chinese. She wore wool jumpers in neon plaids and had cat's-eye glasses on a beaded chain around her neck. She never put them all the way on, just lifted them to her eyes and peered through them without opening the bows.
"Life is a treasure hunt," said Harriet.
"Knowledge is power," said Ruth. "Knowing where to look is half the battle."
"Half the fun," added Harriet. Ruth almost never got the last word.
They introduced Dinsy to dictionaries and almanacs, encyclopedias and compendiums. They had been native guides through the country of the Dry Tomes for many years, but they agreed that Dinsy delved unusually deep.
"Would you like to take a break, love?" Ruth asked one afternoon. "It's nearly time for tea."
"I am fatigued," Dinsy replied, looking up from Roget. "Fagged out, weary, a bit spent. Tea would be pleasant, agreeable—"
"I'll put the kettle on," sighed Ruth.
Dinsy read Bartlett's as if it were a catalog of conversations, spouting lines from Tennyson, Mark Twain, and Dale Carnegie until even Harriet put her hands over her ears and began to hum "Stairway to Heaven."
One or two evenings a month, usually after Blythe had remarked, "Well, she's a spirited girl," for the third time, they all took the night off, "For Library business." Olive or Dorothy would tuck Dinsy in early and read from one of her favorites while Ruth made her a bedtime treat—a cup of spiced tea that tasted a little like cherries and a little like varnish, and which Dinsy somehow never remembered finishing.
A list (written in diverse hands), tacked to the wall of the Common Room.
10 Things to Remember When You Live in a Library
1. We do not play shuffleboard on the Reading Room table.
2. Books should not have "dog's-ears." Bookmarks make lovely presents.
3. Do not write in books. Even in pencil. Puzzle collections and connect-the-dots are books.
4. The shelving cart is not a scooter.
5. Library paste is not food.
[Marginal note in a child's hand: True. It tastes like Cream of Wrong Soup.]
6. Do not use the date stamp to mark your banana.
7. Shelves are not monkey bars.
8. Do not play 982-pickup with the P-Q drawer (or any other).
9. The dumbwaiter is only for books. It is not a carnival ride.
10. Do not drop volumes of the Britannica off the stairs to hear the echo.
They were an odd, but contented family. There were rules, to be sure, but Dinsy never lacked for attention. With seven mothers, there was always someone to talk with, a hankie for tears, a lap or a shoulder to share a story.
Most evenings, when Dorothy had made a fire in the Reading Room and the wooden shelves gleamed in the flickering light, they would all sit in companionable silence. Ruth knitted, Harriet muttered over an acrostic, Edith stirred the cocoa so it wouldn't get a skin. Dinsy sat on the rug, her back against the knees of whomever was her favorite that week, and felt safe and warm and loved. "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world," as Blythe would say.
But as she watched the moon peep in and out of the clouds through the leaded-glass panes of the tall windows, Dinsy often wondered what it would be like to see the whole sky, all around her.
* * *
First Olive and then Dorothy had been in charge of Dinsy's thick dark hair, trimming it with the mending shears every few weeks when it began to obscure her eyes. But a few years into her second decade at the library, Dinsy began cutting it herself, leaving it as wild and spiky as the brambles outside the front door.
That was not the only change.
"We haven't seen her at breakfast in weeks," Harriet said as she buttered a scone one morning.
"Months. And all she reads is Salinger. Or Sylvia Plath," complained Dorothy. "I wouldn't mind that so much, but she just leaves them on the table for me to reshelve."
"It's not as bad as what she did to Olive," Marian said. "The Golden Compass appeared last week, and she thought Dinsy would enjoy it. But not only did she turn up her nose, she had the gall to say to Olive, 'Leave me alone. I can find my own books.' Imagine. Poor Olive was beside herself."
"She used to be such a sweet child," Blythe sighed. "What are we going to do?"
"Now, now. She's just at that age," Edith said calmly. "She's not really a child anymore. She needs some privacy, and some responsibility. I have an idea."
And so it was that Dinsy got her own room—with a door that shut—in a corner of the second floor. It had been a tiny cubbyhole of an office, but it had a set of slender curved stairs, wrought iron worked with lilies and twigs, which led up to the turret between the red-tiled eaves.
The round tower was just wide enough for Dinsy's bed, with windows all around. There had once been a view of the town, but now trees and ivy allowed only jigsaw puzzle-shaped puddles of light to dapple the wooden floor. At night the puddles were luminous blue splotches of moonlight that hinted of magic beyond her reach.
On the desk in the room below, centered in a pool of yellow lamplight, Edith had left a note: Come visit me. There's mending to be done, and a worn brass key on a wooden paddle, stenciled with the single word: stacks.
The Stacks were in the basement, behind a locked gate at the foot of the metal spiral staircase that descended from the 600s. They had always reminded Dinsy of the steps down to the dungeon in The King's Stilts. Darkness below hinted at danger, but adventure. Terra Incognita.
Dinsy didn't use her key the first day, or the second. Mending? Boring. But the afternoon of the third day, she ventured down the spiral stairs. She had been as far as the gate before, many times, because it was forbidden, to peer through the metal mesh at the dimly lighted shelves and imagine what treasures might be hidden there.
She had thought that the Stacks would be damp and cold, strewn with odd bits of discarded library flotsam. Instead they were cool and dry, and smelled very different from upstairs. Dustier, with hints of mold and the tang of vintage leather, an undertone of vinegar stored in an old shoe.
Unlike the main floor, with its polished wood and airy high ceilings, the Stacks were a low, cramped warren of gunmetal gray shelves that ran floor-to-ceiling in narrow aisles. Seven levels twisted behind the west wall of the library like a secret labyrinth than ran from below the ground to up under the eaves of the roof. Floor and steps were translucent glass brick and six-foot ceilings strung with pipes and ducts were lit by single caged bulbs, two to an aisle.
It was a windowless fortress of books. Upstairs the shelves were mosaics of all colors and sizes, but the Stacks were filled with geometric monochrome blocks of subdued colors: eight dozen forest-green bound volumes of Ladies Home Journal filled five rows of shelves, followed by an equally large block of identical dark red LIFEs.
Dinsy felt like she was in another world. She was not lost, but for the first time in her life, she was not easily found, and that suited her. She could sit, invisible, and listen to the sounds of library life going on around her. From Level Three she could hear Ruth humming in the Reference Room on the other side of the wall. Four feet away, and it felt like miles. She wandered and browsed for a month before she presented herself at Edith's office.
A frosted glass pane in the dark wood door said mending room in chipping gold letters. The door was open a few inches, and Dinsy could see a long workbench strewn with sewn folios and bits of leather bindings, spools of thread and bottles of thick beige glue.
"I gather you're finding your way around," Edith said without turning in her chair. "I haven't had to send out a search party."
"Pretty much," Dinsy replied. "I've been reading old magazines." She flopped into a chair to the left of the door.
"One of my favorite things," Edith agreed. "It's like time travel." Edith was a tall, solid woman with long graying hair that she wove into elaborate buns and twisted braids, secured with #2 pencils and a single tortoiseshell comb. She wore blue jeans and vests in brightly muted colors—pale teal and lavender and dusky rose—with a strand of lapis lazuli beads cut in rough ovals.
Edith repaired damaged books, a job that was less demanding now that nothing left the building. But some of the bound volumes of journals and abstracts and magazines went back as far as 1870, and their leather bindings were crumbling into dust. The first year, Dinsy's job was to go through the aisles, level by level, and find the volumes that needed the most help. Edith gave her a clipboard and told her to check in now and then.
Dinsy learned how to take apart old books and put them back together again. Her first mending project was the tattered 1877 volume of American Naturalist, with its articles on "Educated Fleas" and "Barnacles" and "The Cricket as Thermometer." She sewed pages into signatures, trimmed leather and marbleized paper. Edith let her make whatever she wanted out of the scraps, and that year Dinsy gave everyone miniature replicas of their favorite volumes for Christmas.
She liked the craft, liked doing something with her hands. It took patience and concentration, and that was oddly soothing. After supper, she and Edith often sat and talked for hours, late into the night, mugs of cocoa on their workbenches, the rest of the library dark and silent above them.
"What's it like outside?" Dinsy asked one night, while she was waiting for some glue to dry.
Edith was silent for a long time, long enough that Dinsy wondered if she'd spoken too softly, and was about to repeat the question, when Edith replied.
That was not anything Dinsy had expected. "What do you mean?"
"It's noisy. It's crowded. Everything's always changing, and not in any way you can predict."
"That sounds kind of exciting," Dinsy said.
"Hmm." Edith thought for a moment. "Yes, I suppose it could be."
Dinsy mulled that over and fiddled with a scrap of leather, twisting it in her fingers before she spoke again. "Do you ever miss it?"
Edith turned on her stool and looked at Dinsy. "Not often," she said slowly. "Not as often as I'd thought. But then I'm awfully fond of order. Fonder than most, I suppose. This is a better fit."
Dinsy nodded and took a sip of her cocoa.
A few months later, she asked the Library for a third and final boon.
* * *
The evening that everything changed, Dinsy sat in the armchair in her room, reading Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? (for the third time), imagining what it would be like to talk to Glencora, when a tentative knock sounded at the door.
"Dinsy? Dinsy?" said a tiny familiar voice. "It's Olive, dear."
Dinsy slid her read! bookmark into chapter 14 and closed the book. "It's open," she called.
Olive padded in wearing a red flannel robe, her feet in worn carpet slippers. Dinsy expected her to proffer a book, but instead Olive said, "I'd like you to come with me, dear." Her blue eyes shone with excitement.
"What for?" They had all done a nice reading of As You Like It a few days before, but Dinsy didn't remember any plans for that night. Maybe Olive just wanted company. Dinsy had been meaning to spend an evening in the Children's Room, but hadn't made it down there in months.
But Olive surprised her. "It's Library business," she said, waggling her finger, but smiling.
Now, that was intriguing. For years, whenever the librarians wanted an evening to themselves, they'd disappear down into the Stacks after supper, and would never tell her why. "It's Library business," was all they ever said. When she was younger, Dinsy had tried to follow them, but it's hard to sneak in a quiet place. She was always caught and given that awful cherry tea. The next thing she knew it was morning.
"Library business?" Dinsy said slowly. "And I'm invited?"
"Yes, dear. You're practically all grown up now. It's high time you joined us."
"Great." Dinsy shrugged, as if it were no big deal, trying to hide her excitement. And maybe it wasn't a big deal. Maybe it was a meeting of the rules committee, or plans for moving the 340s to the other side of the window again. But what if it was something special. . .? That was both exciting and a little scary.
She wiggled her feet into her own slippers and stood up. Olive barely came to her knees. Dinsy touched the old woman's white hair affectionately, remembering when she used to snuggle into that soft lap. Such a long time ago.
A library at night is a still but resonant place. The only lights were the sconces along the walls, and Dinsy could hear the faint echo of each footfall on the stairs down to the foyer. They walked through the shadows of the shelves in the Main Room, back to the 600s, and down the metal stairs to the Stacks, footsteps ringing hollowly.
The lower level was dark except for a single caged bulb above the rows of National Geographics, their yellow bindings pale against the gloom. Olive turned to the left.
"Where are we going?" Dinsy asked. It was so odd to be down there with Olive.
"You'll see," Olive said. Dinsy could practically feel her smiling in the dark. "You'll see."
She led Dinsy down an aisle of boring municipal reports and stopped at the far end, in front of the door to the janitorial closet set into the stone wall. She pulled a long, old-fashioned brass key from the pocket of her robe and handed it to Dinsy.
"You open it, dear. The keyhole's a bit high for me."
Dinsy stared at the key, at the door, back at the key. She'd been fantasizing about "Library business" since she was little, imagining all sorts of scenarios, none of them involving cleaning supplies. A monthly poker game. A secret tunnel into town, where they all went dancing, like the twelve princesses. Or a book group, reading forbidden texts. And now they were inviting her in? What a letdown if it was just maintenance.
She put the key in the lock. "Funny," she said as she turned it. "I've always wondered what went on when you—" Her voice caught in her throat. The door opened, not onto the closet of mops and pails and bottles of Pine-Sol she expected, but onto a small room, paneled in wood the color of ancient honey. An Oriental rug in rich, deep reds lay on the parquet floor, and the room shone with the light of dozens of candles. There were no shelves, no books, just a small fireplace at one end where a log crackled in the hearth.
"Surprise," said Olive softly. She gently tugged Dinsy inside.
All the others were waiting, dressed in flowing robes of different colors. Each of them stood in front of a Craftsman rocker, dark wood covered in soft brown leather.
Edith stepped forward and took Dinsy's hand. She gave it a gentle squeeze and said, under her breath, "Don't worry." Then she winked and led Dinsy to an empty rocker. "Stand here," she said, and returned to her own seat.
Stunned, Dinsy stood, her mouth open, her feelings a kaleidoscope.
"Welcome, dear one," said Dorothy. "We'd like you to join us." Her face was serious, but her eyes were bright, as if she was about to tell a really awful riddle and couldn't wait for the reaction.
Dinsy started. That was almost word-for-word what Olive had said, and it made her nervous. She wasn't sure what was coming, and was even less sure that she was ready.
"Introductions first." Dorothy closed her eyes and intoned, "I am Lexica. I serve the Library." She bowed her head once and sat down.
Dinsy stared, her eyes wide and her mind reeling as each of the Librarians repeated what was obviously a familiar rite.
"I am Juvenilia," said Olive with a twinkle. "I serve the Library."
"Incunabula," said Edith.
"Sapientia," said Harriet.
"Ephemera," said Marian.
"Marginalia," said Ruth.
"Melvilia," said Blythe, smiling at Dinsy. "And I too serve the Library."
And then they were all seated, and all looking up at Dinsy.
"How old are you now, my sweet?" asked Harriet.
Dinsy frowned. It wasn't as easy a question as it sounded. "Seventeen," she said after a few seconds. "Or close enough."
"No longer a child," Harriet nodded. There was a touch of sadness in her voice. "That is why we are here tonight. To ask you to join us."
There was something so solemn in Harriet's voice that it made Dinsy's stomach knot up. "I don't understand," she said slowly. "What do you mean? I've been here my whole life. Practically."
Dorothy shook her head. "You have been in the Library, but not of the Library. Think of it as an apprenticeship. We have nothing more to teach you. So we're asking if you'll take a Library name and truly become one of us. There have always been seven to serve the Library."
Dinsy looked around the room. "Won't I be the eighth?" she asked. She was curious, but she was also stalling for time.
"No, dear," said Olive. "You'll be taking my place. I'm retiring. I can barely reach the second shelves these days, and soon I'll be no bigger than the dictionary. I'm going to put my feet up and sit by the fire and take it easy. I've earned it," she said with a decisive nod.
"Here, here," said Blythe. "And well done, too."
There was a murmur of assent around the room.
Dinsy took a deep breath, and then another. She looked around the room at the eager faces of the seven librarians, the only mothers she had ever known. She loved them all, and was about to disappoint them, because she had a secret of her own. She closed her eyes so she wouldn't see their faces, not at first.
"I can't take your place, Olive," she said quietly, and heard the tremor in her own voice as she fought back tears.
All around her the librarians clucked in surprise. Ruth recovered first. "Well, of course not. No one's asking you to replace Olive, we're merely—"
"I can't join you," Dinsy repeated. Her voice was just as quiet, but it was stronger. "Not now."
"But why not, sweetie?" That was Blythe, who sounded as if she were about to cry herself.
"Fireworks," said Dinsy after a moment. She opened her eyes. "Six-sixty-two-point-one." She smiled at Blythe. "I know everything about them. But I've never seen any." She looked from face to face again.
"I've never petted a dog or ridden a bicycle or watched the sun rise over the ocean," she said, her voice gaining courage. "I want to feel the wind and eat an ice cream cone at a carnival. I want to smell jasmine on a spring night and hear an orchestra. I want—" she faltered, and then continued, "I want the chance to dance with a boy."
She turned to Dorothy. "You said you have nothing left to teach me. Maybe that's true. I've learned from each of you that there's nothing in the world I can't discover and explore for myself in these books. Except the world," she added in a whisper. She felt her eyes fill with tears. "You chose the Library. I can't do that without knowing what else there might be."
"You're leaving?" Ruth asked in a choked voice.
Dinsy bit her lip and nodded. "I'm, well, I've—" She'd been practicing these words for days, but they were so much harder than she'd thought. She looked down at her hands.
And then Marian rescued her.
"Dinsy's going to college," she said. "Just like I did. And you, and you, and you." She pointed a finger at each of the women in the room. "We were girls before we were librarians, remember? It's her turn now."
"But how—?" asked Edith.
"Where did—?" stammered Harriet.
"I wished on the Library," said Dinsy. "And it left an application in the Unabridged. Marian helped me fill it out."
"I am in charge of circulation," said Marian. "What comes in, what goes out. We found her acceptance letter in the book return last week."
"But you had no transcripts," said Dorothy practically. "Where did you tell them you'd gone to school?"
Dinsy smiled. "That was Marian's idea. We told them I was home-schooled, raised by feral librarians."
* * *
And so it was that on a bright September morning, for the first time in ages, the heavy oak door of the Carnegie Library swung open. Everyone stood in the doorway, blinking in the sunlight.
"Promise you'll write," said Blythe, tucking a packet of sweets into the basket on Dinsy's arm. The others nodded. "Yes, do."
"I'll try," she said. "But you never know how long anything will take around here." She tried to make a joke of it, but she was holding back tears and her heart was hammering a mile a minute.
"You will come back, won't you? I can't put off my retirement forever." Olive was perched on top of the Circulation Desk.
"To visit, yes." Dinsy leaned over and kissed her cheek. "I promise. But to serve? I don't know. I have no idea what I'm going to find out there." She looked out into the forest that surrounded the library. "I don't even know if I'll be able to get back in, through all that."
"Take this. It will always get you in," said Marian. She handed Dinsy a small stiff pasteboard card with a metal plate in one corner, embossed with her name: dinsy carnegie.
"What is it?" asked Dinsy.
"Your library card."
There were hugs all around, and tears and goodbyes. But in the end, the seven librarians stood back and watched her go.
Dinsy stepped out into the world as she had come—with a wicker basket and a book of fairy tales, full of hopes and dreams.
attended both the Clarion West and Sycamore Hill writing workshops. With his
wife, writer Gwenda Bond, he runs a small press, The Fortress of Words, which
produces a critically acclaimed magazine, Say. . . His story "The
Voluntary State" was a Hugo, Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon award finalist.
The best of his early short fiction was collected in chapbook Bittersweet
Rowe published two terrific stories in 2006, the darkly odd "The League of Last Girls," and this quirky look at the literalisation of faith. If religion changes how you see the world, shouldn't your faith change the world?
The little drivers threw baggage down from the top of the bus and out from its rusty undercarriage vaults. This was the last stop. The road broke just beyond here, a hundred yards short of the creek.
With her fingertip, Sandy traced the inked ridge northeast along the map, then rolled the soft leather into a cylinder and tucked it inside her vest. She looked around for her pack and saw it tumbled together with the other Cartographers' luggage at the base of a catalpa tree. Lucas and the others were sorting already, trying to lend their gear some organization, but the stop was a tumult of noise and disorder.
The high country wind shrilled against the rush of the stony creek; disembarkees pawed for their belongings and tried to make sense of the delicate, coughing talk of the unchurched little drivers. On the other side of the valley, across the creek, the real ridge line—the geology, her father would have said disdainfully—stabbed upstream. By her rough estimation it had rolled perhaps two degrees off the angle of its writ mapping. Lucas would determine the exact discrepancy later, when he extracted his instruments from their feather and wax-paper wrappings.
"Third world bullshit," Lucas said, walking up to her. "The transit services people from the university paid these little schemers before we ever climbed onto that deathtrap, and now they're asking for the fare." Lucas had been raised near the border, right outside the last town the bus had stopped at, in fact, though he'd dismissed the notion of visiting any family. His patience with the locals ran inverse to his familiarity with them.
"Does this count as the third world?" she asked him. "Doesn't there have to be a general for that? Rain forests and steel ruins?"
Lucas gave his half-grin—not quite a smirk—acknowledging her reduction. Cartographers were famous for their willful ignorance of social expressions like politics and history.
"Carmen paid them, anyway," he told her as they walked towards their group. "Probably out of her own pocket, thanks be for wealthy dilettantes."
"Not fair," said Sandy. "She's as sharp as any student in the seminar, and a better hand with the plotter than most post-docs, much less grad students."
Lucas stopped. "I hate that," he said quietly. "I hate when you separate yourself; go out of your way to remind me that you're a teacher and I'm a student."
Sandy said the same thing she always did. "I hate when you forget it."
* * *
Against all odds, they were still meeting the timetable they'd drawn up back at the university, all those months ago. The bus pulled away in a cloud of noxious diesel fumes an hour before dark, leaving its passengers in a muddy camp dotted with fire rings but otherwise marked only by a hand-lettered sign pointing the way to a primitive latrine.
The handful of passengers not connected with Sandy's group had melted into the forest as soon as they'd found their packages. ("Salt and sugar," Lucas had said. "They're backwoods people—hedge shamans and survivalists. There's every kind of lunatic out here.") This left Sandy to stand by and pretend authority while the Forestry graduate student whose services she'd borrowed showed them all how to set up their camps.
Carmen, naturally, had convinced the young man to demonstrate tent pitching to the others using her own expensive rig as an example. The olive-skinned girl sat in a camp chair folding an onionskin scroll back on itself and writing in a wood-bound notebook while the others struggled with canvas and willow poles.
"Keeping track of our progress?" Sandy asked, easing herself onto the ground next to Carmen.
"I have determined," Carmen replied, not looking up, "that we have traveled as far from a hot water heater as is possible and still be within Christendom."
Sandy smiled, but shook her head, thinking of the most remote places she'd ever been. "Davis?" she asked, watching her student's reaction to the mention of that unholy town.
Carmen, a Californian, shuddered but kept her focus. "There's a naval base in San Francisco, sí? They've got all the amenities, surely."
Sandy considered again, thinking of cold camps in old mountains, and of muddy jungle towns ten days' walk from the closest bus station.
"Cape Canaveral," she said.
With quick, precise movements, Carmen folded a tiny desktop over her chair's arm and spread her scroll out flat. She drew a pair of calipers out from her breast pocket and took measurements, pausing once to roll the scroll a few turns. Finally, she gave a satisfied smile and said, "Only fifty-five miles from Orlando. We're almost twice that from Louisville."
She'd made the mistake Sandy had expected of her. "But Orlando, Señorita Reyes, is Catholic. And we were speaking of Christendom."
A stricken look passed over her student's face, but Sandy calmed her with exaggerated conspiratorial looks left and right. "Some of your fellows aren't so liberal as I am, Carmen. So remember where you are. Remember who you are. Or who you're trying to become."
Another reminder issued, Sandy went to see to her own tent.
* * *
The Forestry student gathered their wood, brought them water to reconstitute their freeze-dried camp meals, then withdrew to his own tent far back in the trees. Sandy told him he was welcome to spend the evening around their fire—"You built it after all," she'd said—but he'd made a convincing excuse.
The young man pointed to the traveling shrine her students had erected in the center of their camp, pulling a wooden medallion from beneath his shirt. "That Christ you have over there, ma'am," he said. "He's not this one, is he?"
Sandy looked at the amulet he held, gilded and green. "What do you have there, Jesus in the Trees?" she asked, summoning all her professional courtesy to keep the amusement out of her voice. "No, that's not the Christ we keep. We'll see you in the morning."
They didn't, though, because later that night, Lucas discovered that the forest they were camped in wasn't supposed to be there at all.
* * *
He'd found an old agricultural map somewhere and packed it in with their little traveling library. Later, he admitted that he'd only pulled it out for study because he was still sulking from Sandy's clear signal he wouldn't be sharing her tent that night.
Sandy had been leading the rest of the students in some prayers and thought exercises when Lucas came up with his moldering old quarto. "Tillage," he said, not even bothering to explain himself before he'd foisted the book off on his nearest fellow. "All the acreage this side of the ridge line is supposed to be under tillage."
Sandy narrowed her eyes, more than enough to quiet any of her charges, much less Lucas. "What's he got there, Ford?" she asked the thin undergraduate who now held the book.
"Hmmmm?" said the boy; he was one of those who fell instantly and almost irretrievably into any text and didn't look up. Then, at an elbow from Carmen, he said, "Oh! This is. . ." He turned the book over in his hands, angled the spine toward one of the oil lamps and read, "This is An Agricultural Atlas of Clark County, Kentucky."
"'County,'" said Carmen. "Old book, Lucas."
"But it's writ," said Lucas. "There's nothing superseding the details of it and it doesn't contradict anything else we brought about the error. Hell, it even confirms the error we came to correct." Involuntarily, all of them looked up and over at the apostate ridge.
"But what's this about tillage," Sandy said, giving him the opportunity to show off his find even if it was already clear to her what it must be.
"See, these plot surveys in the appendices didn't get accounted for in the literature survey we're working from. The book's listed as a source, but only as a supplemental confirmation. It's not just the ridge that's wrong, it's the stuff growing down this side, too. We're supposed to be in grain fields of some kind down here in the flats, then it's pasturage on up to the summit line."
A minor find, sure, but Sandy would see that Lucas shared authorship on the corollary she'd file with the university. More importantly, it was an opportunity before the hard work of the days ahead.
"We can't do anything about the hillsides tonight, or any of the acreage beyond the creek," she told them. "But as for these glades here. . .."
It was a simple exercise. The fires were easily set.
* * *
In the morning, Sandy drafted a letter to the Dean of Agriculture while most of her students packed up the camp. She had detailed a few of them to sketch the corrected valley floor around them, and she'd include those visual notes with her instructions to the Dean, along with a copy of the writ map from Lucas's book.
"Read that back to me, Carmen," she said, watching as Lucas and Ford argued over yet another volume, this one slim and bound between paper boards. It was the same back country cartographer's guide she'd carried on her own first wilderness forays as a grad student. They'd need its detailed instructions on living out of doors without the Tree Jesus boy to help them.
"'By my hand,'" read Carmen, "'I have caused these letters to be writ. Blessings on the Department of Agriculture and on you, Dean. Blessings on Jesus Sower, the Christ you serve.'"
"Skip to the end, dear." Sandy had little patience for the formalities of academic correspondence, and less for the pretense at holiness the Agriculturalists made with their little fruiting Christ.
"'So, then, it is seen in these texts that
Cartography has corrected the error so far as in our power, and now the burden
is passed to you and your brethren to complete this holy task, and return the
land to that of Jesus's vision.'" Carmen paused.
"Then you promise to remember the Dean in your prayers and all the rest of the politesse."
"Good. Everything observed. Make two copies and bring the official one to me for sealing when you're done."
Carmen turned to her work and Sandy to hers. The ashen landscape extending up the valley was still except for some ribbons twisting in a light breeze. The ribbons were wax sealed to the parchment banner her students had set at first light, the new map of the valley floor drawn in red and black against a cream background. Someone had found the blackened disc of the Forestry student's medallion and leaned it against the base of the banner's staff and Sandy wondered if it had been Carmen, prone to sentiment, or perhaps Lucas, prone to vague gestures.
By midmorning, the students had readied their gear for the march up the ridge line and Carmen had dropped Sandy's package for the university in the mailbox by the bus stop. Before they hoisted their backpacks, though, Sandy gathered them all for fellowship and prayer.
"The gymnasiums at the university have made us fit enough for this task," and here she made a playful flex with her left arm, earning rolled eyes from Lucas and a chuckle from the rest. "The libraries have given us the woodscraft we need, and the chapels have given us the sustenance of our souls."
Sandy swept her arm north to south, indicating the ridge. "When I was your age, oh so long ago—" and a pause here for another ripple of laughter, acknowledgment of her dual status as youngest tenured faculty member at the university and youngest ordained minister in the curia. "When I was your age, I was blessed with the opportunity to go to the Northeast, traveling the lands beyond the Susquehanna, searching out error."
Sandy smiled at the memory of those times—could they be ten years gone already? "I traveled with men and women strong in the Lord, soldiers and scholars of God. There are many errors in the Northeast."
Maps so brittle with age that they would flake away in the cold winds of the Adirondack passes, so faded that only the mightiest of prayers would reveal Jesus's true intentions for His world.
"But none here in the heartlands of the Church, right? Isn't that what our parish priests told us growing up?" The students recognized that she was beginning to teach, and nodded, murmured assent.
"Christians, there is error here. There is error right before our eyes!" Her own students weren't a difficult congregation to hook, but she was gratified nonetheless by the gleam she caught in most of their eyes, the calls, louder now, of "Yes!" and "I see it! I see the lie!"
"I laid down my protractor, friends, I know exactly how far off north Jesus mapped this ridge line to lay," she said, sweeping her arm in a great arc, taking in the whole horizon, "and that ridge line sins by two degrees!"
"May as well be two hundred!" said Carmen, righteous.
Sandy raised her hand, stopped them at the cusp of celebration instead of loosing them. "Not yet," she said. "It's tonight. It's tonight we'll sing down the glory, tonight we'll make this world the way it was mapped."
* * *
The march up the ridge line did not go as smoothly as Sandy might have wished, but the delays and false starts weren't totally unexpected. She'd known Lucas—a country boy after all—would take the lead, and she'd guessed that he would dead-end them into a crumbling gully or two before he picked the right route through the brambles. If he'd been some kind of natural-born hunter he would never have found his way to the Lord, or to education.
Ford and his friends—all of them destined for lecture halls and libraries, not fieldwork—made the classic, the predicted mistake she'd specifically warned against in the rubric she'd distributed for the expedition. "If we're distributing 600 pounds of necessities across twenty-two packs," she asked Ford, walking easily beside him as he struggled along a game trail, "how much weight does that make each of us responsible for?"
"A little over twenty-seven pounds, ma'am," he said, wheezing out the reply.
"And did you calculate that in your head like a mathematician or did you remember it from the syllabus?" Sandy asked. She didn't press too hard, the harshness of the lesson was better imparted by the straps cutting into his shoulders than by her words.
"I remembered it," Ford said. And because he really did have the makings of a great scholar and great scholars are nothing if not owners of their own errors, he added, "It was in the same paragraph that said not to bring too many books."
"Exactly," she said, untying the leather cords at the top of his pack and pulling out a particularly heavy-looking volume. She couldn't resist looking at the title page before dropping it into her own pack.
"Unchurched Tribes of the Chiapas Highlands: A Bestiary. Think we'll make it to Mexico on this trip, Ford?" she asked him, teasing a little.
Ford's faced reddened even more from her attention than it had from the exertions of the climb. He mumbled something about migratory patterns then leaned into the hike.
If most of the students were meeting their expectations of themselves and one another, then Carmen's sprightly, sure-footed bounding up the trail was a surprise to most. Sandy, though, had seen the girl in the gym far more frequently than the other students, most of whom barely met the minimum number of visits per week required by their advising committees. Carmen was as much an athlete as herself, and the lack of concern the girl showed about dirt and insects was refreshing.
So it was Carmen who summitted first, and it was she that was looking northeast with a stunned expression on her face when Sandy and Lucas reached the top, side by side. Following Carmen's gaze, Lucas cursed and called for help in taking off his heavily laden pack before he began unrolling the oilcloth cases of his instruments.
Sandy simply pursed her lips and began a mental review of her assets: the relative strengths and weaknesses of her students, the number of days' worth of supplies they carried, the nature of the curia-designed instruments that Lucas exhibited a natural affinity for controlling. She began to nod. She'd marshaled more than enough strength for the simple tectonic adjustment they'd planned, she could set her own unquestionable faith against this new challenge if it revealed any deficiencies among her students. She would make a show of asking their opinions, but she already knew that this was a challenge she could meet.
Ford finally reached the top of the ridge line, not so much climbing as stumbling to the rocky area where the others were gathering. Once he looked up and around, he said, "The survey team that found the error in the ridge's orientation, they didn't come up here."
"They were specifically scouting for projects that the university could handle," said Sandy. "If they'd been up here, they would have called in the Mission Service, not us."
Spread out below them, ringed in tilled fields and dusted with a scattering of wooden fishing boats, was an unmapped lake.
* * *
Sandy set Ford and the other bookish scholars to cataloguing all of the texts they'd smuggled along so they could be integrated into her working bibliography. She hoped that one of them was currently distracted by waterways the way that Ford was distracted by fauna.
Lucas set their observation instruments on tripods in an acceptably devout semicircle and Sandy permitted two or three of the others to begin preliminary sight-line measurements of the lake's extent.
"It turns my stomach," said Lucas, peering through the brass tube of a field glass. "I grew up seeing the worst kind of blasphemy, but I could never imagine that anyone could do something like this."
"You need to work on that," said Sandy. Lucas was talking about the landscape feature cross-haired in the glass, a clearly artificial earthworks dam, complete with a retractable spillway. "Missionaries see worse every day."
Lucas didn't react. He'd never abandoned his ambition, even after she'd laughed him down. Our sisters and brothers in the Mission Service, she'd said with the authority that only someone who'd left that order could muster, make up in the pretense of zeal what they lack in scholarship and access to the divine. Anyone can move a mountain with whips and shovels.
The sketchers showed her their work, which they annotated with Lucas's count and codification of architectural structures, fence lines, and crops. "Those are corn cribs," he said. "That's a meeting house. That's a mill."
This was the kind of thing she'd told him he should concentrate on. The best thing any of them had to offer was the overlay of their own personal ranges of unexpected expertise onto the vast body of accepted Cartography. Lucas's barbaric background, Ford's holographic memory, Carmen's cultured scribing. Her own judgment.
"They're marmotas!" said Ford. They all looked up at where he'd been awkwardly turning the focus wheel on one of the glasses. "Like in my book!" He wasn't one to flash a triumphal grin, which Sandy appreciated. She assented to the line of inquiry with a nod and he hurried over to the makeshift shelf that some of his friends had been using to stack books while they wrote their list.
The unchurched all looked alike to Sandy, differing only in the details of their dress, modes of transportation, and to what extent the curia allowed interaction with them. In the case of the little drivers, for example, tacit permission was given for commercial exchange because of their ancient control of the bus lines. But she'd never heard of marmotas, and said so.
"They're called 'rooters' around here," said Lucas. "I don't know what Ford's on about. I've never heard of them having a lake, but they've always come into the villages with their vegetables, so far as I know."
"Not always," said Carmen. "There's nothing about any unchurched lineages in the glosses of the maps we're working from. They're as new as that lake."
Sandy recognized that they were in an educable moment. "Everybody come here, let's meet. Let's have a class."
The students maneuvered themselves into the flatter ground within the horseshoe of instruments, spreading blankets and pulling out notebooks and pens. Ford lay his bestiary out, a place marked about a third of the way through with the bright yellow fan of a fallen gingko leaf.
"Carmen's brought up a good point," said Sandy, after they'd opened with a prayer. "There's no Cartographical record of these diggers, or whatever they're called, along the ridge line."
"I don't think it matters, necessarily, though," said Carmen. "There's no record of the road up to the bus stop, either, or of Lucas's village. 'Towns and roads are thin scrims, and outside our purview.'"
Sandy recognized the quote as being from the autobiography of a radical cleric intermittently popular on campus. It was far from writ, but not heretical by any stretch of the imagination and, besides, she'd had her own enthusiasms for colorful doctrinal interpretations when she was younger. She was disappointed that Carmen would let her tendency toward error show so plainly to the others but let it pass, confident that one of the more conservative students would address it.
"Road building doesn't affect landscape?" asked Lucas, on cue. "The Mapmaker used road builders to cut canyons all over the continent. Ford, maybe Carmen needs to see the cutlines on your contour maps of the bus routes."
Before Ford, who was looking somewhat embarrassed by the exchange, could reply, Carmen said, "I'm not talking about the Mapmaker, Lucas, I'm talking about your family, back in the village we passed yesterday."
"Easy, Carmen," said Sandy. "We're getting off task here. The question at hand isn't whether there's error. The error is clear. We can feel the moisture of it on the breeze blowing up the hill right now." Time to shift directions on them, to turn them on the right path before they could think about it.
"The question," she continued, "is how much of it we plan to correct." Not whether they'd correct, don't leave that option for them. The debate she'd let them have was over the degree of action they'd take, not whether they'd take any at all.
The more sophisticated among them—Ford and Carmen sure, but even Lucas, to his credit—instantly saw her tack and looked at her with eyebrows raised. Then Lucas reverted to type and actually dared to say something.
"We haven't prepared for anything like this. That lake is more than a mile across at its broadest!"
"A mile across, yes," said Sandy, dismissively. "Carmen? What scale did you draw your sketch of the valley in?"
Carmen handed her a sheaf of papers. "24K to one. Is that all right?"
"Good, good," said Sandy. She smiled at Ford. "That's a conversion even I can do in my head. So. . .if I compare the size of the dam—" and she knitted her eyebrows, calculating. "If I compare the dam to the ridge, I see that the ridge we came to move is about three hundred times the larger."
Everyone began talking at once and at cross purposes. A gratifying number of the students were simply impressed with her cleverness and seemed relaxed, sure that it would be a simple matter now that they'd been shown the problem in the proper perspective. But Carmen was scratching some numbers in the dirt with the knuckle of her right index finger and Ford was flipping through the appendix of one of his books and Lucas. . .
Lucas stood and looked down over the valley. He wasn't looking at the lake and the dam, though, or even at the village of the unchurched creatures who had built it. He was looking to his right, down the eastern flank of the ridge they stood on, down the fluvial valley towards where, it suddenly occurred to Sandy, he'd grown up, towards the creek side town they'd stopped in the day before.
Ford raised his voice above an argument he'd been having with two or three others. "Isn't there a question about what that much water will do to the topography downstream? I mean, I know hydrology's a pretty knotty problem, theologically speaking, but we'd have a clear hand in the erosion, wouldn't we? What if the floodwaters subside off ground that's come unwrit because of something that we did?"
"That is a knotty problem, Ford," said Sandy, looking Lucas straight in the eye. "What's the best way to solve a difficult knot?"
And it was Lucas who answered her, nodding. "Cut through it."
* * *
Later, while most of the students were meditating in advance of the ceremony, Sandy saw Carmen moving from glass to glass, making minute focusing adjustments and triangulating different views of the lake and the village. Every so often, she made a quick visual note in her sketchbook.
"It's not productive to spend too much time on the side effects of an error, you know," Sandy said.
Carmen moved from one instrument to the next. "I don't think it's all that easy to determine what's a side effect and what's. . .okay," she said.
Sandy had lost good students to the distraction she could see now in Carmen. She reached out and pivoted the cylinder down, so that its receiving lens pointed straight at the ground. "There's nothing to see down there, Carmen."
Carmen wouldn't meet her eye. "I thought I'd record—"
"Nothing to see, nothing to record. If you could go down and talk to them you wouldn't understand a word they say. If you looked in their little huts you wouldn't find anything redemptive; there's no cross hanging in the wall of the meeting house, no Jesus of the Digging Marmots. When the water is drained, we won't see anything along the lake bed but mud and whatever garbage they've thrown in off their docks. The lake doesn't have any secrets to give up. You know that."
"Ford's books are by anthropologists, who are halfway to being witch doctors as far as most respectable scholars are concerned, and who keep their accreditation by dint of the fact that their field notes are good intelligence sources for the Mission Service. Ford reads them because he's got an overactive imagination and he likes stories too much—lots of students in the archive concentration have those failings. Most of them grow out of it with a little coaxing. Like Ford will, he's too smart not to. Just like you're too smart to backslide into your parents' religion and start looking for souls to save where there are no souls to be found."
Carmen took a deep breath and held it, closed her eyes. When she opened them, her expression had folded into acquiescence. "It is not the least of my sins that I force you to spend so much time counseling me, Reverend," she said formally.
Sandy smiled and gave the girl a friendly squeeze of the shoulder. "Curiosity and empathy are healthy, and valuable, señorita," she said. "But you need to remember that there are proper channels to focus these things into. Prayer and study are best, but drinking and carousing will do in a pinch."
Carmen gave a nervous laugh, eyes widening. Sandy could tell that the girl didn't feel entirely comfortable with the unexpected direction of the conversation, which was, of course, part of the strategy for handling backsliders. Young people in particular were easy to refocus on banal and harmless "sins" and away from thoughts that could actually be dangerous.
"Fetch the others up here, now," Sandy said. "We should set to it."
Carmen soon had all twenty of her fellow students gathered around Sandy. Lucas had been down the eastern slope far enough to gather some deadwood and now he struck it ablaze with a flint and steel from his travel kit. Sandy crumbled a handful of incense into the flames.
Ford had been named the seminar's lector by consensus, and he opened his text. "Blessed are the Mapmakers. . ." he said.
"For they hunger and thirst after righteousness," they all finished.
Then they all fell to prayer and singing. Sandy turned her back to them—congregants more than students now—and opened her heart to the land below her. She felt the effrontery of the unmapped lake like a caul over her face, a restriction on the land that prevented breath and life.
Sandy showed them how to test the prevailing winds and how to bank the censers in chevrons so that the cleansing fires would fall onto the appropriate points along the dam.
Finally, she thumbed an ashen symbol onto every wrist and forehead, including her own, and lit the oils of the censer primorus with a prayer. When the hungry flames began to beam outward from her censer, she softly repeated the prayer for emphasis, then nodded her assent that the rest begin.
The dam did not burst in a spectacular explosion of mud and boulders and waters. Instead, it atrophied throughout the long afternoon, wearing away under their prayers even as their voices grew hoarse. Eventually, the dammed river itself joined its voice to theirs and speeded the correction.
The unchurched in the valley tried for a few hours to pull their boats up onto the shore, but the muddy expanse between the water and their lurching docks grew too quickly. They turned their attention to bundling up the goods from their mean little houses then, and soon a line of them was snaking deeper into the mountains to the east, like a line of ants fleeing a hill beneath a looking glass.
With the ridge to its west, the valley fell into evening shadow long before the Cartographers' camp. They could still see below though, they could see that, as Sandy had promised Carmen, there were no secrets revealed by the dying water.
Faith can seem arbitrary to the nonbeliever,
changing believers and the world they live in for seemingly little apparent
reason. In "Under Hell, Over Heaven" Margo Lanagan gives us a glimpse
of an afterlife where purgatory sits, blandly, in between the enticements of
heaven and hell. Who gets to go where, though, seems disturbingly arbitrary and
justice seems available to none.
World Fantasy Award winner Margo Lanagan seemed to come from nowhere in 2005, garnering acclaim in the US, the UK and her native Australia for her collection Black Juice and story "Singing My Sister Down". She is the author of novels Wildgame, The Tankermen, Walking Through Albert, The Best Thing and Touching Earth Lightly. Her short fiction has been collected in White Time and Black Juice. Her most recent book is collection Red Spikes.
'You always have to go through stuff,' said Barto. 'Why couldn't somebody have made a road?'
Leah grunted. Yes, it was always a trudge here. But what was the hurry, when it came to eternity? Might as well trudge as run. Might as well be hampered as not. Barto was new here; he didn't realise. He'd only just arrived, and by car accident, so he was still in a kind of shock. He was trying to catch hold of the last threads of his curiosity as it disappeared.
Right now they were walking through reedy, rushy stuff, sometimes ankle-deep in black water. It was quite dim, too. They were deep in the Lower Reaches; Hell's crusted, warty underside hung low above them, close enough to feel the warmth. There were four of them: Leah, Barto, Tabatha and King. They were all youngish, so far as that meant anything, and they spoke the same language, so they made a good team. Plus there was the Miscreant Soul they were escorting, on his string. At least he'd stopped moaning. Hard as it was to feel strongly about anything here, the Miscreant's carryings-on had managed to irritate Leah.
Well, it was entirely up to you, she'd said to him. You can get away with a certain amount, but you can't expect to be forgiven everything.
Why not? he'd retorted miserably. What skin would it have been off anyone's nose?
It's just not the way the system works, King had said. The line has to be drawn somewhere.
I don't see why.
You don't have to, said Leah. It's not your business to see. Just count yourself lucky to get any glory at all. Some people never even catch a glimpse. And she'd made sure to walk on the far side of the group after that, so that his complaints were mostly lost on the warm, wet breeze.
He was naked, the Miscreant. He didn't get to keep the white garb and the little round golden crown. He was just a plump white man, rather the shape of a healthy baby, on a leash of greenish-yellow string and with his hands tied behind his back. He had died of a knifing outside his office building; the big wound that had opened him up from left shoulder to right hip was sealed up shiny pink.
The rest of them wore the grey-green uniform. It was neither shapeless nor quite fitted, neither long nor short, neither ugly nor attractive in worldly terms; it was not remarkable in any way unless—Leah had seen it on the Miscreant's face, on the face of the woman at the desk at Heaven Gate—you were used to that other uniform, the white one, and the beaming face above.
* * *
The woman had cleared her throat and some of the light had gone out of her face; when they were so close to the Gate, people didn't like to look away from it. You have some business with us?
Tabatha had handed over the satchel, and they'd all stood around as the woman went slowly through the leather pages. The occasional seal shone light up into her face, but she looked less and less happy the more she read.
This is never good. She'd slapped the satchel closed. This is never a pleasant task. Do you have the appropriate device?
Tabatha had held up the two lengths of string—Leah had seen King's fingers rub together, and her own tingled at the memory of rolling the grass-fibres into string on her thigh. The woman on the desk had sighed and stood and crossed the little bit of marble paving in front of the Gate.
* * *
'Someone up ahead,' said King. 'It looks like a staffer. With a crook?'
Leah looked up from the reeds and water. Yes, there was the curl of a crozier against the grey sky ahead.
'He's coming right for us,' said Barto. 'Of course, I don't mind if it's not specifically for me.'
The man was tall, as a Shepherd should be. 'All hail!' he cried as soon as he saw them. No one spoke as he toiled forward through the swishing reeds.
He patted the satchel on his white-robed hip. 'I have papers here for an infant, Jesus Maria Valdez.'
There was a slight sag among the four of them at the word infant. The Miscreant narrowed his eyes at the staffer. So he had been hopeful, too.
'There are a lot of infants back there,' said Leah. 'Get through this boggy stretch; look out for a copse of dark trees on your right. They're in there, on the ground and up among the branches, heaps of them.'
He was on his way. 'I'll try there,' he called back over his shoulder. 'Praise be.'
'Whatever,' said Barto softly. Oh, he minded a great deal.
Leah shook herself and walked on. Out here, you got to know too well all the different shades of disappointment.
'What was that all about?' said the Miscreant, watching the glittering crozier recede. 'Someone else's paperwork got mixed up?'
'Probably a posthumous baptism,' said King. 'Or an intercession, you never know. They don't have friends, babies, but sometimes there's a very devout grandmother. Come on.' He tugged the string gently.
The Miscreant resumed his trudging. 'So that baby gets to Ascend?'
Leah didn't hear any answer—she was watching reeds and water again—but the Miscreant asked no more, so someone must have nodded.
Actually, Hell would be so much worse for the Miscreant, now that he'd been inside Heaven Gate and experienced that eternity. It would be worse than it would have been for Leah herself, who had only seen the Light, only felt it, from here in the Outer, and only for a few seconds at a time. And it was hard enough for her, this ache that never left her bones, this endless dull knowledge that things weren't as they should be.
They came to the edge of the marsh, up onto a rise covered with brown grass. There were quite a few people there. Two groups prayed to a Wrong God, the women wearing head cloths woven laboriously from grass fibres—where did they get the energy, for the praying, for the weaving? Babies floated here and there in their greenish swaddling, some sleeping, some awake and waving their arms, kicking their legs; another one screamed inconsolably in the distance. Other people wandered alone, meeting no one's eye, or lay on the grass looking up at the carbuncular ceiling, which was just like the surface of Heaven, except that it rumbled occasionally, and leaked dirty-yellow puffs of sulphur.
Leah's party passed on into the grasslands. The going was drier, but pricklier underfoot, and the grasses had sharp edges that made long, light cuts on their bare legs.
'You never know, do you,' said Barto quietly at her shoulder. 'You see a bloke with a cut throat, like back there, and you don't know whether he did it himself, or whether he got murdered.'
Leah nodded. 'About the only suicides you can be sure of just by looking is slit wrists. Not that you can't just go up and ask. It's not like people are embarrassed about it, or won't tell you.'
'Hmm,' said Barto. 'I've never been much of a going-up-and-asking type of person.'
'It's different here,' said Leah. A sigh escaped her—it seemed so wearying, to explain. The thing was, nothing much would change, whether it was explained or not explained. 'No one takes offence; no one thinks any the less of you. Just like no one plots against you, or gossips or anything. It's restful. It's pointless; everything is pointless, but nothing is a bother, either.'
'Come on,' said King behind her. The string was at full stretch, and so was King's arm. The Miscreant was dragging his feet, his eyes cast fearfully upward.
Leah turned impatiently from the sight. She had lived a virtuous life, if a short one. Her only sin was one of omission, and not even her omission, but her parents': she was one of the billions of unbaptised who walked the Outer.
The breeze was very warm now, and Leah could smell the sulphur. The smell, the rumbling and the occasional sprinkle of pumice on her head and into the surrounding grass were the only indications of the sufferings going on overhead. At least she didn't have to worry about finding herself in Hell; her only question was when, if ever, she would be granted admission to that better place.
Mostly Leah didn't get to see much inside Heaven; clerical errors usually went the other way from this one, and Souls delivered to Heaven slipped in quickly, as soon as the Gate opened the merest crack. This time, because the Miscreant had made such a fuss, some force had been needed to remove him, and the Gate had had to be opened comparatively wide. The four members of the escort had been tortured long and hard by the sight of the Eternal Benediction, of that constant rain of powdery shimmer—was it food? was it love?—that fell through the rays of Light, that clung to the clouds, that brushed past the beings. The snatches of music, the humming of crystal, the tang of harp strings, the celestial harmonies sung by voices so human, so joyous—Leah, accustomed only to the whistling breezes in the outer, to the weeping and mumbling of the Souls Pending, had listened hard and fiercely. She resolved to memorise a single phrase, to take with her, to give her heart during the grey times. And she had; she'd caught a little flourish of notes and hammered them into her memory.
But then the Gate had closed and silenced the music, and the Miscreant Soul had stood naked and dismayed before them, subdued by the string but still panting from the fight. Leah had run the caught phrase through her mind several times and it had fallen dead, all its brilliance and mystery and beauty gone, a series of notes as bland and grey-green as the clothes she wore. The four of them, whose pure yearning towards Heaven had fused them elbow to elbow into a single being, had fallen apart, four blockish, clumsy entities excluded into a quieter, greyer eternity. One needed nothing here, not food or drink or love—but a glimpse of Heaven woke a hunger, a hunger to hunger, to long for something, anything, and have that longing satisfied, to feel any feeling but this bland resignation, this hopeless doggedness, this pointless processing of oneself forward through unmarked, unmemorable time. Oh, and then the hunger went, and left you frowning, trying to fathom how you could have felt as strongly as that about anything.
Walking through the grasslands was tedious now; Leah's shins stung with grass cuts. There were few Souls here, either floating or walking, and they kept their distance—if you weren't a Shepherd, no one was interested in you. A few children stood and stared, head and shoulders above the grasses, but anyone in their teens or older hunched and turned and swayed slowly away as the escort came through on its business.
The rumbling overhead became louder; the shell of the sphere was thinner the closer they approached Hell's Gate.
'I can hear people screaming, I think,' whimpered the Miscreant.
'Not yet,' said King. 'You're imagining it.'
'Put another loop around his neck if he's feeling resistant,' said Tabatha. 'That'll keep him moving.'
They paused while King arranged this, Tabatha instructing him. 'You want it firm, but not tight, and you don't want it to get any tighter when you pull on it, just like the first one.'
The grass clumps grew farther apart now, and the ground between was bare and red, uneven and littered with sharp stones. It was quite hard to keep an even pace, and the whole team slowed, picking places to put their feet. The stones grew bigger and bigger, broader and more treacherously balanced.
'This is like gibber plain,' said Barto. 'I remember when we went on our round-Australia trip. Except there'd be no creatures here. We looked through these binoculars that could see infrared light and there were all sorts of things—little mice jumping around, lizards, spiders. . .'
No one answered. Leah had barely understood him. Australia? Binoculars? Infrared? And she wasn't going to reiterate, No, there are no animals here. Animals are old-world stuff; they just circulate in that system. And then he'd ask, So why are there plants here—aren't they old-world stuff too? I don't know, she'd have to say. Did I create this? If you ever get to Heaven, I'm sure it'll all be made clear. It was all too boring and took too much energy.
A frail tower of scaffolding appeared on the horizon, leading up to Hell's lowest convexity. The escort picked their way towards it, swearing under their breath as the stones bit into their feet, staggering off balance now and again. The Miscreant fell once, opening a cut on his forehead and bruising his cheek.
'I couldn't put my hands out,' he complained. 'Maybe you could just untie my hands, for this part?'
'I'm sorry.' King brushed the red dust off the man's belly, genitals and thigh. 'We'll just walk a bit slower, shall we?'
'You know,' said the Miscreant. 'It's almost good to feel pain! The pain is better than the nothingness, don't you think? What a terrible place this is! Do you get a lot of people purposely hurting themselves here?'
'When they first arrive, sometimes,' said Tabatha. 'But they calm down after a while, and fit in with the rest of us.'
Leah watched the red ground pass. Tabatha was a bit of a goody-goody, she thought. The rest of us—how cosy. What a cosy little community we are.
'After all, you can't end this, yourself,' Tabatha went on. 'You can't self-harm your way out of it. Only way out is to pick up brownie points, or by intercession from someone back in the old world.'
Brownie points, was it? Leah wondered what the All-Mighty would think of that phrase.
Wooden stairs zigzagged up inside the scaffolding. The canvas enclosing its middle two sections rippled in the breeze. 'Up we go, then.' Tabatha started to climb.
Leah brought up the rear. She hung back a little so as to have the Miscreant's grubby feet at her eye-level, rather than his flabby white bottom and bitten-nailed hands.
In the first canvas room they took woven bootees from the water trough and tied them to their feet. Water squeezed from the thick soles and rained between the floorboards onto the steps below. They slopped upstairs to the second room.
'This is where we turn over,' said King to the Miscreant. 'Don't freak out—it might feel a bit weird.'
'Whee,' said Tabatha, somersaulting off the top step into the shadows.
'You out of the way?' Barto jumped after her.
'It's quite enjoyable.' King turned in the opening and addressed the Miscreant upside-down. 'It's about the most fun anyone gets in this place.'
The Miscreant's boots lifted off the step. 'No, wait a minute—' He kicked out, and water flew into Leah's face. He misjudged everything; his head banged on the top step. His frightened, wounded face stared out at Leah for a moment before he floated up into the dim landing-space.
'Christ, King, you're supposed to be looking after him.' Leah's hair rose and the weight lifted out of her spine. She checked the air above and let go into it. Bodies revolved in the dim tented space, and water-drops wobbled, unsure which way to fall. 'Let's move along now,' she said.
They bounced and sprang along the weightless landing to the far door, and dropped out onto the upper stairs. Now the creased, pockmarked grey rock of the Hell sphere was the ground, and the sky that hung over them was the red stony plain. The air was close and smelly.
Down they went onto the rock. Their boots hissed on contact with it.
'Not far now,' said Tabatha.
'I don't care how far it is,' muttered the Miscreant.
Leah peered around him at the machinery and the desk in the distance, and the staffers moving about getting ready for them.
Tsss, tsss, tsss, tsss, went the bootees for the first little while. Then the soles dried out, and the smell of charred grass began to join that of sulphur. It was uncomfortably hot. The ground was creased cooled lava, easier to walk on than stones or swamp.
'Pick up the pace,' said King to the Miscreant, 'or our boots'll run out on the way back.'
'Oh, poor you,' said the Miscreant, obediently starting to jog. 'How you'll suffer.'
As if you had cause to complain, thought Leah. It's not as if you weren't warned. Everybody gets warned somehow, even if they're brought up under a Wrong God. Oog—she made herself look away from his jogging bottom—so much flesh. If I'd grown that old, I never would've let that happen to me.
'Ahoy there,' cried a woman in a silver firesuit up ahead, clapping her gloved hands. 'You got a Clerical there for us?'
'I don't know what he is—that's not my privilege,' said Tabatha. 'All I know is, he goes in here.'
'Good-oh,' said a firesuited man. 'Helps us tell one moment from another.' He shot Leah a cold grin.
The man at the desk was small, hunched and pernickety-looking. He took the satchel and peered down his nose at each paper in turn, as if keeping an invisible pair of reading glasses on his nose. Then he dropped his head, glowered at them above the same glasses and pointed a thumb at the machinery.
Leah had been here twice before. Both times she'd been picking up, and the Soul had been waiting for them, sitting happily on the desk swinging his legs. She'd never seen the machinery operate before.
One of the firesuited people slapped a switch and the whole black affair shuddered into life. All the staffers had their head-pieces on now—they were silver all over, with flat black faces. They each took, from a hook on the machine's slabby side, a silver pole that divided at the top into many vicious little spikes.
The wheels turned. The chain tightened on the eye-bolt in the ground. The circle of the lid was suddenly clear in the rock, outlined in knee-high puffs of smoke. Human screams rushed out with the smoke.
The Miscreant leaped back, pulling the string from King's hand. He ran, but Leah dived after him and brought him down by the ankle, and the others piled straight on top of him. Leah jumped up off the scorching ground and pinned his leg down. Barto bucked on the other one and Tabatha and King took care of arms and torso. 'It's too late. It's too late,' Tabatha said grimly into the man's ear. 'Where do you think you would run to?'
Still he struggled. 'Bloody hell,' said Barto, almost thrown off the leg. He took a firmer hold. 'Strong! Who would've thought such a flabby old thing—'
The Miscreant bucked and rippled again.
'How can he stand it? He must be burning all down his front—'
'You know what will stop this?' Leah hissed at Barto. 'Grabbing him by the nuts. Bags you do it.'
'Bags I don't.'
'Go on.' This was almost funny. Leah was almost laughing. 'You're the boy.'
'Eesh, I'm not grabbing some old feller's nuts!'
'Here.' A firesuit came up. 'Move aside,' it said in a muffled voice, 'and I'll pitchfork him.'
Gently he lowered his spike-points onto the Miscreant's back.
'That's better.' Tabatha gingerly climbed off the captive.
They all slid off him. King took up the string again. 'Now don't try that again,' he said. 'This man will happily poke you straight into the fire like a marshmallow on a stick.'
They helped the Miscreant up. He was crying now; his front was all red, flecked with black from the ground. His face was terrible to see, all crumpled and slavery like that, and with its injuries.
'Please, please,' he said. 'Oh no, please!'
He could hardly use his legs. He was extremely heavy. They dragged him towards the lid. It was a little way open now. Something moved in the smoke like a dark sea-anemone. Trying to see it more clearly, Leah felt holes open in the Outer's greyness, which shrank somewhat on her mind, at the touch of a realisation, and with the realisation, feeling.
For they were hands, all those movements, blood-red hands on the blood-streaked, steaming arms of the Damned. In a frenzy they waved and clutched at the Outer's air; they pawed the lid and the ground; they left prints; they wet and reddened the rock with their slaps and slidings.
The firesuits stood well back from the opening. Any hand that found a grip they prodded until it flinched back into the waving mass, into the high suffering howl of Hell.
The Miscreant pressed back into his escort; Leah couldn't hear him for machine-noise and screaming, but she felt the horror as if he were squeezing it out like a sponge, as if she were taking it up like a sponge, a grey, dry sponge soaking up juice and colour. Suddenly Barto's face was open, lively; suddenly there was a vigour in Tabatha's bracing herself to push, in King's new grasp on the Miscreant's upper arm. Leah pulled in a great noseful of the dreadful, wonderful cooking-meat smell of the Damned, the hot-metal smell of the machinery, the thick yellow stench of brimstone.
The machinery ground; the massive lid lifted unsteadily, revealing its many layers of black polished rock and brass, all smattered with Damned-fluids. Smoke, some yellow, some grey, some black, belched out all around; steam jetted white across the ground. Coughing, Leah heaved the Miscreant forward by his shoulder.
A Damned Soul sprang out of the smoke. It caught the Miscreant by the shoulder, Leah by her arm, and screamed in their faces in a fast, foreign language. Its eyes rolled and steamed; its whole face was misshapen. The skin of it, the raw skin!
'Git back there!' growled a firesuit, forcing the Soul back with a pole across its middle. Through the smoke and the glorious all-engulfing sensations of her own retching, Leah had an impression of a person being folded and forced away. Like a crab into a crevice, she thought, pushing the Miscreant forward again—only rubbery. And raw—that skin! The points of the pitchfork had sliced across that Soul's belly, and the wounds had sizzled with blood and fluids rushing to heal it, to make the skin clean and raw again and ready to suffer more.
This was what she wanted, what she needed, to see such things and to see them clearly. The sulphur jabbed her nostrils and she sniffed it up and coughed, exultant. The Miscreant's shaggy boot-toes flamed near the lip of the opening; hands painted them red, stroke by stroke. She took slippery white handfuls of him and, in a spasm of revulsion and joy, forced him into the centre of the red sea-anemone.
Its many arms hauled him in. Maybe they thought they could pull themselves past him into the Outer; perhaps they thought to plead with him; maybe they just wanted someone else to share their misery. Whatever they wanted, the red Souls folded the white, flailing Soul in.
It was like watching a kebab being rolled, Barto would say later. A chicken kebab.
Don't be awful, Tabatha would say, trying to cringe, trying to care enough.
The escort pulled their hands and feet free of the roaring Souls. Pitchforks poked and hissed, intervening for them. The machinery clanked; the lid shuddered and began to lower. In the desperate red scramble just inside the rim, the faces—I will never forget these, Leah thought raptly, I will never be able—the hairless faces, all melted and remelted flesh, spat and bubbled and ran with juices. And they knew—their eyes begged and their bloodied lips pleaded in a thousand different languages.
Barto gagged beside Leah, King clutched her and wept, Tabatha dragged at their sleeves: 'Come away! Come away!'
But Leah stayed, her eyes and heart still feasting. Just as she'd craned for the last possible glimpse of that other eternity, Heaven, so she must peer around the firesuit to see as many hands, as many faces as she could, as the lid crushed them, as they clutched the very pitchforks that forced them back into suffering.
'Bloody, sticky things!' The nearest firesuit scraped off against the rim a Soul that had impaled itself chest first upon her fork. 'How much more pain do you want?' The Soul fish-flopped, then was clawed away by others more desperate, more able.
The dire howling lessened; there were just hands now, flickering along with the yellow flames that came up where hopeless Souls had dropped away and left gaps in the crowd. They made a frill, a lace-work of red fingers, a fur of black and yellow smoke, a feather of gold flame, a stinking sleeve edge that shortened, shortened—
Thud. The lid closed, sealing in the Damned.
The firesuit turned away and snatched off its hood. The woman inside grinned down at Leah. 'Better get a move on,' she said.
Tabatha was already starting for the tower, grabbing up the satchel as she passed the desk. Barto stared at the lid over Leah's shoulder, both hands to his mouth. King, on all fours, leaned hard against her knees, retching.
'Come on, laddie.' The firesuit prodded him gently with her bloodied pitchfork. 'Those boots won't last much longer.'
'And you're burning yourself.' Leah pulled on his shoulder.
Supporting him, she followed Tabatha. They must take the stamped papers up to Heaven Gate and lodge them. Leah's imagination was as clear as a sunlit tide-pool now; she could just see those snooty Registrars dipping their quills to add the marks, the brownie points, to each team member's record book. Those marks would build—who knew how fast? Who knew how many were needed?—until there were enough to release him or her from the Outer forever, and into Heaven and the Eternal Benediction and the Light.
Leah's feet stung. The soles of the bootees were black and fringed with burnt rush-weave.
'Hurry, King.' She pushed him along in the small of the back. He tried to speak over his shoulder—his face was greenish, and his lips puffed out with nauseated burps. 'I heard one of them say—'
'Just run, King! Talk when we get to the ladder!'
And they ran, pell-mell, elated. One of Barto's bootees gave out, shredding off his foot. He tried a strange hopping run for a few paces, then seemed to take off and fly across the hot black ridges to the scaffolding.
They flung themselves after him, finally landing in a clump on the lowest steps. A few moments filled with groans and panting. Then they spread out onto separate steps.
'Oh, my feet!'
'Uff! This is from his fingernails, look! Like a—like a tiger-claw or something.'
'Look at King!' King's hands and knees had puffed up as if inflated.
'He whacked me in the mouth so hard, that Soul. I thought I'd lost some teeth. I think this one's a bit wobbly. Does this look wobbly to you, Leah?'
When every injury had been noted and admired, quiet descended. The greyness crept in at the edges of Leah's mind.
King pushed his face into the hot breeze. 'I heard someone say, It's so cool out there!'
'I heard that too,' said Tabatha quietly.
'I heard someone call out, Water, water!' whispered Barto. 'And you know? For just that moment, I was thirsty.'
Leah's tongue searched her mouth for that feeling. No, she wasn't thirsty, not even after all that heat and smoke and running.
'I didn't understand anything they said.' She spoke quickly, while there was still a bit of space in the middle of the encroaching greyness. 'But what I saw. . .' She tried to remember that screaming Soul's face well enough to make her stomach churn again. She rubbed her tearless eyes, and saw against the lids a vague bobbing of bald, red heads, waving hands, silent mouths. Nothing that would upset anybody. 'Aagh.' The greyness reached the centre of her feelings and winked them out. That was all she would be left with, until next time—that bobbing impression, all the intensity faded to a thin grey knowledge, a small, puzzled struggle to remember—what had been so wonderful?
Tabatha was binding Barto's burnt foot with a strip torn off her uniform. 'We must move in and out quicker, next time,' she said absently. 'Like a pick-up. This never would've happened with a pick-up.'
'How do they get them out of there, with a pickup?' wondered King. 'Without anyone else escaping?'
'If you ever get to work there, I guess you'll find out,' said Tabatha flatly.
'You can't blame us for being curious,' said King. He must have not quite recovered, thought Leah.
Anyway, 'curious' wasn't the word for it. She followed the others up the stairs, rolled over and dropped into the Outer's gravitational field, followed them through the bootee-room and down onto the stony red plain. Curiosity was a lame, small-scale thing. What it was, was. . .
She picked her way through the stones towards the lighter regions of the Outer. She tried to think, to search what she thought was her heart. But she was not let see. The Outer's greyness had her; it walled the thought she was reaching for in fog, embedded the feeling in cloud; it clumsied her toes and fingers and all her finer faculties and left her with only this, the barest inclination to keep moving, in the direction that felt like forward, but might turn out never to be forward, or backward, or any way, anywhere, ever.
Williams started writing in the early '80s, and his first SF novel, Ambassador
of Progress, appeared in 1984 and was followed by Hardwired, Aristoi,
Metropolitan, City on Fire, The Rift, and most recently
his Dread Empire's Fall series, The Praxis, The Sundering and Conventions
of War. A prolific and talented short fiction writer, he has won the Nebula
for "Daddy's World" and "The Green Leopard Plague". His
short fiction is collected in Facets and Frankensteins and Foreign
Devils. Upcoming is new science fiction novel Implied Spaces.
The story of growing up is the story of slowly moving away from being completely dependent on your parents and becoming your own person. But, what if your parents didn't have to let you grow up? What if they could simply delete you?
It's your understanding and wisdom that makes me want to talk to you, Doctor Sam. About how Fritz met the Blue Lady, and what happened with Janis, and why her mother decided to kill her, and what became of all that. I need to get it sorted out, and for that I need a real friend. Which is you.
Janis is always making fun of me because I talk to an imaginary person. She makes even more fun of me because my imaginary friend is an English guy who died hundreds of years ago.
"You're wrong," I pointed out to her, "Doctor Samuel Johnson was a real person, so he's not imaginary. It's just my conversations with him that are imaginary."
I don't think Janis understands the distinction I'm trying to make.
But I know that you understand, Doctor Sam. You've understood me ever since we met in that Age of Reason class, and I realized that you not only said and did things that made you immortal, but that you said and did them while you were hanging around in taverns with actors and poets.
Which is about the perfect life, if you ask me.
In my opinion Janis could do with a Doctor Sam to talk to. She might be a lot less frustrated as an individual.
I mean, when I am totally stressed trying to comprehend the equations for electron paramagnetic resonance or something, so I just can't stand cramming another ounce of knowledge into my brain, I can always imagine my Doctor Sam—a big fat man (though I think the word they used back then was "corpulent")—a fat man with a silly wig on his head, who makes a magnificent gesture with one hand and says, with perfect wisdom and gravity, All intellectual improvement, Miss Alison, arises from leisure.
Who could put it better than that? Who else could be as sensible and wise? Who could understand me as well?
Certainly nobody I know.
(And have I mentioned how much I like the way you call me Miss Alison?)
We might as well begin with Fahd's Incarnation Day on Titan. It was the first incarnation among the Cadre of Glorious Destiny, so of course we were all present.
The celebration had been carefully planned to showcase the delights of Saturn's largest moon. First we were to be downloaded onto Cassini Ranger, the ship parked in Saturn orbit to service all the settlements on the various moons. Then we would be packed into individual descent pods and dropped into Titan's thick atmosphere. We'd be able to stunt through the air, dodging in and out of methane clouds as we chased each other across Titan's cloudy, photochemical sky. After that would be skiing on the Tomasko Glacier, Fahd's dinner, and then skating on frozen methane ice.
We would all be wearing bodies suitable for Titan's low gravity and high-pressure atmosphere—sturdy, low to the ground, and furry, with six legs and a domelike head stuck onto the front between a pair of arms.
But my body would be one borrowed for the occasion, a body the resort kept for tourists. For Fahd it would be different. He would spend the next five or six years in orbit around Saturn, after which he would have the opportunity to move on to something else.
The six-legged body he inhabited would be his own, his first. He would be incarnated—a legal adult, and legally human despite his six legs and furry body. He would have his own money and possessions, a job, and a full set of human rights.
Unlike the rest of us.
After the dinner, where Fahd would be formally invested with adulthood and his citizenship, we would all go out for skating on the methane lake below the glacier. Then we'd be uploaded and head for home.
All of us but Fahd, who would begin his new life. The Cadre of Glorious Destiny would have given its first member to interplanetary civilization.
I envied Fahd his incarnation—his furry six-legged body, his independence, and even his job, which wasn't all that stellar if you ask me. After fourteen years of being a bunch of electrons buzzing around in a quantum matrix, I wanted a real life even if it meant having twelve dozen legs.
I suppose I should explain, because you were born in an era when electricity came from kites, that at the time of Fahd's Incarnation Day party I was not exactly a human being. Not legally, and especially not physically.
Back in the old days—back when people were establishing the first settlements beyond Mars, in the asteroid belt and on the moons of Jupiter and then Saturn—resources were scarce. Basics such as water and air had to be shipped in from other places, and that was very expensive. And of course the environment was extremely hazardous—the death rate in those early years was phenomenal.
It's lucky that people are basically stupid, otherwise no one would have gone.
Yet the settlements had to grow. They had to achieve self-sufficiency from the home worlds of Earth and Luna and Mars, which sooner or later were going to get tired of shipping resources to them, not to mention shipping replacements for all the people who died in stupid accidents. And a part of independence involved establishing growing, or at least stable, populations, and that meant having children.
But children suck up a lot of resources, which like I said were scarce. So the early settlers had to make do with virtual children.
It was probably hard in the beginning. If you were a parent you had to put on a headset and gloves and a body suit in order to cuddle your infant, whose objective existence consisted of about a skazillion lines of computer code anyway. . . well, let's just say you had to want that kid really badly.
Especially since you couldn't touch him in the flesh till he was grown up, when he would be downloaded into a body grown in a vat just for him. The theory being that there was no point in having anyone in your settlement who couldn't contribute to the economy and help pay for those scarce resources, so you'd only incarnate your offspring when he was already grown up and could get a job and help to pay for all that oxygen.
You might figure from this that it was a hard life, out there on the frontier.
Now it's a lot easier. People can move in and out of virtual worlds with nothing more than a click of a mental switch. You get detailed sensory input through various nanoscale computers implanted in your brain, so you don't have to put on oven mitts to feel your kid. You can dandle your offspring, and play with him, and teach him to talk, and feed him even. Life in the virtual realms claims to be 100% realistic, though in my opinion it's more like 95%, and only in the realms that intend to mimic reality, since some of them don't.
Certain elements of reality were left out, and there are advantages—at least if you're a parent. No drool, no messy diapers, no vomit. When the child trips and falls down, he'll feel pain—you do want to teach him not to fall down, or to bang his head on things—but on the other hand there won't be any concussions or broken bones. There won't be any fatal accidents involving fuel spills or vacuum.
There are other accidents that the parents have made certain we won't have to deal with. Accidental pregnancy, accidental drunkenness, accidental drug use.
Accidental gambling. Accidental vandalism. Accidental suicide. Accidentally acquiring someone else's property. Accidentally stealing someone's extra-vehicular unit and going for a joy ride among the asteroids.
Accidentally having fun. Because believe me, the way the adults arrange it here, all the fun is planned ahead of time.
Yep, Doctor Sam, life is pretty good if you're a grownup. Your kids are healthy and smart and extremely well-educated. They live in a safe, organized world filled with exciting educational opportunities, healthy team sports, family entertainment, and games that reward group effort, cooperation, and good citizenship.
It all makes me want to puke. If I could puke, that is, because I can't. (Did I mention there was no accidental bulimia, either?)
Thy body is all vice, Miss Alison, and thy mind all virtue.
Exactly, Doctor Sam. And it's the vice I'm hoping to find out about. Once I get a body, that is.
We knew that we weren't going to enjoy much vice on Fahd's Incarnation Day, but still everyone in the Cadre of Glorious Destiny was excited, and maybe a little jealous, about his finally getting to be an adult, and incarnating into the real world and having some real world fun for a change. Never mind that he'd got stuck in a dismal job as an electrical engineer on a frozen moon.
All jobs are pretty dismal from what I can tell, so he isn't any worse off than anyone else really.
For days before the party I had been sort of avoiding Fritz. Since we're electronic we can avoid each other easily, simply by not letting yourself be visible to the other person, and not answering any queries he sends to you, but I didn't want to be rude.
Fritz was cadre, after all.
So I tried to make sure I was too busy to deal with Fritz—too busy at school, or with my job for Dane, or working with one of the other cadre members on a project. But a few hours before our departure for Titan, when I was in a conference room with Bartolomeo and Parminder working on an assignment for our Artificial Intelligence class, Fritz knocked on our door, and Bartolomeo granted him access before Parminder and I could signal him not to.
So in comes Fritz. Since we're electronic we can appear to one another as whatever we like, for instance Mary Queen of Scots or a bunch of snowflakes or even you, Doctor Sam. We all experiment with what we look like. Right now I mostly use an avatar of a sort-of Picasso woman—he used to distort people in his paintings so that you had a kind of 360-degree view of them, or parts of them, and I think that's kind of interesting, because my whole aspect changes depending on what angle of me you're viewing.
For an avatar Fritz used the image of a second-rate action star named Norman Isfahan. Who looks okay, at least if you can forget his lame videos, except that Fritz added an individual touch in the form of a balloon-shaped red hat. Which he thought made him look cool, but which only seemed ludicrous and a little sad.
Fritz stared at me for a moment, with a big goofy grin on his face, and Parminder sends me a little private electronic note of sympathy. In the last few months Fritz had become my pet, and he followed me around whenever he got the chance. Sometimes he'd be with me for hours without saying a word, sometimes he'd talk the entire time and not let me get a single word in.
I did my best with him, but I had a life to lead, too. And friends. And family. And I didn't want this person with me every minute, because even though I was sorry for him he was also very frustrating to be around.
Friendship is not always the sequel of obligation.
Alas, Doctor J., too true.
Fritz was the one member of our cadre who came out, well, wrong. They build us—us software—by reasoning backwards from reality, from our parents' DNA. They find a good mix of our parents' genes, and that implies certain things about us, and the sociologists get their say about what sort of person might be needful in the next generation, and everything's thrown together by a really smart artificial intelligence, and in the end you get a virtual child.
But sometimes despite all the intelligence of everyone and everything involved, mistakes are made. Fritz was one of these. He wasn't stupid exactly—he was as smart as anyone—but his mental reflexes just weren't in the right plane. When he was very young he would spend hours without talking or interacting with any of us. Fritz's parents, Jack and Hans, were both software engineers, and they were convinced the problem was fixable. So they complained and they or the AIs or somebody came up with a software patch, one that was supposed to fix his problem—and suddenly Fritz was active and angry, and he'd get into fights with people and sometimes he'd just scream for no reason at all and go on screaming for hours.
So Hans and Jack went to work with the code again, and there was a new software patch, and now Fritz was stealing things, except you can't really steal anything in sims, because the owner can find any virtual object just by sending it a little electronic ping.
That ended with Fritz getting fixed yet again, and this went on for years. So while it was true that none of us were exactly a person, Fritz was less a person than any of us.
We all did our best to help. We were cadre, after all, and cadres look after their own. But there was a limit to what any of us could do. We heard about unanticipated feedback loops and subsystem crashes and weird quantum transfers leading to fugue states. I think that the experts had no real idea what was going on. Neither did we.
There was a lot of question as to what would happen when Fritz incarnated. If his problems were all software glitches, would they disappear once he was meat and no longer software? Or would they short-circuit his brain?
A check on the histories of those with similar problems did not produce encouraging answers to these questions.
And then Fritz became my problem because he got really attached to me, and he followed me around.
"Hi, Alison," he said.
I tried to look very busy with what I was doing, which is difficult to do if you're being Picasso Woman and rather abstract-looking to begin with.
"We're going to Titan in a little while," Fritz said.
"Uh-huh," I said.
"Would you like to play the shadowing game with me?" he asked.
Right then I was glad I was Picasso Woman and not incarnated, because I knew that if I had a real body I'd be blushing.
"Sure," I said. "If our capsules are anywhere near each other when we hit the atmosphere. We might be separated, though."
"I've been practicing in the simulations," Fritz said. "And I'm getting pretty good at the shadowing game."
"Fritz," Parminder said. "We're working on our AI project now, okay? Can we talk to you later, on Titan?"
And I sent a note of gratitude to Parminder, who was in on the scheme with me and Janis, and who knew that Fritz couldn't be a part of it.
Shortly thereafter my electronic being was transmitted from Ceres by high-powered communications lasers and downloaded into an actual body, even if it was a body that had six legs and that didn't belong to me. The body was already in its vacuum suit, which was packed into the descent capsule—I mean nobody wanted us floating around in the Cassini Ranger in zero gravity in bodies we weren't used to—so there wasn't a lot I could do for entertainment.
Which was fine. It was the first time I'd been in a body, and I was absorbed in trying to work out all the little differences between reality and the sims I'd grown up in.
In reality, I thought, things seem a little quieter. In simulations there are always things competing for your attention, but right now there was nothing to do but listen to myself breathe.
And then there was a bang and a big shove, easily absorbed by foam padding, and I was launched into space, aimed at the orange ball that was Titan, and behind it the giant pale sphere of Saturn.
The view was sort of disappointing. Normally you see Saturn as an image with the colors electronically altered so as to heighten the subtle differences in detail. The reality of Saturn was more of a pasty blob, with faint brown stripes and a little red jagged scrawl of a storm in the southern hemisphere.
Unfortunately I couldn't get a very good view of the rings, because they were edge-on, like a straight silver knife-slash right across a painted canvas.
Besides Titan I could see at least a couple dozen moons. I could recognize Dione and Rhea, and Enceladus because it was so bright. Iapetus was obvious because it was half light and half dark. There were a lot of tiny lights that could have been Atlas or Pan or Prometheus or Pandora or maybe a score of others.
I didn't have enough time to puzzle out the identity of the other moons, because Titan kept getting bigger and bigger. It was a dull orange color, except on the very edge where the haze scatters blue light. Other than that arc of blue, Titan is orange the same way Mars is red, which is to say that it's orange all the way down, and when you get to the bottom there's still more orange.
It seemed like a pretty boring place for Fahd to spend his first years of adulthood.
I realized that if I were doing this trip in a sim, I'd fast-forward through this part. It would be just my luck if all reality turned out to be this dull.
Things livened up in a hurry when the capsule hit the atmosphere. There was a lot of noise, and the capsule rattled and jounced, and bright flames of ionizing radiation shot up past the view port. I could feel my heart speeding up, and my breath going fast. It was my body that was being bounced around, with my nerve impulses running along my spine. This was much more interesting. This was the difference between reality and a sim, even though I couldn't explain exactly what the difference was.
It is the distinction, Miss Alison, between the undomesticated awe which one might feel at the sight of a noble wild prospect discovered in nature; and that which is produced by a vain tragedian on the stage, puffing and blowing in a transport of dismal fury as he tries to describe the same vision.
Thank you, Doctor Sam.
We that live to please must please to live.
I could see nothing but fire for a while, and then there was a jolt and a CrashBang as the braking chute deployed, and I was left swaying frantically in the sudden silence, my heart beating fast as high-atmosphere winds fought for possession of the capsule. Far above I could just see the ionized streaks of some of the other cadre members heading my way.
It was then, after all I could see was the orange fog, that I remembered that I'd been so overwhelmed by the awe of what I'd been seeing that I forgot to observe. So I began to kick myself over that.
It isn't enough to stare when you want to be a visual artist, which is what I want more than anything. A noble wild prospect (as you'd call it, Doctor Sam) isn't simply a gorgeous scene, it's also a series of technical problems. Ratios, colors, textures. Media. Ideas. Frames. Decisions. I hadn't thought about any of that when I had the chance, and now it was too late.
I decided to start paying better attention, but there was nothing happening outside but acetylene sleet cooking off the hot exterior of the capsule. I checked my tracking display and my onboard map of Titan's surface. So I was prepared when a private message came from Janis.
"Alison. You ready to roll?"
"Sure. You bet."
"This is going to be brilliant."
I hoped so. But somewhere in my mind I kept hearing Doctor Sam's voice:
Remember that all tricks are either knavish or childish.
The trick I played on Fritz was both.
I had been doing some outside work for Dane, who was a communications tech, because outside work paid in real money, not the Citizenship Points we get paid in the sims. And Dane let me do some of the work on Fahd's Incarnation Day, so I was able to arrange which capsules everyone was going to be put into.
I put Fritz into the last capsule to be fired at Titan. And those of us involved in Janis' scheme—Janis, Parminder, Andy, and I—were fired first.
This basically meant that we were going to be on Titan five or six minutes ahead of Fritz, which meant it was unlikely that he'd be able to catch up to us. He would be someone else's problem for a while.
I promised myself that I'd be extra nice to him later, but it didn't stop me from feeling knavish and childish.
After we crashed into Titan's atmosphere, and after a certain amount of spinning and swaying we came to a break in the cloud, and I could finally look down at Titan's broken surface. Stark mountains, drifts of methane snow, shiny orange ethane lakes, the occasional crater. In the far distance, in the valley between a pair of lumpy mountains, was the smooth toboggan slide of the Tomasko Glacier. And over to one side, on a plateau, were the blinking lights that marked our landing area.
And directly below was an ethane cloud, into which the capsule soon vanished. It was there that the chute let go, and there was a stomach-lurching drop before the airfoils deployed. I was not used to having my stomach lurch—recall if you will my earlier remarks on puking—so it was a few seconds before I was able to recover and take control of what was now a large and agile glider.
No, I hadn't piloted a glider before. But I'd spent the last several weeks working with simulations, and the technology was fail-safed anyway. Both I and the onboard computer would have to screw up royally before I could damage myself or anyone else. I took command of the pod and headed for Janis' secret rendezvous.
There are various sorts of games you can play with the pods as they're dropping through the atmosphere. You can stack your airfoils in appealing and intricate formations. (I think this one's really stupid if you're trying to do it in the middle of thick clouds.) There's the game called "shadowing," the one that Fritz wanted to play with me, where you try to get right on top of another pod, above the airfoils where they can't see you, and you have to match every maneuver of the pod that's below you, which is both trying to evade you and to maneuver so as to get above you. There are races, where you try to reach some theoretical point in the sky ahead of the other person. And there's just swooping and dashing around the sky, which is probably as fun as anything.
But Janis had other plans. And Parminder and Andy and I, who were Janis' usual companions in her adventures, had elected to be a part of her scheme, as was our wont. (Do you like my use of the word "wont," Doctor Sam?) And a couple other members of the cadre, Mei and Bartolomeo, joined our group without knowing our secret purpose.
We disguised our plan as a game of shadowing, which I turned out to be very good at. It's not simply a game of flying, it's a game of spacial relationships, and that's what visual artists have to be good at understanding. I spent more time on top of one or more of the players than anyone else.
Though perhaps the others weren't concentrating on the game. Because although we were performing the intricate spiraling maneuvers of shadowing as a part of our cover, we were also paying very close attention to the way the winds were blowing at different altitudes—we had cloud-penetrating lasers for that, in addition to constant meteorological data from the ground—and we were using available winds as well as our maneuvers to slowly edge away from our assigned landing field, and toward our destined target.
I kept expecting to hear from Fritz, wanting to join our game. But I didn't. I supposed he had found his fun somewhere else.
All the while we were stunting around, Janis was sending us course and altitude corrections, and thanks to her navigation we caught the edge of a low pressure area that boosted us toward our objective at nearly two hundred kilometers per hour. It was then that Mei swung her capsule around and began a descent toward the landing field.
"I just got the warning that we're on the edge of our flight zone," she reported.
"Roger," I said.
"Yeah," said Janis. "We know."
Mei swooped away, followed by Bartolomeo. The rest of us continued soaring along in the furious wind. We made little pretense by this point that we were still playing shadow, but instead tried for distance.
Ground Control on the landing area took longer to try to contact us than we'd expected.
"Capsules six, twenty-one, thirty," said a ground controller. She had one of those smooth, controlled voices that people use when trying to coax small children away from the candy and toward the spinach.
"You have exceeded the safe range from the landing zone. Turn at once to follow the landing beacon."
I waited for Janis to answer.
"It's easier to reach Tomasko from where we are," she said. "We'll just head for the glacier and meet the rest of you there."
"The flight plan prescribes a landing on Lake Southwood," the voice said. "Please lock on the landing beacon at once and engage your autopilots."
Janis' voice rose with impatience. "Check the flight plan I'm sending you! It's easier and quicker to reach Tomasko! We've got a wind shoving us along at a hundred eighty clicks!"
There was another two or three minutes of silence. When the voice came back, it was grudging.
"Permission granted to change flight plan."
I sagged with relief in my vac suit, because now I was spared a moral crisis. We had all sworn that we'd follow Janis' flight plan whether or not we got permission from Ground Control, but that didn't necessarily meant that we would have. Janis would have gone, of course, but I for one might have had second thoughts. I would have had an excuse if Fritz had been along, because I could have taken him to the assigned landing field—we didn't want him with us, because he might not have been able to handle the landing if it wasn't on an absolutely flat area.
I'd like to think I would have followed Janis, though. It isn't as if I hadn't before.
And honestly, that was about it. If this had been one of the adult-approved video dramas we grew up watching, something would have gone terribly wrong and there would have been a horrible crash. Parminder would have died, and Andy and I would have been trapped in a crevasse or buried under tons of methane ice, and Janis would have had to go to incredible, heroic efforts in order to rescue us. At the end Janis would have Learned an Important Life Lesson, about how following the Guidance of our Wise, Experienced Elders is preferable to staging wild, disobedient stunts.
By comparison what actually happened was fairly uneventful. We let the front push us along till we were nearly at the glacier, and then we dove down into calmer weather. We spiraled to a soft landing in clean snow at the top of Tomasko Glacier. The airfoils neatly folded themselves, atmospheric pressure inside the capsules equalized with that of the moon, and the hatches opened so we could walk in our vac suits onto the top of Titan.
I was flushed with joy. I had never set an actual foot on an actual world before, and as I bounded in sheer delight through the snow I rejoiced in all the little details I felt all around me.
The crunch of the frozen methane under my boots. The way the wind picked up long streamers of snow that made little spattering noises when they hit my windscreen. The suit heaters that failed to heat my body evenly, so that some parts were cool and others uncomfortably warm.
None of it had the immediacy of the simulations, but I didn't remember this level of detail either. Even the polyamide scent of the suit seals was sharper than the generic stuffy suit smell they put in the sim.
This was all real, and it was wonderful, and even if my body was borrowed I was already having the best time I'd ever had in my life.
I scuttled over to Janis on my six legs and crashed into her with affectionate joy. (Hugging wasn't easy with the vac suits on.) Then Parminder ran over and crashed into her from the other side.
"We're finally out of Plato's Cave!" she said, which is the sort of obscure reference you always get out of Parminder. (I looked it up, though, and she had a good point.)
The outfitters at the top of the glacier hadn't been expecting us for some time, so we had some free time to indulge in a snowball fight. I suppose snowball fights aren't that exciting if you're wearing full-body pressure suits, but this was the first real snowball fight any of us had ever had, so it was fun on that account anyway.
By the time we got our skis on, the shuttle holding the rest of the cadre and their pods was just arriving. We could see them looking at us from the yellow windows of the shuttle, and we just gave them a wave and zoomed off down the glacier, along with a grownup who decided to accompany us in case we tried anything else that wasn't in the regulation playbook.
Skiing isn't a terribly hazardous sport if you've got six legs on a body slung low to the ground. The skis are short, not much longer than skates, so they don't get tangled; and it's really hard to fall over—the worst that happens is that you go into a spin that might take some time to get out of. And we'd all been practicing on the simulators and nothing bad happened.
The most interesting part was the jumps that had been molded at intervals onto the glacier. Titan's low gravity meant that when you went off a jump, you went very high and you stayed in the air for a long time. And Titan's heavy atmosphere meant that if you spread your limbs apart like a skydiver, you could catch enough of that thick air almost to hover, particularly if the wind was cooperating and blowing uphill. That was wild and thrilling, hanging in the air with the wind whistling around the joints of your suit, the glossy orange snow coming up to meet you, and the sound of your own joyful whoops echoing in your ears.
I am a great friend to public amusements, because they keep people from vice.
Well. Maybe. We'll see.
The best part of the skiing was that this time I didn't get so carried away that I'd forgot to observe. I thought about ways to render the dull orange sheen of the glacier, the wild scrawls made in the snow by six skis spinning out of control beneath a single squat body, the little crusty waves on the surface generated by the constant wind.
Neither the glacier nor the lake is always solid. Sometimes Titan generates a warm front that liquifies the topmost layer of the glacier, and the liquid methane pours down the mountain to form the lake. When that happens, the modular resort breaks apart and creeps away on its treads. But sooner or later everything freezes over again, and the resort returns.
We were able to ski through a broad orange glassy chute right onto the lake, and from there we could see the lights of the resort in the distance. We skied into a big ballooning pressurized hangar made out of some kind of durable fabric, where the crew removed our pressure suits and gave us little felt booties to wear. I'd had an exhilarating time, but hours had passed and I was tired. The Incarnation Day banquet was just what I needed.
Babbling and laughing, we clustered around the snack tables, tasting a good many things I'd never got in a simulation. (They make us eat in the sims, to get us used to the idea so we don't accidentally starve ourselves once we're incarnated, and to teach us table manners, but the tastes tend to be a bit monotonous.)
"Great stuff!" Janis said, gobbling some kind of crunchy vat-grown treat that I'd sampled earlier and found disgusting. She held the bowl out to the rest of us. "Try this! You'll like it!"
"Well," Janis said, "if you're afraid of new things. . ."
That was Janis for you—she insisted on sharing her existence with everyone around her, and got angry if you didn't find her life as exciting as she did.
About that time Andy and Parminder began to gag on the stuff Janis had made them eat, and Janis laughed again.
The other members of the cadre trailed in about an hour later, and the feast proper began. I looked around the long table—the forty-odd members of the Cadre of Glorious Destiny, all with their little heads on their furry multipede bodies, all crowded around the table cramming in the first real food they've tasted in their lives. In the old days, this would have been a scene from some kind of horror movie. Now it's just a slice of posthumanity, Earth's descendants partying on some frozen rock far from home.
But since all but Fahd were in borrowed bodies I'd never seen before, I couldn't tell one from the other. I had to ping a query off their implant communications units just to find out who I was talking to.
Fahd sat at the place of honor at the head of the table. The hair on his furry body was ash-blond, and he had a sort of widow's peak that gave his head a kind of geometrical look.
I liked Fahd. He was the one I had sex with, that time that Janis persuaded me to steal a sex sim from Dane, the guy I do outside programming for. (I should point out, Doctor Sam, that our simulated bodies have all the appropriate organs, it's just that the adults have made sure we can't actually use them for sex.)
I think there was something wrong with the simulation. What Fahd and I did wasn't wonderful, it wasn't ecstatic, it was just. . . strange. After a while we gave up and found something else to do.
Janis, of course, insisted she'd had a glorious time. She was our leader, and everything she did had to be totally fabulous. It was just like that horrid vat-grown snack food product she'd tried—not only was it the best food she'd ever tasted, it was the best food ever, and we all had to share it with her.
I hope Janis actually did enjoy the sex sim, because she was the one caught with the program in her buffer—and after I told her to erase it. Sometimes I think she just wants to be found out.
During dinner those whose parents permitted it were allowed two measured doses of liquor to toast Fahd—something called Ring Ice, brewed locally. I think it gave my esophagus blisters.
After the Ring Ice things got louder and more lively. There was a lot more noise and hilarity when the resort crew discovered that several of the cadre had slipped off to a back room to find out what sex was like, now they had real bodies. It was when I was laughing over this that I looked at Janis and saw that she was quiet, her body motionless. She's normally louder and more demonstrative than anyone else, so I knew something was badly wrong. I sent her a private query through my implant. She sent a single-word reply.
Mom. . .
I sent her a glyph of sympathy while I wondered how Janis' mom had found out about our little adventure so quickly. There was barely time for a lightspeed signal to bounce to Ceres and back.
Ground Control must have really been annoyed. Or maybe she, like Janis' mom, was a Constant Soldier in the Five Principles Movement and was busy spying on everyone else—all for the greater good, of course.
Whatever the message was, Janis bounced back pretty quickly. Next thing I knew she was sidling up to me saying, "Look, you can loan me your vac suit, right?"
Something about the glint in her huge platter eyes made me cautious.
"Why would I want to do that?" I asked.
"Mom says I'm grounded. I'm not allowed to go skating with the rest of you. But nobody can tell these bodies apart—I figured if we switched places we could show her who's boss."
"And leave me stuck here by myself?"
"You'll be with the waiters—and some of them are kinda cute, if you like them hairy." Her tone turned serious. "It's solidarity time, Alison. We can't let Mom win this one."
I thought about it for a moment, then said, "Maybe you'd better ask someone else."
Anger flashed in her huge eyes. "I knew you'd say that! You've always been afraid to stand up to the grownups!"
"Janis," I sighed. "Think about it. Do you think your mom was the only one that got a signal from Ground Control? My parents are going to be looking into the records of this event very closely. So I think you should talk someone else into your scheme—and not Parminder or Andy, either."
Her whole hairy body sulked. I almost laughed.
"I guess you're right," she conceded.
"You know your mom is going to give you a big lecture when we get back."
"Oh yeah. I'm sure she's writing her speech right now, making sure she doesn't miss a single point."
"Maybe you'd better let me eavesdrop," I said. "Make sure you don't lose your cool."
She looked even more sulky. "Maybe you'd better."
We do this because we're cadre. Back in the old days, when the first poor kids were being raised in virtual, a lot of them cracked up once they got incarnated. They went crazy, or developed a lot of weird obsessions, or tried to kill themselves, or turned out to have a kind of autism where they could only relate to things through a computer interface.
So now parents don't raise their children by themselves. Most kids still have two parents, because it takes two to pay the citizenship points and taxes it takes to raise a kid, and sometimes if there aren't enough points to go around there are three parents, or four or five. Once the points are paid the poor moms and dads have to wait until there are enough applicants to fill a cadre. A whole bunch of virtual children are raised in one group, sharing their upbringing with their parents and crèche staff. Older cadres often join their juniors and take part in their education, also.
The main point of the cadre is for us all to keep an eye on each other. Nobody's allowed to withdraw into their own little world. If anyone shows sign of going around the bend, we unite in our efforts to retrieve them.
Our parents created the little hell that we live in. It's our job to help each other survive it.
A person used to vicissitudes is not easily dejected.
Certainly Janis isn't, though despite cadre solidarity she never managed to talk anyone else into changing places with her. I felt only moderately sorry for her—she'd already had her triumph, after all—and I forgot all about her problems once I got back into my pressure suit and out onto the ice.
Skating isn't as thrilling as skiing, I suppose, but we still had fun. Playing crack-the-whip in the light gravity, the person on the end of the line could be fired a couple kilometers over the smooth methane ice.
After which it was time to return to the resort. We all showered while the resort crew cleaned and did maintenance on our suits, and then we got back in the suits so that the next set of tourists would find their rental bodies already armored up and ready for sport.
We popped open our helmets so that the scanners could be put on our heads. Quantum superconducting devices tickled our brain cells and recovered everything they found, and then our brains—our essences—were dumped into a buffer, then fired by communication laser back to Ceres and the sim in which we all lived.
The simulation seemed inadequate compared to the reality of Titan. But I didn't have time to work out the degree of difference, because I had to save Janis' butt.
That's us. That's the cadre. All for one and one for all.
And besides, Janis has been my best friend for practically ever.
Anna-Lee, Janis' mom, was of course waiting for her, sitting in the little common room outside Janis' bedroom. (Did I mention that we sleep, Doctor Sam? We don't sleep as long as incarnated people do, just a few hours, but our parents want us to get used to the idea so that when we're incarnated we know to sleep when we get tired instead of ignoring it and then passing out while doing something dangerous or important.
(The only difference between our sleep and yours is that we don't dream. I mean, what's the point, we're stuck in our parents' dream anyway.)
So I've no sooner arrived in my own simulated body in my own simulated bedroom when Janis is screaming on the private channel.
"Mom is here! I need you now!"
So I press a few switches in my brain and there I am, right in Janis' head, getting much of the same sensor feed that she's receiving herself. And I look at her and I say, "Hey, you can't talk to Anna-Lee looking like this."
Janis is wearing her current avatar, which is something like a crazy person might draw with crayons. Stick-figure body, huge yellow shoes, round bobble head with crinkly red hair like wires.
"Get your quadbod on!" I tell her. "Now!"
So she switches, and now her avatar has four arms, two in the shoulders, two in the hip sockets. The hair is still bright red. Whatever her avatar looks like, Janis always keeps the red hair.
"Good," I say. "That's normal."
Which it is, for Ceres. Which is an asteroid without much gravity, so there really isn't a lot of point in having legs. In microgravity legs just drag around behind you and bump into things and get bruises and cuts. Whereas everyone can use an extra pair of arms, right? So most people who live in low- or zero-gravity environments use quadbods, which are much practical than the two-legged model.
So Janis pushes off with her left set of arms and floats through the door into the lounge where her mom awaits. Anna-Lee wears a quadbod, too, except that hers isn't an avatar, but a three-dimensional holographic scan of her real body. And you can tell that she's really pissed—she's got tight lips and tight eyelids and a tight face, and both sets of arms are folded across her midsection with her fingers digging into her forearms as if she's repressing the urge to grab Janis and shake her.
"Hi, Mom," Janis said.
"You not only endangered yourself," Anna-Lee said, "but you chose to endanger others, too."
"Sit down before you answer," I murmured in Janis' inward ear. "Take your time."
I was faintly surprised that Janis actually followed my advice. She drifted into a chair, used her lower limbs to settle herself into it, and then spoke.
"Nobody was endangered," she said, quite reasonably.
Anna-Lee's nostrils narrowed.
"You diverted from the flight plan that was devised for your safety," she said.
"I made a new flight plan," Janis pointed out. "Ground Control accepted it. If it was dangerous, she wouldn't have done that."
Anna-Lee's voice got that flat quality that it gets when she's following her own internal logic. Sometimes I think she's the program, not us.
"You are not authorized to file flight plans!" she snapped.
"Ground Control accepted it," Janis repeated. Her voice had grown a little sharp, and I whispered at her to keep cool.
"And Ground Control immediately informed me! They were right on the edge of calling out a rescue shuttle!"
"But they didn't, because there was no problem!" Janis snapped out, and then there was a pause while I told her to lower her voice.
"Ground Control accepted my revised plan," she said. "I landed according to the plan, and nobody was hurt."
"You planned this from the beginning!" All in that flat voice of hers. "This was a deliberate act of defiance!"
Which was true, of course.
"What harm did I do?" Janis asked.
("Look," I told Janis. "Just tell her that she's right and you were wrong and you'll never do it again."
("I'm not going to lie!" Janis sent back on our private channel. "Whatever Mom does, she's never going to make me lie!")
All this while Anna-Lee was saying, "We must all work together for the greater good! Your act of defiance did nothing but divert people from their proper tasks! Titan Ground Control has better things to do than worry about you!"
There was no holding Janis back now. "You wanted me to learn navigation! So I learned it—because you wanted it! And now that I've proved that I can use it, and you're angry about it!" She was waving her arms so furiously that she bounced up from her chair and began to sort of jerk around the room.
"And do you know why that is, Mom?" she demanded.
"For God's sake shut up!" I shouted at her. I knew where this was leading, but Janis was too far gone in her rage to listen to me now.
"It's because you're second-rate!" Janis shouted at her mother. "Dad went off to Barnard's Star, but you didn't make the cut! And I can do all the things you wanted to do, and do them better, and you can't stand it!"
"Will you be quiet!" I tell Janis. "Remember that she owns you!"
"I accepted the decision of the committee!" Anna-Lee was shouting. "I am a Constant Soldier and I live a productive life, and I will not be responsible for producing a child who is a burden and a drain on resources!"
"Who says I'm going to be a burden?" Janis demanded. "You're the only person who says that! If I incarnated tomorrow I could get a good job in ten minutes!"
"Not if you get a reputation for disobedience and anarchy!"
By this point it was clear that since Janis wasn't listening to me, and Anna-Lee couldn't listen, there was no longer any point in my involving myself in what had become a very predictable argument. So I closed the link and prepared my own excuses for my own inevitable meeting with my parents.
I changed from Picasso Woman to my own quadbod, which is what I use when I talk to my parents, at least when I want something from them. My quadbod avatar is a girl just a couple years younger than my actual age, wearing a school uniform with a Peter Pan collar and a white bow in her—my—hair. And my beautiful brown eyes are just slightly larger than eyes are in reality, because that's something called "neoteny," which means you look more like a baby and babies are designed to be irresistible to grownups.
Let me tell you that it works. Sometimes I can blink those big eyes and get away with anything.
And at that point my father called, and told me that he and my mom wanted to talk to me about my adventures on Titan, so I popped over to my parents' place, where I appeared in holographic form in their living room.
My parents are pretty reasonable people. Of course I take care to keep them reasonable, insofar as I can. Let me smile with the wise, as Doctor Sam says, and feed with the rich. I will keep my opinions to myself, and try my best to avoid upsetting the people who have power over me.
Why did I soar off with Janis on her flight plan? my father wanted to know.
"Because I didn't think she should go alone," I said.
Didn't you try to talk her out of it? my mother asked.
"You can't talk Janis out of anything," I replied. Which, my parents knowing Janis, was an answer they understood.
So my parents told me to be careful, and that was more or less the whole conversation.
Which shows you that not all parents up here are crazy.
Mine are more sensible than most. I don't think many parents would think much of my ambition to get involved in the fine arts. That's just not done up here, let alone the sort of thing I want to do, which is to incarnate on Earth and apprentice myself to an actual painter, or maybe a sculptor. Up here they just use cameras, and their idea of original art is to take camera pictures or alter camera pictures or combine camera pictures with one another or process the camera pictures in some way.
I want to do it from scratch, with paint on canvas. And not with a computer-programmed spray gun either, but with a real brush and blobs of paint. Because if you ask me the texture of the thing is important, which is why I like oils. Or rather the idea of oils, because I've never actually had a chance to work with the real thing.
And besides, as Doctor Sam says, A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what is expected a man should see. The grand object of traveling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean.
So when I told my parents what I wanted to do, they just sort of shrugged and made me promise to learn another skill as well, one just a little bit more practical. So while I minor in art I'm majoring in computer design and function and programming, which is pretty interesting because all our really complex programs are written by artificial intelligences who are smarter than we are, so getting them to do what you want is as much like voodoo as science.
So my parents and I worked out a compromise that suited everybody, which is why I think my parents are pretty neat actually.
About twenty minutes after my talk with my parents, Janis knocked on my door, and I made the door go away, and she walked in, and then I put the door back. (Handy things, sims.)
"Guess that didn't work out so good, huh?" she said.
"On your family's civility scale," I said, "I think that was about average."
Her eyes narrowed (she was so upset that she's forgot to change out of her quadbod, which is why she had the sort of eyes that could narrow).
"I'm going to get her," she said.
"I don't think that's very smart," I said.
Janis was smacking her fists into my walls, floor, and ceiling and shooting around the room, which was annoying even though the walls were virtual and she couldn't damage them or get fingerprints on them.
"Listen," I said. "All you have to do is keep the peace with your mom until you've finished your thesis, and then you'll be incarnated and she can't touch you. It's just months, Janis."
"My thesis!" A glorious grin of discovery spread across Janis' face. "I'm going to use my thesis! I'm going to stick it to Mom right where it hurts!"
I reached out and grabbed her and steadied her in front of me with all four arms.
"Look," I said. "You can't keep calling her bluff."
Her voice rang with triumph. "Just watch me."
"Please," I said. "I'm begging you. Don't do anything till you're incarnated!"
I could see the visions of glory dancing before her eyes. She wasn't seeing or hearing me at all.
"She's going to have to admit that I am right and that she is wrong," she said. "I'm going to nail my thesis to her forehead like Karl Marx on the church door."
"That was Martin Luther actually." (Sometimes I can't help these things.)
She snorted. "Who cares?"
"I do." Changing the subject. "Because I don't want you to die."
Janis snorted. "I'm not going to bow to her. I'm going to crush her. I'm going to show her how stupid and futile and second-rate she is."
And at that moment there was a signal at my door. I ignored it.
"The power of punishment is to silence, not to confute," I said.
Her face wrinkled as if she'd bit into something sour. "I can't believe you're quoting that old dead guy again."
I have found you an argument, I wanted to say with Doctor Sam, but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.
The signal at my door repeated, and this time it was attached to an electronic signal that meant Emergency! Out of sheer surprise I dissolved the door.
Mei was there in her quadbod, an expression of anger on her face.
"If you two are finished congratulating each other on your brilliant little prank," she said, "you might take time to notice that Fritz is missing."
"Missing?" I didn't understand how someone could be missing. "Didn't his program come back from Titan?"
If something happened to the transmission, they could reload Fritz from a backup.
Mei's expression was unreadable. "He never went. He met the Blue Lady."
And then she pushed off with two of her hands and drifted away, leaving us in a sudden, vast, terrible silence.
We didn't speak, but followed Mei into the common room. The other cadre members were all there, and they all watched us as we floated in.
When you're little, you first hear about the Blue Lady from the other kids in your cadre. Nobody knows for sure how we all find out about the Blue Lady—not just the cadres on Ceres, but the ones on Vesta, and Ganymede, and everywhere.
And we all know that sometimes you might see her, a kind smiling woman in a blue robe, and she'll reach out to you, and she seems so nice you'll let her take your hand.
Only then, when it's too late, you'll see that she has no eyes, but only an empty blackness filled with stars.
She'll take you away and your friends will never see you again.
And of course it's your parents who send the Blue Lady to find you when you're bad.
We all know that the Blue Lady doesn't truly exist, it's ordinary techs in ordinary rooms who give the orders to zero out your program along with all its backups, but we all believe in the Blue Lady really, and not just when we're little.
Which brings me to the point I made about incarnation earlier. Once you're incarnated, you are considered a human being, and you have human rights.
But not until then. Until you're incarnated, you're just a computer program that belongs to your parents, and if you're parents think the program is flawed or corrupted and simply too awkward to deal with, they can have you zeroed.
Zeroed. Not killed. The grownups insist that there's a difference, but I don't see it myself.
Because the Blue Lady really comes for some people, as she came for Fritz when Jack and Hans finally gave up trying to fix him. Most cadres get by without a visit. Some have more than one. There was a cadre on Vesta who lost eight, and then there were suicides among the survivors once they incarnated, and it was a big scandal that all the grownups agreed never to talk about.
I have never for an instant believed that my parents would ever send the Blue Lady after me, but still it's always there in the back of my mind, which is why I think that the current situation is so horrible. It gives parents a power they should never have, and it breeds a fundamental distrust between kids and their parents.
The grownups' chief complaint about the cadre system is that their children bond with their peers and not their parents. Maybe it's because their peers can't kill them.
Everyone in the cadre got the official message about Fritz, that he was basically irreparable and that the chance of his making a successful incarnation was essentially zero. The message said that none of us were at fault for what had happened, and that everyone knew that we'd done our best for him.
This was in the same message queue as a message to me from Fritz, made just before he got zeroed out. There he was with his stupid hat, smiling at me.
"Thank you for saying you'd play the shadowing game with me," he said. "I really think you're wonderful." He laughed. "See you soon, on Titan!"
So then I cried a lot, and I erased the message so that I'd never be tempted to look at it again.
We all felt failure. It was our job to make Fritz right, and we hadn't done it. We had all grown up with him, and even though he was a trial he was a part of our world. I had spent the last few days avoiding him, and I felt horrible about it; but everyone else had done the same thing at one time or another.
We all missed him.
The cadre decided to wear mourning, and we got stuck in a stupid argument about whether to wear white, which is the traditional mourning color in Asia, or black, which is the color in old Europe.
"Wear blue," Janis said. So we did. Whatever avatars we wore from that point on had blue clothing, or used blue as a principal color somewhere in their composition.
If any of the parents noticed, or talked about it, or complained, I never heard it.
I started thinking a lot about how I related to incarnated people, and I thought that maybe I'm just a little more compliant and adorable and sweet-natured than I'd otherwise be, because I want to avoid the consequences of being otherwise. And Janis is perhaps more defiant than she'd be under other circumstances, because she wants to show she's not afraid. Go ahead, Mom, she says, pull the trigger. I dare you.
Underestimating Anna-Lee all the way. Because Anna-Lee is a Constant Soldier of the Five Principles Movement, and that means serious.
The First Principle of the Five Principles Movement states that Humanity is a pattern of thought, not a side effect of taxonomy, which means that you're human if you think like a human, whether you've got six legs or four arms or two legs like the folks on Earth and Mars.
And then so on to the Fifth Principle, we come to the statement that humanity in all its various forms is intended to occupy every possible ecosystem throughout the entire universe, or at least as much of it as we can reach. Which is why the Five Principles Movement has always been very big on genetic experimentation, and the various expeditions to nearby stars.
I have no problem with the Five Principles Movement, myself. It's rational compared with groups like the Children of Venus or the God's Menu people.
Besides, if there isn't something to the Five Principles, what are we doing out here in the first place?
My problem lies with the sort of people the Movement attracts, which is to say people like Anna-Lee. People who are obsessive, and humorless, and completely unable to see any other point of view. Not only do they dedicate themselves heart and soul to whatever group they join, they insist everyone else has to join as well, and that anyone who isn't a part of it is a Bad Person.
So even though I pretty much agree with the Five Principles, I don't think I'm going to join the movement. I'm going to keep in mind the wisdom of my good Doctor Sam: Most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.
But to get back to Anna-Lee. Back in the day she married Carlos, who was also in the Movement, and together they worked for years to qualify for the expedition to Barnard's Star on the True Destiny. They created Janis together, because having children is all a part of occupying the universe and so on.
But Carlos got the offer to crew the ship, and Anna-Lee didn't. Carlos chose Barnard's Star over Anna-Lee, and now he's a couple light-months away. He and the rest of the settlers are in electronic form—no sense in spending the resources to ship a whole body to another star system when you can just ship the data and build the body once you arrive—and for the most part they're dormant, because there's nothing to do until they near their destination. But every week or so Carlos has himself awakened so that he can send an electronic postcard to his daughter.
The messages are all really boring, as you might expect from someone out in deep space where there's nothing to look at and nothing to do, and everyone's asleep anyway.
Janis sends him longer messages, mostly about her fights with Anna-Lee. Anna-Lee likewise sends Carlos long messages about Janis' transgressions. At two light-months out Carlos declines to mediate between them, which makes them both mad.
So Anna-Lee is mad because her husband left her, and she's mad at Janis for not being a perfect Five Principles Constant Soldier. Janis is mad at Carlos for not figuring out a way to take her along, and she's mad at Anna-Lee for not making the crew on the True Destiny, and failing that not having the savvy to keep her husband in the picture.
And she's also mad at Anna-Lee for getting married again, this time to Rhee, a rich Movement guy who was able to swing the taxes to create two new daughters, both of whom are the stars of their particular cadres and are going to grow up to be perfect Five Principles Kids, destined to carry on the work of humanity in new habitats among distant stars.
Or so Anna-Lee claims, anyway.
Which is why I think that Janis underestimates her mother. I think the way Anna-Lee looks at it, she's got two new kids, who are everything she wants. And one older kid who gives her trouble, and who she can give to the Blue Lady without really losing anything, since she's lost Janis anyway. She's already given a husband to the stars, after all.
And all this is another reason why I want to incarnate on Earth, where a lot of people still have children the old-fashioned way. The parents make an embryo in a gene-splicer, and then the embryo is put in a vat, and nine months later you crack the vat open and you've got an actual baby, not a computer program. And even if the procedure is a lot more time-consuming and messy I still think it's superior.
So I was applying for work on Earth, both for jobs that could use computer skills, and also for apprenticeship programs in the fine arts. But there's a waiting list for pretty much any job you want on Earth, and also there's a big entry tax unless they really want you, so I wasn't holding my breath; and besides, I hadn't finished my thesis.
I figured on graduating from college along with most of my cadre, at the age of fourteen. I understand that in your day, Doctor Sam, people graduated from college a lot later. I figure there are several important reasons for the change: (1) we virtual kids don't sleep as much as you do, so we have more time for study; (2) there isn't that much else to do here anyway; and (3) we're really, really, really smart. Because if you were a parent, and you had a say in the makeup of your kid (along with the doctors and the sociologists and the hoodoo machines), would you say, No thanks, I want mine stupid?
No, I don't think so.
And the meat-brains that we incarnate into are pretty smart, too. Just in case you were wondering.
We could grow up faster, if we wanted. The computers we live in are so fast that we could go from inception to maturity in just two or three months. But we wouldn't get to interact with our parents, who being meat would be much slower, or with anyone else. So in order to have any kind of relationship with our elders, or any kind of socialization at all, we have to slow down to our parents' pace. I have to say that I agree with that.
In order to graduate I needed to do a thesis, and unfortunately I couldn't do the one I wanted, which was the way the paintings of Breughel, etc., reflected the theology of the period. All the training with computers and systems, along with art and art history, had given me an idea of how abstract systems such as theology work, and how you can visually represent fairly abstract concepts on a flat canvas.
But I'd have to save that for maybe a graduate degree, because my major was still in the computer sciences, so I wrote a fairly boring thesis on systems interopability—which, if you care, is the art of getting different machines and highly specialized operating systems to talk to each other, a job that is made more difficult if the machines in question happen to be a lot smarter than you are.
Actually it's a fairly interesting subject. It just wasn't interesting in my thesis.
While I was doing that I was also working outside contracts for Dane, who was from a cadre that had incarnated a few years ahead of us, and who I got to know when his group met with ours to help with our lessons and with our socialization skills (because they wanted us to be able to talk to people outside the cadre and our families, something we might not do if we didn't have practice).
Anyway, Dane had got a programming job in Ceres' communications center, and he was willing to pass on the more boring parts of his work to me in exchange for money. So I was getting a head start on paying that big Earth entry tax, or if I could evade the tax, maybe living on Earth a while and learning to paint.
"You're just going to end up being Ceres' first interior decorator," Janis scoffed.
"And that would be a bad thing?" I asked. "Just look at this place!" Because it's all so functional and boring and you'd think they could find a more interesting color of paint than grey, for God's sake.
That was one of the few times I'd got to talk to Janis since our adventure on Titan. We were both working on our theses, and still going to school, and I had my outside contracts, and I think she was trying to avoid me, because she didn't want to tell me what she was doing because she didn't want me to tell her not to do it.
Which hurt, by the way. Since we'd been such loyal friends up to the point where I told her not to get killed, and then because I wanted to save her life she didn't want to talk to me anymore.
The times I mostly got to see Janis were Incarnation Day parties for other members of our cadre. So we got to see Ganymede, and Iapetus, and Titan again, and Rhea, and Pluto, Callisto, and Io, and the antimatter generation ring between Venus and Mercury, and Titan again, and then Titan a fourth time.
Our cadre must have this weird affinity for orange, I don't know.
We went to Pallas, Juno, and Vesta. Though if you ask me, one asteroid settlement is pretty much like the next.
We went to Third Heaven, which is a habitat the God's Menu people built at L2. And they can keep a lot of the items on the menu, if you ask me.
We visited Luna (which you would call the Moon, Doctor Sam. As if there was only one). And we got to view Everlasting Dynasty, the starship being constructed in lunar orbit for the expedition to Tau Ceti, the settlement that Anna-Lee was trying her best to get Janis aboard.
We also got to visit Mars three times. So among other entertainments I looked down at the planet from the top of Olympus Mons, the largest mountain in the solar system, and I looked down from the edge of the solar system's largest canyon, and then I looked up from the bottom of the same canyon.
We all tried to wear blue if we could, in memory of the one of us who couldn't be present.
Aside from the sights, the Incarnation Day parties were great because all our incarnated cadre members turned up, in bodies they'd borrowed for the occasion. We were all still close, of course, and kept continually in touch, but our communication was limited by the speed of light and it wasn't anything like having Fahd and Chandra and Solange there in person, to pummel and to hug.
We didn't go to Earth. I was the only one of our cadre who had applied there, and I hadn't got an answer yet. I couldn't help fantasizing about what my Incarnation Day party would be like if I held it on Earth—where would I go? What would we look at? Rome? Mount Everest? The ocean habitats? The plains of Africa, where the human race began?
It was painful to think that the odds were high that I'd never see any of these places.
Janis never tried to organize any of her little rebellions on these trips. For one thing word had got out, and we were all pretty closely supervised. Her behavior was never less than what Anna-Lee would desire. But under it all I could tell she was planning something drastic.
I tried to talk to her about it. I talked about my thesis, and hoped it would lead to a discussion of her thesis. But no luck. She evaded the topic completely.
She was pretty busy with her project, though, whatever it was. Because she was always buzzing around the cadre asking people where to look for odd bits of knowledge.
I couldn't make sense of her questions, though. They seemed to cover too many fields. Sociology, statistics, mineralogy, criminology, economics, astronomy, spaceship design. . . The project seemed too huge.
The only thing I knew about Janis' thesis was that it was supposed to be about resource management. It was the field that Anna-Lee forced her into, because it was full of skills that would be useful on the Tau Ceti expedition. And if that didn't work, Anna-Lee made sure Janis minored in spaceship and shuttle piloting and navigation.
I finally finished my thesis, and then I sat back and waited for the job offers to roll in. The only offer I got came from someone who wanted me to run the garbage cyclers on Iapetus, which the guy should have known I wouldn't accept if he had bothered to read my application.
Maybe he was just neck-deep in garbage and desperate, I don't know.
And then the most astounding thing happened. Instead of a job in the computer field, I got an offer to study at the Pisan Academy.
Which is an art school. Which is in Italy, which is where the paintings come from mostly.
The acceptance committee said that my work showed a "naive but highly original fusion of social criticism with the formalities of the geometric order." I don't even pretend to know what they meant by that, but I suspect they just weren't used to the perspective of a student who had spent practically her entire life in a computer on Ceres.
I broadcast my shrieks of joy to everyone in the cadre, even those who had left Ceres and were probably wincing at their work stations when my screams reached them.
I bounced around the common room and everyone came out to congratulate me. Even Janis, who had taken to wearing an avatar that wasn't even remotely human, just a graphic of a big sledgehammer smashing a rock, over and over.
Subtlety had never been her strong point.
"Congratulations," she said. "You got what you wanted."
And then she broadcast something on a private channel. You're going to be famous, she said. But I'm going to be a legend.
I looked at her. And then I sent back, Can we talk about this?
In a few days. When I deliver my thesis.
Don't, I pleaded.
The hammer hit its rock, and the shards flew out into the room and vanished.
I spent the next few days planning my Incarnation Day party, but my heart wasn't in it. I kept wondering if Janis was going to be alive to enjoy it.
I finally decided to have my party in Thailand because there were so many interesting environments in one place, as well as the Great Buddha. And I found a caterer that was supposed to be really good.
I decided what sort of body I wanted, and the incarnation specialists on Earth started cooking it up in one of their vats. Not the body of an Earth-born fourteen-year-old, but older, more like eighteen. Brown eyes, brown hair, and those big eyes that had always been so useful.
And two legs, of course. Which is what they all have down there.
I set the date. The cadre were alerted. We all practiced in the simulations and tried to get used to making do with only two arms. Everyone was prepared.
And then Janis finished her thesis. I downloaded a copy the second it was submitted to her committee and read it in one long sitting, and my sense of horror grew with every line.
What Janis had done was publish a comprehensive critique of our entire society! It was a piece of brilliance, and at the same time it was utter poison.
Posthuman society wrecks its children, Janis said, and this can be demonstrated by the percentage of neurotic and dysfunctional adults. The problems encountered by the first generation of children who spent their formative years as programs—the autism, the obsessions and compulsions, the addictions to electronic environments—hadn't gone away, they'd just been reduced to the point where they'd become a part of the background clutter, a part of our civilization so everyday that we never quite noticed it.
Janis had the data, too. The number of people who were under treatment for one thing or another. The percentage who had difficulty adjusting to their incarnations, or who didn't want to communicate with anyone outside their cadre, or who couldn't sleep unless they were immersed in a simulation. Or who committed suicide. Or who died in accidents—Janis questioned whether all those accidents were really the results of our harsh environments. Our machines and our settlements were much safer than they had been in the early days, but the rates of accidental death were still high. How many accidents were caused by distracted or unhappy operators, or for that matter were deliberate "suicide by machine"?
Janis went on to describe one of the victims of this ruthless type of upbringing. "Flat of emotional affect, offended by disorder and incapable of coping with obstruction, unable to function without adherence to a belief system as rigid as the artificial and constricted environments in which she was raised."
When I realized Janis was describing Anna-Lee I almost de-rezzed.
Janis offered a scheme to cure the problem, which was to get rid of the virtual environments and start out with real incarnated babies. She pulled out vast numbers of statistics demonstrating that places that did this—chiefly Earth—seemed to raise more successful adults. She also pointed out that the initial shortage of resources that had prompted the creation of virtual children in the first place had long since passed—plenty of water-ice coming in from the Kuiper Belt these days, and we were sitting on all the minerals we could want. The only reason the system continued was for the convenience of the adults. But genuine babies, as opposed to abstract computer programs, would help the adults, too. They would no longer be tempted to become little dictators with absolute power over their offspring. Janis said the chance would turn the grownups into better human beings.
All this was buttressed by colossal numbers of statistics, graphs, and other data. I realized when I'd finished it that the Cadre of Glorious Destiny had produced one true genius, and that this genius was Janis.
The true genius is a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction.
Anna-Lee determined her, all right, and the problem was that Janis probably didn't have that long to live. Aside from the fact that Janis had ruthlessly caricatured her, Anna-Lee couldn't help but notice that the whole work went smack up against the Five Principles Movement. According to the Movement people, all available resources had to be devoted to the expansion of the human race out of the solar system and into new environments. It didn't matter how many more resources were available now than in the past, it was clear against their principles to devote a greater share to the raising of children when it could be used to blast off into the universe.
And though the Five Principles people acknowledged our rather high death rate, they put it down to our settlements' hazardous environments. All we had to do was genetically modify people to better suit the environments and the problem would be solved.
I skipped the appendices and zoomed from my room across the common room to Janis' door, and hit the button to alert her to a visitor. The door vanished, and there was Janis—for the first time since her fight with Anna-Lee, she was using her quadbod avatar. She gave me a wicked grin.
"Great, isn't it?"
"It's brilliant! But you can't let Anna-Lee see it."
"Don't be silly. I sent Mom the file myself."
I was horrified. She had to have seen the way my Picasso-face gaped, and it made her laugh.
"She'll have you erased!" I said.
"If she does," Janis said. "She'll only prove my point." She put a consoling hand on my shoulder. "Sorry if it means missing your incarnation."
When Anna-Lee came storming in—which wasn't long after—Janis broadcast the whole confrontation on a one-way link to the whole cadre. We got to watch, but not to participate. She didn't want our advice any more than she wanted her mother's.
"You are unnatural!" Anna-Lee stormed. "You spread slanders! You have betrayed the highest truth!"
"I told the truth!" Janis said. "And you know it's the truth, otherwise you wouldn't be so insane right now."
Anna-Lee stiffened. "I am a Five Principles Constant Soldier. I know the truth, and I know my duty."
"Every time you say that, you prove my point."
"You will retract this thesis, and apologize to your committee for giving them such a vicious document."
Anna-Lee hadn't realized that the document was irretrievable, that Janis had given it to everyone she knew.
Janis laughed. "No way, Mom," she said.
Anna-Lee lost it. She waved her fists and screamed. "I know my duty! I will not allow such a slander to be seen by anyone!" She pointed at Janis. "You have three days to retract!"
Janis gave a snort of contempt.
"Or I will decide that you're incorrigible and terminate your program."
Janis laughed. "Go right ahead, Mom. Do it now. Nothing spreads a new idea better than martyrdom." She spread her four arms. "Do it, Mom. I hate life in this hell. I'm ready."
I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.
Yes, Doctor Sam. That's it exactly.
"You have three days," Anna-Lee said, her voice all flat and menacing, and then her virtual image de-rezzed.
Janis looked at the space where her mom had been, and then a goofy grin spread across her face. She switched to the redheaded, stick-figure avatar, and began to do a little dance as she hovered in the air, moving like a badly animated cartoon.
"Hey!" she sang. "I get to go to Alison's party after all!"
I had been so caught up in the drama that I had forgot my incarnation was going to happen in two days.
But it wasn't going to be a party now. It was going to be a wake.
"Doctor Sam," I said, "I've got to save Janis."
The triumph of hope over experience.
"Hope is what I've got," I said, and then I thought about it. "And maybe a little experience, too."
* * *
My Incarnation Day went well. We came down by glider, as we had that first time on Titan, except that this time I told Ground Control to let my friends land wherever the hell they wanted. That gave us time to inspect the Great Buddha, a slim man with a knowing smile sitting cross-legged with knobs on his head. He's two and a half kilometers tall and packed with massively parallel quantum processors, all crunching vast amounts of data, thinking whatever profound thoughts are appropriate to an artificial intelligence built on such a scale, and repeating millions of sutras, which are scriptures for Buddhists, all at the speed of light.
It creeps along at two or three centimeters per day, and will enter the strait at the end of the Kra Peninsula many thousands of years from now.
After viewing the Buddha's serene expression from as many angles as suited us, we soared and swooped over many kilometers of brilliant green jungle and landed on the beach. And we all did land on the beach, which sort of surprised me. And then we all did our best to learn how to surf—and let me tell you from the start, the surfing simulators are totally inadequate. The longest I managed to stand my board was maybe twenty seconds.
I was amazed at all the sensations that crowded all around me. The breeze on my skin, the scents of the sea and the vegetation and the charcoal on which our banquet was being cooked. The hot sand under my bare feet. The salt taste of the ocean on my lips. The sting of the little jellyfish on my legs and arms, and the iodine smell of the thick strand of seaweed that got wrapped in my hair.
I mean, I had no idea. The simulators were totally inadequate to the Earth experience.
And this was just a part of the Earth, a small fraction of the environments available. I think I convinced a lot of the cadre that maybe they'd want to move to Earth as soon as they could raise the money and find a job.
After swimming and beach games we had my Incarnation Day dinner. The sensations provided by the food were really too intense—I couldn't eat much of it. If I was going to eat Earth food, I was going to have to start with something a lot more bland.
And there was my brown-eyed body at the head of the table, looking down at the members of the Cadre of Glorious Destiny who were toasting me with tropical drinks, the kind that have parasols in them.
Tears came to my eyes, and they were a lot wetter and hotter than tears in the sims. For some reason that fact made me cry even more.
My parents came to the dinner, because this was the first time they could actually hug me—hug me for real, that is, and not in a sim. They had downloaded into bodies that didn't look much like the four-armed quadbods they used back on Ceres, but that didn't matter. When my arms went around them, I began to cry again.
After the tears were wiped away we put on underwater gear and went for a swim on the reef, which is just amazing. More colors and shapes and textures than I could ever imagine—or imagine putting in a work of art.
A work of art that embodies all but selects none is not art, but mere cant and recitation.
Oh, wow. You're right. Thank you, Doctor Sam.
After the reef trip we paid a visit to one of the underwater settlements, one inhabited by people adapted to breathe water. The problems were that we had to keep our underwater gear on, and that none of us were any good at the fluid sign language they all used as their preferred means of communication.
Then we rose from the ocean, dried out, and had a last round of hugs before being uploaded to our normal habitations. I gave Janis a particularly strong hug, and I whispered in her ear.
"Take care of yourself."
"Who?" she grinned. "Me?"
And then the little brown-haired body was left behind, looking very lonely, as everyone else put on the electrodes and uploaded back to their normal and very-distant worlds.
As soon as I arrived on Ceres, I zapped an avatar of myself into my parents' quarters. They looked at me as if I were a ghost.
"What are you doing here?" my mother managed.
"I hate to tell you this," I said, "but I think you're going to have to hire a lawyer."
* * *
It was surprisingly easy to do, really. Remember that I was assisting Dane, who was a communications tech, and in charge of uploading all of our little artificial brains to Earth. And also remember that I am a specialist in systems interopability, which implies that I am also a specialist in systems unoperability.
It was very easy to set a couple of artificial intelligences running amok in Dane's system just as he was working on our upload. And that so distracted him that he said yes when I said that I'd do the job for him.
And once I had access, it was the work of a moment to swap a couple of serial numbers.
The end result of which was that it was Janis who uploaded into my brown-haired body, and received all the toasts, and who hugged my parents with my arms. And who is now on Earth, incarnated, with a full set of human rights and safe from Anna-Lee.
I wish I could say the same for myself.
Anna-Lee couldn't have me killed, of course, since I don't belong to her. But she could sue my parents, who from her point of view permitted a piece of software belonging to them to prevent her from wreaking vengeance on some software that belonged to her.
And of course Anna-Lee went berserk the second she found out—which was more or less immediately, since Janis sent her a little radio taunt as soon as she downed her fourth or fifth celebratory umbrella drink.
Janis sent me a message, too.
"The least you could have done was make my hair red."
My hair. Sometimes I wonder why I bothered.
An unexpected side effect of this was that we all got famous. It turns out that this was an unprecedented legal situation, with lots of human interest and a colorful cast of characters. Janis became a media celebrity, and so did I, and so did Anna-Lee.
Celebrity didn't do Anna-Lee's cause any good. Her whole mental outlook was too rigid to stand the kind of scrutiny and questioning that any public figure has to put up with. As soon as she was challenged she lost control. She called one of the leading media interviewers a name that you, Doctor Sam, would not wish me to repeat.
Whatever the actual merits of her legal case, the sight of Anna-Lee screaming that I had deprived her of the inalienable right to kill her daughter failed to win her a lot of friends. Eventually the Five Principles people realized she wasn't doing their cause any good, and she was replaced by a Movement spokesperson who said as little as possible.
Janis did some talking, too, but not nearly as much as she would have liked, because she was under house arrest for coming to Earth without a visa and without paying the immigration tax. The cops showed up when she was sleeping off her hangover from all the umbrella drinks. It's probably lucky that she wasn't given the opportunity to talk much, because if she started on her rants she would have worn out her celebrity as quickly as Anna-Lee did.
Janis was scheduled to be deported back to Ceres, but shipping an actual incarnated human being is much more difficult than zapping a simulation by laser, and she had to wait for a ship that could carry passengers, and that would be months.
She offered to navigate the ship herself, since she had the training, but the offer was declined.
Lots of people read her thesis who wouldn't otherwise have heard of it. And millions discussed it whether they'd read it or not. There were those who said that Janis was right, and those that said that Janis was mostly right but that she exaggerated. There were those who said that the problem didn't really exist, except in the statistics.
There were those who thought the problem existed entirely in the software, that the system would work if the simulations were only made more like reality. I had to disagree, because I think the simulations were like reality, but only for certain people.
The problem is that human beings perceive reality in slightly different ways, even if they happen to be programs. A programmer could do his best to create an artificial reality that exactly mimicked the way he perceived reality, except that it wouldn't be as exact for another person, it would only be an approximation. It would be like fitting everyone's hand into the same-sized glove.
Eventually someone at the University of Adelaide read the thesis and offered Janis a professorship in their sociology department. She accepted and was freed from house arrest.
Poor Australia, I thought.
I was on video quite a lot. I used my little-girl avatar, and I batted my big eyes a lot. I still wore blue, mourning for Fritz.
Why, I was asked, did I act to save Janis?
"Because we're cadre, and we're supposed to look after one another."
What did I think of Anna-Lee?
"I don't see why she's complaining. I've seen to it that Janis just isn't her problem anymore."
Wasn't what I did stealing?
"It's not stealing to free a slave."
And so on. It was the same sort of routine I'd been practicing on my parents all these years, and the practice paid off. Entire cadres—hundreds of them—signed petitions asking that the case be dismissed. Lots of adults did the same.
I hope that it helps, but the judge that hears the case isn't supposed to be swayed by public opinion, but only by the law.
And everyone forgets that it's my parents that will be on trial, not me, accused of letting their software steal Anna-Lee's software. And of course I, and therefore they, am completely guilty, so my parents are almost certainly going to be fined, and lose both money and Citizenship Points.
I'm sorry about that, but my parents seem not to be.
How the judge will put a value on a piece of stolen software that its owner fully intended to destroy is going to make an interesting ruling, however it turns out.
I don't know whether I'll ever set foot on Earth again. I can't take my place in Pisa because I'm not incarnated, and I don't know if they'll offer again.
And however things turn out, Fritz is still zeroed. And I still wear blue.
I don't have my outside job any longer. Dane won't speak to me, because his supervisor reprimanded him, and he's under suspicion for being my accomplice. And even those who are sympathetic to me aren't about to let me loose with their computers.
And even if I get a job somewhere, I can't be incarnated until the court case is over.
It seems to me that the only person who got away scot-free was Janis. Which is normal.
So right now my chief problem is boredom. I spent fourteen years in a rigid program intended to fill my hours with wholesome and intellectually useful activity, and now that's over.
And I can't get properly started on the non-wholesome thing until I get an incarnation somewhere.
Everyone is, or hopes to be, an idler.
Thank you, Doctor Sam.
I'm choosing to idle away my time making pictures. Maybe I can sell them and help pay the Earth tax.
I call them my "Doctor Johnson" series. Sam. Johnson on Mars. Sam. Johnson Visits Neptune. Sam. Johnson Quizzing the Tomasko Glacier. Sam. Johnson Among the Asteroids.
I have many more ideas along this line.
Doctor Sam, I trust you will approve.
Jeffrey Ford is
the author of six novels—Vanitas, World Fantasy Award winner The
Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, The Portrait of Mrs.
Charbuque and The Girl in the Glass—and World Fantasy
Award winning collection The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories. His
short fiction, which has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science
Fiction, SciFiction, Black Gate, The Green Man, Leviathan
3, The Dark, and many year's best anthologies, has won the World
Fantasy and Nebula Awards. His most recent book is collection, The
Empire of Ice Cream.
Some things only make sense if you never question them, and sometimes growing up in a small town can involve no end of strangeness, as this darkly weird coming-of-age tale shows.
All summer long, on Wednesday and Friday evenings after my job at the gas station, I practiced with old man Witzer looking over my shoulder. When I'd send a dummy toppling perfectly onto the pile of mattresses in the bed of his pickup, he'd wheeze like it was his last breath (I think he was laughing), and pat me on the back, but when they fell awkwardly or hit the metal side of the truck bed or went really awry and ended sprawled on the ground, he'd spit tobacco and say either one of two things—"That there's a cracked melon," or "Get me a wet-vac." He was a patient teacher, never rushed, never raising his voice or showing the least exasperation in the face of my errors. After we'd felled the last of the eight dummies we'd earlier placed in the lower branches of the trees on the edge of town, he'd open a little cooler he kept in the cab of his truck and fetch a beer for himself and one for me. "You did good today, boy," he'd say, no matter if I did or not, and we'd sit in the truck with the windows open, pretty much in silence, and watch the fireflies signal in the gathering dark.
As the old man had said, "There's an art to dropping drunks." The main tools of the trade were a set of three long bamboo poles—a ten-foot, a fifteen-foot, and a twenty-foot. They had rubber balls attached at one end that were wrapped in chamois cloth and tied tight with a leather lanyard. These poles were called "prods." Choosing the right prod, considering how high the branches were that the drunk had nestled upon, was crucial. Too short a one would cause you to go on tiptoes and lose accuracy, while the excess length of too long a one would get in the way and throw you off balance. The first step was always to take a few minutes and carefully assess the situation. You had to ask yourself, "How might this body fall if I were to prod the shoulders first or the back or the left leg?" The old man had taught me that generally there was a kind of physics to it but that sometimes intuition had to override logic. "Don't think of them as falling but think of them as flying," said Witzer, and only when I was actually out there under the trees and trying to hit the mark in the center of the pickup bed did I know what he meant. "You ultimately want them to fall, turn in the air, and land flat on the back," he'd told me. "That's a ten pointer." There were other important aspects of the job as well. The positioning of the truck was crucial as was the manner with which you woke them after they had safely landed. Calling them back by shouting in their ears would leave them dazed for a week, but, as the natives had done, breaking a thin twig a few inches from the ear worked like a charm—a gentle reminder that life was waiting to be lived.
When his long-time fellow harvester, Mr. Bo Elliott, passed on, the town council had left it to Witzer to find a replacement. It had been his determination to pick someone young, and so he came to the high school and carefully observed each of us fifteen students in the graduating class. It was a wonder he could see anything through the thick, scratched lenses of his glasses and those perpetually squinted eyes, but after long deliberation, which involved the rubbing of his stubbled chin and the scratching of his fallow scalp, he singled me out for the honor. An honor it was too, as he'd told me, "You know that because you don't get paid anything for it." He assured me that I had the talent hidden inside of me, that he'd seen it like an aura of pink light, and that he'd help me develop it over the summer. To be an apprentice in the Drunk Harvest was a kind of exalted position for one as young as me, and it brought me some special credit with my friends and neighbors, because it meant that I was being initiated into an ancient tradition that went back further than the time when our ancestors settled that remote piece of country. My father beamed with pride, my mother got teary eyed, my girlfriend, Darlene, let me get to third base and partway home.
Our town was one of those places you pass but never stop in while on vacation to some national park; out in the sticks, up in the mountains—places where the population is rendered in three figures on a board by the side of the road; the first numeral no more than a four and the last with a hand-painted slash through it and replaced with one of lesser value beneath. The people there were pretty much like people everywhere only the remoteness of the locale had insulated us against the relentless tide of change and the judgment of the wider world. We had radios and televisions and telephones, and as these things came in, what they brought us lured a few of our number away. But for those who stayed in Gatchfield progress moved like a tortoise dragging a ball and chain. The old ways hung on with more tenacity than Relletta Clome, who was 110 years old and had died and been revived by Doctor Kvench eight times in ten years. We had our little ways and customs that were like the exotic beasts of Tasmania, isolated in their evolution to become completely singular. The strangest of these traditions was the Drunk Harvest.
The Harvest centered on an odd little berry that, as far as I know, grows nowhere else in the world. The natives had called it vachimi atatsi, but because of its shiny black hue and the nature of its growth, the settlers had renamed it the deathberry. It didn't grow in the meadows or swamps as do blueberries and blackberries, no, this berry grew only out of the partially decayed carcasses of animals left to lie where they'd fallen. If you were out hunting in the woods and you came across say, a dead deer, which had not been touched by coyotes or wolves, you could be certain that that deceased creature would eventually sprout a small hedge from its rotted gut before autumn and that the long thin branches would be thick with juicy black berries. The predators knew somehow that these fallen beasts had the seeds of the berry bush within them, because although it went against their nature not to devour a fallen creature, they wouldn't go near these particular carcasses. It wasn't just wild creatures either, even livestock fallen dead in the field and left untouched could be counted on to serve as host for this parasitic plant. Instances of this weren't common but I'd seen it first-hand a couple of times in my youth—a rotting body, head maybe already turning to skull, and out of the belly like a green explosion, this wild spray of long thin branches tipped with atoms of black like tiny marbles, bobbing in the breeze. It was a frightening sight to behold for the first time, and as I overheard Lester Bildab, a man who foraged for the deathberry, tell my father once, "No matter how many times I see it, I still get a little chill in the backbone."
Lester and his son, a dimwitted boy in my class at school, Lester II, would go out at the start of each August across the fields and through the woods and swamps searching for fallen creatures hosting the hideous flora. Bildab had learned from his father about gathering the fruit, as Bildab's father had learned from his father, and so on all the way back to the settlers and the natives from whom they'd learned. You can't eat the berries; they'll make you violently ill. But you can ferment them and make a drink, like a thick black brandy that had come to be called Night Whiskey and supposedly had the sweetest taste on earth. I didn't know the process, as only a select few did, but from berry to glass I knew it took about a month. Lester and his son would gather them and usually come up with three good-sized grocery sacks full. Then they'd take them over to The Blind Ghost Bar and Grill and sell them to Mr. and Mrs. Bocean, who knew the process for making the liquor and kept the recipe in a little safe with a combination lock. That recipe was given to our forefathers as a gift by the natives, who, two years after giving it, with no provocation and having gotten along peacefully with the settlers, vanished without a trace, leaving behind an empty village on an island out in the swamp. . . or so the story goes.
The celebration that involved this drink took place at The Blind Ghost on the last Saturday night in September. It was usually for adults only, and so the first chance I ever got to witness it was the year I was made an apprentice to old man Witzer. The only two younger people at the event that year were me and Lester II. Bildab's boy had been attending since he was ten, and some speculated that having witnessed the thing and been around the berries so long was what had turned him simple, but I knew young Lester in school before that and he was no ball of fire then either. Of the adults that participated, only eight actually partook of the Night Whiskey. Reed and Samantha Bocean took turns each year, one joining in the drinking while the other watched the bar, and then there were seven others, picked by lottery, who got to taste the sweetest thing on earth. Sheriff Jolle did the honors picking the names of the winners from a hat at the event and was barred from participating by a town ordinance that went way back. Those who didn't drink the Night Whiskey drank conventional alcohol, and there were local musicians there and dancing. From the snatches of conversation about the celebrations that adults would let slip out, I'd had an idea it was a raucous time.
This native drink, black as a crow wing and slow to pour as cough syrup, had some strange properties. A year's batch was enough to fill only half of an old quart gin bottle that Samantha Bocean had tricked out with a hand-made label showing a deer skull with berries for eyes, and so it was portioned out sparingly. Each participant got no more than about three-quarters of a shot glass of it, but that was enough. Even with just these few sips it was wildly intoxicating, so that the drinkers became immediately drunk, their inebriation growing as the night went on although they'd finish off their allotted pittance within the first hour of the celebration. "Blind drunk" was the phrase used to describe how the drinkers of it would end the night. Then came the weird part, for usually around two a.m. all eight of them, all at once, got to their feet, stumbled out the door, lurched down the front steps of the bar, and meandered off into the dark, groping and weaving like namesakes of the establishment they had just left. It was a peculiar phenomenon of the drink that it made those who imbibed it search for a resting place in the lower branches of a tree. Even though they were pie-eyed drunk, somehow, and no one knew why, they'd manage to shimmy up a trunk and settle themselves down across a few choice branches. It was a law that if you tried to stop them or disturb them it would be cause for arrest. So when the drinkers of the Night Whiskey left the bar, no one followed. The next day, they'd be found fast asleep in midair, only a few precarious branches between them and gravity. That's where old man Witzer and I came in. At first light, we were to make our rounds in his truck with the poles bungeed on top, partaking of what was known as the Drunk Harvest.
Dangerous? You bet, but there was a reason for it. I told you about the weird part, but even though this next part gives a justification of sorts, it's even weirder. When the natives gave the berry and the recipe for the Night Whiskey to our forefathers, they considered it a gift of a most divine nature, because after the dark drink was ingested and the drinker had climbed aloft, sleep would invariably bring him or her to some realm between that of dream and the sweet hereafter. In this limbo they'd come face to face with their relatives and loved ones who'd passed on. That's right. It never failed. As best as I can remember him having told it, here's my own father's recollection of the experience from the year he won the lottery:
"I found myself out in the swamp at night with no memory of how I'd gotten there or what reason I had for being there. I tried to find a marker—a fallen tree or a certain turn in the path, to find my way back to town. The moon was bright, and as I stepped into a clearing, I saw a single figure standing there stark naked. I drew closer and said hello, even though I wanted to run. I saw it was an old fellow, and when he heard me approaching, he looked up and right there I knew it was my Uncle Fic. 'What are you doing out here without your clothes,' I said to him as I approached. 'Don't you remember, Joe,' he said, smiling. 'I'm passed on.' And then it struck me and made my hair stand on end. But Uncle Fic, who'd died at the age of ninety-eight when I was only fourteen, told me not to be afraid. He told me a good many things, explained a good many things, told me not to fear death. I asked him about my ma and pa, and he said they were together as always and having a good time. I bid him to say hello to them for me, and he said he would. Then he turned and started to walk away but stepped on a twig, and that sound brought me awake, and I was lying in the back of Witzer's pickup, staring into the jowly, pitted face of Bo Elliott."
My father was no liar, and to prove to my mother and me that he was telling the truth, he told us that Uncle Fic had told him where to find a tie pin he'd been given as a commemoration of his twenty-fifth year at the feed store but had subsequently lost. He then walked right over to a teapot shaped like an orange that my mother kept on a shelf in our living room, opened it, reached in, and pulled out the pin. The only question my father was left with about the whole strange episode was, "Out of all my dead relations, why Uncle Fic?"
Stories like the one my father told my mother and me abound. Early on, back in the 1700s, they were written down by those who could write. These rotting manuscripts were kept for a long time in the Gatchfield library—an old shoe-repair store with book-shelves—in a glass case. Sometimes the dead who showed up in the Night Whiskey dreams offered premonitions, sometimes they told who a thief was when something had gone missing. And supposedly it was the way Jolle had solved the Latchey murder, on a tip given to Mrs. Windom by her great aunt, dead ten years. Knowing that our ancestors were keeping an eye on things and didn't mind singing out about the untoward once a year usually convinced the citizens of Gatchfield to walk the straight and narrow. We kept it to ourselves, though, and never breathed a word of it to outsiders as if their rightful skepticism would ruin the power of the ceremony. As for those who'd left town, it was never a worry that they'd tell anyone, because, seriously, who'd have believed them?
On a Wednesday evening, the second week in September, while sitting in the pickup truck, drinking a beer, old man Witzer said, "I think you got it, boy. No more practice now. Too much and we'll overdo it." I simply nodded, but in the following weeks leading up to the end-of-the-month celebration, I was a wreck, envisioning the body of one of my friends or neighbors sprawled broken on the ground next to the bed of the truck. At night I'd have a recurring dream of prodding a body out of an oak, seeing it fall in slow motion, and then all would go black and I'd just hear this dull crack, what I assumed to be the drunk's head slamming the side of the pickup bed. I'd wake and sit up straight, shivering. Each time this happened, I tried to remember to see who it was in my dream, because it always seemed to be the same person. Two nights before the celebration, I saw a tattoo of a coiled cobra on the fellow's bicep as he fell and knew it was Henry Grass. I thought of telling Witzer, but I didn't want to seem a scared kid.
The night of the celebration came and after sundown my mother and father and I left the house and strolled down the street to The Blind Ghost. People were already starting to arrive and from inside I could hear the band tuning up fiddles and banjos. Samantha Bocean had made the place up for the event—black crepe paper draped here and there and wrapped around the support beams. Hanging from the ceiling on various lengths of fishing line were the skulls of all manner of local animals: coyote, deer, beaver, squirrel, and a giant black bear skull suspended over the center table where the lottery winners were to sit and take their drink. I was standing on the threshold, taking all this in, feeling the same kind of enchantment as when a kid and Mrs. Musfin would do up the three classrooms of the school house for Christmas, when my father leaned over to me and whispered, "You're on your own tonight, Ernest. You want to drink, drink. You want to dance, dance." I looked at him and he smiled, nodded, and winked. I then looked to my mother and she merely shrugged, as if to say, "That's the nature of the beast."
Old man Witzer was there at the bar, and he called me over and handed me a cold beer. Two other of the town's oldest men were with him, his chess-playing buddies, and he put his arm around my shoulders and introduced them to me. "This is a good boy," he said, patting my back. "He's doing Bo Elliott proud out there under the trees." The two friends of his nodded and smiled at me, the most notice I'd gotten from either of them my entire life. And then the band launched into a reel, and everyone turned to watch them play. Two choruses went by and I saw my mother and father and some of the other couples move out onto the small dance floor. I had another beer and looked around.
About four songs later, Sheriff Jolle appeared in the doorway to the bar and the music stopped mid-tune.
"OK," he said, hitching his pants up over his gut and removing his black, wide-brimmed hat, "time to get the lottery started." He moved to the center of the bar where the Night Whiskey drinkers' table was set up and took a seat. "Everybody drop your lottery tickets into the hat and make it snappy." I'd guessed that this year it was Samantha Bocean who was going to drink her own concoction since Reed stayed behind the bar and she moved over and took a seat across from Jolle. After the last of the tickets had been deposited into the hat, the sheriff pushed it away from him into the middle of the table. He then called for a whiskey neat, and Reed was there with it in a flash. In one swift gulp, he drained the glass, banged it onto the tabletop and said, "I'm ready." My girlfriend Darlene's stepmom came up from behind him with a black scarf and tied it around his eyes for a blindfold. Reaching into the hat, he ran his fingers through the lottery tickets, mixing them around, and then started drawing them out one by one and stacking them in a neat pile in front of him on the table. When he had the seven, he stopped and pulled off the blindfold. He then read the names in a loud voice and everyone kept quiet till he was finished—Becca Staney, Stan Joss, Pete Hesiant, Berta Hull, Moses T. Remarque, Ronald White, and Henry Grass. The room exploded with applause and screams. The winners smiled, dazed by having won, as their friends and family gathered round them and slapped them on the back, hugged them, shoved drinks into their hands. I was overwhelmed by the moment, caught up in it and grinning, until I looked over at Witzer and saw him jotting the names down in a little notebook he'd refer to tomorrow when we made our rounds. Only then did it come to me that one of the names was none other than Henry Grass, and I felt my stomach tighten in a knot.
Each of the winners eventually sat down at the center table. Jolle got up and gave his seat to Reed Bocean, who brought with him from behind the bar the bottle of Night Whiskey and a tray of eight shot glasses. Like the true barman he was, he poured all eight without lifting the bottle once, all to the exact same level. One by one they were handed around the table. When each of the winners had one before him or her, the barkeep smiled and said, "Drink up." Some went for it like it was a draught from the fountain of youth, some snuck up on it with trembling hand. Berta Hull, a middle-aged mother of five with horse teeth and short red hair, took a sip and declared, "Oh my, it's so lovely." Ronald White, the brother of one of the men I worked with at the gas station, took his up and dashed it off in one shot. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and laughed like a maniac, drunk already. Reed went back to the bar. The band started up again and the celebration came to life like a wild animal in too small a cage.
I wandered around the bar, nodding to the folks I knew, half taken by my new celebrity as a participant in the Drunk Harvest and half preoccupied watching Henry Grass. He was a young guy, only twenty-five, with a crew cut and a square jaw, dressed in the camouflage sleeveless T-shirt he wore in my recurring dream. With the way he stared at the shot glass in front of him through his little circular glasses, you'd have thought he was staring into the eyes of a king cobra. He had a reputation as a gentle, studious soul, although he was most likely the strongest man in town—the rare instance of an outsider who'd made a place for himself in Gatchfield. The books he read were all about UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle, Chariots of the Gods; stuff my father proclaimed to be "dyed-in-the-wool hooey." He worked with the horses over at the Haber family farm, and lived in a trailer out by the old Civil War shot tower, across the meadow and through the woods. I stopped for a moment to talk to Lester II, who mumbled to me around the hard boiled eggs he was shoving into his mouth one after another, and when I looked back to Henry, he'd finished off the shot glass and left the table.
I overheard snatches of conversation, and much of it was commentary on why it was a lucky thing that so and so had won the lottery this year. Someone mentioned the fact that poor Pete Hesiant's beautiful young wife, Lonette, had passed away from leukemia just at the end of the spring, and another mentioned that Moses had always wanted a shot at the Night Whiskey but had never gotten the chance, and how he'd soon be too old to participate as his arthritis had recently given him the devil of a time. Everybody was pulling for Berta Hull, who was raising those five children on her own, and Becca was a favorite because she was the town midwife. The same such stuff was said about Ron White and Stan Joss.
In addition to the well-wishes for the lottery winners, I stood for a long time next to a table where Sheriff Jolle, my father and mother, and Dr. Kvench sat, and listened to the doctor, a spry little man with a gray goatee, who was by then fairly well along in his cups, as were his listeners, myself included, spout his theory as to why the drinkers took to the trees. He explained it, amidst a barrage of hiccups, as a product of evolution. His theory was that the deathberry plant had at one time grown everywhere on earth, and that early man partook of some form of the Night Whiskey at the dawn of time. Because the world was teeming with night predators then, and because early man was just recently descended from the treetops, those who became drunk automatically knew, as a means of self-preservation, to climb up into the trees and sleep so as not to become a repast for a saber-toothed tiger or some other onerous creature. Dr. Kvench, citing Carl Jung, believed that the imperative to get off the ground after drinking the Night Whiskey had remained in the collective unconscious and was passed down through the ages. "Everybody in the world probably still has the unconscious command that would kick in if they were to drink the dark stuff, but since the berry doesn't grow anywhere but here now, we're the only ones that see this effect." The doctor nodded, hiccupped twice, and then got up to fetch a glass of water. When he left the table Jolle looked over at my mother, and she and he and my father broke up laughing. "I'm glad he's better at pushing pills than concocting theories," said the Sheriff, drying his eyes with his thumbs.
At about midnight, I was reaching for yet another beer, which Reed had placed on the bar, when my grasp was interrupted by a viselike grip on my wrist. I looked up and saw that it was Witzer. He said nothing to me but simply shook his head, and I knew he was telling me to lay off so as to be fresh for the harvest in the morning. I nodded. He smiled, patted my shoulder, and turned away. Somewhere around two a.m., the lottery winners, so incredibly drunk that even in my intoxicated state it seemed impossible they could still walk, stopped dancing, drinking, whatever, and headed for the door. The music abruptly ceased. It suddenly became so silent we could hear the wind blowing out on the street. The sounds of them stumbling across the wooden porch of the bar and then the steps creaking, the screen door banging shut, filled me with a sense of awe and visions of them groping through the night. I tried to picture Berta Hull climbing a tree, but I just couldn't get there, and the doctor's theory seemed to make some sense to me.
I left before my parents did. Witzer drove me home and before I got out of the cab, he handed me a small bottle.
"Take three good chugs," he said.
"What is it?" I asked.
"An herb mix," he said. "It'll clear your head and have you ready for the morning."
I took the first sip of it and the taste was bitter as could be. "Good god," I said, grimacing.
Witzer wheezed. "Two more," he said.
I did as I was told, got out of the truck and bid him good night. I didn't remember undressing or getting into bed, and luckily I was too drunk to dream. It seemed as if I'd only closed my eyes when my father's voice woke me, saying, "The old man's out in the truck, waiting on you." I leaped out of bed and dressed, and when I finally knew what was going on, I was surprised I felt as well and refreshed as I did. "Do good, Ernest," said my father from the kitchen. "Wait," my mother called. A moment later she came out of their bedroom, wrapping a robe around her. She gave me a hug and a kiss, and then said, "Hurry." It was brisk outside, and the early morning light gave proof that the day would be a clear one. The truck sat at the curb, the prods strapped to the top. Witzer sat in the cab, drinking a cup of coffee from the delicatessen. When I got in beside him, he handed me a cup and an egg sandwich on a hard roll wrapped in white paper. "We're off," he said. I cleared the sleep out of my eyes as he pulled away from the curb.
Our journey took us down the main street of town and then through the alley next to the sheriff's office. This gave way to another small tree-lined street we turned right on. As we headed away from the center of town, we passed Darlene's house, and I wondered what she'd done the previous night while I'd been at the celebration. I had a memory of her last time we were together. She was sitting naked against the wall of the abandoned barn by the edge of the swamp. Her blonde hair and face were aglow, illuminated by a beam of light that shone through a hole in the roof. She had the longest legs and her skin was pale and smooth. Taking a drag from her cigarette, she said, "Ernest, we gotta get out of this town." She'd laid out for me her plan of escape, her desire to go to some city where civilization was in full swing. I just nodded, reluctant to be too enthusiastic. She was adventurous and I was a homebody, but I did care deeply for her. She tossed her cigarette, put out her arms and opened her legs, and then Witzer said, "Keep your eyes peeled now, boy," and her image melted away.
We were moving slowly along a dirt road, both of us looking up at the lower branches of the trees. The old man saw the first one. I didn't see her till he applied the brakes. He took a little notebook and stub of a pencil out of his shirt pocket. "Samantha Bocean," he whispered, and put a check next to her name. We got out of the cab, and I helped him unlatch the prods and lay them on the ground beside the truck. She was resting across three branches in a magnolia tree, not too far from the ground. One arm and her long gray hair hung down, and she was turned so I could see her sleeping face.
"Get the ten," said Witzer, as he walked over to stand directly beneath her.
I did as I was told and then joined him.
"What d'ya say?" he asked. "Looks like this one's gonna be a peach."
"Well, I'm thinking if I get it on her left thigh and push her forward fast enough she'll flip as she falls and land perfectly."
Witzer said nothing but left me standing there and went and got in the truck. He started it up and drove it around to park so that the bed was precisely where we hoped she would land. He put it in park and left it running, and then got out and came and stood beside me. "Take a few deep breaths," he said. "And then let her fly."
I thought I'd be more nervous, but the training the old man had given me took hold and I knew exactly what to do. I aimed the prod and rested it gently on the top of her leg. Just as he'd told me, a real body was going to offer a little more resistance than one of the dummies, and I was ready for that. I took three big breaths and then shoved. She rolled slightly, and then tumbled forward, ass over head, landing with a thump on the mattresses, facing the morning sky. Witzer wheezed to beat the band, and said, "That's a solid ten." I was ecstatic.
The old man broke a twig next to Samantha's left ear and instantly her eyelids fluttered. Eventually she opened her eyes and smiled.
"How was your visit?" asked Witzer.
"I'll never get tired of that," she said. "It was wonderful."
We chatted with her for a few minutes, filling her in on how the party had gone at The Blind Ghost after she'd left. She didn't divulge to us what passed relative she'd met with, and we didn't ask. As my mentor had told me when I started, "There's a kind of etiquette to this. When in doubt, Silence is your best friend."
Samantha started walking back toward the center of town, and we loaded the prods onto the truck again. In no time, we were on our way, searching for the next sleeper. Luck was with us, for we found four in a row, fairly close by each other, Stan Joss, Moses T. Remarque, Berta Hull, and Becca Staney. All of them had chosen easy to get to perches in the lower branches of ancient oaks, and we dropped them, one, two, three, four, easy as could be. I never had to reach for anything longer than the ten, and the old man proved a genius at placing the truck just so. When each came around at the insistence of the snapping twig, they were cordial and seemed pleased with their experience. Moses even gave us a ten-dollar tip for dropping him into the truck. Becca told us that she'd spoken to her mother, whom she'd missed terribly since the woman's death two years earlier. Even though they'd been blind drunk the night before, amazingly none of them appeared to be hung over, and each walked away with a perceptible spring in his or her step, even Moses, though he was still slightly bent at the waist by the arthritis.
Witzer said, "Knock on wood, of course, but this is the easiest year I can remember. The year your daddy won, we had to ride around for four solid hours before we found him out by the swamp." We found Ron White only a short piece up the road from where we'd found the cluster of four, and he was an easy job. I didn't get him to land on his back. He fell face first, not a desirable drop, but he came to none the worse for wear. After Ron, we had to ride for quite a while, heading out toward the edge of the swamp. I knew the only two left were Pete Hesiant and Henry Grass, and the thought of Henry started to get me nervous again. I was reluctant to show my fear, not wanting the old man to lose faith in me, but as we drove slowly along, I finally told Witzer about my recurring dream.
When I was done recounting what I thought was a premonition, Witzer sat in silence for a few moments and then said, "I'm glad you told me."
"I'll bet it's really nothing," I said.
"Henry's a big fellow," he said. "Why should you have all the fun. I'll drop him." And with this, the matter was settled. I realized I should have told him weeks ago when I first started having the dreams.
"Easy, boy," said Witzer with a wheeze and waved his hand as if wiping away my cares. "You've got years of this to go. You can't manage everything on the first harvest."
We searched everywhere for Pete and Henry—all along the road to the swamp, on the trails that ran through the woods, out along the meadow by the shot tower and Henry's own trailer. With the dilapidated wooden structure of the tower still in sight, we finally found Henry.
"Thar she blows," said Witzer, and he stopped the truck.
"Where?" I said, getting out of the truck, and the old man pointed straight up.
Over our heads, in a tall pine, Henry lay face down, his arms and legs spread so that they kept him up while the rest of his body was suspended over nothing. His head hung down as if in shame or utter defeat. He looked in a way like he was crucified, and I didn't like the look of that at all.
"Get me the twenty," said Witzer, "and then pull the truck up."
I undid the prods from the roof, laid the other two on the ground by the side of the path, and ran the twenty over to the old man. By the time I went back to the truck, got it going, and turned it toward the drop spot, Witzer had the long pole in two hands and was sizing up the situation. As I pulled closer, he let the pole down and then waved me forward while eyeing back and forth, Henry and then the bed. He directed me to cut the wheel this way and that, reverse two feet, and then he gave me the thumbs up. I turned off the truck and got out.
"OK," he said. "This is gonna be a tricky one." He lifted the prod up and up and rested the soft end against Henry's chest. "You're gonna have to help me here. We're gonna push straight up on his chest so that his arms flop down and clear the branches, and then as we let him down we're gonna slide the pole, catch him at the belt buckle and give him a good nudge there to flip him as he falls."
I looked up at where Henry was, and then I just stared at Witzer.
"Wake up, boy!" he shouted.
I came to and grabbed the prod where his hands weren't.
"On three," he said. He counted off and then we pushed. Henry was heavy as ten sacks of rocks. "We got him," cried Witzer, "now slide it." I did and only then did I look up. "Push," the old man said. We gave it one more shove and Henry went into a swan dive, flipping like an Olympic athlete off the high board. When I saw him in mid-fall, my knees went weak and the air left me. He landed on his back with a loud thud directly in the middle of the mattresses, dust from the old cushions roiling up around him.
We woke Henry easily enough, sent him on his way to town, and were back in the truck. For the first time that morning I breathed a sigh of relief. "Easiest harvest I've ever been part of," said Witzer. We headed further down the path toward the swamp, scanning the branches for Pete Hesiant. Sure enough, in the same right manner with which everything else had fallen into place we found him curled up on his side in the branches of an enormous maple tree. With the first cursory glance at him, the old man determined that Pete would require no more than a ten. After we got the prods off the truck and positioned it under our last drop, Witzer insisted that I take him down. "One more to keep your skill up through the rest of the year," he said.
It was a simple job. Pete had found a nice perch with three thick branches beneath him. As I said, he was curled up on his side, and I couldn't see him all too well, so I just nudged his upper back and he rolled over like a small boulder. The drop was precise, and he hit the center of the mattresses, but the instant he was in the bed of the pickup, I knew something was wrong. He'd fallen too quickly for me to register it sooner, but as he lay there, I now noticed that there was someone else with him. Witzer literally jumped to the side of the truck bed and stared in.
"What in fuck's name," said the old man. "Is that a kid he's got with him?"
I saw the other body there, naked, in Pete's arms. There was long blond hair, that much was sure. It could have been a kid, but I thought I saw in the jumble, a full-size female breast.
Witzer reached into the truck bed, grabbed Pete by the shoulder and rolled him away from the other form. Then the two of us stood there in stunned silence. The thing that lay there wasn't a woman or a child but both and neither. The body was twisted and deformed, the size of an eight-year-old but with all the characteristics of maturity, if you know what I mean. And that face. . . lumpen and distorted, brow bulging, and from the left temple to the chin erupted in a range of discolored ridges.
"Is that Lonette?" I whispered, afraid the thing would awaken.
"She's dead, ain't she?" said Witzer in as low a voice, and his Adam's apple bobbed.
We both knew she was, but there she or some twisted copy of her lay. The old man took a handkerchief from his back pocket and brought it up to his mouth. He closed his eyes and leaned against the side of the truck. A bird flew by low overhead. The sun shone and leaves fell in the woods on both sides of the path.
Needless to say, when we moved again, we weren't breaking any twigs. Witzer told me to leave the prods and get in the truck. He started it up, and we drove slowly, like about fifteen miles an hour, into the center of town. We drove in complete silence. The place was quiet as a ghost town, no doubt everyone sleeping off the celebration, but we saw that Sheriff Jolle's cruiser was in front of the bunker-like concrete building that was the police station. The old man parked and went in. As he and the sheriff appeared at the door, I got out of the truck cab and joined them.
"What are you talking about?" Jolle said as they passed me and headed for the truck bed. I followed behind them.
"Shhh," said Witzer. When they finally were looking down at the sleeping couple, Pete and whatever that Lonette thing was, he added, "That's what I'm fucking talking about." He pointed his crooked old finger and his hand was obviously trembling.
Jolle's jaw dropped open after the second or two it took to sink in. "I never. . ." said the sheriff, and that's all he said for a long while.
Witzer whispered, "Pete brought her back with him."
"What kind of crazy shit is this?" asked Jolle and he turned quickly and looked at me as if I had an answer. Then he looked back at Witzer. "What the hell happened? Did he dig her up?"
"She's alive," said the old man. "You can see her breathing, but she got bunched up or something in the transfer from there to here."
"Bunched up," said Jolle. "There to here? What in Christ's name. . ." He shook his head and removed his shades. Then he turned to me again and said, "Boy, go get Doc Kvench."
In calling the doctor, I didn't know what to tell him, so I just said there was an emergency over at the sheriff's office and that he was needed. I didn't stick around and wait for him, because I had to keep moving. To stop would mean I'd have to think too deeply about the return of Lonette Hesiant. By the time I got back to the truck, Henry Grass had also joined Jolle and Witzer, having walked into town to get something to eat after his dream ordeal of the night before. As I drew close to them, I heard Henry saying, "She's come from another dimension. I've read about things like this. And from what I experienced last night, talking to my dead brother, I can tell you that place seems real enough for this to happen."
Jolle looked away from Henry at me as I approached, and then his gaze shifted over my head and he must have caught sight of the doctor. "Good job," said the sheriff, and put his hand on my shoulder as I leaned forward to catch my breath.
"Hey, Doc," he said as Kvench drew close, "you got a theory about this?"
The doctor stepped up to the truck bed and, clearing the sleep from his eyes, looked down at where the sheriff was pointing. Doctor Kvench had seen it all in his years in Gatchfield—birth, death, blood, body rot, but the instant he laid his eyes on the new Lonette, the color drained out of him, and he grimaced like he'd just taken a big swig of Witzer's herb mix. The effect on him was dramatic, and Henry stepped up next to him and held him up with one big tattooed arm across his back. Kvench brushed Henry off and turned away from the truck. I thought for a second that he was going to puke.
We waited for his diagnosis. Finally he turned back and said, "Where did it come from?"
"It fell out of the tree with Pete this morning," said Witzer.
"I signed the death certificate for that girl five months ago," said the doctor.
"She's come from another dimension. . ." said Henry, launching into one of his Bermuda Triangle explanations, but Jolle held a hand up to silence him. Nobody spoke then and the sheriff started pacing back and forth, looking into the sky and then at the ground. It was obvious that he was having some kind of silent argument with himself, cause every few seconds he'd either nod or shake his head. Finally, he put his open palms to his face for a moment, rubbed his forehead and cleared his eyes. Then he turned to us.
"Look, here's what we're gonna do. I decided. We're going to get Pete out of that truck without waking him and put him on the cot in the station. Will he stay asleep if we move him?" he asked Witzer.
The old man nodded. "As long as you don't shout his name or break a twig near his ear, he should keep sleeping till we wake him."
"OK," continued Jolle. "We get Pete out of the truck, and then we drive that thing out into the woods, we shoot it and bury it."
Everybody looked around at everybody else. The doctor said, "I don't know if I can be part of that."
"You're gonna be part of it," said Jolle, "or right this second you're taking full responsibility for its care. And I mean full responsibility."
"It's alive, though," said Kvench.
"But it's a mistake," said the sheriff, "either of nature or God or whatever."
"Doc, I agree with Jolle," said Witzer, "I never seen anything that felt so wrong to me than what I'm looking at in the back of that truck."
"You want to nurse that thing until it dies on its own?" Jolle said to the doctor. "Think of what it'll do to Pete to have to deal with it."
Kvench looked down and shook his head. Eventually he whispered, "You're right."
"Boy?" Jolle said to me.
My mouth was dry and my head was swimming a little. I nodded.
"Good," said the sheriff. Henry added that he was in. It was decided that we all participate and share in the act of disposing of it. Henry and the sheriff gently lifted Pete out of the truck and took him into the station house. When they appeared back outside, Jolle told Witzer and me to drive out to the woods in the truck and that he and Henry and Kvench would follow in his cruiser.
For the first few minutes of the drive out, Witzer said nothing. We passed Pete Hesiant's small yellow house and upon seeing it I immediately started thinking about Lonette, and how beautiful she'd been. She and Pete had only been in their early 30s, a very handsome couple. He was thin and gangly and had been a star basketball player for Gatchfield, but never tall enough to turn his skill into a college scholarship. They'd been high school sweethearts. He finally found work as a municipal handy man, and had that good-natured youth-going-to-seed personality of the washed up, once lauded athlete.
Lonette had worked the cash register at the grocery. I remembered her passing by our front porch on the way to work the evening shift one afternoon, and I overheard her talking to my mother about how she and Pete had decided to try to start a family. I'm sure I wasn't supposed to be privy to this conversation, but whenever she passed in front of our house, I tried to make it a point of being near a window. I heard every word through the screen. The very next week, though, I learned that she had some kind of disease. That was three years ago. She slowly grew more haggard through the following seasons. Pete tried to take care of her on his own, but I don't think it had gone all too well. At her funeral, Henry had to hold him back from climbing into the grave after her.
"Is this murder?" I asked Witzer after he'd turned onto the dirt path and headed out toward the woods.
He looked over at me and said nothing for a second. "I don't know, Ernest," he said. "Can you murder someone who's already dead? Can you murder a dream? What would you have us do?" He didn't ask the last question angrily but as if he was really looking for another plan than Jolle's.
I shook my head.
"I'll never see things the same again," he said. "I keep thinking I'm gonna wake up any minute now."
We drove on for another half-mile and then he pulled the truck off the path and under a cluster of oak. As we got out of the cab, the sheriff parked next to us. Henry, the doctor, and Jolle got out of the cruiser, and all five of us gathered at the back of the pickup. It fell to Witzer and me to get her out of the truck and lay her on the ground some feet away. "Careful," whispered the old man, as he leaned over the wall of the bed and slipped his arms under her. I took the legs, and when I touched her skin a shiver went through me. Her body was heavier than I thought, and her sex was staring me right in the face, covered with short hair thick as twine. She was breathing lightly, obviously sleeping, and her pupils moved rapidly beneath her closed lids like she was dreaming. She had a powerful aroma, flowers and candy, sweet to the point of sickening.
We got her on the ground without waking her, and the instant I let go of her legs, I stepped outside the circle of men. "Stand back," said Jolle. The others moved away. He pulled his gun out of its holster with his left hand and made the sign of the cross with his right. Leaning down, he put the gun near her left temple, and then cocked the hammer back. The hammer clicked into place with the sound of a breaking twig and right then her eyes shot open. Four grown men jumped backward in unison. "Good lord," said Witzer. "Do it," said Kvench. I looked to Jolle and he was staring down at her as if in a trance. Her eyes had no color. They were wide and shifting back and forth. She started taking deep raspy breaths and then sat straight up. A low mewing noise came from her chest, the sound of a cat or a scared child. Then she started talking backwards talk, some foreign language never heard on earth before, babbling frantically and drooling.
Jolle fired. The bullet caught her in the side of the head and threw her onto her right shoulder. The side of her face, including her ear, blew off, and this black stuff, not blood, splattered all over, flecks of it staining Jolle's pants and shirt and face. The side of her head was smoking. She lay there writhing in what looked like a pool of oil, and he shot her again and again, emptying the gun into her. The sight of it brought me to my knees, and I puked. When I looked up, she'd stopped moving. Tears were streaming down Witzer's face. Kvench was shaking. Henry looked as if he'd been turned to stone. Jolle's finger kept pulling the trigger, but there were no rounds left.
After Henry tamped down the last shovelful of dirt on her grave, Jolle made us swear never to say a word to anyone about what had happened. I pledged that oath as did the others. Witzer took me home, no doubt having silently decided I shouldn't be there when they woke Pete. When I got to the house, I went straight to bed and slept for an entire day, only getting up in time to get to the gas station for work the next morning. The only dream I had was an infuriating and frustrating one of Lester II, eating hard-boiled eggs and explaining it all to me but in backwards talk and gibberish so I couldn't make out any of it. Carrying the memory of that Drunk Harvest miracle around with me was like constantly having a big black bubble of night afloat in the middle of my waking thoughts. As autumn came on and passed and then winter bore down on Gatchfield, the insidious strength of it never diminished. It made me quiet and moody, and my relationship with Darlene suffered.
I kept my distance from the other four conspirators. It went so far as we tried not to even recognize each other's presence when we passed on the street. Only Witzer still waved at me from his pickup when he'd drive by, and if I was the attendant when he came into the station for gas, he'd say, "How are you, boy?" I'd nod and that would be it. Around Christmas time I'd heard from my father that Pete Hesiant had lost his mind, and was unable to go to work, would break down crying at a moment's notice, couldn't sleep, and was being treated by Kvench with all manner of pills.
Things didn't get any better come spring. Pete shot the side of his head off with a pistol. Mrs. Marfish, who'd gone to bring him a pie she'd baked to cheer him up, discovered him lying dead in a pool of blood on the back porch of the little yellow house. Then Sheriff Jolle took ill and was so bad off with whatever he had, he couldn't get out of bed. He deputized Reed Bocean, the barkeep and the most sensible man in town, to look after Gatchfield in his absence. Reed did a good job as sheriff and Samantha double-timed it at The Blind Ghost—both solid citizens.
In the early days of May, I burned my hand badly at work on a hot car engine and my boss drove me over to Kvench's office to get it looked after. While I was in his treatment room with him, and he was wrapping my hand in gauze, he leaned close to me and whispered, "I think I know what happened." I didn't even make a face, but stared ahead at the eye chart on the wall, not really wanting to hear anything about the incident. "Gatchfield's so isolated that change couldn't get in from the outside, so Nature sent it from within," he said. "Mutation. From the dream." I looked at him. He was nodding, but I saw that his goatee had gone squirrelly, there was this over-eager gleam in his eyes, and his breath smelled like medicine. I knew right then he'd been more than sampling his own pills. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.
June came, and it was a week away from the day that Witzer and I were to begin practicing for the Drunk Harvest again. I dreaded the thought of it to the point where I was having a hard time eating or sleeping. After work one evening, as I was walking home, the old man pulled up next to me in his pickup truck. He stopped and opened the window. I was going to keep walking, but he called, "Boy, get in. Take a ride with me."
I made the mistake of looking over at him. "It's important," he said. I got in the cab and we drove slowly off down the street.
I blurted out that I didn't think I'd be able to manage the Harvest and how screwed up the thought of it was making me, but he held his hand up and said, "Shh, shh, I know." I quieted down and waited for him to talk. A few seconds passed and then he said, "I've been to see Jolle. You haven't seen him have you?"
I shook my head.
"He's a gonner for sure. He's got some kind of belly rot, and, I swear to you he's got a deathberry bush growing out of his insides. . .while he's still alive, no less. Doc Kvench just keeps feeding him pills, but he'd be better off taking a hedge clipper to him."
"Are you serious?" I said.
"Boy, I'm dead serious." Before I could respond, he said, "Now look, when the time for the celebration comes around, we're all going to have to participate in it as if nothing had happened. We made our oath to the sheriff. That's bad enough, but what happens when somebody's dead relative tells them in a Night Whiskey dream what we did, what happened with Lonette?"
I was trembling and couldn't bring myself to speak.
"Tomorrow night—are you listening to me?—tomorrow night I'm leaving my truck unlocked with the keys in the ignition. You come to my place and take it and get the fuck out of Gatchfield."
I hadn't noticed but we were now parked in front of my house. He leaned across me and opened my door. "Get as far away as you can, boy," he said. The next day, I called in sick to work, withdrew all my savings from the bank, and talked to Darlene. That night, good to his word, the keys were in the old pickup. I noticed there was a new used truck parked next to the old one on his lot to cover when the one we took went missing. I'd left my parents a letter about how Darlene and I had decided to elope, and that they weren't to worry. I'd call them.
We fled to the biggest brightest city we could find, and the rush and maddening business of the place, the distance from home, our combined struggle to survive at first and then make our way was a curative better than any pill the doctor could have prescribed. Every day there was change and progress and crazy news on the television, and these things served to shrink the black bubble in my thoughts. Still to this day, though, so many years later, there's always an evening near the end of September when I sit down to a Night Whiskey, so to speak, and Gatchfield comes back to me in my dreams like some lost relative I'm both terrified to behold and want nothing more than to put my arms around and never let go.
Benjamin Rosenbaum wanted to be a superhero, a scientist (the kind who builds giant ray guns), or a writer. Instead he became a computer programmer, which didn't involve wearing his underwear on the outside or building giant ray guns, but he does write in his spare time. He attended the Clarion West Writers' Workshop in 2001 (the Sarong-Wearing Clarion), and has had work published in Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and elsewhere. His story "Benjamin Rosenbaum's Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" was nominated for the 2005 Best Novelette Hugo Award, and the best of his early fiction was collected in the chapbook Other Cities.
The land around Marish was full of the green stalks of sunflowers: tall as men, with bold yellow faces. Their broad leaves were stained black with blood.
The rustling came again, and Marish squatted down on aching legs to watch. A hedgehog pushed its nose through the stalks. It sniffed in both directions.
Hunger dug at Marish's stomach like the point of a stick. He hadn't eaten for three days, not since returning to the crushed and blackened ruins of his house.
The hedgehog bustled through the stalks onto the trail, across the ash, across the trampled corpses of flowers. Marish waited until it was well clear of the stalks before he jumped. He landed with one foot before its nose and one foot behind its tail. The hedgehog, as hedgehogs will, rolled itself into a ball, spines out.
His house: crushed like an egg, smoking, the straw floor soaked with blood. He'd stood there with a trapped rabbit in his hand, alone in the awful silence. Forced himself to call for his wife Temur and his daughter Asza, his voice too loud and too flat. He'd dropped the rabbit somewhere in his haste, running to follow the blackened trail of devastation.
Running for three days, drinking from puddles, sleeping in the sunflowers when he couldn't stay awake.
Marish held his knifepoint above the hedgehog. They gave wishes, sometimes, in tales. "Speak, if you can," he said, "and bid me don't kill you. Grant me a wish! Elsewise, I'll have you for a dinner."
Nothing from the hedgehog, or perhaps a twitch.
Marish drove his knife through it and it thrashed, spraying more blood on the bloodstained flowers.
Too tired to light a fire, he ate it raw.
* * *
On that trail of tortured earth, wide enough for twenty horses, among the burnt and flattened flowers, Marish found a little doll of rags, the size of a child's hand.
It was one of the ones Maghd the mad girl made, and offered up, begging for stew meat, or wheedling for old bread behind Lezur's bakery. He'd given her a coin for one, once.
"Wherecome you're giving that sow our good coins?" Temur had cried, her bright eyes flashing. None in Ilmak Dale would let a mad girl come near a hearth, and some spit when they passed her. "Bag-Maghd's good for holding one thing only," Fazt would call out and they'd laugh their way into the alehouse. Marish laughing too, stopping only when he looked back at her.
Temur had softened, when she saw how Asza took to the doll, holding it, and singing to it, and smearing gruel on its rag-mouth with her fingers to feed it. They called her "little life-light," and heard her saying it to the doll, "il-ife-ight," rocking it in her arms.
He pressed his nose into the doll, trying to smell Asza's baby smell on it, like milk and forest soil and some sweet spice. But he only smelled the acrid stench of burnt cloth.
When he forced his wet eyes open, he saw a blurry figure coming towards him. Cursing himself for a fool, he tossed the doll away and pulled out his knife, holding it at his side. He wiped his face on his sleeve, and stood up straight, to show the man coming down the trail that the folk of Ilmak Dale did no obeisance. Then his mouth went dry and his hair stood up, for the man coming down the trail was no man at all.
It was a little taller than a man, and had the body of a man, though covered with a dark gray fur; but its head was the head of a jackal. It wore armor of bronze and leather, all straps and discs with curious engravings, and carried a great black spear with a vicious point at each end.
Marish had heard that there were all sorts of strange folk in the world, but he had never seen anything like this.
"May you die with great suffering," the creature said in what seemed to be a calm, friendly tone.
"May you die as soon as may be!" Marish cried, not liking to be threatened.
The creature nodded solemnly. "I am Kadath-Naan of the Empty City," it announced. "I wonder if I might ask your assistance in a small matter."
Marish didn't know what to say to this. The creature waited.
Marish said, "You can ask."
"I must speak with. . ." It frowned. "I am not sure how to put this. I do not wish to offend."
"Then why," Marish asked before he could stop himself, "did you menace me on a painful death?"
"Menace?" the creature said. "I only greeted you."
"You said, 'May you die with great suffering.' That like to be a threat or a curse, and I truly don't thank you for it."
The creature frowned. "No, it is a blessing. Or it is from a blessing: 'May you die with great suffering, and come to know holy dread and divine terror, stripping away your vain thoughts and fancies until you are fit to meet the Bone-White Fathers face to face; and may you be buried in honor and your name sung until it is forgotten.' That is the whole passage."
"Oh," said Marish. "Well, that sounds a bit better, I reckon."
"We learn that blessing as pups," said the creature in a wondering tone. "Have you never heard it?"
"No indeed," said Marish, and put his knife away. "Now what do you need? I can't think to be much help to you—I don't know this land here."
"Excuse my bluntness, but I must speak with an embalmer, or a sepulchrist, or someone of that sort."
"I've no notion what those are," said Marish.
The creature's eyes widened. It looked, as much as the face of a jackal could, like someone whose darkest suspicions were in the process of being confirmed.
"What do your people do with the dead?" it said.
"We put them in the ground."
"With what preparation? With what rites and monuments?" said the thing.
"In a wood box for them as can afford it, and a piece of linen for them as can't; and we say a prayer to the west wind. We put the stone in with them, what has their soul kept in it." Marish thought a bit, though he didn't much like the topic. He rubbed his nose on his sleeve. "Sometime we'll put a pile of stones on the grave, if it were someone famous."
The jackal-headed man sat heavily on the ground. It put its head in its hands. After a long moment it said, "Perhaps I should kill you now, that I might bury you properly."
"Now you just try that," said Marish, taking out his knife again.
"Would you like me to?" said the creature, looking up.
Its face was serene. Marish found he had to look away, and his eyes fell upon the scorched rags of the doll, twisted up in the stalks.
"Forgive me," said Kadath-Naan of the Empty City. "I should not be so rude as to tempt you. I see that you have duties to fulfill, just as I do, before you are permitted the descent into emptiness. Tell me which way your village lies, and I will see for myself what is done."
"My village—" Marish felt a heavy pressure behind his eyes, in his throat, wanting to push through into a sob. He held it back. "My village is gone. Something come and crushed it. I were off hunting, and when I come back, it were all burning, and full of the stink of blood. Whatever did it made this trail through the flowers. I think it went quick; I don't think I'll likely catch it. But I hope to." He knew he sounded absurd: a peasant chasing a demon. He gritted his teeth against it.
"I see," said the monster. "And where did this something come from? Did the trail come from the north?"
"It didn't come from nowhere. Just the village torn to pieces and this trail leading out."
"And the bodies of the dead," said Kadath-Naan carefully. "You buried them in—wooden boxes?"
"There weren't no bodies," Marish said. "Not of people. Just blood, and a few pieces of bone and gristle, and pigs' and horses' bodies all charred up. That's why I'm following." He looked down. "I mean to find them if I can."
Kadath-Naan frowned. "Does this happen often?"
Despite himself, Marish laughed. "Not that I ever heard before."
The jackal-headed creature seemed agitated. "Then you do not know if the bodies received. . .even what you would consider proper burial."
"I have a feeling they ain't received it," Marish said.
Kadath-Naan looked off in the distance towards Marish's village, then in the direction Marish was heading. It seemed to come to a decision. "I wonder if you would accept my company in your travels," it said. "I was on a different errand, but this matter seems to. . .outweigh it."
Marish looked at the creature's spear and said, "You'd be welcome."
He held out the fingers of his hand. "Marish of Ilmak Dale."
* * *
The trail ran through the blackened devastation of another village, drenched with blood but empty of human bodies. The timbers of the houses were crushed to kindling; Marish saw a blacksmith's anvil twisted like a lock of hair, and plows that had been melted by enormous heat into a pool of iron. They camped beyond the village, in the shade of a twisted hawthorn tree. A wild autumn wind stroked the meadows around them, carrying dandelion seeds and wisps of smoke and the stink of putrefying cattle.
The following evening they reached a hill overlooking a great town curled around a river. Marish had never seen so many houses—almost too many to count. Most were timber and mud like those of his village, but some were great structures of stone, towering three or four stories into the air. House built upon house, with ladders reaching up to the doors of the ones on top. Around the town, fields full of wheat rustled gold in the evening light. Men and women were reaping in the fields, singing work songs as they swung their scythes.
The path of destruction curved around the town, as if avoiding it.
"Perhaps it was too well-defended," said Kadath-Naan.
"Maybe," said Marish, but he remembered the pool of iron and the crushed timbers, and doubted. "I think that like to be Nabuz. I never come this far south before, but traders heading this way from the fair at Halde were always going to Nabuz to buy."
"They will know more of our adversary," said Kadath-Naan.
"I'll go," said Marish. "You might cause a stir; I don't reckon many of your sort visit Nabuz. You keep to the path."
"Perhaps I might ask of you. . ."
"If they are friendly there, I'll ask how they bury their dead," Marish said.
Kadath-Naan nodded somberly. "Go to duty and to death," he said.
Marish thought it must be a blessing, but he shivered all the same.
* * *
The light was dimming in the sky. The reapers heaped the sheaves high on the wagon, their songs slow and low, and the city gates swung open for them.
The city wall was stone, mud, and timber, twice as tall as a man, and its great gates were iron. But the wall was not well kept. Marish crept among the stalks to a place where the wall was lower and trash and rubble were heaped high against it.
He heard the creak of the wagon rolling through the gates, the last work song fading away, the men of Nabuz calling out to each other as they made their way home. Then all was still.
Marish scrambled out of the field into a dead run, scrambled up the rubble, leapt atop the wall and lay on its broad top. He peeked over, hoping he had not been seen.
The cobbled street was empty. More than that, the town itself was silent. Even in Ilmak Dale, the evenings had been full of dogs barking, swine grunting, men arguing in the streets and women gossiping and calling the children in. Nabuz was supposed to be a great capital of whoring, drinking, and fighting; the traders at Halde had always moaned over the delights that awaited them in the south if they could cheat the villagers well enough. But Marish heard no donkey braying, no baby crying, no cough, no whisper: nothing pierced the night silence.
He dropped over, landed on his feet quiet as he could, and crept along the street's edge. Before he had gone ten steps, he noticed the lights.
The windows of the houses flickered, but not with candlelight or the light of fires. The light was cold and blue.
He dragged a crate under the high window of the nearest house and clambered up to see.
There was a portly man with a rough beard, perhaps a potter after his day's work; there was his stout young wife, and a skinny boy of nine or ten. They sat on their low wooden bench, their dinner finished and put to the side (Marish could smell the fresh bread and his stomach cursed him). They were breathing, but their faces were slack, their eyes wide and staring, their lips gently moving. They were bathed in blue light. The potter's wife was rocking her arms gently as if she were cradling a newborn babe—but the swaddling blankets she held were empty.
And now Marish could hear a low inhuman voice, just at the edge of hearing, like a thought of his own. It whispered in time to the flicker of the blue light, and Marish felt himself drawn by its caress. Why not sit with the potter's family on the bench? They would take him in. He could stay here, the whispering promised: forget his village, forget his grief. Fresh bread on the hearth, a warm bed next to the coals of the fire. Work the clay, mix the slip for the potter, eat a dinner of bread and cheese, then listen to the blue light and do what it told him. Forget the mud roads of Ilmak Dale, the laughing roar of Perdan and Thin Deri and Chibar and the others in its alehouse, the harsh cough and crow of its roosters at dawn. Forget willowy Temur, her hair smooth as a river and bright as a sheaf of wheat, her proud shoulders and her slender waist, Temur turning her satin cheek away when he tried to kiss it. Forget the creak and splash of the mill, and the soft rushes on the floor of Maghd's hovel. The potter of Nabuz had a young and willing niece who needed a husband, and the blue light held laughter and love enough for all. Forget the heat and clanging of Fat Deri's smithy; forget the green stone that held Pa's soul, that he'd laid upon his shroud. Forget Asza, little Asza whose tiny body he'd held to his heart. . .
Marish thought of Asza and he saw the potter's wife's empty arms and with one flex of his legs, he kicked himself away from the wall, knocking over the crate and landing sprawled among rolling apples.
He sprang to his feet. There was no sound around him. He stuffed five apples in his pack, and hurried towards the center of Nabuz.
The sun had set, and the moon washed the streets in silver. From every window streamed the cold blue light.
Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw a shadow dart behind him, and he turned and took out his knife. But he saw nothing, and though his good sense told him five apples and no answers was as much as he should expect from Nabuz, he kept on.
He came to a great square full of shadows, and at first he thought of trees. But it was tall iron frames, and men and women bolted to them upside down. The bolts went through their bodies, crusty with dried blood.
One man nearby was live enough to moan. Marish poured a little water into the man's mouth, and held his head up, but the man could not swallow; he coughed and spluttered, and the water ran down his face and over the bloody holes where his eyes had been.
"But the babies," the man rasped, "how could you let her have the babies?"
"Let who?" said Marish.
"The White Witch!" the man roared in a whisper. "The White Witch, you bastards! If you'd but let us fight her—"
"Why. . ." Marish began.
"Lie again, say the babies will live forever—lie again, you cowardly blue-blood maggots in the corpse of Nabuz. . ." He coughed and blood ran over his face.
The bolts were fast into the frame. "I'll get a tool," Marish said, "you won't—"
From behind him came an awful scream.
He turned and saw the shadow that had followed him: it was a white cat with fine soft fur and green eyes that blazed in the darkness. It shrieked, its fur standing on end, its tail high, staring at him, and his good sense told him it was raising an alarm.
Marish ran, and the cat ran after him, shrieking. Nabuz was a vast pile of looming shadows. As he passed through the empty city gates he heard a grinding sound and a whinny. As he raced into the moonlit dusk of open land, down the road to where Kadath-Naan's shadow crossed the demon's path, he heard hoof beats galloping behind him.
Kadath-Naan had just reached a field of tall barley. He turned to look back at the sound of the hoof beats and the shrieking of the devil cat.
"Into the grain!" Marish yelled. "Hide in the grain!" He passed Kadath-Naan and dived into the barley, the cat racing behind him.
Suddenly he spun and dropped and grabbed the white cat, meaning to get one hand on it and get his knife with the other and shut it up by killing it. But the cat fought like a devil and it was all he could do to hold on to it with both hands. And he saw, behind him on the trail, Kadath-Naan standing calmly, his hand on his spear, facing three knights armored every inch in white, galloping towards them on great chargers.
"You damned dog-man," Marish screamed. "I know you want to die, but get into the grain!"
Kadath-Naan stood perfectly still. The first knight bore down on him, and the moon flashed from the knight's sword. The blade was no more than a hand's-breadth from Kadath-Naan's neck when he sprang to the side of it, into the path of the second charger.
As the first knight's charge carried him past, Kadath-Naan knelt, and drove the base of his great spear into the ground. Too late, the second knight made a desperate yank on the horse's reins, but the great beast's momentum carried him into the pike. It tore through the neck of the horse and through the armored chest of the knight riding him, and the two of them reared up and thrashed once like a dying centaur, then crashed to the ground.
The first knight wheeled around. The third met Kadath-Naan. The beast-man stood barehanded, the muscles of his shoulders and chest relaxed. He cocked his jackal head to one side, as if wondering: Is it here at last? The moment when I am granted release?
But Marish finally had the cat by its tail, and flung that wild white thing, that frenzy of claws and spit and hissing, into the face of the third knight's steed.
The horse reared and threw its rider; the knight let go of his sword as he crashed to the ground. Quick as a hummingbird, Kadath-Naan leapt and caught it in midair. He spun to face the last rider.
Marish drew his knife and charged through the barley. He was on the fallen knight just as he got to his knees.
The crash against armor took Marish's wind away. The man was twice as strong as Marish was, and his arm went around Marish's chest like a crushing band of iron. But Marish had both hands free, and with a twist of the knight's helmet he exposed a bit of neck, and in Marish's knife went, and then the man's hot blood was spurting out.
The knight convulsed as he died and grabbed Marish in a desperate embrace, coating him with blood, and sobbing once: and Marish held him, for the voice of his heart told him it was a shame to have to die such a way. Marish was shocked at this, for the man was a murderous slave of the White Witch; but still he held the quaking body in his arms, until it moved no more.
Then Marish, soaked with salty blood, staggered to his feet and remembered the last knight with a start; but of course Kadath-Naan had killed him in the meantime. Three knights' bodies lay on the ruined ground, and two living horses snorted and pawed the dirt like awkward mourners. Kadath-Naan freed his spear with a great yank from the horse and man it had transfixed. The devil cat was a sodden blur of white fur and blood; a falling horse had crushed it.
Marish caught the reins of the nearest steed, a huge fine creature, and gentled it with a hand behind its ears. When he had his breath again, Marish said, "We got horses now. Can you ride?"
"Let's go then; there like to be more coming."
Kadath-Naan frowned a deep frown. He gestured to the bodies.
"What?" said Marish.
"We have no embalmer or sepulchrist, it is true; yet I am trained in the funereal rites for military expeditions and emergencies. I have the necessary tools; in a matter of a day I can raise small monuments. At least they died aware and with suffering; this must compensate for the rudimentary nature of the rites."
"You can't be in earnest," said Marish. "And what of the White Witch?"
"Who is the White Witch?" Kadath-Naan asked.
"The demon; turns out she's somebody what's called the White Witch. She spared Nabuz, for they said they'd serve her, and give her their babies."
"We will follow her afterwards," said Kadath-Naan.
"She's ahead of us as it is! We leave now on horseback, we might have a chance. There be a whole lot more bodies with her unburied or buried wrong, less I mistake."
Kadath-Naan leaned on his spear. "Marish of Ilmak Dale," he said, "here we must part ways. I cannot steel myself to follow such logic as you declare, abandoning these three burials before me now for the chance of others elsewhere, if we can catch and defeat a witch. My duty does not lie that way." He searched Marish's face. "You do not have the words for it, but if these men are left unburied, they are tanzadi. If I bury them with what little honor I can provide, they are tazrash. They spent only a little while alive, but they will be tanzadi or tazrash forever."
"And if more slaves of the White Witch come along to pay you back for killing these?"
But try as he might, Marish could not dissuade him, and at last he mounted one of the chargers and rode onwards, towards the cold white moon, away from the whispering city.
* * *
The flowers were gone, the fields were gone. The ashy light of the horizon framed the ferns and stunted trees of a black fen full of buzzing flies. The trail was wider; thirty horses could have passed side by side over the blasted ground. But the marshy ground was treacherous, and Marish's mount sank to its fetlocks with each careful step.
A siege of cranes launched themselves from the marsh into the moon-abandoned sky. Marish had never seen so many. Bone-white, fragile, soundless, they ascended like snowflakes seeking the cold womb of heaven. Or a river of souls. None looked back at him. The voice of doubt told him: You will never know what became of Asza and Temur.
The apples were long gone, and Marish was growing lightheaded from hunger. He reined the horse in and dismounted; he would have to hunt off the trail. In the bracken, he tied the charger to a great black fern as tall as a house. In a drier spot near its base was the footprint of a rabbit. He felt the indentation; it was fresh. He followed the rabbit deeper into the fen.
He was thinking of Temur and her caresses. The nights she'd turn away from him, back straight as a spear, and the space of rushes between them would be like a frozen desert, and he'd huddle unsleeping beneath skins and woolen blankets, stiff from cold, arguing silently with her in his spirit; and the nights when she'd turn to him, her soft skin hot and alive against his, seeking him silently, almost vengefully, as if showing him—see? This is what you can have. This is what I am.
And then the image of those rushes charred and brown with blood and covered with chips of broken stone and mortar came to him, and he forced himself to think of nothing: breathing his thoughts out to the west wind, forcing his mind clear as a spring stream. And he stepped forward in the marsh.
And stood in a street of blue and purple tile, in a fantastic city.
He stood for a moment wondering, and then he carefully took a step back.
And he was in a black swamp with croaking toads and nothing to eat.
The voice of doubt told him he was mad from hunger; the voice of hope told him he would find the White Witch here and kill her; and thinking a thousand things, he stepped forward again and found himself still in the swamp.
Marish thought for a while, and then he stepped back, and, thinking of nothing, stepped forward.
The tiles of the street were a wild mosaic—some had glittering jewels; some had writing in a strange flowing script; some seemed to have tiny windows into tiny rooms. Houses, tiled with the same profusion, towered like columns, bulged like mushrooms, melted like wax. Some danced. He heard soft murmurs of conversation, footfalls, and the rush of a river.
In the street, dressed in feathers or gold plates or swirls of shadow, blue-skinned people passed. One such creature, dressed in fine silk, was just passing Marish.
"Your pardon," said Marish, "what place be this here?"
The man looked at Marish slowly. He had a red jewel in the center of his forehead, and it flickered as he talked. "That depends on how you enter it," he said, "and who you are, but for you, catarrhine, its name is Zimzarkanthitrugenia-fenstok, not least because that is easy for you to pronounce. And now I have given you one thing free, as you are a guest of the city."
"How many free things do I get?" said Marish.
"Three. And now I have given you two."
Marish thought about this for a moment. "I'd favor something to eat," he said.
The man looked surprised. He led Marish into a building that looked like a blur of spinning triangles, through a dark room lit by candles, to a table piled with capon and custard and razor-thin slices of ham and lamb's foot jelly and candied apricots and goatsmilk yogurt and hard cheese and yams and turnips and olives and fish cured in strange spices; and those were just the things Marish recognized.
"I don't reckon I ought to eat fairy food," said Marish, though he could hardly speak from all the spit that was suddenly in his mouth.
"That is true, but from the food of the djinn you have nothing to fear. And now I have given you three things," said the djinn, and he bowed and made as if to leave.
"Hold on," said Marish (as he followed some candied apricots down his gullet with a fistful of cured fish). "That be all the free things, but say I got something to sell?"
The djinn was silent.
"I need to kill the White Witch," Marish said, eating an olive. The voice of doubt asked him why he was telling the truth, if this city might also serve her; but he told it to hush up. "Have you got aught to help me?"
The djinn still said nothing, but he cocked an eyebrow.
"I've got a horse, a real fighting horse," Marish said, around a piece of cheese.
"What is its name?" said the djinn. "You cannot sell anything to a djinn unless you know its name."
Marish wanted to lie about the name, but he found he could not. He swallowed. "I don't know its name," he admitted.
"Well then," said the djinn.
"I killed the fellow what was on it," Marish said, by way of explanation.
"Who," said the djinn.
"Who what?" said Marish.
"Who was on it," said the djinn.
"I don't know his name either," said Marish, picking up a yam.
"No, I am not asking that," said the djinn crossly, "I am telling you to say, 'I killed the fellow who was on it.'"
Marish set the yam back on the table.
"Now that's enough," Marish said. "I thank you for the fine food and I thank you for the three free things, but I do not thank you for telling me how to talk. How I talk is how we talk in Ilmak Dale, or how we did talk when there were an Ilmak Dale, and just because the White Witch blasted Ilmak Dale to splinters don't mean I am going to talk like folk do in some magic city."
"I will buy that from you," said the djinn.
"What?" said Marish, and wondered so much at this that he forgot to pick up another thing to eat.
"The way you talked in Ilmak Dale," the djinn said.
"All right," Marish said, "and for it, I crave to know the thing what will help me mostways, for killing the White Witch."
"I have a carpet that flies faster than the wind," said the djinn. "I think it is the only way you can catch the Witch, and unless you catch her, you cannot kill her."
"Wonderful," Marish cried with glee. "And you'll trade me that carpet for how we talk in Ilmak Dale?"
"No," said the djinn, "I told you which thing would help you most, and in return for that, I took the way you talked in Ilmak Dale and put it in the Great Library."
Marish frowned. "All right, what do you want for the carpet?"
The djinn was silent.
"I'll give you the White Witch for it," Marish said.
"You must possess the thing you sell," the djinn said.
"Oh, I'll get her," Marish said. "You can be sure of that." His hand had found a boiled egg, and the shell crunched in his palm as he said it.
The djinn looked at Marish carefully, and then he said, "The use of the carpet, for three days, in return for the White Witch, if you can conquer her."
"Agreed," said Marish.
* * *
They had to bind the horse's eyes; otherwise it would rear and kick, when the carpet rose into the air. Horse, man, djinn: all perched on a span of cloth. As they sped back to Nabuz like a mad wind, Marish tried not to watch the solid fields flying beneath, and regretted the candied apricots.
The voice of doubt told him that his companion must be slain by now, but his heart wanted to see Kadath-Naan again; but for the jackal-man, Marish was friendless.
Among the barley stalks, three man-high plinths of black stone, painted with white glyphs, marked three graves. Kadath-Naan had only traveled a little ways beyond them before the ambush. How long the emissary of the Empty City had been fighting, Marish could not tell; but he staggered and weaved like a man drunk with wine or exhaustion. His gray fur was matted with blood and sweat.
An army of children in white armor surrounded Kadath-Naan. As the carpet swung closer, Marish could see their gray faces and blank eyes. Some crawled, some tottered: none seemed to have lived more than six years of mortal life. They held daggers. One clung to the jackal-man's back, digging canals of blood.
Two of the babies were impaled on the point of the great black spear. Hand over hand, daggers held in their mouths, they dragged themselves down the shaft towards Kadath-Naan's hands. Hundreds more surrounded him, closing in.
Kadath-Naan swung his spear, knocking the slack-eyed creatures back. He struck with enough force to shatter human skulls, but the horrors only rolled, and scampered giggling back to stab his legs. With each swing, the spear was slower. Kadath-Naan's eyes rolled back into their sockets. His great frame shuddered from weariness and pain.
The carpet swung low over the battle, and Marish lay on his belly, dangling his arms down to the jackal-headed warrior. He shouted: "Jump! Kadath-Naan, jump!"
Kadath-Naan looked up and, gripping his spear in both hands, he tensed his legs to jump. But the pause gave the tiny servitors of the White Witch their chance; they swarmed over his body, stabbing with their daggers, and he collapsed under the writhing mass of his enemies.
"Down further! We can haul him aboard!" yelled Marish.
"I sold you the use of my carpet, not the destruction of it," said the djinn.
With a snarl of rage, and before the voice of his good sense could speak, Marish leapt from the carpet. He landed amidst the fray, and began tearing the small bodies from Kadath-Naan and flinging them into the fields. Then daggers found his calves, and small bodies crashed into his sides, and he tumbled, covered with the white-armored hell-children. The carpet sailed up lazily into the summer sky.
Marish thrashed, but soon he was pinned under a mass of small bodies. Their daggers probed his sides, drawing blood, and he gritted his teeth against a scream; they pulled at his hair and ears and pulled open his mouth to look inside. As if they were playing. One gray-skinned suckling child, its scalp peeled half away to reveal the white bone of its skull, nuzzled at his neck, seeking the nipple it would never find again.
So had Asza nuzzled against him. So had been her heft, then, light and snug as five apples in a bag. But her live eyes saw the world, took it in and made it better than it was. In those eyes he was a hero, a giant to lift her, honest and gentle and brave. When Temur looked into those otterbrown, mischievous eyes, her mouth softened from its hard line, and she sang fairy songs.
A dagger split the skin of his forehead, bathing him in blood. Another dug between his ribs, another popped the skin of his thigh. Another pushed against his gut, but hadn't broken through. He closed his eyes. They weighed heavier on him now; his throat tensed to scream, but he could not catch his breath.
Marish's arms ached for Asza and Temur—ached that he would die here, without them. Wasn't it right, though, that they be taken from him? The little girl who ran to him across the fields of an evening, a funny hopping run, her arms flung wide, waving that rag doll; no trace of doubt in her. And the beautiful wife who stiffened when she saw him, but smiled one-edged, despite herself, as he lifted apple-smelling Asza in his arms. He had not deserved them.
His face, his skin were hot and slick with salty blood. He saw, not felt, the daggers digging deeper—arcs of light across a great darkness. He wished he could comfort Asza one last time, across that darkness. As when she would awaken in the night, afraid of witches: now a witch had come.
He found breath, he forced his mouth open, and he sang through sobs to Asza, his song to lull her back to sleep:
"Now sleep, my love, now sleep—
The moon is in the sky—
The clouds have fled like sheep—
You're in your papa's eye.
"Sleep now, my love, sleep now—
The bitter wind is gone—
The calf sleeps with the cow—
Now sleep my love 'til dawn."
He freed his left hand from the press of bodies. He wiped blood and tears from his eyes. He pushed his head up, dizzy, flowers of light still exploding across his vision. The small bodies were still. Carefully, he eased them to the ground.
The carpet descended, and Marish hauled Kadath-Naan onto it. Then he forced himself to turn, swaying, and look at each of the gray-skinned babies sleeping peacefully on the ground. None of them was Asza.
He took one of the smallest and swaddled it with rags and bridle leather. His blood made his fingers slick, and the noon sun seemed as gray as a stone. When he was sure the creature could not move, he put it in his pack and slung the pack upon his back. Then he fell onto the carpet. He felt it lift up under him, and like a cradled child, he slept.
He awoke to see clouds sailing above him. The pain was gone. He sat up and looked at his arms: they were whole and unscarred. Even the old scar from Thin Deri's careless scythe was gone.
"You taught us how to defeat the Children of Despair," said the djinn. "That required recompense. I have treated your wounds and those of your companion. Is the debt clear?"
"Answer me one question," Marish said.
"And the debt will be clear?" said the djinn.
"Yes, may the west wind take you, it'll be clear!"
The djinn blinked in assent.
"Can they be brought back?" Marish asked. "Can they be made into living children again?"
"They cannot," said the djinn. "They can neither live nor die, nor be harmed at all unless they will it. Their hearts have been replaced with sand."
They flew in silence, and Marish's pack seemed heavier.
* * *
The land flew by beneath them as fast as a cracking whip; Marish stared as green fields gave way to swamp, swamp to marsh, marsh to rough pastureland. The devastation left by the White Witch seemed gradually newer; the trail here was still smoking, and Marish thought it might be too hot to walk on. They passed many a blasted village, and each time Marish looked away.
At last they began to hear a sound on the wind, a sound that chilled Marish's heart. It was not a wail, it was not a grinding, it was not a shriek of pain, nor the wet crunch of breaking bones, nor was it an obscene grunting; but it had something of all of these. The jackal-man's ears were perked, and his gray fur stood on end.
The path was now truly still burning; they flew high above it, and the rolling smoke underneath was like a fog over the land. But there ahead they saw the monstrous thing that was leaving the trail; and Marish could hardly think any thought at all as they approached, but only stare, bile burning his throat.
It was a great chariot, perhaps eight times the height of a man, as wide as the trail, constructed of parts of living human bodies welded together in an obscene tangle. A thousand legs and arms pawed the ground; a thousand more beat the trail with whips and scythes, or clawed the air. A thick skein of hearts, livers, and stomachs pulsed through the center of the thing, and a great assemblage of lungs breathed at its core. Heads rolled like wheels at the bottom of the chariot, or were stuck here and there along the surface of the thing as slack-eyed, gibbering ornaments. A thousand spines and torsos built a great chamber at the top of the chariot, shielded with webs of skin and hair; there perhaps hid the White Witch. From the pinnacle of the monstrous thing flew a great flag made of writhing tongues. Before the awful chariot rode a company of ten knights in white armor, with visored helms.
At the very peak sat a great headless hulking beast, larger than a bear, with the skin of a lizard, great yellow globes of eyes set on its shoulders and a wide mouth in its belly. As they watched, it vomited a gout of flame that set the path behind the chariot ablaze. Then it noticed them, and lifted the great plume of flame in their direction. At a swift word from the djinn, the carpet veered, but it was a close enough thing that Marish felt an oven's blast of heat on his skin. He grabbed the horse by its reins as it made to rear, and whispered soothing sounds in its ear.
"Abomination!" cried Kadath-Naan. "Djinn, will you send word to the Empty City? You will be well rewarded."
The djinn nodded.
"It is Kadath-Naan, lesser scout of the Endless Inquiry, who speaks. Let Bars-Kardereth, Commander of the Silent Legion, be told to hasten here. Here is an obscenity beyond compass, far more horrible than the innocent errors of savages; here Chaos blocks the descent into the Darkness entirely, and a whole land may fall to corruption."
The jewel in the djinn's forehead flashed once. "It is done," he said.
Kadath-Naan turned to Marish. "From the Empty City to this place is four days' travel for a Ghomlu Legion; let us find a place in their path where we can wait to join them."
Marish forced himself to close his eyes. But still he saw it—hands, tongues, guts, skin, woven into a moving mountain. He still heard the squelching, grinding, snapping sounds, the sea-roar of the thousand lungs. What had he imagined? Asza and Temur in a prison somewhere, waiting to be freed? Fool. "All right," he said.
Then he opened his eyes, and saw something that made him say, "No."
Before them, not ten minutes' ride from the awful chariot of the White Witch, was a whitewashed village, peaceful in the afternoon sun. Arrayed before it were a score of its men and young women. A few had proper swords or spears; one of the women carried a bow. The others had hoes, scythes, and staves. One woman sat astride a horse; the rest were on foot. From their perch in the air, Marish could see distant figures—families, stooped grandmothers, children in their mothers' arms—crawling like beetles up the faces of hills.
"Down," said Marish, and they landed before the village's defenders, who raised their weapons.
"You've got to run," he said, "you can make it to the hills. You haven't seen that thing—you haven't any chance against it."
A dark man spat on the ground. "We tried that in Gravenge."
"It splits up," said a black-bearded man. "Sends littler horrors, and they tear folks up and make them part of it, and you see your fellows' limbs, come after you as part of the thing. And they're fast. Too fast for us."
"We just busy it a while," another man said, "our folk can get far enough away." But he had a wild look in his eye: the voice of doubt was in him.
"We stop it here," said the woman on horseback.
Marish led the horse off the carpet, took its blinders off and mounted it. "I'll stand with you," he said.
"And welcome," said the woman on horseback, and her plain face broke into a nervous smile. It was almost pretty that way.
Kadath-Naan stepped off the carpet, and the villagers shied back, readying their weapons.
"This is Kadath-Naan, and you'll be damned glad you have him," said Marish.
"Where's your manners?" snapped the woman on horseback to her people. "I'm Asza," she said.
No, Marish thought, staring at her. No, but you could have been. He looked away, and after a while they left him alone.
The carpet rose silently off into the air, and soon there was smoke on the horizon, and the knights rode at them, and the chariot rose behind.
"Here we are," said Asza of the rocky lands, "now make a good accounting of yourselves."
An arrow sang; a white knight's horse collapsed. Marish cried "Ha!" and his mount surged forward. The villagers charged, but Kadath-Naan outpaced them all, springing between a pair of knights. He shattered the forelegs of one horse with his spear's shaft, drove its point through the side of the other rider. Villagers fell on the fallen knight with their scythes.
It was a heady wild thing for Marish, to be galloping on such a horse, a far finer horse than ever Redlegs had been, for all Pa's proud and vain attention to her. The warmth of its flanks, the rhythm of posting into its stride. Marish of Ilmak Dale, riding into a charge of knights: miserable addle-witted fool.
Asza flicked her whip at the eyes of a knight's horse, veering away. The knight wheeled to follow her, and Marish came on after him. He heard the hooves of another knight pounding the plain behind him in turn.
Ahead the first knight gained on Asza of the rocky plains. Marish took his knife in one hand, and bent his head to his horse's ear, and whispered to it in wordless murmurs: Fine creature, give me everything. And his horse pulled even with Asza's knight.
Marish swung down, hanging from his pommel—the ground flew by beneath him. He reached across and slipped his knife under the girth that held the knight's saddle. The knight swiveled, raising his blade to strike—then the girth parted, and he flew from his mount.
Marish struggled up into the saddle, and the second knight was there, armor blazing in the sun. This time Marish was on the sword-arm's side, and his horse had slowed, and that blade swung up and it could strike Marish's head from his neck like snapping off a sunflower; time for the peasant to die.
Asza's whip lashed around the knight's sword-arm. The knight seized the whip in his other hand. Marish sprang from the saddle. He struck a wall of chainmail and fell with the knight.
The ground was an anvil, the knight a hammer, Marish a rag doll sewn by a poor mad girl and mistaken for a horseshoe. He couldn't breathe; the world was a ringing blur. The knight found his throat with one mailed glove, and hissed with rage, and pulling himself up drew a dagger from his belt. Marish tried to lift his arms.
Then he saw Asza's hands fitting a leather noose around the knight's neck. The knight turned his visored head to see, and Asza yelled, "Yah!" An armored knee cracked against Marish's head, and then the knight was gone, dragged off over the rocky plains behind Asza's galloping mare.
Asza of the rocky lands helped Marish to his feet. She had a wild smile, and she hugged him to her breast; pain shot through him, as did the shock of her soft body. Then she pulled away, grinning, and looked over his shoulder back towards the village. And then the grin was gone.
Marish turned. He saw the man with the beard torn apart by a hundred grasping arms and legs. Two bending arms covered with eyes watched carefully as his organs were woven into the chariot. The village burned. A knight leaned from his saddle to cut a fleeing woman down, harvesting her like a stalk of wheat.
"No!" shrieked Asza, and ran towards the village.
Marish tried to run, but he could only hobble, gasping, pain tearing through his side. Asza snatched a spear from the ground and swung up onto a horse. Her hair was like Temur's, flowing gold. My Asza, my Temur, he thought. I must protect her.
Marish fell; he hit the ground and held onto it like a lover, as if he might fall into the sky. Fool, fool, said the voice of his good sense. That is not your Asza, or your Temur either. She is not yours at all.
He heaved himself up again and lurched on, as Asza of the rocky plains reached the chariot. From above, a lazy plume of flame expanded. The horse reared. The cloud of fire enveloped the woman, the horse, and then was sucked away; the blackened corpses fell to the ground steaming.
Marish stopped running.
The headless creature of fire fell from the chariot—Kadath-Naan was there at the summit of the horror, his spear sunk in its flesh as a lever. But the fire-beast turned as it toppled, and a pillar of fire engulfed the jackal-man. The molten iron of his spear and armor coated his body, and he fell into the grasping arms of the chariot.
Marish lay down on his belly in the grass.
Maybe they will not find me here, said the voice of hope. But it was like listening to idiot words spoken by the wind blowing through a forest. Marish lay on the ground and he hurt. The hurt was a song, and it sang him. Everything was lost and far away. No Asza, no Temur, no Maghd; no quest, no hero, no trickster, no hunter, no father, no groom. The wind came down from the mountains and stirred the grass beside Marish's nose, where beetles walked.
There was a rustling in the short grass, and a hedgehog came out of it and stood nose to nose with Marish.