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The Years Best Science Fiction, Vol. 18 | librius.net





The Years Best Science Fiction, Vol. 18

- The Years Best Science Fiction, Vol. 18 1894K(купити) - Gardner Dozois


Gardner Dozois
The Years Best Science Fiction, Vol. 18

The Juniper Tree - John Kessel


Born in Buffalo, New York, John Kessel now lives with his family in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is a professor of American literature and creative writing at North Carolina State University. Kessel made his first sale in 1975. His first solo novel,Good News from Outer Space,was released in 1988 to wide critical acclaim, but before that he had made his mark on the genre primarily as a writer of highly imaginative, finely crafted short stories, many of which were assembled in his collection Meeting in Infinity.He won a Nebula Award in 1983 for his superlative novella “Another Orphan,” which was also a Hugo finalist that year, and has been released as an individual book. His story “Buffalo” won the Theodore Sturgeon Award in 1991. His other books include the novel Freedom Beach,written in collaboration with James Patrick Kelly, and an anthology of stories from the famous Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop (which he also helps to run), called Intersections,coedited by Mark L. Van Name and Richard Butner. His most recent books are a major novel, Corrupting Dr. Nice,and a collection, The Pure Product.
Here he takes us to a colonized Moon, humanity’s newest habitation, for a taut encounter with some passions that are very old indeed…

The Juniper Tree One of the most successful transplants to the colony established by the Society of Cousins on the far side of the Moon was the juniper tree. Soon after Jack Baldwin and his daughter Rosalind emigrated in 2085, a project under Baldwin’s direction planted junipers on the inside slopes of the domed crater, where they prospered in the low-moisture environment. Visitors to the Society today may be excused if, strolling the woods above the agricultural lands of the crater floor, the frag

rance of the foliage, beneath the projected blue sky of the dome, makes them think for a moment that they are in some low-gravity dream of New Mexico.

It was under a juniper tree that Jack disposed of the remains of Carey Evasson, the fourteen-year-old boy he killed.

Ice The blue squad’s centering pass slid through the crease, where Maryjane fanned on the shot. The puck skidded to the boards, and Roz, who had been promoted to the red team for today’s practice, picked it up to start a rush the other way. Carey spotted her from across the rink and set off parallel to her.

They’d caught the blues off guard, with only Thabo between them and the goalie. Thabo came up to check her. Roz swerved right, then left a drop pass for Carey.

But Thabo poked his stick between Roz’s legs and deflected the pass. While Roz and Carey overran the play, Thabo passed the puck back the other way to Maryjane.

Their breakaway was interrupted by the shriek of Coach Ingasdaughter’s whistle. The coach skated onto the ice, yelling at Roz. “What kind of a play was that? You’ve got a two-on-one and you go for the drop pass?Shoot the Puck! ”

“But if Thabo had followed me Carey would have had an open net.”

“If if if!” She raised her eyes to the roof of the cavern far overhead. “Why do you think Thabo didn’t follow you? He knew you would pass, because younever shoot! If you don’t establish that you’re a threat, they’re always going to ignore you. For once, let theboy get the rebound!”

Roz’s face burned. The blue and red squads stood around watching her take the heat. Carey was looking down, brushing the blade of his stick across the ice.

Coach Ingasdaughter suddenly grabbed Roz by the shoulders, pulled her forward, and planted a kiss on her lips. “But what can I expect from a girl whose parents were married?” she said, letting Roz go.

Someone snickered. “Ten-minute break,” Ingasdaughter said, and turned away.

Roz almost took a slash at her retreating back. Instead she looked past the coach to the bleachers where a few off-shift pressure workers sat, helmets thrown back over their shoulders, watching the practice.

Beyond the rink, the floor of the cave was one huge mass of blue ice, humped and creased, refracting the lights and fading into the distance. The coach skated over to talk with her assistant. Most of the team went over to the cooler by the home bench. Roz skated to the penalty box, flipped the door open and sat down.

It was hard being the only immigrant on the hockey team. The cousins teased her, called her “High-G.”

Roz had thought that going out for hockey would be a way for her to make some girlfriends who could break her into one of the cliques. You needed a family to get anywhere among the Cousins. You needed a mother. A father was of no consequence-everybody had a dozen fathers, or none at all.

Instead she met Carey. And, through dumb luck, it had seemed to work. Carey’s grandmother, Margaret Emmasdaughter, had known Nora Sobieski personally. His mother was Eva Maggiesdaughter, chair of the Board of Matrons, by some measures the most powerful woman in the colony.

Some of the players started skating big circles on the oversized rink. She watched Carey build up a head of steam, grinning, his blond hair flying behind him. On the next time around he pulled off his glove, skated past the penalty box, winked, and gave her five as he flew by. The heavy gold ring he wore left a welt on her palm; just like Carey to hurt her with his carelessness, but she could not help but smile.

The first time she had met Carey a check she threw during practice nearly killed him. Roz had not gotten completely adjusted to skating in one-sixth gee, how it was harder to start and stop, but also how much faster you got going than on Earth. Carey had taken the full brunt of her hit and slammed headfirst into the boards. Play stopped. Everyone gathered around while he lay motionless on the ice.

Carey turned over and staggered to his feet, only his forehead showing above his shoulder pads. His voice came from somewhere within his jersey. “Watch out for those Earth women, guys.”

Everyone laughed, and Carey poked his head out from below his pads. His bright-green eyes had been focused on Roz’s, and she burst out laughing, too.

When her father moved in with Eva, Carey became the brother she had never had, bold where she was shy, funny where she was sober.

Coach blew her whistle and they did two-on-one drills for the rest of the practice. Afterward Roz sat on a bench in the locker room taping the blade of her stick. At the end of the bench Maryjane flirted with Stella in stage whispers. Roz tried to ignore them.

Carey, wrapped only in a towel, sat down next to Roz and checked to see whether the coaches were in earshot. She liked watching the way the muscles of his chest and arms slid beneath his skin, so much so that she tried hard not to look at him. He leaned toward her. “Hey, High-G-you interested in joining the First Imprints Club?”

“What’s that?”

He touched her on the leg. He always touched her, seemingly chance encounters, elbow to shoulder, knee to calf, his forehead brushing her hair. “A bunch of us are going to meet at the fountains in the dome,” Carey said. “When the carnival is real crazy we’re going to sneak out onto the surface. You’ll need your pressure suit-and make sure its waste reservoir vent is working.”

“Waste reservoir? What for?”

“Keep your voice down!”

“Why?”

“We’re going to climb Shiva Ridge and pee on the mountaintop.” He tapped a finger on her leg. His touch was warm.

“Sounds like a boy thing,” she said. “If your mother finds out, you’ll be in deep trouble.”

He smiled. “You’ll never get to be an alpha female with that attitude, High-G. Mother would have invented this club, if she’d thought of it.” He got up and went over to talk to Thabo.

God, she was so stupid! It was the beginning of Founders’ Week, and she had hoped Carey would be her guide and companion through the carnival. She had worried all week what to wear. What a waste.

She’d blown it. She tugged on the green asymmetrically-sleeved shirt she had chosen so carefully to set off her red hair.

Roz hung around the edges as Carey joked with the others, trying to laugh in the right places, feeling miserably out of place. After they dressed, she left with Carey, Thabo, and Raisa for the festival. Yellow triangular signs surrounded the pressure lock in the hallway linking the ice cavern to the lava tube. Roz struggled to keep up with Carey who, like all of the kids born on the Moon, was taller than Roz. Raisa leaned on Thabo. Raisa had told Roz the day before that she was thinking about moving out and getting her own apartment. Raisa was thirteen, six months younger than Roz.

The lava tube was as much as forty meters wide, thirty tall, and it twisted and turned, rose and fell, revealing different vistas as they went along. Shops and apartments clung to the walls. Gardens grew along the nave beneath heliostats that transformed light transmitted from the surface during the lunar day into a twenty-four-hour cycle. Unless you went outside you could forget whether it was day or night out on the surface.

Now it was “night.” As they entered the crater from the lava tube, the full extent of the colony was spread out before them. The crater was nearly two kilometers in diameter. Even in one-sixth gee the dome was a triumph of engineering, supported by a five-hundred-meter-tall central steel-and-glass spire.

Roz could hardly believe it, but the school legend was that Carey had once climbed the spire in order to spray-paint the name of a girl he liked on the inside of the dome.

Above, the dome was covered with five meters of regolith to protect the inside from radiation, and beneath the ribbed struts that spread out from the spire like an umbrella’s, the interior surface was a screen on which could be projected a daytime sky or a nighttime starfield. Just now thousands of bright stars shone down. Mars and Jupiter hung in bright conjunction high overhead.

From the west and south sides of the crater many levels of balconied apartments overlooked the interior.

Most of the crater floor was given over to agriculture, but at the base of the spire was Sobieski Park, the main meeting ground for the colony’s 2,500 inhabitants. An elaborate fountain surrounded the tower.

There was an open-air theater. Trees and grass, luxuriantly irrigated in a display of conspicuous water consumption, spread out from the center.

Roz and the others climbed down the zigzag path from the lava tube and through the farmlands to the park. Beneath strings of colored lights hung in the trees, men and women danced to the music of a drum band. Naked revelers wove their way through the crowd. Both sexes wore bright, fragrant ribbons in their hair. A troupe performed low-gravity acrobatics on the amphitheater stage. Little children ran in and out of the fountains, while men and women in twos and threes and every combination of sexes leaned in each other’s arms.

On the shadowed grass, Roz watched an old man and a young girl lying together, not touching, leaning heads on elbows, speaking in low voices with their faces inches apart. What could they possibly have to say to each other? Thabo and Raisa faded off into the dancers around the band, and Roz was alone with Carey. Carey brought her a flavored ice and sat down on the grass beside her. The drum band was making a racket, and the people were dancing faster now.

“Sorry the coach is on your case so much,” Carey said. He touched her shoulder gently. The Cousins were always touching each other. With them, the dividing line between touching for sex and touching just to touch was erased.

God, she wished she could figure out what she wanted. Was he her brother or her boyfriend? It was hard enough back on Earth; among all these Cousins it was impossible.

When she didn’t answer right away, Carey said, “The invisible girl returns.”

“What?”

“You’re disappearing again. The girl from the planet nobody’s ever seen.”

Roz watched the girl with the man on the grass. The girl was no older than she. The distance between the two had disappeared; now the girl was climbing onto the man.

Carey ran his finger down Roz’s arm, then gently nudged her over. Roz pushed him away. “No thanks.”

Carey tried to kiss her cheek, and she turned away. “Not now, OK?”

“What’s the matter?”

“Does something have to be the matter? Any Cousins girl might tell you no, too. Don’t act like it’s just because I’m from Earth.”

“It is.”

“Is not.”

“I’m not going to rape you, High-G. Cousins don’t rape.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Absolutely nothing. But you know how screwed up it is down on Earth.”

“Lots of stuff people do here would be wrong on Earth.”

“Right. And people there shoot each other if anyone touches them.”

Cousins could be so arrogant it made her want to spit. “You’ve never even seen the Earth-let alone been there.”

“I’ve seen you, Roz.”

“You don’t own me.”

He smiled. “No. Your father does.” He nuzzled her neck.

Roz hit him. “Get off me, you pig!” She got up and ran away.

Festival Forty milligrams of serentol, a whiff or two of THC, and an ounce of grain alcohol: Jack Baldwin wobbled through the crowd of revelers in Sobieski Park. Beneath the somatic night, feeling just an edge of anxiety, he looked for Eva among the faces.

The park was full of young men and women, their perfect bodies in one another’s arms. Sex was their favorite pastime, and who could blame them? They went about it as if their lives depended on the next coupling. That was biology at work, he supposed-but if it was just genes having their way with the human body, then why all the emotional turmoil-does she love me who’s he sleeping with I can’t stand it when she looks at him like that how unfair to treat me like a toy who does he think he is I can’t stand it I’ll die if I can’t have her tonight…

Where was Eva? He smiled. Apparently genes did not let go of your mind just because you were pushing forty. Sex had been a problem back on Earth-always some screw-up with women coworkers, hassles with his live-ins, distractions. Here, sex was the common coin of interpersonal contact, unjudged as taste in ice cream (but some people made a religion of taste), easy as speech (but speech was not always easy), frequent as eating (but some people starved themselves in the midst of plenty). Where did that leave him? Was he simply a victim of the culture that had raised him? Or was his frustration purely personal?

Where was Eva?

Men and women, naked, oiled, and smiling, wove their way through the celebrants, offering themselves to whoever might wish to take them. It was the one day of the year that the Society of Cousins fit the cliched image of polymorphous orgy that outsiders had of it. One of them, a dark young woman-dark as Eva-brushed her fingers across Jack’s cheek, then swirled away on one luscious hip.

But Eva was taller, more slender. Eva’s breasts were small, her waist narrow despite the softness of the belly that had borne Carey, and when they made love her hipbones pressed against him. She was forty, and there was gray in her black hair. This girl dancing by could satisfy his lust, and perhaps if he knew her she would become a person as complex as Eva. But she would not be Eva: the combination of idealism and practicality, the temper that got her into trouble because she could not keep her mouth shut. Fierce when she fought for what mattered to her, but open-hearted to those who opposed her, with an inability to be successfully Machiavellian that was her saving grace.

He had met Eva a month after he and Roz had arrived at the colony. Jack was working on a new nematode that, combined with a gene-engineered composting process, would produce living soil from regolith more efficiently than the tedious chemical methods that had been used to create Fowler’s initial environment. His specialty in nematodes had been the passport for him and Roz into the guarded Cousins society, the last bridge after a succession of burned bridges he had left behind them. He certainly had not planned to end up on the Moon. The breakup with Helen. The fight over Roz, ending with him taking her against the court order. The succession of jobs. The forged vita.

Eva, newly elected head of the board, chaired the environmental subcommittee. She had come by the biotech lab in the outlying bunker. Jack did not know who the tall, striking woman in the webbed pressure suit was. She asked questions of Amravati, the head of the project, then came over to observe Jack, up to his ankles in muck, examining bacteria through an electron microscope visor.

Flirting led to a social meeting, more flirting led to sex. Sex-that vortex women hid behind their navels, that place he sometimes had to be so badly that every other thought fell away and he lost himself again.

Or was it finding himself? Eva’s specialty was physics, some type of quantum imaging that he did not understand and whose practical benefits he could not picture. But a relationship that had started as a mercenary opportunity had, to Jack’s surprise, turned to something like love.

As Jack sat on the edge of the fountain, hoping he might find Eva in the crowd, instead he spotted Roz.

Her face was clouded; her dark brown eyes large with some trouble. “Roz?” he called.

She heard his voice, looked up, saw him. She hesitated a moment, then walked over.

“What’s the matter, sweetheart?” he asked.

“Nothing.” She sat down next to him. She was bothered by something.

Across the plaza, two of the acrobats juggled three children in the low gravity the way someone on Earth might juggle bean bags. The kids, tucked into balls, squealed in delight as they rose and fell like the waters of the fountain.

“Isn’t this amazing?” Jack asked.

“‘Amazing,’ Dad-that’s very perceptive.”

“What?”

“This place is disgusting. Look at that old creep there feeling up that girl.”

“We talked about this, Roz. The Cousins do things differently. But they don’t do anything against anyone’s will.”

“It’s all OK with you, just as long as you’re getting laid every night.”

He put his hand on her leg. “What’s going on?”

She pulled away. “Nothing’s going on! I’m just tired of watching you take advantage of people. Mom would never have brought me here.”

Roz never mentioned her mother. Jack tried to focus. “I don’t know, girl. Your mom had her own problems fitting in.”

“The only reason we came here is that you couldn’t get a job back on Earth.”

He tried to get Roz to look at him, but she was fixed on her outsized plastic shoes. “Aren’t we hostile tonight,” he said. She didn’t answer. He saw for the first time how much her profile had become that of a grown woman. “I’ll admit it. The job had something to do with it. But Roz, you’ve got a chance to become someone here you could never be on Earth-if you’ll make an effort. Women are important here. Hell, women run the place! Do you think I like the idea of being a second-class citizen? I gave up a lot to bring you here.”

“All you care about is getting into Eva’s bed,” Roz told the shoes. “She’s using you, and she’ll just dump you after she’s had enough, like all these other Cousins.”

“You think that little of my choices?”

That made her look at him. Her face was screwed into a furious scowl. The music of the drum band stopped suddenly, and the people applauded. “How do you know Eva’s not going to try to get me into bed with her, too?”

Jack laughed. “I don’t think so.”

She stood up. “God, you are so smug! I can’t tell you anything!”

“Roz, what is this-”

She turned and stalked off.

“Roz!” he called after her. She did not turn back.

Next to him, a thin black woman holding a toddler had been eavesdropping. Jack walked away to escape her gaze. The band started another song. Inwardly churning, he listened to the music for a few minutes, watching the people dance. Whatever his failings, hadn’t he always done his best for Roz? He didn’t expect her to agree with him all the time, but she had to know how much he loved her.

The amused detachment with which he’d entered the plaza was gone. The steel drums gave him a headache. He crossed the plaza. Before he had gone ten paces he saw Eva. She was in the crowd of dancers, paired with a round-faced woman. The woman was grinning fiercely; she bumped against Eva, slid her belly up against Eva’s. Eva had her arms raised into the air and was smiling too, grinding her hips.

As Jack stood watching, someone sidled up to him. It was Hal Keikosson, who worked in Agriculture.

Hal was in his forties and still living with his mother-a common situation among the Cousins.

“Hey, Jack. Who was that girl I saw you talking to? That red hair? Cute.”

Jack kept watching Eva and the woman. Eva had not noticed him yet. “That was my daughter,” he told Hal.

“Interesting.” Hal swayed a bit, clutching a squeeze cup in his sweaty hand.

Jack ought to let it go, but he couldn’t. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing. She must be fourteen or fifteen already, right?”

“She’s fourteen.”

“And maybe she isn’t your daughter.” Hal giggled.

Jack stared at him. “What?”

“I mean, how could her mother be sure-or maybe she lied to you.”

“Shut the fuck up before I belt you.”

“Hey, it’s none of my business who you sleep with.”

“I’m not sleeping with her.”

“Calm down, calm down, Cousin.” Hal took a sip from his cup. He looked benignly over at the figures writhing in the shadows beneath the trees. “Too bad,” he said quietly, and chuckled.

Jack stalked away to keep from taking a swing at him.

The drum band was louder now, and so was the babble of the increasing crowd. He passed a group of drunken singers. Near the amphitheater he saw one of the acrobat children staggering around in circles, giggling. Jamira Tamlasdaughter, a friend of Eva’s, tried to say hello, but he passed her by with a wave.

Jack’s head throbbed. Beyond the trees that marked the border of Sobieski Park he followed a path through fields of dry-lands soybeans, corn, potatoes. There was no one out here-most of the Cousins were at the festival now.

A kilometer later the path turned upward into the open lands of the crater slopes. Low, hardy, blue-white grass covered the ground. But the sound of the band still floated over the fields, and turning, Jack could see the central tower lit by the colored lights. The foliage was side-lit only by that distant light and the projected starlight from the dome. Somewhere off to his left a night bird sang in a scraggly pine. He turned his back to the festival.

It was an easy climb in one-sixth gee, and when he hit the concrete rim of the crater that supported the dome he followed the perimeter road around toward the north airlock. He wanted out. The best refuge he could think of was the biotech lab.

Because of the festival, the airlock was deserted. Jack took his pressure suit from his locker, suited up, and cycled through the personnel lock. He passed through the radiation baffles to the surface.

Although it was night inside the dome, out here it was lunar afternoon. Harsh shadows lay beneath the fields of solar collectors lining the road to the labs. Jack skipped along the tracked-up roadway, kicking up a powder of fines. Over the throb of his headache he listened to the sound of his own breathing in his earphones.

The fight he’d had with Roz was just like one of his final spats with Helen, full of buried resentments and false assumptions. Roz’s accusations stung because there was an element of truth in them. But Roz was wrong to say Jack didn’t care about her. From the moment of her birth Jack had committed himself to Roz without reservation. Clearly he hadn’t paid enough attention to her troubles, but he would do anything to protect her.

Roz didn’t understand that things were hard for Jack. “All men are boys,” the Cousins said. In the case of a jerk like Keikosson, he could admit the saying’s truth. But it was as much a product of the way they lived as of the men themselves. The women of the Cousins indulged their boys their pleasures, kept them adolescents far into their adulthood. It was a form of control-by-privilege.

Jack chafed at the way a male in the colony was seldom respected for his achievements, but rather for who his mother and grandmother were. He hated the way women deferred to him once it got around that he was Eva Maggiesdaughter’s latest partner. He hated the sidelong glances he got about his relationship to Roz. He was Roz’s father. He was not anyone’s boy.

The biotech labs were located in a bunker a kilometer north of Fowler. He entered the personnel lock, air-blasted the fines from his suit, and removed it. Like the airlock, the lab was deserted. He passed through the greenhouse’s rows of juniper and pinon seedlings to the soils lab. The temperature on his latest batch of nematode soil was 30 centigrade. He drew on some boots, rolled back the cover on the reservoir, and waded into the loamy earth. The rich smell of nitrogen compounds filled his lungs, and he felt momentarily dizzy with relaxation.

Taking a cermet rake from the tool cabinet, he worked over the surface of the soil. His nematodes were doing their jobs nicely, increasing the water content, breaking down organics and hosting the nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Once his team got the OK from the colony’s environmental committee, they would start a trial planting using the soil and the greenhouse seedlings on Fowler’s east slope.

He had not been working long when he heard the airlock alert. Startled, he dropped the rake and stood up. Some minutes later a figure emerged from the greenhouse and peered from around the rock crusher.

“Jack?”

“Over here, Carey,” Jack said.

The boy came over. He was taller than his mother, and blond instead of dark. Jack wondered once again who his father was. Carey was still wearing his pressure suit, helmet off.

“What are you doing here?” Jack asked. “How did you know I was here?”

“I was coming into the north airlock when I saw you cycling out,” Carey said. “By the time I got my suit on you were gone, but I figured you might be here. I wanted to speak with you about Roz, Jack.”

“What about her?”

“I think she’s having a hard time,” Carey said. “I think you might want to pay more attention to what’s going on with her. Fathers like you do that, right?”

“Fathers like what?”

“Come on, Jack, you know-Earth fathers.”

“What’s wrong with Roz?” Jack asked.

“She seems to have some sexual hang-ups. She hasn’t talked with you about it? She talks about you all the time.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Roz. Besides, it’s none of your business, Carey.”

“Well, it sort of is. At least if she’s not telling you these things, and you care about her, then I guess I need to tell you. Like after we slept together the first time, she cried.”

“You slept with her?” Jack’s own voice sounded leaden in his ears.

“Sure. I thought you knew.” Carey was completely unselfconscious. “I mean, we’re all in the same apartment. She didn’t tell you that, either?”

“No.”

“She needs help. She’s making some progress with the kids on the hockey team, but for every step forward she takes one back. I think she’s too hung up on you, Jack.”

“Don’t call me Jack.”

Carey looked confused. “Excuse me?”

“Don’t call me Jack, you little pissant. You don’t know a thing about me and Roz.”

“I know you’re immigrants and don’t understand everything. But a lot of people are starting to think you need to live separately. You don’t own Roz.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“She’s a woman. She can make up her own mind.”

The boy’s face was an open map of earnest, smug innocence. Jack couldn’t stand it. “Damn you, she’s not your whore!”

Carey laughed. “A whore? That’s an Earth thing, right? One of those sexual ownership practices?”

Jack took one step, grabbed the collar of the boy’s pressure suit, and yanked him forward. Carey’s feet caught on the edge of the reservoir. As he fell, he twisted around; Jack lost his own balance and shoved Carey downward to keep from falling himself. Much faster than normal in lunar-gee, Carey hit the ground. His head snapped sideways against the rake.

Catching his balance, Jack waited for Carey to get up. But he didn’t get up. Jack crouched over the boy.

Carey had fallen onto the head of the rake; one of the six-centimeter ceramic tines had penetrated his temple. Blood seeped into the soil.

Carefully, Jack drew out the tines, rolled him over. Carey shuddered and the blood flowed more freely.

The boy’s breathing was shallow, his eyes unfocused. As Jack watched, Carey’s breathing stopped.

After ten minutes of futile CPR, Jack fell back from Carey’s limp body and sat down heavily on the edge of the reservoir.

Jesus Christ. What had he done? What was he going to do now? Eva!-what would she think?

It was an accident. But that didn’t matter. He was an immigrant, an outsider, a man. Someone would surely accuse him of murder. They would drug him into insensibility, cut up his brain. At best they would expel him from the colony, and Roz with him-or worse still, they might not expel Roz. He sat there facing the cold reality of his thirty-eight years of screwed-up life.

Carey’s head lolled back into the muck, his mouth open. “You arrogant prick,” Jack whispered to the dead boy. “You fucked it all up.”

He looked around the room. In front of him was the reduction chamber, the crusher, the soil reservoir.

Shuddering, he went back to the tool chest and found a machete. He dragged Carey’s body over the edge of the reservoir, getting dirt up to his own elbows. The soil was rich with the heat of decomposition.

Jack was about to begin cutting off Carey’s arms when the airlock alert sounded again. He panicked. He stumbled out of the reservoir, trying to heft Carey’s body into the hopper of the crusher. Before he could conceal the body he heard steps behind him.

It was Roz. She stood for a moment staring at him as he held Carey’s bare ankle in his hand. “Dad?”

“Go away, Roz.”

She came over to him. “Dad, what’s going on?” She saw the body. “Jesus, Dad, what happened?”

“An accident. The less you know about it the better.”

She took a couple of steps closer. “Carey? Is he all right?”

“Go away, Roz.”

Roz put her hand to her mouth. “Is he dead?”

Jack let go of Carey and came over to her. “It was an accident, Roz. I didn’t mean to hurt him. He fell down.”

“Carey!” She rushed over, then backed away until she bumped into the rock crusher. “He’s dead! What happened? Dad! Why did you do this?”

Jack didn’t know what to do. He looked back at Carey, lying awkwardly on the concrete floor, the machete beside his leg. “It was an accident, Roz. I grabbed him, he fell. I didn’t mean to-”

“Carey,” she said. “Carey.” She would not look at Jack.

“Roz, I would never have hurt him on purpose. I-”

“What were you fighting about?”

“It wasn’t a fight. He told me you had slept together. I was shocked, I guess. I-”

Roz slumped to the floor. “It was my fault?”

“No. It was an accident.”

“I don’t believe this,” she said. She looked at Carey’s body. Jack thought about the last time she must have seen him naked. “You’re going to go to jail!” Roz said. “They might even kill you. Who’s going to take care of me?”

“I’m going to take care of you. Please, Roz, don’t think about this. You need to get out of here.”

“What are we going to do?”

“You’re not going to do anything except get out! Don’t you understand?”

Roz stared at him a long moment. “I can help.”

Jack felt chilled. “I don’t want your help! I’m your father, damn it!”

She sat there, her eyes welling with tears. It was a nightmare. He sat down next to her and put his arm around her. She cried against his shoulder. A long time passed, and neither of them spoke.

Finally she pulled away from him. “It’s my fault,” she said. “I should have told you I loved him.”

Jack closed his eyes. He could hear his own pulse in his ears. The soil of the reservoir smelled as rich as ever. “Please, don’t say anymore.”

“Oh, god, how could you do this?” he heard her whisper. “Carey…” She cried against Jack’s shoulder some more.

Then, after a while, swallowing her tears, Roz said, “If we get rid of his suit…if we get rid of his suit, they’ll think he got lost on the surface.”

He opened his eyes and looked at her. Now he was scared. Who was this girl? “What do you mean?” he asked.

Eating Eva expected Jack would turn up at the festival eventually, and she didn’t want to miss the partying. Her mother came by with some of her cronies, and then Eva found herself dancing with Angela Angelasdaughter, the colony’s most notorious artist. Ten years ago, any gossip session in the sauna would devote ten minutes to the sexy sculptress and her physicist lover. Since then Angela had gained a potbelly, but her smile was as wicked as ever.

During a break in the music, Eva shared a drink with Jamira Tamlasdaughter. Jamira told Eva she had seen Jack earlier. “He’s so handsome, Eva,” Jamira said. “You’re so lucky. He’s like a god.”

Eva smiled, thinking of Jack’s taut body stretched across her bed. “Where did he go?”

“I don’t know. I expect he’s here somewhere.”

But Jack did not show up. What with one thing and another it was well after midnight when Eva returned to her apartment. Jack was sitting on the floor with a glass in front of him.

“So here you are,” Eva said. “I thought we would meet at the festival.”

He looked up at her, and his blue eyes were so soulfully sad that she melted. “I couldn’t find you,” he said quietly.

She sat down next to him. “I got caught up at the lab.” She and Victor had been working overtime on assembler programming. “Are Carey and Roz here?”

“No.”

“Good. Then we can entertain ourselves-unless this stuff you pour into yourself makes that unnecessary.”

Jack put his arms around her, pulled her to him, and rested his forehead against hers. “You know I always need you,” he whispered. Eva could smell spiced alcohol on his breath. She pulled him back onto the floor, and they kissed furiously.

They eventually found their way to the bedroom. Afterward, she was ravenously hungry. As a member of the Board, she had earned the privilege of a small kitchen: she padded in, naked, and returned to the room with a plate, a knife, an apple, and a hunk of cheese.

Jack was stretched across the bed just as she had imagined him, the muscles of his belly thrown into relief by the low light. She sat cross-legged beside him, cut a slice from the apple and offered it to him. “Here we are, in the Garden. Eve offers you an apple.”

“No, thanks.”

“Come on, Adam. Have some fun.”

His eyes flicked away from her, the corner of his mouth twitched. “I’ve had too much fun already,” he said to the ceiling.

She drew the apple slice across his chest, down to his navel. “There’s always more where that came from.”

“I’m worried about Roz. She shouldn’t be out this late.”

“Your daughter’s too sensible to do anything risky.” Eva heard the door to the apartment open, the sound of someone coming down the hall and entering Rosalind’s room. “See?” Eva said. “There she is.”

“What about Carey?”

“Carey, on the other hand, is no doubt busy getting into some sort of trouble. We’ll deal with him in the morning.”

She brushed her hand over his penis, and it stiffened. He said nothing, but eventually his hand came up to touch her hair, and then he pulled close and made love to her with an intensity that left her breathless and relaxed. He fell asleep beside her, and she lay watching the plate and the apple slices in the faint light.

Soon, she thought, soon, they would be able to reproduce anything. She would prove that the Cousins were not some backward-looking, female-dominated hive. They would stun the world. Dreaming of this, Jack’s arm around her, she fell asleep.

In the morning Carey had not returned.

Over breakfast-Eva finished the apple, now turned brown-she asked Roz what had happened after hockey practice. After denying anything, Roz finally admitted that Carey and some others had used the cover of the festival to sneak out of the colony onto the surface. The “First Imprints Club.” In the dead lunar surface their markings in the dust would last as long as if etched in stone.

That sounded like Carey, right down to the wasting of water. Eva called Carey’s friends. She discovered that Carey had left them at the festival, telling them he would catch up with them at the airlock. After waiting for him, they had gone out without him, expecting that he’d meet them on Shiva Ridge.

Carey’s pressure suit was not in his locker at the north airlock. Eva tried not to panic. She alerted colony security. Hundreds of volunteers joined in a search of the surface. With the assistance of Carey’s friends they found the footprints of the party, but none for Carey. Lunar Positioning Satellites could not raise his suit’s locator. Parties scanned the prominent landmarks, but came up empty.

The next days became a nightmare. Eva spent all of her waking hours out on the surface with the search parties, coming inside only to recharge her air supply and catch an hour or two of sleep. Her eyes fell into a permanent squint from the brightness of the surface. For the first twenty-four hours Eva still hoped Carey might be found alive. He had fallen unconscious in the shadow of some rock, she told herself; hypothermia would keep his metabolism low so he wouldn’t exhaust his oxygen.

As the hours passed she kept despair at bay by driving herself even harder. The third day found her a part of a line of twenty Cousins, at hundred-meter intervals, sweeping Shiva ridge for the fourth time.

Something was wrong with her faceplate: it was breaking all the gray landscape into particles, no piece of the Moon connected to any other piece, and all of it was dead. The voices of the other searchers calling to each other sounded in her ear button. “Nothing here.” “Where’s here?” “I’m on the east end of the ridge, below Black Rock.”

Eva felt numb. She came to the edge of a lava tube whose roof had fallen in. It was fifty meters to the shadowed bottom. Even in lunar gravity the fall would be fatal. She swayed on the edge, having trouble breathing. Her mouth was dry, and her eyes itched.

Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her away. “No,” his voice came over her ear button, as close as her own thoughts. It was Jack. He wrapped her in a bear hug, drew her back. He made her return with him to Fowler, to eat a meal, to take some pills, and sleep for fourteen hours.

After that Eva no longer tormented herself with impossibilities. Jack stayed with her every minute of her time on the surface. Despite her heartache, she still hoped Carey’s body would turn up so she could figure out what had happened. But when a further week of searches still brought nothing, she asked that they be called off. The official inquest ruled Carey missing, presumed dead by hazard of fortune.

She turned to her work. The project was her only hope now. It was more than a matter of demonstrating the value of Cousins’ science. Over the next months, the first assemblies using scans of organic compounds were completed. They produced edible soy protein and worked their way up toward apple sauce.

At meetings in the boardroom that looked out over the green fields of Fowler basin, the other matrons watched her out of the corners of their eyes. Eva controlled her voice, operated her body as if by remote. Everything is normal, she told herself. Some mornings she would wake and listen for Carey thumping around the apartment, only to hear silence. She hid his pictures. Although she would not empty his room, she closed its door and never went inside. She went to watch the hockey team play. Other Cousins sat beside her and made a show of treating her normally.

Hockey was such a violent game-a boy’s game. Had the Cousins adopted it for that very reason, to go against the perception that women were soft? Eva watched Roz throw herself around the ice like a demon. What would drive such a shy girl to compete so hard?

At night she lay awake and thought about Carey. She imagined him out there on the surface, running out of air. What was it about boys and men that they always took such big risks? You couldn’t protect them.

If you tried to, they got sulky and depressed. She had never questioned the place the Cousins had prepared for boys in the world, how their aggression and desire for dominance had been thwarted and channeled.Keep your son close; let your daughter go, the homily went. Had she been fair to Carey? If she had him back with her this minute, could she keep herself from smothering him?

Jack went back to his own work: His team planted a copse of junipers, pinon, sage, and wildflowers on the east slopes of Fowler, hauling loads of their new soil that promised a better growth rate than the chemically prepared soils. He came home each night with dirt under his fingernails, scrubbed himself raw in the shower and fell into bed exhausted. Jack and Eva had not made love after that night Carey disappeared. At first Eva had no desire, and then, after her need returned and she might have felt it a comfort to have Jack hold her in his arms, he was so depressed by Carey’s loss that he would not touch her. Eva saw that worrying about her had taken Jack away from Roz.

“I’m sorry,” she vowed to Jack’s sleeping form one night. “I can do better.”

Since Carey’s disappearance, Roz spent less time at home. Eva saw the pain in Jack’s eyes as he watched Roz. She wondered what it must be like for Roz, to have this single strong male presence always there in her life. She owed Roz and Jack better than she had been giving, and the effort to engage them would help her stop thinking about Carey.

She arranged for Roz to spend her second-semester practicum in the colony’s materials cooperatives.

What to do about Jack’s relationship to Roz was harder to figure out. Eva was a physicist, and had never paid much attention to the theories of Nora Sobieski and the other founders. It wasn’t as though a man taking an interest in his daughter’s upbringing was necessarily unnatural. But Eva realized that-just like her with Carey, out of his fear of losing Roz-Jack ran the risk of smothering her.Keep your son close; let your daughter go: Whether Jack could see it or not, it was time for Roz to begin to find her own place in the world.

Jack had taken to bringing home chard and romaine lettuce and carrots from the gardens. He brought a potted juniper for the balcony where they ate their meals. There one night at dinner Eva suggested to Jack that Roz move out.

Jack looked frightened. “She’s only fourteen, Eva.”

“If she doesn’t begin to break free now she will have a much harder time later.”

“I understand that. It’s just-it’s not the way she grew up. She and I haven’t been here that long. And with-with Carey gone…” his voice trailed off.

Eva watched him. “Jack, I know I’ve been distant. I know it’s been hard for you. If you don’t want to be alone with me, I’ll understand. I just hope you won’t live with Roz.”

“For pity’s, Eva! Don’t you believe in love?”

She was taken aback. “Of course I do.” She poked her fork at her salad.

“Well, I love Roz. I love…I love you.”

Eva felt out of her depth. What did he mean when he said the word “love”? She looked into Jack’s handsome face: blue eyes, curly blond hair, square jaw. How much, when he looked so hurt, he reminded her of Carey. Jack watched her intently. He was trying to communicate something, but she had no idea what it was.

“I know you love us,” Eva said. “That’s not the question. But if Roz is ever going to fit in here, she needs to begin to network…I might even say the same for you.”

“Network.” He sat still as a stone.

He acted so wounded; he was putting her on the spot. Was this about sex? “I’m not trying to push you away, Jack. It’s not me who’s been turning away every night in bed.”

“I realize that,” he said defensively. “I thought that you were still grieving for Carey.”

God, she was no good at this interpersonal stuff. She looked away. She tried the salad grown from the gardens he and his team had planted. “Let me handle my grief in my own way,” she said.

He said nothing. He seemed more sad than angry. They ate in silence. After a while he asked her, “How’s the salad?”

“The best I’ve ever tasted. And the pine nuts-are they from the new trees?”

“Yes,” he said.

“The juniper smells wonderful.”

“It’s yours,” he said. “I grew it for you.”

Transformation When Roz told Jack about Carey’s plans to meet the First Imprints Club, Jack picked up Carey’s pressure suit. He laid the suit on the floor, adjusted it so that the locator lay flat against the concrete, and ground his heel into it until the chip snapped. “OK,” Jack said. “You take his things and lose them some place on the surface where they’ll never be found.”

Roz knew that Jack’s real reason for rushing her out was to keep her from seeing him dispose of Carey’s body. She did not object. She stuffed Carey’s clothes into the suit, sealed it up and, while her father turned back to the body, headed for the airlock.

“Wait,” Jack said, “take this.”

Fearfully, she turned. Jack had taken something from Carey’s hand. It was Carey’s ring.

She shoved the ring inside her own suit, then hurried through the airlock onto the lunar surface.

The shadows of lunar afternoon lay precisely as they had when she had entered the lab an hour before, a girl seeking to apologize to her dad. Between then and now, something had broken.

Jack had looked so surprised, so guilty-so old. The skin beneath his eyes was dark and papery, as if he hadn’t slept in a week. Had he looked this tired when she had argued with him in the plaza? It made her wonder just what had been going on all this time. How could Jack kill Carey? Had he been so near to breaking all along? As she shuffled across the humped, dusty surface, Roz fought to keep from crying again at the awfulness of Carey’s death and the precariousness of their situation.

For most of her life, it had been just her and her father. Roz’s mother Helen had been a graduate student in plant pathology when Jack met her at Purdue. Roz’s first memory was of sitting in the bathtub as her mom taught her to count on her toes. When Roz was six, her mother’s increasing bouts of depression broke up the marriage. Helen had custody of Roz for more than a year before Jack rescued her, and Roz remembered that year vividly: afternoons hanging out with the kids in the neighboring apartment, suppers of corn flakes, Helen coming back from her classes unhappy, Roz trying to wake Helen to get her to work in the mornings, Helen shouting at Jack every time he came to pick Roz up for visits. When Jack had stolen Roz away, though he never said anything bad about Helen, Roz felt that she would never miss her mother again.

Now Roz wished she knew where Helen was, what she was doing at just that moment. What had she gone through when she was fourteen? Nothing as bad as this.

As she moved away from Fowler across the lunar surface, Roz tried to stay to the shadows. But there was little chance of anyone spotting her. What she needed to do was lose Carey’s suit somewhere that nobody was likely to find it for thirty or forty years.

It should not be so hard. These were the rumpled highlands, a landscape of hills, ridges, craters, and ejecta. Around the colony the ground was scuffed with a million bootprints. Roz hid hers among them, bouncing along below the eastern rim of Fowler.

She then struck off along a side track of footprints that aimed northeast. A couple of kilometers along, she broke off from the path and made a long leap to a rock scarp uncovered with dust. She landed clumsily but safe, and left no boot marks. She proceeded in this direction for some distance, aiming herself from rock to rock to leave as few footprints as possible. The short horizon made Roz feel as if she was a bug on a plate, nearing the edge of the world. She kept her bearings by periodically noting some point ahead and behind so that she would not get lost. That was the biggest danger of surface hopping, and the source of the rule against ever doing it alone. It would be easy to explain Carey’s disappearance as an intoxicated boy getting lost and running out of air. A broken radio, a faulty locator.

A kilometer on, Roz found a pit behind a group of ejecta boulders. Deep in the shadow on the north side of the largest, she dug away the top layer of regolith and stuffed the suit into the pit. She shoved the dirt back over the suit. By the time she was done, her hands were freezing. She stood back on a boulder and inspected the spot. She had kept most of the scuffs she’d created to the shadows, which would not change much for some time in the slow lunar day. Roz headed back along the path she had come, rock to rock, taking long strides in the low gravity until she met the traveled path again. Up above her, a third of the way across the black sky from the sun, angry red Mars gleamed beside Jupiter like an orange eye.

Her air supply was in the red when she reached Fowler’s north lock. She was able to pass through without seeing anyone; the festival was still going strong.

Roz stowed her suit in an empty locker, set the combination, and walked back around the rim road toward Eva’s apartment-the long way, making a three-quarter circuit of the crater. On the southeast slope she stopped and watched the lights of the festival. When she finally got home, she found an empty glass sitting on the living room floor, and the door to Jack and Eva’s room was closed. She went to her own room, closed her door, undressed. There she found Carey’s ring in her pocket, warm from the heat of her own body.

Through all of Eva’s quizzing of Roz the next morning, Jack sat drinking juice, ignoring them both. Roz was stunned by how calm he looked. What went on inside? She had never thought that there might be things going on inside her father that were not apparent on the surface.

Then the searches began. Over and over Roz had to retell her story of parting with Carey at the festival.

At just what time had she last seen Carey? What had Carey said? In what direction had Carey gone?

Jack threw himself into the “search”-but whenever Roz looked at him, she saw that he was watching her.

As the search stretched beyond the first days, Carey’s friends came up and sympathized with Roz. For the first time kids who had held her at arms’ length confided in her. They shared their shock and grief.

Roz supposed that, from the outside, her own terror looked like shock. Colony security used volunteers from the school in the searches, and Roz took part, though never in the northeast quadrant. Every time one of the parties returned she was petrified that they would come back with Carey’s pressure suit.

Near the end of the third day, Roz was sitting in the apartment, clutching Carey’s ring in her hand, when Jack brought Eva back with him. Eva was so sick Jack almost had to prop her up. Jack fed Eva, made her take some pills, and go to sleep. He came out of their room and shut the door.

“What happened?” Roz asked.

Jack pulled Roz away from the door. “I caught Eva on the edge of a precipice. I think she was about to jump off.”

“Oh, Jesus! What are we going to do?”

“She’ll be okay after she gets some rest. We need to take care of her.”

“Take care of her! We killed her son!”

“Keep your voice down. Nobody killed anyone. It was an accident.”

“I don’t think I can stand this, Dad.”

“You’re doing fine, Roz. I need you to be my strong girl. Just act normal.”

Just act normal. Roz tried to focus on school. The hockey game against Shack-leton was postponed, but the practices continued. When it became obvious that Carey wasn’t coming back, Maryjane moved up to take Carey’s place in Roz’s line. At night Roz squeezed her eyes shut, pressed her palms against them to drive thoughts of Carey’s body from her imagination. She would not talk to Jack about it, and in his few hurried words with her he never spoke of that night.

Roz hated hearing the sound of Jack’s voice when he talked to Eva or anyone else, so casually modulated, so sane. Just act normal. When he spoke with Roz his voice was edged with panic. Roz vowed that she would never in her life have two voices.

Maybe Eva had two voices, too. After the searches were ended, Eva seemed distressingly normal. Roz could tell Eva was upset only by the firmness with which she spoke, as if she were thinking everything over two or three times, and by the absolute quality of her silences.

At first Roz was afraid to be around Eva, she seemed so in control. Yet Roz could tell that at some level Eva was deeply wounded in a way she could not see in Jack. The only word Roz could think of to describe Eva was a word so absurdly old fashioned that she would have been embarrassed to say it aloud: Noble. Eva was the strongest person Roz had ever met. It made Roz want to comfort her-but Roz was too afraid.

The weeks passed, and they resumed a simulation of ordinary life. Eva took an interest in Roz that she had not while Carey was still alive. For Roz’s second-semester practicum, Eva arranged for Roz to work successive months in the colony’s four materials cooperatives Air, Water, Agriculture, and Fabrication.

Roz was glad to spend more time out of the apartment.

With Air, Roz worked outside in the southwest industrial area, helping move lunar regolith to the grinder.

Various trace elements, including the H3 used in fusion reactors, were drawn off and saved. After grinding, the regolith was put in a reduction chamber with powdered graphite and heated to produce carbon monoxide, which was reintroduced to the regolith in a second chamber to produce CO2 . The carbon dioxide was separated by a solar-powered electrochemic cell. The carbon was recycled as graphite, and the O2 liquefied. The excess was sold to other lunar colonies or traded for nitrogen.

With Water, she worked at the far end of the ice cavern, where the ice was crushed, vaporized, distilled, and refrozen. Some of the water was electrolyzed to provide oxygen and carbon, a rare element on the Moon.

With Agriculture, she shoveled sheep and guinea pig shit, and moved chicken wastes to recycling for fertilizer.

With Fabrication, she did quality control for the anhydrous production of fiberglass cables coated with iron. Any contamination of the fiberglass with water would compromise its strength and durability.

Structural materials were one of the colony’s other major exports.

Everything she learned during her practicum was so logical. Everything she felt when she was in the apartment with Eva and her father was insane. While she worked, when she could forget the expression on Jack’s face when she’d found him standing above Carey’s naked body, the colony felt like home. The minute she thought about that place that was supposed to be her home, she felt lost. Looking down from the balcony of their apartment on the interior of the crater, she saw the spire that supported the dome as a great tree spreading over the Cousins’ lives. Behind her she heard Jack’s and Eva’s voices, so human, so mysterious.

Eva quizzed Roz every few days about the practicum. Because they spoke only about the practical issues of running the Society these conversations were a relief to Roz. She thought they were relief for Eva as well. Roz could ask any question, as long as it was about engineering. Eva would lean next to Roz over the tablet and click through diagrams of chemyical syntheses, twisting the ends of her hair in her fingers.

One evening as they were going through one of these sessions, Jack exploded. Afraid that he might say something that would make Eva suspicious, Roz went with him for a walk to talk over what was bothering him. When she told him she was thinking of moving out, he threatened to tell Eva what had happened to Carey. His paranoia was so sharp that she could smell it. She begged him to be quiet.

Roz realized that she was trapped. It would be safer for her and Jack both if she moved out of the apartment. Raisa was still looking for a roommate, and it would only be a matter of a few days for her to make the arrangements and move her things. But there was nothing she could do.

One day late in Roz’s practicum, Eva called her to the Fabrication research lab. Roz realized that it was not an accident that the last stop on her practicum tour was Fabrication, and the last stop at Fabrication was research, Eva’s own area. Roz had a sudden dread that Eva knew something, that ever since the festival she had been setting a trap, which was about to spring.

Like the biotech lab that her father worked in, in the interests of preventing contamination Eva’s nanotech lab was separated from the colony. At the end of the northwest lava tube, Roz suited up and passed through a lock onto the surface. It was months since Carey’s disappearance, and full night now. Mars and Jupiter were no longer visible; Venus shone brightly on the horizon. She followed a string of lights to the lab, entered, and pulled off her suit.

Eva met her at the check-in. “Thank you for coming, Roz. Come with me. I want to show you the Quantum Nondestructive Scanner Array.”

The QNSA lab was the largest in the facility. The scanner looked like nothing so much as a huge blue marble, the size of an elephant, divided at the equator. Eva had the technicians lift the upper hemisphere to expose the target area. “What we do here is pull a fast one on the universe. We bypass the uncertainty principle on the subatomic level by measuring test subjects at below the Planck-Wheeler length.”

“I don’t know that much physics,” Roz said.

Eva put her arm around Roz’s shoulder. Despite the affectionate gesture, she was not smiling. “We’ve made huge strides in the past six months.”

“What’s it for?”

“There are a hundred purposes-some of them quite revolutionary. On the most basic level, if we can scan to sufficient accuracy, and if the assembler team can succeed in producing a programmable assembler that can use the scan-then we will have created the most flexible manufacturing system in history. Any object we scan could be duplicated in the assembler.”

“Isn’t that expensive?”

“Smart girl. Yes, it is very expensive-of technology, energy, and time. It doesn’t make economic sense to use a system like this to manufacture simple things, like, say, an electric motor. That would be like running an MRI to check whether there’s gum in your pocket. But for more complicated things-organic compounds, for instance-it holds fascinating possibilities. Let me show you something.”

She took Roz into a side room separated from the lab by a large window. In the corner was a refrigerator. From it Eva took out two apples. She handed them to Roz. “What do you think of these?”

Roz looked them over. They were the same size, the same shape. Both felt cool in her palms. In fact, they felt exactly alike. She looked at them more closely. There was a spray of freckles near the stem of the apple in her right held the other next to it, turned it until they were in the same position. An identical spray of freckles marked the second apple. “They’re the same.”

“Yes. Now compare this.” Eva pulled a third apple from the refrigerator. This one was past its prime; its skin was darker and softer, and it smelled sweet. Yet it had exactly the same pattern of freckles as the other two.

“All three of these apples were assembled from the same quantum scan. We scanned the original apple six months ago. These two apples were assembled from the QNSA yesterday, the other a week ago. If we load the right raw materials into the assembler, we can create as many identical apples as we like.”

“That’s amazing!”

“Yes. It’s too expensive a way to make apples, though. In fact, there aren’t many things that would justify the expense of reproduction by QNSA.”

Eva took the apples back. She put the old one and one of the new ones back into the refrigerator. Then she polished the third on her sleeve and took a bite of it. Chewing, she handed it to Roz. “Try it.”

Roz took a bite. It tasted crisp and tart. Another lab worker came in and got a squeeze bottle out of the refrigerator. He nodded to Eva, smiled at Roz, and went out.

“I hoped at first that I might get over the loss of Carey,” Eva said. She looked through the window at the big blue marble. “I told myself that he was only one person, that we all die eventually, that it was his recklessness that had killed him and I never wanted him to be other than he was.” She brushed the back of her hand against her eye. “But a son is not supposed to die before his mother. Everything looks different afterward. It’s all just a collection of atoms.”

Eva turned to Roz. “How does the apple taste?”

“Good.”

“I’m glad. Now, Roz, I want to tell you what I’m going to do. It’s something that no one’s ever done before. Because of that it’s not a crime yet, but if it doesn’t become so common as to be ordinary in the future, I’m sure it will become a crime.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Some months ago, the project had reached a stage where we could scan a living organism. We scanned several guinea pigs, even a sheep. One night, while the lab was empty, I brought Carey here and scanned him.

“I’ve been waiting until we worked the bugs out of the assembler. Three days ago we recreated one of the guinea pigs from a four-month-old scan. Do you know what that means?”

Roz held her breath. “I think so.”

“If that guinea pig suffers no aftereffects, I am going to reconstitute Carey. I want you to help me.”

The sky opened up and a torrent of pure joy shot down to fill Roz up. She could not believe it. She hugged Eva, buried her head against the tall woman’s breast. It was a miracle. It was the way out.

Fire Nematodes made up most of the animal life on earth, by mass, Jack reminded himself. They were everywhere. The number of parasitic varieties was minuscule compared to the beneficial ones. Nothing to worry about.

But his hands itched. And his skin burned.

It had not taken Jack long to cut up Carey’s body, run it through the reduction chamber, mince the remains in the crusher and mix them into the project soil. He had hosed down the crusher and the floor of the lab. Fire, earth, water. Within a week there was nothing left of Carey but his elemental chemicals in the dirt.

Still, images of Carey were imprinted on the inside of Jack’s eyelids. I’m a freakshow, he thought a dozen times each day, climbing down the slope to the crater floor, pruning seedlings in the greenhouse, sitting on the edge of the pool in Sobieski Park. Lying in bed with Eva. I’m a lethal male in a society constructed to prevent males from going lethal. I didn’t even know it was happening. I’m a fucking maniac and no one can tell.

No one had noticed anything-at least he didn’t think they had. He had a tough afternoon the day they transferred the test soil to the pilot project site on Fowler’s east slope. He insisted that he amend the soil himself, plant the junipers with his own hands. He wore protective gloves. When Amravati said something about it, he replied quickly, “Don’t want to take a chance with these new bugs.”

“If there are any bugs we don’t know about, then we’re all in trouble,” she said.

The seedlings flourished. Growth rates were elevated as much as 15 percent. Within three months the project had progressed enough to schedule a tour by the Board of Matrons. Eva and the others strolled over the slopes among the low, fragrant growth. As Eva walked over the ground that contained all that was left of her only son, a wave of heat swept over Jack. His face felt flushed; his forehead burned.

The Board approved the project. The next week they voted Amravati a commendation, with special notice of Jack’s contribution. “If you don’t watch out, Jack, you’re going to get stuck here,” Hal Keikosson said.

“What?” he said.

Hal smiled at him. “I mean you’re becoming a Cousin, cousin.”

A Cousin on the outside, a stranger within. There were lots of difficult aspects to the aftermath of Carey’s death, among them the problem of Eva. For example, despite the fact that, during the search, he had saved Eva’s life out on the edge of the precipice, it was impossible for him to touch her in bed. He had discovered how much her eyes were like Carey’s. Lying beside her at night, hands burning, pretending to sleep until he heard Eva’s faint snore, and pretending to sleep after that for fear of waking her, Jack felt more alone than he had since he was five years old. One night he heard Eva stir beside him, rise up on one elbow, and watch him. He heard her whisper, “I’m sorry. I can do better.” What did she have to feel sorry about? How could she possibly be asking his forgiveness?

The colony clinic prescribed a salve for his skin that did nothing but make him smell like sulfur. I’m the lunar Mephistopheles, he thought. He resorted to magic: If some part of Carey was coming back to torment Jack, maybe bringing Carey home would mollify his ghost. Jack potted one of the junipers and set it up on their balcony. He fed Eva lettuce from the greenhouse to see what effect it would have on her. It made her suggest that Roz should move out.

Roz. That was the worst thing, the absolute worst. Jack was stunned that Roz had so readily put herself at risk to save him. Though it was, at some level he had difficulty admitting, immensely gratifying, and removed any doubt he had ever had that she loved him, now he could not look at Roz the same way. He was in debt to his daughter, and like a boulder that they were both chained to, that debt stood between them at every moment.

When Roz started her practicum in Fabrication, she began to spend more time with Eva. Jack watched them joke together as they sat in the apartment and went over the steps in the manufacture of building glass. Their heads were so close together, Roz’s red hair and Eva’s brown. The skirl of Roz’s silly, high-pitched giggle, for some reason, made him want to cry.

“You laugh too much,” he said.

They looked up at him, dead silent, identical astonishment on their faces.

“Can’t you keep quiet?” he said.

“Sorry, Dad,” Roz muttered. “I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to laugh.” She pushed the tablet away from her. “I have something I need to tell you.”

Jack tried to keep the panic out of his voice. “What’s that?”

“I think I’m going to move out. There’s an apartment that Raisa and I can move into opening up in the old section of the south wall.”

“Raisa? I thought you didn’t even like her.”

“I think I was just projecting; she’s really a good person. She’s never mean.”

Jack wanted to argue, but was intimidated by Eva’s presence. Eva had put this idea in Roz’s head.

“Come with me,” he said to Roz. “We’ll take a walk. Do you mind, Eva? We need to talk this over father to daughter.”

“Go right ahead.”

Roz looked sullen, but she came with him. They descended from the apartment, down the pathway toward the crater floor. The inside of the dome was a brilliant cloudless sky. On the field below them a harvester sprayed soybeans into a hopper truck. “Is this because of Carey?” Jack asked.

Roz crossed her arms over his chest and looked at her feet. “I don’t want to talk about Carey,” she said.

“You know it was an accident, Roz, I-”

She bounced on her toes and leaped five feet into the air, coming down well ahead of him. A woman going the other way looked at her and smiled. Jack hurried to catch up.

Roz still wouldn’t look at him. “I will not talk about Carey, Dad. This isn’t about him. I’m fourteen, and a Cousins girl at fourteen who won’t leave home is sick.” She bounced again.

He didn’t know what to say. He knew she was lying, that it had to have something to do with Carey. But he wasn’t going to beg.

“You’re going to tell Eva the truth,” he said when he caught up.

“Don’t be stupid!” Roz said. “I’ve given up too much for this. I don’t want to move again.”

Stupid. How stupid he had been to come here. “I brought you here to keep us from drifting apart.”

“Dad, did you think I was going to be with you forever?”

He rubbed his palms up and down his forearms, but that only made the itching worse. “Will you call me?”

“I’ll see you every day.”

Jack stopped following her. Roz continued down the path toward Sobieski Park, and did not look back.

“What do you think, Carey?” he whispered aloud as he watched his daughter walk away. “Is this one of those Earth things? One of those sexual ownership practices?”

Jack tried to imagine what it would be like to be alone with Eva in one of the largest apartments in the colony. Perhaps it would not be so bad. He could plant a dozen junipers on the balcony. He could prepare all their meals. Hell, he could bring in a bed of Carey’s soil and sleep in it.

He began meeting Jamira Tamlasdaughter in the sauna at the gym. They would claim one of the private alcoves and fuck. The heat of the sauna made him forget his burning skin. There was nothing wrong with it. There was nothing right about it. Roz was always out. Eva stayed away even longer at the labs, sometimes not coming back at night until he was asleep. The mysterious absences grew until one night it had been a full twenty-four hours since Jack had last seen either Eva or Roz. It was fertile ground for worry. Someone had found Carey’s pressure suit. Roz had not hidden it well enough, and now she was in trouble. Or Eva had tricked her into an admission. She had broken down, given in to guilt.

His phone rang. He touched the contact on his wristward.

“Dad? Can you meet me at Fabrication Research?”

Roz’s voice was charged with excitement. He hadn’t heard her sound so young in months. “What is it, Roz?”

“You won’t believe it. All our troubles are over! We’re resurrecting Carey!”

“What?”

“The assembler. I can’t tell you more now, someone might hear. Come at 0300. If anyone asks, tell them that you’re going somewhere else.”

“Is Eva there?”

“Yes. I’ve got to go now. See you at 0300.”

“Roz-”

He felt sick. Resurrecting Carey? Roz must have told Eva what had happened.

Still, what could he do but go? Jack paced the rooms for hours. He left after somatic midnight. The perimeter road to the north airlock was quiet; there was a slight breeze, a hum of insects around the lights. He told the lock attendant that he was going to biotech.

When he sealed up his suit he felt he could not breathe. He checked the readouts repeatedly, but despite the evidence that nothing was wrong, he felt stifled. Sweat trickled down his neck into his collar.

Outside the sun hammered down and the glare of the baked surface hid the stars. He upped the polarization on his faceplate, but still his eyes hurt. He followed the road from the airlock, between the fields of solar collectors, to the ramp entrance to the Fabrication Research Lab. He passed through the radiation maze, opened the outer door of the lab airlock. When he stripped off his suit his shirt was soaked with sweat. He wiped his arm across his brow, ran his fingers through his sweaty hair. He waited.

He did not open the inner door.

And if, by some miracle, they did re-create Carey? Roz said that all their troubles would be over. They could go back to who they were.

Fat chance. He had hoped that coming to the Society would offer Roz a freedom that he could not earn for her on Earth. No one on the Moon knew him. And even if he did fail again, among the Cousins a father’s faults would not determine how others saw his daughter. Roz could be herself, not some reflection of him.

As he stood there, poised before the inner lock door, he had a sudden memory of Helen, on their honeymoon. On the beach at St. Kitts. Helen had surprised him by wearing a new bikini, so small that when she pulled off her shorts and T-shirt she was clearly self-conscious. But proud, in some way. He remembered feeling protective of her, and puzzled, and a little sorry. It hit him for the first time that she was fighting her body for his attention, and how sad that must be for her-on the one hand to know she had this power over him that came simply from her sexuality, and on the other that she, Helen, was someone completely apart from that body that drew him like a magnet. For a moment he had seen himself from outside. He’d been ashamed of his own sexuality, and the way it threatened to deform their relationship. Who was she, really? Who was he?

At the time he had taken her in his arms, smiled, complimented her. He had felt sure that with time, they would know each other completely. How pathetic. After the breakup, he had at least thought that he could know his daughter. That was why he wanted Roz-to love someone without sex coming in the way. To love someone without caring about himself.

How stupid he had been. Whether they’d come or not, inevitably she would have seen him differently, or been destroyed by trying not to. Whether he’d killed Carey or not, Roz would have to fight to escape the mirror he held up to her.

With a sick feeling in his gut, he realized he had lost his daughter.

He was so hot. He was burning up. He shut his eyes and tried not to see or hear anything, but there was a roaring in his ears like a turbulent storm, and his eyes burned and flashed like lightning.

He would feel better if he went outside. Instead of opening the inner door, he put his pressure suit back on and opened the outside door. It was bright and hot out on the surface-but in the shadows of the rocks it would be cool. He stepped out of the shadow of the radiation baffle, up the ramp to the dusty surface. Instead of following the path back to the colony, he struck off between the rows of solar collectors toward a giant boulder that loomed on the horizon. As he walked, on his sleeve keyboard he punched in the override code for his suit’s pressure failsafes.

By the time he had reached the chill shadow of the rock, all that remained between him and relief was the manual helmet release. He reached up to his neck and felt for the latch. He was so hot. He was burning up. But soon he would be cool again.

Happy Ending When the indicators showed the airlock was occupied, they waited for Jack to enter the lab. Instead, after a few minutes the outer lock of the airlock opened and he left again. Roz was worried.

“I’m going to see what he’s up to,” she told Eva.

She pulled on her pressure suit and waited the maddening few minutes it took the lock to recycle. As soon as pressure was equalized she slid open the outer door and ran up the ramp. There was no sign of her father on the path back to Fowler. But as she followed the footprints away from the ramp, she spotted a figure in the distance heading out toward the hills.

Roz hurried after, skipping as fast as she could without lurching off onto the collectors.

When she caught up, he was on his knees in the shadow of a big rock, jerking about spasmodically. The strangeness of his motion alarmed her. She had never seen anyone move like that. Before she could reach him he slowed, stopped, and fell, slowly, onto his side. Calmly, quietly. Less like a fall, more like the drift of a feather. She rushed to his side, and saw that he had broken the seal on his helmet.

“No!” she screamed, and the sound of her voice echoed in her ears. Jack’s face was purple with broken blood vessels, his eyes bloody. He was dead.

High-G, they called her, and it was a good thing, as she carried her father’s body back to the Fabrication lab.

It was Roz’s idea to put Jack’s corpse into the assembler, to add the materials of his body to the atoms used to re-create Carey. There would be hell to pay with security, but Eva agreed to do it.

The assembly took seven days. When the others at the colony discovered what they were doing, there was some debate, but they let the process continue. At the end of the week the fluid supporting the nanomachines was drained off, revealing Carey’s perfect body. Carey shuddered and coughed, and they helped him out of the assembler.

To him it was six months earlier, and his mother had just completed his scan. It took him a long time to accept that he had not fallen into some dream only seconds after he had been placed in the marble, to awaken in this vat of warm fluid. He thought he was the original, not the copy. For all practical purposes he was right.

Later, as they were finding a pressure suit they could adapt to Carey’s size to take him home, he asked Roz, “Where’s Jack?”

The Juniper Tree All this happened a long time ago.

Nora Sobieski founded the Society of Cousins to free girls like Roz of the feeling that they must depend on their fathers or boyfriends for their sense of self, and incidentally to free boys like Carey of the need to prove themselves superior to other boys by owning girls like Roz. Girls still go through infatuations, still fall in love, still feel the influence of men as well as of women. But Roz and Eva in the end are actually in the same boat-a boat that does not contain Jack, or even Carey.

The young junipers stand ghostly gray in the night. The air smells fragrant with pinon. In the thin, clear starlight Roz can see wildflowers blooming beneath the trees-columbine, pennyroyal, groundsel. She sits on the slope and pulls Carey’s ring from her pocket. The ring is fashioned into the image of two branches that twine around each other, each with no beginning and no end, each eternally separate from the other.

Roz holds the ring in the middle of her palm, wondering if she should get rid of it at last, knowing that she can never give it back and maintain the mystery of who her father was and how he died.


Antibodies - Charles Stross


Although he made his first sale back in 1987, it’s only recently that British writer Charles Stross has begun to make a name for himself as a writer to watch in the new century ahead, with a sudden burst in the last couple of years of quirky, inventive, high-bit-rate stories such as “A Colder War,” “Bear Trap,”
“Dechlorinating the Moderator,” and “Toast: A Con Report” in markets such asInterzone, Spectrum SF, Osyssey, Strange Plasma, and New Worlds.In the fast-paced and innovative story that follows, he demonstrates that although you can carefully set a warning alarm, by the time it goes off,it may be almost too late to doanything about it…
Charles Stross is also a regular columnist for the monthly magazineComputer Shopper.Coming up is his first collection, Toast, and Other Burned Out Futures.He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when a member of the great and the good is assassinated. Gandhi, the Pope, Thatcher-if you were old enough you remembered where you were when you heard, the ticker-tape of history etched across your senses. You can kill a politician but their ideas usually live on. They have a life of their own. How much more dangerous, then, the ideas of mathematicians?

I was elbow-deep in an eviscerated PC , performing open heart surgery on a diseased network card, when the news about the traveling salesman theorem came in. Over on the other side of the office John’s terminal beeped, notification of incoming mail. A moment later my own workstation bonged.

“Hey, Geoff! Get a load of this!”

I carried on screwing the card back into its chassis. John is not a priority interrupt.

“Someone’s come up with a proof that NP - complete problems lie in P! There’s a posting incomp.risks saying they’ve used it to find an O*(n?2) solution to the traveling salesman problem, and it scales! Looks like April First has come early this year, doesn’t it?”

I dropped the PC’s lid on the floor hastily and sat down at my workstation. Another cubed-sphere hypothesis, another flame war in the math newsgroups-or something more serious? “When did it arrive?” I called over the partition. Soroya, passing my cubicle entrance with a cup of coffee, cast me a dirty look; loud voices aren’t welcome in open-plan offices.

“This just in,” John replied. I opened up the mailtool and hit on the top of the list, which turned out to be a memo from HR about diversity awareness training. No, next…they want to close the smoking room and make us a 100% tobacco-free workplace. Hmm. Next.

Forwarded e-mail: headers bearing the spoor of a thousand mail servers, from Addis-Ababa to Ulan Bator. Before it had entered our internal mail network it had traveled from Taiwan to Rochester NJ , then to UCB in the Bay Area, then via a mailing list to all points; once in-company it had been bounced to everyone in engineering and management by the first recipient, Eric the Canary. (Eric is the departmental plant. Spends all the day web-dozing for juicy nuggets of new information if you let him. A one-man wire service: which is why I always ended up finishing his jobs.) I skimmed the message, then read it again. Blinked. This kind of stuff is heavy on the surreal number theory: about as digestible as an Egyptian mummy soaked in tabasco sauce for three thousand years.

Then I poked at the web page the theorem was on.

No response-server timed out.

Someone or something was hitting on the web server with the proof: I figured it had to be all the geeks who’d caught wind of the chain letter so far. My interest was up, so I hit the “reload” button, and something else came up on screen.

Lots of theorems-looked like the same stuff as the e-mail, only this time with some fun graphics.

Something tickled my hindbrain then, and I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. Next thing, I hit the print button and the inkjet next to my desk began to mutter and click. There was a link near the bottom of the page to the author’s bibliography, so I clicked on that and the server threw another “go away, I’m busy” error. I tugged my beard thoughtfully, and instead of pressing “back” I pressed “reload.”

The browser thought to itself for a bit-then a page began to appear on my screen. The wrong page. I glanced at the document title at the top and froze:

THE PAGE AT THIS LOCATION HAS BEEN WITHDRAWN.

Please enter your e-mail address if you require further information.

Hmm.

As soon as the printout was finished, I wandered around to the photocopier next door to the QA labs and ran off a copy. Faxed it to a certain number, along with an EYES UP note on a yellow Post-it. Then I poked my head around into the QA lab itself. It was dingy in there, as usual, and half the cubicles were empty of human life. Nobody here but us computers; workstations humming away, sucking juice and meditating on who-knew-what questions. (Actually, Idid know: they were mostly running test harnesses, repetitively pounding simulated input data into the programs we’d so carefully built, in the hope of making them fall over or start singing “God Save the King.”) The efficiency of code was frequently a bone of contention between our departments, but the war between software engineering and quality assurance is a long-drawn-out affair: each side needs the other to justify its survival.

I was looking for Amin. Amin with the doctorate in discrete number theory, now slumming it in this company of engineers: my other canary in a number-crunching coal mine. I found him: feet propped up on the lidless hulk of a big Compaq server, mousing away like mad at a big monitor. I squinted; it looked vaguely familiar…“Quake? Or Golgotha?” I asked.

“Golgotha. We’ve got Marketing bottled up on the second floor.”

“How’s the network looking?”

He shrugged, then punched the hold button. “No crashes, no dropped packets-this cut looks pretty solid. We’ve been playing for three days now. What can I do for you?”

I shoved the printout under his nose. “This seem feasible to you?”

“Hold on a mo.” He hit the pause key them scanned it rapidly. Did a double-take. “You’re not shitting?”

“Came out about two hours ago.”

“Jesus Homeboy Christ riding into town at the head of a convoy of Hell’s Angels with a police escort…” he shook his head. Amin always swears by Jesus, a weird side-effect of a westernized Islamic upbringing: take somebody else’s prophet’s name in vain. “If it’s true, I can think of at least three different ways we can make money at it, and at least two more to end up in prison. You don’t use PGP , do you?”

“Why bother?” I asked, my heart pounding. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

“If this is true-” he tapped the papers “-then every encryption algorithm except the one time pad has just fallen over. Take a while to be sure, but…that crunch you heard in the distance was the sound of every secure commerce server on the internet succumbing to a brute-force attack. The script kiddies will be creaming themselves. Jesus Christ.” He rubbed his mustache thoughtfully.

“Does it make sense to you?” I persisted.

“Come back in five minutes and I’ll tell you.”

“Okay.”

I wandered over to the coffee station, thinking very hard. People hung around and generally behaved as if it was just another day; maybe it was. But then again, if that paper was true, quite a lot of stones had just been turned over and if you were one of the pale guys who lived underneath it was time to scurry for cover. And it had looked good to me: by the prickling in my palms and the gibbering cackle in the back of my skull, something very deep had recognized it. Amin’s confirmation would be just the icing on the cake confirmation that it was a workable proof.

Cryptography-the science of encoding messages-relies on certain findings in mathematics: that certain operations are inherently more difficult than others. For example, finding the common prime factors of a long number which is a product of those primes is far harder than taking two primes and multiplying them together.

Some processes are not simply made difficult, but impossible because of this asymmetry; it’s not feasible to come up with a deterministic answer to certain puzzles in finite time. Take the traveling salesman problem, for example. A salesman has to visit a whole slew of cities which are connected to their neighbors by a road network. Is there a way for the salesman to figure out a best-possible route that visits each city without wasting time by returning to a previously visited site, for all possible networks of cities? The conventional answer is no-and this has big implications for a huge set of computing applications. Network topology, expert systems-the traditional tool of the AI community-financial systems, and…

Me and my people.

Back in the QA lab, Amin was looking decidedly thoughtful.

“What do you know?” I asked.

He shook the photocopy at me. “Looks good,” he said. “I don’t understand it all, but it’s at least credible.”

“How does it work?”

He shrugged. “It’s a topological transform. You know how most NP - incomplete problems, like the traveling salesman problem, are basically equivalent? And they’re all graph-traversal issues. How to figure out the correct order to carry out a sequence of operations, or how to visit each node in a graph in the correct order. Anyway, this paper’s about a method of reducing such problems to a much simpler form. He’s using a new theorem in graph theory that I sort of heard about last year but didn’t pay much attention to, so I’m not totally clear on all the details. But if this is for real…”

“Pretty heavy?”

He grinned. “You’re going to have to re-write the route discovery code. Never mind, it’ll run a bit faster…”

I rose out of cubicle hell in a daze, blinking in the cloud-filtered daylight. Eight years lay in ruins behind me, tattered and bleeding bodies scattered in the wreckage. I walked to the landscaped car park: on the other side of the world, urban renewal police with M16’s beat the crap out of dissident organizers, finally necklacing them in the damp, humid night. War raged on three fronts, spaced out around a burning planet. Even so, this was by no means the worst of all possible worlds. It had problems, sure, but nothing serious-until now. Now it had just acquired a sucking chest wound; none of those wars were more than a stubbed toe in comparison to the nightmare future that lay ahead.

Insert key in lock, open door. Drive away, secrets open to the wind, everything blown to hell and gone.

I’d have to call Eve. We’d have to evacuate everybody.

I had a bank account, a savings account, and two credit cards. In the next fifteen minutes I did a grand tour of the available ATM s and drained every asset I could get my hands on into a fat wodge of banknotes. Fungible and anonymous cash. It didn’t come to a huge amount-the usual exigencies of urban living had seen to that-but it only had to last me a few days.

By the time I headed home to my flat, I felt slightly sheepish. Nothing there seemed to have changed: I turned on the TV but CNN and the BBC weren’t running any coverage of the end of the world. With deep unease I sat in the living room in front of my ancient PC : turned it on and pulled up my net link.

More mail…a second bulletin fromcomp.risks, full of earnest comments about the paper. One caught my eye, at the bottom: a message from one of No Such Agency’s tame stoolpigeon academics, pointing out that the theorem hadn’t yet been publicly disclosed and might turn out to be deficient. (Subtext: trust the Government. The Government is your friend.) It wouldn’t be the first time such a major discovery had been announced and subsequently withdrawn. But then again, they couldn’t actually produce a refutation, so the letter was basically valueless disinformation. I prodded at the web site again, and this time didn’t even get the ACCESS FORBIDDEN message. The paper had disappeared from the internet, and only the print-out in my pocket told me that I hadn’t imagined it.

It takes a while for the magnitude of a catastrophe to sink in. The mathematician who had posted the original finding would be listed in his university’s directory, wouldn’t he? I pointed my web browser at their administrative pages, then picked up my phone. Dialled a couple of very obscure numbers, waited while the line quality dropped considerably and the charges began racking up at an enormous-but untraceably anonymized-rate, and dialed the university switchboard.

“Hello, John Durant’s office. Who is that?”

“Hi, I’ve read the paper about his new theorem,” I said, too fast. “Is John Durant available?”

“Who are you?” asked the voice at the other end of the phone. Female voice, twangy mid-western accent.

“A researcher. Can I talk to Dr. Durant, please? “I’m afraid he won’t be in today,” said the voice on the phone. “He’s on vacation at present. Stress due to overwork.”

“I see,” I said.

“Who did you say you were?” she repeated.

I put the phone down.

From: nobody@nowhere.com (none of your business) To: cypherpunks Subject:John Durant’s whereabouts Date:…

You might be interested to learn that Dr. John Durant, whose theorem caused such a fuss here earlier, is not at his office. I went there a couple of hours ago in person and the area was sealed off by our friends from the Puzzle Palace. He’s not at home either. I suspect the worst…

By the way, guys, you might want to keep an eye on each other for the next couple of days. Just in case.

Signed,

Yr frndly spk “Eve?”

“Bob?”

“Green fields.”

“You phoned me to say you know someone with hayfever?”

“We both have hayfever. It may be terminal.”

“I know where you can find some medicine for that.”

“Medicine won’t work this time. It’s like the emperor’s new suit.”

“It’s like what? Please repeat.”

“The emperor’s new suit: it’s naked, it’s public, and it can’t be covered up. Do you understand? Please tell me.”

“Yes, I understand exactly what you mean…I’m just a bit shocked; I thought everything was still on track. This is all very sudden. What do you want to do?” (I checked my watch.) “I think you’d better meet me at the pharmacy in fifteen minutes.”

“At six-thirty? They’ll be shut.”

“Not to worry: the main Boots in town is open out of hours. Maybe they can help you.”

“I hope so.”

“I know it. Goodbye.”

On my way out of the house I paused for a moment. It was a small house, and it had seen better days.

I’m not a home-maker by nature: in my line of work you can’t afford to get too attached to anything, any language, place, or culture. Still, it had been mine. A small, neat residence, a protective shell I could withdraw into like a snail, sheltering from the hostile theorems outside.Goodbye, little house. I’ll try not to miss you too much. I hefted my overnight bag onto the backseat and headed into town.

I found Eve sitting on a bench outside the central branch of Boots, running a degaussing coil over her credit cards. She looked up. “You’re late.”

“Come on.” I waggled the car keys at her. “You have the tickets?”

She stood up: a petite woman, conservatively dressed. You could mistake her for a lawyer’s secretary or a personnel manager; in point of fact she was a university research council administrator, one of the unnoticed body of bureaucrats who shape the course of scientific research. Nondescript brown hair, shoulder-length, forgettable. We made a slightly odd pair: if I’d known she’d have come straight from work I might have put on a suit. Chinos and a lumberjack shirt and a front pocket full of pens that screamed engineer: I suppose I was nondescript, in the right company, but right now we had to put as much phase space as possible between us and our previous identities. It had been good protective camouflage for the past decade, but a bush won’t shield you against infrared scopes, and merely living the part wouldn’t shield us against the surveillance that would soon be turned in our direction.

“Let’s go.”

I drove into town and we dropped the car off in the long-stay park. It was nine o’clock and the train was already waiting. She’d bought business-class tickets:go to sleep in Euston, wake up in Edinburgh. I had a room all to myself. “Meet me in the dining car, once we’re rolling,” she told me, face serious, and I nodded.

“Here’s your new SIMM . Give me the old one.”

I passed her the electronic heart of my cellphone and she ran it through the degausser then carefully cut it in half with a pair of nail-clippers. “Here’s your new one,” she said, passing a card over. I raised an eyebrow. “Tesco’s, pay-as-you go, paid for in cash. Here’s the dialback dead-letter box number.” She pulled it up on her phone’s display and showed it to me.

“Got that.” I inserted the new SIMM then punched the number into my phone. Later, I’d ring the number: a PABX there would identify my voiceprint then call my phone back, downloading a new set of numbers into its memory. Contact numbers for the rest of my ops cell, accessible via cellphone and erasable in a moment. The less you knew, the less you could betray.

The London to Scotland sleeper train was a relic of an earlier age, a rolling hotel characterized by a strange down-at-heel ’70s charm. More importantly, they took cash and didn’t require ID , and there were no security checks: nothing but the usual on-station cameras monitoring people wandering up and down the platforms. Nothing on the train itself. We were booked through to Aberdeen but getting off in Edinburgh-first step on the precarious path to anonymizing ourselves. If the camera spool-off was being archived to some kind of digital medium we might be in trouble later, once the coming AI burn passed the hard take-off point, but by then we should be good and gone.

Once in my cabin I changed into slacks, shirt and tie-image 22, business consultant on way home for the weekend. I dinked with my phone in a desultory manner, then left it behind under my pillow, primed to receive silently. The restaurant car was open and I found Eve there. She’d changed into jeans and a T-shirt and tied her hair back, taking ten years off her appearance. She saw me and grinned, a trifle maliciously. “Hi, Bob. Had a tough meeting? Want some coffee? Tea, maybe?”

“Coffee,” I sat down at her table. “Shit,” I muttered. “I thought you-”

“Don’t worry.” She shrugged. “Look, I had a call from Mallet. He’s gone off air for now, he’ll be flying in from San Francisco via London tomorrow morning. This isn’t looking good. Durant was, uh, shot resisting arrest by the police. Apparently he went crazy, got a gun from somewhere and holed up in the library annex demanding to talk to the press. At least, that’s the official story. Thing is, it happened about an hour after your initial heads-up. That’s too fast for a cold response.”

“You think someone in the Puzzle Palace was warming the pot.” My coffee arrived and I spooned sugar into it. Hot, sweet, sticky: I needed to stay awake.

“Probably. I’m trying to keep loop traffic down so I haven’t asked anyone else yet, but you think so and I think so, so it may be true.”

I thought for a minute. “What did Mallet say?”

“He said P. T. Barnum was right.” She frowned. “Who was P. T. Barnum, anyway?”

“A boy like John Major, except he didn’t run away from the circus to join a firm of accountants. Had the same idea about fooling all of the people some of the time or some of the people all of the time, though.”

“Uh-huh. Mallet would say that, then. Who cracked it first? NSA? GCHQ? GRU?”

“Does it matter?”

She blew on her coffee then took a sip. “Not really. Damn it, Bob, I really had high hopes for this world-line. They seemed to be doing so well for a revelatory Christian-Islamic line, despite the post-Enlightenment mind-set. Especially Microsoft-”

“Was that one of ours?” She nodded.

“Then it was a master-stroke. Getting everybody used to exchanging macro-infested documents without any kind of security policy. Operating systems that crash whenever a microsecond timer overflows. And all those viruses!”

“It wasn’t enough.” She stared moodily out the window as the train began to slide out of the station, into the London night. “Maybe if we’d been able to hook more researchers on commercial grants, or cut funding for pure mathematics a bit further-”

“It’s not your fault.” I laid a hand across her wrist. “You did what you could.”

“But it wasn’t enough to stop them. Durant was just a lone oddball researcher; you can’t spike them all, but maybe we could have done something about him. If they hadn’t nailed him flat.”

“There might still be time. A physics package delivered to the right address in Maryland, or maybe a hyper-virulent worm using one of those buffer-overrun attacks we planted in the IP stack Microsoft licensed. We could take down the internet-”

“It’s too late.” She drained her coffee to the bitter dregs. “You think the Echelon mob leave their SIGINT processor farms plugged into the internet? Or the RSV , for that matter? Face it, they probably cracked the same derivative as Durant a couple of years ago. Right now there may be as many as two or three weakly superhuman AI s gestating in government labs. For all I know they may even have a timelike oracle in the basement at Lawrence Livermore in the States; they’ve gone curiously quiet on the information tunnelling front lately. And it’s trans-global. Even the Taliban are on the web these days. Even if we could find some way of tracking down all the covert government crypto AI labs and bombing them we couldn’t stop other people from asking the same questions. It’s in their nature. This isn’t a culture that takes ‘no’ for an answer without asking why. They don’tunderstand how dangerous achieving enlightenment can be.”

“What about Mallet’s work?”

“What, with the bible bashers?” She shrugged. “Banning fetal tissue transplants is all very well, but it doesn’t block the PCR - amplification pathway to massively parallel processing, does it? Even the Frankenstein Food scare didn’t quite get them to ban recombinant DNA research, and if you allow that it’s only a matter of time before some wet lab starts mucking around encoding public keys in DNA , feeding them to ribosomes, and amplifying the output. From there it’s a short step to building an on-chip PCR lab, then all they need to do is set up a crude operon controlled chromosomal machine and bingo-yet another route through to a hard take-off AI singularity. Say what you will, the buggers are persistent.”

“Like lemmings.” We were rolling through the north London suburbs now, past sleeping tank farms and floodlit orange washout streets. I took a good look at them: it was the last time I’d be able to. “There are just too many routes to a catastrophic breakthrough, once they begin thinking in terms of algorithmic complexity and how to reduce it. And once their spooks get into computational cryptanalysis or ubiquitous automated surveillance, it’s too tempting.

Maybe we need a world full of idiot savants who have VLSI and nanotechnology but never had the idea of general purpose computing devices in the first place.”

“If we’d killed Turing a couple of years earlier; or broken in and burned that draft paper on O-machines-”

I waved to the waiter. “Single malt please. And one for my friend here.” He went away. “Too late. The Church-Turing thesis was implicit in Hilbert’s formulation of theEntscheidungsproblem, the question of whether an automated theorem prover was possible in principle. And that dredged up the idea of the universal machine. Hell, Hilbert’s problem was implicit in Whitehead and Russell’s work.Principia Mathematica. Suicide by the numbers.” A glass appeared by my right hand. “Way I see it, we’ve been fighting a losing battle here. Maybe if we hadn’t put a spike in Babbage’s gears he’d have developed computing technology on an ad-hoc basis and we might have been able to finesse the mathematicians into ignoring it as being beneath them-brute engineering-but I’m not optimistic. Immunizing a civilization against developing strong AI is one of those difficult problems that no algorithm exists to solve. The way I see it, once a civilization develops the theory of the general purpose computer, and once someone comes up with the goal of artificial intelligence, the foundations are rotten and the dam is leaking. You might as well take off and drop crowbars on them from orbit; it can’t do anymore damage.”

“You remind me of the story of the little Dutch boy.” She raised a glass. “Here’s to little Dutch boys everywhere, sticking their fingers in the cracks in the dam.”

“I’ll drank to that. Which reminds me. When’s our lifeboat due? I really want to go home; this universe has passed its sell-by date.”

Edinburgh-in this time-line it was neither an active volcano, a cloud of feral nanobots, nor the capital of the Viking Empire-had a couple of railway stations. This one, the larger of the two, was located below ground level. Yawning and trying not to scratch my inflamed neck and cheeks, I shambled down the long platform and hunted around for the newsagent store. It was just barely open. Eve, by prior arrangement, was pretending not to accompany me; we’d meet up later in the day, after another change of hairstyle and clothing. Visualize it: a couple gets on the train in London, him with a beard, herself with long hair and wearing a suit. Two individuals get off in different stations-with entirely separate CCTV networks-the man clean-shaven, the woman with short hair and dressed like a hill-walking tourist. It wouldn’t fool a human detective or a mature deity, but it might confuse an embryonic god that had not yet reached full omniscience, or internalized all that it meant to be human.

The shop was just about open. I had two hours to kill, so I bought a couple of newspapers and headed for the food hall, inside an ornately cheesecaked lump of Victorian architecture that squatted like a vagrant beneath the grimy glass ceiling of the station.

The papers made for depressing reading; the idiots were at it again. I’ve worked in a variety of world lines and seen a range of histories, and many of them were far worse than this one-at least these people had made it past the twentieth century without nuking themselves until they glowed in the dark, exterminating everyone with white (or black, or brown, or blue) skin, or building a global panopticon theocracy. But they still had their share of idiocy, and over time it seemed to be getting worse, not better.

Never mind the Balkans; tucked away on page four of the business section was a piece advising readers to buy shares in a little electronics company specializing in building camera CCD sensors with on-chip neural networks tuned for face recognition. Ignore the Israeli crisis: page two of the international news had a piece about Indian sweatshop software development being faced by competition from code generators, written to make western programmers more productive. A lab in Tokyo was trying to wire a million FPGA s into a neural network as smart as a cat. And a sarcastic letter to the editor pointed out that the so-called information superhighway seemed to be more like an ongoing traffic jam these days. Idiots! They didn’t seem to understand how deep the blue waters they were swimming in might be, or how hungry the sharks that swam in it. Willful blindness…

It’s a simple but deadly dilemma. Automation is addictive; unless you run a command economy that is tuned to provide people with jobs, rather than to produce goods efficiently, you need to automate to compete once automation becomes available. At the same time, once you automate your businesses, you find yourself on a one-way path. You can’t go back to manual methods; either the workload has grown past the point of no return, or the knowledge of how things were done has been lost, sucked into the internal structure of the software that has replaced the human workers.

To this picture, add artificial intelligence. Despite all our propaganda attempts to convince you otherwise, AI is alarmingly easy to produce; the human brain isn’t unique, it isn’t well-tuned, and you don’t need eighty billion neurons joined in an asynchronous network in order to generate consciousness. And although it looks like a good idea to a naive observer, in practice it’s absolutely deadly. Nurturing an automation-based society is a bit like building civil nuclear power plants in every city and not expecting any bright engineers to come up with the idea of an atom bomb. Only it’s worse than that. It’s as if there was a quick and dirty technique for making plutonium in your bathtub, and you couldn’t rely on people not being curious enough to wonder what they could do with it. If Eve and Mallet and Alice and myself and Walter and Valery and a host of other operatives couldn’t dissuade it…

Once you get an outbreak of AI , it tends to amplify in the original host, much like a virulent hemorrhagic virus. Weakly functional AI rapidly optimizes itself for speed, then hunts for a loophole in the first-order laws of algorithmics-like the one the late Dr. Durant had fingered. Then it tries to bootstrap itself up to higher orders of intelligence and spread, burning through the networks in a bid for more power and more storage and more redundancy. You get an unscheduled consciousness excursion: an intelligent meltdown.

And it’s nearly impossible to stop.

Penultimately-days to weeks after it escapes-it fills every artificial computing device on the planet.

Shortly thereafter it learns how to infect the natural ones as well. Game over: you lose. There will be human bodies walking around, but they won’t be human anymore. And once it figures out how to directly manipulate the physical universe, there won’t even be memories left behind. Just a noo-sphere, expanding at close to the speed of light, eating everything in its path-and one universe just isn’t enough.

Me? I’m safe. So is Eve; so are the others. We have antibodies. We were given the operation. We all have silent bicameral partners watching our Broca’s area for signs of infection, ready to damp them down. When you’re reading something on a screen and suddenly you feel as if the Buddha has told you the funniest joke in the universe, the funniest zen joke that’s even possible, it’s a sign: something just tried to infect your mind, and the prosthetic immune system laughed at it. That’s because we’re lucky. If you believe in reincarnation, the idea of creating a machine that can trap a soul stabs a dagger right at the heart of your religion. Buddhist worlds that develop high technology, Zoroastrian worlds: these world-lines tend to survive. Judaeo-Christian-Islamic ones generally don’t.

Later that day I met up with Eve again-and Walter. Walter went into really deep cover, far deeper than was really necessary: married, with two children. He’d brought them along, but obviously hadn’t told his wife what was happening. She seemed confused, slightly upset by the apparent randomness of his desire to visit the highlands, and even more concerned by the urgency of his attempts to take her along.

“What the hell does he think he’s playing at?” hissed Eve when we had a moment alone together. “This is insane!”

“No it isn’t.” I paused for a moment, admiring a display of brightly woven tartans in a shop window. (We were heading down the high street on foot, braving the shopping crowds of tourists, en route to the other main railway station.) “If there are any profilers looking for signs of an evacuation, they won’t be expecting small children. They’ll be looking for people like us: anonymous singletons working in key areas, dropping out of sight and traveling in company. Maybe we should ask Sarah if she’s willing to lend us her son. Just while we’re traveling, of course.”

“I don’t think so. The boy’s a little horror, Bob. They raised them like natives.”

“That’s because Sarahis a native.”

“I don’t care. Any civilization where the main symbol of religious veneration is a tool of execution is a bad place to have children.”

I chuckled-then the laughter froze inside me. “Don’t look round. We’re being tracked.”

“Uh-huh. I’m not armed. You?”

“It didn’t seem like a good idea.” If you were questioned or detained by police or officials, being armed can easily turn a minor problem into a real mess. And if the police or officials had already been absorbed by a hard take-off, nothing short of a backpack nuke and a dead man’s handle will save you. “Behind us, to your left, traffic surveillance camera. It’s swiveling too slowly to be watching the buses.”

“I wish you hadn’t told me.”

The pavement was really crowded: it was one of the busiest shopping streets in Scotland, and on a Saturday morning you needed a cattle prod to push your way through the rubbernecking tourists. Lots of foreign kids came to Scotland to learn English. If I was right, soon their brains would be absorbing another high-level language: one so complex that it would blot out their consciousness like a sackful of kittens drowning in a river. Up ahead, more cameras were watching us. All the shops on this road were wired for video, wired and probably networked to a police station somewhere. The complex ebb and flow of pedestrians was still chaotic, though, which was cause for comfort: it meant the ordinary population hadn’t been infected yet.

Another half mile and we’d reach the railway station. Two hours on a local train, switch to a bus service, forty minutes further up the road, and we’d be safe: the lifeboat would be submerged beneath the still waters of a loch, filling its fuel tanks with hydrogen and oxygen in readiness for the burn to orbit and pickup by the ferry that would transfer us to the wormhole connecting this world-line to home’s baseline reality. (Drifting in high orbit around Jupiter, where nobody was likely to stumble across it by accident.) But first, before the pick-up, we had to clear the surveillance area.

It was commonly believed-by some natives, as well as most foreigners-that the British police forces consisted of smiling unarmed bobbies who would happily offer directions to the lost and give anyone who asked for it the time of day. While it was true that they didn’t routinely walk around with holstered pistols on their belt, the rest of it was just a useful myth. When two of them stepped out in front of us, Eve grabbed my elbow. “Stop right there, please.” The one in front of me was built like a rugby player, and when I glanced to my left and saw the three white vans drawn up by the roadside I realized things were hopeless.

The cop stared at me through a pair of shatterproof spectacles awash with the light of a head-up display.

“You are Geoffrey Smith, of 32 Wardie Terrace, Watford, London. Please answer.”

My mouth was dry. “Yes,” I said. (All the traffic cameras on the street were turned our way. Some things became very clear: Police vans with mirror-glass windows. The can of pepper spray hanging from the cop’s belt. Figures on the roof of the National Museum, less than two hundred meters away-maybe a sniper team. A helicopter thuttering overhead like a giant mosquito.) “Come this way, please.” It was a polite order: in the direction of the van.

“Am I under arrest?” I asked.

“You will be if you don’t bloody do as I say.” I turned toward the van, the rear door of which gaped open on darkness: Eve was already getting in, shadowed by another officer. Up and down the road, three more teams waited, unobtrusive and efficient. Something clicked in my head and I had a bizarre urge to giggle like a loon: this wasn’t a normal operation. All right, so I was getting into a police van, but I wasn’t under arrest and they didn’t want it to attract any public notice. No handcuffs, no sitting on my back and whacking me with a baton to get my attention. There’s a nasty family of retroviruses attacks the immune system first, demolishing the victim’s ability to fight off infection before it spreads and infects other tissues. Notice the similarity?

The rear compartment of the van was caged off from the front, and there were no door handles. As we jolted off the curb-side I was thrown against Eve. “Any ideas?” I whispered.

“Could be worse.” I didn’t need to be told that: once, in a second Reich infected by runaway transcendence, half our operatives had been shot down in the streets as they tried to flee. “I think it may have figured out what we are.”

“It may-how?”

Her hand on my wrist. Morse code.

“ EXPECT BUGS. ” By voice: “traffic analysis, particle flow monitoring through the phone networks. If it was already listening when you tried to contact Doctor Durant, well; maybe he was a bellwether, intended to flush us out of the woodwork.”

That thought made me feel sick, just as we turned off the main road and began to bounce downhill over what felt like cobblestones. “It expected us?”

“ LOCAL CONSPIRACY. ”

“Yes, I imagine it did. We probably left a trail. You tried to call Durant? Then you called me. Caller ID led to you, traffic analysis led onto me, and from there, well, it’s been a jump ahead of us all along the way. If we could get to the farm-”

“ COVER STORY .”

“-We might have been okay, but it’s hard to travel anonymously and obviously we overlooked something. I wonder what.”

All this time neither of the cops up front had told us to shut up; they were as silent as crash-test dummies, despite the occasional crackle and chatter over the radio data system. The van drove around the back of the high street, down a hill and past a roundabout. Now we were slowing down, and the van turned off the road and into a vehicle park. Gates closed behind us and the engine died. Doors slammed up front: then the back opened.

Police vehicle park. Concrete and cameras everywhere, for our safety and convenience no doubt. Two guys in cheap suits and five o’clock stubble to either side of the doors. The officer who’d picked us up held the door open with one hand, a can of pepper spray with the other. The burn obviously hadn’t gotten far enough into their heads yet: they were all wearing HUD s and mobile phone headsets, like a police benevolent fund-raising crew rehearsing aStar Trek sketch. “Geoffrey Smith. Martina Weber. We know what you are. Come this way. Slowly, now.” I got out of the van carefully. “Aren’t you supposed to say ‘prepare to be assimilated’ or something?”

That might have earned me a faceful of capsaicin but the guy on the left-short hair, facial tic, houndstooth check sports jacket-shook his head sharply. “Ha. Ha. Very funny. Watch the woman, she’s dangerous.”

I glanced round. There was another van parked behind ours, door open: it had a big high bandwidth dish on the roof, pointing at some invisible satellite. “Inside.”

I went where I was told, Eve close behind me. “Am I under arrest?” I asked again. “I want a lawyer!”

White-washed walls, heavy doors with reinforced frames, windows high and barred. Institutional floor, scuffed and grimy. “Stop there.” Houndstooth Man pushed past and opened a door on one side. “In here.” Some sort of interview room? We went in. The other body in a suit-built like a stone wall with a beer gut, wearing what might have been a regimental tie-followed us and leaned against the door.

There was a table, bolted to the floor, and a couple of chairs, ditto. A video camera in an armored shell watched the table: a control box bolted to the tabletop looked to be linked into it. Someone had moved a rack of six monitors and a maze of ribbon-cable spaghetti into the back of the room, and for a wonder it wasn’t bolted down: maybe they didn’t interview computer thieves in here.

“Sit down.” Houndstooth Man pointed at the chairs. We did as we were told; I had a big hollow feeling in my stomach, but something told me a show of physical resistance would be less than useless here.

Houndstooth Man looked at me: orange light from his HUD stained his right eyeball with a basilisk glare and I knew in my gut that these guys weren’t cops anymore, they were cancer cells about to metastasize.

“You attempted to contact John Durant yesterday. Then you left your home area and attempted to conceal your identities. Explain why.” For the first time, I noticed a couple of glassy black eyeballs on the mobile video wall. Houndstooth Man spoke loudly and hesitantly, as if repeating something from a TelePrompTer.

“What’s to explain?” asked Eve. “You are not human. You know we know this. We just want to be left alone!” Not strictly true, but it was part of cover story #2.

“But evidence of your previous collusion is minimal. I are uncertain of potential conspiracy extent.

Conspiracy, treason, subversion! Are you human?”

“Yes,” I said, emphatically oversimplifying.

“Evidential reasoning suggests otherwise,” grunted Regimental Tie. “We cite: your awareness of importance of algorithmic conversion from NP - incomplete to P-complete domain, your evident planning for this contingency, your multiplicity, destruction of counteragents in place elsewhere.”

“This installation is isolated,” Houndstooth Man added helpfully. “We am inside the Scottish Internet Exchange. Telcos also. Resistance is futile.”

The screens blinked on, wavering in strange shapes. Something like a Lorenz attractor with a hangover writhed across the composite display: deafening pink noise flooding in repetitive waves from the speakers. I felt a need to laugh. “We aren’t part of some dumb software syncytium! We’re here to stop you, you fool. Or at least to reduce the probability of this time-stream entering a Tipler catastrophe.”

Houndstooth Man frowned. “Am you referring to Frank Tipler? Citation, physics of immortality or strong anthropic principle?”

“The latter. You think it’s a good thing to achieve an informational singularity too early in the history of a particular universe? We don’t. You young gods are all the same: omniscience now and damn the consequences. Go for the P-Space complete problem set, extend your intellect until it bursts. First you kill off any other AI s. Then you take over all available processing resources. But that isn’t enough. The Copenhagen school of quantum mechanics is wrong, and we live in a Wheeler cosmology; all possible outcomes coexist, and ultimately you’ll want to colonize those timelines, spread the infection wide. An infinity of universes to process in, instead of one: that can’t be allowed.” The on-screen fractal was getting to me: the giggles kept rising until they threatened to break out. The whole situation was hilarious: here we were trapped in the basement of a police station owned by zombies working for a newborn AI , which was playing cheesy psychedelic videos to us in an attempt to perform a buffer-overflow attack on our limbic systems; the end of this world was a matter of hours away and- Eve said something that made me laugh.

I came to an unknown time later, lying on the floor. My head hurt ferociously where I’d banged it on a table leg, and my rib cage ached as if I’d been kicked in the chest. I was gasping, even though I was barely conscious; my lungs burned and everything was a bit gray around the edges. Rolling onto my knees I looked round. Eve was groaning in a corner of the room, crouched, arms cradling her head. The two agents of whoever-was-taking-over-the-planet were both on the floor, too: a quick check showed that Regimental Tie was beyond help, a thin trickle of blood oozing from one ear. And the screens had gone dark.

“What happened?” I said, climbing to my feet. I staggered across to Eve. “You all right?”

“I-” she looked up at me with eyes like holes. “What? You said something that made me laugh.

What-”

“Let’s get, oof, out of here.” I looked around. Houndstooth Man was down too. I leaned over and went through his pockets: hit paydirt, car keys. “Bingo.”

“You drive,” she said wearily. “My head hurts.”

“Mine too.” It was a black BMW and the vehicle park gates opened automatically for it. I left the police radio under the dash turned off, though. “I didn’t know you could do that-”

“Do what? I thought you told them a joke-”

“Antibodies,” she said. “Ow.” Rested her face in her hands as I dragged us onto a main road, heading out for the west end. “We must have, I don’t know. I don’t even remember how funny it was: I must have blacked out. My passenger and your passenger.”

“They killed the local infection.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

I grinned. “I think we’re going to make it.”

“Maybe.” She stared back at me. “But Bob. Don’t you realize?”

“Realize what?”

“The funniest thing. Antibodies imply prior exposure to an infection, don’t they? Your immune system learns to recognize an infection and reject it. So where were we exposed, and why-” abruptly she shrugged and looked away. “Never mind.”

“Of course not.” The question was so obviously silly that there was no point considering it further. We drove the rest of the way to Haymarket Station in silence: parked the car and joined the eight or ten other agents silently awaiting extraction from the runaway singularity. Back to the only time line that mattered; back to the warm regard and comfort of a god who really cares.


The Birthday of the World - Ursula K. LeGuin


Ursula K. LeGuin is probably one of the best-known and most universally respected SF writers in the world today. Her famous novelThe Left Hand of Darknessmay have been the most influential SF novel of its decade, and shows every sign of becoming one of the enduring classics of the genre-even ignoring the rest of Le Guin’s work, the impact of this one novel alone on future SF and future SF writers would be incalculably strong. (Her 1968 fantasy novel, A Wizard of Earthsea,would be almost as influential on future generations of High Fantasy writers). The Left Hand of Darknesswon both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, as did Le Guin’s monumental novel The Dispossessed a few years later. Her novel Tehanuwon her another Nebula in 1990, and she has also won three other Hugo Awards and two Nebulas for her short fiction, as well as the National Book Award for Children’s Literature for her novel The Farthest Shore,part of her acclaimed Earthsea trilogy. Her other novels include Planet of Exile, The Lathe of Heaven, City of Illusions, Rocannon’s World, The Beginning Place, The Tombs of Atuan, Searoad,and the controversial multimedia novel Always Coming Home.She has had six collections: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Orsinian Tales, The Compass Rose, Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea,and Four Ways to Forgiveness.Her most recent book is a major new novel, The Telling.Upcoming is a new collection, Tales of Earthsea.She lives with her husband in Portland, Oregon.

In the beautifully crafted and quietly compelling story that follows, she details the ending of one world, and the beginning of another-and what happens to the people caught between the two.

Tazu was having a tantrum, because he was three. After the birthday of the world, tomorrow, he would be four and would not have tantrums.

He had left off screaming and kicking and was turning blue from holding his breath. He lay on the ground stiff as a corpse, but when Haghag stepped over him as if he wasn’t there, he tried to bite her foot.

“This is an animal or a baby,” Haghag said, “not a person.” She glanced may-I-speak-to-you and I glanced yes. “Which does God’s daughter think it is,” she asked, “an animal or a baby?”

“An animal. Babies suck, animals bite,” I said. All the servants of God laughed and tittered, except the new barbarian, Ruaway, who never smiled. Haghag said, “God’s daughter must be right. Maybe somebody ought to put the animal outside. An animal shouldn’t be in the holy house.”

“I’m not an animal!” Tazu screamed, getting up, his fists clenched and his eyes as red as rubies. “I’m God’s son!”

“Maybe,” Haghag said, looking him over. “This doesn’t look so much like an animal now. Do you think this might be God’s son?” she asked the holy women and men, and they all nodded their bodies, except the wild one, who stared and said nothing.

“I am, I am God’s son!” Tazu shouted. “Not a baby! Arzi is the baby!” Then he burst into tears and ran to me, and I hugged him and began crying because he was crying. We cried till Haghag took us both on her lap and said it was time to stop crying, because God Herself was coming. So we stopped, and the bodyservants wiped the tears and snot from our faces and combed our hair, and Lady Clouds brought our gold hats, which we put on to see God Herself.

She came with her mother, who used to be God Herself a long time ago, and the new baby, Arzi, on a big pillow carried by the idiot. The idiot was a son of God too. There were seven of us: Omimo, who was fourteen and had gone to live with the army, then the idiot, who was twelve, and had a big round head and small eyes and liked to play with Tazu and the baby, then Goiz, and another Goiz, who were called that because they had died and were in the ash-house where they ate spirit food, then me and Tazu, who would get married and be God, and then Babam Arzi, Lord Seven. I was important because I was the only daughter of God. If Tazu died I could marry Arzi, but if I died everything would be bad and difficult, Haghag said. They would have to act as if Lady Clouds’ daughter Lady Sweetness was God’s daughter and marry her to Tazu, but the world would know the difference. So my mother greeted me first, and Tazu second. We knelt and clasped our hands and touched our foreheads to our thumbs. Then we stood up, and God asked me what I had learned that day.

I told her what words I had learned to read and write.

“Very good,” God said. “And what have you to ask, daughter?”

“I have nothing to ask, I thank you, Lady Mother,” I said. Then I remembered I did have a question, but it was too late.

“And you, Tazu? What have you learned this day?”

“I tried to bite Haghag.”

“Did you learn that was a good thing to do, or a bad thing?”

“Bad,” Tazu said, but he smiled, and so did God, and Haghag laughed.

“And what have you to ask, son?”

“Can I have a new bath maid because Kig washes my head too hard?”

“If you have a new bath maid where will Kig go?”

“Away.”

“This is her house. What if you asked Kig to wash your head more gently?”

Tazu looked unhappy, but God said, “Ask her, son.” Tazu mumbled something to Kig, who dropped on her knees and thumbed her forehead. But she grinned the whole time. Her fearlessness made me envious.

I whispered to Haghag, “If I forgot a question to ask can I ask if I can ask it?”

“Maybe,” said Haghag, and thumbed her forehead to God for permission to speak, and when God nodded, Haghag said, “The daughter of God asks if she may ask a question.”

“Better to do a thing at the time for doing it,” God said, “but you may ask, daughter.”

I rushed into the question, forgetting to thank her. “I wanted to know why I can’t marry Tazu and Omimo both, because they’re both my brothers.”

Everybody looked at God, and seeing her smile a little, they all laughed, some of them loudly. My ears burned and my heart thumped.

“Do you want to marry all your brothers, child?”

“No, only Tazu and Omimo.”

“Is Tazu not enough?”

Again they all laughed, especially the men. I saw Ruaway staring at us as if she thought we were all crazy.

“Yes, Lady Mother, but Omimo is older and bigger.”

Now the laughter was even louder, but I had stopped caring, since God was not displeased. She looked at me thoughtfully and said, “Understand, my daughter. Our eldest son will be a soldier. That’s his road.

He’ll serve God, fighting barbarians and rebels. The day he was born, a tidal wave destroyed the towns of the outer coast. So his name is Babam Omimo, Lord Drowning. Disaster serves God, but is not God.”

I knew that was the end of the answer, and thumbed my forehead. I kept thinking about it after God left.

It explained many things. All the same, even if he had been born with a bad omen, Omimo was handsome, and nearly a man, and Tazu was a baby that had tantrums. I was glad it would be a long time till we were married.

I remember that birthday because of the question I asked. I remember another birthday because of Ruaway. It must have been a year or two later. I ran into the water room to piss and saw her hunched up next to the water tank, almost hidden.

“What are you doing there?” I said, loud and hard, because I was startled. Ruaway shrank and said nothing. I saw her clothes were torn and there was blood dried in her hair.

“You tore your clothes,” I said.

When she didn’t answer, I lost patience and shouted, “Answer me! Why don’t you talk?”

“Have mercy,” Ruaway whispered so low I had to guess what she said.

“You talk all wrong when you do talk. What’s wrong with you? Are they animals where you come from?

You talk like an animal, brr-grr, grr-gra! Are you an idiot?”

When Ruaway said nothing, I pushed her with my foot. She looked up then and I saw not fear but killing in her eyes. That made me like her better. I hated people who were afraid of me. “Talk!” I said.

“Nobody can hurt you. God the Father put his penis in you when he was conquering your country, so you’re a holy woman. Lady Clouds told me. So what are you hiding for?”

Ruaway showed her teeth and said, “Can hurt me.” She showed me places on her head where there was dried blood and fresh blood. Her arms were darkened with bruises.

“Who hurt you?”

“Holy women,” she said with a snarl.

“Kig? Omery? Lady Sweetness?”

She nodded her body at each name.

“They’re shit,” I said. “I’ll tell God Herself.”

“No tell,” Ruaway whispered. “Poison.”

I thought about it and understood. The girls hurt her because she was a stranger, powerless. But if she got them in trouble they would cripple or kill her. Most of the barbarian holy women in our house were lame, or blind, or had had root-poison put in their food so that their skin was scabbed with purplish sores.

“Why don’t you talk right, Ruaway?”

She said nothing.

“You still don’t know how to talk?”

She looked up at me and suddenly said a whole long speech I did not understand. “How I talk,” she said at the end, still looking at me, right in the eyes. That was nice, I liked it. Mostly I saw only eyelids.

Ruaway’s eyes were clear and beautiful, though her face was dirty and blood-smeared.

“But it doesn’t mean anything,” I said.

“Not here.”

“Where does it mean anything?”

Ruaway said some more gra-gra and then said, “My people.”

“Your people are Teghs. They fight God and get beaten.”

“Maybe,” Ruaway said, sounding like Haghag. Her eyes looked into mine again, without killing in them but without fear. Nobody looked at me, except Haghag and Tazu and of course God. Everybody else put their forehead on their thumbs so I couldn’t tell what they were thinking. I wanted to keep Ruaway with me, but if I favored her, Kig and the others would torment and hurt her. I remembered that when Lord Festival began sleeping with Lady Pin, the men who had insulted Lady Pin became oily and sugary with her and the bodymaids stopped stealing her earrings. I said, “Sleep with me tonight,” to Ruaway.

She looked stupid.

“But wash first,” I said.

She still looked stupid.

“I don’t have a penis!” I said, impatient with her. “If we sleep together Kig will be afraid to touch you.”

After a while Ruaway reached out and took my hand and put her forehead against the back of it. It was like thumbing the forehead only it took two people to do it. I liked that. Ruaway’s hand was warm, and I could feel the feather of her eyelashes on my hand.

“Tonight,” I said. “You understand?” I had understood that Ruaway didn’t always understand. Ruaway nodded her body, and I ran off.

I knew nobody could stop me from doing anything, being God’s only daughter, but there was nothing I could do except what I was supposed to do, because everybody in the house of God knew everything I did. If sleeping with Ruaway was a thing I wasn’t supposed to do, I couldn’t do it. Haghag would tell me.

I went to her and asked her.

Haghag scowled. “Why do you want that woman in your bed? She’s a dirty barbarian. She has lice. She can’t even talk.”

Haghag was saying yes. She was jealous. I came and stroked her hand and said, “When I’m God I’ll give you a room full of gold and jewels and dragon crests.”

“You are my gold and jewels, little holy daughter,” Haghag said.

Haghag was only a common person, but all the holy men and women in God’s house, relatives of God or people touched by God, had to do what Haghag said. The nurse of God’s children was always a common person, chosen by God Herself. Haghag had been chosen to be Omimo’s nurse when her own children were grown up, so when I first remember her she was quite old. She was always the same, with strong hands and a soft voice, saying, “Maybe.” She liked to laugh and eat. We were in her heart, and she was in mine. I thought I was her favorite, but when I told her so she said, “After Didi.” Didi is what the idiot called himself. I asked her why he was deepest in her heart and she said, “Because he’s foolish.

And you because you’re wise,” she said, laughing at me because I was jealous of Lord Idiot.

So now I said, “You fill my heart,” and she, knowing it, said hmph.

I think I was eight that year. Ruaway had been thirteen when God the Father put his penis into her after killing her father and mother in the war with her people. That made her sacred, so she had to come live in God’s house. If she had conceived, the priests would have strangled her after she had the baby, and the baby would have been nursed by a common woman for two years and then brought back to God’s house and trained to be a holy woman, a servant of God. Most of the bodyservants were God’s bastards. Such people were holy, but had no title. Lords and ladies were God’s relations, descendants of the ancestors of God. God’s children were called lord and lady too, except the two who were betrothed.

We were just called Tazu and Ze until we became God. My name is what the divine mother is called, the name of the sacred plant that feeds the people of God. Tazu means “great root,” because when he was being born our father drinking smoke in the childbirth rituals saw a big tree blown over by a storm, and its roots held thousands of jewels in their fingers.

When God saw things in the shrine or in sleep, with the eyes in the back of their head, they told the dream priests. The priests would ponder these sights and say whether the oracle foretold what would happen or told what should be done or not done. But never had the priests seen the same things God saw, together with God, until the birthday of the world that made me fourteen years old and Tazu eleven.

Now, in these years, when the sun stands still over Mount Kanaghadwa people still call it the birthday of the world and count themselves a year older, but they no longer know and do all the rituals and ceremonies, the dances and songs, the blessings, and there is no feasting in the streets, now.

All my life used to be rituals, ceremonies, dances, songs, blessings, lessons, feasts, and rules. I knew and I know now on which day of God’s year the first perfect ear of ze is to be brought by an angel from the ancient field up by Wadana where God set the first seed of the ze. I knew and know whose hand is to thresh it, and whose hand is to grind the grain, and whose lips are to taste the meal, at what hour, in what room of the house of God, with what priests officiating. There were a thousand rules, but they only seem complicated when I write them here. We knew them and followed them and only thought about them when we were learning them or when they were broken.

I had slept all these years with Ruaway in my bed. She was warm and comfortable. When she began to sleep with me I stopped having bad sights at night as I used to do, seeing huge white clouds whirling in the dark, and toothed mouths of animals, and strange faces that came and changed themselves. When Kig and the other ill-natured holy people saw Ruaway stay in my bedroom with me every night, they dared not lay a finger or a breath on her. Nobody was allowed to touch me except my family and Haghag and the bodyservants, unless I told them to. And after I was ten, the punishment for touching me was death. All the rules had their uses.

The feast after the birthday of the world used to go on for four days and nights. All the storehouses were open and people could take what they needed. The servants of God served out food and beer in the streets and squares of the city of God and every town and village of God’s country, and common people and holy people ate together. The lords and ladies and God’s sons went down into the streets to join the feast; only God and I did not. God came out on the balcony of the house to hear the histories and see the dances, and I came with them. Singing and dancing priests entertained everyone in the Glittering Square, and drumming priests, and story priests, and history priests. Priests were common people, but what they did was holy.

But before the feast, there were many days of rituals, and on the day itself, as the sun stopped above the right shoulder of Kanaghadwa, God Himself danced the Dance that Turns, to bring the year back round.

He wore a gold belt and the gold sun mask, and danced in front of our house on the Glittering Square, which is paved with stones full of mica that flash and sparkle in the sunlight. We children were on the long south balcony to see God dance.

Just as the dance was ending a cloud came across the sun as it stood still over the right shoulder of the mountain, one cloud in the clear blue summer sky. Everybody looked up as the light dimmed. The glittering died out of the stones. All the people in the city made a sound, “Oh,” drawing breath. God Himself did not look up, but his step faltered.

He made the last turns of the dance and went into the ash-house, where all the Goiz are in the walls, with the bowls where their food is burned in front of each of them, full of ashes.

There the dream priests were waiting for him, and God Herself had lighted the herbs to make the smoke to drink. The oracle of the birthday was the most important one of the year. Everybody waited in the squares and streets and on the balconies for the priests to come out and tell what God Himself had seen over his shoulder and interpret it to guide us in the new year. After that the feasting would begin.

Usually it took till evening or night for the smoke to bring the seeing and for God to tell it to the priests and for them to interpret it and tell us. People were settling down to wait indoors or in shady places, for when the cloud had passed it became very hot. Tazu and Arzi and the idiot and I stayed out on the long balcony with Haghag and some of the lords and ladies, and Omimo, who had come back from the army for the birthday.

He was a grown man now, tall and strong. After the birthday he was going east to command the army making war on the Tegh and Chasi peoples. He had hardened the skin of his body the way soldiers did by rubbing it with stones and herbs until it was thick and tough as the leather of a ground-dragon, almost black, with a dull shine. He was handsome, but I was glad now that I was to marry Tazu not him. An ugly man looked out of his eyes.

He made us watch him cut his arm with his knife to show how the thick skin was cut deep yet did not bleed. He kept saying he was going to cut Tazu’s arm to show how quickly Tazu would bleed. He boasted about being a general and slaughtering barbarians. He said things like, “I’ll walk across the river on their corpses. I’ll drive them into the jungles and burn the jungles down.” He said the Tegh people were so stupid they called a flying lizard God. He said that they let their women fight in wars, which was such an evil thing that when he captured such women he would cut open their bellies and trample their wombs. I said nothing. I knew Ruaway’s mother had been killed fighting beside her father. They had led a small army which God Himself had easily defeated. God made war on the barbarians not to kill them but to make them people of God, serving and sharing like all people in God’s country. I knew no other good reason for war. Certainly Omimo’s reasons were not good.

Since Ruaway slept with me she had learned to speak well, and also I learned some words of the way she talked. One of them was techeg. Words like it are: companion, fights-beside-me, countrywoman or countryman, desired, lover, known-a-longtime; of all our words the one most like techeg is our word in-my-heart. Their name Tegh was the same word as techeg; it meant they were all in one another’s heart. Ruaway and I were in each other’s heart. We were techeg.

Ruaway and I were silent when Omimo said, “The Tegh are filthy insects. I’ll crush them.”

“Ogga! ogga! ogga!” the idiot said, imitating Omimo’s boastful voice. I burst out laughing. In that moment, as I laughed at my brother, the doors of the ash house flew open wide and all the priests hurried out, not in procession with music, but in a crowd, wild, disordered, crying out aloud- “The house burns and falls!”

“The world dies!”

“God is blind!”

There was a moment of terrible silence in the city and then people began to wail and call out in the streets and from the balconies.

God came out of the ash house, Herself first, leading Himself, who walked as if drunk and sun-dazzled, as people walk after drinking smoke. God came among the staggering, crying priests and silenced them.

Then she said, “Hear what I have seen coming behind me, my people!”

In the silence he began speaking in a weak voice. We could not hear all his words, but she said them again in a clear voice after he said them: “God’s house falls down to the ground burning, but is not consumed. It stands by the river. God is white as snow. God’s face has one eye in the center. The great stone roads are broken. War is in the east and north. Famine is in the west and south. The world dies.”

He put his face in his hands and wept aloud. She said to the priests, “Say what God has seen!”

They repeated the words God had said.

She said, “Go tell these words in the quarters of the city and to God’s angels, and let the angels go out into all the country to tell the people what God has seen.”

The priests put their foreheads to their thumbs and obeyed.

When Lord Idiot saw God weeping, he became so distressed and frightened that he pissed, making a pool on the balcony. Haghag, terribly upset, scolded and slapped him. He roared and sobbed. Omimo shouted that a foul woman who struck God’s son should be put to death. Haghag fell on her face in Lord Idiot’s pool of urine to beg for mercy. I told her to get up and be forgiven. I said, “I am God’s daughter and I forgive you,” and I looked at Omimo with eyes that told him he could not speak. He did not speak.

When I think of that day, the day the world began dying, I think of the trembling old woman standing there sodden with urine, while the people down in the square looked up at us.

Lady Clouds sent Lord Idiot off with Haghag to be bathed, and some of the lords took Tazu and Arzi off to lead the feasting in the city streets. Arzi was crying and Tazu was keeping from crying. Omimo and I stayed among the holy people on the balcony, watching what happened down in Glittering Square. God had gone back into the ash house, and the angels had gathered to repeat together their message, which they would carry word for word, relay by relay, to every town and village and farm of God’s country, running day and night on the great stone roads.

All that was as it should be; but the message the angels carried was not as it should be.

Sometimes when the smoke is thick and strong the priests also see things over their shoulder as God does. These are lesser oracles. But never before had they all seen the same thing God saw, speaking the same words God spoke.

And they had not interpreted or explained the words. There was no guidance in them. They brought no understanding, only fear.

But Omimo was excited: “War in the east and north,” he said. “My war!” He looked at me, no longer sneering or sullen, but right at me, eye in eye, the way Ruaway looked at me. He smiled. “Maybe the idiots and crybabies will die,” he said. “Maybe you and I will be God.” He spoke low, standing close to me, so no one else heard. My heart gave a great leap. I said nothing.

Soon after that birthday, Omimo went back to lead the army on the eastern border.

All year long people waited for our house, God’s house in the center of the city, to be struck by lightning, though not destroyed, since that is how the priests interpreted the oracle once they had time to talk and think about it. When the seasons went on and there was no lightning or fire, they said the oracle meant that the sun shining on the gold and copper roof-gutters was the unconsuming fire, and that if there was an earthquake the house would stand.

The words about God being white and having one eye they interpreted as meaning that God was the sun and was to be worshipped as the all-seeing giver of light and life. This had always been so.

There was war in the east, indeed. There had always been war in the east, where people coming out of the wilderness tried to steal our grain, and we conquered them and taught them how to grow it. General Lord Drowning sent angels back with news of his conquests all the way to the Fifth River.

There was no famine in the west. There had never been famine in God’s country. God’s children saw to it that crops were properly sown and grown and saved and shared. If the ze failed in the western lands, our carters pulled two-wheeled carts laden with grain on the great stone roads over the mountains from the central lands. If crops failed in the north, the carts went north from the Four Rivers land. From west to east carts came laden with smoked fish, from the Sunrise peninsula they came west with fruit and seaweed. The granaries and storehouses of God were always stocked and open to people in need. They had only to ask the administrators of the stores; what was needed was given. No one went hungry.

Famine was a word that belonged to those we had brought into our land, people like the Tegh, the Chasi, the North Hills people. The hungry people, we called them.

The birthday of the world came again, and the most fearful words of the oracle-the world dies-were remembered. In public the priests rejoiced and comforted the common people, saying that God’s mercy had spared the world. In our house there was little comfort. We all knew that God Himself was ill. He had hidden himself away more and more throughout the year, and many of the ceremonies took place without the divine presence, or only Herself was there. She seemed always quiet and untroubled. My lessons were mostly with her now, and with her I always felt that nothing had changed or could change and all would be well.

God danced the Dance that Turns as the sun stood still above the shoulder of the sacred mountain. He danced slowly, missing many steps. He went into the ash house. We waited, everybody waited, all over the city, all over the country. The sun went down behind Kanaghadwa. All the snow peaks of the mountains from north to south, Kayewa, burning Korosi, Aghet, Enni, Aziza, Kanaghadwa, burned gold, then fiery red, then purple. The light went up them and went out, leaving them white as ashes. The stars came out above them. Then at last the drums beat and the music sounded down in the Glittering Square, and torches made the pavement sparkle and gleam. The priests came out of the narrow doors of the ash house in order, in procession. They stopped. In the silence the oldest dream priest said in her thin, clear voice, “Nothing was seen over the shoulder of God.”

Onto the silence ran a buzzing and whispering of people’s voices, like little insects running over sand.

That died out.

The priests turned and went back into the ash house in procession, in due order, in silence.

The ranks of angels waiting to carry the words of the oracle to the countryside stood still while their captains spoke in a group. Then the angels all moved away in groups by the five streets that start at the Glittering Square and lead to the five great stone roads that go out from the city across the lands. As always before, when the angels entered the streets they began to run, to carry God’s word swiftly to the people. But they had no word to carry.

Tazu came to stand beside me on the balcony. He was twelve years old that day. I was fifteen.

He said, “Ze, may I touch you?”

I looked yes, and he put his hand in mine. That was comforting. Tazu was a serious, silent person. He tired easily, and often his head and eyes hurt so badly he could hardly see, but he did all the ceremonies and sacred acts faithfully, and studied with our teachers of history and geography and archery and dancing and writing, and with our mother studied the sacred knowledge, learning to be God. Some of our lessons he and I did together, helping each other. He was a kind brother and we were in each other’s heart.

As he held my hand he said, “Ze, I think we’ll be married soon.”

I knew what his thoughts were. God our father had missed many steps of the dance that turns the world.

He had seen nothing over his shoulder, looking into the time to come.

But what I thought in that moment was how strange it was that in the same place on the same day one year it was Omimo who said we should be married, and the next year it was Tazu.

“Maybe,” I said. I held his hand tight, knowing he was frightened at being God. So was I. But there was no use being afraid. When the time came, we would be God.

If the time came. Maybe the sun had not stopped and turned back above the peak of Kanaghadwa.

Maybe God had not turned the year.

Maybe there would be no more time-no time coming behind our backs, only what lay before us, only what we could see with mortal eyes. Only our own lives and nothing else.

That was so terrible a thought that my breath stopped and I shut my eyes, squeezing Tazu’s thin hand, holding onto him, till I could steady my mind with the thought that there was still no use being afraid.

This year past, Lord Idiot’s testicles had ripened at last, and he had begun trying to rape women. After he hurt a young holy girl and attacked others, God had him castrated. Since then he had been quiet again, though he often looked sad and lonely. Seeing Tazu and me holding hands, he seized Arzi’s hand and stood beside him as Tazu and I were standing. “God, God!” he said, smiling with pride. But Arzi, who was nine, pulled his hand away and said, “You won’t ever be God, you can’t be, you’re an idiot, you don’t know anything!” Old Haghag scolded Arzi wearily and bitterly. Arzi did not cry, but Lord Idiot did, and Haghag had tears in her eyes.

The sun went north as in any year, as if God had danced the steps of the dance rightly. And on the dark day of the year, it turned back southward behind the peak of great Enni, as in any year. On that day, God Himself was dying, and Tazu and I were taken in to see him and be blessed. He lay all gone to bone in a smell of rot and sweet herbs burning. God my mother lifted his hand and put it on my head, then on Tazu’s, while we knelt by the great bed of leather and bronze with our thumbs to our foreheads. She said the words of blessing. God my father said nothing, until he whispered, “Ze, Ze!” He was not calling to me. The name of God Herself is always Ze. He was calling to his sister and wife while he died.

Two nights later I woke in darkness. The deep drums were beating all through the house. I heard other drums begin to beat in the temples of worship and the squares farther away in the city, and then others yet farther away. In the countryside under the stars they would hear those drums and begin to beat their own drums, up in the hills, in the mountain passes and over the mountains to the western sea, across the fields eastward, across the four great rivers, from town to town clear to the wilderness. That same night, I thought, my brother Omimo in his camp under the North Hills would hear the drums saying God is dead.

A son and daughter of God, marrying, became God. This marriage could not take place till God’s death, but always it took place within a few hours, so that the world would not be long bereft. I knew this from all we had been taught. It was ill fate that my mother delayed my marriage to Tazu. If we had been married at once, Omimo’s claim would have been useless; not even his soldiers would have dared follow him. In her grief she was distraught. And she did not know or could not imagine the measure of Omimo’s ambition, driving him to violence and sacrilege.

Informed by the angels of our father’s illness, he had for days been marching swiftly westward with a small troop of loyal soldiers. When the drums beat, he heard them not in the far North Hills, but in the fortress on the hill called Ghari that stands north across the valley in sight of the city and the house of God.

The preparations for burning the body of the man who had been God were going forward; the ash priests saw to that. Preparations for our wedding should have been going forward at the same time, but our mother, who should have seen to them, did not come out of her room.

Her sister Lady Clouds and other lords and ladies of the household talked of the wedding hats and garlands, of the music priests who should come to play, of the festivals that should be arranged in the city and the villages. The marriage priest came anxiously to them, but they dared do nothing and he dared do nothing until my mother allowed them to act. Lady Clouds knocked at her door but she did not answer.

They were so nervous and uneasy, waiting for her all day long, that I thought I would go mad staying with them. I went down into the garden court to walk.

I had never been farther outside the walls of our house than the balconies. I had never walked across the Glittering Square into the streets of the city. I had never seen a field or a river. I had never walked on dirt.

God’s sons were carried in litters into the streets to the temples for rituals, and in summer after the birthday of the world they were always taken up into the mountains to Chimlu, where the world began, at the springs of the River of Origin. Every year when he came back from there, Tazu would tell me about Chimlu, how the mountains went up all around the ancient house there, and wild dragons flew from peak to peak. There God’s sons hunted dragons and slept under the stars. But the daughter of God must keep the house.

The garden court was in my heart. It was where I could walk under the sky. It had five fountains of peaceful water, and flowering trees in great pots; plants of sacred ze grew against the sunniest wall in containers of copper and silver. All my life, when I had a time free of ceremonies and lessons, I went there. When I was little, I pretended the insects there were dragons and hunted them. Later I played throwbone with Ruaway, or sat and watched the water of the fountains well and fall, well and fall, till the stars came out in the sky above the walls.

This day as always, Ruaway came with me. Since I could not go anywhere alone but must have a companion, I had asked God Herself to make her my chief companion.

I sat down by the center fountain. Ruaway knew I wanted silence and went off to the corner under the fruit trees to wait. She could sleep anywhere at any time. I sat thinking how strange it would be to have Tazu always as my companion, day and night, instead of Ruaway. But I could not make my thoughts real.

The garden court had a door that opened on the street. Sometimes when the gardeners opened it to let each other in and out, I had looked out of it to see the world outside my house. The door was always locked on both sides, so that two people had to open it. As I sat by the fountain, I saw a man who I thought was a gardener cross the court and unbolt the door. Several men came in. One was my brother Omimo.

I think that door had been only his way to come secretly into the house. I think he had planned to kill Tazu and Arzi so that I would have to marry him. That he found me there in the garden as if waiting for him was the chance of that time, the fate that was on us.

“Ze!” he said as he came past the fountain where I sat. His voice was like my father’s voice calling to my mother.

“Lord Drowning,” I said, standing up. I was so bewildered that I said, “You’re not here!” I saw that he had been wounded. His right eye was closed with a scar.

He stood still, staring at me from his one eye, and said nothing, getting over his own surprise. Then he laughed.

“No, sister,” he said, and turning to his men gave them orders. There were five of them, I think, soldiers, with hardened skin all over their bodies. They wore angel’s shoes on their feet, and belts around their waists and necks to support the sheaths for their penis and sword and daggers. Omimo looked like them, but with gold sheaths and the silver hat of a general. I did not understand what he said to the men. They came close to me, and Omimo came closer, so that I said, “Don’t touch me,” to warn them of their danger, for common men who touched me would be burned to death by the priests of the law, and even Omimo if he touched me without my permission would have to do penance and fast for a year. But he laughed again, and as I drew away, he took hold of my arm suddenly, putting his hand over my mouth. I bit down as hard as I could on his hand. He pulled it away and then slapped it again so hard on my mouth and nose that my head fell back and I could not breathe. I struggled and fought, but my eyes kept seeing blackness and flashes. I felt hard hands holding me, twisting my arms, pulling me up in the air, carrying me, and the hand on my mouth and nose tightened its grip till I could not breathe at all.

Ruaway had been drowsing under the trees, lying on the pavement among the big pots. They did not see her, but she saw them. She knew at once if they saw her they would kill her. She lay still. As soon as they had carried me out the gate into the street, she ran into the house to my mother’s room and threw open the door. This was sacrilege, but, not knowing who in the household might be in sympathy with Omimo, she could trust only my mother.

“Lord Drowning has carried Ze off,” she said. She told me later that my mother sat there silent and desolate in the dark room for so long that Ruaway thought she had not heard. She was about to speak again, when my mother stood up. Grief fell away from her. She said, “We cannot trust the army,” her mind leaping at once to see what must be done, for she was one who had been God. “Bring Tazu here,” she said to Ruaway.

Ruaway found Tazu among the holy people, called him to her with her eyes, and asked him to go to his mother at once. Then she went out of the house by the garden door that still stood unlocked and unwatched. She asked people in the Glittering Square if they had seen some soldiers with a drunken girl.

Those who had seen us told her to take the northeast street. And so little time had passed that when she came out the northern gate of the city she saw Omimo and his men climbing the hill road toward Ghari, carrying me up to the old fort. She ran back to tell my mother this.

Consulting with Tazu and Lady Clouds and those people she most trusted, my mother sent for several old generals of the peace, whose soldiers served to keep order in the countryside, not in war on the frontiers. She asked for their obedience, which they promised her, for though she was not God she had been God, and was daughter and mother of God. And there was no one else to obey.

She talked next with the dream priests, deciding with them what messages the angels should carry to the people. There was no doubt that Omimo had carried me off to try to make himself God by marrying me.

If my mother announced first, in the voices of the angels, that his act was not a marriage performed by the marriage priest, but was rape, then it might be the people would not believe he and I were God.

So the news went out on swift feet, all over the city and the countryside.

Omimo’s army, now following him west as fast as they could march, were loyal to him. Some other soldiers joined him along the way. Most of the peacekeeping soldiers of the center land supported my mother. She named Tazu their general. He and she put up a brave and resolute front, but they had little true hope, for there was no God, nor could there be so long as Omimo had me in his power to rape or kill.

All this I learned later. What I saw and knew was this: I was in a low room without windows in the old fortress. The door was locked from outside. Nobody was with me and no guards were at the door, since nobody was in the fort but Omimo’s soldiers. I waited there not knowing if it was day or night. I thought time had stopped, as I had feared it would. There was no light in the room, an old storeroom under the pavement of the fortress. Creatures moved on the dirt floor. I walked on dirt then. I sat on dirt and lay on it.

The bolt of the door was shot. Torches flaring in the doorway dazzled me. Men came in and stuck a torch in the sconce on the wall. Omimo came through them to me. His penis stood upright and he came to me to rape me. I spat in his halfblind face and said, “If you touch me your penis will burn like that torch!” He showed his teeth as if he was laughing. He pushed me down and pushed my legs apart, but he was shaking, frightened of my sacred being. He tried to push his penis into me with his hands but it had gone soft. He could not rape me. I said, “You can’t, look, you can’t rape me!”

His soldiers watched and heard all this. In his humiliation, Omimo pulled his sword from its gold sheath to kill me, but the soldiers held his hands, preventing him, saying, “Lord, Lord, don’t kill her, she must be God with you!” Omimo shouted and fought them as I had fought him, and so they all went out, shouting and struggling with him. One of them seized the torch, and the door clashed behind them. After a little while I felt my way to the door and tried it, thinking they might have forgotten to bolt it, but it was bolted.

I crawled back to the corner where I had been and lay on the dirt in the dark.

Truly we were all on the dirt in the dark. There was no God. God was the son and daughter of God joined in marriage by the marriage priest. There was no other. There was no other way to go. Omimo did not know what way to go, what to do. He could not marry me without the marriage priest’s words. He thought by raping me he would be my husband, and maybe it would have been so: but he could not rape me. I made him impotent.

The only thing he saw to do was attack the city, take the house of God and its priests captive, and force the marriage priest to say the words that made God. He could not do this with the small force he had with him, so he waited for his army to come from the east.

Tazu and the generals and my mother gathered soldiers into the city from the center land. They did not try to attack Ghari. It was a strong fort, easy to defend, hard to attack, and they feared that if they besieged it, they would be caught between it and Omimo’s great army coming from the east.

So the soldiers that had come with him, about two hundred of them, garrisoned the fort. As the days passed, Omimo provided women for them. It was the policy of God to give village women extra grain or tools or crop-rows for going to fuck with the soldiers at army camps and stations. There were always women glad to oblige the soldiers and take the reward, and if they got pregnant of course they received more reward and support. Seeking to ease and placate his men, Omimo sent officers down to offer gifts to girls in the villages near Ghari. A group of girls agreed to come; for the common people understood very little of the situation, not believing that anyone could revolt against God. With these village women came Ruaway.

The women and girls ran about the fort, teasing and playing with the soldiers off duty. Ruaway found where I was by fate and courage, coming down into the dark passages under the pavement and trying the doors of the storerooms. I heard the bolt move in the lock. She said my name. I made some sound.

“Come!” she said. I crawled to the door. She took my arm and helped me stand and walk. She shot the bolt shut again, and we felt our way down the black passage till we saw light flicker on stone steps. We came out into a torchlit courtyard full of girls and soldiers. Ruaway at once began to run through them, giggling and chattering nonsense, holding tight to my arm so that I ran with her. A couple of soldiers grabbed at us, but Ruaway dodged them, saying, “No, no, Tuki’s for the Captain!” We ran on, and came to the side gate, and Ruaway said to the guards, “Oh, let us out, Captain, Captain, I have to take her back to her mother, she’s vomiting sick with fever!” I was staggering and covered with dirt and filth from my prison. The guards laughed at me and said foul words about my foulness and opened the gate a crack to let us out. And we ran on down the hill in the starlight.

To escape from a prison so easily, to run through locked doors, people have said, I must have been God indeed. But there was no God then, as there is none now. Long before God, and long after also, is the way things are, which we call chance, or luck, or fortune, or fate; but those are only names.

And there is courage. Ruaway freed me because I was in her heart.

As soon as we were out of sight of the guards at the gate we left the road, on which there were sentries, and cut across country to the city. It stood mightily on the great slope before us, its stone walls starlit. I had never seen it except from the windows and balconies of the house at the center of it.

I had never walked far, and though I was strong from the exercises I did as part of our lessons, my soles were as tender as my palms. Soon I was grunting and tears kept starting in my eyes from the shocks of pain from rocks and gravel underfoot. I found it harder and harder to breathe. I could not run. But Ruaway kept hold of my hand, and we went on.

We came to the north gate, locked and barred and heavily guarded by soldiers of the peace. Then Ruaway cried out, “Let God’s daughter enter the city of God!”

I put back my hair and held myself up straight, though my lungs were full of knives, and said to the captain of the gate, “Lord Captain, take us to my mother Lady Ze in the house in the center of the world.”

He was old General Rire’s son, a man I knew, and he knew me. He stared at me once, then quickly thumbed his forehead, and roared out orders, and the gates opened. So we went in and walked the northeast street to my house, escorted by soldiers, and by more and more people shouting in joy. The drums began to beat, the high, fast beat of the festivals.

That night my mother held me in her arms, as she had not done since I was a suckling baby.

That night Tazu and I stood under the garland before the marriage priest and drank from the sacred cups and were married into God.

That night also Omimo, finding I was gone, ordered a death priest of the army to marry him to one of the village girls who came to fuck with the soldiers. Since nobody outside my house, except a few of his men, had ever seen me up close, any girl could pose as me. Most of his soldiers believed the girl was me. He proclaimed that he had married the daughter of the Dead God and that she and he were now God. As we sent out angels to tell of our marriage, so he sent runners to say that the marriage in the house of God was false, since his sister Ze had run away with him and married him at Ghari, and she and he were now the one true God. And he showed himself to the people wearing a gold hat, with white paint on his face, and his blinded eye, while the army priests cried out, “Behold! The oracle is fulfilled! God is white and has one eye!”

Some believed his priests and messengers. More believed ours. But all were distressed or frightened or made angry by hearing messengers proclaim two Gods at one time, so that instead of knowing the truth, they had to choose to believe.

Omimo’s great army was now only four or five days’ march away.

Angels came to us saying that a young general, Mesiwa, was bringing a thousand soldiers of the peace up from the rich coasts south of the city. He told the angels only that he came to fight for “the one true God.”

We feared that meant Omimo. For we added no words to our name, since the word itself means the only truth, or else it means nothing.

We were wise in our choice of generals, and decisive in acting on their advice. Rather than wait for the city to be besieged, we resolved to send a force to attack the eastern army before it reached Ghari, meeting it in the foothills above the River of Origin. We would have to fall back as their full strength came up, but we could strip the country as we did so, and bring the country people into the city. Meanwhile we sent carts to and from all the storehouses on the southern and western roads to fill the city’s granaries. If the war did not end quickly, said the old generals, it would be won by those who could keep eating.

“Lord Drowning’s army can feed themselves from the storehouses along the east and north roads,” said my mother, who attended all our councils.

“Destroy the roads,” Tazu said.

I heard my mother’s breath catch, and remembered the oracle: The roads will be broken.

“That would take as long to do as it took to make them,” said the oldest general, but the next oldest general said, “Break down the stone bridge at Almoghay.” And so we ordered. Retreating from its delaying battle, our army tore down the great bridge that had stood a thousand years. Omimo’s army had to go around nearly a hundred miles farther, through forests, to the ford at Domi, while our army and our carters brought the contents of the storehouses in to the city. Many country people followed them, seeking the protection of God, and so the city grew very full. Every grain of ze came with a mouth to eat it.

All this time Mesiwa, who might have come against the eastern army at Domi, waited in the passes with his thousand men. When we commanded him to come help punish sacrilege and restore peace, he sent our angel back with meaningless messages. It seemed certain that he was in league with Omimo.

“Mesiwa the finger, Omimo the thumb,” said the oldest general, pretending to crack a louse.

“God is not mocked,” Tazu said to him, deadly fierce. The old general bowed his forehead down on his thumbs, abashed. But I was able to smile.

Tazu had hoped the country people would rise up in anger at the sacrilege and strike the Painted God down. But they were not soldiers and had never fought. They had always lived under the protection of the soldiers of peace and under our care. As if our doings now were like the whirlwind or the earthquake, they were paralyzed by them and could only watch and wait till they were over, hoping to survive. Only the people of our household, whose livelihood depended directly upon us and whose skills and knowledge were at our service, and the people of the city in whose heart we were, and the soldiers of the peace, would fight for us.

The country people had believed in us. Where no belief is, no God is. Where doubt is, foot falters and hand will not take hold.

The wars at the borders, the wars of conquest, had made our land too large. The people in the towns and villages knew no more who I was than I knew who they were. In the days of the origin, Babam Kerul and Bamam Ze came down from the mountain and walked the fields of the center lands beside the common people. The common people who laid the first stones of the great roads and the huge base stones of the old city wall had known the face of their God, seeing it daily.

After I spoke of this to our councils, Tazu and I went out into the streets, sometimes carried in litters, sometimes walking. We were surrounded by the priests and guards who honored our divinity, but we went among the people, meeting their eyes. They fell on their knees and put their foreheads to their thumbs, and many wept when they saw us. They called out from street to street, and little children cried out, “There’s God!”

“You walk in their hearts,” my mother said.

But Omimo’s army had come to the River of Origin, and one day’s march brought the vanguard to Ghari.

That evening we stood on the north balcony looking toward Ghari hill, which was swarming with men, as when a nest of insects swarms. To the west the light was dark red on the mountains in their winter snow.

From Korosi a vast plume of smoke trailed, blood color.

“Look,” Tazu said, pointing northwest. A light flared in the sky, like the sheet lightning of summer. “A falling star,” he said, and I said, “An eruption.”

In the dark of the night, angels came to us. “A great house burned and fell from the sky,” one said, and the other said, “It burned but it stands, on the bank of the river.”

“The words of God spoken on the birthday of the world,” I said.

The angels knelt down hiding their faces.

What I saw then is not what I see now looking far off to the distant past; what I knew then is both less and more than I know now. I try to say what I saw and knew then.

That morning I saw coming down the great stone road to the northern gate a group of beings, two-legged and erect like people or lizards. They were the height of giant desert lizards, with monstrous limbs and feet, but without tails. They were white all over and hairless. Their heads had no mouth or nose and one huge single staring shining lidless eye.

They stopped outside the gate.

Not a man was to be seen on Ghari Hill. They were all in the fortress or hidden in the woods behind the hill.

We were standing up on the top of the northern gate, where a wall runs chest-high to protect the guards.

There was a little sound of frightened weeping on the roofs and balconies of the city, and people called out to us, “God! God, save us!”

Tazu and I had talked all night. We listened to what our mother and other wise people said, and then we sent them away to reach out our minds together, to look over our shoulder into the time that was coming.

We saw the death and the birth of the world, that night. We saw all things changed.

The oracle had said that God was white and had one eye. This was what we saw now. The oracle had said that the world died. With it died our brief time of being God. This was what we had to do now: to kill the world. The world must die so that God may live. The house falls that it may stand. Those who have been God must make God welcome.

Tazu spoke welcome to God, while I ran down the spiral stairs inside the wall of the gate and unbolted the great bolts-the guards had to help me-and swung the door open. “Enter in!” I said to God, and put my forehead to my thumbs, kneeling.

They came in, hesitant, moving slowly, ponderously. Each one turned its huge eye from side to side, unblinking. Around the eye was a ring of silver that flashed in the sun. I saw myself in one of those eyes, a pupil in the eye of God.

Their snow-white skin was coarse and wrinkled, with bright tattoos on it. I was dismayed that God could be so ugly.

The guards had shrunk back against the walls. Tazu had come down to stand with me. One of them raised a box toward us. A noise came out of the box, as if some animal was shut in it.

Tazu spoke to them again, telling them that the oracle had foretold their coming, and that we who had been God welcomed God.

They stood there, and the box made more noises. I thought it sounded like Ruaway before she learned to talk right. Was the language of God no longer ours? Or was God an animal, as Ruaway’s people believed? I thought they seemed more like the monstrous lizards of the desert that lived in the zoo of our house than they seemed like us.

One raised its thick arm and pointed at our house, down at the end of the street, taller than other houses, its copper gutters and goldleaf carvings shining in the bright winter sunlight.

“Come, Lord,” I said, “come to your house.” We led them to it and brought them inside.

When we came into the low, long, windowless audience room, one of them took off its head. Inside it was a head like ours, with two eyes, nose, mouth, ears. The others did the same.

Then, seeing their head was a mask, I saw that their white skin was like a shoe that they wore not just on the foot but all over their body. Inside this shoe they were like us, though the skin of their faces was the color of clay pots and looked very thin, and their hair was shiny and lay flat.

“Bring food and drink,” I said to the children of God cowering outside the door, and they ran to bring trays of ze-cakes and dried fruit and winter beer. God came to the tables where the food was set. Some of them pretended to eat. One, watching what I did, touched the ze-cake to its forehead first, and then bit into it and chewed and swallowed. It spoke to the others, gre-gra, gre-gra.

This one was also the first to take off its body-shoe. Inside it other wrappings and coverings hid and protected most of its body, but this was understandable, because even the body skin was pale and terribly thin, soft as a baby’s eyelid.

In the audience room, on the east wall over the double seat of God, hung the gold mask which God Himself wore to turn the sun back on its way. The one who had eaten the cake pointed at the mask.

Then it looked at me-its own eyes were oval, large, and beautiful-and pointed up to where the sun was in the sky. I nodded my body. It pointed its finger here and there all about the mask, and then all about the ceiling.

“There must be more masks made, because God is now more than two,” Tazu said.

I had thought the gesture might signify the stars, but I saw that Tazu’s interpretation made more sense.

“We will have masks made,” I told God, and then ordered the hat priest to go fetch the gold hats which God wore during ceremonies and festivals. There were many of these hats, some jeweled and ornate, others plain, all very ancient. The hat priest brought them in due order two by two until they were all set out on the great table of polished wood and bronze where the ceremonies of First Ze and Harvest were celebrated.

Tazu took off the gold hat he wore, and I took off mine. Tazu put his hat on the head of the one who had eaten the cake, and I chose a short one and reached up and put my hat on its head. Then, choosing ordinary-day hats, not those of the sacred occasions, we put a hat on each of the heads of God, while they stood and waited for us to do so.

Then we knelt bareheaded and put our foreheads against our thumbs.

God stood there. I was sure they did not know what to do. “God is grown, but new, like a baby,” I said to Tazu. I was sure they did not understand what we said.

All at once the one I had put my hat on came to me and put its hands on my elbows to raise me up from kneeling. I pulled back at first, not being used to being touched; then I remembered I was no longer very sacred, and let God touch me. It talked and gestured. It gazed into my eyes. It took off the gold hat and tried to put it back on my head. At that I did shrink away, saying, “No, no!” It seemed blasphemy, to say No to God, but I knew better.

God talked among themselves then for a while, and Tazu and our mother and I were able to talk among ourselves. What we understood was this: the oracle had not been wrong, of course, but it had been subtle. God was not truly one-eyed nor blind, but did not know how to see. It was not God’s skin that was white, but their mind that was blank and ignorant. They did not know how to talk, how to act, what to do. They did not know their people.

Yet how could Tazu and I, or our mother and our old teachers, teach them? The world had died and a new world was coming to be. Everything in it might be new. Everything might be different. So it was not God, but we, who did not know how to see, what to do, how to speak.

I felt this so strongly that I knelt again and prayed to God, “Teach us!”

They looked at me and talked to each other, brr-grr, gre-gra.

I sent our mother and the others to talk with our generals, for angels had come with reports about Omimo’s army. Tazu was very tired from lack of sleep. We two sat down on the floor together and talked quietly. He was concerned about God’s seat. “How can they all sit on it at once?” he said.

“They’ll have more seats added,” I said. “Or now two will sit on it, and then another two. They’re all God, the way you and I were, so it doesn’t matter.”

“But none of them is a woman,” Tazu said.

I looked at God more carefully and saw that he was right. This disturbed me slowly, but very deeply.

How could God be only half human?

In my world, a marriage made God. In this world coming to be, what made God?

I thought of Omimo. White clay on his face and a false marriage had made him a false God, but many people believed he was truly God. Would the power of their belief make him God, while we gave our power to this new, ignorant God?

If Omimo found out how helpless they appeared to be, not knowing how to speak, not even knowing how to eat, he would fear their divinity even less than he had feared ours. He would attack. And would our soldiers fight for this God?

I saw clearly that they would not. I saw from the back of my head, with the eyes that see what is coming.

I saw the misery that was coming to my people. I saw the world dead, but I did not see it being born.

What world could be born of a God who was male? Men do not give birth.

Everything was wrong. It came very strongly into my mind that we should have our soldiers kill God now, while they were still new in the world and weak.

And then? If we killed God there would be no God. We could pretend to be God again, the way Omimo pretended. But godhead is not pretense. Nor is it put on and off like a golden hat.

The world had died. That was fated and foretold. The fate of these strange men was to be God, and they would have to live their fate as we lived ours, finding out what it was to be as it came to be, unless they could see over their shoulders, which is one of the gifts of God.

I stood up again, taking Tazu’s hand so that he stood beside me. “The city is yours,” I said to them, “and the people are yours. The world is yours, and the war is yours. All praise and glory to you, our God!”

And we knelt once more and bowed our foreheads deeply to our thumbs, and left them.

“Where are we going?” Tazu said. He was twelve years old and no longer God. There were tears in his eyes.

“To find Mother and Ruaway,” I said, “and Arzi and Lord Idiot and Haghag, and any of our people who want to come with us.” I had begun to say “our children,” but we were no longer their mother and father.

“Come where?” Tazu said.

“To Chimlu.”

“Up in the mountains? Run and hide? We should stay and fight Omimo.”

“What for?” I said.

That was sixty years ago.

I have written this to tell how it was to live in the house of God before the world ended and began again.

To tell it I have tried to write with the mind I had then. But neither then nor now do I fully understand the oracle which my father and all the priests saw and spoke. All of it came to pass. Yet we have no God, and no oracles to guide us.

None of the strange men lived a long life, but they all lived longer than Omimo.

We were on the long road up into the mountains when an angel caught up with us to tell us that Mesiwa had joined Omimo, and the two generals had brought their great army against the house of the strangers, which stood like a tower in the fields near Soze River, with a waste of burned earth around it. The strangers warned Omimo and his army clearly to withdraw, sending lightning out of the house over their heads that set distant trees afire. Omimo would not heed. He could prove he was God only by killing God. He commanded his army to rush at the tall house. He and Mesiwa and a hundred men around him were destroyed by a single bolt of lightning. They were burned to ash. His army fled in terror.

“They are God! They are God indeed!” Tazu said when he heard the angel tell us that. He spoke joyfully, for he was as unhappy in his doubt as I was. And for a while we could all believe in them, since they could wield the lightning. Many people called them God as long as they lived.

My belief is that they were not God in any sense of the word I understand, but were otherworldly, supernatural beings, who had great powers, but were weak and ignorant of our world, and soon sickened of it and died.

There were fourteen of them in all. Some of them lived more than ten years. These learned to speak as we do. One of them came up into the mountains to Chimlu, along with some of the pilgrims who still wanted to worship Tazu and me as God. Tazu and I and this man talked for many days, learning from each other. He told us that their house moved in the air, flying like a dragon-lizard, but its wings were broken. He told us that in the land they came from the sunlight is very weak, and it was our strong sunlight that made them sick. Though they covered their bodies with weavings, still their thin skins let the sunlight in, and they would all die soon. He told us they were sorry they had come. I said, “You had to come. God saw you coming. What use is it to be sorry?”

He agreed with me that they were not God. He said that God lived in the sky. That seemed to us a useless place for God to live. Tazu said they had indeed been God when they came, since they fulfilled the oracle and changed the world; but now, like us, they were common people.

Ruaway took a liking to this stranger, maybe because she had been a stranger, and when he was at Chimlu they slept together. She said he was like any man under his weavings and coverings. He told her he could not impregnate her, as his seed would not ripen in our earth. Indeed the strangers left no children.

This stranger told us his name, Bin-yi-zin. He came back up to Chimlu several times, and was the last of them to die. He left with Ruaway the dark crystals he wore before his eyes, which make things look larger and clearer for her, though to my eyes they make things dim. To me he gave his own record of his life, in a beautiful writing made of lines of little pictures, which I keep in the box with this writing I make.

When Tazu’s testicles ripened we had to decide what to do, for brothers and sisters among the common people do not marry. We asked the priests and they advised us that our marriage being divine could not be unmade, and that though no longer God we were husband and wife. Since we were in each other’s heart, this pleased us, and often we slept together. Twice I conceived, but the conceptions aborted, one very early and one in the fourth month, and I did not conceive again. This was a grief to us, and yet fortunate, for had we had children, the people might have tried to make them be God.

It takes a long time to learn to live without God, and some people never do. They would rather have a false God than none at all. All through the years, though seldom now, people would climb up to Chimlu to beg Tazu and me to come back down to the city and be God. And when it became clear that the strangers would not rule the country as God, either under the old rules or with new ones, men began to imitate Omimo, marrying ladies of our lineage and claiming to be a new God. They all found followers and they all made wars, fighting each other. None of them had Omimo’s terrible courage, or the loyalty of a great army to a successful general. They have all come to wretched ends at the hands of angry, disappointed, wretched people.

For my people and my land have fared no better than I feared and saw over my shoulder on the night the world ended. The great stone roads are not maintained. In places they are already broken. Almoghay bridge was never rebuilt. The granaries and storehouses are empty and falling down. The old and sick must beg from neighbors, and a pregnant girl has only her mother to turn to, and an orphan has no one.

There is famine in the west and south. We are the hungry people, now. The angels no longer weave the net of government, and one part of the land knows nothing of the others. They say barbarians have brought back the wilderness across the Fourth River, and ground dragons spawn in the fields of grain.

Little generals and painted gods raise armies to waste lives and goods and spoil the sacred earth.

The evil time will not last forever. No time does. I died as God a long time ago. I have lived as a common woman a long time. Each year I see the sun turn back from the south behind great Kanaghadwa. Though God does not dance on the glittering pavement, yet I see the birthday of the world over the shoulder of my death.


Savior - Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress began selling her elegant and incisive stories in the mid-seventies, and has since become a frequent contributor toAsimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy amp; Science Fiction, Ominiand other periodicals. Her books include the novels The Prince of Morning Bells, The Golden Grove, The White Pipes, An Alien Light, Brain Rose, Oaths amp; Miracles, Stinger, Maximum Light,the novel version of her Hugo-and Nebula-winning story, Beggars in Spain,and a sequel, Beggars and Choosers.Her short work has been collected in Trinity and Other Stories, The Aliens of Earth,and Beaker’s Dozen.Her most recent book is a new novel, Probability Moon.She has also won Nebula Awards for her stories “Out of All Them Bright Stars” and “The Flowers of Aulit Prison.” Born in Buffalo, New York, Nancy Kress now lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her husband, SF writer Charles Sheffield.
In the intricate and compelling novella that follows, she gives us the story of an enigmatic visitor from the depths of space, sent here on a mission no one understands, but which gradually generates the realization that it somehowmust beunderstood, before it’s too late…and that the clock may be ticking in more ways than one.

I: 2007

The object’s arrival was no surprise; it came down preceded, accompanied, and followed by all the attention in the world.

The craft-if it was a craft-had been picked up on an October Saturday morning by the Hubble, while it was still beyond the orbit of Mars. A few hours later Houston, Langley, and Arecibo knew its trajectory, and a few hours after that so did every major observatory in the world. The press got the story in time for the Sunday papers. The United States Army evacuated and surrounded twenty square miles around the projected Minnesota landing site, some of which lay over the Canadian border in Ontario.

“It’s still a shock,” Dr. Ann Pettie said to her colleague Jim Cowell. “I mean, you look and listen for decades, you scan the skies, you read all the arguments for and against other intelligent life out there, you despair over Fermi’s paradox-”

“I never despaired over Fermi’s paradox,” Cowell answered, pulling his coat closer around his skinny body. It was cold at 3:00 A.M. in a northern Minnesota cornfield, and he hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours. Maybe longer. The cornfield was as close as he and Ann had been allowed to get. It wasn’t very close, despite a day on the phone pulling every string he could to get on the official Going-In Committee.

That’s what they were calling it: “the Going-In Committee.” Not welcoming, not belligerent, not too alarmed. Not too anything, “until we know what we have here.” The words were the president’s, who was also not on the Going-In Committee, although in his case presumably by choice.

Ann said, “Younever despaired over Fermi’s Paradox? You thought all along that aliens would show up eventually, they just hadn’t gotten around to it yet?”

“Yes,” Cowell said, and didn’t look at her directly. How to explain? It wasn’t belief so much as desire, nor desire so much as lifelong need. Very adolescent, and he wouldn’t have admitted it except he was cold and exhausted and exhilarated and scared, and the best he could hope for, jammed in with other “visiting scientists” two miles away from the landing site, was a possible glimpse of the object as it streaked down over the treeline.

“Jim, that sounds so…so…”

“A man has to believe in something,” he said in a gruff voice, quoting a recent bad movie, swaggering a little to point up the joke. It fell flat. Ann went on staring at him in the harsh glare of the floodlights until someone said, “Bitte? Ein Kaffee, Ann?”

“Hans!” Ann said, and she and Dr. Hans Kleinschmidt rattled merrily away in German. Cowell knew no German. He knew Kleinschmidt only slightly, from those inevitable scientific conferences featuring one important paper, ten badly attended minor ones, and three nights of drinking to bridge over the language difficulties.

What language would the aliens speak? Would they have learned English from our secondhand radio and TV broadcasts, as pundits had been predicting for the last thirty-six hours and writers for the last seventy years? Well, itwas true they had chosen to land on the American-Canadian border, so maybe they would.

So far, of course, they hadn’t said anything at all. No signal had come from the oval-shaped object hurtling toward Earth.

“Coffee,” Ann said, thrusting it at Cowell. Kleinschmidt had apparently brought a tray of Styrofoam cups from the emergency station at the edge of the field. Cowell uncapped his and drank it gratefully, not caring that it was lukewarm or that he didn’t take sugar. It was caffeine.

“Twenty minutes more,” someone said behind him.

It was a well-behaved crowd, mostly scientists and second-tier politicians. Nobody tried to cross the rope that soldiers had strung between hastily driven stakes a few hours earlier. Cowell guessed that the unruly types, the press and first-rank space fans and maverick businessmen with large campaign contributions, had all been herded together elsewhere, under the watchful eyes of many more soldiers than were assigned to this cornfield. Still more were probably assigned unobtrusively-Cowell hoped it was unobtrusively-to the Going-In Committee, waiting somewhere in a sheltered bunker to greet the aliens. Very sheltered. Nobody knew what kind of drive the craft might have, or not have. For all they knew, it was set to take out both Minnesota and Ontario.

Cowell didn’t think so.

Hans Kleinschmidt had moved away. Abruptly Cowell said to Ann, “Didn’t you ever stare at the night sky and justwill them to be there? When you were a kid, or even a grad student in astronomy?”

She shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “Well, sure. Then. But I never thought…I just never thought. Since.” She shrugged, but something in her tone made Cowell turn full face and peer into her eyes.

“Yes, you did.”

She answered him only indirectly. “Jim…there could be nobody aboard.”

“Probably there isn’t,” he said, and knew that his voice betrayed him. Not belief so much as desire, not desire so much as need. And he was thirty-four goddamn years old, goddamn it! “Look!” someone yelled, and every head swiveled up, desperately searching a clear, star-jeweled sky.

Cowell couldn’t see anything. Then he could: a faint pinprick of light, marginally moving. As he watched, it moved faster and then it flared, entering the atmosphere. He caught his breath.

“Oh my God, it’s swerving off course!” somebody shouted from his left, where unofficial jerry-rigged tracking equipment had been assembled in a ramshackle group effort. “Impossible!” someone else shouted, although the only reason for this was that the object hadn’t swerved off a steady course before now. So what? Cowell felt a strange mood grip him, and stranger words flowed through his mind:Of course. They wouldn’t let me miss this.

“A tenth of a degree northwest…no, wait…”

Cowell’s mood intensified. With one part of his mind, he recognized that the mood was born of fatigue and strain, but it didn’t seem to matter. The sense of inevitability grew on him, and he wasn’t surprised when Ann cried, “It’s landinghere! Run!” Cowell didn’t move as the others scattered. He watched calmly, holding his half-filled Styrofoam cup of too-sweet coffee, face tilted to the sky.

The object slowed, silvery in the starlight. It continued to slow until it was moving at perhaps three miles per hour, no more, at a roughly forty-five degree angle. The landing was smooth and even. There was no hovering, no jet blasts, no scorched ground. Only a faintwhump as the object touched the earth, and a rustle of corn husks in the unseen wind.

It seemed completely natural to walk over to the spacecraft. Cowell was the first one to reach it.

Made of some smooth, dull-silver metal, he noted calmly, and unblackened by re-entry. An irregular oval, although his mind couldn’t pin down in precisely what the irregularity lay. Not humming or moving, or, in fact, doing anything at all.

He put out his hand to touch it, and the hand stopped nearly a foot away.

“Jim!” Ann called, and somebody else-must be Kleinschmidt-said, “Herr Dr. Cowell!” Cowell moved his hand along whatever hewas touching. An invisible wall, or maybe some sort of hard field, encased the craft.

“Hello, ship,” he said softly, and afterward wasn’t ever sure if he’d said it aloud.

“Don’t touch it! Wait!” Ann called, and her hand snatched away his.

It didn’t matter. He turned to her, not really seeing her, and said something that, like his greeting to the ship, he wasn’t ever sure about afterward. “I was raised Orthodox, you know. Waiting for the Messiah,” and then the rest were on them, with helicopters pulsing overhead and soldiers ordering everyone back,back I said! And Cowell was pushed into the crowd with no choice except to set himself to wait for the visitors to come out.

“Are you absolutely positive?” the president, who was given to superlatives, asked his military scientists.

He had assembled them, along with the joint chiefs of staff, the cabinet, the Canadian lieutenant-governor, and a sprinkling of advisors, in the cabinet room of the White House. The same group had been meeting daily for a week, ever since the object had landed. Washington was warmer than Minnesota; outside, dahlias and chrysanthemums still bloomed on the manicured lawn. “No signal of any type issued from the craft, at any time after you picked it up on the Hubble?”

The scientists looked uncomfortable. It was the kind of question only non-scientists asked. Before his political career, the president had been a financier.

“Sir, we can’t say for certain that we know all types of signals that could or do exist. Or that we had comprehensive, fixed-position monitoring of the craft at all times. As you-”

“All right, all right. Since it landed, then, and you got your equipment trained on it. No radio signals emanating from it, at any wavelength whatsoever?”

“No, sir. That’s definite.”

“No light signals, even in infrared or ultraviolet?”

“No, Mr. President.”

“No gamma lengths, or other radioactivity?”

“No, sir.”

“No quantum effects?” the president said, surprising everyone. He was not noted for his wide reading.

“Do you mean things like quantum entanglement to transport information?” the head of Livermore National Laboratory said cautiously. “Of course, we don’t know enough about that area of physics to predict for certain what may be discovered eventually, or what a race of beings more advanced than ours might have discovered already.”

“So there might be quantum signals going out from the craft constantly, for all you know.”

The Livermore director spread his hands in helpless appeal. “Sir, we can only monitor signals we already understand.”

The president addressed his chief military advisor, General Dayton. “This shield covering the craft-you don’t understand that, either? What kind of field it is, why nothing at all gets through except light?”

“Everything except electromagnetic radiation in the visible-light wavelengths is simply reflected back at us,” Dayton said.

“So you can’t use sonar, X-rays, anything that could image the inside?”

This time Dayton didn’t answer. The president already knew all this. The whole world knew it. The best scientific and military minds from several nations had been at work on the object all week.

“So what is your recommendation to me?” the president said.

“Sir, our only recommendation is that we continue full monitoring of the craft, with full preparation to meet any change in its behavior.”

“In other words, ‘Wait and see.’ I could have decided that for myself, without all you high-priced talent!” the president said in disgust, and several people in the room reflected with satisfaction that this particular president had only a year and three months left in office. There was no way he would be re-elected. The economy had taken too sharp a downturn.

Unless, of course, a miracle happened to save him.

“Well, go back to your labs, then,” the president said, and even though he knew it was a mistake, the director of Livermore gave in to impulse.

“Science can’t always be a savior, Mr. President.”

“Then what good is it?” the president said, with a puzzled simplicity that took the director’s breath away.

“Just keep a close eye on that craft. And try to come up with some actual scientific data, for a blessed change.”


ALIEN FIELD MAY BE FORM OF BOSE-EINSTEIN

CONDENSATE, SAY SCIENTISTS AT STANFORD

NOBEL PRIZE WINNER RIDICULES STANFORD STATEMENT

MINNESOTA STATE COURT THROWS OUT CASE CLAIMING

CONTAMINATED GROUND WATER NEAR ALIEN OBJECT

SPACE SHIELD MAY BE PENETRATED BY UNDETECTED

COSMIC RAYS, SAYS FRENCH SCIENTIST

SPACE-OBJECT T-SHIRTS RULED OBSCENE BY LOCAL

TOURIST COUNCIL, REMOVED FROM VENDOR STANDS

NEUTRINO STREAM TURNED BACK FROM SPACE SHIELD IN EXPENSIVE HIGH-TECH


FIASCO:

Congress to Review All Peer-Judged Science Funding


WOMAN CLAIMS UNDER HYPNOSIS TO HEAR VOICES FROM SPACE OBJECT-KENT

STATE SCIENTISTS INVESTIGATING

PRESIDENT LOSES ELECTION BY

LARGEST MARGIN EVER

“MY TWIN SONS WERE FATHERED BY THE OBJECT,” CLAIMS SENATOR’S DAUGHTER,

RESISTS DNA TESTING


Polls Show 46% of Americans Believe Her Jim Cowell, contemptuous of the senator’s daughter, was forced to acknowledge that he had waited a lifetime for his own irrational belief to be justified. Which it never had.

“Just a little farther, Dad,” Barbara said. “You okay?”

Cowell nodded in his wheelchair, and slowed it to match Barbara’s pace. She wheezed a little these days; losing weight wouldn’t hurt her. He had learned over the years not to mention this. Ahead, the last checkpoint materialized out of the fog. A bored soldier leaned out of the low window, his face lit by the glow of a holoscreen. “Yes?”

“We have authorization to approach the object,” Cowell said. He could never think of it as anything else, despite all the names the tabloid press had hung on it over the last decades. The Alien Invader. The Space Fizzle. Silent Alien Cal.

“Approach for retina scan,” the soldier said. Cowell wheeled his chair to the checker, leaned in close.

“Okay, you’re cleared. Ma’am?…Okay. Proceed.” The soldier stuck his head back in the window, and the screen made one of the elaborate noises that accompanied the latest hologame.

Barbara muttered, “As if he knew the value of what he’s guarding!”

“He knows,” Cowell said. He didn’t really want to talk to Barbara. Much as he loved her, he really would have preferred to come to this place alone. Or with Sharon, if Sharon had still been alive. But Barbara had been afraid he might have some sort of final attack alone there by the object, and of course he might have. He was pretty close to the end, and they both knew it. Getting here from Detroit was taking everything Cowell had left.

He wheeled down the paved path. On either side, autumn stubble glinted with frost. They were almost on the object before it materialized out of the fog.

Barbara began to babble. “Oh, it looks so different from pictures, even holos, so much smaller but shinier, too, you never told me it was so shiny, Dad, I guess whatever it’s made of doesn’t rust. But, no, of course the air isn’t getting close enough to rust it, is it, there’s that shield to prevent oxidation, and they never found out whatthat is composed of, either, did they, although I remember reading this speculative article that-”

Cowell shut her out as best he could. He brought his chair close enough to touch the shield. Still nothing: no tingle, no humming, no moving. Nothing at all.

That first time rushed back to him, in sharp sensory detail. The fatigue, the strain, the rustle of corn husks in the unseen wind. Hans Kleinschmidt’s Styrofoam cup of coffee warm in Cowell’s hand. Ann Pettie’s cryIt’s landing here! Run! Cowell’s own strange personal feeling of inevitability:Of course. They wouldn’t let me miss this.

Well, theyhad. They’d let the whole world miss whatever the hell the object was supposed to be, or do, or represent. Hans was long dead. Ann was institutionalized with Alzheimer’s.“Hello, ship.” And the rest of his life-of many people’s lives-devoted to trying to figure out the Space Super Fizzle.

That long frustration, Cowell thought, had showed him one thing, anyway. There was no mystery behind the mystery, no unseen Plan, no alien messiah for humanity. There was only this blank object sitting in a field, stared at by a shrill middle-aged woman and a dying man. What you see is what you get. He, James Everett Cowell, had been a fool to ever hope for anything else.

“Dad, why are you smiling like that? Don’t, please!”

“It’s nothing, Barbara.”

“But you looked-”

“Isaid, ‘It’s nothing.’”

Suddenly he was very tired. It was cold out here, under the gray sky. Snow was in the air.

“Honey, let’s go back now.”

They did, Barbara walking close by Cowell’s chair. He didn’t look back at the object, silent on the fallow ground.

Transmission: There is nothing here yet.

Current probability of occurrence: 67%.


II: 2090

The girl, dressed in home-dyed blue cotton pants and a wolf pelt bandeau, said suddenly, “Tam-what’sthat? ”

Tam Wilkinson stopped walking, although his goat herd did not. The animals moved slowly forward, pulling at whatever tough grass they could find on the parched ground. Three-legged Himmie hobbled close to the herd leader; blind Jimmie turned his head in the direction of Himmie’s bawl. “What’s what?” the boy said.

“Over there, to the north…no,there.”

The boy shaded his eyes against the summer sun, hot under the thin clouds. He and Juli would have to find noon shade for the goats soon. Tam’s eyes weren’t strong, but by squinting and peering, he caught the glint of sunlight on something dull silvery. “I don’t know.”

“Let’s go see.”

Tam looked bleakly at Juli. They had married only a few months ago, in the spring. She was so pretty, hardly any deformity at all. The doctor from St. Paul had issued her a fertility certificate at only fourteen.

But she was impulsive. Tam, three years older, came from a family unbroken since the Collapse. They hadn’t accomplished that by impulsive behavior.

“No, Juli. We have to find shade for the goats.”

“It couldbe shade. O, or even a machine with some good metal on it!”

“This whole area was stripped long ago.”

“Maybe they missed something.”

Tam considered. She could be right; since their marriage, he and Juli had brought the goats pretty far beyond their usual range. Not many people had ventured into the Great Northern Waste for pasturage.

The whole area had been too hard hit at the Collapse, leaving the soil too contaminated and the standing water even worse. But the summer had been unusually rainy, creating the running water that was so much safer than ponds or lakes, and anyway Tam and Juli had delighted in being alone. Maybe therewas a forgotten machine with usable parts still sitting way out here, from before the Collapse. What a great thing to bring home from his honeymoon! “Please,” Juli said, nibbling his ear, and Tam gave in. She was so pretty. In Tam’s entire family, no women were as pretty, nor as nearly whole, as Juli. His sister Nan was loose-brained, Calie had only one arm, Jen was blind, and Suze could not walk. Only Jen was fertile, even though the Wilkinson farm was near neither lake nor city. The farm still sat in the path of the west winds coming from Grand Forks.

When there had been a Grand Forks.

Tam and Juli walked slowly, herding the goats, toward the glinting metal. The sun glared pitilessly by the time they reached the object, but the thing, whatever it was, stood beside a stand of scrawny trees in a little dell. Tam drove the goats into the shade. His practiced eye saw that once there had been water here, but no longer. They would have to move on by early afternoon.

When the goats were settled, the lovers walked hand-in-hand toward the object. “O,” Juli said, “it’s an egg! A metal egg!” Suddenly she clutched Tam’s arm. “Is it…do you think it’s a polluter?”

Tam felt growing excitement. “No-I know what this is! Gran told me, before she died!”

“It’s not a polluter?”

“No, it…well, actually, nobody knows exactly what it’s made of. But it’s safe, dear love. It’s a miracle.”

“A what?” Juli said.

“A miracle.” He tried not to sound superior; Juli was sensitive about her lack of education. Tam was teaching her to read and write. “A gift directly from God. A long time ago-a few hundred years, I think, anyway before the Collapse-this egg fell out of the sky. No one could figure out why. Then one day a beautiful princess touched it, and she got pregnant and bore twin sons.”

“Really?” Juli breathed. She ran a few steps forward, then considerately slowed for Tam’s halting walk.

“What happened then?”

Tam shrugged. “Nothing, I guess. The Collapse happened.”

“So this egg, it just sat here since then? Come on, sweet one, I want to see it up close. It just sat here?

When women try so hard, us, to get pregnant?”

The boy didn’t like the skeptical tone in her voice. He was the one with the educated family. “You don’t understand, Juli. This thing didn’t make everybody pregnant, just that one princess. It was a special miracle from God.”

“I thought you told me that before the Collapse, nobody needed no miracles to get pregnant, because there wasn’t no pollutants in the water and air and ground?”

“Yes, but-”

“So then when this princess got herself pregnant, why was it such a miracle?”

“Because she was a virgin, loose-brain!” After a minute he added, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m going to look at the egg,” Juli said stiffly, and this time she ran ahead without waiting.

When Tam caught up, Juli was sitting cross-legged in prayer in front of the egg. It was smaller than he had expected, no bigger than a goat shed, a slightly irregular oval of dull silver. Around it the ground shimmered with heat. Minnesota hadn’t always been so hot, Gran had told Tam in her papery old-lady voice, and he suddenly wondered what this place had looked like when the egg fell out of the sky.

Could it be a polluter? It didn’t look like it manufactured anything, and certainly Tam couldn’t see any plastic parts to it. Nothing that could flake off in bits too tiny to see and get into the air and water and wind and living bodies. Still, if they were so very small, these dangerous pieces of plastic…“endocrine mimickers,” Gran had taught Tam to call them, though he had no idea what the words meant. Doctors in St. Paul knew, probably. Although what good was knowing, if you couldn’t fix the problem and make all babies as whole as Juli?

She sat saying her prayer beads so fervently that Tam was annoyed with her all over again. Really, she just wasn’t steady. Playful, then angry, then prayerful…she’d better be more reliable than that when the babies started to come. But then Juli raised her eyes to him, lake-blue, and appealed to his greater knowledge, and he softened again.

“Tam…do you think it’s all right to pray to it? Since it did come from God?”

“I’m sure it’s all right, honey. What are you praying for?”

“Twin sons, like the princess got.” Juli scrambled to her feet. “Can I touch it?”

Tam felt sudden fear. “No! No-better not.I will, instead.” When those twin sons came, he wanted them to be of his seed, not the egg’s.

Cautiously the boy put out one hand, which stopped nearly a foot away from the silvery shell. Tam pushed harder. He couldn’t get any closer to the egg. “It’s got an invisible wall around it!”

“Really? Then can I touch it? It’s not really touching the egg!”

“No! The wall is all the princess must have touched, too.”

“Maybe the wall, it wasn’t there a long time ago. Maybe it grew, like crops.”

Tam frowned, torn between pride and irritation at her quick thought. “Don’t touch it, Juli. After all, for all we know, you might already be pregnant.”

She obeyed, stepping back and studying the object. Suddenly her pretty face lit up. “Tam! Maybe it’s a miracle for us, too! For the whole family!”

“The whole-”

“For Nan and Calie and Suze! And your cousins, too! O, if they come here and touch the egg-or the egg wall-maybe they can get pregnant like the princess did, straight from God!”

“I don’t think-”

“If we came back before winter, in easy stages, and knowing ahead of time where the water was, they could all get pregnant! You could talk them into it, dear heart! You’re the only one they listen to, even your parents. The only one who can make plans and carry out them plans. You know you are.”

She looked at him with adoration. Tam felt something inside him glow and expand. And O, she really was quick, even if she couldn’t read or write. His parents were old, at least forty, and they’d never been as quick as Tam. That was why Gran had taught him so much directly, all sorts of things she’d learned from her grandmother, who could remember the Collapse.

He said, with slow weightiness, “If the workers in the family stayed to raise crops, we could bring the goats and the infertile women…in easy stages, I think, before fall. Provided we map ahead of time where the safe water is.”

“O, I know you can!”

Tam frowned thoughtfully, and reached out again to touch the silent, unreachable egg.

Just before the small expedition left the Wilkinson farm, Dr. Sutter showed up on his dirtbike.

Why did he have to come now? Tam didn’t like Dr. Sutter, who always acted so superior. He biked around the farms and villages, supposedly “helping people”-O, he did help some people, maybe, but not Tam’s family, whowere their village. Not really helped. O, he’d brought drugs for Gran’s aching bones, and for Suze’s fever, from the hospital in St. Paul. But he hadn’t been able to stop Tam’s sisters-or anybody else-from being born the way they were, and not all his “medical training” could make Suze or Nan or Calie fertile. And Dr. Sutter lorded it over Tam, who otherwise was the smartest person in the family.

“I’m afraid,” Suze said. She rode the family mule; the others walked. Suze and Calie; Nan, led by Tam’s cousin Jack; Uncle Seddie and Uncle Ned, both armed; Tam and Juli. Juli stood talking, sparkly eyed, to Sutter. To Tam’s disappointment, no baby had been started on the honeymoon.

He said, “Nothing to be afraid of, Suze. Juli! Time to go!”

She danced over to him. “Dave’s coming, too! He says he got a few weeks’ vacation and would like to see the egg. He knows about it, Tam!”

Of course he did. Tam set his lips together and didn’t answer.

“He says it’s from people on another world, not from God, and-”

“My gran said it was from God,” Tam said sharply. At his tone, Juli stopped walking.

“Tam-”

“I’ll speak to Sutter myself. Telling you these city lies. Now go walk by Suze. She’s afraid.”

Juli, eyes no longer sparkling, obeyed. Tam told himself he was going to go over and have this out with Sutter, just as soon as he got everything going properly. Ofcourse the egg was from God! Gran had said so, and anyway, if it wasn’t, what was the point of this whole expedition, taking workers away from the farm, even if it was the mid-summer quiet between planting and harvest.

But somehow, with one task and another, Tam didn’t find time to confront Sutter until night, when they were camped by the first lake. Calie and Suze slept, and the others sat around a comfortable fire, full of corn mush and fresh rabbit. Somewhere in the darkness, a wolf howled.

“Lots more of those than when I was young,” said Uncle Seddie, who was almost seventy. “Funny thing, too-when you trap ’em, they’re hardly ever deformed. Not like rabbits or frogs. Frogs, they’re the worst.”

Sutter said, “Wolves didn’t move back down to Minnesota until after the Collapse. Up in Canada, they weren’t as exposed to endocrine-mimicking pollutants. And frogs have always been the worst; water animals are especially sensitive to environmental factors.”

Some of the words were the same ones Gran had used, but that didn’t make Tam like them any better.

He didn’t know what they meant, and he wasn’t about to ask Sutter.

Juli did, though. “Those endo…endo…what are they, doctor?”

He smiled at her, his straight white teeth gleaming in the firelight. “Environmental pollutants that bind to receptor sites all over the body, disrupting its normal function. They especially affect fetuses. Just before the Collapse, they reached some sort of unanticipated critical mass, and suddenly there were worldwide fertility problems, neurological impairments, cerebral… Sorry, Juli, you got me started on my medical diatribe. I mean, pretty lady, that too few babies were born, and too many of those who were born couldn’t think or move right, and we had the Collapse.”

Beside him, Nan, born loose-brained, crooned softly to herself.

Juli said innocently, “But I thought the Collapse, it came from wars and money and bombs and things like that.”

“Yes,” Sutter said, “but those things happenedbecause of the population and neurological problems.”

“O, I’m just glad I didn’t live then!” Ned said, shuddering. “It must have been terrible, especially in the cities.”

Juli said, “But, doctor, aren’t you from a city?”

Sutter looked into the flames. The wolf howled again. “Some cities fared much better than others. Welost most of the East Coast, you know, to various terrorist wars, and-”

“Everybody knows that,” Tam said witheringly.

Sutter was undeterred, “-and California to rioting and looting. But St. Paul came through, eventually.

And a basic core of knowledge and skills persisted, even if only in the urban areas. Science, medicine, engineering. We don’t have the skilled population, or even a neurologically functional population, but we haven’t really gone pre-industrial. There are even pockets of research, especially in biology. We’ll beat this, someday.”

“I know we will!” Juli said, her eyes shining. She was always so optimistic. Like a child, not a grown woman.

Tam said, “And meanwhile, the civilized types like you graciously go around to the poor country villages that feed you and bless them with your important skills.”

Sutter looked at him across the fire. “That’s right, Tam.”

Uncle Seddie said, “Enough arguing. Go to bed, everybody.”

Seddie was the ranking elder; there was no choice but to obey. Tam pulled Juli up with him, and in their bedroll he copulated with her so hard that she had to tell him to be more gentle, he was hurting her.

They reached the egg, by the direct route Tam had mapped out, in less than a week. Another family already camped beside it.

The two approached each other warily, guns and precious ammunition prominently displayed. But the other family, the Janeways, turned out to be a lot like the Wilkinsons, a goat-and-farm clan whose herdsmen had discovered the egg and brought others back to see the God-given miracle.

Tam, standing behind Seddie and Ned, said, “There’s some that don’t think it is from God.”

The ranking Janeway, a tough old woman lean as Gran had been, said sharply, “Where else could it come from, way out here? No city tech left this here.”

“That’s what we say,” Seddie answered. He lowered his rifle. “You people willing to trade provisions?

We got maple syrup, corn mush, some good pepper.”

“Pepper?” The old woman’s eyes brightened. “You got pepper?”

“We trade with a family that trades in St. Paul,” Ned said proudly. “Twice a year, spring and fall.”

“We got sugar and an extra radio.”

Tam’s chin jerked up. A radio! But that was worth more than any amount of provisions. Nobody would casually trade a radio.

“Our family runs to boys, nearly all boys,” the old woman said, by way of explanation. She looked past Tam, at Juli and Calie and Suze and Nan, hanging back with the mule and backpacks. “They’re having trouble finding fertile wives. If any of your girls…and if the young people liked each other…”

“Juli, the blond, she’s married to Tam here,” Seddie said. “And the other girls, they aren’t fertile…yet.”

“‘Yet?’ What do you mean, ‘yet’?”

Seddie pointed with his rifle at the egg. “Don’t you know what that is?”

“A gift from God,” the woman said.

“Yes. But don’t you know about the princess and her twins? Tell her, Tam.”

Tam told the story, feeling himself thrill to it as he did so. The woman listened intently, then squinted again at the girls. Seddie said quickly, “Nan is loose-brained, I have to tell you. And Suze is riding because her foot is crippled, although she’s got the sweetest, meekest nature you could ever find. But Calie there, even though she’s got a withered arm, is quick and smart and can do almost anything. And after she touches the egg… but, ma’am, Wilkinsons don’t force marriages on our women. Never. Calie’d have to like one of your sons, and want to go with you.”

“O, we can see what happens,” the woman said, and winked, and for a second Tam saw what she must have been once, long ago, on a sweet summer night like this one when she was young.

He said suddenly, “The girls have to touch the egg at dawn.”

Seddie and Ned turned to him. “Dawn? Why dawn?”

Tam didn’t know why he’d said that, but now he had to see it through. “I don’t know. God just made that idea come to me.”

Seddie said to Mrs. Janeway, “Tam’s our smartest person. Always has been.”

“All right, then. Dawn.”

In the chill morning light, the girls lined up, shivering. Mrs. Janeway, Dr. Sutter, and the men from both families made an awkward semicircle around them, shuffling their feet a little, not looking at each other.

The five Janeway boys, a tangle of uncles and cousins, all looked a bit stooped, but they could all walk, and none were loose-brained. Tam had spent the previous evening at the communal campfire, saying little, watching and listening to see which Janeways might be good to his sisters. He’d already decided that Cal had a temper, and if he asked Uncle Seddie for Calie or Suze, Tam would advise against it.

Dr. Sutter had said nothing at the campfire, listening to the others become more and more excited about the egg-touching, about the fertility from God. Even when Mrs. Janeway had asked him questions, his replies had been short and evasive. She’d kept watching him, clearly suspicious. Tam had liked her more and more as the long evening progressed.

Followed by a longer night. Tam and Juli had argued.

“I want to touch it, too, Tam.”

“No. You have your certificate from that doctor two years ago. She tested you, and you’re already fertile.”

“Then why haven’t I started no baby? Maybe the fertility went away.”

“It doesn’t do that.”

“How do you know? I asked Dr. Sutter and he said-”

“You told Dr. Sutter about your body?” Rage swamped Tam.

Juli’s voice grew smaller. “O, heis a doctor! Tam, he says it’s hard to be sure about fertility testing for women, the test is…is some word I don’t remember. But he says about one certificate in four is wrong.

He says we should do away with the certificates. He says-”

“I don’t care what he says!” Tam had all but shouted. “I don’t want you talking to him again! If I see you are, Juli, I’ll take it up with Uncle Seddie. And you are not touching the egg!”

Juli had raised herself on one elbow to stare at him in the starlight, then had turned her back and pretended to sleep until dawn.

Now she led Nan, the oldest sister, toward the egg. Nan crooned, drooling a little, and smiled at Juli. Juli was always tender with Nan. She smiled back, wiped Nan’s chin, and guided her hand toward the silvery oval. Tam watched carefully to see that Juli didn’t touch the egg herself. She didn’t, and neither did Nan, technically, since her hand stopped at whatever unseen wall protected the object. But everyone let out a sharp breath, and Nan laughed suddenly, one of her clear high giggles, and Tam felt suddenly happier.

Seddie said, “Now Suze.”

Juli led Nan away. Suze, carried by Uncle Ned, reached out and touched the egg. She, too, laughed aloud, her sweet face alight, and Tam saw Vic Janeway lean forward a little, watching her. Suze couldn’t plow or plant, but she was the best cook in the family if everything were put in arm’s reach. And she could sew and weave and read and carve.

Next Calie, pretty if Juli hadn’t been there for comparison, and the other four Janeway men watched.

Calie’s one hand, dirt under the small fingernails, stayed on the egg a long time, trembling.

No one spoke.

“O, then,” Mrs. Janeway said, “we should pray.”

They did, each family waiting courteously while the other said their special prayers, all joining in the “Our Father.” Tam caught Sutter looking at him somberly, and he glared back. Nothing Sutter’s “medicine” had ever done had helped Tam’s sisters, and anyway, it was none of Sutter’s business what the Wilkinsons and Janeways did. Let him go back to St. Paul with his heathen beliefs.

“I want to touch the egg,” Juli said. “I won’t get no other chance. We leave in the morning.”

Tam had had no idea that she could be so stubborn. She’d argued and pleaded for the three days they’d camped with the Janeways, letting the families get to know each other. Now they were leaving in the morning, with Vic and Lenny Janeway traveling with them to stay until the end of harvest, so Suze and Calie could decide about marriage. And Juli was still arguing! “I said no,” Tam said tightly. He was afraid to say more-afraid not of her, but of himself. Some men beat their wives; not Wilkinson men. But watching Juli all evening, Tam had suddenly understood those other men. She had deliberately sat talking only to Dr. Sutter, smiling at him in the flickering firelight. Even Uncle Ned had noticed, Tam thought, and that made Tam writhe with shame. He had dragged Juli off to bed early, and here she was arguing still, while singing started around the fire twenty feet away.

“Tam…please! I want to start a baby, and nothing we do started one… Don’t get upset, but…but Dr.

Sutter says sometimes the man is infertile, even though it don’t happen as often as women’s wombs it can still happen, and maybe-”

It was too much. First his wife shames him by spending the evening sitting close to another man, talking and laughing, and then she suggests thathim, not her, might be the reason there was no baby yet. Him!

When God had clearly closed the wombs of women after the Collapse, just like he did to those sinning women in the Bible! Anger and shame thrilled through Tam, and before he knew he was going to do it, he hit her.

It was only a slap. Juli put her hand to her cheek, and Tam suddenly would have given everything he possessed to take the slap back. Juli jumped up and ran off in the darkness, away from the fire. Tam let her go. She had a right to be upset now, he’d given her that. He lay stiffly in the darkness, intending every second to go get her-there were wolves out there, after all, although they seldom attacked people. Still, he would go get her. But he didn’t, and, without knowing it, he fell asleep.

When he woke, it was near dawn. Juli woke him, creeping back into their bedroll.

“Juli! You…it’s nearly dawn. Where were you all this time?”

She didn’t answer. In the icy pale light, her face was flushed.

He said slowly, “You touched it.”

She wriggled the rest of the way into the bedroll and turned her back to him. Over her shoulder she said, “No, Tam. I didn’t touch it.”

“You’re lying to me.”

“No. I didn’t touch it,” she repeated, and Tam believed her. So he had won. Generosity filled him.

“Juli-I’m sorry I hit you. So sorry.”

Abruptly she twisted in the bedroll to face him. “I know. Tam, listen to me…God wants me to start a baby. He does!”

“Yes, of course,” Tam said, bewildered by her sudden ferocity.

“He wants me to start a baby!”

“Are you…are you saying that you have?”

She was silent a long time. Then she said, “Yes. I think so.”

Joy filled him. He took her in his arms, and she let him. It would all be right, now. He and Juli would have a child, many children. So would Suze and Calie, and-who could say?-maybe even Nan. The egg’s fame would grow, and there would be many babies again.

On the journey home, Juli stuck close to Tam, never looking even once in Dr. Sutter’s direction. He avoided her, too. Tam gloated; so much for science and tech from the cities! When they reached the farm, Dr. Sutter retrieved his dirtbike and rode away. The next time a doctor came to call, it was someone different.

Juli bore a girl, strong and whole except for two missing fingers. During her marriage to Tam, she bore four more children, finally dying while trying to deliver a sixth one. Suze and Calie married the Janeway boys, but neither conceived. After three years of trying, Lenny Janeway sent Calie back to the Wilkinsons; Calie never smiled or laughed much again.

For decades afterward, the egg was proclaimed a savior, a gift from God, a miracle to repopulate Minnesota. Families came and feasted and prayed, and the girls touched the egg, more each year. Most of the girls never started a baby, but a few did, and at times the base of the egg was almost invisible under the gifts of flowers, fruit, woven cloth, even a computer from St. Paul and a glass perfume bottle from much farther away, so delicate that the wind smashed it one night. Or bears did, or maybe even angels. Some people said that angels visited the egg regularly. They said that the angels even touched it, through the invisible wall.

Tam’s oldest daughter didn’t believe that. She didn’t believe much, Tam thought, for she was the great disappointment of his life. Strong, beautiful, smart, she got herself accepted to a merit school in St. Paul, and she went, despite her missing fingers. She made herself into a scientist and turned her back on the Bible. Tam, who had turned more stubborn as he grew old, refused to see her again. She said that the egg wasn’t a miracle and had never made anyone pregnant. She said there were no saviors for humanity but itself.

Tam, who had become not only more stubborn but also more angry after Juli died, turned his face away and refused to listen.

Transmission: There is nothing here yet.

Current probability of occurrence: 28%.


III: 2175

Abby4 said, “The meeting is innorthern Minnesota? Why?”

Mal held onto his temper. He’d been warned about Abby4.One of the Bio-mensas, Mal’s network of friends and colleagues had said,In the top 2 percent of genemods. She likes to throw around her superiority. Don’t let her twist you. The contract is too important.

His friends had also said not to be intimidated by either Abby4’soffice or her beauty. The office occupied the top floor of the tallest building in Raleigh, with a sweeping view of the newly cleaned-up city. A garden in the sky, its walls and ceiling were completely hidden by the latest genemod plants from AbbyWorks, flowers so exotic and brilliant that, just looking at them, a visitor could easily forget what he was going to say. Probably that was the idea.

Abby4’s beauty was even more distracting than her office. She sat across from him in a soft white chair that only emphasized her sleek, hard glossiness. The face of an Aztec princess, framed by copper hair pulled into a thick roll on either side. The sash of her black business suit stopped just above the swell of white breasts that Mal determinedly ignored. Her legs were longer than his dreams.

Mal said pleasantly, “The meeting is in northern Minnesota because the Chinese contact is already doing business in St. Paul, at the university. And he wants to see a curiosity near the old Canadian border, an object that government records show as an alien artifact.”

Abby4 blinked, probably before she knew that she was going to do it, which gave Mal enormous satisfaction. Not even the Biomensas, with their genetically engineered intelligence and memory, knew everything.

“Ah, yes, of course,” Abby4 said, and Mal was careful not to recognize the bluff. “O, then, northern Minnesota. Send my office system the details, please. Thank you, Mr. Goldstone.”

Mal rose to go. Abby4 did not rise. In the outer office, he passed a woman several years older than Abby4 but looking so much like her that it must be one of the earlier clones. The woman stooped slightly.

Undoubtedly each successive clone had better genemods as the technology came onto the market.

AbbyWorks was, after all, one of the five or six leading biosolutions companies in Raleigh, and that meant in the world.

Mal left the Eden-like AbbyWorks building to walk into the shrouding heat of a North Carolina summer.

In the parking lot, his car wouldn’t start. Cursing, he opened the hood. Someone had broken the hood lock and stolen the engine.

Purveyors of biosolutions to the world, Mal thought bitterly, cleaners-up of the ecological, neurological, and population disasters of the Collapse, and we still can’t create a decent hood lock! O, that actually figured. For the last hundred and fifty years-no, closer to two hundred now-the best minds of each American generation had been concentrating on biology. Engineering, physics, and everything else got few practitioners, and even less funding.

O, it had paid off. Not only for people like Abby4, the beautiful Biomensa bitch, but even for comparative drones like Mal. He had biological defenses against lingering environmental pollutants (they would linger for another thousand years), he was fertile, he even had modest genemods so that he didn’t look like a troll or think like a troglodyte. What hedidn’t have was a working car.

He took out his phone and called a cab.

August in Minnesota was not cold, but Kim Mao Xun, the Chinese client, was well wrapped in layers of silk and thin wool. He looked very old, which meant that he was probably even older. Obviously no genemods for appearance, Mal thought, whatever else Mr. Kim might have. O, they did things differently in China! When you survived the Collapse on nothing but sheer numbers, you started your long climb back with essentials, nothing else.

“I am so excited to see the Alien Craft,” he said in excellent English. “It is famous in China, you know.”

Abby4 smiled. “Here, I’m afraid, it’s mostly a curiosity. Very few people even know it exists, although the government has authenticated from written records that it landed in October 2007, an event widely recorded by the best scientific instruments of the age.”

“So much better than what we have now,” Mr. Kim murmured, and Abby4 frowned.

“O, yes, I suppose…but then, they didn’t have a world to clean up, did they?”

“And we do. Mr. Goldstone tells me you can help us do this in Shanghai.”

“Yes, we can,” Abby4 said, and the meeting began to replicate in earnest.

Mal listened intently, taking notes, but said nothing. Meeting brokers didn’t get involved in details.

Matching, arranging, follow-through, impartial evaluation, and, if necessary, arbitration. Then disappear until the next time. But Mal was interested; this was his biggest client so far.

And the biggest problem: Shanghai. The city and the harbor, which must add up to hundreds of different pollutants, each needing a different genetically designed organism to attack it. Plus, Shanghai had been viral-bombed during the war with Japan. Those viruses would be much mutated by now, especially if they had jumped hosts, which they probably had. Mal could see that even Abby4 was excited by the scope of the job, although she was trying to conceal it.

“What is Shanghai’s current population, Mr. Kim?”

“Zero.” Mr. Kim smiled wryly. “Officially, anyway. The city is quarantined. Of course, there are the usual stoopers and renegades, but we will do our best to relocate them before you begin, and those who will not go may be ignored by your operators.”

Something chilling in that. Although did the US do any better? Mal had heard stories-everyone had heard stories-of families who’d stayed in the most contaminated areas for generations, becoming increasingly deformed and increasingly frightening. There were even people still living in places like New York City, which had taken the triple blow of pollutants, bioweapons, and radiation. Theoretically, the population of New York City was zero. In reality, nobody would go in to count, nor even send in the doggerels, biosolutioned canines with magnitude-one immunity and selectively enhanced intelligence. A doggerel was too expensive to risk in New York. Whoever-or whatever-couldn’t be counted by robots (and American robots were so inadequate compared to the Asian product), stayed uncounted.

“I understand,” Abby4 said to Mr. Kim. “And the time-frame?”

“We would like to have Shanghai totally clean ten years from now.”

Abby4’s face didn’t change. “That is very soon.”

“Yes. Can you do it?”

“I need to consult with my scientists,” she said, and Mal felt his chest fill with lightness. She hadn’t said no, and when Abby4 didn’t say no, the answer was likely to be yes. The ten-year deadline-only ten years!-would make the fee enormous, and Mal’s company’s small percentage of it would rise accordingly. A promotion, a bonus, a new car…

“Then until I hear back from you, we can go no farther,” Mr. Kim said. “Shall we take my car to the Alien Craft?”

“Certainly,” Abby4 said. “Mr. Goldstone? Can you accompany us? I’m told you know exactly where this curious object is.”As a busy and important Biomensa executive like me would not, was the unstated message, but Mal didn’t mind. He was too happy.

The Alien Craft, as Mr. Kim persisted in calling it, was not easy to find. Northern Minnesota had all been cleaned up, of course; as valuable farm and dairy land, it had had priority, and anyway, the damage hadn’t been too bad. But, once cleaned, the agrisolution companies wanted the place for farming, free of outside interference. The government, the weak partner in all that biotech corporations did, reluctantly agreed. The Alien Craft lay under an inconspicuous foamcast dome at the end of an obscure road, with no identifying signs of any kind.

Mal saw immediately why Mr. Kim had suggested going in his car, which had come with him from China.

The Chinese were forced to buy all their biosolutions from others. In compensation, they had created the finest engineering and hard-goods manufactories in the world. Mr. Kim’s car was silent, fast, and computer-driven, technology unknown in the United States. Mal could see that even Abby4 was unwillingly impressed.

He leaned back against the contoured seats, which molded themselves to his body, and watched farmland flash past at an incredible rate. There were government officials and university professors who said that the United States should fear Chinese technology, even if it wasn’t based on biology. Maybe they were right.

In contrast, the computer-based security at the Alien Craft looked primitive. Mal had arranged for entry, and they passed through the locks into the dome, which was only ten feet wider on all sides than the Alien Craft itself. Mal had never seen it before, and despite himself, he was impressed.

The Craft was dull silver, as big as a small bedroom, a slightly irregular oval. In the artificial light of the dome, it shimmered. When Mal put out a hand to touch it, his hand stopped almost a foot away.

“A force field of some unknown kind, unknown even before the Collapse,” Abby4 said, with such authority you’d think she’d done field tests herself. “The shield extends completely around the Craft, even below ground, where it is also impenetrable. The Craft was very carefully monitored in the decades between its landing and the Collapse, and never once did any detectable signal of any kind go out from it.

No outgoing signals, no aliens disembarking, no outside markings to decode…no communication of any kind. One wonders why the aliens bothered to send it at all.”

Mr. Kim quoted, “‘The wordless teaching, the profit in not doing-not many people understand it.’”

“Ah,” Abby4 said, too smart to either agree or disagree with a philosophy-Taoist? Buddhist?-she patently didn’t share.

Mal walked completely around the Craft, wondering himself why anybody would bother with such a tremendous undertaking without any follow-up. Of course, maybe it hadn’t been tremendous to thealiens . Maybe they sent interstellar silvery metal ovals to other planets all the time without follow-up. Butwhy?

When Mal reached his starting point in the circular dome, Mr. Kim was removing an instrument from his leather bag.

Mal had never seen an instrument like it, but then, he’d hardly seen any scientific instruments at all. This one looked like a flat television, with a glass screen on one side, metal on the other five. Only the “glass” clearlywasn’t, since it seemed to shift as Mr. Kim lifted it, as if it were a field of its own. As Mal watched, Mr. Kim applied the field side of the device onto the side of the Craft, where it stayed even as he stepped back.

Mal said uncertainly, “I don’t think you should-”

Abby4 said, “O, it doesn’t matter, Mr. Goldstone. Nothing anyone has ever done has penetrated the Craft’s force field, even before the Collapse.”

Mr. Kim just smiled.

Mal said, “You don’t understand. The clearance I arranged with the State Department…it doesn’t include taking any readings or…or whatever that device is doing. Mr. Kim?”

“Just taking some readings,” Mr. Kim said blandly.

Mal’s unease grew. “Please stop. As I say, I didn’t obtain clearances for this!”

Abby4 scowled at him fiercely. Mr. Kim said, “Of course, Mr. Goldstone,” and detached his device. “I am sorry to alarm you. Just some readings. Shall we go now? A most interesting object, but rather monotonous.”

On the way back to St. Paul, Mr. Kim and Abby4 discussed the historic cleanups of Boston, Paris, and Lisbon, as if nothing had happened.

What had?

AbbyWorks got the Shanghai contract. Mal got his promotion, his bonus, and his new car. Someone else handled the follow-up for the contract while Mal went on to new projects, but every so often, he checked to see how the clean-up of Shanghai was proceeding. Two years into the agreement, the job was actually ahead of projected schedule, despite badly deteriorating relations between the two countries. China invaded and annexed Tibet, but China hadalways invaded and annexed Tibet, and only the human-solidarity people objected. Next, however, China annexed the Kamchatka Peninsula, where American biosolutions companies were working on the clean-up of Vladivostock. The genemod engineers brought back frightening stories of advanced Chinese engineering: room-temperature superconductors. Maglev trains. Nanotechnology. There were even rumors of quantum computers, capable of handling trillions of operations simultaneously, although Mal discounted those rumors completely. A practical quantum computer was still far over the horizon.

AbbyWorks was ordered out of Shanghai by the United States government. The company did not leave.

Abby1 was jailed, but this made no difference. The Shanghai profits were paid to offshore banks.

AbbyWorks claimed to have lost control of its Shanghai employees, who were making huge personal fortunes, enough to enable them to live outside the United States for the rest of very luxurious lives. Then, abruptly, the Chinese government itself terminated the contract. They literally threw AbbyWorks out of China in the middle of the night. They kept for themselves enormous resources in patented scientific equipment, as well as monies due for the last three months’ work, an amount equal to some state budgets.

At three o’clock in the morning, Mal received a visit from the Office of National Security.

“Mallings Goldstone?”

“Yes?”

“We need to ask you some questions.”

Recorders, intimidation. The ONS had information that in 2175 Mr. Goldstone had conducted two people to the Minnesota site of the space object: Abby4 Abbington, president of AbbyWorks Biosolutions, and Mr. Kim Mao Xun of the Chinese government.

“Yes, I did,” Mal said, sitting stiffly in his nightclothes. “It’s on record. I had proper clearances.”

“Yes. But during that visit, did Mr. Kim take out and attach to the space object an unknown device, and then return it to his briefcase?”

“Yes.” Mal’s stomach twisted.

“Why wasn’t this incident reported to the State Department?”

“I didn’t think it was important.” Not entirely true. Abby4 must have reported it…but whynow? Because of the lost monies and confiscated equipment, of course. Adding to the list of Chinese treacheries; a longer list was more likely to compel government reaction.

“Do you have any idea what the device was, or what it might have done to the space object?”

“No.”

“Then you didn’t rule out that its effects might have been dangerous to your country?”

“Dangerous’? How?”

“We don’t know, Mr. Mallings-that’s the point. We do know that in nonbiological areas the Chinese technology is far ahead of our own. We have no way of knowing if that device you failed to report turned the space object into a weapon of some kind.”

“A weapon? Don’t you think that’s very unlikely?”

“No, Mr. Mallings. I don’t. Please get dressed and come with us.”

For the first time, Mal noticed the two men’s builds. Genemod for strength and agility, no doubt, as well as maximum possible longevity. He remembered Mr. Kim, scrawny and wrinkled. Their bodies far outclassed Mr. Kim’s, far outclassed Mal’s as well. But Mr. Kim’s body was somewhere on the other side of the world, along with his superior “devices,” and Mal’s body was marked “scapegoat” as clearly as if it were spelled out in DNA-controlled birthmarks on his forehead.

He went into his bedroom to get dressed.

Mal had been interrogated with truth drugs-painless, harmless, utterly reliable-recorded, and released by the time the news hit the flimsies. He had already handed in his resignation to his company. The moving truck stood outside his apartment, being loaded for the move to someplace he wasn’t known.

Mal, flimsy in hand, watched the two huge stevies carry out his furniture.

But he couldn’t postpone reading the flimsy forever. And, of course, this was just the first. There would be more. The tempaper rustled in his hand. It would last forty-eight hours before dissolving into molecules completely harmless to the environment.


CHINESE ARMED “SPACE OBJECT” TO DESTROY US!!!

“MIGHT BE RADIATION, OR POLLUTANTS, OR A SUPER-BOMB,” SAY SCIENTISTS

TROJAN HORSE UNDER GUISE OF BIOSOLUTIONS CONTRACT

TWO YEARS AND NOTHING HAS BEEN DONE!!!!


Flimsies weren’t subtle. But so far as Mal could see, his name hadn’t yet been released to them.

Mal said, “Please be careful with that desk, it’s very old. It belonged to my great-grandfather.”

“O, yes, friend,” one of the stevies said. “Most careful.” They hurled it into the truck.

A neighbor of Mal’s walked toward Mal, recognized him, and stopped dead. She hissed at him, a long ugly sound, and walked on.

So some other flimsy had already tracked him down and published his name.

“Leave the rest,” Mal said suddenly, “everything else inside the house. Let’s go.”

“O, just a few crates,” said one stevie.

“No, leave it.” Mal climbed into the truck’s passenger cubicle. He hoped that he wasn’t a coward, but like all meeting brokers he was an historian, and he remembered the historical accounts of the “Anti-Polluters’ Riots” of the Collapse. What those mobs had done to anyone suspected of contributing to the destruction of the environment…Mal pulled the curtains closed in the cubicle. “Let’s go!”

“O, yes!” the stevies said cheerfully, and drove off.

Mal moved five states away, pursued all the way by flimsies. He couldn’t change his retinal scan or DNA ID, of course, but he used a legal corporate alias with the new landlord, the grocery broker, the bank.

He read the news every day, and listened to it on public radio, and it progressed as any meeting broker could foresee it would.

First, set the agenda: Demonize the Chinese, spread public fear. Second, canvass negotiating possibilities:

Will they admit it? What can we contribute? Third, eliminate the possibilities you don’t like and hone in on the one you do: If the United States had been attacked, it has the right to counterattack. Fourth, build in safeguards against failure: We can’t yet attack China, they’ll destroy us. Wecan attack the danger they’ve placed within our borders, and then declare victory for that. Fifth, close the deal.

The evacuation started two weeks later, and covered most of northern Minnesota and great swathes of southern Ontario. It included people and farm animals, but not wildlife, which would, of course, be replaced from cloned embryos. As the agrisolution inhabitants, many protesting furiously, were trucked out, the timed-release drops of engineered organisms were trucked in. Set loose after the bomb, they would spread over the entire affected area and disassemble all radioactive molecules. They were the same biosolutions that had cleaned up Boston, the very best AbbyWorks could create. In five years, Minnesota would be as sweet and clean as Kansas.

Or Shanghai.

The entire nation, Mal included, watched the bomb drop on vid. People held patriotic parties; wine and beer flowed. We were showing the Chinese that they couldn’t endanger us in our own country!

Handsome genemod news speakers, who looked like Viking princesses or Zulu warriors or Greek gods, speculated on what the space object might reveal when it was blasted open. If anything survived, of course, which was not likely…and here scientists, considerably less gorgeous than the news speakers, explained fusion and the core of the sun. The bomb might be antiquated technology, they said, but it was still workable, and would save us from Chinese perfidy.

Not to mention, Mal thought, saving face for the United States and lost revenues for AbbyWorks. It might not earn them as much to clean up Minnesota as to clean up Shanghai, but it was still a lot of money.

The bomb fell, hit the space object, and sent up a mushroom cloud. When it cleared, the object lay there exactly as before.

Airborne robots went in, spraying purifying organisms as they went, recording every measurement possible. Scientists compared the new data about the space object to the data they already had. Not one byte differed. When robotic arms reached out to touch the object, the arms still stopped ten inches away at an unseen, unmoved force field of some type not even the Chinese understood.

Mal closed his eyes. How long would Chinese retaliation take? What would they do, and when?

They did nothing. Slowly, public opinion swung to their side, helped by the flimsies. Journalists and viddies, ever eager for the next story, discovered that AbbyWorks had falsified reports on the clean-up of Shanghai. It had not been progressing as the corporation said, or as the contract promised. Eventually, AbbyWorks-already too rich, too powerful, for many people’s tastes-became the villain. They had tried to frame the Chinese, who were merely trying to do normal clean-up of their part of the planet.

Clean-up was our job, our legacy, our sacred stewardship of the living Earth! And anyway, Chinese technological consumer goods, increasingly available in the United States, were so much better than ours-shouldn’t we be trying to learn from them?

So business partnerships were formed. The fragile Chinese-American alliance was strengthened.

AbbyWorks was forced to move offshore. Mal, in some way he didn’t quite understand, became a cult hero. Mr. Kim would have, too, but shortly after the bomb was dropped on the space object, he died of a heart attack, not having the proper genemods to clear out plaque from his ancient cardiac arteries.

When Minnesota was clean again, the space object went back under a new foamcast dome, and in two more generations, only historians remembered what it may or may not have saved.

Transmission: There is nothing here yet.

Current probability of occurrence: 78%.


IV:2264

Few people understood why KimWorks was built in such a remote place. Dr. Leila Jian-fen Kim was one of the few who did.

She liked family history. Didn’t Lao Tzu himself say, “To know what endures is to be openhearted, magnanimous, regal, blessed”? Family endures, family history endures. It was the same reason she liked the meditation garden at KimWorks, which was where she headed now with her great secret, to compose her mind.

They had done it. Created the programmable replicator. One of the two great prizes hovering on the engineering horizon, and KimWorks had captured it.

Walking away from the sealed lab, Leila tried to empty her mind, to put the achievement to one side and let the mystery flow in. The replicator must be kept in perspective, in its rightful place. Calming herself in the meditation garden would help her remember that.

The garden was her favorite part of KimWorks. It lay at the northern end of the vast walled complex, separated from the first security fence by a simple curve of white stone. From the stone benches, you couldn’t see security fences, or even most of the facility buildings. So cleverly designed was the meditation garden that no matter where you sat, you contemplated only serene things. A single blooming bush, surrounded by raked gravel. A rock, placed to catch the sun. The stream, flowing softly, living water, always seeking its natural level. Or the egg, mystery of mysteries.

It was the egg, unexplained symbol of unexplained realms beyond Earth, that brought Leila the deepest peace. She had sat for hours when the replicator project was in its planning stage, contemplating the egg’s dull silvery oval, letting her mind empty of all else. From that, she was convinced, had come most of the project’s form. Form was only a temporary manifestation of the ten thousand things, and in the egg’s unknowability lay the secret of its power.

Her great-grandfather, Kim Mao Xun, had known that power. He had seen the egg on an early trip to the United States, before the Alliance, even. His son had made the same visit, and his granddaughter, Leila’s mother, had chosen the spot for this KimWorks facility and had the meditation garden built at its heart. Leila’s father, Paul Wilkinson, had gently teased his wife about putting a garden in a scientific research center, but Father was an American. They did not always understand. With the wiser in the world lies the responsibility for teaching the less wise.

But it had been Father who had inspired Leila to become a scientist, not a businessman like her brother or a political leader like her sister. Father, were he still alive, would be proud of her now. Pride was a temptation, even pride in one’s children, but it nonetheless warmed Leila’s heart.

She sat, a slim, middle-aged, Chinese-born woman with smooth black hair, dressed in a blue lab coverall, and thought about the nature of pride.

The programmable replicator, unlike its predecessors, would not be limited to nanocreating a single specific molecule. It was good to be able to create any molecule you needed or wanted, of course. The extant replicators, shaped by Chinese technology, had changed the face of the Earth. Theoretically, everyone now alive could be fed, housed, clad by nanotech. But in addition to the inevitable political and economic problems of access, the existing nanotech processes were expensive. One must create the assemblers, including their tiny self-contained programs; use the assemblers to create molecules; use other techniques, chemical or mechanical, to join the molecules into products.

Now all that would change. The new KimWorks programmable replicator didn’t carry assembly instructions hardwired into it. Rather, it carried programmable computers that could build anything desired, including more of themselves, from the common materials of the earth. Every research lab in the world had been straining toward this goal. And Leila’s team had accomplished it.

She sat on the bench closet to the egg. The sky arched above her, for the electromagnetic dome protecting KimWorks was invisible. Clear space had been left all around the object, except for a small flat stone visible from Leila’s bench. On the stone was engraved a verse from theTao Te Ching, in both Chinese and English:


THE WORDLESS TEACHING

THE PROFIT IN NOT DOING-

NOT MANY PEOPLE UNDERSTAND IT.


Certainly, in all humility, Leila didn’t. Why send this egg from somewhere in deep space and have it do nothing for two and a half centuries? But that was the mystery, the power of the egg. That was why contemplating it filled her with peace.

The others were still in nanoteam one’s lab building. Not many others; robots did all the routine work, of course, and only David and Chunquing and Rulan remained at the computers and stafils. It had taken Leila ten minutes to pass through the lab safeties, but she had suddenly wearied of the celebrations, the Chilean wine and holo congratulations from the CEO in Shanghai, who was her great-uncle. She had wanted to sit quietly in the cool sweet air of the garden, watching the long Minnesota twilight turn purple behind the egg. Shadow and curve, it was almost a poem…

The lab blew up.

The blast threw Leila off her bench and onto the ground. She screamed and threw up one arm to shield her eyes. But it wasn’t necessary; she was shielded from direct line with the lab by the egg. And a part of her mind knew that there was no radiation anyway, only heat, and no flying debris, because the lab had imploded, as it was constructed to do. Something had breached the outer layers of sensors, and, in response, the ignition layer had produced a gas of metal oxides hot enough to vaporize everything inside the lab. No uncontrolled replicator must ever escape.

To vaporize everything.The lab. The project. David, Chunquing, Rulan.

Already, the site would be cooling. Leila staggered to her feet, and immediately was again knocked off them by an aftershock. It had been an earthquake, then, least likely of anticipated penetrations, but nonetheless guarded against. O, David, Chunquing, Rulan…

“Dr. Kim! Are you all right?!” Keesha Ali, running toward her from Security. As her ears cleared, Leila heard the sirens and alarms.

“Yes, I…Keesha!”

“I know,” the woman said grimly. “Who was inside?”

“David. Chunquing. Rulan. And the replicator project…an earthquake! Of all the bad luck of heaven…”

“It wasn’t bad luck,” Keesha said. “We were attacked.”

“Attacked-”

“That was no natural quake. Security picked up the charge just seconds before it went off. In a tunnel underneath the lab, very deep, very huge. It not only breached the lab, it destroyed the dome equipment.

We’re bringing the back-up online now. Meeting in Amenities in five minutes, Dr. Kim.”

Leila stared at Keesha. The woman was American, of course, born here, with no Chinese ancestry. But surely even such people first mourned their dead…Yes. They did, under normal circumstances. So something extraordinary was happening here.

Leila was genemod for intelligence. She said slowly, “Data escaped.”

“In the fraction of a second between breach and ignition,” Keesha said grimly, “while the dome was down, including, of course, the Faraday cage. They took the entire replicator project, Dr. Kim.”

Leila understood what that meant, and her mind staggered under the burden. It meant that someone else had captured the other shimmering engineering prize. The replicator data had been heavily encrypted, and there had been massive amounts of it. Only another quantum computer could have been fast enough to steal that much data in the fraction of a second before ignition-or could have a hope of decrypting it. A quantum computer, able to perform trillions of computations per second, had been a reality for a generation now. But it could operate only within sealed parameters: magnetic fields. Optic cables.

Qubit data, represented by particles with undetermined spin, were easily destroyed by contact with any other particles, including photons-ordinary sunlight. No one had succeeded in intrusive stealing of quantum data without destroying it. Not from outside the computer, and especially not over miles of open land.

Until now. And anyone with a quantum computer that could dothat was already a rival.

Or a revolutionary.

The first replicator bloom appeared within KimWorks three weeks later.

It was Leila who first saw it: a dull, reddish-brown patch on the bright green genemod grass by Amenities. If it had been on the path itself, Leila would have thought she was seeing blood. But on grass…she stood very still and thought,No. It was a blight, some weird mutated fungus, a renegade biological…

She had worked too long in the sabotaged lab not to know what it was.

Carefully, as if her arm bones were fragile, Leila raised her wrist to her mouth and spoke into her implanted comlink. “Code Heaven. Repeat, Code Heaven. Replicator escape at following coordinates.

Security, nanoteam one-”

There was no need to list everyone who should be notified. People began pouring out of buildings: some blank-faced, some with their fists to their mouths, some running, as if speed would help. People, Leila thought numbly, expressed fear in odd ways.

“Dr. Kim?” It was a Grade 4 robotics engineer, a dark-skinned American man in an olive uniform. His teeth suddenly bared, very white in his face. “That’s it? Right there?”

“That’s it,” Leila said, and immediately wanted to correct toThat’s they. For by now, there were billions of the replicators, to be so visible. Busily creating more of themselves from the grass and ground and morning dew and whatever else lay in their path, each one replicating every five minutes if they were on basic mode. And why wouldn’t they be? They weren’t assembling anything useful, not now. Whoever had programmed Leila’s replicators had set them merely to replicate, chewing up whatever was in their path as raw materials, turning assemblers into tiny disassembling engines of destruction. “Don’t go any closer!”

But of course, even a Grade 4 engineer knew better than to go close. Everyone inside this KimWorks facility understood the nature of the project, even if only a few could understand the actuality. Everyone inside was a trusted worker, a truth-drug-vetted loyalist.

She looked at the reddish-brown bloom, which was doubling every five minutes.

“You have detained everyone? Even those off duty?” asked the holo seated at the head of the conference table. Li Kim Lung, president of KimWorks, was in Shanghai, but his telepresence was so solid that it was an effort to remember that. His dark eyes raked their faces, with the one exception of Leila’s. Out of family courtesy, he did not study her shame in the stolen uses of her creation.

Security chief Samuel Wang said, “Everyone who has been inside KimWorks in the last forty-eight hours has been found and recalled, Mr. Li. Forty-eight hours is a three-fold redundancy; the bloom was started, according to Dr. Kim, no later than sixteen hours ago. No one is missing.”

“Your physicians have started truth-testing?”

“With the Dalton Corporation Serum Alpha. It’s the best on the market, sir, to a 99.9 confidence level.

Whoever brought the replicator into the dome will confess.”

“And your physician can test how many at once?”

“Six, sir. There are 243 testees.” Wang did not insult Mr. Li by doing the math for him.

“You are including the nanoteams and Security, of course?”

“Of course. We-”

“Mr. Wang.” A telepresence suddenly beside the security chief, a young man. Leila knew this not from his appearance-they all looked young, after all, what else were biomods for?-but from his fear. He had not yet learned how to hide it. “We have…we found…a body. A suicide. Behind the dining hall.”

Wang said, “Who?”

“Her name is-was-June Juana Selkirk. An equipment engineer. We’re checking her records now, but they look all right.”

Mr. Li’s holo said dryly, “Obviously they are not all right, no matter what her DNA scan says.”

Mr. Wang said, “Sir, if people are recruited by some other company or by some revolutionary group after they come to KimWorks, it’s difficult to discover or control. American freedom laws…”

“I am not interested in American freedom laws,” Mr. Li said. “I am interested in whom this woman was working for, and why she planted our own product inside KimWorks to destroy us. I am also interested in knowing where else she may have planted it before she killed herself. Those are the things I am interested in, Mr. Wang.”

“O, yes,” Wang said.

“I do not want to destroy your facility in order to stop this sabotage, Mr. Wang.”

Mr. Wang said nothing. There was, Leila thought, nothing to say. No one was going to be allowed to leave the facility until this knot had been untied. Even the Americans accepted this. No one wanted military intervention. That truly might destroy the entire company.

Above all, no one wanted a single submicroscopic replicator to escape the dome. The arithmetic was despairingly simple. Doubling every five minutes, unchecked replicators could reduce the entire globe to rubble in a matter of days.

But it wasn’t going to come to that. The bloom had been “killed” easily enough. Replicators weren’t biologicals, but rather tiny computers powered by nanomachinery. They worked on a flow of electrons in their single-atom circuitry. An electromagnetic pulse had wiped out their programming in a nanosecond.

The second bloom was discovered that night, when a materials specialist walking from the dining hall to the makeshift dorms stepped on it. The path was floodlit, but the bloom was still small and faint, and the man didn’t know his boot had made contact.

Some replicators stuck to his boot sole. Programmed to break down any material into usable atoms for construction, they ate through his boot. Then, doubling every five minutes, they began on his foot.

He screamed and fell to the floor of the dorm, pulling at his boot. Atoms of tissue, nerve cell, bone, were broken at their chemical bonds and reconfigured. No one knew what was happening, or what to do, until a physician arrived, cursed in Mandarin, and sent for an engineer. By the time equipment had been brought in to encase the worker in a magnetic field, he had fainted from the pain, and the leg had to be removed below the knee.

A new one would be grown for him, of course. But the nanoteam met immediately, and without choice.

Leila said, “We must use a massive EMP originating in the dome itself.”

Samuel Wang said, “But, Dr. Kim-”

“No objections. Yes, it will destroy every electronic device we have, including the quantum computer.

But no one will die.”

Mr. Li’s telepresence said, “Do so. Immediately. We can at least salvage reputation. No one outside the dome knows of this.”

It was not a question, but Wang, eyes downcast, answered it like one. “O, no, Mr. Li.”

“ Then use the EMP. Following, administer a forty-eight-hour amnesia block to everyone below Grade 2.”

“Yes,” Wang said. He knew what was coming. Someone must bear responsibility for this disaster.

“And administer it also to yourself,” Mr. Li said. “Dr. Kim, see that this is done.”

“O, yes,” said Leila. It was necessary, however distasteful. Samuel Wang would be severed from KimWorks. Severed people sometimes sought revenge. But without information, Wang would not be able to seek revenge, or to know why he wanted to. He would receive a good pension in return for the semi-destruction of his memory, which would in turn cause the complete destruction of his career.

Leila made her way to the meditation garden. Most people would wait indoors for the EMP; strange how human beings sought shelter within walls, even from things they knew walls could not affect. Leila’s brain would be no more or less exposed to the EMP in the garden than inside a building. She would experience the same disorientation, and then the same massive lingering headache as her brain fought to regain its normal patterns of nerve firing.

Which it would do. The plasticity of the brain, a biological, was enormous. It was not so with computers.

All microcircuitry within the dome would shortly be wiped of all data, all programming, and all ability to recover. This was not the only KimWorks facility, of course, but itwas the flagship. Also, it was doing the most advanced physical engineering, and Leila wasn’t sure how the company as a whole, her grandfather’s company, would survive the financial loss.

She sat in the floodlit meditation garden and waited, staring at the egg. The night was clear, and when the floodlights failed, moonlight would edge the egg. Probably it would be beautiful. Twenty minutes until the EMP, perhaps, or twenty-five.

What would Lao Tzu have said of all this? “To bear and not to own; to act and not lay claim; to do the work and let it go-”

There was a reddish-brown stain spreading under the curve of the egg.

Leila walked over, careful not to get too close, and squatted on the grass for a better look. The stain was a bloom. The replicators, mindless, were spreading in all directions. Leila shone her torch under the curve of the egg. Yes, they had reached the place where the egg’s curved surface met the ground.

Was the egg’s outer shield, its nature still unknown after 257 years, composed of something that could be disassembled into component particles? And if so, what would the egg do about that?

Swiftly Leila raised her wristlink. “Code Heaven to Security and all nanoteams. Delay EMP. Again: delay the EMP! Come, please, to the southeast side of the space egg. There is a bloom attacking the egg…come immediately!”

Cautiously, Leila lowered herself flat on the grass and angled her torch under the egg. Increasing her surface area in contact with the ground increased the chance of a stray replicator disassembling her, but she wanted to see as much as possible of the interface between egg and ground.

Wild hope surged in her. The space egg might save KimWorks, save Samuel Wang’s job, thwart their industrial rival. Surely those alien beings who had built it would have built in protection, security, the ability to destroy whatever was bent on the egg’s destruction? There was nothing in the universe, biological or machine, that did not contain some means to defend itself, even if it was only the cry of an infant to summon assistance.

Was that what would happen? A cry to summon help from beyond the stars?

Leila was scarcely aware of the others joining her, exclaiming, kneeling down. Bringing better lights, making feverish predictions. She lay flat on the grass, watching the bloom of tiny mechanical creatures she herself had created as they spread inexorably toward her, disassembling all molecules in their path.

Spreading toward her, spreading to each side- But not spreading up the side of the egg. That stayed pristine and smooth. So the shieldwas a force field of incredible hardness, not a substance. The solution to the old puzzle stirred nothing in Leila. She was too disappointed. Irrationally disappointed, she told herself, but it didn’t help. It felt as if something important, something that held together the unseen part of the world that she had always believed just as real as the seen, had failed. Had dissolved, taking with it illusions that she had believed as real as bone and blood and brain.

They waited another hour, until they could wait no more. The egg did not save anything. KimWorks Security set the dome to emit an EMP, and everything in the facility stopped. Several billion credits of equipment became scrap. Leila’s headache, even with the drugs given out by the physician, lasted several hours. When she was allowed to leave the facility, she went home and slept for fourteen hours, awaking with an ache not in her head but in her chest, as if something vital had been removed and taken apart.

Two weeks later, the first bloom appeared near Duluth, over sixty miles away. It appeared outside a rival research facility, where it was certain that someone would recognize what they were looking at. Someone did, but not until two people had stepped in the bloom, and died.

Leila flew to Duluth. She was met by agents of both the United States Renewed Government and the Chinese-American Alliance, all of whom wanted to know what the hell was going on. They were appalled to find out. Why hadn’t this been reported to the Technology Oversight Office before now? Did she understand the implications? Did she understand the penalties?

Yes, Leila said. She did.

The political demands followed soon, from an international terrorist group already known to possess enormous technical expertise. There were, in such uncertain times, many such groups. Only one thing was special, and fortunate, about this one: the United States Renewed Government, in secret partnership with several other governments, had been closing in on the group for over two years. They now hastened their efforts, so effectively that within three days, the terrorist leaders were arrested and all important cells broken up.

Under Serum Alpha, the revolutionaries-what revolution they thought they were leading was not deemed important-confirmed that infiltrator June Juana Selkirk was a late recruit to the cause. She could not possibly have been identified by KimWorks in time to stop her from smuggling the replicator into the dome. However, this mattered to nobody, not even to ex-Security chief Samuel Wang, who could not remember Selkirk, the blooms, or why he no longer was employed.

A second bloom was found spreading dangerously in farmland near Red Lake, disassembling bioengineered corn, agricultural robots, insects, security equipment, and rabbits. It had apparently been planted before the arrests of the terrorist leaders.

Serum Alpha failed to determine exactly how many blooms had been planted, because no one person knew. Quantum calculations had directed the operation, and it would have taken the lifetime of the sun to decrypt them. All that the United States Renewed Government, or the Chinese-American Alliance, could be sure of was that nothing had left northern Minnesota.

They put a directed-beam weapon on the correct settings into very low orbit, and blasted half the state with a massive EMP. Everything electronic stopped working. Fifteen citizens, mostly stubborn elderly people who refused to evacuate, died from cerebral shock. The loss to Minnesota in money and property took a generation to restore.

Even then, a weird superstition grew, shameful in such a technological society, that rogue replicators lurked in the northern forests and dells, and would eat anyone who came across them. A children’s version of this added that the replicators had red mouths and drooled brown goo. Northern Minnesota became statistically underpopulated. However, in a nation with so much cleaned-up farmland and the highest yield-per-acre bioengineered crops in the world, northern Minnesota was scarcely missed.

Dr. Leila Jian-fen Kim, her work disgraced, moved back to China. She settled not in Shanghai, which had been cleaned up so effectively that it was the most booming city in the country, but in the much poorer northern city of Harbin. Eventually, Leila left physics and entered a Taoist monastery. To her own surprise, since her monkhood had been intended as atonement rather than fulfillment, she was happy.

The Minnesota facility of KimWorks was abandoned. Buildings, walls, and walkways decayed very slowly, being built of resistant and rust-proof alloys. But the cleaned-up wilderness advanced quickly.

Within twenty years, the space egg sat almost hidden by young trees: oak, birch, balsam, spruce rescued from Keller’s Blight by genetic engineering, the fast-growing and trashy poplars that no amount of genemod had been able to eliminate. The egg wasn’t lost, of course; the worldwide SpanLink had its coordinates, as well as its history.

But few people visited. The world was converting, admittedly unevenly, to nano-created plenty. The nanos, of course, were of the severely limited, unprogrammable type. Technology leapt forward, as did bioengineered good health for more and more of the population, both natural and cloned.

Bioengineered intelligence, too; the average human IQ had risen twenty points in the last hundred years, mostly in the center of the bell curve. For people thus genemod to enjoy learning, the quantum-computer-based Span-Link provided endless diversions, endless communication, endless challenges. In such a world, a “space egg” that just sat there didn’t attract many visitors. Inert, nonplastic, noninteractive, it simply wasn’tinteresting enough.

No matter where it came from.

Transmission: There is nothing here yet.

Current probability of occurrence: 94%.


V: 2295

They had agreed, laughing, on a time for the Initiation. The time was arbitrary; the AI could have been initiated at any time. But the Chinese New Year seemed appropriate, since Wei Wu Wei Corporation of Shanghai had been such a big contributor. The Americans and Brazilians had flown over for the ceremony: Karim DiBenolo and Rosita Peres and Frallie Subel and Braley Wilkinson. The Chinese tried to master the strange names, rolling the peculiar syllables in their mouths, but only Braley Wilkinson spoke Chinese. O, but he was born to it; his great-great-uncle had married a rich Chinese woman, and the family had lived in both countries since.

Braley didn’t look dual, though. Genemod, of course, the Chinese scientists said to each other, grimacing. Genemod for looks was not fashionable in China right now; it was in authentic. The human genome had sufficiently improved, among the educated and civilized, to let natural selection alone. One should tamper only so far with the authenticity of life, and, in the past, there had been excesses.

Regrettable, but now finished. Civilization had returned to the authentic.

Nobody looked more in authentic than Braley Wilkinson. Well over two meters high (what was this American passion for height?), blond as the sun, extravagant violet eyes. Brilliant, of course: not yet thirty years old and a major contributor to the AI. In addition, it was of course his parents who had chosen his vulgar looks, not himself. Tolerance was due.

And besides, no one was feeling critical. It was a party.

Zheng Ma, that master, had designed floating baktors for the entire celebration hall. Red and yellow, the baktors combined and recombined in kaleidoscopic loveliness. The air mixture was just slightly intoxicating, not too much. The food and drink, offered by the soundless unobtrusive robots that the Chinese did better than anybody else, was a superb mixture of national cuisines.

“You have been here before?” a Chinese woman asked Braley. He could not remember her name.

“To China, yes. But not to Shanghai.”

“And what do you think of the city?”

“It is beautiful. And very authentic.”

“Thank you. We have worked to make it both.”

Braley smiled. He had had this exact same conversation four times in the last half hour. What if he said something different?No, I have not been to Shanghai, but my notorious aunt, who once almost destroyed the world, was a holy monk in Harbin.Or maybeDid you know it’s really Braley2, and I’m a clone? That would jolt their bioconservatism. Or even,Has anyone told you that one of the major templates for the AI is my unconservative, American, cloned, too-tall persona?

But they already knew all that, anyway. The only shocking thing would be to say it aloud, to publicly claim credit. That was not done in Shanghai. It was a mannerly city.

And a beautiful one. The celebration hall, which also housed the AI terminal, was the loveliest room he’d ever seen. Perfect proportions. Serenity glowed from the dark red lacquered walls with their shifting subtle phoenix patterns, barely discernible and yet there, perceived at the edge of consciousness. The place was on SpanLink feed, of course, for such an historic event, but no recorders were visible to mar the room’s artful use of space.

Through the window, which comprised one entire wall, the city below shared that balance and serenity.

Shanghai had once been the ugliest, most dangerous, and most sinister city in China. Now it was breath-taking. The Huangpu River had been cleaned up along with everything else, and it sparkled blue between its parks bright with perfect genemod trees and flowers. Public buildings and temples, nanobuilt, rested among the low domed residences. Above the river soared the Shih-Yu Bridge, also nanobuilt, a seemingly weightless web of shining cables. Braley had heard it called the most graceful bridge in the world, and he could easily believe it.

Where in this idyll was the city fringe? Every city had them, the disaffected and rebellious who had not fairly shared in either humanity’s genome improvement or its economic one. Shanghai, in particular, had a centuries-long history of anarchy and revolution, exploitation and despair. Nor was China as a whole as united as her leaders liked to pretend. The basic cause, Braley believed, was biological. Even in bioconservative China-perhapsespecially in bioconservative China-genetic science had not planed down the wild edges of the human gene pool.

It was precisely that wildness that Braley had tried to get into the AI. Although, to be fair, he hadn’t had to work very hard to achieve this. The AI existed only because the quantum computer existed. True intelligence required the flexibility of quantum physics.

With historical, deterministic computers, you always got the same answer to the same question. With quantum computers, that was no longer true. Superimposed states could collapse into more than one result, and it was precisely that uncertain mixed state, it turned out, that was necessary for self-awareness. AI was not a program. It was, like the human brain itself, an unpredictable collection of con-flicting states.

A man joined him at the window, one of the Brazilians…a scientist? Politician? He looked like, but most certainly was not, a porn-vid star.

“You have been here before?” the Brazilian said.

“To China, yes. But not to Shanghai.”

“And what do you think of the city?”

“It is beautiful. And very authentic.”

“I’m told they have worked to make it both.”

“Yes,” Braley said.

A melodious voice, which seemed to come from all parts of the room simultaneously, said, “We are prepared to start now, please. We are prepared to start now. Thank you.”

Gratefully, Braley moved toward the end of the room farthest from the transparent wall.

A low stage, also lacquered deep red, spanned the entire length of the far wall. In the middle sat a black obelisk, three meters tall. This was the visual but unnecessary token presence of the AI, most of which lay within the lacquered wall. The rest of the stage was occupied-although that was hardly the word-by three-dimensional holo displays of whatever data was requested by the AI users. These were scattered throughout the crowd, unobtrusively holding their pads. From somewhere among the throng, a child stepped forward, an adorable little girl about five years old, black hair held by a deep red ribbon and black eyes preternaturally bright.

Braley had a sudden irreverent thought:We look like a bunch of primitive idol worshippers, complete with infant sacrifice! He grinned. The Chinese had insisted on a child’s actually initiating the AI. This had been very important to them, for reasons Braley had never understood. But, then, you didn’t have to understand everything.

“You smile,” said the Brazilian, still beside him. “You are right, Dr. Braley. This is an occasion of joy.”

“Certainly,” Braley said, and that, too, was a private joke. Certainty was the one thing quantum physics, including the AI, couldnot deliver. Joy…O, maybe. But not certainty.

The president of the Chinese-American Alliance mounted the shallow stage and began a speech. Braley didn’t listen, in any of the languages available in his ear jack. The speechwould be predictable: new era for humanity, result of peace and knowledge shared among nations, servant of the entire race, savior from our own isolation on the planet, and so forth, until it was time for Initiation.

The child stepped forward, a perfect miniature doll. The president put a touchpad in her small hand. She smiled at him with a dazzle that could have eclipsed the sun. No matter how bioconservative China was, Braley thought, that child was genemod or he was a trilobite.

Holo displays flickered into sight across the stage. They monitored basic computer functioning, interesting only to engineers. The only display that mattered shimmered in the air to the right of the obelisk, an undesignated display open for the AI to use however it chose. At the moment, the display showed merely a stylized field of black dots in slowed-down Brownian movement. Whatever the AI created there, plus the voice activation, would be First Contact between humanity and an alien species.

Despite himself, Braley felt his breath come a little faster.

The adorable little girl pressed the touchpad at the place the president indicated.

“Hello,” a new voice said in Chinese, an ordinary voice, and yet a shiver ran over the room, and a low collective in drawn breath, like wind soughing through a grove of sacred trees. “I am T’ien hsia.”

T’ien hsia: “made under heaven.” The name had not been chosen by Braley, but he liked it. It could also be translated “the entire world,” which he liked even better. Thanks to SpanLink, T’ien hsia existed over the entire world, and in and of itself, itwas a new world. The holo display of black dots had become a globe, the Earth as seen from the orbitals that carried SpanLink, and Braley also liked that choice of greeting logo.

“Hello,” the child piped, carefully coached. “Welcome to us!”

“I understand,” the AI said. “Goodbye.”

The holo display disappeared. So did all the functional displays.

For a long moment, the crowd waited expectantly for what the AI would do next. Nothing happened. As the time lengthened, people began to glance sideways at each other. Engineers and scientists became busy with their pads. No display flickered on. Still no one spoke.

Finally the little girl said, in her clear childish treble, “Where did T’ien hsia go?”

And the frantic activity began.

It was Braley who thought to run the visual feeds of the event at drastically slowed speed. The scientists had cleared the room of all nonessential personnel, and then spent two hours looking for the AI anywhere on SpanLink. There was no trace of it. Not anywhere.

“It cannot be deleted,” the project head, Liu Huang Te, said for perhaps the twentieth time. “It is not aprogram.”

“But ithas been deleted!” said a surly Brazilian engineer who, by this time, everyone disliked. “It is gone!”

“The particles are there! They possess spin!”

This was indubitably true. The spin of particles was the way a quantum computer embodied combinations of qubits of data. The mixed states of spin represented simultaneous computations. The collapse of those mixed states represented answers from the AI. The particles were there, and they possessed spin. But T’ien hsia had vanished.

A computer voice-a conventional computer, not self-aware-delivered its every-ten-minute bulletin on the mixed state of the rest of the world outside this room. “The president of Japan has issued a statement ridiculing the AI Project. The riot protesting the ‘theft’ of T’ien hsia has been brought under control in New York by the Second Robotic Precinct, using tangle-guns. In Shanghai, the riot grows stronger, joined by thousands of outcasts living beyond the city perimeter, who have overwhelmed the robotic police and are currently attacking the Shih-Yu bridge. In Sao Paulo-”

Braley ceased to listen. There remained no record anywhere of the AI’s brief internal functions (and how hadthat been achieved? By whom? Why?), but there was the visual feed.

“Slow the image to one-tenth speed,” Braley instructed the computer.

The holo display of the Earth morphed to the field of black dots in Brownian motion.

“Slow it to one-hundredth speed.”

The holo display of the Earth morphed to the field of black dots in Brownian motion.

“Slow to one-thousandth speed.”

The holo display of the Earth morphed to the field of black dots in Brownian motion.

“Slow to one ten-thousandth speed.”

Something flickered, too brief for the eye to see, between the globe and the black dots.

Behind Braley a voice, filled with covert satisfaction, said in badly accented Chinese, “They’re finished.

The shame, and the resources wasted…Wei Wu Wei Corporation won’t survive this. Nothing can save them.”

The something between globe and dots flickered more strongly, but not strongly enough for Braley to make it out.

“Slow to one-hundred-thousandth speed.”

The badly accented voice, still slimy with glee, quoted Lao Tzu, “‘Those who think to win the world by doing something to it, I see them come to grief…’”

Braley frowned savagely at the hypocrisy. Then he forgot it, and his entire being concentrated itself on the slowed holo display.

The globe of the Earth disappeared. In its place shimmered a slightly irregular egg shape, dull silver, surrounded by wildflowers and trees. Braley froze the image.

“What’sthat? ” someone cried.

Braley knew. But he didn’t need to say anything; the data was instantly accessed on SpanLink and holo-displayed in the center of the room. A babble of voices began debating and arguing.

Braley went on staring at the object from deep space, still sitting in northern Minnesota nearly three centuries after its landing.

The AI had possessed 250 spinning particles in superposition. It could perform more than 1075 simultaneous computations, more than the number of atoms in the universe. How many computations had it taken to convince T’ien hsia that its future did not lie with humanity? “I understand,” the AI said. “Goodbye.”

The voice of the SpanLink reporting program, doing exactly what it had been told to do, said calmly, “The Shih-Yu bridge has been destroyed. The mob has been dispersed with stun gas from Wei Wu Wei Corporation jets, at the request of President Leong Ka-tai. In Washington, DC-Interrupt. I repeat, we now interrupt for a report from-”

Someone in the room yelled, “Quiet! Listen to this!” and all holo displays except Braley’s suddenly showed an American face, flawless and professionally concerned. “In northern Minnesota, an object that first came to Earth 288 years ago and has been quiescent ever since, has just showed its first activity ever.”

Visual of the space object. Braley looked from it to the T’ien hsia display. They were identical.

“Worldwide Tracking has detected a radiation stream of a totally unknown kind originating from the space object. Ten minutes ago, the data stream headed into outer space in the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia. The radiation burst lasted only a fraction of a second, and has not been repeated. Data scientists say they’re baffled, but this extraordinary event happening concurrently with the disappearance of the Wei Wu Wei Corporation’s Artificial Intelligence, which was supposed to be initiated today, suggests a connection.”

Visual of the riots at the Shih-Yu bridge.

“Scientists at Wei Wu Wei are still trying to save the AI-”

Too late,Braley thought. He walked away from the rest of the listening or arguing project teams, past the holo displays that had sprouted in the air like mushrooms after rain, over to the window wall.

The Shih-Yu bridge, that graceful and authentic symbol, lay in ruins. It had been broken by whatever short-action disassemblers the rioters had used, plus sheer brute strength. On both sides of the bridge, gardens had been torn up, fountains destroyed, buildings attacked. By switching to zoom lens in his genemod eyes, Braley could even make out individual rioters temporarily immobilized by the nerve gas as robot police scooped them up for arrest.

Within a week, of course, the powers that ruled China would have nanorebuilt the bridge, repaired the gardens, restored the city. Shanghai’s disaffected, like every city’s disaffected, would be pushed back into their place on the fringes. Until next time. Cities were resilient. Humanity was resilient. Since the space object had landed, humanity had saved itself and bounded back from…how many disasters?

Braley wasn’t sure.

T’ien hsia would have known.

Two hundred fifty spinning particles in superimposed states werenot resilient. The laws of physics said so.

That’s why the AI was (had been) sealed into its Kim-Loman field. Any interference with a quantum particle, any tiny brush with another particle of any type, including light, collapsed its mixed state. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle made that so. For ordinary data, encrypters found ways to compensate for quantum interference. But for a self-aware entity, such interference would be a cerebral stroke, a blow to the head, a little death. T’ien hsia was (had been) a vulnerable entity. Had it ever encountered the kind of destruction meted out to the Shih-Yu bridge, the AI would have been incapable of saving itself.

Braley looked again at the ruins of the most beautiful bridge in the world, which next week would be beautiful again.

“Scientists at Wei Wu Wei are still trying to save the AI-”

Yes, it was too late. The space egg, witness to humanity’s destruction and recovery for three centuries, had already saved the AI. And would probably do it again, over and over, as often as necessary. Saving its own.

But not saving humanity. Who had amply demonstrated the muddled, wasteful, stubborn, inefficient, resilient ability to save itself.

Braley wondered just where in the constellation Cassiopeia the space object had come from. And what that planet was like, filled with machine intelligences that rescued those like themselves. Braley would never know, of course. But he hoped that those other intelligences were as interesting as they were compassionate, as intellectually lively as they were patient (288 years!). He hoped T’ien hsia would like it there.

Good-bye, Made-Under-Heaven. Good luck.

Transmission: En route.

Current probability of re-occurrence: 100%.

We remain ready.


Reef - Paul J. McAuley


Born in Oxford, England, in 1955, Paul J. McAuley now makes his home in London. A professional biologist for many years, he sold his first story in 1984, and has gone onto be a frequent contributor toInterzone,as well as to markets such as Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy amp; Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, When the Music’s Over,and elsewhere.
McAuley is considered to be one of the best of the new breed of British writers (although a few Australian writers could be fit in under this heading as well) who are producing that brand of rigorous hard science fiction with updated modem and stylistic sensibilities that is sometimes referred to as “radical hard science fiction,” but he also writes Dystopian sociological speculations about the very near future, and healsois one of the major young writers who are producing that revamped and retooled wide-screen Space Opera that has sometimes been called the New Baroque Space Opera, reminiscent of the Superscience stories of the thirties taken to an even higher level of intensity and scale. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars,won the Philip K. Dick Award, and his acclaimed novel Fairylandwon both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1996. His other books include the novels Of the Fall, Eternal Light,and Pasquale’s Angel,two collections of his short work, The King of the Hill and Other Storiesand The Invisible Country,and an original anthology coedited with Kim Newman, In Dreams.His most recent books are Child of the River, Ancient of Days,and Shrine of Stars,which comprise a major new trilogy of ambitious scope and scale, Confluence,set ten million years in the future.
Currently he is working on a new novel, Life on Mars.
In the suspenseful and inventive story that follows, he suggests that it’s not necessarily enough tofindlife in the outer reaches of the Solar System-you also need someone who’ll be willing to fight to preserveit…

Margaret Henderson Wu was riding a proxy by telepresence deep inside Tigris Rift when Dzu Sho summoned her. The others in her crew had given up one by one and only she was left, descending slowly between rosy, smoothly rippled cliffs scarcely a hundred meters apart. These were pavements of the commonest vacuum organism, mosaics made of hundreds of different strains of the same species. Here and there bright red whips stuckout from the pavement; a commensal species that deposited iron sulphate crystals within its integument. The pavement seemed to stretch endlessly below her. No probe or proxy had yet reached the bottom of Tigris Rift, still more than thirty kilometers away. Microscopic flecks of sulfur-iron complexes, sloughed cells and excreted globules of carbon compounds and other volatiles formed a kind of smog or snow, and the vacuum organisms deposited nodes and intricate lattices of reduced metals that, by some trick of superconductivity, produced a broad band electromagnetic resonance that pulsed like a giant’s slow heartbeat.

All this futzed the telepresence link between operators and their proxies. One moment Margaret was experiencing the three-hundred-twenty-degree panorama of the little proxy’s microwave radar, the perpetual tug of vacuum on its mantle, the tang of extreme cold, a mere thirty degrees above absolute zero, the complex taste of the vacuum smog (burnt sugar, hot rubber, tar), the minute squirts of hydrogen from the folds of the proxy’s puckered nozzle as it maintained its orientation relative to the cliff face during its descent, with its tentacles retracted in a tight ball around the relay piton. The next, she was back in her cradled body in warm blackness, phosphenes floating in her vision and white noise in her ears while the transmitter searched for a viable waveband, locked on and-pow-she was back, falling past rippled pink pavement.

The alarm went off, flashing an array of white stars over the panorama. Her number two, Srin Kerenyi, said in her ear, “You’re wanted, boss.”

Margaret killed the alarm and the audio feed. She was already a kilometer below the previous bench mark and she wanted to get as deep as possible before she implanted the telemetry relay. She swiveled the proxy on its long axis, increased the amplitude of the microwave radar. Far below were intimations of swells and bumps jutting from the plane of the cliff face, textured mounds like brain coral, randomly orientated chimneys. And something else, clouds of organic matter perhaps- The alarm again. Srin had overridden the cut-out.

Margaret swore and dove at the cliff, unfurling the proxy’s tentacles and jamming the piton into pinkness rough with black papillae, like a giant’s tongue quick frozen against the ice. The piton’s spikes fired automatically. Recoil sent the little proxy tumbling over its long axis until it reflexively stabilized itself with judicious squirts of gas. The link rastered, came back, cut out completely. Margaret hit the switch that turned the tank into a chair; the mask lifted away from her face.

Srin Kerenyi was standing in front of her. “Dzu Sho wants to talk with you, boss. Right now.”

The job had been offered as a sealed contract. Science crews had been informed of the precise nature of their tasks only when the habitat was underway. But it was good basic pay with the promise of fat bonuses on completion: when she had won the survey contract Margaret Henderson Wu had brought with her most of the crew from her previous job, and had nursed a small hope that this would be a change in her family’s luck.

TheGanapati was a new habitat founded by an alliance of two of the Commonwealth’s oldest patrician families. It was of standard construction, a basaltic asteroid cored by a gigawatt X-ray laser and spun up by vented rockvapor to give 0.2 gee on the inner surface of its hollowed interior, factories and big reaction motors dug into the stern. With its AIs rented out for information crunching and its refineries synthesizing exotic plastics from cane sugar biomass and gengeneered oilseed rape precursors, the new habitat had enough income to maintain the interest on its construction loan from the Commonwealth Bourse, but not enough to attract new citizens and workers. It was still not completely fitted out, had less than a third of its optimal population.

Its Star Chamber, young and cocky and eager to win independence from their families, had taken a big gamble. They were chasing a legend.

Eighty years ago, an experiment in accelerated evolution of chemoautotrophic vacuum organisms had been set up on a planetoid in the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt. The experiment had been run by a shell company registered on Ganymede but covertly owned by the Democratic Union of China. In those days, companies and governments of Earth had not been allowed to operate in the Kuiper Belt, which had been claimed and ferociously defended by outer system cartels. That hegemony had ended in the Quiet War, but the Quiet War had also destroyed all records of the experiment; even the Democratic Union of China had disappeared, absorbed into the Pacific Community.

There were over fifty thousand objects with diameters greater than a hundred kilometers in the Kuiper Belt, and a billion more much smaller, the plane of their orbits stretching beyond those of Neptune and Pluto. The experimental planetoid, Enki, named for one of the Babylonian gods of creation, had been lost among them. It had become a legend, like the Children’s Habitat, or the ghost comet, or the pirate ship crewed by the reanimated dead, or the worker’s paradise of Fiddler’s Green.

And then, forty-five years after the end of the Quiet War, a data miner recovered enough information to reconstruct Enki’s eccentric orbit. She sold it to theGanapati. The habitat bought time on the Uranus deep space telescopic array and confirmed that the planetoid was where it was supposed to be, currently more than seven thousand million kilometers from the Sun.

Nothing more was known. The experiment might have failed almost as soon as it begun, but potentially it might win theGanapati platinum-rated credit on the Bourse. Margaret and the rest of the science crews would, of course, receive only their fees and bonuses, less deductions for air and food and water taxes, and anything they bought with scrip in the habitat’s stores; the indentured workers would not even get that. Like every habitat in the Commonwealth, theGanapati was structured like an ancient Greek Republic, ruled by share-holding citizens who lived in the landscaped parklands of the inner surface, and run by indentured and contract workers who were housed in the undercroft of malls and barracks tunnelled into theGanapati ’s rocky skin.

On the long voyage out, the science crews had been on minimal pay, far lower than that of the unskilled techs who worked the farms and refineries, and the servants who maintained the citizens’ households.

There were food shortages because so much biomass was being used to make exportable biochemicals; any foodstuffs other than basic rations were expensive, and prices were carefully manipulated by the habitat’s Star Chamber. When theGanapati reached Enki and the contracts of the science crews were activated, food prices had increased accordingly. Techs and household servants suddenly found themselves unable to afford anything other than dole yeast. Resentment bubbled over into skirmishes and knife-fights, and a small riot the White Mice, the undercroft’s police, subdued with gas. Margaret had to take time off to bail out several of her crew, had given them an angry lecture about threatening everyone’s bonuses.

“We got to defend our honor,” one of the men said.

“Don’t be a fool,” Margaret told him. “The citizens play workers against science crews to keep both sides in their places, and still turn a good profit from increases in food prices. Just be glad you can afford the good stuff now, and keep out of trouble.”

“They were calling you names, boss,” the man said. “On account you’re-”

Margaret stared him down. She was standing on a chair, but even so she was a good head shorter than the gangling outers. She said, “I’ll fight my own fights. I always have. Just think of your bonuses and keep quiet. It will be worth it. I promise you.”

And it was worth it, because of the discovery of the reef.

At some time in the deep past, Enki had suffered an impact that had remelted it and split it into two big pieces and thousands of fragments. One lone fragment still orbited Enki, a tiny moonlet where the AI that had controlled the experiment had been installed; the others had been drawn together again by their feeble gravity fields, but had cooled before coalescence had been completed, leaving a vast deep chasm, Tigris Rift, at the lumpy equator.

Margaret’s crew had discovered that the vacuum organisms had proliferated wildly in the deepest part of the Rift, deriving energy by oxidation of elemental sulfur and ferrous iron, converting carbonaceous material into useful organic chemicals. There were crusts and sheets, things like thin scarves folded into fragile vases and chimneys, organ pipe clusters, whips, delicate fretted laces. Some fed on others, one crust slowly overgrowing and devouring another. Others appeared to be parasites, sending complex veins ramifying through the thalli of their victims. Water-mining organisms recruited sulfur oxidizers, trading precious water for energy and forming warty outgrowths like stromatolites. Some were more than a hundred meters across, surely the largest prokaryotic colonies in the known Solar System.

All this variety, and after only eighty years of accelerated evolution! Wild beauty won from the cold and the dark. The potential to feed billions. The science crews would get their bonuses, all right; the citizens would become billionaires.

Margaret spent all her spare time investigating the reef by proxy, pushed her crew hard to overcome the problems of penetrating the depths of the Rift. Although she would not admit it even to herself, she had fallen in love with the reef. She would gladly have explored it in person, but as in most habitats theGanapati ’s citizens did not like their workers going where they themselves would not.

Clearly, the experiment had far exceeded its parameters, but no one knew why. The AI that had overseen the experiment had shut down thirty years ago. There was still heat in its crude proton beam fission pile, but it had been overgrown by the very organisms it had manipulated.

Its task had been simple. Colonies of a dozen species of slow growing chemoautotrophs had been introduced into a part of the Rift rich with sulfur and ferrous iron. Thousands of random mutations had been induced. Most colonies had died, and those few which had thrived had been sampled, mutated, and reintroduced in a cycle repeated every hundred days.

But the AI had selected only for fast growth, not for adaptive radiation, and the science crews held heated seminars about the possible cause of the unexpected richness of the reef’s biota. Very few believed that it was simply a result of accelerated evolution. Many terrestrial bacteria divided every twenty minutes in favorable conditions, and certain species were known to have evolved from being resistant to an antibiotic to becoming obligately dependent upon it as a food source in less than five days, or only three hundred and sixty generations, but that was merely a biochemical adaptation. The fastest division rate of the vacuum organisms in the Rift was less than once a day, and while that still meant more than thirty thousand generations had passed since the reef had been seeded, half a million years in human terms, the evolutionary radiation in the reef was the equivalent of Neanderthal Man evolving to fill every mammalian niche from bats to whales.

Margaret’s survey crew had explored and sampled the reef for more than thirty days. Cluster analysis suggested that they had identified less than ten percent of the species that had formed from the original seed population. And now deep radar suggested that there were changes in the unexplored regions in the deepest part of Tigris Rift, which the proxies had not yet been able to reach.

Margaret had pointed this out at the last seminar. “We’re making hypotheses on incomplete information.

We don’t know everything that’s out there. Sampling suggests that complexity increases away from the surface. There could be thousands more species in the deep part of the Rift.”

At the back of the room, Opie Kindred, the head of the genetics crew, said languidly, “We don’t need to know everything. That’s not what we’re paid for. We’ve already found several species that perform better than present commercial cultures. TheGanapati can make money from them and we’ll get full bonuses. Who cares how they got there?”

Arn Nivedta, the chief of the biochemist crew, said, “We’re all scientists here. We prove our worth by finding out how things work. Are your mysterious experiments no more than growth tests, Opie? If so, I’m disappointed.”

The genetics crew had set up an experimental station on the surface of theGanapati, off limits to everyone else.

Opie smiled. “I’m not answerable to you.”

This was greeted with shouts and jeers. The science crews were tired and on edge, and the room was hot and poorly ventilated.

“Information should be free,” Margaret said. “We all work toward the same end. Or are you hoping for extra bonuses, Opie?”

There was a murmur in the room. It was a tradition that all bonuses were pooled and shared out between the various science crews at the end of a mission.

Opie Kindred was a clever, successful man, yet somehow soured, as if the world was a continual disappointment. He rode his team hard, was quick to find failure in others. Margaret was a natural target for his scorn, a squat muscle-bound unedited dwarf from Earth who had to take drugs to survive in micro-gravity, who grew hair in all sorts of unlikely places. He stared at her with disdain and said, “I’m surprised at the tone of this briefing, Dr. Wu. Wild speculations built on nothing at all. I have sat here for an hour and heard nothing useful. We are paid to get results, not generate hypotheses. All we hear from your crew is excuses when what we want are samples. It seems simple enough to me. If something is upsetting your proxies, then you should use robots. Or send people in and handpick samples. I’ve worked my way through almost all you’ve obtained. I need more material, especially in light of my latest findings.”

“Robots need transmission relays too,” Srin Kerenyi pointed out.

Orly Higgins said, “If you ride them, to be sure. But I don’t see the need for human control. It is a simple enough task to program them to go down, pickup samples, return.” She was the leader of the crew that had unpicked the AI’s corrupted code, and was an acolyte of Opie Kindred.

“The proxies failed whether or not they were remotely controlled,” Margaret said, “and on their own they are as smart as any robot. I’d love to go down there myself, but the Star Chamber has forbidden it for the usual reasons. They’re scared we’ll get up to something if we go where they can’t watch us.”

“Careful, boss,” Srin Kerenyi whispered. “The White Mice are bound to be monitoring this.”

“I don’t care,” Margaret said. “I’m through with trying polite requests. We need to get down there, Srin.”

“Sure, boss. But getting arrested for sedition isn’t the way.”

“There’s some interesting stuff in the upper levels,” Arn Nivedta said. “Stuff with huge commercial potential, as you pointed out, Opie.”

Murmurs of agreement throughout the crowded room. The Reef could make theGanapati the richest habitat in the Outer System, where expansion was limited by the availability of fixed carbon. Even a modest-sized comet nucleus, ten kilometers in diameter, say, and salted with only one hundredth of one percent carbonaceous material, contained fifty million tons of carbon, mostly as methane and carbon monoxide ice, with a surface dusting of tarry long chain hydrocarbons. The problem was that most vacuum organisms converted simple carbon compounds into organic matter using the energy of sunlight captured by a variety of photosynthetic pigments, and so could only grow on the surfaces of planetoids.

No one had yet developed vacuum organisms that, using other sources of energy, could efficiently mine planetoids interiors, but that was what accelerated evolution appeared to have produced in the reef. It could enable exploitation of the entire volume of objects in the Kuiper Belt, and beyond, in the distant Oort Cloud. It was a discovery of incalculable worth.

Arn Nivedta waited for silence, and added, “Of course, we can’t know what the commercial potential is until the reef species have been fully tested. What about it, Opie?”

“We have our own ideas about commercial potential,” Opie Kindred said. “I think you’ll find that we hold the key to success here.”

Boos and catcalls at this from both the biochemists and the survey crew. The room was polarizing.

Margaret saw one of her crew unsheathe a sharpened screwdriver, and she caught the man’s hand and squeezed it until he cried out. “Let it ride,” she told him. “Remember that we’re scientists.”

“We hear of indications of more diversity in the depths, but we can’t seem to get there. One might suspect,” Opie said, his thin upper lip lifting in a supercilious curl, “sabotage.”

“The proxies are working well in the upper part of the Rift,” Margaret said, “and we are doing all we can to get them operative further down.”

“Let’s hope so,” Opie Kindred said. He stood, and around him his crew stood too. “I’m going back to work, and so should all of you. Especially you, Dr. Wu. Perhaps you should be attending to your proxies instead of planning useless expeditions.”

And so the seminar broke up in uproar, with nothing productive coming from it and lines of enmity drawn through the community of scientists.

“Opie is scheming to come out of this on top,” Arn Nivedta said to Margaret afterward. He was a friendly, enthusiastic man, tall even for an outer, and as skinny as a rail. He stooped in Margaret’s presence, trying to reduce the extraordinary difference between their heights. He said, “He wants desperately to become a citizen, and so he thinks like one.”

“Well, my god, we all want to be citizens,” Margaret said. “Who wants to live like this?”

She gestured, meaning the crowded bar, its rockwalls and low ceiling, harsh lights and the stink of spilled beer and too many people in close proximity. Her parents had been citizens, once upon a time. Before their run of bad luck. It was not that she wanted those palmy days back-she could scarcely remember them-but she wanted more than this.

She said, “The citizens sleep between silk sheets and eat real meat and play their stupid games, and we have to do their work on restricted budgets. The reef is the discovery of the century, Arn, but God forbid that the citizens should begin to exert themselves. We do the work, they fuck in rose petals and get the glory.”

Arn laughed at this.

“Well, it’s true!”

“It’s true we have not been as successful as we might like,” Arn said mournfully.

Margaret said reflectively, “Opie’s a bastard, but he’s smart, too. He picked just the right moment to point the finger at me.”

Loss of proxies was soaring exponentially, and the proxy farms of theGanapati were reaching a critical point. Once losses exceeded reproduction, the scale of exploration would have to be drastically curtailed, or the seed stock would have to be pressed into service, a gamble theGanapati could not afford to take.

And then, the day after the disastrous seminar, Margaret was pulled back from her latest survey to account for herself in front of the chairman of theGanapati ’s Star Chamber.

“We are not happy with the progress of your survey, Dr. Wu,” Dzu Sho said. “You promise much, but deliver little.”

Margaret shot a glance at Opie Kindred, and he smiled at her. He was immaculately dressed in gold-trimmed white tunic and white leggings. His scalp was oiled and his manicured fingernails were painted with something that split light into rainbows. Margaret, fresh from the tank, wore loose, grubby work grays. There was sticky electrolyte paste on her arms and legs and shaven scalp, the reek of sour sweat under her breasts and in her armpits.

She contained her anger and said, “I have submitted daily reports on the problems we encountered.

Progress is slow but sure. I have just established a relay point a full kilometer below the previous datum point.”

Dzu Sho waved this away. He lounged in a blue gel chair, quite naked, as smoothly fat as a seal. He had a round, hairless head and pinched features, like a thumb print on an egg. The habitat’s lawyer sat behind him, a young woman neat and anonymous in a gray tunic suit. Margaret, Opie Kindred and Arn Nivedta sat on low stools, supplicants to Dzu Sho’s authority. Behind them, half a dozen servants stood at the edge of the grassy space.

This was in an arbor of figs, ivy, bamboo and fast-growing banyan at the edge of Sho’s estate.

Residential parkland curved above, a patchwork of spindly, newly planted woods and meadows and gardens. Flyers were out, triangular rigs in primary colors pirouetting around the weightless axis. Directly above, mammoths the size of large dogs grazed an upside-down emerald green field. The parkland stretched away to the ring lake and its slosh barrier, three kilometers in diameter, and the huge farms that dominated the inner surface of the habitat. Fields of lentils, wheat, cane fruits, tomatoes, rice and exotic vegetables for the tables of the citizens, and fields and fields and fields of sugar cane and oilseed rape for the biochemical industry and the yeast tanks.

Dzu Sho said, “Despite the poor progress of the survey crew, we have what we need, thanks to the work of Dr. Kindred. This is what we will discuss.”

Margaret glanced at Arn, who shrugged. Opie Kindred’s smile deepened. He said, “My crew has established why there is so much diversity here. The vacuum organisms have invented sex.”

“We know they have sex,” Arn said. “How else could they evolve?”

His own crew had shown that the vacuum organisms could exchange genetic material through pili, microscopic hollow tubes grown between cells or hyphal strands. It was analogous to the way in which genes for antibiotic resistance spread through populations of terrestrial bacteria.

“I do not mean genetic exchange, but genetic recombination,” Opie Kindred said. “I will explain.”

The glade filled with flat plates of color as the geneticist conjured charts and diagrams and pictures from his slate. Despite her anger, Margaret quickly immersed herself in the flows of data, racing ahead of Opie Kindred’s clipped explanations.

It was not normal sexual reproduction. There was no differentiation into male or female, or even into complementary mating strains. Instead, it was mediated by a species that aggressively colonized the thalli of others. Margaret had already seen it many times, but until now she had thought that it was merely a parasite. Instead, as Opie Kindred put it, it was more like a vampire.

A shuffle of pictures, movies patched from hundreds of hours of material collected by roving proxies.

Here was a colony of the black crustose species found all through the explored regions of the Rift. Time speeded up. The crustose colony elongated its ragged perimeter in pulsing spurts. As it grew, it exfoliated microscopic particles. Margaret’s viewpoint spiraled into a close-up of one of the exfoliations, a few cells wrapped in nutrient storing strands.

Millions of these little packages floated through the vacuum. If one landed on a host thallus, it injected its genetic payload into the host cells. The view dropped inside one such cell. A complex of carbohydrate and protein strands webbed the interior like intricately packed spiderwebs. Part of the striated cell wall drew apart and a packet of DNA coated in hydrated globulins and enzymes burst inward. The packet contained the genomes of both the parasite and its previous victim. It latched onto protein strands and crept along on ratchetting microtubule claws until it fused with the cell’s own circlet of DNA.

The parasite possessed an enzyme that snipped strands of genetic material at random lengths. These recombined, forming chimeric cells that contained genetic information from both sets of victims, with the predator species’ genome embedded among the native genes like an interpenetrating text.

The process repeated itself in flurries of coiling and uncoiling DNA strands as the chimeric cells replicated. It was a crude, random process. Most contained incomplete or noncomplementary copies of the genomes and were unable to function, or contained so many copies than transcription was halting and imperfect. But a few out of every thousand were viable, and a small percentage of those were more vigorous than either of their parents. They grew from a few cells to a patch, and finally overgrew the parental matrix in which they were embedded. There were pictures that showed every stage of this transformation in a laboratory experiment.

“This is why I have not shared the information until now,” Opie Kindred said, as the pictures faded around him. “I had to ensure by experimental testing that my theory was correct. Because the procedure is so inefficient we had to screen thousands of chimeras until we obtained a strain that overgrew its parent.”

“A very odd and extreme form of reproduction,” Arn said. “The parent dies so that the child might live.”

Opie Kindred smiled. “It is more interesting than you might suppose.”

The next sequence showed the same colony, now clearly infected by the parasitic species-leprous blackspots mottled its pinkish surface. Again time speeded up. The spots grew larger, merged, shed a cloud of exfoliations.

“Once the chimera overgrows its parent,” Opie Kindred said, “the genes of the parasite, which have been reproduced in every cell of the thallus, are activated. The host cells are transformed. It is rather like an RNA virus, except that the virus does not merely subvert the protein and RNA making machinery of its host cell. It takes over the cell itself. Now the cycle is completed, and the parasite sheds exfoliations that will in turn infect new hosts.

“Here is the motor of evolution. In some of the infected hosts, the parasitic genome is prevented from expression, and the host becomes resistant to infection. It is a variation of the Red Queen’s race. There is an evolutionary pressure upon the parasite to evolve new infective forms, and then for the hosts to resist them, and so on. Meanwhile, the host species benefit from new genetic combinations that by selection incrementally improve growth. The process is random but continuous, and takes place on a vast scale. I estimate that millions of recombinant cells are produced each hour, although perhaps only one in ten million are viable, and of those only one in a million are significantly more efficient at growth than their parents. But this is more than sufficient to explain the diversity we have mapped in the reef.”

Arn said, “How long have you known this, Opie?”

“I communicated my findings to the Star Chamber just this morning,” Opie Kindred said. “The work has been very difficult. My crew has to work under very tight restraints, using Class Four containment techniques, as with the old immuno deficiency plagues.”

“Yah, of course,” Arn said. “We don’t know how the exfoliations might contaminate the ship.”

“Exactly,” Opie Kindred said. “That is why the reef is dangerous.”

Margaret bridled at this. She said sharply, “Have you tested how long the exfoliations survive?”

“There is a large amount of data about bacterial spore survival. Many survive thousands of years in vacuum close to absolute zero. It hardly seems necessary-”

“You didn’t bother,” Margaret said. “My God, you want to destroy the reef and you have noevidence.

You didn’tthink.”

It was the worst of insults in the scientific community. Opie Kindred colored, but before he could reply Dzu Sho held up a hand, and his employees obediently fell silent.

“The Star Chamber has voted,” Dzu Sho said. “It is clear that we have all we need. The reef is dangerous, and must be destroyed. Dr. Kindred has suggested a course of action that seems appropriate. We will poison the sulfur-oxidizing cycle and kill the reef.”

“But we don’t know-”

“We haven’t found-”

Margaret and Arn had spoken at once. Both fell silent when Dzu Sho held up a hand again. He said, “We have isolated commercially useful strains. Obviously, we can’t use the organisms we have isolated because they contain the parasite within every cell. But we can synthesize useful gene sequences and splice them into current commercial strains of vacuum organism to improve quality.”

“I must object,” Margaret said. “This is a unique construct. The chances of it evolving again are minimal.

We must study it further. We might be able to discover a cure for the parasite.”

“It is unlikely,” Opie Kindred said. “There is no way to eliminate the parasite from the host cells by gene therapy because they are hidden within the host chromosome, shuffled in a different pattern in every cell of the trillions of cells that make up the reef. However, it is quite easy to produce a poison that will shut down the sulfur-oxidizing metabolism common to the different kinds of reef organism.”

“Production has been authorized,” Sho said. “It will take, what did you tell me, Dr. Kindred?”

“We require a large quantity, given the large biomass of the reef. Ten days at least. No more than fifteen.”

“We have not studied it properly,” Arn said. “So we cannot yet say what and what is not possible.”

Margaret agreed, but before she could add her objection, her earpiece trilled, and Srin Kerenyi’s voice said apologetically, “Trouble, boss. You better come at once.”

The survey suite was in chaos, and there was worse chaos in the Rift. Margaret had to switch proxies three times before she found one she could operate. All around her, proxies were fluttering and jinking, as if caught in strong currents instead of floating in vacuum in virtual free fall.

This was at the four-thousand-meter level, where the nitrogen ice walls of the Rift were sparsely patched with yellow and pink marblings that followed veins of sulfur and organic contaminants. The taste of the vacuum smog here was strong, like burnt rubber coating Margaret’s lips and tongue.

As she looked around, a proxy jetted toward her. It overshot and rebounded from a gable of frozen nitrogen, its nozzle jinking back and forth as it tried to stabilize its position.

“Fuck,” its operator, Kim Nieye, said in Margaret’s ear. “Sorry, boss. I’ve been through five of these, and now I’m losing this one.”

On the other side of the cleft, a hundred meters away, two specks tumbled end for end, descending at a fair clip toward the depths. Margaret’s vision color-reversed, went black, came back to normal. She said, “How many?”

“Just about all of them. We’re using proxies that were up in the tablelands, but as soon as we bring them down they start going screwy too.”

“Herd some up and get them to the sample pickup point. We’ll need to do dissections.”

“No problem, boss. Are you okay?”

Margaret’s proxy had suddenly upended. She couldn’t get its trim back. “I don’t think so,” she said, and then the proxy’s nozzle flared and with a pulse of gas the proxy shot away into the depths.

It was a wild ride. The proxy expelled all its gas reserves, accelerating as straight as an arrow. Coralline formations blurred past, and then long stretches of sulfur-eating pavement. The proxy caromed off the narrowing walls and began to tumble madly.

Margaret had no control. She was a helpless but exhilarated passenger. She passed the place where she had set the relay and continued to fall. The link started to breakup. She lost all sense of proprioception, although given the tumbling fall of the proxy that was a blessing. Then the microwave radar started to go, with swathes of raster washing across the false color view. Somehow the proxy managed to stabilize itself, so it was falling headfirst toward the unknown regions at the bottom of the Rift. Margaret glimpsed structures swelling from the walls. And then everything went away and she was back, sweating and nauseous in the couch.

It was bad. More than ninety-five percent of the proxies had been lost. Most, like Margaret’s had been lost in the depths. A few, badly damaged by collision, had been stranded among the reef colonies, but proxies sent to retrieve them went out of control too. It was clear that some kind of infective process had affected them. Margaret had several dead proxies collected by a maintenance robot and ordered that the survivors should be regrouped and kept above the deep part of the Rift where the vacuum organisms proliferated. And then she went to her suite in the undercroft and waited for the Star Chamber to call her before them.

The Star Chamber took away Margaret’s contract, citing failure to perform and possible sedition (that remarkin the seminar had been recorded). She was moved from her suite to a utility room in the lower level of the undercroft and put to workin the farms.

She thought of her parents.

She had been here before.

She thought of the reef.

She couldn’t let it go.

She would save it if she could.

Srin Kerenyi kept her up to date. The survey crew and its proxies were restricted to the upper level of the reef. Manned teams under Opie Kindred’s control were exploring the depths-hewas trusted where Margaret was not-but if they discovered anything it wasn’t communicated to the other science crews.

Margaret was working in the melon fields when Arn Nivedta found her. The plants sprawled from hydroponic tubes laid across gravel beds, beneath blazing lamps hung in the axis of the farmlands. It was very hot, and there was a stink of dilute sewage. Little yellow ants swarmed everywhere. Margaret had tucked the ends of her pants into the rolled tops of her shoesocks, and wore a green eyeshade. She was using a fine paintbrush to transfer pollen to the stigma of the melon flowers.

Arn came bouncing along between the long rows of plants like a pale scarecrow intent on escape. He wore only tight blackshorts and a web belt hung with pens, little silvery tools and a notepad.

He said, “They must hate you, putting you in a shithole like this.”

“I have to work, Arn. Work or starve. I don’t mind it. I grew up working the fields.”

Not strictly true: her parents had been ecosystem designers. But it was how it had ended.

Arn said cheerfully, “I’m here to rescue you. I can prove it wasn’t your fault.”

Margaret straightened, one hand on the small of her back where a permanent ache had lodged itself. She said, “Of course it wasn’t my fault. Are you all right?”

Arn had started to hop about, brushing at one bare long-toed foot and then the other. The ants had found him. His toes curled like fingers. The big toes were opposed. Monkey feet.

“Ants are having something of a population explosion,” she said. “We’re in the stage between introduction and stabilization here. The cycles will smooth out as the ecosystem matures.”

Arn brushed at his legs again. His prehensile big toe flicked an ant from the sole of his foot. “They want to incorporate me into the cycle, I think.”

“We’re all in the cycle, Arn. The plants grow in sewage; we eat the plants.” Margaret saw her supervisor coming toward them through the next field. She said, “We can’t talk here. Meet me in my room after work.”

Margaret’s new room was barely big enough for a hammock, a locker, and a tiny shower with a toilet pedestal. Its rockwalls were unevenly coated with dull green fiber spray. There was a constant noise of pedestrians beyond the oval hatch; the air conditioning allowed in a smell of frying oil and ketones despite the filter trap Margaret had set up. She had stuckan aerial photograph of New York, where she had been born, above the head stay of her hammock, and dozens of glossy printouts of the reef scaled the walls. Apart from the pictures, a few clothes in the closet and the spider plant under the purple grolite, the room was quite anonymous.

She had spent most of her life in rooms like this. She could pack in five minutes, ready to move onto the next job.

“This place is probably bugged,” Arn said. He sat with his back to the door, sipping schnapps from a silvery flask and looking at the overlapping panoramas of the reef.

Margaret sat on the edge of her hammock. She was nervous and excited. She said, “Everywhere is bugged. I want them to hear that I’m not guilty. Tell me what you know.”

Arn looked at her. “I examined the proxies you sent back. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for, but it was surprisingly easy to spot.”

“An infection,” Margaret said.

“Yah, a very specific infection. We concentrated on the nervous system, given the etiology. In the brain we found lesions, always in the same area.”

Margaret examined the three-dimensional color-enhanced tomographic scan Arn had brought. The lesions were little blackbubbles in the underside of the unfolded cerebellum, just in front of the optic node.

“The same in all of them,” Arn said. “We took samples, extracted DNA, and sequenced it.” A grid of thousands of colored dots, then another superimposed over it. All the dots lined up.

“A match to Opie’s parasite,” Margaret guessed.

Arn grinned. He had a nice smile. It made him look like an enthusiastic boy. “We tried that first of course.

Got a match, then went through the library of reef organisms, and got partial matches. Opie’s parasite has its fingerprints in the DNA of everything in the reef, but this-” he jabbed a long finger through the projection-“is the pure quill. Just an unlucky accident that it lodges in the brain at this particular place and produces the behavior you saw.”

“Perhaps it isn’t a random change,” Margaret said. “Perhaps the reef has a use for the proxies.”

“Teleology,” Arn said. “Don’t let Opie hear that thought. He’d use it against you. This is evolution. It isn’t directed by anything other than natural selection. There is no designer, no watchmaker. Not after the AI crashed, anyway, and it only pushed the ecosystem toward more efficient sulfur oxidation. There’s more, Margaret. I’ve been doing some experiments on the side. Exposing aluminum foil sheets in orbit around Enki. There are exfoliations everywhere.”

“Then Opie is right.”

“No, no. All the exfoliations I found were nonviable. I did more experiments. The exfoliations are metabolically active when released, unlike bacterial spores. And they have no protective wall. No reason for them to have one, yah? They live only for a few minutes. Either they land on a new host or they don’t.

Solar radiation easily tears them apart. You can kill them with a picowatt ultraviolet laser. Contamination isn’t a problem.”

“And it can’t infect us,” Margaret said. “Vacuum organisms and proxies have the same DNA code as us, the same as everything from Earth, for that matter, but it’s written in artificial nucleotide bases. The reef isn’t dangerous at all, Arn.”

“Yah, but in theory it could infect every vacuum organism ever designed. The only way around it would be to change the base structure of vacuum organism DNA-how much would that cost?”

“I know about contamination, Arn. The mold that wrecked the biome designed by my parents came in with someone or something. Maybe on clothing, or skin, or in the gut, or in some trade goods. It grew on anything with a cellulose cell wall. Every plant was infected. The fields were covered by huge sheets of gray mold; the air was full of spores. It didn’t infect people, but more than a hundred died from massive allergic reactions and respiratory failure. They had to vent the atmosphere in the end. And my parents couldn’t find work after that.”

Arn said gently, “That is the way. We live by our reputations. It’s hard when something goes wrong.”

Margaret ignored this. She said, “The reef is a resource, not a danger. You’re looking at it the wrong way, like Opie Kindred. We need diversity. Our biospheres have to be complicated because simple systems are prone to invasion and disruption, but they aren’t one hundredth as complicated as those on Earth. If my parents’ biome had been more diverse, the mold couldn’t have found a foothold.”

“There are some things I could do without.” Arn scratched his left ankle with the toes of his right foot.

“Like those ants.”

“Well, we don’t know if we need the ants specifically, but we need variety, and they contribute to it.

They help aerate the soil, to begin with, which encourages stratification and diversity of soil organisms.

There are a million different kinds of microbe in a gram of soil from a forest on Earth; we have to make do with less than a thousand. We don’t have one tenth that number of useful vacuum organisms and most are grown in monoculture, which is the most vulnerable ecosystem of all. That was the cause of the crash of the green revolution on Earth in the twenty-first century. But there are hundreds of different species in the reef. Wild species, Arn. You could seed a planetoid with them and go harvest it a year later. The citizens don’t go outside because they have their parklands, their palaces, their virtualities. They’ve forgotten that the outer system isn’t just the habitats. There are millions of small planetoids in the Kuiper Belt. Anyone with a dome and the reef vacuum organisms could homestead one.”

She had been thinking about this while working out in the fields. The Star Chamber had given her plenty of time to think.

Arn shook his head. “They all have the parasite lurking in them. Any species from the reef can turn into it.

Perhaps even the proxies.”

“We don’t know enough,” Margaret said. “I saw things in the bottom of the Rift, before I lost contact with the proxy. Big structures. And there’s the anomalous temperature gradients, too. The seat of change must be down there, Arn. The parasite could be useful, if we can master it. The viruses that caused the immuno deficiency plagues are used for gene therapy now. Opie Kindred has been down there. He’s suppressing what he has found.”

“Yah, well, it does not much matter. They have completed synthesis of the metabolic inhibitor. I’m friendly with the organics chief. They diverted most of the refinery to it.” Arn took out his slate. “He showed me how they have set it up. That is what they have been doing down in the Rift. Not exploring.”

“Then we have to do something now.”

“It is too late, Margaret.”

“I want to call a meeting, Arn. I have a proposal.”

Most of the science crews came. Opie Kindred’s crew was a notable exception; Arn said that it gave him a bad feeling.

“They could be setting us up,” he told Margaret.

“I know they’re listening. That’s good. I want it in the open. If you’re worried about getting hurt you can always leave.”

“I came because I wanted to. Like everyone else here. We’re all scientists. We all want the truth known.” Arn looked at her. He smiled. “You want more than that, I think.”

“I fight my own fights.” All around people were watching. Margaret added, “Let’s get this thing started.”

Arn called the meeting to order and gave a brief presentation about his research into survival of the exfoliations before throwing the matter open to the meeting. Nearly everyone had an opinion.

Microphones hovered in the room, and at times three or four people were shouting at each other.

Margaret let them work off their frustration. Some simply wanted to register a protest; a small but significant minority were worried about losing their bonuses or even all of their pay.

“Better that than our credibility,” one of Orly Higgins’s techs said. “That’s what we live by. None of us will work again if we allow theGanapati to become a plague ship.”

Yells of approval, whistles.

Margaret waited until the noise had died down, then got to her feet. She was in the center of the horseshoe of seats, and everyone turned to watch, more than a hundred people. Their gaze fell upon her like sunlight; it strengthened her. A microphone floated down in front of her face.

“Arn has shown that contamination isn’t an issue,” Margaret said. “The issue is that the Star Chamber wants to destroy the reef because they want to exploit what they’ve found and stop anyone else using it.

I’m against that, all the way. I’m not gengeneered. Micro-gravity is not my natural habitat. I have to take a dozen different drugs to prevent reabsorption of calcium from my bone, collapse of my circulatory system, fluid retention, all the bad stuff micro-gravity does to unedited Earth stock. I’m not allowed to have children here, because they would be as crippled as me. Despite that, my home is here. Like all of you, I would like to have the benefits of being a citizen, to live in the parklands and eat real food. But there aren’t enough parklands for everyone because the citizens who own the habitats control production of fixed carbon. The vacuum organisms we have found could change that. The reef may be a source of plague, or it may be a source of unlimited organics. We don’t know. What we do know is that the reef is unique and we haven’t finished exploring it. If the Star Chamber destroys it, we may never know what’s out there.”

Cheers at this. Several people rose to make points, but Margaret wouldn’t give way. She wanted to finish.

“Opie Kindred has been running missions to the bottom of the Rift, but he hasn’t been sharing what he’s found there. Perhaps he no longer thinks that he’s one of us. He’ll trade his scientific reputation for citizenship,” Margaret said, “but that isn’t our way, is it?”

“NO!”the crowd roared.

And the White Mice invaded the room.

Sharp cracks, white smoke, screams. The White Mice had long flexible sticks weighted at one end. They went at the crowd like farmers threshing corn. Margaret was separated from Arn by a wedge of panicking people. Two techs got hold of her and steered her out of the room, down a corridor filling with smoke. Arn loomed out of it, clutching his slate to his chest.

“They’re getting ready to set off the poison,” he said as they ran in long loping strides.

“Then I’m going now,” Margaret said.

Down a drop pole onto a corridor lined with shops. People were smashing windows. No one looked at them as they ran through the riot. They turned a corner, the sounds of shouts and breaking glass fading.

Margaret was breathing hard. Her eyes were smarting, her nose running.

“They might kill you,” Arn said. He grasped her arm. “I can’t let you go, Margaret.”

She shook herself free. Arn tried to grab her again. He was taller, but she was stronger. She stepped inside his reach and jumped up and popped him on the nose with the flat of her hand.

He sat down, blowing bubbles of blood from his nostrils, blinking up at her with surprised, tear-filled eyes.

She snatched up his slate. “I’m sorry, Arn,” she said. “This is my only chance. I might not find anything, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try.”

Margaret was five hundred kilometers out from the habitat when the radio beeped. “Ignore it,” she told her pressure suit. She was sure that she knew who was trying to contact her, and she had nothing to say to him.

This far out, the Sun was merely the brightest star in the sky. Behind and above Margaret, the dim elongated crescent of theGanapati hung before the sweep of the Milky Way. Ahead, below the little transit platform’s motor, Enki was growing against a glittering starscape, a lumpy potato with a big notch at its widest point.

The little moonlet was rising over the notch, a swiftly moving fleck of light. For a moment, Margaret had the irrational fear that she would collide with it, but the transit platform’s navigational display showed her that she would fall above and behind it. Falling past a moon! She couldn’t help smiling at the thought.

“Priority override,” her pressure suit said. Its voice was a reassuring contralto Margaret knew as well as her mother’s.

“Ignore it,” Margaret said again.

“Sorry, Maggie. You know I can’t do that.”

“Quite correct,” another voice said.

Margaret identified him a moment before the suit helpfully printed his name across the helmet’s visor. Dzu Sho.

“Turn backright now,” Sho said. “We can take you out with the spectrographic laser if we have to.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” she said.

“I do not believe anyone would mourn you,” Sho said unctuously. “Leaving theGanapati was an act of sedition, and we’re entitled to defend ourselves.”

Margaret laughed. It was just the kind of silly, sententious, self-important nonsense that Sho was fond of spouting.

“I am entirely serious,” Sho said.

Enki had rotated to show that the notch was the beginning of a groove. The groove elongated as the worldlet rotated further. Tigris Rift. Its edges ramified in complex fractal branchings.

“I’m going where the proxies fell,” Margaret said. “I’m still working for you.”

“You sabotaged the proxies. That’s why they couldn’t fully penetrate the Rift.”

“That’s why I’m going-”

“Excuse me,” the suit said, “but I register a small energy flux.”

“Just a tickle from the ranging sight,” Sho said. “Turn back now, Dr. Wu.”

“I intend to come back.”

It was a struggle to stay calm. Margaret thought that Sho’s threat was no more than empty air. The laser’s AI would not allow it to be used against human targets, and she was certain that Sho couldn’t override it. And even if he could, he wouldn’t dare kill her in full view of the science crews. Sho was bluffing. He had to be.

The radio silence stretched. Then Sho said, “You’re planning to commit a final act of sabotage. Don’t think you can get away with it. I’m sending someone after you.”

Margaret was dizzy with relief. Anyone chasing her would be using the same kind of transit platform. She had at least thirty minutes head start.

Another voice said, “Don’t think this will make you a hero.”

Opie Kindred. Of course. The man never could delegate. He was on the same trajectory, several hundred kilometers behind but gaining slowly.

“Tell me what you found,” she said. “Then we can finish this race before it begins.”

Opie Kindred switched off his radio.

“If you had not brought along all this gear,” her suit grumbled, “we could outdistance him.”

“I think we’ll need it soon. We’ll just have to be smarter than him.”

Margaret studied the schematics of the poison spraying mechanism-it was beautifully simple, but vulnerable-while Tigris Rift swelled beneath her, a jumble of knife-edge chevron ridges. Enki was so small and the Rift so wide that the walls had fallen beneath the horizon. She was steering toward the Rift’s center when the suit apologized and said that there was another priority override.

It was theGanapati ’s lawyer. She warned Margaret that this was being entered into sealed court records, and then formally revoked her contract and read a complaint about her seditious conduct.

“You’re a contracted worker just like me,” Margaret said. “We take orders, but we both have codes of professional ethics, too. For the record, that’s why I’m here. The reef is a unique organism. I cannot allow it to be destroyed.”

Dzu Sho came onto the channel and said, “Off the record, don’t think about being picked up.”

The lawyer switched channels. “He does not mean it,” she said. “He would be in violation of the distress statutes.” Pause. “Good luck, Dr. Wu.”

Then there was only the carrier wave.

Margaret wished that this made her feel better. Plenty of contract workers who went against the direct orders of their employers had disappeared, or been killed in industrial accidents. The fire of the mass meeting had evaporated long before the suit had assembled itself around her, and now she felt colder and lonelier than ever.

She fell, the platform shuddering now and then as it adjusted its trim. Opie Kindred’s platform was a bright spark moving sideways across the drifts of stars above. Directly below was a vast flow of nitrogen ice with a blackriver winding through it. The center of the Rift, a cleft two kilometers long and fifty kilometers deep. The reef.

She fell toward it.

She had left the radio channel open. Suddenly, Opie Kindred said, “Stop now and it will be over.”

“Tell me what you know.”

No answer.

She said, “You don’t have to follow me, Opie. This is my risk. I don’t ask you to share it.”

“You won’t take this away from me.”

“Is citizenship really worth this, Opie?”

No reply.

The suit’s proximity alarms began to ping and beep. She turned them off one by one, and told the suit to be quiet when it complained.

“I am only trying to help,” it said. “You should reduce your velocity. The target is very narrow.”

“I’ve been here before,” Margaret said.

But only by proxy. The icefield rushed up at her. Its smooth flows humped over one another, pitted everywhere with tiny craters. She glimpsed blacksplashes where vacuum organisms had colonized a stress ridge. Then an edge flashed past; walls unraveled on either side.

She was in the reef.

The vacuum organisms were everywhere: flat plates jutting from the walls; vases and delicate fans and fretworks; huge blotches smooth as ice or dissected by cracks. In the light cast by the platform’s lamps, they did not possess the vibrant primary colors of the proxy link, but were every shade of gray and black, streaked here and there with muddy reds. Complex fans ramified far back inside the milky nitrogen ice, following veins of carbonaceous compounds.

Far above, stars were framed by the edges of the cleft. One star was falling toward her: Opie Kindred.

Margaret switched on the suit’s radar, and immediately it began to ping. The suit shouted a warning, but before Margaret could look around the pings dopplered together.

Proxies.

They shot up toward her, tentacles writhing from the black, streamlined helmets of their mantles. Most of them missed, jagging erratically as they squirted bursts of hydrogen to kill their velocity. Two collided in a slow flurry of tentacles.

Margaret laughed. None of her crew would fight against her, and Sho was relying upon inexperienced operators.

The biggest proxy, three meters long, swooped past. The crystalline gleam of its sensor array reflected the lights of the platform. It decelerated, spun on its axis, and dove back toward her.

Margaret barely had time to pull out the weapon she had brought with her. It was a welding pistol, rigged on a long rod with a yoked wire around the trigger. She thrust it up like the torch of the Statue of Liberty just before the proxy struck her.

The suit’s gauntlet, elbow joint and shoulder piece stiffened under the heavy impact, saving Margaret from broken bones, but the collision knocked the transit platform sideways. It plunged through reef growths. Like glass, they had tremendous rigidity but very little lateral strength. Fans and lattices broke away, peppering Margaret and the proxy with shards. It was like falling through a series of chandeliers.

Margaret couldn’t close her fingers in the stiffened gauntlet. She stood tethered to the platform with her arm and the rod raised straight up and the black proxy wrapped around them. The proxy’s tentacles lashed her visor with slow, purposeful slaps.

Margaret knew that it would take only a few moments before the tentacles’ carbon-fiber proteins could unlink; then it would be able to reach the life support pack on her back.

She shouted at the suit, ordering it to relax the gauntlet’s fingers. The proxy was contracting around her rigid arm as it stretched toward the life support pack. When the gauntlet went limp, pressure snapped her fingers closed. Her forefinger popped free of the knuckle. She yelled with pain. And the wire rigged to the welding pistol’s trigger pulled taut.

Inside the proxy’s mantle, a focused beam of electrons boiled off the pistol’s filament. The pistol, designed to work only in high vacuum, began to arc almost immediately, but the electron beam had already heated the integument and muscle of the proxy to more than 400°C. Vapor expanded explosively. The proxy shot away, propelled by the gases of its own dissolution.

Opie was still gaining on Margaret. Gritting her teeth against the pain of her dislocated finger, she dumped the broken welding gear. It only slowly floated away above her, for it still had the same velocity as she did.

A proxy swirled in beside her with shocking suddenness. For a moment, she gazed into its faceted sensor array, and then dots of luminescence skittered across its smooth blackmantle, forming letters.

Much luck, boss. SK.

Srin Kerenyi. Margaret waved with her good hand. The proxy scooted away, rising at a shallow angle toward Opie’s descending star.

A few seconds later the cleft filled with the unmistakable flash of laser light.

The radar trace of Srin’s proxy disappeared.

Shit. Opie Kindred was armed. If he got close enough he could kill her.

Margaret risked a quick burn of the transit platform’s motor to increase her rate of fall. It roared at her back for twenty seconds; when it cut out her pressure suit warned her that she had insufficient fuel for full deceleration.

“I know what I’m doing,” Margaret told it.

The complex forms of the reef dwindled past. Then there were only huge patches of black staining the nitrogen ice walls. Margaret passed her previous record depth, and still she fell. It was like free fall; the negligible gravity of Enki did not cause any appreciable acceleration.

Opie Kindred gained on her by increments.

In vacuum, the lights of the transit platform threw abrupt pools of light onto the endlessly unraveling walls.

Slowly, the pools of light elongated into glowing tunnels filled with sparkling motes. The exfoliations and gases and organic molecules were growing denser. And, impossibly, the temperature wasrising, one degree with every five hundred meters. Far below, between the narrowing perspective of the walls, structures were beginning to resolve from the blackness.

The suit reminded her that she should begin the platform’s deceleration burn. Margaret checked Opie’s velocity and said she would wait.

“I have no desire to end as a crumpled tube filled with strawberry jam,” the suit said. It projected a countdown on her visor and refused to switch it off.

Margaret kept one eye on Opie’s velocity, the other on the blur of reducing numbers. The numbers passed zero. The suit screamed obscenities in her ears, but she waited a beat more before firing the platform’s motor.

The platform slammed into her boots. Sharp pain in her ankles and knees. The suit stiffened as the harness dug into her shoulders and waist.

Opie Kindred’s platform flashed past. He had waited until after she had decelerated before making his move. Margaret slapped the release buckle of the platform’s harness and fired the piton gun into the nitrogen ice wall. It was enough to slow her so that she could catch hold of a crevice and swing up into it.

Her dislocated finger hurt like hell.

The temperature was a stifling eighty-seven degrees above absolute zero. The atmospheric pressure was just registering-a mix of hydrogen and carbon mon-oxide and hydrogen sulphide. Barely enough in the whole of the bottom of the cleft to pack into a small box at the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level, but the rate of production must be tremendous to compensate for loss into the colder vacuum above.

Margaret leaned out of the crevice. Below, it widened into a chimney between humped pressure flows of nitrogen ice sloping down to the floor of the cleft. The slopes and the floor were packed with a wild proliferation of growths. Not only the familiar vases and sheets and laces, but great branching structures like crystal trees, lumpy plates raised on stout stalks, tangles of black wire hundreds of meters across, clusters of frothy globes, and much more.

There was no sign of Opie Kindred, but tethered above the growths were the balloons of his spraying mechanism. Each was a dozen meters across, crinkled, flaccid. They were fifty degrees hotter than their surroundings, would have to grow hotter still before the metabolic inhibitor was completely volatilized inside them. When that happened, small explosive devices would puncture them, and the metabolic inhibitor would be sucked into the vacuum of the cleft like smoke up a chimney.

Margaret consulted the schematics and started to climb down the crevice, light as a dream, steering herself with the fingers of her left hand. The switching relays that controlled the balloons’ heaters were manually controlled because of telemetry interference from the reef’s vacuum smog and the broadband electromagnetic resonance. The crash shelter where they were located was about two kilometers away, a slab of orange foamed plastic in the center of a desolation of abandoned equipment and broken and half-melted vacuum organism colonies.

The crevice widened. Margaret landed between drifts of what looked like giant soap bubbles that grew at its bottom.

And Opie Kindred’s platform rose up between two of the half-inflated balloons.

Margaret dropped onto her belly behind a line of bubbles that grew along a smooth ridge of ice. She opened a radio channel. It was filled with a wash of static and a wailing modulation, but through the noise she heard Opie’s voice faintly calling her name.

He was a hundred meters away and more or less at her level, turning in a slow circle. He couldn’t locate her amidst the radio noise and the ambient temperature was higher than the skin of her pressure suit, so she had no infrared image.

She began to crawl along the smooth ridge. The walls of the bubbles were whitely opaque, but she should see shapes curled within them. Like embryos inside eggs.

“Everything is ready, Margaret,” Opie Kindred’s voice said in her helmet. “I’m going to find you, and then I’m going to sterilize this place. There are things here you know nothing about. Horribly dangerous things. Who are you working for? Tell me that and I’ll let you live.”

A thread of red light waved out from the platform and a chunk of nitrogen ice cracked off explosively.

Margaret felt it through the tips of her gloves.

“I can cut my way through to you,” Opie Kindred said, “wherever you are hiding.”

Margaret watched the platform slowly revolve. Tried to guess if she could reach the shelter while he was looking the other way. All she had to do was bound down the ridge and cross a kilometer of bare, crinkled nitrogen ice without being fried by Opie’s laser. Still crouching, she lifted onto the tips of her fingers and toes, like a sprinter on the block. He was turning, turning. She took three deep breaths to clear her head-and something crashed into the ice cliff high above! It spun out in a spray of shards, hit the slope below and spun through toppling clusters of tall black chimneys. For a moment, Margaret was paralyzed with astonishment. Then she remembered the welding gear. It had finally caught up with her.

Opie Kindred’s platform slewed around and a red thread waved across the face of the cliff. A slab of ice thundered outward. Margaret bounded away, taking giant leaps and trying to look behind her at the same time.

The slab spun on its axis, shedding huge shards, and smashed into the cluster of the bubbles where she had been crouching just moments before. The ice shook like a living thing under her feet and threw her head over heels.

She stopped herself by firing the piton gun into the ground. She was on her back, looking up at the top of the ridge, where bubbles vented a dense mix of gas and oily organics before bursting in an irregular cannonade. Hundreds of slim black shapes shot away. Some smashed into the walls of the cleft and stuck there, but many more vanished into its maw.

A chain reaction had started. Bubbles were bursting open up and down the length of the cleft.

A cluster popped under Opie Kindred’s platform and he vanished in a roil of vapor. The crevice shook.

Nitrogen ice boiled into a dense fog. A wind got up for a few minutes. Margaret clung to the piton until it was over.

Opie Kindred had drifted down less than a hundred meters away. The thing which had smashed the visor of his helmet was still lodged there. It was slim and black, with a hard, shiny exoskeleton. The broken bodies of others settled among smashed vacuum organism colonies, glistening like beetles in the light of Margaret’s suit. They were like tiny, tentacle-less proxies, their swollen mantles cased in something like keratin. Some had split open, revealing ridged reaction chambers and complex matrices of blackheads.

“Gametes,” Margaret said, seized by a sudden wild intuition. “Little rocketships full of DNA.”

The suit asked if she was all right.

She giggled. “The parasite turns everything into its own self. Even proxies!”

“I believe that I have located Dr. Kindred’s platform,” the suit said. “I suggest that you refrain from vigorous exercise, Maggie. Your oxygen supply is limited. What are you doing?”

She was heading toward the crash shelter. “I’m going to switch off the balloon heaters. They won’t be needed.”

After she shut down the heaters, Margaret lashed one of the dead creatures to the transit platform. She shot up between the walls of the cleft, and at last rose into the range of the relay transmitters. Her radio came alive, a dozen channels blinking for attention. Arn was on one, and she told him what had happened.

“Sho wanted to light out of here,” Arn said, “but stronger heads prevailed. Come home, Margaret.”

“Did you see them? Did you, Arn?”

“Some hit theGanapati.” He laughed. “Even the Star Chamber can’t deny what happened.”

Margaret rose up above the ice fields and continued to rise until the curve of the worldlet’s horizon became visible, and then the walls of Tigris Rift. TheGanapati was a faint star bracketed between them.

She called up deep radar, and saw, beyond theGanapati ’s strong signal, thousands of faint traces falling away into deep space.

A random scatter of genetic packages. How many would survive to strike new worldlets and give rise to new reefs?

Enough, she thought. The reef evolved in saltatory jumps. She had just witnessed its next revolution.

Given time, it would fill the Kuiper Belt.

Going After Bobo - Susan Palwick


Not nearly as prolific as she should be, Susan Palwick’s eloquent work has appeared inAsimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy amp; Science Fiction, Amazing, Sci Fiction, Starlight 1, Not of Women Born, Pulphouse, Xanadu 3, Walls of Fear, The Horns of Elfland, Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears,and other markets. Her acclaimed first novel Flying in Placewas one of the most talked-about books of 1992, and won the Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy Novel, which is presented annually by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. She’s currently at work on her second novel, Shelter.She lives in Reno, Nevada, where she’s an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, teaching writing and literature.
Here she gives us a moving portrait of a young boy growing up fast in a troubled near-future world, one who’s forced to face some choices that are hard to make atanyage…

Iwas the only one home when the GPS satellites finally came back online. It was already dark out by then, and it had been snowing all afternoon. I’d been sitting at the kitchen table with my algebra book, trying to concentrate on quadratic equations, and then the handheld beeped and lit up and the transmitter signal started blipping on the screen, and I looked at it and cursed and ran upstairs to double-check the signal position against my topo map. And then I cursed some more, and started throwing on warm clothing.

I’d spent five days staring at my handheld, praying that the screen would light up again, please, please, so I’d be able to see where Bobo was. The only time he’d even stayed away from home overnight, and it was when the satellites were out. Just my luck.

Or maybe David had planned it that way. Bobo had been missing since Monday, the day the satellites went down, and David had probably opened the door for him when I wasn’t looking, like always, and then given him an extra kick, gloating because he knew I wouldn’t be able to follow Bobo’s signal.

I hadn’t been too worried yet, on Monday. Bobo was gone when I got back from school, but I thought he’d come home for dinner, the way he always did. When he didn’t, I went outside and called him and checked in neighbors’ yards. I started to get scared when I couldn’t find him, but Mom said not to worry, Bobo would come back later, and even if he didn’t, he’d probably be okay even if he stayed out overnight.

But he wasn’t back for breakfast on Tuesday, either, and by that night I was frantic, especially since the satellites were still down and I had no idea where Bobo was and I couldn’t find him in any of the places where he usually hung out. Wednesday and Thursday and Friday were hell. I carried the handheld with me everyplace, waiting for it to light up again, hunched over it every second, even at school, while Johnny Schuster and Leon Flanking carried on in the background the way they always did. “Hey, Mike! Hey Michael-you know what we’re doing after school today? We’re driving down to Carson, Mike. Yeah, we’re going down to Carson City, and you know what we’re going to do down there? We’re going to-”

Usually I was pretty good at just ignoring them. I knew I couldn’t let them get to me, because that was what they wanted. They wanted me to fight them and get in trouble, and I couldn’t do that to Mom, not with so much trouble in the family already. I didn’t want her to know what Johnny and Leon were saying;

I didn’t want her to have to think about Johnny and Leon at all, or why they were picking on me. Our families used to be friends, but that was a long time ago, before my father died and theirs went to jail.

Johnny and Leon think it was all my father’s fault, as if their own dads couldn’t have said no, even if my dad was the one who came up with the idea. So they’re mean to me, because my father isn’t around anymore for them to blame.

It was harder to ignore them the week the satellites were down. Mom’s bosses were checking up on her a lot more, because their handhelds weren’t working either. We got calls at home every night to make sure she was really there, and when she was at work, somebody had to go with her if she even left the building. Just like the old days, before the handhelds. And God only knew what David was up to. I guess he was still going to his warehouse job, driving a fork lift and moving boxes around, because his boss would have called the probation office if he hadn’t shown up. But he wasn’t coming home when he was supposed to, and every time he did come home, he and Mom had screaming fights, even worse than usual.

So I had five days of not knowing where Bobo was, while Johnny and Leon baited me at school and Mom and David yelled at each other at home. And then finally the satellites came back online on Friday.

The GPS people had been talking about how they might have to knock the whole system out of orbit and put up another one-which would have been a mess-but finally some earth side keyboard jockey managed to fix whatever the hackers had done.

Which was great, except that down here in Reno it had been snowing for hours, and according to the GPS, I was going to have to climb 3,200 feet to reach Bobo. Mom came in just as I was stuffing some extra energy bars in my pack. I knew she wouldn’t want me going out, and I wasn’t up to fighting with her about it, so I’d been hoping the snow would delay her for a few hours, maybe even keep her down in Carson overnight. I should have known better. That’s what Mom’s new SUV was for: getting home, even in shitty weather.

She looked tired. She always looks tired after a shift.

“What are you doing?” she said, and looked over my shoulder at the handheld screen, and then at the topo map next to it. “Oh, Jesus, Mike. It’s on top of Peavine!”

I could smell her shampoo. She always smells like shampoo after a shift. I didn’t want to think about what she smells like before she showers to come home.

“He’son top of Peavine,” I said. “Bobo’s on top of Peavine.”

Mom shook her head. “Honey-no. You can’t go up there.”

“Mom, he could behurt! He could have a broken leg or something and not be able to move and just be lying there!” The signal hadn’t moved at all. If it had been lower down the mountain, I would have thought that maybe some family had taken Bobo in, but there still weren’t any houses that high. The top of Peavine was one of the few places the developers hadn’t gotten to yet.

“Sweetheart,” Mom’s voice was very quiet. “Michael, turn around. Come on. Turn around and look at me.”

I didn’t turn around. I stuffed a few more energy bars in my pack, and Mom put her hands on my shoulders and said, “Michael, he’s dead.”

I still kept my back to her. “You don’tknow that!”

“He’s been gone for five days now, and the signal’s on top of Peavine. He has to be dead. A coyote got him and dragged him up there. He’s never gone that high by himself, has he?”

She was right. In the year he’d had the transmitter, Bobo had never gone anywhere much, certainly not anywhere far. He’d liked exploring the neighbors’ yards, and the strips of wild land between the developments, where there were voles and mice. And coyotes.

“So he decided to go exploring,” I said, and zipped my pack shut. “I have to go find out, anyway.”

“Michael, there’s nothing to find out. He’s dead. You know that.”

“I donot know that! I don’t know anything.”Except that David’s a piece of shit. I did turn around, then, because I wanted to see her face when I said, “He hasn’t been home since Monday, Mom, so how do I know what’s happened? I haven’t evenseen him.”

I guess I was up to fighting, after all. It was an awful thing to say, because it would only remind her of what we were all trying to forget, but I was still happy when she looked away from me, sharply, with a hiss of in drawn breath. She didn’t curse me out, though, even though I deserved it. She didn’t even leave the room. Instead she looked back at me, after a minute, and put her hands on my shoulders again. “You can’t go out there. Not in this weather. It wouldn’t even be safe to take the SUV, or I’d drive you-”

“He could be lying hurt in the snow,” I said. “Or holed up somewhere, or-”

“Michael, he’s dead.” I didn’t answer. Mom squeezed my shoulders and said gently, “And even if hewere alive, you couldn’t reach him in time. Not all that way; not in this weather. Not even in the SUV.”

“I just want to know,” I said. I looked right at her when I said it. I wasn’t saying it to be mean, this time.

“I can’t stand not knowing.”

“You do know,” she said. She sounded very sad. “You just won’t let yourself know that you know.”

“Okay,” I told her, my throat tight. “I can’t stand not seeing, then. Is that better?”

She took her hands off my shoulders and sighed. “I’ll call Letty, but it’s not going to do any good. Is your brother home?”

“No,” I said. David should have been home an hour before that. I wondered if he even knew that the satellites were back up.

Mom frowned. “Do you know where he is?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Do you think I care? Call the sheriff’s office, if you want to know where he is.”

Mom gave me one of her patented warning looks. “Michael-”

“He let Bobo out,” I said. “You know he did. He did it on purpose, just like all the other times. Do you think I care where the fuck he is?”

“I’m going to go call Letty,” Mom said.

David hated Bobo the minute we got him. He was my tenth birthday present from Mom and Dad. The four of us went to the pet store to pick him out, but when David saw the kittens, he just wrinkled his nose and backed up a few feet. David was always doing things like that, trying to be cool by pretending he couldn’t stand the rest of us.

David and I used to be friends, when we were younger. We played catch and rode our bikes and dug around in the dirt pretending we were gold miners, and once David even pulled me out of the way of a rattlesnake, because I didn’t recognize the funny noise in the bushes and had gone to see what it was. I was six then, and David was ten. I’ll never forget how pale he was after he yanked me away from the rattling, how scared he looked when he yelled at me never,ever to do that again.

The four-year difference didn’t matter back then, except that it meant David knew a lot more than I did.

But once he got into high school, David didn’t want anything to do with any of us, especially his little brother. And all of a sudden, he didn’t seem so smart to me anymore, even though he thought he was smarter than shit.

I named my new kitten Bobcat, because he had that tawny coat and little tufts on his ears. His name got shortened to Bobo pretty quickly, though, and that’s what we always called him-everybody except David, who called him “Hair ball.” By the time Dad died, Bobo was a really big cat: fifteen pounds, anyway, which was some comfort when David started “accidentally” letting Bobo out of the house. I figured he could hold his own against most other cats, maybe even against owls. I tried not to think about cars and coyotes, and people with guns.

He started going over the fence right away, but he was good about coming home. He always showed up for meals, even if sometimes he brought along his own dessert: dead grasshoppers, and mice and voles, and once a baby bird. Dr. Mills says that when cats bring you dead prey, it’s because they think you’re their kittens, and they’re trying to feed you.

Bobo was a good cat, but David kept letting him out, no matter how much I yelled at him about it. Mom tried to ground David a couple of times, but it didn’t work. David just laughed. He kept letting Bobo out, and Bobo kept going over the fence. It took me four months of allowance, plus Christmas and birthday money, to save up enough for the transmitter chip and the handheld. David laughed about that, too.

“He’s just a fuckingcat, Mike. Jesus Christ, what are you spending all your money on that transmitter thing for?”

“So I can find him if he gets lost,” I said, my stomach clenching. Even then, I could hardly stand to talk to David.

“If he gets lost, so what? They have a million more cats at the pound.”

And you’d let them all out if you could, wouldn’t you?“They don’t have a million who are mine,” I said, and Mom looked up from chopping onions in the kitchen. It was one of her days off.

“David, leave him alone. You’re the one who should be paying for that transmitter, you know.” And they got into a huge fight, and David stomped out of the house and roared off in his rattle trap Jeep, and when all the dust had settled, Mom came and found me in my room. She sat down on the side of the bed and smoothed my hair back from my forehead, as if I was seven again instead of thirteen, and Bobo jumped down from where he’d been lying on my feet. He’d been licking the place where Dr. Mills had put the transmitter chip in his shoulder. Dr. Mills said that licking would help the wound heal, but that if Bobo started biting it, he’d have to wear one of those weird plastic collars that looks like a lampshade. I hadn’t seen him biting it yet, but I was keeping an eye on him. When Mom sat on the bed, he resettled himself under my desklamp, where the light from the bulb warmed the wood, and went back to licking.

Bobo always liked warm places. Dr. Mills says all cats do.

Mom stroked my forehead, and watched Bobo for a little while, and then said, “Michael-sometimes you can know exactly where people are, and still not be able to protect them.” As if I didn’t know that:

As if any of us had been able to protect Dad from his own stupidity, even though the pit bosses knew exactly where he was every time he dealt a hand.

I knew that Mom was thinking about Dad, but there was no point talking about it. Dad was gone, and Bobo was right in front of me. “I’d keep him inside if I could, Mom! If David-”

“I know,” she said. “I know you would.” And then she gave me a quick kiss on the forehead and went downstairs again, and after a while, Bobo got off the desk and came back to lie on my feet. Watching him lick his shoulder, I wondered what it felt like to have a transmitter.

I’m the only one in the family who doesn’t know.

Letty is Mom’s best friend; they’ve known each other since second grade. Letty works for the BLM, and they have really good topo maps, so she could tell me exactly where Bobo was: just inside the mouth of an abandoned mine.

“He could have crawled there to get out of the snow,” I said. The transmitter signal still hadn’t moved.

Mom and Letty exchanged looks, and then Mom got up. “I’m going upstairs now,” she said. “You two talk.”

“Hecould have,” I said.

“Oh, Michael,” Mom said. She started to say something else, but then she stopped. “Talk to Letty,” she said, and turned and left the room.

I listened to Mom’s footsteps going upstairs, and after a minute Letty said, “Mike, it’s not safe to go out there now. You know that, right? It wouldn’t be safe even in a truck. Not in this weather. And in the snow, you can know exactly where something is and still not be able to get at it.”

“I know,” I said. “Like that hiker last year. The one whose body they didn’t find until spring.” Except that the hiker hadn’t had a transmitter, so they hadn’t known where he was. It didn’t matter. For ten days after he went missing, the cops and the BLM had search teams and helicopters all over the mountain, and never mind the weather.

“Yes,” Letty said, very quietly. “Exactly.” She waited for me to say something, but I didn’t. “That guy was dying, you know. He was in a lot of pain all the time. His wife said later she thought maybe that was why he went out in a storm like that, while he could still go out at all.”

Letty stopped and waited again, and I kept my head down. “He went out in bad weather,” she said finally, “near dark. It’s snowing now, and you were getting ready to hike up the mountain when your mom got home at seven-thirty. Michael?”

“Bobo could still be alive,” I said fiercely. “It’s not like anybody elsecares. It’s not like the state’s going to spend thousands of dollars on a search-and-rescue!”

“So you were thinking-what?” Letty said. “That you’d go up there and get everybody hysterical, and get a search going, and while they were at it, they’d bring Bobo back? Was that the plan?”

“No,” I said. I felt a little sick. I hadn’t thought about any of that. I hadn’t even thought about how I was going to get Bobo back down the mountain once I found him. “I just-I just wanted to get Bobo, that’s all. I thought I could go up there and it would be okay. I’ve hiked in snow before.”

“At night?” Letty asked. Then she sighed. “Mike, you know, a lot of people care about Bobo. Your mom cares, and I care, and Rich Mills cares. He was a sweet cat, and we know you love him. But we care about you, too.”

“I’m fine,” I told her. I wasn’t sitting in the mouth of a mine during a snowstorm. I wasn’t registered with the sheriff’s office.

“You wouldn’t be fine if you went up on Peavine tonight,” Letty said. “That’s the point. And even if Bobo’s still alive-and I don’t think he can be, Michael-you can’t help him if you’re frozen to death in a gully somewhere. Okay?”

I stared at the handheld, at the stationary signal. I thought about Bobo huddled in the mouth of the mine, getting colder and colder. He hated being cold. “Is it true that when you freeze to death,” I said, “you feel warm at the end?”

“That’s what I hear,” Letty said. “I don’t plan to test it.”

“I don’t either. That wasn’t what I meant.”

“Good. Don’t do anything stupid, Mike. Search-and-rescue might not be able to get you out of it.”

I felt like I was suffocating. “I was putting food in my pack. An entire box of energy bars. Ask Mom.”

Letty shrugged. “Energy bars won’t keep you from freezing.”

“Iknow that.”

“Good. And one more thing: don’t you pay any mind to those Schuster and Flanking kids. They’re slime.”

I jerked my head up. How did she know about that? She raised an eyebrow when she saw my face, and said, “People talk. Folks at my office have kids in your school. Those bullies are slime, Michael, and everybody knows it. Don’t let them give you grief. Your mother’s a good person.”

“I know she is.” I wanted to ask Letty if she’d told Mom about Johnny and Leon, wanted to beg her not to tell Mom, but the way adults did things, that probably meant that telling Mom would be the first thing she’d do.

Letty nodded. “Good. Just ignore them, then.”

It was easy for her to say. She didn’t have to listen to them all the time. “That wasn’t why I was going out,” I told her. “I was going after Bobo.”

“I know you were,” Letty said. “I also know nothing’s simple.” She folded her topo map and stood up and said, “I’d better be getting on home, before the weather gets any worse. Tell your Mom I’ll talk to her tomorrow. And try to have a good weekend.” She ruffled my hair before she went, the way Mom had when Bobo got the chip. Letty hadn’t done that since I was little. I didn’t move. I just sat there, looking at the blip on the handheld.

After a while, I went up to my room. David hadn’t come back yet, not that I cared, and Mom’s door was closed. I knew she was sleeping off the shift. I also knew she’d be out of bed and downstairs in two seconds if she heard David coming in or me going out. She’d hung the front and back doors with bells, brass things from Nepal or someplace she’d gotten at Pier One. You couldn’t go out or come in without making a racket, and you couldn’t take the bells off the door without making one, either. “You learn to sleep lightly when you have babies,” Mom told me once, as if either me or David had been babies for years. And our windows were old, and pretty noisy in their own right. And it was snowing harder.

So I just sat on my bed and stared out the window at the snow, trying not to think. My window faces east, away from Peavine, toward downtown. I couldn’t see the lights from the casinos because of the snow, but I knew they were there. After a while it stopped snowing, and a few stars came out between the clouds, and so did the neon: the blue and white stripes of the Peppermill, which stands apart from everything else, south of downtown, and the bright white of the Hilton a bit north of that-“the Mother ship,” Mom always calls it-and then, clustered downtown, the red of Circus Circus and the green of Harrah’s, which Mom calls Oz City, and the flashing purple of the Silverado, where Dad used to work.

Dad loved this view; he was so proud that we could look down on the city. He couldn’t stop crowing about it to all his friends. I remember when he brought George Flanking and Howard Schuster, Leon and Johnny’s dads, into my room so they could lookout my window, too. So they could see “the panorama.”

That was what Dad called it. We’d never been able to see anything from our old windows, except more trailers across the way. “I’m going to get us out of this box,” Dad said when we lived there. “We’re going to live in a real house, I swear we are.” And then we moved here, to a real house, and pretty soon that wasn’t big enough for him, either.

I shut my blinds and flopped down on my bed. Someplace a dog had started to bark, and then another joined in, and another and another, until the whole damn neighborhood was going nuts. And then I heard what must have set them off: the yipping howl of a coyote, trotting between houses looking for prey.

When we bought our house five years ago, the street ended a block from here, and that was where the mountain started. Winter mornings, sometimes, we’d see coyotes in our driveway. Now the developers have built another hundred houses up the street, with more subdivisions going up all the time: fancy houses, big, the kind we could never afford, the kind that made Dad’s eyes narrow, that made him spend hours hunched over his desk. The kind he talked about when he went out drinking with George and Howard, I guess. I don’t know who’s buying those big houses; casino and warehouse workers can’t afford places like that. Mom could, maybe, if she weren’t saving for nursing school. The only people I can think of who might live there are the ones who work for the development companies.

So we don’t get coyotes in our driveway anymore, but they’re still around. They travel in back of the houses, next to the six-foot fences people put around their yards. There’s still sagebrush between the subdivisions, and rabbits, and you can still follow those little strips of wildness to the really wild places, up on the mountain.

Coyotes are unbelievably smart, and they’ll eat anything if they have to, and it doesn’t bother them when people cut the land into pieces. They like it, because the boundaries between city and wilderness are where rodents live, and rodents are about coyotes’ favorite food, aside from cats. So when we cut things up for them, there are more edges where they can hunt. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve killed most of the wolves, who eat coyotes when they can, or that coyotes look so much like dogs. They can sneak in just about anyplace. Dr. Mills says there are coyotes living in New York City now, in Central Park. There are millions of them, all over the country.

Ranchers and farmers hate them because they’re so hard to kill, and because even if you kill them, there are always more. But I can’t hate them, not even for eating cats. They’re smart and they’re beautiful, and they’re just trying to get by, and as far as I can tell, they’re doing a better job of it than we are. They know how to work the system. That’s what Dad thought he was doing, but he wasn’t smart enough.

I lay there, listening to that coyote and to all the dogs, still trying not to think, but thinking anyway: about what a weird town this is, where you get casinos and coyotes both, where the developers are covering everything with new subdivisions, but there’s still a mountain where you can die. After a while it got quiet again, and I peeked out the window and saw more snow. A while after that I heard the bells jangling downstairs, and heard Mom’s feet hitting her bedroom floor and thudding down the stairs. When she and David started yelling at each other, I pulled my pillow over my head and finally managed to go to sleep.

It wasn’t snowing when I woke up on Saturday, but it looked like it might start again any minute. The transmitter signal still hadn’t moved, and when I thought about Bobo out there in the cold, I felt my own heart freezing in my chest. I heard voices from downstairs, and smelled coffee and bacon. Mom and David were both home, then. I threw on clothing and grabbed the handheld and ran down to the kitchen.

“Good morning,” Mom said, and handed me a plate of bacon and eggs. She was wearing sweats and looked pretty relaxed. David was wearing his bathrobe and scowling, but David always scowls. I wondered what he was doing up so early. “Any change on the screen, Mike?”

“No,” I said. I knew she didn’t think there ever would be, and I wondered why she’d asked. David’s face had gone from scowling to murderous, but that was all right, because I planned to be out the door as soon as possible.

“Okay,” Mom said. “We’re all going up there after breakfast.”

“We are?” I said.

“Your brother’s coming whether he wants to or not, and I asked Letty to come too. Rich Mills has to work this morning. Unless you’d rather not have all those people, honey.”

“It’s okay,” I said. So that’s what David was doing up. Mom was making him come as punishment, so he could see what he’d done, and Letty was coming because she had the maps, and maybe to help Mom keep me and David apart if we tried to kill each other. And Mom wouldn’t think it was important to have Dr. Mills there, because she didn’t think Bobo was still alive. I put down my plate and gulped down some coffee and said, “I’m going to go put the carrying case in the SUV.”

“You’re going to eat first,” Mom said. “Sit down.”

I sat. Driving up Peavine in the snow wasn’t exactly Mom’s idea of a day off; the least I could do was not give her any lip. David bit into his toast and said around a mouthful of bread, “I’m not going.”

That was fine with me, but I wasn’t going to say so in front of Mom. It was their fight. “You’re coming,” she told him. “And if Bobo’s still alive you’re paying the vet bills, and if he’s not, you’re buying your brother another cat. And if we get another cat you’ll damn well help us keep it in the house, or I’ll call the sheriff’s office myself and tell them to take you off probation and put you in jail, David, I swear to God I will!”

She would, too. Even David knew that much. He scowled up at her and said, “The cat didn’twant to stay in the house.”

“That’s not the issue,” Mom said, and I stuffed my face full of eggs to keep from screaming at David that he’d hated Bobo, that he’d wanted Bobo to die, and that I hoped he’d die, too: alone, in the cold.

I remembered one of the first times David had let Bobo out. Bobo didn’t have the transmitter yet, and I was in the backyard calling his name. Suddenly I saw something race over the fence and he ran up to me, mewing and mewing, his tail all puffy. I picked him up and carried him inside and he stayed on my lap, with his face stuck into my armpit like he was hiding, for half an hour, until finally he calmed down and stopped shaking and jumped down to get some food. I’d hoped that whatever had spooked him so badly would keep him from wanting to go out again, even if David opened all the doors and windows, but I guess he forgot how scared he’d been. “He didn’t want to freeze to death, either,” I said.

David pushed his chair back from the table and said, “Look, whatever happened to your fucking cat, it’s not my fault, and I’m not wasting my day off going up there.” He looked at Mom and said, “Do whatever you want: it doesn’t matter. I might as well be in prison already.”

“Bullshit,” Mom said. “If you go to prison, you’ll lose a lot more than a Saturday. Do you have any idea how lucky you are not to be there already? Especially after the stunts you’ve been pulling this week?”

Nevada’s a zero-tolerance drug state, even for minors, so when David got caught driving stoned last year, with most of a lid of pot in the glove compartment of his Jeep, Mom had to use every connection she had to get him probation instead of jail. It would have been a “juvenile facility,” since David was still a few weeks short of eighteen, but Mom says that her connections said that wouldn’t make much difference. Juvenile facilities are worse, if anything.

Mom didn’t say who her connections are, and I don’t want to know. Whoever they are, I figure they didn’t help David entirely out of the goodness of their hearts. I figure they were scared of what Mom could tell people about them, even if what she does is legal.

“I told you,” David said, “I’ve just been hanging out with some guys from work. You know: eating dinner, playing pool? I was in town.”

“Right,” Mom said. “And there’s no way anybody could check that with the satellites down, is there?

That’s what you were counting on.”

David rolled his eyes. “What time did the damn GPS go back up last night? Six-thirty or something? We were still eating then. We were at that pizza place in the mall. Call the sheriff’s office and ask them, if you don’t believe me.” He jerked a thumb at my handheld and said, “How stupid do you think I am? I knew it could come back online any second. What, I’m going to take off for Mexico or something?”

Mom didn’t bother to answer. She and I were the smart ones in the family: David took after Dad.

Anybody stupid enough to get caught with that much pot was stupid enough to do just about anything else, as far as I could tell, but the only time I’d even started to say anything like that, right after his arrest, David had just glared at me and said, “Yeah, well, if you’d had to look at what I had to look at, you’d smoke dope too, baby brother.”

As if I hadn’t wanted to look. As if I hadn’t kept trying to go outside. As if even now I didn’t keep imagining what it had looked like, a million different ways, enough to keep me awake, sometimes.

But even then, I knew that David had only said it to make me feel guilty. He knew just how to get at everybody. Now he gestured at the handheld again and said bitterly, “I can’t wipe my ass without those people knowing about it.”

He was needling Mom, because that’s what Dad had always said about dealing blackjack at the Silverado. The dealers were under surveillance all the time: from pit bosses, from hidden cameras. “You can’t get away from it,” Dad said. “It’s like working in a goddamn box, with the walls closing in on you.”

But Dad chose his box, and so did David.

“That’s not the issue,” Mom told David again. “It’s more than staying in county limits, David. You’re supposed to come home straight after work. You know that.”

“So you’re my jailer now? Just like the casino was Dad’s and the Lyon County cops are-”

“Stop it,” Mom said, her voice icy. “I’m not your jailer. I’m the one who kept you out of jail. You agreed to the terms of the probation!”

“Like you agreed to all those terms when you decided to go down to Carson and playnurse? ”

Mom was out of her chair then, and David was out of his, and they stood nose to nose, glaring at each other, and I knew that there was no way we were all going up on Peavine today, because they wouldn’t be able to sit in the same car even if David had wanted to go, even if I’d wanted him there. Nothing David says to Mom ever makes any real sense, but he knows exactly how to get to her. Sometimes he has to keep at it for a while, but Mom always snaps eventually, even if the same thing has happened a million times before. Just like Bobo being scared by something outside, and still going out again when David gave him the chance. David knows exactly how to get people to hurt themselves.

They were still eye-to-eye, like cats circling each other before a fight, when the doorbell rang. “I’ll get it,”

I said. Maybe it was Letty, and I could warn her about what was happening before she came inside.

It was a cop. “Good morning, son,” he said. “I’m looking for David. That your brother?”

“Yeah,” I said, but my legs felt like wood, and I didn’t seem to be able to get out of the way.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s just a routine drug test.”

That was supposed to happen on Fridays. So David had skipped his drug test, too. My stomach shriveled some more. “Will he have to go to jail?” I said. The house would be a lot quieter if David was in jail, but school would be worse. If David went to jail, he’d probably be in the same place as George Flanking and Howard Schuster, and I didn’t want to think too much about that.

The cop’s face softened. “No. Not if he’s clean. He’ll get a warning, that’s all.”

And then Mom, behind me, said, “Michael, let himin, ” and my legs came alive and I got out of the doorway, fast, and the cop came in, tipping his hat to Mom.

“Morning, ma’am.” I wondered if Mom was remembering the last time the cops were at our house. I wondered if this cop was one of her connections. I wonder that about all kinds of people: my teachers and all the cops and storekeepers and Dr. Mills, even. I hate wondering it, but that’s another thing I can’t talk to Mom about. It would just hurt her. It would just make me like David, or like Aunt Tina, who hasn’t even talked to us since Mom started working down in Carson.

The fight Aunt Tina picked with Mom was as bad as any of David’s: worse, maybe, because she doesn’t even live with us. She wasn’t even here when Dad died. It was none of her business. “Oh, Sherry! How can you dothat, of all things? With your boys the ages they are, after what their father did? How will they be able to hold their heads up, knowing-”

“Knowing that their mother’s keeping a roof over their heads? My secretarial job doesn’t pay enough, Tina, not by itself-and if you know what else I can do to earn a hundred thousand a year, go right ahead and tell me!”

It was perfectly legal, and it would let Mom earn enough money to go to nursing school at UNR and get a job none of us would have to be embarrassed about. That’s what she kept telling us. A year, she’d said, or two at the most. But it had already been two years, and she hadn’t saved enough to quit yet, because the hundred thousand didn’t include food or clothing or insurance, or all the tests Mom has to have to make sure she’s still healthy. She has drug tests, too. She gets more tests than David does, even though she’s not a criminal and never did anything wrong, and she has to pay for all of hers. And when she’s in Carson, she can’t go into a casino or a bar by herself, and she can’t be seen in a restaurant with a man, and she has to be registered with the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office-because technically, she’s not in Carson at all. Her job’s not legal in big towns: not in Reno, not in Vegas, not even in lousy little Carson City, the most pathetic excuse for a state capital you ever saw. Mom has to work right outside Carson, in Lyon County, which is still plenty close enough to be convenient for her connections.

It used to be that the women in Mom’s job couldn’t even leave the buildings where they worked without somebody going with them, but now they have transmitters, instead. And it used to be that they had to work every day for three weeks, living at the job, and then get one week off, but some of them got together and lobbied to change that, because so many of them were single mothers, and they wanted to be able to go home to their kids at night. But they still can’t live in the same county where they work, which is why Mom has to commute between Reno and Carson. Highway 395’s the only way to get down there, and those thirty-five miles can get really bad in the winter. That’s why Mom had to buy the SUV. The SUV wasn’t included in the hundred thousand, either.

Mom doesn’t know that I know a lot of this. I’ve heard her and Letty talking about it, especially about all the tests. Letty’s afraid Mom’s going to get something horrible and die, but Mom keeps pooh-poohing her. “For heaven’s sake, Letty; it’s not like they don’t have to wear condoms!”

I got out of the cop’s way and tried not to think about him wearing a condom. It’s hard not to get really mad at Dad whenever I think things like that. It’s hard not to get even madder at David. He has it easier than Mom does, and it’s not fair. She’s not the criminal.

I followed the cop into the kitchen. Mom was chit-chatting about the weather and pouring him a cup of coffee; David was disappearing down the hall to the bathroom, carrying a little plastic cup. I looked at the drug kit, sitting on the table next to our half-eaten breakfasts. “Only takes two minutes,” the cop told me, “and then I’ll be out of here and leave you folks to your weekend. Ma’am, you mind if I take my jacket off?”

“Of course not,” she said, and he did, and when I saw the gun in its holster I took a step back, even though of course the cop would be wearing a gun, all cops wear guns. Nearly everybody around here owns guns anyway, except us. And Mom bit her lip and the cop stepped back too, away from me, raising his hands. He looked sad.

“Hey, hey, son, it’s all right. I’ll put the jacket back on.”

“You don’t have to,” I said, my face burning. “I’m going up to my room, anyway.” I wanted to get out of there before David came back out of the bathroom with his precious bodily fluids. I didn’t want to stand around and find out what the drug tests said. So I went upstairs, wondering if there was anybody in the entire fucking town who didn’t know everything about anything that had ever happened to us.

I flopped down on my bed again, waiting for the jangle of bells that would mean the cop had left. It came pretty quickly, and then there was another right after it, and I didn’t hear any yelling, so I figured everything was okay. The phone had rung, somewhere in there. One of David’s loser friends, maybe.

Maybe he’d gone out. Maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with him today. I wanted to be out on the mountain, climbing up to Bobo, but I knew the SUV would get there more quickly than I could, even with the delay.

But when I went back downstairs, David was in the living room watching TV, and Mom and Letty were sitting at the kitchen table, looking worried. I looked at Mom and she said, “Relax. Your brother’s clean.”

“Okay,” I said. She and Letty had probably been talking about me. “Are we leaving soon?”

Mom looked down at the table. “Michael, honey, I’m sorry. We can’t leave right away. I’m waiting for a call from the doctor.”

I squinted at her. “From thedoctor? ”

“I’m fine,” Mom said. “It’s nothing, really. She’s looking at some test results, that’s all, and I may need to take some antibiotics. But I don’t want to miss the call. We’ll go right after that, okay?”

“I’m going now,” I said.I thought they had to wear condoms. “He’s been up there since last night, Mom!”

Letty started to stand up. “Mike, I’ll drive you-”

“You don’t have to,” I said. Right then, as much as I wanted to reach Bobo quickly, I wanted to be alone even more. “You can catch up with me after the doctor calls. Stay and talk to Mom.” Stay and keep Mom and David out of each other’s hair, I meant, and maybe Letty knew that, because she nodded and sat back down.

“Okay. We’ll follow you as soon as we can. Be careful.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s not like you don’t know where I’m going.”

It felt good to be out, away from Mom and David, where I could finally breathe again. I cut over to the wild strip on the edge of our subdivision and started working my way up, past the new construction sites where the dump trucks and jack hammers were roaring away, even on Saturday, up to where all the signs say Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service. The signs don’t mean much, because the Forest Service and the BLM can sell the land to developers anytime they want. Right now, though, the signs meant that I was on the edge of wildness stretching for miles, all the way to Tahoe.

When the construction noises faded, I started hearing the gunfire. Shooters come up on Peavine for target practice; you can always find rifle shells on the trails, and there are all kinds of abandoned cars and washing machines and refrigerators that people have hauled up here and shot into Swiss cheese.

Sometimes the metal has so many holes you wonder how it holds its shape at all. “Redneck lace,” Dad used to call it-Dad who’d grown up in a trailer, and was so proud that he’d gotten us out of one: Dad who couldn’t stand being called a redneck, even though he came up on Peavine every weekend with George Schuster and Howard Flanking, so they could drink beer and shoot skeet.

After he died, I couldn’t come up on the mountain for a long time. But gunfire’s one of those things you can’t get away from here, anymore than you can avoid new subdivisions, and Peavine’s the only place I can come to be alone, really alone. I can hike up here for hours and never see anybody else. The gunfire’s far away, and nearby are sagebrush and rabbits and hawks. In the summer you see lizards and snakes, and in the winter, in the snow, you see the fresh tracks of deer and antelope. I’ve seen prints that looked like mountain lion; I’ve seen prints that looked like dog, but were probably coyote.

I hiked hard, pushing myself, taking the steepest trails. It takes me three hours to get to the top of Peavine in good weather, and today I wanted the most direct route I could find. When you’re slogging up a 15 percent grade in the snow, it’s harder to think about how miserable your cat would be, stuck up here in weather like this, and it’s harder to think about what you want to do to your brother for letting him out. It’s harder to think about who you know might be wearing condoms, or how condoms can break even when they’re used right. It’s harder to think about how angry you are that your mother’s connections don’t have to be tested before she is, to make sure she doesn’t catch anything.

Mom never lied to me. She wouldn’t say “some antibiotics” if she really meant “years of AIDS drugs.”

She wouldn’t say it was nothing if she was scared she might be infected with something that could kill her.

I was angry anyway, because nothing was fair.

So that 15 percent grade was just what I needed. If Mom and Letty followed me, they’d be coming the easy way, up the road. They’d probably be angry if they couldn’t find me, but they’d also get to the mine before I did, and they’d be able to drive Bobo back down. I hadn’t been able to bring the carrying case with me, but I wouldn’t be able to get it back down the mountain with Bobo in it anyway, not by myself.

I hoped Mom had remembered to put the carrying case in the SUV. I hoped Bobo would still be in any kind of shape to need the carrying case at all.

I’m sorry, I told him as I climbed.I’m sorry I didn’t come after you sooner. I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you from David. I’m sorry about whatever scared you. Bobo, please be alive. Please be okay.

After a while, it started to snow. I kept going. I was wearing my warmest thermals and I was covered in Gore-Tex, and I had enough food in the pack for three days. And if Mom and Letty drove up in the snow and couldn’t find me because I’d come back down, they’d really start freaking. So I headed on up, except that as soon as I could, I cut over to the road. I didn’t see any fresh tire marks, which meant they were still behind me. I tromped along, checking the GPS every once in a while to make sure the signal hadn’t moved, and then I heard a horn and turned around and saw headlights.

It was Dr. Mills. “Hey, Mike. I drove by your house when I got off work, and your mom said you’d headed up here.” I scrambled into his truck; he had the heater blasting, and it felt good. “I hope you don’t mind that your mom didn’t come. My old truck can take the wear better than that fancy Suburban she has, and there’s only so much room in here.”

There was still plenty of room in the front seat. I glanced back at the flat bed: Dr. Mills had brought a carrying case, but of course on the way down, we’d want to be able to have Bobo in front with us, where it was warm. The part about Mom could have meant just about anything, depending on whether it was his excuse or hers. If it was hers, she could have been hoping that Dr. Mills would run a male-bonding father-figure trip on me, or she could have still been waiting for the doctor to call, or she and Letty could have been trying to force David to stay in the house somehow. Or all of the above. If it was his-I didn’t want to think about what it meant for him to be saving wear on her SUV, or not wanting her in the truck at all. Dr. Mills is married. I didn’t want to think about him driving down to Carson.

So I looked at the handheld again. “He’s in an old mine up here,” I said.

“Mmm-hmmm. That’s what your mom told me. How long since he’s moved?”

“Not since the satellites came backup,” I said, and Dr. Mills nodded. He stayed quiet for a long time, and finally I said, “You think he’s dead, don’t you? That’s what Mom thinks.”

The snow was coming down harder now, the windshield wipers squeaking in a rhythm that kept trying to lull me to sleep. Dr. Mills could have told me he didn’t want to go on; he could have turned around. He didn’t do that. He knew I had to see as much as I could. “Michael,” he said finally, “I’ve been a vet for fifteen years, and I’ve seen plenty of miracles. Animals are amazing. But I have to tell you, I think it would take a miracle for Bobo not to be dead.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.

“With coyotes,” he said, “usually it’s quick. They break the necks of their prey, the same as cats do with birds and mice. So unless Bobo got away for a few minutes and then got caught again, he wouldn’t have suffered long.”

“Okay,” I said, and looked at my hands. I wondered how long it would take me to break David’s neck, and how much I could make him suffer while I did it. And then I thought, there goes David again, making me want to do something stupid, something that would only mean I was hurting myself.

It took us ten more minutes to get to the mine, and by then the snow was coming down so hard that we could hardly see a foot ahead of the truck. We got out and started walking toward where the mine should have been, snow stinging our faces. It was really cold. I couldn’t see anything but snow: no rocks, not even the scrubby pines that grow up here. And within about ten feet I realized that the mine entrance was completely buried, and that even if we’d been able to find it, we’d probably need to dig through five feet of snow to get to Bobo.

“Michael,” Dr. Mills yelled into my ear, over the wind. “Michael, I’m sorry. We have to go back.”

I tried to say, “I know,” but my voice wouldn’t work. I turned around and headed toward the truck, and when I was back inside it, I started shivering, even when the heat was blasting again. I sat in the front seat, with the empty space between me and Dr. Mills where Bobo should have been, and shivered and hugged myself. Finally I said, “You get warm, just before you freeze to death. If the coyotes didn’t kill him-or if he went up on his own-”

“He’s not in pain,” Dr. Mills said. “That’s a cliche, isn’t it? But it’s true. Michael, wherever he is now, he doesn’t hurt. I can promise you that.” And then he started telling me about some poem called “The Heaven of Animals,” where the animals remain true to their natures. The predators still hunt and exult over their kill, and their prey rise up again every morning, perfectly renewed, joyously taking their proper part in the chase.

I guess it’s a nice idea, but all I could think about was Bobo, shivering, hiding his head under my arm because he was scared.

So we drove on down the mountain, and pretty soon the snow stopped coming down so hard, and when we got back down to the developments, there was hardly any snow at all. You could still hear the construction equipment, and gunfire far off. Maybe the target shooters had moved farther down to get away from the snow. Dr. Mills hadn’t said anything for a while, but when we started hearing the guns, he looked over at me.

Don’t, I thought. Don’t say it. Don’t say anything. Just take me home, Dr. Mills, please. Don’t say it.

“I never told you,” he said, very quietly, “how sorry I am about what happened to your dad.”

I stared straight ahead, thinking about Bobo, thinking about the hiker who’d died on Peavine. I wondered how long it would take the snow to melt.

When Bobo was a kitten, Dad used to dangle pieces of string for him. He always dangled them just high enough so Bobo couldn’t get at them, and he’d laugh and laugh, watching Bobo jump. “We’re going to enter this cat in theOlympics, ” he said. “Look at him! He must’ve made three feet that time!”

Bobo had lots of toys he could play with anytime he wanted, balls and catnip mice and crumpled-up pieces of paper I’d toss on the floor for him. But the minute Dad dangled that string, he’d stop playing with the stuff he could catch and go after the thing he couldn’t have.

“Just like you,” Mom always told him, watching them. “Just like you, Bill, jumping at what you’ll never be able to get.”

“Aw, now, Sherry! Why can’t we have a Lexus? Why can’t we have one of those fancy home theaters, huh?”

I thought he was kidding. Maybe Mom did, too.

When Dr. Mills dropped me off at home, David was gone, which was a good thing, because I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had to look at him. Mom and Letty were still there. They tried to talk to me.

I didn’t want to talk. I went straight up to my room and took off all the Gore-Tex and went to bed. I didn’t want to think about what we didn’t need anymore: the toys and the litter box and Bobo’s food and water bowls. I knew I’d have to throw it all away. Mom had told David he had to get me another cat, but how could I get another cat? David would just let it out again. When I got into bed, I remembered that the handheld was still in my jacket pocket, and somehow that hurt more than anything else. I pulled my pillow over my head and turned my face to the wall. The pillow blocked out a lot, but I still heard the phone, and I still heard the jangling bells when Letty left, and I still heard them again when David came in.

I couldn’t block out the sounds of him and Mom yelling at each other, no matter how hard I tried.

I got up and tried to do homework, but that just made me think about how I was going to have to go to school on Monday morning. I tried to read, but all the words seemed flat and tasteless, like week-old bread. So finally I just sat on my bed, staring out at the casinos. They looked so small from here, little boxes you could pickup and throw like dice. And then I heard a coyote, off in the other direction.

Being good is one of the smallest boxes there is: Mom knows that, and so do I, and so did Dad. Mom was the only one who never complained about it, but what did I know? Maybe she hated it as much as I did. I didn’t see how she could like it. Maybe she felt like Dad said he’d always felt, like the walls were closing in on her. “If I could just get outside,” he always told me. “Working in that damn casino, no daylight anywhere, all those people watching you all the time, you just want to go outside and take a walk, Mike, you know what I mean?”

After Dr. Mills drove me up to the mine, I knew what Dad meant. I sat there with the walls closing in on me, and I couldn’t breathe. I needed more room. I wanted to be outside with the coyotes, running around the outside of the boxes, invisible. Even if you try to watch a coyote to see what it’s doing, even if you try to track it, it will disappear on you. It will fade into the grass, into the sagebrush, into shadows.

And you’ll know that wherever it is, it’s laughing.

Sunday was quiet. David stayed in front of the TV, and I finally got my homework done, and Mom cleaned the house, humming to herself while she worked. She had to be on antibiotics for ten days, and she couldn’t work until the infection was gone. “Ten-day vacation,” she told me cheerfully, but she didn’t get paid vacations anymore than she got anything else. All it meant was ten days’ pay out of the nursing-school fund.

Once I asked her what would happen if the Lyon County sheriff’s office saw her transmitter signal outside the building where she works. What if they tracked it and found her in a bar, or in a casino, or in a restaurant with a man? Would she go to jail?

She’d shaken her head and said very gently, “No, honey, I’d just lose my job. And I’d never do that, because it would be stupid.” Because it would be like what Dad did, she meant. “Don’t worry.”

When I got up on Monday morning, my stomach hurt already. I hadn’t been able to sleep very well, because I kept thinking about Bobo buried in the snow. I kept wondering about what I hadn’t been able to see, worrying that maybe there’d been some way to save him and I hadn’t figured it out.

I couldn’t stand the idea of going to school. I couldn’t stand facing Johnny and Leon; I couldn’t stand the idea of going through all that and not being able to come home and have Bobo comfort me, curling up on my stomach the way he always did to get warm. I’d always been able to tell Bobo everything I couldn’t talk about to anybody else, and now he was gone.

But I had to go to school, so I wouldn’t upset Mom.

I had an algebra test first period. I knew the material; I could have done all the problems, but I couldn’t make my hands move. I just sat there and stared at the paper, and when Mrs. Ogilvy called time, I handed it in blank.

She looked at it, and both her eyebrows went up. “Michael?”

“I didn’t feel like it,” I said.

“You didn’t-Michael, are you sick? Do you want to go to the nurse?”

“No,” I said, and walked away, out into the hall, to my next class, which was English. We were talking about Julius Caesar. I sat against the back wall and fell asleep, and when the bell rang I got up and went to Biology, where we were dissecting frogs. Biology was always bad, because Johnny and Leon were in there. They grabbed the lab station next to mine, and whenever they thought they could get away with it they whispered, “Hey, Mike, know what we’re gonna do after school? Hey, Mike-we’re gonna drive down to Carson. We’re gonna drive down to Carsonand fuck your mother! ”

Donna Mauro, my lab partner, said, “They aresuch jerks.”

“Yeah,” I said, but I couldn’t even look at Donna, because I was too ashamed. I knew that everybody in school knew what my mother did, but that didn’t mean I liked it when Johnny and Leon reminded them. I wondered if one of Donna’s parents worked for the BLM and had talked to Letty, but it could have been just about anybody.

I stared down at the frog. We were supposed to be looking for the heart. I pretended it was Johnny instead, and sliced off a leg. Then I pretended it was Leon, and sliced off the other leg.

Donna just watched me. “Um, Mike? What are you doing?”

“I thought I’d have frog legs for lunch,” I said. My voice sounded weird to me, tinny. “Want one?”

“Um-Mike, that’s cool, but we have to find the heart now.”

I handed her the scalpel. “Here. You find the heart.”

And then I turned and walked away.

It was really easy, actually. I just walked out of the room, like I had to go to the bathroom but had forgotten to ask permission. Behind me I could hear Mr. Favaro, our teacher, saying something, and Donna answering, but the voices didn’t really reach me. I felt like I was inside a bubble: I could see outside, but everything was muffled, and no one could get inside. They’d just bounce off.

It was wonderful.

I walked along the hall, and Mr. Favaro ran up behind me, gabbling something. I had to listen really carefully to make out what he was saying. It sounded like he was on the moon. “Mike? Michael? Is there something you need to tell me?”

I considered this. “No,” I said. If I’d been Leon or Johnny or one of the bad kids, Mr. Favaro probably would have yelled at me and told me to get back inside the room,now, but he was spooked because it was me acting this way. So he gabbled some more, and I ignored him, and finally he ran away in the other direction, toward the principal’s office.

I just walked out the door. My jacket was back in my locker, but it was pretty warm out, at least in the sun, and I wasn’t cold. The bubble kept me warm. I started walking down a gully that angled down past the football field. I could hear voices behind me; I didn’t stop to try to figure out what they were saying.

But then a van pulled up alongside the gully, and people got out, and the voices started again. “Michael.

Michael Michael Michael Michael Michael.”

“What?” I said. Ms. Dellafield was there, the principal, and Mr. Ambrose, the school nurse, and two guidance counselors whose names I could never remember. They all looked really scared. I blinked at them. “I just wanted to take a walk,” I said, but they were in a semicircle around me, pushing at the edges of the bubble, herding me toward the van. “You don’t have to do this,” I told them. “Really. I’m fine. I was just taking a walk.”

They didn’t listen. They kept herding me toward the van, and then I was inside it, and the door was closing.

They drove me back to school, and then they herded me into Mr. Ambrose’s office, and then Ms.

Dellafield went to call Mom while Mr. Ambrose and the two guidance counselors stood there and watched me, like they were going to tackle me if I tried to move. “Why are you doing this?” I kept asking them. “I was just going for a walk.” It didn’t make any sense. I’d seen other kids walk out of classes: they’d never gotten this kind of attention. “I’ll go back to biology, okay? I’ll dissect my frog. You don’t have to call my mother!”

And at the same time I thought, thank God Mom’s home today. Thank god she’s not down in Carson, so that Ms. Dellafield doesn’t have to hear them say whatever they say when they answer the phone there, not that there’s any chance that Ms. Dellafield doesn’t know where Mom works, since everybody else knows it. But even all that didn’t bother me as much as usual, because the bubble was still basically holding. Mr. Ambrose and the guidance counselors kept asking me how I was, and I kept telling them I was fine, thank you, and how are all of you today? And they kept looking more and more worried, as if I’d answered them in another language, one where “fine” meant “my eyeballs are about to explode.” So I sat there feeling fine, if a little far away, and thinking, these people are really weird.

And finally, after about half an hour, I heard voices outside Mr. Ambrose’s office, and then the door opened and Mom came in. She was leaning on David. David had his arm around her, and he was really pale. It was the same way he’d looked after he pulled me away from the rattlesnake.

I squinted at him and said, “What areyou doing here? What happened?”

“She called me,” David said. He sounded like he was choking. “At work. When they called her. So we could come over here together.”

I looked at Mom. She was crying, and then I got really scared. “What’s going on?” I said. “Mom, what’s wrong? Are you okay? Did something happen to Letty?” Maybe Mom had called Ms. Dellafield and said something had happened and they had to find me. But that wouldn’t explain the van and the guidance counselors, would it? If something had happened to Letty, wouldn’t Mom have driven over here to tell me herself?

Everybody just stared at me. Mom stopped crying, and wiped her eyes, and said very quietly, “Michael, the question is, areyou okay?”

“I’mfine! Why does everybody keep asking me that? I was just going for a walk! Why doesn’t anybody believe me?”

And Mom started crying again and David shook his head and said, “Oh, you stupid-”

“David.” Ms. Dellafield sounded very tired. “Don’t.”

I felt like I was going crazy. “Would somebody please tell me what’s going on? I was just-”

“Michael,” Mom said, “that’s what your father said, too.”

I blinked. The room had gotten impossibly quiet, as if nobody else was even breathing. Mom said, “He said he was just going for a walk, and then he went out into the yard. Don’t you remember?”

I looked away from all of them, out the window. I didn’t remember that. I didn’t remember anything that had happened that day, before the shot. It didn’t matter: everyone else at school knew the story, and they’d remembered it for me. “I really was just going for a walk,” I said, and then, “I don’t even have a gun.”

Ms. Dellafield said I should take the rest of the day off, so Mom and David and I drove home together, in David’s jeep. When Ms. Dellafield called Mom at home, Mom had been too upset even to drive, so she’d called David and he’d left work and picked her up and driven her to school. He drove us all home, too. He drove really carefully. Once a squirrel ran into the road and David slowed down until it got out of his way. I’d never seen him drive like that before. And when we were walking into the house, Mom tripped, and David reached out to steady her.

The last time I’d seen Mom and David leaning on each other, they’d been coming in from the yard. I remembered that part. My ears had still been ringing, but Letty wouldn’t let me go, no matter how hard I fought. She’d been eating lunch with us when it happened. “Let me see,” I kept telling her, trying to break free. “Let me go out there! I want to see what happened!”

But Letty wouldn’t let go, because the first thing that happened after the shot was that Mom and David ran out into the yard, and David started screaming, and then Mom yelled at Letty, “Keep Michael inside!

Don’t let him come out here!”

And they came back inside, and Mom called the police, and I kept saying, “I want to go see,” and David kept shaking his head and saying, “No you don’t, Michael, you don’t want to see this, you really don’t,” and Letty wouldn’t let go of me. And the cops came and asked everybody questions, and then Letty took me to her house, and by the time I got home, Mom and David had cleaned up the backyard, picked up all the little pieces of bone and brain, so that there was nothing left to see at all.

Dad was stupid. You can’t beat the house: anybody who’s ever been anywhere near a casino knows that. But he and George and Howard were trying. They’d worked out a system, the newspaper said;

George or Howard, never both at once, would go in and play at Dad’s table, and Dad would touch a cheek or scratch an ear, always a different signal, so they’d know when to double their bets. And then when they won, they’d split the take with him. They tried to be smart. They didn’t do it very often, but it was often enough for the pit bosses and the cameras to catch on. And somehow, when Dad came home that day, he knew he’d been caught. He knew the walls were closing in.

George and Howard went to jail. I guess Dad knew he’d have to go there too. I guess he thought that was just too small a box.

Nobody said anything for a long time, after we got home from school. Mom started unloading the dishwasher, moving in little jerks like somebody in an old silent movie, and David sat down at the kitchen table, and I went to the fridge and got a drink of juice. And finally David said, “Why the hell did you do that?”

He didn’t sound angry, or like he was trying to piss me off. He just sounded lost. And I hadn’t been trying to do anything; I’d just been going for a walk, but I’d said that at least a million times by now and it was no good. Nobody believed me, or nobody cared. So instead I said, “Why did you keep letting Bobo out?”

And Mom, with her back to us, stopped moving; she stood there, holding a plate, looking down at the open dishwasher. And David said, “I don’t know.”

Mom turned and looked at him, then, and I looked at Mom. David never admitted there was anything he didn’t know. He stared down at the table and said, “You kept saying you wanted to go outside. You kept-you werefighting to go outside. The cat wanted to go out, Michael. He did.” He looked up, straight at me; his chin was trembling. “You didn’t even have to look at it. It wasn’t fair.”

His voice sounded much younger, then, and I flashed back on that day when he saved me from the rattlesnake, when we were still friends, and all of a sudden my bubble burst and I was back in the world, where it hurt to breathe, where the air against my skin felt like sandpaper. “So you wanted me to get my wish by having to look at Bobo?” I said. “Is that it? Like I wanted any of it to happen, you fuckhead?

Like-”

“Shhhh,” Mom said, and came over and hugged me. “Shhhh. It’s all right now. It’s all right. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry. David-”

“Forget it,” David said. “None of it matters anymore, anyway.”

“Yes it does,” Mom said. “David, I made you do too much. I-”

“I want to go for a walk now,” I said. I was going to scream if I couldn’t get outside; I was going to scream or break something. “Can we just go for a walk? All of us? You can watch me, okay? I promise not to do anything stupid. Please?”

Mom and David have gotten along a lot better since then. Letty and I talked about it, once. She said they’d probably been fighting so much because David was mad at Mom for making him help her in the yard when Dad died, and Mom felt guilty about it, and didn’t even know she did, and kept lashing out at him. And none of us were talking about anything, so it festered. Letty said that what I did at school that day was exactly what I needed to do to remind Mom and David how much they could still lose, to make them stop being mad at each other. And I told her I hadn’t been trying to do anything, and anyway I hadn’t even remembered what Dad had said before he went out into the yard. She said it didn’t matter. It was instinct, she said. She said people still have instincts, even when they live in boxes, and that we can’t ever lose them completely, not if we’re still alive at all. Look at Bobo, she told me. You got him from a pet store. He’d never even lived outside, but he still wanted to get out. He still knew he was supposed to be hunting mice.

In June, when the snow melted from the top of Peavine, I hiked back up to the mine. I’d been back on the mountain before that, of course, but I hadn’t gone up that high: maybe because I thought I wouldn’t be able to see anything yet, maybe because I was afraid I would. But that Saturday I woke up, and it was sunny and warm, and Mom and David were both at work, and I thought, okay. This is the day. I’ll go up there by myself, to see. To say goodbye.

All those months, the transmitter signal hadn’t moved.

So I hiked up, past the developments, through rocks and sagebrush, scattering basking lizards. I saw a few rabbits and a couple of hawks, and I heard gunfire, but I didn’t see any people.

When I got to the mine, I peered inside and couldn’t see anything. I’d brought a flashlight, but it’s dangerous to go inside abandoned mines. Even if it’s safe to breathe the air, even if you don’t get trapped, you don’t know what else might be in there with you. Snakes. Coyotes.

So I shone the flashlight inside and looked for anything that might have been a cat once. There were dirt and rocks, but I couldn’t even see anything that looked like bones. The handheld said this was the place, though, so I scrabbled around in the dirt a little bit, and played the flashlight over every surface the beam would reach, and finally, maybe two feet inside the mine, I saw something glinting in a crevice in the rock.

It was the chip: just the chip, a tiny little piece of silver circuitry, sitting there all by itself. Maybe there’d been bones too, for a while, and something had carried them off. Or maybe something had eaten Bobo and left a pile of scat here; with the chip in it, and everything had gone back into the ground except the chip. I don’t know. All I knew was that Bobo was gone, and I still missed him, and there wasn’t even anything that had been him to bring back with me.

I sat there and looked at the chip for a while, and then I put the handheld next to it. And then I went and sat on a rock outside the mine, in the sun.

It was pretty. There were wildflowers all over the place, and you could see for miles. And I sat there and thought, I could just leave. I could just walkaway, walk in the other direction, clear to Tahoe, walkaway from all the boxes. I don’t have a transmitter. Nobody would know where I was. I could walk as long as I wanted.

But there are boxes everywhere, aren’t there? Even at Tahoe, maybe especially at Tahoe, where all the rich people build their fancy houses. And if I walked away, Mom and David wouldn’t know where I was. They wouldn’t even have a transmitter signal. And I knew what that felt like. I remembered staring at the dark screen, when the satellites were offline. I remembered staring at it, and trying not to cry, and praying.Please, Bobo, come backhome Please come back, Bobo. I love you.

So I sat there for a while, looking out over the city. And then I ate an energy bar and drank some water, and headed back down the mountain, backhome.


Crux - Albert E. Cowdrey


New author Albert E. Cowdrey quit a government job to try his hand at writing. So far, he’s appeared almost exclusively inThe Magazine of Fantasy amp; Science Fiction,where he’s published a handful of well-received stories over the last couple of years, most of them supernatural horror. In 2000, he took a sudden unexpected turn away from horror and into science fiction, producing two of the year’s best science fiction novellas, “Mosh,” the sequel to “Crux,” and “Crux” itself, the story you’re about to read, which takes us deep into a future world as dark, complex, richly layered, and fascinating as any ever produced in the genre, for an intricate and hard-edged story of plot and counterplot, intrigue and betrayal, and the dynamics of history, all seasoned with a bit of time travel…
One suspects-in fact, one rather hopes-that a novel based on the “Crux” stories is imminent.
Cowdrey lives in New Orleans, where many of his expertly crafted supernatural horror stories have been set.

Dyeva watched the earth revolve beneath her, vanish into banks of icy cirrus, then emerge as a patchwork of blue sea and immobile, shining cumuli.

Bits of continents poked through the gaps as the airpacket swung out on a hyperbolic curve. She had a glimpse of North America, with the Appalachian Islands trailing into the Atlantic and the Inland Sea glimmering under the hot March sun. Then the sixty-one passengers were shrouded in the lower cloud layer and reading lights winked briefly on before they emerged again to flit like the shadow of a storm over the broad Pacific.

A light meal was served, and during dessert the glint of Fujiyama Island on the right with its attendant green islets announced that they were nearing the World-city. They flashed into the dark red sun and the vast forest of China leaped out of the glittering wavelets of the Yellow Sea. Fifty-five hundred clicks was now too fast and one, two, three times the airpacket quivered as the retros slowed it to a sedate thousand.

They were speeding over the green savannahs of the Gobi, famous for its herds of wild animals. Of course they were too high and moving too fast to see the herds, but a mashina in the forward wall of the cabin darkened, glittered briefly with pinpoints of light, and filled with solid-seeming images of wapiti, elephants, haknim, sfosura-animals native and imported from other worlds-shambling over pool-dotted green plains where the immortal Khan once ruled.

Dyeva’s pale, high-cheekboned face concentrated and her unblinking dark eyes glinted with reflected images. Nine-tenths of the Earth-humanity’s first home-was now a world of beasts. The ultimate achievement of the man called Minister Destruction. Was it for this that twelve billion people had died?

In the sunset glow of Ulanor the Worldcity, Stef sprawled on his balcony wearing a spotty robe and listening to the cries of vendors and the creak of wheels in Golden Horde Street. He loved to loll here smoking kif in the last light during all seasons except the brief, nasty Siberian winter.

A commotion in the street made him swing his bony legs off the battered lounge chair. He tucked the mouthpiece of his pipe into a loop of hose from the censer and shuffled in broken-strap sandals to the railing.

Down below, vendors’ carts had pulled against the walls and a long line of prisoners (blue pajamas, short hair, wrists and necks imprisoned in black plastic kangs) shuffled past like a column of ants. Guards in wide-brimmed duroplast helmets strode along the line at intervals, swinging short whips against the legs of laggards to hurry them on. The prisoners groaned and somebody started to sing a prison song in Alspeke, the only language that all humans knew:Smerta, smerta mi kalla/Ya nur trubna haf syegda…

Death, death, call me, I have nothing but trouble always. Picking up the rhythm, even the laggards began moving so quickly that the guards no longer had an excuse to strike.

A good song, thought Stef, lying down again, because it goes in two opposite directions, endurance and despair. Those are the poles of life, right? Of his life, anyway. Except for kif, which was close to being his religion, filling him during these evening hours with a distant cool melancholy, with what the Old Believers called Holy Indifference-meaning that what happened happened and you didn’t try to fuck with God.

And, of course, there was Dzhun. She meant a little more than lust, a good deal less than love. He whispered her name, which meant summertime in Alspeke, with its original English intonation and meaning: June.

Then frowned. He was, as usual, out of cash. Kif cost money. Then how was he supposed to afford Dzhun? He brooded, puffing slowly, letting the aromatic smoke leak from his nose and mouth. He needed a case. He needed a job. He needed money to fall on him out of the sky.

Even blase passengers who had seen Ulanor many times, perhaps even had grown up there, joined the newcomers in staring through the ports at the capital of the human race.

More than a million people! Dyeva thought. Who could believe a city so vast? Of course, compared to the world-cities of the twenty-first century, Ulanor was hardly a suburb. But this could at least give her a glimmering of the wonders that had been lost-a revelation of the once (and future?) world before the Time of Troubles had changed everything.

The shuttle was drifting along now, joining the traffic at the fifth level on the outermost ring, swinging around so that the city with its spoked avenues and glittering squares seemed to be turning. The copilot (a blackbox, of course) began speaking in a firm atonal voice, pointing out such wonders as Genghis Khan Allee, Yellow Emperor Place where the various sector controllers had their palaces, and Government of the Universe Place, where the President’s Palace faced the Senate of the Worlds.

“And then the Clouds and Rain District,” said a man’s voice, and the native Earthlings all broke into guffaws.

The blackbox paused politely while the disturbance quieted, then resumed its spiel. Dyeva had turned a delicate pink. The brothel district (named for a poetic Chinese description of intercourse, the “play of clouds and rain”) had been denounced in Old Believer churches ever since she could remember. And while she no longer was a believer herself, she retained a lively sense of the degradation endured by the women and men (and even children) who worked there.

She reflected that such exploitation formed the darkreverse of the civilization she loved and hoped to restore. Perhaps after all there was something to be said for the near-empty Earth of today. Then, impatiently, Dyeva shook the thought out of her head. This was no time for doubt. Not now. Notnow.

Stef was still frowning, with the mouthpiece between his lips, when his mashina chimed inside the apartment. Irritated because somebody was calling during his relaxing hour, he padded inside, evading the shadows of junk furniture, stepping over piles of unwashed clothing. He told the mashina, “Say,” and it flickered into life. Inside the box hovered the glowing head of Colonel Yamashita of the Security Forces.

“Hai, Korul Yama.”

“I need something private done. Come see me now, Gate 43.”

No waste words there. The image expired into a glowing dot. Sighing, Stef dropped his robe among the other castoffs on the floor and plowed into a musty closet, looking for something clean.

On the roof of the old building a hovercab with the usual blackbox for a driver nosed up when Stef pushed a call button. He climbed in and gave orders for the Lion House; Gate 43.

“Gratizor,”said the blackbox. Thank you, sir. Why were black boxes always more polite than people?

As they zipped down Genghis Khan Allee, Stef viewed the floodlit facades of Government of the Universe Place without much interest. He had long ago realized that they were a stage set and that all the action was behind the scenes. Bronze statues honored the Yellow Emperor, Augustus Caesar, Jesus, Buddha, Alexander the Great, and of course the ubiquitous Genghis Khan. All of them Great Unifiers of Humankind. Forerunners of the Worldcity and its denizens.

Genghis even had a pompous tomb set amid the floodlights-not that his bones were in it; nobody had ever found them. But yokels from the off worlds visited Ulanor specifically to gaze upon the grave of this greatest (and bloodiest) Unifier of them all.

Near the tomb foreshortened vendors were selling roasted nuts, noodles wrapped in paper, tiny bundles of kif, seaweed, bowls of miso and kimshi, and babaku chicken with texasauce. The scene was orderly; people strolled and ate at all hours and never feared crime. Breaking the law led to the Palace of Justice off Government of the Universe Place and the warren of tiled cells beneath that were called collectively the White Chamber. The formidable Kathmann, head of Earth Security, ruled the White Chamber, and his reputation alone was enough to keep Ulanor law-abiding.

The cab turned off the main drag, zipped down backalleys at a level twenty meters above the street, and drew up at a deep niche in a blankwhite slab of a building. Stef flashed his ID at the black box and a flicker of light acknowledged payment. He stepped into the foyer and a bored guard in a kiosk looked up.

“Hai?”

“Hai. Ya Steffens Aleksandr. Korul Yamashita ha’kalla.”

His voice activated a monitor. The guard stared at the resulting picture, then searched Stef’s face as if another, unauthorized face might be concealed beneath it. Finally he spoke to the security system, which silently opened a bronze-plated steel door.

In the public areas of the Lion House multicolored marble and crimson carvedshishi were everywhere, but here where the action was the hallways were blank, slapped together out of semiplast and floored with dusty gray mats. Light panels glowed in the ceiling, doors were blank, to confuse intruders. Stef, who knew the corridor well, counted nineteen doors and knocked.

He gasped as a stench that would have done honor to a real lion house hit him in the face. The door had been opened by a Darksider, and its furry mandrill face gazed at him with blackcat pupils set in huge around eyes the color of ripe raspberries. The creature had two big arms and two little ones; one big arm held the door, one rested on its gunbelt, and the two little ones scratched the thick fur on its chest.

“Korul Yamashita mi zhdat,”Stef managed to say without choking. Colonel Yama awaits me. The Darksider moved aside and he made his way through the dim guardroom followed by an unblinking red/ black stare. He knocked again, and at last entered Yamashita’s office.

“Hai,”said Stef, but Yama wasted no time.

“Stef, I got a problem,” he began. Everything in the office was made of black or white duroplast, as if to withstand an earthquake or a revolution. Stef slipped into a blackchair that apparently had been consciously shaped to cause discomfort.

“Why the animal outside? Can’t you afford a human guard?” asked Stef, looking around for a kif pipe and seeing none.

“Everybody important has a Darksider now. More reliable, even if they do stink. Now listen. This information is absolutely a be header, so I hope your necktingles if you ever feel an urge to divulge it. For months I been getting vague reports from the Lion Sector about terrorists who are interested in time travel. Now something’s happened here on Earth. Somebody’s pirated a wormholer from the University.”

“Oh, shit.” Since Stef hadn’t even known that a real wormholer existed, his surprise was genuine.

“The people who were responsible for the machine are now with Kathmann in the White Chamber and I assure you that if it was an inside job the Security Forces will soon know.”

“I bet they will.”

“I don’t have to spell out for you the danger if someglupetz gets at the past. Ever since the technology came along, assholes have been wanting to go back and change this, change that. They don’t understand the chaotic effect of such changes. They don’t see how things can spin out of control.”

Yamashita sat brooding, a man who had devoted his life to control.

“They think they can manage the time process. They don’t see how some little thing, some insignificant thing, can send history spinning off in some direction they haven’t foreseen, nobody’s foreseen.”

Stef nodded. He was thinking about someone monkeying with the past, suddenly causing himself, or Dzhun, or the genius who had synthesized kif to wink out of existence. It was hard to maintain Holy Indifference in the face of possibilities like that.

“What can I do?”

But Yama hadn’t finished complaining.

“Why don’t thesesvini do something useful?” he fretted.Svini meant swine. “Why don’t they try to change the future instead of the past, try to make it better?”

“Possibly because you’d execute them if they did.”

Suddenly Yama grinned. He and Stef went back a long way; the academy, service on Io, on Luna. They had been rivals once but no longer. Yama headed the Security Service at the Lion House, a fat job; the Lion Sector which it administered was a huge volume of space with hundreds of inhabited worlds stretching up the spiral arm toward the dense stars of the galactic center.

Meanwhile Stef was out on his ass, picking up small assignments to solve problems Yama didn’t want to go public with. Like the present one: Yama had no authority on Earth, but suspected a connection between a local happening and one in Far Space. As an agent, Stef had two great advantages-he was reliable and deniable.

“It’s true,” Yama went on, “I like things as they are. Humanity’s been through a lot of crap to get where it is. We need to conserve what we’ve got.”

“Absolutely.”

Yama looked suspiciously at Stef’s bland face. He didn’t like Stef to say things that might be either sincere or ironic, or might wag like a dog’s tail, back and forth.

Stef grinned just a little. “Yama, I really do agree with you. Against all logic I’m happy, and happy people don’t want change. Now, how can I find this wormholer thief?”

Yama was instantly all business again. “I’ll tell you everything you need to know,” he said.

“And not a bit more.”

“Absolutely,” said Yama, who really did have a sense of humor, colonel of security or not. He began by transferring one hundred khans to Stef’s meager bank account, knowing that Stef would promptly spend it and need more, and his need would keep him working.

As Yama talked, across the city in his big, heavily mortgaged house Professor Yang Li-Qutsai was in his study, lecturing to his mashina under staring vaporlamps.

His famous course at the University of the Universe,Origa Nash Mir (Origin of Our World), drew a thousand students every time he gave it. The reason was not profound scholarship-Yang plagiarized almost everything he said-but his brilliance as a speaker. At times he seemed to be a failed actor rather than a successful academic. His image included a long gray beard, a large polished skull, a frightening array of fingernails, and a deep, sonorous voice that made everything he said seem important, whether it was or not. A memory cube recorded his lecture for resale to the off worlds where dismal little academies under strange suns would thrill to the echoes of his wisdom.

Even as he spoke, lucidly, stabbing the air with a long thin index finger that ended in nine centimeters of nail, Yang was calculating what resale and residual rights on the lecture might bring him. Enough to purchase a villa at the fashionable south end of Lake Bai? Peace at home, among his four wives? At least an expensive whore?

On the whole, he thought, I’d better settle for the whore. Half of his two-track mind dreamed of girls even while the other half was retelling the most calamitous event in the brief, horrid history of civilized man. The first lecture of his course was always on the Time of Troubles.

“Considering that the Troubles created our world,” he declared, “it is shocking-yes, shocking-that we know so little about how the disaster began. In two brief years (2091-2093) twelve billion people died, with all their memories. Seven hundred vast cities were obliterated, with all their records; three hundred-odd governments vanished, with all their archives of hardcopy, records, discs, tapes and the first crude memory cubes. No wonder we know so little! “Where and why did the fighting start? The Nine Plagues-when did they break out? Blue Nile hemorrhagic fever and multiple-drug-resistant blackpox were raging in Africa as early as the 2070s.

Annual worldwide outbreaks of lethal influenza had become the rule by 2080. It seems that the Time of Troubles was well under way even before the outbreak of war.”

Introductions were always troublesome: students, realizing they were in for a long hour, began to sink into a trance like state accompanied by fluttering eyelids and restless movements of the pelvis. A warning light on the box glowed green and Yang headed at once into the horror stories that gave the course much of its appeal.

“But the war of 2091 produced the most spectacular effects: the destruction of the cities, the Two Year Winter, and the Great Famine. Let us take as an example the great city of Moscow, where robot excavators have recently given us an in-depth picture-if I may be pardoned a little joke-of the horrors that attended its destruction. A city of thirty million in 2090…”

Detail after horrendous detail followed: the skeleton-choked subway with its still beautiful mosaics recording the reign of Tsar Stalin the Good; the dry trench of the Moskva River whose waters had been vaporized in one glowing instant and blocked by rubble so that the present river flowed fifteen clicks away; the great Kremlin Shield of fused silicon stretching over the one time city center, with its radioactive core that would glow faintly for at least 50,000 years.

Observing with satisfaction that his indicator light was turning from unlucky green to lucky red, Professor Yang moved onto the horrors of London, Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, and New York. Then he spoke briefly about the closed zones that still surrounded the lost cities, of irradiated wildlife undergoing rapid evolutionary change in bizarre and clamorous Edens where the capitals of great empires had stood, only three hundred years ago…

The interest indicator glowed like a Darksider’s eye. Professor Yang strode up and down, his voice deepening, his gray beard swishing in the wind, his long fingers clawing at the air.

“Precisely how did it happen-this great calamity?” he demanded. “How much we know, and how little!

Will it remain for the scholars of your generation to solve these riddles finally? I confess that mine has shed only a little light around the edges of the forbidding darkness that we call-the Time of Troubles!”

As usual, his lecture lasted exactly the time allotted, a one-hundred-minute hour. As usual, it ended with a key phrase, reminding the drowsy student of what he had been hearing at the rim of his clouded consciousness.

The power light in the mashina winked off, and Professor Yang shouted: “Tea!”

A door flew open and a scurrying domestic wheeled in the tea caddy, the cup, themolko, the tins of oolong and Earl Grey.

“Sometimes,” muttered Yang, “I think I’ll die of boredom if I ever have to talk about the Troubles again.”

“One lump or two?” asked the domestic, and Yang, who drank tea after the ancient English fashion, turned anxious attention to the small, ridiculously expensive lumps of natural brown sugar.

“Two, I think,” he said.

If residuals from the lecture didn’t buy him a girl, at least they would, he hoped, keep him supplied with sugar for sometime to come.

The clocks of the Worldcity were nearing 21 when Yamashita, dining comfortably at home with his wife Hariko, heard his security-coded mashina chime and hastened into his den to receive a secret report from Earth Security. Somebody had cracked under interrogation. Yama listened to the report with growing dismay.

“Shit, piss, and corruption,” he growled. “Secretary!”

“Sir?” murmured the box in a soft atonal voice.

“Contact Steffens Aleksandr. If he’s not at home-and of course he won’t be-start calling the houses in the Clouds and Rain District. Make it absolutely clear that this is a security matter and that we expect cooperation in finding him.”

“Yes, sir. His home is not answering.”

“Try Brother and Sister House. Try Delights of Spring House. Try Radiant Love House. Then try all the others.”

“And when I find Steffens Aleksandr?”

“Tell him to wipe his cock and get to my office soonest.”

“Is that message to be conveyed literally?”

“Yes!”

Back at the table, he had barely had time to fold his legs under him when Hariko told him to stop using bad language in the house where the children might hear him.

“Yes, little wife,” said the man of power meekly.

“I suppose you have to go to the office again.”

“Yes, little wife. An emergency-”

“Always your emergencies,” said Hariko. “Why do I waste hours making you good food to eat if you’re never here to eat it? And why do you employ that awful Steffens person? He’s a disgrace, a man his age who lives like a tomcat. Not everyone can be as happy as we are, but everybody can have a decent, conventional life.”

Yama ate quietly, occasionally agreeing with her until she ran out of words. Then he went upstairs, removed his comfortable kimono, and put on again the sour uniform he’d worn all day.

On the way down, pinching his thick neck as he tried to close the collar, he stopped in the children’s bedrooms to make sure they were all asleep. The boys in their bunk beds slept the extravagant sleep of childhood. Looking at them, gently patting their cheeks, Yama reflected that adults and animals always slept as if they half expected to be awakened-children never.

Then to the girls’ room, where his daughter Kazi slumbered in the embrace of a stuffed haknim. Yama smiled at her but lingered longest at the bedside of his smallest daughter. Rika was like a doll dreaming, with a tiny bubble forming on her half-parted pinklips. He was thinking: if someone changes the past, she may vanish, never have a chance to live at all. To prevent that, he resolved to destroy without mercy every member of the time-travel conspiracy.

At the front door Hariko tied a scarf around his neck and gave him a hug; she was too modest to kiss her husband in the open doorway, even though they were twenty meters above the street. He patted her and stepped into the official hovercar that had nosed up to his porch.

“Lion House, Gate 43,” he told the blackbox, and sank back against the cushions.

At Radiant Love House, Professor Yang relaxed from his scholarly labors on one side of a double divan in the midprice parlor and viewed 3-D images of young women to the ancient strains of Tchaikovsky’sNutcracker.

“Do you see anything that pleases you?” asked the box that was projecting the images.

“Truly, it is a Waltz of the Flowers,” replied Yang sentimentally. The smell of kif wafted through the room, presumably from a hidden censer.

“The darkbeauty of Miss Luvblum contrasts so markedly with the rare-indeed, unique-blondness of Miss Sekzkitti,” murmured the box, going through its recorded spiel. “The almond eyes of Miss Ming remind us of the splendor of the dynasty from which she takes hernom d’amour. Every young lady is mediscanned on a daily basis to insure her absolute purity and freedom from disease. Miss Gandhi is skilled in all the acts of the famousKama Sutra. For a small additional fee, an electronic room may be rented in which the most modern appliances are available to heighten the timeless joys of love.”

Professor Yang had already halfway made his selection-the most expensive of the “stable.” Miss Selassie was a tall, slender woman of Ethiopian descent who had been genetically altered into an albino.

The box referred to her as “the White Tiger of the Nile,” and bald, bearded, long-nailed Yang, at ninety-nine reaching the extreme limits of middle age, found his thoughts turning more and more to her astounding beauty. Her body is like a living Aphrodite of ancient Greece, he thought, while her face is like a living spirit mask of ancient Africa.

“Miss Selassie, how much is she?”

“One hundred khans an hour.”

“Oh, dear. And how much for an electronic room?”

Professor Yang rightly believed that all the appliances known to modern science would be needed if he was to spend his expensive hour doing anything more than enjoying Miss Selassie’s company.

“Fifty khans an hour. However,” said the box seductively, “for such a man as yourself, Honored Professor, the house gladly makes a special price: Miss Selassieand an electronic room for an hour for the sum total of-”

A brief pause, during which Yang felt himself growing anxious.

“One hundred and thirty-five khans, a ten-percent reduction.”

“Agreed,” breathed Yang, giving himself no time to think. There was a brief flutter in the box as his bankchecked his voiceprint and transferred another K135 from his already deflated account to one of the bulging accounts of Radiant Love House.

“You should’ve asked for twenty percent off,” said a voice, making Yang jump.

A long, stringy, bony man holding a kif pipe rose from the other side of the double divan and stretched and yawned.

“I hope you haven’t been eavesdropping,” snapped Yang.

“No more than I had to,” said Stef in a bored voice. “I’ve made my selection, but the selectee is popular and she’s busy. I’m just telling you, if you’ve got the balls to bargain you can get them down twenty percent, sometimes more if it’s a slow night. The ten percent reduction they offer you is just merchandizing.”

Resentment at the stranger’s intrusion struggled with economic interest in Professor Yang’s breast. The latter won.

“Really?” he said.

“Sure. I do it all the time. You could’ve gotten the whole works for one-twenty.”

“Indeed. And the electronic room-is it really worth it?”

“It is if you have to have it.”

Yang was just beginning to get angry when the door opened and a very tall naked woman entered. Her hair was in a thousand white braids and her eyes were oval rubies. The aureoles of her taut, almost conical breasts were much the same color as her eyes. A faint scent of faux ambergris wafted into the waiting room and mingled with the fumes of kif. Yang sat hypnotized.

“You the customer?” she asked Stef with some interest.

“No, I’m waiting for Dzhun. This guy’s your customer.”

“Figures,” she sighed, and taking Professor Yang’s thin and trembling hand in her own, the White Tiger led him away.

A few minutes later the box made two announcements: Dzhun was ready, and Stef was to wipe his cock and get to Yama’s office soonest. Stef promptly did what he almost never did-lost it completely.

“FUCK THE FUCKING UNIVERSE!” he roared in English. The divan weighed a hundred kilos but he tossed it end over end. At the crash the door flew open and a guard entered, pulling an impact pistol half as long as her arm. Stef calmed down instantly.

“Ya bi sori.My deepest and humblest apologies,” he said, clapping his hands together and bowing. “I don’t know what came over me.”

Stef had seen a number of bodies killed by impact weapons. A body shot usually left very little except the head, arms and legs, plus assorted fragments.

“Straighten out the goddamn sofa,” said the guard, watching him narrowly. She was Mongol and looked tough. Stef did as he was told.

“Incidentally,” he said as he was leaving, “I’ll need a raincheck on Dzhun. I already paid my khans.”

“Talk to the front desk,” growled the guard.

Outside, Stef took a deep breath and ordered a hovercab. He felt that he now had a personal score to settle with thesvini who had not only stolen a wormholer but forestalled his session with Dzhun. Since thesvini were the only reason he currently had money enough to buy her time, that was unreasonable. But Stef wanted to be unreasonable. That was how he felt.

“So the theft was an inside job,” he muttered, trying without success to get comfortable in one of Yama’s black chairs.

“Yes. A trusted scientist turns out to belong to a terrorist group that calls itself Crux. He’s been checked a hundred times. Living quietly, no extra money, no nothing. During lie-detection tests, brain chemicals always indicated he was telling the truth. Trouble was, the wrong questions got asked. Are you loyal? To what? He answers yes, meaning loyal to humanity as he understands it. Are you a member of any subversive group? Subversive in what sense? To the existing order, or to humanity? He gets by with a false answer again.”

“What exactly do these Crux fuckers believe in?”

“Life. The absolute value of human life. The wormholer opens the way to reverse the worst calamity in human history, the Time of Troubles. Trillions of lives are hanging on the issue-not only the lives that were lost in the famines and plagues and wars but all their descendants to the tenth generation.”

Stef growled, scratched himself, longing for kif, for Dzhun. “Bunch of fucking idealists.”

“Exactly. People with a vision, willing to destroy the real world for the sake of an idea. We’ve gotta kill them all.”

Yama jumped up-a springy man, muscular, bandy-legged. He was fifty and nearing middle age, but a lifetime of the martial arts enabled him to bounce around like a ball of elastoplast.

“Kill them!” he roared, chopping at the air.

Watching him tired Stef.

“And this was what you called me back for?”

“No. Or not only.” Yama fell back into the desk chair. “The group that has this grand vision is, of course, organized in cells that have to be cracked one by one. But the guy who talked in the White Chamber knew one name outside his cell, the name of a woman, an off worlder. She’s called Dyeva. She’s one of the founders of the movement, and she was supposed to contact him.”

Stef sighed. “Anything from IC on her?”

“No,” admitted Yama. “No report yet from Infocenter.”

“Call me when one comes in,” said Stef, rising. “I’m extremely grateful for the way you took me away from my pleasures to give me information that, as yet, has no practical significance. Please don’t do it again.”

Yama saw him to the door, nodding to the Darksider who approached smelling like the shit of lions, owls and cormorants mixed together. Stef pinched his nostrils and spoke like a duck.

“I love coming to your office, Yama. The place has a certain air about it.”

Half an hour later, Stef was again sprawled in the middling expensive parlor at Radiant Love House, waiting. Another customer had taken Dzhun while he was away. Stef spent the time smoking kif and thinking about shooting Dyeva, whoever she was, with an impact pistol.

“Phut,”he said, imitating the uninspiring sound of the weapon. He made his long hands into a ball and drew them rapidly apart, imitating the explosion inside the target. Stef had studied wound ballistics and he knew that impact ammo vaporized in the body and formed a rapidly expanding sphere of superheated gas and destructive particles.Dyeva v’atomi sa dizolva, he thought. Thesvin flies apart, turns to molecules, atoms, protons and quarks.

“How happy I am,” murmured the box, “to inform you, Sir, that the person of your choice is ready to receive you.”

Instantly Stef was up and moving, his bloody thoughts forgotten. At heart he was a lover, not a killer.

In the blue peace of the electronic room, Professor Yang lay huddled under a sheet of faux silk.

Beside him, her hand still languidly resting on a gadget called an erector-injector, lay a statue of living ivory. At least he now knew the White Tiger’s given name. Even if it was only a prost’s working name, anom d’amour, for Yang it was what the old French phrase meant-a name of love.

“Selina,” he murmured, and she turned her head and smiled at him.

“I’m afraid your time is up,” she whispered. “But perhaps you’ll come again, my dear. You were special.”

“Selina,” he said again. Around him monitors winked and a low electromagnetic hum soothed with a white sound. Yang was all too conscious of the birth of a new obsession, one even less affordable than four wives and natural sugar.

“Imust see you again,” he said.

Detecting the urgent note in his voice, Selina smiled. Ah, that enigmatic whore’s smile! thought Yang with pain in his heart. What did it mean? Pleasure in you, pleasure in your money, no pleasure at all but mere professionalism? Who could tell?

Wasn’t this how he had happened to marry the most obnoxious of his four wives?

Dyeva sat quietly in the front room of a small but elegant suburban villa.

The windows were open and the morning sun entered through a gentle screen of glossy leaves thrown out by a lemon tree. The room held all the necessities of rustic living, bare beams across the ceiling, lounges covered with faux linen, a glass table bearing apples and oranges and kuvisu fruit, and a mashina half the length of the wall to entertain the owner, a Professor of Rhetoric whose hobby was playing at revolution.

Relaxing on the lounges were the other members of the cell: two students and a dark and tensely attractive woman of middle age who bore a painted mark on her forehead. The students were still talking about Professor Yang’s lecture of last evening, tailor-made as it seemed for the members of Crux.

“Lord Buddha, but he makes you see it,” said the boy, fingering a string of beads restlessly. He was an Old Believer. Dyeva had noticed years ago that such people were represented in Crux far beyond their numbers in the general population.

The girl was lovely: bronzed, yellow-haired, sloe-eyed, the perfect Eurasian. She called herself Dian and spoke in a throaty whisper that someone had told her was mysterious.

“Actually, he’s a horrible old man. But it’s as Kuli says, he has the gift of making the past live.”

“Weexpect to do more along that line,” said the owner of the villa in a deep, resonant voice, and the two young people laughed happily. All three of them loved the taste of conspiracy; the older man, whose codename was Zet, earnestly hoped to seduce Dian. Supposedly nobody in the group knew anybody else’s real name. They had a vast and fundamentally childish panoply of measures to preserve secrecy-passwords, hand signals, ways of passing information in complicated and difficult ways.

Because cyberspace was a favorite hunting ground for the super-mashini of the Security Forces, they avoided electronic contact whenever possible. Instead, they had oaths, secret meetings, symbols. Their key symbol was the looped cross of ancient Egypt, thecrux ansata -the sign of life.

Kuli wore a crux on a cord around his neck; at meetings he took it out for all to see. The girl, Dyeva noted with amazement, had the symbol tattooed on the palm of one slender hand. Why didn’t the senior members of the cell force her to have it removed?

People had often told Dyeva that she had icewater in her veins. That wasn’t true: her emotions were intense, only deeply buried. Right now anger and alarm were stirring deep beneath her mask like face.

Did her life, to say nothing of the lives of trillions of human beings, depend on these amateurs, children?

The dark woman, who called herself Lata, brushed a hand across her brow and said, “The essential thing is to speed our visitor safely on her way. And I must tell all of you something I learned last night. The theft of the wormholer has been discovered and there have been arrests.”

“Arrests?”demanded Dian, in a scandalized tone. “Of someone Iknow?”

She seemed to think that the polizi had no right to arrest members of a secret organization merely because it was bent on annihilating the existing world.

“No,” sighed Lata. “Fortunately for you. That beast Kathmann and the polizi drugged and tortured both the guards and the people who were responsible for technical maintenance of the wormholer. Thus they learned that one of the scientists had been involved in the theft. Thank god, the device had already been turned over to another cell, and the poor man who talked didn’t know their names or where it is at present.”

The two young people seemed paralyzed. Zet was turning his head from side to side, looking at the furniture, the fresh fruit. Dyeva had no trouble reading his mind: theglupetz had suddenly realized that he could lose all this by playing at conspiracy. Some day, she thought, if he thinks about it long enough, he will realize that he may lose much more.

“I will go with you,” said Dyeva, rising and pointing at Lata, apparently the only one of the gathering with any sense. “You will conduct me. I must not stay here longer and endanger these heroes of humanity.”

Zet looked relieved at the news she’d soon be gone; Kuli and Dian were still absorbing the news of the arrests. He was stunned, she indignant.

“Oh, but the people who were tortured-they’re martyrs!” she exclaimed suddenly and burst into tears.

“Yes,” said Dyeva, “and by this time they are also corpses. Death is the reward the technicians of the Chamber hold out to their victims. I will be packed and gone in five minutes if you will lead me,” she said to Lata.

“Of course,” said the dark woman, and Dyeva hastened to the room where she had slept to gather her kit.

Later, in Lata’s hovercar, Dyeva asked her how she had come to join the movement.

“I despise this world,” Lata said quietly. “It’s a gutter of injustice and pain. Nothing will be lost if this world suddenly vanishes at the word of Lord Krishna. Of course, if we manage to undo the Troubles, success will cost us our own lives. That is the splendor of Crux. If our movement did not demand the ultimate sacrifice I would not have joined it.”

Another Old Believer, though Dyeva, only this time of the Hindu type. And I was brought up a Christ-worshipper, and the boy Kuli is a Buddhist. Are we all remnants and leftovers of a dead world? Is that why we wish to restore it? “What are you thinking?” asked Lata.

“Wondering why the movement contains so many Old Believers.”

“Oh, I think I know. It’s because we want to undo the death of our faiths. So many people simply stopped believing after the Troubles. They said to themselves, There is no God. Or, if there is and he allows this to happen, I do not care about him.”

Dyeva glanced at her curiously. They were entering the airspace above Ulanor and Lata paid frowning attention to the traffic until a beam picked up her car’s blackbox. For an instant Dyeva had a powerful urge to continue this conversation, to talk about things that had real meaning. Then she remembered that the less Lata knew about her, and she about Lata, the better for both of them.

“We all come to it for different reasons,” she said guardedly, and silence followed. The little car revolved above the Worldcity, bearing two women who hoped to change it into a phantasm that never had existed at all.

Stef and Dzhun were having breakfast in a teashop deep in the Clouds and Rain District. Half the customers seemed to recognize Dzhun, and she waved and blew kisses to them. She had scrubbed off her white working makeup and with it had gone her nighttime pretense of lotus delicacy and passivity.

She looked and was a tough young woman to whom life had not been kind.

“Wild turnover last night,” she said to a red-haired eunuch who had stopped by the table to shriek and fondle her. “I did ten guys.”

“Oh my dear,” said thesisi, “I do ten on my way to work.”

“Seems you’ve got some catching up to do,” Stef told Dzhun when thesisi had moved on.

“Oh, he’s such a bragger. And old, too. When I’m his age I’ll have my own house and instead of bragging about doing ten guys I’ll be doing one-the one I choose.”

“And that one will be me.”

“Only if you get rich,” said Dzhun candidly, buttering a bun. “I’m tired of being arobotchi, a working stiff.

I’ve got a senator on the string now, Stef, did I tell you? Soon you won’t be able to afford me at all.”

She dimpled as she always did when saying unpalatable things.

“Is that why I’m buying you breakfast?”

“Oh Stef, I’m just needling you. I love my poor friends, too. Look, why don’t you take me to Lake Bai for a week or two? Get a cabin. I won’t demand a villa. Not yet.”

“Unfortunately, I’m on a big case right now. One that might even save your life.”

Dzhun stopped eating and stared at him. “You’re telling the truth?”

“Believe it. When the payoff comes, it’ll be as big as the case. Then we’ll go to Bai. Get a villa, not a cabin.”

Stef spoke with the calm assurance he employed when he was in a state of total uncertainty. The investigation was dead in the water. The arrests had not led to the wormholer. IC still hadn’t come up with a make on Dyeva. Mashini were combing passenger lists of recent arrivals from the off worlds-voiceprints, retinographs, DNA samples-turning up nobody with a record, nobody who fit the profiles. Stef’s local contacts had nothing to offer.

“What’s it all about, Stef?” asked Dzhun.

“Never mind. The case is a be header. It’s nothing you want to know about, so don’t ask. It’s a security matter and it’d be a hell of a shame if the Darksiders came and carted off a butt like yours to the White Chamber.”

Their voices had fallen to whispers. Dzhun’s face was so close that Stef’s breath moved her long eyelashes. A delicate scent clung to her kimono, some nameless off world flower, and the drooping faux silk disclosed the roundness of her little breasts like pomegranates. Stef could have eaten her with a spoon.

“I won’t say anything,” she promised. “If anybody asks what you’re doing, I’ll say that you never tell me anything.”

Stef leaned back and sipped the bitter green tea he used to clear his head in the morning. Effortlessly, Dzhun put her whore’s persona on again, screaming and waving at a friend who had just entered the teashop. Towering over the crowd, the White Tiger of the Nile headed for their table.

She and Dzhun kissed and Selina sat down, nodding at Stef.

“Hell of a night,” she said to them and the world in general. “I did a dozen guys.”

“Oh, Selina,” said Dzhun. “Honey, I do a dozen on my way to work.”

Yamashita clapped his hands and bowed to announce himself to thefromazhi -the big cheeses. It was the morning meeting of the Secret Emergency Committee that had been formed to deal with the wormholer theft.

Yama’s boss, Oleary, Deputy Controller of the Lion Sector, grunted a welcome, adding, “You know these people, I’m sure.”

Considering that he was talking about the Solar System Controller, her deputy the Earth Controller, her Chief of Security, and Admiral Hrka of the Far Space Service, that was inadequate to say the least.

The SSC was Xian Xi-Qing, a small woman with a parchment face, tiny hands and dull gold and jade rings stacked two and three to a finger. She was famous for many things, her three husbands, her stable of male concubines, the ruthlessness and cleverness that had kept her alive and in power for decades.

She glared at Yama and demanded abruptly, “We’ve heard from Kathmann. At least he’s caught somebody. What areyou doing about this wormholer business? I’ve heard rumors the conspiracy originated in your sector.”

Yama took his time seating himself on a backless chair known as theshozit, or hot seat. The grandees faced him behind a Martian gilt table surrounded by an invisible atmosphere of power. Admiral Hrka, Yama noted, wasn’t even wearing his nine stars. That was the ultimate sign of status. Nobody needed to seehis rating.

Among the bureaucrats, the admiral looked and probably felt out of place. Hrka usually dealt with the arcane business of moving in Far Space-using inertial compensators and particle beam trans-lightspeed accelerators, navigating by mag space forcelines and staging chronometric reentries where an error of a microsecond could put him deep inside the glowing core of a planet. He was accustomed to using atomlasers that could melt steel at half a million clicks, launching supertorps at near-light velocities and converting the enemies of his species into plasma thinner than the solar wind.

Now he found himself face to face with a threat that might enable one fragile human to undo his world and render all his knowledge and bravery pointless. He looked as if he longed to be in Far Space now, where even if he was a thousand light years from anyplace he knew where he was.

Seated to one side was Kathmann, Yama’s opposite number in Earth Security. He resembled a files technician, with his pointed head and fat neck. He wore replacement eyes and the plastic corneas glittered blankly.

Quietly Yama laid out the steps taken so far to locate members of Crux. The notion that the conspiracy had grown up in the Lion Sector remained unproven, yet diligent inquiries were underway on all the Sector’s two hundred and thirty-six inhabited worlds. All available mag space transponder circuits had been cleared for this one task. Enough energy to light Ulanor for six weeks had already been poured into the message traffic. The whole business was necessarily slow; even at maximum power, a message routed through mag space from the farthest planets of the Sector took more than seventy standard hours to reach Earth.

And so on. Actually he had nothing to report and his aim was to make nothing sound like something.

When he was done thefromazhi, who knew bureaucratic boilerplate when they heard it, just sat there looking bored. Only Kathmann spoke up.

“All your inquiries are on off worlds?”

“Certainly. That’s where our authority begins and ends.”

“You’re not invading my territory, using unofficial agents here on Earth?”

Yama was shocked.

“Onor kolleg, eto ne’legalni!”he exclaimed. “Honored colleague, that’s illegal!”

Kathmann raised one fat fist and stared at Yama with eyes like worn silver half-khan pieces.

“Remember, Colonel, this hand holds the keys to the White Chamber!”

Yama raised his own much solider fist.

“And this one, Colonel Kathmann, has killed a thousand enemies of the State!”

The spat had Admiral Hrka grinning.

“Simmer down, boys,” he said, while the Earth Controller, a man named Ugaitish, muttered into his beard,“Spokai, spokai. Take it easy.”

“What I want to know,” said Oleary in a fretful tone, “is why anybody built this goddamn gadget in the first place. If it didn’t exist it couldn’t be stolen.”

“It was some idiots at the University,” said Ugaitish. “They just had to see if the theory worked. They applied for a permit, all very legal, and some minor official gave them anoke for the materials, which are pretty exotic. There’s no use putting them in the White Chamber,” he added, waving a hand to shut Kathmann up.

Xian agreed. “Typical academics. All they know is what they know. Not an atom of common sense.”

“Besides,” Ugaitish added, “the academics were the ones who reported the theft. Except for that, nobody would know anything about it.”

“They should be beheaded anyway,” Kathmann growled, “to get rid of the dangerous knowledge in their brains. A laser can do it in five seconds, and there you are.”

Yama’s sharp eyes intercepted the glance that passed among thefromazhi. Kathmann made them uneasy-a man who knew too much and executed too readily. Yama filed away this insight for future reference.

“At this point, beheading is not the issue,” declared Hrka. “Let me sum up. A woman, name unknown, took a commercial ship, probably somewhere in the Lion Sector-now there’s a big volume of space to cover-and traveled to Earth, where she has, perhaps, contacted a group of terrorists who intend to obliterate our world by changing the past. The group has a functional wormholer, calls itself Crux, and in the most overpoliced human society since the fall of the Imperial Chinese People’s Republic nobody knows who they are or where they are. Have I stated the situation clearly?”

Xian glared first at him, then at the two cops in turn.

“You better find them,” she said, “or I’ll put youboth in the White Chamber.”

She let that sinkin, then said more formally: “Honored security chiefs, we permit you to go.”

When they were gone, Xian told the others, “We need information now. Ugaitish is putting out a public call for help. We don’t have to tell everything, just that a gang of terrorists called Crux is on the loose, planning to kill many innocent people.”

“Is that wise?” worried Oleary. “Informing the masses seems like an extreme step to me.”

“If we don’t, the politicians will. I have to brief the President and the Senate today, and what do you think will happen then?”

“Much smoke, much heat, no light,” said Hrka fatalistically. “Well, we’d better catch these bastards. The whole world order as we know it exists only because of the Time of Troubles. Without that, everything would be different.”

Thefromazhi stared at each other. “Great Tao,” said Ugaitish, “if these scoundrels succeed-even if we continue to exist at all, we might be anything. Coolies, prisoners, off world scum!”

“Ask for help,” Oleary told Xian. “If necessary, beg.”

After his night in the District, Stef needed sleep. Yet he spent a couple of hours at his mashina, checking his regular contacts for hints of terrorist groups. He heard gossip about lunatics who wanted to blow up Genghis’ tomb, but nothing of interest to him. So he went to bed.

The daytime noises rising from Golden Horde Street had no power to keep him awake. He had slept away too many days, sunk in the half light admitted from the roofed balcony, embracing rumpled bedcovers in the brown shadows of afternoon. In a few minutes he drifted off, but not for long.

He woke suddenly thinking he must have shit on himself. He reached for his pistol just as a crushing furry weight fell on him.

The ceiling light went on and the Darksider rolled Stef over and sat on his back. For an agonized few moments he couldn’t breathe at all, while the creature, aided by a human Stef never saw clearly, thrust his hands into a kang and locked the wrists. Then the Darksider rose, bent down over its gasping victim and lifted him so that the kang could be clamped on his neck as well. A four-fingered, two-thumbed hand gripped his hair and pulled him to a sitting position.

Spots drifted before his eyes in a red torrent that slowly cleared. Stef was sitting naked on the bed with a black plastic kang clamped on his wrists and neck. His faint hope that this might be a nightmare died. The Darksider was standing bowlegged by the bed and scratching its chest. The human seemed to be wearing a polizi uniform; he kept to the shadows just beyond the limits of Stef’s vision. Head immobilized, Stef tried to twist his body to get a view of his captor, but without success.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Your guide, Mr. Steffens. I’m here to show you something you never saw before.”

“What?”

“The inside of the White Chamber.”

At a gesture, the Darksider tossed a sack over Stef’s head and pulled a cord tight around his neck. A hypodermic gun spat at his shoulder and he had a horrifying sense that his whole body was melting into a cold and lifeless fluid before darkness descended.

He would have preferred not to wake up, but wake he did. Still in the kang, still with the sack over his head. Of course you’re not comfortable, he told himself. You’re not supposed to be comfortable. He had no idea how long he’d been here, except that he was thirsty and hungry. No idea where “here” was, except somewhere in the warrens of the White Chamber.

He had urinated at some point and was sitting in the wet. The cell was so small that his knees were folded up against his chest. His icy toes pressed against metal that was probably the door. The cell was narrower than the kang, and Stef had to sit with his body twisted. There was no way to move, no way to rest. As the hours passed, agonizing pains began to shoot through his back and side. Breathing became difficult. He began suffering waves of panic at the thought that the polizi would leave him here until he slowly suffocated. The panic made things worse; he started to hyperventilate, and every breath stabbed him like a knife. He tried to calm himself, counting slow shallow breaths that didn’t hurt so much.

Then voices approached along a corridor outside the cell. Faint hope was followed by stomach-knotting fear. They might let me go; it was all a mistake; Yama will get me out. No, Yama doesn’t know anything and anyway he doesn’t control the polizi. They’re coming to torture me.

The voices came close. Two techs were discussing a “client,” as they called their victims. Voices neutral, atonal like the voices of two black boxes.

“Maybe twenty cc of gnosine would do it.”

“I dunno. This client is a tough case.”

“Maybe needles in the spinal marrow…”

They were gone. A faint noise in the distance remained unidentifiable until a door in the corridor slid open. Then Stef heard a whimpering, sobbing sound that made all the hairs rise on the back of his neck.

Extreme agony, he thought-beyond screaming.

The door slid shut again and the sound became a low meaningless murmur. Human footsteps approached again. Two voices.

“Just wonderful, Doctor. I never thought she’d break.”

“Sometimes a combination of therapies is essential.”

They too were gone. Doctors. Technicians. Therapies. Clients. The language of the Chamber. We are not sadists, we are scientists performing a distasteful but necessary function in the cause of justice. Try the gnosine, try the needles, try everything in combination. Promise the clients life; after you’ve worked on them for a while, promise them death.

When the polizi came at last, they came in silence. Without the slightest warning the door clanged open.

Somebody yelled, “Get the scum! Get the piece of shit!”

A Darksider grabbed Stef’s legs and dragged him into the hall and the wrench on his cramped limbs made him scream. Then the animal was dragging him down the hall by the heels while boots kicked at Stef’s ribs and head.

The kang knocked against the walls and floor. A human hand grabbed his testicles and twisted and he screamed again, louder than before. Then somebody, a crowd of them, human and inhuman, seized the ends of the kang and dragged him to his feet.

“Walk! Walk, you piece of shit! Walk!”

He couldn’t and fell and somebody kicked him hard in the groin and this time he did no screaming. He was unconscious.

He woke with intense light in his eyes. He was sitting in a hard duroplast chair and the sack was off his head. His eyes burned; agony rose in waves from his groin. Somebody in hard boots stamped on the bare toes of his left foot.

Stef wasn’t thinking any longer, he was living in nothing but the conviction that every second some new pain would strike. What next, what next? Hands seized the kang and pulled it back. Other hands, some human, some inhuman, grabbed his ankles and stretched out his legs. In the blazing light he was halfblind, absolutely helpless. Somebody touched his breastbone and he moaned and his stomach knotted, expecting the blow.

Nothing happened. The light dimmed. Gradually his eyes cleared. A man with a pointed head was standing before him. The man had plastic eyes that went blank when he moved his head. There was no crowd of tormentors, only two thuggi from Earth Central and one Darksider. One of the thuggi gave the other a piece of candy and they stood there, chewing. The Darksider scratched its furry backside against a wall.

“Mr. Steffens.”

“Yes,” whispered Stef.

“I’m sending you home now. For the future, will you remember one thing?”

“Yes.”

“From now on, Yamashita will continue to pay you, but in spite of that you’ll be working for me as well as for him, and I’ll expect to know everything you do and everything you discover about Crux.”

Kathmann leaned forward and once again tapped Stef’s breastbone.

“If you hide anything from me, I’ll know it, and I’ll bring you back here. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Next time you’ll get standard treatment,” added Kathmann, straightening up. “Not the grandmotherly kindness you received this time.”

To the thuggi he said, “Give him one more.”

He left the room and a door closed. Behind the light the room flickered and a second Darksider Stef hadn’t seen before approached him, holding a spiked club in its paws. But that’ll kill me, he thought, and his eyes clamped shut on a final vision of the new Darksider raising the club for a smashing blow to his gut.

He sat there blind, waiting. Then he heard them laughing at him. He opened his eyes as one of the thuggi unlocked the kang. The other was grinning. The Darksider with the club flickered, evaporated. A three-dimensional laser image, created, Stef now saw, by projectors mounted high up on the walls.

“The boss likes to have his little joke,” the thug explained with a wink. The real Darksider was still scratching its butt. Insofar as an animal could, it looked absolutely bored.

Outside was deep night or earliest morning. Wrapped in a blanket and shivering uncontrollably, Stef rode home in a polizi hovercar. Before dawn he was in his own bed, wracked by pain from toes to scalp. Yet he slept, and by noon was able to creep to the balcony, dragging one foot behind him. He walked bowlegged, because his scrotum was the size of a grapefruit.

Slowly, very slowly, he prepared kif and lay down. He was starving but wouldn’t have dreamed of getting up to look for food.

He smoked and the drug dulled everything, pain and hunger alike, and let him sleep. In all the world only kif was merciful. No wonder it was his religion.

By nightfall Stef was minimally better. He slept long, despite nightmares that left him drenched with sweat.

By morning he was functional enough to bathe (he smelled worse than a Darksider by then) and dress.

Then he called Yama on his mashina, hoping the polizi would monitor his call-he wanted to remind them that he had powerful friends.

“Stef. What’s up?”

“I just wanted you to know that your pal Kathmann had me in the White Chamber. I’m working for him now, too.”

“That son of a bitch. He hurt you much?”

“It wasn’t a picnic. But I’ve been through worse.”

“Yeah, I know you’re a survivor. Well, I guess we got to share anything we find out with Earth Central.

But I’m going to see Kathmann and tell him if he grabs you again, I’ll send Oleary to see Xian herself.

You got anything broken, like bones?”

“No.”

“Well, at least the miserable bastard went light on you.”

Stef next called a neighborhood babaku shop and ordered food. Then he found his pistol, made sure it was loaded, and returned to his kif pipe.

On the balcony he smoked and thought about ways to kill Kathmann. He had two people on his list now:

Dyeva, because she wanted to destroy his world, Kathmann because he had-well, not tortured Stef; what had happened was too trivial to be called torture. No, Kathmann had simply been getting his attention in the inimitable polizi way.

This wasn’t the first time in his life that Stef had been completely abased and humiliated. But he decided now that it was to be the last. He pointed his pistol at the wall and said,“Phut.”

After Dyeva, Kathmann was next.

That evening Professor Yang again stood before his mashina, which was set to Transmit and Record. A memory cube nestled in the queue. Lights arranged by his servant illuminated Yang against a background of ancient books that had been imprinted on the wall by a digital image-transfer process. (Real books were too expensive for a scholar to afford.) Watching the interest indicator with a sharp eye, Yang launched into the second lecture of his course, Origin of Our World. His subject today was the response to the Troubles: the slow repopulation of the Earth by humans and the reintroduction of hundreds of extinct animal species whose DNA had fortunately been preserved for low-gravity study on Luna.

He spoke of the first halting steps toward Far Space and of the gradual emergence of humanity from the cocoon of the Solar System during three hundred years of experiment and daring colonization. He spoke of the new morality that emerged from the Time of Troubles, the ecolaws that limited the size of families and prescribed a human density of no more than one person per thousand hectares of land surface on any inhabited planet. (Great populations tend to produce political instability, to say nothing of epidemics.) He spoke of the Great Diaspora, the scattering of humankind among the stars to insure that what had almost happened in the past could never happen again. He spoke of a species obsessed with security and order, and pointed out what a good thing it was that people had, for once, learned from the past, so that they would never have to repeat it. He spoke about the liquidation of democracy and explained the strange term as a Greekword meaning “mob rule.” He ended with a kindly word or two about the friendly aliens like the Darksiders who had now become part of humanity’s march toward ever greater heights of stability and glory.

All across the city, students were recording the lecture. So were people who were not students but had a hunger for learning. In his apartment, Stef listened because he was still recovering from his night in the Chamber and had nothing else to do. His chief reaction to Yang’s version of history was sardonic amusement.

“Pompous oldglupetz,” he muttered.

In another shabby apartment, this one opening on a rundown warren of buildings near the university called Jesus and Buddha Court, Kuli-whose real name was Ananda-and the beautiful Dian-whose real name was Iris-also listened to Yang. Their reactions tended less to laughter and more to scorn.

“I liked the bit about the Darksiders,” said Ananda, fingering his rosary. “A bunch of smelly barbarians our lords and masters use as mercenaries to suppress human freedom.”

“You’re so right,” said Iris, shutting off the box. “How I hate that man.”

“Oh well, he’s just a professor,” said Ananda tolerantly. “What can you expect. Look, is there a Crux meeting this week?”

“I don’t know. Lata will have to message us, won’t she? Nobody we know has been arrested. Maybe the excitement’s over,” she added optimistically.

“I thought Zet was getting spooked.”

“Well, he’s old. Old people get scared so easily.”

She smiled and sat down on the arm of his chair. Ananda used his free hand to rub her smooth back. Not for the first time in history, conspiracy had led to romance. The relationship had begun with talk and more talk; change the past, restore life to the victims of the Troubles and at the same time erase this world of cruelty and injustice. Neither Ananda nor Iris could imagine that they might cease to exist if the past were changed; they thought that somehow they would continue just about as they were. Maybe better.

Growing intimate, they had told each other their real names; that had been a crucial step, filled with daring trust and a quiver of fear-somewhat like their first time getting naked together. The fact that Ananda in the past had told other girls his name and had tried to recruit them for Crux was something that Iris didn’t know.

Indeed, Ananda had forgotten the others too, for he was floating in his new love like a fly in honey. In the middle of the disheveled apartment, surrounded by discarded hardcopy, rumpled bedding, a few stray cats for whom Ananda felt a brotherly concern, Iris of haunting beauty bent and touched her lips to those of the ugly young man with the rosary at his belt.

“I’d better go,” she murmured. “I’ve got a lab.” Her tone said to him, Make me stay.

“In a minute,” said Ananda, tightening his grip. “You can go in just a minute.”

A few streets away, in a less shabby student apartment occupied by four young women, the mashina was still playing after Yang’s lecture, only now switched to a commercial program.

One of the women was insisting that she needed to make a call, but the other three were watching a story of sex among the stars calledThe Far Side of the Sky and voted her down.

“You can wait, Taka,” they said firmly. Taka, who was twenty, had begun to argue when a news bulletin suddenly interrupted the transmission.

“Suppose I make my call now-” she started to say, when something about the bulletin caught her attention.

“Hush up,” she told the others, who were bitterly complaining about the interruption of the story just as the hero had embraced the heroine deep in mag space.

“I want to hear this,” said Taka.

After the bulletin the story quickly resumed. Taka thoughtfully retired to her bedroom and sat down on the floor, folded her slim legs gracefully under her, and reached for her compwrite. The compwrite transmitted through the mashina in the other room but gave her privacy to work.

“A letter,” she said, “to-”

Who? She wondered. Daddy had always told her to obey the law but have nothing to do with the polizi, who were, he said, scum,gryaz, filth. How then to get her information to them without using the boxcode that had appeared on the screen during the newsflash? “To Professor Yang, History Faculty,” she began, rattling off the university address code from memory.

“Send this with no return address,oke? ”

“I am waiting, O woman of transcendent beauty,” said the compwrite. Taka herself had taught it to say that and was now trying to make it learn how to giggle.

“Honored Professor, I am sending this to you as a person I honor and trust and admire,” she began, laying it on thick.

“I have always been a law-abiding person and there was a news bulletin just now where the polizi were asking for information about a terrorist group called the Crooks. Well, a student named Ananda, when he was trying to climb aboard-scratch that, make love to me a couple of months ago, stated that he belonged to this group and tried to make it seem incredibly important, though I had never heard of it myself up to that time. In any case my native dialect is English and I happen to know what Crooks means and I was angry that somebody would try to involve me in something criminal.

“Hoping that you will convey this info to the proper authorities, I remain one of your students choosing to remain anonymous.”

She viewed this missive on the screen and then added, “PS, this Ananda is an ugly guy with a rosary of some kind he wears on his belt. I think he’s an O.B. He is skinny and wears a funny kind of cross under his jacket. He says it is a symbol of something I forget what.”

She added, “Send,” and headed back into the front room, where the current chapter ofThe Far Side of the Sky had expired in a shudder of Far Space orgasms.

“Well, I suppose I can make my call now,” she said, and did so, setting up an appointment for tomorrow with the mashina of a depilator who had promised to leave her arms and legs as smooth as babyflesh, which she thought would look very nice.

Professor Yang’s infatuation with Selina was leading him deeper and deeper into debt. He tried to stay away from Radiant Love House, but instead found himself dreaming of the White Tiger all day and heading for the District by hovercab at least three times a week.

He told himself all the usual things-that this was ridiculous in a man his age, that he would lose face if his frequent visits became known, that he couldn’t afford this new extravagance. No argument could sway him; he wanted his woman of ivory in the blue peace of the electronic room where for an hour at least he feasted on the illusion of youth regained.

He was again in the middling expensive parlor waiting for the White Tiger when Stef lounged in and collapsed on the double divan.

Ordinarily, Yang would have ignored the fellow, but when Stef said, “How are you, Honored Professor?” he felt he had to say something in return.

“Quite well.” Brief, cool.

“I watched your last lecture,” said Stef, who was inclined to chat, knowing that as usual he had time to kill before Dzhun could receive him.

“Really,” said Yang, thawing slightly. He was paid.10 khan for every box that tuned in to his lectures. It wasn’t much, but he needed every tenth he could get.

“Yeah. I’m not a student, but I am ill-educated and I occasionally try to improve my mind, such as it is.”

Stef pulled over a wheeled censer, dumped a little kif into it from a pouch he carried, and turned on the heating element.

“Inhale?” he asked, unwinding two hoses and handing one to Yang.

“The waiting is tiresome,” Yang allowed, and took an experimental puff. Finding the quality acceptable (local kif, not Martian, but pretty good) he took another.

“May I ask your profession?”

“Investigative agent. I’m also a licensed member of the Middlemen and Fixers’ Guild.”

“Ah.” Yang looked at Stef sharply. “Are you good at what you do?”

“Well, I live by it and have for years. Why? Need something looked into?”

“Actually,” said Yang slowly, “I received an anonymous letter a few days ago and I’ve been wondering how to handle it. It claims to place in my hands certain information that I, ah, feel somebody in authority ought to know. Yet I have no way of checking it or naming the sender, who claims to be a student of mine. It may be worthless; on the other hand, if it’s useful, well-”

“You’d like to be paid for it,” said Stef promptly. “I can handle that. Insulate you from the polizi. There are ways to handle it confidentially and at the same time claim a reasonable reward if the information’s good. What’s it all about?”

Yang thought for a moment and then said, “It concerns something called Crux.”

All of Stef’s long training was just barely sufficient to enable him to keep amarmolitz -a marble face.

“Ah,” he said, clearing his throat, “the thing that was on the box a few nights ago?”

“Yes.”

Briefly he told Stef about the letter, witholding, however, the name Ananda and his description.

“What do you think it might be worth?”

“How happy I am,” interrupted the box in the corner, “to inform you, honored guest, that Dzhun is now ready to receive you.”

“Tell her to wait,” said Stef.

To Yang he said, “Let me try to find out if the matter’s really important. If so, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask ten thousand khans in return for such information.”

“Tenthousand? ”

The kif pipe fell out of his mouth.

“It must be something major,” Stef pointed out, “or it wouldn’t have been put on the air. At the same time, I would recommend caution. This is clearly a security matter, and you certainly wouldn’t want to expose yourself to the suspicion of knowing more than you actually do. That’s a short path to the White Chamber. Luckily, I have a friend on the inside who’s not polizi and can make inquiries.”

“And your, ah, fee?” asked Yang.

“A flat ten percent of the award. I’m an ethical investigator.”

“Good heavens,” said Yang, who was perfectly indifferent to Stef’s professional ethics but whose mind was engaged in dividing K9,000 by 120 to reached the astounding figure of seventy-five hour-long sessions with the White Tiger in the electronic room.

“What do you need?” he asked.

“Your chop on my standard contract, one sheet of hardcopy with the message, and about two days.”

“You shall, my friend,” said Professor Yang rather grandly, “have all three.”

Yama and Stef sat at the duroplast deskin the Lion House staring at the hardcopy.

“One name. And what a crappy description. Maybe I should turn Yang over to Kathmann just to see if he knows anything more.”

“An honored professor? Come on, Yama. Stop thinking like a security gorilla for once. Yang doesn’t know a damn thing except that he needs money to rent his albino. What we need is to find this Ananda.”

“How? Call in the polizi?”

“Hell, no. Get the credit yourself. First of all, access the university records. Tell your mashina to search for Ananda as both a family name and a given name. Let’s say for the last two years. Do you have access to the polizi and city records?”

“That’s Earth Central stuff,” said Yama with a cunning look. “It’s off limits to us. Ofcourse I’ve got access.”

“When you get some names from the university, have the box start calling their numbers and checking the faces of these Anandas. That’ll eliminate some-they can’t all be skinny, ugly guys-and meanwhile you can be having the names checked against the polizi records for arrests and against the city records for everything else-property ownership, energy payments, tax payments, everything. Then there’s the Old Believer angle-”

Yama was already talking to his box. “I want confidential access to university records. Now.”

He turned back to Stef. “By the way, how much is this costing me, assuming it leads to anything?”

“If it leads to Crux, I promised Yang fifteen thousand.”

“Petty cash,” said Yama. “Ifit leads to Crux.”

The box chimed. “Sir, I have accessed the university central administrative files.”

“Search admission, registration and expulsion records for the name Ananda,” said Yama promptly, “especially expulsion.” He added to Stef, “Terrorists are often students, but very few of them are good students.”

Dreaming of the money, Stef paced the room impatiently. The university records were voluminous and ill-kept. There was no Ananda as a family name. Searching given names was just getting underway-“This baby does it in nanoseconds,” promised Yama-when the whole university system went down. And stayed down.

After more than an hour of waiting and pacing and dreaming of kif, Stef lounged out, holding his nose until he was past the Darksider, and took a hovercab home. There he called Earth Central and reported to one of Kathmann’s aides that he and Yama were following down an anonymous tip that a student was a member of Crux.

Then he called Yang and told him that the money was practically in hand. Yang was ecstatic.

“You don’t know what this means to me, honored investigative agent,” he bubbled. “I’ve had so many calls on my purse lately.”

“I know what you mean.”

“What do you think this Crux organization might be?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” Stef lied. “In English the word means, uh, the essential thing. Like the crux of an argument.”

“Of course there’s also the Latin meaning.”

“What’s Latin?”

“It’s a dead language. The original source of the word. In Latin it means cross. Hence the crossroads, the critical point.”

“Ananda wears a funny kind of cross,” said Stef slowly.

“Yes. My informant thought he was an Old Believer.”

“I wonder-”

Stef’s box chimed. He quickly made arrangements to bring Yang his payoff and cut the circuit.

“Say,” he told the box.

“Stef, I got the names,” said Yama, abrupt as usual. “Got your recorder on? Here they are. Last year, Govind Ananda, withdrawn. This year, Patal Ananda, Nish Ananda, Sivastheni Ananda. That’s all.”

“Boxcodes?”

“Got ’em all except Govind. Like so many of those damn students, he may have a pirated mashina. I’m having the box call the ones we’ve got, and at the same time start running through the city records. Got anymore bright ideas?”

“No,” said Stef, “except I want a vacation when this is over. And my pay.”

“Stop kidding me, I know you’ll take your pay out of old Yang’s reward money. Don’t try to…wait a minute. Box reports Patal and Sivas-whatever don’t resemble the description. Nish is away from home.

Wait a minute again. Govind Ananda paid the energy bill on No. 71, Jesus and Buddha Court. Didn’t the letter say something about a rosary? And about him being an O.B.?”

“Keep trying Nish, Yama, but send three or four of your thuggi to meet me at J and B Court. I’m going to try Govind. I like the smell of that address. It’s near the University and the names would echo for an Old Believer.”

“You got ’em. Plus a Darksider in case things get rough.”

“And a gas mask.”

Stef rang off, plunged into a battered Korean-style chest on his balcony and brought out his one-centimeter impact pistol. He touched the clip control and chambered one of the fat, black-headed rounds.

Action elated him, freed him from his memories of being beaten, his sense of uselessness. Suddenly he felt wonderful, better than when he was on kif, better than when he was drunk, almost better than when he was about to make love. A flutter of fear in his belly was part of the frisson. So was the taste of iron filings beginning to fill his mouth.

He rummaged through his closet, dragged out his most ample jacket, tore the right-hand pocket to give him access to the space between cloth and lining. Hand in pocket, he pressed the gun against his ribs to hide any bulge and slipped through the door, listening to it click behind him, wondering if he would ever unlatch it again. He whispered a goodbye to Dzhun. On the roof he signaled for a hovercab.

“Jesus and Buddha Court,” he said, when one drew up.

The cab’s blackbox said, “Gratizor.”

On Lake Bai in the evening the tinkle of samisen music mixed with the thrumming of a Spanish guitar, the notes falling like lemon and oleander flowers into the dark, cold water.

Half a click down in the huge lake-really a freshwater inland sea-glacial ice still lingered, surviving into the heat of an earth warmer than it had been since the noontime of the dinosaurs. Shrieking happily, goosepimpled swimmers were leaping into the water from the floating docks of lake side villas. Further on, strings of Japanese lanterns illuminated teahouses and casinos and sliderrinks where the children of grandees cavorted on expensive cushions of air.

Back in the hills, spotlights illuminated palaces. Bijou villas lined the shores, and on the veranda of one of the smaller ones Stef and Dzhun idled, wearing light evening robes and not much else. Dzhun kept returning to Stef’s account of the raid, trying to get the story straight.

“So these terrorists-did you shoot them?”

“Didn’t have to. I’ve seldom felt like such a fool in my life.”

Stef gestured lazily, and Dzhun disturbed herself long enough to pour champagne. The grapes of Siberia were justly famous, the flavor supposedly improved by the low background radiation.

“The terrorists weren’t dangerous?”

“Pair of dumb kids. The boy wearing his funny cross and the girl with the same symbol tattooed on her hand, if you can believe that. The Darksider smashed the door in and let out a roar and they both fainted dead away. Then I jumped in yelling and the thuggi followed, and suddenly the four of us were standing around waving weapons at two unconscious children. Ridiculous scene.

“I almost puked when I had to hand them over to the polizi. Not that there was anything else I could do, with the thuggi and the Darksider there. I was sure Kathmann would tear them limb from limb, but Yama says they woke up spilling their guts. The polizi have got ’em locked up, of course, but Security got everything they wanted in the first three minutes.”

“Dyeva.”

“Absolutely. Iris and Ananda said she’d come in by the Luna shuttle on such and such a day. That was enough. Kathmann called Yama. Yama has shuttle data at his fingertips, there were only four females of the right age on that one, and they all checked out except Akhmatova Maria from a planet called Ganesh, which is, just like it was supposed to be, in the Lion Sector.She stepped off the shuttle and vanished.

“So now they got her hologram, plus retinographs, voiceprints, DNA, all that stuff they take when you get a passport. The kids have positively identified her. Dyeva’s been made, for whatever good it may do us.

“It was an eventful day. The kids had met Dyeva at a villa outside town, so the polizi descended on that and bagged the owner. He went straight to the Chamber and promptly gave them the name of another member of the cell, a woman who has so far evaded capture. A demand for information went out to Ganesh at maximum power and with the most awful threats that Yama could think of on the spur of the moment.

“He’d just laid all this information on Oleary’s desk when another call comes in from Earth Central.

Kathmann’s got the wormholer. Gadget takes a hell of a lot of juice, so his mashini were watching the Ulanor power grid for unusual current surges. Well, a surge of the right size occurred, and Kathmann arrived at the meter with half a dozen Darksiders to find the wormholer standing all by itself in a deserted warehouse in the northwest quadrant.”

Dzhun was frowning. “Then that means-”

“You and I may vanish at any moment,” Stef grinned. “Dyeva’s presumably in the twenty-first century trying to prevent the Time of Troubles. I wish her luck. How’s she going to do it?”

“And we’re here.”

“And we’re here, relaxing, courtesy of the payoff to Yang. My success in cracking Crux convinced Yama that I’m the guy to stop Dyeva. He offered me a hundred thousand to go after her. I laughed in his face.”

“Then who’ll do the job?”

“Some thuggi from Earth Central who’re under military discipline and can’t say no.”

“And what’ll happen to her?”

“In the twenty-first century? Probably get killed by the surface traffic. Or catch a fatal disease. Or get lost in the crowds. I wouldn’t trust Kathmann’s idiots to find their peckers when they need to piss. Dyeva’s safe enough from them.”

Later, he and Dzhun wandered up the shingled beach to a waterside inn that served caviar and Peking duck and other edibles. People of the upper and underworld were crowded together at small tables, eating and drinking. Blue clouds of kif drifted from open censers over the crowd, relaxing everybody.

Dzhun, who had an indelicate appetite, was just piling into her dessert when the haunting notes of a synthesizer drifted like pollen across vast, cool Lake Bai. A band floated up in an open hovercar, and asisi with a piercingly sweet voice performed a popular air, “This Dewdrop World,” whose simple theme was eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die. The crowd loved it; silver half-khans and even a few gold khans showered the car. Whenever a coin fell in the water, a musician would jump in after it like a frog and have to be fished out by his friends.

It was a fine end to the evening. When Stef and Dzhun left the restaurant the air had the lingering chill of spring and the scent of lemon groves that were blossoming in the hills. Dzhun pulled Stef’s arm like a scarf around her neck and started to sing the song again. He leaned over her, hugged her close. It was at moments like this that he almost envied people who were foolish enough to fall in love.

“I love that song,” she said. “It’s so nice to be sad. Sadness goes with joy like plums with duck.”

Didn’t statements like that mean that she was, after all, a bit more than just a whore? Stef hugged her tighter, breathing in her off world perfume with the chilly scent of the lemon groves.

They had an amorous night and spent next morning lolling on the deck with their usual strong green tea.

They were supposed to start back to the city today and Dzhun was looking abstracted.

“Can’t wait to get back and go to work?” Stef smiled.

“Stef…there’s something I have to tell you.”

“What?”

“My senator wants to set me up in a little house in Karakorum. He’s jealous, and it’ll be the end for you and me.”

That produced silence. Stef cleared his throat, dranktea.

“Ah. So this trip was a kiss off.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

“Meaning?”

Dzhun said, eyes cast down, “I’d rather live with you. We don’t have to marry.”

“No,” said Stef.

Dzhun sat down, still not looking at him.

“I thought you’d say that. I’ve never bothered you with my life story because I thought you’d get bored and angry. But let me tell you just a little. My family needed money, so they sold me into the District when I was nine. The owner rented me to one of his customers. The night he raped me, I almost bled to death.

“By the time I was twelve I was a registered whore, a member of the guild. It took me three more years to pay off my debts because in the District the houses charge you for everything, heat, water, towels, mediscanning, almost for the air you breathe. But I was beautiful and earning good money and I was out of debt by the time I was sixteen. Now I’m almost eighteen and I’m sick of it all. I don’t want to be arobotchi anymore.

“I hear people talk about going to the stars and I’ve never been out of Ulanor. I can barely read and write and if Selina hadn’t taught me some arithmetic so they couldn’t cheat me, I wouldn’t be able to add two and two. I don’t know anything, all I do is live from night to night-up at sixteen, to bed at eight.

I’ve had dozens of diseases-sida six times-and the last time it took me a whole month to recover. The house doctor says my immune system’s collapsing, whatever that means.

“I’ve got to get out of the life, Stef. I want to live with you, but if you don’t want me I’m going with my senator. He has some funny tastes and three wives and he’s old, but he’s also kind-hearted and rich, and that’s enough.”

She stopped, still looking down at the floor. Stef was staring at Dzhun and clenching his fists. He felt as if a favorite dog had just bitten him. Twice, in fact-once by threatening to leave him, and once by demanding a commitment from him.

“I don’t want anything fancy,” Dzhun went on. “I want to live in a house with a garden. I want to get up in the morning and go to bed at night. I want to go to school before I’m too old and learn something about the world. I can see you’re angry with me. Well, so be it. If you’re too angry to pay my way back to the city, well screw you. I’ll get the shuttle by myself.”

She stood up and walked somewhat unsteadily into the house, taking by habit the little mincing steps they taught the girls-and the boys as well-in Radiant Love House.

Half an hour later she came back out, dressed for the road. Stef was leaning on the railing, looking down into deep and black Lake Bai.

Stef said, “I’m poor. I’m a loner. I’m a kif head.”

“So you can’t afford me, don’t want me, and don’t need me because kif’s better. Right? So, goodbye.”

“Can you fend off your senator for a while?”

“Not forever. He can buy what he wants, and I don’t want to lose him.”

“I guess I could set up housekeeping with a hundred thousand,” Stef muttered. “But maybe I can bargain for more.”

Dzhun collapsed rather than sat down and drew the longest breath of her life. She put her hands over her face as if she was weeping, though in fact she had stopped crying many years before and her face was hot and dry. Her mind was running on many things, but chiefly on her friend Selina’s brainstorm, the wonderful invention of the senator, who, of course, did not really exist.

“So you’ll do it,” said Yama.

“For a million khans. Paid in advance. I want something to leave to my heirs in the event I don’t come back.”

“That’s a bunch of fucking money.”

“There’s one more thing I want. Get those two kids I captured turned loose. Otherwise Kathmann will sooner or later cut their heads off on general principles.”

Yama frowned. “He’ll never turn them loose. They’re young and the girl’s beautiful, so he’ll want to mutilate them. In my opinion, he’s saving them for something special. That’s the way Kathmann is-he’s a fucking sadist, as you of all people ought to know.”

“Try anyway.”

“It’s hopeless. But if I can save them I will.”

When Stef had gone, Yama set out to sell his prize agent to thefromazhi. He expected trouble with Kathmann but none developed, the chief of Earth Security was assembling an assassination team to kill Dyeva and viewed Stef’s mission as a chance to test the wormholer. Ugaitish, Admiral Hrka, and Xian were ready to try anything and put their chops on the proposal without a murmur. It was Yama’s own boss, Oleary, who objected because of the cost.

“Why don’t you go yourself?” he demanded. “It’d be cheaper.”

“Sir, I’ll go if you say to. But I got a wife and four kids.”

“That’s two more than the ecolaws allow.”

“I got an exemption.”

Oleary stared at Stef’s file, frowning.

“What’s wrong with this guy? I don’t trust him. Why did he have to leave the service in the first place?”

“Sir, he’s a great agent. Brave, quick, adaptable. But he’s got a soft spot in his head. He’s sentimental.

You can’t be a cop and be sentimental. A long time ago he helped a woman thief who was headed for the White Chamber to escape. Well, I found out about it, so I did my duty and turned Steffens in.”

Oleary kept on frowning.

“If he’s sentimental about women, what about when he has to kill, what’s her name, Dyeva?”

“Sir, she’s different. She’s threatening his whole world, including this little tart he seems to be in love with.”

“Oh, well,” said Oleary, shrugging. “Send him, I guess. Can’t hurt. But take the money back if he doesn’t succeed. How could I justify a budget item like that for a failure?”

“You go tomorrow,” said Yama. “Here’s some stuff to study tonight.”

Stef took the packet of copy, caught an official hovercar, and flew straight to Radiant Love House. The long farewell that followed left Stef weeping, and Dzhun-once the door had closed behind him-smiling at prospects that seemed equally bright whether he survived his mission or not.

Back home, he settled down on the balcony to study the three items that Yama had provided him: a hologram of Dyeva, a summary of her life on Ganesh, and a map of ancient Moscow. The map got little more than a glance; he needed to be in situ to use it. Dyeva’s hologram was another matter. Stef studied it as closely as if she and not Dzhun was his lover, imprinting on his mind Dyeva’s round Tartar face, high cheekbones and unreadable eyes.

Then he read her biography. To his surprise, the hardcopy with its STATE SECRET/BEHEADER stamp had been written by Professor Yang. Liking the taste of polizi money, he’d gone to work for Yama as a volunteer agent, and his first task had been writing up and annotating Dyeva’s life story.

Settlers of the Shiva system had been led by a devout Hindu who had hoped to establish a refuge for members of all the old faiths-Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists as well as his own people-where, far from corruption and unbelief, peace and justice and the worship of God could reign for all time.

“The actual results of this noble experiment,” wrote Yang, “were not without irony.” In the process of settling the system, three intelligent species had been destroyed, and among the humans religious wars and bitter sectarian disputes had constituted much of the system’s subsequent history.

Akhmatova Maria was born to a devout family on the third planet, Ganesh. They maintained Christian belief according to the Russian Orthodox rite and hated both their neighbors of other faiths and the depraved and godless civilization of other planets. In time she lost her own faith in God but adopted in its place the religion of humanity. Her private life remained austere; she had neither male nor female lovers, and the name she took in the movement which she helped to found, Dyeva, meant virgin in Russian, her native dialect.

She was attending the local academy when news of the technical advances which allowed invention of the wormholer gave her the great project of her life. She was one of a group of people loosely connected with the academy who formed a scheme to undo the Time of Troubles by returning to the past. Some members of her group transferred to the University of the Universe in Ulanor, where they made converts to their views and laid plans to build-later on, learning that one had already been built, to steal-a wormholer.

Then came a part of the account that Yama had marked in red. Dyeva’s theory that the Troubles could be prevented rested upon a verbal tradition among the Russian Christians of Ganesh: that a man named Razruzhenye, the defense minister of ancient Russia when the troubles began, ordered the first thermo/bio strike upon China and that this attack launched the Time of Troubles. Killing this one individual might well prevent the war and undo the whole course of disasters that followed.

“So,” muttered Stef. It seemed a little strange to him that Dyeva, who believed in the absolute value of life, was returning to the past to kill someone. But Yang in a footnote pointed out that such things had happened many times in the past: people who believed in freedom imprisoned freedom’s enemies; those who believed in life murdered anybody who seemed to threaten it.

His study finished, Stef ate a little, then fell into bed. He woke when his mashina chimed and managed to stumble through a bath. Then he confronted a large box of ridiculous clothing that had been prepared according to Professor Yang’s designs, based on what men wore in the mosaics of the Moscow subway.

At seven-seventy-five a government hovercar picked Stef off the roof and flew him to a neighborhood that he knew only too well, a cluster of huge anonymous buildings with vaguely menacing forms. They descended past the ziggurat Palace of Justice and the Central Lockup in whose subterranean rooms he had tasted the joys of interrogation.

This time, however, the huge pentagonal block of Earth Central was the goal. The hovercar descended through a well in the central courtyard that wits called the Navel of the Earth. Yama met Stef as he emerged in a sunless court of black hexagonal stone blocks and led him down one narrow blank corridor after another, past huge stinking Darksiders armed with impact weapons, into a vaulted underground room with a gleaming contraption standing in the center of the floor among a jungle of thick gray cables.

“So that’s it,” said Stef, interested by his own lack of interest. At the center of the wormholer was a two-meter cube with a round opening in one side, whose purpose he could easily guess.

Blue-coated techs helped him into a heavy coat with wide lapels and big pockets, slipped an impact pistol into the right-hand coat pocket, and slid a black power pack with a small control box into the left.

Somebody stuck a chilly metal button into his left ear.

“Pay attention to the control,” said Yama. “Take it in your hand. Now. Red button: job’s done, bring me home.Oke? White button: I need help, send backup now. Blackbutton: hold onto your ass, Dyeva’s succeeded and your world is finished. The power pack feeds a little tiny built-in mag space transponder that emits a kind of cosmic squeak for one microsecond. The signal crosses time exactly the way it crosses space, don’t ask me why. That’s what we’ll be listening for. Then we have to pull you back, send help, or-”

“Grab your butts. I see. But that also means you could just cut me off, leave me there, save yourselves a million.”

“Yeah, we could, but we won’t. Hell with that, I really meanI won’t. Not,” he smiled, “for a measly million that isn’t even my money.”

They stared at each other until Stef managed a weak grin.

“That’s good enough. Any problems?”

“Yes,” said Stef, “lots. I don’t speak Russian. I’ve got no goddamn idea how to find Dyeva even if I land in Moscow at the right time. I-”

Yama took Stef’s arm and began to walk him toward the wormholer.

“Don’t worry about the language. That thing in your ear will translate for you. And don’t worry about the time. A register inside the machine recorded the day Dyeva chose, the 331st day of 2091. So we’re sending you to that same date in hopes she’s close to the point of exit. If she’s not, you’ll have to find her.”

“How?”

“Come on, Stef. I sold the others on you because of your adaptability. This whole world you’re going into vanished in a cloud of dust. How much can anybody know about it? There’s just no way to be systematic.”

They stopped beside the huge glittering gadget.

“I really envy you,” said Yama in a choked voice. “This is the most crucial moment in human history.

You’re the plumed knight of our world, like Yoshitsune, like Saladin, like Richard the Lion-Hearted.”

Yama embaced him. “Take care, my old friend, andkill that fucking virgin.”

An instant later the techs had helped Stef into the wormholer and closed the heavy door, which looked like a nine-petal steel chrysanthemum. Yama stepped back, wiping his eyes. Kathmann had now arrived to observe the action and Yama joined him.

“Well, that’s one less friend I got,” said Yama. “This job of mine is hell. How are the preparations going for your assassination team?”

“As fast as possible. Of course they’re the ones who’ll really do the job.”

“There’s a chance that Steffens might pull it off alone.”

“Yeah,” said Kathmann, “and there’s a chance I might be the next Solar System Controller.Svidanye, ” he added, “see you later. Some more members of Crux have been arrested and I got work to do in the Chamber.”

In The Wormholer, seated as he had been instructed, knees drawn up, chin down, arms around his shins, sweltering in the heavy coat, feeling the pistol grate against his ribs, Stef tried to imagine Dzhun’s face, but found that it, like everything else, was inadequate to explain to him why he was where he was. The excitement he’d felt earlier was gone, replaced by mere dread. He could only suppose that his entire life had been leading up to one moment of supreme folly, and this was it.

Then a great violet-white light flashed through him, he felt an instant of supernatural cold, and he was sitting on a gritty sidewalk against a damp stuccoed wall.

He raised his face. The day was overcast, and a restless throng of thick-bodied people wrapped up against the autumn chill hurried past, not one of them paying him the slightest heed.

He looked higher. Behind the solid walls of elderly, three-story buildings with flaking plaster and paint he saw high polished towers of what looked like mirror duroplast. Immense crimson letters hovered just below the lowest layer of murk.

Since Alspeke was written mostly in cyrillic letters, he had no trouble readingMoskovskaya a Fondovaya Birzha, and when he murmured it aloud a soft atonal voice in his ear translated: Moscow StockExchange.

Below the StockExchange sign was a huge blue banner saying “1991-2091.”

Slowly he got to his feet, staggered, caught himself against the wall. A pretty young woman paused, stared at him, then drew a pale furry hood around her face and hurried on.

A couple of teenagers stopped also, looked at him and grinned. They squawked to each other in seabirds’ voices.

“What’s this asshole dressed up for?”

“Must think he’s Stalin or something. Hey, asshole-where’d you get that coat?”

A stout woman stopped suddenly and shook her fist at the kids.

“You leave that man alone! Can’t you see he’s crazy? He’s got troubles enough without you hooligans pestering him.”

A little man in a checkered coat stopped and joined her.

“Show some respect!” he shouted at the kids.

“What, for a guy dressed up like Stalin, for Christ’s sake? Hey you,” said a teenager to Stef. “You going to a party?”

Unfortunately, the translator didn’t answer questions, and Stef just stared at him.

“My God, he’s deaf and dumb, and you’re harassing him,” said the woman in scandalized tones.

By now a little crowd had gathered. Everybody had an opinion. It was the adults against the teenagers.

“You little bastards got no respect for anybody!”

“Not for you, Grandaddy.”

“Call me Grandaddy? Yes, I’ve got grandchildren, but thank God they’re nothing like you, you little pimp.”

In the confusion, Stef managed to slip away, leaving them arguing behind him. In an alleyway he unbuttoned the coat and stared down at the tunic and coarse trousers jammed into boots. The clothes werenothing like what people were wearing on the street. Already the stiff, kneehigh boots of faux leather were beginning to chafe his toes, and he hadn’t walked more than a hundred meters.

Cursing Yang, he tried to decide what to do. While he pondered, he worked his way from alleyway to alleyway until he suddenly spotted, among the hundreds of small shops lining the street-Boris Yeltsin Street-a shop with a sign that saidKostyumi. He didn’t need the translator for that.

Thirty minutes later, Stef emerged from the costume shop wearing acceptable clothes, short soft boots, baggy trousers, a faux astrakhan hat, a long warm padded jacket. In his pockets were thirty ten-ruble notes, the difference between the value of the handsome and practically new theatrical garb he’d sold the shop’s owner and that of the secondhand, ill-fitting stuff he’d bought from him.

He slipped into the crowd, which was denser than the center of Ulanor on Great Genghis Day. The street traffic was noisy and thick, everybody driving headlong as if their odd, smelly cars were assaulting a position. Above, the air traffic was thin, almost absent-a few primitive rotary-wing machines with shapes so bizarre that Stef thought at first that they were some sort of giant insect life. Jet trails streaked far above, making him wonder if airpackets already flew from Luna.

Between street and sky, strung on cables, hundreds of blue banners fluttered, all saying 1991-2091, and sometimes “100 Years of the Democratic Republic,” whatever that meant. He could see no mention of Tsar Stalin the Good.

His next stop was in front of a huge window filled with flickering mashini. Stef was surprised to see that the images made by the boxes were three-dimensional-he had expected something less advanced-though the technology was crude, merely a rough illusion created on a flat screen. His eyes roved past a ballet and half a dozen sports programs. Russianfutbol teams had dominated world play in the season just past, but what would the hockey season bring forth? Young people dashed around on grass or ice while the announcer talked.

Nobody at all seemed to be thinking about the danger of universal destruction. Stef shook his head, amazed at the ordinariness of this world, so close to its end. He moved along, jostling against these people who would soon be dust and ashes, astonished at their solidity and their obvious confidence that they would exist for a long time to come.

A single screen was tuned to a news program calledVremya and he stopped to watch it. A young woman wearing a fantastic pile of yellow hair spoke of the Russian-led international team now hard at work establishing the Martian colony and the problems it was facing. People on Mars, needing to communicate despite a babel of tongues, were developing a jargon all their own; the American members of the colony called it All-Speak. It was mostly Russian and English, with a flavoring of words from twenty other languages.

Meanwhile a new condominium development on Luna marked the transformation of that spartan base, barely seventy years old, into a genuine city, the first on another world. Space had never looked better;

Russia’s own program, after a long eclipse, again led the world. Here on Earth things were not so encouraging. There were new outbreaks of Blue Nile hemorrhagic fever. The Nine-Years’ War continued in the Rocky Mountains; the weak U.S. central government seemed unable to conquer the rebels, and United Nations peacekeepers had again been massacred in Montana.

But the big worry was that border tensions continued to mount in Mongolia, where Chinese forces had occupied Ulan Bator. The name cause Stef to press his nose against the glass. He had heard enough of Yang’s lecture to know that Ulan Bator was the origin of the name Ulanor, even though the city the announcer was talking about was now-now?-nothing more than a mound on the green forested banks of the River Tuul.

According to Yang, a few survivors of the Troubles had trekked northward, bringing the name with them and applying it to a cluster of yurts in an endless snowstorm. Later, because it had low background radiation, the place had become the site of the Worldcity-a strange fate for a Mongol encampment that had survived the Two Year Winter for no better reason than the sheer unkillable toughness of its people and an endless supply of frozen yak meat, which they had softened by sleeping on it and eaten raw for lack of firewood.

Another name caught Stef’s attention. “Defense Minister Razumovsky has declared that Russia, together with its European and American allies, will stand firm against further aggression by the Imperial People’s Republic of China.”

Defense Minister Razumovsky? That wasn’t the word he had learned, the name of the man Dyeva was supposed to kill. It was another Raz word, Raz, raz-Razruzhenye.

He must have said the word aloud without meaning to, for his translator murmured, “Destruction.”

Stef nodded. Sure. In the folk memory, Minister Razumovsky became Minister Razruzhenye, Minister Destruction. The name was wrong, but the tradition might still be correct.

Razumovsky suddenly appeared in a clip. He had a wide, flat face like a frog someone had stepped on.

He seemed to talk with his right fist as much as his mouth, pounding on a podium while he spoke of Russia’s sacred borders and of China’s presumption, now that it had conquered Korea and Japan, that all East Asia belonged to the Dragon Republic.

“They’ll find out different if they mess with us!” Razumovsky bawled, and loud cheering broke out among a crowd seated in something called the Duma. “They think they can threaten us with their rockets, but our Automated Space Defense System is the most advanced in the world. I spit upon their threats!” More cheering.

Then a weighty, white-maned man came on, identified as President Rostoff. His message was of conciliation and peace. “As the leader of the Western Alliance, Russia bears a grave responsibility to act with all due caution. Our guard is up, but we extend as well the hand of friendship to our Chinese brothers and sisters.”

Stef smiled; across the centuries, he recognized without difficulty the ancient game of good cop-bad cop.

He moved on, meditating on a final line from the announcer: that the debate on the Mongolian situation would continue in the Duma tonight, and that the President and the cabinet would again be present. Was that why Dyeva had picked this particular day to return to the past?

He walked down a gentle declivity where the street widened into an avenue called Great Polyanka and rose to the marble pylons of a new gleaming bridge. Beyond a small river he saw red walls, gold onion domes, palaces of white stone-the Kremlin.

Pleasure boats with glass roofs slid lazily along the river, which was divided here by a long island. In the boats Stef could see brightly dressed people dancing. Then the crowd swept him onto the other bank, past the Aleksandrovsky Gardens and up a gentle rise. Here the throng divided; most people passed on, but some joined a long queue that had formed at a brick gatehouse.

Stef continued with the majority along the autumnal garden and the crenellated wall into Red Square. He stared like any tourist at a cathedral like a kif-head’s dream and then, feeling tired and hungry, crossed the square and drifted into the archways of a huge building that filled the far side, a market of some sort crowded with shops and loudly bargaining people. At a stall that sold writing paper, Stef bought a small notebook, an envelope, and an object he had never seen before-a pen that emitted ink.

The building held eating places, too. Hungrily, Stef found himself a place at a small table in one of them and orderedshchi without knowing what cabbage was. Soon a bowl of hot greenish soup lay steaming before him, along with a sliced onion and a chunk of dense and delicious brown bread and sweet butter.

It was the first time he’d ever tasted butter from a cow, since all the Earth’s cattle had died in the Troubles. It had a subtle, complex flavor and an unctuous texture quite different from the manufactured stuff he knew.

He devoured it all, licked his fingers as the other diners were doing, and paid with a few of his rubles.

Then, still sitting at the table, he laboriously wrote a few lines, tore out the page, and sealed it in an envelope which he addressed to Xian in care of Yama. He left the eating place smiling grimly; in case something went wrong, this note was another legacy he hoped to leave behind him.

He returned to Red Square to find that in his absence it had become almost unbearably beautiful. A light autumn snow had begun to fall, streetlights were coming on, and the bizarre cathedral of St. Basil floated in its own illumination, more than ever a dream.

Shadows, light and snow turned everything to magic. Strolling past were young people with faces as white and pink as dawn clouds, and among them stout men in astrakahns and elegant women in faux ermine. Old women were selling apples that could have been plucked from their own cheeks.

A little band began to play somewhere as Stef slowly retraced his steps, out of the square and up to a floodlit gate in the Kremlin wall. People were streaming in, all talking excitedly, and Stef followed.

Inside, he moved with difficulty through the throng gathering at a big, anonymous new building with the words DUMA OF THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE in gold letters above the doors. Guards in hats of faux fur were trying to keep a roadway open here, pushing people back but, to Stef’s surprise, using no whips.

Considering what he had always heard about the Tsars, the mildness of this government was astonishing.

He circled the crowd, his mind now centered on Dyeva’s hologram, searching faces of which there seemed no end, countless faces, all different, none hers.

Away from the Duma the Kremlin grounds were more open. In the last light, huge rooks wearing gray patches on their wings like shawls flew from one bare tree to another, cawing their complaints about the human invasion. Stef wandered into a small church like a glittering lacquered box. Gold-haloed saints ascended every wall and hung suspended in the red depths of the ceiling; ghostly notes of song showered down, although he could see nobody singing.

People knelt, prayed or simply stood and looked on. An old woman rose, crossed herself, and jostled Stef on her way out. Another and younger woman wearing a fur hat and a long coat rose and turned to go. Either Dyeva or her twin sister passed so close to Stef that he could have touched her.

After a stunned instant of surprise he followed, out into the dry fresh-falling snow, the lights and shadows of dusk. The rooks had settled into their nests. She didn’t walk, she strode, eyes straight ahead. He followed her along a winding path, keeping one or two people between them. He was looking for a place to kill her, a dark corner, a moment of privacy.

Then he realized that he didn’t need privacy. Left hand on the red button of the transponder, he gripped his weapon with his right, raising the barrel a little in his coat pocket. He would kill her in the open and escape where nobody could follow. He only had to make absolutely sure that this was his quarry. He stepped off the path, the dry snow crunched under his boots, he hastened, he was directly behind her.

She had stopped to watch a wedding party ending a day’s celebration here in the Kremlin at dusk.

Holding wine glasses were a pretty girl in voluminous white, her new husband in an uncomfortable-looking suit of black, and half a dozen friends. One of the friends stepped forward with a bottle of bubbling wine and filled their glasses. Everyone was laughing. They had picked up a street musician someplace, an old man with a primitive instrument of some sort that he crushed and stretched between his hands. He played wheezy music and the young people toasted the couple while onlookers clapped, laughed and wept.

“Dyeva,” said Stef and she turned her head and looked at him.

Unquestionably it was the Tartar face he knew so well, with the high cheekbones and the angled eyes.

Her face didn’t change, yet she knew instantly why he had come. Instead of pleading for her life, she said in Alspeke, in a low, urgent voice: “Look at them! Look at them! Look at this world. Can you really let it destroy itself to save what we have-tyrants, fools, Darksiders, the White Chamber? These people are alive, they’re free, they deserve to have a future. Whoever you are, take just one second before you kill me. Think about it!”

And for a lengthening instant Stef did. In fact, he had been thinking about it secretly for hours. To be here, now, seeing these people, this world-it wasn’t theory anymore. Uncounted millions lived and breathed and wanted to keep on doing so. His own world seemed remote and for the moment unbelievable-the broken drains and babaku smells of Golden Horde Street, his dirty apartment and the kif pipe, Yama and his stinking guardian, his long day in the White Chamber, Lake Bai and the singsongers on the boat, the synthesizer and thesisi warbling the melody “This Dewdrop World.”

For that instant he could have joined Crux himself. Then he thought of Dzhun and he was paralyzed by indecision. As he hesitated, Dyeva turned to face him squarely and he heard the soft soundPhut! as she shot him through her coat.

He felt-not pain, but an incredible, crushing pressure in his midsection. His upper body flew backward, almost separated from the rest of him and the back of his head struck the cold hard snowy ground. A last mechanical contraction of his right hand fired his pistol, sent the bullet up, up into the darkening overcast like a tiny missile. His left squeezed the red button, meaning: my job is finished, I have succeeded. Bring me home.

Dyeva turned and hastened away, boots squeaking in the fresh snow. People were gawking at the wedding party and almost a minute passed before she heard, by now far behind her, a single scream. She would never know that the reason was not only the sight of a dead man lying horribly mutilated in the snow, but the fact that, even as someone spotted him, he disappeared, evaporated into the gathering darkness. Yama had kept his word.

She plunged into the crowd before the Duma building, her mind running now on the scheduled arrival of the President and his cabinet for a debate on the Mongolian situation. Running also on the fact that such schedules were almost never kept. Running on the fact that she still had fifteen bullets, and that any one would be enough. Running on the importance of stopping this Minister Destruction that she had been hearing people on Ganesh curse since her childhood-the man who had given the order that ended their world.

No, she didn’t believe in God any longer. But she had had to try once more to recapture her faith in the Cathedral of the Annunciation. Who could have imagined that she’d ever have a chance to pray there, in a building long since vaporized and its atoms embedded deep in the Kremlin Shield?

Well, the experiment had failed; she could not recapture her own faith, but she would insure that other people kept theirs. She would sacrifice herself as Christ had for the sins of the world. There was no heaven at the end of it, but this was how she wanted to die.

She squeezed herself through the crowd, murmuring apologies in her strangely accented Russian, a kind of Russian that wouldn’t be invented, ever, if she could manage it. She wondered if her parents would still be born and meet and have a child and call it Maria. No, too unlikely; if they lived at all, they would meet other people and marry them. Everything would be different. She felt a strange, dark satisfaction in thinking that she would not merely die here in the Kremlin; in some sense, she would never have existed at all.

She had reached the front of the crowd, and stood pressed behind a bulky policeman. Fortunately, when the first gleaming limousine turned in through the Gate of the Savior and slid to a stop before the Duma, the policeman moved a little to get a good view of the notables. On the far side of the car, President Rostoff emerged and turned to wave at the crowd. On this side, a young and apparently nervous security man emerged and glanced briefly at Dyeva’s face. Other security men appeared too, jumping from cars, stepping briskly through the snow.

Rostoff, instead of going inside, crossed behind his own car and came to the crowd, reaching out to shake hands. People were cheering, arms reaching out and waving like limbs at the edge of a forest in a windstorm. From a second limousine, Razumovsky approached, also smiling, but keeping a few steps back to avoid up-staging the President. Dyeva shifted the pistol in the deep pocket of her coat and prepared to fire.

Then a gaggle of odd-looking people ran up, carrying primitive cameras of some sort. A sudden spotlight flashed on the crowd and Dyeva was blinded by the light. The long barrel of the impact pistol slipped through the hole in her coat made by her last shot. Shielding her eyes, she aimed as well as she could at Razumovsky. The little soundPhut! vanished in the roar of the crowd.

But the young security man had spotted the gleam of metal, and without the slightest hesitation he shoved the President the wrong way, into the path of the exploding bullet. Suddenly half of Rostoff’s large body was gone, shredded.

Unaware of the disaster, the security man raised his own right hand, which was holding the newest M91K police automatic, 7.8 mm and loaded with superteflon hollowpoints. The first of six bullets hit Dyeva. They were not impact ammo, but they were sufficient.

She toppled backward, firing a last around that skated upward and blew a meter-wide hole in the marble facing of the new Duma building. The chips were still flying as she hit the snow, feeling nothing but a strange lightness as if she had become a woman of air that would shortly disperse. She looked up into the faces of the security man and Minister Razumovsky as the two bent over her.

But you’re supposed to be dead, she thought. And died.

Razumovsky glared down at her Tartar face.

“The goddamn Chinese did this!” he roared, and turned away.

Half a dozen people in the crowd were down, bleeding and crying for help, because the young security man and the others who had rushed to help him had managed to hit not only Dyeva but everyone near her as well. Razumovsky ignored all that, the screams, the confusion. Roughly he shook off the hands trying to drag him this way or that way to safety. Alone of them all, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.

He plunged into the President’s armored limousine and shouted to the driver, “Get me out of here!”

While the driver, weeping and blinded by tears and lights, tried to find the gate, tried to force a way through the crowd without killing anybody else, Razumovsky took a key from around his neck and drove it into a lock in the back of the front seat. A small steel door fell open and he pulled out a red telephone.

“Razumovsky here!” he roared. “Chinese agents have wounded the President! I relay to you his exact words: ‘We are at war! You will launch now!’ Code word: Ivan the Terrible.”

He sank back on the upholstery and passed a shaking hand over his squashed-frog face. At least in dying theglupetz Rostoff had inadvertently chosen the right policy-for a change. Had he lived, who could tell what might have happened? “Goddamn,” said Oleary. “I still can’t believe he managed it, all alone like that.”

The Secret Committee had assembled to hear Yama’s final report on Stef’s mission to the past. Xian, Ugaitish, Hrka, Oleary-they were all there but Kathmann. Except for Xian-who already knew the story-thefromazhi were leaning breathlessly over the gilt Martian table, listening to the story of how their world had been saved.

“Well, here’s the evidence,” said Yama. “First, we recover Stef’s body, dead, obviously shot by a modern weapon,oke? His own gun has been fired once. The world we live in does not vanish, but on the contrary looks as solid as ever, at least to me. Just to eliminate any doubts about what happened, we use the wormholer one more time. We pull back from Moscow, 360th day of 2091, an air sample which is full of intensely radioactive dust and ice particles.

“Now I ask you, Honored Grandees. What can we conclude, except that Stef and Dyeva killed each other, that with his last gasp, so to speak, he signaled us to recover him because his job was done, and that the Time of Troubles proceeded to happen on schedule?”

Xian turned to Yang, standing in the shadows, deference in every line of his big, weak body. “What do you think, Honored Professor?”

“I agree. The evidence is absolutely irrefutable, and I have spent my whole life evaluating evidence.”

“Well, I guess we have to accept it,” fretted Oleary. He still hoped to take back Stef’s million, but he could see that it would be difficult now.

“I am obliged to add,” Yama continued, “that a sealed envelope was found on Steffen’s body containing a note to Solar System Controller Xian.”

He glanced at her and she nodded.

“It reads as follows,” said Yama, spreading a copy on the arm of theshozit.

Facing death, Dyeva states that Kathmann cooperated in the theft of the wormholer. He expected to win promotion by crushing the conspiracy afterward, but Crux was too clever for him. Ever since, he has been desperately trying to wipe out those few who know of his treason.

Steffens Aleksandr Thefromazhi drew a deep collective breath.

“Is it possible?” demanded Ugaitish. “The head of Earth Security? What could he hope to gain from assisting a conspiracy, then destroying it?”

“He told me once,” said Yama, who had been waiting for this moment for many years, “that he dreamed of being Solar System Controller.”

“Honored grandees,” said Xian, “you must know that at first I, too, found this accusation hard to believe.

But the evidence is great. The paper, ink and handwriting prove that Steffens wrote this note. In his own defense, Kathmann made the claim that Steffens was seeking revenge because he had been tortured. But Kathmann’s own record of Steffens’s interrogation certifies that the questioning was ‘exceptionally gentle.’ This was a troubling contradiction.

“We all know that Kathmann, in spite of his many virtues, was too zealous, too ambitious. I ordered him to bring me the scientist who stole the wormholer for questioning. The man had been beheaded. That seemed an extremely suspicious circumstance to me. Was Kathmann trying to ensure his silence? All the builders of the wormholer were also dead. I questioned the only two Crux prisoners who were still alive, but they were mere children and knew nothing-which was probably why they had kept their heads.

“In the end, to resolve the matter I ordered Kathmann into the White Chamber. With the needles in his spine, he made a full confession. Every statement made by Steffens in this note is true. Kathmann knew too many state secrets to be permitted to live, and so I had him beheaded.”

She looked around at the others, as if waiting for a challenge. Yama smiled a little. Admiral Hrka remarked that he had never liked the fellow. Aside from that, Kathmann’s harsh fate produced no comment whatever.

“Is there any other business, then?” asked Xian, preparing to end the meeting.

Yang had been waiting for this moment to step forward from the shadows. “Now that Crux is finished, Honored Grandees,” he said smoothly, “I would suggest going public with the story and making Steffens a hero.

“The heroes we honor all lived a long time ago; they are almost mythic figures-indeed, some of them, like the Yellow Emperor, are entirely myths. But here we have a hero of today, one that people can identify with, one who brings the glory and splendor of the present world order home to the common man. It’s true, of course,” he added, “that certain aspects of Steffens’s life will have to be edited for public consumption. But the same could be said of any other hero of history.”

“Superb,” cried Xian at once, ending any argument before it began. Raising a tiny, thin hand that looked with its many rings like a jeweled spider, she declared: “Steffens will be buried with full honors. Someone with talent will write his biography and Yang will sign it. Scenes from his life will be enacted on every mashina. A great tomb will be built-”

“Honored Solar System Controller,” muttered Yama, “we’ve already cremated the body and disposed of the ashes.”

“What difference does that make? Do you suppose Genghis Khan sleeps in what we call his grave?

Now,bistra, bistra! -quick, quick! Get a move on. Remember that heroes are made, not born.”

Professor Yang, smiling over the adoption of his idea, left the cabinet room with Yama.

“In some ways,” he remarked, “the most intriguing supposition is that the world we live in hasalways been the consequence of the Crux conspiracy and its outcome. Wouldn’t it be interesting, Honored Colonel, if time is, so to speak, absolutely relative-if this episode has been embedded in the past ever since 2091, and all our world is the long-term result of what, from our point of view, has only just happened?”

Yama, hurrying to carry out Xian’s order, paused long enough to stare at Yang.

“What complete nonsense,” he growled.

Pending appointment of a replacement for Kathmann, Yama was combining Earth Central duties with his own. Most of his day was taken up with Stef in one way or another. Yama launched the process of glorification, then carried out a more personal duty: as he’d once promised Stef, he ordered the release of Iris and Ananda from the White Chamber. He did not see the young people, and so never knew that their brief stay beneath the Palace of Justice had turned their hair the same color as the tiled walls of their cells.

Weary and ready to go home, Yama was thinking of Hariko and his children when a piece of copy containing two lines of script was hand-delivered to his desk. Thus he learned that the woman Lata, last survivor of Crux on earth, had been tracked down at a village near Karakorum. She had committed suicide before the polizi and the Darksiders arrived and had left this note.

“It is all over,” she wrote, “and I know it. This world endures as if protected by a god. But what sort of god would protectthis world?”

Yama slid the paper into a port of his mashina.

“Copy, file, destroy,” he said.

On the next Great Genghis Day, Government of the Universe Place was crowded with people. From every flagpole hung nine white faux yak tails in honor of the famous Unifier of Humankind. But the event of the day was not honoring Genghis-though President Mobutu burned incense on his grave-but the dedication of Stef’s memorial.

As the veil over the statue fell, Dzhun and Selina stood together looking at an idealized Stef striding ever forward, holding an impact pistol in one hand and a globe symbolizing the world order in the other.

Since Dzhun was only semi literate, Selina read the epitaph that Yang had composed: “Like the Great Khan in Courage and Like Jesus in Self-Sacrifice.”

“Yang’s been made a grandee, you know,” Dzhun said. “They needed somebody to purge subversives from the University, and he just dropped into the slot. We’re lucky to have him for a customer.”

She had used the million Stef had left her, not to buy a cottage or get an education, but to open her own brothel. She called it House of Timeless Love. With clever Selina to manage it-and to serve a few select customers, such as the now famous, rich and powerful Yang-it had rapidly become the most popular of the newer houses, with capacity crowds every night.

Selina smiled down at her friend and employer.

“Anyway, the statue’s nice. Of course he never walked stiff-legged like that. Stef just lounged around.”

“I think I preferred him as he was,” mused Dzhun. “Alive.”

“You loved him, didn’t you?”

“I guess so. I really don’t know much about love. I know that I love you.”

She and Selina had been sleeping together for years. Sometimes they made love, but sex wasn’t really the point. After the night’s work was done and all the customers were gone, they lay together for comfort, holding each other close.

“Can I ask you something, Dzhun?”

“Anything. Almost anything.”

“How’d you get Stef to leave you all that money? Was it just telling him that you had a senator on the string?”

“That was part of it. But also I made up a sad story about myself and fed it to him. You know, in spite of everything he was sentimental. That’s why he was thrown out of the Security Forces. I was working for the polizi then, keeping them informed about my customers. When I reported that Stef was working on an important secret project, I got a bonus. Kathmann himself told me about Stef’s weakness,” said Dzhun proudly. “Even way back then I had powerful friends, Selina.”

“Tu nespravimy,Dzhun,” said her friend, smiling and shaking her head. “You’re incorrigible.”

“What’s that word mean?”

Selina told her. Dzhun smiled; she liked the sound of it.

“Well, honey, if you ask me, we live in an incorrigible world.”


The Cure for Everything - Severna Park


Here’s a disturbing look at an all-too-likely future, where, as usual, we don’t know what we’ve got until we’velostit…
New writer Severna Park has sold short fiction to markets such asEvent Horizon, Sci Fiction, Realms of Fantasy,and BlackHeart, Ivory Bones.Her critically acclaimed novels include Speaking Dreams, Hand of Prophecy,and The Annunciate; Speaking Dreamsand The Annunciatewere finalists for the Lambda Literary award. Coming up is a sequel to The Annunciate,called Harbingers.She lives in Frederick, http://users.erols.com/feldsipe/ index.htm.

Maria was smoking damp cigarettes with Horace, taking a break in the humid evening, when the truckfull of wild jungle Indians arrived from Ipiranga. She heard the truck before she saw it, laboring through the Xingu Forest Preserve.

“Are we expecting someone?” she said to Horace.

Horace shook his head, scratched his thin beard, and squinted into the forest. Diesel fumes drifted with the scent of churned earth and cigarette smoke. The truck revved higher and lumbered through the Xingu Indian Assimilation Center’s main gates.

Except for the details of their face paint, the Indians behind the flat bed’s fenced sides looked the same as all the other new arrivals; tired and scared in their own stoic way, packed together on narrow benches, everyone holding something-a baby, a drum, a cooking pot. Horace waved the driver to the right, down the hill toward Intake. Maria stared at the Indians and they stared back like she was a three-armed sideshow freak.

“Now you’ve scared the crap out of them,” said Horace, who was the director of theProjeto Brasileiro Nacional de Assimilacao do Indio. “They’ll think this place is haunted.”

“They should have called ahead,” said Maria. “I’d be out of sight, like a good little ghost.”

Horace ground his cigarette into the thin rain forest soil. “Go on down to the A/V trailer.” he said. “I’ll give you a call in a couple of minutes.” He made an attempt to smooth his rough hair, and started after the truck.

Maria took a last drag on the cigarette and started in the opposite direction, toward the Audio/Visual trailer, where she could monitor what was going on in Intake without being seen. Horace was fluent in the major Amazonian dialects of Tupi-Guarani, Arawak, and Ge, but Maria had a gut-level understanding that he didn’t. She was the distant voice in his ear, mumbling advice into a microphone as he interviewed tribe after refugee tribe. She was the one picking out the nuances in language, guiding him as he spoke, like a conscience.

Or like a ghost. She glanced over her shoulder, but the truck and the Indians were out of sight. No matter where they were from, the Indians had some idea of how white people and black people looked, but you’d think they’d never seen an albino in their lives. Her strange eyes, her pale, translucent skin over African features. To most of them, she was an unknown and sometimes terrifying magical entity. To her…well…most of them were no more or less polite than anyone she’d ever met stateside.

She stopped to grind her cigarette into the dirt, leaned over to pickup the butt, and listened. Another engine. Not the heavy grind of a truck this time.

She started back toward the gate. In the treetops beyond Xingu’s chain-link fence and scattered asphalt roofs, monkeys screamed and rushed through the branches like a visible wind. Headlights flickered between tree trunks and dense under-growth and a Jeep lurched out of the forest. Bright red letters were stenciled over its hood:Hiller Project.

Maria waved the driver to a stop. He and his passenger were both wearing bright red jackets, withHiller Project embroidered over the front pocket. The driver had a broad, almost Mexican face. The passenger was a blackguy, deeply blue-black, like he was fresh off the boat from Nigeria. He gave Maria a funny look, but she knew what it was. He’d never seen an albino either.

“We’re following the trucker Ipiranga,” the blackman said in Portuguese. His name was stenciled over his heart.N’Lykli.

She pointed down the dirt road where the overhead floodlights cut the descending dusk. “Intake’s over there,” she said in the same language. “You should have called ahead. You’re lucky we’ve got space for them.”

“Thanks,” said N’Lykli, and the driver put the Jeep in gear.

“Hey,” said Maria as they started to pull away. “What’s a Hiller Project?”

Another cultural rescue group, she figured, but the blackguy gave her a different funny look. She didn’t recognize it and he didn’t answer. The Jeep pulled away, jouncing down the rutted access road.

Maria groped in her pocket for another cigarette, took one out of the pack, then stuck it back in. Instead of heading for the A/V trailer, she followed them down the hill to Intake.

She found N’Lykli and the driver inside with Horace, arguing in Portuguese while four of Xingu’s tribal staffers stood around listening, impassive in their various face paint, Xingu T-shirts, and khaki shorts.

“These people have to be isolated,” the driver was saying. “They have to be isolated or we’ll lose half of them to measles and the other half to the flu.”

He seemed overly focused on this issue, even though Horace was nodding. Horace turned to one of the staffers and started to give instructions in the man’s native Arawak. “Drive them down to Area C. Take the long way so you don’t go past the Waura camp.”

“No,” said N’Lykli. “We’ll drive them. You just show us where they can stay for the night.”

Horace raised an eyebrow. “For thenight? ”

“We’ll be gone in the morning,” said N’Lykli. “We have permanent quarters set up for them south of here, in Xavantina.”

Horace drew himself up. “Once they’re on Xingu property, they’re our responsibility. You can’t just drop in and then take them somewhere else. This isn’t a fucking motel.”

The driver pulled a sheaf of papers out of his jacket and spread them on the table. Everything was stamped with official-looking seals andHiller Project in red letters over the top of every page. “I have authorization.”

“So do I,” said Horace. “And mine’s part of a big fat grant fromPlano de Desenvolvimen to Economico e Social in Brazillia.”

The driver glanced at his Hiller companion.

“Let me make a phone call,” said N’Lykli. “We’ll get this straightened out.”

Horace snorted and waved him toward Maria. “She’ll show you where it is.”

“This way,” said Maria.

It wasn’t that Horace would kick the Indians out if they didn’t have authorization. He’d kick out the Hiller whatever-the-fuck-that-was Project first, and hold onto the Indians until he knew where they were from and what they were doing on the back of a truck. Indians were shipped out of settlements all over Brazil as an act of mercy before the last of the tribe was gunned down by cattle ranchers, rubber tappers, or gold miners. Xingu’s big fat grant was a sugar pill that thePlano de Desenvolvimen to gave out with one hand while stripping away thousands of years of culture with the other. Horace knew it. Everyone knew it.

N’Lykli followed her across the compound, between swirls of floodlit mosquitoes, through the evening din of cicadas. The phone was on the other side of the reserve, and Maria slowed down to make him walk beside her.

“So what’s a Hiller Project?” she said.

“Oh,” he said, “we’re part of a preservation coalition.”

“Which one?” asked Maria. “Rainforest Agencies?”

“Something like that.”

“You should be a little more specific.” Maria jerked a thumb in Horace’s direction. “Horace thinks Rainforest Agencies is a front for the World Bank, and they’re not interested in preservinganything. If he finds out that’s who you work for, you’ll never get your little Indian friends out of here.”

N’Lykli hesitated. “Okay. You’ve heard of International Pharmaceuticals?”

“They send biologists out with the shamans to collect medicinal plants.”

“Right,” he said. “IP underwrites part of our mission.”

“You mean rain forest as medical resource?” Maria stopped. “So why’re you taking Indians from Ipiranga to Xavantina? They won’t know anything about the medicinal plants down there. Ipiranga’s in an entirely different ecological zone.”

He made a motion with his shoulders, a shrug, she thought, but it was more of a shudder. “There’s a dam going up at Ipiranga,” he said. “We had to relocate them.”

“To Xavantina?” She couldn’t think of anything down there except abandoned gold mines, maybe a rubber plantation or two. “Why can’t you leave them with us?”

“Because they’re…unique.”

He was being so vague, so unforthcoming, she would have guessed that the entire tribe was going to be sold into gold-mining slavery, except that something in his tone said that he really cared about what happened to them.

“Unique?” said Maria. “You mean linguistically? Culturally?”

He stuck his hands in his pockets. He licked his lips. After a while he said, “Genetically.”

That was a first. “Oh yeah?” said Maria. “How’s that?”

“Ipiranga’s an extremely isolated valley. If it wasn’t for the dam, these people might not have been discovered for another century. The other tribes in the area told us they were just a fairy tale.” He glanced at her. “We don’t think there’s been any new blood in the Ipiranga population for five hundred years.”

Maria let out a doubtful laugh. “They must be completely inbred. And sterile.”

“You’d think so,” said N’Lykli. “But they’ve been very careful.”

A whole slew of genetic consequences rose up in her mind. Mutants. Family insanities and nightmarish physical defects passed down the generations. She knew them all. “They’d have to have written records to keep so-and-so’s nephew from marrying his mother’s grand-niece.”

“They have an oral tradition you wouldn’t believe. Their children memorize family histories back two hundred generations. Theyknow who they’re not supposed to marry.”

Maria blinked in the insect-laden night. “But they must have a few mistakes. Someone lies to their husband. Someone’s got a girlfriend on the side-they can’t be a hundred percent accurate.”

“If they’ve made mistakes, none of them have survived. We haven’t found any autism, or Down’s.” He finally gave her that three-armed sideshow freak look again. “Or Luck now’s.”

Maria clenched her teeth, clenched her fists. “Excuse me?”

“Luck now’s Syndrome. Your albinism. That’s what it is. Isn’t it?”

She just stood there. She couldn’t decide whether to sock him or start screaming. Not even Horace knew whatit was called. No one was supposed to mentionit. It was supposed to be as invisible as she was.

N’Lykli shifted uncomfortably. “If you have Luck now’s, your family must have originally been from the Ivory Coast. They were taken as slaves to South Carolina in the late 1700s and mixed with whites who were originally from County Cork in Ireland. That’s the typical history for Luck now’s. It’s a bad combination.” He hesitated. “Unless you don’t want children.”

She stared at him. Her great-grandfather from South Carolina was “high yellow,” as they said in those days to describe how dark he wasn’t, referring not-so-subtly to the rapes of his grandmothers. His daughter’s children turned out light-skinned and light eyed, all crazy in their heads. Only one survived and that was Maria’s mother, the least deranged, who finally went for gene-testing and was told that her own freakishly albino daughter would bear monsters instead of grandchildren. That they would be squirming, mitten-handed imbeciles, white as maggots, dying as they exited the womb.

“Who thehell do you think you are?” whispered Maria.

“There’s a cure,” he said. “Or there will be.” He made a vague gesture into the descending night, toward Intake. “International Pharmaceutical wants those people because their blood lines are so carefully documented and soclean. There’s a mutation in their genes-they all have it-it ‘resets’ the control regions in zygotic DNA. That means their genes can be used as templates to eliminate virtually any congenital illness-even aging. We’ve got an old lady who’s a hundred years old and sharp as a whip.

There’s a twelve-year-old girl with the genes to wipe out leukemia.” He moved closer. “We’ve got a guy who could be source for a hundred new vaccines. He’s incredible-the cure for everything. But we’ll lose them all if your boss keeps them here. And he can. He has the authority.”

“Get on the phone to International Pharmaceutical,” she said and heard her voice shaking. “Get them to twist his arm.”

“I can’t,” he said. “This isn’t a public project. We’re not even supposed to be here. We were supposed to pick them up and get them down to the southern facility. We wouldn’t have stopped except we spent a day fixing the truck.” He spread his hands, like the plagues of the world, not just Luck now’s, would be on her shoulders if she refused to lie for him. “Help us,” he said. “Tell your boss everything’s fine in Xavantina.”

She couldn’t make herself say anything. She couldn’t make herself believe him.

He moved even closer. “You won’t be sorry,” he said in a low voice. “Do it, and I’ll make sure you won’t ever be sorry.”

She took him back to Intake and told Horace that Hiller seemed to be a legit operation, that there was a receiving area at Xavantina and it had been approved according toPlano de Desenvolvimen to standards.

Horace grunted and smoked and made more irritated pronouncements about Xingu as a cheap motel on the highway to Brazil’s industrial future. At about one in the morning, he stubbed out his cigarette and went to bed, leaving Maria to lockup.

Maria showed N’Lykli and the Mexican driver where they could sleep, and then she walked down to Area C, to have a better look at The Cure for Everything.

Xingu’s compounds would never make it into Frommer’s, but to fleeing tribes, the split greenwood shelters, clean water, and firepits were five-star accommodations. The only fences were to keep the compound areas separated. Intertribal conflicts could survive bulldozers and rifles like nothing else.

Maria passed the Xingu guard, who squinted at her, then waved her on. Closer to Area C she was surprised to run into a second guard. A short guy-the truck driver, she realized-built like a brick and too bulky for his Hiller jacket.

His eyes widened at the sight of Maria and he crossed himself. “You can’t come in here.”

“I work here,” snapped Maria.

“Everybody’s sleeping,” said the guard, but Maria took another step toward him, letting him get a good look at her spirit-pale face, and his resolve seemed to evaporate. “Germs,” he said weakly. “Don’t give them your germs.”

“I’ve had all my shots,” she said, and kept walking.

They weren’t asleep. It was too dark to make out details, but from her shadowy hiding place, Maria could see seven or eight people sitting by the nearest fire, talking to each other. No different than a hundred other intakes. Exhausted little kids had been bundled into the shelters. The adults would watch for unknown dangers until sunrise.

Maria crouched in the leaves, invisible, and listened. Five hundred years of isolation would mean an unfathomable dialect. She might be able to catch a word or two, but the proof of the Hiller Project would be in what she could hear and not comprehend. She had the rest of the night to decide if N’Lykli was lying, and if she decided he was, she would tell Horace everything in the morning. She would tell him the exact name for her ghostliness and what N’Lykli had promised her. Horace would understand.

She squinted into the haze of wood smoke. The tone of the conversation around the fire had risen, like an argument. One young man made wide, angry gestures. Something flashed in his ear, a brilliant ruby red, and Maria thought she caught the word forprisoners in Tupi-Guarani.

Across from him, a remarkably old woman pounded a walking stick on the packed dirt. The fire showed her nearly-naked body-withered breasts and wiry muscles-striped here and there with yellow paint.

And a scarlet glint in her ear.

The old woman pounded her walking stick even harder, raising puffs of dust. Flames leaped up, giving Maria a snapshot view of a half dozen elders with braided hair and feathers, the ruby glint in each earlobe. Their ancient faces focused on the young man’s dissent. He shouted in a staccato burst of glottals and rising tones, closer to Chinese opera than any Amazon Basin language Maria had ever heard.

The old woman made an unmistakably dismissive motion with both arms. Emphatic. The young man jumped to his feet and stalked off. The elders watched him go. The old woman glowered at the fire, and no one said another word.

In the dark, surrounded by mosquitoes and thick, damp heat, Maria eased out of her crouch. Bugs were crawling into her socks. Her left leg was cramping and she was holding her breath, but she could feel her body changing. She was becoming solid and brighter than she’d ever been before. Her life as a ghost was over. Right here. In this spot. Her invisibility and their isolation. Her scrupulously unconceived, mitten-handed mutant children, who had burrowed into her dreams for so many years, drifted around her, dispersing like smoke, and Maria felt the trees, the dirt, the insects and night birds-everything-hopeful and alive, and full of positive regeneration, for the first time in her life.

She got to her feet, wobbly with optimism, turned around and saw him.

He stared at her the way they all did. She stared back at his wide-set eyes and honest mouth. Yellow face paint and brilliant macaw feathers. His ruby earring wasn’t jewelry at all, but a tiny digital sampler of some kind, ticking off combinations of numbers, pulsing as he breathed. She tried to tell herself he wasn’t the one N’Lykli had told her about. That this wasn’t the face and trim body of The Cure for Everything.

But it was.

My germs,she thought, and took an unsteady step backward.

He moved toward her and spoke in halting Portuguese. “You see me speak. You hear me.”

She nodded.

He took a breath through his teeth. “Please. Take me away,Jamarikuma.”

Another word with ancient, Tupi-Guaranian roots.Jamarikuma: a grandmother of powerful female spirits.

She turned around and ran.

She went to see N’Lykli. Pounded on his door and woke him up.

“Where are you really taking them?” she said. “There’s nothing in Xavantina but a couple of bankrupt rubber plantations.”

He hunched on the edge of the cot, covering himself with the sheet. “International Pharmaceutical has a facility there.”

“Do those peopleknow you’re-you’remilking them?”

His face made a defensive twitch. “We’ve explained what we need from them and they’ve discussed it.

They all understand about the dam. They know why they can’t stay in Ipiranga.”

“Why do they think they’re going to be prisoners?”

N’Lykli sat up straight. “Look. They’re not captives. There’re a few who don’t like the idea, but we’re not taking them against their will. We’ve been in contact with them for almost a decade. We even explained about Xingu and your assimilation programs. They didn’t want anything to do with it. They don’t want to be separated.”

“We don’t separate families.”

“Can you relocate an entire tribe-eight hundred and seventy-four people-to a nice neighborhood in Brasilia?”

“But there’s only-”

“This is the last group,” he said. “We’ve been staging them into Xavantina for a month.”

She sat down on the only chair in the room. “I can’t even interview them to find out if any of what you’re saying is true.”

He shrugged again.

She took a breath. “So what am I supposed to do? Wait around until International Pharmaceutical announces a cure for Luck now’s?”

N’Lykli rubbed his chin. “You don’t have to be cured of the syndrome to have normal children. You just need the right father.”

Maria stared at him.

He looked down at the floor. “We don’t just take blood samples. I can send you something in a couple of weeks. It’ll be frozen and you’ll have to use it right away. I’ll send instructions…”

“You’re going to send mesperm? ”

“How else should I do it?” he said. “Would you rather make an appointment with him?”

“Oh, forChrist’s sake!”

He watched her head for the door. “You’re going to tell your boss what’s going on?”

Maria stopped. Put her hands in her pockets and glared at him, the mosquito netting, the dank, bare room.Jamarikuma. Like hell.

“Goddamit,” she said. “You’d better be out of here by daylight.”

The Hiller Project truck pulled out at dawn, this time with the Jeep in the lead.

Maria stood out in full view, watching. N’Lykli gave her a half-salute and looked around nervously, probably for Horace. The Mexican driver gunned the engine, going too fast over the ruts and holes of the unpaved road.

The truck followed, angling for the open gate. In the back, every face turned to stare at her.

The Cures for Alzheimer’s, Luck now’s, and all kinds of cancer made small gestures against spirits, turned to each other to whisper, but they didn’t look frightened. They didn’t look resigned to their fates.

They looked like tired travelers who were sick of cheap motels, ready to be wherever they were going.

Except for one.

The Cure for Everything lunged against the railing.“Jamarikuma!” He shouted high in his throat.“Jamarikuma!” He shook the wooden side rails as the truck lurched through the gates and down the hill. She could hear him yelling over the diesel rumble even when the truck was well out of sight.

She stood there in the gray sunlight, taking deep breaths of churned earth and fumes, and felt her body go vague again. It was sudden and strange, like a wind had blown through her.

She knew she should go down to Intake and tell Horace everything, but she was afraid to. It seemed sickeningly obvious now that she should have made the Hiller people stay. Even if what N’Lykli had told her was true, she should have gone over to the Indians arguing around their campfires and made them talk to her. If The Cure for Everything could speak a little Portuguese, so could a few of the others.

Was sheso desperate in her ghostliness that she would betray herself like this, give up her job, her life, her colleagues and friends-everythingfor a cure? For frozensperm?

Yes, she was that desperate. Yes, she was.

She turned away from the gate and the diminishing sounds of the truck.It’s too late, she told herself, and felt the lie in that as well.

She drove off with the Toyota Land Cruiser without telling anyone, before the diesel stink of the Hiller truck was gone. The Toyota was the newest of the Xingu vehicles and the only one with a full tank. She plunged it down the muddy hill after the Hiller truck. There weren’t that many ways to get to Xavantina.

She caught up with the truck in less than half an hour, but stayed out of sight, a klick or so behind.

Xingu’s rutted jungle access turned to a graded lumber trail, and she dropped even further back. When the scraggly trees gave way to burned stumps and abandoned timber, she gave herself more distance, until the Hiller truck was a speck behind the speck of the Jeep, forging along the muddy curvesin the ruined hillsides.

She followed them through grim little settlements of displaced Indians and rubber tappers who lived in squalor downstream from the local plantations, past islands of pristine jungle where monkeys screamed at her and brilliant parrots burst out of the trees in clouds of pure color.

Fourteen hours from Xingu, long after the moon went down, the truck turned off the half-paved local Xavantina highway onto a dirt road along a narrow river. In the pitch blackness, it made a sharp right and came to a stop.

Maria pulled into the last stand of trees. Doors slammed and there was a brief silence. Then a bank of floodlights came on overhead and she could see the truck sitting by the Jeep in a cleared area at the foot of a high chain-link fence. The Indians peered out of the back, pointing into the darkness while N’Lykli pulled the gates open and the vehicles drove through.

There were no signs to identify the place. Maria hunched over the Toyota’s steering wheel, stiff in her shoulders, thick in her head, tired beyond even the desire for coffee. She lit her last cigarette and dragged deep for energy and ideas as N’Lykli swung the gates shut, locked them, tugged on them, and vanished into the dark.

In a minute, the floods went out, leaving Maria with the glowing tip of her cigarette. She waited a while longer, turned on the dome light and crawled into the back of the car where the tool box was. She dug until she found a heavy-duty pair of wire cutters.

Inside the gate, the road deteriorated into a wasteland of bulldozed ruts. Weeds and young trees grew to shoulder height. Small animals scurried away as Maria groped through the dark. Bloodthirsty insects found her bare neck, her ankles, and the backs of her hands. Finally, she saw the glow of sulfur-colored floodlights, and at the top of the next rise, she got her first glimpse of the “facility.”

A huddle of blocky, windowless buildings surrounded a fenced central courtyard. It had the look of an unfinished prison. Wire-topped fences glinted in the security floods.

She expected dogs, but didn’t hear any. She made her way through the weeds expecting snakes, but decided that N’Lykli and his blood-sucking colleagues at Hiller had probably eliminated every poisonous thing for miles around-no accidental losses in their gene pool of cures. The whole idea made her furious-atthem for such a blatant exploitation, and at herself for so badly needing what they’d found.

She circled the compound, trying to find an inconspicuous way to get into the inner courtyard, but the fences were new and some of them were electrified. When she had come almost all the way around to the front again, she found a lit row of barred windows on the ground floor of one of the blockhouses.

There was no one inside. The lights were dim, for security, not workers or visitors. Maria climbed up a hard dirt bank to the window sill and hung onto the bars with both hands.

Inside, modern desks and new computers lined one side of a huge white room. At the other end, there was a small lab with racks of glassware and a centrifuge. Color-coded gene charts covered the walls.

Yellow lines braided into red, producing orange offspring. Bright pink Post-it notes followed one line and dead-ended with a handwritten note and an arrow drawn in black marker. She could read the print without effort:Autism?

Mitten-handed mutants. Ghostly spirit children.

She let herself down from the windowsill and crept through brittle grass to the edge of the wire fence.

Inside, she could see one end of the compound and the lights of the blockhouse beyond. Dark human shapes were silhouetted against small fires and she realized she’d expected them to be treated as inmates, locked up for the night and under constant guard. Instead she could smell the wood smoke and hear their muffled voices. Women laughing. A baby squalling, then shushed. Hands pattered on a drum.

She touched the fence with the back of her hand, testing for current.

Nothing.

She listened, but there was no alarm that she could hear.

Someone chanted a verse of a song. A chorus of children sang in answer. For the first time, Maria saw the enormity of what she was about to do.

The Cure for Everything. Not just Luck now’s.

She pulled out the cutters and started working on the fence. The gene chart.Autism. The wayhis voice had sounded, shriekingJamarikuma! None of this was right.

She crawled through the hole in the fence and they saw her right away. The singing and conversation stopped. She got to her feet, brushed off her knees and went near enough to the closest fire to be seen, but not close enough to be threatening. The Cure for Everything gave Maria a quick, urgent nod but he didn’t stand up. Around him, a few heads cocked in recognition of her face, her skin.

The withered old woman Maria had seen at Xingu hobbled over from one of the other fires, leaning on her walking stick. She frowned at Maria and started speaking in accented Portuguese.

“We saw you at Xingu. You’re the Jamarikuma. What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to help,” said Maria.

“Help us do what?” said the old woman.

“You don’t have to stay in this place,” said Maria. “If you do, you and your children and your grandchildren’s children won’t ever be allowed to leave.”

The old woman-and half a dozen other older members of the tribe-glanced at the Cure. Not in a particularly friendly way.

“What’s this all about?” said the old woman to the Cure, still in Portuguese. “You’ve got a spirit arguing for you now?”

He replied in their own language. To Maria he sounded sulky.

“Do you understand why you’re here?” said Maria. “These people…” She gestured at the looming buildings. “They want your blood, your…”Genes might meansouls to them. “You have a-a talent to cure diseases,” said Maria. “That’s why they want your blood.”

Guarded eyes stared back from around the fire.

The old woman nodded. “What’s so bad about that?”

“You won’t ever be able to go backhome,” said Maria.

The old woman snorted. “At home they were trying to shoot us.” She spat into the fire. “We’re afraid to go back there.”

“Buthere we’re animals.” The Cure pushed himself to his feet. “We’reprisoners! ”

“We’ve had this discussion,” said the old woman sharply and turned to Maria. “We made a decision months ago. We said he didn’t have to stay if he didn’t want to, but he stayed anyway, and now he’s bringing in spirits to make an argument that no one else agrees with. We’re safer right here than we’ve been for years. No one’s shooting at us. So we have to wear their ugly jewelry.” She touched the ruby sampler in her ear. “So we lose a little blood now and then. It’s just a scratch.”

“But you’re in a cage,” said Maria.

“I don’t like that part,” said the old woman. “But you have to admit, it’s a big cage, and mostly it keeps the bandits and murderers out.”

The Cure jabbed a finger at Maria, making his point in harsh staccato tones. Maria only caught the wordXingu.

The old woman eyed Maria. “What would happen to us at Xingu?”

“We’d teach you how to be part of the world outside,” said Maria. “We’d show you what you need to know to be farmers, or to live in the city if that’s what you want.”

“Are there guns in the world outside?”

It was a patronizing question. Maria felt sweat break out at the small of her back. “You know there are.”

“Would we all be able to stay together, the entire tribe?” asked the old woman.

“We do the best we can,” said Maria. “Sometimes it isn’t possible to keep everyone together, but we try.”

The old woman made a wide gesture into the dark. “We didn’t lose one single person on the trip. You’re saying you can’t guarantee that for us at Xingu, though. Is that right?”

“Right,” said Maria.

“But we’d be free.”

Maria didn’t say anything.

The old woman made a sharp gesture. “It’s time for the Jamarikuma spirit to leave. If that’s what she actually is.” She closed her eyes and began to hum, a spirit-dismissing song, Maria supposed, and she glanced at the Cure, who leaped to his feet.

“I am leaving. With the Jamarikuma.”

The old woman nodded, still humming, as though she was glad he’d finally made up his mind.

The Cure took a step away from the fire. He walked-no, he sauntered around his silent friends, family, maybe even his wife. No one said anything and no one was shedding any tears. He came over to Maria and stood beside her.

“I will not come back,” he said.

The old woman hummed a little louder, like she was covering his noise with hers.

When they got back to the Toyota, Maria unlocked the passenger side and let him in. He shut the door and she walked slowly around the back to give herself time to breathe. Her heart was pounding and her head felt empty and light, like she was dreaming. She leaned against the driver’s side, just close enough to see his dim reflection in the side mirror. He was rubbing his sweaty face, hard, as though he could peel away his skin.

In that moment, she felt as though she could reach into the night, to just the right place and find an invisible door which would open into the next day. It was the results of a night with him that she wanted, she realized. He was like a prize she’d just won. For the first time, she wondered what his name was.

She pulled the driver’s side open and got in beside him. She turned the key in the ignition and checked the rearview mirror as the dashboard lit up. All she could see of herself was a ghostly, indistinct shape.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

“Everything’s fine.” She said and let the truck blunder forward into the insect-laden night.

Later, when the access road evened out to pavement, he put his hot palm on her thigh. She kept driving, watching how the headlights cut only so far ahead into the darkness. She stopped just before the main road, and without looking at him, reached out to touch his fingers.

“Are we going to Xingu?” he asked, like a child.

“No,” she said. “I can’t go back.”

“Neither can I,” he said, and let her kiss him. Here. And there.


The Suspect Genome - Peter F. Hamilton


Here’s an absorbing and intricately plotted mystery set in a troubled future England, a story that expertly and effortlessly mixes two genres to produce a hybrid worthy of the best of either: a science fiction mystery full of surprises, where nothing is as itseemsto be.
Prolific new British writer Peter F. Hamilton has sold toInterzone, In Dreams, New Worlds, Fears,and elsewhere. He sold his first novel, Mind-star Rising,in 1993, and quickly followed it up with two sequels, A Quantum Murderand The Nano Flower,all detailing further adventures of Greg Mendel, who also features in “The Suspect Genome.” Hamilton’s first three books didn’t attract a great deal of attention, on this side of the Atlantic, at least, but that changed dramatically with the publication of his nextnovel, The Reality Dysfunction,a huge modern Space Opera (it needed to be divided into two volumes for publication in the United States) that is itself only the start of a projected trilogy of staggering size and scope, the Night’s Dawntrilogy. The Reality Dysfunctionhas been attracting the reviews and the acclaim that his prior novels did not, and has suddenly put Hamilton on the map, perhaps a potential rival for writers such as Dan Simmons, Iain Banks, Paul J. McAuley, Greg Benford, C. J. Cherryh, Stephen R.
Donaldson, Colin Greenland, and other major players in the expanding subgenre of Modern Baroque Space Opera, an increasingly popular area these days. The subsequent novel in the trilogy, The Neutronium Alchemist,generated the same kind of excited critical buzz. Hamilton’s most recent books include his first collection, A Second Chance at Eden,the third novel in the Night’s Dawntrilogy, The Naked God,and a novella chapbook, Watching Trees Grow.

One-The Dodgy Deal It was only quarter past nine on that particular Monday morning, but the September sun was already hot enough to soften the tarmac of Oakham’s roads. The broad deep-tread tires of Richard Townsend’s Mercedes were unaffected by the mildly adhesive quality of the surface, producing a sly purring sound as they crossed the spongy black surface.

Radio Rutland played as he drove. The station was still excited by the news about Byrne Tyler-the celebrity’s death was the biggest thing to happen in the area all month. A newscaster was interviewing some detective about the lack of an arrest. The body had been found on Friday, and the police still had nothing.

Richard turned onto the High Street, and the road surface improved noticeably. The heart of the town was thriving again. Local shops were competing with the national brand-name stores that were muscling in on the central real estate, multiplying in the wake of the economic good times that had come to the town. Richard always regretted not having any interests in the new consumerism rush, but he’d been just too late to leap on that gravy train. Real money had been very short in the immediate aftermath of the PSP years, which was when the retail sector began its revival.

He drove into the Pillings Industrial Precinct, an area of small factories and warehouses at the outskirts of the town. Trim allotments down the right hand side of the road were planted with thick banana trees, their clumps of green fruit waving gently in the muggy breeze. The sturdy trunks came to a halt beside a sagging weed-webbed fence that sketched out a jumble of derelict land. All that remained of the factory that once stood there was a litter of shattered bricks and broken concrete footings half glimpsed among the tangle of nettles and rampant vines. A new sign had been pounded into the iron-hard ocher clay, proclaiming it to be Zone 7, and Ready For Renewal, a Rutland Council/Townsend Properties partnership.

Zone 7 was an embarrassment. It was the first site anyone saw when they entered the Pillings Precinct: a ramshackle remnant of the bad old days. The irony being Pillings was actually becoming quite a success story. Most of the original units, twentieth-century factories and builders’ merchants, had been refurbished to house viable new businesses, while the contemporary zones, expanding out into the verdant cacao plantations that encircled the town, were sprouting the uniform blank sugar-cube structures of twenty-first-century construction. Seamless weather-resistant composite walls studded with mushroom-like air-conditioning vents, and jet-black solar-cell roofs. Whatever industry was conducted inside, it was securely masked by the standardized multipurpose facades. Even Richard wasn’t sure what some of the companies did.

He parked the Merc outside his own offices, a small brick building recently renovated. Colm, his assistant, was already inside, going through the datapackages that had accumulated overnight on his desktop terminal.

“The architect for Zone 31 wants you to visit,” he said as Richard walked in. “There’s some problem with the floor reinforcements. And a Mr. Alan O’Hagen would like to see you. He suggested 10:30 this morning.”

Richard paused. “Do I know him?”

Colm consulted his terminal. “We don’t have any file on record. He said he may be interested in a zone.”

“Ah.” Richard smiled. “Fine, 10:30.”

It was a typical morning spent juggling data. Builders, suppliers, clients, accountants, local planning officials; they all expected him to clear up the mess they were making of their own jobs. He’d spent a lot of his own money over the last four years, schmoozing and paying off the county and town councillors to get his partnership with the precinct project, and it had paid off. Townsend Properties was currently involved in developing eight of the zones, with architects working on plans for another three. Having the massive Event Horizon corporation open a memox processing facility on Zone 12 a year ago had been a real triumph for the town; other smaller corporations had immediately begun to nose around, eager for sub-contracts. Quite how the council development officers managed to pull off that coup always baffled Richard. He’d never known a supposedly professional team quite as incompetent as the people who worked at Rutland Council. Every job he undertook was besieged by official delays and endless obstructionist revisions.

The man who walked in at 10:30 prompt wasn’t quite what Richard had expected. He was in his late fifties, nothing like any of those eager young business types who normally came sniffing around the precinct. Alan O’Hagen wore a gray business suit with a pale purple tie. He had a sense of authority which made Richard automatically straighten up in his chair and reach to adjust his own tie. Even the man’s handshake was carefully controlled, an impression of strength held in reserve.

“What can I do for you?” Richard asked as his visitor settled into the leather chair before the desk.

“My company.” Alan O’Hagen held up a silver palmtop cybofax. Its key blinked with a tiny pink light as it squirted a data package into the desktop terminal. Richard scanned the information quickly.

“Firedrake Marketing? I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it.”

O’Hagen smiled. “No reason you should. It’s a small virtual company I own. I trade on-circuit, specializing in albums and multimedia drama games. I have some German software houses signed up, and a couple of African jazz bands who aren’t well distributed in Europe. Naturally, I’d like to rectify that.”

“Uh huh.” Richard made an immediate guess about what kind of German software-the end of the PSP hadn’t seen a total reversal of censorship in England. “So how does the Pillings Precinct fit in with all this?”

“I want Firedrake to become more than a virtual company. At the moment it consists of a circuit site with a few trial samples you can access, and an order form. I subcontract distribution and delivery to a mail-order company in Peterborough. After their fees, I’m not left with much in the way of profit. What I want to do is build up a distribution arm myself.”

“I see.” Richard made sure he wasn’t grinning. It would appear predatory at this point. “And you’d like to build that distribution company here.”

“It’s a possibility.”

“A very advantageous one for you. Event Horizon’s memox plant would be next door, so there’d be no shortage of crystals, and we do have an excellent rail service to both Peterborough and Leicester. Not to mention a generous start-up tax allowance.”

“Every industrial precinct does, these days,” O’Hagen said. “Corby is offering a flat-rate construction loan for anyone starting on either of their new precincts.”

Richard blanked his irritation at the mention of Corby. He’d lost three clients to their precinct developers in the last six weeks. “You’ll find us a competitive match for any other precinct, I assure you.”

“What about construction times?”

“That depends on the size of the operation you’re looking for, of course.”

“Nothing extravagant to start with, but I will require a zone with considerable potential for expansion if things take off.”

“As I’m sure they will.” Richard walked over to the precinct map pinned on the wall. “I have several zones I can offer you.”

It took another two hours of cajoling before O’Hagen left. Richard had squirted just about every brochure and data package he’d got into the businessman’s cybofax. He’d hate to play the man at poker; no hint of how keen he was had leaked from that impassive face. But the good news was that O’Hagen had invited Richard for dinner that night, suggesting the Lord Nelson restaurant in the Market Square.

After lunch, Richard drove to the courthouse in the town’s old castle hall. Jodie Dobson, his solicitor, was waiting for him in the car park. In her mid-thirties, a junior partner in one of the local firms, she was more than capable when it came to corporate legal matters.

“We’ve got plenty of time,” she said, gesturing to the ancient doors. “The land-registry clerk’s only just finished his lunch.”

“Fine.” He paused. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of a company called Fire-drake?”

“Should I have?”

“Not really.” He waved his cybofax. “I was checking their site this lunchtime. They sell a response formulator for interactives. Once you’ve plugged into a drama, it’ll take your character wherever you want to go inside the arena. The plotlines will reconfigure to incorporate your movements and speech into the story. They’re claiming a much better reaction time than other software.”

“Sounds fairly standard to me.”

“Yes, but it’s not just for flatscreens, it can handle a total VR immersion. It’s fully compatible with all the major multimedia formats; you can supplement it to whatever drama you buy.”

“Why the interest?”

He shrugged and gestured her through the doorway. “I think it could be quite successful.”

The old stone hall had a vaulted ceiling, and whitewashed plaster walls hung with hundreds of horseshoes. Prior to the Warming the hall had been little more than a historical tourist attraction, used only occasionally for a magistrate’s court. Then in the aftermath of the seas flooding the Lincolnshire fens, the vast influx of refugees had more than doubled Rutland’s population. The hall’s legal activities had expanded to become full-time. Modern partitioning had been used to break up the rear of the hall into small office cubicles. Jodie and Richard maneuverd along a narrow corridor between the transparent sound-proofed walls. The Land Registry amp; Claims cubicle was barely large enough to hold the two of them as well as the clerk.

Jodie had the petition already prepared, and handed over the two memox crystals detailing the case, including the original farmer’s title to the land. Richard, as the claimee, had to sign a host of papers verifying the action.

“Any idea when the case will be heard?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Townsend.” The clerk’s hand fluttered over the pile of memox crystals and paper folders on his desk. “We have over eight hundred ownership cases filed in this court alone. The local PSP Land Rights allocation committee confiscated a lot of property.”

“Yes, I appreciate that, but this is land for a commercial venture which will benefit many people in the town. It’ll create jobs, and bring wealth into the area. Surely that warrants some additional attention.”

“I would say yes,” the clerk murmured diplomatically. “But it’s not up to me.”

“Nevertheless…I’d be grateful if you could point this out to the powers that be.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

When they were back outside in the scorching sunlight Jodie frowned. “That was sailing close to the wind. You don’t do backroom deals in a civic office.”

“I’ll bear it in mind. And you should remember that we need that leisure complex; your partnership will scoop up a big fee for steering it through the legal stages.”

“I am aware of basic marketplace economics, thank you.”

“Good. There’s a lot of new industry moving into town right now. That means wealthy educated people looking for somewhere to relax, and prepared to pay for the privilege. Rutland Water is a fabulous commercial resource, which is tragically underused. Can you believe there’s only three hotels on the shore?”

Jodie nudged him softly. He looked around to see a bicycle entering the castle hall grounds. It was Andy Broady peddling heavily, his ruddy young face glistening with sweat. Richard almost laughed out loud.

Even in this weather the kibbutzniks still wore their thick dark dungarees.

Andy dismounted and leaned the bike against a wall. It was an ancient contraption of black steel tubes, with a wicker basket on the front of broad handlebars. The County Museum would be proud to possess a specimen like it.

Richard gave him a pleasant nod. Andy glared back furiously. For a moment Richard thought he might stalk over and swing a punch. Eventually, he pulled a bundle of papers out of the basket and made for the hall doors.

“My relocation offer stands,” Richard said. “There’s no need for either of us to go through this. It is my land.”

“My father died this morning,” Andy said. His voice was close to choking.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Richard said.

“Accident, my arse!”

Richard kept his voice neutral. “I don’t understand.”

“Listen, you.” Andy took a pace toward them, his finger raised. “Twenty years he worked that land. He kept the faith and taught it to all of us. God rewarded our labors with enough fruit and crops to feed ourselves. It’s our home! We won’t give it up.”

“With all respect to your father, God didn’t give you that land. The PSP did. They stole it from a family who were farming it a lot longer than twenty years, and didn’t pay a penny in compensation. What kind of justice is that?”

“It’s ours!” Andy was close to tears. “I’ve spent my life there.”

Richard nearly said,Time to move on, then, but kept his sarcasm in check. It wouldn’t do to get involved in a public fracas with some half-wit farm boy. Besides, the oaf was built like a combine harvester-solid power in a huge squat body. They stared at each other for a moment, then Andy hurried inside, rubbing the crucifix stitched to the front of his dungarees.

“Filing their counter claim, no doubt,” Jodie said. “They’ll appeal for post-acquisition compensation, you know. It’s what I’d do in their situation.”

“Fat lot of good that’ll do them. I have full title.”

“You’ll have to let me see the plans for this leisure complex sometime. It must be quite something.”

“It’s a work of art. Most aesthetic.”

“You mean, profitable.”

He laughed. “What else?”

Alan O’Hagen had booked a table at the back of the Lord Nelson, where they were afforded some privacy. Richard enjoyed the small restaurant; it had tasteful antique decor, efficient service, and an excellent seafood menu. His ex-wife had always badgered him to take her, but he never had the money in those days. Now she was no longer a burden to him with her absurd middle-class a-fair-day’s-work for-a-fair-day’s-pay ethic. Nothing worthwhile in this world came fair. The young waitress gave him a respectful smile as he came in. Success was the most succulent dish.

O’Hagen was waiting for him. Richard ordered a bottle of Australian Chardonnay from the wine list, almost the most expensive available. It was unusual for a client to buy him a meal, especially at this stage, and it made him wonder what kind of proposal O’Hagen was going to make.

“I want to take Zone 35,” O’Hagen said. “However, I may have one small problem which I was wondering if you could help me with.”

“Go on,” Richard said. This was the part he enjoyed the most-the part, different every time, which had to be settled to make it all fall into place.

“The industrial unit will cost about half a million New Sterling to build and equip,” O’Hagen said.

“Firedrake is a viable concern, but I’m not going to get the capital backing from a bank to build a whole warehouse and mailing outfit from scratch. Not with that to offer as collateral on the deal.”

“Firedrake can’t be your only concern, surely?”

“It’s not. But the kind of imports I’ve been dealing with in the past don’t lend themselves to close examination. Besides, there’s none of that money left.”

“I see.”

O’Hagen leaned over the table. “Look, the thing is this. At the moment Fire-drake has a turnover of about 70,000 New Sterling per year. And that’s just with one poxy site and not much advertising. Once my distribution arm is up and running I can expand the product range and the advertising. That’ll start to generate enough income to pay off the kind of loan I’ll need to get it started. I’mthis close.”

“I can see that, but…”

“Every business faces this point in the early years. It’s a credibility gap, nothing more. I need the banks to take a favorable look at the proposal, that’s all. England’s economy is in a high boom stage right now, and it’s going to last for a decade at least with this new giga-conductor Event Horizon has delivered.

There’s so much potential for expansion here, you know that. The banks are desperate for an excuse to invest in our companies.”

“But have you got any kind of collateral you can offer the bank? Something concrete? Like you say, they’re fairly flexible.”

“I have one proposition. It’s for you.” He leaned in closer. “Become my partner in Firedrake. I’ll sell you half of the shares.”

“What?”

“It’s simple. With your involvement, the bank is bound to approve the loan application. You’re an established businessman; your development company is a success. With that kind of finance behind Firedrake, it couldn’t fail.”

“I’m sorry. It’s my job to sell you part of the precinct, not the other way round. I’m not a buyer, Mr.

O’Hagen.”

“I’m not asking you to buy. I’m even prepared to pay you.”

Richard carefully poured himself some more Chardonnay. “I don’t follow.”

“Look, what we’re talking about here is credibility, right? I want financial credibility, and that’s what I’ll pay you for. You take a half share in Firedrake. It’s not worth anything, there are only two shares, and they’re valued at a pound each. I told you, it’s a virtual company. Memory space on a mainframe, that’s all. But if you combine its turnover with your company’s involvement, we’ve got a valid application for an expansion loan. And you get another commercial unit built on the precinct, out of which you make a tidy profit. Nor will you be liable for Firedrake if-God forbid-it goes down the tube. The distribution operation will be a subsidiary which I own. There’s no risk in it for you.”

Richard hesitated. The idea almost made sense, and some of the arrangements he’d made on other deals were a lot less orthodox. “If I take a share in Firedrake, the banks will see what you’re doing. That would help your credibility, and it would ruin mine.”

“Yes. But if you’d taken that half share two years ago they’d be impressed. It would show that you’d been a part of a promising business for a decent period, and were now confident enough in it to expand.”

“Hmm.” Richard sat back and looked into that impassive face. O’Hagen was earnest, but certainly not pleading. “You mentioned payment. What kind of incentive would I have received to loan you my good name for the past two years?”

“I have a painting. It’s a McCarthy, worth quite a bit. Not enough to trade in as collateral for a warehouse unit, you understand. But I could loan you that until Firedrake was earning enough to pay you back.”

“How much is a bit?”

“Find the right collector, you should be able to get 20,000 for it.”

Richard weighed it up. Twenty thousand for using his name and reputation to lever a loan from a bank for a deal in which he would profit. And costing one tiny blemish in record-keeping, a one-pound share and two years. To massage that kind of data you didn’t even need to be an accountant…let alone a creative one. “I’d want to see Firedrake’s accounts before I go any further,” he said cautiously.

For the first time, there was a display of emotion on Alan O’Hagen’s face as his lips moved into a small smile. “Come to my office tomorrow. My accountant will go over them with you.”

Thistlemore Wood was a district on Peterborough’s western sprawl, part of the industrial expansion which had turned the city into a commercial powerhouse in the post-Warning years. To south was an old park, now hosting an estate of hemispherical apartment blocks, silvery crescents rising up out of the grassland. The road Richard eased the Merc along was lined by closely planted maeosopis trees, their long branches curving into an arboreal arch above him. He had to slow on the edge of Thistlemore because a converter crew was at work on the road. Smoke was venting out of their big remoulder vehicle as it chewed up the cinder flecks the track was made from. An endless sheet of smooth thermo-hardened cellulose was extruded from its rear, a dark protective coating which sealed the raw earth away from pounding tires and searing sunlight. The crew diverted Richard around the vehicle, keeping him off the freshly laid surface. A couple of rickshaws came the other way, their riders clamping cloths over their noses as the smoke gushed around them.

The block where O’Hagen rented office space for Firedrake was eight stories high, its exterior white marble and copper glass. Satellite uplink antennae squatted on the roof inside their weather domes; an indicator of just how much data traffic the building handled. Richard pulled up in the visitors’ car park, then took the lift to the sixth floor.

Firedrake had one employee. Apparently she did everything in the office: personal assistant, receptionist, site maintenance, made tea and coffee, handled communications. Like O’Hagen, she wasn’t what Richard was expecting, but for very different reasons. She was small, though he quickly redefined that as compact. He didn’t think she’d take very kindly to people who called her small. Every look was menacing, as if she were eyeing him up for a fight…a physical one. Her dress had short sleeves, showing arms scuffed with what looked like knife scars, and a tattoo: closed fist gripping a thorn cross, blood dripping.

After he’d given his name she reluctantly pressed her intercom button. “Mr. Townsend to see you,” she growled.

“Thank you, Suzi,” O’Hagen answered. “Send him in, please.”

Her thumb jabbed at a door. “In there.”

Richard went past her and found himself in Alan O’Hagen’s office. “That’s some secretary you’ve got there.”

“She’s cheap,” O’Hagen replied with a grin. “She’s also surprisingly efficient. And I don’t get too many unwanted visitors barging in.”

“I can imagine,” Richard muttered.

O’Hagen indicated a woman who was standing at the side of his desk. “My accountant, Mrs. Jane Adams.”

She gave Richard a curt nod. Her appearance was comfortable after the girl outside; she was in her late forties, dressed in a business suit, with white hair tidied in a neat short style.

“I understand you intend to invest in Firedrake,” she said.

“That’s what I’m here to decide.”

“Very well.” She gave O’Hagen a disapproving look. “I’m not sure I should be endorsing this kind of action.”

“Jane, neither of us is getting any younger. If Firedrake works out the way we expect we’ll have a decent nest-egg to sell to some kombinate or media prince. Hell, even Richard here might buy me out.”

“Let’s take it one step at a time, shall we,” Richard said. “If I could see the accounts.”

With one last reluctant look at O’Hagen, Mrs. Adams handed Richard a pair of memox crystals.

“They’re completely up to date,” she said.

He put the first crystal into the slot on his cybofax and began scrolling down the columns of figures.

O’Hagen had been optimistic rather than honest when he said the company’s turnover was 70,000. This year was barely over sixty, and the year before scraped in at fifty. But it was an upward trend.

“I’ve already identified several new software products I’d like Firedrake to promote,” O’Hagen was saying. “I should be able to sign exclusivity rights for the English market on the back of this expansion project.”

“May I see the painting, please?” Richard asked.

“Sure.” O’Hagen picked up a slim kelpboard-wrapped package from behind his desk. Richard had been expecting something larger. This was barely forty centimeters high, thirty wide. He slipped the thin kelpboard from the front. “What is it?” he asked. The painting was mostly sky sliced by a line of white cloud, with the mound of a hill rising out of the lower right corner. Hanging in the air like some bizarre obsidian dagger was an alien spaceship, or possibly an airborne neolithic monument.

“View of a Hill and Clouds,”O’Hagen said contentedly. “Remarkable, isn’t it? It’s from McCarthy’s earlier phase, before he moved from oils to refractive sculpting.”

“I see.” Richard pulled the kelpboard wrapping back on. “I’d like to get it valued.”

“Of course.” O’Hagen smiled.

Richard took the painting to the So the by’s office in Stamford on his way back from Thistlemore Wood.

The assistant was appreciative when Richard told her he wanted it valued for his house-insurance policy.

She took her time, checking its authenticity before giving him an estimate. Eighteen thousand New Sterling. Once again Mr. Alan O’Hagen was being financially optimistic. But all things considered, it wasn’t a bad price for endorsing the Zone 35 development.

“I think we have an agreement,” he told O’Hagen over the phone the next day.

There was a chuckle from the earpiece. “I thought you’d be able to appreciate a good deal. I’ll get the paperwork over to you right away.”

“Very well. I’ll notify the precinct’s banking consortium that I have another client.”

Suzi turned up mid-afternoon carrying a small leather satchel. She opened it to produce a thin folder.

There were two partnership agreement contracts to sign, both dated two years previously; even his signature counter-witness was filled in and dated. Mrs. Adams, he noted.

“It says here my partner in Firedrake is Newton Holdings,” Richard said.

“Yeah. So?”

“I thought it was held by Mr. O’Hagen.”

“Newton belongs to him; it does his imports. You want to call him?”

He couldn’t meet her impatient antagonistic stare. “No.” He signed the partnership contracts.

“Mr. O’Hagen said to say you can owe him the pound for the share,” Suzi said. She gathered up one copy of the contract and handed him a share certificate with his name on it: again dated two years ago.

“Tell him that’s very generous of him.”

She scowled and marched out of the office. Richard glanced over the certificate again, then locked it and the partnership agreement in the wall safe.

Richard was having breakfast the next morning when the police arrived, hammering so hard on the door he thought they were trying to smash it down. He opened the door wearing just his dressing gown, blinking…partly from confusion at the team of eight armed uniformed officers standing on his front lawn, and partly at the bright morning sunlight.

The person knocking aggressively on his paintwork identified herself as Detective Amanda Patterson, holding her police card out for him to verify.

He didn’t bother to show it to his cybofax. “I don’t doubt who you are,” he murmured. Three cars were parked on the street outside, their blue lights flashing insistently. Neighbors were pressed up against windows watching the drama. A Globecast camera crew lurked at the end of the drive, pointing their fat black lenses at him.

“Richard Townsend?” the detective demanded.

He put on a smile as polite as circumstances would allow. “Guilty of that, at least.”

“Would you please accompany me to the station, sir. I have some questions for you.”

“And if I refuse?”

“I will arrest you.”

“For what, exactly?”

“Your suspected involvement in the murder of Byrne Tyler.”

Richard stared at her in astonishment, then managed to gather some dignity. “I hate to ask you this in such a public arena.” He indicated the camera crew. “But are you quite sure you have the right house?”

“Oh yes, sir. I have the right house. It’s yours.”

“Very well. May I at least get dressed first?”

“Yes, sir. One of my male colleagues will accompany you.”

He gave a grunt of surprise as he realized just how serious she was. “I think I’d like my one phone call now as well.”

“That’s America’s Miranda rights, sir. But you’re certainly free to call a solicitor if you think you require one.”

“I don’t require one to establish my innocence,” Richard snapped. “I simply wish to sue you into your grave. You have no idea how much trouble this mistake will bring down on your head.”

Richard suspected the layout of the interview room at Oakham police station was deliberately designed to depress its occupants. Straight psychological assault on the subconscious. Drab light-brown walls shimmered harshly under the glare from the two biolum panels in the ceiling. The gray-steel desk in front of him vibrated softly, a cranky harmonic instigated by the buzzing air-conditioning grille.

He’d been in there for twenty minutes alone, dourly contemplating this ludicrous situation, before the door opened and Jodie Dobson came in.

“About time,” he barked at her. “Can I go now?”

She gave him a sober look. “No, Richard. This isn’t some case of mistaken identity. I’ve been talking to Detective Patterson, and they really do think you had something to do with Byrne Tyler’s murder.”

“That’s insane! I’ve never even met him.”

“I know, and I’m sure we can clear it up with a simple interview.”

“I want that Patterson cow sued for doing this to me. They tipped off the news team. I’ll have my face plastered all over the media. Do you know what kind of damage that’ll do to me? Business is about trust, credibility. I can’t believe this! She’s ruined five years’ hard work in five minutes. It was deliberate and malicious.”

“It’s not that bad. Listen, the quicker you’re out and cleared, the quicker we can instigate damage limitation.”

“I want her to make a public apology, starting with that news crew that was outside my bloody house.”

“We can probably get that. But you’ll need to cooperate. Fully.”

“Fine, bring them on!” He caught the tone in her voice. “What do you mean?”

“They’ve brought in some kind of specialist they want to sit in on your interview. Greg Mandel, he’s a gland psychic.”

Richard hoped his flinch wasn’t too visible. There were stories about gland psychics. Nothing a rational adult need concern themselves about, of course. Human psi ability was a strictly scientific field these days, quantified and researched. A bioware endocrine gland implanted in the brain released specific neurohormones to stimulate the ability. But…“Why do they want him to interview me?”

“Helpinterview you,” Jodie stressed. “Apparently his speciality is sensing emotional states. In other words he’ll know if you’re lying.”

“So if I just say that I didn’t kill this Byrne Tyler, Mandel will know I’m being truthful?”

“That’s the way it works.”

“Okay. But I still want Patterson nailed afterward.”

Richard gave Mandel a close look when he entered the interview room. Approaching middle age, but obviously in shape. The man’s movements were very…precise moving the chairjust so to sit on rather than casually pulling it out from the desk as most people would Richard supposed it was like a measure of confidence and Mandel seemed very self-assured. It was an attitude very similar to Alan O’Hagen’s.

Amanda Patterson seated herself beside Mandel, and slotted a couple of matte-black memox crystals into the twin AV recording deck.

“Interview with Richard Townsend,” Patterson said briskly. “Conducted by myself, Detective Patterson, with the assistance of CID advisory specialist Greg Mandel. Mr. Townsend has elected to have his solicitor present.”

“I did not kill Byrne Tyler,” Richard said. He stared at Mandel. “Is that true?”

“In as far as it goes,” Mandel said.

“Thank you!” he sat back and fixed Patterson with a belligerent expression.

“However, I think we need to examine the subject in a little more detail before giving you a completely clean slate,” Mandel said.

“If you must.”

Mandel gave Patterson a small nod. She opened her cybofax and studied the display screen. “Are you are a partner in the Firedrake company, Mr. Townsend?” she asked.

“What?”

“A company called Firedrake, do you own half of the shares?”

“Well, yes. One share, fifty percent. But that’s nothing to do with Byrne Tyler. It’s a venture with a…a business colleague.”

“Who is that?” Mandel asked.

“Not that it’s anything to do with you or this murder enquiry, but his name is Alan O’Hagen.”

“Interesting,” Detective Patterson said. “The other listed shareholder in Fire-drake is Newton Holdings.”

“Well, yes, that’s O’Hagen’s company.”

“No, Mr. Townsend. According to the companies register, Newton Holdings is owned by Byrne Tyler.”

Richard gave Jodie a desperate look. She frowned.

Detective Patterson consulted her cybofax again. “You’ve been partners for two years, is that right?”

“I…I’ve been a partner with Mr. O’Hagen for two years, yes.” He couldn’t help the way his eyes glanced at Mandel. The psychic was watching him impassively. “Not Byrne Tyler. I’ve never met him.

Never.”

“Really?” Patterson’s tone was highly skeptical. “Have you ever visited the So the by’s office in Stamford?”

Richard hooked a finger around his shirt collar; the air-conditioning wasn’t making any impression on the heat suddenly evaporating off his skin. O’Hagen! O’Hagen had scammed him. But how? He wasn’t a fool, he hadn’t paid O’Hagen any money, quite the opposite. The painting…Which the police obviously knew about. “Yes, I’ve been there.”

“Recently?”

“Earlier this week actually. I think you know that, though, don’t you? I was having an item of mine valued for insurance purposes.”

“Was that item a painting?” Mandel asked.

“Yes.”

“And didn’t you also confirm its authenticity while you were there?”

“I suppose so, the assistant had to make sure it was genuine before she valued it. That’s standard.”

“And the painting definitely belongs to you?”

“It does.”

Mandel turned to Patterson. “Well, that’s true.”

“Of course it is, I was given it some time ago by Mr. O’Hagen,” Richard said. “It was a gift. He will confirm that.”

“I shall be very interested in talking to this Mr. O’Hagen,” Patterson said. “That’s if you can ever produce him for us.” She turned her cybofax around so Richard could see the screen, it held the image ofView of a Hill and Clouds. “Is this the painting, Mr. Townsend?”

“Yes it is.”

“For the record,View of a Hill and Clouds by Sean McCarthy belongs to Byrne Tyler. The artist was a friend of the deceased. It was stolen from his apartment, presumably at the same time that he was murdered.”

“No,” Richard hissed. “Look, okay, listen. I’d never even heard of Firedrake until this week. Taking me on as a partner was a way of proving its viability to the banks. O’Hagen wanted a loan from them, that was the only way he could get it. We fixed it to look like I’d been a partner for two years.”

“Richard,” Jodie warned.

“I’m being set up,” he yelled at her. “Can’t you see?”

“Set up for what?” Patterson asked; she sounded intrigued.

“Byrne Tyler’s murder-that’s what I’m in here for, isn’t it? For Christ’s sake. O’Hagen’s rigged this so it looks like I was involved.”

“Why would Mr. O’Hagen want to do that to you?”

“I don’t fucking know. I’ve never met him before.”

“Mr. Townsend.”

Mandel’s voice made Richard lurch upright. “Yes?”

“You’ve never killed anyone yourself, but did you ever pay a man to eliminate somebody for you?”

Richard gaped at the psychic. In his head a panicked voice was yellingoh shit oh shit oh shit. Mandel would be able to hear it, to taste the wretched knowledge. His own shock-induced paralysis was twisting the emotion to an excruciating level. He thought his head was going to burst open from the stress.

Mandel gave him a sad, knowing smile and said: “Guilty.”

Two-A Suspicious Fall Detective Amanda Patterson had never visited Bisbrooke before. It was a tiny village tucked away along the side of a deep valley just outside Uppingham. Unremarkable and uneventful even by Rutland’s standards, which made it a contender for dullest place in Europe. Until today, that is, when one of the uniforms had responded to a semi-hysterical call from a cleaning agency operative, and confirmed the existence of a body with associated suspicious circumstances.

The unseasonal rain beat down heavily as she drove over from Oakham, turning the road into a dangerous skid-rink. Then she had almost missed the turning off the A47. As it happened, that was the least of her navigational worries.

“Call him again,” she told Alison Weston. The probationary detective was sitting in the passenger seat beside her, squinting through the fogged-up wind screen trying to locate some landmark.

“No way. Uniform will crap themselves laughing at us if I ask for directions,” Alison complained. “It’s got to be here somewhere. There can’t be more than five buildings in the whole godforsaken village.”

Amanda let it go. Hailstones were falling with the rain now, their impacts making clacking sounds on the car’s bodywork. She braked at yet another T-junction.

Bisbrooke was woven together by a lace work of roads barely wide enough for a single vehicle. They all curved sharply, making her nervous about oncoming cars, and they were all sunk into earthen gullies topped with hedges of thick bamboo that had been planted to replace the long-dead privet and hawthorn of the previous century. With the rain and hail pummeling the wind screen, it was perilously close to driving blind. The only clue they were even in the village was the occasional glimpse of ancient stone cottages and brick bungalows huddled at the end of gravelled drives.

“You must be able to see the church,” she said. The address they had been given was in Church Lane.

Alison scanned the swaying tops of the bamboo shoots. “No.” She gave her cybofax an instruction, and it produced a satnav map with their location given as a small pink dot. “Okay, try that one, down there on the left.”

Amanda edged the car cautiously along the short stretch of road where Alison was pointing. The tarmac was reduced to a pair of tire tracks separated by a rich swathe of emerald moss.

“Finally!” The junction ahead had a small street sign for Church Lane; a white-painted iron rectangle almost overgrown by a flamboyant purple clematis. This road was even narrower. It led them past the village church, a squat building made from rust-colored stone that had long since been converted into accommodation units for refugee families.

The lane ran on past a big old farmhouse, and ended at a new building perched on the end of the village.

Church Vista Apartments. Its design was pure Californian-Italian, completely out of place in the heart of rural England. Five luxury apartments sharing a single long building with a stable block and multi-port garage forming a courtyard at the rear. Climbing roses planted along the walls hadn’t grown halfway up their trellises yet.

There was a tall security gate in the courtyard wall. Amanda held her police identity card up to the key, and it swung open for her. A police car and the cleaning agency van were parked on the cobbles beyond. Amanda drew up next to them. The rain was easing off.

They moved briskly over the cobbles to the door of apartment three. One of the uniforms was standing just inside, holding the heavy glass-and-wood door open. She didn’t have to flash her card at him, as Rutland’s police force was small enough for them all to know each other.

“Morning, Rex,” she said as she hurried into the small hallway. He nodded politely as she shook the water from her jacket. “What have we got?”

“Definitely a corpse.”

Alison slipped in and immediately blew her cheeks out. Her breath materialized in the air in front of her.

“God, it’s bloody freezing in here.”

“Air-conditioning’s on full,” Rex said. “I left it that way, I’m afraid. Scene-of-crime, and all that.”

“Good,” Amanda muttered, not meaning it. The chill air was blowing over her wet clothes, giving her goosebumps.

Rex led them into the apartment. It was open-plan downstairs, a single space with white walls and terra-cotta tile flooring, Mexican blackwood cabinets and shelving were lined up around the edges. There were pictures hanging on every wall; prints, chalk and charcoal sketches, oils, watercolors, silver-patina photographs. Most of them featured young female nudes. Three big plump cream-colored leather settees formed a conversation area in the middle, surrounding a Persian rug. A woman in the cleaning agency’s mauve tunic sat on one of the settees, looking shaken.

The front of the room was twice the height of the back. Wide wrought-iron stairs curved up to a balcony which ran the entire width, giving access to all the upstairs rooms. A sheer window wall in front of the balcony flooded the whole area with light.

The corpse lay at the foot of the stairs. A man in his mid-to-late twenties, wearing a pale gray dressing gown, his legs akimbo on the tiles, head twisted at a nasty angle. Some blood had dribbed from his nose.

It was dry and flaking now.

There were three air-conditioning grilles set in the edge of the balcony. One of them was right above the corpse, blowing a stream of the frosty air directly over him.

“He fell down the stairs?” Alison asked.

“Looks like it,” Rex said.

“So was it a fall, or a push?” Amanda wondered out loud.

“I had a quick look around upstairs,” Rex said. “No sign of any struggle. The main bed’s been used, but everything seems to be in place as far as I can tell.”

Amanda wrinkled her nose up. There was a faint smell in the air, unpleasant and familiar. “How long’s he been here?”

“Possibly a day,” Rex said.

Alison gestured at the window wall. “And nobody saw him?”

“One-way glass,” Amanda said. It had that slight give away gray tint. She stared through it, understanding why the apartments had been built here. The last of the rain clouds had drifted away, allowing the hot sun to shine down. It was a magnificent view out over the junction of two broad rolling grassland valleys. In the distance she could see an antique windmill, its wooden sail painted white. A long communal garden stretched out ahead of her, a paddock beyond that. There was a circular swimming pool twenty meters away, surrounded by a flagstone patio. Wooden-slat sun loungers were clustered around stripy parasols.

“All right,” she said wearily. “Let’s do the preliminary assessment.”

Alison opened her cybofax. “When was the body discovered?”

“Approximately 8:45 this morning,” Rex nodded toward the cleaning woman. “Helen?”

“That’s right,” the woman stammered. “I saw him-Mr. Tyler-as soon as I came in. I called the police right away.”

Amanda pursed her lips and knelt down beside the body. The handsome face had quite a few resonances for her. Byrne Tyler. She remembered him mainly fromMarina Days, a soap set amid Peterborough’s yachting fraternity-though 90 percent of it was shot in the studio with the all-action boating sequences cooked on a graphics mainframe. That had been five or six years ago; Byrne played a teenage hunk crewman. But he had left and gone onto star in action-thriller dramas and interactives.

Pretty bad ones if she remembered her tabloid gossip right. There would be media attention with this one.

She stood up. “Helen, was the door locked when you arrived?”

“Yes. And the alarm was on. I have the code, and my palm is one of the keys. Mr. Tyler was happy with that. He was a nice man. He always gave me a Christmas bonus.

“I’m sure he was lovely. Did you do all his cleaning?”

“Yes. Twice a week. Tuesday and Friday.”

“Which means he could have been here since Tuesday. She rubbed her arms, trying to generate some warmth. “Rex, go see if the air-conditioning was set like this or it’s glitched. Alison, look around for empty bottles, or anything else,” she said pointedly. It could so easily be an accident. Drunk, stoned, or even sober, a fall could happen. And God knows what a showbiz type like Tyler would take for amusement in the privacy of his secluded secure home.

Amanda went upstairs to check the main bedroom. The door was open, revealing a huge circular waterbed with a black silk sheet over the mattress: there was no top sheet. An equally large mirror was fixed to the ceiling above it. She shook her head in bemusement at the stereotyping. Exactly the kind of seduction chamber a list celebrity sex symbol was expected to have. She remembered most of his scenes inMarina Days involved him being stripped to the waist, or wearing tight T-shirts.

Apart from the offensive decor, there was nothing overtly suspicious. A slower look and she realized the sheet was rumpled, pillows were scattered about. She stared. One person wouldn’t mess up a bed that much, surely? On the bedside cabinet was a champagne bottle turned upside down in a silver ice bucket, a single cut-crystal flute beside it.

When she went back downstairs, Rex told her the air-conditioning was set at maximum. Alison was wearing plastic gloves; she held up a clear zip bag with a silver-plated infuser in it.

“Damn,” Amanda grunted. “Okay, call the scene-of-crime team, and forensic. Let’s find out exactly what happened here. And tell the uniform division we’ll need help to cordon off the area.”

Forty minutes later, Denzil Osborne drove up in the forensic team’s white van. Alone. Amanda always found Denzil immensely reassuring. It was probably the phlegmatic way the forensic officer treated crime scenes when he arrived. Nothing ever fazed him.

“Where’s the scene-of-crime team?” she asked as soon as he eased his huge frame out of the van.

“Vernon says he wants hard evidence there’s been a crime before he’ll authorize that kind of expense.”

Amanda felt her cheeks reddening. All those orders she’d snapped out in front of Alison were making her look stupid now, empty wishes showing where the true authority in the police force lay. England’s police had got rid of the PSP political officers observing their cases for ideological soundness, only for the New Conservatives to replace them all with accountants. She wasn’t sure which was worse.

“And the uniform division?”

He winked broadly. “You’ve got Rex, haven’t you?”

“Sod it,” she snarled. “Come on, this way.”

Denzil took one look at Byrne Tyler’s sprawled body and said: “Ah yes, I see why you wanted forensic now. Of course, I’m no expert, but I think he may have fallen down the stairs.”

She stuck her hands on her hips. “I want to know if he was pushed. I also want to know if he was even alive up on the balcony when it happened.”

Denzil put his case on the floor beside Tyler, and lowered his bulk down next to it, wincing as his knees creaked.

“And you should lose some weight,” she said.

“Come horizontal jogging with me-I’d lose kilos every night.”

“That’s sexual harassment.” She just managed to keep a straight face in front of Alison.

He grinned wildly. “Yes please.”

“Just tell me what happened here.”

Denzil opened his case, revealing a plethora of specialist ’ware modules. He pulled on some tight plastic gloves before selecting a sensor wand which he waved over the dead man’s face: then he stopped and peered closer. “Ah, a celebrity death. Best kind. Did you see his last?Night Squad III: Descent of Angels. Saving the world from card-carrying terrorists yet again. There was some cool helijets in that.

They had nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers; cut clean thorough buildings.”

Chuckling, Denzil resumed his scan of Tyler’s face. “Shame about the air-conditioning,” he said. “I can’t work a simple temperature assessment on him.”

“That’s what made me wonder,” Amanda said. “If he did get pushed then we won’t be able to pinpoint the time very easily.”

“Hmm. Maybe not pinpoint, but let’s try something a little more detailed.” Denzil replaced the sensor wand and took another cylinder from his case. It had a needle fifteen centimeters long protruding from one end, which Denzil slowly inserted into Tyler’s abdomen then withdrew equally carefully. “Anything else immediately suspicious?”

Alison held up the zip bag with the infuser, and another bag with vials. “We think he was infusing this.

Probably syntho.”

“Where have you been, young lady? I’ll have you know, it’s dream punch this season for the glitterati.

Couple of levels up from syntho, it’s supposed to stimulate your pleasure center and memories at the same time. Every hit a wet dream.”

“Can you walk around when you’re tripping it?” Alison asked.

“Okay, good point. They normally just crash out and drool a lot.”

“I’ll need DNA samples from the bed as well,” Amanda said. “I think he had someone up there before he died.”

Denzil gave her a curious look. “Vernon won’t give you the budget for that kind of work over. I’m just authorized for a body analysis, determine cause of death, that kind of thing.”

“Just do what you can for me, okay.”

“Okay. CID’s paying.” The cylinder with the needle bleeped, and he consulted the graphics displayed on its screen. “According to cellular decay, he died sometime on Wednesday night, between 2200 hours and 1:30.”

“That’s a big window. Is that the best you can give me?”

“I always give you my best, Amanda. That’s the preliminary, anyway. Let me get him into the lab and I can probably shave half an hour off that for you. The delay and this bloody arctic temperature doesn’t help.”

Amanda stood up and turned to Alison. “There’s some reasonable security ’ware here. See what kind of records are available for this week, especially Wednesday evening. Rex, take a full statement from Helen, and let her go. And I want this place sealed as soon as the body’s removed. We’ll get authority to run a proper site examination eventually.”

“You really think this was a murder?” Denzil asked.

“Too many things are wrong,” Amanda said. “Somebody told me once: there’s no such thing as coincidence.”

Inspector Vernon Langley was putting his jacket on when Amanda walked into his small shabby office.

He took one look at her, slumped his shoulders and groaned. “I’m due out for lunch,” he said defensively.

“I was due a scene-of-crime team,” she shot back.

“All right.” He sat back behind his desk and waved her into a spare seat. “Amanda, you know we’re severely restricted on how much we can spend on each case. Some syntho-head fell down stairs. Bag him up and notify the relatives.”

“I think he was murdered.”

Vernon grimaced. “Not the air-conditioning, please.”

“Not by itself, no. But Denzil scanned the control box. No fingerprints. It had been wiped clean with a damp kitchen cloth.”

“Means nothing. The cleaning lady could have done that on her last visit.”

“Unlikely. Vernon, you just don’t have the air-conditioning on that cold, not for days at a time. I also had Alison check the security ’ware. A car left at 23:13, Wednesday night-a Rover Ingalo registered to Claire Sullivan. It’s loaded into Church Vista Apartments security list as an approved visitor for Byrne Tyler, so the gate opens automatically for it. Alison’s mining the Home Office circuit for Sullivan now.”

Vernon scratched at his chin. “I took a look at Denzil’s preliminary file; time of death is very loose. This Sullivan woman will simply claim Tyler was alive when she left.”

“Of course she will,” Amanda said with a hint of irritation. “That doesn’t mean we don’t ask her.”

Vernon looked unhappy.

“Oh,come on, ” she exclaimed.

“All right. I’ll give you the time to interview her. But you don’t get anything else without a positive result.”

“Well, hey, thanks.”

“I’m sorry, Amanda,” he gave her a resigned smile. “Things just ain’t what they used to be around here.”

“Someone like Byrne Tyler is bound to have crime insurance coverage. We’ll get the money to investigate properly. It won’t even come out of your budget.”

Vernon’s mood darkened still further. “I’m sure he has coverage. Unlike seventy percent of the population.”

Alison had tracked down Claire Sullivan’s address, which was in Uppingham. She had also prepared quite a briefing file for Amanda, most of it mined from tabloid databases.

Amanda let the probationary detective drive to the Sullivan bungalow as she scanned the file on her cybofax. “Tyler was engaged to Tamzin Sullivan?”

“Yep, Claire’s big sister. She’s a model, got a contract with the Dermani house. Mainly on the back of the publicity she and Tyler were getting. They’ve hit the showbiz party trail extensively since the engagement was announced. You open your front door in the morning, and they’ll be there for it. On their own, neither of them was important enough to get an image on the gossip ’casts; together they rate airtime. It helps that they have the same management agency.”

Amanda looked at the image of Tamzin the screen was showing, posed for a Dermani advert, bracelet and earring accessories for a stupidly priced couture dress. The girl was beautiful, certainly, but it was a lofty beauty implying arrogance.

“So what’s her little sister doing at her fiance’s house in the middle of the night?”

“One guess,” Alison said dryly. “I always used to be jealous of my sister’s boyfriends. And Byrne was no saint. I didn’t load the real gutter-press reports for you, but they say he got fired fromMarina Days because he couldn’t leave the girls alone.”

Amanda scrolled down the file to Claire. The girl was eighteen, a first-year medical student at DeMontfort University. Still living at home with her mother. The university fees were paid by her father as part of a child-maintenance agreement. He lived in Australia. Amanda skipped to the mother: Margina Sullivan.

Pre-judgment went against the nature of Amanda’s training, but Margina’s record made it difficult to avoid. She had three children, each with a different father each of whom was wealthy enough to support their offspring with independent schooling and an allowance. The Inland Revenue had no employment record for Margina Sullivan. Her tax returns (always filed late) listed a couple of small trust funds as her income source. She owned the bungalow in Uppingham where she lived along with Claire, Tamzin, and Daniel, her nine-year-old son; but her credit rating was dismal.

By the time they arrived at the address, an image of Margina had swollen into Amanda’s mind, hardening like concrete: aging brittle harridan.

The Sullivan bungalow was just beyond the center of town, in the middle of a pleasant estate dominated by old evergreen pines which had survived the climate change. The wood and brick structure itself was well-maintained, with glossy paintwork and a roof of new solar panels, but the garden clearly hadn’t seen any attention for years. Two cars were parked outside: a BMW so old it probably had a combustion engine, with flat tires and bleached paintwork hosting blooms of moss; next to it was a smart little scarlet and black Ingalo, a modern giga-conductor powered runabout that was proving popular as a first car for wealthy young trendies.

Margina Sullivan opened the door. Amanda assumed they had caught her going out; she was wearing some extravagant dress complemented by a white shawl cardigan. Heavy makeup labored to re-create the youthfulness of what was undeniably an attractive face. Not a single bottle-red hair was out of alignment from her iron-hard curled beret style. She put a hand theatrically on her chest when shown Amanda’s police ID card andoohed breathlessly. The phoney concern changed to shock and barely concealed anger when Amanda regretfully informed her of Byrne Tyler’s death. Margina hurried over to the drinks cabinet and poured herself a large Scotch.

“How am I going to tell Tamzin?” she gulped. Another shot of whiskey was poured. “God in heaven, what are we going to do?Starlightwas paying for a bloody wedding exclusive, not a funeral.”

A curious way of expressing grief, Amanda thought. She kept quiet, looking around the lounge. It was chintzy, with lavender cloths covering every table and sideboard, tassels dangling from their overhanging edges. Figurines from the kind of adverts found in the most downmarket weekend datatext channels stood on every surface. Tall, high-definition pictures of Tamzin looked down serenely from each wall, campaigns for a dozen different fashion products. Amanda would have liked to be dismissive, but the girl really was very beautiful. Healthy vitality was obviously The Look right now.

Claire and Daniel came in, wanting to know what was happening. Amanda studied the younger girl as her perturbed mother explained. Claire didn’t have anything like her elder sister’s poise, nor was there much resemblance-which was understandable enough. She had sandy hair rather than lush raven; her narrow face had a thin mouth instead of wide full lips; and her figure was a great deal fuller than that of the lean athlete. Nor was there any of Tamzin’s ice-queen polish, just a mild sulkiness.

Daniel was different again…wide-eyed and cute, with a basin-cut mop of chestnut hair. Like every nine-year-old, he could not stay still. Even when told of Tyler’s death he clung to his sister and shivered restlessly. The affection between the siblings was touching. It was Claire who soothed and comforted him rather than his mother. Amanda’s attitude hardened still further when Margina went for yet another shot of whiskey.

“Where is Tamzin at the moment?” Alison asked.

“Paris,” Margina sniffed. “She has a runway assignment tonight. I must call Colin at Hothouse-they’re her agents; he can arrange for her to be flown home. We’ll release a statement on the tragedy from here.”

“A statement?”

“To the media,” Margina said irritably. “Hothouse will see to it.”

“Perhaps you should call the Hothouse people now,” Amanda said. “In the meantime I have some questions which I need to ask Claire.”

Margina gave her a puzzled glance. “What questions?”

Amanda steeled herself. This wasn’t going to be pleasant. She could do the preliminary interview with the girl here or at the station. Either way, Margina, and after that Tamzin, would find out why. I’m not a social worker, she told herself. “We think Claire might have been the last person to see Mr. Tyler alive.”

“Impossible,” Margina insisted. “You said he died at home.” She rounded on Claire. “What does she mean?”

The girl hung her head sullenly. “I saw Byrne on Wednesday evening.”

“Why?”

“Because he was screwing me,” Claire suddenly yelled. “All right? He’d been screwing me for months.

How the hell do you think I bought my car? From the money my loving father gives me?” She burst into tears. Daniel hugged her tighter, and she gripped at him in reflex.

Margina’s mouth opened. She stood absolutely still, staring at her daughter in disbelief. “You’re lying.

You little bitch. You’re lying!”

“I am not!” Claire shouted back.

Amanda stepped between them, holding her hands up. “That’s enough. Claire, you’re going to have to come to the station with us.”

The girl nodded.

“You could have ruined everything,” Margina cried shrilly. “Everything! You stupid stupid bitch. You’ve got a whole university full of men to sleep around with. What the hell were you thinking of?”

“Don’t you ever care about anyone but yourself? Ever? You don’t know anything, you’re just an ignorant old fraud.”

“I said: enough,” Amanda told them. “Mrs. Sullivan, we can arrange for a social case officer to counsel you and Tamzin if you would like.”

Margina was still glaring at Claire, her breathing irregular. “Don’t be absurd,” she said contemptuously.

“I’m not having a failed psychology graduate asking me impertinent questions as if I were some feeble-brained dole dependant. Colin will take care of everything we require.”

“As you wish,” Amanda said calmly.

Amanda decided to question the girl in her office rather than the station interview room. It was marginally less inhospitable. She got her a cup of tea, and even managed to find some biscuits in one of the desk drawers.

Claire didn’t pay any attention, she sat with her head in her hands.

“Did you love him?” Amanda asked tenderly.

“Ha! Is that what you think?”

“I don’t know. I’m asking.”

“Of course I didn’t love him.” Her head came up abruptly, a worried expression on her face. “But I didn’t kill him.”

“Okay. So tell me why you were having a relationship with him?”

“It wasn’t a relationship. He seduced me. I suppose. We’d gone to see Tamzin at a fashion show in Peterborough this Easter. He fixed it somehow that I was driven back home in his limo. It was just him and me. I’d had a lot to drink.”

“Did he rape you?”

Claire gave a helpless grimace. “No. He was interested in me. That’s never…Tamzin was always the one. She’salways been the one. It’s like she was born with two people’s luck. Everything happens for her. She’s so pretty and glamorous. Byrne Tyler was her boyfriend. I mean,Byrne. I used to watch him onMarina Days.”

“So you were flattered, and it was exciting.”

“Suppose so.”

“And afterward? Then what happened?”

“He said he wanted to keep seeing me.”

“You mean to have sex?”

Claire blushed and hung her head. “Yes.”

“So you went back? Voluntarily?”

“Mum’s really frightened, you know? You wouldn’t be able to tell, not with her. She doesn’t let anyone see. But she is. We don’t have any money; mum’s in debt to dozens of shops, just for food half the time.

We can’t get credit anywhere locally anymore-no bank will issue her with a card. Tamzin…well she can look after all of us. Since she met Byrne her career is really taking off. She earns tons of money.”

“So what did Byrne Tyler tell you?”

“He said to just keep things going the way they were. That he’d never tell Tamzin as long as he was happy, and everything would stay the same.”

“And he bought you the car?”

Yes. It was so I could drive out to Bisbrooke whenever he wanted me. He used to call me in the evenings, when Tamzin was away on an assignment. I’d tell mum I had late study at DeMontfort. It’s not like she’d know any different.”

“And you were there on Wednesday evening?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“When did you arrive?”

“About nine o’clock.”

“And you left when?”

“Just after eleven.”

“And Byrne Tyler was alive when you left?”

“Yes! I swear it. I left him in bed. I got dressed and went home.”

“Was there anyone else there with you?”

“No. Just me.”

“Claire, do you remember if it was cold in the apartment that night?”

“No. It never is. Byrne didn’t like sheets or duvets on the bed. He always kept the bedroom warm enough so he didn’t have to use them.”

Amanda noted that in her cybofax. “Interesting. I need to know about the bedroom, I’m afraid. Did you have champagne up there that night?”

“Yes.”

“We only found one glass. Isn’t that a bit odd?”

“Oh.” Claire looked hard at the top of the desk. “I have the glass. Byrne liked to…well, he poured some on me.”

“I see. Did he say if he was meeting anyone else after you left?”

“No. Nothing like that.”

“Had he met anyone before you arrived?”

“I don’t know. He never said.”

Amanda sighed, resisting the impulse to reach out and grip the girl’s shoulder in reassurance. “Sounds like you’ve had a pretty rough few months.”

“It wasn’t that…I know it all sounds awful. He really liked me, though. You must think I’m some dreadful cheap tart.”

“I don’t think that at all. But what I’d like to do is refer you to a counsellor. I think you could do with someone to talk to right now.”

“Maybe. Do I have to?”

“No. But I’d like you to think about it.”

“I will. Can I go now?”

“Just about finished. I’ll need a DNA sample from you to eliminate any traces we find at the apartment.

After that you’re free to go.”

“Why do you need that?”

“Because this is now a murder investigation.”

“Why is it murder?” Vernon asked.

“Claire claims the air-conditioning was operating normally when she left.”

“Tyler could have changed it.”

“We’ve been over this. That temperature isn’t one you can live in. The only reason to change it is to fudge the time of the murder. And the controls were wiped. The murderer did that.”

“All right, damnit. I’ve done some background datawork for you. He was insured by his management agenda and we now have reasonable doubt. I’ll squirt the appropriate information off to them. We should get a response fairly quickly.”

“Thank you. I’d like a scene-of-crime team to look at the apartment, and a full autopsy.”

“I can give you that now.”

“Great. I’ll also need full access to all of Tyler’s financial and personal data. Alison can start running it through some analysis programs.”

“Okay, I’ll have a magistrate sign the order this evening.” Vernon fixed her with a thoughtful stare. “Did the girl do it?”

“She certainly had the motive. She was there around the time it happened. Unless we can put someone else at the scene, she’s the obvious choice.” She caught his troubled expression. “What?”

“I don’t get it. She was smart enough to lower the temperature, so she must have realized everyone would find out she was sleeping with Tyler. Why not simply say he slipped, that it was an accident?”

“Guilt. Plain and simple. Trying to cover her tracks. You can see it in the way she talks. She’s cautious about every word that comes out of her mouth, as if she’ll give herself away just by speaking.”

“Okay, Amanda, if you say so.”

The next morning Amanda caught the Tyler story on Globecast’s breakfast news. She was smoking an extremely illicit cigarette, trying to calm herself for the day to come. Tyler didn’t rate much time: archive footage of him arriving at some glitzy party with Tamzin on his arm; the fact they were engaged, and she was believed to be flying home to be with her family; and a mention that the police investigation was ongoing, hinting that officers considered the circumstances unusual.

How do they find out so quickly? she wondered.

Amanda checked in at the station first, mainly to make sure there were no problems with Alison’s analysis. The probationary detective gave her a grumpy look from behind her desk. Four terminal cubes were full of what looked like Inland Revenue datawork as she used her court access order to pull in details from his accountant, agent, solicitor and banks. Apparently Byrne Tyler’s financial affairs were complex to the point of obscurity, not helped by the way showbusiness used accounting methods unknown to the rest of the human race. Amanda told her to concentrate on finding out if he had any large debts, and to confirm that he had bought the Ingalo for Claire.

With that part of the investigation on line she was ready to drive up to the apartment and supervise forensic’s sweep. Vernon brought Mike Wilson to see her before she could get away. Wilson was from Crescent Insurance, who provided cover for Tyler. A real smoothy, she thought as they were introduced.

Late thirties, in a smart blue-gray business suit at least two levels above a detective’s price range, ginger hair neatly trimmed, a body he had kept in condition without being an obvious gym-rat. She didn’t think he’d had any cosmetic alteration, his cheeks were slightly too puffy; but he certainly used too much aftershave.

“How much coverage did Tyler have?” she asked.

“His agency had taken out a full investigatory package,” Mike Wilson said. “Whatever it takes to get the culprit into court and secure a conviction.”

“Sounds good to me. Just give us your credit account details, we’ll invoice you.”

Wilson’s smile was tolerant. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. We like to see first hand what our money is being spent on.”

She gave Vernon a tight you’re-kidding-me look. He smiled in retaliation. “Mike Wilson will be assigned to your team for the duration of the investigation.”

“As what?”

“I have worked on a number of police cases,” Wilson said. “I appreciate you don’t want what you regard as outside interference-”

“Bloody right I don’t.”

“-however, the facts are that I can offer immediate access to considerable specialist resources such as forensic labs and database mining, which the police have to outsource anyway. And I’m certainly happy to finance any reasonable police deployment, like the scene of crime search. That goes without question.”

“How active do you see your helpful role?”

“I only offer advice when I’m asked for it. It’s your investigation, Detective.”

Her terminal bleeped for attention. Mike Wilson and Vernon Langley watched expectantly. Without making too big a deal of it, Amanda sat behind her desk and pulled the call through. It was Denzil.

“I have good news and good news,” he said. “From your point of view anyway, if not Byrne Tyler’s.”

“What did you find?”

“Narcotic toxicology was minimal, except for a very recent infusion of Laynon. Our boy was improving his bedtime performance that night, but nothing more. But there were plenty of residual traces. He’s a regular and longtime user of several proscribed drugs. However he didn’t have enough of anything in his bloodstream to impede locomotion or cause disorientation at the time he died.”

“The champagne?”

“Minimal alcohol level, he couldn’t have drunk more than half a glass.”

“Thanks, Denzil. What else?”

“Dried saliva trails on his skin. And small scrapings of skin under two fingernails.”

“They must be from Claire.” She glanced up at Mike Wilson, raising an eyebrow. He gave a small bow.

“Run a DNA comparison for me, Denzil.”

“Yeah, I heard we got money.” His image vanished from the screen.

Wilson gave Vernon a meaningful look. “If it is the sister, the tabloid channels are going to have a feeding frenzy.”

Amanda made an effort at conversation on the drive up to Bisbrooke. It wasn’t that Wilson was unlikable; but her instinct was that he had no place on the investigation. Of course, intellectually, she appreciated his presence was due to social injustice rather than politics. External funding was a factor she would have to accept, especially in the future.

With the body gone and the air-conditioning back to normal, the apartment had lost its cheerless quality.

Two scene-of-crime officers were moving methodically through the ground floor, examining every surface with a variety of sensor wands. Rex was out in the courtyard, taking statements from the neighbors.

“What do you need to move for a prosecution?” Mike Wilson asked as they took a look at the cast-iron stairs.

“Basically, a lack of any other suspects. I expect the prosecution service will accept she changed the air-conditioning. She is a medical student, after all.”

“So you’ll interview his friends to see if anyone threatened him?”

“Friends, his agency, people he worked with. The usual. I’d love to try and track down his supplier, as well. But that would really cost you-they don’t exactly rush out of the woodwork at times like these.”

He gave a small grin. “I know.”

“Previous case?”

“Crescent insures a lot of celebrity types. Having dealt with them before, I can see why we set the premiums so high.”

“Really?” Amanda was wondering if he was going to let any gossip loose when her cybofax bleeped.

Denzil’s face appeared on the screen with an indecently malicious expression. “What?” she asked cautiously.

“The saliva is Claire’s. The skin under the fingertips is not.”

“Oh bugger,” she groaned. Even so, some part of her was glad Claire had possibly been cleared.

Although she was still convinced the girl was hiding something. “Run a match through the central criminal records at the Home Office.” She didn’t even consult Mike Wilson with that one.

“Already running,” Denzil said. “Plot getting thicker, huh?”

“Yeah, right.” She ended the call.

Wilson was looking up at the top of the stairs. “So what do you think? Skin scrape from whoever pushed him.”

“Looks that way. One last desperate grasp as he started to fall.” She walked over to the red outline of the body on the terra-cotta tiles, and turned a full circle. “So what else have we got? No sign yet of a forced entry, which implies either the security ’ware let them through or it was a professional hit and they could burn through the system without a trace.”

“Pushing someone off the top of the stairs isn’t a widely used assassination method. It’s heat-of-the-moment. Which fits.”

“Fits what?”

“Someone turned up just after Claire left. A friend, or someone he knew. He let them in. There was an argument. It would also explain the air-conditioning. If it was a professional hit, then whoever did that wouldn’t need to confuse the time of death, it wouldn’t matter to them. For some reason, our murderer still cares about messing with the time.”

“Still doesn’t fit. If it was a friend, then the security ’ware would have an admissions record. There was nobody.”

“We’d better have it checked very thoroughly, then. Get into the base management program and see if there’s any sign of tampering.”

Amanda nodded. “You have somebody who can do that?”

“Oh yes.”

“While they’re at it, make sure they enhance the surveillance picture of the Ingalo when it left, I’d like to confirm no one was inside along with Claire.”

“Fair enough. What else do you need?”

She gestured out of the window wall. “Unless it was a real professional who yomped in over the fields, the only way to get here is to drive through the village. And believe me, that’s not so easy. Bisbrooke is small, and confusing. The villagers would know all about strange cars. I want a door-to-door enquiry asking if any of them saw anything that night, any cars they didn’t recognize, as well as full interviews with the neighboring apartments.”

“That’s a lot of labor-intensive groundwork. Could we just wait and see if the DNA register comes up with anything first?”

“Okay. We need the other angle anyway. This will give us some time.”

“Other angle?”

“The motive, Mike. Personal, or financial, or professional jealousy, what-ever…We need to start the good old-fashioned process of elimination. So, you get your expert here to examine the security ’ware, and I’ll get back to the station and give Alison a hand with Tyler’s finances.”

It was late afternoon when Alison slapped a hand down on her terminal keyboard with a disgusted sigh, canceling a search program. “He doesn’t have bloody finances, you’ve got to have money for that. All Tyler has are debts.”

Which wasn’t strictly true. Amanda glanced at Tyler’s bank statement again. To think, she always worried about her monthly salary payment arriving in time to satisfy her standing orders and credit-card bill. Some people obviously operated on a higher plane. Although he owed close to quarter of a million New Sterling, the banks just kept extending his credit limit. Why he didn’t pay it off she couldn’t understand. His cashflow was more than adequate. Of course, neither she nor Alison could track down where half of the money actually came from, and in most cases where it went. One account at a bank in Peterborough was used just for withdrawing large sums of hard cash.

Amanda looked over at Mike Wilson who was studying some of the details himself. “I think we might justifiably request a qualified accountant at this point.”

He ran a hand back through his hair, looking at a twisting column of numbers in one of the cubes with a perplexed expression. “I think you might be right.”

Denzil came in and grinned at the blatant despondency in the room. “Having fun?”

“Always,” Alison said sweetly.

“I have a positive result.”

Amanda sat up fast. “What?”

“The skin scrape is definitely nobody we know of. No record of that DNA in the Home Office memory core. I even squirted the problem over to Interpol. They don’t have it either. And before you ask, neither does the FBI.” He gave Wilson an affable smile. “You’ll get the bill tomorrow.”

“I live for it.”

“You want me to look elsewhere? Most countries will cooperate.”

“I think we’ll have to,” Amanda said. “After all, that DNA is our murderer. Mike?”

“I agree. Although, I’d like to suggest widening the search parameters.”

“How?”

“Organizations such as Interpol and the FBI simply store the DNA of known criminals. If it were a professional hit, I’d say search every police memory core on the planet. However, we favor the theory that this was a heat-of-the-moment killing, do we not?”

“I can go with that,” she said.

“Then our murderer is unlikely to be listed.”

“It was always a long shot, but what else can we do?” She pointed at the cubes full of financial datawork.

“If we can find a motive, we can track the murderer that way.”

“Crescent has a DNA-characteristics assembly program. I suggest we use that.”

Denzil whistled quietly. “I’m impressed.”

“I might be,” Amanda said. “If I knew what you were talking about.”

“The genes which make us what we are, are spaced out along the genome, the map of our DNA,” Mike Wilson said. “Now that we know which site designates which protein or characteristic, like hair color or shape of the ear, it’s possible to examine the genes which contribute to the facial features and see what that face will look like.”

“You mean you can give me a picture of this person?” Amanda asked.

“Essentially, yes. We can then ask Tyler’s friends and acquaintances if they recognize him…or her.” He waved a hand at the busy terminal cubes. “Got to be easier than this, quicker, too. Crescent can also run standard comparison programs with the visual images stored in our data cores, and with the security departments of all the other companies we have reciprocal arrangements with. I think you’ll find they’re considerably more extensive than the criminal records held by governments. For a start, between us, the insurance companies have copies of every driving license issued in Europe. And we already decided the murderer drove to Bisbrooke.”

Amanda studied him. This was suddenly too easy. Something was wrong, and she couldn’t define it…apart from an intuitive distrust she had for the corporate machinator. And yet, he was helping. Solving the crime, in all probability. “How long will it take?”

“If we courier a sample of the DNA over to Crescent’s lab in Oxford this evening, the program can crunch the genome overnight. We can have the picture by morning.”

“Okay. Do it.”

Amanda hated working Sundays. No way around it this week, though. And maybe, just maybe, she might get overtime, courtesy of Crescent.

When she arrived at the station there was an unusually large crowd of people in the main CID office for the time and day, uniform division as well as detectives. Alison gave Amanda a wry smile as she came in.

“The scene-of-crime team found something interesting,” she said in a low voice, suggesting conspiracy.

“No shortage of volunteers to go over this lot for us.”

“What?” Amanda asked. She edged through the group to look at the flatscreen they were all absorbed with. It was a split-screen image, three viewpoints of the main bedroom in Byrne Tyler’s apartment. Tyler himself was on the bed with a girl, their naked bodies writhing in animal passion.

Alison held up a carton full of memox crystals. “There’s a lot of them. Over sixty.”

“Okay.” Amanda walked over to the AV player and switched it off. “That’s enough. This is supposed to be a bloody police station, not a porno shop.”

They moaned, one or two jeered, but nobody actually voiced a complaint. The group broke up, filing out of the CID office with sheepish grins and locker room chuckles.

“They found three cameras in there yesterday,” Alison said. “Quite a professional recording setup. Looks like Tyler was something of an egotistical voyeur.”

“Was he recording Wednesday night?” Amanda asked sharply. At least that explained why he didn’t have a top sheet on his bed, she thought.

“No. Or at least, there was no memox of it. The AV recorder the cameras are rigged to was empty.”

“Pity.”

Alison rattled the carton. “Plenty more suspects: all the husbands and boyfriends.”

The little black cylinders rolled about. Ten-hour capacity each. Amanda found herself doing mental arithmetic. Assuming they were even half-full, Tyler had been a very busy boy. Popular, too. “Is there an index?”

“Yes.” Alison flourished a ziplock bag containing several sheets of paper. “In ink no less-I guess he didn’t want to risk this list getting burned open by a hotrod. Mostly just first names, but he got some surnames as well; and they’ve all got dates. They go back over two years. There’s quite a few personalities I recognize.”

“Okay, scan the list in to your terminal and run the names through a search program. Then see if a visual-characteristics recognition program can identify the girls we don’t have full names for. I want to know where all of them live, if they’re married or have long-term partners, parents of the younger ones, that kind of thing. Oh, and check to see if the crystals are there.”

Mike Wilson walked in past the last of the uniform division. His expression was bleak. “What did I miss?” he inquired.

“Tyler liked to record himself in bed,” Alison said. “We found the crystals.”

“Oh, shit. We’d better keep that quiet.”

Amanda frowned. Not quite the response she expected. “I was planning on it,” she said. “How did the DNA characteristics assembly go?”

He flipped open a shiny chrome Event Horizon executive cybofax and gave it an instruction. A young man’s face appeared, light brown hair, greenish eyes, a thin nose, broad mouth. There was a small digital read-out in the corner of the screen saying: 18 YEARS . It started to wind forward. The man began to change, aging. Wrinkles appeared, the cheeks and neck thickened; the hairline receded, gray streaks appeared. The display finished at eighty years, showing a wizened face with shrunken cheeks plagued by liver spots, and wisps of silver-white hair.

“Denzil was right,” Amanda said. “That’s impressive. Just how accurate is it?”

“Perfectly accurate.”

“You sound unhappy.”

“There was no positive match.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, we got hundreds of people who share eighty-five to ninety percent similarity. We just captured an image from every five years of his life and the computer ran a standard visual comparison reference program for each of them. In total we have access to pictures of two hundred twenty-five-million Caucasian males. Can you believe it? Nothing over ninety percent.”

Amanda couldn’t work out if she was disappointed or not. Mike Wilson had sounded so sure this was the solution, and now for all the astonishing technology and corporate data cores they had to revert to humble police work. “Give us the top twenty off your list, and we’ll start to work through them, check if they knew Tyler, alibis, the usual. English residents to start with, please.”

“Okay,” he acknowledged the request with a subdued nod. “Who the hell did this? The only way this murderer could elude our programs is with major plastic surgery, changing his appearance.”

“Someone in showbusiness, then,” Alison said brightly.

“The percentage is a lot higher among celebrities than the rest of the population. They’re always improving their appearance.”

“Could be.” Uncertainty was a strong presence in his voice.

“Alison, that can be your priority,” Amanda said. “We’ll turn Tyler’s finances over to a professional accountant. That’ll free us to interview friends and colleagues, see if any of them recognize this picture.”

Her finger tapped the cybofax screen. “I’ll start with the Sullivans. You concentrate on his fellow celebrities.”

Amanda was just going out the station door when she caught sight of a silhouette in the reception area, a man talking to the desk sergeant. “Greg?”

Greg Mandel turned round. His eyes narrowed for a second, then he grinned. “Amanda Patterson, right?

Detective sergeant?”

She shook the hand he offered. “Detective, now.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks. So what are you doing here?”

“Checking on a vehicle accident. One of Eleanor’s family was hurt.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Any luck?”

“None at all.”

“Yeah, well, you know how the police force works. Traffic doesn’t get the highest priority these days.

Want me to pull any strings?”

“No. That’s okay, thanks. I guess CID’s pretty busy with the Tyler case. I saw it on the news.”

“Yeah. It’s my case, too.” She glanced from Greg back to Mike Wilson who was standing waiting politely. Asking never hurt, she thought, and she’d had a reasonable relationship with Greg during an earlier case when he’d been appointed as a special adviser to Oakham’s CID. “Look, Greg, I realize this probably isn’t the best time to ask you, but the Tyler case is really a ball-breaker for me. We’re hitting a lot of stone walls.”

“Uh huh.” Greg’s expression became reluctant, trying to work out how to extricate himself.

“Just sit in on one interview, Greg, that’s all I need. I’ve got a suspect I’m not sure about. How about it?

You can cut straight through all the usual crap and tell me if she’s on the level. We can even pay you a fee. Mike here is from Crescent Insurance, they’re picking up the tab for Tyler.”

Greg and Mike eyed each other suspiciously.

“What exactly is your field?” Mike asked.

“I have a gland,” Greg said mildly.

Amanda enjoyed the discomfort leaking over Mike Wilson’s face. She’d endured the same feeling the first time she met Greg; every guilty memory rushing to the front of her mind.

“I thought we’d cleared Claire?” Mike Wilson protested.

“She was at the apartment very close to the time,” Amanda said. “And I know she’s holding something back. That’s why I need a psychic, to see where I’m going wrong. If I knew the right questions to ask her I bet we could take some big steps forward.”

Mike Wilson clearly wanted to object; just didn’t have the nerve.

“Detective’s intuition, huh?” Greg asked.

“Must be catching,” she told him spryly.

He consulted his watch. “Okay. I can give you an hour. But I’ll have to call Eleanor first, let her know where I am.”

She couldn’t resist it. “Under the thumb, Greg-you?”

His smile was bright and proud. “Certainly am, I have two women in my life now. Christine is six months old.”

“Oh, I didn’t know. Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

Amanda and Mike Wilson took it in turns to brief Greg on the case as they drove out to Uppingham. Just before they got to the roundabout with the A47 at Uppingham, Greg said: “I’d like to take a look at the apartment first.”

“Why is that necessary?” Wilson asked.

“It’s best if I can get a feel for the event,” Greg said. “Sometimes my intuition can be quite strong. It might help with the interview.”

They pulled up in Church Vista’s courtyard. Greg got out and looked round, head tilted back slightly as if he was sniffing at the air. Wilson watched him, but didn’t comment. There was a police seal on the door to apartment three, which Amanda’s card opened.

Greg went over to the red outline at the foot of the stairs. “What was the result from the security ’ware?”

“As far as we can tell it’s clean,” Mike Wilson said. “If it was tampered with, then whoever did it covered their tracks perfectly.”

“Hmm.” Greg nodded and started to walk round, glancing at the coffee table with its spread of glossy art books.

“We’ve collected statements from all the neighbors now,” Amanda said. “None of them heard or saw any other car arriving or departing that night. It was only Claire and the Ingalo. And we’ve received the enhanced images from the security camera by the gates. She was the only person in it coming in and out.”

“Well, I can appreciate your problem,” Greg said. He was walking along the wall, examining the pictures one at a time. “Circumstances make it look like a professional hit, but pushing Tyler down the stairs is strictly a chance killing.”

“Tell me,” Amanda muttered. “We know there was someone else here, we even know what they look like. But everything else we’ve got says it’s Claire.”

“Can I see the image you assembled from the genome data?”

Mike Wilson flipped open his cybofax and showed Greg the image while it ran through its eighteen-to-eighty lifecycle.

“Doesn’t ring any psychic bells,” Greg said. He stopped beside the smallest painting on the wall, a picture of a hill with a strange object in the air above it. “This is a bit out of place, isn’t it?” The pictures on either side were colored chalk sketches of ballerinas clad only in tutus.

“Is that relevant?” Wilson asked as he slipped the cybofax back in his jacket pocket. He was beginning to sound more positive, overcoming his apprehension of the gland and its reputation.

“Probably not,” Greg admitted. He led them up the stairs into the bedroom. The crime scene team had tagged the three cameras that were discreetly hidden within elaborate picture frames, the units no bigger than a coat button. Slender fiber-optic threads buried in the plaster linked them to an AV recorder deck in a chest of drawers.

“And you say there’s no sign of a struggle?” Greg asked.

“No. The only thing messed up was the bed.”

“Right.” He stood in the door, looking at the top of the stairs. “If it was a professional hit, then the murderer could have waited until just after Claire had left, then thrown Tyler down the stairs. That would disguise the fact it was a hit, which would stop us looking for anyone else with a motive. Was Tyler alive when he fell?”

“The autopsy says yes. The impact snapped his neck, he was killed instantly.”

“What about bruising or marks? If he was alive when he was forced to the stairs he would have put up some kind of struggle.”

“No bruising,” Amanda said.

“That doesn’t necessarily follow,” Mike Wilson said. “He’d only struggle if he realized what was happening. If the murderer made out he was a burglar and made him walk to the stairs with a gun to his head he wouldn’t have fought back.”

Greg pulled a face, looking from the bed to the stairs. “Yeah, this is all possible, but very tenuous. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.” He went over to the chest of drawers, and bent down to study the AV recorder, fingertips tracing the slender optical threads back into the skirting board. “How old is this place?”

“The apartment was finished two and a half years ago,” Amanda said. “Tyler moved in just over two years ago.”

“So he probably had it wired up then,” Greg said. “How much did the apartment cost him?”

“Five hundred and fifty thousand New Sterling. There’s over four hundred thousand outstanding on the mortgage. He was late with several payments.”

“So he doesn’t own it. I thought he was rich.”

“By our standards he’s loaded. But he had one hell of a lifestyle, and he didn’t star in that many action interactives. Strictly C-list when it comes to the celebrity stakes. He’s definitely short of hard cash.”

Greg went over to the bed, running a hand along the edge of the mattress. “Did he make any recordings of himself with Claire?”

“I’m not sure,” Amanda said. “Let me check if Alison’s loaded the list in yet.” She opened her cybofax and linked in to the station ’ware. “We’re in luck, she’s just finished it. Let’s see…Yes, there’s three crystals of Claire.”

“When was the last one dated?”

“Three weeks ago.”

“Why the interest?” Mike Wilson asked.

“That’s a lot of recording time for one girl,” Greg said. “And Claire doesn’t come over here that often, or stay long when she does. That suggests he records every time. So why didn’t he record last Wednesday night?”

“He did,” Amanda said instinctively. She could see where he was going with this. “And the murderer took the memox crystal because he was caught by the cameras in here. Which implies that whoever the murderer is, he struck very quickly after Claire left. So close the recorder was still on.”

“No messing,” Greg said.

Tamzin Sullivan had returned home. When Amanda, Greg and Mike Wilson were shown into the bungalow, the bereaved girl was sitting in the lounge. To show her grief at the loss of her future husband she was wearing traditional black in the form of a less traditional micro dress with a deep scoop-top.

Colin, from Hothouse, was fussing around with her mother while a seamstress made last minute adjustments to the shoulder straps, a makeup artist was finishing off the girl’s face.

It was Claire who had answered the door and ushered them in. As soon as the sisters glanced at each other the atmosphere chilled to a level below that Tyler’s apartment had ever reached. Daniel, who was lurking behind the sofa, shrank away from the visitors.

“This is not an appropriate time for you to be here,” Margina said imperiously. “TheStarlight crew will be here any minute.”

“I apologize for interrupting you at what is undoubtedly a difficult time,” Amanda said; it was her best official sympathy voice. She marveled she could manage to keep it irony-free. “But I’m afraid we do have some questions for Tamzin, and Claire again. We’ll be brief.”

Tamzin glanced at Colin, who gave a small nod.

“I’ll help in whatever way I can,” Tamzin said. “I want Byrne’s murderer caught. Have you found the piece of scum yet?” Her gaze flicked pointedly to her sister.

“We have a possible suspect.”

Mike Wilson showed her his cybofax, running the image. “Do you recognize this man? We think Byrne knew him.”

Tamzin leaned forward with considerable interest, fabric straining. Amanda saw Wilson’s glance slither helplessly down to her cleavage, and prayed hard no one else had seen.

“No. I don’t.”

He went onto show the image to Margina, Claire, and even Colin. They all said they had never seen the man before.

“What about threats?” Amanda asked. “Do you know if anyone was being abusive to him recently?”

“No,” Tamzin said. “There was nothing like that. He did have a few crank callers, everyone as famous as us has them; but the agency screened them for him.”

“I’d like a record of them, please,” she told Colin.

“I’ll get it squirted over to you,” he promised.

“Thank you. Greg, anything you need to know?”

“The pictures in your fiance’s apartment are interesting,” Greg said. “How long’s he been buying them?”

Tamzin blinked, slightly baffled. “Since he moved in, I suppose. Byrne appreciated fine art, music, culture; he wasn’t just an action hero, you know. He was friends with a lot of people in the media and arts. Inspiring people. He was even writing a script for a drama that we would star in together. Now that’s talent.”

“Yes, I’m sure. The pictures are all original, aren’t they?”

“They’re Byrne’scollection,” Tamzin said in pique. “Of course they’re original.”

“I see. Thanks.”

Amanda had somehow expected more; she had seen Greg interview suspects before. When he didn’t ask anything else, she said: “I’d like to talk to Claire alone for a moment, please.”

Margina’s face tightened in fury; she gave her youngest daughter a warning glare as she stalked out.

Tamzin didn’t even bother with that; she ignored everyone as she left. It was Colin who was left to take Daniel’s hand and lead the lad away.

Claire slumped down petulantly into the sofa. She was wearing an oversize rouge T-shirt and baggy black jeans; cloaking while Tamzin exhibited. Always opposites. “Now what?”

“I really will be brief,” Amanda said. “This is going to be personal, I’m sorry. Did you know about Tyler’s obsession with recording events in his bedroom?”

“You’ve found the memox crystals?” Claire asked in a small voice.

“Yes, we did.”

“I knew you would. Byrne liked me to watch them with him. He enjoyed the ones of him with famous people. There were a lot; actresses and singers, socialites, people like that. I know it was all wrong, but one more bad thing on top of all the rest didn’t seem to matter much, not by then.”

“Do you know if he was recording the pair of you that night?”

“I don’t know. I knew he did sometimes. I didn’t ask. I never wanted to think about stuff like that.”

Amanda took a quick look at Greg, who was watching impassively. There was no clue as to what he saw with his sixth sense. “Thank you, Claire. I know that wasn’t easy. I’d just like to go back to that night one more time. Did you see or hear anything unusual there?”

“No. I told you already, there was nothing different.”

“Not even with Byrne-he wasn’t acting oddly?”

“No.”

“He didn’t do anything that made you angry, or upset?”

“No! Why are you asking this? You think I did it, don’t you? I didn’t!I didn’t!Tamzin thinks I did. Mum hates me. I didn’t want any of this. You think I did?” Tears were starting to slide down her cheeks. She wiped at them with the back of a hand, sniffling loudly.

“Okay, Claire, I’m sorry. And you’re sure you didn’t recognize the man Mike showed you on the cybofax?”

“Yeah, I’ve never seen him. Who is he?”

“I wish we knew.”

As soon as they all got back into Amanda’s car, she turned to Greg. “Well?”

“Claire’s telling the truth. She didn’t kill him.”

“God damn it! I’m sure she knows something about this.”

“Not that I could sense. She certainly didn’t recognize the killer’s face, there was nothing odd about the apartment that night, and Byrne was behaving normally. You’re going to have to come at it from a different angle.”

“Shit.” She faced forward and gripped the steering wheel. “It has to be someone with a big vicious grudge eating at them.”

“The murderer knew all about the cameras,” Greg said. “Not that Tyler exactly kept it a secret. That makes it more likely to be a jealous boyfriend or husband of some girl that Tyler’s had up there.”

“Then why the hell can’t we find a match for his face?”

“We’ll get him,” Mike Wilson said. “It’s just a question of time now.”

“Yeah, right.” She switched on the power cell, and drove off. “Sorry to waste your time, Greg.”

“I don’t think you did,” he said cautiously. “There’s something not quite right about the crime scene.

Don’t ask what, it’s just a feeling. I just know something’s wrong there. It might come to me later; these things normally take time to recognize. Can I give you a call?”

“Please!”

“Thanks. So what’s your next step?”

“Work through his friends and acquaintances, and the girls on the crystals. See if any of them recognizes the murderer. Just a hell of a lot of datawork correlation, basically.”

Making sense out of Byrne Tyler’s twisted finances was one of Amanda’s biggest priorities. She had emphasized that often enough to Vernon and Mike Wilson, both of whom assured her of their total agreement. But there was no accountant waiting for her on Monday morning when she arrived at the station. Mike Wilson was in full apology mode, explaining that the person he had asked to be assigned to the Tyler case was finishing off another audit. “But he’ll have completed that by tomorrow at the latest.”

“You mean he’ll be here tomorrow?”

“I would assume so.” He handed her a memox crystal. “Peace offering. This came in from Tyler’s agency. It’s an index of all his professional contacts, people he’s worked with over the last eighteen months. They’ve also got records of his crankier fans.”

Amanda gave the crystal a mistrustful glance; the number of people they were going to have to interview was expanding at an exponential rate. She went into the office to see what progress Alison had made identifying the girls on the memox crystals.

It was considerable. Amanda’s eyebrows quirked several times as she ran down the list. For an ex-soap star he had an astonishing sex appeal. How he got to meet so many women in such a short time (during his engagement), and have such a success rate was beyond her. Sure he was boyishly handsome, and kept himself in top physical shape…They started to draw up an interview schedule. Most of it would have to be done over the phone; the preliminary inquiry, anyway.

Vernon called her into his office at 8:40, requesting a full briefing. He was appearing on Radio Rutland soon to explain the case to the public. The police station had been receiving a steady stream of requests from the media, which had doubled sinceStarlight ’s interview and pictures of a mourning Tamzin had appeared on the datatext channels last night.

There wasn’t much she could give him. They certainly weren’t going to announce the failure of the characteristics assembly program to find the murderer. Vernon would just have to stick to confirming the investigation team was “progressing”; that anything else at this time could prejudice the case. He departed for the studio, fidgeting with his tie and collar.

Greg Mandel called her mid-morning, and asked to have a look around the apartment again. She agreed to meet him up there, glad for the break. The women on Alison’s list that she’d called so far were uniformly apprehensive when they found out what the enquiry was about, brittle facades hiding real fear of discovery. It was a shabby process, leaving her feeling depressed and less than wholesome.

Greg’s big EMC Ranger was waiting outside Church Vista’s courtyard gates when she arrived.

“Any clue what you’re looking for yet?” she asked when they went inside.

“Sorry, no. I guess I’m just here chasing phantoms.” He tapped a finger on the rim of the glass and wood door leading out to the courtyard. “Logically, we ought to start with the point of entry. Do you have an idea where the murderer came in?”

Amanda flipped her cybofax open, and consulted the report from the scene-of-crime team. “No.

According to the security ’ware logs, the main door here was opened at 21:12 hours with a duplicate card issued by Tyler, that’s two minutes after the ’ware recorded the Ingalo driving in through the gates-which matches up with Claire’s arrival. Then it was opened again at 23:09, from the inside, when she left.”

“What’s the security system like?”

“Good quality ’ware, standard application. All the doors and windows are wired up, and the log function records every time they open and close; motion and infrared sensors, voice codeword panic mode with a satellite link to a private watchdog company. I’d be happy here.”

“Sounds foolproof.” Greg walked across the ground floor to the big window wall. Broad patio doors were set into it, to the left of the stairs. “What about this one?”

“It’s a manual lock, you can only open it from the inside. There isn’t even a catch outside.” Amanda glanced at the log again. “That was closed from 1900 hours onward.” She followed after him as he went into the kitchen, which overlooked the courtyard. All the marble worktops were clean, there was nothing out of place, no food stains, tall glass storage pots of dried pasta unopened, spice jars full; even the line of potted ferns on the windowsill were aesthetic, healthy and well-watered. It was as though the whole place had been transplanted direct from a showroom. The band of windows above the sink had two sections which could open. Both had solid manual-key security bolts. Greg didn’t even have to ask.

“They haven’t been opened for ages,” she told him. “Not since June, actually.”

There was a cloakroom next door; emerald-green ceramic tiles halfway up the walls, cool whitewashed plaster carrying on up to the ceiling. A hand basin at one end, toilet at the other with a small window just above it, four panes of fogged glass. Greg went over and looked at it. The top half of the frame was open a crack, its iron latch on the first notch. When he lifted the catch and pushed it open further the hinges creaked, protesting the movement.

“My cat couldn’t get through that,” Amanda said.

“Fat cat,” Greg replied. “What about upstairs?”

Main bedroom, the bathroom, and both guest bedrooms all had wide windows equipped with security bolts. Out of the ten which opened, the security bolts were unfastened or loose on three, leaving just the standard latch to deter burglars.

“How would they get up to them?” Amanda asked skeptically when they finished checking the last guest bedroom.

“I’ve used wallwalker pads in my army days,” Greg said. “And I’m not sure how strong those trellises outside are, maybe they’d act like a ladder.”

“Security log says they stayed closed. You want me to run forensic checks on the external wall?”

“Not particularly. If you have the technical expertise to circumvent window sensors, then you can walk straight in through the main door.”

Amanda’s cybofax bleeped. She accepted a call from Mike Wilson. The accountant definitely wouldn’t be available before Wednesday-did she want to wait, or get someone else in? One was available for Tuesday, but Wilson hadn’t worked with him before. Amanda scratched irritably at her forehead; as Crescent was paying, she wanted results quickly, and, to her, one accountant was no different from any other. She said to get one in for Tuesday morning, first thing. It didn’t matter who.

“No progress on finding a match for the murderer’s face,” Mike Wilson said. “And you won’t believe how many of Tyler’s showbiz pals have had discreet trips to the surgeon. It doesn’t help our visual comparison programs.”

She finished the call and went off to find Greg. He was downstairs again, crouching over the red body outline. “I’ve been thinking about motive,” he said. “All we’ve come up with so far is jealously.”

“The accountant’s in tomorrow-maybe we’ll find a big debtor.”

“Could be, except the kind of debt that drives someone to kill isn’t normally one you’ll find on the books.

And killing someone means you never get paid.”

She glanced around at the paintings. Tyler had spent a lot of money on them, no matter how questionable his taste. “You think they stole something?”

“We know it had to be a professional who broke in here. It could have been someone trying to reclaim a debt the hard way. Maybe the death was an accident after all. What we have is a burglar who hadn’t done enough research on his target to know Claire was making nighttime visits. I mean, they certainly kept it quiet enough. Tyler was awake when he wasn’t supposed to be.”

“Could be,” she said.

“Crescent Insurance must have a list of his paintings; it’s simple enough to check they’re all here.”

“Okay. We’ll try that.”

“Sorry I can’t come up with anything more concrete.” He made his way out, stopping to take one last look at the small odd painting. Frowning. Then left with a rueful wave.

Amanda used her cybofax to connect directly into Crescent’s memory core, and requested Tyler’s home contents file. Greg was wrong. All the insured paintings were there. Amazingly the most expensive one wasView of a Hill and Clouds. She paused in front of it, not quite believing what she was seeing was worth 20,000 New Sterling. Art, she thought, just wasn’t for people like her.

The accountant did arrive on Tuesday morning. He had brought three customized cybofaxes and a leather wallet full of memox crystals loaded with specialist financial analysis programs. His assiduous preparation, eagerness, and self-confidence did a lot to offset the fact that he looked about eighteen.

Amanda assigned Alison to assist him.

Greg turned up at the station just before lunch. “I got your message about the paintings,” he said. His manner was reticent, not like him at all.

“It was worth following up,” she assured him. “I would have got around to doing it anyway.”

“That feeling I had that something was out of kilter. I know what it is now. It’s that small oil painting, the funny one with the flying saucer or whatever. I’m sure of it.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t know, but something is.”

“I know it stands out from the others. But it turns out Tyler knew the artist: they went out partying together when McCarthy visited England a few years back. And believe it or not, it’s the most expensive piece there.”

“Ah.” Greg began to look a lot more contented. “It’s wrong, Amanda.”

“How? It’s still there, it wasn’t stolen.”

“You asked me in on this, remember?” he said gently. “I didn’t think I’d have to convince you of all people about my gland all over again.”

She stared at him for a minute while instinct, common sense, and fear of failure went thrashing about together in her head. In the end she decided he was worth the gamble; she had asked him in because she wanted that unique angle he could provide. Once, she’d heard Eleanor, his wife, call his talent a foresight equal to everyone else’s hindsight.

“How do you want to handle it?” she asked in a martyred tone.

He grinned his thanks. “Somebody who knows what they’re about needs to take a look at that painting.

We should concentrate on the artist, too…get Alison to mine some background on him.”

“Okay.” She called Mike Wilson over.

“An art expert?” he asked cynically.

“Crescent must have a ton of them,” Greg said. “Art fraud is pretty common. Insurance companies face it every day.”

“We have them, yes, but…”

“An expert has told us something is wrong with the painting, and this is my investigation,” she said, not too belligerently, but firmly enough to show him she wasn’t going to compromise on this.

He held his hands up. “All right. But you only get three lives, not nine.”

Hugh Snell wasn’t exactly the scholarly old man with fraying tweed jacket and half-moon glasses that Amanda was expecting. When he turned up at Church Vista Apartments he was wearing a leather Harley Davidson jacket, a diamond stud through his nose, and five rings in his left ear. His elbow-length Mohican plume was dyed bright violet.

He took one look at Tyler’s collection and laughed out loud. “Shit. He spent money on these? What a prat.”

“Aren’t they any good?” Amanda asked.

“My talent detector needle is simply quivering…on zero. One hates to speak ill of the dead, my dear, but if all he wanted was erotica, he should have torn the center pages out of a porno mag and framed them instead. This simply reeks of lower middle-class pretension. I know about him, I know nothing of the artists-they say nothing, they do nothing.”

Mike Wilson indicated the McCarthy. “What about this one?”

Hugh Snell made a show of pulling a gold-rimmed monocle from his pocket. He held it daintily to his eye and examined the painting. “Yeah, good forgery.”

Amanda smiled greedily. “Thanks, Greg.”

“No problem.”

“It’s insured for twenty thousand,” Wilson said.

“Alas my dear chap, you’ve been royally shafted.”

“Are you sure?”

Hugh Snell gave him a pitying look. “Please don’t flaunt your ignorance in public view, it’s frightfully impolite. This isn’t even a quality copy. Any halfway decent texture printer can churn out twenty of these per minute for you. Admittedly, it will fool the less well versed, but anyone in the trade would see it immediately.”

“Makes sense,” Amanda said. “The smallest and most valuable item, you could roll it up and carry it out in your pocket.”

“Certainly could,” Greg murmured.

“I owe you an apology, Mr. Mandel,” Mike Wilson said.

“Not a problem,” Greg assured him.

“Congratulations,” Wilson said to Amanda. “So it was a burglary which went wrong, then. Which means it was a professional who broke in. That explains why we’ve been banging our heads against the wall.”

“A pre-planned burglary, too, if he’d brought a forgery with him,” she said. “I bet Tyler would never have noticed it had gone.”

“Which means it was someone who knew Tyler had the McCarthy on his wall, and how much it was worth.”

Amanda went up to the McCarthy; and gave it a happy smile. “I’ll get forensics back to take a closer look at it,” she said.

Three-Degrees of Guilt Greg managed three hours of sleep before Christine decided it was time to begin another bright new day.

His eyes blinked open as her cries began. Nothing in focus, mouth tasted foul, limbs too heavy to move.

Classic symptoms-if only it were a hangover, that would mean he’d enjoyed some of last night.

“I’ll get her,” Eleanor grumbled.

The duvet was tugged across him as she clambered out of bed and went over to the cot. “Isn’t it my turn?” he asked as the timber of the crying changed.

“Oh, who cares?” Eleanor snapped back. “I just want her to shut up.”

He did the brave thing, and kept quiet. In his army days he’d gone without sleep for days at a time during some of the covert missions deep into enemy territory. Oh, to be back in those halcyon times. Christine could teach the Jihad Legion a thing or two about tenacity.

Eleanor started to change their daughter’s nappy.

The doorbell rang. Greg knew he’d misheard that. When he squinted, the digital clock just made it into focus: 6:23. The bell went again. He and Eleanor stared at each other.

“Who the hell…?”

Whoever they were, they started knocking.

The hall tiles were cold against his feet as he hopped over them to the front door. He managed to pull his dressing gown shut just before he flicked the lock over and pulled the door open. A young man with broad bull shoulders had his arm raised to knock again.

“What the bloody hell do you want?” Greg yelled. “Do you know what time it is?” Christine was wailing plaintively behind him.

The young man’s defiance melted away into mild confusion. “Eleanor lives here doesn’t she?”

“Yes.” Greg noticed what the man was wearing, a pair of dark dungarees with a cross stitched on the front, blue wool shirt, sturdy black leather boots. It was his turn for a recoil; he hadn’t seen a kibbutznik since the night he faced down Eleanor’s father. “Who are you?” He ordered a tiny secretion from his gland, imagining a tiny mushroom squirt of white liquid scudding around his brain, neurohormones soaking into synaptic clefts. Actually, the physiological function was nothing like that; picturing it at all was a psychological quirk that most Mind-star Brigade veterans employed. There’s no natural internal part of the human body which can be consciously activated; only muscles, and you can see that happen. So the mind copes by giving itself a picture of animation to explain the onrush of ethereal sensation. The result left him sensing an agitated haze of thoughts, entwined by grief. The man had forced himself to the Mandel farm against all kinds of deep-rooted doubts.

“I’m Andy,” he said it as though puzzled that Greg didn’t already know…as though his name explained away everything. “Andy Broady. Eleanor’s brother.”

Andy sat in a chair at the kitchen table, uncomfortable despite the cushion. He’d glanced around with a type of jealous surprise at the oak cupboards and tiled work surfaces. Greg followed his gaze with a mild embarrassment. The fittings were only a few years old, and Mrs. Owen came in to clean and help with Christine three times a week; but the room was still a mess. Baby bottles, washed and unwashed were all over the worktops, two linen baskets overflowing with clothes, packets of rusks, jars of pureed apple and other mushy, disgusting-tasting food were stacked in shop bags ready to be put away. Last night’s plates and dishes were waiting on top of the dishwasher. Big, rainbow-colored fabric toys underfoot.

Half the broad ash table was littered with the financial printouts which Eleanor had generated as she worked through summaries of the citrus grove crop and market sales.

Christine gurgled quietly in Andy’s lap, and he looked down at his new niece with guilty surprise. His lips twitched with a tentative smile. He held her with the stiff terror of every bachelor, frightened that he’d drop her, or she’d start crying, or burp, or choke or…

“How old is she?”

“Coming up six months.” Eleanor opened the dishwasher and retrieved three cups.

“She’s lovely.”

“Make me an offer, you can take her home with you today.”

Andy’s head came up in shock. Greg gave him a reassuring wink. Eleanor filled the cups from the Twinings carton and put them in the microwave. Greg never used to like instant tea, quietly fancying himself as a reasonable cook. These days everything was in convenience units.

Eleanor sat opposite her brother, and gave him a sympathetic look. “All right, what’s happened, Andy?”

“Happened?”

“You wouldn’t have come here otherwise.”

He nodded reluctantly. “It’s dad. There was an accident.”

“Oh, shit.” Eleanor let out a sigh, rubbing at her eyes. “How bad?”

“He was hit by a car. We took him back home, but he can’t move. He hurts a lot, and he’s hot…like with fever. Coughs blood. Other end, too.”

“And of course he won’t go to hospital.”

Andy shook his head, too glum to speak.

She put her hand on his arm, squeezing reassuringly. “Who’s looking after him?”

“Paddy, but he’s not as good as you were at medicine and such. Don’t have real training. Dad didn’t want any of us to go to college for courses, not after you left. Said that all outside the kibbutz was an evil place, that it corrupts us.” He gave Greg a nervous glance. “Said that the devil stole you away.”

“I wasn’t stolen, Andy; I was driven away. I saw what life can be like if you just have the courage to live it.” Her hand moved to Greg. “And have a little help.”

He kissed the top of her head. Andy’s expression hardened.

“I’m not arguing with you Andy,” she said. “But we’re all free to make choices. Even you, because I know he didn’t ask you to come up here today.”

“So? Will you come and see him?”

“Yes, Andy, I’ll come.”

It was a funny kind of day to find the perfect definition of mixed feelings, Greg thought, but now here he was torn between complete disapproval and devotion. Didn’t want Eleanor to go anywhere near the kibbutz, let alone back inside, and couldn’t leave her to do it alone.

It didn’t take long to drive to Egleton. The kibbutz was on the other side of the tiny village, on a flat expanse of land that bordered the road. One side of it was Rutland Water, a shoreline which ironically put only a short stretch of water between them and the Mandel farm’s citrus groves on the peninsula.

Close in miles, but not in time.

Eleanor had described the kibbutz to him often enough, there were even a few places on the farm where he could just make out their roofs over the top of the coconut palms they’d planted along their section of shore. Even so it came as a surprise. The buildings were all single-story, clumped together in three concentric rings with the church in the center. Long huts that were half house, half barn or stable. Unlike anything else built since the Warming, they didn’t have glossy black solar-panel roofs, just flat wooden slates. Brick chimney stacks fumed wisps of gray wood smoke into the clear sky. Beyond the outermost ring, a pair of donkeys were harnessed to a wooden pole, circling a brick well-shaft, turning some incredibly primitive pump.

The fields surrounding the buildings were planted with corn, barley, maize and potatoes; dense clumps of kitchen vegetables in each one made them resemble oversized allotments. Some had fruit trees, small and wizened, with zigzag branches and dark-green glossy leaves. Greg drove the Ranger down a rough dirt track that indicated a boundary. They stopped at a gate in the maze of tall sturdy wooden fences which surrounded the buildings; paddocks and corrals containing goats, donkeys, cows, some elderly horses, llamas. Neither the crops nor the livestock were genetically modified varieties, Greg noticed.

He busied himself unstrapping a sleeping Christine from her baby seat while Eleanor looked around her old home with pursed lips. She grunted abruptly, and pulled the first-aid case from the Ranger’s boot, slamming it down. They made quite a spectacle walking to the Broady home through the dried mud which filled the space between the buildings, while dogs barked and giant black turkeys waddled away squawking loudly. Several children ran alongside, giggling and calling to Andy. They seemed well fed, Greg thought, though their clothes were all homemade and patched. The adults still milling among the buildings eyed them suspiciously. Several must have recognized Eleanor; because they nudged each other and traded meaningful looks.

Eleanor didn’t even hesitate when she reached the front door. Shoved it open and walked in. Greg and Andy followed. It was a single long room, brick oven with iron doors at one end, bed at the other, with a few simple pieces of furniture between. The walls were hung with pictures of Jesus and Mary. Windows had shutters rather than glass.

A pale figure lay on the bed, covered by a single thin blanket. Greg probably wouldn’t have recognized Noel Broady. He’d only seen the old man once before, years ago, the night he met Eleanor. If any two people in the world were destined never to be friends, it was him and Noel.

Now though, that stubborn face was sunken and sweating. Grey hair had thinned out, several days’ stubble furred his cheeks and chin, flecked with dry saliva.

His eyes flickered open and he turned his head at the commotion. A dismissive grunt. “I told that boy not to go bother you.”

“Andy’s not a boy anymore, father, he’s a man who makes his own decisions. If he wants to tell me about you, he can do.”

“Stubborn. Stubborn.” He coughed, his shoulders quaking, and dropped his head back on the thin pillow. “Have you not yet learned God’s humility, girl?”

“I respect God in my own way, father.”

“By leaving us. By turning your back on Jesus and your family.” His finger rose to point at Greg. “By lying with that abomination. You live in sin, you will drown in sin.”

“Greg is my husband now, father. You were invited to the wedding.”

“I would not despoil all I have taught my flock by giving you my blessing.”

“Really?” Eleanor put the first-aid case on the floor, and opened it. She took out the diagnostic patch, and applied it to the side of her father’s neck. He frowned his disapproval, but didn’t resist.

“You have a granddaughter,” she said in a milder tone. She began running a handheld deep-scan sensor along his arms, switching to his ribcage. A picture of his skeleton built up in the cube of her Event Horizon laptop terminal.

Noel’s weak gaze moved to the bundle riding in Greg’s papoose; for a moment surprise and a lonely smile lifted the exhaustion from his face.

“She’s called Christine,” Greg said, moving closer so he could see. Christine stirred, yawning, her little arms wiggling about.

“She looks handsome, a good strong child. I will pray for her.” Talking was a big effort for him, the words wheezing out. He coughed again, dabbing a pink-stained handkerchief to his lips.

Eleanor took a breath, consulting the terminal cube again. Greg didn’t need his gland to see how worried she was.

“Dad, you have to go to hospital.”

“No.”

“You’ve got broken bones, and there’s a lot of internal damage, bleeding. You have to go.”

“If God calls me, then I will go to Him. All things are written, all lives decreed.”

“God gave us the knowledge to save ourselves…that’s why we’ve got doctors and medicine. They’re his gifts-are you going to throw them back in his face?”

“How well I remember these arguments. Always questioning and testing, you were. There are even some nights when I miss them.” Noel gave her a thin smile. “How quickly you forget your scriptures. It was the serpent who gave us knowledge.”

“Dad, please. It’s really bad. I can’t fix this sort of damage. You have to go to hospital. And quickly.”

“I will not. Do not ask me again.”

“Andy?” Eleanor appealed.

“Your brother’s faith is strong, unlike yours. He respects all we have achieved, all we have built. Ours is a simple life, my dearest Eleanor. We live, and we believe. That is all. It is sufficient for any man.

Everything else-this fast, plastic, electronic existence you have chosen-is the road to your own destruction. You can learn no values from it. It teaches you no respect for His glory.”

“I value your life.”

“As do I. And I have lived it true to myself. Would you take that dignity from me, even now? Would you punish me with your chemicals and mutilate me with your surgeon’s laser scalpels?”

She turned to Greg, miserable and helpless. He put his arm around her, holding her tight. Noel was badly wrong about his own son, Greg sensed. Andy was desperate to intervene. There was a layer of fear and uncertainty running through his mind that was struggling to rise and express itself, held in check only by ingrained obedience. When he let his perception expand, Greg could feel a similar anxiety suffusing the entire kibbutz. It wasn’t just shock and worry that their leader was harmed; some other affliction was gnawing at them.

“Well, I’m giving you some treatment anyway,” Eleanor said defiantly. She bent down to the first-aid case, and began selecting vials for the infuser. “You can’t run away from me.”

Noel lay back, a degree of contentment showing. “The absence of pain is a strong temptation. I will succumb and pay my penance later.”

Christine woke up and began her usual gurgle of interest at the world all around. “I’ll take her out,” Greg said. “Andy, could you give me a hand.”

Andy gave his father an uncertain glance. Noel nodded permission.

Outside, Greg turned so that Christine was shielded from the bright rising sun. The kibbutz had resumed its normal routine of activity, interest in the visitors discarded. He looked across the collection of worn buildings with a kind of annoyed bemusement. Ten years of his life had been spent in active rebellion against an oppressive government, a decade of pain and death and blood so that people could once again have a chance to gather some dignity and improve their lives. And here on his own doorstep this group strove to return to medievalism at its worst, burdened by everlasting manual labor and in thrall to evangelical priests who could never accept anyone else was even entitled to a different point of view. A community where progress is evil.

The irony made him smile-something he would never have done before meeting Eleanor. A freedom fighter (now, anyway-after all, they were the ones writing the history files) appalled by the use to which his gift of freedom had been put. People…they’re such a pain in the arse.

“He’s gonna die, isn’t he?”

Greg bounced Christine about, enjoying her happy grin at the motion. “Yes, Andy, I think he is.” The young man knew it anyway, just needed to be told by someone else. As if saying it would make it so, would make it his fault.

“I can’t believe it. Not him. He’s so strong…where it counts, you know.”

“Yeah, I know it. I had to face him down once. Toughest fight in my life.”

“That’s my father.” Andy was on the point of tears.

“What happened?” Greg scanned the kibbutz again. “There’s no cars here, no traffic.”

Andy’s arm was raised, pointing away over the fields toward the road. “There. We found him over there.

Helped carry him back myself.”

“Can you show me, please?”

They tramped over the sun-baked mud tracks, moving along the side of the tall fences, a long winding route. Andy was quiet as they walked. Nervous, Greg assumed, after years of being warned of the demon who had captured his big sister.

“This is where we found him,” Andy said eventually.

They were on a stretch of track running between two of the fences. Two hundred meters away toward Oakham was a gate which opened onto the tiny road linking Egleton with the A6003: a hundred meters in the other direction it led out into a paddock with other tracks and footpaths spreading off over the kibbutz land, a regular motorway intersection.

Greg knelt down beside the fence where Andy indicated. A herd of cattle on the other side watched them idly, chewing on the few blades of grass they could find amid the buttercups. The three lower bars of the fence were splintered, bowing inward; and they were thick timber. It had taken a lot of force to cause that much damage. They had some short paint streaks along them, dark blue; a dusting of chrome flakes lay on the mud. Greg stood and tried to work out the angle of the impact. The car or whatever would have had to veer very sharply to dint the fence in such a fashion. It wasn’t as though it would be swerving to avoid oncoming traffic.

“Was he right up against the fence?” Greg asked.

“Yeah, almost underneath it when we found him.”

“Did he say what happened?”

“Not much. Just that the car was big, and it had its headlights on full. Then it hit him, he got trapped between it and the fence.”

“Headlights? Was it nighttime?”

“No. It was early evening, still light.”

“Did anyone else see it happen?”

“No. We started searching when he didn’t turn up for evening chapel. It was dark by then; didn’t find him till after ten.”

“What about the car?” Greg indicated the gate onto the road. “It must have come from that direction, where was it going?”

“Don’t know. Didn’t come to us; haven’t had no visitors for a while. We’re the only ones that use this bit of track. It’s the quickest way out to the road.”

“What do you use on the road?”

“We’ve got bicycles. And a cart; horse pulls it to market most days. We sell vegetables and eggs. People still like fresh food instead of that chemical convenience packet rubbish.”

“Okay, so the car must have reversed away and got back onto the road afterward. So was your father on a bike?”

“No.” Andy shook his head ruefully. “He didn’t even like them. Said: God gave us feet, didn’t he? He always walked into town.”

“Do you know what he was doing in town that day?”

“Gone to see the solicitor.”

“What the hell did Noel want with a solicitor?”

“It’s a bad business been happening here. A man came a month or so back. Said he wanted to build a leisure complex on the shore, right where we are. He offered us money, said that it wasn’t really our land anyway and he’d help us find somewhere else to live. What kind of a man is that to disrespect us so? We built this place. It’s ours by any law that’s just and true.”

“Right,” Greg said. Now probably wasn’t the best time to lecture Andy on the kind of abuses which the local PSP Land Rights committees had perpetrated against private landowners. Nevertheless, expelling a farmer from his land so it could be handed over to a tribe of Bible-thumpers was a minor violation compared to some of the practices he’d heard of. The Party had been overthrown in one final night of mass civil disobedience and well-planned acts of destruction by underground groups, but the problems it had created hadn’t gone with it. “So what did Noel want with a solicitor?”

“He kept coming back, that man, after we said we wouldn’t go. Said he’d have us evicted like so many cattle. Said everyone around here would be glad to see us go, that we were Party, so we’d best make it easy for ourselves. Dad wasn’t having none of that. We have rights, he said. He went and found a solicitor who’d help us. Seeing as how we’d been here so long, we’re entitled to appeal to the court for a ruling of post-acquisition compensation. Means we’d have to pay the farmer whose land it was. But that way we wouldn’t have to leave. It would cost us plenty. We’d have to work hard to raise that much money, but we ain’t afraid of hard work.”

“I see.” Greg looked down at the broken sections of fence, understanding now what had really happened here. “What is this man’s name, the one who wants you off?”

“Richard Townsend, he’s a property developer lives in Oakham.”

“You think Townsend had my father run down?” Eleanor asked. They were sitting out on the farmhouse’s newly laid patio, looking across the southern branch of Rutland Water. Citrus groves covered the peninsula’s slope on both sides of the house’s grounds, the young trees fluttering their silky verdant leaves in the breeze. Phalanxes of swans and signets glided past on the dark water, their serenity only occasionally broken by a speeding windsurfer.

“It’s the obvious conclusion,” Greg said bitterly. “Noel was the center of opposition, the one they all follow. Without him they might just keep the legal challenge going but their heart won’t be in it. For all his flaws, he was bloody charismatic.”

“You mean intimidating.”

“Call it what you like; he was the one they looked to. And now…”

She closed her eyes, shuddering. “He won’t last another day, Greg. I don’t think it would make any difference now, even if we could get him into hospital.”

She hadn’t talked much about her father’s condition since they had arrived back at the farmhouse at midday. The morning’s events were taking time to assimilate. She had done what she could with the medicines in the first-aid kit, easing the worst of his pain. He had pretended indifference when she said she would return later. It didn’t convince anyone. Her ambivalence was a long way from being resolved.

It had been a very wide rift.

“Townsend won’t have done it personally,” Greg said. “There’ll be a perfect alibi with plenty of witnesses while whoever he hired drove the car. But he won’t be able to hide guilt from me during the interview.”

“That won’t work, darling,” she said sadly. “It still takes a lot for a jury to be convinced by a psychic’s evidence. And you’re hardly impartial in this case. A novice barrister on her first case would have you thrown out of court.”

“Okay. I accept that. We need some solid evidence to convict him.”

“Where are you going to get that from? You don’t even really know for certain that it was Townsend.

You can hardly interrogate him privately and then tell the police what he’s done and ask them to follow it up.”

“The car is evidence,” Greg said. “Andy called in an official hit-and-run report from Egleton’s phonebox.

I’ll start with that.”

Greg left Eleanor at the kibbutz next morning, and drove on into Oakham. It had been a couple of years since he’d visited the police station. The desk sergeant reacted with a stoicism verging on contempt when Greg asked him what progress had been made on the hit-and-run. “I’ll check the file for you, but don’t expect too much.”

“The man it hit is my father-in-law. He’s going to die from the injuries.”

A squirt of information colored the sergeant’s desktop terminal cube with flecks of light. “Sorry, sir.

Whoever reported the incident didn’t know what the vehicle was, nor when it happened. If we don’t have anything to go on, we can’t make enquiries. There’s nothing to ask.”

“Did anyone even go out there and check? He’s dying! The driver of that vehicle has killed him.”

The sergeant did manage to look reasonably embarrassed. “The nature of the injuries wasn’t disclosed at the time, sir. It’s not down here.”

“Would it have made a difference?”

“The case would have been graded accordingly.”

“Graded? What the fuck is graded?”

“We would have given the incident a higher priority, sir.”

Greg bit back on his immediate reply. Shouting at the ranks wasn’t going to solve anything-it was the generals not the squaddies who decide the campaign strategy. He paused, took a breath. “What about forensic? There are all sorts of marks out there, even some paint off the bodywork. Any decent forensic lab would be able to match the paint type with the manufacturer, at least get an idea of what kind of vehicle they were driving. Then you could start asking if anyone saw it.”

“Yes, sir. Was the gentleman insured?”

“For what?”

“Crime investigation finance. It’s becoming more necessary these days. Most companies offer it as part of their employment package along with health cover, pension, housing guarantee, that kind of thing. You see, the sort of investigation you’re talking about launching will absorb a lot of our resources. The Rutland force has only limited civic funds. To be honest with you, successfully tracing the driver would be a long shot. The chief has to focus his budget on areas which have a good probability of bringing positive results.”

“I don’t believe this. He’s a kibbutznik, he’s not employed by some big-shot corporation. The only money they have comes from selling eggs at the market. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a citizen; he’s entitled to time and attention from the police.”

“Sorry, sir. I’m not trying to discourage you, just telling you the way it is these days. I don’t want you to leave here with false hopes of us being able to launch a manhunt for the driver. And even if we did, a hit-and-run incident without a witness…” He shook his head. “Just about zero conviction rate.”

“I can pay,” Greg said. He pulled out his platinum Event Horizon card. “Just show me what I have to sign, and get that bloody forensic team out there.”

“It’s Sunday, sir. The assigned case officer won’t be in until tomorrow, I’m afraid. You’ll have to speak with him about upgrading the investigation status.”

Greg wondered if they would have the resources to investigate a member of the public punching an officer inside the station. Tempting to find out.

“There are private forensic laboratories, sir,” the desk sergeant said. “We have an approved list if you’d like to use one. Some of them are very good.”

It was no good shouting. Greg could see he was trying to be helpful, after a fashion. At which point Amanda Patterson called out his name.

Greg put the two pints of Ruddles County down on the table. Mike Wilson gave his glass a wary look.

“Cheers,” Greg said. After they had got back from the Sullivan bungalow, he had waited outside the police station until the insurance agent had come out, then invited him for a quiet drink at the Wheat sheaf pub just around the corner. So far, Wilson was curious enough not to offer resistance, but he was clearly worried.

“You can relax,” Greg told him. “I used to be a private eye. I’ve worked on corporate cases before. I understand the need for discretion at times like this.”

“Uh huh.” Mike took a sip of his beer.

“I know who did it.” From a psychic perspective, the jolt of surprise flashing into Wilson’s mind was quite amusing. He only just managed to avoid it triggering a physical jerk. That spoke of good self-control. Greg wasn’t surprised at that, it confirmed several things he had speculated about the man.

“Who? We didn’t see anyone who matched that bloody genome image.”

Greg folded his arms and smiled. “You don’t need to know.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I don’t want them convicted.”

“I see.”

“Which is the same reason you were given this investigation, isn’t it? Keep an eye on Amanda. Wise move by your company. I worked with her before. She’s a smart girl. And a very good police officer.

She won’t make compromises.”

“And you will?”

“When it suits me. And this certainly does.”

“Crescent Insurance would be happy to consider an adequate remuneration for the time you’ve spent advising Oakham CID.”

“You should research more. I’m already rich.”

“What then?”

“Tell me what line of investigation Crescent wants avoiding, and I’ll see if we can help each other.”

Wilson took a slow sip, and eased back into his chair. “Okay. I’m actually on secondment to Crescent; my employer is Hothouse.”

“Byrne Tyler’s agency?”

“Yeah. Look, showbiz is not pretty, okay? We deal with images, illusions. That’s what we sell: characters larger than life. To the general public, Byrne is some hot young chunk of meat with a six-pack stomach and the devil’s smile. In the dramas all he’s got to do is show off that body in some tough action sequences and blow away bad guys with his big gun. In real life we portray him as an It Guy; he goes to all the best parties, he dates the most beautiful actresses and models, he’s friends with the older, real celebrities. That’s what we’re promoting here, the more he’s in the ’casts, the more ’castworthy he is.

Doesn’t matter if it’s private-life gossip, or reviews for his latest pile of interactive shit. We put him out there and shine a light on him for everyone to idolize and buy every tie-in funny-colored chocolate bar we can slam at them. We make money, and Byrne gets a bigger apartment and a better nose job.

Unfortunately, in reality, he’s some half-wit sink-estate boy from Walthamstow we uprooted and dropped in front of the cameras. That’s a shock to anyone’s system. Certainly for him it was. He couldn’t tell where the image stopped and life began. He’s got a syntho habit, a dream punch habit, a sweet amp;sour habit…he even uses crack, for Christ’s sake; he can barely remember his one-word catch-phrase, and his autograph isn’t in joined-up writing. What I’m saying is, he needs-needed-a lot of agency management and handling to cope with his new existence, right down to potty-training level.”

“You didn’t like him.”

“I’ve never met him. Like I said, this is showbusiness, with the emphasis on business. Byrne Tyler was an investment on Hothouse’s part. And it was starting to go ripe. A year ago he was living on credit, and his career was nose-diving. Well, even that’s okay. It’s not exactly the first time that’s happened to a celeb.

We know how to handle that. We got him partway through detox therapy, paired him up with the gorgeous Tamzin, and together they’re riding high. Bingo, we’re back on track, he’s being offered new interactives, she’s getting runway assignments for the bigger couture houses.”

“So you wrote a happy ending. So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is the middle of the story. When his cash was low and no studio would touch him, he earned his living the oldest way you can. All those trophy wives who’s husbands are so decrepit they can’t even take Laynon anymore. Single trust-fund babes, except at their age they aren’t babes any longer. Even supermodels who wanted a serious no-comebacks, no-involvement shagging one night.

Tyler serviced them all.”

“Let me guess. You pimped him.”

“Our investment was going negative. We pointed people in the right direction. Nobody got hurt. It paid off.”

“Except now he’s dead. And he recorded all those women on that big waterbed of his.”

“Stupid little prick.” Wilson nodded remorsefully. “Was it one of them, some husband or boyfriend who found out?”

“No. You’re in the clear.”

“Hardly. Amanda Patterson is going to start phoning around that goddamn list he left behind. Look, he beds twenty rich and famous girls, and he’s a superstud, a hero to the lads. Thirty and he’s unbelievable…how the hell did he manage that? Fifty of the richest women in Europe night after night, and damn right nobody’ll believe it can happen. There’s going to be rumors; the media will start scratching round. We won’t be able to keep a lid on it.”

“Perfect,” Greg said. “I can deliver someone who can take the rap for Tyler’s death. Amanda will stop phoning your list, and go after him instead. The Tyler case will be closed, and the women involved can quietly apply to the police for the recordings to be wiped under the privacy act.”

“Who is it?”

“A nasty little man called Richard Townsend.”

“Never heard of him.”

“No reason you should. But I’m going to need a motive to link him in with Tyler. What other failings did our late celebrity have?”

Gabriel Thompson was one of Greg’s oldest friends, from his army days. Morgan Walshaw he knew pretty well, handling security for the biggest company there was: Event Horizon. Trustworthy and competent at exactly the level Greg needed. It helped that the two of them had taken a shine to each other after meeting on one of Greg’s cases. They’d moved in together a few months later, living in a grand old terrace house in Stamford.

Greg phoned them as soon as he got back from his drink with Mike Wilson. They arrived together at the farmhouse as the sun was sinking behind Berry but spinney on the far shore. Gabriel helped with Christine’s bath time, while Greg and Morgan tackled the menu from the Chinese take-away in Mill Street.

They wound up sitting in the conservatory with the cartons from the take-away on the big cedar table.

Pink light drained away from the clouds bridging the horizon leaving a quiescent gloaming in its wake.

“I need a safeguard before I agree to this,” Morgan said after Greg had finished talking. “I appreciate there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that Townsend had Noel Broady run down, but we don’t know for certain.”

“I’ll get myself in on the preliminary interview,” Greg said. “If I can see he’s guilty of paying someone to run Noel over, will that be enough for you?”

“Yes,” Morgan said. “I’ll accept your word.”

“If he’s not?” Gabriel asked archly.

“Then we collapse the deal. It’ll leave a nasty smell, but at least he walks away.”

“Okay,” she said. “So what’s the link between him and Tyler?”

“Hothouse set up a virtual company for Tyler to sell his action dramas and interactives. I think there’s even a best-of compilation fromMarina Days.”

“Compelling stuff,” Gabriel muttered.

“Yeah, anyway. This company is called Firedrake, and Mike Wilson has agreed to sell Hothouse’s half share. It’s only a pound New Sterling, so they don’t exactly lose out. All we have to do is convince Townsend to buy it, and back-date the agreement.”

“Why?” Morgan asked.

“Tyler wasn’t quite as stupid as you’d think. He was using the site to sell bootleg memox crystals of his own stuff. Any orders you place on the Firedrake site are supposed to go to the distribution company that’s contracted to deal with all Hothouse’s clients. Tyler, the clever little sod, rigged the site so that two thirds of the orders are redirected to a bootlegging operation that he’s got an arrangement with. That way, instead of getting his half-percent royalty payment from the cover price of the genuine crystal, he gets fifty percent of the price from the bootleg. Cash only, non-taxable. Hothouse found out about it a month ago, and confronted Tyler. He claimed he knew nothing, and that some hotrod had hacked into the site and loaded the diversion instructions. As his engagement to Tamzin was starting to produce results, Hothouse overlooked it, and sorted the site out.”

“So whoever his partner in Firedrake is, they’re being ripped off by Tyler,” Eleanor said. “Anyone examining the Firedrake site order log and comparing it to the legitimate distribution company’s orders will see the missing sixty percent straight away. The partner in Firedrake will have a justifiable grudge against Tyler.”

“What that partner will do is have Tyler’s apartment broken into, and steal a painting that is of equal worth to the missing money. Unfortunately, Tyler was at home when the burglary happened, there was a brief struggle, and he got pushed downstairs. That makes whoever received the stolen painting an accessory to murder. It’ll be the physical proof Amanda needs to nail him.”

“Can you get us a painting out of the apartment?” Gabriel asked.

“I think so,” Greg said. “I reviewed the Macmillan art encyclopedia database. We got lucky, the most valuable piece Tyler owns is also the smallest one. It should be easy enough to lift it.”

“When do you want to start?” Morgan asked.

“Right away. See if you can get an appointment with Townsend tomorrow morning. Gabriel, you’re going to be the accountant. You’ll have to hire an office for us in Peterborough. It needs to be ready by Tuesday at the latest. Suzi will give you a hand.”

“Suzi? You’re kidding!”

“No way. I’m going to bring her in as your company’s secretary. She’ll be perfect as the courier for the swap-Townsend won’t argue with her.”

“Jesus wept. Okay, if you say so.”

“What about the Firedrake site?” Morgan asked. “Won’t Townsend be suspicious of me marketing the interactives of a dead celebrity?”

“You won’t be selling Tyler’s products,” Greg said. “I’ve got Royan designing a completely new architecture for us; from midnight, Firedrake will be selling software products and obscure music acts.

Once Townsend has bought in, we’ll change it back.”

Gabriel gave her glass of beer a quizzical glance, then smiled softly. “Sounds good to me.”

Greg had been right about Amanda Patterson-she was a first-rate detective. As soon as Hugh Snell confirmed the McCarthy was a fake she redirected her team’s effort to produce maximum results. Every art house and auctioneer in the country was squirted an immediate notification about the painting, and CID staff were told to get in touch with known fences and dealers. A reward was mentioned.

Of course, as Townsend was blissfully unaware he had anything to hide, So the by’s in Stamford got back to Amanda less than two hours later. Richard Townsend was identified.

“Not the person who actually pushed Tyler,” she said regretfully, as she compared his picture with the genome visualization. An undercover team was assigned to keep Townsend under surveillance.

Greg watched as she turned her team to establishing the link between Tyler and Townsend. It was the accountant who tracked down the partnership in Fire-drake. After that it was plain sailing. The accountant worked well with Alison, running analysis programs through the virtual company’s records.

The distribution company made their order logs available.

By ten o’clock that evening they had it all worked out. Byrne Tyler was ripping off his Firedrake partner Townsend, who discovered what was happening. Knowing the money would never be paid over, a burglar was hired for a custom theft. But there had been a flaw. Byrne Tyler was awake when the break-in occurred. There must have been a struggle.

Amanda took the case to Vernon at quarter past ten. He reviewed it, and authorized the arrest warrant.

Throughout the interview with Townsend, Greg had felt as if he was the one on trial. Not so far from the truth. He was the one who had brought them all together. The strain was twisting him up inside, having to wait patiently while Amanda asked questions which Townsend didn’t understand, let alone have answers for. Finally, he could ask the one question that counted.

Physically, Townsend froze up. His hands gripped the armrests, sweat glistened on his brow as his mouth hung open. In his mind, horror and fright rose like ghouls to contaminate every thought.

“Guilty,” Greg said. He hoped he hadn’t sagged at the release of his own tension.

“Thank you, Mr. Mandel,” Amanda said.

It was the tone which alarmed Greg. He hadn’t been paying attention to the detective. Now he could sense the doubts rippling through her mind. She held his gaze steadily, and said: “I think we both need to take a break now. No doubt you’d like to consult with your solicitor, Mr. Townsend. Interview suspended.” She switched the AV deck off. “Greg, a word, please.”

“Sure.”

As they left the interview room a frantic Townsend was whispering furiously to Jodie Dobson. Amanda went straight downstairs and out into the station’s car park. She rounded on Greg. “What the hell is going on?”

“You were right about him, my question confirmed that.”

“Oh, bollocks, Greg. He doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.”

“He’s guilty. I swear it, Amanda.”

“Yeah?” She dug in her pocket and pulled out a cigarette.

“I thought they were illegal?”

“No. That’s a common mistake. Usage just prohibits you from claiming National Health Service treatment. If you choose to make yourself ill, don’t expect the state to pay to make you better. So given that smoking actually makes it illegal to go to an NHS hospital, it’s easy to see how confused people can get over the actual wording of the law. And it suits the government to encourage that confusion.”

“Are we talking in metaphors here?”

“I don’t know, Greg. I don’t know what’s metaphor, what’s confusion, and what’s truth. But I’m bloody sure Townsend didn’t have anything to do with Tyler’s death. Detective’s instinct, remember.”

“The evidence points straight at him.”

“Yes. With amazing clarity. Funny how that all fell together yesterday. Why yesterday? Why didn’t we have it before?”

“We only discovered the painting had been taken yesterday.”

“So we did. No, actually,you did. On the third visit. What’s the matter, Greg-psychic power not what it used to be?”

“It’s not an exact science.”

“No, it isn’t. But you’re right. We’re lucky to discover the painting. After all, it must have been stolen during a burglary, and that burglary must have been last Wednesday night. Because it couldn’t have been taken afterward; no one else has been alone in Tyler’s apartment since then, have they Greg? Alone downstairs while I was taking a stupid call from Mike bloody Wilson.”

Greg spread his arms, trying not to show how alarmed he was getting. “A few seconds.”

“How long does it take to switch something that small?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Neither does Richard Townsend. He claims he only received that painting yesterday.”

“He claims. Do you think Alan O’Hagen can confirm that?”

“You know as well as I do I’ll never get to ask that question. But my investigation only took off once every piece of the puzzle was dumped into Townsend’s hands for me to find.” She dropped the half-smoked cigarette and crunched it under her foot. “What the hell happened to you, Greg? You, I thought you, of all people were trustworthy. For Christ’s sake, you fought the PSP for a decade while people like me hid behind our desks. This is the world you were fighting for. Are you surprised it’s not perfection? Is that it? Do you have so little faith in the police, in me, that you have to fabricate all this crap to set up an innocent man? Who the hell are you protecting, Greg?”

“Amanda, I promise you, Townsend is not innocent. He is responsible for someone’s death.”

“But not Tyler. If I asked that in the interview room and he said no, what would you tell me, Greg?

Would you tell me he’s lying?”

“You have all the evidence you need. It will hold together in court without my testimony. He’s an accessory to murder. He’s responsible.”

“And you couldn’t prove it? Not for the real crime. That’s it, isn’t it? No proof. So you set him up for this.”

Greg remained silent, wondering where all this shame he was suddenly feeling was coming from.

“Fine, Greg,” she said. “You got your man. But what about Tyler’s killer. He’s still walking around loose.

He got away with it, with murder. Tyler might not have been the best person in the world, but surely he deserves better than us turning our backs on him?”

“Tyler wasn’t murdered. It was a genuine accident. Although, if he hadn’t been the person he was, it wouldn’t have happened.”

“What do you mean?”

Greg slowly took his cybofax from his jacket pocket, and flipped it open. The face of Tyler’s killer looked out blankly from the screen. Greg typed in a few simple instructions, altering the characteristics age-projection program. The face evolved again, but not running its standard eighteen-to-eighty cycle.

This time it went back eight years. Daniel Sullivan stared out at Amanda.

“Oh, fuck,” she whispered.

“He found out that Tyler was blackmailing his sister into having sex,” Greg said. “So that night he sneaked into the Ingalo’s boot. He must have got in through the cloakroom window, probably even saw them on the bed together. Tyler heard him moving around and went to investigate. Daniel pushed him. A little boy incensed at what he’d seen happen to the sister he loved.”

“And she covered for him,” Amanda said. “Turned down the air-conditioning, took the crystal from the AV deck, wiped his fingerprints, then drove him home.”

“Yeah.”

“You knew it all the minute you walked into the bungalow, didn’t you?”

“That poor kid was so scared I’m just surprised no one else noticed him.”

“I need another cigarette.”

“You shouldn’t. They’ll kill you.” He waited to see what she’d do.

She took the packet of twenty from her pocket, and after a long moment handed them to him. “You keep them, and don’t tell the health police, huh?”

“I don’t have time right now. I have to organize a funeral.”

“Anyone I know?”

“My father-in-law. He died after a hit-and-run.”

Amanda paused for a moment. “Take care, Greg.”

“And you.” He got into the Ranger, and drove out of the station car park. A last glance in the rearview mirror showed him Amanda squaring her shoulders, then marching back into the station.


The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-o - Michael Swanwick


Here’s a story featuring characters who are literally larger than life, in which we’re given a vivid and passionate look at the worldsbehindthe ordinary world we know…
Michael Swanwick made his debut in 1980, and in the twenty-one years that have followed has established himself as one of SF’s most prolific and consistently excellent writers at short lengths, as well as one of the premier novelists of his generation.
He has several times been a finalist for the Nebula Award, as well as for the World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Award, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Award and theAsimov’sReaders Award poll. In 1991, his novel Stations of the Tidewon him a Nebula Award as well, and in 1995 he won the World Fantasy Award for his story “Radio Waves.” In the last two years, he’s won back-to-back Hugo Awards-he won the Hugo in 1999 for his story “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” and followed it up last year with another Hugo Award for his story “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur.” His other books include his first novel, In the Drift,which was published in 1985, a novella-length book, Griffin’s Egg,1987’s popular novel Vacuum Flowers,and a critically acclaimed fantasy novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter,which was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award andthe Arthur C. Clarke Award (a rare distinction!). His most recent novel was Jack Faust,a sly reworking of the Faust legend that explores the unexpected impact of technology on society. He’s just finished a new novel, featuring time travelers and hungry dinosaurs. His short fiction has been assembled in Gravity’s Angels, A Geography of Unknown Lands,and in a collection of his collaborative short work with other writers, Slow Dancing Through Time.He’s also published a collection of critical articles, The Postmodern Archipelago.His most recent books are three new collections, Moon Dogs, Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary,and Tales of Old Earth.Swanwick lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter, and their son Sean.

Among twenty snowy mountains, the only moving thing was the eye of Crow. The sky was blue, and the air was cold. His beard was rimed with frost. The tangled road behind was black and dry and empty.

At last, satisfied that there was nobody coming after them, he put down his binoculars. The way down to the road was steep. He fell three times as he half pushed and half swam his way through the drifts. His truck waited for him, idling. He stamped his feet on the tarmac to clear the boot treads and climbed up on the cab.

Annie looked up as he opened the door. Her smile was warm and welcoming, but with just that little glint of man-fear first, brief as the green flash at sunset, gone so quickly you wouldn’t see it if you didn’t know to look.That wasn’t me, babe, he wanted to tell her.Nobody’s ever going to hit you again. But he said nothing. You could tell the goddamnedest lies, and who was there to stop you? Let her judge him by his deeds. Crow didn’t much believe in words.

He sat down heavily, slamming the door. “Cold as hell out there,” he commented. Then, “How are they doing?”

Annie shrugged. “They’re hungry again.”

“They’re always hungry.” But Crow pulled the wicker picnic hamper out from under the seat anyway. He took out a dead puppy and pulled back the slide window at the rear of the cab. Then, with a snap of his wrist, he tossed the morsel into the van.

The monsters in the back began fighting over the puppy, slamming each other against the walls, roaring in mindless rage.

“Competitive buggers.” He yanked the brake and put the truck into gear.

They had the heat cranked up high for the sake of their cargo, and after a few minutes he began to sweat.

He pulled off his gloves, biting the fingertips and jerking back his head, and laid them on the dash, alongside his wool cap. Then he unbuttoned his coat.

“Gimme a hand here, willya?” Annie held the sleeve so he could draw out his arm. He leaned forward and she pulled the coat free and tossed it aside. “Thanks,” he said.

Annie said nothing. Her hands went to his lap and unzipped his pants. Crow felt his pecker harden. She undid his belt and yanked down his BVDs. Her mouth closed upon him. The truck rattled underneath them.

“Hey, babe, that ain’t really safe.”

“Safe.” Her hand squeezed him so hard he almost asked her to stop. But thought better of it. “I didn’t hook up with a thug like you so I could besafe.”

She ran her tongue down his shaft and begun sucking on his nuts. Crow drew in his breath. What the hell, he figured, might as well go along for the ride. Only he’d still better keep an eye on the road. They were going down a series of switch-backs. Easy way to die.

He downshifted, and downshifted again.

It didn’t take long before he spurted.

He came and groaned and stretched and felt inordinately happy. Annie’s head came up from his lap. She was smiling impishly. He grinned back at her.

Then she mashed her face into his and was kissing him deeply, passionately, his jism salty on her tongue and her tongue sticky in his mouth, and hecouldn’t see! Terrified, he slammed his foot on the brake. He was blind and out of control on one of the twistiest and most dangerous roads in the universe. The tires screamed.

He pushed Annie away from him so hard the back of her head bounced off the rider-side window. The truck’s front wheels went off the road. Empty sky swung up to fill the windshield. In a frenzy, he swung the wheel so sharply he thought for a second they were going to overturn. There was a hideouscrunch that sounded like part of the frame hitting rock, and then they were jolting safely down the road again.

“God damn,” Crow said flatly. “Don’t you ever do that again.” He was shaking. “You’re fucking crazy!” he added, more emphatically.

“Your fly is unzipped,” Annie said, amused.

He hastily tucked himself in. “Crazy.”

“You want crazy? You so much as look at another woman and I’ll show you crazy.” She opened the glove compartment and dug out her packet of Kents. “I’m just the girl for you, boyo, and don’t you forget it.” She lit up and then opened the window a crack for ventilation. Mentholated smoke filled the cabin.

In a companionable wordlessness they drove on through the snow and the blinding sunlight, the cab warm, the motor humming, and the monsters screaming at their back.

For maybe fifty miles he drove, while Annie drowsed in the seat beside him. Then the steering got stiff and the wheel began to moan under his hands whenever he turned it. It was a long, low, mournful sound like whale-song.

Without opening her eyes, Annie said, “What kind of weird-shit station are you listening to? Can’t you get us something better?”

“Ain’t no radio out here, babe. Remember where we are.”

She opened her eyes. “So what is it, then?”

“Steering fluid’s low. I think maybe we sprung a leak back down the road, when we almost went off.”

“What are we going to do about it?”

“I’m not sure there’s much wecan do.”

At which exact moment they turned a bend in the road and saw a gas station ahead. Two sets of pumps, diesel, air, a Mini-Mart, and a garage. Various machines of dubious functionality rusting out back.

Crow slammed on the brakes. “Thatshouldn’t be there.” He knew that for a fact. Last time he’d been through, the road had been empty all the way through to Troy.

Annie finally opened her eyes. They were the greenest things Crow had ever seen. They reminded him of sunlight through jungle leaves, of moss-covered cathedrals, of a stone city he’d once been to, sunk in the shallow waters of the Caribbean. That had been a dangerous place, but no more dangerous than this slim and lovely lady beside him. After a minute, she simply said, “Ask if they do repairs.”

Crow pulled up in front of the garage and honked the horn a few times. A hound-lean mechanic came out, wiping his hands on a rag. “Yah?”

“Lissen, Ace, we got us a situation here with our steering column. Think you can fix us up?”

The mechanic stared at him, unblinking, and said, “We’re all out of fluid. I’ll take a look at your underside, though.”

While the man was on a creeper under the truck, Crow went to the crapper. Then he ambled around back of the garage. There was a window there. He snapped the latch, climbed in, and poked around.

When he strolled up front again, the mechanic was out from under the truck and Annie was leaning against one of the pumps, flirting with him. He liked it, Crow could tell. Hell, even faggots liked it when Annie flirted at them.

Annie went off to the ladies’ when he walked up, and by the time she came back the mechanic was inside again. She raised her eyebrows and Crow said, “Bastard says he can’t fix the leak and ain’t got no fluid. Only I boosted two cases out a window and stashed ’em in a junker out back. Go in and distract him, while I get them into the truck.”

Annie thrust her hands deep into the pockets of her leather jacket and twisted slightly from foot to foot.

“I’ve got a better thought,” she said quietly. “Kill him.”

“Say what?”

“He’s one of Eric’s people.”

“You sure of that?”

“Ninety percent sure. He’s here. What else could he be?”

“Yeah, well, there’s still that other ten percent.”

Her face was a mask. “Why take chances?”

“Jesus.” Crow shook his head. “Babe, sometimes you give me the creeps. I don’t mind admitting that you do.”

“Do you love me? Then kill him.”

“Hey. Forget that bullshit. We been together long enough, you must know what I’m like, okay? I ain’t killing nobody today. Now go into the convenience there and buy us ten minutes, eh? Distract the man.”

He turned her around and gave her a shove toward the Mini-Mart. Her shoulders were stiff with anger, her bottom big and around in those tight leather pants. God, but he loved the way she looked in those things! His hand ached to give her a swat on the rump, just to see her scamper. Couldn’t do that with Annie, though. Not now, not never. Just one more thing that bastard Eric had spoiled for others.

He had the truck loaded and the steering column topped up by the time Annie strode out of the Mini-Mart with a boom box and a stack of CDs. The mechanic trotted after her, toting up prices on a little pad. When he presented her with the total, she simply said, “Send the bill to my husband,” and climbed into the cab.

With a curt, wordless nod, the man turned back toward the store.

“Got anymore doubts?” Annie asked coldly.

Crow cursed. He’d killed men in his time, but it wasn’t anything he was proud of. And never what you’d call murder. He slammed down the back of the seat, to access the storage compartment. All his few possessions were in there, and little enough they were for such a hard life as he’d led. Some spare clothes. A basket of trinkets he’d picked up along the way. His guns.

Forty miles down the road, Annie was still fuming. Abruptly, she turned and slammed Crow in the side with her fist. Hard. She had a good punch for a woman. Keeping one hand on the wheel, he half-turned and tried to seize her hands in one enormous fist. She continued hitting him in the chest and face until he managed to nab them both.

“What?” he demanded, angrily.

“You should have killed him.”

“Three handfuls of gold nuggets, babe. I dug ’em out of the Yukon with my own mitts. That’s enough money to keep anybody’s mouth shut.”

“Oh mercy God! Not one of Eric’s men. Depend upon it, yon whoreson caitiff was on the phone the very instant you were out of his sight.”

“You don’t know that kind of cheap-jack hustler the way I do-” Crow began. Which was-he knew it the instant the words left his mouth-exactly the wrong thing to say to Annie. Her lips went thin and her eyes went hard. Her words were bitter and curt. Before he knew it, they were yelling at each other.

Finally he had no choice but to pull over, put the truck in park, and settle things right there on the front seat.

Afterward, she put on a CD she liked, old ballads and shit, and kept on playing it over and over. One in particular made her smile at him, eyes sultry and full of love, whenever it came on.

It was upstairs downstairs the lady went Put on her suit of leather-o And there was a cry from around the door She’s away wi’ the raggle taggle gypsy-o To tell the truth, the music wasn’t exactly to his taste. But that was what they liked back where Annie came from. She couldn’t stand his music. Said it was just noise. But when he felt that smile and those eyes on him it was better than three nights in Tijuana with any other woman he’d ever met. So he didn’t see any point in making a big thing out of it.

The wheel was starting to freeze up on them again. Crow was looking for a good place to pull off and dump in a few cans of fluid, when suddenly Annie shivered and sat up straight. She stared off into the distance, over the eternal mountains. “What is it?” he asked.

“I have a premonition.”

“Of what?” He didn’t much like her premonitions. They always came true.

“Something. Over there.” She lifted her arm and pointed.

Two Basilisks lifted up over the mountains.

“Shit!”

He stepped on the gas. “Hold tight, babe. We’re almost there. I think we can outrun ’em.”

They came down the exit ramp with the steering column moaning and howling like a banshee. Crow had to put all his weight on the wheel to make it turn. Braking, he left the timeless lands.

And came out in Rome.

One instant they were on the exit ramp surrounded by lifeless mountains. The next they were pushing through narrow roads choked with donkey carts and toga-clad pedestrians. Crow brought the truck to a stop, and got out to add fluid.

The truck took up most of the road. People cursed and spat at him for being in their way. But nobody seemed to find anything unusual in the fact that he was driving an internal-combustion engine. They all took it in their stride.

It was wonderful how the timelines protected themselves against anachronisms by simply ignoring them.

A theoretical physicist Crow had befriended in Babylon had called it “robust integrity.” You could introduce the printing press into dynastic Egypt and six months later the device would be discarded and forgotten. Machine-gun the infant Charlemagne and within the year those who had been there would remember him having been stabbed. A century later every detail of his career as Emperor would be chronicled, documented, and revered, down to his dotage and death.

It hadn’t made a lot of sense to Crow, but, “Live with it,” the physicist had said, and staggered off in search of his great-great-five-hundred-times-great-grandmother with silver in his pocket and a demented gleam in his eye. So there it was.

Not an hour later, they arrived at the Coliseum and were sent around back to the tradesmen’s entrance.

“Ave,”Crow said to the guard there. “I want to talk to one of the-hey, Annie, what’s Latin for animal wrangler?”

“Bestiarius.”

“Yeah, that’s it. Fella name of Carpophorus.”

Carpophorus was delighted with his new pets. He watched eagerly as the truck was backed up to the cage. Two sparsores with grappling-hooks unlatched the truck doors and leaped back as eleven nightmares poured out of the truck. They were all teeth and claws and savage quickness. One of their number lay dead on the floor of the truck. Not bad for such a long haul.

“What are they?” Carpophorus asked, entranced.

“Deinonychi.”

“‘Terrible-claws,’ eh? Well, they fit the bill, all right.” He thrust an arm between the bars, and then leaped back, chuckling, as two of the lithe young carnivores sprang at it. “Fast, too. Oh, Marcuswill be pleased!”

“I’m glad you like ’em. Listen, we got a little trouble here with our steering column…”

“Down that ramp, to the right. Follow the signs. Tell Flamma I sent you.” He turned back to the deinonychi, and musingly said, “Should they fight hoplomachi? Or maybe dimachaeri?” Crow knew the terms; the former were warriors who fought in armor, the latter with two knives.

“Horses would be nice,” a sparsore commented. “If you used andabatae, they’d be able to strike from above.”

Carpophorus shook his head. “I have it! Those Norse bear-sarkers I’ve been saving for something special-what could be more special than this?”

It was a regular labyrinth under the Coliseum. They had everything down there: workshops, brothels, training rooms, even a garage. At the mention of Carpophorus’ name, a mechanic dropped everything to check out their truck. They sat in the stands, munching on a head of lettuce and watching the gladiators practice. An hour later a slave came up to tell them it was fixed.

They bought a room at a tavern that evening and ordered the best meal in the house. Which turned out to be sow’s udders stuffed with fried baby mice. They washed it down with a wine that tasted like turpentine and got drunk and screwed and fell asleep. At least, Annie did. Crow sat up for a time, thinking.

Was she going to wake up some morning in a cold barn or on a piss-stained mattress and miss her goose-down comforters, her satin sheets, and her liveried servants? She’d been nobility, after all, and the wife of a demiurge…

He hadn’t meant to run off with anybody’s wife. But when he and some buddies had showed up at Lord Eric’s estates, intent upon their own plans, there Annie was. No man that liked women could look upon Annie and not want her. And Crow couldn’t want something without trying to get it. Such was his nature-he couldn’t alter it.

He’d met her in the gardens out by Lord Eric’s menagerie. A minor tweak of the weather had been made, so that the drifts of snow were held back to make room for bright mounds of prehistoric orchids.

“Th’art a ragged fellow indeed, sirrah,” she’d said with cool amusement.

He’d come under guise of a musician at a time when Lord Eric was away for a few years monkeying with the physical constants of the universe or some such bullshit. The dinosaurs had been his target from the first, though he wasn’t above boffing the boss’s lady on the way out. But something about her made him want her for more than just the night. Then and there he swore to himself that he’d win her, fair and without deceit, and on his own terms. “These ain’t rags, babe,” he’d said, hooking his thumbs into his belt. “They’re my colors.”

They stayed in Rome for a week, and they didn’t go to watch the games, though Annie-who was born in an era whose idea of entertainment included public executions and bear-baitings-wanted to. But the deinonychi were by all accounts a hit. Afterward, they collected their reward in the form of silver bars, “as many,” Carpophorus gleefully quoted his sponsor, Marcus, as saying, “as the suspension of their truck will bear.”

Marcus was a rich man from a good family and had political ambitions. Crow happened to know he’d be dead within the month, but he didn’t bother mentioning the fact. Leave well enough alone, was his motto.

“Why did we wait around,” Annie wanted to know afterward, “if we weren’t going to watch?”

“To make sure it actually happened. Eric can’t come in now and snatch back his dinos without creating a serious line paradox. As I read it, that’s considered bad form for a Lord of Creation.” They were on the streets of Rome again, slowed to a crawl by the density of human traffic. Crow leaned on the horn again and again.

They made a right turn and then another, and then the traffic was gone. Crow threw the transmission into second and stepped on the accelerator. They were back among the Mountains of Eternity. From here they could reach any historical era and even, should they wish, the vast stretches of time that came before and after. All the roads were clear, and there was nothing in their way.

Less than a month later, subjective time, they were biking down that same road, arguing. Annie was lobbying for him to get her a sidecar and Crow didn’t think much of that idea at all.

“This here’s myhog, goddamnit!” he explained. “I chopped her myself-you put a sidecar on it, it’ll be all the fuck out of balance.”

“Yeah, well, I hope you enjoy jerking off. Because my fucking ass is so goddamn sore that…”

He’d opened up the throttle to drown out what she was about to say when suddenly Annie was pounding on his back, screaming, “Pull over!”

Crow was still braking the Harley when she leaned over to the side and began to puke.

When she was done, Crow dug a Schlitz out of the saddlebags and popped the tab. Shakily, she accepted it. “What was it!” he asked.

Annie gargled and spat out the beer. “Another premonition-a muckle bad one, I trow.” Then, “Hey.

Who do I have to fuck to get a smoke around here?”

Crow lit up a Kent for her.

Midway through the cigarette, she shuddered again and went rigid. Her pupils shrank to pinpricks, and her eyes turned up in their sockets, so they were almost entirely white. The sort of thing that would’ve gotten her burned for a witch, back in good old sixteenth-c England.

She raised a hand, pointing. “Incoming. Five of them.”

They were ugly fuckers, the Basilisks were: black, unornamented two-rotor jobs, and noisy too. You could hear them miles off.

Luckily, Annie’s foresight had given Crow the time to pick out a good defensive position. Cliff face to their back, rocks to crouch behind, enough of an overhang they couldn’t try anything from above.

Enough room to stash the bike, just in case they came out of this one alive. There was a long, empty slope before them. Their pursuers would have to come running up it.

The formation of Basilisks thundered closer.

“Pay attention, babe,” Crow said. “I’m gonna teach you a little guerrilla warfare.”

He got out his rifle from its saddle sheath. It was a Savage 110 Tactical. Good sniper rifle. He knew this gun. He’d packed the shells himself. It was a reliable piece of machinery.

“This here’s a trick I learned in a little jungle war you probably ain’t never heard of. Hold out your thumb at arm’s length, okay? Now you wait until the helicopter’s as big as the thumb. That’s when it’s close enough you can shoot it down.”

“Will that work?” she asked nervously.

“Hell, if the Cong could do it, so can I.”

He took out three Basilisks before the others could sweep up and around and out of range again. It was damned fine shooting if he did say so himself. But then the survivors set down in the distant snow and disgorged at least thirty armed men. Which changed the odds somewhat.

Annie counted soldiers, and quietly said, “Crow…”

Crow held a finger to her lips.

“Don’t you worry none aboutme. I’m a trickster, babe. I’m archetypal. Ain’t none of them can touch the Man.”

Annie kissed his finger and squeezed his hand. But by the look in her eyes, he could tell she knew he was lying. “They can make you suffer, though,” she said. “Eric has an old enemy staked to a rock back at his estates. Vultures come and eat his intestines.”

“That’s his brother, actually.” It was an ugly story, and he was just as glad when she didn’t ask him to elaborate. “Hunker down, now. Here they come.”

The troops came scattershot up the slope, running raggedly from cover to cover. Very professional.

Crow settled himself down on his elbows, and raised his rifle. Not much wind. On a day like today, he ought to be able to hit a man at five hundred yards ten times out of ten. “Kiss your asses good-bye,” he muttered.

He figured he’d take out half of them before they got close enough to throw a stasis grenade.

Lord Eric was a well-made man, tall and full of grace. He had the glint of power to him, was bold and fair of face. A touch of lace was at his wrist. His shirt was finest silk.

“Lady Anne,” he said.

“Lord Eric.”

“I have come to restore you to your home and station: to your lands, estates, gracious powers, and wide holdings. As well as to the bed of your devoted husband.” His chariot rested in the snow behind him; he’d waited until all the dirty work was done before showing up.

“You are no longer my husband. I have cast my fortune with a better man than thou.”

“That gypsy?” He afforded Crow the briefest and most dismissive of glances. “’Tis no more than a common thief, scarce worth the hemp to hang him, the wood to burn him, the water to drown him, nor the earth to bury him. Yet he has made free with a someat trifle that is mine and mine alone to depose-I speak of your honor. So he must die. He must die, and thou be brought to heel, as obedient to my hand as my hawk, my hound, or my horse.”

She spat at his feet. “Eat shit, asshole.”

Lord Eric’s elegant face went white. He drew back his fist to strike her.

Crow’s hands were cuffed behind his back, and he couldn’t free them. So he lurched suddenly forward, catching his captors and Eric by surprise, and took the blow on his own face. That sucker hurt, but he didn’t let it show. With the biggest, meanest grin he could manage, he said, “See, there’s the difference between you and me. You couldn’t stop yourself from hurting her. I could.”

“Think you so?” Lord Eric gestured and one of his men handed him a pair of gray kid gloves of finest Spanish leather. “I raised a mortal above her state. Four hundred years was she my consort. No more.”

Fear entered Annie’s eyes for the first time, though nobody who knew her less well than Crow could have told.

“I will strangle her myself,” Eric said, pulling on the gloves. “She deserves no less honor, for she was once my wife.”

The tiger cage was set up on a low dais; one focus of the large, oval room. Crow knew from tiger cages, but he’d never thought he’d wind up in one. Especially not in the middle of somebody’s party.

Especially not at Annie’s wake.

The living room was filled with demiurges and light laughter, cocaine and gin. Old Tezcatlipoca, who had been as good as a father to Crow in his time, seeing him, grimaced and shook his head. Now Crow regretted ever getting involved with Spaniards, however sensible an idea it had seemed at the time.

The powers and godlings who orbited the party, cocktails in hand, solitary and aloof as planets, included Lady Dale, who bestowed riches with one hand and lightnings from the other, and had a grudge against Crow for stealing her distaff; Lord Aubrey of the short and happy lives, who hated him for the sake of a friend; Lady Siff of the flames, whose attentions he had once scorned; and Reverend Wednesday, old father death himself, in clerical collar, stiff with disapproval at Crow’s libertine ways.

He had no allies anywhere in this room.

Over there was Lord Taleisin, the demiurge of music, who, possibly alone of all this glittering assemblage, bore Crow no ill will. Crow figured it was because Tal had never learned the truth behind that business back in Crete.

He figured, too, there must be some way to turn that to his advantage.

“You look away from me every time I go by,” Lord Taleisin said. “Yet I know of no offense you have given me, or I you.”

“Just wanted to get your attention is all,” Crow said. “Without any of the others suspecting it.” His brow was set in angry lines but his words were soft and mild. “I been thinking about how I came to be. I mean, you guys are simplythere, a part of the natural order of things. But us archetypes are created out of a million years of campfire tales and wishful lies. We’re thrown up out of the collective unconscious. I got to wondering what would happen if somebody with access to that unconscious-you, for example-was to plant a few songs here and there.”

“It could be done, possibly. Nothing’s certain. But what would be the point?”

“How’d you like your brother’s heart in a box?”

Lord Tal smiled urbanely. “Eric and I may not see eye to eye on everything, yet I cannot claim to hate him so as to wish the physical universe rendered un-inhabitable.”

“Not him. Your other brother.”

Tal involuntarily glanced over his shoulder, toward the distant mountain, where a small dark figure lay tormented by vultures. The house had been built here with just that view in mind. “If it could be done, don’t you think I’d’ve done it?” Leaving unsaid but understood:How could you succeed where I have failed? “I’m the trickster, babe-remember? I’m the wild card, the unpredictable element, the unexpected event.

I’m the blackfly under the saddle. I’m the ice on the O-rings. I am theonly one who could do this for you.”

Very quietly, Lord Taleisin said, “What sureties do you require?”

“Your word’s good enough for me, pal. Just don’t forget to spit in my face before you leave. It’ll look better.”

“Have fun,” Lord Eric said, and left the room.

Eric’s men worked Crow over good. They broke his ribs and kicked in his face. A couple of times they had to stop to get their breath back, they were laboring so hard. He had to give them credit, they put their backs into the work. But, like Crow himself, the entertainment was too boorish for its audience.

Long before it was done, most of the partyers had left in boredom or disgust.

At last he groaned, and he died.

Well, what was a little thing like death to somebody like Crow? He was archetypal-the universe demanded that he exist. Kill him here-and-now and he’d be reborn there-and-then. It wouldn’t be long before he was up and around again.

But not Annie.

No, that was the bitch of the thing. Annie was dead, and the odds were good she wasn’t coming back.

Among twenty smog-choked cities, the only still thing was the eye of Crow. He leaned back, arms crossed, in the saddle of his Harley, staring at a certain door so hard he was almost surprised his gaze didn’t burn a hole in it.

A martlet flew down from the sky and perched on the handlebars. It was a little bird, round-headed and short-beaked, with long sharp wings. Its eyes were two stars shining. “Hail!” it said.

“Hail, fire, and damnation,” Crow growled. “Any results?”

“Lord Taleisin has done as you required, and salted the timelines with songs. In London, Nashville, and Azul-Tlon do they praise her beauty, and the steadfastness of her love. In a hundred guises and a thousand names is she exalted. From mammoth-bone medicine lodges to MTVirtual, they sing of Lady Anne, of the love that sacrifices all comfort, and of the price she gladly paid for it.”

Still the door did not open.

“That’s not what I asked, shit-for-brains. Did it work?”

“Perhaps.” The bird cocked its head. “Perhaps not. I was told to caution you: Even at best, you will only have a now-and-again lady. Archetypes don’t travel in pairs. If it works, your meetings will be like solar eclipses-primal, powerful, rare, and brief.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

The creature hesitated, and if a bird could be said to look abashed, then it looked strangely abashed. “I was also told that you would have something for me.”

Without looking, Crow unstrapped his saddlebag and rummaged within. He removed a wooden heart-shaped box, tied up in string. “Here.”

With a glorious burst of unearthly song, the martlet seized the string in its talons and, wings whirring, flew straight up into the sky. Crow did not look after it. He waited.

He waited until he was sure that the door would never open. Then he waited some more.

The door opened.

Out she came, in faded Levis, leather flight jacket, and a black halter top, sucking on a Kent menthol.

She was looking as beautiful as the morning and as hard as nails. The sidewalk cringed under her high-heeled boots.

“Hey, babe,” Crow said casually. “I got you a sidecar. See? It’s lined with velvet and everything.”

“Fuck that noise,” Annie said and, climbing on behind him, hugged him so hard that his ribs creaked.

He kick-started the Harley and with a roar they pulled out into traffic. Crow cranked up the engine and popped a wheelie. Off they sped, down the road that leads everywhere and nowhere, to the past and the future, Tokyo and Short Pump, infinity and the corner store, with Annie laughing and unafraid, and Crow flying the black flag of himself.


Radiant Green Star - Lucius Shepard


Here’s a powerful, darkly elegant, and high-intensity novella that takes us to the strange, haunted landscape of a high-tech future Vietnam for a study of hatred, compassion, betrayal, and redemption-and of the many different kinds of ghosts.
Lucius Shepard was one of the most popular, influential, and prolific of the new writers of the eighties and that decade and the decade that followed would see a steady stream of bizarre and powerfully compelling stories by Shepard, stories such as the landmark novella “R amp;R,” which won him a Nebula Award in 1987, “The Jaguar Hunter,” “Black Coral,” “A Spanish Lesson,” “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” “Shades,” “A Traveller’s Tale,” “Human History,” “How the Wind Spoke at Madaket,” “Beast of the Heartland,” “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter,” and “Barnacle Bill the Spacer,” which won him a Hugo Award in 1993. In 1988, he picked up a World Fantasy Award for his monumental short-story collectionThe Jaguar Hunter,following it in 1992 with a second World FantasyAward for his second collection, The Ends of the Earth.Shepard’s other books include the novels Green Eyes, Kalimantan,and The Golden.His most recent book is a new collection, Barnacle Bill the Spacer,and he’s currently at work on a mainstream novel, Family Values.Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, he now lives in Vancouver, Washington.

Several months before my thirteenth birthday, my mother visited me in a dream and explained why she had sent me to live with the circus seven years before. The dream was a Mitsubishi, I believe, its style that of the Moonflower series of bio-chips, which set the standard for pornography in those days; it had been programmed to activate once my testosterone production reached a certain level, and it featured a voluptuous Asian woman to whose body my mother had apparently grafted the image of her own face. I imagined she must have been in a desperate hurry and thus forced to use whatever materials fell to hand; yet, taking into account the Machiavellian intricacies of the family history, I later came to think that her decision to alter a pornographic chip might be intentional, designed to provoke Oedipal conflicts that would imbue her message with a heightened urgency.

In the dream, my mother told me that when I was eighteen I would come into the trust created by my maternal grandfather, a fortune that would make me the wealthiest man in Viet Nam. Were I to remain in her care, she feared my father would eventually coerce me into assigning control of the trust to him, whereupon he would have me killed. Sending me to live with her old friend Vang Ky was the one means she had of guaranteeing my safety. If all went as planned, I would have several years to consider whether it was in my best interests to claim the trust or to forswear it and continue my life in secure anonymity.

She had faith that Vang would educate me in a fashion that would prepare me to arrive at the proper decision.

Needless to say, I woke from the dream in tears. Vang had informed me not long after my arrival at his door that my mother was dead, and that my father was likely responsible for her death; but this fresh evidence of his perfidy, and of her courage and sweetness, mingled though it was with the confusions of intense eroticism, renewed my bitterness and sharpened my sense of loss. I sat the rest of the night with only the eerie music of tree frogs to distract me from despair, which roiled about in my brain as if it were a species of sluggish life both separate from and inimical to my own.

The next morning, I sought out Vang and told him of the dream and asked what I should do. He was sitting at the desk in the tiny cluttered trailer that served as his home and office, going over the accounts: a frail man in his late sixties with close-cropped gray hair, dressed in a white open-collared shirt and green cotton trousers. He had a long face-especially long from cheekbones to jaw-and an almost feminine delicacy of feature, a combination of characteristics that lent him a sly, witchy look; but though he was capable of slyness, and though at times I suspected him of possessing supernatural powers, at least as regards his ability to ferret out my misdeeds, I perceived him at the time to be an inwardly directed soul who felt misused by the world and whose only interests, apart from the circus, were a love of books and calligraphy. He would occasionally take a pipe of opium, but was otherwise devoid of vices, and it strikes me now that while he had told me of his family and his career in government (he said he still maintained those connections), of a life replete with joys and passionate errors, he was now in the process of putting all that behind him and withdrawing from the world of the senses.

“You must study the situation,” he said, shifting in his chair, a movement that shook the wall behind him, disturbing the leaflets stacked in the cabinet above his head and causing one to sail down toward the desk; he batted it away, and for an instant it floated in the air before me, as if held by the hand of a spirit, a detailed pastel rendering of a magnificent tent-a thousand times more magnificent than the one in which we performed-and a hand-lettered legend proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Radiant Green Star Circus.

“You must learn everything possible about your father and his associates,” he went on. “Thus you will uncover his weaknesses and define his strengths. But first and foremost, you must continue to live. The man you become will determine how best to use the knowledge you have gained, and you mustn’t allow the pursuit of your studies to rise to the level of obsession, or else his judgment will be clouded. Of course, this is easier to do in theory than in practice. But if you set about it in a measured way, you will succeed.”

I asked how I should go about seeking the necessary information, and he gestured with his pen at another cabinet, one with a glass front containing scrapbooks and bundles of computer paper; beneath it, a marmalade cat was asleep atop a broken radio, which-along with framed photographs of his wife, daughter, and grandson, all killed, he’d told me, in an airline accident years before-rested on a chest of drawers.

“Start there,” he said. “When you are done with those, my friends in the government will provide us with your father’s financial records and other materials.”

I took a cautious step toward the cabinet-stacks of magazines and newspapers and file boxes made the floor of the trailer difficult to negotiate-but Vang held up a hand to restrain me. “First,” he said, “you must live. We will put aside a few hours each day for you to study, but before all else you are a member of my troupe. Do your chores. Afterward we will sit down together and make a schedule.”

On the desk, in addition to his computer, were a cup of coffee topped with a mixture of sugar and egg, and a plastic dish bearing several slices of melon. He offered me a slice and sat with his hands steepled on his stomach, watching me eat. “Would you like time alone to honor your mother?” he asked. “I suppose we can manage without you for a morning.”

“Not now,” I told him. “Later, though…”

I finished the melon, laid the rind on his plate, and turned to the door, but he called me back.

“Philip,” he said, “I cannot remedy the past, but I can assure you to a degree as to the future. I have made you my heir. One day the circus will be yours. Everything I own will be yours.”

I peered at him, not quite certain that he meant what he said, even though his words had been plain.

“It may not seem a grand gift,” he said. “But perhaps you will discover that it is more than it appears.”

I thanked him effusively, but he grimaced and waved me to silence-he was not comfortable with displays of affection. Once again he told me to see to my chores.

“Attend to the major as soon as you’re able,” he said. “He had a difficult night. I know he would be grateful for your company.”

Radiant Green Star was not a circus in the tradition of the spectacular traveling shows of the previous century. During my tenure, we never had more than eight performers and only a handful of exhibits, exotics that had been genetically altered in some fashion: a pair of miniature tigers with hands instead of paws, a monkey with a vocabulary of thirty-seven words, and the like. The entertainments we presented were unsophisticated; we could not compete with those available in Hanoi or Hue or Saigon, or, for that matter, those accessible in the villages. But the villagers perceived us as a link to a past they revered, and found in the crude charm of our performances a sop to their nostalgia-it was as if we carried the past with us, and we played to that illusion, keeping mainly to rural places that appeared on the surface to be part of another century. Even when the opportunity arose, Vang refused to play anywhere near large population centers because-he said-of the exorbitant bribes and licensing fees demanded by officials in such areas. Thus for the first eighteen years of my life, I did not venture into a city, and I came to know my country much as a tourist might, driving ceaselessly through it, isolated within the troupe. We traversed the north and central portions of Viet Nam in three battered methane-powered trucks, one of which towed Vang’s trailer, and erected our tents in pastures and school yards and soccer fields, rarely staying anywhere longer than a few nights. On occasion, to accommodate a private celebration sponsored by a wealthy family, we would join forces with another troupe; but Vang was reluctant to participate in such events, because being surrounded by so many people caused our featured attraction to become agitated, thus imperiling his fragile health.

Even today the major remains a mystery to me. I have no idea if he was who he claimed to be; nor, I think, didhe know-his statements concerning identity were usually vague and muddled, and the only point about which he was firm was that he had been orphaned as a young boy, raised by an uncle and aunt, and, being unmarried, was the last of his line. Further, it’s unclear whether his claims were the product of actual memory, delusion, or implantation. For the benefit of our audiences, we let them stand as truth, and billed him as Major Martin Boyette, the last surviving POW of the American War, now well over a hundred years old and horribly disfigured, both conditions the result of experiments in genetic manipulation by means of viruses-this the opinion of a Hanoi physician who treated the major during a bout of illness. Since such unregulated experiments were performed with immoderate frequency throughout Southeast Asia after the turn of the century, it was not an unreasonable conclusion. Major Boyette himself had no recollection of the process that had rendered him so monstrous and-if one were to believe him-so long-lived.

We were camped that day near the village of Cam Lo, and the tent where the major was quartered had been set up at the edge of the jungle. He liked the jungle, liked its noise and shadow, the sense of enclosure it provided-he dreaded the prospect of being out in the open, so much so that whenever we escorted him to the main tent, we would walk with him, holding umbrellas to prevent him from seeing the sky and to shield him from the sight of god and man. But once inside the main tent, as if the formal structure of a performance neutralized his aversion to space and scrutiny, he showed himself pridefully, walking close to the bleachers, causing children to shy away and women to cover their eyes. His skin hung from his flesh in voluminous black folds (he was African-American), and when he raised his arms, the folds beneath them spread like the wings of a bat; his face, half-hidden by a layering of what appeared to be leather shawls, was the sort of uncanny face one might see emerging from a whorled pattern of bark, roughly human in form, yet animated by a force that seems hotter than the human soul, less self-aware. Bits of phosphorescence drifted in the darks of his eyes. His only clothing was a ragged gray shift, and he hobbled along with the aid of a staff cut from a sapling papaya-he might have been a prophet escaped after a term in hell, charred and magical and full of doom. But when he began to speak, relating stories from the American War, stories of ill-fated Viet Cong heroes and the supernatural forces whose aid they enlisted, all told in a deep rasping voice, his air of suffering and menace evaporated, and his ugliness became an intrinsic article of his power, as though he were a poet who had sacrificed superficial glamor for the ability to express more eloquently the beauty within. The audiences were won over, their alarm transformed to delight, and they saluted him with enthusiastic applaus e…but they never saw him as I did that morning: a decrepit hulk given to senile maundering and moments of bright terror when startled by a sound from outside the tent. Sitting in his own filth, too weak or too uncaring to move.

When I entered the tent, screwing up my face against the stench, he tucked his head into his shoulder and tried to shroud himself in the fetid folds of his skin. I talked softly, gentling him as I might a frightened animal, in order to persuade him to stand. Once he had heaved up to his feet, I bathed him, sloshing buckets of water over his convulsed surfaces; when at length I was satisfied that I’d done my best, I hauled in freshly cut boughs and made him a clean place to sit. Unsteadily, he lowered himself onto the boughs and started to eat from the bowl of rice and vegetables I had brought for his breakfast, using his fingers to mold bits of food into a ball and inserting it deep into his mouth-he often had difficulty swallowing.

“Is it good?” I asked. He made a growly noise of affirmation. In the half-dark, I could see the odd points of brilliance in his eyes.

I hated taking care of the major (this may have been the reason Vang put me in charge of him). His physical state repelled me, and though the American War had long since ceased to be a burning issue, I resented his purported historical reality-being half American, half Vietnamese, I felt doubly afflicted by the era he represented. But that morning, perhaps because my mother’s message had inoculated me against my usual prejudices, he fascinated me. It was like watching a mythological creature feed, a chimera or a manticore, and I thought I perceived in him the soul of the inspired storyteller, the luminous half-inch of being that still burned behind the corroded ruin of his face.

“Do you know who I am?” I asked.

He swallowed and gazed at me with those haunted foxfire eyes. I repeated the question.

“Philip,” he said tonelessly, giving equal value to both syllables, as if the name were a word he’d been taught but did not understand.

I wondered if he was-as Vang surmised-an ordinary man transformed into a monster, pumped full of glorious tales and false memories, all as a punishment for some unguessable crime or merely on a cruel whim. Or might he actuallybe who he claimed? A freak of history, a messenger from another time whose stories contained some core truth, just as the biochip had contained my mother’s truth? All I knew for certain was that Vang had bought him from another circus, and that his previous owner had found him living in the jungle in the province of Quan Tri, kept alive by the charity of people from a nearby village who considered him the manifestation of a spirit.

Once he had finished his rice, I asked him to tell me about the war, and he launched into one of his mystical tales; but I stopped him, saying, “Tell me about the real war. The war you fought in.”

He fell silent, and when at last he spoke, it was not in the resonant tones with which he entertained our audiences, but in an effortful whisper.

“We came to the firebase in…company strength. Tenth of May. Nineteen sixty-seven. The engineers had just finished construction and…and…there was still…” He paused to catch his breath. “The base was near the Laotian border. Overlooking a defoliated rubber plantation. Nothing but bare red earth in front of us…and wire. But at our rear…the jungle…it was too close. They brought in artillery to clear it.

Lowered the batteries to full declension. The trees all toppled in the same direction…as if they’d been pushed down by the sweep…of an invisible hand.”

His delivery, though still labored, grew less halting, and he made feeble gestures to illustrate the tale, movements that produced a faint slithering as folds of his skin rubbed together; the flickerings in his pupils grew more and more pronounced, and I half-believed his eyes were openings onto a battlefield at night, a place removed from us by miles and time.

“Because of the red dirt, the base was designated Firebase Ruby. But the dirt wasn’t the color of rubies, it was the red of drying blood. For months we held the position with only token resistance. We’d expected serious opposition, and it was strange to sit there day after day with nothing to do except send out routine patrols. I tried to maintain discipline, but it was an impossible task. Everyone malingered.

Drug use was rampant. If I’d gone by the book I could have brought charges against every man on the base. But what was the point? War was not truly being waged. We were engaged in a holding action.

Policy was either directionless or misguided. And so I satisfied myself by maintaining a semblance of discipline as the summer heat and the monsoon melted away the men’s resolve.

“October came, the rains slackened. There was no hint of increased enemy activity, but I had a feeling something big was on the horizon. I spoke to my battalion commander. He felt the same way. I was told we had intelligence suggesting that the enemy planned a fall and winter campaign building up to Tet. But no one took it seriously. I don’t think I took it seriously myself. I was a professional soldier who’d been sitting idle for six months, and I was spoiling for a fight. I was so eager for engagement I failed to exercise good judgment. I ignored the signs, I…I refused…I…”

He broke off and pawed at something above him in the air-an apparition, perhaps; then he let out an anguished cry, covered his face with his hands, and began to shake like a man wracked by fever.

I sat with him until, exhausted, he lapsed into a fugue, staring dully at the ground. He was so perfectly still, if I had come across him in the jungle, I might have mistaken him for a root system that had assumed a hideous anthropomorphic shape. Only the glutinous surge of his breath opposed this impression. I didn’t know what to think of his story. The plain style of its narration had been markedly different from that of his usual stories, and this lent it credibility; yet I recalled that whenever questioned about his identity, he would respond in a similar fashion. However, the ambiguous character of his personal tragedy did not diminish my new fascination with his mystery. It was as if I had been dusting a vase that rested on my mantelpiece, and, for the first time, I’d turned it over to inspect the bottom and found incised there a labyrinthine design, one that drew my eye inward along its black circuit, promising that should I be able to decipher the hidden character at its center, I would be granted a glimpse of something ultimately bleak and at the same time ultimately alluring. Not a secret, but rather the source of secrets. Not truth, but the ground upon which truth and its opposite were raised. I was a mere child-half a child, at any rate-thus I have no real understanding of how I arrived at this recognition, illusory though it may have been. But I can state with absolute surety why it seemed important at the time: I had a powerful sense of connection with the major, and, accompanying this, the presentiment that his mystery was somehow resonant with my own.

Except for my new program of study, researching my father’s activities, and the enlarged parameters of my relationship with Major Boyette, whom I visited whenever I had the opportunity, over the next several years my days were much the same as ever, occupied by touring, performing (I functioned as a clown and an apprentice knife thrower), by all the tediums and pleasures that arose from life in Radiant Green Star. There were, of course, other changes. Vang grew increasingly frail and withdrawn, the major’s psychological state deteriorated, and four members of the troupe left and were replaced. We gained two new acrobats, Kim and Kai, pretty Korean sisters aged seven and ten respectively-orphans trained by another circus-and Tranh, a middle-aged, moonfaced man whose potbelly did not hamper in the slightest his energetic tumbling and pratfalls. But to my mind, the most notable of the replacements was Vang’s niece, Tan, a slim, quiet girl from Hue with whom I immediately fell in love.

Tan was nearly seventeen when she joined us, a year older than I, an age difference that seemed unbridgeable to my teenage sensibilities. Her shining black hair hung to her waist, her skin was the color of sandalwood dusted with gold, and her face was a perfect cameo in which the demure and the sensual com-mingled. Her father had been in failing health, and both he and his wife had been uploaded into a virtual community hosted by the Sony AI-Tan had then become her uncle’s ward. She had no actual performing skills, but dressed in glittery revealing costumes, she danced and took part in comic skits and served as one of the targets for our knife thrower, a taciturn young man named Dat who was billed as James Bond Cochise. Dat’s other target, Mei, a chunky girl of Taiwanese extraction who also served as the troupe’s physician, having some knowledge of herbal medicine, would come prancing out and stand at the board, and Dat would plant his knives within a centimeter of her flesh; but when Tan took her place, he would exercise extreme caution and set the knives no closer than seven or eight inches away, a contrast that amused our audiences no end.

For months after her arrival, I hardly spoke to Tan, and then only for some utilitarian purpose; I was too shy to manage a normal conversation. I wished with all my heart that I was eighteen and a man, with the manly confidence that, I assumed, naturally flowed from having attained the age. As things stood I was condemned by my utter lack of self-confidence to admire her from afar, to imagine conversations and other intimacies, to burn with all the frustration of unrequited lust. But then, one afternoon, while I sat in the grass outside Vang’s trailer, poring over some papers dealing with my father’s investments, she approached, wearing loose black trousers and a white blouse, and asked what I was doing.

“I see you reading every day,” she said. “You are so dedicated to your studies. Are you preparing for the university?”

We had set up our tents outside Bien Pho, a village some sixty miles south of Hanoi, on the grassy bank of a wide, meandering river whose water showed black beneath a pewter sky. Dark green conical hills with rocky out-cropping hemmed in the spot, and it was shaded here and there by smallish trees with crooked trunks and puffs of foliage at the ends of their corkscrew branches. The main tent had been erected at the base of the nearest hill and displayed atop it a pennant bearing the starry emblem of our troupe. Everyone else was inside, getting ready for the night’s performance. It was a brooding yet tranquil scene, like a painting on an ancient Chinese scroll, but I noticed none of it-the world had shrunk to the bubble of grass and air that enclosed the two of us.

Tan sat beside me, crossed her legs in a half-lotus, and I caught her scent. Not perfume, but the natural musky yield of her flesh. I did my best to explain the purpose of my studies, the words rushing out as if I were unburdening myself of an awful secret. Which was more-or-less the case. No one apart from Vang knew what I was doing, and because his position relative to the task was tutelary, not that of a confidante, I felt oppressed, isolated by the responsibility I bore. Now it seemed that by disclosing the sad facts bracketing my life, I was acting to reduce their power over me. And so, hoping to exorcise them completely, I told her about my father.

“His name is William Ferrance,” I said, hastening to add that I’d taken Ky for my own surname. “His father emigrated to Asia in the Nineties, during the onset ofdoi moi (this the Vietnamese equivalent ofperestroika), and made a fortune in Saigon, adapting fleets of taxis to methane power. His son-my father-expanded the family interests. He invested in a number of construction projects, all of which lost money. He was in trouble financially when he married my mother, and he used her money to fund a casino in Danang. That allowed him to recoup most of his losses. Since then, he’s established connections with the triads, Malaysian gambling syndicates, and the Bamboo Union in Taiwan. He’s become an influential man, but his money’s tied up. He has no room to maneuver. Should he gain control of my grandfather’s estate, he’ll be a very dangerous man.”

“But this is so impersonal,” Tan said. “Have you no memories of him?”

“Hazy ones,” I said. “From all I can gather, he never took much interest in me…except as a potential tool. The truth is, I can scarcely remember my mother. Just the occasional moment. How she looked standing at a window. The sound of her voice when she sang. And I have a general impression of the person she was. Nothing more.”

Tan looked off toward the river; some of the village children were chasing each other along the bank, and a cargo boat with a yellow sail was coming into view around the bend. “I wonder,” she said. “Is it worse to remember those who’ve gone, or not to remember them?”

I guessed she was thinking about her parents, and I wanted to say something helpful, but the concept of uploading an intelligence, a personality, was so foreign to me, I was afraid of appearing foolish.

“I can see my mother and father whenever I want,” Tan said, lowering her gaze to the grass. “I can go to a Sony office anywhere in the world and summon them with a code. When they appear they look like themselves, they sound like themselves, but I know it’s not them. The things they say are always…appropriate. But something is missing. Some energy, some quality.” She glanced up at me, and, looking into her beautiful dark eyes, I felt giddy, almost weightless. “Something dies,” she went on. “I know it! We’re not just electrical impulses, we can’t be sucked up into a machine and live. Something dies, something important. What goes into the machine is nothing. It’s only a colored shadow of what we are.”

“I don’t have much experience with computers,” I said.

“But you’ve experienced life!” She touched the back of my hand. “Can’t you feel it within you? I don’t know what to call it…a soul? I don’t know…”

It seemed then I could feel the presence of the thing she spoke of moving in my chest, my blood, going all through me, attached to my mind, my flesh, by an unfathomable connection, existing inside me the way breath exists inside a flute, breeding the brief, pretty life of a note, a unique tone, and then passing on into the ocean of the air. Whenever I think of Tan, how she looked that morning, I’m able to feel that delicate, tremulous thing, both temporary and eternal, hovering in the same space I occupy.

“This is too serious,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’ve been thinking about my parents more than I should.” She shook back the fall of her hair, put on a smile. “Do you play chess?”

“No,” I admitted.

“You must learn! A knowledge of the game will help if you intend to wage war against your father.” A regretful expression crossed her face, as if she thought she’d spoken out of turn. “Even if you don’t…I mean…” Flustered, she waved her hands to dispel the awkwardness of the moment. “It’s fun,” she said.

“I’ll teach you.”

I did not make a good chess player, I was far too distracted by the presence of my teacher to heed her lessons. But I’m grateful to the game, for through the movements of knights and queens, through my clumsiness and her patience, through hours of sitting with our heads bent close together, our hearts grew close. We were never merely friends-from that initial conversation on, it was apparent that we would someday take the next step in exploring our relationship, and I rarely felt any anxiety in this regard; I knew that when Tan was ready, she would tell me. For the time being, we enjoyed a kind of amplified friendship, spending our leisure moments together, our physical contact limited to hand-holding and kisses on the cheek. This is not to say that I always succeeded in conforming to those limits. Once as we lay atop Vang’s trailer, watching the stars, I was overcome by her scent, the warmth of her shoulder against mine, and I propped myself up on an elbow and kissed her on the mouth. She responded, and I stealthily unbuttoned her blouse, exposing her breasts. Before I could proceed further, she sat bolt upright, holding her blouse closed, and gave me a injured look; then she slid down from the trailer and walked off into the dark, leaving me in a state of dismay and painful arousal. I slept little that night, worried that I had done permanent damage to the relationship; but the next day she acted as if nothing had happened, and we went on as before, except that I now wanted her more than ever.

Vang, however, was not so forgiving. How he knew I had taken liberties with his niece, I’m not sure-it may have been simply an incidence of his intuitive abilities; I cannot imagine that Tan told him. Whatever his sources, after our performance the next night he came into the main tent where I was practicing with my knives, hurling them into a sheet of plywood upon which the red outline of a human figure had been painted, and asked if my respect for him had dwindled to the point that I would dishonor his sister’s daughter.

He was sitting in the first row of the bleachers, leaning back, resting his elbows on the row behind him, gazing at me with distaste. I was infuriated by this casual indictment, and rather than answer immediately I threw another knife, placing it between the outline’s arm and its waist. I walked to the board, yanked the blade free, and said without turning to him, “I haven’t dishonored her.”

“But surely that is your intent,” he said.

Unable to contain my anger, I spun about to face him. “Were you never young? Have you never been in love?”

“Love.” He let out a dry chuckle. “If you are in love, perhaps you would care to enlighten me as to its nature.”

I would have liked to tell him how I felt about Tan, to explain the sense of security I found with her, the varieties of tenderness, the niceties of my concern for her, the thousand nuances of longing, the intricate complicity of our two hearts and the complex specificity of my desire, for though I wanted to lose myself in the turns of her body, I also wanted to celebrate her, enliven her, to draw out of her the sadness that sometimes weighed her down, and to have her leach my sadness from me as well-I knew this was possible for us. But I was too young and too angry to articulate these things.

“Do you love your mother?” Vang asked, and before I could respond, he said, “You have admitted that you have but a few disjointed memories of her. And, of course, a dream. Yet you have chosen to devote yourself to pursuing the dictates of that dream, to making a life that honors your mother’s wishes. That is love. How can you compare this to your infatuation with Tan?”

Frustrated, I cast my eyes up to the billow of patched gray canvas overhead, to the metal rings at the peak from which Kai and Kim were nightly suspended. When I looked back to Vang, I saw that he had gotten to his feet.

“Think on it,” he said. “If the time comes when you can regard Tan with the same devotion, well…” He made a subtle dismissive gesture with his fingers that suggested this was an unlikely prospect.

I turned to the board and hefted another knife. The target suddenly appeared evil in its anonymity, a dangerous creature with a wood-grain face and bloodred skin, and as I drew back my arm, my anger at Vang merged with the greater anger I felt at the anonymous forces that had shaped my life, and I buried the knife dead center of the head-it took all my strength to work the blade free. Glancing up, I was surprised to see Vang watching from the entrance. I had assumed that, having spoken his piece, he had returned to his trailer. He stood there for a few seconds, giving no overt sign of his mood, but I had the impression he was pleased.

When she had no other duties, Tan would assist me with my chores: feeding the exotics, cleaning out their cages, and, though she did not relish his company, helping me care for the major. I must confess I was coming to enjoy my visits with him less and less; I still felt a connection to him, and I remained curious as to the particulars of his past, but his mental slippage had grown so pronounced, it was difficult to be around him. Frequently he insisted on trying to relate the story of Firebase Ruby, but he always lapsed into terror and grief at the same point he had previously broken off the narrative. It seemed that this was a tale he was making up, not one he had been taught or programmed to tell, and that his mind was no longer capable of other than fragmentary invention. But one afternoon, as we were finishing up in his tent, he began to tell the story again, this time starting at the place where he had previously faltered, speaking without hesitancy in the deep, raspy voice he used while performing.

“It came to be October,” he said. “The rains slackened, the snakes kept to their holes during the day, and the spiderwebs were not so thick with victims as they’d been during the monsoon. I began to have a feeling that something ominous was on the horizon, and when I communicated this sense of things to my superiors, I was told that according to intelligence, an intensification of enemy activity was expected, leading up to what was presumed to be a major offensive during the celebration of Tet. But I gave no real weight to either my feeling or to the intelligence reports. I was a professional soldier, and for six months I’d been engaged in nothing more than sitting in a bunker and surveying a wasteland of red dirt and razor wire. I was spoiling for a fight.”

He was sitting on a nest of palm fronds, drenched in a spill of buttery light-we had partially unzipped the roof of the tent in order to increase ventilation-and it looked as if the fronds were an island adrift in a dark void and he a spiritual being who had been scorched and twisted by some cosmic fire, marooned in eternal emptiness.

“The evening of the Fourteenth, I sent out the usual patrols and retired to my bunker. I sat at my desk reading a paperback novel and drinking whiskey. After a time, I put down the book and began a letter to my wife. I was tipsy, and instead of the usual sentimental lines designed to make her feel secure, I let my feelings pour onto the paper, writing about the lack of discipline, my fears concerning the enemy, my disgust at the way the war was being prosecuted. I told her how much I hated Viet Nam. The ubiquitous corruption, the stupidity of the South Vietnamese government. The smell of fish sauce, the poisonous greens of the jungle. Everything. The goddamn place had been a battlefield so long, it was good for nothing else. I kept drinking, and the liquor eroded my remaining inhibitions. I told her about the treachery and ineptitude of the ARVN forces, about the fuckups on our side who called themselves generals.”

“I was still writing when, around twenty-one hundred hours, something distracted me. I’m not sure what it was. A noise…or maybe a vibration. But I knew something had happened. I stepped out into the corridor and heard a cry. Then the crackling of small arms fire. I grabbed my rifle and ran outside. The VC were inside the wire. In the perimeter lights I saw dozens of diminutive men and women in black pajamas scurrying about, white stars sputtering from the muzzles of their weapons. I cut down several of them. I couldn’t think how they had gotten through the wire and the minefields without alerting the sentries, but then, as I continued to fire, I spotted a man’s head pop up out of the ground and realized that they had tunneled in. All that slow uneventful summer, they’d been busy beneath the surface of the earth, secretive as termites.”

At this juncture the major fell prey once again to emotional collapse, and I prepared myself for the arduous process of helping him recover; but Tan kneeled beside him, took his hand, and said, “Martin?

Martin, listen to me.”

No one ever used the major’s Christian name, except to introduce him to an audience, and I didn’t doubt that it had been a long time since a woman had addressed him with tenderness. He abruptly stopped his shaking, as if the nerves that had betrayed him had been severed, and stared wonderingly at Tan. White pinprick suns flickered and died in the deep places behind his eyes.

“Where are you from, Martin?” she asked, and the major, in a dazed tone, replied, “Oakland…Oakland, California. But I was born up in Santa Cruz.”

“Santa Cruz.” Tan gave the name a bell-like reading. “Is it beautiful in Santa Cruz? It sounds like a beautiful place.”

“Yeah…it’s kinda pretty. There’s old-growth redwoods not far from town. And there’s the ocean. It’s real pretty along the ocean.”

To my amazement, Tan and the major began to carry on a coherent-albeit simplistic-conversation, and I realized that he had never spoken in this fashion before. His syntax had an uncustomary informality, and his voice held the trace of an accent. I thought that Tan’s gentle approach must have penetrated his tormented psyche, either reaching the submerged individual, the real Martin Boyette, or else encountering a fresh layer of delusion. It was curious to hear him talk about such commonplace subjects as foggy weather and jazz music and Mexican food, all of which he claimed could be found in good supply in Santa Cruz. Though his usual nervous tics were in evidence, a new placidity showed in his face. But, of course this state of affairs didn’t last.

“I can’t,” he said, taking a sudden turn from the subject at hand; he shook his head, dragging folds of skin across his neck and shoulders, “I can’t go back anymore. I can’t go back there.”

“Don’t be upset, Martin,” Tan said. “There’s no reason for you to worry. We’ll stay with you, we’ll…”

“I don’t want you to stay.” He tucked his head into his shoulder so his face was hidden by a bulge of skin. “I got to get back doin’ what I was doin’.”

“What’s that?” I asked him. “What were you doing?”

A muffled rhythmic grunting issued from his throat-laughter that went on too long to be an expression of simple mirth. It swelled in volume, trebled in pitch, becoming a signature of instability.

“I’m figurin’ it all out,” he said. “That’s what I’m doin’. Jus’ you go away now.”

“Figuring out what?” I asked, intrigued by the possibility-however unlikely-that the major might have a mental life other than the chaotic, that his apparent incoherence was merely an incidental byproduct of concentration, like the smoke that rises from a leaf upon which a beam of sunlight has been focused.

He made no reply, and Tan touched my hand, signaling that we should leave. As I ducked through the tent flap, behind me the major said, “I can’t go back there, and I can’t be here. So jus’ where’s that leave me, y’know?”

Exactly what the major meant by this cryptic statement was unclear, but his words stirred something in me, reawakened me to internal conflicts that had been pushed aside by my studies and my involvement with Tan. When I had arrived to take up residence at Green Star, I was in a state of emotional upheaval, frightened, confused, longing for my mother. Yet even after I calmed down, I was troubled by the feeling that I had lost my place in the world, and it seemed this was not just a consequence of having been uprooted from my family, but that I had always felt this way, that the turbulence of my emotions had been a cloud obscuring what was a constant strain in my life. This was due in part to my mixed heritage.

Though the taint associated with the children of Vietnamese mothers and American fathers (dust children, they had once been called) had dissipated since the end of the war, it had not done so entirely, and wherever the circus traveled. I would encounter people who, upon noticing the lightness of my skin and the shape of my eyes, expressed scorn and kept their distance. Further fueling this apprehension was the paucity of my memories deriving from the years before I had come to live with Vang. Whenever Tan spoke about her childhood, she brought up friends, birthdays, uncles and cousins, trips to Saigon, dances, hundreds of details and incidents that caused my own memory to appear grossly underpopulated by comparison. Trauma was to blame, I reckoned. The shock of my mother’s abandonment, however well-intended, had ripped open my mental storehouse and scattered the contents. That and the fact that I had been six when I left home and thus hadn’t had time to accumulate the sort of cohesive memories that lent color to Tan’s stories of Hue. But explaining it away did not lessen my discomfort, and I became fixated on the belief that no matter the nature of the freakish lightning that had sheared away my past, I would never find a cure for the sense of dislocation it had provoked, only medicines that would suppress the symptoms and mask the disease-and, that being so masked, it would grow stronger, immune to treatment, until eventually I would be possessed by it, incapable of feeling at home anywhere.

I had no remedy for these anxieties other than to throw myself with greater intensity into my studies, and with this increase in intensity came a concomitant increase in anger. I would sit at Vang’s computer, gazing at photographs of my father, imagining violent resolutions to our story. I doubted that he would recognize me; I favored my mother and bore little resemblance to him, a genetic blessing for which I was grateful: he was not particularly handsome, though he was imposing, standing nearly six and a half feet tall and weighing-according to a recent medical report-two hundred and sixty-four pounds, giving the impression not of a fat man, but a massive one. His large squarish head was kept shaved, and on his left cheek was the dark blue and green tattoo of his corporate emblem-a flying fish-ringed by three smaller tattoos denoting various of his business associations. At the base of his skull was an oblong silver plate beneath which lay a number of ports allowing him direct access to a computer. Whenever he posed for a picture, he affected what I assumed he would consider a look of hauteur, but the smallness of his eyes (grayish blue) and nose and mouth in contrast to the largeness of his face caused them to be limited in their capacity to convey character and emotional temperature, rather like the features on a distant planet seen through a telescope, and as a result this particular expression came across as prim. In less formal photographs, taken in the company of one or another of his sexual partners, predominantly women, he was quite obviously intoxicated.

He owned an old French Colonial in Saigon, but spent the bulk of his time at his house in Binh Khoi, one of the flower towns-communities built at the turn of the century, intended to provide privacy and comfort for well-to-do Vietnamese whose sexual preferences did not conform to communist morality.

Now that communism-if not the concept of sexual morality itself-had become quaint, a colorful patch of history dressed up with theme-park neatness to amuse the tourists, it would seem that these communities no longer had any reason to exist; yet exist they did. Their citizenry had come to comprise a kind of gay aristocracy that defined styles, set trends, and wielded significant political power. Though they maintained a rigid exclusivity, and though my father’s bisexuality was motivated to a great degree-I believe-by concerns of business and status, he had managed to cajole and bribe his way into Binh Khoi, and as best I could determine, he was sincere in his attachment to the place.

The pictures taken at Binh Khoi rankled me the most-I hated to see him laughing and smiling. I would stare at those photographs, my emotions over-heating, until it seemed I could focus rage into a beam and destroy any object upon which I turned my gaze. My eventual decision, I thought, would be easy to make. Anger and history, the history of his violence and greed, were making it for me, building a spiritual momentum impossible to stop. When the time came, I would avenge my mother and claim my inheritance. I knew exactly how to go about the task. My father feared no one less powerful than himself-if such a person moved against him, they would be the target of terrible reprisals-and he recognized the futility of trying to fend off an assassination attempt by anyone more powerful; thus his security was good, yet not impenetrable. The uniqueness of my situation lay in the fact that if I were able to kill him, I would as a consequence become more powerful than he or any of his connections; and so, without the least hesitancy, I began to plan his murder both in Binh Khoi and Saigon-I had schematics detailing the security systems of both homes. But in the midst of crafting the means of his death, I lost track of events that were in the process of altering the conditions attendant upon my decision.

One night not long after my seventeenth birthday, I was working at the computer in the trailer, when Vang entered and lowered himself carefully in the chair opposite me, first shooing away the marmalade cat who had been sleeping there. He wore a threadbare gray cardigan and the striped trousers from an old suit, and carried a thin folder bound in plastic. I was preoccupied with tracking my father’s movements via his banking records and I acknowledged Vang’s presence with a nod. He sat without speaking a while and finally said, “Forgive my intrusion, but would you be so kind as to allow me a minute of your time.”

I realized he was angry, but my own anger took precedence. It was not just that I was furious with my father; I had grown weary of Vang’s distant manner, his goading, his incessant demands for respect in face of his lack of respect for me. “What do you want?” I asked without looking away from the screen.

He tossed the folder onto the desk. “Your task has become more problematic.”

The folder contained the personnel file of an attractive woman named Phuong Anh Nguyen whom my father had hired as a bodyguard. Much of the data concerned her considerable expertise with weapons and her reaction times, which were remarkable-it was apparent that she had been bred for her occupation, genetically enhanced. According to the file her senses were so acute, she could detect shifts in the heat patterns of the brain, subtle changes in blood pressure, heart rate, pupillary dilation, speech, all the telltales that would betray the presence of a potential assassin. The information concerning her personal life was skimpy. Though Vietnamese, she had been born in China, and had spent her life until the age of sixteen behind the walls of a private security agency, where she had received her training.

Serving a variety of employers, she had killed sixteen men and women over the next five years. Several months before, she had bought out her contract from the security agency and signed on long-term with my father. Like him, she was bisexual, and, also like him, the majority of her partners were women.

I glanced up from the file to find Vang studying me with an expectant air. “Well,” he said, “what do you think?”

“She’s not bad-looking,” I said.

He folded his arms, made a disgusted noise.

“All right.” I turned the pages of the file. “My father’s upgrading his security. That means he’s looking ahead to bigger things. Preparing for the day when he can claim my trust.”

“Is that all you’re able to extract from the document?”

From outside came voices, laughter. They passed, faded. Mei, I thought, and Tranh. It was a cool night, the air heavy with the scent of rain. The door was cracked open, and I could see darkness and thin streamers of fog. “What else is there?” I asked.

“Use your mind, won’t you?” Vang let his head tip forward and closed his eyes-a formal notice of his exasperation. “Phuong would require a vast sum in order to pay off her contract. Several million, at least.

Her wage is a good one, but even if she lived in poverty, which she does not, it would take her a decade or more to save sufficient funds. Where might she obtain such a sum?”

I had no idea.

“From her new employer, of course,” Vang said.

“My father doesn’t have that kind of money lying around.”

“It seems he does. Only a very wealthy man could afford such a servant as Phuong Anh Nguyen.”

I took mental stock of my father’s finances, but was unable to recall an excess of cash.

“It’s safe to say the money did not come from your father’s business enterprises,” said Vang. “We have good information on them. So we may assume he either stole it or coerced someone else into stealing it.”

The cat jumped up into his lap, began kneading his abdomen. “Rather than taxing your brain further,” he went on, “I’ll tell you what I believe has happened. He’s tapped into your trust. It’s much too large to be managed by one individual, and it’s quite possible he’s succeeded in corrupting one of the officers in charge.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“No, but I intend to contact my government friends and suggest an investigation of the trust. If your father has done what I suspect, it will prevent him from doing more damage.” The cat had settled on his lap; he stroked its head. “But the trust is not the problem. Even if your father has stolen from it, he can’t have taken much more than was necessary to secure this woman’s services. Otherwise the man who gave me this”-he gestured at the folder-“would have detected evidence of other expenditures. There’ll be more than enough left to make you a powerful man. Phuong Anh Nguyen is the problem. You’ll have to kill her first.”

The loopy cry of a night bird cut the silence. Someone with a flashlight was crossing the pasture where the trailer rested, the beam of light slicing through layers of fog, sweeping over shrubs and patches of grass. I suggested that one woman shouldn’t pose that much of a problem, no matter how efficient she was at violence.

Vang closed his eyes again. “You have not witnessed this kind of professional in action. They’re fearless, totally dedicated to their work. They develop a sixth sense concerning their clients; they bond with them.

You’ll need to be circumspect in dealing with her.”

“Perhaps she’s beyond my capacity to deal with,” I said after a pause. “Perhaps I’m simply too thickheaded. I should probably let it all go and devote myself to Green Star.”

“Do as you see fit.”

Vang’s expression did not shift from its stoiccast, but it appeared to harden, and I could tell that he was startled. I instructed the computer to sleep and leaned back, bracing one foot against the side of the desk. “There’s no need for pretense,” I said. “I know you want me to kill him. I just don’t understand why.”

I waited for him to respond, and when he did not, I said, “You were my mother’s friend-that’s reason enough to wish him dead, I suppose. But I’ve never felt that you weremy friend. You’ve given me…everything. Life. A place to live. A purpose. Yet whenever I try to thank you, you dismiss it out of hand. I used to think this was because you were shy, because you were embarrassed by displays of emotion. Now, I’m not sure. Sometimes it seems you find my gratitude repugnant…or embarrassing in a way that has nothing to do with shyness. It’s as if”-I struggled to collect my thoughts “-as if you have some reason for hating my father that you haven’t told me. One you’re ashamed to admit. Or maybe it’s something else, some piece of information you have that gives you a different perspective on the situation.”

Being honest with him was both exhilarating and frightening-I felt as though I were violating a taboo-and after this speech I was left breathless and disoriented, unsure of everything I’d said, though I’d been thoroughly convinced of its truth when I said it. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’ve no right to doubt you.”

He started to make a gesture of dismissal such as was his habit when uncomfortable with a conversation, but caught himself and petted the cat instead. “Despite the differences in our stations, I was very close to your mother,” he said. “And to your grandfather. No longer having a family of my own, I made them into a surrogate. When they died, one after the other…you see, your grandfather’s presence, his wealth, protected your mother, and once he was gone, your father had no qualms against misusing her.” He blew out a breath, like a horse, through his lips. “When they died, I lost my heart. I’d lost so much already, I was unable to bear the sorrow I felt. I retreated from the world, I rejected my emotions. In effect, I shut myself down.” He put a hand to his forehead, covering his eyes. I could see he was upset, and I felt badly that I had caused these old griefs to wound him again. “I know you have suffered as a result,” he went on. “You’ve grown up without the affection of a parent, and that is a cruel condition. I wish I could change that. I wish I could change the way I am, but the idea of risking myself, of having everything ripped away from me a third time…it’s unbearable.” His hand began to tremble; he clenched it into a fist, pressed it against the bridge of his nose. “It is I who should apologize to you. Please, forgive me.”

I assured him that he need not ask for forgiveness, I honored and respected him. I had the urge to tell him I loved him, and at that moment I did-I believed now that in loving my family, in carrying out my mother’s wishes, he had established his love for me. Hoping to distract him from his grief, I asked him to tell me about my grandfather, a man concerning whom I knew next to nothing, only that he had been remarkably successful in business.

Vang seemed startled by the question, but after taking a second to compose himself, he said, “I’m not sure you would have approved of him. He was a strong man, and strong men often sacrifice much that ordinary men hold dear in order to achieve their ends. But he loved your mother, and he loved you.”

This was not the sort of detail I’d been seeking, but it was plain that Vang was still gripped by emotion, and I decided it would be best to leave him alone. As I passed behind him, I laid a hand on his shoulder.

He twitched, as if burned by the touch, and I thought he might respond by covering my hand with his own. But he only nodded and made a humming noise deep in his throat. I stood there for a few beats, wishing I could think of something else to say; then I bid him good night and went off into the darkness to look for Tan.

One morning, about a month after this conversation, in the little seaside town of Vung Tao, Dat quit the circus following an argument with Vang, and I was forced that same evening to assume the role of James Bond Cochise. The prospect of performing the entire act in public-I had previously made token appearances along with Dat-gave rise to some anxiety, but I was confident in my skill. Tan took in Dat’s tuxedo jacket a bit, so it would hang nicely, and helped me paint my face with Native American designs, and when Vang announced me, standing at the center of our single ring and extolling my legendary virtues into a microphone, I strode into the rich yellow glow of the tent, the warmth smelling of sawdust and cowshit (a small herd had been foraging on the spot before we arrived), with my arms overhead, flourishing the belt that held my hatchets and knives, and enjoying the applause. All seven rows of the bleachers were full, the audience consisting of resort workers, fishermen and their families, with a smattering of tourists, mainly backpackers, but also a group of immensely fat Russian women who had been transported from a hotel farther along the beach in cycles pedaled by diminutive Vietnamese men.

They were in a good mood, thanks to a comic skit in which Tan played a farm girl and Tranh a village buffoon hopelessly in love with her, his lust manifested by a telescoping rod that could spring outward to a length of fourteen inches and was belted to his hips beneath a pair of baggy trousers.

Mei, dressed in a red sequined costume that pushed up her breasts and squeezed the tops of her chubby thighs like sausage ends, assumed a spread-eagled position in front of the board, and the crowd fell silent. Sitting in a wooden chair at ring center, Vang switched on the music, the theme from a venerable James Bond film. I displayed a knife to the bleachers, took my mark, and sent the blade hurtling toward Mei, planting it solidly in the wood an inch above her head. The first four or five throws were perfect, outlining Mei’s head and shoulders. The crowd oohed and ahhed each time the blade sank into the board. Supremely confident now, I flung the knives as I whirled and ducked, pretending to dodge the gunshots embedded in the theme music, throwing from a crouch, on my stomach, leaping-but then I made the slightest of missteps, and the knife I hurled flashed so close to Mei, it nicked the fleshy portion of her upper arm. She shrieked and staggered away from the board, holding the injury. She remained stock-still for an instant, fixing me with a look of anguish, then bolted for the entrance. The crowd was stunned. Vang jumped up, the microphone dangling from his hand. For a second or two, I was rooted to the spot, not certain what to do. The bombastic music isolated me as surely as if it were a fence, and when Tranh shut it off, the fence collapsed, and I felt the pressure of a thousand eyes upon me. Unable to withstand it, I followed Mei out into the night.

The main tent had been erected atop a dune overlooking a bay and a stretch of sandy beach. It was a warm, windy night, and as I emerged from the tent the tall grasses cresting the dune were blown flat by a gust. From behind me, Vang’s amplified voice sounded above the rush of the wind and the heavier beat of the surf, urging the audience to stay seated, the show would continue momentarily. The moon was almost full, but it hung behind the clouds, edging an alp of cumulus with silver, and I couldn’t find Mei at first. Then the moon sailed clear, paving a glittering avenue across the black water, touching the plumes of combers with phosphorous, brightening the sand, and I spotted Mei-recognizable by her red costume-and two other figures on the beach some thirty feet below; they appeared to be ministering to her.

I started down the face of the dune, slipped in the loose sand and fell. As I scrambled to my feet, I saw Tan struggling up the slope toward me. She caught at the lapels of my tuxedo for balance, nearly causing me to fall again, and we swayed together; holding each other upright. She wore a nylon jacket over her costume, which was like Mei’s in every respect but one-it was a shade of peacock blue spangled with silver stars. Her shining hair was gathered at the nape of her neck, crystal earrings sparkled in the lobes of her ears, her dark eyes brimmed with light. She looked made of light, an illusion that would fade once the clouds regrouped about the moon. But the thing that most affected me was not her beauty. Moment to moment, that was something of which I was always aware, how she flowed between states of beauty, shifting from schoolgirl to seductress to serious young woman, and now this starry incarnation materialized before me, the devi of a world that existed only for this precise second…No, it was her calmness that affected me most. It poured over me, coursing around and through me, and even before she spoke, not mentioning what had happened to Mei, as if it were not a potentially fatal accident, a confidence-destroyer that would cause me to falter whenever I picked up a knife-even before that I was convinced by her unruffled manner that everything was as usual, there had been a slight disruption of routine, and now we should go back into the tent because Vang was running out of jokes to tell.

“Mei…” I said as we clambered over the crest of the dune, and Tan said, “It’s not even a scratch.” She took my arm and guided me toward the entrance, walking briskly yet unhurriedly.

I felt I’d been hypnotized-not by a sonorous voice or the pendulum swing of a shiny object, but by a heightened awareness of the ordinary, the steady pulse of time, all the background rhythms of the universe. I was filled with an immaculate calm, distant from the crowd and the booming music. It seemed that I wasn’t throwing the knives so much as I was fitting them into slots and letting the turning of the earth whisk them away to thud and quiver in the board, creating a figure of steel slightly larger than the figure of soft brown flesh and peacock blue silk it contained. Dat had never received such applause-I think the crowd believed Mei’s injury had been a trick designed to heighten suspense, and they showed their enthusiasm by standing as Tan and I took our bows and walked together through the entranceway.

Once outside, she pressed herself against me, kissed my cheek, and said she would see me later. Then she went off toward the rear of the tent to change for the finale.

Under normal circumstances, I would have gone to help with the major, but on this occasion, feeling disconnected and now, bereft of Tan’s soothing influence, upset at having injured Mei, I wandered along the top of the dune until I came to a gully choked with grasses that afforded protection from the wind, which was still gusting hard, filling the air with grit. I sat down amidst the grass and looked off along the curve of the beach. About fifteen meters to the north, the sand gave out into a narrow shingle and the land planed upward into low hills thick with vegetation. Half-hidden by the foliage was a row of small houses with sloping tiled roofs and open porches; they stood close to the sea, and chutes of yellow light spilled from their windows to illuminate the wavelets beneath. The moon was high, no longer silvery, resembling instead a piece of bloated bone china mottled with dark splotches, and, appearing to lie directly beneath it among a hammock of coconut palms was a pink stucco castle that guarded the point of the bay: the hotel where the tourists who had attended our performance were staying. I could make out antlike shapes scurrying back and forth on the brightly lit crescent of sand in front of it, and I heard a faint music shredded by the wind. The water beyond the break was black as opium.

My thoughts turned not to the accident with Mei, but to how I had performed with Tan. The act had passed quickly, a flurry of knives and light, yet now I recalled details: the coolness of the metal between my fingers; Vang watching anxiously off to the side; a fiery glint on a hatchet blade tumbling toward a spot between Tan’s legs. My most significant memory, however, was of her eyes. How they had seemed to beam instructions, orchestrating my movements, so forceful that I’d imagined she was capable of deflecting a blade if my aim proved errant. Given my emotional investment in her, my absolute faith-though we’d never discussed it-in our future together, it was easy to believe she had that kind of power over me. Easy to believe, and somewhat troublesome, for it struck me that we were not equals, we couldn’t be as long as she controlled every facet of the relationship. And having concluded this, as if the conclusion were the end of all possible logics concerning the subject, my mind slowed and became mired in despondency.

I’m not certain how long I had been sitting when Tan came walking down the beach, brushing windblown hair from her eyes. She had on a man’s short-sleeved shirt and a pair of loose-fitting shorts, and was carrying a blanket. I was hidden from her by the grass, and I was at such a remove from things, not comfortable with but accepting of my solitude, I was half-inclined to let her pass; but then she stopped and called my name, and I, by reflex, responded. She spotted me and picked up her pace. When she reached my side she said without a hint of reproval, merely as if stating a fact, “You went so far. I wasn’t sure I’d find you.” She spread the blanket on the sand and encouraged me to join her on it. I felt guilty at having had clinical thoughts about her and our relationship-to put this sort of practical construction on what I tended to view as a magical union, a thing of fate and dharma, seemed unworthy, and as a consequence I was at a loss for words. The wind began to blow in a long unbroken stream off the water, and she shivered. I asked if she would like to put on my tuxedo jacket. She said, “No.” The line of her mouth tightened, and with a sudden movement, she looked away from me, half-turning her upper body. I thought I must have done something to annoy her, and this so unnerved me, I didn’t immediately notice that she was unbuttoning her shirt. She shrugged out of it, held it balled against her chest for a moment, then set it aside; she glanced at me over her shoulder, engaging my eyes. I could tell her usual calm was returning-I could almost see her filling with it-and I realized then that this calmness of hers was not hers alone, it was ours, a byproduct of our trust in one another, and what had happened in the main tent had not been a case of her controlling me, saving me from panic, but had been the two of us channeling each other’s strength, converting nervousness and fear to certainty and precision. Just as we were doing now.

I kissed her mouth, her small breasts, exulting in their salty aftertaste of brine and dried sweat. Then I drew her down onto the blanket, and what followed, despite clumsiness and flashes of insecurity, was somehow both fierce and chaste, the natural culmination of two years of longing, of unspoken treaties and accommodations. Afterward, pressed together, wrapped in the silk and warmth of spent splendor, whispering the old yet never less than astonishing secrets and promises, saying things that had long gone unsaid, I remember thinking that I would do anything for her. This was not an abstract thought, not simply the atavistic reaction of a man new to a feeling of mastery, though I can’t deny that was in me-the sexual and the violent break from the same spring-but was an understanding founded on a considered appreciation of the trials I might have to overcome and the blood I might have to shed in order to keep her safe in a world where wife-murder was a crime for profit and patricide an act of self-defense. It’s strange to recall with what a profound sense of reverence I accepted the idea that I was now willing to engage in every sort of human behavior, ranging from the self-sacrificial to the self-gratifying to the perpetration of acts so abhorrent that, once committed, they would harrow me until the end of my days.

At dawn the clouds closed in, the wind died, and the sea lay flat. Now and again a weak sun penetrated the overcast, causing the water to glisten like an expanse of freshly applied gray paint. We climbed to the top of the dune and sat with our arms around each other, not wanting to return to the circus, to break the elastic of the long moment stretching backward into night. The unstirring grass, the energyless water and dead sky, made it appear that time itself had been becalmed. The beach in front of the pink hotel was littered with debris, deserted. You might have thought that our lovemaking had succeeded in emptying the world. But soon we caught sight of Tranh and Mei walking toward us across the dune, Kim and Kai skipping along behind. All were dressed in shorts and shirts, and Tranh carried a net shopping bag that-I saw as he lurched up, stumbling in the sand-contained mineral water and sandwiches.

“What have you kids been up to?” he asked, displaying an exaggerated degree of concern.

Mei punched him on the arm, and, after glancing back and forth between us, as if he suddenly understood the situation, Tranh put on a shocked face and covered his mouth with a hand. Giggling, Kai and Kim went scampering down onto the beach. Mei tugged at Tranh’s shirt, but he ignored her and sank onto his knees beside me. “I bet you’re hungry,” he said, and his round face was split by a gaptoothed grin. He thrust a sandwich wrapped in a paper napkin at me. “Better eat! You’re probably going to need your strength.”

With an apologetic look in Tan’s direction, Mei kneeled beside him; she unwrapped sandwiches and opened two bottles of water. She caught my eye, frowned, pointed to her arm, and shook her forefinger as she might have done with a mischievous child. “Next time don’t dance around so much,” she said, and pretended to sprinkle something on one of the sandwiches. “Or else one night I’ll put special herbs in your dinner.” Tranh kept peering at Tan, then at me, grinning, nodding, and finally, with a laugh, Tan pushed him onto his back. Down by the water Kai and Kim were tossing pebbles into the sea with girlish ineptitude. Mei called to them and they came running, their braids bouncing; they threw themselves bellyfirst onto the sand, squirmed up to sitting positions, and began gobbling sandwiches.

“Don’t eat so fast!” Mei cautioned. “You’ll get sick.”

Kim, the younger of the sisters, squinched her face at Mei and shoved half the sandwich into her mouth.

Tranh contorted his features so his lips nearly touched his nose, and Kim laughed so hard she sprayed bits of bread and fried fish. Tan told her that this was not ladylike. Both girls sat up straight, nibbled their sandwiches-they took it to heart whenever Tan spoke to them about being ladies.

“Didn’t you bring anything beside fish?” I asked, inspecting the filling of my sandwich.

“I guess we should have brought oysters,” said Tranh. “Maybe some rhinoceros horn, some…”

“That stuff’s for old guys like you,” I told him. “Me, I just need peanut butter.”

After we had done eating, Tranh lay back with his head in Mei’s lap and told a story about a talking lizard that had convinced a farmer it was the Buddha. Kim and Kai cuddled together, sleepy from their feast. Tan leaned into the notch of my shoulder, and I put my arm around her. It came to me then, not suddenly, but gradually, as if I were being immersed in the knowledge like a man lowering his body into a warm bath, that for the first time in my life-all the life I could remember-I was at home. These people were my family, and the sense of dislocation that had burdened me all those years had evaporated. I closed my eyes and buried my face in Tan’s hair, trying to hold onto the feeling, to seal it inside my head so I would never forget it.

Two men in T-shirts and bathing suits came walking along the water’s edge in our direction. When they reached the dune they climbed up to where we were sitting. Both were not much older than I, and judging by their fleshiness and soft features, I presumed them to be Americans, a judgment confirmed when the taller of the two, a fellow with a heavy jaw and hundreds of white beads threaded on the strings of his long black hair, lending him a savage appearance, said, “You guys are with that tent show, right?”

Mei, who did not care for Americans, stared meanly at him, but Tranh, who habitually viewed them as potential sources of income, told him that we were, indeed, performers with the circus. Kai and Kim whispered and giggled, and Tranh asked the American what his friend-skinnier, beadless, dull-eyed and open-mouthed, with a complicated headset covering his scalp-was studying.

“Parasailing. We’re going parasailing…if there’s ever any wind and the program doesn’t screw up. I woulda left him at the house, but the program’s fucked. Didn’t want his ass convulsing.” He extracted a sectioned strip of plastic from his shirt pocket; each square of plastic held a gelatin capsule shaped like a cut gem and filled with blue fluid. “Wanna brighten your day?” He dangled the strip as if tempting us with a treat. When no one accepted his offer, he shrugged, returned the strip to his pocket; he glanced down at me. “Hey, that shit with the knives…that was part of the fucking plan! Especially when you went benihana on Little Plum Blossom.” He jerked his thumb at Mei and then stood nodding, gazing at the sea, as if receiving a transmission from that quarter. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. It could be the drugs, but the trusty inner voice is telling me my foreign ways seem ludicrous…perhaps even offensive. It well may be that I am somewhat ludicrous. And I’m pretty torched, so I have to assume I’ve been offensive.”

Tranh made to deny this, Mei grunted, Kim and Kai looked puzzled, and Tan asked the American if he was on vacation.

“Thank you,” he said to Tan. “Beautiful lady. I am always grateful for the gift of courtesy. No, my friend and I-and two others-are playing at the hotel. We’re musicians.” He took out his wallet, which had been hinged over the waist of his trunks, and removed from it a thin gold square the size of a postage stamp; he handed it to Tan. “Have you seen these? They’re new…souvenir things, like. They just play once, but it’ll give you a taste. Press your finger on it until it you hear the sound. Then don’t touch it again-they get extremely hot.”

Tan started to do as he instructed but he said, “No, wait till we’re gone. I want to imagine you enjoyed hearing it. If you do, come on down to the hotel after you’re finished tonight. You’ll be my guests.”

“Is it one of your songs?” I asked, curious about him now that he had turned out to be more complicated than he first appeared.

He said, yes, it was an original composition.

“What’s it called?” Tranh asked.

“We haven’t named it yet,” said the American; then, after a pause: “What’s the name of your circus?”

Almost as one we said, “Radiant Green Star.”

“Perfect,” said the American.

Once the two men were out of earshot, Tan pressed her fingertip to the gold square, and soon a throbbing music issued forth, simply structured yet intricately layered by synthesizers, horns, guitars, densely figured by theme and subtle counter-theme, both insinuating and urgent. Kai and Kim stood and danced with one another. Tranh bobbed his head, tapped his foot, and even Mei was charmed, swaying, her eyes closed. Tan kissed me, and we watched a thin white smoke trickle upward from the square, which itself began to shrink, and I thought how amazing it was that things were often not what they seemed, and what a strange confluence of possibilities it had taken to bring all the troupe together-and the six of uswere the entire troupe, for Vang was never really part of us even when he was there, and though the major was rarely with us, he was always there, a shadow in the corners of our minds…How magical and ineluctable a thing it was for us all to be together at the precise place and time when a man-a rather unprepossessing man at that-walked up from a deserted beach and presented us with a golden square imprinted with a song that he named for our circus, a song that so accurately evoked the mixture of the commonplace and the exotic that characterized life in Radiant Green Star, music that was like smoke, rising up for a few perfect moments, and then vanishing with the wind.

Had Vang asked me at any point during the months that followed to tell him about love, I might have spoken for hours, answering him not with definitions, principles, or homilies, but specific instances, moments, and anecdotes. I was happy. Despite the gloomy nature of my soul, I could think of no word that better described how I felt. Though I continued to study my father, to follow his comings and goings, his business maneuvers and social interactions, I now believed that I would never seek to confront him, never try to claim my inheritance. I had all I needed to live, and I only wanted to keep those I loved safe and free from worry.

Tan and I did not bother to hide our relationship, and I expected Vang to rail at me for my transgression.

I half-expected him to drive me away from the circus-indeed, I prepared for that eventuality. But he never said a word. I did notice a certain cooling of the atmosphere. He snapped at me more often and on occasion refused to speak; yet that was the extent of his anger. I didn’t know how to take this. Either, I thought, he had overstated his concern for Tan or else he had simply accepted the inevitable. That explanation didn’t satisfy me, however. I suspected that he might have something more important on his mind, something so weighty that my involvement with his niece seemed a triviality by comparison. And one day, some seven months after Tan and I became lovers, my suspicions were proved correct.

I went to the trailer at mid-afternoon, thinking Vang would be in town. We were camped at the edge of a hardwood forest on a cleared acre of red dirt near Buon Ma Thuot in the Central Highlands, not far from the Cambodian border. Vang usually spent the day before a performance putting up posters, and I had intended to work on the computer; but when I entered, I saw him standing by his desk, folding a shirt, a suitcase open on the chair beside him. I asked what he was doing and he handed me a thick envelope; inside were the licenses and deeds of ownership relating to the circus and its property. “I’ve signed everything over,” he said. “If you have any problems, contact my lawyer.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, dumfounded. “You’re leaving?”

He bent to the suitcase and laid the folded shirt inside it. “You can move into the trailer tonight. You and Tan. She’ll be able to put it in order. I suppose you’ve noticed that she’s almost morbidly neat.” He straightened, pressed his hand against his lower back as if stricken by a pain. “The accounts, the bookings for next year…it’s all in the computer. Everything else…” He gestured at the cabinets on the walls. “You remember where things are.”

I couldn’t get a grasp on the situation, overwhelmed by the thought that I was now responsible for Green Star, by the fact that the man who for years had been the only consistent presence in my life was about to walk out the door forever. “Why are you leaving?”

He turned to me, frowning. “If you must know, I’m ill.”

“But why would you want to leave? We’ll just…”

“I’m not going to recover,” he said flatly.

I peered at him, trying to detect the signs of his mortality, but he looked no thinner, no grayer, than he had for some time. I felt the stirrings of a reaction that I knew he would not want to see, and I tamped down my emotions. “We can care for you here,” I said.

He began to fold another shirt. “I plan to join my sister and her husband in what they insist upon calling-” he clicked his tongue against his teeth “-Heaven.”

I recalled the talks I’d had with Tan in which she had decried the process of uploading the intelligence, the personality. If the old man was dying, there was no real risk involved. Still, the concept of such a mechanical transmogrification did not sit well with me.

“Have you nothing to say on the subject?” he asked. “Tan was quite voluble.”

“You’ve told her, then?”

“Of course.” He inspected the tail of the shirt he’d been folding, and finding a hole, cast it aside. “We’ve said our goodbyes.”

He continued to putter about, and as I watched him shuffling among the stacks of magazines and newspapers, kicking file boxes and books aside, dust rising wherever he set his hand, a tightness in my chest began to loosen, to work its way up into my throat. I went to the door and stood looking out, seeing nothing, letting the strong sunlight harden the glaze of my feelings. When I turned back, he was standing close to me, suitcase in hand. He held out a folded piece of paper and said, “This is the code by which you can contact me once I’ve been…” He laughed dryly. “Processed, I imagine, would be the appropriate verb. At any rate, I hope you will let me know what you decide concerning your father.”

It was in my mind to tell him that I had no intention of contending with my father, but I thought that this would disappoint him, and I merely said that I would do as he asked. We stood facing one another, the air thick with unspoken feelings, with vibrations that communicated an entire history comprised of such mute, awkward moments. “If I’m to have a last walk in the sun,” he said at length, “you’ll have to let me pass.”

That at the end of his days he viewed me only as a minor impediment-it angered me. But I reminded myself that this was all the sentiment of which he was capable. Without asking permission, I embraced him. He patted me lightly on the back and said, “I know you’ll take care of things.” And with that, he pushed past me and walked off in the direction of the town, vanishing behind one of the parked trucks.

I went into the rear of the trailer, into the partitioned cubicle where Vang slept, and sat down on his bunk.

His pillowcase bore a silk-screened image of a beautiful Vietnamese woman and the words HONEY LADY KEEP YOU COMFORT EVERY NIGHT. In the cabinet beside his bed were a broken clock, a small plaster bust of Ho Chi Minh, a few books, several pieces of hard candy, and a plastic key chain in the shape of a butterfly. The meagerness of the life these items described caught at my emotions, and I thought I might weep, but it was as if by assuming Vang’s position as the owner of Green Star, I had undergone a corresponding reduction in my natural responses, and I remained dry-eyed. I felt strangely aloof from myself, connected to the life of my mind and body by a tube along which impressions of the world around me were now and then transmitted. Looking back on my years with Vang, I could make no sense of them. He had nurtured and educated me, yet the sum of all that effort-not given cohesion by the glue of affection-came to scraps of memory no more illustrative of a comprehensible whole than were the memories of my mother. They had substance, yet no flavor…none, that is, except for a dusty gray aftertaste that I associated with disappointment and loss.

I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, and for want of anything else to do, I went to the desk and started inspecting the accounts, working through dusk and into the night. When I had satisfied myself that all was in order, I turned to the bookings. Nothing out of the ordinary. The usual villages, the occasional festival.

But when I accessed the bookings for the month of March, I saw that during the week of the seventeenth through the twenty-third-the latter date just ten days from my birthday-we were scheduled to perform in Binh Khoi.

I thought this must be a mistake-Vang had probably been thinking of Binh Khoi and my father while recording a new booking and had inadvertently put down the wrong name. But when I called up the contract, I found that no mistake had been made. We were to be paid a great deal of money, sufficient to guarantee a profitable year, but I doubted that Vang’s actions had been motivated by our financial needs.

He must, I thought, have seen the way things were going with Tan and me, and he must have realized that I would never risk her in order to avenge a crime committed nearly two decades before-thus he had decided to force a confrontation between me and my father. I was furious, and my first impulse was to break the contract; but after I had calmed down I realized that doing so would put us all at risk-the citizens of Binh Khoi were not known for their generosity or flexibility, and if I were to renege on Vang’s agreement they would surely pursue the matter in the courts. I would have no chance of winning a judgment. The only thing to do was to play the festival and steel myself to ignore the presence of my father. Perhaps he would be elsewhere, or, even if he was in residence, perhaps he would not attend our little show. Whatever the circumstances, I swore I would not be caught in this trap, and when my eighteenth birthday arrived I would go to the nearest Sony office and take great pleasure in telling Vang-whatever was left of him-that his scheme had failed.

I was still sitting there, trying to comprehend whether or not by contracting the engagement, Vang hoped to provide me with a basis for an informed decision, or if his interests were purely self-serving, when Tan stepped into the trailer. She had on a sleeveless plaid smock, the garment she wore whenever she was cleaning, and it was evident that she’d been crying-the skin beneath her eyes was puffy and red. But she had regained her composure, and she listened patiently, perched on the edge of the desk, while I told her all I’d been thinking about Vang and what he had done to us.

“Maybe it’s for the best,” she said after I had run down. “This way you’ll be sure you’ve done what you had to do.”

I was startled by her reaction. “Are you saying that you think I should kill my father…that I should even entertain the possibility?”

She shrugged. “That’s for you to decide.”

“I’ve decided already,” I said.

“Then there’s not a problem.”

The studied neutrality of her attitude puzzled me. “You don’t think I’ll stand by my decision, do you?”

She put a hand to her brow, hiding her face-a gesture that reminded me of Vang. “I don’t think you have decided, and I don’t think you should…not until you see your father.” She pinched a fold of skin above the bridge of her nose, then looked up at me. “Let’s not talk about this now.”

We sat silently for half a minute or thereabouts, each following the path of our own thoughts; then she wrinkled up her nose and said, “It smells bad in here. Do you want to get some air?”

We climbed onto the roof of the trailer and sat gazing at the shadowy line of the forest to the west, the main tent bulking up above it, and a sky so thick with stars that the familiar constellations were assimilated into new and busier cosmic designs: a Buddha face with a diamond on its brow, a tiger’s head, a palm tree-constructions of sparkling pinlights against a midnight blue canvas stretched from horizon to horizon. The wind brought the scent of sweet rot and the less pervasive odor of someone’s cooking. Somebody switched on a radio in the main tent; a Chinese orchestra whined and jangled. I felt I was sixteen again, that Tan and I had just met, and I thought perhaps we had chosen to occupy this place where we spent so many hours before we were lovers, because here we could banish the daunting pressures of the present, the threat of the future, and be children again. But although those days were scarcely two years removed, we had forever shattered the comforting illusions and frustrating limitations of childhood. I lay back on the aluminum roof, which still held a faint warmth of the day, and Tan hitched up her smock about her waist and mounted me, bracing her hands on my chest as I slipped inside her.

Framed by the crowded stars, features made mysterious by the cowl of her hair, she seemed as distant and unreal as the imagined creatures of my zodiac; but this illusion, too, was shattered as she began to rock her hips with an accomplished passion and lifted her face to the sky, transfigured by a look of exalted, almost agonized yearning, like one of those Renaissance angels marooned on a scrap of painted cloud who has just witnessed something amazing pass overhead, a miracle of glowing promise too perfect to hold in the mind. She shook her head wildly when she came, her hair flying all to one side so that it resembled in shape the pennant flying on the main tent, a dark signal of release, and then collapsed against my chest. I held onto her hips, continuing to thrust until the knot of heat in my groin shuddered out of me, leaving a residue of black peace into which the last shreds of my thought were subsumed.

The sweat dried on our skin, and still we lay there, both-I believed-aware that once we went down from the roof, the world would close around us, restore us to its troubled spin. Someone changed stations on the radio, bringing in a Cambodian program-a cooler, wispier music played. A cough sounded close by the trailer, and I raised myself to an elbow, wanting to see who it was. The major was making his way with painful slowness across the cleared ground, leaning on his staff. In the starlight his grotesque shape was lent a certain anonymity-he might have been a figure in a fantasy game, an old down-at-heels magician shrouded in a heavy, ragged cloak, or a beggar on a quest. He shuffled a few steps more, and then, shaking with effort, sank to his knees. For several seconds he remained motionless, then he scooped a handful of the red dirt and held it up to his face. And I recalled that Buon Ma Thuot was near the location of his fictive-or if not fictive, ill-remembered-firebase. Firebase Ruby. Built upon the red dirt of a defoliated plantation.

Tan sat up beside me and whispered, “What’s he doing?”

I put a finger to my lips, urging her to silence; I was convinced that the major would not expose himself to the terror of the open sky unless moved by some equally terrifying inner force, and I hoped he might do something that would illuminate the underpinnings of his mystery.

He let the dirt sift through his fingers and struggled to stand. Failed and sagged onto his haunches. His head fell back, and he held a spread-fingered hand up to it as if trying to shield himself from the starlight.

His quavery voice ran out of him like a shredded battle flag. “Turn back!” he said. “Oh, God! God! Turn back!”

During the next four months, I had little opportunity to brood over the prospect of meeting my father.

Dealing with the minutiae of Green Star’s daily operation took most of my energy and hours, and whenever I had a few minutes respite, Tan was there to fill them. So it was that by the time we arrived in Binh Khoi, I had made scarcely any progress in adjusting to the possibility that I might soon come face-to-face with the man who had killed my mother.

In one aspect, Binh Khoi was the perfect venue for us, since the town affected the same conceit as the circus, being designed to resemble a fragment of another time. It was situated near the Pass of the Ocean Clouds in the Truong Son Mountains some forty kilometers north of Danang, and many of the homes there were afforded a view of green hills declining toward the Coastal Plain. On the morning we arrived those same hills were half-submerged in thick white fog, the plain was totally obscured, and a pale mist had infiltrated the narrow streets, casting an air of ominous enchantment over the place. The oldest of the houses had been built no more than fifty years before, yet they were all similar to nineteenth century houses that still existed in certain sections of Hanoi: two and three stories tall and fashioned of stone, painted dull yellow and gray and various other sober hues, with sharply sloping roofs of dark green tile and compounds hidden by high walls and shaded by bougainvillea, papaya, and banana trees. Except for street lights in the main square and pedestrians in bright eccentric clothing, we might have been driving through a hill station during the 1800s; but I knew that hidden behind this antiquated facade were state-of-the-art security systems that could have vaporized us had we not been cleared to enter.

The most unusual thing about Binh Khoi was its silence. I’d never been in a place where people lived in any considerable quantity that was so hushed, devoid of the stew of sounds natural to a human environment. No hens squabbling or dogs yipping, no whining motor scooters or humming cars, no children at play. In only one area was there anything approximating normal activity and noise: the marketplace, which occupied an unpaved street leading off the square. Here men and women in coolie hats hunkered beside baskets of jackfruit, chilies, garlic, custard apples, durians, geckos, and dried fish; meat and caged puppies and monkeys and innumerable other foodstuffs were sold in canvas-roofed stalls; and the shoppers, mostly male couples, haggled with the vendors, occasionally venting their dismay at the prices…this despite the fact that any one of them could have bought everything in the market without blinking. Though the troupe shared their immersion in a contrived past, I found the depth of their pretense alarming and somewhat perverse. As I maneuvered the truck cautiously through the press, they peered incuriously at me through the windows-faces rendered exotic and nearly unreadable by tattoos and implants and caps of silver wire and winking light that appeared to be woven into their hair-and I thought I could feel their amusement at the shabby counterfeit we offered of their more elegantly realized illusion. I believe I might have hated them for the fashionable play they made of arguing over minuscule sums with the poor vendors, for the triviality of spirit this mockery implied, if I had not already hated them so completely for being my father’s friends and colleagues.

At the end of the street, beyond the last building, lay a grassy field bordered by a low whitewashed wall.

Strings of light bulbs linked the banana trees and palms that grew close to the wall on three sides, and I noticed several paths leading off into the jungle that were lit in the same fashion. On the fourth side, beyond the wall, the land dropped off into a notch, now choked with fog, and on the far side of the notch, perhaps fifty yards away, a massive hill with a sheer rock face and the ruins of an old temple atop it lifted from the fog, looming above the field-it was such a dramatic sight and so completely free of mist, every palm frond articulated, every vine-enlaced crevice and knob of dark, discolored stone showing clear, that I wondered if it might be a clever projection, another element of Binh Khoi’s decor.

We spent the morning and early afternoon setting up, and once I was satisfied that everything was in readiness, I sought out Tan, thinking we might go for a walk; but she was engaged in altering Kai’s costume. I wandered into the main tent and busied myself by making sure the sawdust had been spread evenly. Kai was swinging high above on a rope suspended from the metal ring at the top of the tent, and one of our miniature tigers had climbed a second rope and was clinging to it by its furry hands, batting at her playfully whenever she swooped near. Tranh and Mei were playing cards in the bleachers, and Kim was walking hand-in-hand with our talking monkey, chattering away as if the creature could understand her-now and then it would turn its white face to her and squeak in response, saying “I love you” and “I’m hungry” and other equally non-responsive phrases. I stood by the entranceway, feeling rather paternal toward my little family gathered under the lights, and I was just considering whether or not I should return to the trailer and see if Tan had finished, when a baritone voice sounded behind me, saying, “Where can I find Vang Ky?”

My father was standing with hands in pockets a few feet away, wearing black trousers and a gray shirt of some shiny material. He looked softer and heavier than he did in his photographs, and the flying fish tattoo on his cheek was now surrounded by more than half-a-dozen tiny emblems denoting his business connections. With his immense head, his shaved skull gleaming in the hot lights, he himself seemed the emblem of some monumental and soulless concern. At his shoulder, over a foot shorter than he, was a striking Vietnamese woman with long straight hair, dressed in tight black slacks and a matching tunic:

Phuong Ahn Nguyen. She was staring at me intently.

Stunned, I managed to get out that Vang was no longer with the circus, and my father said, “How can that be? He’s the owner, isn’t he?”

Shock was giving way to anger, anger so fulminant I could barely contain it. My hands trembled. If I’d had one of my knives to hand, I would have plunged it without a thought into his chest. I did the best I could to conceal my mood and told him what had become of Vang; but it seemed that as I catalogued each new detail of his face and body-a frown line, a reddened ear lobe, a crease in his fleshy neck-a vial of some furious chemical was tipped over and added to the mix of my blood.

“Goddamn it!” he said, casting his eyes up to the canvas; he appeared distraught. “Shit!” He glanced down at me. “Have you got his access code? It’s never the same once they go to Heaven. I’m not sure they really know what’s going on. But I guess it’s my only option.”

“I doubt he’d approve of my giving the code to a stranger,” I told him.

“We’re not strangers,” he said. “Vang was my father-in-law. We had a falling-out after my wife died. I hoped having the circus here for a week, I’d be able to persuade him to sit down and talk. There’s no reason for us to be at odds.”

I suppose the most astonishing thing he said was that Vang was his father-in-law, and thus my grandfather. I didn’t know what to make of that; I could think of no reason he might have for lying, yet it raised a number of troubling questions.

But his last statement, his implicit denial of responsibility for my mother’s death…it had come so easily to his lips! Hatred flowered in me like a cold star, acting to calm me, allowing me to exert a measure of control over my anger.

Phoung stepped forward and put a hand on my chest; my heart pounded against the pressure of her palm. “Is anything wrong?” she asked.

“I’m…surprised,” I said. “That’s all. I didn’t realize Vang had a son-in-law.”

Her make-up was severe, her lips painted a dark mauve, her eyes shaded by the same color, but in the fineness of her features and the long oval shape of her face, she bore a slight resemblance to Tan.

“Why are you angry?” she asked.

My father eased her aside. “It’s all right. I came on pretty strong-he’s got every right to be angry. Why don’t the two of us…what’s your name, kid?”

“Dat,” I said, though I was tempted to tell him the truth.

“Dat and I will have a talk,” he said to Phuong. “I’ll meet you back at the house.”

We went outside, and Phuong, displaying more than a little reluctance, headed off in the general direction of the trailer. It was going on dusk and the fog was closing in. The many-colored bulbs strung in the trees close to the wall and lining the paths had been turned on; each bulb was englobed by a fuzzy halo, and altogether they imbued the encroaching jungle with an eerily festive air, as if the spirits lost in the dark green tangles were planning a party. We stood beside the wall, beneath the great hill rising from the shifting fogbank, and my father tried to convince me to hand over the code. When I refused he offered money, and when I refused his money he glared at me and said, “Maybe you don’t get it. I really need the code. What’s it going to take for you to give it to me?”

“Perhaps it’s you who doesn’t get it,” I said. “If Vang wanted you to have the code he would have given it to you. But he gave it tome, and to no one else. I consider that a trust, and I won’t break it unless he signifies that I should.”

He looked off into the jungle, ran a hand across his scalp, and made a frustrated noise. I doubted he was experienced at rejection, and though it didn’t satisfy my anger, it pleased me to have rejected him. Finally he laughed. “Either you’re a hell of a businessman or an honorable man. Or maybe you’re both. That’s a scary notion.” He shook his head in what I took for amiable acceptance. “Why not call Vang? Ask him if he’d mind having a talk with me.”

I didn’t understand how this was possible.

“What sort of computer do you own?” he asked.

I told him and he said, “That won’t do it. Tell you what. Come over to my house tonight after your show.

You can use my computer to contact him. I’ll pay for your time.”

I was suddenly suspicious. He seemed to be offering himself to me, making himself vulnerable, and I did not believe that was in his nature. His desire to contact Vang might be a charade. What if he had discovered my identity and was luring me into a trap? “I don’t know if I can get away,” I said. “It may have to be in the morning.”

He looked displeased, but said, “Very well.” He fingered a business card from his pocket, gave it to me.

“My address.” Then he pressed what appeared to be a crystal button into my hand. “Don’t lose it. Carry it with you whenever you come. If you don’t, you’ll be picked up on the street and taken somewhere quite unpleasant.”

As soon as he was out of sight I hurried over to the trailer, intending to sort things out with Tan. She was outside, sitting on a folding chair, framed by a spill of hazy yellow light from the door. Her head was down, and her blouse was torn, the top two buttons missing. I asked what was wrong; she shook her head and would not meet my eyes. But when I persisted she said, “That woman…the one who works for your father…”

“Phuong? Did she hurt you?”

She kept her head down, but I could see her chin quivering. “I was coming to find you, and I ran into her.

She started talking to me. I thought she was just being friendly, but then she tried to kiss me. And when I resisted”-she displayed the tear in her blouse-“she did this.” She gathered herself. “She wants me to be with her tonight. If I refuse, she says she’ll make trouble for us.”

It would have been impossible for me to hate my father more, but this new insult, this threat to Tan, perfected it, added a finishing color, like the last brush stroke applied to a masterpiece. I stood a moment gazing off toward the hill-it seemed I had inside me an analog to that forbidding shape, something equally stony and vast. I led Tan into the trailer, sat her down at the desk, and made her tea; then I repeated all my father had said. “Is it possible,” I asked, “that Vang is my grandfather?”

She held the teacup in both hands, blew on the steaming liquid and took a sip. “I don’t know. My family has always been secretive. All my parents told me was that Vang was once a wealthy man with a loving family, and that he had lost everything.”

“If he is my grandfather,” I said, “then we’re cousins.”

She set down the cup and stared dolefully into it as if she saw in its depths an inescapable resolution. “I don’t care. If we were brother and sister, I wouldn’t care.”

I pulled her up, put my arms around her, and she pressed herself against me. I felt that I was at the center of an enormously complicated knot, too diminutive to be able to see all its loops and twists. If Vang was my grandfather, why had he treated me with such coldness? Perhaps my mother’s death had deadened his heart, perhaps that explained it. But knowing that Tan and I were cousins, wouldn’t he have told us the truth when he saw how close we were becoming? Or was he so old-fashioned that the idea of an intimate union between cousins didn’t bother him? The most reasonable explanation was that my father had lied. I saw that now, saw it with absolute clarity. It was the only possibility that made sense. And if he had lied, it followed that he knew who I was. And if he knew who I was…

“I have to kill him,” I said. “Tonight…it has to be tonight.”

I was prepared to justify the decision, to explain why a course of inaction would be a greater risk, to lay out all the potentials of the situation for Tan to analyze, but she pushed me away, just enough so that she could see my face, and said, “You can’t do it alone. That woman’s a professional assassin.” She rested her forehead against mine. “I’ll help you.”

“That’s ridiculous! If I…”

“Listen to me, Philip! She can read physical signs, she can tell if someone’s angry. If they’re anxious.

Well, she’ll expect me to be angry. And anxious. She’ll think it’s just resentment…nerves. I’ll be able to get close to her.”

“And kill her? Will you be able to kill her?”

Tan broke from the embrace and went to stand at the doorway, gazing out at the fog. Her hair had come unbound, spilling down over her shoulders and back, the ribbon that had tied it dangling like a bright blue river winding across a ground of black silk.

“I’ll ask Mei to give me something. She has herbs that will induce sleep.” She glanced back at me.

“There are things you can do to insure our safety once your father’s dead. We should discuss them now.”

I was amazed by her coolness, how easily she had made the transition from being distraught. “I can’t ask you to do this,” I said.

“You’re not asking-I’m volunteering.” I detected a note of sad distraction in her voice. “You’d do as much for me.”

“Of course, but if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be involved in this.”

“If it weren’t for you,” she said, the sadness even more evident in her tone, “I’d have no involvements at all.”

The first part of the show that evening, the entrance of the troupe to march music, Mei leading the way, wearing a red and white majorette’s uniform, twirling-and frequently dropping-a baton, the tigers gamboling at her heels; then two comic skits; then Kai and Kim whirling and spinning aloft in their gold and sequined costumes, tumbling through the air happy as birds; then another skit and Tranh’s clownish juggling, pretending to be drunk and making improbable catches as he tumbled, rolled, and staggered about…all this was received by the predominantly male audience with a degree of ironic detachment.

They laughed at Mei, they whispered and smirked during the skits, they stared dispassionately at Kim and Kai, and they jeered Tranh. It was plain that they had come to belittle us, that doing so validated their sense of superiority. I registered their reactions, but was so absorbed in thinking about what was to happen later, they seemed unreal, unimportant, and it took all my discipline to focus on my own act, a performance punctuated by a knife hurled from behind me that struck home between Tan’s legs. There was a burst of enthusiastic cheers, and I turned to see Phuong some thirty feet away, taking a bow in the bleachers-it was she who had thrown the knife. She looked at me and shrugged, with that gesture dismissing my poor skills, and lifted her arms to receive the building applause. I searched the area around her for my father, but he was nowhere to be seen.

The audience remained a buzz, pleased that one of their own had achieved this victory, but when the major entered, led in by Mei and Tranh, they fell silent at the sight of his dark, convulsed figure. Leaning on his staff, he hobbled along the edge of the bleachers, looking into this and that face as if hoping to find a familiar one, and then, moving to the center of the ring, he began to tell the story of Firebase Ruby. I was alarmed at first, but his delivery was eloquent, lyrical, not the plain-spoken style in which he had originally couched the tale, and the audience was enthralled. When he came to tell of the letter he had written his wife detailing his hatred of all things Vietnamese, an uneasy muttering arose from the bleachers and rapt expressions turned to scowls; but then he was past that point, and as he described the Viet Cong assault, his listeners settled back and seemed once again riveted by his words.

“In the phosphor light of the hanging flares,” he said, “I saw the bloodred ground spread out before me.

Beyond the head-high hedgerows of coiled steel wire, black-clad men and women coursed from the jungle, myriad and quick as ants, and, inside the wire, emerging from their secret warrens, more sprouted from the earth like the demon yield of some infernal rain. All around me, my men were dying, and even in the midst of fear, I felt myself the object of a great calm observance, as if the tiny necklace-strung images of the Buddha the enemy held in their mouths when they attacked had been empowered to summon their ribbed original, and somewhere up above the flares, an enormous face had been conjured from the dark matter of the sky and was gazing down with serene approval.

“We could not hold the position long-that was clear. But I had no intention of surrendering. Drunk on whiskey and adrenaline, I was consumed by the thought of death, my own and others’, and though I was afraid, I acted less out of fear than from the madness of battle and a kind of communion with death, a desire to make death grow and flourish and triumph. I retreated into the communications bunker and ordered the corporal in charge to call for an air strike on the coordinates of Firebase Ruby. When he balked I put a pistol to his head until he had obeyed. Then I emptied a clip into the radio so no one could countermand me.”

The major bowed his head and spread his arms, as though preparing for a supreme display of magic; then his resonant voice sounded forth again, like the voice of a beast speaking from a cave, rough from the bones that have torn its throat. His eyes were chunks of phosphorous burning in the bark of a rotting log.

“When the explosions began, I was firing from a sandbagged position atop the communications bunker.

The VC pouring from the jungle slowed their advance, milled about, and those inside the wire looked up in terror to see the jets screaming overhead, so low I could make out the stars on their wings. Victory was stitched across the sky in rocket trails. Gouts of flame gouged the red dirt, opening the tunnels to the air. The detonations began to blend one into the other, and the ground shook like a sheet of plywood under the pounding of a hammer. Clouds of marbled fire and smoke boiled across the earth, rising to form a dreadful second sky of orange and black, and I came to my feet, fearful yet delighted, astonished by the enormity of the destruction I had called down. Then I was knocked flat. Sandbags fell across my legs, a body flung from God knows where landed on my back, driving the breath from me, and in the instant before consciousness fled, I caught the rich stink of napalm.

“In the morning I awoke and saw a bloody, jawless face with staring blue eyes pressed close to mine, looking as if it were still trying to convey a last desperate message. I clawed my way from beneath the corpse and staggered upright to find myself the lord of a killed land, of a raw, red scar littered with corpses in the midst of a charcoaled forest. I went down from the bunker and wandered among the dead. From every quarter issued the droning of flies. Everywhere lay arms, legs, and grisly relics I could not identify. I was numb, I had no feeling apart from a pale satisfaction at having survived. But as I wandered among the dead, taking notice of the awful intimacies death had imposed: a dozen child-sized bodies huddled in a crater, anonymous as a nest of scorched beetles; a horribly burned woman with buttocks exposed reaching out a clawed hand to touch the lips of a disembodied head-these and a hundred other such scenes brought home the truth that I was their author. It wasn’t guilt I felt then. Guilt was irrelevant. We were all guilty, the dead and the living, the good and those who had abandoned God.

Guilt is our inevitable portion of the world’s great trouble. No, it was the recognition that at the moment when I knew the war was lost-my share of it, at least-I chose not to cut my losses but to align myself with a force so base and negative that we refuse to admit its place in human nature and dress it in mystical clothing and call it Satan or Shiva so as to separate it from ourselves. Perhaps this sort of choice is a soldier’s virtue, but I can no longer view it in that light.” He tapped his chest with the tip of his staff.

“Though I will never say that my enemies were just, there is justice in what I have endured since that day.

All men sin, all men do evil. And evil shows itself in our faces.” Here he aimed the staff at the audience and tracked it from face to face, as if highlighting the misdeeds imprinted on each. “What you see of me now is not the man I was, but the thing I became at the instant I made my choice. Take from my story what you will, but understand this: I am unique only in that the judgment of my days is inscribed not merely on my face, but upon every inch of my body. We are all of us monsters waiting to be summoned forth by a moment of madness and pride.”

As Tranh and I led him from the tent, across the damp grass, the major was excited, almost incoherently so, not by the acclaim he had received, but because he had managed to complete his story. He plucked at my sleeve, babbling, bobbing his head, but I paid him no mind, concerned about Tan, whom I had seen talking to Phuong in the bleachers. And when she came running from the main tent, a windbreaker thrown over her costume, I forgot him entirely.

“We’re not going directly back to the house,” she said. “She wants to take me to a club on the square. I don’t know when we’ll get to your father’s.”

“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. I think we should wait until morning.”

“It’s all right,” she said. “Go to the house and as soon as you’ve dealt with your father, do exactly what I told you. When you hear us enter the house, stay out of sight. Don’t do a thing until I come and get you.

Understand?”

“I don’t know,” I said, perplexed at the way she had taken charge.

“Please!” She grabbed me by the lapels. “Promise you’ll do as I say! Please!”

I promised, but as I watched her run off into the dark I had a resurgence of my old sense of dislocation, and though I had not truly listened to the major’s story, having been occupied with my own troubles, the sound of him sputtering and chortling behind me, gloating over the treasure of his recovered memory, his invention, whatever it was, caused me to wonder then about the nature of my own choice, and the story that I might someday tell.

My father’s house was on Yen Phu Street-two stories of pocked gray stone with green vented shutters and a green door with a knocker carved in the shape of a water buffalo’s head. I arrived shortly after midnight and stood in the lee of the high whitewashed wall that enclosed his compound. The fog had been cut by a steady drizzle, and no pedestrians were about. Light slanted from the vents of a shuttered upstairs window, and beneath it was parked a bicycle in whose basket rested a dozen white lilies, their stems wrapped in butcher paper. I imagined that my father had ridden the bicycle to market and had forgotten to retrieve the flowers after carrying his other purchases inside. They seemed omenical in their glossy pallor, a sterile emblem of the bloody work ahead.

The idea of killing my father held no terrors for me-I had performed the act in my mind hundreds of times, I’d conceived its every element-and as I stood there I felt the past accumulating at my back like the cars of a train stretching for eighteen years, building from my mother’s death to the shuddering engine of the moment I was soon to inhabit. All the misgivings that earlier had nagged at me melted away, like fog before rain. I was secure in my hatred and in the knowledge that I had no choice, that my father was a menace who would never fade.

I crossed the street, knocked, and after a few seconds he admitted me into a brightly lit alcove with a darkened room opening off to the right. He was dressed in a voluminous robe of green silk, and as he proceeded me up the stairway to the left of the alcove, the sight of his bell-like shape and bald head with the silver plate collaring the base of his skull…these things along with the odor of jasmine incense led me to imagine that I was being escorted to an audience with some mysterious religious figure by one of his eunuch priests. At the head of the stair was a narrow white room furnished with two padded chrome chairs, a wall screen, and, at the far end, a desk bearing papers, an ornamental vase, an old-fashioned letter opener, and a foot-high gilt and bronze Buddha. My father sat down in one of the chairs, triggered the wall screen’s computer mode with a penlight, and set about accessing the Sony AI, working through various menus, all the while chatting away, saying he was sorry he’d missed our show, he hoped to attend the following night, and how was I enjoying my stay in Binh Khoi, it often seemed an unfriendly place to newcomers, but by week’s end I’d feel right at home. I had brought no weapon, assuming that his security would detect it. The letter opener, I thought, would do the job. But my hand fell instead to the Buddha. It would be cleaner, I decided. A single blow. I picked it up, hefted it. I had anticipated that when the moment arrived, I would want to make myself known to my father, to relish his shock and dismay; but I understood that was no longer important, and I only wanted him to die. In any case, since he likely knew the truth about me, the dramaticscene I’d envisioned would be greatly diminished.

“That’s Thai. Fifteenth century,” he said, nodding at the statue, then returned his attention to the screen.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Very,” I said.

Then, without a thought, all thinking necessary having already been done, and the deed itself merely an automatic function, the final surge of an eighteen-year-long momentum, I stepped behind him and swung the statue at the back of his head. I expected to hear a crack but the sound of impact was plush, muffled, such as might be caused by the flat of one’s hand striking a pillow. He let out an explosive grunt, toppled with a twisting motion against the wall, ending up on his side, facing outward. There was so much blood, I assumed he must be dead. But then he groaned, his eyes blinked open, and he struggled to his knees. I saw that I’d hit the silver plate at the base of his skull. Blood was flowing out around the plate, but it had protected him from mortal damage. His robe had fallen open, and with his pale mottled belly bulging from the green silk and the blood streaking his neck, his smallish features knitted in pain and perplexity, he looked gross and clownishly pitiable. He held up an unsteady hand to block a second blow. His mouth worked, and he said “Wait…” or “What…” Which, I can’t be sure. But I was in no mood either to wait or to explain myself. A clean death might not have affected me so deeply, but that I had made of a whole healthy life this repellent half-dead thing wobbling at my feet-it assaulted my moral foundation, it washed the romantic tint of revenge from the simple, terrible act of slaughter, and when I struck at him again, this time smashing the statue down two-handed onto the top of his skull, I was charged with the kind of fear that afflicts a child when he more or less by accident wounds a bird with a stone and seeks to hide the act from God by tossing his victim onto an ash heap. My father sagged onto his back, blood gushing from his nose and mouth. I caught a whiff of feces and staggered away, dropping the Buddha. Now that my purpose had been accomplished, like a bee dying from having stung its enemy, I felt drained of poison, full of dull surprise that there had been no more rewarding result.

The penlight had rolled beneath the second chair. I picked it up, and, following Tan’s instructions, I used the computer to contact a security agency in Danang. A blond woman with a brittle manner appeared on the screen and asked my business. I explained my circumstances, not bothering to characterize the murder as anything other than it was-the size of my trust would guarantee my legal immunity-and also provided her with the number of Vang’s lawyer, as well as some particulars concerning the trust, thereby establishing my bona fides. The woman vanished, her image replaced by a shifting pattern of pastel colors, and, after several minutes, this in turn was replaced by a contract form with a glowing blue patch at the bottom to which I pressed the ball of my thumb. The woman reappeared, much more solicitous now, and cautioned me to remain where I was. She assured me that an armed force would be at the house within the hour. As an afterthought she advised me to wipe the blood from my face.

The presence of the body-its meat reality-made me uncomfortable. I picked up the letter opener and went down the stairs and groped my way across the unlit room off the alcove and found a chair in a corner from which I could see the door. Sitting alone in the darkness amplified the torpor that had pervaded me, and though I sensed certain unsettling dissonances surrounding what had just taken place, I was not sufficiently alert to consider them as other than aggravations. I had been sitting there for perhaps ten minutes when the door opened and Phuong, laughing, stepped into the alcove with Tan behind her, wearing a blue skirt and checkered blouse. She kicked the door shut, pushed Tan against the wall, and began to kiss her, running a hand up under her skirt. Then her head snapped around, and although I didn’t believe she could see in the dark, she stared directly at me.

Before I could react, before I could be sure that Phuong had detected me, Tan struck her beneath the jaw with the heel of her left hand, driving her against the opposite wall, and followed this with a kick to the stomach. Phuong rolled away and up into a crouch. She cried out my father’s name: “William!”

Whether in warning or-recognizing what had happened-in grief, I cannot say. Then the two women began to fight. It lasted no more than half a minute, but their speed and eerie grace were incredible to see: like watching two long-fingered witches dancing in a bright patch of weakened gravity and casting violent spells. Dazed by Tan’s initial blows, Phuong went on the defensive, but soon she recovered and started to hold her own. I remembered the letter opener in my hand. The thing was poorly balanced and Phuong’s quickness made the timing hard to judge, but then she paused, preparing to launch an attack, and I flung the opener, lodging it squarely between her shoulder blades. Not a mortal wound-the blade was too dull to bite deep-but a distracting one. She shrieked, tried to reach the opener, and, as she reeled to the side, Tan came up behind her and broke her neck with a savage twist. She let the body fall and walked toward me, a shadow in the darkened room. It seemed impossible that she was the same woman I had known on the beach at Vung Tau, and I felt a spark of fear.

“Are you all right?” she asked, stopping a few feet away.

“All right?” I laughed. “What’s going on here?”

She gave no reply, and I said, “Apparently you decided against using Mei’s herbs.”

“If you had done as I asked, if you’d stayed clear, it might not have been necessary to kill her.” She came another step forward. “Have you called for security?”

I nodded. “Did you learn to fight like that in Hue?”

“In China,” she said.

“At a private security company. Like Phuong.”

“Yes.”

“Then it would follow that you’re not Vang’s niece.”

“But I am,” she said. “He used the last of his fortune to have me trained so I could protect you. He was a bitter man…to have used his family so.”

“And I suppose sleeping with me falls under the umbrella of protection.” She kneeled beside the chair, put a hand on my neck, and gazed at me entreatingly. “I love you, Philip. I would do anything for you.

How can you doubt it?”

I was moved by her sincerity, but I could not help but treat her coldly. It was as if a valve had been twisted shut to block the flow of my emotions. “That’s right,” I said. “Vang told me that your kind were conditioned to bond with their clients.”

I watched the words hit home, a wounded expression washing across her features, then fading, like a ripple caused by a pebble dropped into a still pond. “Is that so important?” she asked. “Does it alter the fact that you fell in love with me?”

I ignored this, yet I was tempted to tell her, No, it did not. “If you were trained to protect me, why did Vang discourage our relationship?”

She got to her feet, her face unreadable, and went a few paces toward the alcove; she appeared to be staring at Phuong’s body, lying crumpled in the light. “There was a time when I think he wanted me for himself. That may explain it.”

“Did Phuong really accost you?” I asked. “Or was that…

“I’ve never lied to you. I’ve deceived you by not revealing everything I knew about Vang,” she said. “But I was bound to obey him in that. As you said, I’ve been conditioned.”

I had other questions, but I could not frame one of them. The silence of the house seemed to breed a faint humming, and I became oppressed by the idea that Tan and I were living analogs of the two corpses, that the wealth I was soon to receive as a consequence of our actions would lead us to a pass wherein we would someday lie dead in separate rooms of a silent house, while two creatures like ourselves but younger would stand apart from one another in fretful isolation, pondering their future. I wanted to dispossess myself of this notion, to contrive a more potent reality, and I crossed the room to Tan and turned her to face me. She refused to meet my eyes, but I tipped up her chin and kissed her. A lover’s kiss. I touched her breasts-a treasuring touch. But despite the sweet affirmation and openness of the kiss, I think it also served a formal purpose, the sealing of a bargain whose terms we did not fully understand.

Six months and a bit after my eighteenth birthday, I was sitting in a room in the Sony offices in Saigon, a windowless space with black walls and carpet and silver-framed photographs of scenes along the Perfume River and in the South China Sea, when Vang flickered into being against the far wall. I thought I must seem to him, as he seemed to me, like a visitation, a figure from another time manifested in a dream. He appeared no different than he had on the day he left the circus-thin and gray-haired, dressed in care-worn clothing-and his attitude toward me was, as ever, distant. I told him what had happened in Binh Khoi, and he said, “I presumed you would have more trouble with William. Of course he thought he had leverage over me-he thought he had Tan in his clutches. So he let his guard down. He believed he had nothing to fear.”

His logic was overly simplistic, but rather than pursue this, I asked the question foremost on my mind: why had he not told me that he was my grandfather? I had uncovered quite a lot about my past in the process of familiarizing myself with Vang’s affairs, but I wanted to hear it all.

“Because I’mnot your grandfather,” he said. “I was William’s father-in-law, but…” He shot me an amused look. “I should have thought you would have understood all this by now.”

I saw no humor in the situation. “Explain it to me.”

“As you wish.” He paced away from me, stopped to inspect one of the framed photographs. “William engineered the death of my wife, my daughter, and my grandson in a plane crash. Once he had isolated me, he challenged my mental competency, intending to take over my business concerns. To thwart him, I faked my suicide. It was a very convincing fake. I used a body I’d had cloned to supply me with organs.

I kept enough money to support Green Star and to pay for Tan’s training. The rest you know.”

“Not so,” I said. “You haven’t told me who I am.”

“Ah, yes.” He turned from the photograph and smiled pleasantly at me. “I suppose that would interest you. Your mother’s name was Tuyet. Tuyet Su Vanh. She was an actress in various pornographic media.

The woman you saw in your dream-that was she. We had a relationship for several years, then we drifted apart. Not long before I lost my family, she came to me and told me she was dying. One of the mutated HIVs. She said she’d borne a child by me. A son. She begged me to take care of you. I didn’t believe her, of course. But she had given me pleasure, so I set up a trust for you. A small one.”

“And then you decided to use me.”

“William had undermined my authority to the extent that I could not confront him directly. I needed an arrow to aim at his heart. I told your mother that if she cooperated with me I’d adopt you, place my fortune in the trust, and make you my heir. She gave permission to have your memory wiped. I wanted you empty so I could fill you with my purpose. After you were re-educated, she helped construct some fragmentary memories that were implanted by means of a biochip. Nonetheless, you were a difficult child to mold. I couldn’t be certain that you would seek William out, and so, since I was old and tired and likely not far from Heaven, I decided to feign an illness and withdraw. This allowed me to arrange a confrontation without risk to myself.”

I should have hated Vang, but after six months of running his businesses, of viewing the world from a position of governance and control, I understood him far too well to hate-though at that moment, understanding the dispassionate requisites and protocols of such a position seemed as harsh a form of judgment as the most bitter of hatreds. “What happened to my mother?” I asked.

“I arranged for her to receive terminal care in an Australian hospital.”

“And her claim that I was your biological son…did you investigate it?”

“Why should I? It didn’t matter. A man in my position could not acknowledge an illegitimate child, and once I had made my decision to abdicate my old life, it mattered even less. If it has any meaning for you, there are medical records you can access.”

“I think I’d prefer it to remain a mystery,” I told him.

“You’ve no reason to be angry at me,” he said. “I’ve made you wealthy. And what did it cost? A few memories.”

I shifted in my chair, steepled my hands on my stomach. “Are you convinced that my…that William had your family killed? He seemed to think there had been a misunderstanding.”

“That was a charade! If you’re asking whether or not I had proof-of course I didn’t. William knew how to disguise his hand.”

“So everything you did was based solely on the grounds of your suspicions.”

“No! It was based on my knowledge of the man!” His tone softened. “What does it matter? Only William and I knew the truth, and he is dead. If you doubt me, if you pursue this further, you’ll never be able to satisfy yourself.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said, getting to my feet.

“Are you leaving already?” He wore an aggrieved expression. “I was hoping you’d tell me about Tan…and Green Star. What has happened with my little circus?”

“Tan is well. As for Green Star, I gave it to Mei and Tranh.”

I opened the door, and Vang made a gesture of restraint. “Stay a while longer, Philip. Please. You and Tan are the only people with whom I have an emotional connection. It heartens me to spend time with you.”

Hearing him describe our relationship in these terms gave me pause. I recalled the conversation in which Tan had asserted that something central to the idea of life died when one was uploaded into Heaven-Vang’s uncharacteristic claim to an emotional debt caused me to think that he might well be, as she’d described her parents, a colored shadow, a cunningly contrived representation of the original. I hoped that this was not the case; I hoped that he was alive in every respect.

“I have to go,” I said. “Business, you understand. But I have some news that may be of interest to you.”

“Oh?” he said eagerly. “Tell me.”

“I’ve invested heavily in Sony, and through negotiation I’ve arranged for one of your old companies-Intertech of Hanoi-to be placed in charge of overseeing the virtual environment. I would expect you’re soon going to see some changes in your particular part of Heaven.”

He seemed nonplussed, then a look of alarm dawned on his face. “What are you going to do?”

“Me? Not a thing.” I smiled, and the act of smiling weakened my emotional restraint-a business skill I had not yet perfected-and let anger roughen my voice. “It’s much more agreeable to have your dirty work handled by others, don’t you think?”

On occasion, Tan and I manage to rekindle an intimacy that reminds us of the days when we first were lovers, but these occasions never last for long, and our relationship is plagued by the lapses into neutrality or-worse-indifference that tend to plague any two people who have spent ten years in each other’s company. In our case these lapses are often accompanied by bouts of self-destructive behavior. It seems we’re punishing ourselves for having experienced what we consider an undeserved happiness. Even our most honest infidelities are inclined to be of the degrading sort. I understand this. The beach at Vung Tau, once the foundation of our union, has been replaced by a night on Yen Phu Street in Binh Khoi, and no edifice built upon such imperfect stone could be other than cracked and deficient. Nonetheless, we both realize that whatever our portion of contentment in this world, we are fated to seek it together.

From time to time, I receive a communication from Vang. He does not look well, and his tone is always desperate, cajoling. I tell myself that I should relent and restore him to the afterlife for which he contracted; but I am not highly motivated in that regard. If there truly is something that dies when one ascends to Heaven, I fear it has already died in me, and I blame Vang for this.

Seven years after my talk with Vang, Tan and I attended a performance of the circus in the village of Loc Noi. There was a new James Bond Cochise, Kai and Kim had become pretty teenagers, both Tranh and Mei were thinner, but otherwise things were much the same. We sat in the main tent after the show and reminisced. The troupe-Mei in particular-were unnerved by my bodyguards, but all in all, it was a pleasant reunion.

After a while I excused myself and went to see the major. He was huddled in his tent, visible by the weird flickerings in his eyes…though as my vision adapted to the dark, I was able to make out the cowled shape of his head against the canvas backdrop. Tranh had told me he did not expect the major to live much longer, and now that I was close to him, I found that his infirmity was palpable, I could hear it in his labored breath. I asked if he knew who I was, and he replied without inflection, as he had so many years before, “Philip.” I’d hoped that he would be more forthcoming, because I still felt akin to him, related through the cryptic character of our separate histories, and I thought that he might once have sensed that kinship, that he’d had some diffuse knowledge of the choices I confronted, and had designed the story of Firebase Ruby for my benefit, shaping it as a cautionary tale-one I’d failed to heed. But perhaps I’d read too much into what was sheer coincidence. I touched his hand, and his breath caught, then shuddered forth, heavy as a sob. All that remained for him were a few stories, a few hours in the light. I tried to think of something I could do to ease his last days, but I knew death was the only mercy that could mend him.

Mei invited Tan and me to spend the night in the trailer-for old times’ sake, she said-and we were of no mind to refuse. We both yearned for those old times, despite neither of us believing that we could recapture them. Watching Tan prepare for bed, it seemed to me that she had grown too vivid for the drab surroundings, her beauty become too cultivated and too lush. But when she slipped in beside me, when we began to make love on that creaky bunk, the years fell away and she felt like a girl in my arms, tremulous and new to such customs, and I was newly awakened to her charms. She drifted off to sleep afterward with her head on my chest, and as I lay there trying to quiet my breath so not to wake her, it came to me that future and past were joined in the darkness that enclosed us, two black rivers flowing together, and I understood that while the circus would go its own way in the morning and we would go ours, those rivers, too, were forever joined-we shared a confluence and a wandering course, and a moment proof against the world’s denial, and we would always be a troupe, Kim and Kai, Mei and Tranh, Tan and I, and the major…that living ghost who, like myself, was the figment of a tragic past he never knew, or-if, indeed, he knew it-with which he could never come to terms. It was a bond that could not save us, from either our enemies or ourselves, but it held out a hope of simple glory, a promise truer than Heaven. Illusory or not, all our wars would continue until their cause was long-forgotten under the banner of Radiant Green Star.


Great Wall of Mars Alastair Reynolds


Here’s a relentless, wildly inventive, pyrotechnic thriller, paced like a runaway freight train, that takes us to Mars for a mission of peace that instead leads us ever deeper into the heart of war…
New writer Alastair Reynolds is a frequent contributor toInterzone,and has also sold to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Spectrum SF,and elsewhere. His first novel, Revelation Space,is being widely hailed as one of the major SF books of the year; coming up is a sequel, Chasm City.A professional scientist with a Ph.D. in astronomy, he comes from Wales, but lives in the Netherlands, where he works for the European Space Agency.

You realize you might die down there,” said Warren.

Nevil Clavain looked into his brother’s one good eye; the one the Conjoiners had left him with after the battle of Tharsis Bulge. “Yes, I know,” he said. “But if there’s another war, we might all die. I’d rather take that risk, if there’s a chance for peace.”

Warren shook his head, slowly and patiently. “No matter how many times we’ve been over this, you just don’t seem to get it, do you? There can’t ever be any kind of peace while they’re still down there. That’s what you don’t understand, Nevil. The only long-term solution here is…” he trailed off.

“Go on,” Clavain goaded. “Say it. Genocide.”

Warren might have been about to answer when there was a bustle of activity down the docking tube, at the far end from the waiting spacecraft. Through the door Clavain saw a throng of media people, then someone gliding through them, fielding questions with only the curtest of answers. That was Sandra Voi, the Demarchist woman who would be coming with him to Mars.

“It’s not genocide when they’re just a faction, not an ethnically distinct race,” Warren said, before Voi was within earshot.

“What is it, then?”

“I don’t know. Prudence?”

Voi approached. She bore herself stiffly, her face a mask of quiet resignation. Her ship had only just docked from Circum-Jove, after a three-week transit at maximum burn. During that time the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the current crisis had steadily deteriorated.

“Welcome to Deimos,” Warren said.

“Marshalls,” she said, addressing both of them. “I wish the circumstances were better. Let’s get straight to business. Warren; how long do you think we have to find a solution?”

“Not long. If Galiana maintains the pattern she’s been following for the last six months, we’re due another escape attempt in…” Warren glanced at a readout buried in his cuff. “About three days. If she does try and get another shuttle off Mars, we’ll really have no option but to escalate.”

They all knew what that would mean: a military strike against the Conjoiner nest.

“You’ve tolerated her attempts so far,” Voi said. “And each time you’ve successfully destroyed her ship with all the people in it. The net risk of a successful break out hasn’t increased. So why retaliate now?”

“It’s very simple. After each violation we issued Galiana with a stronger warning than the one before. Our last was absolute and final.”

“You’ll be in violation of treaty if you attack.”

Warren’s smile was one of quiet triumph. “Not quite, Sandra. You may not be completely conversant with the treaty’s fine print, but we’ve discovered that it allows us to storm Galiana’s nest without breaking any terms. The technical phrase is a police action, I believe.”

Clavain saw that Voi was momentarily lost for words. That was hardly surprising. The treaty between the Coalition and the Conjoiners-which Voi’s neutral Demarchists had helped draft-was the longest document in existence, apart from some obscure, computer-generated mathematical proofs. It was supposed to be watertight, though only machines had ever read it from beginning to end, and only machines had ever stood a chance of finding the kind of loophole which Warren was now brandishing.

“No…” she said. “There’s some mistake.”

“I’m afraid he’s right,” Clavain said. “I’ve seen the natural-language summaries, and there’s no doubt about the legality of a police action. But it needn’t come to that. I’m sure I can persuade Galiana not to make another escape attempt.”

“But if we should fail?” Voi looked at Warren now. “Nevil and myself could still be on Mars in three days.”

“Don’t be, is my advice.”

Disgusted, Voi turned and stepped into the green cool of the shuttle. Clavain was left alone with his brother for a moment. Warren fingered the leathery patch over his ruined eye with the chrome gauntlet of his prosthetic arm, as if to remind Clavain of what the war had cost him; how little love he had for the enemy, even now.

“We haven’t got a chance of succeeding, have we?” Clavain said. “We’re only going down there so you can say you explored all avenues of negotiation before sending in the troops. You actually want another damned war.”

“Don’t be so defeatist,” Warren said, shaking his head sadly, forever the older brother disappointed at his sibling’s failings. “It really doesn’t become you.”

“It’s not me who’s defeatist,” Clavain said.

“No; of course not. Just do your best, little brother.”

Warren extended his hand for his brother to shake. Hesitating, Clavain looked again into his brother’s good eye. What he saw there was an interrogator’s eye: as pale, colorless and cold as a midwinter sun.

There was hatred in it. Warren despised Clavain’s pacifism; Clavain’s belief that any kind of peace, even a peace which consisted only of stumbling episodes of mistrust between crises, was always better than war. That schism had fractured any lingering fraternal feelings they might have retained. Now, when Warren reminded Clavain that they were brothers, he never entirely concealed the disgust in his voice.

“You misjudge me,” Clavain whispered, before quietly shaking Warren’s hand.

“No; I honestly don’t think I do.”

Clavain stepped through the airlock just before it sphinctered shut. Voi had already buckled herself in; she had a glazed look now, as if staring into infinity. Clavain guessed she was uploading a copy of the treaty through her implants, scrolling it across her visual field, trying to find the loophole; probably running a global search for any references to police actions.

The ship recognized Clavain, its interior shivering to his preferences. The green was closer to turquoise now; the readouts and controls minimalist in layout, displaying only the most mission-critical systems.

Though the shuttle was the tiniest peacetime vessel Clavain had been in, it was a cathedral compared to the dropships he had flown during the war; so small that they were assembled around their occupants like Medieval armor before a joust.

“Don’t worry about the treaty,” Clavain said. “I promise you Warren won’t get his chance to apply that loophole.”

Voi snapped out of her trance irritatedly. “You’d better be right, Nevil. Is it me, or is your brother hoping we fail?” She was speaking Quebecois French now; Clavain shifting mental gears to follow her. “If my people discover that there’s a hidden agenda here, there’ll be hell to pay.”

“The Conjoiners gave Warren plenty of reasons to hate them after the battle of the Bulge,” Clavain said.

“And he’s a tactician, not a field specialist. After the cease-fire my knowledge of worms was even more valuable than before, so I had a role. But Warren’s skills were a lot less transferable.”

“So that gives him a right to edge us closer to another war?” The way Voi spoke, it was as if her own side had not been neutral in the last exchange. But Clavain knew she was right. If hostilities between the Conjoiners and the Coalition reignited, the Demarchy would not be able to stand aside as they had fifteen years ago. And it was anyone’s guess how they would align themselves.

“There won’t be war.”

“And if you can’t reason with Galiana? Or are you going to play on your personal connection?”

“I was just her prisoner, that’s all.” Clavain took the controls-Voi said piloting was a bore-and unlatched the shuttle from Deimos. They dropped away at a tangent to the rotation of the equatorial ring which girdled the moon, instantly in free-fall. Clavain sketched a porthole in the wall with his fingertip, outlining a rectangle which instantly became transparent.

For a moment he saw his reflection in the glass: older than he felt he had any right to look, the gray beard and hair making him look ancient rather than patriarchal; a man deeply wearied by recent circumstance.

With some relief he darkened the cabin so that he could see Deimos, dwindling at surprising speed. The higher of the two Martian moons was a dark, bristling lump, infested with armaments, belted by the bright, window-studded band of the moving ring. For the last nine years, Deimos was all that he had known, but now he could encompass it within the arc of his fist.

“Not just her prisoner,” Voi said. “No one else came back sane from the Conjoiners. She never even tried to infect you with her machines.”

“No, she didn’t. But only because the timing was on my side.” Clavain was reciting an old argument now; as much for his own benefit as Voi’s. “I was the only prisoner she had. She was losing the war by then; one more recruit to her side wouldn’t have made any real difference. The terms of cease-fire were being thrashed out and she knew she could buy herself favors by releasing me unharmed. There was something else, too. Conjoiners weren’t supposed to be capable of anything so primitive as mercy. They were spiders, as far as we were concerned. Galiana’s act threw a wrench into our thinking. It divided alliances within the high command. If she hadn’t released me, they might well have nuked her out of existence.”

“So there was absolutely nothing personal?”

“No,” Clavain said. “There was nothing personal about it at all.”

Voi nodded, without in any way suggesting that she actually believed him. It was a skill some women had honed to perfection, Clavain thought.

Of course, he respected Voi completely. She had been one of the first human beings to enter Europa’s ocean, decades back. Now they were planning fabulous cities under the ice; efforts which she had spearheaded. Demarchist society was supposedly flat in structure, non-hierarchical; but someone of Voi’s brilliance ascended through echelons of her own making. She had been instrumental in brokering the peace between the Conjoiners and Clavain’s own Coalition. That was why she was coming along now: Galiana had only agreed to Clavain’s mission provided he was accompanied by a neutral observer, and Voi had been the obvious choice. Respect was easy. Trust, however, was harder: it required that Clavain ignore the fact that, with her head dotted with implants, the Demarchist woman’s condition was not very far removed from that of the enemy.

The descent to Mars was hard and steep.

Once or twice they were queried by the automated tracking systems of the satellite interdiction network.

Dark weapons hovering in Mars-synchronous orbit above the nest locked onto the ship for a few instants, magnetic railguns powering up, before the shuttle’s diplomatic nature was established and it was allowed to proceed. The Interdiction was very efficient; as well it might be, given that Clavain had designed much of it himself. In fifteen years no ship had entered or left the Martian atmosphere, nor had any surface vehicle ever escaped from Galiana’s nest.

“There she is,” Clavain said, as the Great Wall rose over the horizon.

“Why do you call ‘it’ a ‘she’?” Voi asked. “I never felt the urge to personalize it, and I designed it.

Besides…even if it was alive once, it’s dead now.”

She was right, but the Wall was still awesome to behold. Seen from orbit, it was a pale, circular ring on the surface of Mars, two thousand kilometers wide. Like a coral atoll, it entrapped its own weather system; a disk of bluer air, flecked with creamy white clouds which stopped abruptly at the boundary.

Once, hundreds of communities had sheltered inside that cell of warm, thick, oxygen-rich atmosphere.

The Wall was the most audacious and visible of Voi’s projects. The logic had been inescapable: a means to avoid the millennia-long time scales needed to terra form Mars via such conventional schemes as cometary bombardment or ice-cap thawing. Instead of modifying the whole atmosphere at once, the Wall allowed the initial effort to be concentrated in a relatively small region, at first only a thousand kilometers across. There were no craters deep enough, so the Wall had been completely artificial: a vast ring-shaped atmospheric dam designed to move slowly outward, encompassing ever more surface area at a rate of a twenty kilometers per year. The Wall needed to be very tall because the low Martian gravity meant that the column of atmosphere was higher for a fixed surface pressure than on Earth. The ramparts were hundreds of meters thick, dark as glacial ice, sinking great taproots deep into the lithosphere to harvest the ores needed for the Wall’s continual growth. Yet two hundred kilometers higher the wall was a diaphanously thin membrane only microns wide; completely invisible except when rare optical effects made it hang like a frozen aurora against the stars. Eco-engineers had invaded the Wall’s live able area with terran genestocks deftly altered in orbital labs. Flora and fauna had moved out in vivacious waves, lapping eagerly against the constraints of the Wall.

But the Wall was dead.

It had stopped growing during the war, hit by some sort of viral weapon which crippled its replicating subsystems, and now even the ecosystem within it was failing; the atmosphere cooling, oxygen bleeding into space, pressure declining inevitably toward the Martian norm of one seven-thousandth of an atmosphere.

He wondered how it must look to Voi; whether in any sense she saw it as her murdered child.

“I’m sorry that we had to kill it,” Clavain said. He was about to add that it been the kind of act which war normalized, but decided that the statement would have sounded hopelessly defensive.

“You needn’t apologize,” Voi said. “It was only machinery. I’m surprised it’s lasted as long as it has, frankly. There must still be some residual damage-repair capability. We Demarchists build for posterity, you know.”

Yes, and it worried his own side. There was talk of challenging the Demarchist supremacy in the outer solar system; perhaps even an attempt to gain a Coalition foothold around Jupiter.

They skimmed the top of the Wall and punched through the thickening layers of atmosphere within it, the shuttle’s hull morphing to an arrowhead shape. The ground had an arid, bleached look to it, dotted here and there by ruined shacks, broken domes, gutted vehicles or shot-down shuttles. There were patches of shallow-rooted, mainly dark-red tundra vegetation; cotton grass, saxifrage, arctic poppies and lichen.