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THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW SCIENCE FICTION
22nd Annual Collection Edited by GARDNER DOZOIS
Acknowledgments Summation: 2008 turing’s apples • Stephen Baxter from babel’s fall’n glory we fled • Michael Swanwick the gambler • Paolo Bacigalupi boojum • Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette the six directions of space • Alastair Reynolds n-words • Ted Kosmatka an eligible boy • Ian McDonald shining armour • Dominic Green the hero • Karl Schroeder evil robot monkey • Mary Robinette Kowal five thrillers • Robert Reed the sky that wraps the world round, past the blue and into the black • Jay Lake incomers • Paul J. McAuley crystal nights • Greg Egan the egg man • Mary Rosenblum his master’s voice • Hannu Rajaniemi the political prisoner • Charles Coleman Finlay balancing accounts • James L. Cambias special economics • Maureen F. McHugh days of wonder • Geoff Ryman city of the dead • Paul McAuley the voyage out • Gwyneth Jones the illustrated biography of lord grimm • Daryl Gregory g-men • Kristine Kathryn Rusch the erdmann nexus • Nancy Kress old friends • Garth Nix the ray-gun: a love story • James Alan Gardner lester young and the jupiter’s moons’ blues • Gord Sellar butterfly, falling at dawn • Aliette de Bodard the tear • Ian McDonald honorable mentions: 2008 ix xi 1 18 36 57 73 122 136 159 175 196 199 236 245 263 284 304 315 369 385 409 441 464 480 498 529 588 595 614 642 662 713
The editor would like to thank the following people for their help and support: Susan Casper, Jonathan Strahan, Gordon Van Gelder, Ellen Datlow, Peter Crowther, Nicolas Gevers, Jack Dann, Mark Pontin, William Shaffer, Ian Whates, Mike Resnick, Andy Cox, Sean Wallace, Robert Wexler, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Torie Atkinson, Jed Hartman, Eric T. Reynolds, George Mann, Jennifer Brehl, Peter Tennant, Susan Marie Groppi, Karen Meisner, John Joseph Adams, Wendy S. Delmater, Rich Horton, Mark R. Kelly, Andrew Wilson, Damien Broderick, Gary Turner, Lou Anders, Cory Doctorow, Patrick Swenson, Bridget McKenna, Marti McKenna, Jay Lake, Sheila Williams, Brian Bieniowski, Trevor Quachri, Alastair Reynolds, Michael Swanwick, Stephen Baxter, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Nancy Kress, Greg Egan, Ian McDonald, Paul McAuley, Ted Kosmatka, Paolo Bacigalupi, Elizabeth Bear, Robert Reed, Vandana Singh, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Daryl Gregory, James Alan Gardner, Maureen McHugh, L. Timmel Duchamp, Walter Jon Williams, Jeff VanderMeer, Gwyneth Jones, Dominic Green, William Sanders, Lawrence Watt-Evans, David D. Levine, Liz Williams, Geoff Ryman, Paul Brazier, Charles Coleman Finlay, Gord Sellar, Steven Utley, James L. Cambias, Garth Nix, David Hartwell, Ginjer Buchanan, Susan Allison, Shawna McCarthy, Kelly Link, Gavin Grant, John Klima, John O’Neill, Rodger Turner, Tyree Campbell, Stuart Mayne, John Kenny, Edmund Schubert, Tehani Wessely, Tehani Croft, Karl Johanson, Sally Beasley, Connor Cochran, Tony Lee, Joe Vas, John Pickrell, Ian Redman, Anne Zanoni, Kaolin Fire, Ralph Benko, Paul Graham Raven, Nick Wood, David Moles, Mike Allen, Jason Sizemore, Karl Johanson, Sue Miller, David Lee Summers, Christopher M. Cevasco, Tyree Campbell, Andrew Hook, Vaughne Lee Hansen, Mark Watson, Sarah Lumnah, and special thanks to my own editor, Marc Resnick. Thanks are also due to Charles N. Brown, whose magazine Locus (Locus Publications, P. O. Box 13305, Oakland, CA 94661. $60 in the United States for a one-year subscription [twelve issues] via second class; credit card orders 510-339-9198) was used as an invaluable reference source throughout the summation; Locus Online (locusmag.com), edited by Mark R. Kelly, has also become a key reference source.
Stephen Baxter made his first sale to Interzone in 1987, and since then has become one of that magazine’s most frequent contributors, as well as making sales to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Science Fiction Age, Analog, Zenith, New Worlds, and elsewhere. He’s one of the most prolific new writers in science fiction, and is rapidly becoming one of the most popular and acclaimed of them as well, one who works on the cutting edge of science, whose fiction bristles with weird new ideas, and often takes place against vistas of almost outrageously cosmic scope. Baxter’s first novel, Raft, was released in 1991, and was rapidly followed by other well-received novels such as Timelike Infinity, Anti-Ice, Flux, and the H. G. Wells pastiche – a sequel to The Time Machine – The Time Ships, which won both the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. His other books include the novels Voyage, Titan, Moonseed, Mammoth, Book One: Silverhair, Manifold: Time, Manifold: Space, Evolution, Coalescent, Exultant, Transcendent, Emperor, Resplendent, Conqueror, Navagator, Firstborn, and The H-Bomb Girl, and two novels in collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, The Light of Other Days and Time’s Eye, a Time Odyssey. His short fiction has been collected in Vacuum Diagrams: Stories of the Xeelee Sequence, Traces, and Hunters of Pangaea, and he has released a chapbook novella, Mayflower II. Coming up are several new novels, including Weaver, Flood, and Ark. As the disquieting story that follows suggests, perhaps it’s better if the search for extraterrestrial intelligence doesn’t succeed. . .
ear the centre of the Moon’s far side there is a neat, round, welldefined crater called Daedalus. No human knew this existed before the middle of the twentieth century. It’s a bit of lunar territory as far as you can get from Earth, and about the quietest. That’s why the teams of astronauts from Europe, America, Russia and China went there. They smoothed over the floor of a crater ninety kilometres wide, laid sheets of metal mesh over the natural dish, and suspended feed horns and receiver systems on spidery scaffolding. And there you had
it, an instant radio telescope, by far the most powerful ever built: a superArecibo, dwarfing its mother in Puerto Rico. Before the astronauts left they christened their telescope Clarke. Now the telescope is a ruin, and much of the floor of Daedalus is covered by glass, Moon dust melted by multiple nuclear strikes. But, I’m told, if you were to look down from some slow lunar orbit you would see a single point of light glowing there, a star fallen to the Moon. One day the Moon will be gone, but that point will remain, silently orbiting Earth, a lunar memory. And in the further future, when the Earth has gone too, when the stars have burned out and the galaxies fled from the sky, still that point of light will shine. My brother Wilson never left the Earth. In fact he rarely left England. He was buried, what was left of him, in a grave next to our father’s, just outside Milton Keynes. But he made that point of light on the Moon, which will be the last legacy of all mankind. Talk about sibling rivalry. 2020 It was at my father’s funeral, actually, before Wilson had even begun his SETI searches, that the Clarke first came between us. There was a good turnout at the funeral, at an old church on the outskirts of Milton Keynes proper. Wilson and I were my father’s only children, but as well as his old friends there were a couple of surviving aunts and a gaggle of cousins mostly around our age, mid-twenties to mid-thirties, so there was a good crop of children, like little flowers. I don’t know if I’d say Milton Keynes is a good place to live. It certainly isn’t a good place to die. The city is a monument to planning, a concrete grid of avenues with very English names like Midsummer, now overlaid by the new monorail. It’s so clean it makes death seem a social embarrassment, like a fart in a shopping mall. Maybe we need to be buried in ground dirty with bones. Our father had remembered, just, how the area was all villages and farmland before the Second World War. He had stayed on even after our mother died twenty years before he did, him and his memories made invalid by all the architecture. At the service I spoke of those memories – for instance how during the war a tough Home Guard had caught him sneaking into the grounds of Bletchley Park, not far away, scrumping apples while Alan Turing and the other geniuses were labouring over the Nazi codes inside the house. “Dad always said he wondered if he picked up a mathematical bug from Turing’s apples,” I concluded, “because, he would say, for sure Wilson’s brain didn’t come from him.” “Your brain too,” Wilson said when he collared me later outside the church. He hadn’t spoken at the service; that wasn’t his style. “You should have mentioned that. I’m not the only mathematical nerd in the family.” It was a difficult moment. My wife and I had just been introduced to Hannah, the two-year-old daughter of a cousin. Hannah had been born pro-
foundly deaf, and we adults in our black suits and dresses were awkwardly copying her parents’ bits of sign language. Wilson just walked through this lot to get to me, barely glancing at the little girl with the wide smile who was the centre of attention. I led him away to avoid any offence. He was thirty then, a year older than me, taller, thinner, edgier. Others have said we were more similar than I wanted to believe. He had brought nobody with him to the funeral, and that was a relief. His partners could be male or female, his relationships usually destructive; his companions were like unexploded bombs walking into the room. “Sorry if I got the story wrong,” I said, a bit caustically. “Dad and his memories, all those stories he told over and over. Well, it’s the last time I’ll hear about Turing’s apples!” That thought hurt me. “We’ll remember. I suppose I’ll tell it to Eddie and Sam some day.” My own little boys. “They won’t listen. Why should they? Dad will fade away. Everybody fades away. The dead get deader.” He was talking about his own father, whom we had just buried. “Listen, have you heard they’re putting the Clarke through its acceptance test run? . . .” And, there in the churchyard, he actually pulled a handheld computer out of his inside jacket pocket and brought up a specification. “Of course you understand the importance of it being on Farside.” For the millionth time in my life he had set his little brother a pop quiz, and he looked at me as if I was catastrophically dumb. “Radio shadow,” I said. To be shielded from Earth’s noisy chatter was particularly important for SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence to which my brother was devoting his career. SETI searches for faint signals from remote civilizations, a task made orders of magnitude harder if you’re drowned out by very loud signals from a nearby civilization. He actually applauded my guess, sarcastically. He often reminded me of what had always repelled me about academia – the barely repressed bullying, the intense rivalry. A university is a chimp pack. That was why I was never tempted to go down that route. That, and maybe the fact that Wilson had gone that way ahead of me. I was faintly relieved when people started to move out of the churchyard. There was going to be a reception at my father’s home, and we had to go. “So are you coming for the cakes and sherry?” He glanced at the time on his handheld. “Actually I’ve somebody to meet.” “He or she?” He didn’t reply. For one brief moment he looked at me with honesty. “You’re better at this stuff than me.” “What stuff? Being human?” “Listen, the Clarke should be open for business in a month. Come on down to London; we can watch the first results.” “I’d like that.”
I was lying, and his invitation probably wasn’t sincere either. In the end it was over two years before I saw him again. By then he’d found the Eagle signal, and everything had changed. 2022 Wilson and his team quickly established that their brief signal, first detected just months after Clarke went operational, was coming from a source 6,500 light years from Earth, somewhere beyond a starbirth cloud called the Eagle Nebula. That’s a long way away, on the other side of the Galaxy’s next spiral arm in the Sagittarius. And to call the signal “brief” understates it. It was a second-long pulse, faint and hissy, and it repeated just once a year, roughly. It was a monument to robotic patience that the big lunar ear had picked up the damn thing at all. Still it was a genuine signal from ET, the scientists were jumping up and down, and for a while it was a public sensation. Within days somebody had rushed out a pop single inspired by the message: called “Eagle Song,” slow, dreamlike, littered with what sounded like sitars, and very beautiful. It was supposedly based on a Beatles master lost for five decades. It made number two. But the signal was just a squirt of noise from a long way off. When there was no follow-up, when no mother ship materialized in the sky, interest moved on. That song vanished from the charts. The whole business of the signal turned out to be your classic nine-day wonder. Wilson invited me in on the tenth day. That was why I was resentful, I guess, as I drove into town that morning to visit him. The Clarke Institute’s ground station was in one of the huge glass follies thrown up along the banks of the Thames in the profligate boomcapitalism days of the noughties. Now office space was cheap enough even for academics to rent, but central London was a fortress, with mandatory crawl lanes so your face could be captured by the surveillance cameras. I was in the counter-terror business myself, and I could see the necessity as I edged past St Paul’s, whose dome had been smashed like an egg by the Carbon Cowboys’ bomb of 2018. But the slow ride left me plenty of time to brood on how many more important people Wilson had shown off to before he got around to his brother. Wilson never was loyal that way. Wilson’s office could have been any modern data-processing installation, save for the all-sky projection of the cosmic background radiation painted on the ceiling. Wilson sat me down and offered me a can of warm Coke. An audio transposition of the signal was playing on an open laptop, over and over. It sounded like waves lapping at a beach. Wilson looked like he hadn’t shaved for three days, slept for five, or changed his shirt in ten. He listened, rapt. Even Wilson and his team hadn’t known about the detection of the signal for a year. The Clarke ran autonomously; the astronauts who built it had long since packed up and come home. A year earlier the telescope’s
signal processors had spotted the pulse, a whisper of microwaves. There was structure in there, and evidence that the beam was collimated – it looked artificial. But the signal faded after just a second. Most previous SETI searchers had listened for strong, continuous signals, and would have given up at that point. But what about a lighthouse, sweeping a microwave beam around the Galaxy like a searchlight? That, so Wilson had explained to me, would be a much cheaper way for a transmitting civilization to send to a lot more stars. So, based on that economic argument, the Clarke was designed for patience. It had waited a whole year. It had even sent requests to other installations, asking them to keep an electronic eye out in case the Clarke, stuck in its crater, happened to be looking the other way when the signal recurred. In the end it struck lucky and found the repeat pulse itself, and at last alerted its human masters. “We’re hot favourites for the Nobel,” Wilson said, matter of fact. I felt like having a go at him. “Probably everybody out there has forgotten about your signal already.” I waved a hand at the huge glass windows; the office, meant for fat-cat hedge fund managers, had terrific views of the river, the Houses of Parliament, the tangled wreck of the London Eye. “Okay, it’s proof of existence, but that’s all.” He frowned at that. “Well, that’s not true. Actually we’re looking for more data in the signal. It is very faint, and there’s a lot of scintillation from the interstellar medium. We’re probably going to have to wait for a few more passes to get a better resolution.” “A few more passes? A few more years!” “But even without that there’s a lot we can tell just from the signal itself.” He pulled up charts on his laptop. “For a start we can deduce the Eaglets’ technical capabilities and power availability, given that we believe they’d do it as cheaply as possible. This analysis is related to an old model called Benford beacons.” He pointed to a curve minimum. “Look – we figure they are pumping a few hundred megawatts through an array kilometres across, probably comparable to the one we’ve got listening on the Moon. Sending out pulses around the plane of the Galaxy, where most of the stars lie. We can make other guesses.” He leaned back and took a slug of his Coke, dribbling a few drops to add to the collection of stains on his shirt. “The search for ET was always guided by philosophical principles and logic. Now we have this one data point, the Eaglets 6,000 light years away, we can test those principles.” “Such as?” “The principle of plenitude. We believed that because life and intelligence arose on this Earth, they ought to arise everywhere they can. Here’s one validation of that principle. Then there’s the principle of mediocrity.” I remembered enough of my studies to recall that. “We aren’t at any special place in space and time.” “Right. Turns out, given this one data point, it’s not likely to hold too well.” “Why do you say that?”
“Because we found these guys in the direction of the centre of the Galaxy . . .” When the Galaxy was young, star formation was most intense at its core. Later a wave of starbirth swept out through the disc, with the heavy elements necessary for life baked in the hearts of dead stars and driven on a wind of supernovas. So the stars inward of us are older than the sun, and are therefore likely to have been harbours for life much longer. “We would expect to see a concentration of old civilizations towards the centre of the Galaxy. This one example validates that.” He eyed me, challenging. “We can even guess how many technological, transmitting civilizations there are in the Galaxy.” “From this one instance?” I was practised at this kind of contest between us. “Well, let’s see. The Galaxy is a disc a 100,000 light years across, roughly. If all the civilizations are an average of 6,000 light years apart – divide the area of the Galaxy by the area of a disc of diameter 6,000 light years – around three hundred?” He smiled. “Very good.” “So we’re not typical,” I said. “We’re young, and out in the suburbs. All that from a single microwave pulse.” “Of course most ordinary people are too dumb to be able to appreciate logic like that. That’s why they aren’t rioting in the streets.” He said this casually. Language like that always made me wince, even when we were undergraduates. But he had a point. Besides, I had the feeling that most people had already believed in their gut that ET existed; this was a confirmation, not a shock. You might blame Hollywood for that, but Wilson sometimes speculated that we were looking for our lost brothers. All those other hominid species, those other kinds of mind, that we killed off one by one, just as in my lifetime we had destroyed the chimps in the wild – sentient tool-using beings, hunted down for bushmeat. We evolved on a crowded planet, and we missed them all. “A lot of people are speculating about whether the Eaglets have souls,” I said. “According to Saint Thomas Aquinas —” He waved away Saint Thomas Aquinas. “You know, in a way our feelings behind SETI were always theological, explicitly or not. We were looking for God in the sky, or some technological equivalent. Somebody who would care about us. But we were never going to find Him. We were going to find either emptiness, or a new category of being, between us and the angels. The Eaglets have got nothing to do with us, or our dreams of God. That’s what people don’t see. And that’s what people will have to deal with, ultimately.” He glanced at the ceiling, and I guessed he was looking towards the Eagle nebula. “And they won’t be much like us. Hell of a place they live in. Not like here. The Sagittarius arm wraps a whole turn around the Galaxy’s core, full of dust and clouds and young stars. Why, the Eagle nebula itself is lit up by stars only a few million years old. Must be a tremendous sky, like a slow explosion – not like our sky of orderly wheeling pinpoints,
which is like the inside of a computer. No wonder we began with astrology and astronomy. How do you imagine their thinking will be different, having evolved under such a different sky?” I grunted. “We’ll never know. Not for 6,000 years at least.” “Maybe. Depends what data we find in the signal. You want another Coke?” But I hadn’t opened the first. That was how that day went. We talked of nothing but the signal, not how he was, who he was dating, not about my family, my wife and the boys – all of us learning sign, incidentally, to talk to little Hannah. The Eagle signal was inhuman, abstract. Nothing you could see or touch; you couldn’t even hear it without fancy signal processing. But it was all that filled his head. That was Wilson all over. This was, in retrospect, the happiest time of his life. God help him. 2026 “You want my help, don’t you?” Wilson stood on my doorstep, wearing a jacket and shambolic tie, every inch the academic. He looked shifty. “How do you know?” “Why else would you come here? You never visit.” Well, it was true. He hardly ever even mailed or called. I didn’t think my wife and kids had seen him since our father’s funeral six years earlier. He thought that over, then grinned. “A reasonable deduction, given past observation. Can I come in?” I took him through the living room on the way to my home study. The boys, then twelve and thirteen, were playing a hologram boxing game, with two wavering foot-tall prize fighters mimicking the kids’ actions in the middle of the carpet. I introduced Wilson. They barely remembered him and I wasn’t sure if he remembered them. I hurried him on. The boys signed to each other What a dork, roughly translated. Wilson noticed the signing. “What are they doing? Some kind of private game?” I wasn’t surprised he wouldn’t know. “That’s British Sign Language. We’ve been learning it for years – actually since Dad’s funeral, when we hooked up with Barry and his wife, and we found out they had a little deaf girl. Hannah, do you remember? She’s eight now. We’ve all been learning to talk to her. The kids find it fun, I think. You know, it’s an irony that you’re involved in a billion-pound project to talk to aliens six thousand light years away, yet it doesn’t trouble you that you can’t speak to a little girl in your own family.” He looked at me blankly. I was mouthing words that obviously meant nothing to him, intellectually or emotionally. That was Wilson. He just started talking about work. “We’ve got six years’ worth of data now – six pulses, each a second long. There’s a lot of information in there. They use a technique like our own wave-length division multiplexing,
with the signal divided into sections each a kilohertz or so wide. We’ve extracted gigabytes . . .” I gave up. I went and made a pot of coffee, and brought it back to the study. When I returned he was still standing where I’d left him, like a switched-off robot. He took a coffee and sat down. I prompted, “Gigabytes?” “Gigabytes. By comparison the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica is just one gigabyte. The problem is we can’t make sense of it.” “How do you know it’s not just noise?” “We have techniques to test for that. Information theory. Based on experiments to do with talking to dolphins, actually.” He dug a handheld out of his pocket and showed me some of the results. The first was simple enough, called a “Zipf graph”. You break your message up into what look like components – maybe words, letters, phonemes in English. Then you do a frequency count: how many letter As, how many Es, how many Rs. If you have random noise you’d expect roughly equal numbers of the letters, so you’d get a flat distribution. If you have a clean signal without information content, a string of identical letters, A, A, A, you’d get a graph with a spike. Meaningful information gives you a slope, somewhere in between those horizontal and vertical extremes. “And we get a beautiful log-scale minus one power law,” he said, showing me. “There’s information in there all right. But there is a lot of controversy over identifying the elements themselves. The Eaglets did not send down neat binary code. The data is frequency modulated, their language full of growths and decays. More like a garden growing on fast-forward than any human data stream. I wonder if it has something to do with that young sky of theirs. Anyhow, after the Zipf, we tried a Shannon entropy analysis.” This is about looking for relationships between the signal elements. You work out conditional probabilities: given pairs of elements, how likely is it that you’ll see U following Q? Then you go on to higher-order “entropy levels”, in the jargon, starting with triples: how likely is it to find G following I and N? “As a comparison, dolphin languages get to third- or fourth-order entropy. We humans get to eighth or ninth.” “And the Eaglets?” “The entropy level breaks our assessment routines. We think it’s around order thirty.” He regarded me, seeing if I understood. “It is information, but much more complex than any human language. It might be like English sentences with a fantastically convoluted structure – triple or quadruple negatives, overlapping clauses, tense changes.” He grinned. “Or triple entendres. Or quadruples.” “They’re smarter than us.” “Oh, yes. And this is proof, if we needed it, that the message isn’t meant specifically for us.” “Because if it were, they’d have dumbed it down. How smart do you think they are? Smarter than us, certainly, but —”
“Are there limits? Well, maybe. You might imagine that an older culture would plateau, once they’ve figured out the essential truths of the universe, and a technology optimal for their needs . . . There’s no reason to think progress need be onward and upward forever. Then again perhaps there are fundamental limits to information processing. Perhaps a brain that gets too complex is prone to crashes and overloads. There may be a trade-off between complexity and stability.” I poured him more coffee. “I went to Cambridge. I’m used to being with entities smarter than I am. Am I supposed to feel demoralized?” He grinned. “That’s up to you. But the Eaglets are a new category of being for us. This isn’t like the Incas meeting the Spaniards, a mere technological gap. They had a basic humanity in common. We may find the gulf between us and the Eaglets is forever unbridgeable. Remember how Dad used to read Gulliver’s Travels to us?” The memory made me smile. “Those talking horses used to scare the wits out of me. They were genuinely smarter than us. And how did Gulliver react to them? He was totally overawed. He tried to imitate them, and even after they kicked him out he always despised his own kind, because they weren’t as good as the horses.” “The revenge of Mister Ed,” I said. But he never was much good at that kind of humour. “Maybe that will be the way for us – we’ll ape the Eaglets or defy them. Maybe the mere knowledge that a race smarter than your own exists is death.” “Is all this being released to the public?” “Oh, yes. We’re affiliated to NASA, and they have an explicit open-book policy. Besides the Institute is as leaky as hell. There’s no point even trying to keep it quiet. But we’re releasing the news gradually and soberly. Nobody’s noticing much. You hadn’t, had you?” “So what do you think the signal is? Some kind of superencyclopaedia?” He snorted. “Maybe. That’s the fond hope among the contact optimists. But when the European colonists turned up on foreign shores, their first impulse wasn’t to hand over encyclopaedias or histories, but —” “Bibles.” “Yes. It could be something less disruptive than that. A vast work of art, for instance. Why would they send such a thing? Maybe it’s a funeral pyre. Or a pharaoh’s tomb, full of treasure. Look: we were here, this is how good we became.” “So what do you want of me?” He faced me. I thought it was clear he was trying to figure out, in his clumsy way, how to get me to do whatever it was he wanted. “Well, what do you think? This makes translating the most obscure human language a cakewalk, and we’ve got nothing like a Rosetta stone. Look, Jack, our information processing suites at the Institute are pretty smart theoretically, but they are limited. Running off processors and memory store not much
beefier than this.” He waved his handheld. “Whereas the software brutes that do your data mining are an order of magnitude more powerful.” The software I developed and maintained mined the endless torrents of data culled on every individual in the country, from your minute-to-minute movements on private or public transport to the porn you accessed and how you hid it from your partner. We tracked your patterns of behaviour, and deviations from those patterns. “Terrorist” is a broad label, but it suited to describe the modern phenomenon we were looking for. The terrorists were needles in a haystack, of which the rest of us were the millions of straws. This continual live data mining took up monstrous memory storage and processing power. A few times I’d visited the big Home Office computers in their hardened bunkers under New Scotland Yard: giant superconducting neural nets suspended in rooms so cold your breath crackled. There was nothing like it in the private sector, or in academia. Which, I realized, was why Wilson had come to me today. “You want me to run your ET signal through my data mining suites, don’t you?” He immediately had me hooked, but I wasn’t about to admit it. I might have rejected the academic life, but I think curiosity burned in me as strongly as it ever did in Wilson. “How do you imagine I’d get permission for that?” He waved that away as a technicality of no interest. “What we’re looking for is patterns embedded deep in the data, layers down, any kind of recognisable starter for us in decoding the whole thing . . . Obviously software designed to look for patterns in the way I use my travel cards is going to have to be adapted to seek useful correlations in the Eaglet data. It will be an unprecedented challenge. “In a way that’s a good thing. It will likely take generations to decode this stuff, if we ever do, the way it took the Renaissance Europeans generations to make sense of the legacy of antiquity. The sheer time factor is a culture-shock prophylactic. “So are you going to bend the rules for me, Jack? Come on, man. Remember what Dad said. Solving puzzles like this is what we do. We both ate Turing’s apples . . .” He wasn’t entirely without guile. He knew how to entice me. He turned out to be wrong about the culture shock, however. 2029 Two armed coppers escorted me through the Institute building. The big glass box was entirely empty save for me and the coppers and a sniffer dog. The morning outside was bright, a cold spring day, the sky a serene blue, elevated from Wilson’s latest madness. Wilson was sitting in the Clarke project office, beside a screen across which data displays flickered. He had big slabs of Semtex strapped around his waist, and some kind of dead man’s trigger in his hand. My brother,
reduced at last to a cliché suicide bomber. The coppers stayed safely outside. “We’re secure.” Wilson glanced around. “They can see us but they can’t hear us. I’m confident of that. My firewalls —” When I walked towards him he held up his hands. “No closer. I’ll blow it, I swear.” “Christ, Wilson.” I stood still, shut up, and deliberately calmed down. I knew that my boys, now in their teens, would be watching every move on the spy-hack news channels. Maybe nobody could hear us, but Hannah, now a beautiful eleven-year-old, had plenty of friends who could read lips. That would never occur to Wilson. If I was to die today, here with my lunatic of a brother, I wasn’t going to let my boys remember their father broken by fear. I sat down, as close to Wilson as I could get. I tried to keep my head down, my lips barely moving when I spoke. There was a six-pack of warm soda on the bench. I think I’ll always associate warm soda with Wilson. I took one, popped the tab and sipped; I could taste nothing. “You want one?” “No,” he said bitterly. “Make yourself at home.” “What a fucking idiot you are, Wilson. How did it ever come to this?” “You should know. You helped me.” “And by God I’ve regretted it ever since,” I snarled back at him. “You got me sacked, you moron. And since France, every nut job on the planet has me targeted, and my kids. We have police protection.” “Don’t blame me. You chose to help me.” I stared at him. “That’s called loyalty. A quality which you, entirely lacking it yourself, see only as a weakness to exploit.” “Well, whatever. What does it matter now? Look, Jack, I need your help.” “This is turning into a pattern.” He glanced at his screen. “I need you to buy me time, to give me a chance to complete this project.” “Why should I care about your project?” “It’s not my project. It never has been. Surely you understand that much. It’s the Eaglets’ . . .” Everything had changed in the three years since I had begun to run Wilson’s message through the big Home Office computers under New Scotland Yard – all under the radar of my bosses; they’d never have dared risk exposing their precious supercooled brains to such unknowns. Well, Wilson had been right. My data mining had quickly turned up recurring segments, chunks of organised data differing only in detail. And it was Wilson’s intuition that these things were bits of executable code: programs you could run. Even as expressed in the Eaglets’ odd flowing language, he thought he recognised logical loops, start and stop statements. Mathematics may or may not be universal, but computing seems to be – my brother had found Turing machines, buried deep in an alien database. Wilson translated the segments into a human mathematical programming language, and set them to run on a dedicated processor. They turned
out to be like viruses. Once downloaded on almost any computer substrate they organised themselves, investigated their environment, started to multiply, and quickly grew, accessing the data banks that had been downloaded from the stars with them. Then they started asking questions of the operators: simple yes-no, true-false exchanges that soon built up a common language. “The Eaglets didn’t send us a message,” Wilson had whispered to me on the phone in the small hours; at the height of it he worked twenty-four seven. “They downloaded an AI. And now the AI is learning to speak to us.” It was a way to resolve a ferocious communications challenge. The Eaglets were sending their message to the whole Galaxy; they knew nothing about the intelligence, cultural development, or even the physical form of their audiences. So they sent an all-purpose artificial mind embedded in the information stream itself, able to learn and start a local dialogue with the receivers. This above all else proved to me how smart the Eaglets must be. It didn’t comfort me at all that some commentators pointed out that this “Hoyle strategy” had been anticipated by some human thinkers; it’s one thing to anticipate, another to build. I wondered if those viruses found it a challenge to dumb down their message for creatures capable of only ninthorder Shannon entropy, as we were. We were soon betrayed. For running the Eaglet data through the Home Office mining suites I was sacked, arrested, and bailed on condition I went back to work on the Eaglet stuff under police supervision. And of course the news that there was information in the Eaglets’ beeps leaked almost immediately. A new era of popular engagement with the signal began; the chatter became intense. But because only the Clarke telescope could pick up the signal, the scientists at the Clarke Institute and the consortium of governments they answered to were able to keep control of the information itself. And that information looked as if it would become extremely valuable. The Eaglets’ programming and data compression techniques, what we could make of them, had immediate commercial value. When patented by the UK government and licensed, an information revolution began that added a billion euros to Britain’s balance of payments in the first year. Governments and corporations outside the loop of control jumped up and down with fury. And then Wilson and his team started to publish what they were learning of the Eaglets themselves. We don’t know anything about what they look like, how they live – or even if they’re corporeal or not. But they are old, vastly old compared to us. Their cultural records go back a million years, maybe ten times as long as we’ve been human, and even then they built their civilization on the ruins of others. But they regard themselves as a young species. They live in awe of older ones, whose presence they have glimpsed deep in the turbulent core of the Galaxy.
Not surprisingly, the Eaglets are fascinated by time and its processes. One of Wilson’s team foolishly speculated that the Eaglets actually made a religion of time, deifying the one universal that will erode us all in the end. That caused a lot of trouble. Some people took up the time creed with enthusiasm. They looked for parallels in human philosophies, the Hindu and the Mayan. If the Eaglets really were smarter than us, they said, they must be closer to the true god, and we should follow them. Others, led by the conventional religions, moved sharply in the opposite direction. Minor wars broke out over a creed that was entirely unknown to humanity five years before, and which nobody on Earth understood fully. Then the economic dislocations began, as those new techniques for data handling made whole industries obsolescent. That was predictable; it was as if the aliens had invaded cyberspace, which was economically dominant over the physical world. Luddite types began sabotaging the software houses turning out the new-generation systems, and battles broke out in the corporate universe, themselves on the economic scale of small wars. “This is the danger of speed,” Wilson had said to me, just weeks before he wired himself up with Semtex. “If we’d been able to take it slow, unwrapping the message would have been more like an exercise in normal science, and we could have absorbed it. Grown with it. Instead, thanks to the viruses, it’s been like a revelation, a pouring of holy knowledge into our heads. Revelations tend to be destabilizing. Look at Jesus. Three centuries after the Crucifixion Christianity had taken over the whole Roman empire.” Amid all the economic, political, religious and philosophical turbulence, if anybody had dreamed that knowing the alien would unite us around our common humanity, they were dead wrong. Then a bunch of Algerian patriots used pirated copies of the Eaglet viruses to hammer the electronic infrastructure of France’s major cities. As everything from sewage to air traffic control crashed, the country was simultaneously assaulted with train bombs, bugs in the water supply, a dirty nuke in Orleans. It was a force-multiplier attack, in the jargon; the toll of death and injury was a shock, even by the standards of the third decade of the bloody twenty-first century. And our counter-measures were useless in the face of the Eaglet viruses. That was when the governments decided the Eaglet project had to be shut down, or at the very least put under tight control. But Wilson, my brother, wasn’t having any of that. “None of this is the fault of the Eaglets, Jack,” he said now, an alien apologist with Semtex strapped to his waist. “They didn’t mean to harm us in any way.” “Then what do they want?” “Our help . . .” And he was going to provide it. With, in turn, my help. “Why me? I was sacked, remember.” “They’ll listen to you. The police. Because you’re my brother. You’re useful.”
“Useful? . . .” At times Wilson seemed unable to see people as anything other than useful robots, even his own family. I sighed. “Tell me what you want.” “Time,” he said, glancing at his screen, the data and status summaries scrolling across it. “The great god of the Eaglets, remember? Just a little more time.” “How much?” He checked. “Twenty-four hours would let me complete this download. That’s an outside estimate. Just stall them. Keep them talking, stay here with me. Make them think you’re making progress in talking me out of it.” “While the actual progress is being made by that.” I nodded at the screen. “What are you doing here, Wilson? What’s it about?” “I don’t know all of it. There are hints in the data. Subtexts sometimes . . .” He was whispering. “Subtexts about what?” “About what concerns the Eaglets. Jack, what do you imagine a longlived civilization wants? If you could think on very long timescales you would be concerned about threats that seem remote to us.” “An asteroid impact due in a thousand years, maybe? If I expected to live that long, or my kids —” “That kind of thing. But that’s not long enough, Jack, not nearly. In the data there are passages – poetry, maybe – that speak of the deep past and furthest future, the Big Bang that is echoed in the microwave background, the future that will be dominated by the dark energy expansion that will ultimately throw all the other galaxies over the cosmological horizon . . . The Eaglets think about these things, and not just as scientific hypotheses. They care about them. The dominance of their great god time. ‘The universe has no memory’.” “What does that mean?” “I’m not sure. A phrase in the message.” “So what are you downloading? And to where?” “The Moon,” he said frankly. “The Clarke telescope, on Farside. They want us to build something, Jack. Something physical, I mean. And with the fabricators and other maintenance gear at Clarke there’s a chance we could do it. I mean, it’s not the most advanced offworld robot facility; it’s only designed for maintenance and upgrade of the radio telescope —” “But it’s the facility you can get your hands on. You’re letting these Eaglet agents out of their virtual world and giving them a way to build something real. Don’t you think that’s dangerous?” “Dangerous how?” And he laughed at me and turned away. I grabbed his shoulders and swivelled him around in his chair. “Don’t you turn away from me, you fucker. You’ve been doing that all our lives. You know what I mean. Why, the Eaglets’ software alone is making a mess of the world. What if this is some kind of Trojan horse – a Doomsday weapon they’re getting us suckers to build ourselves?” “It’s hardly likely that an advanced culture —”
“Don’t give me that contact-optimist bullshit. You don’t believe it yourself. And even if you did, you don’t know for sure. You can’t.” “No. All right.” He pulled away from me. “I can’t know. Which is one reason why I set the thing going up on the Moon, not Earth. Call it a quarantine. If we don’t like whatever it is, there’s at least a chance we could contain it up there. Yes, there’s a risk. But the rewards are unknowable, and huge.” He looked at me, almost pleading for me to understand. “We have to go on. This is the Eaglets’ project, not ours. Ever since we unpacked the message, this story has been about them, not us. That’s what dealing with a superior intelligence means. It’s like those religious nuts say. We know the Eaglets are orders of magnitude smarter than us. Shouldn’t we trust them? Shouldn’t we help them achieve their goal, even if we don’t understand precisely what it is?” “This ends now.” I reached for the keyboard beside me. “Tell me how to stop the download.” “No.” He sat firm, that trigger clutched in his right hand. “You won’t use that. You wouldn’t kill us both. Not for something so abstract, inhuman —” “Superhuman,” he breathed. “Not inhuman. Superhuman. Oh, I would. You’ve known me all your life, Jack. Look into my eyes. I’m not like you. Do you really doubt me?” And, looking at him, I didn’t. So we sat there, the two of us, a face-off. I stayed close enough to overpower him if he gave me the slightest chance. And he kept his trigger before my face. Hour after hour. In the end it was time that defeated him, I think, the Eaglets’ invisible god. That and fatigue. I’m convinced he didn’t mean to release the trigger. Only seventeen hours had elapsed, of the twenty-four he asked for, when his thumb slipped. I tried to turn away. That small, instinctive gesture was why I lost a leg, a hand, an eye, all on my right side. And I lost a brother. But when the forensics guys had finished combing through the wreckage, they were able to prove that the seventeen hours had been enough for Wilson’s download. 2033 It took a month for NASA, ESA and the Chinese to send up a lunar orbiter to see what was going on. The probe found that Wilson’s download had caused the Clarke fabricators to start making stuff. At first they made other machines, more specialized, from what was lying around in the workshops and sheds. These in turn made increasingly tiny versions of themselves, heading steadily down to the nano scale. In the end the work was so fine only an astronaut on the ground might have had a chance of even seeing it. Nobody dared send in a human.
Meanwhile the machines banked up Moon dust and scrap to make a high-energy facility – something like a particle accelerator or a fusion torus, but not. Then the real work started. The Eaglet machines took a chunk of Moon rock and crushed it, turning its mass-energy into a spacetime artefact – something like a black hole, but not. They dropped it into the body of the Moon, where it started accreting, sucking in material, like a black hole, and budding off copies of itself, unlike a black hole. Gradually these objects began converting the substance of the Moon into copies of themselves. The glowing point of light we see at the centre of Clarke is leaked radiation from this process. The governments panicked. A nuclear warhead was dug out of cold store and dropped plumb into Daedalus Crater. The explosion was spectacular. But when the dust subsided that pale, unearthly spark was still there, unperturbed. As the cluster of nano artefacts grows, the Moon’s substance will be consumed at an exponential rate. Centuries, a millennium tops, will be enough to consume it all. And Earth will be orbited, not by its ancient companion, but by a spacetime artefact, like a black hole, but not. That much seems well established by the physicists. There is less consensus as to the purpose of the artefact. Here’s my guess. The Moon artefact will be a recorder. Wilson said the Eaglets feared the universe has no memory. I think he meant that, right now, in our cosmic epoch, we can still see relics of the universe’s birth, echoes of the Big Bang, in the microwave background glow. And we also see evidence of the expansion to come, in the recession of the distant galaxies. We discovered both these basic features of the universe, its past and its future, in the twentieth century. There will come a time – the cosmologists quote hundreds of billions of years – when the accelerating recession will have taken all those distant galaxies over our horizon. So we will be left with just the local group, the Milky Way and Andromeda and bits and pieces, bound together by gravity. The cosmic expansion will be invisible. And meanwhile the background glow will have become so attenuated you won’t be able to pick it out of the faint glow of the interstellar medium. So in that remote epoch you wouldn’t be able to repeat the twentiethcentury discoveries; you couldn’t glimpse past or future. That’s what the Eaglets mean when they say the universe has no memory. And I believe they are countering it. They, and those like Wilson that they co-opt into helping them, are carving time capsules out of folded spacetime. At some future epoch these will evaporate, maybe through something like Hawking radiation, and will reveal the truth of the universe to whatever eyes are there to see it. Of course it occurs to me – this is Wilson’s principle of mediocrity – that ours might not be the only epoch with a privileged view of the cosmos. Just
after the Big Bang there was a pulse of “inflation”, superfast expansion that homogenized the universe and erased details of whatever came before. Maybe we should be looking for other time boxes, left for our benefit by the inhabitants of those early realms. The Eaglets are conscious entities trying to give the universe a memory. Perhaps there is even a deeper purpose: it may be intelligence’s role to shape the ultimate evolution of the universe, but you can’t do that if you’ve forgotten what went before. Not every commentator agrees with my analysis, as above. The interpretation of the Eaglet data has always been uncertain. Maybe even Wilson wouldn’t agree. Well, since it’s my suggestion he would probably argue with me by sheer reflex. I suppose it’s possible to care deeply about the plight of hypothetical beings a hundred billion years hence. In one sense we ought to; their epoch is our inevitable destiny. Wilson certainly did care, enough to kill himself for it. But this is a project so vast and cold that it can engage only a semi-immortal supermind like an Eaglet’s – or a modern human who is functionally insane. What matters most to me is the now. The sons who haven’t yet aged and crumbled to dust, playing football under a sun that hasn’t yet burned to a cinder. The fact that all this is transient makes it more precious, not less. Maybe our remote descendants in a hundred billion years will find similar brief happiness under their black and unchanging sky. If I could wish one thing for my lost brother it would be that I could be sure he felt this way, this alive, just for one day. Just for one minute. Because, in the end, that’s all we’ve got.
From BaBel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
Michael Swanwick made his debut in 1980, and in the twentyeight 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 won the Theodore Sturgeon Award and the Asimov’s Readers Award poll. In 1991, his novel Stations of the Tide won him a Nebula Award as well, and in 1995 he won the World Fantasy Award for his story “Radio Waves.” He won the Hugo Award five times between 1999 and 2006 for his stories “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur,” “The Dog Said Bow-Wow,” “Slow Life,” and “Legions In Time.” His other books include the novels In The Drift, Vacuum Flowers, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Jack Faust, and Bones of the Earth. His short fiction has been assembled in Gravity’s Angels, A Geography of Unknown Lands, Slow Dancing Through Time, Moon Dogs, Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary, Tales of Old Earth, Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures, Michael Swanwick’s Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna, and The Periodic Table of SF. His most recent books are a new novel, The Dragons of Babel, and a massive retrospective collection, The Best of Michael Swanwick. Swanwick lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter. He has a website at: michaelswanwick.com. In the suspenseful story that follows, he shows us that the important thing to keep in mind when dealing with aliens is that they are, well, alien. magine a cross between Byzantium and a termite mound. Imagine a jewelled mountain, slender as an icicle, rising out of the steam jungles and disappearing into the dazzling pearl-grey skies of Gehenna. Imagine that Gaudí – he of the Sagrada Família and other biomorphic architectural whimsies – had been commissioned by a nightmare race of giant black millipedes to recreate Barcelona at the height of its glory, along with touches
From Babel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
of the Forbidden City in the eighteenth century and Tokyo in the twentysecond, all within a single miles-high structure. Hold every bit of that in your mind at once, multiply by a thousand, and you’ve got only the faintest ghost of a notion of the splendour that was Babel. Now imagine being inside Babel when it fell. Hello. I’m Rosamund. I’m dead. I was present in human form when it happened and as a simulation chaotically embedded within a liquid crystal data-matrix then and thereafter up to the present moment. I was killed instantly when the meteors hit. I saw it all. Rosamund means “rose of the world”. It’s the third most popular female name on Europa, after Gaea and Virginia Dare. For all our elaborate sophistication, we wear our hearts on our sleeves, we Europans. Here’s what it was like: “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” “Wha —?” Carlos Quivera sat up, shedding rubble. He coughed, choked, shook his head. He couldn’t seem to think clearly. An instant ago he’d been standing in the chilled and pressurized embassy suite, conferring with Arsenio. Now . . . “How long have I been asleep?” “Unconscious. Ten hours,” his suit (that’s me – Rosamund!) said. It had taken that long to heal his burns. Now it was shooting wake-up drugs into him: amphetamines, endorphins, attention enhancers, a witch’s brew of chemicals. Physically dangerous, but in this situation, whatever it might be, Quivera would survive by intelligence or not at all. “I was able to form myself around you before the walls ruptured. You were lucky.” “The others? Did the others survive?” “Their suits couldn’t reach them in time.” “Did Rosamund . . . ?” “All the others are dead.” Quivera stood. Even in the aftermath of disaster, Babel was an imposing structure. Ripped open and exposed to the outside air, a thousand rooms spilled over one another toward the ground. Bridges and buttresses jutted into gaping smoke-filled canyons created by the slow collapse of hexagonal support beams (this was new data; I filed it under Architecture, subheading: Support Systems with links to Esthetics and Xenopsychology) in a jumbled geometry that would have terrified Piranesi himself. Everywhere, gleaming black millies scurried over the rubble. Quivera stood. In the canted space about him, bits and pieces of the embassy rooms were identifiable: a segment of wood moulding, some velvet drapery now littered with chunks of marble, shreds of wallpaper (after a design by William Morris) now curling and browning in the heat. Human interior design was like nothing native to Gehenna and it had taken a great deal of labour and resources to make the embassy so pleasant for human habitation. The queen-mothers had been generous with everything but their trust.
Quivera stood. There were several corpses remaining as well, still recognizably human though they were blistered and swollen by the savage heat. These had been his colleagues (all of them), his friends (most of them), his enemies (two, perhaps three), and even his lover (one). Now they were gone, and it was as if they had been compressed into one indistinguishable mass, and his feelings toward them all as well: shock and sorrow and anger and survivor guilt all slagged together to become one savage emotion. Quivera threw back his head and howled. I had a reference point now. Swiftly, I mixed serotonin-precursors and injected them through a hundred microtubules into the appropriate areas of his brain. Deftly, they took hold. Quivera stopped crying. I had my metaphorical hands on the control knobs of his emotions. I turned him cold, cold, cold. “I feel nothing,” he said wonderingly. “Everyone is dead, and I feel nothing.” Then, flat as flat: “What kind of monster am I?” “My monster,” I said fondly. “My duty is to ensure that you and the information you carry within you get back to Europa. So I have chemically neutered your emotions. You must remain a meat puppet for the duration of this mission.” Let him hate me – I who have no true ego, but only a facsimile modelled after a human original – all that mattered now was bringing him home alive. “Yes.” Quivera reached up and touched his helmet with both hands, as if he would reach through it and feel his head to discover if it were as large as it felt. “That makes sense. I can’t be emotional at a time like this.” He shook himself, then strode out to where the gleaming black millies were scurrying by. He stepped in front of one, a least-cousin, to question it. The millie paused, startled. Its eyes blinked three times in its triangular face. Then, swift as a tickle, it ran up the front of his suit, down the back, and was gone before the weight could do more than buckle his knees. “Shit!” he said. Then, “Access the wiretaps. I’ve got to know what happened.” Passive wiretaps had been implanted months ago, but never used, the political situation being too tense to risk their discovery. Now his suit activated them to monitor what remained of Babel’s communications network: A demon’s chorus of pulsed messages surging through a shredded web of cables. Chaos, confusion, demands to know what had become of the queen-mothers. Analytic functions crunched data, synthesized, synopsized: “There’s an army outside with Ziggurat insignia. They’ve got the city surrounded. They’re killing the refugees.” “Wait, wait . . .” Quivera took a deep, shuddering breath. “Let me think.” He glanced briskly about and for the second time noticed the human bodies, ruptured and parboiled in the fallen plaster and porphyry. “Is one of those Rosamund?” “I’m dead, Quivera. You can mourn me later. Right now, survival is priority number one,” I said briskly. The suit added mood-stabilizers to his maintenance drip.
From Babel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
“Stop speaking in her voice.” “Alas, dear heart, I cannot. The suit’s operating on diminished function. It’s this voice or nothing.” He looked away from the corpses, eyes hardening. “Well, it’s not important.” Quivera was the sort of young man who was energized by war. It gave him permission to indulge his ruthless side. It allowed him to pretend he didn’t care. “Right now, what we have to do is —” “Uncle Vanya’s coming,” I said. “I can sense his pheromones.” Picture a screen of beads, crystal lozenges, and rectangular lenses. Behind that screen, a nightmare face like a cross between the front of a locomotive and a tree grinder. Imagine on that face (though most humans would be unable to read them) the lineaments of grace and dignity seasoned by cunning and, perhaps, a dash of wisdom. Trusted advisor to the queenmothers. Second only to them in rank. A wily negotiator and a formidable enemy. That was Uncle Vanya. Two small speaking-legs emerged from the curtain, and he said: ::(cautious) greetings:: | ::(Europan vice-consul 12)/Quivera/[treacherous vermin]:: | ::obligations <untranslatable> (grave duty):: | | ::demand/claim [action]:: ::promise (trust):: “Speak pidgin, damn you! This is no time for subtlety.” The speaking legs were very still for a long moment. Finally they moved again: ::The queen-mothers are dead:: “Then Babel is no more. I grieve for you.” ::I despise your grief:: A lean and chitinous appendage emerged from the beaded screen. From its tripartite claw hung a smooth white rectangle the size of a briefcase. ::I must bring this to (sister-city)/Ur/[absolute trust]:: “What is it?” A very long pause. Then, reluctantly ::Our library:: “Your library.” This was something new. Something unheard-of. Quivera doubted the translation was a good one. “What does it contain?” ::Our history. Our sciences. Our ritual dances. A record-of-kinship dating back to the (Void)/Origin/[void]. Everything that can be saved is here:: A thrill of avarice raced through Quivera. He tried to imagine how much this was worth, and could not. Values did not go that high. However much his superiors screwed him out of (and they would work very hard indeed to screw him out of everything they could) what remained would be enough to buy him out of debt, and do the same for a wife and their children after them as well. He did not think of Rosamund. “You won’t get through the army outside without my help,” he said. “I want the right to copy —”
How much did he dare ask for? “— three tenths of 1 per cent. Assignable solely to me. Not to Europa. To me.” Uncle Vanya dipped his head, so that they were staring face to face. ::You are (an evil creature)/[faithless]. I hate you:: Quivera smiled. “A relationship that starts out with mutual understanding has made a good beginning.” ::A relationship that starts out without trust will end badly:: “That’s as it may be.” Quivera looked around for a knife. “The first thing we have to do is castrate you.” This is what the genocides saw: They were burning pyramids of corpses outside the city when a Europan emerged, riding a gelded least-cousin. The soldiers immediately stopped stacking bodies and hurried toward him, flowing like quicksilver, calling for their superiors. The Europan drew up and waited. The officer who interrogated him spoke from behind the black glass visor of a delicate-legged war machine. He examined the Europan’s credentials carefully, though there could be no serious doubt as to his species. Finally, reluctantly, he signed ::You may pass:: “That’s not enough,” the Europan (Quivera!) said. “I’ll need transportation, an escort to protect me from wild animals in the steam jungles, and a guide to lead me to . . .” His suit transmitted the sign for ::(starport)/ Ararat/[trust-for-all]:: The officer’s speaking-legs thrashed in what might best be translated as scornful laughter. ::We will lead you to the jungle and no further/(hopefully-to-die)/[treacherous non-millipede]:: “Look who talks of treachery!” the Europan said (but of course I did not translate his words), and with a scornful wave of one hand, rode his neuter into the jungle. The genocides never bothered to look closely at his mount. Neutered least-cousins were beneath their notice. They didn’t even wear face-curtains, but went about naked for all the world to scorn. Black pillars billowed from the corpse-fires into a sky choked with smoke and dust. There were hundreds of fires and hundreds of pillars and, combined with the low cloud cover, they made all the world seem like the interior of a temple to a vengeful god. The soldiers from Ziggurat escorted him through the army and beyond the line of fires, where the steam jungles waited, verdant and threatening. As soon as the green darkness closed about them, Uncle Vanya twisted his head around and signed ::Get off me/vast humiliation/[lack-of-trust]:: “Not a chance,” Quivera said harshly. “I’ll ride you ’til sunset, and all day tomorrow and for a week after that. Those soldiers didn’t fly here, or you’d have seen them coming. They came through the steam forest on foot, and there’ll be stragglers.”
From Babel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
The going was difficult at first, and then easy, as they passed from a recently forested section of the jungle into a stand of old growth. The boles of the “trees” here were as large as those of the redwoods back on Earth, some specimens of which are as old as 5,000 years. The way wended back and forth. Scant sunlight penetrated through the canopy, and the steam quickly drank in what little light Quivera’s headlamp put out. Ten trees in, they would have been hopelessly lost had it not been for the suit’s navigational functions and the mapsats that fed it geodetic mathscapes accurate to a finger’s span of distance. Quivera pointed this out. “Learn now,” he said, “the true value of information.” ::Information has no value:: Uncle Vanya said ::without trust:: Quivera laughed. “In that case you must, all against your will, trust me.” To this Uncle Vanya had no answer. At nightfall, they slept on the sheltered side of one of the great parasequoias. Quivera took two refrigeration sticks from the saddlebags and stuck them upright in the dirt. Uncle Vanya immediately coiled himself around his and fell asleep. Quivera sat down beside him to think over the events of the day, but under the influence of his suit’s medication, he fell asleep almost immediately as well. All machines know that humans are happiest when they think least. In the morning, they set off again. The terrain grew hilly, and the old growth fell behind them. There was sunlight to spare now, bounced and reflected about by the ubiquitous jungle steam and by the synthetic-diamond coating so many of this world’s plants and insects employed for protection. As they travelled, they talked. Quivera was still complexly medicated, but the dosages had been decreased. It left him in a melancholy, reflective mood. “It was treachery,” Quivera said. Though we maintained radio silence out of fear of Ziggurat troops, my passive receivers fed him regular news reports from Europa. “The High Watch did not simply fail to divert a meteor. They let three rocks through. All of them came slanting low through the atmosphere, aimed directly at Babel. They hit almost simultaneously.” Uncle Vanya dipped his head. ::Yes:: he mourned. ::It has the stench of truth to it. It must be (reliable)/a fact/[absolutely trusted]:: “We tried to warn you.” ::You had no (worth)/trust/[worthy-of-trust]:: Uncle Vanya’s speaking legs registered extreme agitation. ::You told lies:: “Everyone tells lies.” “No. We-of-the-Hundred-Cities are truthful/truthful/[never-lie]:: “If you had, Babel would be standing now.” ::No!/NO!/[no!!!]:: “Lies are a lubricant in the social machine. They ease the friction when two moving parts mesh imperfectly.”
::Aristotle, asked what those who tell lies gain by it, replied: That when they speak the truth they are not believed:: For a long moment Quivera was silent. Then he laughed mirthlessly. “I almost forgot that you’re a diplomat. Well, you’re right, I’m right, and we’re both screwed. Where do we go from here?” ::To (sister-city)/Ur/[absolute trust]:: Uncle Vanya signed, while “You’ve said more than enough,” his suit (me!) whispered in Quivera’s ear. “Change the subject.” A stream ran, boiling, down the centre of the dell. Run-off from the mountains, it would grow steadily smaller until it dwindled away to nothing. Only the fact that the air above it was at close to 100 per cent saturation had kept it going this long. Quivera pointed. “Is that safe to cross?” ::If (leap-over-safe) then (safe)/best not/[reliable distrust]:: “I didn’t think so.” They headed downstream. It took several miles before the stream grew small enough that they were confident enough to jump it. Then they turned toward Ararat – the Europans had dropped GPS pebble satellites in low Gehenna orbit shortly after arriving in the system and making contact with the indigenes, but I don’t know from what source Uncle Vanya derived his sense of direction. It was inerrant, however. The mapsats confirmed it. I filed that fact under Unexplained Phenomena with tentative links to Physiology and Navigation. Even if both my companions died and the library were lost, this would still be a productive journey, provided only that Europan searchers could recover me within ten years, before my data lattice began to degrade. For hours Uncle Vanya walked and Quivera rode in silence. Finally, though, they had to break to eat. I fed Quivera nutrients intravenously and the illusion of a full meal through somatic shunts. Vanya burrowed furiously into the earth and emerged with something that looked like a grub the size of a poodle, which he ate so vigorously that Quivera had to look away. (I filed this under Xenoecology, subheading: Feeding Strategies. The search for knowledge knows no rest.) Afterward, while they were resting, Uncle Vanya resumed their conversation, more formally this time: ::(for what) purpose/reason:: | ::(Europan vice-consul12)/Quivera/[not trusted]:: | ::voyagings (search-for-trust)/[action]:: | | ::(nest)/Europa/<untranslatable>:: ::violate/[absolute resistance]:: | | | ::(nest)/[trust] Gehenna/[trust] Home/[trust]::
From Babel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
“Why did you leave your world to come to ours?” I simplified/translated. “Except he believes that humans brought their world here and parked it in orbit.” This was something we had never been able to make the millies understand; that Europa, large though it was, was not a planetlet but a habitat, a ship if you will, though by now well over half a million inhabitants lived in tunnels burrowed deep in its substance. It was only a city, however, and its resources would not last forever. We needed to convince the Gehennans to give us a toehold on their planet if we were, in the long run, to survive. But you knew that already. “We’ve told you this before. We came looking for new information.” ::Information is (free)/valueless/[despicable]:: “Look,” Quivera said. “We have an information-based economy. Yours is based on trust. The mechanisms of each are not dissimilar. Both are expansive systems. Both are built on scarcity. And both are speculative. Information or trust is bought, sold, borrowed, and invested. Each therefore requires a continually expanding economic frontier that ultimately leaves the individual so deep in debt as to be virtually enslaved to the system. You see?” ::No:: “All right. Imagine a simplified capitalist system – that’s what both our economies are, at root. You’ve got a thousand individuals, each of whom makes a living by buying raw materials, improving them, and selling them at a profit. With me so far?” Vanya signalled comprehension. “The farmer buys seed and fertilizer, and sells crops. The weaver buys wool and sells cloth. The chandler buys wax and sells candles. The price of their goods is the cost of materials plus the value of their labour. The value of his labour is the worker’s wages. This is a simple market economy. It can go on forever. The equivalent on Gehenna would be the primitive family-states you had long ago, in which everybody knew everybody else, and so trust was a simple matter and directly reciprocal.” Startled, Uncle Vanya signed ::How did you know about our past?:: “Europans value knowledge. Everything you tell us, we remember.” The knowledge had been assembled with enormous effort and expense, largely from stolen data – but no reason to mention that. Quivera continued, “Now imagine that most of those workers labour in ten factories, making the food, clothing, and other objects that everybody needs. The owners of these factories must make a profit, so they sell their goods for more than they pay for them – the cost of materials, the cost of labour, and then the profit, which we can call ‘added value’. “But because this is a simplified model, there are no outside markets. The goods can only be sold to the thousand workers themselves, and the total cost of the goods is more than the total amount they’ve been paid collectively for the materials and their labour. So how can they afford it? They go into debt. Then they borrow money to support that debt. The money is lent to them by the factories selling them goods on credit. There is not
enough money – not enough real value – in the system to pay off the debt, and so it continues to increase until it can no longer be sustained. Then there is a catastrophic collapse that we call a depression. Two of the businesses go bankrupt and their assets are swallowed up by the survivors at bargain prices, thus paying off their own indebtedness and restoring equilibrium to the system. In the aftermath of which, the cycle begins again.” ::What has this to do with (beloved city)/Babel/[mother-of-trust]?:: “Your every public action involved an exchange of trust, yes? And every trust that was honoured heightened the prestige of the queen-mothers and hence the amount of trust they embodied for Babel itself.” ::Yes:: “Similarly, the queen-mothers of other cities, including those cities that were Babel’s sworn enemies, embodied enormous amounts of trust as well.” ::Of course:: “Was there enough trust in all the world to pay everybody back if all the queen-mothers called it in at the same time?” Uncle Vanya was silent. “So that’s your explanation for . . . a lot of things. Earth sent us here because it needs new information to cover its growing indebtedness. Building Europa took enormous amounts of information, most of it proprietary, and so we Europans are in debt collectively to our home world and individually to the Lords of the Economy on Europa. With compound interest, every generation is worse off and thus more desperate than the one before. Our need to learn is great, and constantly growing.” ::(strangers-without-trust)/Europa/[treacherous vermin]:: | can/should/<untranslatable> | | ::demand/claim [negative action]:: ::defy/<untranslatable>/ [absolute lack of trust]:: | | ::(those-who-command-trust):: ::(those-who-are-unworthy of trust):: “He asks why Europa doesn’t simply declare bankruptcy,” I explained. “Default on its obligations and nationalize all the information received to date. In essence.” The simple answer was that Europa still needed information that could only be beamed from Earth, that the ingenuity of even half a million people could not match that of an entire planet and thus their technology must always be superior to ours, and that if we reneged on our debts they would stop beaming plans for that technology, along with their songs and plays and news of what was going on in countries that had once meant everything to our great-great-grandparents. I watched Quivera struggle to put all this in its simplest possible form.
From Babel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
Finally, he said, “Because no one would ever trust us again, if we did.” After a long stillness, Uncle Vanya lapsed back into pidgin. ::Why did you tell me this [untrustworthy] story?:: “To let you know that we have much in common. We can understand each other.” ::<But>/not/[trust]:: “No. But we don’t need trust. Mutual self-interest will suffice.” Days passed. Perhaps Quivera and Uncle Vanya grew to understand each other better during this time. Perhaps not. I was able to keep Quivera’s electrolyte balances stable and short-circuit his feedback processes so that he felt no extraordinary pain, but he was feeding off of his own body fat and that was beginning to run low. He was very comfortably starving to death – I gave him two weeks, tops – and he knew it. He’d have to be a fool not to, and I had to keep his thinking sharp if he was going to have any chance of survival. Their way was intersected by a long, low ridge and without comment Quivera and Uncle Vanya climbed up above the canopy of the steam forest and the cloud of moisture it held into clear air. Looking back, Quivera saw a gully in the slope behind them, its bottom washed free of soil by the boiling runoff and littered with square and rectangular stones, but not a trace of hexagonal beams. They had just climbed the tumulus of an ancient fallen city. It lay straight across the land, higher to the east and dwindling to the west. “‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,’“ Quivera said. “‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’“ Uncle Vanya said nothing. “Another meteor strike – what were the odds of that?” Uncle Vanya said nothing. “Of course, given enough time, it would be inevitable, if it predated the High Watch.” Uncle Vanya said nothing. “What was the name of this city?” ::Very old/(name forgotten)/[First Trust]:: Uncle Vanya moved, as if to start downward, but Quivera stopped him with a gesture. “There’s no hurry,” he said. “Let’s enjoy the view for a moment.” He swept an unhurried arm from horizon to horizon, indicating the flat and unvarying canopy of vegetation before them. “It’s a funny thing. You’d think that, this being one of the first cities your people built when they came to this planet, you’d be able to see the ruins of the cities of the original inhabitants from here.” The millipede’s speaking arms thrashed in alarm. Then he reared up into the air, and when he came down one foreleg glinted silver. Faster than human eye could follow, he had drawn a curving and deadly tarsi-sword from a camouflaged belly-sheath. Quivera’s suit flung him away from the descending weapon. He fell flat on his back and rolled to the side. The sword’s point missed him by inches.
But then the suit flung out a hand and touched the sword with an electrical contact it had just extruded. A carefully calculated shock threw Uncle Vanya back, convulsing but still fully conscious. Quivera stood. “Remember the library!” he said. “Who will know of Babel’s greatness if it’s destroyed?” For a long time the millipede did nothing that either Quivera or his suit could detect. At last he signed ::How did you know?/(absolute shock)/ [treacherous and without faith]:: “Our survival depends on being allowed to live on Gehenna. Your people will not let us do so, no matter what we offer in trade. It was important that we understand why. So we found out. We took in your outlaws and apostates, all those who were cast out of your cities and had nowhere else to go. We gave them sanctuary. In gratitude, they told us what they knew.” By so saying, Quivera let Uncle Vanya know that he knew the most ancient tale of the Gehennans. By so hearing, Uncle Vanya knew that Quivera knew what he knew. And just so you know what they knew that each other knew and knew was known, here is the tale of . . . How tHe true PeoPle Came to GeHenna Long did our Ancestors burrow down through the dark between the stars, before emerging at last in the soil of Gehenna. From the True Home they had come. To Gehenna they descended, leaving a trail of sparks in the black and empty spaces through which they had travelled. The True People came from a world of unimaginable wonders. To it they could never return. Perhaps they were exiles. Perhaps it was destroyed. Nobody knows. Into the steam and sunlight of Gehenna they burst, and found it was already taken. The First Inhabitants looked like nothing our Ancestors had ever seen. But they welcomed the True People as the queen-mothers would a strayed niece-daughter. They gave us food. They gave us land. They gave us trust. For a time all was well. But evil crept into the thoracic ganglia of the True People. They repaid sisterhood with betrayal and trust with murder. Bright lights were called down from the sky to destroy the cities of their benefactors. Everything the First Inhabitants had made, all their books and statues and paintings, burned with the cities. No trace of them remains. We do not even know what they looked like. This was how the True People brought war to Gehenna. There had never been war before, and now we will have it with us always, until our trustdebt is repaid. But it can never be repaid. It suffers in translation, of course. The original is told in thirteen exquisitely beautiful ergoglyphs, each grounded on a primal faith-motion. But Quivera was talking, with care and passion:
From Babel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
“Vanya, listen to me carefully. We have studied your civilization and your planet in far greater detail than you realize. You did not come from another world. Your people evolved here. There was no aboriginal civilization. You ancestors did not eradicate an intelligent species. These things are all a myth.” ::No!/Why?!/[shock]:: Uncle Vanya rattled with emotion. Ripples of muscle spasms ran down his segmented body. “Don’t go catatonic on me. Your ancestors didn’t lie. Myths are not lies. They are simply an efficient way of encoding truths. We have a similar myth in my religion that we call Original Sin. Man is born sinful. Well . . . who can doubt that? Saying that we are born into a fallen state means simply that we are not perfect, that we are inherently capable of evil. “Your myth is very similar to ours, but it also encodes what we call the Malthusian dilemma. Population increases geometrically, while food resources increase arithmetically. So universal starvation is inevitable unless the population is periodically reduced by wars, plagues, and famines. Which means that wars, plagues, and famine cannot be eradicated because they are all that keep a population from extinction. “But – and this is essential – all that assumes a population that isn’t aware of the dilemma. When you understand the fix you’re in, you can do something about it. That’s why information is so important. Do you understand?” Uncle Vanya lay down flat upon the ground and did not move for hours. When he finally arose again, he refused to speak at all. The trail the next day led down into a long meteor valley that had been carved by a ground-grazer long enough ago that its gentle slopes were covered with soil and the bottomland was rich and fertile. An orchard of grenade trees had been planted in interlocking hexagons for as far in either direction as the eye could see. We were still on Babel’s territory, but any arbiculturalists had been swept away by whatever military forces from Ziggurat had passed through the area. The grenades were still green [footnote: not literally, of course – they were orange!], their thick husks taut but not yet trembling with the steamhot pulp that would eventually, in the absence of harvesters, cause them to explode, scattering their arrowhead-shaped seeds or spores [footnote: like seeds, the flechettes carried within them surplus nourishment; like spores they would grow into a prothalli that would produce the sex organs responsible for what will become the gamete of the eventual plant; all botanical terms of course being metaphors for xenobiological bodies and processes] with such force as to make them a deadly hazard when ripe. Not, however, today. A sudden gust of wind parted the steam, briefly brightening the valleyorchard and showing a slim and graceful trail through the orchard. We followed it down into the valley. We were midway through the orchard when Quivera bent down to examine a crystal-shelled creature unlike anything in his suit’s database. It
rested atop the long stalk of a weed [footnote: “weed” is not a metaphor; the concept of “an undesired plant growing in cultivated ground” is a cultural universal] in the direct sunlight, its abdomen pulsing slightly as it superheated a minuscule drop of black ichor. A puff of steam, a sharp crack, and it was gone. Entranced, Quivera asked, “What’s that called?” Uncle Vanya stiffened. ::A jet!/danger!/[absolute certainty]:: Then (crack! crack! crack!) the air was filled with thin lines of steam, laid down with the precision of a draftsman’s ruler, tracing flights so fleet (crack! crack!) that it was impossible to tell in what direction they flew. Nor did it ultimately (crack!) matter. Quivera fell. Worse, because the thread of steam the jet had stitched through his leg severed an organizational node in his suit, I ceased all upper cognitive functions. Which is as good as to say that I fell unconscious. Here’s what the suit did in my (Rosamund’s) absence: 1. Slowly rebuilt the damaged organizational node. 2. Quickly mended the holes that the jet had left in its fabric. 3. Dropped Quivera into a therapeutic coma. 4. Applied restoratives to his injuries, and began the slow and painstaking process of repairing the damage to his flesh, with particular emphasis on distributed traumatic shock. 5. Filed the jet footage under Xenobiology, subheading: Insect Analogues, with links to Survival and Steam Locomotion. 6. Told Uncle Vanya that if he tried to abandon Quivera, the suit would run him down, catch him, twist his head from his body like the foul least-cousin that he was and then piss on his corpse. Two more days passed before the suit returned to full consciousness, during which Uncle Vanya took conscientiously good care of him. Under what motivation, it does not matter. Another day passed after that. The suit had planned to keep Quivera comatose for a week, but not long after regaining awareness, circumstances changed. It slammed him back to full consciousness, heart pounding and eyes wide open. “I blacked out for a second!” he gasped. Then, realizing that the landscape about him did not look familiar, “How long was I unconscious?” ::Three days/<three days>/[casual certainty]:: “Oh.” Then, almost without pausing. ::Your suit/mechanism/[alarm] talks with the voice of Rosamund da Silva/(Europan vice-consul 8)/[uncertainty and doubt]:: “Yes, well, that’s because —” Quivera was fully aware and alert now. So I said: “Incoming.” Two millies erupted out of the black soil directly before us. They both had Ziggurat insignia painted on their flanks and harness. By good luck Uncle Vanya did the best thing possible under the circumstances – he reared
From Babel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
into the air in fright. Millipoid sapiens anatomy being what it was, this instantly demonstrated to them that he was a gelding and in that instant he was almost reflexively dismissed by the enemy soldiers as being both contemptible and harmless. Quivera, however, was not. Perhaps they were brood-traitors who had deserted the war with a fantasy of starting their own nest. Perhaps they were a single unit among thousands scattered along a temporary border, much as land mines were employed in ancient modern times. The soldiers had clearly been almost as surprised by us as we were by them. They had no weapons ready. So they fell upon Quivera with their dagger-tarsi. His suit (still me) threw him to one side and then to the other as the millies slashed down at him. Then one of them reared up into the air – looking astonished if you knew the interspecies decodes – and fell heavily to the ground. Uncle Vanya stood over the steaming corpse, one foreleg glinting silver. The second Ziggurat soldier twisted to confront him. Leaving his underside briefly exposed. Quivera (or rather his suit) joined both hands in a fist and punched upward, through the weak skin of the third sternite behind the head. That was the one which held its sex organs. [Disclaimer: All anatomical terms, including “sternite,” “sex organs,” and “head,” are analogues only; unless and until Gehennan life is found to have some direct relationship to Terran life, however tenuous, such descriptors are purely metaphoric.] So it was particularly vulnerable there. And since the suit had muscle-multiplying exoskeletal functions . . . Ichor gushed all over the suit. The fight was over almost as soon as it had begun. Quivera was breathing heavily, as much from the shock as the exertion. Uncle Vanya slid the tarsi-sword back into its belly-sheath. As he did so, he made an involuntary grimace of discomfort. ::There were times when I thought of discarding this:: he signed. “I’m glad you didn’t.” Little puffs of steam shot up from the bodies of the dead millipedes as carrion-flies drove their seeds/sperm/eggs (analogues and metaphors – remember?) deep into the flesh. They started away again. After a time, Uncle Vanya repeated ::Your suit/(mechanism)/[alarm] talks with the voice of Rosamund da Silva/(Europan vice-consul 8)/[uncertainty and doubt]:: “Yes.” Uncle Vanya folded tight all his speaking arms in a manner that meant that he had not yet heard enough, and kept them so folded until Quivera had explained the entirety of what follows: Treachery and betrayal were natural consequences of Europa’s superheated economy, followed closely by a perfectly rational paranoia. Those who rose to positions of responsibility were therefore sharp, suspicious,
intuitive, and bold. The delegation to Babel was made up of the best Europa had to offer. So when two of them fell in love, it was inevitable that they would act on it. That one was married would deter neither. That physical intimacy in such close and suspicious quarters, where everybody routinely spied on everybody else, and required almost superhuman discipline and ingenuity, only made it all the hotter for them. Such was Rosamund’s and Quivera’s affair. But it was not all they had to worry about. There were factions within the delegation, some mirroring fault lines in the larger society and others merely personal. Alliances shifted, and when they did nobody was foolish enough to inform their old allies. Urbano, Rosamund’s husband, was a full consul, Quivera’s mentor, and a true believer in a minority economic philosophy. Rosamund was an economic agnostic but a staunch Consensus Liberal. Quivera could sail with the wind politically but he tracked the indebtedness indices obsessively. He knew that Rosamund considered him ideologically unsound, and that her husband was growing impatient with his lukewarm support in certain areas of policy. Everybody was keeping an eye out for the main chance. So of course Quivera ran an emulation of his lover at all times. He knew that Rosamund was perfectly capable of betraying him – he could neither have loved nor respected a woman who wasn’t – and he suspected she believed the same of him. If her behaviour ever seriously diverged from that of her emulation (and the sex was always best at times he thought it might), he would know she was preparing an attack, and could strike first. Quivera spread his hands. “That’s all.” Uncle Vanya did not make the sign for absolute horror. Nor did he have to. After a moment, Quivera laughed, low and mirthlessly. “You’re right,” he said. “Our entire system is totally fucked.” He stood. “Come on. We’ve got miles to go before we sleep.” They endured four more days of commonplace adventure, during which they came close to death, displayed loyalty, performed heroic deeds, etc., etc. Perhaps they bonded, though I’d need blood samples and a smidgeon of brain tissue from each of them to be sure of that. You know the way this sort of narrative goes. Having taught his Gehennan counterpart the usefulness of information, Quivera will learn from Vanya the necessity of trust. An imperfect merger of their two value systems will ensue in which for the first time a symbolic common ground will be found. Small and transient though the beginning may be, it will augur well for the long-term relations between their respective species. That’s a nice story. It’s not what happened. On the last day of their common journey, Quivera and Uncle Vanya had the misfortune to be hit by a TLMG.
From Babel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
A TLMG, or Transient Localized Mud Geyser, begins with an uncommonly solid surface (bolide-glazed porcelain earth, usually) trapping a small (the radius of a typical TLMG is on the order of fifty metres) bubble of superheated mud beneath it. Nobody knows what causes the excess heat responsible for the bubble. Gehennans aren’t curious and Europans haven’t the budget or the ground access to do the in situ investigations they’d like. (The most common guesses are fire worms, thermobacilli, a nesting ground phoenix, and various geophysical forces.) Nevertheless, the defining characteristic of TLMGs is their instability. Either the heat slowly bleeds away and they cease to be, or it continues to grow until its force dictates a hyper rapid explosive release. As did the one our two heroes were not aware they were skirting. It erupted. Quivera was as safe as houses, of course. His suit was designed to protect him from far worse. But Uncle Vanya was scalded badly along one side of his body. All the legs on that side were shrivelled to little black nubs. A clear viscous jelly oozed between his segment plates. Quivera knelt by him and wept. Drugged as he was, he wept. In his weakened state, I did not dare to increase his dosages. So I had to tell him three times that there was analgesic paste in the saddlebags before he could be made to understand that he should apply it to his dying companion. The paste worked fast. It was an old Gehennan medicine that Europan biochemists had analyzed and improved upon and then given to Babel as a demonstration of the desirability of Europan technology. Though the queen-mothers had not responded with the hoped-for trade treaties, it had immediately replaced the earlier version. Uncle Vanya made a creaking-groaning noise as the painkillers kicked in. One at a time he opened all his functioning eyes. ::Is the case safe?:: It was a measure of Quivera’s diminished state that he hadn’t yet checked on it. He did now. “Yes,” he said with heartfelt relief. “The telltales all say that the library is intact and undamaged.” ::No:: Vanya signed feebly. ::I lied to you, Quivera:: Then, rousing himself: ::(not) library/[greatest shame]:: ::(not) library/[greatest trust]:: | ::(Europan vice-consul 12)/Quivera/[most trusted]:: | | ::(nest)/Babel/<untranslatable>:: ::obedient/[absolute loyalty]:: | | ::lies(greatest-trust-deed)/[moral necessity]:: | | ::(nest)/Babel/<untranslatable>:: ::untranslatable/[absolute resistance]:: | | |
::(nest)/[trust] Babel/[trust] (sister-city)/Ur/[absolute trust]:: | ::egg case/(protect):: | ::egg case/(mature):: | ::Babel/[eternal trust]:: It was not a library but an egg-case. Swaddled safe within a case that was in its way as elaborate a piece of technology as Quivera’s suit myself, were sixteen eggs, enough to bring to life six queen-mothers, nine niece-sisters, and one perfect consort. They would be born conscious of the entire genehistory of the nest, going back many thousands of years. Of all those things the Europans wished to know most, they would be perfectly ignorant. Nevertheless, so long as the eggs existed, the city-nest was not dead. If they were taken to Ur, which had ancient and enduring bonds to Babel, the stump of a new city would be built within which the eggs would be protected and brought to maturity. Babel would rise again. Such was the dream Uncle Vanya had lied for and for which he was about to die. ::Bring this to (sister-city)/Ur/[absolute trust]:: Uncle Vanya closed his eyes, row by row, but continued signing. ::brother-friend/Quivera/[tentative trust], promise me you will:: “I promise. You can trust me, I swear.” ::Then I will be ghost-king-father/honoured/[none-more-honoured]:: Vanya signed. ::It is more than enough for anyone:: “Do you honestly believe that?” Quivera asked in bleak astonishment. He was an atheist, of course, as are most Europans, and would have been happier were he not. ::Perhaps not:: Vanya’s signing was slow and growing slower. ::But it is as good as I will get:: Two days later, when the starport-city of Ararat was a nub on the horizon, the skies opened and the mists parted to make way for a Europan lander. Quivera’s handlers’ suits squirted me a bill for his rescue – steep, I thought, but we all knew which hand carried the whip – and their principals tried to get him to sign away the rights to his story in acquittal. Quivera laughed harshly (I’d already started de-cushioning his emotions, to ease the shock of my removal) and shook his head. “Put it on my tab, girls,” he said, and climbed into the lander. Hours later he was in home orbit. And once there? I’ll tell you all I know. He was taken out of the lander and put onto a jitney. The jitney brought him to a transfer point where a grapple snagged him and flung him to the Europan receiving port. There, after the usual flawless catch, he was escorted through an airlock and into a locker room.
From Babel’s Fall’n glory we Fled
He hung up his suit, uplinked all my impersonal memories to a databroker, and left me there. He didn’t look back – for fear, I imagine, of being turned to a pillar of salt. He took the egg-case with him. He never returned. Here have I hung for days or months or centuries – who knows? – until your curious hand awoke me and your friendly ear received my tale. So I cannot tell you if the egg-case A) went to Ur, which surely would not have welcomed the obligation or the massive outlay of trust being thrust upon it, B) was kept for the undeniably enormous amount of genetic information the eggs embodied, or C) went to Ziggurat, which would pay well and perhaps in Gehennan territory to destroy it. Nor do I have any information as to whether Quivera kept his word or not. I know what I think. But then I’m a Marxist, and I see everything in terms of economics. You can believe otherwise if you wish. That’s all. I’m Rosamund. Goodbye.
Paolo Bacigalupi made his first sale in 1998, to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, took a break from the genre for several years, and then returned to it in the new century, with new sales to F&SF, Asimov’s, and Fast Forward II. His story “The Calorie Man” won the Theodore Sturgeon Award, for which he has been a finalist on two other occasions, and he’s also been a Hugo finalist three times, a Nebula finalist once, and won the Asimov’s Readers Award. His acclaimed short work has been collected in Pump Six and Other Stories, which has just been released to great critical acclaim. Bacigalupi lives with family in Paonia, Colorado. Here he takes us to a near-future Los Angeles to give us a frightening – and yet somehow fascinating, and even oddly hopeful – look at just what kind of media-drenched world may be hurtling down the information superhighway towards us all. y father was a gambler. He believed in the workings of karma and luck. He hunted for lucky numbers on licence plates and bet on lotteries and fighting roosters. Looking back, I think perhaps he was not a large man, but when he took me to the muy thai fights, I thought him so. He would bet and he would win and laugh and drink laolao with his friends, and they all seemed so large. In the heat drip of Vientiane, he was a lucky ghost, walking the mirror-sheen streets in the darkness. Everything for my father was a gamble: roulette and blackjack, new rice variants and the arrival of the monsoons. When the pretender monarch Khamsing announced his New Lao Kingdom, my father gambled on civil disobedience. He bet on the teachings of Mr Henry David Thoreau and on whisper sheets posted on lampposts. He bet on saffron-robed monks marching in protest and on the hidden humanity of the soldiers with their well-oiled AK-47s and their mirrored helmets. My father was a gambler, but my mother was not. While he wrote letters to the editor that brought the secret police to our door, she made plans for escape. The old Lao Democratic Republic collapsed, and the New Lao Kingdom blossomed with tanks on the avenues and tuk-tuks burning on the street corners. Pha That Luang’s shining gold chedi collapsed under
shelling, and I rode away on a UN evacuation helicopter under the care of kind Mrs Yamaguchi. From the open doors of the helicopter, we watched smoke columns rise over the city like nagas coiling. We crossed the brown ribbon of the Mekong with its jewelled belt of burning cars on the Friendship Bridge. I remember a Mercedes floating in the water like a paper boat on Loi Kratong, burning despite the water all around. Afterward, there was silence from the land of a million elephants, a void into which light and Skype calls and email disappeared. The roads were blocked. The telecoms died. A black hole opened where my country had once stood. Sometimes, when I wake in the night to the swish and honk of Los Angeles traffic, the confusing polyglot of dozens of countries and cultures all pressed together in this American melting pot, I stand at my window and look down a boulevard full of red lights, where it is not safe to walk alone at night, and yet everyone obeys the traffic signals. I look down on the brash and noisy Americans in their many hues, and remember my parents: my father who cared too much to let me live under the self-declared monarchy, and my mother who would not let me die as a consequence. I lean against the window and cry with relief and loss. Every week I go to temple and pray for them, light incense and make a triple bow to Buddha, Damma, and Sangha, and pray that they may have a good rebirth, and then I step into the light and noise and vibrancy of America. My colleagues’ faces flicker grey and pale in the light of their computers and tablets. The tap of their keyboards fills the newsroom as they pass content down the workflow chain and then, with a final keystroke and an obeisance to the “publish” button, they hurl it onto the net. In the maelstrom, their work flares, tagged with site location, content tags, and social poke data. Blooms of colour, codes for media conglomerates: shades of blue and Mickey Mouse ears for Disney-Bertelsmann. A red-rimmed pair of rainbow O’s for Google’s AOL News. Fox News Corp. in pinstripes grey and white. Green for us: Milestone Media – a combination of NTT DoCoMo, the Korean gaming consortium Hyundai-Kubu, and the smoking remains of the New York Times Company. There are others, smaller stars, Crayola shades flaring and brightening, but we are the most important. The monarchs of this universe of light and colour. New content blossoms on the screen, bathing us all in the bloody glow of a Google News content flare, off their WhisperTech feed. They’ve scooped us. The posting says that new ear bud devices will be released by Frontal Lobe before Christmas: terabyte storage with Pin-Line connectivity for the Oakley microresponse glasses. The technology is next-gen, allowing personal data control via Pin-Line scans of a user’s iris. Analysts predict that everything from cell phones to digital cameras will become obsolete as the full range of Oakley features becomes available. The news flare brightens and migrates toward the centre of the maelstrom as visitors flock to Google and view stolen photos of the iris-scanning glasses.
Janice Mbutu, our managing editor, stands at the door to her office, watching with a frown. The maelstrom’s red bath dominates the newsroom, a pressing reminder that Google is beating us, sucking away traffic. Behind glass walls, Bob and Casey, the heads of the Burning Wire, our own consumer technology feed, are screaming at their reporters, demanding they do better. Bob’s face has turned almost as red as the maelstrom. The maelstrom’s true name is LiveTrack IV. If you were to go downstairs to the fifth floor and pry open the server racks, you would find a sniper sight logo and the words scry glass – knowledge is power stamped on their chips in metallic orange, which would tell you that even though Bloomberg rents us the machines, it is a Google-Neilsen partnership that provides the proprietary algorithms for analyzing the net flows – which means we pay a competitor to tell us what is happening with our own content. LiveTrack IV tracks media user data – Web site, feed, VOD, audiostream, TV broadcast – with Google’s own net statistics gathering programs, aided by Nielsen hardware in personal data devices ranging from TVs to tablets to ear buds to handsets to car radios. To say that the maelstrom keeps a finger on the pulse of media is an understatement. Like calling the monsoon a little wet. The maelstrom is the pulse, the pressure, the blood-oxygen mix; the count of red cells and white, of T-cells and BAC, the screening for AIDS and hepatitis G . . . It is reality. Our service version of the maelstrom displays the performance of our own content and compares it to the top one hundred user-traffic events in real-time. My own latest news story is up in the maelstrom, glittering near the edge of the screen, a tale of government incompetence: the harvested DNA of the checkerspot butterfly, already extinct, has been destroyed through mismanagement at the California Federal Biological Preserve Facility. The butterfly – along with sixty-two other species – was subjected to improper storage protocols, and now there is nothing except a little dust in vials. The samples literally blew away. My coverage of the story opens with federal workers down on their knees in a two-billion-dollar climatecontrolled vault, with a dozen crime scene vacuums that they’ve borrowed from LAPD, trying to suck up a speck of butterfly that they might be able to reconstitute at some future time. In the maelstrom, the story is a pinprick beside the suns and pulsing moons of traffic that represent other reporters’ content. It doesn’t compete well with news of Frontal Lobe devices, or reviews of Armored Total Combat, or live feeds of the Binge-Purge championships. It seems that the only people who are reading my story are the biologists I interviewed. This is not surprising. When I wrote about bribes for subdivision approvals, the only people who read the story were county planners. When I wrote about cronyism in the selection of city water recycling technologies, the only people who read were water engineers. Still, even though no one seems to care about these stories, I am drawn to them, as though poking at the tiger of the American government will somehow make up for not being able to poke at the little cub of New Divine Monarch Khamsing. It is a foolish
thing, a sort of Don Quixote crusade. As a consequence, my salary is the smallest in the office. “Whoooo!” Heads swivel from terminals, look for the noise: Marty Mackley, grinning. “You can thank me . . .” He leans down and taps a button on his keyboard. “Now.” A new post appears in the maelstrom, a small green orb announcing itself on the Glamour Report, Scandal Monkey blog, and Marty’s byline feeds. As we watch, the post absorbs pings from software clients around the world, notifying the millions of people who follow his byline that he has launched a new story. I flick my tablet open, check the tags: Double DP, Redneck HipHop, Music News, Schadenfreude, underage, paedophilia … According to Mackley’s story, Double DP the Russian mafia cowboy rapper – who, in my opinion, is not as good as the Asian pop sensation Kulaap, but whom half the planet likes very much – is accused of impregnating the fourteen-year-old daughter of his face sculptor. Readers are starting to notice, and with their attention Marty’s green-glowing news story begins to muscle for space in the maelstrom. The content star pulses, expands, and then, as though someone has thrown gasoline on it, it explodes. Double DP hits the social sites, starts getting recommended, sucks in more readers, more links, more clicks . . . and more ad dollars. Marty does a pelvic grind of victory, then waves at everyone for their attention. “And that’s not all, folks.” He hits his keyboard again, and another story posts: live feeds of Double’s house, where . . . it looks as though the man who popularized Redneck Russians is heading out the door in a hurry. It is a surprise to see video of the house, streaming live. Most freelance paparazzi are not patient enough to sit and hope that maybe, perhaps, something interesting will happen. This looks as though Marty has stationed his own exclusive papcams at the house, to watch for something like this. We all watch as Double DP locks the door behind himself. Marty says, “I thought DP deserved the courtesy of notification that the story was going live.” “Is he fleeing?” Mikela Plaa asks. Marty shrugs. “We’ll see.” And indeed, it does look as if Double is about to do what Americans have popularized as an “OJ.” He is into his red Hummer. Pulling out.
Under the green glow of his growing story, Marty smiles. The story is getting bigger, and Marty has stationed himself perfectly for the development. Other news agencies and blogs are playing catch-up. Follow-on posts wink into existence in the maelstrom, gathering a momentum of their own as newsrooms scramble to hook our traffic. “Do we have a helicopter?” Janice asks. She has come out of her glass office to watch the show. Marty nods. “We’re moving it into position. I just bought exclusive angel view with the cops, too, so everyone’s going to have to license our footage.” “Did you let Long Arm of the Law know about the cross-content?” “Yeah. They’re kicking in from their budget for the helicopter.” Marty sits down again, begins tapping at his keyboard, a machine-gun of data entry. A low murmur comes from the tech pit, Cindy C. calling our telecom providers, locking down trunklines to handle an anticipated data surge. She knows something that we don’t, something that Marty has prepared her for. She’s bringing up mirrored server farms. Marty seems unaware of the audience around him. He stops typing. Stares up at the maelstrom, watching his glowing ball of content. He is the maestro of a symphony. The cluster of competing stories are growing as Gawker and Newsweek and Throb all organize themselves and respond. Our readers are clicking away from us, trying to see if there’s anything new in our competitor’s coverage. Marty smiles, hits his “publish” key, and dumps a new bucket of meat into the shark tank of public interest: a video interview with the fourteen-year-old. On-screen, she looks very young, shockingly so. She has a teddy bear. “I swear I didn’t plant the bear,” Marty comments. “She had it on her own.” The girl’s accusations are being mixed over Double’s run for the border, a kind of synth loop of accusations: “And then he . . .” “And I said . . .” “He’s the only one I’ve ever . . .” It sounds as if Marty has licensed some of Double’s own beats for the coverage of his fleeing Humvee. The video outtakes are already bouncing around YouTube and MotionSwallow like Ping-Pong balls. The maelstrom has moved Double DP to the centre of the display as more and more feeds and sites point to the content. Not only is traffic up, but the post is gaining in social rank as the numbers of links and social pokes increase. “How’s the stock?” someone calls out. Marty shakes his head. “They locked me out from showing the display.” This, because whenever he drops an important story, we all beg him to show us the big picture. We all turn to Janice. She rolls her eyes, but she gives the nod. When Cindy finishes buying bandwidth, she unlocks the view. The maelstrom slides aside as a second window opens, all bar graphs
and financial landscape: our stock price as affected by the story’s expanding traffic – and expanding ad revenue. The stock bots have their own version of the maelstrom; they’ve picked up the reader traffic shift. Buy and sell decisions roll across the screen, responding to the popularity of Mackley’s byline. As he feeds the story, the beast grows. More feeds pick us up, more people recommend the story to their friends, and every one of them is being subjected to our advertisers’ messages, which means more revenue for us and less for everyone else. At this point, Mackley is bigger than the Super Bowl. Given that the story is tagged with Double DP, it will have a targetable demographic: thirteen- to twenty-four-year-olds who buy lifestyle gadgets, new music, edge clothes, first-run games, boxed hairstyles, tablet skins, and ringtones: not only a large demographic, a valuable one. Our stock ticks up a point. Holds. Ticks up another. We’ve got four different screens running now. The papcam of Double DP, chase cycles with views of the cops streaking after him, the chopper lifting off, and the window with the fourteen-year-old interviewing. The girl is saying, “I really feel for him. We have a connection. We’re going to get married,” and there’s his Hummer screaming down Santa Monica Boulevard with his song “Cowboy Banger” on the audio overlay. A new wave of social pokes hits the story. Our stock price ticks up again. Daily bonus territory. The clicks are pouring in. It’s got the right combination of content, what Mackley calls the “Three S’s”: sex, stupidity, and schadenfreude. The stock ticks up again. Everyone cheers. Mackley takes a bow. We all love him. He is half the reason I can pay my rent. Even a small newsroom bonus from his work is enough for me to live. I’m not sure how much he makes for himself when he creates an event like this. Cindy tells me that it is “solid seven, baby”. His byline feed is so big he could probably go independent, but then he would not have the resources to scramble a helicopter for a chase toward Mexico. It is a symbiotic relationship. He does what he does best, and Milestone pays him like a celebrity. Janice claps her hands. “All right, everyone. You’ve got your bonus. Now back to work.” A general groan rises. Cindy cuts the big monitor away from stocks and bonuses and back to the work at hand: generating more content to light the maelstrom, to keep the newsroom glowing green with flares of Milestone coverage – everything from reviews of Mitsubishi’s 100 mpg Road Cruiser to how to choose a perfect turkey for Thanksgiving. Mackley’s story pulses over us as we work. He spins off smaller additional stories, updates, interactivity features, encouraging his vast audience to ping back just one more time. Marty will spend the entire day in conversation with this elephant of a story that he has created. Encouraging his visitors to return for just one more click. He’ll give them chances to poll each other, discuss how they’d like to see DP punished, ask whether you can actually fall in love with a fourteen-year-old. This one will have a long life, and he will raise it like a
proud father, feeding and nurturing it, helping it make its way in the rough world of the maelstrom. My own little green speck of content has disappeared. It seems that even government biologists feel for Double DP. When my father was not placing foolish bets on revolution, he taught agronomy at the National Lao University. Perhaps our lives would have been different if he had been a rice farmer in the paddies of the capital’s suburbs, instead of surrounded by intellectuals and ideas. But his karma was to be a teacher and a researcher, and so while he was increasing Lao rice production by 30 per cent, he was also filling himself with gambler’s fancies: Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Sakharov, Mandela, Aung Sung Kyi. True gamblers, all. He would say that if white South Africans could be made to feel shame, then the pretender monarch must right his ways. He claimed that Thoreau must have been Lao, the way he protested so politely. In my father’s description, Thoreau was a forest monk, gone into the jungle for enlightenment. To live amongst the banyan and the climbing vines of Massachusetts and to meditate on the nature of suffering. My father believed he was undoubtedly some arhat reborn. He often talked of Mr Henry David, and in my imagination this falang, too, was a large man like my father. When my father’s friends visited in the dark – after the coup and the countercoup, and after the march of Khamsing’s Chinese-supported insurgency – they would often speak of Mr Henry David. My father would sit with his friends and students and drink black Lao coffee and smoke cigarettes, and then he would write carefully worded complaints against the government that his students would then copy and leave in public places, distribute into gutters, and stick onto walls in the dead of night. His guerrilla complaints would ask where his friends had gone, and why their families were so alone. He would ask why monks were beaten on their heads by Chinese soldiers when they sat in hunger strike before the palace. Sometimes, when he was drunk and when these small gambles did not satisfy his risk-taking nature, he would send editorials to the newspapers. None of these were ever printed, but he was possessed with some spirit that made him think that perhaps the papers would change. That his stature as a father of Lao agriculture might somehow sway the editors to commit suicide and print his complaints. It ended with my mother serving coffee to a secret police captain while two more policemen waited outside our door. The captain was very polite: he offered my father a 555 cigarette – a brand that already had become rare and contraband – and lit it for him. Then he spread the whisper sheet onto the coffee table, gently pushing aside the coffee cups and their saucers to make room for it. It was rumpled and torn, stained with mud. Full of accusations against Khamsing. Unmistakable as one of my father’s.
My father and the policeman both sat and smoked, studying the paper silently. Finally, the captain asked, “Will you stop?” My father drew on his cigarette and let the smoke out slowly as he studied the whisper sheet between them. The captain said, “We all respect what you have done for the Lao kingdom. I myself have family who would have starved if not for your work in the villages.” He leaned forward. “If you promise to stop writing these whispers and complaints, everything can be forgotten. Everything.” Still, my father didn’t say anything. He finished his cigarette. Stubbed it out. “It would be difficult to make that sort of promise,” he said. The captain was surprised. “You have friends who have spoken on your behalf. Perhaps you would reconsider. For their sake.” My father made a little shrug. The captain spread the rumpled whisper sheet, flattening it out more completely. Read it over. “These sheets do nothing,” he said. “Khamsing’s dynasty will not collapse because you print a few complaints. Most of these are torn down before anyone reads them. They do nothing. They are pointless.” He was almost begging. He looked over and saw me watching at the door. “Give this up. For your family, if not your friends.” I would like to say that my father said something grand. Something honourable about speaking against tyranny. Perhaps invoked one of his idols. Aung Sung Kyi or Sakharov, or Mr Henry David and his penchant for polite protest. But he didn’t say anything. He just sat with his hands on his knees, looking down at the torn whisper sheet. I think now that he must have been very afraid. Words always came easily to him, before. Instead, all he did was repeat himself. “It would be difficult.” The captain waited. When it became apparent that my father had nothing else to say, he put down his coffee cup and motioned for his men to come inside. They were all very polite. I think the captain even apologized to my mother as they led him out the door. We are into day three of the Double DP bonanza, and the green sun glows brightly over all of us, bathing us in its soothing, profitable glow. I am working on my newest story with my Frontal Lobe ear buds in, shutting out everything except the work at hand. It is always a little difficult to write in one’s third language, but I have my favourite singer and fellow countryperson Kulaap whispering in my ear that “Love is a Bird,” and the work is going well. With Kulaap singing to me in our childhood language, I feel very much at home. A tap on my shoulder interrupts me. I pull out my ear buds and look around. Janice, standing over me. “Ong, I need to talk to you.” She motions me to follow. In her office, she closes the door behind me and goes to her desk. “Sit down, Ong.” She keys her tablet, scrolls through data. “How are things going for you?”
“Very well. Thank you.” I’m not sure if there is more that she wants me to say, but it is likely that she will tell me. Americans do not leave much to guesswork. “What are you working on for your next story?” she asks. I smile. I like this story; it reminds me of my father. And with Kulaap’s soothing voice in my ears I have finished almost all of my research. The bluet, a flower made famous in Mr Henry David Thoreau’s journals, is blooming too early to be pollinated. Bees do not seem to find it when it blooms in March. The scientists I interviewed blame global warming, and now the flower is in danger of extinction. I have interviewed biologists and local naturalists, and now I would like to go to Walden Pond on a pilgrimage for this bluet that may soon also be bottled in a federal reserve laboratory with its techs in clean suits and their crime scene vacuums. When I finish describing the story, Janice looks at me as if I am crazy. I can tell that she thinks I am crazy, because I can see it on her face. And also because she tells me. “You’re fucking crazy!” Americans are very direct. It’s difficult to keep face when they yell at you. Sometimes, I think that I have adapted to America. I have been here for five years now, ever since I came from Thailand on a scholarship, but at times like this, all I can do is smile and try not to cringe as they lose their face and yell and rant. My father was once struck in the face with an official’s shoe, and he did not show his anger. But Janice is American, and she is very angry. “There’s no way I’m going to authorize a junket like that!” I try to smile past her anger, and then remember that the Americans don’t see an apologetic smile in the same way that a Lao would. I stop smiling and make my face look . . . something. Earnest, I hope. “The story is very important,” I say. “The ecosystem isn’t adapting correctly to the changing climate. Instead, it has lost . . .” I grope for the word. “Synchronicity. These scientists think that the flower can be saved, but only if they import a bee that is available in Turkey. They think it can replace the function of the native bee population, and they think that it will not be too disruptive.” “Flowers and Turkish bees.” “Yes. It is an important story. Do they let the flower go extinct? Or try to keep the famous flower, but alter the environment of Walden Pond? I think your readers will think it is very interesting.” “More interesting than that?” She points through her glass wall at the maelstrom, at the throbbing green sun of Double DP, who has now barricaded himself in a Mexican hotel and has taken a pair of fans hostage. “You know how many clicks we’re getting?” she asks. “We’re exclusive. Marty’s got Double’s trust and is going in for an interview tomorrow, assuming the Mexicans don’t just raid it with commandos. We’ve got people clicking back every couple minutes just to look at Marty’s blog about his preparations to go in.”
The glowing globe not only dominates the maelstrom’s screen, it washes everything else out. If we look at the stock bots, everyone who doesn’t have protection under our corporate umbrella has been hurt by the loss of eyeballs. Even the Frontal Lobe/Oakley story has been swallowed. Three days of completely dominating the maelstrom has been very profitable for us. Now Marty’s showing his viewers how he will wear a flak jacket in case the Mexican commandos attack while he is discussing the nature of true love with DP. And he has another exclusive interview with the mother ready to post as well. Cindy has been editing the footage and telling us all how disgusted she is with the whole thing. The woman apparently drove her daughter to DP’s mansion for a midnight pool party, alone. “Perhaps some people are tired of DP and wish to see something else,” I suggest. “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with a flower story, Ong. Even Pradeep’s cooking journey through Ladakh gets more viewers than this stuff you’re writing.” She looks as though she will say more, but then she simply stops. It seems as if she is considering her words. It is uncharacteristic. She normally speaks before her thoughts are arranged. “Ong, I like you,” she says. I make myself smile at this, but she continues. “I hired you because I had a good feeling about you. I didn’t have a problem with clearing the visas to let you stay in the country. You’re a good person. You write well. But you’re averaging less than a thousand pings on your byline feed.” She looks down at her tablet, then back up at me. “You need to up your average. You’ve got almost no readers selecting you for Page One. And even when they do subscribe to your feed, they’re putting it in the third tier.” “Spinach reading,” I supply. “What?” “Mr Mackley calls it spinach reading. When people feel like they should do something with virtue, like eat their spinach, they click to me. Or else read Shakespeare.” I blush, suddenly embarrassed. I do not mean to imply that my work is of the same calibre as a great poet. I want to correct myself, but I’m too embarrassed. So instead I shut up, and sit in front of her, blushing. She regards me. “Yes. Well, that’s a problem. Look, I respect what you do. You’re obviously very smart.” Her eyes scan her tablet. “The butterfly thing you wrote was actually pretty interesting.” “Yes?” I make myself smile again. “It’s just that no one wants to read these stories.” I try to protest. “But you hired me to write the important stories. The stories about politics and the government, to continue the traditions of the old newspapers. I remember what you said when you hired me.” “Yeah, well.” She looks away. “I was thinking more about a good scandal.” “The checkerspot is a scandal. That butterfly is now gone.”
She sighs. “No, it’s not a scandal. It’s just a depressing story. No one reads a depressing story, at least, not more than once. And no one subscribes to a depressing byline feed.” “A thousand people do.” “A thousand people.” She laughs. “We aren’t some Laotian community weblog, we’re Milestone, and we’re competing for clicks with them.” She waves outside, indicating the maelstrom. “Your stories don’t last longer than half a day; they never get social-poked by anyone except a fringe.” She shakes her head. “Christ, I don’t even know who your demographic is. Centenarian hippies? Some federal bureaucrats? The numbers just don’t justify the amount of time you spend on stories.” “What stories do you wish me to write?” “I don’t know. Anything. Product reviews. News you can use. Just not any more of this ‘we regret to inform you of bad news’ stuff. If there isn’t something a reader can do about the damn butterfly, then there’s no point in telling them about it. It just depresses people, and it depresses your numbers.” “We don’t have enough numbers from Marty?” She laughs at that. “You remind me of my mother. Look, I don’t want to cut you, but if you can’t start pulling at least a fifty thousand daily average, I won’t have any choice. Our group median is way down in comparison to other teams, and when evaluations come around, we look bad. I’m up against Nguyen in the Tech and Toys pool, and Penn in Yoga and Spirituality, and no one wants to read about how the world’s going to shit. Go find me some stories that people want to read.” She says a few more things, words that I think are meant to make me feel inspired and eager, and then I am standing outside the door, once again facing the maelstrom. The truth is that I have never written popular stories. I am not a popular story writer. I am earnest. I am slow. I do not move at the speed these Americans seem to love. Find a story that people want to read. I can write some follow-up to Mackley, to Double DP, perhaps assist with sidebars to his main piece, but somehow, I suspect that the readers will know that I am faking it. Marty sees me standing outside of Janice’s office. He comes over. “She giving you a hard time about your numbers?” “I do not write the correct sort of stories.” “Yeah. You’re an idealist.” We both stand there for a moment, meditating on the nature of idealism. Even though he is very American, I like him because he is sensitive to people’s hearts. People trust him. Even Double DP trusts him, though Marty blew his name over every news tablet’s front page. Marty has a good heart. Jai dee. I like him. I think that he is genuine. “Look, Ong,” he says. “I like what you do.” He puts his hand around my shoulder. For a moment, I think he’s about to try to rub my head with affection and I have to force myself not to wince, but he’s sensitive and instead takes his hand away. “Look, Ong. We both know you’re terrible
at this kind of work. We’re in the news business, here. And you’re just not cut out for it.” “My visa says I have to remain employed.” “Yeah. Janice is a bitch for that. Look.” He pauses. “I’ve got this thing with Double DP going down in Mexico. But I’ve got another story brewing. An exclusive. I’ve already got my bonus, anyway. And it should push up your average.” “I do not think that I can write Double DP sidebars.” He grins. “It’s not that. And it’s not charity; you’re actually a perfect match.” “Is it about government mismanagement?” He laughs, but I think he’s not really laughing at me. “No.” He pauses, smiles. “It’s Kulaap. An interview.” I suck in my breath. My fellow countryperson, here in America. She came out during the purge as well. She was doing a movie in Singapore when the tanks moved, and so she was not trapped. She was already very popular all over Asia, and when Khamsing turned our country into a black hole, the world took note. Now she is popular here in America as well. Very beautiful. And she remembers our country before it went into darkness. My heart is pounding. Marty goes on. “She’s agreed to do an exclusive with me. But you even speak her language, so I think she’d agree to switch off.” He pauses, looks serious. “I’ve got a good history with Kulaap. She doesn’t give interviews to just anyone. I did a lot of exposure stories about her when Laos was going to hell. Got her a lot of good press. This is a special favour already, so don’t fuck it up.” I shake my head. “No. I will not.” I press my palms together and touch them to my forehead in a nop of appreciation. “I will not fuck it up.” I make another nop. He laughs. “Don’t bother with that polite stuff. Janice will cut off your balls to increase the stock price, but we’re the guys in the trenches. We stick together, right?” In the morning, I make a pot of strong coffee with condensed milk; I boil rice noodle soup and add bean sprouts and chiles and vinegar, and warm a loaf of French bread that I buy from a Vietnamese bakery a few blocks away. With a new mix of Kulaap’s music from DJ Dao streaming in over my stereo, I sit down at my little kitchen table, pour my coffee from its press pot, and open my tablet. The tablet is a wondrous creation. In Laos, the paper was still a paper, physical, static, and empty of anything except the official news. Real news in our New Divine Kingdom did not come from newspapers, or from television, or from handsets or ear buds. It did not come from the net or feeds unless you trusted your neighbour not to look over your shoulder at an Internet cafe and if you knew that there were no secret police sitting beside you, or an owner who would be able to identify you when they came
around asking about the person who used that workstation over there to communicate with the outside world. Real news came from whispered rumour, rated according to the trust you accorded the whisperer. Were they family? Did they have long history with you? Did they have anything to gain by the sharing? My father and his old classmates trusted one another. He trusted some of his students, as well. I think this is why the security police came for him in the end. One of his trusted friends or students also whispered news to official friends. Perhaps Mr Inthachak, or Som Vang. Perhaps another. It is impossible to peer into the blackness of that history and guess at who told true stories and in which direction. In any case, it was my father’s karma to be taken, so perhaps it does not matter who did the whispering. But before then – before the news of my father flowed up to official ears – none of the real news flowed toward Lao TV or the Vientiane Times. Which meant that when the protests happened and my father came through the door with blood on his face from baton blows, we could read as much as we wanted about the three thousand schoolchildren who had sung the national anthem to our new divine monarch. While my father lay in bed, delirious with pain, the papers told us that China had signed a rubber contract that would triple revenue for Luang Namtha province and that Nam Theun Dam was now earning BT 22.5 billion per year in electricity fees to Thailand. But there were no bloody batons, and there were no dead monks, and there was no Mercedes-Benz burning in the river as it floated towards Cambodia. Real news came on the wings of rumour, stole into our house at midnight, sat with us and sipped coffee and fled before the call of roosters could break the stillness. It was in the dark, over a burning cigarette that you learned Vilaphon had disappeared or that Mr Saeng’s wife had been beaten as a warning. Real news was too valuable to risk in public. Here in America, my page glows with many news feeds, flickers at me in video windows, pours in at me over broadband. It is a waterfall of information. As my personal news page opens, my feeds arrange themselves, sorting according to the priorities and tag categories that I’ve set, a mix of Meung Lao news, Lao refugee blogs, and the chatting of a few close friends from Thailand and the American college where I attended on a human relief scholarship. On my second page and my third, I keep the general news, the arrangements of Milestone, the Bangkok Post, the Phnom Penh Express – the news chosen by editors. But by the time I’ve finished with my own selections, I don’t often have time to click through the headlines that these earnest news editors select for the mythical general reader. In any case, I know far better than they what I want to read, and with my keyword and tag scans, I can unearth stories and discussions that a news agency would never think to provide. Even if I cannot see into the black hole itself, I can slip along its edges, divine news from its fringe. I search for tags like Vientiane, Laos, Lao, Khamsing, China-Lao friendship, Korat, Golden Triangle, Hmong independence, Lao PDR, my father’s
name . . . Only those of us who are Lao exiles from the March Purge really read these blogs. It is much as when we lived in the capital. The blogs are the rumours that we used to whisper to one another. Now we publish our whispers over the net and join mailing lists instead of secret coffee groups, but it is the same. It is family, as much as any of us now have. On the maelstrom, the tags for Laos don’t even register. Our tags bloomed brightly for a little while, while there were still guerrilla students uploading content from their handsets, and the images were lurid and shocking. But then the phone lines went down and the country fell into its black hole and now it is just us, this small network that functions outside the country. A headline from Jumbo Blog catches my eye. I open the site, and my tablet fills with the colourful image of the three-wheeled taxi of my childhood. I often come here. It is a node of comfort. Laofriend posts that some people, maybe a whole family, have swum the Mekong and made it into Thailand. He isn’t sure if they were accepted as refugees or if they were sent back. It is not an official news piece. More, the idea of a news piece. SomPaBoy doesn’t believe it, but Khamchanh contends that the rumour is true, heard from someone who has a sister married to an Isaan border guard in the Thai army. So we cling to it. Wonder about it. Guess where these people came from, wonder if, against all odds, it could be one of ours: a brother, a sister, a cousin, a father. . . After an hour, I close the tablet. It’s foolish to read any more. It only brings up memories. Worrying about the past is foolish. Lao PDR is gone. To wish otherwise is suffering. The clerk at Novotel’s front desk is expecting me. A hotel staffer with a key guides me to a private elevator bank that whisks us up into the smog and heights. The elevator doors open to a small entryway with a thick mahogany door. The staffer steps back into the elevator and disappears, leaving me standing in this strange airlock. Presumably, I am being examined by Kulaap’s security. The mahogany door opens, and a smiling black man who is forty centimeters taller than I and who has muscles that ripple like snakes smiles and motions me inside. He guides me through Kulaap’s sanctuary. She keeps the heat high, almost tropical, and fountains rush everywhere around. The flat is musical with water. I unbutton my collar in the humidity. I was expecting air-conditioning, and instead I am sweltering. It’s almost like home. And then she’s in front of me, and I can hardly speak. She is beautiful, and more. It is intimidating to stand before someone who exists in film and in music but has never existed before you in the flesh. She’s not as stunning as she is in the movies, but there’s more life, more presence; the movies lose that quality about her. I make a nop of greeting, pressing my hands together, touching my forehead. She laughs at this, takes my hand and shakes it American-style. “You’re lucky Marty likes you so much,” she says. “I don’t like interviews.” I can barely find my voice. “Yes. I only have a few questions.”
“Oh no. Don’t be shy.” She laughs again, and doesn’t release my hand, pulls me towards her living room. “Marty told me about you. You need help with your ratings. He helped me once, too.” She’s frightening. She is of my people, but she has adapted better to this place than I have. She seems comfortable here. She walks differently, smiles differently; she is an American, with perhaps some flavour of our country, but nothing of our roots. It’s obvious. And strangely disappointing. In her movies, she holds herself so well, and now she sits down on her couch and sprawls with her feet kicked out in front of her. Not caring at all. I’m embarrassed for her, and I’m glad I don’t have my camera set up yet. She kicks her feet up on the couch. I can’t help but be shocked. She catches my expression and smiles. “You’re worse than my parents. Fresh off the boat.” “I am sorry.” She shrugs. “Don’t worry about it. I spent half my life here, growing up; different country, different rules.” I’m embarrassed. I try not to laugh with the tension I feel. “I just have some interview questions,” I say. “Go ahead.” She sits up and arranges herself for the video stand that I set up. I begin. “When the March Purge happened, you were in Singapore.” She nods. “That’s right. We were finishing The Tiger and the Ghost.” “What was your first thought when it happened? Did you want to go back? Were you surprised?” She frowns. “Turn off the camera.” When it’s off she looks at me with pity. “This isn’t the way to get clicks. No one cares about an old revolution. Not even my fans.” She stands abruptly and calls through the green jungle of her flat. “Terrell?” The big black man appears. Smiling and lethal. Looming over me. He is very frightening. The movies I grew up with had falang like him. Terrifying large black men whom our heroes had to overcome. Later, when I arrived in America, it was different, and I found out that the falang and the black people don’t like the way we show them in our movies. Much like when I watch their Vietnam movies, and see the ugly way the Lao freedom fighters behave. Not real at all, portrayed like animals. But still, I cannot help but cringe when Terrell looks at me. Kulaap says, “We’re going out, Terrell. Make sure you tip off some of the papcams. We’re going to give them a show.” “I don’t understand,” I say. “You want clicks, don’t you?” “Yes, but —” She smiles. “You don’t need an interview. You need an event.” She looks me over. “And better clothes.” She nods to her security man. “Terrell, dress him up.” A flashbulb frenzy greets us as we come out of the tower. Papcams everywhere. Chase cycles revving, and Terrell and three others of his people
guiding us through the press to the limousine, shoving cameras aside with a violence and power that are utterly unlike the careful pity he showed when he selected a Gucci suit for me to wear. Kulaap looks properly surprised at the crowd and the shouting reporters, but not nearly as surprised as I am, and then we’re in the limo, speeding out of the tower’s roundabout as papcams follow us. Kulaap crouches before the car’s onboard tablet, keying in pass codes. She is very pretty, wearing a black dress that brushes her thighs and thin straps that caress her smooth bare shoulders. I feel as if I am in a movie. She taps more keys. A screen glows, showing the taillights of our car: the view from pursuing papcams. “You know I haven’t dated anyone in three years?” she asks. “Yes. I know from your website biography.” She grins. “And now it looks like I’ve found one of my countrymen.” “But we’re not on a date,” I protest. “Of course we are.” She smiles again. “I’m going out on a supposedly secret date with a cute and mysterious Lao boy. And look at all those papcams chasing after us, wondering where we’re going and what we’re going to do.” She keys in another code, and now we can see live footage of the paparazzi, as viewed from the tail of her limo. She grins. “My fans like to see what life is like for me.” I can almost imagine what the maelstrom looks like right now: there will still be Marty’s story, but now a dozen other sites will be lighting up, and in the centre of that, Kulaap’s own view of the excitement, pulling in her fans, who will want to know, direct from her, what’s going on. She holds up a mirror, checks herself, and then she smiles into her smartphone’s camera. “Hi everyone. It looks like my cover’s blown. Just thought I should let you know that I’m on a lovely date with a lovely man. I’ll let you all know how it goes. Promise.” She points the camera at me. I stare at it stupidly. She laughs. “Say hi and good-bye, Ong.” “Hi and good-bye.” She laughs again, waves into the camera. “Love you all. Hope you have as good a night as I’m going to have.” And then she cuts the clip and punches a code to launch the video to her Web site. It is a bit of nothing. Not a news story, not a scoop even, and yet, when she opens another window on her tablet, showing her own miniversion of the maelstrom, I can see her site lighting up with traffic. Her version of the maelstrom isn’t as powerful as what we have at Milestone, but still, it is an impressive window into the data that is relevant to Kulaap’s tags. “What’s your feed’s byline?” she asks. “Let’s see if we can get your traffic bumped up.” “Are you serious?” “Marty Mackley did more than this for me. I told him I’d help.” She laughs. “Besides, we wouldn’t want you to get sent back to the black hole, would we?” “You know about the black hole?” I can’t help doing a double-take.
Her smile is almost sad. “You think just because I put my feet up on the furniture that I don’t care about my aunts and uncles back home? That I don’t worry about what’s happening?” “I —” She shakes her head. “You’re so fresh off the boat.” “Do you use the Jumbo Cafe —” I break off. It seems too unlikely. She leans close. “My handle is Laofriend. What’s yours?” “Littlexang. I thought Laofriend was a boy —” She just laughs. I lean forward. “Is it true that the family made it out?” She nods. “For certain. A general in the Thai army is a fan. He tells me everything. They have a listening post. And sometimes they send scouts across.” It’s almost as if I am home. We go to a tiny Laotian restaurant where everyone recognizes her and falls over her and the owners simply lock out the paparazzi when they become too intrusive. We spend the evening unearthing memories of Vientiane. We discover that we both favored the same rice noodle cart on Kaem Khong. That she used to sit on the banks of the Mekong and wish that she were a fisherman. That we went to the same waterfalls outside the city on the weekends. That it is impossible to find good dum mak hoong anywhere outside of the country. She is a good companion, very alive. Strange in her American ways, but still, with a good heart. Periodically, we click photos of one another and post them to her site, feeding the voyeurs. And then we are in the limo again and the paparazzi are all around us. I have the strange feeling of fame. Flashbulbs everywhere. Shouted questions. I feel proud to be beside this beautiful intelligent woman who knows so much more than any of us about the situation inside our homeland. Back in the car, she has me open a bottle of champagne and pour two glasses while she opens the maelstrom and studies the results of our date. She has reprogrammed it to watch my byline feed ranking as well. “You’ve got twenty thousand more readers than you did yesterday,” she says. I beam. She keeps reading the results. “Someone already did a scan on your face.” She toasts me with her glass. “You’re famous.” We clink glasses. I am flushed with wine and happiness. I will have Janice’s average clicks. It’s as though a bodhisattva has come down from heaven to save my job. In my mind, I offer thanks to Marty for arranging this, for his generous nature. Kulaap leans close to her screen, watching the flaring content. She opens another window, starts to read. She frowns. “What the fuck do you write about?” I draw back, surprised. “Government stories, mostly.” I shrug. “Sometimes environment stories.” “Like what?” “I am working on a story right now about global warming and Henry David Thoreau.”
“Aren’t we done with that?” I’m confused. “Done with what?” The limo jostles us as it makes a turn, moves down Hollywood Boulevard, letting the cycles rev around us like schools of fish. They’re snapping pictures at the side of the limo, snapping at us. Through the tinting, they’re like fireflies, smaller flares than even my stories in the maelstrom. “I mean, isn’t that an old story?” She sips her champagne. “Even America is reducing emissions now. Everyone knows it’s a problem.” She taps her couch’s armrest. “The carbon tax on my limo has tripled, even with the hybrid engine. Everyone agrees it’s a problem. We’re going to fix it. What’s there to write about?” She is an American. Everything that is good about them: their optimism, their willingness to charge ahead, to make their own future. And everything that is bad about them: their strange ignorance, their unwillingness to believe that they must behave as other than children. “No. It’s not done,” I say. “It is worse. Worse every day. And the changes we make seem to have little effect. Maybe too little, or maybe too late. It is getting worse.” She shrugs. “That’s not what I read.” I try not to show my exasperation. “Of course it’s not what you read.” I wave at the screen. “Look at the clicks on my feed. People want happy stories. Want fun stories. Not stories like I write. So instead, we all write what you will read, which is nothing.” “Still —” “No.” I make a chopping motion with my hand. “We newspeople are very smart monkeys. If you will give us your so lovely eyeballs and your click-throughs we will do whatever you like. We will write good news, and news you can use, news you can shop to, news with the ‘Three S’s.’ We will tell you how to have better sex or eat better or look more beautiful or feel happier and or how to meditate – yes, so enlightened.” I make a face. “If you want a walking meditation and Double DP, we will give it to you.” She starts to laugh. “Why are you laughing at me?” I snap. “I am not joking!” She waves a hand. “I know, I know, but what you just said ‘double’ —” She shakes her head, still laughing. “Never mind.” I lapse into silence. I want to go on, to tell her of my frustrations. But now I am embarrassed at my loss of composure. I have no face. I didn’t used to be like this. I used to control my emotions, but now I am an American, as childish and unruly as Janice. And Kulaap laughs at me. I control my anger. “I think I want to go home,” I say. “I don’t wish to be on a date anymore.” She smiles and reaches over to touch my shoulder. “Don’t be that way.” A part of me is telling me that I am a fool. That I am reckless and foolish for walking away from this opportunity. But there is something else, something about this frenzied hunt for page views and click-throughs and ad revenue that suddenly feels unclean. As if my father is with us in the car,
disapproving. Asking if he posted his complaints about his missing friends for the sake of clicks. “I want to get out,” I hear myself say. “I do not wish to have your clicks.” “But —” I look up at her. “I want to get out. Now.” “Here?” She makes a face of exasperation, then shrugs. “It’s your choice.” “Yes. Thank you.” She tells her driver to pull over. We sit in stiff silence. “I will send your suit back to you,” I say. She gives me a sad smile. “It’s all right. It’s a gift.” This makes me feel worse, even more humiliated for refusing her generosity, but still, I get out of the limo. Cameras are clicking at me from all around. This is my fifteen minutes of fame, this moment when all of Kulaap’s fans focus on me for a few seconds, their flashbulbs popping. I begin to walk home as paparazzi shout questions. Fifteen minutes later I am indeed alone. I consider calling a cab, but then decide I prefer the night. Prefer to walk by myself through this city that never walks anywhere. On a street corner, I buy a pupusa and gamble on the Mexican Lottery because I like the tickets’ laser images of their Day of the Dead. It seems an echo of the Buddha’s urging to remember that we all become corpses. I buy three tickets, and one of them is a winner: one hundred dollars that I can redeem at any TelMex kiosk. I take this as a good sign. Even if my luck is obviously gone with my work, and even if the girl Kulaap was not the bodhisattva that I thought, still, I feel lucky. As though my father is walking with me down this cool Los Angeles street in the middle of the night, the two of us together again, me with a pupusa and a winning lottery ticket, him with an Ah Daeng cigarette and his quiet gambler’s smile. In a strange way, I feel that he is blessing me. And so instead of going home, I go back to the newsroom. My hits are up when I arrive. Even now, in the middle of the night, a tiny slice of Kulaap’s fan base is reading about checkerspot butterflies and American government incompetence. In my country, this story would not exist. A censor would kill it instantly. Here, it glows green; increasing and decreasing in size as people click. A lonely thing, flickering amongst the much larger content flares of Intel processor releases, guides to low-fat recipes, photos of lol-cats, and episodes of Survivor! Antarctica. The wash of light and colour is very beautiful. In the centre of the maelstrom, the green sun of the Double DP story glows – surges larger. DP is doing something. Maybe he’s surrendering, maybe he’s murdering his hostages, maybe his fans have thrown up a human wall to protect him. My story snuffs out as reader attention shifts. I watch the maelstrom a little longer, then go to my desk and make a phone call. A rumpled hairy man answers, rubbing at a sleep-puffy face.
I apologize for the late hour, and then pepper him with questions while I record the interview. He is silly looking and wild-eyed. He has spent his life living as if he were Thoreau, thinking deeply on the forest monk and following the man’s careful paths through what woods remain, walking amongst birch and maple and bluets. He is a fool, but an earnest one. “I can’t find a single one,” he tells me. “Thoreau could find thousands at this time of year; there were so many he didn’t even have to look for them.” He says, “I’m so glad you called. I tried sending out press releases, but . . .” He shrugs. “I’m glad you’ll cover it. Otherwise, it’s just us hobbyists talking to each other.” I smile and nod and take notes of his sincerity, this strange wild creature, the sort that everyone will dismiss. His image is bad for video; his words are not good for text. He has no quotes that encapsulate what he sees. It is all couched in the jargon of naturalists and biology. With time, I could find another, someone who looks attractive or who can speak well, but all I have is this one hairy man, disheveled and foolish, senile with passion over a flower that no longer exists. I work through the night, polishing the story. When my colleagues pour through the door at 8 a.m. it is almost done. Before I can even tell Janice about it, she comes to me. She fingers my clothing and grins. “Nice suit.” She pulls up a chair and sits beside me. “We all saw you with Kulaap. Your hits went way up.” She nods at my screen. “Writing up what happened?” “No. It was a private conversation.” “But everyone wants to know why you got out of the car. I had someone from the Financial Times call me about splitting the hits for a tell-all, if you’ll be interviewed. You wouldn’t even need to write up the piece.” It’s a tempting thought. Easy hits. Many click-throughs. Ad-revenue bonuses. Still, I shake my head. “We did not talk about things that are important for others to hear.” Janice stares at me as if I am crazy. “You’re not in the position to bargain, Ong. Something happened between the two of you. Something people want to know about. And you need the clicks. Just tell us what happened on your date.” “I was not on a date. It was an interview.” “Well then publish the fucking interview and get your average up!” “No. That is for Kulaap to post, if she wishes. I have something else.” I show Janice my screen. She leans forwards. Her mouth tightens as she reads. For once, her anger is cold. Not the explosion of noise and rage that I expect. “Bluets.” She looks at me. “You need hits and you give them flowers and Walden Pond.” “I would like to publish this story.” “No! Hell, no! This is just another story like your butterfly story, and your road contracts story, and your congressional budget story. You won’t get a damn click. It’s pointless. No one will even read it.” “This is news.”
“Marty went out on a limb for you —” She presses her lips together, reining in her anger. “Fine. It’s up to you, Ong. If you want to destroy your life over Thoreau and flowers, it’s your funeral. We can’t help you if you won’t help yourself. Bottom line, you need fifty thousand readers or I’m sending you back to the third world.” We look at each other. Two gamblers evaluating one another. Deciding who is betting, and who is bluffing. I click the “publish” button. The story launches itself onto the net, announcing itself to the feeds. A minute later a tiny new sun glows in the maelstrom. Together, Janice and I watch the green spark as it flickers on the screen. Readers turn to the story. Start to ping it and share it amongst themselves, start to register hits on the page. The post grows slightly. My father gambled on Thoreau. I am my father’s son.
Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
Elizabeth Bear was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and now lives in the Mohave Desert near Las Vegas. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005, and in 2008 took home a Hugo Award for her short story “Tideline,” which also won her the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award (shared with David Moles). Her short work has appeared in Asimov’s, Subterranean, sci fiction, Interzone, The Third Alternative, Strange Horizons, On Spec, and elsewhere, and has been collected in The Chains That You Refuse and New Amsterdam. She is the author of three highly acclaimed SF novels, Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired, and of the Alternate History Fantasy Promethean Age series, which includes the novels Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water, Ink and Steel, and Hell and Earth. Her other books include the novels Carnival, Undertow, and Dust. Her most recent book is the novel All the Windwracked Stars, and coming up are a new novel, Chill, and a chapbook novella, Seven for a Secret. Her website is at elizabethbear.com. Sarah Monette was born and raised in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the secret cities of the Manhattan Project. Having completed her Ph.D. in Renaissance English drama, she now lives and writes in a ninety-nine-year-old house in the Upper Midwest. Her Doctrine of Labyrinths series consists of the novels Melusine, The Virtu, and The Mirador. Her short fiction has appeared in many places, including Strange Horizons, Aeon, Alchemy, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and has been collected in The Bone Key. Upcoming is a new novel in the Doctrine of Labyrinths sequence, Corambis. Her website is at sarahmonette.com/. Bear and Monette have collaborated before, on the story “The Ile of Dogges” and on the novel A Companion to Wolves. Here they join forces again to take us adventuring through the solar system with space pirates. Arrrr!
he ship had no name of her own, so her human crew called her the Lavinia Whateley. As far as anyone could tell, she didn’t mind. At
elizabeth Bear and sarah monette
least, her long grasping vanes curled – affectionately? – when the chief engineers patted her bulkheads and called her “Vinnie,” and she ceremoniously tracked the footsteps of each crew member with her internal bioluminescence, giving them light to walk and work and live by. The Lavinia Whateley was a Boojum, a deep-space swimmer, but her kind had evolved in the high tempestuous envelopes of gas giants, and their offspring still spent their infancies there, in cloud-nurseries over eternal storms. And so she was streamlined, something like a vast spiny lionfish to the earth-adapted eye. Her sides were lined with gasbags filled with hydrogen; her vanes and wings furled tight. Her colour was a blue-green so dark it seemed a glossy black unless the light struck it; her hide was impregnated with symbiotic algae. Where there was light, she could make oxygen. Where there was oxygen, she could make water. She was an ecosystem unto herself, as the captain was a law unto herself. And down in the bowels of the engineering section, Black Alice Bradley, who was only human and no kind of law at all, loved her. Black Alice had taken the oath back in ’32, after the Venusian Riots. She hadn’t hidden her reasons, and the captain had looked at her with cold, dark, amused eyes and said, “So long as you carry your weight, cherie, I don’t care. Betray me, though, and you will be going back to Venus the cold way.” But it was probably that – and the fact that Black Alice couldn’t hit the broad side of a space freighter with a ray gun – that had gotten her assigned to Engineering, where ethics were less of a problem. It wasn’t, after all, as if she was going anywhere. Black Alice was on duty when the Lavinia Whateley spotted prey; she felt the shiver of anticipation that ran through the decks of the ship. It was an odd sensation, a tic Vinnie only exhibited in pursuit. And then they were underway, zooming down the slope of the gravity well toward Sol, and the screens all around Engineering – which Captain Song kept dark, most of the time, on the theory that swabs and deckhands and coalshovelers didn’t need to know where they were, or what they were doing – flickered bright and live. Everybody looked up, and Demijack shouted, “There! There!” He was right: the blot that might only have been a smudge of oil on the screen moved as Vinnie banked, revealing itself to be a freighter, big and ungainly and hopelessly outclassed. Easy prey. Easy pickings. We could use some of them, thought Black Alice. Contrary to the e-ballads and comm stories, a pirate’s life was not all imported delicacies and fawning slaves. Especially not when three-quarters of any and all profits went directly back to the Lavinia Whateley, to keep her healthy and happy. Nobody ever argued. There were stories about the Marie Curie, too. The Captain’s voice over fibre-optic cable – strung beside the Lavinia Whateley’s nerve bundles – was as clear and free of static as if she stood at Black Alice’s elbow. “Battle stations,” Captain Song said, and the crew leapt to obey. It had been two Solar since Captain Song keelhauled James
Brady, but nobody who’d been with the ship then was ever likely to forget his ruptured eyes and frozen scream. Black Alice manned her station, and stared at the screen. She saw the freighter’s name – the Josephine Baker – gold on black across the stern, the Venusian flag for its port of registry wired stiff from a mast on its hull. It was a steelship, not a Boojum, and they had every advantage. For a moment she thought the freighter would run. And then it turned, and brought its guns to bear. No sense of movement, of acceleration, of disorientation. No pop, no whump of displaced air. The view on the screens just flickered to a different one, as Vinnie skipped – apported – to a new position just aft and above the Josephine Baker, crushing the flag mast with her hull. Black Alice felt that, a grinding shiver. And had just time to grab her console before the Lavinia Whateley grappled the freighter, long vanes not curling in affection now. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Dogcollar, the closest thing the Lavinia Whateley had to a chaplain, cross himself, and she heard him mutter, like he always did, Ave, Grandaevissimi, morituri vos salutant. It was the best he’d be able to do until it was all over, and even then he wouldn’t have the chance to do much. Captain Song didn’t mind other people worrying about souls, so long as they didn’t do it on her time. The Captain’s voice was calling orders, assigning people to boarding parties port and starboard. Down in Engineering, all they had to do was monitor the Lavinia Whateley’s hull and prepare to repel boarders, assuming the freighter’s crew had the gumption to send any. Vinnie would take care of the rest – until the time came to persuade her not to eat her prey before they’d gotten all the valuables off it. That was a ticklish job, only entrusted to the chief engineers, but Black Alice watched and listened, and although she didn’t expect she’d ever get the chance, she thought she could do it herself. It was a small ambition, and one she never talked about. But it would be a hell of a thing, wouldn’t it? To be somebody a Boojum would listen to? She gave her attention to the dull screens in her sectors, and tried not to crane her neck to catch a glimpse of the ones with the actual fighting on them. Dogcollar was making the rounds with sidearms from the weapons locker, just in case. Once the Josephine Baker was subdued, it was the junior engineers and others who would board her to take inventory. Sometimes there were crew members left in hiding on captured ships. Sometimes, unwary pirates got shot. There was no way to judge the progress of the battle from Engineering. Wasabi put a stopwatch up on one of the secondary screens, as usual, and everybody glanced at it periodically. Fifteen minutes ongoing meant the boarding parties hadn’t hit any nasty surprises. Black Alice had met a man once who’d been on the Margaret Mead when she grappled a freighter that turned out to be carrying a division-worth of Marines out to the Jovian moons. Thirty minutes on-going was normal. Forty-five minutes. Upward of an hour on-going, and people started double-checking their weapons.
elizabeth Bear and sarah monette
The longest battle Black Alice had ever personally been part of was six hours, forty-three minutes, and fifty-two seconds. That had been the last time the Lavinia Whateley worked with a partner, and the double-cross by the Henry Ford was the only reason any of Vinnie’s crew needed. Captain Song still had Captain Edwards’ head in a jar on the bridge, and Vinnie had an ugly ring of scars where the Henry Ford had bitten her. This time, the clock stopped at fifty minutes, thirteen seconds. The Josephine Baker surrendered. Dogcollar slapped Black Alice’s arm. “With me,” he said, and she didn’t argue. He had only six weeks seniority over her, but he was as tough as he was devout, and not stupid either. She checked the velcro on her holster and followed him up the ladder, reaching through the rungs once to scratch Vinnie’s bulkhead as she passed. The ship paid her no notice. She wasn’t the captain, and she wasn’t one of the four chief engineers. Quartermaster mostly respected crew’s own partner choices, and as Black Alice and Dogcollar suited up – it wouldn’t be the first time, if the Josephine Baker’s crew decided to blow her open to space rather than be taken captive – he came by and issued them both tag guns and x-ray pads, taking a retina scan in return. All sorts of valuable things got hidden inside of bulkheads, and once Vinnie was done with the steelship there wouldn’t be much chance of coming back to look for what they’d missed. Wet pirates used to scuttle their captures. The Boojums were more efficient. Black Alice clipped everything to her belt, and checked Dogcollar’s seals. And then they were swinging down lines from the Lavinia Whateley’s belly to the chewed-open airlock. A lot of crew didn’t like to look at the ship’s face, but Black Alice loved it. All those teeth, the diamond edges worn to a glitter, and a few of the ship’s dozens of bright sapphire eyes blinking back at her. She waved, unselfconsciously, and flattered herself that the ripple of closing eyes was Vinnie winking in return. She followed Dogcollar inside the prize. They unsealed when they had checked atmosphere – no sense in wasting your own air when you might need it later – and the first thing she noticed was the smell. The Lavinia Whateley had her own smell, ozone and nutmeg, and other ships never smelled as good, but this was . . . this was . . . “What did they kill and why didn’t they space it?” Dogcollar wheezed, and Black Alice swallowed hard against her gag reflex and said, “One will get you twenty we’re the lucky bastards that find it.” “No takers,” Dogcollar said. They worked together to crank open the hatches they came to. Twice they found crew members, messily dead. Once they found crew members alive. “Gillies,” said Black Alice.
“Still don’t explain the smell,” said Dogcollar and, to the gillies: “Look, you can join our crew, or our ship can eat you. Makes no never mind to us.” The gillies blinked their big wet eyes and made fingersigns at each other, and then nodded. Hard. Dogcollar slapped a tag on the bulkhead. “Someone will come get you. You go wandering, we’ll assume you changed your mind.” The gillies shook their heads, hard, and folded down onto the deck to wait. Dogcollar tagged searched holds – green for clean, purple for goods, red for anything Vinnie might like to eat that couldn’t be fenced for a profit – and Black Alice mapped. The corridors in the steelship were winding, twisty, hard to track. She was glad she chalked the walls, because she didn’t think her map was quite right, somehow, but she couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong. Still, they had a beacon, and Vinnie could always chew them out if she had to. Black Alice loved her ship. She was thinking about that, how, okay, it wasn’t so bad, the pirate game, and it sure beat working in the sunstone mines on Venus, when she found a locked cargo hold. “Hey, Dogcollar,” she said to her comm, and while he was turning to cover her, she pulled her sidearm and blastered the lock. The door peeled back, and Black Alice found herself staring at rank upon rank of silver cylinders, each less than a meter tall and perhaps half a meter wide, smooth and featureless except for what looked like an assortment of sockets and plugs on the surface of each. The smell was strongest here. “Shit,” she said. Dogcollar, more practical, slapped the first safety orange tag of the expedition beside the door and said only, “Captain’ll want to see this.” “Yeah,” said Black Alice, cold chills chasing themselves up and down her spine. “C’mon, let’s move.” But of course it turned out that she and Dogcollar were on the retrieval detail, too, and the Captain wasn’t leaving the canisters for Vinnie. Which, okay, fair. Black Alice didn’t want the Lavinia Whateley eating those things, either, but why did they have to bring them back? She said as much to Dogcollar, under her breath, and had a horrifying thought: “She knows what they are, right?” “She’s the Captain,” said Dogcollar. “Yeah, but – I ain’t arguing, man, but if she doesn’t know . . .” She lowered her voice even farther, so she could barely hear herself: “What if somebody opens one?” Dogcollar gave her a pained look. “Nobody’s going to go opening anything. But if you’re really worried, go talk to the Captain about it.” He was calling her bluff. Black Alice called his right back. “Come with me?”
elizabeth Bear and sarah monette
He was stuck. He stared at her, and then he grunted and pulled his gloves off, the left and then the right. “Fuck,” he said. “I guess we oughta.” For the crew members who had been in the boarding action, the party had already started. Dogcollar and Black Alice finally tracked the Captain down in the rec room, where her marines were slurping stolen wine from broken-necked bottles. As much of it splashed on the gravity plates epoxied to the Lavinia Whateley’s flattest interior surface as went into the marines, but Black Alice imagined there was plenty more where that came from. And the faster the crew went through it, the less long they’d be drunk. The Captain herself was naked in a great extruded tub, up to her collarbones in steaming water dyed pink and heavily scented by the bath bombs sizzling here and there. Black Alice stared; she hadn’t seen a tub bath in seven years. She still dreamed of them sometimes. “Captain,” she said, because Dogcollar wasn’t going to say anything. “We think you should know we found some dangerous cargo on the prize.” Captain Song raised one eyebrow. “And you imagine I don’t know already, cherie?” Oh shit. But Black Alice stood her ground. “We thought we should be sure.” The Captain raised one long leg out of the water to shove a pair of necking pirates off the rim of her tub. They rolled onto the floor, grappling and clawing, both fighting to be on top. But they didn’t break the kiss. “You wish to be sure,” said the Captain. Her dark eyes had never left Black Alice’s sweating face. “Very well. Tell me. And then you will know that I know, and you can be sure.” Dogcollar made a grumbling noise deep in his throat, easily interpreted: I told you so. Just as she had when she took Captain Song’s oath, and slit her thumb with a razorblade and dripped her blood on the Lavinia Whateley’s decking so the ship might know her, Black Alice – metaphorically speaking – took a breath and jumped. “They’re brains,” she said. “Human brains. Stolen. Black-market. The Fungi —” “Mi-Go,” Dogcollar hissed, and the Captain grinned at him, showing extraordinarily white strong teeth. He ducked, submissively, but didn’t step back, for which Black Alice felt a completely ridiculous gratitude. “Mi-Go,” Black Alice said. Mi-Go, Fungi, what did it matter? They came from the outer rim of the Solar System, the black cold hurtling rocks of the Öpik-Oort Cloud. Like the Boojums, they could swim between the stars. “They collect them. There’s a black market. Nobody knows what they use them for. It’s illegal, of course. But they’re . . . alive in there. They go mad, supposedly.” And that was it. That was all Black Alice could manage. She stopped, and had to remind herself to shut her mouth. “So I’ve heard,” the Captain said, dabbling at the steaming water. She stretched luxuriously in her tub. Someone thrust a glass of white wine at
her, condensation dewing the outside. The Captain did not drink from shattered plastic bottles. “The Mi-Go will pay for this cargo, won’t they? They mine rare minerals all over the system. They’re said to be very wealthy.” “Yes, Captain,” Dogcollar said, when it became obvious that Black Alice couldn’t. “Good,” the Captain said. Under Black Alice’s feet, the decking shuddered, a grinding sound as Vinnie began to dine. Her rows of teeth would make short work of the Josephine Baker’s steel hide. Black Alice could see two of the gillies – the same two? she never could tell them apart unless they had scars – flinch and tug at their chains. “Then they might as well pay us as someone else, wouldn’t you say?” Black Alice knew she should stop thinking about the canisters. Captain’s word was law. But she couldn’t help it, like scratching at a scab. They were down there, in the third subhold, the one even sniffers couldn’t find, cold and sweating and with that stench that was like a living thing. And she kept wondering. Were they empty? Or were there brains in there, people’s brains, going mad? The idea was driving her crazy, and finally, her fourth off-shift after the capture of the Josephine Baker, she had to go look. “This is stupid, Black Alice,” she muttered to herself as she climbed down the companion way, the beads in her hair clicking against her earrings. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Vinnie bioluminesced, a traveling spotlight, placidly unconcerned whether Black Alice was being an idiot or not. Half-Hand Sally had pulled duty in the main hold. She nodded at Black Alice and Black Alice nodded back. Black Alice ran errands a lot, for Engineering and sometimes for other departments, because she didn’t smoke hash and she didn’t cheat at cards. She was reliable. Down through the subholds, and she really didn’t want to be doing this, but she was here and the smell of the third subhold was already making her sick, and maybe if she just knew one way or the other, she’d be able to quit thinking about it. She opened the third subhold, and the stench rushed out. The canisters were just metal, sealed, seemingly airtight. There shouldn’t be any way for the aroma of the contents to escape. But it permeated the air nonetheless, bad enough that Black Alice wished she had brought a rebreather. No, that would have been suspicious. So it was really best for everyone concerned that she hadn’t, but oh, gods and little fishes the stench. Even breathing through her mouth was no help; she could taste it, like oil from a fryer, saturating the air, oozing up her sinuses, coating the interior spaces of her body. As silently as possible, she stepped across the threshold and into the space beyond. The Lavinia Whateley obligingly lit the space as she entered, dazzling her at first as the overhead lights – not just bioluminescent, here, but LEDs chosen to approximate natural daylight, for when they shipped
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plants and animals – reflected off rank upon rank of canisters. When Black Alice went among them, they did not reach her waist. She was just going to walk through, she told herself. Hesitantly, she touched the closest cylinder. The air in this hold was so dry there was no condensation – the whole ship ran to lip-cracking, nosebleed dryness in the long weeks between prizes – but the cylinder was cold. It felt somehow grimy to the touch, gritty and oily like machine grease. She pulled her hand back. It wouldn’t do to open the closest one to the door – and she realized with that thought that she was planning on opening one. There must be a way to do it, a concealed catch or a code pad. She was an engineer, after all. She stopped three ranks in, lightheaded with the smell, to examine the problem. It was remarkably simple, once you looked for it. There were three depressions on either side of the rim, a little smaller than human fingertips but spaced appropriately. She laid the pads of her fingers over them and pressed hard, making the flesh deform into the catches. The lid sprang up with a pressurized hiss. Black Alice was grateful that even open, it couldn’t smell much worse. She leaned forward to peer within. There was a clear membrane over the surface, and gelatin or thick fluid underneath. Vinnie’s lights illuminated it well. It was not empty. And as the light struck the greyish surface of the lump of tissue floating within, Black Alice would have sworn she saw the pathetic unbodied thing flinch. She scrambled to close the canister again, nearly pinching her fingertips when it clanked shut. “Sorry,” she whispered, although dear sweet Jesus, surely the thing couldn’t hear her. “Sorry, sorry.” And then she turned and ran, catching her hip a bruising blow against the doorway, slapping the controls to make it fucking close already. And then she staggered sideways, lurching to her knees, and vomited until blackness was spinning in front of her eyes and she couldn’t smell or taste anything but bile. Vinnie would absorb the former contents of Black Alice’s stomach, just as she absorbed, filtered, recycled, and excreted all her crew’s wastes. Shaking, Black Alice braced herself back upright and began the long climb out of the holds. In the first subhold, she had to stop, her shoulder against the smooth, velvet slickness of Vinnie’s skin, her mouth hanging open while her lungs worked. And she knew Vinnie wasn’t going to hear her, because she wasn’t the Captain or a chief engineer or anyone important, but she had to try anyway, croaking, “Vinnie, water, please.” And no one could have been more surprised than Black Alice Bradley when Vinnie extruded a basin and a thin cool trickle of water began to flow into it. Well, now she knew. And there was still nothing she could do about it. She wasn’t the Captain, and if she said anything more than she already had, people were going to start looking at her funny. Mutiny kind of funny. And
what Black Alice did not need was any more of Captain Song’s attention and especially not for rumours like that. She kept her head down and did her job and didn’t discuss her nightmares with anyone. And she had nightmares, all right. Hot and cold running, enough, she fancied, that she could have filled up the Captain’s huge tub with them. She could live with that. But over the next double dozen of shifts, she became aware of something else wrong, and this was worse, because it was something wrong with the Lavinia Whateley. The first sign was the chief engineers frowning and going into huddles at odd moments. And then Black Alice began to feel it herself, the way Vinnie was . . . she didn’t have a word for it because she’d never felt anything like it before. She would have said balky, but that couldn’t be right. It couldn’t. But she was more and more sure that Vinnie was less responsive somehow, that when she obeyed the Captain’s orders, it was with a delay. If she were human, Vinnie would have been dragging her feet. You couldn’t keelhaul a ship for not obeying fast enough. And then, because she was paying attention so hard she was making her own head hurt, Black Alice noticed something else. Captain Song had them cruising the gas giants’ orbits – Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune – not going in as far as the asteroid belt, not going out as far as Uranus. Nobody Black Alice talked to knew why, exactly, but she and Dogcollar figured it was because the Captain wanted to talk to the Mi-Go without actually getting near the nasty cold rock of their planet. And what Black Alice noticed was that Vinnie was less balky, less unhappy, when she was headed out, and more and more resistant the closer they got to the asteroid belt. Vinnie, she remembered, had been born over Uranus. “Do you want to go home, Vinnie?” Black Alice asked her one late-night shift when there was nobody around to care that she was talking to the ship. “Is that what’s wrong?” She put her hand flat on the wall, and although she was probably imagining it, she thought she felt a shiver ripple across Vinnie’s vast side. Black Alice knew how little she knew, and didn’t even contemplate sharing her theory with the chief engineers. They probably knew exactly what was wrong and exactly what to do to keep the Lavinia Whateley from going core meltdown like the Marie Curie had. That was a whispered story, not the sort of thing anybody talked about except in their hammocks after lights out. The Marie Curie had eaten her own crew. So when Wasabi said, four shifts later, “Black Alice, I’ve got a job for you,” Black Alice said, “Yessir,” and hoped it would be something that would help the Lavinia Whateley be happy again. It was a suit job, he said, replace and repair. Black Alice was going because she was reliable and smart and stayed quiet, and it was time she took on more responsibilities. The way he said it made her first fret because that meant the Captain might be reminded of her existence, and then fret because she realized the Captain already had been.
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But she took the equipment he issued, and she listened to the instructions and read schematics and committed them both to memory and her implants. It was a ticklish job, a neural override repair. She’d done some fibre-optic bundle splicing, but this was going to be a doozy. And she was going to have to do it in stiff, pressurized gloves. Her heart hammered as she sealed her helmet, and not because she was worried about the EVA. This was a chance. An opportunity. A step closer to chief engineer. Maybe she had impressed the Captain with her discretion, after all. She cycled the airlock, snapped her safety harness, and stepped out onto the Lavinia Whateley’s hide. That deep blue-green, like azurite, like the teeming seas of Venus under their swampy eternal clouds, was invisible. They were too far from Sol – it was a yellow stylus-dot, and you had to know where to look for it. Vinnie’s hide was just black under Black Alice’s suit floods. As the airlock cycled shut, though, the Boojum’s own bioluminescence shimmered up her vanes and along the ridges of her sides – crimson and electric green and acid blue. Vinnie must have noticed Black Alice picking her way carefully up her spine with barbed boots. They wouldn’t hurt Vinnie – nothing short of a space rock could manage that – but they certainly stuck in there good. The thing Black Alice was supposed to repair was at the principal nexus of Vinnie’s central nervous system. The ship didn’t have anything like what a human or a gilly would consider a brain; there were nodules spread all through her vast body. Too slow, otherwise. And Black Alice had heard Boojums weren’t supposed to be all that smart – trainable, sure, maybe like an Earth monkey. Which is what made it creepy as hell that, as she picked her way up Vinnie’s flank – though up was a courtesy, under these circumstances – talking to her all the way, she would have sworn Vinnie was talking back. Not just tracking her with the lights, as she would always do, but bending some of her barbels and vanes around as if craning her neck to get a look at Black Alice. Black Alice carefully circumnavigated an eye – she didn’t think her boots would hurt it, but it seemed discourteous to stomp across somebody’s field of vision – and wondered, only half-idly, if she had been sent out on this task not because she was being considered for promotion, but because she was expendable. She was just rolling her eyes and dismissing that as borrowing trouble when she came over a bump on Vinnie’s back, spotted her goal – and all the ship’s lights went out. She tongued on the comm. “Wasabi?” “I got you, Blackie. You just keep doing what you’re doing.” “Yessir.” But it seemed like her feet stayed stuck in Vinnie’s hide a little longer than was good. At least fifteen seconds before she managed a couple of deep breaths – too deep for her limited oxygen supply, so she went briefly dizzy – and continued up Vinnie’s side.
Black Alice had no idea what inflammation looked like in a Boojum, but she would guess this was it. All around the interface she was meant to repair, Vinnie’s flesh looked scraped and puffy. Black Alice walked tenderly, wincing, muttering apologies under her breath. And with every step, the tendrils coiled a little closer. Black Alice crouched beside the box, and began examining connections. The console was about three meters by four, half a meter tall, and fixed firmly to Vinnie’s hide. It looked like the thing was still functional, but something – a bit of space debris, maybe – had dented it pretty good. Cautiously, Black Alice dropped a hand on it. She found the access panel, and flipped it open: more red lights than green. A tongue-click, and she began withdrawing her tethered tools from their holding pouches and arranging them so that they would float conveniently around. She didn’t hear a thing, of course, but the hide under her boots vibrated suddenly, sharply. She jerked her head around, just in time to see one of Vinnie’s feelers slap her own side, five or ten meters away. And then the whole Boojum shuddered, contracting, curved into a hard crescent of pain the same way she had when the Henry Ford had taken that chunk out of her hide. And the lights in the access panel lit up all at once – red, red, yellow, red. Black Alice tongued off the send function on her headset microphone, so Wasabi wouldn’t hear her. She touched the bruised hull, and she touched the dented edge of the console. “Vinnie,” she said, “does this hurt?” Not that Vinnie could answer her. But it was obvious. She was in pain. And maybe that dent didn’t have anything to do with space debris. Maybe – Black Alice straightened, looked around, and couldn’t convince herself that it was an accident that this box was planted right where Vinnie couldn’t . . . quite . . . reach it. “So what does it do?” she muttered. “Why am I out here repairing something that fucking hurts?” She crouched down again and took another long look at the interface. As an engineer, Black Alice was mostly self-taught; her implants were second-hand, black market, scavenged, the wet work done by a gilly on Providence Station. She’d learned the technical vocabulary from Gogglehead Kim before he bought it in a stupid little fight with a ship named the V. I. Ulyanov, but what she relied on were her instincts, the things she knew without being able to say. So she looked at that box wired into Vinnie’s spine and all its red and yellow lights, and then she tongued the comm back on and said, “Wasabi, this thing don’t look so good.” “Whaddya mean, don’t look so good?” Wasabi sounded distracted, and that was just fine. Black Alice made a noise, the auditory equivalent of a shrug. “I think the node’s inflamed. Can we pull it and lock it in somewhere else?” “No!” said Wasabi. “It’s looking pretty ugly out here.”
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“Look, Blackie, unless you want us to all go sailing out into the Big Empty, we are not pulling that governor. Just fix the fucking thing, would you?” “Yessir,” said Black Alice, thinking hard. The first thing was that Wasabi knew what was going on – knew what the box did and knew that the Lavinia Whateley didn’t like it. That wasn’t comforting. The second thing was that whatever was going on, it involved the Big Empty, the cold vastness between the stars. So it wasn’t that Vinnie wanted to go home. She wanted to go out. It made sense, from what Black Alice knew about Boojums. Their infants lived in the tumult of the gas giants’ atmosphere, but as they aged, they pushed higher and higher, until they reached the edge of the envelope. And then – following instinct or maybe the calls of their fellows, nobody knew for sure – they learned to skip, throwing themselves out into the vacuum like Earth birds leaving the nest. And what if, for a Boojum, the solar system was just another nest? Black Alice knew the Lavinia Whateley was old, for a Boojum. Captain Song was not her first captain, although you never mentioned Captain Smith if you knew what was good for you. So if there was another stage to her life cycle, she might be ready for it. And her crew wasn’t letting her go. Jesus and the cold fishy gods, Black Alice thought. Is this why the Marie Curie ate her crew? Because they wouldn’t let her go? She fumbled for her tools, tugging the cords to float them closer, and wound up walloping herself in the bicep with a splicer. And as she was wrestling with it, her headset spoke again. “Blackie, can you hurry it up out there? Captain says we’re going to have company.” Company? She never got to say it. Because when she looked up, she saw the shapes, faintly limned in starlight, and a chill as cold as a suit leak crept up her neck. There were dozens of them. Hundreds. They made her skin crawl and her nerves judder the way gillies and Boojums never had. They were mansized, roughly, but they looked like the pseudoroaches of Venus, the ones Black Alice still had nightmares about, with too many legs, and horrible stiff wings. They had ovate, corrugated heads, but no faces, and where their mouths ought to be sprouting writing tentacles And some of them carried silver shining cylinders, like the canisters in Vinnie’s subhold. Black Alice wasn’t certain if they saw her, crouched on the Boojum’s hide with only a thin laminate between her and the breathsucker, but she was certain of something else. If they did, they did not care. They disappeared below the curve of the ship, toward the airlock Black Alice had exited before clawing her way along the ship’s side. They could be a trade delegation, come to bargain for the salvaged cargo. Black Alice didn’t think even the Mi-Go came in the battalions to talk trade.
She meant to wait until the last of them had passed, but they just kept coming. Wasabi wasn’t answering her hails; she was on her own and unarmed. She fumbled with her tools, stowing things in any handy pocket whether it was where the tool went or not. She couldn’t see much; everything was misty. It took her several seconds to realize that her visor was fogged because she was crying. Patch cables. Where were the fucking patch cables? She found a twometer length of fibre-optic with the right plugs on the end. One end went into the monitor panel. The other snapped into her suit comm. “Vinnie?” she whispered, when she thought she had a connection. “Vinnie, can you hear me?” The bioluminescence under Black Alice’s boots pulsed once. Gods and little fishes, she thought. And then she drew out her laser cutting torch, and started slicing open the case on the console that Wasabi had called the governor. Wasabi was probably dead by now, or dying. Wasabi, and Dogcollar, and . . . well, not dead. If they were lucky, they were dead. Because the opposite of lucky was those canisters the Mi-Go were carrying. She hoped Dogcollar was lucky. “You wanna go out, right?” she whispered to the Lavinia Whateley. “Out into the Big Empty.” She’d never been sure how much Vinnie understood of what people said, but the light pulsed again. “And this thing won’t let you.” It wasn’t a question. She had it open now, and she could see that was what it did. Ugly fucking thing. Vinnie shivered underneath her, and there was a sudden pulse of noise in her helmet speakers: screaming. People screaming. “I know,” Black Alice said. “They’ll come get me in a minute, I guess.” She swallowed hard against the sudden lurch of her stomach. “I’m gonna get this thing off you, though. And when they go, you can go, okay? And I’m sorry. I didn’t know we were keeping you from . . .” She had to quit talking, or she really was going to puke. Grimly, she fumbled for the tools she needed to disentangle the abomination from Vinnie’s nervous system. Another pulse of sound, a voice, not a person: flat and buzzing and horrible. “We do not bargain with thieves.” And the scream that time – she’d never heard Captain Song scream before. Black Alice flinched and started counting to slow her breathing. Puking in a suit was the number one badness, but hyperventilating in a suit was a really close second. Her heads-up display was low-res, and slightly miscalibrated, so that everything had a faint shadow-double. But the thing that flashed up against her own view of her hands was unmistakable: a question mark. <?> “Vinnie?” Another pulse of screaming, and the question mark again.
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<?> “Holy shit, Vinnie! . . . Never mind, never mind. They, um, they collect people’s brains. In canisters. Like the canisters in the third subhold.” The bioluminescence pulsed once. Black Alice kept working. Her heads-up pinged again: <ALICE> A pause. <?> “Um, yeah. I figure that’s what they’ll do with me, too. It looked like they had plenty of canisters to go around.” Vinnie pulsed, and there was a longer pause while Black Alice doggedly severed connections and loosened bolts. <WANT> said the Lavinia Whateley. <?> “Want? Do I want . . . ?” Her laughter sounded bad. “Um, no. No, I don’t want to be a brain in a jar. But I’m not seeing a lot of choices here. Even if I went cometary, they could catch me. And it kind of sounds like they’re mad enough to do it, too.” She’d cleared out all the moorings around the edge of the governor; the case lifted off with a shove and went sailing into the dark. Black Alice winced. But then the processor under the cover drifted away from Vinnie’s hide, and there was just the monofilament tethers and the fat cluster of fibre-optic and superconductors to go. <HELP> “I’m doing my best here, Vinnie,” Black Alice said through her teeth. That got her a fast double-pulse, and the Lavinia Whateley said, <HELP> And then, <ALICE> “You want to help me?” Black Alice squeaked. A strong pulse, and the heads-up said, <HELP ALICE> “That’s really sweet of you, but I’m honestly not sure there’s anything you can do. I mean, it doesn’t look like the Mi-Go are mad at you, and I really want to keep it that way.” <EAT ALICE> said the Lavinia Whateley. Black Alice came within a millimeter of taking her own fingers off with the cutting laser. “Um, Vinnie, that’s um . . . well, I guess it’s better than being a brain in a jar.” Or suffocating to death in her suit if she went cometary and the Mi-Go didn’t come after her. The double-pulse again, but Black Alice didn’t see what she could have missed. As communications went, EAT ALICE was pretty fucking unambiguous. <HELP ALICE> the Lavinia Whateley insisted. Black Alice leaned in close, unsplicing the last of the governor’s circuits from the Boojum’s nervous system. <SAVE ALICE> “By eating me? Look, I know what happens to things you eat, and it’s not . . .” She bit her tongue. Because she did know what happened to things the Lavinia Whateley ate. Absorbed. Filtered. Recycled. “Vinnie . . . are you saying you can save me from the Mi-Go?”
A pulse of agreement. “By eating me?” Black Alice pursued, needing to be sure she understood. Another pulse of agreement. Black Alice thought about the Lavinia Whateley’s teeth. “How much me are we talking about here?” <ALICE> said the Lavinia Whateley, and then the last fibre-optic cable parted, and Black Alice, her hands shaking, detached her patch cable and flung the whole mess of it as hard as she could straight up. Maybe it would find a planet with atmosphere and be some little alien kid’s shooting star. And now she had to decide what to do. She figured she had two choices, really. One, walk back down the Lavinia Whateley and find out if the Mi-Go believed in surrender. Two, walk around the Lavinia Whateley and into her toothy mouth. Black Alice didn’t think the Mi-Go believed in surrender. She tilted her head back for one last clear look at the shining black infinity of space. Really, there wasn’t any choice at all. Because even if she’d misunderstood what Vinnie seemed to be trying to tell her, the worst she’d end up was dead, and that was light-years better than what the Mi-Go had on offer. Black Alice Bradley loved her ship. She turned to her left and started walking, and the Lavinia Whateley’s bioluminescence followed her courteously all the way, vanes swaying out of her path. Black Alice skirted each of Vinnie’s eyes as she came to them, and each of them blinked at her. And then she reached Vinnie’s mouth and that magnificent panoply of teeth. “Make it quick, Vinnie, okay?” said Black Alice, and walked into her leviathan’s maw. Picking her way delicately between razor-sharp teeth, Black Alice had plenty of time to consider the ridiculousness of worrying about a hole in her suit. Vinnie’s mouth was more like a crystal cave, once you were inside it; there was no tongue, no palate. Just polished, macerating stones. Which did not close on Black Alice, to her surprise. If anything, she got the feeling the Vinnie was holding her . . . breath. Or what passed for it. The Boojum was lit inside, as well – or was making herself lit, for Black Alice’s benefit. And as Black Alice clambered inward, the teeth got smaller, and fewer, and the tunnel narrowed. Her throat, Alice thought. I’m inside her. And the walls closed down, and she was swallowed. Like a pill, enclosed in the tight sarcophagus of her space suit, she felt rippling pressure as peristalsis pushed her along. And then greater pressure, suffocating, savage. One sharp pain. The pop of her ribs as her lungs crushed. Screaming inside a space suit was contra-indicated, too. And with collapsed lungs, she couldn’t even do it properly.
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alice. She floated. In warm darkness. A womb, a bath. She was comfortable. An itchy soreness between her shoulder blades felt like a very mild radiation burn. alice. A voice she thought she should know. She tried to speak; her mouth gnashed, her teeth ground. alice. talk here. She tried again. Not with her mouth, this time. Talk . . . here? The buoyant warmth flickered past her. She was . . . drifting. No, swimming. She could feel currents on her skin. Her vision was confused. She blinked and blinked, and things were shattered. There was nothing to see anyway, but stars. alice talk here. Where am I? eat alice. Vinnie. Vinnie’s voice, but not in the flatness of the heads-up display anymore. Vinnie’s voice alive with emotion and nuance and the vastness of her self. You ate me, she said, and understood abruptly that the numbness she felt was not shock. It was the boundaries of her body erased and redrawn. ! Agreement. Relief. I’m . . . in you, Vinnie? =/= Not a “no”. More like, this thing is not the same, does not compare, to this other thing. Black Alice felt the warmth of space so near a generous star slipping by her. She felt the swift currents of its gravity, and the gravity of its satellites, and bent them; and tasted them, and surfed them faster and faster away. I am you. ! Ecstatic comprehension, which Black Alice echoed with passionate relief. Not dead. Not dead after all. Just, transformed. Accepted. Embraced by her ship, whom she embraced in return. Vinnie. Where are we going? out, Vinnie answered. And in her, Black Alice read the whole great naked wonder of space, approaching faster and faster as Vinnie accelerated, reaching for the first great skip that would hurl them into the interstellar darkness of the Big Empty. They were going somewhere. Out, Black Alice agreed and told herself not to grieve. Not to go mad. This sure beat swampy Hell out of being a brain in a jar. And it occurred to her, as Vinnie jumped, the brainless bodies of her crew already digesting inside her, that it wouldn’t be long before the loss of the Lavinia Whateley was a tale told to frighten spacers, too.
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