Alex Lang "Colonization"

The main characters unite the series of novels, which are not connected with each other. Each of them doesn't belong to his world both literally and in a figurative sense.
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Books > Fantasy
Published on: 2014-05-19
Pages: 74

Morning again, Mr. Mistry… NEWER DELHI CENTRAL STATION, 14:02 India Standard Time. Ronan Mistry half-speed, half-fell to New Delhi gate Central. His stomach lurched as if someone spent the last minute whirling around him blindfolded. Severe pain thrummed through his head. He hated the damn jump networks. The headache was a new thing, but the gates always made him feel sick. He promised myself before, but it was definitely the last time he used them. At least, he will pay for a private network the next time. It was not so, he couldn't afford it. It was affectation of being a normal person. His humble beginnings; try as you might, could you stop being urchin from the streets of Delhi. Henceforth he would use some of ShivaTech wealth and the city a bit more comfort. He was old enough to remember the days when the planes flying in the sky. It took hours to get anywhere-which always amused young people, but, at least, your body will not break apart in a stream of bits, and again each time you want to travel. “Morning again, Mr. Mistry.” A security guard in a saffron-coloured turban looked like he was about to step over to help. Ronan didn’t recognize the man, despite the apparent familiarity. He waved and managed a smile to say he was fine, didn’t need assistance. The guards were there to look out for jumpjackers hitting travellers as they emerged from the network, not to lend a hand to travelsick old men. Ronan tried to walk off in a straight line and failed badly, tried to stop himself vomiting and just about managed it. He swallowed down bitter fluid that suddenly filled his mouth. Tens of thousands of people thronged the station, dashing to and from the gate array, barging aside anyone in their way. He bounced off more than one of them, mumbling an inaudible apology. He found a stone pillar, its cool solidity welcome. He waited for his head to stop swimming, standing there panting like an old dog. He watched as a group of uniformed soldiers pushed through the crowd: not private jump network guards but proper IndPol military officers, bristling with tazers and lasers and who- knew what else. There must have been an incident. Perhaps some unfortunate traveller had been jumped as they stepped from their gate. Ronan watched to see what would happen, whom they would arrest. He hoped there wouldn’t be serious trouble. He was in no state to run. There was a moment of horror as the truth of what he was seeing hit him. The soldiers weren’t running towards the gates. They were running towards him. His stomach lurched in panic. It was only then he saw Sageeta, his wife, hurrying along behind the soldiers, her sari trailing behind her like gossamer wings. She looked angry. She was never angry. The soldiers ran up to him then stopped, parting to let her through. “Ronan. What in all the hells is going on? What are you doing?” Sageeta stood in front of him, hands on hips. The soldiers surrounded them now, a ring of steel pushing the swarming crowds back. They didn’t appear to be arresting him. They looked outwards, like they were protecting him. But from what? He didn’t understand anything that was happening. “Sageeta. It is good to see you. I’m feeling a little ill.” “Never mind that, you old fool. What have you done? What is this madness?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean. I’ve just come from my meeting in Capetown about the new Europe contracts. I haven’t done anything.” “Stop playing these games,” said his wife. “You’re going to explain everything right here and now.” “Explain what?” A looked of worry flashed across his beloved wife’s features. She spoke again, in a low voice, as if afraid people would overhear. “Explain why half an hour ago you transferred one billion rupees from ShivaTech to some no-good accounts I’ve never heard of. The company is ruined, Ronan. We are ruined.” “What?” “One billion rupees! Our entire holdings gone in a moment.” “It’s not possible. I ordered no such transfer.” “Don’t be ridiculous. Did you think you wouldn’t be seen? You made the transfer from a bank in London. IndPol have the images of you arriving at Euston Jump Node. And the images of you getting here an hour ago, when that oh-so lovely young woman stopped to help you. Is that what this is all about? Have you come to this?” Ronan waited for some of his wife’s words to make sense, but they utterly refused to. What she was talking about? What young woman? “This is all madness,” said Ronan. “I’ve just left Capetown.” His wife shook her head, as if pitying him. “Then tell me, Ronan, what the time was when you left Capetown.” “About one o’clock our time.” “And the time now?” “Obviously, about one minute later.” But as he spoke he also consulted the clock plugin in his brain, just to check. The response came back immediately. The time was now a little past two o’clock. Somehow, impossibly, an hour had by passed since he’d left Capetown. It made no sense. Ronan tried to speak, but no words would come from his mouth. *** Newer Delhi Central Station, one hour earlier ... Ronan Mistry half-stepped, half-fell from the jump gate at Newer Delhi Central. His stomach lurched like someone had spent the last minute whirling him around blindfolded. A heavy pain thrummed through his head. He hated the damn jump networks. The headache was a new thing but the gates always made him nauseous. A security guard, recognizing him, nodded his turbaned head. “Morning, Mr. Mistry.” Ronan managed only a mumbled response. The pain in his head grew sharper, like something solid being hammered into his brain. The great hall of the station lurched around him, a blur of colours and blaring sounds. He leaned against a pillar, the stone cool on his hands. “You don’t look well, sir. Why don’t you sit down?”

A young woman had stopped beside him, concern clear on her face. There were still one or two good people in the world. He tried to explain he was OK, that he just needed a moment. He sank to the ground, his back against the pillar. The woman put a gentle hand on his shoulder and knelt beside him so that her head was level with his. The bindi on her forehead was animated in the modern fashion: a swirling red spiral. She spoke quietly into his ear. “Listen to me, you fucker. You are not going to recover from this. You are going to feel worse and worse. Soon the pain in your head will become unbearable. And do you want to know what that pain is? It’s the feeling of your mind being eaten, old man. Do you fucking understand me?” Ronan stared up at her. The young woman continued to smile, the worried look clear on her beautiful face. Had he imagined her words? Her grip tightened painfully. “Do you understand me?” He didn’t, not at all. He shook his head. “What is happening?” The young woman glanced around, making sure no one was too near. “Tell me how many children you have, Ronan Mistry.” “What? What does that ...?” “Just tell me. How many?” “Two.” “Boys or girls?” “Girls. Grown women, now.” “Names?” “They’re called ...” He stopped. For some reason he couldn’t recall their names. Both had waved him goodbye just that morning as he left for Capetown. “What are their names, old man?” “I don’t ... I don’t know.” “And what do they look like? How tall? What colour are their eyes?” “I don’t remember.” “What was their favourite flavour of kulfi when they were young?” He shook his head. He didn’t know. The pain filling his brain was a fog. A fog through which he could see nothing. The young woman nodded her head, as if he had done well, given her the right answers. “Very good. Now let me explain what is happening to you. A small alteration to your neural matrix was introduced as you rematerialised at the jump node. An artificial algorithm hidden amongst your normal brain patterns. Right now it is chomping its way though your memories. Soon you won’t be able to remember you even have children. In a few hours you won’t know your own name. A few hours after that your brain’s autonomous functions will start forgetting how to function. Your heart will stop beating and your lungs will stop pumping.” “No,” said Ronan. “That’s not possible.” He knew it wasn’t possible. You couldn’t just alter people as they rematerialised without introducing major flaws. The ensuing corruption was always fatal. The brain was too dynamic, too fluid. The technology was years away.

“Oh, it’s possible, old man,” said the woman. “And it’s happening to you right now. No doubt you are experiencing an excruciating pain in your head? That is one side-effect.” Was that true? The networks were a well-known trigger for migraines. Perhaps she’d just struck lucky. “No. I don’t believe it.” “Then let me ask you this. What does the name Arvan J. Stanton mean to you?” “He’s ... just someone I knew once. Years ago, at university. Why?” “Did he ever give you any advice? Any words of wisdom?” “Actually, yes. I remember very well. He told me that whatever I did in life I had to believe the young woman with the red bindi when she stops to help me at Newer Delhi ...” He trailed off. His memory of those words was very, very clear. But why? It was years ago. It made no sense. And why would his old friend have even uttered such nonsense? “Yes, you understand,” said the young woman. Arvan J. Stanton did not exist. Another alteration we made to your mind. An implanted memory.” “I don’t believe it. This is hypnosis. Autosuggestion. Nothing more.” “You don’t really believe that.” “Even if you have done this,” he said. “Even if such a thing is possible, why? Why would you want to destroy my memories?” “Oh, not destroy, old man. We aren’t mindless thugs. We are artists. Your memories are all still there. Just encrypted. Locked away in your brain with a key only we know. And when you’ve paid us the two billion rupees, we will give you the key and you can have your brain back.” “Two billion rupees?” “That’s the price. ShivaTech can afford it. A man of your wealth really shouldn’t use the public networks, you know.” The fog was lifting a little in his head now. He saw the obvious flaw in her proposal. And making deals, striking bargains was what he was good at. “So when I pay you this fortune, you’ll just drop round and fix up my brain for me? Set everything straight?” “You’ll need to make another jump. We’ll spot you in the network and put everything right. There’ll be no need to meet again.” “Yes, but why would you?” said Ronan. “Once you’ve got your money you’d be better off leaving me to die. Then all the evidence goes away. It’s a perfect crime.” The young woman smiled. “You’ll just have to trust us, won’t you? You’re hardly in a position to bargain.” He could see the faintest hint of worry in her eyes. You learned to read people. “Actually,” said Ronan, “I think I am. They’re certain to post mortem me. I’m willing to bet your hacks to my brain—if they exist—will show up. That will raise suspicions. People might follow a trail that leads back to you. And I don’t think you want to take that risk.” The brief frown of annoyance that flashed across her features told him he’d hit the mark. She nodded her head from side to side, trying to suggest indifference. “We’ll take that chance for two billion rupees, old man.” He considered. He still didn’t believe her. But if there was a chance she was telling the truth ...

“I’ll make you an offer,” he said. “One billion rupees and I don’t send the money until I’m fully restored to health.” “That’s not going to work, old man.” “Ah, of course, because you were also planning to wipe all my memories of this conversation, weren’t you?” “Obviously. You’ll be in no state to sanction further payments. You won’t know anything about them.” “Then I’ll give you half the money now and place half in an account in your name but which you can’t access for twenty-four hours. That will give you time to restore me.” The woman studied him for a moment, looking for the flaws in the plan. He just had to hope she didn’t know everything ShivaTech’s systems could do. Finally she nodded. She’d might not get all the money, but she’d decided even half a billion would be enough. As Ronan had calculated she would, “Very well,” she said. “But not in my name. Use Arvan J. Stanton, understand?” “As you like. I’ll have to jump to London to arrange everything.” “You remember your non-existent friend’s old contact number?” “For some reason, yes, I do. Very clearly.” “That’s the account number for the first half of the payment. Make sure the new account is in his name, too, and we’ll see it. And remember: in three hours time you won’t recognize your own face in a mirror. So don’t fuck up.” She smiled and stood up. She lifted her scarf over her head to cover her features. “Oh, and be careful in the jump network, Ronan Mistry. There are some bad people out there.” She turned and strode away. He soon lost her in the teeming crowds. *** Doctor Kay Alvarez was engrossed in an analysis of the fractal equations from her latest tests when her boss staggered in. She hadn’t seen Ronan for nearly a year; these days the owner of ShivaTech didn’t travel so much. Her delight at the sight of her old friend was immediately tempered when she saw the state of him. He was clearly struggling to stay upright. “Ronan? What has happened? You look terrible. Shall I get a doctor?” “You are a doctor, Kay. That’s why I’ve come to see you.” For a moment she caught a flash of her old friend’s humour. Then he sank into a chair and held his head in his hands. “We need to get you to a hospital,” said Kay. “You know very well I’m not the right sort of doctor.” “Actually,” said Ronan, “you are exactly the right sort. I need you to scan my brain and look for ... anomalies.” “What do you mean anomalies?” He appeared to be having trouble getting the words out. He was clearly in great pain. “Please,” he said. “There isn’t much time. I need you to do this now.” With anyone else she would have insisted on the hospital. But, as she’d come to learn over the years, Ronan generally knew best. “OK. Come with me.”

Ten minutes later she had the live feed of his brain imaging in front of her. She sifted her way through the 3D map, looking for these mysterious anomalies. What was he expecting her to find? A tumour? A clot? A bleed? “Anything?” he asked. “Nothing. No damage at all. Wait. What the hell? That doesn’t look right.” “What do you see?” “These neuron patterns here in the hindbrain look almost ... random.” She turned to Ronan. “Is this what you mean? This corruption?” “Is it spreading?” She turned back and zoomed in. It took only a few moments to see it. She watched as more and more of the connections between the neurons realigned themselves. They switched from normal, organic arrangements into broken, disjointed fragments. “It is,” she said. “Advancing rapidly. Do you want to tell me what the hell is going on here, Ronan? Frankly, it’s incredible you’re even walking and talking.” Ronan nodded but didn’t reply. “Ronan? What has happened? What is this?” With great effort, as if having to drag up ancient memories, he began to tell her the day’s events. When he’d finished she was silent for a moment. If she hadn’t seen his scan she wouldn’t have believed it. “Ronan,” she said finally, “I’m so sorry.” He shook his head. “No. You don’t understand. This is an incredible opportunity.” “What?” “Whoever these people are, however they’ve done this, we need this technology. They’re years ahead of us.” “It must be experimental,” said Kay. “For all we know it only works one in a hundred times. One in a thousand. You’re incredibly lucky just to be here.” “Yes, but think what we could do if we had this capability. If we could reliably edit people’s images. We could cure diseases, do anything. We have to pursue this.” “Always the idealist, Ronan. You can’t go ahead with this; you’re going to get yourself killed. Somehow we have to stop the encryption of your neural matrix. Restore you somehow.” He shook his head. “The thing is, I’ve already instructed the bank to transfer the money.” “What?” she said again. She was beginning to doubt his sanity now. Was this the corruption in his brain speaking? “Ronan, this is madness.” “No, Kay. Listen to me. Listen while I can still think straight. OK, perhaps they’ll talk their half billion and run. And then I am in serious trouble. But there’s a chance they’ll do what they said: intervene again to fix me so they can get the rest of their money, yes?” “There’s a chance,” she said. “There’s also a chance they’ll zap your brain completely to cover their tracks.” “No. It will look too obvious. They’re clever. Who knows how often they’ve done this? We need to stop them. You need to stop them.” “Me?”

“You’ll know where I am in the jump network. You can track me among all the billions of images?” She shrugged. “Sure, that we can do.” “And when they intervene—if they do—you’ll be able to see it, yes? They must be using a hacked jump node. You’ll be able to get a physical address. We’ll be able to get to them.” She studied him for a moment. He was serious. He really meant to do this. “Ronan,” she said, “this is a whole series of ifs and slim chances. It’s not going to actually work.” He smiled through the pain. He actually smiled. “Maybe. Or we’ll put a stop to a bunch of evil hackers and acquire technology ShivaTech could work wonders with.” “If by some miracle it works and they do wipe out your memories of all this, you’re going to be pretty confused when you emerge from the jump network. You won’t have a clue what’s going on.” “I’ll manage.” She shook her head. “I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.” “Then it’s a good job I’m the boss. Consider all of that an order.” “Ronan, you haven’t given me an actual order in thirty years.” “Then I’m asking. Please, Kay. If it goes wrong it hardly matters at this stage, does it?” She studied him for a moment more, then relented with a sigh. “Oh, and Kay?” “Yes?” “Please hurry. My head feels like it’s going to damn well explode.” *** Ronan now lay on the hard floor of the station concourse. He couldn’t make sense of anything. The same fragments of thought kept circling around in his brain. Somehow he had lost an hour of his life. And one billion rupees. And now, it seemed, he was losing his mind too. He was finding it harder and harder to recall names, details, places. The pain in his head was a vast weight, crushing his memories beneath it. Figures milled around him, their faces occasionally looming over him to ask him questions he couldn’t hear. His wife was there, the anxiety clear on her face. For some reason he couldn’t recall her name. That was bad. Paramedics buzzed around, shining lights in his eyes, giving him oxygen, checking his blood pressure. There were also soldiers. Lots of soldiers. Some stood in a ring around him, their black boots filling his vision when he opened his eyes. A group of them had just charged off for the jump gates on some suddenly-urgent mission. He didn’t know why. None of it made sense. Ronan groaned and closed his eyes. ***

“Can you see them? Have you got the trace?” The IndPol officer stood over Kay. It was hard to concentrate with him standing there. These things required focus, concentration, not some armed grunt breathing down her neck. Her hands moved through the display, sifting through the almost limitless threads, each representing a single person’s journey through the jump network. She would only get one shot at this. They had to be careful. If the hackers saw they were being traced they would be gone and that would be the end of Ronan. “There. That’s them. This gate here.” “You’re sure?” “Of course I’m sure. That’s why I said it.” “OK,” said the soldier. “We’re jumping there now.” “And I’m coming with you,” said Kay. “Sorry. No. This is a dangerous military operation. We can’t be worrying about civilians.” “And I’m sorry, but I am coming,” said Kay. “It’s vital we recover the technology these people have. You do your job and we’ll do ours, understood?” The IndPol officer looked like he was about to argue, then backed down. Turning away, he began to bellow out orders to his troops. *** Someone was touching his cheek, trying to rouse him. Ronan flicked open his eyes. He expected to see Sageeta but another woman’s face was there. A woman he recognized. “Kay? What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at work in London. I’m not paying you to just galavant around the world.” “Long story. I’ll explain later. Right now I’m going to scan your brain for anomalies.” “You’re going to do what?” “Just be quiet. This is the first time I’ve done this in a public jump station. Turn your head to the side then don’t move.” Ronan did as he was told. He’d found that was best with Kay. Through a forest of soldiers” boots he could see the jump node he’d emerged from en route from Capetown. More of the soldiers were surrounding it. He watched as a squad of them emerged, escorting some prisoners. Two women and a man. One of the women—young, a bright red bindi on her forehead—turned to look directly at him. She scowled. Ronan couldn’t understand why. He’d never seen her before in his life. He could hear Kay and Sageeta murmuring to each other, something about the readings on the brain scanner. “Well,” he said. “Would you two like to tell me what is happening?” “There’s good news and bad news,” said Kay. “What’s the bad?” “You’re the same stubborn old man you were this morning,” said his wife.

“OK. And the good?” “Your brain is clear of anomalies,” said Kay. “The decryption as you jumped worked. You’re in the clear. And with IndPol’s help we’re recovering the technology they were using. It looks pretty incredible.” “And the money,” said Sageeta. “We got that back, too.” “Technology?” said Ronan. “What technology? As usual I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Ronan levered himself up onto his elbows. The room wasn’t spinning now. He thought he could probably stand. The pain in his head had subsided to a dull throb. He looked back over at the gates. Damned jump network. They always made him sick. This was definitely the last time he used them.

Colonization IT IS A PHYSICAL LAW THAT NO object can travel through space faster than the speed of light. However, space itself can and often does. This presents the celestial traveler with a conundrum. For if the space he inhabits is expanding faster than the speed of light, then the proportion of space he occupies—compared to the entire cosmos—lessens. In other words, he will shrink. Now I am not certain, but I believe that may explain what has happened to me and my beloved. Let me elucidate. I met Alice five years ago at a sidewalk cafe in New York City. It was a tranquil Sunday in early October, around noon. The air was crisp and cool; cumulus clouds dotted the sky. Alice was eating alone. She held a steaming beverage in her left hand and on a small white plate I spied a chocolate-covered donut. I noticed she was not wearing a wedding band and I asked if I could join her. She smiled. We made our introductions. Alice looked to be in her mid-twenties. She had long, straight black hair, lovely pale-green eyes. She was wearing a yellow blouse, cashmere cardigan with bold red buttons, a bright-red wraparound skirt, black sandals. She told me she taught astrophysics at Columbia University. I was impressed. “That’s some accomplishment for one so young,” I said. It was probably obvious that I was awe- struck. “How old are you, anyway?” She blushed. “Twenty-six.” I told her I was twenty-four, a former graduate student at Columbia who’d been majoring in linguistics, but dropped out when it became apparent I was making little progress. “Don’t give up,” she said. “You never know what’s around the corner.” “It wasn’t the field for me.” “When I was younger I wanted to be a ballerina, but my feet couldn’t stand the strain. Astrophysics is the same thing only on a larger scale. Why, now I can pirouette amongst the stars!” I laughed. “Tell me what you think of that book,” she continued, pointing at the hardback I held in my right hand. On the Origins of the Universe was my current reading material. “I’m not sure,” I said. “It’s fascinating, to say the least. But there’s much I find confusing.” “Such as?” “The big questions. How did the universe arise? How will it end? After it ends, what will be where it was? Just thinking about it makes me dizzy. If there’s one thing that really bothers me, though, it’s when the author talks about the expansion of space. What is it expanding into?” Alice laughed. “Nothing, silly. Space is all there is.” “That’s another thing I don’t understand.”

“Think of it this way. Space is everywhere. As it expands, it’s not anywhere it wasn’t already.” She paused, undoubtedly noticing my discomfort. “And it’s not really expanding, anyway. It’s stretching.” I frowned. “What’s the difference?” “Expanding implies movement from here to there, which, as I said, isn’t what happens. Stretching is an increase in distance between two points. After a suitable period of time, the distance between A and B isn’t C, it’s two times C.” We talked for over an hour. I learned she was unmarried, had taught at Columbia for a year, had a brother named Zeke and a sister, Cindy. She’d graduated with a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Stanford only the year before. Her specialty, she said, was the physics of black holes. “I have one, as a matter of fact,” she dead-panned. “In my apartment on West 145th Street.” *** As we climbed the stairs to her fourth-floor apartment, Alice talked about her family. Her parents lived in Ely, Minnesota, where she was born and raised. They were owners of Slatkin’s Canoe Outfitters, a rental agency that had served northern Minnesota for thirty years. Her eyes glazed over as she spoke of midnight paddles across Great Bear lake, the stars twinkling against the jet-black background of space. It was then, she said, that she fell in love with the heavens, learned how to navigate via the stars, and decided to devote her life to astronomy. I was mesmerized by her iridescent, black hair, hour-glass figure, hips that gently swayed as she mounted the stairs, and my heart was thumping wildly when she slowly opened the door to apartment 403. She flicked on the light in the foyer. I saw a black leather couch along one wall. An end table next to the couch. A dark-brown ottoman occupying the middle of the room. But it was the aquarium nestled up against one of the side walls that captured my attention. It must have been at least fifty gallons and was filled with fish, exotic plants, and aquatic sculptures. “My pride and joy,” Alice said when she noticed me gazing at the tank. I counted a half-dozen fish, brilliant orange, with translucent black fins, bright red eyes, and light-blue lines that crisscrossed their bellies. I knew something about fish, yet I’d never encountered this species. “What kind of fish are these?” I asked. “Speculated Wild African Goldfish,” she said, a species I’d never heard of. Then she asked if I’d like something to drink. “Iced tea, if you have any.” She disappeared into the kitchen. I heard the sound of a refrigerator door opening and drinks being poured. The walls of the living room were painted dark-blue. The floors were carpeted, a thick, ultra-soft material. A bay window behind the couch overlooked a park across the street. I turned my attention back to the fish tank. The goldfish had disappeared and I found myself staring into the languid, gold eyes of a Mexican axolotl. The creature was ghostly- looking: white with red gills, two short, fat front legs with four digits each and two thin, long rear legs with five. Its pupiless, unlidded eyes stared at me uncomprehendingly.

“Admiring my salamander?” Alice said as she strode back into the room, drinks in hand. “I acquired it about a month ago. It’s charming, wouldn’t you say?” That wasn’t the word I would have used to describe the creature, but I nodded in agreement. “It will grow to be about three feet long, but I’ll donate it to the New York Aquarium before then. They have a salamander exhibit that’s second to none.” “I’ve been there,” I said. “But it was long ago.” “Then we must go sometime!” She had that way of talking, straight and to the point, but always from an unexpected direction. “Alice, I was wondering ...” “Yes?” “It’s like the expansion of space. The enormity of it all. I mean, I know we just met, but ah, eh ...” I hemmed and I hawed. I felt so embarrassed. Here I was, a former linguistics major, and I couldn’t string proper sentences together! She smiled. “You’re thinking about the enormity of the cosmos, aren’t you? Well, the universe is vast. Did you know scientists believe we can only detect five percent of the content of our universe? The other ninety-five percent has disappeared over the time horizon, the point at which objects are so far away that light emitted by them will never reach us. In other words, not only is most everything unknown, most everything is unknowable. The only difference between us and him”—she pointed at the axolotl—“is that we’re swimming in a different aquarium.” She paused, then said, “Shall I show you what you came here for?” I gulped. “Yes.” “It’s in the bedroom.” It seemed to take an eternity to make our way down the red- carpeted hallway that led to Alice’s sleeping chamber. She kept talking all the while, but I can’t remember a word of what she said, other than it had something to do with the structure of space. When we reached the room she ushered me inside with a wave of her hand. “After you.” The room was pitch black. Instead of turning on the lights, she lit a half-dozen candles on a dresser that rested against the far wall. They flared up like little supernovas, casting wandering shadows on the walls. I sighed when I saw her queen-sized bed in one corner, the lace sheets warm and inviting. But that was not all that I saw. The ceiling was covered with glow-in-the-dark stars. They’d been arranged to form a replica of the winter night sky. Aldebaran was a shining red jewel in the constellation Taurus. Orion the Hunter contained the bright stars Rigel and Betelgeuse and the three smaller stars that formed the magnificent belt. Directly overhead, in the constellation Andromeda, was a prominent oval patch which, I assumed, represented the Andromeda galaxy. The closet galaxy to our own, it was barely visible to the naked eye; here it was brighter than anything else on the ceiling. Alice had taken great pains to ensure the correctness of her overhead mural and this deviation seemed odd. I was conscious of strange gurgling sounds coming from the back of the room. Looking down, I saw a filtration device, perhaps three feet wide by two feet tall. It was wedged in one

corner next to a casement window whose shades were tightly drawn. A simple canister filter, it worked by suctioning liquid into a canister through an entry pipe and pumping the liquid out through a return pipe. Both pipes were visible wrapping around the room and disappearing into a bedroom closet. When Alice saw me gazing at the filter, she said, “A hobby of mine. I put this one together with parts from a local surplus store.” What she didn’t tell me was what the filter was doing in her bedroom. Just then I heard her sigh. She had removed her cardigan and sandals. Her green eyes sparkled in the flickering candlelight and the smile that played on her lips could only have meant one thing. I was wondering if the time had come for me to kiss her when she went over to the bedroom closet and pulled open the door. “In here.” As I peered into the closet I saw an inky black void. “It’s in the corner,” she whispered. And that was when I saw it: underneath the bottommost shelf, a pinpoint of light. It was only a point, no wider than the end of a pencil, but it was so bright, so intense, that it seemed much larger. “Yes,” I said. “I see it now. Amazing!” I paused. “But I’m confused. You said you were going to show me your black hole. This is something else.” “No,” she replied. “This is what I mentioned.” “I don’t understand.” “Look closely,” she said, “and tell me what you see.” Trembling, I entered the closet and got down on my hands and knees to examine the entity, but the angle wasn’t right. “It’s easiest to view if you lie on your back and look up,” she said. Thus positioned, I gazed upon the radiant jewel’s infinite expanse. I saw everything that ever was, I saw everything that ever would be. Everything was clearly visible in the depths of the black hole. I saw my birth in a hospital in Athens, Ohio. I witnessed my recovery from the childhood illness that nearly killed me. I saw my baptism, I saw my high-school graduation. The look of pride on my parents’ faces when I was admitted to Columbia on full scholarship. I witnessed the car accident which claimed my brother’s life when I was in my freshman year. The agonizing aftermath. The long and lonely evenings drinking in bars around Manhattan wondering what any of it meant. I saw myself meeting Alice in a restaurant on Forty-Third Street. And I watched in wonder when the circle became complete as she took me to her apartment and showed me the black hole. “Why doesn’t it consume what lies around it?” I asked. “You, me, this room, everything.” “They don’t work that way,” she replied. “At least not the little ones.” I told Alice I felt like I was in a tale by Jorge Louis Borges. “The Aleph.” One of my favorites. She smiled. “The Argentinian’s aleph was a figment of his imagination. Mine exists.” I asked her what was inside the black hole, that is, what was on the other side of the black hole. “Another world, much like ours.”

“How do you know?” “Perhaps I’ve been there?” She laughed. Her green eyes sparkled and I found myself gazing longingly at her pearly white throat. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starved,” she continued. “Would you like to stay for dinner?” Without waiting for a reply, she ushered me into the dining room. She apologized for leftovers, but assured me Indian food tasted better after the spices had time to meld. As we consumed a delicious meal of tandoori chicken, vegetable biryani, and garlic nan, we continued to discuss the nature of the universe. “It says in here,” I began, holding up my copy of On the Origins of the Universe, “that the cosmos is actually the inside of a monstrous black hole, a black hole which will expand forever, or until it fades from existence.” Alice laughed. “I know what the book says, but it’s wrong.” I raised my eyebrows. “I don’t understand the details of the author’s argument. The mathematics involved. But he seems to make his case.” “It’s hogwash.” “He sets forth a reductio ad absurdum that—” “—that is itself absurd.” “So what are they? Black holes. You said you study them. The author of my book calls them portals to the past. Are they that or something else?” “It’s been mathematically proven that you can’t revisit the past,” she said, “but you can change the rate at which you go into the future.” “You mean black holes are portals to other worlds?” “I mean no such thing,” she said. Too quickly, I thought; there was something behind her words. She rose from the table and began clearing the dishes. “They’re permanent fixtures of our universe, nothing more. Scientific curiosities. Leading nowhere.” “That reminds me of a question I had earlier,” I said. “The black hole in your closet is a point of light. I didn’t think they emitted light.” Alice smiled. “You’re correct. The gravitational attraction of a black hole is so strong not even light can escape, that is, once light rays have crossed the event horizon they’re gone forever. What you may not realize is that to you, as an observer, the light approaching a black hole never crosses inside. You observe it get closer and closer, witness an ever-increasing halo of light that seems to surround the hole, a blinding white light that has, in reality, long-since vanished.” “The black hole becomes a white one?” “To the observer, yes. It’s a consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: the amount of disorder in a closed system must remain constant. Since information is a measure of the disorder of a system, the amount of information in a closed system remains constant. The universe is a closed system. A black hole removes information from the universe. If the light a black hole captured disappeared from the observer’s sight, the information content of the universe would decrease, violating the law.” “Doesn’t that imply that the black hole is effectively a second universe, or possibly a portal to such a place?”

Alice smiled. “It’s late and I’m tired,” she said. “We can talk more about this later.” She drew me to her and kissed me. “Wait,” I said, attempting to remove her arms that encircled my waist. “Since the universe is expanding, at some point the light from a distant section of the cosmos will no longer be able to reach us. In other words, the object which emitted the light will disappear from the universe, reducing its disorder in violation of the second law. And that means we’re living inside a black hole.” In response, Alice pulled me to her and kissed me once again, passionately this time. And, this time, I did not resist. When I awoke the next morning, Alice was nowhere to be seen. I dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen. No Alice. I looked at the clock on the wall: 9:15 a.m. I remembered Alice telling me she had an eight o’clock class that morning. The topic: exoplanets. She’d beamed when she told me she’d assembled half-a-dozen film clips to illustrate the topic. Shot in lavish detail—she laughed when she told me she’d filmed on location—they were sure to be a hit with her students. Just then I spied a note on the counter. She’d written that she wouldn’t return until six, that I was to make myself at home, and not to worry about dinner for she’d be bringing home Chinese. It certainly seemed an invitation to stay. Which I did. *** A week later I moved in. Alice made it clear it was her apartment and she was allowing me to stay only on a trial basis. She would be up at the crack of dawn and wouldn’t return until evening so it would be my responsibility to have dinner prepared. Further, I was to do the grocery shopping and the laundry once a week. I wasn’t working, so I had nothing against this arrangement. She laughed when she added she was lucky to have found me. But she always had a mischievous look about her and I never knew whether to take her seriously. During the day I spent my time reading and taking care of the apartment as Alice had instructed. I also enjoyed watching the fish tank for long periods of time. Another unusual fish soon joined the speculated goldfish and the salamander-like creature. This creature was eel-like, long and slender, with wide dorsal fins and green-and-blue pectoral fins. It was covered with downy-white cilia which undulated as it moved across the tank. I’d never seen anything like it. When I asked Alice about it she told me she’d acquired it on one of her recent travels and that its mate would be arriving soon. She didn’t tell me the name of the species nor where the purchase had been made and I didn’t ask. I had a hunch as to what was going on and to tell the truth I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. The importation of exotic specimens was illegal in this day and age. Most evenings our discussions extended late into the night. They usually involved astronomical topics, and her knowledge about that subject seemed limitless. But she had questions as well. For all her scientific knowledge, she seemed ignorant about human history and was constantly peppering me with questions about culture and politics. Questions I often found amusing. One conversation in particular sticks in my mind. It was a Friday evening in early December. The wind was howling, the naked branches of the elm trees grating against the windows. We’d just finished dinner, when I popped the question that had been bothering me for weeks:

“The universe is expanding,” I said. “That I know and understand. But doesn’t that imply that we are expanding as well?” “Whatever do you mean?” “Space is expanding, correct?” “Yes.” “The atoms which make us up are part of space—exist in space, do they not?” “Of course.” “Then the distance between the atoms must be expanding, that is, we ourselves are expanding.” She laughed—how I loved her childish laugh—“First you say we’re shrinking because the cosmos is expanding, now you say we’re expanding because the cosmos is expanding. Which do you mean?” “I guess I really don’t know,” I said, gazing at her quizzically. “I’m thoroughly confused!” “I’ll tell you how it is,” she said, “though I don’t think my explanation will satisfy you.” She took my hand and led me to the couch in her living room. I heard the tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the hall. The timepiece was encased in a cabinet made from stained cherry that had been etched with an intricate design depicting the planets and the stars. “From the point of view of the universe we are expanding,” she explained. “From our point of view, we’re contracting. In other words, we’re both expanding and contracting and at the same rate. The effects cancel each other out, but they are happening.” “Wouldn’t that mean we’d be dizzy all the time?” I meant it in jest, but she didn’t laugh. “We aren’t. And that’s because we don’t notice what’s happening. The effect is rather small.” I frowned. “What you say might be true,” I said. “Nevertheless, I don’t like it.” “I didn’t think you would.” She smiled. The candlelight danced across her pretty green eyes. I looked over at the fish tank and saw that the axolotl seemed to be watching us, or me. Alice continued, “Have you considered the possibility that it’s not the universe you’re preoccupied with, it’s something else, something within this universe and around which you revolve?” “Like?” “Me, perhaps?” I felt my cheeks redden. “My dear,” she said with a sigh. “It’s rather obvious, isn’t it? You’re falling in love with me!” I sighed. Alice could be so disarming. “But this discussion will have to wait for another time. Tomorrow I’m off to the Twelfth International Conference on Astrophysics. I’ll be gone a week.” I looked around the room. I’d only moved my things the month before and wasn’t sure how she’d feel about my being here alone. “You can stay, of course,” she said. Only one thing I insist on: don’t open the closet. With me being gone for days, the temptation might become too great.” “Why not?” I asked. “I’d love nothing more than to study the black hole.”

“I’m sure you would,” she said. “But without me to guide you—well, the thing is rather dangerous. If you were to get too close ...” “I promise I’ll be careful.” “I insist,” she said. “I’d never forgive myself if something were to happen to you.” I nodded. “Okay.” One week turned into two, two into three, three into four—and I grew concerned. I called her cell phone several times, but she never answered. I rang up the physics department and inquired as to her whereabouts. I was told she’d attended a conference in northern Chile, but that they weren’t aware of her plans afterwards. Her classes were finished for the semester so they weren’t concerned. I was about to call the police to report Alice missing when I wandered into the living room one morning after breakfast and found her sitting on the sofa thumbing through a magazine, her suitcase on the floor. “When did you get back?” I stammered. “I was worried sick.” “The conference went on longer that I expected,” she replied. “Sorry about that.” And that’s the way life went—for the next several months. There were more conferences and what she said were critically important observing sessions at Palomar and Lick. I asked for details on the latter, but they were not forthcoming. “Boring, scientific measurements,” she said with a shrug. How she equated critical observing sessions with boring measurements was beyond me. I spent hours reading up on linguistic theory in Alice’s apartment (she’d managed to convince me to apply for re-admittance to graduate school) as well as my astronomical readings (I’d finished On the Origins of the Universe and now was engrossed in Black Holes, Quasars, and Other Astronomical Oddities by the same author). That and a part-time job shelving books at Columbia’s health sciences library consumed all my time. Our six-month anniversary arrived but Alice was gone. I can’t remember the name of the conference, but I recall her telling me she had an important paper to deliver. Alice must have been to a half-dozen conferences in the past six months, yet I’d never seen registration materials or even conference proceedings. She’d never asked me to take a look at one of her papers nor had she practiced any of her talks in my presence. True, I was a layman and probably wouldn’t have understood much; still, I was a former linguistics major and could have offered advice on sentence construction and even critiqued her manner of presentation. I had no reason to question her activities, but I began to wonder: just what was my scientific partner up to? That evening I called her cell phone, but she didn’t answer. I was slouched on the couch in the living room in front of a roaring fire. Already on my third drink, I was mildly inebriated. It occurred to me that Alice rarely answered when I called. I couldn’t forgive her this time: today was a special occasion! I went see Dr. Ned Whistle, a clinical psychologist who had expertise in marital conundrums. “The black hole is the key,” he said, stroking his dark goatee. “Her life seems to revolve around it. It would be wise to confront the issue.” “She made me promise not to look at it,” I said. Dr. Whistle sighed. “Has it occurred to you that she said that because she wants you to do precisely the opposite?” “I took her at her word,” I said. “I’ve never had reason to doubt her.”

“You’ve much to learn about women,” he replied. “My advice is to open the closet door when you get home. I think you’ll see what it is she wants you to see.” He paused, then added, “But if you want my opinion the only thing you’ll see is a sixty-watt bulb.” It was then I realized the man had been amusing himself at my expense. I left the room in a huff, shooting his secretary an angry look as I exited the lobby. When I got back to the empty apartment, I fixed dinner and headed up to bed. It had been an exhausting day. The only conclusion I’d come to was that I needed to come to a conclusion— and soon. The stress of our relationship was tearing me apart. When I opened the bedroom door, I was shocked to find Alice inside. She was standing in front of the closet, unpacking her suitcase. When she saw me, she smiled. “Alice?” “Sweetheart!” “When did you get back?” “Just now.” I frowned. “I’ve been downstairs. I didn’t see you come in.” “Then it must have been a while ago. It’s been an exhausting trip. I’ve lost all track of time!” I paused. She looked white. “You okay?” “I’m fine.” It was a subtle movement: a backward flick of a right heel. To shut the closet door. Alice told me the visit to Palomar had gone well. Her group’s research into galactic superclusters was yielding results none of them had anticipated. They’d asked her to stay an extra week and she could hardly say no. Caught up in the excitement, she’d forgotten to call and let me know she’d be late. All well and good, except that Alice had told me she’d be delivering a paper at the Third Annual Conference on Galactic Superstructures at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, not doing research at Palomar Observatory in sunny California. She smiled. “Forgiven?” Before I had a chance to reply, I heard squeaking noises coming from the closet. Short, staccato bursts. “What’s that?” I asked. She didn’t miss a beat. “It was a surprise, but ...” She opened the door and pulled out a metal cage. Inside was the oddest-looking rodent I’d ever seen. It was about the size of an opossum, with a sleek coat of jet-black fur, enormous pink ears, and a long fluffy-white tail. “A South American spiny rat,” she said. “One of my collaborators presented it to me at the conference. Evidently, they’re quite valuable.” “I’m sure they are,” I said. Moments later she was in my arms, showering me with kisses. I’d never been able to resist her and, after two weeks alone, was unable to now. *** “There’s one thing I don’t understand,” I said to Alice the next evening, as we snuggled on the sofa. “What’s with the elaborate setup in the bedroom? The canister filter, the pipes that vanish into the closet?”

She brought a finger to her lips. “Later.” “And what’s up with the aquarium in your living room? That bizarre salamander. It’s a Mexican axolotl, isn’t it? A government-protected species. What’s it doing here?” “It’s not an axolotl.” “Just what is it?” “It’s similar, of course, to the salamander, but—” I didn’t like the way she was looking at me. “Stop,” I said. “I don’t think I want to hear any more.” “Oh, honey,” she said, drawing me close and nestling her head against my chest. “One day there will be no secrets ...” It was a night to remember. Alice’s talent as an astrophysicist was eclipsed only by her talent in bed. She left me exhausted, so exhausted, in fact, that—combined with the stresses of the day—I didn’t awake until noon the next day. And, of course, she was gone. I sighed, rose from the bed, and dressed. It was Wednesday, the tenth of April. She’d told me she’d be attending an all-day seminar that included several well-known astrophysicists from abroad. There was to be a banquet at six. She wouldn’t be home until nine. I looked at the closet door. The opportunity was there for the taking. Perhaps it was as Dr. Whistle had indicated, perhaps Alice wanted me to look inside. I had my hand on the knob and had given it a quarter turn when I changed my mind. I couldn’t go through with it! I’d made a promise to her and it was a promise I would keep. Back in the kitchen, I turned on a gas burner. I cracked an egg into a bowl and heated up the frying pan. I took a slice of bread, cut a hole in the middle, and plopped the yolk inside. It sizzled. My eyes glazed over as I watched the egg cook. My mind must have been playing tricks on me, for I could have sworn I was looking at the Andromeda Galaxy. The yolk resembled the central core, the albumen the spiral arms. The bread represented the fabric of space. And the steam rising from the frying pan was nothing less than cosmic energy. It was then I noticed the note next to the phone on the kitchen counter. “Dearest,” it began. “Have to leave in a hurry. Palomar called. Something big has come up. Love, Alice.” On a whim, I picked up the phone and dialed the airport. Alice always used Delta. The woman on the other end of the line told me there was one daily flight to Los Angeles and that it left at 11 P.M. That was ten hours from now. And that was when it hit me. Alice told me more than once that I wasn’t the brightest star in the sky, and though I’d always laughed, I realize now that she wasn’t kidding. I’d been duped, to put it bluntly, though what she wanted from me I could only guess (I could think of one—disturbing—possibility, but quickly put it out of my mind.) The oversized image of the Andromeda galaxy on her bedroom ceiling, her frequent absences where she was mysteriously out of touch, her sudden and unexplained reappearances. And that elusive black hole, around which her life seemed to revolve. No, she wasn’t smuggling endangered species, but she was acquiring them. And the reason why was terrifying. “Andromeda is her home!” I cried, to no one but myself, for I was alone in my bedroom. It was an exclamation of triumph, I suppose, for I had finally reasoned it

out. I rushed up the stairs, charged across the bedroom—nearly tripping in my haste—and threw open the closet door. What had my mind imagined I would see? A portal to another world? Another space? Or to another time? What I saw was something quite different. Something so strange and horrifying I shudder even as I write these words. Astrophysics be damned! It was pitch-black, just as I’d remembered, an endless, yawning abyss. The light from the bedroom reached the threshold and then abruptly vanished. It was as if the closet was walled off from the rest of the room by an unseen, unknown, or unknowable force. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, a moan escaped my lips. There was a blinding point of light within the closet. The black hole. Nothing alarming there. It was what surrounded the hole that held me hostage and quaking like a child. Wrapped around the hole was the image of my beloved Alice, her body stretched to the point of absurdity. I backed away, sobbing hysterically, and slammed the closet door. And then I fled the apartment in terror, without bothering to collect my things. I hailed a cab, which, as luck would have it, was just passing by. “Get me out of here!” I cried to the bewildered cabby. “Anyplace at all. Just go!” Looking back, I’m surprised he threw open the door to let a wild man enter, much less drive him to a place of safety. *** Addendum. The details of the subsequent years are not important. Suffice it to say that I was eventually able to collect my wits, re-enroll at Columbia, and obtain my linguistics degree. Unfortunately, no job offers were forthcoming and I found myself back home with my parents. I returned to school for an MBA at the urging of my father who was a banker on Wall Street. Six months after I graduated, I found employment as a commodities broker in London. I worked in the smoky city a number of years and acquired a reputation as a man who was both honest and fair. As luck would have it, I found myself in New York City one day negotiating an important deal. On a whim I looked up Alice’s apartment. I expected the dilapidated building to have been razed long ago and was surprised to find it still standing. Our old room was even available. I rang up the landlord and pretended to have an interest in renting the place. He showed me the apartment the following afternoon, leading me through dusty rooms I knew all too well. I talked of financial deals in London and other places, trying to maintain a calm demeanor. When we entered the bedroom, I could restrain myself no longer. I rushed across the musty floor and yanked open the closet door. Alas, the closet was empty; I spied only a bare bulb hanging loosely from the ceiling. “Must take care of that,” the landlord muttered as we withdrew. I left town the next day, returning to London where I reside in Notting Hill. I’ve always retained an interest in astronomy and have recently thrown myself into the study of relativity. The laws governing the relative motion of one object with respect to another. I learned that time and space are subject to the same laws. And I nodded knowingly when I read that inside a black hole our physical laws no longer apply, but others do. So what did happen to Alice? Has she returned to Earth? If not, will she ever? I sigh, realizing that even if she were to return one day, and emerge from the black hole like a golden phoenix with the knowledge of the ages, it will be far too late for me.

My mind is porous, I struggle not to forget. Even as I write these words the passage of time distorts, and will ultimately displace, the memory of the subtle features that once composed my beloved’s face.

The distant stars BILL HOLT RUSHED INTO the starship’s meeting room thirty minutes late and set his banjo down on the metal conference table. “Sorry to keep y’all waiting,” he panted to the half dozen people. “Earl didn’t show up today.” Skaggs, the top official from Galactic Mining, took a long slow sip of coffee. “Who’s Earl?” Bill adjusted a couple of strings. Banjos were temperamental and had to be tuned constantly especially in the constant heat and humidity of this alien world. “Earl Scruggs. Greatest banjo player of all time. Bluegrass legend. Flatt and Scruggs.” Skaggs responded with a blank stare. Captain Beth McNeil had been listening. “That’s what Bill named the alien who comes to see him every once in a while.” “Every day,” Bill said, not looking up from the instrument. “Until today. Doesn’t make any sense.” “You’re late,” Skaggs snorted. Bill was weary of the contempt company men like Skaggs showed him. Even though the U.N. was supposedly running this mission the entire crew knew that Galactic pulled the strings. “I hope y’all didn’t wait for me.” “Don’t worry. We didn’t,” Skaggs grunted. He turned to the Captain. “Continue. I’m sure the professor will figure out what he missed.” Beth was the only one present who showed concern about Earl. “I’m sorry you can’t find Earl, Bill. I know he’s a friend of yours.” Bill pulled out his battered laptop from his backpack to brief the Captain. Fifty light-years from Earth and he still couldn’t escape committee meetings. Listening to Skaggs posturing was worse than the anthropology department meetings at Appalachian State University. “Thanks, Beth. I hope Earl’s okay.” Skaggs slurped the last of his coffee. “Waste of time, working with aliens.” “Dr. Holt, can you tell us about your progress with the natives?” Beth asked. Bill knew Beth was just being polite. The mission’s real point was to assess mineral deposits on the distant planet of Carnegie. He lapsed into the dry language of academia. “The natives are at least as intelligent as us. Carbon dating shows their civilization is half a million years older than ours. Yet, they are pretty much stuck in a hunting and gathering society. And we have a galactic empire with a star drive.” Skaggs yawned. “We heard all about these cavemen yesterday.” “They don’t live in caves,” Bill snapped. “Earl picked up English in two weeks. He was learning the banjo.” Skaggs smirked. “You came all the way out here to teach cavemen country and western?” Laughter erupted around the table.

“It’s bluegrass,” Bill muttered. He only agreed to come to Carnegie, because it bought him forgiveness of his student loans. Some academics went to prison for defaulting. “Thank you, Bill.” Beth turned to Skaggs. “So, you think it will take another six or eight weeks to finish preliminary probing of the substrata?” “Yep. My engineers tell me we can drill several more test shafts. This planet looks promising for satorium, cadmium, gold and a dozen other marketable metals. The company should be very happy.” Skaggs almost salivated. “There should be some nice bonuses for everybody. Especially if Galactic strip-mines the planet.” He pointed to Bill. “Well, that is everybody who contributes in some way to resource development.” “My job is to work with the natives,” Bill said. He studied Skaggs. They were both about the same age, but Skaggs was a high ranking executive with money and clout. Ten years after his Ph.D. Bill was still struggling to survive. “And I’m sure you’ll get a nice bonus for that,” Skaggs said. “Maybe you can pay off your student loans someday, eh doctor?” He let out a harsh laugh. “My personnel file is none of your business,” Bill said. “I didn’t look at your file,” Skaggs said. “Every damned professor I’ve ever met has student loans. Just throwing money down the drain, pal.” “Mr. Skaggs, I’m running this briefing,” Beth said in a firm voice. Skaggs chuckled. “Sure, Captain, sure.” Bill cringed. They had been here half a year, months longer than any previous expedition. Every time he thought they might go home Corporate extended the stay. “Is our departure date definitely in two months then?” Beth shook her head. “No. Our departure date is contingent on data analysis.” On what Galactic wanted, Bill thought. “I should mention, Captain, that my engineers have concerns about some unusual electromagnetic readings. They’ve been persistent for months. Last night they were off the charts and spiked ten thousandfold for a few seconds,” Skaggs said. “Is there any danger?” Beth asked. Skaggs shrugged. “I doubt it.” He rose and poured himself another cup of coffee. *** Bill walked down the gangway into the knee-high grass that surrounded the ship. Monstrous tendrils of what resembled ivy snaked halfway up the massive ship supports. He wondered how long it would take the plants to cover the ship. He couldn’t see more than twenty or thirty feet ahead of him through the shroud of mist. It was hot like every other day on Carnegie. This place was worse than North Carolina in August. It must be ninety degrees already and the day had barely started. He wiped sweat off his face and sludged towards the village to find Earl. Bill stepped on the slick mossy trail to Jugtown. He didn’t know the real name of the settlement, if there even was one, because he couldn’t decipher the natives clucking and chirping

language. Bill named the village Jugtown after the largest building that housed hundreds of hollowed out gourds. He suspected the building might be some sort of church. Giant hairy vines slithered from trees higher than the tallest skyscrapers on Earth. He heard thrashing from the jungle that smothered both sides of the path. A figure gradually came into focus through the fog. An old Carnegian hobbled down the trail. She sang an ancient Earth folk song, one that Bill had played for Earl many times. “My Uncle Mort is sawed off and short. He stands ‘bout four foot two. But he thinks he’s a giant if you give him a pint of that good old mountain dew.” She cackled. “They call it that good old mountain dew. Them that refuse it are few ...” She saw Bill and her cat-like ears perked up. She was happy to see him. “How do you know that song?” Bill asked. The only native who ever seemed interested in learning English was Earl. The old woman’s eyes opened wide. “Good morning, Bill. You taught me. I am Earl.” Earl was a young man, little more than a teenager. “Is Earl hurt? Why didn’t he come to the ship?” The woman clucked her tongue. “You don’t believe me? Fine. I will show you what I once was.” She winced several times on the trek through the woods. She seemed to be in a great deal of pain. They came to the village. Jugtown wasn’t much of a settlement by Earth standards. It had a handful of simple communal buildings, constructed of rocks with dried vines for roofs. From what Bill had gathered over the months, the Carnegians had no sense of individual property. They shared everything. There was no family structure that he could detect. Earl sat by himself near the church. Bill ran up to him and held out the banjo. “Are you okay, bossman?” Earl just stared. “He does not understand your words,” a voice behind Bill said. Bill turned around to face the old woman. “Of course he can. I taught him.” “You taught me,” the woman corrected. She pointed to Earl. “Someday I may be back in there. Perhaps never.” She touched her chest. “Now I am in here. I may die in here.” “I don’t understand,” Bill said. The old woman sat cross-legged on thick moss. She wheezed. “Pardon me, but I am not used to this old skin.” A strange truth began to dawn on Bill. “Are you saying that your mind has somehow changed bodies?” The old woman paused to suck in a deep breath. “The storm did it. The storm comes every few moons, or every few years. Once I saw it twice in one day. Who is to say? But, it comes. It always comes.” “Storm?” “It brings the change. For some it brings youth. For some death. A baby may become an old man. An old woman may be granted a new life. At least until the next storm.” “The electromagnetism?”

“I do not know that word. Last night I changed from the form you knew into this ancient body. We all changed. I hope I can survive until the next storm.” Bill sat down on a rock and plucked out “Cripple Creek” on the banjo. It was one of Earl’s favorite songs. The old woman hummed along in a wavering voice while the shell of Earl, the younger body, wandered off. *** “Beth, we need to leave immediately,” Bill urged as he and the Captain sat in the conference room. Beth showed professional concern. “Bill, we’d all love to go home, but the mining tests aren't conclusive.” “Carnegie is dangerous.” Beth leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling. “Bill, what are you getting at? I have a seasoned crew here. Nobody sees any problems.” “It’s about Earl.” Beth massaged her temples. “You found him?” “More or less.” Beth let out a little laugh. “Explain something to me. I thought that anthropologists were supposed to learn about other cultures. So, aren’t you contaminating the natives by teaching them about country and western?” “Bluegrass,” Bill said. Beth rolled her eyes. “Fine. Bluegrass. Shouldn’t you be learning about their music?” “They seem more interested in ours.” He cleared his throat. “Beth, you know that electromagnetic disturbance last night?” “Yes,” she murmured. “The natives call it a storm. This is going to sound nuts, but the storm affects the natives. Their minds switch bodies. Earl’s mind went into the body of an old woman.” Bill searched for the right terminology. He hadn’t exactly been a stellar student in biology courses in college. “I did some research on the ship’s computer and the best I can figure is that the storm somehow mimics or stores copies of the neuron centers of the brain and—” Beth was staring at him. “I’m just an anthropologist, but I think that these impressions might get kicked around by electro-magnetic fields and displaced so that people in close proximity to each other—” “Switch brains,” Beth said. “Yeah. I can’t explain it any better than that. Maybe something else happens entirely. Who the hell knows? Look, I know it sounds impossible, but Earl was the only one who could speak English. Now the old woman is fluent.” Beth sat up straight. “So, he taught her.” “I think Earl is telling the truth.”

Beth smiled. “Bill, listen to me. The natives are probably playing a joke on you. Or maybe they’re trying to con you. Maybe they want something.” “They don’t want anything. I could never figure why their culture hasn’t advanced. Why they don’t have need of any possessions. Now I understand. They don’t even own their own bodies. It would be a nightmare trying to keep track of who owns what. Family units would be moving constantly from house to house, if they had homes. It’s just easier for everybody to own everything.” “Okay, Bill, maybe they don’t need any possessions. They might just want us to leave.” The Captain might have a point. If Skaggs had his way, Galactic would lay waste to the planet. “I don't think that’s Earl’s motive.” She moved an errant strand of hair out of her eyes. “So why didn’t this storm affect us?” “Maybe we’re shielded in the ship.” “Bill, I think youre being conned. However, I do have concerns about the electromagnetism. I’ll order everybody confined to the ship if the electromagnetism reaches a certain level. But, we’re staying until Galactic Mining has finished their tests.” *** Bill leaned back on a couple of stacked pillows on his bed and plucked away at “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Earl Scruggs had written the bluegrass song for a movie years ago. Bill tried to remember the name. It was about Robin Hood bank robbers stealing from crooked banks. He practiced his picking as much as his banjo stance. The seasoned banjo player didn’t prance about, drawing attention to himself. His fingers worked at lightning speed, like a summer cloudburst. But, the player’s genteel posture remained calm and polite, like a warm morning in North Carolina. The airlock hissed open. Skaggs stormed inside. “Why in the hell did you get my miners confined to the ship at night? They have work to do.” Bill put down the banjo. “I wanted to go back to Earth. Confining people to the ship was the Captain’s idea.” Skaggs sneered. “What a surprise. The big brave professor wants to go home.” Bill shrugged. “Go complain to the Captain.” “My problem’s with you. Listen, professor, you better convince the Captain to change her mind or I’ll file a report about you.” Bill sat up on the edge of the bed. “Report?” Skaggs smiled. “Yeah, pal. You probably didn’t know it, but Galactic wants me to report on everybody. Troublemakers aren’t allowed back on another Galactic ship.” “I’m not a troublemaker.”

“Galactic wants these trips to make money. Losing hours of work every day because some fraidy cat thinks we’re in danger from electromagnetism is trouble Galactic doesn’t want.” “The electromagnetism is dangerous.” Skaggs rolled his eyes. “The engineers say it isn’t.” Bill knew it would be a waste of time to reveal what he knew. Skaggs would just ridicule him. Instead he pointed to his laptop. “I write reports too. Maybe I’ll say you’re the problem.” Skaggs snorted. “You think I really care what a bunch of damned intellectuals at some college think of me? If I had my way they’d shut those crapholes down.” Bill didn’t doubt Skaggs had no use for education. “Since you don’t care, I’ll just write it anyway.” “Yeah, well if I write enough about you, maybe you won’t get any credit for being here at all. That happened a few missions back. Some longhaired college type came back and got arrested for not paying his student loans. Seems he wasn’t taking his research duties on the ship seriously enough.” “Get out of my room,” Bill said. *** Bill sat on a boulder that served as the front stoop for the church of Jugtown and played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Old Earl rested beside him and did her best to keep up with the hambone that Bill had taught her. She did not have the energy of her younger self. She slapped her hands against her legs and chest, trying to maintain the beat of the tune, but it wasn’t as good as a few days before. A young boy stopped in front of Earl and clicked his tongue and made a sound like a long low belch. Earl clucked back and nodded. The boy marched into the church and sat cross-legged. He picked up a gourd and blew into it, making a high pitched squeak. Then with increased speed the boy picked up gourd after gourd, blowing into each one, making a range of sounds. The boy was playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” When Bill switched chords, the boy followed. It was a jam session. And then the boy started to lead, jumping quickly from chord to chord, almost too fast for Bill. The notes were strange, but deep in the music’s roots. Bill wondered what it would be like to listen to music with elfen ears like the Carnegians. How much fuller and richer it must sound. Like most banjo pickers, Bill played fast, because the plucky notes faded quickly with little resonance. One had to be replaced by another or there would be a break in the song. The noise of the gourds lingered, creating a rich tapestry of sound. Finally Bill had to rest. He put the banjo on his lap and wiped sweat off his brow. He laughed. “What a hootenanny!” He ran up to the boy and stuck out his hand. “Nice playing, son.” The boy stood up and walked away. “That boy’s got some talent,” Bill said to Earl. “I didn’t know y’all could play.”

Earl smiled. “That boy is the oldest among us.” “Sweet Jesus,” Bill whispered. “How old are you, Earl.” Earl picked up the banjo and strummed it gently. “Old enough to know it would not be unjust for me to die in this form. I have lived several lives, far longer than I should.” She crinkled her nose. “A storm is coming.” Bill looked up at the sky. Today there was not much fog, just blazing sun. He could see no clouds, just brilliant blue. “It looks fine.” She pointed. “There.” Bill squinted. He could see the faintest hint of color on the horizon. Tiny pops of red and blue and green shot up into the sky, like sparks from a burning log. The flashes were growing. The storm must be coming closer. Bill pointed to the communal building behind them. “Should we go inside?” “Return to your ship. Unless you want to switch. You might end up like me.” Bill grabbed the banjo and ran onto the pathway. *** A football field’s length from the ship, Skaggs blocked Bill’s way. He held a laptop. “Thought you might be coming back, you son of a bitch.” Bill panted. “We need to get on the ship. It’s not safe out here.” “Yeah, I know all about the electromagnetism. Captain ordered us all on board. Like I give a crap what a Captain has to say.” The sky was a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors that seemed to push the extremes of the spectrum. Ocean blue. Sapphire. Blood red. “I don’t have time for this.” Bill tried to step around Skaggs. The Galactic stooge stepped in front of him. “I’m been looking at your report.” A flash of indigo lightning pierced the jungle. “Give me back my laptop,” Bill demanded. Skaggs taunted him by holding it over his head. “Can’t say I like what you wrote about me.” The sky was a montage of dancing colors. Trees as tall as skyscrapers swayed. “I don’t care what you think,” Bill yelled over the roar of the wind. “You ain’t gonna ruin my rep, pal.” Skaggs heaved the computer against some rocks. The device cracked. Skaggs grabbed it before Bill could get to it. He smashed it several times. Bill knew the machine was useless. Without his notes, he couldn’t get student loan forgiveness. “Bastard!” Skaggs smirked. “Guess you’ll be going to jail, pal.” Bill wanted to hit Skaggs. Before he could do anything he heard a loud crack of thunder. The sky filled with a blinding tangerine light. Then he was overcome with nausea. He blacked out.

He woke up and saw himself. He must be dead. But he felt queasy and his head ached worse than a hangover after a college drinking binge. Dead people couldn’t feel pain, could they? God, he hoped not. He stood up on wobbly legs. He saw his body move. Looking down, Bill realized the storm had affected him. He was in Skaggs’s body. Which could only mean Skaggs was in his. “Skaggs, you okay?” Bill called out. Bill’s old body groaned. *** Bill leaned back in the leather chair in Skaggs’s quarters and played “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” His fingers still hurt. It would take him a few weeks to build up the calluses that experienced banjo players needed. It would take many months to work off Skaggs’ sizable gut. The airlock hissed. Beth entered. “I didn’t know you played the banjo.” Bill grinned in his new body. “I’m pickin’ it up.” “Isn’t that Bill’s banjo?’ Bill put the instrument down. “I bought it from him.” When he realized he and Skaggs might never switch back he had arranged for Galactic to give his old body a share of the bonus. Then he had paid off all his student loans with Skaggs’ money. Beth sighed. “I guess he doesn’t want it anymore. The professor still says he’s you. That you stole his body.” Bill felt sorry for Skaggs. He didn’t ask to switch bodies, but there was no reasoning with him. Skaggs just threatened Bill every time they spoke. “It’s really sad.” “I’m recommending that we quarantine this planet,” Beth said. “We just don’t know enough about that electromagnetism. Look how it affected Bill.” “My report says the same thing,” Bill said. He hoped that would keep Galactic away. He wished he could see Earl again. Maybe in a hundred years the whole planet would be playing bluegrass if Earl kept switching bodies. “We put Bill back under sedation. He’s dangerous. You know, he told me this crazy story that we were all in danger of switching bodies.” Bill tightened a string. “Crazy.” “He was a nice guy.” “What’s going to happen to him?” Bill asked. “I don’t know. Psychologists on Earth will check him out.” “You know, Beth, I’m thinking of retiring. I’m going to go to school. Maybe I’ll get a graduate degree.” Beth cocked an eyebrow. “I didn’t know that interested you.”

Bill picked up the banjo and plucked a few chords. “What is that song?” Beth asked. “It sounds familiar.” “The Ballad of Jed Clampett. It’s about a poor old country boy who becomes rich beyond his dreams after he finds oil on his land.” “Sounds like a fairy tale,” Beth said. Bill laughed. “Yep.” He adjusted another string and started back up.

Whisper YELLOW-SPOT-ON-CEPHALOTHORAX TOUCHED her Queen’s antennae with her own, and felt the surge of { } coursing through and down her body. The two parted and stood still for long moments, enjoying the bond they’d just shared. The Queen’s upper hands palsied about and Yellow-Spot couldn’t understand what the Queen was trying to say. She looked at one of the Nurses caring for the Queen, who said, “I think the Queen means to ask you how your stay with the gods was.” Yellow-Spot’s heart ached, seeing her Queen in decline. When the gods had taken Yellow-Spot those many moons ago, the Queen had looked so young and vibrant. Further sorrow filled Yellow-Spot because of what she was about to do. She lied, “It was wonderful.” It was horrible, witnessing the hateful machinations of these gods. “I learned to understand their strange god-speak.” That much was true. “Gods! They aren’t gods,” said the demon voice in Yellow-Spot’s mind. “Be quiet,” she replied back in her mind. Her hands faltered, trying to find her train of thought again. “They told me I was divinely chosen to understand them ...” “Why would the gods choose not to be easily understood?” “... and I feel honored and humbled that I can tell everyone finally what they are saying.” “It’s all lies! They’re not gods at all. Why don’t they look like us? Where’s their Queen? Why do they kill each other? How do they { }? They eat so funny.” Yellow-Spot smoothed her left antenna to distract from any yellow or green her color- face might be showing, betraying her smell of agitation. What she wouldn’t give to stop this demon in her mind. “Wonderful,” the Queen said. “They will be at the New Queen choosing ceremony. Correct?” “Correct, my Queen.” Yellow-Spot could barely speak, the sense of betrayal so palpable. “Why don’t the gods give the Queen everlasting life?” Yellow-Spot ignored the voice, took a deep breath. “My Queen, the gods request a Drone.” Her legs almost gave out. The betrayal, even though she wasn’t sure what she was betraying. “Why am I taking a Drone?” she thought-asked the demon. As response, { } surged through her. Though the monster in her mind had no physical existence, it somehow was able to give her { }. “Do as I say and all will be answered, and you shall feel the everlasting { } of a Queen.” “Curious,” the Queen said. “The gods are mysterious. I will receive your Taste and give it to one of the Drone Nurses. When you require it, your Drone will be waiting.” The Queen’s Nurse gave Yellow-Spot a Paste-berry. Yellow-Spot bit into the fuzzy skin, cringing a little at the bitterness. She hated eating this kind of Paste-berry, but it was necessary, as this variety added more of her Taste into the Paste. A few moments later Yellow-Spot regurgitated the berry into Paste. The Nurse collected it for safekeeping. The Queen said, “I grow tired. My days are numbered and I shall soon go to The Heavenly Colony. Is there anything else to discuss before I retire?”

“Yes, there is.” Yellow-Spot stared at her hands, surprised she’d said anything. “Do it!” the demon commanded. “Tell her the truth!” The words came to her fingers as if unbidden. “The gods aren’t true gods.” The Queen’s color-face was the green of confusion, but she didn’t say anything. “I mean ... maybe they aren’t gods. Forgive me. I have misspoken.” The Queen moved forward till their antenna almost touched. Her palsied hands said, “How do you mean?” “Do it!” the demon goaded. Yellow-Spot loosened her fingers to speak. Perhaps she could feign blacking out. But no; the Queen might simply request the information after she pretended to wake. She said, “Perhaps they’re not gods at all. They look nothing like us. Didn’t the gods make us in their own image? They’re missing two arms, for one thing. And their skin is soft and squishy like a Drone or newly hatched larval person, or an animal like a razor-run. They have only two eyes. Their ears are on top, not on the abdomen the way proper ears are. They have no antennae. Their eyes and ears and mouth are on a bulb supported by a thin stalk atop their body. And their size ... gods are supposed to be larger than us. These gods are the same size, if not smaller. And most of their body is furless, and not in the vibrancy of our golds, and blues, and reds, and greens, and—” “Interesting idea,” the Queen interrupted her. “But wholly incorrect. Come, let’s { }.” Their antennae touched and Yellow-Spot felt the { } course through her. The air filled with the smell of the Queen’s love. The Queen fed Yellow-Spot Paste, and Yellow-Spot Tasted the blissed music of the entire colony in the { }. She wanted it to last forever. Yellow-Spot slumped and collapsed to the floor, drunk with { }. Yellow-Spot woke with the sun glaring in her eyes. She sat up and nearly bumped the top of the cell she lay in. She scooted out and looked around. Drones. Larvae. Cocoons. The nursery. She must’ve been carried from the Queen’s dome. “It’s about time you woke,” one of Yellow-Spot’s eyes caught a Nurse saying. Yellow-Spot turned toward the Nurse, feeling guilty at the things she said to her Queen, questioning the gods’ validity, no less. “I’m sorry—” “You shouldn’t be,” the demon said. “You’re lucky you don’t get exiled.” Exiled. Yellow-Spot imagined being pushed out of the colony, forced to wander the forest alone, cut off from her Queen and sisters. The horror almost caused her to pass out. “Yes, well, the Queen’s very forgiving.” The Nurse made a dismissive gesture, and Yellow-Spot couldn’t make out if it was an actual word. Yellow-Spot moved toward the dome’s entrance. “I’ll be leaving you, then.” She waited for a response, but the Nurse just stared at her, and the other Nurses were busy feeding larvae and attending to other duties. She was glad to leave. Outside the nursery, she took a deep breath, feeling her abdomen expand and contract, smelling the Paste being cultivated from the nearby berry field. Gods yelled at the Farmers. To most people, any sound a god made was divine. But Yellow-Spot had lived with them; she could detect anger in their strange noise-speech. She thought about going over to the field and telling the Farmers what the gods were really saying. But her words would fall upon blind eyes.

“We need to leave tonight,” the demon said in her mind. “I don’t want to.” “You don’t have a choice.” “I do!” Yellow-Spot looked around, hoping no one saw her speak. She began walking toward her clutch’s dome, with the sun to her back now. Both moons were out, both nearly full. “Why am I doing any of this?” she asked the voice. “Everything will become clear,” the demon assured her. Yellow-Spot thought about defying the demon, but she feared the demon would then withhold the { } that they could share. The whine of one of the gods’ flying machines brought Yellow-Spot back to the present. Several people stopped what they were doing to prostrate themselves in prayer. Yellow-Spot continued walking, feeling only slightly guilty at the sacrilege she was committing. Perhaps the demon’s crazy thoughts were getting to her. She recalled the demon’s first appearance in her mind. Yellow-Spot had been with the gods only a few days, feeling like a Queen, of sorts, as she’d been chosen to learn the god’s speech. That day she witnessed two gods standing, facing each other and making loud noises. One god pointed a grey stick at the other. The second god began to run away. The stick thundered, with smoke coming from it, then the second god fell. The fallen god made softer noises, like some wounded animals make, and leaked red fluid. After a short time she stopped moving. “How could one god kill another of her own colony?” Yellow-Spot had asked herself. “Only animals do that!” A new voice replied, “They are not gods.” Yellow-Spot could deny the voice at first. It began as vague arms, indistinct, yet able to form words. Much as Yellow-Spot’s own thoughts. But it grew stronger the longer she’d spent with the gods, took more shape until it was not just arms but a body as well. She often wondered where the demon had come from. Perhaps it was some trick the gods had cursed her with. But that didn’t make sense; if anything, the demon acted against the gods. But then where’d the demon come from? Both moons waxed and waned several times and Yellow-Spot witnessed further ungodly acts. She began agreeing with the demon, started accepting that these might not be gods. A whole cycle of seasons passed. By the time she had left, she’d been glad to go. Presently the gods’ flying machine rumbled. Yellow-Spot stopped to watch it, truly mesmerized. How easy life would be to fly! The machine’s spinning wings took it south. An unpleasant sharp smell tickled her nostril; she knew it came from the flying machine. Everything about the gods was so alien. Yellow-Spot was losing interest when she saw a stick rise up on a pillar of fire to connect with the flying machine. Several people marveled at the giant fireball that erupted. “You stupid people,” the demon said, “they’re fighting.” In her mind’s eye the demon currently appeared as an indistinct person. After Yellow-Spot had learned the rudiments of the gods’ language, she’d learned that there were two factions of them, each at an uneasy peace, much like her colony was with the other surrounding colonies. With the fireball lighting the sky, it looked like that peace had ended.

Yellow-Spot approached her clutch’s dome, the white of Paste-wax gleaming in the sunlight. She avoided people lest they ask her what had happened. Fortunately most seemed content to accept it as divine wonder. “Sister!” exclaimed Taste-of-Sweet-Berries, running up to her. The two touched antennae and felt { }. It wasn’t as strong as with the Queen, but Sweet-Berries was her closest sister; their connection was rather strong. The clutch was currently Pasting up the holes to their dome the hail storm had made a few nights ago. When Yellow-Spot came in, several people stopped what they doing to { } with her. Yellow-Spot loved the community of her clutchsisters and for a time the demon receded just a little. After several greetings, Yellow-Spot motioned for Sweet-Berries to follow her back outside. “Are you ready for your assignment from the gods?” “from the cursed demon,” she thought-spoke. “Yes,” Sweet-Berries said. “And you’re sure you can make Royal Paste?” “Of course I’m sure. I’m a Nurse.” “And Electric-Touch-On-Red-Fur? You’ve talked to her?” When Yellow-Spot had walked in a moment earlier, Electric-Touch was atop a people ladder Pasting the highest spots on the dome. “Yes. Yes. Why all the secrecy? Wouldn’t the Queen at least give us her blessings?” “Yes, why all the secrecy, demon?” Aloud, Yellow-Spot said, “She did. That’s what the meeting I just went to was about.” “No, I mean, why doesn’t she give her blessings to the whole colony?” “It’s at the gods’ request,” she lied. The gods, whether false or not, wouldn’t have approved either way. Yellow-Spot had seen first-hand the lengths the gods went through to control the colony, had overheard their conversations when they thought she wasn’t listening. They will decide the next Queen, and Yellow-Spot was supposed to be there to help facilitate the conversation. The gods did this, they said, because of The War Against The Gods another colony had started. Yellow-Spot had her doubts that war had even happened. Sweet-Berries looked off into the distance, as if thinking. Finally she focused back on Yellow-Spot. “Okay. You said the other day we’ll meet tonight. It doesn’t make any sense to leave at night, but ... I know, it’s the gods’ request.” “Thanks, sister.” “I can’t help but do something for my closest clutchsister.” “That’s why this betrayal of trust hurts so much,” Yellow-Spot thought. “But you’ll get away from these false gods!” the demon retorted. “You’ll be free, at last.” “Free from what? I’m leading my sisters away from our colony, away from everything they love, away from the Queen’s { }. For what? To give a god her own Queen, even though you yourself do not believe them to be gods?” That must be their secret mission. The gods had somehow implanted this demon so that Yellow-Spot could fulfill a purpose whereby a new Queen was created. But the gods must be the ones providing the Queen. That didn’t quite make sense ... “Sister, you all right?” Sweet-Berries asked. “Huh?” “You look confused. Your color-face is green.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she stammered, trying to stop thinking about the demon. “Let’s { }, shall we?” The two { }, which only left Yellow-Spot more anguished. Yellow-Spot helped out with repairs for the rest of the day, as she was a Builder. She tried to ignore the demon, even though it took on a ghostly form not only in her mind’s eye, but also in her visual field. When night fell, she only pretended to sleep in her cell. In the cell closest to her, Sweet-Berries’ scent tickled her nose, producing a low-level { } in Yellow-Spot, which only increased her anxiety over what she was about to do. When the time seemed right she got out of her cell but didn’t get her sisters immediately. “What’re you waiting for?” the demon asked. “I don’t want to do this!” “Sister, what’s wrong?” Sweet-Berries got out of her cell. “I’m ... just frightened. I don’t know if I can handle any of it.” “Yellow-Spot, the gods have chosen you. I know you’ll be an excellent leader. Just follow the gods’ directive and we’ll be rewarded. Okay?” If she tried arguing, Sweet-Berries might think less of her. “Okay,” she said. *** “You want me to give you a Drone in the middle of the night?” the Nurse asked, her hands sluggish from stupor. Yellow-Spot hadn’t seen this Nurse before. “Yes. It’s the gods’ imperative.” Her hands felt numb, as if someone else was saying them. The Nurse got out of her cell and looked past Yellow-Spot. She saw with her rear eyes Sweet-Berries giving the affirmative to her sister Nurse. The Nurse didn’t bother lighting any candles. She stumbled around; perhaps the heat- light from surrounding bodies was not enough. After a few moments of looking, Yellow-Spot feared her Paste she’d deposited earlier had been thrown out. She thought about joining the search—she had a Paste-wax torch after all—but then the Nurse found the wax basket. “A strange request, but ... Queen’s orders, gods’ orders.” The Nurse gave Yellow-Spot a berry to make Paste. Again, Yellow-Spot cringed at its bitterness. After a short moment Yellow-Spot deposited the Paste into the basket, the Nurse stirred the two Paste batches, then licked it up. “Yes, I Taste only one person.” Her color-face looked brown, from disappointment, though Yellow-Spot couldn’t tell very well in the dim light. The Nurse walked toward the colony’s own Drones. “Actually,” Yellow-Spot said, “could we get one of those?” She pointed to the section of Drones from other colonies. “The Queen never specified which Drone I could take.” “Good. That’d be the best option.” Yellow-Spot closed her eyes, hoping the ghostly demon would disappear. Instead, it appeared as an after-image behind her eyelids. The nurse looked perplexed, but said, “I suppose it’s all the same, isn’t it?” “Yes,” Yellow-Spot said nervously.

The Nurse led the Drone out of its cell. It sniffed around and whimpered. Yellow-Spot grabbed its soft arm. Soft, like the gods’ skin, not the hard armor of a person’s. Yellow-Spot and the Nurse briefly touched antennae to say goodbye; Yellow-Spot couldn’t stand too much { }. Yellow-Spot, Sweet-Berries, and Electric-Touch left, with the Drone in tow. *** Pain exploded and Yellow-Spot startled awake. The open sky hung above, with trees framing it. Where was she? The short night walk away from the colony. Setting up camp in the surrounding forest. Now, noises everywhere. God noises. Yellow-Spot smelled the stink of pain on her. Her pain. “She’s hurt,” Sweet-Berries said. “What’s going on?” Electric-Touch too smelled of fear and pain. “Can you move?” Sweet-Berries asked. “Yes.” Yellow-Spot got up wobbly. She was blind. Not totally, but pain throbbed where one of her rear eyes had seen. “Come on, sisters,” Sweet-Berries said. “Downhill.” The three stumbled down the hillside. Trees parted, making room for them. In her pain haze Yellow-Spot couldn’t mind her feet too well, as she tripped a few times over the trees’ root- legs. It was only with Sweet-Berries’ vigilance that she managed to stay up. Sound continued to roar around Yellow-Spot. She managed to realize much of it was god-speak, but she still needed concentration to understand. Tree leaves popped and disintegrated as they were hit by the gods’ hard projectile nuggets. Thunder sounded as the gods discharged their stick weapons—"guns” the gods called them in their sound language. Her vision spun, dizzy from the loss of one eye’s sight. And through all this, the pain, oh, the constant pain. Yellow-Spot prayed to the gods—the true gods—but only the demon appeared, looking more distinct than ever. “I need to stop.” Sweet-Berries guided them behind a large tree, making sure its lower fronds would give them adequate cover. If it moved, they’d have to move with it. “Give me a berry,” Sweet-Berries said to Electric-Touch. “Where’s the Drone?” Yellow-Spot asked, smelling new fear coming from her body. “Never mind. We need to attend to you. Electric-Touch, that berry.” “No!” Yellow-Spot started to move, then saw the dumb thing ambling down the hill, following the three sisters’ scent trail. When it was clear Yellow-Spot wouldn’t give up without a struggle, Sweet-Berries got out from the tree’s cover and grabbed the Drone to pull it into the tree-frond hideout. Electric-Touch reached up out of the frond cover to the lowest tree branch, which lowered to aid in her reach. Just as she grabbed it, one of those hard nuggets hit her hand. She dropped the fruit and more pain filled the small enclosure. Electric-Touch stared at her hand,

stunned and uncomprehending. Yellow-Spot was only vaguely aware of Sweet-Berries scrambling to get the berry. Yellow-Spot hit Electric-Touch’s antennae with her own. She felt the { } coursing through her, and Electric-Touch seemed to calm down. Pleasure jabbed into Yellow-Spot and, in the midst of { } with Electric-Touch, she didn’t at first know where it was coming from. The dull ache was abating. She felt a warm tingle at the injury site. Only when she pulled away from the { } with Electric-Touch did it become clear that Sweet-Berries had applied Paste to the wound. Now that pain was no longer at the fore, the blind hole in her vision was even more evident. But it also meant she could now concentrate on what the gods were saying. Yellow-Spot had to concentrate, but she could make out the words. “... surrender, Bee- Fuckers!” The word “bee” hung in Yellow-Spot’s mind. A god had once shown Yellow-Spot a “bee” on the god’s magic window. Yellow and black, it looked nothing like a person. And tiny. In fact, the god said, the picture on the magic window was bigger than an actual bee. “Then why call us bees?” Yellow-Spot had asked. The god paused, probably translating Yellow-Spot’s visual language into the god’s spoken one. Then the god said, “It’s just a name.” “It’s not a name of respect,” the demon had said. Presently Yellow-Spot looked between the fronds to see two gods about ten body-lengths from her. Halfway between them and her appeared the demon. Now its body took on a blue color, as if it was growing fur. One of the gods was lying down; she was covered in red liquid. God-blood. The other stood, with its “gun” pointed somewhere Yellow-Spot couldn’t readily see. She’d labeled the god an “it” because it was like a Drone, only intelligent like its Queen partner. “Only animals have Drones and Queens that are alike,” the demon said. Yellow-Spot looked at her sisters, certain they’d give some indication they’d seen the demon. They did not. “We destroyed your copter,” said a god Yellow-Spot couldn’t see. She must’ve missed part of the conversation. “And that’s reason for surrender?” said the intelligent Drone. “More like reason for war!” “You provoked it with the copter flight,” the unseen god said. “That flight was routine. We’ve done it before to assess the progress of the Von Neumanns.” “Ha! Unlikely story. Von Neumann machines by definition don’t need supervision: they reproduce and build on their own.” The god came out of its tree cover and charged toward the other. It held out its “gun” and the thunder of fire discharge sounded. The first Drone-god fell atop its dying Queen companion. The surviving god appeared from behind a tree and walked right up to its enemies. Its “gun” thundered several times as it pumped several nuggets into the surely already dead bodies. It said, “Fucking religious zealots. Can’t believe we share a planet with them.” The god walked toward them, and Yellow-Spot feared the worst. Sweet-Berries attended to Electric-Touch’s injured hand, oblivious to any danger. The Drone was even more oblivious, sleeping at Yellow-Spot’s feet.

“I know I saw some bees around here. Come out, come out, wherever you are!” The god looked around, then pulled out a small round thing from the cord tied around its abdomen. It opened the round thing. A Queen’s Paste jar. The Queen’s Scent wafted over to their hideout, and Yellow-Spot had the almost overwhelming urge to run toward it. “Stay put!” Yellow-Spot had developed a resistance to the false { }. Electric-Touch said, “But the Queen—” “That’s not the Queen. It’s just a container with the Queen’s Paste.” Yellow-Spot wrapped an antenna around one of Sweet-Berries’, but she couldn’t reach Electric-Touch to create any { }. “But she’s a god.” “Can’t be, sister” Sweet-Berries said, her words slow, as if still processing the revelation. “She kills her own kind.” “No. The gods’ reasons are mysterious and unfathomable. But I know she still loves me.” Electric-Touch walked out of the hideout and toward the false god. Sweet-Berries tried to grab her sister, but Electric-Touch wiggled away. The false god barely looked at Electric-Touch. It pointed its “gun” at her, it thundered, and Electric-Touch collapsed to the ground. The demon showed an angry rainbow of shock on her color-face; Yellow-Spot could almost recognize the monster. A new desire came over Yellow-Spot: vengeance. This was a far greater challenge to resist than the false { }. Her legs quaked, and she held on to Sweet-Berries as hard as she could. “Make the best { } you can,” the demon told Yellow-Spot. Only afterward did Yellow-Spot realize it’d been a mutual decision, not a command from the demon. Sweet-Berries still held the berry she’d used to make the Paste salve. Yellow-Spot grabbed it to make her own Paste, the wild berry’s sharpness stinging her taste buds. “Come out, come out. I know there’s more of you. I know how you fuckers hate to see your own kind dying.” Yellow-Spot force-fed the Paste to Sweet-Berries, and produced as much Scent as she could. Sweet-Berries slumped and passed out. Yellow-Spot was surprised it’d even worked. She knew the Queen could do it, but now she knew she could too. “No matter,” the false god said. “Maybe the honey’s causing me to see things. Speaking of which ...” The false god walked over to Electric-Touch’s body and began pounding on her. No, it was more like squeezing her. “Come on, you fuckin’ bee-cunt. Give me ... There!” A little Paste squirted out of her dead sister’s mouth. “Like squeezing a toothpaste tube.” The false god stumbled to the ground, mewling and groaning. From personal experience Yellow-Spot knew the false god was experiencing the Paste’s effects. Yellow-Spot debated with herself as to what to do. She wanted to be vigilant against this false god, yet it was so painful to see what it was doing and to be reminded about what had happened. When the false god began doing strange things to Electric-Touch’s corpse, she couldn’t take it. She closed her remaining eyes and tried to force out the world. Even with closed eyes the demon haunted her, becoming more real than ever. ***

Yellow-Spot woke to clear sky above. The frond hideout was gone. She sat up. The trees had moved. Or maybe she’d dreamt the nastiness of the false gods. Electric-Touch lay motionless where she’d fallen. No dream; the nightmare was real. She stood, looking for danger, looking for the false god. Sweet-Berries lay on the ground but still breathing. Then there was the demon, five body-lengths away and as clear as can be. “No,” Yellow-Spot said softly, the smell of fear becoming strong. The demon was her true enemy, not the gods. Sweet-Berries opened her eyes and sat up. Probably she’d been woken by the smell of fear. The demon approached. Yellow-Spot quaked, sure somehow that the demon had been responsible for the current horrors. She ran down the hill. As the hill became steeper she turned to see the demon and Sweet-Berries following her. She stumbled, fell, tumbled down the hill, antennae-tip over heels. When she stopped, she heard the roar of a river. She stood. Something was wrong. Her leg hurt. She ignored the pain. It was pain or facing the demon. She stepped into the river. It wasn’t that large, but with her leg hurt it was hard to get any decent footing. Near the center the water was up almost to her mouth. She imagined the roiling water around her was a placid pond where she could see her reflection. She glanced back at the shore, thinking about turning around. The demon and Sweet-Berries were still following. The sight of the demon threw her off balance and the current swept her off her feet. Water flooded into her nostril. She tried covering it with her hand, but she was sinking. “My reflection’s chasing me.” Then the world went dark. *** “Yellow-Spot?” She opened her eyes and looked up at Sweet-Berries. She sat up. Her left antenna felt wrong. She reached up to feel and winced. The pain stung her nostril so strong that she almost sneezed at the smell. “Your left antenna and left speaking arm are broken,” said Sweet-Berries. “And I think so too is your right leg, or maybe it’s just sprained. I bound a wood splint to it, to keep it straight. Too bad Paste can’t soothe broken bones.” Yellow-Spot made to get up, but Sweet-Berries held her down. “You’re not going anywhere too soon, sister. But I’m so glad you’re alive.” Sweet-Berries looked down the river, which disappeared over a cliff only a few hundred people-lengths away. “We were going there, weren’t we? I wished you had told us, so we’d know. Why didn’t you just tell us?” The demon appeared. Popped into existence. Yellow-Spot pawed the ground, trying to back away. Fear—so common a smell now—thickened the air. “My gods, sister. What is it?”

“Do...” How was she going to form the other side of words with a broken arm? She thought about using her left gripping arm, but the fingers were all different. The words wouldn’t make any sense. She decided to use her right arm for both sides of words. It’d take longer to speak, but then Sweet-Berries could understand her. She began again, “Do you see it?” “See what, Yellow-Spot?” Concern showed in her voice, color-face, and smell. “The demon.” She pointed. “Standing right there!” “No.” Sweet-Berries looked perplexed. “You don’t? She ... it looks just like me. It’s been haunting me since I’ve been with the false gods.” “Oh ...” Sweet-Berries’ color-face still showed yellow-green concern, but then it softened to a neutral white. “So is that what told you to leave, to violate the Queen’s { } and to found a new colony?” “Me? Found a colony? Ha!” Laughter mixed with the negative smells. “Sister, what’d you think we were doing? Why’d you need a Nurse and a Builder who’s not you, and a Drone too, unless you were going to start a new colony?” Yellow-Spot stared at her sister and tried ignoring the demon. The Drone was busy sniffing around. It walked right into the demon as if the demon wasn’t solid. Even though she’d seen the words, comprehension was slow to register. “So ...” she said to the demon, not caring anymore that her words could be seen “Was that the plan?” “Yes,” Yellow-Spot’s doppelganger confirmed. Yellow-Spot looked back at Sweet-Berries, who said, “You saw how those soft-bodied false gods ... those softs treat us. I can’t imagine spending so much time with them. How’d you cope?” Sweet-Berries looked at where the demon stood. “Ah, I see. Your mind created a false voice to tell you what to do.” It made sense, or more sense than the gods implanting the demon, anyway. “How do you know so much?” “Please, sister. The Queen sees several voices. It’s how she partitions all her responsibilities, I think. It’s a secret among us Nurses. Now, come. I think we should { }.” Sweet-Berries’ antennae touched Yellow-Spot’s. She’d expected pain from the broken antenna, but instead felt { } surging through her, uplifting her, healing her. The person pulled away, and in that brief { } her various pains had abated. Yellow-Spot looked at the river disappearing over the cliff. Just beyond lay a canyon with several caverns pitting the canyon walls. She knew this because she’d been with several gods ... softs who’d scouted the area. Just beyond the canyon was the southern people’s colony. Sweet-Berries helped her sister up. When they’d been experiencing { }, it’d felt like Yellow-Spot’s pains had been healed. But now, she winced when she put pressure on her right leg. Sweet-Berries helped Yellow-Spot walk over to the canyon’s edge. The Drone dumbly followed. Yellow-Spot gasped when she saw the southern people’s colony. Or what was left of it. Fires blazed through much of it, domes melting and collapsing from the flames. Pale smoke streamed into the sky. She felt red anger. When she looked at the demon, it was becoming less distinct, no longer looking like the blue-furred, yellow-spotted reflection of herself. “Do you think these false gods will ever leave us?” Yellow-Spot asked.

“They are powerful beyond any words. In a sense, they are gods, just not gods we’d ever want to worship. We’re dumb animals to them.” “Ironic. They’re soft-skinned like many dumb animals.” Yellow-Spot patted the Drone, as if for emphasis. “I don’t understand why they’re fighting each other. They’re so powerful.” “Yes. We can stand here all day trying to figure out what they’re up to, but we need to find a way to get down to one of those caverns.” Yellow-Spot saw the new resolve in her voice. “I agree.” They heard a mewling from below. Sweet-Berries spotted the source first. “Look!” She pointed at a figure climbing up toward them. Pale, soft skinned, but with six limbs, eyes and antennae. A person that had just hatched out of her cocoon. Sweet-Berries, being the Nurse, clambered down to meet her. Yellow-Spot stayed up above with the Drone, feeling helpless. “Must’ve been one of the survivors,” Sweet-Berries said. “She’s sure lucky.” Though she didn’t really believe those words. Yellow-Spot couldn’t imagine being torn from her clutchsisters. Perhaps the dead were the lucky ones. Sweet-Berries looked over the survivor. “Her shoulders are broad and her gripping arms big and strong. She’s a Builder.” Dark thoughts invaded Yellow-Spot. The memory of Electric-Touch stabbed her. She stepped forward. She felt herself falling. Sweet-Berries grabbed her. She pushed Yellow-Spot into the canyon wall. “You didn’t do that on purpose, did you?” “Please ... what’s the point. Look around us. The softs have already won.” “Is that so?” Red anger showed on Sweet-Berries’ color-face. “You force-fed me your Taste and made us touch antennae when I wanted to charge that soft. I felt the { } with you so strongly that I can almost see your thoughts. Now I understand what needs to happen. As crazy as it sounds, we need to form a new colony, a secret colony, without those softs. Whatever they did to us, that’s in the past. We need to look to the future.” Beyond the canyon another dome collapsed, melted and burning. Yellow-Spot said, “They forced me to learn their strange noise language only so they could communicate with us better, to subdue our culture and our colony so they could ... feel better, for whatever strange purposes they use our Paste. They’re too powerful.” “They’re just stupid, soft animals,” Sweet-Berries retorted. Yellow-Spot looked at the Southern survivor. A ghostly figure appeared by her. Though indistinct, Yellow-Spot could see its strength and power. It gave her confidence. “We’ll name her Electric-Touch-On-Red-Fur.” “And if she doesn’t grow red fur?” “Who cares? The name is symbolic. A remembrance of her.” “That’s the Yellow-Spot I know and love.” They touched antennae again, feeling renewed { }. ***

Just beyond the direct opening to the cavern, so the softs couldn’t easily see them, Yellow-Spot lay in her oversized cell. She’d grow into it as she became a Queen. Sweet-Berries was teaching Electric-Touch the rudiments of language. It’d been slow going to find a suitable place to create the nest for their colony. The softs had been too busy with their own petty war to mind what the three persons and one Drone were doing. Presently, Yellow-Spot watched the new Electric-Touch with interest. It also brought new pangs of guilt and sadness. The strong ghost comforted her. Now it was but one of many. So this was what it was like to be Queen, to consult with imaginary advisors. Yellow-Spot wanted to get up and move, perhaps to relieve her boredom. But with her leg, that was difficult. “Can we get this started?” She made exaggerated motions so Sweet-Berries would understand the imperative. Sweet-Berries grabbed the wax basket in which the Royal Paste was in and began feeding it to Yellow-Spot. “You’ll feel drowsy very shortly, and sleep most of the time for several moons. Even when I wake you to feed you, you probably won’t remember. Then, when you’re fully grown, you’ll wake all the way, and be our new Queen. You’ll probably also heal, especially the leg and arm. Not sure about the eye and antenna though. Anyway, that’s how it’s supposed to work. I haven’t ...” Sweet-Berries’ voice faded as Yellow-Spot fell asleep. She dreamed of a world without the softs.

I hate my dad THERE’S DAD, ASSHOLE EXTRAORDINAIRE, evangelizing to the pigeons. The day is damp, the sky looks like mud, and he’s got a plastic grocery bag on his head, handles knotted under his stubbly cleft chin. His thigh-length coat is spattered with bird shit. He looks homeless. He is. And so I have to be too. He’s wandering among the pigeons, who coo threateningly and barely amble out of his way. They know who owns this plaza, in a part of the city that most people have given up on. Other living-rough folks are here, though, too; and it’s really these that Dad is speaking to, in his madman’s croak, peppering his words with crazy phrases. It sounds like goon babble—until you listen, or you just can’t help but hearing, for a few minutes. Then he starts to make his own special kind of sense. If you try, you can catch the camouflaged meanings, the strings of sane words among the gobbledygook. Some are listening, gathered on the rusting benches, sitting out in the drizzly open, as Dad roams the cracked pavers of the plaza. What a douchebag. I’m on lookout. I’ve been doing this since I was nine, all the small squirrely stuff, because I could go unnoticed. But I’m getting too big for it. People look at me a lot more now; and I’m aware of the attention in new ways. Dad goes on with his mutterings. Some people listen, some doze on the benches. This can’t last forever. *** I push hanks of wet blond hair off my forehead as I burrow down into my sleeping bag. Eight months without a haircut. Dad used to keep it short and more or less even, but he had his scissors—little orange-handled ones, like I remember cutting construction paper with in kindergarten—taken away at a Handoutlet, where nobody can have anything like a weapon. I don’t miss school. And I like my hair longer. I look a little bit dangerous these days. We’re out of the rain, though we’re not in a great spot, which is why nobody’s near us. And since no one is around Dad can tell me, “C’mon, Cedric. Go ahead and say ’em. It’s okay. No one’ll hear.” Like I’m getting a treat. I don’t sigh so loud that he can easily hear over the rain sizzling on the concrete on either side of the slim overhang we’re under. It really started coming down after nightfall. But when I do my “Now I lay me...", I exaggerate the singsong, just a little. Just enough. I see the disappointment in his eyes even as he tries to hide it. It scares me for a second. I want, briefly, to be good. The good son. Good Cedric. Well, screw Dad. And screw Cedric too. He goes to his bag, and I hear him whispering for an hour, the same stuff he’s been saying all day in the plaza. Only now it’s crystal clear; and I’m the only one in earshot. I don’t drop into sleep until he finishes. ***

When my sister, who was older than me, was still with us, she’d say again and again, “Let’s get out of the city. There are places in the country where no one’s going to bother us. Wide-open spaces.” That stuck in my mind: wide-open spaces. I remember shopping trips and stuff to the suburbs when I was just a kid, back when we still had our home and Mom. But Adalia was talking about something else, someplace grander, I always thought. Wide-open spaces probably meant there wasn’t any danger of somebody overhearing what Dad said. No threat of arrest. I’ve had to be afraid of the police all my life. Thanks to Dad. Dad and his dipshit beliefs, which I went along with for a long, long time, and now am so sick of I can’t stand it. My sister left. Cut and ran. She even told Dad she was going, but he didn’t—couldn’t— stop her. Adalia is just a jumble of images to me now. Mostly I remember that she was the practical one. Like Mom was, I think. Only, Adalia didn’t waste away in a hospital bed, with Dad weeping and praying over her until an orderly heard and told him she’d call the cops if he kept it up. That was a while ago. Things are different. Dad wouldn’t get a warning now. *** I’m not with him every minute of the day. Today, for instance, I have to go get his eyedrops. I’ve got a pharmacard that identifies me as Bright Estabrook, a name I like a lot better than my own. I look like the picture on the card, which Dad got from somewhere. Dad’s eyes give him headaches, but I got to give him this—he doesn’t bitch about it. He’s had this trouble with his eyes since he was a boy, he says. Stains wipe off my coat; it’s some slick synthefabric. I look presentable when I go into the pharmacy. But, like I said, I’m not a kid anymore, and on the way out with Dad’s drops some adults standing on the corner notice me. They wave, call me over, with friendly smiles. I know I should keep on walking, but I don’t. A little of that is the thought of an extra few moments of discomfort for Dad; but the rest of it is curiosity, a tingle of strange excitement. “Hey, man, how’s it goin’?” “You on your own?” “What’s your name, little bro?” There are four of them, and the one who hasn’t asked me anything is a woman half a head taller than me, with hair a darker blond than mine is and a face that makes me think about beautiful sunrises and the first taste of hot food after a long time without it. Nobody makes a grab for me. No one asks what’s in the bag. These are rough-looking types, maybe not living on the streets but close to it. Their friendliness seems real, though. “I’m Bright,” I tell them. They like it. They laugh, but they’re not making fun of me. One has a smoke going, cupping it against the wind. The marijuana scent blows right over me. As it gets passed around, one tough asks if I want a toke. “I’m underage,” I answer, expecting mocking laughs this time. But the woman, who I’ve been trying real hard not to just stare at, says, “That’s smart, Bright. You wouldn’t want to do it out here where anybody could see, right?” She takes the cigarette, sucks in the smoke, releases it and adds, “Maybe we’ll see you.”

It’s a dismissal, but she’s not gruff. More like she’s treating me like a grownup. I like that. Like it a lot. I bring Dad his eyedrops. He’s pacing across the mouth of an alley, jaw clenched so tight it’s white. It isn’t just the ache from his eyes. The nimrod is trying not to pray out loud. *** I know I should miss our home, but I don’t, really. I remember it, sort of. A familiar series of walls, a bed to sleep in every night. Before Mom got sick and while Dad still had his job, we ate regular meals and were warm, with a roof over our heads. I remember our TV. But it wasn’t all fun. It was like we were in our own separate world, Dad, Mom, Adalia, me. Dad ran it. He told us what was right and wrong. He told these big, powerful, wild stories that were sometimes like nightmares. He said we were being watched, every second. I thought he meant the cops, because he told my sister and me that the government was looking for people like him. But what he really meant was somebody else. Somebody bigger. Sometimes I got to watch cartoons on the TV, but mostly Dad had it tuned to a pirate broadcast. That’s something else you don’t get any more of today. A man with white hair raved and sweated before a bare concrete wall, and waved around a big black book. Sometimes the same program showed up again and again, an hour of the man shouting the same things. Dad kept us in front of the TV for hours. He watched, rapt, and repeated the parts he could remember. He said I had to believe, so I did. I memorized what he told me to memorize. He wasn’t mean, he never hit me when I got something wrong, but he kept at me and at me. It was harder work than school. Mom said I had to believe too, but it was easier, I think, to hear it from her. Sometimes it was even nice, all of us standing in the living room, heads bowed, holding hands. Like we were sharing something gentle and good. *** Another time I get away from Dad is when he goes into the VR parlors. Not the sex ones, but the ones that have violent stuff. I’m too young for either, so I wait outside. He’s not there for the entertainment. He does what he always does, mutters his words, tries to slip them in sideways into people’s ears. I know this is what he’s doing in there because twice I’ve seen him get chased out, with someone yelling “Faither!” at his back. This time the waiting is different. Across the littered street I see the blond-haired woman. My breath stops in my throat. She’s alone. She turns, sees me, is about to keep walking; then she stops and cuts across, right toward me. My stomach does this bounce thing. “Hey, I know you. You’re Bright.” Just like that. She remembers me. I expect I’ll barely be able to speak, but I say without any trouble, “Yeah. I saw you and your friends outside the pharmacy.” That pretty much covers our history, but I don’t want to stop talking to her, so I ask, “What’s your name?” She smiles, a little tug at the corner of her mouth. “Brett.”

I love the way she says it—with a lot of breath, making the name sound exotic. I thought Brett was a man’s name, but thankfully I don’t say so. Instead, “It’s nice to see you again, Brett.” That sounds manly, grownup. I like it. I guess she does too. She purrs a little laugh that makes the wispy hairs on my arms stand up. “You’re on your own, Bright?” One of her pals asked me the same thing before. I like Brett, but I’ve been out on the streets a long while and know that bad stuff can happen to unattached people, especially young ones. “I’m with my father. He’s inside.” A berserk holo dances over the sidewalk. I can tell by the look in her eyes—soft, sweet blue eyes—that she thinks Dad’s a virch- head, a gore junkie. I let her think it. Why not? It’s better than the shit that’s for real. Suddenly I’m aware that she’s looking me over, from head to foot. Appraising me. I don’t know how she’s doing the judging, what I could do better, what mistakes I should cover up. So I try to stand taller, and wish that I didn’t have zits on my face. Finally she says, “I bet you don’t have a pinger, right?” I’ve failed. I feel the crushing weight of that. I mutter, “No.” “Well,” Brett says, sliding a piece of paper into my hand, “if you’re near a pinger sometime and tap that number, you’ll get me. And we’ll go do something. Okay?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer, but strides on away. I watch her as she goes, appreciating the curves of her body. I can’t think past the hot wonderful first shock of what’s happened. Only when Dad comes out of the parlor—no one chasing the butthead today—do I hurry to stuff the slip of paper into my coat pocket. *** There are Handoutlets in this part of the city, which is different from the nicer, cleaner parts, like where we used to live before Mom started dying so expensively and Dad got so nuts his employers shitcanned him. Adalia, when she left us, said she was going to go get a job of her own, go straight, join “the system.” I remember being upset about it all, but mostly because I was too young to really understand what was happening. It seemed to me like the family was disappearing around me, one by one. Once, Adalia told me what sex was. She was so worldly when she spoke about it, even though she was only a little older than I am now. Sex, according to Dad, is a sin—though that’s conditional. Married people can, and should, have sex. But that meant that Dad and Mom ... “That’s right, Ceddy,” Adalia told me on that occasion in her forthright way. She was, I think, always a little cold, though she tried to be sisterly to me. “Now, this is what people do.” And she explained it like it was mechanics. I blushed and blushed, and looked at my feet. At the Handoutlet we get a free meal and, after, a five minute shower in one of the stalls. There are a lot fewer homeless than there used to be. Social services work better these days. That’s what people say. But it doesn’t mean all that much if you’re one of the ones still on the street. Dad’s got a sore on his left knee and asks if it can be looked at. The attendants take him behind a screen that’s printed with roses and thorns.

I use the opportunity. We’ve been to this ’Outlet before, of course; I know some of the personnel. I wheedle with a guy named Tony until he lets me use his phone. I ping Brett’s number, nervous, chewing my lip. It’s been a week since I last saw her. This time I can barely talk after she answers and I identify myself. But she takes charge. She tells me where, then asks me when. “After my father goes to sleep.” I make a guess at the time. She purrs me a goodbye, and I give Tony back his pinger. I feel like I’m floating. I also feel like I’m about to puke the rice and liver I just ate; but I don’t. When Dad reappears, I have to hide how giddy I am. For one sudden frightening moment I hate him, totally, indescribably. Because I’m going to have to sneak around him. Because he would call what I’m—hopefully— going to do a sin. But the hate passes, and he’s just asshole Dad again. We head out to the plaza. *** She hands me a slice of pizza—out of a box, not out of the trash. I grin, and squeeze the five packets of ketchup I’m carrying in my coat pocket onto it. One of the others at the squat starts to say something sneery, but Brett whaps him on the head with an old flyswatter she’s playing with. Everything she does is beautiful. It’s late, after midnight, but everybody’s acting like it’s the middle of the day. The room is “furnished” with junk, though the junk’s not bad. There are places to sit, to lie down. A lamp burns. Of the half dozen people gathered here, I know Brett—of course—and one other, from the group that was hanging out with her in front of the pharmacy. The rest are hoodlum types, but more or less friendly. They’ve got marijuana and beer. I’m the youngest. Inevitably a cigarette gets offered to me. I’m sitting next to Brett, and I look to her. She does this easy roll of her shoulders. “If you want, Bright.” But I think—or think I think—that she means I should take the toke. So I do. It’s not as bad as I expect it to be. It hurts my lungs and my eyes water, just a little, but I don’t embarrass myself. Everything is more alive in a sleepy way after that. The room in this derelict building glows with warmth and safety. I can actually feel the soapy freshness of my skin from the shower at the Handoutlet earlier. My appetite comes surging back, but it’s just another interesting sensation, something to enjoy. I snuggle closer to Brett. She puts her arm around me, and the world soars. Later, we go outside together. Even though I’ve imagined about sex a lot, and I’ve fantasized intensely about Brett, I’m so shivery and disconnected that I can’t get hard enough to get the condom on. We’re standing up in a recessed doorway. Visible over the half-collapsed wall of the building opposite is an actual rotting old-time billboard, not a holo. It says you’re born, you live, you die. so drink budweiser. But again Brett is nice to me. Her skirt is up around her waist, and my pants are stretched between my knees. She says, “Just go ahead, cutie. I mean, there’s a cure now, right?” I’m amazed at how long it takes me. Five minutes into it she clenches and lets out this babyish squeal. I think I’ve done something wrong—I think I’m doing the whole thing wrong—

but she smiles dreamily and encourages me with soft murmurs. Finally it happens. I like it. But what I like more is hanging in her arms afterward, with my face buried against her bare throat, breathing in her smell. I sneak back to Dad and get back into my sleeping bag. He’s turned away; he doesn’t move; I can’t see his face. I’m sure he knows. I’m sure he’s watched me every second tonight, just the way it is in the stories he used to tell the family, and which he now tries to tell to strangers. *** What Dad is doing is proselytizing, a word I learned when it was still an impossible mouthful for me. Anybody can believe whatever they want. Obviously. Any person can think any thought they like. Try and stop them. But to pray out loud in the presence of others is to commit assault. You can do serious jail time. Even so, even though everybody knows how illegal it is, Dad has something of a following. As his staunch lookout, I’ve watched some people return deliberately to where he does his stuff. They’re seeking out his words. Maybe those words are familiar to some of them; others, maybe, are hearing them for the first time and are captivated. The words stopped making sense for me months and months ago. Dad might as well have been talking about faeries and mermaids. Crazy fucker. But I’ve got a new life now, one I’m living on the sly. I’m happy, or at least entertained; and that feels good. I smoke marijuana convincingly, and I’ve had sex with Brett four times. I love her. Dad catches me coming back one night. We’ve got our sleeping bags unrolled under a defunct loading dock. He pushes up on an elbow, and I see his eyes in the moonlight falling between the broken boards overhead. I freeze, more rattled in that instant than the first time Brett and I did it in that doorway. I reek of pot smoke, the brand that Brett likes. There’s sadness in his eyes, and I realize he used to look at Adalia this way in the weeks before she took off. If he calls me a sinner, I promise myself, I’ll tell him to piss off. I’ll say it to his face, finally. I crouch there over my bag, unable to move. After a long while he says, “Cedric, can you go get me my eyedrops tomorrow?” I forgot he was running out. In a quavery little voice I say, “Sure, Dad.” I get into my bag and zip it up. Colors are still bouncing around inside my head. Dad reaches out a hand and gently pats my leg. A few minutes later I hear him softly snoring. I don’t sleep until the moon is going down. That night I dream vividly about Mom, for the first time in a year. *** The next time I go to the squat, Brett isn’t there. She hasn’t answered when I’ve pinged her. One of the regulars comes over and tells me she’s back with her boyfriend, who has an apartment. I’m not invited into the room with the lamp and the junk furniture and the beer and smoking.

It’s like a punch in the chest, and I feel my heart sort of buckling; but even as bad as it is, I know in those first few seconds that it won’t kill me. I’ll deal. I will. But I really want to smoke. I wander around the streets awhile. I’m still amazed how different this part of the city is in the deep night. Soon I bump into somebody I remember hazily from the squat. He’s my age, but he’s got a hard knowing face and a missing front tooth. I go with him to a car abandoned in an alley. We get into the back seat of the old algae-burner whose tires are gone and share a smoke, different from Brett’s brand, harsher tasting. Even the pleasant disorienting effects are blunter, more like a dose of medicine. Still, it feels better than nothing. In the smoky aftermath we touch each other, because that what he—his name is Monkey—wants to do. I don’t mind, though I think it’s weird he absolutely doesn’t want to kiss. That was something I really liked with Brett. Suddenly the grief catches up to me. I writhe around like I’m in physical pain, thinking how she’s gone and with some other guy. My behavior spooks Monkey. He drops some pills into my coat pocket and takes off. The sadness vanishes, just like that. I step out of the car. For five whole minutes I can’t remember where I left Dad. *** When Monkey’s pills run out, I go get more. It’s easy. Sometimes people just give them to me, other times I have to do stuff. Mostly I don’t mind that. And even when I do, it’s no big deal to turn off my brain for ten minutes. Besides, I know a lot more people now. There’s more of a community on the streets than I ever really realized—incredible, considering how long I’ve been living out here. One night I don’t come back to Dad, and the next day I have to go find him. This happens three more times. I’m welcome at the squat again. Brett never shows up, but I’ve long since stopped hoping she would. I get wobbly sometimes, in the daytime. I can’t seem to quite get my feet under me when I’m walking. The ground sways. At that same Handoutlet I sit in front of a bowl of stew, not touching it. I glance up and see Tony, the attendant, looking at me. He shakes his head. I don’t say my “Now I lay me ...” anymore when there’s no one around to hear but Dad. The disappointment is permanent in his eyes now. Sometimes, rarely, I feel like he’s got a right to be disappointed in me. The rest of the time, though, I couldn’t give a shit what he thinks. On the morning after a night when I’ve stayed with him, we wake up with the sunrise and stir out of our sleeping bags. My mouth is gummy; my bladder aches. Yesterday, I remember, it hurt when I pissed. Dad is quiet. So quiet in fact I look at him, closely. He has his eyes on the ground, with a strange soft smile on his lips. For some reason it makes me nervous. He says, “All of what I’ve told you, Cedric, the stories, what sin means, how it’s just a list of things you should avoid so you don’t hurt anyone or yourself—all of that ...” He still doesn’t look up. My back stiffens when he says sin, and now I’m waiting for it, the whole sermon or whatever it’s called. He better not tell me I’m a sinner, that I’m dirty somehow, in some stupid abstract way. What he says, though, is, “Forget all that. If you want. Forget the prayers. Forget the stories. Just remember what it’s really all about. Love. Love. That’s all anybody needs to know.”

He finally looks up, and the smile stays for a second or two, then flickers away. Then he’s just Dad again, and he has his work to do. I go with him, a little meekly, to the plaza. I’ll be his lookout, watch for the cops, though I think I’m more of a liability than help. I’m not invisible anymore. Before he makes his muttering way out onto the broken, pigeon-dominated pavement, I pull on his arm. Out of nowhere I say, “Why don’t we leave the city? Go to the country. You could do what you wanted there. Wide-open spaces, Dad. Wide-open spaces.” He’s just taken his drops, and his eyes are clear. He blinks at me, taking me in, seeing deep into me, it feels like. For the first time in a while there’s no disappointment in his gaze. After a moment he gives my shoulder a pat and says, “I’m needed here.” Which is true, in its way. I’ve noticed over the past month that even more people are showing up wherever he appears. They make an effort not to look like they’re listening to his babble, but I get the feeling that some among his “audience” are sorting through every word, taking them to heart. I don’t know what, exactly, the words do to these people. Certainly I never felt much more than confusion and apprehension when I used to believe. I’m wobbly again. I stand under an old lamppost and watch the plaza slide slowly side to side. Thoughts move in my head, but they don’t get far, fuzzing out into nonsense. I don’t see the police at first when they make their move. When I’m jolted into noticing them, though, I realize I haven’t nodded out on duty, precisely; rather, the cops were in the plaza all along, disguised as bench bums. Four of them are suddenly on their feet and converging, hidden badges now on display. I see Dad as he halts, as he straightens from his pathetic hobbling crouch. He doesn’t try to run. But I do. I have to. There’s absolutely nothing I can do to help him. I’m grabbed after I take two steps. She’s been waiting behind me apparently. Not a cop, though there are two officers standing a little farther off; obviously her backup. She is dressed in a social services uniform, and she looks very smart in it. “Everything’s okay, Ceddy. He’s going to be all right.” I almost blurt out that my name is Bright Estabrook, but that’s just some weird buried instinct from all the times I’ve imagined this scenario. She’s taken me by my elbows, her grip strong. I try not to twist in her grasp, but even when I do, I’m horrified to find how weak I am. “It’s okay. Calm down.” The strange thing is that I am kind of calm, like this is no surprise at all, like I was expecting this inevitability on this very day, from the moment I woke up. It’s bullshit, of course, but the feeling is vaguely comforting and I grab onto it. “It’s okay,” I repeat back to her. She gives me a grim smile. “Good. That’s good.” She relaxes her hold on my elbows and takes a step back. She looks me over from head to toe, and it reminds me of when Brett did that to me. A pang accompanies the memory, then fades to nothing. I hear a commotion behind me but don’t turn. I don’t want to see Dad getting beaten to the ground by police batons. I wish the dumb bastard would just go quietly. “How are you, Ceddy?” “I’m fine, Adalia.”

The grim smile curls at one corner, ironically. “We’re going to have to take you in too. Not to arrest you. But you can’t be out here alone. Right now you’re a danger to yourself and others.” Behind, a voice rises, cursing; but it doesn’t sound like Dad. Another feral shouter joins in. I say to my sister, “It’s like I’m a ... sinner. Isn’t it?” Her face goes still. In a low tone she says, “Don’t start talking like that, Ceddy. Or there won’t be anything I can do to help.” “Was it so bad? What he was doing?” I still don’t turn, even as I now do hear, distinctly, a blunt object impacting a human body. Adalia’s eyes flick past my shoulder, then back to me. She’s so grownup it’s unreal—her face, her body, her bearing. “What he did is a crime, a serious one. The world has had enough. We’ve had one too many religious wars. We’ve had a hundred too many. No more. It gets cut off at the source, Ceddy.” I know all this. Any kid who’s learned the alphabet knows it. I ask, “Are they hurting him bad?” She frowns as one of her backup officers breaks off and goes racing toward the plaza. I still don’t turn around. She says, “Dad’s just standing there, not resisting. It’s these others, the ones who were listening to him, that are going apeshit. Nothing’s going to come of it, though. We’ve got enough personnel to handle it.” Apparently they do. A minute later, peripherally, I see Dad being led away to a police van. He’s not struggling. He doesn’t look our way. I wonder if he’s even noticed his daughter. God help him. Adalia tugs on my arm, and we walk the other way, toward a nearby car. God help us all.

Pain HE STOOD HIS GROUND AND GOT kicked in the face for the third time that night. His nasal bone snapped. An instant later, he heard the center judge shout that the match was over. Rolle exhaled through swelling nostrils, knowing the real agony would come later, once the shock wore off. Delayed pain. Something to look forward to. His opponent—the long-legged blonde who moved like liquid mercury—waved to the shadowed crowd. Sparse, polite applause came in return. Thanks to the poor turnout in his division—the lowest of three—Rolle’d had to battle for second place with the girl who’d lost to the same guy who’d beaten him. Once on the mat, she’d baited him, letting him get an early point so he’d underestimate her before responding with a point of her own. Then, another. Then, the nose-breaker. Third place with a losing 1-2 record. Not what anyone would call an accomplishment, he thought. But he’d get paid. Placing in the top three provided a share of cover charges and the sparbar’s entertainment budget, winnings most contestants in his shape would use for some walk-in rhinoplasty. Rolle needed rent money more than a straight nose. He stuck around until closing time to collect his cash, trying not to spend it before he had it. The last bout of the night was ending—two Division One sparrers so enhanced each point strike sounded like monster truck tires slapping together. Rolle knew that the patrons came— when they showed up at all these days—to see these Division Ones who sank every payback into new physical upgrades, becoming unbreakable, indefatigable brawlers. As the pummeling continued, Loudon approached Rolle with a gratis bottle of beer. “Try not to have so much fun, man,” he said. Rolle forced a big smile and wrapped his index finger and thumb around the bottle’s cold neck. He sipped. When he started this, he’d wanted to make a living from it—work his way up the local rankings, get offers in other towns for guaranteed money. Three years later, he wasn’t really “getting started” any more. The chick who’d beaten him strolled past, her ponytail bouncing. No nod, nothing. Camaraderie be damned. Without her protective flak, she looked younger and skinnier. She spun around and fluttered her eyes at him. “How do I find out when pay’s in?” she asked. For a second, he thought she was playing dumb until he understood. She wasn’t like him. She was used to having everything retscanned into her baby blues. “Chair up and wait,” he said. They sat in tense silence until Loudon came around again. “One for her,” Rolle said. “Thanks,” she said. “Not many of the other sparrers buy me drinks, especially once they find out I’m ... I guess some folks don’t like my kind around here.” She laughed dryly and drained half the beer in two swigs.

“Don’t feel too sorry for yourself there, Second Place,” Rolle said, as Loudon passed along her winnings in cash. Her cheeks reddened under the bright, white overhead lights. She got it. “I’ve got no right to whine,” she said. “Sorry about your nose, man.” “I’ll heal. See you around.” Rolle watched her leave, stared a bit too long. Her shoulder was still pink from a fall in an earlier round. Slow to heal, like the other Division Threes. At a window booth, two of the nights’ Division One losers chowed down on some noodles with their girlfriends. Can’t even tell they’ve been sparring, he thought. In the bar’s center, a bouncer began to spray down the mats with disinfectant, the acrid lemon smell of closing time. Loudon handed him seventy-five bucks. Rolle mentioned his little conversation with the blonde. “She’s good. Not one of us,” he said. “Look around, Eyesore. Hardly any of the new sparrers are.” *** Rolle stepped out the door and into the humid, concrete parking lot. The place sat in a turn-of-the-century strip mall where empty bottles and white fast food sacks littered islands of unkempt grass. Sparbars were always the lone bastions of hygiene in these abandoned neighborhoods—filthy on the exterior but scrubbed to shiny whiteness inside, like the hospital classrooms he’d passed through during med school. Over the entryway, where anyone else would have a flat-screen marquee, a big silver sign read: Glass Joe’s Competitive Sparring: YOU Are the Entertainment! “Damn right I are!” he said aloud to the night sky, fists above his head in mock triumph. An acre of parking spaces stretched out like yellow tournament brackets along the asphalt. Across the lot, a bus stop beckoned. He had almost walked the length of the parking lot when he heard a shout. “Eyesore!” A shiny, yellow, electric sports car swerved down the street, its windows open. Rolle stopped. He knew what came next. Everyone he knew had had run-ins with teenagers looking for trouble outside of sparbars. They might just drive by and throw something. Or they’d stop, and if he didn’t act fast, he’d have more than a broken nose to worry about. He felt the emptiness of the parking lot in his bones, dropped his bag and wriggled out of his jacket. The car sped toward him. Rolle crouched a bit, his muscles still limber from the night’s workout. These poor saps couldn’t have picked a worse time to mess with him.

As the car slowed a few yards away, he charged. He heard cheers from inside as the driver slammed it into park and began to get out. Rolle’s front kick snapped the door shut, pinning the driver halfway in and halfway out, one arm dangling from the car. Rolle grabbed it and twisted the wrist until it snapped. Spiral fracture to the ulna. The driver howled. Doors slammed shut on the other side of the car and two passengers charged Rolle. Rolle kicked the door once more, then spun to face his assailants. He straightened, showing them his full six-foot, three-inch frame, lifting his arms so they could see his bulk. He stepped into the tallest one’s oncoming punch, blocked him and kicked the back of his leg, pushing the attacker’s head into the concrete. A soft thud. The last one charged him. Rolle dodged and delivered a jump side kick to the lower back. It felt like kicking the side of a house. Enhancements. Somewhere, Rolle knew, this kid had parents who’d told him that only the strong survived, and that the world was tough and he’d have to be tougher, then paid thousands to give the kid artificial muscles and thickened skin. He’d never lack medical treatment and would rarely need it. The driver had exited and was dragging the tall one back to the car, his left arm contorted. The last attacker turned. “Eyesore prick!” he yelled. Rolle’s leg ached, but he crouched down into an L-stance and raised his fists. Light punches, he thought. Don’t break your hands. Rolle delivered a quick backfist to the last guy’s jaw, keeping his left arm up to guard his nose. A fist slammed into his tightened stomach muscles. Rolle clutched the assailant’s chin with his left hand, latched his right hand to the base of the skull, and spun, dropping to one knee. The big sap had no choice but to follow and land on the ground. If life were like the mat, they’d have been done when Rolle landed his backfist. One point. Real life didn’t work like sparbars. Instead it took two more moves exactly like the first. Give a punch, take a punch, grab him, drop him. lurched forward while he had only one leg through the door. The car sped away. Rolle walked back to gather his stuff from the concrete, holding his injured side. Bus headlights appeared down the block. On the ride back to his apartment, an older lady shouted to her companion about better days when buses still had TVs on them. Rolle sighed, mentally tallying his assets. Fifty dollars in checking. A flunky security job that left evenings free to spar and mornings eventless for recuperation. And that night’s winnings. He couldn’t afford his apartment any longer and didn’t have any friends who’d let him crash. No matter what, he told himself, I’m not moving back in with Mom. *** Rolle knew his mom wanted him to be a doctor even before she took him to Josh Rendina’s house to catch chicken pox. Rolle was seven. His mom called it a “play day,” and she

drank coffee with Josh’s mom while the boys ran microcars up and down tracks made in the folds of Josh’s blanket. It had seemed odd to play with someone who wasn’t supposed to get out of bed. A few days later, Rolle came down with chicken pox himself, a fairly easy bout that left him with two tiny, white scars on his stomach and a lifelong immunity. His mom didn’t lie about what she’d done. In fact, as she rubbed cool calamine lotion on his spot-infested shoulders, she told him how it had happened, and why it would be better to have it then rather than later. One thing about his mom, she always told the truth—at least partially. Years later, Rolle learned that most kids received immunizations for chicken pox. Most moms took their kids to doctors who prevented diseases with syrups and injections rather than controlled contamination. He gradually realized that just because Mom wanted him to be a doctor didn’t necessarily mean she liked them. *** “You’re always welcome here,” said his mother. “Just a month,” he said. He’d stashed his bag by the door. His pride was in there somewhere. Her house felt cramped despite its Spartan array of white, plastic furniture. Rolle eyed the living room’s carpet. The vacuum cleaner had been broken when he last visited. It still must’ve been. “I sold your bed in the yard sale last summer,” she said. He hoped he wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor. The air conditioner kicked on outside. At least the house had one convenience. “It’s OK,” she added. “We can move the futon into your old bedroom.” “Thanks,” he mumbled. “And try to lay off that Mr. Monosyllabic bullshit,” she said. “You don’t have to tell me all your secrets and dreams while you’re here, but please at least use some halfway intricate language when you speak to me.” “Sure,” he said, just to push her buttons. “Wiseass.” She smiled. His old room had the same eggshell white walls and popcorn ceiling, but she’d moved his things somewhere—the microscopes, the slides, the fun stuff. He tried not to ask what she’d done with it. It was her stuff now, not his. “I put all your things in storage.” He shrugged. “Money.” “Language, Rolle.” “I wouldn’t want you to spend what you don’t have chasing an old dream.” “Mine or yours?” she asked. “Yours,” he said. “You can pitch that stuff if it’ll save you paying for a storage unit. I’m not pre- med anymore.”

“You still could be.” Here it comes, he thought. Her usual lecture about how the clinics needed him, how there should be more doctors who were Eyesores—although she wouldn’t use the word. Being a doctor wouldn’t be enough for her. She wanted him to be her kind of doctor, one who’d treat diseases instead of symptoms, who’d heal sick people without filling them full of chemicals to keep them from getting sick in the first place, who embraced illness and disability and death as natural parts of life. “Not gonna happen, Mom,” he said. But she knew as well as he did. If he really hadn’t cared about the microscopes, he’d have taken them with him to face all the deadbeat apartments and basher roommates, the late night wrestling matches and petty break-ins. He still cared, at least a little. Later, he analyzed the job he’d performed on his nose in his mom’s bathroom mirror. Not bad for a med school dropout. He’d checked it for septal hematoma the night it happened. Not enough coagulation to divide the septum and the cartilage. He didn’t need medical training to know that—ideally, at least—broken noses healed themselves. Broken careers didn’t. *** Rolle inhaled the sparbar’s familiar smell of beer and ammonia. He took the bag of gear from his shoulder and sat it on the ground as he read the front chalkboard. Seven sparrers had signed up for his division. He’d drawn a bye in the first round. No serious beginning sparrer wanted to start in the semi-finals with a bye. It cut into vital exposure. More bouts meant more people saw you spar. But a bye put him closer to placing, closer to cash and a way out of Mom’s place. He searched the room. The same sparrers who had been at Glass Joe’s. The blonde. He took the bye. Rolle killed time by stretching out and watching the first rounds. He also scanned the chalkboard to see if he could figure out the blonde’s name, but he knew everyone listed in his division. He didn’t understand until he saw her first match. She’d upped a division. Division Twos wore lighter padding, and everyone in it—Eyesore or not—had some kind of enhancement. Unless she’d done something really drastic in the last two weeks, she was freeballing against someone with a major advantage. And she beat him anyway. His own match came quickly, against the big Korean called Pete. Rolle placed one bare foot against the cold mat and stepped into the ring. He slid his mouthpiece over his teeth, bit the plastic grooves that lined perfectly with his bottom molars. He’ll wait for me to do all the kicking, he thought, then come in strong later in the match. When the center judge shouted “Go,” Pete cleared several feet between them and kicked Rolle in the ribs—a strike that would’ve fractured them were it not for the padding. First point: Big Pete. And Pete wasn’t just fast. He had more power and more finesse than Rolle, who particularly prided himself on the latter quality. He peered out into the crowd. The blonde was watching, arms crossed, face shadowed. Time to ditch finesse.

At the next shout, Rolle didn’t even bother to block, walked directly into Pete’s kick, grabbed his leg, and tossed him on him ass. Pete had scored a second point, but now he’d start thinking. They traded blows for two more points, with Rolle landing a two-point head kick and Pete scoring on a body punch. He knew Pete would come in close for the last point. Three-to- two. Pete just needed one punch to win. Pete had speed and skill. Rolle had two years of medical training. Rolle kicked. Pete blocked and moved in. An uppercut, Rolle thought. Here it comes. Pete’s right fist dropped slightly, taut for the quick point, exposing his arm just below the shoulder. Rolle punched hard into the bicep, right in the musculocutaneous nerve. A no-point punch, but one that hurt like hell. Pete backed up for a split second, just long enough to take Rolle’s two-point roundhouse to his head. He won the next two matches without any problem, and considered himself well on his way out of his mom’s house. *** He celebrated by drinking with Soosie. Any good sparring scene needed an obligatory, semi-crooked promoter, someone who’d let you get severely damaged if it meant a higher turnout next week. That was Soosie. But she bought him a top-shelf scotch. And introduced him to Grace. “You two know each other?” she said. “Yeah, she broke my nose once.” He and Grace had won their respective divisions. She’d had a few drinks and was more communicative than before. “There’s good sparrers in Division Three,” she said. “Better defense and better technique because they need it. But Two’s got more sparrers, and more money to go around if you win.” “More bouts too,” Rolle said. “Well, true, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You’d get bored sparring the same six Division Threes every week. So would the crowds.” She had him there. “The crowd is sparrers now,” Soosie said. “Look, if you’ve got some bright ideas about how to get more people to show up, tell me. I’m swinging and hitting nothing.” Grace eyed Rolle cautiously, then launched in. “People want action—visceral excitement they can’t get on a video screen.” He’d heard that line before. He knew what was coming. “This has to appeal beyond just the regulars.” She meant Eyesores. Rolle could feel her thigh touching his under the table, compelling enough to make him shelve his standard rebuttal. “So where’s your enormous cheering section tonight, Grace?” Soosie said. “Did they all leave without buying drinks?” Grace smarted. “Hey, I’m still trying to get a following. But it’ll happen, especially in Level Two.” “And then what?” Rolle asked. “Move up again if your crowd plateaus? Those Level One roughnecks—they’re healed before they’ve even felt your punch. How’s that interesting? Look, you’re obviously a good sparrer, and you decided to take a risk for bigger money—good career

move and all—but long-term, that hurts the whole thing. It thins out the one division that anyone can relate to.” “But,” said Soosie, “they’ve got to walk through the door first to see a match. Your idea doesn’t fill seats.” He was losing. Looking dumb in front of Grace suddenly felt humiliating, but he wouldn’t quit. “This stuff isn’t about people who can’t get hurt beating each other. When all this started ...” He paused to shoot a glance at Grace, “... it was about people who’d been given a raw deal proving that they were tough. It’s not about points. It’s about overcoming. About willpower.” Soosie scoffed. “People don’t pay to watch willpower.” Grace left, unconvinced, twenty minutes later. “You like her,” Soosie said. “Nah.” “Yeah, you do. And you hate that she’s right. We need more sparrers with her spirit. No sense in limiting them to spectators. You want to make money doing this someday, right? Well that’s how it’s going to happen. Remember, Rolle? Money. The green stuff.” “Only for us. I don’t think that girl ever saw green money until a few weeks back.” “How many times has someone held being an Eyesore against you? Tell me you’re not going to do the same thing to her.” *** When he was twelve, Rolle tried to drink a Coca-Cola with his forehead. It happened while he was at a friend’s house watching TV, about a week after his mom put the ventilator into his room to clean the air. He thought he was bringing the can up to his mouth. He knew where his mouth was, and felt so certain of it that he spilled sticky cola down his face and front of his shirt. He could never quite explain it to anyone who wasn’t an Eyesore. Few Eyesores really understood how it worked. Some wire in the brain got crossed and up seemed down, left seemed right. At that moment, his forehead seemed indisputably to be his mouth. A few more things like that happened. He got vertigo looking down a curb—from his perspective it seemed like a sheer mountainous cliff. After watching cartoons one afternoon, he tried to walk upside down, using his hands as feet. Then, he told mom. She took him to the doctor. By then, Rolle already idolized doctors and aspired to be one someday. He felt special because the doctor talked to him in an actual office, a room with an oak desk and shelves filled with medical DVDs. He said flashing light caused it, and that sometimes things that didn’t look like they were flashing actually were—TVs, phones, ATM windows. Rolle had been exposed to something—like a virus—that would stay with him probably into adulthood, that had no cure. It could be managed, though. It wouldn’t hurt him as long as he didn’t look at flashing things too long. Then his ever-honest mother explained things. How the ventilator worked. How the disability could be an advantage. How he could study with books instead of monitors, find other interests instead of video games.

Around the country, other parents put “ventilators” in their kids’ rooms, releasing the fine mist of psychophysiological disruption on their children. But only the crazy parents—the ones who quietly broke health laws to keep their kids free from medical treatments that they saw as needless, the ones who wanted kids who’d read books instead of play vids, the ones who thought that making their kids pariahs would stimulate them intellectually. The crazy parents. The ones like his mom. Rolle knew the excuses most parents gave, and he respected his mom for never making them. They said they didn’t think the results would be permanent. They said they wanted to give their kids an edge during the developmental years to keep them from becoming couch potatoes. They knew the kids would struggle. Brilliance came from struggle. Some day, the kids would appreciate the temporary disadvantage in the long run. But it hadn’t been temporary. Still, Rolle knew there were others—parents who were actually pleased with the outcome. They’d helped slow down an accelerating world, preserved libraries and paper money. They forced society to accommodate for one more handicap. People hated them for that, no one more than their children. Several years later, some of those kids whose parents wanted them to be future Da Vincis or Edisons took up karate, tae kwon do, or capoeira and started beating the living hell out of one another for fun, imitating the mixed martial arts fighters from televised bouts that their parents had rendered them incapable of watching. A scene was born. *** “You always were a rebel, Rolle. Girls like that.” “Sure. Twenty-five-year-old rebels who live with their mothers.” Mom laughed. “So you didn’t ask her out because you’re staying here?” “There are plenty of other reasons. She’s a little bit nuts.” “Like attracts like.” Talking to Mom about Grace made it painfully clear to Rolle that he had nothing better to do, that he’d read every book there twice already, that every friend he’d ever had was back at college or had left for another town where the sparring was allegedly better. But she’d hit on something. “You’re wrong,” Rolle said. “I never sparred to be a rebel.” “I wasn’t talking about sparring.” “What? Med school?!?” “I wanted a fighter, but I took something away from you to make it happen. I made you ...” “Wait. Mom. You think I quit med school because I’m an Eyesore?” She winced at the word. “Mom, I quit because it was really stinking hard. It’s hard whether you take tests on paper or on a display screen. Those chumps even envied me—thought I got breaks that they didn’t get. Some of them dropped out too.”

“I always thought it was to spite me,” she said. After minutes of silence, she added “If preferring to clobber people for money over healing the sick is the worst thing you do to disappoint me, then you’ve let me off pretty light.” Rolle shrugged. “Most sparrers I know would agree with you. But not me.” “You forgive too easily.” He thought of Soosie and Loudon. Of Grace. “A lot of sparrers I know would agree with that too. And they’d say that’s why I’m a pushover on the mats.” He thought of every Eyesore sparer he’d encountered over the years. If he asked any of them “Why do we do this?” they’d say for thrills, for money, but always partly out of anger for what their parents had done to them. But it wasn’t spite. They were as wrong as his mother. Sparring was a gorgeous, violent distraction. They had chosen the easiest lumps—the ones that came fast and left real bruises—over facing the long-haul ones that could be truly devastating. The shitty parents. The failed jobs. The wrecked relationships. Compared to that, a kick to the face was nothing. “You’re no pushover,” she said. “You’re not forgiven,” he said. She smiled. *** The Bellringer did things right. Clean, but not sterile. Bright, but not overbearing. People without retinal dysfunctions might not even know it was an Eyesore bar which, Rolle noted, probably made the likes of Soosie and Grace happy. The mat was permanent—an enormous, yellow square on a hardwood floor surrounded by thick blue ropes—but they only sparred on weekends, drew the biggest crowds, and paid the most money. He’d asked Grace if she was coming. She’d actually brought some friends this time, who sat and ate sprouts while they watched her stretch. Soosie was there with them too. A promoter delivered the bad news. No other Division Three sparrers had signed up. Apparently, Miss Grace had started a trend. Several names Rolle recognized from previous bouts were on the Division Two board. Would he forfeit? Or did he want to up a level tonight instead? Rolle thought of his scuffle with the enhanced kid outside Glass Joe’s, of Grace’s previous successes. He could handle the tougher division—hell, he’d beaten half them already. But he was about to contradict himself, to do something he’d criticized Grace for doing just a week earlier. It was one more punch to his pride than he could take. He still said “Yes.” Face the music now, he thought as he approached her. She was on the floor, mid-split, holding herself up by the tips of her fingers. “Haven’t moved up to Division One yet?” he asked. Grace smiled. “I thought I’d slum it out a while longer before I try that.” “Looks like I’m slumming it too,” he said, “I upped tonight.” She grinned wider, and he fell for her. “Don’t make me break your nose again.” She winked.

He shrugged and smiled right back. “Half the people here have broken my nose, Grace. And they all lost to me next spar.” “Sounds like a streak about to end,” she said. “Only one way to find out.” With that, Rolle moved to another corner and began to stretch. Even if Grace found his hypocrisy charming, he wasn’t comfortable with it. He didn’t want to spar Division Two. Grace went up while he was still stretching. The other sparrer dwarfed her, a burly white kid with a red headband. He’d had some work done, too. At the word “Go,” she popped the guy in the chin for two. She put a fist in the air for the crowd, seemingly unaware that the redhead wanted her to make that kick, to get cocky. Rolle winced. Didn’t she realize he was pulling the same stunt she’d pulled on him the night they met? Rolle stopped stretching and moved to the corner of the mats as the second round started, pushing past a few spectators clustered at the sides. Grace threw a combination this time, going for speed over power. Rolle felt the rush of air from each blow she delivered and heard the sharp crack of fabric from each of her kicks. But the big guy could block. Every kick she threw glanced off his forearms. He could swat her punches and still cover himself. They went for two minutes, up and down the mat, as she strained and he blocked. A ring of sweat formed on the back of her shirt. That’d look sexy as hell if she weren’t about to get killed, he thought. The kick came—a brutal, precise axe kick to her clavicle, the kind of thing an enhanced sparrer would have padding for. The corner judges moved in while the crowd cheered. Two of them raised her up to get her on her feet. Upper-division morons, Rolle thought. They heal up so fast they don’t get it. Grace trembled. Her gasps sounded like hiccups, growing in intensity and duration. “Give her some air,” someone shouted. “No,” he said. “She’s hyperventilating. Get a bag.” Rolle faced her, his hand against the damp base of her neck. “Grace, I used to be in med school. Don’t turn your head. Try to look straight at me. We’re going to get you to a hospital.” One of her friends brought a paper bag. He handed it to her, watched her fill it, in and out, in and out, growing slower. Her cheeks regained color, dampened by more than perspiration. Tears without sobs. Tough gal. But she held his sleeve tightly, still shaking. “I’m coming with you,” he said. *** The hospital staff carted her away, after a barrage of forms and identification. Grace’s friends moved into a paneled-off waiting room where a television blared from their direction, a nice distraction for the unimpaired. Hospitals were Eyesore-friendly, probably because some law said they had to be. Down the hallway, Rolle found an old-fashioned corkboard wall mount filled with flyers. A blue sheet marked “Employment Opportunities” stared back at him. All the jobs he could do took more experience or more education than he had. Except for one. Night-shift medical help. You can’t spar and work night shift, he thought. The attending nurse turned out to be a guy he’d done pre-med with. A fellow dropout. He told Rolle they’d set Grace’s bone. He also complained about the number of sparring injuries they were seeing. Rolle thought of Grace’s new gambit.

“It’s just going to get worse,” he said. “Unenhanced sparrers are going against really big ones now.” They wheeled Grace out, her arm and neck bound in black gel padding under a cloth sleeve. “Want a hug?” he asked. “I can still kick you,” she said. “Let’s get your friends and get out of here.” “Where to?” He thought a moment. He’d said he would move out, win or lose. He’d done neither. “Your place,” Rolle said. “I live with my mom.” *** Grace blocked a front kick and responded with a right to the bicep, just like Rolle had showed her. Now score the point, he thought. She did. She and the other sparrer faced off again, Grace slightly askew with her left foot forward. Even fully recovered, she still favored the shoulder that hadn’t been broken. They’d need to work on that. She’d been right, though. The tournaments had grown in recent weeks, more non-Eyesore sparrers and more match-ups between enhanced and non-enhanced sparrers. She knew he hated the David and Goliath stuff, joked that he just stopped by to watch her kill herself. Actually, it was just the opposite. Rolle had turned down a few drinks that night from old sparrers who told him he was crazy, asking why he gave it up right as the sport began a resurgence. Each time, he politely shrugged his shoulders, knowing they wouldn’t understand. Only Grace, so sure of what she wanted herself, really understood. He’d ceased doing something that he no longer enjoyed, that he couldn’t change. When he watched the others spar, he didn’t wish to trade places with them. Grace gave him a sweat-damp kiss on his cheek. “Nice of you to stop by,” she said. “Just on my way to work,” he said. “Try not to visit my office later tonight, okay?” “I promise not to get slaughtered until after you’ve clocked in so you can be the one to stitch me up.” As he left the sparbar, Rolle tried not to worry for her. She knew what it would take to win and, for the first time in a long while, Rolle thought he did too. For him, it meant med school. Next year. Night shift pay going to applications money. It gave him hope. Hope that he’d be accepted to a good school in the fall. Hope that he’d get a job to pay off the loans when he finished. Hope that Grace would see fit to keep an Eyesore boyfriend around a few more months, maybe longer. It wouldn’t come easily, but he’d chosen the long-term battle over the quick ones. More delayed pain. He called it a victory by decision.

One forgotten adventure I HAD LITTLE CHOICE ABOUT getting jacked. I got my first cybernetic device plugged into my cerebellum so I could get a job as a mining scout. I wanted to return to the family business as a space jockey instead of a roid rat like my poppa. The procedure went well enough, I suppose, but the medic was dreamy, and things just kind of happened. I mostly grew up on my poppa’s ship, see. Mining barges aren’t known as the most private places, and it’s not like I had had much experience with men. It wasn’t my fault I lost my new ship. There he was, his thin fingers tenderly stroking the lines of a funky tubular gun. He was irresistible—so attractive, so androgynous—a nice change from all the mining hacks I’d grown up with. “What’s that you’re holding?” I asked him, a bit nervous about jacking an ocular. He leaned against my medical pod, with a skin-tight black jumpsuit with gold cuffs. The golden icon worn by all high citizens was emblazoned across his chest. That was it for me. “This is a brand new CI unit. It’s brilliant,” he answered in an offhanded but cheerful way. “See-eye, that’s supposed to be cute or something?” “It stands for cyber installer,” he smirked. “You’re in luck to be the first patient in our clinic to have this privilege.” “What privilege?” “I will be using this brand new implement on you. Organic aesthetic, isn’t it?” “Really, you gonna jack me with that?” I asked, feeling the muscles of my neck tighten. “There’s always a first time for everything,” he chirped. “That’s not reassuring.” “I can assure you the CI has been virtually modeled,” he said as he walked confidently towards me. Christ, I would have gotten out of that pod right then and there, but the cool markings that ran along his temples got to me. They led to his sparkling eyes. I’m not talking metaphorically, they actually sparkled, probably the result of too many components in his skull. God, he’s cute and he must be rich, I thought as I stared at him. “Well, shall we proceed, Daria?” “I suppose,” I agreed. I should have known right then to stay away from him, high citizen and all. “It’s quite safe,” he whispered in my ear. “I bet,” I muttered, scared out of my wits. His eyes, right in front of me, shined like the minerals embedded in the dark sooty asteroids my family used to mine. They brought me back to my childhood—the drumming of the barge’s engines, the smell of grease and ozone, flashes of drilling beams cutting through the darkness of space. I imagined my poppa standing by a port window, looking into what he called “the endless, unforgiving void.” I remember the day when he spotted what every miner dreaded.

“Poppa? What’s wrong?” I asked. I was only a kid, you know, and it was a really, really shitty thing to happen to anybody ... Christ. “Raiders,” he yelled. “Go get safe, Daria.” *** I woke up in that medical pod all confused. I’m thinking, my poppa spent his whole life saving money for one of those barges. “Go get safe” were his last words to me ... that was the day I became an orphan, see. “Hello there, Daria,” the medic said, reading my chart. “Where’s my poppa?” I cried. God, I hate getting sentimental like that. “Hey, take it easy.” The cute medic stood over me all smiles. “Sorry, I was dreaming or something,” I explained and sat up too quickly. The room spun. The dark metal, soot and grime of the mining hulk my poppa was so proud of were still all around me. I brought my hand to my eyes as the light was truly harsh. I took several deep breaths, and slowly looked around the medical bay. “Congratulations, you now possess enhanced visual acuity. Welcome to the cyborg club.” “Why is it so bright?” I asked. “Not unusual,” the medic began to explain. “The photosensitivity is an effect of your improved level of perception. You will get used to it. I think you should rest here a bit longer.” He shot something into my arm and I zonked out. *** The way the ship was reacting, I knew these were no ordinary raiders. The mining barge shook violently as more electro-charged slugs slammed into us, hurling me against a power relay. The hull rupture alarm sounded; that’s the last thing you want to hear when you live in space. I stood up and looked around. My poppa had gone off somewhere. The barge began to tilt fast, so I went for the wall that was coming at me. I slammed into it and clung to the grating. It’s no fun when gravitational arrays go haywire like that. More weapons smashed into us ... then more. The hammering slugs, the gravity fluxes ... I’m telling you, that’s not anyone’s idea of a good day. Someone picked me up and carried me in a different direction. “What are you doing? Where’s poppa?” I yelled. The recently hired hand threw me into an egg. I was picked up a few days later by a survey craft. Got to be a ward of the Holy Empire for a while, in some stupid all-girls school. I was glad to be off on my own. Okay, I admit it, the medic was my first date.

*** I heard a soft whining sound and opened my eyes. The medical pod’s upper shell stood ajar. I sat up. The edges of things loomed at me; everything looked angular, not quite right. I inched my body to one side and placed my feet on the floor. No one was in the surgical room. “Your scheduled time with us is ending, Daria. Please proceed to the exit,” the computer’s idiotic feminine voice announced. “You are medically cleared to depart, Miss Quinn. Thank you for choosing our medical facilities for your cybernetic enhancements. Please tell your friends about us.” I walked out into the hallway, hoping to see that hot medic again. “Hello?” I called, but my voice was sucked away by the station’s porous walls. I looked at my hands and noticed how full of detail they were—they appeared primitive, like the hands in one of those old movies. God, everything seemed so damned close. My stomach began to tighten. “Well,” I whispered, “this is what I wanted.” I felt my eyes welling up. I heard a noise and turned to see him now dressed in a fancy leather vest and relic designer jeans. His naked arms were dotted with biolumen markings. His black hair was spiked with silver. I saw it, every strand of it. Most of us pilots get jacked eventually, despite the nasty side effects. Helps get the jobs, see. But, I was starting to freak. It was too much. “Daria, I thought you had left.” “You never told me your name,” I said, wiping my face. God, I hate crying. “It’s Axium.” He smiled. “You look like you could use a drink. Would you like to join me this evening?” I ran my jazzed up gaze down his crisp body. “Yea, what the hell,” I said, “but let’s take my ship and fly around the belts first. I need to try these new eyes in space.” The holographic data stream was supposed to give an “almost preternatural” visual response, according to the ads. “Lovely suggestion, Daria, lead on,” he said, grabbing my arm. I had preinstalled one of those on-board navigation systems that allow for an “out-of- ship” perspective. I jacked in and, by the gods, I felt surrounded. It was downright freakish. Coming out of the hangar, we passed a hulking transport ship, a massive freighter and several standard haulers; only when we hit open space could I finally relax. Space looked amazing. Okay, maybe it was worth it, I thought, feeling a little better. The Holy Moradi stargate was an arched golden thing pulsing with energy discharges, “imposing as it is elegant,” as the dumb ads boasted. “A bloody, holier-than-thou, waste of money,” my poppa would say about the look of it. I know why he talked like that. He didn’t much care for the ruling families, and his views on religion were, well, let’s just say he wasn’t the churchgoing type. Axium was pruning himself. I knew my poppa wouldn’t have approved of him, either. We entered the gate, streamed away, and found ourselves in the next system. “Very nice ship you have,” he said as he changed the pigment of his fingernails with some fancy pen-like device he pulled out of his pocket. “A recent model I take it?” I laughed. “I fail to see what’s so funny.” “This frig a new model?” I choked. “You don’t know much about scout ships, do you?”

“Warships are a mystery to me.” He stared at me with narrowing eyes. “Why are you looking at me like that?” I said. “Oh, I just thought since you were full blood you ...” he paused. “Yea, go on ...” “On never mind. It’s nothing.” “You thought I would be rich or something, right?” I snapped. “Well, I ain’t. My family were roid rats, living in the belts. We used to do okay though.” “I didn’t mean to assume.” “Well you did, and ...” I was about to let him have it when the comm system chirped up. “This is the captain of the Stomata. We are under assault. Request assistance ...” “Received, Captain,” I replied, looking at the transceiver. The distress call came from a mining barge. “What’s your status?” “We got some damned pirate testing our defenses, and we’re not done clearing this belt. Ain’t about to let some bloody Gurns run me out. Can you assist? There’s two-hundred creds in it.” “You can’t be serious,” Axium said. “You’re taking us into a battle?” “Damn,” I whispered. “What? Damn what?” “Well, it’s my first time, see.” “First time?” “Never fought the Consordium before.” I looked straight at him, smiled, and added, “Hey, there always a first time for everything, right?” That medic turned whiter than normal. God that felt good. It wasn’t really true. I’d been in a skirmish before, but the care bear deserved it. “You’re joking,” he peeped. “Don’t worry,” I told him, “this ship’s been virtually modeled.” Axium didn’t say much for the rest of the trip. He just changed his fingernail colors incessantly with his dumb pen. I was feeling a little bad about the whole thing, and by the time we got to the belt I was gonna offer to place him in an egg and send him off. Then he opened his mouth again. “I knew that I shouldn’t have asked you out,” he pronounced. “You did choose a lower quality implant.” “You’re such an ass,” I said, turning on the afterburner way sooner than I should have, just to watch him squirm. That was a big mistake. “What are you doing?” he whimpered as his sweet, androgynous body was pelted against the seat. “Look,” I pointed to the far-off battle scene on the view screen. “There’s our fight. Too bad we don’t have time to land and refit. These armor hardeners aren’t gonna do much good.” “What do you mean?”

“Well, they’re great against energy weapons but they don’t do much against kinetic charges, which is usually what the Gurns use. Just gonna have to make due.” “Daria, please. I’ll replace that implant with a better model. You won’t have to wear dark glasses all the time. Just get us out of here.” “Meh, I can handle these guys. Hold on ...” The Stomata was using defense drones against three fast-moving raiders. I could see the tiny robotic ships’ tracer fire. But the pirates were ignoring the drones and aiming their weapons at the barge. In the distance, two other mining craft blasted asteroids with drilling lasers as if nothing was going on. When you work in the business, yield is everything. Poppa never liked to stop mining, even when pirates were nearby. I caught a glimpse at the console. “Damn,” I yelled, after seeing the afterburner had eaten through a good chunk of my capacitor reserves. If that pretty medic hadn’t riled me up, it all would have been fine. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “We’re short on energy, that’s what.” “Well, you do have backups in this thing, right?” “Not really. I got the cheapest modules you can get.” That wasn’t really the case, but not too far off from the truth. Did the best I could with poppa’s insurance money. One of the raiders had scrambled after me. I fired four pulses. My laser had better range, so the Gurn had to veer away before he could fire. “Yea!” Axium yelled. “Brilliant!” “Are you enjoying yourself?” I asked him. “It’s exhilarating. Go get that one,” he replied pointing. That’s when Gurn projectiles slammed into us. My poppa used to say the Gurns hunted in a pack, like wolves. Now I knew what he meant. The raiders were playing with me. I looked down at the flickering panel and saw my shields were gone. The raiders’ weapons had fractured most of my starboard armor plating. Stuff’s too brittle for kinetics, see. For a moment, that slimy smell of burned polymers and flashing warning lights blended together until I was back on my poppa’s barge. Then, I remembered I was jacked into the new nav system. It was nothing to locate the other Gurn that was bearing down on me. I wasn’t no kid this time. I could do something about these bloody pirates. This time, I told myself, I wasn’t helpless. I punched the afterburner and trained my weapon on the attacker. With my long-range pulses and the enhancements, I thought I had the edge, see. My pulse laser scorched into the Gurn raider over and over again. Wouldn’t you know it though, just before I cut through his armor, my lasers stopped cold as the last drop of capacitor reserves went poof. I found myself helpless, with no active hardeners, no weapons, and no way to scramble out of there. “Oh no,” I whispered, watching with my jacked eyes the other raider barreling up from behind. I reached over to Axium and patted his pretty hand. “We’d better get in the egg,” I said. We found ourselves floating in space. There we were, protected only by a thin sheet of metal with a low-grade life support system. After finishing off my ship, the raiders raced towards the barges. I don’t know why they let us live. The bloody Gurns would have taken us prisoners if

they knew who was aboard. Axium would have fetched a nice ransom. I hit the tiny engine on the pod and headed towards the nearest station. We never went on another date after that. Go figure?

Friends from tweets. THE SEA OF KNOWLEDGE IS PALE and still, milky-white, and when people immerse I imagine impregnation taking place, the droplets of the ocean like semen, sliding inside them, drilling into each cell and making a new memory, a fresh little foetus of understanding. All they’re actually doing is standing still, blinking, but I think that’s a lot less poetic than my version. He says, “Taylor, it’s impossible to love you,” and he blinks. What is he searching for in his head? The best ways to dump your girlfriend? What’s the most passive-aggressive bullshit you can put on someone in one sentence? Or perhaps he’s tweeting this as he says it, with a hashtag to suit: #breakuplines He smiles. I think of the tweets he’s receiving from his many followers: Seriously? Lmao Would raise a smile from him? Split that famous face? I hope not. Maybe it’s simply that his eyeballs have dried out in the ferocious air-conditioning of the hotel lobby, and he needs to rearrange his expression. “It’s because I don’t have one, isn’t it?” I ask him. “No.” “If I had one, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we?” “Yes, we would. Well, I might have emailed you instead, to be honest. You know how I hate public scenes.” “I’m not making a scene!” I say. I consider throwing his coffee over him, but then the receptionist or the people sitting in the corner might blink twice and start recording this whole incident. Next thing I know, I’ll be on Youtube in a clip entitled: JAKE QWERTY GETS COFFEED BY SILVER HAT GIRL And a billion people will see it and smirk whenever I pass by. “You’re paranoid,” Jake says. “You think everything is about you. But I have needs, too.” I have needs, too—6,700,000 hits LMFAO “I hope you asphyxiate,” I tell him, keeping a pleasant expression. “I hope you drown in that scummy sea of semen you like to flail around in. I hope your eyelids drop off from overuse and your brain gets fried in an electrical storm. And I bet your art is utter shite, with extra fresh smelly shite on top. I bet you’re utterly talentless in every way that it is possible for a human being to be talentless.” He stands up and dusts the crumbs of his skinny muffin from his light canvas trousers. “I’ve got over five million followers who think otherwise.” “They don’t think, though, do they? They follow.” Jake blinks. Maybe he’s scrolling through a list of his disciples, trying to find one with a less than vacant expression. Or maybe I nearly made him cry. Whatever it is, it’s enough to spur

him to walk away, out of the hotel lobby, on to the street, moving fast, putting as much distance between us as he can. I watch him go. I don’t follow. *** I was first diagnosed with IEHS in my mid-twenties. It’s a rare condition, and some people still believe it’s an imaginary one. The headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness, stomach cramps, fatigue, and mood swings started in Secondary School, when the routine keyhole implant was fitted to my ocular nerve, along with every other eleven-year-old in the country. My symptoms corresponded perfectly with the onset of puberty, and so my GP told me I was one of those sickly teenagers, and my body would grow out of it. She was still insisting that when I turned twenty-one and was spending most days in bed, jobless, lethargic, depressed. My mother made endless tea and I headsurfed all day and all night, sinking myself into social networks, making a thousand friends without once feeling the need to meet any of them. I watched films, played games, held long conversations with strangers, until the day I came across an article about people who had rejected their implants, for various reasons. Some had religious objections—nobody should be inside your mind except God, that sort of thing—and some just liked to be different, retro. But there were those who said the implant made them physically ill. The article stressed no medical evidence had ever been found. It still hasn’t, as far as I know. Maybe it’s been hushed up in the name of progress, I don’t know; I think to become a world-class conspiracy theorist you need to have an implant. It would take too long to piece it all together without instant access to a zillion statistics. Imagine researching something like that in paper archives. It makes you wonder how the human race got anything done before the arrival of the Internet. I suppose that shows my true colours. I hate being different. I would have the implant back again this instant, if possible. If it didn’t trigger a migraine that left me incapable of doing anything than lying in a darkened room and making ow sounds. I remember what it was like to have the world in my head, and I miss it. I miss knowing what everybody thinks about everything. 200,000 likes for the photo of the cake I baked for my aunt’s birthday party. 680 reviews of the new ebook from that author I like. I didn’t have to leap blind into any decision—what coffee shop, what colour lipstick, what food to give to the cat. The friends in my head made those decisions for me. If they hadn’t heard of it, then it wasn’t worth knowing. Now I’m alone. And I have to be brave. I have to be the person that walks into the metaphorical party with the sneaking suspicion that her dress is rucked up in her knickers. That is my life, every minute of every day. Wait. Not quite. Once a week I still have friends. *** It’s half past five on a Thursday, and that means I can walk out of this hotel lobby and make my way downtown to my self-help group.

“Friends” has become a word of myriad meanings. Instead of defining “friends” as “people I’ve never met with whom I have formed an online connection based on similar interests and extended peer groups,” I define it here, traditionally, as “people who live in the same geographical area as me and are as miserable as I am for the same reason.” I think the original definition of the word is long dead, and nobody except me seems to be mourning it. I reach the café a little late; I see my group from the outsider’s point of view, which is an unwelcome reflection on how stupid three people with their heads wrapped in tinfoil can look. I would take off my own, but it does cut down on the headaches, nausea and dizziness. Really, it does. I nod to the barista, and he smiles, and blinks, and starts to make my decaf Americano which I really don’t need after the scene with Jake, but it’s hard to sit in a café and not order anything, particularly when all the other customers are staring at you and posting pictures of your tinfoil-hatted group on Facebook with a witty caption or two. I sit down, and Len, dear Len, asks me, “How are you, sweetheart?” I blurt out my bad news, and then am unable to speak further due to a tight throat and the fear of bursting into loud, uncontrollable sobs. It may be a self-help group, but it’s always had more of a polite conversation vibe than a collective and open pooling of misery vibe. “Oh no!” says Deb. “No no no. Oh dear.” She’s so lovely, always commiserating, and refusing to accept sympathy for her own large array of problems, such as diabetes, a slowly dying mother, and having to survive on a government-funded budget of sixty-seven pounds a week. “He’s a moron,” says Tom, who is young and huge and pierced at regular intervals. Eliza throws him a suspicious look. Tom and Eliza have recently become a couple, in a tentative sort of way that’s painful to observe on a week by week basis. Occasionally they hold hands under the table and we all pretend not to be aware of it. I let them wash me clean in their sudsy sympathy, and it’s quite a pleasant experience until we get to the rough towel-dry at the end, where I’m meant to stand back on my own two feet again and come out buffed from rebuff. “I—we—always felt that he wasn’t right for you, Taylor. Maybe you’re really meant to be alone for a while.” “What?” They all shuffle back in their seats, a collective response. “We all think you could do with some time to yourself,” says Eliza. “The meaning of discussion group is not that you all take it in turns to discuss one of the members when she’s out of the room,” I tell them. “The meaning of discussion group is—” No words come to me. If I had a link, I would search the online dictionary and find an amazing answer, and spit one out with vitriol to look sharp and sassy and so in the right. But there’s nothing. Len takes my hand and squeezes it. “Poor thing,” he says. He’s right. I am poor. We all are. We live in an information poverty, where we can’t ever be as good as the people around us. We won’t get jobs, because they are all advertised online, and everyone applies in their head. We can’t complain to our MP because she only accepts tweets or emails. We can’t escape because the car tax system involves being registered under a valid username and the bus and train timetables are all PDF docs. Buying a ticket is done with the blink of an eye, anyway. It’s all a blink of an eye away. I close my eyes.

Tom murmurs something, about how I’ll be fine, and I’m tough, and Eliza agrees with him, and changes the subject. Soon they’re having a normal conversation around me, as if I don’t exist. As normal a conversation as people wearing tinfoil helmets can have. *** I lie in my four-poster bed that night, under my foil canopy, and think of Jake, and the digital interest he is no doubt generating at this moment. The clear lens of the world focuses on him, and he loves it. He probably told his publicist he was going to break up with me two weeks before he told me, just to make sure he’d get the most surftime from it. And yet, and yet—what? Surely he is indefensible. But if his way of life was offered to me I would take it. Wouldn’t I? Jake and I met at a deserted monument to the past—an art gallery. A Mondrian exhibition. We stood side by side, strangers, in front of “Composition 2.” “The lines looked different in my head,” Jake said, and I said, “Nothing’s the same in anyone’s head.” I thought we were alone in that room, sharing a private moment. Later, in bed, he said to me, “You make life feel more ... personal.” That was what he loved about me—I was unaware that there were 3,000,000 people in our relationship. And the reason I loved him? The opposite. Because I never felt alone with him. He was my clickable link. Through him, I connected. I lie there, not knowing whether to punch the pillow or punch myself. I wish somebody would pop into my head and tell me how I feel. *** I last three weeks without Jake, and then I make an appointment to have the implant on my ocular nerve refitted. My group are aghast. “You’ll kill yourself!” says Deb. Eliza and Tom clutch hands; they’ve progressed to above-the- table displays of affection. “Maybe I’ve grown out of it. Like asthma.” Deb sits back and crosses her arms over her chest. “If you really believe that, take off your hat.” “These stupid hats are just placebos anyway,” I tell her, and reach for mine. I put it in the centre of the table, where it sits between our coffee cups like a new-age salt shaker. A speck of pain, a pinprick, pops into life above my left eye, but I ignore it. “Please, please,” says Len, shaking his head, “You’ll make yourself ill.” I love Len dearly, but this time his compassion only galvanises my resolve. I put my share of the bill on the table. “Goodbye,” I say. “I don’t belong with you any more.” I leave my tinfoil hat on the table, and I walk away. By the time I reach the tube station I can’t see straight. There are glowing white lines in my head, undulating in time to the pulsing pains running through my body. I’m at the top of the

stairs, leading down into the dark, being pushed onwards by the people surrounding me, crowding close; I waver, give myself over to them, let them carry me along, down the stairs, through the white-tiled halls that lead to the edge of the track. One small shove in my back is all it takes. I fall. I fall and see nothing but black. I hear a hundred voices calling to me, shouting, get up, get up. And then I’m gone. *** “Terrible,” says a woman, softly. I open my eyes. Ouch. Day nine in hospital and waking up is still unbelievably painful. I’m hoping that will improve at some point. The woman standing at the end of my bed is definitely not a nurse. She looks rich. Her well-cut skirt and waistcoat in grey herringbone look great on her, and under her arm she carries a red ring binder. I haven’t seen one of those in years. I’m guessing she works in media. “No comment,” I croak. She blinks. Jake Qwerty’s ex-girlfriend, laid up in hospital. Tried to kill herself after the breakup. Look at her poor, broken body. “I’m not here to get a scoop. My name is Marianne Klaus. I work with Klaus, Klaus and Hedder. We’re a firm of solicitors.” “Daddy’s business?” “Mine,” she says. “And my sister’s. We started it together. Hedder came along later and married my sister, but he’s a nice guy. Believe it or not, there are a few of those left.” I feel ashamed of my ridiculous preconceptions. Perhaps I should apologise. Instead I press the button by the side of my bed and elevate myself to a sitting position with as much dignity as I can muster with two legs encased in plaster. Marianne Klaus watches me. She doesn’t blink that much, which is reassuring. Maybe she’s on the level. She points to the foil curtain that surrounds my bed. “I had that put up for you,” she says. “Thanks.” “You’ve been through enough. I’m glad to be here today to give you some good news.” She opens the ring binder and places it on my lap. The top page is a printout of an online article. The headline says: QWERTY EX SHOCKER The picture is of a body lying face down in a gutter. No. It’s a woman. On a Tube track. Me. For a moment I can’t speak. Eventually I manage to find my voice. “This is good news?” She turns the pages. The headlines pass through the days. THE DISCONNECTED WORLD

LIVES OF PAIN BLIND, DEAF AND ABANDONED “There are videos too. The Daily Whip came up with a hashtag: #makeitbetter. It went global. Klaus, Klaus and Hedder were called in to manage the donation fund.” “Donation fund?” She turns the pages once more, to the final story. YOU DID IT! “As of this morning there is a sum of over seven million pounds waiting to be transferred to your bank account. I’m getting a set of paper cheques made for you to enable your spending. That amount of money could be difficult to carry in cash.” “I ... I don’t know what to ...” She blinks. “You don’t need to say a thing. I’ve just taken a snap of this moment to circulate out on the web. Everyone will want to see it, if that’s okay?” “Right,” I say. “Right.” “So have a think about what you want to do with all your money and I’ll enable it. You’ve got at least another week before you can be released from hospital—I’ll come back in a few days once you’ve had a chance to come to terms with it all.” “Okay.” “You’re very brave,” she says, abruptly. Then she turns, and leaves. I lower the bed back to a prone position and try to make sense of the world I can’t see. I shouldn’t make any rash decisions. I could start a charity. Buy a mansion, cover it in tinfoil, take in other sufferers of IEHS. I could become a spokeswoman for my cause. Speak at the United Nations. Rail passionately against the unfairness of the modern age. I have been given an amazing opportunity. It should not be wasted, this chance to do good. I wonder if Marianne has opened a Facebook account for me. I wonder how many friends I have now. I don’t know what I want. But I know what I need. *** I float in the sea. It’s not a sea of knowledge. It’s not milky-white, and it’s not making a new sense of understanding within me. It’s just a sea, even if it is the Dead one. It’s so easy to float here, easy to let myself go. There are no voices, no whispers, no expectations or assumptions. There is only me. For the first time, I’ve made the choice to be alone. I sort of like it.

The end

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