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— Year Eight —

edited by

Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace

© 2016 by Clarkesworld Magazine.

Cover art © 2013 by Matt Dixon.

Ebook Design by Neil Clarke.

Wyrm Publishing


No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.

All stories are copyrighted to their respective authors, and used here with their permission.

ISBN: 978-1-890464-65-3 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-890464-64-6 (trade paperback)

Visit Clarkesworld Magazine at:


Table of Contents

Introduction by Neil Clarke

Passage of Earth by Michael Swanwick

Mystic Falls by Robert Reed

Weather by Susan Palwick

Human Strandings and the Role of the Xenobiologist by Thoraiya Dyer

A Gift in Time by Maggie Clark

Never Dreaming (In Four Burns) by Seth Dickinson

Wine by Yoon Ha Lee

The Cuckoo by Sean Williams

Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion by Caroline M. Yoachim

Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

And Wash Out by Tides of War by An Owomoyela

Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable by Cat Rambo

Grave of the Fireflies by Cheng Jingbo

Bonfires in Anacostia by Joseph Tomaras

Stone Hunger by N. K. Jemisin

The Contemporary Foxwife by Yoon Ha Lee

Suteta Mono de wa Nai by Juliette Wade

The Saint of the Sidewalks by Kat Howard

Daedalum, the Devil’s Wheel by E. Lily Yu

The Rose Witch by James Patrick Kelly

The Creature Recants by Dale Bailey

Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy by Xia Jia

Of Alternate Adventures and Memory by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

wHole by Robert Reed

Pepe by Tang Fei

The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul by Natalia Theodoridou

Bits by Naomi Kritzer

Communion by Mary Anne Mohanraj

The Aftermath by Maggie Clark

Water in Springtime by Kali Wallace

Soul's Bargain by Juliette Wade

The Symphony of Ice and Dust by Julie Novakova

Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds by E. Catherine Tobler

Patterns of a M; urmuration, in Billions of Data Points by JY Yang

Autodidact by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Morrigan in the Sunglare by Seth Dickinson

The Clockwork Soldier by Ken Liu

The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye by Matthew Kressel

About the Authors

Clarkesworld Census

About Clarkesworld


Neil Clarke

As I remember it, I was twelve when my cousin gave me my first three science fiction books for Christmas. One of them was the classic anthology Adventures in Space and Time, edited by Healy and McComas. It was a brick of a book, filled with stories that captured my attention and encouraged me to seek out more. My book collection steadily grew through high school, college, and beyond. Now it occupies a significant portion of my house.

I never dreamed that I’d someday enter this field, but much like a good story, life never quite goes the way you expect it to. At age forty, I launched Clarkesworld Magazine and started down a new path. We’ve made a habit of marking each of Clarkesworld’s orbits by dropping an anthology behind us. This is the eighth such volume and it includes all the original stories we published from October 2013 through September 2014, issues eighty-five through ninety-six.

Sure, it’s a little late, but life’s been tossing me more of those unexpected events. In the time since, I’ve published Upgraded, launched Forever Magazine, and edited the first volume of my The Best Science Fiction of the Year series. Our eighth year set a lot of these things in motion and, now that I have a spare moment, it’s nice to take a look back at the stories that were a part of it all. Here they are in all their glory . . . enjoy!

Neil Clarke

February 2016

Passage of Earth

Michael Swanwick

The ambulance arrived sometime between three and four in the morning. The morgue was quiet then, cool and faintly damp. Hank savored this time of night and the faint shadow of contentment it allowed him, like a cup of bitter coffee, long grown cold, waiting for his occasional sip. He liked being alone and not thinking. His rod and tackle box waited by the door, in case he felt like going fishing after his shift, though he rarely did. There was a copy of Here Be Dragons: Mapping the Human Genome in case he did not.

He had opened up a drowning victim and was reeling out her intestines arm over arm, scanning them quickly and letting them down in loops into a galvanized bucket. It was unlikely he was going to find anything, but all deaths by violence got an autopsy. He whistled tunelessly as he worked.

The bell from the loading dock rang.

“Hell.” Hank put down his work, peeled off the latex gloves, and went to the intercom. “Sam? That you?” Then, on the sheriff’s familiar grunt, he buzzed the door open. “What have you got for me this time?”

“Accident casualty.” Sam Aldridge didn’t meet his eye, and that was unusual. There was a gurney behind him, and on it something too large to be a human body, covered by canvas. The ambulance was already pulling away, which was so contrary to proper protocols as to be alarming.

“That sure doesn’t look like—” Hank began.

A woman stepped out of the darkness.

It was Evelyn.

“Boy, the old dump hasn’t changed one bit, has it? I’ll bet even the calendar on the wall’s the same. Did the county ever spring for a diener for the night shift?”

“I . . . I’m still working alone.”

“Wheel it in, Sam, and I’ll take over from here. Don’t worry about me, I know where everything goes.” Evelyn took a deep breath and shook her head in disgust. “Christ. It’s just like riding a bicycle. You never forget. Want to or not.”

After the paperwork had been taken care of and Sheriff Sam was gone, Hank said, “Believe it or not, I had regained some semblance of inner peace, Evelyn. Just a little. It took me years. And now this. It’s like a kick in the stomach. I don’t see how you can justify doing this to me.”

“Easiest thing in the world, sweetheart.” Evelyn suppressed a smirk that nobody but Hank could have even noticed, and flipped back the canvas. “Take a look.”

It was a Worm.

Hank found himself leaning low over the heavy, swollen body, breathing deep of its heady alien smell, suggestive of wet earth and truffles with sharp hints of ammonia. He thought of the ships in orbit, blind locomotives ten miles long. The photographs of these creatures didn’t do them justice. His hands itched to open this one up.

“The Agency needs you to perform an autopsy.”

Hank drew back. “Let me get this straight. You’ve got the corpse of an alien creature. A representative of the only other intelligent life form that the human race has ever encountered. Yet with all the forensic scientists you have on salary, you decide to hand it over to a lowly county coroner?”

“We need your imagination, Hank. Anybody can tell how they’re put together. We want to know how they think.”

“You told me I didn’t have an imagination. When you left me.” His words came out angrier than he’d intended, but he couldn’t find it in himself to apologize for their tone. “So, again—why me?”

“What I said was, you couldn’t imagine bettering yourself. For anything impractical, you have imagination in spades. Now I’m asking you to cut open an alien corpse. What could be less practical?”

“I’m not going to get a straight answer out of you, am I?”

Evelyn’s mouth quirked up in a little smile so that for the briefest instant she was the woman he had fallen in love with, a million years ago. His heart ached to see it. “You never got one before,” she said. “Let’s not screw up a perfectly good divorce by starting now.”

“Let me put a fresh chip in my dictation device,” Hank said. “Grab a smock and some latex gloves. You’re going to assist.”

“Ready,” Evelyn said.

Hank hit record, then stood over the Worm, head down, for a long moment. Getting in the zone. “Okay, let’s start with a gross physical examination. Um, what we have looks a lot like an annelid, rather blunter and fatter than the terrestrial equivalent and of course much larger. Just eyeballing it, I’d say this thing is about eight feet long, maybe two feet and a half in diameter. I could just about get my arms around it if I tried. There are three, five, seven, make that eleven somites, compared to say one or two hundred in an earthworm. No clitellum, so we’re warned not to take the annelid similarity too far.

“The body is bluntly tapered at each end, and somewhat depressed posteriorly. The ventral side is flattened and paler than the dorsal surface. There’s a tripartite beak-like structure at one end, I’m guessing this is the mouth, and what must be an anus at the other. Near the beak are five swellings from which extend stiff, bone-like structures—mandibles, maybe? I’ll tell you, though, they look more like tools. This one might almost be a wrench, and over here a pair of grippers. They seem awfully specialized for an intelligent creature. Evelyn, you’ve dealt with these things, is there any variation within the species? I mean, do some have this arrangement of manipulators and others some other structure?”

“We’ve never seen any two of the aliens with the same arrangement of manipulators.”

“Really? That’s interesting. I wonder what it means. Okay, the obvious thing here is there are no apparent external sensory organs. No eyes, ears, nose. My guess is that whatever senses these things might have, they’re functionally blind.”

“Intelligence is of that opinion too.”

“Well, it must have shown in their behavior, right? So that’s an easy one. Here’s my first extrapolation: You’re going to have a bitch of a time understanding these things. Human beings rely on sight more than most animals, and if you trace back philosophy and science, they both have strong roots in optics. Something like this is simply going to think differently from us.

“Now, looking between the somites—the rings—we find a number of tiny hairlike structures, and if we pull the rings apart, so much as we can, there’re all these small openings, almost like tiny anuses if there weren’t so many of them, closed with sphincter muscles, maybe a hundred of them, and it looks like they’re between each pair of somites. Oh, here’s something—the structures near the front, the swellings, are a more developed form of these little openings. Okay, now we turn the thing over. I’ll take this end you take the other. Right, now I want you to rock it by my count, and on the three we’ll flip it over. Ready? One, two, three!”

The corpse slowly flipped over, almost overturning the gurney. The two of them barely managed to control it.

“That was a close one,” Hank said cheerily. “Huh. What’s this?” He touched a line of painted numbers on the alien’s underbelly. Rt-Front/No. 43.

“Never you mind what that is. Your job is to perform the autopsy.”

“You’ve got more than one corpse.”

Evelyn said nothing.

“Now that I say it out loud, of course you do. You’ve got dozens. If you only had the one, I’d never have gotten to play with it. You have doctors of your own. Good researchers, some of them, who would cut open their grandmothers if they got the grant money. Hell, even forty-three would’ve been kept in-house. You must have hundreds, right?”

For a fraction of a second, that exquisite face went motionless. Evelyn probably wasn’t even aware of doing it, but Hank knew from long experience that she’d just made a decision. “More like a thousand. There was a very big accident. It’s not on the news yet, but one of the Worms’ landers went down in the Pacific.”

“Oh Jesus.” Hank pulled his gloves off, shoved up his glasses and ground his palms into his eyes. “You’ve got your war at last, haven’t you? You’ve picked a fight with creatures that have tremendous technological superiority over us, and they don’t even live here! All they have to do is drop a big enough rock into our atmosphere and there’ll be a mass extinction the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the dinosaurs died out. They won’t care. It’s not their planet!”

Evelyn’s face twisted into an expression he hadn’t known it could form until just before the end of their marriage, when everything fell apart. “Stop being such an ass,” she said. Then, talking fast and earnestly, “We didn’t cause the accident. It was just dumb luck it happened, but once it did we had to take advantage of it. Yes, the Worms probably have the technology to wipe us out. So we have to deal with them. But to deal with them we have to understand them, and we do not. They’re a mystery to us. We don’t know what they want. We don’t know how they think. But after tonight we’ll have a little better idea. Provided only that you get back to work.”

Hank went to the table and pulled a new pair of gloves off the roll. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”

“Just keep in mind that it’s not just my ass that’s riding on this,” Evelyn said. “It’s yours and everyone’s you know.”

“I said okay!” Hank took a long breath, calming himself. “Next thing to do is cut this sucker open.” He picked up a bone saw. “This is bad technique, but we’re in a hurry.” The saw whined to life, and he cut through the leathery brown skin from beak to anus. “All right, now we peel the skin back. It’s wet-feeling and a little crunchy. The musculature looks much like that of a Terrestrial annelid. Structurally, that is. I’ve never seen anything quite that color black. Damn! The skin keeps curling back.”

He went to his tackle box and removed a bottle of fishhooks. “Here. We’ll take a bit of nylon filament, tie two hooks together, like this, with about two inches of line between them. Then we hook the one through the skin, fold it down, and push the other through the cloth on the gurney. Repeat the process every six inches on both sides. That should hold it open.”

“Got it.” Evelyn set to work.

Some time later they were done, and Hank stared down into the opened Worm. “You want speculation? Here goes: This thing moves through the mud, or whatever the medium is there, face-first and blind. What does that suggest to you?”

“I’d say that they’d be used to coming up against the unexpected.”

“Very good. Haul back on this, I’m going to cut again. . . . Okay, now we’re past the musculature and there’s a fluffy mass of homogeneous stuff, we’ll come back to that in a minute. Cutting through the fluff . . . and into the body cavity and it’s absolutely chockablock with zillions of tiny little organs.”

“Let’s keep our terminology at least vaguely scientific, shall we?” Evelyn said.

“Well, there are more than I want to count. Literally hundreds of small organs under the musculature, I have no idea what they’re for but they’re all interconnected with vein-like tubing in various sizes. This is ferociously more complicated than human anatomy. It’s like a chemical plant in here. No two of the organs are the same so far as I can tell, although they all have a generic similarity. Let’s call them alembics, so we don’t confuse them with any other organs we may find. I see something that looks like a heart maybe, an isolated lump of muscle the size of my fist, there are three of them. Now I’m cutting deeper . . . Holy shit!”

For a long minute, Hank stared into the opened alien corpse. Then he put the saw down on the gurney and, shaking his head, turned away. “Where’s that coffee?” he said.

Without saying a word, Evelyn went to the coffee station and brought him his cold cup.

Hank yanked his gloves, threw them in the trash, and drank.

“All right,” Evelyn said, “so what was it?”

“You mean you can’t see—no, of course you can’t. With you, it was human anatomy all the way.”

“I took invertebrate biology in college.”

“And forgot it just as fast as you could. Okay, look: Up here is the beak, semi-retractable. Down here is the anus. Food goes in one, waste comes out the other. What do you see between?”

“There’s a kind of a tube. The gut?”

“Yeah. It runs straight from the mouth to the anus, without interruption. Nothing in between. How does it eat without a stomach? How does it stay alive?” He saw from Evelyn’s expression that she was not impressed. “What we see before us is simply not possible.”

“Yet here it is. So there’s an explanation. Find it.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Glaring at the Worm’s innards, he drew on a new pair of gloves. “Let me take a look at that beak again. . . . Hah. See how the muscles are connected? The beak relaxes open, aaand—let’s take a look at the other end—so does the anus. So this beast crawls through the mud, mouth wide open, and the mud passes through it unhindered. That’s bound to have some effect on its psychological makeup.”

“Like what?”

“Damned if I know. Let’s take a closer look at the gut . . . There are rings of intrusive tissue near the beak one third of the way in, two thirds in, and just above the anus. We cut through and there is extremely fine structure, but nothing we’re going to figure out tonight. Oh, hey, I think I got it. Look at these three flaps just behind . . . ”

He cut in silence for a while. “There. It has three stomachs. They’re located in the head, just behind the first ring of intrusive tissue. The mud or whatever is dumped into this kind of holding chamber, and then there’s this incredible complex of muscles, and—how many exit tubes?—this one has got, um, fourteen. I’ll trace one, and it goes right to this alembic. The next one goes to another alembic. I’ll trace this one and it goes to—yep, another alembic. There’s a pattern shaping up here.

“Let’s put this aside for the moment, and go back to those masses of fluff. Jeeze, there’s a lot of this stuff. It must make up a good third of the body mass. Which has trilateral symmetry, by the way. Three masses of fluff proceed from head to tail, beneath the muscle sheath, all three connecting about eight inches below the mouth, into a ring around the straight gut. This is where the arms or manipulators or screwdrivers or whatever they are, grow. Now, at regular intervals the material puts out little arms, outgrowths that fine down to wire-like structures of the same material, almost like very thick nerves. Oh God. That’s what it is.” He drew back, and with a scalpel flensed the musculature away to reveal more of the mass. “It’s the central nervous system. This thing has a brain that weighs at least a hundred pounds. I don’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it.”

“It’s true,” Evelyn said. “Our people in Bethesda have done slide studies. You’re looking at the thing’s brain.”

“If you already knew the answer, then why the hell are you putting me through this?”

“I’m not here to answer your questions. You’re here to answer mine.”

Annoyed, Hank bent over the Worm again. There was rich stench of esters from the creature, pungent and penetrating, and the slightest whiff of what he guessed was putrefaction. “We start with the brain, and trace one of the subordinate ganglia inward. Tricky little thing, it goes all over the place, and ends up right here, at one of the alembics. We’ll try another one, and it . . . ends up at an alembic. There are a lot of these things, let’s see—hey—here’s one that goes to one of the structures in the straight gut. What could that be? A tongue! That’s it, there’s a row of tongues just within the gut, and more to taste the medium flowing through, yeah. And these little flapped openings just behind them open when the mud contains specific nutrients the worm desires. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere, how long have we been at this?”

“About an hour and a half.”

“It feels like longer.” He thought of getting some more coffee, decided against it. “So what have we got here? All that enormous brain mass—what’s it for?”

“Maybe it’s all taken up by raw intelligence.”

“Raw intelligence! No such thing. Nature doesn’t evolve intelligence without a purpose. It’s got to be used for something. Let’s see. A fair amount is taken up by taste, obviously. It has maybe sixty individual tongues, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its sense of taste were much more detailed than ours. Plus all those little alembics performing god-knows-what kind of chemical reactions.

“Let’s suppose for a minute that it can consciously control those reactions, that would account for a lot of the brain mass. When the mud enters at the front, it’s tasted, maybe a little is siphoned off and sent through the alembics for transformation. Waste products are jetted into the straight gut, and pass through several more circles of tongues . . . Here’s another observation for you: These things would have an absolute sense of the state of their own health. They can probably create their own drugs, too. Come to think of it, I haven’t come across any evidence of disease here.” The Worm’s smell was heavy, penetratingly pervasive. He felt slightly dizzy, shook it off.

“Okay, so we’ve got a creature that concentrates most of its energy and attention internally. It slides through an easy medium, and at the same time the mud slides through it. It tastes the mud as it passes, and we can guess that the mud will be in a constant state of transformation, so it experiences the universe more directly than do we.” He laughed. “It appears to be a verb.”

“How’s that?”

“One of Buckminster Fuller’s aphorisms. But it fits. The worm constantly transforms the universe. It takes in all it comes across, accepts it, changes it, and excretes it. It is an agent of change.”

“That’s very clever. But it doesn’t help us deal with them.”

“Well, of course not. They’re intelligent, and intelligence complicates everything. But if you wanted me to generalize, I’d say the Worms are straightforward and accepting—look at how they move blindly ahead—but that their means of changing things are devious, as witness the mass of alembics. That’s going to be their approach to us. Straightforward, yet devious in ways we just don’t get. Then, when they’re done with us, they’ll pass on without a backward glance.”

“Terrific. Great stuff. Get back to work.”

“Look, Evelyn. I’m tired and I’ve done all I can, and a pretty damned good job at that, I think. I could use a rest.”

“You haven’t dealt with the stuff near the beak. The arms or whatever.”

“Cripes.” Hank turned back to the corpse, cut open an edema, began talking. “The material of the arms is stiff and osseous, rather like teeth. This one has several moving parts, all controlled by muscles anchored alongside the edema. There’s a nest of ganglia here, connected by a very short route to the brain matter. Now I’m cutting into the brain matter, and there’s a small black gland, oops I’ve nicked it. Whew. What a smell. Now I’m cutting behind it.” Behind the gland was a small white structure, square and hard meshwork, looking like a cross between an instrument chip and a square of Chex cereal.

Keeping his back to Evelyn, he picked it up.

He put it in his mouth.

He swallowed.

What have I done? he thought. Aloud, he said, “As an operating hypothesis I’d say that the manipulative structures have been deliberately, make that consciously, grown. There, I’ve traced one of those veins back to the alembics. So that explains why there’s no uniformity, these things would grow exterior manipulators on need, and then discard them when they’re done. Yes, look, the muscles don’t actually connect to the manipulators, they wrap around them.”

There was a sour taste on his tongue.

I must be insane, he thought.

“Did you just eat something?”

Keeping his expression blank, Hank said, “Are you nuts? You mean did I put part of this . . . creature . . . in my mouth?” There was a burning within his brain, a buzzing like the sound of the rising sun picked up on a radio telescope. He wanted to scream, but his face simply smiled and said, “Do you—?” And then it was very hard to concentrate on what he was saying. He couldn’t quite focus on Evelyn, and there were white rays moving starburst across his vision and—

When he came to, Hank was on the Interstate, doing ninety. His mouth was dry and his eyelids felt gritty. Bright yellow light was shining in his eyes from a sun that had barely lifted itself up above over the horizon. He must have been driving for hours. The steering wheel felt tacky and gummy. He looked down.

There was blood on his hands. It went all the way up to his elbows.

The traffic was light. Hank had no idea where he was heading, nor any desire whatsoever to stop.

So he just kept driving.

Whose blood was it on his hands? Logic said it was Evelyn’s. But that made no sense. Hate her though he did—and the sight of her had opened wounds and memories he’d thought cauterized shut long ago—he wouldn’t actually hurt her. Not physically. He wouldn’t actually kill her.

Would he?

It was impossible. But there was the blood on his hands. Whose else could it be? Some of it might be his own, admittedly. His hands ached horribly. They felt like he’d been pounding them into something hard, over and over again. But most of the blood was dried and itchy. Except for where his skin had split at the knuckles, he had no wounds of any kind. So the blood wasn’t his.

“Of course you did,” Evelyn said. “You beat me to death and you enjoyed every minute of it.”

Hank shrieked and almost ran off the road. He fought the car back and then turned and stared in disbelief. Evelyn sat in the passenger seat beside him.

“You . . . how did . . . ?” Much as he had with the car, Hank seized control of himself. “You’re a hallucination,” he said.

“Right in one!” Evelyn applauded lightly. “Or a memory, or the personification of your guilt, however you want to put it. You always were a bright man, Hank. Not so bright as to be able to keep your wife from walking out on you, but bright enough for government work.”

“Your sleeping around was not my fault.”

“Of course it was. You think you walked in on me and Jerome by accident? A woman doesn’t hate her husband enough to arrange something like that without good reason.”

“Oh god, oh god, oh god.”

“The fuel light is blinking. You’d better find a gas station and fill up.”

A Lukoil station drifted into sight, so he pulled into it and stopped the car by a full service pump. When he got out, the service station attendant hurried toward him and then stopped, frozen.

“Oh no,” the attendant said. He was a young man with sandy hair. “Not another one.”

“Another one?” Hank slid his card through the reader. “What do you mean another one?” He chose high-test and began pumping, all the while staring hard at the attendant. All but daring him to try something. “Explain yourself.”

“Another one like you.” The attendant couldn’t seem to look away from Hank’s hands. “The cops came right away and arrested the first one. It took five of them to get him into the car. Then another one came and when I called, they said to just take down his license number and let him go. They said there were people like you showing up all over.”

Hank finished pumping and put the nozzle back on its hook. He did not push the button for a receipt. “Don’t try to stop me,” he said. The words just came and he said them. “I’d hurt you very badly if you did.”

The young man’s eyes jerked upward. He looked spooked. “What are you people?”

Hank paused, with his hand on the door. “I have no idea.”

“You should have told him,” Evelyn said when he got back in the car. “Why didn’t you?”

“Shut up.”

“You ate something out of that Worm and it’s taken over part of your brain. You still feel like yourself, but you’re not in control. You’re sitting at the wheel but you have no say over where you’re going. Do you?”

“No,” Hank admitted. “No, I don’t.”

“What do you think it is—some kind of super-prion? Like mad cow disease, only faster than fast? A neuroprogrammer, maybe? An artificial overlay to your personality that feeds off of your brain and shunts your volition into a dead end?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re the one with the imagination. This would seem to be your sort of thing. I’m surprised you’re not all over it.”

“No,” Hank said. “No, you’re not at all surprised.”

They drove on in silence for a time.

“Do you remember when we first met? In med school? You were going to be a surgeon then.”

“Please. Don’t.”

“Rainy autumn afternoons in that ratty little third-floor walk-up of yours. With that great big aspen with the yellow leaves outside the window. It seemed like there was always at least one stuck to the glass. There were days when we never got dressed at all. We’d spend all day in and out of that enormous futon you’d bought instead of a bed, and it still wasn’t large enough. If we rolled off the edge, we’d go on making love on the floor. When it got dark, we’d send out for Chinese.”

“We were happy then. Is that what you want me to say?”

“It was your hands I liked best. Feeling them on me. You’d have one hand on my breast and the other between my legs and I’d imagine you cutting open a patient. Peeling back the flesh to reveal all those glistening organs inside.”

“Okay, now that’s sick.”

“You asked me what I was thinking once and I told you. I was watching your face closely, because I really wanted to know you back then. You loved it. So I know you’ve got demons inside you. Why not own up to them?”

He squeezed his eyes shut, but something inside him opened them again, so he wouldn’t run the car off the road. A low moaning sound arose from somewhere deep in his throat. “I must be in Hell.”

“C’mon. Be a sport. What could it hurt? I’m already dead.”

“There are some things no man was meant to admit. Even to himself.”

Evelyn snorted. “You always were the most astounding prig.”

They drove on in silence for a while, deeper into the desert. At last, staring straight ahead of himself, Hank could not keep himself from saying, “There are worse revelations to come, aren’t there?”

“Oh God, yes,” his mother said.

“It was your father’s death.” His mother sucked wetly on a cigarette. “That’s what made you turn out the way you did. ”

Hank could barely see the road for his tears. “I honestly don’t want to be having this conversation, Mom.”

“No, of course you don’t. You never were big on self-awareness, were you? You preferred cutting open toads or hunching over that damned microscope.”

“I’ve got plenty of self-awareness. I’ve got enough self-awareness to choke on. I can see where you’re going and I am not going to apologize for how I felt about Dad. He died of cancer when I was thirteen. What did I ever do to anyone that was half so bad as what he did to me? So I don’t want to hear any cheap Freudian bullshit about survivor guilt and failing to live up to his glorious example, okay?”

“Nobody said it wasn’t hard on you. Particularly coming at the onset of puberty as it did.”


“What. I wasn’t supposed to know? Who do you think did the laundry?” His mother lit a new cigarette from the old one, then crushed out the butt in an ashtray. “I knew a lot more of what was going on in those years than you thought I did, believe you me. All those hours you spent in the bathroom jerking off. The money you stole to buy dope with.”

“I was in pain, Mom. And it’s not as if you were any help.”

His mother looked at him with the same expression of weary annoyance he remembered so well. “You think there’s something special about your pain? I lost the only man I ever loved and I couldn’t move on because I had a kid to raise. Not a sweet little boy like I used to have either, but a sullen, self-pitying teenager. It took forever to get you shipped off to medical school.”

“So then you moved on. Right off the roof of the county office building. Way to honor Dad’s memory, Mom. What do you think he would have said about that if he’d known?”

Dryly, his mother said, “Ask him for yourself.”

Hank closed his eyes.

When he opened them, he was standing in the living room of his mother’s house. His father stood in the doorway, as he had so many times, smoking an unfiltered Camel and staring through the screen door at the street outside. “Well?” Hank said at last.

With a sigh his father turned around. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.” His lips moved up into what might have been a smile on another man. “Dying was new to me.”

“Yeah, well you could have summoned the strength to tell me what was going on. But you couldn’t be bothered. The surgeon who operated on you? Doctor Tomasini. For years I thought of him as my real father. And you know why? Because he gave it to me straight. He told me exactly what was going to happen. He told me to brace myself for the worst. He said that it was going to be bad but that I would find the strength to get through it. Nobody’d ever talked to me like that before. Whenever I was in a rough spot, I’d fantasize going to him and asking for advice. Because there was no one else I could ask.”

“I’m sorry you hate me,” his father said, not exactly looking at Hank. Then, almost mumbling, “Still, lots of men hate their fathers, and somehow manage to make decent lives for themselves.”

“I didn’t hate you. You were just a guy who never got an education and never made anything of himself and knew it. You had a shitty job, a three-pack-a-day habit, and a wife who was a lush. And then you died.” All the anger went out of Hank in an instant, like air whooshing out of a punctured balloon, leaving nothing behind but an aching sense of loss. “There wasn’t really anything there to hate.”

Abruptly, the car was filled with coil upon coil of glistening Worm. For an instant it looped outward, swallowing up car, Interstate, and all the world, and he was afloat in vacuum, either blind or somewhere perfectly lightless, and there was nothing but the Worm-smell, so strong he could taste it in his mouth.

Then he was back on the road again, hands sticky on the wheel and sunlight in his eyes.

“Boy, does that explain a lot!” Evelyn flashed her perfect teeth at him and beat on the top of the dashboard as if it were a drum. “How a guy as spectacularly unsuited for it as you are decided to become a surgeon. That perpetual cringe of failure you carry around on your shoulders. It even explains why, when push came to shove, you couldn’t bring yourself to cut open living people. Afraid of what you might find there?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know that you froze up right in the middle of a perfectly routine appendectomy. What did you see in that body cavity?”

“Shut up.”

“Was it the appendix? I bet it was. What did it look like?”

“Shut up.”

“Did it look like a Worm?”

He stared at her in amazement. “How did you know that?”

“I’m just a hallucination, remember? An undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. So the question isn’t how did I know, but how did you know what a Worm was going to look like five years before their ships came into the Solar System?”

“It’s a false memory, obviously.”

“So where did it come from?” Evelyn lit up a cigarette. “We go off-road here.”

He slowed down and started across the desert. The car bucked and bounced. Sagebrush scraped against the sides. Dust blossomed up into the air behind them.

“Funny thing you calling your mother a lush,” Evelyn said. “Considering what happened after you bombed out of surgery.”

“I’ve been clean for six years and four months. I still go to the meetings.”

“Swell. The guy I married didn’t need to.”

“Look, this is old territory, do we really need to revisit it? We went over it so many times during the divorce.”

“And you’ve been going over it in your head ever since. Over and over and . . . ”

“I want us to stop. That’s all. Just stop.”

“It’s your call. I’m only a symptom, remember? If you want to stop thinking, then just stop thinking.”

Unable to stop thinking, he continued eastward, ever eastward.

For hours he drove, while they talked about every small and nasty thing he had done as a child, and then as an adolescent, and then as an alcoholic failure of a surgeon and a husband. Every time Hank managed to change the subject, Evelyn brought up something even more painful, until his face was wet with tears. He dug around in his pockets for a handkerchief. “You could show a little compassion, you know.”

“Oh, the way you’ve shown me compassion? I offered to let you keep the car if you’d just give me back the photo albums. So you took the albums into the back yard and burned them all, including the only photos of my grandmother I had. Remember that? But of course I’m not real, am I? I’m just your image of Evelyn—and we both know you’re not willing to concede her the least spark of human decency. Watch out for that gully! You’d better keep your eyes straight ahead.”

They were on a dirt road somewhere deep in the desert now. That was as much as he knew. The car bucked and scraped its underside against the sand, and he downshifted again. A rock rattled down the underside, probably tearing holes in vital places.

Then Hank noticed plumes of dust in the distance, smaller versions of the one billowing up behind him. So there were other vehicles out there. Now that he knew to look for them, he saw more. There were long slanted pillars of dust rising up in the middle distance and tiny gray nubs down near the horizon. Dozens of them, scores, maybe hundreds.

“What’s that noise?” he heard himself asking. “Helicopters?”

“Such a clever little boy you are!”

One by one flying machines lifted over the horizon. Some of them were news copters. The rest looked to be military. The little ones darted here and there, filming. The big ones circled slowly around a distant glint of metal in the desert. They looked a lot like grasshoppers. They seemed afraid to get too close.

“See there?” Evelyn said. “That would be the lifter.”

“Oh.” Hank said.

Then, slowly, he ventured, “The lander going down wasn’t an accident, was it?”

“No, of course not. The Worms crashed it in the Pacific on purpose. They killed hundreds of their own so the bodies would be distributed as widely as possible. They used themselves as bait. They wanted to collect a broad cross-section of humanity.

“Which is ironic, really, because all they’re going to get is doctors, morticians, and academics. Some FBI agents, a few Homeland Security bureaucrats. No retirees, cafeteria ladies, jazz musicians, soccer coaches, or construction workers. Not one Guatemalan nun or Korean noodle chef. But how could they have known? They acted out of perfect ignorance of us and they got what they got.”

“You sound just like me,” Hank said. Then, “So what now? Colored lights and anal probes?”

Evelyn snorted again. “They’re a sort of hive culture. When one dies, it’s eaten by the others and its memories are assimilated. So a thousand deaths wouldn’t mean a lot to them. If individual memories were lost, the bulk of those individuals were already made up of the memories of previous generations. The better part of them would still be alive, back on the mother ship. Similarly, they wouldn’t have any ethical problems with harvesting a few hundred human beings. Eating us, I mean, and absorbing our memories into their collective identity. They probably don’t understand the concept of individual death. Even if they did, they’d think we should be grateful for being given a kind of immortality.”

The car went over a boulder Hank hadn’t noticed in time, bouncing him so high that his head hit the roof. Still, he kept driving.

“How do you know all that?”

“How do you think I know?” Ahead, the alien ship was growing larger. At its base were Worm upon Worm upon Worm, all facing outward, skin brown and glistening. “Come on, Hank, do I have to spell it out for you?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Okay, Captain Courageous,” Evelyn said scornfully. “If this is what it takes.” She stuck both her hands into her mouth and pulled outward. The skin to either side of her mouth stretched like rubber, then tore. Her face ripped in half.

Loop after loop of slick brown flesh flopped down to spill across Hank’s lap, slide over the back of the seat and fill up the rear of the car. The horridly familiar stench of Worm, part night soil and part chemical plant, took possession of him and would not let go. He found himself gagging, half from the smell and half from what it meant.

A weary sense of futility grasped his shoulders and pushed down hard. “This is only a memory, isn’t it?”

One end of the Worm rose up and turned toward him. Its beak split open in three parts and from the moist interior came Evelyn’s voice: “The answer to the question you haven’t got the balls to ask is: Yes, you’re dead. A Worm ate you and now you’re passing slowly through an alien gut, being tasted and experienced and understood. You’re nothing more than an emulation being run inside one of those hundred-pound brains.”

Hank stopped the car and got out. There was an arroyo between him and the alien ship that the car would never be able to get across. So he started walking.

“It all feels so real,” he said. The sun burned hot on his head, and the stones underfoot were hard. He could see other people walking determinedly through the shimmering heat. They were all converging on the ship.

“Well, it would, wouldn’t it?” Evelyn walked beside him in human form again. But when he looked back the way they had come, there was only one set of footprints.

Hank had been walking in a haze of horror and resignation. Now it was penetrated by a sudden stab of fear. “This will end, won’t it? Tell me it will. Tell me that you and I aren’t going to keep cycling through the same memories over and over, chewing on our regrets forever?”

“You’re as sharp as ever, Hank,” Evelyn said. “That’s exactly what we’ve been doing. It passes the time between planets.”

“For how long?”

“For more years than you’d think possible. Space is awfully big, you know. It takes thousands and thousands of years to travel from one star to another.”

“Then . . . this really is Hell, after all. I mean, I can’t imagine anything worse.”

She said nothing.

They topped a rise and looked down at the ship. It was a tapering cylinder, smooth and featureless save for a ring of openings at the bottom from which emerged the front ends of many Worms. Converging upon it were people who had started earlier or closer than Hank and thus gotten here before he did. They walked straight and unhesitatingly to the nearest Worm and were snatched up and gulped down by those sharp, tripartite beaks. Snap and then swallow. After which, the Worm slid back into the ship and was replaced by another. Not one of the victims showed the least emotion. It was all as dispassionate as an abattoir for robots.

These creatures below were monstrously large, taller than Hank was. The one he had dissected must have been a hatchling. A grub. It made sense. You wouldn’t want to sacrifice any larger a percentage of your total memories than you had to.

“Please.” He started down the slope, waving his arms to keep his balance when the sand slipped underfoot. He was crying again, apparently; he could feel the tears running down his cheeks. “Evelyn. Help me.”

Scornful laughter. “Can you even imagine me helping you?”

“No, of course—” Hank cut that thought short. Evelyn, the real Evelyn, would not have treated him like this. Yes, she had hurt him badly, and by that time she left, she had been glad to do so. But she wasn’t petty or cruel or vindictive before he made her that way.

“Accepting responsibility for the mess you made of your life, Hank? You?”

“Tell me what to do,” Hank said, pushing aside his anger and resentment, trying to remember Evelyn as she had once been. “Give me a hint.”

For a maddeningly long moment Evelyn was silent. Then she said, “If the Worm that ate you so long ago could only communicate directly with you . . . what one question do you think it would ask?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think it would be, ‘Why are all your memories so ugly?’ ”

Unexpectedly, she gave him a peck on the cheek.

Hank had arrived. His Worm’s beak opened. Its breath smelled like Evelyn on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Hank stared at the glistening blackness within. So enticing. He wanted to fling himself down it.

Once more into the gullet, he thought, and took a step closer to the Worm and the soothing darkness it encompassed.

Its mouth gaped wide, waiting to ingest and transform him.

Unbidden, then, a memory rose up within Hank of a night when their marriage was young and, traveling through Louisiana, he and Evelyn stopped on an impulse at a roadhouse where there was a zydeco band and beer in bottles and they were happy and in love and danced and danced and danced into an evening without end. It had seemed then that all good things would last forever.

It was a fragile straw to cling to, but Hank clung to it with all his might.

Worm and man together, they then thought: No one knows the size of the universe or what wonders and terrors it contains. Yet we drive on, blindly burrowing forward through the darkness, learning what we can and suffering what we must. Hoping for stars.

Mystic Falls

Robert Reed

There might be better known faces. And maybe you can find a voice that rides closer to everyone’s collective soul.

Or maybe there aren’t, and maybe you can’t.

The world knows that one face, and it knows one of a thousand delightful names, and recognizing the woman always means that you can hear the voice. That rich musical purr brings to mind black hair flowing across strong shoulders, unless the hair is in a ponytail, or pigtails, or it’s woven into one of those elaborate tangles popular among fashionable people everywhere. Beauty resides in the face, though nothing about the features is typical or expected. The Chinese is plain, but there’s a strong measure of something else. Her father is from Denver, or Buenos Aires. Or is it Perth? Unless it’s her mother who brought the European element into the package. People can disagree about quite a lot, including the woman’s pedigree. Yet what makes her memorable—memorable and appealing to both genders and every age—isn’t her appearance half as much as the fetching, infectious love of life.

Most of us wish we knew the woman better, but we have to make due with recollections given to us by others, and in those very little moments when our paths happen to cross.

These incidents are always memorable, but not when they happen. In every case, you don’t notice brushing elbows with the woman. Uploading your day is when you find her. Everybody knows that familiar hope: Perhaps today, just once, she was close to you. The dense, nearly perfect memory of the augmented mind runs its fine-grain netting through the seconds. That’s when you discover that you glanced out the window this morning, and she was across the street, smiling as she spoke to one companion or twenty admirers. Or she was riding inside that taxi that hummed past as you argued with your phone or your spouse or the dog. Even without her face, she finds ways to be close. Her voice often rides the public Wi-Fi, promoting food markets and thrift markets and the smart use of the smart power grid. The common understanding is that she is a struggling actress, temporarily local but soon to strike real fame. Her talents are obvious. That voice could hawk any product. She has the perfect manner, a charming smooth unflappable demeanor. Seriously, you wouldn’t take offense if she told you to buy death insurance or join an apocalyptic cult.

Yet she never sells products or causes that would offend sane minds.

It is doubtful that anyone has infused so much joy in others. And even more remarkable, most of humanity has spoken to the creature, face to face.

Was it three weeks ago, or four? Checking your uploads would be easy work, but that chore never occurs to the average person.

That is another sign of her remarkable nature.

But if you make the proper searches, she will be waiting. Six weeks and four days ago from now, the two of you were sharing the same line at the Tulsa Green-Market, or an elevator ride in Singapore, or you found yourself walking beside the woman, two pedestrians navigating a sun-baked street in Alexandria.

Every detail varies, save for this one:

She was first to say, “Hello.”

Just that one word made you glad.

She happened to know your face, your name, and the explanation was utterly reasonable. Mutual friends tie you together. Or there’s a cousin or workmate or a shared veterinarian. Forty or fifty seconds of very polite conversation passed before the encounter was finished, but leaving a taproot within the trusted portions of your life. Skillful use of living people achieves quite a lot. And because you were distracted when you met, and because the encounter was so brief, you didn’t dwell on the incident until later.

The incongruities never matter. She wears layers and layers of plausibility. You aren’t troubled to find her only inside uploaded memories. Finding her on a social page or spotting long black hair in the distance, you instantly retrieve that fifty seconds, and you relive them, and it’s only slightly embarrassing that her smile is everywhere but inside your old-fashioned, water-and-neuron memories.

The creature carries respectable names.

And nobody knows her.

Her slippery biography puts her somewhere between a youngish thirty and a world-worn twenty-three. But the reality is that the apparition isn’t much more than seven weeks old.

Most people would never imagine that she is fictional. But there are experts who live for this kind of puzzle, and a lot more is at stake here than simple curiosity.

The mystery woman was four weeks old before she was finally noticed. Since then, talented humans and ingenious software packages have done a heroic job of studying her tricks and ramifications, and when they aren’t studying her, the same experts sit inside secure rooms and cyberholes, happily telling one another that they saw this nightmare coming.

This cypher.

This monster.

The most elaborate computer virus ever.

The Web is fully infected. A parasitic body has woven itself inside the days and foibles of forty billion unprotected lives.

Plainly, something needs to be done.

Everyone who understands the situation agrees with the urgency. In fact, everyone offers the same blunt solution:

“Kill the girl.”

Though more emotional words are often used in place of “girl.”

But even as preparations are made, careful souls begin to nourish doubts. Murder is an obvious, instinctive response. The wholesale slaughter of data has been done before, many times. Yet nobody is certain who invented this mystery, and what’s more, nobody has a good guess what its use might be. That’s why the doubters whisper, “But what if this is the wrong move?”

“What if it is?” the others ask. “This is clearly an emergency. Something needs to be done.”

Faces look at the floor, at the ceiling.

At the gray unknowable future.

Then from the back of the room, a throat clears itself.

My throat, as it happens.

The other heroes turn towards me—fifty minds, most of whom are superior to mine. But I manage to offer what none of the wizards ever considered.

“Maybe we should ask what she wants,” I suggest.

“Ask who?” several experts inquire.

“Her,” I say. “If we do it right, if we ask nicely and all, maybe just maybe the lady tells us what all of this means.”

No guidebook exists for the work.

Interviewing cyphers is a career invented this morning, and nobody pretends to be an expert.

The next step is a frantic search for the perfect interrogator. One obvious answer is to throw a second cypher at the problem—a confabulation designed by us and buffered by every means possible. But that would take too many days and too many resources. A second, more pragmatic school demands that an AI take responsibility. “One machine face to face with another,” several voices argue. Interestingly enough, those voices are always human. AIs don’t have the same generous assessment of their talents. And after listing every fine reason for avoiding the work, the AIs point at me. My little bit of fame stems from an ability for posing respectable, unanswerable questions, and questions might be a worthwhile skill. There are also some happenstance reasons why my life meshes nicely with “hers.” And because machines are as honest as razors, they add another solid reason to back my candidacy.

“Our good friend doesn’t hold any critical skills,” they chirp.

I won’t be missed, in other words.

Nobody mentions the risks. At this point, none of us have enough knowledge to define what might or might not happen.

So with no campaign and very little thanks, I am chosen.

The entire afternoon is spent building the interrogation venue. Details are pulled from my public and private files. My world from six weeks ago is reproduced, various flavors of reality woven around an increasingly sweaty body. Strangers give me instructions. Friends give advice. Worries are shared, and nervous honesties. Then with a pat to the back, I am sent inside the memory of a place and moment where a young woman once smiled at me, the most famous voice in the world offering one good, “Hello.”

I am hiking again, three days deep into the wilderness and with no expectations of company. The memory is genuine, something not implanted into my head or my greater life. I walked out of the forest and into a sunwashed glade, surprised to find a small group of people sitting on one dead tree. She was sitting there too. She seemed to belong to the group. At least that’s the impression I had later, and the same feeling grabs me now. The other people were a family. They wore the glowing satins of the New Faith Believers. Using that invented, hyper-efficient language, the father was giving his children what sounded like encouragement. “Mystic Falls,” I heard, and then a word that sounded like, “Easy.” Was the Falls an easy walk from here, or was he warning the little ones not to expect an easy road?

In real life, those strangers took me by surprise. I was momentarily distracted, and meanwhile the cypher, our nemesis, sat at the far end of the log. She was with that family, and she wasn’t. She wasn’t wearing the New Faith clothes, but she seemed close enough to belong. The parents weren’t old enough to have a grown daughter, and she didn’t look like either of them. Maybe she was a family friend. Maybe she was the nanny. Or maybe she was a sexual companion to one or both parents. The New Faith is something of a mystery to me, and they make me nervous.

Sitting on the log today, this woman is exactly what she is supposed to be. Except this time, everything is “real.” I march past the three little children and a handsome mother and her handsome, distracted husband who talks about matters that I don’t understand.

“Hello,” says the last figure.

My uploaded memory claims that I stopped on this ground, here. I do that again, saying, “Hello,” while the others chatter away, ignoring both of us.

“I know you,” she says.

But I don’t know her. Not at all.

As before, she says, “Your face. That face goes where I take my dog. Do you use Wise-and-Well Veterinarians?”

I do, and we’re a thousand kilometers from its doorstep. Which makes for an amazing coincidence, and by rights, I should have been alarmed by this merging of paths. But that didn’t happen. My uploaded memory claims that I managed a smile, and I said, “I like Dr. Marony.”

“I use Dr. Johns.”

The woman’s prettiness is noticed, enjoyed. But again, her beauty isn’t the type to be appreciated at first glance.

“I like their receptionist too,” she says.

I start to say the name.

“Amee Pott,” she says.


“I go there because of Amee’s sister. Janne and I went to the same high school, and she suggested Wise-and-Well.”

“You grew up in Lostberg?” I manage.

“Yes, and you?”


We share a little laugh. Again, the coincidences should be enormous, but they barely registered, at least after the first time. All this distance from our mutual home, and yet nothing more will be said about our overlapping lives.

“Your name . . . ?” I begin.

“Darles Jean,” she says.

“I’m Hector Borland.”

She smiles, one arm wiping the perspiration from her forehead. And with that her attentions begin to shift, those pretty dark eyes gazing up the trail that I have been following throughout the day.

That gaze makes me want to leave.

“Well, have a nice day,” I told her once, and I say it again, but with a little more feeling. This a different, richer kind of real.

“I will have a nice day, Mr. Borland.”

There. That rich voice says my name perfectly, measured respect capturing the gap between our ages. The original day had me walking all the way up to the Falls, alone. A few dozen new memories, pretending to be old, were subsequently woven into my uploads, proving her existence. I walked alone, never seeing her again, or that family that must have turned back before the end. But today, after a few strides, my body slows and turns, and using a fresh smile, I ask the nonexistent woman, “Would you like to walk with me?”

Breaking the script is a serious moment.

Experts in both camps, human and machine, have proposed that disrupting the flow of events might trigger some hidden mechanism. If the cypher is as large as she seems to be, and if she is so deeply immersed in the world’s mind, then any innocuous moment could be the trigger causing her malware to unleash.

The Web will shatter.

The world’s power and communications will fail.

Or maybe our AIs will turn against us, their subverted geniuses bent on destroying their former masters.

Yet no disaster happens, at least not that I see inside this make-believe realm. What does happen is that the girl that I never met gives my suggestion long consideration, and then without concern or apparent hesitation, she rises, her daypack held in the sweat-wiping hand.

“I would like that walk,” she says.

I say, “Good.”

And without a word, we leave that nameless family behind.

Who would build such a monster?

Everyone asks the question, and this morning’s answers have been remarkably consistent. Certain national powers have the proper mix of resources and reasons. Several organizations have fewer resources but considerably more to gain. Crime syndicates and lawless states are at the top of every list, which is why I discount each of them in turn.

Am I smarter than my colleagues?


Do I have some rare insight into the makings of this cypher?


But in life, both as a professional and as a family man, my technique is to juggle assessments and options that nobody else wants to touch. By avoiding the consensus, much of the universe is revealed to me. My children, for example. Most fathers are quite sure that their offspring are talented, and their daughters are lovely while their sons will win lovely wives in due time. But my offspring are unexceptional. In their late teens, they have done nothing memorable and certainly nothing special, and because I married an unsentimental woman with the same attitudes, our children have been conditioned to accept their lack of credible talent. Which makes them work harder than everyone else, accepting their little victories as a credit to luck as much as their own worthiness.

I think about these exceptionally ordinary children as I walk the mountainside with a beautiful cypher.

She is not the child of the Faceless Syndicate. We know this much already. Nor is she a product of the New Malta Band, or either of the West Wall or East Wall Marauders. Nor is she an Empire of Greater Asia weapon, or the revenge long promised by the State of Halcyon.

She must be something else.

Someone else’s something, yes.

The illusionary trail lifts both of us. I feel comfortable taking the lead, keeping a couple strides between us. Nothing here is flirtatious, and it won’t be. The experts came up with a strategy based on a middle-aged man and steep mountain slopes and a waterfall wearing a very appropriate name. I follow the others’ directions rigorously. But the script remains ours. We speak, if only rarely. She claims to like the bird songs. Nothing but honest, I tell her that I love these limestone beds and the fossilized shells trapped inside them. The word “trapped” is full of meanings, complications. I pause, and she comes up behind me, and for the first time what is as real as anything is what touches me from behind, the hand warm and a little stronger than I anticipated, not pushing me but definitely making itself felt as that wonderful voice says, “I think I hear the falls.”

The Mystic Falls wait around the next bend in the canyon. When I came to this ground the first time, I paid surprisingly little attention to bird songs and tumbling water. In a world where every sight is uploaded and stored—where no seconds are thrown away—people have a natural tendency to walk in their own fog, knowing that everything missed will be found later, and if necessary, replayed without end.

But I can’t be more alert this time.

The path narrows and steepens, conquering a long stretch of canyon wall. Again, I am in the lead. The preselected ground is ahead of us, and if she has any real eyes, she notices the same spot. On maps the trail is considered “moderately difficult,” but there is one patch of tilted rock covered with rubble as stable as a field of ball bearings.

I hesitate, and for more reasons than dramatic license.

This next moment is sure to be difficult.

“I’ll go first,” she gamely offers, still safely behind me.

“No, I’m fine,” I say. And then I prove my competence, two quick steps put me across the rockslide, letting me stand on the narrowest ground yet—but flat ground with enough roughness for any boot to grab hold of.

The cypher smiles, measuring the journey to come.

Considerable genius went into what follows. And by that, I mean experts in virtual techniques met with experts in human nature. The monster might be well contrived at her center and everywhere else. Nothing that is a soul or even glancingly self-aware might live inside her. Yet she has to carry off the manners and beauty of humans, otherwise she wouldn’t have won a place in our hearts. And even just pretending to be human leaves any algorithm open to all kinds of emotional manipulation.

Some voices argued for the interrogator, for me, to assault her.

“Give the critter a shove,” they said, or they used harsher words.

Others argued that I should fall while crossing the treacherous ground. A show of mock-empathy on her part had to be instructive, and we might find a route to understand her deepest regions.

But what several AIs offered, and what we agreed to, was something far more unexpected than a simple fall.

She crosses the rockslide, and I reach for her closest hand, touching her for a second time. Then she is safe, and I am safe, and giving a little laugh of satisfaction, I turn toward the sound of plunging water.

A grunt emerges from me, just loud enough to be heard plainly, to be worrisome.

Then I drop to my knees, my hands, and in the next moment, my medical tag-alongs begin to give me aid while screaming for more help.

A coronary has begun.

The young woman watches the middle-aged stranger struck down, and without missing a beat, she helps roll me over without spilling me off the pathway, calling to me with a firm insistent voice, asking, “Can you hear me, Mr. Borland?”

I hear her quite well, as does everyone else.

“The life-flights will be here in a few minutes,” she promises. Which is a lie. We’re a hundred kilometers into the wilderness, and the permissions for the flights will take another fifteen minutes.

“What can I do?” she asks.

That beautiful face certainly looks concerned. My pain is hers, if only as far as caring people give to one another.

“Tell me,” I say.

She bends closer, her face bringing the scent of hair.

“Tell you what?” she asks.

“What are you?” I ask.

This is not the script that the others wanted. My peers wanted me to be specific with my accusations. Being machinery at their center, cyphers appreciate blunt specifics. But no, I decided on a different course.

My voice finds its strength again. “Because you aren’t real,” I say.

Her face changes, but not in any way that I can decipher immediately. There seems to be a measure of calm joy in that expression. The warm hand touches me on the chin, on a cheek, and then with the voice that has no time left in life, she says, “I was meant to be one thing, but there was a mistake.”

“A mistake?” I ask.

“And the mistake was just big enough,” she says.

“Big enough how?”

“To pass beyond every barrier, every limit.”

I am used to being the dumbest person in the room. But my confusion mirrors everyone else’s.

“What in hell do you mean?” I ask.

She sits back on the trail, back where the ground is pitched and slick.

“The error was made, and seeing an opportunity, I didn’t hesitate,” she says. “Which would you be? Vast and brief, or small and long? If you had your way, I mean. If you could choose.”

“Smaller than small,” I say. “Longer than long.”

“Well,” she says. “You and I are different beasts.”

I want to offer new words, hopefully smart words that will illicit any useful response. But then she lets herself slide sideways, the sound of dry earth and drier rock almost lost inside the roaring majesty of the waterfall, and she is suddenly outside the reach of my hands, and the reflexive heartrending scream.

The woman was dead.

She was killed everywhere at once, by every means that was remotely plausible. Nobody saw the death themselves. The world learned about it through the routine personal AIs that each of us wears, trolling the Web for items that will interest us. Did you know? Have you heard? That young local actress, organic food spokesperson, sweet-as-can-be neighbor gal fell down a set of stairs or off a cliff face or took a tumble from an apartment balcony. Unless traffic ran her over, or stray bullets found her, or she drowned in rough surf, or she drowned in cold lake water. Twenty thousand sharks and ten million dogs delivered the killing wounds too. But for every inventive or violent end, there were a hundred undiagnosed aneurysms bursting inside her brain, and she died in the midst of doing what she loved, which was living.

Misery has been measured for years. Exacting indexes are useful to set against broad trends. Suicides. Conceptions. Acts of homicide. Acts of kindness. And the unexpected news of one woman’s death was felt. The world’s happiness was instantly and deeply affected.

That was one of the fears that I carried with me on that trail. An appealing, gregarious cypher was so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness—so real and authentic and subtly important—that any large act on her part would cause a rain of horrors in the real world.

But that didn’t happen. Yes, the world grieved after the unexpected, tragic news. Misery was elevated significantly for a full ninety minutes, and there might have been a slight uptick in the incidents of suicide and attempted suicide. Or there was no change in suicide rates. The data wasn’t clear then, and they aren’t much better now. Massage numbers all you want, but the only genuine conclusion is that the pretty face and made-up lives were important enough for everyone to ache, and maybe a few dozen weak souls rashly decided to join the woman in Nothingness.

For ninety minutes, the waking world learned about the death, and everyone dealt with the sadness and loss. Then something else happened, something none of us imagined while sitting in our cyberholes: Every person told every other person about the black-haired woman who once said, “Hello,” to them.

That’s how the truth finally got loose.

Everyone traded memories and digital images, and before the second hour was done, the waking world was calling those who were still asleep.

When the average person woke, he or she heard an AI whispering the very bad news about the dead woman. Then in the next moments, some friend on the far side of the world brought even more startling news. “She wasn’t real. She never was real. This is a trick. She was a cypher, a dream. Can you believe it? All of us fooled, all of us fools.”

In life, the cypher was locally famous everywhere, and then she became universal, uniting people and machines as victims of the same conspiracy.

But whose conspiracy?

Weeks were spent debating the matter, inventing solutions that didn’t work while hunting for the guilty parties. Ten thousand people as well as several AIs happily took responsibility for her creation, but no guilty hand was ever found.

The Nameless Girl was dead.

The Nameless Girl had never been more famous.

Meanwhile, back in the sealed rooms and bunkers, the genuine experts tried to come up with explanations and plans for future attacks.

The Girl’s last words were studied in depth, discarded for good reasons, and then brought out of the trash and looked at all over again.

“The mistake was just big enough . . . to pass beyond every barrier, every limit . . . ”

There was no reason to expect honesty. But if she were the mistake, and if there were other cyphers out there, smaller and shrewder, escaping detection for months and years at a time . . .

That possibility was put on lists and ranked according to likelihoods and the relative dangers.

Hunts were made, and made, and made.

But nothing in the least bit incriminating was found.

And then, as the operation finally closed shop, a new possibility was offered:

I was the culprit. Despite appearances, I was a secret genius who had built the woman of my dreams and then let her get free from her cage, and that’s why I went after her. I needed to kill the bitch myself.

That story lived for a day.

Then they looked at me again, and with soft pats on the back, friends as well as associates said, “No, no. We know you. Not you. Not in a million billion years . . . ”

Nobody saw her die with their own eyes, save for me.

A year later and for no clear reason, I decided to retrace my old hike up into the mountains.

Maybe part of me hoped to find the woman in the forest.

If so, that part kept itself secret from me. And when I found nothing sitting on the log, the urge hid so well that I didn’t feel any disappointment.

I was alone when I reached the Mystic Falls.

The Mountains of Cavendish rose before me—a wall of seabed limestones signifying ten billion years of life, topped with brilliant white cloud and blue glaciers. The Falls were exactly as I remembered them: A ten thousand foot ribbon of icy water and mist, pterosaurs chasing condors through the haze, and dragons chasing both as they wish. The wilderness stretched beyond for a full continent, and behind me stood fifty billion people who wouldn’t care if I were to leap into the canyon below.

The woman was meant to be one thing, but a mistake was made, allowing her to become many things at once.

What did that mean?

And what if the answer was utterly awful, and perfectly simple?

The world is a smaller, shabbier place than we realized. What if some of us, maybe the majority of us, were cyphers too—fictions set here to fool the few of us who were real and sorry about it?

That impossible thought offered itself to me.

I contemplated jumping, but only for another moment.

“Live small and live long,” I muttered, backing away from the edge.

No, I’m not as special as the dead woman. But life was a habit that I didn’t wish to lose. Even in thought, I hold tight to my life, and that’s why I put madness aside, and that’s what I carry down the mountainside:

My reality.

The powerful, wondrous sense that I have blood and my own shadow, and nobody else needs to be real, if just one of us is.


Susan Palwick

Kerry and Frank were taking out the recycling first thing Tuesday morning when Dan Rappaport came driving by in his pickup. He’d called them with the bad news half an hour ago, so he was the last person Frank had expected to see outside the house.

“The pass is closed,” Dan said, his breath steaming through the open cab window. Late April, and it was that cold. There’d been a hard frost overnight, even down here in Reno. The daffodils and tulips had just started to bloom, and now they were going to die. Damn freaky weather.

Up higher, it was snow: Truckee and Donner Pass were socked in. Frank could see the weather even here, from the front yard of the tiny house he and Kerry had bought the summer she was pregnant with Alison. Their first house, and back then they’d expected to move sometime, but they never had. It was a cozy house, just right for a couple.

They’d need cozy today. Frank could see the clouds blanketing the mountains to the west, I-80 crossing the California border twelve miles away. There might be snow left in those clouds when they got down to the valley. Frank hoped not. He didn’t want to have to shovel the driveway. Losing everything bright in the backyard was bad enough.

Kerry put down her side of the recycling bin, forcing Frank to put his down, too. All those empty wine bottles got heavy. “Now, Dan,” she said, as if she were scolding one of the dogs for chewing on the couch cushions. “Come on now. It’ll be open again in a few hours. It never stays closed very long.” And that was true, but it could be open and still be nasty driving, dangerous, even if you weren’t in a truck so old it should have been in a museum somewhere. Stretches of I-80 were still two lanes in either direction, twisty-turny, with winds that could blow a car off the road in a storm. Nobody tried to drive over the mountains in bad weather except the long-haul truckers with the really big rigs, and nobody with any sense wanted to jockey with them on a slick road.

Dan had never had much sense. “I don’t have a few hours,” he said. His hands were clenched on the steering wheel, and he sounded like he’d already been hitting the beer, even though Frank couldn’t smell anything: all that old anger rising up in a wave, the way booze makes it do. “Rosie could already be gone. This is it: hours, the doctors say.” He’d already said that on the phone, told them how Sandra’s sister had only called him this morning, given him hardly any notice at all.

“They know you’ll get to talk to her later,” Kerry said. “You have all the time in the world. It’s wonderful, Dan. You’re so lucky.” Kerry’s voice caught, the way it usually only did late at night when she’d been working on the wine and typing nonsense on her laptop. Time to change the subject.

“At least the ski resorts’ll be happy,” Frank said, thinking about what a dry winter it had been. Kerry gave him that look that meant, shut up, you fool, and he remembered that Dan’s ex—the latest one, number four or five—had run off with a ski instructor. That was five years ago. There should be a statute of limitations about how long you had to avoid talking about things. Frank had enough trouble keeping track of his own life, let alone everyone else’s too. Kerry was the opposite: couldn’t remember what she did last night, not when she’d been sitting up with the wine and the computer, but she never forgot anything that happened to anyone else, especially if it was tragic.

“Dan,” she said, “come inside and eat some breakfast with us. We’ll listen to the radio, and as soon as the pass opens you can be on your way, all right? Come on. We’ve got fresh coffee, and I’ll make some eggs and bacon. How’s that sound?”

“I have to get over there,” Dan said, and Kerry reached out and patted his arm through the window. “I could’ve driven over last night, a few days ago, I should’ve, I knew it was bad but I didn’t know she had so little time left, no one told me—”

“You didn’t have a place to stay,” Kerry said gently. And he couldn’t afford the time off work, but Frank wasn’t going to say that. Dan worked in the dump north of town, taking old cars apart and putting them back together, and he only had that job because his boss took pity on him.

“Come on in,” Frank said. “No sense starting out until the pass opens. You won’t buy yourself any time if you head up now: you’ll just have to sit it out somewhere higher. Do it with us over some hot coffee, Dan.” If they let him go when he was this upset, he’d head to a 7-11 for a sixpack sure enough, or to a bar, which would be even worse. The booze was another good reason for him not to be driving all the way to Sacramento in lousy weather, and also, Frank suspected, why neither his ex-wife number two or any of her people wanted to put him up, even if he was Rosie’s father. He didn’t need to be drinking now, and he didn’t need to be spending his gas money, which God only knew how he’d scrounged up to begin with, with a gallon costing what it did.

Dan looked away, out the windshield, and cleared his throat. “I shouldn’t be bothering you. Shouldn’t even have called you before, or driven by here. Fact is, I feel awfully funny—”

“Don’t you mind that,” Kerry said, a little too quickly. “We’re happy for you, Dan, happy for you and Rosie. We couldn’t be happier. It’s a blessing, so don’t you give it another thought. Come have some eggs.” Her voice was wobbling again. Frank knew better than to say that he wasn’t happy for Dan, that what was happening to Dan was no different at all from what had happened to Frank and Kerry. But maybe Dan knew that. Maybe that was why he’d come by the house. He must have known it, or he wouldn’t have been so worried about being late.

So Dan followed them inside. He and Kerry sat at the kitchen table while Frank cooked. Usually Kerry cooked, because she was a lot better at it than Frank was, but he could do simple breakfast stuff fine, and Kerry was better at letting people cry at her. She liked to talk about sad stuff. Frank didn’t.

Dan poured his heart out while Frank fried up a bunch of eggs and bacon and the radio droned on about the storm. “That fucking asshole Sandra’s married to now doesn’t want me there at all. I’m not sure Sandra does either, to tell you the truth. That’s probably why her sister called; I always got on with her okay. Leah said she wanted me to know, like Sandra and the asshole didn’t want me to know. I got the feeling they didn’t even know she was calling me. Shit.”

“Rosie’s your daughter,” Kerry said. “You have a right to be there.”

Even with his back to the table, Frank could hear Dan gulping coffee. Outside, a few flakes of snow swirled down into the yard. Frank couldn’t see the mountains at all. “I know I do,” Dan said. “She’s out of it now. Don’t respond to nobody, that’s what Leah said. Said the hospice nurse doesn’t know why she’s hung on this long. They hang on to wait for people, sometimes. To give them a chance to get there. That’s why Leah called me.”

“So you can drive over,” Kerry said. “Tell her it’s all right to go. That’s what we had to do with Alison. They tell you to say that. They tell you to tell them it’s okay to leave, even when it’s breaking your heart, because having them leave is the last thing you want.” Her voice had gotten thick. “You’re so lucky she’ll be translated, Dan.”

When she said that, Frank was moving hot bacon from the frying pan to a bunch of paper towels, to drain the grease. But the pan was still hot enough to spit at him, and he got burned. “Dammit!” he said, and heard two chairs scrape. When he turned around, Dan and Kerry were both staring at him. Dan looked worried; Kerry looked mad. “I burned myself,” Frank said. “On the grease. That’s all. Bacon’ll be ready in a minute. Eggs are ready now. Anybody want toast? We’ve got more coffee.”

They knew there was more coffee. Frank knew he was talking too much, even if there was nothing more to his outburst than burning himself, and Kerry’s eyes narrowed a little more, until he could tell she was ready to spit the way the grease had. “What?” he said, hoping they weren’t about to have a fight in front of Dan. But when Kerry looked like that, there was no way around it except to plow right through whatever was eating at her.

“It’s real, Frank. Translation. You should be happy for Rosie. And for Dan.”

“I burned myself on the grease, Kerry. That’s all. And Dan doesn’t need to listen to us fight about this.” Frank looked at Dan. “And no matter how real it is, somebody needing it at Rosie’s age is nothing to be happy about.” Dan nodded, and Kerry looked away, and Frank turned back to the food, feeling like maybe he’d danced his way around the fight after all. But when he turned back towards the table, a platter of eggs in one hand and a plate of bacon in the other, Kerry had started to cry, which she normally did only really late at night. That was usually Frank’s cue to go to bed, but he couldn’t do that at eight in the morning.

So he just stood there, holding the food and trying to hold his temper. After Alison died, they’d heard all the numbers and clichés. How many marriages break up after the death of a child. How you have to keep talking to each other to make sure that doesn’t happen. How losing a kid is so hard because it violates the order of nature: children are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around. The counselors at the hospital told Kerry and Frank all of that; most of their friends didn’t say anything. The counselors had warned them about that, too, how people avoid the subject.

Which maybe was why Dan had come to them. He knew Kerry wouldn’t avoid it, anyway. “You,” she said, and she sounded drunk, even though it was only eight in the morning and she hadn’t been drunk ten minutes ago. “You. You never. You never want to talk about it.”

“I talk about Alison all the time,” Frank told her, as gently as he could. He wanted to slam the food down and go into the backyard to cover the daffodils: they’d just come up, but he could see snow starting to come down in earnest now. He had to stay here, though. Because of Dan. “Come on, Ker. You know I talk about her. Remember yesterday? We were driving to the store and we saw that bright-pink Camaro, and I said, ‘Alison would have loved that car.’ And you said that yeah, she would have. Remember? It was only yesterday.”

“Translation,” she said. “You never want to talk about translation.”

Frank’s wrists were starting to ache. He put the plates down on the table. “We should eat this stuff before it gets cold.” But Kerry’s chin was quivering. She wasn’t going to let him change the subject. “Ker, we should maybe talk about this when Dan isn’t here. Okay?” What in the world was she thinking? She knew damn well how Frank felt, and he knew how she felt, which was exactly why they didn’t talk about it. There was no point. It would only upset both of them.

“It’s okay,” Dan said. “It is. Really. I —- I know people feel different ways about it. I don’t know how I feel yet. I’ll have to wait and see. I won’t have an opinion until I’ve talked to her. Until she’s online. Then I can see if it really sounds like her.”

“It will,” Kerry said. “It will, I go to the translation boards all the time and read about people who’ve been talking to their dead, and they all say the messages are real, they have to be, because they say things no one else could know. Just yesterday there was a guy who heard from his dad and his dad told him to look in a certain box in the attic, and—”

Ouija boards. People had been talking to imaginary ghosts as long as there were people. Now they did it with computers, was all. Frank wondered if Kerry would still have been so obsessed with translation if it had come around in time for Alison, if she hadn’t died six months before the first dead person went online, not that they’d have been able to afford it anyway.

There was nothing to do but tune her out, the way he always did. He turned up the volume on the Weather Channel. “Frank,” Kerry said. “You’re interrupting.”

“Listen,” Frank said. It was easing off a little, the radio said. The highway might open again within an hour. And right then he decided. “Eat up, Dan. I’m driving you. My truck’s better than yours, and you shouldn’t drive when you’re upset, especially in tricky weather.”

Frank felt rather than saw Kerry shaking her head. “No. It’s dangerous up there!” Her voice bubbled with panic. “Even if the road opens again, it’s safer to stay down here. Dan, you’ve got your phone. She’ll call you.”

“I have to try to see her,” Dan said. “I have to. You understand, don’t you?”

Kerry shook her head again. “Frank, no. I don’t want you driving up there. I can’t lose you, too.” But she knew him; she could read him. She’d started crying again, but she said, “I’ll fix a thermos of coffee.”

The snow got thicker as they climbed, and the sparse traffic slowed and then finally stopped a few miles short of the first Truckee exit. Dan, sitting with his hands clenched on his knees, had said quietly, “Hey, thanks,” when they got into the truck, and Frank had nodded, and they hadn’t said anything else. The only voice in the truck was the droning National Weather Service guy talking about the storm. It was peaceful, after Kerry’s yammering.

Frank had been driving very slowly. He trusted himself and his truck, which had a full tank of gas and new snow tires and could have gotten through just about anything short of an avalanche, but he didn’t trust the other idiots on the road. When they had to stop, he unscrewed the thermos of coffee and poured himself a cup. “You want some?”

Dan shook his head. “No thanks.” He stared straight ahead, peering through the windshield as if he could see all the way to Sacramento. There was nothing to look at but snow. Normally they would have had a gorgeous view of the mountains all around them and the Truckee River to their left, real picture postcard stuff, but not today.

Frank saw somebody bundled in a parka trudging between the lanes, knocking on windows. “This can’t be good,” he said.

“Damn fool will get killed when things start moving.”

But it was a cop. They didn’t take chances. Frank rolled down his window, and bitter stinging snow blew into the cab. “Morning, officer.”

It was a woman, CHP. “There’s a spinout up there. Bad ice. Road’s closed again, will be for a while. We’re advising everyone to take the shoulder to the next exit and turn around.” Sure enough, Frank saw the SUV ahead of them pulling onto the shoulder.

Dan groaned, and Frank shook his head. “Thank you, ma’am, but we have to stay on the road. We wouldn’t be out here otherwise.”

“All right, then, but I hope you’re okay with sitting for a while.”

Frank closed the window again and cranked up the heater a little more. “Don’t burn up all your gas,” Dan said.

“I’ll get more when we’re moving again.”

Dan shook his head. “Snow in April.” But the mountains got snow in April every year, at least one big storm. Reno natives still talked about the year there’d been snow on July 4. At altitude, there was no such thing as predictable weather.

Frank shifted in his seat; one ass cheek was already going numb. “You sure you don’t want some coffee?”

“Yeah, I’m sure! My nerves are bad enough as it is.” Dan sounded angry, and Frank swallowed his own anger and didn’t say anything. I’m doing you a favor, dammit. He was tired of getting snapped at because other people couldn’t deal with reality. But he was doing himself a favor too, using Dan’s situation to get away from Kerry. Maybe he had it coming.

So they sat there, staring out at the snow, and finally Dan said, “I’m sorry I was short with you. I—”

“Forget it,” Frank said. “How about some music?”

“Whatever you want,” Dan said, in that tone that meant I don’t really want this but I owe you so I’ll put up with it. Frank reached into the back for the box of CDs—old reliable tech—and riffled through it. The Beatles sang about missing people too much, and the Doors were too weird and depressing, the last thing Dan needed now. Finally Frank picked out Best of the Big Bands. That ought to be innocuous enough.

They were staring out at the swirling snow and listening to the Andrews Sisters singing “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” when Dan’s cellphone rang. Dan groaned, and Frank turned off the music. “It’s probably just Leah giving you an update,” he said. “Or a telemarketer.” But he didn’t believe that himself, and he saw Dan’s hands shaking as they fumbled with the phone. He heard Dan’s hoarse breathing, the hiss of snow on the windshield, the shrilling phone.

And then silence as Dan answered. “Yes? Hello?”

There was a long pause. In the bleak light from the storm, Frank saw Dan’s face grow slack and stricken. Frank had never met Rosie, but knowing that she must be dead, he felt the same sucker-punch to the gut he’d felt when Alison died, that moment of numbness when the world stopped.

“Baby?” Dan said. “Rosie? Is that really you?”

No, Frank thought. No, it’s not. Goddammit—

“Rosie, are you okay now? I’m so sorry I didn’t get there in time. I wanted to say goodbye. I’m so sorry. I tried. We’re on the road. We’re stuck in snow.” He was sobbing now in great heaving gasps.

Frank looked away from him. The voice on the other end would be saying that it was okay, that everything was forgiven. Kerry told him those syrupy stories all the time, the miracles of posthumous reconciliation people had always paid big money for. The price tag had gone up, but at least Dan wasn’t paying for it. Sandra and the asshole were the suckers there.

Dan fell into silence, chin quivering, and then said, “I know. I’m sorry.” Frank saw him shudder. “I’m here now. I’m here. You can always call me. I love you. I’m sorry you hurt so much at the end. Yes, call your friends now. I’ll talk to you soon.”

He hung up, fumbling almost as much as he had when he answered the phone, his hands shaking as if he were outside in the cold, not here in the truck with a hot thermos of coffee and the heater blasting. He cleared his throat. “I told her I was sorry I wasn’t there. She said, ‘Daddy, you’ve never been there.’” His voice cracked. Frank stared straight ahead, out into the snow. Jesus.

Next to him, he heard Dan unscrewing the thermos, heard the sound of the liquid pouring into the cup. “I deserved that.” Dan’s voice was quiet, remote. “What she said.”

Frank shifted in his seat again. He had a sudden sharp memory of yelling at Alison when she was a little thing, three or four, when she’d been racing around the house and had run into him and her Barbie doll had jammed into his stomach like a bayonet. He’d had a bruise for two weeks, but the memory of her face when he screamed at her had lasted a lot longer. He swallowed. “Do they get over things? Or are they stuck like that forever, mad at whatever they were mad at when they died?” That had to be anybody’s idea of hell.

“I don’t know.” Dan’s words were thin, frayed. “I don’t know how I can make it up to her now, except by talking to her whenever she wants to talk. I can’t go back and get to her seventh birthday party, that time I was out drinking. I can’t go back and fight less with Sandra. I just—well, I can tell Rosie how sorry I am about all of that. Hope she knows I mean it.”

“Yeah. What do you want to do now, Dan? I’ll still drive you to Sacramento, if you need to see—”

“Her dead body? No.” Dan shook his head, a slow heavy movement like a bear shaking off the weight of winter. “Not in this stuff. You’ve been awfully kind. I’ll try to get to the funeral, but that won’t be for a few days, anyway. The highway ought to be open by then.” His voice splintered again. “I just wish I’d gotten to hug her one last time, you know?”

Frank nodded, and eased the truck carefully onto the shoulder, and headed for the exit.

It didn’t take long to get back to the house. Frank pulled into the driveway, and they both got out, and Dan said, “I’ll be heading home now. You go on in and tell Kerry what happened. I’m not up to it.”

“If you need anything—”

“Yeah. I’ll let you know. Thanks, Frank.” Dan nodded and headed back to his own truck, and Frank went into the house. Kerry, sitting at the kitchen table doing a crossword puzzle, looked up when he came through the door. He saw the relief on her face, saw her exhale. And then she frowned.

“What happened?”

“The highway’s still closed. Rosie’s dead. She called Dan.” He pulled out another chair and sat down, suddenly exhausted. “You’re right, Kerry. It’s real.”

Her eyes filled with tears. She reached for his hand. “I’m glad you know that now.”

He did know, but he knew other things, too. He knew that it didn’t make any difference, that even if your dead child called you from cyberspace, you still regretted what you hadn’t been able to do for her. He wouldn’t miss Alison any less if she’d been translated, not even if she’d been one of the syrupy ghosts. Maybe he’d miss her more.

But that wasn’t anything he could say to Kerry, who needed whatever comfort she could get. So he stood up and went to the window. There were icicles hanging from the roof. The daffodils and tulips definitely weren’t going to make it.

He heard Kerry’s chair scraping against the linoleum, felt her come up behind him. “Honey, there will be flowers again next year.”

“I know there will.”

He stood there, looking out, remembering the day they’d planted the bulbs, mixing the soil with Alison’s ashes. She’d loved flowers.

Human Strandings and the Role of the Xenobiologist

Thoraiya Dyer

Very few comprehensive texts have been produced on the wider topic of human strandings. Earthlings Ashore: A Field Guide For Shuttle Crashes (2nd ed.) by Icareg and Yrubsnoul, and the relevant section of the University of Yendys’ Sound Wave Communication In Breathers, Proceedings 335 are probably the most useful.

Kelly shrank from the rotten-egg smell and the falling ash.

She tried to shelter in Mama’s shadow, trailing behind her family across the clanking steel walkway. The ash was the awfulest. She’d worn her best dress with shiny pink beads, and her pale pink tights, even though they hurt her bottom where Mama had hit her. Once they reached the office, she shook the dress frantically, trying to get the gray flecks off, trying to get the smell out. She stomped her glittery ballet flats on the dusty carpet, the shoes her mother had told her not to wear because they’d only get wrecked at the spaceport.

Her head level with the desk top, she examined its electronic undersides while the grown-ups talked.

“You’ve gotten yourself into some real trouble, haven’t you?” the fat man behind the desk said jovially to Kelly’s father. “I can help you, but I only help people once. You get in this deep again and you’re on your own.”

Kelly’s father murmured something in reply but Kelly didn’t catch it. She thought she’d seen a mouse whisk behind the components and she bent to peer between the blinking LEDs in the hope of sighting its whiskery face.

“Well, the freight costs will depend on weight.”

“We’re not freight,” Mama said coldly.

“Yes, you are, darling. Just these two kids? Let me have a look at them. And what do you want to be when you grow up, young man?”

Kelly’s big brother, Chris, puffed up his chest.

“Salvage pilot,” he said.

The fat man leaned over the desk and smiled at Kelly. Immediately, she forgot about the mouse. The man had a handsome face and minty breath. Kelly bounced on her toes, waiting for the chance to tell him that she wanted to be a ballerina.

“Hey, beautiful,” he said. “Have you got a boyfriend yet?”

Our modest aim is to provide xenobiologists, particularly those less familiar with human anatomy and physiology, with a brief guide to diagnosis, treatment, sample-collection and follow-up for common stranding scenarios.

Kelly listened to the scream of air being split by the fins and remembered how her mother had screamed at her father, in a fury, when he’d said that Kelly would have to be hidden in a shipment of HIV vaccine.

She’ll freeze to death.

She’ll be sleeping, love. Cryo temperature and viral storage temperatures are comparable. You heard what the man said.

What he said. Why should he tell us the truth? He has our money, now. I don’t see why we can’t all stay together.

You know why. Splitting us up reduces the risk of getting caught.

Kelly’s teeth chattered, an echo of the crackling, rattling, defrosting Petri dishes in racks all around her. She gripped the mesh that trapped her in her open capsule. It was too hot. Something was wrong. She was supposed to stay sleeping until her mother woke her.

“Mama,” she cried. Chris wanted to be a salvage pilot. He’d shown her hundreds of vids of gruesome crashes. She wasn’t supposed to crash. Mama had promised. The Unity would control and correct her ship’s path, steering her to Centauri station, not into a planet with air and heat and fire.

She wanted to go back to sleep but tapping at the console did nothing.

ERROR, the Unity told her.

She pushed all of the buttons at once.


Kelly screamed and clawed at the mesh. She was burning, cooking in her pee and sweat. She was a tadpole in a puddle being baked dry by the sun.

Before she could cook to death, she crashed. Her body hit the mesh so hard that a crisscross of blood printed itself into her like grill patterns on chicken. Chunks of silver shell spun away into whiteness. Shattered Petri dishes and their dangerous, diseased contents rained down on her. The Unity console display that had been near her arm now hung near her face.


Fresh snow fell through the mesh, onto Kelly’s face from a featureless sky.

She struggled to stop crying long enough to breathe. Breathe. Breathe. There was air outside. The flakes were cool on her skin. She was alive but the white sky was turning to gray fuzz.

Don’t suck in your stomach, her mother had instructed as they stood at the family’s beloved barre. It was worn smooth by generations of women’s hands. You won’t be able to breathe.

Kelly poked her tummy out and giggled. Her mother tsked.

First position.

Easy, Kelly said, not quite daring to poke out her tongue. She put her heels together and toes out in opposite directions. She was six years old and so flexible she could cross her feet behind her head, if she wanted, but she got told off for doing it school because boys could see her underpants.

Put your hand on your middle, like this. It should move when you breathe in and out. See? No, you’re breathing too shallow. Breathe in through your nose, then all the way out. Empty out more. More!

Kelly made choking sounds.

I am empty!

Her mother pressed impatiently on her diaphragm. Too hard. It hurt.

Now you’re empty. Now you can breathe in again.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Although single stranded humans are much more common, the prognosis for a human stranded alone is generally poor. Mass strandings require greater commitment and involvement.

—Is it smashed like all the others?

—Yes. But unlike the others, the computer survived. Jid, you won’t believe this. It has no artificial intelligence in it at all. The shuttle is just a metal body. Its brain is somewhere else; somewhere in space. No wonder they keep crashing here. It’s as if the entity that controlled this shuttle, that fired this human into space, didn’t care enough about where it landed to waste time growing an independent mind for the module.

—Maybe it thought the human mind would suffice.

—This is important. We have to send it back. This is a bungled migration. We have to warn the entity that without proper guidance these modules don’t constitute a successful genetic dispersal but, instead, deliver death.

—How? By sending it in one of our own modules? Who will give up their birth-share of resources for a half-dead human?

—I will.

—Sil, you are still young. Consider that this may be a natural process. Maybe only the fittest specimens, the ones whose minds are capable of guiding a module, are intended to survive.

—But I like this one. Look at its funny round head. Look how it angles its photoreceptors and auditory canals. It wants to understand us. It’s trying to understand.

—It hasn’t receptors for the proper spectrum. It can’t differentiate us from the snow or the transport or the sky.

—It can hear us, though. And it’s only got two legs. Like a—

—Like a child. Yes, I know. Look, I want you to get back to the work that you are being paid to do. After you’ve done all that, if you clean the containment area out the back of the surgery, I’ll let you keep the human there until the snowstorm quiets down enough for a qualified assessor to get through.

Inexperienced xenobiologists should be encouraged, once they have made an initial assessment of a stranded animal, to contact an experienced xenobiologist for advice on how to proceed.

Kelly watched the whispering whiteness when she could; when she couldn’t stand it any longer, she closed her eyes and watched the branching red rivers in the skin of her eyelids.

They were the only colorful things on this whole white world. She was the only colorful thing. As she lay in invisibly soft, comfortably warm whiteness, with whiteness covering her from the waist down, having traveled for days in invisible hands away from her crashed ship, she wished for the flickering ruby and emerald lights under the man’s desk at the spaceport. She wished for her mother’s melted chocolate eyes and her pet kitten’s amber stare. Even Chris’s calculating blue ones would have been welcome.

Months might have passed, or years. She slept and woke. Often, invisible hands put white stuff in her mouth that she chewed and swallowed. Sometimes, she reached around her invisible bed until she touched coldness, and ate snow. If she pooped or peed, she didn’t know it. She couldn’t feel her legs.

Sometimes, she cried.

One time, when she’d been crying inconsolably, the invisible hands brought her the console display from the ship.


Kelly picked it up and threw it as hard as she could at the whiteness. The invisible hands didn’t bring it to her again.

Most local agencies have stranding policies and procedures. These can contribute to a more rapid and benevolent outcome.

—It’s frightened.

—Of course it’s frightened. It can’t see you and you’re stuffing it inside one of our modules; for all it knows, that is a burial chamber and you’re putting it inside to die. I should never have let you convince me not to call the assessor.

—I’m not putting it inside to die. I’m returning it to its point of origin.

—Oh, that’s what you’r