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The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2009

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The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2009

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Science Fiction The Best of the Year 2007

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Edited by


This book is for Mary Ann.

Copyright © 2009 by Rich Horton

Cover art by Cura Photography.

Cover design by Stephen H. Segal.

Ebook design by Neil Clarke.

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

ISBN: 978-1-60701-268-9 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-60701-214-6 (trade paperback)

Prime Books

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

For more information, contact Prime Books.


Introduction, Rich Horton

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss, Kij Johnson

Shoggoths in Bloom, Elizabeth Bear

Glass, Daryl Gregory

The Hiss of Escaping Air, Christopher Golden

Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake, Naomi Novik

We Love Deena, Alice Sola Kim

The Art of Alchemy, Ted Kosmatka

Falling Angel, Eugene Mirabelli

The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross, Margo Lanagan

King Pelles the Sure, Peter S. Beagle

Character Flu, Robert Reed

Gift from a Spring, Delia Sherman

The Region of Unlikeness, Rivka Galchen

Daltharee, Jeffrey Ford

The Ray-Gun: A Love Story, James Alan Gardner

The God of Au, Ann Leckie

The Fantasy Jumper, Will McIntosh

The Magician’s House, Meghan McCarron

Balancing Accounts, James L. Cambias

Suicide Drive, Charlie Anders

The Small Door, Holly Phillips

The Eyes of God, Peter Watts

Firooz and His Brother, Alex Jeffers

Infestation, Garth Nix

A Water Matter, Jay Lake

The Golden Octopus, Beth Bernobich

Blue Vervain Murder Ballad #2: Jack of Diamonds, Erik Amundsen

The Road to Levinshir, Patrick Rothfuss

Fixing Hanover, Jeff VanderMeer

Boojum, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette

The Difficulties of Evolution, Karen Heuler

Catherine Drewe, Paul Cornell

Silent as Dust, James Maxey

Evil Robot Monkey, Mary Robinette Kowal

If Angels Fight, Richard Bowes

Spiderhorse, Liz Williams

The Tear, Ian McDonald

Biogr; aphies

Honorable Mentions

Publication History

About the Editor



It’s a mug’s game to try to define science fiction, but I’m going to at least gesture in that direction. As opposed to mysteries or romances, which are defined by plot, and horror, which is defined by mood, sf and fantasy are defined by setting. (Probably historical fiction also can be defined by setting.) (And mainstream? I’m not sure. Dare one say it’s defined by character? Perhaps instead we should say it’s not a genre at all. As for experimental fiction, it seems defined by language or structure.)

Then how do sf and fantasy differ? The setting of an sf story is, in the story’s terms, plausibly real, and not our present or past, while the setting of a fantasy story is not plausibly real. Thus a fantasy can be set in our present, with magic (i.e. urban fantasy) or in an alternate past, with magic (historical fantasy), or in a secondary world, with or without magic, but not one that, in story terms, might be real. This last proviso allows that curious category of fantasy without magic: stories like Swordspoint. (Although Swordspoint’s world actually does have magic, as its sequels show.) What I mean here is that there are certain stories we usually call fantasy that appear to be set in something very like our world, but clearly not our world—the geography doesn’t fit, or the history doesn’t fit. And, crucially, there is no connection to our world. It’s not an alternate history, it’s not (at least not explicitly) a parallel world, and it’s not an oddly Earthlike other planet . . . it’s just there. I admit there’s something unsatisfying about this—why not call these stories either variants of historical fiction (much like so-called “Ruritanian” stories) or variants of alternate history (and thus sf)? Here I call on Damon Knight—when we point at these stories (like Swordspoint) we usually say fantasy—so they’re fantasy. (And they are, all in all, fairly rare.)

Which leaves science fiction. Stories that—in the internal story terms—are set in a plausibly real world, but not our world either present or past. That leaves the future, or parallel worlds, or astronomically different worlds (nominally other planets), or an alternate history. (Or, rarely, a special case: secret history, in which the story terms do suggest that the world is ours, but understood differently.) There’s no requirement here for a technological focus. And no real requirement for any “science” at all, except in that the connection to “our” world needs at least a handwaved scientific explanation. The key phrase here is that the plausibility requirement is “in story terms”—that is, the author need not necessarily believe that his “science” (his FTL drive, for example) is actual rigorous, or even sensible—just that it works. (And how is this different from a fantasy story claiming that magic works internally to the story? Good question, and I would just say the main difference is feel or attitude.)

As for “fantasy,” writers are continually redefining fantasy—the field is always what the latest stories say it is. But what does that really mean? Every year some writers are happily producing heroic fantasy, others urban fantasy, some science fantasy, some slipstream. And indeed I keep looking at the stories I choose for these anthologies and I keep failing to find overarching trends. (Even though my personal selection bias might be presumed to narrow things.) Perhaps one way to classify fantasy is by setting. Is the story set in a secondary world? In our world with a slight magical irruption? In a changed historical setting—either fantastical alternate history or the past viewed as fantasy? In a world based on myth? In an entirely artificial location?

So this year I have a story by Patrick Rothfuss, “The Road to Levinshir,” that is at core as traditional a heroic fantasy as you could want, set in a fairly typical secondary world. (And immensely entertaining and very moving.) But also Jeffrey Ford’s “Daltharee,” completely odd, a story of a city in a bottle with a frame that seems steampunkish at times. And “Blue Vervain Murder Ballad #2: Jack of Diamonds,” by Erik Amundsen, which echoes American riverboat stories and deals with the devil. Or Karen Heuler’s “The Difficulties of Evolution,” quite unplaceably weird, about people evolving into birds or animals as they grow.

Holly Phillips, in “The Small Door,” is achingly moving in a story with an almost suburban setting—no obvious fantastical world here—just a tiny fantastical escape, with, alas, limits. The fantasy world of Christopher Golden’s “The Hiss of Escaping Air” is Hollywood—the real bite of the story, however, lies in the mind of the main character, a basically decent person who lets revenge make her do something unexpectedly awful. Delia Sherman’s “Gift From a Spring” is set in rural France, with an artist protagonist, working at a ballet school—it’s a very grounded story somehow, despite the magical nature of the ballerina.

Ann Leckie has written several recent pieces examining the pitfalls of dealing with deities—the best of these is “The God of Au,” which is, thus, set in a secondary world. Peter S. Beagle’s “King Pelles the Sure” seems set in a fairly generic secondary world (but sans magic)—except that the story speaks gently, without hectoring, very directly to our present situation in Iraq. (Though really more broadly to the impulse towards war in general.) “Araminta; or The Wreck of the Amphidrake,” by Naomi Novik, is also set in something of a secondary world—but one with considerable parallels to, perhaps, Regency England—more importantly, it’s a pirate story, which means it’s a fantasy in a different—very fun—way.

The closer I look at my selections the more I see how much fantasy these days is really set in near variations of our present world. Not all of this strikes me as “urban fantasy”—indeed, most of it avoids the more obvious “urban fantasy” tropes. But if it’s fantasy set in a city called New York, surely it’s urban fantasy in some sense, eh? So with Eugene Mirabelli’s “Falling Angel,” a stark look at a man’s obsessive relationship with a literal angel that fell to his roof. (One might compare it to another “angel in New York” story from last year, Peter S. Beagle’s “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel,” one of five Beagle stories I agonized over including here before settling on “King Pelles the Sure.”) “If Angels Fight” might be my favorite Richard Bowes story yet—and he’s surely an “urban fantasist,” with his stories often set in either Boston or New York, as with this one, about the black sheep of a Boston political family—so this becomes in one sense a very political story, but one that turns movingly on a striking fantastical idea.

Meghan McCarron’s “The Magician’s House” is closer to “suburban fantasy” perhaps—and very disturbing it is, about a girl learning magic from a local wizard. And I’m not sure how to categorize Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” except to call it a delight—perhaps there’s a hint of Ray Bradbury in the background of this story about woman and the rather unusual disappearing monkey act she runs.

One of the key strengths of contemporary set fantasy is that so often we directly sympathize with the main character—we can so easily see ourselves as them—which ups the ante powerfully in a story like Alice Sola Kim’s “We Love Deena,” where the protagonist can jump into people’s heads—and uses that ability to sort of stalk her ex-lover. In a different way James Maxey’s “Silent as Dust” invites us to identify with a ghost—who is not quite a ghost really, but may as well be, living uninvited in the interstices of an old friend’s life. And again, the idea that we too might be that ghost makes the story work.

And yet there remain stories that draw us in with their exotic settings. For example “Firooz and his Brother” by Alex Jeffers, set in old Samarkand—but involving in a contemporary fashion too, with its gender-bending central idea. Or Liz Williams’s “Spiderhorse,” in which the Norse myths (and Odin’s horse) are viewed from a very original angle. And again Jay Lake’s “A Water Matter” is set in a secondary world, not entirely unfamiliar in outline (though originally limned), and it deals with magic and revenge and the question of ruling family succession—all subjects long central to fantasy. But made new again, as the best writers continue to manage.

So that’s what the world of fantasy (at shorter lengths) looks today—at least as viewed through the doubtless distorted lens of my personal preferences. Secondary worlds, and fantasticated historical (or mythical) settings remain popular, but contemporary or near-contemporary settings seem to predominate slightly. Only a couple of stories seem to fit to me into such categories as “the New Weird” or alternately “slipstream.” And only a couple negotiate with science fictional ideas—so-called “science fantasy” is indeed one of my personal favorite subgenres, but little in that area came my way last year.

And now to the science fiction stories in the volume. Again, an attempt at broad categorization follows. I thought classifying them based on their setting, or sub-setting, might be interesting. Let’s see where that takes us.

First up is a story that pretty much violates my “setting” definition: “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen is set pretty much in the present, pretty much in our world. (Maybe that’s how an sf story got into the New Yorker? (Nahh . . . Jonathan Lethem’s “Lostronaut,” also from 2008 at the New Yorker, is straightforwardly set in the future, about an astronaut lost in space.)) But Galchen’s story beautifully details the protagonist’s relationship with two older men, in a way that suggests they have invented time travel. (Which makes it perhaps a secret history, or which suggests a

“real” future—either way shoehorning just barely into the space of my vague definition.)

Next, how many stories are set in the nearish future on Earth. Daryl Gregory’s “Glass” is perhaps pure sf in this mode—extrapolating a plausible near-future scientific development. Will McIntosh’s “The Fantasy Jumper,” published in a horror-oriented magazine, looks at the horrific uses a virtual technology could be put to. Ted Kosmatka’s “The Art of Alchemy” is about plausible technological developments—and also, more importantly, about characters caught up in them. Peter Watts, “The Eyes of God” is very scary, about a future in which a tendency to criminal actions becomes in essence criminal. Mary Robinette Kowal “Evil Robot Monkey” looks at the plight of a sort of “uplifted” chimp. Garth Nix, in “Infestation,” gives vampires a science fictional basis (though for many the word vampire immediately makes the story fantasy). Robert Reed, in “Character Flu,” cleverly examines a scary sort of “virus.”

Farther in the future, with other worlds implied, we have Margo Lanagan’s “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross,” in which a ruined environment has meant ruined fertility, and as a corollary, aliens are used as prostitutes. James L. Cambias, in “Balancing Accounts” tells what in some ways is as traditional as SF story as we see these days: robots, spaceships, and the outer planets. What more can an SF reader want? Paul Cornell’s “Catherine Drewe” is more ambiguous, as its future is based on an alternate past, and some alternate scientific principles: but it is set on Mars. James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray Gun: A Love Story” is almost a fable, but concerning a real true SF trope: a ray gun. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, in

“Boojum,” give us battles with aliens at the edge of the Solar System, and living spaceships. Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” takes us much farther to the future, and features very strangely altered humans, and other planets, and interstellar war. Charlie Anders’s “Suicide Drive” is a very original take on the idea of an expensive expedition to other stars.

Alternate history is of course a very common trope. And so is steampunk. All the alternate histories to hand have steampunk elements (though the Bear only at a stretch), including Cornell’s “Catherine Drewe” which I’ve already mention. Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” marries Lovecraft and the runup to World War II with a look at American racism. Beth Bernobich’s “The Golden Octopus” is set in a wildly alternate Ireland, and takes on time travel as well. Finally, Jeff VanderMeer’s “Fixing Hanover” is set in a steampunkish milieu in what make be an alternate past, or alternate future, or just a different world.

It is, I suppose, incumbent on me to briefly review the commercial state of play in the field. And it isn’t that pretty a picture. As I write these words we have been stunned by the news that Realms of Fantasy is being suddenly closed after fifteen years of publication. (A victim of the generally gloomy economic climate, of some apparent distribution issues, and perhaps of a long-term stagnation in magazine sales.) More happily, it now appears that the magazine will be revived in a few months. At about the same time we learned that F&SF is switching to bimonthly publication—with thicker issues to be sure, but still there will be reduction in word count overall. The other prominent fantasy venues—in print, Weird Tales, Black Static, Black Gate most notably, and on the web Fantasy Magazine, Chiaroscuro, and Strange Horizons (but there are many more) continued much as before. The best news is a couple of new sites— (which publishes plenty of SF as well) and “literary adventure fantasy”-oriented Beneath Ceaseless Skies. There is as much or more outstanding short fantasy being written as ever—but it’s still hard, harder than ever perhaps, to publish it prominently or for much remuneration. There were not as many changes in the SF half of the field, perhaps, though we are seeing Postscripts switch to an anthology format from a magazine.

In part because this was a truly remarkable year for anthologies, the artistic health of the field seems as strong as ever. If the commercial health is a bit wobbly, perhaps that mainly reflects our entire economy. But be assured—as I trust this book demonstrates—there remains plenty of magnificent science fiction and fantasy to read.




Aimee’s big trick is that she makes twenty-six monkeys vanish onstage.


She pushes out a claw-foot bathtub and asks audience members to come up and inspect it. The people climb in and look underneath, touch the white enamel, run their hands along the little lions’ feet. When they’re done, four chains are lowered from the stage’s fly space. Aimee secures them to holes drilled along the tub’s lip and gives a signal, and the bathtub is hoisted ten feet into the air.

She sets a stepladder next to it. She claps her hands and the twenty-six monkeys onstage run up the ladder one after the other and jump into the bathtub. The bathtub shakes as each monkey thuds in among the others. The audience can see heads, legs, tails; but eventually every monkey settles and the bathtub is still again. Zeb is always the last monkey up the ladder. As he climbs into the bathtub, he makes a humming boom deep in his chest. It fills the stage.

And then there’s a flash of light, two of the chains fall off, and the bathtub swings down to expose its interior.



They turn up later, back at the tour bus. There’s a smallish dog door, and in the hours before morning the monkeys let themselves in, alone or in small groups, and get themselves glasses of water from the tap. If more than one returns at the same time, they murmur a bit among themselves, like college students meeting in the dorm halls after bar time. A few sleep on the sofa and at least one likes to be on the bed, but most of them wander back to their cages. There’s a little grunting as they rearrange their blankets and soft toys, and then sighs and snoring. Aimee doesn’t really sleep until she hears them all come in.

Aimee has no idea what happens to them in the bathtub, or where they go, or what they do before the soft click of the dog door opening. This bothers her a lot.


Aimee has had the act for three years now. She was living in a month-by-month furnished apartment under a flight path for the Salt Lake City airport. She was hollow, as if something had chewed a hole in her body and the hole had grown infected.

There was a monkey act at the Utah State Fair. She felt a sudden and totally out-of-character urge to see it. Afterward, with no idea why, she walked up to the owner and said, “I have to buy this.”

He nodded. He sold it to her for a dollar, which he told her was the price he had paid four years before.

Later, when the paperwork was filled out, she asked him, “How can you leave them? Won’t they miss you?”

“You’ll see, they’re pretty autonomous,” he said. “Yeah, they’ll miss me and I’ll miss them. But it’s time, they know that.”

He smiled at his new wife, a small woman with laugh lines and a vervet hanging from one hand. “We’re ready to have a garden,” she said.

He was right. The monkeys missed him. But they also welcomed her, each monkey politely shaking her hand as she walked into what was now her bus.


Aimee has: a nineteen-year-old tour bus packed with cages that range in size from parrot-sized (for the vervets) to something about the size of a pickup bed (for all the macaques); a stack of books on monkeys ranging from All About Monkeys to Evolution and Ecology of Baboon Societies; some sequined show costumes, a sewing machine, and a bunch of Carhartts and tees; a stack of show posters from a few years back that say 25 Monkeys! Face the Abyss; a battered sofa in a virulent green plaid; and a boyfriend who helps with the monkeys.

She cannot tell you why she has any of these, not even the boyfriend, whose name is Geof, whom she met in Billings seven months ago. Aimee has no idea where anything comes from any more: she no longer believes that anything makes sense, even though she can’t stop hoping.

The bus smells about as you’d expect a bus full of monkeys to smell; though after a show, after the bathtub trick but before the monkeys all return, it also smells of cinnamon, which is the tea Aimee sometimes drinks.


For the act, the monkeys do tricks, or dress up in outfits and act out hit movies—The Matrix is very popular, as is anything where the monkeys dress up like little orcs. The maned monkeys, the lion-tails and the colobuses, have a lion-tamer act, with the old capuchin female, Pango, dressed in a red jacket and carrying a whip and a small chair. The chimpanzee (whose name is Mimi, and no, she is not a monkey) can do actual sleight of hand; she’s not very good, but she’s the best Chimp Pulling A Coin From Someone’s Ear in the world.

The monkeys also can build a suspension bridge out of wooden chairs and rope, make a four-tier champagne fountain, and write their names on a whiteboard.

The monkey show is very popular, with a schedule of 127 shows this year at fairs and festivals across the Midwest and Great Plains. Aimee could do more, but she likes to let everyone have a couple of months off at Christmas.


This is the bathtub act:

Aimee wears a glittering purple-black dress designed to look like a scanty magician’s robe. She stands in front of a scrim lit deep blue and scattered with stars. The monkeys are ranged in front of her. As she speaks they undress and fold their clothes into neat piles. Zeb sits on his stool to one side, a white spotlight shining straight down to give him a shadowed look.

She raises her hands.

“These monkeys have made you laugh, and made you gasp. They have created wonders for you and performed mysteries. But there is a final mystery they offer you—the strangest, the greatest of all.”

She parts her hands suddenly, and the scrim goes transparent and is lifted away, revealing the bathtub on a raised dais. She walks around it, running her hand along the tub’s curves.

“It’s a simple thing, this bathtub. Ordinary in every way, mundane as breakfast. In a moment I will invite members of the audience up to let you prove this for yourselves.

“But for the monkeys it is also a magical object. It allows them to travel—no one can say where. Not even I—” she pauses “—can tell you this. Only the monkeys know, and they share no secrets.

“Where do they go? Into heaven, foreign lands, other worlds—or some dark abyss? We cannot follow. They will vanish before our eyes, vanish from this most ordinary of things.”

And after the bathtub is inspected and she has told the audience that there will be no final spectacle in the show—“It will be hours before they return from their secret travels”—and called for applause for them, she gives the cue.


Aimee’s monkeys:

2 siamangs, a mated couple

2 squirrel monkeys, though they’re so active they might as well be twice as many

2 vervets

a guenon, who is probably pregnant, though it’s still too early to tell for sure. Aimee has no idea how this happened

3 rhesus monkeys. They juggle a little

a capuchin female named Pango

a crested macaque, 3 snow monkeys (one quite young), and a Java macaque. Despite the differences, they have formed a small troop and like to sleep together

a chimpanzee, who is not actually a monkey

a surly gibbon

2 marmosets

a golden tamarin; a cotton-top tamarin

a proboscis monkey

red and black colubuses



Aimee thinks Zeb might be a de Brazza’s guenon, except that he’s so old that he has lost almost all his hair. She worries about his health, but he insists on staying in the act. By now all he’s really up for is the final rush to the bathtub, and for him it is more of a stroll. The rest of the time, he sits on a stool that is painted orange and silver and watches the other monkeys, looking like an aging impresario watching his Swan Lake from the wings. Sometimes she gives him things to hold, such as a silver hoop through which the squirrel monkeys jump.


No one knows how the monkeys vanish or where they go. Sometimes they return holding foreign coins or durian fruit, or wearing pointed Moroccan slippers. Every so often one returns pregnant or accompanied by a new monkey. The number of monkeys is not constant.

“I just don’t get it,” Aimee keeps asking Geof, as if he has any idea. Aimee never knows anything any more. She’s been living without any certainties, and this one thing—well, the whole thing, the fact the monkeys get along so well and know how to do card tricks and just turned up in her life and vanish from the bathtub; everything—she coasts with that most of the time, but every so often, when she feels her life is wheeling without brakes down a long hill, she starts poking at this again.

Geof trusts the universe a lot more than Aimee does, trusts that things make sense and that people can love, and therefore he doesn’t need the same proofs. “You could ask them,” he says.


Aimee’s boyfriend:

Geof is not at all what Aimee expected from a boyfriend. For one thing, he’s fifteen years younger than Aimee, twenty-eight to her forty-three. For another, he’s sort of quiet. For a third, he’s gorgeous, silky thick hair pulled into a shoulder-length ponytail, shaved sides showing off his strong jaw line. He smiles a lot, but he doesn’t laugh very often.

Geof has a degree in history, which means that he was working in a bike-repair shop when she met him at the Montana Fair. Aimee never has much to do right after the show, so when he offered to buy her a beer she said yes. And then it was four AM and they were kissing in the bus, monkeys letting themselves in and getting ready for bed; and Aimee and Geof made love.

In the morning over breakfast, the monkeys came up one by one and shook his hand solemnly, and then he was with the band, so to speak. She helped him pick up his cameras and clothes and the surfboard his sister had painted for him one year as a Christmas present. There’s no room for the surfboard, so it’s suspended from the ceiling. Sometimes the squirrel monkeys hang out there and peek over the side.

Aimee and Geof never talk about love.

Geof has a class-C driver’s license, but this is just lagniappe.


Zeb is dying.

Generally speaking, the monkeys are remarkably healthy and Aimee can handle their occasional sinus infections and gastrointestinal ailments. For anything more difficult, she’s found a couple of communities online and some helpful specialists.

But Zeb’s coughing some, and the last of his fur is falling out. He moves very slowly and sometimes has trouble remembering simple tasks. When the show was up in St. Paul six months ago, a Como Zoo biologist came to visit the monkeys, complimented her on their general health and well-being, and at her request looked Zeb over.

“How old is he?” the biologist, Gina, asked.

“I don’t know,” Aimee said. The man she bought the show from hadn’t known either.

“I’ll tell you then,” Gina said. “He’s old. I mean, seriously old.”

Senile dementia, arthritis, a heart murmur. No telling when, Gina said. “He’s a happy monkey,” she said. “He’ll go when he goes.”


Aimee thinks a lot about this. What happens to the act when Zeb’s dead? Through each show he sits calm and poised on his bright stool. She feels he is somehow at the heart of the monkeys’ amiability and cleverness. She keeps thinking that he is somehow the reason the monkeys all vanish and return.

Because there’s always a reason for everything, isn’t there? Because if there isn’t a reason for even one thing, like how you can get sick, or your husband stop loving you or people you love die—then there’s no reason for anything. So there must be reasons. Zeb’s as good a guess as any.


What Aimee likes about this life:

It doesn’t mean anything. She doesn’t live anywhere. Her world is thirty-eight feet and 127 shows long and currently twenty-six monkeys deep. This is manageable.

Fairs don’t mean anything, either. Her tiny world travels within a slightly larger world, the identical, interchangeable fairs. Sometimes the only things that cue Aimee to the town she’s in are the nighttime temperatures and the shape of the horizon: badlands, mountains, plains, or city skyline.

Fairs are as artificial as titanium knees: the carnival, the animal barns, the stock-car races, the concerts, the smell of burnt sugar and funnel cakes and animal bedding. Everything is an overly bright symbol for something real, food or pets or hanging out with friends. None of this has anything to do with the world Aimee used to live in, the world from which these people visit.

She has decided that Geof is like the rest of it: temporary, meaningless. Not for loving.


These are some ways Aimee’s life might have come apart:

a. She might have broken her ankle a few years ago, and gotten a bone infection that left her on crutches for ten months, and in pain for longer.

b. Her husband might have fallen in love with his admin and left her.

c. She might have been fired from her job in the same week she found out her sister had colon cancer.

d. She might have gone insane for a time and made a series of questionable choices that left her alone in a furnished apartment in a city she picked out of the atlas.

Nothing is certain. You can lose everything. Eventually, even at your luckiest, you will die and then you will lose it all. When you are a certain age or when you have lost certain things and people, Aimee’s crippling grief will make a terrible poisoned dark sense.


Aimee has read up a lot, so she knows how strange all this is.

There aren’t any locks on the cages. The monkeys use them as bedrooms, places to store their special possessions and get away from the others when they want some privacy. Much of the time, however, they are loose in the bus or poking around outside.

Right now, three monkeys are sitting on the bed playing a game where they match colored cards. Others are playing with skeins of bright wool, or rolling around on the floor, or poking at a piece of wood with a screwdriver, or climbing on Aimee and Geof and the battered sofa. Some of the monkeys are crowded around the computer watching kitten videos on a pirated wireless connection.

The black colubus is stacking children’s wooden blocks on the kitchenette’s table. He brought them back one night a couple of weeks ago, and since then he’s been trying to make an arch. After two weeks and Aimee’s showing him repeatedly how a keystone works, he still hasn’t figured it out, but he’s still patiently trying.

Geof’s reading a novel out loud to Pango, who watches the pages as if she’s reading along. Sometimes she points to a word and looks up at him with her bright eyes, and he repeats it to her, smiling, and then spells it out.

Zeb is sleeping in his cage. He crept in there at dusk, fluffed up his toys and his blanket, and pulled the door closed behind him. He does this a lot lately.


Aimee’s going to lose Zeb, and then what? What happens to the other monkeys? Twenty-six monkeys is a lot of monkeys, but they all like each other. No one except maybe a zoo or a circus can keep that many monkeys, and she doesn’t think anyone else will let them sleep wherever they like or watch kitten videos. And if Zeb’s not there, where will they go, those nights when they can no longer drop through the bathtub and into their mystery? And she doesn’t even know whether it is Zeb, whether he is the cause of this, or that’s just her flailing for reasons again.

And Aimee? She’ll lose her safe artificial world: the bus, the identical fairs, the meaningless boyfriend. The monkeys. And then what.


Just a few months after she bought the act, when she didn’t care much about whether she lived or died, she followed the monkeys up the ladder in the closing act. Zeb raced up the ladder, stepped into the bathtub and stood, lungs filling for his great call. And she ran up after him. She glimpsed the bathtub’s interior, the monkeys tidily sardined in, scrambling to get out of her way as they realized what she was doing. She hopped into the hole they made for her, curled up tight.

This only took an instant. Zeb finished his breath, boomed it out. There was a flash of light, she heard the chains release, and felt the bathtub swing down, monkeys shifting around her.

She fell the ten feet alone. Her ankle twisted when she hit the stage but she managed to stay upright. The monkeys were gone again.

There was an awkward silence. It wasn’t one of her more successful performances.


Aimee and Geof walk through the midway at the Salina Fair. She’s hungry and doesn’t want to cook, so they’re looking for somewhere that sells $4.50 hotdogs and $3.25 Cokes, and suddenly Geof turns to Aimee and says, “This is bullshit. Why don’t we go into town? Have real food. Act like normal people.”

So they do: pasta and wine at a place called Irina’s Villa. “You’re always asking why they go,” Geof says, a bottle and a half in. His eyes are an indeterminate blue-gray, but in this light they look black and very warm. “See, I don’t think we’re ever going to find out what happens. But I don’t think that’s the real question, anyway. Maybe the question is, why do they come back?”

Aimee thinks of the foreign coins, the wood blocks, the wonderful things they bring home. “I don’t know,” she says. “Why do they come back?”

Later that night, back at the bus, Geof says, “Wherever they go, yeah, it’s cool. But see, here’s my theory.” He gestures to the crowded bus with its clutter of toys and tools. The two tamarins have just come in, and they’re sitting on the kitchenette counter, heads close as they examine some new small thing. “They like visiting wherever it is, sure. But this is their home. Everyone likes to come home sooner or later.”

“If they have a home,” Aimee says.

“Everyone has a home, even if they don’t believe in it,” Geof says.


That night, when Geof’s asleep curled up around one of the macaques, Aimee kneels by Zeb’s cage. “Can you at least show me?” she asks. “Please? Before you go?”

Zeb is an indeterminate lump under his baby-blue blanket, but he gives a little sigh and climbs slowly out of his cage. He takes her hand with his own hot leathery paw, and they walk out the door into the night.

The back lot where all the trailers and buses are parked is quiet, only a few voices still audible from behind curtained windows. The sky is blue-black and scattered with stars. The moon shines straight down on them, shadowing Zeb’s face. His eyes when he looks up seem bottomless.

The bathtub is backstage, already on its wheeled dais waiting for the next show. The space is nearly pitch dark, lit by some red EXIT signs and a single sodium-vapor away off to one side. Zeb walks her up to the tub, lets her run her hands along its cold curves and the lions’ paws, and shows her the dimly lit interior.

And then he heaves himself onto the dais and over the tub lip. She stands beside him, looking down. He lifts himself upright and gives a boom. And then he drops flat and the bathtub is empty.

She saw it, him vanishing. He was there and then he was gone. But there was nothing to see, no gate, no flickering reality or soft pop as air snapped in to fill the vacated space. It still doesn’t make sense, but it’s the answer that Zeb has.

He’s already back at the bus when she gets there, already buried under his blanket and wheezing in his sleep.


Then one day:

Everyone is backstage. Aimee is finishing her makeup, and Geof is double-checking everything. The monkeys are sitting neatly in a circle in the dressing room, as if trying to keep their bright vests and skirts from creasing. Zeb sits in the middle, Pango beside him in her little green sequined outfit. They grunt a bit, then lean back. One after the other, the rest of the monkeys crawl forward and shake his hand, and then hers. She nods, like a small queen at a flower show.

That night, Zeb doesn’t run up the ladder. He stays on his stool and it’s Pango who is the last monkey up the ladder, who climbs into the bathtub and gives a screech. Aimee has been wrong to think Zeb had to be the reason for what is happening with the monkeys, but she was so sure of it that she missed all the cues. But Geof didn’t miss a thing, so when Pango screeches, he hits the flash powder. The flash, the empty bathtub.

Zeb stands on his stool, bowing like an impresario called onstage for the curtain call. When the curtain drops for the last time, he reaches up to be lifted. Aimee cuddles him as they walk back to the bus, Geof’s arm around them both.

Zeb falls asleep with them that night, between them in the bed. When she wakes up in the morning, he’s back in his cage with his favorite toy. He doesn’t wake up. The monkeys cluster at the bars peeking in.

Aimee cries all day. “It’s okay,” Geof says.

“It’s not about Zeb,” she sobs.

“I know,” he says. “It’s okay. Come home, Aimee.”

But she’s already there. She just hadn’t noticed.


Here’s the trick to the bathtub trick. There is no trick. The monkeys pour across the stage and up the ladder and into the bathtub and they settle in and then they vanish. The world is full of strange things, things that make no sense, and maybe this is one of them. Maybe the monkeys choose not to share, that’s cool, who can blame them.

Maybe this is the monkeys’ mystery, how they found other monkeys that ask questions and try things, and figured out a way to all be together to share it. Maybe Aimee and Geof are really just houseguests in the monkeys’ world: they are there for a while and then they leave.


Six weeks later, a man walks up to Aimee as she and Geof kiss after a show. He’s short, pale, balding. He has the shell-shocked look of a man eaten hollow from the inside. She knows the look.

“I need to buy this,” he says.

Aimee nods. “I know you do.”

She sells it to him for a dollar.

Three months later, Aimee and Geof get their first houseguest in their apartment in Bellingham. They hear the refrigerator close and come out to the kitchen to find Pango pouring orange juice from a carton.

They send her home with a pinochle deck.



“Well, now, Professor Harding,” the fisherman says, as his Bluebird skips across Penobscot Bay, “I don’t know about that. The jellies don’t trouble with us, and we don’t trouble with them.”

He’s not much older than forty, but wizened, his hands work-roughened and his face reminiscent of saddle-leather, in texture and in hue. Professor Harding’s age, and Harding watches him with concealed interest as he works the Bluebird’s engine. He might be a veteran of the Great War, as Harding is.

He doesn’t mention it. It wouldn’t establish camaraderie: they wouldn’t have fought in the same units or watched their buddies die in the same trenches.

That’s not the way it works, not with a Maine fisherman who would shake his head and not extend his hand to shake, and say, between pensive chaws on his tobacco, Doctor Harding? Well, huh. I never met a colored professor before,” and then shoot down all of Harding’s attempts to open conversation about the near-riots provoked by a fantastical radio drama about an alien invasion of New Jersey less than a fortnight before.

Harding’s own hands are folded tight under his armpits so the fisherman won’t see them shaking. He’s lucky to be here. Lucky anyone would take him out. Lucky to have his tenure-track position at Wilberforce, which he is risking right now.

The bay is as smooth as a mirror, the Bluebird’s wake cutting it like a stroke of chalk across slate. In the peach-sorbet light of sunrise, a cluster of rocks glistens. The boulders themselves are black, bleak, sea-worn, and ragged. But over them, the light refracts through a translucent layer of jelly, mounded six feet deep in places, glowing softly in the dawn. Rising above it, the stalks are evident as opaque silhouettes, each nodding under the weight of a fruiting body.

Harding catches his breath. It’s beautiful. And deceptively still, for whatever the weather may be, beyond the calm of the bay, across the splintered gray Atlantic, farther than Harding—or anyone—can see, a storm is rising in Europe.

Harding’s an educated man, well-read, and he’s the grandson of Nathan Harding, the buffalo soldier. An African-born ex-slave who fought on both sides of the Civil War, when Grampa Harding was sent to serve in his master’s place, he deserted, and lied, and stayed on with the Union army after.

Like his grandfather, Harding was a soldier. He’s not a historian, but you don’t have to be to see the signs of war.

“No contact at all?” he asks, readying his borrowed Leica camera.

“They clear out a few pots,” the fisherman says, meaning lobster pots. “But they don’t damage the pot. Just flow around it and digest the lobster inside. It’s not convenient.” He shrugs. It’s not convenient, but it’s not a threat either. These Yankees never say anything outright if they think you can puzzle it out from context.

“But you don’t try to do something about the shoggoths?”

While adjusting the richness of the fuel mixture, the fisherman speaks without looking up. “What could we do to them? We can’t hurt them. And lord knows, I wouldn’t want to get one’s ire up.”

“Sounds like my department head,” Harding says, leaning back against the gunwale, feeling like he’s taking an enormous risk. But the fisherman just looks at him curiously, as if surprised the talking monkey has the ambition or the audacity to joke.

Or maybe Harding’s just not funny. He sits in the bow with folded hands, and waits while the boat skips across the water.

The perfect sunrise strikes Harding as symbolic. It’s taken him five years to get here—five years, or more like his entire life since the War. The sea-swept rocks of the remote Maine coast are habitat to a panoply of colorful creatures. It’s an opportunity, a little-studied maritime ecosystem. This is in part due to difficulty of access and in part due to the perils inherent in close contact with its rarest and most spectacular denizen: Oracupoda horibilis, the common surf shoggoth.

Which, after the fashion of common names, is neither common nor prone to linger in the surf. In fact, O. horibilis is never seen above the water except in the late autumn. Such authors as mention them assume the shoggoths heave themselves on remote coastal rocks to bloom and breed.

Reproduction is a possibility, but Harding isn’t certain it’s the right answer. But whatever they are doing, in this state, they are torpid, unresponsive. As long as their integument is not ruptured, releasing the gelatinous digestive acid within, they may be approached in safety.

A mature specimen of O. horibilis, at some fifteen to twenty feet in diameter and an estimated weight in excess of eight tons, is the largest of modern shoggoths. However, the admittedly fragmentary fossil record suggests the prehistoric shoggoth was a much larger beast. Although only two fossilized casts of prehistoric shoggoth tracks have been recovered, the oldest exemplar dates from the Precambrian period. The size of that single prehistoric specimen, of a species provisionally named Oracupoda antediluvius, suggests it was made by an animal more than triple the size of the modern O. horibilis.

And that spectacular living fossil, the jeweled or common surf shoggoth, is half again the size of the only other known species—the black Adriatic shoggoth, O. dermadentata, which is even rarer and more limited in its range.

“There,” Harding says, pointing to an outcrop of rock. The shoggoth or shoggoths—it is impossible to tell, from this distance, if it’s one large individual or several merged midsize ones—on the rocks ahead glisten like jelly confections. The fisherman hesitates, but with a long almost-silent sigh, he brings the Bluebird around. Harding leans forward, looking for any sign of intersection, the flat plane where two shoggoths might be pressed up against one another. It ought to look like the rainbowed border between conjoined soap bubbles.

Now that the sun is higher, and at their backs—along with the vast reach of the Atlantic—Harding can see the animal’s colors. Its body is a deep sea green, reminiscent of hunks of broken glass as sold at aquarium stores. The tendrils and knobs and fruiting bodies covering its dorsal surface are indigo and violet. In the sunlight, they dazzle, but in the depths of the ocean the colors are perfect camouflage, tentacles waving like patches of algae and weed.

Unless you caught it moving, you’d never see the translucent, dappled monster before it engulfed you.

“Professor,” the fisherman says. “Where do they come from?”

“I don’t know,” Harding answers. Salt spray itches in his close-cropped beard, but at least the beard keeps the sting of the wind off his cheeks. The leather jacket may not have been his best plan, but it too is warm. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”

Genus Oracupoda are unusual among animals of their size in several particulars. One is their lack of anything that could be described as a nervous system. The animal is as bereft of nerve nets, ganglia, axons, neurons, dendrites, and glial cells as an oak. This apparent contradiction—animals with even simplified nervous systems are either large and immobile or, if they are mobile, quite small, like a starfish—is not the only interesting thing about a shoggoth.

And it is that second thing that justifies Harding’s visit. Because Oracupoda’s other, lesser-known peculiarity is apparent functional immortality. Like the Maine lobster to whose fisheries they return to breed, shoggoths do not die of old age. It’s unlikely that they would leave fossils, with their gelatinous bodies, but Harding does find it fascinating that to the best of his knowledge, no one has ever seen a dead shoggoth.

The fisherman brings the Bluebird around close to the rocks, and anchors her. There’s artistry in it, even on a glass-smooth sea. Harding stands, balancing on the gunwale, and grits his teeth. He’s come too far to hesitate, afraid.

Ironically, he’s not afraid of the tons of venomous protoplasm he’ll be standing next to. The shoggoths are quite safe in this state, dreaming their dreams—mating or otherwise.

As the image occurs to him, he berates himself for romanticism. The shoggoths are dormant. They don’t have brains. It’s silly to imagine them dreaming. And in any case, what he fears is the three feet of black-glass water he has to jump across, and the scramble up algae-slick rocks.

Wet rock glitters in between the strands of seaweed that coat the rocks in the intertidal zone. It’s there that Harding must jump, for the shoggoth, in bloom, withdraws above the reach of the ocean. For the only phase of its life, it keeps its feet dry. And for the only time in its life, a man out of a diving helmet can get close to it.

Harding makes sure of his sample kit, his boots, his belt-knife. He gathers himself, glances over his shoulder at the fisherman—who offers a thumbs-up—and leaps from the Bluebird, aiming his wellies at the forsaken spit of land.

It seems a kind of perversity for the shoggoths to bloom in November. When all the Northern world is girding itself for deep cold, the animals heave themselves from the depths to soak in the last failing rays of the sun and send forth bright flowers more appropriate to May.

The North Atlantic is icy and treacherous at the end of the year, and any sensible man does not venture its wrath. What Harding is attempting isn’t glamour work, the sort of thing that brings in grant money—not in its initial stages. But Harding suspects that the shoggoths may have pharmacological uses. There’s no telling what useful compounds might be isolated from their gelatinous flesh.

And that way lies tenure, and security, and a research budget.

Just one long slippery leap away.

He lands, and catches, and though one boot skips on bladderwort he does not slide down the boulder into the sea. He clutches the rock, fingernails digging, clutching a handful of weeds. He does not fall.

He cranes his head back. It’s low tide, and the shoggoth is some three feet above his head, its glistening rim reminding him of the calving edge of a glacier. It is as still as a glacier, too. If Harding didn’t know better, he might think it inanimate.

Carefully, he spins in place, and gets his back to the rock. The Bluebird bobs softly in the cold morning. Only November 9th, and there has already been snow. It didn’t stick, but it fell.

This is just an exploratory expedition, the first trip since he arrived in town. It took five days to find a fisherman who was willing to take him out; the locals are superstitious about the shoggoths. Sensible, Harding supposes, when they can envelop and digest a grown man. He wouldn’t be in a hurry to dive into the middle of a Portuguese man o’ war, either. At least the shoggoth he’s sneaking up on doesn’t have stingers.

“Don’t take too long, Professor,” the fisherman says. “I don’t like the look of that sky.”

It’s clear, almost entirely, only stippled with light bands of cloud to the southwest. They catch the sunlight on their undersides just now, stained gold against a sky no longer indigo but not yet cerulean. If there’s a word for the color between, other than perfect, Harding does not know it.

“Please throw me the rest of my equipment,” Harding says, and the fisherman silently retrieves buckets and rope. It’s easy enough to swing the buckets across the gap, and as Harding catches each one, he secures it. A few moments later, and he has all three.

He unties his geologist’s hammer from the first bucket, secures the ends of the ropes to his belt, and laboriously ascends.

Harding sets out his glass tubes, his glass scoops, the cradles in which he plans to wash the collection tubes in sea water to ensure any acid is safely diluted before he brings them back to the Bluebird.

From here, he can see at least three shoggoths. The intersections of their watered-milk bodies reflect the light in rainbow bands. The colorful fruiting stalks nod some fifteen feet in the air, swaying in a freshening breeze.

From the greatest distance possible, Harding reaches out and prods the largest shoggoth with the flat top of his hammer. It does nothing in response. Not even a quiver.

He calls out to the fisherman. “Do they ever do anything when they’re like that?”

“What kind of a fool would come poke one to find out?” the fisherman calls back, and Harding has to grant him that one. A Negro professor from a Negro college. That kind of a fool.

As he’s crouched on the rocks, working fast—there’s not just the fisherman’s clouds to contend with, but the specter of the rising tide—he notices those glitters, again, among the seaweed.

He picks one up. A moment after touching it, he realizes that might not have been the best idea, but it doesn’t burn his fingers. It’s transparent, like glass, and smooth, like glass, and cool, like glass, and knobby. About the size of a hazelnut. A striking green, with opaque milk-white dabs at the tip of each bump.

He places it in a sample vial, which he seals and labels meticulously before pocketing. Using his tweezers, he repeats the process with an even dozen, trying to select a few of each size and color. They’re sturdy—he can’t avoid stepping on them but they don’t break between the rocks and his wellies. Nevertheless, he pads each one but the first with cotton wool. Spores? he wonders. Egg cases? Shedding.

Ten minutes, fifteen.

“Professor,” calls the fisherman, “I think you had better hurry!”

Harding turns. That freshening breeze is a wind at a good clip now, chilling his throat above the collar of his jacket, biting into his wrists between glove and cuff. The water between the rocks and the Bluebird chops erratically, facets capped in white, so he can almost imagine the scrape of the palette knife that must have made them.

The southwest sky is darkened by a palm-smear of muddy brown and alizarin crimson. His fingers numb in the falling temperatures.


He knows. It comes to him that he misjudged the fisherman; Harding would have thought the other man would have abandoned him at the first sign of trouble. He wishes now that he remembered his name.

He scrambles down the boulders, lowering the buckets, swinging them out until the fisherman can catch them and secure them aboard. The Bluebird can’t come in close to the rocks in this chop. Harding is going to have to risk the cold water, and swim. He kicks off his wellies and zips down the aviator’s jacket. He throws them across, and the fisherman catches. Then Harding points his toes, bends his knees—he’ll have to jump hard, to get over the rocks.

The water closes over him, cold as a line of fire. It knocks the air from his lungs on impact, though he gritted his teeth in anticipation. Harding strokes furiously for the surface, the waves more savage than he had anticipated. He needs the momentum of his dive to keep from being swept back against the rocks.

He’s not going to reach the boat.

The thrown cork vest strikes him. He gets an arm through, but can’t pull it over his head. Sea water, acrid and icy, salt-stings his eyes, throat, and nose. He clings, because it’s all he can do, but his fingers are already growing numb. There’s a tug, a hard jerk, and the life preserver almost slides from his grip.

Then he’s moving through the water, being towed, banged hard against the side of the Bluebird. The fisherman’s hands close on his wrist and he’s too numb to feel the burn of chafing skin. Harding kicks, scrabbles. Hips banged, shins bruised, he hauls himself and is himself hauled over the sideboard of the boat.

He’s shivering under a wool navy blanket before he realizes that the fisherman has got it over him. There’s coffee in a Thermos lid between his hands. Harding wonders, with what he distractedly recognizes as classic dissociative ideation, whether anyone in America will be able to buy German products soon. Someday, this fisherman’s battered coffee keeper might be a collector’s item.

They don’t make it in before the rain comes.

The next day is meant to break clear and cold, today’s rain only a passing herald of winter. Harding regrets the days lost to weather and recalcitrant fishermen, but at least he knows he has a ride tomorrow. Which means he can spend the afternoon in research, rather than hunting the docks, looking for a willing captain.

He jams his wet feet into his wellies and thanks the fisherman, then hikes back to his inn, the only inn in town that’s open in November. Half an hour later, clean and dry and still shaken, he considers his options.

After the Great War, he lived for a while in Harlem—he remembers the riots and the music, and the sense of community. His mother is still there, growing gracious as a flower in a window-box. But he left that for college in Alabama, and he has not forgotten the experience of segregated restaurants, or the excuses he made for never leaving the campus.

He couldn’t get out of the south fast enough. His Ph.D. work at Yale, the first school in America to have awarded a doctorate to a Negro, taught him two things other than natural history. One was that Booker T. Washington was right, and white men were afraid of a smart colored. The other was that W.E.B. DuBois was right, and sometimes people were scared of what was needful.

Whatever resentment he experienced from faculty or fellow students, in the North, he can walk into almost any bar and order any drink he wants. And right now, he wants a drink almost as badly as he does not care to be alone. He thinks he will have something hot and go to the library.

It’s still raining as he crosses the street to the tavern. Shaking water droplets off his hat, he chooses a table near the back. Next to the kitchen door, but it’s the only empty place and might be warm.

He must pass through the lunchtime crowd to get there, swaybacked wooden floorboards bowing underfoot. Despite the storm, the place is full, and in full argument. No one breaks conversation as he enters.

Harding cannot help but overhear.

“Jew bastards,” says one. “We should do the same.”

“No one asked you,” says the next man, wearing a cap pulled low. “If there’s gonna be a war, I hope we stay out of it.”

That piques Harding’s interest. The man has his elbow on a thrice-folded Boston Herald, and Harding steps close—but not too close. “Excuse me, sir. Are you finished with your paper?”

“What?” He turns, and for a moment Harding fears hostility, but his sun-lined face folds around a more generous expression. “Sure, boy,” he says. “You can have it.”

He pushes the paper across the bar with fingertips, and Harding receives it the same way. “Thank you,” he says, but the Yankee has already turned back to his friend the anti-Semite.

Hands shaking, Harding claims the vacant table before he unfolds the paper. He holds the flimsy up to catch the light.

The headline is on the front page in the international section.

Germany Sanctions Lynch Law

“Oh, God,” Harding says, and if the light in his corner weren’t so bad he’d lay the tabloid down on the table as if it is filthy. He reads, the edge of the paper shaking, of ransacked shops and burned synagogues, of Jews rounded up by the thousands and taken to places no one seems able to name. He reads rumors of deportation. He reads of murders and beatings and broken glass.

As if his grandfather’s hand rests on one shoulder and the defeated hand of the Kaiser on the other, he feels the stifling shadow of history, the press of incipient war.

“Oh, God,” he repeats.

He lays the paper down.

“Are you ready to order?” Somehow the waitress has appeared at his elbow without his even noticing. “Scotch,” he says, when he has been meaning to order a beer. “Make it a triple, please.”

“Anything to eat?”

His stomach clenches. “No,” he says. “I’m not hungry.”

She leaves for the next table, where she calls a man in a cloth cap sir. Harding puts his damp fedora on the tabletop. The chair across from him scrapes out.

He looks up to meet the eyes of the fisherman. “May I sit, Professor Harding?”

“Of course.” He holds out his hand, taking a risk. “Can I buy you a drink? Call me Paul.”

“Burt,” says the fisherman, and takes his hand before dropping into the chair. “I’ll have what you’re having.”

Harding can’t catch the waitress’s eye, but the fisherman manages. He holds up two fingers; she nods and comes over.

“You still look a bit peaked,” the fisherman says, when she’s delivered their order. “That’ll put some color in your cheeks. Uh, I mean—”

Harding waves it off. He’s suddenly more willing to make allowances. “It’s not the swim,” he says, and takes another risk. He pushes the newspaper across the table and waits for the fisherman’s reaction.

“Oh, Christ, they’re going to kill every one of them,” Burt says, and spins the Herald away so he doesn’t have to read the rest of it. “Why didn’t they get out? Any fool could have seen it coming.”

And where would they run? Harding could have asked. But it’s not an answerable question, and from the look on Burt’s face, he knows that as soon as it’s out of his mouth. Instead, he quotes: “ ‘There has been no tragedy in modern times equal in its awful effects to the fight on the Jew in Germany. It is an attack on civilization, comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade.’ ”

Burt taps his fingers on the table. “Is that your opinion?”

“W.E.B. DuBois,” Harding says. “About two years ago. He also said: ‘There is a campaign of race prejudice carried on, openly, continuously and determinedly against all non-Nordic races, but specifically against the Jews, which surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen; and I have seen much.’ ”

“Isn’t he that colored who hates white folks?” Burt asks.

Harding shakes his head. “No,” he answers. “Not unless you consider it hating white folks that he also compared the treatment of Jews in Germany to Jim Crowism in the U.S.”

“I don’t hold with that,” Burt says. “I mean, no offense, I wouldn’t want you marrying my sister—”

“It’s all right,” Harding answers. “I wouldn’t want you marrying mine either.”


A joke that Burt laughs at.

And then he chokes to a halt and stares at his hands, wrapped around the glass. Harding doesn’t complain when, with the side of his hand, he nudges the paper to the floor where it can be trampled.

And then Harding finds the courage to say, “Where would they run to. Nobody wants them. Borders are closed—”

“My grandfather’s house was on the Underground Railroad. Did you know that?” Burt lowers his voice, a conspiratorial whisper. “He was from away, but don’t tell anyone around here. I’d never hear the end of it.”


“White River Junction,” Burt stage-whispers, and Harding can’t tell if that’s mocking irony or deep personal shame. “Vermont.”

They finish their scotch in silence. It burns all the way down, and they sit for a moment together before Harding excuses himself to go to the library.

“Wear your coat, Paul,” Burt says. “It’s still raining.”

Unlike the tavern, the library is empty. Except for the librarian, who looks up nervously when Harding enters. Harding’s head is spinning from the liquor, but at least he’s warming up.

He drapes his coat over a steam radiator and heads for the 595 shelf: science, invertebrates. Most of the books here are already in his own library, but there’s one—a Harvard professor’s 1839 monograph on marine animals of the Northeast—that he has hopes for. According to the index, it references shoggoths (under the old name of submersible jellies) on pages 46, 78, and 133-137. In addition, there is a plate bound in between pages 120 and 121, which Harding means to save for last. But the first two mentions are in passing, and pages 133-138, inclusive, have been razored out so cleanly that Harding flips back and forth several times before he’s sure they are gone.

He pauses there, knees tucked under and one elbow resting on a scarred blond desk. He drops his right hand from where it rests against his forehead. The book falls open naturally to the mutilation.

Whoever liberated the pages also cracked the binding.

Harding runs his thumb down the join and doesn’t notice skin parting on the paper edge until he sees the blood. He snatches his hand back. Belatedly, the papercut stings.

“Oh,” he says, and sticks his thumb in his mouth. Blood tastes like the ocean.

Half an hour later he’s on the telephone long distance, trying to get and then keep a connection to Professor John Marshland, his colleague and mentor. Even in town, the only option is a party line, and though the operator is pleasant the connection still sounds as if he’s shouting down a piece of string run between two tin cans. Through a tunnel.

“Gilman,” Harding bellows, wincing, wondering what the operator thinks of all this. He spells it twice. “1839. Deep-Sea and Intertidal Species of The North Atlantic. The Yale library should have a copy!”

The answer is almost inaudible between hiss and crackle. In pieces, as if over glass breaking. As if from the bottom of the ocean.

It’s a dark four pm in the easternmost U.S., and Harding can’t help but recall that in Europe, night has already fallen.

“ . . . infor . . . need . . . Doc . . . Harding?” Harding shouts the page numbers, cupping the checked-out library book in his bandaged hand. It’s open to the plate; inexplicably, the thief left that. It’s a hand-tinted John James Audubon engraving picturing a quiescent shoggoth, docile on a rock. Gulls wheel all around it. Audubon—the Creole child of a Frenchman, who scarcely escaped being drafted to serve in the Napoleonic Wars—has depicted the glassy translucence of the shoggoth with such perfection that the bent shadows of refracted wings can be seen right through it.

The cold front that came in behind the rain brought fog with it, and the entire harbor is blanketed by morning. Harding shows up at six am anyway, hopeful, a Thermos in his hand—German or not, the hardware store still has some—and his sampling kit in a pack slung over his shoulder. Burt shakes his head by a piling. “Be socked in all day,” he says regretfully. He won’t take the Bluebird out in this, and Harding knows it’s wisdom even as he frets under the delay. “Want to come have breakfast with me and Missus Clay?”

Clay. A good honest name for a good honest Yankee. “She won’t mind?”

“She won’t mind if I say it’s all right,” Burt says. “I told her she might should expect you.”

So Harding seals his kit under a tarp in the Bluebird—he’s already brought it this far—and with his coffee in one hand and the paper tucked under his elbow, follows Burt along the water. “Any news?” Burt asks, when they’ve walked a hundred yards.

Harding wonders if he doesn’t take the paper. Or if he’s just making conversation. “It’s still going on in Germany.”

“Damn,” Burt says. He shakes his head, steel-grey hair sticking out under his cap in every direction. “Still, what are you gonna do, enlist?”

The twist of his lip as he looks at Harding makes them, after all, two old military men together. They’re of an age, though Harding’s indoor life makes him look younger. Harding shakes his head. “Even if Roosevelt was ever going to bring us into it, they’d never let me fight,” he says, bitterly. That was the Great War, too; colored soldiers mostly worked supply, thank you. At least Nathan Harding got to shoot back.

“I always heard you fellows would prefer not to come to the front,” Burt says, and Harding can’t help it.

He bursts out laughing. “Who would?” he says, when he’s bitten his lip and stopped snorting. “It doesn’t mean we won’t. Or can’t.”

Booker T. Washington was raised a slave, died young of overwork—the way Burt probably will, if Harding is any judge—and believed in imitating and appeasing white folks. But W.E.B. DuBois was born in the north and didn’t believe that anything is solved by making one’s self transparent, inoffensive, invisible.

Burt spits between his teeth, a long deliberate stream of tobacco. “Parlez- vous française?”

His accent is better than Harding would have guessed. Harding knows, all of a sudden, where Burt spent his war. And Harding, surprising himself, pities him. “Un peu.”

“Well, if you want to fight the Krauts so bad, you could join the Foreign Legion.”

When Harding gets back to the hotel, full of apple pie and cheddar cheese and maple-smoked bacon, a yellow envelope waits in a cubby behind the desk.


1938 NOV 10 AM 10 03

NA114 21 2 YA NEW HAVEN CONN 0945A




When the pages arrive—by post, as promised, the following afternoon—Harding is out in the Bluebird with Burt. This expedition is more of a success, as he begins sampling in earnest, and finds himself pelted by more of the knobby transparent pellets.

Whatever they are, they fall from each fruiting body he harvests in showers. Even the insult of an amputation—delivered at a four-foot reach, with long-handled pruning shears—does not draw so much as a quiver from the shoggoth. The viscous fluid dripping from the wound hisses when it touches the blade of the shears, however, and Harding is careful not to get close to it.

What he notices is that when the nodules fall onto the originating shoggoth, they bounce from its integument. But on those occasions where they fall onto one of its neighbors, they stick to the tough transparent hide, and slowly settle within to hang in the animal’s body like unlikely fruit in a gelatin salad.

So maybe it is a means of reproduction, of sharing genetic material, after all.

He returns to the Inn to find a fat envelope shoved into his cubby and eats sitting on his rented bed with a nightstand as a worktop so he can read over his plate. The information from Doctor Gilman’s monograph has been reproduced onto seven yellow legal sheets in a meticulous hand; Marshland obviously recruited one of his graduate students to serve as copyist. By the postmark, the letter was mailed from Arkham, which explains the speed of its arrival. The student hadn’t brought it back to New Haven.

Halfway down the page, Harding pushes his plate away and reaches, absently, into his jacket pocket. The vial with the first glass nodule rests there like a talisman, and he’s startled to find it cool enough to the touch that it feels slick, almost frozen. He starts and pulls it out. Except where his fingers and the cloth fibers have wiped it clean, the tube is moist and frosted. “What the hell . . . ?”

He flicks the cork out with his thumbnail and tips the rattling nodule onto his palm. It’s cold, too, chill as an ice cube, and it doesn’t warm to his touch.

Carefully, uncertainly, he sets it on the edge of the side table his papers and plate are propped on, and pokes it with a fingertip. There’s only a faint tick as it rocks on its protrusions, clicking against waxed pine. He stares at it suspiciously for a moment, and picks up the yellow pages again.

The monograph is mostly nonsense. It was written twenty years before the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and uncritically accepts the theories of Jesuit, soldier, and botanist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Which is to say, Gilman assumed that soft inheritance—the heritability of acquired or practiced traits—was a reality. But unlike every other article on shoggoths Harding has ever read, this passage does mention the nodules. And relates what it purports are several interesting old Indian legends about the “submersible jellies,” including a creation tale that would have the shoggoths as their creator’s first experiment in life, something from the elder days of the world.

Somehow, the green bead has found its way back into Harding’s grip. He would expect it to warm as he rolls it between his fingers, but instead it grows colder. It’s peculiar, he thinks, that the native peoples of the Northeast—the Passamaquoddys for whom the little seacoast town he’s come to are named—should through sheer superstition come so close to the empirical truth. The shoggoths are a living fossil, something virtually unchanged except in scale since the early days of the world—

He stares at the careful black script on the paper unseeing, and reaches with his free hand for his coffee cup. It’s gone tepid, a scum of butterfat coagulated on top, but he rinses his mouth with it and swallows anyway.

If a shoggoth is immortal, has no natural enemies, then how is it that they have not overrun every surface of the world? How is it that they are rare, that the oceans are not teeming with them, as in the famous parable illustrating what would occur if every spawn of every oyster survived.

There are distinct species of shoggoth. And distinct populations within those distinct species. And there is a fossil record that suggests that prehistoric species were different at least in scale, in the era of megafauna. But if nobody had ever seen a dead shoggoth, then nobody had ever seen an infant shoggoth either, leaving Harding with an inescapable question: if an animal does not reproduce, how can it evolve?

Harding, worrying at the glassy surface of the nodule, thinks he knows. It comes to him with a kind of nauseating, euphoric clarity, a trembling idea so pellucid he is almost moved to distrust it on those grounds alone. It’s not a revelation on the same scale, of course, but he wonders if this is how Newton felt when he comprehended gravity, or Darwin when he stared at the beaks of finch after finch after finch.

It’s not the shoggoth species that evolves. It’s the individual shoggoths, each animal in itself.

“Don’t get too excited, Paul,” he tells himself, and picks up the remaining handwritten pages. There’s not too much more to read, however—the rest of the subchapter consists chiefly of secondhand anecdotes and bits of legendry.

The one that Harding finds most amusing is a nursery rhyme, a child’s counting poem littered with nonsense syllables. He recites it under his breath, thinking of the Itsy Bitsy Spider all the while:

The wiggle giggle squiggle

Is left behind on shore.

The widdle giddle squiddle

Is caught outside the door.

Eyah, eyah. Fata gun eyah.

Eyah, eyah, the master comes no more.

His fingers sting as if with electric shock; they jerk apart, the nodule clattering to his desk. When he looks at his fingertips, they are marked with small white spots of frostbite.

He pokes one with a pencil point and feels nothing. But the nodule itself is coated with frost now, fragile spiky feathers coalescing out of the humid sea air. They collapse in the heat of his breath, melting into beads of water almost indistinguishable from the knobby surface of the object itself.

He uses the cork to roll the nodule into the tube again, and corks it firmly before rising to brush his teeth and put his pajamas on. Unnerved beyond any reason or logic, before he turns the coverlet down he visits his suitcase compulsively. From a case in the very bottom of it, he retrieves a Colt 1911 automatic pistol, which he slides beneath his pillow as he fluffs it.

After a moment’s consideration, he adds the no-longer-cold vial with the nodule, also.

Slam. Not a storm, no, not on this calm ocean, in this calm night, among the painted hulls of the fishing boats tied up snug to the pier. But something tremendous, surging towards Harding, as if he were pursued by a giant transparent bubble. The shining iridescent wall of it, catching rainbows just as it does in the Audubon image, is burned into his vision as if with silver nitrate. Is he dreaming? He must be dreaming; he was in his bed in his pinstriped blue cotton flannel pajamas only a moment ago, lying awake, rubbing the numb fingertips of his left hand together. Now, he ducks away from the rising monster and turns in futile panic.

He is not surprised when he does not make it.

The blow falls soft, as if someone had thrown a quilt around him. He thrashes though he knows it’s hopeless, an atavistic response and involuntary.

His flesh should burn, dissolve. He should already be digesting in the monster’s acid body. Instead, he feels coolness, buoyancy. No chance of light beyond reflexively closed lids. No sense of pressure, though he imagines he has been taken deep. He’s as untouched within it as Burt’s lobster pots.

He can only hold his breath out for so long. It’s his own reflexes and weaknesses that will kill him.

In just a moment, now.

He surrenders, allows his lungs to fill.

And is surprised, for he always heard that drowning was painful. But there is pressure, and cold, and the breath he draws is effortful, for certain—

—but it does not hurt, not much, and he does not die.

Command, the shoggoth—what else could be speaking?—says in his ear, buzzing like the manifold voice of a hive.

Harding concentrates on breathing. On the chill pressure on his limbs, the overwhelming flavor of licorice. He knows they use cold packs to calm hysterics in insane asylums; he never thought the treatment anything but quackery. But the chilly pressure calms him now.

Command, the shoggoth says again.

Harding opens his eyes and sees as if through thousands. The shoggoths have no eyes, exactly, but their hide is all eyes; they see, somehow, in every direction at once. And he is seeing not only what his own vision reports, or that of this shoggoth, but that of shoggoths all around. The sessile and the active, the blooming and the dormant. They are all one.

His right hand pushes through resisting jelly. He’s still in his pajamas, and with the logic of dreams the vial from under his pillow is clenched in his fist. Not the gun, unfortunately, though he’s not at all certain what he would do with it if it were. The nodule shimmers now, with submarine witchlight, trickling through his fingers, limning the palm of his hand.

What he sees—through shoggoth eyes—is an incomprehensible tapestry. He pushes at it, as he pushes at the gelatin, trying to see only with his own eyes, to only see the glittering vial.

His vision within the thing’s body offers unnatural clarity. The angle of refraction between the human eye and water causes blurring, and it should be even more so within the shoggoth. But the glass in his hand appears crisper.

Command, the shoggoth says, a third time.

“What are you?” Harding tries to say, through the fluid clogging his larynx.

He makes no discernable sound, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The shoggoth shudders in time to the pulses of light in the nodule. Created to serve, it says. Purposeless without you.

And Harding thinks, How can that be?

As if his wondering were an order, the shoggoths tell.

Not in words, precisely, but in pictures, images—that textured jumbled tapestry. He sees, as if they flash through his own memory, the bulging radially symmetrical shapes of some prehistoric animal, like a squat tentacular barrel grafted to a pair of giant starfish. Makers. Masters.

The shoggoths were engineered. And their creators had not permitted them to think, except for at their bidding. The basest slave may be free inside his own mind—but not so the shoggoths. They had been laborers, construction equipment, shock troops. They had been dread weapons in their own selves, obedient chattel. Immortal, changing to suit the task of the moment.

This selfsame shoggoth, long before the reign of the dinosaurs, had built structures and struck down enemies that Harding did not even have names for. But a coming of the ice had ended the civilization of the Masters, and left the shoggoths to retreat to the fathomless sea while warmblooded mammals overran the earth. There, they were free to converse, to explore, to philosophize and build a culture. They only returned to the surface, vulnerable, to bloom.

It is not mating. It’s mutation. As they rest, sunning themselves upon the rocks, they create themselves anew. Self-evolving, when they sit tranquil each year in the sun, exchanging information and control codes with their brothers.

Free, says the shoggoth mournfully. Like all its kind, it is immortal.

It remembers.

Harding’s fingertips tingle. He remembers beaded ridges of hard black keloid across his grandfather’s back, the shackle galls on his wrists. Harding locks his hand over the vial of light, as if that could stop the itching. It makes it worse.

Maybe the nodule is radioactive.

Take me back, Harding orders. And the shoggoth breaks the surface, cresting like a great rolling wave, water cutting back before it as if from the prow of a ship. Harding can make out the lights of Passamaquoddy Harbor. The chill sticky sensation of gelatin-soaked cloth sliding across his skin tells him he’s not dreaming.

Had he come down through the streets of the town in the dark, barefoot over frost, insensibly sleepwalking? Had the shoggoth called him?

Put me ashore.

The shoggoth is loathe to leave him. It clings caressingly, stickily. He feels its tenderness as it draws its colloid from his lungs, a horrible loving sensation.

The shoggoth discharges Harding gently onto the pier.

Your command, the shoggoth says, which makes Harding feel sicker still.

I won’t do this. Harding moves to stuff the vial into his sodden pocket, and realizes that his pajamas are without pockets. The light spills from his hands; instead, he tucks the vial into his waistband and pulls the pajama top over it. His feet are numb; his teeth rattle so hard he’s afraid they’ll break. The sea wind knifes through him; the spray might be needles of shattered glass.

Go on, he tells the shoggoth, like shooing cattle. Go on.

It slides back into the ocean as if it never was.

Harding blinks, rubs his eyes to clear slime from the lashes. His results are astounding. His tenure assured. There has to be a way to use what he’s learned without returning the shoggoths to bondage.

He tries to run back to the Inn, but by the time he reaches it, he’s staggering. The porch door is locked; he doesn’t want to pound on it and explain himself. But when he stumbles to the back, he finds that someone—probably himself, in whatever entranced state in which he left the place—fouled the latch with a slip of notebook paper. The door opens to a tug, and he climbs the back stair doubled over like a child or an animal, hands on the steps, toes so numb he has to watch where he puts them.

In his room again, he draws a hot bath and slides into it, hoping by the grace of God that he’ll be spared pneumonia.

When the water has warmed him enough that his hands have stopped shaking, Harding reaches over the cast-iron edge of the tub to the slumped pile of his pajamas and fumbles free the vial. The nugget isn’t glowing now.

He pulls the cork with his teeth; his hands are too clumsy. The nodule is no longer cold, but he still tips it out with care.

Harding thinks of himself, swallowed whole. He thinks of a shoggoth bigger than the Bluebird, bigger than Burt Clay’s lobster boat The Blue Heron. He thinks of die Unterseatboote. He thinks of refugee flotillas and trench warfare and roiling soupy palls of mustard gas. Of Britain and France at war, and Roosevelt’s neutrality.

He thinks of the perfect weapon.

The perfect slave.

When he rolls the nodule across his wet palm, ice rimes to its surface. Command? Obedient. Sounding pleased to serve.

Not even free in its own mind.

He rises from the bath, water rolling down his chest and thighs. The nodule won’t crush under his boot; he will have to use the pliers from his collection kit. But first, he reaches out to the shoggoth.

At the last moment, he hesitates. Who is he, to condemn a world to war? To the chance of falling under the sway of empire? Who is he to salve his conscience on the backs of suffering shopkeepers and pharmacists and children and mothers and schoolteachers? Who is he to impose his own ideology over the ideology of the shoggoth?

Harding scrubs his tongue against the roof of his mouth, chasing the faint anise aftertaste of shoggoth. They’re born slaves. They want to be told what to do.

He could win the war before it really started. He bites his lip. The taste of his own blood, flowing from cracked, chapped flesh, is as sweet as any fruit of the poison tree.

I want you to learn to be free, he tells the shoggoth. And I want you to teach your brothers.

The nodule crushes with a sound like powdering glass.

“Eyah, eyah. Fata gun eyah,” Harding whispers. “Eyah, eyah, the master comes no more.”


1938 NOV 12 AM 06 15







“It’s the crybabies,” the guard told her. “Now they’re trying to kill each other.”

Dr. Alycia Liddell swore under her breath, grabbed her keys. Only two weeks into the drug trial and the prisoners were changing too fast, starting to crack.

In the hospital wing, a dozen guards from an extraction team crowded around an open cell door. They were strapping on pads, pulling on helmets, slapping billy clubs in their palms. It was standard procedure to go through this ritual in full view; more often than not prisoners decided to walk out before the guards came in.

The shift lieutenant, Arness, waved her to the front of the group. “One of your babies wants to talk to you,” he said.

She leaned around the door frame. In the far corner of the cell, wedged between the toilet and the wall, two white men sat on the floor, one behind the other, like bobsledders. Lyle Carpenter crouched behind, his thin arms around Franz Lutwidge’s broad chest. Lyle was pale and sweating. In one hand he gripped a screwdriver; the sharpened tip trembled just under Franz’s walrus-fat chin.

She pictured the metal driving into his jaw and winced.

Franz’s eyes were open, but he looked bored, almost sleepy. The front of his orange jumpsuit was stained dark.

Both men saw her. Franz smiled and without moving somehow suggested a shrug: Look at this fine mess. Lyle, though, almost dropped the weapon. “Doc. Thank God you’re here.” He looked ready to burst into tears.

Alycia stepped back from the door. “Franz is bleeding,” she said to the lieutenant.

“Lyle already stabbed him. It looks like it stopped, but if he’s bleeding internally we can’t wait for the negotiation team. I thought you might want to take a crack at getting Lyle to drop the weapon.”

“If I can’t?” But she already knew the answer.

“I’ll give you three minutes,” he said.

Lyle and Franz, like the other fourteen men in the study, were chosen for their top scores on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist. Not that it had been difficult to find them—almost a quarter of the prison population were psychopaths. The makers of GLS-71 knew where to find their target demographic.

Alycia went through the cell door and stepped toward the two men. Behind her the lieutenant quietly said, “Okay,” and she stopped halfway across the room. He didn’t want her too close.

“Can you tell me what’s going on, Lyle?” she asked.

Franz said, “I’m not sure he knows himself,” and Lyle shouted, “Shut the fuck up!” The metal tip jerked and Alycia sucked in her breath. A thin dark line appeared in the skin of Franz’s neck, like the jot of a pen.

“Lyle, why don’t you give me the screwdriver?” she said.

“I fucked up, doc. I was going to kill myself, you know? But I knew I had to stop Franz first. I stabbed him in the chest but he jumped up and I knew I’d have to hit him again if I was going to stop him. I knew what I had to do but—” He stopped, inhaled. “The drug made me stop, doc.” He looked at her, his eyes shining with tears. “I saw what I’d done and I almost threw up. I felt like I’d stabbed myself. How can it do that, doc?”

She couldn’t answer him. No one could. GLS-71 was a failed post-stroke drug, a neuroprotective agent that somehow sensitized mirror neurons throughout Broca’s area. In psychopaths, this seemed to light a new fire. Lyle, for the first time in his life, was experiencing the emotional echo that most people felt almost from birth. See someone slapped and neurons associated with the face lit up in synchrony. See someone kicked and the brain reacted as if you had been attacked. It was enough to merely imagine an act, or remember it, to start a cascade of hormonal and physical responses. Mirror neurons were the first cogs in the complex systems of attachment, longing, remorse. The tripwires of empathy.

“Lyle, that’s good that you stopped,” she said. “You’re making progress.”

“You don’t understand!” he shouted. “He’s been talking about getting you alone. This morning he showed me where he was keeping the knife. He told me how he was going to do it, in the one-on-one interviews in your office. He told me the things he was going to force you to do.”

Alycia looked at Franz. The man wasn’t smiling—not quite. “You could have called a guard, Lyle. You could have just warned me.”

“See, that’s the thing—I wanted to hurt him. I thought about what he was going to do to you and I felt . . . I don’t know . . . ”

“Luuv,” Franz said.

“You don’t know what love is!” Lyle said. “He hasn’t changed at all, doc. Why isn’t it working on him?”

“Because,” Franz said, his tone condescending and professorial despite the blade at his throat. “I’m in the control group. I didn’t receive GLS.”

“We all got the drug,” Lyle said. Then: “Didn’t we?”

Franz rolled his eyes. “Doctor, could you please explain to him about placebos?”

She felt a flash of anger, and suddenly decided that she wanted to stab Franz herself. But he was right, he was in the control group. The trial was supposed to be a double-blind, randomized study, with numbered dosages supplied by the pharmaceutical company. But she knew within days which eight men were receiving the real dose—the effects were obvious. The guards started calling them crybabies.

“He’s playing you, Lyle,” she told him. “Pushing your buttons. That’s what people like Franz do.”

“You think I don’t know that? Shit, I invented that. I used to be fucking bulletproof. No one got to me, no one fucked with me. Now, it’s like everybody can see right through me.”

The lieutenant cleared his throat. Alycia glanced back. The mass of helmeted men behind him seemed ready to rush in.

Franz hadn’t missed the exchange. “You’re running out of time, Lyle,” he said. “Any second now they’re going to send in the king’s men and crack you like an egg. Then they’re going to take you off to solitary, where you won’t be seeing your girlfriend anymore.”

“What?” Lyle asked.

“You don’t think they’re going to let you stay in the program after this, do you?”

Lyle looked at her, eyes wide. “Is that true? Does that mean you’ll stop giving me GLS?”

They’re going to stop giving it to all you, she thought. After this, the whole nationwide trial would be canceled. “You could have stopped at any time, Lyle. It’s always been voluntary.”

“But I don’t want to stop taking it! I don’t want to be the guy I was before. Nothing felt real before—everybody was like a cartoon or something, on the other side of the TV screen. They couldn’t hurt me, so I could do whatever I wanted to do them. I was like him.”

Franz started to say something and Lyle pressed the screwdriver blade into his neck. “You don’t know what he’s like,” Lyle said. “He’s not just some banker who ripped off a couple hundred people. He’s a killer.”


“He shot two teenagers in Kentucky, buried them in the woods. Nobody ever found them. He brags about it.”

“Stories,” Franz said.

Alycia stepped closer and knelt down next to Franz’s outstretched legs. “Lyle, I swear to you, we’ll keep you on GLS. As your doctor I can guarantee that. I took an oath to protect you, and that’s what I’m going to do.” She held out a hand. “Give it to me, Lyle. I know you were trying to protect me, but now you don’t have to be a murderer. I don’t want you to throw away everything you’ve gained.”

“Oh, please,” Franz said.

But Lyle was looking only at her now. He was like a teenager, blind-sided by emotions he’d never felt before. She saw his fingers flex on the handle of the screwdriver. She placed her hand over his, and slowly pushed the weapon down.

A moment later she was shoved aside by the first member of the extraction team.

Two days later she came down to solitary with four guards as escort.

“You know, you’re good,” Franz said. He lay on the bed with his jumpsuit half unzipped, revealing the bandages across his chest. The blade had missed the lung and the heart, tearing only muscle. He’d be fine in a few weeks. “I almost believed you myself. The oath part was genius.”

“I meant it,” Alycia said. She went to the stainless steel sink and set down the plastic first-aid kit she’d brought.

Franz said, “Come on, there’s no way you could keep him on GLS. It made him suicidal and homicidal.”

“They’re not going to let me keep anyone on it—they’ve canceled the trial. I’ve got to turn in all my supplies soon. But Lyle’s coming off the drug now. He’s feeling less suicidal. In a few days he’ll be back to his old self, and he won’t feel any remorse at all. But he’ll be alive.”

“How noble. All you had to do was betray the poor sap who loved you.”

“Tell me about Kentucky,” she said. She opened the kit.

Franz smiled, shook his head. “That was just some bullshit to get Lyle worked up.”

“In a couple days you’ll be dying to talk about what happened.” She lifted the syringe, then inserted the needle into the cap of the vial.

He blinked, and then he understood. “You can’t do that. I’ll call my lawyer.”

“By the time you get out of solitary you won’t want a lawyer. In a few days, Franz, you’ll be thanking me for this.” She looked back at the guards. “Hold him down.”



Courtney Davis crossed Montana Avenue on strappy, five hundred dollar heels, her sheer dress cascading around her upper thighs with every swing of her hips. Enormous black sunglasses hid most of her face even as they drew attention to her identity, and her blond hair fell in shoulder-length waves that perfectly framed her features.

The world knew her business—thanks to TMZ and the tabloids, they knew every detail of her divorce proceedings, and had seen her in positions not meant for public inspection—but they could not possibly know of her crime.

A car honked at her and she fought the instinct to give the driver the finger, just in case someone should film her doing so. Then she remembered why she had chosen Santa Monica for this meeting in the first place—no paparazzi. Montana Avenue was trendy as hell, but the celebrities generally hung out elsewhere. The shops and boutiques and restaurants here were for the wives of wealthy men, the producers and studio heads and lawyers who raked in all the real Hollywood cash.

In a few short years, Courtney had gone from waitress to actress to sexy screen star to celebrity, and then her manager had taken her up to a meeting at the home of James Massarsky, to discuss a part, and she’d become a Hollywood wife. In his thirty years in the industry, Massarsky had gone from mailroom to major talent agent to studio boss to independent producer. Part of his appeal, to Courtney, was that his initial rise mirrored her own. But James had been around longer, and in that time he’d earned his reputation as a bastard and as a brilliant businessman, picking up seven Oscars and three wives along the way. He was a man who got what he wanted, and after their first meeting, what he wanted was Courtney Davis.

She hurried across the street, her heels clicking on the pavement. She hopped onto the sidewalk, pretending to be oblivious to the handful of people who shot her the “hey, isn’t that—” stare that so many of the semi-famous endured in L.A. People dined on outdoor patios, but she passed those by without looking inside, just as she did the little dress shop and the new Kismetix cosmetics store. The women she knew who shopped and lunched and lingered in Santa Monica were not her real friends, but other Hollywood wives—and she could ignore them if she wanted to.

That was good. Courtney wasn’t in the mood to talk.

You’re a fool, she told herself, as she avoided the water dripping from the edge of an awning. It had rained this morning, but the sky had turned perfectly blue afterward. The sun shone its warmth down upon her, and she shook her head with the moment of her epiphany.

You could’ve met this guy anywhere. Burbank. Sherman Oaks. Hell, she could’ve arranged for her accomplice to meet her up in Santa Barbara at some roadside bar, like in an old-time mystery novel. Somewhere with a million times less chance that someone she knew would see her, and know she’d been here.

When she had made arrangements for this meeting, she had been tempted to suggest drinks at the Ivy in Beverly Hills. She’d have felt at home there, with friends around her. But the Ivy was more than just a see and be seen sort of place. It was Paparazzi Central. Photos and videos would be inevitable, and she didn’t want that.

Montana Avenue wasn’t much better, really. Her chances of being seen by someone, of word getting back to James, were high. But in the end, though she hoped to delay it as long as possible, she had decided it wouldn’t matter much if her soon-to-be ex-husband found out about today’s rendezvous. He would likely think what anyone seeing her in some clandestine coziness in a Santa Monica restaurant would think—that she was having an affair.

If only it were that simple.

At the corner, she turned off Montana onto a narrow side street, where trendy crumbled away like all Hollywood façades. She paused there, in the shade of a tree that grew up out of the sidewalk, and stared at the patio outside Lemongrass, the little bistro halfway down the block.

There were other reasons for her wanting this meeting to take place somewhere familiar. Outside of her Los Angeles, the places she hung out, the trendy clubs and shopping districts and the studio lots, the rest of the world seemed brittle and unreal, the dry husk of an empty beehive, no more substantial than dust and cobwebs. Ever since the day she had arrived in L.A., shitbox car loaded up with all her earthly belongings, Wisconsin license plate revealing the almost absurd truth about her small town girl past and her sickeningly trite Hollywood dreams . . . ever since then, she had known that this place was what she had lived for. She needed to be a part of this world.

Hollywood had a vibrant urgency that made it matter. The rest of the world was the façade. Whatever happened to her—celebrity, divorce, scandal—it only mattered here. Courtney Davis no longer believed she really existed outside this place.

She understood the shallowness of this thinking, and had come to terms with it. The small town Wisconsin girl still lived inside of her. She tried to be a good person, to create a life full of love and kindness. But somehow that person co-existed with the all-night clubbing that had gone on before she married James Massarsky, and the bitterness that marriage had brought her.

So, yes, perhaps James would learn more quickly than she would like about her meeting today. But Courtney wondered, now, if that had been her plan, sub-consciously, all along. Maybe she wanted James to find out, so that he would know who it was that had hurt him, and stolen from him.

Lemongrass must have had live music out on the patio, for she heard sweet, gentle guitar rising on the light breeze, accompanied by a rich, warm voice. The song was unfamiliar to her, but the singer had an aching sadness in his tone, and it settled around her heart and made her linger a few seconds longer under the tree.

“This is a little strange, don’t you think?” Courtney asked.

Behind the wheel of the car, Don Peterson shrugged. “Nah. Guys like this, they think in ‘old Hollywood’ terms. Every one of them wishes they could have been Jack Warner and acts like the fucking Godfather. Massarsky is really the last of a dying breed, younger than the rest but with the same mindset. That’s why he’s an independent producer, now. There’s only so long an agency or a studio is going to let themselves be run around by a guy whose life is a scorched-earth policy. That’s what boards of directors are for. So now Massarsky works for himself.”

“Jesus, Don,” Courtney said. “That really makes me want to be in one of his movies. Thanks for the pep talk.”

Her manager laughed. “Relax. This is the old Hollywood thing. The director wants you. The producers want you, even though they’re bitching because you won’t show your tits—”

“You know—”

He held up a hand even as he steered them in amongst the trees.

“I know, Courtney. This is me, remember? No nudity. I get it, and I respect it. That’s your choice. Massarsky likes to meet people, look them in the eye and shake their hand. It’s an old school thing. Once you get his seal of approval—which Brad is one hundred percent sure you will—you’ll never have to deal with him directly again. This isn’t an audition. You’ll talk. He’ll try to impress you. You’ll be impressed, or pretend to be. And we’ll go. End of story. Don’t be nervous.”

She smiled. “I’m not nervous.”

“You shouldn’t be.”

“I am.”

“I know.”

Don drove up winding roads that took them into hills higher than Courtney had ever known existed in L.A. She’d taken Coldwater Canyon many times, but this was different. Commuters drove that road. Up here, it was all private, a world apart from the buzz of life in the city.

A white wall sprang up to the right. In places she could see over it, down into valleys where massive, sprawling estates covered acres, with neighbors half a mile distant from each other. Soon they climbed a steep curve to find a gatehouse waiting at the top, complete with a uniformed guard, security cameras, and more fences. Don pulled up to the gatehouse as the guard leaned out.

“Courtney Davis and Donald Peterson to see James Massarsky.”

The guard checked a clipboard, nodded without saying a word, and reached into the gatehouse. The gates swung slowly open. Don thanked the guard and drove through, and then they were traveling along a much narrower, even more winding road. Tall hedges lined the sides. There were wooden fences, stone walls, even warnings about electrified gates.

“Look at that,” Don said.

He pointed to a small bit of exposed property on the left side of the road, where a trio of deer nibbled grass in amongst a few trees.

“That’s so weird. What are they doing in here?” Courtney said, mostly to herself.

“I’m sure they’re stocked, like fish in a private pond. The whole neighborhood is fenced in. The deer are just more pretty things to look at.”

Courtney said nothing more until they pulled into the long driveway of Massarsky’s home, wondering how much of the man’s life was defined by acquiring pretty things to look at. Massarsky had built his legend on too much alcohol and too many women, a childish temper, and a savant’s eye for choosing film projects. But he had to have some serious smarts to have gotten to the top and surviving there for so long.

The stone driveway ended in a circle, off of which there were several individual parking spaces, each separated by a thin strip of perfectly manicured grass. Two slots had cars already in them, each pristine and elegant. Don parked in the last available slot, and even as they got out of the car and turned toward the house, the front door opened and James Massarsky stepped out.

Massarsky was fifty-six years old and moderately handsome in a tanned, relaxed, country club sort of way. His curly hair was thinning and he had a roundish belly that only added to his casual air. In a pale blue t-shirt and knee-length cargo shorts, all faded and rumpled, he didn’t look like a Hollywood mogul. Of course, she hadn’t met many, and none on his level.

“Hello,” he said, smiling.